Parmesan custards

Not only do I love cooking and eating, I love reading recipes and articles about cooking and eating. I’m a great snipper and copier out of recipes that I think will be worth doing, or that interest me. I’m always on the lookout for recipes that can be made in advance – we lived in an apartment in Nottingham where the upper floor was an open space for the kitchen, dining and living area and here, in Malaysia, we have much the same layout. That’s lovely when everything is tidy and ready to go but if you have guests sitting around with drinks it’s not so great for them to see you juggling pans and plates, cursing mildly and getting hot and bothered.

I like to have things ready to bring out – for one thing, it gives me time to brush my hair and wipe flour, sweat and splashes off my shiny, red face.

In my folder of Things I Really Must Make, I found this article, from Olive Magazine, dated June 2008,  but searching the site now, there’s no recipe listed. You’ll just have to follow what I write out.

Rowley Leigh, of Le Cafe Anglais has, amongst the many wonderful dishes he makes, a classic starter, Parmesan Custards – creamy, cheesey, savoury set custard served with thin fingers of toast, spread with a thin smear of anchovies, perfect as a simple, yet stunning, make ahead starter.

I have a set of espresso cups that are just about the right size and as they are part of my Wedgwood Cornucopia dinner service, they were going to look perfect at the table. We  were having good friends round to dinner and I wanted to make sure everything was as lovely as possible. There’s no point in keeping things ‘for best ‘- my motto is, if you’ve got it, use it! If you haven’t got espresso cups, little ramekins or china moulds (they need to hold around 80 ml) will do just as well.

I needed 4 egg yolks; 300ml of single cream; 300ml of milk; 12 anchovy fillets; 100g of finely grated parmesan for the custard and another 150g for some parmesan crisps I was going to make as an extra; 50g of softened butter; 8 slices of good bread ( I used thinly sliced No Knead Bread) plus cayenne and white pepper to season everything with. The recipe said this would make 8 small pots but the six espresso cups took slightly more than the recommended 80 ml so everything evened out. Besides, there were going to be six of us eating.

This really is quick and easy – so easy, that the first thing you do is get the oven turned on to 150°C/300ºF/gas mark 2.

Then, grate the parmesan finely so it makes a lovely, light and airy mound

Remember that this is for the custard…. I need the rest of the parmesan for crisps, later.

Mix 300ml each of the milk and the cream together

….then add in all but a tablespoon of the parmesan, if you are using ramekins.  You save this because you can sprinkle this last bit on top and then grill your pots to make a crisp topping.  I was going to make parmesan crisps instead because I didn’t want to put my lovely Wedgwood under the grill.

…and heat gently in a bowl or a bain marie, over a pan of boiling water until the parmesan melts.

Allow this to cool completely

While the mix is cooling, butter your cups or little bowls.

Once your mix is cool,  whisk in the four egg yolks, a pinch of cayenne, the same of finely ground white pepper and maybe a pinch of salt. You must let it coolproperly because otherwise you will end up with cheesey scrambled egg.

Put the cups in a roasting tin, then fill them with equal amounts of the custard mix, then put the tin on the oven racck before you add boiling water. You need enough to come maybe one third of the way up the cups. Doing it this way prevents the mix slopping about and you pouring boiling water over your feet. Always a plus point in my book.

Cover the  top of this with some buttered baking parchment or a silicone sheet and then let everything bake for about 15-20 minutes, when they will be just set.

They emerge, looking gorgeous. I put them to one side while I made the toasts and the crisps……

My sister gave me some Curtis Stone silicone wafer baker molds as a Christmas present and I really wanted to try them out  –  you simply pack them with the rest of the finely grated parmesan and put in a low oven, on a baking tray

.. until they turn a soft, golden brown. Leave them to cool and you can get started on the anchovy toasts.

Thinly slice some good bread – each person will need a slice – and cut the crusts off to make lovely, neat, evenly sized rectangles

Then take your softened butter and the anchovies (drain them – you don’t want the oil)

….and mash them into a smooth paste

Lightly spread half of the slices of  bread – and I do mean lightly. You don’t want to overpower everything with too much anchovy.


Lay a slice of unbuttered bread over the spread ones to make dainty sandwiches. The easiest way to toast them is in a toasted sandwich bag and then pop them in the toaster for a short time. You don’t want to make them too toasty and crisp – you have to slice them into fingers after that…


A good way to get very thin toasts is to roll them, still in the bag, with a rolling pin to get them nice and smooth, then toast them. When they are done they can easily be cut into fine fingers.


By now, the parmesan crisps are cool and can be gently lifted from the molds. How fantastic is that?

And then… well, then you are nearly ready.


Wipe down the kitchen and set the table….


When you are ready to serve, if you are using ramekins or china molds, sprinkle the last of the parmesan on top of the custards and brown gently under a hot grill. I had my parmesan crisps to place on top, instead.

The fingers of anchovy toast were piled onto a plate

The starter was served…..

The crispness of the toast fingers contrasted deliciously with the soft, savoury custard.

The parmesan wafers added a gorgeous crisp bite.

Successful? Yes.

Tasty? Very much so.

Easy to do? Yes, so much so that this, with its comforting creaminess and rich, savoury flavour, would be a great dish to do when you needed some lovely comfort food.

In fact, the more I think about this, the more I want to make it again. It will remind me of a wonderfully happy night in Nottingham and I can introduce it to my new friends here in Malaysia.  What a good reason to invite people round to supper!
















