Sometimes, you read a menu description that sends you into paroxysms of longing and desire, and has you practically gaping at the waitress as you urge her, wide-eyed, to come over and take your order instantly so that the kitchen can quicken the transition of your food from plate to mouth. These moments should be cherished, as they help to prevent that cursed state, the bane of many a food-lover’s life: menu indecision. It’s rare that I hand my menu over to the waitress feeling wholly confident that I’ve made the right choice; anything that can facilitate this state of total wellbeing is truly a blessing.Read More
Apologies for the slightly clickbaity, buzzfeedy title. You won’t BELIEVE what these herbs did next…number 5 will SHOCK you...et cetera. Ahem. As my interest in food has diversified into gardening and growing my own fruit and vegetables, I’ve discovered some wonderful edible treasures that you don’t often hear about but that are widely available in garden centres or the internet. These herbal beauties will transform your cooking. Many of them are variants of the more common herbs that we can buy in the supermarkets, but I’d encourage you to seek out these lesser-known varieties and give them a try. They can all be grown in pots, so you don’t even need a garden or a lot of space. They’re fabulous for adding new interest to old, staple dishes, or for becoming the star of a new recipe. You might be surprised at what you can grow for your cooking - even exotic Asian herbs can be cultivated in the UK with a little care.Read More
A couple of months ago, my boyfriend and I visited Oxford. It’s only the second time I’ve been back since finishing my Masters in 2011. The entire weekend was a glorious succession of sunshine, revisiting old haunts, catching up with friends, aching nostalgia, beautiful scenery and incredible food. While I diligently tried to return to as many of my favourite restaurants as possible, I also decided to try somewhere new. I’d read rave reviews on the internet of a place simply termed ‘Oli’s Thai’, and so we found ourselves tucked into this tiny restaurant on a sunny Saturday afternoon experiencing some of the best south east Asian food I’ve ever eaten…including that in south east Asia itself.Read More
There are two things I absolutely must do whenever I go travelling to a new place. Number one is to take cooking lessons from the locals. All the better if this takes place in gorgeous open-air surroundings by a Vietnamese river amidst gardens of fresh lemongrass and Thai basil and a swimming pool for when the exertion of cooking all gets too much, as I was once lucky enough to experience in Hoi An, but any form of cooking lesson is hugely exciting for me, even if it’s just a street food seller taking the time to demonstrate to me how they make their delicious wares. If they let me eat said wares along the way, even better.Read More
I'm a bit of a girl when it comes to my eating habits. I cook and eat mostly vegetarian food, I love nothing more than a good salad, I get excited about few things more than seafood and fish, I have absolutely no willpower when it comes to baked goods, and I very rarely tuck into a good hearty slab of red meat. I think I've only ordered steak in a restaurant once, at a tiny little bistro in the tiny little town of Chablis, having walked around in the pouring rain after a rather arduous trek from London involving the Eurostar and several country trains. In that sort of situation, steak pretty much sounds like the best thing in the world. It was France. It would be bloody, and come with ample carbs. There would be tarte tatin and cheese afterwards. I couldn't say no.
There is a lot to be said for a good steak. On the rare occasions I tuck into one, I ask myself why I don't do it more often. Few things have more savoury satisfaction than a slab of beef, crispy and charred around the edges, still melting and mooing in the middle. I used to work at a restaurant in Cambridge that produced some of the best steaks I've ever encountered - gigantic slabs of cow smothered in truffle butter and served with perfect chips. The smell as waitresses wafted them around the restaurant was intoxicating, a heady mix of bloody animal, butter, and rich, earthy truffle.
I've had a huge picanha steak in my freezer ever since receiving a gigantic hamper of meat in February. Picanha is a cut of beef popular in Brazil, and also known as the rump cap. The muscle over the top sirloin and rump, it is covered in a layer of thick fat which is often left on for cooking. Given that it must be a year since I ate my last steak, I figured it was high time to indulge (and clear a bit of freezer space at the same time).
While I believe one of the best and simplest ways to eat steak is with perfect chips and a divinely rich peppercorn sauce, I have neither the resources nor the energy to whip up chips and sauce in my kitchen. I knew it would probably only be disappointing, so I went for the next best way to serve steak: in a salad.
This might sound like an odd hybrid of girly food and MAN FOOD, but a steak salad is a great thing. The crispy, crunchy and tangy salad ingredients cut through the richness of the meat, and provide a meal that is never monotonous. Much as I love steak and chips, each mouthful is pretty much the same. I sometimes make a Thai-style salad with steak, with a tangy lime and fish sauce dressing, plenty of chilli and some crunchy green vegetables like cucumber and green beans. However, I didn't want to overpower this beautiful piece of meat with such strong flavours, so instead I basically put a load of delicious things in a bowl and slapped the bloody meat on top.
You may have remembered that in a recent post, I mentioned that I would be receiving fortnightly baskets of avocados to experiment with in the kitchen. This is part of a campaign to support and promote Peruvian avocados: nutritious and, as I hope to show, extremely versatile fruits. I'll be posting my recipes and thoughts both on here and on the Avocado Brotherhood blog.
