Pink Fluffy Marshmallows

Home-made marshmallows are a fun gift from the kitchen. Who doesn’t like marshmallows? Soft, fluffy, and airy, these marshmallows are surprisingly easy to make, and brought back childhood memories of buying a big bag of marshmallows and eating far too many. Gifts from the kitchen show you’ve put thought, time and effort into something, and if you’ve done it well, what you’ve produced can often be better than something store bought. However you feel about marshmallows, they are a lot of fun to make as a weekend cooking activity, to colour and to flavour, and, of course, to eat.

Marshmallow, as a food, is very similar in structure to nougat, and even boiled sweets, but with a couple of key differences. The basic process is the same: you start off with a sugar syrup, heat it up until the water concentration decreases to the level which will give you the texture you want, then cool it. But if you simply used a normal sugar syrup, you’d end up still with a dense nougat-like texture. So how do you get marshmallow nice and fluffy? Firstly, by the addition of gelatin. In nougat, the stabilising agent is the sugar syrup, creating sugar crystals, which also creates the dense texture. But with gelatin added, you get the desirable additional stability without the undesirable extra density. Secondly, the water content of the marshmallow mixture is much much higher. Right before you add the sugar syrup to the egg white, you add more water, a step which doesn’t happen making nougat. Water can absorb air and so become foamy, which is then stabilised with egg white, sugar, and gelatin, as well as reducing the density of the mixture. Overall, a light and very fluffy mix, but one that will still set solid.

Marshmallows are easy to flavour and colour as well. Once the basic mixture is made, you can add fruit purees (the pectin in the fruit will additionally help the marshmallow to set) and different food colourings. You can also split the mixture in half, finish each batch differently, then set them together to make ‘two-tone’ marshmallows. The sky is the limit. A fun morning’s cooking, and then a fun evening eating them.

Pink Fluffy Marshmallows

The recipe here is taken from The Home-Made Sweet Shop. As with nougat, an electric mixer is a must here- you just can’t incorporate the sugar syrup into the egg white quickly enough without one. Similarly, you’ll need a sugar thermometer, but these are inexpensive. This recipe will make a large baking tray’s worth, and should keep in the fridge for a few days.

50g icing sugar
50g cornflour
small amount olive oil for greasing
2 egg whites
400g caster sugar
15ml liquid glucose
375ml cold water
4tbsp powdered/12 sheets gelatin
5ml vanilla extract
12 drops pink food colouring

1. Prepare the baking tray. Grease the tray with some of the olive oil. Then sift together the icing sugar and cornflour, and sprinkle half of it on the greased baking tray. Shake around until evenly covered.
2. Prepare the syrup, eggs, and gelatin. In a heavy based pan, heat up the caster sugar, 185ml of the water, and the liquid glucose until at the hard ball stage (130°C), using a sugar thermometer to measure the temperature. Meanwhile, soak the gelatin in the rest of the cold water, and whip the egg white to firm peaks in an electric mixer.
3. Make the marshmallow. Right as the sugar reaches the hard ball stage, add the vanilla extract and gelatin and water mixture. With the electric mixer on high, slowly pour in the sugar syrup into the egg whites. Continue to beat the mixture once the sugar syrup is incorporated until the mixture becomes stiff (this will take around 10 minutes). Finally, add the food colouring, and mix until homogeneous.
4. Set the marshmallow. Pour the marshmallow onto the tray, and spread evenly. Leave to set (this will take around 6 hours), then dust with the rest of the icing sugar/cornflour mix. Cur up into pieces and serve.


Oxford Foodie Festival

The Foodies Festival has been at South Parks this bank holiday weekend. A mixture of artisan producers, food vans, drinks tents, food and drink masterclasses, and local Michelin-starred chefs giving demonstrations, there is plenty to keep you and your taste buds occupied for the day.  It’s easy to spend a few hours sampling different varieties of cheese, oil and vinegar, confectionery, bread, jam and spreads, hot drinks, olives, cured meats, and many more delicious things I am sure I’ve forgotten. Not to forget the drinks (perhaps we were fighting a losing battle sampling these) wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Portugal, flavoured vodkas, home-made liqueurs, and top quality rum.

