August 2016 Food and Cooking Favourites

I feel like a slightly tentative snail or bear or other creature that habitually creeps from a comforting hibernating environment to say – hello! I’m here! I made a video! I have created content! I have not, despite appearances to the contrary, been smacked entirely unconscious by work, which picks up a head of steam around this time of year sufficient to blow us into December.

I have still been eating and reading and enjoying things, which brings me to my August 2016 Food Favourites, which, looking at it now, is centred around the theme of comfort: comfort food (meatballs), reading (Laurie Colwin) and TV (the Great British Bake Off). It’s a reminder that the weather is getting colder as we moved into autumn but also that things are starting to get more strained and stressful in the office as the deadlines hit us like arrows).

I filmed this a few weeks ago (it’s just taken me a while to get my editing act together) and my gushing about the Great British Bake Off and expression of it as a genuine national treasure of a show now reads as oddly ironic and a little bittersweet. (For those of you who don’t know, the Great British Bake Off, a BBC institution, has moved to the commercially orientated broadcaster Channel 4, which specialises in edgier programme aimed more explicitly at the youth demographic – or, as almost inevitably described, ‘yoof’. It’s inevitable that the unique character of the show will be lost now that the two presenters and one of the judges have declined to move channels).

What’s in the fridge? Part I – my fridge

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This photo was not taken in SW London

I mentioned that I was starting a new series interviewing people about the contents of their fridges and cupboards, purely for fun, because I absolutely leaving reading those look-inside features in magazines. Even though it’s a bit odd to interview oneself, I am kicking the series off with a look at my own fridge, cupboards and kitchen.

I’m 28 (for another week!) and live in south-west London with my boyfriend. I work full-time and cook for myself and David; I do most of the cooking.

Do I have a cooking philosophy or approach of any kind?

Last year I realised I had gained quite a lot of weight. Some of it had accumulated piecemeal since leaving university, but the majority had come on while I was studying part-time for an MA (while working), especially after I experienced a bereavement during this period. I worked very hard to lose weight and dropped 24 kilos (around 4 stone, or 52 pounds). This experience pretty much informs my approach to cooking: I want it to be light, filling, nourishing, and not set me back. I also love to experiment in the kitchen and use my cookbook collection, but most nights of the week I need to cook something that won’t take too much time to make. Weekends are more for experimenting, but even then I’m often busy.

I buy organic, free-range chicken and free-range eggs. I occasionally buy organic vegetables; organic is important to me because the impact of pesticides and intensive farming on biodiversity is alarming, but the heart and the wallet cannot always be aligned on this one.

Where do I buy groceries?

We usually get a lot of our food from supermarkets. David does most of the shopping; we do one big Sunday shop at Lidl, and anything we can’t pick up there we get from our nearby Sainsbury’s. I work near a large Waitrose and will pick up bits and pieces from there during the week; it’s also where I pick up slightly more left-field ingredients. I do regularly (but not weekly) order fruit, vegetables and meat from Farm Direct; I love the quality and the provenance and being able to bypass the supermarket structures, but I have a tendency to get overexcited by the beautiful and often unusual fruit and vegetables and order an excess of stuff, which keeps us going for a while but often leaves me feeling a little overwhelmed. I’m trying to be a bit more mindful of what we can actually reasonably get through in a week. Occasionally items (often stuff to make granola) will come from health food shops, usually Holland and Barrett and Alara, which I have been going to since I was a student, or very occasionally Planet Organic (there are two near where I work, which is a lot of Planet Organics within a smallish area of Central London. The demand surprises me because of how expensive they are, but I guess it works for them…)

Talk about the kitchen

 

My kitchen is big by London standards. It has a large expanse of worktops and plenty of storage space. The problem is that it’s also very, very cluttered. I would prefer that this wasn’t the case but I don’t think I can get away with not mentioning this! I’m not a minimalist when it comes to anything in my life and I have heaps of cooking gadgets, utensils, serving dishes, bakeware, you name it. There are usually a few cookbooks cluttering up the surface, too. I currently have about seven different types of flour on one shelf. I use shelf extenders from Lakeland to create more storage space; they are piled high with spices and condiments, and also a jar of ginger preserves I bought to make a Nigella Lawson recipe but which I haven’t opened yet.

