Fruit, nut and olive oil cake

A bit of a moveable feast this cake – a very stiff batter made with olive oil holds together tons of fresh and alcohol soaked dried fruits and nuts. It’s a rustic, crumbly, friendly kinda cake, so no elegant serving needed. I imagine chunks of this wrapped in foil being devoured as just rewards after climbing a local hill – picnic food at its best. But, in my house, it’s just as often eaten (ok, only eaten) at tea time, and my dad requested it as his birthday cake this year, so it really covers all the bases. Thanks to Nigella and Anna del Conte.
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Seabass with potatoes and anchovies

This is one of those recipes that was ripped out of a magazine at some point and has then spent an indeterminate amount of time hanging around the kitchen waiting for the right moment to shine. Credit is surely due to some cookery writer out there but unfortunately only some in-depth typological detective work will now reveal the true source… Mum got some gorgeous seabass for Good Friday, and this simple idea really did them justice.

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Hot cross buns

Hot cross buns

Mum and I share a mutual loathing of the wet doughy pap that supermarkets dole up as Aitch Cee Bunz year after year. (Please don’t get even get us started on choc-orange and similar varieties – you are likely to encounter a level of vitriol which is normally reserved for shouting at Radio 4). Until now, she hasn’t had much success with getting the blighters to rise despite trying several types of yeast. This Easter though they came out superbly – judgement finally triumphing over luck. It’s important to not be impatient with proving times – a good couple of hours in all in a cosy airing cupboard but YMMV. No butter needed.

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Crostata of peaches and crema pasticciera

Crostata of peaches and crema pasticciera

I’m just back from two weeks in Tuscany, slap bang in the middle of Chiantishire. Before you hit command-W and wish me the pox in a fit of schadenfreude, it rained every single day. In fact, it’s rained pretty much every day there for five weeks, proving utterly true those proverbs that seem to exist in every language about how rain on just one unassuming day in May can completely bugger up your tan.

So what’s a girl and her mum to do? Well, close the kitchen door, put the telly on with the particularly italian programming blend of boobs and gastronomy – and cook!

This recipe is adapted from a wonderful book called “Ricette di Osterie d’Italia – I Dolci” published by the Slow Food guys. It’s a real insight into the way Italians cook their desserts – very simple ingredients mostly based on nuts, lemons and dried fruits, combined in perfectly honed ways to create subtle but delicious flavours, never overly sweet.

The crostata that follows (a really rich pastry topped with an easy creme patisserie and fresh peaches) was a doddle but was so impressive that we kept eating just to make sure we’d tasted it right. Continue reading

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Piselli alla romana

I adore peas, probably because they’re one of the few foods that one can feel totally non-guilty about eating frozen. (I’m sure I could google a study showing that, in fact, frozen peas are bad for you and/or the work of the devil but I prefer to remain in ignorance, thanks very much.)

When my sister-in-law cooks a roast lunch, this is how she makes them:

Finely chop an onion and stick of celery, and sauté slowly in a glug of olive oil until soft. Now add some diced pancetta (since they’re frozen peas, I’m sure you’re allowed to use those handy packets of lardons) and fry that too until cooked. Then add in your peas straight from the freezer with a very small amount of water, just so they have a little steam to breathe in. You can cook these as gently or fiercely as the timing for the rest of the roast dictates (and you can reheat in the microwave), so it’s a zero-stress vegetable.

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Two accompaniments for meat

Firstly, a salsa verde, a simple and fresh accompaniment to grilled meats. Put 2 anchovies, a tiny bit of garlic (no more than 1/4 of a clove) and 4 small gherkins in a food processor, and whiz until finely chopped (or of course, do it the old-fashioned way with a knife!). Then add in a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, basil and mint, and pulse sparingly until just chopped. Doing the processing in two stages avoids the harder ingredients being under-chopped and the herbs dissolving into a nasty puree. Tip the mixture into a bowl, and bring together with a tablespoon of wine vinegar and some good glugs of olive oil. Season to taste. We ate last night with grilled lamb chops, a perfect spring evening meal.

Second, an idea picked up today from one of my favourite restaurants, Trattoria dei Cacciatori, just outside Milan. We ate a plate of culatello served with a pear poached it in water with white wine and just a little aniseed (no sugar, it wasn’t sweet). It would be delicious with prosciutto or speck too.