Home thoughts from abroad…… Whisky toffee almond tart

Sometimes, you know, my thoughts go back to the UK and I think of my family and friends there that I miss so much. Right now, they tell me, the weather is icy, frost lines the branches of trees and the grass has turned to thick white, iced strands. I miss the beauty of an English winter, even if I don’t miss the aching pain of frozen feet. Nor do I miss having to chip ice from the inside of my windscreen, as I had to do last winter when the temperatures were regularly -5° to -9° C.

I do have other problems here….  I get out of my air conditioned car and my specs steam up; here, my hair is permanently limp in the humid heat. Minor, I know, but constant. That’s the thing about the Tropics. We have no seasons, no changes… sunrise and sunset are at much the same time every day, twelve hours apart and the weather is pretty constant. Sometimes it rains a bit more than other times but, generally, one day is much like any other.



When you are inside, with air conditioning however, the weather can look very different… I looked out at this, dark and stormy skies and the promise of a thunderstorm and rain later. It looked like November in the UK. Yet I knew that once I was outside on the balcony it would feel hot and humid. It’s quite disconcerting at times.

It did make me think of cold days in the UK and I remembered the last meal I cooked for friends in Nottingham before we left for Malaysia. It was a fabulous night where we laughed till we cried, we ate till we were fit to burst, we drank cocktails and wine and then moved on to whisky and we even danced across the floor in the early hours of the morning…. we finally said our goodnights at about 4am.

Maybe it was all the drinking. I blame one of the puddings for that as I am sure we wouldn’t have had the whisky if we hadn’t had a tot to go with the Whisky Toffee Almond Tart….

I’d seen the recipe in Delicious a couple of years or so ago (maybe even more) and I’d saved it, wanting to cook it for a special occasion. Us leaving the country seemed pretty special to me and besides, one of our lovely guests is Scottish and he loves whisky… and even more to the point, we were moving somewhere we couldn’t take our whisky anyway! Waste not, want not, I thought.

All I had to do (and it was a pretty simple recipe – always a plus point when you are cooking lots of things)  was make some pastry. 200g of plain flour, with 100g of chilled and chopped unsalted butter needed to be rubbed through (or, easier still, whizzed on pulse in a processor) until everything comes together into fine crumbs.

Add about four tablespoons of cold water and mix it together so it comes into a ball, then roll it out into a circle



I’m pretty useless at rolling evenly as you can see, so if you are the same, don’t worry, it works even if you have to piece bits together when you put it into a 23cm/9 inch fluted flan tin.



Don’t handle it too much and leave the edges hanging over. You can trim them off later so it is all neat and anyway, pastry shrinks when it cooks, so you get a better fit.

Prick the bottom with a fork so that when it cooks the steam can escape and you have a flat bottom to it and just put it in the fridge to chill right down for 30 minutes.

After you have wiped up the mess you will have made after dusting the board to roll the pastry on, you have plenty of time to get the rest done. Put the oven on to heat at 200°C/fan 180°C/390°F.

You can put the pastry shell into the oven, lined with baking paper and baking beans to weigh it down, for fifteen minutes. After that, take the paper and beans off and put it back in to bake until golden… but no more than five minutes. Take it out and let it cool.



Now for the good stuff…. you’ll need 300g flaked almonds, a 284ml carton of double cream, 225g granulated sugar and some single malt whisky. You don’t need much, so before the whisky lover in your family shrieks at the thought of cooking with fine whisky, assure them it is for the best of reasons and anyway, you only need 4 tablespoons….



Put the almonds into a pan and add the sugar



Add the cream….


Stirring it all round


And mix it together. It’s looking good so far……


Ancnoc whisky


And then, select your whisky…. I chose anCnoc,  a smooth and almost sweet Speyside single malt.



Measure 4 tablespoons of the good stuff, pour it in and then just stir it all round and add a pinch of salt to round out the flavours…



… and then heat it all through, gently, until the sugar dissolves and it thickens slightly. This will take about twenty minutes and you will see it turn a beautifully pale golden colour. Take it off the heat and put to one side.

Turn the oven down to 180°C/fan 160°C/355°F.



Pour the filling into the pastry shell



… and then smooth it out. (Yes, the mixture DOES taste delicious) and then bake it for another ten minutes or so until it looks golden. Don’t overdo it and don’t worry if it looks like it hasn’t set. It does that as it cools.



After you have put it on a tray to cool slightly, drizzle it with just a little more whisky so it sinks in as the filling cools and firms up.

Let everything cool completely before you trim off the edges to make it look neat and put on a cake stand, ready for serving.



And then, of course, you are ready to serve it with a wee dram to go alongside it at the end of the meal..



Slice it…..



… and serve it with a dollop of really good, thick cream.


It really was lovely.



Was it a success? Well, that picture was taken after we’d had the whisky toffee and almond tart, at the end of the meal. I think the blurring of the shot says it all.

I can’t blame the tart for that, I suppose, but it certainly was a fine ending to a lovely meal with our friends.

A fitting goodbye to those we were leaving behind us and an excellent start to the laughing and dancing that followed.

Maybe you could make this? Not necessarily because you are leaving the country… but how about as a dessert for a Burns’ Night supper? Then the whisky is justified… not only justified but essential.

Squash and goat’s cheese lasagne

Sometimes, when you plan things, they don’t turn out exactly as you envisaged.  Sometimes that’s a bad thing and sometimes it’s absolutely marvellous. Let me tell you about a marvellous thing.

We’d been planning to have J and R round for dinner because both of them got wonderful new jobs within a couple of days of each other and that deserved a celebration. Juggling the diaries so that everyone could make it took ages but eventually we settled on a Saturday night that would work for us all.

