Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Duck Confit with Braised Red Cabbage

I can remember the first time that I tasted duck confit which was as a starter in a restaurant in Athlone, in the Irish Midlands called Le Chateau where I was having a meal with some friends. I thought it was so delicious and loved the way the duck meat fell tenderly from the bone. I still vividly remember the taste of it! Every time that I subsequently visited that restaurant I invariably ordered the duck confit starter and it never disappointed.

From what I can recall the duck was served with a warm onion marmalade and puréed potatoes and it was admittedly, an incredibly substantial and hearty way to start a meal - not that I ever complained; I just loved eating it.
I remember so much of what we all chatted about that night and the fun we had, but my memories are all centred on eating the duck confit. This may sound peculiar to some people, but I can remember special occasions by what I ate; some of these events go back years, but I remember people and special times in my life by reference to what I ate and whether I enjoyed the meals or not.
Duck confit is a very French dish and one that I have been lucky to eat a number of times in France. It was originally conceived as a way of preserving the meat as the fat in which the duck is cooked and then stored in, extends its keeping qualities. I don’t know why, but I have always has the perception that it would be a very difficult and tedious dish to prepare, but I can promise you, it’s not. I was surprised how simple it was. You need to “cure” the meat overnight before you cook it, but other than allowing for that time, there is nothing difficult or complex about it. Once the duck legs have been confited in the duck fat, you can either crisp them up immediately or store them as I have described in the instructions below.
I like to serve one duck leg per person on some braised red cabbage as a starter or light meal. I serve a lightly dressed green salad as the freshness of the leaves imparts some relief on the palate as a contrast to the richness of the duck and braised cabbage.


Duck Confit:
6 duck legs
50g sea salt
25g Demerara sugar
1 tsp black peppercorns
4-5 sprigs of thyme
To finish:
300g duck fat
4-5 sprigs of thyme
1 head of garlic separated into cloves

Braised Red Cabbage:
500g red cabbage, stalks removed and cut into thin strips (about ½cm wide)
250g onions, finely sliced
2 cooking apples, peeled cored and finely chopped
50g light brown sugar
25g butter
½ tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch of ground cloves
Pinch of grated nutmeg
50ml red wine vinegar
Juice of 1 orange
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


Duck Confit:
1. Put the duck legs, flesh side uppermost in a dish large enough for them to sit comfortably and snugly side-by-side.
2. Mix all the ingredients for the cure together and sprinkle over the exposed duck flesh, rubbing it in a little to ensure that it penetrates the meat. Cover with cling film and refrigerate overnight.
The following day:
3. Preheat the oven to 140C/Fan Oven 120C/Gas Mark 1. Remove the duck legs from the cure and rinse well under cold running water and then pat dry with kitchen roll.
4. Place the washed and dried duck legs skin side uppermost in an oven-proof baking dish. Again the dish should be large enough for the legs to sit snugly side-by-side. Tuck the garlic cloves (there’s no need to peel them) and the sprigs of thyme around the duck legs.
5. Heat the duck fat until it has melted and is a parable consistency. Pour over the legs. Cover the dish tightly with aluminium foil and cook in the preheated oven for 3 hours.
6. Remove from oven and allow to cool to a little. Put the duck legs into a clean container and strain the remaining duck fat through a fine sieve over the legs. Allow to cool. Cover with a secure lid and store in the fridge for up to three weeks.
When you want to serve the duck legs:
7. Heat the oven to 220C/Fan Oven 200C/Gas Mark 7. Scrape any excess fat from around each duck leg and place on a small baking tray to crisp up and turn a rich golden brown. This should take about 20 minutes.
Serve each leg on a bed of braised red cabbage.
Braised Red Cabbage:
1. Preheat the oven to 180C/Fan Oven 160C/Gas Mark 4. Mix all the ingredients together and place into an oven proof casserole dish with tight fitting lid. Place the lid on the casserole and cook in the preheated oven for 2 ½ hours, stirring every 30 minutes or so. If it looks like it is drying out too much you can add a splash of water.

Serves 6.

