The Musette: sinfully-rich brownies

The richer a brownie is, the better it tastes. Most people would far rather have a fat finger of something truly decadent than a large square of what is often just a squidgy chocolate cake studded with nuts.

Over the years I’ve made all sorts of variations with cheesecake, peanut butter, blondies – you name it and I’ve probably tried it. But this is one of my friends’ all-time favourite brownie recipes: dark, rich, fudge-like. It’s not for the faint-hearted! I typically serve them as part of an afternoon tea or as a tempting sweet mouthful to conclude a drinks party or as an after-dinner petit four.

A twist on the traditional (image: Sheree)

Ingredients (makes 32 fat fingers)

  • 115g (1 stick) salted butter
  • 340g (12oz) 70% dark chocolate, chopped
  • 145g (5oz) mascarpone
  • 200g (1⅓ cup) caster (super-fine) sugar
  • 3 organic eggs, weighing approx 45g (1⅔oz) without shell
  • 2 organic egg yolks
  • 120g (1 cup) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 1 tbsp instant espresso coffee powder
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract

Method

1. Pre-heat the oven to 170°C/150°C fan/gas mark 3 (325°F/300°F fan).

2. Grease the base and sides of a baking tin. I typically use a disposable tin-foil one measuring 18cm x 23cm x  5cm (6” x 9” x 2″) – they’re great for storing the brownies in the freezer – which I line with a couple of strips of greaseproof paper to make it easier to remove them. In addition, I find it’s an easy size and shape to slice into fingers for serving. This mixture fills two cake tins.

3. Melt together the chocolate and butter either in the microwave on a medium setting or in a glass bowl over a saucepan of gently simmering water (bain-marie).

4. Put the mascarpone in a mixing bowl and whisk to lighten, then add the cooled chocolate mixture and whisk to combine. Next combine the sugar and then the egg yolks, the whole eggs and the vanilla extract.

5. Now lightly fold in the sifted flour and coffee with a spatula.

6. Pour the mixture into the two baking tins and bake for 20-25 minutes. The top of the cake should be crinkly and a skewer inserted in the centre should have some mixture clinging to it.

7. Let the brownies cool in the tins and then refrigerate to firm up before cutting. Because of the fat content, I keep the brownies in the fridge for a week  – providing they’re well hidden – equally, they’ll happily sit in the freezer for a month or two.

Fudgey, squidgy, chocolate - what's not to love? (image: Sheree)

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the brownies in the oven, put the timer on for 5-10 minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. If you don’t like your brownies to be this dark, substitute a chocolate with a lower percentage of chocolate.

4. I have made them with walnuts but I think they’re better without. These brownies are so rich that they need no further adornment.

The Musette: Basque chicken

This casserole is yet another of my meal-in-a-pot recipes that you can cook the night before you need it and re-heat on your return from a ride, or it can happily bubble away in a slow oven while you’re out cycling. Again, you’ll find numerous iterations of the recipe and I would encourage you to add more of what you like and leave out what you don’t! It’s a dish I cook all year round but tend to vary the accompaniments depending on the season. This weekend I’ll be serving it up for my beloved with a crisp green salad and a hunk of crusty baguette.

My version of Basque chicken (image: Sheree)

Ingredients (serves four hungry cyclists)

  • Approx 1kg (2.2lbs) fresh organic chicken chopped into eight (ask your butcher to do this)
  • 200g (8oz) spicy chorizo sausage, skinned and cubed
  • 2 sobressade  – spicy uncooked – sausage (approx. 150g/6oz) skinned and cubed
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tbsp freshly ground sea salt
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 fat cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • 1 medium white onion, finely chopped
  • 250ml (1 cup) of dry white wine or sherry
  • 1 fresh or dried bouquet garni
  • 1 x 400g (14oz) canned chopped tomatoes
  • 1 x 400g (14oz) jar skinned red bell peppers, drained and cut into strips
  • 2 x 400g (14oz) cans cannellini or haricot beans or chick peas, rinsed and drained
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 tbsp sweet paprika

Method

1. Pre-heat the oven to 140ºC /120ºC fan/gas mark 1 (275ºF/225ºF fan). Place a large frying pan on the hob over a medium heat and add the olive oil. When it’s warm, add the chorizo and sobressade. Cook over moderate heat until it starts to give up its glorious rust-coloured oil. Add the chopped onion and cook until translucent, but not browned. Then add the minced garlic and cook for a further 30 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the sausage mix into an ovenproof casserole dish.

Hot and spicy! (image: Sheree)

2. Season the chicken pieces with the salt and pepper and add to the frying pan, cook over a moderately high heat, turning until well browned, approximately 15 minutes. Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon and add to the cooked sausage mix.

Nicely browned (image: Sheree)

3. Drain off any excess fat and deglaze the pan with the white wine/sherry. Let it bubble away for around five minutes to burn off the alcohol.

