Monday, 30 March 2009

Crybaby, it’s cold outside…

Well, that’ll teach me. After getting so skippity-la-la last week I was practically pinning on bunny ears, spring has come decidedly unsprung. When I took Barney to the park on Saturday, I couldn’t wait to let him off the lead so I could cram my hands firmly into my pockets and perfect my optimal tipping into the wind, hail and rain angle without the encumbrance of an excitable terrier.

As children, when my brother and I moped around the house feeling sorry for ourselves on rainy days, our indomitable grandmother would say ‘What you need is a good floor to scrub’. A while ago, I scored a stack of 1940s British and American women’s magazines in a junk shop and I thought a few hours flipping through pages of wartime make-do-and-mend would jolt me out of my gloomy state. And give me an excuse to ignore the shamefully grubby kitchen floor.

This is what I learned:
  • Making ‘Spanish Fillets of Fish’ involves tipping a tin of tomato soup over the wretched little fillets and baking them in a hot oven until they submit, or the war is over, whichever comes first.
  • To make woollens look ‘gay and smart for spring’, sprinkle them with powdered magnesia.
  • How to knit my own powder puff.
  • Two ounces of bones will keep one hen happy for half a day.
  • ‘Putting a very little curry powder into French dressing causes folks to do likewise.’ Really? A diet of powdered egg and Spam must have made people very suggestible.
  • ‘Hot soup on cold days produces that tropical feeling.’ Why splash out on a couple of weeks in the Seychelles when a few cans of cream of mushroom will do the trick?

I found a recipe in American Ladies’ Home Journal from February, 1941 for something called Delaware Crybabies. How could I not make these intriguing cookies? I have no idea why they’re feeling so miserable; they’re filled with the good stuff – butter, dark, fudgy sugar and spices. They also contain New Orleans molasses. This is pretty low on the ground in Stoke Newington and the nearest thing I could scrounge from my larder was Golden Syrup. Not ideal, but I was sealed up in the house like an oyster in its shell at this point and the lady was not for shucking.

By the time I sat down to start planning the menu for my friend Paula’s wedding in September, I was thawed out and happy. You will be pleased (or horrified) to know that no floors were scrubbed in the course of this cheering up.

Delaware crybabies
These were pretty good - cakey, spicy, fragrant - good with coffee, even better with ice cream. If anyone has a recipe for Macaroon Melancholia or Passive-Aggressive Peanut Butter Cookies, do get in touch.

I’ve listed the American cup measures used in the recipe here and given metric equivalents. For the rest of the recipes on my blog, I thought it would be helpful to give a link to the fantastic metric/imperial/measuring cup conversion chart and glossary of cooking terms on Nigella’s website.

Makes about 60 cookies, so you’ll probably need to bake these in two batches

1 cup (160g) light Muscovado or brown sugar
1 cup (225g) butter, melted and cooled
1 cup (320g) New Orleans molasses (or Golden Syrup - I used 280g Golden Syrup and 40g black treacle, as I ran out of the golden stuff)
2 eggs, beaten
4 cups (530g) plain flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp grated nutmeg
½ tsp salt
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 cup (225ml) boiling water
1 cup (100g) pecans, roughly chopped
1 cup (140g) raisins

Line three baking sheets with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas mark 5.

Mix together the sugar and butter then stir in the molasses or syrup. Beat in the eggs. In a separate bowl, sieve together the flour, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. In a small bowl, dissolve the bicarb in the boiling water and add in two parts to the buttery batter, alternating with the flour. Stir in the raisins and nuts. Drop tablespoons of the batter onto the sheets - about 5cm apart as they spread a bit - and bake for about 8 minutes until golden and puffed up. Allow to cool for a minute or two on the sheets then put onto a rack to cool completely.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Earth Hour

We marked Earth Hour at Lady de B’s with a dinner that began in candlelight. Then we decided that we all looked so much more delightful when we could hardly see one another, we declined to turn on the lights all evening. We were, however, burning more candles than St Peter’s, Rome, so perhaps this wasn’t the most effective way to protest against climate change.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Remembrance of cakes past

On Sunday, we went to Columbia Road Flower Market . It was so crowded, it being both gloriously, unexpectedly sunny and Mothers’ Day, I swear that at one point in the crush someone was trying to remove my kidney.

