Archives for the month of: September, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I had a Sunday off, which is rare-ish for me. I never take Sundays for granted anymore, and I have decided that the best thing to do with them is to have lunch. Hardly a novel idea, I know, but I’ve let Sunday lunch slip over the years and now I want it back. When I was younger and at home we almost always had a traditional roast, which I didn’t really appreciate, being a fussy eater, unless it was beef or chicken, and we almost never had chicken. Inevitably, the leftover roast meat met the same fate on a Monday: cold beef with bubble and squeak, pork casserole, shepherd’s pie, chicken and mushroom pie. I loved that chicken pie as well.

When I left home to go to university I cast aside such routines in the light of my newfound independence and desire to contradict everything my parents stood for. I couldn’t really cook much, I was practically vegetarian and I spent all my excess money in Topshop, so Sunday lunch went out the window. It only returned years later in Oxford when Tom lived a couple of doors down from a pub that we could practically roll into from bed on a Sunday afternoon. The roasts were pretty terrible. The meat was the same colour whatever you ordered. The vegetables were boiled mercilessly. The gravy had a suspicious, glossy skin on it. I was happy to let Sunday lunch go again for a while.

Then, a few more weeks ago, I had a transformative Sunday lunch at the Magdalen Arms. There was a guinea fowl roasted in a Le Creuset casserole with chunks of smoked bacon and pale, creamy juice salty with smoked bacon and watercress on top. Comfort blanket mashed potato. A glass of wine. And then a very, very rich flourless chocolate and hazelnut cake with praline ice-cream and an espresso. That pretty much decided me that I need Sunday lunch in my life again. I’ve never been too attached to the traditional, British, meat and two veg school of lunching; all I want is something homemade and bolstering and company to eat it with. The following recipe is what we made for our friends Lizzy and Charlie when they came over on that Sunday I mentioned right at the start of this post. Their two year old, Ariella, didn’t eat much of it, but she had a good go. Afterwards we went for a walk and picked some sloes and noticed the acorns and autumnal leaves. It was a pretty great Sunday, as far as I’m concerned.

Beer braised short ribs with walnut dumplings

Serves 6

We made this on Sunday morning, but if I had thought ahead I might have recommended making this the day before you’re going to eat it. That way you can skim off some of the extra fat – the ribs have a big layer of it and the flavour and texture of that affects the final result – and reduce the sauce down if you want it thicker. And you won’t have to start chopping vegetables before you’ve even had your porridge.

Also, your ribs shouldn’t really look like the ones in the photo unless you have an absolutely giant pan; we should have asked our butcher to chop them into pieces…

2 tbsp vegetable/olive oil
2 tbsp butter
1 onion
2 carrots
1 parsnip
1 celery stalk
1 bay leaf
2 tbsp plain flour
2 kg beef short ribs
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground ginger
finely grated zest of 1 orange
170ml freshly squeezed orange juice
375ml wheat beer
500ml beef stock

For the walnut dumplings:
185ml whole milk
1 egg
40g butter, melted
190g flour
30g potato flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp orange zest
3 tbsp walnuts, toasted
1 handful parsley

Chop the onion, carrot, parsnip and celery. Heat half the oil and butter in a large casserole dish or pan that can go in the oven. Saute the vegetables with the bay leaf for about 10 minutes, until lightly golden, then remove from the pan and set aside. Add the remaining oil and butter to the dish. Season the flour and toss the short ribs in it, shaking off any excess, then brown the ribs (in batches if necessary) and set aside.

Add the garlic, spices, orange zest and juice, beer, stock and 375ml water to the casserole dish and stir, scraping any residue from the bottom, then add back in the vegetable mix and ribs. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 1 hour 20 minutes. My smallest hob ring is still a bit hot to keep things at a simmer, so I transferred the dish to the oven at about 90c. Uncover after the time is up and cook for a further 40 minutes to thicken up the sauce. Turn the oven to 180c.

