Fatshaming Children

"Easter-Eggs-1" by Lotus Head from Johannesburg

“Easter-Eggs-1″ by Lotus Head from Johannesburg. Wiki-Commons.

I very rarely watch television in the mornings, but yesterday I happened to be at the gym while breakfast TV was on. As I was waiting for the treadmill to start up, the screen popped up with Good Morning Britain. For those readers who don’t live in Britain, this is a magazine morning show on a channel called ITV. I was about to switch to a music channel when I noticed what was on the screen in front of me. An item was discussing chocolate Easter eggs and how much exercise is needed to work off the subsequent calories. So far, so obvious. What made my jaw drop was the reporter went on to ask two little girls how many chocolate eggs they had eaten over Easter, showing the total calories and then telling them how many hours of running or Zumba they would need to do to work it off.

The girls looked to be about seven or eight. They both looked a completely normal size and weight. As they listened to the reporter, they looked shocked and shame-faced at the results. Rather than being given the chance to enjoy a time of the year when everyone indulges in a little excess chocolate, they were being made to feel guilty and that their innocent consumption of the sweet stuff over Easter had serious consequences. I really couldn’t believe what I was watching.

As I thought about it, I became more and more angry. It demonstrated how easily a few words from an adult could have the most devastating effect on children’s self esteem and body confidence. I am almost sure I did not even know what calories were at that age, but I do know that children are aware of their bodies, food and exercise at a much earlier age these days. I do not have children, but I do have many friends with young children and I see many things in the world today to do with children and food that really worry me. So-called ‘perfect’ bodies are everywhere in the media; the idea pressed upon young children is that if they do not have a six pack or can squeeze into a size eight pair of jeans they are somehow not quite good enough. Conversely, we are surrounded by junk-food advertising, much of which is targeted specifically at children. The vicious cycle of dieting and binging can be set very early on.

It is a tricky issue; most of us are aware there is a childhood obesity problem in this and many other countries. Michelle Obama has famously made childhood obesity one of her target causes with her Let’s Move! campaign. The World Health Organization (WHO) regards childhood obesity as one of the most serious global public health challenges for the 21st century. Some statistics suggest that in some year groups, a third of school children are classified as clinically obese.

Children need to adopt a healthy attitude to food from a very early age. Fruit, vegetables, lean meat and fish are great. But, chocolate and sweets are also fine, just not all the time. Having chocolate at Easter is nothing to be ashamed of. Childhood is when many of the essential foundations for healthy living are made; habits, good or bad, picked up at this time will remain with you for life. An acquaintance of mine recently told me she was worried about her twelve year old daughter, as she had discovered that was was taking food from the kitchen cupboards and eating in secret. She went on to say that she herself has had food and weight issues her whole life. It made me wonder what she had said, in total innocence, in front of her daughter over the years.

There is no doubt that many children need to eat less fat and sugar and exercise more. Trying to prevent childhood obesity and all the subsequent health problems which come with it, is incredibly important for the future health of society. It just made me very sad to see how two little girls were made to feel so ashamed for enjoying a simple childhood pleasure. Surely there has to be a better way of encouraging healthy eating and exercise than that?

 

Hollandaise Sauce

Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise Sauce

Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise Sauce

I really am the high priestess of procrastination. If anything really needs to be done, I am sure to find a huge list of other tasks which need addressing so urgently, they simply cannot be left. This always applies to studying. Once I am in the midst of it, I am immersed and able to be productive, but getting started is always a problem. Those windows really do need cleaning, that shirt has been missing a button for over a month and, goodness, how have I not cleared the fluff from the tumble dryer this week?! The truth is obvious-none of it needs doing, but my studying does and that is why my brain is trying to come up with tasks to avoid it. Such procrastination often leads to cooking-well, it’s essential isn’t it? It also comes with the reassurance that even if I fail my exams this summer, at least I can make a mean hollandaise sauce!

Let’s not kid ourselves; this is not a healthy recipe. During the season of Lent, which is all about abstinence and reflection, I have chosen the most calorie-laden, richly decadent sauce to share with you. Ironically, I cannot eat any of it, as I have actually given up butter, but that doesn’t mean you should suffer too.

