Kitchen Tip #18 Wine Ice Cubes

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Chilled White Wine

 It’s hot. Yes, not much of a revelation, but one which causes us Brits various and many problems every time the temperature goes up just a little; from melting train lines, to drought, to flooding.

One such less than major issue is how to keep a cold glass of wine chilled on a very hot day. Some would say only pour a little at a time (impractical), stand inside or in the shade (not likely) or add ice (unthinkable!!!!!).

Now ice has its place; in a spritzer it is a must, but a spritzer can be made with any old plonk. To add ice to good wine is akin to eating truffles with tomato ketchup. I have only done it once and regretted it-not the truffle thing obviously.

Purists may still baulk at my suggestion, but one solution is to make ice cubes with the wine itself. This must, needless to say, be the same wine as you are drinking. This way, the melting cube is of the same taste with no dilution, but just a throughly chilled and unadulterated glass of something lovely. Cheers.

Really Rapid Raspberry Jam

Raspberry Jam

Raspberry Jam

As many people often do, I sometimes imagine that I live my life elsewhere; that my kitchen is a vast and impressive place, where the gigantic and perfectly temperature controlled larder is brimming with every type of ingredient you could want and cupboards are full of regimentally ordered and beautifully labeled jars and vintage glass containers found, quite by chance in a Parisian flea market.

As the overflowing contents of my cupboards regularly fall out top of my head, I am rudely thrown back to reality and I curse my eternal lack of kitchen space. It is at the point now where I have to store half my pans in the bathroom cupboard. I am not living in a bucolic farmhouse with acres of land for the chickens and homegrown radishes, but in a small flat with an even smaller kitchen in South-West London. A life of whimsy and back-lit with nostalgia this is not.

It is, however, amazing what you can achieve in even the tiniest of kitchen spaces. I do find that having a few jars of homemade jam on a shelf does go a tiny way to imagining you have an ordered and organised kitchen, especially if you squint and avoid looking at anything else at the same time. I would add a caveat to this recipe, that I would not usually extol the virtues of raspberries so early in the season; June and July are time for sumptuous strawberries and raspberries are a later treat. However, the mild weather seems to have brought a batch of very good English raspberries to the shops and markets at the moment. Please taste them if you can before you buy; a promisingly deep ruby raspberry, that promises so much can deliver very little. If you want to be safe, save this recipe until the end of August and September, when wonderful Scottish raspberries will put in a much-appreciated appearance.

I have written about making jam before, but I wanted to include this particular jam recipe as I could not believe that it was so fast to do. The difference in this recipe is the use of specialist jam sugar-i.e sugar with added pectin. I know, I know- I have said before; you do not have to use jam sugar. If you boil most jam long enough it will come to setting point and I have had a few unhappy incidents with jam sugar that has given the sugar such an unyielding texture, it is like trying to spread wall filler. However, further experiments have shown that it is possible to use jam sugar and still have a lovely loose set for your jam. By happy accident, it is also ridiculously fast, but the margin for error is small, so you need to be even more vigilant than usual to avoid jam bouncier than a trampoline.

For some reason, jam sugar seems to make the jam mixture spit even more viciously when it boils, so please be careful. Wear something that covers your arms at the very least. It is best to do this jam in two batches if you do not have a very large pan, just to be safe. There is also a distinct possibility that your kitchen will look very much like a homicidal crime scene by the time you have finished. Not really a scene that conjures up the W.I and village fairs, but you can’t have everything.

Really Rapid Raspberry Jam
makes 4 large jars

Ingredients

1kg raspberries
800g jam sugar
juice of 1 lemon
a knob of butter

Method

First, sterilise your jars; wash the jars and lids in hot soapy water, rinse and put in an oven set to about 140°C while you make the jam.

Put a saucer in the freezer.

Put the raspberries in the largest pan you have. Do not wash them unless you absoluely have to, as the water will affect the resulting jam.

Raspberries in the pan

Raspberries in the pan

Take a potato masher and mash them a bit. If you do not like lot of pips in your raspberry jam-now is the time to sieve some out.

