Saturday, 14 January 2017

Pear and blue cheese crostini

There isn't a lot that I can recommend about Paul being away. I like having him around. Urchin likes having him around. But one food thing I really quite like and he really doesn't is fruit in savoury stuff. I have been taking advantage of his absence to indulge.

This was my lunch today - toast rubbed with garlic, smeared with a soft blue cheese, then topped with pears poached in red wine, caramelised walnuts and balsamic pearls. And very nice it was too.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Fig, bresaola and burrata

Paul's in South Africa for a couple of weeks spending time with his mother and brother while I hold the fort here. And the fort needs quite a lot of holding - Miss Urchin is not at all amused by his abandonment and for the two days he's been gone she's been extremely demanding and not very interested in letting me sleep.

I remembered that the last time he was away for a while she was similarly demanding, and didn't understand why I felt the need to cook when I got home from work, rather than dedicating my time to entertaining her. So mostly while Paul's away I am planning to eat very fast, low effort meals.

This was pretty fast and low effort, but still really rich and indulgent for a Sunday lunch. If you find burrata too rich for words, a fresh buffalo mozzarella or even a creamy young goats cheese would also be nice.

Fig, bresaola and burrata (serves 1 as a main course)

50g hazelnuts, blanched
1 small bunch basil
1 small garlic clove
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbs olive oil
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
4 slices bresaola (or proscuitto or serrano ham)
4 figs
1 x 100g burrata
extra balsamic

Roast the hazelnuts in a 160C oven until nicely browned and tip the hot nuts into a mini processor.

Turn up the heat to 180, halve the figs and put them on a baking sheet and roast for 15-20 minutes.

Add the basil, garlic, mustard, olive oil and balsamic to the mini processor and pulse to a rubble.

Arrange the bresaola and burrata on a plate, tip the hazelnut rubble onto the plate and add the hot figs. Drizzle with a little extra balsamic. A glass of fino sherry would be particularly nice with this, but I didn't happen to have one.


Sunday, 11 December 2016

Peanut butter chocolate birthday cake

I hadn't been asked to make a birthday cake for my young friend The Hurricane since 2012. I had assumed that her growing sophistication meant she was well and truly too grown up for my extremely rudimentary decorating skills.

However, this year she asked if I would. Of course I said yes. We brainstormed over drinks (prosecco for me, water for her). Chocolate was a given. I offered ideas for additional flavourings and she scorned all thoughts of raspberries or apricots but decided that peanut butter and caramel would be good.

Peanut butter buttercream swirled with caramel
It was always going to be the Be-Ro Milk Chocolate Cake. It's obedient, reliable, sturdy enough to slice and decorate and not overwhelmingly chocolatey. The Hurricane may be an unbearably grownup a-couple-of-days-from 12 year old, but she still doesn't like too much intense chocolate.

The rest was assembly really. The layers were sandwiched with Perfect Peanut Buttercream (astonishingly good. I used a smooth, organic peanut butter with salt but no added sugar), swirled through with some Carnation Caramel, then covered with more of the buttercream. I'd thought about putting some chopped peanut brittle in with the layers, but I thought The Hurricane's parents and orthodontist wouldn't thank me at all if I buggered her braces two weeks before Christmas.

Chocolate mirror glaze
Then I topped it with John Whaite's chocolate mirror glaze. I got the consistency a bit wrong with this one - I cooled it so it wouldn't melt off the butter cream but then it was too thick to flow easily. I liked the result of the dribbles showing the underlying buttercream though, so let's call it deliberate. It does have a gorgeously shiny finish though, and a rich chocolate flavour.

The final decoration was a bunch of gold sugar stars, white and dark chocolate stars printed with gold stars, and gold star sprinkles. Simple, but effective. When I delivered it, she was pretty darn pleased. I did have to issue a warning that the glaze would show if she attempted to eat any of the chocolate stars off it.

I asked them to send me a picture of the cross section - the lairs (as Mary Berry says) have held their definition very well. And they ate an impressive amount!

