Mini Rhubarb Meringue pies

IMG_2003In my opinion, rhubarb is a much underused delight. Widely considered a fruit, but technically a vegetable, their rosy stems have been used in culinary treats in Europe since at least 1608. Bringing their vibrant pop of colour to the otherwise muted tones of the traditional seasonal spring products, the intensity that forced rhubarb can bring to a dish, both in terms of flavour and colour is unique.

I wanted to make something to liven up a dark spring day: the kind of day when winter seems to be having one last push to keep a grip on the seasons before spring steals it from its bitter clasp. These lovely mini rhubarb meringue pies just the thing – and a total delight. The tartness of the rhubarb is perfectly offset by the light-as-a-cloud, fluffy meringue topper, finished off with a hint of orange zest that rises through the palate to add a warm spice-like depth to the flavour.

I love making pastry, but if you’re after a quick cheat, there’s no shame in using the shop-bought alternatives if you want to rustle something up quickly.

MINI RHUBARB MERINGUE PIES RECIPE

(Makes 24)

  • Butter, for greasing the tins
  • Sainsbury’s Dessert Pastry Block (500g) (chilled)
  • 3x 400g packs essential Waitrose forced rhubarb
  • Juice of 2 oranges
  • Zest of 2 oranges
  • Golden granulated sugar – to taste
  • 2 egg whites
  • 4 tablespoons caster sugar

Pre-heat the oven to 180oC. You will need 2 muffin tins, a rolling pin, a 3 ½ inch round biscuit cutter, 24 muffin cases, dried peas or alternative for blind baking, mixing bowl, handheld or electric whisk and a baking tray.

FOR THE PASTRY CASINGS

Butter your tins – this is really important if you are to have a hope in getting these suckers out. Speaking from experience, things get messy otherwise. Another useful tip (in addition to greasing the tins) is to take a 1inch wide length of greaseproof paper to act as a “hammock” for each pie. It needs to be long enough to line the bottom of each of the muffin holes and leave a couple of inches sticking up on each side of each mini-pie to act as handles for when you remove your mini pies.

Dust flour over a clean surface and roll out your cold pastry. Then, taking your biscuit cutter, cut 24 rounds of pastry (rerolling as necessary). Lay each round of pastry over the respective holes in the tin, gently allowing the centre of the pastry so sink and start to line each hole. Being careful not to tear the pastry, poke the round gently down into the hole to line the tin and smooth out any wrinkles along the edges until you have filled the mould with your pastry. Once all of the pastry moulds have been made, place the tins in the fridge to allow the pastry to cool. This will also help stop it from shrinking during baking.

Whilst you’ll find that many recipes for mini pies do not require any blind baking, personally, I prefer it as I am not the biggest fan of soggy pastry. As such, this is the method I used for this recipe, but if you’re short on time, it’s OK to skip straight to creating the filling.

TO BLIND BAKE THE PASTRY CASES

Retrieve your tins from the fridge and insert paper muffin cases on top of the pastry moulds. Fill each case with dried peas, lentils, beans or other pulses to hold the cases in place. Blind bake your pie cases in the oven for 8-10 minutes, or until the case is just set. Remove the paper and beans and cook for a further 4-5 minutes, or until the base is dry and crisp and the top edges of the tart are golden.

FOR THE RHUBARB FILLING

Retain 6 of the thinnest, most vibrant stalks of rhubarb and put to one side.

Top and tail the rest of the rhubarb and then chop into small 1cm slices and add to a saucepan. Add the freshly squeezed juice and zest of one orange (retaining the juice and zest of the second orange for later) to the pan. Using a medium heat, bring the rhubarb and orange to boil and then place on the lid and simmer for 5 minutes, or until the rhubarb starts to soften. Give it a good stir and maintain the heat.

Take your golden granulated sugar and add… to taste. I know that this is somewhat ambiguous, but the sweetness of a rhubarb tart can be a divisive subject for the food connoisseur. For me, I like a bit of the tartness of the rhubarb to come through, so I add about 160g, tasting as I go to make sure it’s not over-sweetened. That being said, some people prefer a sweeter filling, so it’s really up to you!

Once the sugar has dissolved and your filling is at your desired sweetness, spoon into your pastry cases. Bake them for 10 minutes, whilst you make the meringue.

