Archive for ‘food’

February 22, 2013

tomato time

Sorry to boast, but something delicious just happened in my oven.


Albeit not something particularly photogenic.


• Tomatoes that are a bit squidgy and past their best – I had around 8-10.
• Garlic, finely chopped – I used three cloves, because I love garlic.
• Capers, the little ones – a dessertspoonful.
• Black olives, stoned and halved, around 15 – I favour the dry, wrinkly ones you can get from Mediterranean or Middle Eastern groceries.
• Olive oil – you know, olive oil.
(• If you want to go for the full puttanesca flavour, you could add anchovies and chilli as well.)
• Vinegar – I used a splash each of balsamic and red wine vinegars, but one kind will suffice.


If you can be bothered:
• In a frying pan which can go into your oven without melting, gently fry the garlic in a dessertspoonful of olive oil. While that’s happening, thinly slice the tomatoes.
• Scoop the garlic out of the pan onto a plate. Then layer the tomatoes, capers and olives in the pan, sprinkling each stratum with garlic. Make sure the top layer is totally tomato so the olives and capers don’t get burnt.
• Splash the vinegar over the top and keep the pan over a medium heat until the tomatoes are collapsing a little and liquid is bubbling around them.
• Drizzle (ugh what a horrible term) olive oil over the top, then put the pan in the oven and bake until the tomatoes are withered and dense. In my case, this took around 30 minutes at 200c, then I turned the oven off and left the tomatoes in there while it went cold.

If you can’t be bothered:
• Get an oven dish and layer all the ingredients in it. Oil and vinegar over the top, then bake for a few minutes longer than as above.

Now what do I do with it?
Smear it on bread.
Plonk a piece of grilled mackerel on top.
Cover the top in pastry, bake till golden, then turn out like a tarte Tatin.
Liquidise it and use as a sauce on pasta or pizza.
Pour some beaten eggs over it then bake till they’ve solidified.
Use it as the filling for stromboli.
Use it as the filling for a Victoria Sponge if you want to ruin the WI tea party.

If you think of any other ingenius uses for this foodstuff, let me know in the comments.

December 11, 2012



Four vol-au-vents,
Three duck spring rolls,
Two for one Pringles,
And a Tex-Mex snack banquet!

Or so the TV ad breaks tell me I ought to be serving people, because Christmas is coming so suddenly their stomachs don’t care what lands in them.

I don’t know about you, but I like most people too much to feed them an oven-ready variety pack of items that look like deep-fried used tissues. Instead, for a simple but highly effective substitute that takes only a few minutes to prepare, may I recommend stromboli.

I made it the other night and my friends went absolutely apeshit for it, even though it is essentially a classy version of a McCain’s Pizza Roller.

Stromboli sounds Italianate, but my Italian friend Rachele says it was invented by Americans. She doesn’t know why they named it after the volcanic island Stromboli, so I venture a guess that it’s because stromboli erupts with volcanically hot cheese if you’re not careful.

Here’s the recipe, which should make one a bit bigger than a Pringles tube or about the size of Santa’s calf.


For the dough:
225g strong white bread flour
7g quick yeast
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil
1tbsp dried herbs – I usually use some combination of thyme, rosemary and/or oregano
filling – see below

To make the dough:
• In a large bowl, mix together the flour, yeast, salt and herbs. Make a well in the centre and pour in 150ml (1/4 pint) warm water and 1tbsp olive oil. Stir together.
• Tip out onto a floured surface and knead for five minutes until smooth.
• Return to the bowl, cover with a tea towel, then leave it in a warm place to rise for a couple of hours or longer until such time as you need it. You don’t have to knead it a second time, but if you pass by, punch it down in the bowl.

While it’s rising, decide a filling. You could try:
• one torn mozzarella ball, five or six slices of ham and a couple of cubic inches of grated gruyere or cheddar
• a mozzarella ball, 500g chopped fried mushrooms, torn sage
• a paste of slow-roasted tomatoes with garlic, capers and black olives (one of my favourite flavour combos AND vegan-friendly!)
• roast onions, gorgonzola, pine nuts
• or any combination of ingredients that would be at home on top of a proper pizza ie NOT PINEAPPLE YOU MONSTER.

