Fig Cake

Fig picking is coming close to an end here in Portugal, and after a few weeks of eating way too many of them, necessity plus a little out of the box thinking just makes you cook wonderful things. Like this cake.

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fig above

Figs are a big part of Portugal, the south in particular, where you can find a peculiar sweet treat called Queijo de Figo, which literally means fig cheese. It’s like dried fig paste with a mix of nuts and condiments, condensed into a cheese format and texture. Cabrita Neto has developed some tasty concoctions with outstanding ingredients, almonds and cardamom. They even have individual bars, that you can eat as a on-the-go snack. Because, come on, who doesn’t want to eat a tasty piece of fig cheese while walking to work or on a stroll by the coast?

Considering the overflow of this fruit through our lands, plus our cute habit of stopping the car by any road side to pick, we acquired a knack of showing you guys all the ways we love to eat, breath and speak fig.

fig picking

In my home town, at the top near the castle wall close to a garden, there is at least five trees. As soon as summer hits, the fruity smell wonders through the air, and people pop by a branch ever so often to see if any figs are ripe enough to eat. After a few weeks of hot summer heat, beachside adventures and tourist drenched streets, you will find the locals around the trees, with huge poles, that have a sort of tweezer-ish character about it, so they can reach the high branches and pick the out-of-reach fruit. It’s traditionally beautiful.

Not every tree is the same. My grandmother’s tree starts mid August, my backyard trees all sort of begin in September, and a few are still not ready to eat yet.

So, about this cake: it’s a great recipe to add any sort of fruit you wish, and it keeps quite a while considering how moist it is. The lack of dairy provides a sweet treat for a huge group of special dietary people. The original recipe called for only oil, but I have combined half olive oil, so the health benefits are present, without the overwhelming flavor some might not enjoy much in sweets. What sort of olive oil should you use? I prefer to save the extra virgin for salads and bread dipping, use the virgin one for baking as flavor wise it will just combine with the remaining ingredients plus, it will also be cheaper to concoct.

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Ingredients:

  • 250 grams brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 100 ml virgin olive oil
  • 100 ml cooking oil
  • Lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 225 grams all purpose flour (whole grain for you health nuts)
  • 7 grams baking powder
  • 7 grams baking soda
  • 2 grams sea salt
  • 300 grams figs
  • 4 tablespoons Tawny Port wine
  • Drizzle of honey
  • Powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of butter (ghee for lactose intolerants)
  • 2 tablespoons milk (water for lactose intolerants)

Instructions:

  1. Roast the figs, whole, in port wine and a drizzle of honey. No need to add too much sweet, the figs speak for themselves. Let cool and save the sticky port wine syrup. This will be the base for the glaze. sem título-1079
  2. Beat the eggs sugar, oils and lemon zest for 5 minutes on medium, until a smooth paste os formed.
  3. Sift the flour, bicarb + baking powder, and add to the previous mix.
  4. Add the salt, the roasted cooled figs (cut in quarters).
  5. Place in a cake pan with parchment paper and bake at 165ºC for at least one hour.
  6. Cool the cake, remove from the pan and gently remove the parchment paper. It is suppose to look fairly rustic.
  7. Make the glaze with the roast fig + port wine syrup, softened butter/ghee, lemon zest and milk/water.glazing cake
  8. Decorate with quartered figs.  sem título-1113
  9. Eat.

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Any leftovers? Eat it for breakfast, lunch, snack, whenever. It’s just that sort of cake. Goes well with everything and everyone, if you’re wondering.

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My dog also enjoyed gazing at the cake.

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Alqueva Part 2 – The Food

I am not a travel writer, I am a cook and a food enthusiast. Nevertheless, I think I might start sharing my adventures around a few places, but I assure you it will always include food. If I’ve never been down this road before it’s because of:

A) Up till last year I was a mear culinary student (students don’t usually have much resources to travel – well, me at least).

B) Being from the Algarve, my only time off (summer) was spent working.

C) Surely, through any spare time I could find, I would cook and photograph and plan how to write a blog.

