Given that my blog sings the praises of the nutmeg, it stands to reason that I should advise you all to go out and drink more eggnog at this time of year. Not only does it have a wonderfully charming name, but this beverage is the ultimate form of edible central heating, and showcases the musky warmth of my favourite spice, with its extraordinary power to transform and enrich dairy-based concoctions. It’s undeniably rich, being a mixture of milk or cream, sugar, spirits and whipped eggs, but a little dram is ideal for those lingering winter nights, particularly if you’re the kind of person who likes your desserts drinkable and enriched with booze.Read more
This post combines two things I don’t normally care about: tailoring blog recipes to specific seasonal food-related occasions, and Valentine’s Day. You won’t find me whipping up treats for National Tempura Day, National Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day or World Tripe Day (if you needed proof that these ‘food days’ are just the farcical inventions of bored and desperate PR companies and marketing boards, there it is: World Tripe Day), because there is apparently some silly culinary designation for every single day of the year now, so by that logic I would never ever be able to make a spontaneous decision regarding what I cook. I can also take or leave Valentine’s Day, and it certainly doesn’t inspire me with culinary ambition (if I see one more hackneyed recipe feature telling me that I must serve oysters and fillet steak on the special day, I might find a decidedly more violent use for my oyster knife).Read more
In the heady rush of frivolous Christmas excess, there are several things that we suddenly, out of some bizarre and frequently misguided notion of 'tradition', decide we absolutely need in our lives, regardless of all restraining logic or common sense. The classic example is, of course, brussels sprouts, those contentious little green globes that, deep down, no one actually likes, regardless of how many innovative recipes you throw at them (although it has to be said that generally the amount of butter, cream and/or bacon used in a brussels sprout dish is directly proportional to how edible it is). There is also Christmas pudding, which alienates many eaters due to its sheer density, yet always features on the Christmas table, ready to languish and congeal for weeks later at the back of the fridge as we realise we'd rather finish our meal with a mince pie or a handful from the Quality Street tin. Even turkey, which we never eat the rest of the year round, complaining about its dry, tasteless nature; we still force it down, year after year, combining it with a sauce made from fruits we otherwise show a complete apathy towards - cranberries.
Another foodstuff on this list is cheese. There was an advert recently, I think it was for a Burger King cheeseburger, that declared something along the lines of 'It isn't Christmas without cheese'. We Brits seem to adopt the same view, rushing out during the festive period to burden ourselves with Brie, smother ourselves with Stilton, choke ourselves on Cheddar and wallow in vast amounts of Wensleydale. We seem to perpetuate the myth that Christmas is the time to get involved in lovingly crafting a delicious cheeseboard, like the ones we see in glossy magazine adverts for Saint Agur. Maybe this is the year we'll finally do it, we think - we'll get the grapes, the fresh figs, the four different types of chutney, the special cheese knives, the slate board - it'll be just what we need to really make Christmas.
Yet I'm sure my family is not alone in never getting round to this cheeseboard creation. The multiple packets of cheese (best purchased from whole wheels at a supermarket deli counter or, better still, an independent artisan cheesemonger - no pre-packaged wedges of sweaty Brie here, please, it's Christmas) languish at the back of the fridge, next to the two soggy roast potatoes, the mealy, curling slices of white turkey and the bowl of greying, uneaten brussels sprouts, slowly developing their 'little furry jackets', as my mother so charmingly calls them.
Because honestly, Christmas is perhaps the most inappropriate time in the world for a cheeseboard. What you need to supplement your diet at this time of year is definitely and emphatically not a slab festooned with multiple manifestations of saturated fat. If you can still want to tuck into an array of molten, fatty, gooey cheese after all the mince pies, Christmas pudding, roast dinners and mulled wine at this time of year, I admire you. But I suspect you might be in the minority.
There's a reason all the recipe magazines pack their January issues chock-full of vivid salads, stir fries and vegetable dishes. While I hate the annual obsession with 'detox' that surfaces after the hangover has faded on New Years Day, I have to admit I often welcome these new, healthy recipe ideas. Christmas leaves me feeling disgusting. I just can't hack the sheer amount of meat and sugar I feel obliged to force down on a yearly basis. Of course it's entirely my own fault - I just had to go back for that last roast potato, or nibble a bit of stollen with my cup of afternoon tea - but that doesn't make it any less uncomfortable.
