Divin

Divin Assembly

When you think about it, French patisserie is just complicated versions of very simple foods. A millefeuille is just pastry layers with cream in between. Macarons are just biscuits. Brioche is just a rich buttery bread. So you shouldn’t be put off making French patisserie at home. If you can make biscuits, you can probably have a go at making macarons. Sure, you might not get it right the first time, as I frequently don’t, but it wouldn’t be fun if it was easy. One or two bits of French patisserie is a very useful thing to have in your culinary repertoire, and if you start getting something consistently right, you’ll feel great about your culinary abilities.

The Divin I made with a friend at the weekend was no different; it is basically a glorified raspberry Victoria sponge. A Divin has two cakes, with raspberries, a raspberry jelly, and a cream in between. Writing such a simple description is mildly depressing, given the afternoon we spent cooking and morning trudging around London looking for ingredients, just to make a glorified Victoria sponge, but that’s what it is.

Divin_Cake

So how is it different from a raspberry Victoria sponge? Firstly, the cake isn’t a sponge. It’s made from ground almonds and egg whites, not unlike a macaron, and piped into shape on a baking tray instead of poured into a mold. You have to whisk, fold, and sift, rather different than just putting all the ingredients into the Kenwood, as I do with sponge cake. Perhaps even more complicated is the cream, a nougat crème mousseline, which is a thick egg-based cream combined with a nougat cream. Finally the raspberry jelly is made from a raspberry coulis. “Fussy” doesn’t begin to describe the four page recipe we were working from.

All these differences add up to an increased difficulty. Get one or two things a little wrong, and you’ve not got quite the dessert you set out to make. Unfortunately this is what happened to us. Perpetually afraid of cooking the eggs in a sauce, I didn’t thicken it quite enough, and even after some time in the fridge, it just didn’t have the right texture. We hopefully spooned it on to the cake, thinking that the cream might just be thick enough for the raspberries to hold as a dam, but sadly not. After trying to top with raspberry jelly, disaster struck, and cream started flooding out.

Divin Cream

The Divin we made was still great though. The thinner cream meant eating it out of a bowl- not unlike a trifle, actually- but that was hardly a problem. All of the flavours worked really well together, and the rich cream absorbed by the sponge. After using this as pudding one evening, we had seconds for breakfast the next morning, with tea the next afternoon, and there was still some to leave behind as I headed back to Oxford. But not for long, as shortly after I left, “I ate it all, no regrets” was the text I received.

So have a go at some more advanced cooking once in a while. It’s a great social activity, will help improve your cooking, and even if it doesn’t turn out quite the way you wanted, you’ll still have food to be excited about.

The Divin

Porcini and Scallop Tartlets

I really like cooking at Christmas time, and this year I had the responsibility of making a starter. I kind of feel like this is the most creative course in Christmas dinner, as you know the kind of thing you are going to get for the main and pudding. What’s more, Christmas this year was spent with the inlaws, so that starter had to be good- since they knew about my culinary hobby, I had a reputation to keep. With all this in mind, I decided the course was worth a bit of effort, and instead of using a recipe, I tried to come up with something myself.

Designing a course from scratch can be a tricky business- mainly because there are so many different ideas out there. So how did I go about it? Well, first off, I decided I wanted the starter to contain mushrooms as the main idea. Mushrooms are highly underrated, especially as most people only have tried the boring varieties you can find in supermarkets. Furthermore, I think they are a great Christmas flavour, work as a starter before turkey, and pair well with wine.

Next, I had to figure out how to serve them. I remembered my mushroom picking trip in Denmark, and the mushroomy meal we had. One of the courses that stood out to me was some mushroom tartlets- simply mushrooms in pastry with sauce, but since the flavours were brilliant, it worked really well. Mushroom tartlets it was.

Then to decide what other flavours to go with the mushroom tartlets- which meant a trip to a book I often use for designing courses: The Flavour Thesaurus. This book simply lists flavours that go well with other flavours. For mushrooms, you have suggested flavours like anise, apricot, asparagus, bacon, beef, chestnut, dill, egg, and so on. For the mushroom tartlets, I originally got intrigued by ‘blue cheese’, thinking of something like ‘mushrooms on Gorgonzola polenta tartlets’, but blue cheese is not the favourite of Mrs. Oxfood. After considering a few more flavours, I settled on scallops, chestnut, bacon, and mushroom tartlets. Very seasonal, I thought.