Anyhow, a year has passed, I gained (some) professional experience, saved up (some) money and decided to, instead of enrolling into a masters degree or something that would pin me down (financially and geographically), take interesting short-term courses to enrich my mind, body and soul (oh, and don’t forget, my belly) – I will surely post these whenever I start my adventures through wherever I go. You will find out soon enough! For now, here goes take 1.

This year, my parents were so kind I was actually invited to go on a four day trip to Alqueva. Check out my intro, aka Part 1 – The Trip!

I was bewildered (because they usually travel without the kid) yet grateful for the opportunity. Grabbed my bikini, Anthony Bourdain’s – A Cook’s Tour, my camera and hasta la vista world, here goes Mel to enjoy some silence, on a boat, in Alentejo.

I blame my mother for getting me into this post in the first place (in a good way obviously): besides introducing me to great travel writer such as Bill Bryson and handy Lonely Planet books, I think she knew I knew I had what it took to write an interesting point of view about our adventures on a boat through this unique place in Portugal. Heck, the world! She is also the best travel planner I have ever known. She does it at least twice a year and already has a first-name basis relationship with international airports and airlines (just kidding – but, if this were true, I wouldn’t be the least surprised).

Before you start mouthwatering on the other side of the screen, let me give you some basic info you might find useful:

  1. Amieira Marina is where you rent the boat. They provide a map, a big one. If you lose it, there is one stapled to the inside of the boat. Plus, GPS system is easy to get used to. Big big plus side? You don’t even need a boat license! You get a two hour tops lesson on how to drive it, float it right and, eventually, not sink it.                                            IMG_6923
  2. They provide elevator trolleys so you don’t have to carry heavy baggage. Yes, this means take as much food and booze as you possibly can.
  3. Kitchen completely equipped – even a BBQ you can set up! Stove and oven are gas run. Portable water and separate dam water taps (non consumable). Good sized fridge and regular freezer, plenty of cute plates and bowls, tea towels and table cloths, complementary basket with an Alentejano bread loaf and cured goat cheese. Now this is quality of life people! The only thing I could complain about was the amount of time the fridge took to cool my drinks (very hot, can’t blame floating technology) and the lack of sharp knives. I suppose my cooker self should have anticipated such a fact. Now I know never to travel without my kit again.
  4. PET FRIENDLY! Yes, for a small fee of 40€ you can take your dog. Make sure you buy a float jacket ahead of time and spend your peaceful moments teaching him how to fetch the tennis ball into the vast waters. Just tell him it’s a big pool – it worked for us!

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So, as you can imagine, I was the private chef on the boat! I basically cooked and served whatever my dear mother thought we needed most. I can assure you, we could of survived another week, easily and comfortably, without starving. Here you have it:

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Petisco lunch: veggies from our farm (cherry tomato, cucumber, green pepper, onion and cilantro with a balsamic + red wine vinegar combination), assorted deli such as Presunto, honey roasted ham, Queijo de Azeitão, healthy seedy crackers, bread, tinned preserved fish and, of course, beer! A 15 minute gathering of ingredients so we could make the best of our first day, with little hassle.

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Do you like my smoked mackerel cracker bruschetta?

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Waking up to this? Could get used to it, easily.

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Breakfast with a view! Eggs, cheese, portuguese bread and butter. Some preserved asparagus – ovinhos com espargos is a very traditional Alentejano tidbit.

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Stopped in Campinho on our second day where we found a park with tables, benches and embedded BBQ’s through the so called park. Plenty of friendly families who shared their burning coals so we could make a grilled veggie salad and some chicken breast marinated with pimentão doce (paprika), bay leaf, olive oil, salt, pepper and white wine.

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Once we arrived at Monsaraz, so much art and unique features. First of all, if you want to go here, talk to Amieira Marina. They know a guy who knows a guy that owns a B&B who will gladly pick you up at the nautical club (where you will have to park your boat) in his private car so you can have a nice meal, a stroll and will even take you back. For half the price that a regular taxi would charge, this is the best solution as taxi’s will usually come from far away and will rip you off with a 60€ trip (even if it’s 20 min back and forth).

