Deconstructed Apple Crumble

Deconstructed Apple Crumble

Deconstructed Apple Crumble

Sometimes only a properly comforting dessert like a crumble will do.

This is a slightly different way of doing a crumble, which I came across in a very old Gary Rhodes book several years ago and is now the only way I cook it. The main difference is that the fruit and the crumble bits are cooked separately and then assembled. What you get from this is the soft, hot fruit, crowned with a really crunchy topping. Purists will baulk at this, but I find the stark difference in textures wonderfully satisfying. You can add 75g of nibbed almonds to the crumble topping if you are so inclined. I am not.

It’s not often in cooking that you are told that lumps are important, but for this topping, they really are. When you mix the butter, sugar and flour together, it is really vital to pinch the mixture together so you get a mixture of smaller and larger lumps, as shown in the picture below. If you don’t create these lumps, you will just have a tasty powder and not really a crumble topping at all. The more variety in sizes, the better the texture.

Crumble topping before baking

Crumble topping before baking

I have used apple here because I love it, but you can use any fruit; pears, plums and rhubarb will all be great, although you will have to add more sugar for the rhubarb if you want to avoid a tummy ache.

Crumble with custard is a given in my house. Some people swear by Bird’s, for that schoolday nostalgia, but you can also buy some very good fresh custard from the supermarket now. I often buy this, but if I have time, I love to make my own. I cannot pretend it’s a very easy or quick process. However, don’t be afraid; stick with the guidelines below and you will be beam with pride if someone asks if the custard is homemade. The recipe below is very rich, very creamy and very luscious. It is not an everyday indulgence. I have experimented a lot with different recipes and ingredients; sometimes you want a blowout and have the full fat version, but if you want a lighter version, you can used all semi-skimmed milk instead of the milk and cream option below. Be aware that making it this way means you will be standing a stirring the mixture for about three times longer than with a full fat version. It will seem like it is never going to thicken. Your will to live may wane slightly, but keep at it, as it will thicken eventually. If your patience doesn’t stretch that far, you can always reach for the Bird’s.

Deconstructed Apple Crumble
Serves 6

Ingredients

For the apple part
700g Bramley apples, peeled, cored and chopped into large chunks
2 large eating apples, peeled, cored and chopped into large chunks-Coxes work nicely
25g butter
75g caster sugar
zest of 1 lemon

For the crumble

100g butter
175g plain flour
75g demerara sugar

Method

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Start with the topping. In a large bowl, rub the butter into the flour until it has a breadcrumb texture. Add the sugar, mix. Begin to work through the mixture, pinching it together with your fingertips to create different sized lumps. Spread the mixture out on a baking sheet and bake in the oven for about 15-20 minutes, turning occasionally. Once it looks crunchy and golden, you can take it out and set aside until you need to use it. Once cool if you put it in an airtight container, it will last a few days.

For the apple base; melt the butter in a large pan and add the apple. Turn in the butter and then add the sugar and lemon zest. Turn the heat right down and cook for about 15 minutes until the apples are soft. Try to resist the urge to stir them too much, or you will end up with apple puree.

When you are ready to make the crumble, put the cooked apple in a baking dish, top with the crumble mixture and heat in the oven for about 10 minutes. You can also reheat the apple in a pan or in the microwave and just top with the crumble if you wish.

Homemade Custard
Makes 750ml

Ingredients
8 egg yolks
75g caster sugar
1 vanilla pod
300ml full fat milk
300ml double cream.

Method

Pour the milk and cream into a pan. Split the vanilla pod, scrape out the seeds and add to the milk and cream. Throw in the pod as well. Bring the mixture to the boil, then remove from the heat. Leave to cool slightly.

Beat the egg yolks and sugar together in a heat-proof bowl until well mixed. Put the bowl over a pan of simmering water and pour in the cream mixture. Stir continuously-it is vital to keep it moving, so you don’t get lumpy custard. I find a wooden spoon works best for this.

Stirring the custard mixture

Stirring the custard mixture

As the eggs cook, the custard will start to thicken. The test to know when it is ready is to coat the back of the wooden spoon with the mixture, then run your finger over the back of it. If the line you have drawn stays open as in the picture below, the custard is ready, if it fills up straightaway, you need to cook it for a bit longer.

Custard coating the back of the spoon

Custard coating the back of the spoon

If you are not using this immediately, cover the mixture with some greaseproof paper to avoid a skin forming.

You can serve this cold or warm, but do not let it boil when reheating it, or it will split.

