That auspicious transitional period between the years has arrived, and with it the impulse to invent unattainable goals as a coping mechanism, to quell the anxieties of liminality and assert some control over the unnerving blank space that is ‘2017’. While I will not be treading the same path as my friend’s husband, who last year decided that his new year’s resolution was simply and decisively ‘to be better’, it strikes me that using this threshold period as a time to consider ways of improving the year ahead is no bad thing. It’ll take more than a few facile resolutions to tackle the quagmire of misery, post-truth and political turmoil that was 2016, so let’s turn our attention instead to the more manageable, the smaller but still significant: our appetites; the food on our plates; how we eat. Since my life, and my years, are inevitably mapped out around the intricacies of food and cooking, it struck me that there are a few issues we food bloggers, writers, chefs and cooks may want to consider over the coming 365 days in order, ahem, ‘to be better’.
- Foie gras. I still don’t understand it. As far as I can tell, it’s a fatty, slightly foetid lobe of misery nestling atop my ravioli or steak, whose ripe oiliness lingering in my mouth is synonymous with the guilt that congeals around my soul as I consider the poor goose who has died horribly to produce this inexplicably coveted delicacy. Why is it still a thing?
- Let us continue to support the wonderful #CookforSyria endeavour, so that our stomachs and our appetites encourage us to engage with the wider world and to do what we can to assist in a conflict that at times feels colossally overwhelming.
- Clean eating. Dirty burgers. Please let’s stop talking about our food in the same way we would describe our laundry.
- Can we please stop sending Gregg Wallace into food factories where he simply repeats everything that is spoken to him by the obviously exasperated workers, while occasionally pausing to make his Masterchef ‘dessert face’ (a perverse mixture of eye-popping incredulity and borderline carnal lust) at the camera as he stirs a vat of congealed mass-produced comestibles? It’s nothing personal, Gregg, it just feels a little too intimate.
- Bloggers: let’s stop the somewhat affectatious habit of hashtagging our Instagram food photos ‘#recipedevelopment’. You are not Heston Blumenthal, nor some white coat-clad molecular gastronomist peering fixedly into a cupboard of test tubes. Let’s call it what it is, please: cooking. You are cooking.
- On a similar note, can we abandon the term ‘bone broth’? What you are referring to is good, honest, old-fashioned stock. The former sounds a little too much like something a dog might enjoy, or a concoction whipped up by Funny Bones, the cartoon skeleton whose adventures were a staple narrative of my childhood.
- Matcha lattes are an abomination and should be banned. Why would you take such a fine, expensive ingredient, a centrepiece of ancient Japanese culture and the focus of strict rules and traditions regarding brewing, serving and tasting, and sully it with frothed milk?
- Similarly, red wine hot chocolate. Stop pretending via Facebook memes that this is your perfect drink and completely encapsulates your personality (drunken and sickly?), you oh-so-quirky maverick you.
- Also, no more articles during the festive season from top chefs sharing their ‘easy canape ideas’ or ‘quick party food recipes’ or ‘effortless meals for unexpected guests’, which then turn out to involve peeling and deep-frying thirty quails’ eggs, individually wrapping fish fillets in vine leaves, making your own samosa dough or starting something ‘two days beforehand’ (surely the actual opposite of a meal for ‘unexpected guests’?). Any recipe that must be prepped more than 12 hours in advance, or involves a piping bag, deep-frying or individual anythings, is not quick or effortless.
- Let us continue to be mindful of food waste and to support the endeavours of the indefatigable Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the recent ‘no-waste’ restaurants that have appeared on the scene. There is no excuse for pouring milk down the sink or throwing out stale bread.
- Why are we still pretending that asparagus is a pleasant thing to eat? Can we stop this conspiracy in 2017 please?
- No more pictures of ‘turmeric milk’ on Instagram. Does anyone actually enjoy this? Whatever next? Cumin mochas? Coriander lattes?
- More, more more along the lines of the ‘cronut’, the ‘duffin’, et cetera. While I loathe the coinage of contrivedly quirky food portmanteaus for marketing and PR purposes, I love imagining these wildly inventive baked goods as the flamboyant illegitimate love children of reputable, high-society classics. What illicit unions can we expect in 2017, I wonder? The anticipation is almost too much to bear.
- Earlier this year I received a PR email advertising ‘the UK’s first fruity quark pouch’. I want more glorious gastronomic wordsmithery along these lines, please.
