Recipes: Baked cheese and thyme puffs | Smoked mackerel mousse with pickled beetroot | Water chestnut-stuffed Agen prunes wrapped in Parma ham

Baked cheese and thyme puffs are delicious and convenient
Baked cheese and thyme puffs are delicious and convenient
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THESE three recipes are versatile, delicious and useful.

They are technically for a first course, but work equally well when served on oatcakes or crostini and eaten with fingers and served with drinks. The smoked mackerel mousse with the diced pickled beetroot can be popped on oatcakes with the beetroot used as a garnish if they are to be served as nibbles. Somehow, when it comes to smoked fish, nothing beats an oatcake as an accompaniment.

We tend to overlook water chestnuts, but they have a very satisfying, crunchy texture and stuffed into Agen prunes then wrapped in Parma ham, they form the ideal contrast for the luscious prunes and salty tang of the Parma ham.

The baked cheese and thyme puffs are best served just warm. Served together these make a great selection of canapés, yet all three can be individual starters.

Baked cheese and thyme puffs

These are delicious canapés, and they are convenient, too, as they can be made ahead of time and frozen. Once thawed, they benefit from 5 minutes on a baking tray in a moderate heat, 400F/200C/Gas Mark 6, before serving.

Line 2 baking trays each with a sheet of baking parchment.

just less than ½ pint/240ml cold water

2oz/50g butter, cut into bits

1 teaspoon Tabasco

6oz/175g self-raising flour, sieved with

1 teaspoon salt

2oz/50g finely grated cheddar

2oz/50g grated Parmesan

1 teaspoon tiny thyme leaves, stripped from the stalks

4 large eggs, plus 1 for glazing

2 tablespoons finely grated cheddar – for garnishing

Put the water, butter pieces and Tabasco into a saucepan on moderate heat. When the butter has melted into the water, raise the heat and as soon as the liquid reaches a rolling boil, immediately add the sieved flour and salt in one, take the pan off the heat and beat the flour hard into the liquid. The mixture should roll from the sides of the pan and this beating should take about a minute.

Then beat in the cheddar and Parmesan and the thyme leaves. Beat in the 4 eggs, one at a time and beating in each very well before adding the next.

Fill a piping bag with the dough and pipe in walnut-sized blobs, well spaced, onto the parchment lined-baking trays. 
Beat the remaining egg and brush each blob with this, and pat each into neatly rounded tops, then sprinkle the remaining grated cheese over the egg-brushed blobs of dough. Bake in a hot oven, 400F/200C/Gas Mark 6, for 20-25 minutes – the little puffs should be golden brown, but not dried out within. Cool slightly before serving.

Smoked mackerel mousse with pickled beetroot

This form of pickling is mild – the beetroot isn’t actually cooked in the pickling liquid, just marinated in it once cooked. It makes all the difference.

Serves 6

2 smoked mackerel fillets, the flesh carefully removed from the skin, removing all bones your fingers encounter

4 leaves of gelatine soaked in cold water for 10 minutes

½ pint/300ml stock – I use Marigold stock powder made up with boiling water

about 15 grinds of black pepper

2 rounded teaspoons horseradish

1 tablespoon lemon juice

½ pint/300ml reduced fat crème fraîche

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

2 egg whites with a pinch of salt

Lift the soaked gelatine from its water bath, dripping off excess water. Drop into the pan containing the hot stock and swirl the pan until the gelatine has dissolved completely. Cool.

Put the flaked mackerel into the food processor and add the cold gelatine stock. Whiz, adding the black pepper and the horseradish and the lemon juice. Scrape the smooth smoked mackerel mixture into a bowl, and fold in the crème fraîche and finely chopped parsley – if the crème fraîche is chilled, this accelerates the setting of the smoked mackerel mixture.

Whisk up the egg whites with the pinch of salt, until stiff. With a flat metal whisk, fold the whisked whites thoroughly through the smoked mackerel mixture. Leave for several hours in a cool place, until you are ready to serve, spooned in 2 quenelles per person, beside the diced pickled beetroot.

To pickle the beetroot:

2 large or 4 small beetroot

¼ pint/150ml red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

½ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

1 tablespoon mustard seeds

2 whole cloves

¼ pint/150ml cold water

Cut both ends off each beetroot and wash them. Wrap them loosely in a foil parcel and cook them in a hot oven, 400F/200C/Gas Mark 6 for 45-50 minutes, or until they are tender when stuck with a knife. Cool, then peel off the skins and slice the cooked beetroot into even-sized dice approximately thumbnail in size. Meanwhile, put the vinegar, sugar, salt, coriander, mustard seeds, cloves and cold water into a small saucepan. Heat, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved completely, then simmer the liquid for 5-7 minutes.

Take the pan off the heat and cool. When cold, strain the contents over the diced cooked beetroot, mix thoroughly, and leave in a wide bowl or container, stirring from time to time. Store in a 
covered jar in the fridge for up to a month.

Serve a small spoonful at the side of the smoked mackerel mousse, for a really excellent combination of tastes.

Water chestnut-stuffed Agen prunes wrapped in Parma ham

• allow 3 per person.

Serves 6

18 Agen prunes – you can get these in most good supermarkets

9 water chestnuts, each cut in half

9 slices of Parma ham

Slice each prune in half but not right through - leave the halves attached by a small amount. Stuff half a water chestnut in each prune.

Cut each slice of Parma ham in half lengthways. Wrap each stuffed prune in one half of a slice of ham, and put them onto a serving plate.

This is optional, but I like to blast the Parma ham with my blowtorch, just to slightly crisp up the ham. But it is still very good left raw. The choice is yours.