A Bowl of Soup and a Pile of Books

December 15, 2014 § 4 Comments

Greetings from the sofa. I’m holed up here with aching limbs, stinging eyes, and a mug of honeyed tea. The sky is a forbidding grey duvet. I’m about to load up a BBC detective drama. It’s a day for soup.

The bowl depicted above contains my perfect soup, from one of my favorite cookbooks of the year, Diana Henry’s A Change of Appetite. It’s a spicy, hearty bowl, brimming with lentils, roasted tomatoes, and the perfect cold-busting trifecta of ginger, garlic and turmeric. Omit the dollop of yoghurt and it’s vegan. It comes together in less than an hour, and I’d be happy to serve it to friends for dinner. The recipe is at the end of this post, but I thought I would use it as an excuse to run through some of my favorite books of the year, since it’s emergency gift-buying week, and soup plus books plus rain equals perfect.

A couple of cookbooks:

The aforementioned title by Diana Henry is just what you want on your shelf as you head into the new year. It’s a well considered, balanced approach to eating more healthfully, which makes it sound terribly dull and austere. Its charm is that it’s anything but. The book brims with colorful, tasty recipes that you genuinely want to eat and cook. With the overtones of Middle Eastern and Asian influences throughout, Henry calls to mind the ever-so trendy Ottolenghi, but with more manageable ingredient lists, and the soul of Nigel Slater. If you’ve read this blog even once before, you’ll know that is the highest praise I can give.

My dear friend mentioned that her brother had been cooking up a storm from Rick Stein’s latest book on Indian food. I’ll admit that I was initially slightly skeptical, knowing Stein mostly via his seafood and French cookery books, and not thinking of him as the kind of expert you might turn to for Indian cookery. I also adore Madhur Jaffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking (which reminds me that our errant nanny ran away with that book to add insult to injury!) and couldn’t imagine anything that would displace its central place in my library. Fool! Everything I’ve made from the book so far has been outstanding, and the only difficulty with the book has been choosing where to start, so appealing is the recipe selection. The Chettinad Chicken and Chicken Passanda were highlights, as was the dal made with black beans.

Some fiction:

I read Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation in two sittings over the weekend. It crams so much emotion and truth into a tiny book, a novella really, creating a diorama of a marriage that does not shy away from the realities of long-term attachment. Powerful stuff.

I know at this point it’s essentially passe to like The Fault in our Stars, but I don’t care. If I had been 15 when I read that book, it would have destroyed me. At 35, it took quite some assimilating all the same. Yes, it’s about cancer; yes, it’s terribly sad; but really it’s a book about romance, and first love, and just being saved from that awful, awkward teenage stage. Cathartic in the fullest sense of the word.

Looking at my bookshelves, this really was the year of non-fiction for me. These were among the tomes I gobbled up…

With the Wild movie now in the theatres, Cheryl Strayed is somewhat of a discovered secret. I liked Wild a great deal, but Tiny Beautiful Things was one of the books that changed my year. I wanted to give a copy to everyone I love. Strayed’s ability to be unflinchingly honest was one of the things that finally inspired me to get my ass to therapy. It’s a tribute to the fullness of the human condition.

On the heavier side, Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score might change not just my year but my life, my dharma. It’s a wonderfully clear and accessible overview of work on trauma and the human body. I got into it because I was interested in the literature on how yoga is being used to help trauma survivors, but was captivated by the research on how the human brain adapts to these kinds of events, and what it means for effective therapeutic interventions. It’s hard for me to capture fully how Van der Kolk manages to take you through pages on weighty topics like abuse, neglect, disaster survival, while remaining positive about the human spirit and resilience. If you’re at all interested in body, mind, and spirit, read this book.

Mindfulness is terribly trendy these days, and certainly name-checked without a decent understanding of what it means as a consistent practice. When I was ready to give my meditation practice a boost, I turned back to Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart. It perfectly conveys the paradox of mindfulness: that its very simplicity is what makes it so challenging over time. I’d love everyone who thinks they can stick mindfulness in a corporate memo and be done to read this book. I also picked up Dan Siegel’s Mindsight for the first time, which got me falling down the neuroscience rabbit hole, in the best possible way. And as an aside, my favorite yoga philosophy book, The Inner Tradition of Yoga, is written by a wonderful thinker called Michael Stone, who has just the most incredible set of philosophy talks available as free podcasts. No excuses not to start the year with a clear, purposeful mind then.

Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby is the book I wish I had written. Lyrical and expansive, it’s a meditation on memory, place, and illness, and completely redefines what it means to write an autobiography. I wanted to give my copy away, but there were too many pages with turned corners, not to mention my complete attachment to it.

Finishing off with my faves for the kiddies:

Oliver Jeffers’ latest (and you can’t go wrong with any of his books) is an illustrated alphabet with a short story for each letter. The whimsical tales start to interweave as the book goes on, making it one that parents can enjoy just as much as the kids. I wondered if it would be too dark for Henry’s age (2 and a bit) but he adores it (when we get to H: “it’s haitch for me!”).

I just can’t resist Julia Donaldson’s books, because they read aloud so brilliantly. The Gruffalo and the Gruffalo’s Child are firm favorites around here, but I especially love The Snail and the Whale. The power of the small, the immensity of the world, and a hunk of wanderlust. Just lovely.

Finally, The Bear’s Song written and illustrated by Benjamin Chaud features some of the most satisfyingly rich artwork I’ve encountered. The oversized book is packed with detail on each page, with a little bear that the kids love to find in each drawing, Where’s Waldo style. With an accompanying story of Gallic charm and simplicity, you’ll be more than happy to read it for the third time in a row.