The masterclasses are additionally noteworthy. Included in the entry ticket, although first-come first-serve, we had an opportunity to attend a ‘champagne masterclass’, where we tasted five glasses of fizz from different champagne houses, to highlight the difference between different styles and grape proportions used. Having attended a good number of wine tastings, this one was very informative, and I learnt a good deal. There were many masterclasses on offer, such as wine tastings from Casillero Del Diablo, ‘traditional Jamaican street food’ with The Backyard Company, and ‘indulgent cakes’ with Outsider Tart, so whatever your food interests are, there’s a lot to take away.

With respect to the stalls, we found a few particularly interesting producers. The Well Hung Meat Company are a home-delivery meat company, selling meat from organic farms, and, as the name suggests, hanging it properly to let it mature. They vacuum bag the meat so it keeps longer, and deliver more sporadically, like once a month, with a customised box of different cuts and types of meat. We tasted some of their beef, and it really was good, so there’s a box with our name on it coming soon. Another producer was Demijohn, who source liqueurs from small producers, such as chocolate orange cream liqueur, or rhubarb vodka. But it was their bottles that got us excited, with many strange shapes and sizes, and they would write whatever you want on the glass as well- a great Christmas present, for sure. Lastly was a shop that had just moved to Little Clarendon Street in Oxford just a few days ago, The Oxford Pantry. They stock a lot of stylish cookware and homeware, so similarly, some great gift ideas there; we’ll be sure to check out their new location.

There’s still one day left to check it out (tickets £10, or £8 concessions)- if you are looking to find something something fun to do for the bank holiday, or just a day off from studies, it’s a great place to spend an afternoon. If you’ve missed it, though, they’ll probably be back this time next year. Or, you can check out some other food festivals- the BBC Good Food Show is coming to London and Birmingham in a couple of months, or Jamie Oliver is hosting a joint music and food festival near Kingham, Oxfordshire at the end of this week. And if those don’t suit, there are probably many food events like Farmers’ Markets going on in your local area as well.

Cajeta and Tres Leches Cake

I’m a big fan of Mexican cuisine. This doesn’t mean burritos, tacos, or fajitas- while I’ll happily eat those every day, I mean more of the traditional Mexican cuisine: stews, beans, flours, and spices. When the missus and I holidayed in Mexico a few years ago, we went on a ‘sustainable tourism’ day, part of which was going out to one of the small rural villages, and tasting some of their traditional cuisine for lunch. What we had was not complicated cuisine- a spicy chicken stew with black beans and rice- but boy was it good: rustic, wholesome, and filling. Ever since, I’ve been a fan, trying to reproduce the cuisine at home. Whilst the flour that is used to make tortillas and tamales, masa harina, is not easy to get hold of, chipotle peppers, which are smoked jalapeños, have just started appearing in UK supermarkets, so cooking traditional Mexican food at home has become a little easier as well.

Cajeta, also known as dulce de leche in some parts of the world, is one of the flagship Mexican desserts, being declared the ‘Bicentennial Dessert of Mexico’ in 2010. It is essentially a sweetened milk syrup, heated to produce caramelisation and Maillard browning. Poured on ice cream, combined with custards, or made into candy, it’s not that far off a thick caramel sauce. To make a traditional cajeta, goats’ milk is used sometimes mixed with other milks- here I’m using 50-50 of cows’ milk and goats’ milk to balance the sweetness of the cows’ milk with the unique flavour of the goats’ milk. After a friend gave me a couple of cajeta treats she bought from Mexico to the UK, I thought it was time to give making cajeta a go.

One approach to making cajeta seems to be to place a can of condensed milk into a saucepan with some water in, then leaving it for a number of hours over a medium heat. The base of the saucepan provides the heat for the caramelisation of the sugar in the condensed milk, and the boiling water, ironically, cools the can to prevent it exploding. However, it seems strange to make it this way- not only do you run the risk of exploding can and caramel on the ceiling, but you lose the important Maillard browning- but making the real thing is so easy. By combining milks, sugar, and a little baking soda, you can just leave it on the hob and let it do its thing; the end result for me, given the effort it took, was impressive.

