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
There are some things that, in my mind, have zero place in tea. Just like some people have an entirely irrational aversion to raisins in muesli, or olives in salad, I absolutely refuse to entertain certain rogue ingredients in my morning (/afternoon/evening) brew. Liquorice is the main culprit here: I can detect its sickly-sweet aroma simply from the vapour of the tea before it even touches my lips. Not that I’d let it, because then there’s a disgusting syrupy aftertaste that ruins the entire point of a cup of tea, which is to be bracing and relaxing all at the same time. It’s not candy, or medicine.Read More
Apologies for the large gap between blog posts recently. I’m hoping things will settle down to greater regularity in the near future. In the meantime, though, as very meagre compensation, here is something that is not a real recipe but more of a suggestion for how to eat the season’s figs for breakfast. This bowlful looks lusciously like something you might be served at a fancy restaurant for brunch, and I did actually have one of those moments when I sat down with it for breakfast the other day and thought ‘instagram this and everyone will ridicule you’. But in the spirit of not giving a damn, here’s how: put some thick Greek yoghurt (not low fat) in a sieve lined with muslin or a clean J-cloth, and suspend it over a bowl in the fridge overnight to drain. You’ll be left with labneh, a thick cream cheese. Spoon some of this into a bowl. Quarter some figs and roast them for 15-20 minutes in the oven with a drizzle of honey. Spoon the figs and their juices onto the labneh. Sprinkle with a few lemon thyme, lemon verbena or basil leaves (or any of your favourite herbs, really), a drizzle of pomegranate molasses or date syrup (or a little more honey) and a handful of toasted pistachio nuts, walnuts or almonds. Eat with warm flatbread or pitta. It’s a touch of Middle Eastern sunshine to brighten up the darkening days of autumn.Read More
I have made many a crumble in my life. I would count myself as something of a crumble connoisseur. I cut my teeth on the classics – apple, rhubarb – before graduating into a wild, wonderful world of pineapple, coconut and black pepper, or pear, chocolate and raspberry, or fig, blood orange and hazelnut, even venturing occasionally into savoury variations (tomato, rosemary and cheddar; butternut squash, sage and blue cheese). There is very little that I will not try to crumble, and there is very little that isn’t improved by being smothered in a blanket of butter, sugar and flour, rubbed together into an irresistible nubbly sweetness.Read More
You know those moments where you take a good, hard look at your life? My most recent one involved surveying the two bulging suitcases I had packed to take back to Denmark after a month in England for Christmas. Nestled among the paperback novels (an English-language book in a shop in Aarhus can easily set you back the equivalent of £22), January sales clothing purchases, frivolous impulse-buy cashmere items, and actual essentials (toiletries, socks, thermal tights, Scandi crime drama DVDs, scented candles infused with tea, etc.) were the following:
- 800g of new season Yorkshire rhubarb
- 2 boxes of M&S clotted cream
- 7 packets of tea, including ‘Blueberry Hill’, ‘Wanderlust’, ‘Yoga Tea’ and ‘Gingerbread Chai’
- 2 packets of pecan nuts, nestled into the toe of my shoes (packed shoes, not the ones I was wearing)
- 1 bag of toasted quinoa
- 2 packets of pistachio nuts (ditto)
- 1 huge panettone
If this reads like a list of ingredients, the recipe would be for ‘not missing out on seasonal home comforts in your life abroad’, and the method would read simply: ‘smuggle home via Ryanair. Unpack. Gorge’.Read More
I never thought I’d be one of those expats who pines for tastes of home and can be found looking shifty around the security gates at airports, nervously anticipating the moment they are forced to unveil to the bemused staff their suitcase, tightly packed with jars of Marmite and cylinders of Digestive biscuits. Then again, I don’t like Marmite, I haven’t eaten a Digestive biscuit in years, and the usual suspects hardly register on my radar of desire either: baked beans I consider an atrocity, Yorkshire tea is unpleasantly bitter, and Branston pickle is a surefire way to ruin almost any food.Read More
Walking into a Japanese bakery, you might be forgiven for thinking you are somewhere in the heart of Paris. Pastries, loaves and rolls are piled high and plentiful, and you are cosseted by the sumptuous aromas of warm dough and hot sugar. But look a little more closely, and you may start to reconsider. The cheese has a slightly odd, plasticky sheen. What you thought were chocolate chips appear, upon closer inspection, to be red beans, the kind you might normally expect to find in your chilli con carne. And, of course, much of the bread is green.Read More
