Chocolate mousse

My latest problem at work has been chocolate mousse, particularly the white chocolate kind. When we first started trying to make it – blithely assuming it would be simple – we were all over the shop. My efforts all turned out too firm; one of the other chefs kept producing something like a sort of softly whipped cream that didn’t hold its shape at all. Our third chef hung back, insisting that pastry wasn’t his thing. Only when it was clear that he couldn’t possibly do any worse than the rest of us, did he come forward with his own recipe. His turned out rock solid, and watching him struggling to pipe out little turds of chocolate mousse was – well, I haven’t laughed so much in a long time.

I’m not saying I’ve got it all sorted – because it still goes terribly wrong every so often – but I’ve made God knows how many batches of mousse since that first day, and I’m definitely in a better position now. So I wanted to write down some of the things that helped me, just in case anyone else is struggling with it.

A basic recipe for dark chocolate mousse

The recipe that eventually worked for me was Elizabeth David’s – 30g of chocolate per egg; no other ingredients. You separate the eggs; melt the chocolate in a bain marie, then remove from the heat; stir in the yolks; whip up the eggs whites – adding approximate 1 teaspoon of sugar per egg (as per Felicity Cloake); then fold them into the chocolate mixture.


It’s all about the cocoa content!

A white chocolate mousse – made using David’s recipe – won’t set at all. This is because the ‘setting agent’ in chocolate mousse is the cocoa in the chocolate itself. White chocolate has a very low cocoa content, so you need more than 30g per egg to get it to set.

At one point, we inadvertently bought a different brand of dark chocolate, with a cocoa content of 100% rather than the 54% of the previous brand, which really threw off my mousse-making! The answer is fairly obvious though: if the chocolate has a higher cocoa content, one needs less of it. So for 100% cocoa chocolate, I used just 23g of chocolate per egg.  Also, 1.5 teaspoons of sugar when whipping the egg whites, to counteract the bitterness.

A partially-there recipe for white chocolate mousse

For the white chocolate mousse, I settled on 50g of chocolate per egg. I don’t use the yolks because they affect the colour, and I don’t add sugar to the egg whites because the white chocolate has so much sugar in it anyway. I still think the meringue needs stabilizing though, or else it will split – sometimes after it has been combined with the chocolate. So first, don’t over-whip the egg whites – stop just before you reach stiff peaks.  Also a tiny bit of cream of tartar, just the tip of a teaspoon, seems to help.  With white chocolate mousse, I also add cream to dilute the sweetness: 70ml per egg – and see the point below.


Watch the temperature

For the longest time, when I added the cream to the melted chocolate first, before the egg whites (as one is supposed to), the mixture took on a lumpy, appearance – not seized, but as if it were curdled. I resorted to adding the cream last and the egg whites first, which produced a smoother mixture, albeit without the lovely airy texture of a mousse.

I think these problems were down to temperature. To get over them, I tried Michel Roux’s approach of making additions to the chocolate progressively cooler. (Roux uses gelatin in his white chocolate mousse, which sounds like cheating to me.) I heat half of the cream in the microwave until it is just warm to the touch, and add this to the melted chocolate gradually. I then whip the other half of the cream to firm peaks and combine that with the chocolate mixture. Then I fold in the whipped egg whites.

Stir gently

It doesn’t sound so important, but there are lots of points during the making of mousse where it feels like you just need a moment to beat the lumps out of the mixture… and at this point, everything will start going south quickly. A really light hand is needed – not just when folding in the egg whites – but also, for example, when adding cream to the white chocolate, or yolks to the dark chocolate. As the liquid is stirred into the hot melted chocolate, it will start to thicken. The more it is beaten, the thicker, and stickier and lumpier it will become. So stir slowly and gently, and only enough to incorporate the liquid before moving on to the next stage.

Recipes in summary

Dark chocolate (54% cocoa): use 30g of chocolate per egg. Separate the eggs, and whip the whites to firm peaks, adding 1tsp of caster sugar per egg. Melt the chocolate over a bain marie, then remove from the heat. Stir in the yolks slowly, then fold in the beaten egg whites.

