Thursday, 27 December 2012

HIBERNATION - American Pancakes and Christmas

I always need a few extra days off on top of the obligatory national Christmas holiday. In the weeks leading up to Christmas the steadily worsening weather and rising panic about presents, traveling and quite frankly money, means that once the big day finally arrives and passes in a haze of booze and food, there is a guilty sense of relief. 
Don’t get me wrong I adore Christmas.  The pagans got it right with the Winter Solstice celebrating the shortest day and longest night - it only gets better from here on and we have the extra mince pie padding to deal with the January chills.  I’m not forgetting the baby Jesus. Or Santa Claus.  Everyone has a place in my book, but mainly I worship tinsel. Glorious, glittery, shiny tinsel.  My living room is a shrine. 
One of the main luxuries with time off is the lie-in and the lazy celebration breakfast.  Smoked salmon and the fry-up have their place but my American food obsession makes me choose a stack of pancakes.  Not super-thin crepes with lemon and sugar but thick, fluffy, vanilla monsters dredged in maple syrup.  They make me feel like I’m in a film. 

Whenever I want a classic American recipe I turn to the uber blogger, The Pioneer Woman, a bonafide all-American housewife living on a working cattle ranch in Oklahoma.  I halved her recipe and added an unconventional dollop of Greek yoghurt helped to counter the sweetness. 

Pioneer Woman’s Perfect Pancakes  - serves 2 generously

1 ½ cups plus 1 table spoon of plain flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 table spoon caster sugar
1 ½ table spoon baking powder
1 cup whole milk
1 large egg
1 ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons butter plus extra for frying
Maple syrup or golden syrup to serve
Greek yoghurt or cream

1)   Mix all the dry ingredients (flour, salt, sugar and baking powder) in a large bowl
2)   Mix all the wet ingredients separately (milk, egg, vanilla extract)
3)   Add the wet to the dry, taking care not to over mix – lumps are good!
4)   Melt the 2 tablespoons butter (I defrost in microwave for 30 seconds) then carefully stir into the batter.
5)   You have 2 choices:
a)    Frying pancakes in batches, leaving cooked ones to keep warm in a very low oven (80 degrees Celsius) on a plate.
b)   Using a humongous non-stick pan or 2 non-stick pans and doing all at once.
6)   Either way: heat non-stick pan with a bit of butter on a low to medium plate and spoon a large serving spoon size dollop.  I got about 6 large pancakes from this recipe. 
7)   Wait till a few bubbles form on the surface (I waited slightly too long, which is why the edges are a little dark) then flip and leave for another couple of minutes.
8)   Stack on a plate with a pat of butter between each one, a drizzle of syrup and bit of yoghurt or cream. 

Saturday, 1 December 2012

GIRL CRUSH - Almond Cake and an Engagement

My first girl crush was Pamela Anderson.  To my seven year old self she epitomized femininity. I wanted to be her.  I adored my Barbie dolls so the uber-sexual, bionic babe represented the ultimate physicality of womanhood with her teeny waist, balloon boobs and mane of blonde extensions.
As I’ve grown older and my perception of femininity has changed, my girl crushes have become more eclectic, and perhaps a little healthier.  Nigella has been a solid contender since I first saw her on TV in soft focus wearing a red silk dressing gown ‘stealing’ leftovers from the fridge in an absurdly provocative way.  She oozes a lusciousness that screams hedonism, and for someone selling food that is no bad thing.  Aside from the laughably porno cooking shows, her food writing is fantastic.   She really wants you to enjoy cooking and eating as much as she does.

The title of her baking book ‘How To Be a Domestic Goddess’ is genius.  Nothing else makes you feel like a domestic goddess more than producing a cake.  There might be piles of washing and an unmade bed, but homemade baked goods make you Wonder Woman.
 I made the almond cake from said book at 10.30 pm last Friday while reveling in the rarity of a flat to myself for the entire weekend.  Cooled overnight and eaten for breakfast in true Nigella-style, it was beautiful.  Dense, moist and intensely almond flavoured from the marzipan and essence, it is perfect for a coffee break.  It is ridiculously simple (even being fairly pissed I couldn’t mess it up) so I urge you to give it a go.  Unless of course you hate marzipan.

