I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the start of a new year and a new way of eating, involving absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. No roast meat, root vegetables, sticky condiments, pastry, alcohol-soaked dried fruit or marzipan. Enough is enough. I feel like my tastebuds have spent the last two weeks immovably swaddled in a beige, bland cocoon of stodge and sickliness. I’ve tried to counteract this by throwing Thai curry paste, chilli and lemongrass at all my Christmas leftovers in every way imaginable, but I’m still longing for the new year and the lifting of that pressure to constantly bring a touch of Christmas sparkle to everything that emerges from the kitchen. If I read one more article claiming to have ‘the recipe to convert even the most ardent sprout-haters’, or find one more chef attempting to sneak clementines into a savoury dish, I might emigrate to a non-Christian country.Read More
A couple of weeks ago, something magical occurred in my kitchen. Craving a warm, comforting pudding and wondering what to do with a quince hanging around in my fridge, I poached the fruit in a spiced sugar syrup and caramelised it, along with juicy chunks of ripe pear, in a hot pan. I added a little quince jelly, which melted into an amber syrup as it hit the surface of the pan, and bubbled in a splash of honeyed dessert wine. I tumbled this sticky, golden mixture into a baking tin, luscious juices clinging to the fruit, and topped it with a buttery crumble mixture flecked with crunchy almonds. Thirty-five minutes later, the best crumble I've ever had emerged from the oven.Read More
Last week I took the daring step of taking all the half-opened bottles of red wine out of my wine rack. There were seven. It's probably a good thing wine doesn't have a sell-by date on it, which would give me some indication of when those bottles were last opened and drunk from, because I'd probably be horrified by the length of time they'd been languishing. I'm not the biggest fan of red wine, nor do I cook a lot of heavy casserole-type recipes that involve stewing a piece of animal bathed in it, so wine brought by dinner guests tends to have a fairly extended shelf life in my kitchen. Seven bottles, though, is verging on ridiculous and they were taking up valuable space in the wine rack that I wanted to fill with gin. Naturally.Read More
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
You can keep your chutney. Cheese, for me, is best enjoyed paired with a lusciously ripe piece of sweet fruit to complement its mouth-coating richness and dense, fudgy texture. The exact fruit will depend on the cheese: toffee-scented dates, for example, are best paired with a fairly fresh, tangy cheese like goat’s or feta; stronger, sharper, crumblier cheddars go better with crisp apples or grapes. Having said this, an excellent all-round fruit for pairing with cheese is the pear. Crisp and glassy or soft and yielding in texture, tangy and grassy or delectably syrupy depending on ripeness and variety, there’s a pear to partner almost any cheese you can think of.Read More
For me, mornings are the worst part of winter. I normally count myself as a guaranteed lark, reveling in the early hours of the day, but those early hours in the colder months of the year barely deserve the label ‘morning’. Mornings mean sunshine, beams streaming through the window and the promise of productivity and good things to come. Mornings don’t mean opening your eyes in darkness; the hazy, nauseating orange glow of streetlamps replacing real rays; the rasp of cold, clammy air against your skin as you tentatively reach an arm outside the duvet to check the time and remind yourself that no, it isn’t a mistake, it genuinely is time to get up despite the dark and the cold and the feeling that you might be turning into a hibernating mammal. Mornings shouldn’t mean having to shiveringly shroud yourself in a dressing gown to make the briefest of journeys between bedroom and bathroom, or turning all the lights on in the kitchen just so you can find the all-important switch on the kettle.Read More
When I first started cooking, really cooking, I would follow recipes to the letter. I had very little experience of techniques and anticipating how things would taste, so I made anything and everything from recipes, rarely departing from instructions or ingredients. Then came a phase where, having picked up a lot more experience and confidence, I would cook predominantly from my head. I'd wander the markets, buy what looked nice that day, then invent a dish in my mind on the spot, often based on components I'd made before, a slight variation on something that was tried and tested. Sounds liberating, perhaps? Maybe, but it's more complicated than that.
Cooking without a recipe can give you a real sense of freedom. The freedom to make exactly what you feel like that day based on the absolute best produce available - no point in going to the shops armed with a list that includes avocadoes and strawberries if the only avocadoes to be found are rock hard and the only strawberries woolly and over-sour. No point in brandishing a beautifully planned shopping list that all revolves around a big leg of lamb if you then find the butcher has sold out. Shopping without a list and based on impulse and inspiration avoids these pitfalls.
And yet, it can be incredibly stressful. I would sometimes find myself wandering around the same stalls and shops for hours on end, agonising over various menu ideas in my head, unsure that they would work or how best to make the most of the ingredients I wanted to buy. Nothing worse than being asked by the man behind the counter what you would like, and having to keep saying 'I'm just looking' despite having been there for over fifteen minutes, getting increasingly flustered and red-faced, wanting to make the very best dinner possible but unsure how, or wondering whether the mackerel might be better than the trout, or whether those plums are a better option than those oranges.
So now, things seem to have come full circle. I decided that, with a collection of over sixty cookbooks, I should start using them. Really using them, rather than seeing a recipe and then tweaking it beyond recognition. I still do this, of course, but one day I just told myself to start following the damn recipes a bit more often.
It was liberating. Ridiculously liberating. While a shopping list can be restrictive, it can also be your passport to sanity and peace of mind. In order to avoid minor crises when a crucial ingredient can't be found, I often have two or three different options for meals, so I have a backup if something important (pomelo? galangal? ripe avocado? watercress? mackerel?) can't be located. I go to the supermarket with a list of military precision, organised into columns, so that if the central ingredient for one dish is missing, I can buy the components of something else instead.
Honestly, after cooking from your head for so long, sometimes it can just be stupidly relaxing to let someone else tell you what to buy and what to do, and for you to be fairly sure it will come out tasting pretty nice (with exceptions...but there are some cookery writers who just never fail me, like Nigel Slater, Diana Henry, Bill Granger, and Ottolenghi). To just write down a shopping list from a cookbook page, and ponder a list of instructions as you potter around the kitchen. No last-minute stress at the fish counter, or flusterdness in the fruit and veg aisle, or sinking feeling as you eye up your conveyer belt of groceries and realise you had no idea what you were planning to do with them, and wish you'd just decided to make a bowl of carbonara instead.
In the spirit of this, I am going through old cookbooks and trying out recipes that have been gathering dust. While I discover new recipes every day, I do try and keep on top of things by making a couple of new recipes each week. I have a battered but well-loved recipe journal, a birthday present many years ago from a friend, that is full of recipe cuttings from magazines. I am attempting to make a substantial portion of the recipes inside it before I move onto a new blank journal (it's now full).
This recipe for tamarind glazed pork chops with a pear and watercress salad appeared in Sainsbury's magazine a few months ago. I had a beautiful pair of thick Saddleback pork chops in the freezer, and when I realised I could buy all the other things I needed at the Co-op on the way home from work (rather than trekking to the supermarkets), it just had to be done.
I don't normally cook pork chops. When I do cook pork, it's either bacon, sausages, or tenderloin. However, I could tell this was going to be good from the beginning. I marinated the chops in a mixture of turmeric, ginger, oil, seasoning and white wine vinegar, which gave them a lovely deep yellow colouring. Before baking in the oven, they are doused in a glaze made from tamarind paste, sugar, cumin and a little water. This is thick, dark and treacly, imbuing the meat with a delicious sweet-sour earthy flavour. They bake in this luscious mixture before going under the grill to finish off, leaving them deeply sticky and caramelised on the outside, while moist in the middle. The tamarind glaze is stupidly good - it's hard to describe the addictive tang of tamarind, but it combines so well with the slightly sweet meat of the pork, resulting in a deep, almost caramel-like moreishness.
I was seriously impressed with these pork chops. This cut can often be quite bland, fatty, or chewy. However, they were ridiculously good. They still retained their rich flavour, while being given a deeply delicious sweet-savoury kick from the glaze. The best bits were the charred, sweet edges of fat around the bone, which had to be nibbled off, while the inside of the meat remained moist (which is often hard to achieve with chops). I'm inspired to cook more with pork chops.
To accompany the pork, an unexpectedly delicious salad. Unexpectedly because the dressing lifts an otherwise fairly standard pear and watercress combination to new heights - lime juice, crushed fennel seeds, olive oil and a little honey result in a gorgeous fruity, slightly liquorice-scented coating for the leaves and fruit. It's the perfect refreshing partner to the deep, sticky, savoury pork - crisp, crunchy, peppery, sweet.
This may look like an ordinary meat-salad combination. It's not. It's a really simple recipe, but one that is deeply, deeply satisfying. Refreshing and unusual, it makes a delicious light meal for the warmer weather. If you want something a bit more substantial (i.e. you're scared by no carbs on the plate), you could serve it with a yellow split pea dhal, like I did. The combination of slightly charred, caramelised, sweet-sour meat with the crisp, fruity salad is perfect.
