In the way that some women are 'bag ladies', I am an apricot lady. I regularly impulse-buy and hoard these gorgeous summer fruits, becoming rather untrendily obsessive about them during the summer months. It's rare to find me without a punnet of apricots in my bag, a spontaneous purchase from some market or shop because they just looked too good. I think it's the same with early-season rhubarb, with its slender, hot-pink stalks - like a mad bull or a bee I'm attracted to those bright colours and find myself stockpiling these edible jewels on a regular basis. No fruit lures my gaze quite like the rosy apricot, though, with its beautiful marigold blushes, and no fruit proves so versatile in my kitchen during the warmer part of the year.Read More
Occasionally, in my youth, I would go out in the evening, to some throbbing venue slick with other people’s sweat where the music was too loud and the lighting just the right level of dimness to enable middle-aged men to sidle up to you and ‘helpfully’ put their hands on your waist as they squeezed past. I’d dress up. There would be bright colours, sparkly jewellery and painful shoes. Sometimes I would even wear false eyelashes. Once they came unstuck mid-evening, and I spent a couple of hours chatting to people, glass of wine in hand, enveloped in the aura of my own sophistication and blissfully unaware that my spidery plastic eyelashes were hanging away from my eyelids by a strip of congealed glue. I’d drink a bit too much and end up crying on boys I fancied, then try to rectify the situation by offering the excuse that I was ‘on medication’. My girlfriends and I would go to the toilet together and gossip. I’d go to get a drink at the bar of Wetherspoons, step away to go back to my table and find my feet removed from my shoes, which were still stuck fast to the floor. There would be silly photos on Facebook the next morning, always featuring the same core components: a bottle of wine, my wide-eyed leering face next to those of my friends, too much cleavage from all of the girls involved, a wisp of fake tan here and there, a stray false eyelash or two, and probably some poor token male who had been hijacked for the purpose.Read More
1. Caramelised peach, grilled chorizo, avocado and almond salad. I wasn't going to blog about this, but then I took some sad-looking things out of the fridge, did a bit of cookery magic, chucked them into a bowl with a liberal dousing of vinaigrette (made using some delicious hazelnut mustard that I bought from a deli in France), took a bite, and started scribbling furiously in my recipe notebook. I love using peaches in savoury recipes (particularly when they're starting to wrinkle and look a bit unappetising...), and they go amazingly well with any kind of salty, cured animal product - prosciutto is a classic, but chorizo also works wonders, I discovered. Crisp up some thick slices of chorizo in a frying pan, brown some almonds in the brick-red oil it releases, throw in the peaches briefly to caramelise, then toss it all with some salad leaves, cubed avocado, thinly sliced red onion (mixed with a little cider vinegar for a few minutes to take the edge off it) and the aforementioned dressing (mustard, lemon juice, olive oil, seasoning). It looks a treat and is an incredible medley of flavours and textures. This is the kind of salad that you feed people who think they don't like salad. It's great for your health and happiness, without being worthy. Speaking of not being worthy, this brings me on to number two...Read More
The quintessential aroma of summer in my kitchen isn’t the smoky tang of barbecued meat wafting in from the garden, nor the heady sweetness of ripe strawberries sitting on the counter. It’s the deep, slightly musky perfume of apricots. Whether they’re simmering gently in a chamomile and vanilla syrup on the hob, baking into an almond custard tart in the oven or being churned into a pale coral ice cream on the counter, their unmistakable sweet, soothing fragrance tells me that sunshine and long days are (hopefully) ahead. During the season, I buy at least two punnets a week – I can’t get enough of their glorious colour and versatility in the kitchen.Read More
Rejoice: here is a recipe that uses egg whites. Are you the kind of person who keeps egg whites stashed in bags in your freezer after making ice cream because you can't bear to see them go to waste? Are you the kind of person who once took home a kilner jar of thirty egg whites from the restaurant where she worked because the chef was otherwise going to throw them in the bin after a furious bout of pasta-making? Are you the kind of person who is horrified by Nigella Lawson's admission that she sometimes separates eggs directly over the sink so as to avoid the conundrum posed by the leftover whites? If you're not, you're probably on the wrong blog and we have nothing in common. If you are, read on. You'll be delighted.Read More
I made and ate this after coming home from an aerobics class. I haven’t been to said aerobics class in months. I’d forgotten that the reason said class is called ‘Body Attack’ is because it leaves you feeling – you guessed it – like someone has attacked your body. Muscles aching, and with a slight touch of nausea from repeatedly rolling over on my back from sit-up position to plank position, I whipped up this so-ridiculously-nutritious-it-should-be-available-on-an-intravenous-drip-on-the-NHS salad. I have rarely felt healthier in my life.Read More
This is the ultimate taste of summer for me, because it involves my ultimate summer fruit: the apricot. Between about June and October, it would be a very rare thing to open my fridge and not spy a brown paper bag full of these golden, silky, fragrant orbs. I buy them in bulk every time I visit a market or a supermarket, spending a few moments picking out the best: those that feel heaviest in the hand, those that are warm and soft as a baby’s cheek rather than hard and cold, those that sport a mottled, sienna-coloured blush on one side. Of course, this is no real indication of what they will be like to eat raw – I’ve never had a very good raw apricot in my life, and have given up trying. Instead, apricots meet one of two ends in my kitchen: that of being baked slowly with honey, orange blossom water and cinnamon in the oven, or poached in a pan with orange juice, vanilla and star anise. Oh, and sometimes I make jam, throwing in cardamom seeds and a vanilla pod. It’s divine.Read More
One of my life’s great woes is that I am constantly hungry. You could see this as a blessing; my food writing career requires that I be always ready to sample whatever tasty treat should come my way. However, more often than not it’s something of a curse, given the fact that I am completely unable to function when hungry. I genuinely cannot comprehend those people – you know the type; you may even be one of them – who can breeze empty-stomached through a whole day and then remark, astonished, by evening that they haven’t eaten anything all day and gosh, how silly, they probably should have something then really shouldn’t they, but they’re just not that hungry!!!!
Sorry, but I hate these people.Read More
I have a difficult relationship with yoghurt. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been unable to stand the stuff. I think I ate it as a child, but at some point something clicked in the back of my brain somewhere and I became deeply averse to the substance, to the point where watching a woman tucking into a big pot with a spoon early one morning at a bus stop in Oxford made me feel physically sick and sidle in precaution over to the nearest bin. I’ve tried to conquer my aversion, finding it irritating that there is a foodstuff out there that I don’t like, generally priding myself on my diverse omnivorousness – I used to hate melon, but a fairly un-rigorous process involving making myself eat more melon soon conquered that minor affliction – but I simply cannot get over it.Read More
Blood oranges make winter worthwhile. Grey rainy mornings are a little bit brighter as you take your sharp serrated knife and gently slice the skin off these reassuringly weighty citrus fruits, revealing the stained-glass segments within. Marigold orange with blushing tinges of red, through to the dark scarlet of lifeblood, every blood orange is different, and part of the enjoyment is taking a moment to admire the individual tones of the specimen you’re about to eat. You can eat them as they are, of course, but I like to mix them with other ingredients, particularly where their gorgeous colouring can be fully appreciated.Read More
I hoard egg whites. It’s almost a sickness. I am physically incapable of throwing them away. It’s part of my general ‘physically incapable of throwing any form of food away’ neurosis. Sometimes, when there are leftovers after a meal, but an annoying amount that I either won’t eat or won’t turn into another meal, I have to enlist one of my dinner guests to tip them into the bin, such is my incapability of transferring food from plate to rubbish.
I think it’s Nigella who writes in one of her books that she now breaks eggs directly into the sink when she just needs the yolks. Sort of the egg-separating equivalent of ripping off a plaster really quickly – there’s a momentary pang as you watch the yellow, viscous substance slide quiveringly down the plughole, but there’s nothing you can do to prevent it. It’s a question of active agency, I think: somehow doing it that way seems like an accident, not your fault – as opposed to the reckless, pre-meditated crime of physically tipping a bowl of egg whites into the bin or sink.