4. Add the bell peppers, tomatoes, beans, tomato paste and paprika to the frying pan and cook for five minutes or so.

5. Add the bouquet garni to the casserole along with the tomato, pepper and bean mixture and stir gently to combine.

6. To prevent the casserole from drying out, cover the contents with a circle of crushed, damp greaseproof (parchment) paper (cartouche) and pop on the casserole lid or tin foil. Slide it into the oven and leave to cook while you’re out riding. This will cook happily from 2-4 hours in a cool oven without drying out.

Ready for the oven (image: Sheree)

7. On your return, remove the casserole dish from the oven and leave to stand with the lid still on while you’re having your shower.

8. Discard the bouquet garni and serve with a green salad or another green vegetable on the side and, if you must, some crusty bread or a baked potato. It all depends on how much energy you’ve expended on your morning ride!

Lunch is served (image: Sheree)

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. Don’t forget to taste and season as you cook. Unseasoned food is bland and you use less salt and pepper if you season at the start and during the cooking process, rather than at the end.

2. This dish can be cooked the day before, left overnight in the fridge and then reheated the following day. This also makes it easier to remove any excess fat which will harden on the surface.

3. The recipe works equally well made with chickpeas (garbanzo beans). Again, you can used tinned or cook from dried the day before.

4. As this is cooking rather than baking, feel free to play around with the ingredients. To make the dish go further I might add 100g (4oz) diced pancetta and 10-12 frozen or tinned artichoke hearts.

5. Only cook with wine you’d be happy to drink.

6. Go easy on the rosemary in the bouquet garni as an excess tends to give the beans a soapy flavour. I use a mixture of bay leaves, thyme and a little rosemary.

7. I serve the finished dish with some small pickled spicy green peppers called piparras which I picked up in the Basque country.

The Musette: vegan mushroom risotto

I like a challenge! A good friend told me you couldn’t make a decent risotto without dairy. I beg to differ and she’s now a convert. How did I achieve that? Here’s how. Don’t be put off by the length of the recipe, it’s easier than it might appear. Just follow the individual steps.

The recipe comes from the Plants Taste Better cookbook by Richard Buckley, though I have tweaked it a bit.

Ingredients (serves 4 hungry cyclists)

Double mushroom stock

  • 11/2 ltrs (2 1/2 pints/ 6 1/4 cups) mushroom stock (see recipe below)
  • 50g (1 3/4 oz) dried porcini mushrooms

Mushroom puree

  • 40ml (8 tsp) extra virgin olive oil
  • 190g (6 3/4 oz) chestnut mushrooms
  • 115ml (1/2 cup) ruby port
  • 30g (1 1/4 oz) dried porcini mushrooms (reserved from double mushroom stock)
  • 12ml (2 1/2 tsp) red wine vinegar
  • 15ml (1 tsp) truffle oil
  • 45ml (3 tbsp) double mushroom stock (reserved from above)

Risotto

  • 200g (7oz) fresh cep mushrooms
  • 100g (3 1/2oz) fresh chestnut mushrooms
  • 100g (3 1/2oz) fresh girolle mushrooms
  • 75ml (1/3 cup) extra virgin olive oil
  • sea salt to taste
  • 100g (1/2 cup) finely diced shallots
  • 4 fat cloves garlic, pureed
  • 350g (1 3/4 cups) carnaroli rice
  • double mushroom stock (see above)

Mushroom stock (for double mushroom stock)

  • 1 large yellow onion, peeled
  • 1 large carrot
  • 2 sticks of celery
  • 250g (9oz) chestnut mushrooms
  • 15 black peppercorns
  • 15g (4 tbsp) fresh flat-leafed parsley, including stalks
  • 5g (1 tbsp) fresh thyme, including stalks
  • 3 fat cloves of garlic
  • 2 small bay leaves
  • 2 ltrs filtered water
  • 25g (7/8oz) dried porcini mushrooms

Method

1. Chop onion, carrot, celery and chestnut mushrooms into similarly sized pieces. Put all the ingredients, except the dried porcini mushrooms, into a lidded saucepan. Bring gentle to a rolling boil which should take around 20 minutes.

2. Once boiling, simmer for 5 minutes, then remove from heat.

3. Immediately add the dried porcini mushrooms, ensuring that they are submerged in the stock. Cover the saucepan with cling film (plastic wrap).

4. Leave the stock to cool completely, then drain off through a large sieve into a clean saucepan. Discard the peppercorns, thyme stalks and bay leaves. Keep the vegetables and mushrooms to make a delicious vegan mushroom soup with the addition of filtered water and some oat milk.

5. Having made the mushroom stock, now make the double mushroom stock. Bring the stock (above) back to the boil, add the dried mushrooms, turn off heat and clamp on the pan lid for around 30 minutes, allowing the mushrooms to steep.

6. After 30 minutes, pour the stock once more through a seive and retain the reflated dried mushrooms for the mushroom puree.