Further evidence that cooking from recipes can sometimes pay off.
Tamarind glazed pork chops with watercress, fennel and pear salad (serves 2):
(Adapted from Sainsbury's magazine, not sure which issue)
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 3 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp rapeseed or vegetable oil
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 large pork chops
- 20g tamarind paste
- 2 tbsp dark brown sugar
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 tbsp lime juice
- 1/2 tbsp clear honey
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 ripe but firm pears
- 100g watercress or a mixture of rocket, watercress and spinach
First, marinate the pork. Mix the turmeric, ginger, pepper, vinegar, oil and salt in a shallow dish then add the pork, coating it well with the mixture. Cover with cling film and leave in the fridge overnight, or for as long as possible (I left mine about 8 hours).
When ready to cook, pre-heat the oven to 180C. Pat the pork dry with kitchen towel then transfer to a baking dish. In a small pan, heat the tamarind paste, sugar and cumin until combined and it turns bubbling and sticky, then pour over the pork. Cover with a lid or foil and bake for 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, toast the fennel seeds in a dry pan then crush with a pestle and mortar. Combine with the lime juice, honey and oil in a large bowl and whisk together to make a dressing. Core and quarter the pears, then slice into thin segments. Toss together with the salad and dressing, and divide between two plates.
When the pork is done, remove it from the oven. Pre-heat the grill to high (about 230C), then place the chops under the grill for five minutes to caramelise the glaze. Rest for five minutes, then serve with the salad.
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.
Although some of my more rant-led blog posts may encourage you to believe that I am a constantly angry and occasionally violent grumpy old woman, I'm actually quite a nice person. However, there are certain things that you just don't do if you want to remain on speaking terms with me ever again.
For example, cook rice as you would pasta, in a vat of boiling water, draining it with a sieve. This is not acceptable behaviour and I will not tolerate it from anyone in my life.
Secondly, you never, ever, mess up the froth on my cappuccino. Drinking a cappuccino is a ritual, revolving around the steady scraping off of the chocolatey froth from the top with a spoon and the inhalation of its heady cocoa-rich aroma before indulging in the actual coffee lurking underneath. The chocolate is the best bit. I once went on a date with a boy who flagrantly ignored this, leaned over the table and swirled his spoon vigorously around in my cappuccino (which sounds like a euphemism, but is not). I was actually rendered speechless with horror for a good few seconds. Needless to say, it didn't work out. A person who could do such a thing is clearly evil and therefore not boyfriend material.
Thirdly, you don't announce that you can't cook, proudly and as if this is some kind of badge of honour. You say 'I can't cook'; I hear 'I'm a lazy good-for-nothing layabout'. Cooking is pretty much the easiest thing in the world. You don't have to rustle up a three-course feast involving foams, textures and an ingredient 'done three ways'. But to make something like pasta or a curry is about as difficult as cutting your toenails. If you claim you 'can't cook', I'm sorry, but I just think you're too lazy to try. ('Won't cook', incidentally, also hurts me to hear, but is at least more honest).
You don't wave your exposed wrists in my face when I tell you I have a phobia of wrists and blood. That, people, is just unkind and not actually very funny, because I have a tendency to pass out on such occasions and while that may sound hilarious, you really don't want to be responsible for my concussion. Because I will track you down and kill you.
You don't wear leggings that are slightly see-through instead of trousers, i.e. not concealed by some kind of skirt or shorts. This is never, under any circumstances, OK. I'm sorry, but I don't want to go out with you in public if everyone who walks behind you can read the slogan on your knickers.
Come to think of it, slogans on knickers are not really OK either.
On that note. Boys: Tom and Jerry boxers are not - I repeat, NOT - a thing that should exist. If they're made of silk, this does not somehow make it OK. In fact, I think it makes it worse, by suggesting said product is geared towards a hideous hybrid of pre-pubescent child and male porn star. Wearers of such things, you know who you are. If you're ever wondering why we didn't work out, there's your explanation.
You don't always arrive late and/or cancel things at the last minute. This drives me up the wall and is just bad manners. Just because we live in a luxurious world of technology where we can instantly let someone know if we're running late or unable to make it, it doesn't mean it's OK or socially acceptable.
You don't eat at Cafe Rouge. If you eat at Cafe Rouge, consider yourself judged. Like, as judged as you will be on the way into heaven. Except if you eat at Cafe Rouge, you are clearly not going to heaven. But don't worry, I think the food in hell is probably a marked improvement on what that ubiquitous, nauseating, faux-rustic chain serves up on a daily basis.
And, finally, you don't get in the way of my breakfast.
Breakfast, to me, is probably the best time of the day. It's a quiet time, a time of solace and reflection before the rush begins.
(OK, I admit, as a PhD student my life never gets much more of a 'rush' than 'Oh! I must hurry my five-minute commute so I can get to that seminar in time to make a cup of tea first!!! I hope I remembered to leave my lapsang souchong teabags in my locker for just such an occasion!')
It's a time to be on my own and enjoy the first meal of the day in peace. Sometimes I read recipe books or food magazines, or watch a food show on TV. I make sure I always have something delicious to eat and take my time over, whether it's a big bowl of porridge with fruit or a freshly baked loaf of soda bread with homemade jam and a big cup of tea. I have a special mug that I reserve for my breakfast cups of tea. (By 'special', I essentially mean 'giant').
For most people, breakfast is probably a bowl of supermarket cereal and a glass of juice or a cup of tea. Or maybe a couple of pre-sliced bits of flabby, plasticky, mass-produced bread. While I appreciate that a lot of people don't have much time in the morning, I've always felt it worth getting up a little bit earlier so that I can have a proper breakfast. For me, the prospect of a freshly baked loaf or a steaming bowl of porridge is infinitely better than an extra fifteen minutes in bed. I put more effort into my breakfast, I imagine, than most people, rarely eating the same thing for more than a few days in a row.
Take, for example, this recipe. It is inspired by one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten: Joy the Baker's 'Vegan Apple Cranberry Oatmeal Bake', which she posted on her blog a few weeks ago and which instantly shot straight to the top of my 'to-make' list. Lucky recipe - some things languish for years on that list without a second glance. I made it a few days later, and spent the entire time I was eating it groaning with delight in a slightly indecent fashion. I changed her recipe only slightly in that I used pears as well as apples, which I think made it even better. You get a gorgeous muddle of burst, juicy, tart cranberries, sharp apples and soft, grainy, perfumed pear pieces. This is all interspersed with clusters of spiced oats, crunchy and crisp in places and soft and gooey in others where they've come into contact with the fruit juices. It's one of those absolute keepers of a recipe, one that I know will become a staple in my kitchen for evermore.
It is the closest I've ever come to eating crumble for breakfast. Honestly, it's pretty much impossible to tell that it isn't crumble. What's more, it's markedly healthier. This is essentially the holy grail: dessert for breakfast, plus no guilt. That said, it could also be happily served as a dessert with some ice cream, as Joy suggests.
There are some gooseberries in my insanely middle class food hoard (freezer) that have been lurking there for months now; I bulk-bought them in the summer and didn't use them up, saving them - as always with things in the freezer - for a 'special' occasion that never arose. As my freezer was approaching bursting point and I'm going home for the holidays, I wanted to have a bit of a clear out before I left.
I made a wonderful gooseberry crumble a couple of months ago, infinitely better than any previous attempts due to roasting the gooseberries in the oven first with brown sugar then draining most of the juice, to prevent a soggy mess that has been the tragic downfall of previous noble crumbles. The result was beautifully tender, tart berries, slightly scorched in places and wrinkled in others, under a crunchy, buttery crust. It was probably the best crumble I've ever made. It suddenly occurred to me that I didn't have to wait for an occasion when I could justify eating huge amounts of crumble to use up those gooseberries...I could use the same principle of roasting the berries first then blanketing them with a crunchy topping, but in a form that could be eaten for breakfast.
I roasted the gooseberries with brown sugar until starting to burst. They didn't release too much juice, so I didn't drain them. Instead I tossed them with chunks of pear, some mixed spice and some cornflour, to thicken any juices that did emerge and stop everything becoming watery. The crust is a mixture of jumbo oats, spelt flour, salt, mixed spice and ginger, because ginger works very well with gooseberries. It's moistened with maple syrup, olive oil and almond extract, because almond also works very well with gooseberries. The result, which looks like flapjack mixture, goes onto the fruit. You stir it in very slightly, just so that some bits of the crust end up soaked in the bubbling fruity syrup, then scatter over some flaked almonds for extra crunch, and it goes in the oven.
