Cheese Scones

March 30, 2009

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When we think of scones it’s always teatime and there’s jam or honey and quite possibly cream. The sun is out. Bees hum in the roses and it’s all very Edwardian and English.

But there’s a whole other way of eating scones, where they’re a savoury item, to be eaten either on their own with butter, or with soup – best of all, to my taste, being sweetcorn soup.

These are they. The recipe has been handed down to me so I don’t know who was its original author. But the addition of the spring onions is mine, though you could use a leek.

Cheese Scones
at least 12

225g self raising flour
pinch salt
1/2 tsp mustard powder
55g butter
100ml milk
1 egg
50g cheddar cheese, grated
paprika
2 spring onions, finely chopped

Set the oven to 220C/425F/Gas 7. Grease an oven tin.

Sieve together the flour, salt and mustard powder. Rub in the butter.

Mix in half the cheese. Crack the egg into the middle of the flour and pour in most of the milk. Gradually work the ingredients together. Add the rest of the milk if it’s necessary,  but aim for a soft dough which isn’t sticky.

Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead a little, before pressing it down to form a slab about 2cm thick. Cut into 5cm rounds.

Place the scones onto the baking sheet and brush with milk. Then top them with a little cheese and a sprinkling of paprika.

Bake for 10-12 minutes.

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Sticky Pineapple Gingerbread

February 26, 2009

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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
175g butter
300g black treacle
1″ fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated (discard the leftover pulp)
300ml milk
1 egg
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.

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.

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Ginger and Dark Chocolate Biscuits
75g butter
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.)

Just say yes

December 11, 2008

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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’.

‘More pears?’

‘Of course, Stephen.’

‘More sugar?’

‘Absolutely.’

‘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 butter
40-60g caster sugar
150g white marzipan, cut into chunks
3-4 tbs double cream
500g puff pastry
icing sugar
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.