Monday, 28 March 2011

Al fresco thrills

S U N !

Yes actual sun, and in spades. Thank you Mother Nature for celebrating the clocks going forward for British Summer Time by giving us a weekend of sun-baked blessed relief.

I'd rather fortuitously taken Friday off work to see a friend, and so resulted my first picnic of the year. In March. This may be the first, last and only time I am able to write those words.

As it was an impromptu affair we had nothing more than some great french bread, a few cheeses from La Cave à Fromage in South Kensington and some patisserie to spread over our blanket. And sometimes that's enough.

If you haven't yet discovered La Cave à Fromage you must go - they have a fantastic range of cheeses and really enthused, friendly staff. The smiley girl who I spoke to was happy to talk through what was good and ripe at the moment, and able to guide us with her personal recommendations.

My favourite was the Morbier au Lait Cru (photo, above), a mountain cow's milk made 50/50 from the morning and evening milkings. Sweet, nutty and thoroughly delectable eaten in the dappled shade of Kensington Gardens.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Foolproof focaccia

My love for all things bread-y has been growing since having a lightbulb moment about how easy it is to make. There's something immensely satisfying about forming a loaf with your own hands, it's all very elemental and basic. Me cavewoman, you Italian artisanal bread.

I made this focaccia loaf to accompany a pea risotto for a good friend who momentarily paused her wanderlust to come and visit for Sunday lunch. And since I honestly can't imagine anything more appetising than a warm loaf emerging from the oven, it seemed a good welcome home dish.

I like this recipe because, unlike some I've seen, it's relatively easy and fuss-free. No unpleasantly sticky doughs that need to be repeatedly folded. Yes, there's some kneading but it's less than ten minutes if you give it some welly, and it's worth it for the oohs and aahs your efforts will receive.


500g strong white bread flour
7g instant action yeast
2 tsp fine salt
2 tbsp plus extra for oiling the pan
1 tbsp clear honey
320ml warm water
1 large onion, halved then sliced into 3mm slices
1 tbsp caster sugar mixed with ½ tbsp salt
3 cloves garlic, crushed
½ tsp flaked sea salt

1) Toss the onion in the sugar and salt mixture in a bowl then allow to sit for 45 minutes before thoroughly squeezing out the juices that emerge.

2) Stir the honey into the water and add the yeast. Leave for a few minutes until it begins to bubble, then mix the flour and salt together in a large bowl and pour over the water a little at a time, until you have a thick, not too sticky dough.

3) Turn the dough out onto a clean, floured surface and knead for 5-10 minutes, until it feels springy and smooth.

4) Grease a 35x25cm deep tray with a little of the olive oil, then stretch the dough into roughly the shape of the tray, and place inside. Now pour over the rest of the oil and use your hands to push the dough into an even layer in the tray. Poke deep indentations into the dough with your fingertips, then sprinkle over the garlic and onion.

5) Cover with clingfilm and leave somewhere warm to double in size, then bake at 425f/220c/gas mark 7 for 20 minutes. Sprinkle with the flaked salt whilst still warm.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

La dolce vita

An oh-so-sweet, pillowy confection of honeyed nougat, studded with nuts.

I was somehow convinced by a curious friend to make Italian torrone after we nibbled on it at Greenwich market. Quite a lot actually - I've halved the recipe for you here as it turned out be a rather sizable batch.

I've discovered that these are excellent alongside a strong cup of coffee, preferably consumed in my occasionally sun-drenched back garden, and certainly on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Then just sit back, channel Anita Ekberg and enjoy the sweet life.


170g clear honey
300g caster sugar
30g icing sugar
150g whole almonds/hazelnuts/pistachios or a combination
2 medium egg whites
about 30g cornflour
Edible wafer paper

1) Line an 8"x8" metal pan with the wafer paper, making sure to cover it all but without overlapping the pieces. Now place the caster sugar and honey in a large pan with a sugar thermometer, and stirring occasionally, heat until the mixture reaches 315 degrees. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to 300 degrees while you whisk the egg whites.