Steak and avocado is a winning combination - the buttery blandness of the avocado works perfectly against the meat. Avocado works well in salads with pineapple, as I discovered recently - the combination of its creamy texture and slight sweet bitterness with the assertive tang of pineapple is fantastic. Blue cheese works very well with steak, and also with avocado (add bacon and you start entering sublime territory). I decided to combine all these flavours in one colourful bowlful, combined with peppery watercress, rocket and spinach, and a delicious dressing made from flavoursome olive oil and a little tangy cider vinegar and lime juice.
This is one of those meals that is very simple to put together, but when you sit down to eat it you're a little bit amazed at your sheer genius. For one thing, it's a completely beautiful plate of food - the jade avocado, bright pineapple with its caramelised char marks, snowy blue cheese...and that perfectly cooked, juicy meat sitting on top. Secondly, it's a ridiculously good combination of flavours, fresh and sweet and tangy without being cloying. The steak was perfect - I didn't time it, somehow using my cook's intuition to get it perfectly medium-rare, with the layer of fat on top rendered into perfect crispiness. I mean, look at the pictures - gorgeous, right?
Genuinely, if you asked me to choose between steak and chips, or this salad...I think you now know which I'd choose. Another 'why don't I eat steak more often?' moment...except now I know how easy this is to put together, I can guarantee I won't leave it a year this time before I eat steak again.
Steak, avocado, griddled pineapple and blue cheese salad (serves 2):
- Half a medium pineapple
- 3 tsp caster sugar
- 2 steaks (I used piranha, but sirloin would be good here)
- 100g spinach, watercress and rocket salad
- 1 ripe avocado
- 60g crumbly blue cheese
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp garlic-infused olive oil (or a small crushed garlic clove and add 1 tbsp extra olive oil)
- 1 tbsp cider vinegar
- A squeeze of lime juice
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
First, prepare the pineapple. Remove the skin and woody core, then slice into 0.5cm-thin slices. Toss in a bowl with the caster sugar. Get a griddle pan very hot, and griddle the pineapple slices on each side until caramelised and charred. Remove and set aside.
Griddle the steaks to your liking - I would suggest medium rare - then leave to rest for ten minutes while you make the salad.
Divide the spinach mixture between two plates or bowls. Halve the avocado, remove the stone, then slice into chunks and spoon out. Divide between the plates. Crumble over the blue cheese and scatter over the pineapple. Whisk together the olive oils, cider vinegar, lime juice, salt and pepper to make a dressing - taste for the right amount of tanginess, adding more lime or vinegar if necessary. Drizzle half the dressing over the salad and gently toss together.
When the steak is cooked and rested, slice thickly and arrange over the salad. Drizzle over the rest of the dressing, mixed with any of the steak juices, and serve immediately.
The other day, I found myself standing outside the Co-op near my house crying a little bit. I had been trying to lock up my bike, when it fell violently onto my leg, scraping off all the skin and hurting rather a lot (there is very little cushioning on a shin). It had generally been a pretty bad day, a day that started at 5.30am due to my inexplicably overactive mind deciding it needed no further rest, and which by 2pm had turned into - in my mind - a tragedy of epic proportions. Why had I not just gone straight home and avoided this painful bike scenario, I hear you ask? Well, obviously, I needed to buy two pineapples.
At the moment, I am completely obsessed with pineapple. It started with these pineapple pancakes, an attempt to assuage feelings of deep nostalgia after my trip to Vietnam. I ate quite a lot of pineapple over there - in pancake form but also in the smoothies that I became obsessed with, a fixture of my daily diet. You can also buy prepared pineapple in supermarkets over there, just like you can in the UK, but the Vietnamese have an interesting habit of eating underripe pineapple as a savoury snack, with salt and chilli - it would come shrink-wrapped accompanied by a little sachet of this spicy salt, for dipping. I prefer my pineapple sweet, though, hence the delight caused by its inclusion in breakfast pancakes.
After caramelising chunks of fresh pineapple with cinnamon, vanilla and brown sugar, a revelation occurred in my kitchen. While fresh pineapple is, of course, delicious - bursting with juice, sweet yet tart at the same time, bright and almost perfumed - having tasted its cooked and sugared form, I'm not sure I can possibly express how infinitely more wonderful pineapple is after a little heat treatment.
Then there was this recipe for chilli and ginger stir-fried pineapple, a dish I've made at least fifteen times since discovering it only a couple of months ago, which is something I can't say for anything else I've ever made. The combination is just ridiculously moreish, with the sour and salty notes of fish sauce and the aromatic ginger and garlic spiking the sweet juice of the fruit. I'm now a big fan of pineapple in savoury dishes, a combination found in this incredible Cuban-influenced caramelised pineapple and avocado salad recipe from the excellent Food 52: I stumbled across it recently and had to try the very next day.
It didn't disappoint; my favourite part was sprinkling thick wedges of the fruit with molasses sugar and caramelising them under the fierce heat of my grill, ramped up as high as it would go. The combination with the creamy, delicate avocado and the peppery watercress was something else.