I jostled through the bouquet-toting masses (or should that be, massive) to Carl’s stall where I buy my cut flowers each week. His rows of jewel-coloured tulips, ranunculus, hyacinths and anemones looked tempting as an old-fashioned sweet shop and there, right in front, yellow and fluffy as day-old chicks, were armfuls of mimosa.

Mimosa’s sweet, clean, slightly briny smell always pulls me back to the Easter when I was 13 and staying with Laure, my French exchange. Each morning, I unwrapped myself from the cool linen sheets and stumbled in inky darkness to the windows. I opened the heavy shutters and the brilliant light of the South West flooded the room. The scent of the mimosa tree below was the first thing I smelled each day. Heady stuff for the girl from County Durham.

As you know, food was not the most important thing in our house. And yet there I was, cheating on my parents by falling so willingly, so wantonly in love with this home where dinner formed its beating pulse. I was the first to volunteer to collect the bread from the bakery, wandering back along the dusty path with the baguette under my arm, nibbling a few crumbs from its end as I went. I happily whisked vinaigrette for the salad, carefully measuring out three spoons of olive oil to one of red wine vinegar and just the right amount of mustard. I watched carefully when, after dinner, Madame threw together a chocolate cake for the following evening’s dessert.

A few months ago I found the little exercise book I’d filled during my trip. I wanted to hug my sweet, earnest 13-year-old self when I read this:

‘I wonder what I really will do! And I wonder what the me of 5 years time will think of this dreamy 13 year old who has many ideas but whose main fault is lazyness. Next term at school I will try to work harder. I say that every term.’

Intoxicated by my mimosa-madeleine-moment, I thought I’d make Madame Sarrodie’s chocolate cake and it was just as good as I remembered - rich and fudgy, with a crispy top, like the best brownie. I did tinker with it a bit (I can’t help myself), replacing margarine with butter and adding a little vanilla and salt.

I was also inspired by a great article by Xanthe Clay in The Telegraph on how to make killer brownies. In her quest to create the perfect, dense interior and crackled top, she gleaned a great tip from American Queen of All Things Chocolate, Alice Medrich. She advises taking the brownies out of the oven and immediately plunging the tin into iced water to stop the cooking process. I wanted to try this with my cake and was all ready to go, the sink bobbing with ice cubes, when I remembered I’d used a loose-bottomed tin. I managed to stop myself just in time, but if you use a simple cake tin, or next time you make brownies, do give it a go and let me know how you get on.

Madame Sarrodie’s chocolate cake

80g unsalted butter, plus a little more for greasing
180ml whole milk
125g dark chocolate, about 70%, broken into small pieces
175g caster sugar
3 eggs, separated
150g plain flour, seived
½ tsp vanilla extract
A good pinch of salt

Cocoa or icing sugar for dusting if you like

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4. Butter a 22cm, loose-bottomed cake tin then lightly dust it with cocoa.

In a saucepan over a low heat, melt together the butter and milk. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate. Leave it for a minute and then beat until smooth. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition, then add the vanilla and salt. Next, gently fold in the flour until just combined.

Beat the egg whites until stiff then gently fold them into the chocolate mixture with a spatula or metal spoon. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Leave on a rack until cool enough to handle, then remove the tin and cool completely before cutting. You can dust it with icing sugar or cocoa if you’re having a fancy day.

When I’m baking chocolate cake, I dust the baking tin with cocoa rather than flour – you get the non-stickability, without the whitish floury film which spoils the look of your cake.

