Monday, 26 January 2015

After Burns

Fanny tells us that the Italians are experts at making 'delicious, often unusual and frequently distinguished dishes at very little expense' using a variety of pasta. Whether that be 'tiny hats, frilly ribbons, shells, cork-screws, wheels or bows' pasta can make any meal money-saving and memorable. For Fanny, all pasta is essentially the same thing really, just a change of shape and a change of name. 'You pays your money and you takes your choice.' Fanny prefers it served simply with melted butter and grated cheese serving 'double duty' as either a first course or a change from potatoes, but she also gives us some suggestions for main courses all on their own, sometimes making the most of leftovers. I've got some leftover Macsweens Veggie Haggis from last nights Burns Supper that I am sure will be perfect in Fannys' Big Bulging Cannelloni (her description, not mine).

Fanny does give a word of warning about using leftovers, kindly passing on the thoughts of Elizabeth David, who Fanny notes is a 'very fine cookery writer.' Elizabeth warns that Cannelloni often found on menus outside of Italy are merely stuffed pancakes coarsely filled with old scraps of meat. She thinks Cannelloni should be as it is in the homeland - fresh and delicate. I'm not sure Fanny agrees, perhaps a clash between cookery writer and cook, but she adds that cold, cooked leftovers can be used carefully for quality results. I trust Fanny to guide me carefully, so my wonderful Haggis won't go to waste.

Fanny herself uses veal to stuff hers, but I am sure the spicy, earthy Veggie Haggis will work a treat. Fanny suggests either buying Cannelloni (if you happen to live in Soho and are able to study her pictorial guide to be sure that you are buying the correct thing) or make your own. She makes sheets of Lasagne Verde for hers. Just as I am reaching for the (self raising) flour (I should just get over it, it worked!) and butter as in her ravioli I notice she is making a fresh egg pasta here. Oh Fanny, you are a contradiction. She sifts self-raising flour onto a work surface, adds salt, puréed spinach and eggs and chops it all together to a paste with two knives. I'm out of fresh spinach, but luckily I have some Spinach Powder that I bought from the gorgeous Spice Mountain on my last trip to Borough Market that I hope will work well in pasta. It smells so intense and is so green! Only a teaspoon required here.

Once it comes together in a ball, Fanny says to knead it like bread dough for a full ten minutes until its has 'considerable elasticity' so that's what I do! No need to reach for my pasta machine this time either - Fanny rolls her dough with a humble pin until it is thin and firm enough to fold up without fear of splitting or cracking. It's like a lovely sheet of leather by the time I'm finished. I know as a vegetarian I really shouldn't say that, but... For the Cannelloni I cut it into squares and toss it in plenty of boiling salted water for 5 minutes to cook.

Once drained and while still slightly wet and warm, I pop some Veggie Haggis along the centre and roll them up into stuffed cigars. They seal well with the moisture and heat. Clever Fanny. Fanny guides me that a quality pasta dish is all about the sauce. She makes a Spinach Sauce, which again inspires me to reach for my powder. Simply mix in another teaspoon with some cream and grated cheese and pour over the Big Bulging Cannelloni. Fanny should've trademarked that name. Use sautéed spinach if you aren't lucky enough to have the powder. Bake and serve. Simple. It really is a memorable meal, the Haggis is so tasty with the spinach, cheese and cream, and Fannys pasta is good. And so green. Ok, it's a little thicker and puffier than normal, but its good. I think I'll give Fannys suggestion for dessert a miss though... She cooks pasta up in SUGARED instead of salted water and mixes in some jam or jelly once drained and still warm. Apparently it's perfect for 'nursery folks' or adults who do not need to watch their waistlines. Let me know if you try it, won't you?

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Is Fanny the Pasta Master after all?

Fanny likens most of the pasta served in 'our little island home' in the 1970's as 'stewed knitting'. Her aim in the Pasta Partwork is to eliminate this from our future diets and show us all how great the pastas of Italy can truly be. Did she succeed? We certainly embrace the wonders of pasta warmly these days. Can Fanny really take the credit? We could mostly, no doubt, name the 39 pasta shapes Fanny collects together for us as an education. She bought them all in a lovely little shop in Soho, but gives an address to write to a very helpful man in St Albans who will advise if you tell him what you have been unable to obtain, should you not be fortunate enough to shop in Soho. I wonder if he was flooded with requests?