Whilst spooning copious amount of cajeta into my mouth looked like an afternoon well spent, I thought I might find a Mexican dessert where the flavours and texture of cajeta are used. Enter tres leches cake. It’s a genoise sponge soaked in tres leches (three milks)- cream, evapourated milk and condensed milk. Here, though, to make a cuatro leches cake, I could add dulce de leche. The genoise sponge is made without butter here to keep the cake dry, so that soaking the cake in the milk mix won’t make the texture soggy, but nicely moist instead. The end result is a rich, dense cake, but full of milky, caramel flavours. Combined with a Grand Marnier topping, this cake was great to bring out as something different from the usual Victoria sponges, coffee and walnuts, or carrot cakes.

Cinnamon Cajeta

This recipe is taken from a great food blog I read, Joe Pastry. Makes approximately 750ml, and should keep for a few weeks in the refrigerator.

1 litre cows’ milk
1 litre goats’ milk
450g caster sugar
1/2tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 stick cinnamon

1. Make the milk mixes. In one bowl, put 100ml goat’s milk with the baking soda. Stir until dissolved. In a large pan, place all the other ingredients, and stir until the sugar is dissolved.
2. Make the cajeta. Bring the large pan to the boil, and simmer for approx 30 minutes. When it is beginning to brown, add the baking soda milk. The mixture will begin to froth, so move off the heat if necessary. Continue simmering and reduce down to approx 750ml.

Tres Leches Cake

Again, this recipe is taken from Joe Pastry.

For the cake:
85g flaked almonds
140g plain flour
Zest of one orange
1/2tsp salt
4tbsp butter
6 eggs
200g caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the syrup:
120ml dulce de leche
180ml double cream
60ml evaporated milk
60ml sweetened condensed milk
For the icing:
250ml double cream
2tbsp sugar
2tbsp Grand Marnier

1. Toast the almonds. Spread out the almonds on a greased baking tray and cook in an oven at 200°C for approximately 15 minutes until lightly toasted. Put the almonds in an electric mixer and whizz until they are in small crumbs.
2. Prepare the sponge. Sift in the flour, orange zest, and salt into the almonds. In a small pan, melt the butter. In an bowl you can put in a saucepan, beat the eggs with the sugar. In a large saucepan, pour in about 1″ of water, and bring it to the boil.
3. Make the sponge. Put the sugar and egg bowl into the pan, and heat until the egg mix is warm to the touch. Incorporate the melted butter, and fold in the flour mixture. Pour into a 9″ cake tin, and cook for approximately 30 minutes at 170°C, until a knife comes out clean. Leave to cool on a cooling rack.
4. Soak the sponge. Make the syrup mixture by combing the milks, cream, and dulce de leche. Place the cake on a plate, the pour a little of the syrup on top, using a pastry brush to spread it around, until the mix is soaked up. Repeat until half of the syrup is used. Then, putting another plate on top to assist you, turn the cake over, and repeat the syrup soaking with this side.
5. Ice the cake. Whip the cream until hard peaks, then add the sugar and Grand Marnier and mix well. Spread on top of the cake.

Spreading the dulce de leche syrup mix onto the cake.

Leftover Cheeseboard Quiche

Part of a gastronomic lifestyle is making sure that food leftovers don’t go to waste. This is tough in modern society, with busy lifestyles meaning that while you cook one night, you might not be in for a few nights in time to eat the leftovers. Similarly, cooked food can simply go into the fridge, but it often doesn’t come out again until it goes into the bin. If you are cooking for several people, it can be hard to know what to do with a single portion, since it won’t feed four. Managing leftovers for students is particularly important- financially it makes a fair difference.

But the main reason for having as much food waste as we do, I think, is that leftovers aren’t very exciting. Eating the same thing you ate last night, or the cold mince in the fridge, doesn’t sound fun, and so with meals quickly available, it is easy to just get something else. So here’s my attempt at making leftovers exciting- and getting a few more meals out of it. I had a dinner party a while ago, and bought some cheese for a cheeseboard at the end. People were full from dinner, so I was left with a lot of cheese. Now I don’t want to eat all of the cheese myself (as fun as this sounds), so I thought about ways I could use the cheese to make more food. But whatever you have leftover- cheese, meat, vegetables… a quiche is a good way to use them up in a creative, delicious way.

