Baking Advent: Apricot and amaretti fruitcake with Marsala and clementine buttercream

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with baked goods.

Apricot, amaretti and marsala fruitcake

In my last post I mused about being, becoming, a grown-up; and the changing tastes of adulthood were something I thought of when making, and then eating, this fruitcake.

For some tastes are the ones we grow rather than the ones which come to us instinctively. The liking of certain foods – the bitterness of wine and beer among then – mark the undeniable transition from picky child and wary adolescent. Jay Rayner predictably called it for the oyster, which, in a slightly icky (and, it must be said, heteronormative) 2011 article which I have never really liked (I like a lot of his other writing), he describes as “the truly female tastes of adulthood” (yawn). Then there are olives – salty, briny; blue cheese – pungent, moudly; even the raw, iron, undeniably fleshy taste of rare steak.

Apricot, amaretti and marsala fruitcake with marzipan stars
Marzipan stars on a naked cake for a modern look

Fruitcake, to me, is a grown up food, too. As a child, its dense, sticky richness was something best avoided in favour of, say, a predictable slice of chocolate cake. It sits heavily on the stomach and coats the palate in a thick wave of raisiny sweetness almost as a dessert wine does. A fruitcake is assertive; it is strong; it is not really that sweet and can be nibbled with cheese as much as eaten as pudding after a meal. It requires a bitter drink of some kind – hot black coffee; unsweetened, tannic tea; even ale – to offset the rich taste and texture. After years of remembered aversion and dislike, those same failings have become, in my eyes, the fruitcake’s very virtues. It is filling, it is rich, it is unapologetically traditional in vine-fruited taste and dense, even at times stodgy, texture.

Christmas fruitcake with clementine and cinnamon buttercream
Christmas fruitcake with clementine and cinnamon buttercream

I wasn’t intending to post this recipe, mainly because the photos I took weren’t very good. But this cake is so very delicious; I brought it in to work (a rare enough event) and my colleagues were full of praise – one even said he feared it would put all other Christmas cakes this year in the shade. That’s the kind of thing someone who brings in a homemade cake likes to hear…

The dried apricots in the fruit mix add a lighter, sharper taste and texture than the traditional combination of raisins, currants and mixed peel alone, and the pulverised amaretti biscuits which are included in the batter mix replace the more conventional breadcrumbs: they are dryer and, again, lighter, as well as adding a delicate almond perfume which complements the marzipan shapes the cake is decorated with. A few biscuits are held back to decorate the top of the cake. The sweet Marsala wine which plumps up the fruit and is used to feed the cake at regular intervals naturally imbues it with moisture, but also sweetly echoes the taste of the dried fruit within the cake. The clementine buttercream is of course deeply seasonal and adds a burst of freshness to proceedings. I added a dash of cinnamon to it too.

Apricot and amaretti fruitcake
Action shot – the cake getting dug into at work, in its tin

I went for a ‘naked’ look for this cake, partly because naked cakes are so very fashionable; partly because I don’t really like the royal icing that usually tops fruitcakes; and partly to avoid the awkwardness of buying sufficient quantities of marizipan and carefully rolling it over to drape the cake. I liked the look very much, in the end – though having said that, the original cake, as decorated by BBC Good Food magazine, looked absolutely glorious – with a coating of (edible) gold spray paint, it was fantastically Louis Quatorze.

Recipe below the jump, as ever.

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Baking Advent: little plum friands

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with a different daily baked good.

Plum and almond friands

I went to the gym yesterday, for the first time in…a while. I’ve been busy, and sick, and social, and taking a French course, all of which has disrupted my usual gym-going routine, which was pretty settled and well-established. Once dropped, I felt too intimidated and apprehensive to go back, even though I knew that the tension in my shoulders and recent difficulty sleeping could have been resolved with some exercise.