How anyone, after subsisting almost entirely on dried fruit soaked in alcohol, roast meat, buttered vegetables and various forms of spiced booze for the best part of a month, could actually welcome the idea of indulging in cheese and biscuits is beyond me, and therein lies the fallacy of our national cheeseboard tradition. Like brussels sprouts and turkey, perhaps we should finally admit to ourselves that it's okay to break with tradition at Christmas, that maybe we should listen to our appetites and what we feel like eating rather than what we believe anxiously that we should be eating.
Case in point: this year, after a discussion with my mother in which we both realised no one in our family actually likes turkey very much, we decided to do something totally wild for Christmas dinner. We had roast beef instead. A glorious rib of beef, gigantic and bloody and marbled and smelling emphatically of cow. We had: roast potatoes in beef dripping, mashed swede, broccoli and homemade Yorkshire puddings. We did not have: brussels sprouts, bread sauce, turkey, or cranberry sauce - i.e. most of those festive 'trimmings' that send cooks into a mad frenzy at this time of year as they try to juggle timings and oven space. We also didn't have parsnips, but that is simply because they are the devil's food and should be prohibited by law.
It was one of the most delicious meals I've had in a long time. I hardly ever eat roast beef - I haven't had it for over a year. Roast beef for me is far more of a treat than roast turkey, which is similar to roast chicken, something I make a lot. I would never buy and cook a rib of beef, nor order it in a restaurant. Yet when I tucked in on Christmas Day, I couldn't believe I'd been missing out on such sheer deliciousness for so long. That's a feeling I never get with turkey. It was liberating, there being so little to do - no faffing around making multiple sauces, just putting a spoon in a jar of horseradish. No bothering to make stuffing or pigs in blankets. No frantically worrying about salmonella or dry meat.
All this said, my mum still went out this year and bought a small glut of cheese. While we may have shaken off the shackles of turkey tradition trauma, we have yet to escape what I shall now term 'British Festive Cheeseboard Syndrome'. A classic symptom of said syndrome? Buying a 'mulled cheese', i.e. Wensleydale with spiced fruits in. Another symptom? Buying exotic-sounding chutneys even when there are about eighty different chutneys slowly dying in the larder, gifts from mis-judged hampers of Christmases past.
However, should you have various bits of cheese lurking in your fridge, making you feel guilty that you can't bear the notion of eating them - and you should if you want to call yourself a proper Brit - here is a great recipe for you. It turns those guilt-inducing bits of cheese into light, fluffy, deeply savoury scones that work very well with all manner of festive leftovers. They're great with cold meats and some chutney, or served with even more cheese - spread with soft Brie or Stilton, or a cream cheese. They're nice simply spread with butter and served warm, maybe with a cup of tea as an afternoon snack, if you like your snacks savoury.
These are a simple scone mixture, jazzed up with some caramelised red onion and some feisty spices - smoked paprika for a delicious moreish tang; black pepper for a little kick of flavour; nutmeg for a seasonal spiced warmth. The combination of the spices, savoury onion and tangy cheese results in a rich, flavoursome scone that pairs well with so many other flavours. You can use most hard cheeses in this recipe - I used the remnants of a Lancashire bomb cheese, a tongue-ticklingly strong cheese that comes in a wax 'bomb' shape - but strong cheddar or goat's cheese would work best, as would something like Wensleydale or Gruyere. You don't get an overly strong cheese flavour, which is why these work well with other ingredients - just a subtle savoury note that makes you want to reach for another.
You may not fancy plying your stomach with huge amounts of oozing cheese at this time of year, but by transforming it into these little scones, you have something that not only provides a vehicle for eating up other Christmas leftovers, but also makes the cheese a lot more palatable. The idea of a ripe wedge of Brie is a tad nauseating right now, but these warm, crispy, fluffy little scones are definitely not. Whip up a batch this week - they take hardly any time to make - and lighten the cheese burden a little.