To assemble:
• Heat the oven to 200c.
• Use the heels of your hands to gently stretch the dough out into a square about 1/4 inch thick. Use a rolling pin if you need, and if holes appear, pinch them together.
• Distribute the filling evenly over the square, leaving about an inch margin on all sides.
• Roll up into a bolster shape. Pinch the edge shut and place on a baking tray. Brush with beaten egg if you want it to be shiny. Mine remained matt, which ruined nothing.
• Bake for 40 minutes or so until puffed-up and brown.
• Leave to cool for a few minutes then slice and serve. The slices will look like spirals. Sorry, I forgot to take a photo as proof.
• Enjoy the the fact that everybody thinks you put in far more effort than you did.

Incidentally, you can use the same dough recipe for pizza or focaccia:

For pizza, just leave it to rise for as long as possible – you could make it in the morning then use it in the evening – so when you come to cook it the crust will be very snappy.

For focaccia, leave to rise for 45mins-1 hour, then shape it into a roundish square or squarish round 1 inch thick on a baking tray and leave to rise for another 30ish minutes. Just before baking at 200c, poke it with your finger all over the top and drizzle olive oil into the holes, sprinkle with more herbs and salt flakes, and bake for around 30 minutes.
You could also add chopped olives, onion, capers, roast garlic etc during the poking stage.

August 15, 2012

Wedding cake

Last weekend I made something I’d never attempted before. I turned this lot…

…into this!

That’s a wedding cake, in case you weren’t sure. Five tiers of chocolate sponge, dark chocolate ganache within, vanilla buttercream and raspberries without, as commissioned by my friend Clare. Clare is one of the only people for whom I would spend two days slowly mashing a cubic foot of butter into a sackful of sugar with a wooden spoon. I now realise that this laborious process is symbolic of marriage: the bride and groom, hitherto separate elements, are mashed together by the wooden spoon that is vows into delicious unity.

Over the course of the evening, the raspberries’ juice ran and made the cake look like it had stigmata. But at least it didn’t collapse, which was my main worry. I used lightweight cake boards in between layers, with straws for extra support. And there is a mug in the middle of the bottom tier. Luckily nobody accidentally ate the mug.

The groom is not a cake fan, so Clare bought him his own cake made out of something he prefers…


Isn’t it beautiful, like an eggy fractal? The big egg is an ostrich egg, and the small ones quail eggs with various different types of sausagemeat, eg black pudding, chorizo. Alas hard-boiled eggs are one of my never-foods, so I didn’t actually sample the w-egging cake; but it was certainly a treat for the eye. The nose too, if you are a person who finds sulphur romantic.

June 24, 2012

roast rhubarb and strawberry cake

“Why are you showing us a photo of a bowlful of square turd with blood clots, Helen?”

To which I say: shut the hell up! The above foodstuff might not be photogenic, but it certainly was stomach-genic; and as rhubarb and strawberries are both currently in season, it is expedient to make use of them. Together, they are an unlikely fruit powerhouse. A rhubarb and strawberry pavlova is a marvellous pudding, but if you can’t face the double armstrain of whipping egg whites then cream, I recommend this cake. Forgive me for providing such a slapdash recipe, but I’m confident that you are sufficiently independent to cope.

Roast rhubarb and strawberry cake

Serves 6 at least

• Oven on, 180c.
• Cut up a bunch of rhubarb (sorry, I didn’t weigh it beforehand – five sticks so approximately 400g I think?) into chunks. It’s very likely to disintegrate during cooking, so don’t waste your time obsessively cutting it into perfect neat cuboids.
• Spread the rhubarb out in a non-reactive oven dish; glass or pyrex is good. Sprinkle with soft brown sugar (about two tablespoons) or honey if you prefer. Grate a bit of nutmeg over it if you can be bothered. Then add some liquid: a glass of white or rosé wine is good. I also used a glassful of elderflower cordial, which I made a couple of years ago and it has been sitting in the fridge ever since, looking like a urine sample.
• Put the rhubarb in the oven, and while it is cooking, hull a punnet of strawberries (300-400g) and halve any gigantic ones.
• After 20 minutes, see how the rhubarb is getting on. It should be soft and starting to collapse, and more importantly, not burning. Taste the syrup, then add more sugar if it’s very sour, and another glass of liquid if there’s barely a suggestion of syrup in the dish. Chuck in the strawberries, then return to the oven for another 10-15 minutes, or until such time as the strawberries have lost a little of their pert rawness and are looking more like an illustration from Brambly Hedge.