I can’t even manage this, though. It’s ludicrous, I realise, since eggs cost all of about 30p each and are in plentiful supply. A few lost whites do not constitute a major crime against food conservation. I should probably see some kind of specialist about this - often inhibiting - reluctance to discard anything remotely edible.
Nothing sends me into more of a panic than a recipe that calls for egg yolks. Just the yolks. Those brilliant glossy globules of marigold goo, resplendently isolated from the slightly creepy alien-esque ephemera that suspends them delicately inside their protective shell. Curds, pastry, ice cream, pasta: you are not my friends. Much as I love your delicious end results, you are responsible for a sizeable chunk of unavailable freezer space.
Egg whites freeze well, you see. This is either a blessing or a curse. The former because it means you don’t end up wasting those whites if you don’t have an immediate use for them. The latter because they sit in the freezer, nagging you to use them, taking up space that could be occupied by more immediately useful items.
When you have four sets of four egg whites in your freezer (just put them in plastic bags, labelled with the number of whites, and freeze…not that I’m encouraging this practice…), you realise it is time to act. Or at least, I did. It may be OK if egg whites are the only thing hogging your freezer space, but I also have an unfortunate habit of hoarding most fruits known to man, and also, currently, rather a large quantity of meat.
The last time I made macaroons was also out of a desire to put egg whites to good use. Unfortunately, this time there were thirty of them. I am not even joking. This was when I worked in a restaurant as a waitress, and the chef had made a large quantity of pasta for lunch service. By ‘large’, I mean he used thirty egg yolks. Apparently also unable to crack them into the sink, he had put the whites into a large kilner jar, which I insisted on taking home to ‘put to good use’.
I will say it now: there is no ‘good use’ for thirty egg whites. Three, maybe. Even thirteen, perhaps – three pavlovas and you’re done. But thirty? Good luck with that. I think I had to get my mum to throw the rest away, after I’d made about a hundred macaroons. Most recipes, you see, don’t use just egg whites. Mousse, for example, usually puts some yolks in there too for richness. Meringue pie has yolks in the fruit filling. Many cakes lightened with egg whites also incorporate the yolks along with the sugar. Pretty much the only options available to you are macaroons and meringues.
Also, incidentally: thirty egg whites in a kilner jar are not a pretty sight. It looks like something a mad scientist might have on a shelf in his eerie laboratory, or an artificial womb used to birth an alien life form. There are viscous strands of jellyfish-like white tentacles suspended within the yellowish mass, and the whole thing moves with an unpleasant quivering wobble that reminds me of the by-products of liposuction.
Macaroons are not to be confused with macarons, those overly fancy French creations that send baking bloggers into a total frenzy of violent perfectionism over ‘feet’ and ‘shells’ and the like. Macaroons are probably the easiest baked goods you will ever make. You whisk some egg whites (but not even in an energetic way – just lightly with a hand whisk until they’re a bit frothy), add some sugar and ground almonds (or desiccated coconut), shape into balls and bake. From start to finish, about 15 minutes.
Here, I have put a Middle Eastern twist on traditional macaroons by adding cardamom. Combined with the ground almonds, you end up with a macaroon that tastes like the filling of baklava. Add a crunchy, toasty pistachio nut on top, and the overall effect is deliciously and seductively reminiscent of those wonderful cardamom-scented, nut-rich Middle Eastern pastries that I love so much. I think finely chopping the pistachios and rolling the macaroons in them before baking would also be an excellent idea, but this keeps it super-simple.
For such a simple recipe, these really pack a punch in terms of flavour and texture. They have the most wonderful gooey centres, with a nice gentle crunch on the outside, and fill your tastebuds with sweet, fragrant cardamom and almond. They’re perfect with an afternoon cup of tea, or served alongside desserts like mousse or ice cream, and look a lot more complicated and impressive than they in fact are. The recipe is also easy to scale up, as you just mix everything in a bowl, so you can make a big batch and give them to grateful friends/neighbours/colleagues/family.
And, let’s not forget, they’re a great way to use up (some of) those egg whites that, if you’re anything like me, are haunting you and your freezer right now.
Pistachio and cardamom macaroons (makes about 30, so easily multiplied):
- 2 egg whites
- 230g ground almonds
- 140g caster sugar
- 10 cardamom pods, husks removed and seeds ground to a powder
- Pistachio nuts, to decorate
- Icing sugar, to dust
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Line a large baking sheet with non-stick baking parchment or silicon.
In a large bowl, lightly beat the egg whites with a whisk until just starting to turn bubbly. Add the almonds, sugar and crushed cardamom, then mix together with a spoon until firm but sticky. Roll into small balls, about the size of a walnut, with your hands or using a teaspoon. Arrange, evenly spaced, on the baking sheet.
Using a fork, press down slightly on the top of each macaroon to flatten it. Press a pistachio nut into the centre of each. Bake for 10-15 minutes, until lightly golden brown but still a little squidgy. Allow to cool before dusting with icing sugar.
Oops, I did it again. Having told myself I was going to completely cease hoarding various fruits in my freezer, and just eat things seasonally without worrying about storing them up for a period of dearth (it's not like we still live in medieval times, where pretty much nothing is harvestable between winter and spring), I found myself handing over the best part of a tenner at the market yesterday for a huge armful of hot pink rhubarb stalks. They were just so pretty, and it was the only stall still selling the lovely slender, pastel pink type, rather than the thicker, more purple-green woody stuff. I told myself it was the last time, but I bet if I see it again next weekend I buy some more.
Fortunately, I bought it at the weekend, and the weekend means brunch. Even though I live on my own, I still bother to cook brunch just for myself. It's a nice way to differentiate the weekend from the more monotonous weekdays, and I have to admit there are few things I enjoy more than sitting down on my own to a big bowl of brunch, a large mug of green tea and Masterchef on my iPad. Plus, while it's in the oven, I find myself doing useful tasks like laundry, tidying and writing blog posts. What a mad crazy weekend life I lead.
I'm not mad enough, though, to faff around cooking something like pancakes just for me. But a big dish of some kind of baked oatmeal is perfect, because you can make it at the weekend then eat the rest during the week - it microwaves well. One of my favourite rhubarb dishes is this blueberry and rhubarb baked oatmeal, where a delicious chewy and crunchy layer of oats, berries and milk bakes over a juicy layer of rhubarb. I'm also a big fan of this rather less fiddly pear and gooseberry oat crumble, which is incredibly easy and just requires mixing an oat mixture with some fruit, then baking for an hour.
One day I decided to try the aforementioned pear and gooseberry recipe with rhubarb. The recipe works because the pears and gooseberries release a lot of juice during the cooking process, which soaks into the oats from below and makes them beautifully chewy and gooey. Rhubarb, too, turns very juicy in the oven, as do blueberries. It seemed like something that had to be done.
I threw in some crushed cardamom with the rhubarb, a pairing which I have loved for a long time - the exotic citrus fragrance of cardamom works beautifully with sweet rhubarb and blueberries. Into the oat mixture I stirred some ground ginger and cinnamon, warming spices that just seem made to go with oats. To moisten the oat mixture, a delicious medley of maple syrup, olive oil, vanilla extract, and a splash of water. I use a beautiful mandarin-infused olive oil, which you can find here if you're interested - it has the most wonderful deep, orange flavour which survives the cooking process to leave a beautiful hint of citrus in each mouthful, a fantastic combination with the cardamom and warming spices.
You may think that breakfast is not the time to be messing around with cardamom, mandarin-infused olive oil, cinnamon and ginger. I think you'd be wrong. Brunch is exactly that: a time to make something a little bit more exciting for breakfast, to treat yourself. Plus, this is hardly a chore - it comes together in minutes and then sits patiently in the oven for just under an hour, leaving you to get on with other things.
