Tuesday, 17 November 2015

A plain walnut cake

When we came back from our trip to France two weeks ago, along with the copper kugelhopf tins, bottles of olive oil and plaits of pink garlic, I stuffed into my luggage a plastic bag filled with walnuts – a gift from the man at the brocante from whom I’d bought the cake tins. 

They’ve been sitting in a bowl in the kitchen ever since, a nutcracker poised hopefully on top. I’ve made the odd crack-and-grab raid, snatching one or two as I walk past, or nibbled a few after dinner with some cheese. But I have been longing to make a cake. Not a classic coffee and walnut cake - though I love that - but a very simple thing. I wanted a low, plain cake, one that would allow the creamy lusciousness of the fresh walnuts to shine – at least enough to make the shelling of them worth it.

So on Saturday, I sat in my kitchen, rhythmically shelling 500g or so of walnuts, sending shards of shell onto high shelves and skittering across the floor, much to the excitement of the cat. As I cracked, and picked and extracted the meat from the nuts, I watched the news from Paris on the television. 

I have loved France, the fantasy of it and the complicated reality of it, ever since I first visited Paris with my school when I was 10. I sit here typing and deleting, typing and deleting, finding it impossible to convey my deep affection for a country which has helped form me almost as much as the one that birthed me. What Ian McEwen had to say here expresses it. And this much-shared segment from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on HBO... well, I was just cheering my head off at this.
‘If you are in a war of culture and lifestyle with France, good fucking luck. Go ahead. Bring your bankrupt ideology. They’ll bring Jean Paul Sartre, Edith Piaf, fine wine, Gauloise cigarettes, Camus, Camembert, madeleines, macarons, Marcel Proust and the fucking croquembouche.’ 

For the cake:
I took my inspiration from this recipe from the very useful site of the French food magazine Marmiton. I love it. I hope you do too. I tried serving it in several ways. With poached quince and quince ice cream after Sunday lunch, with cream and then with thick Turkish yoghurt, but really it's best with nothing at all, just by itself, with perhaps a glass of sweet wine or rum to sip along with it.

100g unsalted butter, softened, plus a little more for greasing the tin
160g shelled walnuts, from about 500g whole nuts if you’re shelling them yourself
140g caster sugar or vanilla sugar
40g plain flour
½ tsp flaky sea salt
3 eggs
2 tbsps rum

Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C Fan/Gas 4.Lightly butter the bottom and sides of a loose-bottomed 21cm cake tin. Line the base with parchment and butter the parchment.

Reserve 8-10 perfect walnut halves to finish the cake – if you like, leave them off if you think this is just far too much adornment. Put the rest of the walnuts into a food processor and pulse until most of the mixture is quite fine (you still want a few small chunks in it). Tip a third of the sugar into the processor and pulse once to blend. It should have the texture of slightly gritty sand. Of course, you can chop the nuts finely on a chopping board with a large knife if you like.

Beat together the butter and remaining sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the walnut mixture, then add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the rum then gently fold in the flour and salt until just combined.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and arrange the walnut halves on top. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. It should be lightly golden on the surface but don’t overbake it – you want it to remain soft in the middle. 

Place the tin on a rack and leave the cake to cool completely before removing it. It keeps quite well for a few days in an airtight container.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Welcome to the Elevenses Revival Society

I love the idea of elevenses. I feel a tremble of sadness that it’s now virtually extinct, but then I still write with a fountain pen and keep a dodo as a pet.

The first thing on my To Do list this week was to revive elevenses. The second thing was to have, tantalisingly on Monday at 11am, the first meeting about the food events for next year’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival

What better reason to bring on the cake than a morning spent talking about books and food, two of my favourite things, with two of my favourite women? Julia, Chattanooga’s finest daughter, is one of my dearest friends and absolutely the sort of person you’d want by your side at the barricades. If your speaker were to arrive late, drunk and naked, she wouldn’t bat an eye. And Liz founded the festival five years ago on a hunch and a credit card. She’s a force of nature whose modesty is matched only by boundless sense of what’s possible. If anyone deserves cake it’s these two. I’m making them founder members and trustees of my Elevenses Revival Society, an arduous responsibility but I think they’re up to it.

