Fact of the Week

Forced rhubarb in season now. Don't miss out!

Monday, 3 September 2012

Summer 2012

Summer 2012 has been a summer of firsts - a summer of new and exciting experiences, which have opened my thirty year old eyes and made each week (or, at least, each weekend) a mini adventure. I want to share some of the highlights with you:

- Sister Mini and I shared one of Kitty Travers' banana parfait choc ices last Saturday at Maltby Street. The first bite made Sister Mini audibly giggle with delight at the creamy banana-ness of the ice cream, half dipped in chocolate. Food that makes grown women laugh out loud cannot be recommended highly enough;

- My apricot tree produced its first apricot (and it was possibly the most delicious apricot I have ever eaten) (like any proud mother, allowance may need to be made for bias however, on anyone's reckoning, it was a very tasty apricot);

- I made Michelle Obama's buttermilk and blueberry cake. And having made it once, I made it again and again, alternating the blueberries with strawberries, peaches, nectarines, raspberries or whatever other summer fruit took my fancy;

- I had a wonderful dinner (my first) at Upstairs at the Ten Bells. The menu was original, the food delicious and the company some of the best. Go if you can...

- I cycled home through London at 3am having rowed as part of a 24 hour charity rowathon from 11pm (following dinner at Upstairs at the Ten Bells...). London looked beautiful and eerily quiet in the dead of night;

- Alison Krauss was the support act to Paul Simon in Hyde Park. I bought her album the following day and have listened to nothing else since. I was also introduced to Imelda May. If I'm not listening to Alison, it's Imelda singing her heart out on my headphones;

- I cycled for the first time on the right, on my first visit to the south of France, on my first cycling holiday (many more to come) and on my first solo holiday adventure (not nearly as daunting as I feared...);

- My courgette crop failed for the first time. Usually courgettes are the staple of my summer diet but this year I had to make do with tomatoes, peas, broad, french and borlotti beans, chard and...my local farmers' market!

- I invented a safari supper in Soho, starting with pinxos and a glass of cava at Pix, followed by fritto misto and bowl of the best pasta outside Italy at Bocca di Lupo and completing the safari with a gelato at one of London's many fine gelateria (ok, so it's a European safari);

- it wasn't my first Olympics but it was my first London Olympics and I felt so lucky to live in London during those brilliant two weeks.

Summer is giving way to autumn all too quickly. I am planning a winter of firsts to distract me from the short days and rainy cycles to work. All suggestions gratefully received... x

Michelle Obama's Buttermilk and Blueberry Cake

225g unsalted butter, at room temperature
325g plain flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
350g caster sugar
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
125ml buttermilk
450g blueberries

Preheat the over to 180C. Line and grease a 23-35cm tin (or two loaf tins).
Beat the butter and sugar until soft and fluffy.
Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda into a bowl.
Add the eggs to the butter and sugar, one at a time, beating well after each has been added. Add the vanilla extract and beat to combine.
Continue beating the mixture gently - add the flour mixture and buttermilk alternatively.
Fold in the berries and pour into the tin.
Bake for 55 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Cool the cake in the tin for 20 minutes and then turn out onto a rack to cool.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Flan aux myrtilles

I want to tell you about flan. I have recently returned from France where I ate flan of such simplicity and elegance, such irresistible flavour and texture that I have barely been able to think about anything since (at least in a pudding context).

I can tell what you're thinking, 'Flan? Really? It doesn't sound like much'. I agree, flan is an inauspicious, bland name and one that gives little indication of how delicious a true French flan really is.

The second problem (after the name) is that flan also looks unremarkable. Its pale, wrinkled, slightly sunken, custard top, stained with messy, splotches of purple myrtilles will do nothing to persuade you, if you haven't already tried flan and been seduced by its simple charms, of its (many) hidden qualities. (You can have flan 'au natur', i.e. without the myrtilles, but who would miss out on an opportunity to add soft fruit?)

(For those of you who are wondering, myrtilles are native French blueberries. They are smaller than the blueberries we buy in England and grow wild in the Alps (and presumably Pyrenees) and have an intense, sweet blueberry flavour. If you want to make flan aux myrtilles, normal blueberries will work just as well as their French counterparts).

Given its name and appearance, I don't know what made me buy my first piece of flan. Maybe it was a cook's curiosity? Or maybe it was because during the course of my short stay in France I had tried everything else the local boulangerie had to offer. In any event, from my first mouthful, I was hooked and could barely walk past the window of the boulangerie without succumbing to a slice. As I was staying only minutes away and walked past the boulangerie several times a day, this meant that I ate a lot of flan. (Such was the intensity of my new found love for flan, that I often bought a piece at 7am when I went to buy bread for breakfast for fear that the boulangerie might sell out later in the day.)

Flan cast a spell over me.

