My tea habits have become somewhat noteworthy in an office consisting, almost entirely, of die-hard coffee drinkers (many of whom have special mugs/signs on their office doors professing their ardent affection for the stuff). Multiple times a day I stand patiently by the sink waiting for the kettle to boil, carefully decanting fragrant leaves into a flower-shaped Fortnum & Mason strainer which I then place in a mug with the slogan ‘Keep Calm and Drink Tea’. During this precious ritual, one of my colleagues will bustle in, pick up the pot of filter coffee that is always kept topped up on standby, slosh it into a mug and rush out again to deal with whatever demands university life has placed on them that day. I think they think I’m a bit mad, especially because the office has a large collection of various teabag teas, which I ostentatiously shun in favour of my fancy loose leaves. When the office kettle broke, I clamoured for one of those hi-tech models that allow you to set the exact temperature for different types of tea (only a philistine would consider brewing green tea at anything above 79 celsius, after all). Needless to say, my wish was not granted. Denmark is very much a coffee country.Read More
Whenever I read about someone enjoying their porridge plain, ‘with just water and salt’, a small part of me withers and dies quietly inside. It is often, apparently, meant to seem like a badge of honour (specifically, a sort of Spartan-cum-Northern honour): look how I shun the decadent trappings of modern culinary life in favour of my abstemious bowlful of gruel; look how little I require to achieve true happiness. While I am undoubtedly envious – imagine how much simpler one’s entire existence must be if one is sated by just oats and salt – I can’t help but think of all the opportunities that are closed down by that Puritan preference for a no-nonsense breakfast bowl.Read More
How do you go about making a home?
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the gradual process by which a place shrugs off its aura of newness and unfamiliarity and starts to become home. The repetitive performance of micro-rituals that, step by step, wear down the strangeness of a place and cosset it in the comforting blanket of domesticity and belonging. When do you stop being a tourist and start becoming a citizen? When does house become home? How do you stop staying in a place and start living there?Read More
Making granola is always a happy event in my kitchen, because it means I have time to potter around for 45 minutes whisking together delightful combinations of honey and spices and stirring huge oven trays laden with toasting, cinnamon-scented oats. It leaves the house smelling like a Scandinavian bakery for hours, and, best of all, enables me to stockpile a couple of big jars of glorious homemade granola to last me the next few weeks. Now that the festive season has arrived and I have handed in my PhD (just thought I’d casually drop that in - !!!), I thought I’d use a bit of newfound free time to experiment with a Christmassy version of this breakfast staple. It has the familiar nutty crunch of baked oats enveloped in honey, but with added seasonal twists.Read More
Some beautiful things are born out of frugality in my kitchen. Dense, fudgy loaves of banana cake made to rescue two blackened bananas from the fruit bowl. Bowls of healing broth whipped up from the sad-looking carcass of a picked-clean roast chicken. Glossy, scarlet chilli jam that has saved a bag of overripe tomatoes from a tragic fate in the compost bin. I love averting waste and turning ingredients that were so nearly rubbish into something delicious, particularly when it encourages me to try new recipes in the process.Read More
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
When I was a child, I used to collect the Michelin ‘I-spy’ books. These were little pocket guides to various aspects of the natural world – birds, flowers, rock formations – that gave detailed and illustrated overviews of the various things you might encounter within these genres, and a handy checklist for you to tick off whenever you’d seen one. While the guide to exotic frogs remained largely unticked during family holidays to rainy National Trust properties throughout the UK, I had largely more success ticking off fossils, plant and bird life, getting incredibly excited when I encountered a new bird species or tree that I could proudly tick off as ‘done’. It’s a habit I’ve retained in adulthood with countries of the world, although unfortunately this is a far more expensive hobby than ticking off different types of fern.Read More
1. Making my own marmalade.
I grew up around this process; my mum used to make her own every year, but since it started gathering dust in the larder because no one in our family eats toast any more, she has sadly stopped. I decided to pick up the orange baton and initiate myself in the mysterious world of the magical seville after spotting crates of them at the market a couple of weeks ago. I've made twenty jars since then, trying two different recipes. The first was a Waitrose recipe that infuses the marmalade with herbs - I used bay and rosemary. The oranges are simmered whole in water until totally soft, then the flesh scooped out and the peel shredded before the whole lot is simmered again with sugar until it sets. This is pretty easy and can be made in an evening, although I didn't slice the peel finely enough so it was chunkier than I'd have liked. The herb flavour didn't come through as much as I'd like, so I might use more rosemary next time, as it's so good with oranges.Read More
There are some fruits that I rarely, if ever, eat simply pure and unadulterated. While I'm happy to pick up an apple and take a bite straight away (although, a little neurotically/childishly, I prefer to take a knife and a plate and cut it into quarters then eighths, eating a piece at a time), or wolf down a banana before a trip to the gym, or eat bouncy, fridge-cold grapes mindlessly as I work my way through some PhD reading, or slice succulent chunks of mango straight from the skin onto my cereal, there are others that just don't quite cut it eaten raw, or untempered by some form of culinary enhancement.
