A first flirtation with Ottolenghi

My very dear friend Christine, whom I’ve known since we were 11, gave me a beautiful new cookbook for Christmas/birthday – Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem. I hadn’t even heard of Ottolenghi until last June when I was in London having dinner at the flat of another very dear friend, Henni. She showed me one of his earlier books, Plenty (which focuses entirely on vegetables), and told me he was basically ‘so hot right now’ in London, although she didn’t use those exact words! I’ve since discovered that his eponymous empire so far comprises three take-away shops in Notting Hill, Kensington and Belgravia (some with a few seats), a restaurant (plus shop) in Islington, and a brasserie (called Nopi) in Soho. If you know London you might surmise from this list of the city’s most thoroughly desirable areas that we’re talking about something quite upmarket here, and you’d be right. It’s not for nothing that they say on their website, “We like to think of ourselves as the haute couture of the food-to-go world”. I’ve yet to visit a single one of these outlets (which will be rectified on my next trip) but the descriptions I’ve read and the pictures on the website (and in the books) all speak of the most beautiful, sensual, vibrantly coloured and boldly flavoured food, all handmade from scratch from the best raw ingredients with the greatest of care and passion. Presentation is a big part of it too: the shops are well-known for their highly enticing window displays, a pyramid structure of platters and cake stands piled high with the prettiest tarts, meringues, cakes and pastries. I wish I could nick a few photos from the website but I think that might be a bit naughty so I’ll direct you there instead: ottolenghi.co.uk

So, in the last week I’ve made three dishes from Jerusalem, his latest book, which as you might guess focuses on food from this city. The first was a very good basic hummus recipe and the second was roasted chicken pieces with fennel, clementines (or, at this time of year, oranges) and Pernod, which I marinated one night and cooked for friends the next – a delicious and simple entertaining dish as all it needed was 45 minutes in the oven and some rice and green veg to go with it. The third recipe I attempted was for a late post-food-shop breakfast last Sunday which I practically inhaled, it was so delicious, and I can’t wait to make it again. I facebooked about it at the time, so excited was I, and had requests (including from Christine, the giver of the book) for the recipe, so here it is…

Shakshuka is, according to the book, originally a Tunisian recipe which has become very popular throughout Israel. There are many variations on this egg dish, the following being the one for summer and early autumn, with potatoes used in winter and aubergines in spring. These quantities will feed two to four people, depending on hunger levels. (I made half the amount and ate the lot myself, which was quite piggy!)

Shakshuka from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Shakshuka from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Dice two large red capsicums (peppers) into 0.5cm dice and sauté in two tablespoons of olive oil along with two tablespoons of harissa paste, two teaspoons of tomato purée, four cloves of garlic, finely chopped, one teaspoon of ground cumin and ¾ teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring, over a moderate heat for about eight minutes until the capsicum has softened. Add five large very ripe tomatoes, chopped, or two tins of chopped tomatoes, bring back to simmering point and cook for a further ten minutes, creating a thick sauce. Check for seasoning and then make eight little wells in the sauce. Take four eggs and four yolks and drop them into the sauce, one in each well. (When I made it I used all whole eggs but less of them). Simmer for eight to ten minutes until the egg whites are set but the yolks are still runny – covering the pan with a lid will hasten the process, if you want to do that. Remove from the heat and allow to settle for a couple of minutes before spooning onto plates and eating with buttered toast or bread. Enjoy!

Shakshuka from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Shakshuka from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Christmas food Aussie style

We had such a fabulous feast of food over Christmas that I couldn’t resist taking photos of it all. And it seems a shame to have a bunch of food photos and not write a blog post to show them off! This will probably be of most interest to my British family and friends, for whom the notion of a hot Christmas and all that entails is still something of a novelty. I hope the rest of you will find something to enjoy too.

‘Twas the night before Christmas and we all gathered at Watergums, a large, gnarly timber cabin by a platypus-inhabited billabong off the Barrington River, where half our party was staying for our festive family get-together. We sat around a big wooden table on the deck, a game of Scrabble in progress, surrounded by the heat and the din of cicadas. Dinner was Uncle Barry’s famous tomato bruschetta, followed by barbecued steak and chorizo sausages with baked sweet potato and coleslaw, topped off with peach trifle. Trifle is a particular Christmas favourite of mine. Granny always used to make our Christmas trifle, served in a beautiful crystal bowl. After Granny moved off the island my mother made it, to much the same recipe, and I always got to decorate the top with amaretti biscuits and tinned mandarin segments.

