When Life Takes Over

This week, I have had the most difficult task of admitting that I was wrong.  In my naivety, I honestly believed that planning a wedding would not impact on my other activities (how clueless I was) and that my baking club, blog and various food-related activities would not suffer as a result.  As you may have seen, Band of Bakers is on a little summer hiatus and my blog posts are becoming fewer and further between.  They are all buried under dress fittings, menu tastings, endless emails and trying to co-ordinate a number of guests who are all travelling to San Sebastian for the ceremony in a little over three weeks.  Add to this a rather monotonous healthy eating regime and an attempt to save money by not eating out and you find that, even if you had the time to write, there would be little to actually write about.

Bottom line:  weddings take over your life.  And I have a wedding planner!

Of course, this is a temporary situation.  My wedding is taking place in the gastronomic capital of Europe, so there will be plenty of subject matter there.  It seems that most people I know have either been to, or are planning a trip to, San Sebastian.  If you haven’t been, it is definitely worth considering for your next holiday, especially if eating and drinking is your thing.  In addition to this, we are embarking on a honeymoon road trip through Andalucia, again very much with culinary endeavours in mind.  I will be returning to London in July when, hopefully, normal service will be resumed.  Until then, I simply ask that you bear with me.

Instead of writing up one of my recipes (I haven’t cooked anything in days) or writing a nice long post about a restaurant I’ve been to (too stressed to pay too much attention), I have instead cobbled together a few things from the last week that have popped up on my food radar.  Kind of like the old days of ‘Monday Miscellany’ but, of course, on a Wednesday.  Even the days all roll into one these days.  I must buy a diary.

 Pizza Making

Anchovy and olive pizza

Anchovy and olive pizza

Last week could have easily been entitled ‘Life in Salad’, so I was obviously thrilled to come home from a particularly gruelling Friday to Ollie making pizza in the kitchen.  Needless to say, I devoured them all.  I looked back through my previous posts for something on pizzas and was surprised to find I had written nothing.  I even have a list of ‘London Pizzas I Love’ scrawled on a piece of notepaper and tacked up next to my desk, so I will write that up at some point.  The picture above is one of three pizzas he made using Dan Lepard’s absolutely foolproof pizza dough recipe, and a topping of anchovies and olives. Bliss.

Southampton Street Food Market

Pork souvlaki - Southampton style

Pork souvlaki – Southampton style

To the sounds of a chorus of “it’s about bloody time”, street food has finally arrived in Southampton.  Yes, I know the majestic 7Bone had a burger stall, one that even featured on the BBC’s Restaurant Man, but that was ages ago.  This market has taken over the strip along the pedestrianised part of the city centre at weekends, the spot previously occupied by the ahem, German market at Christmas.  It hasn’t quite reached the standard of similar markets in London, but is a good starting point (and far cheaper).  I had a perfectly decent pork souvlaki from Greekville, that certainly helped to undo the hangover I had from sinking G&T’s in The Alex the night before.

The Grazing Goat, Southampton

Goat curry with dumplings

Goat curry with dumplings

This is the first of two visits I am making to this new Southampton gastro pub, so will leave the review until I have time to write up the full post.  I just wanted to praise their goat curry with dumplings, which was sublime.

Toast, East Dulwich

Quail with gremolata

Quail with gremolata

Orange cake

Orange cake

Toast may be the perfect place to hide out when the heavens open during a Lordship Lane expedition – warm, cosy and with a good wine list – you could find yourself there for hours.  I have been several times before, but only for coffee and a slice of their delicious banana bread (OK, and some wine), and used to go regularly when it was the old Green & Blue, but yesterday was the first time I actually went in for lunch.  We started with an off menu order of quail with gremolata, £10 including a glass of Cote du Rhone (bargain), then shared a slice of moist orange cake alongside our espressos.  As soon as I am back from Spain and eating out again, I expect Toast will become a regular spot, not least because it is great to have such quality food within walking distance of our flat.


Dinner for One

Chipotle Chicken with Tomato-Avocado Salsa

Chipotle chicken with avocado-tomato salsa

On the rare occasion that I find myself home alone for the evening, cooking dinner for myself goes out of the window.  I know that for many people, getting into the kitchen after a hard day’s work is their way to unwind, but I am usually rather grateful for a night off.  If I’m feeling particularly energetic, I will grill myself something to put atop a salad; if I really can’t be arsed, it’ll be marmite on toast or a trip to the chip shop (Seamasters on Forest Hill Road, just in case you’re interested).