And so, the soup….

Lentil and Roasted Tomato Soup with Saffron

NB The original recipe has you roast your own tomatoes, along with a harissa paste. At this time of year the canned tomatoes are much better in flavor so this is how I present the recipe below, but know that if you have good tomatoes on hand where you are, you could roast them: rub 10 halved plum tomatoes with a couple of teaspoons of harissa mixed with a quarter cup of oil and cook for 45 mins at 375F.

1 tbsp. peanut or veg oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground turmeric (or 2 tsp fresh grated turmeric)
a pinch of saffron stamens
3/4 inch ginger, chopped
1 green chile (eg serrano), finely chopped
1 cup split red lentils
2 x 400g tins roasted tomatoes (I use Muir Glen’s fire roasted tomatoes)
3 3/4 cups vegetable stock (about 1 litre)
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
plain yoghurt (optional)
toasted slivered almonds

Heat the oil in a large pan and saute the onion until soft and golden brown, 5-10 minutes. Add the garlic, all the of spices, ginger and chile and cook for a couple minutes more, stirring frequently. Add the lentils, stir to coat in the cooking juices, then add the tomatoes with their juices, and the stock. Season well. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook for 15-20 minutes, or until the lentils have collapsed into a puree. The tomatoes should have disintegrated too. You can either puree the soup at this point, or keep it chunky (I did the latter). Check the seasoning and stir in most of the cilantro. Serve each bowlful with a spoonful of yoghurt if you like, a few toasted almonds, and some of the remaining cilantro.

Choc Chip Pumpkin Bread

November 12, 2014 § Leave a comment


Books have been my world for as long as I remember. I surrounded myself with characters, places into which I could escape, and the very words themselves, their inky type set on yellowing paper. I’d stay up late, devouring stories by lamp-light; make myself motion-sick in the car because I couldn’t stop turning the page. Those worlds, those words, always more satisfying than my own.

Later I’d churn out page upon page of script analyzing the psychological motivations of Author A and the social constraints of Author B. I always wrote my essays by hand and I still prefer pen to laptop when I’m serious about a piece of writing. Blue pen, narrow-ruled page, loopy script. By analyzing the books, I ingested even more of them, worked them through me and back out to the page, until they were as much a part of me as my own best friends and lovers.

Later still, books became my living. I narrowed the distance from authors and got stuck into the more prosaic but revelatory realities of planning and publishing books. Individual words became less important in my role than big ideas and chapter breakdowns. I got a privileged glimpse into the real lives of authors: the realities of deadlines and word counts and promotion. I enjoyed the form of books, the nuances of cover design, bibliographic arrangement.

At the end of this year, I’m changing my work hours to give me more time to spend reading and writing. I’ll still be commissioning, and I’m still intrigued and inspired by the industry, but I’m also looking forward to more space for immersing myself in individual words again and to spending new time beneath words too. I intend to read and write voraciously yet aimlessly. No goals, no essay deadlines or publishing windows to consider. Just words and worlds. And a bit of cake, too.

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread
Adapted from Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson’s Tartine

Autumn is for readers and writers. Cuddle up with a doorstopper of a novel, a steaming mug and a piece of this cake. The original recipe omits the chocolate chips. You can do the same, but be warned that you’ll be going against this blog’s advice.

225g (1-2/3 cups) all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
255g (1 cup + 2 tablespoons) pumpkin puree
200g (1 cup) vegetable oil such as safflower, sunflower or canola
270g (1-1/3 cups) sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1 cup (200g) chocolate chips (I used bittersweet, 62% cocoa solids)
2 tablespoons sugar

Preheat the oven to 160°C (325°F). Grease a 9×5 inch loaf pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Set aside.

In a large bowl, add the oil, 270g sugar, pumpkin puree, and salt. Whisk vigorously until combined, either with a stand mixer or by hand. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each one until completely incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the flour-spice mixture and fold with the spatula until just combined (be careful not to overmix). Finally, fold the chocolate chips into the mixture

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and smooth the surface. Sprinkly each evenly with 1 tablespoon sugar. Bake until a cake tester comes out with few crumbs clinging, about an hour. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then unmold and cool on a rack completely. The cake is best when fully cooled, or the following day. Wrap well in foil and store in a sealed container for 2-3 days.

Cocoa Buttermilk Birthday Cake

October 6, 2014 § 2 Comments


Back in the blissfully unaware days of pregnancy, when I thought ahead to being a mom, the things that got me excited weren’t smoochy cuddles with a chubby-cheeked newborn. I’ve never really been that into babies, and I was more worried about that stage of things than anything. The utter dependence, the sleepless nights, the long solitary days. The loss of independence, the overnight identity change. It’s all exactly as hard as it sounds by the way, however much you love your baby. I’m reading more and more these days where women are speaking honestly about this experience and I’m so glad to see the shadow side of early motherhood being aired. There’s such an enormous pressure to be smitten with your newborn and when you’re besieged by well-meaning relatives and strangers only wanting to hear how marvelous the whole thing is, it’s extremely easy to be racked with doubt when faced with these absolutely rational, understandable, fiercely dark emotions that nobody else seems to be experiencing, or at least talking about.

