February 26, 2009
Gingerbread has to be one of my top ten tea-time favourites, particularly good for wintry days or during summer rain, when you need that glow of heat coupled with the kick of sugar.
It’s a comfort food, yes, but a strongly flavoured and sophisticated one. As a child I never really liked ginger in baking – it was too strange and not straightforwardly sweet enough. The ginger biscuits I was given then were a Polish variety, made by my grandmother and served as a traditional Christmas treat. They weren’t biscuits or cookies as we find them in supermarket packets: these were spongy in the middle and covered with white icing.
I can’t say I ever liked them. They were light, but yet not quite light enough for cake. They were called biscuits, but had no crunch. And where, I wondered, was the chocolate?
Perhaps that experience is why I now consider ginger in baking, to be adult food. It’s sensual. It’s aromatic and bold. It fills the kitchen with strong scents and tastes peppery and almost luridly spicy. The sweetness too, is punchy but unusual. It’s a layered effect, a symphony of sweetness if you like, built up by using not just treacle, but sometimes honey or golden syrup as well and then dark muscovado sugar on top of that.
And beware; this recipe is called ‘sticky’ for a reason, so no nonsense about eating this daintily, please. Napkins, or good old finger licking, will definitely be called for.
Sticky Pineapple Gingerbread
450g plain flour
1 tbs ground ginger
1 tbs baking powder
1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 level tsp salt
200g dark muscovado sugar
300g black treacle
1″ fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated (discard the leftover pulp)
3 pieces stem ginger, finely chopped, plus about 3tbs syrup
432g can pineapple chunks, drained
6tbs icing sugar
Set the oven to 160C/325F/Gas 3. Grease a 23cm baking tin.
Sift together the baking powder, flour, ginger, bicarbonate of soda and salt.
Melt the butter and sugar with the treacle in a large pan over a low heat. Leave to cool and then beat in the egg and milk, and stir in half the chopped stem ginger. Add the grated fresh ginger. Fold the mixture in with the dry ingredients.
Pour the cake batter into the greased baking tin and scatter the pineapple pieces and the rest of the stem ginger over the top. Bake for about 1.5 hours. The cake should be well risen and a skewer or fork inserted in the middle should come out clean.
Leave for about half an hour in the tin and then turn out the cake and place on a wire rack to cool completely.
Finally, you need to ice the cake. Mix the icing sugar with the rest of the stem ginger syrup to make a soft gooey paste. Drizzle over the cake – zigzags look fantastic.
The cake will keep well in a cake tin and the flavours will even improve over several days.
February 3, 2009
So I finally got round to it, to them, to making those ginger biscuits as I promised, oh, ages ago. And what a chore it was, at first.
Not just one, or two, but three shop assistants in my local supermarket didn’t have a clue what treacle was or where it lived in the store. One sent me to Sweets where there were screaming 4 year-olds. Another said it was in Foreign Foods. Another just shrugged and carried on stacking shelves.
But I had to find it. Without treacle there would be no biscuits, no dark exotic tang, mineral-rich, straight from the Caribbean.
It was by pure happenstance that I stumbled on it underneath Cake Decorations where an immensely tall and thin woman – an academic judging by her glasses and woollen skirt – was moving slowly from one leg to the other and humming to herself. Maybe she was dancing, in a bookish, otherworldly way. I never realised Cake Decorations were that exciting. Maybe I need to get out more.
So I grabbed the red tin with the gold lion crest, Lyle’s Black Treacle, whisked through checkout and onto the Tube, which was packed. I made the mistake of listening to Leona Lewis bleeding away, which always makes me want to weep copiously, and then tried to cheer myself up with Prince ‘Strollin”. Luckily that worked. I was clickin’ my fingers, in that annoying way ipod listeners do, by the time I got in. Dumped the shopping, turned on the oven and began to heat the butter.
At which point everything changed. The warm scent of melting butter is like nothing on earth. The treacle and then the golden syrup behaved very badly and had to scooped off the spoon with my finger, which then had to be licked. And the dark 70% cocoa chocolate melted everywhere and somehow ended up all around my mouth. The smell of baking, essence of home, chocolate, ginger and molasses, filled the kitchen.
