Thursday, 18 December 2008

Baby Break

Hello everyone-

As is inevitable (hopefully) after you've been pregnant, I'm now no longer pregnant but in charge of a baby. Baby A&N arrived on Tuesday 16 December after something of a marathon labor and delivery. The important this is we're all well and doing our best to cope with one another.

The other inevitable fact is I'll be taking a bit of a blog break until my concentration can go on something other than feeding/burping/changing/comforting a new baby (although he is very good, as is Mr A&N). I hope everyone has a very happy holiday season in store, and see you some time in the new year.

The A&N family.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Daring Bakers: Caramel Cake

As a maternity-leave induced lady of leisure, I looked forward to this month's Daring Bakers challenge as one I could do during my luxurious free time. In between baths and coffee mornings, I saw myself baking cakes to have ready for my husband after a hard day's work. This turned out to be ambitious dreaming. Long baths have occurred, but necessitated by 3rd trimester nausea or just feelings of being enormous and wanting to find a venue in which I was weightless (and, undoubtedly, elegant and streamlined). Coffee mornings have been acheived, but at the cost of wiping me out from the effort of a) getting up b) taking an hour-long bath c) looking presentable and d) traveling on public transportation. Mr A&N has actually had his fair share of banana bread this month, mainly to use up those bananas I've felt too ill to eat and made while I've been sitting down at the table. The long and short of it is that this month's challenge was done at the last minute, over a couple of days, and is only now being enjoyed as I blog about it. Oh well - I'm sure next month, when the baby's here, it will all fall into place even more easily.

The caramel cake comes from Shuna Fish Lydon at Bay Area Bites, as chosen by the trio of Dolores at Chronicles in Culinary Curiosity, Alex at Blondie and Brownie, and Jenny at Foray into Food. The cake thrives on caramel syrup added into the cake, and caramelized butter in the icing. To me, the cake was more successful than the icing, which overwhelmed me with its sweetness. The cake smelled wonderfully fragrant and rich during the mixing, and it took tremendous will-power not to lick the raw batter from the spoons (will-power I actually didn't have in the end, since I licked...but only a little). I was rewarded for my near-saintliness when the spring-form pan I was baking the cake in didn't hold itself
together tighlty and dripped a slow and delicious cascade of cake batter onto the pan at the bottom of the oven, waiting to be eaten 20 minutes before the rest of the cake was ready. I couldn't pick out the caramel flavor, but thought it was like a supped-up version of a vanilla cake, delicately sweet and still wonderful to smell.

Thanks to the hostesses (and Shuna) for the challenge, which promises to give me something to eat this week with my leisurely morning coffee before I head up to my hour-long baths.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Pumpkin Pancakes

I am finally, officially on maternity leave and boy, does it feel good. The last few weeks of work were beyond hectic and tiring but I had more than enough work to see me through to the end, and some I'm still finishing up at home. I can take up to a year of leave (even if I don't get paid for much of it), and being an American-abroad who knows plenty of friends who only get 6 weeks/a couple of months off, I haven't lost sight of how lucky I am to have a few weeks to rest and relax before the baby arrives (I hope). T-minus a-bit-less-than-3-weeks, and the hospital bag is packed since baby really can come any time now.

To celebrate my first morning of not having to go to work (even if I still woke up at 6.45, as I normally do), I made myself a breakfast of something more than shredded wheat biscuits mashed up with banana. If we owned a waffle maker, I would have indulged in some waffle action; instead, I pancaked myself up. Not your average pancakes for me, though. This being a dreary autumnal day on which I was celebrating the ability to take afternoon naps (for a couple of weeks) and not to do my hair and make-up (which I'm told stops being a luxury after having a baby and becomes a source of shame), these pancakes were going to be tarted up a bit.

In what could have been a section of a self-help book called How to Pick Yourself Up When the Weather is Grim and You'll be Laying Around in Your Pajamas All Day, I found a recipe for Pumpkin Pancakes in a breakfast book a friend had given me ages ago. Pumpkin pie is part of the holy trinity of Thanksgiving to me, along with turkey and the Macy's parade, but I'm also keen on
using pumpkin in other things when it's in season. Working pumpkin into a breakfast seemed like a glorious gift from the breakfast fairies as well as a way to warm up my pumpkin tastebuds for Thanksgiving next week.

The pancakes stayed a bit soft even after they were fully cooked, pushing the pancake slightly in the direction of actual pumpkin pie. I would have preferred them to be more cake-like, since it's the texture of pancakes that is a much a feature of their glory as the taste is. I had been eager with my pumpkin,
though, which did throw off the texture so I can't blame the recipe (yet) for the squishiness. Also for the next time around, I will play with the sugar and spice content a bit more since I'm happy to stand my pumpkin up against stronger allspice and nutmeg flavors to have the pancakes be firmly on the sweet rather than the savory end of the spectrum. I served the pancakes with a bit of crumbly sugar topping and maple syrup, which to me was the only way to properly embrace these creatures.

I'll certainly be trying the recipe again with the tweaks I mentioned, though the recipe below is reproduced from the original for those purists out there.

Pumpkin Pancakes, from The Big Book of Breakfasts
makes around 16 decent-sized pancakes

  • 1 C flour
  • 1/4 C cornmeal
  • 2 Tbs sugar
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/3 C milk
  • 3/4 c canned pumpkin
  • 3 large eggs, separated
  • 3 Tbs melted butter
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  1. Combine flour, cornmeal, sugar, allspice and salt in a large bowl.
  2. In another bowl, whisk together milk, pumpkin, egg yolks, melted butter and vanilla.
  3. Add the wet mixture to the dry and whisk until smooth.
  4. Beat egg whites until soft peaks form, and then fold them into the batter.
  5. Pre-heat your normal pancake-making pan over a medium high heat and melt some butter or vegetable oil in it.
  6. Pour desired pancake-sized batter amount into the pan, and turn once small bubbles appear along the surface of the pancake. Cook for half the amount of time again.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Daring Bakers: Pizza Dough

Ah pizza. It's hard to find someone who doesn't enjoy the stuff - a bit of nice dough, rich and fragrant tomatoes, melty tasty not like one ingredient is difficult, to not like all three when they're combined is nearly criminal. Even though the A&N household had a recent forray into pizza-making, we went down that road again for a good cause: this month's Daring Baker's challenge, set by Rosa of Rosa's Yummy-Yums.

The dough recipe was one from Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice, a tome that is loved by those in-the-know for the fantastic bread you can get from it. Peter's pizza dough called for you to make the dough mixture and then retard it in the fridge for at least 24 hours to help give the dough a more rounded, ferment-y flavor while keeping its crispness when rolled out and baked.

