Greengage and honey compote

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.

Rhubarb, blueberry and almond baked oatmeal

(...or, "look, crumble for breakfast - but it's healthy!")

Sometimes I think that recipes shouldn't be allowed to tell you how many people they're supposed to serve. I wonder who those portion-control fascists are, that believe they have the right to dictate to us exactly how much of a glorious pan of food we are legitimately allowed to dole out to ourselves and devour with a clear conscience. I wonder why we allow ourselves to trundle on in this Nineteen Eighty-Four style existence, nonchalantly turning a blind eye as the food police worm their way into all aspects of our lives. No longer are we allowed to eat one of those big packs of sushi for lunch; no, the packaging tells us "One serving = half a pack" and then proceeds to blare out those guilt-inducing red and orange traffic light symbols that mean we couldn't enjoy scoffing a whole pack even if we tried, because those garish warning colours are now forever imprinted on our retinas, basically indicating that a single mouthful of the other half of the packet will send our blood sodium levels skyrocketing into stroke-inducing territory, and our arteries to immediately clog with lipids and refuse to let anything important - like blood - past.

Perhaps that's a bit extreme, but I do have a point, I think. Recipe serving guidelines are totally arbitrary, given that it's impossible for them to cater to the hugely diverse variation of appetites in our population. One of those packs of gnocchi you can buy in the chilled section of the supermarket ostensibly serves three or four; I once lived with a boy for whom it was merely a component of his lunch (the others being bacon and pesto).

My biggest irritation comes from those recipes that make wildly outrageous and vague claims like "serves 4-6". What does that EVEN MEAN? "Serves six normal people but four MASSIVE BLOATERS - if you only get four portions out of this luscious lasagne or sizzling stew, prepare to feel really crap about yourself, fatty"?

Yet I have to admit that I, too, conform to the pressure to tell the world how many people one of my (utterly fabulous) recipes will serve. 

And I'm ashamed to admit it, readers, but...

...sometimes I lie.

For example, my recent rhubarb crumble cheesecake. Incredible. Astounding. A work of pure creative genius. In a moment of mendacity I had the nerve to tell you that it serves six. Except this is a purely hypothetical and an estimate totally lacking in any factual foundation, because the first time I made it, I ate over a quarter by myself. 

So should I assume that all my readers share my rampant and sometimes indecent desire for that luscious menage à trois of cream cheese, rhubarb, and buttery crumble, and tell them that the cake serves four? Or should I - as I did - realise that I'm generally the exception to the rule and can cram far more dessert down my oesophagus than any normal human being should, and therefore give my serving estimate with that in mind?

The perils of recipe writing.

But really, there is nothing more disheartening than picking up a nice lunch-to-go from the chiller aisle of a supermarket (well yes, that is disheartening in itself, but read on for what's even worse), thinking it looks just right, size-wise, for the current black hole of starvation you're feeling in the pit of your stomach, and then seeing "serves 2" on the packet, or the nutrition information for "One serving (half a pack)". Firstly, is this just some sick ploy to make us all even more obese? Because I'm pretty sure no one in their right mind is likely to eat half a sandwich or salad or box of sushi for lunch and be able to leave the rest sitting on their desk or in the office fridge without it plaguing them, haunting them, and eventually driving them to crippling, dribbling despair that results in them clawing their way across the office floor with sweat pouring from their ears as they try to resist the repellent force-field around said lunch item that forbids them eating the whole thing.

The same goes for puddings. I picked up a lovely-looking sticky toffee pudding in Tesco the other day. Rustic. Gooey. Vaguely home-made looking, though that was clearly just clever marketing and it had actually been lovingly created by the mechanical hands of a piece of factory equipment. In China. It was packaged in one of those foil trays with a cardboard lid, like you get for takeaways. Thinking it'd be just perfect for me and the boyfriend, I was about to put it in the basket.

I should have done. Should have just done it. Got it over with. Thrown it in the basket and never looked back. 

But for some reason I glanced at the packaging (one thing you must never do: look at the nutrition information for a sticky toffee pudding), and lo and behold, there it was. The dreaded words. 

