We had strange weather in August – damp, almost humid, sticky, and yet quite cool; and some equally odd days in September, punctuated by the odd stretch of beautiful sunshine. Days are certainly taking a turn, though: the skies are becoming bleached and grey and by contrast the trees are starting to turn glorious shades of red and orange. It’s a happy time – autumn is a beautiful season and I celebrate my birthday in September – but also occasionally a difficult one as work becomes much more intensive and tiring, and will be until the Christmas break in December. I’ve worked hard over the summer but there’s always a brief respite in July and August: the shock of October will mean lots of quick cooking with minimal washing up (I hope anyway).
1) Eat fish at least once a week, preferably twice a week
Yes, I achieved this – just. Some of the dishes cooked were my ‘standards’ (salmon in soy sauce…), but I also made this miso salmon (pretty similar in flavour and profile to the salmon recipes I usually make) and this ‘firecracker’ salmon, which is like my basic soy sauce salmon with added ingredients that gave it a really nice twist. Writing down the fish dishes I make regularly has emphasised how reliant I am on those helpful twin packets of salmon fillets in the supermarket. More unusually, I made this lemon and parsley-crusted fish (I think I used haddock), which was served with mashed potatoes (I cooked tenderstem broccoli instead of serving it with spinach because I didn’t feel like washing spinach on the night).
2) Bring a packed lunch to work at least three times a week
I did try, but I failed in a number of weeks over the last two months – in one week I actually bought lunch every day, which is very rare. Buying in so many lunches only reminded me of how much I dislike the sandwich offerings in the supermarket, and also how expensive it is! I’m determined to do a bit better and be more disciplined about spending some time making something, as tiring as it can sometimes be. Moving back into soup season will be a big help, because it’s such an easy thing to bring along. I currently have a few containers full of a really delicious spinach and rosemary soup I love in the fridge ready for Monday, so I feel like I’m winning already…
This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the technical challenge for week four (dessert week) of series three: crème caramel.
Crème caramel is an old-fashioned dessert, isn’t it, belonging almost to the realms of the (sadly, now) imaginary bistros of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, with those heavy leather-lined seats where you are comfortably ignored once delivered of your food (and, of course, alcohol). In a more modern context I can imagine buying a small plastic tub of it from the supermarket, the caramel staining the bottom of the container deep brown, and inverting it at home. But these are acts of the imagination alone: I don’t know if I’ve eaten creme caramel before making it for this baking challenge. It does feel like the kind of gentle, nurturing nursery-type food I should have eaten as a child, however.
Crème caramel is a sister to crème brûlée: both are softly-set, only very lightly sweetened custards, composed of wholesome and nurturing ingredients: whole milk, eggs. But what a difference the outside makes: the crème brûlée is the flirty, dangerous show-off in the family, with her tempting crackled-burnt sugar crust, which has required the application of the naked (ooh la la) flame of the blowtorch (if you’re a cowboy cook who’s not using the grill, anyway) and dares you to crack into it. No one would mistake this dessert for an inhabitant of the nursery. The crème caramel is a bit more homely and dutiful compared to her glamorous sibling.
You start off by making a caramel, which coats the buttered ramekins, and then a custard which bakes gently in the oven. The cups of custard must then chill completely, to be turned out a la minute. The chilled custard is silky-quivering in its delicacy, lightly drenched in a cloak of caramel syrup which adds some much-needed sweetness and intense depth to this dessert, which would otherwise be simply milky and jiggly and bland. (This contrast is especially, deliciously pronounced if you are brave enough to cook your caramel properly dark). Custard always walks a fine line between homely, nursery food and sensual indulgence. This definitely leans towards the latter – although easy to eat, it’s a dessert that celebrates rich, soft smoothness and contrast of innocently sweet custard and earthy caramel.
Don’t make the mistake I did and forget to immerse your custard-filled ramekins in their hot-water bath. I had to make these twice because I missed this vital instruction first time round. I must have skipped over the line completely because, as I transferred my first batch to the oven, I did think to myself that I would have expected a water bath to coddle the custards. In the absence of the water bath the custard took much longer to cook, surprisingly, but also set quite rubbery and hard, and had large air bubbles running through, which ruined the silky texture. A few were edible but most were relatively grim eating and were given to the worms via our compost box. This mishap aside, it was fairly easy to pull together and the desserts were exceptionally satisfying to turn out – they came out easily after a bit of coaking with a palette knife (just be careful not to angle the knife in such a way that you cut into the set custard).