Christmas Day began with the traditional swim – not at Freshwater Beach where we go when Christmas is at Barry and Penny’s, but in the aforementioned Barrington River, down at Rocky Crossing, a couple of hundred metres from the turnoff to Lorna’s (my mother-in-law’s) farm. Back up at the farm, we breakfasted on Bourke Street Bakery croissants and mince pies before the Watergums mob arrived to fire up the barbecue for the turkey. The enormous free-range bird was swathed in two large pieces of pig skin before being consigned to the fiery innards of the Weber! At midday we judged the sun to be over the yardarm and broke out the champagne and orange juice, squeezed from oranges from Lorna’s garden, and also Lorna’s delicious homemade camembert.

It became apparent that the Weber was not getting up to temperature and the turkey would take longer to cook than previously anticipated. Meanwhile we tucked into the first course, supplied by cousin Cameron – three kilos of plump, sweet, Australian wild-caught tiger prawns with Penny’s Marie Rose sauce (mayo, tomato sauce, tabasco, Worcestershire sauce and possibly other things I’ve forgotten).

Australian wild-caught tiger prawns

Australian wild-caught tiger prawns

Eventually the menfolk gave up on the barbecue and transferred the turkey to the oven to finish it off and brown it. The Weber may not have cooked the bird but it did turn the pig skin into fantastic light, puffed-up, crunchy crackling, albeit it hadn’t been salted since its purpose was not for eating. Didn’t stop us eating some of it, however!

Pork crackling

Pork crackling

Free-range turkey

Free-range turkey

Beside the turkey our spread included free-range ham (glazed by yours truly in apricot jam and stuck with cloves)…

Free-range ham glazed with apricot jam

Free-range ham glazed with apricot jam

…Lorna’s mixed salad with homemade lemon myrtle mayo from her grandmother’s recipe, Penny’s legendary Hawaiian salad (sour cream, tinned crushed pineapple, tinned mandarin segments, desiccated coconut and miniature marshmallows) and equally popular onion salad…

Hawaiian salad

Hawaiian salad

…my mixed tomato and home-grown basil salad dressed in olive oil and top quality balsamic vinegar…

Mixed tomato and basil salad

Mixed tomato and basil salad

…and a huge fruit platter including watermelon, pineapple, grapes, cherries, nectarines, lychees, mangoes and strawberries.

Fruit platter

Fruit platter

Cameron had stuffed the turkey with a sweet, herbaceous mixture of ripe pear, bread crumbs, rosemary and oregano from the garden, and an egg to bind. Photographing this array of food I was struck by the Summery colours, the traditional turkey and ham from ‘the Motherland’ set off by a brighter, more vibrant palette than you’d see on a British Christmas lunch table. Eating this array of food, on the other hand, I was merely struck by how delicious it all was and how quickly I could go back for seconds!

Our Christmas spread

Our Christmas spread

Following a considerable break to allow all this to settle, we squeezed in some pudding – steamed Christmas pud (made by Lorna’s neighbour in return for a homemade Christmas cake) with Penny’s fabulous passion fruit ice cream and my brandy butter. Traditionally my mother and I would make the brandy butter together, without the aid of electrical appliances (hence the need for two pairs of arms), adding as much brandy, teaspoon by teaspoon, as we dared before it threatened to curdle! It’s also de rigueur, as far as I’m concerned, to feed oneself a little brandy in the process.

As is the way with Christmas food there was plenty left over for lunch on Boxing Day, with the addition of a potato salad and finished off with leftover trifle, ice cream and my Stephanie Alexander Christmas cake. The cake was a triumph, even if I do say so myself; wonderfully moist and dense with fruit. Good old Stephanie – hers will be my go-to Christmas cake recipe for evermore.

Stephanie Alexander Christmas cake

Stephanie Alexander Christmas cake

So, our Christmas viands (which word, incidentally, earned Mr T and I an awesome score in Scrabble on Christmas Day!) were a true blue team effort, provided by all, sourced as ethically as our purses would allow, and cooked and presented with love. It felt – and tasted! – great to be a part of that. For me, food and family is what Christmas is all about, and this one certainly made the mark. Thank you, one and all!

My apple chutney - presies for the family

My apple chutney – presies for the family

Bruschetta: satisfaction in a slice

Question: What do you do with a handful of broad beans and a loaf of bread when you haven’t much else in the house? (This is what I was contemplating at around 3pm today, lunchless and lazy.) Answer: Bruschetta! I know, I was sceptical too as I had only half the ingredients listed in the Thomasina Miers recipe. But not to be defeated, I ploughed on.

