Tuesday, 8 April 2014

How to store cheese properly

No cheese, Gromit. Not a bit in the house ... 

I do like a bit of gorgonzola... 

What's wrong with Wensleydale??... 

I could just fancy some cheese, Gromit. What do you say? Cheddar?... 

Immortal words from Nick Park's wonderful creation, Wallace, the mad animated cheese-lover with the extremely clever dog. He's not the oly one who is partial to a bit of cheese. I am myself. I buy cheese often. Sometimes I buy it at the supermarket and sometimes I buy it from the makers at the farmers market, and sometimes I buy it at the Hill St Grocer for something a bit fancy, and sometimes I go all out and visit somewhere with a cheese room and splurge a fortune on something unusual and amazing. And then - I know. I KNOW. I just slap a bit of cling film on it and chuck it in the fridge.

Australia (and the USA) doesn't treat cheese as a wonderful, growing, changing thing, We treat it like it's a nasty little corpse and we wrap it up very tightly in plastic and we keep it at the coldest temperature possible so it stays 'fresh'. No no no no NO.

Cheese is better than that. Cheese develops and matures and ripens, and changes its flavour all the way through. Cheese should be cosseted and looked after and loved, not shoved into the fridge behind the mouldy dip and that smoked salmon that you don't feel like eating but can't bear to throw away. Cheese should be respected for its ability, like fine wine, to age gracefully and be better two weeks later than on the day of its purchase.

I'm embarrassed to say I have treated cheese worse than anyone in the past. Now, I know that most of us (this includes me) don't have the money or the motivation to buy our own cheese rooms. But I'm trying to learn a new way and stick to it, and I've found a wonderful new product to help me: CHEESE PAPERS.

These are basically just sheets of lightly waxed paper that come in a pack of 18 sheets, 11x14 inches square (large enough to wrap a large chunk, but not too big to be annoying).

They also come with a couple of sheets of labels so that you can transfer the details of the cheese when you wrap it.

Why would you bother with cheese wrappers when there's perfectly good Glad Wrap in the kitchen drawer?

Cheese - particularly soft and semi-hard cheeses like brie, camembert, mozzarella and others - doesn't like being wrapped in plastic.

Hard cheeses like cheddar and parmesan are less needy but many cheesemongers recommend that they too should be stored in waxed paper, or in a cheese bag, which is a good alternative.

Soft cheeses need a bit of air around them in order to ripen and develop their flavour. Some people refer to this as letting the cheese 'breathe'. Cling film does not allow the cheese any air. It can make the cheese too watery and can affect the flavour. In the end, rather than a cheese that gets too ripe, you'll have a cheese that goes rotten.

The reason waxed paper is good is that it allows some, but not a huge amount, of air to circulate around the cheese. It's enough to allow the cheese to breathe.

Ideally you should store cheese at about 12.5 degrees Celsius (53 degrees F). This is a bit higher than most fridges. In Australia (particularly in Tasmania where I live) you could consider storing your cheeses in a cool cupboard during the winter, protected by wrappers or a glass cheese dome. In summer. put it in the fridge but put it in the produce drawer because this is usually a little warmer than the rest of the fridge.

If you're interested in the cheese wrappers that I've shown here, I bought them for $16.95 (AUD) at the State Cinema Bookshop in Hobart, or you can find them here. But I've seen a few different ones around, so have a look in good delis and bookshops.

Happy cheese eating from Dr (cheesy) Cupcake!

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

How to make gravlax and rye bread like a proper Viking

As I am descended from Vikings it is appropriate that my favourite things are white spirits and cured fish. I am not sure why it has taken me this long to think of combining these two amazing things, but anyway I have now, and I've gone and made a vodka-cured gravlax with dill and brown sugar.

I paired it with home made rye bread (I had to search for hours to find a recipe that didn't require me to start SEVEN DAYS IN ADVANCE WTF??!!).

Making the gravlax made me feel all historic and ancient-y, because every ingredient and process is totally, utterly natural and stone aged. Except for the brown sugar, but apparently you can use honey, which would be a bit more convenient if you were a Viking caveman.