Butter vs Margarine

Butter

Butter


What do you put on your toast? On one side, there’s butter – rich, creamy, defiantly full-fat and made for millennia by churning the milk or cream from cattle. On the other, there’s margarine: the artificial spread invented in the 1860s. It might not taste delicious, and it doesn’t sink into your toast like butter, but for decades margarine has ridden a wave of success as the “healthy” alternative.

However, sales of margarine have plummeted in the last year, according to Kantar, with “health” spreads sales dropping by a massive 7.4%.

Meanwhile, butter, the health pariah of so many years, seems to be back in fashion. We bought 8.7% more blocks of butter in 2013. This seems due to two factors: butter is no longer much pricier than margarine and we are all using butter in our newly acquired frenzy for baking. We are also becoming more aware of what is in our food and many of us are veering away from processed foods.

Margarine was invented in 1869 by a French food scientist, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, who came up with the recipe when Napoleon wanted to find a long-life alternative to butter to feed troops in the Franco-Prussian war. Mège-Mouriès mixed skimmed milk, water and beef fat to create a substance similar to butter in texture. He called it “oleomargarine” after margarites, the Greek word for pearls – a reference to its pearly sheen. In 1871 he sold the patent to Jurgens, a Dutch firm now part of Unilever.

Beef fat was soon replaced by cheaper hydrogenated and non-hydrogenated vegetable oils. After the Second World War, it was a legal requirement to add vitamins to spreads, thus paving the way to make spreads the ‘healthy option’.

Butter has often been sited as the bad option for health reasons, but margarine has taken a bashing on the health front in recent years, too. Negative press about trans fats in the 00s saw many brands remove hydrogenated fats from their spreads and reformulate their recipes. However you look at it, margarine is a highly processed food. It becomes even more unappetising the know that the natural colour of margarine is a dirty grey colour: the fact it is yellow is all down to colouring.

For our generation and that of our parents, butter was always the enemy. Our grandparents knew different. They stuck with a food that had been around for hundreds of years. The truth is that it butter is naturally high in saturated fat, but it is high in vitamins, the sort of cholesterol that is vital for brain and nervous system development and various natural compounds with anti-fungal, anti-oxidant and even anti-cancer properties.

In 2012, a British Medical Journal article by cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra, which urged us to choose butter every time, hit the headlines. There seems to be increasing evidence that a diet containing saturated fats, such as those found in butter, do not cause coronary disease. Doctors would still baulk at the suggestion that a diet high in these fats is necessarily healthy, but saturated fats are now beginning to be seen as not the devil food that they have been.

Certain spreads have supposed added value for health by being based on monounsaturated fat-rich olive oil. However, liquid olive oil requires solidification through processing, and this detracts from any healthy properties it may have. Also, like other margarines, olive oil-based spreads will generally have other processes inflicted on it including bleaching, deodorising, colouring and flavouring. An olive oil spread is a very far cry indeed from the extra virgin olive oil we may use for roasting vegetables or as the basis for a salad dressing.

Whatever the base ingredients in margarine, the end product is always a highly processed and chemicalised foodstuff – in stark contrast to the relatively natural nature of butter (made by the churning or milk or cream).

Bearing in mind the fact that margarine is so often assumed to be the hands-down winner in the battle with butter, you might expect there to be plenty of evidence for its superior health effects. Actually, the evidence in the area is scant, and what exists should give us cause for concern.

There are, for instance, two epidemiological studies in which the relationship between butter and margarine consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease was assessed. In neither study was butter consumption found to be associated with increased risk. However, it was a different story for margarine: both studies linked its consumption with worsened health outcomes.

Even more concerning are the findings of what is known as the Sydney Diet Heart Study. Here, men were split into two groups. In one, men ate their normal diet, while in the other the men were instructed to eat a diet rich in safflower oil, ( an oil very close to sunflower oil) including safflower oil-based margarine. The men on this ‘heart-healthy’ diet actually ended up being 74 per cent more likely to die of heart disease.

Then we come to the matter of taste. There are very few people who would honestly say they preferred the taste of margarine to butter. Despite the fact that many spreads add milk to their recipe does not mean it can begin to compare with the taste of butter.

I have always been a butter fan, the synthetic taste of margarine means I would rather have dry toast coat it with spread. I am also wary of the fact that if you believed every article or piece of research you read about food, you would be living off organic celery for the rest of your life.

Putting aside all the recent research into the benefits of butter over margarine, my general tastes and instincts tell me that any food as processed as margarine cannot be good for your health or, indeed, your palate.