A few weeks ago, I visited Dishoom, a fantastic 'Bombay Cafe' in Covent Garden. My menu choices were completely based around the fact that I knew I had to leave room for the pineapple crumble on the dessert menu. When it arrived, I was so glad I hadn't devoured a second bowl of lentil dahl. Underneath a deliciously buttery crumble lay a sweet, sticky blanket of caramelised pineapple, juicy and ridiculously tasty. The crumble crust was unusual in its texture, full of crunchy seeds and, I think, coconut, which added a beautiful dimension to this fabulous spin on a classic pudding. There was a hint of fragrant spice - the menu mentioned black pepper - which mellowed the acidic sweetness of the fruit. To top it all off, a scoop of cinnamon ice cream. It was one of the best desserts I've ever eaten.
So, naturally, I had to bring this combination of flavours into my own kitchen. And, incredibly, I think I got it absolutely right. It tasted exactly the same as the restaurant crumble. It's too good not to share. (The crumble itself, incidentally, is way too good to share - halve your estimation of how many people it will serve, right now).
When you melt butter in a pan and add molasses sugar (the really really dark, sticky, caramel-scented stuff), the world is instantly better. When you then add a sprinkling of cinnamon and a large amount of juicy fresh pineapple, it is almost too good to be true. When you then let that caramelise and turn soft, golden and toffee-esque, you may as well accept that few things will ever be as good. Finally, a splash of vanilla - heady, tropical fruity perfection. I added a dash of black pepper to my pineapple, to emulate the restaurant version - just enough to give the fruit a very slight spicy edge, but you'd never detect it was there unless you knew.
I've come across black pepper with pineapple before, in an Indian-style chutney. It works very well in dessert form too. Pineapple, though quite tart raw, is incredibly sweet once cooked with a little sugar; the pepper helps to mellow it a little, yet also allow its flavour to shine.
Tumble the pineapple into a baking dish. Then it's time for the crumble. This basically involved putting all the ingredients I love into a bowl. Spelt flour, for nutty flavour. Butter - of course. Demerara sugar, to give that all-important crumble crunch. Then we start to turn things a little bit sexy and exotic.
Ground cardamom, because its mellow fragrance works so well with all kinds of fruit and sweet confections. Desiccated coconut, an ingredient many people cannot spell and I wish would learn because it infuriates me. Sunflower seeds, for delicious nutty crunchiness and because I think the restaurant crumble had them, though it may have been pumpkin. Slivered pistachios, because they are green and pretty and I cannot think of anything that isn't improved by them (except perhaps a nut allergy).
Oh, the sweet goodness that was this crumble. I was thrilled with how it turned out, exactly as I was hoping. If I made it again, the only slight tweak necessary would be to add a little more butter to the topping - I used my normal crumble topping, but because I added a few extras (coconut, seeds, etc), I needed a little more butter to hold it together. It was, as I suppose it should be, quite crumbly, which is why it perhaps looks a bit of a mess in the photos. This had no impact, however, on the resulting taste. I've adjusted the recipe below to include a bit more butter.
Butter issues aside, the heady mix here of juicy, sticky, toffee-scented pineapple with an exotically spiced, crunchy, coconut-sweet, nutty crumble is just ridiculously good. For traditionalists who believe crumbles belong solely in the realm of orchard fruits or perhaps rhubarb, it's time to rethink things.
This is a dessert that will surprise and delight. The unexpected inclusion of pineapple in a crumble is pretty exciting alone, but when you combine that with the hint of peppery spice and the exotic allure of cardamom and coconut, you have something really special. I couldn't stop eating this. It's fabulous with vanilla ice cream, though one day I want to make cinnamon ice cream to go alongside, à la the restaurant original.
It's time to take pineapple out of the fruit salad and into the kitchen. If you haven't experimented with cooking this wonderful fruit before, I suggest you change this situation, starting with this crumble.
Definitely worth crying over outside the Co-op.
Spiced pineapple and coconut crumble (serves 4-6):
- 2 medium pineapples
- 25g butter
- 2 tbsp molasses sugar/dark brown sugar
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 160g plain/spelt flour
- 100g cold butter, cubed
- 50g demerara sugar
- 8 cardamom pods, seeds ground to a powder
- 80g desiccated coconut
- 25g sunflower seeds
- 1-2 tbsp cold water
- 40g pistachios, roughly chopped
First, make the pineapple mixture. Peel the pineapple and cut into small chunks, discarding the woody core. Heat the 25g butter in a large non-stick frying pan and, when melted, add the sugar and cinnamon. Add the pineapple and cook over a high heat, stirring, until soft, juicy and caramelised - about 5-10 minutes. It should have released a little bit of juice and be quite sticky and golden. Turn off the heat and add the black pepper and vanilla extract. Pour the fruit into a baking dish - I used a pie dish about 30cm in diameter.
Next, make the crumble. Pre-heat the oven to 170C. In a large mixing bowl, rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, cardamom, coconut and sunflower seeds, then stir in the cold water so that the mixture forms small 'pebbles'. Pour the mixture over the pineapple, gently pressing it down, then scatter over the pistachios.
