Sometimes, you need a dessert that is pure chocolate indulgence. Not a scattering of chocolate chips here and there, or a bit of cocoa added to a sponge mixture, but a proper mouthful of thick, rich, silky molten chocolate. The kind that envelops your tongue like dark cashmere, and leaves you wanting to bathe in a pool of rippling cocoa. This is that dessert. A layer of smooth, fudgy dark chocolate ganache is baked until just set inside a crunchy, buttery pastry shell, flecked with hazelnuts for that praline hit. It's so thick and smooth you need a hot knife to cut through it, and it's scattered with freeze-dried raspberry pieces for delicious bursts of fruity sharpness in every mouthful. On the side, a glorious ice cream rippled with vanilla, crushed meringues and a tangy raspberry coulis, vibrant with the fragrant heat of pink peppercorns. It's perfect against the silky, complex ganache and the crisp pastry. Head to my post on Great British Chefs for the recipe!
A friend of mine once asked me what ingredient I cook with the most (staples like salt and oil aside). I answered limes, but on reflection it could equally be raspberries. Having said that, I don’t tend to ‘cook with’ raspberries much: I prefer to eat them unadulterated, scattered over porridge or granola or with cubes of golden papaya or juicy ripe mango for dessert when I can’t quite justify eating loads of chocolate or crumble. I occasionally bake them into cakes: I love the way baking intensifies their sharp, almost grassy flavour, and the way they stew their rosy juice through the buttery crumb, perfuming it with that heady scent of summer. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about the savoury uses of raspberries.Read More
Some beautiful things are born out of frugality in my kitchen. Dense, fudgy loaves of banana cake made to rescue two blackened bananas from the fruit bowl. Bowls of healing broth whipped up from the sad-looking carcass of a picked-clean roast chicken. Glossy, scarlet chilli jam that has saved a bag of overripe tomatoes from a tragic fate in the compost bin. I love averting waste and turning ingredients that were so nearly rubbish into something delicious, particularly when it encourages me to try new recipes in the process.Read More
The other night, some of my fellow PhD students and I got together for a ‘Dinnertation’ party (I sadly cannot take credit for the coining of this excellent term). This involved cooking and bringing a dish related – on however tenuous a level – to your thesis, either in terms of period or theme. So for anyone out there thinking I’m not quite sure how to have fun, I hope you now stand corrected. As you’d expect from anything that involves bringing together a bunch of overachieving, highly neurotic, borderline nocturnal individuals whose everyday conversations are peppered with words like ‘ontological’ and ‘epistemology’ and who refer to their desks as ‘nests’, it was a total riot.Read More
It’s rhubarb season, and I feel like an excitable little girl with a penchant for Disney and ponies every time I take a tray of the stuff out of the oven, its radiant fuschia guaranteed to perk up even the lowest of spirits, even if only for a moment. While you can bury this delicious sweet-tart vegetable under a blanket of pastry or a smothering of crumble, it seems a shame to hide it when it’s so beautiful. There’s a reason rhubarb at this time of year is called ‘champagne rhubarb’: it’s far superior to the summer stalks in colour, flavour and texture. It makes sense, then, to show it off.Read More
For me, mornings are the worst part of winter. I normally count myself as a guaranteed lark, reveling in the early hours of the day, but those early hours in the colder months of the year barely deserve the label ‘morning’. Mornings mean sunshine, beams streaming through the window and the promise of productivity and good things to come. Mornings don’t mean opening your eyes in darkness; the hazy, nauseating orange glow of streetlamps replacing real rays; the rasp of cold, clammy air against your skin as you tentatively reach an arm outside the duvet to check the time and remind yourself that no, it isn’t a mistake, it genuinely is time to get up despite the dark and the cold and the feeling that you might be turning into a hibernating mammal. Mornings shouldn’t mean having to shiveringly shroud yourself in a dressing gown to make the briefest of journeys between bedroom and bathroom, or turning all the lights on in the kitchen just so you can find the all-important switch on the kettle.Read More
Sometimes, you make a recipe that you know people are just going to love. It's hard to put your finger on exactly how you know this. Maybe it's because you yourself were just blown away upon first tasting it, and uttered a deeply antisocial grunt of 'ohmygodyum' with a mouth half full as you took your first bite. Maybe it's because it happens to incorporate a certain set of ingredients that are generally just pleasing to everyone. Maybe it's because it's sugary and cakey and is the kind of ridiculously moreish sweet thing that everyone just loves to partake in.