Figs, for example. Unless you are lucky enough to be shopping during the week-long window in the year when figs arrive from Turkey, ripe and beading with luscious pink syrup, and aren't instead rock-hard, woolly, tasteless and crunchy inside, then your figs will probably need a bit of help before they're likely to provide you with any eating pleasure whatsoever. Baking them in sloe gin is a good idea, as is quartering them and sautéeing them in a little butter and brown sugar, adding a dash of balsamic vinegar if using them for savoury purposes (with cheese, for example).
Apricots are another - I must have eaten at least a hundred apricots in my life, and approximately four of those were nice enough to eat raw. They're usually hard, woolly-tasting and deliver very little flavour, despite their promising golden glowing skins. Once again, baking them is the key - I like to bake them with a little white wine or orange juice in a parcel, along with some warming spices - or simmering them with a little orange juice, sugar and spice to provide a beautiful sweet marigold compote.
Blueberries, too. While I do like a handful of these scattered over cereal or porridge, they seem to get used in my kitchen much more often when baked, usually in this delicious baked oatmeal recipe that I often make for brunch, either with rhubarb or bananas. I love the way cooking intensifies their flavour, as they can sometimes taste a bit bland when raw. Plus, you get the benefit of that gorgeous purple juice, which seeps into and stains deliciously everything it touches.
While I never cook strawberries - it's generally not a good idea - I find them bland and disappointing when raw. I always quarter them and toss them with a little sugar, allowing them to macerate for a while so the sugar can permeate the flesh and enhance their flavour. I usually also add a splash of balsamic vinegar (I have some incredible chocolate and vanilla infused balsamic that works wonders with the berries) or lemon juice, which brings out the sweetness of the berries. This way they are sticky, scarlet and delicious, so much more interesting than when bouncy, raw and tasteless.
And then we have plums. Often so inviting, with their beautiful colours - ranging from the bold yellows and magentas of imported plums to the more subtle, mottled autumnal hues of our native crops - plums can regularly disappoint, offering up flesh that is either solid and too tart, or almost jelly-like and possessing a sickly watery sweetness. Generally it's the former that is the problem.
Having been faced with one too many unsatisfactory plums in my time, I now don't even bother trying to eat them raw. Particularly because I think this is the most delicious thing one can do with plums, so why would you bother doing anything else?
Place some halved, stoned plums in a baking dish, cut side up. Next, get some of that stem ginger in syrup - the kind that comes in little amber globes, suspended in throat-warming sticky syrup. Take a couple of globes and finely chop them, then scatter over the plums. Drizzle a couple of tablespoons of the ginger syrup over the plums. Next, scatter the plums with brown sugar, ground ginger, and cinnamon. Then scatter the plums with some dried orange peel powder (I get mine from JustIngredients) - this adds a slightly earthier orange flavour, though you can use orange zest if you don't have any. Add a splash of water or orange juice, then bake, covered, for half an hour or so.
The plums soften into tender sweetness, while the spices and syrup and liquid accumulate in the bottom of the dish to form the most amazing sweet liquor, warm with fragrant spices. The edges of the fruit caramelise slightly, while the centre goes soft and gooey. This is such a simple recipe, yet it's deliciously versatile. If you use less sugar and add a splash of balsamic or soy sauce, replacing the spices with Chinese five spice, you can use the plums in savoury recipes - along with roast duck or pork, for example. If you keep them sweet, they are delicious spooned over porridge or muesli for breakfast, either hot or cold, or served warm with a very cold scoop of vanilla ice cream as a dessert.
They also look beautiful and smell incredible as you remove them from the oven. There are few things as simple as a big dish of baked fruit, and I love the transformation that takes place every time I cut up some underwhelming plums, add these magic ingredients, and watch them become a glorious mass of soft, spiced sweetness. Incidentally, you can use other fruit - apricots, peaches and nectarines all work well.
So much better than taking a gamble on what will probably be a disappointing specimen.
Ginger and orange roasted plums (serves 4):
- 8-10 plums
- 2 globes stem ginger in syrup
- 2 tbsp syrup from the ginger jar
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp orange peel powder
- (or the zest of 1 orange)
- 100ml orange juice or water
Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Halve the plums and remove the stones. If you can't get the stones out without destroying the plums, don't worry - you can take them out later while eating. Place the plums in a baking dish where they can all sit snugly in a single layer, cut side up.
Finely chop the stem ginger, then scatter over the plums. Drizzle over the syrup and scatter over the brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, and orange peel powder/orange zest. Splash over the orange juice or water.
Cover the dish with foil, then bake for around 30-35 minutes, until the plums have softened and the juices have turned pink and syrupy. Remove and leave to cool before serving (or chill in the fridge until you want them).
Rhubarb is nature's way of saying 'cheer up, it's not that bad'.
