Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas Eve - At Home

It's Christmas Eve and we are at home, family all here. With all the wonderful snowy (and treacherous for travelling) weather over the past few days, I just feel grateful that we are all together, safe and happy with a lovely Christmas at home to look forward to. This evening we will go to the carol service in the village church. It is so beautiful and joyful, all by candlelight. And it's a time to think about friends and family who are not close by. The recipe and story that follows is about one such dear and distant friend.
Wishing you all a blessed and happy Christmas!

Growing up, my family travelled and lived around the world because of my dad’s diplomatic career. In my early teens, we moved to Dallas, Texas and spent the next few fun, fabulous years there. I loved Texas - the generous and extravagant spirit, the old fashioned manners (some of my school friends called their parents Ma’am and Sir - and not even ironically!) and a great sense of occasion. Texans really know how to party! They also know how to put on a really festive Christmas, with decorations and groaning tables of delicious treats.

I have a lot of wonderful memories from those days and this, one of my best and most profound Christmas memories, is among them. Every year, the mother of my dear friend would carefully roast huge batches of glorious Texas pecan nuts with butter and salt, and pack them into gift jars to share with family and friends over the holiday season. These pecans were the most delicious present, rich and aromatic, and utterly addictive.

This year, my friend became a mother herself, giving birth to her beautiful baby daughter. And now, she prepares the pecans as gifts to share at Christmas.

I love to make them too, and doing so always takes me back to Texas for a moment.

For those pecans roast them on 140 degrees centigrade in the oven until they start to brown and go aromatic 45-60 minutes.  Pull them out and toss with unsalted butter to coat and put back in the oven for 10 minutes or so.  Pull out, toss with salt to taste and you're ready to go!

Snow Houses

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Getting ready for Christmas

Christmas is truly upon us here in our part of England, complete with frosty weather. We even had some snow flurries today! I really love Christmas -twinkly lights, all the social and community activities, the music and of course, Christmas food!
We do a lot of baking in our house and no one escapes getting involved at this time of year. D is King of the Christmas Cake and it his his special project every year - especially the part of 'feeding' the cake with rum or brandy in the weeks leading up.
Our little boy loves being in the kitchen and he gets busy rolling and cutting out festive cookies.
This week we made some little buttery galettes sprinkled with gorgeous amber grains of sugar from Barbados. L was born in Barbados and likes to bring bits of that lovely island to our life here in England. I was delighted to find a box of Barbados sugar in our local supermarket. (See Plantation Reserve.) We sometimes like to dust with spice or infuse the sugar with vanilla. A recipe for the galettes follows below.

Boy Baking

Xmas Cake, Holly & Sherry

Christmas Galettes

225g plain flour
175g butter, chilled and diced
130g caster (finely granulated) sugar
1 egg yolk
Barbados golden sugar or demerera sugar to sprinkle
Dusting of cinnamon or mixed spice (optional)

Put the flour and butter into a food processor and whiz to a texture of breadcrumbs. Add the sugar and egg yolk and process until it forms a ball.
Turn the mix out onto a floured board and knead for a minute or and then wrap and allow the dough to rest in the fridge for at least half an hour.

Roll the dough out thinly (about depth of a pound coin) and cut out with a crinkly edged round cutter. You can make other shapes if you like, however these biscuits are quite delicate and break a bit easily for some shapes. Dust with spice if using, and sprinkle with the demerera sugar. (Or the wonderful Bajan sugar if you can find it.)

Bake the galettes on parchment in oven (preheated to 180 degrees centigrade) for about 10 minutes or until golden. Allow to cool on a wire rack.

These biscuits go very nicely with a small glass of something festive!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Autumn Picnics

We think of picnics as belonging to the warmer months of summer, but it can be just as wonderful to bring our food outside in the the autumn. Surrounded by the rich colours of the changing leaves and the fresh cool air, something delicious to eat is just the thing. I made these little chicken pies as my portable feast, along with some local apples which are in such abundance here in the countryside. I've given the recipe for the pies at the end of this post.

