Monday, April 24, 2006

Cupboard Love

House hunting (an exercise which J and I are currently practicing daily) has proved to fuel an obsession of mine - other people's kitchens.

As a potential buyer one can only wistfully view cupboards from the outside and occasionally (oh heavenly joy) be permitted a snatched glimpse into the secret world of what lies within. I hold my breath as the fridge door clicks, the light leaps into action and one has to blink quickly to take in the sight of a half-empty bottle of Chablis, a pat of butter and if they are people worth purchasing from, a quality jar of marmalade (doubtless J might disagree on this point).

However my real fascination comes into play when we are fortunate enough to stay with friends and family. No matter how hard I try I simply cannot withhold the urge, indeed the compulsion, to poke into pantries, leaf through larders and to foray into fridges. Due to the fact that I naturally wake up earlier than most sensible adults, these gastronomic expeditions are habitually performed in the early hours as the sun is yawning and stretching its rays, and in silence, not wishing to disturb the slumber of my hosts.

And what fuels this weird obsession? I can only attribute it to a curiosity to unearth an insight into the characters whom are our friends and family. What hidden passions are concealed at the back of a shelf, behind the inevitable collection of tins, packets and jars of sauces? To what extent does the opinion of what substantiates a 'staple' vary from one household to another?

There was a time when I could lay a bet that the sole contents of my eldest sister and brother-in-law's fridge would be champagne, Miller lager, orange juice and margarine. One child later and number two well on the way, it is like opening the fridge door to another world - organic milk, organic veggies, freshly cooked meals for my nephew, salads - a transformation, not only of consumables but also of lifestyle.

And what are the staples of our little household? We are rarely without lemons, apples, goats milk, dark chocolate, apple and ginger tea, salad leaves, walnuts, parma ham, yogurts, ketchup, fresh pasta, brandy and wine. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions as to which of us eats which foodstuff and what (if anything) that reveals about our life.

Oh and one last thing. Please don't take offence at the thought of me having nosed in your cupboards. It may sound peculiar, but if I wasn't interested in you and didn't care about you then then your larder would remain untouched. Consider it a rather strange sign of affection, albeit a secret one.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Encourage - to inspire someone with the courage or confidence to do something

It must be a rare occasion when one can recognise a life-enhancing moment as it happens, and yet that is what I was fortunate enough to have experienced last week. A mind-broadening, horizon-widening conversation that I now must have the the courage to truly recognise as the inspirational occurrence that it was and to take action.

One evening last week, I spent a treasured hour and a half of my boyfriend's father's precious time. J (my boyfriend) is an intensely private person and so I have refrained from dipping my toe into his very deep waters, but I am moved to plunge into the depths that are the Hope family. Christopher Hope is a writer of such enormous talent that I feel honoured to have discussed writing with him and certainly that occasionally reads this nonsense blog.

Christopher (henceforth referred to as 'CH' to save my fingertips) lives near Carcassone but was in London briefly to meet his agent and publisher in the run up to the publication of his new novel, 'My Mother's Lovers'. He had a little time to spare and so we met up for what was an extraordinary evening, for me at least.
CH suffered my questions about how he writes a novel, from the discipline of physically writing to the frustrations and complete obsession with one's emerging piece. It is as if the characters in his novels are shifting sands that develop and move in relation to one another which CH relates to a game of chess. CH spends periods of time in his native South Africa in isolation, devoted to pouring out his emerging story from dusk 'til dark, to the extent that on his last trip, a relative expressed concerns that Christopher was having an affair. And in many ways he was. In essence he was in love, absorbed by the characters and the lives that he had created.
The latest book was three and a half years in the making and he has devoted the magnitude of that amount of head-space in two little words that barely fill a hundredth of the title page - "to Jasper". To his son.
And why was this conversation so powerful, so able to make me nervous and excited at the same time? Because it is the first time that such a talented writer has shared thoughts about their art and, more significantly, has given me encouragement. "Have courage" were CH's enduring words. Yes I am a hopeless novice but be brave. Broaden out. Read beyond your current parameters. Expand your mind. Take encouragement from every quarter and have the courage to allow your mind to create. And the last step - to allow your fingertips to pour the creation out onto the page.
I was, indeed am, excited but also incredibly nervous. Only I can make the effort to learn, to change, to improve. Will I have the courage to bare my soul in the way that writers like CH do, to open myself up to the opinions and criticism of others? Will I ever be able to find any talent and then a vehicle to use it? Only time will tell. Just don't expect too much now that I have shared my fears with you.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Bun Fight en France – les gateaux de fées

My parents moved to Angouleme in France a few weeks ago, having retired and sold up in the UK and built a house from scratch not far from Limoges. At first I did wonder if they were in danger of losing their marbles, but then I soon realised that to follow one's dreams, to make a new start later in one's life and in a new country, takes enormous courage. I am full of admiration for them. Plus I can't wait to stay with them and to faire les achats in the local market. My fingers are itching at the thought of fondling juicy red tomatoes, plucking out plump ripe plums and stroking fronds of lettuce leaves.