Pastry is a case in point: no nutritional it’s would recommend eating it every day, but if you are going to eat it, make sure it is as good as it can be. Many people think life is too short to make pastry, but I recently picked up a ready made packet of puff pastry in the supermarket. The ingredients were:

Wheat Flour,Margarine ,Water ,Ethanol ,Sugar ,Salt ,Acidity Regulator (Citric Acid) ,Margarine contains: Vegetable Fat ,Water ,Emulsifier (Mono- and Di-Glycerides of Fatty Acids, Sunflower Lecithins) ,Acidity Regulator (Citric Acid) ,Salt.

Yummy!!!

In fact, ready made pastry can be excellent and great thing to have in the freezer, just make sure that it is all-butter. In the same supermarket, a packet of all butter pastry contained:

Wheat Flour,Butter (29%) ,Water ,Salt.

This sounds less like something from a sci-fi film and more like something I would be happy to put into my body.

I am on a kind of pastry-pilgrimage at the moment, as I have always found it a bit tricky. I will be posting a recipe for a chicken pie very soon- with homemade pastry. Made with butter, naturally.

How to Make Fresh Pasta

Fresh Pasta Ingredients

Fresh Pasta Ingredients

You may have noticed that I am a huge fan of pasta; fresh or dried. I have often been aware of an unfathomable snobbery about using dried pasta rather than fresh, that fresh pasta is superior in some way. I cannot understand this. It is not the case of one being better than the other because fundamentally they are very different creatures.

Unless it is specified, dried pasta is often made with just flour and water, no eggs. By Italian law dried pasta must be made with 100% durum semolina flour and water. It is more robust in texture than fresh pasta and suits oily, rich tomato-based sauces. Dried pasta, especially the more complex shapes (such as radiatore) are designed for grabbing and holding onto sauces. Dried tube pasta (ziti or penne) often has ridges or slight abrasions on the surface to hold onto the pasta sauce as well. These ridges and bumps are created during the extrusion process, when the pasta is forced from a copper mold and cut to desired length before drying. However most producers worldwide use steel molds for the sake of faster and cheaper production. The steel molds produce pasta that is a bit too smooth to hold onto sauce. Fortunately more pasta makers outside of Italy are starting to use the older style copper molds; this pasta tends to be more expensive, but you will taste a difference.

Fresh pasta is much more delicate; it suits lighter sauces and will usually contain eggs. It cooks in a matter of moments and is much easier to spoil than dried. Filled pasta such as ravioli or tortelloni will always be available as fresh. In its place, fresh pasta is truly wonderful and a very special thing to eat.

Often, it is actually more important how to cook the pasta as whether pasta is dried or fresh, if it is not cooked properly, it will not be great.

There is no way that I can make the case for making fresh pasta by saying it is quicker than buying a packet, but I can say that it is worth the effort. If you want to make your own filled pasta, there is not any other option. It is a slow process when you first start, but with practice, you will be able to knock up a batch in no time. If you mess it up, do not worry-it is only flour and eggs after all. Pasta machines are not expensive and make this process so much easier, but it you are not sure how often you will use it, simply use a rolling pin. You will not get incredibly thin and delicate pasta, but it’s a good place to start.

Once you get the hang of it, it can be quite addictive. There are infinite shapes and fillings you can make. The pasta itself can also be adapted to your mood; try adding some cracked black pepper for texture, some fresh beetroot juice for amazing colour or the blackest squid ink for incredible flavour. But the main bit of advice is to keep trying; even those Italian mammas have to start somewhere.

How to Make Fresh Pasta

Ingredients
per person
100g good quality flour-00 Italian flour is best
1 medium organic egg
pinch of salt
semolina flour to dust

Method

Mix Eggs and Flour

Mix Eggs and Flour

Put the flour and eggs in a bowl and mix together using your hand into a rough mixture. Just use one hand as it is easier to keep one dirty and one clean.

Dough coming together

Dough coming together

Tip the mixture onto a counter and bring together into a rough ball; it may seem too sticky or dry, but do not be tempted to add flour or water at this point.