Well, I finally managed to get to gym, albeit much later in the evening than I planned and on the strength of two glasses of wine from a work function (oh yes), and I’m pretty much back to square one in terms of fitness, which is pretty annoying. However, once finished, I did feel better, more focused, my thoughts less troubling, and I slept well. Having exercised, I also let myself indulge in one of my plum friands, serving it up with a trickle of double cream.

Plum friand

Friands are egg white and ground almond-based mini cakes, oddly popular in Australia, and very similar to French financiers. Friands tend to be baked in round shapes, unlike rectangular financiers, whose shape is said to resemble gold bars; for financiers, the butter is typically browned until it picks up toasted hazelnut notes; and friands typically have additions and flavourings such as chocolate, coconut, and fruit, whereas the financier is unadulterated almond. These differences aside, both recipes involve ground almonds, icing sugar, melted butter, and egg whites, so I think it’s safe to say they are related in some ways, cousins at least even if they’re not close enough to be siblings.

I made this recipe to use up the last three plums in the house – conveniently, that’s all that was needed. It also helped me finish off my stash of ground almonds, which had grown to ludicrous proportions thanks to a brief macaron phase; and there were egg whites in the freezer compartment (they just about fit) which just needed a brief thawing. So this recipe was serendipitous in some respects.

Buttery vanilla friands

I did make two tiny tweaks to the recipe as printed by Waitrose Weekend, a free newspaper distributed in Waitrose supermarkets. Firstly, I did not line the bottoms of the muffin tin with circles of baking paper, because the idea of cutting them out made me feel deflated. Instead, I greased the bun tin thoroughly – and I mean thoroughly – with melted butter, let the friands cool for a good while, and then eased them very gently out of the tin with a flexible palette knife when they were barely warm (I think if you let them cool to absolutely cold the plums might adhere). You do need to be careful when doing this because the plums can stick to the tins and cause the cake to break when prised out of the tin, but I genuinely think it’s a million times better than cutting out baking paper circles. But to each their own. Secondly, I replaced the called-for almond extract with vanilla extract, because I was serving them to a friend who doesn’t like the pronounced, cloying bitter-kernel taste of almond extract (although she likes almonds). In fact, I think the vanilla extract was a good choice as it brought out the soft, buttery tenderness of the cakes rather than highlighting the almond.

Recipe after the jump.

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Baking Advent: zeitgeist cookies

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with a different daily baked good.

Banana, oat and chocolate no-sugar-added cookies
Banana, oat and chocolate cookies

Well before the current fad for food characterised mostly by what it isn’t – gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, vegan, plant-based and so on – Heidi Swanson, author of the blog 101 Cookbooks (and four cookbooks of her own) published a recipe for Nikki’s Healthy Cookies. Based on a mixture of oats, ground almonds and coconut, and free from added sugar, these cookies had been developed by her high school friend Nikki as a treat she would be happy to give to her children who, Swanson notes, had been largely nourished on whole foods. The recipe is from 2008, but the philosophy of these cookies couldn’t be more au courant – again suggesting, perhaps, that it is the progressive, trend-seeking and setting enclaves of New York, California and the Bay Area that dictate food trends in Europe, albeit sometimes years later.

Bite-sized banana, oat and chocolate cookie

I’ve adapted the recipe below – primarily by substituting the desiccated coconut called for, as I didn’t have any in the house and didn’t feel inclined to buying a packet of something that would then sit, unused and dusty, in the cupboards for an age – and, with my tweaks and metric measurements, and reflecting on how very of-the-moment this recipe is, I’ve renamed my version ‘Zeitgeist cookies‘.

These cookies aren’t just for appropriate those voluntarily choosing exclusionary diets: I made them to bring to a gathering of friends, one of whom has been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. For her, the lack of high-GI flour and inclusion of wholegrain, lower-GI rolled jumbo oats and almonds (which do not affect blood sugar) and lack of added sugar made these a treat she could enjoy more easily than baked goods based on refined ingredients. She also said that the inclusion of dark chocolate was (relatively speaking) fine for her as dark chocolate has less sugar than other kinds, and the fat means the sugar is released more slowly into the bloodstream.