What did always excite me was the prospect of all the fun things that come along with a toddler. The excursions, the crafts, the funny little conversations. The other day I was lying on my bed trying to get an hour of rest, while my recalcitrant child was, for the second week running, not napping in his room. While we’re being honest about parenthood here, I will state openly that I was feeling mildly desperate right then – exhausted, in need of time to myself – when I tuned into a snippet of the running conversation coming from his room. “What are you doing down there spoons? I’m sleeping! I throw my teddies on the floor too! Mama! Get in here now! It’s morning!” And so on, and so forth. It’s pretty hard to stay grumpy for long with a child who talks to his spoons. Don’t get me wrong, I confront breaking point just about every day with the tantrums, demands, stubbornness of the early twos, but there’s something about the chatter and conversation that makes it so much easier than the first year.

And of course the thing that really excited me about motherhood was birthday cake baking. You’ll recall last year’s double creations – banana monkey cake for one party, intense chocolate layer cake for the other – as well as the coconut lime cake I posted recently from a friend’s daughter’s birthday. All great. But what I really wanted this year was a simple cake recipe that I felt could become the blueprint for all birthday cakes to follow. It had to be chocolate, and I had to be able to make and freeze the layers in advance to keep the morning of the party easy. It had to be moist, not saccharine sweet. It had to hold shape for frosting. It had to taste like it would be the cake that Henry would ask for every year until he’s too cool for his mom to bake his cake (sob). I found it.

From Dorie Greenspan’s masterpiece, Baking: From My Home to Yours (if I had to narrow down to one baking book, it would doubtless be this one), came this cocoa buttermilk cake. It’s a straightforward method, yielding a batter enriched with extra egg yolks and moistened with buttermilk. The slight tang from both the buttermilk and the cocoa cuts through the chocolate and the sugar once the cake is baked, leaving a flavor that is subtle enough for adults to enjoy, but nothing that even the testiest toddler would turn down.

Once you have the layers, the choice of decoration is yours. I used the buttercream frosting from Nigella’s How to Be A Domestic Goddess (the second baking book I would keep if at gun point) and it was perfect. If you’re running around setting up ball ponds and precariously hanging streamers from the ceiling, do you also want to have to whip egg whites into a meringue frosting? NO. The buttercream is so much more forgiving, and equally tasty in my view. You’ll need a palate knife to smooth it into the desired decoration. For the frog I used two of the additional cupcakes I baked with the extra batter I made (see notes on quantities below), placed them on top and covered in frosting: that easy. M&Ms are brilliant for all kinds of cake decorating purposes and I simply used those to make the eye pupils, smile and feet. You could make a number in them, pointillism style (see last year’s cake), or buy a cake topper and use that instead. I would just vote for keeping things simple and honest. We’ve got enough going on for anything else.

Cocoa Buttermilk Cake with Buttercream Frosting, aka “Green Frog Cake”, aka Best Birthday Cake

Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours and Nigella Lawson’s How to Be A Domestic Goddess

I made 1.5 quantity of the batter recipe below, to yield two regular 9 inch round layers, 24 mini muffins, and a thinner 9 inch round layer. I used two of the mini muffins for the eyes for the frog cake; the remainder were lightly frosted and set out for kids whose parents wanted them to have a smaller helping. The muffins were ready in about 15 minutes and the thin layer (which I made just to use up the remainder of the frosting) was ready in about the same time. You could of course load any remaining batter into the other two layers if not over-filled, or make more muffins/cupcakes. I lay this out just to suggest possibilities. If your design doesn’t need extra muffins or you don’t want extra cake (who doesn’t want extra cake?!) then don’t fiddle!

For the Cake:

2 cups (230g) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (60g) unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (8 ounces, 230g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups (300g) sugar
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup (250ml) buttermilk
4 ounces (110g) bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled

Getting Ready to Bake: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 9-x-2-inch round cake pans, dust the insides with flour, tap out the excess and line the bottoms with rounds of parchment or wax paper. Put the pans on a baking sheet.

To Make the Cake:

1. Whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

2. Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add the sugar and beat for about 2 minutes, until it is thoroughly blended into the butter. Add the eggs one at a time, then the yolks one by one, beating for 1 minute after each addition and scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed. Beat in the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk; add the dry ingredients in 3 portions and the buttermilk in 2 (begin and end with the dry ingredients); mix only until each new batch is blended into the batter. Scrape down the bowl and add the melted chocolate, folding it in with a rubber spatula. Divide the batter between the cake pans.

3. Bake for 26 to 30 minutes, or until the cakes feel springy to the touch and start to pull away from the sides of the pans. Transfer the cakes to racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unmold them and peel off the paper liners. Invert and cool to room temperature right side up. (Once the layers are cooled, they can be wrapped airtight and left at room temperature overnight or kept frozen for up to 2 months.)

For the Buttercream Frosting:

300g (2 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
700g icing sugar, sifted (confectioner’s sugar)
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp. milk or cream
food coloring, as needed

Beat the butter in a stand mixer until smooth and creamy – about 4 minutes. Gradually add the icing sugar until incorporated, then add the vanilla extract and milk, one tablespoon at a time (add more if needed for a smooth consistency). Last of all, add the food coloring if using. If you are using a piping bag, a stiffer icing will give you more textural detail at the edges. I like to use the icing while still pretty soft and pliable, then refrigerate the whole cake until an hour or two before it is to be eaten, at which point I remove it to come back to room temperature.

Coconut Lime Layer Cake

September 2, 2014 § Leave a comment


Hi there. It’s September and I last posted in May, which means an entire summer has passed. I hope you wore shorts, or a bikini, at least a few times, and licked ice-cream melting from a cone while your bare feet sprung through grass. I hope you guzzled your way through peaches and strawberries, and ate outside as much as possible. I hope you read a trashy novel. I hope you feel just about ready to go back to school.

