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Marmalade Steamed Puddings

It’s been a long winter, and a long week. On Friday afternoon, when Herbert texts to say that he can’t wait to get his chops round a glass of wine, I know it must be bad. H barely drinks; well, compared to me anyway. He is the eternal designated driver.

As for me, well, I was fresh from a massage which had ended as it always does: the masseuse widened her eyes and said she couldn’t believe the knots in my shoulders. How does this happen? I meditate and do yoga daily, I exercise, I live a pretty unstressful life. What on earth do I do to get so knotty?

More to the point, what on earth can I do to get un-knotty, and to un-knot someone else in the process? It would be ideal if me & H took it in turns to get stressed so that we could soothe each other, but this never happens. We both get stressed at the same time, and therefore usually chafe each other into petty and over-emotional arguments.

I would like to say sex is the answer, but it isn’t. Sex is a great stress-reliever if you can manage the trick of falling into bed together in the first place. A shag that’s soley aimed at relieving stress, without much desire behind it, is a very sorry shag indeed. And likely to lead to further petty and emotional arguing.

No, what is needed tonight is oblivion. I’d like to refer to Blur’s Coffee and TV at this stage, but that’s actually about sobering up. This is about doing the opposite. Two Bottles of Wine and and the Contents of Sky Plus doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Not to mention the really sinful food. We start by dipping toast into puree made of roasted butternut squash, cumin, garlic, olive oil and red wine vinegar, with yoghurt and chipotle sauce blobbed on top. Then there’s chicken soup, then a cheeseboard.

But the piece de resistance are two little marmalade sponge puddings, accompanied by ginger ice cream and 30 Rock. At least, after all that, you can’t fail to sleep well.

Marmalade Steamed Puddings

You can also make this into one whole pudding by doubling the ingredients, pouring the mix into a greased 2 pint pudding basin and steaming for 1 hour 30 mins.

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Ingredients:

1/4 lb flour, mixed with 1 pinch salt and 1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 lb butter

1/4 lb caster sugar

2 eggs

2 tbsp milk, mixed with 1/4 tsp vanilla extract

2 dsp marmalade

2 dsp golden syrup

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Also:

2 mini pudding moulds

Deep saucepan

Greaseproof paper

Trivet

String

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Method:

1. Grease the pudding moulds, and cut a circle of greaseproof paper to fit the top of each of them. Into each, spoon a dsp of marmalade followed by a dsp of golden syrup.

2. Beat the butter until soft, and then add the sugar.

3. When pale and fluffy, beat in 1 egg at a time with a dusting of flour to stop it splitting.

4. Add the milk mixture alternately with the remainder of the flour mixture. Beat well.

5. Divide the mixture between your two moulds. Top with the circle of greaseproof, and then tie another layer of greaseproof over the top with string. Some people like to fold a pleat into this layer incase of expansion. Trim the edges well so that they don’t get soggy.

6. Place on a trivet in the bottom of a saucepan, and pour in boiling water so that it comes halfway up the pudding moulds. Cover, bring to the boil and steam for 30-40 mins, until the tops of the puddings are springy. Check regularly to ensure the pan doesn’t boil dry.

7. Unwrap, turn out and serve with ice cream, custard or cream.

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Pistachio Shortbread

On Monday afternoon, a friend comes round to visit, and finds me in a flurry of flour and caster sugar.

‘We’ve got people coming round tonight and I’ve forgotten to bake,’ I am saying, whilst pouring pistachios over the floor. Elvis the kitten hoovers them up.

One day, scientists will discover a genetic predisposition to baking, and I will appear to be a martyr to my DNA rather than a neurotic wannabe Nigella. Until then, those around me will have to endure moments like this.

I come from the sort of family that would never dream of serving a shop-bought cake to guests. It’s not that we don’t eat that stuff at all, you understand; it’s more that we see it as private, furtive indulgence.

My Gran always kept a tin of spice buns and jam tarts at the ready, just in case any of us let our guard down for long enough to agree to eat one. Not that there was anything wrong with them; those jam tarts still sing to me at weak moments. But there are only so many baked goods one can consume without expiring. We are, unsurprisingly, a big-boned family.

Now, my Mother and I are far too sensible to keep a stock of fattening home produce (although Mum always has a stash of Kit Kats, if you know where to look for them), but we would still be uncomfortable with opening a pack of McVitie’s if there was company.

Mum is a trained confectioner, and can turn out neat rounds of shortbread from memory and without breaking sweat. I call to mind her precise, professional hands as I puff flour over the cookbook and attempt to corral the unruly pistachios into the dough.