Big chunks of chocolate play off a moist, craggy interior
Big chunks of chocolate play off a moist, craggy interior

These are not thin, crunchy, crisp cookies: the banana makes them moist and soft all the way through, although they hold their shape well and are not particularly cakey in texture. The taste of the banana carries well and plays off nicely against the chocolate. Given that the original recipe was developed by a whole-foods-orientated mother, I’m not sure to what extent children would like these. The texture is nubbly, maybe even slightly chewy, from the oats, and they’re studded with dark, rich chocolate which adds a faint hint of bitterness. While these tastes and textures would be welcomed by adults, I do doubt somehow that children would really fall on these – particularly if they’re used to more conventional treats. My friends and I considered this as we nibbled and concluded that using milk chocolate instead of dark would make them more child-friendly (and still probably lower in sugar than most cookies).

Healthy chocolate and banana cookie

Recipe below the jump.

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Baking Advent: sticky, syrupy gingerbread loaf with rum

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with a different daily baked good.

Sticky gingerbread loaf

This ginger cake is another recipe I have used for a long time, again gleaned from avid food blog reading. The recipe makes a small cake, a simple unadorned loaf that could even be called humble; certainly homely, with all the comforts associated with that word.

What I love about this cake is that I’ve very rarely been without the wherewithal to make it at a moment’s notice. If I only have a scrap of butter, a lick of golden syrup and a single egg rattling in the cupboards, I can make this cake. I’ve baked it in a loaf pan and a square brownie tin, and doubled it for bake sales; it is incredibly forgiving. Once, I added the egg too quickly to the sticky mixture of syrup, butter and sugar which is first melted together, and the egg coagulated in the mixture. I strained out the bits of cooked egg white and continued as normal; the cake baked up perfectly.

Homely, homey, and delicious

Straight out of the oven a slice is warm, sweet and mild: the gingery flavour and stickiness develops over the next few days, and is enhanced if you wrap it in foil between servings. Personally I like my gingerbread the way my grandmother eats it, which is to say sliced and buttered.

It’s a flexible and infinitely adaptable gem. You could add additional spices, or add-ins such as sultanas soaked in a little brandy or apple juice, or even small chocolate chips if you like the combination of chocolate and ginger. The version I made below includes a splash of rum and some chopped preserved stem ginger to add an additional warming, spicy backnote. It doesn’t require any embellishment to be a lovely little cake, but it makes a nice change. Recipe below the jump, as always.

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Baking Advent: plum and ginger traybake

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with a different daily baked good.

Ginger and plum traybake with crumble topping
Ginger and plum traybake with crumble topping

After I had made a batch of tender plum and poppy seed muffins, there was still a bag full of beautiful – but ever so slightly soft – purple plums winking at me. I hunted through my cookbooks and magazines looking for an appropriate recipe (greatly aided by cookbook indexing tool Eat Your Books) and found a recipe for a plum and ginger traybake, based on oats. Plum and ginger are two tastes which go together beautifully, and the oats add a wholesome nubbliness that makes these treats seem almost breakfast-appropriate – although, conversely, the combination of butter, golden syrup and oats also brings to mind the mighty flapjack. In any case, there’s little not to love.

Plums and oat traybake
Cool winter light and plums

The recipe is quite clever in saving some of the batter used for the base of the traybake and mixing it with additional oats and flour to make a delectably crunchy topping. It’s such an easy idea – much simpler than putting together even the most basic extra crumble  – that it makes me wonder why I’ve never seen it before. The recipe was written by Jane Hornby, who is the author of the beautiful and instructive What to Bake and How to Bake It, and she is really very good at breaking down recipes into simple steps that make them achievable for anyone without – for lack of a better word – dumbing them down to the extent where they are simple and plain. The oats used are standard porridge oats, rather than the jumbo oats often called for in baking, and this was particularly satisfying because we always have these in the house for morning winter breakfasts.