All of the above applies to this recipe.
One of the things I love about being a student again is that there are people around me every day who I can force my baked goods onto. There's nothing worse than whipping up a calorific feast in the privacy of your own kitchen only to be forced to devour the entire lot, when really you only wanted a few pieces to quality control. What could have been a pleasant sugary treat suddenly turns into a couple of extra inches on your thighs, and no one is happy.
What a hard life.
Anyway, now I can bake with peace of mind. I have neighbours. Supervisors. Friends. Sometimes people I don't know very well but who I am sure will appreciate cake. It's a good network to have.
And if all else fails, there are lots of ducks on campus. In fact, the other day a duck was so intent on stealing my/my friends' lunch that it actually nibbled my exposed toes in a desperate bid to get me to part with my couscous. That was somewhat unexpected. The moral of this story is: probably don't feed ducks your lunch. They get accustomed.
Also, don't take pity on it and throw it one of the chickpeas from said couscous. The duck will not appreciate this, and you will have wasted a chickpea. Not sad if you don't like chickpeas, but I really do. I'm cool like that. Every chickpea thrown to an unappreciative duck is a chickpea wasted.
Back to the point. I bake a lot of things. I test a lot of recipes that I make up in my head, and need to turn into reality. Sometimes they are a little bit out of the ordinary, like maybe a mango, coconut and cardamom cheesecake, or a lime, lemongrass and ginger cheesecake. Or a quince and marzipan cake. Things that I am surprised don't exist already, because they just seem to make sense. So I make them happen.
And yet for all the creative love and skill that goes into something like that, all the many minutes of ingredient and technique planning, of scribbling down ideas while you're supposed to be writing a PhD, of deliberating in the aisles of the supermarket, of tasting as you go, tasting, tasting..
...what people actually seem to prefer is a totally trashy, chocolate- and butter-heavy blondie.
I can't even be cross, though. Much as I love some of the recipes I've created over the years, after a couple of bites of these I seriously considered never bothering to make anything more sophisticated ever again.
That basic combination of butter, sugar and chocolate appears in so many permutations, but it probably beats any other for sheer gastronomic satisfaction. Sure, dairy is nice - a lovely cheesecake can be a beautiful thing - and fancy sugary concoctions like meringues or macaroons have their place. But for serious tastebud and texture appeal, you want something like a good brownie or blondie. Rich. Moist. Gooey. Slightly crunchy on the outside. Inducing salivation with the very first taste.
These are what you'd call crowd-pleasers, in the dessert world. There's a reason restaurant dessert menus pretty much always feature some form of chocolate brownie. It's the ultimate 'treat yourself' food. While I hate to apply adjectives like 'sinful' and 'naughty' to food (no really, I loathe it), that's kind of what a brownie is.
Decadent. Decadent is a better word.
Much as I love to experiment with desserts, I also love to get into the kitchen on a beautiful summer evening, put on my apron, switch on some ridiculous music (think Carly Rae Jepsen), and spend twenty minutes mixing together vast quantities of fat and sugar in the knowledge that EVERYONE WILL LOVE ME FOR IT. I'm often pretty good about not licking the spoon (often because I bake straight after breakfast, having brushed my teeth, and I can't really be bothered to go and brush them again), but with these it's totally inevitable.
This is a recipe I've developed over a few different tries. The first time I made it, from an internet recipe, I was in love. Guttural, primal, salivating love. I've tweaked it (after making it at least four times, much to the delight of my nearest and dearest) to incorporate a few other favourite ingredients: cardamom, which goes wonderfully well with white chocolate. Pistachios, which also go excellently with white chocolate but also with raspberries, which are the star of the show here.
Actually, having said that, the star of the show is the brown butter and white chocolate base. It's basically everything you could ever want from a baked thing. Moist and cakey, with a ridiculously delicious biscuity-caramel flavour from the mixture of molten, brown-flecked butter and sweet chocolate, with a delicate fragrance of cardamom in there, so slight you can barely put your finger on its presence. There's also a mixture of light and dark muscovado sugar in there, beaten with eggs to a glorious caramel creaminess. Then on top you have a fabulous crunchy crust of white chocolate chips, which keep their shape and deliver little pockets of oozing sweetness, and toasty pistachios. The raspberries are crunchy on top and gooey within, sweet and sharp, balancing out all the sugary goodness around them.