And my goodness, don't we need it at this time of year. As if the early onset of darkness in the afternoon weren't enough, in the past month the weather here in Yorkshire has decided to throw everything it's got at us. First there was the swift depositing of four inches of snow in a pristine blanket across the city, which but a few hours later had turned to the most revolting Dickensian slush, soaking into my boots and leaving them covered in meandering white salt stains. Then there was the torrential rain only a day later, which mercifully washed away the snow almost as quickly as it had descended. Then there was the gale, which raged for three days and managed, in its ferocity, to move my dustbin a good five metres down the road, to the extent that I thought my neighbours had stolen it. Then the torrential rain returned and this time combined with the gale, to result in the kind of rainfall that makes you abandon all hope of cycling and enables you to justify taking a taxi for 'safety reasons'.
Ridiculous meteorological events aside, it's definitely been a gloomy couple of weeks. The afterglow of a wonderful break skiing in the Alps for my birthday has subsided, leaving me with no vestige of that happy time other than a right toe the colour of a ripe plum and a big toenail that is soon to part company with it. While this is perhaps specific only to me, and not a general January/February gripe, it cannot be denied that these two months are a cruel period in the calendar. You're probably forcing yourself to stick to some awful diet, or abstaining from alcohol, or starting a new fitness regime, or other ludicrous forms of self-torture. Judging by how eerily empty my gym has been over the last couple of weeks, I'm guessing you're not doing too well.
This is why I always think everyone should have cooking as their hobby. It brings you so many opportunities for joy that you'd otherwise lack in your life. I can't count the number of times my entire day has been improved by the find of some beautiful ingredient in the supermarket, the stumbling-upon of some unexpected bargain, or the prospect of cooking a much-anticipated recipe for dinner that evening. I used to be a bit embarrassed by this, but then I realised that I'm lucky. I have little moments of excitement and enjoyment pretty much every day because of my cooking, and I dread to think what a pit of miserable despair my life would be without those. It would be permanently February.
Few things cheer me up more, food-wise, than the sight of beautiful new season Yorkshire rhubarb. This is the real thing, the good stuff. The total antithesis of anything you ever ate at school. The opposite of what people think of when they say 'I hate rhubarb'. The season seemed to start early this year - these slender barbie-coloured stalks were in the shops before the Christmas decorations even came down. They are thinner, sweeter, more tender and of course more beautiful than the rhubarb you get later in the year, which is perfectly fine but isn't going to win any beauty contests.
Now that I live in Yorkshire, I'm surrounded by this wonderful ingredient, and it seems rude not to take full advantage. I've already gone through over a kilo this week alone, making an appearance at the market on several occasions with my arms haphazardly cradling stalks and stalks of it, the hot pink stems sticking out of my bike basket on the way home and attracting several second glances from passers by. Seeing as York is mostly grey right now, rhubarb stands out.
February, month of sadness, is not the time to be going wild with experimentation in the kitchen. It's a time when you want a metaphorical hug from a recipe you just know is going to deliver. You just want to chop a few times, throw something in a dish, spend a minute or two performing the soothing rubbing of cold butter into powdery flour and the stirring in of sugar, oats and spice, then let the oven work away to bring you happiness.
For even more happiness, I recommend watching through the oven door as the fruit juices bubble up lusciously around the sandy crumble crust in glossy, vivid bubbles, oozing stickily between the cracks in the buttery rubble, staining the outside of your baking dish with promises of sugary deliciousness.
So yes, this is a good old-fashioned rhubarb crumble. Those stunning pink stalks get tossed with sugar then smothered with a blanket of flour, butter, oats, almonds and sugar. There's a slight twist, though, in that I've added cardamom and orange to the crumble mixture. Crushed cardamom seeds, because their slight citrussy fragrance and exotic perfume works very well with rhubarb (and indeed with most fruits, I think) and also with anything buttery and crunchy. Orange peel powder, to impart a subtle orange richness without the overpowering acidity of zest or juice - rhubarb is quite tart as it is.
I also added a little ground ginger, because its warmth is lovely with rhubarb - and let's face it, we all need a bit more warmth in our lives right now.
Rhubarb, cardamom and orange crumble (serves 4-6):
- 500g rhubarb, cut into 1.5 inch pieces
- 4-5 tbsp caster sugar (depending on how tart you like your rhubarb)
- 160g wholemeal flour
- 80g cold butter, cubed
- 80g demerara sugar
- 8 cardamom pods, husks removed and seeds ground in a pestle and mortar
- 2 tsp orange peel powder
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 50g jumbo oats
- 50g flaked almonds
- 2 tbsp cold water
Toss the rhubarb and caster sugar together in a baking dish. Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Put the flour in a large mixing bowl and rub in the butter with your fingers until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the demerara sugar, cardamom, orange peel powder, ginger, oats and half the flaked almonds. Stir in the cold water to make the mixture turn slightly 'pebbly'.
Spread the crumble gently over the top of the rhubarb and scatter over the remaining flaked almonds. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the crumble is golden and crunchy.
While I love baking, there are definitely qualifications I have to make to that statement. I wouldn't consider myself an all-round baking lover. There are some things I just don't have time for in the kitchen. One: any form of fussy dairy-based confection, like a mousse, bavarois, parfait (the exception being ice cream, which I love to make). Two: most things involving chocolate, like ganache or tempering - I don't have the patience and I don't like chocolate enough to make it worthwhile. Three: making things like puff pastry from scratch. Four: individual things in moulds that have to set. Five: sugarwork - fancy caramels or spun sugar. These things just don't appeal to me in the same way that making a beautiful big cake does, or a rustic crumble or pudding.
