white asparagus with miso butter and boiled eggs

9 Jun

asparagus, miso butter

(I wanted to called it miso-mimosa? misomosa? mimosimo? but any portmanteau sounds too much like mumbling.)

It has been a good season so far for all the asparagi: I have had green asparagus dipped in miso-butter at KOYA in London (and wished there was bread to scrape up the leftover sauce). Wild asparagus from a market in Strasbourg, the thin stems like ears of wheat, sweet enough to snap off and eat then and there like mange-tout peas. Those were cooked briefly in oil and butter, as per the forager’s suggestion, to become like green spaghetti. And last week at Le Casse Noix in Paris, my new favourite bistro (where they offer you a mousse-like chicken liver pâté while you struggle to decide on the menu!) my starter was white asparagus and poached egg, all drowned in a very French sauce made of cream and a richly meaty stock. I was sad to run out of bread, again, when Jen pointed out that they gave me a spoon for a reason.

Since then, I have put miso and butter on many things. Other vegetables. Inside flaky, savoury croissant twists. I have been out for ramen with miso broth and butter, a classic combination. Most often I have used it as a last-minute pasta sauce, the way the Italians eat spaghetti all’olio-aglio-peperoncino when there is nothing else in the fridge. The same principle of fat-flavour-heat: I toss the cooked pasta with a big spoonful each of butter and white miso, add sriracha. Then probably eat the whole bowl in bed, because that is the kind of comfort food it sets out to be. Salty and rich and full of umami. Dare I say it, better and easier than a cheese sauce. Or just as good considering you already ate all the cheese earlier as a snack.

And today, we had an abundance of fat, white asparagus from the morning’s market, since our favourite vendor threw in a bunch of broken stalks for free. For a slightly more elegant supper this evening – using a table mat and everything – I combined the best of the above meals.

First I boiled some eggs. And in the meantime, I peeled and sliced the white asparagus.  As soon as the eggs were done, the asparagus went in some salted water to fully cook through. (It doesn’t like to be as squeaky and snappy as the green kind.) Eggs peeled. Drained the asparagus stalks and swirled butter, olive oil and miso in the hot pan. Then tossed the asparagus in the miso sauce, serving it piled on a plate with the eggs grated on top. Miso-mimosa. We had some fresh basil, also from the market man, growing roots in a glass jar. Torn leaves of basil, black pepper. It looks very springlike, shades of yellow and white and green, but it could be dressed up further with toasted seeds, croutons, any number of things. It definitely needs bread to clean up those last bits of egg yolk and miso left on the plate.

asparagus, miso butter 1

P.S. Could my brand of miso BE any cuter? The characters even have names: Megumi-chan and Dai-san are SO excited about soup. But not just soup: a spoonful of miso works for sautéed mushrooms, in mashed potatoes, anything that needs a kick of flavour. The vegan equivalent of a rich, meaty stock, and one that I used a lot at Freegan Pony, without the extra butter of course. Oishii desu ne!

~~~

White asparagus with miso butter and boiled eggs

Obviously this would be good with other asparagus, green or wild, so adjust cooking times accordingly. Miso brands differ too, so taste as you go and add extra if you like it as much as I do! Add more butter too, for more dipping at the end. This is just the roughest guide.

serves 2

large bunch of white asparagus (500-600g)

2-4 eggs depending on hunger

2 tbs unsalted butter

1 tbs olive oil

1-2 tbs white miso paste (the mildest kind)

fresh herbs eg. basil

salt and pepper

Bring a medium pan of water to the boil, then gently add eggs and cook for 10 minutes. Lift them out and place in cold water. Meanwhile, peel the white asparagus as the skin is much tougher than the green kind. Snap off the hard ends. Cut any very fat stalks in half lengthways. Boil the asparagus in salted water for 8-10 minutes. Taste to check, they should be just soft. Drain into a colander. Add butter, oil and miso to the empty, hot pan, stir to melt and combine, and then toss in the asparagus. Mix, taste and add more miso, butter or salt as preferred.

Arrange asparagus stalks on plates. Grate boiled eggs on the large holes of a cheese grater, or finely chop. Sprinkle over asparagus. Add lots of black pepper, some salt and torn fresh herbs if desired. Serve warm.

 

recipes of note

17 May

market, rhubarb, turnips, blood oranges

Pictured, from our Friday market: rhubarb stalks, limes, blood oranges, baby turnips and their leaves. Not pictured: cauliflower, kohlrabi, cooked beetroot, leeks, carrots, celery, and a bunch of coriander tossed in for free.

The leek tops went in the freezer for later on. Tender cauliflower leaves and turnip greens were sautéed with garlic and made into lunch with sriracha, lentils and a fried egg. The rhubarb I cut up and tossed with lemon juice and sugar, then let it sit in the fridge in its baking dish to release its juices and form a syrup, to be roasted later. It will make a beautifully sharp-sweet compote without turning to mush.