Sticky oat, plum and ginger squares
Each peach? pear?…plum

The only slightly awkward thing about this recipe was fitting the oat base into the suggested 17x23cm tin – the dough couldn’t fit over this large space. I ended up using a 21x21cm square Pyrex dish, and this worked perfectly, though I’m sure a metal tin of a similar size would work well too.

Recipe below the jump, as always

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Baking challenge: hidden design rainbow zebra cake

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with a different daily baked good.

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Eat the rainbow

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 one (cake week) of series three: a hidden design cake.

Although I like to bake and cook, I am not the person who brings in homemade goods to the office. It happens occasionally, but when I bake it’s usually for me and my boyfriend, or friends, and I don’t always have much time to bake extra for work. Shortly after starting my first big grown-up job post-university, I coincidentally read a few articles which warned that, in fact, women should avoid bringing baked goods to the office to avoid being written off as domestic rather than professional, but I don’t work in that kind of high-level, male-dominated, hyper-corporate environment where those issues would be at play. And I do have friends who work in tough corporate jobs with 18-hour days and billable hours and clients and liability issues and they bring in baked goods nonetheless, because their work speaks for itself in terms of their professional abilities. That, to me, seems like a good sign in the context of debates about women’s roles in the workplace. My issue is less office politics, more lack of time.

Chocolate cream cheese frosting
How to hide a rainbow surprise (but still hint at the promise of colour)

A while ago, however, I did bring in a homemade cake for a colleague’s leaving do. I work in quite a small organisation, and I’ve said goodbye to many colleagues over the last five years, as they find opportunities outside of our tiny, very specialist institution. My colleagues are immensely talented, lovely people, and it’s always sad to see them go. Everyone seemed surprised and delighted by the cake – but I think it would be hard to avoid being charmed by it, with its bright colours revealed in every slice, belying a velvety-smooth but traditional-looking exterior of plain, creamy chocolate cream cheese icing.

The first showstopper challenge of series three of the Great British Bake-Off required the bakers to make a hidden-design cake – that is, a cake which, when cut into, reveals a pattern or image cunningly baked or carved into the centre. There are three basic ways of making a hidden-design cake: chiselling out the centre of a baked cake and replacing it with a filling, modelling chocolate, more baked cake or similar; pre-baking sponge cake into slices and pouring cake batter over and re-baking; or, thirdly, creating a design using cake batter in the pan entirely before baking.

Rainbow zebra cake inside
A hasty ‘action shot’ of the cut cake at the party

As I’m really not very good at fancy designing and decorating, I opted for the third method; I also thought that avoiding fiddling around with pre-baking would avoid the possibility of ending up with a dry cake. Also, by choosing this method, I managed to put a cake together that looked exciting but is actually do-able on a weeknight (I did it, so I know it is possible!).

I liked the idea of a zebra or giraffe cake, and when I saw the rainbow zebra cake on the Youtube channel My Cupcake Addiction, I decided to make it, excited by the combination of a crazy colour scheme but also a fairly simple technique. I followed the basic instructions from that video, although I didn’t use a boxed cake mix; instead, I opted for a plain yet buttery sponge with sufficient structure and density to support the addition of plenty of colouring paste. I covered and filled these cakes with a rich, creamy chocolate cream cheese icing. Because this recipe replaces some of the usual icing sugar used to stiffen the cream cheese frosting with cocoa powder, it’s less sweet than many cream cheese frostings and also darkly delicious. I couldn’t resist then flinging the cake with some coloured dragees I had in the cupboard, to give a hint as to the colourful inside.

Slice of rainbow zebra cake

Of course, the first design cake I ever made has come with a learning curve. I would use more cake batter than I did the first time around, because I ran a little low, which resulted in the layers of colour merging rather than being sharply delineated, as I had to scrape and scrimp towards the end. I think, if you want to bake a zebra cake of your own, that an additional half-portion of batter would work well (I have the recipe below, both as I baked it and my suggested measurements for a greater volume of cake batter).