Oh, and I haven't yet mentioned - it's delicious. It's like eating crumble for breakfast, as the name suggests, which is pretty much living the dream. You have a beautiful gooey mixture of rhubarb and blueberries, dark and inky purple, sweetened with caramel-scented honey and citrussy cardamom. You have a scattering of oats, crispy and crunchy on top, gooey and sticky underneath where they've absorbed the juice from the fruit, warm from cinnamon and ginger and with a hint of orange and vanilla. The contrast in textures is delicious, and the balance of the warm toasty oats and sharp, juicy fruit.
It feels like a pretty decadent breakfast, but it's actually not bad for you at all. It's even vegan (if you swap the honey for some caster sugar), so hopefully any vegan readers out there will find that exciting. And, I imagine, you could make it gluten-free if you used gluten-free oats and a gluten-free substitute for the spelt flour - buckwheat flour, for example.
Make this for your friends, or make it for just yourself. Either way, I promise you'll be impressed. If you're as big a fan of crumble as I am (and if you're not, why are you reading this blog?!), you will hopefully enjoy the slightly risqué excitement of indulging in it for breakfast (is that a bit tragic? I think it might be, but never mind). It's also one of the prettiest breakfasts you will probably ever make. And, if you have leftovers, they microwave very well - I normally put them in a bowl and microwave for 2 to 2 and a half minutes on full power. Leftovers are fairly unlikely, though - it takes me a huge amount of discipline not to eat the entire dish of this in one sitting (and I promise you, I could, easily).
I can think of few better ways to welcome the weekend than with a beautiful vibrant bowl of sticky, pink-purple, spice-scented crumble.
Rhubarb, blueberry, almond and cardamom breakfast oat crumble (serves 2-3):
- 400g rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths
- 150g blueberries
- 3-4 tbsp honey, depending on the sourness of your rhubarb
- 6 cardamom pods, seeds crushed to a powder
- 150g jumbo oats
- 40g spelt flour
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 3 tbsp olive oil (I use mandarin-infused oil)
- 3 tbsp maple syrup
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 tbsp water
- 3 tbsp flaked almonds
- Maple syrup, to serve (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to 190C.
Scatter the rhubarb and blueberries over the bottom of a baking dish (a 20cm square one is good, or a similar capacity oval one like mine). Drizzle over the honey and sprinkle over the cardamom, then toss together with a spoon.
In a small bowl, mix together the oats, flour, salt, ginger and cinnamon. In a small jug, whisk together the olive oil, maple syrup, vanilla extract and water. Pour this into the oats then mix together until combined. Sprinkle this mixture over the rhubarb then mix gently, keeping most of the oats on top of the fruit. Scatter over the almonds.
Bake for 50 minutes, until the oats are toasted and crunchy and the fruit juicy. Check it halfway through and if it looks a bit dry, sprinkle over a little water. Leave to cool for five minutes once out of the oven, then serve, with maple syrup if you like.
Although some of my more rant-led blog posts may encourage you to believe that I am a constantly angry and occasionally violent grumpy old woman, I'm actually quite a nice person. However, there are certain things that you just don't do if you want to remain on speaking terms with me ever again.
For example, cook rice as you would pasta, in a vat of boiling water, draining it with a sieve. This is not acceptable behaviour and I will not tolerate it from anyone in my life.
Secondly, you never, ever, mess up the froth on my cappuccino. Drinking a cappuccino is a ritual, revolving around the steady scraping off of the chocolatey froth from the top with a spoon and the inhalation of its heady cocoa-rich aroma before indulging in the actual coffee lurking underneath. The chocolate is the best bit. I once went on a date with a boy who flagrantly ignored this, leaned over the table and swirled his spoon vigorously around in my cappuccino (which sounds like a euphemism, but is not). I was actually rendered speechless with horror for a good few seconds. Needless to say, it didn't work out. A person who could do such a thing is clearly evil and therefore not boyfriend material.
Thirdly, you don't announce that you can't cook, proudly and as if this is some kind of badge of honour. You say 'I can't cook'; I hear 'I'm a lazy good-for-nothing layabout'. Cooking is pretty much the easiest thing in the world. You don't have to rustle up a three-course feast involving foams, textures and an ingredient 'done three ways'. But to make something like pasta or a curry is about as difficult as cutting your toenails. If you claim you 'can't cook', I'm sorry, but I just think you're too lazy to try. ('Won't cook', incidentally, also hurts me to hear, but is at least more honest).
You don't wave your exposed wrists in my face when I tell you I have a phobia of wrists and blood. That, people, is just unkind and not actually very funny, because I have a tendency to pass out on such occasions and while that may sound hilarious, you really don't want to be responsible for my concussion. Because I will track you down and kill you.
You don't wear leggings that are slightly see-through instead of trousers, i.e. not concealed by some kind of skirt or shorts. This is never, under any circumstances, OK. I'm sorry, but I don't want to go out with you in public if everyone who walks behind you can read the slogan on your knickers.
Come to think of it, slogans on knickers are not really OK either.
On that note. Boys: Tom and Jerry boxers are not - I repeat, NOT - a thing that should exist. If they're made of silk, this does not somehow make it OK. In fact, I think it makes it worse, by suggesting said product is geared towards a hideous hybrid of pre-pubescent child and male porn star. Wearers of such things, you know who you are. If you're ever wondering why we didn't work out, there's your explanation.
You don't always arrive late and/or cancel things at the last minute. This drives me up the wall and is just bad manners. Just because we live in a luxurious world of technology where we can instantly let someone know if we're running late or unable to make it, it doesn't mean it's OK or socially acceptable.
You don't eat at Cafe Rouge. If you eat at Cafe Rouge, consider yourself judged. Like, as judged as you will be on the way into heaven. Except if you eat at Cafe Rouge, you are clearly not going to heaven. But don't worry, I think the food in hell is probably a marked improvement on what that ubiquitous, nauseating, faux-rustic chain serves up on a daily basis.
And, finally, you don't get in the way of my breakfast.
Breakfast, to me, is probably the best time of the day. It's a quiet time, a time of solace and reflection before the rush begins.
(OK, I admit, as a PhD student my life never gets much more of a 'rush' than 'Oh! I must hurry my five-minute commute so I can get to that seminar in time to make a cup of tea first!!! I hope I remembered to leave my lapsang souchong teabags in my locker for just such an occasion!')
It's a time to be on my own and enjoy the first meal of the day in peace. Sometimes I read recipe books or food magazines, or watch a food show on TV. I make sure I always have something delicious to eat and take my time over, whether it's a big bowl of porridge with fruit or a freshly baked loaf of soda bread with homemade jam and a big cup of tea. I have a special mug that I reserve for my breakfast cups of tea. (By 'special', I essentially mean 'giant').
For most people, breakfast is probably a bowl of supermarket cereal and a glass of juice or a cup of tea. Or maybe a couple of pre-sliced bits of flabby, plasticky, mass-produced bread. While I appreciate that a lot of people don't have much time in the morning, I've always felt it worth getting up a little bit earlier so that I can have a proper breakfast. For me, the prospect of a freshly baked loaf or a steaming bowl of porridge is infinitely better than an extra fifteen minutes in bed. I put more effort into my breakfast, I imagine, than most people, rarely eating the same thing for more than a few days in a row.