The recipe I used is here, but I would recommend reducing the curing time to 24 hours or less, and using less salt. That's because I had a little chat to the friendly chef at Mako Fresh Fish in North Hobart. This 20-year veteran of gravlax was only too happy to discuss some of the finer points of gravlax curing. It seems that Scandinavian palates are fond of salt whereas Australian palates enjoy a fresher, raw-er taste (think of the influence that Japanese food has on us with its beautiful sashimi, for instance). For a less salty cure, reduce the curing time, reduce the amount of salt and be sure to use a salt that is not too strong - this one was recommended.

So basically you mix salt, brown sugar, pepper and lots of dill, and rub it all over your salmon fillets (see the picture above). Then you pour a good whack of vodka over the whole thing and squish it down with a large heavy rock.

OKAY. You do not need to use an actual rock (although this one from my garden was absolutely perfect and far better than anything else I had - before I found it I was trying to manufacture a suitable weight from jam jars and butter pats).

You could use anything flat and heavy as long as it presses down on the salmon, not on the edge of the dish.

Put it with its weight in the fridge - yes, I know Vikings had no fridges, but honestly they could have just left it on the nearest ice floe - and leave it for 12 hours. When you pull it out to inspect it, it will look like this.

Close up, you'll see the part of the flesh that's been immersed in the curing solution has changed colour slightly, becoming paler (the lower edge in this pic).

The skin of the fillet also becomes really firm and hard, I think from the compression that comes from being weighted down.

Turn the fish over and leave it for another 12 hours to cure the other side. Then take it out of the curing solution - it's ready to slice and eat.

You need a VERY sharp knife. I found it difficult to slice evenly, a bit like trying to slice prosciutto by hand - you want thin slices and it's difficult to maintain the smooth even pressure that you need. Practice helps. I got better.

I managed to get slices that were about 2-3mm thick and fairly straight.

You'd think I altered the colour saturation in this photo, but no. Gravlax really is a stunning, translucent coral pink. It was so beautiful I nearly cried.

I tried to cut whole strips but inevitably I ended up with half-strips and shards. I didn't really mind because I was hypnotised by the wonderfulness of it all.

I was wondering how to present it best. Re-layering the sliced gravlax fillet with its lovely peppery and salty dill crust seemed a good idea.

But you make the most of the colour and texture if you spread it out a bit.

What do you need with gravlax? Not much really. But I did wonder about making some rye bread. I had never done this before.

Let me tell you something. Despite what many cookbooks will imply, life is too short to spend 7 days making a loaf of bread. Yes, 7 days.

Do yourself a favour and use Nigel Slater's recipe which is awesome,  easy and has a two-hour turnaround.

Nigel's recipe makes enough for two loaves, which is fine, because rye bread keeps really well and you can go on using it fresh for days and toasting it for up to a week. He put his bread in tins but I wanted to hand shape my loaves and I gave them parallel diagonal scoring marks because I like the way it looks.

If you want to be purist you will of course make your own butter. Yes I do. I make my own butter. Before you scoff at my ridiculously purist attitude, try it sometime. You too may get addicted.

Normally when I cook things, I get to the end of the cooking process and I don't really want to eat anything straight away - it's like the cooking substitutes for eating and takes my appetite away. HOWEVER, I couldn't wait to slice the gravlax and lay it on the rye and sink my little teeth into it.

If you've read this far you must really like gravlax. I admit that smoked and cured salmon is totally awesome and one of the world's best foods, and if you want to see some other things I've done with it, you can have a gawk here. And, being Dr Cupcake, I've even done imitation sushi in cupcake form... which you can see here.

So long for now, all you gravlax-loving Vikings out there. I'm off to sample some vodka. I'd love to say it's top shelf stuff, but the regular quantities required would most likely bankrupt me :)

Love, Dr Cupcake

Monday, 13 January 2014

Don't waste that duck! How to render duck fat and clarify duck stock

If you've gone to the effort of roasting a beautiful duck, or making Peking Duck (read this fantastic post  here for a Peking Duck that is crispy skinned and delicious every time), it's a shame to waste any part of it. With a little extra effort that night and the following day, you can store the duck fat and make duck stock.

