Sweet & Piquant Autumn Salad

This wonderfully enticing salad is an example of my favourite kind of recipe – that which one discovers first in a restaurant, and then improves through subtle but vital modifications. Such a satisfying thing to do.

Earlier this year, I met and old friend, Jo, for lunch. Though we’d known each other since the late nineties after meeting at work, we had some years earlier gone our separate ways after both moving on to other jobs and responsibilities. The wonders of modern communications brought us back together and although we don’t see a lot of one another, I can honestly say I am truly happy to have her back in my life.

In the old days, our ‘thing’ used to be to go for lunch. I’ve always thought the French have it right – proper lunch and conversation in the middle of the day. So civilised! At the time, worked just north of Soho – just near Charlotte Street – and as you’ll know if you are familiar with the area, there has never been a shortage of options for sitting down to eat, with everywhere open pretty much all day. My generic favourite was – and is – Italian, even though nowadays I can’t cope with the carb load of pasta or pizza. Happily, there are still many other options that are easier on the most sensitive of constitutions – an example of which is this very recipe. Often we’d be joined by Grahame and sometimes Zoe too. I miss those days.

So, it was with the nostalgia of 1999/2000 misting our eyes that we agreed to meet in a new Italian, only half a mile or so from our old haunts. Such places tend to be reliably OK – if not excellent – and it’s reasonable to expect that the dishes sound better than they’ll actually taste. The issue tends to be one of seasoning, or indeed lack thereof. It’s an absence of refinement somehow: vegetables that would taste better cooked are raw. Where a little acidity would balance things beautifully, there is none. Where a little salt would enhance flavour it’s missing. Happily, these little imperfections are what provide the opportunity to pick up the culinary baton and run with it.

On this particular occasion, the lunch item in question was a warm salad, based on quinoa, with a number of other ingredients colluding to offer a pleasing variety of flavours and textures. It may not be surprise to learn that this seasonal dish includes the lovely orangeness of butternut squash – seriously, I can’t get enough of the stuff – as well as myriad other delicious things. In the restaurant where Jo and I had our reunion lunch, the version they gave me was good enough, but clearly had the potential to be so much more. That very day, I went home and set to work on putting together my own take. The overall experience is sweet, salty, nutty, crunchy, creamy and technicolour. What could be better?

 

Preparation

  • Preheat the oven to around 180C
  • Add some vegetable bouillon or good quality stock cube to a smallish pan of water and set on a low heat

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • About I/3 of a butternut squash
  • 100g (dry weight) quinoa
  • 50g bag of wild rocket
  • 4-5 small sweet red/yellow/orange peppers
  • 50-100g Roquefort or Gorgonzola
  • Pine nuts and pumpkin seeds
  • Balsamic glaze
  • A few drops of lemon juice
  • Olive oil

 

Method

  1. Dice the butternut squash and slice the peppers. Make sure neither are too small
  2. Toss the squash in a little olive oil and place in a metal roasting dish
  3. When the oven is hot, put the squash in and set the timer for ten minutes
  4. When the time goes, check the squash and loosen in the pan. Add the peppers and return to the oven. Set the timer for a further 7-10 minutes
  5. Add the quinoa to the stock and bring to the boil. Cook for ten minutes. It should be ready about when the squash and peppers are done
  6. Check the squash and peppers and remove from oven if ready. The squash should be starting to smell sweet and will have gone slightly darker. Be careful not to let it burn.
  7. When your quinoa is done (it should still have a little bite, not be porridgey), drain in a sieve and run it under cold water. This stops it from continuing to cook.
  8. Heat a small frying pan and add the pine nuts and pumpkin seeds. Watch them like a hawk. As soon as the pine nuts change colour, remove from the heat and transfer to a cold bowl. The fats will continue to cook and if you leave it too long, the nuts will burn.
  9. You should now be ready to assemble the salad. Boil a kettle and run the hot water over the quinoa to infuse it with heat.
  10. Drain thoroughly and mix the quinoa with the rocket leaves and  few drops of lemon juice, distributing evenly in two shallow bowls.
  11. Add the squash and peppers
  12. Add the cheese in chunks, combining all the ingredients but not over-mixing. (note: the cheese is best added straight from the fridge as it will warm through from the heat of the quinoa and veg)
  13. Liberally scatter the pine nuts and pumpkin seeds
  14. Finish with a good zigzag of balsamic glaze and serve.
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Best-of-everything Carrot Cake

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Friends, we meet again. Heartfelt apologies for the no-so-brief hiatus since our last rendezvous: somehow the time seems to pass so quickly.

For your delectation today, I have a much-researched rendition of carrot cake, tweaked to my own specification and tastes, and which I hope you’ll enjoy. It is said that the real debate with carrot cake is that of moistness versus lightness: With this recipe I have attempted the double. I should also robustly reference the wonderful Yotam Ottolenghi, whose formula provides the basis for this cake, if not the final result.