Bake for around 35 minutes, until the topping is crispy and golden. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving with vanilla ice cream.
Have you ever discovered an amazing recipe a bit by accident? Say, found yourself with random ingredients to use up and located a recipe in one of your cookbooks that you wouldn't normally make but since you have all the ingredients you may as well? Or, at a loss for culinary inspiration, simply turned to a random page in said cookbook and picked something you wouldn't normally try, only to find it a wonderful addition to your repertoire? Or decided to give something a go because it sounded weird and used an odd combination of ingredients, and you were curious to know how it would taste?
This recipe came about a bit like that. One night, I was cooking amok (a Cambodian coconut-based fish curry steamed in banana leaves - it's insanely delicious) for a friend. Feeling guilty over a fresh pineapple languishing in the fridge and starting to turn a little brown in places, and sure that I could turn it into some kind of side dish to accompany the fish, I flicked through one of my Vietnamese recipe books, certain I had seen a recipe for a stir-fried pineapple dish.
Now, I love pretty much all fruit-in-savoury-dishes combinations, but I think pineapple has to be a particular favourite. In Vietnam, one of the absolute highlights of my travels was a dish of stir-fried seafood with onions, tomatoes and pineapple. It had a delicious sweet-sour flavour and the seafood was fresh, tender, sweet and succulent. Pineapple adds wonderful flavour to south-east Asian dishes, since they're often quite sour and spicy; the sweetness and caramel notes of fresh pineapple add a delicious dimension to the mix, particularly if there's coconut in the sauce - like a piña colada, only savoury and chewable.
This recipe is simple but so much more delicious and rewarding than you would expect for its simplicity. You stir-fry chopped ginger, garlic and chilli in a hot pan. This alone is going to make it good - nothing like that beautiful triumvirate of flavour to get a dish going. You then add fresh pineapple, keeping the heat high so it starts to caramelise on the outside. The colours are beautiful and golden, the fruit streaked with dark toffee colour, the fiery red of the chilli dotted throughout.
Then, the best bit. You pour on a dark and potent mixture of fish sauce, soy sauce, and dark brown sugar. This sizzles and bubbles in treacly waves, coating the pineapple and turning it a dark bronze, the smell of salt and toffee wafting up from the searing pan. As you continue to stir the sauce thickens and caramelises. You then add a squeeze of lime juice, to brighten everything up.
You can keep it simple and serve it just like this, as a side dish, sprinkled with toasted peanuts. The deep savoury flavour of the nuts contrasts beautifully with the sweet, sticky, slightly sour, salty pineapple. I like to stir in some spinach just as the sauce has thickened, where it wilts in the pan and is coated with the sauce. It adds fresh green colour, another texture, and also one more of your five a day - surely a plus.
Since I discovered this recipe a few weeks ago, I've made it at least ten times. This is a clear indication of its wonderfulness, because I rarely cook the same thing twice. But there's something about this dish I just can't get enough of. The flavours are incredible - the glaze on the outside of the pineapple is salty and slightly sour in your mouth, but when you bite into the pineapple it releases wonderfully sticky, toffee-scented juice. The peanuts are rich, toasty and nutty, providing crunch. There's heat from the chilli and ginger, just enough to make your lips tingle.
At the end, I like to scatter over some herbs. Mint and coriander work well, as does fresh basil, but my new love of late is sweet basil. I found this in an Asian grocer, and was not quite prepared for what would happen when I opened the packet and took a sniff.
I didn't think I'd tried sweet basil before. It turns out, I basically lived off the stuff when travelling around Vietnam. It's common when eating in a Vietnamese restaurant to be presented with a big plate of fresh herbs, water droplets clinging to the leaves, to add to your meal or just munch on as they are. Sweet basil leaves - darker green and more pointed than regular basil, with a purple tinge - were a staple. They have a very strong, assertive flavour, quite unlike Italian basil; it's hard to describe, but it's almost minty, somehow, with a hint of aniseed. One sniff of that bunch of leaves and I was back in Vietnam.
It's amazing how smell, more than any other sense, I think, has such a profound and involuntary effect on memory. There have been a few occasions in my life where I've been unexpectedly jolted back to a certain event or period of time, all through the sniff of a certain aroma. It sometimes leaves me reeling, particularly if the memory is an especially emotional one (and aren't they all, in a way?). This was no exception. I've been cooking with the sweet basil for days now, but the effect hasn't lessened in any way. Its scent is inextricably tied up with images, emotions, ideas from far away in my head. I actually went to the fridge and just stood there, inhaling the packet. A little weird, perhaps, but I am still pining for Vietnam and this is the closest I can get. A bunch of leaves. Strange how it's the small things.
But let's put aside the nostalgic meanderings of my mind. Sweet basil is also very good on this pineapple dish.
