Easter and Christmas are very meaty holidays, but while the nut roast seems a standard vegetarian option during the winter, there isn’t really a general consensus on what vegetarians should tuck into while everyone else is enjoying their roast lamb. This delicious savoury cobbler should satisfy the non-carnivores around the table. It’s bursting with the colours and flavours of the Mediterranean, perfect for welcoming spring: lovely fresh tomatoes and peppers bake until tender under a crust of goat’s cheese scones, fragrant with lemon thyme, rich with parmesan and topped with golden pine nuts. It’s easy to make and provides a hearty, all-in-one main course, deliciously rich and sweet, with those lovely tangy scones to soak it all up. Find my full post and recipe on the AO Life blog!
On a January morning, you need dessert for breakfast. This is probably my favourite category of recipe, and the one most of my cooking falls into. I should point out that this does not mean you are ever justified in eating a chocolate orange, Magnum or cheeseboard before 12pm. Instead, it means adapting certain post-savoury classics to make them a little healthier, a little more substantial and a little more appropriate for the beginning of the day. I try and cut out a lot of the refined sugar and processed flour, sticking with wholesome staples like honey, spelt flour, oats, polenta and unrefined muscovado sugar. I like to think I have this down to a fine art, perhaps evident from the number of ‘breakfast crumble’ recipes in my repertoire.Read More
There’s an obvious answer to the question ‘Why don’t people cook with gin much?’
The answer is, of course, thus: because why on earth would you want to cook with gin when instead you could do all of the following things with it, preferably in the following order:
1. Admire beautiful simplicity of bottle of gin.
2. Feel small thrill of excitement at the promise contained within said bottle’s glassy depths
3. Wonder if it is the right time of day to drink ginRead More
I realise this post probably requires an explanation.
Because, of course, nobody in their right mind would want to be cooking, let alone eating, a cobbler right now. Nobody in their right mind would want to be eating anything at all right now. Maybe a few salad leaves and a piece of fruit. But certainly not anything involving butter, nuts or dried fruit soaked in alcohol. I think I've had enough dried fruit soaked in alcohol to last at least until next Christmas. Everywhere I go, it's there, haunting me. Mince pies. Christmas cakes (why, oh why, did I decide to make TWO?). Christmas puddings (again, I made TWO). Stollen. My body yearns for sweet release from this culinary captivity, yet somehow I can't help myself.
Generally I have pretty good willpower. I have on several occasions got up bright and early after a very late night out, having had only four hours sleep, and cycled to the swimming pool to do sixty lengths before breakfast. Last weekend, after six days skiing and a 17-hour coach journey back from the Alps (again, involving approximately four hours sleep), instead of collapsing in bed with a cup of tea, I hurried to the swimming pool (and there discovered just how many muscles I'd damaged on the slopes). I'm pretty good at saying no to sugary and enticing foodstuffs unless I'm actually hungry or have been pretty physically active that day.
But waft the aroma of a freshly baked mince pie or loaf of stollen in my face, and I am powerless.
It's a sad cycle of despair and gratification, trying to decide if the sheer momentary pleasure of biting through a flaky, buttery crust to reach a pool of molten, sweet, sticky fruit is worth the subsequent (and much less fleeting) self-loathing, paranoia, and frenetic examination of my expanding hips in the mirror.
I blame the devil on my shoulder, telling me to lighten up (ironic, considering Christmas fare is anything but light) and just enjoy the festive season instead of worrying about what a few (OK, probably about twenty) mince pies will have done to my normally OK physique.
So I am trying not to be totally neurotic about the whole thing. However, I cannot deny that I do feel replete to the point of discomfort after Christmas. It's not just the sweet stuff, but the sheer onslaught of meat I have been forced to withstand, considering I normally only eat the stuff about three times a week. Roast turkey, yes, but also sausagemeat stuffing, sausages wrapped in bacon, sprouts with a bacon and chestnut crust, a whole baked ham, Mum's homemade sausage rolls. And then, for no apparent reason, my family decided we had to have a roast rib of beef for dinner, two days after Christmas lunch. Even the carnivores in my family seemed defeated by it, and much smaller portions were had than would normally be the case if we'd eaten this lovely roast any other time of the year.
Alas. So, you're probably wondering why on earth I've been baking pear and mincemeat cobblers during this troubling time. Well, the simple answer is that I haven't, actually. I made these a week or so before Christmas, when I was still in the midst of a rapturous love affair with mincemeat, nuts, baking and autumnal fruits.
I'm sharing them with you now for two reasons. Firstly, I imagine a lot of you probably have a bit of leftover mincemeat, can't face any more mince pies, and are wondering what to do with it. Secondly, if you've managed to be a bit more restrained than myself over Christmas, a lovely fruity dessert that still packs a festive punch might be just what you fancy.
Even in my mincemeated-out state, I can tell you that these are absolutely sumptuous. They take everything that is good about a mince pie, and almost make it better. Combining chopped ripe pear with the mincemeat and adding a little lemon juice takes the strong sugary and boozy edge off it, resulting in something much fresher, lighter and - I think - tastier. The toasted pecans add a gorgeous crunch and a lovely caramelly, nutty flavour that balances the tangy mincemeat perfectly. Adding a cobbler topping means you end up with a gorgeous fluffy scone-like dough that is soft in the middle and crispy on the top, soaked around its frayed edges with rich dark juice from the mincemeat and pears.
Scoop over some cold vanilla ice cream, and you have a fabulous dessert that is reminiscent of stollen, Christmas pudding and mince pies all rolled into one. Fluffy, sticky, dark and delicious.
And, amazingly, they're not even bad for you, really. My cobbler topping contains hardly any butter, using yoghurt to thicken it, and apart from that and the suet in the mincemeat there's no fat. OK, so you'd be better off with a solitary clementine, but relatively speaking, in the context of all those other Christmas delights, these are quite healthy.
Perhaps this is the perfect post-festive dessert, after all.
Do you have any interesting uses for mincemeat other than the classic mince pies? I'd love to hear them!
Pear and mincemeat cobblers (serves 4):
- 2 large/3 medium ripe pears (I used Comice)
- 125g mincemeat
- Juice of half a lemon
- Handful of pecan nuts, toasted in a dry pan and crumbled
- 100g plain flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Pinch of salt
- 15g cold butter, cut into cubes
- 15g light brown sugar
- 100ml plain yoghurt or buttermilk
- 4 tsp demerara sugar
- Ice cream, to serve
Pre-heat the oven to 180C (170C fan oven).
Cut the pears into small cubes - you don't need to bother peeling them, but discard the core. In a bowl, mix them with the mincemeat, lemon juice and pecan nuts. Divide them between four 200ml ramekins (or if you don't have ramekins, just make a single large cobbler in a baking dish) and place in the oven for 10 minutes until the fruit has softened and released quite a bit of juice.
In a separate bowl, sift the flour with the baking powder and a pinch of salt. Add the butter and rub it in with your fingers until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the brown sugar. Mix in the yoghurt or buttermilk until you have a thick, scone-like dough.
Remove the ramekins from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Divide the dough mixture between the ramekins, dolloping it roughly on top (it doesn't have to cover all the fruit - in fact, it looks nicer when you can still see some luscious fruit bubbling up through the top). Sprinkle with the demerara sugar.
Bake in the oven for 25 minutes or until the cobbler is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling. Leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving with vanilla ice cream.
3. Fig and orange cobbler. Figs and oranges are a surprisingly successful combination (my aim this autumn is to discover all possible partners for the wonderful fig - raspberries and oranges are two of my new finds). Mix sliced figs and segmented oranges (about eight figs and two oranges) with a little dark sugar and a splash of rum, orange juice or grand marnier in a pie dish. Dollop on this cobbler topping, then bake for half an hour or so until the fruit releases its beautiful garnet juices and the topping is crisp and crunchy. This also works wonderfully as a crumble, especially if you mix some oats and almonds or hazelnuts into the crumble mixture. The figs soften and the oranges become really sweet and flavoursome, and the combination together is juicy, fragrant and delicious. Add some good vanilla ice cream and devour: autumn in a bowl.
4. Porridge with apple and quince compote. A delicious, unusual and thoroughly seasonal way to start an autumn day. Simply simmer peeled, chopped quince in a little water and lemon juice until almost tender. Don't throw away the cores and peel - simmer those covered in water in a separate pan while you cook the quince. Add a few sliced cooking/Cox apples to the chopped quince (peel if you like - I only bother if they're quite big, otherwise it's too fiddly) and the water from the quince cores and peel, and cook until the apples start to disintegrate. You should have a lovely, pale gold bowl of fragrant goodness. You can add sugar, but I don't think it needs it - quince is sweet enough on its own. This is lovely on hot porridge scattered with a few blackberries.
5. The Great British Food Revival. A brilliant programme all about championing British produce that is in danger of being sidelined by foreign imports, putting us back in touch with our food heritage and urging us to save those traditional ingredients from extinction (think peas, pears, crab, pork, potatoes...). I loved the first series, and the second is just as good, judging from what I've seen so far: Gregg Wallace extolling the virtues of Yorkshire rhubarb, an ingredient very close to my heart and one that I hoard like a mad person during its short season. There's still some in my freezer. He comes up with some unusual and delicious recipes that I can't wait to try.
While on the subject, I love Gregg Wallace. I think he has an honest and immensely refreshing attitude to food. None of this poncing around with silly descriptions about umami, mouthfeel and acidity. He simply says "it's like a hug from the pudding angel". If that isn't a concise and accurate description of a dessert, I don't know what is. He is entirely unpretentious and seems like a genuinely nice, fun person. And I'm not just saying this because he likes rhubarb, though that does win anyone brownie points in my eyes.
I'm also looking forward to seeing Valentine Warner's contribution to the show, mainly because I had lunch with him a couple of months ago and am childish enough to get excited about having met people who appear on TV.
I may have mentioned my habit of obsessively hoarding fruit in season. The other day I woke up with a faint sense of panic. It took me an entire morning to realise its cause; I had a vague inkling that cherries were slowly disappearing, steadily growing in price which no doubt signalled an upcoming dearth. Slightly maddened by this, thinking of all those cherry recipes I had yet to try, I rushed to the market and the supermarket and stockpiled a kilo and a half of the little red fruits. I spent a pleasant twenty minutes (apron-clad, of course) pitting them before methodically placing them into freezer bags and consigning them to the icy depths of the deep freeze. Suddenly I became sadly aware of their multiple sweet and savoury possibilities, painfully conscious of the fact that a mere one and a half kilos would not be enough to satisfy my creative culinary requirements. I spent a difficult day in this state before reminding myself that actually, I don't even like cherries all that much. I now just feel slightly ashamed at my ridiculous, child-like nature, wanting something just as I realise I might not be able to have it for much longer.
So when I spied some damsons on sale the other day, I snapped them up without hesitation. I'm on holiday in Yorkshire at the moment (as I speak the rain is falling in thick curtains outside the open door, the patio already so flooded that ripples appear where the drops fall, and the sky is a steady, unwavering shade of grey that, if I had to name it on a paint chart, I would call "Meh"), and revelling in all the wonderful things the countryside provides. Unfortunately it's a bit too early for blackberries (though they're proliferating wildly down south, which just goes to show the massive difference in climates that my mother, a Yorkshire lass born and bred, is always so keen to deny), but a trip to the little deli on the high street near our cottage turned up some treasures, as usual. The last time I paid a visit there, I was rewarded with huge thick stalks of neon-pink Yorkshire rhubarb, sweet and tangy, which I simmered into a compote and ate smothered on top of hot, raisin-studded porridge. This time, it was the turn of plums and damsons.
Plums and damsons have also succumbed to my hoarding tendencies. Last autumn I became rather fond of plums on my porridge, and decided that I should try and preserve some. I'd done it with apricots a few weeks previously, keeping them suspended in a large kilner jar in a sugar syrup infused with cinnamon, orange flower water and cloves (I ate them about 6 months later, once apricots had disappeared from the market and I was missing their sunshine colours and beautiful jammy sweetness - they were delicious). I tried it with plums, throwing a few damsons in there too simply because I'd heard they were good and worth preserving, though I'd never actually tried them myself. Unfortunately, this experiment was a disaster. For some unknown reason, the plums started to ferment, bubbling viscously out of the sealed jar to the point where my mum, terrified that they'd explode all over the kitchen, moved the jar outside and begged me to let her throw them away. Heartbroken at the thought of parting with my plums, but more afraid of breaking the lovely preserving jar, I eventually agreed. Fail.
I now realise that this was a bit of a fruitless notion (literally), because plums are around pretty much all year. Yes, they're imported and often horrible, but I've feasted on delicious specimens from the market in Oxford for months after the English ones have gone; huge, regal purple orbs that soften deliciously when simmered in orange juice with raisins, cloves and ginger. Plums, like apricots, are one of those fruits that you can nearly always rectify with cooking and judicious use of warm spice. My desire to preserve them, I think, stemmed mainly from the fact that the English varieties are so much more beautiful than their imported cousins, which are often uniformly spherical and uniformly coloured, a dark maroon bordering on black. English plums come in all shapes and sizes, are often delicate ovals rather than squat spheres, and are frequently beautifully coloured, a delightful mottling of green, blushing pink and dark purple, sometimes with a patch of blood red or black. I love seeing them all piled up at the market, several different varieties on sale, all with their individual charms and culinary advantages.
Damsons are new to me. They're like tiny little plums, often used to make jams or jellies because of their strong, sweet-tart flavour (you can also use them to make gin, as with sloes). They're only around for a short time, usually early autumn, though the seasons seem to be a bit weird at the moment, and everything is appearing earlier. I've read a lot about them, particularly in Nigel Slater's books, but I've never cooked with them before, mainly because they're such a faff to de-stone. However, the sight of them at the deli the other day couldn't fail to entice me. They were tiny, like marbles, some perfectly round, others more tapered, some with little green stalks still attached, all of them a wonderful deep, inky purple. I bought a few handfuls, along with some lovely little plums. There were greengages, too, which I hope to cook with again before the season is over, after the success that was my greengage and almond cake. The damsons were indeed a pain to de-stone, leaving me with filthy fingernails and mild RSI, but the result was worth it - I didn't want spitting out stones to get in the way of good cobbler enjoyment. I didn't have my cherry pitter here, but I'm not entirely sure it would have worked anyway, as the stone to fruit ratio is higher than with cherries.
I didn't really need to think about what to do with the plums. It was always going to be a cobbler, my absolute favourite pudding and so versatile, working with almost all fruits. You end up with a gorgeous layer of warm, jammy, soft fruit, topped with a delicious scone crust that is all soft and fluffy where it meets the fruit juice, and crunchy on top where it's been sprinkled with demerara sugar and baked to a satisfying sweet crisp in the heat of the oven. I thought the dark plum juices would work perfectly with the scone topping. Damsons, it transpires, are really very tart - you need quite a lot of sugar in this cobbler to balance out their sourness, but it's still delicious even when on the sharp side, especially with lots of vanilla ice cream to introduce some calming, sugar-laden dairy.
As an aside, don't you just love this pie dish? I found it in the cupboard here - I think it must have been my Nanna's. It's just the right size to fill with sugar-sprinkled fruit and a comforting doughy crust - not quite apple pie, but still deliciously sweet, warming and autumnal.
This is exactly the thing for a rainy evening in Yorkshire. I love the tart plum juices against the dense, crunchy scone dough. I had to make do with the ingredients I found in the larder up here (one of the perils of being an obsessive cook and going self-catering is that there's always one 'crucial' ingredient missing) - I'd have liked to put almond essence in the plum mixture and some flaked almonds on top of the cobbler to turn toasty and delicious, but this was still wonderful without. You can play around with the spices, too, using ginger instead of cinnamon (or both), or maybe some nutmeg or cardamom. The inclusion of oats and wholemeal flour in the topping gives it a delicious nutty texture and flavour which is perfect against the sharp fruit. Delicious.
Plum and damson cobbler (serves 4):
- 800g plums and damsons, stoned and halved
- 6 heaped tbsp caster sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- A splash of orange juice
- 100g wholemeal flour
- 40g oats
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 25g cold butter, cubed
- 25g demerara sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
- 150ml buttermilk or yoghurt
Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Arrange the plums in a pie or baking dish. Mix with the caster sugar, cinnamon and orange juice. Put in the oven for 10 minutes while you make the cobbler topping.
Put the oats, flour, baking powder and demerara sugar in a large bowl. Rub the butter into the mixture until it resembles fine breadcrumbs, as you would for a crumble. Pour in the buttermilk and mix to a soft dough.
Remove the dish from the oven and dollop the cobbler mixture in spoonfuls over the top. Sprinkle with a little more demerara sugar and return to the oven for 30 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.
When I start to see gooseberries at the market, I get almost as excited as when I spy first season rhubarb at the market. I feel quite similarly about these two fruits: they're underrated, quintessentially British, and great fun to experiment with in all sorts of recipes, both sweet and savoury. They both work well with mackerel, they both make great jam, and they both add a pleasing tartness and vibrant colour to creamy or baked desserts. One of the classic partners for gooseberries is elderflower; I often wonder who first came up with this idea, but it does work: the elderflower gives a pleasing fragrance and sweetness to what can be a very sharp berry. It also helps to mellow the rather unpleasant aroma of cooked gooseberries; they taste great, but always smell a bit weird, rather like ripening tomatoes. After receiving a box of gooseberries in my organic veg box last week I decided to try them out in a cobbler, my favourite hot pudding. It may be June, but it's pretty damn cold: I'm not abandoning my cobbler in favour of a fool or a sundae just yet.
The recipe booklet in my veg box featured a pear and gooseberry crumble. I would never have thought of combining gooseberries and pears, but it makes sense. A crumble or cobbler with pure gooseberries might be a bit overpowering, as they are quite tart, and also turn to mush during cooking. The inclusion of pear provides some texture - it remains fairly crunchy if you don't pre-cook it - and their flavour is mild enough not to exclude the lovely gooseberries. They also have a nice fragrance about them that works well with the elderflower. You could use apples, but you wouldn't get the same effect.
I love the look of these pears; they have the most beautiful matt, russet skin, which usually suggests a fragrant specimen. I think they are the Bosc variety. I wasn't disappointed, and nibbled my way through a whole one while chopping them for the cobbler; they were quite crunchy, but still flavoursome. I didn't bother to pre-cook them, but if you like your fruit fairly soft and soggy in a crumble then you might want to. After topping and tailing nearly two kilos of gooseberries (a kitchen task second in tedium only to de-bearding three kilos of mussels), they went in two dishes with the chopped pears, a generous splash of elderflower cordial, and quite a lot of caster sugar - gooseberries are extremely unpleasant to eat raw, so you need quite a lot of sugar - the same goes for summer rhubarb. The fruit looked rather beautiful, sitting in the dishes with its frosty sprinkling of sugar. It also, as my friend observed, gave me the opportunity to "show off my Le Creuset collection". I bought a beautiful purple heart-shaped baking dish ages ago at the Le Creuset outlet store and hadn't used it before now.
For the cobbler topping, I rubbed butter into flour and baking powder, added brown sugar, then stirred in some natural yoghurt. This is actually a rather healthy dessert, as there's only a small amount of butter required. It's much less fattening than crumble, and I love cobbler because of the way the top cooks to give a nice crunch. It's essentially a sort of scone dough, dropped in spoonfuls on top of the fruit and left to spread out and fluff up in the oven. Adding demerara sugar to the top gives it a pleasing sugary crunch. You get a nice crisp crust with a lovely fluffy interior, and because it has less fat you can eat twice as much. Brilliant.
About half an hour later, I removed my bubbling cobblers from the oven. Perfect, apart from one small issue: gooseberries emit enough water when cooked to save Britain from drought for the entire summer. I hadn't considered that when I put the dishes into the oven. However, it's a problem easily solved: either add a couple of tablespoons of cornflour to the fruit when you mix it with the sugar and elderflower (it will form a sort of paste and look horrible, but persevere), or pre-cook the gooseberry and pear filling for a few minutes and remove the fruit from its juice with a slotted spoon. I'm not sure which would work best; next time I'll try the cornflour as it's easier. It doesn't really matter though - I just dished up the cobbler with a slotted spoon, so that each portion got all the fruit but wasn't drowning in watery juice.
Despite juiciness, this is really delicious. As I said before, you get a really nice contrast in texture between the squashy berries and the firm chunks of pear, as well as a contrast in tartness; the gooseberries are still quite sour, but the pear is lovely and sweet so they work very well. There's also a hint of sweet elderflower running through the whole thing. Add to that a golden, fluffy scone layer on top, soft underneath where the fruit juice has soaked into it, and you're pretty close to dessert perfection. All you need with it is some good vanilla ice cream - I thought about making a weird and wonderful flavour to go with it, but there are so many nice flavours going on in the cobbler that it would just complicate matters. This is the perfect summer pudding for when the weather consistently proves disappointing.
Pear, gooseberry and elderflower cobbler (serves 4):
- 4 pears, cored and chopped
- 500g gooseberries, topped and tailed
- 3 tbsp elderflower cordial
- 180g caster sugar
- 2 tbsp cornflour
- 140g plain flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 25g butter
- 25g light brown sugar
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 150ml buttermilk or natural yoghurt
- Demerara sugar, for sprinkling
Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Mix the pears, gooseberries, cordial, caster sugar and cornflour in a baking dish. In a separate bowl, rub the butter into the flour and baking powder until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the ginger and brown sugar. Add the buttermilk or yoghurt, and mix to form a fairly thick, sticky dough. Dollop this in spoonfuls on top of the fruit mixture in the baking dish - you don't have to completely cover it. Sprinkle generously with demerara sugar.
Bake for about 30 minutes, until the topping is golden and the fruit is bubbling around it. Serve with vanilla ice cream.