I have made many a crumble in my life. I would count myself as something of a crumble connoisseur. I cut my teeth on the classics – apple, rhubarb – before graduating into a wild, wonderful world of pineapple, coconut and black pepper, or pear, chocolate and raspberry, or fig, blood orange and hazelnut, even venturing occasionally into savoury variations (tomato, rosemary and cheddar; butternut squash, sage and blue cheese). There is very little that I will not try to crumble, and there is very little that isn’t improved by being smothered in a blanket of butter, sugar and flour, rubbed together into an irresistible nubbly sweetness.Read More
That auspicious transitional period between the years has arrived, and with it the impulse to invent unattainable goals as a coping mechanism, to quell the anxieties of liminality and assert some control over the unnerving blank space that is ‘2017’. While I will not be treading the same path as my friend’s husband, who last year decided that his new year’s resolution was simply and decisively ‘to be better’, it strikes me that using this threshold period as a time to consider ways of improving the year ahead is no bad thing. It’ll take more than a few facile resolutions to tackle the quagmire of misery, post-truth and political turmoil that was 2016, so let’s turn our attention instead to the more manageable, the smaller but still significant: our appetites; the food on our plates; how we eat. Since my life, and my years, are inevitably mapped out around the intricacies of food and cooking, it struck me that there are a few issues we food bloggers, writers, chefs and cooks may want to consider over the coming 365 days in order, ahem, ‘to be better’.Read More
1. Health food paradise at the new Holland & Barrett More store in York. I was recently invited to the opening of Holland & Barrett’s palatial new store in the centre of York. I’ve long been a fan of the brand for their organic dried fruit, nuts and muesli mixes, and for their supply of esoteric health ingredients from around the world (they were probably stocking quinoa and tahini way before Ottolenghi emerged on the scene). The new store is a bright, vibrant space filled with all sorts of healthy treats, from nut butters to smoked tofu to their huge range of ‘free-from’ products. However, the expansion means there’s also space for a selection of beauty and makeup counters brimming with natural products to make you lovely on the outside as well as the inside. I had great fun creating my own body scrub at the Beauty Kitchen stall, using a delicious-smelling array of natural ingredients (my personal combination involved bitter orange, Epsom salts, and a zingy lemongrass oil), and enjoying a 60-second manicure with the same nourishing combination, leaving my hands gloriously soft and fragrant.Read More
On a January morning, you need dessert for breakfast. This is probably my favourite category of recipe, and the one most of my cooking falls into. I should point out that this does not mean you are ever justified in eating a chocolate orange, Magnum or cheeseboard before 12pm. Instead, it means adapting certain post-savoury classics to make them a little healthier, a little more substantial and a little more appropriate for the beginning of the day. I try and cut out a lot of the refined sugar and processed flour, sticking with wholesome staples like honey, spelt flour, oats, polenta and unrefined muscovado sugar. I like to think I have this down to a fine art, perhaps evident from the number of ‘breakfast crumble’ recipes in my repertoire.Read More
Damsons are a high maintenance love affair. You can’t just coast with damsons, putting in minimal effort for a lot of reward, like you can with a strawberry, perhaps, or a pear – all you need with these easy goers is, at most, a knife. They’re not a fruit to be popped carelessly into the mouth while reading the morning newspaper, or something to munch as a snack on the go. They’re not something you can half-heartedly throw into a cake batter for a sweet and sticky result, or toss into the smoothie maker for an afternoon pick-me-up.Read More
In my mind, there are two types of plums. The first are those that appear year-round in supermarkets, often in plastic punnets with a label saying 'Ripen at home'. They are imported, usually from South Africa. They are often nearly perfectly spherical, firm and glossy-skinned, and come in three different colour varieties: bright greenish-yellow, slightly translucent; dark black-purple, with a matt white bloom misting the surface; or vivid uniform magenta. These are perfectly fine - they are very reliable, delivering without fail a pleasantly tart crunch when slightly underripe and something slightly more sweet when ready. They also cook well, holding their shape under the pressure of heat.Read More
There are some fruits that I rarely, if ever, eat simply pure and unadulterated. While I'm happy to pick up an apple and take a bite straight away (although, a little neurotically/childishly, I prefer to take a knife and a plate and cut it into quarters then eighths, eating a piece at a time), or wolf down a banana before a trip to the gym, or eat bouncy, fridge-cold grapes mindlessly as I work my way through some PhD reading, or slice succulent chunks of mango straight from the skin onto my cereal, there are others that just don't quite cut it eaten raw, or untempered by some form of culinary enhancement.
Figs, for example. Unless you are lucky enough to be shopping during the week-long window in the year when figs arrive from Turkey, ripe and beading with luscious pink syrup, and aren't instead rock-hard, woolly, tasteless and crunchy inside, then your figs will probably need a bit of help before they're likely to provide you with any eating pleasure whatsoever. Baking them in sloe gin is a good idea, as is quartering them and sautéeing them in a little butter and brown sugar, adding a dash of balsamic vinegar if using them for savoury purposes (with cheese, for example).
Apricots are another - I must have eaten at least a hundred apricots in my life, and approximately four of those were nice enough to eat raw. They're usually hard, woolly-tasting and deliver very little flavour, despite their promising golden glowing skins. Once again, baking them is the key - I like to bake them with a little white wine or orange juice in a parcel, along with some warming spices - or simmering them with a little orange juice, sugar and spice to provide a beautiful sweet marigold compote.
Blueberries, too. While I do like a handful of these scattered over cereal or porridge, they seem to get used in my kitchen much more often when baked, usually in this delicious baked oatmeal recipe that I often make for brunch, either with rhubarb or bananas. I love the way cooking intensifies their flavour, as they can sometimes taste a bit bland when raw. Plus, you get the benefit of that gorgeous purple juice, which seeps into and stains deliciously everything it touches.
