She who dares makes...Danish Braid

Hamlet may well have said "something is rotten in the state of Denmark" but perhaps if he'd spent less time worrying about his Mum's sex-life and more time eating Danish pastries he might not have been so morose.

This month Kelly of Sass & Veracity and Ben of What’s Cookin’? challenged us to make a Danish Braid using the proper laminated Danish pastry dough. As Kelly and Ben explained to us, Danish pastry dough is a yeast-leavened dough from the same family as puff pastry which basically means it contains lots and lots of butter.

I was very excited about this month's challenge. Although Danish pastries aren't my bakery treat of choice (bring on the iced fingers) learning to make them would be a chance to acquire a real skill. I had visions of making traditional swirls full of juicy raisins and topped with a light glace icing, but our challengers told us we had to make a plait. Kelly and Ben suggested using an apple filling but I decided to stuff my plait with frangipane and poached pears. Yum.

As with many yeast recipes, making the pastry dough was time consuming but not labour intensive. Once you've completed the first dough stage you complete four 'turns' of the pastry sandwiching a big block of butter in between the folds of the dough. Yes, the big block of butter - that's why Danish pastries aren't Weight Watchers friendly. That said, the dough is flavoured with orange and cardamon so there must be some useful vitamins in there somewhere.
I had a rare evening with the house to myself so I was able to make the dough in peace with only the Wicked soundtrack (turned up loud) to accompany me (I have the music tastes of a camp old man). Unfortunately I don't have a stand mixer yet (one day darling pistachio KitchenAid you will be mine) so I had to follow Ben's instructions for making the dough by hand.

Ben suggested putting the flour on the surface and tipping the eggy, yeasty, milky liquid into a well in the middle. Hmmmm. All I can say is that bloody Ben must have a bloody degree in engineering because when I tipped my liquid into the centre of my (high-sided and artfully constructed) well all I got was this (believe me, this was only the start):
Yes at 10:00pm on a Saturday night to the sounds of Defying Gravity I found myself leaning across the counter trying to stem the eggy flow with my chest. Fingers webbed with dough, I cursed Ben and all the lucky people with mixers. Most of all I cursed myself. I knew this would happen. I should have trusted my instincts and just used a bowl. Ah well, I'm sure for some people, dough encrusted breasts are a turn-on.

While my dough chilled I made a simple almond cream and poached some pears. By this time it was nearly midnight so I left everything in the fridge and took my sticky self to bed. The next day I started the assembly process. I was a bit nervous about the plaiting, but a mis-spent youth preparing ponies' tails for gymkhanas stood me in good stead.
I left the plait to prove while I faffed around doing Sunday morning chores. Unfortunately I faffed for a little too long and the dough was perhaps a little too puffy. If I was being mean i would say it resembled Mr AB's cheeks after his wisdom teeth removal, but I'm a supportive girlfriend so wouldn't be so cruel (tee hee).
The finished result was excellent. I'm not sure the pastry was as flaky as it should have been, but filled with the frangipane and pears it was particularly moreish. In the end I put half of it in the freezer just to stop myself from slivering it every time I walked past. I would definitely recommend trying the pastry as it isn't as daunting as you might expect and there's something very satisfying about presenting homemade pastries to your loved ones.

Be sure to look at the other plaits here and if you fancy trying the dough yourself you can get the recipe here.


Summer Lovin'?

True to the national stereotype, there is a lot of weather chat going on in the office at the moment. Everyone is wondering whether we will get any sun this year or whether the weather warning (issued on the longest day no less) is a sign of bad things to come. To be honest, I wouldn't mind if we did just fast forward into autumn. Am I the only one who celebrates the fact that the days are now getting shorter and keeps her fingers crossed not to get an Indian summer? Maybe if I tanned and had the kind of legs you'd be happy to show off in shorts it would be different. But no. I am definitely an Autumnal kinda gal (with cankles).

Regardless of how much I wish for rainy days so I can legitimately spend hours watching dvds on the sofa, I am still excited by the array of summer produce at the local farmers' market. The first raspberries, the heady strawberries, tender asparagus, tiny broad beans and more:*When everything looks so good it's hard not to fill your basket.

(don't you wish you were a broad bean - look at that downy blanket they're nestled against!)

