I began 2012 with a list of food-related New Year's resolutions. This was, I have to admit, largely because I knew I'd be far better at keeping a set of food-related promises than any other arbitrary, unquantifiable, scarily significant 'life goals' that I set myself. Every year I tell myself I will a) be more patient, b) not be horrible to my dad when he tries to talk to me in the morning and c) stop getting so irritated by slow people and/or children. It never happens. At least if I tell myself I will eat more cheese, this is an easily measurable and attainable goal.
I totally forgot about my food resolutions until a couple of days ago, when I decided to self-indulgently look back over the blog post containing them. I was pleasantly surprised that I'd actually accomplished most of them, without even remembering I had made them in the first place.
I made sourdough bread, and am still making it to this day (there's a starter waiting to be fed on the kitchen counter right now). Every time I pull a freshly baked sourdough loaf from the oven, and every time I bite into that crispy crust and tangy, chewy interior, I can't quite believe that I made something so delicious.
I used my cookbooks more. Better yet, I only acquired two new ones for Christmas this year, which means I don't have an unmanageably large amount of new recipes to add to my ever-growing 'to make' list. OK, so I still cook from my head most of the time, but I am getting better at just following a damn recipe every now and again. It's oddly liberating, even though it should in theory be the reverse. It's quite nice having a page and a photograph to tell you exactly what to do in the kitchen every now and again. Plus you can blame the author, rather than yourself, when things go wrong.
I found a new lunch. Admittedly it still involves couscous, but still. I ate more jam, though not more chutney - I still have more to do in that department. I didn't eat as much more cheese as I'd like, but I did try and use up some of those special hoarded storecupboard products. Though it doesn't really feel like I've even made inroads, there are so many. I didn't bake enough scones, though my recent post sort of rectifies that. Sticky toffee pudding remains on the 'to make' list, which seems stupid. Why did I go a whole year without making this glorious combination of dates, sugar and butter?
This year, instead of making food resolutions, I thought I'd look back on some of the food-related highlights of last year, to remind me of why I cook and what to repeat next year. Most of these food moments were also general life highlights, such is the inextricable link in my world between gluttony and happiness.
1. Making this wonderful triple layer chocolate ganache cake for Mother's Day. Firstly, it taught me how to make ganache, which I've never done before. Stirring up the cream and chocolate and feeling it thicken and become spreadable and glossy is slightly magical. I was also really pleased with the photos for this post, and had great fun decorating the cake with strawberries and painting them with molten apricot jam to make them impossibly shiny.
2. The first time I made the baked oatmeal from the wonderful Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day cookbook. I've seen variations of this all over the food blog universe, and it completely deserves the hype. This has become one of my favourite breakfasts, something I make myself when I have the luxury of a lazy morning to chop fruit, stir up oats and bake. I've made so many variations of it since I tried the original, but I still think Heidi's banana version is one of the best, though my rhubarb creation came a close second.
3. Adding cardamom to a treacle tart. Not particularly earth-shattering, you'd think, but it was a complete revelation. I've never come across this addition before, but it turns a treacle tart from something sweet and yummy to something sublime, reminiscent of all those gorgeous nutty syrup-drenched sweets from the Middle East. Cardamom + huge amounts of sugar = bliss (for the tastebuds, not the teeth, unfortunately).
Incidentally, I now think it should be made mandatory to serve treacle tart with some sort of sharp fruit to balance out the sweetness. I've found rhubarb very effective, cooked with a little vanilla and sugar, as well as blackberries and raspberries (both mixed together would look beautiful against the burnished gold of the baked tart).
4. Winning a weekend in Chablis. This was just such a lovely weekend, wandering around the gorgeous little town of Chablis and finding out a huge amount about wine from the experts. Drinking a lot of it and eating rustic, beautiful French food was obviously also a highlight. It was also the first (and last) time I tried andouillette, the infamous French pig colon sausage that remains to this day the most disgusting thing I have ever put in my mouth.
5. My easter holiday in Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, revisiting some much-loved Italian places, restaurants and dishes, and discovering a few new ones. Also being rather underwhelmed by the tower of Pisa. I have particularly fond memories of a certain street in Bologna, where I stumbled upon a surprise Wi-fi connection, only to discover an email telling me I had a funded place for a PhD at the University of York - something I'd hardly dared to hope for after all my other PhD dreams had come crashing down around my ears with repeated emails denying me funding. That night my boyfriend and I went and drank prosecco al fresco in the balmy evening, followed by pizza. Happy times.