Mashed raspberries

Mashed raspberries

Add the sugar and lemon juice and heat very slowly, stirring all the time, so the jam melts down evenly and without crystalising.

Raspberries with melting sugar added

Raspberries with melting sugar added

When the sugar has completely dissolved, bring the heat up to high. Keep stirring the mixture until the mixture is boiling. This is the potentially scalding part as the mixture will rise high up as it boils and look quite volcanic.

Boil for 5 minutes (make sure you use a timer), then take the pan off the heat, add the butter and get your saucer out of the freezer. Place a small dollop of the mixture onto it. Leave it a moment and then push the edge of the dollop gently with your finger. If the surface wrinkles, your jam has reached setting point, if it doesn’t, put the pan back on the heat and boil for another minute-no more. Repeat the saucer test until the surface of the mixture wrinkles on the saucer and you can see the jam has set.

Take the pan off the heat and leave it to rest for 15 minutes. At the same time, take the jars out of the oven, being careful not to touch the inside of the jar or the lids with your fingers or a cloth. You need the jars warm when you fill them, as cold jars will crack when filled with hot jam.

After fifteen minutes, use your funnel, or a large spoon, to put the jam into the jars. The mixture will still be really hot. Fill to the brim and place a waxed disc on top. Screw the lid on tightly and leave to cool completely.

This jam will last for up to a year if kept in cool place and out of direct sunlight. Once opened, it should be stored in the fridge.

Kitchen Tip #17 Helping Scones Rise.

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Having made several batches of scones for my previous recipe of Summertime Scones with Strawberry and Basil Compote it reminded me of how often my scones used to turn out lopsided at best or totally misshapen at worst.

The solution is really simple. First, flour your cutter. Second, NEVER twist as you cut. Simply press down and turn out. It seems quite a natural action to twist as you cut out but this way scone disappointment lies. If you twist the cutter, it’s almost impossible for a scone ( or any other baked good) to rise up evenly, as you will have disturbed the delicate sides as you twist.

Happy scones, happy baker.

Summertime Scones with Strawberry & Basil Compote

Scones with Strawberry & Basil Compote

Scones with Rapid Strawberry & Basil Compote

Scones, strawberries and cream. There are few other combinations of words that give off that warm glow of hazy, summery days than this. A cream tea sums up so much about what is wonderful about the British summertime, although they have been arguing in the South West for years about whether to serve your jam topped with your cream, as they do in Cornwall, or your cream topped with jam, as they do in Devon. Personally I think it is just plain wrong to put the cream on top of the jam, but that’s just me.

In terms of how to eat your cream tea, I would never be so presumptuous as to tell you how you should do it. If you want whipped cream or clotted, it is your choice (although if you are in possession of a can of squirty cream, you should hand yourself in for crimes against food). If you are feeling really outrageous(!), you could have raspberry jam rather than strawberry. Fruit scones or plain? Be a rebel and go for both. The pleasures of a cream tea are infinite in variety.

I am going to throw in a curveball here. It all started when, after lovingly making fresh scones and purchasing clotted cream, I discovered that someone (probably me to be fair) had eaten the last of the jam. I have posted about how to make jam before. I had a punnet of strawberries in the fridge, but it is not a quick job to make jam, nor is it really worth it unless you are doing a big batch. Undeterred, I immediately thought of strawberry compote.

A compote is basically any kind of fruit, simmered with sugar and eaten while still fresh and zingy. It is not as sweet or thickly set as jam, as it has less sugar and more fruit. Arguably, you can make compote without sugar at all, but for scones, you definitely need the extra sweetness to offset the deep richness of the cream. My eyes then alighted on the pot of basil sitting on my kitchen windowsill. Basil and strawberries are a combination of food dreams, each bringing out the flavour of the other in a quite marvellous way. Basil is very delicate-if you store it in the fridge it will go black very quickly-no matter how the supermarkets advise you to store it. It is at it’s best when it is added right at the end of any recipe, so it can add all it’s wonderful flavour. It is, therefore, a highly unsuitable ingredient for a jam as the rapid boiling would destroy all it’s fragrance, but added to a compote when it has cooled, it is perfect. I will warn you now that this is a highly messy way of eating scones-compote is runnier than jam and so you will certainly need a napkin tucked into your shirt before starting to eat this.

