As food geeks, we all have a few ‘fun facts’ up our sleeve, right? Random snippets of foodie info that we use to pepper the conversations at parties or liven up a boring first date? Don’t tell me you’ve never reached for a bit of asparagus-related trivia to brighten up a dull moment, or quietened a room by pointing out that red Skittles are coloured with smushed-up insects. If you haven’t, I’m certainly never going to a party with you.Read More
A week or so ago, I was standing in our office kitchen at breakfast time waiting for the toaster to beep. This story requires you to be familiar with the concept of a Danish toaster, so we’ll get that vital detail out of the way first. The Danes, being the edgy, thinking-outside-the-box, design-conscious folk that they are, have quite literally turned the concept of the toaster on its head. They have horizontalised the toaster. Where us plebs in England drop our flaccid sliced Hovis into a fiery, gaping maw, where it sits clamped between metallic jaws and undergoes a thrilling gamble of a transformation that could either result in charcoal or warm dough, but never the sweet Goldilocks stage in between, and which requires you to either interrupt the whole process to check on its progress or to stick your face into the mouth of the beast and risk singed nasal hair, and which is really only appropriate for bread the precise thickness of a pre-sliced loaf or, at the very most, a crumpet – heaven forbid you should try and insert your wedge of artisanal sourdough or pain au chocolat into its tantalizingly precise orifice – the Danes have realized the many potential perils of this situation. (Not least, the possibility of dropping your house keys into the slot and causing a minor explosion, as my mother once managed to do in a feat of ineptitude that still astounds and perplexes me).Read More
I don’t think I ever tried a piece of the lemon meringue pie that they used to serve in my school canteen, but it sticks in my memory because of its frankly alarming neon-yellow colouring. I watched friends manipulate chunks of this rubbery, radioactive stuff around their plates, reminiscent more of glow-in-the-dark wallpaper paste than of anything that was once rooted in the earth. I was oddly fascinated by it, the way its jelloid luminescence was able to support a crest of snowy meringue, the way it resembled that fluorescent putty you give children to play with. Its presence on a plate seemed somehow outrageous. Too yellow. Too lurid.Read More
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
There are a million and one delicious things in the world. Chocolate. Ripe mangoes. Jennifer Lawrence. But sometimes I think that, as far as simplicity goes, you can't get much better than curd. I'm not talking about the pale, buttery clouds that rise to the surface when you make cheese (the curds of Little Miss Muffet, as they are otherwise known), but that blissfully ambrosial concoction of butter, eggs, sugar and fruit, heated and whisked until glossy, gelatinous and spreadable and then placed in jars where you can admire its beautiful pastel hues.Read More
There are some fruits that people are, generally speaking, fairly comfortable encountering in a savoury dish. Few people would bat an eyelid at a sliver of apple turning up alongside their roast pork, either in sauce form or maybe – outré prospect as it is – in thick wedges, roasted alongside the meat to soak up its delicious juices. Although a subject of mockery, ham and pineapple is a pretty established combination by now, whether it’s performing the ludicrous feat of turning your margherita into a ‘tropicana’, or in the form of a lurid golden ring of fruity goodness perched atop a fat pink slab of salty gammon.Read More
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.
[Just a quick - and excited! - note to say that I've been nominated for Best Food Blog in the Cosmopolitan Blog Awards 2012!]
I'm pretty sure that there has never been an occasion over the last three years when I haven't had at least one punnet of blueberries either in my fridge or freezer. I would hoard them obsessively during my time at Oxford, where they could regularly be found at the Wednesday market priced at a mere pound. Given that I've seen punnets fetching up to £4.49 in Marks & Spencer, this was a pretty bargainous find. (Luckily I have a mother who insists on blueberries with her morning muesli, so we now have a constant supply in the fridge, which I don't have to pay for - win). I'd stash them away for a later date, a date which actually rarely happened to be much later, because the uses for blueberries in my kitchen are numerous.
