White chocolate panna cotta

White chocolate panna cotta with honey-roasted figs and walnut crumb
White chocolate panna cotta with honey-roasted figs and walnut crumb

I read an article once that said the best way to tell if a restaurant has a pastry chef is to see if panna cotta is on the menu.

Deemed a very basic, boring dessert to chefs it can be somewhat challenging to the home cook.

It all comes down to getting the famous “wobble” and unfortunately many panna cottas I’ve eaten, at dinner parties and restaurants alike, have been rubbery and flavourless.

One trick is to ensure you use double cream rather than thickened cream. Thickened cream already has gelatine in it so you’re effectively double dipping.

You also need to choose whether you want to use gelatine leaf or powder. I much prefer leaf because powder can sometimes clump together but my mother swears by it.

Ratios are also challenging – I have used 500ml cream, 150ml milk and four gelatine leaves. But it may be trial and error to find a recipe that works well for you and creates the best texture.

Panna cotta is also a perfect flavour carrier so don’t stop at making the standard custard alone. Infuse flavours like vanilla, tea or ginger into the cream or add white or milk chocolate or coffee.

Chefs these days are choosing to set panna cottas into bowls and then pile up different flavours and textures such as fresh or poached fruits, fresh herbs, jellies, nuts, crumbs and honeycomb.

This goes totally against the old-school test of whether you can turn our panna cotta out onto a dish.

For my dessert, I’ve matched a white chocolate panna cotta with honey-roasted figs and walnut biscuit crumb.

White chocolate panna cotta

500ml double cream
150ml milk
100g white chocolate
4 sheets of gelatine
25g caster sugar

Soak the gelatine leaves in warm water for five minutes until softened.

In the meantime, heat the cream and the milk in a saucepan until simmering. Add the white chocolate and sugar and stir until melted.

Take off the heat. Squeeze the gelatine dry then add to the mix and stir until melted.

Set aside and leave to cool.

Pour into four ramekins and set in the fridge for 5 hours.

When ready to serve, place the ramekins in a bowl of hot water to loosen up the custard. Tip out onto a serving dish and garnish as desired.

To make the figs, you just need to drizzle a teaspoon of honey over each fig and cook at 180C for around 6-8 minutes.

To make the crumb, combine 25g crushed walnuts, 2 tbsp flour, 2 tbsp brown sugar and 30g butter in a blender, then press onto a baking tray and cook for 10 minutes at 180C.

Bagels

Bagel with smoked salmon - yum!!
Bagel with smoked salmon – yum!!

For me, there’s not many better things in life than a fresh bagel filled with cream cheese and smoked salmon.

But I never thought in a million years I’d be making the bagel itself. The idea of having to boil and bake a piece of bread all seemed too hard, and I was much happier buying them in a bag from the shops.

James  Morton calls bagels “anti-bread” because they go against everything I’ve learned with bread-making to date.

You want a chewy, dense, doughy centre to the finished product which means you need to have a very dry dough that holds it shape when dunked in water.

This means a lot of hard work during the initial knead. My hands were struggling by the end and I had to sub my husband in to manage the full 15 minutes required to get a malleable dough.

You also need to ensure you don’t over-prove the dough – I think I took this advice too far, and possibly didn’t have enough of a rise in my version.

Anyway, the steps to making bagels are:

  • Initial mix and knead
  • First prove
  • Shape and second prove
  • Boil
  • Bake

Shaping takes time and you need to make sure you weld the two ends of the dough together so they don’t split apart during the cooking process.

Boiling bagels
Boiling bagels

Bagels (James Morton’s recipe)

750g strong white flour
7g sachet dried yeast
10g salt
15g honey
250g water
Bicarbonate of soda, for boiling
Poppy/sesame seeds

Rub together the flour, yeast and salt in a large bowl, keeping the yeast and the salt separate.

Add the honey and the water and combine into a really dry dough.

Knead for 10-15 minutes until noticeably stretchy, then leave to rest for one hour at room temperature.

Once rested, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll into a long sausage shape.

Divide into four, and each remaining piece into three. You should now have 12 lumps of dough. Shape each into a baguette.

Form the long shape into a ring, with a little crossing over of the two ends. Roll backwards and forwards on your surface to seal the seam.

Transfer each shaped bagel to a greased piece of baking paper. Preheat your oven to 240C and prove for about 30-40 minutes.