In the meantime, separate to all of this, the Bear had invited Anthony, founder and CEO of Kaggle, which is a platform for data prediction, to give a talk at the University and, as is the way of things, we got talking at work. You know how you know there are people you can get along with? Well, Anth was like that so, when we heard he was staying in Nottingham for the weekend to explore, we immediately invited him to come to dinner too. He’d fit in well round our table and we knew he would add to the general good humour and laughs that we were expecting.

As J is a vegetarian, I’d been thinking of things to make that would be suitable. I decided that a starter of mushroom pâté with  melba toast and caramelised red onions would start us off well but I also needed to find  something delicious for the main course. I wanted tasty yet relaxed… this was going to be a fun evening and we weren’t looking at being formal at all.

I’d spotted something that looked interesting (more than interesting, actually, positively delicious if truth be told)  on Rhi’s Foodie WorldSquash, Roasted Garlic and Goat’s Cheese Lasagne. Now lasagne is one of our favourite things and here was a recipe that would be perfect for a vegetarian main course. Rhi said it was so lovely that she would cook it again and again, which is pretty much of a guarantee of deliciousness because every food blogger is always trying to cook something different all the time.

It ticked several boxes for me – delicious, vegetarian and it was something that could be made in advance, which is always a bonus. In our apartment, the upper floor (which is our kitchen, living room and dining area)  is open plan and stretches the entire width of the building. That’s a great space for entertaining  but it also means the kitchen area is on view to any guests. There’s no hiding the pots and pans by shutting doors and I like to have everything cleared away and as much ready (or hiding, cooking in the oven) as possible.

I could have a leisurely morning, preparing everything, then clean the kitchen and set the table, then put the lasagne in before they arrive. That would be perfect. What was even more perfect was that I had everything I needed… two lovely butternut squash, garlic, a roll of goat’s cheese, a couple of tins of plum tomatoes, and a box of lasagne sheets. This was surely a sign that I had to make the lasagne.

Now when I read Rhi’s description she peeled, then cubed her squash – I was in the mood for rattling along in the kitchen so I cut mine into wedges

I laid them in a roasting tin that I’d lined with a silicone sheet (oh, how I hate scouring tins. This way means I can roast things and the vegetable sugars from the carbohydrates don’t burn onto the bottom. I can just wipe the sheet clean. I do love to make my life as easy as possible)

I drizzled some chilli oil over the wedges and scattered through about 6 or 7 fat cloves of garlic, still in their skins. If you do this to garlic, you can squeeze the soft white middle out later.

Rhi had used sage but all I had growing on my windowsill was some thyme, so I scattered that over the top, with some Maldon salt to season it all.

And into the oven it went at 180°C/350°F for three quarters of an hour or so while I got on with other stuff.

I needed the squash and the garlic to roast down softly and the squash sweeten and deepen in flavour as it softens.

And the other stuff was making a rich and delicious tomato sauce to layer the lasagne with. I had some tubes of Gourmet Garden fresh chopped herbs (surely a life saver for us when our windowsill herb pots are dying off. A life savour, perhaps?)

I gently cooked a red onion (well, I still had some left from when I made caramelised red onions) and then added the tomatoes to cook down.

A good squeeze of the basil would make a truly gorgeous tomato sauce.

By now the squash had roasted to a delicious softness.

And just look how it had roasted. The colour of the squash had deepened and the smell was mouthwatering. The garlic was soft inside its papery skin and just ready to squeeze into the tomato sauce.

I squeezed all of the cloves into the sauce and stirred it round.

Roasting garlic takes away any harshness, leaving a sweet and aromatic garlic flavour.

(Now I know that picture makes the garlic look orangey  and incredibly bulbous but there’s a reason for that….and that is, if you ever try to squeeze an oiled and roasted clove of garlic, one handed, while trying to take a picture over a steaming pot of tomato sauce, your lens is likely to steam up, your fingers slip and the angle of the shot changes. That pile of garlic was well below the clove and had already got splashed by one of those molten lava-like bubbles. Take it from me, what emerged from the clove was soft and glisteningly white.)

Stir it all in anyway and let the roasted garlic infuse that sauce.

Now I had to scoop out that delicious squash….

It was so soft I could spoon it out from the skin.

I love that colour. So bright and cheerful. I’d paint the walls that colour if I could get away with it, but the Bear is more of a magnolia man.

And then? Then just spoon it into the tomato sauce and stir it round.

It thickens it and gives it a lovely texture. In a strange way, the squash seems to lighten it.

The next thing to do is to make the bechamel.

The proportions for a good bechamel are, first of all, equal amounts of fat and flour must be cooked together as a roux. I do it by tablespoons, rather than weight because that’s quicker.

A couple of tablespoons of each, stirred together, over a gentle heat until it becomes a beautiful golden paste as the flour cooks.

Then, a pint of milk and cream – I got my jug and put in half a pint of cream and topped it up with milk, stirring it round to mix it. It might look lumpy at first but it soon smooths out to make a silky sauce.

(I didn’t say I was doing a diet version, did I? This is a celebratory meal for friends, so I’m making the sauce taste even more rich and delicious) Once it has thickened to a rich and savoury white sauce, you can start to think about putting everything together.

And now the best bit – layering the lasagne.

Start by putting down a layer of lasagne sheets to cover the bottom of a large dish. There’s no need to soak them, generally, the moisture from the sauce will soften them as everything bakes.

Then put your first layer of the rich and soft tomato, squash and garlic sauce.

Bechamel next, poured gently over the tomatoey layer.

Then more lasagne sheets (and look how I have snapped them to fit!) and more tomato sauce spread over that.

I had a beautifully fresh and crumbly goat’s cheese log… about 100g or so. It needed to be sliced into deliciously, almost sticky, rounds.