Quiche is surprisingly easy to make, at least once you have the pastry. There is a lot of contrast between bought and made quiches, in my experience: the store-bought versions can often be pastry heavy, thick, fatty mouthfuls, but a home-made quiche will be light, flaky and smooth. But what I really like about quiches is their versatility- once you have learn’t to make the basic recipe one quiche, every other quiche is essentially the same, just with different main ingredients: goats’ cheese and red pepper quiche, broccoli and stilton quiche, bacon and red onion quiche… the ‘quiche’ part is still the same. They work cold for lunch, warm for dinner (and I even like it for breakfast). Quiches are a great thing to bring to a picnic or bring-and-share lunch, or if you are having a family weekend. Really something worth learning, I think, the skill can go a long way.

Leftover Cheeseboard Quiche

You’ll need a flan tin for this, but you can pick one up in a big supermarket or other store for a few pounds. Also you’ll need a pastry brush and some ‘baking beans’; these are for keeping the pastry to shape when you pre-bake it. You can buy them, but I bought a large bag of lentils and set some aside for baking. Dried pasta also can work as well.

This recipe makes a very ‘wet’ pastry, which is great if you haven’t made pastry before. In the rolling stage, you can add a fair amount of flour, to make it easy to handle and prevent sticking, before the pastry will become leathery and start to crack.

280g plain flour, with extra for rolling the pastry
140g cold butter, cut into pieces
8tbsp cold water
5 eggs
284ml pot double cream
1 tub (200g) cherry tomatoes
leftover cheeses (I used goats’ cheese, a little brie, and halloumi)
leftover vegetables (I had asparagus leftover)
herbs or spices (I like basil here)

1. Prepare the pastry. In an electric mixer (or blender on pulse), mix together the flour and butter until they resemble fine breadcrumbs. Slowly add the water, mixing together until you have a smooth dough. Put the mixture in the fridge for half an hour.
2. Bake the pastry and the tomatoes. Take the pastry from the fridge and pre-heat the oven to 180°. Spead flour on a large clean surface and on a rolling pin, and roll out the pastry until it is larger than the flan tin you want to use. Keep flipping, rotating, and re-flouring the pastry to keep it from sticking. Using the rolling pin to help pick up the pastry, drape it over the flan tin. Tease the pastry into the flan tin using a small ball over leftover pastry. Cover with baking paper, and pour in the baking beans. Put the tomatoes on a baking tray, spray on a little oil, and place in the oven. Put the pastry the oven for 20 minutes, then remove baking beans and baking paper, then cook for another five minutes. Take everything out of the oven, and trim the edges of the pastry.
3. Make the quiche mix and assemble the quiche. Crack four of the eggs into a mixing jug, beat them, and mix in the cream. Add some salt and pepper, and the cooked tomatoes. Meanwhile, beat the last egg and, using a pastry brush, brush the egg on the warm pastry case (this helps seal the pastry to keep it dry). Place any cheese and vegetables in the pastry, and pour in the quiche mixture.
4. Cook the quiche. Place in the oven for 20-25 minutes until golden brown and set. Leave to cool for a few minutes, then either eat warm, or leave to cool for later.

Browning Onions and The Maillard Reaction

The Maillard reaction is one of the more interesting chemical reactions in food science, partly as it occurs almost every day in your own kitchen. Basically it is the common browning of food as it cooks: bread, meat, coffee, vegetables, chips, pastry… pretty much all of your recipes will involve this reaction to some extent. You might brown some onions before adding mince for a lasagne, or brush egg yolk on pastry before cooking it, or sauté some meat before making a stew. The reaction breaks the food down into many different flavour compounds, releasing all the different tastes the food has. Perhaps this better taste and improved aromatics are why we have evolved to cook food that has browned, despite the end products being harder to digest.

Despite its importance in cooking and for the food industry, the Maillard reaction is not particularly well characterised . The original paper describing it was published by Louis-Camille Maillard in 1912, but was largely ignored for years, as late as 1948, when it was brought to the forefront by research looking at the loss of nutritional value in heating milk powders. The reaction occurs in three stages, producing various flavour compounds from a sugar and an amino acid (often coming from protein). Some examples of the flavour compounds produced from the Maillard reaction:

Compound class and associated flavour/aroma:
Pyrazines: Cooked, roasted, toasted, baked cereals
Alkylpyrazines:  Nutty, roasted, like in coffee
Alkylpyridines:  Green, bitter, astringent, burnt, like in coffee, barley, malt (generally regarded as unpleasant)
Furans, furanones, pyranones: Sweet, burnt, pungent, caramel-like
Oxazoles: Green, nutty, sweet like in cocoa, coffee, meat
Thiofenes: Meaty

What I am going to look at here, though, is how the Maillard reaction changes under different environmental conditions- like sugar, acid level, moisture level, and so on. Since browning your food is desirable, as you’ll get a nicer taste from it, understanding how to get your food to brown- or why it isn’t browning- will improve what ends up on the plate. We know that you need heat to get food to brown, but how else can you control it?