Following the recipe, I found the dough got quite wet before I had even added all the suggested water. I like baking bread, but don't feel I've quite cracked it yet, and often become concerned that my dough is too wet and end up adding more flour. I've tried to resist that dislike of having wet dough stuck to my fingers, stuck on the countertop, and riding up to my elbows, and just knead the love and suppleness into the mixture. Although my instinct told me this pizza dough was too wet, I carried on with it, kneading it and putting it into the fridge as directed.

The too-wet dough stayed too wet, and the 24 hours of resting it did in the fridge transformed the 6 unique dough balls into 6 suggestions of separateness. However, dough is resilient and it still baked up well and, once topped with the sauce, cheese, and extra goodies of everyone's choice, it was adored (as evidenced by the picture of the lone leftover slice, cheeseless and languishing on its plate the day after our dinner party ended). I'd be interested in trying the recipe again with better moisture balance, since I still prefer my normal pizza dough method but know that Peter Reinhart normally gives good results and he's a master I should pay attention to.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Pears Poached in Whiskey

The question I'm most asked by friends now (in a concerned manner) when we're out for a dinner is: do I miss not drinking in my pregnancy? Have I been having anything alcoholic to drink at all? The truth is, I've never been a big drinker and my desire for beer or wine has dropped down to almost nothing these days. So my taste for a tipple has nearly evaporated.

Except for whiskey. Whiskey was one of the first drinks I'd ever tasted; my father would have a tumbler each night and my kind offer to fetch the drink from the kitchen for him was so I could steal a few sips from the top. I confessed this to my mother recently and she refused to accept that a 10 year old would enjoy the taste. Oh but I had, and oh but I do.

To work a bit of whiskey into my diet but in a safe, alcohol-burned-off format, I poached pears in a pot of whiskey along with cinnamon and honey to round off the flavor. The color of the pear was less glorious and deeply jeweled than if I'd poached them in red wine, but it was the taste that I was after. The pears took on a gentle flavor of the poaching liquid, and the liquid itself created a wonderful syrup that when coupled with cream tasted so very good (yet so bad). Before reducing the sy
rup down, Mr A&N poured a glass of the liquid for me, mixed with a touch of cream, for my own style of white russian. I drank and I supped. The baby seemed content; perhaps my child was developing his own whiskey-palate.

Pears Poached in Whiskey
serves 6

  • 6 pears, peeled
  • About 6 C of water
  • 150ml whiskey
  • 1 1/2 sticks cinnamon
  • 3-4 Tbs honey
  • 2 extra Tbs honey or sugar
  • Cream to pour over the top
(This does produce a lot of liquid. The liquid can be scaled down if you have a smaller pot to stand the pears in or if you want to poach the pears in batches)

  1. If you are able to stand the pears up in the pot they'll be cooking in, first lop off a bit of their bottom so they can stand up. If the pears need laying down in order to fit, then the bottoms don't need lopping.
  2. Combine the water, whiskey, cinnamon and honey in a large pot and bring to a boil.
  3. Add the pears and simmer gently for about 20 minutes or until the pears are soft enough for a fork to go into them easily.
  4. Remove the pears and set aside to cool slightly.
  5. If using the large amount of liquid, spoon out about 3 ladle-fulls of the liquid into a smaller pot, add another 2 Tbs of honey/sugar and set to a vigorous boil. Keep boiling until the liquid is reduced and it turns syrup-y (15-20 minutes).
  6. Serve with the syrup and a touch of cream poured over the pears.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Pasta with Roast Cherry Tomatoes and Fennel

Sometimes you find life acting upon you more than you acting upon it. Work has been like that for me lately, with me coming home barely in time for a late dinner or in time (just) for a soothing cup of tea before bed time. There are only 4 more weeks until I start maternity leave so work won't continue like this for much longer, though a different kind of madness will hit after that.

Even without much time, you still have to eat, and I'd always rather my meal was home-made and leaving me wanting more even if given the time constraints it seems the stuff that dreams are made on. Roasting does amazing things to cherry tomatoes; if left at that, they'll make a bruschetta topping that any devote
e of the red-white-and-green tricolor flag would be proud of. Using the roast tomatoes as a base to a pasta sauce transfers that magic to the main course.

In this case, I roasted the tomatoes along with thyme and sliced fennel, which is also intensified and sweetened by the roasting. When all the roasting pieces and juices are tossed together at the end it creates an improbably rich and meaty sauce (despite the absence of animal products) which defines the word
umami with each mouthful. Not quite the same as a half day of work and a long soak in a bubble bath, but as easy dinners go, it comes close.

Pasta with Roast Cherry Tomatoes and Fennel

Serves 2 generously or 4 as an appetizer

  • 1 fennel
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 500g / 1lb of cherry tomatoes
  • handful fresh thyme (or around tsp of good dried thyme)
  • olive oil
  • 250g (1/2 package) of dried pasta
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2-3 Tbs cream
  • parmesean cheese for topping
  1. Slice the fennel into thin-ish slices (about 1 inch long by 1/4 inch thick) and chop the garlic.
  2. Toss the fennel together in a roasting pan with the sliced garlic, the cherry tomatoes and the thyme. Drizzle generously with olive oil (probably about 3 tablespoons worth) and toss together well.
  3. Roast at 170C / 375F for about 30 minutes or until the tomatoes begin to deflate a bit and there are juices thickening in the bottom of the pan. Shake the pan once during roasting to distribute the flavors.
  4. Meanwhile, boil some water to prepare the pasta.
  5. When the pasta is done, toss together with all the items in the roasting pan (minus any twigs left over from the thyme). Stir in a bit of cream so that everything is gently touched with cream but not swimming in it.
  6. Serve with parmesean grated on to - or not.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Marinated Lamb

The financial crisis has been making itself felt in headlines and households around the world, and its presence is beginning to seep into my kitchen. I'm becoming conscious that each grocery bill seems to crawl its way upward even though I'm not buying anything extra. I think about how I'm Eating For Two now and will soon have Another Mouth To Feed, neither of which feels like good timing (but when are life's timings perfect?).

We were due to have some friends around last weekend for a Sunday lunch, which set Mr A&N and me to planning our menu and thinking with our extravagant hats on rather than our financial crisis ones. Though we've been fairly good at reducing the amount of meat we eat during a normal week, having guests and hosting a Sunday lunch practically obliges meat to be on the menu (unless, of course, you're hosting vegetarians). It was a commitment, a bit of a splurge, but leg of lamb went on to the menu, one large enough
to feed 5 adults, 2 of whom were 30+ weeks pregnant. Big things would be expected from this lamb.

This being lamb, it seemed that marrying lamb with Middle Eastern flavors would be clever move, and out came the trusty Moro cookbook, a repository of never-fail recipes with a Middle Eastern/Spanish vibe. A simple marinade would do, to bring out the flavors of the lamb without distracting from the main show. The marinade Moro suggests can be used with just about any cut of lamb, and takes its flavor from lemon, thyme, red wine vinegar and paprika. The lamb is slow cooked and topped up with water to keep the meat moist and create a nice sauce in the pan.