While I never cook strawberries - it's generally not a good idea - I find them bland and disappointing when raw. I always quarter them and toss them with a little sugar, allowing them to macerate for a while so the sugar can permeate the flesh and enhance their flavour. I usually also add a splash of balsamic vinegar (I have some incredible chocolate and vanilla infused balsamic that works wonders with the berries) or lemon juice, which brings out the sweetness of the berries. This way they are sticky, scarlet and delicious, so much more interesting than when bouncy, raw and tasteless.
And then we have plums. Often so inviting, with their beautiful colours - ranging from the bold yellows and magentas of imported plums to the more subtle, mottled autumnal hues of our native crops - plums can regularly disappoint, offering up flesh that is either solid and too tart, or almost jelly-like and possessing a sickly watery sweetness. Generally it's the former that is the problem.
Having been faced with one too many unsatisfactory plums in my time, I now don't even bother trying to eat them raw. Particularly because I think this is the most delicious thing one can do with plums, so why would you bother doing anything else?
Place some halved, stoned plums in a baking dish, cut side up. Next, get some of that stem ginger in syrup - the kind that comes in little amber globes, suspended in throat-warming sticky syrup. Take a couple of globes and finely chop them, then scatter over the plums. Drizzle a couple of tablespoons of the ginger syrup over the plums. Next, scatter the plums with brown sugar, ground ginger, and cinnamon. Then scatter the plums with some dried orange peel powder (I get mine from JustIngredients) - this adds a slightly earthier orange flavour, though you can use orange zest if you don't have any. Add a splash of water or orange juice, then bake, covered, for half an hour or so.
The plums soften into tender sweetness, while the spices and syrup and liquid accumulate in the bottom of the dish to form the most amazing sweet liquor, warm with fragrant spices. The edges of the fruit caramelise slightly, while the centre goes soft and gooey. This is such a simple recipe, yet it's deliciously versatile. If you use less sugar and add a splash of balsamic or soy sauce, replacing the spices with Chinese five spice, you can use the plums in savoury recipes - along with roast duck or pork, for example. If you keep them sweet, they are delicious spooned over porridge or muesli for breakfast, either hot or cold, or served warm with a very cold scoop of vanilla ice cream as a dessert.
They also look beautiful and smell incredible as you remove them from the oven. There are few things as simple as a big dish of baked fruit, and I love the transformation that takes place every time I cut up some underwhelming plums, add these magic ingredients, and watch them become a glorious mass of soft, spiced sweetness. Incidentally, you can use other fruit - apricots, peaches and nectarines all work well.
So much better than taking a gamble on what will probably be a disappointing specimen.
Ginger and orange roasted plums (serves 4):
- 8-10 plums
- 2 globes stem ginger in syrup
- 2 tbsp syrup from the ginger jar
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp orange peel powder
- (or the zest of 1 orange)
- 100ml orange juice or water
Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Halve the plums and remove the stones. If you can't get the stones out without destroying the plums, don't worry - you can take them out later while eating. Place the plums in a baking dish where they can all sit snugly in a single layer, cut side up.
Finely chop the stem ginger, then scatter over the plums. Drizzle over the syrup and scatter over the brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, and orange peel powder/orange zest. Splash over the orange juice or water.
Cover the dish with foil, then bake for around 30-35 minutes, until the plums have softened and the juices have turned pink and syrupy. Remove and leave to cool before serving (or chill in the fridge until you want them).
My kitchen table is currently groaning under the weight of an enormous cardboard box packed with fruit. If you know me, you'll know this basically means I've reached my peak of happiness. Yes, I lead a life of simple and edible pleasures. There are three bunches of bananas (which are just crying out to be left to blacken and become prime banana bread material), a scattering of plump marigold clementines, several voluptuously tapered conference pears, and an abundance of round rosy apples. There are also some beautiful plums, deepest purple with a gentle white bloom. This delightful array was sent to me by Fruitdrop, a company that delivers fruit to workplaces in London and across the UK to help keep workforces motivated, healthy and productive.
There are, of course, many advantages to getting fruit delivered in this way. You're more likely to eat it if it's just there, rather than it involving a trip to the shops. I know too many people who work in offices and complain about the amount of junk food they eat, just because it's 'there' on someone's desk. A box of multicoloured fruits is likely to brighten up any workplace. It's good for you. The list goes on.
However, I was also thinking about the potential downside to having a huge box of fruit. This may not apply so much to offices, where each box (containing around 50 pieces of fruit) is shared between employees, but for someone who lives alone like myself, eating 50 pieces of fruit before it all goes mouldy is quite a challenge. I've been coming up with recipes, therefore, to use up any fruit that's going a bit past its best, to create something delicious, healthy, and much more eco-friendly than chucking the lot in the bin.
This is something I love doing - coming up with slightly novel (I flatter myself here, really, because there isn't much that is novel in cooking, ever) ways to use fruit that are a bit more exciting than just 'a pie' or 'a fruit salad'. It's so easy to consign fruit to the realm of desserts, yet it's an incredibly versatile ingredient in savoury food too, often bringing a much-needed freshness to earthy ingredients like meat, cheese or nuts.
For my first recipe, I wanted to use the lovely plums from my fruit box. Plums are one of the few fruits I don't experiment much with, simply because I know exactly how to get the best out of them - halve and stone them, put them in a dish with brown sugar and ginger in syrup, splash over some orange juice, then bake until soft, silky and oozing pink juice. The result is sensational spooned over porridge or muesli, but equally good with ice cream as a warming autumnal dessert.