2) Place the egg whites in a scrupulously clean bowl and use a hand whisk to mix it to stiff peaks, then add the icing sugar and beat again until glossy. When the honey mixture has cooled to 300 degrees, slowly start to whisk it into the egg white mixture in a thin, steady stream. When all the honey has been incorporated, continue to whisk until the mixture thickens to a stiffish paste, then stir in the nuts.

3) Turn out the mixture onto a cornflour covered surface and use a knife or your cornflour dusted hands to knead it for a minute, then stretch into a rectangle roughly the shape of the 8"x8" pan and place it onto the wafer paper. Cover with another layer of wafer paper, and gently press down all over to flatten. Allow to cool overnight before cutting into squares.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Warm scones and nipple tassles

It's all a bit gloomy here.

I was covered in a fine film of drizzle on my run back from the park (ok, the limp back) at the weekend. This time of year needs some serious cheering up to raise my spirits until summer peeks over the horizon again.

Enter Afternoon Tease at Volupté. I'm rather new to the burlesque scene in London so the very notion of having afternoon tea against a cabaret backdrop was only revealed to me quite recently. As a fully paid-up Guardian reading liberal I've was in two minds about whether it's ethical to support burlesque, what with the sticky issues of empowerment and exploitation. But it made my head hurt and I get enough of that at work at the moment, so instead I just went.

And I'm glad I did. It was a little disconcerting to walk into a speakeasy in broad daylight, but after the first glass of bubbly I'd forgotten the time of day. The crowd was mainly glammed up girls with the occasional couple out perhaps, to buy a pair of the nipple tassles offered by the 1940s style usherettes. Not really my thing but they seemed to be selling well.

My favourite act were the Gateaux Vivants (above pics), subverting the tradition of 19th century tableau vivants who posed nude in elaborate classical scenarios in order to sneak a little nudity past the censorship laws. Oh, but reinvented here with strategically placed cakes of course.

In between curvaceous ladies (and the occasional embittered gay comic) strutting the stage, we were served some perfectly serviceable sandwiches, delicious scones hot from the oven, and frankly the smallest fancy cakes I've ever seen. Maybe it was the booze or the unusual atmosphere but we got a fit of the giggles when we saw how tiddly they were. Tasty though.

Still, I'd recommend Afternoon Tease for the tongue in cheek atmosphere and the low-lit sneaky feel of it all...but consider asking the cabbie to stop for some chips on the way home.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Magic moments

I'm having a bit of a retro moment. These fondant fancies are a dead ringer for the type of sweet treats we were served up as children, perhaps with a bowl of cheese triangles and jammy dodgers for company.

I'm afraid that I was not one of those people who spent their childhood at nonna's knee learning how to make the family recipe for gnocchi. But I do have very fond memories of making caramel angel delight with my mum.

These are a grown up version of the original, the sponge flavoured with tangy lemon zest and topped with a rose-scented fondant icing. Something like a cakey turkish delight.

Makes 12:

65g self-raising flour
65g soft butter
65g caster sugar
1 large egg
the grated zest of one lemon and 1 tablespoon of juice

~for the fondant icing:
purple food dye (optional)
250g fondant icing sugar
2 tbsp rose water
1 tbsp lemon juice

crystallised violets or dried rose petals

1) Cream the butter and sugar until light and creamy, then beat in the egg. Stir in the lemon juice then gently sieve in the flour, and fold through. The mixture should be of dropping consistency - so if a blob is picked up with a large spoon, it easily drops off the end. If the mixture is too thick, add a little milk to loosen it.

2) Spoon heaped tablespoons into paper cupcake cases in a 12 hole tin, then bake at 400f/200c/gas mark 6 for 10-12 minutes, or until cooked through. Test after 10 minutes by poking in a skewer or toothpick to see if it comes out clean. Allow to cool before topping.

3) To make the icing, blend the icing sugar, rose water and lemon juice together and add a few drops of colouring, if wanted. Divide between the cakes, and top with a crystallised violet or dried rose petal. Allow to set for at least a few hours before consuming.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Dab with szechuan chilli pepper sauce

Well, it feels like too long since I last wrote something here...