And then the financial crisis hit, but in a different way from expected. Of the 3 friends coming around, 2 were lawyers and both were called into the
office all weekend to work on emergency financial bail-out packages. The lamb was marinating but there were no guests to eat it, and however indulgent I am with my food, sharing a 6lb leg of lamb between two people seemed an indulgence too far.

We instead called up our good friends down the road on the chance they were free that night, and offered to cook and ferry the food round to theirs if they'd be willing to help us eat it all.
They didn't say no (would you?), though Mr A&N did leave a warning in my ears: the lamb would make its way down the road, but there wouldn't be much of it making its way back down. This was because we were heading to see Mr A&N's best friend, known for having an appetite that could rival Homer Simpson (though fortunately for him without Homer's looks or girth). His one-year-old son takes after his father, and for a typical breakfast eats two whole wheat cereal biscuits, two pieces of toast, and one banana, followed an hour and a half later by a banana and yogurt top-up, followed an hour and a half after that by a full lunch. And to think I get twitchy about our grocery bills.

The slow-cooking and marinating gave us juicy and salty meat and a nicely intense gravy from the left-overs of the marinade. I watched as slice after slice of the lamb disappeared - pleased that it was going down well, but wondering when the two men would put the brakes on the eating and let the poor lamb be. It took about 45 minutes of concerted effort, but in the end all that was left was the bone. Not only did Mr A&N's friend make short work of this 6lb lamb leg, but Mr A&N joined him in the meat-based debauchery. W
ith many more meals like this we'll be feeling the financial pinch pinching very tightly, but at least we'll go broke with a contended belly and a full smile on our greasy lips.

Lamb Marinade, from Casa Moro
serves 6-8 (...supposedly)

  • 2.5kg / 6 lb leg or shoulder of lamb (can also use other cuts of lamb)
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 2 Tbs red wine vinegar
  • 4 Tbs fresh thyme leaves
  • 1/2 medium red onion, well grated
  • 2 tsps sweet paprika
  • 1 Tbs olive oil
  1. Lightly score the lamb to help the marinade seep into it.
  2. Mix all the marinade ingredients together (except for the olive oil). Season with salt and pepper (about 2 tsps of salt per kilo) and rub into the lamb.
  3. Add the olive oil on top and leave to marinate for a minimum of 2 hours, or ideally in the fridge overnight, turning occasionally to coat the meat well.
  4. Pre-heat the oven to 160 C / 325 F.
  5. Cook the lamb in a large roasting tray, adding in a small glass of water (about 125ml) after the first half hour of cooking and another glass of water after each subsequent hour. Baste the lamb every 45 minutes or so.
  6. After around 3 hours, test the lamb for tenderness by inserting a skewer deep into the meat. If it feels soft and has a good amount of 'give', it is done.
  7. Leave to rest for 15 minutes before carving.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Daring Bakers: Lavash Bread

Saturdays, I'm reliably informed, are meant for fun. That's what Mr A&N keeps telling me today, as we pass each other in the hall between rounds of dusting furniture, vacuuming carpets, washing floors, and generally trying to chase away the dust left by the builders currently making our somewhat peaceful and mostly orderly lives go topsy turvey. The builders are back on Monday but since I asserted I couldn't live in the post-apocalyptic dust bowl we currently call home, we've spent a fair portion of the day doing cleaning which we know will all come undone with the first footfall of a builder as he enters the house.

Between the dusting and cleaning and the "Where's the fun?" queries today, I've also tackled this month's Daring Bakers task of making lavash bread. Lavash is a middle eastern bread and (at least according to wikipedia) can be used as a sandwich/kebab wrap when rolled out very thin and served fresh, or served as crisp crackers when cooked longer and left a bit thicker. The DB task was to treat the bread as crackers, as well as to make a dip or spread on the side to eat with the crackers. The only other requirement was to make it vegan, and the option was there to make the crackers gluten-free as well.

I embraced the gluten version, though found the dough wasn't as elastic-y as other bread doughs tend to be. Reports on the Daring Bakers message board were that people wound up kneading the dough for 20 minutes or more (rather than the recommended 10 minutes), and I did the same. Though it did turn silky in the end, it tended to stay in a ball rather than stretch far. I had used less water than was suggested since the dough seemed wet enough without it all added, and perhaps this lack of water gave i
t the texture I worked with - a bit like a big ball of bubble gum, chewed and left to sit on the counter for a few hours before you go back to chew it again.

I topped the crackers with ras el hanout (a Moroccan spice mix), sesame seeds, and smoked sea salt. The crackers smelled wonderful cooking, and both crisped and browned perfectly, and I appreciated that we were given a recipe that could reasonably be started and finished in a couple of hours. For my dip, I made more beetroot hummus since that's now a high-demand foodstuff in the A&N household.

After he was finished hanging up our second load of laundry for the day (the dusty clothes, towels, and cleaning cloths that fell victim to the building works), Mr A&N came in to try the lavash with hummus.
"That's good" he affirmed. "I think the fun can begin now."

Thanks goes to Natalie from Gluten A Go Go and Shel from Musings from the Fishbowl for setting the challenge. The recipe for the Lavash can be found at either of their sites.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Jasmine Saves Our Beetroot

My weekly vegetable box delivery continues to be a race between best intentions and slowly rotting organic produce. Eat the most perishables first (courgettes, tomatoes, mushrooms, leafy green things), leave the heartier goods to fend for themselves/win my affections (carrots, cabbage, potatoes). As the week draws to an end, I often make soup. This week's possible soup is a lettuce soup since we can't seem to get to the leafy green stuff quickly enough. The possibility of this lettuce soup has made Mr A&N suddenly 'remember' that he agreed to be out tomorrow night. To play poker, it turns out, and generally be more masculine than sitting at home eating lettuce soup.

The real problem vegetable in our weekly delivery has been beetroot. We'
ve had such a regular supply of it that it's threatened to become this summer's cabbage - so abundant and with so few ideas of what to do with it that I've nearly banned it from our box for a week/a month/indefinitely. I've held off banning it, always sensing that beetroot could do grander things than we were letting it do (and, er, I'd forget about updating my preference list). Luckily I've discovered that grander thing.

In stepped the wonderful Jasmine from Confessions of a Cardamom Addict to save our beetroot. The answer, it seemed, was beetroot hummus. Roast the beetroot, put it through the blender with a bit of oil and as much horseradish as you like, throw in a bit of garlic and lime juice (if you have on hand) and revel in
its beauty and flavor. It really is that simple and that wonderful, and has been on the weekly menu since I've been enlightened. The roasting turns the beetroot incredibly sweet, and putting it through the blender intensified the sweetness by taking away the complication of having to chew it and fight your way toward this flavor. And gosh isn't it look pretty.