If you have never made scones before, I urge you to give them a go. They taste so different warm from your own oven to the brick-like texture you can get from those packets in the supermarket. They also take about 30 minutes from start to eating. If you have never baked anything, scones are a very good place to start. You can customise them in any way you want; add some sultanas, lemon zest or even chocolate chips if you want a true sugar overload. The finish of the top of the scone is also something you can control if you make them yourself. Before you put them in the oven, you can dust them with flour for a soft top, paint with milk for a more crunchy top or paint with egg for a really crunchy crust.

Be gentle when laying them on a baking sheet. Give them enough room to spread a little and rise a lot.

Scones about to be baked.

Scones about to be baked.

As son as they are out of the oven, put them on a wire rack to cool. It is best to serve them warm, but not piping hot, as they will just crumble apart.

Scones cooling on a rack.

Scones cooling on a rack.

This recipe is based on the one found in the Leith’s Baking Bible. Rubbing the butter into the flour really is the most technical part; it simply means taking the lumps of butter between your fingers and rubbing your fingers together into the flour until the texture is like breadcrumbs and you cannot feel any big lumps of butter anymore. If you cannot bring yourself to do that, you can use a food processor to whizz the butter in. I have used this recipe over and over again and it always works. Except the time I use plain flour-then it didn’t work at all. Made nice biscuity things though.

Scones with Strawberry & Basil Compote
Makes 6 scones

Ingredients

For the scones
225g Self Raising flour
½ tsp salt
55g butter
150ml milk
30g sugar (optional)

For the compote
400g Strawberries, washed and chopped in half
100g caster sugar
2 tbs fresh basil leaves, as finely chopped as you can

Method

First make the compote. Pop the strawberries and sugar into a large pan and heat gently until the sugar starts to melt. Turn up the hat until the mixture is rapidly boiling. Boil for about 5-10 minutes. Take off the heat and leave to cool. When cold, add the chopped basil. The consistency should be like a very soft set jam. Leave to the side, but do not refrigerate or the basil will go black.

Preheat the oven to 220°C.

Add the salt to the flour, sifted into a large mixing bowl. Rub the butter into the flour. Stir the sugar (if using) into the flour/butter mix.

Add the milk into the flour mixture and mix it in with a knife. You want it to combine without stirring it too much.

Place the dough onto a floured surface, pat down with floured hands and lightly roll the surface using a floured rolling pin to make it even. Aim for about 3cm depth.

Using a floured cutter, press down firmly and gently lift out the shapes onto a lined tray.

Brush the tops gently with a little milk; you don’t need a pastry brush, fingertips will do, but try to avoid the milk running down the side of the scone as it will impede the rise.

Bake the scones for between 12 and 15 minutes, until golden on the top.

Serve warm with clotted cream, topped with the compote and a few fresh strawberries on the side. The scones will keep in an airtight container for a day or so, but are best eaten the day they are made, as is the compote.

Greek Salad with a Feta Dressing

Greek Salad with Feta Dressing

Greek Salad with Feta Dressing

 

When it is hot weather, simplicity is often the key; no-one wants to spend time making intricate creations over a hot stove when a beautiful sunny evening stretches out in front of you. Good food is often about balance; when it is blisteringly hot (admittedly more frequent in Greece than in England), your body needs salt and water to remain balanced and cope with the heat. This is why a Greek salad is such a brilliant invention; the water, and therefore refreshment, comes from the cucumber and tomatoes, while the salt and savouriness  is given from the feta.

Greek salad is hardly an undiscovered dish; as with any food which is well known around the world it can be wonderful. It can also be truly awful. Large chunks of hard tomato with tasteless olives and little dressing do not a good Greek salad make. That’s why now is a great time to make this salad; British cucumbers are wonderful at the moment and amazing, local tomatoes are coming into their own. These simple, everyday ingredients add so much flavour. The temperature is also on the rise; this is the perfect supper for warm nights and lazy afternoons.

