I never thought I'd be one of those bloggers, the kind that post gimmicky heart-shaped or red velvet creations to mark the otherwise utterly meaningless fourteenth of February. To be honest, these were made a couple of weeks ago, and they just happen to be heart-shaped, because I thought they'd make more interesting photos than simple rounds. But ignore that if you're a hopeless romantic: these would also make a lovely gift for your Valentine. Or your colleagues, as in my case. Or your friends. Or your mum. Shortbread doesn't make distinctions. Shortbread is always loving.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.
While I love baking, there are definitely qualifications I have to make to that statement. I wouldn't consider myself an all-round baking lover. There are some things I just don't have time for in the kitchen. One: any form of fussy dairy-based confection, like a mousse, bavarois, parfait (the exception being ice cream, which I love to make). Two: most things involving chocolate, like ganache or tempering - I don't have the patience and I don't like chocolate enough to make it worthwhile. Three: making things like puff pastry from scratch. Four: individual things in moulds that have to set. Five: sugarwork - fancy caramels or spun sugar. These things just don't appeal to me in the same way that making a beautiful big cake does, or a rustic crumble or pudding.
Until yesterday, I would extend that qualification to biscuits too.
I used to love baking biscuits as a child. Specifically, one type of biscuit, which I believe used to be termed an 'Aztec biscuit' in our family. A quick google of the term, however, turns up something totally different to the biscuit I am thinking of. These were a bit like flapjacks in circular form: a heady mixture of butter, oats and golden syrup, studded with raisins and baked until they spread out deliciously in a kind of brandy snap pattern. I would eat them hot from the oven while they were still gloriously pliable, draping gently over each other on the cooling rack, their bumpy surface glistening invitingly.
I'm pretty sure I used to eat about ten in a single go as a child. Sometimes I want to go back in time, find my seven year-old self and shake her by the shoulders, crying 'DON'T YOU KNOW HOW LUCKY YOU ARE TO BE COMPLETELY IGNORANT OF THE ENTIRE CONCEPT OF CALORIES?'
Neurotic waistline issues aside, I just don't eat very many biscuits these days. I have a total weakness for Hobnobs and Digestives, but I'm generally pretty good with willpower at not letting myself near these things. The simple reason being I know I won't stop; they're just too addictive and I will eat half a packet and then hate myself and want to curl up into a small ball, weeping with frantic abandon and clawing at my midriff.
Perhaps it's for this reason that I haven't baked biscuits in years, or perhaps it's just because I would often much rather bake a cake. I feel like you get more reward from a cake; it's more squidgy, moist, gooey, buttery. Biscuits often seem unnecessarily fiddly. I never seem to get the proportions right, and they either spread out and conjoin like some massive alien amoeba or are so small that they dry out before they're cooked.
Except for these ones, where you basically throw some things (okay, mostly butter) into a mixer, beat it up for a little while, roll it into two logs, chill and then slice when ready to bake. They're probably the easiest biscuits in the world, and are one of those great recipes where the effort to reward ratio is vastly skewed in favour of the latter. Plus they don't spread out much during cooking, so there's no risk of making one giant, tentacled shortbread monster.
I was inspired to make these by the acquisition of an exciting new ingredient from JustIngredients: orange peel powder. This is, as you'd imagine, dried orange peel that has been ground to a pretty sandy-coloured powder. It has a deep musky aroma reminiscent of potpourri, much more savoury and earthy than the fresh snap of grated orange zest. I've never come across such a thing before, and have already written an exciting little spider diagram in my recipe notebook of all my ideas for it. (I'm not painting the best picture of myself in this post, am I?)
However, for some reason, my mind immediately landed on shortbread. The inclusion of citrus aromas in shortbread is a wonderful thing - that melt-in-the-mouth buttery texture with the perfume of lemon or orange is a fabulous combination. I also decided to add some cardamom, because recent kitchen experimentation (such as this treacle tart) inspired by my travels in the middle east has led me to believe that anything sweet is hugely benefited from the addition of a few ground cardamom pods.
These shortbread biscuits are gorgeous. They have the most wonderful light, almost powdery texture, turning to buttery deliciousness as soon as you take a bite. There's a subtle perfume of cardamom and an earthy orange flavour, but neither is too overpowering: this is still shortbread, at its core. They're incredibly easy to make, and there's something deeply satisfying about slicing a chilled log of golden dough into pieces that will soon become crunchy buttery morsels of joy. An added bonus is that you can keep the dough in the fridge or freezer until you need it, then just slice and bake - almost instant home-made shortbread, for when you want to impress people (and I feel we should try and impress people in life more often).
