Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Spiced apple and hazelnut upside-down cake

The Orchard at the end of October

When we first took our allotment the orchard always felt like it was off-limits.  There were the bees, of course.  Seven hives of industry standing sentinel-like, strategically located at the northern end of the old orchard.  Through spring, summer and autumn activity is intense, a constant stream of one-track-mind bees roaming the allotments.  Dispersed, we welcome them, waggling from raspberry to gooseberry blossom, borage to squash flower.  Where they come together, in the vicinity of the hives, we growers keep a respectful distance most of the year.  Undoubtedly they are the most effective guardians of the orchard.  But there was also the Committee.  The first year we took on our allotment nobody mentioned the orchard.  In the second year we were invited to gather up a few windfall apples.  It was five years before we were invited to pick some plums and pluck a few apples direct from the trees.  Finally, it seemed, we were accepted.

One gnarled old apple tree hugs a hive, its weighted boughs bob invitingly in the breeze.  All through late summer we eye the tree, longing for the bees to calm down.  By the time the traffic to and from the hive slows to a lazy trickle, everyone else has filled their store and lost interest in the tree.  All except me.  Because this is the best variety in the orchard and this year the crop is spectacularly good - thank you bees.  Finally, right at the end of October, the bee activity began to slow down and we dared to approach the tree.  It was worth the wait.  Not that anyone knows what kind of apple it is.  Three varieties of plum and five apple of unknown variety in the orchard.  Each year there is a plan to find out what they are.  Each year this doesn't happen.  One day I will take on the task.

Late pickings in the Orchard

Apple trees thrive in wet and windy Britain.  The cultivation of over 2,000 dessert, cooker and 'inbetweener', in addition to several hundred cider apples is testament to our love for them.  Late July/early August sees the first apple harvests with Discovery, Gladstone, Laxton's Early Crimson, Beauty of Bath and Grenadier arriving at market.  Late summer brings Egremont Russet, James Grieve, Scarlet Permain and, in late September, a favourite of mine, the tiny but exquisite Oaken Pin.  Blenheim Orange, Falstaff,  Howgate Wonder and the cooking apple Bramley follow on through October, with Braeburn, Sturmer Pippin, Boiken and the cider apples like Herefordshire Redstreak bringing the season to an end by mid- to late November.

Spiced Apple and hazelnut upsidedown cake

I love an apple pie or crumble as much as the next person, but a good dessert apple cake recipe has eluded me up to now.  Having such a good crop this year, I've been able to experiment a bit and at last I have a recipe I will make again and again.  I knew I wanted a kind of apple upside-down cake, so I borrowed the creamed butter, muscovado sugar and honey mix from a Nigel Slater Honey Pear Cake recipe which I cut out of the Observer magazine a couple of years ago.  I wanted hazelnuts for flavour and for the oil they contain to keep the cake moist.  Personally if I'm buying nuts shelled I prefer skin-on.  I dry roast them in a frying pan until the skins loosen enough to, mostly, rub off.   I also wanted spice, particularly at this time of year, and went for plenty of cinnamon, a little vanilla and nutmeg.  I hope you like it too.

A helping of Spiced apple and hazelnut upside-down cake

Spiced apple and hazelnut Upside-down cake
(for an 18-20cm round cake tin)

50g (2oz) softened unsalted butter
65g (2½oz) muscovado sugar
1 tbsp mild honey
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
About 450g (16oz) eating apples
115g (4oz) softened unsalted butter
115g (4oz) raw cane caster sugar
A few drops of vanilla extract
A little grated nutmeg (about a quarter of a whole one)
2 large eggs, lightly mixed
65g (2½oz) plain soft flour
50g (2oz) hazelnuts, dry roasted and ground medium fine
1 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp milk

Heat oven to 180oC/160oC fan/Gas 4.

Lightly butter your cake tin.
Cream together 50g butter, 65g sugar and 1 tbsp honey.   
Spread evenly over the base of the cake tin.  

Peel (or not if you prefer), core and slice the apples fairly thinly.  Arrange in a closely overlapping spiral on top of the mixture.

Sieve together the flour and baking powder.  Stir in the ground hazelnuts and nutmeg.  

In a separate bowl, mix very well 115g butter with the 115g raw cane sugar until soft and fluffy.  Add the vanilla extract and gradually beat in the eggs, adding a little of your dry mixture if it looks like it might curdle.  Fold the dry mixture in gently, incorporating the tablespoon of milk at the end.  Smooth the mixture over the top of the apples.