A huge amount of the appeal of a Greek salad comes from the intensely salty feta cheese. Generally, it is made with sheep’s milk, but it can be made with goat or a combination of the two. The better fetas are aged (but not ripened) 4 to 6 weeks, cured in a salty whey and brine and it becomes sharper and saltier with age. It is creamy white in colour with small holes, a crumbly texture and a spiky, rich creamy taste which is quite unique. Brands can taste very different and you may need to try a few before you find the one you like; it should be punchy, salty and mouthwateringly creamy in flavour whichever one you choose.  In this dish, I have used the feta as part of the dressing, rather than simply plonking a slab of it on top of the salad. It works incredibly well, as it coats every mouthful with a rich silkiness while still being wonderfully refreshing.

There are not many ingredients in this salad, so take a little time to pick the best you can. I like small plum tomatoes but any type with a great flavour will work well. I also like olives stored in oil which are not stoned. I find the flavour is better if the stones are left in; just make sure you remind people before they start to eat to avoid any dental disasters. A good, peppery extra virgin olive oil is also essential. Oh, and make sure you check the date of your dried herbs; people tend to think that dried herbs last forever (a certain relative of mine, who will remain nameless, has dried thyme in their cupboard with a use-by date on of March 2001). Dried herbs will not go off or bad, but over time they will lose a lot of their potency and flavour. If you use dried herbs that are more than a year old, you may have to use double the amount to get the same hit of flavour. If they are older than two years, you will generally get more flavour into your dish by using the contents of the hoover bag.

Personally, I am not a fan of raw onion in anything. In this recipe, I soak the slices of raw onion in the vinegar beforehand. In doing this, the onion loses all it acrid burn and overpowering aftertaste while becoming more delicate, fragrant and still slightly crunchy. Doing this also turns the onions a beautiful translucent pink. However, if you like your onions with a bit more bite, please feel free to leave them as they are.

This salad is best served as soon as it ready, but if it needs to stand a little while, remove the watery core of the cucumber before you chop it and do not add any salt until just before you serve it to avoid a watery puddle of dressing at the bottom of the bowl.

Clearly, a recipe such as this should be eaten on a deserted beach, under an umbrella on a shimmeringly hot day. Not really likely in London, but we can dream.

Greek Salad with Feta Dressing
Serves 4

Ingredients

200g feta (one packet/block)
2 whole cucumbers
1 red onion
500g tomatoes at room temperature
about 40 black olives-preferably Kalamata
6 tbs extra virgin olive oil
100ml red wine vinegar
1 tbs dried mint
2 tbs dried oregano
salt and pepper to taste

Method

Chop the onions into thin half moon crescents, place in a bowl and pour over the vinegar. leave to soak for at least half an hour, stirring occasionally.

Now make the dressing. Pour the olive oil into a bowl and add 2 tbs of the vinegar from the onions, crumble the feta into the bowl and mix well so the feta starts to meld into the dressing. It will not all melt in, but the dressing will look creamier, with small shards of feta in it. Now add the mint and oregano. Taste and add more herbs if necessary.

Chop the cucumber into bite size chunks, halve the tomatoes. Place in a  large bowl with the olives and drained red onion. Pour over the dressing and mix very well. Taste and add black pepper and salt if needed. Add more oregano or more onion vinegar if you wish.

Serve with warm pitta or flat bread.

Roasted Garlic Mayonnaise

Roasted Garlic Mayonnaise

Roasted Garlic Mayonnaise

On a recent trip to Barcelona, I was fortunate to perch beside the amazing El Quim stall in the incredibly vibrant Boqueria market and sample one of Spain’s most famous tapas: patatas bravas.

El Quim in the Boqueria

El Quim in the Boqueria

For the uninitiated, these are essentially fried potatoes topped with a spicy tomato and paprika sauce and aioli, a garlic mayonnaise. To say they are moreish is a vast understatement and it is a part of a very interesting gastromonic journey to sample them in every bar and restaurant you visit in Spain, as they are never quite the same. The potatoes can be deep or pan fired, cut thinly or into large chunks. The tomato sauce can be high with paprika: sweet, smoked or spicy and the mayonnaise can vary from a very thin, almost chemical-tasting sauce, to a rich, unctuous dip, heady with garlic.

