Instead of giving up something tasty in the new year, why not take something up instead? How many of us have a burning desire to perfect a canelé or pâté en croûte, have a crack at sourdough or try that tagine recipe that you cut out of the paper two years ago?
There is nothing better than making something new to overcome a kitchen slump and reinvigorate your love for cooking. Take a day or a half a day, or even a few hours, where you remember to enjoy the art of cooking; relax in the kitchen with a recipe that you have read a few times over so you understand it before you start. Make sure you have all the ingredients ahead of time and keep distractions to a minimum. Then it’s time to start cooking.
I first made ricotta many years ago, high up in the hills in Sicily with a farmer called Vincenzo. The father of an Italian friend had arranged for me to visit, and Vincenzo drove me up a winding mountain path to his farm. He stirred his vat of milk with a long wooden stick while puffing on a cigarette. There were no temperature controls or timings; he had me stir and bang the bottom of the pot with the stick to “hear” if it was done. The tone changed, and we ladled the cheese into baskets to drain.
Vincenzo poured bowls of hot, steaming, unstrained curds for me to eat, and the smell of warm cheesy milk in the room was overwhelming. At this stage a group of men had gathered to queue for cheese and they all watched as the first spoon passed my lips. To my surprise it was delicious — like a milk pudding — and the men all slapped me on the back as I finished it off.
I had since lost touch with making ricotta and was delighted when my friend Imen McDonnell, aka Farmette, started blogging about making cheese on her farm with their fresh, raw milk. It got me back into the swing of it again and it is one of those simple tasks that gives you amazing satisfaction.
I would advise that you seek out raw milk to make this as it works best, even though it can be tricky to find. Crawford’s Farm in Tipperary sells organic raw milk to many outlets now, and many food markets and artisan food retailers will have supplies, which is wonderful to see (rawmilkireland.com has a full list).
While Vincenzo used rennet to curdle the milk, which we removed from a sheep’s intestine there and then, you can use lemon juice or a good-quality vinegar.
The next recipe you should try in the new year is more of a challenge, but the reward is great and the satisfaction rate high. You could attempt to roll ravioli by hand, but a pasta roller is definitely easier.
I make a simple ravioli using the ricotta, and if you can manage the cheese and pasta recipes successfully you will earn double new year self-improvement brownie points. There’s also every chance it will spur you on to a great year of experimentation in the kitchen.
Working the dough will also negate much of your need to visit the gym.
Ricotta means “twice cooked” or “to cook again” and is traditionally made from the whey left over from making another cheese. It is light in taste and texture but also delicious and healthy. This is a method of making ricotta from raw milk.
What you will need
1 litre/1¾ pints raw milk
½ tsp flaky sea salt
3 tbsp lemon juice
Muslin or cheesecloth
How to prepare
Put the milk and salt in a saucepan and heat, stirring from time to time until steam starts to rise and small bubbles appear on the surface. Remove from the heat and add the lemon juice, stirring through. Allow the pan to sit for 30 minutes so the curds can separate from the whey.
Line a colander with a clean piece of muslin or cheesecloth, and place over a bowl big enough to catch all the whey. Pour in the curds and whey, and allow to strain for two hours. Then squeeze the muslin gently to expel any excess whey and turn out the ricotta. It is best eaten straight away but it will store, tightly covered in the fridge, for a day or two.
FRESH PASTA “WORKOUT”
Makes about 800g/1¾lb
What you will need
500g/1lb 2oz type “00” flour
Generous pinch of salt
5 large free-range eggs
1 tbsp olive oil
More flour, for sprinkling
How to prepare
Tip the flour and salt onto a clean work surface and make a well in the centre. Beat the eggs and olive oil, and pour almost all the mixture into the well. It is impossible to know for sure how much egg the flour will take until you start mixing so reserve a small amount to add later if it feels too dry.
Gradually combine the flour with the egg to make a coarse paste, then add the rest of the egg as needed. Work the dough with your hands, bringing it all together to form a ball. Knead similarly to bread: push away with the heel of your hand, bring it back with your fingers and give it a half turn. Repeat until you have a smooth dough. It is tough work — you have to use your upper body as well as the biceps, and remember to engage your core.
When the dough is nice and smooth, shape into a ball, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
RICOTTA, SAGE AND PRESERVED LEMON RAVIOLI
Makes about 30 ravioli (serves 4)
What you will need
300g/10½oz chilled ricotta
1 handful of sage leaves, chopped finely
¼ tsp nutmeg
25g/1oz parmesan, plus more for serving
20g/¾oz preserved lemon
800g/1¾lb pasta dough
Good extra-virgin olive oil, for serving
How to prepare
In a bowl, mix the ricotta, sage, breadcrumbs, nutmeg and parmesan. Chop the preserved lemon finely, add to the mix and combine. Roll into little balls of about 10g/¼oz each and refrigerate until needed.
Cut the pasta dough into manageable pieces (work with one piece at a time and keep the others covered). Lightly dust the work surface with flour and roll out one piece of dough into a rectangular piece to fit into your pasta machine.
Work quickly as the dough dries in the open air and it may become too dry to work with. Adjust the machine to the highest/widest setting — mine is seven — and pass the dough through the machine by turning the handle. Guide it out the other end to ensure it does not overlap as it will start to stick together. Fold the pasta in two, and repeat. Decrease the setting with each roll from now on, using your hands to support the sheet of pasta to avoid sticking or tearing. If it begins to feel sticky, dust lightly with flour but remember that the flour will also dry the pasta.