I like to use them to stud a moist, squidgy loaf of banana bread, perfuming the crumb and creating sweet little pockets of purple. Continuing the banana theme, they also work well folded into banana pancake batter, or simmered gently in a pan until their skins burst and they release tart inky juices, which can then be spooned dramatically over a pile of pancakes. I also use them in every variation of this baked oatmeal I make - sometimes the chewy crust hides a hot-pink bed of tart, tender rhubarb, sometimes a comforting blanket of baked banana, and sometimes a marigold shock of jammy soft apricot slices, but there are always blueberries infusing their mild sweetness into that molten fruity puddle.
I like them folded through hot, bubbling porridge, engulfed in its nutty, milky blanket, sending ribbons of juice twisting through the creamy canvas like capillaries. They work well in this context with all fruits, but particularly - again - chopped banana, or grated apple.
They're also rather good in savoury dishes, for example as a sauce for venison steaks, and sometimes I use them instead of pomegranate seeds to add a welcome burst of sweetness to a wild rice or couscous salad with shredded duck or chicken.
Yet I rarely bake with blueberries. Maybe I consider them too obvious - I generally like to bake vaguely unusual things with tragically underrated fruits, such as rhubarb and gooseberries. In fact, maybe that should be my blog's new tagline.
'Nutmegs, seven. Baking vaguely unusual things with tragically underrated fruits.'
I was leafing through this month's delicious magazine when I came across Signe Johansen's recipe for blueberry and elderflower cake. It's taken from her latest book, Scandilicious Baking, and I was drawn in both by the title - a combination I'd never come across before, having only used elderflower with gooseberries - and the enticing photo, depicting a rustic-looking wedge of cake topped with a juicy, dimpled purple carpet of squishy berries. The colours really struck me - such an intense, vibrant blue-purple, a hue you very rarely see in food.
Today, in need of a summery cake to combat the distinctly un-summery torrential rain occurring outside my kitchen window, I put on my apron, rolled up my sleeves, unearthed several punnets of blueberries from the freezer, and got to work.
This is an upside-down cake. The blueberries are scattered over the base of a cake tin, drizzled with elderflower cordial, left to steep while the cake mixture is made, then covered with a layer of batter before being baked. After its spell in the oven, you turn it over to reveal a beautiful purple topping that has soaked down into the crumb, as if the whole thing has been drenched wantonly in ink.
I made a few changes to Signe's recipe, using a sponge recipe that I came up with myself and always use in upside-down cakes, mainly because it uses a lot less butter than standard recipes but still tastes incredible, therefore I can justify eating more cake. (Right?) However, it actually relates pretty closely to her original, just with fewer eggs and less butter and sugar. I added ground almonds to my cake mixture, as she does, for a light texture and to help give a moist crumb. I also used spelt flour, as she suggests, because I think it lends a lovely nutty texture to the finished cake, which is a great contrast with the sweet, vibrant fruit.
This emerged from the oven everything I hoped it to be. The crumb has a really lovely mellow flavour to it, from the use of yoghurt in the sponge and from the almonds and hint of vanilla. It tastes robust, somehow, because of the spelt flour - subtly nutty, with a hint of biscuit about it. It has the perfect light, crumbly texture. The blueberries burst and drench the cake in their sweet juices, lightly perfumed by the elderflower cordial, giving a delicious contrast in both texture and flavour. Rich, earthy cake, and juicy, sweet berries.
Above all, I just love the look of this cake. It's so vibrant and joyful; just the thing to perk up a somewhat lacklustre British summer. The berries glisten in a jewel-like fashion; dark, inky and mysterious. Fresh from the oven, it is exquisite with a cup of tea in the afternoon - it's substantial enough to raise your energy levels and fill that sad gap between lunch and dinner, and it's not too sugary or sweet so still feels vaguely nutritious. It's also delicious served warm with ice cream for dessert.
I'm ashamed to admit this, but I ate half of this entire cake in one day. That's how good it is.
Blueberry and elderflower upside-down cake (serves 6-8):
- 200g blueberries
- 50ml elderflower cordial
- 50g soft butter
- 2 eggs
- 150g caster sugar
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 160g spelt flour
- 40g ground almonds
- A pinch of salt
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 200ml plain yoghurt
Grease an 18-22cm springform cake tin with butter (I used an 18cm tin, but a 20/22cm tin would also work fine, it will just give you a shallower cake). Tightly wrap a piece of foil around the outside edge of the tin to prevent any juices escaping. Scatter the blueberries over the base and pour over the elderflower cordial. Toss them together and leave them to soak.