Monday, 14 November 2016

Peach pecan upside down cake

"BUT HOW", I hear my regular readers shriek, "BUT HOW DARE SHE MAKE A PEACH CAKE IN NOVEMBER!?!?"

Well yes. At first glance you would think that I have abandoned my seasonal principles. HOWEVER, this cake was made with lovely fresh peaches that I peeled, quartered and froze in summer, when they were sublime. For the last couple of months they have been staring at me every time I opened the freezer drawer, daring me to do something with them and I finally decided what. A nutty sponge cake, given extra lightness and lift with buttermilk, baked on top of the thawed peaches.

I intended to pour a layer of buttery caramel over the bottom of the tins before putting the peaches on, but when I thawed the peaches I was left with about 150ml of the most superbly clear, intense peach essence, so I boiled it with sugar and was left with a lovely peach jelly, which really boosted the peachiness of the flavour. You can go the caramel route, or use peach jam.

Peach & pecan upside down cake (makes 2 x 20cm cakes but very easily halveable if you don't want two)

150g butter 
250g golden caster sugar
2 large eggs
250g wholemeal self raising flour
¼ tsp baking powder 
pinch of salt 
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 tsp vanilla extract 
150ml-ish buttermilk 
100g pecan nuts, chunkily chopped
100g sugar, extra & 25g butter, extra OR 100g good quality peach jam
4 peaches, peeled and cut into quarters

Bourbon or Southern Comfort to serve - optional


Preheat oven to 160C. Line 2 20cm sandwich tins with tin liners (it's oozy - you really do need to use either an old-school solid tin and grease it really well or use tin liners if you only have springform or loose-based tins)

Line the base of the tins with peach jam or caramel (made with the 100g sugar, a splash of water and the butter). Arrange the quartered peaches on top of it.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add the eggs, one at a time. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Fold the dry ingredients into the creamed mixture in two batches, alternating with the buttermilk. It may need a little more buttermilk - you don't want a stiff batter, but you don't want it runny, either. Fold in the vanilla and pecan nuts.

Divide the batter between the two tins and bake for 50 minutes- 1 hr or until well risen and browned. The skewer test might give a false reading because of the gooey bottom.

Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes before turning out. Serve warm as a dessert (flamed with bourbon and served with brown butter pecan ice cream is particularly fab), or cool completely to serve with tea.

It'll keep for 2-3 days in the fridge, and even once it's started to get a bit stale, a zap in the microwave with a splash of bourbon or Southern Comfort on it will perk it right up. Which is what my colleague and I did at work last Wednesday when we were in utter despair over the US election results.


Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Happy Halloween!

2016 cat pumpkin
 Yes, Halloween was last night. For the first time we actually laid in a supply of fun size Mars Bars in case of trick-or-treaters... only to have Paul panic in the face of human interaction and tell the only ones who knocked that we didn't have anything.

We also had a suitably autumnal dinner of pheasant cooked with cider and apples. It was very tasty, a Diana Henry recipe, but it looked extremely unappetising (I skinned the pheasant so that was all pale and the apples fell apart so it was a very gloopy beige plate). So instead, I present you with our dinner from Saturday night. Really simple venison nachos. Also nicely seasonal, and I think it'd make good party food, although we just had the plate between us on the sofa while we caught up on Graham Norton on iplayer.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Fig and frangipane tart and a long weekend in Paris

Last weekend, we went to Paris. This is a Big Deal. I know people in the UK are supposed to be completely blasé about jaunts to the continent, but a combination of the global economic crisis, Paul not having a sensible (or valid) passport and not having a reliable cat sitter has meant that we hadn't been away together in seven years. Seven. Years.
Fête des Vendanges Montmartre - pic by Paul Fourie
But we've found a cat sitter who Urchin seemed to accept and we both now have EU passports, so it seemed like a good idea to take advantage of open borders while we still can. Found a pretty good deal on lastminute.com and prepared ourselves in our own ways. Paul's way is to charge batteries and organise electronics, mine is to read blogs for restaurant recommendations and worry about what to wear.
Fête des Vendanges Montmartre - pic by Paul Fourie
We decided to book restaurants for the three nights we were away, and just wing other meals. And chose restaurants fairly close to where we were staying, for ease of staggering home afterwards. Unfortunately, choosing from restaurants that have a good website, online booking and an English translation does rather mean you end up in pretty touristy places. But that's OK - we were tourists, we don't speak French and we quite liked the idea of eating onion soup at every meal as long as the hotel room had openable windows.