If you are already a reader of this column, it may not surprise you to learn that my relationship with carrot cake began way back, when I was still having many food-related battles with myself, my family and the world at large (see Melanzane Parmigiana for more info). At the time in question, I would have been between 8 and 10 years old; still in the no-meat-no-veg-except-potatoes stage, when my entire sorry diet consisted of mild cheese, bread, a little fruit, some yogurt and whatever refined carbohydrate I could lay my hands on – which to be fair, wasn’t much, given my mother’s F-Plan (remember that, 80’s dieters?) tendencies. Before he and I unsorrily parted company, the child analyst (note: I was the child, not him. It’s not the same as child bride) suggested that ‘disguising’ vegetables might be a way of getting me to eat them (he seemed to me to entirely miss the point of phobias), as might my parents giving me money equalling the price of the vegetables I ate (ditto). After the latter proved a first rate lose/lose – unacceptable risk of financial loss for my father concurrent with a non-starter for me (see phobias) – we turned to the former. (At this point I am aware that most of Mumsnet and beyond will be wondering why a child shrink was needed to suggest the disguising of vegetables. He wasn’t. I believe he had resorted to the time-honoured technique known as clutching at straws).

Anyway, you’ve no doubt twigged long before now that the first mystery food was carrot, cunningly disguised as, erm, carrot cake. Oh dear. Not such a disguise perhaps, though in my pre-teen mind the word ‘cake’ was undoubtedly looming larger than the word ‘carrot’. Such is the way with juvenile sugar addicts. The other swaying factor, as I recall, was the stamp of approval from my parents’ American amigo Cathy, whose opinion I valued above all others as it was she who introduced me to proper American chocolate chip cookies, made with proper Nestle Toll House Semi-Sweet Morsels, which you couldn’t (and still can’t) get over here. Cathy was of the view that as long as it had a real cream cheese ‘frosting’ (another alien concept), carrot cake got the thumbs up.

In the end, the result of the great vegetable swindle was unmemorable. I was all geared up to give you the verdict and now I find that I can’t seem to dredge it up. It is entirely possible that this was due to my mother’s unwavering habit of halving the fat and sugar content of any recipe (the latter admirable in its intent for sure) and wholemealing everything in sight. If this is indeed what happened, I fear for the fate of the carrot cake and indeed may have given up the concealment of real food as just one bad job.

However….

Somewhere along the way – probably during my Spinach Period – I must have re-discovered the beauty that is a really good carrot cake as now I bring you my titivated version in all its glory. Special mention should also be given to whomever makes the CC that is sold at the wonderful Colonna and Smalls coffee shop in Bath. That too is a thing of wonder with icing as light as air. In my version, the aforementioned moistness-and-lightness is achieved with the use of the ground almonds (see Chocolate Orange Cake for further evidence) as well as whisked egg white. I am sure you’ll agree that the result is endlessly repeatable.

Preparation

  • Preheat the oven to 170C
  • Grease and line a 20cm springform cake tin

Ingredients

  • A mixed 160g plain flour and ground almonds. I tend to use 50/50 to good effect
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4-1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder (perhaps a touch more if you are using almonds)
  • 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 whole egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 225 ml rapeseed or sunflower oil (it is using oil rather than hard fats that helps with moistness)
  • 135g caster sugar
  • 135g soft brown muscovado sugar
  • 150g grated carrot
  • approx 50g dessicated coconut
  • 75g walnuts (optional, but wonderful)
  • 2 egg whites
  • a pinch of salt
  • 75g unsalted butter
  • 30g icing sugar
  • 200g full fat cream cheese (e.g. Philly or equivalent)
  • 30g honey/condensed milk blend – or one or the other
  • Lemon juice and zest (optional) to taste

Method

  1. Sift the flour into a bowl and combine with the spices, baking powder/soda and the ground almonds. Make sure everything is evenly mixed
  2. In a food processor or with an electric whisk, combine the oil and sugars. Mix on high setting for about a minute
  3. Whisk the whole egg and yolk together. Add this to the sugar mixture and mix by hand or on medium. You’ll notice the mixture smoothing out and coming together
  4. Add the carrots, coconut, walnuts and flour blend. Mix by hand, just enough to combine everything properly.
  5. In a dry clean bowl, whisk the eggwhites and salt until stiff peaks form. Then, in 2-3 batches, fold the egg whites into the rest of the mixture, taking care to retain as much air as possible.
  6. Transfer to your prepared tin and bake for 30 minutes. Then. cover the tin with foil and bake for a further 30 minutes. This prevents burning. When it is ready, a skewer should come out clean and the cake will have a lovely even flat surface.
  7. Remove the cake from the over and let it cool completely in its tin before you transfer it onto a plate. At this stage it should look something like this:

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For the icing

  1. Thoroughly cream the butter and icing sugar. It’s probably easiest to do this in the mixer or with an electric whisk. It should be soft, smooth and fully combined
  2. Add the cream cheese, honey/condensed milk and lemon juice/zest
  3. Whisk thoroughly until light and creamy.
  4. If you make the icing whilst the cake is cooking, simply cover with cling film and refrigerate until the cake is cold.
  5. When you’re ready to ice, use a spatula to distribute generous dollops of icing on the top of the cake, then spread evenly, creating swirls and waves as you choose. The recipe makes easily enough icing for the top, but if you want to do the sides too (mmmm), just spread it out a bit more or increase quantities a little.