Pre-heat the oven to 170C/160C fan oven. Put an oven tray under the shelf you'll be baking the cake on, just in case some of those lovely purple juices do escape.
Mix together the butter and caster sugar in a large bowl using an electric whisk until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well. Sift in the flour, baking powder and ground almonds then add the salt and vanilla. Fold in until you get a stiff dough, then mix in the yoghurt to form a soft batter.
Ensure the blueberries are arranged in a fairly even layer over the bottom of the tin, then top with the cake mixture. Bake in the oven for 40-60 minutes (a smaller tin will mean a thicker cake, which will mean longer in the oven) - it's ready when a skewer comes out clean, or when the top springs back when pressed and isn't wobbly inside.
Leave to cool for five minutes in the tin, then run a knife around the outside of the cake. Open the side of the springform tin, then put a plate over the top. Carefully invert the cake and remove the base layer of the tin to reveal gorgeous moist inky berries. Serve warm, with a cup of tea or some ice cream.
(...or, "look, crumble for breakfast - but it's healthy!")
Sometimes I think that recipes shouldn't be allowed to tell you how many people they're supposed to serve. I wonder who those portion-control fascists are, that believe they have the right to dictate to us exactly how much of a glorious pan of food we are legitimately allowed to dole out to ourselves and devour with a clear conscience. I wonder why we allow ourselves to trundle on in this Nineteen Eighty-Four style existence, nonchalantly turning a blind eye as the food police worm their way into all aspects of our lives. No longer are we allowed to eat one of those big packs of sushi for lunch; no, the packaging tells us "One serving = half a pack" and then proceeds to blare out those guilt-inducing red and orange traffic light symbols that mean we couldn't enjoy scoffing a whole pack even if we tried, because those garish warning colours are now forever imprinted on our retinas, basically indicating that a single mouthful of the other half of the packet will send our blood sodium levels skyrocketing into stroke-inducing territory, and our arteries to immediately clog with lipids and refuse to let anything important - like blood - past.
Perhaps that's a bit extreme, but I do have a point, I think. Recipe serving guidelines are totally arbitrary, given that it's impossible for them to cater to the hugely diverse variation of appetites in our population. One of those packs of gnocchi you can buy in the chilled section of the supermarket ostensibly serves three or four; I once lived with a boy for whom it was merely a component of his lunch (the others being bacon and pesto).
My biggest irritation comes from those recipes that make wildly outrageous and vague claims like "serves 4-6". What does that EVEN MEAN? "Serves six normal people but four MASSIVE BLOATERS - if you only get four portions out of this luscious lasagne or sizzling stew, prepare to feel really crap about yourself, fatty"?
Yet I have to admit that I, too, conform to the pressure to tell the world how many people one of my (utterly fabulous) recipes will serve.
And I'm ashamed to admit it, readers, but...
...sometimes I lie.
For example, my recent rhubarb crumble cheesecake. Incredible. Astounding. A work of pure creative genius. In a moment of mendacity I had the nerve to tell you that it serves six. Except this is a purely hypothetical and an estimate totally lacking in any factual foundation, because the first time I made it, I ate over a quarter by myself.
So should I assume that all my readers share my rampant and sometimes indecent desire for that luscious menage à trois of cream cheese, rhubarb, and buttery crumble, and tell them that the cake serves four? Or should I - as I did - realise that I'm generally the exception to the rule and can cram far more dessert down my oesophagus than any normal human being should, and therefore give my serving estimate with that in mind?
The perils of recipe writing.
But really, there is nothing more disheartening than picking up a nice lunch-to-go from the chiller aisle of a supermarket (well yes, that is disheartening in itself, but read on for what's even worse), thinking it looks just right, size-wise, for the current black hole of starvation you're feeling in the pit of your stomach, and then seeing "serves 2" on the packet, or the nutrition information for "One serving (half a pack)". Firstly, is this just some sick ploy to make us all even more obese? Because I'm pretty sure no one in their right mind is likely to eat half a sandwich or salad or box of sushi for lunch and be able to leave the rest sitting on their desk or in the office fridge without it plaguing them, haunting them, and eventually driving them to crippling, dribbling despair that results in them clawing their way across the office floor with sweat pouring from their ears as they try to resist the repellent force-field around said lunch item that forbids them eating the whole thing.