I spend a lot of time cooking for others; whether it be a supper for Ollie and I, lunch for friends, or a birthday cake; and I love it, but I’ve always felt that there is no point in cooking an entire meal just for me.  When I was a student and Ollie spent large chunks of time on tour, I would make a pot of something and live off it for three or four days.  Some people might be horrified by this, but although I love cooking, I also love the thought of spending a whole evening watching Netflix and doing minimal dishes, from time to time.   It seems I’m not the only one.  Many of my friends, especially those with children, will seldom cook a meal when it is just for them.

I was reading an old article by Jay Rayner on the idea of cooking for one.  He argued that this was the perfect opportunity to cook things exactly as you want them, without having to consider anybody else.  He cites putting more heat in a Thai curry and sea salt on chocolate ice cream as his lone dining guilty pleasures.  For me, being home alone is the time to eat the kind of crap that others would turn their nose up at if you presented it as dinner.  For example:  I have one of those toasters with an egg poacher on the side, and love to poach a perfectly circular egg and put it in a split and toasted English muffin with two slices of slappy American cheese and a load of ketchup.  Pretty filthy, but so good.

This weekend Ollie was on his stag do and I was home alone.  Ordinarily, I would have stocked up on all kinds of junk and bookmarked some trash TV on my subscription services, but the image of the wedding dress I have to squeeze into in a little over a month was hanging over me like a giant warning sign.  ‘Dinner for One’ needed a new, healthy makeover.

When rooting through the cupboard for inspiration, I found a little pot of Mexican spice mix that I made back in February.  On sticking my nose in, I realised that it hadn’t lost its potency and, although I initially thought it would be ace in a grilled cheese sandwich, I decided to use it as the basis of something healthier.  When mixed with chipotle paste, lime juice and soy sauce and a little olive oil, it became a very punchy marinade for a lone chicken breast.  To accompany this, a summery salsa of ripe avocados and even riper tomatoes, mixed up with lime juice, chilli and garlic.  A very virtuous meal if ever there was one.

Chipotle Chicken with Avocado-Tomato Salsa

  • 1 tsp chipotle paste
  • Juice of 2 limes, separated
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 1 chicken breast
  • 1 medium avocado, diced
  • 2 medium tomatoes, seeded and diced
  • 3 spring onions, finely sliced
  • 1 jalapeno, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Salt and black pepper
  • Salad leaves

In a small bowl, combine the Mexican spice mix, chipotle paste, juice of one of the limes and the honey.  Place the chicken breast in a wide shallow bowl and pout over the chipotle mixture.  Use your hands to coat the chicken and leave to marinade in the fridge for at least an hour.

In the meantime, make the avocado-tomato salsa.  In a large bowl combine the avocado, tomatoes, spring onions, chilli and garlic.  Pour over the lime juice and gently stir until the ingredients are well mixed.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Chill in the fridge until needed.

Put a griddle pan over a high heat and, once hot, grill the chicken until cooked through.

Arrange the salad leaves in the bowl.  Slice the chicken breast diagonally and place the slices on top.  Spoon the salsa over the chicken.

Two Ways with Spring Greens

I am one of those awkwardly pretentious people who loves quotations.  I have a dictionary of quotations that my grandfather gave me when I was a teenager, and have  been drawing on it for inspiration ever since.  I have a number of them written in a little notebook I carry around, have them engraved into gifts and almost always write them in birthday cards:  something about age and wisdom for the younger ones and, for the older ones, something about how bloody old they are.

One of the most overused quotations is, incidentally, one of my favourite books, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  It’s been quoted in a number of terrible romantic comedies and sitcoms, but in the case of the week I’ve just had, it rings very true:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Last Thursday I organised a very fun and glitzy party that was scuppered somewhat by my waking up with the cold from hell.  This cold persisted into the weekend and on Saturday, with a red nose and sore throat, I celebrated my hen night with twenty of my dearest and, thankfully, healthy friends.  Of course, after a couple of gin and tonics start to blur your brain, it is easy to forget that you are ill until it hits you tenfold the next morning.  Let me be the one to tell you that martinis and decongestant tablets do not mix.