I would really urge you to try this soon. It's excellent as a side dish with various Asian recipes - it was amazing with the amok - but would be good with any kind of Asian-spiced fish dish, or with chicken or pork. Although it's quite assertive in its flavours, its sweetness provides a fresh, pleasant contrast to anything spicy, creamy or meaty. I also think it would be very good with cubed firm tofu, fried in a hot pan until golden and slightly crispy around the edges, and served over rice or noodles. Or with seared spicy lemongrass prawns.
One of my favourite ways to eat this, though, is simply poured into a big bowl of cooked rice noodles, where the juices coat the slippery strands, their comforting blandness a welcome foil to the hot, sweet, sour, sharp, salty flavours of the caramelised fruit and wilted spinach. I scatter over the toasted peanuts, squeeze over some lime, and pile shredded sweet basil over the top. I sit down with this big bowlful, some wooden chopsticks that I bought in Vietnam, and am a little bit in love.
Chilli and ginger stir-fried pineapple (serves 1 as a lunch with rice/noodles; 2 as a side dish):
- 1 clove garlic
- Half a red chilli (or more, depending how spicy you like your food)
- 20g fresh ginger
- 1 tbsp rapeseed or groundnut oil
- Half a medium pineapple
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp dark brown sugar or palm sugar
- A large handful spinach or baby spinach
- 2 tbsp peanuts, toasted in a dry pan and roughly chopped
- The juice of half a lime
- A few leaves of Thai/sweet basil (or normal basil if you can't find it), shredded, to serve
Finely chop the garlic, chilli and ginger. Remove the skin and woody core from the pineapple and chop into small chunks. Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan or wok and fry the ginger, garlic and chilli over a medium-high heat until starting to colour. Add the pineapple and cook until starting to caramelise.
Mix the fish sauce, soy sauce and sugar in a small bowl or jug, then tip into the pan - it should sizzle and bubble. Stir to coat the pineapple in the mixture, then cook for a minute or so until everything has turned dark and sticky. Add the spinach and cook for a minute or so until wilted.
Squeeze over the lime juice and stir well, then serve garnished with the toasted peanuts and shredded basil.
I've just returned, jet-lagged and completely dazzled by my month-long trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. I'll be posting more about my trip in due course, but for now I want to share a little post about breakfast, my favourite meal of the day; particularly when the day promises to be a hot and humid one full of stunning scenery, tasty food and Asian splendour.
Breakfast in Vietnam falls into two categories: what the locals eat, and what you find in all the hotels catering for Western palates. In the former category you have pho, the 'national dish of Vietnam', a rich meaty broth housing a comforting combination of slippery rice noodles, fresh herbs, and tender pieces of (usually) chicken or beef. (More on this in another post - I too, with my Western sweet tooth, was sceptical about the notion of noodles for breakfast, but I soon became a convert.)
In the latter category, you have the usual suspects such as eggs, omelettes and baguettes, but also recognisably Western dishes given a bit of tropical flair, like these pineapple pancakes.
I first sampled these pancakes at our hotel in Hanoi. I was a little sceptical, I admit, about ordering a menu item that simply read 'pineapple pancake'. Can you guess why? Yes, dear readers who know me and my boundless greed: because it was in the singular. One pancake is simply not sufficient for my morning appetite. A bit like I'm incapable of ever ordering only one scoop of ice cream, a habit that has earned me the somewhat unflattering nickname 'Triple-Scoop McCausland'.
However, I persevered, because it's simply impossible to go hungry in Vietnam: should the single pancake prove insufficient, I thought to myself, I'll just go to the smoothie bar at the end of the road and get a papaya and coconut cream smoothie (as incredible as it sounds). Or get a plump, ripe mango from one of the many streetside fruit sellers. Or a baguette from the numerous French-inspired bakeries.
I was wrong to doubt our lovely hotel. A few minutes later I was presented with two fat pancakes, rather like crêpes but thicker, into which slices of pineapple had been pressed as the batter was cooking, resulting in sweet golden streaks of caramelised fruit. If you've only ever eaten pineapple raw, without subjecting it to the transformative treatment of heat, sugar, butter, and possibly a little vanilla, a splash of rum, a squeeze of lime or a sprinkling of cinnamon, then you need to sort your life out.
Pineapple when cooked transforms into the most utterly delectable, sweet, tangy, juicy mouthful. Combine this with a soft pillow of pancake batter and you have a dreamy plate of tropical sunshine.
I ate these beautiful creations again during our stay at Phong Nha Ke Bang national park (see photo below), my favourite stop of the whole trip and a place I'm sure I'll be telling you more about. Here I was given a plate of four, which was lucky because we'd just arrived from the overnight train and were feeling a little, well, ravenous (also sweaty, greasy and disgusting, but the hunger thing was the most pressing issue). They came rolled up into little cigars, each one boasting a golden and juicy centre of caramelised pineapple. This is what I've tried to recreate here.
This is a highly simple recipe, but one of those that is more than the sum of its parts. You make a simple crêpe batter (milk, eggs, flour), cook it into pancakes slightly thicker than the delicate French variety, then fill the lot with chopped pineapple that has been cooked over a high heat with a little butter, some brown sugar, a pinch of cinnamon and a drop of vanilla. It turns sweet, jammy and delicious; a beautiful contrast to the thick and comforting squidgyness of the pancakes.