What’s in the fridge?

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I wrote this on a Monday so the fridge is reasonably full (since, as above, we shop on Sundays).

I always have skyr in the fridge , usually the Arla brand, as it’s sold in Sainsbury’s, though at the current moment there are three types (vanilla, plain and strawberry) from a brand called Esja, which a friend recommended. It uses organic British milk and is very smooth, thicker and not quite as tangy as others I’ve tried; it’s delicious, and I stocked up recently while it was still on offer at Planet Organic. There are several cheeses: light halloumi (I often go for the ‘light’ version of feta and halloumi and don’t care if this compromises my ‘foodie values’), a chunk of mature cheddar, and parmesan. I also have a tub of Yeo Valley Vanilla Yoghurt, which is half full ; it’s not a typical purchase for me, though. We have half a pack of bacon, and I’ve decanted a box of strawberries into a plastic box lined with paper towels in the hopes that this will keep moisture away from them and keep them fresher for longer. I slice them up in the mornings and eat with the skyr and granola. There are some blackcurrants but they’re hidden at the back, and the multiple boxes of cherries I bought have been taken to work for grazing. There are also several very small containers, the kind intended for salad dressing, filled with egg whites dotted in various places around the fridge.

Moving down a shelf, I have half a pepper and half a lemon, each saved in a Food Hugger (they really do keep cut up vegetables fresher and it’s greener than constantly using clingfilm). There’s a bit of leftover applesauce in a container; every Sunday I make chicken, potato wedges/oven chips and serve it with applesauce, which is a very traditional homey Belgian meal. There’s a tub of cut-up carrots hiding at the back of the shelf and several plastic containers which hold chillies and ginger. I find if I leave them at the bottom of the vegetable drawer loose, I forget about them entirely and they go to mush.

In the vegetable drawer, there is a bag and a half of rocket, an infinitely useful salad leaf which makes everything taste and feel a bit more robust, a bag of watercress and two packets of endive, which I ended up taking to work as a snack. At the very bottom there are three leeks, and a packet of chives is in there somewhere.

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Finally, the  fridge shelves hold random spreads and condiments, such as preserved lemons. I also keep maple syrup in the fridge as it goes mouldy quite quickly outside. There’s also a jar of homemade kumquat and passion fruit marmalade (the recipe is from Diana Henry’s Salt Sugar Smoke). Finally, some ketchup, mayonnaise, milk and a bottle of dessert wine. The bottle of dessert wine is an outlier; we don’t usually have it in the fridge but I fancied some on Friday and opened the bottle, which an intern gave me as a gift when she left (she was paid, before anyone gets prickly). I did feel a bit odd that she gave me a gift when she left, but it was very nice of her.

The fridge is small and we don’t have a freezer, just a shoe box-sized space at the top which just about fits some peas on a good day. When we were looking at flats, the trade-off seemed to be freezer/electric stove or no freezer/gas stove. I went for the gas stove. It was the right choice. Because the fridge is right on the floor, the back shelves can  sometimes be a little awkwardly inaccessible. Despite its tiny size, things do go missing at the back. In my most recent clearout I found a metal tube of anchovy paste whose origins baffles me.

At the time of writing the freezer space is entirely frosted over. This happens regularly; defrosting the fridge is a damp ordeal and one we frequently put off. There is some scone dough in the freezer at the moment, believe it or not; obviously it’s both totally invisible and completely inaccessible. Probably very well-preserved, though. Since writing this we (by which I mean my boyfriend) have defrosted the freezer but the ice monster is rapidly taking over again.

What three foods are always in the fridge?

The most useful foods in my kitchen are probably eggs and avocado. What I like about both of them is they make any food a meal and are appropriate for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Plus they are really delicious. They even go well together! Both do need seasoning to lift, though. I really like Maldon sea salt – I know it’s a horrible cliche in the UK among middle-class foodies – but lime juice is also essential for avocados.