Broad beans

Broad beans

I eased the broad beans from ten furry pods, like precious jewels inside velvet-lined cases, and boiled them in salted water for about ten minutes. In a small mixing bowl, I tossed the drained beans with extra virgin olive oil, a dash of white wine vinegar (in the absence of a lemon), torn basil leaves from the pot outside my front door, and salt and pepper. Once toasted, I rubbed a thick slice of sourdough bread vigorously with the cut surface of a garlic clove and drizzled it with olive oil. Spreading generously first with Meredith Dairy goats cheese from a jar in the fridge, I then spooned my beans and their juices over the top.

Goats cheese and broad bean bruschetta

Goats cheese and broad bean bruschetta

So simple, so quick, so OMG there’s a party happening in my mouth! First the earthy tang of goats cheese, the hum of garlic, the crunch of toast. Then the beans, bursting forth rudely, shiny and bright green, from their puckered greyish jackets. And all enveloped in luscious olive oil offset by the sharp vinegar and aniseedy basil.

Goats cheese and broad bean bruschetta

Goats cheese and broad bean bruschetta

As luck would have it I also had at my disposal a couple of lovely tomatoes, half a red onion and some pine nuts, so come dinner time I was able to try out another of Thomasina’s bruschetta toppings.

Tomatoes and red onion

Tomatoes and red onion

I chopped my two tomatoes into chunky cubes and about an eighth of a red onion into fine dice, tossing them in a bowl with a scattering of toasted pine nuts, a small handful of shredded basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil and a slosh of sherry vinegar. (The recipe called for balsamic vinegar but I’m in love with the sherry variety at the moment.) I seasoned with salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar and left the mixture to stand for ten minutes. Meanwhile, I prepared my bread as before – toasting, rubbing and drizzling – then piled on the marinated tomato mixture. Barring the addition of pine nuts, this is probably the best known version of bruschetta. The simple combination of ripe tomatoes, a little onion, basil leaves and a vinaigrette dressing is nothing short of magical. However, I found the pine nuts added a welcome richness and textural contrast.

Tomato and pine nut bruschetta

Tomato and pine nut bruschetta

It may interest you to know that bruschetta, an Italian antipasto, dates back to the 15th century. In Tuscany it is called ‘fettunta’ and is usually served without any topping, especially in November when it acts as a vehicle for tasting the very first olive oil of the season. Now that’s simplicity!

Two Italian ways with squid (and fennel)

Given that I had the second half of the chutney to make on Sunday (before the apples started to get too old) I wanted something simple to cook for dinner. Just as well considering we didn’t end up eating until 10pm! I’d found a recipe for a lovely looking tomato, fennel and squid salad in Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italy so I popped up to Illawarra Road (taking in the Marrickville Festival while I was at it) for a fennel bulb and some squid – everything else I already had. I realised when I started prepping the ingredients later that the squid were pretty huge and I’d only need to use half, hence squid part two a couple of days later…

Take four medium squid (or two large ones as I did – I bought the tubes so no gutting or cleaning required; next time I’ll be braver as it’d be nice to have the tentacles too), slice them open along one side and flatten them out. Score the inside flesh in a criss-cross pattern with a knife. Cut 200g of tomatoes (I had vine ones, but the recipe suggests cherry and plum tomatoes) into chunks and put in a big bowl along with a half a red onion, finely sliced. Pinch the ferny tops off your fennel bulb and save for later, and finely slice the fennel and add to the bowl. Add the juice of one lemon and one orange, a teaspoon of dried oregano, three tablespoons of red wine or herb vinegar, seven tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and toss together. That’s a lot of liquid so I actually eased back slightly on the vinegar and olive oil.

Cook the squid on a griddle pan (or a barbecue) so you get nice charred bits. Before putting it on (and make sure the pan is seriously hot), rub the squid with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper and chili flakes on both sides. I found it quite hard to cook the squid as they need three to four minutes each side and they very quickly start to curl up, so I had to wrestle with them with two sets of tongs to try to keep them fully in contact with the pan! It might well be easier with smaller squid, I think. Once they’re cooked, slice them into wide strips on the diagonal and add to the salad, tossing everything again. Serve sprinkled with the zest of one lemon and the reserved fennel tops.

Tomato, fennel and squid salad

Tomato, fennel and squid salad

This was a lovely light, quick supper that tasted to me of Mediterranean holidays! The squid had that wonderful chargrilled flavour (and we had a house full of smoke!) and the oregano, citrus juices and the aniseed of the fennel all worked beautifully together. Mr T wasn’t too keen on the red onion and I tend to agree that the amount could be reduced a bit, but the salad does benefit from some to give it a bit of kick.