1. Health food paradise at the new Holland & Barrett More store in York. I was recently invited to the opening of Holland & Barrett’s palatial new store in the centre of York. I’ve long been a fan of the brand for their organic dried fruit, nuts and muesli mixes, and for their supply of esoteric health ingredients from around the world (they were probably stocking quinoa and tahini way before Ottolenghi emerged on the scene). The new store is a bright, vibrant space filled with all sorts of healthy treats, from nut butters to smoked tofu to their huge range of ‘free-from’ products. However, the expansion means there’s also space for a selection of beauty and makeup counters brimming with natural products to make you lovely on the outside as well as the inside. I had great fun creating my own body scrub at the Beauty Kitchen stall, using a delicious-smelling array of natural ingredients (my personal combination involved bitter orange, Epsom salts, and a zingy lemongrass oil), and enjoying a 60-second manicure with the same nourishing combination, leaving my hands gloriously soft and fragrant.Read More
This luscious loaf has all the buttery crumb of a good brioche, without the faff. It's made from a soft enriched dough using eggs, butter and milk, and studded with dried fruit soaked in Earl Grey tea. A smattering of warm spices gives it the unmistakeable flavour and aroma of a hot cross bun, but this easier version is simply plaited into a big loaf rather than shaped into buns, with no need for crossing. It's soft and slightly sweet, fragrantly spiced and rich with the bite of sharp-sweet currants, candied peel and sultanas. A toasted slice of this, spread with salted butter, is the perfect treat for breakfast, brunch or afternoon tea as spring approaches and the year moves towards Easter. For the recipe, check out my latest post on Great British Chefs!
Thick, fluffy, stacked American pancakes are all very well and good, as are delicate, lacy, paper-thin French crepes, but sometimes you want something in between. I’m sure a Frenchman would be horrified at the thick, flat pancakes I’m showcasing here – there’s nothing remotely delicate or refined about them – but I love the texture of a thicker, squidgier crepe-style pancake, perfect for folding around a delicious filling. They’re more satisfying, and easier to make, than a true crepe, and stand up to an assertive application of syrup, honey, compote, or whatever you choose to throw at them. I first tried pancakes like these in south-east Asia, and this recipe is an homage to the many glorious breakfasts I ate in Bali, Vietnam and Thailand.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
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
Some beautiful things are born out of frugality in my kitchen. Dense, fudgy loaves of banana cake made to rescue two blackened bananas from the fruit bowl. Bowls of healing broth whipped up from the sad-looking carcass of a picked-clean roast chicken. Glossy, scarlet chilli jam that has saved a bag of overripe tomatoes from a tragic fate in the compost bin. I love averting waste and turning ingredients that were so nearly rubbish into something delicious, particularly when it encourages me to try new recipes in the process.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
Apologies for the radio silence; I’ve been in Thailand. Isn’t that a great sentence to be able to write? Photos and Thai-inspired recipes to follow shortly, but for now I am going to share a rare savoury breakfast treat. This brunch is not for the faint-hearted: it’s big, rich, hearty and very substantial. If that puts you off, you’re probably reading the wrong blog. If not, let me get you even more excited. Imagine plump, juicy kernels of sweetcorn whisked into a pancake batter spiked with chopped jalapeño, spring onions and a generous spoonful of blushing paprika. These are fried until crispy on the outside and tender in the middle, and served with bacon, grilled cherry tomatoes and an avocado and mango salsa.Read More
I’ve eaten more peaches this summer than probably the last five or six summers combined. I usually give up on peaches in England, because they’re imported rock hard and never ripen properly, tasting sad and woolly and a tragic shadow of what you know they could be. But they’re so cheap and abundant right now that I can’t resist buying a punnet or two in the supermarket, safe in the knowledge that, if all else fails, I can at least rescue them with the application of some sugar and searing oven heat.Read More
There are lots of perks to living alone. A beautifully quiet house; the placid joy of going to sleep knowing that you’re not going to be woken up by marauding housemates. Never having to queue for the bathroom. Knowing that any crumbs in the kitchen or burnt on spills in the oven are solely yours, which somehow makes cleaning them up more bearable. Not having to make small talk when you come in at the end of a long day and would rather stick pins in your eyes than have a conversation with anyone. Knowing that whatever particularly appetising foodstuffs you leave in the fridge will still be there the next day. Never finding that someone has taken a metal implement to your non-stick pans, or left the freezer open overnight. Perks indeed.Read More
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.
