Pasteis de Nata, or Portuguese custard tarts

Food & drink
Pasteis de Nata, or Portuguese custard tarts post image

These little custard tarts present something of a problem. They’re best cooked very quickly, at very high temperatures, so that the top and the edges scorch in an attractive way. That means that ordinary ovens probably aren’t going to cut it, but that pizza oven out in my back garden might just.

That thing is a beast. It hits 450c with ease, a flame rolling over the inside of the dome to cook a pizza through in about two minutes. It makes short work of a custard tart.

I experimented with a pack of ordinary, shop-bought puff pastry. It’s a wonderful product – consistent, dependable, quick, and it’s well worth having a pack or two stashed away in the freezer. Later attempts using homemade puff pastry, using this recipe, were better but far less convenient. There’s a great recipe for puff pastry here.

Scandinavian cinnamon and cardamom buns

Books, Food & drink
Scandinavian cinnamon and cardamom buns post image

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a book, a massive seven hundred and sixty-seven page hulk of a book about Nordic food, perhaps unimaginatively entitled The Nordic Cookbook.

My short review is that it’s well worth thirty quid of anybody’s money, and this is the first thing I’ve cooked from it and also one of the chief reasons I bought it.

Scandinavian baking is excellent. There’s an easy path between bread and cake that fits well into my way of cooking, and these cinnamon buns, rolled sweet pastry laced with cardamom and stuffed with butter and sugar are a superb example. They’re common across all of the Scandinavian countries in one form or another, and they’re fairly easy and forgiving to make.

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Chicken liver ragu

Food & drink
Chicken liver ragu

Chicken livers are extremely good for you.

They’re a rich source of protein, packed with iron and vitamins. They’re good for your brain, good for your fertility if you’re a woman, and great recovery food after a tough workout.

They should be top of the shopping list, but instead, they’re criminally underused, relegated to sad little packs in the supermarket fridge with all the other weird bits that nobody wants to buy.

This is a great tragedy, a travesty. Chicken livers are delicious, and worth so much more than a good blitzing to form a pate, although that’s a fine and noble thing to do with them.

I sometimes buy a pack of chicken livers, fry them off with nothing more than a little salt and pepper and eat them for lunch over the course of the next few days. Three or four lunches for about a quid? Thanks very much.

And yes, they’re ridiculously cheap, cheap out of sync with the massive flavour punch they deliver. More …

All the water, all the yeast, half the flour

Food politics
Bread dough pre fermentation

I’ve been making bread for a long time, mainly using a simple recipe that I know by heart.

It’s very straightforward – a kilo of flour, 600ml of water, 20g of salt and 10g of yeast.

It makes an unpretentious, dependable loaf, but has the flexibility to take on new forms. Substituting half the flour for wholemeal, or mixing it up with a hundred grammes of rye or a couple of handfuls of oats makes the finished loaf very different, but borne of the same simple recipe of a kilo of flour and 600ml of water.

I’ve strayed all over the place, of course. I’ve bought book after book about baking bread, and tried dozens of different methods. High hydration loaves (don’t bother), sourdough, milk loaves, baguettes, all of them. All have their place. All are good, but still the simple recipe remains a backstop in my kitchen.

A kilo of flour and 600ml of water.

Some things are best left as they are. Some things don’t need to be messed with, don’t need to be improved, and this is one of those things. It isn’t fancy, it isn’t artisanal, but it is good and honest.

I’ve done one thing, made one tiny change to this decades old routine, and it’s worked. It’s made things better.

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Etxebarri, by Juan Pablo Cardenal & Jon Sarabia

Etxebarri, by Juan Pablo Cardenal & Jon Sarabia

A couple of years ago, I bought a pizza oven, a proper one, one that took four people to lift into place. I burn kiln-dried logs in it, and it hits almost 500c. It cooks a pizza in about two minutes, maybe less, and those pizzas are like nothing else I’ve ever tasted. The wood is alchemical, it performs magic, its smoke and heat grabbing hold of the food, enveloping it, transforming it. Later, when the fire burns down and the heat seeps away a little, I often roast a chicken in the oven, next to the glowing coals, an hour and a half or so of gentle, smokey heat. It’s the best way I’ve ever found of roasting a bird.

I’ve been converted to wood-fired cooking. It isn’t easy, not in the slightest. Controlling the fire and choosing the right moment to cook is a balancing act, a game of judgement and skill, one which I often get wrong. But that’s half the fun, that and smelling of smoke for the rest of the day.