Oh yes, fried pastry!

In planning and preparing a meal of eight courses for a birthday dinner (not my own) I really battled with the dessert course.

The theme was, loosely, Chinese. The preparation, endless. The decor, turquoise and white with many orchids and candles floating prettily in bowls of water. The courses, multiple. The cocktail, Jack Daniels Honey with iced tea and lemonade. The dessert, undecided until one of the last minutes.

I spent two days painstakingly stuffing and pleating pot stickers, making a masterful (if I say so myself) master stock, braising ribs to an unctuous hot and sour stickiness … I won’t bore you with more of the details, you get the picture.

During all of this I waited and waited for dessert inspiration to come and it never did. Finally, in a moment of near desperation (minutes after that point in the evening when you’ve already served seven courses and timidly, and with absolutely no confidence, say “um, would anyone like dessert with their jasmine tea?”  And your guests stubbornly refuse to do the polite thing and say “no thanks, just tea for me.”) – I grabbed the puff pastry from the freezer, rolled it out, cut it into strips about 3 cm wide and dropped them into hot oil.

Roll and cut

Now, I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person in the world to fry pastry – the Italians have a dessert called cenci (rags of dough) made from a flour, egg, water, sugar pastry, fried in a similar fashion but doesn’t really puff up much – but in that moment, as I watched my silky, pale strips of pastry puff up into magnificent, golden tubes of awesome I felt like a pioneer. I felt like the first person in the world to fry puff pastry. If not, I wondered, why are we not all doing this all the time? Simple and delicious.

Try it, please.

  • Puff pastry – you can make your own, I didn’t
  • Clean oil of a fairly neutral variety with a high smoking point – I used Canola
  • Powdered sugar

Deep pot with about 4 cm or 5 cm of oil in it – heat to around 190 C. Be safe. Hot oil is dangerous.

Roll out pastry using as little flour on your rolling pin and work surface as possible.

Cut into strips about 3cm wide and 10cm long (although I think any size and shape will do).

Drop 3 or 4 into the oil at a time – don’t crowd the pan.

They take a minute or so to puff up and start to colour. Flip them over for a couple of seconds to make sure they colour all over.

Carefully remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

Leave to cool for a few minutes then dust with powdered sugar.

Serve immediately.

Fried and sugared

There is nothing Chinese or even loosely Chinese about this dessert but it is delicious and surprisingly light – no need to serve with jasmine tea if that’s not what you’re having. They would also be good with an espresso, a liqueur or just on their own.

Note – I experimented with a variety of thicknesses, from paper-thin to about half a cm and found that the best ones were made from pastry about 3mm thick – they had a crispy exterior but maintained a bit of a chew in the middle.

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What about the bay leaf?

I’ve been thinking about bay leaves – boring, I know. Please don’t stop reading, this is going somewhere.

In Jennifer Reese’s awesome Make The Bread, Buy The Butter (one of my favourite books of 2011) she has this to say about bay leaves, “If bay leaf didn’t exist, would anyone miss it? I’ve never tasted something and thought, This stew is just crying out for bay leaf. But I keep buying and using it nonetheless.” She’s right, of course. But I wanted her to be wrong. I love bay leaves. And bay trees.

I started searching online, it’s where all searches begin, really, and I found a lot of very dull “add to soup” type of advice. I also found the equally dull “they’re good if you add them to potatoes/chicken/ bouquet garni/ court-bouillon”, I even found “weave them into a wreath” (really, a wreath!) and my best “make potpourri” – do people really do that? Am I missing out here?

I turned to books and found that Larousse calls them “indispensable” but doesn’t say why and the brilliant Simon Hopkinson “thanks The Lord” for them. Every chef, it seems, loves a bay leaf.

After much fruitless Googling and page turning I remembered my Momofuku obsession of ’09 – the obsession actually started way before then but the fires of the obsession were stoked when David Chang committed some of his recipes to paper. Anyway, I remembered seeing a small, bay-focused recipe in those pages.

It’s so simple, pork fat infused with fresh bay then whipped into butter (with the help of some added melted butter) set in the fridge and then and served with homemade muffins. Sounds awesome, no?

So I tried it. Easy enough to do. I used the rendered fat from very smokey bacon, unsalted butter and about 10 bay leaves and was left with a little over a cup of beautiful, silky, bay leaf butter. But what next? There are only so many muffins a girl can eat… and I didn’t actually have any muffins and I was not about to make muffins.

I brushed it onto thick slices of ciabatta and toasted them on the bbq. Quite nice but was the ciabatta better for it? Not sure. Would I have missed the bay if I’d slathered the ciabatta in plain bacon butter and grilled it? Not sure about that either. (Also, toasted bacon butter bread! Now that might be something I could get onboard with – bit of a Paula Deen moment).

I gently seared scallops in it. Nice enough but not life changing. The delicate sweetness of the scallops actually benefitted more from the smokey bacon flavours than from the bay leaf.

I tried a bit of a wintery risotto with it. Again, nice enough but a bit ho hum.

I had a rack of pork from which my butcher had inexplicably removed the fat – seriously, who does that? Knowing it was not going to have the benefit of being cooked under a layer of gently melting pig fat I smothered it in a mixture of bay leaf butter and dijon mustard before roasting. It was okay. I noticed the bay leaf because I was looking for it but would I have missed it if it wasn’t there? I doubt it.

The result of the bay leaf experiment: awesome? No.