Cherry, chocolate and orange bundt
Inaugural meeting of the Elevenses Revival Society.

I used dried morello cherries in this cake because I love them and I throw them into as many things I possibly can, from breakfast porridge to salads and cakes. If you don’t have them or don’t like them, cranberries, raisins or sultanas would also be good. You could substitute brandy or sherry for the kirsch, too.

When I posted a picture of this on instagram, a lot of people asked me about the plate. It’s Chinoiserie Green, a design that Jasper Conran did for Wedgwood a few years ago. It was a birthday present from my best friend Victoria and remains a great favourite of mine.

For the cake:
100g dried cherries 
About 150ml kirsch, just enough to cover the cherries in a small pan
130g cocoa powder
250g plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
220g unsalted butter, softened
350g caster sugar
3 large eggs
160ml whole milk, you may need a little more
125ml sour cream
Finely grated zest of an unwaxed orange

For the icing:
80g dark chocolate, about 70% cocoa solids, broken into pieces
125ml double cream
30g butter
2 tbsps kirsch, reserved from soaking the cherries

Put the cherries into a small saucepan and pour on just enough kirsch to cover. Bring to a very gentle simmer, then simmer for a couple of minutes. Remove from the heat and let the cherries fatten and cool completely.  You can leave them for several hours if you like. Drain the cherries, reserving the liquid. Gently pat them dry with kitchen paper.

Preheat the oven to 170°C/150°C Fan/Gas 3. Grease a 2 litre Bundt tin with butter, sprinkle with flour, place in a plastic bag and shake shake shake until every part of the tin is lightly coated with the flour. Tap off any excess. Alternatively brush with Wilton Cake Release – this stuff is great for intricately shaped Bundt pans.

In a bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and salt until very well combined and light, with no lumps. Sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of the mixture on a plate and toss the cherries in it lightly to coat.

In a separate bowl or a jug, whisk together the milk, sour cream and 1 tbsp of the reserved kirsch.

In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment (of course you can do this in a large mixing bowl with a wooden spoon), beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the orange zest.

With the mixer on very low, beat in a third of the flour then half the milk mixture, then repeat, ending with flour – be careful not to overprocess the mixture or the cake will be tough. If the mixture seems a little stiff, add a splash or two of milk until it has a consistency which drops easily from a wooden spoon. Fold in the cherries with a spatula.

Spoon the mixture into the pan and smooth the top with a palette knife or the back of a spoon – it shouldn’t come more than two thirds of the way up the tin. Bake for 65-70 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the thickest part of the cake comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes in the tin. Remove the cake from the tin then place on a cooling rack lined with a sheet of baking parchment. Cool completely.

When the cake is completely cold, make the icing. Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Bring the cream to a simmer in a small saucepan. Pour the cream over the chocolate and leave to stand for a couple of minutes. Tip the butter and 2 tbsps of the remaining reserved kirsch (just swig any that’s leftover – it’s delicious) into the bowl and mix until smooth. Leave for a couple of minutes so that it thickens slightly. Pour over the cake and let the icing set before serving in thick slices, ideally at 11am.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Home again

Liptauer, an easy and delicious snack.

London is dark and damp. Walking Barney in Abney Park on Friday morning, the bitter smell of sulphur from the previous night’s fireworks hung in the air.

A damp dog walk in Abney Park.

But all is not dreary. Our local church hall is hosting an evening of Sing Along A Sound of Music to raise money for UNICEF’s Sing for Syria appeal and my friend Liz has signed me up to help decorate the entrance to the hall in a suitably Austria en fête fashion. So last night, in Episode 1127 of my Jill Archer life, Liz came round to discuss the suitability of floral fabrics pulled messily from my craft cupboard and how many fairy lights was too many fairy lights. And by discuss I mean drink, and by fabric I mean wine.

The Sound of Music is the first film I remember seeing, with my dad and my grandmother, aged about five or six, back in the day when small market towns still had cinemas, so it’s always had a special place in my heart.