Bake for about 45 minutes.  Rest for 15 minutes.  Place a plate on top of the tin, hold securely and turn over to release the cake upside-down.  Give the plate and tin a jiggle if it doesn't turn out straight away.

Best served warm, with our without cream but the cake does keep well for 2-3 days.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Spring the restaurant

Spring restaurant

There's a freshly-picked quince on the table. It's there because it's seasonal, its fragrance is exquisite and it is on the menu.  This is my second visit and it's a good start.

The arrival is undeniably grand.  The long stone-flagged corridor in the West Wing of Somerset House, which used to echo to the footfall of scuttling civil servants, now directs diners in their best shoes to the door of Spring.  High ceilings; graceful windows; white cornicing; and a perfect shade of duck egg blue on the walls.  The cool blue and white theme is enhanced by ethereal artworks composed of white porcelain petals.  The space, warmed by caramel-coloured chairs and a little smokey-hued glass here and there.  A single, unfussy but thrilling, seasonal flower vase sits in the perfect place to arrest the eye and stop you scanning the whole vast space of the room in one go.  There's plenty of time.  You don't come here just to grab lunch.

Salad of quince, celeriac, cobnuts with Fern Verrow leaves and tarragon dressing
at Spring restaurant

We're celebrating so, today we put aside the Set Lunch menu.  Agnolotti of buffalo ricotta, spinach and tomato with marjoram butter looks just like what it is, a plate of pasta.  Surely one of the most difficult of foods to arrange on a plate.  But the aromas and flavours of its ingredients are excellent and the pasta is perfectly cooked.  The seasonal quince makes its appearance baked to a caramelised softness in a Salad of quince, celeriac, cobnuts with Fern Verrow leaves and tarragon dressing.  Juicy, crunchy, aromatic, Autumn on a plate.

Wild halibut with spinach, chilli and preserved lemon dressing
at Spring restaurant

That appetite piquing salad was the perfect lead-in to Wild halibut, spinach, chilli and preserved lemon dressing.  At £34 this dish was pushing the boat out, but worth every penny.  A thick tranche of succulent flaky, firm textured expertly cooked fish, vibrant vegetables, and the sweet/sour pep of the lemon dressing.  I only wish my photograph did it justice.  And how could you not be happy when someone puts a meltingly perfect Slow-cooked pork with girolles, datterini tomatoes and polenta in front of you on a blustery October day?

Slow cooked pork with girolles, datterini and polenta
at Spring restaurant

Again my photograph does not fully convey the meltingly tender 2 cuts of meat, the intense jus and the smoky girolles - this is my idea of comfort food. We finished on Buttermilk panna cotta with damson ice cream and wood sorrel. The panna cotta here formed the base of the dish, its richness cut by damsons served as both syrup and ice cream.  A few leaves of the freshest wood sorrel added a lemon note and a buttery biscuit gave texture. Given my own fig leaf ice cream experiments, the lure of Fig and spelt galette with roasted fig leaf ice cream hooked me.  Right at the end of the fig season, the fruit was a little jammy but suited the crunch of the spelt pastry, and the caramel running through the ice cream made for a lovely version.

Buttermilk panna cotta with damson ice cream and wood sorrel
at Spring restaurant

The front of house staff seem to effortlessly pull off a focussed yet relaxed attentiveness which produces just the right level of cosseting.  It's a well drilled team who can engage with diners who want to talk about the dishes.    

Spring is the creation of chef Skye Gyngell.  Her book 'Spring the cookbook' details what a labour of love it was.  I confess I never ate at the Petersham Nurseries Cafe where she made her name.  I know the Michelin star she was awarded there didn't sit comfortably on her shoulders and she has declared she'd rather never have another.  On both my visits here she has been in the kitchen and, judging by the cooking, I'd say she has cause to be very happy with what she is achieving.  The best ingredients, not necessarily the most expensive ingredients, are the foundation of her cooking.  For me the best chefs are those who maintain a link to the land and a feeling for the basics.  Gyngell sources from producers like biodynamic farmers Fern Verrow and shows an enthusiasm for making in-house breads, butters, yoghurt, ricotta, ferments and cordials.

This, I think, is a special occasion restaurant but there is a Set Lunch menu at £27.50 two course; £31.50 for three.  Portions are generous and it's good value for cooking at this level.  We could have chosen from Starters including a Fern Verrow salad, mains of Spatchcock quail or Onglet with a slice of Apple Tart to finish.  On a previous visit in June we ate from it very happily.  Including service, expect to pay around £75 per person a la carte with a couple of glasses of wine or £55 if eating from the set menu.