However, the plum has a flavour suited both to sweet and savoury cooking. When unsweetened, plums can be rather tart, possessing a refreshing bite that partners well with meat, particularly game and red meat. I came up with this because I had some smoked chicken to use up (yes, OK, a frightfully middle-class sentence). Smoked chicken is one of those things that needs a lot of assertive flavours to go with it, because it's very rich and cloying on its own.
Enter tart plums, sliced and caramelised with honey, fresh ginger, and Chinese five-spice. The latter because plums are a component of hoi sin sauce, which goes well with duck therefore also chicken, and has a heady five-spice note to it. Ginger because plums and ginger are just meant to be. Actually I'm not sure this salad had any rational thinking behind it; it was very much a work of instinct and what I suspected might work well together.
Nutty couscous, savoury spring onion, deeply earthy toasted almonds for crunch, fresh lemony coriander, tender smoked chicken, tart juicy plums, and the bite of ginger and five-spice. This is fragrant and delicious, a wonderful combination of tastes and textures. It's a bit of an odd English-oriental-Middle Eastern fusion, with the coriander/couscous/plums. It is an ideal lunch for one, but you could also make larger quantities and take it to work for a few days - it's good cold too.
Incidentally, if you can't find smoked chicken, just use ordinary leftover cooked chicken. I also think you could happily substitute chicken for feta or goat's cheese to make this vegetarian.
Thank you Fruitdrop for the fruit, and watch this space for more fruit-based recipes!
Spiced ginger plum and smoked chicken couscous salad (serves 1, easily doubled):
- 50g couscous
- Boiling water
- Salt and pepper
- 1 spring onion, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp almonds, toasted
- 3 tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander
- 2 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
- 2 plums, halved, stoned and thinly sliced
- 2cm piece fresh ginger, finely chopped or grated
- 1 tsp honey
- 1/2 tsp Chinese five spice
- 1/2 smoked chicken breast, thinly sliced or shredded
First, make the couscous. Put it in a bowl, pour the boiling water over it to just cover, then cover it with a plate and leave for a few minutes. When ready, stir in the spring onion, half the oil, the toasted almonds and coriander (reserve some for garnish) and some salt and pepper.
Heat the remaining oil in a non-stick frying pan and add the plums and ginger. Cook for a minute (they should sizzle), then add the honey and five spice. Cook for another few minutes until sticky and caramelised.
When the plums are ready, stir them into the couscous along with the chicken. Garnish with the extra almonds and coriander, then serve.
When, like the bee, culling from every flower/The virtuous sweets/Our thighs pack'd with wax, our mouths with honey/We bring it to the hive ~ Henry IV, part 2.
Honey is an interesting ingredient. I use it so frequently but I never really stop and appreciate it pure and unadulterated, for the complex and fascinating product that it is. While I frequently use dark brown sugar for the wonderful caramel notes it lends to recipes, I often find the flavour of honey diminishes during cooking, and its interesting flavours are masked. I'm not one for spooning the stuff over toast or savouring it straight from the jar with a spoon, Winnie-the-Pooh style. I feel I might be missing out.
There are numerous uses for honey in my kitchen. I use it, mixed with apple compote, to form a thick, luscious, gloopy mixture to coat flakes of oats and barley for my homemade granola
before toasting them in a hot oven to result in glorious crunchy morsels. I stir a spoonful or two into a lamb tagine to lend a succulent sweetness that pairs well with the rich meat. I drizzle it, along with a dollop of wickedly dark and sticky pomegranate molasses and a splash of oil, over butternut squash and aubergine before roasting, to result in gorgeously charred, caramelised edges. I use it to sweeten a raspberry and vanilla cheesecake, to take the sour edge off underripe apricots while baking, to lend a luscious sticky sweetness to baked figs destined to be smothered in vanilla ice cream, and generally over any fruit that could do with a little sugary help in the oven.
However, none of these preparations fully enable the cook or the diner to appreciate the nuances of honey. Often it's used simply as a sugar substitute, and sugar would sit quite happily in its place. Yet just as there are multiple varieties of sugar, each possessing their unique colour, texture, flavour and aroma, so there are countless diverse manifestations of honey.
It all depends on what the bees have been feeding on. The flower nectar they eat mixes with enzymes in their saliva, which turns it to honey. They deposit this in their hives; the practice of beekeeping encourages the bees to produce more honey than usual, so it can be collected and eaten.
I've come across so many exciting types of honey in my food travels, from the rugged-sounding heather honey to the exotic orange blossom honey, thyme honey, acacia honey and the intriguing chestnut honey (this is fabulous and really unusual, but I'm reserving it for a future blog post, so watch this space). They all have their own colours, textures and fragrances. On a recent trip to York I found beautiful Yorkshire honey for sale in little tubs, with a layer of honeycomb over the top. There's runny honey, golden and amber-like, and the glorious thick set honey, ideal for spreading in pillowy waves of sweetness over toast.
Honey has all sorts of fascinating qualities; it's frequently assigned multiple health benefits, depending on which variety you choose. It's also the only foodstuff that has an infinite shelf life, because of its high sugar and low water content. This low water content is due to the bees flapping their wings in the hive, which causes air movement and subsequently the evaporation of water from the honey. How clever is that? I never fail to be amazed at how mother nature has created, in the world of flora and fauna, a perfectly formed and abundant larder.
I spied some lovely greengages at the market this weekend, a bittersweet sign that autumn is rapidly approaching. Not that we've really had summer this year...but I won't turn this into a ranting arena for meteorological-based tirades against my beloved country, because I have more important things to talk about, like fruit.