Patatas Bravas

Patatas Bravas

At El Quim, they came piping hot, with a very subtle and sweet paprika drizzle and a fiery mayonnaise liberally smothering the potatoes. The mayonnaise was creamy, rich and almost whacked you around the face with the amount of garlic it contained.

As I ate, it occurred to me how long it had been since I made mayonnaise at home. There are so many good ones you can buy that I have been lazy, so I resolved to try out some new recipes when I returned home, starting with a garlic one.

When I made it at home, I was reminded of not just how simple it was, but how utterly delicious. It is completely different to any shop-bought variety, even if you choose an expensive organic one. Shop-bought mayonnaise has to be pasteurised and so will never have the unique, creamy delicacy of something homemade with fresh egg yolks and seasoned just to your taste. Homemade mayonnaise will also never have that acidic tang that many jars have, which sometimes reminds me more of salad cream.

Mayonnaise is simply an emulsion of egg yolks and oil with a few extra flavourings. The word ‘emulsion’, can strike fear into the hearts of the most accomplished cook, as an emulsion always has the potential to split. This is certainly a possibility, but it not very common at all if you remember a few things.

Always have the ingredients at room temperature. The main reason that a mayonnaise splits is because the egg yolks are too cold. Always add the salt at the beginning; it is not only necessary for seasoning, but helps with the emulsification as well. If it still looks like it might split, vigorous beating of the mixture often solves this. If not, slowly add another beaten egg yolk until the mixture stabilises again.

Mayonnaise is about 80% oil, so the choice of oil is important for flavour and texture. My preferred mixture is a third extra virgin olive oil, to two thirds of a flavourless oil such as groundnut. This ratio ensures a lovely hint of rich olive oil, which does not overpower the mixture. The reason that you will rarely see a recipe using all extra virgin olive oil is that it makes the emulsion unstable and it is too strong a taste that is a bit overwhelming, but feel free to try it out if you so desire.

There is no reason why you cannot make this in a processor if you are feeling tired and emotional, but I find the control is better if you use a small whisk and bowl. If you find your mayonnaise is too thick, you can slowly mix in a few tablespoons of water. This also works if you want a thinner sauce rather than a dip.

I have added roasted garlic to this recipe. You can buy this for exorbitant prices at the supermarket or deli, or you can make your own by simply popping a whole fat bulb of garlic in a low oven for about 45 minutes until it is light brown and you can see the juices oozing out.

The varieties for mayonnaise are endless. Some of my favourites include anchovy and caper to go with fish, tarragon to match with chicken or chilli and smoked paprika to go with chips. You can be as traditional or as avant-garde as you like. This garlic one goes beautifully with crunchy raw vegetables such as french radishes, or indeed patatas bravas. But really, it is perfect with pretty much everything.

Roasted Garlic Mayonnaise
Makes enough for six greedy people

Ingredients

2 large free range egg yolks
75ml extra virgin olive oil
125ml groundnut or any other flavourless oil
1 tsp Dijon mustard
5 large cloves of roasted garlic
squeeze of lemon juice
salt and white pepper to taste

Method

Start with all your ingredients at room temperature. Squash the garlic cloves into a paste and add to a large bowl with the mustard, egg yolks and a pinch of salt and white pepper. Whisk until well combined.

Mix your oils together in a jug and add to the eggs, starting with a drop at a time, whisking throughly so that each droplet is combined before the next one is added. The mixture will start to thicken. Continue until you have added about a quarter of the oil. After that, you can add the oil a little quicker, in a thin, steady stream until it is all added.

Add a squeeze of lemon, whisk again and season to taste.

This will keep for a few days in the fridge in an airtight jar.