I use frozen raspberries for these, which are much cheaper than fresh. You don't need fresh. You just need them to be bold and purple and stain the surrounding cake with their delicious sweet-tart juice, brightening the rich canvas of chocolate and butter. You could adapt these, too, to your taste - maybe use hazelnuts, almonds or pecans instead of pistachios (I reckon any of those would be divine); blueberries instead of raspberries; a mixture of milk and white chocolate; a little ginger instead of cardamom.
Think of them as a blueprint for all your most ridiculously decadent dessert dreams. Forget making anything more sophisticated - I can guarantee people will appreciate these more.
Raspberry, white chocolate, pistachio and cardamom blondies (makes 2 x 16-20 blondies):
- 300g butter
- 300g white chocolate chips (or chopped white chocolate)
- 200g light muscovado sugar
- 200g dark muscovado sugar
- 6 large eggs
- 6 cardamom pods, seeds crushed to a powder
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 200g plain flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 280g raspberries (I use frozen as they're cheaper)
- 60g pistachios, roughly chopped
In a large, wide saucepan, heat the butter until bubbling then cook over a medium heat, swirling occasionally, until the white solids separate from the gold liquid, then brown flecks start to appear, the colour darks, and it smells biscuity (for a tutorial on the technique, see here). Leave to cool for five minutes, then stir in half the chocolate chips to melt them. Grease and line two 8x8 inch cake tins, and pre-heat the oven to 165C.
In a large bowl with an electric whisk, or using an electric mixer, beat the sugars with the eggs until pale and creamy - about 3-5 minutes. Beat in the cardamom and vanilla, then the white chocolate and butter mixture. Gently beat in the flour and salt, then when you have a smooth batter fold in half the remaining chocolate chips and half the pistachio nuts.
Divide between the two tins, then scatter over the raspberries. Scatter over the remaining chocolate chips, then the pistachio nuts. Bake for 45 minutes, or until firm and golden on top with only a very slight wobble in the centre (they will continue to cook as they cool).
1. Jordan's Super Fruity Granola. To mark their 40th anniversary of making granola, Jordan's commissioned a 'Perfect Breakfast' survey to find out what us Brits consider our ideal morning. Nearly half of the 2000 people surveyed considered a bowl of healthy cereal their perfect breakfast, and needed an hour and five minutes between waking up and leaving for work to be fully relaxed. Favourite breakfast pastimes include reading the paper and watching the news, but it also gets more specific - being made a cup of tea by someone else and not having to wear a coat outside are also ingredients for the ideal weekday morning, while guaranteed threats to such a morning include a bad night's sleep, running out of milk, or stubbing one's toe. I can agree with pretty much all of these, except I like to make my own cup of tea - I'm fussy like that.
Apparently only a tragic 30% of us would refuse to leave the house without a healthy breakfast. That means 70% of the people out there are running around without having sat down to a proper breaking of their fast. I physically cannot comprehend such a notion. If I don't eat breakfast, I'm a danger to myself and others. Perhaps to combat this sad statistic, Jordan's have released two new tempting varieties of their granola: Super Fruity and Super 3 Seeds. I was kindly sent a sample of the former to try, which features sweet, toasty oats baked in honey and offset by a tongue-tingling mixture of pomegranate, raspberry and redcurrant pieces. I enjoyed it enormously - granola can often be too sweet, but this has just the right balance of sweet crunchiness and acidity from the fruits. They are really quite tangy, but the whole thing works together perfectly and will definitely provide the much-needed morning wake up call for the average Brit, who apparently snoozes for around 8 minutes after the alarm goes off before rising.
2. South African apples and pears. This lovely hamper arrived from the people over at South African Fruit the other day, so I've been feasting on delicious crisp Gala apples and Forelle pears, which I particularly like because I think you pronounce it as 'For Elly', therefore clearly this type of pear is destined to be eaten by me. It's nice to have some decent apples and pears to fill the gap before the English ones start to come into season in the early autumn. The Forelles have a beautiful blushing skin and sweet flesh. I quite like them in savoury dishes - they go very well thinly sliced and tossed with wafer-thin fennel, chopped mint, pomegranate seeds and a mustard vinaigrette to make a crunchy and zesty summer salad that works with all kinds of meat and fish. The apples I just ate pure and unadulterated - I sometimes find the Gala variety a bit bland, but these were really crunchy and juicy.
