Recent leftovers include: Young, thin asparagus stems boiled with salt and lemon, blended with mashed potato and parsley. Instant spring soup, inspired by Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal. One courgette and the end of some goat’s cheese: transformed into savoury crepes: courgette grated and sautéed with butter and garlic, folded into a double layer of crepes with cheese and a fried egg, gently rewarmed to melt the cheese. Extra batter was pancaked and flambéed with the rest of some Bourbon lying around. Small risk of lost eyebrows only added to the flavour! Cooked red lentils flavoured with chipotle, heated with a can of tomatoes, four eggs cracked into the frying pan to cook until the whites solidified, the yolks still runny. Stale baguette transformed into croutons with butter and olive oil. ~~~ I cannot stop listening to the Dear Sugars. Not edible sweeteners. Food for the soul. I loved the Valentine’s Day episode, in which they referenced the Pina Colada song. Reading: Delizia! A history of Italian cooking in all its regionality. And the Confessions of a Comma Addict. Boasting: our guidebook, A Pocket Feast Paris has won the UK category for French Cuisine in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2015. Which means we are now finalists in the global awards to be presented in China. Get your copy online or at the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris! And my essay Kitchen Rhythm has been republished by Longreads, if you would care for a longer piece about Parisian patisseries and Japanese chefs as well as odds and ends of learning and linguistics.
The three year old son of one of my friends has an active imagination and a very gourmand palate. When asked, how was nursery school, he will say: “Today I built a coffee machine” or “I took the night train to Copenhagen.” And once: “I cooked polenta with tomatoes and parsley. And calamari.” Which sounds perfectly delicious.
Sometimes I am lucky enough to have that kind of free, three-year-old inspiration. This week I built a blanket fort and made a cake. On separate days. Both were even better than I imagined they would be: first I was cocooned in a warm glow of blankets with cups of tea and a kitten, no screens, it felt like an escape in my own flat. And then the idea for a cake just came to me in all its disparate elements. A British friend’s birthday prompted something with Earl Grey, something light and delicate. Then a student came for a macaron class and showed me a beautiful picture of a cake with a whole cheesecake between the two layers instead of frosting. The sheer audacity of this meant I had to try it. Luckily, I already had both an Earl Grey cake and a simple cheesecake in my archives. The former is a light genoise, with only a touch of butter. Thinking of Earl Grey and chocolate macarons, i wanted a frosting that would not overwhelm but complement the delicate citrus-tea layers. With real dark chocolate AND cocoa, and cream cheese for a creamy, slightly salty edge. Made in a food processor it was incredibly smooth and delicious – a substantial afternoon snack for the baker. Me. It was better than my imagination.
For an Earl Grey-citrus-chocolate cheesecake-cake you will need:
One basic cheesecake recipe no crust: whisk together 450g cream cheese, mascarpone or ricotta, 150g sugar, 4 eggs + zest of one lemon + tea from 2-4 Earl Grey teabags
One quantity rich and dark and luscious chocolate cream-cheese icing, see below
Simple syrup made of 100g water, 100g sugar and one teabag. Boil everything and let cool with the teabag still in.
For the tea: either cut the fine tea out of teabags or blend proper tealeaves in a food processor with the sugar in the recipe. Line two 22cm round tins with baking paper. Bake cake in one and cheesecake in the other, let cool. Slice the cake into two layers, evening up the top if not totally flat. I like to flip the cake over and use the bottom of the cake as the top layer since it is the most even. Lightly brush one layer of cake with syrup. Top with cheesecake, then second layer of cake. Brush with more syrup. (You won’t need to use it all. Save the rest for cocktails.) Ice with chocolate frosting. If you are very meticulous, start with a crumb layer: spread a very thin layer all over first, then refrigerate for 20 minutes. This is supposed to stop crumbs from getting into the final layer. Then carry on frosting. You can do it in an artfully messy way, a la Smitten Kitchen, or neat and smooth with piped rosettes on top.