The one thing I remember (from The Great British Bake-Off, not my Mother’s knee) is that shortbread must not be over-worked, lest it sag and lose its light crumble. I opt for patting the paste into rough triangles and studding them with nuts once they’re on the tray. If I’m honest, this is largely because I have sticky hands and can’t be bothered to get the rolling pin out. I will tell my guests it’s all about rustic charm.

By the time Herbert gets home, they are stacked up neatly on plate. Their triangular shape has softened so that they look like a pile of oysters. He bites into one, chews for a moment, and then his face crumples. I watch him pick something off his tongue, small and metallic.

‘How did you mange to get a staple in there?’ he asks.

‘What? No, can’t be!’

But the staple is unquestionably there. I bet you never get that with a pack of Hobnobs.

Pistachio Shortbread:

6oz butter
3oz caster sugar
1oz ground rice
1/2 lb flour
1/4 lb pistachios

1. Whisk butter until fluffy and pale. Add the sugar and mix well.
2. Stir in the flour, rice and pistachios, taking care not to over-mix.
3. Shape as desired and place on a greased baking sheet.
4. Bake at 160 centigrade for around 20-25 minutes if making smaller biscuits, or 30-40 minutes if rolling into one round. Either way, it’s best to keep an eye on it, so that it goes no further than the palest golden colour.

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The Fat Duck & Home Cooking

It is, perhaps, slightly obtuse to go to the Fat Duck with the aim of understanding more about home cooking. But it’s an obvious step, really. In the national imagination, the Fat Duck has become the uber-restaurant, representing the sum total of our aspiration around food.

In a country that buys millions of high-end cookbooks only to serve up ready meals each night, and that still sees working (and cooking) in a restaurant as a stop-gap job for students, the Fat Duck represents something close to conceptual purity. It turns out the dishes of astonishing complexity, and makes its immaculate service integral to the encounter. It is quite impossible to replicate at home, even for the kind of bore who misses the point of dinner parties entirely.

They certainly know how to create a mystique. I came home with a little pile of souvenirs in my handbag – a menu, a Mock Turtle bookmark, a sweetshop-scented card – that have been pounced upon by friends and handled reverently, like relics. People with whom I would usually only make polite conversation at parties have texted me to ask how my meal was.

I won’t bore you by dissecting the menu – that’s the task of a different sort of a blog, and in any case, it’s been done to death. I will say that not every dish was note-perfect, and that there was a slight feeling of disappointment whenever we were presented with ‘normal’ food, like the delicious saddle of venison. But overall, it was a giddy ride, full of moments of high camp (the spritzing of scents above our heads as food was served; the nitro-poaching of aperitif foams at the table to commence the meal), and some incredible bursts of flavour.

By the end of our dinner, we began to drunkenly argue (after the most extraordinary selection of wines I have ever tasted) whether it merited the fame and the expense. One of our party felt that it wall all puff, that we were falling for a series of sleights of hand that would lead us to eat nearly anything. We had, she suggested, been thoroughly ‘Hestonized’.

And I suppose the truth is that Henstonized was exactly what I wanted to be. I was a very willing confederate of the experiment. I wanted, just for one night, to be offered some transporting magic, and to be able to say that I’ll never see the like again.

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By contrast, at home I scrupulously avoid restaurant cooking. I see daily cooking as a practice, a gentle reflection of my daily moods and desires. I like simple, well-tempered dishes that demand few ingredients and reflect the passing seasons.

But for Valentine’s day, I surrendered to a baser instinct – my hideously competitive nature. Herbert remarked, in passing, that the best lamb dish he’d ever eaten was a crumbed rack of lamb in the Barbican, at least 10 years ago.

‘What,’ I said, ‘better than my kleftiko? Better than my butterflied shoulder of lamb on the barbecue?’

‘Yes,’ said H, ‘better.’

‘Perhaps I’ll cook you a rack of lamb soon, then.’

‘I doubt it would be as good.’

Well, either H has a death-wish, or he’s mastered the art of manipulating me into cooking exactly what he wants. I had to cook that rack of lamb, just to prove that no jumped-up chef at a sodding art gallery was going to outdo me.

As I was ordering the meat, it struck me that rack of lamb seems strangely retro now, a luxury cut in an age of self-conscious nose-to-tail austerity. Therefore, I decided to go all-out turn of the century retro, pairing it with parsnip rosti and a confection of reduced beef stock, butter, redcurrant jelly and marsala that could really only be called jus.

