Daring Bakers: Croquembouche

The May 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Cat of Little Miss Cupcake. Cat challenged everyone to make a piece montée, or croquembouche, based on recipes from Peter Kump’s Baking School in Manhattan and Nick Malgieri. The recipes I used for the choux buns and the pastry cream were from the BBC good food website. The more observant of you may have spotted it is now late July and I am posting this challenge about 2 months late… this is a result of abject laziness, an intense couple of months of work and the impeding arrival of our second child.

Compared to making a suet pudding this looked to be a real challenge for me as delicacy and precision are not my fortes generally when handling the sticky stuff. However C.’s  second birthday was coming up so it made an ideal project for a pretty party cake. In order to make and assemble the various elements during the working week I made the Croquembouche over the course of 3 days.

Day 1

Making the choux pastry was easier than I expected although I initially forgot the water which resulted in my pastry resembling nothing more than a superheated roux.  Remembering to add the water resulted in a near miraculous transformation and the rest of the process of choux bun creation was simple enough.  My piping bag tips were a bit fine for this so I just used the locking ring on the end of the bag with no tip attached and this worked really nicely. To get my buns uniform I placed a  macaron template under the baking parchment.

As soon as the pastry was cooked I made a 1cm slit on the side of each bun to let the steam escape. (This stops them turning soggy as they cool).The buns were returned to the oven for a further 5 minutes to dry them out,  transferred to a wire rack to cool and then stored in tupperwares.

I made a pastry cream to fill the buns but flavoured with lemon zest and Cointreau (flaming all the alcohol off the booze before adding to the pastry cream as we would be serving to kids).  This was also stored in a tupperware overnight in the fridge, the surface of the cream covered with a circle of greaseproof paper to prevent a skin forming. So far… so good…

Day 2

The buns were crisped up in the oven and then filled with the pastry cream.  This sounds hard but is actually very easy.

Mrs W. used her engineering prowess to construct a suitable cone shaped mould from 2 pieces of A2 card lined with foil.  This would allow me to assemble the cone from the top down by placing the mould upside down in a large Pimms jug (so the tip was facing downwards) and packing with the filled buns. Melted white chocoalte was  applied generously to cement the bus together. The filled cone was placed (still upside down in the jug) to set in the fridge overnight.

Day 3

The next morning the whole assembly was turned out. The best removal tactic was to cut the mould along one edge and peel it off VERY carefully! Cue drum roll…….

Success! Now it was just left to to decorate with sugar flowers and spun sugar.

Like macarons, this initially looked an intimidating project but given a but of planning was actually fairly easy as each element that comprises the dessert is fairly simple.  I was really pleased with the results and I may well do another one for Christmas!



Last week we had a wonderful holiday in Portugal staying in a villa with family. Our villa was located near Moncarapacho, about a 45 minute drive east of Faro towards the border with Spain. In contrast to the well known resorts in the western Algarve with their hotels and golf courses, the eastern half is relatively undeveloped and comprises traditional fishing port and charming sleepy villages. The weather was gloriously sunny for the whole week and it was nice just to relax and mess about around the pool. The setting was beautiful and all around were citrus groves heady with the scent of blossom.

I didn’t cook all that much as it was cheaper to eat out but we had couple of barbecues including some fantastic local fish (sea bream,  sardines) and tasty, toothsome quail.

There is also a Portuguese speciality where you cook your own steak. The stone is heated to extreme temperatures and you cut pieces off the joint, cook to your liking and thoroughly enjoy.

Lazy lunches were had on the terrace by the pool … we grazed on ham, chorizo, antipasti,  potato salad, and some amazing local breads and cheeses.

I made brioche rolls for breakfast which was a real hit with C. The texture of the bread was very open compared to normal brioche as I had the dough prove all afternoon and overnight before baking.

Lazy Holiday Brioche Breakfast Rolls (posted to Yeastspotting)

75 ml warm water.

3 eggs (+ another for brushing over the rolls if required).

200g butter chopped in cubes.

500g strong white bread flour.