Rich and luscious dark chocolate cream-cheese frosting
adapted from wickedgoodkitchen: I reduced the sugar and halved the original recipe. It still makes enough to ice and decorate the outside of a 22-24cm round cake – multiply by 1.5 if you want a thick layer of frosting between layers as well.
65g dark chocolate (60-70% cacao content)
115g unsalted butter
115g cream cheese
180g icing sugar
Make sure the butter and cream cheese are both room temperature. Chop chocolate and melt over a bain-marie or in a microwave (careful not to let it get too hot or it will go grainy). Let it cool a little. Blend the soft butter in a food processor with a blade until smooth. Add the cream cheese and blend again. Sift the cocoa and icing sugar together. Add about half to the food processor, blend, add melted chocolate (cooled but still fluid), and blend again. Scrape the sides, tip in the rest of the icing sugar/cocoa and blend one last time. It should be beautifully smooth and shiny.
To ice the cake: smooth icing around the sides first, then over the top. Use any leftovers to pipe swirls on top. If you want contrasting swirls, mix a dollop of cream cheese with some remaining icing and alternate dark and light chocolate.
Icing refrigerated really well, staying nice and soft. No tests yet on how long it keeps. Cake was demolished in about ten minutes.
To continue my Japanese love affair: an easy dessert to go with the black sesame shortbread. Originally inspired by my favourite dessert at Nanashi Bento, light, delicious, still a little jiggly. They serve it with a few blueberries and some whipped cream.
Matcha is a very fine green tea powder, used for the tea ceremony. Goma is black sesame. Make either or both. If you are particularly cunning, you could make two layers: make one batch of matcha, divide between 8 glasses, refrigerate to set, then pour a batch of goma on top. I prefer the texture of gelatine, but for vegetarians/vegans, agar-agar works too.
For a quick guide on how to gel absolutely anything, check out Bompas and Parr’s guide to jelly. They even made a jellied Christmas dinner. Though their method is slightly different to mine below, their principles and the conversion chart are excellent.
Matcha / goma pannacotta
makes 4 medium or 6 small
400ml coconut milk (or 1 tin)
30g honey or maple syrup
3 tsp matcha OR 30g black sesame paste
**3-4g leaf gelatine OR 2g agar agar (1 packet)
Heat half the coconut milk and the honey in a small saucepan.
If using gelatine, soak the leaves in a bowl of cold water. When it is soft, drain off all the water. When the coconut milk feels warm, but not so hot that it will burn your hand, add gelatine and stir to melt. (Above 60C and the gelatine will not set properly.)
If using agar agar, sprinkle the powder over the coconut milk before you heat it up. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes.
Use the other half of the coconut milk to dilute the matcha powder or sesame paste, adding a little liquid at a time until smooth. You can do this by shaking it in a little jar, whisking it, or in a blender.
Once the heated coconut milk and gelatine/agar agar is ready, combine with the matcha / goma. Whisk or blend to combine well.
Pour into 4-6 glasses and refrigerate for 2-3 hours. To speed up the process, carefully place glasses in the freezer until the liquid sets.
Serve with fresh fruit, like persimmon or raspberries, some whipped cream and a drizzle of honey.
**If you want to unmold your pannacotta, use 4g leaf gelatine and lightly grease the glasses with a neutral oil. If they do not slide out easily, dip the bottom of the glasses in hot water to loosen them. If you plan on serving in the glasses, 3g should suffice for a delicately wobbly texture. For most gelatine found in supermarkets, 1 leaf = 1g.
More cookbooks! Disaster. The latest addition to my collection has not yet been added to the shelf. It lives on my sofa and I open it at random for inspiration. Let’s see:
“Beluga lentil, roast grape and red chicory salad.” Intriguing, roast grapes. An Autumn recipe in hues of violet and red. Let’s aim for Spring:
“Butterflied leg of lamb with sekenjabin.” With what? Oooh, a “Persian mint syrup.” Best with flatbread or couscous and broadbeans. Mmm. Turn the page:
“Chocolate and rosemary sorbet” on the same leaf as “Grapefruit and mint sorbet.” All of my favourite flavours!
