It physically pains me to put food in the bin. So much so that I often have to recruit a willing helper (read: boyfriend) to do so, on the rare occasion that I cannot rescue whatever is languishing in my fridge or cupboards. I try and engineer my kitchen design around being able to see, clearly, what I have to use up, before it’s too late, but there are occasions when even this doesn’t quite work out. One of the most depressing moments of my life took place several months ago, when I had to throw two free-range chickens in the bin. Whole, oven-ready, uncooked chickens, for whom I had had big plans involving Thai spices and Vietnamese broth. They had been kept at a market stall in a fridge that was too overcrowded, resulting in poor cold air circulation, and had started to turn rancid, emitting a strange aroma of French cheese that warned my primitive survival instinct not to let them anywhere near my kitchen or stomach. Throwing away food is always sad, but it’s even sadder when an animal has died in vain. That said, I get upset even just having to pour the remnants of a bottle of milk down the drain, or throwing a mouldy lemon onto the compost heap – it just seems irresponsible and an insult to beautiful ingredients and the hard work of farmers and producers.Read More
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the start of a new year and a new way of eating, involving absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. No roast meat, root vegetables, sticky condiments, pastry, alcohol-soaked dried fruit or marzipan. Enough is enough. I feel like my tastebuds have spent the last two weeks immovably swaddled in a beige, bland cocoon of stodge and sickliness. I’ve tried to counteract this by throwing Thai curry paste, chilli and lemongrass at all my Christmas leftovers in every way imaginable, but I’m still longing for the new year and the lifting of that pressure to constantly bring a touch of Christmas sparkle to everything that emerges from the kitchen. If I read one more article claiming to have ‘the recipe to convert even the most ardent sprout-haters’, or find one more chef attempting to sneak clementines into a savoury dish, I might emigrate to a non-Christian country.Read More
It’s rhubarb season, and I feel like an excitable little girl with a penchant for Disney and ponies every time I take a tray of the stuff out of the oven, its radiant fuschia guaranteed to perk up even the lowest of spirits, even if only for a moment. While you can bury this delicious sweet-tart vegetable under a blanket of pastry or a smothering of crumble, it seems a shame to hide it when it’s so beautiful. There’s a reason rhubarb at this time of year is called ‘champagne rhubarb’: it’s far superior to the summer stalks in colour, flavour and texture. It makes sense, then, to show it off.Read More
Baking, in our culture, is so often inextricably connected with love. Family memories and relations are shaped around food; some of our fondest recollections of our mothers and grandmothers are perfumed by the heady scent of a baking pie or cake. Missing the closeness of home and the familiarity of domesticity is frequently couched in terms of our longing for a particular dish, and even parental ineptitude in the kitchen is usually recalled with wry affection. Childhood friendships are formed and dissolved over the sharing of cake and other baked goods: I still remember once refusing to speak to my best friend for a week because she stole my lunchtime flapjack and ate it. We bake cakes, bread, brownies to cheer up our loved ones or as a token of our affection; the humble combination of flour, butter and sugar has become fetishized in our culture to such an extent that we apparently believe there are few gifts more redolent of love than a homemade baked good.Read More
Removing some amber-flushed apricots from their punnet the other day, I started thinking about the tactile qualities of fruits. There’s such variety to be found when it comes to the feel of a fruit in the palm of your hand. At the less pleasing end of the scale, there is the woolly rasp of a khaki kiwi, or the tough prickle of a sturdy pineapple, or the sandpaper rub of an underripe, over-firm, imported strawberry. Maybe the dimpled spikes of a plump lychee, although I quite like the way their tough skin peels away, fragile as paper, to reveal the fragrant flesh within.Read More
Sometimes, you just need to go back to basics. This is, of course, true in all areas of life, but I'm primarily talking about the kitchen. Sometimes you just need to. To put the mandolin, potato ricer, apple corer, waffle maker and julienne-slicer back in the cupboard. To leave the ice cream maker in the freezer. To unplug the KitchenAid mixer. To stack up the dariole pudding moulds and tuck them safely into the cupboard along with the bundt cake tin, the individual tart cases, the trifle glasses. To leave the oyster knife in the drawer along with the boning knife, filleting knife and cheese knife. To dispense with the mezzaluna and say goodbye to the sugar thermometer.
Sometimes, you need to realise that what people want to eat is not necessarily the same as what they can see by tuning into Masterchef. You need to realise that while you slave away preparing numerous drizzles and sauces to adorn the plate, they will be getting hungrier and hungrier, and as they squash everything on the plate together with their knife and fork, they are unlikely to notice the artful balsamic drizzle here, the tasteful garnish of micro-herbs there. Neatly sliced cuts of meat are made to be accompanied by a pile of mash and vegetables, not by three different kinds of puree, no matter how delightfully colour-contrasting they are or how subtly different in texture.