Greengages are like little green plums, tart-sweet, soft and delicious. My favourite part is their skin, which is matt in places, shiny in others, and suffused with a beautiful bloom of palest jade green. They're one of the prettiest fruits to look at, I think, second only perhaps to blushing, ripe apricots. They range, like plums, from hard and crispy to quiveringly soft and jelly-like, depending on ripeness. I couldn't resist buying a bag, and figured I'd decide later what to do with them.
While sorting out some recipes I'd hastily cut from magazines and stashed in a pile on the dresser, I found one for a greengage and honey compote. I love compotes, as they really bring out the best in fruit, and are so versatile. I like mine spooned over a bowl of porridge or muesli.
For use in cooking you can get away with the cheaper supermarket honey, but when I'm going to use honey because I want to taste honey, I try and use something a bit better. I had a jar of Yorkshire honey in the larder, which has a wonderful rich aroma and actually smells and tastes like honey rather than just general sugariness. This compote required four tablespoons, which go into a pan with halved and de-stoned greengages. There's no liquid - the honey melts in the heat and the greengages release their own juice, which they stew in slowly for a few minutes, perfumed by a split vanilla pod that is tucked in among their delicate green curves.
I don't normally add sweetener to my compotes, and if I do it's a tiny and barely perceptible amount of honey, so this was a rather different taste experience. I absolutely loved it. The whole thing is a perfect marriage of greengage and honey flavour. You can definitely taste the honey - its floral, caramel notes permeate the juicy collapsed fruit, which contributes its own tartness. I simmered the greengages until a few lost their shape and the whole thing became rather liquid, but if you prefer the fruits more firm just reduce the cooking time. Keep an eye on them, as they turn to mush in a flash.
The result of this is a wonderful golden ambrosial nectar. It's like eating honey, but improved with the addition of vanilla and delicious plummy juiciness. There are chunks of sweet, tender fruit immersed in a thick, rich syrup. It's also so ridiculously simple and takes all of ten minutes to make.
This would be fabulous served as a dessert with some cream or ice cream. You could go one further and spoon it over a moist wedge of almond cake, or a slice of vanilla cheesecake. It would sit prettily in the crusty hollow of a pavlova, or even make a wonderful topping for freshly-baked scones.
I, however, ate mine spooned over a bowl of hot porridge, along with some raspberries to balance the sweetness. A perfect cloudy morning breakfast.
Greengage and honey compote (makes 3-4 servings):
(From Sainsbury's magazine, no idea which issue)
- 500g greengages, ripe but still firm
- 4 tbsp runny honey (you can experiment with varieties - I reckon a thyme honey would be gorgeous)
- 1 vanilla pod
Halve the greengages and remove the stones. Place in a saucepan with the honey, then heat gently until the honey is liquid. Run a knife down the centre of the vanilla pod and add to the fruit, then simmer gently until the fruit starts to release a lot of liquid, and is on the point of collapse. This should take only a couple of minutes.
Remove from the heat and serve hot or cold, with cream, creme fraiche, ice cream, or breakfast.
1. Tracklements Caramelised Red Onion Relish. It's National Sandwich Week this week, and so Tracklements were kind enough to send me a selection of their top sandwich-enhancing products. I tried their take on two classics: first, a jar of proper thick, tasty mayonnaise, enhanced with Dijon mustard for a bit of a kick and a delicious creamy flavour; secondly, a lovely tomato ketchup made with ripe Italian tomatoes that had a much deeper flavour than your standard Heinz. I'd much rather use this than something mass-produced on such a large scale. It would be delicious in a classic bacon or sausage sandwich. There was also a delicious country garden chutney - so-called because the first batch was made from all the vegetables Tracklements could find in their garden - with lovely tangy chunks of onion, carrot, swede, parsnip and turnip, and an interesting kick from apricots, tamarind, apple, sultanas and mustard.
My hands-down favourite, though, is this wonderful caramelised red onion relish. I love using caramelised onions as a garnish for any dish involving cheese, but cooking them down to tangles of sweet tenderness in a pan takes time. With this, all the work is done - the onions have been slowly caramelised before the addition of vinegar, muscovado sugar (which adds a lovely caramelly depth of flavour), salt and pepper. The jar suggests it would be the perfect partner for a steak sandwich, which I can't wait to try - possibly with a little blue cheese. If that doesn't make you rush out and buy a jar, I don't know what will. For now, though, I'll suggest this sandwich as a celebration of National Sandwich Week, which I made for lunch yesterday and which was amazing, really showing off the red onion relish to its best advantage:
Take some good sourdough bread (I made my own because I'm hideously enviable like that. But you could buy it). Lightly toast. Smother with crumbly, tangy goat's cheese. Dollop with Tracklements caramelised red onion relish. Top with quartered fresh figs and a few basil or mint leaves, roughly torn.
Eat. It'll be messy. Enjoy it. Relish it, if you will. Have a napkin ready.
2. Baked plums with ginger and orange. I found these gorgeous plums at the market yesterday and couldn't resist buying a few. Because raw plums are often so disappointing when flown in from halfway across the world, I like to bake them to bring out their sweet-tart flavour.
Simply halve and stone your plums, then arrange cut side up in a baking dish. Splash over a glug of orange juice (bottled is fine), scatter over some light brown sugar, and take a ball of stem ginger in syrup and cut it into little cubes. Scatter this over the plums before drizzling with a little of the ginger syrup. If you don't have ginger in syrup, use fresh grated ginger and add a bit more sugar. Bake at around 170C for 20 minutes or until soft but still keeping their shape. The ginger, sugar and orange will have formed a succulent syrup around the base of the plums. These are amazing served with vanilla ice cream, but are also good for breakfast on muesli, granola or porridge.