4 tablespoons honey (we were low on sugar!).

1 sachet (6-7 g) dried active baking yeast.

pinch of  salt.

  • Mix the flour,  salt and yeast into a bowl. Make a well in the flour and add the eggs and water. Mix to form a stiff dough (adding more water if required). Knead lightly in the bowl until the dough is smooth.
  • Add the butter to the dough and mix until well incorporated, this will be messy as the dough will be very sticky (I used a fork to do this). Cover and leave to rise in a warm place (a pool terrace in Portugal is ideal!)
  • When dough has doubled in size knock back and knead in the bowl 5-10 times. Recover the dough and leave to rise again.  I didn’t need the dough till much later so I put it in the fridge at this point.
  • Generously grease a muffin tin with butter (grease the whole upper surface of the in as the dough is likely to rise over the edges of the cups).
  • Turn the finished dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead 5 to 10 times. Separate the dough into thirds. Portion each third into 6 even pieces and place each piece into a cup in the muffin tin. Set aside to rise in a warm place until doubled in size (I left mine overnight).
  • Preheat the oven to 180 C / Gas mark 4. For a glossy finish brush the top of the rolls with beaten egg (I didn’t bother).
  • Bake in the preheated oven until deep golden brown, about 20 minutes.
  • Leave to cool in the tray then pop out and enjoy!

When we ate out I gorged on seafood which was abundant, especially the most sweet baby clams. The local speciality dish is Cataplana which is a big one pot shell fish stew served with rice and plenty of vino tinto! Eating out at the local restaruants was tremendous value,  3 courses costing typically around €2o per person including wine. 

There is also a Portuguese speciality “steak on the stone” where you cook your own steak. The steak is served barely seared on a stone tile heated to an extremely high temperature and you cook to your liking. Mrs W. was a big fan!

Underground Restaurant ‘pops up’ in Brixton Village Project

Two projects that have captured my interest recently happened to cross paths. 

Spacemakers takes empty units and ‘slack spaces’ and breathes life back into recession hit areas by creating pop up shops and cafes. They have started a with a a 1930s market arcade in Brixton, joining forces with London & Associated Properties PLC and Lambeth Council to fill the empty shop units in Granville Arcade/Brixton Village indoor market. An old friend from my door to door book selling days Douglad Hine heads up this project. More info can be found in their blog.

They ran a ‘foodie’ event for their grand opening and it just happens that one of a favorite food blogger of mine, Mrs Marmitelover, who runs The Underground Restaraunt (at which I plan to dine when I can next get to the capital) took up a stall for the day …. hey presto there was a pop up restaurant…. all profits going to the unfortunate in Haiti.

Projects like this demonstrate the capacity that ordinary people have to improvise, create and make a difference to themselves and others.  Get involved and support if you can. In these recession afflicted times …this is the way forward.

A Special Weekend In The Snow

Just getting round to posting about last weekend. It was a biggie. The plan was for all Mrs W’s friends and family to secretly gather together for a relaxed, fun, weekend to celebrate her 30th. I started conspiring some 10 months in advance and arranged to hire Roaches Hall, a large country house in the peak district which would accomodate 30 of us. Money was extracted, the venue booked, travel arrangements made and a food mountain and drink lake ordered …all was going to plan until we had the worst winter in the North of England for 30 years (ironically the weather in Northern Ireland was somewhat benign!).

The weather resulted in the bulk of the food not being delivered (Boo! Sainsburys) however the very nice Waitrose party snacks and luxury items did arrived (Ocado drivers are true heroes!).

Wine arrived courtesy of Laithwaites and Virgin Wines (I can recommend the ‘introductory case’ from both). The failure of Sainburys to deliver my groceries (or even inform me that my order had been cancelled) meant I had to do a shop (read a supermarket sweep comprising of 3 full trolleys to feed 25 adults and 6 children for a weekend) at the Co-op in Leek (which was surprisingly well stocked) …we got there in the end. However, getting there did require the impromptu hire of a Volvo 4×4.