Secondly, I think the pictures illustrate well the difference between using professional food colouring paste and colouring paste aimed at domestic consumers. In my cake, the black and blue colouring came from Lakeland, and once baked the colours are vibrant and true; the green and pink colours were from Dr Oetker (picked up at the supermarket) and, while the colour looked vibrant when the cake was raw, they baked up much paler.

Black, blue, pink and green food colouring

There are quite a few steps to making this cake – although none of them are hard in and of themselves – so I have, unusually, included some photos in the instructions below.

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Baking Advent: crispy truffle cookies

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with a different daily baked good.

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Crisp-edged, with a dense, intensely chocolatey centre and, the icing sugar they’re rolled in before baking adding a dose of sweetness as well as a crackling top in a contrasting colour, there is much to recommend about these biscuits.

I first found this recipe on a blog many, many years ago. Although I couldn’t find the recipe there, it may have been from Jennifer Hamilton’s Domestic Goddess blog, and she stopped posting in 2012 (it appears to have originated in a Williams Sonoma baking book, but Williams Sonoma is not a Thing in the UK so I’ve never seen the books). I thought the recipe was lost forever, but found a version I’d printed off in a ring binder, to my great relief.

Unbaked crispy truffle cookies

I was going through a phase then of printing off a lot of the recipes I used and saving them. It was a somewhat sad time for me: I had just returned to university after a year off between my first and second years and was feeling very rootless during that period of readjustment. Leaving home for university is often dislocating anyway, and I had travelled very far to go to my dream subject at my dream university in London. Of course things were exciting, and I’m still so close to the friends I made there, but once the initial excitement wore off and life caught up (as it does for so many students between the first year – all structured halls of residence and navigating essay deadlines in the knowledge that the first year rarely counts towards your final degree, and second year, where the marks start to count and you become responsible for your own housing and bills and sometimes even food, if you were living in catered halls before), I felt a little unfettered, and not necessarily in a good way. The recipes in a ring binder were, for me, an attempt to create a kind of anchoring domesticity, trying to capture and codify the things that will mean home – different ways of roasting chicken, a frequently-used recipe of jhal faraizi which used leftover beef, and crispy truffle cookies, captured and bound. Now, I cook quite differently to those days and reading through the binder is a reminder of what we ate, and when and where we ate it. The jhal faraizi, cumin seeds sizzling in our kitchen in Lewisham, trying to avoid breathing in the green chilli fumes, pressing the potatoes flat; salmon fishcakes in our flat in Bloomsbury, peas escaping through the gaps in the electric coils on the stove; the truffle cookies which my boyfriend couldn’t stop eating as they came off the baking sheet.

Dark chocolate crispy truffle cookies

But even if you don’t share this nostalgia, the cookies speak for themselves. There are a lot of recipes out there for ‘crackle cookies’, and many of them seem to use vegetable oil. I have no real beef with vegetable oil – I use it in my cooking and baking from time to time – but I think the rich butteriness is part of these cookies’ charm and simple perfection. They are quite intensely sweet and rich – perfect for sharing, although I will admit I hardly shared this batch at all. I’m sure you could easily dial back the sugar if wished.

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Baking Advent: tender plum and poppy seed muffins

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with a different daily baked good.

Plum and poppy seed muffins

It was in Morden, on a bitter cold day, hands tinged red with cold even underneath my gloves, that I found a shop selling quince: large, fragrant, knobbled, with firm skin and hard flesh. In both Lewisham and Elephant and Castle, shops like this – selling all manner of interesting food not necessarily found in local supermarkets, serving various communities – were fairly common. Less so in my neck of South West London, and indeed I’d never expected to find quince at the end of the Northern line.

In addition to a large bag full of yellow fruit, I came away laden with a bag of prune plums (also known as Lombard plums), the deep purple of a tired evening, covered with a delicate, icy bloom that mimicked the frost on the ground. Inside their flesh was soft and golden.