Both of these things are expensive to buy in stores and sometimes completely unavailable commercially. I haven't come across duck stock for sale anywhere, although chicken stock is ubiquitous. Duck stock tastes a little like chicken stock but it is richer and darker. It's wonderful to use for risottos, soups and sauces. Duck flavours go particularly well with mushrooms, potato, beetroot and any type of poultry where it can impart a complexity of flavour beyond that of the original bird. For this reason, it's great to have a carton of duck stock in your freezer - it keeps very well frozen and you'll always have it available.

Duck fat is even MORE useful. It has a high smoke point which means it doesn't burn like butter. You can use it for both shallow and deep frying. If you've used a large quantity you can strain it afterwards and re-use it. Roasting vegetables, particularly potatoes, in duck fat is well known to contribute both to their flavour and their crispiness. It can be used in salad dressings (you need to heat it slightly to make it liquid) and in making pastry, where it gives a fluffy light crispness. If you'd like some more detailed information on its uses, check here.

I hope I've convinced you of the usefulness of duck fat and stock - the best bit is that they take very little work to make if you have cooked a duck. (Obviously, they're a bit trickier if you haven't.) Basically you have to make both concurrently. Here's how.

How to clarify duck stock and render duck fat

After you have eaten your delicious duck and cleared the table, scrape all the bones, meat scraps, skin, etc into a saucepan. If you have cut off any parts of the duck prior to cooking (the neck or some of the fatty skin for example), reserve these at the time and add them in to the saucepan at this point. Add enough water to cover amply all of the bones, and put the saucepan on to simmer while you do the normal after dinner things (having dessert, washing the dishes, stacking the dishwasher, etc.)

At some point (I am assuming you have cooked and eaten your duck in the evening, for dinner) you will want to go to bed. Hopefully this will be at least an hour, possibly rather more, since you put the duck leftovers to simmer in the water. Before you go to bed, pass the duck mixture through a fine sieve into a ceramic or metal bowl. The sieve should catch all of the bones and solids while allowing the liquids to pass into the bowl. Discard all of the bones and solids. Cover the bowl with cling film and put it in the fridge overnight.

In the morning (or the following night, if you have to rush off to work first thing), you should find that your bowl of duck stock has magically separated, pushing the cream-coloured fat to the surface and creating a firm, clear jelly underneath.

If the fat is still liquid, put it back in the fridge for a while. You need it to be firm. It won't go hard exactly, but it will become pale and solid enough to scoop up in a spoon.

This shows the consistency the fat should be before you attempt to clarify the stock. It will be white and a bit grainy. It will be able to be manipulated in a soft but solid layer quite distinct from the stock beneath.

Using a spatula, roll the fat layer off the stock very carefully, trying not to bring any stock with you.

Scoop the fat into another bowl, separating it out from the stock.

Keep going until you have scooped out pretty much all of the fat from the stock. The bowl containing your fat will look a little like this (the dark patches are bits of stock that have unavoidably been transferred).

Your stock will look something like this. Most of the fat has been removed but a bit still remains around the edges and there are some patches in the middle that may have 'melted' a bit while you're working, making them difficult to scoop up.

Heat up both your bowls - the stock and the fat - to encourage the magical 'separation' process for both. This will help you get the last bits of fat out of the stock, and the last bits of stock out of the fat. Leave them both to cool - this may take a few more hours; if you do the first stage in the morning, leave the bowls in the fridge until the evening and then do the next stage.
When the remaining fat has again returned to the surface of the stock and has gone pale and somewhat solid, use a spatula or spoon to scrape it all away. You should end up with a clear jellied stock, with no fatty film on the surface.

Scoop this out into a container that you can microwave (or a saucepan). Be careful as you get down to the lower parts of the bowl - as you see here, there may be some grit and impurities at the bottom of the bowl. Discard these and only use the clear and pure jellied stock.

Heat until liquid, then transfer this to a bottle or lidded container and freeze it. You have made a beautiful, clarified duck stock!

Do the same thing with your duck fat - scrape any impurities off the top, then scoop the fat into another container. Be very careful as you get toward the bottom, as more impurities will collect there. It's important to get your duck fat as pure as possible so that it will keep well.