7. Now make the puree by heating the olive oil in a wide-based saucepan. Add the sliced chestnut mushrooms and sweat over a high heat until all the juices have evaporated. Add the ruby port and reduce until you’re left with a thick syrup. Remove from the heat and transfer to a blender.

8. Add the rest of the ingredients to the blender and blend until silky smooth, only add a little filtered water if absolutely necessary. It should have a ribbon like quality (see above).

9. Prepare and cook the mushrooms for the risotto. If using fresh, ensure that you clean them thoroughly with a small brush and/or damp cloth. Do not wash them! However, if you can’t find fresh, feel free to use frozen or bottled. Add 50 ml (1/4 cup) of the olive oil to a large frying pan (skillet) and cook over a high heat, adding salt to taste, until cooked through and no liquid remains. Keep warm.

10. Now it’s time for the risotto. Heat the double mushroom stock, bringing it up to a gentle simmer. Heat the remaining olive oil in another frying pan (skillet), add the shallot and fry gently until translucent. Now do the same with the garlic. Add the rice and stir well to coat the grains in the oil.

11. Add four ladles of mushroom stock to the pan and cook, stirring constantly, until it has almost disappeared. Now, keep adding stock a ladle at a time, until the rice is almost but not quite cooked through, 15-20 minutes. You may not need all of the stock but if you need more, just add hot water. The risotto should be thick, creamy and stiff.

12. The risotto should now be almost ready. Add the fried mushrooms and remove from the heat. Add the mushroom puree and stir well to combine both. Taste and adjust, if necessary, the seasoning. Divide between four bowls, add a sprinkle of fresh parsley, a spritz of truffle oil and serve the ambrosial feast.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. The trick to really well-cooked mushrooms is to use a large pan over a high heat so that they don’t stew in their own juices. If possible try to cook the mushrooms at the same time as you’re cooking the risotto mix so that you can combine when the rice is ready.

2. You could of course use a mushroom stock cube to which you add the dried mushrooms to make the double stock.

3. You can change the mix of mushrooms, just don’t use those tasteless white button mushrooms.

4. If you can avoid it, do not substitute the dried porcini (cep) mushrooms or truffle oil. These give the dish depth and a lot of umami.

5. Unless you advise your guests, no one will be able to tell that this is a vegan risotto. I have served this to Italians who were gob-smacked to discover it contained no dairy. Indeed, they pronounced it the best they’d ever eaten. Praise indeed!

6. You could make everything except the risotto in advance and heat through on the day.

 

The Musette: simple carrot cake

This is another of my cyclist-friendly cakes, something you might be happy to find in your own musette. When I watch the professional peloton go through the feed zone, I love how they sling their musettes casually over their shoulders before putting the contents in their pockets. Often though you can see they’re searching through the little parcels for something they want to eat or drink first. You can always tell when they’re bitterly disappointed that their snack of choice isn’t in their musette as they lob unwanted tin foil packages into the waste area.

"If only we had some of Sheree's carrot cake ..." (image courtesy of cycling switzerland)
“If only we had some of Sheree’s carrot cake …” (image courtesy of Cycling Switzerland)

I like to think the riders would be happy to find a piece of one of my cakes in their musettes. Here’s one that’s been enjoyed by many club (and professional) cyclists on the Cote d’Azur who’re always amazed to discover it’s made with carrots. It’s quick and easy to prepare, follows the ‘add wet-to-dry-ingredients’ method of cake-making, keeps happily in the cake tin for a few days  – providing I keep the tin hidden from my beloved husband! – and freezes well.

Ingredients (makes 32 fingers)

  • 160g (1 cup) natural or raw cane sugar
  • 250ml (1 cup) oil of choice (vegetable or lightly flavoured olive oil)
  • 4 large organic eggs, approx 45g each without their shells
  • 180g (1 3/4 cups) wholemeal flour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp mixed spice
  • 1 tbsp of finely grated organic orange zest
  • 200g (2 cups) grated organic carrots, approx 4 large ones

Method

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC/160ºC fan/gas mark 4 (350ºF/320ºF fan).

2. Grease the base and sides of a baking tin. I typically use a disposable tin-foil one measuring 18cm x 23cm x  5cm (6” x 9” x 2″) – they’re great for storing the cakes in the freezer – which I line with a couple of strips of greaseproof paper to make it easier to remove the cake. In addition, I find it’s an easy size and shape to slice into fingers for serving. The French prefer to have a small taste of everything on offer!

3. Whisk to combine the sugar, oil and eggs.

4. Incorporate the finely grated carrots and orange zest into the mixture.

5. Sift and mix together the flour, salt, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and spices.

6. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and lightly combine. I find using a rubber spatula in a figure of eight movement works best. Ensure that no pockets of flour remain.