I frequently find myself buying interesting jars of this or that when I come across them in the supermarket, corner shop or while on holiday: ajvar, violet extract, chilli relish, halva spread and balsamic pearls have all made their way into my cupboards on such random expeditions. It’s very rare that I have something in mind for them – they just interest me. (I’m equally catholic in taste vis-a-vis cookbooks). I also enjoy kitchen puttering above almost anything: the consequence is that jars and packets of purchased items are easily joined by row upon row of homemade produce: jams, chutneys, and liqueurs weigh down the shelves in my kitchen which, despite being sizeable by London standards, always feels too small for my needs.
The main consequence, apart from the groaning shelf, is that once you open said jars, your fridge also becomes a graveyard of half-used condiments which never quite get used up. It always seems such a shame to chuck them out, especially if homemade or expensive, even though you run the risk of them becoming furry and spoiled even when chilled if you wait too long. In the spirit of clearing through some of my condiment collection, I devised this recipe for a lamb sausage roll – or perhaps you could call it a lamb slice – which, in addition to the minced lamb, zesty-fresh with lemon, mint and spices, contains a sweet-acid slick of damson tkemali.
Tkemali is a Georgian sour plum sauce made from cherry plums which is typically served with meat. Many recipes geared towards a UK audience use prune plums, but I made a batch using a bag of damsons which, like the cherry plums they are traditionally made with, have a distinctly sour note. The vivid-purple jar was happily spooned out with crisp-roast poussin, but a few tablespoons remained at the bottom, unused, for some time. With space in my fridge at a premium, it was time to make an effort to use it.
Obviously the problem of excess tkemali may be unique, but I wager you could use any plum chutney or sauce with this recipe, as long as it has a good mix of sweet and sour flavour – you may need to tweak your spices a bit depending on the flavours inherent within your condiment. Also, if you like heat and have a jar of harissa knocking around, add a dollop of that – although I enjoyed the lamb rolls as they were, I did want a bit of extra heat. The mixture of paprika, mint, lemon and sumac gave the lamb a flavour profile that hinted at the Middle East; the tkemali teased out the links between Georgian and Middle Eastern culinary tradition by complementing those flavours perfectly.
I served these hot for supper with a tomato-balsamic salad, but the leftover rolls were delicious wrapped up and eaten cold the next day for lunch.
Ideas for variations
I didn’t have any fresh tarragon at home but substituting tarragon for the parsley in the recipe below would have given the lamb rolls a more recognisably Georgian touch
If using a British-style plum chutney, which often contain dried fruit and flavourings such as mustard seeds, you might want to leave out the mint and maybe the sumac and add a dollop of mustard to the lamb. It could also go well with lamb sprinkled with South Asian spices like cumin, coriander and garam masala
If using a Chinese plum sauce you could flavour it with ginger, extra garlic and cumin and five-spice powder instead
This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the signature challenge for week four (dessert week) of series three: a three-layer torte cake.
Cream-based desserts always have my heart – notwithstanding the danger all this dairy fat doubtless poses to said heart. A trickle of liquid cream or dollop of the airily whipped variety – or even, dare I say, a pump of aerosol-whipped foam from a ‘squirty cream’ can – rarely fails to perfect a baked good or even a simple piece of baked or poached fruit.
Anecdote: I once bought a can of squirty cream for a Wimbledon Finalsviewing party (yes, very bourgeois) from Tesco (actually, from the Tesco in Wimbledon itself!) and the woman at the cashier rang through my summer-standard purchases – Pimms, strawberries, napkins – without comment. When she came to the can of cream, she picked it up, waggled her eyebrows, and rasped out (Marsha-from-Spaced-style) “Are you going to be having play-time when you get back?” followed by a hearty chuckle. Even if I actually preferred the sugary, airy taste of the canned stuff to the voluptuous purity of hand-whipped double cream, the memory of this moment would be enough to put me off any purchases of aerosol cream for fear of another such encounter.
There is nothing fake or sugary about this cream torte. The almond cake which forms the foundation is somewhat austere on its own: dense but not particularly sweet, and quite dry. The orange liqueur-spiked syrup it’s brushed with adds some flavour and moisture, but the purpose of the cake is to provide a contrast to the extremely creamy strawberry and orange liqueur mousse which fills the middle. With 500ml – half a litre – of double cream providing body to the mousse, the cake needs structure and a little dryness to hold it together and provide a textural contrast to all that soft, voluptuous sweetness.