The same goes for puddings. I picked up a lovely-looking sticky toffee pudding in Tesco the other day. Rustic. Gooey. Vaguely home-made looking, though that was clearly just clever marketing and it had actually been lovingly created by the mechanical hands of a piece of factory equipment. In China. It was packaged in one of those foil trays with a cardboard lid, like you get for takeaways. Thinking it'd be just perfect for me and the boyfriend, I was about to put it in the basket.
I should have done. Should have just done it. Got it over with. Thrown it in the basket and never looked back.
But for some reason I glanced at the packaging (one thing you must never do: look at the nutrition information for a sticky toffee pudding), and lo and behold, there it was. The dreaded words.
Yeah, I thought. Four people who really hate life. Four children, maybe. Or four birds.
I had to put it back. As much as I'm trying to resist the tyranny of the serving guideline fascists, I realised in that sad and sticky moment that I am their slave. They will always rule me. Always make me feel guilty about the sizeable amount I'm able - no, scratch that - I need to eat for lunch. Always make me cringe at the capacity of my stomach to squirrel away anything combining butter and sugar in very uncouth amounts. I hate them.
Anyway, you're probably wondering where this rather vitriolic diatribe came from. The reason I began this post in this way is that the recipe I'm going to tell you about today, by the wonderful Heidi Swanson (writer of the superb blog 101 Cookbooks and author of the inspirational cookbook Super Natural Every Day), has inflicted on me a similar sensation of unpleasant gluttonous guilt. The reason being that under the recipe I am going to tell you about, she writes these ominous words: "Serves 6 generously, or 12 as part of a larger brunch spread".
I can eat the whole thing in three helpings.
Which makes me equivalent, in stomach-expansion terms, to either two or four people.
Which makes me, quite frankly, disgusting.
I can't help it.
This recipe is utterly incredible.
For good reason, it's become a widespread food blog classic, frequently popping up in different guises on the internet; I'd wager a large proportion of all the bloggers out there have given it a go at some point, either in its original form or adding some variation of their own. Heidi Swanson is a genius; I always marvel at the originality and creative flair of her recipes, and this is a case in point. It's simple but totally addictive and wonderful.
The original recipe uses bananas, sliced and used to line a baking dish, over which you scatter blueberries and then a mixture of oats, nuts, cinnamon, sugar (or maple syrup), salt and baking powder. Over this you pour another mixture of milk, egg, melted butter and vanilla extract. After a final scattering of more nuts and blueberries, it's ready to bake (salivating yet?). In the heat of the oven, the milk soaks through the oats and makes them moist and tender underneath, while the top sets to a crispy, crunchy crust. The juice from the fruit bubbles up around the crust, leaving those classic gooey, sweet, crispy edges so beloved of things like crumble, cobbler and pie.
It's basically a crumble, but without the flour or (most of) the butter. Soft, sweet fruit; crunchy nuts; gooey, chewy topping. I've made the banana and blueberry version three times now. Heidi's original recipe suggests walnuts, but I much prefer to make it with pecans, which are one of my favourite nuts and work so well with bananas. Walnuts I find a bit too bitter.
Anyway, this is unbelievable. You'd never have thought such a simple idea could be so divine. I'd heartily recommend the banana and blueberry version, but I had a load of lovely Yorkshire rhubarb lying around so decided to try a version with that instead. I swapped the pecans for almonds, the vanilla extract for almond extract, and the bananas for chunky pink sticks of rhubarb. These softened in the oven, releasing their tart-sweet juice and perfuming their coating of oats with its syrupy goodness.
I guess the reason this dish has won such a devout following is that it's basically a template for your mind and your stomach to run wild with. Change the fruits; change the nuts; change the vanilla to something else. Its basic make-up is something that cannot be beaten, an irresistible contrast in textures and flavours. Above all, it's wonderful breakfast or brunch food, designed to set you up for the day and still be healthy while tasting decadently like dessert. It also reheats well, so if you want to make it for just you (do it! DO IT!), you can keep it in the fridge and warm up portions in the microwave. It's actually even better after a couple of days, when all the flavours have mingled together.