Continuing her education, Fanny gives a culinary history of Italian fare, comparing it to her beloved French Cuisine. She notes that where French Cookery is divided into four groupings - La Cuisine Régionale, La Cuisine Familiale, La Cuisine Bourgeoise (modest but good) and Haute Cuisine Française (the crowning glory) - Italian is a collection of regional cookery featuring infinite variations of pasta throughout. But how did it cross over to our unadventurous little island? Fanny reckons its all to do with returning soldiers heading home after the Second World War.

Hordes of fighting forces folk apparently headed home from Italy clamouring for pasta, only to be offered English horrors boiled until flabby and tasting like boiled jumpers. So they rebelled, insisting that their 'womenfolk' discovered the proper way to cook pasta. Thanks Heavens Fanny was there to help, who knows what might've happened if not. Fanny comments that it was a reverse of normal culinary history too, where men were usually a stumbling block to their women experimenting. New dishes and cuisines would traditionally be given a repugnant look and a mutter "Why can't I have my food plain the way my mother made it?" Fanny reckons their Italian military service was a tremendous 'boon' ending irritating eruptions from 'menfolk' taking the pleasure out of any special dish.

But what if we don't know how to cook pasta, or worse still, how to eat it properly? Fanny to the rescue! Cooking is simple - lots of boiling water and seasoned well, over salted is essential. As for eating, its probably best if Fanny shows you. The correct way is to press spaghetti with a fork against a spoon, turning the fork round to form a neat mouthful. Then, shove it in, with a certain amount of decency. The incorrect way is of course just to heave it all up on fork requiring a friendly assistant, in this case René, to come to your rescue with scissors.

Of course with the importation of pasta comes equally exotic ingredients too, like garlic, which may not be to everyones taste. Except certain mystics who have seemingly long employed its benefits against evil forces. Fanny also uses garlic to weave magic spells on people who claim to be fervent haters. The key is to crush it down with a small piece of wood and hide it in every dish at your big buffet parties. Then simply chortle as folk leave 'reeking of it', but thanking you for not giving them any garlic, as you know full well how much they hate it. It's witchcraft alright. Fanny has fooled us all, we now eat pasta AND garlic like it's going out fashion. Little did we realise that is was Fanny herself who made it popular. Making little carts for your toy donkeys to pull around from all your pretty pasta never quite caught on though... Some magic spells will just never work.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Holy Ravioli!

Back in the 1970's when I was wee I didn't really know what 'pasta' was. Sure we had Macaroni from Marshalls and we always had a packet of Spaghetti in the cupboard, although I don't remember ever eating it. It was next to the tub of smelly Parmesan Cheese. We certainly never called it 'pasta'. It certainly wasn't 'fresh'. Anything more exotic was to be found in tins, especially a firm favourite of mine, Ravioli. It may have been thick and claggy, in a radioactive looking tomato sauce, but that was all I knew. At the same time, unbeknown to me, Fanny was on a mission to educate the good folks of 'this island' to the culinary delights that Italy could offer. She was such a fan she even wrote a whole book about it. But, did she really know her Rigatoni from her Tortellini or was it all 'Fanny-ised'?

The first recipe in the Pasta Partwork leaves me wondering if I'm honest. It's Ravioli, but not as I know it. Not even as I knew it. Maybe it's because I regularly make my own pasta, but this recipe is certainly not one that I am familiar with. I was almost tempted to switch things round a bit and use at least the ingredients I know. But I didn't - I've followed Fanny's advice and made my pasta from, deep breath, Self-Raising Flour and Butter. No eggs. It's like no pasta I have ever known.

