It’s fairly safe to say that, back in 1742, people didn’t spend too much time obsessing about saturated fat or trying to reduce their carb intake. If anything, they were far more concerned with ingesting whatever carbs they could lay their hands on, spuds included.
I mention 1742 because that was the year of the first public performance of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, which took place in Fishamble Street in Dublin, an event which will be commemorated on April 13th next in Temple Bar, with their Handel’s Day celebrations.
Handel had been invited to perform by the Charitable Musical Society, who wanted to raise funds following the Great Irish Famine of 1741 – an event perhaps lesser known, but equally as devastating as the later Potato Famine of 1845-47 – a combination of bad weather and poor harvests that froze potatoes in the ground and left a nation dying of hunger.
It is an indescribably long way from that famine to a world where, within the past few weeks, I have been sent notices about applications aimed at helping people to reduce their intake of saturated fat and carbs. Somebody has perhaps noticed the frequency with which spuds and butter are combined on this site and would like to do something about it, I fear.
The Sat Fat Challenge from the UK Food Standards Agency, for example, prompts the user to take different challenges which will reduce their saturated fat intake, some of which I can get behind and some of which – like the recommendation to use low fat milks and yoghurts – I can’t. That we have issues with over-eating and excesses of certain foods in our diet, I don’t deny, but I happen to be a big believer in sticking to full-fat-as-nature-intended when it comes to dairy products. And just because a yoghurt is labelled low-fat, doesn’t mean that it’s not laden with sugar.
That’s the thing, you see.
My real problem is with identifying one specific thing in isolation as the culprit of our dietary woes – yesterday salt, today saturated fats, tomorrow carbs and so on. Salt, fat, sugar – these are not the enemies per se, but highly processed foods – which can have excessive quantities of all of these – are. I’m not saying that we need to return to the privation of Handel’s day, but cutting down on highly processed foods, eating a goodly amount of whole foods and adopting an everything-in-moderation approach is more my style (Jamie Oliver’s style too it seems). Drip-feeding people with narrowly targeted applications (which themselves seem a little highly processed to me) seems like it manages to sidestep the broader question of what it takes to have a well-balanced and sane approach to eating and so, for me, falls some way short of the mark.
Musical Spuds (or Lyrical Duchesse Potatoes)
Well, after that little rant, here’s a bit of sat-fat-and-carbs action for you – with due acknowledgement to Handel for inspiration in the musical shapes department. Musical shaping aside, these are basically duchesse potatoes, made when an egg-enriched mash is piped into shapes and baked.
The classic formula – as described in the likes of Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire and Larousse Gastronomique – calls for butter, egg and egg yolks to be added to the mash, though you’ll see plenty of variants which add milk, cream and/or cheeses to the mix. Really, you can add whatever you like – I’ve used goat’s cheese and mint here – as long as you keep the mixture fairly stiff, which makes for firmer shapes that are that bit easier to pipe.
- 800g potatoes (about 4 medium-sized specimens), preferably a floury variety
- 50g butter
- 100g fresh goat’s cheese
- 3 tblsp finely chopped fresh mint
- salt to taste, plus more for boiling the potatoes
- freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 2 eggs
You’ll also need:
- A piping bag, star-shaped nozzle and a steady hand. If you don’t have a piping bag, you can use a clean plastic bag with a small opening snipped away from one corner.
- A potato ricer is useful, though not essential, for mashing the potatoes.
- You’ll need several large baking sheets on which to bake the shapes.
- Peel your potatoes and cut into roughly even-sized slices, around 1-2cm thick. Rinse them under cold water.
- Bring about 1.5l of water to the boil in a saucepan, add about 2 tsp salt and the potato slices.
- Bring back to the boil and reduce to a simmer. Simmer gently, covered, for around 12-15 minutes or until just fork-tender.
- Meanwhile, you can preheat your oven to 180C and grease your baking sheets.
- When the potatoes are done, drain well and return them to the saucepan. Then either let them sit, covered by a tea-towel, for about 5 minutes or place the pan over a low heat and stir the potatoes gently for a minute or so while they dry out.
- Place the butter in a small heavy saucepan over a medium heat and allow to melt.
- Put the cooked and still warm potatoes through a potato ricer, if you have one, or mash with a potato masher or, if all else fails, a fork.
- Pour in the melted butter and stir through the mash.
- Crumble the goat’s cheese, add to the mash and stir well to combine.
- Mix in the chopped mint and add salt and black pepper to taste.
- Lightly beat the eggs and stir into the mash.
- Now spoon enough of the mash into your piping bag to half-fill it, twist the top and, with a steady hand, squeeze the contents out onto your baking sheets and into whatever shapes take your fancy. You can just make shapes by hand if you prefer.
- As soon as you have a baking sheet filled with shapes, bake for around 12-15 minutes or until the edges are golden, and get to work on piping the next lot. I probably baked 6 trays-worth with this amount, though treble clefs do take up a lot of real estate. Simpler shapes can probably be done more efficiently.
- Serve as a side-dish – with the mint, I’m inclined to think this would be nice with lamb – or serve as party finger food.
- You could certainly add some garlic here if you fancied – throw a couple of whole cloves in when boiling the potatoes – and you can replace the goat’s cheese and mint with different dairy and herb combinations, such as, say, sour cream and chives or gruyère and thyme.
- This amount probably feeds 4-6 as a side-dish, though the actual number of shapes you get will obviously depend on the size of your piping bag and the kind of shapes you’re after.