To test these, and particularly the relative speed of food browning, I spent an evening modifying an experiment from The Kitchen As Laboratory: chopping up some onions, subjecting them to different conditions, heating them, and seeing what happened. I looked at four different conditions (as I had four different hobs): 1) A control, just regular onion, 2) Onion with added bicarbonate of soda, 3) Onion with added lemon juice, and 4) Onion with some added sugar. With the sugared onions, only a moderate amount could be put on the sugar, otherwise a caramelisation reaction might occur, which is different from the Maillard reaction, and would affect the results.

Four variations of onion mix. There are control onions (top left), onions with baking powder (top right), onions with sugar (bottom left), and onions with lemon juice (bottom right).

These choices, of course, were based on ideas of what should happen. Theoretically, the baking soda onion should be the fastest to brown, as alkaline conditions promote the reaction, followed by the sugared onion, as more sugar is available to fund the reaction. The lemon juice onion was a bit of a wild card, as there are several bits of theory working here. Acid is supposed to reduce the speed of browning, but the moderate water content (and I suppose a little sugar) is supposed to increase it. The control onions and the lemon juiced onion would then fight it out for the bottom spot. All the onions were dry-fried, that is no oil or butter was in the pan.

After seven minutes on a medium heat, I removed the onions from the pan. The baking soda onions had won by far, massively browning compared to the rest, most of which happened in the first minute of cooking. The sugared onions and lemon juiced onions had browned a similar amount, I suppose that the moisture factors helping the lemon juiced onions outweighed the detracting acidity. The control onions, though, had browned poorly, but of course were the only ones that you might actually want to eat.

Onions after browning. There are control onions (top left), baking soda onions (top right), lemon juice onions (bottom left), and sugar onions (bottom right).

So, to summarise: alkali, sugar, protein, high heat, and moderate water content all speed up the Maillard reaction, acid, lots or little water, and low heat all slow down the Maillard reaction. So if you are cooking something, especially if you are making up your own recipe, think about how you are browning food, and how you want to develop flavour. A friend once characterised all British food as “brown”… perhaps that is not such a bad thing after all.

Blackberry, Apple, Lavender, and Hazelnut Crumble

It’s amazing what wild produce you can find on a walk to the supermarket. I originally set out hoping I might find a little lavender on my walk, but I also stumbled on several crops of wild blackberries. In the UK, blackberries are usually in season from late August to early November, but they seemed to be in early this year, perhaps due to the fact we seem to have skipped summer. I used to pick loads of blackberries as a kid- we would take tubs out to hedgerows and collect several kilos- then make crumble, jam, or just freeze our spoils. Perhaps the reason why even kids can pick them, blackberries are probably the easiest wild fruit to identify and pick. They’ll occur on many hedgerows on bramble-y plants, and the fruit turns black when ripe. The ones you want to pick are the ones that come off the plant easily- if they don’t, they are probably not ripe. Similarly, don’t pick the ones below knee-height, as dogs may have spoiled the fruit for you. Despite the scratches you might pick up from the brambles, picking the blackberries, then coming back and cooking them, is really an enjoyable weekend activity, and they’ll be around for a couple of months for another trip.

The crumble I have styled here has tried to reflect the wild, herbal, autumnal flavours. Since I had some lavender left over from making lavender lemonade, I thought I would put a twist on the typical apple and blackberry crumble by infusing the lavender in the fruit juices. One principle in gastronomy is that if produce grows together, the flavours will complement each other, and since the blackberries and lavender were found on the same forage, I felt pretty safe combining them. The hazelnuts in the crumble mix takes away the smooth texture usually found in crumble and add to the rustic texture.

