Wednesday, 17 December 2014

More Finnish Christmas food

I wrote a bit about Finnish Christmas food with my potato casserole recipe. This oven baked carrot casserole (porkkanalaatikko) is another traditional Finnish Christmas side dish, that would usually be served with ham or turkey. I'm not quite sure why these oven baked casseroles have a reputation of being a lot of work to make, as actually they don't take that much effort. And the best thing is you can make them ahead of time and freeze them. Then all you have to do is defrost them for Christmas eve dinner and pop them in the oven as they only improve from re-heating. Alternatively, you can prepare the casserole but freeze it before baking, and then do the full baking after de-frosting on Christmas Eve (let the casserole de-frost over night in the fridge).

Oven baked carrot casserole (porkkanalaatikko):
2 dl (200 ml or 3/4 cups plus 2 tbsp) short grained rice or "pudding rice" (Finnish puuroriisi)
1/2 litre water
1 litre (full-fat) milk
1 kg carrots
2 eggs
2 tsp salt
1 tsp nutmeg (or more to taste)
2 tbsp syrup* (or 1 tbsp sugar) 
breadcrumbs and butter

*Finnish syrup is darker than golden syrup but lighter than treacle. I mix 1/3 treacle with 2/3 golden syrup to get something resembling Finnish syrup

The howto: 
Bring 1/2 litre of water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add rice and cook until the water has absorbed. Add the milk, and cook until rice is cooked and a loose porridge forms (about 30-40 mins). Let cool.

Peel and chop carrots. Bring enough water to a boil in a saucepan to cover the carrots. Cook carrots until soft. Drain water and mash carrots (you can use a potato masher, ricer or handheld blender). 

Preheat oven to 150 degrees C. Mix the carrots with the rice porridge and add eggs, spices and syrup. Divide into two oven proof bowls and sprinkle generously with breadcrumbs and place small knobs of butter on top. Bake in the oven for 1 1/2 - 2 hours. The top should be golden, and the carrot bake should be bubbling. In my opinion, a longer baking time makes a more tasty casserole.

The verdict:
This is one of those dishes that just have to be on the Christmas table, or else Christmas is ruined. It's really tasty and although so many buy the casseroles ready-made from the store, I think the home-made variety is infinitely better. And it's not that much of a hassle really. I like to make it a day ahead, and then re-heat on the day. The only thing that really takes a bit of time is the carrot peeling, but unless you are making in double or triple serving (and you shouldn't need to unless you are having several dozen guests) this will be more than enough for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and possibly Boxing Day as well. And after that you don't want any more anyways, it's that extra bit delicious because you only get it once a year. However, this is a really cheap dish to make and it makes quite a few servings, so I don't see why you couldn't make it at other times of the year as well, as a thrifty side. Delicious with some ham, turkey or any other meat. I even makes a light lunch all by itself.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Cranberry and white chocolate cookies

I just started my three week Christmas holiday (I'm writing this on Friday night, and schedule it to be published early on Saturday morning). I can't remember the last time I would have three weeks off work. Possibly not in ten years, possibly never. In about four hours we are heading off to the airport to go home to Finland to spend Christmas with friends and family. I will be exhausted when the alarm clock goes off, I'm even contemplating just staying up all night.

The weeks leading up to today have been chaotic, both me and the Culinary Consultant have been working long hours, so everything else has been pushed aside. No proper cooking, no house cleaning, very little crafting and certainly no time to plan what to pack and very little thought about Christmas presents. This year we will make do with very few presents. And I don't mind at all! There has been several difficult times this fall, but everyone has made it through and all I want to do is take it easy, do nothing and just enjoy the simple things. Cook nice food. See friends. Spend time with family. My only regret is that my baby Sis, who is doing a wonderful job on her first year as a medical doctor, can't join us this year. 