I started a new job this week, working for a prestigious institution in an intellectually challenging role which promises to take me around the world in the course of my two-year contract. Basically it's my dream job. But oh my, have I been busy.

With so little time to cook I've been getting itchy fingers. For lunch today I wanted something light but with lots of satisfying, punchy flavour.

The dab looked fresh and firm at the fishmongers, and with saint Jamie himself proclaiming it to be the sustainable flat-fish-du-jour who am I to argue?

This would be delicious with a scoop of fluffy white rice and something healthy like steamed green beans to calm the fires.

Serves 2

2 dab, scaled and gutted (about 250-300g each)
6 spring onions, finely sliced at an angle, whites and green parts separated
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 tsp ginger, finely chopped
6 tbsp Szechuanese chilli bean paste
2 tsp sugar
400ml vegetable stock mixed with 2 tsp cornflour
2 tsp whole Szechuan pepper
2 tsp and 4 tbsp vegetable oil

1) Wash and dry the fish and rub on both sides with 2 tsp of the oil before making a few slashes in the flesh on each side to allow the sauce to penetrate. Brown under a high grill for two mins on each side, then set aside.

2) Heat the remaining oil in a wok or large frying pan, and then briefly fry the Szechuan pepper and ginger before adding the garlic and white spring onion. Add the chilli sauce before the garlic starts to brown, then cook for a further 30 seconds before adding the vegetable stock and sugar.

3) Simmer the sauce for a minute, then add the fish to the pan to finish cooking. This will depend on the size of your fish, but will probably only take a couple more minutes.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Cardamom and cinnamon twists

...a variation on last week's theme.

The cinnamon buns were such a success that I thought I'd try doing a version with a Scandinavian slant, adding ground cardamom to the dough for a bit of extra spicy oomph.

Alongside a pot of coffee and the Guardian crossword, these make the perfect cosy breakfast in bed. Trust me, I've been honing...

Makes 18

~for the dough:
240ml warm milk and 50ml warm water
1 tsp vanilla extract
120g butter, at room temperature
2 large eggs
½ tsp salt
210g golden caster sugar
3½ tsp instant active dry yeast
2 tsp ground cardamom
700g bread flour

~for the cinnamon filling:
200g very soft butter
300g dark brown sugar
5 tbsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground cardamom

1 beaten egg, to glaze

1) Whisk the milk, water, vanilla, butter and eggs in a large bowl and then stir in the yeast and sugar. Leave for 15 minutes, then stir in the flour, salt and cardamom. You should have a slightly sticky dough. Now knead the dough on a lightly oiled or floured surface for ten minutes, until smooth and bouncy. Leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size in a large bowl, covered with cling film.

2) Once the dough has risen, punch it down and roll out into a 45cm x 60cm rectangle - this is quite large so plan your space beforehand! Stir the dark brown sugar, cinnamon, cardamom and butter together and spread evenly over the dough, then fold the two ends of the rectangle into the centre, as you would fold a letter to go into an envelope.  You should now have a 45 x 20cm three-layer rectangle.

3) Cut the dough into 18 equal slices along the 45cm long side - each strip will be an approximately 2½cm wide ribbon, with three layers of dough separated by the spiced butter mixture.  Twist each ribbon a few times so it has a rope-like appearance, then tie the twist into a loose knot. 

4) You can now freeze these on a tray for later use, or bake them straight away. If baking immediately, place as many as you want to cook onto a baking tray, leaving 5cm space between each twist for them to rise.  Leave in a warm place to double in size, overnight if you like.

5) Brush the twists with the egg wash and bake on a low shelf at 350f/180c/gas mark 4 for 18-20 minutes, until golden and risen. 

(If you want to keep some of the buns for later baking, place them on a greaseproof paper covered tray to freeze before transferring into a plastic bag.  When you want to cook them, simply remove from the freezer the night before and leave to rise overnight).
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