4. Recovering from kitchen disasters. A couple of days ago I decided to make a cake for my mum. Specifically, this amazing lemon drizzle cake that I've made a few times and is just utterly perfect in every way (there's a reason it's received 1041 five-star reviews on BBC Good Food...). It is incredibly moist and buttery, with a gorgeous crunchy lemon tang from the sugary topping. Normally I double the mixture and make two at once, but this time I just made a single quantity. As I poured it into my loaf tin I was a bit worried that the tin was basically full and there would be no room for the cake to rise, but I casually dismissed it in my mind and stuck it in the oven.
Twenty minutes later, I was horrified to see batter overflowing from the tin in a volcanic fashion, pooling and baking on the oven floor. There was no way the cake was going to bake properly in that way. So I hastily pulled it out of the oven and scooped about a third of the still-liquid batter out of the baking cake tin and put it into another loaf tin, thereby breaking the First Rule of Cake Baking: do not open the oven door while it's cooking.
Predictably, the main cake sank horribly the middle. We're talking a proper crater, something that might appear if a small asteroid had hit the cake. The second, improvised cake came out pretty flat, as there wasn't that much batter to fill the tin. It wouldn't have been great as a cake on its own, because it had gone slightly crunchier and more biscuity, lacking the moist centre that makes its bigger brother so special.
Rather than throw it away, which I couldn't bear, I improvised. I cut it into cubes, put it into dessert glasses, and sprinkled it with sherry. I threw a few handfuls of juicy raspberries on top, then smothered the lot in thick cream. A sort of raspberry lemon trifle, with emphasis on the 'sort of'. I've never actually made a real trifle; this is probably the closest I will ever get.
But apparently it tasted great. What's more, it looked beautiful too - much more beautiful than in its flat cake form. It just goes to show that not all kitchen disasters are disasters - some are simply the wonderful origin of a new, unintended, but nevertheless delicious dish.
5. Getting ready for my new kitchen. I'm moving house in October, to start my PhD at the University of York. I have a lovely little house awaiting me, five minutes from the gym (with heated outdoor pool!) and - more importantly - ten minutes from some fabulous Asian grocers. Finally, I will have a kitchen that is entirely my own. No more sharing with horrible dirty people who leave my pans full of oil for fifteen days or casually leave the freezer open overnight. No more asking my friends to sit on upturned bins around the table because there are only six proper chairs. No more coming upstairs in the morning to find the cleaner has thrown away my baking parchment. Thank the lord.
Naturally, this means a quick re-evaluation of all the kitchen items I possess, and a shopping spree for further essentials (such as a Le Creuset teapot). Recently acquisitions include a sexy red Gaggia coffee machine and a Magimix food processor, which I found on eBay and was a total bargain. My little Kenwood blender, which struggles even to turn bread into breadcrumbs, is no match for this beast, and I am looking forward to putting it through its paces and making some blended delights.
Like I said, I can't wait to have a kitchen all to myself. It's going to be wonderful.
If asked to give a list of the dishes/recipes I've cooked more than once in my life, it would undoubtedly be short and sweet. I reckon I could count said dishes on, if not one hand, then definitely two hands. A lot of people find it odd that I never cook the same thing twice. If something tastes nice, they figure, why wouldn't you make it again soon afterwards? I sometimes wish I could see things in this way, be one of those organised cooks who has a small repertoire of tasty and perfected dishes floating around in their head, who finds it easy to make a snap decision about what's for dinner (and, consequently, make a snap shopping trip in their lunch break or on the way home for the ingredients, rather than traipsing around endless markets and butchers for inspiration and then dithering over accompanying ingredients and the like for - sometimes - hours at a time). In fact, if I could add up the number of hours I've spent simply shopping for ingredients and wandering aimlessly around markets trying to figure out what on earth to buy, it would probably be roughly equal to the number of hours spent studying for my degrees. Terrifying.
I can't help it. I just have this compulsion to experiment every time I have the opportunity to cook. Why cook something where I know what it tastes like when I could cook something totally new? If I didn't keep cooking new things, I'd never discover certain great dishes that I'd want to come back to.