Cafe Murano, London

Cafe Murano Menu

Cafe Murano Menu

Although I am fortunate enough to eat out a lot, I do not often write restaurant reviews. I am more than happy to give an opinion if someone happens to ask me what I think, but the issue I have is that, for me, taking photos of food and restaurants in the middle of meals is a bit intrusive and interrupts the flow of a good meal. I do not really want to be fiddling about with shutter speeds while my food goes sadly cold. The other thing quite important point is that I am so inherently greedy that I always forget to take the picture until I have ploughed halfway though a dish and it does not look that photo-ready anymore.

A recent exception was Cafe Murano in London’s St James’. An early dinner meant a quiet restaurant and and table tucked away in a private corner ensured that no-one else would be disturbed by me messing about with flash settings on my camera.

Cafe Murano is a fairly recent venture from Angela Harnett, and is the ‘little sister’ of the excellent Murano, headed up by Head Chef Sam Williams. Like Harnett, she is clearly a magician behind the stove. The concept is much more relaxed than Murano, with a distinct lack of formality. Staff were immediately friendly and attentive, but not intrusive; the last thing I ever want is someone running through the menu that I can read perfectly well myself. The room is long and quite narrow, with a high ceiling which absorbed a little of the atmosphere. It is very Mayfair in look, with leather banquettes and a fabulous marble-topped bar, where you can also eat.

We started with Aperol Spritz (of course), which were well mixed and not too sweet or watery. Despite clear directions on the back of the bottle, it amazes me how varied this drink can be in different places. This was followed by a beautifully crisp carafe of Sicilian Grillo. The wine list is brilliant, with lots to choose by the glass and carafe, an asset sadly missing on many wine lists. The food menu is broadly northern Italian (with a few borrowings) and all the better for it.

Then came the only real negative and that was the bread. My love of bread is well documented and I really believe that it reflects the quality of what is to come in the meal ahead. What we received was a few meagre slices of what was excellent Italian bread. Very much like an olive oil-rich ciabatta. This in itself was great; crispy and soft in the right places and served with a peppery olive oil, but it was crying out for some dense foccacia or long sticks of grissini to accompany it. The plate was happily topped up when requested, but did not reflect the quality and generosity of the meal to come.

Truffle arancini

Truffle arancino

As part of a short but punchy list of chiceti came the truffle arancini. The unique smell reached you before the bowl got to the table. Three small balls of crispy, earthy heaven. At this point, I thought the meal would go the way of all others and I would fail to get any photos, as they were inhaled before I could even take my lens cap off. Suffice to say, we ordered more and I managed to just capture the last one.

So onto the antipasti and a steely determination to get some structured evidence of our meal on record.

Warm Octopus, Chickpeas and Pesto

Warm Octopus, Chickpeas and Pesto

Warm octopus, chickpeas and pesto was probably the highlight. Many people think they hate octopus as they have only had it overcooked, when it is akin to chewing on a rubber band, but less pleasant. This was meltingly soft and coated with the type of deeply rich tomato sauce you usually only find in Italy. It came with blobs of the best pesto I have every eaten in my life; the combination of flavours and textures was just perfect. It was a stellar dish.

Risotto with walnut pesto

Risotto with rocket & walnut pesto

Risotto with rocket and walnut pesto came from the ludicrously good value set menu (two courses £18, three courses £22) and was perfectly al dente. The rocket pesto was quite bitter, which worked really well with the creaminess of the rice. Although it was delicious, I must admit I was too busy dribbling pesto down my chin in delight to give it my full attention.

Sausage and radicchio tagliatelle

Sausage and radicchio tagliatelle

Next on the set menu was a sausage and radicchio tagliatelle. Again, a brilliant combination of rich and slightly bitter flavours; radicchio is a bitter and red-leaved type of chicory that you cannot get away from in Northern Italy. It cuts very well through rich flavours such as meat or creamy cheese and was great here. The sausage was not as highly seasoned as most Italian ones and therefore the sauce overall lacked a little bit of richness and depth. The pasta was perfect.