Beetroot Hummus (an approximate recipe)

  • As many fresh beetroot as you need to get rid of
  • Olive oil
  • clove of garlic
  • Horseradish
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 400 F / 200 C
  2. Clean the beetroot but keep the skin on. Rub each beet lightly with olive oil.
  3. Place the beetroot in an oven-proof tray. Cover with foil, and roast for about 40 minutes or until a fork stuck into the beetroot goes through it.
  4. Allow the beetroot to cool down enough for you to handle it, then peel them.
  5. Roughly chop them up, and put into a blender. Add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and the clove of garlic and whizz up.
  6. Taste for flavor. Add more olive oil if it needs a 'richer' taste. Otherwise, add the horseradish until the balance of flavors is right (about 1 Tbs per 3 beetroot tastes right to me).

Monday, 8 September 2008


This summer has been busy and tiring - not just for me, but for friends, family, and plenty of other bloggers who seem to be taking blog breaks for short spells. Case in point was meeting up with Mr A&N's brother and wife to celebrate my birthday...two and a half months after the date. The catch-up was multi-pronged (celebrate my birthday, celebrate brother-in-laws birthday, see how both pregnant ladies - due within 6 days of each other - were on the bump front). Lucky me, I was also given in two spanking new pizza stones that promised to transform my at-home pizza eating.

The stones were given in memory of a trip the four of us took to Italy 3 years ago. The house we rented had an outdoor pizza oven, and the memory of the food that came out of it can still turn all of us misty-eyed. I had heard that the best way to mimic the brick-built pizza oven experience in the kitchen was to get a pizza stone or to pick up a large ceramic tile from a tile shop and pop that in the oven when it was pizza time. I never got around to food shopping at my local tile store, so the pizza stones were a gift received with genuine thanks.

I've tried out two pizza dough recipes since getting the stones, one that I've had for ages (and am not sure from where I got it) and one from Giada de Laurentis I found on Epicurious. I tried the Giada recipe first, and though the dough looked good and crisped up nicely, both Mr A&N and I found it very ordinary. Ordinary in the way that cheap frozen pizza can be ordinary, so perhaps not even deserving the praise of 'ordinary'. It was a bit tough and tasteless in a cardboardy way, and once we ate all the toppings we left the crusts uneaten, without being tempted to finish them off and push ourselves past our fullness limit (as a good pizza crust ought to do).

Having my friend Alex and her family around for lunch this last weekend, I decided to turn it into a pizza event and to go back to my normal pizza dough recipe. I wanted to engage 3 1/2 year old Freddie with the food making and give him as much involvement as he wanted so he could have fun when it came to eating thigns. He wasn't keen in getting his hands dirty by shaping and rolling out the dough (his mother, on the other hand, loved it and vowed to make pizza herself some day soon), but he fastidiously decorated his pizza with the toppings of his choice (which bravely included capers as well as his beloved black olives).

These pizzas turned out wonderfully well, with a crust that both crisped and puffed up slightly, and made you want to leave nothing left on your plate. Freddie ran into the kitchen after his first bite to tell me he thought it was delicious and he was very happy. Although his number of bites didn't go much higher than 10, he did eat all his toppings and saved just enough room for his cupcake afterwards. Parents and adults all managed to gorge themselves on both the pizzas and the cupcakes, but didn't then have the same energy as Freddie to run around the garden chasing a football after the eating was done. We instead flopped out on the sofas, which is a much more grown-up thing to do.

Pizza dough
makes about 6 crusts

  • 1 packet fast action yeast
  • 1 Tbs sugar
  • 3 Tbs olive oil
  • 1 Tbs salt
  • 2 C warm water
  • 6 C bread flour (you can swap in 1/2 C of wholemeal flour for one of the half cups if you wanted to make it a bit healthier)
  1. Combine the yeast, sugar, olive oil, salt and warm water. Stir well.
  2. Add in about half the flour, stirring well.
  3. Add in the rest of the flour, stirring for as long as you can and mixing with your hands if stirring becomes impossible. The mixture should be slightly wet but not overly so - you may need to add more flour to balance it.
  4. Knead for a few minutes.
  5. Turn the dough into another bowl which is lightly oiled (with olive oil). Cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap and let rise until double in height (about 1 1/2 hours).
  6. When nicely risen, turn out of the bowl and knead very lightly on a well floured surface before dividing the dough into balls and shaping them into pizzas.
  7. Cook on pizza stones or ceramic tiles - pre heat the oven to as high as it will go with the stones/tiles warming up inside. Slip the crusts with their topping onto the heated stones and cook until cheese is melted and crust is golden (time depends on how hot the oven is).

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Daring Bakers: Chocolate Eclairs

"Choux pastry? Pierre Herme?" my friend Jill commented. "How very daring."

And oh how right she was. I had told Jill of my upcoming eclair making, and she knows her way around her double boilers and cheese cloths enough to know that this would present a challenge. A Daring Baker challenge, in fact.

Making choux pastry is one of those fearful cooking acts, like rising a souffle or setting a custard, that can scare cooks to their jellied marrow. For me, though, the first challenge the pastry presented was in mi
xing it with my grandmother-inherited hand mixer. As it thickened up after each egg, I too slowly thought "I wonder if this will be too much for the old dear Kenwood". Up twirled the dense mixture as I tried valiantly (vainly) to switch the speed to high, and out poured the smoke and the bad, bad smell of a electric kitchen appliance dying. At least it went doing what it loved best (a moment's pause everyone, moment's pause).

The eclairs looked wonderful when I pulled them out of the oven...and then slightly less wonderful a minute or so later. Most, sadly, needed a wee bit longer in the oven and deflated into pathetic flattened fingers. Shoe pastry rather than choux pastry, though it did give me the excuse to 'test' a few in their natural state. Without the chocolate sauce or custard to round them out, I found them very, very eggy - able to stand having one or even 2 eggs left out of the recipe, I thought.

We were given the option to alter one of the two chocolate elements in the recipe, and so rather than having chocolate filling I thought I'd make good use of our bumper crop of raspberries (the rainy and grey British summer does have some uses) and turn out a raspberry pastry cream instead. I simply swapped out the melted chocolate for a small bowl full of raspberries, boiled with some water and sugar until they were just sweet and syrupy enough, and added this into the pastry cream mixture to turn it a lovely pink and leave Mr A&N in a state of pastry cream ecstasy.

Overall, the recipe was as simple as it could be given the art we were producing, and certainly less of an all-day marathon than other recent challenges, which was appreciated. The end result was wonderful, even if it did leave huge amounts of chocolate sauce in the fridge, which I'm still bravely eating on top of anything that might cope with it (gnocchi with chocolate sauce has been over-ruled this lunch time, though bananas with chocolate sauce stays on the menu). Thanks to Meeta and Tony for setting the challenge and letting us indulge our inner French pastry chefs. Pierre Herme, you shall be getting the bill for my new hand mixer.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Beetroot Salad with Pistachio Sauce

Beet (beetroot in the UK) is a hard vegetable for me to work up much of a passion about. It does have some exciting qualities, granted - just touching a peeled beet can dye your hands or clothes a deep pink, as it may well also dye other bodily things - but beets (particularly in their pickled form) have always struck me as a functional foodstuffs, something that would exist in pickled form, stuck in the cupboard next to tins of potatoes and corned beef hash after the armageddon has wiped out all other edible things and mankind has picked all other tasty treats bare. Perhaps that point of view is why I still have a giant jar of pickled beets from my mother-in-law which has been sitting in the back of my cupboard for 2 years now.