7. Pour the bright orange batter – so reminiscent of CCC’s kit – into the baking tin, pop it into the centre of the oven on a baking tray and cook for approx 60 minutes. Times will vary depending on the dimensions of your baking tin and your oven, so check regularly. The cake is ready when a toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Cool completely in the pan before slicing and eating, or freezing for no more than two months.

It's just crying out for a cuppa

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the cake in the oven, put the timer on for 5-10 minutes less than the cake should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. If you think the cake is browning too quickly, particularly at the edges, cover it with an aluminium-foil tent.

4. I generally use a box grater to finely grate the carrots and a micro-planer to grate the orange zest.

5. I have successfully made the cake substituting coconut cream for the oil with no noticeable change of either texture or taste.

6. A number of you will be saying “you can’t have carrot cake without cream cheese frosting!” Remember, this is a ‘cut and come again’ cake intended for cyclists. However, here’s a decorative frosting I often use on a richer and more traditional carrot cake from the Ottolenghi Cookbook, which would work equally well here.

Ingredients

  • 175g (6 oz) full-fat cream cheese
  • 70g (2 oz) unsalted butter
  • 35g (1 tbsp) icing sugar, sifted
  • 25g (1 tbsp) maple syrup
  • 50g (2 oz) lightly toasted and chopped walnuts or pecans

Method

1. Beat the room temperature cream cheese until smooth then in a separate bowl beat the room temperature butter with the sifted icing sugar and maple syrup until light and fluffy.

2. Combine the two mixtures with a spatula, spread thickly over the top of the cold cake and decorate with the chopped nuts.

3. If you want to up the yumminess of the topping, use crunchy sugary spiced walnuts or pecans, as follows. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC/160ºc fan/gas mark 4 (350ºF/320ºF fan). Whisk half of one egg white until frothy, add pinch of sea salt, 60g (¾ cup) light brown sugar, ½ tsp of mixed spice and 250g (9oz) whole toasted walnuts or pecans. Yes, I know this is rather a lot but they have a multitude of uses! Mix well to ensure all the nuts are coated and pour in a single layer onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof (parchment) paper. Bake for 20 minutes until golden brown. Remove and allow to cool before chopping and using some to decorate the cake. The rest will keep happily in the fridge for a week and make a delicious addition to granola, porridge, ice cream, crumble topping, baked apples – the possibilities are endless.

The Musette: pork paradise

This recipe is one of my own invention which borrows elements from Bigos, the Polish national dish, and Choucroute, the Alsatian classic. All three recipes use copious amounts of sauerkraut and pork to provide hearty warming fare for the winter months. It’s another of my one-pot dishes which I typically cook in advance and reheat upon my return from riding my bike or which will happily bubble away in the oven on a low heat while I’m out.

It must be said that the quality of the two main ingredients –  pork and sauerkraut – are key to the success of the dish. I use an Alsatian sauerkraut that’s been mellowed in goose fat and Riesling wine. If you can only find the tinned variety can I suggest that you wash it in a sieve to remove the obviously vinegary taste and cook slowly on the top of the stove over a low heat with some chopped onion, apples, a splash of white wine and, if you like, a tablespoon of duck or goose fat. You’ll then be good to go. I cannot stress enough that this is such a simple yet tasty dish.

Ingredients (serves six hungry cyclists)

  • 2 kg (4 lb) sauerkraut
  • 1 kg (2 lb) pork mix
  • 250ml (1 cup) eau de vie (optional)

Method

1. Boil the sausages in some water to degrease them. Then skin and chop them into bite-sized pieces along with the cooked pork loin and garlic sausage. The piece of ham centre stage (photo above) is the end of a parma ham and it’s added to the dish purely as a flavour enhancer.

2. Put half the sauerkraut into an ovenproof lidded dish (dutch oven), pile in the pork and cover with the remaining half and add a cup of alcohol or just water.

3. Cover the dish with a dampened circle of greaseproof (parchment) paper, pop on the lid and put into a pre-heated oven at 160°C /140°C fan/gas mark 3 (320°F/275°F fan) to cook for as long as you like, but not less than four hours.

4. Serve with some slices of rye bread and a green salad or leave to cool overnight, skim off any excess fat and reheat in a low oven once you’ve gotten back from your ride.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. I find that the dish doesn’t need any more seasoning although you could always add a tablespoon of caraway seeds and one of juniper berries to dial up the German vibe. Alternatively, a tablespoon of fennel seeds and a couple of bay leaves will add a nice mellow note.

2. Frankly any mix of pork will be fine but try to have a blend of lean meats with flavourful sausages.

3. If you want to add cubes of bacon, pancetta or belly pork can I suggest that you cook these beforehand to render down the fat and crisp up the meat before adding it to the mix.

4. Like many of these types of one-pot dishes, I do find it tastes better re-heated the following day.

The Musette: Tuscan feast Part II

Here’s part two of my Tuscan feast for you to enjoy with your family and friends. You can find part one here.