Any initial concerns I had about my parents being embraced by the local community were swept aside very soon after their arrival. A Sunday evening telephone conversation revealed that they had (hic) just returned from a five hour lunch (hic), hosted by the Mayor of Lessac for all people of retirement age in the area, whether they be French or English (and no, not a timeshare or retirement sales guerrilla was in sight). A terrific number of dishes had been consumed, bottles upon bottles of wine and the local marc had been appreciated and then my father had driven (slowly) home. Only in France. Oh yes, they are well on their way to becoming locals.

Although Angouleme is far from being an English enclave, there must be a fair smattering of 'les rostbifs' as the convivial Mayor has invited the ladies to whip up a collection of traditional British cakes for his mid-May fete. Upon hearing this my mind was filled with visions of an Anglo-Franco bake-off. A war of the whisks. A veritable competition of confectionery where bread and butter pudding is to be challenged by clafoutis des cerises. Where Dorset apple cake will be pitched against tarte aux pommes. Lemon drizzle cake versus madelaines. Treacle tart against financier aux raisins. Victoria sponge versus far aux pruneaux.

Having convinced her fellow bakers that her scones have a striking resemblance to rock cakes, the good old fashioned fairy cake is to be my mother's weapon of choice. Deceptively innocent in appearance, these little beauties are bound to charm the French judges into submission. Especially when they are nestled in pretty paper cases and are decorated with the sweetest of sugary flowers - just a few of the essentials that I have been asked to deliver on my forthcoming trick (apparently these little items are very hard to come by in the local shops whilst they are in abundance in London cookery shops. The upper hand will be gained on aesthetics alone I feel).

So, although my mother has her own tried and tested recipe for 'les gateaux de fees', I thought that I would post mine here. The use of almonds gives these little morsels a lovely dampness without robbing them off airiness, as befits a cake of fairy qualities. Even the hardest of hearts tend to melt a little when faced with these little puffs of pixie dust.

Almond Fairy Cakes makes 12
100g unsalted butter, softened
100g caster sugar
pinch of salt
1tsp almond essence
2 medium size eggs, lightly beaten
25g plain flour
100g ground almonds
2tbsp milk

Preheat the oven to 180 C/gas 4 and arrange 12 pretty paper cake cases in a bun tray.
Beat the butter, sugar and salt together until light and fluffy.
Add the eggs, flour, almonds, almond essence and milk and mix well. The cake batter should be of a consistency that drops easily from the spoon. Add a tiny bit more milk if necessary but go steady.
Divide the mixture between the 12 cases and flatten the tops with a spoon.
Bake for 20 minutes or until the cakes have risen and are of a golden colour. They should bounce back when lightly pressed.
Transfer to a wire rack and leave until cold.
Decorate with icing of your choice (I like to use fondant icing for these flavoured with lemon juice) and with sugary flowers or other such fripperies.

Bonne chance Maman.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Easter Fare

Easter, like Christmas, is a time of year that has certain culinary connotations. Hot cross buns, simnel cakes, spring lamb and of course, chocolate eggs all spring to mind. However are we really aware of why these particular goodies are eaten? In a recent poll, 43% of British people had no idea what Easter commemorates and yet a staggering 75% of us happily buy Easter eggs. So why exactly do we choose certain foods?

The ancient Greeks and Chinese gave eggs as a symbol of springtime hope and the early Christians granted them with a religious connotation, choosing eggs to represent the tomb from which Jesus emerged. The tradition of Easter eggs was henceforth born and today a cracking 80 million chocolate ones are sold in the UK alone every year and the British Retail Consortium estimate that we Brits will spend no less than £520 million just on choccie eggs in 2006.

Decorating eggs started with simple vegetable dyes and red was often used to symbolise the blood of Christ. In Germany and Austria they are coloured green for Maundy Thursday and in the Ukraine, eggs are exquisitely decorated with intricate patterns. These 'pysanki' are blessed by priests and then given as gifts on Easter Sunday. It was the Russian Tsars however who introduced an element of bling to Easter. From the 1880s until the revolution in 1917 they commissionedjewelerler, Faberge, to bedeck eggs with diamonds and gold in order to make the ultimate Easter pressie.