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Eat your beetroot

No, really! This easy combination of carrots, beetroot and herbs is the only way I’ve ever managed to get them down. I used pre-cooked beetroot from the supermarket, which I’m fairly sure falls on the “sensible shortcut” spectrum of prepared food use (as opposed to the “New Delia” lunatic side. Seriously, tinned minced lamb!?).

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The quest for scone perfection

I’ve got a really atrocious reputation for making scones. The one time I presented my husband with a batch his description was something like “plutonium-filled depth charges”. So, not great then.

But today, I tried a new recipe and they came out brilliantly – my better half could only come up with “crumbly” as a criticism (I can live with that!), and he had to go back for seconds just to be sure. They were light, delicious and golden, and the secret, according to Nigella, is the Cream of Tartar. I’ve no idea what’s in this mysterious substance, but as soon as the scones go into a really hot oven they immediately start billowing up. The best thing about scones? Only 10 minutes in the oven and by the time you’ve split them open and covered them in jam they’re ready to eat.

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A lasagna with pesto and mushrooms for the first day of spring

This recipe is adapted from:

“The Kitchen Diaries” (Nigel Slater)
I must spend hours reading and re-reading cookbooks, mostly for pleasure but quite often for those moments of desperation where not a single recipe is right for what you feel like eating. On a day when we’re feeling most definitely under the weather, and time seems to be going backwards rapidly into winter, this recipe, hitherto completely ignored, jumped out from the page. This is a silky, rather than bolstering lasagna, where the textures of vegetables, pasta and sauce melt into each other, making the individually strong flavours come together.

Not a dish to throw together this one – there are three components, the bechamel, pesto and mushroom mixture – so it probably takes a good two hours from start to finish. (I had to run to the supermarket for pine nuts, so it’s a bit difficult to judge). However, the pesto just requires turning on a food processor, so if a bechamel doesn’t daunt you, then all there is to do is a bit of chopping and sautéeing for the mushrooms. Then comes the fun bit of layering the ingredients in the dish – I always use my oven-proof pyrex dish that I use for trifle too as I love seeing the different layers waiting for the final meld. Then it’s ready for the oven, at which point there’s time to open a self-congratulatory bottle of red wine and put your feet up for half an hour before lunch. There’s nothing worse than eating when not relaxed, and nothing better than the calming knowledge of having a dish cooking to perfection in the oven. Leave the washing up until later, and let the wonderful aromas of pesto and parmesan waft around the house until everyone’s ready to eat.

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Utterly foolproof quiche

Quiche 400X257.Shkl
I adore quiche, in a way that I’m sure isn’t quite normal. It was so popular in the dinner party repertoire of middle-class Britain in the 70’s that its effect is quite clearly still rattling around the national psyche of the fairly young. I wasn’t around in those blackforest gateau years, but even so, there’s a thread of quiche running through my life, from my mum’s (rigorously with wholewheat pastry and sliced tomatoes on top), to Grandma’s (salmon or broccoli, on very cold plates) to Marks and Sparks’ (with free-range eggs, during my workfest in the City of London).

Quiche lorraine is, predictably, my ultimate favourite. With its combination of the pale wobbly custard spiked saltily with ham and the crisp pastry shell, and served with a sharply dressed salad, it is one of my favourite lunches, as good hot from the oven as it is cold. Of course, there are many different variations on quiche fillings, and I don’t pretend this one is authentic or definitive at all – it’s just the one that I cook at home. Once you’ve worked out the amount of pastry and custard that work for your tin, then it’s easy to adapt the filling to what’s in the fridge.

The amount of pastry given will line two quiches – I give double quantities as I don’t like making “just enough” pastry. It’s not that I might muck up rolling it out (this method seems to produce resilient pastry that rolls out brilliantly in even the hottest of kitchens and the clumsiest of hands – i.e. mine), but that having an extra bit of pastry waiting in the fridge isn’t really a problem. Just seeing the little ball of resting pastry opens up all sorts of possibilities that you might not bother with if you had to make pastry from scratch. I’m a fan of using unsweetened pastry even for puddings, especially ones with very sweet fillings such as treacle tart. (The search for the ultimate treacle tart recipe may be a holy grail type quest, or at least deserving of its own blog – but I will at least make a start soon…)

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