And a thick layer was spread over the tomato sauce.

And so it went on with another layer of lasagne, more sauce and the last of the bechamel, finishing with a lovely grating of Grana Padano cheese to add a spikier, cheesier topping. I could have used parmesan, but the Grana Padano was at hand.  Doesn’t that look lovely? You just know that this is going to turn out beautifully.

And once I was at that stage, I could set the kitchen to rights and leave the lasagne, ready for cooking later.

All that remained was to set the table and put the lasagne in when the guests arrived.

Half an hour or so, maybe forty minutes, at 190°C/ 375°F produced the most glorious lasagne… beautifully layered, fragrant and savoury. Don’t worry if you need it to be delayed – just cover it so it doesn’t burn and turn the heat down. This is a very forgiving dish.

And served with green salad and plenty of red wine, it really was lovely.

The squash really lightened the lasagne in a strange way and there was certainly no feeling of lacking anything by not using meat. It was savoury and delicious. As for the guests? We all laughed as we ate and drank. Everyone cleared their plates… it was a success.

Remember how I said that somethings don’t turn out as you planned? That happened this  night. I certainly didn’t plan that we’d be singing at the table, between mouthfuls.

A is Australian and somehow the conversation veered round to Rolf Harris (the world’s greatest living Australian) …. who, Anth said, he wasn’t really aware of.

Not aware of Rolf? He’s a hero to us all and has been part of all of our growing up and adult years, so we all chipped in with great enthusiasm to tell him about the painting, the pets and the singing. And then, as these things happen, nothing else would do until we had propped up a laptop, brought up Youtube .

Poor A. He sat there in stunned amazement as we all sang, word perfect and in tune to “Two Little Boys” I defy anyone not to have a tear in their eye when Rolf sings that. Although maybe that could have been the wine we drank……..

So, thank you, Rhi. A fantastic recipe that was exceptionally delicious and helped turn an evening into a fantastic occasion.

Singing, eh? Who would have thought a lasagne would have made you sing? But it does… Australian guests or not, this was so lovely you will want to burst into song.

Meatfree Monday – Monkfish in a cream, vermouth and pea sauce.

The weather has been really good this year. Proper weather, if you know what I mean. In the winter it was cold and snowy (OK so I was moaning about the interminable snow when it stretched on, week after week, but looking back? Well… it was fun at times, wasn’t it?) and now we are into the summer and we have had sun!

This is England, you know. We do damp and cool very well indeed. Having sun when we are supposed to get it it is break from tradition.

Of course, I can moan about the sun being too hot (because it’s no real fun when I am at work behind glass, steaming gently like an heirloom tomato in a greenhouse… all red,shiny and strangely misshapen) but generally I am happy. Everything I am growing on the balcony is benefitting from the gorgeous weather and it is lovely to come out from work into sunshine.

It makes you want to have light and fresh foods. Not just salad, of course, though that’s good and refreshing, but tasty and light suppers that still feel rather special.

I had a fancy for fish and called in at the fishmongers on the way home from work. There, on ice, were monkfish cheeks at £4.99 a kilo. Monkfish!   For those of you who don’t recognise the name “monkfish”, it is apparently known as goosefish on the eastern coast of North America.

I adore monkfish! The tails are very expensive, but the cheeks are the cheapest part of the fish. Monkfish are possibly the ugliest fish in the oceans, with an enormous head – but it is their tails that are the prized part. In days gone by, unscrupulous people would use monkfish tails instead of lobster as they taste very similar – sweet and meaty- and were very cheap. Now, with the amount of overfishing that goes on monkfish are becoming as expensive, often costing as much, if not more, than lobster, at times.

But the head… that great big, goggly eyed, enormous mouthed and whiskered head, well, that would often be just chopped off and thrown out. Nowadays though, more care is taken and the cheeks are cut off. They taste the same – sweet and delicious – but they are, of course, by necessity, just small pieces of fish. Which is why they are sold for so much less… and why they are an ideal quick and easy and very cost concious option for supper!

I bought six cheeks for £2

It’s such pretty, pinky white  flesh when you have stripped off the tough grey outer skin, but be aware there’s an almost translucent grey membranous layer that needs to be removed as well. You will spot it and it is easy to get off but be warned, it is still very tough.

I decided that if I were to do the cheeks in an aromatic sauce and serve them with rice it would make a really lovely supper…. but I needed to see what I had in the apartment that I could use.

I found some sweet onions and the remains of a pot of cream in the fridge. There were some frozen garden peas in the freezer that I thought would add a nice sweet touch and a lovely almost popping surprise in terms of the overall texture. I knew I had some vermouth that would lighten it and give a fresh taste so that could go in too.

I started by chopping the sweet white onion and started it off in a saute pan.

Adding salt to the onion makes it sweat more, keeping it white, rather than browning. I wanted this to look appetisingly pale.

A good splash of vermouth once the onions were softened helps make the start of a flavourful sauce. I always use Noilly Prat because that is the vermouth I have always used, but any good dry vermouth will do.  Just remember that it is the dry vermouth and don’t go throwing in the sweet red!

While that was gently bubbling away, I started some basmati rice – using one mug of rice with one and a half mugs of water (if it is real basmati it needs less water than other long grain rice) and let that boil softly until the water was mostly absorbed. Once the rice was nearly perfect and the water, in the main, absorbed, I take it off the heat and put a clean tea towel over the top of the pan and put a lid on top of that.

That is the most marvellous way to make sure that the rice is perfectly cooked and fluffy – the tea towel absorbs all the excess steam and moisture.