In the fridge, we always have butter – which is funny because I rarely eat it. I still like to bake, though. There’s always a 4-pint bottle of semi-skimmed milk in the fridge, because my boyfriend has porridge every morning, barring summer, when he has it with muusli. We go through a bottle a week, which I think is quite a lot for a household without children. My breakfast rotates between a routine of green smoothies (by which I mean spinach and banana – I don’t do hardcore things like kale and coriander and broccoli); overnight oats (in which case there’s always a tub of my favourite Yeo Valley 0% Greek yoghurt); or my current routine, skyr with some kind of homemade granola and fruit. Very rarely I will eat toast and jam – these days, it’s often homemade jam, since I caught the preserving bug.

Outside of the fridge, we always have garlic and onions – the basis of so many good meals – and also a jar of honey, as I take a spoonful in my tea.

Is anything currently missing from the fridge?

Usually there are bits and pieces missing because I usually can’t get everything I need from the one Sunday shop, but there wasn’t anything glaring at the time of writing.

Whar treats do I keep in the fridge or cupboards?

The aforementioned weight gain and weight loss challenge mean I avoid stocking up on things like chocolate and cookies. They do make their way in there but I only buy them when I have a craving. I usually try and snack on healthier things such as Medjool dates when I want something sweet, often with a little almond butter. I think Medjool dates are starting to become quite unfairly maligned in the food world because of their very close association with the clean eating trend, but of all the things clean eating has introduced me to, it’s probably the best. Normal dates tend to be a little drier and sometimes even mealy, whereas Medjool dates have a soft and tender flesh and so feel richer and more satisfying to eat.

What foods were always in the house when growing up?

I grew up in Singapore and of necessity we kept literally every item of food in the fridge, barring dried rice and beans, to ward off ants, which were everywhere. It took me years of leaving in the UK to get out of the habit of putting opened bags of sugar and jars of honey in the fridge. We always had brown rice, tofu and brown lentils in the house – my mother is a yoga teacher and we were both vegetarians for a long time. A lot of people say they don’t like brown rice but my palate is utterly acclimatised to it. We always used firm, silken tofu, but I only discovered that it’s normal practice to press it when I moved to the UK. I’ve posted about one of the classic dishes of my childhood, crispy tofu with broccoli and rice.

What three gadgets or tools are most important/helpful for you when cooking?

I love my food processor – it’s a real boon on work nights if I need to, say, slice or chop up a lot of vegetables. The food processor has a jug blender attachment and I use that constantly, usually for smoothies in the morning and for soups to take to work. I used to love my stick immersion blender but I am completely converted to a jug blender now.

However, probably even more important is my large, heavy chef’s knife. It had been left behind by a previous tenant in one of the flats we lived in and I really like it. I sharpen it from time to time, not as often as I should.

I’m also completely in love with my fine Microplane graterI’m also completely in love with my fine Microplane grater, which actually purees garlic and ginger and turns the tiniest scrap of Parmesan into a mountain. It’s a cliche but I can’t believe I lived without it for so long!

I also would struggle in the kitchen without my electronic scales – I measure almost everything I eat, which is boring but necessary for me to stave off weight gain. I am often reliant on my kitchen timers for anything from cake to tea. Timing the tea is my boyfriend’s habit – he wants it brewed for four minutes with the precision of an Orwell – and I’ve picked it up.

If I had to make a meal with the food in the fridge (and pantry) right now, without going to the shops, what would I make?

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I am literally about to go and make a watercress and bacon salad with a poached egg and (homemade) sourdough soldiers. So I would make that.

When there really is nothing in the fridge, where, or what, do I eat?

It’s rare that the fridge and cupboards are bare  – usually this only happens when we come home from holiday or something. I wish I could say that in such circumstances we’d venture to our nearby Wahaca (one of my favourite places) or Franco Manca for a sophisticated foodie dinner. But really we’re much more likely to go to our local fish and chip shop or (if very desperate) to buy a pizza at the Tesco Express down the road, which is, yes, in a petrol station. This is why I always keep my fridge well stocked! Usually it’s more effort for me to leave the house than to scrounge something from what we already have. I even cooked on the day we got back from New York

Lingering Sunday breakfasts: blackberry and cream cheese French toast

On Sunday mornings, I usually wake up sleepily just before 9am, dream of lingering in bed, then jolt myself out into the shower and tear off to my Pilates class at 10am. Last weekend, however, the studio I go to was closed for the Bank Holiday (and redecoration), and I had the rare opportunity to wake up late and cook up a lazy morning breakfast.