Which brings me to an apology…. because of the large quantities of folks I had to feed and the lack of planning I had to make my dishes up as I went along. As a result I cannot really give quantities for these recipes …because I do not remember. Which goes to show that as long as the flavours are balanced exact measurements for these dishes are not important …ideal when you are feeding a large group and your plans go bit pear shaped!

I also forgot to take photos of the food …doh (if I get any from the other guests I’ll update this post).

I made a lentil and mushroom soup for weary travellers arriving on the Friday, served up with jacket spuds and a magnificent cheese board.

Lentil soup with mushrooms

olive oil
good quality green, brown or black (e.g Puy or Castelluccio) lentils
vegatable stock (marigold is fine)
2 or 3 big handfuls of spinach
white wine

bay leaves

  • Peel the onions and chop finely and slice the mushrooms and garlic. Warm a good glug of little olive oil in a large saucepan or casserole over a moderate to low heat and add the onions, garlic and mushrooms. Saute gently until golden and fragrant.
  • Wash the lentils thoroughly, then add to the pan. Pour over a large glass of white wine to deglaze the pan and enough stock to cover and bring to the boil, skimming off any froth that comes to the surface. You can add a bay leaf or two if you like. Turn the heat down so that the lentils simmer merrily, then almost cover the pot with a lid and leave till they are tender, but far from collapse. About 30 minutes, depending on your lentils. While this is happening wash the spinach and tear the leaves up a bit.
  • Just before you are ready to serve fold in the spinach …and stir until the leaves are wilted.
  • Season the soup with salt, black pepper and lemon juice, tasting as you go. Add a glug of olive oil and serve.

On Saturday the snow meant we had no problems entertaining ourselves and the quality of the quiches from Waitrose meant I had very little to prepare for lunch save for a few salads (potato, green and tomato) and putting out the bread, cheese, pickles and cold meats. Dinner was the main challenge of the weekend …a hot meal for 25 was quite a job as I did not want to spend the whole weekend in the kitchen, thankfully I had a lot of helpers to prep veg and mind my timings. I did 4 ‘one pot wonders’ which were served with mixed roast veggies (sweet potatoes, red onions and parsnips), jacket spuds and freshly made wheaten bread.

Not a scrap left afterwards …a good result.

Lentil, Squash and Spinach Braise

olive oil
whole spices (cumin, coriander seed, fennel, cinnamon stick, cardamon, smoked chillies, mustard seed, bay leaves)
butternut squash or pumpkin
spinach (frozen is ok)
tinned chopped tomatoes

red lentils
vegetable stock (marigold is fine)

  • Chop the onions roughly. Peel the squash and scoop out the seeds and pulp. Cut the flesh of the squash into bite sized pieces (I had pretty average sized field mushrooms and quartered them). Peel and slice the garlic (not too thinly).
  • Place the whole spices in a dry frying pan over a high heat and toast until aromatic and browned (but do not burn). They will smell amazing! Place the toasted spices into a spice grinder and grind to a fine powder.
  • Warm a good glug of olive oil over a moderate heat, add a couple of tablespoons of the ground spice mix and cook for a minute or two to bring our the flavour of the spice (take care not to burn them). Add the onions, mushrooms and garlic and saute gently, with the occasional stir, until they are soft and golden. Add the squash, tomatoes and lentils and enough stock to cover everything. Simmer gently for about an hour, the squash and the lentils should be tender. In the meantime the spinach and trim any long stalks (if you use frozen there is no need for this!).
  • Just before you are ready to serve fold in the spinach …and stir until the leaves are wilted. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Mushroom Stroganoff