Yet how rapidly these plums became my millstone. They quickly ripened, but then I fell ill; by the time I recovered, they were past their best for eating out of hand. I turned to baking. I did end up baking a lot of things, because I had a lot of plums, but the first recipe which intrigued me was Deb Perelman‘s recipe for plum and poppy seed muffins. For one thing, she specifically called for the prune plums I had bought. For another, she used browned butter. And, most importantly, I had every single ingredient necessary to make them in the house already, without having to take a single step outside the house. When you are recovering from a feverish few days, this is important. (And yes, this does mean I have a bag of poppy seeds just hanging out in my cupboards. This is why my cupboards are overflowing).

Plum, hazelnut and poppy seed brown butter muffins

Perelman is probably best known as the author of the Smitten Kitchen blog, which I have read for years and years; I consider her to be, basically, the most successful food blogger in the world. The story of how she devised this recipe has been well-reported, often cited as an example of her perfectionist approach to recipe development. In the end, Perelman was partly inspired by a desire to free poppy seeds from their usual culinary twin, lemon. Poppy seeds have a slight bitterness, she notes, which contrasts well with sweet and juicy plums. Actually, my boyfriend commented on the bitterness of the seeds and said that he would have preferred the muffin without them; you may wish to follow.

For her muffins, Perelman uses sour cream; I had half a tub of sour cream, half a tub of buttermilk, so used a half and half combination of them in order to use them up, and I think it worked perfectly. The buttermilk gave the muffins a very delicate tenderness, almost a fragility – not something usually associated with muffins. Finally, inspired, I topped each muffin with a few hazelnuts, letting them get toasty and browned in the oven, mimicking the sweet nutty flavour of the browned butter in the muffins.

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Two modern(ish) ways with leftovers: ratatouille butternut squash and courgetti

I read a lot of articles and books on food history and how changes in technology change our relationship with eating and the process of cooking itself. Looking back at the evolution of kitchen technology can result in quite a jolt – it’s fascinating to see how much of what we think of as our culinary culture is the product of technological change, and how much of what we consider tradition is actually relatively modern. One such ‘tradition’ is that of the reheating and re-eating of ‘leftovers’. While uneaten prepared food is likely to be as old as human beings’ relationship with the cooking process itself (unless our caveman ancestors were really excellent at judging portions of mammoth), the concept of ‘leftovers’ – a prepared meal served again and again, in the same form, until it’s done – is much newer, and is tied to the history of refrigeration and, more importantly, the arrival of fridges into the family home.

Prior to their introduction, the concept of ‘leftover’ food appearing on the plate in more or less the same format didn’t exist as such – it was all simply treated as ingredients, continuously reworked and reformed into new dishes. A a roast slab of beef or lamb would be diced into a fine mince, mixed with the leftover gravy and some vegetables, and baked with a topping (and indeed lining) of mashed potato to make a cottage or shepherd’s pie. The pies we make now, using fresh raw mince which is cooked specially, is much more modern. Cooked meat chopped fine formed the basis of many a dish, most of them quite similar: rissoles (breaded patties), cutlets (patties formed into a shape supposedly resembling an actual cutlet), and even something called ‘beef olives’ – thin slices of beef wrapped around vegetables, covered in stock or broth and cooked for an unfathomably long time.

Reworking leftover bits and pieces of food has the advantage of staving off the extreme boredom that can result when eating, say, the same bowlful of carrot soup night after night, especially if the dish you made isn’t something that necessarily gets better with time. I don’t own a freezer, so when I make a dish that yields a lot of servings, I unfortunately don’t have the satisfying option of popping it into a neat labelled box and stowing it away for busier days. A while ago, I made a large portion of ratatouille from a slimming cookbook. I think my liking for ratatouille is a bit more theoretical than actual – I don’t like cooked fresh tomatoes, for example – and calorie-controlled recipes tend to bulk up on watery courgettes rather than delicious, melting, oil-absorbing aubergine. Safe to say, my liking for the recipe was moderate, but there were at least four more portions in the pot after dinner. I served it up in two relatively simple new ways, one on a working night and one on a Friday night.