I do the same thing in restaurants; I rarely order something twice. The only exception to this is my favourite dish at an Italian restaurant I go to with my boyfriend. The crab linguine was so good when I first tried it that I had it again twice. Naturally I spent about two hours dithering over the menu deciding whether to take this highly out-of-character and, let's be honest, downright outlandish step. However, the linguine wasn't as good the second and third time around, which to me seems proof of my hypothesis that you shouldn't stick to what you know; you should go off piste and welcome the possible exciting and delicious discoveries that may greet you there.
However, there are some dishes (albeit not many) that I have cooked more than once.
1. Chermoula roasted aubergine with bulgur wheat and yoghurt. It's a beauty not only because it's vegetarian and can even be made vegan if you omit the yoghurt, but because it's so incredibly delicious. You wouldn't expect it from the ingredients list, but the flavours work perfectly together, creating a harmonious and intensely moreish whole, as well as something really unusual and intriguing. You have the charred, spicy exterior of the roasted aubergine, then it gives way to something silky, smoky and unctuous, and then you have the delightful contrast in texture with the nutty bulgur, crunchy pine nuts, soft sweet raisins, and cooling yoghurt. I really cannot stress how good this is. It's perfect for those times when you feel you could do with cutting back a bit on the animal flesh.
2. Aromatic apricot and almond chicken. A sort of easy tagine, this marries the warmth of turmeric, cinnamon and ginger with meaty chunks of chicken, meltingly sweet onions, and tart pieces of apricot. Scatter over toasted almonds and lashings of coriander, and you end up with something incredible. You'd never guess it was so easy. It's also easy to make for just two people, unlike a lot of stew type things.
3. Risotto. Although I'm not sure this counts, as I rarely make exactly the same risotto twice. I always tweak things. However, favourite combinations are roasted butternut squash with goats'/blue cheese and/or bacon; mushroom and bacon; seafood; leek and cheese. I also like to substitute pearl barley for risotto rice sometimes. There's little you can't make into a wonderful risotto. I find it, without a doubt, the most relaxing thing ever to cook. All done in one pan, and after the initial frying of vegetables nothing to do except stir lazily until you're left with a beautiful starchy mound of wonderfulness. Even better if said stirring is helped along by a glass of wine.
4. Cheesecake. As with risotto, not sure it belongs on this list, as I always experiment with flavours, usually fruit. However, my basic baked cheesecake recipe is usually the same, and works for most ingredient combinations. My favourite cheesecakes so far have to be the mango, coconut and cardamom unbaked version (incredible), and the baked redcurrant version (like something you'd get in a restaurant but better).
5. Pasta with mushroom and bacon cream sauce. This started off as a sort of carbonara, but now bears little resemblance to a carbonara. I fry chopped bacon until really crispy, then drain on kitchen paper. Then I cook mushrooms and sometimes garlic in the bacon fat until nicely caramelised before adding LOADS of lemon thyme and black pepper, plus a little white wine and about a (small) tub of creme fraiche. This gets stirred into hot pasta, and the bacon scattered over at the end so it retains its crunch. Comforting, zesty, satisfying. It has all the goodness of carbonara but is much healthier, especially if you use half-fat creme fraiche and cut the fat off the bacon (or fry it separately in strips for your boyfriend to eat, as I do.)
6. Couscous with roasted vegetables. I eat this for lunch most days. In my opinion there's little that doesn't go with couscous. For me it's comfort food, something you can pile on your fork, soaked with all its lovely flavourings, and devour. Great with oven roasted tomatoes, peppers and aubergine, plus fresh basil and maybe some feta or goats' cheese. I also love couscous mixed with chopped mango, cooked prawns and lots of lime juice and coriander.
7. Pear, raisin and hazelnut pancakes with maple syrup. I make these most weekends when I'm at my boyfriend's. They are simply the best breakfast you will ever taste. I've tried numerous variations since I discovered these, in an attempt to match their glory, but none have ever come close. The apricot version was quite nice but a bit too tart and lacking in texture; the apple version was fairly insipid; the pineapple and coconut version left me feeling nauseous (probably because I put a whole pineapple in there for just two of us). I conclude that these are the definitive breakfast pancakes. It's something about the grainy, juicy texture of the pears, the fact that they're not too sweet but they're fragrant enough to stand out, and the contrast with the chewy raisins and crunchy nuts (pecans or almonds work well too). Drizzle over lashings of maple syrup, and you have something amazing. Also great with fresh raspberries or blackberries scattered over.