Take, for example, this recipe. It is inspired by one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten: Joy the Baker's 'Vegan Apple Cranberry Oatmeal Bake', which she posted on her blog a few weeks ago and which instantly shot straight to the top of my 'to-make' list. Lucky recipe - some things languish for years on that list without a second glance. I made it a few days later, and spent the entire time I was eating it groaning with delight in a slightly indecent fashion. I changed her recipe only slightly in that I used pears as well as apples, which I think made it even better. You get a gorgeous muddle of burst, juicy, tart cranberries, sharp apples and soft, grainy, perfumed pear pieces. This is all interspersed with clusters of spiced oats, crunchy and crisp in places and soft and gooey in others where they've come into contact with the fruit juices. It's one of those absolute keepers of a recipe, one that I know will become a staple in my kitchen for evermore.
It is the closest I've ever come to eating crumble for breakfast. Honestly, it's pretty much impossible to tell that it isn't crumble. What's more, it's markedly healthier. This is essentially the holy grail: dessert for breakfast, plus no guilt. That said, it could also be happily served as a dessert with some ice cream, as Joy suggests.
There are some gooseberries in my insanely middle class food hoard (freezer) that have been lurking there for months now; I bulk-bought them in the summer and didn't use them up, saving them - as always with things in the freezer - for a 'special' occasion that never arose. As my freezer was approaching bursting point and I'm going home for the holidays, I wanted to have a bit of a clear out before I left.
I made a wonderful gooseberry crumble a couple of months ago, infinitely better than any previous attempts due to roasting the gooseberries in the oven first with brown sugar then draining most of the juice, to prevent a soggy mess that has been the tragic downfall of previous noble crumbles. The result was beautifully tender, tart berries, slightly scorched in places and wrinkled in others, under a crunchy, buttery crust. It was probably the best crumble I've ever made. It suddenly occurred to me that I didn't have to wait for an occasion when I could justify eating huge amounts of crumble to use up those gooseberries...I could use the same principle of roasting the berries first then blanketing them with a crunchy topping, but in a form that could be eaten for breakfast.
I roasted the gooseberries with brown sugar until starting to burst. They didn't release too much juice, so I didn't drain them. Instead I tossed them with chunks of pear, some mixed spice and some cornflour, to thicken any juices that did emerge and stop everything becoming watery. The crust is a mixture of jumbo oats, spelt flour, salt, mixed spice and ginger, because ginger works very well with gooseberries. It's moistened with maple syrup, olive oil and almond extract, because almond also works very well with gooseberries. The result, which looks like flapjack mixture, goes onto the fruit. You stir it in very slightly, just so that some bits of the crust end up soaked in the bubbling fruity syrup, then scatter over some flaked almonds for extra crunch, and it goes in the oven.
Oh, my goodness. I know I tell you all my recipes are good, even delicious, because obviously I'm a gastronomic genius and I crave love and acceptance, but this is beyond good. As Joy herself said of the cranberry version, it's 'bonkers delicious'. Firstly, the smell as it bakes is better than any scented candle (which makes me wonder if there isn't a gap in the market for brunch-based scented candles). Secondly, it's just so, so tasty. Hopefully you can see from the photos, because words kind of fail me. Imagine the best crumble you've ever eaten. It's sort of like that.
The gooseberries turn puckered and wrinkled, lending their beautiful honeyed, fragrant sweetness to the syrupy juice under the oats. The pears soften but still retain their grainy bite, adding their subtle perfumed flavour to the mix. The juice bubbles stickily. The oats soften and turn gooey in places, crunchy and crisp in others, with a toasty, buttery flavour (but of course, this uses olive oil so has the bonus of being vegan) and a hint of warm spice. There's crunch from the almonds. The whole thing is a delightful medley of textures and a riot of toasty and sweet, syrupy flavours.
This is my new favourite breakfast. Eating it was a perfect ritual: big mug of tea, warm, spiced fruit, comforting crispy oats. I devoured half the dish in one sitting; Joy claims her original recipe served 4-6, but this is clearly some kind of conspiracy. I would be very, very surprised if you managed to make it serve four, let alone six. When I made it for friends a couple of weekends ago, I doubled the quantities, and it comfortably fed four of us. So be generous in your portion estimations.
I'm slightly devastated that I'm going to have to wait until summer to get gooseberries to make this again. Unfortunately it probably means I'm going to hoard even more of these fruits than last year, but at least now I'll know exactly what to do with them. However, out of season, you can use most berries for this: cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries. You won't even need to roast them first, in that case - just put them in raw with the pears, cornflour and spices and add the oat mixture. I reckon blackberries would be insanely good.
So, after that somewhat scary list of things not to do if you want to be my friend, I'm going to give you one suggestion of something you should do: make this. And invite me round. Just be prepared for me to eat nearly all of it. And make sure you serve my tea in a suitably large mug.
Pear, gooseberry and almond breakfast oat crumble (serves 2-3):
- 3-4 large handfuls gooseberries, topped and tailed
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 3 medium pears (I used Rocha)
- 1 tbsp cornflour
- 1 tsp mixed spice
- 150g jumbo oats
- 40g spelt flour
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp mixed spice
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 3 tbsp maple syrup
- 1 tsp almond extract
- 1 tbsp water
- 2 tbsp flaked almonds
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Put the gooseberries in a medium baking dish with the brown sugar and toss together. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or so until they have softened and started to release their juice. Quarter the pears and remove the core, then cut half of them into thin slices and half into small chunks. Add to the gooseberries, and toss together with the 1tsp mixed spice and the cornflour.
In a small bowl, mix together the oats, flour, ginger, mixed spice and salt. In a measuring jug or mug, whisk together the olive oil, maple syrup, almond extract and water. Stir this into the oat mixture until it is moist and starts to clump together.
Pour the oat mixture over the gooseberries and pears, then give it a couple of stirs to roughly mix it together - you still want most of it over the top, though. Sprinkle over the almonds. Bake for around 40 minutes, until the oats have turned crunchy and golden and the fruit has softened. (Check it halfway through, and if it looks like it's a bit dry, add a drop of water to the fruit). Allow to rest for a couple of minutes, then serve.
Christmas in the kitchen, for me, is a time to start searching for those 'definitive' recipes. Seeing as the annual festival of getting fat and eating too much with some exchanging presents in between generally involves cooking the same dishes every year - mince pies, Christmas pudding, a roast, cabbage, sprouts, Christmas cake, cranberry sauce - I've been on the hunt for the past few years for recipes for these things that are so good I'll want to just go straight back to them next year, rather than continuing to experiment. So far, Delia's braised red cabbage with apple, Levi Roots' tropical Christmas pudding and Fiona Cairn's Christmas cake recipes are all lucky enough to have made it onto this list. My mum's mince pies are also a staple, but I long ago accepted that they'll only taste right if mum makes them herself, so they're not something I can really recreate on my own.
However, there's still a gap as far as stollen is concerned. Ever since I discovered this baked delight a few years ago - I can't actually remember when I had my first taste, but it had me hooked - I've tried every year to create the perfect stollen. For those of you who have never tried it, sort this out. It's a delicious cross between a bread and a cake, studded with dried fruit and nuts, with a thick vein of marzipan running through the middle. It's often glazed with butter and liberal amounts of icing sugar, and scented with spices like cardamom and cinnamon.
The first recipe I tried was from a book that came with our bread-making machine at home. I made the fruity dough in the breadmaker, stuffed it with marzipan and baked it. The result was rather like a giant, elongated hot cross bun. It was bready rather than cakey, with quite a loose crumb. It was delicious, especially toasted and buttered, but not really what I was after. Stollen should have quite a dense texture, closer to bread than cake. It's moist yet crumbly at the same time, often from the addition of ground almonds.
The next recipe I tried was Dan Lepard's sour cherry stollen. This was much closer to what I wanted: it had a lovely cakey texture and was even better after maturing, soaked in rum, sugar and butter, for a few days (although I obviously had to nibble a piece before I put it away for its little rum bath, just to quality control). It had a lovely cardamom flavour, which I think is essential to a good stollen - the combination of super-sugary marzipan and the citrus hit of cardamom is fabulous. It's like the gastronomic equivalent of getting a snowball in the face. But in a good way.