Little Chicken Pies

These little pies are very quickly and simply folded into a pasty shape and crimped at the top to seal. They make a wonderful portable snack and really hit the spot on a chilly day. You can vary the vegetables according to what you have available. Here I am using leeks and carrots, but peas or mushrooms are great too. Or chestnuts...
Sometimes I use potatoes and peas and a spoonful of curry powder - so as you can tell, there’s plenty of room for improvisation!
Makes 4 individual pies (or 6 slightly smaller ones)
Easy shortcrust pastry

Sift 400g of plain flour into a food processor. Cut 200g of butter roughly into cubes and add  to the flour along with a pinch of salt. Whiz this mix until it breaks into breadcrumb size bits, then with the machine running, gradually drop 4-6 tablespoons of cold water into the bowl through the top. When the mix forms together as a ball, immediately stop the machine. Knead the pastry very lightly on a board to bring it all together and then wrap and let it rest for half and hour. Roll it out to about 2mm thickness and cut out circles using an upside down plate as a guide. This will yeild 4 circles of about 20cm or 6 of 15cm.


1 T olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced
1 small leek, washed well and finely sliced
2 carrots, diced into small cubes
250g chicken fillet, diced
1 scant tablespoon flour
125ml chicken stock (or water and organic stock cube)
2-3 T double cream
pinch of salt and sprinkle of black pepper

1 beaten egg for glazing

Warm the oil in a large frying pan and add the onions, gently frying to soften. Add the leeks and continue to cook until these soften and colour a little (but careful not to brown too much) and add the carrots. Push the vegies to one side of the frying pan and then put the chicken into the empty side and sautee for a moment or two, then cook together with the vegies for a couple of minutes. Sprinkle over the flour and stir it in, then add the stock and cream, salt and pepper, and allow this to thicken for a minute or so. Then take the pan off the heat and allow the filling to cool.

Spoon the filling on to half of each of the pastry circles, leaving a 2cm border. Brush the border with water and fold the pastry over the filling to form a semi circle. Press around the edge to seal. Turn the pie, pasty style, so that the seal goes over the top and crimp it to give a nice finsih. My pies always look very homemade!
Brush the pies with beaten egg and prick each lightly with a fork.
Bake on a parchment lined baking sheet in preheated oven, 200c for 25-30 minutes and until pastry is nicely golden.

Enjoying Supper for a Song


I was delighted to receive, quite recently, a copy of this gorgeous new book by Tamasin Day-Lewis and have been enjoying it tremendously. The philosophy behind this book is about getting back to a purer appreciation for our food; being mindful of savouring it without waste. The message strikes the right note at a time when we are much more conscious of economic hard times and the worrying consequences of excess and waste on our environment. But this isn't a gloomy or preachy book in any way, it is a celebration of what we have, how to make the most of it, and share our bounty with our friends and families - what could be better?
Tamasin's first chapter is about making our dishes, and our time spent cooking go a bit further. It's a concept I am very familiar with - my granny has always known how to "make it stretch" and that has served us all well!!
The next section of the book is called The Saturday Bake, and I absolutely loved this part. Tamasin's account of busy, happy afternoons spent in the kitchen, family involved, radio playing, is so heart warming and enough to inspire anyone to get their pinny on.
There are some wonderful recipes throughout the book, big on flavour and satisfaction.
As a photographer, I always study the pictures in cookery books in detail. James Merrell did the photography in Supper for a Song and his work is beautiful and evocative.
Really lovely book.

Published by Quadrille Publishing October 2009.

Warming up with Caribbean Spices

The summer feels like a long distant memory now, with the blustery autumn winds swirling the leaves off of the trees and a sharp cold bite in the air. It is a beautiful time of year even so. Still, we all felt in need of some warming up and what better way to do that than with a dose of chilli pepper and warming spice.

This West Indian curry has been our little boy's favourite dish since he was tiny. He likes his curry quite spicy, but you can adjust the heat to suit. Just leave out the chilli pepper and use a mild curry powder for a gentle version of this fragrant, yummy curry. You can also add potatoes or other veggies like carrots or peas if you like. We serve the curry wrapped in large flatbreads called roti, but it is also great with rice.

1 onion

2 spring onions or a small bunch of chive

a sprig of fresh thyme

1 garlic clove

juice of 1 lime

1 small chilli pepper, choose mild or hot to suit - or leave out if you prefer

a pinch of salt

600g chicken, boneless and skinless, breast or thigh, cut into large pieces

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon brown sugar

3 tablespoons mild curry powder (madras)

1 cup of chicken stock – or a cup of water and one organic stock cube

How to prepare the curry:

  1. Finely chop the onion, herbs, garlic, lime, chilli (if using) and salt to make a thick marinade. I often use a mini chopper or blender to do this quickly. In a large bowl, mix the chicken pieces together with this blend and allow to marinate for half and hour, or longer.
  2. Warm the oil gently in a large heavy based pot. (I use one that can also go in the oven as I like to let the curry simmer slowly in the oven later – although you can do the whole thing on the stovetop.) Add the brown sugar and curry powder and gently fry in the oil for a minute or so to release the flavour of the spices.
  3. Add the chicken and marinade mixture to the pan and stir well together. Add the chicken stock and stir well again.
  4. Bring the curry to a vigorous simmer and then immediately turn the heat down very low, cover and simmer gently for about an hour. Or, bring it up to a simmer, cover, and put the pot in a low oven (160 degrees C) to simmer for about an hour.
  5. Check occasionally to make sure the curry is not getting too dry - if it is, just add a bit more water.
  6. Serve with rice, (or roti bread if you can find it). Garnish with chopped fresh herbs, flaked coconut, and/or raisins if you like!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Smart and Stylish!

Easy Tasty Italian

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful event - A Literary Lunchtime -at the High and Ham festival. It was a ''conversation" with three fabulous ladies of the food publishing world, writer Claudia Roden, and publisher/writers Judith Jones and Jill Norman. Food writer Victoria Prever, who hosted the talk, got the ladies to reflect on their experiences and insights into the world of writing about food.
Judith Jones has years of experience of publishing some of the best ever food writers. She was the young editor who brought Julia Child's first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking into publication - her character appears in the recent film Julie and Julia. (See Judith's wonderful blog here.) Judith made some comments on what makes a good cookery book and I have been reflecting on her thoughts while I am reading a new book by Laura Santini. Back to that thought in a moment...

I've always enjoyed reading Mrs Santini's etiquette column in Waitrose Food Illustrated magazine because I love her spiky observations on modern manners and witty words of advice. I was delighted to receive an advance copy of her new cookery book Easy Tasty Italian (Publication 2nd October 2009). The gist of the book is how to "add some magic to your everyday food" so there is an emphasis on intense flavours and stylish little touches. Just like her column, it's a great read, with her characteristic wit and panache.

The format of the book is a bit different from the standard, in the way it breaks down the sections and dishes. Laura puts a focus on to the intense flavours can transform simple dishes into something special. So she has an extensive section, with a detailed explanation, on the "fifth taste" called umami - an element found in foods like parmesan cheese, anchovies, marmite and miso. Other opening sections highlight basic techniques and preparations - sauces, butter, flavourings, elixirs and potions. These elements are then the building blocks that go into the recipes throughout the rest of the book. The book is peppered with amusing titles and quirky imagery - again a bit different from the many books with emphasis on "food porn" imagery. (I hate that term - must find a better one..) I like Laura Santini's book a lot, and it is really packed with instruction and recipes. It is more of a book that you have to concentrate on rather than idly flip through for inspiration.

So back to Judith Jones' comments on cookery writing. She said that a good book is one that empowers the reader - as I understood her, that gives the reader some knowledge that she can internalise, build on, and put to use the next time around. Not just a collection of recipes, but a deeper understanding of the process, akin to the practice and skill needed to develop any artistry. Sometimes that means longer or more complicated recipes, as opposed to the quick and easy. I believe Laura Santini does aim to give this background - this element of teaching - in her book. So actually, the reader has the job of learning these techniques and understanding flavours before they can really access the "easy" part in the title of the book. Great food for thought!

Thanks to Quadrille Publishing for the opportunity to review Easy Tasty Italian.

Monday, 14 September 2009

The English Village Fete

Village Fete

Summer is drifting away, almost a memory now, giving way to golden tones of autumn leaves and shiny new school uniforms. And with the end of summer, it is goodbye to the all the fetes, fairs and village cricket matches that bring the English villages into glorious, vibrant colour. I love the change of seasons, and in this part of the world, the seasons really are quite distinct. A good thing - it makes up a bit for those many days of rain and grey skies! Before it is a truly distant memory, I thought I would post some of the images from this summer's fete in our village. The fete is a wonderful event, and really brings the whole community together. There are lots of stalls and games, pints and pims, the barbecue, music, and of course, the all important cake and tea tent. Something for everyone!

Fete Montage3

Fete Montage

The theme of our fete this year was - you guessed it - Garden Gnomes! The children got their costumes together and transformed into such adorable cheeky gnomes. So did quite a few grown ups too.

I usually end up making quite few cakes over the summer for fetes and other events. (Being married to a cricketer, I do my share of the cricket teas too!) My favourite summer cake is a traditional Victoria Sponge -it really captures the essence of summer - filled with sweet berry jam and fresh buttery cream.

