So it’s been a while since i posted anything, i’ve been pretty damn slack recently, what with going off to harbour island for a few days and then the birthday extravaganza weekend, it’s been fairly hectic.
I was planning on catching up when i was in harbour island but the combination of there being no internet anywhere other than the bar (you can imagine how conducive that is to anything constructive) and the whole place just being relaxing beyond words all amounted to me lounging around reading cookbooks and not really doing much of anything, apart from maybe a walk along the beach. In short, utter bliss.
For a start we were staying the the quaintest little hotel, right on the beach, falling asleep to the sound of the sea, cliche maybe, but it’s idyllic for a reason. On top of that, when we arrived, one of the first things to grab my attention was the bookshelf entirely devoted to cookbooks, from huge tomes by Marco and Gordon to random tiny battered old books about sorbet. This was my kind of place. I have a fairly unhealthy obsession with cookbooks, often driving my mother to distraction by insisting that i need just one more, never mind the hundreds already lying around the house; or my boyfriend by the stacks that often litter our bedroom floor. Oh well, it’s better than drugs i guess (that’s my argument anyway, that and the fact that they will usually benefit this obsession by my instantaneous desire to test things out).

After that came the birthday weekend, obviously involving a fairly staggering amount of over-indulgence, be it booze or food. Ranging from mussamum curries and caramelised pear and chocolate mousse cake to spicy, creamy corn and fake american cake – something that is my serious guilty pleasure. Combine that with enough beer, wine and champagne to sink a battleship, sun and boats and you have a seriously good weekend on your hands. Not forgetting of course the fact that it was mine and Hayleys birthdays on the 12th. Anyway, with all of this drawing to a close, yesterday we got back down to some cooking.

As i’m leaving Nassau on Monday, Alex and I have been given a list of demands by our friends of what they want cooked before they once again have to fend for themsleves. With this in mind, yesterday was Tarquin’s choices, well some of them at least, namely french onion soup and pretzels. I’m not entirely sure where his sudden desperate urge for pretzels came from, all i know is i got a drunken message requesting some be made. So, off we went.

Lets start out with the french onion soup. I love this soup, it’s so comforting and hearty enough to make a full meal if you want it to. It’s also really easy and cheap to make so you really have no excuse. This one serves 8 as a starter or less as a main.

French Onion Soup:

Now you don’t have to use all these different types of onion but i like it as it gives a better depth of flavour. All in all you just want to make sure that you have about 1kg of onions.

200g red onion
500g white onion               
1 large leek
10 pearl onions
2-3 shallots
Tbsp sugar

100g unsalted butter
2 cloves of finely chopped garlic

200ml white wine
50g plain flour

2 litres beef stock – then better the stock, the better the soup
30g pancetta or smoked bacon, blanched for 5 mins. This just means, put in a pan of water, bring to the boil and boil for 5 mins.
1 bouquet garni (basically parsley stalks, thyme, bay leaf tied together)

Up to 100ml sherry

1/2 baguette
400g finely grated gruyere cheese

Finely slice all the onions, i know it’s a pain and i know your eyes will sting but it’ll be worth it, there’s no place for chunky bits of onion in this soup. A good tip is to chill your onions, if they’re really cold (from the fridge, don’t try and be clever and put them in the freezer) it slows the release of the chemical that stings your eyes so you won’t be sobbing all over the place.

Toss 1/3 the butter into a big saucepan with a little splash of oil and then add all the onions.

Cook them over a medium-low heat until they begin to take on some colour. You want them to start going golden but what ever you do don’t burn them, it’ll ruin the whole soup. Once they’re starting to colour, add another 1/3 butter and keep cooking them until they’re a deep caramely colour. Once they’re almost done, add the last 1/3 butter and crank up the heat. You want them to end up looking like this.