"Serves four".

Yeah, I thought. Four people who really hate life. Four children, maybe. Or four birds. 

I had to put it back. As much as I'm trying to resist the tyranny of the serving guideline fascists, I realised in that sad and sticky moment that I am their slave. They will always rule me. Always make me feel guilty about the sizeable amount I'm able - no, scratch that - I need to eat for lunch. Always make me cringe at the capacity of my stomach to squirrel away anything combining butter and sugar in very uncouth amounts. I hate them.

Anyway, you're probably wondering where this rather vitriolic diatribe came from. The reason I began this post in this way is that the recipe I'm going to tell you about today, by the wonderful Heidi Swanson (writer of the superb blog 101 Cookbooks and author of the inspirational cookbook Super Natural Every Day), has inflicted on me a similar sensation of unpleasant gluttonous guilt. The reason being that under the recipe I am going to tell you about, she writes these ominous words: "Serves 6 generously, or 12 as part of a larger brunch spread".

I can eat the whole thing in three helpings.

Which makes me equivalent, in stomach-expansion terms, to either two or four people. 

Which makes me, quite frankly, disgusting.

I can't help it.

This recipe is utterly incredible.

For good reason, it's become a widespread food blog classic, frequently popping up in different guises on the internet; I'd wager a large proportion of all the bloggers out there have given it a go at some point, either in its original form or adding some variation of their own. Heidi Swanson is a genius; I always marvel at the originality and creative flair of her recipes, and this is a case in point. It's simple but totally addictive and wonderful.

The original recipe uses bananas, sliced and used to line a baking dish, over which you scatter blueberries and then a mixture of oats, nuts, cinnamon, sugar (or maple syrup), salt and baking powder. Over this you pour another mixture of milk, egg, melted butter and vanilla extract. After a final scattering of more nuts and blueberries, it's ready to bake (salivating yet?). In the heat of the oven, the milk soaks through the oats and makes them moist and tender underneath, while the top sets to a crispy, crunchy crust. The juice from the fruit bubbles up around the crust, leaving those classic gooey, sweet, crispy edges so beloved of things like crumble, cobbler and pie.

It's basically a crumble, but without the flour or (most of) the butter. Soft, sweet fruit; crunchy nuts; gooey, chewy topping. I've made the banana and blueberry version three times now. Heidi's original recipe suggests walnuts, but I much prefer to make it with pecans, which are one of my favourite nuts and work so well with bananas. Walnuts I find a bit too bitter. 

Anyway, this is unbelievable. You'd never have thought such a simple idea could be so divine. I'd heartily recommend the banana and blueberry version, but I had a load of lovely Yorkshire rhubarb lying around so decided to try a version with that instead. I swapped the pecans for almonds, the vanilla extract for almond extract, and the bananas for chunky pink sticks of rhubarb. These softened in the oven, releasing their tart-sweet juice and perfuming their coating of oats with its syrupy goodness. 

I guess the reason this dish has won such a devout following is that it's basically a template for your mind and your stomach to run wild with. Change the fruits; change the nuts; change the vanilla to something else. Its basic make-up is something that cannot be beaten, an irresistible contrast in textures and flavours. Above all, it's wonderful breakfast or brunch food, designed to set you up for the day and still be healthy while tasting decadently like dessert. It also reheats well, so if you want to make it for just you (do it! DO IT!), you can keep it in the fridge and warm up portions in the microwave. It's actually even better after a couple of days, when all the flavours have mingled together. 

So I'm sorry, Heidi, but I really do question your suggestion that this could serve up to twelve people. It's just too damn good.

