How to peel a pepper

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We’ve seen in Roast Peppers how to cook peppers and remove the skin. The peppers are cooked through resulting in a soft texture.
With this technique, it is possible to peel the peppers still keeping a bite, and an almost raw feel:

Using a fork or even a carving fork, sear the pepper over an open flame; when the skin starts blistering  and looks like the picture above, place in an airtight contained (a plastic bag will do the job) to cool. Once cold, remove the skin.

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Italian Meringue

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A meringue is a preparation made out of egg white whipped with sugar, and can be used as a base or an ingredient in several recipes.
There are different types of meringue: the simplest method is the so-call French meringue, where the eggs whites are simply whipped with caster sugar until stiff. This meringue can then be baked to make, for instance, nests.
A good rule when making a meringue is that the weight of the sugar should be twice the weight of the egg whites, or, if you don’t want to weigh the whites, 60 grams of sugar per white is a good approximation

The method I will talk about now is the most complex, but also the one that will give you the most stable, glossy and thick result: the Italian meringue.
This is a cooked meringue and will need a sugar thermometer because it is made with a light caramel that needs to be at 121 C to be added to the egg whites.
It requires a lot of whisking and is a bit of hard work, unless you have a planetary mixer.

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INGREDIENTS
Egg whites
White sugar (60 g per egg white, or twice the weight of the whites)
Glucose (optional)

EQUIPMENT NEEDED:
Sugar thermometer
Silicon Brush
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This is the whole process:

  1. Put the sugar in a heavy bottomed pan, add just enough water to cover and add the glucose if using
  2. Attach the thermometer to the side of the pan and bring the syrup to the boil
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  3. Brush the sides of the pan with a silicon brush dipped in water, to prevent the sugar crystals from sticking and then burn
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  4. When the syrup has reached 110 C, start whisking the eggs with an electric mixer or in the planetary, and whisk until stiff peaks form
  5. When the syrup reaches 121 C, slowly pour it on the whites, whisking on high speed until all the syrup has been incorporated. Be careful that the stream of caramel does not hit the whisk or it might splatter, and caramel gives nasty burns!. You will see that the egg whites grow in volume and become glossy and shiny
  6. Keep whisking on low speed until the meringue is at room temperature (about 10 minutes)

This meringue is much more stable than an ordinary one and can be stored in the fridge, in an airtight container, for up to two days; furthermore, as the hot sugar will cook the egg whites, it can be safely eaten without further cooking.

Creme Anglaise (Light Pouring Custard)

Custard, in common language, indicates a series of egg-based creams, that can have different degrees of thickness and can be prepared using different aromas.

Thicker custards are prepared with the addition of starch (flour or corn flour usually) and, in that case, they should be called pastry cream (creme patissiere in French).

Strictly speaking, custard refers to what the French call Creme Anglaise (English cream), which is what I am going to explain: now we will see the process to create the most basic light pouring custard, using only egg yolks, sugar, milk and vanilla. The ingredients can then be changed to suit our specific needs (replacing the milk, or part of it, with cream to make it richer, or using another aroma instead of vanilla for example), but mastering this process you will get consistent results whatever ingredients you have chosen

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Ingredients:

Egg yolks
Caster sugar
Milk
Vanilla Pod
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  1. Cut the vanilla pod in half lengthwise and scrap the seeds that are inside using a teaspoon
  2. Add the vanilla seeds to the milk and heat it up
  3. As you are heating the milk, whisk the yolks and sugar together using a hand or and electric whisk until the mixture looks pale and fluffy
  4. Add the hot milk to the yolk and sugar mixture, little by little, stirring constantly to incorporate the milk
  5. When all the milk has been added, put it back in the pan and heat gently, stirring continuously
  6. The custard is ready when it covers the back of a wooden spoon (if you check the temperature using a probe, it should be 63C, which is also the temperature that will  kill all the harmful bacteria that might be in the egg)
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That was a very synthetic way to put it, that might be useful for somebody who already knows how to do it and needs a quick reminder, but that information would not be sufficient for a novice, therefore I’m adding some more info and tips to ensure that the process is understood in depth.

Regarding the vanilla pod, it is quite expensive, so, alternatively, you can use vanilla extract, even though the result will not be exactly the same.

TIP: do not discard the pod after scraping the seeds: if you put it in a jar with plain sugar, you will obtain a vanilla-scented sugar.

Be very careful when you pour the milk into the mixture: if you pour it all at once, the heat will cook the yolks and they will scramble. Pour it very slowly, at least at the beginning, whisking continuously to make sure that the hot milk is dispersed quickly into the mixture; keep whisking until all the milk has been incorporated.