Once the alcohol had lost its almost raw smell and the aromatics of the vermouth remained, I added what was left of the cream to softem the sauce

A few handfuls of frozen garden peas were added so they could defrost in the sauce (frozen peas really are the only way anyone can have sweet peas if they haven’t got them growing outside their kitchen door!)

And then the cheeks, sliced into bite size bits…

A few minutes is all they need.

Just watch as the soft pink turns to a pure white coloured flesh.

And that, served on top of basmati rice is a truly delicious supper.

It was quick – under 25 minutes. It was cheap – maybe £3 or so in total and it made the two of us feel as if we had had a luxurious meal. Pretty good, eh?

The Bear loved it and that is what counts, isn’t it?

Strawberry Pistachio Shortbreads

I love reading. I especially love reading food writing.  I think there’s nothing better than reading the story behind the recipe. A recipe just set down by itself doesn’t grab me the way a recipe does when I get to know more about the cook… the reasons why they made that recipe and just how they did it.

 I have quite a large collection of cookery books  (well over 150) and a mountain of food magazines. The Bear is always on at me to do something with them but I just can’t. I suppose I should go through the magazines at least and cut out the recipes I really want to try but I just haven’t got around to it yet. Part of it is, I think, that I was bought up never to despoil a book (and by extension, a magazine.) I would no more take a pair of scissors to a book than I would turn down the corner of a book or crack its spine. Books are to treasure and read again and again.

Jeffrey Steingarten – now, there’s a writer! A lawyer turned food writer for Vogue, his books “The man who ate everything” and “It must have been something I ate” kept me enthralled for hours and I still go back and read a chapter every now and again. That’s not so much recipes as mini essays and it is one of the things the Bear and I bonded over when we first met. If you are looking for entertaining (hugely entertaining) and erudite, informative stories about food, he’s your man.

Nigel Slater is another – endlessly fascinating with a huge list of cookery books to his name. “Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger” is his autobiography… start to read that and I bet you won’t put it down. His “Kitchen Diaries” is one of my favourite books of all time. Nigel also writes for The Observer and the monthly Observer Food Magazine is one of my treats. There’s always something I want to cook from his articles –   everything he does is so beautiful – just look at his website and see what I mean.

The last Observer Food magazine (June 2010) featured his garden recipes and there was one in there that instantly appealled – Strawberry Pistachio Shortbreads. Strangely, for England, we have been having a marvellous summer – lovely bright days with lots of sun and the strawberries are making the most of it. There are mounds of fresh British strawberries everwyehere and this was my chance to make the most of them.

I wanted to take something nice to a friend’s house and the thought of lovely shortbreads topped with strawberries and vanilla cream seemed to be a brilliant idea. Very summery. Very British. Which would be good, because we were going to J’s house (he’s from Catalonia) and meeting N (from Argentina)  and L from the Czech Republic! Our get togethers are always brilliant international affairs.

Anyway, that was what I was going to make.

I needed  100g of butter, 3 tablespoons of caster sugar, an egg yolk, 200g of plain flour and 100g of finely ground pistachios for the shortbread….

And that is when I started to wonder. If you look at the article you can see a picture of the shortbreads and they seem to have bits of pistachios in there… not finely ground at all. So what should I do?

I sat at my desk (OK, so I was at work, but a girl can’t work constantly…) and flicked through the article again… it definitely said ground pistachios and the picture didn’t show that. Then I noticed at the end of the article was Nigel’s email address at the Observer.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained has always been my motto, so I emailed him, just asking for clarification. I mean, had he done it one way and decided the other way was better?

I didn’t really expect an answer but within 20 minutes he had replied! How marvellous was that? I never for a minute anticipated a reply.. or if I had got one, it would have been a standard response, copied and pasted into an email some weeks later. What a gentleman!

And the answer… you can use ground or roughly chopped as you choose. the resulting difference will only be the texture.

I liked the look of the ones in his photograph so I decided to do roughly chopped pistachios.

So… I was ready…

I weighed 100g of butter, beat it until it was soft and fluffy with 3 tablespoons of caster sugar (that’s superfine to those of you across the Atlantic)

Roughly blitzed (briefly) 100g of pistachios so I got a range of shapes and sizes of bits of nuts

Then dropped the pistachio bits into the buttery mix and mixed it in well

One egg yolk was added to bind it together and then the  200g of flour was added.

It was a stiff mix and Nigel advised adding a tablespoon of water to it all to make it into a firm dough.

This had to be kneaded into a ball and then rolled into a thick sausage shape. As this was to serve 8, I could see how big the roll should be.

Don’t they look pretty?

I pre-heated the oven to 180 degrees C/355 degrees F (actually, Nigel didn’t put the temperature on the recipe but I used what I thought would be appropriate and anyway, it was a bit late to be emailing him again. I couldn’t really expect him to be sitting there just looking at his emails)

In they went, lying on a silicone sheet for ten minutes or thereabouts. They weren’t to get coloured really,  just dry to the touch.

The cream was made by mixing extra thick double cream with some vanilla seeds…

 just slit the pods with a sharp knife and scrape out the seeds

and mix it through for the most gorgeous vanilla cream.

I sliced my beautiful strawberries and they were ready to be balanced on great, generous spoonfuls of delicious cream… on top of those gorgeous shortbreads.

What could be more British than strawberries and cream on a hot summer’s day? Our international gathering made short work of them.

Thanks, Nigel. Thanks a lot – they were lovely. And thanks for replying!

Haggis and Black Pudding on apple mash

Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, is known throughout all of the UK but it is in Scotland and the far north that his life and works have been celebrated on  Burns Night  for well over 200 years. That means haggis.