A Change of Appetite: where healthy meets delicious is an adventure in flavour, an exploration of healthy food without austerity or preaching. It is a fresh and beautiful cookbook. There are whole seasons full of recipes, with intermittent pages of musings on grains, proper lunches, the Japanese philosophy in food. I’m afraid to say the piece on calories rang unfortunately true: eat 500 calories chocolate, skip dinner. Works out even right? Not really.
As a pastry chef, I find it hard to condone dieting. (I’d be out of a job.) And I don’t believe abstention or detoxes work long-term. But too much sugar does have an effect on my body and my mood.
Henry doesn’t ask you to diet either. Just to take a little more care, add a few more green leaves and prepare meals with tons of flavour, inspired by Japan or Iran or Bulgaria. The healthy aspect works because the recipes really pique my appetite. And Ottolenghi’s apparently; his stamp of approval is on the front cover.
The ginger and garlic chicken I served at a dinner the other day was sharp and savoury and mouthwatering. Even with the chicken all eaten, the sauce was so good my guests took more wild rice just to soak it up. The cucumber with ginger has real character too, the rare occasion when cucumber has a starring role. It was all light and fresh and just enough. Satisfying.
I have to admit that we did have a first course of eggs and spinach, and later a cheese course with three cheeses and fresh salted butter then dessert. But, France. We had modest portions of each and still didn’t feel like we had to roll home afterwards.
The garlic-ginger chicken is going into regular rotation. (Using the grated and frozen ginger leftover from my homemade ginger juice.) In fact I am going to marinate individual portions in zip-lock bags and freeze them. Then in the morning I can defrost one bag or several in the fridge, ready to bake at suppertime. Virtuous ready-meals!
Next on the list: “Spelt and oat porridge with pomegranates and pistachios.” Wish it was breakfast time already.
Diana Henry’s Japanese Garlic and Ginger Chicken with smashed cucumber
from A Change of Appetite
8 chicken thighs (bone-in) or 4 whole chicken legs
3 1/2 tbs soy sauce
3 tbs sake or dry sherry (or in a pinch, white wine)
3 tbs dark brown sugar
1/2 tbs brown/red miso
60g fresh ginger, peeled and grated
4 garlic cloves, crushed or grated
1 tsp togarashi seasoning (or 1/2 tsp chili powder)
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tsp sea salt
2 tbs pink pickled ginger, finely chopped
handful of shiso leaves, torn up (or mint)
Mix together marinade ingredients. If baking that day, preheat oven to 200C, arrange chicken in a baking dish in a single layer and pour over marinade. Let sit for at least 20 minutes while oven preheats (or a few hours in the fridge). If not, put chicken pieces in a zip-lock bag (or several), divide the marinade between them and freeze.
Bake chicken for 30-40 minutes depending on size of pieces, basting with marinade halfway. To check if the chicken legs are fully cooked, stab with a sharp knife and see if the juices run clear. If they are a little pink, carry on cooking.
Meanwhile, peel and de-seed the cucumber. Chop roughly. Put cucumber, garlic and salt in a zip-lock bag and bash it a few times with a rolling pin. This step can be done on a chopping board but is much more messy. Refrigerate until chicken is ready. Drain of any liquid and serve the cucumber topped with finely sliced pickled ginger and shiso (or mint).