On Tuesday I used up the rest of the squid in a pasta recipe from the same book: simply, spaghetti with squid, or, far more romantically, ‘spaghetti con calamari’. Sauté, stirring often, a finely chopped fennel bulb (tops reserved, again) along with two cloves of garlic, finely sliced, and two teaspoons of fennel seeds, freshly crushed. (The smell of sweet, spicy, aniseedy fennel seeds in your mortar is divine.) Turn up the heat and add four baby squid (or two large ones) cut into rings, a finely sliced chili and a large glass of white wine and stir until the liquid is reduced by half. Now turn down to a low simmer and cook your pasta – I used fettuccini, rather than spaghetti, because that’s my favourite. I was a little worried that the squid would go hard and rubbery in the 10 minutes it takes for the pasta to cook, but it didn’t. When the pasta is done, drain and toss with the squid mixture. Remove it from the heat and add about five tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, the reserved fennel tops and a handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves (I actually forgot the parsley but it didn’t seem to matter). Toss it all together and check the seasoning. Serve sprinkled with the zest of a lemon.

Fettuccini with squid (before the pasta is added)

Fettuccini with squid (before the pasta is added)

After tasting it we squeezed over the juice of said lemon as well which really lifted it and gave it some zing. Also providing some added punch were the two chilis I included (rather than one), seeds and all. I also loved the warmth of the fennel flavour, intensified by the fennel seeds. It was so delicious and so simple and quick to make – I’ll definitely be adding this one to my week-night repertoire!

The best apple chutney

At this time of year my mind turns to Christmas and the things I should start making now so they have time to mature, like Christmas cake (which, of course, has to have brandy drip-fed into it for at least six weeks) and, for little presents, chutney. This fantastic chutney recipe comes from a book of my mother’s titled Preserving, published in 1971 as part of the Cordon Bleu series. It has been made for decades by my granny, my mother and now me, and is delicious with cold meats and hard cheeses.

(My mother has some fantastic cookbooks, incidentally, including the Supercook books which were serialised in the early 1970s. Collected religiously over a number of years, they formed an impressive encyclopedia that takes up about a metre of shelf space in the larder at my parents’ house. It is constantly referred to for certain recipes like chili con carne and Brunswick stew which were firm favourites of mine growing up and are always top of my request list when I’m visiting home now.)

A word about apples: In the UK you can get Bramley apples, otherwise known as cooking apples. The thing about a cooking apple is its high acidity and low sugar content which mean when cooked it a) breaks down to a mush and b) retains its flavour. In Australia it seems you can’t get Bramleys and the alterative suggested is Granny Smiths. They’re not the same at all (if you tried to eat a Bramley you would wince quite a lot!) but it’s the best we can do, I’m afraid. If anyone happens to know where you can get Bramley apples in Sydney, please leave a comment below!

Bramley apples

Bramley apples (photo borrowed from lovefood.com)

The recipe begins in rather startling fashion with ’36 large apples’! When I made this last weekend it became quickly apparent that I was only going to fit half that in even my biggest saucepan, so I halved all the quantities of ingredients which yielded nine jars of chutney, and I’ll make the other half this weekend. (I do have a 15L stockpot but it’s cheap and nasty with a very thin base and the last time I made this chutney in it it stuck to the bottom and burned. When I realised and mistakenly stirred like crazy to dislodge the burned layer – only serving to distribute it throughout the pan – the chutney tasted like a used ashtray and I had to ditch the entire batch. Time to chuck out that pan and get a good one.)

So, I’ll quote the halved quantities here for which you’ll need a pan at least eight litres in size with a good thick base. Peel, core and slice 18 Granny Smith apples. The quickest way to core them is to simply chop around the core from north to south pole in four cuts making a square. Chuck the cores or give them to your worms/compost container/pet rabbits.

Apple cores

Apple cores

Cut the pieces of apple into slices about 5mm (1/4 inch) wide and put them into your pan. Add to that ¾lb of sultanas, 1½lb of demerera sugar, 2oz of yellow mustard seeds, one sliced fresh chili, half a rounded dessert spoon of turmeric, 1oz of ground ginger, ¾lb of thinly sliced Spanish onions, three cloves of garlic crushed with salt, and one pint of malt vinegar. Mix well with a big wooden spoon (it helps to lever the spoon against the edge of the pan) and put on a medium to high heat. Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring regularly to give everything a chance to get near the heat at the bottom. It will feel at the beginning as though you’ve got very little liquid in there, but as the apple starts to soften it gives up its juice and you’ll get something that looks a little like this:

Chutney making in progress

Chutney making in progress

Now it’s just a case of simmering it gently, stirring occasionally, for an hour and a half to two hours, or until it turns to a brown pulply mass like this (I might have gone an extra half hour, I think):

Chutney ready to go into jars

Chutney ready to go into jars

Meanwhile, sterilise your jars to prevent mould and bacteria forming. First set your oven to 150°C. If, like me, you’ve been hoarding empty jars, get them out, pick the prettiest looking shapes and give them a good wash, along with their lids (don’t use ones with plastic lids), in hot soapy water, rinsing well to get the suds off. This is also a good time to soak them for a bit and scrape the labels off so that you can decorate with your own labels later. Put the jars and lids in a big roasting tin and dry thoroughly in the oven for about 20 minutes.

