If asked to give a list of the dishes/recipes I've cooked more than once in my life, it would undoubtedly be short and sweet. I reckon I could count said dishes on, if not one hand, then definitely two hands. A lot of people find it odd that I never cook the same thing twice. If something tastes nice, they figure, why wouldn't you make it again soon afterwards? I sometimes wish I could see things in this way, be one of those organised cooks who has a small repertoire of tasty and perfected dishes floating around in their head, who finds it easy to make a snap decision about what's for dinner (and, consequently, make a snap shopping trip in their lunch break or on the way home for the ingredients, rather than traipsing around endless markets and butchers for inspiration and then dithering over accompanying ingredients and the like for - sometimes - hours at a time). In fact, if I could add up the number of hours I've spent simply shopping for ingredients and wandering aimlessly around markets trying to figure out what on earth to buy, it would probably be roughly equal to the number of hours spent studying for my degrees. Terrifying.
I can't help it. I just have this compulsion to experiment every time I have the opportunity to cook. Why cook something where I know what it tastes like when I could cook something totally new? If I didn't keep cooking new things, I'd never discover certain great dishes that I'd want to come back to.
I do the same thing in restaurants; I rarely order something twice. The only exception to this is my favourite dish at an Italian restaurant I go to with my boyfriend (Francesco's in Maidenhead, if you're interested and live near there - it's yummy). The crab linguine was so good when I first tried it that I had it again twice. Naturally I spent about two hours dithering over the menu deciding whether to take this highly out-of-character and, let's be honest, downright outlandish step. However, the linguine wasn't as good the second and third time around, which to me seems proof of my hypothesis that you shouldn't stick to what you know; you should go off piste and welcome the possible exciting and delicious discoveries that may greet you there.
However, there are some dishes (albeit not many) that I have cooked more than once.
1. Chermoula roasted aubergine with bulgur wheat and yoghurt. It's a beauty not only because it's vegetarian and can even be made vegan if you omit the yoghurt, but because it's so incredibly delicious. You wouldn't expect it from the ingredients list, but the flavours work perfectly together, creating a harmonious and intensely moreish whole, as well as something really unusual and intriguing. You have the charred, spicy exterior of the roasted aubergine, then it gives way to something silky, smoky and unctuous, and then you have the delightful contrast in texture with the nutty bulgur, crunchy pine nuts, soft sweet raisins, and cooling yoghurt. I really cannot stress how good this is. It's perfect for those times when you feel you could do with cutting back a bit on the animal flesh.
2. Aromatic apricot and almond chicken. A sort of easy tagine, this marries the warmth of turmeric, cinnamon and ginger with meaty chunks of chicken, meltingly sweet onions, and tart pieces of apricot. Scatter over toasted almonds and lashings of coriander, and you end up with something incredible. You'd never guess it was so easy. It's also easy to make for just two people, unlike a lot of stew type things.
3. Risotto. Although I'm not sure this counts, as I rarely make exactly the same risotto twice. I always tweak things. However, favourite combinations are roasted butternut squash with goats'/blue cheese and/or bacon; mushroom and bacon; seafood; leek and cheese. I also like to substitute pearl barley for risotto rice sometimes. There's little you can't make into a wonderful risotto. I find it, without a doubt, the most relaxing thing ever to cook. All done in one pan, and after the initial frying of vegetables nothing to do except stir lazily until you're left with a beautiful starchy mound of wonderfulness. Even better if said stirring is helped along by a glass of wine.
4. Cheesecake. As with risotto, not sure it belongs on this list, as I always experiment with flavours, usually fruit. However, my basic baked cheesecake recipe is usually the same, and works for most ingredient combinations. My favourite cheesecakes so far have to be the mango, coconut and cardamom unbaked version (incredible), and the baked redcurrant version (like something you'd get in a restaurant but better).
5. Pasta with mushroom and bacon cream sauce. This started off as a sort of carbonara, but now bears little resemblance to a carbonara. I fry chopped bacon until really crispy, then drain on kitchen paper. Then I cook mushrooms and sometimes garlic in the bacon fat until nicely caramelised before adding LOADS of lemon thyme and black pepper, plus a little white wine and about a (small) tub of creme fraiche. This gets stirred into hot pasta, and the bacon scattered over at the end so it retains its crunch. Comforting, zesty, satisfying. It has all the goodness of carbonara but is much healthier, especially if you use half-fat creme fraiche and cut the fat off the bacon (or fry it separately in strips for your boyfriend to eat, as I do.)