Now that I had decided what to do, it was time to do a practice run. I was going to make the tartlets out of puff pastry, but didn’t know whether or not to trim the pastry before or after cooking- I’d only made shortcrust pastry tartlets before. So in the practice run I did one tartlet trimmed, one untrimmed. The untrimmed tartlet puffed everywhere, and it was very hard to get the pastry out of the tartlet case. Trimmed tartlets it was. A practice run can help you get various presentation things right, as well as knowledge on how long various cooking tasks take, what can be easily cooked beforehand, or how thick to make a sauce. Your dinner that evening might not be as nice as it could be, but you’ll get the dish right when you have to make it for real.

The tartlets went down very well (as well as very quickly). I paired them with a pinot noir from Burgundy, which has with it lots of earthy and “sous-bois” (under-wood) flavours. Pinot noir is also an acidic wine, so could cut through the creamy mushroom sauce. An obvious, but very enjoyable pairing. Overall a great starter, which followed a lovely Christmas lunch- but I’ll make this recipe again.

Porcini, Chestnut and Scallop Tartlets

Porcini, Bacon, Chestnut, and Scallop Tartlets

Serves 8. You’ll need mini tartlet tins for this, they are a good investment for starters. A muslin is also useful for passing the porcini mushrooms through. I used ready-made puff pastry, just because of the time constraints, but it’s worth having a go at your own.

Ingredients:
50g dried porcini mushrooms (porcini mushrooms are also known as ceps)
200g chestnut mushrooms
8 rashers streaky bacon (as good quality as you can afford)
8 scallops, roe removed
12 chestnuts
2 packs (2 x 250g) ready-made puff pastry
450ml double cream
1 sprig thyme
2 tsp dark soy sauce
8 sage leaves, to garnish

Recipe:
1. Cook the ingredients. Heat the oven to 200ºC. Fry the bacon until crispy, and dice into small pieces. Pierce the chestnuts, put in a baking tray, then put the baking tray into the oven for 30 minutes. Wait until the chestnuts have cooled a little, then shell, and dice the chestnuts into small pieces. Pan-fry the chestnut mushrooms for around 15 minutes until their moisture has been removed. Dice the chestnut mushrooms into small pieces.
2. Make the sauce. Soak the porcini mushrooms in 500ml water for 20 minutes. Keeping the mushroom water, pour the mixture through a muslin. Add the double cream, thyme sprig, and soy sauce to the mushroom water, and reduce the sauce down until it is at the desired texture. When the sauce is done, remove the thyme sprig. Pan-fry the porcini mushrooms for around 5 minutes.
3. Make the tartlet cases. Heat the oven to 170ºC. Roll out the pastry to the thickness of around a pound coin. Cut into a size big enough to cover your tartlet case, then put another tartlet case on top. Repeat with the rest of the tartlet cases you have. Bake in the oven for around 15 minutes, until the pastry is cooked. Keep doing this until you have made all your tartlet cases.
4. Assemble the tartlets. Warm the ingredients if necessary. Pan-fry each of the scallops for around 2 minutes each side until they are cooked. Place the cooked scallops in the middle of the tartlets, and fill the rest of them with bacon, chestnut mushrooms, and porcini mushrooms. Pour a little sauce on the plate, put the tartlet on, and garnish with the chestnut and sage leaves.

Making Tartlet Cases

Fourteen-Course Dinner Parties

Dinner parties are brilliant fun. Great food, great wine, great company. Getting the nice china and wine glasses out for a special occasion. Planning weeks in advance what you will cook. Thinking about food-wine pairings. Spending an entire day beforehand cooking your best stuff to impress guests. Cooking courses you wouldn’t usually cook- starters, soups- when normally all the effort goes into the main and pudding. Really, they are one of my favourite occasions.

But what I have outlined above also constitutes a lot of effort- especially if you want to go for a large number of courses. Similarly, the cost of the cooking ingredients can quickly escalate, and that’s before you even consider the wine. When you have a lot of food to cook and not enough time to cook it in, the process can become very stressful, in addition to the pressures of entertaining you already have. All this adds up to a great time for your guests, but for you? Probably not as much fun as you hoped.