Fig and spelt galette with roasted fig leaf ice cream
at Spring restaurant

There is also a less formal, adjacent, Salon at Spring serving a simple menu and aimed particularly at those looking for a little something pre- or post-theatre.

For me, having sampled summer and autumn, roll on winter and spring for those set lunches - or maybe I can find another reason to celebrate.  

Somerset House
Lancaster Place
London WC2R 1LA
Tel: 020 3011 0115

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Autumn arrives on Plot 45

Seed saving - Sunflowers

Rays of late summer sun pierced the canopy of the tree.  The shady path curved gently right, its rough surface dancing with light and shade as a spirited wind whipped through the branches.  A handful of what looked like freckled limes littered the way stopping me in my tracks.  Walnuts, their fibrous, leathery casings showing signs of exploration by sharp-toothed or strong-beaked harvesters.  Swiftly I bagged them up.  In truth, my expectations were low - too early, too green, too fibrous perhaps.  On into early autumn, each walk down this path was accompanied by a nonchalant sweep of the ground for bounty.  Each time, taking the path that skirts the warm stone wall of the priory, I passed through the creaking gate into the sanctuary of the allotments.

Walnut harvest

Now we are really into autumn and each plot offers a little treasure as I pass by - a handful of lovage seeds to the right; the dried umbelliferae of fennel to the left; stiff sculptural poppy pods over there; and  decapitated heads of sunflowers atop a compost heap here.  On my own plot there are beans and pumpkin seeds to be saved, and I have my eye on a particularly beautiful nasturtium that has crept across from my neighbour.

Sunflower - Old Rusty

If I've learned anything since taking on this plot 9 years ago, it's that no two growing years are ever the same.  Just because something grew well one year does not mean it will thrive the next and the crop that did badly last year may well surprise you this.  In 2015 the stars have been the legumes and soft fruit, but leaves and beetroots have faired badly.  The herb bed is still looking fantastic, though for some reason parsley didn't thrive at all.  Yes, everything has gone if not yet to seed then certainly to flower, so goodbye to pungency.  And soon we'll be hit by frosts, meaning goodbye to the ritual of gathering bouquets as I leave the plot.  What's certain is however good a gardener you think you are, nature will always put you in your place.

Borlotti beans

So, you may as well take some chances, because you never know how things are going to turn out.  Which is why I've taken on the extra strip nobody seemed to want.  Unloved, uncultivated, dumped on and neglected, this hillocky patch of nettle infested ground is now mine.  Which is why, right now, I'm so often to be found chasing back nettle roots and levelling ground under this glorious autumn sun and praying for the weather to hold.

Herbs and Kabocha

I say it's mine but there are sitting tenants.  The field mice nesting low down in the base of the heaps.  Each time my hand hovers over a soft, furry bundle guilt overcomes me and I move on, leaving it to snuggle back down.  The squirrels treat it as a larder, their stash of walnuts far exceeding anything I managed to accumulate.  I'd like to take them home - the nuts I mean - but that guilt thing kicks-in and I carefully pile them up on one side of the plot like a helpful dinner lady.

Seed Saving - Poppies

But this beautifully prepared bed isn't for fruit or vegetables.  Maybe I'm mad, but I'm planning on roses.  Biodynamic roses.  Maybe, at last, I'll make rose petal jam.


Oh, and those walnuts?  Well worth amassing a stash.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Lisbon Autumn 2015

Rooftop view, Lisbon

Lisbon in the last week of September.  Four days of pure blue skies, daytime temperatures around 28C, balmy evenings.  Were we lucky?  I suspect this was just what we should have expected. Where to start? Walking shoes on - a must for tackling Lisbon's seven hills and wonky pavements - and let's find lunch.

Sardines and Tuna
at Sol e Pesca, Lisbon

Sol e Pesca is a former fishing tackle shop and as unpretentious a dining space as you could get.  Little changed from the its earlier incarnation, this tiny space which spills out onto the pedestrianised street is all about showcasing Portugal's fantastic tinned fish - sardines, tuna, mussels, scallops and more.  Make your choices.  The original cabinets now display the catch rather than the means to catch.  The fish is decanted onto plates with simple garnishes - a lemon quarter and a sprig of dill, perhaps - and served up with decent bread to mop up the excellent olive oil.  I recommend the Pinhais Petingas Picantes sardines (small and spicy) as well as the outstanding Atum Galha Á Ré ventresca tuna from the Azores in extra virgin olive oil.  A tumbler or two of good Vinho Verde makes it perfect.    Expect to pay around Euros 10-15 each. Sol e Pesca is a not-to-be-missed joy. 

