Friday, May 15, 2015

Baked Ham in Pastry with Figs

After making liquamen (fish sauce) in the previous post, I perused my Cooking Apicius (by Sally Grainger) book looking for a recipe or two that I wanted to try.

ISBN 1-903018-44-7
One that caught my attention did not use liquamen as anything more than an optional seasoning but I wanted to try it anyway.

Baked ham in pastry with figs (page 62)

1 kg piece of gammon, pre-soaked if necessary
5 dried figs
3 bay leaves
250 g plain white flour
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp olive oil
100 ml water
100 g set honey
olive oil for brushing
fish sauce, or salt and honey for seasoning

Cover the gammon in cold water, add the figs and bay leaves and bring to the boil.  Simmer for 20 minutes per 500 grams plus an extra 20 minutes.  Remove from the heat and cool in the water.  

While it is cooling, sieve the flour and salt together into a bowl and add the oil and the water gradually to form a dough.  Knead until smooth and pliable.  This amount of dough should cover at least a two-kilo joint so adjust the amount to suit the size of your joint.  

Cut the dough in half and roll one portion out into a large thin sheet.  Follow the method in the recipe for tracta on page 37.*  The pastry sheet should resemble that used for apple strudel rather than filo and the thicker edges of the sheet should be trimmed before you begin to wrap the meat.

Place the meat on a board and remove the skin.  Score the fat with a knife right through to the flesh to create a criss-cross pattern.  Spread the honey over the fat and into the cuts.  Spread it over any surfaces of the lean meat too.  

Brush your first pastry sheet with olive oil  and lay the meat at one end.  Roll the meat up in the dough, fold over the edges to make a parcel, and brush its exterior with more oil.  Trim away any excess pastry.

Roll the other half of the dough into a sheet and brush its upper surface with olive oil.  Wrap the meat again, this time tracking the minimum amount of excess dough under the joint.  Brush the exterior with more oil.  

Bake in a medium oven (375 degrees F, 190 degrees C, gas 5) for 1 hour until the pastry is crisp and light brown.  Remove and allow to stand for 10 minutes.  

Strain 250 ml of the cooking liquor into a small pan and season with a little fish sauce or salt if desired, and a little honey. Taste and adjust the balance of flavors.  Carve thick slices of meat and spoon a little of the liquor over them.  Serve it forth.

*To paraphrase these directions, you would roll the dough, turn it over, roll it more, and repeat until very thin.  Do not push from the center but use brisk "back-and-forth" motion at the edges.  Make it as thin as possible without it tearing.

My Notes

Gammon is a hind leg of pork that is cured like bacon by dry-salting or brining.  It is sold uncooked.  The difference between it and ham is that ham is already cooked.

I do not know of any place in my area that sells gammon.  Ham is easy to obtain and that is what I used.  However I was concerned about the amount of cooking time called for in the recipe as I did not want to overcook the already cooked ham.  So I shortened the amount of time simmering in the water to 30 minutes.

It took about 15 minutes of kneading to get the dough smooth.  Then I let it rest while the ham finished cooling and the dough's pliability improved because of it.   I rolled it out to what I thought was very thin (I could read through it) then used my hand to spread the oil on its surface.

Note that when you remove the ham from the simmering liquid you want to keep that liquid for later (that is the "cooking liquor" mentioned for the sauce).

My honey was runny, not set (solid), and that created a problem in keeping it on the ham.

The second layer of dough made a nice, neat little package of the whole thing.  It looked great!

It cooked about an hour in order to get the dough browned.

The Verdict


I will call this a success but not anything glorious.  I don't think there is anything wrong with Ms. Grainger's recipe and feel that the problems were all mine from making too many changes.

The shortened cooking time did not appear to adequately flavor the ham with anything more than a light herbal scent from the bay leaves.  The figs did not seem to add anything at all although the water and the ham's exterior became darker.  The bay flavor was nice but weak.

The runny honey did not add anything to the tasting experience.  Ms. Grainger says, "The meat finishes cooking in its case while retaining the juices, which caramelize with the honey -- wonderful!"  My already-cooked ham did not have any juices and the honey was just a thin layer.

I probably could have gotten the dough layers thinner.  I thought they were thin enough and I even baked the scraps to see what they would be like as crispy.  They were very tasty but the wrapped ham layers were tough and dry.  Only the parts that were absolutely thin were pretty good.

The cooking liquor's flavor was weak and watery, so I added in about two tablespoons of liquamen and then reduced it by about 1/3 on the stove.  This tasted pretty good but only added a little bit to the ham's flavor.  It did soften and moisten the crust.  If I had a weak liquor again, I would reduce it first and then add the liquamen.

My guest taster thought it was fine.  I thought the ham was fine but not much different from the ham as it was purchased and the crust was okay.

I really liked the concept, though, and would love to try it again some time using a piece of uncooked pork, like a tenderloin or roast.