A way I found to reconcile these ideas started in my undergraduate days: collaborative dinner parties. Everybody chips in with one or two courses, bringing wine which pairs well with the food they make. The financial cost and effort is spread around all the guests attending. Everybody can put effort into their course, but benefit from the whole effort the group has put in. There’s still some organising to be done- emailing round beforehand to find enough people, picking courses, and so on- but what you end up with is a brilliant meal that you could never cook on your own.

Here’s the most recent collaborative dinner party I hosted, and if these pictures don’t motivate you to try this idea out, I don’t know what will.

Amuses Bouche: Red Caviar and Russian Black Bread
Wine: Sovetskoye Shampanskoye
What better way to start off a dinner party than Champagne and Caviar? Little red balls of flavour bursting in your mouth, washed down by sparkling wine- definitely woke up my palate. Provided by a friend whose focus is Russian history, I feel we got an authentic Russian experience here, along with some interesting stories about life in Russia. The wine was an eye opener- lots of residual sugar, but went well with the food, the sweetness of the wine complementing the saltiness of the caviar.

Appetiser: Green Thai Curry Macaron
Wine: Faldeos Nevados Torrontés, 2011
Not wanting to overdo the size of this course, the macaron would be little more than a bite of flavour. Sweet almond shells with lime, basil and curry cream filling did just that. The wine pairing was the real success for me, with the Argentinian Torrontés being light and acidic, it balanced everything out.

Starter: Melon with Prosciutto Crudo
Wine: Casa Roscoli Pinot Grigio 2011
From the same friend who brought us Champagne and Caviar, this starter was based on times spent in Italy, living off melon and prosciutto. A classic combination, with the freshness of the lemon, sweetness of the prosciutto, and acidity of the wine all playing their part.

Soup: New England Clam Chowder
Wine: Richter Erdener Treppchen Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, 2009
Made for us by a native of New England, the clam chowder was rich, creamy, sweet and heartening- really capturing that chapter of Moby Dick which always gets me excited about this dish. The wine was one of my favourites bottles of the night, a lovely sweet Riesling from Germany. At only 8.5% alcohol you might think it would not stand up to the dish, but with plenty of acidity and a long finish it worked well. The sweetness of the wine brought out the sweetness of the clams- just a pity there were still ten courses to go, so I couldn’t have seconds.

Shellfish: Prawn Satay Skewers
Wine: Vouvray Grenouilles Demi Sec Careme, 2009
Another sweeter wine complementing the natural sweetness of the shellfish, but balanced out by the strong flavours of the satay sauce. I prefer satay sauce to be really peanutty, and this one hit the spot. Just a mouthful of prawn here, but plenty of taste, and with fourteen courses, that’s just what you want.

Fish: Sakana-san
Wine: Sawanotsuru
Going to a Japanese themed course here. Tempura battered whitebait, a miso ice cream, and a trout and wasabi mousse, all piped into a Japanese character (I think meaning “I caught this in my net”). Paired with a warmed Sake, the wine just let the food speak for itself. Which wasn’t hard- there was a lot to like.

Pasta: Millefeille
Wine: Bricco Rosso Suagna Langhe Rosso 2008
Pasta is always a hard course to assign, because not many people have a pasta maker. But a friend did a great job of this course, with herbs rolled into the pasta dough, and a pepper and chicken filling for the tower. Sprinkled with Parmesan, the course was just the right size for a large meal like this- pasta is course which is easy to over-do and cook too much of. Paired with an Italian red, the ripe fruit and heat of the wine brought out the spicy chicken and peppers, working very nicely.

Poultry: Chicken two ways
Wine: La Clape, Arpège, Château Rouquette-Sur-Mer, 2011
Of course there would be one course I forgot to take a picture of, even worse that it is of Mrs. Oxfood’s course, so here is an old photo instead. There were two varieties of chicken here: lime and coriander, and paprika, all served with a sweet chilli dipping sauce. Real contrasts, loads going on. The wine was 90% Roussanne, a grape from the south of France, which was full, fruity, and well balanced. Probably my favourite food-wine pairing of the evening, just for the ability of the Roussanne to deal with what was a very complex course.

Game: Venison Bolegnese
Wine: Barolo Villa Peironte 2008
One of the most enjoyed courses of the evening, a beautifully cooked piece of venison loin, slow cooked venison shoulder, and polenta cakes was served for the game course. The dish was rustic- in a good way- with the grainy polenta cakes really adding something to the texture of the course, balancing everything out. The wine really sung here too. When you have a big wine like Barolo, you need something really meaty to work with, exactly as was done here. Firm tannins, high alcohol, big body- a wine which benefited greatly from decanting.