Until yesterday, I would extend that qualification to biscuits too.
I used to love baking biscuits as a child. Specifically, one type of biscuit, which I believe used to be termed an 'Aztec biscuit' in our family. A quick google of the term, however, turns up something totally different to the biscuit I am thinking of. These were a bit like flapjacks in circular form: a heady mixture of butter, oats and golden syrup, studded with raisins and baked until they spread out deliciously in a kind of brandy snap pattern. I would eat them hot from the oven while they were still gloriously pliable, draping gently over each other on the cooling rack, their bumpy surface glistening invitingly.
I'm pretty sure I used to eat about ten in a single go as a child. Sometimes I want to go back in time, find my seven year-old self and shake her by the shoulders, crying 'DON'T YOU KNOW HOW LUCKY YOU ARE TO BE COMPLETELY IGNORANT OF THE ENTIRE CONCEPT OF CALORIES?'
Neurotic waistline issues aside, I just don't eat very many biscuits these days. I have a total weakness for Hobnobs and Digestives, but I'm generally pretty good with willpower at not letting myself near these things. The simple reason being I know I won't stop; they're just too addictive and I will eat half a packet and then hate myself and want to curl up into a small ball, weeping with frantic abandon and clawing at my midriff.
Perhaps it's for this reason that I haven't baked biscuits in years, or perhaps it's just because I would often much rather bake a cake. I feel like you get more reward from a cake; it's more squidgy, moist, gooey, buttery. Biscuits often seem unnecessarily fiddly. I never seem to get the proportions right, and they either spread out and conjoin like some massive alien amoeba or are so small that they dry out before they're cooked.
Except for these ones, where you basically throw some things (okay, mostly butter) into a mixer, beat it up for a little while, roll it into two logs, chill and then slice when ready to bake. They're probably the easiest biscuits in the world, and are one of those great recipes where the effort to reward ratio is vastly skewed in favour of the latter. Plus they don't spread out much during cooking, so there's no risk of making one giant, tentacled shortbread monster.
I was inspired to make these by the acquisition of an exciting new ingredient from JustIngredients: orange peel powder. This is, as you'd imagine, dried orange peel that has been ground to a pretty sandy-coloured powder. It has a deep musky aroma reminiscent of potpourri, much more savoury and earthy than the fresh snap of grated orange zest. I've never come across such a thing before, and have already written an exciting little spider diagram in my recipe notebook of all my ideas for it. (I'm not painting the best picture of myself in this post, am I?)
However, for some reason, my mind immediately landed on shortbread. The inclusion of citrus aromas in shortbread is a wonderful thing - that melt-in-the-mouth buttery texture with the perfume of lemon or orange is a fabulous combination. I also decided to add some cardamom, because recent kitchen experimentation (such as this treacle tart) inspired by my travels in the middle east has led me to believe that anything sweet is hugely benefited from the addition of a few ground cardamom pods.
These shortbread biscuits are gorgeous. They have the most wonderful light, almost powdery texture, turning to buttery deliciousness as soon as you take a bite. There's a subtle perfume of cardamom and an earthy orange flavour, but neither is too overpowering: this is still shortbread, at its core. They're incredibly easy to make, and there's something deeply satisfying about slicing a chilled log of golden dough into pieces that will soon become crunchy buttery morsels of joy. An added bonus is that you can keep the dough in the fridge or freezer until you need it, then just slice and bake - almost instant home-made shortbread, for when you want to impress people (and I feel we should try and impress people in life more often).
Unfortunately, they're possibly even more moreish than Aztec biscuits, and the recipe makes about fifty. You have been warned.
Orange and cardamom shortbread biscuits (makes around 50):
250g butter, at room temperature
100g caster sugar
7 cardamom pods, husks removed and seeds ground to a powder
2 tsp orange peel powder, plus more for sprinkling (or zest of 1 orange)
250g plain flour, sifted
130g cornflour, sifted
Using an electric mixer or hand whisk (or a wooden spoon and some serious muscle!) beat the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the cardamom and orange peel powder/zest. Gradually add the flours, mixing between each addition, until you have a soft dough. Turn out onto a floured work surface and knead until it just comes together.
Divide the dough into two pieces. Roll each into a log shape, about 1.5-2 inches in diameter. Wrap these in clingfilm and chill for at least half an hour in the fridge.
When ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 160C. Slice the logs of dough into circles about 5mm wide, then arrange these on a baking sheet lined with non-stick parchment. Sprinkle a little orange peel powder over each one (skip this part if you used zest), then bake for 15-25 minutes until they have just turned golden (watch them closely - they can go from raw to burnt very quickly).
Remove, leave to cool, then eat.