If you don’t know what is in haggis and you look it up, you might, perhaps, feel just tad nervous about eating it…..if you just eat it first then you may well be pleasantly surprised. There’s a lovely deep meatiness there, balanced with a richness from the oatmeal and suet and spices that, well, you wouldn’t believe came from a mixture of sheep’s innards.

Maybe it is best that I leave the description at innards. Click on the link if you want to know exactly WHAT innards.

I was given haggis from an early age, served with the traditional accompaniments of mashed potato and turnip or swede, so I was never fazed by it. That is probably how it ought to be done.

If you are an adult coming to haggis for the first time, do try it.

At a Burns Supper you will be served haggis with neeps and tatties (that’s the mashed turnip and mashed potatoes)  and a dram of whisky. Now, that resonates with me…. any meal where whisky is served as an integral part of the menu gets my vote.

Thing is, there are other ways to serve haggis and the other ways tend to be more friendly, say, to those who have never eaten it before. The Bear for example, being a Cockney,  probably thought that haggis was foreign food, beloved of savage Northerners and Scots and wasn’t something a boy from London should eat.  Mind you, I think much the same of jellied eels, which is a favourite, apparently, of those from the East End of London.

A good way to introduce haggis to innocents is to serve it with something to perhaps soften the effect…… and I thought that sweetening things up might help. I had some delicious black pudding and adding apples to that is always good… so I came up with haggis with black pudding and apple mash… and  a creamy, sweetly sharp sauce to go over it.

Haggis is easy enough to cook… you can poach it gently for an hour or so, or roast it in the oven, if you wrap it in tin foil to protect it, or, if you are pushed for time, you can cut it open and slice it, then put it in the microwave for 8 or so minutes, maybe breaking it up with a fork to make sure it is evenly cooked.

I like roasting it – there’s always the danger that you might burst the haggis if it boils… and then you will have ruined it beyond any chance of saving. The whole point of a haggis is that all those spices and meat and oats are bound together tightly – it’s already cooked, of course, you are just heating it up properly – and if it bursts open then unwanted water gets in and it turns into a dissolving mush.

I started roasting my haggis and while that was in the oven (175 degrees, wrapped in tin foil and placed in a casserole dish with some water to keep it moist) and got on with the other stuff… that was going to be in the oven for an hour and a quarter, or thereabouts, so that gave me plenty of time.

I had a lovely sharp Braeburn apple which needed peeling, coring and cubing.

I wanted it to keep its shape and sharpness but not to be too raw… so quickly tossing it through  butter and a pinch of sugar would do that. I scooped out the apple from the pan, leaving the appley, buttery juices behind – I was going to use them in the whisky cream sauce later.

I chose red skinned potatoes as they always make a great, fluffy mash, and used a potato ricer  to make sure there were no lumps. I know it seems more effort than using a masher, but the result? Ohhh… the difference is incredible… beautifully light and fluffy potato that you can beat your butter into…

That’s not a great photograph, I know, but you can get the gist of it. I was trying to get a shot with one hand as I squeezed the ricer with the other. The potato is forced out of the little holes and there are no lumps. Not one. Just oodles of beautifully riced potato.

Use a wooden spoon to beat in a big knob of butter, you’re looking for a gorgeous creamy mash.

Add those slightly softened cubes of apple – they make a lovely contrast to the smooth and creamy mash.

The black pudding needs to be gently fried. You’ll need a slice per person.

You’ll see the change from that dark red colour, to a glassy black – just keep the heat gentle so it cooks slowly.

Oh and remember that covering needs to be peeled off….

The haggis should be coming along nicely – that darkens down .

If you have decided to poach it, be careful when you cut into it – it is going to be very hot when that outer skin is cut.

I made a little whisky cream sauce… but forgot to take photographs. 

What I did was make a cream sauce (a couple of teaspoons of butter, a couple of teaspoons of flour, a pinch of salt, mixed and cooked through, then single cream stirred in until all the lumps disappear and it becomes a glossy smooth sauce… ) then thinned slightly with the apple juices and some whisky and heated through until the alcohol has cooked off. This is not an overtly sweet sauce but a savoury , fruity fresh one – you have sweetness with the nuggets of apple in the mash.

I wanted to make this look, if not glamorous, then at least vaguely presentable.  I was thinking of the round slice of black pudding and I wanted to get away from the normal haggis, neeps and tatties look of just everything spooned on the plate.

So I made a stack. Black pudding on the bottom. Then apple mash.

Then I pulled up the ring and spooned haggis in.

A spoonful of the whisky cream over the top and then served it.

I have to say this is probably not the best way of doing it, but it was what I did.

I won’t do it like this again because at the end of it, it didn’t look so great. Far too monochrome.

Tasted fantastic though, so I am not upset.

Still, as my mother always consoled me, looks aren’t everything.

Jansson’s Temptation

While we were in the north I had high hopes of being snowed in and had made sure we had the makings of lots of delicious comfort food recipes  to see us through what could be a seige situation.

Of course, while there was snow we didn’t exactly get trapped by it. It showed no sign of melting, though, so I felt entitled to think about something warm and sustaining. Calorific, even. After all, if it did turn nasty, we wanted to be able to fend of hypothermia.

It really was cold, though. Colder than I have known in a long time. We went to the beach nearby and, even though it hadn’t snowed for three, maybe four days, there was still snow on the rocks that are piled up for the sea defences.

Now these rocks are lashed by the sea daily. The waves often crash onto the promenade and you can taste the salt in the air. You’d expect, then, that the snow would have either been washed away or to have melted.

There was even snow on the beach.  Nothing was melting.