There are a number of steps, and skills, associated with making this cake (you can see why it was a suitable challenge on Bake Off). There’s the baking of the sponge and the making and setting of the filling, which involves gelatine. (Most of the gelatine you can buy off the shelf in the UK is beef rather than pork gelatine, so bear that in mind if you want to serve this cake – or even just the mousse – to someone with medical or cultural dietary restrictions. I have not tested this with vegetarian gelatine and would suggest following the packet instructions if you want to try this as it works slightly differently). Fortunately both can be done ahead of time. The assembled cake and mousse structure then has to chill for a good amount of time in the fridge – if not, you will have sponges floating on a strawberry-cream slop. Not very appetising, and I can imagine it must have been a struggle for the Bake Off contestants to set a gelatine-based mousse in time. (Incidentally, this cake is a good test of faith, inasmuch as you have to believe that you will pass through the ‘cakes-on-slop’ phase to get to the ‘elegant Mitteleuropa cream torte’ stage when shoving it in the fridge to set).
If it really all does seem like too much work for a summer’s day – and with so little of summer left I won’t blame you – do try making just the mousse, which is pure and delicate and delicious – it melts delicately on the tongue and tastes like a child’s memory of strawberries and cream. As a bonus, you won’t need to turn the oven on.
The almond cake I made is an amalgam and extensive adaptation of several recipes I found online; the syrup and mousse are based on a recipe for Erdbeeroberstorte from Rick Rodgers’ magnificent book Kaffeehaus, which is well worth a look at if you love cream-based desserts, which are also so beloved in Central Europe. The instructions given to the bakers was to make a three-layer cake, but this did not require three layers of sponge, simply that the entire piece be composed of three layers – in this case two of sponge and one of mousse; the tortes themselves should not contain any flour. Strictly speaking, also, the instructions in the challenge did suggest that the bakers should not using leavening agents in their cakes – with all the rise coming from well-whipped egg yolks and whites – but as all their torte recipes on the BBC website include baking powder, I took the same liberty of sidestepping this instruction.
This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week three (tart week) of series three: a designer fruit tart.
Last week, Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins made some waves with an article he wrote sneering at the idea of learning languages in school as a general, rather than specialist, skill, unimportant compared to learning about history, culture, the economy, and even urban planning. As Jenkins and his editors no doubt planned, the social media backlash (and subsequent linking to his article) was robust: the article was decried as ‘stupid’, ‘foolish’ and ‘narrow-minded’. Proponents of language-learning pointed out that learning languages is inherently linked to learning culture; expands our worldview and horizons; develops the intellect; and is, often, still, even in a world in which English is often spoken globally, a very practical skill.
I work with a lot of academic researchers, and I’d like to be one myself one day, and many, many people I know would not be able to do the research they do without speaking one or more languages. The relative dearth of language skills among British scholars in my own discipline of history is considered pretty crippling by some people I know. But in addition to such lofty considerations, learning a language gives us an everyday understanding of the world that adds so much colour and interest. For example, the etymology of the word ‘gooseberry’: in English, one theory for the name of these tart, hairy green summer fruits is that they were served as a sauce with roast goose, and that this marriage was so commonplace, so ordinary, that the link became embedded in language. This theory becomes ever the more tantalising once you know that in French these berries are called ‘groseille à maquereau’ – mackerel berries – because gooseberries have often been served as a tangy, sharp foil to rich, oily mackerel. (I have tried this before – it is delicious and surprising).
The gooseberry in English cooking – sweet cooking, anyway – is almost always wedded to its seasonal partner, the fragrant elderflower, most often present in cordial form. There’s no harm in this partnership, but once I knew I wanted to make a gooseberry tart, I quickly decided the berry must have the opportunity of a dalliance with other flavourings. I embarked on extensive, slightly panicky research in which I contemplated various states of creamy, custardy fillings. However, I have a very slight aversion to the rich egginess of many custards, while loving the mouth-filling silkiness and delicate vanilla flavour of creme patissiere. I had more or less settled on the final recipe when I got the brainwave to make an almond creme pat – cue more frantic research until Michel Roux’s unparalleled book ‘Pastry’ showed me the way.