Christmas in the kitchen, for me, is a time to start searching for those 'definitive' recipes. Seeing as the annual festival of getting fat and eating too much with some exchanging presents in between generally involves cooking the same dishes every year - mince pies, Christmas pudding, a roast, cabbage, sprouts, Christmas cake, cranberry sauce - I've been on the hunt for the past few years for recipes for these things that are so good I'll want to just go straight back to them next year, rather than continuing to experiment. So far, Delia's braised red cabbage with apple, Levi Roots' tropical Christmas pudding and Fiona Cairn's Christmas cake recipes are all lucky enough to have made it onto this list. My mum's mince pies are also a staple, but I long ago accepted that they'll only taste right if mum makes them herself, so they're not something I can really recreate on my own.
However, there's still a gap as far as stollen is concerned. Ever since I discovered this baked delight a few years ago - I can't actually remember when I had my first taste, but it had me hooked - I've tried every year to create the perfect stollen. For those of you who have never tried it, sort this out. It's a delicious cross between a bread and a cake, studded with dried fruit and nuts, with a thick vein of marzipan running through the middle. It's often glazed with butter and liberal amounts of icing sugar, and scented with spices like cardamom and cinnamon.
The first recipe I tried was from a book that came with our bread-making machine at home. I made the fruity dough in the breadmaker, stuffed it with marzipan and baked it. The result was rather like a giant, elongated hot cross bun. It was bready rather than cakey, with quite a loose crumb. It was delicious, especially toasted and buttered, but not really what I was after. Stollen should have quite a dense texture, closer to bread than cake. It's moist yet crumbly at the same time, often from the addition of ground almonds.
The next recipe I tried was Dan Lepard's sour cherry stollen. This was much closer to what I wanted: it had a lovely cakey texture and was even better after maturing, soaked in rum, sugar and butter, for a few days (although I obviously had to nibble a piece before I put it away for its little rum bath, just to quality control). It had a lovely cardamom flavour, which I think is essential to a good stollen - the combination of super-sugary marzipan and the citrus hit of cardamom is fabulous. It's like the gastronomic equivalent of getting a snowball in the face. But in a good way.
Last year, I tried Richard Bertinet's stollen recipe, which was in the delicious magazine Christmas issue. The main advantage of this recipe was that it made not one, not two, but four stollen loaves. It was quite involved - a lot of kneading and proving and folding fruit into dough, as well as making a 'creme d'amande' out of eggs, sugar, ground almonds and butter - but the end result was gorgeous. The crumb texture was very buttery, rather like a croissant, with a wonderful almond hit. We froze two of the stollen and my mum begged me on a monthly basis throughout the following year to allow her to defrost one and eat it.
This year, I think I'll probably make the Bertinet version again. However, this recipe for orange and pistachio stollen bars, another Dan Lepard creation, has been sitting in my Bookmarks folder for an entire year, since it appeared in the 2011 Observer Christmas food special. The other day I felt the urge to bake something festive, and these sprung to mind.
The advantage of these is that they are incredibly quick and easy to make. Pretty much everything just goes into a bowl, then a pan, then the oven, then your mouth. No kneading or proving, as you often get with the more bread-like stollen recipes. Yet the end result tastes pretty much exactly like real stollen. There's that dense, cakey crumb - made with the addition of cream cheese, which I think gives it its richness - the hit of cardamom, juicy pieces of raisin, crunchy pistachios, and finally the delicious grainy squidgyness of marzipan pieces. The crumb is also infused with orange extract, which gives it a delicious Christmassy flavour.
Also, because it's baked in a wide tray, you get more of the delicious crunchy, caramelised crust, which is one of the best bits of stollen. Particularly here where pieces of marzipan near the surface of the mixture bubble up in the oven and turn crunchy and toffee-like.
When I make these again, I think I'll chop the pistachios rather than leave them whole, as I prefer a little bit of crunch rather than whole nuts. I'd also chop the marzipan into smaller pieces - Dan suggests 2cm squares, but that's a sizeable chunk of marzipan to chew on, and they're also harder to fold through the batter, which is pretty dense already. [Since I wrote this post I have indeed made them again, and can confirm that chopping the nuts and using smaller marzipan pieces is definitely the way forward]. I think the raisins would be excellent replaced with dried cranberries or cherries, or maybe with some dried apricots added too.
The best part of this is removing the warm cake from the oven, then brushing it with melted butter and dousing it in icing sugar. The smell as it bakes is sumptuous, filling the kitchen with the aroma of Christmas; fruit, spice, nuts and butter. Slicing the cake into squares is also deeply satisfying, particularly when crumbs or corners end up crumbling off and you have to eat them to neaten everything up.
While not a true stollen, these may just make it onto my list of 'go-to' Christmas recipes. All the flavour of stollen, with none of the faff. Apparently they keep for a good while if you're generous with the melted butter and sugar, and wrap them tightly in foil. But of course, if you're generous with the melted butter and sugar, you're going to want to devour them all in an indecently short amount of time, as I did. Fortunately my department at university has an actual thing that we call 'Cake Thursday', which involves sharing home-baked treats on a weekly basis. Without these human bins in which to dispose of all my baking, I would be well on the way to obesity right now. It's cold up in York. I need baked goods for insulation.
These little squares are the essence of Christmas. Whip up a batch to sustain you through the arduous weeks of shopping, card-writing and turkey-buying ahead. Make some and give them to your friends. Just make sure they don't have a nut allergy.