PS. The big news.  I’m engaged.  Alex asked me all officially with a proper ring and everything. And I said yes.  I’m still giddy.  Although this was on the cards from pretty much three months after we met, I didn’t expect to feel this excited, happy and secure all at the same time.  It’s serious folks.

Almond Cake - Nigella Lawson’s ‘How To Be A Domestic Goddess’

I didn’t have the 25 cm spring-form tube pan she specified, so used a non-stick standard 20 cm spring-form tin.
  •   250 gram(s butter (softened)
  • 250 gram(s) Marzipan (softened)
  • 150 gram(s) caster sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon(s) almond essence
  • ¼ teaspoon(s) vanilla extract
  • 6 large egg(s)
  • 150 gram(s) self-raising flour
1)   Preheat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius. Put the sugar, marzipan and butter into a large bowl and mix well with an electric whisk or in a food processor. 

2)   Add the almond essence and vanilla extract then mix again.  

3)   Add the eggs, one at a time and mixing in between each one.

4)   Finally add the flour in two stages, mixing between each one.  

5)   Pour into the tin, and lightly even out with the back of a spoon. Nigella says it takes 50 minutes for a test skewer in the center to come out clean-ish, but mine was done at 40. 

6)   Cool in the tin before turning out and sprinkling with icing sugar. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Autumn - Beef Stew With Dumplings

Autumn is most definitely here.  Every time I step outside and get that sudden shock of chill after the ambiance of central heating I know its here. There’s no point fighting the dropping temperature and darker evenings.  Being angry that Britain isn’t Barbados is pointless.  Instead embrace the extra layers, the pure coziness of the extra duvet and the opportunity to eat the very best in comfort food.

Britain does brilliant comfort food.   I know I love the US and hells bells I love a good pasta dish, but when it comes to matching the food to the weather, sometimes its good to stay traditional.  Beef, root veg, suet and ale.

I’ve made lots of stews but I reckon this is the best to date.  The gnarly looking shin melts into spoon tender meat during the long braise, giving the gravy a rich meaty flavour.  Chunks of carrot provide colour and sweetness. Yes it takes ages (5 hours to be exact) but the savory, yeasty aroma that fills the house builds anticipation and you can go do other stuff while it bubbles in the oven. 

Despite the dumplings I ate this with mashed potato, but to be honest that was overkill.  I was left groaning, clutching my belly and vowing never to over-eat again, even after leaving most of the mash in the bowl pictured. 

Beef Stew With Chives and Mustard Dumplings  - adapted from Delia Online

1 kg of beef shin chopped into 5 cm chunks
3 big carrots peeled and chopped into large chunks
2 parsnips peeled and chopped into large chunks
about 8 baby onions peeled and left whole
1 oxo beef cube
330 ml bottle of pale ale (I used Duvel, yeah I know its not British)
bout 100g of plain flour, seasoned well with salt and pepper
2 bay leaves
leaves picked from 2 sprigs thyme


1 heaped teaspoon mustard powder
heaped tablespoon finely chopped chives
175 g self raising flour
75g shredded beef suet
2 level teaspoon wholegrain mustard
salt and pepper to season

1)   preheat oven to 130 degrees celcius.  Put the seasoned flour in large bowl and coat the beef pieces, carrots, onions and parsnips evenly.  Tuck the beef and veg pieces into a large casserole dish, crumble over the beef stock cube, the bay leaves and thyme then pour over the ale. 
2)   Bring to simmer then add two layers of foil over the top, then the lid.  This tight seal means the liquid won’t escape during the long cooking process.
3)   Cook at 130 degrees celcius for 4.5 hours, then remove from the oven, and turn the temperature up to 200.
4)   While the oven is heating get on with the dumplings.  Mix the wholegrain mustard in a small bowl with 3 tablespoons of water.  In a separate bowl mix the dry dumpling ingredients. 
5)   Add the wet ingredients to the dry, mixing with a metal spoon or knife.  If needed add more water until it becomes a cohesive ball of soft dough. 
6)   Divide the dough into 8, then wet hands and roll lightly into little balls. 
7)   By now the oven will have heated.  Take the lid of off the stew and place the dumpling balls evenly in the stew.  Put back in the oven for 25-30 minutes, or until the dumplings are golden crusted. 
8)   Eat and eat and eat and eat. 