~~~

For the last couple of months, I have been helping out at Freegan Pony (silly name, great concept): a restaurant supplied by donations of fruit and veg from Paris’ central market, produce that would otherwise be thrown away at the end of day. Perfectly good food, that might be a little bruised, or have one brown leaf. A team of volunteers turns out a three course meal – vegetarian or vegan, for 80-100 people – in an abandoned warehouse space under the périphérique (Paris’ ring road). Filled with old sofas, mismatched chairs and tables, it feels like an enormous living room. It is a lot of fun, and a good lesson not to waste food. (They are currently being threatened with eviction – the petition to save the space is here if you’d like to add your name.)

In the morning, you receive the list of produce from that morning’s market and have a couple of hours to imagine a menu to make that afternoon. I find it a satisfying form of stress to come up with something balanced, colourful, mostly based on vegetables, easy to prepare for a crowd AND still delicious. Here are some of the recipes I have successfully borrowed:

  • Gjelina’s mojo de ajo – a garlicky citrus sauce that should be used to liven up any combination of vegetables, fresh or roasted (via 101 cookbooks)
  • Smitten Kitchen’s carrot, tahini and roast chickpea salad as well as her easy flatbread
  • Sprouted Kitchen’s crunchy tofu chopped salad (Adapted to use up some red cabbage, apple, carrot and celeriac. Even people that don’t like tofu couldn’t stop stealing pieces once it was fried in sesame oil.)
  • Aglaia Kremezi’s potato-caper dip (but patted into burger-sized cakes, coated in polenta and fried)
  • Ottolenghi’s rosewater malabi (milk pudding) made with coconut milk and topped with pomegranate seeds
  • A moist, spiced banana bread that is surprisingly vegan
  • …and a simple sliced fennel and orange salad with a mustardy vinaigrette (no recipe needed!)

Once I had scaled the recipes up to feed a hundred people, I packed my bag with some essential tools, condiments, ingredients to add some punch to vegetarian cooking:

  • a good zester (microplane) and lemons or limes
  • bunches of coriander, mint, parsley
  • sesame oil, rice vinegar, miso
  • harissa or sriracha
  • preserved lemons, capers
  • garlic, lots of garlic
  • mustard
  • stale breadcrumbs (the poor man’s parmesan – or a good substitute for toasted nuts)
  • coconut milk
  • toasted sesame seeds

sumathi’s mint rice

17 Feb

mint rice new

Our Indian trip started in Puducherry. Or, in fact, we arrived in Chennai and took two buses south, standing up and swaying in the wind from the open windows. One woman near me had come prepared for the three hour trip, with a tiffin box full of steamed idli that she ate dipped in a red sauce. Jen chatted to the girl behind us, I daydreamed.

We made our way to the guesthouse on foot, our backpacks turning us into unwieldy turtles, then went straight out for lunch, a vegetarian thali served on a banana leaf that cost all of 70 rupees. We wandered down to the sea, taking in the families out for a Sunday walk, the occasional French signage (Alliance Française, Café de Flore) in an otherwise Indian city. I drew pictures of the kolam, intricate swirled chalk designs at the entrance to each house.