Thai spiced butternut squash and coconut velouté

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OK. I’ll cut to the chase. This is soup – but oh, what soup it is. The flavours do a dance of joy on your tongue and the texture is the smoothest, sleekest thing in the world.

This recipe counts as one of what I call my 3am inspirations. These take many forms and have many contexts: work, food, writing, problems, the lot. You know how it goes: either you’re not yet asleep or you are asleep and then wake up with a start; the answer staring you in the face. This is kind of how it was with this recipe and the flavour combination that makes it so special.

My love affair with butternut squash got off to a rather unthrilling start, followed by years in the wilderness. I first came across it when I was but a young thing, at a party I didn’t want to be at with a person, who though lovely, was not someone I wanted to be with. The host with the most had roasted sections of squash and was enthusiastically trying to persuade me to get stuck in. This lady was, as they say, not for turning. With a peculiar relationship with food still in its last vestiges of hangover, I politely declined and took myself off to bed. Oh dear.

It wasn’t until some years later when I was successfully persuaded that butternut squash was an ‘even nicer version of pumpkin’ (mum’s truly awesome pumpkin pie recipe coming soon) that I was to try it again. We had by this point moved out to the sticks and were engaged in much cooking and domestic bliss. Within weeks of arriving in the village, my brownies were famous amongst the good ladies of the WI and I grew fat and contented on the moutains of wonderful home cooking being generated by Phil. With the 3am inspiration fresh in my mind, I began to experiment (fearful at first of quantities; quite terrified of chillis), with this particular version of the everyday alchemy that is the making of food. The first results were a surprise success, with very little refinement needed thereafter.

This is the first time I’ve shared this recipe. For almost six years I’ve been making it on a fairly regular basis and have always been coy about laying bare the truth. Its special place in my heart is further enhanced by the fact that its possibly the only thing I’ve ever cooked that has generated a look of genuine pleasure on the face of my father. I made it as the starter at an extended family gathering (Phil was on main course: belly pork I think) in industrial quantities, destroying the hand-blender in the process. I’m afraid I’m one of those poor saps for whom the pleasing of my parents is still the pinnacle of my aspirations, even at my advancing years. One day I’ll grow up. Or not.

To square the circle, I should probably confess that this did originally start out as plan oul’ soup, once upon a time. The veloute-ing of it all (which really does make a difference) came as a result of lunch out in Leeds with lovely Keely where I had a spiced cauliflower veloute as a starter. Pretentious? Moi? Perhaps so, but it was – to mix my metaphors – the icing on the cake.

Preparation

  • Just pre-heat the oven to about 190C and you’re ready to go

Ingredients

  • 1 decent sized squash. It doesn’t have to be giant, but don’t skimp. If possible, get the super-sweet variety, the name of which escapes me. A greengrocer – or Waitrose – will know.
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic
  • Sea salt
  • 1 tin coconut milk
  • 2/3 stem of lemon grass
  • 1/2 a medium hot red chili pepper (these are the plumpish ones that tend to come in little bags of 3 in the supermarket)
  • a good lump of root ginger, perhaps thumb-sized
  • Creme fraiche to serve – you can leave this out for vegans
  • boiled water from the kettle