Dark chocolate (100% cocoa): as above, but use 23g of chocolate and 1.5 tsp sugar per egg.

White chocolate (very low cocoa percentage): use 50g of chocolate per egg (you will only need the whites), and 70ml of double cream. Divide the cream into two bowls. Melt the chocolate slowly and gently over a bain marie. Warm one bowl of cream and add gradually to the melted chocolate. Whip the other to firm peaks, and combine with the chocolate mixture. Beat the egg whites with a little cream of tartare to stabilize and fold through the chocolate mixture.


Moules mariniere


Recently, in the middle of a stressful service, I was challenged to make moules mariniere without any prep, instruction or recent experience.  I learnt something important – or rather two things.  A) I don’t feel the need to prove myself  to other people, and B) this is probably a serious disadvantage in a competitive industry, full of young, male chefs.

“If you can’t do it, don’t worry – we will,” he said.

Okay, you do it.

I believe I have made moules mariniere once – last year on my course – and I have a vague memory of shallots and white wine, and steaming the mussels in a pan with the lid on, but I wasn’t clear enough on the details to actually try it out on a customer.  Particularly since I remember the rubbery result of that previous experience.

I have two days off though – time enough to try it out on myself and throw up all day tomorrow if I get it wrong – so I went out and bought mussels, shallots, white wine, parsley and (to me, the most appealing part of the recipe) crusty bread.

With mussels, you begin by washing them, removing the beards and discarding any dead ones.  Dead mussels will have open shells, and won’t close up if you tap them on the table, or squeeze them together with your fingers.  Once they’re clean, soak them or leave them under a slow-running tap for 5 minutes to remove any grit.  Don’t leave them in tap water for too long though, otherwise they die.  If you’re not using them immediately, put them in a bowl, cover them with a damp cloth and keep them in the  fridge – on the bottom shelf so they don’t drip on anything else.  Ideally you should eat them the day you buy them, and clean them only when you’re ready to use them.

To make moules mariniere, start with finely chopped shallot.  Some people use white onion instead; some people use garlic as well.  You can sauté this for a moment with bay and thyme, before adding the mussels and wine, or Felicity Cloake puts her shallots, herbs and wine in the pan together and simmers them for 10 minutes before adding the mussels.  For two people, you might start with a kilo of mussels, 2 shallots and 100ml of dry white wine.  If possible, use a wide, shallow pan, so the mussels have fairly even access to the heat and cook at the same time.

When the shallots are sautéed or simmered adequately, drain the mussels and tip them into the pan.  Add the wine if you haven’t already done so, then put the lid on.  Cook for 3-5 minutes on a medium-high heat, shaking the pan every so often.  Check after 3 minutes; if the shells are open, the mussels are cooked.  Again, any that don’t open should be discarded.

Some people add cream and parsley to finish off the sauce; for other people the cream dulls the flavour of the mussels.  I just added butter and parsley, then spooned the mussels into a bowl and poured some of the sauce over the top.


And the verdict?

A little while ago, I read a book called The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten.  He argues that if you’re trying to expand your diet and make yourself like new foods, you should just keep going back and trying them again.  Eventually, you’ll start to enjoy them.  This is the theory I’m going on with mussels.

The first time I tried them was when I made them at college.  They were rubbery and chewy and the sauce was like seawater.  (Rick Stein also used the seawater comparison – although he seemed to thing it was a good thing.)  Later on, I was offered them at work.  Again, all I remember is that they cooled rapidly, were quite chewy and not particularly appealing to eat.

It is always different for me when I make something myself though – I think just because I know exactly what’s happened to it.  These were actually soft and tender, ‘fragrant’ and lovely.  There was a slight textural suspiciousness, but not enough to worry me.  Also, it always surprises me how messy meat and fish are to eat – it’s not like veg, where you can just shovel it in – fingers, finger bowls, napkins, special knives and all this other fussy paraphernalia are involved.