One morning, we woke early for a cycle tour on colourful bikes, for lessons in local culture – including the kolam – and in assertively ringing the bicycle bell.

The cooking class at our guesthouse started with a trip to the market for ingredients. We bought vegetables, herbs, ginger, green peas from one stand, and individual packets of nuts and masala spices from another. A skinny cat sat under the tables in the fish market. Outside the chicken stand, cages of birds waited. As we watched, our chicken was killed, spun in a centrifuge to remove the feathers and cut up with confident strokes of a heavy knife. Less than two hours later it became chicken masala with a paste of ginger and garlic and peppercorns, the freshest meat I will ever eat.

Back in the kitchen our hostess and teacher, Sumathi, prepared the mise en place, each ingredient in its gleaming metal dish. I didn’t know what the mint rice on our menu would be. A side dish? boiled rice with a few mint leaves? In fact it was close to a risotto, not as creamy but bursting with flavour: a base of sweated onions, a diced potato and those green peas, plus a vibrant pesto of mint, ginger, coconut and chili. The rice was finished in a pressure cooker in a few minutes, turning out fluffy grains in a bright green.

It actually reminded me a little of the Italian dish, pasta alla ligure, with its basil pesto, beans and potatoes. Sumathi was like an Italian mother too: eat eat, have some more, please, mangia! Her little son clowned around, showing off his English and playing tennis with the racket-shaped crisps still warm from the fryer. Our homemade meal was served on banana-leaf plates – and despite being full, I couldn’t resist a second helping of the rice. Good with the sauce from the chicken masala, but perfect just as it was.

Sated, we napped the rest of the afternoon under the whirring fans. The next day on the bus to Tiruvannamalai, we proudly opened the tupperware box Sumathi had packed for us and snacked on her rava kesari, a buttery semolina-cardamom dessert, while we waited for the bus to fill and to move on.

~~~

Sumathi’s mint rice

I have made this several times at home, and have adjusted the recipe slightly. No need for a pressure cooker. The mint rice works equally well as a colourful side dish to a meat or vegetable curry; or in a bowl, risotto-style, with extra steamed greens on top. Leftovers can be re-heated in some broth with a squeeze of lemon for a hearty soup. I make a big batch and use it throughout the week, often taking a portion to work in my new tiffin tin.

Do use dried (unsweetened) coconut if you can’t or don’t want to get and smash a fresh, whole one.

makes enough for 4 as a side dish

1 tbs oil

2 tbs ghee (or butter)

1 small onion

1 medium size potato (200g ish)

140g / 1 cup frozen peas

40g fresh coconut (or 40g / ½ cup dried coconut)

2 small, red, dried chilis (depending on how how you like it!)

20-25g fresh ginger (a thumb-sized piece)

large bunch (40g) fresh mint – save a few leaves for garnish

200g / 1 cup rice

1 1/2 tsp salt

Heat a large saucepan with oil and ghee on a medium heat. Roughly chop onion in food processor then sautée for 3-4 minutes. Dice potato, add to pan with peas, allow to cook for 5 minutes.

In the same food processor, finely blend coconut, chilis and ginger with 60ml / 1/4 cup water, then blend again with the mint leaves, until it makes a kind of pesto.

Rinse rice in a sieve and give it a good shake to remove excess water. Add mint paste to the pan, along with the rice, salt and 375ml water (1½ cups). Bring to a boil, stir, then cover and cook on a low heat for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow to sit for 10 minutes for the rice to finish steaming – do not remove the lid! Fluff up the rice with a fork, serve warm.

leftovers (22.01.16)

22 Jan

soup and honey and bees

For a cheat’s pilaf: cook rice as usual, but with turmeric, a cinnamon stick, bay leaf and a knob of butter. Fry sliced onions in butter to brown, add chopped hazelnuts and barberries at the last minute. Toss with a portion of rice. Leftover rice (no onions) can be reheated with milk and a handful grated coconut for rice pudding-breakfast.

The above non-recipe was inspired by the Britannia, a Parsi restaurant in Mumbai. Since returning from India, I have been to a Persian cooking class (where I made these lamb and apricot meatballs) and am keen to learn more.

To begin with: Iran: the Land of Bread and Spice

Also reading about ozoni, Japanese New Year soup at Lucky Peach. My flatmate made us something similar on 1st January, a vegetable broth with leftover mint rice, lentils and roasted peppers from our NYE meal. She said it reminded her of her Chilean family, while for me it recalled New Year at the Japanese bakery.

Breakfast in Dhaka. Actually, all the breakfasts from around the world at Roads and Kingdoms.

Bees! Honey on the rooftops of Paris, and mead in its catacombs.

Dreaming about an invite to one of these secret Parisian parties…

…but I did get to eat at the very busy The Palomar in London: octopus with chickpeas; grilled cauliflower with labneh; and prawns on a bed of silky aubergines. Finished with a neatly disordered ‘Jerusalem Mess’ of labneh mousse, lemon cream, sorrel and strawberries.

And finally, I got lost marvelling at the incredible crumb on the breads from @instajorgen, the baker at Jane, in San Francisco.

tahini thumbprint cookies with a quick citrus marmalade

14 Jan

tahini marmalade cookies

It has been a quiet week at home. I have been baking to cure an undefinable ennui. (Sometimes I don’t want to know why I am sad, I just want to get my hands floury and bash some brioche dough into submission.)

This recipe was right at the back of Ottolenghi’s cult book, Jerusalem. And although it felt like sacrilege to mess with a master, I thought his simple tahini cookies could be made into thumbprints rather than flattened with a fork. And that a bitter, lemony marmalade to fill those thumbprints would complement the rich buttery, sesame flavour.  Also, pastry geekery, that a touch of cornstarch would make them more crumbly, shortbread-y. (Enough -y suffixes yet?)

Being right about all of those things (I am an I-told-you-so kind of person), and eating several cookies at once, made me feel instantly brighter. Give yourself a hit of butter, sugar, sesame and citrus in lieu of sunshine.