Since then, my cold has developed into a throat infection and a chest infection, which has rendered me more or less housebound for the past few days.  As is always the way when I’m ill, I go running for the same list of things that will make me feel better:  a box set of two or more seasons (this time it is House of Cards, which I am completely obsessed with), several bottles of original Lucozade, an abundance of tissues and as much fruit and vegetables as Ollie can carry back from the supermarket.  Ordinarily I would make my ultimate cold-buster, the Chicken ‘n’ Dumplings of my dreams, but south east London is a muggy old place right now, and jointing and stewing a chicken in my tiny kitchen seems far more unappealing than it does in the winter.

Stir fried lamb with spring greens

Instead, I have been upping my intake of green vegetables.  The wonderful thing about spring is the availability of more greens to break up the monotony of purple sprouting broccoli and kale we live on all winter.  I go crazy on asparagus, samphire, gorgeous peppery watercress from my home county of Hampshire and nettles, which I discovered a few years ago.  One of the best arrivals of the season, however, are spring greens, which have the benefit of being both versatile and cheap.  They are the first cabbages of the year and have a strong iron-rich flavour and robust texture that lends itself well to a variety of different dishes.  I have often used spring greens as a substitute for other leafy green vegetables such as spinach, pak choi or kale when I have been unable to get my hands on these, or simply have greens in the house.

Risotto primavera

Risotto primavera

I picked up a couple of these cabbages from the Co-op in East Dulwich for about £1 and had enough to make two main meals.  The first was a take on Nigel Slater’s stir fried lamb with broccoli (you can guess which ingredient I replaced) that took from my Asian storecupboard of chillies, fish sauce and lime; and the second was from Italy, a risotto primavera, which succeeded in using up some odds and ends of green vegetables I had in the fridge and freezer:  an old courgette, almost ready for the bin, a rogue celery stick and the ends of some bags of peas and broad beans lurking at the back of the freezer drawer.

The most important thing about cooking with spring greens, at least for me, it to remove the rough stalks in the middle of the leaves.  I can hardly ever get them to cook to a point where they are tender, and always end up picking them out.

Stir Fried Lamb with Spring Greens

  • 4 spring onions, finely chopped
  • 3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 red birds-eye chillies, seeds removed (keep them in if you like it hot) and finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 350g minced lamb
  • Juice of 1½ limes
  • 1½ tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 head of spring greens, stalks removed and leaves finely shredded
  • Handful finely chopped coriander

Heat the oil in a large wok and stir fry the  spring onions, garlic and chillies for a couple of minutes until they are soft but not coloured.  Add the lamb mince, breaking up with a spatula, and cook until it is golden brown, about 10 minutes.

In a small bowl, mix together the lime, fish sauce and sugar then pour this mixture into the hot pan and stir through the lamb, cooking for an extra few minutes until some of the liquid has reduced.

Remove from the heat and check the seasoning.  Stir in the spring greens and half of the coriander and cover the pan for a few minutes until the leaves have wilted in the residual heat.  Sprinkle the remaining coriander on top and serve.

Serves two.  Adapted from a recipe by Nigel Slater.

Risotto Primavera with Feta

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 stick of celery, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 300g arborio rice
  • 150ml dry white wine
  • 1 courgette, diced
  • 1l vegetable stock
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 head of spring greens, stalks removed and leaves finely shredded
  • 1 handful broad beans, podded
  • 1 handful frozen peas
  • 25g butter
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 50g feta, crumbled

Heat the oil in a large frying pan or chef’s pan and gently cook the onions, celery and garlic until soft but not coloured, this should take about 10 minutes on a low heat.  Add the rice and stir thoroughly to ensure that the grains are coated in the oil.  Turn up the heat and add the white wine to the pan, letting it bubble until almost all of the liquid has been evaporated.  Stir in the diced courgette.

Keeping the pan on a medium heat, start adding the vegetable stock to the rice mixture, a ladle at a time, stirring regularly.  Add the next ladle of stock only when the previous one has evaporated.  Keep adding the stock, stirring as you go, until you have used three-quarters of it.  Taste the rice, it should be cooked but slightly al dente.  If the rice is still too hard, repeat the process of adding stock and stirring until it has reached the consistency that you like.

Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, seasoning, spring greens, broad beans and peas.  Put a lid on the pan and leave for a couple of minutes until the butter has melted and the greens have wilted.  Stir again and serve in large bowls, topped with the crumbled feta.

Serves two for dinner and then one for lunch the following day.