Anyway, I didn’t mind these mussels: I’d try them again.  But bearing in mind that you could have a bowlful of mussels and still only get a few tablespoons to eat out of it, I’d still argue that the most important part is the bread.

Sussex Pond Pudding

Having just posted a very sad story involving failure and pickled cabbage, I felt I ought to act quickly to restore a positive vibe to my corner of the internet – so meet the Sussex Pond Pudding – the suet pudding with a whole lemon inside.


Okay, so it’s not the prettiest from the outside.  It looks better when you dowse it with cream and dig into it.


I only started making this recently.  I hadn’t even heard of it until I was researching problems we were having with our steak & kidney puddings.  The menu at the pub is about to change though, and when I started thinking about what I would love to see on the dessert menu, this was one of the dishes that really appealed.  So I’m going to lobby hard for it.  Jane Grigson called it ‘the best of all English boiled suet puddings’.  It’s traditional (although not necessarily always with the lemon inside, apparently); it’s unusual; it tastes wonderful; and – with a 4 hour cooking time – no one’s going to look at it on the menu and dismiss it as an easy option.  Granted, the actual prep required is pretty simple.  The difficulty lies more in having our one good oven at 150C for 4 hours when there are 20 other things that need to go in, mostly at much higher temperatures.  Luckily we have a very laid-back head chef – or at least, he has been so far(!)

When I first went to try this pudding, I was really pleased to find a recipe by Felicity Cloake in the Guardian.  She writes a fantastic column where she takes one dish and tests lots of different published recipes for it, adopting the best bits from each and coming up with her ‘perfect’ recipe in conclusion.

On my first attempt, I overcooked it and it came out with hard, almost crunchy pastry around the top edge of the pudding bowl.   This was at 180C.  I had thought that was a bit high – given that we cook our steak & kidney puddings at 140C – so on my second try, I lowered the temperature.  The pastry came out paler (but still good), but the lemon in the middle – which is supposed to soften and caramelise and, in short, become edible – was definitely under-cooked.

Attempt no.3 involved upping the temperature again – but this time making allowance for our fan oven by taking 30C off the recommended temperature.  I should probably have done this in the first place(!)  In any event, the result still wasn’t great.  My testing panel of one (my mother, who isn’t particularly a pudding fan anyway) declared that there wasn’t enough sauce.

I was a bit fed up by that point but, one break time when I had nothing to do, I decided to have a go at a small, one-person version, made in a little metal dariole mould with just a wedge of lemon inside.  I halved Cloake’s recipe for the pastry but forgot to adjust the quantities for the filling, and actually it turned out really well.  It was perhaps a little bit too syrupy, but that was easy enough to adjust.

Last week I took the revised recipe into work to see if I could make it successfully there.  Things were a little more fraught of course.  And once I’d gotton over the feeling of imposition I get from making something off-menu, (and off my own back, without being asked), I discovered there’s another feeling of imposition that comes with asking people to try the food you make.  It’s terrible, really.  Literally there have been times when I’ve taken things into work for people to try, then brought them home without ever having mentioned them, because I can’t figure out how best to do it.  I’m such an idiot sometimes.

I did get over all that in this case, but I hit another problem – a baking problem.  In converting the recipe from one big pudding to three small puddings, I hadn’t divided the ingredient quantities – so I didn’t know exactly how much I needed for each.  I simply weighed out how much I needed for all three, then tried to put roughly equal amounts in each dariole mould.  As it turned out, I was a bit off.  The one I managed  to persuade the head chef to test seemed to have less than it’s fair share of sugar (and possibly more than its fair share of lemon), and did rather make his eyes water.  If I remember rightly, something similar happened when I first made steak & kidney puddings at work (see below).  Recently though we had a chef come and do a trial shift, and he made me feel much better about my mistakes by tipping cocoa powder into the Hobart machine whilst making brownies and covering everything within a metre’s radius in a fine layer of brown.

Anyway, I shan’t be deterred.  I have two days off now (woohoo!) but I shall be going back on Wednesday equipped with lemons and suet – and a properly divided recipe – to try again.