You can't get more honest than two decidedly un-waif-like effusive Italian men gesticulating wildly whilst wolfing down everything in sight and playing pranks on each other in the process. Not only is it a fascinating insight into the lesser-known sides of Italian life, but the recipes are also unusual, original and intriguing. Chestnut gnocchi, orange rice cake, barley risotto with minced pork, buckwheat pasta baked with cheese and swiss chard...this is the kind of food I want to cook and eat, and in no small part because of the heartwarming and amusing way it is presented on the screen. I think I might have to buy the cookbook...and buying the cookbook to accompany a TV cookery series is something I told myself I would never do...
4. The Hole in the Wall, Cambridge. I've been meaning to go to Masterchef finalist Alex Rushmer's restaurant ever since I heard it had opened; it's not often that you get a contestant from your home town on national TV, and I was yearning for him to win and put Cambridge on the culinary map (not likely to happen anytime soon, as it apparently has the largest concentration of chain restaurants in the UK). Despite not winning, he's certainly done very well with his place out in Little Wilbraham on the outskirts of Cambridge. I finally ended up there for Sunday lunch this weekend, and was absolutely charmed by the place. It has a lovely cosy country pub feel, with rustic wooden tables and simple yet elegant tableware - there are little plants on each table and the butter is served on a wooden slate, sprinkled with sea salt. Everything was delicious, from the soda bread and sourdough we slathered in said butter, right through to the incredible dessert.
I had a perfectly-cooked fillet of wild sea bass on a bed of pecorino tortelloni with asparagus and pea puree. The tortelloni were the best I've ever had - the pasta was perfectly al dente, giving way to the rich cheese filling within. The asparagus was fresh and crunchy, and the sea bass meaty and delicious. If I were to make a very minor criticism, I'd say that I'm not entirely sure they belonged together on a plate - it felt rather like two very different dishes; the pasta didn't actually need the sea bass. But I enjoyed it immensely and could have eaten another plateful. My boyfriend had the roast sirloin of beef, which arrived so beautifully pink I could have cried with joy on his behalf. It came with two perfect Yorkshire puddings - the right balance of crispy and gooey - and the best duck fat roast potatoes I've ever eaten. They were so crispy you could hear one being cut into across the other side of the restaurant.
For dessert, I agonised over a choice between the lemon and passion fruit tart with pineapple sorbet, or the sticky toffee bread and butter pudding. Yes, that's right - not sticky toffee or bread and butter pudding, but both in one. Why have I never thought of that before? I told the waiter about my dilemma, and he actually laughed at me for being so ridiculous as to even have a dilemma. He rightly pointed out that I would hate myself if I ordered the tart. I saw why, when my pudding arrived.
It was a quivering, custardy square of gooey bread and juicy raisins. It came drenched in a molten puddle of sticky toffee sauce with more of those plump, caramelly raisins. There were blobs of passion fruit coulis. There were two little strawberries for decoration. There was a scoop of - wait for it - clotted cream ice cream, perched atop a crunchy biscuity mixture. The texture of the pudding was just sublime - you couldn't detect the individual bread layers, as it had all melded together into one tender, creamy mass, slightly gelatinous and subtly sweet. The raisins gave a perfect bite to the whole thing, and the toffee sauce was so fabulous that I nearly picked the plate up and licked it clean. The coulis gave a welcome sharpness to the whole thing, and the clotted cream ice cream helped lift the richness of the sticky sauce. It goes straight to the Elly McCausland Pudding Hall of Fame - in there with my top five restaurant puddings of all time. When the waiter came to collect my plate, he actually laughed at me and said "How insane were you, thinking about having a different pudding?"
Alex Rushmer is a bloody genius, people. Go and eat his food now, while you can get a table. Service is really friendly, the atmosphere is fantastic, and the food is beautiful. And don't even think about ordering the lemon tart over the sticky toffee bread and butter pudding.
5. Roasted cauliflower. Banish all thoughts of watery, grey, smelly, overcooked mushy cauliflower from your minds. Yes, it can be horrible. It can be anaemic-looking, flavourless, squashy and reminiscent of old socks. Here's how to change that.
Cut a cauliflower into florets. Toss with some olive oil, half a teaspoon of cumin, a sprinkling of cinnamon and a squeeze of lemon juice. Season well with salt and pepper. Bake at 180C for 10-15 minutes until parts have turned crispy and it is tender in the middle.
I promise you, this is a cauliflower revelation. You can vary the herbs and spices as you wish, but be sure to be generous with the oil and salt for a perfect experience. It goes very well with Indian dishes, but also with any roast meat or as part of a salad. Good flavour partners are tahini, lemon, lentils, couscous, pomegranate seeds, lemony roast chicken or spiced lamb.
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.
I may have mentioned my habit of obsessively hoarding fruit in season. The other day I woke up with a faint sense of panic. It took me an entire morning to realise its cause; I had a vague inkling that cherries were slowly disappearing, steadily growing in price which no doubt signalled an upcoming dearth. Slightly maddened by this, thinking of all those cherry recipes I had yet to try, I rushed to the market and the supermarket and stockpiled a kilo and a half of the little red fruits. I spent a pleasant twenty minutes (apron-clad, of course) pitting them before methodically placing them into freezer bags and consigning them to the icy depths of the deep freeze. Suddenly I became sadly aware of their multiple sweet and savoury possibilities, painfully conscious of the fact that a mere one and a half kilos would not be enough to satisfy my creative culinary requirements. I spent a difficult day in this state before reminding myself that actually, I don't even like cherries all that much. I now just feel slightly ashamed at my ridiculous, child-like nature, wanting something just as I realise I might not be able to have it for much longer.