Most sweet things benefit from a pinch of salt, and when I’m cooking with chocolate, I love to use this beautiful vanilla sea salt from Halen Môn , in Anglesey, Wales. It’s good, in very small doses, with scallops, too.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Impractically perfect in every way

When we were building a new kitchen onto the back of our Victorian house a couple of years ago, we planned to build a desk in the old, long-abandoned fireplace. How practical. The narrow alcove could be inexpensively adapted to house a writing surface for typing up recipes, paying bills and scribbling shopping lists. I’m bored just typing that.

One wintery afternoon, as I snaked along Oxford Street on the 73 bus, I realised that that wasn’t what I wanted at all. I wanted a proper fireplace, at waist height, like the ones I’d see in houses in France and Spain, one where we could grill a few steaks or sardines, roast some vegetables, cook a shish kebab or two. At great expense, the old chimney was lined. Supports were sunk into the heat-proof concrete to hold the grills.

If I’m honest, we don’t use it much to cook on. When the wind’s blowing in a certain direction, it smokes like it’s auditioning for a bit part in Shameless, staining the perfect white walls and ceiling with soot and stinging our eyes like a particularly vengeful onion. But I love it. The smell of it, the sight of it, the way it warms by back when I’m at the stove. Most of all, I love its wildly unruly and wilful presence in what would otherwise be a pristine steel and glass cube.

I’m all for recycling and one thing we have a lot of in this house is corks. I tip these into a jar filled with cheap brandy, a few cloves and a stick or two of cinnamon. They make great little firelighters tucked in among the crumpled newspaper and kindling, and they smell wonderful too.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Lady de B

I’d like to introduce you to Lady de Beauvoir. That’s not her real name - though Vanessa’s elevation to the peerage for services to the general jollity of the masses must surely be imminent? In the meantime, we all call her that because it’s the name of the part of London where she lives and because, while all around her are track suits and tower blocks, she negotiates those mean streets with velvet ballet slippers on her feet and a French market basket swinging from her arm. Her house sparkles with antique chandeliers and lovingly waxed floorboards.

At one point, Vanessa and I considered setting up our own business. We both spend an inordinate amount of time advising our many gay friends about the decoration and furnishing of their homes, obsessing over every detail, whether it’s what they should put on their perfect Matthew Hilton dining table or pour into their Jasper Conran wine glasses. We thought we could offer a one-stop queenly lifestyle advice service, everything from decorating and gardening to food, wine and flowers – the concept of GayCare was born. This wasn’t our only business idea – but given that our other flash of entrepreneurial brilliance was running a catering company out of the back of a vintage Bentley, we’re hardly beating a path to the Dragons' Den.

Vanessa can throw a party for anything – a new job or new season’s asparagus, a good haircut or a surfeit of raspberries. So the sun coming out is definitely cause for celebration.

Yesterday, Vanessa held the inaugural barbecue of the season. Five of us sat amid pots of brightly coloured primulas and anemones on her pretty terrace, sipping the year’s first glasses of rosé and feasting on lamb chops, smoky baba ganoush and a mouth watering salad of crunchy cucumbers, hot, hot, hot red chillies and soothing dollops of mascarpone and crème fraîche. All definitely delicious, but by far the most spectacular dish of the day was a mountain of grilled prawns in a perky marinade. Lady de B says she based it on a Marcella Hazan recipe. She’s a braver woman than I to tinker with a recipe from that marvellous, and marvellously dictatorial, Italian food writer, but the results were addictively, messily wonderful.

Hard-core prawn

3-4 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil
3-4 tbsps vegetable oil
80g fine, dry breadcrumbs
1 small clove of garlic, finely chopped
3-4 tbsps finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
A good few pinches of sea salt
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper
1kg large prawns, unshelled but cut along the spine and the dark vein of intestines removed

Whisk together all of the marinade ingredients in a large bowl then add the prawns, mixing everything well with your hands and making sure you rub plenty of the tasty sauce into the cut part of the prawns. Marinate for about an hour in a cool place, ideally not the fridge.