So I'm sorry, Heidi, but I really do question your suggestion that this could serve up to twelve people. It's just too damn good.
Rhubarb, blueberry and almond baked oatmeal (serves...er.....I'll go with four big breakfast fans)
(Adapted from 'Super Natural Every Day', by Heidi Swanson)
- 400g rhubarb, cut into 1-inch lengths
- 4 tbsp vanilla sugar (or caster sugar)
- 200g blueberries
- 200g rolled or 'jumbo' oats (not instant oats)
- 60g almonds, roughly chopped
- 60g brown sugar
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1.5 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 475ml milk
- 1 large egg
- 3 tbsp melted butter
- 2 tsp almond extract
- 3 tbsp flaked almonds
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Butter an 8in x 8in baking dish, or a similar-sized dish (I use a small Le Creuset one). Scatter the rhubarb over the bottom and toss to coat in the vanilla/caster sugar. Add half the blueberries. [If making the banana version of this dish, omit the sugar - rhubarb needs it because it's quite sour, but banana doesn't].
Mix together the oats, chopped almonds, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.
In a large jug, whisk together the melted butter, milk, egg and almond extract.
Sprinkle the oat mixture on top of the rhubarb and spread out so it forms a fairly even layer. Pour the milk mixture evenly over the oats, and give the dish a couple of bashes on the worktop to make sure the milk is evenly distributed. Sprinkle over the rest of the blueberries and the flaked almonds.
Bake for 40 minutes or until the oat mixture has set and turned crunchy on top. Leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving.
Last night, it started snowing. Feather-light flakes were falling from the sky as my boyfriend and I left the house to walk to town for dinner. We lingered over dim sum - gorgeous cloud-like cha siu pork buns; sticky, ginger-spiced prawn dumplings; wispy fried taro paste croquettes with a creamy and delectable meat filling - for about an hour and a half. When we emerged, we found the snow whirling fast and furious through the air, and at least two inches on the ground. Fast forward three hours later to exiting the cinema, and I was sinking in snow halfway up to my calves. There was a sweet and beautiful silence all around as we trudged home, stopping for a childish detour to run madly over a pristine patch of virgin snow, tutting at people attempting to drive, and incredulous as we spied girls sporting bare legs and heels. (If you are one of those types, I honestly would love to know how you do it - email me).
Despite the bitter chill and the surprising effort required to walk for forty minutes in deep snow, I treasured that walk home. There was an eerie light in the sky, a ceiling of fluffy snow clouds stained with the glow of numerous street lamps. Cars made barely a sound, gently rolling and fumbling along; echoes of shouting and general weekend revelry were swallowed whole by the lavish carpet laid out by the clouds; everything subject to the capricious whim of mother nature. Sometimes I think we get ahead of ourselves in this modern day and age and need a thorough coating of snow to remind us that we are, in fact, very lucky to be allowed to remain on this planet, given that we are in fact completely at the mercy of forces beyond our control.
This morning, my garden and the surrounding houses looked like some feature from an old stately home that hasn't been lived in for years, where everything has been covered in dust sheets rendering it featureless, bleak, unrecognisable. My favourite part of snow is the flat light that comes with it, making the everyday seem otherworldly and allowing the landscape to sprawl on almost indefinitely in meandering white waves. Almost indefinitely, of course - it was broken everywhere I looked today by excitable children building snowmen and igloos.
For breakfast, I made waffles.
Perfect winter fare, given their association with skiing and colder climes. There's nothing like a steaming hot waffle, replete with butter and sugar and smothered in something even more calorific, to warm you from the inside out on a cold day.
These are not just any waffles, though - they're banana oatmeal waffles. Essentially, banana porridge in waffle form (and far healthier than the buttery Belgian kind, which seem a little too indulgent for breakfast, even when it is minus two outside). The recipe is a simple porridgey mixture of very ripe bananas (the kind I had to ask my parents not to throw away as they sat blackening and mouldering in the fruit bowl), milk, oats and cinnamon, plus a little flour, baking powder and an egg to help bind it all together and make it turn fluffy and lovely in the waffle maker.
