I was recently invited by Allinson (the bread and flour company) to take part in a recipe challenge. Harking back to founder Thomas Allinson, who in the nineteenth century encouraged healthy eating by prescribing the consumption of two salads a week, Allinson are encouraging consumers to grow their own herbs by offering them a Kitchen Herb Garden when they send off tokens from the Allinson bread range. The herb garden includes a box for growing the herbs, compost, and three packs of seeds - basil, parsley and chives. The challenge was to come up with a recipe featuring one or more of the herbs along with bread from the Allinson range, and to focus on healthy eating, in the spirit of the company's founder.
Like many pioneering geniuses, a lot of Allinson's ideas were regarded as a bit mad during his time. He outlandishly believed nearly all ailments could be cured by a good diet, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle. Apparently this was regarded as 'rebellious' by his peers. Oh, how times have changed.
I've never had much success with growing my own herbs. I did try, diligently, when I moved into a house in my second year of university and found myself with a window ledge. It was promptly filled with pots of mint, coriander and parsley. They all showed promising progress for a while, and then almost as promptly decided to stop growing altogether and die. From then on I kept mint in my room, and had a bit more success, but it still had a tendency to grow rapidly for a couple of weeks then stop, turning wispy and lacking in foliage to be used for Moroccan tea-making.
I've always been so envious of people who complain that fresh mint grows like a weed in their garden. Oh, to have my own giant supply of this wonderful, fresh, versatile herb. I've tried so many times and failed, and I think I deserve a successful mint plant far more than most people, seeing as it's one of my favourite herbs and I would actually use and treasure it rather than dismiss it as a weed and moan about it.
In spite of these failures, I gave the Allinson box a go. I sprinkled my seeds - which came in cute little sachets bearing quotes from Allinson himself, such as "Pure air is our best friend", "A man is what he eats" and "Brown bread is not a luxury but a necessity" - into the soil, watered, and waited.
Lo and behold, after a week or so, green shoots started to appear.
Despite this promising start, the shoots still remain in this state, several weeks later. The basil has gone a bit mouldy and the chives have wilted, but the parsley is still growing, I think. Perhaps this is due to my assiduous over-watering. I did desperately try not to over-water them, but I'm useless at knowing when to stop. Here's a tip if you're thinking of collecting the Allinson tokens (6 tokens and £2 P&P, or 3 tokens and £5 P&P) and getting your own herb garden: if you think it needs watering, it probably doesn't. Err on the side of dryness, and you'll probably have much more success than me. It's a lovely little box and I love the idea of it growing happily away on the kitchen worktop. If only I'd held back with the water.
Fortunately I wasn't required to use my own home-grown herbs for this competition, or you might be looking at a recipe for 'strawberry French toast with a tiny sprinkling of mouldy basil shoot'.
I had numerous ideas for recipes involving bread and a combination of chives, basil and parsley. Cheese was involved in nearly all of them, as were eggs. However, I wanted to do something a little bit different.
Generally, people think of herbs as an ingredient for savoury cooking. However, the dessert potential of herbs is something I find fascinating, and enjoy experimenting with. I once made a rosemary ice cream which was beautiful with slices of poached quince, and I imagine would have worked well with poached pears too. Bay leaf ice cream was another hit; served alongside a very spice-heavy, fruity crumble, it added an intriguing herbal note that cut through all the other flavours.
Perhaps the most common herb used in desserts now is basil. It has a fairly sweet, citrus flavour which makes it easily adaptable for sweet dishes; you'd probably have a harder time getting chives, sage or parsley to taste good alongside sugar (although I love a challenge in the kitchen...maybe I'll have a go one day). Basil ice cream was a hit with everyone who tried it; they were often expecting to be repulsed, and ended up going back for thirds. It worked beautifully alongside strawberries, whose light, fruity sweetness sits comfortably with the more complex, slightly metallic flavour of basil.
Basil sugar was an experiment for me last summer; I used it to sprinkle over these honey mango tartlets, giving them a fabulous crunch and another dimension of flavour to set against the super-sweet Pakistani mango topping and soft, creamy ricotta filling. When I entertained the concept of doing a sweet dish for this recipe competition, I immediately decided to incorporate the basil sugar. It's different, interesting, and surprisingly delicious, delivering a totally unexpected flavour and texture.
It's the simplest thing to make, too - you just blitz caster sugar and fresh basil together in a blender, until the sugar becomes pungent with heady basil flavour, and the leaves disintegrate to colour the sugar. It ends up looking rather like green snow.
French toast seemed the obvious sweet way of using bread in my recipe. You might argue that French toast isn't exactly healthy, and the emphasis is supposed to be on healthy eating, but I disagree. French toast is actually healthier and more nutritious than toast itself - you're soaking it in milk and egg, which are good sources of protein and nutrients. It's basically the same as having toast, a boiled egg, and a small glass of milk. I used wholemeal bread, too, which ups the health quotient a bit. You add a tiny amount of sugar and pan-fry it in a very small amount of butter, no more than you'd have on your normal toast.
The result is, of course, a delicious crispy, chewy exterior giving way to a fluffy, soft, gooey crumb, subtly flavoured with vanilla and a touch of cinnamon. It's also a great way to salvage stale bread, which makes the best French toast as it soaks up more milk.
The French call it pain perdu, 'lost bread', which I quite like - I have this image of the lost souls of countless loaves wandering bread purgatory until their redeeming kitchen angel decides to save them through a good baptism of milk and egg.
So, then you cover your little lost bread it in sliced strawberries - one of your five a day - and sprinkle over a little of this delightful basil sugar.
The sugar is the star of this recipe. OK, so the delicious squidgy French toast is pretty spectacular, and the sweet strawberries go very well with it, but it's the herbal, citrussy crunch of the basil sugar that turns the whole thing from an ordinary breakfast or brunch to something classy and a bit special. It gives another texture to the plate, adds a pretty green finishing touch, and works harmoniously with the strawberries.
This is probably a breakfast or brunch dish, but if you made the portion a bit smaller it would make a lovely dessert after a light meal, too. You could swap the strawberries for raspberries or even blueberries; basil would work well with them all, I think.
Strawberry French toast with basil sugar (serves 2):
- 2 tbsp caster sugar
- A small bunch of fresh basil
- 4 slices wholemeal bread, preferably a bit stale
- 2 eggs
- 150-200ml milk
- 5 tsp sugar (caster or light brown)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- A pinch of cinnamon
- A knob of butter
- Sliced strawberries, to serve
First, make the basil sugar. Put the 2 tbsp caster sugar in a blender along with the basil, and grind until the sugar turns green and fragrant with the basil - there should only be tiny bits of basil leaf still visible. Set aside.
Cut the crusts off the bread and cut into triangles. Mix the eggs, milk, 5 tsp sugar, vanilla and cinnamon in a shallow dish using a whisk. Put the bread into the dish to soak up the mixture for a minute or so, then flip over and soak the other side. You may need to add a bit more milk, depending on how 'thirsty' the bread seems.
Heat the butter in a non-stick frying pan until foaming. Add the bread slices and cook for a couple of minutes, until they develop a golden crust, then flip over and cook the other side in the same way.
Place the toast on a plate to serve, and scatter over the sliced strawberries and basil sugar. Serve immediately.