Now I know that every food writer tells you how they ‘ate the whole batch’. How they were going to save a few for their spouse but couldn’t resist them. All I can say is No Way. These are far too rich, too snappy at the edges and gooey in the middle, for that.
I had 4. OK, maybe 6. Or 7. Who’s counting? More to the point, there are still plenty left for a last minute snack before bed. And – who knows? – maybe even for breakfast.
Ginger and Dark Chocolate Biscuits
75g dark brown sugar
150g golden syrup
2tbs black treacle
300g self-raising flour
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp ground ginger
50g stem ginger, finely chopped
50g dark chocolate
Set the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
Over a low heat gently melt the butter, treacle, sugar and golden syrup. When the final golden knob of butter has dissolved, turn off the heat and sift in all the dry ingredients. Stir well into a moist dough.
Add the chopped stem ginger and with a sharp knife flake in the dark chocolate. It will end up in lumps of all sizes. No matter. Lick your fingers, ‘cos they’ll need it.
I had to make the biscuits in 2 lots. For each batch, lightly butter a couple of oven trays and lay out little balls of the dough, each about a teaspoonful. Make sure they are well spaced apart. Bake for 12-15 minutes.
Let the biscuits cool slightly in the trays before you lift them gently out with a spatula. They will still be very moist, but crisp up rapidly as they cool.
A tip: don’t overdo the bicarbonate. I put in a teaspoonful the first time I made these, and that was overpowering.
And another tip: for really gingery biscuits, grate in a about an inch – or more – of fresh ginger. (Use the fine side of the grater. You’ll be left holding a wodge of pulp, which you’ll need to chuck.)
December 11, 2008
You know how you’re meant to lose your sweet tooth as you grow up? Where once you would save a pocketful of pennies to buy sickly gobstoppers that change colour as you suck them, or sherbet fountains with a stick of licorice in them, how you move on as an adult, to Camembert and Stilton and – and Stinking Bishop?
Back then your six year-old self would go for for raspberry jam, or golden syrup, or maybe even condensed milk to top your white sliced sandwich. But now, maturer, wiser, a little more boring perhaps, now you don’t eat jam, white bread or butter, at all. It’s all grilled Halloumi and asparagus.
Now you have a grown-up job and you go to grown-up places like bars and you eat grown-up savoury things, right?
Well no, actually. Forget all that. It’s all a load of peppermint humbugs.
Deep down in every grown-up stomach an ever-ravenous inner child still cries out for strawberry sponge and Mars bars and chocolate biscuits. Yes you can ignore him/her for a lot of the time, but really, now in the lead-up to the biggest gorge-fest of the year, why should you?
OK, I think I’ve made my point pretty strongly here. You’ve got it, right? For today, we are going to indulge that six year-old. Today is calorific freedom day.
Today boring things like waistlines are well hidden with saggy jumpers and we can get down to more important matters. Today we can properly appreciate this goddess of the kitchen, this – um – masterpiece? success? excess? Excess, I think, is the best choice of a word here. It’s a pretty apposite description of this baby.
At every bend of today’s culinary road when a choice is needed – should it be richer or less rich? – should it be sweeter or less sweet? – at every one of them we are going for more. More everything.
It’s just that sort of day.
So here we have a pear tart, right? All well and good you might say. But pear tarts come in all shapes and sizes. Some are sedate on a bed of flaky pastry and some soar on puff. In some, pear halves (stalks included) are mulled in red wine before baking, or sometimes in a syrup with vanilla and lemon (And yes that last one is a good one, I have to say. But no, I didn’t do it today. It wasn’t quite sweet enough).
Some lie on a bed of rich custard and some are served with cream, or creme anglaise, or even chocolate sauce.
All are wonderful.
But for today, I wanted saute-ed pears, I knew that. Because? Well because I have a thing for them at the moment. (They are extremely good with ice-cream. Just them, vanilla ice, that’s it. Maybe a shot of calvados poured lovingly over the top. ) So they had to go in.
Then there was the almond thing. Pears and almonds are a match made in heaven, up there with chocolate sauce and ice-cream. I think on that we can all agree. So there was no question about the almonds.
