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 20, 2009
Well here we are again. At least, here I am, and you are too, hopefully. In fact I’ve sat here 10 minutes and I still don’t know how to begin. Which is new to me.
I do have a recipe to share, no problems there. But how to present it so that you realise its true deliciousness? How not to put you off at the very first hurdle?
Its the name I’m worried about. I fear it will bring back memories from childhood of something pale and soggy, watery even, to be shunted to the side of the plate when nobody’s looking and hidden under a lettuce leaf.
So maybe I’ll write about something completely different. How ab0ut Nightime in London. Did you know that it isn’t the ever-present roar of traffic that keeps me awake at night? It isn’t the wail of police sirens every two minutes or the raucous laughter of urban youth.
Actually the grunts and shrieks are positively blood-curdling. I thought someone was dying last night. The same mad cry over and over for about 10 minutes. And y0u know what it was? Foxes, mating.
London is completely overrun with them. And that’s not to mention the owl with his torpedo of a hoot and the little unknown animals who rustle through the undergrowth and squeal incessantly.
Maybe they’re about to be eaten.
Which reminds me, in a rather unpleasant and unvegetarian way, that I’m actually here to tell you a recipe.
Oh alright then, here goes. It’s Cauliflower Cheese.
There, I’ve done it. You still here? If you bear with me, I’ll try and explain why this version is nothing like the insipid morass you ate all those years ago.
For a start it doesn’t have cauliflower in it, but broccoli and potatoes. (And it could have slices of celeriac in it, was going to in fact, but I couldn’t find any in the local shops).
Secondly it’s not bland, but rich and tangy in a mature-cheddar kind of way.
And it’s simple. Just lightly cooked vegetables inundated with a creamy cheesy sauce, topped with more cheese and breadcrumbs and bunged in the oven for 25 minutes.
In fact the only possible stumbling block, as far as I can foresee, is the calorie count. There sure is a load of cream in here! Then again, you don’t get a meal this rich, sticky and crisp on the top and warmly succulent in the middle, without adding a millimetre or so to your waistline.
Broccoli and Potato Gratin
500g potatoes, scrubbed and cut into chunks
250g broccoli florets
50g plain flour
150g grated cheddar – or Parmesan
Set the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4.
Parboil the potatoes for 5 minutes, add the broccoli and simmer until just cooked: 8-10 more minutes. Drain well.
In a medium saucepan melt the butter, stir in the flour and heat for a minute. Then, ever so slowly, add in the milk, little by little to avoid any lumps. Gradually bring to the boil, by which time the sauce will have thickened. Mix in the cream, half the cheese and some salt.
Half the sauce goes into a 2 litre oven dish, dollop in the vegetables and pour the rest of the sauce over the top. Scatter on the remaining cheese and the breadcrumbs and cook for 25 minutes, or until the top of the gratin is golden-brown.
February 12, 2009
When we were snowed in recently and I was at a loose end, my thoughts turned, inevitably, to food, and I began to wonder why so many people think vegetarian food is bland and heavy.
It can be, of course, judging by what’s dished up in many restaurants, where anything vegetarian is a poor second cousin to the real deal, meat. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Here are a few tips to ensure you don’t go down the road of stodgy vegetarian lasagne or gloopy mushroom stroganoff, or any other excuses for a meal that you’ll find in your local pub.
1. Depth of flavour
You have to work much harder to create full sensuous tastes when you don’t have meat. This comes partly from using herbs and good stock, but also from the cooking processes themselves. Lightly frying vegetables, from broccoli to potatoes, before you make them into a soup or stew, will bring out their flavour like nothing else can. Or slow roast aubergines, peppers or cherry tomatoes, with olive oil and herbs, before you add them to a casserole. Combining different cooking methods like this gives variety and adds fullness of taste and texture.
2. You don’t need fancy ingredients.
This is not what we’re taught I know, but good cooking is more about how you do what you do in the kitchen, than splashing out on expensive and exotic ingredients.
If your corner shop is anything like mine, you won’t always be able to get the crispest of lettuces, the plumpest of tomatoes, or even good potatoes.
What matters is what you do with what you buy. Make a good dressing and that lettuce will perk up magically. Mash those potatoes with lots of butter and pepper and they turn into wonderful comfort food. Cover tired cooked vegetables with dressing as you would a salad and they transform – that’s what they do in the Mediterranean and their food is revered all over the world.
3. Be simple.
It’s fun to go to town on some ornate dessert, but you don’t need to, even for guests who you want to impress. Simple is good too – what better pudding can there be than fresh strawberries with cream?
For the best fast lunch go for ripe cheese, pickle and bread (though here I am fussy and I do think that the bread must be really good, crumbly on the crust and warm and fresh within. Perk up suspect bread with a few drops of water and ten minutes in the oven.)
Above all, be imaginative and don’t sweat. Don’t let TV chefs make you believe it’s all about tears and heated tempers. It really isn’t. Good vegetarian food, like all culinary delights, is born out of having fun in the kitchen.