I can never separate September from new beginnings. The clean, smooth first page of a new notebook, full of promise. Even here in season-averse San Francisco, I want to get out my boots and tights and wrap up warm, and feel crisp evenings getting darker. We turn inwards; we start again.

Two years ago, we had our own enormous new beginning with the birth of Henry. He won’t turn two till the end of this month (“green chocolate cake please mama!”) but his peers have been steadily celebrating their birthdays over the summer. I made this cake for one such celebration – a coconut and lime sponge slathered in feathery meringue frosting and topped with strawberries. It’s entirely appropriate for this time of transition between summer and autumn, one foot in the longer days of the past months, but paying homage to the slight nutty earthiness of what is to come. Most of all, it’s my offering of a new beginning here. I’ve been really caught up with the crazy juggle of day job, my growing yoga teaching gig, and the whirlwind of toddler life, but I realized these past weeks how much I miss this space, these words. I’m back to school.

Coconut and Lime Birthday Cake
Adapted from Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet

For once I don’t have the ounce/cup measurements in the recipe below. I’m sorry. I highly recommend a small digital scale that shows grams and ounces as a kitchen staple item.

150ml tinned coconut milk
50g desiccated coconut/unsweetened coconut flakes
½ vanilla pod, scraped, or 2 tsp vanilla extract
50ml white rum, plus extra to drizzle on the cake (*see note below)
250g unsalted butter, softened
300g caster sugar
3 large eggs
275g plain flour
2½ level tsp baking powder
6 tsp freshly squeezed lime juice

*If you’re worried about the alcohol for any reason you could just substitute regular milk or extra coconut milk, and replace the drizzle with lime simple syrup.

Butter the sides and line the bases of three 20cm/8in round Victoria sponge tins with discs of non-stick baking parchment. Heat the oven to 180C/350F.

Heat the coconut milk till boiling, then remove from the heat and stir in the coconut flakes, vanilla pod (or extract) and rum (or additional milk). Leave to soak for 30 minutes so the dry coconut softens.

Place the sugar and butter in a bowl and beat until light and fluffy, then beat in the eggs, one at a time, until evenly combined. Sift the flour with the baking powder two or three times, then fold alternately with the coconut mixture (remove the vanilla pod here if you used one) into the butter mixture until smooth.

Divide between the tins, smooth the tops and bake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tins, then remove carefully. Sprinkle on each layer 2 tsp lime juice and 1 tbsp rum.

Layer and top with buttercream (see recipe below).

Meringue Buttercream Icing

3-4 egg whites depending on egg size (about 125g by weight – it’s probably 3 large eggs and 4 medium so worth weighing to check)
225g caster/granulated sugar
325g unsalted butter, slightly softened
2 tsp vanilla extract

Place the egg whites and sugar in a saucepan and stir over a moderate heat until the mixture is hot and the sugar dissolved. The sugar and heat kill off any bacteria and effectively sterilize the mixture. Then scrape it into a mixing bowl and beat with an electric whisk for about 5 minutes until very thick, holding its shape, and cooled.

Beat the butter into the meringue, about 50g at a time. Stop whisking as soon as all of the butter is evenly mixed through. If it starts to look coarse and rough (mine did), then warm it very slightly in the microwave and beat again until creamy. Finally beat in the vanilla extract and smooth/pipe over the cake.

Strawberry decoration optional (0r other seasonal fruit).

Quiche Lorraine

May 6, 2014 § 2 Comments


The first time I made pastry was for mince pies. It was the first Christmas we were spending with Ollie’s family and I wanted to do a good job. And that was how I learned that anal tendencies and really flaky pastry kind of go together. You know how chefs come in two camps? There’s the pinch-of-this relaxed Mediterranean kind, and the uber-precise wiry kind. Well, the second group is the one knocking out superlative pastry.

Back then, the steps I followed to ensure good pastry included: keeping the butter in the freezer for an hour or so before starting, using a metal bowl and putting it intermittently back into the fridge to ensure the mix was staying as cold as possible, using two knives to cut the butter into the pastry and never, ever touching it by hand until the very last minute when the dough has to be brought together manually. I added the ice-cold water drop by drop, just to the point at which the dough would barely hold together and no more. Yep, I did say anal. And that pastry was both a complete bugger to work with and beautifully light and flaky. Nowadays I’m less uptight with my pies and tarts but those principles have stayed with me. I still keep my ingredients cold and work fast. I use a pastry cutter – one of the few unitaskers I think is genuinely necessary in the kitchen – to keep my warm hands out of the dough as much as possible. I’m happy to work with a slightly wetter dough these days as it means that rolling out the dough is actually possible and that I will, therefore, make pastry. And that means pecan pie, lemon tart, beef stewed in ale and topped with a pastry lid, and the ultimate pastry vehicle: quiche.

My quiche-making has recently been hampered by the fact that both Tartine and Craftsman and Wolves make fabulous examples of the genre, and both are within a 5 minute walk of our apartment. I know, poor me. I made quiche this week with a family dinner in mind. Let’s just say that standing in front of the oven at 6.30pm, cussing at the extra minutes the thing was taking to bake, was not my finest moment. Don’t make my mistake. Make your quiche in advance, with the leisure of time. It’s ideal about an hour out of the oven, still warm but far from hot, but it’s also great cold from the fridge or at room temperature, or wrapped up in foil for a one handed lunch at a desk or on a hike (preferably the latter). Please don’t get het up about how butter- and cream-laden the whole thing is. It’s rich and unctuous so you have a moderate slice with a pile of salad on the side and a small glass of wine if you so please.

