1. Apricots. Although you can buy these almost year-round in the supermarket, the fruits that start to emerge on the shelves in late May have something special about them. They're plumper, softer, promising jammy ripeness and mild sweetness, and they seem to glow more brightly orange than the pale, bullet-hard, woolly varieties that grace the shops in winter. I think there are few things more beautiful than a downy, ripe apricot, its honeyed skin blushed and dappled with sienna, glowing like a beacon in the hand. In summer, I like to pile them into a pale blue or white bowl and marvel at their beauty on the worktop. Briefly, anyway, before I get to work turning them into luscious desserts like this apricot and almond custard tart. For the next few months I reckon I'll eat at least a punnet of these beautiful fruits every week, either in desserts or baked with honey and cardamom into a luscious marigold compote to spoon over hot porridge and scatter with blackberries or blueberries.
2. Coconut oil. Don't worry, I'm not going to start spamming you with instagram pictures of kale smoothies or wheatgrass shots anytime soon. It almost hurts me to endorse such an achingly trendy ingredient, being possibly the least trendy person on the planet (I enjoy gardening and ironing and do both while wearing crocs, after all). But JustIngredients recently sent me a tub of virgin coconut oil and I've been using it in almost everything. I won't go on about its health benefits, because I'm not that person and this isn't the reason I like it; I'm a fan of its versatility, fragrance, texture and the wonderful way it enhances other recipes containing coconut. The essential precursor to any recipe involving coconut oil, by the way, is to open the tub and inhale that gentle, tropical scent. It's delicate and delicious, and I particularly love incorporating it in sweet recipes. Watch the blog for an incredible strawberry, rhubarb and coconut breakfast crumble recipe coming soon.
3. Lunch on a cruise ship. I was recently invited by DFDS Seaways to take a food-themed tour of one of their ferries. The last time I ate food aboard a sea-faring vessel, it was during my Navy cadet days. This was a considerable improvement in many ways. For a start, the ship wasn't moving, so I didn't end up regurgitating said food swiftly after consuming it. Secondly, instead of mystery meat and beige mounds of fried carbohydrates, we were offered a beautiful selection of fine-dining-esque treats. We first met with Danish head chef Brian, who discussed with us the practicalities of catering at sea. With one kitchen, five different restaurants and a staff of 18 people, this is no mean feat. Imagine working in a kitchen that uses 1000 kilos of eggs, 715 kilos of bacon and 1500 kilos of flour in a single month. Drawing inspiration from international cuisines, Brian creates appetising menus that change every three months, although laments the fact that he has to put French fries and boiled vegetables on the menu. Despite them being 'the most boring thing I can imagine', he said, 'British people dig right in'. I can only apologise on behalf of my fellow countrymen. We were then invited to take a tour of the kitchen, and helped prepare some of the lunch dishes, revelling in the gleaming equipment and gigantic ovens that you only get in large-scale catering facilities. I got to smoke some beautiful fat prawns over wood chips before sautéing them in copious quantities of butter, which was a definite highlight, but I also enjoyed seeing an absolutely vast mound of dough proving on the worktop for the accompanying breadsticks; it puts my humble single-loaf breadmaking efforts to shame. I also watched Brian sear a gigantic piece of veal before serving it with a blue cheese sauce and chorizo crumble; one of the best meat dishes I've ever eaten in my life. We had a delicate smoked trout mousse, a duck spring roll (the shredded duck meat, mixed with caramelised onions, was utterly divine), mini margherita pizzas (which cooked in about two minutes flat in the special bread oven) and a delicious chocolate mousse cake, all beautifully presented. I was incredibly impressed at the standard of the food and the immaculate efficiency of the kitchen, a far cry from the tiny galley I used to cook in during my Navy days. It was a fun, eye-opening afternoon and a fantastic opportunity to try cooking in an unusual environment. Thank you to DFDS Seaways for inviting me!
4. A Bird in the Hand by Diana Henry. Oh, Diana. You really can do no wrong. I was lucky enough recently to meet the lovely Diana, along with my mum, who promptly told her, 'Your books have cost me a fortune over the years'. Receiving them for birthdays, Christmases and Easter does seem to be something of a McCausland family ritual, and her latest volume was no exception, forming the happy conclusion to this year's Easter Egg hunt (yes, we still do that. I'm twenty-six. I don't care). I've come to realise that, essentially, the rest of my life will henceforth be measured out in Diana Henry recipes, because everything I've ever made from her books has been luscious and exactly the sort of food I love to eat. Her latest effort has me seriously considering filling my spare freezer (yes, I have such a thing - a necessary addition to the life of a food writer and berry addict) with chickens and bits thereof so I can cook my way through this glorious collection of recipes. I started marking my favourites with post-its, only to give up after using fifty-four post-its in sixty pages. I've already tried the lemon and pistachio chicken (you stuff chicken breasts with a mixture of lemon, pistachio nuts, breadcrumbs, butter, shallots, garlic and thyme, and it is the stuff beautiful summers are made of) and the marmalade-glazed chicken drumsticks (picture below), which are every bit as sticky and luscious as they sound. A must-have for anyone who finds themselves returning to the same old chicken recipes week after week.
5. Proper, homemade vanilla ice cream. I love making ice cream, but if I decide to go to the faff of infusing milk, whisking custard, chilling it overnight and churning it in the morning while I'm eating my breakfast (very noisy and distracting), it's got to be for some interesting combination of flavours. Recently I've made orange and caramelised date, cinnamon, lemon verbena and Christmas pudding ice creams, but I've never bothered with that stalwart, the humble vanilla. Yet every time I find myself purchasing a tub in the shops (it's the only ice cream I buy, rather than make, and even then only for the purpose of serving with puddings rather than eating unadulterated), I'm horrified by all the commercial rubbish that goes into it. Even the expensive, organic brands are full of weird thickeners and stabilisers. 'One day I'll make a big batch of homemade vanilla instead, to serve with desserts,' I say to myself, and then always put it off in favour of making more interesting flavours. Recently, faced with the prospect of a quiet weekend to myself - the first in possibly about a million years - I decided I'd put it off long enough. I bought organic double cream, organic free-range eggs, and impossibly thick and creamy gold-top Jersey milk, and set about making the most luxurious vanilla ice cream I've ever tasted. I used David Lebovitz's recipe, which packs a double punch of vanilla through the use of both pods and extract, and the end result is ridiculously good. You can taste the quality of the ingredients; it's the smoothest, creamiest vanilla I've ever tasted and the combined flavour of the pods and the extract (both subtly different) makes for an irresistibly sweet, fragrant taste. It's so good I almost want to eat it on its own, rather than with dessert. Sometimes it's worthwhile spending time over the simple things.