Blackberry, Apple, Lavender, and Hazelnut Crumble

Serves 6. Ideal hot or cold with custard.

500g blackberries, washed
500g bramley apples (or whatever you have around)
2 tsp port
15g caster sugar
~20g lavender heads (or 10g dried)
210g self raising flour
120g butter
100g soft brown sugar
100g chopped hazelnuts

1. Stew the blackberries. Add the blackberries, port, and caster sugar to a heavy bottomed pan over a low heat. Keep on the heat until the blackberries have given off a good amount of liquid and are nice and mushy. Strain the fruit through a sieve, so that you end up with the liquid separately.
2. Infuse the lavender. Return the liquid to the pan along with the lavender. Bring to the boil and simmer for a couple of minutes until the lavender flavour has infused. Strain the lavender out until you are left with just the liquid again.
3. Stew the apple. Peel, core, and chop the apple. Add a small amount of water (~1tsbp) to another pan, and add the apple. Place the pan over a medium heat and keep there until the apple is soft. If the pan becomes dry, add a little more water.
4. Make the crumble topping. Rub the flour and butter together until it resembles slightly large breadcrumbs. Add the brown sugar and hazelnuts and mix until homogeneous.
5. Cook the crumble. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Pour the blackberries, apple, and infused juices into a large dish, then spread the crumble topping over the fruit. Place in the oven and cook for 30 minutes.

Restaurant Review: The Magdalen Arms

In Oxford, it’s pretty rare to come across a jewel of a place to eat that isn’t massively busy, expensive, or hard to get a table at. The Magdalen Arms, situated a little way down the Iffley Road, somehow has managed to slip through the cracks. Perhaps because it is still very much a pub rather than a restaurant, or because the website has been “coming soon” for some time now, so that you can’t see the menu unless you actually go there, The Magdalen Arms hasn’t been as ‘discovered’ as it should be. With a varied menu, fantastic food, and an enjoyable atmosphere, I would highly recommend it. Just make sure you find it out before everybody else does.

Food 10/10: Using local, seasonal food, the menu changes regularly and sometimes various items are not available- as it should be, in my opinion. I recently had some wild rabbit with chorizo, fennel, lentils and aioli for the main, and vanilla ice cream with Pedro Ximenez sherry for pudding. The rabbit was brilliant, perfectly cooked, and the chorizo and aioli provided a really interesting contrast. Bulked up by the lentils, the portion sizes here are generous, and experience told me I wouldn’t want a starter, despite many interesting things on the menu. The sherry ice cream finished off the meal well, with delicious aged sticky sherry flavours complementing the real vanilla and fresh creaminess. I had a bite of some others’ food as well- lamb shoulder, dauphinoise potatoes… all lovely. Some of the menu options are for two or more though- like the lamb shoulder- so it worked out that we came as a group. However, for the price of the food- around £5 for a starter or pudding and £10-£15 for a main- it is very hard to fault anything here.

Drinks 9/10: I’ve always thought that it is the sign of a good restaurant to have high quality house wines. The house wines here are French country wines- which is where all house wines should come from- as this is where the best value for money can be found. Very palatable, stood up well to the food, and well priced too at around £12 a bottle, you don’t have to delve into the rest of the well thought out wine list. Otherwise, there are a few specialty drinks like sloe gin fizz and home-made lemonade, and the beers and ciders seemed like standard good pub fare.

Atmosphere and Service 7/10: Not much here that would separate it from the standard pub- the place is decorated nicely, and the service was as expected. The furniture is all wooden, which adds a nice feel to the place, but it can be a little hard to sit on over the course of a long evening. Particularly nice that they haven’t gone for the gastropub-style decor, with fancy crockery, the plates you’ll get given here will vary from person to person, really highlighting the gastronomic focus that surrounds everything they do at the Magdalen Arms.

Here, restaurants are reviewed based on some idea of restaurant expectation, not objective quality. If the latter was used, anywhere moderately affordable would look like an undesirable place to eat, given it would have much lower numbers than hugely more expensive restaurants. So if a hamburger restaurant was being looked at, 10/10 would represent a top hamburger restaurant, and 5/10 might represent a poor one. So a top class French restaurant could have lower numbers than a hamburger restaurant, but be more desirable to eat at, as it is held to higher standards. It makes sense, trust me.

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