I've just returned, jet-lagged and completely dazzled by my month-long trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. I'll be posting more about my trip in due course, but for now I want to share a little post about breakfast, my favourite meal of the day; particularly when the day promises to be a hot and humid one full of stunning scenery, tasty food and Asian splendour.
Breakfast in Vietnam falls into two categories: what the locals eat, and what you find in all the hotels catering for Western palates. In the former category you have pho, the 'national dish of Vietnam', a rich meaty broth housing a comforting combination of slippery rice noodles, fresh herbs, and tender pieces of (usually) chicken or beef. (More on this in another post - I too, with my Western sweet tooth, was sceptical about the notion of noodles for breakfast, but I soon became a convert.)
In the latter category, you have the usual suspects such as eggs, omelettes and baguettes, but also recognisably Western dishes given a bit of tropical flair, like these pineapple pancakes.
I first sampled these pancakes at our hotel in Hanoi. I was a little sceptical, I admit, about ordering a menu item that simply read 'pineapple pancake'. Can you guess why? Yes, dear readers who know me and my boundless greed: because it was in the singular. One pancake is simply not sufficient for my morning appetite. A bit like I'm incapable of ever ordering only one scoop of ice cream, a habit that has earned me the somewhat unflattering nickname 'Triple-Scoop McCausland'.
However, I persevered, because it's simply impossible to go hungry in Vietnam: should the single pancake prove insufficient, I thought to myself, I'll just go to the smoothie bar at the end of the road and get a papaya and coconut cream smoothie (as incredible as it sounds). Or get a plump, ripe mango from one of the many streetside fruit sellers. Or a baguette from the numerous French-inspired bakeries.
I was wrong to doubt our lovely hotel. A few minutes later I was presented with two fat pancakes, rather like crêpes but thicker, into which slices of pineapple had been pressed as the batter was cooking, resulting in sweet golden streaks of caramelised fruit. If you've only ever eaten pineapple raw, without subjecting it to the transformative treatment of heat, sugar, butter, and possibly a little vanilla, a splash of rum, a squeeze of lime or a sprinkling of cinnamon, then you need to sort your life out.
Pineapple when cooked transforms into the most utterly delectable, sweet, tangy, juicy mouthful. Combine this with a soft pillow of pancake batter and you have a dreamy plate of tropical sunshine.
I ate these beautiful creations again during our stay at Phong Nha Ke Bang national park (see photo below), my favourite stop of the whole trip and a place I'm sure I'll be telling you more about. Here I was given a plate of four, which was lucky because we'd just arrived from the overnight train and were feeling a little, well, ravenous (also sweaty, greasy and disgusting, but the hunger thing was the most pressing issue). They came rolled up into little cigars, each one boasting a golden and juicy centre of caramelised pineapple. This is what I've tried to recreate here.
This is a highly simple recipe, but one of those that is more than the sum of its parts. You make a simple crêpe batter (milk, eggs, flour), cook it into pancakes slightly thicker than the delicate French variety, then fill the lot with chopped pineapple that has been cooked over a high heat with a little butter, some brown sugar, a pinch of cinnamon and a drop of vanilla. It turns sweet, jammy and delicious; a beautiful contrast to the thick and comforting squidgyness of the pancakes.
I made these three days after my return from Vietnam, to try and distract myself from what is a pretty bad case of post-holiday blues. I feel completely deflated, like I've been brought back to earth with a horrible bump (and actually, our flight landing at Heathrow was pretty bumpy). In many respects, England couldn't be more different to South-East Asia, and instead of relishing home comforts after a month of travelling, I'm starting to find them grating and alien, particularly where food is concerned.