Oh, my goodness. I know I tell you all my recipes are good, even delicious, because obviously I'm a gastronomic genius and I crave love and acceptance, but this is beyond good. As Joy herself said of the cranberry version, it's 'bonkers delicious'. Firstly, the smell as it bakes is better than any scented candle (which makes me wonder if there isn't a gap in the market for brunch-based scented candles). Secondly, it's just so, so tasty. Hopefully you can see from the photos, because words kind of fail me. Imagine the best crumble you've ever eaten. It's sort of like that.
The gooseberries turn puckered and wrinkled, lending their beautiful honeyed, fragrant sweetness to the syrupy juice under the oats. The pears soften but still retain their grainy bite, adding their subtle perfumed flavour to the mix. The juice bubbles stickily. The oats soften and turn gooey in places, crunchy and crisp in others, with a toasty, buttery flavour (but of course, this uses olive oil so has the bonus of being vegan) and a hint of warm spice. There's crunch from the almonds. The whole thing is a delightful medley of textures and a riot of toasty and sweet, syrupy flavours.
This is my new favourite breakfast. Eating it was a perfect ritual: big mug of tea, warm, spiced fruit, comforting crispy oats. I devoured half the dish in one sitting; Joy claims her original recipe served 4-6, but this is clearly some kind of conspiracy. I would be very, very surprised if you managed to make it serve four, let alone six. When I made it for friends a couple of weekends ago, I doubled the quantities, and it comfortably fed four of us. So be generous in your portion estimations.
I'm slightly devastated that I'm going to have to wait until summer to get gooseberries to make this again. Unfortunately it probably means I'm going to hoard even more of these fruits than last year, but at least now I'll know exactly what to do with them. However, out of season, you can use most berries for this: cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries. You won't even need to roast them first, in that case - just put them in raw with the pears, cornflour and spices and add the oat mixture. I reckon blackberries would be insanely good.
So, after that somewhat scary list of things not to do if you want to be my friend, I'm going to give you one suggestion of something you should do: make this. And invite me round. Just be prepared for me to eat nearly all of it. And make sure you serve my tea in a suitably large mug.
Pear, gooseberry and almond breakfast oat crumble (serves 2-3):
- 3-4 large handfuls gooseberries, topped and tailed
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 3 medium pears (I used Rocha)
- 1 tbsp cornflour
- 1 tsp mixed spice
- 150g jumbo oats
- 40g spelt flour
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp mixed spice
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 3 tbsp maple syrup
- 1 tsp almond extract
- 1 tbsp water
- 2 tbsp flaked almonds
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Put the gooseberries in a medium baking dish with the brown sugar and toss together. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or so until they have softened and started to release their juice. Quarter the pears and remove the core, then cut half of them into thin slices and half into small chunks. Add to the gooseberries, and toss together with the 1tsp mixed spice and the cornflour.
In a small bowl, mix together the oats, flour, ginger, mixed spice and salt. In a measuring jug or mug, whisk together the olive oil, maple syrup, almond extract and water. Stir this into the oat mixture until it is moist and starts to clump together.
Pour the oat mixture over the gooseberries and pears, then give it a couple of stirs to roughly mix it together - you still want most of it over the top, though. Sprinkle over the almonds. Bake for around 40 minutes, until the oats have turned crunchy and golden and the fruit has softened. (Check it halfway through, and if it looks like it's a bit dry, add a drop of water to the fruit). Allow to rest for a couple of minutes, then serve.
Isn't it just so annoying when you have four pheasant breasts in the fridge for dinner, but only three people to feed, so you have to come up with a way of using that leftover pheasant?
Yeah, I didn't think so. 'Leftover pheasant' is probably not the most likely thing you'll have in your fridge. If you do, though, we are kindred middle-class-food-lover spirits and should clearly be friends. However, should you happen to come across some pheasant breasts in the butcher, buy them on impulse, then stash them in the freezer while you figure out what on earth to do with them, this recipe is for you. It would also work if you happen to have roasted a whole pheasant and have some meat left over. Failing that, it would work with chicken. But humour me, and go with pheasant - we don't eat enough game in this country, and it's such a versatile and under-appreciated meat.
I've never cooked pheasant breasts before. All my pheasant cooking adventures have involved a whole bird, the most successful of which was a wonderful roast I made a few weeks ago. I smeared the bird in seasoned butter (salt, thyme, rosemary), layered the breast in streaky bacon, then roasted it until the bacon and skin were crispy. I served it with mash, greens, and the most incredible gravy made by deglazing the cooking pan with sherry and adding redcurrant jelly, rosé wine, and fresh blackberries. It was the best gravy I think I've ever tasted; a vivid dark purple, with delectable tart little morsels of berry that went so well with the rich meat and salty bacon. If you're stuck for pheasant recipes, I'd urge you to try this. I was a bit apprehensive as pheasant can be quite dry (I usually pot-roast it with cider and apples to avoid dryness), but roasting it can be very successful as long as you're generous with the butter and the bacon.
And if you're not generous with the butter and the bacon, life is clearly not going well for you. Sort it out.
Pheasant breasts are a much less scary option than a whole pheasant - they're much easier to cook, less prone to dryness because they can be cooked quickly, and more versatile when it comes to recipes. They can be used in the same way as chicken breasts, but provide much more meaty flavour. They're also not very expensive; at around £4 for a pack of four, they're probably cheaper than chicken breasts.
While I always used to cook my game on the bone, recently I've come round to using just the breast fillets instead (as you can see in my recent recipe for spiced grouse with roast grapes). Most game birds have hardly any meat on their legs anyway, so you don't end up eating them, and hacking your way through a whole bird is not the most harmonious dinnertime activity. It makes it hard to glean that perfectly balanced forkful of mash, meat, gravy and veg if you've got to manipulate your way around leg bones and breast bones and bits of cartilage first. So if you see pigeon, pheasant or grouse breasts in the butcher, I'd snap them up while you can. I even found goose breasts recently, which I'm indecently excited about cooking - watch this space.
This salad is made special by the addition of two things: spiced seeds, and rosemary salt. The former are simply pumpkin and sunflower seeds toasted in a little olive oil in a hot pan before being tossed with cinnamon and nutmeg. The spices seep into the oil and the seeds turn crunchy, golden, and wonderfully aromatic. They add a beautiful warmth and depth of flavour to the salad, plus a lovely crunchy texture.
Although the use of cinnamon and nutmeg in a salad might sound strange, you only get little bursts of it, and it makes the dish really special. For other recipes you could experiment with the spices - I think a combination of paprika and chilli would make the most incredible spiced seeds to scatter over a roasted vegetable salad, or cinnamon and ginger for sprinkling over a bowl of warming porridge with chunks of apple or pear.
The rosemary (and garlic) salt adds a wonderful fragrant salty crunch to anything you sprinkle it on. Here, the rosemary and garlic work well with both the pheasant and the pears (pears and rosemary go wonderfully together), and the coarse grains of salt add another texture to the salad, as well as the saltiness to make all the flavours much more pronounced - the combination of rosemary salt and sweet caramelised pear is fabulous. I can't wait to try this salt over a roast lamb or pork joint, or sprinkled over a focaccia dough before it goes into the oven, but it's also good for anything that needs a little flavour boost.
To pears caramelised in a little butter and the remnants of the seed-toasting spices, I added cooked green beans, the pheasant meat, some thyme, the rosemary salt, the spiced seeds, and some sliced chestnuts. This was all tossed together over a high heat to warm through and allow the flavours to mingle slightly. While you're doing this, appreciate the lovely muted autumnal colours - golden spice-flecked pears, jade beans, russet chestnuts, and bronzed seeds. To garnish, add ruby-red pomegranate seeds - both for colour and a little sweetness - and a little more salt.
Although this isn't perhaps the most orthodox combination of ingredients, it makes sense. Game goes well with fruit, as it provides a sweet foil to its rich meatiness. Game also goes well with chestnuts, which perform the same function, as well as contributing their delicious fudgy texture. Rosemary and thyme work well with almost all meat, but also pears. Cinnamon and nutmeg are warming autumn flavours that are a perfect match for both game and pears. Add all this together, with the fresh crunch of green beans, the snap of toasted seeds and the juicy bite of pomegranate seeds, and you have a salad that is as interesting to eat as it is delicious.
Although this basically arose from what I had in the fridge, it surprised me at being so much more than the sum of its parts. You have everything there - sweetness, saltiness, crunch, softness, meat, vegetables. It's nourishing yet substantial, perfect for colder weather when you want something a little healthier and more interesting than soup and bread, or a toasted sandwich. If you want to make it even more of a meal, add some cooked couscous or quinoa, or serve with good crusty bread.
Worth hunting down pheasant breasts for, I think.