Last year, I tried Richard Bertinet's stollen recipe, which was in the delicious magazine Christmas issue. The main advantage of this recipe was that it made not one, not two, but four stollen loaves. It was quite involved - a lot of kneading and proving and folding fruit into dough, as well as making a 'creme d'amande' out of eggs, sugar, ground almonds and butter - but the end result was gorgeous. The crumb texture was very buttery, rather like a croissant, with a wonderful almond hit. We froze two of the stollen and my mum begged me on a monthly basis throughout the following year to allow her to defrost one and eat it.
This year, I think I'll probably make the Bertinet version again. However, this recipe for orange and pistachio stollen bars, another Dan Lepard creation, has been sitting in my Bookmarks folder for an entire year, since it appeared in the 2011 Observer Christmas food special. The other day I felt the urge to bake something festive, and these sprung to mind.
The advantage of these is that they are incredibly quick and easy to make. Pretty much everything just goes into a bowl, then a pan, then the oven, then your mouth. No kneading or proving, as you often get with the more bread-like stollen recipes. Yet the end result tastes pretty much exactly like real stollen. There's that dense, cakey crumb - made with the addition of cream cheese, which I think gives it its richness - the hit of cardamom, juicy pieces of raisin, crunchy pistachios, and finally the delicious grainy squidgyness of marzipan pieces. The crumb is also infused with orange extract, which gives it a delicious Christmassy flavour.
Also, because it's baked in a wide tray, you get more of the delicious crunchy, caramelised crust, which is one of the best bits of stollen. Particularly here where pieces of marzipan near the surface of the mixture bubble up in the oven and turn crunchy and toffee-like.
When I make these again, I think I'll chop the pistachios rather than leave them whole, as I prefer a little bit of crunch rather than whole nuts. I'd also chop the marzipan into smaller pieces - Dan suggests 2cm squares, but that's a sizeable chunk of marzipan to chew on, and they're also harder to fold through the batter, which is pretty dense already. [Since I wrote this post I have indeed made them again, and can confirm that chopping the nuts and using smaller marzipan pieces is definitely the way forward]. I think the raisins would be excellent replaced with dried cranberries or cherries, or maybe with some dried apricots added too.
The best part of this is removing the warm cake from the oven, then brushing it with melted butter and dousing it in icing sugar. The smell as it bakes is sumptuous, filling the kitchen with the aroma of Christmas; fruit, spice, nuts and butter. Slicing the cake into squares is also deeply satisfying, particularly when crumbs or corners end up crumbling off and you have to eat them to neaten everything up.
While not a true stollen, these may just make it onto my list of 'go-to' Christmas recipes. All the flavour of stollen, with none of the faff. Apparently they keep for a good while if you're generous with the melted butter and sugar, and wrap them tightly in foil. But of course, if you're generous with the melted butter and sugar, you're going to want to devour them all in an indecently short amount of time, as I did. Fortunately my department at university has an actual thing that we call 'Cake Thursday', which involves sharing home-baked treats on a weekly basis. Without these human bins in which to dispose of all my baking, I would be well on the way to obesity right now. It's cold up in York. I need baked goods for insulation.
These little squares are the essence of Christmas. Whip up a batch to sustain you through the arduous weeks of shopping, card-writing and turkey-buying ahead. Make some and give them to your friends. Just make sure they don't have a nut allergy.
For the recipe, from Dan Lepard, click here.
I have a culinary conundrum for you. It's one I've been pondering for a long time now, often while daydreaming in the swimming pool or on my bike. Yes, I know that's a bit dangerous.
Why is it that some flavours taste more of themselves than the actual ingredient they have derived from?
That probably doesn't make any sense. Let's take an example.Marzipan.
Marzipan has that distinctive almond flavour, the kind you find in macaroons and flavoured sweets or chocolate. The kind you find in those mass-produced, impossibly neat, garish bakewell tarts with a cherry on top.
OK, so you've eaten almonds, right?
They taste nothing like almonds.
Almonds have a strange, mouth-puckering dryness. They're soft, crumbly, and have a very very subtle sweetness and a deep, earthy flavour. But they bear no resemblance in taste to anything that carries their name. Almond croissants. Almond marzipan. Almond macaroons. Almond cakes. These things taste how we expect them to taste; they taste of the flavour we have come to associate with almonds. I've used ground almonds in cakes many a time, and found they impart little or no flavour to the rest of the cake; they certainly don't pack an almond punch on their own, whether whole or crushed up.
How, then, do they derive this flavour from a nut that tastes nothing like that? And why do we accept this unnatural and bizarre notion of almond flavour?
It's the same with coconut. Actual coconut flesh tastes almost nothing like the synthetic 'coconut' flavour we put in baked goods and chocolates, in Bounty bars and coconut ice and other tropical delights. It's remarkably subtle in taste, as is the coconut milk we add to curries and are often disappointed with because it doesn't offer enough of a 'coconut' hit, enough of that artificial flavour we've come to associate with coconut.
I'm sure some molecular gastronomic genius like Harold McGee or Heston Blumenthal would be able to answer me on this, but if anyone else (Heston, I know you're busy - please don't feel like you have to comment on all my blog posts) has an answer to this serious query of mine, there's a comment box at the bottom of the page.
But obviously you don't care about my almond and coconut dilemmas, because what you really want to know is how damn good this cake is.
Doesn't it just look the picture of rustic, English perfection? I can't think of a more traditional tea-time cake than this. It uses quinces, a medieval fruit that has sadly fallen out of favour yet, for me, is one of the most exquisite ingredients in the world. It has a complexity of flavour like no other; I once made a sorbet that contained just quinces, sugar and water, yet from its taste you would have thought it was spiked with a heady cocktail of fragrant spices.
Indeed, when my father tried this cake he was adamant that I'd put cinnamon in it. I hadn't. That's just the complexity of quince for you; it has a perfume redolent of mulled wine and potpourri and the bubbling cauldrons of medieval cooks, brimming with treasures from the spice trail.
Poached quince segments make a great basis for all sorts of desserts. By simply simmering them in the gentlest possible way, in a syrup of sugar and water flavoured with whatever herbs and spices you choose, you end up with kitchen gold - literally. They mellow and soften, becoming golden, sometimes deep sunset red, full of ambrosial fragrant flavour and with a pleasant yielding yet grainy texture not unlike that of a perfectly ripe pear.
Cooked like this, you can use quinces for so many things. I like them pure and simple, spooned onto my morning porridge with a handful of tart blackberries or blueberries. They are also excellent with ice cream, or you can use them to top a dessert, as in this wonderful quince tarte tatin recipe. Cover them in pastry for a beautiful pie, or top with a coarse crumble for a buttery treat.
Quinces marry particularly well with almonds. Given that they are not dissimilar to pears in both shape and texture when cooked, this shouldn't be surprising. The idea to include them in a cake with marzipan came to me when I was baking mini simnel cakes this Easter. I had some high-quality marzipan to use up, and some quinces sitting in the fridge, and I suddenly thought that stirring cubes of marzipan into a cake batter with cubes of poached quince would create something fabulous.
I wasn't wrong; this is a beautiful cake. The cubes of marzipan melt in the heat of the oven, giving a gorgeous gooey texture and sharp hit of almond flavour (that strong, almost fake variety, as discussed at the beginning of this post). The quince is soft, grainy and fruity, delivering a sweetness and a perfume that matches beautifully with the marzipan. The cake is nutty from the use of spelt flour and the scattering of flaked almonds over the top, resulting in a dense crumb that is beautifully moist from the molten marzipan and the juicy quince.