Beets come thick and fast in our veg box delivery, and I have become an expert at grating raw beet to include into salads (it's particularly nice with grated carrot or, as my mother-in-law recently enthused to me, with grated apple, lime juice, and ginger). But other than grating it, serving it up as borscht, or turning it into apocalypse-defying pickled beets, I find it hard to see my way to finding new uses for all those beets that keep being delivered to me.

Mr A&N - and our Moro East cookbook - came up with an answer to the beet problem with a recipe for a beetroot salad with pistachio sauce that took the short
est time to put together. It was the pistachio sauce that helped bring the dish alive, pinging in mint and parsley between the citrusy lemon and orange blossom water. There are another 4 or 5 beet-based recipes in Moro East, and I don't doubt there might be need to find more inspiration in the future. The (un-grated, un-borschted, un-pickeld) beet lives to fight another day.

Beetroot Salad with Pistachio Sauce, from Moro East
serves 4

500g young beetroot, peeled and thinly sliced

  • small handful of flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

For the pistachio sauce:
  • 100g shelled, unsalted pistachios
  • 2 Tbs finely chopped fresh-leaf parsley
  • 1 small palm-full finely chopped fresh mint
  • 1 dessertspoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 7 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
  • 4 Tbs water
  • 1/2 tsp orange blossom water

  1. Make the pistachio sauce first: finely chop the pistachios either by hand or in a food processor. Mix all the other ingredients together, and season with salt and pepper.
  2. Toss together the beetroot and parsley leaves, then dress with the lemon juice and olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
  3. Spread the beetroot out on a platter, then spoon the pistachio sauce on top.
  4. Serve immediately.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Vegan Cupcakes Might, Actually, Take Over My World

I was introduced to a lovely little book a couple of years back, filled with glorious frilly wishes and dreams made into cupcake form. Piled high with iced mounds of perfection, every one of the cupcakes in this book - literally every single one - made me urgently want to bring the book closer and lick the page. As well as being marvels to look at, these cupcakes were vegan. Dairy free, egg free, yet fluffy and creamy looking. Filled cupcakes, looking like your perfect Dunkin Donuts naughty little treat, had their mousse filling made mousse-y by tofu. Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World promised to be either a revelation or an absolute blasphemy.

It took me a year and a half to get the book (I'm either a rash or a long-delayed decision maker), and everything in there was still a temptation. The first recipe to attempt was dictated as much by what was on hand in the house as by what most tempted me. I also thought that chocolate cupcakes might hide more sins than vanilla ones - if these vegan versions didn't turn out to be so stunning, I thought the chocolate flavor would at least give them a fighting chance of being eaten.
Mint chocolate cupcakes, then. A chocolate cake base, a mint frosting, some chocolate ganache on top and an extra extra chocolate candy stuck on top if you were so inclined. The cake recipe was a surprise. No eggs or butter, clearly, but only a bit of oil to represent the fat spectrum. A cup of soy milk and a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar were mixed together and allowed to curdle a bit before throwing in your more tradition
al ingredients. And that was mostly it, both for controversy and head-scratching replacement ingredients. I was very skeptical as to what kind of cake these would make, and I presumed something dense and dry would be pulled out of the oven.

The cakes these made, though, were wonderful. Top them with whatever you like or just eat them on their own (I did both after whipping up another batch a couple of days after polishing off the first dozen), they are incredibly moist, fluffy, proper-cupcake cupcakes and stayed fresh for several days in their air-tight container. Almost the best part of making them, for me, was being able to have lade-fulls of uncooked batter without the worry of raw eggs spoiling my fun. It felt naughty and indulgent and it was a very good thing. There will be more (many, many more) cupcakes from this book in my future,
and with options like Mucho Margarita, Tiramisu, and Apple Cider cupcakes to chose from, it will be a great deal of fun weaving my way through the recipes.

Chocolate Mint Cupcakes, from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero.
Makes about 1 dozen cupcake (extra-large cupcakes come in at about 6, average-small sized cupcakes will number about 15)

Basic Chocolate Cupcake recipe:

  • 1 C soy milk
  • 1 tsp apple cider vinegar
  • 3/4 C granulated sugar
  • 1/3 c canola / vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp almond or more vanilla extract
  • 1 C all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 C cocoa powder
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Mint Icing:
  • 1/4 C non-hydrogenated shortening
  • 3 C confectioner's sugar (sifted if needed)
  • 1/4 C plus 1 Tbs soy cream or soy milk
  • 1 1/2 tsp mint extract
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extra
  • small drop green food coloring

Chocolate Ganache:
  • 3 Tbs soy cream or soy milk
  • 1/3 C semi-sweet chocolate (chips or a bar)

To make the cupcakes:
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F / 170 C
  2. Whisk together the soy milk and the cider vinegar in a large bowl, then set aside for them to react and curdle for a few minutes.
  3. Meanwhile sift together the dry ingredients (flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt)
  4. Stir in the sugar, oil, and vanilla (and almond) extracts to the milk mixture.
  5. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients in two batches, mixing well each time so most of the lumps (or, ideally, all the lumps) are gone.
  6. Pour the mixture into lined muffin tins and cook for 18-20 minutes.
  7. Eat any remaining batter and be a very happy cook.
  8. When cooked, remove the muffins from the tin and set on a cooling rack. Allow to cool completely before putting any icing on it.

For the icing and ganache:
  1. Cream the icing for a few seconds until it's softened (the authors recommend doing this with a fork since it gives better results).
  2. Add 1 C of the sugar and a small splash (about 1 Tbs) of the cream/milk to the shortening, and mix well.
  3. Alternate adding sugar and cream/milk to the mixture, mixing well after each addition. Keep this up until all the ingredients are mixed and the icing is creamy.
  4. Add the mint and vanilla extracts as well as the food coloring, and mix well.
  5. Pour the icing into a piping bag and select a star tip (like a num 21).
  6. Meanwhile, make the ganache: heat the soy cream/milk in a small saucepan over a medium heat until it's just about to simmer. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate, stirring until the chocolate is entirely melted and things are mixed well.
  7. Make sure the cupcakes are cooled completely before piping. When ready, pipe the icing in a spiral from outside in, not going all the way to the edges so that a bit of cupcake is visible around the edges.
  8. Keep letting the ganache cool (about 10 minutes - you don't want it to melt the icing), stirring it every couple of minutes to keep it smooth.
  9. When cool, use a spoon to dollop a bit of ganache into the middle of the icing. It shouldn't entirely cover the icing, but drip down a bit on the sides.
  10. if desired, decorate with a small candy in the middle, such as an M&M, smartie, extra decorative rose of mint icing, spearmint gumdrop, etc.
  11. Refrigerate for 15-30 minutes to let the ganache set.

