Baking challenge: sticky, syrupy, sweet – rum baba

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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 one (cake week) of series three: rum baba.

Paul Hollywood’s rum babas are an exercise in indulgence. An enriched, yeasted cake is drenched in acutely sweet syrup, the little cakes being turned and turned again until each crumb is soaked through. The cakelets were topped off with creme Chantilly, cream to which vanilla extract and even more sugar is added, resulting in it being stable and stiff enough to pipe. In truth, the very sweet cream atop the syrup-drenched cake was too much for me, and had I not been following the recipe exactly I would have gone with my instincts and chosen the cool lactic contrast of unsweetened cream. This is what I suggest you do.

070_edThe recipe also suggests serving with ‘red fruit’. Strawberries wouldn’t be quite right, as wonderful as they are; something acidic and tangy is needed. I used sharp-sweet raspberries but red currants would be ideal.

Hollywood’s recipe yields four cakes and is intended to serve four, but the babas are quite hefty in size, and when I served them to friends, we halved them. The incredible sweetness of the syrup also mitigates against eating a whole one, I reckon.

Finally, lacking savarin moulds, and unable to find any of the required size anyway, I used a mini bundt tin, greasing it and dusting carefully with caster sugar, and despite the warnings that these delicate cakes may stick, they turned out beautifully. It gave the cakes an attractive whirled pattern, too. In Dutch bundt tins are referred to as ‘turban shaped’ because the swirls of the cake tin recall the swirls of a wrapped turban.

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You can see the generous amount of syrup pooling at the base as it soaks in

All in all, this recipe was straightforward enough to put together and makes a manageable number of sweet, sticky, buttery treats which can’t easily be found in high street – or even fancy – bakeries in the UK.

Continue reading “Baking challenge: sticky, syrupy, sweet – rum baba”

What’s in the fridge? – Juliet, London

You can read Part One (my fridge) of this series here and Part Two – my friend Emma in Tbilisi’s fridge – here.

13442503_10153550800491759_787005479245608244_oMy friend Juliet and I met – as you might predict – at university, where she rapidly gained a reputation as a pretty extraordinary baker. Back then the mighty cupcake loomed large in her repertoire, but she had conquered the macaron well before we donned the graduation cap. She is still an admirable baker – she kindly shared her recipe for matcha choux puffs – but her skills go well beyond the kitchen. Juliet has upholstered chairs, knitted cup warmers, handmade a skirt, built a picnic bench and passed the GDL. She’s a solicitor in London and while her days might be spent in the office her nights are definitely spent in pursuit of fabulous food and travel – as can be seen on her Instagram. Despite leading a very busy life, she has an admirably impeccable kitchen.

Who do you cook for?

Mostly myself, but I love having friends over and cooking for them too.

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

If I’m cooking for someone else, even if it’s just one other person, I like to really think about what I’m making. I want it to be special and something they’ll enjoy eating. If I’m on my own, I’ll happily cobble things together from what I have.

Where do you buy your groceries?

I’m a Sainsbury’s girl through and through! I grew up shopping at Sainsbury’s and even now that it’s not my nearest supermarket, I go out of my way just to shop there.

Tell us a little bit about your kitchen. Is it minimal or cluttered?

My entire life is minimalist. I find clutter too stressful, so I try and keep things organised. That’s not to say that my cupboards aren’t packed with crockery, utensils, Tupperware and dry goods, but everything has its place. Generally, I try to keep the worktops clear, save for a few appliances.

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“My entire life is minimalist.” She’s not joking…

What’s in your fridge?

I had a dinner party at the weekend, so I’m working my way through all the leftovers. In addition to my staples, I’ve still got some tomato sauce left. I managed to get through the chorizo, escabeche and chocolate cake the other day though…

What are the three most useful ingredients in your kitchen (and why)?