You should end up with a container full of very pure, creamy white duck fat. Seal the container and put it in the fridge. You now have wonderful, rendered duck fat!

That's all - I hope you enjoy this relatively simple process and get absolutely everything out of your duck!

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

How to make butter at home ... Dr Cupcake explains the tricks, joys and perils of domestic buttermaking

Why would I make my own butter when I can buy it?

What an amazing feeling of satisfaction is engendered by making, spreading and eating your very own home made butter! There is a homely goodness to it. It reminds you of being snugly tucked up in a warm house with pouring rain outside. It tastes like the butter from your childhood, the kind you used to spread thickly on your white sliced bread. In a word, it's delicious.

 It's also very simple to make. I didn't know this until a few months ago, when I read a newspaper article about the resurgence of domestic butter-making. It quoted a creamery owner saying that people could achieve an excellent result in their own kitchens as long as they didn't mind the mess of  buttermilk splashing everywhere. That was enough for me. I had to try it.

After using the resources of the googlewebs, I came across a few different and sometimes contradictory formulas and comments. My method is a combination. It's what works best for me. You may find opposing views elsewhere. Butter-making is such an ancient art, and widespread through so many countries, that there are probably many different ways to achieve a good result.



What ingredients do I need to make great butter at home?

You need pure cream - that is, cream that has no additives. You will need to look at the ingredients panel on the container. It should read "100% cream" or "pure cream". If you see any mention of thickeners, gelatine, non-fat milk solids, vegetable gum or anything else, don't make butter with it because it won't work. You may read elsewhere that the butterfat content of the cream needs to be at least 45% but this is not true. I make butter from thin (pouring) cream with an average 35% butterfat content. This works beautifully and it's also cheaper.

 You also need a small amount of salt if using (you don't have to salt your butter but it will keep longer if you do).

You can make butter from any quantity of cream. For domestic purposes, 600ml (a bit more than a pint) of thin cream will yield 260 grams of butter, which is about the unit size of a log of butter bought at the shop. This will fit into a normal mixing bowl and be manageable to work with. It will also yield 270ml of buttermilk - enough to make a decent cake, scones or pancakes (see below for details).

These measurements are approximate - you may find that this amount of cream yields a bit more or less butter, depending on your process, wastage and the exact proportion of butterfat in the cream. This can vary from week to week even in the same brand - it depends on lots of natural factors like the quality of the grass that the cows are eating, and the amount of recent rain. It's great to know that the natural world can't be precisely measured!

What kitchen equipment do I need?

You need two medium sized mixing bowls, an electric beater (I use a hand held beater with two paddles), some ice cubes and water. It is also really helpful to have either some thin muslin to strain the butter, or a couple of old fashioned butter paddles (pictured). A wooden chopping board and some paper towelling will also be useful.

How do I begin?

Pour the cream into the first mixing bowl and start beating it with your electric beater on the lowest speed. I place the mixing bowl in the empty sink as pictured - you'll understand why in a little while.

Beat for about 6 minutes and 30 seconds to get to the first stage of 'softly whipped cream'. This may take more or less time depending on the speed of your beater and the fat content of your cream. These timings refer to thin pouring cream. If you use a thick dessert cream you will reach all of the stages much quicker - so don't go by the timings, they are just a basic indication. Just keep a close eye on the cream.





Stage 1: Softly whipped 


  If you are using thin cream, when you have been beating at a low speed for about 6 minutes and 30 seconds, the cream should be 'softly whipped'.
This means it is light and fluffy. If you stop the beaters and draw a ribbon of cream across the surface, the ribbon will 'hold' its shape and position rather than dissolving back into the body of the cream. (This texture is called 'holding the ribbon' and it's also used to describe textures when you are beating eggs or cake mixture.)

Keep beating.


Stage 2: Stiffly whipped


When you have been beating the cream for about 7 minutes and 30 seconds, the cream will firm up quite suddenly and become 'stiffly whipped'.
In this form, if you draw one of the beaters out of the cream, the cream will follow the beater and stand up in in stiff 'point', similar to stiffly-beaten egg whites. (A brief note: if you actually want whipped cream and NOT butter, be very careful - the next stage (granular) follows very quickly, and there's no going back from that - your cream won't be cream anymore!)