Sunday, 10 August 2008


I'm a sucker for a few things, but at least I'm predictable in my sucker-dom. I'm a sucker for fat babies, particularly if they're dressed as animals. I'm a sucker for touching stories involving animals and humans. And with food, I'm a sucker for anything that sounds 'interesting'. Not necessarily 'good', mostly just 'interesting'. So when shopping for seeds for my vegetable garden I found a salad crop that fell into that category, there wasn't much doubt I'd be buying and planting those seeds.

Salsola soda, as the Real Seed website told me, could either be boiled or eaten raw as part of a salad. It would be slightly
crunchy and salty (hence that the name began with 'sal' for salt) and is still used a fair deal in Italy an Japan. I had never heard of it before, and a bit of research showed that salsola is part of a larger family of plants responsible for the (officially noxious) American tumbleweed as well as an important source of soda ash used to make beautiful, clear, glass (including the gamed Venetian Murano glass). I imagined it as a bit like marsh samphire but for the garden.

As it grew, the plant looked like large, thick grass, and Mr A&N was eager to weed it more than once (well, I use the terms 'eager' and 'weeding' in the same sentence quite loosely - those few times I sent him out, protesting, to weed the vegetable bed, Mr A&N would hover over the salsola and ask me repeatedly whether or not he was allowed to dig it up. In his eyes, it was also easier to dig up the rest of the vegetable bed too, which would help preventing us from worrying about weeds taking it over.). It can be eaten whole when cut early. If it's not, the central stalk grows thick and fibrous and can't easily be eaten; the more delicate fronds have to be pruned off this main stem.

The first attempt to have a salsola salad didn't go quite as planned. I went to pick the plant, using the kitchen scissors to cut my way through the thicker stalks, and brought back half the crop in a bowl along with fresh garden peas and a handful of chives. It was to be a light salad, alongside the main course of the bacon-and-mushroom pasta we were making. It was only as I was about to dress the salad that Mr A&N thought to ask whether or not I had washed the kitchen scissors since he had used them to cut the bacon up. Ah....yes. Which is why the scissors were sitting in the sink rather than in the drain
board. So the first taste of salsola was as a boiled vegetable (along with the peas, chives, and lettuce leaves which had also been possibly tainted by raw meat) with lemon and salt. Hard to pick out the taste, though, of the gently salty leaf.

The second attempt was more successful and less likely to give us food poisoning. The salsola again went into a cold salad, this time with beetroot and chickpeas in a lemon-and-mustard dressing. Eating it in its full raw glory, I found it was slightly less than what I'd been hoping it to be. It was mildly crunchy but not as satisfyingly, poppingly crunchy as samphire would be. And the salt taste itself was very, very subtle; probably if you didn't know it was supposed to have any relationship to saltiness, you wouldn't have picked up on it.

I'd like to find a Japanese or Italian recipe with salsola to see how they use it and bring out its flavors. I still have seeds left and will plant more when the space becomes available - any garden-growable and edible food stuff will be eaten in our house (I lie - don't tell her, but I won't eat the radishes my mother-in-law planted for me). I've haven't yet learned not to chase the interesting rather than the tried-and-tested food thing, but I like to think it helps to keep life from falling into a rut.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Slow Cooked Belly of Pork and Baked Beans

The slow cooker. It's a kitchen gadget that promises great things. Miraculous things. You become wooed by the tales of throwing in a handful of foodstuffs on your way out to work in the morning and arriving home in the evenings to fragrant wafts from the kitchen and a warm meal ready to dish up. My few experiments with the slow cooker took the shine off that promise.

first couple of slow cooked dinners were convenient but lacked something on the taste-front. They were watery, and lacked the rich flavour that a slow-cooked stew normally would. An obvious problem was the amount of liquids we had put in - since it's an enclosed system the water helps steam and cook everything but also doesn't escape, so natural water given off by the food coupled with any liquid added could lead to a rather watery dish.

But I'm not one to give in easily. Work has been busy, leaving me tired when I get home, and the little bubbins growing inside me gets a bit demanding for food too early in the evening for me to think of luxuriating over the chopping board and stove each night. But always on the lookout for slow-cook ideas, I found a recipe for slow-cooked baked beans at The Cottage Smallholder and I determined to give it another go. Real, slow-cooked baked beans are a wonderful thing and aren't a thing like the supposed beans-in-a-can you find anywhere in America. Though this recipe didn't use a slow-cooker to do the deed, there wasn't a great deal of liquid in the recipe and it seemed like a promising start.

To my thinking, an obvious companion to the beans would be pork, and slow-cooked pork belly was another slow-cooking winner. There was the risk of the belly pork, with its tremendous amount of fat, simply feeding its tender fatty juices to the beans over a period of 10 hours, leaving me with a delicious last meal before Mr A&N and I died of spontaneous clogged arteries. I took care to cut away the skin from the pork (it would also let me make crackling later on) as well as most of the visible fat beneath the skin in order to give us half a chance of living through the meal.

Preparation was, of course, nice and easy. Beans soaked over night, everything thrown in the pot in the morning (though I didn't follow the suggested recipe exactly, partly due to lack of ingredients). I doubled the amount of sauce for the beans so that I could coat the pork in that flavoring as well. On went the slow cooker for 10 hours, and off I went to work.

This time, I'm delighted to say, the slow cooker lived up to its potential. The pork hadn't melted into itself or the beans, but was both tender and with enough fat on it that you could
trim it off and look forward to living another day. The beans were enough to make any practical New Englander swell (just a polite amount) with pride, with nicely thickened sauce and all its flavours coming together in a perfectly sweet and savory blend. Luckily, there were also plenty of leftovers so we could pat ourselves on the backs for our good work for a few days to come. The slow-cooker lives to cook another day.