Monday, 24 September 2012

RAIN: Meat Liquor and Hot WIngs

My first introduction to chicken wings was the awful BBQ ones that come with budget take-away pizzas.  The poor quality meat with a synthetic and sickly BBQ sauce put me off big time. Then Meat Liquor came along with their addictively tangy and ridiculously messy Buffalo wings.  Finger food at its best. 
Meat Liquor is understandably popular.  There aren’t many places in London that serve quality American fast food and they are the best.  Their no-booking policy and cult following means that unless you go at the right time the queues are boringly long.  Much as I love a grease-fest, I can’t always be arsed to queue 45 minutes.  Even if they are that good.

So, after a week of fantasizing about their hot wings I finally made them myself.  A quick Google showed multiple variations on the classic but the simplest recipe kept cropping up and felt the most authentic.  I was initially a bit scared of deep-frying but it turned out to be easy.  This is a no frills recipe and better for it, though I had a heart attack just looking at the amount of butter…
These wings are fabulous.  They are a near-perfect replica of Meat Liquor’s version and totally satisfied my craving.  The blue cheese dip is unctuously pungent and rich, contrasting with the crisp crunch of peppery celery and sweet carrot batons.  Frank’s Hot Sauce is not very spicy, especially for a chili-head, but gives a subtle vinegar warmth augmented by a few generous dashes of Jamaican Hot Sauce.  And everything tastes better with butter.  
Hot Wings  - serves 2 generously or 3 to 4 as a starter

1.5 Kg of Chicken wings (Chop of the wing tips and cut between the wing bit and the bit that looks like a mini drumstick)
1 L of Oil for frying (I used sunflower)
1 bottle of Franks Original Hot Sauce
230 g of salted butter
Jamaican hot sauce or Tabasco to taste

Blue Cheese Dip

50 g Danish blue or other strong blue cheese, crumbled
Heaped tablespoon of buttermilk
Tablespoon of mayonnaise
Heaped table spoon of  sour cream
1 Crushed clove of garlic
tablespoon white wine vinegar

1) Thoroughly mix all of the dip ingredients together and add more cheese if necessary. Leave to one side.

2) Preheat oven to 80 degrees celcius. Heat the entire bottle of oil in a heavy based large saucepan (I used a wok) over a medium to high heat.  When it is shimmering and little bubbles are visible (about 10 minutes) add the chicken carefully using metal tongs or a slotted metal spoon.  It will look volcanic, don’t be scared.  You may need to cook the chicken in two batches.

3) Make sure the chicken doesn’t stick to the bottom and turn occasionally.  It will take about 10 minutes to cook – when they are golden remove and put in oven to keep warm while you put in the second batch of chicken.  Don’t bother with this if you can fit them all in.

4) While the chicken is frying, melt the butter in another pan and add the entire bottle of Franks hot sauce, mix well (don’t worry if it looks like its curdling).  Add the hotter hot sauce to taste.  

5) Mix the cooked chicken wings in the butter and hot sauce mixture and serve with the blue cheese dip and some carrot and celery batons.

Don’t do it everyday, but once in a while. Go wild.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

NEARLY VEGGIE - Fennel and Anchovy Spaghetti

Contrary to what this blog suggests, I don’t just eat cake and meat.  I really like veg, I really like salad.  Aware its better for my body and better for the environment, I‘ve made a conscious decision to eat less meat during the week and to hark back to my childhood meals where my mother fed me a pretty damn healthy, but pretty damn hippie, vegetarian diet.
Tastes change.  I used to hate tomatoes with a passion. Some say exposure breeds love and I have a sneaking suspicion that my about turn from detesting aniseed flavours to obsessing over fennel is due to the obscene quantities of Sambuca I’ve imbibed on countless Camden nights.
This pasta is one that surprised me.  It started off as a holier than thou attempt at healthier eating on a school night and became one I’ve kept going back to simply because it tastes great.  It’s not strictly vegetarian due to the anchovies, but you could leave these out and add some chopped kalamata olives instead. 

What you get is an intensely savory kick from the anchovies or olives, with an iron-rich bite from the cabbage.  The fennel offers a fresh aniseed note, and the seeds give sudden crunches of licorice.  Brown spaghetti was again initially chosen for its health benefits but kept because it holds its texture well and its flavour stands up to the rest of the ingredients.