Traditional door style

Traditional Portuguese food is generous in its portions.  The execution, I think, can be a bit unrefined but if you want to experience good soups like Caldo Verde or Sopa Alho Francês and you're happy with simply grilled fish served with plain boiled potatoes and greens (though to my taste invariably over-cooked ones) then O Pitéu could be for you.  This simple restaurant serves speedy lunches to business folk in the Graça district, a stone's throw from the high tourist-count area of Alfama.  Just such a lunch with a glass of house wine and a coffee came to Euros 20 each on our visit.  It's a genuine traditional Lisbon lunch spot and you certainly won't leave hungry.

Arcade life

If you'd like a more wide-ranging menu, try O Taloh, close to São Sebastião Metro station.  The restaurant is a mix of traditional and modern informed by the extensive travels of the chef.  The fact this restaurant has its own butcher's shop makes it clear that meat is the main thing here.  Expect steaks and burgers along with dishes such as pasta with oxtail and mushrooms or a take on lamb tandoori accompanied by naan and lentils (but I've got to say, green lentils will never make an acceptable substitute for a creamy dhal!).  For pudding there may be a Thai-influenced lemongrass parfait or an Argentinian Dulce de Leche "flan" served with a lovely peanut butter ice-cream.  There is an amount of 'deconstruction' on the plates here.  The restaurant is fairly formal but unstuffy with very good service and wines.  Expect to pay around Euros 25-30 each  The chef proprietor, Kiko, has also recently opened a cevicheria at Principe Real.

Vaulted brick ceiling
at Landeau, Rua das Flores, Lisbon

Landeau chocolate and coffee shop is housed in a beautiful room on the Rua das Flores 70.  All creamy-white walls and warm brick vaulted ceilings, unlike at Sol e Pesca, this space bears no hint of its former use (a Lisbon brothel).  About half way up one of the City's numerous steeply-sloping streets in the Chiado district, it's a welcome pit-stop for coffee, tea or a cup of chocolate.  It also serves up one of the most exquisite chocolate cakes I've ever eaten.  

Coffee & Chocolate Cake
at Landeau, Lisbon 

If you want choice, go somewhere else.  This place does what it does beautifully and I like that.  There is another Landeau shop in the *LX Factory complex in Alcântara. 

'Dragonfly Woman by Lalique
at Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon

For me, the Museum Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian is not to be missed.  Close to SãSebastião Metro station, it has a very accessible wide-ranging collection including Eastern Islamic art, painting, sculpture and decorative arts plus a temporary exhibition space.  A separate building houses Modern Art.  The galleries exploit the beautiful setting with windows looking out into the surrounding park.

(taken at Mercado de Alvalade Norte), Lisbon

The Mercado da Ribeira (also known as Mercado 24 de Julio), just behind Cais do Sodré train station,  has been Lisbon's main food market since 1892.  The market still trades from 06.00-14.00 but now the draw seems to be Time Out Lisbon Magazine's development of the greater part of the building as a food (and drink) court.  Here you'll find "some of the city's most loved names in food and drink".  It's not really my kind of thing but it is open every day from 10.00 to at least midnight so it's a useful place to know about.

Espade Branco
at Mercado de Alvalade Norte, Lisbon

For a market that is less about immediate gratification and more about filling your food basket and feasting your eyes, I recommend a visit to Mercado de Alvalade Norte, close to Alvalade Metro station.  Here you'll find the freshest fish, bacalhau, meats and mainly local fruit and vegetables.  As is often found in Spain and Portugal, there is a supermarket attached to the main market for the other everyday necessities.

Tinned Sardines
at Loja Das conservas, Lisbon

If you were in any doubt how important tinned fish is to the Portuguese, a visit to Loja das Conservas  on Rua do Arsenal 130 in the Chiado district will make it clear.  The walls of this store are lined with a wholly Portuguese selection of the country's conservers of sardines, mussels, tuna and more.  There were no 'Pinhais' on my visit but these 'Millesimes' sardines came home with me.  If I hadn't shopped there, I'd probably have picked up a few tins of brand Tricana from Conserveira de Lisboa at Rua dos Bacalheiros.  The sardines are good, the package fabulous and the wrapping and tying is lovely to watch.

Pasteis de Nata
at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, Lisbon

You're bound to want a Pasteis de Nata, the irresistible Portuguese custard tart. For the best in town (and the first , apparently) take advantage of Lisbon's great transport system and head for Antiga Confeitaria de Belém.  You'll need a No. 15 tram which runs from Praca do Comercio to Mosteiros dos Jeronimos in the Belém district.  The tram drops yous right outside the Confeitaria.  My advice is to go as early as you can (they open at 08.00) as later in the day the tourists arrive en-masse.  Instead of enjoying a Nata and coffee at the bar with locals, you'll find yourself in a scrum for a take-away and no coffee to go with it - the only way they can cope with the demand.  Behind the bar is a warren of rooms where you can eat in all day long if you prefer but you may have to queue.  It's worth a wander inside to see the kitchen where the pasteis are made and also the azulejos are worth a look.