So when I spied some damsons on sale the other day, I snapped them up without hesitation. I'm on holiday in Yorkshire at the moment (as I speak the rain is falling in thick curtains outside the open door, the patio already so flooded that ripples appear where the drops fall, and the sky is a steady, unwavering shade of grey that, if I had to name it on a paint chart, I would call "Meh"), and revelling in all the wonderful things the countryside provides. Unfortunately it's a bit too early for blackberries (though they're proliferating wildly down south, which just goes to show the massive difference in climates that my mother, a Yorkshire lass born and bred, is always so keen to deny), but a trip to the little deli on the high street near our cottage turned up some treasures, as usual. The last time I paid a visit there, I was rewarded with huge thick stalks of neon-pink Yorkshire rhubarb, sweet and tangy, which I simmered into a compote and ate smothered on top of hot, raisin-studded porridge. This time, it was the turn of plums and damsons.
Plums and damsons have also succumbed to my hoarding tendencies. Last autumn I became rather fond of plums on my porridge, and decided that I should try and preserve some. I'd done it with apricots a few weeks previously, keeping them suspended in a large kilner jar in a sugar syrup infused with cinnamon, orange flower water and cloves (I ate them about 6 months later, once apricots had disappeared from the market and I was missing their sunshine colours and beautiful jammy sweetness - they were delicious). I tried it with plums, throwing a few damsons in there too simply because I'd heard they were good and worth preserving, though I'd never actually tried them myself. Unfortunately, this experiment was a disaster. For some unknown reason, the plums started to ferment, bubbling viscously out of the sealed jar to the point where my mum, terrified that they'd explode all over the kitchen, moved the jar outside and begged me to let her throw them away. Heartbroken at the thought of parting with my plums, but more afraid of breaking the lovely preserving jar, I eventually agreed. Fail.
I now realise that this was a bit of a fruitless notion (literally), because plums are around pretty much all year. Yes, they're imported and often horrible, but I've feasted on delicious specimens from the market in Oxford for months after the English ones have gone; huge, regal purple orbs that soften deliciously when simmered in orange juice with raisins, cloves and ginger. Plums, like apricots, are one of those fruits that you can nearly always rectify with cooking and judicious use of warm spice. My desire to preserve them, I think, stemmed mainly from the fact that the English varieties are so much more beautiful than their imported cousins, which are often uniformly spherical and uniformly coloured, a dark maroon bordering on black. English plums come in all shapes and sizes, are often delicate ovals rather than squat spheres, and are frequently beautifully coloured, a delightful mottling of green, blushing pink and dark purple, sometimes with a patch of blood red or black. I love seeing them all piled up at the market, several different varieties on sale, all with their individual charms and culinary advantages.
Damsons are new to me. They're like tiny little plums, often used to make jams or jellies because of their strong, sweet-tart flavour (you can also use them to make gin, as with sloes). They're only around for a short time, usually early autumn, though the seasons seem to be a bit weird at the moment, and everything is appearing earlier. I've read a lot about them, particularly in Nigel Slater's books, but I've never cooked with them before, mainly because they're such a faff to de-stone. However, the sight of them at the deli the other day couldn't fail to entice me. They were tiny, like marbles, some perfectly round, others more tapered, some with little green stalks still attached, all of them a wonderful deep, inky purple. I bought a few handfuls, along with some lovely little plums. There were greengages, too, which I hope to cook with again before the season is over, after the success that was my greengage and almond cake. The damsons were indeed a pain to de-stone, leaving me with filthy fingernails and mild RSI, but the result was worth it - I didn't want spitting out stones to get in the way of good cobbler enjoyment. I didn't have my cherry pitter here, but I'm not entirely sure it would have worked anyway, as the stone to fruit ratio is higher than with cherries.
I didn't really need to think about what to do with the plums. It was always going to be a cobbler, my absolute favourite pudding and so versatile, working with almost all fruits. You end up with a gorgeous layer of warm, jammy, soft fruit, topped with a delicious scone crust that is all soft and fluffy where it meets the fruit juice, and crunchy on top where it's been sprinkled with demerara sugar and baked to a satisfying sweet crisp in the heat of the oven. I thought the dark plum juices would work perfectly with the scone topping. Damsons, it transpires, are really very tart - you need quite a lot of sugar in this cobbler to balance out their sourness, but it's still delicious even when on the sharp side, especially with lots of vanilla ice cream to introduce some calming, sugar-laden dairy.
As an aside, don't you just love this pie dish? I found it in the cupboard here - I think it must have been my Nanna's. It's just the right size to fill with sugar-sprinkled fruit and a comforting doughy crust - not quite apple pie, but still deliciously sweet, warming and autumnal.
This is exactly the thing for a rainy evening in Yorkshire. I love the tart plum juices against the dense, crunchy scone dough. I had to make do with the ingredients I found in the larder up here (one of the perils of being an obsessive cook and going self-catering is that there's always one 'crucial' ingredient missing) - I'd have liked to put almond essence in the plum mixture and some flaked almonds on top of the cobbler to turn toasty and delicious, but this was still wonderful without. You can play around with the spices, too, using ginger instead of cinnamon (or both), or maybe some nutmeg or cardamom. The inclusion of oats and wholemeal flour in the topping gives it a delicious nutty texture and flavour which is perfect against the sharp fruit. Delicious.