Instead of returning it to the pan, the (still) uncooked cream can be cooked in a bain-marie (a bowl placed over a pan of hot water). This is what I actually suggest if you are inexperienced, as it is a bit more time consuming but reduces the risk of scrambling the eggs. This is how you should do it:

  • Heat the water in the pan, making sure it doesn’t boil
  • Make sure that there is no direct contact between the hot water and the bowl
  • I suggest that you use a metal bowl rather than a glass or ceramic one, since metal is a much better conductor of heat and your custard will be ready more quickly
  • I know I’m repeating myself, but stir it continuously until it’s ready and you can take it off the heat

Roast Peppers

Peppers are amongst the tastiest vegetables

Follow this simple process to get rid of the skin, and you will have a fantastic taste and texture and they will be easier to digest too. Please note that these guidelines are for red peppers, which are the sweetest and easiest to peel. For yellow and even more for green peppers, you will need to increase the cooking time.

Preheat the oven at 220C

First, I suggest that you trim them before cooking, otherwise they will get sticky and it will be difficult to remove all the seeds: make a circular cut around the stalk and remove it (most of the seeds will come out as well), and remove also the white membranes inside.

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Cut them in half lengthwise and rinse thoroughly, and place them in a baking tray lined with parchment. See below the picture showing the two halves and all the parts that should be discarded:

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Put the peppers in the oven for 45 minutes, checking them very 15 minutes and turning them every 15 minutes to allow even cooking.

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They are ready when they are soft and the skin blisters. It’s also a good sign if they start turning black, it will give a nice smoky aroma.

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Take out of the oven, and now a very important moment: when still piping hot, the peppers need to be placed in an AIRTIGHT container to cool down. What happens is that the steam that generates inside makes the skin separate completely from the flesh.

TIP: A plastic container can be used, but then it will smell of peppers forever, especially if you don’t have a dishwasher. I suggest that you use cook-in bags for this task.

When they are cool they can be peeled very easily (see video below) and eaten as they are (in a salad for example) or used for other preparations.

How to cook pasta

Pasta is probably the most well-known element of Italian cuisine. Living abroad I have noticed that the process of cooking pasta (which, as an Italian, I take for granted), is often misunderstood, and, therefore, the results are not always satisfactory. For this reason I have decided to share some tips on how pasta should be cooked properly in order to get the right al dente texture.
First, you don’t need to add oil to your water, pasta will not get sticky unless you leave it unattended after cooking and draining it, but that is something you shouldn’t do anyway. The amount of water needs to be rather big compared to the amount of pasta.
I will give more precise quantities but the principle is that, when you put something in boiling water, the temperature will plunge and the water will stop boiling. If the mass of the water is large enough, the temperature will not drop too dramatically and the water will start boiling again quickly, which is what is needed to reach the aforementioned al dente result.
Don’t forget to put salt in your water. Some people might argue that you can add it afterwards but it won’t be the same.

Regarding the exact quantities, I have a good eye for it and I get it right without having to measure  every time.
However, if you want to be a bit more scientific, a good rule (the source is Heston Blumenthal here) is 10, 100, 1000: for 100 grams of dried pasta, which is a good/large portion, use 10 grams of salt and 1000 ml (1 litre) of water. It might sound like a lot of salt, but if you consider the actual solution, it’s just 1%, (as it will be diluted in the water), and if you want to visualise it 10 g of salt is about 1 and ½ tsp. Also, give your pasta a good stir every now and then to prevent it from attaching to the bottom of the pan.
Regarding cooking times, it is normally indicated on the pack. Just remember that the time is a rough guideline, so you should try it shortly  before the stated time and drain it when it’s ready according to your taste. Also, start counting from the moment the water starts boiling again after putting the pasta in it.
Another technique, used in restaurants, is to preserve some of the cooking water, drain the pasta a couple of minutes before it’s ready, and finishing it off in the pan with the sauce; some cooking water is needed to avoid the pasta becoming too dry.
I cannot give exact quantities here because there are some variables: how liquid is the sauce you are using and how long you want the pasta to cook with the sauce; therefore, I suggest that you keep more cooking water than you think it will be necessary and then add it little by little till your pasta is ready

How to steam mussels

Mussels are one of my favs. if they are fresh and prepared in the right way, they will give you the real taste of the sea.  However, they are very delicate and need to be treated with care because,  as it happens very often with fish and seafood, overcooking is a very common mistake and will spoil the result.

If you want to have an excellent result in terms of both flavour and texture, follow these simple steps.