Ball of dough

Ball of dough

Knead the dough as you would work bread, until it starts to come together and feel more malleable. Keep going; you will need to work at it for a good five minutes or so until it starts to feel soft, with a texture like firm Play Doh. This is part of the relationship with the dough; you will get to know when it starts to feel right. This just takes practice, but keep going and it will come together into a smooth ball eventually. There are tiny variations in the way the flour has been milled or how old it, or indeed how warm your kitchen is, that will make a difference to how easily and how quickly the pasta comes together. If it refuses to come together after 10 minutes of effort, add a teaspoon of water and try again. Pasta dough that is too wet will stick to the pasta machine and adding too much flour will make it heavy. When the ball of dough has come together, wrap the ball in cling film and put aside for an hour or so to rest. You can leave it for longer if convenient, but that is the minimum if possible, as it allows the gluten to develop and the dough to relax, which makes it much easier to roll out.

Putting through the pasta machine

Putting through the pasta machine

If you have a pasta machine, set it up on the widest setting. Dust the worktop with a tiny bit of semolina flour if you have it, if not, ordinary flour will do fine. Roll or press the dough out to flatten it out, then feed the dough through the pasta machine, slowly.

Feeding the pasta dough through the machine

Feeding the pasta dough through the machine

Try to keep the pace consistent if you can. Double the dough over and feed through at the same setting again.

Using the back of your hand

Using the back of your hand

Here is is important to consider how you are handling the dough. As it gets thinner, if you pick it up in the usual manner, it is likely your fingers will go through it. It is therefore important to try and get into the habit of using the back of your hand when you are guiding the pasta out from the bottom on the machine and when you are feeding it through again.

Cutting the lengths of dough

Cutting the lengths of dough

If you are making pasta for more than one person, you will need to cut the dough and feed it through the machine in stages, otherwise the pasta will get too long to handle. When you have processed all the pasta through the machine down to the thinnest setting, dust the counter and lay the pasta flat.

Rolling the pasta up

Rolling the pasta up

If you want to make thick ribbons such as tagliatelle or pappadelle, gently roll each flat piece of pasta up into a loose roll.

Cutting the ribbons

Cutting the ribbons

Take a very sharp knife and gently cut through the rolls to make the individual ribbons. Let the weight of the knife glide through the dough to keep each ribbon separate. Work though the rest of the dough and shake out the ribbons.

Pasta ribbons

Pasta ribbons

Dust the ribbons with semolina flour. To cook, drop into boiling salted water for 2 minutes. Serve with your favourite sauce.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Squares

Peanut Butter & Chocolate Square

Peanut Butter & Chocolate Square

There is often an alchemy in good food: certain ingredients are enhanced simply by pairing them with certain others. Smoked salmon with spicy horseradish, sea salt with hot caramel and oily mackerel with tart gooseberries.

Chocolate and peanut butter may not be such a chic combination, but nonetheless, it is nothing short of genius. This is one of those dream partnerships: the rich, stick-to-the-roof of your mouth quality of the peanut butter seems to meld perfectly with the unique melting qualities of chocolate.

I do not know whether to boast or be embarrassed about how easy these are to make. What I will tell you is that these squares will win you friends and great influence wherever you take them. I do not know anyone who hasn’t tried them, closed their eyes and become strangely quiet as the flavours meld in the mouth. They are reminiscent of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, but much more interesting from the texture of the caramelised peanuts scattered over the top.

These squares make gorgeous petit fours or larger squares of loveliness. You can use all dark chocolate as a more sophisticated topping, but normally I like a mixture of half dark and half milk. There are not many ingredients, so quality will shine through. Buy chocolate with a high cocoa content: it makes up of the recipe and so good chocolate does make a difference.

Apparently they keep well, but I wouldn’t know anything about that.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Squares
Ingredients

For the base

250g smooth peanut butter
200g icing sugar
50g softened butter
50g dark muscovado sugar

For the chocolate topping
150g dark chocolate
150g milk chocolate
20g butter

For the nuts
50g salted peanuts
30g icing sugar

Method

Line a Swiss roll or brownie tin with cling film.

Mix all the base ingredients together in a mixer. You can do this by hand but it is a bit hard going. The mixture will be a little like rubble. Using your fingers or the back of a spoon smooth the mixture evenly in the base of the tin.

Melt the chocolate and butter together in a bowl over a pan if gently simmering water. Make sure the water does not touch the base of the bowl as it will make the chocolate split.

Pour the chocolate mixture over the peanut butter base and smooth.

Heat the oven to 180. Mix the peanuts with the icing sugar and a few drops of water to combine. Spread the sugary nuts over a baking tray and bake for about 10 minutes until the nuts caramelise. Leave to cool.

Sprinkle the caramelised nuts over the chocolate top. Chill until required then cut into the desired size.