Plum and damson cobbler (serves 4):
- 800g plums and damsons, stoned and halved
- 6 heaped tbsp caster sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- A splash of orange juice
- 100g wholemeal flour
- 40g oats
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 25g cold butter, cubed
- 25g demerara sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
- 150ml buttermilk or yoghurt
Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Arrange the plums in a pie or baking dish. Mix with the caster sugar, cinnamon and orange juice. Put in the oven for 10 minutes while you make the cobbler topping.
Put the oats, flour, baking powder and demerara sugar in a large bowl. Rub the butter into the mixture until it resembles fine breadcrumbs, as you would for a crumble. Pour in the buttermilk and mix to a soft dough.
Remove the dish from the oven and dollop the cobbler mixture in spoonfuls over the top. Sprinkle with a little more demerara sugar and return to the oven for 30 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.
I know it's bad to judge people on the basis of little things. The clothes they wear; whether or not they pronounce the T in 'little'; what books they like; the music they listen to; how often they change their sheets; the places they've travelled; whether they use dental floss; their job; how often they exercise; the university they attended; how many units they drink a week; their preferred methods of relaxation; where they do their food shopping; the car they drive. I generally try not to form arbitrary opinions of people based on such criteria. I'm certainly no fashion guru, so what people wear tends to pass me by. I don't drive, or know the first thing about cars. I have absolutely no knowledge of what music is cool and what isn't, generally spending my days with a music collection that I've had since I was a wannabe Goth at the age of fourteen (are Slipknot not cool anymore?).
So I can proudly declare I don't generally form opinions of people based on any of the above qualities. The only problem is, I've just gone and formed my own, slightly more niche, set of standards by which to judge the general public.
Criteria that can make or break whether I warm to someone or not include: how they feel about cats (gorgeous animals, better than dogs); their opinion of the Harry Potter books (incredible, no matter how old you are); how they react when I tell them my specialist subject is Arthurian literature (if they look blank and I have to say "You know, King Arthur? Like in The Sword in the Stone by Disney? Er...basically knights on horses killing each other a lot? Heath Ledger?!?" I die a little inside - conversely, if they say "Oh, so are you using Malory?", I fight the urge to bear their children); whether they consider Bella Italia to be an example of a good restaurant (yes, in the same way the News of the World is an example of sound journalism); whether they eat breakfast (people who don't immediately strike me as a) mad and b) badly organised, which jars somewhat with my control-freak sensibilities); whether they support animal rights and buy free range meat; whether or not they're a picky eater (I have a love-hate relationship with such creatures; I abhor picky eaters yet at the same time relish the challenge of having them in my kitchen because it forces me to be more creative); what they order in a restaurant (lasagne/spaghetti bolognaise? Do you even have a personality?); their favourite fish (is it mackerel? If not why not?); their feelings regarding fruit in savoury dishes (if you leave the apricots on the side of your plate after eating a tagine I've made, you will probably never be invited back, simply on the grounds that you clearly have no taste); how they cook rice (NO! You do NOT just chuck it in a pan of boiling water then sieve it like pasta! How bloody hard is it to just measure out 1 part rice to 2 parts boiling water, pour the water in, stick on a lid and leave it to cook on the lowest heat for 20 minutes?); the bread they buy (Tesco value white sliced kept in the fridge is possibly a more depressing concept than bras for men); whether they know what polenta is (the number of times people have told me they think I've just invented this ancient foodstuff is slightly alarming - ditto spring greens); how they like their steak (medium? Well done? Go away).
And so the list goes on. I have, of course, noticed that most of these criteria relate to food. Yet how could they not, food being arguably the most central aspect of my life? I am constantly burdened with a sneaking suspicion that possessing such strong feelings about food is a) tragic and b) not very conducive to a healthy social life. I'm pretty sure my opinions have prevented me forming lasting friendships. Picture the scene: I've met someone at a party. We're getting along like a house on fire, possibly with the aid of wine. I'm perhaps thinking "yay! Someone else to cook for!" and then suddenly they drop the bombshell. They utter one of the following phrases:
"I don't care if it's not free range, as long as it tastes good."
"Favourite restaurant? Probably Zizzi. It's just like the food I had in Italy once, eleven years ago."
"Ugh, I hate cheese."
Said social interaction is over. I make my excuses, down my glass of wine and leave. Such is the lonely life of a food blogger.
Given that food is important to me, and rarely more so than when it contains fruit and sugar, I have often found myself judging people based on their dessert preferences. There are three levels to this process. The biggest faux-pas: no dessert at all. This does not impress me. In fact, it actively disgusts me. Either the person in question is anorexic, or that tired excuse so often the preserve of men, "just doesn't have a sweet tooth". Nothing is more ridiculous than the idea that certain palates just cannot cope with a mild sugar hit at the end of a meal. What do they think will happen if they indulge in a piece of cake? "Oh! My frail male tastebuds are being slowly and tortuously eroded by these sheer and razor-sharp granules of sugar in the apple crumble! If only I had a sweet tooth to deal with all that fructose!!!"
At the opposite end of the scale lies ordering one of the following: brownie, crumble, tart (preferably treacle - something good, stodgy and sticky - none of that delicate 'lemon torte' nonsense), bread and butter pudding, sticky toffee pudding, pie of any kind, cake. This is real food. Calorific food. Stodgy food. It is good. I am impressed with people who do so. Usually because they can keep me company and make me feel less vast. There is nothing worse than being the only one to order a dessert; you sit there, chocolate sauce possibly dribbling down your chin, eyes of the world on you, and you can practically hear the vibes they're sending out: "Fatty. Greedy. Piggy. A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips...think of all the saturated fats", et cetera.
So somewhere in the middle are the people who order panna cotta. Crême brulée. Posset. Fool. Mousse. Jelly. Tiramisù. Semifreddo.What is the point in these desserts?