When your chutney is ready, allow it to cool for five minutes (just so it’s no longer at boiling point) and fill your jars while they’re still hot out of the oven. I found it helpful to fill a jug with a ladle and then pour (or gloop!) the chutney into the jars, helping it with a wooden spoon. Put the lids on straight away and secure tightly, creating a good seal. Put the jars away in a cool, dark place (they don’t need to go in the fridge until opened) and leave for at least a month, in my humble opinion, before eating… if you can bear to wait that long!

Apple chutney

Apple chutney

Mamma Contaldo’s ricotta dumplings

I had such a satisfying day of cooking yesterday that it makes me feel warm inside every time I think about it! First I made apple chutney (more of that later), then for dinner I made ricotta dumplings with tomato sauce, a dish I discovered watching the fabulous Two Greedy Italians on telly with Antonio Carluccio and Genarro Contaldo. According to the BBC website, where I found the recipe (although I have just discovered it’s on the SBS website too), these dumplings are traditionally made in Contaldo’s home town of Minori, on the Amalfi Coast, on the feast day of the town’s patron saint.

Minori, Amalfi Coast, Italy

Minori, Amalfi Coast, Italy (royalty-free image, yaymicro.com)

(I’ve added the above photo to get you in the mood. I found it on Google Images and I’ve credited the website that it comes from so I hope I don’t get into trouble. Please excuse the watermark across it – although I bet you didn’t notice that until I pointed it out!)

Having never made fresh pasta before these ricotto dumplings seemed like a fairly simple place to start, but it wasn’t quite as easy as they made it look on TV! You put into a big mixing bowl 200g 00 flour, 225g ricotta, three egg yolks, 30g freshly grated parmesan, salt, pepper and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg. Work this into a dough with your hand – it will come together eventually. (Watching the TV clip on YouTube again afterwards I noticed that they mixed the ricotta, egg yolks, parmesan and seasoning together a bit before adding the flour which seems like a good idea). Put your dough onto a floured board and knead for three to five minutes. Then, roll your dough into thin sausage shapes and, with a knife, cut into 2cm long pieces. You can sprinkle a little more flour over the dumplings to stop them sticking to the knife.

Before cooking the dumplings, make your sauce. Sautée three thickly sliced garlic cloves and one sliced chili in a good glug of olive oil for about a minute before adding two tins of good quality tinned whole tomatoes, cutting each tomato in half. Bring to the boil and allow to simmer for five minutes. Meanwhile, cook your dumplings; the recipe says they take three to four minutes. Tip them into a large pan of salted boiling water. Put the lid on straight away to help bring the water back up to boiling and them remove the lid again. A helpful tip they mention on the TV clip is that once they float to the surface, they need a further two minutes on simmer. Lift them out with a slotted spoon and add them to the tomato sauce. Stir to coat, spoon into hot bowls, garnish with basil leaves and serve with extra parmesan to grate over the top.

Ricotta dumplings with simple tomato sauce

Ricotta dumplings with simple tomato sauce

I absolutely loved the simplicity of this meal but I’m not sure if my dumplings turned out as they’re meant to be since they were quite solid and doughy. They did say on the program that they would be heavier than their cousin, potato gnochi, but still I felt that they could be improved. Next time (and I can’t wait to make them again!) I’ll put a timer on for the kneading part to make sure I do that for long enough, and I think I’ll cut them a bit smaller. I was delighted with the sauce and couldn’t believe it needed so few ingredients, but I would say that it’s really worthwhile buying the best tinned tomatoes you can for this. I really like the Ardmona ones as they have a lovely thick juice.

Braised rabbit, and banana cake with caramel sauce

In celebration of our beautiful new cooktop which arrived and was installed last Friday, I had a weekend of cooking. On Saturday I made a rabbit stew which has been on my ‘Things To Cook’ list for ages, and on Sunday a banana and caramel cake.