Unfortunately, they're possibly even more moreish than Aztec biscuits, and the recipe makes about fifty. You have been warned.
Orange and cardamom shortbread biscuits (makes around 50):
250g butter, at room temperature
100g caster sugar
7 cardamom pods, husks removed and seeds ground to a powder
2 tsp orange peel powder, plus more for sprinkling (or zest of 1 orange)
250g plain flour, sifted
130g cornflour, sifted
Using an electric mixer or hand whisk (or a wooden spoon and some serious muscle!) beat the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the cardamom and orange peel powder/zest. Gradually add the flours, mixing between each addition, until you have a soft dough. Turn out onto a floured work surface and knead until it just comes together.
Divide the dough into two pieces. Roll each into a log shape, about 1.5-2 inches in diameter. Wrap these in clingfilm and chill for at least half an hour in the fridge.
When ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 160C. Slice the logs of dough into circles about 5mm wide, then arrange these on a baking sheet lined with non-stick parchment. Sprinkle a little orange peel powder over each one (skip this part if you used zest), then bake for 15-25 minutes until they have just turned golden (watch them closely - they can go from raw to burnt very quickly).
Remove, leave to cool, then eat.
1. Lentil salad with roast butternut squash, blue cheese, cranberries and chestnuts. I made this to use up some leftovers: roast squash, a piece of Yorkshire blue cheese, and half a pack of cooked chestnuts. It was definitely better than the sum of its parts. I cooked lentils in chicken stock with some thyme, then stirred in the roast squash, some dried cranberries which I'd soaked in hot water, sliced chestnuts, and some lemon thyme leaves. I crumbled over some blue cheese, and had a delicious earthy autumn feast. It also works very well with feta, which I tried the next day. In fact, I think I prefer the feta version, but the only photo I got was the blue cheese one. This is possibly the most festive, yet healthy, dish you will find. Plus, isn't it pretty?
2. Lakeland St Kew Teacup hamper. I was very kindly sent this adorable hamper by Lakeland recently, and I just had to write about it. Largely because it comes in a wicker basket shaped like a teacup, which I think is a fantastic idea. I'm planning to keep fruit in it once I've worked my way through the hamper ingredients - it looks lovely on my kitchen worktop - although Lakeland also suggest lining it and using it for planting herbs, which I think might be the quaintest idea ever for a herb garden. If only we could grow tea in this country, I would use it for that.
There's always something special about a hamper, and this is a really good size if you don't want to confer on someone a gigantic wicker box that's too heavy to do anything but gather dust in the attic. It's neat and a refreshing change from your standard hampers full of cheese and chutney that no one will ever eat (I have a special cupboard in my kitchen reserved just for unwanted jars of chutney - it's not that I don't like it, but I don't eat it nearly often enough to necessitate several jars every December).
St Kew make biscuits, preserves and confectionery to traditional, old-fashioned recipes, and this little hamper contains two packets of biscuits, some strawberry and champagne conserve, and English breakfast tea. My favourite biscuits were the 'fabulous oatie flips' which, despite their rather quirky name, are a gorgeous cross between a hobnob and shortbread. Essentially, they taste like a vanilla-y crumble topping, and I devoured them at an indecently fast rate. Despite their inclusion in a hamper alongside tea, I would not recommend dunking them in your tea unless you want to lose all that buttery crumblyness to the bottom of your cup. Eat them on their own, and I defy you to stop at just one (okay, five).
The strawberries and cream shortbread is also delicious; rich and buttery with the sweet tang of strawberry pieces. It's an idea I've never come across before and rather like. This would make a great gift for lovers of afternoon tea, although one thing is sadly lacking from it: freshly baked, oven-warm scones on which to slather the delicious strawberry and champagne conserve while sipping a cup of St Kew English breakfast tea.
I suppose you can't really be over-critical, though - it does come in an excellent basket, after all.
3. My new bowl. It may seem a bit odd to be telling you I bought a new bowl, but this is much more than a bowl. This is about what the bowl stands for. I found it in the oriental supermarket just down the road from my new house. With one glimpse I was back in Vietnam, hunched over a table barely a foot from the ground, wedged into a tiny plastic chair more suited for children, with beads of sweat on my skin and condensation dripping from my forehead from the steaming bowl of noodle broth in front of me. The air was rent by the droning of motorbikes and sticky with September humidity, while the aromas of sizzling meat and fish wafted past enticingly to the background music of multiple blenders whizzing up condensed milk and fresh mango smoothies.