Method

  1. Begin by preparing your squash. With a potato peeler, remove all the skin, then chop into chunky pieces, making sure you completely remove all the seeds and stringy bits from inside the bulbous end.
  2. Toss in a little olive oil – not too much – and spread out on a silicone sheet or in a roasting tray. Place in your pre-heated oven and don’t forget about it. You could even prepare this in advance. It’s done when the pieces have started to caramelise and crisp up at the edges. A few black bits are fine.
  3. Meanwhile, put a generous slug of olive oil in a large, heavy bottomed pan. Chop your onion and add this to the pan. Soften over heat until the onion becomes translucent.
  4. As your onion is cooking, chop your spices – the garlic, chili, ginger and lemon grass. They need to be in smallish pieces, but don’t worry too much as it all gets blitzed later on.
  5. When your onion is nice and soft, add all the spices, with some sea salt and stir well. Keep the heat gentle at this stage – you don’t want the spices to burn.
  6. Add the coconut milk. This will immediately boil and start to create a thick soup. If you prefer a less coconutty flavour, use only part of the tin. I used between 1/2 and 1 tin, depending on my mood and the size of squash. If you’re making a job lot, you can just scale up accordingly.
  7. Add your pieces of roasted squash to this mixture. Please don’t be tempted to skip the roasting part. This is vital for releasing the sugars and rich flavours from the vegetable. It won’t be right otherwise.
  8. Stir well and top up with boiled water. Bring the whole mixture to the boil, stirring it as you go, then reduce the heat and leave to simmer for a while. Keep an eye on it. If it gets too thick and gloopy, just add more water. If you add too much, keep it on the heat to reduce.
  9. After about 30 minutes, remove the mixture from the heat. Then, when cool enough, use a hand blender (ideally) to blitz the mixture. I prefer to do it this way as it avoids transferring everything back and forth. If you’re not fussed, an upright blender or food processor is fine.
  10. Now that everything is mixed, have a taste. You may well find you need to add more salt and its fine to do it at this stage. Just crumble it in and keep on tasting till you’re happy.
  11. Once the taste is as you wish, it’s veloute time! Place a large sieve over a large mixing bowl and gently pour the soup into the sieve. Keep on stirring it until everything has passed through the sieve and you just have some sticky fibres left. These can be discarded.
  12. What you will be left with is the smoothest, most velvety mixture you can imagine. As its vegan, it keeps well in the fridge for a few days and you can simply reheat and serve as you wish.
  13. I like to serve mine with a good dollop of creme fraiche as a garnish. In time-honoured tradition, it balances the heat of the chili perfectly. Look for creme fraiche d’isigny in the shops. Tesco’s finest is this kind and Waitrose do a version too. It has a higher fat content than most and the balance of creaminess and piquance is just perfect.

Top Tip: Store your thai spices (chili, ginger and lemongrass) in an airtight contained in the freezer. They keep for ages and in their frozen form are quick and easy to chop, particularly the lemongrass. Try it and see!

Achingly virtuous spinach salad

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Now then. If you’ve read ‘Melanzane Parmigiana’, you’ll already know about me and spinach and our love-at-first-bite; how we met, hooked up and had many delicious children. It’s been a marriage made in super-food heaven. I must confess, however, that I’ve subsequently embarked on a no-holds-barred bigamous relationship with chocolate Philadelphia and I even have a recipe (of sorts) in which its used, but I don’t think I dare share it in case someone sues me for causing a coronary.
Before anyone helpfully points it out, I am fully aware that this dish is a bit of a cheat (I’ve been working on my self-awareness, honest) as this recipe can’t in all good conscience be called cooking. It’s more ‘artful assembly’… but so gorgeous I just had to share. In terms of origins, I’ll cut right to the chase. I basically nicked the idea from Strada, though I’m quite convinced it isn’t plagiarism as there are now a whole host of ingredients-related differences. It’s came about because of the old ‘what do I eat in a pizza place when I’m a)veggie and b)not too good when it comes to wheat’ chestnut, without chestnuts. A few swap-requests later and hey presto the perfect salad was born.
At risk of coming across a bit flaky, the photo isn’t entirely representational. I was missing some vital ingredients, couldn’t go out in case the repair man came whilst I was at the shop, so decided that such was the urgency to share that I would put it together with what I had in the house and get the photo taken. It’s pretty, don’t you think? I’ve even created a new category – ‘green’ – in its honour. The full XXX-rated version is almost too divine to contemplate, with the added bonus of being so calm on the blood sugar that your pancreas would give you five gold stars, if only it could.

Ingredients (all per serving)

  • 1/2 a bag of fresh baby spinach leaves, either pre-washed or home-washed
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1/2 to 1 buffalo mozzarella (ordinary will do but buff is soooo much better)
  • A handful of pinenuts and/or pumpkin seeds
  • Fresh parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 an avocado (optional)
  • Pancetta slices (optional and non ‘v’, obviously)
  • 1 heaped teaspoon pesto
  • a slug of olive oil
  • a splash of lemon juice

Assembly (not ‘method’ – did you see?)

  1. If you’re using the pancetta, heat a frying pan and when nice and hot, place the pancetta strips in it. Fry them till they’re beautifully crispy, remove from heat and blot with kitchen paper. Break into smaller pieces if desired.
  2. For the pinenuts and pumpkin seeds, once again heat a frying pan then very carefully toast the seeds. Watch them like a hawk! Its so easy to burn them, especially the pinenuts as the fats inside them continue cooking even after they come off the heat. As soon as these start to even think about going brown, get them out of the pan and onto a cool plate or bowl. This will stop those pesky fats in their tracks!
  3. Put your spinach leaves in a good size bowl
  4. Slice your red pepper, pull apart your lovely milky mozzarella, shave your parmesan and scoop your avocado, if you’re using it.
  5. Place these on, around and beneath the spinach leaves
  6. Make your dressing: simply combine the pesto, lemon juice and olive oil and mix well. You want it to be pourable, but not too thin.
  7. Add the dressing to the salad (see above)
  8. Sprinkle the nuts and seeds over your salad and garnish with pancetta, if you’re using it.