But marzipan…marzipan is more difficult, a more complex question. It elicits such a mixed response. So many of our marzipanal memories are dull or dire; of wedding cakes so heavy you just have to slip them behind a potted plant when no-one is looking and walk away with nonchalance.
And yet, marzipan can be so very good. Marzipan smoothed out with cream and thinly spread, as it is in this recipe, is something different. Rich, yes. But a richness that you will know is unquestionably right.
So today, whenever I say, ‘More of this?’ – the answer is always, ‘Yes’.
‘Of course, Stephen.’
‘Another slice of home-made pear and almond tart?’
‘Oh. I really shouldn’t. Well go on then, just a small one…No not that small.’
Pear and Almond Tart
(makes a baking tray’s worth)
4 firm pears, peeled, cut into quarters lengthwise, and cored.
(I used conference pears. Unripe is good)
40-60g caster sugar
150g white marzipan, cut into chunks
3-4 tbs double cream
500g puff pastry
20g flaked almonds
Set the oven to 220C/425F/Gas 7. (‘Yes Stephen!’)
In a large pan melt the butter and saute the pears gently for about 5 minutes. Pour on the sugar and cook them for another 5 minutes, turning occasionally. They will gradually take on a quite delicious warm brown colour with darker patches where they’ve charred slightly. You may want to do them in 2 batches, as I did.
Lift the pears on to a plate to cool, leaving behind excess sugary goo.
Whizz up the marzipan with the cream.
Roll out the pastry pretty thinly, about a third of a centimetre thick maybe, and lay it out on an oven dish. Now spread it with the marzipan cream. Cover that with the pears, as prettily arranged as you can manage.
Shall we now sprinkle our tart with a little icing sugar? Why, yes!
And then a scattering of flaked almonds? Of course!
Then pop the tart in the oven for 20 minutes. When you take it out it will be golden, crisp at the edges and you can dust with more icing sugar if you like. And of course you will like.
You can serve this on its own. Or with cream. Creme fraiche would be my preference. And it’s good hot or cold.
Let out your belt a couple of notches, and enjoy.
November 21, 2008
Which I’ve found variously translated as cream tarts, custard tarts, or by dictionary.com’s translation service as ‘you graze of cream’. Which I suppose you do and it is and…well anyway they’re delicious.
I was given my first one ever by A (of good bike bad bike) earlier this week. It had a thin light shell of crisp pastry and a cool rich filling. It was so good that I wanted to make my own. So I researched a bit and found out that this was a pastel de nata (pasteis being the plural). I then unearthed an old Sunday supplement with a likely recipe and found another couple on the Internet. It looked like I had it all sorted.
And then I got stuck. The recipes varied wildly. Some said a very low oven and some a roastingly hot one. Some said you had to cook the tarts for a maximum of 10 minutes and absolutely no more, while some said to give them a good 20. Ditto with the amount of cream, milk and egg yolks in the custard. One called for vanilla pods, but there was no way I was splashing out on those at £3.99 a pop from my local supermarket. Essence of same would have to do. And far, far worse, nowhere could I find the little foil tart cases that seemed to be essential.
My difficulties were compounded by the fact I’ve moved flat recently and found there are various basic utensils we don’t have – I’d assumed they were kind of generic to kitchens. But no, in some places there are no rolling pins, so you have to use an Absolut vodka bottle; and neither is there always a sieve, which is why the icing sugar on the tarts pictured above has fallen in clumps.
What did I do? I made a cup of tea. That cheered me up and once cheered I could come to a decision. Which was that I would use my instincts, and improvise. A muffin tray would do instead of tart cases (and having decided that I promptly found a recipe that said it was essential to use one). I only had one muffin tray, so I would make 2 batches of tarts and try out a different cooking time on each one. As for the cream vs milk ratio dilemma, well I’d go for richness.
What I ended up with didn’t look much like the tartlet I had first tasted. But then, when I examined closely the pictures that went with other recipes, neither did they. These were puffier, more haphazard, more obviously home-cooked pasteis. But no matter. They tasted great, light but splendidly rich.