6. Couscous with roasted vegetables. I eat this for lunch most days. In my opinion there's little that doesn't go with couscous. For me it's comfort food, something you can pile on your fork, soaked with all its lovely flavourings, and devour. Great with oven roasted tomatoes, peppers and aubergine, plus fresh basil and maybe some feta or goats' cheese. I also love couscous mixed with chopped mango, cooked prawns and lots of lime juice and coriander.
7. Pear, raisin and hazelnut pancakes with maple syrup. I make these most weekends when I'm at my boyfriend's. They are simply the best breakfast you will ever taste. I've tried numerous variations since I discovered these, in an attempt to match their glory, but none have ever come close. The apricot version was quite nice but a bit too tart and lacking in texture; the apple version was fairly insipid; the pineapple and coconut version left me feeling nauseous (probably because I put a whole pineapple in there for just two of us). I conclude that these are the definitive breakfast pancakes. It's something about the grainy, juicy texture of the pears, the fact that they're not too sweet but they're fragrant enough to stand out, and the contrast with the chewy raisins and crunchy nuts (pecans or almonds work well too). Drizzle over lashings of maple syrup, and you have something amazing. Also great with fresh raspberries or blackberries scattered over.
8. Orzo with broccoli pesto and avocado. I only discovered this dish about a month ago but have made it again since, which is very rare for me. It's such a delightful and moreish combination of flavours; it tastes and looks really healthy but also quite creamy and luxurious at the same time.
And that is basically it. Apart from things like porridge, which I make every day in varying flavours, those are the only things I can recall that I've cooked more than once. Which is actually a bit weird, now that I think about it. Obviously there are categories of dishes that I cook often - curries, stir-fries, cakes, cobblers, roasts - but as for single recipes that I've repeated, I can't think of any more.
It's not that I'm not totally satisfied with dishes I've cooked and therefore don't want to repeat them; I had a quick look through my recipe index just now and have been reminded of lots of excellent creations that I really feel I ought to repeat sometime soon. I guess my sense of adventure just nearly always overpowers my craving for the familiar.
The reason I've rambled about this is because of this cake. I made this cake a few weeks ago. Figs are still plentiful at the moment, their luscious curves calling out to me from their little plastic cocoons in the market, and the adventurous side of my cooking mentality is always trying to think of new and delicious ways to use them. Yet my mind just keeps coming back to this cake. For once, I'm actually thinking I should go with what I know. Because figs have such a short season, why waste them by experimenting with recipes that may turn out to be decidedly average? Why not seize the day and bake them into this truly divine cake, a recipe I know is perfect and which makes me salivate a little bit when I remember it? It seems madness not to.
This cake uses the sponge recipe from my Czech bubble cake, which is enriched with yoghurt to make a wonderfully soft and moist crumb. To it I added chopped figs, raspberries, chopped hazelnuts, vanilla and cinnamon. The result is so good that I think I might have to get the cake tin out now and make it again. You end up with an incredibly moist, gooey cake rippled with juicy raspberries and sweet, fragrant figs (the fig and raspberry combination is an excellent one, as featured in this fig and raspberry galette). The crunchy hazelnuts and hint of vanilla make it beautifully fragrant, while adding an intensely rich, toasted, nutty flavour that contrasts perfectly with the two very sweet fruits. Scattering the nuts over the top gives it a crumble-like topping and texture which is immensely appealing against the soft cake.
It's something that can be eaten warm with ice cream as a pudding, or later for afternoon tea. It's quite a hearty cake, quite dense and squidgy, but this is exactly how I like my cakes.
It's pretty much perfect. Why waste good figs on inferior cakes? Make this now.
Am I the only person who hardly ever cooks the same thing twice? Do you have a repertoire of trusty, tried and tested recipes that you return to time after time, or do you prefer to see every dinner as an opportunity for experimentation?
Fig, hazelnut and raspberry cake (serves 6-8):
75g light muscovado sugar
75g vanilla sugar (or caster sugar)
50g butter, softened
2 large eggs
200g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
Around 200ml yoghurt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (or 1 tsp if you didn't use vanilla sugar)
A pinch of salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
90g hazelnuts, roughly chopped
5 large fresh figs
A punnet of raspberries
Demerara sugar, for sprinkling
Pre-heat the oven to 180C (160C fan oven). Grease and line a 20cm cake tin.
Cream together the butter and sugar with an electric whisk until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and mix together.
Sift in the flour and baking powder, then stir in the yoghurt until you have a thick batter. Add the vanilla, salt, cinnamon and two thirds of the hazelnuts.
Chop three of the figs into small pieces and stir into the batter along with half the raspberries. Pour into the cake tin, then quarter the remaining figs and arrange on top of the cake along with the raspberries and remaining hazelnuts. Scatter over 2-3 tbsp demerara sugar and put in the oven.
Bake for around 55 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream. It's also tasty the next day with a cup of tea.