Fête des Vendanges Montmartre - pic by Paul Fourie
Unfortunately our dinner reservation on the first night hit a serious snag. We wandered (OK, puffed and wheezed) towards Sacré-Cœur, and found ourselves in the middle of a food festival, part of the Fête des Vendanges Montmartre. We should have popped in to La Mere Catherine and cancelled our reservation and just eaten ourselves senseless, but instead we restricted ourselves to a modest cornet of charcuterie and a couple of glasses of wine so as not to spoil our dinner.
Fête des Vendanges Montmartre - pic by Paul Fourie
Part of the attraction of La Mere Catherine, as well as the old-school brasserie menu, was the age. Established 1793. There can't be many restaurants in the world with that kind of history - Rules in London is almost as old, but that's going back to the very beginning of what we think of as restaurants. I had a good goats cheese salad, a rubbery steak with excellent potatoes, tried to explain steak haché to an over-tired American tween who was deeply sceptical (although she did try her mother's snails) and a potent rum baba. It was entirely expected and fine for what it was. But my heart was 2 streets over eating foie gras inna bun, wooden boxes of grilled cheese and long glasses of Planteur.
Goats cheese salad
We wandered back through the festival after dinner for a glass of Monbazillac and for Paul to take more photos before calling it a night.

Next morning we had quite a late start. And then we walked. And walked and walked. Had a restorative croque madame and a couple of cups of coffee and walked some more. I've decided that I don't really love a croque madame. As much as a fried ham & cheese sandwich, topped with bechamel and a fried egg sounds like it should be bliss it's all oddly subtle for my taste. It'd be better with sharp cheddar, a good spoonful of mustard and a splash of Worcestershire sauce. If it was, in fact, Welsh rarebit.
Croque madame - that egg is undercooked even for my taste
After loads more walking and a couple of stops for fortifying glasses of Kir we went back to the hotel room to change for dinner. The restaurant, Sacrée Fleur, was only a 5 minute walk away but they'd sort of put the fear of God in me with repeated warnings that they only hold bookings for 15 minutes. We were on time... and given that during our meal we saw several people turned away I can definitely see why they enforce the policy. It's a tiny space and I can imagine that a single table not showing could kill their profits for the whole day. The staff were utterly charming (that reputation for rude French waiters? Everyone we encountered, bar a waitress in the Café des Marronniers, was delightful and incredibly patient with us) and the food was excellent - really simple but very good beef, with nice chunky chips and a selection of sauces. And the best bread we had in Paris, with a properly good crackly crust. Then Paul had tarte tatin and I had a crepe flambeed in Grand Marnier which was lovely. We went back up to Sacré-Cœur but the Fête des Vendanges was bonkers - unpleasantly, claustrophobically packed with a lot more broken glass around than I thought my thin sneakers could tolerate - so we went back to the hotel. Late mornings and early nights were pretty much a feature of the weekend.
Beef at Sacree Fleur. Awful picture, good food.
On the Sunday morning we headed straight to the Latin Quarter for breakfast and a good poke about. We'd thought we'd had a good lie in but the streets were post-Apocalyptically quiet. Which was nice really. Coffee and a ham & cheese crepe set us up for the rest of the day. I wish I could say we spent all weekend eating rare and beautiful pastries and six course dégustation but we really didn't. We spotted a shop selling bite-size versions of Kouign Amann, which we meant to go back to but... didn't happen.