I served these with a generous drizzle of maple syrup, plus toasted pecans and some blueberries. If I'd had some bananas that weren't almost liquid inside their skins, I'd have sliced them over too. They were gorgeous - crispy on the outside but moist and fluffy within, with a delicate banana flavour. The crunchy pecans and tangy blueberries were a perfect combination, along with the necessary sweetness of the syrup (I didn't add any sugar to the batter, so they needed those caramel notes to lift them a bit).
I couldn't resist taking these outside and photographing them against the beautiful blank canvas that was my snowy garden. Naturally, my cat decided to take a great interest and get in the way. Fortunately at the last minute she decided that waffles weren't quite meaty enough for her feline tastes, though you never know with these animals - my other cat is a big fan of blue cheese.
It's been a real case of trial and error, experimenting with my new waffle maker (a Christmas present). The first batch I made were flabby and awful, as the heat setting wasn't high enough. They looked rather like greying, rubbery teatowels. Subsequent attempts were OK but had a tendency to go soggy as soon as they emerged from the machine, I suspect due to not leaving them to cook for long enough. Finally I think I've cracked it - cook them for longer than you'd think necessary to give a nice crisp exterior, then put them in a warm oven to stay hot. Serving them one at a time helps, too - stacking them up means the underlying ones go a bit soggy.
And of course, the key to turning an average waffle experience into a great one is simple: liberal amounts of maple syrup.
These are lovely - the slight banana flavour, the contrast with the crisp pecans and the sharp bite of the berries...just perfect for a snowy winter morning, accompanied by a large mug of tea and two hilarious cats whose attempts to negotiate the snow never fail to amuse, every year.
Do you have any favourite foods to cook when it's snowing?
Banana oatmeal waffles (makes about 6 waffles, enough for 2 people):
- 2 very ripe bananas, mashed
- 1 egg
- 100g oats
- 5 tbsp flour, sifted
- 5 tbsp milk
- 1 tbsp melted butter
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Toasted pecans/sliced banana/maple syrup/blueberries, to serve (I'd recommend all of them!)
- Icing sugar, for dusting
Pre-heat your waffle maker. Whisk together (preferably using an electric whisk) the bananas and egg, then add the rest of the ingredients. You want the batter to be fairly thick (a little thinner than it would be for American-style pancakes), so add more flour or oats if necessary, or milk if you think it's too thick. It's really a case of trial and error - if the first waffles don't come out quite right, adjust the mixture.
Spoon about 3 tbsp of the mixture into your waffle maker (how much you use depends on the size and shape of your waffle maker, but you'll probably know how much mixture yours takes if you use it regularly). Cook for 4-5 minutes until crispy on the outside. You can put the waffles in a warm oven while you make another batch, or cook them to order. Scatter with your chosen toppings, drizzle with maple syrup and dust with icing sugar, then serve immediately.
On Monday, I turned 23.
Having had my proper celebrations during the preceding weekend, I spent the day doing things I would normally do. I ate porridge for breakfast (with chopped pear, dried cranberries, sultanas and maple syrup). I went for a swim. I bought a huge amount of fruit from the supermarket. I went for a walk. I read a bit of my book and looked at food-related things on the internet. I watched TV. I went to bed not particularly late.
There were, however, some indications that this was not an entirely normal day for me.
Firstly, my mum treated me to a massage and a facial (very nice, but no thank you, facial lady, I really do not need to buy two £22 face creams to fully benefit from the experience).
Secondly, I received some very beautiful flowers in the post from someone who can only be described as my AWESOME boyfriend, unable to celebrate with me because he is currently in the Alps on his second skiing holiday of the season (it's a hard life).
Thirdly, I was followed by a creepy man who accosted me by the self-service checkout in Asda and then stalked me to my bike where this brief exchange ensued:
Creepy man: Excuse me - did you know your bag is open?
Me: Yes. But thanks.
Creepy man: It's a lovely day, isn't it?
Creepy man: Wow, those flowers you've got there are nice. What are they?
