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February 15, 2011 § 2 Comments

Last week I lost my balance. It started literally: sliding on my backside down snow ice the texture of large grain sea salt, something resembling an elongated tea-tray strapped to my feet. It ended figuratively with some particularly unattractive pouting and sulking. I don’t especially like being bad at things, and the crosser and more frustrated I got with myself and my lack of overnight snowboarding prowess, the more my inner-hormonally-challenged-14-year-old self reared her spotty head. Add to the mix a couple of nights of insomnia in an unfamiliar bed, stir in a stressful work week, and sprinkle with a hectic visitor schedule, and it would be fair to say that my equilibrium was well and truly off kilter.

It’s all too easy in such situations to deprioritize cooking. It becomes another chore, yet another item to cross off a looming list. The take-out menu winks seductively from the drawer; the pizza joint on the corner wolf-whistles as you walk by. At the most peril are those times when you need to cook for you and you alone. Just as we turn to the language of food to show someone support, love or pleasure, the food choices we make when no-one else is watching tell their own stories. They reveal how you are talking to yourself and betray the time you think you deserve. If you reach the third consecutive day of lunch consisting of a bowl of cereal eaten one-handed in-between emails, you know it’s time to act.

And so, yesterday I put down tools, turned off the phone and put on my current favourite album. One bunch of iron-green dino kale, a substantial handful of the prehistoric leaves shredded away from the tough stems and into fork-manageable strips. A couple of meaty cloves of garlic, chopped roughly. A small handful of dried chiles de arbol, seeds mostly removed, crumbled into flakes. A pair of sunny pasture-raised eggs, ready at the side of the stove. Two slices of a favourite farmhouse levain, set in anticipation on a plate. A good slick of olive oil in a non-stick skillet, to which the garlic and chiles are added and briefly sauteed, followed by the kale. A generous pinch of sea salt and a minute more of sauteing. Eggs cracked straight into the pan, broken quickly with a spoon and tossed over and under the now bright leaves. A minute for them to firm up and the scramble tops the waiting bread. It’s simple and doesn’t really take that much time but it shows care and thought: it nourishes the body and the mind. Perhaps it’s because kale is to my 14-year-old-petulant self as garlic is to Dracula but I feel my balance return. Later that night I go to yoga, hold Warrior III and do not so much as wobble. I am back.

Garlic and Chile Kale Scramble

Serves One

a generous handful of kale leaves, tough stems removed and roughly shredded (or any other robust green such as chard or spinach)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
a tablespoon of red pepper flakes (from dried chiles if you have them in the cupboard, otherwise from a jar is fine)
a tablespoon of olive oil
2 eggs
sea salt
2 slices of bread or toast

If you want your bread to be toasted, begin by getting it ready, as everything else happens pretty quickly. Then, heat the oil over a medium to high flame in a saute pan. I prefer to use non-stick when I cook eggs. Add the garlic and the chile flakes and move quickly around the pan for around 30 seconds, taking care that neither burn. Add the kale along with a good pinch of salt and continue stirring frequently for another minute, until the kale turns bright green and begins to wilt and soften. Turn the heat down slightly to medium.

Working quickly, crack both eggs into the pan on top of the kale and immediately break up with a spoon. Give them a few seconds to start to firm up, then stir again to cover and coat the kale. The eggs should be cooked within about a minute: you want to ever so slightly undercook them as they will continue to cook from their own heat even when you take the pan from the stove. Tip over the waiting bread and eat immediately (at a table, away from the computer).


This Is Not a Birthday Cake

February 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

There is always a time and a place for cake. Always. It just has to be the right cake at the right time. The most gooey and sticky creation you can imagine slathered in cream with a candle stuck askew in the top for a special someone on their special day. A seed-packed handful of a muffin on the way to an early morning meeting. A pale and delicate waif of a loaf, perfumed with lemon zest and topped with the merest suggestion of icing, waiting on the table when guests get off a long-haul flight. When a cake slips perfectly into the cake-shaped moment of whatever is happening in that day it can be so perfect as to be both eminently present and unobtrusive at once. Might I gently suggest that this hazelnut and muscovado creation be served in a generous hunk at some quiet, transitional time on a fresh February weekend? An hour when rather than turning to the next thing on the to do list you find the space to curl up in an armchair and enjoy cake, just because you can. Not because you are entertaining and ideally not even because you are hungry. This cake, with all its earthy warmth, is one for you and yours with no guilt, no rush, no fuss. That is all.

Roasted Hazelnut and Muscovado Sugar Cake
Adapted from Nigel Slater’s Tender, Volume 2

Yields 1 22 inch cake

250g/2 sticks/8 ounces butter, unsalted, ideally at room temperature
125g/4.5 ounces golden caster sugar
125g/4.4 ounces light muscovado sugar
200g/7 ounces shelled hazelnuts
3 eggs
65g/2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) self raising flour*

*to make self raising flour from all purpose: for this recipe simply add 3/4 tsp baking powder and a pinch of salt to 2 ounces of all purpose flour.

Beat the butter together with the two sugars until light and fluffy. If you have forgotten to take your butter out from the fridge in advance, you can give it a very quick blast in the microwave (but be VERY careful as it will start to melt from the inside sooner than you might think), or cut it into chunks to help the beater soften the butter from cold. You want to end up with a batter that is pale and smooth – Nigel describes it as “latte-coloured”. It will take 5 minutes or so of beating in a stand mixer, and longer by hand.

While the sugar and butter are beating, preheat the oven to 160C/320F and line the base of a deep 22-23 cm cake tin with baking parchment. I very strongly recommend you use a springform tin as I found it very difficult to get my cake out of a loose-based cake tin without it crumbling apart as the cake is so oily and moist from the nuts. If you don’t have a springform tin, make several strips out of parchment paper to form a handle which you can place underneath the base lining to help you lift the cake from the tin when it comes to it.

Then you can roast your hazelnuts, by tipping them into a dry frying pan and toasting them over a medium heat until they start to brown lightly on all sides. Watch them carefully once they start toasting so they don’t burn. Place half of the nuts in a food processor and grind to a fine powder; then add the second half of the nuts and pulse to grind the remaining nuts until they have the knobbly texture of gravel.

Break the eggs into a small bowl and use a fork to beat them very lightly. Gradually add the egg mix in four or five stages to the creamed butter and sugar, ensuring that you beat well in between additions to combine. Tip in both the smooth and knobbly hazelnuts and mix gently until just combined. Finally, you can gently add the flour to the batter, mixing until there are no traces of white left but not beyond that point – you don’t want to overmix at this point. Scrape the batter into the prepared tin using a rubber spatula and smooth off the top as much as you can.

Bake for 44-50 minutes in total, covering the top of the cake loosely with foil for the last 10 minutes so it doesn’t over-brown. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for about 15 minutes in the tin before very, very carefully turning the cake out onto a rack to finish cooling. If the cake seems much too crumbly to come out easily from the tin (assuming you haven’t been able to use a springform tin), leave it in the tin to cool completely as this will help firm it up. Gently peel the paper away from the base of the cake and leave to cool completely. Serve with coffee!

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