I used a Prue Leith recipe for rich almond cake, which I think is available in this book. Next time I’ll experiment with other recipes, as I thought this one was a shade too eggy and sweet, but nonetheless it was perfectly tasty (“Of course it bloody was!” shouts the redoubtable Prue). If you have your own trusty recipe for ground almond cake, by all means do deploy it. Nut-avoiders could make a polenta cake instead.

Prue Leith’s rich almond cake, AKA Pain de Gênes:
• Oven remains at 180c. Grease and line an 8-inch cake tin.
• Melt 85g butter, and while it is melting:
• Sift together 55g plain flour, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder and a good pinch of salt. Stir in 110g ground almonds.
• Whisk together 140g caster sugar and 3 eggs.
• Fold the flour and almond mixture into the eggy sugar mixture, then fold in the melted butter ‘with the minimum of stirring’ (disobey Prue at your peril!).
• Pour the mixture into the cake tin and bake for 30-35 minutes, until the top is brown and springs back when you press it lightly with your finger.
• Cool in the tin for five minutes, then turn out onto a cooling rack.

• Put the cooled cake on a plate, then stab it all over with a fork. This is to help it become as saturated as possible with the fruit syrup.
• Spoon the rhubarb and strawberry mixture over the cake, feeding the sponge with as much syrup as possible before piling on the fruit.
• Serve with cream, if you’re into cream.
• The cake should keep well in the fridge for four days or so. In fact you may even prefer it after it has had a day or two of soggification time. Don’t be alarmed if you have more of the fruit mixture than the cake can handle; consume it later with Greek yoghurt or vanilla ice cream, or mix with sparkling wine to make a lumpy summer cocktail, or use it in a trifle or Bakewell tart. It’s a fine problem to have.

December 15, 2011

Gingerbread Day 2011: savoury

Yesterday, when recounting the gingery elements of Gingerbread Day 2011, I promised you epic pie. And lo, I present to you Christmas Pie:

Christmas Pie: 5 meats and counting

From bottom to top: gammon, turkey, sausagemeat and apple stuffing, more turkey, sausages wrapped in bacon. Gravy incorporated. If you’re vegetarian: apologies.

There was also a veggie Christmas Pie, of which I don’t have a picture: it involved layers of roast parsnip, thin slices roast sweet potato, and chestnut and cranberry stuffing, with onion gravy. The root vegetables were spiced with cinnamon, allspice, ginger and cumin. It was most tasty, and my fears that it would be overly sweet proved unfounded.

As ever, the meals one can concoct with Christmas leftovers are much better than the Christmas dinner itself.

December 14, 2011

Gingerbread Day 2011: sweet

Gingerbread Day is an annual institution in our household. It began a few years ago when we bought an unexpectedly massive Christmas tree, and had hardly any decorations to cover it; so we drafted in our friends to decorate gingerbread men to hang on it. It’s now a pretty hot ticket, let me tell you.

You should see what happens when a bunch of responsible adults get their hands on a piping bag and some jelly tots:

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Frankly I’m not particularly interested in gingerbread as a thing to eat, although this year’s was quite tasty because I doubled the quantities of spices in the recipe. However, I’ll be smashing up the breadbin-full I have left and making it into double-plus yum Rocky Road.

Stay tuned to hear about the epic pies that were Gingerbread Day 2011’s savoury course.

November 20, 2011

croc & choc

It was my brother Rick’s birthday yesterday, and once again I found myself in the same impoverished state that produced my other brother’s birthday present last month.

Unlike Andy, and everyone else in the family, Rick is a clutter-hating utilitarian, so I had to make him a gift that was functional. However, Rick is a highly competent adult, and thus has already equipped himself with all the functional objects he might need. Hence he is utterly infernal to find presents for, but he’s a very good egg which means I still want to give him birthday presents.

The problem: what to give the man who has everything he wants/needs, throws out anything he doesn’t, and who, incidentally, lives in a chilly house?