Starter: Selection of salads

We’re back from our morning ride and I need something quick, simple and tasty to put on the table while I finish the main course. Big platters of crowd-pleasing salads are ideal. My all-time favourite is made from sun-ripened juicy tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella (or even better burrata), fresh basil leaves, olive oil, fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Chop, scatter and serve – who needs a recipe? But what you do need is great, fresh ingredients. Feel free to turn it into tricolore salad with the addition of a perfectly ripe avocado.

Here’s another salad which relies on perfectly ripe ingredients chopped and scattered on a plate. This time it’s a richly scented, ripe orange fleshed melon, served with thin slices of slightly salty Parma ham on a bed of rocket with a dusting of freshly ground black pepper. This works equally well with fresh black or white figs.

Lastly, a salad which takes advantage of fresh seasonal produce and a good artisan salami. No need to skin the peaches. I’ve used flat white vine peaches here but the usual yellow ones or even nectarines will be just fine – so long as they’re ripe and juicy. I’ve chopped the salami into bite-sized pieces, placed everything on some rocket and, only because I had it in the fridge, added some radish sprouts and seasoned with a dusting of fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

Ecco – three delicious fresh salads to ward off the hunger pains. Typically, I would serve these with my home-made focaccia.

You might be thinking “Salads, are you mad, it’s the depths of winter!” In which case can I suggest a warming soup.

Dessert: apricot and almond crostata

Crostata sounds so much more exciting and foreign than a pie or tart, doesn’t it? I love its rustic appearance, versatility and the ease with which you can make it. People get stressed about making pastry but this is really simple as you don’t have to roll it out or blind-bake it. The crust is very forgiving.

Ingredients (serves four hungry cyclists)

  • ½kg (1lb) fresh, ripe apricots
  • 2 tbsp caster or raw cane sugar
  • 2-3 tbsp liqueur or water
  • 1 small jar (1 cup) apricot jam
  • 180g (1½ cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 75g (¾ cup) finely ground almonds
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 50g (½ cup) coarsely chopped toasted almonds
  • 125g (9 tbsp) soft unsalted butter
  • 75g (½ cup) caster or raw cane sugar
  • 1 large organic egg, approx. 45g (1⅔oz) without shell
  • 1 large organic egg yolk
  • ¼ tsp fine sea salt

Method

1. Start by making the filling. Cut the apricots in half, remove the stone and place in a saucepan with 2 tbsp of sugar, the liqueur (or water) of choice and the apricot jam for about 5-7 minutes until the fruit has softened. Leave to cool.

2. Make the crust by creaming together the butter and sugar – preferably with a mixer – until light and creamy.

3. Add the egg and egg yolk and continue to mix until combined and the batter is smooth.

4. In a separate bowl, mix together the sifted flour, ground almonds, salt and baking powder.

5. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix just until the dough comes together. Cover with cling-film (plastic wrap) and place in the fridge for at least half an hour.

6. Preheat oven to 190°C/170°C fan/gas mark 5 (375°F/350°F fan).

7. Once the filling has cooled and the dough has chilled, split the dough in half. Using your hands, press half of the dough into the bottom and up the sides of a 23cm (9″ ) tart pan with a removable bottom. Ensure that it’s evenly distributed in the pan.

8. Spoon the apricot mixture into the crust. Mix the coarsely chopped and toasted almonds into the remaining dough and, using your fingers, break up the remaining crust mixture into small pea-sized pieces and drop it across the top of the tart. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t cover completely the filling – it looks more rustic.

9. Bake the tart in the preheated oven for about 25 minutes or until it is lightly browned. Remove from the oven and allow to cool before serving at room temperature with a dollop of mascarpone cream, fresh cream, crème fraiche or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the crostata in the oven, put the timer on for 3-5 minutes less than it should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. If you think the crostata is browning too quickly, particularly at the edges, cover it with an aluminium-foil tent.

4. I like to use my own home-made jam in the filling but, if you don’t have any home-made, a quality bought one will be just fine.

5. You can use an almond liqueur such as Amaretto or maybe even an apricot grappa – think about flavours that go well with your fruit. I used a couple of spoons of my home-made peach and vanilla vodka.

6. Just in case you’re wondering whether I have an illicit still in the flat, I should clarify. In order to use up the large amount of alcohol my husband receives as gifts from clients, I took some fresh white peaches, skinned them and put them in sterile kilner jars, added a vanilla pod and covered them with vodka. I then left the jars in a cool, dark place for at least six months. The fruit is delicious and then I use the leftover liqueur on all sorts of desserts from pancakes to ice cream. I’ve successfully done this with a variety of fruits but my favourites are peaches and raspberries.

7. I now apricots aren’t in season in France in February so use bottled or another fruit which is readily available. I’ve successfully made this tart with rhubarb and ginger, plums, peaches and figs.