Slow Cooked Belly of Pork and Baked Beans, inspired by The Cottage Smallholder
serves 4

  • 500 g Roman (aka borlotti, cranberry, or even pinto) beans
  • 1 large onion
  • 8 cloves
  • 3 Tbsp ketchup
  • 3 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 Tbsp sweet chili sauce (or if you'd rather not, just more ketchup)
  • 2 Tbsp barbecue sauce
  • 4 Tbsp maple syrup or molasses
  • 4 Tbsp muscovado sugar
  • 2 Tbsp dijon mustard
  • 300-500 ml vegetable stock (approx - enough to cover)
  • 1 kg pork belly
  • handful of fresh thyme
  1. Soak the beans overnight in water.
  2. In the morning, boil the beans in fresh water for 10 minutes and then drain.
  3. Peel and quarter the onion, and stick 2 cloves into each of the quarters. Set aside.
  4. Combine the ketchup, tomato paste, chili sauce, barbecue sauce, maple syrup, muscovado sugar, and mustard.
  5. Place the cooked beans in the slow cooker pot, and add half the ketchup sauce to it. Stir and assess - add a bit more if the beans are't quite coated.
  6. Pour in about half the vegetable stock and give a stir. The stock should cover the beans and with a little bit more to spare, so add enough stock to reach this point.
  7. Prepare the pork - cut off the skin and set aside for making crackling later. Cut away most of the visible fat that was under the skin.
  8. Place the onions, clove side down, on top of the beans.
  9. Place the thyme on top of the onions.
  10. Lay the pork with former-skin-side up on top of the onions and thyme. Cover the pork, top and bottom, with any of the left over ketchup mixture.
  11. Cover and set the slow cooker on for a minimum of 6 hours. (I cooked my for nearly 11 and it was still fine).
  12. About 45 minutes before you'll be eating, prepare the crackling by turning the oven on to 220 C / 450 F and scoring the skin. Lay the skin on top of something that will let the fat drip off a bit. Cook for about 30-40 minutes.
  13. Test the beans and pork for salt and pepper, and add as desired.
  14. Serve the beans and pork warm, with some crackling on the side.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Two Kinds of Sorbet

Our trip to France last month was filled with daily doses of dessert (naturally - we were on holiday). At least half the time we went to the effort of having a healthy dessert, and so would have sorbet. The other half of the time...we at like we were on holiday. But back to the sorbet: having it so easily available in so many flavors re-awakened the belief that fruit sorbet is one of the more miraculous sweet things one could hope to eat. Filled with fresh fruit and with little more to mar its healthiness than a sugar syrup, it comes close to being one of the rare non-naughty naughty foods.

It's the right time of year to experiment with making sorbets, given all the fresh fruit on offer and the flavors they might make together. I'm currently having a bit of a love affair with watermelon, and since even I find it a bit of a challenge to work my way through 10 pounds of fruit, it has been given the sorbet treatment. I've also been missing the option of enjoying my Pimms O'Clock when the mood for something refreshing, fruity, and alcoholic overtakes me, so Pimms style sorbet has also been created.

I threw mint into both of them to make them that much more refreshing, and though they were slightly similar in taste the Pimms sorbet also had a bit of lemon and so a bit more tartness. I loved both and have happily convinced myself that I'm getting part of my 5 a day from eating them. I next want to experiment with canned and frozen fruit in the hope of extending the sorbet season beyond just
the summer. I'll happily put on an extra woolen sweater in the winter if it means being able to eat such lovely frozen fruitiness.

Watermelon & Mint Sorbet, and Cucumber, Strawberry & Mint Sorbet (AKA, Pimms Sorbet)
each serves 4 dessert portions

Watermelon and Mint

  • 125 g sugar
  • 125 ml water
  • about 2 pounds of watermelon (4 cups when cut up), diced de-seeded
  • small handful of fresh mint

Cucumber, Strawberry and Mint
  • 125 g sugar
  • 125 ml water
  • 1 medium cucumber, peeled and diced (about 2 cups when cut up)
  • 1 package strawberries, green tops removed
  • 1 handful of fresh mint
  • juice of half a lemon

Method for both:
  1. Dissolve the sugar in the water by heating it over a medium heat. Wait until the sugar is entirely dissolved, resisting the desire to stir but possibly swirling the pot if some of the sugar is being stubborn.
  2. Remove the sugar syrup and cool down.
  3. Put the fruit and mint leaves into a blender along with the cooled sugar syrup (and lemon juice, if following that recipe).
  4. Blend the mixture for at least a minute, until everything is very smooth.
  5. Pour into an ice cream maker and churn until frozen and smooth.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Broad Bean Hummus

One of the early declarations of love I heard from Mr A&N was that he was totally, madly, utterly enamored with broad beans. The pinnacle of the broad bean world could be found in his grandparents garden; according to him, they grew the most wonderful beans known to man and his adult summertimes were spent with sighs of recollection for those beans he could no longer have. At that stage I wasn't able to tell a broad bean from a carburetor, so I needed Mr A&N to introduce me to this magical bean.

There is very little that he and I disagree on, and those few things disappear almost completely once we move into the food arena, but none of my attempts to fall in love with the broad bean brought me even slightly close to enjoying them. Also known as the fava bean in North America, I found the broad bean a bit too much like one of my only hated food stuffs, the lima bean. It was powdery and slightly bitter, and when simply boiled and dressed with a bit of butter or oil, its powdery bitterness was intensified to a degree that I couldn't face a mouthful of them. As much as I enjoyed shelling the large pods with their wonderfully velvety insides, that's as far as I've been willing to get to broad beans for a while.

And now with our weekly vegetable box delivery, broad beans have been brought straight to our door and are harder for me to turn my back on. I decided that rather than just demanding Mr A&N eat them all (hardly a hardship for him) I should again try to embrace them and maybe make them in a different way. Broad bean hummus seemed to hold out the hope of doing away with the powdery texture I didn't enjoy and forcing some different flavors into the mix. Just like chickpea hummus, I threw in garlic and some lemon, and went a bit luxury with extra butter and herbs. Served with good crusty bread, I actually did enjoy it and ate my whole slice. I might not be returning to simple, boiled broad beans any time soon, but at least now I stand a chance of enjoying both the shelling of the pods and what follows from that.

Broad Bean Hummus
enough for 1 1/12 dozen small tapas bread triangles, or 2-3 large, generous toppings for good crusty bread

  • 1 kg broad bean (fava bean) pods
  • bunch of fresh oregano (optional)
  • 2 soup spoons of cooking liquid
  • 1 large/2 medium cloves of garlic
  • juice of 1 1/2 - 2 lemons
  • knob of butter (about 10-15 g)
  • olive oil (about 1/4 C)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Boil water in a medium-sized pot and when boiling, place the oregano in with it.
  2. Shell the broad beans and when all are shelled, place them in the pot of boiling water.
  3. Boil the beans and oregano for 5-7 minutes or until the beans are nicely softened.
  4. Drain the beans, reserving a couple of soup spoons of the cooking liquid and a few springs of oregano.
  5. Place the beans, reserved liquid, and oregano in a blender. Add in the garlic, lemon juice, and butter, and turn the blender on.
  6. Slowly add the olive oil, letting the mixture blend itself for 60 seconds or so once the oil is added. If it looks to dry (or if it's so dry it's not even blending), add a bit more oil (or water if you're being healthy) and continue blending. Otherwise, test the mixture and adjust for taste. Add more oil if it still doesn't taste creamy enough, and add salt and pepper.
  7. Serve over bread, either as a tapas-style starter or as a bruschetta-style accompaniment to a main course.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Lavender, Orange, and Almond Cake

In a recent moment of culinary creativity, I bought a large bag of lavender flowers. A really rather unintentionally large bag - I ordered it from the internet and since the weight of dried flowers doesn't much register in my mental scale of weights and measures, it was much larger than I knew what to do with. It is still in my larder with barely a dent in it, battling in fragrance with some of my stronger Indian spices and making for an interesting-smelling cabnet (and one which I couldn't bear opening during my sicker days of pregnancy).