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Firstly, with courgetti. Here, doubtless, some people may already be turning away in faint disgust. The courgetti backlash is commencing in earnest at the moment. Spiralised vegetables have come to symbolise the clean eating movement, so it’s unsurprising that, as we enter the moment where the media is turning against clean eating as rapidly as it embraced itrapidly as it embraced it, the vegetable noodle has become severely castigated. I’ve seen them described as tasteless, bland, boring and deficient in terms of the ‘energy’ they offer. And yet I persist in quite liking courgetti. Maybe it’s because my interest in acquiring a spiraliser to make vegetable noodles predates the clean eating movement by a good number of years, ever since I saw a post on Chowhound about daikon noodles. I thought the idea was fun and added some interest, the opportunity for innovation and fun textural contrasts, but back then acquiring a spiraliser was more complicated and expensive than it is now; the Lurch model I wanted was perennially out of stock on Amazon and cost about a third more than they do now (demand and supply, right there). And now that spiralising vegetables is easy, the noodles themselves represent everything about a food culture gone wrong; they mean fear – of gluten, pleasure, wheat, fat, abandon, gluttony.

Still, let’s not get hung up on what food symbolises. I still like them and yes, courgette is less energy-dense than spaghetti, so eating it carved into noodles can be helpful if you’re monitoring your calorie intake, which I try to be conscious of. There, I said it. So, the day after I made the fateful never-ending pot of ratatouille, I spiralised two courgettes into thin, satisfyingly long noodles, reheated the ratatouille with an addition splash or two of water (in addition to not having a freezer, I do not own a microwave), and then dropped in the courgetti to cook and lose their raw edge in the sauce for a couple of minutes. I think this is key with vegetable noodles: no matter how much people may try to convince me otherwise, the idea of eating raw courgette rarely appeals.

So the nice thing about this was that it was very quick: slizzing the courgetti into noodles, warming up the ratatouille and cooking the vegetable strips was actually quicker than boiling up spaghetti would have been, and although it does then require washing up the spiraliser or julienne peeler used, this is no worse, to me, than washing up the sieve I use to drain pasta, which always gets gunged up with the thick, starchy pasta cooking water.

I served this up with the ubiquitous clean-eating favourite, the avocado, and – less celebrated among the clean eating who walk among us – soft goat’s cheese (I think Lidl’s is very good but also like the one from Sainsbury’s). I enjoyed it a lot.

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Secondly, baked into the centre of a halved butternut squash. This is inspired by a recipe by Lorraine Pascale. In her book ‘Eating Well Made Easy’‘Eating Well Made Easy’ she serves a sort of proto-chilli con carne with avocado and cheese inside a halved butternut squash. While I’m not entirely convinced by Pascale’s enrolment at the somewhat dubious Institute for Integrative Nutrition, I thought the recipe looked good and I was inspired to try something similar.

I bought a quite small butternut squash (as you can see above, the squash I used was a little smaller than a dinner plate; although dinner plates can, these days, be huge, the one in the picture is a modestly-sized Denby plate), cut in half vertically and scooped out the seeds in the cavity. I then slashed the flesh with a small sharp knife, cutting about 1cm deep and rubbed it with some oil and seasoning before baking for just under an hour in a preheated 200C oven. Once the squash was tender, I piled in the remaining ratatoutille in the squash cavities and baked it for about ten minutes (to heat through) before topping with grated Parmesan – Emmental would be great here too, because it melts beautifully in delicious, gooey, molten, appetising strings. The cheese-topped squash was returned to the oven to allow the Parmesan to melt. The resulting dish was served with a dollop of creme fraiche – somehow the addition of cool, tangy lactic fat offsets the fat from the cheese and provides a good contrast to the vegetables and starchy squash.

September food and cooking favourites

October has been an exceptionally busy month at work – it always is – and it took a lot out of me to get a food favourites video up, hence why this is up very late. It’s a short and savoury line up featuring a great brunch spot in south-west London and a new lunchtime favourite. I also extol the noble virtues of eating oozing, melting strings of cheese.