Slow, soft braised beef in a rich chocolatey sauce with crème fraîche and muffins

December 23 emails:

“Not sure if you’ve heard about the drone disruption at Gatwick, but I’m hoping my flight won’t be too badly affected. Not much I can do if it is, but I’ll keep you updated…..


….Boarded now and closing the doors. Shouldn’t be too badly delayed….


….Bus only just left after all that panic! Will be arriving more like 8.30 and will be ravenous!”

The panic had involved me ringing the local bus company and pleading with them to wait while our daughter rushed and weaved her way through the airport throngs. Further delays occurred due to heavy snow, and the sheer weight of holiday traffic.

What sustaining, cheering dish to have waiting for a daughter who’d arrived after a long, hard, working year and a fraught and frantic journey?

This slow, soft braised beef in a rich chocolatey sauce with crème fraiche and muffins is my solution. This is ultimate, but not obvious, comfort food. Whoever would think of serving this stew with muffins? Yet they mop up the intense sauce perfectly. To make them even more interesting you can add chopped walnuts and rosemary.

Comfort food it may be but, from the point of view of the cook, this is also convenience food. Both stew and muffin dough can be frozen ahead of time. You can bake the muffins ahead of time, and then just lightly fry them just before serving.

This is a rich and hearty dish so serve with a crispy, fresh green salad of baby gem and cucumber with a sherry vinegar dressing.

Slow, soft braised beef in a rich chocolatey sauce with crème fraîche and muffins

Serves 6

Ingredients for the stew

  • 1 kilo/2 lbs beef brisket (go to Steak and Other Beef Cuts for more about brisket)
  • 150g/6 oz diced pancetta
  • 240 ml/1 cup rosé vermouth
  • Freshly ground black pepper – or even better a pinch or two of chocolatey Isot pepper
  • 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed with 1 tsp smoked salt
  • 2 large onions
  • 25-40g/1-2 oz very plain chocolate – minimum 70% cocoa, more if you can get it. Of course you know what to do with the rest of the bar….
  • Small bunch of thyme (reserve six sprigs for garnish)
  • 3 shortish cinnamon sticks
  • Olive oil for frying
  • 6 tbsps/⅓ cup crème fraiche

Ingredients for the muffins

  • 220g/1½ cups flour
  • 2½ tsps. baking powder
  • 40g/⅓ cup rye flour
  • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp Colman’s mustard powder
  • 60g/½ cup grated cheddar
  • 6 tbsps/generous ⅓ cup sunflower or rapeseed oil
  • 150 ml/½ cup plus two tbsps. yoghurt
  • 120 ml/½ cup milk
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tbsps Worcestershire sauce

Method for the stew

  1. Preheat the oven to 140ºC (use the aga simmering oven)
  2. In a large frying pan get a good slug of olive oil good and hot. Sear the meat – you may need to do this in batches.
  3. Peel and chop the onions. Transfer the meat into a big casserole dish which has a lid, and keep warm.
  4. Add a bit more oil to the frying pan, reduce the heat, and fry the onions and pancetta until the onions are translucent.
  5. Add the garlic, the pepper, and the cinnamon sticks, each broken in half. Stir. Having set aside six sprigs of thyme for garnish, strip the leaves off the rest and add to the mix.
  6. Add the vermouth. Stir again. Bring the lot to boiling point. Pour over the meat. Mix.
  7. Cover the casserole and cook for three hours. If it looks a bit too liquid, take the lid off and cook for a little longer. Stir. Taste. Adjust seasoning if necessary.
  8. Stir in the chocolate. At this stage you can freeze the stew. When you are ready to serve, spoon over the muffins, and garnish each plate with a tablespoon of crème fraîche and a sprig of thyme.

Method for the muffins

  1. Preheat the oven to 210ºC.
  2. In one bowl mix the first six listed dry ingredients – flours, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, mustard powder, salt.
  3. In a second bowl with a lip, mix the rest of the wet ingredients, including the cheese. Pour these into the dry ingredients. Mix together lightly with a fork. Don’t worry if the batter is a bit lumpy – lumpy batter makes the best muffins….within reason!
  4. Pour into 12 silicon muffin cases.
  5. Cook for 20 minutes, until golden and risen.
Savoury muffins, the best thing to go with a rich, chocolatey beef stew.
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