Me: Um, it's a mint plant.
Creepy man: Oh right. You're very attractive you know, what's your name?
Me: [Nothing was said at this point as I got on my bike and pedalled away]
Fourthly, as if this wasn't enough stranger-related weirdness for one day, I was later shouted at by a man on a bike as I was walking by the river. It was a footpath. I was walking on the right hand side. Said man cycled along, I did not move out of his way, as there was an entire free pavement for him to cycle on, and he shouted at me "WE WALK ON THE LEFT IN THIS COUNTRY, LOVE."
There were a few things wrong with this incident.
Firstly, I am not foreign. I am, in fact, from 'this country'. Despite my rather European-chic new glasses and tourist-esque new puffa jacket, and the fact that I was wearing sheepskin earmuffs suggestive of an origin in warmer climes and a disposition unable to tolerate our bleak English winter, I am not from abroad. The sad irony of this whole situation is that the man who shouted at me had a distinctive Liverpool accent, and I was happily strolling along by the river approximately two miles away from where I was born. So actually he is more foreign than I am.
Secondly, since when do 'we walk on the left in this country'? I believe he may have been getting legs confused with wheels.
Thirdly, what a moron. I hope he had a near-fatal bike accident on the way home involving someone walking on the left.
So those were unusual and interesting episodes designed, I am sure, by some higher power in order to add a frisson of excitement to an otherwise very ordinary day.
I also made scones.
I could have made some kind of fancy cake or tart to celebrate. But to be honest, I think it is hard to beat the simple pleasure of a light, fluffy scone, fresh from the oven, crunchy on the outside, soft and steaming in the middle. I'd been craving scones for ages, and my birthday seemed the perfect chance to not worry about the rather negligible nutritional benefit of what is, essentially, flour butter and sugar, and just eat them, smothered in jam and cream.
I'd also saved some blueberries in the freezer to add to the mixture, because I thought a fluffy scone bursting with juicy blueberries would be just wonderful (freezing them first makes them easier to stir into the rather thick scone dough). I added some almond extract to the milk before mixing it into the scone dough, which gave the scones a gorgeous marzipan-like flavour that went so well with the slightly tart berries. I could have used vanilla, which would also have been tasty, but I think almond and berries is a match made in heaven. I also added a little wholemeal flour to give a delicious nutty flavour that was the perfect vehicle for the almonds and berries.
These were just wonderful, fresh from the oven with a little butter or cream. No need for jam, as the berries burst in the dough and keep it sweet and juicy. And, surprisingly, these are really good a couple of days later. Usually scones are almost inedible after the 30-minute window where they are warm from the oven, but these taste like a lovely cakey biscuit after a couple of days in a tin. The almond flavour becomes more pronounced, and they're lovely either on their own or spread with butter.
The humble scone is the epitome of a simple pleasure.
These were the perfect end to what had been a weekend of such pleasures - returning to my beloved Oxford, wandering around the city in the sunshine, seeing most of my friends all in one place at my birthday party, eating The Anchor's sublime treacle tart, and generally just having a lovely birthday weekend.
And as long as you have scones, even a creepy pervert and a unnecessarily vicious Liverpudlian-on-wheels can't ruin your birthday for you.
Blueberry and almond scones (makes 10):
- 200g plain flour
- 50g wholemeal flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 40g caster sugar
- 50g cold butter, cubed
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 tsp almond extract
- 120ml milk
- A handful of blueberries, fresh or frozen
- 1 beaten egg, to glaze
- Demerara sugar, for sprinkling
Pre-heat the oven to 200C (fan oven). Line a baking sheet with baking parchment.
Sift the flours and baking powder into a mixing bowl. Add the sugar, then rub in the butter with your fingers until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Make a well in the middle and add the beaten egg, almond extract and milk along with the blueberries. Mix together until you have a rough dough, then roll out about 1.5 inches thick onto a floured work surface.
Use a cookie cutter to cut the dough into rounds, then place on the baking sheet. Brush the tops with the beaten egg, then sprinkle with demerara sugar.
Bake for 10-15 minutes until golden on top. Remove, place on a cooling rack and devour instantly.