Pickled red cabbage: don’t use this recipe


It seems a bit early in the day to start apologising for the absence of posts recently, so I’m not even going to bother!  (Insert raspberry here.)  I’d just like to say that this post has been in my ‘Drafts’ folder for ages.  I wasn’t sure about posting it.  Do I want to share the bad stuff, the stuff that doesn’t work out?  Thinking about it though, the answer is actually yes – yes I do.  It wouldn’t be very ‘me’ if every post was a success story.

So onto the business of my failed pickled red cabbage.  Recently at work, I was asked to make this.  ‘Is there a recipe, please?’ I asked of the last person to make it.

‘To be honest, I just threw it together,’ was the response.

Really helpful.  I have these kinds of conversations all the time though; that’s the way a lot of chefs seem to work.  It is frustrating: when you don’t have any prior experience with something, the only option seems to be to Google it.  This can hardly be the way to find the best recipe, or to produce something different, and better, from what your customers (or indeed, your competitors) might make themselves.  I can imagine somebody looking at the menu and thinking ‘ooh, pickled red cabbage!  Let’s see how their’s compares to mine!’  They would be disappointed to find that it tastes exactly the same, since we both used the first recipe that came up on Google – or at least, the first with a 5-star rating.

I can see that experience has to start somewhere though, and I appreciate the opportunity to try something new.  I just wish there was a chance to practice a little before I have to make it for real – for real customers.

In this case, I was confused before I started by the memory of someone simmering the cabbage in the pickling solution.  None of the recipes I found online suggested this, so I can only assume that it was a red herring (rather than a red cabbage).

The basic process seems to be, first, to salt the cabbage and leave it for while – anything from a couple of hours to overnight – presumably to draw out the moisture and stop it diluting the taste.  You then wash off the salt and prepare a pickling solution with vinegar, red wine, sugar, and spices.  Boil it up, reduce it down a little, leave to infuse.  Then mix cabbage and pickling solution together and leave to ‘marinate’.

It was my understanding that the longer you left it the better – although you could eat it more or less straight away.  However, when I tried it about an hour or so later, it was incredibly salty!  I assumed I had not rinsed it thoroughly enough and decided – not very hopefully, just as a last resort – to leave it soaking, to see if some more of the salt would wash off in the vinegar.  I kept going back every now and then to give it a stir and, to my surprise, it did actually improve.  Its not salty at all now – indeed, I find it rather too sweet.

However, that’s not surprising given that there is an awful lot of sugar in the recipe(!)  I used the following:

1 head red cabbage (just over 1kg), 1 litre white wine vinegar, 400ml red wine, 800g sugar, 4tsp peppercorns, 1 cinnamon stick, 1tsp juniper berries.

(And obviously salt.  I’m not sure of the exact amount, but it was definitely generous.)

That isn’t a typo by the way – that is a massive 800 grams of sugar!

Looking back at the recipes I read before I started, there’s the BBC Good Food recipe, which uses lots of salt and an exceptionally large amount of sugar.  This is where I got my 800g from.  Lots of people in the comments of that recipe mention how sweet it is, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to read these before I started.  There’s the GoodtoKnow recipe, which uses just a few tablespoons of each (but which requires marinating for at least 2 weeks before using).  Then there’s Josh Eggleton for Great British Chefs, whose use of sugar falls somewhere in the lower-middle region (the groin region, if you will), and whose recipe requires an entire month of marinating.  If I tried again (when I try again), I’d definitely reduce the sugar – by anything from half to three quarters.  And I’d use more spices.

So, there we have it: a failure – but at least I learnt something from it.  Hopefully my next post will be all about some terrific baking success I’ve had.  Expect a long silence!


Cheese & onion quiche

This is a post for my sister, living out in [deepest, darkest] Peru and occasionally hankering after the kind of food she used to eat back home – quiche, snickerdoodles and mincemeat(!)  I’m not a fan of the last two items on her list, but I do attempt quiche every now and then.