I made a quick bruschetta with the Isle of Wight tomatoes. Grating a clove of garlic against some linseed bread and piling up the tomatoes with a little balsamic vinegar, basil and olive oil. Yum.

I'll cook the potatoes with a handful of mint and some melted butter and the asparagus with some soft scrambled eggs. Maybe summer isn't so bad after all.

* Excuse the raggedy cuticles. You wouldn't believe that I had just treated myself to my first ever manicure would you?!

Vive La Revolution!

As I landed in Havana it seemed like the whole airport was heady with the smell of cigars. Passing the various 'Socialisme ou Meurt' billboards on the way into the city and watching people working the land with ox and plough I really felt that I had arrived somewhere different. Ostensibly Havana is the same as any beautiful old capital city. The buildings, even those crumbling around the edges, are photogenic, the museums are enlightening and we tourists are able to wander happily with plenty to see and do. However, Havana is the only place I have ever visited which doesn't have a MacDonalds. There are no plate glass windows full of shoes and handbags, you can walk for a whole day without seeing an advert and when you go to the bakery the choice is between white bread rolls and, er, white bread rolls.
Since I've been back people have been curious to know what Cuba is like. My standard phrase is that it is a place "full of contradictions". It seems that the hackneyed stories are true: a waiter can earn more than a doctor and while people had just been permitted to buy mobile phones, few would be able to afford them. More than one Cuban I spoke to derided America and Britain as imperialist hell-holes, yet others (mostly the younger ones) cursed the government and paraded around in t-shirts emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes.

I don't know enough to be able to discuss the Cuban political system properly, but I can say that no matter how many individual wants people are willing to sacrifice for the collective; personal enterprise still thrives. Generally speaking, private business is not permitted but people are allowed to make money from their house. This gives rise to various Casas Paticulares (similar to b&bs and much better than the state hotels) and Palandars (restaurants run out of people's own kitchens). The palandars are particularly interesting. In some you literally walk pass the family sitting in their lounge to go to a table in their kitchen whereas in others, particularly the more famous ones in Havana, you are greeted by servers with palm pilots and a reservation is vital.

It is said that Cuba is not a place famed for its food. Wherever you go the menu is invariably the same: pork and rice and beans, chicken and rice and beans or fish and rice and beans. Choice is limited. Our large supermarkets or even our local corner shops are orgies of excess in comparison to the shops and restaurants in Cuba. Compare this bakery to your local:

That said, the quality of the fresh ingredients was excellent:

but I would like to have jazzed them up a bit.

When I think of all the pain and suffering that has been caused in the name of protecting the capitalist world from the evils of socialism, I feel truly sad. Despite it's beauty: and the flower sellers who take their blooms from door to door:I could never live somewhere like Cuba (imagine trying to do a Daring Bakers challenge with the limited ingredients?!). However, it was so refreshing to escape the constant demands to buy buy buy or to see children playing happily without an X-box in sight.

Returning from my two week stay I have started to resent the manipulation of the big corporates and the advertising from which we cannot escape. It seems I need to find a country with a happy medium - if anyone has any suggestions let me know! I have returned with a slightly altered perspective on how I think life should be lived and a fair few bottles of rum to turn into cocktails while I decide. Mojito anyone?

On a completely different note, Antonia at Food Glorious Food has nominated me for a blogging award - Yipeeeeeeeee! The 'Arte e Pico' award is awarded for creativity, design, interesting material and contribution to the food blogging community. It was a real surprise to be nominated for an award and given that I am less than loving my job at the moment, it makes me thankful that I do have something creative in my life. Antonia, a fellow Londoner, produces beautiful recipes, is honest when things don't work out as planned and her writing is chatty, funny and very readable. Go visit her if you haven't already. So, rather than start sobbing and list all the people I'd like to thank, here are my five nominees for other fabulous blogs. Drum-roll please...

1. Tantalising and terrific, it's Tartelette.
2. Food and so, so much more, Pink of Perfection.
3. Inventive recipes and striking photos, Mike's Table.
4. A witty and beautiful blog, Confessions of a Cardamon Addict
5. Another witty lady and a giver of great recipes too, at You say Tomahto...

Go and visit them all. For the rules of the award see here.