I also spent part of the summer I was 15 staying with friends of my parents in Vienna. My strongest memory of that trip is seeing women wearing dirndls in an entirely unironic fashion, to go to the office or walk to the post box. But I also remember eating liptauer, the hummus of the Austro-Hungarian empire, as a mid-afternoon snack. This spicy, paprika-spiked spread is terribly easy to make and I thought it would see Liz and I through our important decoration discussions. And it goes well with wine.

The things that make liptauer taste so good.

You can leave the butter out of this if you like (that’s not something I often say), and just make up the weight with more cream cheese or quark. Or you can substitute some cottage cheese for either. Just make sure it’s mixed until very well blended.

Serves 4 as a snack, or more as part of a selection of starters

100g butter, softened
200g quark (or cottage cheese, if that’s your thing)
180g tub of cream cheese
3-4 cornichons, diced
3 spring onions, white and pale green part only, finely diced
1 tbsp sweet paprika
1 tbsp capers, rinsed if salted, roughly chopped
2 tsps white wine vinegar, cider vinegar or juice from the cornichon jar
1 tsp caraway seeds
A good pinch of hot paprika
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve
Rye bread, more cornichons and other pickles, chopped boiled egg

In a mixer or with a wooden spoon, beat the butter until smooth then beat in the quark and cream cheese a little at a time until very smooth. Beat the rest of the ingredients until well combined. Taste and season with more salt, pepper and/or vinegar or cornichon juice if required.

Beating everything together.

You can make the liptauer up to a couple of days ahead. I suggest you make it at least a couple of hours ahead for the flavours to develop. Seal in a tub or in a bowl with clingfilm and remove from the fridge about an hour before you want to serve it. Give it a good stir, spoon it into a serving bowl and sprinkle over some hot paprika.

Serve with rye bread (you can lightly toast this if you like) and more pickles, and/or some chopped boiled egg.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

I give you this on one condition...

Mon petit potimarron.

I will only share this recipe with you on condition you do not use wretched leftover Hallowe’en pumpkin to make it. Yes, I know the world is noisy with magazines and papers and websites telling you, coaxing you, pleading with you - practically ordering you - to use this pitiful gourd in soups, cakes, curries and stir fries right now. But don’t. You’re better than that. Pumpkin ‘Jack of All Trades’, for it often he, is but tasteless, watery misery. His finest hour came when you shoved a candle into its sticky orifice and lit it. Let him go.

Instead, use practically any other small pumpkin or squash. I used a small, heavy potimarron (this would be an excellent name for a proud but accident prone dog), often sold as uchiki kuri or onion squash in England. Crown Prince or butternut squash would also be excellent.

A trip to Pézenas market
Across the vines to the oyster sheds and the sea.

So many beautiful mushrooms.

Gorgeous pink garlic.

If I were ever to be a princess, I would dearly love to be Princess Potato.

There has to be something wonderful about a region that has famous turnips. That’s my kind of celebrity obsession.

I love the colourful Chinese cushions and bedspreads you find on market stalls here. Their bright patterns remind me a little of traditional Provençal prints.

Pumpkin, mushroom and chard gratin
Serve hot, with a salad.

Remember, I’m on holiday so I’ve neither the inclination nor the equipment to weigh anything. These are approximate measurements but I’m pretty good at guessing. Just make sure you have enough crème fraiche mixture to lightly coat the vegetables and enough cheese to cover the top well and you’ll be fine

Serves 4-8, depending on whether it’s the main event or a side dish.

Butter, about 80g
About 600g prepared weight of pumpkin, a good-sized bowlful, peeled, deseeded and cut into cubes of about 1.5cm square
1 medium-large onion, diced
A couple of sprigs of thyme if you have them
The leaves from 2-3 pieces of chard (reserve the white part for another dish), shredded
A couple of handfuls of mushrooms, wiped clean, any tough ends trimmed, and larger ones halved
2 garlic cloves, minced
Some crème fraîche, about 250g
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tsps Dijon mustard
About ½ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
About 140g gruyère cheese, coarsely grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt a generous knob of butter in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the pumpkin, onion, thyme if using, and some salt and pepper and sauté, partially covered and stirring from time to time, until the pumpkin is softened but still holds its shape. This should take about 20 minutes. Stir in the chard and stir until just wilted. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 190°C/170°C Fan/Gas 5. Butter a large gratin dish or Pyrex dish.