The solution:


Materials: green fabric from my sister-in-law’s late mother’s huge stash of upholstery textiles (the leaf print looked suitably suggestive of scales); scrap of red needlecord for the mouth; white felt teeth; stuffed with rags and half a disembowelled cushion. I sewed pintucks along the back, for the crocodile’s armoured ridges.

Grrrr, terrifying. Of course, my little niecephews immediately grabbed it and started thwacking each other.

Now my mum wants a draught-excluder for Christmas. What sort of beast should I make for her?

Here’s the other birthday thing I made for my brother:


Interior: chocolate sponge, coffee buttercream. Exterior: Toblerone frosting.

October 6, 2011

What to do with a Mars bar if you don’t like Mars bars



I left that space above for you to supply your own Marianne Faithfull jokes.

Anyway, curiosity led me spend £1 on a pack of the new ‘limited edition’ triple-choc Mars bars, which turned out to be rather underwhelming. So I was stuck with several unwanted Mars bars cluttering up the place. What to do?

Make cookies, of course!

cookies! Of course!

I used a modified recipe from an old Good Housekeeping cookbook (not THIS one, thankfully), which can be used to make very fine chocolate chip cookies on a day when you don’t have Mars bars to contend with.

75g/3oz butter
75g/3oz granulated or caster sugar
75g/3oz soft light brown sugar (I thought I didn’t have any, so used normal brown sugar. Nobody died. Of course I found the correct sugar about 5 minutes too late.)
a few drops of vanilla essence
1 egg, beaten
175g/6oz self-raising flour (I like to substitute a few grams of flour for cocoa powder, for extra chocolatiness)
pinch of salt
3 unwanted Mars bars, chopped into small pieces (or use 100g/4oz chopped dark chocolate or chocolate chips)
optional: 50g/2oz chopped nuts (hazelnuts, walnuts or pecans would be nice, but I only had Brazil nuts which worked fine)

Makes 25 smallish cookies.

yes, I know it looks like squirrel turds NOW, but wait!

Preheat the oven to 180C (slightly less if it’s a fan oven that isn’t shit, like mine).
In a big bowl, cream the butter and sugars together until well-mixed, then beat in the egg and vanilla.
If you want to be teacher’s pet, sift the flour, salt and cocoa powder before mixing into the creamed mixture. Or just go right ahead and mix them in, and hope that there aren’t any pebbles in your flour.
Add the chopped Mars bar/chocolate and optional nuts. Stir in well.
Drop spoonfuls of the mixture onto lined baking sheets, and keep them well spaced.
Bake for 10-12 minutes.
Leave them on the baking sheets for a minute after you take them out of the oven; then when they’re firm enough to move without falling apart, transfer to a wire cooling rack.


...still looking quite a lot like squirrel turds, if I'm honest.

Despite appearances, they taste great. Unlike squirrel turds, I assume. I’ve never tried eating those, but I’m sure that if they were delicious, we’d have heard about it by now.

September 6, 2011


I am a fan of old cookbooks. Not for the recipes – I don’t like boiled meat, thanks! – but because they’re such an interesting reflection of the time when they were produced. This was an interesting read on the subject.

Sometimes, though, these dated volumes go TOO FAR.

Take this 1952 edition of Good Housekeeping, for instance.

It opens innocently enough: with some sexism!

This is clearly a book from before the time when St Jamie of Oliver made it OK for men to cook the supper, back in the days when bachelors either ate at their club or died of starvation. Here’s how the Foreword sets the agenda:

“She can’t even boil an egg!” This sweeping condemnation is perhaps true of few women today; but because cookery books sometimes assume that their readers are already familiar with the very simple processes, it can still happen that a young housewife – or a daughter-at-home called upon to produce a meal in time of domestic crisis – finds embarrassing and unexpected gaps in her cookery knowledge.

You know what, though – I’m not embarrassed by some of the gaps in my cookery knowledge, if what I’m supposed to fill them with is THIS:

I can’t even type the name of the recipe, because I think there are laws against it now.

The book says they ‘make excellent individual place cakes at a party’, so do bear it in mind if you find yourself throwing a Pre-Civil Rights Movement themed party for your kids.