This is a really tough one! Flour, butter and eggs. I always have these on hand. They’re so versatile! If I have a craving to do some baking I can usually cobble something together with other ingredients I keep stashed away. Eggs are probably the hero ingredient though. Even if I’m not baking I can always do something with eggs, whether it’s frying, scrambling or poaching them, just to add a little extra protein to a meal.

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What three foods are always in your fridge?

Soy milk, jam and apples. It sounds like an eclectic mix.

Soy milk – I honestly prefer the taste of soy milk to regular milk. I buy the pasteurised stuff so that I can just keep two or three cartons in the fridge at a time.

Jam – I have lots of half empty jars of jam. I’m not sure why, but I just can’t seem to get through them.

Apples – I probably eat an apple a day, because y’know, it keeps the doctor away.

Is anything currently missing from your fridge?

Not really. Apart from a few staples, I try to buy food as I need it. My biggest fear is having to throw food away because it’s spoiled.

What treats do you keep in your fridge (or cupboards)?

I really try not to have treats in the fridge/cupboard at home. I like to eat healthily, so I try to remove the temptation to eat sugar laden treats.

What foods were always in the house when you were growing up?

My house growing up was the complete opposite. We had (and still do) an entire drawer full of cakes, biscuits and pastries. My mum is continuously panicking that supplies are running low.

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

I love my K-mix equipment! I have a kit that has a stick blender, soup blender, electric whisk and a blender. That’s really handy and will pretty much sort me out for anything I want to make. I also recently acquired a K-mix stand mixer, which has been brilliant. It’s the only way to safely make Italian meringue. The last tool I couldn’t live without is a sharp knife. Everyone should have at least one.

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

If you had to make yourself a meal with the food in your fridge (and pantry) right now, without going to the shops, what would you make? So many options! I’ve got some gorgeous slow roasted tomato sauce leftover from the weekend. I could toss that together with some pasta. Alternatively, I have some salmon fillets and sweet potato fries in the freezer. I’m sure I could turn that into a delicious dinner.

When there really is nothing in your fridge, where do you go out to eat?

Living in London, I’m spoilt for choice. Near me I have a choice of chain restaurants in Canary Wharf (Wahaca is a favourite of mine). If I’m craving something that feels home cooked though, I would go to The Eagle in Clerkenwell. It’s not really near me any more, but I still spend a lot of time in that neighbourhood. It’s a great place to grab a casual, inexpensive, freshly prepared dinner.

The Little Taperia, Tooting

I’m not very good at weekends. Whereas magazines and newspaper lifestyle pages will refer to ‘lazy mornings’ spent in bed with a broadsheet, followed by brunch; and late meandering lunches; and evening suppers eaten at the kitchen island, legs dangling from bar stools, spoons dangling sleepily from fingers, I am usually in a state of nail-biting anxiety from the moment I close the office door on Friday evening. The anxious mental refrain is always about how I will manage to fit everything in to the measly 48 hours of rest to come: errands, the gym, meal planning, dishes, ironing…Perhaps one day I’ll have the dishwasher, clothing dryer and, I suspect, cleaner required to make those double-page spread Sundays a reality.

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Octopus, grilled, with many, many, many capers

Sometimes, though, I do manage to get things right. A few weeks ago, on a day that was blazingly hot, my boyfriend suggested we have lunch out. We may live in deepest darkest south-west London, but these days we’re pretty spoilt for choice in our area, with Wahaca, Franco Manca, Five Guys, Chicken Shop and Honest Burgers, not to mention London’s best south Asian restaurant (apparently Tooting is being called ‘the new Shoreditch’) mere bus rides away. But what caught my eye was a relatively newer restaurant, The Little Taperia. Since we ended up having lunch monumentally late, it felt appropriate to have Spanish food in honour of this and the heat.

The Little Taperia is, as the name suggests, tiny indeed: in fact the space it’s in was once a pet shop. If you’ve frequented Euston’s Honey and Co, you’ll have an idea of the scale. Still, we managed to find a seat, doubtless on account of the late lunching hour.