Victoria Sponge Cake

250g butter, softened
250g golden caster sugar
4 eggs
250g self-raising flour
3 T milk
1 t vanilla extract

Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs. Stir in the flour without over mixing. Then finish by adding the milk and vanilla. Divide the mix into two lined (or buttered and floured) 20cm cake tins. Bake in the oven (preheated to 180c. fan oven 160c) for 25-30 minutes.
When the cakes are completely cool, you can sandwich them with berry jam - strawberry, raspberry, whichever is your favourite - and thick fresh whipped cream or buttercream.

Fete Montage2

Monday, 13 July 2009

Berry Picking

Summertime in the English countryside means an abundance of glorious berries. Over the past few weekends we have set off, en famille, to pick these lovely jewels of the sunshine at our local pick-your-own farm. While the supermarkets are brimming with a variety of berries right now, nothing compares with the burst of fragrance and flavour of a berry right off the bush, in the crisp morning outdoors.
After an hour or so picking (and sampling) we stop for a cup of tea and a treat in the delightful tea shop and then set off home with our bounty. Later I think up ways to use the berries, and as we have always picked so many, they find their way into sorbets, ice creams and jams.
I particularly love to combine strawberries with redcurrants to make a super vibrant soft set jam. The redcurrants provide the extra pectin that the strawberries lack on their own, as well as an intense tart flavour that really enhances the strawberries' sweet subtle fragrance. See the recipe below.

Berries Montage

Strawberry and Redcurrant Jam

1kg strawberries, hulled and left whole
300g redcurrants, all stems removed
1kg caster sugar

Makes 4 350g jars.
Heat oven to 170 centigrade. Wash and dry jars and place in oven to sterilise. Turn off oven but leave jars in warm oven until needed.
In a large, wide pan, combine the berries and sugar and heat gently, stirring occasionally until the sugar has dissolved. Boil rapidly for 10-15 minutes until setting point is reached. (105 degrees centigrade) To test if the jam will set, put a small spoonful onto a cool saucer and place in the fridge for 2 minutes. Take it out and push a spoon, or finger, through the jam. If it wrinkles, it is set. If not, return the jam pan to the heat and boil for another 2 minutes and then test again.
Ladle jam into the warm jars, and cover with clean sterilised lids. Store in cool dry place.
Picking Montage

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Spring Fever

Spring Fever Montage

Cooking at Le Manoir

Le Manoir Montage

Tea and Toast

Tea and Toast8

We live in the countryside near Oxford. It can be a bit quiet but there is no denying the beauty of the land that surrounds us. Even on a snowy morning as we take a walk we are greeted by our friends the chickens and the horses, along with the first signs of spring emerging from the bulbs below the snow. What better welcome home than a nice English cup of tea and some toast.

Tea and toast montage

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Celebrating Winter with Chocolate


Chocolate Almond Buttermilk Cake
Chocolate Cake Montage

This first post is about a month overdue. Indeed, we have now left behind the frost and snow - the promise of Spring is all around, heralded by daffodils and early blossom. Never mind, chocolate is always a good place to start.
This intense, chocolately cake is actually quite light as it doesn't have too much flour and the buttermilk keeps it from being dry. I sometimes add half a teaspoon of almond essence to enhance the cake's sweet nutty fragrance.

Chocolate Almond Buttermilk Cake

200g dark chocolate
200g butter
125g plain flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
25g cocoa powder
100g ground almonds
100g light muscovado sugar
250g golden caster sugar
4 eggs
1 250g pot Buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract (optional)

Set oven to 180 degrees centigrade. Line a 20cm cake tin with baking parchment and set aside.
Break up the chocolate into small blocks and cut the butter into cubes. Melt them gently together in a bowl until just melted. I do this in the microwave, but you have to watch carefully if you do this, and take it out and stir frequently so that it doesn't scorch. Set aside to cool.
Sift together the flour, baking soda and cocoa powder. Add the ground almonds to the dry ingredients.
Add the sugars to the chocolate butter mix and beat together well. Add the eggs, beating well after each addition. Gently stir in the dry ingredients. Then add the buttermilk and vanilla extract.
Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin and bake for 35-40 minutes. the cake will rise all over like a souffle. Don't worry if it falls a little once it cools - that always happens!

A slice of this cake is just the thing after a brisk walk on a frosty winter's day - or a stroll in the gentle sunlight and sudden strong breezes of March.
Thank you for joining me. More soon.