Let’s just say that Herbert and the collected chefs of the Barbican circa 2000 have collectively admitted defeat.

Recipe: Crumbed Rack of Lamb

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Blood Orange and Prosecco

We all agree that we need this, but for very different reasons.

In the planning phase, it was called a girls’ weekend, but that stretches the definition of the term. There are no nightclubs or tanks of chardonnay, just a flat in a remote part of Suffolk overlooking a reed-bed. One of us brings a face pack, which we all apply somewhat gingerly on Saturday afternoon, but that’s about as girly as we get. We spend most of the weekend stomping around muddy country paths and looking out for a somewhat elusive barn owl.

On Friday night, we arrive wired and weary from a long drive after work. We empty carrier bags onto the kitchen table and set about eating the spoils: two pizzas, a selection of Hampshire cheeses, a plate of pata negra and chorizo, a packet of gravadlax, a baguette, a tub of taramasalata and some smoked scallops of which we are all slightly suspicious. Much more traditionally, there is also a large quantity of crisps, which we spent our university lives chomping through.

We agree that we do the food great justice. I make us some blood orange, Campari and prosecco cocktails, the same as I drank a fortnight ago at the River Cafe. We guzzle those and move onto wine. One of us has baked delicious brownies, which we all declare ourselves too full to eat. Mysteriously, some disappear despite this. Two of us attempt a game of Scrabble, which soon deteriorates into a competition to lay the most interesting words. Scoring is rapidly forgotten, as is the entire game.

At some point over the weekend, it occurs to me how sensible we’ve become. We drink lime and soda with our lunch, and carefully get early nights. No-one is sick, not even the one of us who is pregnant (although she threatens it several times). One of us goes for a Sunday morning run. We are old enough to reminisce, but young enough to be full of new plans and schemes. One of us has just landed an exciting new job; one of us has finally met that man we always hoped she would. All of us are old and wise enough to unsentimentally leave our partners behind for the weekend. This feels like progress in itself.

On Sunday, we head into Aldeburgh for fish and chips. Then, after a windy walk on the beach (one of us – ahem – may grumble slightly that her legs are tired), two of us go home, while two of us stay on for another night. We stop off for tea at Snape Maltings, and find ourselves unable to resist a square of sticky ginger cake on the side, despite the hearty lunch.

‘This is why we’re fat and they’re thin,’ says my companion. ‘They have restraint. We don’t.’

And for the first time in my life, I agree without feeling any horror. The wonderful thing about good, old friends is that they don’t care either way.

Recipe: Blood Orange & Prosecco

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Mixed Grill

I’ll be appearing at this lovely little festival on 12th February, talking about the link between food and love, and sharing some of my legendary aphrodisiac mole…do come along!

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Somewhere between a conference, a food festival and culinary music hall…

…presents…

THE MIXED GRILL

(…think of it as a live edition of your favourite food magazine)

A day of talks, lectures, rants, performance,

debates, panels and presentations

on the endlessly fascinating subject of…

FOOD

Featuring (amongst others) Talks on food and…love, bacteria, fats, crime, money, research, museums; food camps, 18th Century table laying and meat. There will be live music, poetry, comedy, a levitating chihuauhua and Marawa the Amazing will perform, for the first time in London, the awe-inspiring Fruit Salad Of Death.

We guarantee the Mixed Grill will be unlike any food event you’ve ever attended…

Date: Saturday Feb 12th 2011

Venue: The Conway Hall Central London

Price: £20.00

Lunch will be available at our pop-up restaurant, presented by MsMarmiteLover

For bookings and further details including the latest

updates to the speakers list visit…

www.mixed-grill.com

(If you’re interested in speaking at the Mixed Grill please contact us here)

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Jerusalem Artichoke Soup

I am lying in bed with Herbert on Saturday night, just drifting comfortably off to sleep, when he says,

‘Oh by the way, I forgot to tell you: I’ve joined an online dieting group for vinyl nerds.’

I take a few moments to process this information.

‘Break that down for me, will you?’

‘We all collect records, we’re all fat, and so we’re posting our weight on a forum each week. Kind of mutual support.’

‘Right. Okay. Sounds normal.’

‘I’m the heaviest. But I’m also the tallest, so it’s not fair. I think we should post our BMI instead.’

Wild horses could not encourage me to post my weight or my BMI on an online forum, but then I suppose humiliation is the point here.

‘Does this mean you’ll be eating anything particular?’

‘No, just the same as normal. Something light in the evenings. A salad. Something like that.’