The Musette: Tuscan feast Part I

We often go shopping in nearby Italy, particularly during the winter months and, as you know, Italians love nothing better than getting family and friends together over the dinner table. So I’m going to be preparing a veritable Tuscan feast over the next two weekends. This week it’s the main course, while next Saturday’s Musette will have the recipes for the starters and dessert.

There are lots of designer outlet shops in Tuscany but I rarely bother to check them out. Instead I prefer shopping for food and wine. One of my all-time favourite butchers is situated in the town square of Greve in Chianti, it’s the Antica Macelleria Falorni which has stood in the same place since 1729. I have been known to spend over an hour just looking and inhaling the wonderful aromas in this family-run establishment. It looks small but it’s a deceptively large shop.

The Italians love – nay, revere – pork so it’s appropriate that the main course is my Tuscan slow-roasted pork which will cook happily while I’m out cycling.

Ingredients (serves four hungry cyclists)

  • 2.5kg (4lbs) piece boneless pork belly (skin on)
  • 1 tbsp fennel seeds
  • 1 tsp freshly grated lemon zest
  • 4 fat garlic cloves
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cups (500ml) dry white wine
  • Freshly ground black pepper and fine sea salt

Method

1. In order to get really crispy pork crackling you need to ensure that the skin is dry. I will typically wipe it dry with paper kitchen towel and leave the pork overnight uncovered, skin side up, in the fridge. But if you don’t have time to spare, pour a kettle of boiling water over the skin and then blot dry.

2. Prepare the marinade by placing all the other ingredients, except the wine and just 2 tbsp of the oil, in a small blender or pestle and mortar. Add 1 tsp of salt and ½ tsp of freshly ground black pepper, and pound or blend to a runny paste.

3. Turn the pork over and place skin side down on some cling film (plastic wrap), massage the marinade into the pork flesh, cover with cling film and marinade for at least a couple of hours, preferably overnight.

4. Take the pork out of the fridge and allow to come to room temperature. Score the skin with a very sharp knife. Don’t cut too deeply – you basically want to just score through the rind and not too deeply into the layer of fat below. This will allow much of the belly fat to render out during the cooking process leaving meltingly tender and moist meat.

5. Remove the cling film, place skin side up on a rack over a large roasting pan. Rub the now dry skin with a tbsp of olive oil and a tsp of sea salt.

6. Pour about 250ml (1 cup) of water into the bottom of the roasting pan – just enough to cover the pan, but not enough to touch the roast. This is to prevent the stuff that drips off the pork from burning to the bottom of the pan.

7. Roast in a slow preheated oven 150°C /130°C fan/gas mark 2 (300°F/275°F fan) for about 3 to 3½ hours, adding more water to the pan if it dries out.

8. You know it’s ready when the rind is translucent and brittle and the fat is golden, crispy and completely puffed up. If your belly looks like this then you’ll have the most tender, succulent meat topped with nice crispy crackling.

9. Oven temperatures do vary, so if the pork doesn’t look like that yet, just turn up the temperature to 200°C/gas mark 6  (400°F) and flash-roast for an additional ½-hour, or until it’s done.

10. Remove from the oven, put the meat on a chopping board, cover with aluminium foil and let it stand for at least 20 minutes before slicing – if you can keep your hands off it, that is.

11. While the pork’s resting, make the jus. Discard all but 2 tbsp of fat from pan, retaining all the juices, place the pan over medium heat and stir in wine to deglaze, strain and add a knob of butter for a silky shine and keep warm.

12. Thickly slice the pork and serve with vegetables of your choice and the jus.

Sheree’s handy hints

1. I’m not a ‘gravy’ fan but feel free to add sliced onions to the roasting pan for the last hour or so and once you’ve deglazed the pan, per step 11 above, add 250ml (1 cup) of chicken or ham stock (preferably home-made) and some roux (1 tbsp flour mixed with 1 tbsp soft butter), stirring to combine well and allow to thicken. Strain and keep warm.

2. I like to serve this dish with oven-roasted fennel served with a dusting of freshly grated parmesan cheese and, if I’m feeding lots of boys, some oven-roasted garlic and rosemary potatoes.

Things about France that surprised me: the importance of bread

Even though I like to make my own bread, I don’t make it daily so I will often buy bread from the bakery. And, let’s be honest, there’s nothing quite like the smell of freshly baked bread, particulaly that French icon the baguette, still warm from the baker’s oven.

Now, if I happen to bump into one of my neighbours with this fragrant bounty, they’ll be sure to ask me where I bought it. They’ll nod knowingly, approvingly even, when I tell them from whence it came. This may well be followed by a lively discussion on the merits of our many wonderful local bread (boulangerie) and cake (patisserie) shops. The French love nothing more than chatting about food and its provenance.

Of course, in many people’s minds the baguette symbolises France. In his book “Anthropologie des mangeurs de pain” author Abdu Gnaba says of bread:

It is what defines and characterises the French.