Quiche Lorraine
Adapted from Jamie Magazine

For the pastry:
500g all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
130g unsalted butter
2 egg yolks
iced water

For the filling:
1 tbsp butter
140g bacon, diced
140g ham, diced
140g gruyère cheese, grated
250ml crème fraîche
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 egg yolks
250ml milk
A pinch of ground nutmeg

You want to start making the pastry well in advance of assembling the quiche – about 2 hours before you want to bake it.
Place the flour and salt in a food processor and pulse to combine. Cut the butter into cubes and add to the food processor. Pulse to chop the butter into the flour but don’t overcombine – you want to keep pea-sized chunks of butter in the dough if possible.
Add the two egg yolks to the processor and again pulse to blend them into the dough. You will now add ice-cold water gradually, just until the dough begins to come together. Begin with about 4 tablespoons, pulse. Add a little more water and pulse again if necessary, until the dough begins to hold together in large clumps.
Remove to a large bowl or lightly floured surface and bring the dough together into a bowl – you may need to sprinkle a touch more water into the dough at this point. Wrap the dough well in plastic wrap and leave in the fridge for at least an hour.

Remove the dough from the fridge and roll out on a lightly floured surface to about 5mm thick. Lay the pastry over a round 32cm/12inch deep tart tin and carefully press into the base and sides. Trim any excess with a sharp knife, line the case with 4 layers of clingfilm or with a layer of parchment paper, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. To blind bake the pastry, fill with pastry weights (or dried rice or beans) and bake for 15 minutes. Lift out the weights using the clingfilm or parchment and bake the pastry for 5 more minutes, or until the base is dry. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large pan over a medium heat and cook the bacon until softened. Drain on kitchen paper and allow to cool, then combine in a bowl with the ham and gruyère cheese and spread evenly over the cooled pastry case.
Preheat the oven to 190C/375F. Whisk the crème fraîche, eggs, egg yolks, milk and nutmeg together in a bowl and season generously. Carefully pour the mixture into the pastry case.

Bake the quiche in the oven for 40–45 minutes or until the filling has set and the top is beginning to turn golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the tin before serving.

Pistachio Rose Cake

April 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

The Kitchen Diaries features a picture of this cake that often drifts into my daydreams. The cake is on a simple plinth, set on a rustic table, surrounded by verdant shrubbery and the weak late afternoon light of springtime London. Elegant glasses of mint tea accompany. It’s a captivating scene, one that makes me believe that it would be possible to live in a London where the sun shines on a secluded garden, and to sip mint tea in the afternoon while reading short stories and wearing white. In other words, it makes you believe the unbelievable.

The cake, though, is real. I made it for Easter Sunday, having already rocked the Simnel cake too recently to repeat. What I wanted, apart from timeless elegance, was a not-too-sweet cake. Something that would stand its own in the inevitable context of too much food and way too much chocolate. I couldn’t have been happier with how it worked out. It’s a cake heavy with pistachios and almonds, fragrant with orange and rosewater, and just sweet enough with its thin layer of lemon icing. To make it yet more celebration-worthy, I added candied rose petals along with a scattering of leftover shelled pistachios to decorate. Raised on a plinth, and through the haze of a boozy lunch with good friends, it fed our own version of an idyllic scene.

Pistachio Rose Cake
Adapted from Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries

250g butter
250g sugar
3 eggs
100g shelled pistachio nuts
100g ground almonds/almond flour
1 orange, zest and juice
1 tsp rosewater (honestly, you could leave this out if you don’t have it and don’t want to invest in a jar although it is a poetic addition)
60g plain (all purpose) flour
candied rose petals and shelled pistachio nuts to decorate (optional)

For the icing:
100g icing/confectioner’s sugar
2 tbsp. lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 325F/160C. Grease a 22cm/9inch round cake tin and line the bottom and sides with parchment paper.

Cream together the butter and sugar using a stand mixer, electric whisk or wooden spoon, until light and creamy. Add the eggs one by one, beating well after each addition and scraping down the side of the bowl. Add the almonds and pistachios, taking care not to overmix. Beat in the orange juice and zest and the rosewater, again mixing only to combine. Fold in the flour using a metal spoon or silicon spatula.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for around 50 minutes to an hour (my cake took the full hour to bake). Cover the top of the cake with foil after 45 minutes. The cake is ready when a metal skewer inserted into the centre come out mostly clean, with no big clumps of cake clinging to it.

Leave the cake to cool in the pan before unmolding. When the cake is completely cool, it is ready for decorating. Mix together the icing sugar and lemon juice to make a paste. Spread evenly over the cake and then top with candied rose petals and shelled whole pistachios, if using.

The cake should keep, well wrapped, for 3 days.

Simnel Cake

April 17, 2014 § 4 Comments

I am a big marzipan fan. Big. If marzipan was an early 1990s boy band, my walls would be plastered in its posters and I’d be in the front row of all its concerts. But it doesn’t seem to feature in my life very much these days (much like 90s bands and their paraphernalia, thank goodness) – barring an occasional box of marzipan fruits or similar at Christmas. So when my friends requested Simnel Cake for their joint birthday party last weekend, I was more than happy to oblige.