Top Tip!

Try using a potato peeler to shave the Parmesan cheese. The ones where the blade is horizontal to the handle work best.

Chocolate Velvet Pudding

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Unlike some of my recipes, chocolate velvet pudding is completely new. I mean, I’m sure others have independently invented similar things, but I too did my inventing, from scratch.

Its inception came about as a result of needing to find a way of integrating the occasional chocolate hit into my largely low-carb diet. On the latter subject, I’m not obsessive about it (or not as much as I ought to be anyway) but try to keep the carbs under control as they turned out to be the root cause of fatigue, weight gain (even when literally starving), excess stomach acid, chronic gastritis, PCOS, zits and much more. I kid you not. Within days of starving my body of sugar and other refined starches, I was able to come off two types of long term medication and had lost 1/2 stone. All done whilst increasing calories three-fold.

These days, I go in cycles which I wouldn’t necessarily advocate but which I find manageable. I can very easily pick up on the physical symptoms that tell me I’m pushing my luck and know to knock the carbs on the head for a bit. Were I to be kinder to myself, I’d be a bit more consistent and probably a good stone or so lighter. As it is, I’m about 20lb less than my heaviest with far more energy, far better skin and happy insides. Works for me.

So, chocolate velvet pudding isn’t for when you’re being really strict but is for when you’re being generally good. It’s a perfect little exercise in food science; a little bit of alchemy in your kitchen. You can eat it chilled, or freeze it for more of a semi-freddo experience. Just look at the beautiful glossy shine! Don’t you just want to dive in?

Preparation

  • Nothing! Not a sausage.

Ingredients (makes two)

  • 30g unsalted butter
  • About 60g good plain chocolate, about 70%-75% cocoa. Be really careful which one you choose. Some are disappointingly bitter; others much smoother. I really like Lidl’s 74% one. It’s beautifully smooth and very good value too.
  • 2 large eggs
  • Vanilla extract (optional)
  • A splash of cream, for emergencies and for serving if desired.

Method

  • Gently melt the butter in a robust pan
  • When melted, remove from heat and add the chocolate. Stir occasionally until melted.
  • When the mixture is cool (see chocolate orange cake recipe for rules about curdling), add both eggs, and vanilla if desired
  • Beat thoroughly with a wooden spoon for 1-2 minutes. The mixture will thicken, then come together with a slightly elastic texture. It will be beautifully shiny and glossy.
  • If the mixture splits, goes lumpy or otherwise doesn not resemble the description above, it will be because the chocolate and butter were too hot when you added the eggs. If you’re lucky, you can rescue it by adding a splash of cream and beating thoroughly. Prepare to be amazed!
  • Finally, spoon the mixture into two ramekins
  • For a chilled pudding, simply put into the fridge for an hour or longer. For a semi-freddo effect, freeze for 30-40 minutes
  • Serve with a whip of cream, a couple of fresh berries, or both!

Melanzane Parmigiana – just for Katie

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I was a relative latecomer to pizza, being one of those children who for no apparent reason decide to undergo fairly brutal dietary self-restriction (range rather than quantity). In my case, said diet consisted of (some) dairy products, home-made bread, some fruit, most sweet things (on the rare occasions I was allowed them), cottage cheese and pancakes. Special mention must also be given to the delicacy that is Spaghetti Hoops, about which my sister was kind enough to remind me after reading the first version of this story in which they were inexplicably omitted. Tinned pasta or no, it all started very early on when I twigged that ‘lamb’ was in fact dead lambs. Nothing was ever quite the same again. Suffice to say, there was some consternation over the years, mainly about the impact all this would have on my health. The fact that by the age of 12 I was already the height of an average UK adult man (I wasn’t a boy, despite looking like one) seemed to have very little effect on the general assumption that such a diet would cause me to be undernourished. Such was the medical profession’s concern for my supposed ill-health that I was despatched to the child shrink to be analysed. He turned out to have a crystal ball – at least, I assume he must have had as he seemed quite convinced of the root cause of the aforementioned restricted (read ‘deeply tedious’) diet before I’d even managed to utter a word. In fact, given his pronouncement, I might as well have not turned up at all as he was completely convinced of his diagnosis (all about controlling my mother, natch) and no protestations to the contrary could persuade him otherwise.