In a separate frying pan, warm another generous chunk of butter over a medium-high heat and when it stops foaming, toss in the mushrooms and a generous pinch of salt. Cook until a lot of their moisture has evaporated and they start to take on some colour. Add the garlic, fry for a further minute and remove from the heat.

In a bowl, beat together the crème fraîche, eggs, mustard and nutmeg. Season well with salt and pepper. Tip the pumpkin mixture into the gratin dish (remove the thyme sprigs if you’re using them) and scatter the mushrooms on top. Pour the crème fraiche mixture over evenly and give the dish a shake and a tap on the table to distribute the liquid evenly. Scatter the gruyère on top. Bake for about 30-35 minutes, until the mixture is bubbling and golden brown on top. Serve hot, with a green salad and some bread.

Pour on the crème fraiche mixture evenly.

Scatter on the cheese.

Remove from the oven when golden and bubbling.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Weightless Cooking Part Two: Not squirrel soup

I liked this cheesy advertising in Beziers.

Beziers is the closest city to us. It’s hilly. Even the water has to climb upward. Beziers is famous for the remarkable Fonserannes Lock, a staircase of eight locks which allows boats to rise more than 20m up the Canal du Midi in the least possible distance, with the least possible fuss. Every August over a million visitors come here to the Feria, the bull fighting festival, just one of the reminders of how close we are to Spain, and that this part of France perhaps has more in common with its southern neighbour than the buttery, apple-y North.

On Friday morning we drove the 20 or so kilometres to town, to do some shopping, have some lunch. We started with the covered market, where we bought two kinds of olive oil and some honey vinegar. We managed to steer clear of the magnificently-flagoned bottle of vinegar ‘de région’ which cost 80€, which, incidentally, is the price of a kilo of pine nuts these days. 

We walked down to the allées Paul Riquet, to explore the Friday flower market. Pierre-Paul Riquet was the mastermind behind the Canal du Midi, and Beziers favoured son. He certainly deserves his eponymous allées and the statue of him which stands proudly in the middle of the boulevard. 

At this time of year, the market’s dominated by fat cushions of chrysanths, traditionally the flower of All Saints Day which falls on November 1. This is when French families remember their dead relatives by placing bouquets on their graves and, for this reason, in France chrysanthemums are associated with death. Tip: Do not take them as a gift for your host when invited to dinner in a French house and expect a warm reception. 

Fat cushions of chrysanthemums, destined for family graves.

Our word ‘pansy’ comes from the French word, ‘pensée’, which means thought, probably because their pretty, velvety petals look like thoughtful little faces.

I like the French phrase for perennials, plantes vivaces.  

 Having previously found them redolent of dusty offices and school art rooms, I suddenly find myself yearning for a spider plant. The heart wants what it wants.

Walking back to the car, Séan lingered by the jewellery shop and then the posh handbag shop we’d passed on the way to lunch (steak frites at L’Orangerie. I highly recommend it). Would I like something, an anniversary present? I clutched the bunch of anemones we’d bought at the flower market and told him no, really, these were enough. I am not a saintly person. I had already ascertained that a puppy was out of the question. But what I wanted in that minute, more than pearls and fine, supple leather, was to lie on our bed with the doors open onto the balcony, to breathe the soft air from the étang until I fell asleep. Sleeping in the day is something I never do at home and it seems such a holiday luxury, I try to sneak a nap in whenever I can. It’s absolutely more precious than rubies. Nothing I desire can compare with it.
Proper coloured chips at L’Orangerie.

My anniversary bunch of anemones.