Rhubarb, blueberry and almond baked oatmeal ('ll go with four big breakfast fans)

(Adapted from 'Super Natural Every Day', by Heidi Swanson)

  • 400g rhubarb, cut into 1-inch lengths
  • 4 tbsp vanilla sugar (or caster sugar) 
  • 200g blueberries
  • 200g rolled or 'jumbo' oats (not instant oats)
  • 60g almonds, roughly chopped
  • 60g brown sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1.5 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 475ml milk
  • 1 large egg
  • 3 tbsp melted butter
  • 2 tsp almond extract
  • 3 tbsp flaked almonds

Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Butter an 8in x 8in baking dish, or a similar-sized dish (I use a small Le Creuset one). Scatter the rhubarb over the bottom and toss to coat in the vanilla/caster sugar. Add half the blueberries. [If making the banana version of this dish, omit the sugar - rhubarb needs it because it's quite sour, but banana doesn't].

Mix together the oats, chopped almonds, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and salt. 

In a large jug, whisk together the melted butter, milk, egg and almond extract.

Sprinkle the oat mixture on top of the rhubarb and spread out so it forms a fairly even layer. Pour the milk mixture evenly over the oats, and give the dish a couple of bashes on the worktop to make sure the milk is evenly distributed. Sprinkle over the rest of the blueberries and the flaked almonds.

Bake for 40 minutes or until the oat mixture has set and turned crunchy on top. Leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Jordans porridge: a review

I was recently given some Jordans porridge to sample. This, to me, was possibly more exciting than being given a bag of white truffles to sample. I am obsessed with porridge; I would happily eat it for every meal if it was considered socially acceptable. I remember trekking around Edinburgh at the Fringe festival two years ago, feeling a 4pm peckishness coming on and desperately craving porridge. Surely, I thought, everywhere must sell porridge all day long around here, it being Scotland and all. I was sadly wrong; the one place I managed to find (after walking for at least two miles in the rain) stopped serving it at 11am. Sure, they had sandwiches and baked potatoes...but there is a certain type of craving that only porridge can sate. I feel that everything is all right in the world when I sit down to my (enormous) morning bowl of steaming porridge, topped with whatever variety of fruit compote I have been organised enough to make in advance, or, if the organisation deserts me, whatever fruit needs eating. I've already posted about some of my favourites, so won't go into it again...though I should mention that chopped pear and blackberries make a wonderful porridge topping (I'm still using up the ones I picked in Yorkshire three months ago).

I usually just buy the cheapest oats that the supermarket sells. Oats are oats, I figure; you can't really do much to them to make them worth a more expensive price tag. However, these Jordans oats have actually changed my mind. I tried two types: the finer cut oats that cook in three minutes ('Quick & creamy porridge') and the whole rolled oats ('Chunky traditional porridge'). They both have their merits: the former is good if you're in a hurry, though to be honest I found they only took about a minute less time to cook than the other type. The finer cut oats do make a creamier porridge though, so if that's how you like the texture of your breakfast, I'd recommend those.

My favourite was the chunky traditional porridge - I'm not a fan of anything overly creamy, and these make a porridge that is still lovely and soft but has a bit more bite and texture to it. They take hardly any time to cook, really very little more than the supposedly quicker variety. I tried them mixed with grated apple and sultanas, and topped with golden plums that I'd baked in honey, brown sugar and vanilla. You can actually see from the picture how the porridge is still quite oaty. It really is good, and somehow tastes of more than your basic supermarket oats; it has a warm, almost spicy aroma even before you add any cinnamon or anything. Delicious.

Another rather seasonal idea, and one that incorporates one of my favourite ingredients: the quince. Make a compote with chopped quince, sugar, water and a sliced apple. Use it to top porridge into which you've stirred sultanas and chopped dates or apricots. The caramel stickiness of the dates goes really well with the astringent sharpness of the quince. I tried this, again, with the chunky porridge. 


Plums again: this time, dark ones that soften into a blood-red compote. Raw plums are often disappointing, but I cooked these in orange juice with star anise, cloves and sultanas, and the results are spectacular. They make a wonderful contrast to the blanket of creamy oats (for this I used the 'quick & creamy' porridge), both in colour and in texture and flavour. I think this might be my favourite breakfast at the moment; it's certainly one that keeps me buying big baskets of plums at the Wednesday market every week.

Lastly, a rather less seasonal topping, but one I love nonetheless. Poached apricots (cook them in orange juice, again with star anise and cloves), and fresh blueberries. Both plums and apricots are, I think, the perfect partner for porridge: they are sweet, but also sharp enough to temper the soft creaminess of the oats. 