For the recipe, from Dan Lepard, click here.
What food would you find it hardest to give up? Sometimes, when I'm bored, I ask myself this. Because I'm gastronomically masochistic like that. I've frequently toyed with the idea of going vegetarian or even vegan for a month, just to challenge myself. In fact, I very nearly went vegan for Lent this year, until I realised that I was going on holiday to Italy slap bang in the middle of it. There's pretty much no point in going to Italy unless you're going to eat vast quantities of meat and cheese. Apparently they have some decent art and some Roman ruins and stuff, but we all know that the only reason to go to Italy is to gorge oneself on bread, cheese and meat, preferably all together in that excellent vehicle designed by the Italians to combine these things into one coherent meal: pizza.
There's one main thing that stops me embracing vegetarianism, and it isn't, as you might suspect, bacon. I'm not much of a carnivore; in fact, I have an unhealthy habit of hoarding meat in my freezer without ever actually getting round to cooking it. Currently the contents of my freezer include two chickens, four pig cheeks, two goose breasts, three grouse breasts, four pheasant breasts, a stuffed mallard, and ten rashers of bacon. (I'm sure there's some kind of breast joke in there somewhere, but I'm too mature to make it. The comments box below is designed for just such a thing).
While not a carnivorous eater, however, I am a carnivorous cook. This I think is an important distinction. I really enjoy cooking meat, especially meat that lends itself to all sorts of diverse flavours like game or lamb. I enjoy the potential for experimenting that it offers, particularly with so many different cuts for every animal. Pigs aren't just for chops and sausages, for example; pig cheeks are surprisingly delicious, as are ham hocks and ribs. I love cooking meat, though more often than not I don't actually tend to eat very much of it. But I know I would feel like a huge part of my cooking repertoire had been removed if I turned vegetarian.
Veganism would be an interesting challenge, but it's never going to happen full-time. Two words: eggs and cheese. In fact, mainly eggs. Scrambled eggs on toast is the ultimate 'can't be bothered but it will still taste delicious' dinner. When I was contemplating Lent veganism, I thought about how my usual daily intake of food would be affected. Porridge for breakfast as usual, I thought - that's totally vegan. Except it's made with milk. Soya milk is not a thing I want in my life. Lunch is usually couscous, roasted veg and feta cheese. Feta cheese is a thing I want in my life. You see where this is going.
Sometimes I think the food I'd miss most would be couscous. It struck me today that I think I've eaten couscous literally every day since I started university again in October. I'm not sure what I'd do without its comforting starchy goodness for a mid-library lunch. That said, giving up porridge might make it impossible to get out of bed in the morning. And giving up fruit would undoubtedly leave me in a state of traumatised despair, possibly with rickets and maybe also scurvy. I'd have to find something new to replace my five-a-day, and I'm pretty sure it would end up being cake.
I gave up gluten for five days back in July as part of a gluten-free blogger challenge. While it wasn't as hard as I thought, what really struck me was the myriad of places where gluten hides its wily self. Soy sauce, stock cubes, sushi and packaged salads all fell victim to the gluten plague. It made me think much more about how difficult it would be to live with a real gluten intolerance, particularly when eating out. Plus, gluten-free porridge oats are approximately one million times the price of normal porridge oats, which is not really OK. And gluten-free bread is generally one million times more cardboard-like than normal bread. However, gluten-free pasta is pretty much the same. Those are my profound conclusions from my gluten-free five days.
This cake arose out of a need for a gluten-free, lactose-free dessert. I have a friend who can't eat either, and I wanted to make her something so she didn't feel left out during a night when the rest of us were tucking into a giant apple crumble I'd made.
Unfortunately, it's surprisingly hard to find cake recipes that are both gluten- and dairy-free. Gluten-free cakes are everywhere these days now that awareness of food intolerances is much higher than it used to be, which is great. Such cakes usually replace the flour with ground almonds (or other nuts) or something like polenta. However, they nearly always use a lot of butter to compensate for the lack of that wheat-based tastiness. Dairy-free cakes, generally made with olive oil instead of butter, usually feature flour. I reckon you could substitute the butter for olive oil in the gluten-free cakes and the flour for ground nuts in the lactose-free cakes, but I wanted to be sure before embarking on a baking mission.
Fortunately, I found this excellent recipe from Nigella. I think it's actually from her latest TV series, which is impeccably good timing. I was pretty excited about the idea of a chocolate olive oil cake, but even more excited about the prospect of using some delicious mandarin-infused olive oil that I had in the cupboard (as you do). A while ago, I wrote about a nice Italian man named Mauro, who came to our house in Cambridge selling beautiful Calabrian extra-virgin olive oil. I used this delicious oil in a blood orange and cardamom syrup cake (every bit as amazing as it sounds - click and ogle the pictures), and when Mauro came back to our house a few months later he introduced me to a range of six different flavoured oils: bergamot, mandarin, chilli, balsamic vinegar with black pepper and garlic, rosemary, and lemon. Unable to choose between them, I bought all six. They're really wonderful and incredibly versatile for cooking, especially the black pepper, garlic and balsamic one which is basically an instant salad dressing. If you want more information on where to get them, click here. (Incidentally, I'm not being asked to write about these - I just really like them and wanted to share, particularly since Mauro is so friendly and sells such a brilliant product).