A Bittersweet Lemon Madeira Cake

Lemon and Poppyseed Madeira Cake

Lemon and Poppyseed Madeira Cake

I love reading nostalgic musings in various food books about beloved recipes passed down through the generations. It also makes me laugh when I try and come up with something similar when I think of ‘baking tips my grandmother taught me’. The summation of such knowledge passed to me by my own grandmother is actually only two things: always use more butter and that sandwiches should be constructed of more meat than bread.

My Nana was, quite simply, the most amazing person I ever had in my life. She was my mentor, role model and protector. She was not, it is fair to say, a cook or a baker if any sort. She would not mind me saying this, as it was true. She also had far too many other things to be getting on with, such as looking after four children, nine grandchildren, several ageing relatives and, oh yes, having three jobs, one of which was running one of the largest textile factories in the country. At the same time.

Although she was not a baker herself, she was always more than happy to be my taster. I first made this cake for her on one of the many occasions she came to stay with me when I was at university. She actually came to stay in my room several times whilst I was in halls. As you can probably gather, this was not the normal grandmother-granddaughter relationship. Anyway, on this particular visit she had bought me a loaf tin, a new whisk and we were on our way. I continued to make this cake for her until she died, as she really loved it. Her tastes were quite old fashioned in the sense that she enjoyed traditional flavours and familiar textures. This is the very essence of this cake; even if you have not eaten madeira cake very much before, it still tastes wonderfully comforting in its familiarity. It is dense, yet light, buttery and subtly fragrant with lemon. There is no greater cake to go with a cup of tea.

I had not felt like I wanted to make this cake without her to share it with for a few years, when I happened upon a jar of poppy seeds when I was clearing out a cupboard. It immediately reminded me of this cake and with it, thousands of warm and happy memories of my Nana and so this post is dedicated to her. This is a cake that tastes of love, comfort and home and I think she would say it deserves to be shared. Though she would probably say it needed more butter.

Lemon and Poppy Seed Madeira Cake

Ingredients

250g softened butter
200g caster sugar plus extra for dusting
210g self raising flour
90g plain flour
3 eggs
Zest and juice of one large lemon
2tbs poppy seeds

Method

Preheat your oven to 170°C and butter and line a 450g loaf tin.

Mix the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time along with a spoonful of flour.

Add the lemon juice, zest, poppy seeds and the rest of the flour and mix until well combined.

Put the mixture in the lined loaf tin, smooth the top and sprinkle some caster sugar over the top. A tablespoon is about enough.

Bake for a hour and ten minutes, checking that a knife comes out clean when poked through the centre.

Leave to cool in the tin for 15 minutes or so and then cool on a rack.

Best served sliced thickly with a strong cup of English Breakfast tea.

Perfect with a cup of tea.

Perfect with a cup of tea.

Kitchen Tip #15 Pastry Pressing

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Pastry is often the nemesis of the most experienced cook; it certainly has been one of mine.

One of the issues I used to have was making the raw pastry fit into the tin snugly. By pressing with your fingers, you often push right through the pastry and make unsightly holes or marks with your fingertips or nails. This is especially true if your pastry is very thin and if you are using fluted tart tins.

The trick is very simple. Simply roll a small ball of pastry and use this to gently ease the pastry into the edges of your tin. No holes, no fuss.

New Year, New Cake

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This January I have decided to abstain from abstinence. Whilst the rest of the world resolves to lose three stone in two weeks, stop drinking, stop eating, stop spending and actually stop doing anything vaguely pleasurable, I resolved to start the year in a distinctly pleasurable way; by making a cake. What I want after all the rich dried fruit and chocolate over Christmas is something fresh, zingy but still deeply satisfying. It has to be something with citrus and it has to feel like it is bringing a little light and sunshine back into the greyness of the post-festive world.

I discovered this cake a long time ago and make it every year, as soon as clementines appear in the shops and markets. The original recipe for the Clementine Cake comes from Nigella Lawson’s first book, the ground-breaking How To Eat. Incredibly, this book was first published in 1999 and remains at the heart of my cooking inspiration.

This cake is probably one of the easiest and most satisfying to make, especially at this time of year when January threatens to suck the very life from you. It is a fat-free cake, in the sense that there is no butter or oil added to the mixture. What the recipe calls for are ground almonds, which give all the moisture and taste you could need. The result is damp and moist. So much so that it tastes as though it has been drenched in syrup of some sort. You are welcome to do this, but you really do not need to, as the moisture from the fruit saturates the cake. Best of all is that this cakes improves with age and will keep for a week or so. The use of the whole fruit, pith, peel and all, means it is not overly sweet, as it keeps a freshness and slight sharpness, perfect for this time of year.