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I will always eat a croqueta

David and I shared a lunch of tapas: of course I ordered the ham croquetas, the Spanish dish I most adore, and garlic prawns, and patatas bravas with allioli – very classic. Finally, a beetroot, spinach and goat’s cheese salad – a slightly odd choice, more British than Spanish – and grilled octopus. When the waiter took our order he recommended a sixth dish; caught out, we dithered and ended up ordering his recommendation of pan con tomate.

 

I was a bit regretful at having panicked – after all, pan con tomate is just tomatoes on toast, easy to recreate at home, whereas I usually like to pick things to eat at restaurants I wouldn’t bother to make at home, because they’re too specialist or fiddly or time-consuming.

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Chives were everywhere. They look nice against the grated tomato.

Yet what arrived outstripped my expectations and was definitely worth ordering: a smear of sweet tomato pulp over bread that was both crusty and yet tender, lightly charred at the edges; a sprinkle of chives; and a generous drizzle of some exceptional olive oil, silky in texture but with a sharp green bite. It was a lovely example, and reminder, of the wonderfulness of simplicity when perfectly rendered.

 

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Pickled chillies and chives to garnish…?

The prawns in garlic and chilli were a little more astringent with vinegar than I would have expected – it was served with those jarred, sliced pickled chilli is rather than fresh – but still vibrant, the acid providing bite against the sweet and slightly smokey prawn flesh. There were only two prawns as part of this tapa, though, so you’ll have to order multiple if you’re dining as a group. It wasn’t my ideal version of this dish because of the pickled chillies.

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The patatas bravas with allioli were what you’d expect: crisp-edged potatoes, fatty garlic mayonnaise. It could have had more garlic, but then I do love a powerful punch of garlic flavour rather than a delicate hint. As a dish, patatas bravas is the most unchallenging Spanish food I can think of and rarely anything but delicious and moreish, even the versions which are comfortably middle of the road. You wouldn’t really want something innovative and groundbreaking even if it were offered, frankly.

245It’s much the same with respect to the ham croquetas: classically rendered, evenly crumbed morsels of ham-studded bechamel, they were crisp on the outside, and salty and rich within. I really do love them and very much want to make Miriam Gonzalez Durante’s recipe soon.

The two dishes I liked less were the beetroot and spinach salad and the grilled octopus (picture at the top of the post). I found the salad a bit bland, although I did enjoy the goat’s cheese, which had been beaten into a mousse – where I could find it. On the whole it was a bit same year and even a touch watery. The octopus was a bit too charred, harsh and, again, astringent for my taste, with perhaps too many capers. My boyfriend enjoyed it, though – chacun à son goût and all that!

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All in all, despite these blips, I was really pleased by this casual restaurant, which served up some very enjoyable food. Yes, the dishes are largely predictable, but that is part of the charm. And it’s even nicer to have something in the neighbourhood for when I’m able to embrace a relaxed weekend.

Cookbook Review: ‘Greedy Girl’s Diet’, by Nadia Sawalha

Maintaining a calorie deficit is no joke. Between July 2015 and June 2016 I was consuming no more than between 1200-1400 calories a day while attempting to shed (what became) 24kg of weight. There were, obviously, exceptions to this rule – though surprisingly, I didn’t surpass my calorie allowance on my birthday or Christmas – but the majority of my days were in significant deficit, all faithfully tracked on MyFitnessPal.