Now i know that this takes a little while, and yes, technically you could just whack the heat up and do it faster, BUT, for one, the chance of burning them increases quite a lot and also, you just can’t get the same flavour, it takes time to ease out the sweetness, so just try and be patient.
Once the onions are done, add in the finely chopped garlic and after a couple of seconds, deglaze the pan with the wine. Basically that just means, throw in the wine and stir and scrape the bottom so that all of the delicious caramelised bits come unstuck as they’re full of flavour.
Once the wine has reduced down to almost nothing, stir in the flour. Add the beef stock, blanched pancetta and bouquet garni and simmer the whole lot together for 30 minutes.

The little thing you can see bobbing around there is a tea strainer/herb infuser. I love this thing, you can get them from most cook shops and they’re so useful as it saves you fishing around at the end trying to dig them out, you just put the herbs inside and plop it in.

Anyway, after it’s blipped away for a while, skim any scum off the top if any has formed and remove the bouquet garni and pancetta. Season with sherry, salt and pepper. You might not want all the sherry so maybe add half and taste it and then add the rest if you want it. I just plonked it all in and it was yummy but it’s up to you.

Then comes the best bit. Slice the baguette into slices about 1cm thick and toast in the oven until they’re golden. Plonk a few into your bowl of soup and then cover with grated gruyere, you want a decent amount (although i shouldn’t need to tell you that) and then place under a hot grill until the cheese is melted and bubbly. Now all that’s left to do is eat and enjoy. Which you will, i promise.

After this was made and sitting on the side, ready to be devoured later, we moved onto the pretzels

Soft American Pretzels:

360ml warm, not hot, water
1 tbsp sugar
2 teaspoons sea salt
7g dried yeast
625g plain flour
55g melted, unsalted butter

2.5 litres water
200g baking soda

1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tbsp water

I’d like to start off by saying that this will be 100 times easier if you have a KitchenAid or some other kind of stand mixer with a dough hook. If you don’t you can do it by hand, it will just take longer.

Put the sugar, salt and water in the mixer bowl and sprinkle over the yeast. Let them sit there for about 5 minutes until the yeast is making everything into a bit of a foam party and then add the flour and butter.

Mix the whole lot up together on a low speed and once it’s all incorporated, turn the heat up to medium until the dough is smooth and coming away from the sides of the bowl. If you’re doing this by hand then you need to just bring it it together and knead it until its smooth and no longer sticky.

Either way, you then want to form the dough into a ball, place it in an oiled bowl and let it nestle up somewhere warm until it’s doubled in size, that should take you about 50-60 minutes. Whack the oven on to 230C/450. Rub a smidge of oil on to whatever surface you’re planning on forming the pretzels on and tip the dough onto it. Cut the dough into 8 and roll each one into a long sausage. Mine were about twice the length of alex’s shoe but that probably doesn’t help much so i’ll show you. About this long:

After you’ve done that, make a U shape and then fold each end over to touch the bottom, then place them on a tray lined with either a silmat, or an oiled piece of parchment paper.

Now they may not look so sexy at this point but they’re going to puff right up so it doesn’t matter too much at this point. Next up, bring the 2.5 litres of water to a boil with the 200g baking soda, the water needs to be a big, fast, rolling boil, not just a couple of little blips. Pop each pretzel in the water for 30 seconds, i did it one by one but it’s up to you.

Place the pretzels back on the trays and brush with the egg/water mixture and sprinkle with sea salt. Now comes the fun bit, this is where you can get creative with toppings, just sprinkle them right over the top. We did a load of different ones- poppy seed, cheese, thyme, rosemary, ground cumin and coriander, ras el hanout, harissa. They were delicioso, however, there were some stand out favourites, namely the harissa, the thyme and the cheese, the consensus was also that combining the cheese and the thyme into one amazing pretzel would have taken the crown. Pop them in the oven for 12 minutes until they’re puffed and golden and you just can’t wait to rip into them. Transfer to a cooling rack.

The great thing about these is that you can totally tailor them to suit your own tastes, herbs, spices, cheese, you could add some chopped up ham if you want. It’s a great thing to do if you have people over as well as everyone can just add whatever they feel like and then it’s only a 12 minute wait.