You may be forgiven for never having heard of Simnel Cake, especially if you’re located outside of the UK. To bring you up to speed: it’s a light fruit cake, sandwiched with a layer of marzipan, and then covered in a second layer of the stuff. If you’re being traditional, you include 11 little balls of marzipan on the top too, representing the 12 apostles minus naughty Judas. The cake is commonly associated with Easter and all its sweet treats, but it actually originates from Mothering Sunday, when young girls who had left home to work, often in kitchens or as maids (think Downton…), had the chance to go home to visit family, and took this kind of cake back with them as a treat. So not only is this is a delicious, moist cake, you can pretend you’re in Edwardian England when you’re enjoying it with a cup of tea – from the finest china of course – alongside.

I used a Nigella recipe for my first attempt at this cake, and I can say that I don’t feel any need to try other version, ever. It’s perfectly moist and fragrant, very easy to assemble, and keeps extremely well for a good few days. Make it for this coming weekend as a contrast to all that chocolate, or if you’re in the US, turn history and tradition on its head and make it for Mother’s Day next month while you enjoy a Downton marathon with your mom.

Simnel Cake
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Feast

A note: Nigella’s recipe calls for 1kg marzipan. 1kg! See above all my comments about how much I love marzipan, and less than half of this amount was plenty for my tastes. Your call.

100g glace/candied cherries (NB I used brandied maraschino cherries)
500g mixed dried fruit (my ratio was about 1/2 raisins, 1/4 currants and 1/4 dried cherries)
175g soft unsalted butter
175g sugar
zest of 1 lemon
225g all purpose/plain flour
1tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
25g ground almonds
3 large eggs
2 tbsp. milk

2 tubes/approx. 400g marzipan
confectioners’/icing sugar for rolling
1 tbsp. apricot jam

1. Bring the butter and eggs to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 170°C/325°F. Butter and line the bottom and sides of a 20cm / 8 inch springform cake tin with a double layer of brown baking paper. Finely chop the cherries and set them aside mixed with the rest of the fruit.
2. Using a stand mixer or wooden spoon, cream the butter and sugar until very soft and light, and add the lemon zest. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger and ground almonds.
3. Add 1 of the eggs to the creamed butter and sugar with 2 tablespoons of the dry flour-and-spice ingredients, then beat in the remaining eggs in the same way. Beat in the rest of the dry ingredients until just combined, and then the milk – try not to overbeat at this point. Finally fold in the fruit.
4. Dust a surface with a little icing sugar and roll out about 200g of the marzipan. Cut it into a 20cm / 8 inch circle which will fit in the middle of the cake later – keep the trimmings from the circle to one side to use for the little marzipan balls later. Spoon half of the fruit cake mixture into the cake tin, smoothing it down with a rubber spatula, and then lay the marzipan circle on top of it. Spoon the rest of the mixture into the tin on top of the marzipan circle and smooth the top again. Bake for half an hour and then turn the oven down to 150°C/300°F for another 1½ hours or until the cake has risen and is firm on top. Let the cake cool completely on a rack before you spring it open.
5. Unspring the cooled fruit cake, and unwrap the lining from the cake. Roll out another 200g circle of marzipan (again reserving the excess edges), paint the top of the cake with the apricot jam, melted if need be, and then stick it on.
6. Make 11 apostle balls out of the remaining marzipan. Mine stuck onto the cake with no assistance, but if you need you can use beaten egg white to help the balls adhere.

Double Chocolate Cookies

March 4, 2014 § 2 Comments

For the past 6 and a half years, I’ve worked from home. (I was about to exclude my year of maternity leave but if a year of maternity leave isn’t working from home, then I don’t know what is). Working from home is, of course, brilliant in many ways. Yoga pants all day long. Laundry put on between emails, when in an office you’d use that lull to stand by someone’s desk and distract them. Cooking your own lunch. All of that flexibility, and ability to set your own schedule, and get things done at your own pace. And then after a while you realize that changing into yoga pants from pajama bottoms is a good day, and the pressure to have to set your own schedule and get laundry and dishes done as well as working is maybe driving you just a little bit mad. And that maybe you’d like to have to leave the house and put on makeup and be forced to ignore the dirty dishes.

Last week Henry and I started using a co-working office with a daycare on site. I’m not sure I could have dreamed up a better solution for us. He gets to play with friends, and eat crayons, and chase bubbles all day long. I get to sit in a room with like-minded people, all of whom also don’t want to work from home I assume. I get to get stuff done, while also bumping into adult humans from time to time. The best thing for me – and for you in the longer run – these people like and eat cake. I made cookies yesterday, left them in the kitchen at lunch and I swear they lasted 3 minutes.

To be fair, they were pretty good cookies. I’m not even really sure if cookie is the right word for them: their super soft texture makes them closer to a soufflé bite than a traditional cookie and definitely far from a British biscuit (no dunking here please). No crunch, but a lot of chocolate goodness. I took the recipe from the first volume of the three Tartine cookbooks now available. Although we live a 2 minute walk from this splendid bakery, they are some of my favourite books to browse and, in the case of the first volume, cook from. (At some point I’d like to cook from the two bread books too, but so far my naturally-yeasted starters have ended up resembling science experiments which is a do-not-pass-go for their bread recipes.) Like most things Tartine put out, these chocolate morsels manage to be both rustic and decadent, and deeply rich from a wonderfully large quantity of melted chocolate stirred into the batter along with cocoa powder. A little bit of sea salt finishes them off. I restrained myself and made a half batch but I give here the full recipe. This isn’t the place to hold back, especially if you’re making new friends.