This isn't a very sweet cake; it's more of a pudding to be eaten after a light meal, or something to be served in slabs with a good cup of afternoon tea. The quince and marzipan combination is more than enough sweetness for the whole cake, so there isn't much extra sugar involved. I'd suggest pairing it with vanilla ice cream, as the cold cleanliness of the ice cream is a good foil for the sugary marzipan and the fragrant quince. If you don't have quinces (they're quite hard to find even when in season), use ripe but firm pears - but don't bother with the poaching step, just cut them up and put them in raw.
This is a hearty, rustic cake, the kind I can imagine a medieval chef unearthing from the bowels of the oven and cutting into thick slices to serve after a banquet of venison and wild fowl. It looks beautiful and makes a satisfying pudding or afternoon treat, the kind of thing that will keep you going in that hideous destitute period between lunch and dinner when all seems bleak.
Pair it with a strong cup of tea - perhaps something rich and smoky like lapsang souchong - or coffee, cut yourself an indecently large slice, and savour the comforting, crumbly warmth of the cake and the surprising burst of gooey marzipan pieces. This is a proper cake, as cakes should be.
Quince and marzipan cake (serves 8-10):
- 600ml water
- 250g caster sugar
- 1 lemon
- All or a mixture of: cloves, star anise, crushed cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, vanilla pod, bay leaf
- 3 medium quinces [Or, if you can't find quinces, just use 4-5 ripe but firm pears - Conference are good - and skip the rest of the above ingredients]
- 310g spelt flour (or plain/wholemeal, depending on your preference)
- 1 tbsp baking powder
- 80g brown sugar
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 60g melted butter, cooled slightly
- 2 eggs
- 340ml buttermilk (or yoghurt loosened with a little milk)
- 150g marzipan, cut into 1cm cubes
- 2 tbsp flaked almonds
First, prepare the quinces. Bring the water and caster sugar to the boil in a large saucepan, then bubble away for a couple of minutes so the sugar dissolves. Cut the lemon in half and add to the pot. Add your chosen herbs and spices. Peel the quinces then cut into quarters. Remove the tough core and cut each quarter lengthways so you have eight slices. Add the quince slices to the liquid. Top up with more water, if necessary, so they are just covered.
[If using pears, skip this step and go straight to the cake-making - cut up the pears as below and use them raw]
Cut a circle of greaseproof paper to fit over the quinces in the pot, and cut a 1-inch hole in the centre. Place over the quinces, touching the water, then turn the heat right down. Simmer very gently for an hour or so, until the quinces are tender but still holding their shape - check them occasionally as you don't want them disintegrating. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a chopping board. Slice three or four of the segments lengthways into three pieces so you end up with long, slender slices. Cut the rest of the segments into 2cm dice, and set them all aside to dry on a piece of kitchen towel.
Pre-heat the oven to 190C (fan oven). Grease a 25cm cake tin or fluted tart tin and line it with baking parchment.
Sift the flour and baking powder into a large bowl. Add the brown sugar, lemon zest and salt.
In another bowl whisk together the melted butter, eggs and buttermilk. Pour this into the dry mixture and fold together gently with a large spoon until just combined - don't over mix.
Fold the cubes of quince and marzipan into the mixture so they are evenly dispersed. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin, then arrange the long quince slices in a pattern over the top of the cake. Scatter over the flaked almonds.
Bake in the oven for 35-40 minutes until the centre is firm and a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool slightly before dusting with icing sugar.
Serve with vanilla ice cream. It's best eaten warm, but keeps for days wrapped in foil and reheats well in the oven or microwave.
“I’ll go to thee a Simnel bring, ‘Gainst thou’ go’st a Mothering, So that when she blesseth thee, Half that blessing thou’lt give to me.” ~ Robert Herrick, 1648
Simnel cake is one of those things bearing a gastronomic heritage shrouded in mystery and myth. Its basic make-up, however, is widely accepted: a rich spiced fruit cake, lighter than a Christmas cake, with a vein of marzipan running through the centre and another layer on top, which is toasted (if you're smart/a pyromaniac, you'll use a cook's blowtorch for this...if not, you'll use the grill, and probably end up scorching it to cinders, as I've done on several occasions). It's usually decorated with eleven marzipan balls, said to represent the disciples of Jesus - eleven because, of course, Judas didn't really earn his place on the cake. More fool him.
Simnel cakes have been around since medieval times. They are associated both with Easter and with Mothering Sunday, where young servant girls would apparently make one to take home to their mothers on their day off. Whether any of this is true, no one seems to know. What is clear is that this has now become as traditional Easter fare as the humble hot cross bun, and
I would hate to let a year pass without baking a Simnel cake.
I think perhaps it's the pleasing resemblance it bears to a Christmas cake, in form at least, but simultaneously the subtle differences involved. For one, I'm likely to be making and eating this cake in the pleasant balmy spring weather, when it's not getting dark at three o'clock and I'm not so inflicted with SAD that I feel like impaling myself on the Christmas tree decorations. It's more cheery in appearance than the dark, dense Christmas cake; that lively covering of toasty marzipan is just perfect for spring, reminiscent of daffodils, sunshine and Easter chicks. It's lighter in flavour, perfect for enjoying with a cup of tea, maybe even to be tentatively enjoyed al fresco, should we be blessed with some unusually warm spring weather.
However, making a big fruit cake is a commitment. It needs love. It needs time. It needs strong arms to stir all that stiff dried fruit into an equally stiff buttery batter. It needs patience to decorate with marzipan, and nerves of steel to dare to place it under the grill and risk all that hard work literally going up in smoke.
You know what doesn't really need all that?
Mini Simnel cakes.
These are wonderful. They combine all the best bits of a Simnel cake - dried fruit, citrus, spice, marzipan - but are diminutively lovely and require very little effort. Although they lack the wow factor of their more grandiose cousin, I think these beauties possess a little charm of their own. Particularly with their cute little marzipan decoration.
I know a lot of people who claim to hate marzipan (my father included), when really what they detest is that thick, tooth-judderingly sweet layer between the Christmas cake and its icing. Cut marzipan into small cubes, fold through cake batter, and blast in the heat of the oven, and you have an entirely different product - something melting, pleasantly chewy, sweet and luxuriant. Add dried fruit, spice, and citrus zest, and you have something truly special.
I was going to have one bite of these cakes just to test they were OK and worthy of my wonderful readership. Just one bite, maybe two - I ate rather a lot over the weekend and am attempting a 'healthy-ish eating' week in preparation for my holiday to Tuscany at the end of March (quick aside: YAY OMG I CAN'T WAIT). But when they came out of the oven and I spooned a little lemon icing over the top and finished with those tiny nuggets of bronzed marzipan...and I broke one open to photograph it...that was the beginning of the end.
They are so good. Incredibly light and fluffy, more so than you'd ever believe possible for a fruit cake (I suspect this was due to me allowing my KitchenAid mixer to give the batter a thorough beating for about eight minutes, on high speed...), with a hint of nutmeg and cinnamon and a dash of orange zest, and that plump, juicy fruit, and those molten cubes of almondy goodness. The contrast between the rich, buttery, crumbly cake and the light, zesty icing is amazing (especially while everything is still slightly warm).
They are sweet and delightful. The crumb is really light yet moist at the same time, and there's a perfect fruit-to-cake ratio - not too sugary and crunchy, but not too bland and buttery either. Perfection.
So there you have it: Easter, made bite-size and easy.
Mini Simnel cakes (makes 15):
(Barely adapted from this BBC recipe)
- 50g raisins
- 50g sultanas
- 80g currants
- 70g dried mixed peel
- Zest and juice of one orange
- 175g soft butter
- 175g caster sugar
- 3 eggs
- 300g self-raising flour
- 1 1/2 tsp mixed spice
- 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
- 5 tbsp milk
- 250g marzipan
- 150g icing sugar
- Lemon juice
Add the orange zest and juice to the fruit and leave to soak for an hour, or microwave for 2 minutes on medium power. Pre-heat the oven to 180C/170C fan oven and prepare two muffin trays with 15 paper cases.