A couple of hours later, revived by sleep, entrecôte digested, it was time to think about dinner. I had some squid we’d bought in Agde market on Thursday, but I have none of the arsenal I have at home -the hundred or so pots of herbs and spices, the freezer bags of long-simmered stock, and every possible appliance to blend, grate, purée any ingredient to my will. Here I am in a kitchen with no stock, very few herbs, and because we’re only here for a week I don’t want to buy too much. 

This is when it becomes important to sauté the onions properly and for long enough to round out their flavour, to use the skin and seeds of the tomato to profit from their fresh sweetness, to simmer the wine until it’s properly reduced, to season with salt and pepper throughout the cooking, and not just at the end. If you build flavour like this, you can get away with not using stock and it will still taste wonderful. 

I think we can get too hung up on recipes and forget to trust our senses - does it look good, smell good and, most importantly, does it taste good? Does it need to simmer a bit more to intensify the flavours? Does it need some more salt (often it needs more salt – this is one of the reasons good restaurant food tastes so delicious)? Perhaps a pinch of sugar? Use-what-you-have cooking is the very best lesson I know in squeezing every atom of flavour out of your ingredients. And it’s a lesson we can carry into our full-arsenal everyday cooking too.

Things I have learned today:

This is the view from our bed as the sun comes up.

  • The sun comes up between 7.19am and 7.23am, rising swiftly from across the water and the road to Sète, turning the sky from pink to apricot to primrose, and filling the étang with rippled golden light.
  • In the autumn, none of the markets sell baskets, even in Pézenas, possibly the most basket-tucked-firmly-into-the-crook-of-an-arm place on the planet. This can only be because no one shops between la Rentrée and Easter. I am a fool not to know this.

Squid, sorrel and potato soup

When I posted a picture of this on Twitter, half a dozen people tweeted me ‘When I first saw that, I read it as squirrel’, something to do with the SQUId soRREL thing I imagine. It made me think about how we name recipes. I suppose the convention with recipe titles is: most important ingredient first, most interesting ingredient second and then a workhorse ingredient that’s seldom going to be the headliner but puts in a full shift to make it delicious. So there you have it: squid, sorrel and potato. No squirrels were harmed in the making of this soup.

The sorrel adds a deliciously sharp flavour which is terrific with the squid. If you can’t find sorrel, use spinach and finish with a good squeeze of lemon juice.

Serves 4-6

A slosh of olive oil

1 large-ish onion, halved and thinly sliced
A few sprigs of thyme
A bay leaf, if you have one
1 celery stick, finely diced, leaves reserved if you have them to use in the bouquet garni
1 large, ripe tomato, finely diced, skin, seeds and all – there’s lots of flavour in the skin and seeds
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
About 200ml white wine
About 750ml fish or light chicken stock, or water (I used water)
A bouquet garni of a few sprigs of thyme, some parsley stalks, and a few leaves of celery and a bay leaf if you have them, tied together with kitchen string
1 kg squid, well cleaned and cut into thick slices, tentacles left whole if small (about 750-800g prepared weight)
1 large potato, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
3-4 tbsps crème fraîche
1 bunch of sorrel, finely shredded, stalks and all
3-4 tbsps roughly chopped parsley leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium-large, heavy-bottomed pan, warm the olive oil over a medium-low heat. Add the onions, thyme, bay leaf if you have one, and a good pinch of salt. Cook until the onions are translucent, stirring from time to time, about 20 minutes. Add the celery and cook for a further 5 minutes, until it’s softened slightly, then add the tomato and garlic and stir for 5 minutes. Pour in the wine and simmer, stirring, until it’s reduced by half. Add the squid, then the water or stock – you want enough just to cover the quid by a couple of centimetres or so. Throw in the bouquet garni, season with salt and pepper, and simmer gently, partly covered, until the squid is tender, about an hour to an hour and 15 to 20 minutes. Add the potato and cook until soft, about 15 minutes or so. Turn off the heat and stir in the crème fraîche, sorrel and parsley. The heat of the soup is enough to wilt the sorrel. You don’t need to cook it further.

Remove the thyme, bay leaf and bouquet garni. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, in warmed bowls.
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