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The recipe I had my eye on was an intriguing one called ‘Poor Knights of Windsor’ which came in a brunch-themed booklet with an old BBC Good Food magazine. It called for sandwiching slices of bread with cream cheese and blackberry compote and then dipping them in a mixture of beaten egg, milk, and sugar, which is more or less what I call French toast. Similar recipes throughout Europe are referred to as ‘Poor Knights’, and in Britain the additional, geographically specific, reference to Windsor refers to an order of Alms Knights forced to liquidate their estates to pay ransoms for their release following capture by the French army during the Battle of Crécy in 1346. In return for a lifetime of daily prayers for the sovereign, these military pensioners received a stipend and were lodged at Windsor Castle.

Apparently the difference between French toast and Poor Knights of Windsor is that, in the former, the eggs and milk are beaten together, whereas the latter recipe does not do so. While this is true of very old recipes, in more modern versions (by which I mean the 19th century), this difference seems to have been lost along the way. Certainly in the BBC Good Food version, the eggs and milk are whisked together.

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As much as the flavours of the Poor Knights recipe intrigued me, it clocked in at a massive 767 calories per serving. Even for an indulgent weekend breakfast, that is a high number, especially considering it would be consumed on a day where I would actually skip exercise. In addition, I didn’t have all the ingredients required and couldn’t be bothered to trek to the supermarket. (Admittedly it’s a psychological trek rather than a physical one, because it’s very close by, but anything which allows me to avoid the aisles wars, dodging wild children and arguing couples, is very welcome). I also halved the number of eggs because four seemed excessive to soak four slices of bread. It seems my suspicion was right because the amount of liquid was perfect.

With my changes, I managed to save around 215 calories, with each portion clocking in at 552 calories (or so; it depends on the brands you have used), which is much more manageable for breakfast, I think. You could also cut down on the amount of butter a little, I think, but you don’t end up eating it all. It’s a great dish: crisp, slightly sweet bread, and, once the outside is crunched through with a knife, the soft, pudding-like interior, and the slightly sharp cream cheese offsetting the sweet, delicate, even childish blackberry jelly. If you want more of a contrast between the sharp cream cheese and sweet jelly, you could even leave out the teaspoon of maple syrup used to sweeten the cheese. These are perfect for a weekend of lounging in front of the TV in your dressing gown, especially if the weather’s turned a bit. With the weekend about to start, why don’t you try it?

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What’s in the fridge? A series

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In the book Fight Club, the nameless narrator returns home from a business trip to discover that his condominium has been blown up. Numb and distraught, he walks around the debris of his possessions (a scene evocatively captured in the film version of the novel). The police tell him they suspect the compressor of the fridge provided the spark which caused the explosion.

Oh, not my refrigerator. I’d collected shelves full of different mustards, some stone-ground, some English pub style. There were fourteen different flavours of fat-free salad dressing, and seven kinds of capers.

I know, I know, a house full of condiments and no real food.

The refrigerator described by the narrator reflects the bleak message of Fight Club: his life has the trappings of fullness, but there is nothing to provide nourishment. The variety and diversity of the condiments he is able to purchase and consume (or collect) do nothing to disguise the spiritual poverty of his existence.

I’ve been obsessed with this sentiment ever since – and indeed, my boyfriend has started to worry about my habit of texting people to ask them about their fridge contents. The idea that contents of the fridge and kitchen cupboards can reflect who we are is obviously compelling, and there’s some truth in it. Surely the Puy lentils, goat’s cheese and sundried tomatoes of the 1990s said as much about the era as the chia seeds, frozen bananas (for smoothies) and mashed avocado says about the 2010s?

So for this little series, which I think will run fortnightly, I’ll be sharing the insides and insights of our fridges, starting but not limited to my own.