All in all, I'd recommend both types of oats - they're more substantial and have more flavour than the cheaper varieties (and are still just oats, so you won't exactly be breaking the bank). Plus, I like Jordans as a brand: they have a good ethical philosophy, are nice to nature, and, on a more superficial level, make my favourite muesli (it's just called Jordans Fruit & Nut, if anyone is interested...).

In praise of porridge

We had our breakfasts--whatever happens in a house, robbery or murder, it doesn't matter, you must have your breakfast. 
~ Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone

He is right. I have always felt breakfast to be the best meal of the day, or at least I have since I discovered porridge. Although, really, it is odd that I even like porridge. Given that I hate milk and yoghurt and anything with a sort of unchewable consistency, porridge should really be something that I loathe and detest. However, it is something I would happily eat at every meal and look forward to every morning.
Admittedly, the idea of plain porridge with no adornment does make me feel a bit sad. My approach is to cram it full of lovely sugary (but in a good way) things so you end up with a bowl of something that feels more like a dessert than breakfast, but is still infinitely better for you than eating hideous processed cereal. I make it with half water and half milk, mainly because I can never be bothered to buy milk often enough to use entirely milk, and because it's less like having a lead brick in your stomach that way. I don't really measure anything, just sort of guess, and if it still looks a bit grainy add some more milk. There's something rather therapeutic about standing at the hob absent-mindedly stirring a steaming bowl of porridge, especially on a grey rainy day like today. It's the same calmness you get from stirring a risotto. I still eat it in the height of summer - it's filling, delicious and means you're not hungry until lunchtime.

So, some good porridge recipes. Firstly, pear and nutmeg. Grate massive amounts of nutmeg into the oats when you add the milk/water. Add a handful of sultanas. Cook the porridge, then cover with chopped ripe pear and lots of honey, and maybe some flaked almonds if you can be bothered.

Or, get some plums. This is a good one for underripe plums that you have a sneaking suspicion will never ripen enough to be nice to eat. Halve the plums and put in a baking dish. Sprinkle with rosewater, honey and a little bit of water (and maybe some brown sugar), cover with foil and bake at 170C for half an hour or so. You should have lots of crimson, rose-scented juice left in the dish to drizzle over the porridge. Another good plum recipe is to make a compote by quartering plums, putting in a pan with some orange juice and zest, a star anise, some cloves and a cinnamon stick. Simmer for 15 mins or so until the plums are soft, juicy and fragrant. Delicious.

Poached rhubarb: bake sticks of rhubarb in the oven with the juice of an orange, some orange zest and some sugar, until soft. This goes well with porridge into which you've stirred cinnamon and dried cranberries.

Banana and blueberry: good for using up overripe bananas. Cook the porridge with some cinnamon and maybe some chopped dried apricots. When it is nearly cooked, add a sliced banana. In a separate pan, heat a handful of blueberries with a drop of water until they burst and turn all juicy. Pour over the porridge.

Winter fruit compote: good for when there's not very much fresh fruit around. Put some halved dried apricots, prunes and figs in a pan with some sultanas, orange juice and zest, a star anise and a clove or two. Simmer for half an hour to an hour until the fruit is soft - you may have to keep adding more liquid as you want some nice syrupy juice left over to pour onto the porridge. This is even better if you add an orange, cut into segments. It's good in winter when the blood oranges start appearing.

Finally, my favourite at the moment: apricots (see the first photo of the post). A real treat when fresh apricots come into season round about now. I find them quite bland when eaten raw - sort of like poor impostors for peaches - but when cooked in this way they become something a little bit magical. Halve them, put in a baking dish and sprinkle with honey and orange flower water. Add some water, cover with foil and bake for 30-40 mins at 170C until soft and you have some nice syrup in the dish. Alternatively, halve and put in a pan with some water, orange flower water and honey and simmer until soft - this takes less time. Serve with porridge into which you've put sultanas, chopped dates and lots of cinnamon. Truly delicious.