….tales of taste and food wisdom, for modern times

Sweating Vegetables November 23, 2011

Filed under: Techniques — Isabel @ 5:19 pm
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What’s in a name?

The French call it “mirepoix“, the Spanish call it “sofrito“.  Italians refer to “soffritto“, as indeed they would, since the term comes from their verb “soffriggere” meaning “to fry lightly“.

Somewhat unromantically, the English call it “sweating“.  No surprises there.

Whatever the term, sweating your veg matters.  This really simple, but important process, which softens the vegetables to prepare them for use in a variety of recipes, is the basis to getting flavour into your cooking by applying gentle heat and seasoning to release the natural moisture and sugars in the vegetable so that it softens but doesn’t brown.

The Holy Trinity

You can sweat any veg, but the classic combination, known as the “holy trinity”, is a mixture of 2 parts carrot, 1 part onion and 1 part celery and is a basis for a variety of sauces, soups, stews and stocks.  Garlic is frequently involved.

Depending on what the recipe calls for, typically you will finely dice the veg, cut it into larger dice, or chop it into small chunks, before sauteing it in wide-ish lidded saute/frypan with a little olive oil and butter and seasoning it with salt (to draw out moisture and so prevent browning) and pepper.  It’s crucial to season the veg from the outset, so that it really gets into the “body” of the veg, rather than sitting on the surface.

You then cover everything with a “cartouche” and the pan lid and cook it over a gentle heat until softened and translucent.  There’s nothing clever about a “cartouche” – it’s a French term which refers to a circle of greaseproof paper cut to fit directly over your vegetables, before you put the lid on the pan.

What’s the point?

The whole purpose is retain maximum flavour by preventing natural moisture loss  – add additional liquids and ingredients only after the veg is properly softened.

Et voila!    Y listo!    E voila!   There you go!  Get sweating!


Away with soggy bottoms! Lining a tart tin and baking blind November 3, 2011

Filed under: Techniques — Isabel @ 11:28 pm
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No cook wants a soggy bottom.  It means that the bottom crust of the lovely pastry tart or pie, that you’ve just spent a couple of hours slaving and fretting over, is undercooked, soft or still raw because the filling has prevented the dough from cooking properly.  Soggy Bottom Syndrome (SBS).  Not a good thing.

“Baking blind” is a process where you pre-cook and seal the pastry before adding the filling, to ensure your creation has a nice crisp bottom, which is a very good thing.

This process is a must for pastry goods with custard-based fillings, but you’ll probably notice that many recipes involving for drier fillings (e.g. sponge, frangipane, lemon curd, etc) don’t call for baking blind.  However, my OCD gets the better of me and I always do it to make sure the base is crisp.   SBS is also a risk in double crust fruit pies, with fruit which has a high water content. Sprinkling ground almonds or fine semolina over the base before adding the fruit soaks up the fruit juices and saves the day.

You may be tempted to save time by cutting out the process, but be strong!  You won’t regret it!  Like all good things, a good tart’s worth waiting for.


  • Loose-bottomed tart tin
  • Circle of greasproof paper or foil 3-5 cms larger than your tin
  • A couple of handfuls of baking beans or any dried beans (but don’t use dried kidney beans)
  • Pre-heated oven set at: fan 180 degs, conventional 180 degs, Gas Mark 4
  1. Roll out your dough on a floured pastry mat (Lakeland’s are fab) or a clean floured worktop, until you get a round big enough to line the bottom and sides of your tin with about 0.5 – 1.0 cm to spare
  2. Press the dough firmly but gently into your tin without stretching it, pushing it down evenly around the sides to give you a slightly raised, even edge.  If you stretch the dough, it’s likely to shrink back during cooking. Prick the base all over with a fork
  3. Leave to rest in the fridge for at least 30 mins or, even better, 20 mins in the freezer
  4. To bake the case blind, crumple the paper/foil disc and line the pastry case so the the paper comes well up the sides of the case. Fill at least half full with beans
  5. Bake smaller, individual cases for 10-15 mins, and larger ones for 20 mins, until the bottom of the case (i.e. under the paper/foil) looks dry but not coloured
  6. If your filling is fairly dry, (e.g. sponge or frangipane) remove the paper and beans and leave to cool slightly before proceeding
  7. If your filling is wet (e.g. custard-based) then paint the base and sides with a little beaten egg (you can use just yolk or white if you have some spare). The egg will set and seal the pastry and you’ll avoid the dreaded SBS
  8. Return the case to the oven for a further 5-10 mins (depending on size) until the egg has set, before removing it from the oven and proceeding.