FOR THE MERINGUE TOPPING

Take 2 egg whites and whisk until they are nice and frothy. Then, gradually add in the 4tbsp caster sugar, continuing to beat until stiff. Remove your pies from the oven and spoon the meringue topping liberally onto the top of each pie until the fruit is covered. Place back into the oven and bake for a further 10-15 minutes, or until the meringue starts to colour.

Remove trays from the oven and set to one side to cool.

FOR THE GLAZED RHUBARB TOPPERS (Optional)

Take the 6 stalks of rhubarb you set aside. Top and tail, and then chop the stalks into 4 equally sized lengths (around 2-3inches long). Then slice these pieces lengthways so they are halved. Place in a bowl and cover with the juice of one orange, moving the pieces around to ensure that they are totally covered.

Remove the rhubarb pieces from the orange juice and spread out evenly on a baking tray. Add a few tablespoons of orange juice to the tray to keep the rhubarb moist. Sprinkle the rhubarb with golden granulated sugar until each stalk has a light sugar coating. Cook in the oven for 10 minutes until the rhubarb has softened and started to glaze.

PUTTING THE PIES TOGETHER

To remove the pies from the tin, gently twist to loosen the pie in the mould and then, using the greaseproof paper handles, lift each pie gently from the case and leave to stand on a wire rack. Using a fork (or similar utensil) take two of the glazed rhubarb toppers and place on each mini pie.

Finish off with a dusting of orange zest.

Et voila! A wonderful springtime treat: light, fluffy and totally moreish!

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Baked eggs with mushrooms and spinach

Brunch is one of my favourite meals – you can get away with putting the effort in and making something spectacular! Anyone who knows me will realise that I am not a huge breakfast fan – cereals and toast are not really my thing.

But Brunch is something altogether different.

Lazy Sundays pottering in the kitchen and cooking up something delicious is my idea of heaven. Particularly when you can share it with family or friends – it’s a great time to sit down together and enjoy the weekends together.

This week, I decided to try my hand at something new – baked eggs.

The basis of every great brunch, eggs are fantastically versatile and can be cooked a multitude of ways. However, baked was new for me a I wasn’t sure how they were going to come out. I work on the basis that it’s hard to go too wrong if you’ve got great ingredients to start with.

In my job, I am lucky enough to be able to travel the country and meet horticulturalists and farmers from around Great Britain. The week before last, I visited the Leckford Estate in Hampshire to see their mushroom farm (supplying Waitrose). Ever since then, I’ve found a new love of mushrooms and seem to be including them in much of my cooking of late. In addition, I was given a small Leckford Estate cold-pressed rapeseed oil to try out, so I wanted to include both of those in my cooking today.

Baked egg recipe:

(Serves 4)

  • 4 large Portobello mushrooms
  • 1tbsp rapeseed oil
  • 1tbsp unsalted butter
  • Salt & pepper to season
  • 1 large bag of baby-leaf spinach
  • 2 handfuls of either fresh or frozen peas
  • 1 small carton of double cream
  • 8 eggs
  • Salt & pepper to season
  • Grated parmesan to taste

Pre-heat an oven to 200 degrees Celsius.

Slice the mushrooms into 1cm wide slices. Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Add the butter and turn down to a medium heat – swirling the pan until the butter is melted. Add the mushrooms and fry for around 2 minutes, stirring regularly.

Once the mushrooms start to become golden at the edges and the juices start to fill the pan, take of the heat. Transfer the mushrooms to a large baking dish, creating a mushroom layer at the bottom. Add a couple of tablespoons of boiling water and then pile the spinach on top. Sprinkle the peas evenly amongst the spinach, drizzle evenly with the small carton of double cream and then cover and place in the oven for 5 minutes, or until the spinach starts to wilt.

Remove the dish from the oven, set aside the cover and, using a spoon, press 8 hollows into the spinach. Crack an egg into each hollow, being careful not to break the yolk (although don’t worry too much if you do!). Season liberally, sprinkle lightly with grated parmesan and return to the oven uncovered for 15-20 minutes or until the egg whites are set.

Baked Eggs 1.jpg

This recipe lends itself to a variety of accompaniments, although one of my all-time favourites is rosemary baked cherry tomatoes. They are super easy and beyond delicious.