Bitter is a recurrent theme here: grapefruit, endive, caramel… The other day in fact I took a jar of grapefruit juice, hot water and honey onto the metro: handwarmer and homemade cold cure. So I was overjoyed to receive the book ‘Bitter‘ for Christmas, with its elegant grey cardoon leaves on the cover. (I also love grey: poppy seeds, black sesame desserts…) Jennifer McLagan peppers her cookbook with poetry, quotations and thoughtful essays on taste and flavour. I especially liked her discussion on the word itself, bitter, one that doesn’t have enough synonyms when it comes to writing about food. The Japanese word, shibui,she writes, means a kind of tangy bitterness. A quick thesaurus search in English gives ‘harsh, sour, acid, astringent, tart’ in that order, none particularly appetising except perhaps the last. (Yesterday I had to teach French flatmate that it was acceptable ‘to get tarted up’ but not to be a tart. In French the quiche gets the dubious honour of comestible-used-as-an-insult. Etre une quiche means to be an idiot.)
I have bookmarked the Seville orange and whiskey marmalade and the homemade tonic water; I approved of the grapefruit and Campari sorbet (one of my favourite cocktails). I was intrigued by the beer jelly, made in ice-cube trays to serve a piece or two with rich, fatty starters like smoked pepper mackerel. And straightaway, I bought some radicchio for her savoury tart with prosciutto, fontina and a hint of ginger. It should have had lard in the pie-crust but in typical French fashion the butchers at the market first asked about our intentions, and then refused to sell it to us since it was the wrong kind for pastry. And no, we couldn’t try it anyway. A substitute of butter and a little duck fat, always on hand in the south of France, was more than acceptable. The pie was delicious straight out of the oven, a complex bitter taste, the wilted radicchio with melted cheese and crisp pastry. (Served with a salad of Belgian endives, of course.) And it was even better the next day as a snack by the fire, with a glass of Campari and apple juice.
Jennifer McLagan’s Radicchio Pie
serves 4 as a light lunch with salad
250g plain flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
125g cold butter or leaf lard
75ml cold water
75g fatty prosciutto or pancetta
1 tbs balsamic vinegar
2 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 1/2 tsp salt
a few generous grinds pepper
125g Fontina or mozzarella cheese, grated
2 tbs fine breadcrumbs
Dice the cold fat (butter or lard) and rub it into the flour, baking powder and salt until the flakes of butter are no bigger than peas. (You can do this step in the food processor.) Stir in the cold water and bring the pastry together into a ball with your hands. Wrap in clingfilm, flatten into a square and chill, in the fridge for at least 30 minutes or in the freezer for 10.
Roughly chop the prosciutto or pancetta and cook in a large frying pan for 2 minutes while you chop the radicchio and leek. Add them to the pan and cook on high heat for 3-5 minutes to wilt the vegetables. Stir in the grated ginger, salt, pepper and balsamic and tip out onto a plate or tray to cool.
Preheat oven to 180C.
Roll the pastry out into a large rectangle, approx 30x40cm. Slice in half, but so that one rectangle is slightly wider than the other (approx 19 and 21cm). Place smaller rectangle on a baking sheet lined with baking paper and brush some egg around the pastry in a 2cm border. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs all over the pastry apart from the egg.
Gently squeeze any extra liquid out of the cooled radicchio. Stir in the grated cheese. Spread the radicchio over the breadcrumbs, then carefully roll the second rectangle of pastry over the top. Press down around the edges with your fingertips, then use a fork to mark the border. If you have any scraps of pastry, cut out some leaves or designs to go on top. Egg wash all over and prick the top a few times with a sharp knife to let out any steam.
Bake for 30-35 minutes until nice and golden, crisp and shiny. Serve warm – also great reheated the next day.
Eating: leftover mashed pumpkin served on buckwheat galettes, with onion jam and a fried egg.
Baking: the sourdough croissants from the first Tartine, beautifully puffed up and with a complex flavour.
Just finished reading Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl’s story of disguise and intrigue and truffles. (About her time as the NY TImes food critic!)
Watching the Science of cookies, whimsically animated.
Ogling this Lucky Peach cover.
Testing and writing about the best hot drinks (not coffee) in north Paris.
Waving HELLO to all the people that have visited my corner of the internet since being Freshly Pressed. HI WELCOME THANK-YOU!
…where I discovered these urban sketches of San Francisco.