Padrão dos DescobrimentosBelém, Lisbon

While in Belém, I'd take in the Mosteiros do Jeronimos and Museo Coleção Berardo, and you won't be able to miss the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries honouring Portuguese explorers).

Mirador Principe Real

Lisbon, being built on seven hills, offers plenty of spectacular views.  There are numerous Miradors (viewing areas) dotted around the city.  My favourite is at Principe Real where there is also a decent cafe to get a cooling glass of orange juice after the walk up.

Azulejo, Lisbon

Although we didn't go on this visit, Museu Nacional do Azulejo and Museu de Design e Moda (MUDE) are both well worth visiting.  I talked about both in my 'Loving Lisbon' review in 2012 (link at the bottom of this page).

Bolo de Arroz
 Balcao do Marquês, Lisbon

While a visit to Belem for Pasteis de Nata is a must, it's important to find somewhere close to hand.  That little place on the corner that we always hope we'll find when we visit an unfamiliar city.  This time we struck lucky with Balcao do Marquês, a friendly bakery/bar/cafe a few steps from our hotel on Avenida Duque de Loulé and similarly close to Metro station Marquês de Pombal.  You'll get a decent Bica (espresso) or um Garoto (with a dash of milk, like a Piccolo) and a very good Pasteis de Nata or Bolo de Arroz while you watch the morning ritual of the locals buzzing in and out on their way to work, like bees around a honey pot.

Jardim do Botanico, Lisbon

There's something melancholy about so many botanical gardens.  Once important and valued institutions, these days their underfunding is often all too evident.  The Jardim do Botanico in Lisbon certainly has a melancholy air, despite the fact in 2010 it was considered important enough to be designated a National Monument.  The number of dilapidated buildings surrounding its perimeter add to the atmosphere.  Occupying some 10 acres in the Principe Real district, alongside the National Museum of Natural History and Science, it boasts 18,000 species of sub-tropical vegetation.  It's a fantastic place to wander under the cooling trees away from the hustle and bustle of the city streets.  A dreamy interlude I always seek out.      

Aquifer, Lisbon

The Chafariz do Vinho Enoteca was intriguing.  The Chafariz da Mãe-de-Agua building it occupies sits at the bottom of two flights of steps leading up to Principe Real.  Through the building's vaulted galleries and stone aquaducts water once flowed, the street outside giving public access to the supply.  The restaurant is a useful place to choose from a list of 250 wines and enjoy a plate of above average Portuguese cheese and hams.  We were lucky to eat some of the last exceptionally sweet green "honey figs" served simply warmed with goats cheese and honey.  This place also has the advantage of being just moments from one of the top 100 jazz clubs in the world, Hot Club Portugal.  The club is a welcoming place with entry a mere Euros 7.50 and very reasonable drinks prices.  On our visit, Quarteto de César Cardoso proved to be a top class Portuguese jazz group led by saxophonist César Cardoso performing 2 sets.

* LX Factory
My biggest failure on this visit was running out of time to get to the LX Factory complex in Alcântara, about half way to Belém.  A group of 19th century abandoned warehouses, is now a creative hub for artists, designers and photographers, as well as home to fashion, music and publishing businesses and open to the public for shopping, exhibitions, theatre, cinema, shopping and eating.  I'd love to know whether this lives up to its promise so if any of you get there, or know it, I'd love to hear about it.

There's plenty of hotel choice in Lisbon.  We stayed at the H10 Duque de Loulé, opened earlier in 2015.  A good-sized room, very comfortable, reasonably priced, quiet, great staff and a rooftop bar with a view down to the Tagus in the distance meant it suited us. That said, next time I'd be inclined to rent an apartment to take advantage of the beautiful produce I saw at Mercado de Alvalade Norte.   

Useful to check:  Spotted by Locals, Lisbon

Link to my 2012 posting:  Loving Lisbon

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Fig Leaf Ice Cream

Brown Turkey Fig and fig leaves

The French and Italian figs which are coming to market are particularly good this year.  Here in the UK, unless you have a greenhouse or a very sheltered spot for your tree, fig growing can be a dispiriting activity for gardeners.  Varieties 'Brown Turkey', 'Brunswick' and 'Violetta' are the most reliable to try your hand at.  Even if fruiting is a hit and miss affair, they are beautiful to look at.  Their large sculptural, deeply lobed, leaves are even more beautiful on the underside with their pronounced veining.  So to be able to use these leaves in the kitchen makes up for the shyness in fruiting.