Hollandaise sauce is a classic sauce in the French repertoire, but it’s not an easy one to master. There are many shortcuts on the internet-including an amusing one using a vacuum cleaner attachment (look it up), but I have found that it really is just a question of practise. Hollandaise is a different beast to other emulsified sauces such as mayonnaise, as it is cooked and served warm. The difference is that you can buy reasonably good jars of mayonnaise, but I have yet to find a jar of hollandaise that does not taste either completely synthetic, or acridly vinegary. Homemade really cannot be replicated in this case. If you want Eggs Benedict at the weekend, (and who doesn’t?), you must attempt this sauce from scratch. To do this, you must face reality. You will curdle your eggs, the sauce will split, you will waste kilos of butter, but have heart, because once you have mastered this sauce, you will feel so competent and smug that you may be a bit unbearable for a while.

There are a few things you can do to make life easier for yourself. If you look up ‘Sauce Hollandaise’ in any classical French cookbook, you would be told to melt the butter gently, then separate the clarified butter from the milk solids at the bottom. This all sounds very technical and difficult. It’s not; all you need to do is melt the butter, pour it into a jug and add the melted butter, as per the recipe, stopping when you get to the milky bits at the bottom of the jug. If any goes in by accident, it does not make any difference to the sauce.

However, I have discovered something that I wish I had known when I first tried to make hollandaise. It would have saved several milk jugs and a rather nice mixing bowl from being broken in an hysterical rage. Controversially,(whisper it), I have found that you do not need to melt the butter at all. You can cut the solid butter into very small cubes and add that to your beaten egg, making sure every cube melts and is mixed in throughly as you go along. Purists would say that this method results in a sauce which is slightly less smooth and glossy than when using the original method, but I challenge you to find the difference. Another bonus is that using the butter as a solid seems to make the sauce more stable and less prone to splitting, therefore saving your sanity. Once you have mastered this, you can move onto the melted butter version if you want. I very rarely do.

The other thing to do is a have a large bowl or the sink full of cold water, ready to plunge the mixing bowl into if it even hints that it is about to split. The way to tell is if you start seeing any kind of lumps, or the butter isn’t being incorporated easily. Taking the sauce straight off the heat and putting the bowl into the cold water stops the cooking process. Whisk vigorously and you should divert any problems. If this does not seem to be working, you can add another egg yolk, but to be honest, if your sauce has split, the best thing to do is to start again. I said you would waste lots of butter.

Hollandaise Sauce
Makes about 300ml-enough for 4 portions

Ingredients
250g butter-I prefer salted
4 eggs yolks
Juice of half a lemon
salt and pepper to taste

Method

Fill your sink with cold water, ready to plunge the bowl into if it looks as though it is about the split. Bring a pan of water to simmering, place a heat-proof bowl over the pan, making sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Cut your butter into small cubes. Separate the eggs and place the yolks into a bowl. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and a grinding of pepper-you can use white pepper if you do not want the black speckles in your sauce.

Egg yolk in bowl

Egg yolk in bowl

Using a small whisk or fork, mix the eggs, making sure you are moving the mixture constantly.

Mixing the egg yolks

Mixing the egg yolks

Keep mixing the egg yolks until they become frothy, lighter in colour and more voluminous. Keep checking that the water is just simmering.

Cooking out the egg yolks

Cooking out the egg yolks

Once the eggs are at the frothy stage, you can start to add the butter. Add one small cube at a time, mixing constantly. Allow each cube to melt and be incorporated before you add the next one.

Adding the butter

Adding the butter

After you have added about half the butter, the sauce should be stable enough for you to add more cubes of butter at a time. Make sure you keep whisking. Keep adding the butter until it has all been incorporated into the sauce.

Hollandaise Sauce

Hollandaise Sauce

You should now have a rich, luscious sauce. Taste and add lemon, salt and pepper as you wish.

You can leave this sauce in the bowl or in a jug somewhere warm, but do not leave it over the heat and do not try to reheat it-that way curdled sauce always lies.