Why do we happily pay around £20 for a meal in this country? After eating some of the best food of my life for under £1 in Vietnam, it genuinely pains me a bit to have to contemplate ever eating out in England again. Why do we have such gigantic dinner plates and therefore habitually scoff such enormous portions? No wonder we're all obese. Everything in Vietnam is served in tiny little bowls; not only that, but the rice comes out last, so you're mostly too full from good things like fish, meat and vegetables to contemplate ingesting nutritionally void carbohydrates.
Why do we eat with cumbersome and unwieldy knives and forks? Why do we cover everything in fat, especially cheese, when food can be so fabulously delicious without it? Why are we so obsessed with desserts and with sugar? Why is our 'exotic' fruit always rock-hard and underripe?
I'm sure I'll be back to my usual self in a few weeks, but right now I just feel desperately sad, pining for somewhere on the other side of the world that has called into question everything that once seemed normal to me.
On the plus side, though, there's nothing like a month away in exotic climes to put everything into perspective. Food, although probably my number one source of enjoyment in life, is far too frequently my number one source of stress, too. I have a tendency to get a little obsessive and perfectionist in the kitchen, constantly inviting friends over for lunch, dinner or breakfast and feeling that I have to present them with some Masterchef-worthy creation when deep down I know they'd probably be happy with a bowl of pasta and a cup of tea. I too often find myself rushing around town, making numerous shopping trips for ingredients because I know that the Asian grocers on the other side of town do better chickpeas than the supermarket, and the bread stall on the market does better bread than Tesco, and this fishmonger is better than that one, and panicking if I can't find a certain obscure ingredient that I deem crucial to the success of one dish, sometimes travelling miles out of my way to get it.
It's had me close to tears on several occasions, usually when I finally make it to the checkout and there is a queue and my arms are hurting from holding a heavy basket and I'm contemplating how on earth to get everything home on my bike without it squashing or falling out, and then the final straw is when the self-service checkout refuses to work properly (when does this ever not happen, I hear you cry), and I start hitting things. I've driven myself mad trying to frantically write blog posts to various deadlines - many of which are completely self-imposed and therefore fundamentally meaningless - trying to take artful photos of my cooking when all I really want to do is just eat the damn thing, trying to think of new and exciting recipes to share with you all when all I really want to do is tuck into a big bowl of pasta with nutmeg and grated parmesan.
Having a month off cooking and worrying about food shopping was utterly blissful. Savouring the simple pleasures of Vietnam, like a bowl of plain rice noodles with fresh herbs, or a perfect juicy mangosteen, or a delicious piece of tender lemongrass-coated chicken, has impressed upon me the madness of the way in which I live in relation to food.
Food should be, primarily, something that brings joy, not stress and tears. I contemplated returning to cooking and food blogging with dread and trepidation during my final few days in Asia, asking myself what it was all for, whether anyone really cared, why I torment myself with all this for no apparent reason. I had wild ideas about giving up food and the blog altogether, about shutting myself off from the world of food magazines, food journalism, cooking TV; the faux-drama of things like Masterchef and Great British Menu suddenly seemed laughably trivial - crass, even - compared to the very real drama of fast-paced life in Vietnam.
But then Sunday morning happened, and all I wanted was to get into the kitchen and to rustle up a batch of pineapple pancakes to remind me of my holiday. That's when I realised that, of course, food can be a wonderful thing, provided it is not taken too seriously. It is a means of reviving happy memories, of sharing experiences, of creating ties. It shouldn't be stressful or a source of anxiety, when done properly with just the right amount of care and good humour.
I'm really writing this to myself, in the hope that I'll remember all these things in the future, when my basket is heavy and the self-service checkout isn't working and I still have to bike to the other side of town to get some pomegranate molasses from the Asian grocer before rushing home to see if my bread has risen and my home-made cheese has firmed up.
However, I'm sure many of you out there will be able to relate. Then again, you've probably sensibly realised this already. I just needed four weeks on the other side of the world to come to this conclusion.
So for that, Vietnam, and those pineapple pancakes: thank you.