Anyway, as anyone who either has, or has been, a child who does or did this will know, these things have a habit of coming out in the wash. In my case, it was an uncontrollable craving for spinach, which ambushed me for no apparent reason, never having had it before in living memory (neither spinach nor the craving). From this, other things followed, including (eventually) pizza. Mum and I went out to the newly opened Pizza Express in Cambridge (reluctanctly in my case), which had taken up residence – initially under the Kettners brand – in the old Pitt Club building in Jesus Lane. Incidentally this at one point housed the rather exotically named ‘Xanadu’. I think my sister had cocktails there on her 16th birthday. Anyway, good old Pizza Express remains there to this day, though in my opinion with a somewhat diminished ambience, due to the removal of the lobby champagne bar to make room for more tables. Anyway, it was in these auspicious surroundings that I had my very first Quattro Formaggi pizza. I even remember that it was £4.40 (this was millions of years ago) and that it was a perfect cross-section of heaven.

Now, I must at this point take you on a small diversion. As my lovely friend Keely-from-Leeds will attest, there was something truly gorgeous about the particular combination of cheeses on this first iteration of Quattro Formaggi. I’m not 100% sure what they were, though I’m guessing at mozzarella, edam, emmental and parmesan. I believe that this original combination is still in use in Dubai. However, some years after the First One, the powers that be decided (in their infinite wisdom) to change the formula for everywhere except Dubai to all-Italian cheeses. At this point the magic was, in my opinion, lost. Don’t get me wrong: I see the logic, and they’re perfectly nice, but just not the same.

So, back to the story. A whole new world of food flavours had been opened up in one fell swoop! Pizza Express pizzas became a grand passion and we would have lived happily ever after had I not developed a dicey relationship with wheat. Oh, I cannot tell you the dismay! It was a truly shocking state of affairs though one that in hindsight I’m surprised didn’t come around much earlier. This left me with the serious business of finding an alternative to the beloved pizzas. I think it could have been my godmother who suggested I try Melanzane Parmigiana (see? we got there in the end) as it combines essentially the same flavours as you find on pizza, but with none of the bread. I tried this in Pizza Express (in those days, many things including restaurant choices were still pretty limited) and pronounced it a success.

To date, I have sampled Melanzane in restaurants all over the UK and beyond in search of the perfect recipe. Call me biased, but I reckon I’ve got it sorted. This recipe is dedicated to Katie as I cooked it for her and Fiona when on the Northumberland trip and she’s been harassing me ever since. It’s particularly pleasing as in a way there is the potential for many recipes in one, due to the numerous uses for the tomato sauce that you need to make for it. Furthermore, this dish is if anything better the next day so you can easily make it in advance and re-heat. Pictures will follow as soon as I have the time to make it.

Preparation

  • Preheat the oven to about 180C
  • That’s it

Ingredients (tomato sauce)

  • 1 tin chopped Italian tomatoes
  • 1 jar passata
  • About 50ml olive oil (you can use chili oil or a mixture of the two for an extra kick
  • A splash of red wine vinegar
  • A teaspoon or two of dark brown sugar
  • Sea salt
  • Black pepper
  • Dried mixed Italian herbs

Ingredients (main dish)

  • A batch of tomato sauce, as above
  • 2-3 aubergines
  • 2-3 balls of mozzarella
  • Shavings of fresh parmesan
  • Olive oil

Method (tomato sauce)

  1. Place the tomatoes, passata and olive oil in a large pan
  2. Stirring constantly, heat through until the oil starts to incorporate
  3. Season with salt and pepper, tasting frequently until you are happy
  4. Reduce the heat right down and cover the pan, but allowing the steam to escape.
  5. Cook slowly, so the mixture thickens and reduces, stirring now and again to prevent sticking
  6. Add the vinegar and sugar, a little at a time. You are looking for a flavour balance here; not too acidic, not too sweet. You’ll be amazed at the effect of these ingredients
  7. Add the herbs, perhaps half a teaspoonful
  8. Continue to cook until you have a thick, rich sauce that’s full of depth and flavour
  9. Remove from the heat.
  10. You can make this in advance, or separately, or as part of the main recipe. The beauty of this sauce is that it has many uses and can be frozen ahead of time too.

Method (main dish)

  1. Remove the tops of the aubergines and slice them longways into pieces around 4-5ml in thickness
  2. Lay the slices out on baking trays and brush both sides with olive oil.
  3. Place in the oven and bake until slightly browned
  4. Take a medium sized square or oblong oven-proof dish. Put a thin layer of sauce over the bottom
  5. Cover the bottom layer with aubergine slices, then add more sauce and slices of mozzarella
  6. Cover with another layer of aubergine, and repeat with more sauce and mozzarella
  7. Add a final layer of aubergine, then top with sauce, mozzarella slices and generous quantities of shaved parmesan.
  8. Place the dish in the oven and bake for about half an hour. This is really about melding all the ingredients together as the sauce and the aubergines are already cooked. When it’s ready, the top will bubbling and brown and a wonderful smell will fill your kitchen
  9. Remove from the oven, leave to stand for a few minutes and when you’re ready to serve, either immediately or later when reheated, decorate with a sprig of basil!