There used to be a place we went to which served amazing homemade quiche, but I think they changed the recipe (or just got a bit bored and half-arsed about making it) and it started to get very heavy.  The egg was too solid, the pastry too thick – soggy on the base and dry at the edges…  It’s strange the way you remain a loyal customer of places like this, on the basis that they once made fantastic quiche.  I guess I was just hoping the master-quiche-maker would return from holiday and all would be well again.

Anyway, from my attempts to make quiche at home, it seems like a lot of the difficulties come from the ratio of eggs to cream used.  When I got a job as a trainee chef, my first head chef reckoned that the correct quantities were 4 eggs to 1 pint of cream.  However, his idea of quiche (and he had worked in Michelin-star establishments, so I suppose he knew what he was talking about) was that it should be very soft – it was effectively, he said, a set custard, and it should be just barely set.  I found the reference to custard a little off-putting (when applied to quiche), and when I tried his formula at home, the filling of the quiche almost ran away when I cut into it.  Maybe I didn’t leave it to cool long enough: apparently the idea is to remove it from the oven whilst the centre is still wobbly, and it will continue cooking in the residual heat for a little while afterwards.  My second attempt was a little firmer, but I wasn’t a fan of the creme-brulee-like consistency.  For me, quiche needs a higher proportion of eggs to give it some texture.

On the other hand, I have some idea of the recipe for the quiche made at the place mentioned earlier – albeit, the solid version with the soggy bottom (the earlier, better recipe remains a closely guarded secret – and an unused one).  I believe they use about 8 eggs and just a very small splash of whole milk.  Not only does this make the filling very firm, but it also makes egg the predominant taste.

So, my preference would be somewhere in the middle and after many sad, failed quiches, I think I’ve finally settled on a recipe.  Be warned though, if you decide to change the flavourings, the proportions might need tweaking.

The recipe for the pastry itself is taken from Michel Roux’s book, Pastry: Savoury and Sweet.  

Cheese & Onion Quiche

For the pastry: 250g plain flour; 125g butter (softened and cut into small pieces); 1 egg; 1 tsp caster sugar; half a tsp of salt; 40ml cold water.

For the filling: 6 eggs (300ml); 200ml of double cream; 1 medium onion (chopped); 175g mature cheddar (grated); approx 1 heaped tbsp of chopped chives.

To make the pastry, put the butter and flour in a bowl and rub them together (as if you were making scones), until the butter is dispersed and the mixture has the texture of breadcrumbs.  Stir in the sugar and salt, and the egg, then add the water.  Bring together into a dough, then flatten slightly into a disc shape, wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for at least half an hour.

While you’re waiting, preheat the oven to 170 degrees C (fan oven), and grease a 10″ diameter tart tin with a removable base.

Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface, to the thickness of a pound coin.  The best way to handle the pastry is to roll it a few strokes, then flip it over – turning it 90 degrees at the same time – and roll again.  Keep doing this – making sure to brush a little flour underneath each time you lift it – and you’ll have much less trouble with it sticking.  I find it easier, when lifting the pastry, to slide my left forearm under it, rather than picking it up with my fingers and poking holes in it.  Only do this if you have clean forearms(!)

When you’re done, the pastry should be just a bit bigger than the tart case.  Roll it up around the rolling pin, lift over the tart case, and unroll it.  Alternatively you can do it with your forearm again, but I usually find that by this point it’s thin enough that it’s easier to use the rolling pin.  Lift the edges hanging outside of the tart tin and use the side of your finger to ease the pastry into the lower edge of the tin.  It’s really easy to poke holes in it so be careful.  Try taking a little ball of the excess pastry and using that to press the pastry down with.

If you get holes in the pastry case, you can attempt to patch them, although this never works very well for me (I find the patches just drop off later).  I would just remove the pastry, ball it up and roll it out again.

Use scissors to trim the pastry to about 1-1.5cm over the edge of the tart case.  It is a good idea to leave a slight overhang because the pastry will tend to shrink in the oven.  Your best bet for getting a neat edge is to trim it properly after blind baking.