Eggs, along with butter are just some of the goodies that Lentern fasters are supposed to give up and so Easter time has long been a baking celebration across Europe. Spiced breads, cakes and biscuits abound to herald the rebirth of Christ and take on all manner of shapes from crosses, fish and even lambs. Hot cross buns were traditionally baked on Good Friday in England and in the 17th century were first cut with their distinctive cross to let the devil fly out. Happily it also let the butter ooze in.

Just as the devil had a part to play with buns, he was instrumental in the choice of lamb at Easter time. Superstition has it that one is lucky to cross the path of a lamb at Easter time (and this doesn't mean in the supermarket meat aisle) as it is the one animal that the devil can never take the form of because Christ is the lamb of God. New season lamb also happens to be deliciously tender and juicy in the spring and so often forms the main course of Easter meals across Europe.

And what of the Easter Bunny? Amazingly this is not a myth dreamt up by the Hersheys and Cadburys of this world. Hares and rabbits have been viewed as the most fertile of animals since Pagan times and have long been held as a sign of an abundance of new life. The roots of the 'Easter Hare' and his philanthropic habits can be traced back to the 16th century although today one wonders if it is a tradition that dentists the world over would like us to maintain.

So as you tuck into your Easter eggs, cakes and roast lamb be confident in the knowledge that you are helping to perpetuate traditions that are hundreds of years old.
Happy Easter.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Chocolate Compulsion Cake

Ralph, my brother-in-law to be (note to self - must bake wedding cakes next weekend) has a very serious chocolate habit.

I agree with Chloe Doutre-Roussel of Fortnum & Mason fame that quality chocolate is best tasted first thing in the morning whilst one's tastebuds are at their freshest and frequently have a square or two of something devilishly dark before elevenses. I somehow suspect however that this is not the motivation for Ralph's early morning chocolate consumption.

Ralph adores an instant 'hit' and if chocolate is in the house, what better time is there to partake than when he wakes up? That way his addiction for the day is satisfied. He has yet to stay with J and myself and I am not sure that he would be able to cope with my cache of dark, sensuous bars that pour out of various chocolate cupboards or the store of chocolate that J keeps in one of the vegetable drawers in the fridge (and yes I know that this is by no means an ideal way to keep chocolate and yet J is resolute that he prefers his chunks cold. He also likes to delude himself that as cacao beans grow on trees and he keeps his goodies in a vegetable compartment, that every bite counts towards his five fruit and veg count a day. Hmmmmm.).

Anyway, back to Ralph. Knowing that he adores all things chocolatey and homemade and yet also knowing that I am feeding his habit, I cannot help myself from making a chocolate fridge cake whenever I go and stay with Ralph and my sister (and the new addition to the family, my little nephew Otto). And sure enough, the sticky confectionery mysteriously decreases in size with every morning that passes......

And so I make no apologies for producing yet another version of the timeless classic that is chocolate fridge cake. After all, if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, then I need look no further than my future brother-in-law for an endorsement of this particular version.

Chocolate Compulsion Cake
125g unsalted butter
75g golden syrup
200g dark chocolate, broken into pieces
1 egg
1 large cookie, broken into chunks (I used one of those doughy, shop bought ones that resemble a cow pat - oddly they fit the bill perfectly! It weighed around 75g)
50g pecans, roughly broken
50g dried fruit (I used chopped dried prunes which added a lovely chewy depth)
50g glace cherries, plus four for topping

Line a 20cm x 8cm loaf tin with cling film.
Gently melt the butter and syrup in a small pan and bring it to a gentle boil. (A tip to measuring golden syrup is to use a metal spoon that you have just run under the hot tap - the syrup glides off the spoon with ease. Also pop your pan on the scales and measure the syrup straight into it - saves on the washing up).
Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. When liquid, remove from the heat (taking care not to scald yourself in the process), add the butter and syrup mixture and stir well to incorporate.
Beat the egg slowly and continuously into the hot chocolate mixture.
Add the broken cookie, the nuts, fruit and 50g of the glace cherries.
Mix well and then pour into the prepared tin, smoothing the top as you go. Dot the remainder cherries evenly along the length of the tin and leave to set in the fridge for at least four hours.
When you want to serve the cake, it should come out of the tin as easily as a ten pound note from a wallet. Slice or cut into chunks.

Super served with coffee after dinner. Or if you cannot wait that long, with a smoothie for breakfast. Why prolong the anticipation when it could be satisfied immediately? Enjoy.

Apple Pleasure

I had never fully understood why Eve succumbed to temptation when that slippery serpent presented her with a glistening, shiny apple. Why Snow White threw caution to the wind when faced with a glossy, red apple by her wicked stepmother. But that was until the first morning that I was given permission to break from the anti-candida regime.

