Monday, January 28, 2013


Snappily translated for the UK market (no ‘z’s here), “The Original Caramelised Biscuit Spread” is available for Speculoos addicts in Hampshire.

Frankly, it’s a disaster. I had been clean for over a year and my husband had never succumbed. Now, just ten days after noticing the familiar red and white packaging on a floor-level shelf in our local supermarket, I am once more in its thrall and he’s a goner. Biscuity, spicy and generally winter-good, it’s completely irresistible once the jar is opened.

Here we have lightly toasted raisin and hazelnut bread, baked for the purpose. But really, just slap your Speculoos on anything and get it over with. Then you can work on not buying it the next time. (My tip for these situations is trolley scooting: push hard, lean over the handle and let your feet leave the ground. Trust me, the fear that you’ll capsize will wholly divert your attention from any products you pass. Don’t wear a cape though, else you’ll look silly.) 

Only ten days
Still, the bread is safe enough. Here’s my breadmaker list of ingredients. It goes on a 4-hour basic white programme. I added cinnammon, nutmeg and a pinch of cloves to the flour. 

Raisin & Hazelnut Bread
¾ tsp dried yeast
300g strong white flour
100g strong wholemeal flour
1 tsp sugar
15g butter
1½ tbsp milk powder
1 tsp salt
1 medium egg
310ml water
50g chopped hazelnuts
75g raisins

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sardines & Pickles

Tinned sardines always remind me of a poem from A Book of Milliganimals by Spike Milligan. 

A baby Sardine
Saw her first submarine:
She was scared and watched through a peephole.

‘Oh, come, come, come,’
Said the Sardine’s mum,
‘It’s only a tinful of people.’

Aged nine, this formed the basis of my appreciation of poetry for some years to follow. Plus I loved his illustrations. Spike was (and still is) an institution. The epitaph on his gravestone, written in Gaelic, famously reads “I told you I was ill...”.  And since we’re doing food, here’s a sandwich sketch from a 1982 TV show. If you don’t think it’s funny, I’m sorry, I can’t help you. 

Here’s what you need: 100ml cider or wine vinegar, 2 tspns sugar, grind of salt, a juniper berry, a few peppercorns, a dried chilli, a bay leaf, fresh dill, a banana shallot (├ęchalion), tinned sardines in oil, brown bread

Make the pickle 30 minutes or more before you prepare the sardines. Put the vinegar, sugar, salt and all the spices except the dill in a small pan, bring to the boil, then turn off the heat. Finely slice the shallot into rings, arrange in a dish and pour over the vinegar mix. Chop the dill, keeping some pretty shoots for garnish, and add to the pickle. Leave to cool.

Slice the bread quite thickly and toast on both sides. Use a fork to lift the sardines out of the oil and arrange on the toast. Mash them a bit so they stay on. Spoon over some pickled shallots and sprinkle with some of the vinegar. Season with salt and pepper and garnish with dill shoots if you’re feeling pretty.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Fancy Cheese?

We’re expecting snow and that means comfort food. Cheese on toast is comfort food royalty when it’s made right. In this case, a thick slice of toasted breadmaker granary reclining under a soft quilt of cheese and egg.

Simpler and quicker than Welsh Rarebit, this recipe doesn’t need a roux. Plus there’s a surprise: not just cheese but cheese and onion; not just any old food royalty, but the king and queen of flavour combinations. It doesn’t get more comforting than this.

Here’s what you need: a thick slice from a large granary loaf, some strong cheddar (say 30g), a medium egg, Dijon mustard (a teaspoon), single cream (about a tablespoon), a spring onion.

Heat the grill. Sorry but a toaster won’t do. Separate the egg. Grate the cheese finely and add it to the yolk. Add the mustard and a grind of black pepper. Mix well, then loosen it a tad with some cream. You need a soft mix but not a slop. Chop the spring onion finely. Set the bread under the grill to toast normally on one side and only lightly on the other. Meanwhile, whisk the egg white until stiff. Make sure your grill is adjusted to take the height of your toast and topping. (I forgot and there was a toast crash). 