Portuguese Custard Tarts

I have talked before about how time consuming, but ultimately rewarding it is from a taste point of view, to make your own puff-pastry. I am the first to hold up my hand and say that I regularly forgo the “pleasures” of making my own and use a quality, commercially-produced all-butter version if I need some in a hurry for a specific recipe. At this stage I have posted a number of recipes that use puff-pastry and it would be fair to say that it is one of those basic products that you do use time and time again.

Puff-pastry is a key ingredient in these little tarts. I don’t profess that this is an absolutely authentic version of Portuguese Custard Tarts, but it is my take on them and I don’t think that I have done too badly…They taste delicious.

I love the simplicity of custard, which is essentially made up of eggs, milk/cream, sugar and vanilla. How can something containing so few ingredients be transformed into something that can be so tasty? I love custard in all its various forms; baked custards including crème brûlée and crème caramel; pouring custards like crème anglaise, and other variations such as crème patisserie.

I particularly like custard tarts and have always had a particular fondness of what I refer to as “plain custard tart”; that is a shortcrust pastry shell which is encased a slowly baked custard. I prefer a large tart which is then cut into slices prior to serving over individual tartlets, because the custard to pastry ratio is more balanced and the focus is very much on the custard itself. With this variation on the custard tart theme, I believe that it is of critical importance that the custard is not over-sweet. I like a hint of vanilla, but for me it is mandatory that this tart also include a liberal sprinkling of freshly grated nutmeg. It is the minimal and almost austere nature of a plain custard tart that appeals to me so much, which is why I find it quite surprising that I also really love the following recipe for Portuguese Custard Tarts!

The custard in these tarts is quite sweet and is more of a crème patisserie than a baked custard. By virtue of the fact that puff pastry is used, the custard/pastry ratio is more equal, but here, I like it! These tarts are as much about the pastry as they are about the custard, which is why it is vital that a puff-pastry made with butter is used.      


3 egg yolks
100g caster sugar
2tblsp cornflour
250ml cream
150ml milk
1 vanilla pod, spilt in half and seeds scraped out
350g puff-pastry


1. Put the egg yolks, sugar and cornflour into a bowl and whisk together.
2. Separately, place the cream, milk, vanilla pod and its seeds in a medium sized saucepan. Place over a moderate heat, and bring just up to boiling point. Take off the heat and carefully remove the vanilla pod. Pour the heated milk and cream in a steady stream onto the egg and cornflour mixture, whisking continuously. Once the milk and cream is all incorporated, pour this mixture back into a clean saucepan and place over a moderate heat. Stir continuously until the mixture thickens and comes to the boil. Transfer the mixture to a clean bowl and directly cover the surface with cling film to prevent a skin forming. Set aside and allow cool.
3. Preheat the oven to 190C/Fan Oven 170C/Gas Mark 5. Lightly grease a 12 hole muffin tin.
4. Roll out the pastry thinly into an oblong (approximately 30cm x 20cm) until it is about ½cm thick. Next roll up the pastry tightly, swiss-roll style, from the short end and then cut into 12 rounds, about 1cm thick.
5. Lay each pastry round on a lightly floured work-surface and use a rolling pin to roll out until each is about 10cms in diameter. Press the pastry rounds into the muffin tin and spoon the cooled custard evenly into the pastry cases.
6. Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until the pastry and custard are a golden colour and well-puffed up.
7. Remove from the oven and allow cook for 5 minutes before transferring the individual tarts to a wire rack to finish cooling completely.

Makes 12.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Chocolate Cupcakes

I have baked many chocolate cakes over the years in my hunt to find “THE perfect” chocolate cake. I have come close but I always feel that there are improvements that could be made. I have also baked score of different recipes for chocolate cupcakes; and I think that I have finally cracked them and found a recipe that I love. This is the one that I present here.

The batter for these cakes is made in an unconventional way, as the creaming method is eschewed in favour of melting the chocolate and butter together and then adding the eggs and all the other dry ingredients. Initially, I thought that this would create a dense, heavy cupcake, but they are surprisingly light but still rich and with a good chocolate “hit”. The batter is looser than the traditional creamed versions but it creates the most fabulous cakes.
So often, chocolate cakes, cupcakes and biscuits disappoint because they just don’t taste of chocolate; well I promise you these ones won’t disappoint! Once you make them, I am confident that you will make them again and again. They are just fab. But don’t just take my word for it. My children are absolute chocolate addicts, and would eat chocolate laced cakes, brownies and the like very regularly if given half a chance and they have declared these the best chocolate cupcakes EVER!
My eldest daughter in particular, loves chocolate flavoured bakes. She has recently started doing a lot of baking herself and likes to experiment, trying out different recipes. It is not surprising that many of these experiments are centred on the inclusion of chocolate as a key ingredient. I am delighted that she has become interested in cooking and baking as I think these are skills that everyone should be encouraged to develop.

