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