Now work fast. Gently fold the white into the yolk mix. Sprinkle the spring onion over the lightly toasted side of the bread then pile on the cheese mix, spreading it right to the edges. Get the lot under the grill and keep watch until it's puffed up and browned on the top - a few minutes. Serve with more pepper, a dash of Worcestershire Sauce and a mug of tea.

Cook’s note: some of you might like to add a scrape of Marmite to the toast right before the spring onion. I can’t see why not. Everyone knows cheese and Marmite are also not-so-distant royal cousins.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Mushrooms & Cranberries

This combination popped into my head as I peered into the fridge looking for ideas. It seemed a bit dodgy until I checked Google and discovered a vast universe of cranberry and mushroom recipes. Here’s mine.

Fresh cranberries are technically out of season so unless you have some left over from December buy frozen. Don’t use the dried fellows. This cooks in a jiffy and needs the berry juice. Use meaty mushrooms with a deep flavour.

I found some portabellini mushrooms - a novelty buy in Waitrose. They are smaller and more manageable than their sibling portabellos. Not long ago in the supermarket, I overheard a man calling them ‘cow pats’ to his kids. When I raised an eyebrow, he explained the logic: you find them in fields and they look like, well, you know... Fair enough.

Today’s toast is brioche. A calculated risk, but the theory was its sweetness would counteract the sharpness of the cranberries.

Here’s what you need: meaty field mushrooms, about the same weight of fresh cranberries (ie fewer cranberries than mushrooms), a sliver of garlic, a leaf of sage, a splash of port, a pinch of sugar, a little single cream, butter for frying, slices of brioche for toasting.

Finely chop the garlic and sage. Roughly chop the mushrooms. Heat the butter until foaming and add the garlic and sage, and then the mushrooms. As the mushrooms absorb the butter and the pan dries, add a splash of port and the cranberries. Let it bubble and reduce until all the cranberries have burst. Put your toast on.* Taste before adding a pinch of sugar to balance the acid cranberries. Add the cream to create a generous coating of sauce. Warm through, season and pile onto toasted brioche. Finish with chopped parsley.

*Don’t forget to turn your toaster down! Delicate brioche catches easily because of the sugar. I know because I burnt the first two slices. Doh.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Orange & Almond French Toast

The first I knew of French toast was when my American room-mate offered to make it for me. Her name was also Tracey. Somebody at the accommodation office was on top form that day.

Tracey was studying history of art and spending a semester in London. Older than me by at least three years, she borrowed my clothes without asking and I affected not to mind. In exchange, she used to cook me this dish and the toast addict in me was made up. Tracey’s version used bread dipped in egg whisked with freshly squeezed orange juice and fried in butter. Simple, quick and delicious.

Today, of course, I’m a French toast veteran. Mostly I’ve eaten it as a thick, white puff of eggy bread decorated with sliced strawberries, a rosette of aerated cream and a sprinkle of powdered sugar. Here’s my version flavoured with orange and almond and topped with a dollop of cinnamon ice cream.

Cut two very thin slices of soft, white bread. Take your homemade cinnamon ice cream out of the freezer to soften. <Chortle> Roll out a piece of marzipan to fit and no thicker than a coin. Zest half an orange. Make a sandwich with the zest and marzipan then lightly press together. Juice the orange half and whisk together with a medium egg. Add cinnamon to taste and a little grated nutmeg. Dip the sandwich in the egg, turning it over every so often until the egg is absorbed. Heat a knob of butter in a frying pan. Carefully fry the sandwich on both sides in the hot, foamy butter. Think “pancake” for heat and colour. Serve hot with ice cream, a dusting of icing sugar and a tiny bit more cinnamon.