*Apologies for my photography – it’s terrible.

London Street Food: Curry Shack

Curry Shack

Curry Shack

Saturday was the beginning of yet another long weekend, the May Day bank holiday.  Traditionally, you will find morris dancers on village greens right across the breadth of the UK marking this ancient day of celebration.  In London, you will find half of London on the south bank and the other half in the gardens of local neighbourhood pubs – weather permitting, of course.

It was perhaps a little foolish to think that checking out the food markets on the river would make for a nice stroll.  In my near ten years in London, going to the south bank on a sunny day has never been peaceful, but my stomach was leading the way:  there was a Malaysian food festival on the section outside of Gabriel’s Wharf and Campo Viejo’s Streets of Spain further upstream by the Royal Festival Hall.  The thought of a few pintxos and a glass of sangria followed by a nice, fragrant curry made me take temporary leave of my senses.

Of course, it was heaving.  People, pushchairs and those little children’s scooters that are a total menace on residential streets, let alone in a crowd full of people.  We queued for twenty minutes for two £5.50 cups of sangria and promptly gave up, vowing never to leave south east London at the weekend again.  On the way back towards the tube, we remembered that there was a weekly food market, the Real Food Festival, tucked in just behind the Royal Festival Hall, that may be worth a look.  It was still busy, but less with meandering tourists and more with hungry people, who are far more direct in their approach.

The sounds of reggae and the aroma of spices and grilled meat led us to the corner of the market where two men were stirring up enormous vats of curry before a queue of salivating customers.  They are called Curry Shack and are completely new to my street food radar (they have no website or Twitter), however I am reliably informed that they are regulars at this particular market.  There were three curries on offer that particular day, two Mauritian (one mild-ish, one medium) and a hot Cajun curry.  Being out for lunch with the Chilli Fiend meant that the first two were out of the question, so I watched with a little trepidation as the ferocious orange curry was spooned over some rice.  At the end of their bench is an array of additional toppings including chopped coriander, red onion and tomatoes, along with some things to make your curry even hotter.  Wrestling the chilli flakes and chilli sauce out of Ollie’s hands was a task for a braver woman than I.

The hot Cajun curry.  Effing hot.

The hot Cajun curry. Effing hot.

The first couple of bites set my mouth on fire, but once accustomed to the heat, I was delighted to realise that I was eating a very delicious curry indeed.  As well as the usual flavours you would expect to find in a curry, it had a huge punch of the Caribbean in the form of allspice, scotch bonnets, lime and thyme.  The heat was pungent but flavoursome and stayed right in the front of your mouth and on the tip of your tongue whilst your back tastebuds got the hit of the other flavours.  The chicken was, thankfully, thigh meat which has a deeper flavour and retains far more of its moisture when cooked, especially in spices (I never understand why anybody uses breast meat). 

I started to wonder why there are few curries of this calibre on offer at other food markets, presumably as many open primarily in the morning and focus on the breakfast-to-lunch crowd.  I will certainly be back to the curry shack to try more of their offerings – the intriguing-looking medium spiced curry had whole limes in it and looked terrific.  For £6, it is also a total bargain.

The Curry Shack, Real Food Festival, South Bank, London SE1 (Fridays – Sundays only)

Chocolate and Salted Caramel Brownies

Chocolate and salted caramel brownies

Chocolate and salted caramel brownies

This is the third salted caramel recipe I have written for this blog, which is far more than anybody needs.  I am so 2012.

Whilst offering my apologies for the repetition, this one was, in fact, the brainchild of Ollie.  We were heading to the new house of some friends for dinner and I had offered to bring dessert.  Whilst I walked around the kitchen with two bars of chocolate in my hands, opening and closing the cupboards and looking for inspiration, he said could you make those really squidgy brownies again, but maybe with salted caramel?

I know that everybody thinks they have the best brownie recipe, or knows where to get the best brownie in town, it’s one of those things that people are incredibly proud of, like their roast dinners.  I have been making brownies for a long time, but never found a recipe that gave a perfect result until I discovered Felicity Cloake’s recipe in her How to Cook the Perfect… column for The Guardian.  If you’re a baker and love a good brownie, I cannot recommend it enough.  There are a few more processes than your standard recipe, but they create a brownie with the perfect crispy top and molten interior.

And for the record, the best brownie in London, in my opinion, is from Paul A. Young.

