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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Emergency pear and blueberry cake

Blueberry and pear cake

This recipe is taken from:

“The Kitchen Diaries” (Nigel Slater)

It was a super day today up until about half an hour ago. Suddenly the sky has turned grey and cloudy, and the two enormous pine trees outside my window are waving around like crazy. There’s a storm coming, and that means only one thing – an excuse for tea and cake! And all the better if it’s an emergency cake like this that takes, ooh, about 7 minutes to put together before shoving in the oven (and that’s if you bother to do the fiddly bit and line the tin).

I went out especially to buy the ingredients for this cake, but as the recipe points out, all it consists of is a basic cake with equal fat, sugar and flour, topped with any fruit that takes your fancy. The cake underneath rises around the softened fruit, so that you get a tender crumb, made moist by the fruit juices encased in a firmer golden crust around the edges. I had an inspiration – after doing the shopping of course – that blackberry and apple would be gorgeous here, perhaps with a streusel topping sprinkled over too a la Delia Smith – but I’ll just have to wait for the next rainy day to try out that idea! Meanwhile, I’ve got a cuppa to make…

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Taleggio and herb cakes

This recipe is adapted from

“The Kitchen Diaries” (Nigel Slater)
I am a Nigel fangirl, it has to be said. His books contain culinary wisdom and common sense in equal parts, he’s not at all cheffy, he’s rapturous about the crunchy, caramelized bits you get when you’re frying and roasting and there’s a deliciously bitchy undertone in his writing. What’s not to love?

I especially like his joyful use of leftovers. For me, that’s real cooking – being able to stand in front of a practically empty fridge, cast an eye over the chilly depths, and create magic in a pan from what you found. Now that’s a feeling for food. I’m still very much learning this particular skill, but Nige was kind enough to share one of his leftovers tips in his latest book.

If you have some folorn-looking leftover risotto, all you need to do is grab a pan, some fresh herbs and some melty cheese. I used taleggio which is easy to find here in Italy, but you could use any cheese that oozes easily, take your pick. Even some soft blue cheese would be great here.

Chop up a handful of soft herbs – I think parsley’s ideal – and stir into the risotto. Cut the cheese into chunky little cubes about 1.5 cm across. The idea is to encase the cheese inside balls of rice, which you then flatten slightly and fry in a little oil until golden on each side and bursting with the melted cheese.

Take a tablespoon-size scoop of rice into the palm of one hand, flatten and press the cheese into the centre, and then press another smaller scoop of rice on top, so that you create a nice ball of rice covering the cheese in the centre. Continue making balls like this until you use up all the rice. Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a big frying pan, and cook the rice balls, flattening a little, on each side until golden, 4 or 5 minutes on each side – the cheese may start to escape too.

I snarfled three of these for lunch on my own on Saturday (very quickly, hence no photo), so that should be a good guide for how many your rice will feed. They’d be nice with a peppery salad of rocket and watercress.

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Chicken, leek and pea pie – cheat’s version

I came across the Waiter, there’s something in my pie event (hosted by Cook Sister!) a bit late, but given the trend for pies I thought I’d share this recipe as a) it’s darn tasty and b) it’s incredibly easy. Now, I cheat – I don’t make my own puff pastry. I know that it’s straightforward, especially using a food processor. I’m afraid my excuse is lack of space (very convenient, I know). My kitchen is basically in the understairs cupboard, and consists of one sink, one cooker and one teensy patch of worksurface, so half way into a recipe I just run out of room to put things down in, let along roll pastry out. Plus it’s boiling hot – cupboards don’t have windows remember – so that pretty much kills pastry in any case. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it…

This is a great way to use up any leftover roast chicken and any odd vegetables that might be marauding around the fridge. I used a leek and frozen peas, my mum used to make a garden pie using baby carrots – really, you could make any vegetables work.

Quantities given are for a pie dish that measures 18cm across the narrow base, and serve 2 hungry people.

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Guy’s Tomato Sauce

This recipe is taken from:

“Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes: The Best of Anna Del Conte” (Anna Del Conte)

I’m always searching for a quick and easy tomato sauce, as it forms the basis of so many recipes. I have this ideal of a freezer chock full of home-made stock and sauces, ready for whatever culinary whim comes my way. However, since my freezer at the moment is just big enough to accommodate a couple of ice-cube trays and the odd wine cooling emergency, that’ll have to wait. But this sauce, one of the many tomato sauces in Anna Del Conte’s fantastic book, will be first on my freezing list.

The one thing that I’ve learned about sauces living in Italy is the art of the barely-moving simmer. If you want your sauce to have depth of flavour, you need to be prepared to cook it for at least an hour on the lowest possible gas so it just burbles. This sauce is simplicity itself to prepare, but the only thing it needs is time. My rule of thumb for sauce quantities is one 400g tin of tomatoes for every two people. Quantities below are for two, multiply for the freezer accordingly.

I first cooked this to serve with zucchini and feta cakes.

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