With the high winds on Saturday and only a bike for transport, shopping for my Thomasina Miers rabbit recipe takes until lunch time. I’m slightly stunned at the price of rabbits – two cost me just over $50! I had presumed, like many other slow-cooking cuts, they were going to be cheap, but alas, no. Never mind; I am determined, once in my life, to cook rabbit! I brown my two rabbits (which the butcher at the wonderful Dulwich Hill Gourmet Meats has jointed into four pieces each), first coating them in plain flour seasoned with salt and pepper, and put them into the slow-cooker. Next I sauté two diced celery sticks and 10 peeled whole French shallots in some clean oil (after wiping the blackened flour out of my pan), and put those aside. The next step is to caramelise, in a knob of butter, the cut surfaces of an orange cut in half around its equator, and a whole head of garlic cut likewise. Aside go those too. Into the pan now I put 100g of blanched almonds, fairly finely chopped, a tablespoon of chopped rosemary, a teaspoon of chopped thyme, two bay leaves, a pinch of saffron threads, an inch of grated ginger and the zest of a lemon, and stir them around until the nuts turn golden brown. Meanwhile I heat up 200ml of sherry. I pour the sherry into the nut mixture along with the sautéed vegetables, orange and garlic, and I’m supposed to light the sherry with a match and let it flambé. Perhaps the sherry isn’t hot enough because it refuses to ignite, so instead I let it bubble for a bit so that the alcohol burns off. Next I add 500ml of chicken stock and bring it to the boil before pouring the lot over the rabbit pieces and turning the slow-cooker on high.

By now it’s about 6.30pm because I’ve had to pop out mid-prep to the bottlo for sherry, and I’ve had a lovely Skype with my brother and twin niece and nephew, and dinner is clearly not going to be ready until bedtime! This happens to me a lot – I should always allow about twice the time that I think it’s going to take to make anything. Mr T has given up and gone to the pub for dinner with friends, and I resort to that most reliable of staples, pasta and pesto. Not to worry, the rabbit will taste even better tomorrow night…

Next day I set about making the banana and caramel cake, one of the fabulous recipes in my Bourke Street Bakery book. First I cream 250g of unsalted butter with 355g of caster sugar and the seeds from a vanilla bean (split lengthways and scraped out) in the Kenwood mixer (thank you, Jono!) with the whisk attachment. Only trouble is the butter is so cold (since I forgot to take it out of the fridge in advance) that it takes about half an hour of whisking, scraping the sides, whisking, scraping, to coax it into the right consistency. Then I whisk in four eggs, one at a time, with more side scraping to ensure they’re properly incorporated. Next in goes 200g of sour cream in two batches and 300g sifted self-raising flour, again in two batches. I mash three ripe bananas and sprinkle them with brown sugar before folding them through the mixture, and then pour it into a greased, lined 28cm tin. By now Mr T has arrived home from work so I give him the bowl and spatula to lick. (I have already had my fun with the whisk attachment!) The cake goes into the oven at 200 degrees celsius for 55 minutes initially, soon after which I place another piece of baking paper over the top to stop it going too brown.

Meanwhile, I heat up some rabbit stew. (There are another six helpings in the freezer. Before boxing it up, I scraped into the sauce the flesh from the now-soft orange halves and squirted all the garlic out of its soggy, papery skins.) Much of the meat has fallen off the bones but that’s only a good sign as far as I’m concerned, even if it doesn’t look terribly attractive. To go with it we have steamed broccoli and mashed potato with lots of butter, hot milk, salt and pepper and about four teaspoons of Dijon mustard; I once had rabbit with a mustardy sauce and it was a good combo. The result is delicious – the rabbit is tender and moist and tastes like a gamier version of chicken (but with a lot more bones!), and the sauce is crunchy with nuts and subtly orangey. The mash is robust in flavour and a perfect accompaniment.

Braised rabbit with rosemary and orange

Braised rabbit with rosemary and orange, Chez Mr & Mrs T

Dinner is interrupted a couple of times to check the cake. At 55 minutes a skewer comes out still sticky so we give it another ten and that seems to do it. Now for the caramel. Into a big saucepan I put 100ml of water and 300g caster sugar. Once dissolved I stop stirring and leave the mixture to bubble away on a fairly high heat for 7-10 minutes until it starts to go caramel coloured around the sides, taking it off the heat at that point to stop it burning. Meanwhile I’ve heated 200ml of whipping cream to near boiling point and now I add that to the sugar solution and it expands to about four times its original volume, bubbling ferociously up the sides of the pan, hence the need to use a big pan. This now goes back onto the heat and I whisk it until it’s smooth, after which I take it off the heat and let it cool slightly before whisking in 80g of unsalted butter for flavour and glossiness. I then pour it slowly over the still-warm cake, now out of its tin, into which Mr T has poked about 40 holes with a skewer so that the caramel oozes inside. Fortunately he has also had the foresight to put the cake in a pie dish with fairly high sides because much of the caramel runs off the cake forming a moat around it. I then spend the next 20 minutes basting the cake, trying to encourage more caramel into the holes!