Cheese and onion scones with pepper, paprika and nutmeg (makes around 12):
- 1 red onion, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 185g self-raising flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 30g cold butter, cubed
- 60g strong cheese, crumbled or grated (I used a
- Lancashire bomb
- 1 large egg
- 3 tbsp milk, plus extra for brushing
- Parmesan cheese or strong cheddar, for grating on top
First, fry the onion in the olive oil over a medium heat until soft and golden in places. Set aside to cool. Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Sift the flour into a medium bowl then add the salt, paprika, pepper and nutmeg. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the cheese and red onion to the flour mixture.
Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture and crack in the egg. Using a wooden spoon, beat the egg, gradually incorporating a little of the flour as you go, until you have a thick dough. Add the milk and combine using the spoon and then your hands to form a soft but not sticky dough. Tip onto a floured work surface and knead until smooth, then roll out to a circle around one inch thick.
Use small cutters (around 5-7cm diameter) to cut out the scones, then arrange, spaced out, on a piece of baking parchment on an oven tray. Roll any remaining dough out again and cut more scones, until all the dough is used up.
Brush the tops of the scones with milk, then grate over some parmesan or strong cheddar. Bake for around 10-12 minutes until golden on top.
Winter seems to have arrived early up in York. Where this time last year, back down south, we were still basking in the afterglow of a surprise 'Indian summer' in October, on Friday I came out of the cinema to find a flurry of snowflakes had settled over the city, turning everything wet and slightly crunchy underfoot. My woollen gloves turned instantly sodden as they grasped my bike handlebars and my journey home mostly involved wincing as trees shook off their light smattering of snow onto my head. There's a real biting chill in the air, although one that for some strange reason I find more exhilarating than unpleasant. Perhaps it's the still lingering novelty of the bracing northern air flushing out my stagnant southern lungs, one that will probably wear off soon and involve me digging out my skiing thermals to wear on an everyday basis.
Weather like this calls for a bit of spice in the kitchen. I don't mean the hot snap of a chilli, but the warm, cosseting blanket of aromatics like ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. Although I have previously never really understood the notion of 'warm' spices (no one ever seems to have placed any spices into a 'cold' category), I think I'm starting to get it a bit more now that I have to don four layers just to go and put something in the outside bin.
Perhaps it's the colour. Spices like turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg all have that beautiful golden hue, like so many different shades of warm Arabian desert sand. Although, that said, the only Arabian desert I have ever been in was in Jordan, and the sand there was more of a crazy paprika red than a turmeric yellow. It was pretty amazing. Such colours promise warmth, reminiscent of roaring fires, of sun-baked terracotta.
Perhaps it's their origin in warm countries. When I went to Vietnam this summer, one of the best things I bought (out of the 35 kilos of stuff I brought home, ahem...) was a set of little round boxes made out of cinnamon wood. The Vietnamese use the tiny ones for storing toothpicks in; I bought some bigger ones to keep sugar in: a sneaky shortcut to ready-made cinnamon sugar. I remember walking through the market in Hanoi and seeing big baskets of fresh turmeric, still muddy from the earth. We visited orchards of black pepper trees, their peppercorns hanging down like tiny bunches of glossy green grapes. There's something wonderfully exotic about the idea of all these aromatic spices growing around you; tasting them can't help but trigger some subconscious mental wandering to the hot, heady, humid climes where they grow, I think.
Perhaps it's also their use in association with warm dishes. Cinnamon stirred into hot, frothy apples, bubbling below a buttery crumble crust. Turmeric lending its distinctive marigold stain to the rich, meaty sauce of a lamb tagine. Flecks of russet-coloured nutmeg perfuming a cloud of creamy, steaming mashed potato. The subtle fire of ground ginger through a warm piece of freshly-baked cake. With a history like this, it's perhaps no wonder these are called the warm spices. I can't really imagine cinnamon working so well in something cold.
I was sent a wonderful treasure-trove of spices from JustIngredients recently - their website is a brilliant resource for all sorts of culinary enhancers, from the obvious (salt, pepper, cumin) to the more esoteric (chamomile flowers, beetroot powder and bee pollen). Aside from the rather exciting rosemary salt, the one that interested me most was the ground nutmeg. I always use freshly grated nutmeg, but it has a tendency to be very overpowering.
(So I'm told, anyway - I have a sort of immunity to the stuff and can put huge amounts on my morning porridge without finding it in any way detrimental. You may have guessed from the title of this blog that I have a bit of a penchant for this lovely spice.) Anyway, I was curious about cooking with the ready-ground version and what sort of flavour it would have.