Heat the barbecue until the coals glow red and are covered by a coating of white ash. Place the prawns on the grill in batches (use tongs – but you knew that, right?), turning after a couple of minutes and cooking until the prawns have taken on some colour and are just opaque in the middle. Don’t overcook – an overcooked prawn is a horrible thing, unless fish-flavoured chewing gum is something you crave. Make sure you have a mountain of napkins – they don’t have to be pretty little patches of Provençal linen like Lady de B’s, for the rest of us mere mortals, paper ones will do.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Dog day afternoon

Barney’s epicurean hopes and dreams are cruelly dashed. He’s back to snuffling out fried chicken bones, so festively strewn along the High Street by Stoke Newington’s jeunesse dorée on Friday night. He’s all about free range foraging.


I was in Devon yesterday. The lanes were speckled with primroses and two-day-old lambs wobbled on unsteady legs in the fields. Back in London, the trees are dusted with blossom and the fat buds on our magnolia are just ready to burst into pale pink, starry blooms. My God, it’s spring.

On my kitchen counter, I have a bowl of beautiful lemons. I wanted to make something as sharp and fresh and sweet as the season. These thumbprint cookies fit the bill – perfect for a CSI convention, or just for a solitary treat, sitting in the chilly sunshine with a cup of tea.

Lemon thumbprint cookies

If I don’t have a jar of my own lemon curd, I use Duchy Originals – so deliciously, exquisitely lemony, it’s almost enough to make me into a monarchist.

Makes about 36

225g unsalted butter, room temperature
225g caster sugar or vanilla sugar
2 egg yolks
Finely grated zest from 3 medium-sized, unwaxed lemons
2 tbsp lemon juice
¼ tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp salt
280g plain flour

6 tbsps lemon curd

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4. Line a couple of baking trays with baking parchment. Beat the butter and sugar together in large bowl until light and fluffy then beat in the lemon zest, lemon juice, vanilla extract and salt. Next, beat in the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add half of the flour and stir in gently, then add the rest of the flour until it forms large pieces – be careful not to over work it or the cookies will be tough. Gather dough together gently with your hands until you have a smooth ball.

Chill the dough for 15 minutes in the fridge then roll it into 2.5cm balls. Place the balls on the baking sheets, about 2.5cm apart as they’ll spread a bit. Use your thumb to create deep little wells in centre of each ball. Bake the cookies until they're firm to the touch and slightly golden on the bottom, about 12-15 minutes. Remove from oven then immediately fill each little well with a bit of lemon curd. Transfer the cookies to wire racks and cool completely.

This is quite a sticky dough, so it’s easier to make the little wells in the cookies if you dip your thumb into a glass of water first.

Monday, 16 March 2009

I’m addicted to your charms

There’s a great Anatolian restaurant near us. My friend Ali used to live next door. Early one evening, her boyfriend Brendan managed to julienne his thumb while preparing dinner so Ali dashed round to her neighbours to see if they had a first aid kit she could plunder in an attempt to stem the bleeding. The chefs, busy prepping for that evening’s service, didn’t really understand what she was saying, ‘My boyfriend’s nearly cut his thumb off, do you have a plaster or a bandage?’ didn’t feature heavily in their Turkish-English phrase book, especially when delivered in a high-pitched, increasingly frantic New Zealand accent.

In desperation, she started miming, throwing out odd words here and there ‘Boyfriend’, ‘knife’, alongside lots of hacking and sawing motions. Suddenly, a dawn of recognition appeared on one of the cook’s faces ‘Ahhh, I know, I help you!’. He came back with the biggest knife she’d ever seen, carefully wrapped in a tea towel. She was very touched to have found such a willing and gracious accomplice in what he clearly thought was her plan to polish off the luckless Brendan.