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There are people who will disagree, but eating this way is actually quite exhausting. It makes work of what should be instinctive, turns meals into maths, and I found it very difficult to cook from my extensive cookbook collection simply because the calorie counts weren’t there, and sometimes it was too tiring and daunting to run it through MyFitnessPal’s recipe calculator only to discover it was well beyond my daily limit: the after-work conundrum of what to cook was magnified. On the other hand, I did need to eat with a very prescribed calorie limit in order to lose the weight I wanted to lose. This problem led to me buying up a lot of healthy-eating orientated cookbooks, the kind which are actually aimed at dieters and so will print the nutritional values on the recipe pages as a matter of course. (It also led me to multiple clean eating cookbooks. Enough said on that phase). While in this phase, desperately seeking inspiration, I found ‘Greedy Girl’s Diet’ in a charity shop and, after a bit of anxious leafing, was drawn in by the promise of quick meals where the hard work of calorie counting had been done for me.

img_0005I’d heard of Nadia Sawalha, the author of the book, but mostly know her as a winner of Celebrity Masterchef, and didn’t realise she was an actress (having acted in EastEnders, that perennial soap classic) and broadcaster prior to this. Notwithstanding popular cliches to the contrary, the cover of the book (see above), and it’s title and subtitle, really do say everything about what it will offer: a slim, happy Sawalha beaming, dressed in a (reasonably slinky) Little Black Dress, propped on the kitchen counter, whisking up what looks to be cupcakes, and the promise that you can ‘eat yourself slim with gorgeous, guilt-free food’. So this book is really, definitely, absolutely, unequivocally, aimed at women, then.

The introduction confirms it – in ‘My Secret’ Sawalha covers her dieting history, basically a potted history of “starving, bingeing, starving, bingeing and then starving and bingeing all over again, to no avail” and following every touted ‘miracle solution’ to the problem of an imperfect body, which, she verifies, have not worked for her. My own weight loss history is different – I have gained significant amounts of weight twice in my life as follows: I enter a stressful period of my life, eat to comfort myself, and then one day wake up loathing myself. I couldn’t entirely relate, but I think aspects of this story will resonate for most women. It was only when Sawalha realised she should be nourishing, not punishing, her body, that her approach to eating began to change. She also writes in a separate section about her relationship with exercise, characterised by dread, laziness and fear, and how she realised that, in order to start exercising, she would have to…start exercising. When I was very overweight, walking into the gym full of toned, ab-flashing women who were so expert on the machines made me tense and trembley, so yes, I could relate to this!

Moving on from the confessional, sisterly tone – you will like it or not, but you don’t have to read it either way – and on to the recipes, there are three sections: Come on, Break that Fast, which covers both quick weekday breakfasts and recipes more suited to weekends; Let’s Do Lunch, meals I characterise as slightly lighter and quicker, and Delicious Dinner.

Personally I found timg_0008he breakfast section the least inspiring. There are some nice recipe in there – I liked the berry pancakes, wide-awake seed bars and buckwheat pancakes – but most of them were not to my taste (scrambled egg and smoked trout, egg and bacon tomato pots) or weren’t really recipes, but more ideas (avocado toast, boiled eggs and soldiers, almond butter crumpets – literally just toasted crumpets and almond butter, but the recipe takes up a full page!). However, when it comes to breakfast I am one of those people who is very tied to a routine of eating the same things on a daily basis, punctuated by the occasional weekend variation, so for me, personally, this wasn’t so much of an issue. If you’re struggling to break out of a cereal and toast rut, however, other books may be better.

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So delicious – and I think it looks so appetising, too

Things did look up when it came to lunch. There’s a decent range of soups, which is important to me in almost any book, not just diet ones, because soup is what I typically take to work with me on a daily basis. Some of the recipes worked very well and were flavourful and filling, as advertised; the leek and potato soup, however, was miserably thin and could only really serve four if the four you were serving are very young children with tiny appetites (in fact its watery texture and pallid colour made me think of gruel, the Victorian invalid/workhouse staple). It didn’t fuel me at all and reminded me of ‘traditional’ diet food (the kind that sends you straight to the biscuit tin). However, the hearty Italian soup and the Marvellous minestrone (superlatives are common throughout the book) were brightly flavoured and kept me going for hours, so I can forgive the vichyssoise blip. Other lunch ideas were more suitable for someone who is lucky enough to work from home, such as the Lamb and Hummus pitta (I cooked it on a weekend), but, that being said, it was one of those punchy, filling dishes so full of flavour and texture that it truly belied the idea of diet food. It uses only 100g lean lamb for a recipe serving four but it was truly enough.