Pheasant salad (serves 2, easily doubled):
- 2 cooked pheasant breasts* (see below for cooking instructions)
- 2 large handfuls of green beans, topped, tailed and halved
- Olive oil
- 2 tsp pumpkin seeds
- 2 tsp sunflower seeds
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- A knob of butter
- 2 small pears, cored and thinly sliced
- A couple of sprigs of lemon/normal thyme
- 1/2 tsp rosemary and garlic salt
- 80g cooked chestnuts, halved
- Seeds from half a pomegranate
Bring a pan of water to the boil and cook the green beans for 5 minutes or until tender but still with some bite. Drain and set aside. Slice the pheasant breasts into thick strips.
Heat 1tsp olive oil in a non-stick saucepan or frying pan, and add the seeds. Toast over a medium heat until they turn golden and start to pop, then add the cinnamon and nutmeg. Stir to coat the seeds, then remove from the pan and set aside. Add a knob of butter to the pan and add the pears. Cook over a medium heat until they start to caramelise (around 5 minutes). Add the green beans to the pan, then add the leaves from the thyme sprigs, the rosemary salt, the chestnuts, and the pheasant slices. Toss everything together over the heat for a couple of minutes, then divide between two plates. Scatter over the pomegranate seeds and a little extra salt and thyme, if you like, then serve immediately.
* To cook pheasant breasts, sear in a hot pan with a little oil for 2 minutes on each side, then place in the oven at 170C for 8 minutes. Remove, season, and leave for 3 minutes to rest before serving or slicing.
This is a pasta recipe that I need to rave about. It's bloody amazing. I ate it on the sofa, greedily, from a bowl balanced precariously on my knee, whilst watching Downton Abbey. The combination was almost too joyous for my delicate nervous system to handle.
It's one of the best things I've ever made. It's the perfect comfort food dinner. It's surprising and wonderful. It has the perfect balance of flavours and textures. It can be eaten with just a fork. Starchy carbs are involved. It has a cheese sauce. There is bacon. All these are good boxes to tick, right?
I can't tell you how this somewhat bizarre combination of ingredients came about. It was a whim, and a mishmash of things I know work together, added to some other things I know work together. It was also designed with the express intention of using up leftover pears: thanks to my lovely box delivered from Fruitdrop, who organise fruit delivery in London and the UK, I have a glut of fruit that is likely to turn mouldy before I have a chance to eat it all.
Pears are one tricky fruit - they are edible for about a day, but too early or too late and they are either rock-hard or floury in the middle. Should you feel they are ripening at an alarming rate, stick them in the fridge and use them in a recipe.
There are numerous uses for pears in my kitchen. I eat them pure and unadulterated, preferably when they're at the state where I need a plate to catch the syrupy juice. I stir them, chopped, into porridge along with jewel-like dried cranberries and liberal gratings of nutmeg. I fold them into a buttermilk pancake batter along with raisins and toasted pecans, to be smothered in maple syrup. I tuck them into a tin of roasting partridge, to be eaten alongside the crisp-skinned burnished birds. I toss them into a crisp salad with goat's cheese and walnuts, or caramelise them and stuff them into thin cocoa-enriched crêpes.
This is a totally new use for pears. Pears and pasta? You think it's weird. I know you do. Don't lie to me.
But pears go with blue cheese. The salty cheese and their sweetness work so well. Bacon goes with blue cheese - this is a classic. Blue cheese and pears both go with fennel, adding saltiness and sweetness respectively to balance the sharp, aniseed freshness of it. I just decided to combine all these things in one mad, luscious plateful.
I made a blue cheese sauce for the pasta, using a lovely new cheese called 'Yorkshire Blue'. I've just moved up to Yorkshire to start my PhD (it's terrifying and exciting simultaneously), and am a huge fan of all the wonderful local produce, so it just made sense to incorporate a nice Yorkshire cheese in this dish. You could, of course, use any blue cheese. This was stirred into hot penne pasta, where it clung silkily to the quills, glistening with salty promise. There were bits of crispy bacon. There were shards of soft fennel and pear, caramelised with a little brown sugar and olive oil in a hot pan. There were some walnuts, crumbled over the top for texture (because pears go with walnuts, and walnuts go with blue cheese and bacon - it's just logic, people).
I knew it would be good as soon as I stirred it all together, but I wasn't quite prepared for just how good.
This is a taste sensation. You get the creamy, salty blue cheese sauce, which is wonderful in itself. You add the salty bacon - always good. But then the whole rich, salty lot is balanced by the deliciously crisp, sweet fennel and the even sweeter buttery pear. If you think fruit and pasta is just plain wrong, I urge you to try this. The pear is so soft that it clings to the strands of pasta and is barely noticeable as fruit; instead, it lifts the whole dish to something memorably sublime.
This has gone straight to the top of my favourite pasta recipes, which is a difficult list to top. I'm pretty proud of it, and I would wholeheartedly beg you to give it a go, especially if you have a Fruitdrop fruit delivery and therefore some pears to use up. You'll be pleasantly surprised.
Pasta with blue cheese, bacon, caramelised pear and fennel (serves 1, easily doubled):
- 100g penne pasta
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- Half a medium bulb of fennel, shaved thinly on a mandolin
- 1 ripe but firm pear, cored and thinly sliced
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- 2 rashers bacon (I used smoked), finely diced
- Half a glass of white wine
- 2 heaped tbsp creme fraiche
- 50g blue cheese, crumbled (I used Yorkshire Blue)
- Black pepper
- 1 tbsp chopped walnuts (optional)
Bring a large pan of water to the boil and add the pasta. Cook according to the packet instructions until al dente, reserving a little of the cooking water.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan and add the fennel. Cook for a couple of minutes on a medium heat until softened, then add the pear and brown sugar and cook over a high heat until the pear starts to caramelise. Remove and set aside.
Add the bacon to the hot pan and cook until starting to crisp up. Pour in the white wine and let it reduce by half, then add the creme fraiche. Cook gently until it starts to thicken, then add the blue cheese and black pepper.
When the pasta is ready, drain and add to the sauce in the pan with a teaspoonful of the cooking water. Return the pear and fennel to the pan, and the walnuts (if using). Toss together and serve immediately.
1. Jordan's Super Fruity Granola. To mark their 40th anniversary of making granola, Jordan's commissioned a 'Perfect Breakfast' survey to find out what us Brits consider our ideal morning. Nearly half of the 2000 people surveyed considered a bowl of healthy cereal their perfect breakfast, and needed an hour and five minutes between waking up and leaving for work to be fully relaxed. Favourite breakfast pastimes include reading the paper and watching the news, but it also gets more specific - being made a cup of tea by someone else and not having to wear a coat outside are also ingredients for the ideal weekday morning, while guaranteed threats to such a morning include a bad night's sleep, running out of milk, or stubbing one's toe. I can agree with pretty much all of these, except I like to make my own cup of tea - I'm fussy like that.
Apparently only a tragic 30% of us would refuse to leave the house without a healthy breakfast. That means 70% of the people out there are running around without having sat down to a proper breaking of their fast. I physically cannot comprehend such a notion. If I don't eat breakfast, I'm a danger to myself and others. Perhaps to combat this sad statistic, Jordan's have released two new tempting varieties of their granola: Super Fruity and Super 3 Seeds. I was kindly sent a sample of the former to try, which features sweet, toasty oats baked in honey and offset by a tongue-tingling mixture of pomegranate, raspberry and redcurrant pieces. I enjoyed it enormously - granola can often be too sweet, but this has just the right balance of sweet crunchiness and acidity from the fruits. They are really quite tangy, but the whole thing works together perfectly and will definitely provide the much-needed morning wake up call for the average Brit, who apparently snoozes for around 8 minutes after the alarm goes off before rising.
2. South African apples and pears. This lovely hamper arrived from the people over at South African Fruit the other day, so I've been feasting on delicious crisp Gala apples and Forelle pears, which I particularly like because I think you pronounce it as 'For Elly', therefore clearly this type of pear is destined to be eaten by me. It's nice to have some decent apples and pears to fill the gap before the English ones start to come into season in the early autumn. The Forelles have a beautiful blushing skin and sweet flesh. I quite like them in savoury dishes - they go very well thinly sliced and tossed with wafer-thin fennel, chopped mint, pomegranate seeds and a mustard vinaigrette to make a crunchy and zesty summer salad that works with all kinds of meat and fish. The apples I just ate pure and unadulterated - I sometimes find the Gala variety a bit bland, but these were really crunchy and juicy.
4. Recovering from kitchen disasters. A couple of days ago I decided to make a cake for my mum. Specifically, this amazing lemon drizzle cake that I've made a few times and is just utterly perfect in every way (there's a reason it's received 1041 five-star reviews on BBC Good Food...). It is incredibly moist and buttery, with a gorgeous crunchy lemon tang from the sugary topping. Normally I double the mixture and make two at once, but this time I just made a single quantity. As I poured it into my loaf tin I was a bit worried that the tin was basically full and there would be no room for the cake to rise, but I casually dismissed it in my mind and stuck it in the oven.