Using an electric mixer, beat together the butter, sugar, eggs, flour, spices and milk - keep going for about 5 minutes, until it's really light and fluffy. Take 180g of the marzipan and chop it into 1cm cubes. Fold into the cake batter along with the soaked fruit. Spoon into the paper cases and bake for 25-30 minutes until golden and firm to the touch. Cool on a wire rack.
Break small pieces off the remaining marzipan and roll into little egg or ball shapes, about 1-1.5cm diameter. Mix the icing sugar with enough lemon juice to form a fairly thick icing - stir vigorously to get rid of any lumps. Spoon the icing on the middle of the cakes and top with the marzipan balls - two or three per cake, depending on how many you've made.
Scales are a bit of a contentious issue for me and my family. Before you start thinking that any of us are cold-blooded and reptilian, I should probably clarify that I mean weighing scales, the kind you use to measure things for cooking. Until a few years ago, the only scales I knew were the huge, old fashioned ones we have in our kitchen at home, made of heavy black metal with a big brass bowl and a plate that you balance brass weights on. If you wanted to weigh out any quantity of anything, you first had to pile up the right weights and then pour whatever it was into the brass bowl until the scales tipped into a tentative balance.
This is all well and good, until you need to do the opposite - find out how much something weighs. For this, you have to play a ridiculous balancing game, slowly piling up weights until the scales start to level out. It can be done, but it is a bit of a faff. As is weighing out different quantities of ingredients, switching and swapping the piles of weights for every different amount of something. If you're baking a fruit cake, this can be a little bit of a nightmare. Especially if you drop one of the weights on your bare foot or - worse, as far as my mother is concerned - on the wooden kitchen floor.
My first electric kitchen scales, then, were a revelation. You could just balance a big bowl on top of the glass plate, reset the digital display, weigh out your first ingredient, then keep resetting it as you added all the others. No heavy weights to store and fiddle with, and the best part was the accuracy. You could weigh out three grams of flour if you wanted to. You probably never would, but for making something like macarons, where you - apparently - need to weigh out very precise quantities of egg white, they would have been perfect. I've never tried to make macarons, though, because I quite like my blood pressure on the low side, and also I can't really imagine they'd be particularly tasty. I'd much rather have a good wedge of cake than a silly, fussy little egg white biscuity thing. I really don't understand the appeal. Does that make me deeply untrendy, culinarily speaking?
Those halcyon days of digital scales were short-lived, however. Returning to my student house after the Christmas holidays, I discovered someone had stolen them, along with my salt and pepper mills. I never got them back (though my lovely boyfriend was kind enough to buy me some brand new, rather posh salt and pepper mills - who says money can't buy love?) and since then have been making do with some £2 Tesco plastic scales which I finally broke a few months ago by dropping them. On my foot, actually. Oh, the irony.
The reason there was a spot of familial contention regarding the scales related to our new house in Yorkshire which my parents have pretty much built from scratch. My mum has kitted out the kitchen with all sorts of nice china and utensils (including a Kenwood mixer). The scales in the huge utensil cupboard once belonged to my nanna, and are also the type requiring a balancing act involving heavy weights. My dad and I both think we need to get a pair of the digital or mechanical ones to go with them, for the precise reason mentioned above - they're completely impractical for weighing out small quantities, and they also make it difficult if you just want to, for example, weigh an opened bag of pasta to find out if there's enough left in there for two people. My parents let the house out as a holiday cottage, and my mum thinks that we should keep the old-fashioned scales, and the old-fashioned scales alone, because "people like that sort of thing when they're on holiday". I don't agree - yes, they look all quaint and from a bygone age, but I think the guests would appreciate them far more if they were simply a display item, while the utensil cupboard also contained a pair of scales they could actually use in a practical context.
Mum doesn't agree, and the battle rages on. This, of course, is a total hyperbole, and I think that if that's the only big subject of controversy and argument in our family, we're probably doing quite well. But that didn't make me any less excited when these new ProCook mechanical scales arrived in the post the other day. I'm quite fond of ProCook's products. They're a British company, which appeals to my sense of culinary patriotism, and their products do seem genuinely crafted to be useful and lasting.
There's something rather retro about these scales, with their big round measurement dial and wide weighing bowl. They're made from stainless steel which is wipe-clean, a big improvement on our brass weighing bowl that goes a funny colour if you weigh something like cream cheese in it, because it reacts with the metal, or that goes a very funny colour if my dad forgets that it isn't dishwasher-safe and puts it in anyway. The weighing bowl is nice and big, too (21cm diameter) - I always struggled with my tiny Tesco plastic scales at university because the 'bowl' was actually a sort of box shape, and it could only fit about 100g of flour in it - useless for making bread or large cakes (which form about 80% of my cooking).
The scales have an adjustment button, so you can keep turning the reading back to zero if you need to, and the measurements are in both imperial and metric (they weigh quantities up to 5kg/11lb). They look great on the kitchen counter, unlike my little plastic version - maybe not as quaint as mother's huge brass scales, but still aesthetically pleasing enough to stand proudly on a kitchen worktop (they have little rubber feet, too, to stop them scratching anything or moving around while you try and weigh things).
What better way to test scales than to bake a cake? Well, actually, I could easily have just picked up and weighed random household objects to "test" them, and let's be honest, weighing scales don't really need "testing", but I love any excuse to bake a cake.
This may look familiar - it's essentially an apricot version of my delightful greengage and almond cake from a couple of weeks ago, but with a few extras added and the recipe tweaked slightly. My favourite part of the greengage cake was the delicious crunchiness of the top, with its demerara sugar and flaked almond crust. To make this even more crispy, and to bring out the almond flavour a little more, I thought some crumbled amaretti biscuits would be perfect sprinkled over the top. Apricots will start to disappear from the market stalls soon, and so I thought I'd make the most of them while they're still around and still cheap - a sort of last hurrah for the humble apricot, if you will. They go so well with almonds, and I've never actually tried them in a cake before, but thought their delightful sharp tartness and beautiful marigold colouring would look and taste delicious strewn through a dense, nutty, moist cake.
My only problem with the greengage cake last time was that, because all the fruit was on top, the actual cake mixture was a little dry underneath. I thought I'd address that minor issue by putting half the apricots on the bottom of the cake tin, and half on top of the cake batter. Unfortunately, this still didn't improve the cake as much as I'd hoped, because the mixture rises quite a lot so you have a vast expanse of unfruited cakey desert in between the two apricot layers - I can only conclude that the solution is to stir half the fruit through the cake batter and scatter the rest on top, so I've altered the recipe below to suggest that instead.
Apart from that, this cake is just wonderful. It has a delicious nutty flavour from the spelt flour, a freshness from lemon zest, a lovely moisture from the inclusion of buttermilk, tart bursts of juicy apricots throughout, and finally that delightful crunchy almond topping. Next time I make it I'm going to use more amaretti biscuits and flaked almonds to make it even crunchier.
As expected, the ProCook scales make baking this a lot easier than the balancing variety, although in an ideal world I'd probably use ProCook's other digital scales, simply because then you can just put the bowl on top and add everything in at once, zeroing the scales in between. While I like the appearance and the big bowl of the mechanical variety, the only problem is the measuring dial - because they're designed to weigh up to 5kg, it's very hard to accurately weigh out quantities under 100g. Which doesn't really matter if you're making big cakes or loaves of bread, but for something more fiddly - like the dreaded macarons - I'd recommend the digital version for accuracy.
What I love about this cake is that it's a great blueprint for numerous variations. You could use peaches, plums, raspberries, blueberries, pears, apples - pretty much any fruit whatsoever instead of the apricots. You could swap the almond flavouring for vanilla, or orange flower, or rosewater, or lemon, or cinnamon. Just thinking about all these makes me want to start trying them out, but I still have a third of this version left to be devoured.