Make the dumplings by combining the milk, egg and butter. Sift in the flours (I used spelt because I think walnuts go with a sort of wholemeal vibe, but the original recipe calls for plain) and baking powder. Chop the walnuts and parsley and add with the orange zest and 1 tsp salt, mixing until combined. Shape the mixture into balls – I found I needed to add a bit more flour – and add to the casserole. If you make the dumplings before the 40 minutes cooking time has elapsed, just put them on a floured tray in the fridge.

Bake the casserole (with dumplings) for a further 30 minutes, or until the dumplings are golden and the ribs are tender. The meat should be almost soft enough to cut with a spoon.

From Jane Lawson’s ‘Snowflakes and Schnapps’

Porlock Weir Harbour in Somerset, UK. Taken at...

Image via Wikipedia

I just got back from a short, holiday-ish thing in Exmoor. We stayed in a tiny, harbour spot called Porlock Weir which suffered severe flooding in 1996 when the defensive shingle ridges were breached, and as a result the surrounding land is all salt marsh, where the freshwater has mixed with the seawater. The day we went for a walk the place was deserted, the sky was gunmetal grey and we were surrounded by the skeletons of dead trees killed off by their new ecosystem. Quite spooky. It was interesting to observe a landscape so similar to a typical English countryside and yet so unfamiliar: different plant species, different texture underfoot. Apparently if sea levels continue to rise much more of our coastline will become like this.

So, we did lots of walking and lots of rollercoaster-style driving up and down Exmoor’s incredibly steep cliffs and sharp bends, some pony-spotting, rather a lot of reclining in the huge armchairs at our hotel and marvelling at the baffling collection of antiques…and we did eat, of course, but not much of it was anything to write home about (or write about from home, even). I continue to be amazed by the dismal quality of hotel breakfasts. Is it too much to ask that coffee not be the colour of washing up water and the whole dining room not reek of overcooked egg? Anyway. Let’s focus on the positive: the one thing in full, glorious health in every place we visited was the state of Britain’s baking. Even the most depressing, faded tearooms featured big glass domes housing WI-standard sponges, piped icing rosettes, burnished lemon meringues, slabs of shortbread – in one unassuming looking place, hazelnut butter shortbread, which still sounds so incredible I can’t believe I didn’t order it despite being stuffed full of rum and raisin ice cream. And scones of course, with clotted cream and an array of jams. I don’t know if it’s just that, in a county where even the pubs are forced to serve cream teas all day long to demanding tourists, they’ve had a lot of practice, but there are some serious baking skills in the kitchens of Somerset and Devon.

In tribute to them, the day after I got back, I wanted to bake something a bit more challenging than usual, something that would switch off the autopilot mode that I make certain brownie and sponge things in. And yes, perhaps I’ve also been watching The Great British Bake-Off a bit too closely. So I defrosted some egg whites, cracked open the Ottolenghi cookbook and made a batch of lime and basil macaroons. They weren’t perfect – slightly oversized, and the basil flavour didn’t come through enough, but I used a piping bag for the first time in a long time. And that made me proud.

Ottolenghi’s lime and basil macaroons

Makes 10-20, depending on how delicate you are

110g icing sugar
60g ground almonds
2 egg whites (60g)
40g caster sugar
5 large basil leaves, finely chopped (or more – see lack of basil flavour noted above)
finely grated zest of 1 lime

for the buttercream:
110g unsalted butter, softened (I think unsalted matters here, as the basil flavour could otherwise veer to close to savoury)
45g icing sugar
juice and finely grated zest of 1 lime
5 large basil leaves, finely chopped (or more!)

Heat the oven to 170c.

Sieve the icing sugar and ground almonds into a large bowl.

Whisk the egg whites and caster sugar together until stiff and glossy. An electric mixer is probably best for this, but as I don’t have one I used a handheld electric whisk. Fold a third of the meringue mixture into the almond and icing sugar until fully incorporated. Do the same with the next two thirds. The mixture should be nice and smooth.