 

img_0015As with the breakfast recipes, the salad recipes were not really up my street, although the two I did try- chicken and avocado and beetroot and potato – were good enough. My boyfriend particularly raved about the chicken and avocado salad, which contains bacon (I do not really like chicken but I did like the dressing and avocado). The nice thing about this diet book is that you’re totally allowed to be eating bacon, chorizo, potatoes and cream – just used very moderately.

Most of the lunch recipes can be pulled together fairly snappily; the more time-consuming ones are appropriately under the heading of ‘Family Sunday Lunch’, albeit a small family; the recipes largely serve four. Most of them, again, were solid and definitely suitable for sharing, although the vegetarian comfort pie, a dish of stewed celery topped with mashed potatoes without butter, did not tempt me. It sounded a surprisingly austere and traditional note of deprivation and seemed quite old-fashioned amidst the pork meatballs and za’atar chicken and chicken tagine, so appetising and very delicious.

img_0017The Delicious Dinner chapter similarly includes different themes, including of course family-orientated recipes (serving four), such as Sinless Spaghetti Bolognaise (the twist is the use of turkey mince and addition of mushrooms) and Creamy Chicken Curry in a Hurry, a somewhat old-fashioned and unchallenging curry recipe which Sawalha admits is not one she would serve to guests. Based on korma paste, I imagine it’s a dish even the pickiest of children would eat. There’s also a chicken shawarma recipe which surprised me with its inclusion of gum mastic in the ingredients: despite the rise and rise of Middle Eastern food in the UK, this is still not something you can buy in standard supermarkets. Slightly fancier recipes are included in the ‘Dinner Party Goddess’ sub-section, including my stand-out dish of the book, the Prawn and Chorizo Rice Pot, which stretches 70g of chorizo among four diners in a way which will leave everyone satisfied. This dish is quick, it is utterly delicious, it combines my favourite things of prawn and chorizo and it clocks in at 367 calories per serving: I have made it many times and my boyfriend loves it, too. Finally, there’s a sub-section on ‘Dinner for Two’, which is always helpful for me given that typically I am serving just two. This section included such pleasing dinners as Coconut, Prawn and Mangetout Curry (Sawalha’s healthier remake of a takeaway dish, apparently!) and Lemony Risotto. The portions were generous and satisfying – in fact, the Tandoori Chicken recipe resulted in more chicken than I could eat, though this might speak more to my slightly reluctant relationship with chicken than anything else.

On the whole this is a very ‘accessible’ cookbook, by which I mean virtually every ingredient, with maybe two exceptions throughout the entire book, could be bought in a bog-standard supermarket; many of the ingredients could be ‘sourced’ from a corner shop or petrol station outlet if that’s all you had. However, sometimes this impulse to make things approachable rather than authentic does go too far, as when Sawalha calls for tinned crabmeat for her chilli, crab and lemon spaghetti. In fairness she does suggest using fresh rather than tinned in the head note, and do follow her advice: the tinned variety was an absolute abomination. It tasted like the smell of cat food. I am really not ‘above’ tinned fish – I am rather fond of tinned salmon, especially eaten with cut up fresh tomatoes and chips, as served in my grandparents’ home – but tinned crab just does not taste very nice. It would have served the book better if Sawalha had just acknowledged that this recipe should be made with a fresh, slightly more expensive shellfish.

img_0014My main quibble with a number of the recipes is that, for all that this is a diet book, Sawalha actually uses much more oil than would actually be needed – I’ve cut the oil asked for by as much as a third in her recipes and did not feel that they suffered. I was also not hugely delighted by the reliance on artificial ‘light’ products (such as light butter, light cream) in some recipes, but this was admittedly limited and understandable, given the publication’s raison d’etre.