When we slice it shortly after that it’s still so warm and soft that it disintegrates a bit, but it tastes amazing, so sweet and gooey, taking me back 30 years to the treacle sponge pudding we had at primary school. It’s crying out for vanilla ice cream but sadly we don’t have any. Next morning, after a night in the fridge, it’s completely solid and cuts easily like a dense cake, beautifully marbled and tasting much more of bananas than it did before. I take half the cake into work to share with colleagues for morning tea, by which time it’s reached room temperature which is another experience again. Now I notice the browned, toffee-coated crust which lends a lovely chewiness to contrast the sponge. Like the perfect little black dress, this versatile dish transitions effortlessly from desk to dinner table! Personally I think it shines best as a pudding, still warm from the oven and drowned in hot, runny caramel. Just don’t forget the vanilla ice cream.

Banana cake with caramel sauce

Banana cake with caramel sauce, Chez Mr & Mrs T

Cider with Maggie at Laurie Lee’s local

Following the wonderful wedding of a very dear friend in the Lake District I travel next to Gloucestershire to see my cousin’s wife. Having read my blog, Maggie wants to give me a typical Cotswold experience to write about, so after picking me up yesterday from Stroud railway station she takes me for half a cider at Laurie Lee’s local pub, The Woolpack, immortalised in his autobiography Cider With Rosie. Right on a narrow winding road in luscious countryside, The Woolpack is a little slice of very well-preserved history dating back to the early 1640s. We sip our cider in the adjoining beer garden and then wander up to the Holy Trinity Church opposite for a look at Laurie Lee’s grave with its simple headstone surrounded by giant daisies: Laurie Lee 1914 – 1997 / He lies in the valley he loved.

The Woolpack, Stroud

The Woolpack, Slad

Back at Maggie’s in her fabulous farmhouse-style kitchen we sip champers and catch up on all the goss while she makes dinner – a yummy Loyd Grossman Thai green curry with onion, green pepper (capsicum for my Aussie readers), carrot, green beans, bamboo shoots and gorgeous big juicy prawns.

Thai green prawn curry, chez Maggie

Thai green prawn curry, chez Maggie

In honour of Wimbledon starting this week there’s strawberries and cream for pudding, and we cosy up by the fire with Amber, their beautiful golden lab, and fall asleep to rubbish on the telly.

Strawberries and cream

Strawberries and cream, chez Maggie

Next morning, after tea, toast and Frank Cooper’s Oxford marmalade (the best marmalade ever) for breakfast, Tom, my strapping godson, appears having arrived home late last night from a holiday with school friends. Before Maggie and I leave to take me to the train station there’s the obligatory annual photograph of Tom and I together to demonstrate how tall he is; at six foot three inches he stands more than a head above midget Aunty Caroline. I must remember to wear my highest high heels next time I see him!

Toast and Oxford maramalde

Toast and Oxford marmalade, chez Maggie

The Woolpack
Slad, Gloucestershire
Visited 25 June 2012

A Pret sandwich and Vietnamese beef salad

Bizarrely, one of the foodie things I most look forward to on my trips to the UK is Pret A Manger sandwiches. This is especially the case at Christmas time when they do a Christmas Lunch sandwich – a heavenly combination of turkey, great slabs of herby stuffing, cranberry sauce, mayonnaise, crispy fried onions and some token greenery to obscure the fact that you are actually eating pure lard. Sadly, being June, the Christmas Lunch sandwich is having a well-earned Summer holiday so, on coming across a Pret at Marble Arch at lunchtime last Thursday, I choose the crayfish with lemon mayo and rocket. Pret is a very well marketed brand, in my opinion. Their promise is freshness and flavour and boy do they deliver. The soft, grainy bread is generously filled with plump, tender crayfish and peppery, unwithered rocket, and the lemon mayo adds the perfect zing. Plus, in a perfect example of internalising your brand promise, the staff are so damn perky and helpful that you really think that Pret must be an awesome place to work, and that does add to the enjoyment of the experience.