8. Orzo with broccoli pesto and avocado. I only discovered this dish about a month ago but have made it again since, which is very rare for me. It's such a delightful and moreish combination of flavours; it tastes and looks really healthy but also quite creamy and luxurious at the same time.
And that is basically it. Apart from things like porridge, which I make every day in varying flavours, those are the only things I can recall that I've cooked more than once. Which is actually a bit weird, now that I think about it. Obviously there are categories of dishes that I cook often - curries, stir-fries, cakes, cobblers, roasts - but as for single recipes that I've repeated, I can't think of any more.
It's not that I'm not totally satisfied with dishes I've cooked and therefore don't want to repeat them; I had a quick look through my recipe index just now and have been reminded of lots of excellent creations that I really feel I ought to repeat sometime soon. I guess my sense of adventure just nearly always overpowers my craving for the familiar.
The reason I've rambled about this is because of this cake. I made this cake a few weeks ago. Figs are still plentiful at the moment, their luscious curves calling out to me from their little plastic cocoons in the market, and the adventurous side of my cooking mentality is always trying to think of new and delicious ways to use them. Yet my mind just keeps coming back to this cake. For once, I'm actually thinking I should go with what I know. Because figs have such a short season, why waste them by experimenting with recipes that may turn out to be decidedly average? Why not seize the day and bake them into this truly divine cake, a recipe I know is perfect and which makes me salivate a little bit when I remember it? It seems madness not to.
This cake uses the sponge recipe from my Czech bubble cake, which is enriched with yoghurt to make a wonderfully soft and moist crumb. To it I added chopped figs, raspberries, chopped hazelnuts, vanilla and cinnamon. The result is so good that I think I might have to get the cake tin out now and make it again. You end up with an incredibly moist, gooey cake rippled with juicy raspberries and sweet, fragrant figs (the fig and raspberry combination is an excellent one, as featured in this fig and raspberry galette). The crunchy hazelnuts and hint of vanilla make it beautifully fragrant, while adding an intensely rich, toasted, nutty flavour that contrasts perfectly with the two very sweet fruits. Scattering the nuts over the top gives it a crumble-like topping and texture which is immensely appealing against the soft cake.
It's something that can be eaten warm with ice cream as a pudding, or later for afternoon tea. It's quite a hearty cake, quite dense and squidgy, but this is exactly how I like my cakes.
It's pretty much perfect. Why waste good figs on inferior cakes? Make this now.
Am I the only person who hardly ever cooks the same thing twice? Do you have a repertoire of trusty, tried and tested recipes that you return to time after time, or do you prefer to see every dinner as an opportunity for experimentation?
Fig, hazelnut and raspberry cake (serves 6-8):
- 75g light muscovado sugar
- 75g vanilla sugar (or caster sugar)
- 50g butter, softened
- 2 large eggs
- 200g plain flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Around 200ml yoghurt
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract (or 1 tsp if you didn't use vanilla sugar)
- A pinch of salt
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 90g hazelnuts, roughly chopped
- 5 large fresh figs
- A punnet of raspberries
- Demerara sugar, for sprinkling
Pre-heat the oven to 180C (160C fan oven). Grease and line a 20cm cake tin.
Cream together the butter and sugar with an electric whisk until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and mix together.
Sift in the flour and baking powder, then stir in the yoghurt until you have a thick batter. Add the vanilla, salt, cinnamon and two thirds of the hazelnuts.
Chop three of the figs into small pieces and stir into the batter along with half the raspberries. Pour into the cake tin, then quarter the remaining figs and arrange on top of the cake along with the raspberries and remaining hazelnuts. Scatter over 2-3 tbsp demerara sugar and put in the oven.
Bake for around 55 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream. It's also tasty the next day with a cup of tea.
I was pretty excited to find my name in the Guardian this week. Food and wine writer Fiona Beckett, who also wrote the student cookbook 'Beyond Baked Beans' and has a website of the same name devoted to student cooking, featured me and Nutmegs, seven in the article 'A new generation of student cooks?' You can read it here if you're interested.
I enjoyed both the article and - even more so - reading the comments underneath, to hear about others' experiences of the world of student cookery. Some of them sounded truly disastrous, and make my minor incidents (freezer left open, pan left full of used oil for days on end, rancid rotten fish smell coming from my sodden teatowel, washing up never done) pale in comparison.