Making really good shortcrust pastry? Simples! November 1, 2011

Filed under: Techniques — Isabel @ 10:49 pm
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“What – make pastry from scratch?” you exclaim. “Why bother? Life’s too short – buy it from the supermarket!” you cry.

Well, sure you can.  But, given a little practice and confidence, the quality of the stuff from the supermarket cold cabinet won’t hold a candle to what you’ll produce in your own kitchen.  Home made’s also cheaper and pastry dough freezes well – so if you get yourself organised, you can knock up several batches for later.

Tips for really good basic shortcrust:

  • Pastry hates heat – make sure all your ingredients and your hands are COLD!
  • Pastry loves air –  it’s important to aerate the flour as you make the dough
  • If you have a food processor it’s easy peasy – basically, just “dump & blitz”
  • Or by hand, keep your hands cold and high and you’ll have no problem
  • The ratio of fat to flour is usually 2:1 (i.e. twice as much flour as fat)
  • Shipton Mill Organic Cake flour is really good for pastry
  • President Unsalted Butter has a low water content so makes great pastry
  • Using all butter produces the best flavour
  • Adding a proportion of vegetable shortening/lard produces a crumblier crust.  You could use all butter for a sweet crust and mix of butter and shortening for a savoury crust
  • Never, ever, ever use margarine.
  • Wetter’s not better! For a tender, crumbly pastry use only enough liquid  to bring the dough together. Sticky dough = heavy pastry
  • Gently does it.  Pastry dough isn’t bread dough – don’t knead it
  • You don’t have to use an egg but, especially for sweet pastry,  it enriches the dough
  • For savoury pastry, adding fine grade semolina to the flour gives a lovely extra “crunch”
  • Pastry needs to rest in the fridge*, so the gluten can relax before rolling it out, or it will shrink back in the oven


* If you’re making a tart case to bake blind,  resting your dough-lined tart tin in the freezer for 30 mins before you bake it blind helps prevent shrinking (see Technique: Lining a tart tin and baking blind)


Depends on what you’re making of course,  but the quantities below should give you enough for:

  • Top and bottom of one 23cm pie
  • Two 23cm tart tins or 6x 12cm individual tart tins

Savoury Crust:

  • 300g plain flour
  • 30g fine semolina
  • 130g cold butter + 20g vegetable shortening (or lard)
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 4 tbsp ice cold water
Sweet Crust:
  • 300g plain flour
  • 150g cold unsalted butter
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 20g unrefined caster sugar
  • I medium egg
  • 1-2 tbsp ice cold water
Hand method
  1. Sift the flour (+semolina) and salt (+sugar) together into a large mixing bowl.  Cut the cold butter into 1cm dice and add to the flour.
  2. With cold hands (or a pastry cutter), rub (cut)  the butter quickly into the flour, lifting the flour high to aerate the mix.  Stop when you have coarse breadcrumbs.
  3. Sprinkle 3 tbsp of the iced water (or whisk the egg with 1 tbsp of the iced water)over the crumbs, mixing everything quickly but lightly, with the fingers of one hand (or a palette knife) until the mixture starts to come together in clumps.
Food processor method
  1. Put the flour (+semolina) and salt (+sugar) into the bowl of the processor and blitz for a few seconds to aerate.
  2. Cut the cold butter into 1.5 cm dice and add to the bowl. Pulse very briefly and stop when you have very coarse breadcrumbs.
  3. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of the the iced water (or whisk the egg with 1 tbsp of the iced water)  over the crumbs. Pulse until the mixture starts to come together in clumps.
Either method
  • Which ever method you use add more water cautiously, if you need to.
  • Making sure your hands are cold, tip the dough onto your work surface and squeeze it gently together until it comes into  ball.  Shape it gently into a flatish round about 3cms high, wrap it in cling film and leave it in the fridge for at least 45 mins to relax before rolling out.