Turn the speed of your beater up a notch and keep beating.


 Stage 3: Stiff and granular 


After beating for about 8 minutes, your cream will suddenly turn from being stiffly whipped to becoming very stiff and granular.
You will see the difference in the texture quite clearly.

Keep beating.

Stage 4: Grainy, beginning to break 


After about 10 minutes and 15 seconds, your butter will begin to 'break'. This means that the fats and the water-soluble components of the cream are beginning to separate. The cream looks unattractively bitty with lots of tiny lumps.

Sometimes the cream stays at this stage for quite some time before proceeding to 'break' entirely. I'm not sure why. The best solution is simply to keep beating and don't give up. If you get sick of it, put it in the fridge for a while and have another go later.

Keep beating.






Stage 5: Breaking

After about 11 minutes and 45 seconds, the butter will begin to 'break' in earnest. The first sign is the way it sounds: you will hear a sloshing sound as the watery liquids are released from the butter and begin to pool in the bottom of the bowl. Next you will begin to see the liquid buttermilk fly up in droplets around your beaters. (This is why I recommend placing your mixing bowl in the sink: if it's on the bench, the buttermilk will spatter over everything within three square feet. If it's in the sink, most of the spatters will hit the sides of the sink and are easy to wipe away.)

Stage 6: Butter


After about 12 minutes and 10 seconds the butter will be resolving itself into clumps which are very distinct. Over a minute or so these clumps will gradually come together as a single lump of butter sitting in a pool of liquid buttermilk. When this happens, you can stop beating. You have made butter!


Stage 7: Washing out the buttermilk

To stop your butter from going off too quickly, you will need to 'wash' the rest of the buttermilk out of it. You can do this by pushing cold water through the butter and gradually diluting the buttermilk into the water.

Take your other mixing bowl and put a few ice cubes in it, then fill it with cold water. Making sure your hands are clean and cold, lift the lump of butter out of the buttermilk and squeeze it into a ball with your hands. Get as much liquid out of it as possible. Then drop it into the iced water.

Using your hands, knead the butter gently in the water, spreading and gathering it.

The water will become cloudy as the buttermilk comes out.When the water is too cloudy, pour it out and put fresh water and ice in, then knead some more until the water stops becoming cloudy.


Stage 8: Pressing out the water

Now you need to get as much of the remaining water out of the butter as possible. The purer the butter is, the longer it will last and the better the texture will be.

Wet down a clean wooden chopping board and the butter paddles if you have them, or the muslin if you have that. If you have neither, don't worry, you can still do a reasonable job.


With clean, cold hands, lift the butter from the water and squeeze it into a ball as hard as you can. Place it on the board and, using the paddles or your hands, knead it until you see some beads of water appearing on the surface. Either shake the butter to get these off, or blot them off with some clean paper towel (being very careful not to leave any fibres in the butter). Repeat until most or all of the water beads are gone.

If you are using muslin, rinse the muslin in cold water, wring it out and spread it flat on a clean benchtop. Place the butter in the centre of the muslin, then wrap the muslin around it and twist very tightly to force it into a firm ball. Tie the muslin in place and sit the ball of butter on top of a small bowl - balance it on the edges of the bowl to allow space underneath it for the water to drip out. Place it in the fridge for an hour or so. Take it out and inspect the butter for water beads - if you can still see some when you slice or knead the butter, repeat the process until the butter is smooth and non-beaded.


Stage 9: Adding salt

In the days before refrigeration, people would make butter with a huge amount of salt - so much that it was unpalatable. In this salty state it could safely be cellared for a few months. When the butter was to be used, the salt was rinsed out to make the butter edible again. Amazing huh!

These days the amazing, magical refrigerator has given us a bit more latitude. You can even skip this step and have your butter unsalted if you prefer. But remember that salt is the only preservative in home-made butter. Even refrigeration can only do so much. If you don't salt your butter, use it up within a few days or it will begin to go rancid.