One of the two main things I wanted to do with the lavender was to try variations of lavender cake. I also wanted to try making lavender (and other) flavored chocolates, but summer isn't the best time for those experiments. The Diane Henry cookbook Crazy Water, Pickled Lemon has both a chocolate lavender truffle and a lavender cake rec
ipe - the truffles will be saved for another time, but the cake was tackled now.

The first thing to do is grind up the lavender flowers with sugar until they create a fine powder. The whole house filled with powdery floral fragrance, making me think of summer times in the South of France, buzzing bees and pots of honey. Mr A&N, on the other hand, felt as if I had emptied the contents of his grandmother's hankie drawer into the blender and was proposing to do strange cooking things with this. His impression of the cake didn't improve when it was in the oven (hot handkerchiefs) or when I urged him to try little leftover crumbs from the tin (buttery handkerchiefs).

I liked the cake enough on its own - lightly floral with a very buttery crumb to the cake - but it became more than the sum of its parts with the cream cheese frosting. The tangy cheese cut the floweriness of the cake down to size, and Mr A&N finally found that he liked it enough to have slice after generous slice. Which was helpful, since (as he reminds me) men are pregnant as well, and he didn't want me to be the only one to feel like I was eating for two.

Lavender, Orange and Almond Cake
from Diane Henry in Crazy Water, Pickled Lemon

For the cake:

  • 4 tsp dried lavender buds or the flowers from 8 springs of fresh lavender
  • 9 oz superfine sugar
  • 9 oz unsalted butter
  • juice and finely grated zest of 2 oranges
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 7 oz self-raising flour, sifted
  • 2 oz blanched almonds, ground

For the topping:
  • 10 1/2 oz cream or ricotta cheese
  • 2 1/2 oz confectioner's sugar
  • finely grated rind of 1 orange

Optional decoration of candied peel and frosted lavender:
  • 2 large oranges
  • 3 1/2 oz superfine sugar
  • 8 springs fresh lavender, flowers only
  • 1 egg white, lightly beaten
  • superfine sugar, sifted

  1. Pre-heat oven to 375 F / 170 C.
  2. Combine the lavender flower and sugar in a coffee grinder or blender (the coffee grinder will give a finer powder). Grind until the powder is as fine as it can be.
  3. Cream together the butter and lavender sugar until light and fluffy.
  4. Add the orange rind, orange juice, and the eggs. Beat until well combined, adding a spoonful or two of the flour if the mixture starts to curdle.
  5. Otherwise, once the wet ingredients are well blended, fold in the flour and the ground almonds.
  6. Pour into a greased and lined 8" spring-form pan, and bake for 40 minutes.
  7. Once done, let cool for 15 minutes before turning it out onto a wire rack.
  8. Make the topping by mixing the cream/ricotta cheese with the confectioner's sugar and orange rind.
  9. Spread on to the cake once it's fully cooled; refrigerate the topping in the mean time.
  10. Decorate the cake with the orange peel and lavender flower, if using (see below).

For the candied orange peel:
  1. With a sharp knife, cut the orange rind off into strips (don't worry about them not being too fine at this stage).
  2. Remove any pith left on the back of the peel, then set about cutting the peel into fine, julienned strips about the length of your little finger.
  3. Squeeze the juice from the oranges and top it up with water so that it reaches 1 cup (if need be).
  4. Put the juice in a pan with the sugar, and heat gently until the sugar is melted.
  5. Add the strips of rind and simmer until the liquid is evaporated (about 30 minutes).
  6. Remove the pieces of rind with a fork and leave to dry on a piece of waxed paper, gently separating them first.

For the frosted lavender:
  1. Brush each lavender sprig with egg white, then sprinkle with the superfine sugar so that it is well covered.
  2. Set them aside on a cooling rack in a warm place so they can dry.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

A Return

Hello world.

It's been a while, and a topsy-turvey spring-into-summer in which life got in the way of blogging. Both my parents have been in the hospital at different points in the last couple of months with their own worrying health problems. Luckily, my father has come through the worst of his pneumonia with only the need to put on some more weight to bring him back to normal. My mother stays more of a long-term worry and a last-minute trip home recently showed me how difficult things may be. It's never easy getting old or watching those close to you get old, and feels even more difficult when you have to start thinking about questions around your loved one's care.

On a positive side, I've also spent the last many weeks struggling with a different sort of problem. Happily, I am pregnant, bringing with it lots of excitement but also an entirely different relationship to
food. I've been fairly sick a good part of the time so far, and even more than the emotional strain of family problems, the physical impossibility of keeping up a food blog during the worst of the sickness was a persuading force on the blog break. It is difficult when the most exciting thing you can report for a week was that you one night felt up to eating 11 Ritz crackers and having a sweet mint tea, and then spent the next 5 nights refusing any proximity to food.

At 20 weeks now, things have evened out though still aren't perfect. Food has more of a necessity than before - I need to eat dinner by 7pm or else I'm at risk of cleaning out the nearest cupboard without any discrimination for what I'm eating. It fills my tummy, but doesn't lend itself to creative cooking and experimenting with new ideas. I'm sure life will have many more changes once baby is here, and not just on the food front.

Mr A&N (who has been wonderful throughout, please note, dear reader) and I did get to grab two weeks away in France as something of a last hurrah before family life changed. Although the pregnancy eating guidelines seem like a full-frontal attack on the French diet (no soft or blue-tinged rare cured pate...lay off the wine) I bought tins of foie gras and forbidden drinks home as my souvenirs, to be indulged in in 4-5 months time. We also got to hone our parenting skills on the farm we stayed at, adopting a hen and her six chicks. They would be found outside our door first thing in the morning for the first of their feeds, and any walks around the grounds were spent with the whole two- legged family following behind our each step. Maybe not perfect practice for a human baby, but it felt nice to be needed.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

:: Pause ::

Some of you may have noticed that I've been on a bit of a pause. Not a break, just a pause. Life's platter has been a bit full for me at the moment and getting this month of May as breathing space has been needed. I hope to be back into the blogging world in the next couple of weeks, when I have the time and energy to enjoy thinking and writing about food again. I look forward to catching up with everyone very soon.

In the mean time, here are some signs of life from my garden. The purple flowers are from some (admittedly overgrown) chives and the white flowers are the buds of strawberries. The edible things are growing - as are the weeds, but let's move swiftly on - and all the gifts of summer will be very welcome in my kitchen.

See you all soon.