I made these three days after my return from Vietnam, to try and distract myself from what is a pretty bad case of post-holiday blues. I feel completely deflated, like I've been brought back to earth with a horrible bump (and actually, our flight landing at Heathrow was pretty bumpy). In many respects, England couldn't be more different to South-East Asia, and instead of relishing home comforts after a month of travelling, I'm starting to find them grating and alien, particularly where food is concerned.
Why do we happily pay around £20 for a meal in this country? After eating some of the best food of my life for under £1 in Vietnam, it genuinely pains me a bit to have to contemplate ever eating out in England again. Why do we have such gigantic dinner plates and therefore habitually scoff such enormous portions? No wonder we're all obese. Everything in Vietnam is served in tiny little bowls; not only that, but the rice comes out last, so you're mostly too full from good things like fish, meat and vegetables to contemplate ingesting nutritionally void carbohydrates.
Why do we eat with cumbersome and unwieldy knives and forks? Why do we cover everything in fat, especially cheese, when food can be so fabulously delicious without it? Why are we so obsessed with desserts and with sugar? Why is our 'exotic' fruit always rock-hard and underripe?
I'm sure I'll be back to my usual self in a few weeks, but right now I just feel desperately sad, pining for somewhere on the other side of the world that has called into question everything that once seemed normal to me.
On the plus side, though, there's nothing like a month away in exotic climes to put everything into perspective. Food, although probably my number one source of enjoyment in life, is far too frequently my number one source of stress, too. I have a tendency to get a little obsessive and perfectionist in the kitchen, constantly inviting friends over for lunch, dinner or breakfast and feeling that I have to present them with some Masterchef-worthy creation when deep down I know they'd probably be happy with a bowl of pasta and a cup of tea. I too often find myself rushing around town, making numerous shopping trips for ingredients because I know that the Asian grocers on the other side of town do better chickpeas than the supermarket, and the bread stall on the market does better bread than Tesco, and this fishmonger is better than that one, and panicking if I can't find a certain obscure ingredient that I deem crucial to the success of one dish, sometimes travelling miles out of my way to get it.
It's had me close to tears on several occasions, usually when I finally make it to the checkout and there is a queue and my arms are hurting from holding a heavy basket and I'm contemplating how on earth to get everything home on my bike without it squashing or falling out, and then the final straw is when the self-service checkout refuses to work properly (when does this ever not happen, I hear you cry), and I start hitting things. I've driven myself mad trying to frantically write blog posts to various deadlines - many of which are completely self-imposed and therefore fundamentally meaningless - trying to take artful photos of my cooking when all I really want to do is just eat the damn thing, trying to think of new and exciting recipes to share with you all when all I really want to do is tuck into a big bowl of pasta with nutmeg and grated parmesan.
Having a month off cooking and worrying about food shopping was utterly blissful. Savouring the simple pleasures of Vietnam, like a bowl of plain rice noodles with fresh herbs, or a perfect juicy mangosteen, or a delicious piece of tender lemongrass-coated chicken, has impressed upon me the madness of the way in which I live in relation to food.
Food should be, primarily, something that brings joy, not stress and tears. I contemplated returning to cooking and food blogging with dread and trepidation during my final few days in Asia, asking myself what it was all for, whether anyone really cared, why I torment myself with all this for no apparent reason. I had wild ideas about giving up food and the blog altogether, about shutting myself off from the world of food magazines, food journalism, cooking TV; the faux-drama of things like Masterchef and Great British Menu suddenly seemed laughably trivial - crass, even - compared to the very real drama of fast-paced life in Vietnam.
But then Sunday morning happened, and all I wanted was to get into the kitchen and to rustle up a batch of pineapple pancakes to remind me of my holiday. That's when I realised that, of course, food can be a wonderful thing, provided it is not taken too seriously. It is a means of reviving happy memories, of sharing experiences, of creating ties. It shouldn't be stressful or a source of anxiety, when done properly with just the right amount of care and good humour.
I'm really writing this to myself, in the hope that I'll remember all these things in the future, when my basket is heavy and the self-service checkout isn't working and I still have to bike to the other side of town to get some pomegranate molasses from the Asian grocer before rushing home to see if my bread has risen and my home-made cheese has firmed up.
However, I'm sure many of you out there will be able to relate. Then again, you've probably sensibly realised this already. I just needed four weeks on the other side of the world to come to this conclusion.
So for that, Vietnam, and those pineapple pancakes: thank you.
Pineapple pancakes (serves 2 very generously, or 4 less hungry people):
- 200g flour (I used spelt flour, but ordinary would be fine)
- 2 eggs
- 600ml milk
- Pinch salt
- Butter, for cooking
- 1 medium pineapple, cut into small thin chunks
- 4 tbsp brown sugar
- 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- Icing sugar, for dusting
First, make the pancake batter. Sift the flour into a large bowl, then make a well in the centre with a spoon and add the eggs. Pour in a little of the milk then, using an electric whisk, whisk the egg and milk into the flour, gradually incorporating more flour as you add the rest of the milk. You should end up with a thin, lump-free batter. Add the salt and whisk again.