It reminded me how much I love being in France, where it is entirely normal to go to the boulangerie every day. There was nothing grand about the boulangerie at the end of my road. It was the kind of boulangerie you find in every village, quartier and arrondissement in France. Packed with freshly baked croissant, pain au chocolat, brioche, tartes (aux framboises, noisettes, pommes, citron), and offering a selection of freshly baked bread so varied that it was impossible to choose each day whether to have pain de campagne, aux cereales, de seigle, aux noisettes, moisson, au levain, au lait, baguette tradition or baguette de refuge. I was in France over Easter. The boulangerie was open on Good Friday, Saturday, Easter Sunday and Easter Monday because the French would not dream of not having fresh bread. I love that about France. The deep rooted belief in the boulangerie. Its unquestionable role in daily life. The French value having good bread - not just good bread, excellent bread - as much as I do (I have the Blackbird Bakery in East Dulwich to thank for mine and I cannot recommend their brown sourdough and buttermilk and currant highly enough).

Anyway, I have digressed (a common problem once on the subject of bread), I was telling you about flan. When I got home I determined to make flan. I found a recipe and have modified and tweaked it to try to imitate the flan that I am still thinking about even though I got back from holiday over three weeks ago. I cooked it for friends last Friday. The boulangerie had set the bar high and I was unsure how my flan would compare to the real thing. It went down well. Any residual doubts I had were swept away the following morning, when the leftovers were polished off for breakfast.

Here's my recipe. Play with it, experiment with different fruit, with spices infused in the milk (cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, star anise would all work well). Let me know what you think.

Flan aux myrtilles

350g pastry (puff or shortcrust)
300ml milk
1 vanilla pod, cut in half and seeds scraped out
100g golden caster sugar
3 eggs
60g flour
150ml double cream
Blueberries or raspberries

Preheat the oven to 200C.
Heat the milk with the vanilla pod and seeds. Once it reaches boiling point, cover and let the vanilla infuse for 20 minutes. Remove the pod.
Roll out the pastry and line a well greased flan or quiche dish.
Whisk together the eggs and the sugar until pale. Add the flour and whisk until combined.
Continuing to whisk, add the warm milk gradually, then the cream.
Scatter the fruit (if using) over the pastry base. Pour the custard over the fruit and bake for 15 minutes. Lower the temperature to 160C and continue to bake for approximately 45 minutes until the custard has set. If the top of the flan starts to brown too much, cover it with silver foil.
Leave to cool completely before eating.

P.s. For those of you who have spotted the deliberate error, I failed to take any photos of my flan aux myrtilles and the photos above are therefore a flan aux framboises I made the following week.
P.p.s. told you I was obsessed with flan.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Living the dream

I haven't written about the garden for a while. Which is not because I have fallen out of love with my small patch of green space in south-east London. Far from it, whilst my friends have gleefully leafed through the pages of Johnnie Boden's new season's designs, I have spent hours pouring over this year's catalogues from J Parker's, Marshalls, Suttons, Thompson & Morgan et al (admittedly pouring turned to purchasing as evidenced by the packages delivered to work treacherously marked 'Warning - contains live plants'); I have disinfected the greenhouse (the garden equivalent of spring cleaning but involving significantly less procrastination); and I have germinated row upon row of seedlings, which are currently in residence in my living room and will move, once all risk of frost has passed, into a more permanent home in the cold frame/greenhouse/raised bed (the horticultural equivalent of Labour's Sure Start...'giving seedlings the best possible start in life').

The reality is that this year - which marks the garden's third birthday - the roles of nurture and nature have become more evenly balanced and the garden is less dependant on my constant attentions. The perennials - now well established - return like old friends year after year. A policy of survival of the fittest has weeded out those precious plants which were unable to hold their own in the limited space my London garden has to offer. And after two years practice, the sowing, planting, weeding, feeding cycle has become more intuitive and I am no longer dependant on my many manuals and books to guide me though the garden's next steps.

However, before I had a chance to enjoy the garden's self sufficiency (it is after all only April), it has been placed under threat by the hosepipe ban, which has been rolled out across the south-east. The lack of rain combined with the lack of sprinkler (currently forbidden) has forced a vital rethink in the relationship between gardener and garden (well, at least between this gardener and her garden). Gone are the mornings when I am able to get ready for work, whilst the sprinkler sets the garden up for the forthcoming day. Instead I am forced to lurch out of the shower (feeling guilty that I am not (yet) recycling my water), coffee cup in one hand, watering can in the other, piece of toast intermittently swapped between the two, and set off on a one woman Olympic relay up and down the garden, delivering water to those (vegetables) that need it most (the flowers, alas, will have to fend for themselves if I am to stand the slightest chance of getting to work!).