Fanny starts by sifting the flour (I can still barely believe I am using Self-Raising instead of '00' but I'm going with it) with some salt and rubbing in butter until it's very fine. Then a small amount of cold water to bind it all together, mixed with a small knife. I know what you are thinking, I was thinking the same thing, but just when all we can think about is pastry Fanny says the next step is to knead the dough for 3 minutes. You don't knead pastry. But remember, this isn't pastry. This is so counterintuitive, but what the heck. As I knead, the dough really softens up and becomes very stretchy, even beginning to resemble pasta dough as I know it. Maybe Fanny is not as daft as she seems. Or maybe I'm easily fooled.

Following a wee rest for 30 minutes in the fridge, and a swift lie down for me, the dough is divided into two and rolled out very thinly into two sheets. I really wasn't sure if it would roll out thin enough with an ordinary rolling pin, but you what - it did. It rolled really well. Really well. Fanny suggests a familiar filling of Spinach and Ricotta Cheese, using freshly cooked spinach. Being Fanny of course she suggests piping it onto the 'pasta' sheets which are first brushed with beaten egg.

Fanny employs a very complicated system for ensuring neatness. She marks out a checkerboard of small squares on a sheet of greaseproof paper and places it over the pasta sheet, pricking the centre of each square with a skewer. When the greaseproof paper is removed it's easy to spot the dots and pipe 'blobs' of spinach and ricotta onto them. It's all very neat, and makes the next stage a little easier. The second sheet of 'pasta' is carefully placed on top, pressed down between the blobs of filling and then cut into neat squares of Ravioli. They sit happily in the fridge for another rest, and a cold flannel applied to the head for me, while a large pot of salted water boils for them. 'Pasta is no good in puddles' Fanny reminds us. Only a few minutes until they float to the surface and are ready. Fanny makes a Genoese Sauce - or Pesto - to go with it. Nothing Fanny-ish about this, just yummy. She uses a pestle and mortar to bash it all up, but I whizz it in my processor. The finished Ravioli are actually very good. A little thicker than normal, a little more puffed, a little more gloopy maybe but very tasty. Way better than those tins I remember, and using ingredients readily available at the time. It may all seem odd today, but Fanny was doing her best to get us all pasta-crazy. Mamma Mia it's bonkers, but strangely it works. Just like Fanny herself.

Monday, 12 January 2015

All Rise - Fanny Cradocks Standing Ovation

Fanny Cradock is keen to point out that leftovers needn't just be everyday dishes thrown together, and sadly for me need not all be Deep Fried - they can also be showstoppers, easily fancied up to impress and give a sense of performance to the given occasion. New Year is traditionally a time in Scotland to get 'back tae auld claes and cauld porridge' but thankfully Fanny is having none of that and is dusting off that very favourite Ballgown. Everyday is performance day. For Fanny, the Master of Performance is of course Escoffier, and we are all urged to follow in his culinary footsteps. After all, this is the basis of the entire Cradock Cookery Programme. Before suggesting that you head off to study Escoffier's Guide to Modern Cookery (which Fanny notes has been translated into English for those less blessed linguistically than her) she also has a quick reminder to stick with her teachings in the weekly partwork, which really we have only just begun. Spend some time reading over the previous recipes (the basics) before we head into more ambitious creations as we soar up the Club Ladder. I'm a little (okay a lot) scared of heights, but I'm dizzy already at the thought of more ambitious dishes.

Fannys' favourite flashy feat is the soufflé. She performed it herself in front of thousands on 'tour' night after night and saw no reason for anyone to be frightened of it at home. Whether your audience was invited round your table, simply the family eating from the television trolley (we all have one, don't we? Must get one!) or even if you happened to be alone, all would be wow'd by a soufflé. Especially if you baked them in hollowed out tomatoes, of course.

To make the simple soufflé mix, melt some butter over a moderate heat, toss in some flour and beat until it forms a soft ball and leaves the sides of the pan. Still on the heat, add a quarter of your milk and ease it under the ball of roux with the aid of a wooden spoon. I can hear Fanny accentuating the word 'ease' and wrinkling her nose ever so slightly in emphasis. With the milk safely underneath, leave it until it bubbles, stir slowly and gradually increase your speed to beat it fiercely. It's time to think of that person you never really liked again. Add a third of your cheese (any leftover will do, but something strong is best, like Gruyère), season and another quarter of your milk. Beat vigorously and continue with additions until the mixture is thick and smooth.