- Can someone explain to me what a ‘buddha bowl’ is, and why they seem to be the exclusive preserve of wealthy, materialist, sun-saluting Instagram addicts? I may be new to all this but that doesn’t really seem in the spirit of Buddhism.
Finally, let us all resolve to eat a lot more chestnuts next year. These gorgeous bronze nuggets deserve far more than a cursory appearance in your turkey stuffing, or a fragrant roasting on the side of the South Bank once the Christmas lights have gone up. Fudgy, chewy, with a hint of butterscotch and caramel about them, they add a toothsome crunch to savoury dishes and are particularly good partners for pork, herbs and strong cheeses. You can buy good quality whole cooked nuts in vacuum packs, so there is no need to go to the faff of roasting them yourself (although this can be quite rewarding, if you have the time – but it is not something to embark upon when you have ‘unexpected guests’, see number 9 above).
Moreover, there exists such a thing as tinned chestnut purée, which has all the glorious nuttiness and spreadability of Nutella and demands to be whipped up with vanilla (the ultimate sweet match for the chestnut) and a little brown sugar and either eaten straight from the spoon or tucked into crepes, breads, cakes and waffles. The French make a wonderfully thick, caramel-scented jam from chestnuts and vanilla, which should be your first port of call if you’re never experimented with these underrated treats.
This bread is inspired by a recipe from Felicity Cloake’s excellent new book, The A-Z of Eating, for German plum bread with almond cream; I’ve made a few tweaks and swapped the almond cream for a hefty slather of the aforementioned chestnut purée which nestles in the centre of the dough and forms a succulent canvas to the sharp purple plums. Fluffy dough; caramel-scented chestnut cream; tart, tender fruit: it’s an indulgent beast of a thing, unsure whether it’s a bread or a cake, which is my favourite kind of stodgy, substantial, greedy liminality.
This was my New Year’s Day breakfast, but I imagine it would also be good with a cup of tea in the afternoon. And now I’m off to put it on Instagram, where it will appear free from foie gras, labels indicating relative cleanliness, or the hashtag #recipedevelopment. Amen to that.
Happy new year!
Sweet plum bread with chestnut and vanilla cream (makes a 23cm bread/cake):
For the bread:
- 120ml milk
- 7g dried yeast
- 30g caster sugar
- 250g plain flour
- 50g wholemeal flour
- 5g salt
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
- 35g unsalted butter, cubed
- 1 egg
- 8 ripe plums
- 2 tbsp dark brown sugar
- 1 tbsp apricot jam, to glaze
For the chestnut cream:
- 200g unsweetened chestnut puree
- 2 tbsp light brown sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla paste
- 1 (generous) tbsp brandy
- 6 cooked chestnuts (vacuum-packed are fine)
First, make the dough. Heat the milk in a small saucepan to body temperature, then remove from the heat. Stir in ½ tsp of the caster sugar and all the yeast, then set aside until frothy.
Meanwhile, put the rest of the caster sugar, the flours, salt and spices in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook (or a normal bowl if kneading by hand). Rub the butter into the flour with your fingers until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the yeasty milk and egg and bring together to form a dough. Knead using the dough hook or your hands for 5-10 minutes, until the dough is soft and smooth. It will be quite sticky at first; add a little more flour if it’s impossible to knead.
Put the dough back in the bowl, cover with a tea towel and leave to rise until doubled in size – around 1-2 hours.
Meanwhile, beat the chestnut puree together with the brown sugar, vanilla and brandy. Taste and add a little more brandy/sugar if it needs it.
When the dough has risen, grease a 23cm springform cake tin. Knock the air out of the dough then press it into the bottom of the tin, using your fingers to shape it flat across the bottom. Press the sides of the dough up slightly around the sides of the cake tin so that there is a hollow in the centre for the chestnut cream.
Spoon the chestnut cream into the middle of the dough and spread it out. Roughly chop the whole chestnuts then scatter them over the chestnut cream. Halve and quarter the plums and arrange across the top of the chestnut cream, in circles or at random, depending on how neat you’re feeling. Sprinkle the plums with the dark brown sugar.
Cover the tin with a tea towel and leave for around half an hour, until risen slightly. Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Bake the bread for 40 minutes, or until firm and golden. Remove from the oven. While the bread is still warm, heat the apricot jam with a tbsp water in a small pan until thick and syrupy, then brush over the fruit to glaze. Leave to cool before eating.