Using whole citrus fruits might seem like an odd thing to do, but it is from an old Middle Eastern tradition of cake-making. It adds a wonderful layering of flavour to the cake that you simply do not get from using fruit juice or peeled fruit. The first time it came into the consciousness of Britain was probably in Claudia Roden’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food from back in 1968. Back then, there were no blenders or processors and so the cooked oranges had to be laboriously pushed through a sieve. Thankfully, things are much simpler now, but if you don’t have a blender of any kind, you can still make this cake with relative ease.

Nigella’s Clementine Cake

Ingredients

375g clementines (approx. 4 medium-sized ones-or you can use 2 oranges)
6 free range or organic eggs
22 g white sugar
250g ground almonds
1 tsp baking powder

Method

Put the clementines (or oranges) in a pan and cover with cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for about 2 hours. Make sure you keep an eye on the water level so it does not boil dry. Remove from the water and leave to cool, cut and remove any pips. Put the whole clementines (or oranges)-skin, pith, everything-and give a quick blitz with a hand blender or processor until a pulpy paste.

Preheat the oven to 190ºC and butter and line a 21cm / 8 inch cake tin, with a loose bottom.

Add all the other ingredients to the bowl or food processor and mix. You can also do this by hand.

Pour the cake mixture into the prepared tin and bake for about an hour. Check the cake after 45 minutes, as the sugar from the fruit tends to make it turn dark quite fast on the top-if it turning too dark, simply cover with some foil.  Remove from the oven and leave to cool, on a rack, but in the tin. When the cake’s cold, remove from the tin.

Serve with creme fraiche or Greek yoghurt. It is actually better a day or so after it is made, as the flavours seem to meld together better, but obviously, you can eat it straightaway if you really cannot wait.

Bring to the Boil’s Christmas Kitchen Tips

Bauble

Bauble

I was listening  to the radio the other day where the show was hosting a phone-in about Christmas dinner hints and tips. All I can say is that I think therapists will have a huge surge in business after the festive period if those callers were anything to go by. One woman was so overcome with the prospect of making lunch for ten that she actually broke down during the call.

I actually really hate many of the articles around at the moment giving relentless tips about how to make this ‘the best Christmas ever!!!!’ I think they are often condescending and always build up Christmas to such gargantuan proportions that it cannot help but be a let-down in some way. You have failed if you do not make your own crackers and your relatives will never forgive you if you do not cook turkey, beef and goose.

Everyone has their own ways of doing things; my mother buys her presents throughout the year to spread the cost but also so she can feel quietly smug by the end of November when everyone else is starting to feel that rising panic in their chests. I also have friends who leave their shopping until Christmas Eve every year. I think they secretly enjoy the jeopardy and feeling of naughtiness that comes with it. Personally, I could not think of doing anything worse.

I have been cooking Christmas dinner for my family since I was quite young; I have always enjoyed pottering in the kitchen away from the chaos of wrapping paper and crying infants next door. Over the years, I have gathered a few things that save time, money and a fair amount of sanity. Please follow them if you wish, but the whole point of Christmas is to have fun and a rest, not feel pressured into having yet another list of things to do.

Happy Christmas to you all!

Christmas Tip 1

Make your own bread sauce. It tastes so much better than anything bought and is actually much cheaper. I make mine the week before and freeze it.

Christmas Tip 2

Order your cheese early. Go to a specialist shop, where they will be delighted that you have been so organised and will help you choose something special. Usually this means you can pick it up on a day of your choice, without having to queue for an hour and a half to be greeted with the fact they have run out of Stilton.

Christmas Tip 3

Use your freezer. Bread sauce, cranberry sauce, pigs in blankets and stuffing can all be made well in advance and frozen. I would not advise freezing the turkey though, as it tends to make the proteins in the meat tighter, which makes it tougher.

Christmas Tip 4

Rest the meat. Do not worry about the turkey going cold when it is out of the oven. You do not need to serve it straightaway, in fact-it is a disaster if you do. Meat needs to rest. A 10lb turkey will sit quite happily for two hours or more after it is taken out of the oven. Simply tent it in foil and cover with a towel. It will not be cold, but will be juicy and moist.

Christmas Tip 5

Read the recipe. This sounds so obvious, but if you are making something to a recipe, read it once and then read it again. There is nothing worse than starting a dish a realising you do not have the right ingredients or the correct equipment.

Christmas Tip 6

Clean and clear out the fridge and freezer now. There are never enough places to store cold items and so throwing out those old jars of jam at the back of the fridge will help free up valuable space.