I am just sitting on the sofa, writing this while the Culinary Consultant (who has to stay awake tomorrow morning for the two hour drive to the airport) is sound asleep upstairs. I'm really tired too, but at the same time I'm so wound up about travelling tomorrow (oh wait, correction, later today!) that I can't really sleep. I keep going over things in my head. Did I really pack everything I need (most likely not, but it won't really matter) and did I really put the passport in my bag (yes, it was there the last seventy-two times I checked, so I'm sure it's still there). Is my phone charged? Yes. Will I remember to pack the phone and the charger tomorrow morning? Yes, because I never go anywhere without my phone. That's pretty much what is going on in my head at the moment. Oh and that little nagging voice saying I should be in bed, and that I will regret this tomorrow morning. No wait, correction again, later this morning. 

I better get on to today's recipe. I had some leftover cream cheese that just "had" to be used up. And when the Culinary Consultant went digging in one of our kitchen cupboards he found a bag of dried cranberries. So it wasn't so much we wanting cookies as it was divine intervention I think. I used this recipe from a blog called Gimme Some Oven. I didn't make any other changes to the recipe apart from halving it, as I thought two dozen cookies should be enough.

Cranberry and white chocolate cookies (makes about 24):
For the cookies
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt (I used less as I always think recipes use too much salt)
115 g butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup caster sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract (I used 1/2 tsp vanilla paste)
1/2 cup white chocolate chips
1/2 cup cranberries

For the frosting:
115 g cream cheese
1/4 cup white chocolate chips, melted
1/2 tsp vanilla paste
1 cup icing sugar

For the topping:
finely chopped dried cranberries
small chocolate chips or melted white chocolate

The howto:
Preheat oven to 175 degrees C (350 degrees F). Mix the flour, soda and salt. In another bowl, cream the butter and sugars using an electric mixer. Add the egg and vanilla and keep on whisking. Gradually add the dry ingredients, and mix until batter is smooth. Gently fold in the chocolate chips and cranberries. Wrap dough in cling film and chill for at least an hour.

Place tablespoon sized dollops of the dough onto a parchment paper covered baking sheet, well separated as the cookies expand quite a lot when baking.  Bake for 10-12 minutes, until golden brown. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool. Bring cream cheese for the frosting to room temperature.

When cookies are completely cooled, prepare the frosting. Using an electric mixer, mix the cream cheese with the melted chocolate. Make sure the cream cheese is at room temperature, otherwise the chocolate will solidify. Add the vanilla. Reduce the speed of the mixed and incorporate the icing sugar. Spread onto the cooled cookies. Decorate with cranberries and white chocolate.

The verdict:
These cookies were very sweet. If you don't like very sweet cookies, don't make them, or alternatively just exclude the icing. But if you do like very sweet things, you will love these. And the tartness of the cranberries does cut the sweetness a bit. Needless to say, these disappeared very quickly from our kitchen, I can't imagine who could have eaten a huge batch of cookies in just a few days... They are so pretty with the red cranberries on the white frosting, very Christmas-y and perfect for the season.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Rock cakes

I asked the Culinary Consultant whether there was something in particular he wanted me to bake. Usually I don't get much a reply other than along the lines of "Not really". This time however he did bring up the subject of Rock cakes. I haven't had them before, but I remember the Culinary Consultant has mentioned them a few times. According to Wikipedia they are fruit cakes which have a rough surface resembling rock. They were promoted during the Second World War by the Ministry of Food as they require less sugar and eggs than ordinary cakes. Old ways are often good ways, so I decided to give them a try. I used this recipe from BBC food but added a bit of cinnamon and allspice.

Rock cakes (makes about 12):
225 g self raising flour
75 g caster sugar
1 tsp baking powder
125 g butter, cubed
150 g dried fruit (such as sultanas, raisins, orange peel, currants)
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 egg
1 tbsp milk
2 tsp vanilla extract (I used one tsp vanilla paste)

The howto:
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Mix the flour, sugar an baking powder and add the butter. With your fingers, rub the butter with the flour mixture until the texture of coarse sand. Mix int the dried fruit and spices. In another bowl, mix the egg, milk and vanilla extract. Add to the flour and butter mixture and stir with a spoon until a rough dough forms. If the dough is too dry to come together, add a tsp of milk. Don't overmix. Using two spoons, drop the dough onto a parchment paper lined baking tray to form rough heaps the size of golf balls. Bake for 15-20 minutes (mine baked for 24 minutes) or until golden on top. Enjoy with tea or coffee while warm.