When nearly proved, fill a large pot with boiling water and bring back to the boil. Add a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda for each litre of water, for extra chewiness. Prepare a dish with your seeds.

Boil each bagel for 1 minute, turning over halfway through. As soon as they’re done, plonk each one in your seeds to coat one side.

Bake your bagels on a baking tray for 15-20 minutes, seed-side down.

Demystifying Masterchef

My Masterchef creation - chocolate parfait, choc/almond soil, passionfruit curd and fresh passionfruit
My Masterchef creation – chocolate parfait, choc/almond soil, passionfruit curd and fresh passionfruit

This is the first series I’ve watched of Australian Masterchef and there’s one reason behind it – Reynold Poernomo.

Being a loyalist to the UK version, I’ve always struggled with the local format which is a bit over-dramatic for me.

However, Reynold’s desserts, and aspirations to become a pastry chef, have captivated me and I’ve loved watching him throw together knock-out dishes with ease.

So I wanted to do a special post in his honour!

The desserts he, and many of his fellow contestants (shout out to Georgia!), are plating up look spectacular and totally out of reach for an amateur cook.

But, I think it’s really about mastering a few techniques and then knowing how to put them together on a plate. And of course, most importantly being able to do it all in an incredible short space of time.

This is by no means to belittle their talent. It’s just to help those of us at home attempt achieving their greatness and not feel so intimidated!

How to make a crémeux

Crémeux has become the darling of pastry chefs in recent times, as it’s a great base technique from which to build a dessert. Crémeux translates to “creamy” in French so essentially you’re making a chocolate, vanilla or whatever flavour “creamy”.

It’s really half-mousse, half-sauce and described by Michel Suas as a crème Anglaise-style custard thickened with butter and sometimes gelatin.

Michel’s process involves:

  • Prepare a basic crème Anglaise
  • Bloom the gelatin in water
  • Have the butter at room temperature
  • After the custard is cooked, add the gelatin and stir to incorporate. Strain into a clean, dry container, and cool over an ice bath.
  • If using chocolate, add while the custard base is still hot and form an emulsion.
  • When the mixture reaches 30-35C, add the soft butter.
  • Pour into moulds or shells to set.

Reynold’s crémeux recipe (using crème patisserie as a base).

How to make a biscuit crumb/soil

Biscuit crumbs and soils look impressive but they’re actually very easy to make. You’re essentially making a basic biscuit using flour, butter and sugar and then blitzing it in a food processor once it’s baked and cool.

You can add almond meal for extra flavour and texture, cocoa if you want chocolate soil, or food dye if you want coloured soil.

Georgia’s soil recipe

How to make a curd

Curds are another dessert element that can be easily adapted and combined with other ingredients. Any citrus will work – lime, lemon, passionfruit.

Simply combine citrus zest, citrus juice, eggs (including extra yolks), sugar and butter in a bowl then heat over a saucepan. You’ll need to keep an eye on it and whisk constantly to ensure it thickens but doesn’t burn.

My curd recipe

How to make a parfait

A parfait is a frozen dessert made from sugar syrup, egg and cream. It pops up a fair bit on Masterchef because it is quick and easy to make upfront, and then can be placed in the freezer and forgotten about until plating up.

Billie’s parfait recipe

Other “how tos”:

FLASHBACK FRIDAY – Gooey butterscotch and peach upside-down cake

Gooey butterscotch peach upside-down cake
Gooey butterscotch peach upside-down cake

I have a list of bakes that I save for my Flashback Fridays and one was an upside down cake.

I didn’t want to go down the tinned pineapple with glacé cherries route, and came across this recipe by Belinda Jeffreys for a butterscotch peach version.

I will say upfront that I had a lot of trouble with this recipe, and it took many stops and starts before it came out well.

Making an upside down cake is really a two-step process:

  • Assembling the fruit and glaze/syrup
  • Creating the cake batter

For this recipe, you need to create a butterscotch using butter and sugar and then pour it over the base of the cake tin before decoratively lining it with slices of fresh peach.

You could probably use a range of fruit here – any stone-fruit, pear, apples, banana, fig, etc. and perhaps adapt the butterscotch to a caramel if you want something a bit lighter and less sticky.

The batter itself was also quite straightforward, but a lot thicker than I expected.

Still, it easily poured onto the assembled fruit and was easy enough to even out before placing in the oven.

The problems all came with the baking itself. Belinda warns that the cake will darken significantly while baking, but I was left with a conundrum between ensuring the cake didn’t burn but didn’t undercook.