One spoonful and then it's gone, your mouth having barely registered its presence. Your poor molars are sitting there going "where is our food? We need something to chew on!" Sometimes they might be lucky; there might be a biscuit or a tuile to provide them with some semblance of comfort, one tiny bite to assuage their sadness at being made redundant. Then it's back to mouthfuls of what is essentially air-infused fat.
Only fools order fools.
Needless to say, I have very little time for such desserts. You'll probably have noticed that I rarely make any such things on this blog. I think my lack of desire for them stems largely from the fact that I don't like cream. Well, I should clarify that. I love cream in savoury dishes; potatoes dauphinoise are possibly the closest to a savoury foodgasm you can get, oozing with butter and cream as you slice through the tender layers, infusing the gravy or sauce on your plate with their artery-clogging juices. Cream in a sauce used to coat slippery strands of pasta is also a fine thing. But cream in a dessert? Pointless. A waste of calories. Whenever a dessert comes served with cream in a restaurant, I substitute ice cream. It has more texture. As you can probably imagine, I like my ice cream fairly solid, so I have something to bite into. Whipped cream tastes of nothing, contributes nothing to the dessert, and is in general utterly useless. It doesn't even get properly cold, like ice cream does, so there's very little point in serving it with a hot pudding; you miss out on that temperature contrast that is the whole beautiful point of the thing. Pouring cream is possibly even more stupid; it just gets absorbed by the dessert so you can't even taste it. I'd rather have an extra helping of pie than douse one helping in cream.
My main problem with panna cotta, posset and the like is that they're just not satisfying. There's nothing to get your teeth into. It's like being a baby again. I accept that a good lemon or passion fruit posset can be immensely refreshing at the end of a heavy meal, but my teeth still miss texture. I once had a passion fruit posset served with a tropical fruit salad at college; that was good. There was both texture and tart, refreshing cream. Tiramisu I can just about tolerate, because at least it has those different-textured layers, but there's still far too much airy cream for my liking. I'd rather have alcohol-infused sponge served with coffee and ice cream. Incidentally, you know affogato? That Italian concoction whereby you are given a bowl of vanilla ice cream and an espresso, and you pour the latter over the former so it all melts into a coffee-laden, creamy mess? I don't do that. I order it, ask for them separately, then eat the gloriously solid ice cream while sipping my coffee. Much more civilised and less like baby food.
I suppose all this is basically my way of saying I love a good piece of cake. This is such a cake.
Greengages have just started appearing in the market. I admit, I wasn't enormously excited by this. My experiences of greengages have been mediocre, to say the least - I once tried to bake them with rosewater for a porridge topping and they just stayed firm and unappetising. However, I think maybe I just wasn't using them properly, and now I'm a convert. In this case, they are amazing. Sweeter and sharper than plums, and also a beautiful colour. Some of mine were a deep jade green, others were the greenish-yellow of a ripening lime. They were beyond ripe, soft and yielding and nearly impossible to cut and twist cleanly in half without oozing their vivid, jelloid flesh all over the chopping board. I sliced around the stone as best I could and cut them into very uneven slices for this cake, but it didn't matter. The beauty lies in the rusticity of it. Apparently greengages make excellent jam, but I'm not sure I'll get to find out: the season is short, and any I end up buying from now on will end up in a repeat of this cake.
It's made with spelt flour, which gives it a gorgeous rich, nutty flavour. Yet it has an incredibly light, airy crumb and stays moist for days from the inclusion of buttermilk. There's a hint of almond flavour running throughout, brightened by lemon zest. The beautiful sweet fragrance of the almonds is wonderful paired with the tart sugar of the greengages. The best bit of all is the spot where the greengages have been dropped into the batter, and ooze their delicious fruity juices into the surrounding sponge. The heat of the oven forms a crunchy crust on top, with even more crunch from the toasted almonds and demerara sugar. Crunchy cake gives way to tart, soft greengages, spread on a blanket of moist sponge. If I could change one thing, I'd mix some greengage slices into the cake batter as well as sprinkling them on top: it's quite a thick cake, and you end up with a substantial amount left unenriched by the greengages' tart juice, which is a shame. But it makes the layer of crunchy topping interspersed with soft fruit even more rewarding (I save it for last).
It's everything I want in a dessert: full of substance, full of fruit, full of fresh flavours and not enormously heavy. But heavier than a pointless panna cotta.
Do you have any unusual, personal standards by which you judge other people? Or is it just me?
Greengage and almond cake (serves 10):
(Adapted from Super Natural Every Day, by Heidi Swanson)
- 310g spelt flour (or plain/wholemeal, depending on your preference)
- 1 tbsp baking powder
- 70g brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 eggs
- 360ml buttermilk or yoghurt
- 1 tsp almond essence
- 60g melted butter, cooled slightly
- Grated zest of 2 lemons
- 10 greengages, sliced
- 4 tbsp demerara sugar
- 4 tbsp flaked almonds
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Grease a 25cm cake tin or fluted tart tin. You could line it with baking parchment but I didn't bother.
Sift the flour and baking powder into a large bowl. Add the brown sugar, lemon zest and salt.
In another bowl whisk together the buttermilk, eggs, almond essence and melted butter. Pour this into the dry mixture and fold together gently with a large spoon until just combined - don't over mix.
Scatter half the greengages over the bottom of the dish/tin. Pour the cake mixture over the top, then scatter over the remaining fruit. Sprinkle evenly with the almonds and sugar, then bake in the oven for 30 minutes until the centre is firm and a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool slightly before dusting with icing sugar.
Serve with vanilla ice cream or - if you must! - cream. It's best eaten warm, but keeps for days wrapped in foil and reheats well in the oven.