More walking... and it was an absolutely beautiful day so there were more drinks breaks. We ended up going straight to dinner at La Strasbourgeoise. It's opposite a major railway station and it's absolutely huge but if you like a vast plate of choucroute - and I do - it's completely fine. Smokey, salty pig bits, tangy cabbage and a few boiled potatoes if you really can't deal with unremitting pork and cabbage.

We walked off the meal with another schlep up to Sacré-Cœur - which made me extremely crabby because Paul insisted that the food festival would still be on when I knew it wouldn't be that late on the last day. And I was right which made him extremely crabby. But we'd walked past a couple of likely looking places on Rue Paul Albert, so we went back down, grabbed a table and shared a very good apple tart and a couple of glasses of cognac.
Rue Paul Albert - pic by Paul Fourie

Our last day started with coffee (of course! - Paul really struggled to get a decaf Americano, and I stuck to iced coffees after the first day because I found the café crème to be unpleasantly bloating and espresso is too intense). I'd been pretty keen for a decent croissant but we never found a place that looked like it had both good pastry and a place to sit and eat it. We really should have done a bit more research, I think. So I had an omelette, full of ham and chunks of potato.
Our last meal in Paris was more of a snack as far as I was concerned. Paul had a steak, but that omelette had been plenty for me, so I just had another iced coffee and then we shared a fabulous fig frangipane tart. When we sat down, the table behind the counter contained a whole apple tart and a whole fig tart but by the time we ordered there was just the one slice of fig tart left. So we knew it was good and it had to be ours. Just wonderful - biscuity crust, thin, well-flavoured frangipane and loads of fat, ripe figs. A very appropriate meal before we pootled off home.
One friend said it looked like tentacles. I can see that. But delicious.
The tart was so good I made my own version this weekend.

Fig & Frangipane Tart

Shortcrust pastry (your favourite - I bought pastry)
100g butter
25g well-flavoured honey
75g golden caster sugar
100g ground almonds
2 eggs
2tbs amaretto liqueur (optional)
1/2tsp ground cinnamon
8 figs

Preheat oven to 180C

Line tart tin with pastry. Cream together butter, honey and sugar until fluffy, then add the almonds and eggs, amaretto and cinnamon and pour into the pastry shell. Cut the woody stems off the figs and cut almost into quarters, and wodge into the frangipane.

Bake for 30-40 minutes, until nicely risen and browned but still with a hint of wobble.  Eat warm or cooled.


Sunday, 28 August 2016

Courgette and herb slice



I know it looks like we eat a lot of meat. We do. Especially at this time of year when clear, warm evenings make cooking outdoors appealing. But we also eat a lot of vegetables - sometimes without a piece of meat in sight.

One of my former flatmates used to make the most delicious zucchini fritters - heady with herbs, given an added punch with crumbled feta. This slice, which is almost like a less-eggy frittata, is inspired by those but without the labour of making little individual fritters. And as I live in a country that calls zucchini courgette, that is what I will call them. You can call them baby marrows if that's what floats your boat.

I start this on the stovetop and finish it in the oven - I feel like that prevents any danger of soggy bottoms and makes it easier to slice and serve.

Courgette and herb slice (serves 2-4)
3 eggs
100g self raising flour
500g courgettes (i.e zucchini), grated
75g fresh herbs (I used 25g each of mint, flat leaf parsley and coriander), roughly chopped
200g kefalotyri cheese, grated
Freshly ground black pepper
2tbs olive oil

Mix the flour into the eggs and mix in the other ingredients, except the oil. It will feel very dry initially. Allow to stand for half an hour - the liquid will draw out of the courgettes and loosen the batter nicely.

Preheat oven to 180C

Warm a suitable vessel (i.e a skillet or something that can go on the hob and in the oven) on a medium heat on the stove and add the olive oil. When it starts to sizzle, add the courgette batter and smooth down. When the edges start to crisp a little, put it in the oven and bake for about half an hour, until well-browned. It won't rise much, the self-raising flour gives just enough lift to stop it from being stodgy.

Allow to stand for at least 10 minutes before slicing and serving with salad. It's good warm or cold.


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