If you happen to have a glut of bay leaves hanging around the best I can suggest is … add them to potatoes/chicken/ bouquet garni/ court-bouillon or maybe weave them into a wreath or make some potpourri.

A London restaurant I worked at adorned its front entrance with gorgeous, eucalyptusy bay trees – the soft scent is so evocative to me that when I pass fresh bay trees in a nursery (or wherever) I instinctively check my pockets for pens and wine openers and square my shoulders for service. Maybe one never outgrows stuff like that? And maybe that’s the point of the bay.

Another brief trend – white Bolognese

Much is being said about white Bolognese, a meat sauce made using veal, pork and milk, cooked low and slow and served on fat ribbons of beautiful, silky pasta.

I’m a big fan of a rich, beefy Bolognese, flecked with orange and green soffritto and glistening with a layer of orange oil. With that as my comfort zone, it was hard to get my head around a ‘white Bolognese’ but I did, and these are the results.

There didn’t seem to be a consensus on the rights and wrongs of white Bolognese in the few recipes I found so this is what I’ve cobbled together using the bits I liked from John DeLucie’s recipe (chef/owner of The Lion and Crown in NYC and also the guy who’s bringing sexy white Bolognese back) and Marcella Hazan’s basic Bolognese principles, with one exception – she advocates cooking meat in milk before adding wine as this “protects it from the acidic bite” of the wine. I definitely do not know better than that Doyen of all things Italian food but in this instance I chose, cavalierly perhaps, to skip her advice and just do it my own way.

This dish is rich and elegant – I served it as a ‘primi’ followed by grilled fish and salad but it could very easily have been the main event.

Ingredients you’ll need

  • Basic aromatics (but no carrot, I wanted the colour to remain as neutral as possible – you don’t have to use these, really whatever aromatics you like will work)
    • 2 medium leeks (white part only)
    • 4 celery stalks
    • 1 medium fennel bulb
    • 1 medium onion
    • 5 garlic cloves
  • 1/2 kg of ground pork
  • 1/2 kg of ground veal
  • 750 ml white wine (or a bit more) at room temp
  • 750 ml very light chicken stock (warm slightly in a pan on the stove before using)
  • 500 ml cream
  • 3 table spoons duck fat (or a lightly flavoured olive oil)
  • 2 table spoons chopped thyme
  • 2 table spoons chopped sage
  • 2 table spoons chopped parsley
  • Freshly ground white pepper
  • Salt
  • Pasta (I used pappardelle. this recipe makes enough for about 4 hungry people so choose your pasta quantity accordingly)
  • A block of Parmesan cheese  – let your guests grate their own
Ingredient notes and alternatives:
Aromatics – all chopped to a similar sized dice, not more than half a cm
Meat – I used a 50/50 veal to pork ratio but you can adjust to suit your palate and your pocket
Stock – I used homemade chicken stock with very little seasoning or colour – I did not want an enhanced chickeny flavour or any of the colour so often imparted from stock cubes
Cream – I think full fat milk will work too, I only had fat free, which I don’t believe will work, so I used cream instead
Duck fat – If you haven’t recently confit some duck legs and don’t happen to have a couple of table spoons of duck fat knocking around, buy a can. I didn’t think the duck fat was an essential element until I started cooking but as soon as I smelled those ducky notes floating through the kitchen I changed my mind – it adds a whole new level of flavour and aroma to the dish
Pepper – black pepper has a more pronounced pepperiness than white. I thought white lent itself more to the subtlety of the flavours, but mostly I chose white pepper because it was aesthetically pleasing to me. Pepper lovers may want to add freshly ground black pepper when the dish is served.
Pasta – should the pasta be homemade? If you have the time, make it, it’s fun and rewarding. If there are more pressing things to do with your time while you wait four hours for sauce to cook, go do them. Pasta from a box will be good too.

How to do it

  • Heat your duck fat (or olive oil) in the best pot you’ve got – something roomy with a heavy base for even heat distribution. Add the meat and cook gently until cooked through – do not brown the meat!
  • When cooked, put the meat into a sieve and drain out all the liquid. Pour the strained liquid back into the pot (thank you John DeLucie for this very cheffy tip) and return to the heat – low to medium, you do not want to colour your veggies. Tip in your diced veggies, season with salt and freshly ground white pepper, stir, cover with a parchment lid (or don’t, up to you) and sweat for about ten minutes. Add the thyme and continue to sweat for another five-ish minutes until the vegetables are soft and translucent.
  • Stir in the cooked meat.
  • Add the room-temperature wine and allow to reduce at the lowest, gentlest possible simmer until the pan is almost dry.
Simmering
  • Add the warm stock and repeat the previous step until the pan is nearly dry. Reducing the wine and the stock at a low simmer can take up to three hours. Set an alarm and check it every 15 minutes or so. Don’t let it boil and don’t let it stick to the pan. Again, a parchment lid comes in handy here.
  • If you are preparing this early to be eaten later you can stop here and continue about half an hour before you want to eat. Bring the meat sauce up to temperature slowly before adding your cream.Add the cream, not fridge cold. I put the sage and cream into a pot on a low heat to infuse for a few minutes before adding it to the meat. Reduce until thick.
Cream
  • Prepare your pasta, drain and add it to your meat sauce. Reserve some of the pasta water in case your sauce consistency is not exactly as you’d like it.
Nearly there
  • Serve in hot bowls with a block of Parmesan.
Ready