Morels, artichoke and wild garlic gnocchi

Morels, asparagus and wild garlic gnocchi

I thought I had peaked early with my octopus, but then came the gnocchi. Morel, artichoke and wild garlic gnocchi to be precise. Although it wasn’t. Artichoke seemed to have mysteriously morphed into asparagus en route from the kitchen. Not that I had any reason to complain. There are certain dishes in life, well my life anyway, that I will always remember. This was one of those. The gnocchi were large and had been pan-fried or grilled so they had an amazing, slightly crispy texture on the outside, with soft meltingness within. The asparagus was chunkily sliced to give great contrast in texture to the potato dumplings and the judiciously used wild garlic elevated the seasoning to the highest height. Despite the richness of all the ingredients, each one tasted of themselves, which is rare. The sauce was so good I had to put a surreptitious finger around the bowl at the end to catch the last few droplets.

Lemon tart

Lemon tart

Too full for main courses, we opted for pudding. Lemon tart was beautifully zingy, not too sweet with very thin and deliciously short pastry. The crackled sugar glaze on the top was a thing I will definitely copy at home.

Hazelnut and chocolate ice cream

Hazelnut and chocolate ice cream

Ice cream was a little disappointing. The texture was creamy and smooth, but I felt the flavours could have been more pronounced. The chocolate was not as deeply rich and dense as I hoped for and the hazelnut was slightly bland. Some might say, why not choose a ‘proper’ dessert, but since we were in Mayfair rather than Milan, there is not a proliferation of gelato shops on each corner. More’s the pity.

Despite the fact that there are probably thousands of Italian restaurants in London, most are depressingly awful. The exceptions always stand out as the cooking goes so much further than below-par chianti, bland bolognese sauce and breadsticks in plastic packets. This is exceptional Italian cooking of the highest order in a corner of London where it is notoriously hard to find good food if you do not rate The Wolesley, which I don’t.

Just Brownies

Just a brownie

Just a brownie

This post was supposed to be a demonstration of a wonderfully simple and foolproof recipe for hot cross buns. More fool me. Alas, after three failed batches, I have resorted to buying some from my local bakery.

So, in its place, I am offering something vaguely in line with Easter, in that it contains a vast amount of chocolate. It is also a recipe which always works, which is a bonus for a cooking blog. This particular brownie recipe was given to me by my friend Luda a few years ago. She adds honeycomb and sometimes crumbled Oreo cookies, which is outrageously good.

Brownies are a contentious issue because the varieties are infinite; some people love nuts, others prefer the addition of dried fruit, some like chocolate chips or honeycomb to chew on. I have tried many of these exotic combinations, but this recipe offers none of these; I have stripped it back to be as straightforward, pure and plain as a brownie recipe can get. These really are ‘just’ brownies. This simplicity should not detract in any way from how amazing these brownies are. They are dense, gooey in the right places, rich and totally satisfying. It also helps that they are truly the work of moments to make. What makes it a great, as opposed to a good, recipe is the use of light muscovado sugar. It brings a subtle fudgy and caramel note to the brownie, which is about a good a companion to chocolate as you can get. As it is not disguised by any extras, I would urge you to buy a very good dark chocolate, by which I mean at least 70% cocoa solids in content.

These are rich enough to serve as a dessert after dinner; simply add a dusting if icing sugar and a big spoonful of creme fraiche.

Just Brownies

Ingredients

165g unsalted butter
200g dark, good quality chocolate
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
165g light muscovado sugar
2tbps plain flour
1 tbsp cocoa powder (not hot chocolate powder)
pinch of salt

Method

Grease and line a 20cm baking tin or swiss roll tin. Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Break up the chocolate into small pieces, place in a heatproof bowl with the butter. Melt the butter and chocolate over a pan of just simmering water. Be careful not to allow the bottom of the bowl to touch the water. When melted together, remove from the pan and allow to cool a little.

In another bowl, whisk the eggs, vanilla, sugar and salt together. Add the flour and cocoa a little at a time until all combined.

Pour the chocolate mixture into the eggs little by little and whisk until fluffy.

Pour the mixture into the tray and bake in the middle of the oven for about 30 minutes. When it is ready, the top will crack slightly, but you will be able to feel a wobble underneath when you press the top gently.

Allow to cool if you can bear it.

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.