I love it with Eggs Benedict or Florentine, but it works with asparagus, smoked fish and mushrooms amazingly well too.

Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise Sauce

Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise Sauce

Kitchen Tip #19 Grating Butter into Pastry

Pastry

Pastry

This year I am determined to crack pastry. It has always been a bit of a nemesis of mine. Rubbing the fat into the four is an essential part of the process, but often the mixture remains lumpy or the butter starts to melt.

Through experimenting, I have come across a great way to get the butter rubbed into the flour in a matter seconds, rather than going through the rather tedious process of ‘rubbing in’.

When asked to rub the butter into the flour, simply put your butter in the freezer an hour or so before you want to start. Then, when hard, grate the butter on a fairly fine side of a box grater and sprinkle into the flour. You will then be able to ‘rub’ the butter into the flour with a few stirs of a spoon, or using the tips of your fingers. It saves so much time, effort and stops the butter from melting if you have warm hands.

Tortellini con Pancetta, Mortadella e Pollo (Tortellini with pancetta, mortadella and chicken)

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Finished tortellini

I eat a lot at this time of year. I actually eat a lot at every time of year, but I reassure myself that at the moment it’s about hibernation and surviving the cold, so therefore very necessary for survival.

Pasta and soup are default choices for colder weather. Pasta with soup is even better. Northern Italy is littered with variations of this recipe. This one showcases tiny stuffed parcels, packed with chicken, mortadella and pancetta. These little tortellini, which look a bit like belly buttons, are stuffed with deliciousness, intensely savoury and highly addictive. The use of chicken and pork together might be unexpected, but is a brilliant combination as the chicken gives the filling lightness and the pork a rich, salty, porcine flavour. Try and get mortadella with flecks of jewel-green pistachios if you can, as this adds a lovely nutty backnote to the taste.

Traditionally tortellini this small are served in a broth (or brodo) as a starter at Christmas, but can just be piled on a plate with parmesan and a healthy trickle of extra virgin olive oil. They freeze incredibly well and can be cooked straight from frozen. Just add an extra two minutes to the cooking time.

This is not a quick recipe. It takes time, practise and concentration, but it is very much worth it. If you have ever bought ‘fresh’ tortellini in packets from the supermarkets, you will be blown away by the flavour and delicate texture of these. I cannot pretend that they aren’t a little fiddly to make, but persevere and you will get your own production line rhythm going before you know it.

Tortellini con Pancetta, Mortadella e Pollo
Ingredients
Serves four.

For the pasta:
400g good quality flour-00 Italian flour is best
4 medium organic eggs
pinch of salt
semolina flour to dust

For the filling:
1 small chicken breast (about 200g)
40ml double cream
200g pancetta
200g mortadella
Freshly ground black pepper
1 egg yolk

1 litre of good chicken stock-if making soup

To serve:
Grated Parmesan (optional but necessary)

Method

First, make your filling. Put the chicken breast in a food processor or small blender, with a little cream to loosen if necessary, and blitz until smooth. Add the pancetta, mortadella and the rest of the cream, along with some pepper, and process again until smooth. Add the egg yolk and blitz to mix. Put in the fridge until needed.

Now make your pasta. Roll it out into sheets on the thinnest setting of your machine.

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Pasta rolled out

Cut the sheets into squares of about 7cm on each side.

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Pasta cut into squares

Place a small teaspoon of the filling mix into the middle of each square.

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Filling in place

Dip your forefinger into the water and run it over two edges of the pasta square-the top and one side. Fold the pasta over so that the filling is enclosed in a triangle of pasta. Press the edges down gently enough to not rupture the filling, but firmly enough to ensure the filling is secure with no air bubbles around the sides (these will make your tortellini break apart when boiling).

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Folding up the pasta

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Folded and sealed parcel

Rest the triangle on the underside tips of your left hand, if you are right-handed, with the top of the triangle pointing up your middle finger. Dampen the end tips of the other two ends, curl your thumb so it sits on top of the middle of the triangle over the area of filling. Bring the side ends over the top of your thumb and press gently together so they stick.

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Bringing the edges round

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Bringing the edges together

Gently slide your thumb out from the centre of the pasta and sit on a surface lightly dusted with semolina flour.