Is this a must-have cookbook? I’m not so sure. Has it produced a series of solid meals, some of them outright delicious, which enabled me to stick to a restricted calorie plan without feeling deprived? Yes, most definitely. All diets require some element of balancing out, and this cookbook would help with that even if you’re not quite calorie counting on a regular basis. The recipes are accessible and the ingredients easy to get hold of. It is not a groundbreaking tome, but it is, barring exceptions, a reliable source for weeknight dinners, some of them very delicous and some reasonably unremarkable but good enough to eat. Whether that’s enough to give it a place on your bookshelf depends entirely on your priorities.

A full round-up of every recipe I cooked from the book will be posted soon.

What’s in the fridge? – Emma, Tbilisi

My lovely friend Emma and I met at university when we stayed in the same hall of residence and rapidly bonded over a shared interest in food (combining Oreos, peanut butter and bananas; dyeing water green; and baking and eating Presidential cookies all featured) and TV (Veronica Mars especially). (There was more to it than that, but you get the idea). Emma is originally from the US but now lives in Tbilisi, Georgia, and writes the fabulously informative blog Cookies and the Caucasus, which is a must-read if you are planning a trip to Georgia (her post on how to have the iconic Georgian dinner out is an excellent start). She kindly agreed to open her fridge door for this series (first post here).

img_0605Who do you cook for?

I cook for myself, and about half the time my boyfriend eats with me. I like cooking for others, too, but I usually do that at friends’ houses, because my flat is small (the kitchen is good-sized, but it takes up half the flat).

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

I try to cook one big dish on the weekend that will keep throughout the week for lunches to bring to work and quick dinners, so that tends to be a stew/curry or a salad. I often wind up working around one ingredient, either something Georgian that I don’t know and want to explore, or something non-Georgian that I’m so excited to see that I snap it up first and figure out what to do with it later. I don’t like touching raw meat, so I don’t cook a lot of meat. Sometimes I’ll buy a rotisserie chicken, or raw meat pre-cut into the necessary shape so I can just throw it into the pan.

Where do you buy your groceries?

Mostly at the grocery store across the street from my house (it’s called Universami) and at the grocery store across the street from my friend’s house (Furshet). I also stop at the fruit and vegetable stand on my way home if I’ll be cooking, or if I have time to wash and cut something for the next few days. I make it to the Carrefour Hypermarket about once a month, where I can get more specialty ingredients.

img_0966Tell us a little bit about your kitchen. Is it minimal or cluttered?

I rented the place furnished, so I can’t take any credit for the kitchen. It’s recently renovated, so the cupboards are quite nice. Sadly, though, the oven doesn’t work, only 3/4 of the burners on the cooker turn on, and I was in the flat for 2 and a half months before I got a fridge…so you could say it’s minimal.

What’s in your fridge?

I just got back from my post-paycheck grocery shopping spree, so my fridge is quite full right now. I’ve got a lot of condiments–I like to keep both the Georgian and American basics around, and I also like to make curries and stir fries, so I have the basics for those, too. Summer produce season is in full swing–you can see mulberries, blueberries, lettuce, and ekala (it’s, like, a twig…the scientific name is Smilax excelsa) [Ed: sarsparilla is part of the same family]. I’ve also got herbs and a big head of broccoli in the veg drawer, in addition to the stuff not in the fridge.

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What are the three most useful ingredients in your kitchen (and why)?

img_0957Garlic, olive oil….I can’t think of a third that’s at the same level. I’ll eat pretty much anything with garlic and olive oil on it. I suppose salt is necessary for the garlic and olive oil to do their magic, so that’ll be number 3.

What three foods are always in your fridge?

Some sort of fermented dairy product (usually matsoni – Georgian yoghurt – but often kefir or ayran – Turkish thin buttermilk), eggs, hot sauce.