Speaking of which, I am off to San Francisco for a long holiday, with a list of bakeries and pastries to try – any recommendations?
The Grape Leaf Club made an Indian dinner this week. Largely based around Kerala (and therefore coconut) we had fish curry with tamarind, thoran, freshly steamed idlis and daal. Dessert was French-Indian inspired, a rice pudding with cardamom, pomegranate and kumquat like jewels on top. My kitchen is still under renovation, so the spice jars are all in bags in the sitting room, to be fetched one by one. As small as it is, at one point there were five people in the little space, chopping, washing up, shrieking as the pomegranate hit the floor with a horror-movie splash of red.
Later on, looking over my notes to find the thoran recipe, I glanced over Mrs Leelu’s masala chai (literally ‘spiced tea’) and the words ‘add pepper if you have a cold’ jumped out at me. The season of scratchy throats and runny noses has crept up on me, and my eyes are heavy, at half-mast.The idea of a hot, sweet, fiercely spicy tea could not have been more appealing. (Actually, in the book I am reading, Spice: The History of a Temptation, the Romans used pepper to cure all kinds of unsightly ailments as well as seasoning their stuffed, grilled dormice.) I went straight home to make a pot of chai.
Paris five years ago had not heard of chai, outside of the Indian area around La Chapelle, Gare du Nord. Now more and more cafes offer a chai latte, sometimes just a disappointing cup of hot milk with a tea ball floating in it, slowly turning the milk beige. The best one I have found so far (after an extensive survey) is at Bob’s Bakeshop, also near La Chapelle. (“What’s that you wrote down? Bob’s Bobo Shop?” a friend asked, squinting at my handwriting. She was not far off: it is a modern American-style bakery that does excellent bagels, proper Belleville Brulerie coffee and attracts all the bobos, or rich hippies, in the quartier. Their chai latte was properly aromatic with a thick mousse of foam on top, sweet but not too sweet. And they will do a ‘dirty chai’ Australian-style if you ask, with a shot of espresso.)
In any case, the chai I tasted in India was totally different, not a large latte but a small glass of liquid energy, to be refilled time and again. At the Jaipur literary festival, it was served in little terracotta pots brushed with gold and green swirls. (I collected them to take home, since they would have been thrown away otherwise. Had to buy six cups of tea to make a set, at the exorbitant price of 20 rupees each.) At the railway stations it came in plastic cups almost like espresso. We didn’t have to get off the train as the vendors would come rushing down the corridor with their kettles before the train pulled away again. In Kerala it smelled overwhelmingly of cardamom. Chai chai chai chai. When I came home after a month, British tea tasted bitterly disappointing and I had to stop myself from adding six teaspoons of sugar. However I did bring two bags of cardamom, 300g each, that I have slowly been using up.
Adjust the spices to your taste – I used the maximum amount of ginger and cardamom and some nutmeg as well (not in the recipe, not native to India either, as I learned in Spice, but to the Molucca islands in the Philippines). Sugar or honey can be added later on too, if people have different preferences. I plan on drinking the whole litre myself over this afternoon, if the kitten draped over my arm will allow me to get up to go back to the kitchen. Serve in small glasses or cups.
Mrs Leelu’s Masala Chai
375ml (1 1/2 cups) milk (or soy milk if you prefer)
750ml (3 cups) water
1 small cinnamon stick
2-4 cardamom pods, crushed
5-15g ginger, grated (approx size of piece of ginger: top joint of thumb)
1/4 nutmeg, grated
several generous grinds black pepper
10g (4 tsp) black tea leaves
40g (3-4 tbs) sugar
In a large saucepan, bring to a boil water, milk and spices. Add tea leaves and sugar and continue to boil gently for 5-10 minutes until it becomes a nice caramel colour. Taste to check. Strain and serve piping hot in small glasses or cups.
I wrote every day in India. I kept a mental list of images, faces, phrases until I could scribble them down at night or on the train. Reading them back makes me feel a little dizzy, but grateful for the sketches that unlock past hours and days.