Cheese Souffles – once or twice baked

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What is it with me and involuntary deletions? I managed it the other day when I wrote an article on dialogue creation for my arts site, Everyday Alchemy. Idiotically, I managed to lose the whole thing and I have no idea how. In a similar vein, this is now my second attempt at the story and recipe to accompany once or twice baked cheese souffles. Curses. I know who to blame though. *dark look*.

I’ve been making souffles for many years but its taken me until really recently to get it right. It’s very easy to stumble in a number of different ways, but the most common ones are: collapse; lack of flavour (even though it seems fine in the pan) and not enough density. Perfect souffles are both robust and light. Strange, but true.

My recipe here is a take on a dish which is served at our favourite foodie pub, the Red House at Marsh Benham. It was a particular pleasure to find souffle on the menu as so many places shy away from it. I am guessing that’s because of the perceived likelihood of disaster – but that’s where twice baking comes in. Basically, you can prepare these up to a week in advance and then do the final assembly and bake just when you need it. I came to the conclusion that the Red House ones must be made in round silicone moulds, due to their delightful shape. As a result, the first time I scoffed one of Laurent’s delicious delicacies, I nicknamed them the ‘hemispherical domes of pleasure’ much to the amusement of all around. So much so, in fact, that no-one noticed the tautology 🙂

My own souffle recipe finally came together on a recent trip to Northumberland, when Katie and I were on a visit to Fiona. I made them then and this photo is from that occasion. I should tell you that this is when they’re once-baked, because although the twice-baked finished dish is divine to eat, they just look so good when straight out of the oven the first time. The recipe was a success with the girls so off the back of that I’ve practised a couple of times and decided its one to share with you here. If you decide to go for once-baked, just stop at the appropriate moment!

Preparation

  • Pre-heat the oven to 200C
  • Butter 4-6 ramekins and line the bottom of each with baking paper

Ingredients

  • 1/2 a pint of full cream milk, plus a little more for topping up
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 1 bayleaf
  • 40g butter
  • 40g plain flour
  • 100g cheddar cheese, grated
  • 50g parmesan cheese, grated – and more for the second baking, also grated (get the idea?)
  • 1-2 tablespoons mustard – either English or whole grain
  • Grated nutmeg to taste
  • Black pepper
  • Double cream for the second baking
  • Fresh baby spinach leaves, ditto
  • A little butter for wilting the spinach
  • 3 eggs, separated

Method

  1. Put the milk in a saucepan together with the onion and the bayleaf. Heat gently and simmer for 5 minutes or so to let the flavours infuse
  2. In the mean time, melt the butter and add the flour to make a roux.
  3. When the milk is ready, add it a little at a time, stirring constantly, to make a thick, smooth paste. If you taste it at this point, you’ll really see why it’s worth the extra minutes to prepare and flavour the milk.
  4. Add both cheeses, stirring gently to make sure it all melts. Keep the heat low and remove if necessary
  5. Add the mustard, pepper and nutmeg and taste regularly till you have the ideal balance. You’re looking for quite a powerful flavour at this stage and personally I like quite a heavy hand with the mustard
  6. Remove the seasoned cheese sauce from the heat and leave to cool. It should be perfectly smooth and even.
  7. Whisk your egg whites to stiff peaks and set aside
  8. When the cheese sauce is cold or almost cold, add the yolks one at a time, stirring constantly. Apologies if I am teaching grandmothers to suck eggs, as it were, but its really important that the sauce is cool. If it isn’t, the eggs will cook and curdle the whole mixture. Its not good. I tell you this as I personally find it really annoying (or ‘noying!’ as my cousin’s son used to say when he was small) when you get an instruction without the reasoning. To know why is to understand.
  9. With your yolks beaten it, fold in the stiffened whites a little at a time, taking care to keep the mixture really light. This is key.
  10. Transfer to ramekins. Whether you use 3,4,5 or 6 ramekins will depend on their size, but make sure they’re reasonably well filled.
  11. Bake the souffles for about 15-20 minutes. Keep an eye on them but don’t open the oven in the first 10 minutes as this is what causes collapsage. They are done when very well risen and golden brown on top. Usually the surface tension breaks to enable further rising, as mine have done in the picture above.
  12. At this stage, you can get eating, should you wish. If not, read on.
  13. Let the souffles cool in their ramekins. They will at this point sink, so don’t worry. When they’re cold, run a knife round the inside and carefully turn them out, removing the paper from the bottom. Place them upside down on a plate where they will keep for a week if in the fridge and covered.
  14. When you’re ready to bake the second time, re-heat the oven again.
  15. Melt a little butter in a frying pan and add the spinach leaves, stirring constantly until they are wilted down and shiny. As you generally do with spinach, you’ll need a fair bit as it reduces so much. Think of all the vitamin B!
  16. Make little beds of the spinach, either in individual shallow dishes or several in a larger one
  17. Place a souffle (still upside down) on each, pour cream over until it runs down the sides and put the parmesan on top. You could also or instead use gruyere here. Up to you.
  18. Bake for ten minutes until golden brown
  19. Eat!