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.)
February 2, 2009
Snow coming down on London, all night and all day. On the grey warehouses and chrome-and-glass sky-scrapers and the narrow streets around Liverpool Street Station, on the curry houses of Brick Lane and the Turkish shops towards Stoke Newington with their exhaust infused racks of tired vegetables. Snow on the posh town houses with their white columns and steps, snow on the deer of Clissold Park. Snow on our lawn and six inches of snow on the patio table. Snow on the garden Buddha top-hat-tall.
Everything has ground to a halt. It’s so quiet out there too, only a few kids chucking snowballs. The cars are still in their tarpaulins of snow. No buses, no taxis. Apart from the Victoria Line, the Underground is shut. All London is at home, watching re-runs of Kojak and afternoon chat shows. We are in a calm bubble outside of normal time and life.
Today I did a lot of watching snow. And I ate something really good. OK, it was just a sandwich. You might say that was just like a rushed office lunch at your desk. But you would be wrong.
This sandwich was different. Not fancy, just very good, in a tangy, rich, creamy way, to be consumed meditatively and alone when nestled in your favourite armchair.
Crusty white bread. Butter. Mango chutney. Fat slices of succulent Brie. And then the crowning glory. Completely wrong I suppose but very right. Crisps. Yes crisps, in the sandwich. Crunched up slightly as you slap on the top wedge of white. Thick-cut Cheshire Cheese and Chutney Kettle Chips to be exact.
Actually any old crisps would be good. But the Brie must be oozingly ripe.
January 29, 2009
An off-white mugful of leather-brown brew whilst waiting for the phone to ring. And then another, and another.
The phone rings. Then more tea, after you’ve got the news, in a different, brighter mug this time, made of Cypriot blue-and-white pottery.
What else can it be, but a crisis. Which means, of course, a whole lot of tea.
When I say a lot, I mean even more than normal, which may be itself a lot, by some people’s standards. Being English, I really do opt for tea at every conceivable opportunity. So that’s tea on rainy days. Tea on sparkling wintry afternoons when the sky is ice-blue, like this one. Tea on sweltering summer holidays in Spain when you’re desperate for a cuppa to cool you down.
And when you really need something to hang on to, when you’re waiting for the news to come through, or after it has come, be it good, bad, mediocre, boring or news-less news, what better than tea to pin you down and bring your hyper-active mind back to the here and now.
If it’s a family drama, as it was this time, you sometimes ring the changes with sherry. Just a thimbleful, sweet but not unpleasant. Sherry occurs all the more if there are grandmothers involved. Accompanied by a wedge of heavy fruit cake studded with glace cherries, bought at the church sale the Sunday before. On a plate, with a napkin.
But this week there was only tea. No cake, though there could have been. For the news was very good indeed.
January 23, 2009
I’m sure corn must be a sacred vegetable in some part of the world or some ancient civilisation. There’s something intriguing and symbolic about those nuggets of gold nestling within the deep green leaves.
And they taste good too. Best of all is corn roasted on a barbecue, lightly blackened and smoky, lavished with salted butter. There is no way to eat a corn cob delicately. You have to get to get down to it with both hands and you always end up satisfyingly messy, butter dripping onto your chin and down your forearms.
Sweetcorn kernels are formidable in fritters too, making a sweet crunchy heart to the deep-fried batter. Again this is moreish unpretetentious food, something you might buy on a street stall, that demands to be eaten the moment the fritter is ready, hot and crisp, with a scoop of sour cream or a dollop of spicy tomato relish.
Corn also makes the nicest soup I know. It’s not fancy or grand in any way, but it tastes earthy. Perhaps it’s because however much you blend the soup it never loses its grainy texture.
Some cooks add sherry. My preference is for a couple of tablespoons of Ginger Wine (Stone’s Original), not really for the alcoholic kick but for its gentle heat, as if something warm were stroking your throat.
Corn and Sweet Potato soup, for 4
300g sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped, like chips
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 red chilli, chopped
4 tbs olive oil
1 x 340g tin of sweetcorn
1 tbs brown sugar
1 tbs soya sauce
1 tbs barley miso
1.2 litres stock
200 ml milk
100 ml cream
chopped fresh coriander, to garnish
Melt the butter with the oil over a low heat, stir in the onion and fry gently until it begins to turn translucent. Add in the garlic, the chilli and the sweet potatoes and fry over a low heat for about 15 minutes, stirring often to make sure the potatoes don’t stick nor the garlic blacken.
Add the sweetcorn, sugar, miso and soya sauce, heat them through, and then pour in the stock. Bring the soup to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.
Add the milk and liquidise the soup in batches. If you are going for the ginger wine add that in now, too. Reheat.
Serve with a little curve of cream on the surface of each thick and hearty bowlful, along with a sprinkling of coriander.