Pre-heat the oven to 120C. Heat a knob of butter in a large non-stick saucepan or frying pan until sizzling, then add the pineapple, sugar, and cinnamon. Cook over a high heat for a few minutes until caramelised and sticky, and most of the liquid has evaporated, then add the vanilla. Set aside and keep warm.
Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper, and get some more sheets of greaseproof ready for the pancakes. Get a non-stick frying pan or crêpe pan, around 25cm in diameter, very hot, then add a knob of butter and swirl it around the pan. Wipe off any excess with kitchen paper, spreading the butter over the base of the pan, then pour a ladleful of batter onto the pan - you want a pancake about 5mm thick. Cook for a minute on one side, then flip over using a palette knife and cook for another minute. When done, place on the greaseproof paper on the baking sheet, then put in the oven to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining mixture, layering the pancakes between greaseproof as you go and keeping them warm in the oven.
When ready to serve, place a couple of spoonfuls of pineapple mixture in the centre of each pancake, then roll it up. Dust with icing sugar and devour, preferably with tea.
I'd like to reassure you, if you're reading this, that I haven't spent most of the last month drunk on piña coladas. It would be easy to think so, given that I've now posted three recipes in quick succession featuring the combination of pineapple and coconut, but I think it's more down to a sort of pineapple snowball effect, whereby the more pineapple I used in recipes the more I decided to experiment. It's a fruit I rarely use, preferring just to eat it as it is, sprinkled with a little cinnamon or chopped mint. However, having bought a few to cook with, I ended up with a very overripe specimen that demanded quick culinary usage. Not fancying a heavy, butter-rich dessert, I decided a sorbet would be the perfect option.
There isn't much to say about this, to be honest (and I mean that in a good way). It's about as close to eating a frozen pineapple as you can get: pineapple flesh, sugar, lime juice, and a little coconut milk. The milk adds a creamy smoothness to the texture and a slight hint of coconut, and the end result is a hugely refreshing summer dessert.
I love ripe pineapple. Supermarket specimens can be extremely variable; scent is the best way of gauging whether it is ripe or not, but even then you can be disappointed by glassy, pastel flesh that has an unpleasant astringency. The one sitting in my fruit bowl was perfect. It had actually turned brown in places, which I see as a good sign. Most fruit is at its best just before it turns brown and almost mouldy; mangoes on the point of turning are often the sweetest and juiciest; ditto pears, peaches, cherries.
This pineapple was the beautiful colour of an egg yolk, bursting with sweet juice. I chopped up the flesh and put it into a blender. I made a syrup from coconut milk and vanilla sugar, added it to the fruit, then finished it off with the juice of a lime. The lime is important to bring out the sweetness of the pineapple; things always taste more bland once frozen. The vanilla is also a great way of enhancing the pineapple flavour; I don't quite know why, but it just works.
After that, I just churned it in an ice cream maker and froze it. The result is a gorgeous, pale yellow sorbet with a slightly creamy texture. It's extremely light; you could eat half the tub and not feel sick. Well, I could, but then I have quite a high threshold for anything involving sugar and fruit. I think it's because the milk mellows the flavour and so you end up with quite a mild-tasting sorbet. The texture is almost crumbly; if I made this again I might work on getting it a bit smoother, but it's all about the taste which is excellent. I might try adding desiccated coconut to the mix next time, for a bit of crunch. I'd also up the lime juice and sugar for even more pineapple flavour, but this is very good as it is.
This is a great way of using up overripe pineapple, and I think it would also work with mangoes or maybe even banana. It would be good served with any rich dessert, particularly a coconut cake.
Pineapple and coconut sorbet (makes half a litre):
- 1 pineapple, peeled and chopped
- Juice of 1 lime
- 200ml coconut milk
- 100g vanilla sugar (or caster sugar plus 1tsp vanilla extract)
Bring the coconut milk and sugar to the boil to dissolve the sugar, and simmer for 5 minutes. Leave to cool completely.
Put the pineapple into a blender and blend to a puree. Add the cooled coconut syrup and the lime juice. At this point you can sieve it if you want a really smooth sorbet, but I didn't bother.
Churn in an ice cream maker until frozen. It really is as easy as that.
Actually, that's a load of rubbish. My main reason is entirely selfish: it gives me an excuse to hone my baking skills.
For the cake, I made a coconut sponge based on a Nigella recipe. It uses desiccated coconut soaked in boiling water, which gives the cake a lovely moistness and crunchiness. However, I went one step better, and used my super-potent coconut essence. I was worried I'd overdone it, actually, as the kitchen was immediately filled with the smell, but it turned out just perfect. Naturally, the KitchenAid mixer was integral in creating a beautifully light cake batter.
I creamed together the butter (two whole packets...) and sugar, added the eggs (eight!), flour, coconut essence, baking powder, and finally the soaked coconut. It was a wonderful fluffy white mixture, whiter than any I've made before: I think it might be because instead of having to painstakingly mix the butter and sugar by hand, and get bored after a minute or so, I could just leave the mixer to do it, so it looked almost like meringue by the time I added the dry ingredients.