I hadn't had an opportunity to use the mandarin version yet, and it seemed the perfect ingredient for this cake. Obviously, chocolate and orange work very well together - those awful Terry's chocolate orange adverts have certainly immortalised that flavour pairing - so I swapped the normal oil in the recipe for the mandarin version. I also scaled down the recipe to fit a smaller cake tin, using 2/3 of Nigella's quantities.
You dissolve cocoa powder in boiling water and add vanilla, then whisk together eggs, sugar and olive oil until thick and creamy. The scent of citrus as my KitchenAid whisked the whole thing round at lightning speed was delicious. In goes the cocoa mixture, turning everything a gorgeous rich chocolate brown, followed by ground almonds, bicarbonate of soda, and salt.
I was a bit sceptical as I poured the batter into the tin, as it seemed very runny, but who am I to distrust the buxom Ms Lawson herself?
Obviously, this cake was delicious. You only have to look at the photos to see how dark and moist it is. I was quite surprised by the sheer darkness of it; it's pretty much black which is rather odd as a food colour (just try not to think that you're eating coal), but once you get past that it's just plain wonderful. The crumb is incredibly light and incredibly moist from the olive oil and almonds; it's rich and flavoursome while still remaining feather light. There's a real chocolate hit with just a hint of citrus tang from the olive oil. My cake sunk a little bit in the middle, perhaps because I scaled the recipe down, but this was more than compensated for by the flavour (also, I think it looks quite charming - a bit like it's sighing wistfully at its own goodness).
It's definitely an unusual cake and probably unlike anything you've made before. For that reason I'd urge you to try it.
It's also a fabulous recipe to have up your sleeve for anyone with allergies to either gluten or lactose (or both). It works well as an afternoon slice of cake with a cup of tea, or as a lavish dessert accompanied by some juicy red berries and - if lactose isn't an issue - a scoop of ice cream (though I think you can get very good dairy-free ice cream these days). Decorate with orange zest and a good dusting of icing sugar, and you have a beautiful decadent cake no one would guess was missing a good hit of flour and butter.
Chocolate and mandarin olive oil cake (serves 6-8):
(Adapted from Nigella Lawson's recipe here)
- 35g good quality cocoa powder (I used Green & Blacks)
- 85ml boiling water
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 100ml mandarin-infused olive oil (or other flavour/plain oil)
- 130g caster sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 100g ground almonds
- 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- Pinch of salt
Pre-heat the oven to 170C. Grease and line an 18cm springform cake tin (you could use a 20cm tin too, it will just give you a slightly flatter cake).
Sift the cocoa powder into a bowl then whisk in the boiling water to form a paste. Whisk in the vanilla then set aside to cool.
Using an electric mixer or whisk, whisk together the oil, sugar and eggs for several minutes until thick and creamy. Turn down the speed then pour in the cocoa mixture, whisking well to incorporate it. Fold in the almonds, bicarb and salt. Pour the batter into the prepared cake tin and bake for around 40 minutes, until the edges have started to pull away from the side of the tin and the top is fairly firm.
We don't really tend to think outside the box that much with clementines. Unlike oranges, which permeate our gastronomic consciousness in all manifestations, clementines seem generally reserved, in the popular mindset, simply for raw eating, usually around Christmas. The few times clementines have cropped up on my culinary radar in other guises, they seem wildly exotic. I noticed cartons of clementine juice on the shelf in M&S a while back, which held a great allure for me simply because of its novelty factor. It is also, I suspect, a cunning ploy to charge twice the price for it because of said novelty; a bit like the fact that you can buy 'Pink Lady apple juice' and pay through the nose for the privilege of having a branded apple pulverised inside your carton.
Sometimes they crop up in baking - Nigella's clementine cake is justly famous around the world (and by 'the world', I mean 'recipe books and the internet', because that is my world), although I don't think it was Nigella who invented it; Claudia Roden has a version too, and versions abound everywhere under different titles and with a couple of ingredients added or tweaked.
The basic principle is always the same - boil clementines (or oranges) in water until soft, then smash in a blender with ground almonds, eggs, sugar and other good things to make a fabulously moist, orangey cake. Sometimes you see clementines in savoury cooking, but usually only where you'd otherwise find oranges - with duck, for example - rather than in any wildly novel pairing.
I've often thought that the clementine is the fruit I'm most fussy about. Sure, I like apples to be crisp without a hint of woolliness, but generally I find them edible in most shapes and forms. I like pineapple to be super-sweet without that mouth-puckering astringency, but I'll still tolerate it if it's a bit sour. Mango - ideally ripe and dripping with marigold juice, but I'll still settle for one rather firmer and with a hint of a chalky texture; these can be pleasant too, in their own way.