The stern injunction when announcing this showstopper challenge in series three was that it had to be the kind a top French patissiere would be proud to sell in his (or her) shop. You’d be hard-pressed, I think, to consider my offering a ‘designer’ fruit tart ‘fit for a top quality patisserie display window’. My creation is more of a paragon of elegant simplicity – even possibly leaning towards rusticity – than, say, a rose-scented tart topped with macarons as baked by eventual series three finalist (but not winner) James Morton. And yet – perhaps because I have been reading Elizabeth David recently, and enjoy her terse, bright prose much more than when I was younger – I can’t help but feel that there is something right and true about this tart, with its crisp, not-too-sweet pastry, substantial filling, and generous portion of fruit. It is unpretentious without actually being humbled for it. It cuts cleanly and showcases the bright sharpness of this seasonal fruit – and is absolutely killer with a substantial mountain of cream. But what isn’t?
1) Eat fish at least once a week, preferably twice a week
One of my favourite standby meals has been the prawn coconut noodle soup pictured below, which basically involves simmering coconut milk and aromatics like lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, then cooking up some vegetables and prawns and adding cooked rice noodles. We’ve already established that I’m counting any kind of seafood for this resolution and my reliance on this fragrant, filling soup is helping me meet this easily. I also made other fishy standbys such as salmon in soy sauce, which I invariably have with rice and broccoli. It’s very easy and quick and basically brainless – I’ve made it for so many years it’s muscle memory now.
2) Bring a packed lunch to work at least three times a week
The weather in the UK has veered between very hot in June and, more recently, as cool and wet as early autumn on some days. I still like to eat warm food on hot days – not boiling hot, but equally I’ve never seen the appeal of cold soups and so on which are invariably recommended when the sun comes out. I’ve tended to rely on grain salads – I made a few nice ones with pearled spelt and barley, fried chorizo and spinach wilted in the pan and this Mediterranean aubergine and barley salad, which at first glance looks lengthy but includes a lot of store-cupboard spices. On the cooler days I’ve been eating soup – sometimes the courgette soup made to my grandmother’s recipe (‘cook the onions and celery in some butter until glazed, add the courgettes, add the stock, cook until done and blend’). Other days I’ve just packed up leftovers from the night before: bean and pepper stew (see below!) reheats well and, as it turns out, tortillas warm through perfectly when heated up in the office microwave.
The thing I’ve come to realise about having set this as a challenge is that it actually pushes me to get up and make myself a packed lunch for tomorrow, even if I’d rather stay sitting on the sofa staring at the ceiling on a Sunday evening and cursing Monday’s return. So that’s good.
3) Eat at least three vegetarian meals a week
I almost missed this resolution in the week of spelt and chorizo salads for my work lunch – work lunches are almost always vegetarian, which means I hit this resolution easily with minimal effort. But in the end I managed to scramble my menu plan around and ensure we ate more vegetarian food in the evenings.
Here’s a vegetarian meal I like which I make intermittently: fry up some sliced onions in oil. Add sliced up peppers – I use those tricolour packets sold in the UK for this, even though I really favour red peppers. Add paprika (preferably a combination of sweet, smoked and hot), cumin, black pepper and salt. If you have fresh, ripe tomatoes, cut them up and throw them in here; otherwise use a tin of plum or chopped tomatoes. Cover and cook down for 15 minutes. Add a rinsed tin of beans (kidney beans or black beans are good) and add to the pot to heat through for another ten minutes, uncovered. Serve to go inside heated up corn or flour tortillas with sliced up avocados, creme fraiche and grated cheese.
I’ve never made this exactly the same way but it’s always the same dish. I had half a tin of chipotles in adobo which I rescued from the freezer unit and added those with the tomatoes, which was good – and another time I added dried, soaked and blended chipotle and ancho chillies, also very good. These are messy to eat but really satisfying.
4) Clear my archive of bookmarked recipes
You may have been able to tell from some of the descriptions above that I’ve been cooking a bit more spontaneously than in other months, and that’s with a purpose: I have finally, after many, many people have told me this, realised that I hoard too many dry goods in my cupboards. I must stop treating them like a collection. This means I’m driven by the dictates of my cupboard and not a recipe.
But I have made granola to Clotilde Dusolier’s basic formula on repeat: it’s great because it can use up any old odds and ends of grains, nuts, seeds and dried fruit in the house. I’ve made versions rich in coconut flakes and studded with jewelled apricots (pictured – the apricots make it look beautiful considering it’s just granola), and others heavy on sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and others almost entirely with walnuts. I’ve used every permutation of almond in the house (except ground). I’ve used barley flakes as well as rolled oats. I always used the soaked flax seeds because I have a huge tin of them on my countertop, and this does mean the granola never gets as crisp as it would without the liquid, but that’s okay.