6. Being sent Reza's Indian Spice to review by Quadrille Books, which shot straight towards the top of my favourite cookbooks list and has remained there. I'm so glad it's part of my collection, and I'm very grateful to Quadrille, as I doubt I would have come across it otherwise. I can't wait for an occasion special enough to warrant making the fabulous-looking stuffed haunch of venison.
7. Cooking this wonderfully unusual duck with chocolate and marsala from the Bocca di Lupo cookbook, simply because it was a total revelation for the tastebuds and I've never tried anything like it. There is also something intensely satisfying about stirring chopped dark chocolate into a sauce of simmering marsala and duck juices, watching it melt and turn the sauce thick and glossy, punctuated by sweet raisins which have swollen up like balloons in the hot liquid.
8. Taking part in a five-day gluten-free challenge, firstly because it opened my eyes to the prevalence of gluten in so many products (soy sauce, for example), and secondly because I got involved in the mad world of video blogging, which was pretty fun (although a bit weird being able to watch myself chop stuff, to a jaunty soundtrack - I kept wanting to shout out 'watch your fingers!').
Another reason this is a highlight is because, as my prize, I won a meal for two at Theo Randall's restaurant in Park Lane, which is the poshest place I've ever eaten at (apart from maybe the Ritz). I had the five-course tasting menu, which was delicious - the best bits were the creamy wild mushroom tagliatelle and the Amalfi lemon tart.
9. Discovering an insanely good new way to use up ripe bananas: in these banana and brazil nut blondies by Dan Lepard. Unbelievably delicious - even better than my usual banana bread.
10. Putting bacon, fennel, caramelised pears and blue cheese in a pasta dish, only to discover that not only does it work, it's possibly even better than carbonara.
11. Finally getting around to baking Dan Lepard's orange and pistachio stollen squares, and thereby negating the need to ever faff around making real stollen ever again. All the flavour and goodness is here, but it takes a fraction of the time. I've made about eight batches of these in the month or so since I first tried out the recipe. They're a Christmas staple now.
12. Creating this rhubarb ginger crumble cheesecake. Unfortunately I have to be rather enigmatic about the reasons behind picking this one as a highlight, but watch this space towards the end of February (or thereabouts) and all will be revealed.
13. My trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. This was a general life highlight, but food played a heavy part in my enjoyment of it. I keep meaning to write a blog post about the food on my trip, but it's destined to be such a giant post that the magnitude of it keeps putting me off. It will happen, though. There were several magical and revelatory moments during my trip, but the main one has to be coming round to the idea of soup for breakfast - specifically, a steaming bowl of meaty broth filled with slippery rice noodles, a scattering of vibrant herbs, and shreds of chicken or rare beef, spritzed with a good squeeze of lime juice. Vietnamese pho is comfort food like nothing else, and although I've gone back to my heavy Western breakfasts, I do miss the idea of a bowl of nourishing, cleansing broth first thing in the morning.
14. Making homemade sourdough, as discussed above. I love everything about making this bread: the feel of the dough, the pungent yeasty scent of the bubbling starter, the warm bakery smell as the loaf crisps up in the oven over a tray of bubbling water sending up a cloud of steam. I love taking the bowl of dough out of the airing cupboard after its first proving, feeling the weight of it as the dough has doubled in size. It sounds mad, but I can almost feel it breathing. It's warm, weighty, comforting, a living thing. All from flour and water.
15. More trips than I can count to Dojo, the tiny and wonderful noodle bar in Cambridge where you can get anything from pad thai to Vietnamese pho, from yaki soba to Malaysian stir-fries. If I could only eat at one restaurant for the rest of my life, it would be here. The food is cheap, gigantically portioned, healthy, and packed full of vibrant flavour every time.
16. Eating sticky toffee bread and butter pudding at the Hole in the Wall, Cambridge, run by Masterchef finalist Alex Rushmer. A combination of two classic and wonderful desserts; squidgy, gooey, buttery and sweet, it was a revelation and I had to go back a second time to eat it again.