She also knows her own mind and is quite insistent on banishing me from the kitchen when she is doing her baking as apparently, “I take over” if allowed to remain!!! There may be a small grain of truth in her assertion.

I post this recipe today in her honour, as it is her birthday and to let her know how much I love her. I am astonished that she is now a teenager as it only seems a short time ago that she was a small baby. Hopefully, as she continues to grow older, her love of baking and cooking will continue to flourish.


85g dark chocolate, melted
200g butter
½ tsp vanilla extract/paste
225g caster sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
175g plain flour
25g cocoa powder
½ tsp baking powder
Chocolate icing:
150ml cream
200g dark chocolate, broken into chunks
25g butter


1. Preheat the oven to 190C/Fan Oven 170C/Gas Mark 5. Line a 12-hole cupcake tin with paper cases and set aside.
2. Place the chocolate and butter into a large saucepan and melt together over a moderate heat, stirring all the time. When the chocolate and butter have meted, remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool for about ten minutes.
3. Add the vanilla extract and sugar to the melted chocolate mixture and stir using a wooden spoon until fully incorporated. Then add the eggs mix again. Sift the baking powder and flour together and stir into the mixture – the resulting batter will be quite loose.
4. Divide the batter equally between the paper cases until they are about three-quarters full. Bake in the preheated oven for approximately 25 minutes until the cupcakes are well risen and a thin skewer inserted into the middle of one comes out clean.
5. Leave to cool in the tin for about ten minutes, before removing to a wire rack to finish cooling completely. When cool decorate with chocolate icing.
Chocolate icing:
6. Put the cream and chocolate into a small saucepan and heat over a gentle heat, stirring all the time until they have melted together. Remove from the heat and add the butter, stirring to ensure that everything is well mixed together. Set aside to cool for a couple of hours to allow it to firm up a little.
7. When the icing has firmed up sufficiently it can be spread on the cupcakes, using a small palette knife.

Makes 12.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Cider Braised Sausages & Apples

The weather in Ireland is unpredictable at the best of times, but never more so than during spring when it can be cold and windy one moment but a few hours later the sun will appear and the temperature creeps upwards. It can be very difficult to know what meals to cook; meals that are warming and comforting but that are also light and not too rich or heavy. I think that this dish is the perfect thing to prepare, because the cider flavoured sauce although warm and comforting, also possesses a freshness on the palate courtesy of some added apple wedges. I love this dish – it’s so tasty, relatively inexpensive to make and is just so well balanced.
I love the sweetness that the apples and onions lend to the overall dish and the way that this sweetness is offset by the savoury meatiness of the sausages. I use quality pork sausages with a high meat content (85% - 95%) and these really make all the difference to the finished dish. I always check the meat content of the sausages I’m buying, because the amounts can vary dramatically depending on which you buy. I don’t mind a small amount of rusk or other filler in them, but I honestly believe it’s pushing it to call something a sausage when it only contains 53% - 55% meat. Yes… the higher the meat content, the more you are likely to pay for them, but in my opinion it’s often a false economy buying products that are inferior just because they are cheaper.

In any event, I urge you to buy the best quality sausages that you can afford if you are going to make this recipe; and I also urge you to have a go at making this dish. It is delicious and if you have any leftovers, they reheat easily and still taste wonderful.

I like to serve this dish with some mashed potato and a green vegetable.