Hold on to pastry remnants in case you need to do a patch job later.

Use a fork to stab the base of the pastry case all over.  Take a piece of baking paper, slightly larger than the diameter of the tart tin.  Screw it up into a ball, smooth it out again (to make it softer and easier to manipulate), and use it to line the inside of the pastry case.  Fill with baking beans or unused rice/lentils/dried beans/whatever.  Transfer the tart tin to a baking tray (convenient if you’re going to be dragging it in and out of the oven frequently, which you are), and bake for 20 minutes.  Remove the paper and baking beans and bake for a further 15 minutes.  You want it to be a golden brown colour.  Note that if the pastry seems cooked but remains white, it will probably end up soggy when you add the eggs and cream.

Whilst the pastry case is baking, prepare the filling.  Sauté the chopped onion in a pan on the stove top – just until transparent, or it starts to brown slightly.  Break the eggs into a bowl, whisk lightly, then add the cream and whisk some more.  Season to taste.  Set aside, with the sautéed onion and grated cheese.

When the pastry shell is ready, remove it from the oven and allow it to cool for 5-10 minutes.  Then, using a serrated knife, trim the edges level with the top of the tin.  The easiest way to do this is by holding the blade of the knife practically flat against the top edge, with the blade angled down just slightly, and repeatedly shaving off layers of pastry – working diagonally from left to right, and from the inside of the tin to the outside.  Try not to actually hold on to the pastry shell itself: it will crack if you put too much pressure on it.


Discard the excess pastry (or eat it).  If you have any holes or cracks in the pastry shell at this point, again, you are supposed to be able to patch them up with remnants of uncooked pastry.

Cover the base of the pastry shell with half of the sautéed onion and half the grated cheese; then pour in the eggs/cream mixture; then pile in the rest of the onion and cheese.  Layering the filling in this way helps ensure an even spread of ingredients in the finished quiche.  Try to make sure there is no onion showing above the cream (it burns quite easily), then sprinkle the top of the quiche with chopped chives.

Place it back in the oven and bake for around 35 minutes.  You may want to turn the quiche for the last 10 minutes to ensure it browns evenly.  Don’t worry if the top puffs up in the oven; it will flatten again as the quiche cools.

When it comes out, put it on a wire rack to cool, and give it 10 minutes to stand.  You can reheat it if you want to eat it piping hot, but it does need that extra 10 minutes to firm up.

And that’s it!  Remove from the tart case, then slice, eat, enjoy (or just eat the thing whole) – and let me know how it goes!



Steak & kidney puddings


Steak & kidney puddings have caused us (or me) a bit of bother since they appeared on the menu at the pub. Sometimes they seem a little too dry; sometimes they contain too much sauce and leak everywhere. Sometimes, during the steaming process, the pastry will rise above the top of the bowl, creating an inconvenient domed shape to what, when you turn them out onto a plate, is actually the base. Also, on several occasions when I’ve made them, the suet pastry had turned out quite tough.

The toughness, as I was reading last night, is probably due to the pastry being overworked. Usually I would roll the pastry out, cut as many circles as possible for lining the pudding basins, then gather the scraps, reroll, and go again. A better idea, providing you know how many puddings you can make out of one batch of pastry, would be to make the dough and divide it into pieces first, then roll these out into rough circles and discard any scraps. And be generous with the pastry; allow an overhang over the edge of the bowl, or you may end up trying to stretch it to fit and overworking it that way.

What about the domed shape and the problem of too much/too little sauce? I think that these issues are related although, reading online, I can’t find anyone else who makes the link. On my first attempt to make puddings at the pub, I was given the meat already braised in a thick, soupy sauce and I just ladled the whole lot into the pastry-lined basins. The puddings domed in the oven, and when somebody tried one (no one important – just the owner of the pub) it was half empty. It was like the liquid had evaporated, the steam pushing up the pastry at the top, and leaving just a little pile of meat at the bottom.