Pineapple pancakes (serves 2 very generously, or 4 less hungry people):
- 200g flour (I used spelt flour, but ordinary would be fine)
- 2 eggs
- 600ml milk
- Pinch salt
- Butter, for cooking
- 1 medium pineapple, cut into small thin chunks
- 4 tbsp brown sugar
- 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- Icing sugar, for dusting
First, make the pancake batter. Sift the flour into a large bowl, then make a well in the centre with a spoon and add the eggs. Pour in a little of the milk then, using an electric whisk, whisk the egg and milk into the flour, gradually incorporating more flour as you add the rest of the milk. You should end up with a thin, lump-free batter. Add the salt and whisk again.
Pre-heat the oven to 120C. Heat a knob of butter in a large non-stick saucepan or frying pan until sizzling, then add the pineapple, sugar, and cinnamon. Cook over a high heat for a few minutes until caramelised and sticky, and most of the liquid has evaporated, then add the vanilla. Set aside and keep warm.
Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper, and get some more sheets of greaseproof ready for the pancakes. Get a non-stick frying pan or crêpe pan, around 25cm in diameter, very hot, then add a knob of butter and swirl it around the pan. Wipe off any excess with kitchen paper, spreading the butter over the base of the pan, then pour a ladleful of batter onto the pan - you want a pancake about 5mm thick. Cook for a minute on one side, then flip over using a palette knife and cook for another minute. When done, place on the greaseproof paper on the baking sheet, then put in the oven to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining mixture, layering the pancakes between greaseproof as you go and keeping them warm in the oven.
When ready to serve, place a couple of spoonfuls of pineapple mixture in the centre of each pancake, then roll it up. Dust with icing sugar and devour, preferably with tea.
I was recently invited to participate in the 'Making Sense of Sensitivity' Blogger Challenge, in order to help raise awareness of the newly recognised condition of gluten sensitivity. Unlike coeliac disease, there is no formal test for diagnosing gluten sensitivity, yet it is six times more prevalent than coeliac disease, affecting up to 6% of the population and causing unpleasant physical symptoms which are related to a heightened sensitivity to gluten in food. (For more information on the condition, click here).
As part of the challenge, I will be living gluten-free for five days, blogging about my experience and recommending delicious things to eat while on a gluten-free diet, while highlighting the potential pitfalls of cutting out such a prevalent food group.
I agreed to the challenge mainly out of curiosity; it does seem to be generally accepted nowadays that a huge amount of gluten in the diet is not particularly good for you, and I was keen to see if cutting it out completely would have any drastic effects on me. Eating toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner has never left me feeling at my slimmest and healthiest, so while I generally try not to eat too much gluten anyway, I think I rarely go for days at a time without consuming any.
I was sent a booklet of recipes as part of the challenge, along with some gluten-free products (mainly bread and pasta, but also cornflakes, which I'm intrigued about). I'll be trying out a couple of these as well as suggesting my own recipes for a gluten-free diet, in an attempt to prove that living without gluten can be pretty painless.
I've also been sent a pretty stylish little video camera to record my experience, so expect Nutmegs, seven to be branching out into the world of video blogging!
In my head, most of the meals for these five days are sorted. I eat a lot of salads for dinner at the moment, which are naturally gluten-free anyway (unless, of course, I add a large pile of crispy, garlic-scented sourdough croutons, which has been a regular feature lately. Out with those, I guess). Lunchtime is slightly more tricky, in that my usual lunchtime staples, while healthier than bread, turn out also to contain gluten. No more bulgur wheat, pearl barley or couscous salads for me. However, I luckily recently discovered buckwheat and quinoa, both of which I love and work in a similar way to couscous, so that should be fine, and I have lots of lovely plans for those. Yes, I'm a bit of a health freak. But I promise you, they actually taste really good.
No, the real difficulty is breakfast. I'm not really a fan of bread for breakfast, because it doesn't fill me up and I end up starving mid-morning, so it's not quite as simple as just buying gluten-free bread for my toast. Normally I make myself a giant bowl of porridge or muesli, with lots of fruit. You might be surprised to learn, though, that oats are not gluten-free. This is because they're often contaminated with wheat in the milling process. My yummy homemade granola, then, which contains not only oats but barley and wheat flakes, is out of the question.