2-3 tblsp vegetable oil
A large knob of butter
8-10 large sausages
2 large onions, peeled, halved and sliced
2 apples, peeled, cored and cut into chunky wedges
1 heaped tblsp plain flour
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
2tblsp white wine vinegar
500ml dry cider
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
2 bay leaves


1. Heat the vegetable oil in a large sauté pan over a moderate to high heat. Add half the knob of butter and when melted, add the sausages and brown them until they are a rich even golden colour. Remove and set aside on a plate whilst you get on with browning the onions and apples.
2. Add the onions to the pan in which you browned the sausages. Keep cooking for 4-5 minutes, stirring regularly and allow to colour until golden brown (keep an eye on them and don’t let them burn). Add the rest of the butter and when melted add the apple wedges. Let the apples colour slightly.
3. Next, return the sausages to the pan, season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper and reduce the heat slightly. Sprinkle over the flour and stir in. It will look a bit claggy, but don’t worry. Allow to cook out for a minute or two. Add in the vinegar, followed by the cider. Stir well, reduce the heat so that everything is gently blipping away. Cover the sauté pan and cook on the hob for 35-40 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the sauce is a bit thick you can add a little bit water to thin it down. Remove the bay leaves and thyme and discard. Taste and adjust seasoning before serving. Serve with creamy mashed potato.

Serves 4.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Easter Cupcakes

There's nothing about these cupcakes which is historically authentic in terms of traditional Easter baking, but sometimes it’s far too easy to be excessively rigid about such matters. The only thing that makes these ‘Easter’ cupcakes is the fact that I have plonked a few mini, sugar-coated chocolate eggs on top. The cupcakes don’t even include any chocolate which appears to be a mandatory ingredient in foods for modern Easter celebrations. However, these are really simple cakes to bake and children and adults alike just love them; they can be rustled up in no time at all and use basic store-cupboard ingredients, so as far as I am concerned they are a winner!

So many commercially produced cupcakes don’t use butter in the buttercream icing. I realise why this is; margarines and vegetable based fats are a cheaper ingredient. However, I firmly believe that this is a false economy as nothing beats butter for flavour. I also hate the almost greasy film that margarines leave in the mouth, especially when used in icings and buttercreams. Despite having experimented extensively with many alternatives, I always come back to butter because it just tastes the best. I have said it before and I am proud to say it again… I think that we have the best butter in the world, available to us here in Ireland!
These cupcakes can be varied to suit the particular occasion.  I have labelled these Easter Cupcakes by virtue of the fact that I have topped them with mini Easter eggs, but they could also be topped with sugar flowers, or other sweets and edible decorations and served at birthdays and other celebrations.
Cupcakes are hugely popular and are so much more over-the-top than the traditional queen cakes and fairy cakes that I was brought up on. Both these are also individual sponge cakes or buns but they are far smaller in scale than their American cupcake cousins. Both queen cakes and fairy cakes can be unadorned but they are also often topped with a thin layer of chocolate or glacé icing. I am really fond of them and they hold a certain nostalgia for me, reminding me of school cake-sales and birthday parties when I was a child.

Cupcakes on the other hand are larger and tend to be covered in thick swirls of buttercream icing, which some people find a little too much, but I do love them despite these characteristics. There’s something very kitsch and a little vulgar about a cupcake compared to the restrained simplicity of fairy and queen cakes. Here’s my recipe.


175g butter, softened
175g caster sugar
1tsp vanilla paste/extract
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
175g self-raising flour, sifted
100g butter, softened
200g icing sugar, sifted
1tsp vanilla extract/paste
1 drop of pink food colouring
Mini candy-covered Easter eggs to decorate


1. Preheat oven to 180C/Fan Oven 160C/Gas Mark 4. Place 9 paper cupcake cases in a cupcake/muffin tin and set aside.
2. Place the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl and using a hand-held electric mixer, beat together until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla paste/extract and beat again to fully incorporate.
3. Gradually add the eggs, beating well after each addition. Add the sifted flour and fold into the creamed mixture. Once all the flour has been added and incorporated, spoon the mixture into the cupcake cases, distributing it equally. Bake in the preheated oven for 18-20 minutes until the cakes are golden brown, cooked through and well risen.
4. Remove from oven and allow to cool for five minutes before transferring to a wire rack to finish cooling completely. The cakes can then be decorated with buttercream icing.
5. Place all the ingredients in a bowl and beat together until light and fluffy using a hand-held electric mixer. Place the buttercream into a piping bag fitted with a large star nozzle and pipe generous swirls of buttercream on top of each cupcake. Press two or three mini eggs on top of the icing on each cupcake.
Makes 9 cupcakes.