Faced with all that, I knew I had to make something to cheer us up, warm us through and fill us with each decadent mouthful.

It had to be Jansson’s Temptation.  I was always told that it was called that because it is so delicious it caused a Swedish clergyman to break his vow not to indulge in earthly pleasures. If you haven’t made it, try it. It will be something you dream about.

It is an oven baked dish of potatoes, onion, cream and Swedish sprats, anchovy style.

Now before you start scuttling backwards, shrieking that you don’t like anchovies, bear with me. They are actually sprats, cured in the Swedish fashion, which means they are a beguiling mix of sweetness and saltiness. The best place to get them? That famous Swedish home furnishings superstore – Ikea.  And the tin to look out for?

Right. First things first. Peel some potatoes and slice them, first one way and then the other until you have matchstick sized pieces of potatoes. I used two potatoes per person because, somehow, this just slides down.

That’s probably a bad thing in terms of diets but a good thing in terms of sheer, unadulterated pleasure.

Parboil them for 3 or 4 minutes, then rinse them in cold water

While that is going on,  peel and slice thinly, a large onion

Butter an oven proof dish

And then put a layer of potatoes

Followed by a layer of onions

Then scatter your sweet and salty sprats

They are so pretty – pink and silver…. quite unlike Mediterranean anchovies.

I pour some of the liquid sweet brine over the potatoes as well

Then cover the lot with some single cream. A large pot should do it.

And then… well, what the heck… just put a few dots of butter on top of it….and then into an oven  at 170 degrees

……….until you have a golden brown,  delicious dish. It takes about 40 minutes or so.

 A bit longer, if you have other things to do. Just cover the top with tinfoil to stop it burning .

Then… heap your plate with what is probably the most delicious potato dish in the world. The sprats have dissolved completely into the cream and give a beautiful sweetly, savoury flavour. Unless you’d been told there were sprats or anchovies in there, you’d never know. This has everything you could wish for – the softness and comfort of potatoes, a creamy, mouth filling texture and that umami type of taste – all sweet, salty and deep.

You would just swoon with the first mouthful.

I serve it with plain roast meat – lamb is good… but the star of the meal really is the potato.

No wonder poor old Jannson succumbed.

Christmas Pudding Ice Cream

With the best will in the world, no family can eat an entire Christmas Pudding.

Not even when it is one made by my aunt… the world’s best Christmas Pudding maker, ever.

All that love, skill and years of practice to make a lovely pudding …. you need to use it up to the last crumb. And what better way than by making it into the Boxing Day favourite pudding… ice cream.

First, make some custard. You can do it with eggs, as I normally do, or you can do it with custard powder. I have to consider who will be eating the ice cream so it’s custard powder for me this time.

Mr Bird, a Birmingham chemist,  had a wife who was allergic to eggs but adored custard so he invented the world famous Bird’s Custard Powder. It uses cornflour to thicken and is a staple ingredient in most British kitchens. I use it when I can’t make real egg custard – for example for those who are allergic or intolerant and those who may be unwell and it isn’t advised that they eat egg yolks.

It makes a perfectly lovely custard though and generations of people have grown up on it. I still think a real custard is best but needs must and all that.

You combine the powder in a bowl with some sugar – two tablespoons of each.

Then stir in some cold liquid… I am looking for a lovely, rich effect so I am adding cream

… maybe a couple more tablespoons of the cream, stirred in to make a smooth paste.

I like to add vanilla, as I would if I was doing the custard with eggs. You can use a teaspoonful of extract

 Or, if you like the look of vanilla seeds, you can use the paste

In the meantime, I have a pint or so of milk heating on the hob. Once it reaches boiling… well, once it gets those tiny bubbles round the side of the pan that are the warning it is just about to explode into a bubbling, overflowing pan of scalding milk…then you add that to the bowl and stir it smooth

You need to add it slowly and stir it round gently.. a smooth paste at first and then getting thinner and and more custard like.

Once it is smooth, pour it back into the pan and heat through to boiling again. It thickens and becomes…. custard!

You can see how it leaves a trail when you dribble a spoonful over the surface….

All you need to do now is put it into a clean bowl and leave to cool. I do this the night before and leave it in the fridge over night.

That’s handy… because if you you are using an ice cream maker, you need to have the bowl chilling in the freezer. Of course, there are some incredibly fancy machines that have their own freezing unit built in… but why spend hundreds of pounds when an ordinary machine can be had for around £30?

You can do this without a machine as well, you know. You just put the custard mix into a plastic box, clip the lid on and freeze it. You just have to keep opening the box and stirring it round with a fork to stop the ice crystals from turning the custard into a solid block.

My machine is a simple one… you put the bowl in the freezer

and the next day, connect the lid,

with the paddle and the motorised bit,

set it away to whirr and pour the chilled mixture down the hole in the lid…

It whirrs away for maybe ten minutes or so, thickening and freezing.

You can see the change happening. Once it starts to get really thick and look like it is freezing, get your added extras ready.

You break up your cold, left over Christmas pudding and drop bits of it down the hole so it sets into the freezing mix. Don’t do it too soon because you don’t want it to dissolve – you need bits of it running through the mix.

I also like to add little nuggets of brandy butter. They stay whole, too and make a surprising litle burst of soft booziness. I don’t think you are in any danger of getting drunk on it, but leave it out if you think it wouldn’t be suitable.

See how economical you are being? Using up any leftovers like this?

I suppose the fact that I was hiding the brandy butter to make sure there was some for the ice cream is neither here nor there.

Within a minute or so you are ready to serve it up….. I might have poured some brandy cream over it as well….