Whatever you try, you will be rewarded with a substantial, satisfyingly rustic cake, delicious warm as a pudding with ice cream, or equally good served for afternoon tea with a hot beverage.
Do you, like my mother, have a fondness for a particular piece of archaic kitchen equipment? Or do you prefer modern gadgets as a rule?
Apricot and amaretti cake (serves 8-10):
- 10 apricots, stone removed
- 60g butter
- 2 eggs
- 300ml buttermilk or natural yoghurt
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 70g light muscovado sugar
- A generous pinch of salt
- 1 tsp almond essence
- 300g spelt flour
- 1 tbsp baking powder
- 6 amaretti biscuits
- 2 tbsp demerara sugar
- 3 tbsp flaked almonds
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease a 28cm tart or quiche tin (you could also make this in a 22cm cake tin) and line the bottom with baking parchment.
Melt the butter in a large bowl and allow to cool a little. Whisk in the eggs, buttermilk, muscovado sugar, lemon zest, almond essence and salt. Sift in the flour and baking powder, then mix until just combined.
Roughly chop half the apricots and mix them gently into the cake batter until evenly dispersed.
Pour the cake batter over the apricots in the tin, then thinly slice the remaining apricots and scatter them over the top (you can be neat and arrange them in concentric circles, or you can just throw them on randomly). Crumble the amaretti biscuits (you can blitz them in a food processor or just roughly crumble them using your fingers) and scatter over the top of the fruit, along with the flaked almonds and demerara sugar.
Bake for 40 minutes or until golden brown and firm on top, and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean.
I have to say, I'm a bit disappointed by cherries. Every summer I get so excited by the crates of glistening blood-red fruit appearing in the markets. I buy them in great quantities when they're cheap, simply because it seems rude not to. They look so gorgeous and inviting with their glossy skins and delicate green stems, particularly when piled high in scarlet abundance under the July sunshine. Yet I've realised recently that they never fill me with anticipation. Apricots, on the other hand, whether small and underripe-looking or gorgeously plump and rosy-cheeked, always glow with promise. If ripe, I might slice them and eat them with ricotta on toast for breakfast. If not (and this is the more usual scenario), I'll slice them in half and bake them with a drizzle of honey and a splash of orange flower water, turning them into a jammy, marigold-coloured compote that bursts with exotic delight in every mouthful. Squat green Williams pears, though hardly exotic, whisper enticingly of their juicy, glassy, grainy flesh, so much so that I can hardly ever resist buying a few, either to eat as they are or chopped and scattered over a bowl of nutmeg-scented porridge. But cherries?
Cherries just don't sing to me in the same way as other fruits. They look beautiful, but I find myself buying them because they're a novelty, because they only appear in such abundance and at such low prices once a year. In fact, if I try and imagine what a cherry tastes like, I have real difficulty. Maybe I've just never been lucky enough to find decent cherries, but the ones I've eaten have only ever had a hint of berry-ness about them, a slight tartness with no real fragrant juice to emphasise it. Yet I remember drinking a glass of cold cherry juice on a sweltering evening in Istanbul last year, and thinking at that moment it was the most delicious thing in the world (of course, the fact that even my hair seemed to be sweating at the time may have been the reason for this). There is potential in the poor cherry somewhere, it just seems that I have trouble finding it.
I did, however, really enjoy the bakewell pancakes I made recently. As with apricots, cooking cherries seems to bring out a juiciness and a sweetness that they lack in their unadulterated state. The idea of turning that concept into a cheesecake had been niggling at the back of my mind for a while, and I thought I'd have a go before cherries disappear and we sink into the depths of winter once more. Essentially, I wanted to recreate that classic, almost over-the-top flavour combination of a bakewell tart. You know the kind: there's no subtlety about it. Rather, it's as if a sack of almonds has hit you over the head, followed by a vat of cherry jam. There you lie, almonds tumbling on the floor around you, some of them lodged in your ears and nasal cavity, while cherry jam oozes into your clothes, your hair, your eyelashes, until your very pores are saturated with the stuff. That's the bakewell tart experience I was seeking (though I didn't go quite that far).
I was initially going to use shortbread biscuits for the base, to emulate that bland, pristine casing of commercial bakewell tarts. Then I had a better idea, one that would take the almond flavour from lying-on-the-floor-covered-in-almonds to full-blown swimming-in-an-olympic-sized-pool-full-of-ground-almonds levels. I crumbled up some amaretti biscuits in a blender, mixed them with butter, lined the base of the tin and baked it for ten minutes to crisp it up. I kept the filling fairly simple: a mixture of Quark, cream cheese, icing sugar, and almond extract (for even more almondy goodness). I set it with gelatine. I'm quite into gelatine-based cheesecakes at the moment, mainly because you can put whatever you like in the filling without risking it disintegrating in the oven. They're also a lot neater to look at.
Instead of topping the cheesecake with a cherry compote, which seemed a) a bit boring and b) rather too reminiscent of those awful frozen cheesecakes you can buy, with an unidentifiable layer of rubbery neon-red jelly on the top, I decided to stir the cherries into the cheesecake mixture. Before doing so, I cooked them for a little while in lemon juice, water, brown sugar, and a drop of kirsch (cherry brandy). They softened into a lovely jammy compote, full of squishy, alcohol-saturated fruits, which I then splattered all over the cheesecake filling and stirred in.
Cherry-related disappointment aside, I really enjoyed this. It's not for those who don't like almonds (although perhaps it is - my Dad, who claims to hate almonds because he hates marzipan, had two pieces of this, and he never has seconds of dessert), because it has a very pronounced, slightly artificial almond flavour from the extract and the amaretti. To tone it down a bit, use vanilla in the cream cheese mixture, or use digestives for the base. The cherry compote, brightened up a bit with sugar, alcohol and lemon juice, really makes the most of this fruit. I still can't quite put my finger on what a cherry 'should' taste like, but I have a feeling the right place for it is swaddled in a creamy blanket of almond-infused dairy, like this one. The crunch of the base contrasts nicely with the soft, squishy fruit and its alcoholic tang, and the cream cheese filling is incredibly light and fragrant with almonds. A true bakewell tart experience, but in cheesecake form.
Am I being unfair to the cherry? Does anyone else find them as nondescript as I do?
Cherry and amaretti cheesecake (serves 8):
- 200g amaretti biscuits, plus extra for decorating
- 50g melted butter
- 500g quark
- 200g light cream cheese
- 200g icing sugar
- 1 tsp almond extract
- 1 sachet gelatine
- 3 tbsp boiling water
- 250g cherries, pitted, plus extra for decorating
- Half a lemon
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 dsp kirsch (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Blitz the amaretti in a blender to fine crumbs. Mix with the melted butter and use to line the base of a greased 20cm springform cake tin, pressing down with a spoon. Bake for 10 minutes until crisp, then set aside.
To make the cherry compote, place the cherries in a small saucepan with a squeeze of lemon juice, a splash of water and the sugar. Boil and then simmer gently for about 15 minutes, covered, until the cherries have softened and released juice (if it dries out just add a bit more water - you want about 1tbsp left over in the pan). Taste - it might need more lemon or sugar to balance it. Add the kirsch, if using, and set aside.
Whisk together the quark, cream cheese, icing sugar and almond extract. Sprinkle the gelatine over the boiling water and leave for a couple of minutes, then stir briskly to dissolve (heat the water gently in the microwave if it doesn't all dissolve, then try again). Pour the gelatine mixture into the cheese mixture, and whisk in thoroughly. Stir in the cherry compote, then pour onto the amaretti base in the tin.
Leave to chill for about 5 hours, or overnight if possible. To decorate, blitz some more amaretti biscuits and scatter over the centre of the cake. Arrange some whole cherries around the edge, and dust with icing sugar.