Although the bowl I purchased was (obviously) empty, I could practically see the golden, crystal-clear broth with its scattering of vivid green herbs and tangle of chewy, slippery rice noodles.
I ate out of several bowls just like this on my travels this summer. While I am very happy in my new life up north in the UK, not a day goes by where I don't yearn to be in south east Asia again, or feel painfully nostalgic for those beautiful, beautiful four weeks. It may sound stupid, but every time I sit on the sofa with this bowl full of rice and a pair of chopsticks (purchased in Saigon) in my hand, it eases the pain just a little.
4. Sea Island Coffee. I'm not a coffee connoisseur, but I really like this coffee from Knightsbridge-based Sea Island Coffee, which they very kindly sent me to try. This may be because it's Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee which even I, a die-hard tea drinker, know is one of the best in the world. I remember a friend of mine once bought me a bag of this exclusive, almost mythical substance for Christmas in my first year of university, back when I loved the stuff and before I converted to Yorkshire tea. It was possibly the most exciting present I received that year, and I treasured it, saving it for 'special' coffee occasions only. Needless to say, it was never shared with anyone else.
According to the website, this coffee has notes of dark chocolate and floral undertones. I'm not entirely sure I detected those, but it does have a delicious full, almost creamy, flavour, with a slightly sweet aftertaste. Grown on the Clifton Mount Estate in Jamaica, which has fertile soil, regular rainfall and cloud cover from the mountains, this coffee (mostly the Arabica Typica bean) thrives and consequently has such a sought-after flavour and aroma; it's often labelled as the champagne of coffees. It's not cheap, at £14.99 for a tin, but it would be a great present for the coffee-lover in your life (or for yourself, when you're having one of those days). It also won a Gold Taste award in both 2010 and 2012, which can't be a bad thing. Sea Island also sell numerous other types of coffee; for more information, and to read a bit about the estates behind the coffee, visit their website here.
I'll be hoarding this precious tin for as long as I possibly can. It goes without saying that if you come round for coffee, you're probably just getting the normal stuff while this sits ensconced at the back of my cupboard. Sorry.
5. Chaource cheese. If you're an avid reader of this blog (and if not, why not?), you may remember I wrote about my wonderful trip to Chablis last April. Although my tastebuds were extremely well looked after the entire time, and I enriched my life with the second-best tarte tatin I've ever eaten, one of the real highlights was the cheese course in a little rustic restaurant on the first night. Here I was introduced to Chaource, a typical cheese of the region.
It looks rather like a goat's cheese, with a white rind and a sticky creamy texture around the outside that turns almost crumbly in the middle. It also has the tang of a goat's cheese, but with the buttery texture of a Brie or Camembert - the best of both worlds. One of my mum's colleagues went to Chablis recently, and was lovely enough to bring me back a Chaource of my very own. It's delicious, and I can't wait to try it in a recipe or two - I think it would work very well with caramelised pears, or some dried fruit. If you can get your hands on this cheese - I reckon most good cheese shops would stock it or order it for you - then I'd heartily recommend it.
"Granny made some shortbread for you."
Six simple words, yet the joy they promise is boundless. I lift the lid of the gaudy plastic ice-cream tub, so incongruously matched to its sublime contents. I pull back the corner of the kitchen paper to reveal wedges of golden, burnished biscuit, thickly dusted with a snowy layer of sugar. I inhale the sweet, musty fragrance of butter, flour and sugar, picking at a stray crumb before extracting my chosen piece, always going for the largest in the box despite knowing it's inevitable I'll come back for a second. And a third.
I'm not alone, I'm sure, in possessing childhood memories of my granny that revolve around food. They're perhaps less conventional than some. I don't, for instance, fondly recall tugging at her apron strings as she showed me how to whip up a fabulous sponge cake, or licking the cake bowl after she'd finished. I don't recall a bubbling pot of jam, stew or soup on the stove, and the condensation it produced at the windows in winter.
I do, however, recall very vividly the mini rotisserie attachment on her cooker, that allowed a chicken to be spit-roasted to succulent perfection. I remember the little crisp crackers she would put in a bowl when the grown-ups had their evening drinks - I always called them 'stars' even though they came in all sorts of shapes - diamonds, circles, and (obviously - there was some logic to this) actual stars. I would nibble the points off the stars until only the mutilated centre remained, like a tragic soggy starfish that's been cruelly mauled by a hungry shark.