I looked around the Internet to see if I could acquire a gammon and found I would have to import it at a cost of around US $80 before shipping fees.  I will pass on this!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Liquamen -- Fish Sauce from the Roman Empire

In 2007 I was fortunate enough to travel to England; in particular I got to visit Vindolanda and Bath, both sites that were influenced by the Roman Empire about 2000 years ago.  At one of their museum stores (I can't recall which!), I purchased -- what else? -- a cookbook!

Not just any cookbook, though.  It was Cooking Apicius, Roman Recipes for Today by Sally Grainger.

ISBN 1-903018-44-7
Ms. Grainger is a researcher interested in experimental archaeology, food history, and food in antiquity.  I have seen references before to Apicius, "a collection of Roman cookery recipes, usually thought to have been compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century AD." (  The problem I had with it was most of the references were to recipes we would consider very strange, like cooked dormice.  It was almost enough to make me believe the Romans ate nothing but weird (to us) food, however I know that old cookbooks often give us recipes that were for feasts or other special gatherings.  Thus the food tends to be exotic.

Ms. Grainger has, in my humble opinion, focused on reasonable recipes:  ones where we can easily find or make the ingredients.  When I read them over I get excited rather than revolted about making them.

In the Introduction, she discusses "fish sauce" as a fundamental ingredient to Roman food.  There are various types, depending on how they are prepared.  I focused on liquamen:
This was made by dissolving whole small fish, as well as larger pieces of gutted fish, ... into a liquor with salt.  The fish, often anchovy, were layered with salt in a barrel or pit and left for anything up to four months.  The whole mixture cleared from the top and settled into layers.  The paste at the bottom was called allec and was used as a pickle in its own right.  The liquor was called liquamen.
(If you would like to learn more about the different fish sauces, read her paper here.)

Fortunately she gives us a recipe that does not require us to buy fish or to wait four months.

Adapted fish sauce  (page 29)

1 liter carton white grape juice
1 bottle "Oyster brand" fish sauce or a pale variety of fish sauce

Note the color of the grape juice
Tip the grape juice into a large saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer.  Cook at the lowest setting for however long it takes to reduce by half.  This is never set in stone as grape juice can have a higher or lower sugar content.  Cool and store.  

You can use this for other recipes in Apicius as well as for your fish sauce.  The ratio that works for me is two-thirds fish sauce to one-third grape syrup.  This produces a blend that is neither too salty, nor has it lost too much of the cheesy/meaty elements that you need.  

You might find that you need to adjust this ratio depending on the type of fish sauce that you have.  The darker varieties tend to be saltier but unfortunately this is not always the case!  You might try half and half to achieve the correct blend.  Experiment!  The initial cost is low and well worth the effort in the long run.

My Notes

It took several hours to reduce the grape juice to half its original volume.  The first hour was spent trying out different heat levels:  I wanted to reduce it quickly but not boil or burn it.  The lowest setting wasn't enough to produce any visible evaporation so I bumped it up to just below a simmer.  I would not recommend this as a project to start in the evening when you need to go to bed at a reasonable hour.

Once it was at half volume (I measured it!), I poured it in a heat-proof container and put it in the refrigerator.

Now a beautiful golden color
The fish sauce I had already was not even close to being pale.  I just decided to hope I could find the right blend as Ms. Grainger suggests.


First my guest taster and I tried the fish sauce by itself.  This gave us an idea of how salty it was as well as the "cheesy/meaty" flavor it had.  My taste buds said, "too strong, too salty, and a very fishy aftertaste."  My guest taster said the same thing and he loves anchovies on his Caesar salads (I don't).

We also tried the reduced grape juice by itself.  It was a pleasant, grapy flavor.  As he said, "What's not to like?"

Then we started tasting different ratios of fish sauce to juice.  I used a teaspoon measure, a separate spoon for each liquid, put the liquids in a little bowl, and stirred them to mix.  Between samples we cleansed our palates with water crackers and plain water.  Here are our results:

1 part fish sauce to 1 part grape juice:  Too fishy!  I found that the salt was almost burning my mouth.

1 part fish to 2 parts grape:  Still too salty.  The fish was overwhelming the grape.

1 part to 3 parts:  Better.  We could still taste the fish but started tasting the grape.  It was more balanced but still not good.

1 part to 4:  Starting to like it.  Getting to a balance.

1 to 5:  Still too salty but finally not too fishy or grapy.

1 to 6:  Seems just right!

1 to 7:  Very good.  Less salty than 1:6 and we liked it better.

1 to 8:  Too grapy.  Not enough fishy/umami flavor.

The Verdict

We decided that for the very dark and strong-flavored fish sauce I had, the best combination was 1 part fish sauce to 7 parts grape juice.  It was good enough that after tasting a spoonful, we actually wanted to taste more. Success!

Since liquamen is mostly an ingredient to recipes and the reduced grape juice can be used alone or mixed with other items, I did not turn the juice into a big batch of liquamen.  I kept the two liquids separate but with the ratio marked on them so I could mix up what I needed when I needed it.

Now I have to decide which of Ms. Grainger's mouthwatering recipes I want to try using the liquamen!