If they’ll go to such lengths to help their customers do in their other halves, just imagine how seriously they take your dinner. They make the best grilled onion salad ever, one about which I fantasise when far away from home. It’s not on the menu - it comes free with your main course. I’ve been known to order a nicely grilled quail or sea bass or a couple of juicy lamb chops just to enjoy its spicy, sweet and smoky charms. It’s a side dish with aspirations, in this case the understudy is the star, it’s the Peggy Sawyer to the kebab's Dorothy Brock and it’s getting to be a habit with me.

Turkish grilled onion salad

This is my attempt at recreating the ‘Salad of Dreams’ – if you make it they will come. One of the ingredients in the dressing is şalgam suyu, described as turnip juice, but really a combination of turnips and violet carrots, pickled and fermented in barrels. As well as using it in salads, it’s a popular drink, served very cold with a dash of paprika sauce. It’s supposed to be a good hangover cure. You’d be forgiven for thinking that, like the Prairie Oyster, that fiendish combination of raw egg, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper, it works on the principle that you can distract yourself from your wretched state by drinking something completely disgusting.

I know, I know, I lost you at turnip juice, but please persevere. If you can’t get şalgam, you can use a few spoons of the juice from a jar of pickled gherkins to get the essential sourness.

3 medium yellow onions, peeled and cut into 6 wedges
A BIG bunch of flat-leaf parsley
4 tbsps pomegranate molasses
4 tbsps şalgam suyu
A good squeeze of lemon juice
2 tbsps olive oil, plus a little more for brushing
A good pinch of smoked paprika
½ tsp sumac
½ tsp chilli flakes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the grill and get the coals nice and hot, so they are glowing red underneath with a fine coating of grey ash on the top. While the grill’s heating up, whisk together the molasses, şalgam, lemon juice and olive oil to make a lovely glossy, red dressing, the kind of thing that might tempt a health conscious vampire. Season with the paprika and a little salt and pepper.

Thread the onions onto a skewer and brush them with a little olive oil, sprinkle salt over them and grill for about 4-5 minutes per side until gently charred around the edges. Carefully remove them from the skewers and toss them in the dressing. It seems like a lot of dressing – don’t worry, you want lots so you can mop it up with chunks of bread.

Remove the leaves from the parsley and roughly chop them. Sprinkle over the onions with the sumac and chilli flakes and toss together well. Serve warm, with steak, kebabs, grilled chicken or by itself.

If you’re using wooden skewers, you need to soak them in water for 30 minutes before cooking so they don’t burn. In the summer, I soak loads and keep them in a bag in the freezer for those moments when I need some instant grill gratification.

Sorry to ladle heaping spoonfuls of 42nd Street references into a piece about onions, but there are things you should know about a person before you embark on a serious relationship, like a passion for paint balling or a propensity for cross dressing. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m addicted to show tunes. There, I said it.

Friday, 13 March 2009

It doesn't get Leadbetter than this...

Yesterday’s trip down memory lane to dinner parties past inspired me to revisit some of my early culinary experiments, so here they are, more or less as I made them 30 years ago with a bit more booze and a bit more seasoning thrown in to mark the passing of the years. And to celebrate being old enough to drink.

Gingernut log

I remember going to Chittock’s on Newgate Street to seek out sweet, crunchy, fiery crystallised ginger from Mr Chittock, a proper, white-coated grocer as neat as his immaculately ordered shelves. If you ever find yourself in Bishop Auckland, you should drop in. I think his daughter runs the shop now, selling lovely Wensleydale cheeses, pease pudding, and delicious ham.

Chittock's used to sell carlins too, also known as maple peas or pigeon peas (because they were fed to the ubiquitous pigeons). In the North East, Carlin Sunday precedes Palm Sunday. Traditionally the carlins were soaked overnight then boiled up with perhaps a ham bone thrown into the pot for extra flavour. Then the peas were fried in butter or dripping, seasoned with salt and pepper and a splosh of malt vinegar.