Fortunately, you can buy gluten-free oats. They're prohibitively expensive (£3 for 450g, as opposed to under £1 a kilo for my normal oats), but you can get them. Given that I use 100g of oats per bowl of porridge, I'd be spending a fortune on these if I were to live gluten-free in the long term. It's going to be gluten-free porridge for breakfast for these five days, though.
Except for today, which is Sunday. Sunday means special brunch, something more exciting than a bowl of porridge (although, tragically, to me even the most humble bowl of porridge is still exciting). Armed with gluten free oats, and some of the finest summer fruit in season at the moment, you can make this utterly delicious cherry, vanilla and apricot baked oatmeal.
It's a summery adaptation of my hugely successful rhubarb, blueberry and almond baked oatmeal, an irresistible cross between breakfast and dessert, rather like a fruit crisp but healthy. A layer of sliced marigold apricots bakes to a fragrant, jammy tangle of sweetness, while tart sweet cherries ooze their subtle perfume and scarlet juice into the mix. The milky layer of oats, bound with an egg and peppered with cinnamon, vanilla and a little sugar, bakes to a tender, chewy crust, crispy round the edges where the fruit juices have permeated it stickily. A scattering of almonds and some more cherries finishes it off, adding crunch and juiciness.
Incidentally, I call it 'oatmeal' because it's adapted from an American recipe, but it is basically baked porridge. Scroll down for the recipe, if you're interested.
I stumbled across another pitfall while making this - baking powder. It's incredible how many products that we take for granted contain traces of gluten; I realise I'm going to have to think very carefully about this over the next five days. Baking powder often contains corn starch, which means it isn't gluten free. However, you can buy a lot of gluten-free brands of baking powder. Even better, though, I discovered (via Google) that Tesco and Waitrose own brands don't contain gluten, and the former (which uses rice flour as its bulking agent) is what I happened to have in the cupboard.
I decided to experiment a little with the new video camera, so here's a delightful little 'how-to' video of me making this baked oatmeal for breakfast. I think Stephen Spielberg can feel pretty safe, however.
After tucking into a pretty generous portion of this for brunch, my lunch consisted simply of a nectarine and a pear. I think if fruit weren't gluten free, I'd be totally unable to do this challenge, as I eat a huge amount of the stuff every day.
If you need proof that a gluten-free diet needn't mean deprivation, look no further than my dinner this evening. Because, for the first time in approximately three months, the sun had actually come out, it seemed only fitting to celebrate by turning on the barbecue. We had some delicious barbecued sausages - I like them when they're black and crispy on the outside, because those carcinogens are just so damn tasty - along with a sweet, colourful tangle of roasted vegetables, a mound of salad, and jacket potatoes with a generous helping of cheese.
Not quite haute cuisine, but probably the most satisfying meal I've had in a long time. Just make sure, though, that if you're eating sausages on a gluten-free diet, they are suitable - sausages often contain rusk to pad them out, which contains wheat flour. Check the label, and if you can't get the gluten-free variety, choose some less processed cut of meat instead - a lovely steak, for example.
I didn't really notice any difference in how I felt today, probably because it's only day one and, as I mentioned above, it's not like I'm a gluten addict suddenly forced to go cold turkey. But I did feel pretty good after that barbecue! Who needs spongy, tasteless, processed burger buns when you can have a lovely crispy-skinned jacket potato instead? No gluten in those bad boys!
Rhubarb, blueberry and almond baked oatmeal (serves 4-6):
(Adapted from 'Super Natural Every Day', by Heidi Swanson)
- 7-8 large ripe apricots, sliced
- 300g cherries, halved and stoned (or 200g blueberries if you prefer)
- 200g gluten free oats (try and get the whole or 'jumbo' oats if possible)
- 40g flaked almonds, toasted
- 60g light brown sugar
- 1 tsp gluten-free baking powder
- 1.5 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 475ml milk
- 1 large egg
- 3 tbsp melted butter
- 2 tsp vanilla or almond extract
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 apricots over the bottom and add half the cherries.
Mix together the oats, half the flaked almonds, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.
In a large jug, whisk together the melted butter, milk, egg and vanilla/almond extract.
Sprinkle the oat mixture on top of the cherries and apricots 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 cherries 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.