Is anything currently missing from your fridge?

Like I said before, it’s fuller than usual as I just got back from shopping. I realized when I got home that I had forgotten to put parmesan on my list, so that’s missing. Usually all those ingredients would be turned into dishes, and there would be stacks of containers in the fridge. That’s the plan for this evening.

What treats do you keep in your fridge (or cupboards)?

I don’t really keep treats around…I make myself walk to the store if I have a craving. I always have tea, which is comforting, so I guess it can fill the “treat” slot.

What foods were always in the house when you were growing up?
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Fruit, lots of varieties of cheese, tortillas

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

I only have three gadgets: an immersion blender, a WonderBag, and a julienne peeler. They’re all fairly new to me, and have really expanded my repertoire!

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

I’m going to make some pkhali (Georgian vegetable puree) this evening, so I’ve got the ingredients for that. The obvious dinner is to cook up those ravioli, and I’m sure I’ve got pesto in the fridge somewhere. I’ve also got lovely tomatoes. But more in line with the spirit of the question, I’d make an herb omelette, as I have lots of herbs lingering in my vegetable drawer, and I always have eggs. The cheese I have, smoked sulguni, wouldn’t be my first choice for an omelette, but in a pinch I think it would be fine.

When there really is nothing in your fridge, where do you go out to eat?

Khachapuri, preferably adjaruli, but whatever’s hot at the local bakery will suffice. If I’m too lazy to cook, I’m usually also too lazy to go anywhere, but I want to give a shout-out to our embattled Kiwi Cafe. Often when I go there to meet friends, I’ll get a dish or two takeaway to preempt running out of food in the fridge, because they cook the kind of things I like to cook, it just saves me some effort.

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).

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?

Continue reading “Lingering Sunday breakfasts: blackberry and cream cheese French toast”

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.

 

Continue reading “Itsu-inspired salmon and edamame rice bowl and matcha choux puffs”

Baking challenge: 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 “Baking challenge: upside down world – chocolate and walnut banana upside-down cake”

London Bites: late-night desserts at Gelupo and Cutter and Squidge

Some time ago my friend Ariadne and I had one of the most middle class nights on the lash you can imagine, by which I mean we drank cocktails in Soho until I reeled and then, instead of piling into a greasy, garishly coloured meat palace for a late night kebab, we stumbled (literally in my case) into Cutter and Squidge on Brewer Street for some sweet pick-me-ups.

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I had heard of Cutter and Squidge before, and knew their bakery USP is their ‘biskies’, which they describe as a ‘unique, handmade sandwiched dessert’ and I call a sandwich cookie. So was I keen to try one. My lovely, much-less-drunk-than-I friend (I had in fairness drunk up most of her Negroni when she took a sip and said “It’s really bitter.” “Yeah…it’s a Negroni, dude,” I slurred, halfway through my Breakfast Sour already, to which she responded, “Umm…I thought that meant a sweet cocktail.”) and I dithered for a while in front of the display of ‘biskies’ before deciding that the Salted Caramel S’more was the only way to go. We also knew that we had to order a slice of cake to share as well because RULES, so we moved on from dithering over biskies to dithering over cake. We were clearly onto a kind of theme because we chose a wodge of the Peanut Caramel Pretzel cake, agreeing that to the marriage of salty and sweet we must admit no impediment. Note: the portions of cake are generous.

We parked ourselves in the corner of the bakery and proceeded to rip open the packaging to try our (almost) midnight treats. Sadly, we were both underwhelmed by both the bisky and the cake, which was a shame. I have read so much praise for this bakery, and the story behind it is sweet (it’s founded by two sisters) that I’d expected to absolutely love it.