Actually no. Nothing pales in comparison to that towel incident. Lord only knows what hideous atrocities were inflicted upon my poor teatowel to make it smell like that. Had it been left inside the festering innards of a dead whale for three months?
I always kind of forget that I learned most of my cooking skills as a student. I didn't think student food bloggers were few and far between, and certainly never thought of myself as special because I was both a student and could cook. I think I was just incredibly lucky to have had several like-minded friends, whose interest in food went beyond the kebab van and the tub of microwaveable Dolmio sauce. Like the friend who spattered the kitchen in mammalian blood while attempting jugged hare. Or the friend who actually suggested we go to a farmers' market together (most students never having contemplated such a thing, and certainly not prepared to cycle across town for farm-fresh eggs and smoked rapeseed oil). I'm pretty sure all of my friends knew how to boil an egg. Although that may not just be coincidence - if they hadn't been able to boil an egg, they probably wouldn't have passed my stringent friendship vetting process.
Because I can barely remember pre-student life, I feel like I've always been a student. I keep forgetting that I'm not any more. Today I bought some pears off a man at the market, and he looked at me earnestly and said "I hope you don't mind me asking, but are you a student by any chance?" It took me a few seconds of sad contemplation before I had to admit "No, no I'm not". Desperately trying to make myself still feel young and cool, I added "any more". As if, from those two words, he'd know that I am practically still a student - it's only three months since I handed in my Masters dissertation, and technically term hasn't started yet so I could still be a student, just waiting to go back to university.
It's kind of tragic, really, that I am now desperate for total strangers to perceive me as a fresh-faced graduate, barely out of university, still in touch with that hip student lifestyle.
As if. I don't think I was ever your typical cool student (I just used the word 'hip', for example). The last time I went clubbing was in my first year. I can count on one hand the number of times I've been drunk at university. Instead of an alcohol budget, I had a budget for fruit and fresh flowers. Yes, really. (Lilies are my favourite, though I do like a nice bunch of tulips. Preferably a reddish pink colour with yellow tips.) I rarely went to bed after 1am, I rarely lay in past 9am. I never ate a single kebab, ready meal or takeaway pizza. My idea of heaven was an evening in with a cup of tea, some chocolate and some food TV on iPlayer. I spent more time in the kitchen than I did in the pub. I spent more time in the swimming pool than I did in the pub.
I kind of feel I need a disclaimer at this point announcing that I did, in fact, have some friends. Maybe if they're reading this, they could leave a comment. Just to prove their existence.
It's interesting to look at those comments on Fiona's article. I do think the image of students who can't even make toast is horribly outdated now. At least, I really like to think it is, because the idea of anyone not being able to effect the most basic of kitchen skills makes me a bit depressed. I suppose I just assume that everyone knows how to cook pasta, eggs, toast, stews, stir-fries, bacon sandwiches (no, you don't put the raw bacon between the slices of bread and then chuck the whole thing in a sandwich toaster). To me it just seems like common sense. But I suppose if you've never had anyone teach you those things, nor have never needed to learn because your parents did it all for you, then why would you know?
I also assume that everyone knows not to put metal in the microwave. However, this was sadly disproven to me when I witnessed my housemate last year standing by calmly while the metal takeaway tray she'd put in the microwave sizzled and sparked like a bolt of lightning. I leapt up from the table and turned the microwave off, and she looked most displeased. "Don't you know you can't put metal in a microwave?!" I asked in disbelief. "Really? Oh...I've been doing it for weeks and it's been fine..."
Readers, you are very lucky that I am actually alive, and was not burned in my bed some time over the past year.
What nobody seems to realise is that the enemy of student cooking is not money. It is logistics. Cooking for yourself is, as has been said time and time again, usually cheaper than buying ready meals or takeaways in the long run, especially if you cook in bulk and freeze it for later meals, or cook for large groups and share the cost. Most students have been given this advice on repeat; I'm pretty sure they're aware of the benefits.
Yet you may have all these good intentions about cooking for yourself, making your own bread, whipping up vast quantities of homemade pasta sauces and soups for the freezer, learning how to stir-fry...but if you share a tiny kitchenette comprising two hob rings and a microwave with twenty other students, as is a common scenario, then you may as well kiss those dreams goodbye. I struggled to share a perfectly decent and well-equipped kitchen with only eight other people in my second and third years. There just isn't enough space, it's impossible to have more than two people cooking at the same time, and there are bound to be fights for space at the six-chaired dinner table, especially if two people have both invited friends over.