The verdict:
The cakes are very quick to prepare and don't take very long to cook, so they are easy treats to make. They did turn out similar to the picture in the original recipe, so I think I got it quite right. The texture of the cakes is lovely and crumbly and the pieces of fruit are really good. I had three as soon as they came out of the oven...

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Tomato, ham and tortelloni soup

This whole Christmas business is seriously cutting into my blogging time. I should have posted this yesterday, but it's been a bit crazy. There's so much to to do, get arranged, last minute online shopping and then that wait to see whether things will make it in time or not. But there's still plenty of time until Christmas, you say. Not quite, as I'm flying back home in just six short days, woop woop!! So anything I need to get arranged while still at home needs to happen very soon. And I won't be able to craft while away, so I am trying very hard to build up a bit of a buffer on the card blog. And I have tried to get all the Christmas presents sorted. What did people do before online shopping?? And I've been trying to find a dress I can fit into as I'm going to my friend's PhD party. I have to admit squeezing into any of my clothes is a bit of a problem at the moment, and I promise I will start living a healthy life soon. After I've eaten all the Christmas goodies... See why I'm having a problem over here? It's called denial!!

I can't wait to get home. Five more days in the office, and then I am looking forward to three weeks of Christmas holiday! I can't remember when I would have had three weeks off work. I look forward to spending time with my family, although my sister won't be able to join us so there will certainly be something important missing. But I am looking forward to see family and friends. I'm especially looking forward to my friend's PhD party, I will get to see so many old colleagues and friends I haven't seen in ages.

From time to time I do eat something resembling healthy food. This tortelloni soup I recently made was really delicious. I wanted to try making a non-vegetarian version of this great tortelloni soup I made a while ago. The other day The Culinary Consultant bought a pack of ham and sausage tortelloni, so I thought why not make a version with some ham.

Tomato, lenti and ham tortelloni soup (serves 4-6): 1 tbsp olive oil
2 onions
2 stalks of celery
2 carrots
1 kg tomatoes (or two cans of tinned tomatoes)
1 l  chicken stock
1 cup lentils
200 g spinch
200 g ham
400 g ham and sausage tortelloni
salt and pepper to taste

The howto:
Finely chop the onions, celery and carrots. Heat oil in a large saucepan, and add onions, celery and carrots. Cook for 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and chicken stock and lentils. Cook for another 10 minutes until the lentils are done. Add the spinach and ham. Add the tortelloni and cook as per instructions on the pack. Taste and add salt or pepper as required. Serve with grated cheese sprinkled on top.

The verdict:
I really liked the vegetarian version of the soup. And I think I liked this version even more. You can replace the lentils with beans if you wish, but I happened to have lentils so I used them. The soup has a great flavour from the tomatoes and the ham. Actually, thinking of it, this would be a perfect recipe for leftover Christmas ham. 

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Finnish Sweetened Potato Casserole

We have entered the magical month of December. It's cold, dark and miserable. But it's also an excuse to start thinking about Christmas food. One of the must have foods on the Finnish Christmas Dinner table are an assortment of oven baked vegetable dishes, called "laatikko" in Finnish. Basically laatikko is the Finnish word for a drawer or box, but it's also used for oven baked dishes. For Christmas you usually make "porkkanalaatikko" (oven baked carrot casserole), "lanttulaatikko" (oven baked swede casserole) and "perunalaatikko" (oven baked potato casserole). They are all relatively easy to make, but take a lot of time. First you need to peel the veg, cook them in water until soft and mash them, and then mix with the rest of the ingredients (usually bread crumbs, syrup, cream and butter) and bake very slowly in a low temperature oven for 2-3 hours to let the flavours really develop. 