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Bisky business

The bisky was all right: the base (and top) is a slightly soft-textured cookie, which the bakery refers to as a ‘cookie-cake’ hybrid but reminds me of slightly spongey whoopie pie shells (despite their protests to the contrary on their website!), or cakey snickerdoodles. It was dabbed within with salted caramel buttercream, which was really light-textured, which is Cutter and Squidge’s signature approach to buttercream. As so many buttercreams are, to my taste, overly cloying and heavy, sometimes even (gasp!) grainy, I did appreciate this. The gelatine-free salted caramel marshmallow had a hint of brown sugar and a floral depth that testified to good-quality ingredients; the texture was denser and stickier than the jet-puffed supermarket versions. There was also a slathering of salted caramel sauce topping off the fillings. But overall, I confess, it was not particularly distinguished. I am a pretty experienced caramel-maker and I bring my caramel so close to the brink of being burnt that it takes on a powerful, smokey complexity, a bitterness than belies the mass of sugar used to create it. Very few commercially-made recipes containing caramel will do this – I am very aware that my personal preference for caramel might be too dark for many – and consequently I always find them very sweet, unchallenging, and undistinguished. Overwhelmingly the impression was of a uniform sweetness applied over a variety of textures, and the promised ‘salt’ part of the caramel didn’t particularly materialise for me. Because the bisky was billed as a S’more, I would have expected, also, a toasted element, which was lacking.

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The Peanut, Caramel and Pretzel cake suffered similarly from sweetness and surprising blandness. The texture of the cake was lovely – soft, fluffy – and the buttercream texture was, as before, light and entirely suited to my taste. But the peanut butter buttercream tasted on the whole sweet and slightly bland, carrying too little peanut flavour, and the most memorable part of the whole thing was the commercial pretzels on the side. Kind of a shame, and I was surprised to come to this conclusion. The cake is damn beautiful to look at, though. Apparently the mission of Cutter and Squidge’s founders is to make cake cool, and visually their baked goods are entirely enticing.

But Cutter and Squidge is not the only place we have frequented in search of a late night sugar rush. We have also visited Gelupo, the gelato-focused offshoot of Jacob Kenedy’s regional Italian restaurant, Bocca di Lupo. The only thing I have ever eaten at Bocca di Lupo is a sweetened coffee dessert in 2012, which was delicious and memorable all these years later; Gelupo has been on my list for pretty much as long. I had a ricotta, coffee and honey gelato, and Ariadne had a flavour referred to, elusively, as Crema 101.

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Ricotta, coffee and honey, and the elusive Crema 101

I expected my gelato to be slightly sweeter and creamier than a standard, straight-up coffee gelato, and indeed it was. I couldn’t particularly pick out the ricotta and honey flavours, exactly, despite the recipe apparently using the powerhouse that is chestnut honey (the ‘castagno‘ sold by From Field and Flower at Borough Market is markedly, distinctively bitter and smokey – just the way I cook my caramel, in fact!). The gelato overall was mellow and milky; a comforting flat white rather than a bitter and punchy espresso. The texture was soft and delicate, which complemented the flavours. Overall, there was nothing wrong with this gelato, but it wasn’t to my personal preference, which, I discovered with each bite, is for a very singular, robust and pure flavour carried through the medium of cream or milk. The coffee flavour was too diluted for me, and I prefer the ever-so-slightly firmer set of gelato I’ve eaten in Corsica and Croatia (I have been to Italy. I just didn’t eat gelato there). In actual fact, my very favourite iced dessert texture is the slightly chewiness of Turkish ice cream, which contains gum mastic, making it stretchy. It’s very unusual and recommended, if you can find it.

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The ‘Crema 101’ was a very pure, creamy flavour, like a sweetened, cold, rich milk. There was something simultaneously nostalgic about it – recalling a memory of drinking unhomogenised gold-top milk straight from the fridge in Belgium (God knows where my mother found it) –  and yet it also being very plain and, if I’m honest, a little dull. It’s the kind of thing that might come to life set against, say, a syrupy slick of ripe red strawberries diced and macerated with a teaspoon of sugar and a drop of balsamic vinegar, but on its own fails to sing.