olive oil
smoked sweet paprika
creme fraiche

  • Peel the onions then halve and slice them into thick segments. Cut the mushrooms into manageable sizes (I had pretty average sized field mushrooms and quartered them). Peel and slice the garlic (not too thinly).
  • Warm a good glug of olive oil and a big thick slice of butter over a low heat until the butter is melted and just starting to foam add a good tablespoon of the paprika and cook for a couple of minutes to bring our the flavour of the spice. Add the onions, mushrooms and garlic and saute gently, with the occasional stir, until they are soft …let them brown but not burn. This took about an hour for me …just keep cooking on the lowest heat. The browning bit (caramelisation of the natural sugars and Maillard reactions) is essential if your stroganoff is to have plenty of deep savoury flavour (almost meaty…though this is a vegetarian dish). When the vegetables are done add a decent grinding of both sea salt and black pepper.
  • Just before you are ready to serve fold in the creme fraiche… how much is down to how creamy you like your sauce. Make sure you get all the sticky residue on the surface of the pan incorporated into the creamy sauce Let the sauce bubble gently until the mixture is hot all the way through. Check the seasoning and serve.
  • A word about creme fraiche. Make sure you use pure creme fraiche. The reduced fat stuff is not as good for cooking so buy the full fat stuff and use less if you are concerned about the fat content.

Pot Roast Beef in Red Wine Sauce

rolled trimmed, brisket of beef of about 3kg
olive oil
red wine…about a bottle
plain flour
bay leaves

  • Heat a good glug of olive oil in a deep casserole. Season the beef joint with pepper and sear in the oil until well coloured, if there are sticky bits in in pan as a result all the better. Remove the beef and set aside. Set the oven at 180 deg C/Gas 4.
  • Peel the onions and chop them roughly. Crush and chop the garlic. Peel and halve the shallots. Saute the onions, garlic shallot and mushrooms in the flavoured oil until the onions and shallots are lightly coloured.
  • Deglaze the pan with the red wine. Add the beef back into the pot along with a couple of bay leaves.
  • Bring to the boil, cover and bake for at least 2 hours so the beef is tender but not completely falling apart. Remove the beef and allow to rest for at least half an hour before carving. Whilst the beef is resting the gravy can be thickened if required by making a flour and butter roux is a small saucepan. Cook the roux for a couple of minutes to remove the floury taste and add couple of ladles of the casserole sauce to the saucepan to make a thick sauce. Add this sauce to the casserole to thicken the gravy. Carve the beef into thick slices and return the slices to the pot before serving. Season with salt and pepper and served.
  • I had some Tiptree dark onion chutney left over from lunch so that went in to the gravy as well!

Ham, Chorizo & Butter Beans

The chorizo and bacon can be quite salty so wait until the last minute before checking the seasoning and adding salt.

butter beans
olive oil
a piece of boiling bacon – about 1.2kg
stock or water
white wine…about half a bottle
tinned chopped tomatoes
smoked sweet paprika
chorizo sausage (the soft cooking type)

  • If using dried beans soak for at least 8 hours in deep, cold water. Drain then boil them in unsalted water for about an hour, til they start to show signs of tenderness. Turn off the heat. Set the oven at 180 deg C/Gas 4.
  • Warm a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a deep casserole. Chop the chorizo sausages into bite sized chunks and cut the fat from the bacon in one thick piece. Add the bacon fat, chorizo pieces and a tablespoon of the paprika to the casserole and fry in the oil.
  • Peel the onions and chop them roughly. Crush and chop the garlic. Soften the onions and garlic in the flavoured oil until they are golden.
  • Add the chopped tomatoes and gently mix them with the onions.
  • Season with black pepper (no salt yet) and lower the bacon piece on top, pushing it down into the sauce as best you can. Pour in the white wine and enough of the bean cooking liquid stock or water to cover the meat. Add the beans now if they are freshly cooked but if using tinned beans I would wait another half an hour. I used tinned beans and didn’t rinse them as the canning water helped to thicken the broth nicely.
  • Bring to the boil, cover and bake (or simmer if like me you had run out of oven space) for about an hour (or longer if you can …I had to serve up!) so it is all meltingly tender. Remove the piece of bacon fat and discard. Remove the bacon piece and carve into slices then return the slices to the pot before checking the seasoning and serving.

With a hearty Sunday breakfast of porridge and fresh wheaten bread followed by more snow fun the weekend was a roaring success …we arrived back home knackered but so happy to have spent such a happy and memorable weekend with all our best friends.