Dinner at Templários Restaurant:

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Charcuterie plate with top notch cured pork.
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Cabrito assado com batatas – young goat roasted in the oven till tender, with likewise accompanied potatoes.

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Octopus with olive oil and cilantro.

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Back in Aldeia da Luz, our final day. This town was completely rebuilt somewhere else – they even moved the cemetery and respective carcases. Otherwise, the town council wouldn’t have agreed with the move. Check out their museum for some historical facts.

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Traditional Bakery Sign. Got there just in time (before 1pm as it shuts for lunch till 3pm) to buy a loaf and some almond and egg cream pastries.

Translation: The bakery belonged to the parents of the current owner, who still baked bread in a traditional brick oven. When he inherited the bakery, he continued to bake bread in the traditional way, only ceasing to do so when the family moved to the new village. Here you can find regional Alentejo bread and cakes. The bakery owners are Albertina and Manuel Godinho.

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Alentejano excursionists arguing what they were going to have for lunch. Out of both options shared through what seemed to me loud roars of hangry (for more info about this human state, click here) they stood for at least 10 minutes discussing the pros and cons of choosing:

  •  carne de alguidar: when we make chouriço, we put everything in a bucket, season it well with salt, pepper, vinegar, olive oil, bay leaf and paprika, but instead of stuffing the chouriço we can also make a meal out of it. It actually goes by the name of bucket meat.
  • Churrasco – our grilled meat, you can call it our barbecue but without the american sauce. Simple is best with a tad of lemon juice topped after being grilled, to cut the strong flavor of the fat and smoke drenched meat.

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Our last evening on the boat.

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Preparing some roast veggie salad and local chouriço to put on the grill for our last floating meal.

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Once back home, I couldn’t help myself by making a friendly petisco with my edible souvenirs. I brought three cheeses:

Cured sheep milk cheese – Sapata from Reguengos de Monsaraz

Cured sheep milk cheese – Lactobelavista from Rio dos Moinhos

Mixed sheep and cow milk cheese – Belqueijo from Nisa

I also brought back a black pig chouriço. Let’s just say it was too damn yummi, it didn’t survive before the photoshoot.

All in all – one of the best trips ever. Four days isn’t enough to cover the amount of territory you can explore. The people, the food, the peace and quiet, the warm still waters and the everlasting floating. After two days, I would step on land and feel like I hadn’t stopped floating – this is normal and a pretty cool thing to experience!

Plum Crumble

Seasonal fruit, seasonal desserts. When you have too many plums ready to pop off the tree, you have to do something about it. Crumble is, and always has been, my answer to this problem.

My mother taught me well, she is and has always been my kitchen guru, the one who creates delicious goodies with whatever the farm provides. I blame her for my sweet tooth and my adorable habit to eat crumble for breakfast.

Whether it’s for dessert, a snack to keep your sweet cravings happy or a quick breakfast to get a good head start of a busy day – this is ideal!

Because it is such a versatile dessert, an easy solution for the overflow of fruit, specially if you need to kick off that guilty feeling of not eating up vitamin and fiber rich goodness.

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 I´m obsessed with these cute ramekins.
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Ingredients:
Plums
155 grams brown sugar
245 grams whole grain oats
100 grams all purpose flour
105 grams macadamia nuts
190 grams butter
Vanilla
Lemon zest
Procedure: Cut the plums in quarters, discard the seeds. If you like a bittersweet dessert, be lazy about it and keep the skin on! Don’t forget, besides being healthier, you are also being kind to the environment by not wasting nutritionally valid pieces of food.
Choose the amount of fruit you think might be reasonable for your crumble. It’s all about improvising, and getting used to being the boss in the kitchen. If you do however need a reference, I usually add more fruit than actual crumble, as this tends to bake, release moisture and inevitably shrink.
Now, for the crumble, coarsely grind the macadamia nuts, mix in remaining dry ingredients plus vanilla extract and lemon zest. With the tips of your fingers, incorporate the butter till it turns flaky. Beware, do not mix it too much as it will turn into a cookie dough rather than a crumble itself.
Plate in individual ramekins or just use a big dish if you don’t feel like fafing about with washing too many dishes afterwards.
Bake at 185ºC until the crumble is golden and you can see the fruit bubbling on the side of the dish. It should look purple and yummy.
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Serve with cozy warm custard on a fresh evening or accompany with sugar free cold yoghurt for a hot summer morning.
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Sweet Potato and Blueberry Scones

There’s just something about sweet potato that elevates it’s standards to becoming a patisserie ingredient, beside being another tuber variety.