It’s not unhealthy.  It’s nearly vegetarian.  In short, give it a go. 

Fennel and Anchovy Spaghetti  - serves 2

Half a head of a savoy cabbage or small head of spring greens, sliced into 1.5ish cm ribbons. (Spine removed from greens)
2 cloves of garlic crushed
1 sliced red chili
Can of anchovies in olive oil, chopped finely and reserve the oil
Heaped teaspoon  of fennel seeds
Half a head of fennel, very finely sliced
50 ml white wine
extra virgin olive oil
salt and black pepper
Enough dried brown spaghetti for 2 people

1)   Set a large pan of boiling salted water for the pasta and add spaghetti
2)   After about 5 minutes put another large deep frying pan or wok  on medium to high heat and add a glug of olive oil then the garlic, anchovies with their oil, fennel seeds and sliced chili.  Stir for about minute till the garlic is about to turn golden then add the cabbage and fennel.  Stir to coat with oil and add the white wine.
3)   Stir occasionally until the cabbage is cooked through but has a slight bite.  It should take about 5 minutes or so. If it looks a little dry add a splash of water to help the steam it along its way.
4)   The pasta should be about cooked by now, drain and add to the other pan stirring well and add a splash of the pasta cooking water if it looks like it needs more liquid. 
5)   It will need pepper, but taste to check the salt as the anchovies are pretty salty already.   Give it a squeeze of lemon and an extra glug of oil.  Parmesan is nice as well. 

Saturday, 1 September 2012

HUNGOVER AGAIN: Lemon Custard Pie

I will at some point get to grips with my nemesis. Pastry. On any of the occasions I have handled anything remotely pastry-like it has determinedly misbehaved; falling apart, drying out, or becoming almost inedibly hard. I know it’s supposedly simple once you get the hang of it, but that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe there will be a Eureka moment after which I’ll be whipping up little pastries left right and centre before being heaved to the nearest bariatric ward, but until then I’ll avoid making it where possible until the craving takes over. 
'Cream' melted cause I was too impatient for it to cool properly.
 Due to a pretty epic hangover, the other weekend I couldn’t stop thinking about pie. An American pie. Specifically some sort of lemon pie, so I trotted off to the shops to stare numbly at shelves, aimlessly circle aisles three times and think everyone was staring at me. Knowing my limits, I bought a ready-made sweet short-crust pasty block. If you’re gonna pick a day to learn pastry, don’t pick the day after you thought it was a good idea to drink a double whiskey with every beer. 

 The supposedly foolproof dough was no match for me and a patchwork job was necessary but even with the dreaded ‘soggy bottom’ and slightly over-browned edges it hit the spot.  The filling was comforting, with a hint of lemon flavour running through the firm and silky custard though when I make this again I’ll ramp up the lemon zing with extra zest.  The cream topping wasn’t actually cream it was Elmlea, as surprise surprise I’d forgotten to get extra earlier and for some reason none of the corner shops near our flat stock anything else! It was passable even if it did take brute force to whip. 

All in all, this wasn’t perfect, but it did the job and given the state I was in I’m still proud. 
Lemon Custard Pie (adaptedfrom

500 g block of sweet shortcrust pastry
1 cup sugar
Lemon zest from 2 unwaxed lemons
¼ cup water
¾ cup double cream
Big pinch salt
5 large egs
½ cup lemon juice

1)    Roll out your dough to about a pound coin thickness and blind bake in a 9 inch pie pan. This is a good set of instructions
2)    Make lemon custard filling: Reduce oven temperature to 160 degrees celcius.Pulse sugar and zest in a food processor until zest is finely chopped, then add to a small saucepan with the water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved, then boil, without stirring, 5 minutes. Stir in cream and salt, then cook until hot (do not let boil).
3)    Whisk eggs in a large bowl. Add hot cream mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly, then whisk in lemon juice.
4)    Strain custard through a fine sieve into another bowl, pressing with the back of a spoon to get out all the goodness, then pour into crust.
5)    Bake until filling is set 2 inches from edge but centre is still wobbly, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool completely (or get impatient and add fake whipped cream then regret it when it melts a bit).