In the evening I cook dinner for Alex as a thank you for their wonderful hospitality. Laura is trying out a special diet that seems to consist mostly of mushed up aubergines so sadly she can’t partake of my culinary efforts. I make a Vietnamese beef salad from a favourite Nigel Slater recipe which I know by heart having made it so many times. Into a big salad bowl I put two ripe vine tomatoes cut into thin wedges, the equivalent of one large carrot and about 10cm of cucumber cut into matchsticks, some salad leaves (the recipe suggests watercress), a handful each of chopped fresh mint and coriander and one birdseye chili finely sliced (I leave the seeds in but I’m a chili freak). The only thing that’s missing that I didn’t manage to find at the shop is about four kaffir lime leaves which you’re supposed to de-vein, roll up tightly and then slice as thinly as you possible can. I love the flavour and fragrance that these add. I then prepare the dressing in a small bowl – the juice of a lime, two and a half tablespoons of sweet chili sauce, two tablespoons of fish sauce and a good pinch of sugar. All that remains is to cook the steaks – two lovely pieces of sirloin from the local butcher in Kew Gardens which earlier I’ve rubbed with some olive oil and sprinkled with black pepper. They’re not overly thick so I fry them in a very hot pan for just one and a half minutes on the first side and one on the second, grinding on some sea salt as they cook. After resting them for a few minutes I slice them into strips which are a lovely dark pink inside. I toss them into the salad along with the dressing and we’re ready to eat.

Vietnamese beef salad

Vietnamese beef salad, chez Alex & Laura

Alex is so enthusiastic in his compliments that I’m really quite chuffed I chose this recipe. It’s a bowlful of vibrant flavours and textures with the crunchy vegetables, tender rare steak and sweet-sour-salty dressing, plus a good chili kick that really gives our sinuses a workout. For pudding we have beautiful fat raspberries (only £2 for a big punnet from M&S – in Oz they’re extortionately expensive) with half-fat crème fraiche and a light sprinkling of white sugar. And over a few glasses of white burgundy followed by a fruity little sauv blanc from New Zealand, we reminisce about an enlightening (for me, anyway) visit I made to see Alex at Oxford University 20 odd years ago. As the cliché goes (and increasingly so, the older we get), how time flies!

Irish stew on a very rainy day

It’s the Queen’s Birthday public holiday and it has rained solidly from the moment I got up at 7am until now (which is 4pm) and it’s showing no signs of stopping. I am sitting at my computer, huddled around a heater along with racks of laundry slowly drying on a rotisserie basis. “A great day for cooking an Irish stew!”, I declared this morning, and braved the wet (eventually) in wellies and mac to buy ingredients up the road in Marrickville, officially the best suburb in Sydney.

I am using a recipe, rather appropriately, by Irish cooking queen Rachel Allen so it ought to be good – although it’d be difficult to go far wrong with such a simple stew. I brown 1.5kg of lamb neck, which I asked the butcher to cut into thick slices (four per neck) until they’re beautifully caramelised. (It’s funny how ever since Masterchef came on the scene cooking is ALL about caramelisation!) I put them in the bottom of the slow cooker. Into the still-hot olive oil go four carrots and two onions cut into chunks, plus eight cloves of garlic, peeled but not chopped. (The recipe calls for 12 baby onions, which would have been lovely and sweet, but they only came in huge bags at the local supermarket.) I sauté those for a few minutes, seasoning well, then add them to the slow cooker. On top of the meat and veg I add a few sprigs of thyme, more salt and pepper, 500ml of chicken stock and 100ml of water, plus 10 potatoes cut in half. It’s been cooking for an hour and a half so far and I intend to leave it for another three hours at least. Plenty of time for yet another pot of tea and a yoga class to restore some life to my cold, damp bones… Except that as it turns out there’s no yoga because it’s a public holiday, so instead I drink wine and paint my toes in preparation for my upcoming holiday!

I take the lid off for the final hour since slow cooking retains a lot of moisture. If I was doing a proper job I’d finish by pouring off the liquid, chilling it with ice cubes or in the fridge, and scooping off the fat before returning it to the stew. But that’s way too much of a faff, and besides, we’re ready to eat. The overriding flavour of this stew is sweetness – the meat falling off its spiky bones, the gelatinous marrow in the centre, the soft cylinders of carrot, the layers of onion. The fattiness gives it a richness, coating the mouth and no doubt sticking the ribs together! Desiree potatoes are the perfect variety for this stew – wonderfully waxy, almost fudgy – and mashed with a fork they provide the perfect blotting paper for all the lovely juices. I’m rather sorry I won’t be here to enjoy the leftovers which are now in the freezer, but hopefully going to Blighty in Summer I’ll be able to escape this incessant rain. Now that’s ironic!

Irish stew

Irish stew, chez Mr & Mrs T