So many people have asked me for a recipe for fig leaf ice cream that I thought I ought to post one. It's based on a simple vanilla custard but even that, I realise, is not written in stone.  Some heat milk and cream, some add the cream at the end.  There is also more than one way to infuse a fig leaf.  I've seen at least one recipe where the leaves are submerged in the finished custard for a time before churning.  I like to immerse the leaves in the liquid that has been brought to a bare simmer.  As the mixture cools the leaves release their perfume just enough to add a distinctive fig flavour and, for me, coconut note to the finished ice cream.  You could, of course, make a fig ice cream but this is a frugal recipe that captures the particular fragrance of the fig.

Fig leaves infusing

I've made blackcurrant leaf ice cream in the same way and I have Kitty Travers of La Grotta Ices to thank for introducing me to the idea of fruit leaf ice creams.  She often infuses the leaves of fruit trees (after checking the leaves are not poisonous), sometimes she uses herbs like lemon verbena or thyme, to increase the depth of flavour or add another note to a fruit ice cream.  I'm not sure if Kitty uses exactly the same method as me for her Fig Leaf ice cream.  If she ever produces a book I'll be the first in line to get my hands on it.  In the meantime, I'm doing what feels right.

Blackberries and plums have been amongst my allotment hauls over the past few weeks and, last week, there were a few fig leaves too along with a single precious fig from a kind neighbour.  The fig we ate immediately, of course!  The fig leaf ice cream I made paired beautifully with a warm compote of blackberries and was delicious with a slice of just-out-of-the-oven plum pie.

Hot plum pie and cold fig leaf ice cream

Here's my ice cream recipe:

Fig Leaf Ice Cream
(Serves 8)

2-3 small-medium fig leaves, washed and dried
350ml whole milk
250ml whipping cream (UK)/heavy cream (USA)
1 vanilla pod, split
3 egg yolks
100g caster sugar
Pinch salt

Heat the milk, cream and vanilla pod (scrape out the seeds and add) until it's barely simmering.  Take off the heat, add the fig leaves and submerge them in the liquid.  Cover and leave to infuse for 30 minutes.
Remove the fig leaves from the pan and bring the mixture back to barely a simmer
Meanwhile, whisk the yolks, sugar and salt together until thoroughly combined.
Pour the contents of the pan over the egg yolk mixture in a steady stream, whisking continuously.
Return the mixture to the pan and heat gently, stirring, until the temperature reaches 85C.
Plunge the pan into an ice bath, stir from time to time over a period of 30 minutes to cool the custard as quickly as possible.  Refrigerate, preferably overnight but for at least 4 hours.
Remove the vanilla pod, whizz with an immersion blender or whisk to re-emulsify, then churn.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Spiced Courgette & Lemon Cake

Courgette plant Striato di Napoli

It's peak time for courgettes on my allotment. In order to keep everyone around the dining table interested it's necessary to pull out all the recipes I have and then look for more.  I've worked my way through risottos of diced courgette finished with their shredded flowers; fritters of grated courgette topped with a fried egg; dishes of Scapece with its vinegar and mint dressing; and courgette and onion tarts.  Courgettes make a surprisingly creamy soup; a light supper when sautéed and coloured with saffron (thank you Fern Verrow - a year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen); and their flowers, dipped in tempura batter, are delicious fried (more substantial if stuffed with soft cheese and herbs beforehand).  This year, we've had countless plates of Linguine con zucchine from Rachel Roddy's Five Quarters - Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome.  This summer my diners have never tired of that dish. We all need a recipe like that.

I vow not to let courgettes grow so large they effectively turn into marrows - the idea of stuffed marrow makes me shudder.  But when I'm bringing home armfuls of courgettes, they can find their way into cake.  I picked up a basic  recipe in the USA at least a decade ago.  Every summer since, out it comes to be tweaked a little according to what I have in the store cupboard. This year, in response to a request for the recipe, I've decided to share a version just in case you, too, are buckling under the weight of summer squashes.  It's worth mentioning that I've also successfully made this cake with crookneck squash.  If your courgettes are very watery, salt them after grating, leave them to sit for half an hour and then squeeze out the excess juice.  This recipe makes a pretty large cake but it does, quite easily, scale down to a 2-egg cake.