The potato casserole, perunalaatikko, takes even more time to prepare than the other two. It needs to be sweetened over night so it should be started the night before. It is also completely in the hands of the food gods to decide whether the sweetening is successful or not. It's a combination of using the right potatoes and having the right temperature for the sweetening process. But no worries, the sweetening process is an old cooking process used before sugar was available. It's a process where the starch in the food is enzymatically broken down to shorter chained carbohydrates, i.e. sugar. These days, you can achieve the same by adding syrup. But I love the tradition of making the casserole using the traditional way. And last year was finally the year when I had a successful sweetening process. I'm not exactly sure what the key to success was, I think it was the right potatoes combined with pure luck.

I nicked the recipe for the potato casserole from the Finnish cooking web site Kotikokki, but most recipes for the casserole are pretty similar. Make sure to pick a starchy, or floury, potato. If it says "good for mash" on the pack, you have pretty much got what you are looking for.

Finnish sweetened potato casserole:
2 kg floury potatoes
2 dl (200 ml, 3/4 cups plus one tbsp) plain flour
50 g butter
0.5-1 l milk (I like to use full fat, as it is Christmas after all...)
2 tbsp syrup (if sweetening is not successful)
salt to taste (start with about 2-3 tsp)

The howto:
Peel and chop potatoes. Cook in salted water until soft, pour off the water and mash potatoes. Let the mash cool until about 50 degrees C (feels warm but not hot), add half of the butter and half of the flour into the mash and mix well. Sprinkle the rest of the flour on top of the mash, put the lid back onto the saucepan and let sweeten in a warm place for at least 6 hours, or over night. The temperature should stay between 50 and 75 degrees C, but I wrapped my saucepan in a towel and left in the kitchen over night and the sweetening process worked well. The next morning you should find your mash softer than it was the night before, and with a sweeter flavour. The mash also changes colour to almost grey on top where the flour was. Give the mash a good mix, and add milk until soft (softer than normal mash, but not quite runny). If the sweetening has not been successful, also add the syrup for extra sweetness. Mix in salt to taste. Place in one big or two medium sized oven proof buttered bowls and dot the rest of the butter on top of the casserole. The casserole will bubble while cooking, so leave one and a half to two inches space in the bowls. Cook in 200 degrees for the first 30 minutes and then in 150 degrees for another two hours. The casserole will turn dark around the edges of the bowl. I love this crunchy bit, but you can just leave it uneaten if you find it unappetising. If the top gets too dark, you can cover the casserole with aluminium foil when baking.
The verdict:
I have had varying success with this dish through the years. Last Christmas it turned out perfect. The reason I like the traditional sweetening instead of taking the easy way out of just using syrup is that it tastes different, or maybe that's in my head but I think it's sweet but not too sweet. But each to their own. Year after year one of the subjects being discussed during the Christmas dinner is whether that year's potato casserole is as good as the one Mum/Grandma made and whether it's better or worse than the year before. 

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Liege waffles

This is a post I found in my drafts folder which for some reason never got published at the time of writing. I'm not sure why, as these are in my opinion the best waffles I have ever made. They definitely rival the wonderful Belgian Waffles sold at the Cambridge marketplace, although after some industrial espionage, the dough for the marketplace waffles is very different from the one used here, it's much more solid (it's not scooped, it's in actual lumps which the Waffle Guy puts in his proper full-on iron waffle maker), and it's also darker so I'm suspecting some sort of treacle etc. is used in there. But nonetheless, for being home made waffles made by Claude (my rather cheap waffle maker I bough online) they are as close to perfection as you can get in my humble opinion.
In the last week I have learned a lot about waffles. One thing I have learned is that to make authentic Liege waffles, you need pearl sugar. Funnily enough, it's something I happened to have in my cupboard as I have imported it from back home, but I haven't been able to find it in any store here in the UK. Apparently it's also very important that you have proper pearl sugar made from sugar beets for the right caramelisation. I was also a bit worried to embark on this road as all the recipes said you have to be really careful to find the very narrow heat range where the sugar will caramelise and not burn and you should have an infrared thermometer to make sure you have the right temperature. I might have been really lucky, but I managed to find a good setting on my waffle maker almost immediately. 