When I started draining off the sauce, my puddings no longer domed, but then of course you have dry puddings. It’s the goldilocks thing again – not too much sauce, not too little, but just enough. It’s probably worth noting though, a number of recipes suggest that, before serving, you should make a hole in the pastry and pour in some extra gravy. Constance Spry recommends taking a jug of hot water to the table and adding a little to the pudding after the first slice is cut. So problems with the sauce are obviously not uncommon.

One more thing about the sauce. When I was stripping the sauce off the meat before making the puddings, I got a perfect pale crust.


It was beautiful (to me anyway!) but when I tried adding gravy to my puddings, the crust was darker where the sauce had soaked through, and it looked more authentic. It was slightly patchy though, where I had tried to be sparing with the gravy.  Presumably you’re more likely to get an even soaking if you actually do the braising and steaming in one – i.e. put the meat into the puddings raw, and fill them up with water, then steam for 4-6 hours (see Delia Smith’s recipe). At any rate, if you’re serving them in a restaurant, you can pour over the gravy once the puddings are plated. I imagine it makes little difference to the experience of eating them whether they’re soaked from the inside or the outside.

Another issue at the pub is the manner in which we steam them. I make them in the way I was shown at college – I cover each pudding with pleated foil and paper, tie it round with string, then put it in the oven in a roasting tray, half full of water, and cover the entire tray with a foil ‘tent’. Some of the other chefs use cloths in place of foil though; some omit the foil tent.

I can’t find anything which suggests that it makes a difference whether you use foil, or whether you use cloth – and I can’t see much difference in the results we get at the pub – so I’m not going to worry to much about this factor. I assume its analogous to using disposable or reusable nappies(!) The only point where it would make a difference (with regard to the puddings) I think, is if you got the cloths wet. As this article points out, the idea of covering the pudding basin is to protect it from the steam; if the cloth gets wet, the pudding will be soggy too.

I am rather confused about the whole bain marie/foil tent business. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is some fudging of the language in this area. Constance Spry boils her beefsteak & kidney puddings – in an uncovered saucepan – but she says you can steam them also. In doing this, she recommends something like a modern steamer, where the puddings are put in a covered pan with a perforated base, above a pan of water – so they don’t actually touch the water at all. By contrast, most modern recipes suggest putting the puddings in a large pan, on a trivet of some kind, pouring in water to come halfway up the sides of the bowl, then clapping on a tight-fitting lid. This is effectively what we do at the pub, but it isn’t steaming in the same sense as referred to by Spry – it’s more like a combination method, wherein half the pudding is cooked in a bain marie, and the other half by steaming. Maybe it doesn’t make any difference – after all, both are supposed to be particularly gentle cooking methods where the heat is only applied indirectly.

At any rate, if the foil tent is left off, I would have assumed that you don’t have that collection of steam around the top of the bowls, so they are baked rather than steamed, but I tested this at home and actually, while the puddings came out a different colour (the one cooked under a foil tent was browner), there didn’t seem to be much difference between them – certainly they were both good to eat.


I suppose if you have a pan of water and the oven is hot enough, there will be some steam – it just won’t be as intense as it would be under a foil tent.

What I don’t understand is why, in the test above, the pudding steamed under a foil tent had browner pastry. It suggests that the steam becomes hotter when contained with some sort of lid(?) I thought initially that browning was undesirable in a steamed pudding – but there are references online to a browned crust being sought after.

Nonetheless, there have been occasions at the pub where the pastry has definitely seemed over-brown. In the article linked to above, there is a short paragraph at the end about ‘oven steaming’, where it recommends heating the oven to 140C. That’s the temperature I use at the pub, but I’d usually reduce the heat a bit when following published recipes, to account for the more powerful oven, so maybe that’s the answer. Maybe I need to reduce the oven temperature a little.  I will report back!


Shortbread biscuits

One of the first things I was asked to cook at the pub was shortbread biscuits.  It’s a very basic recipe – there are only three ingredients, so it should be simple enough to make.  Apparently it has hidden depths though.  Or maybe I’m just good at complicating things.  Even after making it countless times, I still feel there are problems to be solved.