Whilst I am resigned to this exacting start to my day, it appears that the rain gods heard my plaintive cries. For, since I bought a second watering can to speed up the process, the heavens have opened and are not forecast to close again any time soon (and obviously not in time for the weekend).

As the rain pours down the kitchen windows, my hopes of lying on my lush green grass reading a book on a quiet Sunday afternoon are gradually rising. Maybe, just maybe...

Monday, 26 March 2012

Time to look

This weekend was a March weekend like few others. The sun shone, the blossom hung in cascades and London was bathed in an unexpected warmth. In Peckham locals and prospective buyers sat idly at tables on the pavement, sipping their flat whites, perusing the weekend papers and admiring the pampered pouches fresh from the poodle parlour on the corner. I too sat amongst the flaneurs and watched the world go casually by, enjoying the sense of community, shared outdoor space and the first rays of sunshine on my dazzlingly pale skin.

On Friday evening I went to David Hockney's A Bigger Picture, at the Royal Academy. I was bowled over by Hockney's vivid, colourful depiction of his native Yorkshire and, faced with a weekend in London, longed to be teleported to a part of the countryside so resplendent with the sights, sounds and palette of the Spring season.

Hockney commented that you did not need to be in Yorkshire to witness such beauty. He is right of course, although you may have to look harder to find it amongst London's busy streets. On Sunday, I took the opportunity to look, not just a passing glance but a proper look, at my garden and beyond. Here are my photos of Spring.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Brockley and broccoli

A wonderful Italian friend who came to stay last week bought me some amazing Toscana salami (that's not the only reason she's wonderful!). I have been eating this melt-in-the-mouth pork and fennel Florentine sausage all week (it is studded with occasional black peppercorns which cause a flavour explosion in your mouth when you least expect it) in a number of guises all week although my favourite has been thin slices popped straight into my mouth the minute I walk through the front door. Until tonight.

On Saturday, which was my first weekend in London for some time, I went to Brockley Market. Since it was set up in October last year, Brockley Market has become such an important part of my London life that my visit on Saturday felt almost like a homecoming. The market is a local treasure trove. It is home (on Saturdays anyway) to Mike, of Mike & Ollie, who makes the most delicious Lebanese flatbreads stuffed with irresistible fillings such as mackerel, beetroot and Brockley apple, slow cooked shoulder of lamb with Brockley fig and Greenwich chestnut and for the vegetarians chargrilled cauliflower, Brockley fennel, burnt aubergine and Crystal Palace membrillo. There's the helpful girl who I think may have been involved in setting up the market and who sources unpasteurised full fat milk for my friend Kate (and who may shortly become Kate's best friend as a result). Then there's the guy who makes beautiful homemade chocolates, which I always intend to buy as presents and invariably end up eating myself. There are the two ladies from Flavours of Spain with their award winning manchego and pan de higo (Spanish fig cake) as well as chorizo, Jamon Iberico and smoked paprika, Ross from Browns of Brockley with his delicious cakes (I rarely leave without a generous slice of his banana cake with chocolate icing), Wild Country Organics with their dazzling salad leaves and greens and lots more besides. As I said, it's a treasure trove.

And every week I buy more fruit and vegetables than I can possibly eat (or fit in the fridge) from Perry Court Farm. Perry Court Farm are farmers from Kent and so their vegetables take me back to my roots in a nostalgic, earthy sort of way. Their produce looks and tastes fantastic with the result that I fail to exercise vegetable-restraint every week. So this week I bought purple sprouting broccoli, curly kale, the most beautiful purple and green cabbage I have ever seen, shallots, broccoli, fennel, parsley, lettuce and apples - which may not sound like a lot but I am only at home two nights this week.

When I got home this evening, the Florentine salami and all this beautiful veg were looking at me enticingly from the fridge, as were the dozen eggs I received on Saturday from Supercook Kate's chickens... Can you see where I'm going with this?

I didn't have a clear idea of where I was going to end up when I started but I was so happy to be in my kitchen cooking so I just followed my instincts and added whatever felt right. The result was a hot winter salad of purple sprouting broccoli and kale, liberally scattered with Toscana salami, shallots, garlic and toasted sunflower seeds with a just poached egg oozing on the top.

I am going to brazenly cast modesty aside and say that the salad was a triumph of its constituent parts (they take the credit and not me, phew!). My sister and I have long since had a love affair with broccoli and I could therefore be accused of bias in judging this dish. However, whatever your broccoli pre- or mis-conceptions, I defy you not to tell your friends about this recipe.