Twenty minutes later, I was horrified to see batter overflowing from the tin in a volcanic fashion, pooling and baking on the oven floor. There was no way the cake was going to bake properly in that way. So I hastily pulled it out of the oven and scooped about a third of the still-liquid batter out of the baking cake tin and put it into another loaf tin, thereby breaking the First Rule of Cake Baking: do not open the oven door while it's cooking.
Predictably, the main cake sank horribly the middle. We're talking a proper crater, something that might appear if a small asteroid had hit the cake. The second, improvised cake came out pretty flat, as there wasn't that much batter to fill the tin. It wouldn't have been great as a cake on its own, because it had gone slightly crunchier and more biscuity, lacking the moist centre that makes its bigger brother so special.
Rather than throw it away, which I couldn't bear, I improvised. I cut it into cubes, put it into dessert glasses, and sprinkled it with sherry. I threw a few handfuls of juicy raspberries on top, then smothered the lot in thick cream. A sort of raspberry lemon trifle, with emphasis on the 'sort of'. I've never actually made a real trifle; this is probably the closest I will ever get.
But apparently it tasted great. What's more, it looked beautiful too - much more beautiful than in its flat cake form. It just goes to show that not all kitchen disasters are disasters - some are simply the wonderful origin of a new, unintended, but nevertheless delicious dish.
5. Getting ready for my new kitchen. I'm moving house in October, to start my PhD at the University of York. I have a lovely little house awaiting me, five minutes from the gym (with heated outdoor pool!) and - more importantly - ten minutes from some fabulous Asian grocers. Finally, I will have a kitchen that is entirely my own. No more sharing with horrible dirty people who leave my pans full of oil for fifteen days or casually leave the freezer open overnight. No more asking my friends to sit on upturned bins around the table because there are only six proper chairs. No more coming upstairs in the morning to find the cleaner has thrown away my baking parchment. Thank the lord.
Naturally, this means a quick re-evaluation of all the kitchen items I possess, and a shopping spree for further essentials (such as a Le Creuset teapot). Recently acquisitions include a sexy red Gaggia coffee machine and a Magimix food processor, which I found on eBay and was a total bargain. My little Kenwood blender, which struggles even to turn bread into breadcrumbs, is no match for this beast, and I am looking forward to putting it through its paces and making some blended delights.
Like I said, I can't wait to have a kitchen all to myself. It's going to be wonderful.
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.
I think I may have been a salamander in a previous life, because I just love smoke.
Smoked anything. Anything, for me, is better if it's smoked. Buying bacon? I always go for smoked, even if a recipe specifically calls for unsmoked. Haddock? Smoke it, it makes it better. (Obviously by that I mean hang it up in a room over burning things to give it a unique aroma, rather than stick it in a pipe and inhale it). Smoked garlic has the most incredible rich scent, though I've always found that it mellows disappointingly if you cook it. If you've never tried smoked chicken, you don't know what you're missing. It's like eating barbecue chicken without having to actually barbecue it. Try it in this amazing smoked chicken and mango rice salad. When I don't want to splash out on smoked chicken, I go for mackerel instead. I love mackerel in all its forms, but particularly when it's scattered in firm, meaty flakes over a salad. Smoked trout is a lovely alternative, much more mild but still possessing the richness to accompany ingredients such as eggs or asparagus.
These are all fairly standard. What I particularly love is finding an unusual smoked ingredient. Smoked quail eggs are something I tried recently, and found utterly addictive and wonderful. There's something about the way the bittersweet tang of the smoke couples with the creaminess of the egg that makes for an incredible taste experience. I once found a jar of smoked roasted peppers in oil, which were sweet, slippery, smoky and delicious. In Italy I sampled smoked swordfish, sliced wafer thin and arranged in succulent, gossamer-like folds on a plate, drizzled with olive oil and tasting simultaneously of smoke and of the sea. I've been eyeing up smoked sardine fillets in the deli section of M&S for months, not quite able to bring myself to splash out on them (no pun intended) but knowing it's inevitable as I can't resist the allure of smoke.
Essentially, if I see 'smoked' before any ingredient, it's going in my mouth.
Smoked duck is a new and firm favourite. Fresh duck breasts are one of my all-time favourite ingredients, mainly because they're quick to cook, can partner with exotic fruity flavours (try this lovely smoked duck, fig and mozzarella salad, for example), and can be served pink and bloody.
I also think I might have been a T-Rex in a previous life, given my penchant for meat that is basically still moving.
You can sometimes find smoked duck sold pre-sliced, but in my opinion it's much better to buy a whole smoked duck breast and slice it yourself. It's fresher, sweeter, and more tasty. I'm lucky enough to find them at my butchers, but you can sometimes get them in good delis or supermarkets. The organic butcher in the Covered Market in Oxford (one of my favourite haunts when I was at university) sells whole smoked chickens vacuum-wrapped for about a fiver. These are a total bargain and there's nothing more satisfying and aromatic - or more oily - than sitting down with the whole bird and rampantly stripping chunks of succulent perfumed meat from its carcass. Memories like this make me miss Oxford the most. Not those of my friends or anything, they pale in comparison to a large hunk of smoked poultry.
I came up with this salad because I wanted to find a recipe to use this gorgeous chocolate and vanilla infused balsamic vinegar from the Gourmet Spice Company, whose blackberry and rosemary balsamic I wrote about recently. They're not asking me to write this, I should add - I just bloody love their flavoured balsamic vinegars.
Chocolate and vanilla...in balsamic vinegar? You may think it sounds mad. But then you obviously haven't dipped your finger (or a piece of bread, if we're being hygienic here) in this heavenly elixir and had a taste.
The richness of the cocoa is the perfect match for the deeply flavoured balsamic, which has a hint of dark sweetness anyway that is perfectly complemented by the flavour of cocoa. The hint of vanilla gives the whole thing a pleasantly light, fruity taste. It blurs the line between sweet and savoury in an unusual and delicious way.
I came up with this salad essentially by thinking of all the things that I know work well with chocolate, and putting them on a plate together. Pears and chocolate are one of the most heavenly combinations known to mankind. Nuts obviously work well too, particularly walnuts whose bitterness counteracts the sugar content. But would you ever have thought of duck and goat's cheese working with chocolate?
It's not too surprising; venison and chocolate is a well-known pairing, and duck has a similarly rich gamey flavour. Smoked duck has even more depth, and is so rich that it desperately needs something to stop it cloying; enter chocolate. Goat's cheese works amazingly well; something about its light tanginess is excellent against the darker, deeper aroma of cocoa.
I caramelised some sliced pears in a little butter and brown sugar. I mixed these with slices of smoked duck breast, a handful of rocket, crumbled walnuts, chunks of soft goat's cheese, and a generous drizzle of the chocolate and vanilla balsamic. I tried making a vinaigrette using rapeseed oil, as its flavour isn't too intrusive, but I found that the oil made the whole thing rather greasy and unpleasant, totally detracting from the flavour of the vinegar. This beautiful vinegar is sweet and mild enough that it doesn't need anything else; you can splash it, unadulterated, over your salad.
I was sceptical that all these ingredients would work in harmony, but I needn't have been. Instead, I was rewarded with one of the most invigorating, delicious and unusual salads I've ever made. There's a perfect marriage of textures - dense meat, soft tangy cheese, crunchy walnuts and juicy, grainy pear. There's a gorgeous relationship between all the individual flavours, which stand out on their own and combine beautifully with the chocolate and vanilla. The acidic, cocoa-rich bite of the vinegar prevents the combination being too rich or confused, bringing everything together.
Plus I think it looks beautiful, with all its different colours and textures. If you can't get hold of this vinegar (you can order it online), try using ordinary balsamic and warming it with some grated extra dark chocolate. I promise you, this is an incredible salad; you need to try it soon.
Smoked duck, goat cheese, pear and walnut salad with chocolate & vanilla balsamic (serves 2):
- 2 medium pears
- A knob of butter
- 2 tsp brown sugar
- 1 large smoked duck breast, thinly sliced
- 150g soft, mild goat's cheese
- A large handful of walnuts, toasted if you like
- 75g rocket, spinach or watercress (or a mixture)
Chocolate & vanilla infused balsamic vinegar (or normal balsamic - you could grate in a little strong dark chocolate and warm it to get the flavour)
First, make the caramelised pears. Quarter the pears, cut out the core and slice lengthways into slices about 5mm thick. Heat the butter and sugar in a non-stick frying pan until bubbling, then add the pears. Cook over a high heat until caramelised on one side, then turn over and cook for another couple of minutes, until soft and golden.