It was left over, OK? I was trying to use it all up!

But it doesn’t end there…..

What should have been a respectable portion for each of us somehow seemed to be not enough after all.

I admit we were all feeling rather jolly. It was J’s birthday dinner and we did deserve to spoil ourselves.

The freezer bowl was called for and spoons were dug in

In fact, we all dug in.

Sign of a succesful pudding then, don’t you think?

Chicken in cider casserole with apple and chive dumplings

I was wondering what to make for supper and looking round to see what we had when I spotted the last  Bramley apple in the fruit dish. My aunt has a huge tree in her garden so whenever I go to see her, I come away with the cooking apples.

Chicken, I thought. Chicken casserole and I’ll add the apple… and make the gravy with a bottle of cider! And maybe dumplings to go on top…. just the thing for a blustery day. So off I went to the butcher’s and came back with legs and thighs (my favourite bits of the chicken – so juicy and flavoursome) I got a leek, some sweet onions and a couple of carrots, too.

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First thing to do was brown the chicken in the casserole dish. If you are using a slow cooker, just brown them off in a frying pan. It won’t take long and it does make a difference. Besides it melts out some of the fat which is a good thing.

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While they are browning chop your vegetables. You of course can add whatever you fancy. Onion and leek are good as they sweeten over the cooking time and I am going for a sweetly savoury, rich and delicious casserole here, a soothing meal rather than a spicy one. Carrots look pretty, so they can go in!

Take the chicken out and add your vegetables, stirring them round gently so they pick up some of the brown and caremelised bits of the chicken that are stuck on the dish.

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Then lay your chicken bits on top the vegetables. I sprinkled some Knorr Granulated Bouillon over the chicken (much easier than cubes) as I needed some stock in there

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Then, pour in the Bulmer’s apple cider!  Look at it froth beautifully. That is going to go perfectly with the apple and make the stock taste delicious. The smell as it hits the hot dish is incredible

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I peeled the Bramley, cored and cut it into pieces and quartered some mushrooms. They went in on top of everything.

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And that was it….into a preheated oven at 160 degrees so it could bubble away this afternoon. A couple of hours at the most and it would be ready.

But I wanted this to be the perfect casserole. Dumplings are always a good move… light and tasty, floating on top of delicious gravy….

For them you need flour – I used 40 g of self raising  – and 20 g of beef suet. This will make 6 lovely little  dumplings, perfect for the two of us and with two of them left over so that a certain person can take some casserole for his lunch the following day. Double the quantity, I think, for more people.

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When I make dumplings, I often chop into the mix some herbs – maybe lemon zest and some thyme, or chives… and there I was staring at the chopping board where the peel from my Bramley lay…. why not, I wondered? I nibbled a bit of the peel – definitely sharp flavoured and appley. If they added just a hint of appleness to the savoury dumplings… well, that might just be considered a triumph!

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So I chopped the apple peel finely and chopped up some chives


I added some salt to the suet and flour and a tablespoon or so of  cold water… then stirred in the chopped chives and apple peel

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Look how the colour changes slightly as it comes together

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Then I rolled the dumpling mix into 6 little balls.Brisket, chcicken casserole and dumplings 032

Before you put the little morsels of dumpling loveliness into there, stir in, if you have any, a spoonful cream. Cream in a chicken gravy is perfect. The apple and cider sharpen it so it isn’t too rich and the mixture of it all together is just so delicious.

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Then, add the dumplings.   

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I pop them on top of the casserole (remembering to leave space for them to expand a bit) maybe half an hour before I am ready to serve it. If you are doing this in the slow cooker then just turn the heat up to high for the last half hour.

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Look at them… flecked with the green of the chives and the apple…

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And that, let me tell you, was delicious. The chicken was tender, the gravy was smooth, both sweet and savoury and the dumplings had a gorgeous taste of apple running through them. How inspired was I to think of adding the peel?

I think I am on to something with that!

Cauliflower – puree perfection

Actually, I have a bit of a problem with cauliflower. There’s always the potential, I think, when it is served in whole boiled pieces, that you could bite into it and get a mouthful of hot water….. Even making cauliflower cheese doesn’t really help. The cheese is OK, but underneath? Cauliflower.

Then one day I read about cauliflower puree. Smooth, tasty and delicious, apparently. Being curious about anything food related, I was willing to give it a try. I love to be proved wrong about food I say I hate and guess what? I was wrong about cauliflower! Creamed Spinach, cauliflower puree 010

You need (obviously enough) a cauliflower, some cream, butter, salt and pepper.

Break, or cut the cauli into florets, making sure they are of an even size so that it cooks evenly

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Put into a large pan of well salted water and bring to the boil. Putting half a lemon into the pan helps keep it white and just sharpens the flavour a little.

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It won’t take long to cook at all, maybe 5 to 10 minutes. Check with a sharp knife to see that it is tender.

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Drain it in the sink and let it dry slightly… all that steam escaping is water you don’t necessarily want in your puree.

Put the cauliflower florets in a bowl and with a hand stick blender, whizz it to a smooth puree – adding in a good knob of butter and some cream to enrich it and some salt and pepper to season it.  Taste it.. it has a rich and earthy depth to it…..

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Doesn’t that look just lovely? That turned me from a cauliflower loather to a cauliflower lover!

(One of my favourite ways to serve it is with black beluga or puy  lentils and some roast lamb….

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Just boil some lentils with some stock for extra flavour…. the drain…. and serve with the puree

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A nice bit of roast lamb on the top and you have the perfect flavour and texture combination)

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So there you have it.. take something you don’t like and make it into something you do like. 

(I blame school dinners, I really do! )