How I had underestimated just how much I had missed that delicious 'kerunch' as one's teeth penetrate through the fruit's skin to its sparkling flesh beneath. Whether it be the nutty, slightly fluffy joys of an Egremont Russett or the more tart and solid delights of a Cox, that first bite, that first trickle of juice that rolls down one's throat is an utter joy. Made all the sweeter after three weeks of fruit abstinence, save for the occasional pulpy experience of apple puree.

Virtually reeling in the enjoyment of an apple, my senses went into overload with anticipation at the prospect of sinking my teeth into a plum, releasing that distinctive honeyed perfume and allowing the juice to drip down my chin, licking it off in sheer sensual delight.

It is all to easy to become blinded to the simple pleasures and moments of joy that are to be had in everyday life, beset as we are by deadlines, emails and mobile phones that demand instant attention, by our busy modern lifestyles. Just occasionally it is such a treat to take a few moments to smell the flowers, to bite into an apple, to close one's eyes with pleasure and contentment and to just be.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

A Fragrant Dish

Even though spring is definitely in the air and the daffodils are in full bloom in the parks, the evenings still retain a chilly nip that makes one yearn for warming food. Something to chase away the gusts of wind that take one's breath away with their severity, and to ward off the colds and flu bugs that seem to be hovering across London.

Ginger, hot chilies, oodles of garlic and limes are usually my preventative medicine of choice, however whilst on the anti-candida diet I have to go for slightly milder options and so I conjured up a chicken curry that was fragrant as opposed to tongue-stingingly hot.

Fragrant Chicken Curry serves 2
1 onion, peeled and quartered
2 garlic cloves
1 nub of fresh root garlic, peeled
1 green chili, halved and deseeded
2 tsp curry powder
1 dsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp mustard seeds
2 handfuls of fresh coriander
2 skinless organic chicken breasts, cubed

Tip the onions, garlic, ginger, chili, ground spices, mustard seeds and half of the coriander into a food processor. Add a little salt and whizz to make a gorgeous green paste. Scrape every last particle into a saucepan and cook over a low heat for approx 10 minutes, stirring often so it doesn't catch. Inhale the super aromas as the spices release their magic.

Add approx 200ml boiling water to the paste and return to the boil. Add the chicken, lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until tender.

Chop the remainder coriander and stir into the chicken (I have also added tinned chickpeas at this stage but J seems to think that they are the nuts of the devil so I avoid using them when I'm cooking for both of us).

Serve with rice (I love adding a stick of cinnamon and a few cardamom pods to rice when it is cooking to add a little more flavour. Just remember to remove them before you serve) and a little sprinkling of extra coriander for colour.

A very easy, fast and healthy curry which certainly brought a little exotic spice into SW5 on a cold and rather dreary evening. I just hope the flat doesn't smell quite so exotic for days to come.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Salad Days Are Here Again

Whenever the sky contains a modicum of sunshine and there is a hint of warmth in the air, I find my attentions turning away from cooked the cooked greens which sustain me through the winter months, to the light and delicate leaves of salads.

There is something rather sad and unappetising about munching one's way through a chemical- laden pillow of leaves from a supermarket, and so last weekend, with its promise of burgeoning spring, I walked up to the Marylebone farmers market to see what leafy goodies were on offer.

It seems that everyone in London, including tourists, are aware of Borough Market which does means that actually trying to purchase anything has become an exercise in bustling, which rather robs robs one of any pleasure to be had in selecting delectable morsels and reminds one of rubbing up against fellow underground commuters in rush hour. Luckily the Sunday morning Marylebone market is a much more relaxed affair albeit a tiny fraction of the size.

So, determined to try something new I headed for the Wild Country Organics stall, tempted by their crates brimming over with a huge variety of weird and wonderful leaves in addition to the more usual suspects. After a consultation with the lovely stall holder I filled bags with ryokusai, greenin snow and claytonia, none of which I have ever encountered before, let alone nibbled.

How glad I am that I have. Ryokusai is a form of Chinese cabbage, its glossy dark green leaves resembling those of chard or savoy cabbage. It is also called Chinese mustard although I found that it had more of a peppery character. Unlike the spiky leaved greenin snow. A vivid shade of emerald, this distinctive leaf has a fierce mustard flavour which was superb when stir fried with garlic, spring onions and red chili. And then there was the delicate, feminine claytonia. These little leaves have a soft, almost dewy texture and have a slightly lemony taste. Perfect when combined with ribbons of cucumber and sugarsnap peas to accompany grilled fish.

Having had an introduction into the exciting world of leaves and so early in the season, I am looking forward to a long spring and summer of glorious salads. If only the weather would be as similarly enthusiastic.