Arrange the salad leaves between two plates. Arrange the slices of duck breast and pears on the plate, then scatter over chunks of goat's cheese and the toasted walnuts. Before serving, drizzle with the balsamic.
1. Tracklements Pear & Perry chutney. If you're feeling a bit jaded by the world of condiments, this is one for you. It's much lighter tasting than a traditional chutney, which I often feel can be rather overpowering in its flavour and end up masking the ingredient you want it to complement. Made with British pears and a 'generous dash' of Perry (pear cider), this chutney is lovely and sweet with a delicate fruity flavour and lots of nice textures - tender pieces of onion and juicy sultanas that burst in the mouth, plus a little kick from mustard, ginger and cinnamon. Tracklements recommend pairing it with salty cheeses like mature cheddar or Pecorino; I found it worked beautifully with a mild goat's cheese. I'd also suggest serving it with cold meats, particularly pork.
2. Café No. 8, York. My boyfriend and I stumbled upon this fantastic cafe/restaurant when we visited York back in October. I returned again last week, with fond memories of a truly gorgeous sandwich I'd eaten. It was no ordinary sandwich - the bread was a thick, doughy flatbread, encasing soft chunks of goat's cheese and marinated artichokes. The lovely oil from the artichokes soaked into the dough and covered my fingers, leading to many messy but sublime mouthfuls.
This time I had a sort of bruschetta featuring an unlikely combination of ingredients: goat's cheese, rhubarb chutney, lemon oil, and fresh figs. I'd never have thought of pairing all those together, considering it overkill, but it worked harmoniously and was so good. For dessert, one of the best cheesecakes I've ever had. The ratio of biscuit base to creamy filling was nearly 1:1, which is the holy grail of cheesecakes and one as elusive as it is wonderful. There was a thick, creamy topping, quivering slightly but still holding its shape, a topping of gooseberry compote - I bloody love gooseberries - and - it gets better - crumble. Thick shards of buttery crumble, scattered over the top. Just in case this wasn't decadent enough, the whole thing was drizzled with cream. I absolutely devoured it and am still thinking about it a week later.
So it's lucky that I'll be moving to York in October to embark on a three-year PhD. I have a feeling this place is going to be my regular haunt. If you're in the area, do visit - you won't be disappointed.
3. South African fruit. I was lucky enough to be sent a gorgeous hamper of plums and nectarines from South African Fruit recently. South Africa, with its Mediterranean climate and quality soil, has a thriving fruit industry that produces nectarines, peaches, plums, apples, pears and grapefruits. I've seen South African produce in shops and supermarkets but never really thought twice about it, until now.
The fruits arrived nestled in wrapping, beautifully cosseted and snug in their little basket. I could smell their perfume as soon as I opened the box. Normally a bit sceptical about imported fruit - especially plums and nectarines which have a tendency to be a bit woolly and bland even when home-grown - I found these ripe, juicy, and fragrant. I usually like to post a recipe featuring products I've been sent, but I'm afraid in this case I didn't want to do anything more than eat the fruit. It was so delicious and perfect on its own that I couldn't bring myself to adulterate it in any way. Next time you're in the fruit aisle of the supermarket, have a look for the South African fruit and enjoy a little taste of summer in the cold winter and spring months.
4. Smoked quail eggs. I found these at the East Anglia food festival a couple of months ago and oh, are they addictive. Can't imagine a smoked egg? Imagine eggs and smoky bacon. There's all that rich, meaty smoky flavour, yet without the bacon. They're utterly fabulous and so moreish, giving a rich flavoursome bite to anything you pair them with. I used mine in a potato salad, with celery, dill, cucumber, broccoli and green beans, all in a tangy mustardy vinaigrette. It was one of the best impromptu meals I've ever made, with the eggs the real star of the show. If you ever see smoked eggs, or know someone with a smoking kit, get your hands on some and be amazed.
5. Thinly sliced fennel. Although not so cool when it causes you to lose the tip of a finger, fennel shaved wafer-thin on a mandolin is my current vegetable of choice for meals. I love coating it in a vinaigrette of olive oil, mustard and lemon juice and tossing with smoked mackerel and segments of blood orange, or with cooked salmon and pomegranate seeds. It's also wonderful mixed with thin slices of pear and pomegranate seeds - I ate this with a veal burger, and the combination was heavenly.
Prepared this way, with a little acidity to sharpen it up a bit, fennel is fabulous with all sorts of protein - smoked fish (mackerel, trout and salmon), smoked meat, cooked meat of all varieties but especially lamb, beef and chicken, fish in general (oily or white) - and also with cheese (mozzarella, feta and goats' work particularly well). Add something to give it a bit of fruity bite, like orange or grapefruit segments or slices of apple or pear, and you have lunch or dinner in almost an instant. It has a pleasant crunch that makes it infinitely refreshing, and a lovely mild aniseed flavour that is the perfect foil to rich meat, fish or cheese. Plus its pale green tendrils look beautiful in salads.
(Recipe inspired by Diana Henry's version, here)
Wrap tightly in clingfilm then put in a dish. Find something that will fit inside the dish that you can place on top of the salmon – if using a round dish, a plate should work; if using a square dish, a small chopping board – then put it on top of the fillets and place several weights on top (you can use tin cans).
I realise this post probably requires an explanation.
Because, of course, nobody in their right mind would want to be cooking, let alone eating, a cobbler right now. Nobody in their right mind would want to be eating anything at all right now. Maybe a few salad leaves and a piece of fruit. But certainly not anything involving butter, nuts or dried fruit soaked in alcohol. I think I've had enough dried fruit soaked in alcohol to last at least until next Christmas. Everywhere I go, it's there, haunting me. Mince pies. Christmas cakes (why, oh why, did I decide to make TWO?). Christmas puddings (again, I made TWO). Stollen. My body yearns for sweet release from this culinary captivity, yet somehow I can't help myself.
Generally I have pretty good willpower. I have on several occasions got up bright and early after a very late night out, having had only four hours sleep, and cycled to the swimming pool to do sixty lengths before breakfast. Last weekend, after six days skiing and a 17-hour coach journey back from the Alps (again, involving approximately four hours sleep), instead of collapsing in bed with a cup of tea, I hurried to the swimming pool (and there discovered just how many muscles I'd damaged on the slopes). I'm pretty good at saying no to sugary and enticing foodstuffs unless I'm actually hungry or have been pretty physically active that day.
But waft the aroma of a freshly baked mince pie or loaf of stollen in my face, and I am powerless.
It's a sad cycle of despair and gratification, trying to decide if the sheer momentary pleasure of biting through a flaky, buttery crust to reach a pool of molten, sweet, sticky fruit is worth the subsequent (and much less fleeting) self-loathing, paranoia, and frenetic examination of my expanding hips in the mirror.
I blame the devil on my shoulder, telling me to lighten up (ironic, considering Christmas fare is anything but light) and just enjoy the festive season instead of worrying about what a few (OK, probably about twenty) mince pies will have done to my normally OK physique.
So I am trying not to be totally neurotic about the whole thing. However, I cannot deny that I do feel replete to the point of discomfort after Christmas. It's not just the sweet stuff, but the sheer onslaught of meat I have been forced to withstand, considering I normally only eat the stuff about three times a week. Roast turkey, yes, but also sausagemeat stuffing, sausages wrapped in bacon, sprouts with a bacon and chestnut crust, a whole baked ham, Mum's homemade sausage rolls. And then, for no apparent reason, my family decided we had to have a roast rib of beef for dinner, two days after Christmas lunch. Even the carnivores in my family seemed defeated by it, and much smaller portions were had than would normally be the case if we'd eaten this lovely roast any other time of the year.
Alas. So, you're probably wondering why on earth I've been baking pear and mincemeat cobblers during this troubling time. Well, the simple answer is that I haven't, actually. I made these a week or so before Christmas, when I was still in the midst of a rapturous love affair with mincemeat, nuts, baking and autumnal fruits.
I'm sharing them with you now for two reasons. Firstly, I imagine a lot of you probably have a bit of leftover mincemeat, can't face any more mince pies, and are wondering what to do with it. Secondly, if you've managed to be a bit more restrained than myself over Christmas, a lovely fruity dessert that still packs a festive punch might be just what you fancy.
Even in my mincemeated-out state, I can tell you that these are absolutely sumptuous. They take everything that is good about a mince pie, and almost make it better. Combining chopped ripe pear with the mincemeat and adding a little lemon juice takes the strong sugary and boozy edge off it, resulting in something much fresher, lighter and - I think - tastier. The toasted pecans add a gorgeous crunch and a lovely caramelly, nutty flavour that balances the tangy mincemeat perfectly. Adding a cobbler topping means you end up with a gorgeous fluffy scone-like dough that is soft in the middle and crispy on the top, soaked around its frayed edges with rich dark juice from the mincemeat and pears.