The diary entry from 11th January 2014 – more than a year ago already! – is marked ‘Kochi’ and ‘Cooking Class with Leelu’. There are recipes: Traditional Keralan Fish Curry, Masala Tea, Pumpkin Curry, Aubergine Curry, Thoran and Chapatis. And I wrote down all of the asides as well as cooking instructions. “You are sweating? I am sweating, see. Hot!”
It was hot: eight of us crowded into Mrs Leelu’s kitchen. She was perched on a stool, explaining ‘masala’ (a mix of spices); showing us the powerful Indian wet-dry grinder; letting us taste shredded fresh coconut. She made three curries and let us each roll and cook a chapati until black and blistered. She told us about her son’s wedding, Protestant, no alcohol. One thousand people had been invited; she had ordered 1200 meals to be sure. “If I will be in the kitchen, how will I enjoy?” She learned cooking after her marriage, from listening to her mother instruct the servants. (My diary entry for the Mattancherry Palace tells me that Kerala is a matrilocal society: the wife stays with her family after marriage and the family name and property is passed down through the mother. Which meant that historically, women were more likely to be educated, to learn Sanskrit) Mrs Leelu was jovial and lively, her eyes full of fun. And her cooking efficient and bold. The other English couple in the room raised their eyes at the amount of salt that went into one of the curries and asked questions like, “Ooh I don’t know if you can find coriander powder in England?” and “Can you substitute lemon for tamarind?” (Of course you can. But it would be a different dish. And I am all for substitutions and inventions – after trying the original once. Maybe buy some of the spices before you leave, there’s an idea. I didn’t say any of that. Just wrote everything down for posterity.)
When we sat down to eat, still hot but with a happy anticipation of the feast before us, we each had to reclaim our own chapati, some rounder than others. Mrs Leelu asked us to pick a favourite dish: mine was unquestionably the thoran, a finely grated cabbage dish tempered with fresh coconut and ginger. It is like a refreshing slaw, only cooked for five minutes to take away the raw bite. Warmed up with turmeric and cumin, it is nevertheless a mild side dish to serve alongside a fiery curry. The carrot in the mix adds colour, the mustard seeds a decorative speckle like vanilla in desserts.
Later, back at the hotel, when we had packed – it was our last night as a four before I went north – we shared the quarter-bottle of white wine saved from the plane on arrival. It had been a mostly alcohol-free holiday, more tea and trains and sunburn than anything else. We toasted its success. (Then I was delegated to kill the cockroaches in the bathroom before we went to sleep.)
I would happily do the two weeks in Kerala all over again, to the letter: Wayanad, Alappuzha, Munnar, Kochi. Mrs Leelu’s class was in the latter, in the heart of the old city. It is mostly demonstration, but you get to eat everything at the end. And she is very entertaining.
Thoran (Keralan cabbage and coconut with turmeric and mustard seeds)
serves 5-6 as a side-dish
Can apparently be made with all kinds of vegetables: carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, unripe plaintain, potato, courgette. So use whatever you have on hand. Adjust cooking time and quantity of water accordingly: more for potatoes, less for courgettes.
100g carrot (one large)
1 small red onion
15g ginger (piece roughly the size of top joint of thumb)
1 small chili (depending on what kind – I used 2 tiny bird’s eye chilis)
1/2 – 1 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 – 1 tsp cumin
1 tsp salt or to taste
100g (roughly 1 cup) shredded fresh coconut
OR 80g dessicated coconut + 60ml coconut milk
60ml (1/4 cup) water
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp coconut oil
If fresh coconut is unavailable, use dessicated (unsweetened coconut milk) and soak it for 20 minutes in coconut milk to rehydrate it.
Peel carrot, onion and ginger. Using a food processor, finely grate them with the cabbage and chili. Heat the grated mixture, turmeric, cumin salt and coconut in a large saucepan for 5-10 minutes. Taste: it should be nicely warmed through and no longer taste raw. Add extra spices or salt if necessary. In a small saucepan, heat the coconut oil and mustard seeds until they start to pop, then tip onto thoran and mix in. Serve warm as a side. Also nice cold the next day as a salad.