Pasteis de Nata
makes about 12
500g unrolled puff pastry
350ml double cream
4 egg yolks
50g caster sugar
50g plain flour
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 long strip of lemon peel
Set the oven to 200C. (In the end my vote is for more heat less time. Trying to cook these at 150C as one recipe suggested, left the pastry almost raw on the inside).
Roll out the pastry to into an oblong about .25cm thick. Then coil it up like a Swiss Roll. It doesn’t have to be too tight. I found it helped if you sealed the long edge with a little water to stop it uncoiling.
Cut the pastry into 3cm coils.
Wet your fingers lightly and press your thumb into the centre of the coil and then begin to shape the pastry into little cups. Recipes said the cups need to be about .3cm thick, but I just went as thin as I could go, and it worked. You should make about 12.
Put the cups into muffin cases and chill (them, not you).
Place all the custard ingredients into a saucepan, off the heat – the milk, cream, yolks, sugar, flour, lemon peel and maybe a pinch of salt. Whisk them up well. Cautiously turn on the heat and cook the custard until it becomes really thick, whisking all the time so that you don’t end up with scrambled eggs.
Spoon 1- 1.5 tbs of custard into each pastry cup. Cook the tarts for a little over ten minutes. My oven is fan-assisted though, so they may take longer in a conventional oven. Tastes vary over how brown the custard should become, but the pastry itself definitely needs to look golden at the edges.
Cool the tarts and remove from the muffin tin carefully – I went round the edges first with a sharp knife and then used a dessert spoon to lift them out.
Dredge them with cinnamon and icing sugar.
November 7, 2008
Cyprus Delight. Doesn’t the name conjure up mouthfuls of delicate sweetness, rosewater, pistachios, and mint? Then again, maybe it doesn’t, since it’s probably not as famous over here as it’s twin Turkish Delight, though those Southern Cypriots wouldn’t thank me for saying so.
My box (you notice how possessive I am) comes very much from the Greek region of the island (from Larnaca airport actually, where I wiled away my last minutes and euros. And did you know that it’s one of the few remaining airports where people still dare smoke, openly, without shame and in the kafeneio, as they down thick sweet cups of black coffee – you ask for glyko, unsweetened is sketo –rather than outside the airport in the rain?)
Or instead of Turkish or Cypriot Delights we could call them lokum. The word may derive from an Arabic phrase meaning ‘contentment of the throat’. It just about sums them up. Exotic, intensely sweet – maybe too sweet for some people’s palates. Certainly not for mine.
This box, pictured above, comes from a quaint village, Lefkara, on the slopes of the Troodos Mountains. The name means ‘white hills’, white because of the limestone. I’ve never been there, but I’m sure it’s full of fat and smiling villagers wandering about in clouds of icing sugar.
In his Narnia books, C.S.Lewis used lokum as one of the charms by which the White Witch beguiled the treacherous Edmund. The Turkish Delights she offers him are enchanted ( of course they are and you’d have thought he’d have realised that. After all she is a witch). “At first Edmund tried to remember that it was rude to speak with one’s mouth full, but soon he forgot about this and thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat…”
It sounds like any one of us aficionados. It’s a known and probably well-documented fact that it’s impossible to eat just one. They give you a little prong in the box, like a forked toothpick, so you can eat them daintily, if you want to, but after the first 3 squares stick together you’re bound to decide to use your fingers. Once you’ve gone down that route it’s only going to be extreme willpower (or other people’s aghast faces) that will stop you tilting back your head and emptying in the entire box. And then licking out the icing sugar.
As you can see, I happen to like Cyprus Delight.
What I want to know is why sweet things are considered sinful? They make you fat of course, which may be a sin in some people’s book, and in that sense they lure you into the ways of the flesh, but then so does mashed potato with onion gravy.
It’s not the same for other religions. In an Indian ashram free boiled sweets are given out, or better still those Indian sweetmeats made from a whole lot of sugar, milk and ground nuts, steamed away until they form compact balls, dense and sickly-sweet. They’re called prasad, which is blessed food, offered to the Gods and then given (free) to the faithful to eat. Symbolically I suppose it’s food which is as good for the senses as the guru’s teachings are for the soul.