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Tortellini con pancetta, mortadella e pollo

If you are having the pasta in broth, bring the chicken stock to the boil and cook the pasta for about five minutes. If having without the broth, simply boil a pan of water as usual and cook for the same time. Either way, when the pasta is added, bring the temperature down to a simmer for the cooking, so the delicate parcels aren’t damaged.

Serve with grated parmesan and plenty of black pepper.

Homemade Custard Creams

Homemade Custard Creams

Firstly, an apology. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, but to be honest, you have probably forgotten all about this blog as I haven’t posted for so long. Lots of reasons, many excuses, but everyone is busy, so let me hang my head in momentary contrition and we’ll move on. OK?

In these cold and dark days, it always seems perverse that we are all expected to deprive ourselves on every level with punishing diets and life changes. In rebellion, my thoughts turn to the comfort of obscene amounts of butter and sugar. There’s something reassuring about a full biscuit tin. I am too much of a control freak to keep mine stocked in the hope that lots of people will ‘pop round’ unexpectedly, as it will always be the day I am drying underwear on the radiators or the bathroom needs cleaning. I do it because I like that homely feeling or something made with care and love, which will also give a big sugar hit. I also like the idea of turning my back on things I am supposed to do in January and, let’s face it, there’s nothing quite like a cup of tea and a biscuit.

Retro biscuits are something everyone loves, even if they don’t admit to it. I always loved Custard Creams as a child but haven’t bought them for years as ingredients such as calcium carbonate and soya lecithins don’t really appeal to my grown-up self. These custard creams are based on a simple biscuit recipe, enhanced with Bird’s Custard Powder. When I first started playing about with this recipe, I was determined to create something similar without resorting to it. This is because, upon inspection, I was amazed to see that this magic powder is basically cornflour with flavouring and colouring. I was sure I could do better than that.

I couldn’t.

As frustrating as it is to admit, whatever the combination in that tin, it works better than anything else here, so that is what I am using. The cornflour gives the biscuit a more silky texture, just as you would have in shortbread, and the colour is warm and cheerful-although not artificial, I am assured.

When trying these out on friends, one reaction was that they are the wrong shape for custard creams. I know, but I don’t have a small rectangular cutter, so tough! Feel free to use any cutter you like, they taste great any way you want to make them.

Homemade Custard Creams

Makes 14 biscuits

Ingredients

Biscuits:
175g plain flour
3 tbsp Birds Custard Powder
1tsp baking powder
100g unsalted butter (softened)
50g caster sugar
1 medium egg
1tbsp milk

Custard filling:
1tbsp Birds Custard Powder
100g icing sugar
50g unsalted butter (softened)
1tsp hot water

Method

Preheat oven to 180°C.

For the biscuits, rub the butter into the flour, custard powder and baking powder to create a crumbly, breadcrumb-like mixture.

Tip in the sugar and mix. Beat the egg and milk together and add to the mixture. Mix well. You can do this in a stand mixer, but it is just as easy to do by hand. The mixture will come together into a dough.

Wrap the dough in cling film and rest in the fridge for about 20-30 minutes. This will make it easier to shape.

Roll out dough onto a lightly floured surface to a thickness of a pound coin. Cut out as many biscuits as you can with your cutter. Any offcuts can be squeezed back together, re-rolled and cut out. You can prick them with a fork or cocktail stick to make pretty patterns if you have the time or inclination.

Place the biscuits on a lined baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes-this timing is based on average sized biscuits. If you chose a bigger or smaller cutter, keep an eye on them and adjust the time accordingly.

Leave to cool. Now make the filling.

Simply put the custard powder, butter and icing sugar into a mixer or bowl and combine until smooth. If it feels a little stiff, add the tsp of boiling water and mix again.

Spread every other biscuit with about 1tsp of filling and squidge together with another biscuit on top.

Dust with icing sugar if you wish, but they never came out of the packet like that.

These biscuits will not keep as long as the packet ones-about a week at a push.

Kitchen Tip #18 Wine Ice Cubes

Wine_glass

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.