Spiced Courgette & Lemon Cake

Spiced Courgette & Lemon Cake
(makes a large cake 23cm x 13cm)

2 medium courgettes (about 450g/16oz), grated
180ml (6fl oz) groundnut oil
300g (10oz) caster sugar
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
250g (9oz) soft plain flour
1½ teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons of ground allspice (or a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg and a little clove)
a pinch of salt
Zest of 1 lemon
115g (4oz) raisins or sultanas

60ml (2fl oz) lemon juice
60g (2 oz) granulated sugar

Pre-heat oven to 180C(fan 160C)/350F/Gas 4
Grease the loaf tin and line with greaseproof paper on the bottom and long sides to help with lifting out the baked cake.
Combine the oil and sugar and mix well until creamy.  Gradually beat in the eggs, mixing well between each addition.  Mix in the grated courgette and the vanilla extract.
In a separate bowl combine the flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder, spices, salt, lemon zest and raisins.  Stir into the creamed mixture until it is just amalgamated.  You should have a fairly loose batter.  Pour into the loaf pan and bake in the centre of the oven for about 65 minutes or until golden brown and a skewer comes out clean.  Remove from the oven and leave to stand for 5 minutes.
Gently heat the lemon juice and sugar until the sugar dissolves.
Pierce the loaf several times with a skewer. Spoon the hot syrup over the cake, covering all of the top.  Cool for 30 minutes before lifting out the cake with the help of the paper.

The cake tastes much better if you cool it completely, peel off the paper, and wrap it in fresh greaseproof paper or non-PVC food wrap  and leave overnight.  Keeps well for several days and actually becomes stickier and even better, I think.

More of my courgette recipes:
Courgette Soup
Courgette, lemon & thyme linguine

Thursday, 13 August 2015


Red over-wintered onion

This was the first over-wintered onion I lifted this year.  Its beauty transfixed me.  I took it home and placed it on the old wooden crate I keep on my little balcony and, of course, excitedly photographed it.  Out the shot went into the ether because, surely, everyone who saw it would admire it as much as I did.  I doubt anyone appreciated it quite so much, but this is what growing does to you.  You become ridiculously overwhelmed with your successes and their magnificence.  I harvested the onion early because of its immense size - well it was the biggest onion I'd ever grown - and monster veg is not my thing.  The need to grow for girth rather than taste - the biggest parsnip, the heaviest pumpkin, the plumpest gooseberry - is beyond my comprehension.  I think I was even a little scared by how big it had grown.  It was a meal in itself.

There the onion sat for 4 weeks, 'drying', even though I knew perfectly well it was a red overwintered onion; moist and perishable, they are most definitely not for keeping.  Bit by bit, the rest of the late-autumn planted sets have been brought into the kitchen and cooked enthusiastically, but this one remained on the box ageing with grace.  It could not go on.  So, today I took another 'still life with onion' (above) and chose a dish I hoped would do it justice.

In most cuisines the onion is reached for with astonishing regularity.  It's the vegetable that was top of my list to grow when I first took on my allotment.  Their ubiquity means they are cheap to buy but the satisfaction in harvesting a bed of onions, to be dried and squirrelled away for future use, is high.  All forms of allium are invaluable to my growing year: chives for delicacy; shallots for sweet pungency; leeks for a mild sweetness; garlic for punch; and onions for their fantastic versatility.

The Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda wrote a number of 'odes to common things', including:
Ode to the Onion
Onion, luminous flask, your beauty formed petal by petal ....." Read more 

Thank you Comeconella for the reminder.

It's easy to take the onion for granted but there are some dishes where it commands a starring role. Onion Soup, Roast Stuffed Onions, Onions a la Grecque and Onion Marmalade, to name a few.  For me, Simon Hopkinson's Onion Tart with Lancashire Cheese is a fine example; the Provençal onion tart, Pissaladière, another notable one.  But should a Pissaladière  include tomato or not?  Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David say yes; Alice Waters and Elizabeth Luard say No.  Waters specifies yellow onions; Grigson leaves the choice of strength to the cook.  Then there's the question of the base - bread dough or pastry?  And, if pastry, what kind?  No one seems to agree, least of all the French.


Personally, I don't want to stray into Italian Pizza territory, much as I like Pizza, so tomatoes are out along with the bread dough base.  Pissaladière gets its name from pissalat niçoise, a paste made of salt-cured anchovies pounded with olive oil, thyme and bay.  For me, it needs to be a rough-puff pastry base, spread with sweet onion perfumed with bay and thyme to contrast with salty anchovies and olives.  I prepare my onions the Alice Waters way, stewed slowly, the cooking juices drained off and used to pour over the tart just before serving.  