Show me your fridge, and I will tell you who you are…

Itsu-inspired salmon and edamame rice bowl and matcha choux puffs

About once a month, a select (ha) group of culinarily adventurous friends and I meet up to cook and eat together. We rotate between each other’s homes and each evening has a theme. It is, in short, a supper club, or dinner party club, except that not every gathering is actually in the evening.

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Sun-dappled, a Middle Eastern feast

Our very first themed dinner was ‘Harvest Festival’ and, as you might expect, it was held in early autumn. Themes which have been particular favourites of mine have included ‘Middle Eastern Afternoon Tea’, particularly memorable because I served up muhammara according to Diana Henry‘s addictively good recipe from Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, and I read up a lot about Anglo-Indian food and heritage for our ‘Indian Summer’ themed lunch – anything which combines food and history is going to be all right by me. (In case the name seems odd, it was an homage to the Channel Four show ‘Indian Summers’, which dramatised the final years of British colonial rule in India.) In January this year I hosted a Burns Night themed evening in which anti-haggis prejudices were overcome by suspicious southerners, and even the vegetarian haggis was well-received. (I love haggis – if you love a big, spicy, crumbly meatball I urge you to try it when the weather cools down). A friend’s boyfriend gamely read Robert Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis’ in a broad Scots dialect, a feat which was all the more impressive considering a) a Scottish amount of alcohol had been consumed and b) it was the first time he’d met us, and standing up in a room full of strangers to read a poem in Scots dialect sounds like the worst kind of trial. (Indeed, as a little girl I ran sobbing out of a room full of people at the Belgian and Luxembourg Association of Singapore‘s annual St Nicholas’ Day party when asked to read a poem in Dutch – i.e. my first language).

More recently we had a Japanese-themed lunch, although it was called ‘Cherry Blossom Festival’, and was a celebration of both the warmer weather as well as the elegant, simple yet satisfying flavours of Japanese cooking. My friend Tina served us miso soup and stickily sweet chicken yakitori in her tiny Covent Garden flat; the windows were thrown open wide to embrace the sun and warmth coming in. I brought a salmon and edamame rice salad which was inspired by one of my absolute favourite bought lunches from Itsu, a chain which specialises in light, healthy Asian takeaway meals: teriyaki salmon on a bed. In addition to salmon (obviously) and rice, this dish includes edamame beans, which you can buy in the frozen section of most supermarkets, usually labelled ‘soya beans’. I much prefer them to the more British broad bean because they do not require a second podding after cooking. The components of fish, rice and bright green beans are easy to bring together. Such is the popularity of Japanese food that the ingredients can be bought at any standard supermarket.

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Salmon rice bowl – we had already tucked in!

It’s 047my friend Juliet, however, who shines in preparing food which is delicate (never quite as twee as ‘dainty’) and beautifully presented. She loves Asian food and predictably stole the show with some beautiful matcha cream puffs. The matcha creme diplomat used to fill them was rich, but the addition of whipped cream made it one of those dangerous foodstuffs whose saturated fat content is belied by the absolute lightness on the tongue. The floral taste of the creme diplomat was a perfect match(a) for the delicate texture of the puffs. Juliet also had some extra matcha creme diplomat with her and I can attest that, in addition to cream puffs, it is utterly divine piped or spooned into raspberries cavities or squiggled onto frozen yoghurt.

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In addition to the crisp little choux buns, there’s extra textural interest provided by a layer of craquelin, which gives the tops of the buns a pleasing giraffe-like pattern. Craquelin is effectively a pressed Francophone crumble topping – a disc of flour, butter, and brown sugar – which somehow makes the whole thing sound a lot less like you need a Cordon Bleu qualification and more like something that can be achieved at home.

 

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Video: July 2016 food and cooking favourites

I had to send my camera in for repairs due to a ‘broken pixel line’ earlier this month. While it enabled me to catch up a little on blog writing without the distraction of photography, I did really miss being able to photograph and film when I wanted. It was very nice indeed to be reunited, and I threw together a belated video on my favourite food things from July. I definitely feel like fun and play became, inadvertently, a theme, from messing around with biscuit making to a short, snappy, entertaining food read. Very summer appropriate…

 

Upside down world: chocolate and walnut banana upside-down cake

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 one (cake week) of series three: upside-down cake.