A salted caramel brownie is hardly groundbreaking, there are a number of recipes online, but these were so good I just had to share.  This recipe is a combination of Cloake’s perfect brownie recipe (which I also used as the basis for my coconut brownies) and a method for adding the salted caramel taken from the wonderful Smitten Kitchen blog.  This involves making a tray of set salted caramels, stirring some into the brownie batter before it goes into the tin, and pressing the others into the top just before it goes into the oven.  This has the double-edged effect of creating pockets of molten caramel throughout the brownie, and nuggets of set, crispy caramel on the top.

At first I thought that the caramel could have done with a little more salt, but everybody else who tried them disagreed.  The little touch of salt stops them from being too sweet, despite the combination of chocolate and caramel.  If you’re a salty sea dog, you could add a little more to the caramel if you wish, but be careful not to overload it as there is also salt in the brownie batter.

Ollie has already asked me to make a tray of these for his birthday dinner next month, instead of a birthday cake.

Chocolate and Salted Caramel Brownies

For the caramel:

  • 100g granulated sugar
  • 60g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • 50ml double cream

For the brownie batter:

  • 200g dark chocolate, at least 70% cocoa solids, broken into pieces
  • 250g unsalted butter
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 3 large eggs, plus 1 yolk
  • 100g chocolate chips
  • 60g plain flour
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • Pinch salt
  • 60g cocoa powder

Lightly butter a square of greaseproof paper and set over a dinner plate.  Set aside.

To make the caramel, melt the sugar in a dry pan over a medium-high heat.  This should take about five minutes and should give a mixture of a copper colour.  Remove from the heat and stir in the butter until melted.  Stir in the cream and salt and return to a medium-high heat to bring to a simmer.  Cook for another minute, until the mixture has darkened slightly, then pour onto the prepared plate.  Transfer the plate to the freezer for approximately 30 minutes until the caramel has solidified.

Preheat the oven to 180°c / 350°f / gas 5.  Butter a 20cm square cake tin and line with greaseproof paper.

Whilst the caramel is setting, make the brownie batter.  Melt the chocolate in a glass bowl set over a pan of simmering water, then set aside to cool slightly.  In the bowl of a freestanding mixer, beat together the butter and caster sugar until light and fluffy.  Scrape down the sides and add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition until just incorporated.  Once all the eggs have been added, turn the mixer speed up to high and best the mixture for around five minutes until the batter has increased in size slightly.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and beat in the chocolate and chocolate chips.  Fold in the flour, baking powder, salt and cocoa powder.

Once the caramel has set, cut it into 1 inch squares using a sharp knife.  Fold three-quarters of the squares into the batter, then scrape the mixture into the prepared cake tin.  Scatter the remaining squares across the top of the batter and press in slightly,  Bake in the centre of the oven for 30-35 minutes until risen, but still very wobbly.  Although the mixture seems uncooked, it needs to be taken out of the oven at this point to get the squidgy texture, cooking for any longer will give it the consistency of a cake.  Leave to cool completely in the tin, then remove and slice into squares.

From the Band of Bakers Archive: Pecan, Chocolate and Rum Pie

Chocolate, pecan and rum pie from the Band of Bakers 'Baking with Beverages' event, April 2013

Chocolate, pecan and rum pie from the Band of Bakers ‘Baking with Beverages’ event, April 2013

This week marks the second birthday of our little south east London baking club, Band of Bakers.  Our first event was held on 2nd May 2012 in the wonderful little Nunhead cafe and deli Bambuni.  About 25 or so bakers had pledged their interest, although despite this we were worried that nobody would show up.  We breathed a bit more easily as a steady stream of bakers walked in off the street with their cake boxes, got themselves a glass of wine and began chatting to each other.  Band of Bakers was born.  Two years on we have grown beyond anything we could have expected – we have an enormous waiting list, a number of popular and oversubscribed events and have had the opportunity to work with some great people including Dan Lepard, Paul Hollywood and the excellent team from delicious. Magazine.  Most importantly, we have created a community in our little corner of London that reached beyond baking and into people’s everyday lives, forming friendships and support networks, both online and in real life.

I talk about Band of Bakers an awful lot as I am so proud of what Naomi and I have achieved.  Nobody has told me to shut up about it yet, although I expect one day they will.