Ah Herbert, ‘same as normal’ – that means good intentions until 9pm, when we both get unbearably hungry and end up having second dinner. Or maybe it means going out for dinner and so considering it a waste of money to go for the diet option? Or perhaps caving in to comfort food the moment either of us feels a twinge of stress?

I’ll admit it: I’m a feeder. I come from a long line of them. I love the process of cooking, and I love watching Herbert tuck into a plate of food that he really likes. He has this way of nodding appreciatively at good dinners. It’s extremely rewarding. I may not always manage to be the most tolerant of wives, but I make up my nurturing deficit with food.

Once upon a time, women were positively admired for producing portly husbands and fat children. On holiday in India a couple of years back, I actually received compliments for how well-kept Herbert was. I was either born in the wrong era, or the wrong country.

One of the strangest effects of marriage is the way  you become responsible for your partner’s behaviour. It is almost like we take over from where parents left off, ‘bringing up’ our other halves like reluctant children. I found myself furious at Herbert over Christmas for the sheer amount he ate, knowing that, however restrained I was being, he was inevitably condemning us both to a new year diet. When you tie your hearts together, you tie your meals together too.

I suppose, also, that it falls to me to eat up all the root vegetables left over in the fridge. Winter diets and seasonal eating regimes are not an easy combination. But, actually, I think I’ve come up with a response that’s healthy and a little bit luxurious. If your relationship can withstand the effects of Jerusalem artichokes, that is.

Recipe: Jerusalem Artichoke Soup

This is where I buy my cobnut oil – it’s delicious, almost praline-flavoured.

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The River Cafe

Much is made of how difficult it is to learn to live with someone else. But for me, the bigger difficulty has always been in learning to be on my own.

And yet, I know that a little separation is necessary. Some things are better off achieved alone. I don’t understand, for example, why women insist on dragging their gurning partners around the shops when they would be much better off at home. I also fail to appreciate my annual invitation to Herbert’s office Christmas party. Thanks, but the offer of reconstituted turkey and limp sprouts isn’t enough to swing it.

Herbert is always claiming he needs more ‘Herbert time’ (which is a euphemism for wanking himself stupid and playing on his XBox 360, possibly simultaneously), but this tends to involve me leaving the house, rather than him striking out on his own. However, I’m beginning to take this need seriously. In all frankness, now that we’ve been together for fifteen years, I’m conscious that we both need to bring something back to the dining table to talk about.

Today, then, I set myself a special challenge: to take myself out for lunch. And it must be good lunch, too; a sandwich in a cafe doesn’t count. In fact, it is a very special lunch indeed, for I have just come across the information that the River Cafe is offering a 3-course weekday lunch for £28. If I don’t go alone, I won’t get the chance at all.

I confess that my stomach lurches as I enter. The River Cafe is a great, bustling monument to the chattering classes, and here am I, silent and a little apologetic. The waitress sits me next to the wood-fired oven ‘so that I can watch,’ and I’m grateful for the occupation. Nevertheless, after a few seconds of gazing at the general air of purpose, I get out a book from my bag and bury my head in it. When the waitress returns with chewy yellow bread, I gulp and order an aperitivo, prosecco with blood orange and Campari. Drinking alone, at lunchtime: very decadent.

I sink into my book, and try to block out the noise of the two men seated next to me. In their matching denim shirts, they are engaged in a peculiarly middle class fight, blokishly daring each other to opt for the slow braise of beef shin rather than the squid salad. I’ve ordered the braise already; and a heavy glass of wine to go with it.

I feel rather sleepy and luxuriant: buttery ravioli, completely surrendered beef, sticky polenta. I text Herbert to tell him what I’m doing, and am then piqued when he doesn’t reply. Does he disapprove?

More likely he’s got his phone on mute. How infantile marriage makes us sometimes, with its merging of personalities and practices, the way it brings your own finances under your partner’s account. I feel guilty having this sumptuous time while he’s stuck at work, but more than that, I feel guilty for just being alone, and for spending my own money on myself . We’re trained to say, ‘Because I’m worth it,’ but only when it applies to a bottle of cheap shampoo.

Later, at home, I ask Herbert,

‘Did you get the text about what I did at lunchtime?’

‘Hm, yes, I did,’ he says, and that is that. He is neither excited nor angered by the information – or even particularly interested. My lunchtimes are, after all, my own business.

Recipe: Braised Shin of Beef

The River Cafe is running it’s Winter Set Lunch on weekdays until 31st March. More details here.

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