Cheese: Saint Nectaire, Comté, Laguiole
Wine: Bodegas Palacios Remondo Rioja ‘La Montesa’ Crianza, 2009
Lovely cheeses here. When going for a cheese course, I think people often try and put too contrasting cheeses out- a Stilton, Brie, and Cheddar on the same board, for instance. But these cheeses worked together very nicely. The wine was a strange Rioja, as it was made from mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, but it had plenty of personality. We just had a taste, then saved the cheese for later.

Sorbet: Quince and Vanilla Sorbet
As it happened, I couldn’t have picked the sorbet much better. Sandwiched between a cheese course and a chocolately orangey pudding, the sorbet was not so much a palate cleanser as it was an intermediary between main and pudding courses. I love quince, not as a fruit to eat, being very dry and woody, but as a fruit to roast, purée, and then use in a variety of dishes as a complementary flavour. After a few hours in the oven, you get a fruit a bit like a cross between a baked apple and a baked pear, so you can see how it worked well with the surrounding courses. A lovely sorbet, one I will certainly make again.

Heavier Pudding: Chocolate, Orange and Spice
Wine: La Concha Palomino Pedro Ximenez
A plate of a chocolate and cardamon mousse, dark chocolate and ginger cake, chocolate and orange truffle, and candied orange peel dipped in dark chocolate. Sound nice? It really was. Top marks as well for the food-wine pairing, the not-so-sticky Pedro Ximenez sherry worked wonderfully allowing the pudding to shine. I always like pairing sherry with puddings, and here is a great example where it helps the dish much better than any wine- or pudding wine- would.

Lighter Pudding: Planters’ Punch Special
Punch was once one of the traditional courses of a very large meal like this, so it was fun to see one served as the lighter pudding. At this point in the meal, you don’t want to see loads of cream on your plate, so a liquid course was very welcome. We didn’t need a wine pairing here either, there was plenty of alcohol already present. Loads of great exotic fruit here, pineapple, grapes, melon, passionfruit- all working very well with the rum in the punch. A good fruit salad is one of my favourite puddings, and I will often choose this over richer fare. A well designed, very tasty course.

Petit Fours: Pistachio Baklava, Orange and Passion Fruit Marshmallows, Financiers
Wine: Calvados Pays d’Auge, VSOP
Although most people had eaten their fill at this point, these petit fours still managed to disappear while everyone was sitting at the table chatting after the meal. I had a lot of fun making these, the baklava in particular I had never made before, but they turned out great. The marshmallows were made in a similar fashion to the Pink Fluffy Marshmallows I made previously, just adding a passion fruit and orange syrup to the marshmallow while aerating. Financiers are classic petit fours, rounding the selection out.
For those who haven’t tried Calvados before, it is apple brandy made in the north of France. I think it is brilliant, and a good value for money substitute for brandy like Cognac or Armagnac. The apple flavours in the Calvados added a lot to these petits fours- at least for those who made it this far.

Overall, a brilliant meal. Not surprising, when you consider the amount of effort that went in to it. But with everyone chipping in? I’ll be doing this again.

Green Thai Curry Macarons

Macarons are one of the more fashionable patisserie items to make at the minute. Not to be confused with the coconut-chocolate biscuit that is the English macaroon, these biscuits are made from a very light and airy dough made up of almond flour and egg whites. There’s not a lot of flavour from the biscuits themselves, so usually they are filled with a butter cream of some sort. The filling is piped in the night before, which allows the biscuit to absorb a little, creating a softer, smoother texture. Creativity and taste aside, another lure of macarons is that they are quite tricky to make, despite the ingredients being relatively simple. Macarons have their characteristic ‘pieds’, or ‘feet’, a mythical part of the cooking process, caused by a combination of egg white rising, and surface tension of the dough. Particularly important is to get the macarons to have perfectly formed feet- if you don’t get the feet, or the feet aren’t even all the way around, you lose marks for presentation. However, I think macarons can definitely be made well, domestically. You’ll need a bit of kit- piping bag, nozzle, pastry scraper (and an electric mixer helps)- but once you have these, the recipe is that not that complicated (a bit like making a cake or biscuits), it’s just a little fiddly.