I recommend that you add some salt to your butter, both for taste and for longevity. You can use any salt that you want. I like using Maldon Sea Salt flakes, which remain in small, fairly soft crystals in the butter. If you don't want this interruption to the texture of your butter, use a fine grained table salt. You could experiment with flavoured salts (I was given a Gewurzhaus White Truffle Salt for Christmas and I can't wait to make some truffle-infused butter). You can also mix fresh or dried herbs into your butter at this stage. It's totally up to you.

Spread your perfectly-textured (we hope) butter out on the wooden board and sprinkle it with a teaspoon of salt. Knead the butter, taste it, and add more salt if you want. After you have mixed the salt through well, shape the butter into a log or a roll (you may need to put it in the fridge for ten minutes first if it's too soft to hold a shape).
 When it's salted/flavoured and shaped to your satisfaction, wrap it in baking paper, aluminium foil, or both (the baking paper inside the foil), and put it in the fridge.

Use it up within a week or so - I'm not sure of the shelf life because mine has always disappeared long before any hint of rancidity! If you've salted it well, it may keep for longer. Feel free to experiement but be careful, and never eat butter that looks, smells or tastes 'wrong'.




Why won't my cream 'break' into butter?


This happened to me once. I beat my cream for ages and all I got was a grainy, slightly wet mess. I'm not sure why it happens, but my best tip is to keep beating - once your cream gets to this stage it has already started to break and it may simply take longer than usual for the break to occur fully.

If, on the other hand, your cream doesn't ever really get to this stage, check if you've actually used 'pure' cream. If your cream has been thickened artificially, it may not respond in the same way as pure cream. In this case I recommend you give it up as a bad job and stomp off to bed in a huff.







Why is my cream pocked with little dents and bubbles when I cut into it?

You might not have rinsed out the water or the butterfat properly. The more thoroughly you rinse out the butterfat and press out the water, the more even-textured your butter will be.







Why do I need butter pats?

You don't actually - but they are very useful. Before I had butter pats I could make butter that was quite good - I managed to get the water pressed out using my bare hands and dabbing the butter with kitchen towel to absorb the water. When my ever-wonderful partner gave me some vintage butter pats, however, I was amazed to see how much quicker and more effective the pats were in pressing the water from the butter. A quick flick of the pats and the droplets fly off. For an investment of $AUD 25 or so, I recommend purchasing a pair - if you can find some. Try antique or vintage stores.


What happens if I don't salt my butter?

It will be fine initially but it won't keep as long. Salt is a preservative and without it your butter won't last. Be sure to keep it in the fridge and consume it within a few days.


Do I need a churn?

No you don't. I always thought you did too. Electric beaters are fine. Some people just shake cream in a clean glass jar, with a marble to mix it well. but that sounds like hard work to me.


How long will home made butter last?

At least a week if kept in the fridge and probably longer, especially if it's well salted. If you don't salt your butter it may not last as long as this.


What happens if my butter goes rancid?

Rancidity is a chemical process whereby the fats in the butter begin to deteriorate. If you keep your butter too long without any preservatives, it will go rancid. We don't encounter rancid butter very often in these days of overused preservatives where commercial butter can last for up to a year if cold stored. In days gone by it was a common problem.  Rancid butter smells and tastes bad. Don't eat it. Throw it away and make another batch.


What can I do with the leftover buttermilk? 

Great question! If you start off with about 600ml of thin cream, you'll have about 270 ml of buttermilk left over in addition to your butter. Don't waste it - buttermilk is amazing stuff.
Firstly - taste it! Fresh home made buttermilk is not the same as the commercial stuff. It's liquid enough and sweet enough to use as a milk substitute. It's also low in fat, because all of the fat has gone into the butter. So try it on your muesli or as a drink.

Secondly - it's a fantastic milk substitute to use in cooking. Use it in cakes, muffins, scones, brownies, pancakes or anything else in the place of milk. It's great.

Thirdly - although I haven't tried this personally, I've read that it's a great addition to salad dressings. In this context, think of it like a thin cream or a yoghurt. Experiment and enjoy.


Anything else?

I've shared all that I know - if anyone has any helpful tips or tricks that might help all us amateur buttermakers out there, please feel free to leave comments and share your views.

With love from Dr Cupcake.