(Serves 4)

300g rough-puff pastry
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 medium sized onions, thinly sliced
2 plump cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 bayleaf
a few sprigs thyme
100g salted anchovies
A handful of black olives, preferably Niçoise, de-stoned
Salt and pepper

Roll the pastry to a rectangle, roughly 30cm x 20cm.  Place on a baking tray and create a narrow border to the pastry by cutting half-way into it all the way around. about 1cm from the edge (this allows the border to rise a little more than the centre)   Prick the base a few times with a fork.  Chill in the fridge.
Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan over a medium heat.  Add the onions, garlic and herbs, a pinch of salt and a grinding of pepper.  Stir then cover and stew for about 1 hour until they are completely soft (they should not brown). Strain and reserve the liquid.
Rinse and fillet the anchovies.  Halve the olives or leave whole if very small. 
Pre-heat the oven to 180C (Fan 16oC)/Gas 4.
Spread the onion mixture over the base of the pastry within the cut edge.  Top with the strips of anchovy and the olives.  Bake for 45 minutes.  Remove from the oven. Just before serving, use the reserved liquid from cooking the onions to pour over the filling.
Serve just warm or at room temperature.

Here's a tip from Jane Grigson for the frugal cook: "When your onions sprout towards the end of the winter, use the green shoots as if they were chives."

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Raspberry Clafoutis

Raspberry 'Clafoutis'

It's the way the word rolls off the tongue - c l a f o u t i s - that does it.  It's like a loving endearment or reassuring pat on the back.  So many times I've been seduced into taking a little slice of 'cherry clafoutis', hoping against hope that this will be the one to live up to all my expectations.  So many times my optimism has been rewarded with a stodgy or desiccated disappointment, made palatable only by pouring on copious amounts of cream.  Yet still, I search for the holy grail of the perfect 'clafoutis'.

The clue, I think, is in the usual description of 'clafoutis' as a "thick" batter pudding.  Personally I prefer my pudding to be thick, or dense, with fruit rather than flour so each year when the cherry season comes round I try again to find the recipe that's right for me.  The norm is to use cherries, unpitted so as to impart a little bitter almond-like flavour.  I've had a mirabelle plum version that was excellent, though some would say if it's not made with cherries then it's a 'flaugnarde'.  I'm perfectly happy to accept it as clafoutis.  I just wish I'd asked for the recipe.

With at least another couple of weeks of cherry picking to go, I haven't given up on this summer's quest for the cherry clafoutis of my dreams.  Meanwhile, here's a lighter batter pudding I came across last summer.  It offers not only a different treatment for the batter, but uses raspberries.  As I'm currently frantically harvesting berries from my allotment, I'm grateful to revisit it.  Nothing beats eating the fruit straight from the canes, warmed by the summer sun, but they're peaking now and so are destined for the kitchen.  If they are truly ripe, they travel badly.  This is when you need a recipe where looks matter less than taste and there's only so much jam, cordial and puree I can make - and take.

Summer Raspberries

CLAFOUTIS: from the verb CLAFIR 
meaning: 'TO FILL"

The delicacy of raspberries calls for light cooking.  This recipe is adapted from Second Helpings of Roast Chicken by Simon Hopkinson.  It's somewhere between a custard and a batter pudding.  He calls it a "clafoutis" and that's fine by me.

Raspberry Clafoutis
(Serves 4)

250ml whipping cream
a pinch of salt
1 vanilla pod
about 25g of softened butter
about 250g raspberries
1 whole egg + 2 egg yolks
100g caster sugar
1 teaspoon potato flour
a little icing sugar
a little raspberry eau de vie (optional)

Pour the cream into a pan.  Split the vanilla pod and run the back of a knife down the cut surfaces to extract the seeds.  Add pods and seeds to the pan along with the salt and stir.  Bring almost to the boil.  Take off the heat, cover and leave for 30 minutes.
Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)/Gas 4.
Butter 4 shallow oven-proof dishes (or 1 large one).  Divide the raspberries evenly between the dishes and place them in a roasting tin.
Beat together the egg, egg yolks, sugar and potato flour.  Remove the vanilla pod from the cream and pour into the egg mixture, whisking gently.  Carefully pour the batter over the raspberries.  Sift the icing sugar over the surfaces.
Add hot water to the roasting tin to reach at least halfway up the sides of the dishes.  Place carefully in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes (about 35 minutes for a large one) until slightly puffed-up but still a little wobbly.  Turn off the oven and allow the puddings to settle for a few minutes.  Remove and serve when just warm sprinkled with a little eau de vie (if using) and some whipped cream.