Draw small circles on a sheet of greaseproof paper to act as a guideline – a bit smaller than a two pound coin should be close. Don’t put the circles too close together as the meringue will spread in the oven. Dab a few dots of meringue mix onto a baking tray and use it to glue the greaseproof paper in place.

Pipe circles of meringue onto the guideline circles. If you don’t have a piping bag you can spoon the mix on, though the results won’t be as neat. When you’re done, hold the tray with both hands and bang it against the worktop to smooth out the macaroons. Then leave the tray uncovered for 15 minutes.

Bake the macaroons in the preheated oven for 10-12 minutes, or until they will lift easily off the paper. Leave to cool completely.

While the macaroons cool, make the buttercream filling by beating together the butter and icing sugar until light and fluffy, then beat in the lime zest, juice and basil. Assemble the macaroons by piping or spooning a dollop of buttercream on one half, then gently pressing and twisting on the other half.

From Ottolenghi: The Cookbook

As I enigmatically alluded in my last post, today I have for you a recipe for a quince cake. This is a puddingy sort of cake, with a close-textured sponge at the bottom, a layer of ground almonds above that, a wheel of golden poached quinces above that, and on top of that a cinnamon and sugar sponge layer. We ate it warm from the oven with a splodge of creme fraiche, which I can highly recommend. The leftovers went to work with Tom, so I don’t know how it fares the next day, though I can’t imagine anything bad coming of sponge and quince and almonds.

It’s not as difficult to make as it may sound – if you’ve baked your quince, you’re away. If you haven’t, it will take a few hours, but I think this is a nice lazy Sunday cake anyway. Alternatively, this recipe came from a Stephanie Alexander plum cake, so you could use any sort of bakeable, cinnamon and nut compatible fruit in place of the quince (i.e. most autumnal fruit).


Quince and cinnamon cake

Serves 8-12 (i.e. makes one big cake)

You will need an unusually large cake tin for this recipe – if you don’t have one, you may need to split the mixture between two tins. It rises a lot!

for the topping:
60g butter
110g caster sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 eggs

for the cake:
180g butter, soft
150g caster sugar
135g plain flour
135g self-raising flour
pinch of salt
2 eggs
70ml milk
60g ground almonds
1-2 baked quinces, in wedges

Preheat the oven to 180c and lightly grease a 26cm springform tin, or 2 smaller springform tins.

Make the topping by melting the butter and stirring in the cinnamon and sugar. Allow this mixture to cool a bit before whisking the eggs and stirring in.

Cream the butter and sugar, then stir in the flours and salt. Mix the eggs with the milk, beat lightly and add to the flour mix to make a soft dough. If your eggs were quite small and the mix is stiff, add a touch more milk. Spoon the batter into the tin/s and sprinkle over the ground almonds. Arrange the quince segments in a circular pattern on top and spoon over the cinnamon topping. Bake for 45 minutes – 1 hour, until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.

From Stephanie Alexander’s ‘The Cook’s Companion

Champion quince

Image via Wikipedia

We had quinces at work, great big yellow-green ones, from Italy I think. Quinces are one of the seasonal benchmarks for me. Blackberries into apples into cycling in gloves into Sunday lunches into sloe picking into quince. I love the turning of the seasons, when you feel all optimistic about what’s to come, and autumn is the best one (because spring into summer often doesn’t quite happen, and autumn into winter I’m sometimes too cold to appreciate). Because quinces take so long to cook, they’re a good initiation into the more warming, slow and gentle food we start to eat as it gets darker and colder, and they have the added bonus of making indoors smell like a lovely place to potter around.