So let’s take a closer look at this popular and humble food item. According to a September 1993 French decree, le Décret Pain, which basically re-visited laws from 1905, 1919, 1984 and 1989, ‘traditional French bread’ must be made only from good quality water, salt, a rising agent and wheat flour which contains no more than 2.8% (in total weight) of bean, soya or malted wheat flours. That means only four ingredients are allowed. There are no additives and only minimal wheat adulterants are permitted. In addition, the baguette must be entirely made on the bakery premises and not brought in from elsewhere. In order to be called “tradition” (traditional) it can’t be frozen nor contain preservatives and additives.

The quality of a French loaf is increased by some, though not all, reputable artisanal bakeries that employ extended fermentation times. When yeast ferments in order to make bread rise it produces alcohol, which provides flavours and aromas. More fermentation time generally improves the taste of bread.

Aside from fermentation, a great loaf depends on wheat, flour and the baker. The first two elements are controlled by the flour mill. I spoke to a couple of my local bakeries and they confirmed they use flour from 100% French wheat that is certified absent of insecticides and controlled for quality between the fields where it grows and the mill where it is ground. The mills abide by the French Ministry of Agriculture ‘red label’ standard that indicates superior quality – controlled for lacking additives and adulterants (such as the adding of soy or bean flours).

Just as local climate and soils form terroir that impacts the eventual taste of wine, characteristics of bread flour depends on local conditions from where wheat is produced. The range varies throughout France. Flours can be reduced to general types (high, medium, and low protein) but the individual taste often depends on non-quantifiable local conditions. To produce excellent bread, however, it helps to have high-quality fresh flour.

Bread is so much a part of French culture that even the word for “friend” copain comes from Latin cum pane (with bread) meaning the person with whom you break bread. Bread is so important it has a Patron Saint and every year on the feast day of St Honoré, on the 16th May, processions, tastings and other festivities take place throughout the country. But for me an example of how seriously bread is considered is that there is a Grand Prix de la Baguette. Once a year bakers compete in Paris for the title of best boulanger which comes with a financial reward and the prestigious contract to supply the President of the Republic with daily bread for a year. 

So is there a secret to producing a great baguette? Chatting to a couple of my favourite local bakeries, I discovered they all used red label flour without additives, unprocessed salt, a natural rising agent (yeast), a long kneading time at a slow speed (“to maintain beautiful colours and all the flavours”), long fermentation/resting time (18 hours), “delicate shaping,” and baking in a hot oven (260C, 500F, Gas mark 10) to produce a baguette with a thin and crispy crust with good aromas of wheat and hazelnuts.

The French are very loyal to their favourite boulangerie which may not necessarily be the closest, going well out of their way to buy what they consider the best bread. I buy mine from a variety of bakeries based on the type of loaf I’m buying. I have a couple of favourites which only sell sourdough bread, another which sells a spelt loaf which I adore, plus one, is both a boulangerie and patisserie, selling a wide range of baked goods, home-made ice cream, chocolates and divine cakes, as well as a wide-range of different breads.

How the French treat their bread

1. Dip it in their tea or coffee

Typically, they’ll slather a hunk of baguette (tartine) with butter and jam and then dip it directly into their coffee.

2. Never put it on a side plate

The French never set bread on a side plate, just on the table next to their plate.

3. Clean their plates with it

The bread is used to mop up those delicious sauces and clean the cutlery between courses.

4. Carry it under their armpits

The bakery will typically wrap a baguette in a piece of paper. You need to buy many more to get a large paper bag. Consequently, everyone carries it under their arm. So much easier for 5 below.

4. Put lumps of chocolate in it

For most foreigners chocolate and bread  – have they never heard of chocolate bread and butter pudding? – just don’t go together unless Nutella is involved, but the French take it to a new level. They stick squares of quality chocolate into their baguette, creating a makeshift baguette au chocolate.

5. Nibble the end of it on the street

The French are typically scandalised by the idea of eating while walking, but for their beloved baguette, they make an exception. It’s apparently impossible for them to resist breaking off one of the tips and gnawing on the end of that warm, fresh baguette on the way home.  You’ll often see Mums nibbling on one end while their children nibble on the other.

6. Eat it with absolutely everything

Would you like some bread with your bread? In France, the answer is always oui. Even if you order a bread-based dish like a croque monsieur, you’ll get a little basket of sliced baguette to accompany it.

7. Sell them in vending machines

For those emergency situations when you’ve lost your mind completely and forgotten to stop by the bakery before it closes. The baguettes are slightly undercooked before being put in the machine, then the machine finishes them off and pops them out them crisp and warm. Genius or sacrilege?

8. Eat it with cheese

Isn’t it common knowledge that cheese is meant to be eaten with crackers? Well okay, maybe the French can have this one. There really is nothing better than some creamy camembert paired with a perfect crunchy-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside baguette. Best keep your crackers to yourself if you don’t want to commit another almighty dough pas.