This cake is a beautiful marriage of warm spices and seasonal autumnal fruit. So seasonal, in fact, that it was collected a mere five metres from my back door. The apple tree in my new garden is dropping fruit at an alarming rate, more quickly than I can find uses for it, and I have some blackberries that I foraged at the beginning of the month from the brambles nestling around the tree trunk. There's a small wilderness outside my back door, and something intensely satisfying about the journey from earth to plate taking a mere five minutes and five metres.
Although pairing warm spices with apples and blackberries is hardly novel, this cake is a really interesting medley. The nutmeg cream cheese icing is the key; it brings a gorgeous aromatic note to the cake and works so well with the soft apples and berries.
I used my favourite cake batter mix, one that uses yoghurt to give the cake a lovely moist crumb, and spelt flour for a delicious nutty flavour that works well with fruit and spice. Sandwiched between two layers of batter is a vein of sliced apples, a scattering of blackberries, and a sprinkling of chopped toasted hazelnuts, for crunch and another warm flavour. Can hazelnuts be said to have a 'warm flavour'? I think they can; nuts are generally quite a comforting, warm ingredient. The cake batter is infused with ground cinnamon and ground ginger, for a delicious warm spiced note.
Once this is baked, and the apples have softened and moistened the cake with their sweet-tart juice, and the blackberries have bled purple into the crumb, the cake is iced with a cream cheese icing, perfumed with ground nutmeg. The combination of thick, moist cake, sweet fruit and sugary, spiced icing is wonderful. The icing stays pretty gooey, and is a lovely texture contrast with the rather dense, substantial cake batter. The nutmeg doesn't overpower, though; it just provides a subtle background of aromatic flavour.
I was really pleased with this cake. It's quite a substantial one, probably best for afternoon tea (or even breakfast?!), though small squares for dessert would also be lovely. It doesn't keep for very long because the icing and the fruit are both quite moist, so it's best eaten on the day it's made, or the day after. Be warned: you'll need a fork rather than fingers, because the icing is pretty sticky and goes everywhere. That's part of the fun of eating it. Soft, spiced cake; sweet juicy fruit; fragrant sugary icing.
I had a vague idea of how I wanted to photograph this cake, with some apples in the background. I wasn't prepared for the lovely ready-made setting provided by the ice on my outside table. I don't think I've ever been satisfied with the photos on the very first shot before, but this time I was - the weather did all the decorating and styling for me.
I think they sum up this recipe very well: cold, frosty weather = warm, spiced cake.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, this cake is feline-approved - my cat just had to get in on the action. Even chilly paws could not get in the way of a sniff of that lovely icing.
Apple, blackberry and hazelnut cake with nutmeg icing (serves 8-10):
- 40g hazelnuts
- 75g light brown sugar
- 75g caster sugar
- 60g soft butter
- 2 eggs
- 200g plain or spelt flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp mixed spice
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 250ml yoghurt
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2-3 large cooking apples
- 100g blackberries
- 100g cream cheese
- 60g icing sugar
- 1/2-1 tsp ground nutmeg
Pre-heat the oven to 170C (fan oven). Grease and line an 8x8in square cake tin (though I'm sure you could also use a round 20cm tin). Toast the hazelnuts on a baking dish in the oven for around 10 minutes while it heats up, until they are dark and fragrant (keep an eye on them, though, as they tend to burn easily). Set aside to cool, then chop roughly.
Using an electric mixer or whisk, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Fold in the flour, mixed spice, ginger and baking powder, then add the yoghurt, salt and vanilla and mix to form a smooth batter.
Pour half the mixture into the tin. Peel, core and finely slice the apples, then layer them over the batter in the tin. Sprinkle over the blackberries and chopped hazelnuts. Pour the rest of the batter over the fruit (be careful when smoothing it out not to move the fruit around too much) then put the cake in the oven. Bake for around 40 minutes, until light golden on top and a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin.
Turn the cake out onto a plate or board. Mix together the icing sugar and cream cheese using an electric whisk. Add the nutmeg - do it bit by bit and keep tasting; nutmeg is quite strong and you don't want it to overpower. Smooth the icing over the cake. Leave in a cool place for a little while to set (it doesn't set fully and will still be quite gooey). Devour.