17. A trip to Mien Tay, a Vietnamese restaurant in Shoreditch. I ordered a favourite dish from my travels, of grilled pork served on cold rice noodles with a sweet-sour dipping sauce, and was astounded to find it looking and tasting exactly as it did on a hot, steamy day in Vietnam, as I sat under a corrugated iron roof at a wooden bench, breaking my motorbike journey with a bowl of reviving noodles. I'm going back there as soon as is humanly possible, and will not cease until I have sampled the entire menu. Which is giant, so this may be a bit of a challenge.
18. Getting a KitchenAid ice cream maker for Christmas. It's been over a year since I made homemade ice cream, mainly because I lived at home this year and my parents can't cope with my weird and wonderful flavours (bay leaf, rosemary, Chai tea, Earl grey, lemon thyme...), but also because my tiny little ice cream maker gets more useless every time I use it, so I sort of gave up. The ice cream on the bottom of the basin freezes solid, stopping the churner from moving around, and the whole thing turns into a frozen mess. Now that I have the attachment for my KitchenAid, beautiful ice cream is achievable once more. Not that I've actually tried it yet, but I have every faith in KitchenAid and their pretty, pretty things.
19. Finally getting round to making some dishes I've had my eye on for months, if not years. Tarte tatin, gooseberry meringue pie, olive oil cake (a blood orange version and a chocolate version), roast pork with crackling, braised oxtail, pissaladière, gooseberry cheesecake, my granny's shortbread...there's nothing quite like crossing something off a mental 'to cook' list. Not only is it (usually) as tasty as you'd hoped, it's infinitely more satisfying for finally being cooked.
20. Meeting Mauro, lovely purveyor of beautiful olive oil from Italy. After a chance visit to my house, I am now a loyal customer of his, trying to find new and exciting ways of using his wonderful olive oil in my cooking. Since I bought six flavoured varieties from him (bergamot, mandarin, lemon, rosemary, garlic and pepper, and chilli), the possibilities have expanded even more. My favourite has to be the blood orange and cardamom syrup cake, pictured above.
22. Moving to York, a complete treasure trove of delis, butchers, fishmongers and other weird and wonderful shops selling things I've never managed to find before (Norwegian brown cheese, for example). Plus there's a chocolate factory outside town, and on days where the wind is blowing in the right direction, the entire city smells of baking brownies. It's intoxicating. I can't believe I have actually moved to a town that smells of melted chocolate.
23. Improving my photography. I still have so much to learn in the field of food photography, and I still feel a total amateur, but I've had some lovely comments from people over the last year about my photos. These still surprise me every time, but I've learned to accept that I have come a long way since I started this blog, and took photos under my glaring flourescent worktop lights of weird neon-looking food, or quickly snapped things in the dark of my room with a camera phone.
I've had several real moments of satisfaction over the last year, where photos have turned out better than I'd hoped, and I've been quite excited about getting them onto the blog to showcase them. That's what keeps me doing this, the sense of improvement and achievement. Though I still haven't solved the problem of how to photograph my dinner in winter, when there's no natural light after around 3pm...
24. Laughing at Masterchef: The Professionals, which has become so riddled with gastronomic innuendo that I think it might be verging on a parody of itself. There's almost no need to collate all the hilarious euphemistic moments into a YouTube video like this one, when they occur on such a regular basis. Unfortunately I can't quote any classic ones for you, as a) I like to think this blog is vaguely family-friendly and b) I've forgotten them, there are so many.
On a food TV note, other highlights of this year include Two Greedy Italians, which inspired me to buy my first ever spin-off cookbook from a food TV show (there were just so many recipes in it that I couldn't wait to make, like this orange torta di riso); Nigel Slater's series, for its genius way of bringing together totally normal ingredients and turning them into something mouthwatering; the Great British Food Revival, which I love both for its noble campaign and for a chance to see some of my favourite TV chefs - OK, pretty much just Raymond Blanc - in action; and Nigelissima, not for the food but because Nigella is always amusingly watchable.
25. Finally, everyone I've met and bonded with this year through my love of food. I'm always amazed by how you find food-lovers in the most unexpected places. With a passion for food, you're never stuck for conversation with someone at a dinner party, or - more likely, these days - a boring academic conference. I've met some great people over the last year, either at food blogging events, on cookery courses in Vietnam, or at parties where we've bonded over the quality of the canapés. That's another reason why I keep this blog going - for me, food is primarily a social thing, and my social life would definitely be lacking without it.
A big thank you to everyone who reads or has read this blog in 2012; I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I do writing it. Keep your lovely comments coming, as they really do brighten my days. Have a wonderful 2013!