Chocolate Orange Cake – Flour Free

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To mark the very first entry in Read it and Eat, I’m sharing a brand new recipe, freshly minted today!

As you will discover, I’m particularly fond of cake, if executed well, and with the exception of a feather-light fat free sponge, this usually means rich, moist and decadent.

The story of Chocolate Orange Cake begins in the relatively recent past. I pitched up at an all-day meeting where, for reasons I can’t possibly divulge, all participants – most of whom were former Army officers – were required to pass themselves off as Liberal Democrat Councillors. This is quite another story. Anyway, one member of the meeting decided to lighten proceedings considerably by bringing with her a deceptively plain-looking clementine cake. Well. One bite and I was hooked! I kid you not. Moist, rich, zesty, robust, sticky-on-top, flourless and divine. I had three slices – or at least that’s what I’m admitting to.

Using a mixture of coercion, persuasion and begging, I extracted the recipe from my friend. To my intense delight, it was both pure and easy. This means very few ingredients which in turn means adaptability. Since then, I’ve made the cake several times, experimenting with different oven temperatures and cooking time in order to get the perfect result.

So, today was the first time I tampered with actual ingredients, but oh, what tampering it was. The simple addition of highest quality, molten chocolate together with pure cocoa resulted in a related – but quite different – creature; rather like a second cousin once removed. In due course I shall share the original recipe for Clementine Cake although your powers of deduction should bring it to you anyway. In the mean time, here’s the Chocolate Orange version. The name is, strictly speaking, inaccurate, but I’m sure you’ll forgive me.

PS The best part is that this cake simply improves with age – up to a point. About 3-4 days in is perfect, if it lasts that long.

Ingredients

  • 3 clementines (ideally seedless) and 1 lime, adding up in total to around 400g raw weight
  • 250g ground almonds
  • 150g best chocolate, 70%-75% cocoa. (My favourite ones are from Lidl. Yes, really.)
  • 200g sugar
  • about 50ml vegetable oil (sunflower or rapeseed)
  • 6 good size eggs – about 360g in weight.
  • 1 heaped teaspoon baking powder
  • 2-3 good heaped dessert spoons of cocoa

Preparation

  • Preheat the oven to around 170C. All ovens are a little different so take into account what you know about yours
  • Grease and line a 21cm springform cake tin
  • Place the whole, unpeeled fruit in a fairly deep saucepan of water and bring to the boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat and simmer for 2 hours, taking care to top the water up from the kettle if it gets low. I forgot once, and I am still scouring the pan to this day. Not good.
  • Once the fruit has boiled, remove from heat, drain the water and leave to cool. If any of the fruit has split, which they occasionally do, take care to lose as little of the insides as possible. Also take care not to burn your fingers as it will be seriously hot.

Method

  1. Place the cooled fruit in a food processor and whizz whole; peel, pith and all. If your fruit is seedless, you can just go right ahead. If not, you’ll need to cut them in half first and remove the pips. If there is any stalk residue at the top, remove this as well.
  2. Set your chocolate melting. I do this by placing a larger bowl over a smaller bowl of boiling water and just letting it get on with it. You can use a microwave but try not to burn it
  3. Into the foodprocessor, put the eggs and sugar, right on top of the whizzed fruit. Set it going and get everything mixed in.
  4. When the chocolate is melted, do the same with this.
  5. Pour in the oil and whizz once again.
  6. Finally, add the almonds, cococa and baking powder. Once final whizz and you’re done.
  7. Pour, spoon and spatula the mixture into your prepared, lined tin and make sure the surface is even.
  8. Scrape the bowl, enjoy, then check your face for chocolate smudges.
  9. Bake in the preheated over for around 40-45 minutes. This is not an exact science. When ready, the cake will have risen and may well have cracked. A fork or skewer will come out cleanish, but you don’t want to dry it out. Too soggy is far better than too dry. The first few times you make it, just observe and see what seems to work best. You’ll soon get the feel for it.
  10. Place the cake in its tin on a wire cooling tray. When cool, or nearly cool, release the spring form and carefully remove the base and the paper. Put the cake on a plate or cake stand.
  11. You can eat this when warm, but it is much better to let it cool. If possible, leave till the next day before getting stuck in. It is gorgeous on its own, but would also work well with creme fraiche or pouring cream.