You need to realise that, although this new recipe of yours may showcase some exotic and unusual ingredient, people are unlikely to care as much as you do. Yes, there may be kumquats with the pork belly, but what is wrong with old-fashioned apple sauce? There may be basil ice cream with the strawberry tart, but...y'know...vanilla can be really nice. A stew with polenta? It may be oozing Italian sophistication, but it ain't mash.
That sourdough, that you spent months maturing and days baking? To you it may have the perfect nuanced flavour, so much better than anything you can buy for the simple reason that you nurtured it and perfected it, but no one else is likely to pick up on that. To them, it will taste exactly the same as something you could pick up from a baker. Save that luscious tangy crumb for yourself, and buy a loaf instead for dinner.
I have to remind myself of all of this sometimes. It's difficult to remember that not everyone takes cooking as seriously as I do, that not everyone will care as much as I do, and appreciate the effort and (I like to think) ingenuity that goes into conceiving and preparing a dish. I've come to realise that actually, what really matters is that people sit around the table and have a good time with something they enjoy eating. Sometimes, it's OK to rustle up a simple beef and ale stew, or fish pie, or pasta. It's more than OK; it's better. There are times when simplicity and (relative) ease can make a meal like nothing else.
This is, I think, at its most applicable when it comes to the realm of dessert. To me, there is simply no point faffing about making numerous different kinds of compotes, jellies, ganaches, tuiles, sugar cages and mousses in order to construct a dessert more akin to a piece of modern art than the final course of a meal. While such things are easy on the eye, they're tiresome and a faff to eat, with a million and one different components to analyse with your tastebuds before you can actually enjoy the thing.
I'm not sure if anyone, honestly, would take that sort of dessert over something hearty and home baked.
This banana bread, for me, is a perfect example of the beauty of simplicity. Even more so because it actually arose out of an attempt to be too clever. I was experimenting with a rhubarb and cardamom cake the other day, involving alternate layers of cake batter and rhubarb compote. All seemed well when I took its gloriously risen form out of the oven and left it to cool. When I came to slice the thing, however, it was a disaster: the cake mixture hadn't cooked at all, sodden and weighed down by the sticky, wet rhubarb compote. It was doughy, stodgy and inedible.
I've never really had a baking failure before. Generally my instinct, developed through years of practice, is sharp enough to know when something is going to work or not. This time, though, something was clearly off. I'll put it down to what was a very stressful week, coupled with the general stress of starting a totally new life in a totally new city. To me, it was a sign that I needed to slow down a bit, to stop trying to be too clever. To go back to basics.
This banana bread never fails me. It is the epitome of a trustworthy, reliable recipe. You will probably always have the ingredients for it available in your kitchen already - especially if, like me, you peel overripe bananas and freeze them for such an occasion. I make it every time I need a good, proper, hearty cake. It is moist, squidgy, with a delicious caramel aroma from the baked bananas. It develops a crunchy crust on the top, scattered with chunks of toasted almonds, while the inside stays gloriously soft and cakey.
I bashed open some jade-green cardamom pods, ground the seeds into a fragrant powder, then added cinnamon and ginger. This infused the banana batter with a deliciously warm, comforting aroma - cardamom especially goes very well with bananas, with its citrussy fragrance balancing the caramel flavour well.
Going back to basics tastes delicious. It makes the kitchen smell warm, sugary and buttery as it cooks. It looks rustic, hearty, promising warm flavours and a tender crumb. It slices into wobbly, steaming pieces demanding to be devoured before they have properly cooled. But it's also still delicious the next day with a slick of soft butter. The addition of warming spices lifts the whole thing to a delicious new level; it is the ultimate comfort cake.
Spiced banana bread (makes one loaf):
- 100g self-raising flour
- 80g wholemeal flour
- 1 heaped tsp baking powder
- Pinch of salt
- 50g cold butter
- 50g dark brown sugar
- 6 cardamom pods
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 60ml milk
- 2 very ripe bananas, mashed
- 2-3 tbsp flaked almonds
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease and line a loaf tin.
Mix together the flours, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Cut the butter into cubes and rub into the flour mixture until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the brown sugar.
Using a pestle and mortar, bash the cardamom pods and remove the black seeds. Grind the seeds to a fine powder. Add to the flour and butter mixture along with the cinnamon and ginger.
In a smaller bowl, mash together the bananas and milk. Add this to the flour mixture and mix together until you have a thick batter.
Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and scatter over the flaked almonds. Bake for 40 minutes until golden and firm, and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean.