They are based on a Danish sweet treat, havregrynskugler, which essentially means ‘oat balls’. I first tried these at one of my favourite hyggelig cafes in Aarhus, a delightful little place attached to a deli and farm shop. For that reason, I assumed the oaty things they had out on the counter would be some kind of worthy, uber-healthy raw cake or similar, and finding myself in need of a snack with my cup of tea one day, I decided to try one. I was surprised by how utterly delicious it was, with the nutty, slightly sweet taste of oats that took me straight back to making flapjacks and oat biscuits as a child. I remember once trying to eat raw oats out of the jar, assuming that they were what made the flapjacks taste so good, so by that logic they should be delicious on their own. I was wrong. I am not a horse. My oats need to be doused in butter and sugar.Read More
There may not be much that is certain in life, but here are three things that are certain in the world of cooking:
- You will always happen to be wearing a white shirt when preparing tomatoes, pomegranates or beetroot.
- You will never be able to brown meatballs ‘evenly on all sides’, because they are in fact spherical and therefore do not have sides.
- You will never, ever, find a recipe that calls for an entire red cabbage.
This tastes like Christmas, although I definitely wouldn’t save it just for the coldest moments of the year. Simmering fragrant quinces and perfumed pears in a cranberry syrup, rich with warming spices and scented like mulled wine, gives them a luscious, melting tenderness. Add some tart, bouncy dried cranberries you have a wonderful textured mass of sweetness and spice. The colours are muted, but beautiful in their own right: deep amber, dusky pink, ochre-tinged cream, a tangle of tender poached fruits, occasionally punctuated with the ebony blade of a star anise or shard of cinnamon quill.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
It's strange how some foodstuffs are a totally normal, everyday part of the scenery in some countries, and then we come along, get our health-obsessed five-a-day superfood-crazy label-mad hands on them, slap on a massive price tag, and turn them into something chic, exclusive, expensive-because-healthy. When I was in Vietnam, there were smoothie bars perched on every street corner, churning out giant plastic cups of heady made-to-order mixtures; everything from fresh coconut to dragon fruit and durian fruit would be blended in front of your eyes into a sweet cupful of nourishing deliciousness. None of these ever cost more than around 80p. Come home, go to a smoothie bar (if you can find one, that is), and you'll pay at least £3 for the privilege of having some inferior fruit crushed into a cup.
The same goes for Japanese food. Nourishing noodle soups, slimming sushi and protein-rich tofu are staples of the Japanese diet, taken for granted, almost. Everyday food, they certainly don't cost nearly the amount they do over here, where you seem to pay for the privilege of ingesting something that isn't likely to give you a sumo wrestler physique overnight (and, of course, for the importing of certain ingredients).
The first time I tried goji berries was at a Chinese friend's house. She had made Chinese hot pot for me, and I had been avoiding the little red blobs floating around in the broth, thinking they might be some kind of super-spicy little dried chilli. Upon closer inspection, I realised they were goji berries, plump and swollen from their bath in the hot liquid. Later, she made me a cup of green tea, throwing in a handful of the berries for good measure. It was delicious, the berries imparting a sweet, slightly musky flavour to the tea.
I was amazed at the apparent careless abandon with which she put these berries into things. But then, I realized, I am used to the Western treatment of goji berries - a sort of awed and slightly confused reverence. As something bearing that elusive and exclusive 'superfood' label, goji berries are to be respected, to be treated with admiration, even if we are never likely to try them because they're often pretty expensive. In China, where the berries have been grown for hundreds of years (they're the biggest cultivators and exporters of goji berries in the world), they're probably a little more blasé about these little fruits, free from the ludicrous superfood-mania that has swept the UK in recent years.
Goji berries' superfood credentials stem from their large quantity of antioxidants and vitamin A. However, there's no real evidence to suggest they're any better for you than berries in general, which are also classed as 'superfoods'. Still, I find them a rather intriguing little fruit, with their beautiful dusky red colour and diminutive puckered appearance. You can get them in most health food shops and even some large supermarkets now, and, while they're not cheap, they're not much more expensive than your average dried berry.
Lucky enough to have a bag of goji berries in my cupboard, I decided to experiment with a new granola recipe. I figured that if more common dried berries - blueberries, cranberries, etc - work in granola, why not up the 'superfood' credentials by adding some goji berries too?
I've long been a fan of making my own granola, ever since my first attempt a year or so ago. There are several advantages to doing it yourself.
Firstly, commercial granola is astronomically high in fat and sugar. Not to bore you with my health-nerd neuroticism, but it is. If you're lucky enough not to need to worry about such things, then good for you, but it still can't hurt to cut back a bit on these ingredients. The reason shop-bought granola is so delicious and tastes like flapjacks is because it's drenched in oil and honey/sugar before baking. Tasty, but not the most nutritious breakfast. By making it yourself, you can drastically lower the amount of calorific rubbish that goes into it, while still having a delicious-tasting end product. The trick is to use apple puree and honey to coat the granola mix before baking. Yes, there's still sugar in the form of honey, but much, much less, and no fat - just apple.
I imagine a lot of you are wondering if it's less tasty for this reason. It is certainly less sweet and flapjack-esque, but I find that the dried fruit makes up for this, adding plenty of sweetness. The granola base mixture (oats, barley, etc) toasts wonderfully in its covering of apple puree and honey, turning deliciously golden, toasty and crunchy. It's the perfect base for the dried fruit and nuts, allowing them to really shine. I actually prefer it, now, to commercial granola, which just tastes overly sweet and buries the flavour of the fruit and nuts within.
Secondly, homemade granola is cheaper. You won't save yourself huge amounts of money, but you will save a bit. If you buy decent granola or muesli, you often spend around £3-4 for a 750g box. To get all the ingredients to make your own (depending on what you put in it) usually costs around £5, but it makes about 1.75 kg. Plus some of the ingredients you only need to buy once to make several batches - apple for the apple puree, honey, flaked almonds, and dried fruit like raisins.
Also, it really is wonderfully satisfying to make your own. I appreciate not everyone has the time, but this takes under an hour from start to finish, and there's barely any hands-on work involved - just mixing everything up, then stirring it from time to time in the oven so that it toasts evenly. The sweet, spicy, toasty smell of the grains cooking warms your kitchen and hovers around you for hours afterwards.
Thirdly, you can customise home-made granola however you like. I've never found a muesli or granola in the shops that quite fits my specifications - I love brazil nuts, chopped dates, and tropical fruit, but this combo has never been found to my knowledge on the supermarket shelves. Now that I make my own, I can put in my favourite things. Until now I have made two versions: one, a tropical granola with brazil nuts, flaked almonds, dried papaya and dried pineapple (sometimes adding banana chips or coconut flakes); two, a delicious cinnamony version with chopped apricots, chopped dates, raisins, flaked almonds and brazil nuts again. Both are utterly delicious, but it was time to experiment with a new version.
Enter this 'superfood' berry granola, featuring goji berries, other dried berries (I used a mixture of cherries, blueberries and cranberries), sunflower seeds and toasted pecan nuts. I've wanted to try pecans in granola for ages, because they're my favourite nuts after brazil nuts, and I can't get enough of their toasty, caramel flavour. Sunflower seeds add crunch and also healthy nutrients, while the granola base is enriched with cinnamon and a good dose of vanilla. After a spell of baking in the oven, the sweet, spiced granola is mixed with jewel-like dried berries.
I haven't added too many goji berries here, because they're quite an acquired taste. Instead, their pleasant, earthy flavour combines with the more assertive sweetness of dried cherries, cranberries and blueberries. The result is a joyous medley of colours, the bright and muted reds of the berries contrasting beautifully with the nut-brown blanket of toasted oats and pecans.
I actually wrote all of the above post, up until this point, having not yet tried the result of this granola experiment. I figured it would be good enough to share with you all, though. This morning I poured my first bowl (and took the photos). I made a mug of green tea. I chopped up some blood orange and put it into the bowl with some ginger- and brown sugar-stewed plums left over from dessert last night. The dark juice of the blood oranges mingled with the magenta syrup from the plums, soaking into the granola. The tea sent wisps of grassy, fragrant smoke into the air. The dried berries and pecans winked invitingly up at me from the bowl, a glorious mass of syrupy red.
Ignoring all the blood orange and plum madness going on (which just lifted breakfast to dizzying heights of incredible deliciousness), this granola was incredible. So much better than I had expected, even though I expected good things. I think the key lies in the sunflower seeds and the pecans - the seeds contribute an amazing nutty toastiness that underlies the whole thing, combining wonderfully with the sweet, caramel notes of the pecans and then the sugary berries. Heavily attached to my brazil nut and tropical fruit version, I hadn't expected this to be quite as good. Instead, I think it's a new favourite. It allows me to indulge my borderline indecent love of pecan nuts and dried cranberries. It looks gorgeous. I can claim it's vaguely healthy, both because of its lack of oil and refined sugar and because it has some goji berries in (tenuous yes, but every little helps). As well as sunflower seeds and pecans, which are full of nutritious good fats.
I promise, this will surprise you. Both because it's incredibly easy, and because it's so much better than granola from the shops. The combination of ingredients just makes for the best ever breakfast bowlful. Even better if you add some segmented orange and stewed plums, although I think serving it with some fresh berries would also be a great idea, or some sliced banana (or both).
You may, like me, be sceptical of the superfood label. But this granola is both super and food, so I think it deserves the accolade. Get your hands on those crazy goji berries and get this granola in your life.
'Superfood' berry granola (makes around 10-12 servings):
(I'd like to add that the serving estimate here is strictly that - an estimate. I eat a lot of granola in a single portion, and this is so good that you might want to rethink your normal cereal serving size...)
- 320g apple puree*
- 110g runny honey
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- Seeds of 1 vanilla pod, or 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1kg muesli base mix
- 200g pecan nuts, roughly chopped
- 90g sunflower seeds
- 50g goji berries
- 150g mixed dried berries (e.g. blueberries, cranberries and cherries - or just one type)
Pre-heat the oven to 160C.
In a large bowl, whisk together the apple puree, honey, salt, cinnamon and vanilla. Add the muesli base and stir well to combine. Spread this mixture out evenly between two large baking sheets.
Bake for 10 minutes, then remove the trays from the oven give the mixture a good stir around. Return to the oven and bake for another 10 minutes, then stir again. Finally, bake for another 10 minutes, then add the pecan nuts and sunflower seeds. Bake for 10 minutes more, then remove from the oven and leave to cool.
When cool, stir in the berries. Store the granola in an airtight jar or box.
* To make apple puree, simmer peeled, chopped cooking apples in a lidded pan with a splash of water until they turn to mush, then roughly crush with a potato masher or fork. It's worth making a big batch of this then freezing it in individual 320g portions, so you can easily make a batch of granola whenever the whim takes you!
I've always found it slightly bizarre that we have one, just one, official day in the calendar where we unite to celebrate a specific foodstuff...and we decide that that foodstuff should be pancakes. The one day where you can legitimately invite loads of people round to stuff their faces with a single specified food, the sort of day that demands to be celebrated with a crowd...and we choose pancakes.
Pancakes are possibly the least crowd-friendly dish on the planet.
Sure, there's great drama to be had in the failed flipping of a pancake with a not-so-quick thrust of the wrist. Or, equally, in the surprise success of a flipped pancake, prompting a squeal of delight from the flipper and admiring 'oohs' from the spectators. It's a spectator sport, really.
And yes, they're a great communal food - everyone can fill, stuff, roll and eat theirs as the whim takes them. Do you put the filling into a quarter of the pancake then fold it into a neat little cone shape? Do you arrange your choice of stuffing in a wobbling line down the centre then roll everything around it and devour it like a baguette or sausage roll, hands only? Or do you spread the filling luxuriantly over half the whole thing, then simply fold it over and attack it with a knife and fork?
And of course, they're pretty darn easy to make. All you need is a bowl, a whisk (preferably electric, though - I'm pretty sure a lump-free batter using only a hand whisk is a mythical holy grail of cooking), some flour, eggs and milk. Ingredients that won't break the bank and will cohere into a satisfyingly squidgy vehicle for whatever delicious interior you choose to adorn it with. You don't really need to be able to cook. You just need to be able to turn on a whisk, measure ingredients, and get good with the ladling of things into a hot pan.
(Unless, of course, you want to flip them using only that deft wrist movement, in which case you'll need slightly more skill).
But really, pancakes are not practical for crowds. They're barely practical for two people, let alone more than that. Sure, you can make them all in advance and keep them in a warm oven, separated between layers of greaseproof paper, until you're ready to eat them. Recipe books often tell you this. What they fail to mention is that said greaseproof-oven process will cause those luscious crispy edges to turn sad and soggy, and the whole pancake to turn somewhat pale and flabby, like Britain in winter.
Don't get me wrong. If you want to cook pancakes for a crowd without driving yourself mad in the process (standing slaving at the hob armed with a ladle and a hot pan while all your friends make merry in an adjacent room, their gleeful laughter ringing, sounding in your ears and inducing a curious desire to rudely dismiss them all from your house, because why on earth did you invite them over anyway?), you can use the keep-warm-in-oven method. You could, of course, just flip them to order, with people bringing their plates to the hob as and when the pancakes are ready. But then you miss out on the joy of a communal meal, and everything ends up somewhat sadly disjointed.
So yes, I do find it a curious paradox that we celebrate this foodstuff that is so fundamentally unsuited to celebration.
(I am also aware of the reason we do so, and the historical tradition of using up ingredients before Lent, et cetera...but I'm just pointing this out).
I found this out to my cost this weekend, when I decided to make breakfast crêpes for two people in my undergoing-refurbishment kitchen that currently has the grand total of one square foot worktop space. It wasn't pretty. Everything, including my hair, ended up dusted with flour. There were a few frustrated tears. A burn. Enough used utensils to suggest Henry VIII had been banqueting there. Items of cookware perched precariously on chairs, shelves, and I did contemplate the floor before I settled for on top of the toaster instead.
The flipside, of course, as with all (or most, anyway) pancake scenarios, is that you end up with something delicious. In this case, a big pile of squidgy crêpes stuffed and dolloped with a gorgeous warm, spiced compote. There are pears, caramelised in butter and brown sugar. There are cranberries, which simmer down into sticky red globules of tart juiciness. There are warming spices: ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. There is a scattering of nutty toasted pecans for crunch. The compote has all that delicious warm sweetness of Christmas cranberry sauce, with the added bonus of beautiful fragrant caramelised pears, sweet with perfumed juice. It is the perfect accompaniment to pillowy crêpes, stuffed inside them and spooned over the top in a dramatic profusion of scarlet stickiness.
I made this for breakfast, to serve two very greedy people (one, obviously, being myself). It would also make an excellent dessert, though in substantially smaller quantities. While I do believe it's hard to beat a good simple crêpe with lemon and sugar (or, my skiing favourite, crème de marrons - French chestnut and vanilla jam), sometimes it's nice to do something a bit different. This compote has texture, flavour, and colour. It's sweet yet tart, substantially fruity and delicious. It's perfect tucked inside these crêpes, a delightful mixture of squidgy batter and fruit pieces in every mouthful.
But if you're planning on making this for more than one person, in a small kitchen...I'd advise deep breaths, a box of tissues handy, and preferably one or more minions on hand to prepare fortifying cups of tea (or gin, but preferably only if these are dessert rather than breakfast. And preferably in glasses, not cups).
Happy pancake day!
Crêpes with spiced pear, pecan and cranberry compote (serves 2 for breakfast; 4 for dessert):
- 5 medium pears, ripe but firm
- A knob of butter
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 150g fresh cranberries (you can also use dried, but add a little water to the compote too)
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- A handful of toasted pecans, chopped
For the crêpes:
- 200g plain flour (or 100g plain and 100g wholemeal)
- 2 eggs
- Pinch of salt
- 500ml milk
- Butter, to cook
First, make the compote. Quarter and core the pears, then slice lengthways into 1cm slices. Heat the butter in a non-stick frying pan until bubbling, then add the sugar. Add the pears and cook on a medium heat until starting to soften and caramelise, then add the spices and cranberries. Cook over a low-medium heat until the cranberries have burst and released juice, and the compote has a thick, jammy consistency. If it starts to dry out, add a splash of water. Taste and add more sugar if you like. Set aside.
For the crêpes, sift the flour into a large bowl. Make a well in the centre then crack in the eggs and add the salt. Using an electric whisk, start whisking the eggs into the flour, adding a little milk. Keep whisking, gradually incorporating more of the flour, and add the rest of the milk as you go until you have a smooth batter the consistency of double cream. (You can do this the night before and leave the batter to rest in the fridge, whisking it up again just before you need it).
Put the oven onto a low heat (around 120C) and put a plate in it, ready for the pancakes. Get a non-stick frying pan or crêpe pan very hot. Add a knob of butter, and wipe it around the pan with kitchen towel. Ladle in enough batter to form a 3-4mm thick crêpe, tilting the pan so it spreads evenly over the surface. Cook for a minute or so on each side - adjust the heat so that the crêpes are golden brown but not scorched or pale and flabby. Put each crêpe on the plate in the oven as you make them, separated with sheets of greaseproof paper, to keep warm.
When you have 8 crêpes (there might be a bit of batter left over), spread each one out and spoon a little compote onto a quarter of it. Fold in half and then into quarters. Repeat with the remaining crêpes, reserving some compote to spoon over at the end. Arrange the crêpes on a plate, then spoon over a little more compote and scatter with the toasted pecans. Dust with icing sugar, if you like, then serve immediately.
I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling that autumn is the best time of year to be cooking. While I love the colourful bounty of summer, particularly gluts of downy apricots and bouncy red berries, autumn brings with it wonders of equal beauty, along with another crucial ingredient: weather.
You see, along with the mists and chill days of autumn comes that magical thing: an excuse to eat comfort food. Suddenly we can justify wanting nothing more than to curl up with a bowl of hearty stew and a pile of pillowy mashed potato. How lucky that Mother Nature chooses this time of the year to offer us dark, rich game; golden, robust root vegetables; glossy burnished nuts; curled, crunchy, springy greens; mellow, juicy, russet-skinned orchard fruits. While perhaps not as obviously glowing and vibrant as the produce of high summer, to me autumn ingredients have a dark, subtle and muted magic of their own.
In order to celebrate British autumn produce, I was asked by Floral & Hardy garden designers to come up with a three-course autumn feast, to demonstrate the range of ingredients that can be grown in British gardens, making the most of our gardens and also saving a bit of money in the supermarket. Given my aforementioned love of the culinary potential of this season, I of course said yes, and had great fun coming up with three lovely autumnal recipes for you, the first of which is this starter - stay tuned for the main course and dessert over the next week or so.
You probably don't need to be told that growing your own fruit and veg is a great thing to do. I am looking forward to turning the patch of wilderness that is the garden of my new house into a treasure trove of home-grown delights at some point; I love the romanticism that comes with being able to take your dinner from its natural habitat to the kitchen by walking a matter of metres, saving money and food miles. Among the wealth of produce available to be grown by the home gardener are courgettes, tomatoes, peppers, beetroot, blackberries, beans and mushrooms - all beautiful autumn ingredients. I'm no expert on home-grown, though, so if you're keen to get started I would recommend the wonderful Tender cookbooks by Nigel Slater, who talks about growing your own from a cook's point of view. Floral & Hardy also have a gardening blog for the keen (or amateur!) gardener.
This recipe, a perfect autumnal starter, combines several of my favourite seasonal staples.
Firstly, we have squash. Perhaps the most quintessential autumn vegetable, owing to its presence on our doorsteps hollowed out with an evil grimace and a candle inside, there are very few uses to which squash cannot be put in the kitchen (but don't try cooking with those pumpkins the supermarkets sell for Halloween, which are watery and tasteless). It generally finds its way into my lunchbox every day alongside couscous and feta cheese, but can form a sturdy basis for substantial cold-weather salads, combined with pulses like lentils, pearl barley, or bulgur wheat. It's also excellent in risotto. Owing to its sweetness, squash needs to be paired with salty flavours - strong cheeses are ideal, or bacon. It also works surprisingly well with other sweet things, like dried fruit and chestnuts, which somehow make it seem less sweet in comparison.
While the butternut squash is ubiquitous in markets and supermarkets, it's worth tracking down other varieties if you can - farmers' markets often have them. Crown Prince squash are lovely, with a delicate teal-coloured skin and a robust flesh, although they're often giant. I'm a big fan of the little squash that can be served as individual portions, as is the case here. They come in a multitude of shapes, sizes and colours, and possess a knobbly, rustic charm that is lacking in the predictably super-smooth, tapered butternut. That's one of the reasons for growing your own, too - you can enjoy varieties you might otherwise struggle to track down.
Next up, Swiss chard. This is both a blessing and a curse to the magpie-like food shopper, a breed to which I am unashamed to state I belong. Whenever I spy bunches of glorious chard at a market or supermarket, I can never resist hoarding it. Those rainbow stems are just too beautiful. However, it then languishes in my fridge because I'm never entirely sure what to do with it - unlike squash, I have no knee-jerk recipes up my sleeve for chard (until now). The best guide is to treat the stems a little like celery, and the leaves like spinach. I once made a delicious Swiss chard and feta filo pastry pie, which combined the chard with salty feta, pine nuts, and plump raisins. The combination is delicious - the raisins go wonderfully well with chard, enhancing its natural sweetness and preventing its iron tang from cloying, while the nuts provide texture.
I adapted that combination here, for the stuffing of the squash. I sauteed the chard stalks along with some sliced red onion - another ingredient that seems very autumnal to me - and garlic. To this I added dried cranberries, soaked in boiling water until plump and juicy. I could have used raisins, but cranberries - though not grown over here - seem very British at this time of year, given our penchant for them on the Christmas table. The chard leaves went in too, to soften, and finally some chestnuts.
Chestnuts are an ingredient I only discovered a couple of years ago. I went through a phase of dutifully roasting my own in the oven, until I realised that life is too short and you can buy perfectly decent pre-cooked, pre-peeled vacuum packed ones that are fine for cooking (though if you just want to eat them on their own, I'd suggest buying a bag of raw ones and doing it yourself). I may also have had a few explode in the oven due to my sub-standard scoring of their skins - they make a thoroughly alarming cannon-like explosion sound; I wouldn't recommend it, for your own sanity.
Chestnuts, with their rich flavour and fudgy, crumbly texture, add a beautiful sweetness and interest to all sorts of autumn dishes. They're great with rich meat, like game, because of their sweet flavour. They're also good with other sweet ingredients, like squash. I added them to my chard mixture for texture and flavour, where they went extremely well with the sweet cranberries and the crunchy, earthy chard.
This is a really lovely starter dish for autumn. The sweet chard mixture is combined with gruyere cheese, spooned into a squash that has been hollowed out, seasoned and roasted until tender, then everything is baked in the oven with more gruyere cheese on top. You could use any cheese - blue cheese, goat's cheese or feta would all work well - but gruyere has a delicious strong, salty, rich flavour that is necessary to contrast with the sweet squash, cranberries and chestnuts. Each person ends up with a delightful little squash bowl encasing a delicious sweet-sour-savoury filling, with a moreish crust of salty, burnished gruyere cheese on top. It's pretty easy to make, can be assembled in advance, and is vegetarian (though gruyere probably isn't totally veggie, like a lot of cheeses, so you might want to check which cheese you use).
I really love the combination of flavours in this dish. It would be the kind of nauseating food-writer cliche that I hate to pronounce it 'autumn on a plate'...so instead I will call it 'autumn made better by putting cheese on top'.
Stuffed squash with swiss chard, cranberries, chestnuts and gruyere (serves 2 generously):
- 2 small squash - best if you can get round ones, but if not just use the rounded ends of butternut squash
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- A few sprigs lemon thyme (or normal thyme)
- 50g dried cranberries
- 80ml boiling water
- 2 bunches swiss chard
- 2 red onions
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed
- 150g cooked chestnuts
- 60-80g gruyere cheese, grated (or more if you love cheese...and who doesn't?!)
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Cut the squash in half horizontally and scoop out the seeds, so you have four cup-shaped halves. Rub the squash inside and out with olive oil, then season well. Sprinkle over a few thyme leaves. Place in the oven and cook for around 30 minutes, hollow side up, until just tender.
Meanwhile, make the stuffing. Soak the cranberries in the boiling water. Heat a little olive oil in a large frying pan. Peel and thinly slice the red onions. Cook these over a gentle heat for a few minutes until starting to soften, then add the garlic cloves and cook for a few more minutes. Slice the chard stalks thinly and add to the pan. Cook for a few minutes until these are softening too, then add the cranberries, the cranberry soaking water, and the chard leaves.
Cover with a lid and cook for around 5 minutes, until everything is softening. Remove the lid and allow the water to evaporate away. Roughly chop the chestnuts and add to the pan, along with a generous amount of salt and pepper and a few thyme leaves. Taste and check the seasoning.
When the squash is cooked, remove it from the oven. Stir half the gruyere into the chard mixture, then use this to stuff the squash. Sprinkle the remaining gruyere over the top of the chard in the squash. (If you have any chard mixture left over, just serve it alongside when the squash are done). Put these back in the oven for 10-15 minutes, until the cheese has melted.
I sometimes feel like I neglect the poor humble apple. Caught up in the irresistible nectar-like liquor of a ripe marigold mango, or the perfumed snap of a pale translucent lychee, or the honeyed notes of a sugared gooseberry in high summer, it's easy to forget the value of our most beloved home-grown fruit. But the apple sits there patiently in the background, biding its time, a reliable constant. Like that best friend who will still always be there once passionate romances have long faded into the distance, proffering a consolatory cup of tea and telling you there are plenty more fish in the sea and you could do much better, and she always thought there was something suspicious anyway about the way he tied his shoelaces.
We tend to just lump apples into a single category. They are the generic crunchy, juicy, perfect fruit for eating on the go. Especially if you're one of those odd people who eat the entire lot, core, stalk and all. Children like them. You can just put one in a lunchbox. You don't have to worry about bruising, unlike with bananas, which are effectively untransportable. (Unless, like me, you own a much-mocked banana guard). Apples are pretty much the same, right?
This, I think, is a mistake. Unlike oranges, other citrus fruits, bananas, berries, lychees, which generally have a pretty uniform flavour regardless of type, apples vary wildly depending on variety. It is a mistake, I think, to just blindly lunge for the expensive bag of imported Pink Lady apples. While I can understand their appeal - they are, mostly, uniformly crisp, fragrant and tasty - there is great joy to be had from some of the other apple varieties out there.
My personal favourites are Coxes and Russets. You can't beat a really good Cox apple, crisp, dripping with tart, citrus-tinged juice, its skin overspread with a delightful red blush. Russets are also a favourite; I love their sage-green skin and matt golden bloom, and their subtly fragrant flesh. They work very well in salads, like this caramelised apple, rabbit and barley salad I made last year.
Discovery apples are also fabulous, coming into season in late summer. They have an amazing tartness and crispness to them, and are probably one of the more refreshing apples. I also lust after the perfect Granny Smith, which is surprisingly hard to find - vivid, alien green, often with a speckling of white freckles on its skin, and mouth-puckeringly tart within.
Regardless of your apple varieties, though, sometimes it's hard to eat them all before they start to turn less than perfect; and by that, I mean soft and floury inside, with a slight greasiness to the skin.
As part of my Fruitdrop delivery a few weeks ago, I received around twenty apples, of several varieties. By sight, I think they were Golden Delicious, Royal Gala, and Braeburn. While I ate a few raw, I could tell that I wouldn't be able to polish them off before they started to deteriorate; the nerve-wracking downside of getting so much fruit delivered. I set to thinking about how to use them in cooking; once cooked, it's impossible to tell an imperfect apple from a perfect one.
My first endeavour was a salted caramel tarte tatin, a recipe from last month's Delicious magazine. The recipe claimed said tarte would serve eight; I would like to amend this to 'serves four', simply because it was insanely good. There was salted caramel; into this went nine peeled, cored and halved apples. Over that went a thick layer of puff pastry, which baked to a burnished, crispy, feathery base for the oozing caramel and tender apples. It was essentially my idea of food heaven. That is definitely one viable suggestion for using up eating apples (don't try it with cooking apples, like Bramleys - they will collapse into mush and the tart will not be pretty).
However, if you want more of an everyday recipe (much as I love tarte tatin, I fear it's not a surefire route to slim hips and a toned physique) to use up ailing apples, this is almost as delicious.
It's also barely even a recipe, really, but the combination of ingredients is lovely and I felt I should share it. Caramelising apples is always a good idea; they become much more pronounced in flavour, turning into a soft, golden tangle of sweet deliciousness. You simply cook them in a little butter and brown sugar until they have turned sticky and dark. I always add a little cinnamon and ground ginger, because they both work so well with apples. Adding dried fruit, such as raisins or cranberries, provides an interesting contrast in texture, and a rich, toffee-like sugary note.
You can use caramelised apples as the basis of numerous recipes - mainly desserts, but if you use less sugar they work well with rich savoury ingredients, like cheese or meat. I decided to pair them with some soft, milky ricotta, because I figured its creamy blandness would provide a lovely contrast to the sweet, crunchy apples. This is a great recipe that would work for either breakfast or lunch.
There's bread, lightly toasted. You could use any bread, but I used fruited soda bread because I love soda bread and I thought the fruit in it would go well with the apples. I reckon sourdough would be fabulous, as would brioche and maybe even a toasted muffin or some rye bread. Over this you slather a thick layer of ricotta. Then on goes a liberal sprinkling of lemon thyme leaves; thyme works very well with both cheese and apples, and helps to cut through their sticky sweetness.
On go the apples, which have caramelised in butter, brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, and had a handful of jewel-like dried cranberries thrown in alongside them, to plump up in the syrupy juices. Then a few toasted nuts - I used walnuts, but pecans or hazelnuts would also be excellent. This gives a nice contrast in texture. Then another sprinkling of thyme.
It's a fabulous combination of textures; crunchy toast, soft and cold cheese, hot, crispy sugary apples and cranberries, and earthy nuts. I had it for lunch, but I can see it sitting happily on a breakfast table alongside a big mug of tea, or even as a dessert after a light meal. If you can't be bothered with the rest, just make up a big batch of caramelised apples, and have them on your muesli or porridge for breakfast. They're also excellent tucked into featherlight French crêpes, too.
I'd suggest you wander down to your local market soon and find yourself some unusual apple varieties. Go on, go crazy. Step out of that comfort zone. Purchase an unknown species of apple.
And if you don't like it enough to eat raw, caramelise it and stick it on some toast.
Spiced apple and cranberry toast with ricotta and thyme (serves 1):
- 2-3 slices of bread (I used fruited soda bread, but a walnut or raisin loaf would be good, or rye bread)
- 15g butter
- 2 tsp brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 2 small apples
- A small handful of dried cranberries or raisins
- 100g ricotta cheese
- A few sprigs of lemon thyme
- 1-2 tbsp chopped walnuts or pecans
Get the bread ready in the toaster while you make the apples. Heat the butter and sugar in a small non-stick pan until foaming and bubbling. Add the spices. Quarter and core the apples, then cut into thin slices. Add to the pan along with the cranberries, and cook over a high heat until softened and caramelised in places - this should take around 10 minutes. Turn the heat down once they are caramelised to let them soften some more.
Toast the bread and spread with the ricotta cheese. Pick the leaves from the thyme and sprinkle over the ricotta. Spoon the hot apples over the cheese and sprinkle with the nuts. Serve immediately.
So, dear readers, as we breeze inexorably into the month of June and the blossom is in full swing on the trees and the hayfever is at full saturation point in the air and the hosepipes are at full prohibition point on the lawns, I bring you the most Christmassy, un-summery cake ever.
Would you believe me if I told you that the fresh cranberries used to top this cake have been in my fridge since November?
Probably not. Neither would I if I had told myself back then when I stashed them away for future baking. But then I discovered that cranberries have an amazingly long shelf life, largely because they have a low moisture content and a sort of waxy coating on their skins. I read that they'd last a couple of months; I didn't expect them to last nearly six.
The reason I kept some back after Christmas is mainly because I feel the humble cranberry is a bit overlooked. In fact, I feel really sorry for it. It gets its tiny little moment in the limelight, the month before Christmas where everyone feels the compulsion to make a huge batch of cranberry sauce even though no one really eats it and it doesn't go particularly well with turkey, and then it's relegated to the depths of beyond for the next year.
Why do we consign cranberries to Christmas in this country?
They have so much potential. I have the wonderful food writer Diana Henry to thank for this; in her book 'Roast Figs, Sugar Snow' she extols the virtues and versatility of cranberries, pointing out that they can be used in a wide variety of dishes; to add sharpness to a plate of meatballs or venison; to serve in a compote spooned over a slab of ginger cake; to stir through a rice salad with duck. It was her gorgeous recipes and beautiful prose that awoke me to the potential of cranberries outside the Christmas table, and that is why I tucked them away in my fridge for all those months.
She was also the reason for this cranberry and wild rice duck salad, for a lovely dinner I made involving chicken breasts stuffed with cream cheese, dried cranberries and pecans, and for my morning porridge peppered with chunks of juicy pear and gem-like dried cranberries. I'm a cranberry fiend, and I wanted to use my stash in the fridge for something really special.
I finally got round to using them this week. I've no idea why it's taken me so long...I guess there have always been higher-priority desserts on the cards.
But now that I've made this once, it's going on the 'high priority' list.
The idea for a pear, pecan and cranberry upside-down cake came from 'Roast Figs, Sugar Snow'. I'd been thinking of a cranberry upside-down cake anyway, but the slight problem with baking with cranberries is that they are extremely sour. Even if your cake batter is quite sweet, those little pockets of mouth-puckering tartness are not to everyone's taste. By toning them down a little using sugary pears and toasty pecans, you end up with a much more pleasant combination, both in terms of texture and flavour. The pears turn soft and grainy; the nuts are crunchy and earthy; the cranberries give a moreish little burst of flavour.
I love the magic of upside-down cakes and tarte tatins.
The way the fruity caramel seeps into the cake or pastry. The moment of anticipation as you flip it over and unveil it. The burnished, caramelly edges of the fruit where they've been in contact with the hot tin or pan.
You know what I love even more than that? Caramelised pears. Frying pears in a bubbling mixture of dark, ambrosial brown sugar and butter is one of the most wonderful things to spend your morning, afternoon or evening doing. The smell is intoxicating. The sight of the golden liquor is ravishing. I love the way they soften from hard, glassy, white shards into tender, slippery, curling strands of burnished sumptuousness while perfuming your kitchen with their buttery fragrance.
On the top of this cake, they melt down into sweet morsels that infuse the batter with their juice. They provide a mellow sugariness to contrast with the tart cranberries. Top it all off (literally) with the irresistible sweet, nutty flavour of pecans, and you have an addictive and delicious combination.
The cake batter for this is a healthier version of Diana's. Don't be put off. It's my standard cake batter recipe for any cake topped with fruit, and you'd never believe it only uses a fraction of the butter of normal cakes. This is down to the genius of adding yoghurt, which keeps the cake really moist and flavourful while negating the need for huge amounts of butter.
The result is a dense, vanilla-scented, moist crumb that pairs beautifully with the rich fruity topping. Seriously, it's incredible. This would work with any fruit, really, but the pear-pecan-cranberry trio is something worth trying, particularly as it looks very pretty. The cake is excellent served warm from the oven with lots of cold vanilla ice cream, but is also good just as it is with a big cup of tea. In fact, I think it's better after a day or so, when the cake becomes even more moist and the fruit tastes sweeter.
This would be the perfect cake for winter, tasting as festive and wonderful as it looks. If you're not like me and don't obsessively hoard seasonal fruits, then you could make it year-round using raspberries, blueberries, blackberries or even raisins instead of the cranberries, or use dried cranberries, or omit them altogether or change the fruit. It's up to you. Follow this basic template and you'll end up with a hugely rewarding piece of cake.
Caramelised pear, pecan and cranberry upside-down cake (serves 6-8):
(Inspired by 'Roast Figs, Sugar Snow' by Diana Henry)
- 40g butter
- 70g brown sugar
- 4 medium pears (Conference work best)
- 60g pecan nuts
- 150g fresh cranberries
- 150g light brown sugar
- 60g soft butter
- 2 eggs
- 200g plain flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Around 200ml plain yoghurt
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- Pinch of salt
Heat the 40g butter and 70g brown sugar sugar together in a non-stick frying pan. Peel and core the pears, then cut into slices around 1cm thick. Add to the butter and sugar and cook over a medium heat until the pears soften and release some of their juice. Turn the heat up and caramelise them briefly so they are golden brown and sticky. Mix in the cranberries and pecans and turn off the heat.
Grease and line a 23cm springform cake tin, then tip the fruit mixture into the bottom. Pre-heat the oven to 180C/170C fan oven.
In a large bowl, mix together the butter and sugar with an electric mixer/hand whisk. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat thoroughly until the mixture is pale and creamy. Sift in the flour and baking powder, then fold in the vanilla, salt and yoghurt - just enough to make a smooth batter (you might not need it all, or you might need a bit more, depending on how thick your yoghurt is).
Pour this mixture onto the fruit in the tin, then level and bake for 35-40 minutes, until golden brown and the centre springs back when you press it. Allow to cool for 5 minutes in the tin, then run a knife round the edge, put a plate over the top and invert the cake onto the plate (don't let it cool too much before you do this, or the caramel will stick to the tin).
Serve warm with ice cream, or cold for afternoon tea.
Whenever I cook with nuts, I find myself thinking about which is my absolute favourite. I suppose in the same way I often wonder which meat or fish I would choose if I could only eat one for the rest of my life (I still ponder this question in moments of boredom, but I think it'd have to be lamb, for its sheer culinary versatility, and mackerel, again for the same reason). I can never reach a conclusion, though, I think because nuts have such diverse flavours and are suited to such a range of different culinary applications. Hazelnuts, to me, belong firmly in the realm of sweet things - desserts with chocolate or pears or bananas, for example. Then there are almonds, which are usually too bland to use in desserts but taste wonderful toasted and added to fragrant Middle Eastern or Indian dishes. Pistachios have a toasty gorgeousness that I love both with fruit - apricots in particular - but also with some meat dishes. I wouldn't normally cook with brazil nuts, but their grainy creaminess is wonderful in muesli.
Sometimes, though, I think the pecan is 'the one'.
Attractively shaped, easily crumbled (unlike almonds or hazelnuts, which are an absolute pain to attempt to chop without a food processor), the pecan possesses a richness that makes it interesting enough to stand up to strong flavours, both sweet and savoury. Pecans are wonderful with chocolate and bananas, for example, but also delicious in savoury dishes, as this amazing recipe proves.
I received Diana Henry's beautiful book Roast Figs, Sugar Snow for Christmas. I admit, I largely requested it on the strength of its title, without really looking at what it was about. Anyone who reads this blog will know I am a fiend for figs. When it arrived, I discovered it to be a book full of recipes from colder climates - "food to warm the soul", as its subtitle proclaims. What a brilliant idea, I thought - how has there not been such a book before? Having just returned from a week of skiing in the Alps, I recognised the familiar tartiflette and cheese fondue gracing its pages, as well as other dishes to be reserved for days of strenuous physical activity, such as an Austrian pasta creation that includes nearly a litre of sour cream. Might save that one for a time when I'm not still eating my way through the Christmas cake.
The book is beautiful, divided into chapters based on classic warming winter ingredients, like chestnuts, apples, quinces, smoked food, game, cream, pork and beans. I particularly liked the section on cranberries, where Diana bemoaned the fact that we reserve them for the Christmas sauce only, rather than making the most of their refreshing tart sweetness in recipes all year round. There's a recipe for a pecan and cranberry upside-down cake that I am dying to try.
However, one of the most intriguing recipes was this one - a wild rice salad with dried cranberries, toasted pecans, green beans, a maple-cider vinaigrette dressing, and sliced roast duck breast.
Fruit with meat?
Thinly sliced rare duck breast, barely seared in a hot pan?
All these things I love - it just had to be made.
This is a very simple dish to make - after cooking the rice (I used a mixture of basmati, red carmargue and wild rice, which you can buy from Waitrose and is delicious), you stir it together with dried cranberries (soaked in hot water to plump them up), toasted pecans, blanched green beans, chopped parsley, and the dressing.
The dressing is what really makes the dish - it was a complete revelation for me. I eat wild rice a lot, in salads, but I have never added a dressing. This simple elixir of maple syrup, vinegar, mustard and oil lifted the combination of ingredients to a totally different level. It coated the rice, giving it a gorgeous silky feel in the mouth, and it also provided a sort of salty-sweet flavour that brought all the other ingredients together perfectly.
It's honestly so hard to describe the incredible deliciousness of this salad. If you're sceptical about all those ingredients together, don't be. The nuttiness of the pecans and the wild rice is a perfect match for the sweet cranberries and gamey duck breast, and then you have the freshness of green beans and parsley and the tang of mustard to balance everything.
I can't wait to make this again. I could probably eat it every day for the rest of my life.
In which case, I might have to change my 'desert island' meat to duck.
Wild rice, toasted pecan and cranberry salad with rare duck breast (serves 4):
(Barely adapted from 'Roast Figs, Sugar Snow' by Diana Henry)
- 50g dried cranberries
- 30g pecans
- 250g mixed wild and basmati/brown rice
- 500ml chicken stock
- Salt and pepper
- 3 large or 4 medium duck breasts, skin on
- 200g green beans, trimmed and halved
- 3 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- For the dressing:
- 1/2 tbsp cider or white wine vinegar
- 1/4 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1/2 tbsp maple syrup
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp rapeseed oil
Cover the cranberries with boiling water and leave to plump up for 20 minutes or so. Meanwhile, pre-heat the oven to 200C. Toast the pecans in a dry frying pan, then let them cool before crumbling them roughly.
Put the rice in a pan and pour over the chicken stock. Put on a lid, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer for around 25 minutes, by which point the rice should have absorbed all the stock and be cooked but still with a slight bite (different rice mixed vary, so follow the packet instructions with regard to timings). Leave the lid on to keep it warm.
Make the dressing by whisking together all the ingredients. Season the duck breasts, then get a frying pan really hot and sear them, skin-side down first, in the pan until golden brown. Once browned, put them in an ovenproof dish and place in the oven for 5 minutes (this will give you rare meat - if you like it a bit more well done, allow 7-8 minutes). Remove, cover with foil and rest for 5 minutes.
Cook the beans in boiling water until just tender, then drain. Put the rice in a large mixing bowl and add the beans, cranberries, pecans, parsley, and the dressing. Toss it all together well and check the seasoning. Divide between four plates or bowls.
Slice the duck breasts thinly and arrange over the salad. Garnish with a little extra parsley and toasted pecans.
Cranberries are a mysterious beast. I read an article by Nigel Slater recently in which he posited them as remarkable because "they are the only fruit that's impossible to eat raw". Now, I wouldn't have thought this was true. What about quinces, whose flesh is grainy, rock-hard and bitter when untempered by heat and sugar? What about gooseberries, mouth-puckeringly sharp and requiring a good blanket of the white stuff to calm them down? Surely Nigel has thought of this, though, experienced culinary connoisseur that he is. Maybe the cranberry really is a different creature altogether. I can't say I've eaten enough raw cranberries, gooseberries and quinces to experience the subtle nuances of their varying astringency.
I do know, however, that I get a bit excited by cranberries at this time of year, purely because they're around for such a short period of time. They're a beautiful fruit, both when raw and jewel-like and when heated to a glossy, blood-red mass. I always find it slightly odd that something from so far away can be perceived as quintessentially English. The Christmas table would be conspicuously lacking without a bowl of cranberry sauce, yet those berries have travelled across the Atlantic to get here. I love the magpie-like tendency of the British when it comes to gastronomy.
Cranberries make a great compote to serve with pancakes; try these 'cheesecake' pancakes for a real treat on Christmas morning. The compote can also be served over good ice cream or stirred into a cake batter; you could even use it to top a festive pavlova.
However, one of my favourite ways with cranberries is to combine them with orange in a lovely fluffy cake batter. Years ago, when I started getting into baking, I made a lot of orange and cranberry muffins from one of my mum's cake cookbooks. It was a really simple recipe, but the results were so delicious. You ended up with a really light cake crumb, infused with the warmth of orange, and peppered with refreshing bursts of scarlet berries, molten from the heat of the oven and bleeding their tart juices into the surrounding sponge.
This recipe revisits those muffins, but in the form of a whole cake. When I spied these gorgeous Christmas tree-shaped disposable cake moulds in Lakeland the other day, I couldn't resist. I figured they'd be great for gift cakes, because the mould can just be thrown away afterwards. As it happened, I was planning to bake some cakes to give to the families whose children I tutor.
Some of my more wild decoration ideas had to be scrapped for the simple reason that I'd be cycling to the station with these two cakes, and the suspension on my bike is definitely not good enough to carry a cake safely over the potholes of Cambridge's roads. In the end I just drizzled some clementine-flavoured white icing over the cakes and decorated them with those little silver balls, to look like baubles.
The cake recipe is really simple: basic creaming of butter and sugar, plus some orange zest, then eggs, flour, and a little orange juice. The cranberries go in at the end. I normally go mad and add all sorts of nuts and spices to my cakes, but this one is perfect in its simplicity. Somehow the orange zest is enough to evoke the fragrant warmth of mulled wine, Christmas pudding and mince pies, all in one go. The cranberries add a lovely moisture to the cake, and I think they look beautiful when the cake is baked, too, flecking the golden sponge with their crimson juices.
If this doesn't have you feeling in the mood for Christmas, I don't know what will!
Do you have any novel ways of using cranberries, apart from in the traditional Christmas condiment?
Cranberry and orange Christmas Tree cake (makes two cakes to fit two Lakeland Christmas tree moulds, or 2 x 20cm round cakes - halve the recipe to make just one cake):
- 500g unsalted butter, softened
- 300g caster sugar
- 200g light brown soft sugar
- Grated zest of 4 oranges
- 150ml orange juice
- 8 eggs, beaten
- 500g self-raising flour, sifted
- 200g fresh cranberries
- Icing sugar, silver balls and a clementine, to decorate
Pre-heat the oven to 170C/fan 160C. If using normal cake tins, grease and line them.
Beat the butter, zest and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy (this should take around 5 minutes). Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition and adding 1tbsp of the flour each time. Finally, fold in the flour and slowly mix in the orange juice. Fold in the cranberries.
Pour the mixture into the tins and bake for around 45 minutes, or until they spring back when touched and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
When the cakes have cooled thoroughly, remove from their tins (if using metal tins). Mix icing sugar with a little clementine juice to form a fairly runny white icing, then drizzle this over the cake. Stick silver balls to the icing.