Bananas I enjoy when green (though my gran always swore these would give me headaches), but I'll still eat them riper than that, when really hungry. Soft fruit - raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries - is rarely inedible once given the room-temperature-and-sugar treatment. Papaya you can't go wrong with, really - I don't think the notion of an overripe papaya even exists in my consciousness. Pears can still be nice even if you've misinterpreted their state of ripeness; glassy and crunchy, they can be rather refreshing, albeit less perfumed and succulent than when truly ripe and dripping.
But the clementine? I reckon only 50% of the time a clementine gets it right.
I honestly believe I can tell a good clementine by sight. Sometimes I need the additional confirmation of picking it up, but generally I have a good idea how it's going to taste by how it looks. The skin should be quite thin, clinging desperately and lovingly to the flesh of the segments inside, rather than bulging out - this suggests lots of air spaces in between, which means the clementine has started to dry up and the segments are puckering unpleasantly. The best specimens are usually quite small, which means they are less watery and more full of sweet, tart juice. The clementine should feel swollen in the hand, bulging out against its skin, which should be taut and shiny.
I've had some really horrible clementines in my time. Nothing worse than biting into a segment to have your mouth filled with hideously flavourless juice, often with a slightly stale taste about it. Nothing worse than segments which are pale and puckered. A clementine should be tart, almost sour, but sweet at the same time. It should be irresistibly moreish - when you find a good batch, you should be able to contemplate eating eight in a single sitting.
A few weeks ago I was sent a box of such clementines by ClemenGold, a South African company specialising in exceptionally delicious clementines grown around the world. They have selection criteria for their fruit that are even fussier than I am: 48% juice content; 11% sugar level; acidity between 0.7 and 1.3%; each fruit containing no more than three seeds. This formula adds up to a clementine that is truly special, with just the right balance of sweetness and tartness. They're also easy to peel and virtually seedless, which is a bonus.
Apparently they're technically Nadorcott mandarins, though only the best get given the ClemenGold trademark. I'm still not entirely sure of the difference between a clementine, a tangerine, a satsuma, and a mandarin (can anyone enlighten me?) apart from the fact that mandarins are the ones you find in tins, and I think generally mandarins are a bit tarter than clementines. But they all get subjected to my sight-test criteria, and the same rules apply to them all.
When I say I was sent 'a box', perhaps 'a crate' would be more accurate. The most gigantic treasure trove of orange orbs arrived in the post, leading me to wonder if perhaps the company had mistaken me for a wholesaler. There must have been at least 200 fruits in said box. However, this may also have been a clever marketing ploy, because I was forced to distribute clementines to everyone I know so as not to waste them (much as I love a good clementine, even I am not a citrus-ingesting machine), and everyone who tried them was as wowed as I was. I'm pretty sure I must be single-handedly responsible for a spike in sales.
Should you wish to pursue these luscious orbs and inject a little edible sunshine into your own kitchen/mouth, they sell them at Asda, Morrisons, Booths (posh northern supermarket; can't wait til I move to York next week); Sainsburys and Waitrose. I bought some more yesterday, which are much larger than the original ones, but still have that excellent sweet-tart flavour, so I can (sort of) vouch for their consistency.
Should you ever find yourself in the privileged position of possessing a box of 200 clementines, I would obviously suggest eating them raw with gluttonous abandon, but if you want to do something a bit more creative, have a look at the recipe suggestions on the ClemenGold site, or do what I was just criticising (sorry for my gastronomic hypocrisy) and use them as you would oranges. In baking. In the form of mini muffins.
These are a simple cake batter, infused with clementine zest, a little honey, and some finely chopped rosemary. Don't ask me why; I just had an inkling that rosemary and clementines would work well together (and they do). I promise you it's not overly herbal or strange, just fragrant and delicious. The tops are smeared in a little molten white chocolate for added sweetness to complement the rosemary and citrus.
The best part is that they are tiny and adorable, with their little hats of white chocolate and clementine zest. This is also the worst part, because they are incredibly moreish and easy to eat in large batches, so you may hate yourself afterwards.
But it's nearly autumn now, and we need to fatten up for the winter, so here's a lovely clementine-inspired way of doing it.
Clementine, rosemary and white chocolate mini muffins (makes around 30):
(You can also bake these as normal-sized cupcakes, in which case the mixture makes 12)
- 150g butter, at room temperature
- 100g caster sugar
- 2 tbsp clear honey
- 3 medium eggs
- 150g self-raising flour, sifted
- Zest of 2 large clementines
- 1 tbsp very finely chopped rosemary
- 60g white chocolate
- Clementine zest, to decorate (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to 190C/170C fan oven. Line three 12-cup mini muffin tins with mini muffin paper cases (you may not need them all).
Beat the butter, sugar and honey together in a large bowl using an electric whisk, until the mixture is light and fluffy (about 3-5 minutes). Add the eggs and flour, then beat until smooth. Stir in the clementine zest and chopped rosemary.
Divide the mixture between the paper cases - a scant teaspoonful in each should do it - and bake for 10 minutes until just risen and slightly golden - they should be firm to the touch. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a wire rack.
When cool, melt the white chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water (don't let the bowl touch the water), then spoon a little over the top of each muffin. Finish, if you like, with a sprinkling of more clementine zest.