Double Chocolate Cookies
Adapted from Tartine, by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson

Yields: around 36 cookies

8oz/225g bittersweet chocolate (more than 60% cocoa solids – you want to use your best chocolate here as it’s so prominent)
1 cup plus 1 tbsp./155g all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp./50g cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup/115g unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup plus 2 tbsp./225g sugar
2 large eggs, ideally at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt (I used sea salt but I like my chocolate goods on the salty side)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup/75ml whole milk

Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

Melt the chocolate in a bowl (stainless steel or glass work best) over a pan of simmering water, ensuring that the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Once melted set aside to cool slightly.

Sift together the flour, cocoa power and baking powder in a bowl and set aside.

In a mixer with the paddle attachment, or with an electric whisk or wooden spoon, beat the butter on medium speed until light and creamy. Slowly add the sugar and continue to beat until fully incorporated and soft, scraping down the sides of the bowl after the first minute or so. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add in the salt and vanilla extract and beat briefly. Pour in the melted chocolate and beat on low speed until the chocolate is just incorporated. Add the milk and beat again until just combined. At this point add the flour mixture and beat on the lowest speed until the flour mixture is just integrated. At this point switch to your spatula and fold through the mixture a couple of times to make sure any flour at the bottom of the bowl is incorporated.

Drop the dough in “heaping tablespoons” onto the prepared baking sheet, spacing them about an inch apart. You want to bake them until they are just set, which should be around 8-9 minutes depending on your oven (check after 7 minutes if your oven runs especially hot). They will continue to bake a little as they cool on the sheet, but be sure that the tops look just set and matt – my first batch were under-cooked after I was worried about over-baking, so you’re trying to find a happy middle ground here. Leave to cool a little on the baking sheet then transfer to a wire rack to continue cooling completely.

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

February 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

I started writing this post poolside at Palm Springs, sneaking in a quiet 5 minutes between energetic splashing, leisurely outdoor lunches, and a tiny bit of naptime yoga-time. I’m not sure I ever needed a vacation as much, and it delivered the goods. Even while time was slower and life easier, I knew I had a duty to record the pancakes we ate the day we set out on our holiday.

It was a particularly hectic morning, with clothes strewn around the house, and Henry unpacking just as quickly as we got things into the suitcase. Pre-holiday, it seemed completely reasonable to add a relatively complicated breakfast to the mix: that was the pace on which I was stuck. As with many great things, the pancakes were born of necessity and frugality: simply to clear out what was left in our fridge and fill us up good and ready for a day of travel. A half tub of ricotta was the main target, and it found its purpose finishing off the lightest pancake batter I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of late: Henry and I often have pancakes or waffles to start our day, since he adores perching on a ladder and being official taste tester of the first off the pan. Our favorites of late have been an earthy pear-buckwheat batter and a yoghurt-banana combo. But neither of them come close to the majesty of these lemon zest-flecked ricotta pancakes. This is one of those recipes that requires a painful number of bowls: I do not apologize. They are worth it.

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes
Adapted from Chow

5 tbsp. unsalted butter, plus more for coating the frying pan and serving
1 cup (250ml) whole milk
1 1/4 cups (145g) plain/all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
3 eggs, yolks and whites separated
2 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. packed finely grated lemon zest (from about 2 to 3 medium lemons)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese

Combine butter and milk in a small saucepan and stir over medium-low heat until the butter has just melted. Set aside to cool slightly.
Sift together the flour, baking powder and 1/2 tsp salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Place the egg yolks, 1 tbsp. sugar, lemon zest and vanilla in a large bowl and whisk to combine. Whisk in the milk/butter mixture very gradually to temper the eggs – you want to prevent the warm milk mixture from curdling the eggs. Add a couple of tablespoons to begin, and as you go you can begin to increase the speed at which you add the milk mixture as the two combine.
Add the flour mixture to this and stir with a rubber spatula until just combined. Be careful not to overmix. Set aside.
In a clean bowl, whisk the egg whites to soft peaks (the bowl and whisk need to be clean for the egg whites to whip properly). Halfway through whisking, add the remaining 1 tbsp. sugar and 1/2 tsp salt.
Using the rubber spatula, gently fold the egg whites into the reserved batter until just combined.
Gently fold the ricotta into the batter, again being careful not to overmix.
Heat a large non-stick frying pan, or seasoned case iron skilled over medium heat until hot. Lightly coat the pan’s surface with butter then use a 1/4 cup measure to scoop the batter into the pan (if you don’t have a 1/4 cup measure that’s fine – it just helps with sizing and consistency of the pancakes).
Cook until bubbles form on top of the pancakes, about 4-5 minutes. Flip and cook the other side until golden brown, about another 1-2 minutes. Repeat with the remaining batter. Serve immediately with fruit and syrup.

Baked Custard in the Afternoon

January 14, 2014 § 2 Comments

The baked custard came out of the oven with a perfect golden wobble, but still I was anxious. And this wasn’t the usual new recipe anxiety either. My audience: one 13.5 month old boy, who was about to get custard instead of boob for his mid afternoon snack. You will understand my trepidation.

So as not to keep you on the edges of your seats: he gobbled it down, tapping his fingertips together for “more” between each spoonful, mouth expectantly tipped up and open like a little bird. I imagine some of you are shrugging: no biggie. Little more than a year ago, I would have been thinking the same. But here I found myself, breath slightly held, proud of my little guy for his burgeoning independence, and slightly sad for it all the same.

I didn’t see myself as writing much about breastfeeding. But as I started weaning Henry I was infused with a renewed sense of how important this relationship had been. Endings so often bring clarity of that kind. Besides, nursing is about food, about comfort, about nurture, which means it belongs here just as much as any old cake recipe.