So when I was planning the appetiser course for a dinner party recently, I fancied trying to make a savoury macaron. I’ve seen recipes for savoury macarons in fancy cookbooks- beetroot and horseradish, bloody mary, or asparagus- and fancied that something like this would make a fun appetiser. The flavours had to go with almond, as you don’t want to mess with the magic formula for the base biscuits, which led me to curry of some sort. Out of curries I thought could be used here, a green thai curry worked best, and finding a recipe with different coloured top and bottom macarons sealed the deal.

Interesting for me too was the food-wine pairing. What wine do you pair with a savoury curry sweet almondy macaron? A lot of people will say that you want to pair a dry Riesling with a curry, but I’ve never been sold on the pairing, as I think there are too many flavours present. Instead, I wanted something a little more neutral, but still with good acidity, a light body, and light flavours, so that the cacophony of tastes in the macaron could shine through. I went with a Torrontés, a native Argentinian white. It worked wonderfully- plenty of zip, light, and when we picked up notes of lemongrass, I knew that had hit the spot. I think Torrontés would be a great wine for curry in general, so if you are able to source a bottle, give it a try, the strong food-wine pairing added a lot to the meal.

Overall the green thai curry macarons actually worked pretty well- much better than I was expecting. The almondy and sugarry sweetness, spicy lime and basil curry, and acidic and floral wine somehow balanced each other out, all tugging on the taste buds about equally. But I would definitely make the same macarons again. A really fun course to make, but quite challenging and complex at the same time.

Green Thai Curry Macarons

Recipe for macarons taken from Mad about Macarons. Measurements should be as exact as possible. Makes around 12 green thai curry macarons. You could make, say, red thai curry macarons, or tikka massala macarons in a very similar manner.

Ingredients:
150g egg whites (aged 4-5 days)
100g caster sugar
180g ground almonds
270g icing sugar
Red and green food colourings
50g butter
2tsbp fresh basil
zest 1 lime
5g cornflour
1/2 beaten egg
50g coconut milk
2tsp green thai curry paste

Recipe:
1. Make the macaron dough.Whisk the egg whites until firm peaks, gradually adding the sugar as you do so. Put in enough food colouring until you get a rich pink (note the almond colour will take some of this away). Sift the almonds into a large bowl, add the icing sugar, then fold in the whipped egg whites. Split the dough into two equal portions, then add the different food colourings to each.
2. Work and pipe the dough.With a pastry scraper (or spatula if you don’t have one), work the dough to press out some of the oxygen from the whites. Scrape the mixture into a piping bag with a plain nozzle (1cm around tip). Line two baking trays with baking sheets, then pipe your macarons onto the sheet.
3. Cook the macarons. Preheat the oven to 160ºC, and bake for around 15 minutes. There is quite a fine point when they are done, so get to know your oven and adjust cooking times slightly if necessary. Leave to cool on the sheet, then slowly (as they are delicate) peel them off.
4. Make the filling. Cream the butter and mix in the fresh basil and lime. In a another bowl, combine the cornflour and beaten egg. Heat the coconut milk over a medium heat in a saucepan until boiling, then add the cornflour and egg mixture. Whisk constantly until the mixture has thickened to coat the back of a spoon. Leave to cool.
5. Make the macarons. When the filling is cool, pipe it onto the macarons. Leave in a fridge for as long as you can (ideally overnight) for the texture to develop.

Food and Wine Pairings III: Creating a meal around sweet wines

Often when I start out cooking a meal for guests, I have no idea what to cook. It’s not that I don’t have enough ideas, although sometimes I am less inspired, but too many, thanks to many good cookbooks and internet sites that are available. I can never consider a dish and say to myself, “yes, that will be really good”, and know that there is not a better choice out there. Similarly, you want the courses to complement each other, it’s no use doing smoked salmon to start, and then salmon for the main. This is all before the practicalities of the dinner are considered- how much time do I have to cook, how much can I spend, when can I get any specialist ingredients, for example.