Thinking about it, a few flaked, toasted almonds on top wouldn’t go amiss.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Turkey Dripping

By all accounts, today is Twelfth Night which means the Christmas tree must come down if we’re not to have bad luck in 2013. This is my recently revised opinion after a quick foray round Wikipedia and other (not always but mostly) reliable sources. Tomorrow is Epiphany or the Feast of Kings. Traditions and meanings are complicated and variable so I leave you the links to read for yourself if it piques your interest. Suffice to say I shall nominate myself as Lord of Misrule and king for a day by making sure I get the slice of cake with the bean in.

Back to turkey dripping. It’s a once a year affair as long as I remember to pour off some of the fat and juices from the turkey roasting pan on Christmas day before making the gravy. The dripping has been sitting in a sealed pot in the fridge ever since. Spread it thinly on white toast and sprinkle with salt. This toastie, roastie sandwich instantly recalls the smell and flavour of that Christmas bird. I sense a collective wrinkling of noses but dripping used be perfectly legit as a savoury spread. Nowadays I’m sure it’s considered horribly unhealthy. Luckily, I survived to tell the tale.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Banana Heaven

The Christmas leftovers are nearly done but there's still a little treasure to be had. Softening bananas in the fruit bowl and the end of a walnut loaf lurking in the bread bin were a case in point. Here was a perfect breakfast in the making. The nutty bread is revived with a light toasting. Overripe bananas can taste of pear drops but a layer of cream cheese rounds out the flavour. I top the lot with honey to sweeten the cheese and grate nutmeg over to finish.  No butter required; that would be too rich.

Don't forget to turn down your toaster. Mine was too fierce so these small slices of bread caught round the edges. Mind you, burnt toast is not always a bad thing. But that's a topic for another day.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Marmite, white toast and tea
Nobody sits on the fence when it comes to Marmite. I am a Marmite lover. Many of my friends are haters; their loss. Invented by a German, named after a French stewpot and owned by Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever, we Brits like to view Marmite as quintessentially English. (It’s not: there are plenty of other brands on sale around the world.) It seems to be a taste you acquire as a toddler. Presumably my mum was a Marmite lover too who didn’t think feeding me Marmite soldiers* qualified as neglect. Comforting, restorative and non-fattening, Marmite on toast fights the chill after a winter walk. It’s also peculiarly effective for hangovers. Perhaps something to do with all the B vitamins it contains.

Here are some tips for Marmite newbies. I doubt haters can be turned around but if you’re inclined to try again, here’s what you should know.

Chart: Correct Marmite Proportions For ToastBread
You’re looking for a crispy outside hiding a fluffy inside. A plump, white bloomer will do it although I wouldn’t ever pass up thick-sliced Mother’s Pride. As a kid, I liked unfolding its crinkly, wax paper wrapper. Nowadays sliced bread flaps around in a plastic bag. It can’t be healthy.

Marmite is salty, so unsalted butter is the thing here. Apply it to a tolerable thickness while the toast is still hot. 

The classic mistake made by Marmite novices and, I suspect, some haters is to spread it too thick. Gah! Now your tongue is welded to the top of your mouth. No. You need an ultra-thin layer. Learn to scrape it on.

The marriage of Marmite and coffee will always be an unhappy one. Only tea will do. 

Lover or hater? Time to get off the fence.

*Marmite soldiers: fingers of Marmite on toast narrow enough to dip in a soft-boiled egg.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What about toast?

I'm always saying I could live on toast. You can't beat a slice of hot, buttered bloomer, especially with a cuppa, to put the colour back in your cheeks any time of day. But to really and truly live on toast would mean neglecting my other eating duties: christmas cake, leftover beef stew with dumplings and a planned visit to the local Michelin-starred restaurant to name just a few.

Nah! Instead, here's the deal I made with my best Belgian friend, Claudia. Toast: I'll jot down factoids, ideas and other Important Toasty Bumpf for her to read. Online? Yes, okay.

Tomorrow, we'll start with Marmite. Love it or hate it.