Hot winter salad

1 shallot, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
Toscana salami, coarsely chopped (or pancetta or lardons)
2 handfuls of Sunflower seeds
A pinch of dried chilli flakes
Pure sprouting broccoli
Curly kale, roughly chopped

Sweat the shallot in olive oil until translucent. Add the salami and garlic and fry gently taking care not to burn the garlic. Finely chop any excess stalk from the broccoli and add to the pan. Continue to cook until the stalk has softened. Add the sunflower seeds and chilli and cook for 1 minute. Divide the fatter pieces of broccoli in half lengthways and add to the pan. Cover and steam until nearly cooked. You may wish to add a ladleful of hot water if the contents of the pan are sticking to the bottom. Add the kale and steam until cooked. Season with salt and pepper.

Poach two eggs and serve on top of the salad

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Hot toddy and rum & raisin cake

The New Year had, briefly, an auspicious start. A group of friends, a house in the Oxfordshire countryside, log fires, an exceptionally fine pheasant and bacon pie and country walks providing a gratuitous excuse to don Christmas hats, scarves and gloves given the unseasonably mild weather.

The morning of 1 January 2012 started slowly: pots full of tea, English muffins, slippers shuffling around the house as their inhabitants eased themselves gradually into the first day of the new year.

Eventually everyone had found two socks, two contact lenses, a right and a left boot (which had been scattered around the house after the midnight sparkler-lit running races of the night before) and we set off on a walk, escapees from London, secretly delighting, despite the sore heads and aching limbs (the product of the very competitive midnight races), in the freedom of the Bank holiday and the clear air.

Having ambled for at least half an hour and successfully scaled the gentlest of inclines, much needed sustenance was provided in the form of a rum raisin hot toddy. The raisins had been steeped in rum and sugar syrup five days previously. The raisiny syrup was then mixed with lemon juice, boiling water and more rum and poured into thermos flasks for the walker's delight.

We drank our hot toddy, hands cupped gratefully around steaming cups, watched by llamas in a neighbouring field (or were they alpacas, none of us felt qualified to say). Their quizical faces matched ours, 'Were we ready for twenty twelve?', each walker weighing up the challenges, delights and surprises that the next twelve months were likely to bring.

When the llamas realised that we were more interested in our hot toddy than their quixotic appearance, they grew bored and we carried on our way, our tortoise-like progress speeded up by the zingy, quasi-medicinal qualities of our toddy.

The following weekend, the shine having already been knocked off the New Year by a week at work, I used the rum soaked raisins to make a rum soaked raisin cake. Served with homemade clove ice-cream (although good vanilla would work just as well), it warmed the heart and the stomach. The cake improved with age and I ate it guiltily at my desk over the following week (the boozy raisins so right in the cake, so wrong in the office), each mouthful a memory of high days and holidays.

There is no reason to limit hot toddy or its offspring cake to the New Year. It will undoubtedly brighten up any winter weekend. If you don't have time or the inclination to bake, the raisiny syrup would be delicious poured over ice-cream.

Rum & raisin hot toddy

Raisin syrup
1kg raisins
125ml dark rum
375 ml sugar syrup (see below)

To make the sugar syrup, bring 125ml water to the boil. Add 250 ml sugar and allow to dissolve, stirring continuously. Once the sugar has dissolved, remove the pan from the heat (do not allow the syrup to boil for too long as the syrup will become too thick).

Mix the raisins, rum and sugar syrup and leave to steep for at least five days.

For the toddy

160ml dark rum
100ml raisin syrup
60ml lemon juice
400ml boiling water

Combine the rum, raisin syrup, lemon juice and boiling water. Grate a little nutmeg on top, if you like. Pour into glasses or pre-heated thermos.

(This recipe is borrowed from the Zetter Townhouse, London.)

Rum and raisin cake

125g butter
125g caster sugar
2 eggs
Zest of half a lemon
50g plain yoghurt
125 plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
200g rum soaked raisins

Preheat the over to 180 degrees.
Cream the butter and sugar for 5 - 10 minutes until pale and fluffy. Slowly add the eggs, followed by the lemon zest and yoghurt. Fold in the flour and baking powder. Fold in the raisins.
Spoon into a lined tin (18cm would be ideal) and bake for 35 - 40 minutes until golden brown and a skewer comes out clean.

Enjoy x

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Autumn bliss

Autumn has been an unexpected delight. Even November, which is usually the bearer of driving rain, biting wind and the gloomy descent to Christmas, has given way to gloriously fine, mild, sunny days. It has stopped me in my tracks. And made it impossible to leave the house without my camera, yet imperative to leave the house and breathe in great gulps of autumn, knowing that these warm, sunny days cannot last.

London has looked its best in the brilliant November sunshine. I have jumped at the opportunity provided by a few quieter weekends to cycle between Brockley and Brockwell, Nunhead and Westminster, Peckham and Pall Mall. Liberated from November's typically cold grasp, I have pedalled, the breeze whistling around my ears, bags jangling from my handlebars, enjoying the time to stop, to photograph, to have a coffee, enjoying London.