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Real Cooking: Mushroom Pasta

It was probably my mum who said to me that the cooking you do when you look in the cupboard, look in the fridge and wing it, that’s the real cooking.  Not the flamboyant ‘here you go darling, now THAT’S how you cook a steak’, or the slightly panicky recipe following of a newbie baker.  Real cooking is behind the day to day dinners of someone who knocks up a respectable meal from half a can of baked beans, some limp parsley and frozen prawns.  My mum probably said this because it is, invariably, mums who are the dons of this kind of cooking. 

I learned the rudiments of cooking watching my mum get the dinner ready.  Granted, the attention I paid to dinner’s production was based less in a desire to chef, and more in impatient greed.   A weeknight family dinner isn’t about flash cooking or following an obscure recipe, it’s about feeding people quickly, cheaply and reliably.   Being able to cook isn’t just about following a recipe to the T, it’s about having an instinctive understanding of what will pair well from a perhaps uninspiring larder.  What helps is enjoying food.  If you love eating, cooking and all that goes with dinner, you will be interested enough in making something taste nice to be able to produce something out of nothing. 

Now, that’s not to say that a lot of these muddled creations aren’t forgettable or downright disgusting.  Sometimes you just get it wrong.  It takes something really quite revolting for me not to eat it if I’m hungry though.  Which is why I eat BBQ chicken wings from Tops Pizza when they come with the meal deal.

Occasionally you hit on something fantastic; that makes you wonder why on earth you never made it before and makes you swagger around the kitchen safe in the knowledge there will never be a better cook than you.  Sometimes the incredible occurs suddenly after you’ve done a bit of tweaking to a fairly predictable set of ingredients.  Mushroom, bacon and cream.  Of course it’s good.  Add it to pasta and you’ve got edible comfort.  Concentrate the mushroom flavour with some dried porcini; add a splash of white wine and shit loads of chopped dill and you’ve got something worth shouting about.

This is an example of a weekday dinner becoming something to show-off with.  The dill exaggerates the earthy, savory taste of the mushrooms.  The white wine gives the cream a slightly perfumed sharpness without clashing with the comforting richness of the dairy.  You would probably be enormous if you ate this all the time as its damn fattening, but with July pretending it October, who cares. 

Mushroom and Dill Pasta for 2-3 people

Enough pasta for two people – I usually use tagliatelle, but this time I fancied conchiglie
100 g of smoked pancetta, roughly chopped, or 5 slices smoked bacon, chopped.
50 g dried porcini mushrooms (I’ve used dried Portobello before and its been fine)
250 g mushrooms, sliced
2-3 crushed garlic cloves
Half teaspoon crushed chili flakes
150 ml double cream
100 ml dry white wine
Juice half a lemon
Handful grated parmesan
Bunch of dill, sprigs removed and finely chopped
Olive oil

1)    Soak the porcini mushrooms in a couple of tablespoons of boiling water for about 15 minutes or until soft, them remove, squeeze out the excess water and roughly chop.  (You can keep the mushroom water for something else.)
2)    Set a pan of boiling, salted water to boiling and add the pasta.  Cook to instructions and set aside. Reserve pasta water.
3)    Meanwhile, set another pan over a high heat; add a tablespoon of olive oil and nob of butter. Add the chopped pancetta/bacon and fry for about 6 minutes till the fat looks crispy and slightly golden.
4)    Add the sliced mushrooms and the porcini mushroom, stirring well.  Add more butter if necessary, but remember the mushrooms soak up all the oil only to release it again after a few minutes so be patient.
5)    When the mushrooms have browned, turn the heat down to medium and add the garlic and chili flakes, fry off for about 30 secs.
6)    Turn the heat back to high and add the splash of white wine to the pan and using your spoon/spatula scrape up any of the sticky burnt bits on the bottom of the pan whilst the wine is boiling and evaporating away.
7)    Add the double cream and give a good stir.  I love how the white cream turns a lovely muddy brown. Season generously with salt and pepper.
8)    Add the chopped dill (reserve about a tablespoon).  Add the pasta and stir thoroughly.  If it looks a bit dry, add a splash of the pasta cooking water.
9)    Add the handful of grated parmesan, stir. Add the squeeze of lemon, stir. Sprinkle on the last tablespoon of dill and serve. Get fat.