Rosemary baked cherry tomatoes

Whilst I was out doing the grocery shopping, I spotted some beautiful Taste the Difference Vittoria tomatoes in the supermarket from Cornerways Nursery. I visited their nursery last year so it was a nice surprise to see them in store – they’re an incredibly resourceful grower that uses the waste heat and carbon dioxide from the Wissington sugar beet factory to grow their crop.

I love British tomatoes, but it’s important to remember to keep them out of the fridge if you want to maintain their fantastic flavour.

(Serves 4)

  • 4 large vines of cherry tomatoes
  • 1 drizzle of rapeseed oil
  • Salt & Pepper to taste
  • 1 tps dried rosemary

Place the tomatoes in a baking tray. Drizzle with olive oil, season and sprinkle with the dried rosemary.

Place in a pre-heated oven at 200 degrees C for 15-20 minutes.

Upon serving, remove the stems and discard.

Something to soak it all up…

I am also a big fan of Crosta & Mollica Pane Pugliese Durum wheat bread for toasting. It’s so crispy and tasty and goes with pretty much anything – sweet or savoury.

Simply place under a hot grill for 2 minutes on the first side and turn and grill for 1 minute. Whip it out of the oven, butter liberally and enjoy!!!

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Orange blossom Macarons

Orange macaronsMacarons have got to be one of the most deliciously enticing sweet treats known to mankind. Each delicate bite is like a little taste of heaven and for me, eating them is like slipping into a deep reverie! Bliss!

I first discovered a love for macarons looking through the windows of Ladurée’s picture-perfect Covent Garden store windows in London. All those beautifully coloured pastel creations entice you inside – and once inside, I challenge you not to be tempted to buy at least one (or one box!). Though not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, these beauties are melt-in-the-mouth perfection! I wanted to try and make them at home, but thought them too difficult to attempt. However, I can now speak from experience and say – do not be deterred! They are not as complicated or difficult as one might think.

Effectively, they are little almond meringues with a buttercream filling, flavoured and coloured to your liking. And whilst a little fiddly, they are far from a struggle to make…and definitely worth the effort!

Given that it was Mothering Sunday today, I departed from my usual “seasonal” remit and made my Mum and Mamar (my Mum’s Mum) their favourites: orange blossom macarons.

This recipe makes around 30 macarons

Orange Macaron shells

  • 90g egg whites
  • 30g caster sugar
  • 200g icing sugar
  • 110g ground almonds
  • zest of 1 orange (dried out)
  • Orange colour paste (optional)

Orange blossom buttercream

  • 170g unsalted butter (softened)
  • 500g icing sugar
  • 1tsp orange blossom water
  • 3tbsp orange juice
  • 2tbps Cointreau
  • zest of 1 orange (dried out)
  • Orange colour paste (optional)

To make the shells, place the egg whites in a bowl and whisk until they begin to foam (around 2 minutes). Then, gradually add the caster sugar to the egg whites, whisking as you go until stiff peaks have formed.

Combine the icing sugar and the ground almonds together and sieve into the whipped egg whites to remove any larger pieces. Add the dried orange zest and colouring if desired. Fold the mixture into egg whites until you have a smooth batter. Do not over-fold.

Using a piping bag with a large round tip, pipe small 1inch rounds onto a baking paper-lined baking tray. Take care to leave enough space between the rounds as they will spread.

Tap the tray upon the work surface a few times to remove any bubbles and then leave on the side for around 30 minutes until the rounds have started to develop a hardened shell.

Preheat the oven to 140 degrees C. Bake the macaron shells for 15-20 minutes.

Whilst the macaron shells are baking, it’s time to make the buttercream filling.

Beat the butter until softened. Add the icing sugar gradually and mix until combined. Add the orange blossom water and orange juice to loosen the mixture. Add the Cointreau, dried orange zest and colouring (if desired) and beat until you have reached the correct consistency (the buttercream should be light and fluffy – around 5 minutes).

Remove the macaron shells from the oven and leave on the side until totally cool. Then, gently prise the shells carefully away from the baking parchment. Some of mine were a little delicate – possibly slightly underdone given my temperamental oven! However, my second batch came out perfectly, and the others still tasted amazing.

To assemble the macarons, carefully spoon the buttercream onto the flat side of one of the shells (around 1 tsp). Then, find a similar sized macaron shell and gently sandwich the buttercream between the two shells. Et voila! One macaron. Repeat for all the others and then get stuck in!

A perfect treat for any occasion. Have a go and enjoy! They’re not so scary to make after all!