For a light ravioli, go all the way to the number one, and lay the sheet on a flour-dusted work surface. (For lasagne sheets, for example, it might be best to stop at number two or three, or select one of the settings on the attachment for various pasta ribbons.)
Space the ricotta balls out on a long sheet of pasta, leaving about 4cm either side of each one. Then roll out the next piece of pasta for the top. Lay it flat on the work surface, covered with a tea towel, while you brush around each ball lightly with a slightly wet pastry brush. Cut the top layer of pasta into 10cm squared pieces.
Cover each ball with a square of pasta, pressing down around the ricotta with the side of your finger. Make sure not to trap air inside as you press down to seal. Cut each ravioli into a neat square, of about 8cm in diameter. Continue with the rest of the pasta and ricotta.
Cook the pasta for 3-3½ minutes in slowly boiling salted water. Do not overcrowd the pot — it is best to do it in two batches. Serve with lots of grated parmesan, a crack of black pepper and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. And remember to breathe. You may have pasta left over so try making some other shapes, and dry it on a flour-dusted surface in a warm place.
Spring: the cookbook
By Skye Gyngell
Skye Gyngell is the author of some of my all-time favourite cookbooks, including A Year in My Kitchen, and this one joins the family with ease.
Having won a Michelin star in her former restaurant at Petersham Nurseries cafe in Richmond, Surrey, Skye stepped away from the limelight for almost a decade before opening Spring restaurant at Somerset House in central London. I loved her books but missed out on eating at Petersham while she was there, so I made my way to Spring soon after it had opened to experience her food first hand. It was and has remained the most beautiful restaurant I have had the pleasure of eating in. It has a fresh, airy and feminine feel — as does her food. Skye has a unique skill of putting ingredients together in simple but wondrous ways, making an impact that lasts.
Woven through the recipes of this book are pages that tell the story of creating the restaurant that is Spring, with its beautifully crafted walls, and light-filled garden room and table settings.
Crisp photography by Andy Sewell complements the fresh flavours in this cookbook. Recipes such as grouse with corn purée and roast figs star alongside radishes poached in chicken stock and butter, a great kombucha recipe, and blueberry, lemon and mascarpone ice cream, as well as a refreshing drinks chapter.
This book is for anyone who wants to cook a delicate, simple but exquisite meal, and this nougat recipe was one of my last year’s resolutions.
CANDIED BLOOD ORANGE AND WHITE CHOCOLATE NOUGAT
Makes 60 small pieces
What you will need
150g/5oz shelled pistachio nuts
200g/7oz good-quality white chocolate
125g/4oz unsalted butter
150g/5oz candied citrus peel (preferably homemade but shop-bought is fine)
4 large, tender rosemary sprigs
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
4 sheets of rice paper
440g/1lb caster sugar
250g/9oz liquid glucose
60ml/2 fl oz water
2 medium organic free-range egg whites
Good pinch of salt
How to prepare
Preheat the oven to 100C/gas mark ¼. Scatter the pistachios on a baking tray and roast in the low oven for about 20 minutes — to just tickle out and intensify their flavour rather than colour them.
Using a sharp knife, cut the chocolate into roughly 1cm pieces and place in the freezer to chill thoroughly. Cut the butter into 1cm chunks and place in the fridge for 20 minutes. Cut the candied peel into 1cm-2cm pieces. Strip the leaves from the rosemary and finely chop them. Remove the seeds from the vanilla pod and set them aside, along with the rosemary. Line a shallow 20cm x 30cm baking tin with two sheets of rice paper, making sure you have enough to fold up and cover the sides. I find it helpful to lightly grease the tray with a little butter first, to help the rice paper stick to the tray.
Put the caster sugar, honey and glucose into a heavy-based pan and add the water. Place the pan over a medium heat to dissolve the sugar, and bring to the boil. Once the sugar begins to boil, little crystals may form on the sides of the pan; if so, remove these by brushing with a pastry brush dipped in water. Continue to boil until the syrup reaches 135C (you will need a sugar thermometer to check this).
While the syrup is heating, use a mixer with a whisk attachment to slowly whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until the eggs break down. Then increase the speed and whisk until soft peaks form. As soon as the sugar syrup reaches the correct temperature, remove from the heat and let it rest for a minute or so. Then, with the mixer on a low speed, slowly pour the sugar syrup onto the whites as they are whisking. Once it is all added, increase the speed; this will cool the mixture slightly.
When the mixture is still just warm, add the butter pieces, still whisking to break down and incorporate the butter as it moves through the meringue. Once it is evenly combined, add the vanilla and rosemary. Remove the bowl from the machine and fold in the pistachios and candied peel. Finally, stir in the white chocolate pieces. It is important to work quite quickly at this stage as the mixture will begin to set.
Pour the mixture into the prepared tin. Press the two remaining sheets of rice paper firmly on top, ensuring any air bubbles are removed. Cover with clingfilm and chill in the fridge for at least four hours, preferably overnight.
Using a sharp serrated knife, trim the edges of the nougat to neaten, then cut into small slices. Return to the fridge until ready to serve.