Lastly, there is the wine. Perhaps not so important to some, I really feel line a good food-wine pairing can make or break a meal. You need the right wine for each course. If I don’t have the bottle I want at home, I don’t want to put a wine order in for just one bottle, so that might change what I want to cook. Little things, like the seasoning of a dish, can make a big difference, too. So recently, I’ve taken a reverse approach to planning meals for guests: start with the wines I want to drink, then figure out what I can cook which will work. I’ve found it remarkably helpful, as you move from “I could cook almost anything” to “I have to cook something very specific”. Also, it’s a fun challenge and learning experience for my food-wine pairing skills.

A friend came around recently who I know has a sweet tooth. So I thought, why not try some sweeter wines throughout, and see if I can’t find the right food to go with them? If I went wrong, the wines would still be good, and the food would still be good, just not as good together. Equally, this would allow me to experiment a little with flavours, particularly the sweet-savoury match. All the wines I had planned came from The Wine Society, which I thoroughly recommend.

Course I: A salad of pan-fried scallops, pancetta, warmed goats’ cheese, roasted fig, and cos lettuce.
Wine pairing: Vouvray Les Coteaux Tufiers Demi-Sec 2010.

The wines we drank. From the right: Vouvray Demi-Sec 2010, Trimbach Gewurztraminer 2010, Royal Tokaji Late Harvest 2010.

The wine here is a demi-sec (meaning semi-dry), a chenin-blanc from Vouvray, in the Loire valley in France (on the right of the picture). What the demi-sec translates to is a small amount of residual sugar, not something we noticed in the main body of the wine, but in the finish, there was just a touch of sweetness. Otherwise, a fairly neutral wine, with good acidity to cut through food. At £7 a bottle, this wine was great, and I imagine would be very popular in general.

This, I think, was the best pairing of the night. With so much going on in the salad, particularly with the goats’ cheese and fig, the wine didn’t need to contribute much in terms of flavour. But the acidity, working with the lettuce, calmed everything down and balanced the meal out nicely. The sweetness worked well with all of the components, perhaps not surprisingly as they are often paired with sweet things themselves. (Of course, with the pressures of entertaining, I forgot to take a photo of the salad, so you’ll have to live with a photo of the wines instead.)

Course II: Monkfish and Tiger Prawn Crêpe, Sauce Saffron Suprème, Curried Squash.
Wine pairing: Trimbach Gewürztraminer 2010.

Gewürztraminer is a grape which typically gives you stone fruit flavours, spice, and lychee, in a medium bodied, medium alcohol framework, with no residual sugar. It comes from Alsace in France, a region close to Germany, so no surprise that a lot of grape varieties which are traditionally German, like Riesling, are grown there. The body, alcohol, and acidity here are important- being a bigger wine than the Vouvray, it needs to be given something a little more robust, food-wise.

The robustness here comes in the sauce. The monkfish, prawn, squash, and crepe were all relatively light, really just providing flavours and textures. The sauce is thick and heavily saffron flavoured, in some sense providing the bulk of the dish. Overall I would say that I think I tried to do too much here, the dish was too complex (although sadly not in colour), too many flavours and textures were present. Perhaps something simpler, like a simple sea bass dish, would have provided the backdrop for the wine to do its thing better. Still nice, but not the pairing I was hoping for.

Course III: Giant Macaron with Raspberries and Peach Cream.
Wine pairing: Royal Tokaji Late Harvest 2010.

Here I had a dilemma I often have with a meal. My guests have brought a bottle of wine- a nice one at that- but I’ve already planned a wine for a certain course  (or a course for a certain wine). Do you alter the meal and drink the wine they bought, or do you go with what you had planned? In this case, the choice was reasonably easy, as I was planning a white Bordeaux, but it could be easily substituted by the Tokaji. For those who haven’t met Tokaji before, it’s a Hungarian desert wine, made from a grape called Furmint, and is well worth checking out.

The macaron itself doesn’t add a lot of flavours to the dessert, so you can consider this, flavour-wise, as raspberries and orange with peach cream. The fruit flavours complemented the wine well, but I feel like anything reasonable you put with pudding wine is going to be great. The Tokaji was a nice bottle, and was allowed to express itself fully with the fat in the cream, tartness of the raspberries, and juiciness of the orange. I’ll do this one again.

If you are interested in food-wine pairings, check out my other posts on food-wine pairings, Food and Wine Pairings: The Blind Tasting Black Tie Dinner, and Food and Wine Pairings II: Wines for a Wedding. Also, The Wine Society has a great section on food-wine pairings, and a good food-wine matcher.