After spreading each layer with pineapple curd, I decided to add even more pineapple flavour by putting some thinly sliced pineapple slices on top of the curd. I didn't bother removing the tough core; if you slice pineapple thinly enough, it's just crunchy rather than tough and sinewy. I thought it would create a nice contrast in textures between the soft, buttery sponge and the tangy fruit.
Then for the part I had looked forward to most: smothering the entire creation in a thick coating of snow-white, coconut-laced buttercream. Again I used the KitchenAid to whip the butter (another packet...) and icing sugar together to form a fluffy, cloud-like mixture to which I added some more coconut essence and some desiccated coconut. I covered a spatula in it, and slathered it onto the cake. Slather is the appropriate word; a lot of buttercream went onto that sponge. I admit, I nibbled a bit to check the right ratio of butter to sugar, and coconut taste. And I may have licked the spatula clean. And the bowl. And the mixer attachment. KitchenAid are so considerate in providing you with a large surface area to lick clean.
It didn't quite look right when I'd finished. I'm not sure why, but it wasn't as I'd envisaged. I think it just looked too perfectly white and uniform. For this reason, I toasted some shredded coconut strips in a dry pan and pressed them into the buttercream around the sides. They looked great, especially the lightly browned bits, which stood out against the snow white cream. I also figured they'd give a nice crunch to the cake, along with the fruit inside.
Finally, the topping. I kept it simple, just covering the top of the cake with slices of fresh pineapple, and a few glace cherries. I'm not sure why; I think it's because traditionally pineapple upside down cake has glace cherries inside the pineapple rings. I used to make it a lot as a child, and maybe the association stuck in my mind. I think they look great; they add a startling burst of glistening colour to what is otherwise a rather pale cake. They also make it look like something from a 70s dessert trolley, which I think is fantastic. It's reminiscent of some sort of blancmange, or over-the-top gateau. There's definitely a retro feel to this cake. I didn't imagine there would be; it looked very different in my head, but I am so pleased with how it turned out. It has quite a wow factor, largely because of its enormity, but also because it looks different. Unusual. Tropical.
Obviously, taste is the important part. I initially declared to everyone at dinner that I wasn't going to have any of the cake, because I'd seen how much butter and sugar went into it. But curiosity got the better of me, and I wanted to check that it was at least edible, and that I hadn't presented my friend with something likely to put him off his favourite fruit for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, this was my downfall. It was so. good. Even if I say so myself. The cake was as light as a feather, and the sweet, tangy pineapple filling a perfect accompaniment. The teeth-hurting sweetness of the coconut cream finished the whole thing off, particularly the crunchy coconut pieces.
Plus, it's deceptively simple to make, as long as you start early on the in day, or the day before. If you have a KitchenAid mixer (you lucky thing, you), you can let it do most of the work for you; leave it whirring away mixing the butter and sugar while you sort out weighing the other ingredients, or chopping the pineapple. The assembly part is probably the trickiest, but smothering on the buttercream is your reward. As is, of course, eating some of the cake.
For the pineapple curd:
2 whole eggs and 2 egg yolks
500ml pineapple juice
170g caster sugar
10 tbsp flour
For the cakes (recipe adapted from Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess):
450g butter, at room temperature
450g caster sugar
1 tsp coconut essence (or vanilla extract)
400g self-raising flour
1 1/2 tsp arrowroot (or 50g cornflour)
1 tsp baking powder
100g desiccated coconut, soaked for an hour in 300ml boiling water
For the buttercream:
50g desiccated coconut
150g soft butter
300g icing sugar
1 tsp coconut essence (or 2 tbsp Malibu)
1 fresh pineapple, skin and 'eyes' sliced off and cut into thin slices
A large handful of flaked coconut, toasted in a dry pan
First, make the pineapple curd. Whisk the yolks and sugar until thick and creamy, then whisk in the juice and flour. Transfer to a saucepan and heat over a medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick - this will take about 10 minutes, and it will turn suddenly. Don't get impatient and turn the heat up too high. Transfer to a bowl and chill in the fridge.
Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
For the cakes, cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, then add the essence. Fold in the flour, arrowroot/cornflour and baking powder, then stir in the coconut and its soaking water. Pour into two 20cm springform cake tins, greased and lined. Bake for 40 minutes, until golden brown. Leave to cool completely.
Slice each cake in half horizontally and sandwich together with the pineapple curd. Add some pineapple slices between each layer if you like. You'll probably have some pineapple curd left over; it's good on toast.
For the buttercream, whisk together the butter and icing sugar until white and fluffy, then stir in the coconut essence/Malibu and desiccated coconut. Using a spatula, spread the buttercream all over the cake in a thick layer. Don't worry too much about the top, as you'll cover it with fresh pineapple anyway. While the cream is still soft, press the flaked coconut into the sides of the cake.
Finally, decorate the top of the cake with slices of fresh pineapple and glace cherries. Do this at the last minute, as the pineapple might make the buttercream soggy.