9. Make the world’s longest one

Leave it to the French to break the Guinness World Record for longest baguette, at a whopping 120 meters. Actually, they had some help from the Italians too. And, of course, the massive baguette was promptly slathered with Nutella. 

 

The Musette: vegan sticky caramel pear cake

French friends agree that a cooked to order British breakfast, the so called « full English » is magnificent.  To this they would add afternoon tea and puddings. Consequently, in the past my (non vegan) sticky toffee puddings have gone down a treat.

This dessert was my attempt to partly replicate that dish but as a vegan one, plus use up some pears that had gone a bit soft in the fruit bowl. I should have put them in the fridge. Pears have a rapid ripening process that turns them quickly from a hard, impenetrable fruit into a floury mush that browns and bruises easily. Over-ripe and even heavily bruised fruit are best cooked into a nutritious puree or cake such as this one.

That said, this works well with any pear no matter how hard or ripe and bruised it is: all will melt into the sticky cake dough, and will become a delicious companion to the rich and sticky, date-flavoured cake.

Ingredients (Serves 8-12)

  • 200g (2 cups) stoned dates, roughly chopped
  • 350ml (1 1/2 cups) plant-based milk
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 100ml (10 tbsp) fruity olive oil
  • 100g (1/2 cup) unrefined raw sugar
  • 220g (1 2/3 cups) wholemeal spelt flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
  • ½ tsp powdered ginger
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • 1-3 pears, cut in quarters and cored

Method

1. pre-heat the oven to 200C (190C fan)/410F/gas 6½. Put the dates in a saucepan with the plant-based milk, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for five minutes.

2. Off the heat, add the bicarbonate of soda and stir for 30 seconds, or until the dates begin to dissolve. Leave to cool, then mix in the olive oil, 50g sugar, flour, baking powder, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon.

3. Grease and line a medium-sized cake tin. Sprinkle the rest of the sugar over the base of the tin. If you have only one pear, slice it and lay it out over the base of the tin; if you have two pears, cut them into large chunks; and if you have three or more pears, put the quarters cut-side down in the tin.

4. Cover with the cake mixture and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until just cooked and springy to the touch. Turn out and serve warm.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the cakes in the oven, put the timer on for 5-10 minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. If you think the cake is browning too much at the edges, cover it with an aluminium foil tent.

4. You can substitute the olive oil for another mild or unflavoured vegetable oil.

5. I suspect this would be just as delicious with apples.

The Musette: oat bars

Prior to heading out for a morning ride, what can we eat that’s quick, filling and packed with energy? The answer is my oat bars. They’re much softer and contain far less sugar and fat than, say, a typical flapjack and are therefore much easier to digest and are, dare I say it, better for you. I often whip up a batch on Friday evening to keep us going over the weekend. They’re also the right size to pop into the jersey pocket for some mid-ride refuelling.

Ingredients (makes 16 bars)

  • 200g (2 cups) rolled oats
  • 60g (⅔ cup)  ground almonds (almond meal)
  • 30g (⅓ cup) dried, unsweetened grated coconut
  • 120g (4¼oz) chocolate chips
  • 4 very ripe, medium-sized bananas, about 250g (9oz) when peeled
  • 160g (1 cup) unsweetened apple puree
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp  fine sea salt
  • 50g (¼ cup) whole almond butter (you can substitute another nut butter or coconut oil)

Method

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC/160ºC fan/gas mark 4 (350ºF/320ºF fan). Grease a medium-sized 20cm x 30cm (8-inch x 12-inch) shallow baking dish with vegetable oil and line it with foil strips – makes it easier to get the bars out.

2. Combine the oats, ground almonds, coconut, salt and chocolate chips in a medium-sized mixing bowl.

3. In another medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the bananas, vanilla, nut/coconut butter and apple puree and mash thoroughly using a  potato masher. Add the oat mixture to the wet mix and stir to combine. Leave the mixture to rest for 30 minutes so that the oats soak up the liquid.

4. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish, level the surface (the bars should be around 2cm (0.8 inch) thick) and put it in the oven.

5. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the top is set and light golden-brown. Let it cool completely before removing it from the dish and slicing it into bars. If you’re not serving them all at once, just cut what you need, cover the rest with foil, put into an airtight tin and hide!

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the bars in the oven, put the timer on for 5-10 minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. The bars should still be quite soft to the touch when you take them out of the oven as they’ll continue to cook and firm up as they cool. Overcook them at your peril.

4. I’ve used dark chocolate chips here for a more sophisticated taste but many of my younger weekend guests prefer the tooth-cloying sweetness of milk or white chocolate. Specifically they like the version which uses peanut butter instead of almond, 400g (14 oz) of mashed bananas, no apple puree and white chocolate chips!

5. Feel free to reduce the amount of chocolate – or indeed remove it all together – and substitute other dried fruit such as apricots, cranberries or raisins. Once again, the rule of thumb is to pair ingredients which you like and know work well together.