My first attempt was a failure.  I was given a handwritten recipe and just told to ‘ignore the cornflour’.  I failed to substitute anything for the cornflour and the results were crap.  At this point, someone did give me what they said was a better recipe, and looking at it now, it’s very similar to the formula I’ve ended up with.  I wasn’t happy with it at the time though.  Partly what bothered me was that the quantities seemed a bit random (it started with 540g flour).  I also couldn’t tell why it was better – and the person who gave it to me couldn’t tell me either.  Finally, when I actually tried it, the biscuits were softer than I’d have liked them to be.

So I spent a while fiddling with the proportions at home.  The first thing I tried was increasing the sugar.  A higher sugar content seemed to provide better crunch, but in the end they just got too sweet – the better texture wasn’t worth the trade-off in taste.

I tried lowering the oven temperature to 140C, thinking that maybe the higher temperature was causing them to brown on the outside before they were cooked properly in the middle.  Then I noticed a problem with spreading.  I was cutting little star shapes, and the sharp edges were sagging.  Initially I thought this was because the dough was too moist, so I reduced the amount of butter, but then I began having difficulty bringing the dough together when mixing the ingredients.  I started adding a splash of water.  Looking back now, I can see where I was creating problems for myself.

The biscuits were still spreading in the oven, in spite of the reduced butter content.  I read something that suggested that if the temperature was too low, the biscuits wouldn’t firm up on the outside before the butter started melting and causing them to spread.  This makes sense.  (I remember reading something similar when I was making croissants.)  I whacked the heat up to 180C but they came up with twice the degree of spread as before(!)  I’m not entirely sure what happened there.

I reduced the heat to 160C and came up with the most perfect, sharp-edged stars.  Unfortunately I didn’t actually eat one until a couple of days later, when I realised they were horribly tough and dry – virtually inedible in fact.

I could only think this was down to the water I’d added.  I’m not sure why – it had always seemed like a rogue ingredient.  I’ve never seen any other shortbread recipes which use water.  So I stopped using the water and instead tried creaming the softened butter and sugar together with an electric mixer, before adding the flour by hand.  This produced a much more moist dough and successful biscuits.

The major remaining problem, to my mind, is how to get pristine biscuits when handling such soft dough.  Rolling it out evenly is difficult, and transferring the cut shapes to the baking tray is also a bit of a trial, no matter how many appropriately-shaped spatulas I employ.  Last time I made them, I tried using an extra thick layer of flour beneath the dough, but then of course when the scraps are gathered up and re-rolled, a lot of extra flour is incorporated.  I might try rolling it out on greaseproof paper.  I wonder if it would work to oil the work surface, like you do when making bread.

With regard to getting an even thickness, some people suggest rolling out the dough between two strips of wood, or dowelling.

Anyway, the recipe!  Before I start, I should say that I’ve found it helpful to think in terms of bakers’ percentages (as set out in the book How Baking Works by Paula Figoni), where each ingredient is expressed as a percentage of the amount of flour.  So, for example, my recipe uses 40% sugar.  If the amount of flour used was 500g (which is what I use at the pub – it makes three large trays of biscuits), you would use 200g of sugar.

Shortbread biscuits

Plain flour (100%), 70% butter (softened), and 40% sugar.

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees C (fan oven).  Cream the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer, then rub in the flour by hand, and bring it together into a soft dough.  Roll it out on a floured surface to a thickness of approximately 6-7mm and cut out the biscuits with a metal cutter, placing them on lined baking tray.  Gather up the remaining dough and re-roll.  Prong the biscuits with a fork (not sure how important this step is!) and sprinkle with a little sugar if desired.  Refrigerate for 20 minutes, then bake for 15-20 minutes.  They’re done when they start turning ‘golden brown’ at the edges.  Leave them to cool and firm up properly before eating.


Edited to add…  That thing about rolling the dough out between two strips of wood or dowel, to get biscuits of even thickness?  It works really well, and anything will do really, providing its the right thickness (and you have two of them).  I used two plastic lids from the storage tubs at work.