I started thinking back over our many events and the enormous number of bakes I have had the opportunity to try, and what I liked the most.  It is really difficult to narrow it down from the many, many that have graced the Band of Bakers tables, but here are a few I particularly loved:

Rhubarb and Ginger Cake from the Band of Bakers 'Your Favourite Bake' event, May 2012

Rhubarb and Ginger Cake from the Band of Bakers ‘Your Favourite Bake’ event, May 2012

Rhubarb and Ginger Cake by Charlie.  This caused quite a stir at our first event, not least because it turned up warm from the oven.  It is, quite literally, the most perfect cake on earth.  A gingery cake with a slightly coarse texture due to the use of spelt flour, topped with stems of tart rhubarb.  I have made it at least 100 times, and based both my fig, ginger and spelt cake and my orange, stem ginger and spelt cake on it. SO good.

Little Sticky Toffee Pudding Cakes by Chloe.  My reaction to the first bite was “what f***ing genius made these?!”  Chloe brought these along to our Winter Warmers event back in November 2012 and I immediately wanted to eat a hundred of them.  Beautifully sticky spiced caked with a decadent toffee frosting.  No recipe to share, sadly, as the baker herself says that “it will be a miracle the day I write a recipe down, let alone a blog!

Blueberry and Almond Tart from the Band of Bakers 'Inherited Bakes' event, January 2014. Photo by Naomi Knill

Blueberry and Almond Tart from the Band of Bakers ‘Inherited Bakes’ event, January 2014. Photo by Naomi Knill

Blueberry and Almond Tart by Naomi.  This is Naomi’s mum’s recipe and one of my favourite things that she has ever baked (and I can tell you that there is stiff competition!)  A gorgeous tart of pastry with a frangipane filling, dotted with little jammy blueberries.  I took a slice home for Ollie and he was enamoured.

Black Pudding Scotch Eggs by Jon.  Jon can always be relied upon to bring something utterly decadent to the table and, luckily for me and sadly for the vegetarians, it is often of the carnivorous variety.  These black pudding scotch eggs were among the best scotch eggs I had ever tried. I’m pretty sure Ollie even managed two. Extra kudos for the yolk being soft. Amazing.

Pumpkin and chipotle bread from the Band of Bakers 'Autumn Harvest' event, October 2013

Pumpkin and chipotle bread from the Band of Bakers ‘Autumn Harvest’ event, October 2013

Pumpkin and Chipotle Bread by Lauren.  There are few bakers that do bread better than Lauren, especially bread of the sourdough variety, which she writes about frequently on her blog.  She also has a fascination with chilli, and the combination of the two always produce something delicious.  This bread was made for our Autumn Harvest event back in October 2013 and didn’t last long on the table.

There are so many more, but I fear that I would write the longest blog post on earth if I listed them all.

Having attended every event, I have baked many things for the Band of Bakers table, with varying degrees of success.  One of my favourite creations was a chocolate, pecan and rum pie that I made for the Baking with Beverages event back in April 2013.  This event was originally supposed to be called ‘Baking with Booze’, but we decided to widen it to include other beverages as we were expecting around 35 bakers in attendance.

The pie is based on a recipe by the excellent David Lebovitz and went down really well at the event.  It is basically your average pecan pie, perked up a little with some dark chocolate chips and a few shots of spiced dark rum, which turn it from a standard American dessert to a very grown-up treat indeed.  Of course, the rum is interchangeable with other alcohol, David Lebovitz’s version used bourbon, and I always thought Amaretto would work well – or you could leave it out altogether.  The most interesting thing about this recipe is that the pastry is not blind baked prior to the addition of the filling.  When I first read this, I was like Say Whaaaaa, but then I realised that the idea was to for the pastry and the filling to merge a little, rather than have separate textures as in the case with most other tarts.  I did try it with a blind baked case once, and it was nowhere near as good.

Sweet, nutty and boozy – what more could you want? Much better too if you make your own pastry, obvs.

Chocolate, Pecan and Rum Pie

For the pastry:

  • 175g plain flour
  • Pinch salt
  • 2 tsp icing sugar
  • 115g cold unsalted butter, cut into 1cm cubes
  • 1 egg yolk

For the filling:

  • 3 large eggs
  • 150g dark soft brown sugar
  • 200g golden syrup
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 30g melted butter
  • 2 shots (50ml) dark spiced rum
  • 200g pecans, roughly chopped
  • 150g dark chocolate chips

Start by making the pastry.  Combine the dry ingredients in a food processor, add the butter and pulse until the texture resembles fine breadcrumbs.  With the motor running, add the egg and blitz until the mixture comes together in a smooth dough.  If the mixture is too dry, carefully add some cold water, a couple of drops at a time, until it comes together.  Press the dough into a disc, wrap in clingfilm and chill for at least 30 minutes, or until needed.