Scoop over some cold vanilla ice cream, and you have a fabulous dessert that is reminiscent of stollen, Christmas pudding and mince pies all rolled into one. Fluffy, sticky, dark and delicious.
And, amazingly, they're not even bad for you, really. My cobbler topping contains hardly any butter, using yoghurt to thicken it, and apart from that and the suet in the mincemeat there's no fat. OK, so you'd be better off with a solitary clementine, but relatively speaking, in the context of all those other Christmas delights, these are quite healthy.
Perhaps this is the perfect post-festive dessert, after all.
Do you have any interesting uses for mincemeat other than the classic mince pies? I'd love to hear them!
Pear and mincemeat cobblers (serves 4):
- 2 large/3 medium ripe pears (I used Comice)
- 125g mincemeat
- Juice of half a lemon
- Handful of pecan nuts, toasted in a dry pan and crumbled
- 100g plain flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Pinch of salt
- 15g cold butter, cut into cubes
- 15g light brown sugar
- 100ml plain yoghurt or buttermilk
- 4 tsp demerara sugar
- Ice cream, to serve
Pre-heat the oven to 180C (170C fan oven).
Cut the pears into small cubes - you don't need to bother peeling them, but discard the core. In a bowl, mix them with the mincemeat, lemon juice and pecan nuts. Divide them between four 200ml ramekins (or if you don't have ramekins, just make a single large cobbler in a baking dish) and place in the oven for 10 minutes until the fruit has softened and released quite a bit of juice.
In a separate bowl, sift the flour with the baking powder and a pinch of salt. Add the butter and rub it in with your fingers until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the brown sugar. Mix in the yoghurt or buttermilk until you have a thick, scone-like dough.
Remove the ramekins from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Divide the dough mixture between the ramekins, dolloping it roughly on top (it doesn't have to cover all the fruit - in fact, it looks nicer when you can still see some luscious fruit bubbling up through the top). Sprinkle with the demerara sugar.
Bake in the oven for 25 minutes or until the cobbler is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling. Leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving with vanilla ice cream.
It may not be very cool to say so, when the general trend appears to be to moan about it as much as possible, but I love Christmas. In fact, I love the few weeks before the big day more than the day itself. There are twinkly lights in the Cambridge streets, Christmas songs playing in the shops, cranberry sauce sitting in the fridge, and two heavy, alcohol-sodden Christmas cakes maturing happily in one of my kitchen cupboards. We were very organised this year and made the cakes a huge six weeks in advance, to allow time for 'feeding' them with copious quantities of brandy and rum - brandy for Delia's classic version; rum for a truly scrumptious-smelling tropical version by Fiona Cairns, resplendent with jewel-like chunks of dried mango, apricot, pineapple, dates and raisins and rich with the aroma of crystallised ginger, lime zest and treacle. I can't wait to get my teeth into a slice of it, though I'll wait until it is thoroughly inebriated before I do so.
What better way to celebrate all things festive than with a dish that echoes a famous Christmas carol?
The 'partridge in a pear tree' notion holds fond memories for me. Two years ago I dressed up as a partridge in a pear tree for our URNU (University Royal Naval Unit) Christmas party. It was an inspired costume, even if I do say so myself. I wore a green dress (the tree), brown tights and boots (the tree trunk), a string of pears and leaves around my neck, and clipped a fake, feathered bird into my hair. Not only did I win the prize for best costume, but that was also the night my boyfriend and I got together - I can't help but think it was my avian sartorial ingenuity that sealed the deal.
Partridge are, of course, for life - not just for Christmas.
When I'm not exploiting their potential for Christmas costume possibilities, I'm plotting the best ways in which to devour them.
I found three brace of partridge for £11 at a butcher in Yorkshire a few weeks ago - an obscenely good bargain, which made this dish taste even more delicious. Like hunger, frugality is an excellent sauce.
I've cooked with partridge a few times, but don't have a true favourite recipe yet, so I decided to try one from Nigel Slater that I'd bookmarked when I bought his book Tender, Part II (pretty much my kitchen Bible, given my love of fruit in cooking). I couldn't resist the notion of coupling partridge with pear, in a nod to that classic carol. Some might argue there's something slightly morbid about that...a bit like serving rabbit on a bed of lettuce and carrots - Nigella Lawson has a recipe for "Peter Rabbit in Mr McGregor's Salad" which does just that. Try not to think about it too much.
The beauty of this partridge recipe is that it is quick and easy, but gives impressive and delicious results. The birds are basted with a herby butter to keep them moist, then wrapped in streaky bacon to seal in the juices. They are roasted with herbs and slices of caramelised pear; the bacon is removed near the end to allow the skin to crisp up. The end result is an array of lovely little burnished birds, slices of crunchy bacon, and tender, juicy pear segments to contrast wonderfully with the grainy, gamey flesh of the birds. You also end up with some juices left in the pan, to which you can add a little redcurrant jelly and make a nice gravy.
This, for me, is what game is all about. Keeping the meat moist with some butter, using some lovely autumnal flavours (thyme, rosemary, juniper), and serving it with a fruity accompaniment. I also roasted some squash with rosemary and steamed some savoy cabbage to go alongside.
Autumn on a plate, with whispers to come of Christmas.
Roast partridge, juniper and thyme (serves 4):
(Adapted from Nigel Slater - recipe here and in 'Tender, Part II')
- 4 young, plump partridges
- 6 sprigs of thyme
- 4 sprigs of rosemary, leaves finely chopped
- 12 juniper berries
- 100g butter
- 8 rashers of streaky bacon
- 2 pears
- A squeeze of lemon juice
- 2 tbsp redcurrant, rowan or quince jelly
- A glass of vermouth or white wine
Check the birds all over before you start for any stray feathers or bits of shattered bone. Set the oven at 220C/200C fan oven.
Pull the leaves from the thyme branches and mash them with the juniper berries, rosemary, butter and a hefty pinch of sea salt and black pepper, using a pestle and mortar. Reserve a tablespoon for cooking the pears, then spread this butter all over the birds, and particularly on their breasts.
Lay the bacon rashers on a chopping board then stretch them with the flat of a knife blade to make them longer and thinner. Wrap them round the birds. Place in a roasting tin.
Cut the pears into thick slices, toss them in a little lemon juice, and cook briefly in a little of the herb butter in a shallow, non-stick pan. When both sides are pale gold, transfer them to the roasting tin. Roast for 20 minutes, then peel off the bacon, setting it aside if it is crisp enough or leaving it if not, then return the birds to the oven for a further 10 minutes.
Remove the tin from the oven and set the birds, bacon and pear to rest (I put them on a plate, covered with tin foil). Put the roasting tin over a moderate flame, drop in the jelly and let it melt into the pan juices, add a small glass of wine and stir to dissolve the pan-stickings. Bring to the boil, put the birds and their bits and pieces on to warm plates, then spoon over the 'gravy'.
When I start to see gooseberries at the market, I get almost as excited as when I spy first season rhubarb at the market. I feel quite similarly about these two fruits: they're underrated, quintessentially British, and great fun to experiment with in all sorts of recipes, both sweet and savoury. They both work well with mackerel, they both make great jam, and they both add a pleasing tartness and vibrant colour to creamy or baked desserts. One of the classic partners for gooseberries is elderflower; I often wonder who first came up with this idea, but it does work: the elderflower gives a pleasing fragrance and sweetness to what can be a very sharp berry. It also helps to mellow the rather unpleasant aroma of cooked gooseberries; they taste great, but always smell a bit weird, rather like ripening tomatoes. After receiving a box of gooseberries in my organic veg box last week I decided to try them out in a cobbler, my favourite hot pudding. It may be June, but it's pretty damn cold: I'm not abandoning my cobbler in favour of a fool or a sundae just yet.
The recipe booklet in my veg box featured a pear and gooseberry crumble. I would never have thought of combining gooseberries and pears, but it makes sense. A crumble or cobbler with pure gooseberries might be a bit overpowering, as they are quite tart, and also turn to mush during cooking. The inclusion of pear provides some texture - it remains fairly crunchy if you don't pre-cook it - and their flavour is mild enough not to exclude the lovely gooseberries. They also have a nice fragrance about them that works well with the elderflower. You could use apples, but you wouldn't get the same effect.