Christmas Tip 7

Stock up on foil. It is a certainty that you will run out of this at some point; everyone always does, so buy several rolls now.

Christmas Tip 8

Keep it simple. Many people think that Christmas is the perfect time to experiment and try out new, ambitious recipes. The answer to this is don’t. It will go wrong, someone will cry (probably you) and the resentment will stay with you for days.

Christmas Tip 9

Keep things off the hob if you can. Once your gravy is done, put it in a thermos to keep warm. Steam vegetables in the microwave. Anything that avoids the kitchen looking like a steam room is a good thing.

Christmas Tip 10

Roast potatoes wait for no man. The meat can sit, the sauces can sit, the vegetables can sit (for a short time), what cannot wait are the roasties. Any more than a few moments and they will start to go soggy; this is my definition of a Christmas disaster, so try and time the meal so that it is served as the potatoes come out of the oven.

Good luck and happy cooking.

Focaccia

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My word I love bread. It really is my weakness- I’m not really fussy about origin: Arabic flatbread rich with za’atar for breakfast, soft Indian roti to scoop up indulgent curries for lunch, Greek pitta puffed up and warm with humous as an afternoon snack and crisp French baguette with dinner. If it vaguely resembles bread- I’m there!

Most cultures regard a dinner table without bread as incomplete. This is especially true in Italy where the addition of bread on the table normally means the dreaded ‘cover charge’. I have touched on Italian bread before with my post about ciabatta, but now I move onto focaccia.

Focaccia actually takes a few different forms in Italy itself; areas in the north actually call incredibly thin layers of dough stuffed with cheese and baked, focaccia, but here I will focus on the one we are familiar with; a thick, olive oil enriched bread often studded with rosemary and rock salt. It has taken some time to get this recipe right, mainly because it took some time to convince myself that a bread could (or should) contain quite so much olive oil. I am now persuaded. The essence of this bread is the olive oil. It is a paradox, as it is full of oil but is not oily with a soft and airy texture.

Olive oil is a controversial subject these days; the book Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller is an eye-opening reflection and investigation into the olive oil trade. It is an unfortunate fact that amongst the honest and hard-working artisan producers in Italy, Spain and Greece, there are many unscrupulous fraudsters making a profit from people’s trust in a label which boasts of ‘extra virgin’, ’100% Italian’ or scenes of rural Tuscan hills. Olive oil is often cut with lower grade oil, which is sometimes not even from olives at all.

Bertolli olive oil is a perfect case in point; the Bertolli family were actually bankers who never owned an olive tree. They made a fortune due to an incomprehensible  European law that, until 2001, allowed any olive oil bottled in Italy to be sold as “Italian olive oil”. In fact, even now 80% of the oil Bertolli uses comes from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East. It is still sold in bottles “Passione Italiana” on the label. Today, Italy still sells three times as much oil as it produces; you do the maths. The word ‘pure’ does not mean anything about the contents; just because the oil says it is produced and/or packaged in Greece or Italy, does not mean all the oil comes from that country. Low grade oil is shipped in from all over the Mediterranean to meet demand.

In the UK, we consume over 30m litres of olive oil every year, so it is worth knowing how to choose something good for your kitchen. One of the most important things is to buy bottles which are not clear; olive oil needs to be stored in dark bottles to slow down degradation. You should also check the bottle for the harvest date; olive oil degrades with age, it does not improve and it needs to be used within 18 months of the harvest date. Try to buy from somewhere that will let you taste it first; most delis and smaller shops will be happy to let you try before you buy, although this is obviously not the case in your local supermarket! If you are buying Italian oil, look for a label which says that the oil is produced in Italy using olives produced in Italy. Extra Virgin is the most important label and, although not an absolute guarantee, the symbols for DOP or PGI give a little more confidence. In this case, you really do get what you pay for; there is just no way you will get a quality olive oil if you only spend a few pounds. Try to think of it as an investment for your kitchen; a good oil will transform your cooking, although it is a massive waste to cook with it; save it for salad dressing, drizzling on pasta and, of course, for dipping bread into.

The problem is that olive oil is as diverse as wine in flavour and very few people know how it really should taste. Blind taste tests have embarrassed many a knowledgeable foodie. Brands such as Bertolli have marketed their wares as smooth, light and gentle, but real olive oil is usually deeply peppery. It will probably make you cough if you sip a spoonful of it. It can smell grassy, fruity and fresh. What sort you like is deeply personal, that is why it is important to taste it. Whatever you end up buying, it should make you happy when you sip it. There is a reason why Homer referred to as liquid gold.