I remember breakfast every day in her lovely light conservatory, where we were spoilt for choice, totally different to our usual standard bowl of cereal at home. There were tinned grapefruit segments, swimming in their cloudy tart juice. Being a picky child and totally unconcerned about my vitamin intake, I naturally ignored these. They were for the grown-ups. There were boxes of bran flakes, my favourite cereal back then. I remember watching someone put sugar from the sugar bowl onto their bran flakes, and remember trying it and being distinctly unimpressed with the results. Even as a child, I wasn't into sugary cereals. There was a toaster waiting to hungrily accept crumbly slices of soda bread, which until very recently I always referred to as 'Granny's bread', so strong was the mental association.
I remember a warm, gooey apple cake she once made, served with lashings of vanilla ice cream that melted and soaked creamily into the sweet, tender crumb. I think I remember she had one of those fancy dinner party serving cabinets that keeps the food warm while you bring it to the table. She made excellent roast potatoes, and I know now that she makes a wonderful coffee cake, but my childhood self was unlikely to take a bite of that weird creation, so its sumptuousness would have to wait a good decade to make its way into my life.
It's a bit of a cliché to go on about how great a cook one's granny is (come on Britain, 'fess up - surely there must be some culinarily-challenged grannies out there; I refuse to believe they're all paragons of kitchen perfection, daintily arranged in spotless aprons churning out Victoria sponges for their adoring grandchildren), but in my case it is just plain factual. Perhaps it's something to do with the fact that she spent a lot of time living in various locations in Asia when she was younger, absorbing recipes and cooking tips by some sort of osmotic process.
I was lucky enough to read through her recipe book recently, and it's a fascinating mish-mash of English and Asian, with sweet-and-sour fish sitting happily alongside jellied ox tongue, lemon meringue pie, and blackcurrant bake. There's a recipe simply titled 'Mohammed's bread', named after the family cook when she was living abroad (I forget where, but I think perhaps Calcutta). The pages are crinkled and the handwriting has faded, slightly, but it's a fascinating treasure-trove of memories and inspiration, one that I hope to cook from one day.
But when I think of my granny and food, one thing will stand out for me every time. Her shortbread.
She knows how much I love it; so much so that every time she comes to visit, she can be found earnestly pounding butter, flour, sugar and semolina together in a bowl with a wooden spoon, to provide me with my favourite treat. Sometimes she has to produce more than one batch in a very short space of time, such is the speed with which it's devoured.
How to describe the sheer simple beauty of a piece of granny's shortbread?
For a start, it's nothing like that stuff you get in a tartan packet masquerading as shortbread. That stuff is often too sweet, too bland, too mass-produced. This is the real deal. It has a hefty amount of butter and sugar. That's why it tastes so good. You mix them together with a wooden spoon until they are soft and creamy.
It has semolina, which gives it this amazing crunch. You fold that in after, along with the flour. That's literally it. Then you press it firmly into a greased tin, prick it all over with a fork to stop it puffing up in the oven, and bake it for around an hour at a low temperature. It's somehow satisfyingly crunchy and crumbly, yet melt-in-the-mouth buttery and sweet.
Granny dusts it with a thick layer of caster sugar while it's still in the tin, which gives it even more crunch when you come to take a bite.
Think of how good the buttery topping of a crumble tastes, or the crispy pastry bits around the edge of a fruit pie. This is how the shortbread tastes. Crispy, crunchy, rich, buttery. It's just unbelievably good. Better than any biscuit you will ever make or buy, I'd wager. So simple, yet so perfect.
I am physically incapable of having just one piece. In fact, I reckon I could eat the whole tin in one go. I normally eat this stuff in three-piece portions, simply swept away by the sugary rush into eating more and more. It's addictive.
I think granny is always amazed that I rave about her shortbread so much. Every time I do, she laughs and tells me "It's just Delia!" There's no grand family secret recipe behind this post, nothing in granny's carefully-written recipe book; simply the work of the good old Delia Smith.
What I don't think she understands is that for me, it's not about where the recipe came from, or who wrote it. It's about the fact that granny has made the shortbread with me in mind, knowing how much I love and adore this irresistible combination of ingredients. That, for me, is special, and is the reason why this shortbread will always have a special place in my heart, as a reminder of my lovely granny.
That, and the fact that it tastes incredible, of course.
Should you also want to replicate the perfection that is granny's shortbread, the recipe is here, on Delia's website.