To whom doesn’t already know, Aljezur is the sweet potato capital in Portugal, known for having the best product in the country. Even the world. The town has a festival and a museum dedicated to it, and it is fairly popular with locals and rural tourism comers and goers.

Incorporating the sweet potato in a scone just seemed ideal for trying something new, while using a traditional and regional ingredient.

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This recipe is adapted from another I found in my favorite pastry book – Bouchon Bakery by Sebastian Rouxel and Thomas Keller. Everytime I bake something out of this book, the results are divine and may I add that the pictures are beautiful, and not to mention that every bit of information is spot on professional. My weighing or cupping page is mostly based on everything I’ve learned while discovering this good read. Every recipe comes in both formats, so wether you prefer imperial measurements or have an everlasting relationship with your metric scale – you are bond to enjoy the results as much as the process itself.

The addition of frozen blueberries was meant for tartness, a little contrast against the sweet, and the color.

pre scones

Go nuts with the diluted egg wash and sprinkle plenty of caster sugar. Sprinkle it everywhere!

I baked this batch of scones twice: the first half was the morning after I put them in the freezer from making them the night before, and the rest two weeks later. If you are not a fan of freezers, with all those ice crystals ruining the consistency and proportionating off-flavors – please read on and think twice about this technique for baked goods, as it helps flavor maturation and texture stability. You know those delightfully scrumptious macaroons sold everywhere in France? The are sold only after at least 48 hours of chilling in negative temperatures (ºC). Michelin Star restaurant pastry chefs go by this rule, and you can’t have a star if you don’t end the meal with a bang, wether it’s dessert or Petit Fours, trust me when I tell you that at least one of those elements was previously frozen.

What I experienced with this recipe was: the second batch was better than the first. Tastier, with a better texture and a bit less fragile than the first batch. Just try it out yourself, and you will see what I mean.

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The recipe (altered to include the sweet potato):

  • 152 grams whole wheat flour
  • 304 grams regular flour (the original recipe calls for cake flour – we don’t have that here, so I used what we call T55, which is sort of the same)
  • 227 grams cold salted butter (I use salted because I LOVE salty flavor in sweets)
  • 12,5 grams baking powder (ok, for all you imperial lovers, 2 1/2 teaspoons)
  • 2,5 grams baking soda (1/2 teaspoon)
  • 91 grams caster sugar
  • 200 ml cream
  • 180 grams baked sweet potato pure (whichever sweet potato you desire – I like the orange ones, the sweetness is wonderful)
  • 1 cup blueberries

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Procedure: turn the oven on 200ºC and bake the sweet potatoes whole, skin on, for about 45 minutes to an hour. Peel the potatoes and blend the amount of pulp necessary with the cream. Set aside and mix baking soda, powder and sugar with the flours. Use a food processor to pulse this combination with the cold butter (or a fork – the tips of your fingers will melt the butter and reduce flakiness in the final product). Incorporate the cream and sweet potato mix, but not too much as you don’t want any of that gluten gaining any strength. Add the blueberries and stir gently. Set in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

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Roll the dough on a floured surface to be at least 1,5 to 2 cm high and cut to your liking. Lay on a tray with parchment paper and let them freeze for about 2 hours. At this point, gather them in a zippy bag, or if you plan to leave them in the freezer for a few weeks, wrap each one individually with plastic film.

up above scones

Now to bake them: diluted egg wash, plenty of caster sugar and straight into a 170ºC oven, for about 20 minutes, or until golden and slightly larger in size. Don’t let them defrost before going in the oven.

sweet potato scones

 Always best served warm, with thin slithers of butter. Obviously.