I love the look of these pears; they have the most beautiful matt, russet skin, which usually suggests a fragrant specimen. I think they are the Bosc variety. I wasn't disappointed, and nibbled my way through a whole one while chopping them for the cobbler; they were quite crunchy, but still flavoursome. I didn't bother to pre-cook them, but if you like your fruit fairly soft and soggy in a crumble then you might want to. After topping and tailing nearly two kilos of gooseberries (a kitchen task second in tedium only to de-bearding three kilos of mussels), they went in two dishes with the chopped pears, a generous splash of elderflower cordial, and quite a lot of caster sugar - gooseberries are extremely unpleasant to eat raw, so you need quite a lot of sugar - the same goes for summer rhubarb. The fruit looked rather beautiful, sitting in the dishes with its frosty sprinkling of sugar. It also, as my friend observed, gave me the opportunity to "show off my Le Creuset collection". I bought a beautiful purple heart-shaped baking dish ages ago at the Le Creuset outlet store and hadn't used it before now.
For the cobbler topping, I rubbed butter into flour and baking powder, added brown sugar, then stirred in some natural yoghurt. This is actually a rather healthy dessert, as there's only a small amount of butter required. It's much less fattening than crumble, and I love cobbler because of the way the top cooks to give a nice crunch. It's essentially a sort of scone dough, dropped in spoonfuls on top of the fruit and left to spread out and fluff up in the oven. Adding demerara sugar to the top gives it a pleasing sugary crunch. You get a nice crisp crust with a lovely fluffy interior, and because it has less fat you can eat twice as much. Brilliant.
About half an hour later, I removed my bubbling cobblers from the oven. Perfect, apart from one small issue: gooseberries emit enough water when cooked to save Britain from drought for the entire summer. I hadn't considered that when I put the dishes into the oven. However, it's a problem easily solved: either add a couple of tablespoons of cornflour to the fruit when you mix it with the sugar and elderflower (it will form a sort of paste and look horrible, but persevere), or pre-cook the gooseberry and pear filling for a few minutes and remove the fruit from its juice with a slotted spoon. I'm not sure which would work best; next time I'll try the cornflour as it's easier. It doesn't really matter though - I just dished up the cobbler with a slotted spoon, so that each portion got all the fruit but wasn't drowning in watery juice.
Despite juiciness, this is really delicious. As I said before, you get a really nice contrast in texture between the squashy berries and the firm chunks of pear, as well as a contrast in tartness; the gooseberries are still quite sour, but the pear is lovely and sweet so they work very well. There's also a hint of sweet elderflower running through the whole thing. Add to that a golden, fluffy scone layer on top, soft underneath where the fruit juice has soaked into it, and you're pretty close to dessert perfection. All you need with it is some good vanilla ice cream - I thought about making a weird and wonderful flavour to go with it, but there are so many nice flavours going on in the cobbler that it would just complicate matters. This is the perfect summer pudding for when the weather consistently proves disappointing.
Pear, gooseberry and elderflower cobbler (serves 4):
- 4 pears, cored and chopped
- 500g gooseberries, topped and tailed
- 3 tbsp elderflower cordial
- 180g caster sugar
- 2 tbsp cornflour
- 140g plain flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 25g butter
- 25g light brown sugar
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 150ml buttermilk or natural yoghurt
- Demerara sugar, for sprinkling
Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Mix the pears, gooseberries, cordial, caster sugar and cornflour in a baking dish. In a separate bowl, rub the butter into the flour and baking powder until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the ginger and brown sugar. Add the buttermilk or yoghurt, and mix to form a fairly thick, sticky dough. Dollop this in spoonfuls on top of the fruit mixture in the baking dish - you don't have to completely cover it. Sprinkle generously with demerara sugar.
Bake for about 30 minutes, until the topping is golden and the fruit is bubbling around it. Serve with vanilla ice cream.
I promise I'll shut up about the royal wedding soon...but, then again, England shows no sign of shutting up about it, so I don't think I should have to either. Particularly when these sublime pancakes are involved. These are what I made and ate while watching William and Kate walk down the aisle. Indeed, we even had an iPad live streaming the wedding poised on the kitchen worktop so I could make the pancake batter while I watched the happy occasion - nothing, not even a regal marital union, can stand between me and my breakfast.
I've written about these pear pancakes before, but I think on Friday I finally created the ultimate version, so I feel the need to share it. I've tried many variations on the chunks-of-fruit-embedded-in-thick-batter theme (including apples and apricots), but the pear variety is hard to beat. It's infinitely better than apple, though I'm not sure why; I think it's the yielding graininess of the cubes of pear, coupled with their fragrant, perfumed juice. You don't get those qualities from apples, which can be too crunchy and sharp, or from apricots, which can be too soft and also too sharp.
I also decided to put in some blueberries and toasted hazelnuts. I've tried almonds before, but hazelnuts are much better because of their soft crunch and also their flavour. Pecans work equally well, but I didn't have any. The blueberries went in because I had some to use up, and because I thought their tartness would work well with the pears, though blackberries or raspberries would be excellent too.
The batter is a simple mix of flour, baking powder, egg, and a liquid such as buttermilk or yoghurt. I use buttermilk when I can find it, but this time I only had a tub of very thick Greek yoghurt. I have to say that I think it makes a better batter, because it's firmer and also has a tanginess that stops the pancakes from being too cloying. It needed a little milk to loosen it, though, because yoghurt isn't as runny as buttermilk. Finally, I grated in a lot of nutmeg, because I love it (would you have guessed?)
After the batter is mixed - I use an electric beater to avoid lumps - I add the fruit and nuts. In this case, a handful of blueberries and two pears, finely chopped. I leave the skin on because it adds a nice texture. The pears don't have to be too ripe for this, which is good, because ripe pears are nigh impossible to find unless you have a good greengrocer. I've never tried it with rock hard supermarket specimens, but halfway-ripe pears are fine - they soften in the heat of the pan. I have a simple trick to tell when a pear is ripe or not - rather than squeezing it, which usually tells you nothing unless it's ripe to the point of collapse, I just try and dig my fingernail into the flesh where the pear tapers out into the thinner end. I shouldn't really, I know, but it's not so bad - if the pear isn't ripe, you'll really struggle to dig your nail in, and so won't make any mark on the pear that has to go back on the shelf - no damage done. If it is ripe, your fingernail will make an indentation in the pear, but you'll be buying it anyway, so this slight scarring won't matter.
I use conference pears for this, normally, because they hold their shape, though firm Comice or Williams pears would work too. Stir the chunks of fruit and nuts through the completed batter, and you have pancake perfection almost ready to be realised. You end up with a very thick, lumpy mixture, but that's fine - it will be transformed by a little frying pan action.
All that's left to do is heat a little butter in a frying pan until sizzling, then dollop the mixture into the pan. You need less than you think, as it will spread quite a lot in the pan. I normally make these in about three batches, and have the oven on low (120C) with a baking dish ready to put the finished pancakes into. That way, they stay warm until I've finished with all the mixture. You know the pancakes are ready for flipping when small bubbles start to appear on the raw side of the batter. The beauty of putting them in the oven is that the inside cooks through fully - because the mixture is so thick, it can be hard to cook them all the way through in the pan without the edges burning. The oven accomplishes this, setting the yoghurt, egg and flour to a gorgeous fluffy centre. The best bit of the whole process is when the berries in the batter burst in the heat of the pan, oozing their gorgeous sugary juice.
I like these with copious drizzles of maple syrup, though golden syrup is a fine (and cheaper) substitute. I sometimes dust over some cinnamon or icing sugar, and sprinkle with more chopped nuts. This time, however, I just took the bottle of syrup to the table. I wasn't going to risk missing Will and Kate's vows because I was messing around chopping hazelnuts.
Pear, hazelnut and blueberry pancakes (serves 2):
- 130g plain flour, sifted
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 egg
- 200ml thick Greek yoghurt
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon or grated nutmeg
- Pinch of salt
- 2 conference pears, cored and finely chopped (peel too, if you like)
- A handful of blueberries or raspberries
- A handful of toasted hazelnuts or pecans, finely chopped
- Maple or golden syrup, to serve
Place the flour, salt and baking powder in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the middle, and crack in the egg. Use an electric whisk to mix the egg into some of the flour, then gradually add the yoghurt. You will end up with a stiff batter; add enough milk to loosen it slightly (about 4 tbsp should be enough). You still want it quite thick, rather like custard, not thin like a French crepe batter. Stir in the cinnamon or nutmeg.
Pre-heat the oven to 120C. Add the pears, berries and nuts to the batter, and stir in with a spoon until evenly mixed. Heat a large frying pan, and add a knob of butter. Heat until it's sizzling, spreading it around to coat the base of the pan. Dollop spoonfuls of the mixture onto the pan, leaving some space between each one. Cook for a couple of minutes, or until bubbles appear on the upper side, then flip over with a spatula and cook for another couple of minutes. Put in the oven to keep warm while you make the rest.
To serve, drizzle with syrup and scatter with some more chopped nuts, if you like. Best served for brunch with a huge cup of English breakfast tea, preferably while watching the royal wedding. God save the Queen (and pancakes).