Anyway, I digress… onto the sweet treat that is the gingernut log. I made this from memory, adding the sherry to make it a little more interesting. You know, it wasn’t bad! Margo would have been proud…

350ml double cream
160g gingernut biscuits, about 3 per person
1 tbsp of ginger syrup from a jar of stem ginger (optional)
50ml of sherry – I used Palo Cortado, but any medium sherry would do
A few tablespoons of crystallised ginger, roughly chopped
40g dark chocolate

Serves 4

Lightly whip the cream with the syrup until it forms soft, cloudy peaks. Spoon a line of the cream down the middle of your serving plate – this will form a sort of ‘glue’ which will stop your biscuits rolling all over the place.

Next, pour a good couple of slugs of sherry into a bowl and quickly dip a biscuit into it – don’t soak it in the bowl, the sherry and the biscuit should have only the briefest flirtation, any longer a courtship and the biscuit will crumble into mush. Spread a good spoonful of cream onto the biscuit and then stand it on its edge on your serving plate.

Continue dipping and spreading, sandwiching the biscuits together on the plate to form a log. Next, spread the remaining cream all over the biscuits in a generous coating then scatter over the crystallised ginger. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water and then spoon it over the log. Chill for at least four hours before serving in fat slices.

Tuna pâté

When I made this as a child, I think all it involved was beating a can of tuna into a paste with the same weight of butter and a dash of vinegar. Hmmm. There’s only so far down memory lane a girl is prepared to go. I made this today, it's more of a spread than a pâté – the kind of thing you could probably throw together from the things in your cupboard. It’s good as an open sandwich and would be quite tasty on small bits of toast to go with drinks. If I’d had any dill, I think that would have been a good addition too.

100g of tinned tuna, drained weight from a 160g tin
40g unsalted butter
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 spring onion, very finely chopped
A good squeeze of lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Toast and chopped hard-boiled egg and gherkin to serve

Beat the butter, mustard, spring onion and lemon juice together until smooth. Stir in the tuna, breaking up the bigger chunks. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Serve on hot toast, with chopped boiled egg and gherkins.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

I capture the kitchen

I can cook because my mother can’t. Really can’t. To her, the kitchen is hostile territory where pans commit scorching hara-kiri, ovens spontaneously combust and meat comes in two different cuts: stringy or tough. So as kids, if my brother and I wanted to eat something vaguely more thrilling than toast, we made it ourselves.

Don’t pity me – it was wonderful. Mum was always engrossed in a book, either reading one or writing one, so she never cared what we did in the kitchen so long as we were QUIET, there was no BLOOD and any flames were intentional. In a childhood of happily anarchic gastronomy, there was no toy cooker for me - the whole kitchen was my playground. I had no idea it was weird for a 10 year old to spend Sunday afternoon boning a duck or icing petits fours. I spent hours pouring over the pages of the Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook, marvelling at the 70s gorgeousness of the ruby-red maraschino cherries and emerald-green angelica which seemed to adorn every perfectly-iced cake. Marguerite Patten was my heroine.

If I loved cookbooks, I loved my dictionary more. In a world of potato waffles, crispy pancakes and fish fingers, quenelles, purées and gratins were strange poetry indeed. When other girls were arguing about Starsky or Hutch, Donny or Jimmy, I was wondering where in the wilds of County Durham I might be able to find truffles or foie gras.

My parents threw lots of parties, the kind where women sat around in floaty dresses and love beads and bearded men played guitars. And there I was, like a mini Margo Leadbetter, passing around the (tinned) tuna pâté and extolling the virtues of my apple charlotte or gingernut log. Any conversations about gender stereotyping probably took place when I was out of earshot in the kitchen, checking the progress of my devils on horseback.

When others rhapsodise about their Mum’s special shepherd’s pie or apple crumble I have nothing to offer but toast toppers or baked beans (with cheese on a fancy day). But I’m not sorry. In the true spirit of 70s self-reliance, I made my own memories. And then I ate them.
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