Which makes me think that maybe I’m not so bad for wolfing down Cyprus Delight while lying on my bed on a cold grey day in November. Certainly there’s not much else to do. And just maybe I’m also nourishing my soul. Maybe I am allowed to have my lokum and eat the whole box too.
I have found a recipe, from the queen of cookbook writers, Claudia Roden. However, on second thoughts and serious contemplation, I’m not going to give it to you. You can look it up yourselves if you’re that desparate, but my advice is don’t. Please don’t make it. Don’t make your own lokum. Anything concocted by amateurs like us is not going to be a patch on the real thing – and if it was, what a calamity! There would go all the mystery and romance. And don’t buy them in your corner shop either. They’ve got to be shipped over from abroad or found in a bazaar, wrapped up in that ornate box with the fancy writing, still smelling of lemons and almond flowers and sin.
October 22, 2008
Figs are in season in North London, or at least in the Turkish grocery just down from the Happening Bagel Bakery. I took my time choosing these, making sure I had the very best little buds of purple velvet, so ripe they could have blown in that moment from a tree in the Med.
You can eat them just as they come. Or pan-fry them with a little butter and honey. Or roast them, as I did, with cheese.
Roasted figs with Blue Cheese, Honey and Almonds
4 ripe figs
50g Danish Blue cheese (ok, use ricotta if the idea of blue cheese alarms you)
15g flaked almonds
Set the oven to 220C/425F/Gas 7.
Spread a square of tin foil onto a baking sheet. Remove the stalks from the figs, cut a deep cross down from the stalk end into each one, and place them on the tin foil.
Press crumbled cheese into the crosses, top this with a large pinch of flaked almonds, and then end up with a drizzle of honey (about a teaspoonful for each fig).
Bake the figs for about 5 minutes, until the almonds are golden brown and the cheese is oozing out. Serve with Greek yoghurt, spooning over any escaped honey/juices from the foil.
October 2, 2008
After I finished all my chores – bank, newsagents, semi-skimmed milk, that kind of thing – I wandered around Muswell Hill. Being posh-ish Norf London it’s one delicatessen after another, windows full of olive bread, sundried tomato and feta tartlets and so on. Today I also noticed a lot of doughnuts (by which I mean my doughnut antennae were out, not that there was some sort of special doughnut celebration, delightful as that might be). All shapes and sizes of them, but I resisted their pull.
( I love doughnuts. Who doesn’t? But why are so many soggy or bland or floury? I only bother now when you can see them being cooked then and there for you, and they’re handed over in a little paper bag, hot and crisp and rolled in sugar. Which reminds me; there is a doughnut stall in Camden market, near the main entrance, which does them just like this. Well worth a visit.)
The French have a verb for wandering about like this; it’s flaner. I think it’s the kind of thing a poet does in France, and it’s how I felt, what with the sun out and the food to look at and all. But then I got to the Maison Blanc and the poeticalness just vanished into total absorption.
I first encountered Maison Blanc many years ago when I lived in Oxford and I was given a Maison Blanc 21st birthday cake. It wasn’t so much a cake as a cotton-wool fantasy, a cloud, with meringue and strawberries and billows of cream. Which produced the most amazing sugar rush, later accentuated by champagne, which kept us up there, flying, for hours, right up to the time when we moved on to vodka – with lime, with orange, with more vodka.
The Maison Blanc on Muswell Hill Broadway looks out over all of London, right over to the City, with the Gherkin quite visible (as it is from everywhere) and Canary Wharf and green hills off in the distance, which must be Surrey.
And today I didn’t notice the view at all, but pressed my nose against the glass at Maison Blanc (not really) and saw and had to have
1. These multi-coloured and flavoured mini-macarons, green for pistachio, pink for strawberry, yellow for lemon and brown for chocolate.
2. A tarte au citron thingy – that’s lemon meringue pie in French, don’t ya know. And yet of course it isn’t, or not as we know it here in the UK. This was a jewel really, small as my palm, the crust light and flaky and the meringue so rich and sweet that on its own it would be so very wrong, but here – genius! – it’s married to the lemon and you get a symphony. Hurrah!
But not enough of it.