Giant Macarons with Raspberries and Peach Cream

Macarons are very fashionable at the moment in the world of cooking. Their fame started in Paris, when famous patisseries like Pierre Hermé and Ladurée began producing these small, coin-sized, delicate almond biscuits, which were sandwiched together with a cream filling. These patisseries could show their culinary creativity through macarons, with flavours like passionfruit and dark chocolate, jasmine and green tea, and even some savoury ones like curry or beetroot and horseradish. The colours produced were bright and contrasting. Soon most patisseries began making them, their popularity perhaps aided by the fact they are lighter and healthier than many patisserie treats. You can find them in a good number of Oxford patisseries, like Gatineau in Summertown, or Chateau Gateau on St. Clements.

So what are macarons? Not to be confused with the coconut-chocolate biscuit that is the English macaroon, these biscuits are made from a very light and airy dough made up of almond flour and egg whites. There’s not a lot of flavour from the biscuits themselves, so usually they are filled with a butter cream of some sort. The filling is piped in the night before, which allows the biscuit to absorb a little, creating a softer, smoother texture. Often they are just eaten as a snack, but they can be made into giant macarons, and used as the base for patisserie items, like the raspberry and peach creme dessert presented here.

Creativity and taste aside, another lure of macarons is that they are quite tricky to make, despite the ingredients being relatively simple. Macarons have their characteristic ‘pieds’, or ‘feet’, a mythical part of the cooking process, caused by a combination of egg white rising, and surface tension of the dough. Particularly important is to get the macarons to have perfectly formed feet- if you don’t get the feet, or the feet aren’t even all the way around, you lose marks for presentation. I don’t really know how to shape the formation of these feet, but they seem to define whether or not you have done a good job. I feel like macarons react to confidence- if you are scared of things going wrong when you are baking them, things are more likely to go wrong- perhaps not unlike all French patisserie, though.

However, I think macarons can definitely be made well, domestically. You’ll need a bit of kit- piping bag, nozzle, pastry scraper (and an electric mixer helps)- but once you have these, the recipe is that not that complicated (a bit like making a cake or biscuits), it’s just a little fiddly. The piping particularly can be difficult if you don’t have a lot of experience with a piping bag, as I don’t. But I would recommend just having a go at them, even if they don’t go right from a presentation standpoint, the result will still be delicious, and with a bit of practice, you’ll make prettier pastries. And when they do go right- like solving problems in science- it makes it all worthwhile, and only motivates you to do more cooking.

Just baked macarons. Notice the feet- the ruffled bases- on the bottom of the macarons.

Giant Macarons with Raspberries and Peach Cream

Recipe for macarons taken from Mad about Macarons. You could easily substitute the peach liqueur for another flavouring, like passionfruit, orange, or blackcurrant, just by adding the appropriate liqueur. You could probably get 6 portions of patisserie-style giant macarons here. Measurements should be as exact as possible.

Ingredients:
150g egg whites (aged 4-5 days)
100g caster sugar
180g ground almonds
270g icing sugar
Pink food colouring
300g raspberries
200ml double cream
3tbsp peach liqueur

Macaron dough piped onto a baking sheet. My piping skills clearly need some work.

Recipe:
1. Make the macaron dough. Whisk the egg whites until firm peaks, gradually adding the sugar as you do so. Put in enough food colouring until you get a rich pink (note the almond colour will take some of this away). Sift the almonds into a large bowl, add the icing sugar, then fold in the whipped egg whites.
2. Work and pipe the dough. With a pastry scraper (or spatula if you don’t have one), work the dough to press out some of the oxygen from the whites. Scrape the mixture into a piping bag with a plain nozzle (1cm around tip). Line two baking trays with baking sheets, then pipe your macarons onto the sheet.
3. Cook the macarons. Preheat the oven to 160ºC, and bake for around 15 minutes. There is quite a fine point when they are done, so get to know your oven and adjust cooking times slightly if necessary. Leave to cool on the sheet, then slowly (as they are delicate) peel them off.
4. Make the desert. Whip the cream until firm peaks, then incorporate the peach liqueur (or add more to taste). Assemble the dessert as shown above.