To many people, now, not least myself, I think the world has become a strange upside-down place. A lot of certainties we have relied on have been upended: everything from the inevitability of capitalism as the best system to secure rewards for all; the progression towards a more tolerant society; the place of Europe in the world; the inexorable rise of property prices; and the fact that each generation is healthier and wealthier than the previous, have been thrown into doubt. Some of these disruptions have of course bubbled under the surface for decades, unnoticed or perhaps ignored out of expediency, but it is destabilising to have so many social, political and environmental schisms exposed all at once.

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As much as we may resist an upside-down world, in the culinary realm, the cooking together of fruit and sugar to form the base of a cake, over which batter is poured and baked, produces a much more agreeable effect. The resulting cake is then flipped over to present the fruit at the top. The most classic of all the upside-down cakes is, I think the pineapple upside-down cake: rings of tinned pineapple cooked in a pale and insipid caramel and decorated with artificially dyed, lurid maraschino cherries. Just looking at it is enough to make me feel delicate: I grew up eating home-grown pineapples picked out of our back garden (they tended to be tiny and ferociously spined), and all tinned and artificial food was non grata. The pineapple upside-down cake in its classic form represents all the food my yoga teacher mother tried to keep me away from as a child, albeit with limited success. Still, some lessons have stuck, and while I am happy to eat tinned tomatoes and beans, I have not yet come around to either sweetcorn or pineapple out of a can (to be clear, we did not grow corn in the garden).

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So when it came to making my own upside-down cake I knew I would go for a different fruit. I ended up making this cake for my dear friend Juliet’s birthday, and this inspired me as to the final flavour combination. Juliet makes a delectable bread and butter pudding with bananas, walnuts and chocolate chips; it’s a buttery, bronzey, gooey-in-the-middle, crisp-and-crunchy-with-sugar-round-the-top, studded-with-chocolate kind of thing, so delicious that Juliet appeared with it in the BBC’s The One Show. So the upside-down cake I made for her was basically her bread and butter pudding in cake form: bananas cooked in caramel, and a banana cake base through which chocolate and walnuts had been swirled. The resulting cake was absolutely enormous, and carting it from SW to Central London for our brunch at Dirty Bones was pretty hairy; in fact the top did crack a little, which I don’t think would have happened had it remained stationary. But the staff at Dirty Bones were really kind and took the cake off my hands almost as soon as I arrived, and returned it at the end of our absolutely filthily, gorgeously, stupidly indulgent meal of deep fried chicken atop waffles (absolutely not something I ever thought I’d eat but UTTERLY DELICIOUS OMG), all ablaze with the candles I’d brought. Although it was a very good cake, and really reflected the flavours of Juliet’s amazing bread and butter pudding, the three of us at brunch could barely manage a tiny slice each. The moral of the story is don’t try to each cake after eating chicken and waffles; the physics of it just doesn’t work. (I did offer it to the kind Dirty Bones waiting staff, though most of them declined. Possibly they had just eaten the waffles too).

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After brunching on eggs, chicken, waffles and a shot glass of syrup, I think moderation when it came to the cake was to be expected

Now, classically an upside-down cake is made by cooking up a caramel and adding the fruit to cook in an overproof pan, over which the cake batter is poured, and the whole thing is popped in the oven. For this recipe, however, the bananas are cooked in a pan (I used my trusty cast iron skillet) and then transferred to a springform pan. While I appreciate that bananas might be a fruit which is a little difficult to extract, this transferring method did result in a lot of the caramel oozing out, which was a shame. The caramel is made with maple syrup so it also wasn’t a particularly cheap waste. If making this again I would be tempted to try it out as an all-in-one-pan method.

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You will need a mix of firmer, just-ripe and soft, very ripe bananas for this recipe; the former for the caramelised topping, the latter for the cake itself.

Continue reading “Upside down world: chocolate and walnut banana upside-down cake”