There is a persimmon tree in the parc du Buttes-Chaumont. I never noticed it before, never saw the bright orange globes so high up. Until one day they were on the pavement, split and squashed, over-ripe. It looked as if someone had had a food fight.
Normally I can’t stand persimmons when they are too ripe, when they darken and turn to pulp inside. I like to slice them so you can see the star template, so the texture is that of a crisp pear. But then I like my bananas almost green as well.
French toast didn’t used to appeal to me either. Maybe I am just too attached to banana pancakes. Maybe it is the memories of scout camp: huddled under green tents in the drizzle, we fried up white sliced bread to serve with ketchup. Perhaps it is all in the name, in England, “eggy bread”. The actual French call it “pain perdu” or lost bread, with the idea that it has been found and rescued. (The image of persimmons too can change depending on the name you assign: sharon fruit or kaki.)
Then a friend made me her French toast, taking her time, methodically waiting to really crisp and caramelise the edges of the custardy brioche. Then I was inspired to try the recipe in the Tartine book, since we had an abundance of sourdough bread, some of it already going stale. They have you toast the bread, soaked in eggs and milk, in a skillet on the stovetop to form a crust, adding more liquid as you go to saturate it totally, then stick it in the oven to bake through. It was indeed delicious, the underside as brown and crunchy as crème brûlée. But my favourite part of the recipe was the recommendation to squash a ripe persimmon on top. That was absolutely perfect, adding a juicy, delicate sweetness where maple syrup would almost have been overkill.
There are still plenty of kaki in the French markets, so take advantage. Buy a few, even if they are starting to darken and look bruised, to scoop out of their skins and serve on top of your breakfast whether it is pain perdu, pancakes or porridge.
No recipe today, due to lack of oven and a kitchen under renovation. Pick your favourite French toast recipe: after all it is just eggs, milk, a little sugar and bread – preferably stale. Cut doorstop slabs of the bread and soak the slices in your egg mixture in the fridge overnight, if you are lazy like me and do not want to wake up an hour early to do so. Add some lemon or lime zest for an extra kick. Fry with a generous amount of butter on a medium-low heat, take your time, and finish off in the oven while you make coffee, cook some bacon and cut up your persimmon.
The recipe has been in my diary since the summer, when I re-read Laurie Colwin’s “More Home Cooking”. Her food is down-to-earth and her stories gently funny; I liked the one on what to feed a jetlagged friend (something salty so they drink lots of water). The image that really stuck with me though was that of her sister (maybe? the book is still in the south of France) caught guiltily eating this spice mix, dukkah, out of the jar with a spoon.
Now eating Nutella by the spoonful, that I understand. But a mix of nuts and seeds, cumin, coriander and cinnamon? Surely that would be too dry, too strong?
Talking with a friend the other day – she is on the kitchen stool with a glass of wine, I am testing the recipe, blending the toasted spices and nuts, stopping and starting around the conversation – we realise that much as ex-smokers tend to be the most vehemently anti-smoking, people that have had issues with eating disorders tend to be largely impatient with others’ dietary requirements, intolerances, particular preferences. She says she is gluten-free now, last week it was lactose. He only ate half the piece of cheesecake, claimed he was getting love handles. Obviously I know that there are medically diagnosed problems, food allergies. I know that. She knows that. Nonetheless as if we are trying to distance ourselves from our past, our obsessions, we are the most judgemental.
Smell that. I open the lid of the food processor, releasing a toasty cinnamon air. Good right?
But when walls are broken down, when someone admits to suffering, to have suffered from disordered eating, it is amazing how quickly others will respond with me too! Without that kinship, it would be admitting to weakness, to vanity, to a preoccupation with the self in a world of much more tangible problems.