First of all, you need to clean them: usually you will find a bit of seaweed coming out of the shell: pull it off (this is probably the most tedious part of the process).

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Discard all the broken shells; once done, put them in a colander and rinse.

Put them in a pan large enough to allow some extra room as the shells will open up and the overall volume will increase and add a splash of water (or white wine if you prefer). You can add some crushed garlic if you like it.

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With the lid on, cook on medium heat and, when they start opening up, stir them with a wooden spoon to allow even cooking (put the lid back on afterwards).

Do not cook for more than 3-4 minutes after they start opening up, and discard all the shells that didn’t open. If not using immediately, keep the lid on (if too much steam escapes, it will make the mussels dry, you want them soft and moist!)

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The mussels will release a lot of liquid which is packed with flavour: you just need to strain it before using it. Use a colander (or even better a conical strainer if you have one) lined with muslin (kitchen paper will do if you don’t have it but it’s a bit more hard work and it gets ripped quite easily). By doing that you will make sure that no sand or other impurities will find their way into your plate.

Pan di Spagna (Italian sponge base)

Chocolate Pand di Spagna

Pan di Spagna is the most popular sponge base in Italy, a success that is hardly surprising as it is very light in texture and neutral in flavour, so that it can be used pretty much with anything. Growing up in Italy, I’ve always known it, and when I saw the recipe for the first time I was surprised by the fact that no yeast is used. In fact, only three ingredients are needed, eggs, sugar and flour, and it is the correct manipulation of the ingredients that makes it rise and become so soft.
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Ingredients:

5 eggs
150g white sugar
150g plain flour (or, preferably, 75g flour and 75g cornstarch)
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The reason why this sponge works without yeast is due to a property of eggs, that have the capacity of incorporating air when whisked (this capacity is obvious also when making a meringue, that uses only the egg whites, for example).
Therefore, the eggs are whisked with the sugar until they reach the desired consistency (see below), and then the flour is incorporated, being careful that the volume of the mixture is reduced as little as possible. Imagine that like a structure with microscopic air bubbles, a bit like a sponge, but fluid: the heat, during baking, will make the air expand, thus making the cake raise; at the same time the heat will cook the eggs and the flour, making them hard enough to hold that shape.

See below the process. I suggest that you line the baking tray and sift the flour beforehand if you are using an electric hand whisk, whilst you can do it while whisking if using a planetary mixer:

  1. Preheat the oven at 180C
  2. Line a baking tray with baking parchment
  3. Sift the flour and starch together or (this is quicker) whisk them with a hand whisk (it will have the same effect as sifting)
  4. Using a planetary mixer or an electric whisk, work the eggs with the sugar until it forms ribbons. It takes 10 to 15 minutes, so quite a bit of work but it’s worth it. This step is very important and needs some considerations:
    – If using an electric hand whisk, work like a planetary would, moving it in a circle, it will be quicker
    -In Italian we say that the mix is ready when it ‘writes’, i.e., when you lift the whisk (after switching off!), the mix that falls leaves a trail on the surface

    This is the sort of trail that the mix should leave on the surface when you lift the whisk

    This is the sort of trail that the mix should leave on the surface when you lift the whisk

  5. When the mix ‘writes’, we are ready to incorporate the flour; this is a critical step, as you need to be fast and light handed at the same time. Some chefs even suggest that you use your hands but I think it’s way too messy and use a wooden spoon or -even better- a silicon spatula. Throw the flour/ cornstarch into the mix all at once and fold it in with quick upward strokes; the mix will lose some volume but your goal here is to keep as much volume as possible
  6. When all the flour has been incorporated, put the mix in the baking tray that has previously been lined, and bake without opening the oven for at least 20 minutes
  7. Cooking time can vary, but it is around 30 minutes; to check if it’s ready, insert a cocktail stick in the middle: the sponge is ready when it comes out clean
  8. Do not take out of the oven immediately or it will collapse: turn it off and let it cool down inside for at least 15 minutes

After that the base is normally sliced and used for assembling a cake

VARIATIONS:

LEMON:
The good thing of pan di Spagna is its neutral flavour that makes it suitable for virtually any type of cream; however, someone (me included to be honest) might find it boring: to add a bit of freshness, add the filtered juice of half lemon to the eggs and sugar before you start whisking.
IMPORTANT: add it before you start whisking, if you add it at the end it will ruin it!

CHOCOLATE:
Depending on what you are using it for, a chocolate pan di Spagna will be more suitable than a plain one: simply mix 50g of cocoa powder with 50g of flour and 50g of corn starch (some recipes say 75g of cocoa with 75g of flour/corn starch, but I tried and the proportion I gave you works better for me)