The key to a well risen soufflé is of course the egg whites. Whip them up until they are really stiff, and fold them into the cheesy mixture gently. Fanny says if you are lucky and your egg whites are outstanding, which presumably you won't know until you get going, you may end up with more mixture than you need, so have some other containers at hand at all times. It's a dilemma however, as Fannys advice is to not prepare them as if not needed this will only be additional washing up. 

As soon as the mixture is fairly smooth, spoon it into your prepared tomatoes. This is not a phrase normally read in cookery books. They should be as large as you can find, with little lids sliced off the top and hollowed out. Fanny gives no suggestions on what to do with the insides, so this particular leftover dish creates more leftovers. Presumably we will need to wait for the more ambitious recipes. With tomatoes packed 'high' they need to be baked in a slightly cooler oven that 'normal' soufflés for slightly longer. Fanny points out this is not a mistake. Seemingly if the mixture rises too fast it may fall down the sides of the tomatoes. This wouldn't be the curtain call your audience were expecting. This would not impress Escoffier one little bit. Or Fanny. The final soufflés though certainly are impressive crowning glories, tasty, tall and theatrical. Standing proud, but light and fluffy inside. Well deserving of a thunderous round of applause before simply scoffing the Escoffier inspired beauties. And no nasty ramekins to wash up. Definitely deserving of an encore!

Friday, 9 January 2015

Crumb Fry With Me

Fanny clearly wants to make the most of having the fryer on, either that or she's completely obsessed with deep frying cheese. I'm hoping it's an obsessionEither way I'm delighted, I've still not been converted by the mahoosive amount of diet and detox suggestions flying around at this time of year. Practically anything that's leftover can be deep fried it seems. This time it's Fannys' Cheese Balls. Like Fanny, I shall skirt over any obvious innuendos, but she does say that her Cheese Balls are extremely popular at 'teenage parties'. Particularly if served with a 'dunking' sauce. For others, they seem perfect when settling down in front of the TV to watch something special - presumably a Fanny Cradock cooking show - if stuffed into a French Bread sandwich. I don't tend to host teenage parties you'll be glad to learn, so it's a Frenchie in front of the TV all the way for me.

Fanny is still using leftover cheese here, which isn't something I tend to have a lot of really. I'm a dedicated cheese fiend, so I'm happy to keep buying more and more. Fanny recommends a mix of strong cheeses here, Parmesan and Gruyère. I KNOW that Parmesan isn't vegetarian, please don't write me nasty letters, just switch it up a little bit with your own preference. I'm not a perfect veggie. I even wear leather shoes. I realise this may all be a bit shocking for you, but focus - we are talking fried cheese again.

To make Fannys' cheesy balls, simply mix the grated cheeses together with some seasoning and fold in gradually a stiffly beaten egg white. At first it doesn't seem at all like they will mix together, but with a bit of a beating I soon have a paste, just as Fanny says. Once well blended, either with a wooden spoon or a small knife, the paste can be rolled into small balls.

I can be a bit overly accurate with some things, and slap-dash with others. Don't judge me. I decide to weigh out the cheese balls into 16g portions before rolling them. It makes me happy. The given mix gives me 13 balls. I like odd numbers. Each one is rolled lightly between my fingers and quickly becomes fairly firm. Fanny says to run your little balls through beaten egg and coat them thickly in fine breadcrumbs. Well, indeed. Nothing can be finer than Ruskoline surely?

Now we are ready to fry! Well, almost. Fanny doesn't recommend this, but I do... Another one of my funny things. I run my little balls through the egg and crumb twice to make sure that the coating is 'safe' and not about to explode in the hot oil spilling molten cheese everywhere. It doesn't take long and much better safe than sorry. They only take around 30 seconds to colour up in the oil. Fanny presents hers in a split French Bread, but its not so clear if that's just a garnish or not. She spears them  individually with cocktail sticks which would confuse me - do I pick one up and munch, or pick the sticks out and gobble the whole sandwich? Guess which one I go for? Fannys' Cheese Balls are so tasty, crunchy on the outside and gooey and salty inside.