My boyfriend has started eating bananas for pre-exercise fuel (sensible): with a handful which were blackened and softening I made this banana bread with pecans and it was excellent. There are a million or more recipes for banana bread in the world so it feels strange to recommend a particular one, and one in the dreaded American cup measurements too. It was very nice though.
5) Celebrate my heritage more
I’m caught in the intractable dilemma that you really start doing all of this tradition and routine stuff when you have kids, because that’s when you discover the benefits of a less chaotic lifestyle and the power of ritual. I’m sure I’d benefit from a bit more togetherness and organisation in my life but I also had a two-hour nap today and that was really much better than hanging around trying to feel Belgian. I don’t know. I’m about ready to give up on this one and file as an ‘I don’t actually know what to do with this’.
…On the other hand I have been reading a book on the history of Flemish nationalism during the First World War and finding it really interesting – there are parallels to the history of Irish nationalism and occasionally overlapping cast members, too.
6) Develop a good bedtime/sleeping routine
Off and on as always. I spent a week or two in a really excellent pattern of good nourishing sleep, waking up at 6am and therefore getting in all my French practice before work rather when tired and slumped afterwards. Unfortunately it gave way to my more typical pattern of staring in increasingly tense, frustrated silence at the ceiling willing for sleep to come, tossing and turning outrageously. I think it’s a lifelong work in progress, but I will keep trying.
7) Visit at least two (new) places in the UK outside of London
I did it, I did it, I did it! In June I visited the spa town of Bath with my friends Juliet and Ariadne. It’s a very picturesque Georgian town – we visited on a weekend of clear days and soft, milky light (see the top picture) – which is absolutely rammed with tourists and visitors (including ourselves) of all languages and nationalities (at least judging from the multilingual signage that peppers the town). We visited the cathedral, drifted around the shops, admired the Royal Crescent and bought chocolates at Maison Georges Larnicol (if you’ve watched The Sweet Makers on the BBC it appears (unnamed) in the Georgian-era episode). We also ate, of course: an exquisite seasonal meal at The Circus, deliciously filling pizzas (savoury and sweet) at The Stable and an indifferent cream tea.
This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the technical challenge for week three (tart week) of series three: a lattice-topped treacle tart.
Treacle tart, a classic British dessert, bears some of the strange hallmarks of traditional British baking and cookery. To start with, like many traditional sweets, its unpromising-looking ingredients list is based on breadcrumbs, joining old-fashioned dishes like brown bread ice cream and Queen of Puddings. It’s safe to say that treacle tart eclipses both, however, in the popularity stakes – while the other two may have a sort of ‘retro favourite’ status, to taste them you’ll probably have to make them, whereas treacle tart is accessible commercially: it appears in almost every museum cafe, doubtless selling for £4.50 a flat slice, but it can also be easily purchased in even the smallest of supermarkets.
Secondly, treacle tart is one of the British linguistic oddities which can seriously throw non-native speakers, inasmuch as the titular ingredient – treacle – makes no appearance in the tart. Perhaps the original tarts were made with this coal-black, iron-tasting sweetener (one of those sugar-based products which inexplicably taste like they’re good for you), but it’s long been superseded by very sweet, light-coloured golden syrup, which gives treacle tart its agreeable sunny colour.
Mary Berry’s treacle tart is well-balanced: enough breadcrumbs to soak up the syrup and give the dessert some ballast, but not so many that it’s heavy and dry: the filling has a touch of agreeably sticky fluffiness. There’s enough lemon to balance out the aching sweetness of four hundred grams of golden syrup without turning it into a tarte au citron (avec chapelure). The only annoying thing about the recipe is weaving together the lattice top, for which she offers no real method. There are those, like the studiedly-unpretentious Simon Hopkinson, incidentally, who critique the lattice top as unnecessary, but actually a bit of additional plain, unsweetened pastry is no bad thing as a foil against the intensity of the filling.
A tip: Mary Berry would have you spoon your breadcrumb filling straight from the saucepan into your pastry case, to top immediately with the lattice, but of course the heat of the still-warm syrup made the pastry start to ooze. While it wouldn’t be practical to go to the other extreme and let it cool down completely (the golden syrup would solidify around the breadcrumbs and make it impossible to shift), I recommend letting it cool a little before filling the tart case.
I’ve mentioned a few times the unmitigated sweetness of the tart and, in the interests of further balancing this out, I urge to eat your slice drizzled with a good puddle of unsweetened double cream, or a good thick dollop of the clotted stuff.
The recipe and method (including actual steps on making a lattice top) is below the jump.