Food and Wine Pairings: The Blind Tasting Black Tie Dinner

For a lot of people, wine only gets drunk with food. Even if you’ve done a lot of wine tastings, and bought an nice wine, you can still end up having a bad glass of wine if you put it with the wrong dish. Wine labels aren’t much help either. You get the hugely generic “goes well with red meat, fish, chicken, pasta or cheese” where you can’t go wrong, or the oddly specific “goes well with langoustines and goat’s cheese” which leaves you feeling very sophisticated when you buy the bottle. So how do you pair wine with food?

One of the main rules of thumb, apart from the obvious “red wine with steak” style rules, is to do with acidity and fat: if you have a fatty meal, pair it with an acidic wine, if an non-fatty meal, don’t pair it with an acidic wine. The acidity cuts through the fat, neutralising it. If you allow the wine to be too acidic for the food, you’ll end up with what I call “pinot-grigio face”, as if you’ve just drunk lemon juice. But if you don’t make the wine acidic enough for the food, you lose all the flavours it brings to the table, being overwhelmed by the food. A more acidic pairing might be something like a young chardonnay with moules-frites (the sauce is usually the fatty part in most fish or seafood dishes). A non-acidic pairing might be something like a syrah (shiraz) with steak and ale stew. The Wine Society’s Food and Wine Matcher is a great resource to check out.

Yes, those 8 glasses at the front were mine. And another came out later in the meal.

Recently I attended the Oxford Blind Tasting Society’s black tie dinner, which was held at Christchurch College. I don’t normally report on fancy dinners like this, but this one was unique. Multiple wines would be served with each course, giving an opportunity to really look at the food-wine combination in detail, and to really decide how I liked different flavours together.

Course 1: Tiger Prawn, Mango and Avocado Salad with Sweet Chilli Dressing and Parmesan.

The wines with this course were a Riesling Auslese, a sweeter, lower alcohol, German wine with honey, peachy like flavours, a St. Veran, a chardonnay from Burgundy in France with citrus and buttery flavours, and a Marsanne from Australia, a reasonably acidic wine with some quite ripe fruit.

A great dish to try out a few different wines. I thought the riesling, while it was a lovely wine, was too sweet. Particularly with the mango and sweet chilli dressing, there weren’t enough flavours to balance it, but others disagreed. The chardonnay worked very well, having aged a bit the acidity had tempered a little. This provided the scaffolding for the flavours in the salad to develop.  The marsanne also worked well, but the flavours were slightly too overwhelming for the salad, but a very nice wine also. Winner: St. Veran.

Course 2: Chargrilled Rib Eye Steak with Béarnaise Sauce, Chunky Chips, Slow Roast Tomatoes and French Beans.

This course brought a rustic, medium-bodied Saint-Estèphe from the left bank of Bordeaux, a medium-bodied Italian blend, a high-alcohol big-bodied Vacqueyras from the Rhône in France, and a very fruity Portuguese blend.

Excellently cooked, the béarnaise sauce not as overwhelming (being a very fatty sauce) as I thought. Even still, with the sauce, the beef, the chips, and the bacon wrapping the beans, there was plenty of fat to go around. This dulled the Rhône and Italian wines a little, not allowing them to develop on the palate. The Portuguese wine was far too fruity for the dish. The Saint-Estèphe worked really well, with some acidity to cut through the fat, and the rustic flavours and oak complementing the beef well, which is what I might have expected. Winner: Saint-Estèphe.

Course 3: Tiramisu.

We only had one dessert wine (gasp!), a Muscat from France, but I had saved some of the sweet riesling from the starter for comparison.

Pudding, I find, is really tricky to get right. Dessert wines can be very sweet and cloying, and so with the sweetness and creaminess of a lot of puddings, you just end up with a mouthful of sugar. That’s fine if you just want a mouthful of sugar, and usually the flavours work very well with each other, but texturally it can fall short. The muscat was no exception, bringing great orange and ripe fruit flavours, but just not enough acidity to deal with the huge amount of cream in the tiramisu. The riesling worked better though, with honey and floral notes, but also with the acidity to leave a cleaner mouthfeel. Winner: Riesling.

A magnificent dinner, and a lot of fun to try out some different food wine pairings. Overall, the wines I would have expected to pair best did, but trying to figure out the best wine for the course without knowing what the wine was allowed me to explore my preconceptions. If you’re planning a special dinner, or having a meal at a restaurant, have a think about what you are drinking before just ordering the house wine or buying whatever is on offer. The right pairing will make both the food and wine better, and so a better gastronomic experience.