I’ll admit that I took it out and turned it out about 3-4 times – each time the centre wasn’t cooked through and to begin with the batter was raw.

Eventually it came out baked, but I recommend watching it very carefully and ignoring the advice to use a skewer to test it – you really need to use touch and see if the cake bounces back.

Like she says, don’t be scared by how dark the cake appears because it won’t be burned and the top becomes the bottom anyway when you flip it.

Butterscotch peach upside-down cake

Cake

100g almond meal
90g self-raising flour
190g caster sugar
3 eggs
190g unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into large chunks
1 tsp vanilla extract
Golden syrup for brushing (note: I didn’t use this because I didn’t think it needed it)

Topping

80g unsalted butter
½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
¼ tsp salt
3-4 fresh peaches, sliced

Pre-heat the oven to 180g, and grease and line a 24cm round tin with baking paper.

Make the topping by melting the butter over a low heat, then adding the salt and sugar. Don’t worry if it separates, it will all work out okay during the bake.

Pour the topping into the lined tin, then arrange the peach slices over the top trying not to leave any space. You can overlap them if you need to.

Make the cake batter by whizzing together the almond meal and flour in a food processor. Tip them into a bowl.

Put the sugar and eggs in the food processor and whiz together for 1 minute. Add the butter and whiz together for 30 seconds or so before adding the vanilla.

Return the almond mixture to the food processor and whiz once more until just combined.

Dollop the cake batter over the peaches, being careful not to disrupt them too much. Spread the batter across the tin with a spatula.

Bake for 45 minutes – this is where Belinda suggests using a skewer to test if the batter is cooked through, but you end up piercing the fruit instead so I think it’s misleading. Just trust your instincts and test the cake by touch as you usually would. If it’s not springing back, leave it a bit longer.

I think the overall baking time was right, so alternatively give it the full 45 minutes and then tip it out. You can always return it to the tin and put it back in the oven.

Leave the cake to cool in the tin for a few minutes, then run a blunt knife around the edge of the tin to loosen the cake.

Carefully turn it out onto a serving plate, and remove the baking paper. If some of the fruit sticks, just place back onto the top of the cake.

Brush with golden syrup for extra sheen.

Homemade pita bread

Pita bread
Pita bread

This weekend was pretty hectic and I didn’t have a chance to bake, so this is a Monday night one-off!

To be honest, I never thought I’d be the person who came home from work and started baking bread.

But, I was planning to make a tagine for dinner so thought I’d take a stab at pita bread.

It was surprisingly easy to manage while making the rest of the meal – basically, I started the dough before dinner, let it prove while I focused on the tagine itself, and then shaped and baked while the tagine was cooking.

I used Paul Hollywood’s recipe and, as he promised, they were so much better than the ones you get in the shops.

They were soft, light and perfect for mopping up leftover sauce. I think using a pizza stone really helped the crust and golden colour.

Paul’s included nigella seeds which I didn’t have, but they were delicious plain.

Definitely give it a go!

Paul Hollywood’s pita bread

250g/9oz strong white flour, plus extra for dusting
1 x 7g sachet instant yeast
20g/⅔oz nigella seeds or black onion seeds
1 tsp salt
160ml/5½fl oz water
2 tsp olive oil, plus extra for kneading

In a bowl, mix together the flour, yeast, nigella seeds and salt. Add 120ml/4fl oz of the water and 1½ teaspoons of oil. Using your fingers mix the ingredients together. Gradually add the remaining water and oil until all the flour has come away from the sides and you have a soft dough. (You may not need all the water; the dough should be soft and not sticky.)

Pour a little oil onto your work top. Place the dough on top and knead for 5-10 minutes. The dough will be wet in the beginning but will form a smooth dough once kneaded. Once a smooth dough is achieved, place it into a clean, oiled bowl. Cover and leave to prove until doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 250C/475F/Gas 9 and place a clean baking tray or baking stone on the middle shelf.

When the dough has doubled in size, tip it out onto a work surface dusted with flour. Knock the dough back by folding it inwards over and over again until all the air is knocked out. Split the dough into 4-6 equally sized balls. Roll each ball into an oval shape 3-5mm thick.

Remove the hot tray from the oven, dust with flour and place the pita breads on it. You may have to cook them in batches.

Bake for 5-10 minutes, or until they just start to colour. Remove them from the oven and cover with a clean cloth until they are cool.