Foccacia

makes one large slab to serve 6-8

Ingredients

For the bread

500g strong white flour
20g coarse semolina
15g fresh yeast
320ml water
50ml extra virgin olive oil
12g salt

For the topping

30 ml extra virgin olive oil
sprinkling of rock salt
2 tbs picked rosemary leaves

Method

Preheat your oven on at 250°C. Oil a 20cm swiss roll tin. If you do not have one of these, a baking sheet with high sides will do.

Mix the flour and semolina together and rub in the yeast, using your fingertips as if making a crumble. Add the salt, olive oil and water and knead the dough for 10-15 minutes. It will be very wet, but keep going and it will firm into soft dough. Place the dough into an oiled bowl, cover with a shower cap or cling film and rest for an hour in a warm, dry place until it has doubled in size.

With the help of the rounded end of your scraper, turn the dough out onto an oiled tray. Drizzle the oil for the topping over the dough, then, using your fingers, push and prod the dough so that it spreads from the center towards the edges of the tray. Do not pull it hard, just let it ease out. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rest somewhere warm and draught-free for about 45 minutes.

Dimple the dough with your fingertips, and rest for a further 30 minutes.

Take the rosemary leaves and push them gently into the dough. Sprinkle on the rock salt and put into oven, along with a spritz of water from a spray gun to create some steam. If you don’t have one of these, throw a couple of ice cubes into the bottom of the oven. Turn down the heat to 220°C and bake it for 25-30 minutes, until the bread is light golden brown. Remove from the oven and slide onto a wire rack to cool. Brush with a little more olive oil while it is still warm.

Serve with more olive oil, antipasti, soup or just on its own.

Grown Up Chocolate Chunk Cookies

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Grown Up Chocolate Chunk Cookies

It’s been quite a week in one way or another and in seemingly typical female fashion, chocolate has seemed an excellent remedy to life’s woes. I hate to be obvious and stereotypical, and actually, the reverse has proven true, as my other half is the one who has polished most of the test batches for these off with a surprising vigour. I actually has to re-make one of the first batches from scratch as he got to them all before I did. Do not let anyone tell you that chocolate based snacks are the sole preserve of the female of the species, as I have often found it to be quite the opposite.

And so to cookies. In researching this post, I have found that cookies are incredibly subjective; some people love the chewy ones, some people love a crunch and some like something in between. One recipe can fit all, as it really depends on how long you bake them for. I think my taste buds have changed a lot as I have grown older and one of the ways in which this has manifested itself is that I am not a great fan of overly sweet things any more. I actually hate myself a little bit for having Malibu and Pineapple as my favourite drink for a shaming few months as a late teenager. Moving on, I now find that a yearly foray into something as sweet as cinder toffee is enough for me.

As a consequence, these cookies are quite adult in flavour; they are not sickly sweet and are deeply rich with dark chocolate and cocoa. The muscovado sugar gives a lovely caramel note, rather than just straightforward sweetness. I prefer to use a bar of chocolate and roughly chop it, rather than using chips, as this means you get both tiny shards and bigger chunks of chocolate in every mouthful, rather than the regulation size of chips, but feel free to use whatever you like. If you do choose a bar, make sure it is at least 70% cocoa. This recipe uses plain chocolate but you can also add any of the amazing combinations that are everywhere now: sea salt, mint, orange and even chilli are all fabulous and add to the feeling that these cookies should stay a strictly adult pleasure!

Ingredients

Makes about 20 cookies

150g salted butter, softened
100g light brown muscovado sugar
60g granulated sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg
30g good quality cocoa powder
225g plain flour
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
¼ tsp salt
150g plain chocolate chips or chunks

Method

Preheat the oven to 190C. Line two baking trays with non-stick baking paper.

Put the butter and sugars into a bowl and beat until creamy. Beat in the vanilla extract and egg. Sieve the flour, cocoa bicarbonate of soda and salt over the mixture and mix in with a wooden spoon. Chop up your chocolate if using a bar- add to the mixture and stir well. The mixture will be very stiff.

Using a teaspoon, place small mounds of the mixture well apart on the baking trays as they will spread a lot when cooking. Bake in the oven for 10-12 mins if you want them squidgy in the middle or 12-15 minutes if you prefer them crunchy. They will feel soft  when hot, but they harden up as they cool so do not overbake them.

Leave on the tray for a couple of minutes to firm up and then transfer to a cooling rack.