Once the pastry has chilled, remove it from the fridge, roll it out and use it to lie the inside of a pie dish or tart tin.  Crimp the edges if necessary and return to the fridge until ready to fill.

Preheat the oven to 190°c / 375°f / gas 5.

To make the filling, place the eggs, brown sugar, golden syrup, vanilla, salt, melted butter and rum in a large bowl and whisk by hand until smooth.  Stir in the pecans and chocolate chips and scrape the filling into the pie dish.

Bake in the centre of the oven for 35-40 minutes, until the tart has risen and has a slight wobble in the centre.  Let the pie cool completely before slicing.

Adapted from a recipe by David Lebovitz.

On the Subject of Ratatouille



It has been a very boozy and indulgent couple of weeks, not least because I have been the guest of BAFTA twice and have an uncontrollable penchant for free champagne and delicious canapes.  This has unfortunately coincided with my first wedding dress fitting which, whilst not a complete disaster, highlighted to me what I knew in the back of my mind already:  you would look a lot better in that dress if you dropped a few, love.

So with this in mind, I have set myself on a month of bleak deprivation, giving up cake, processed food, anything high in calories and my beloved booze (with a free pass, of course, for my hen night) in an attempt to be a leaner bride.  My consolation is that my just-booked honeymoon will be an opportunity to gorge on Spanish food and undo all of my good work:  pintxos in the Basque country, tapas in Andalucia and more Albarino and Rioja than I could ever drink.  In the meantime, I have had a complete purge of my fridge and cupboards and have replaced all of my favourite things with little more than fruits, vegetables and herbal teas.  The wine has gone into storage and Ollie has been under strict instructions to hide the gin in a place I will never find it.

On my first day of this regime, I decided to make myself a ratatouille.  Having become somewhat unfashionable in the mid-2000s and being merely an assembly of vegetables, I initially thought it unworthy of a blog post.  However, in these austere and health-conscious times, I reconsidered. 

The beauty of ratatouille is that it does not really have a set list of ingredients.  Of course, the traditional dish includes the usual combination of tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, courgettes and onions, peppered up with some basil, but there is no real rule to say that this has to be the case.  I have a friend who dislikes courgettes and, when I have made the dish for her in the past, it has not suffered for the lack of them.  I have also found a ratatouille the perfect excuse to use up any old veg that has been taking up space in the veg drawer for far too long.  Yesterday, my ratatouille included half a punnet of slightly browning old button mushrooms and a handful of pitted green olives, left over from the last round of martini-making, thrown in at the last minute to add a little vinegary punch.  This freedom with ingredients also has the potential to make it a cheap dish – Peckham has a number of shops and market stalls that sell bowls of the aforementioned veg for a very small cost, so you could end up making a huge batch for little more than a fiver.

The quickest way of making ratatouille, of course, is to chop all of the vegetables and stew them together in a pan until soft.  This was the way I used to cook it when I first left home and started cooking vegetarian meals for myself, and until I discovered that actually reading the cookbooks, rather than just pulling out random recipes, actually makes you a far better cook.  I started to realise that many cooks advocated the method of cooking each of the individual components separately to preserve the unique flavour and texture, rather than stewing them together.  This made sense to me, as one of the problems I encountered was that each ingredient had a different cooking time; the mushrooms would start to brown before the aubergines had barely softened; and I could never get the right consistency of the ratatouille as a whole.  This is, of course, a lot more time consuming than the all-in-one approach, but it does give a better result.  The separate components are then brought together as a whole with a short bake in a hot oven – not necessarily to cook them any further, more to allow the flavours to merge.

Chop up your vegetables into large pieces.  Start by frying some sliced onions with some finely chopped garlic, and then fry each of the vegetables in turn until golden.  Combine in an ovenproof dish with a sprinkle of dried thyme and a generous amount of seasoning.  Bake in an oven heated up to 180°c / 350°f/ gas 4 for around half an hour.  Top with torn fresh basil and fresh oregano and, if you’re really naughty, some parmesan.