We each dip a finger to taste the crumbly rubble, not quite a powder. Oooh. We taste it again. It is like earth and fire, full of warmth.
It isn’t about being thin or pretty but feeling full or empty. From the beginning of university until not so long ago, I struggled with food. Push and pull. I ate my feelings, as everyone does occasionally. It went from once a month to almost every day, when I could count the ‘good days’ (tuna and rye crackers) one hand in that month.
We try it on some sourdough, spread with honey and goat’s cheese and topped with a baker’s pinch of dukkah (all fingers at once, not just finger and thumb). That will be breakfast and snacks for the next two days until the loaf runs out.
And then, slowly, sometime in the last year and a half it faded towards the horizon. It stopped being ‘I am’ this thing, this disorder that defines me, and became ‘I have’ and ‘I used to have’. I can feel its imprint on bad days, a worn pathway, a feeling of too much too full too frantic. Asked to describe it once, I said that when anxious I felt a balloon inflating in my chest and the only way to remove it was to fill myself up until I was a sack of concrete.
Now I remember how to feel physically hungry, not just emotionally empty. My feelings are not always in check – nor should they be – and sometimes it surprises me the forged link of hunger/sadness. Two days ago I finished class in a terribe mood, sure that everyone hated me, inexplicably miserable. Then, wait, I realised, I had been too busy to eat lunch. All I needed to right my self-esteem was a quick sandwich of baguette, cured ham and salad, with a sprinkle of more dukkah. (I ‘borrowed’ some from the jar in my handbag I was giving away as a gift. Sorry Jen!)
Where am I going with this? For one, more people than you would think will own up to those moments in the kitchen at midnight, guiltily nursing that spoon, if only you know how to ask the question. It is a relief to say, me too. Hopefully this does not read as melodramatic or self-centred. I just know that a few years ago I would have loved to know someone with the same experience, someone who made it out the other side. I would have felt less ashamed.
And secondly, this spice mix, dip, topping, whichever, is my favourite thing I have made all year. It is redolent with spices, savoury and sweet, salty. Hot with black pepper but tempered with the hazelnuts and sesame seeds, so that it can be used in generous spoonfuls rather than pinches. Of course, when I googled it I discovered it has been fashionable in the food world for at least a decade now, in all of my favourite blogs: 101 Cookbooks, Smitten Kitchen and now in David Lebovitz’s new book. And more importantly, in Egypt for centuries: street vendors serve cones of dukkah, or duqqa, with bread and olive oil for dipping. I cannot wait to serve it over boiled eggs, potatoes, soups, avocado toast… My flatmate makes home-made fermented-milk yoghurt which is incredible with dukkah and honey. I think Laurie Colwin would approve.
Friends and family in the near vicinity, you may be getting a jar of this for Christmas. For those of you far away, I won’t risk posting sachets of mysterious powder, so you will have to make your own. This makes a generous quantity, three jam jars full, or many spice jars (save empty ones from the supermarket for your presents). You won’t regret making a big batch, especially if you go to the trouble of buying coriander and cumin seeds, might as well use them. Adjust to taste: add more nuts for a milder flavour, more pepper for more heat. Enjoy on everything.
115g ( 1 cup) hazelnuts
150g (1 cup) sesame seeds
15g (3 tbs) cumin seeds
20g (1/4 cup) coriander seeds
15g (1 1/2 tbs) black peppercorns
15g (1 tbs + 1 tsp) coarse sea salt
12g (2 tbs) ground cinnamon
Toast the nuts / seeds / spices one kind at a time in a dry frying pan. Shake it every now and then to cook evenly. When they smell toasty, tip into food processor and do the next lot. (If you want to skin hazelnuts, tip them still hot into a tea towel and rub firmly to remove skins.) Add the salt and cinnamon, no need to toast, and blend everything to a rubble, not too fine a powder. My food processor does not do very well with the peppercorns so I crush them roughly first with a makeshift mortar and pestle: rolling pin and mug.)
Divide into jars. Eat on everything.