There’s a whole section on what to do with a glut of quinces in Stevie Parle’s book, ‘Real Food From Near and Far’ (which is a great book, full of interesting recipes and super aesthetically pleasing). I don’t think four quinces counts as a glut, but I was drawn to the recipe for baked quinces. It involves half a bottle of white wine, just enough sugar, and a lot of bay leaves. I actually got scared and halved the amount of bay leaves. That was plenty for me, but maybe I’m just unadventurous? Anyway, it turns out that a stash of aromatic, golden, tender, faintly bay-fragranced quince is a very good thing to have in your fridge. I’ve been eating it with greek yoghurt and on porridge for breakfast, it was great topped with an almond heavy crumble mix, and today I made a cake with a spiral of quince segments under a cinnamon-sugar top. But that’s another recipe.

Baked quince

2 large quinces
1/2 bottle white wine
150g caster sugar
1 cinnamon stick
5-10 bay leaves
4 cloves
a thumb sized piece of root ginger, peeled and chopped

Preheat the oven to 150c.

Peel and core the quinces and cut into wedges. Put all the ingredients into a deep baking tray or casserole dish, cover tightly and bake for an hour or two, until tender all the way through.

From Stevie Parle’s ‘Real Food From Near and Far’

I don’t know if it was deliberately difficult to attend this event, but after finding nothing about it on either the Vaults’ or Wyldheart’s website, no-one behind the counter at the Vaults having heard of it and there being no actual tickets, we managed to get our names written down on a piece of paper and get through the door last Friday night. Encouraging the dedicated personality of the forager, perhaps.

We started with a glass of blackberry-spiked local champagne (from Bridewell, where they have therapeutic gardens tended by people with mental illness). I had just had a pre-event Negroni, thinking I might need to be fortified in case we were the only people who had made it. I felt quite giddy. We managed to sit next to a couple I worked with for a few months circa 2003, strangely enough. Becky does not eat nuts and Jamie does not eat cheese, so the starter of wild herb soup with hazelnut pesto bruschetta was greeted with ambivalence; I liked it. I later found out that the wild herbs were young dock leaves, nettle and something called jack-in-the-hedge, although the flavour of those was fairly matched with potato in the soup. I don’t mean that as a criticism – I think it’s very possible to overdo the taste of nettle.

Main course was a venison stew with a sort of champ-like mashed potato thing and salad. I remember the menu advertising it as containing rowanberry jelly, but I don’t know if it did. It was nice all the same. I ate as much as I could but had to concede strategic defeat in order to manage what turned out to be a pretty generous portion of crumble. Accompanied with, and this for me was the highlight of the meal, sloe gin custard. Not only did it turn the custard a pretty shade of creamy violet, it infiltrated the crumble with an extra warming hit of sweet booziness. Very good. And reminded me I need to go on a sloe foraging trip soon.

In between mains and pudding, Sophia, who runs Wyldheart, the organisation which put on the event, talked to us about her mission to reconnect people with the wild. She spent some time in Australia with Aboriginal people and this underpins her philosophy; the rightness of traditional ways of life that interdepend in a careful and respectful way with the natural world. We watched a clip of a film about an Aboriginal elder, Bob Randall, who was taken from his family and put into a Christian institution (these Aboriginal children, forcibly removed from their families between 1869-1970s, are known as the Stolen Generations).  It was very moving – if you thought you were only interested in the foodie aspect of the wilderness, this was inspiration to look deeper.

To finish, Sophia passed round a selection of leafy bits and pots of hot water for us to make our own herb teas. I went with water mint, which was actually delicious – slightly sweeter and gentler tasting than real mint. It felt like a very civilized end to a very wholesome meal. Wyldheart also run foraging walks, which I intend to go on as soon as I can.

I love this – cooking themed post-it notes that allow you to mark up your cookbooks, make shopping lists, menus and cooking to-do lists. In other words, a joy for the obsessive, analytical, list-scribbler of a cook. Also, I’m a sucker for pretty notebooks and stationery and this is really cute.

I found it in Comma, on the Iffley road (two down from the Magdalen Arms). It’s one of my favourite shops in Oxford and the source of one of my other most heart-gladdening finds, my ‘today is super’ notebook (which bears the following frighteningly enthusiastic legend along the spine: ‘I have lots to do. It’ll be fun. Let’s start now!’)