I was lucky with my last kitchen as a graduate, because in our house of six I was the only person who used it. I think I had to share the kitchen twice in my entire year, and even then my boisterous, spoon-wielding, apron-clad presence was apparently so intimidating to one of my housemates that he felt the need to approach me timidly and ask in a tiny voice, "Is it OK for me to use your kitchen?" (in the same sort of way you might ask Lord Voldemort if it would be OK to throw a Harry Potter appreciation party) before daring to even take a pan out of the cupboard.
If universities really are serious about wanting students to cook, they need to give them better facilities. But that is unlikely to happen, especially at Oxford, because the colleges want the students to eat in hall and thereby increase their profits. I was lucky to have had a kitchen at all; there are several colleges who don't offer any in their accommodation. While to most students, at Oxford at least, this seems to be the norm, now that I think about it it's really quite shocking. Obviously I feel this way because food is my entire life, but being deprived of a kitchen seems to me akin to being deprived of running water or access to daylight; it's a basic human necessity and it seems outrageous that some students can't even make themselves a piece of toast if they've missed dinner in hall, or don't fancy the menu that night.
We can lament the state of student cooking until we're blue in the face, but until students are provided with decent facilities in which to cook, I can't see how we can expect them to start whipping up gourmet feasts. A George Foreman grill, toaster and microwave do not a kitchen make, though I've seen such set-ups described as "fully-equipped kitchen" in accommodation blurbs. Outrageous.
If that was all I was given to cook with, I'd damn well go to the kebab van too.
Off my soapbox and back to the things that really matter: crumbly buttery pastry; sticky warm figs; sweet tart raspberries; crunchy demerara sugar. I've never made a galette before but have always loved the idea: it's pie or tart for the lazy person. You make pastry, roll it out into a pleasingly uneven circle, stick some fruit in the middle, fold the edges up to partially enclose the fruit, sprinkle on some sugar and bake in the oven. The pastry turns golden and crisp, the fruit cooks down to a delightful warm juiciness, and the end result is mouthwateringly delicious.
I love the rusticity of the galette (or crostata, as I think they call them in Italy): the uneven folds of the pastry over the filling, the action of tucking your precious fruity treasure inside its little blanket of butter and flour, to slumber peacefully in the oven for thirty minutes. I love the versatility; almost any fruit would work in this recipe, and still look delightful. The problem with pie is that, until you slice it, you have no idea what's in it. It doesn't have that wow factor. Here, the fruit is boldly on display, to be marvelled at and salivated over.
The combination of figs and raspberries is heavenly. I've never tried it before, but there's something about the aroma of a cooked raspberry that is just irresistible. They smell like a sweet shop, somehow, taking on a wonderful candied scent as they emerge from the oven. The flavour is heightened, the sweetness intensified, and they make an excellent partner to the subtle flavour of a ripe fig. The combination just works. Add to that a pastry made from spelt flour, which tastes gorgeously nutty and is as buttery and crumbly as you could possibly desire, and you have a really easy but sublime dessert. The best part is the crispy pastry crust with its scattering of sugar, where the fruit has melted into it slightly and softened it. Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and devour the whole lot with a big smile on your face. It really is wonderful.
Fig and raspberry galette (serves 4 - recipe easily doubled):
- 125g spelt flour (or normal flour)
- 75g very cold butter, cubed
- 25g light brown sugar
- Very cold water
- 5 figs, quartered
- A handful of raspberries
- 1 tbsp demerara sugar
- Icing sugar
Put the flour, butter and sugar in a food processor and blitz until it resembles fine breadcrumbs (don't overblend it though, as this will make it too hot). Pour in a little water and blitz again until the mixture just starts to come together - I used about 2 tbsp water. Bring the pastry into a ball and wrap in clingfilm. Chill for an hour in the fridge.
Pre-heat the oven to 160C. Dust a worktop with icing sugar and roll the pastry out into a rough circle, about 5mm thick. Place on a piece of baking parchment on a baking tray.
Arrange the figs and raspberries in the centre of the circle, then bring the pastry edges up around the fruit and fold over each other in a sort of pleated fashion. Sprinkle the crust with demerara sugar, then bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes until the pastry is crispy and golden, and the fruit soft. Allow to cool slightly, then dust with icing sugar and serve with vanilla ice cream.