Recipe from here

Liege waffles (makes 8):
7 g instant yeast
1 1/2 tbsp cater sugar
3 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup lukewarm milk
3 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract 
1 cup (225 g) melted butter
1 1/2 cups pearl sugar (I only added 1 cup)

The howto:
Mix yeast, flour, caster sugar and salt. Add the milk, eggs, vanilla extract and melted butter and mix. The original recipe suggests you should let the dough rise for about 30 minutes, but nothing had happened to my dough in that time. I think it's because the butter makes it such a rich dough. I left mine for about three hours after which it had risen well and looked fluffy. After the dough has risen, mix in the pearl sugar. The original recipe says you can store the dough in the fridge over night shaped into single servings wrapped in plastic wrap.

All recipes for Liege waffles say you should keep your waffle maker on a low setting to not burn the pearl sugar. I turned down the temperature on my very cheap basic waffle maker and had to turn it right back up to a bit past medium again to the same setting I use for any other waffles to get the beautiful golden brown caramelisation and I had absolutely no problem with burnt sugar. If you are not sure, turn down your waffle maker a bit and keep an eye on it while cooking the first waffle. For me, using a somewhat over medium setting and cooking for 7 minutes per waffle was a perfect setting. 

The verdict:
These waffles come out of the waffle iron quite soft, but leave them on a wire rack for a minute or two and they develop that amazing crunchy crust. They are also rather sweet, I only added 1 cup of the pearl sugar and they were still on the sweet side. Also, they are very rich with all that butter. I'm convinced it's the combination of butter and sugar which makes them so incredibly dreamy and crunchy, but I think next time I will try to reduce the amount of butter somewhat. I really felt quite bad eating the waffles despite them being so incredibly delicious because of the indulgent amount of butter. But out of several different waffle recipes I have tried lately, these are by far superior to any others and much more similar to the amazing Belgian waffles you can get at the marketplace in Cambridge. These are definitely amazing waffles, maybe something to save for a special occasion such as a birthday, or a Sunday afternoon.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Leek and potato soup

This is not the most exciting recipe. This is a sensible mid-week lunch. It's also something I just took out of the freezer to have for lunch at work tomorrow. The reason I had to take it out of the freezer is that the fridge freezer we have in the garage just gave up the ghost. Unfortunately there wasn't quite enough room in our other freezers to find a new home for everything, so the least valuable things had to go, and everything I could cram into our fridge will be eaten in the next few days. Including three pizzas...

So it's safe to say today wasn't the best day ever. But at least I know tomorrow I will have a tasty lunch. This is a simple soup, perfect for hump day, when it is still a long way to go to the happiness that is the weekend. On a day when you are not yet completely over your cold, and need something hot and soothing to keep you warm. And it's perfect to freeze, should your freezer be more reliable than mine, so that you too will have a serving of hot soup if you happen to have a day when you need a steaming hot bowl of soup.
Leek and potato soup (serves 4-6):
3 leeks
8-10 medium potatoes
1 onion
1 l vegetable stock
1/2 - 1 cup single cream
1/2 - 1 tsp salt

The howto:
Chop the onion and leek. Roughly chop potatoes into cubes. Place the stock, leeks, potatoes and onions in a large saucepan and cook until potatoes are soft. Take off the heat and blend. Add the cream and salt to taste. Bring back to a boil and let cook for a few minutes. Serve hot. 

The verdict:
This is a very mild soup. I love how the flavours of potato and leak go together so well. If you want to keep things healthy you can cut out the cream, or reduce the amount. But I think it brings such a wonderful softness to the flavours. Just taste the soup before and after adding the cream and you will know what I'm talking about.