While the fryer is still on the go, Fanny has another top tip, which is especially helpful if you have any leftover Christmas Pudding lurking in the back of my cupboard like I do. Fanny had insisted that I hide them there to mature when I made some mini ones from her recipe last year. She was positive that they would be perfectly fine a year later, and probably even better. It's time to discover if they were! They look ok, is that a worry or a good thing? Simply re-steam, roll into balls and dredge in egg and, this time, ground almonds before frying. Fanny calls these her 'Christmas Snowballs', which must be covered with a heavy dusting of icing sugar and topped with glacé cherry 'flames' to serve. They are good, the crunchy fried almond coating is a great twist! I wonder what else I can pop into fry...?

Monday, 5 January 2015

Any leftovers left over?

Everyone is considering 'healthy eating' options after the festive season, but not Fanny. Thankfully. Me neither, I want to eat glorious comfort food for quite some time yet. Fanny's more concerned about using up the last scraps of Christmas Fayre in tasty ways and dedicates the entire Part 15 of the partwork to 'Christmas Leftovers', or as the Belgians call them, 'l'art d'accomoder de reste'! According to Fanny, leftovers, like the poor, are always with us and what better place to start than with the cheese board. After all, so many of us have bent over backwards to give our families and friends an impressively cheesy selection on Christmas Day. However, Fanny suggests, our families are then lumbered with an accumulation of bits of cheese which get sadder and sadder as the days go by. I'm sad enough that the Christmas Tree has come down, I don't want sad cheese as well.

Before tackling some cheese recipes, Fanny takes a quick tour of the Christmas Buffet table to suggest, or rather remind us, of some leftover ideas. It's like a blog review of the year really. Fanny admits that it is not possible to predict, without being a clairvoyant, which of her glorious suggestions will remain to be transformed, so she gives some general advice. Any leftover meat, potatoes and bread can be transformed into Pitt-y-Panna, Poor Mans Pizza, Croques Monsieur or Torrijas. Any number of soups can be created with exciting winter vegetables left lurking about. Mincemeat can be transformed into a Soufflé with ease and speed. Potatoes easily fancied up, and anything sweet makes an omelette. Even, if like Fanny, you've made too lavish a fruit basket for Christmas Dinner, those stray pineapples can be frittered. So, no need for clairvoyance, just skip back through Fannys' recipes and all will be well.

Now that that is all clear, Fanny moves back to that poor old Cheese Board. What if you have some sad, neglected hard cheese lying about. What can you do to cheer it up? You can probably hear me shriek with delight as Fanny unveils her Fried Cheese. Yes, cheese, that's fried. In batter. Hurrah.

The batter is a new one on me, but you know, its not a time to hang on to old traditions. Just a couple of tablespoons of flour and an egg, separated. The yolk is beaten into the flour with a spoonful of very cold water and beaten and beaten until smooth but still very thick, with a little seasoning. Fannys only advice is that it should be too thick for a dipping and coating batter. But worry not, just before the frying begins it's transformed into a batter that IS suitable for dipping and coating by whipping up the egg white until its very stiff and blending the two. It looks like a lovely batter in the end, light and golden coloured.

Fanny says the cheese can be Gruyère, Emmental, plain old Cheddar or even processed cheese. Whichever looks the saddest on the cheese board I'd say. For me it's Cheddar. Fanny cuts her cheese into triangles, which seems very jolly indeed, so I do too. It's passed into the batter and slipped straight into hot, but not too hot, oil. This allows the cheese to soften inside by the time the batter has puffed up and has become golden brown. Fanny suggests arranging the triangles on a napkin covered dish and sprinkling with parsley and paprika before presenting it as in her picture. However the photographer didn't get the memo, it's quite a different picture that has appeared. So Fanny includes a side note that it can also be an 'alternative' presentation which I have recreated. The photographer was presumably fired. The fried cheese is gorgeous, I'm almost ashamed to admit. The batter is light and puffed just as Fanny said it would be, and the cheese soft and gooey. I must make sure that my cheese board always has some left over...