Breastfeeding is caught in a tricky cultural space. It’s alternately revered and politely ignored. It’s explained and validated in cool scientific terms, yet often remains a mystery even to those of us in the middle of it. It, sadly, comes with the kind of judgments and prejudices that so often inhabit any space touched by a woman’s body – thrown from all sides of the debate, from advocates and skeptics alike. So I chronicle these thoughts merely as a reminder that this is a deeply personal, yet entirely universal journey, and one which cannot be easily simplified into language of good and bad, shoulds and should nots. (While this is a personal reflection, not a manifesto, I can’t help but go on the record: I believe that all women should be generously supported in their desires to breastfeed, not least through proper maternity leave, which is nothing short of appalling in the US, and supported just as generously both emotionally and practically should they choose or be unable to feed their baby this way.)

There were points – at three days, three weeks, three months and more – when I thought I couldn’t do it, despite our relatively easy situation: good milk supply, textbook latch. The books, with their little pictures of cradle holds and nipple shields, can’t convey the immensity of emotion you will likely feel as your child lies and sleepily nurses, utterly dependent. You may vacillate between terror and existential validation: no minor feelings, heightened by the hormone spikes and dips of the early weeks, not to mention the lack of sleep. Some days felt as though every morsel of my being – every drop of energy and each bite of food – were going solely into those mammoth nursing sessions. Days revolved around the rhythms and demands of breastfeeding which in my case included no dairy, lots of oatmeal and fenugreek, underwear with fiddly release clips, tops with easy access, as I spurred my exhausted body into producing more triple cream goodness.

A man accosted me in the street one day, a half block from home, with a screaming 8ish week old Henry in the stroller, on our way home from grocery shopping. He yelled at me that the baby should be on my breast. I was furious, and full of guilt, and without the words in that heated moment to tell him that of course I knew my baby was hungry, that he had woken up two blocks sooner than I had hoped, that how was I supposed to get groceries, and some air, and stay at home nursing without a break? And how dare he tell me what to do with my baby, with my body? In the fact I just told him to fuck off, whisked Henry upstairs and nursed, my tears falling as his wailing abated. My body, and yet so much not my body any more.

There was that crazy awkward period, around 7 or 8 months, when Henry was so busy learning about himself and the world around that he could barely sit still for long enough to eat. His head would spin with curiosity, either yanking me with him which is exactly as much fun as you might imagine, or sending an arc of milk across the room. We stopped nursing in public quite as much at that point. But we got through it otherwise, both intact.

There’s something purely magical about breastfeeding too. In the earlier days, it’s the panacea for all ills, the way to turn a red-faced, confused and angry infant into a sleeping cherub almost instantly. There’s the wonder of seeing a whole being growing and gaining pudgy little rolls of fat from nothing but your milk. And even later on it was nursing that got us through nights of teeth bursting through gums, of 11 hour flights and 3am jet lag. It was the kind of magical power that almost felt addictive.

The move towards weaning came from both sides, gradually and naturally. Still, it was bittersweet. Right in the thick of that transition, I wrote this:
Of course I will miss those hours together. The little games we play – peekaboo with my t-shirt, Henry making this weird squawking noise with twinkling eyes until we both stop and lose ourselves in a belly laugh. The twilight morning feed nestled side by side that somehow takes us both from asleep to awake. But I’m proud that I’ve done my job and that my little guy is ready to go it a bit more alone. It’s part of this crazy journey of motherhood that I am but a gateway, a facilitator, a stable reference point. By relinquishing a role that I and only I can fulfil, I open up his world to sharing those moments with others, and to seeing more of his own powers and capacities. My boy is growing up and I’m ok with it.

I’m glad I took the time to record my feelings during that time: already it’s impossible to imagine Henry nursing. The weaning went very smoothly and on the other side we’re both very happy. We enjoy different games and plenty of cuddles these days, and I had a fun time underwear shopping. We eat baked custard and rice pudding, go out for steamed milk in the late afternoons, stir waffle and pancake batter together in the mornings. I highly recommend stopping whatever you’re doing and enjoying a baked custard one January afternoon. It’s classic nursery food with its silky smooth texture, but there’s an adult elegance to it as well, especially if you bake individual puds in ramekins and infuse whole vanilla beans into the custard. It’s all still about love.

Baked Custard
Adapted from the Leiths Cookery Bible

3 eggs
1 egg yolk
3 drops vanilla extract
55g/2ox sugar
425ml very creamy milk, or milk plus cream (or, in the US, half and half)
freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 150C/300F. Lightly beat the eggs and egg yolk, vanilla extract and sugar together with a wooden spoon – you’re looking to combine them without making them too frothy.

Heat the milk/cream in a small pan just to the point of simmering. Pour the milk very gradually onto the eggs, stirring all the time with a wooden spoon (not a whisk, to avoid creating bubbles). You have to add the milk extremely slowly to ensure that it doesn’t scramble the eggs.

Strain the mixture to remove any egg threads. You can either strain directly into an ovenproof dish if you plan to make one large custard, or into a bowl if you are going to make the custard in individual ramekins. For the latter, pour the strained custard into ramekins (I use 4 of about a 3 inch diameter). Grate nutmeg on top of either the individual or single custards.

Stand the custard dish or ramekins in a roasting pan and pour boiling water around the sides of the dishes until the water comes about 2/3rds of the way up the sides of the dish(es) (this is called a bain-marie). Bake for 40 minutes for a single custard and about 30 for the individual ones (begin checking around 25 mins). The custard is set when there is a definite skin on the top and the centre is no longer liquid (it will still wobble).

Serve hot, warm or chilled.