~~~

Tahini thumbprint cookies with quick citrus marmalade

Cookie recipe ever so slightly adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem, marmalade is mine. Use any citrus you like for the marmalade as long as it is relatively thin skinned (grapefruit would not work, for example). I have tried it with a tangerine and a bit of lemon, and with a whole lemon and half a tangerine. Depends how much you like bitter flavours! You can of course use a shop marmalade and mix the cookies by hand if you don’t have a food processor.

makes 30 

130g caster sugar

150g unsalted butter, room temperature

110g tahini

5g / 1 tsp fine salt

25 ml double cream / crème fraîche

250g plain flour

20g cornstarch

optional for decoration: sesame seeds

for the citrus marmalade:

150g citrus, including peel (eg 1 tangerine, 1/2 lemon)

150g sugar

Make the marmalade: halve the citrus fruits and pick out any pips. Then, in a food processor, blend citrus peel and all with the sugar, to a fine paste. Bring to the boil in a small saucepan, then simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. It will thicken and start to leave tracks on the bottom of the pan.

Preheat oven to 180C.

Using the same food processor, no need to wash it (it will give the biscuits a lemony taste): blend sugar and butter until soft and creamy but not fluffy. Add tahini, cream and salt, mix to combine. Then add flour and cornstarch to form a dough. You may need to bring the dough together with your hands: knead once or twice to make a smooth ball. Roll small balls (about 20g each) to make 30 in total. Space them out on a baking tray (or two). Firmly press a thumb into each one to make a generous dent. (Optional: dip the top of the cookies in sesame seeds.) Bake for 15 minutes until golden.

Fill dents in the cookies with marmalade. Should keep well for 4-5 days in an airtight tin.

 

lamb, apricot and fennel meatballs

7 Jan

persian lamb apricot meatballs

These lamb and apricot meatballs are so delicious that I have made them three times in three weeks. They have a light texture with a touch of sweetness, complemented by earthy, toasted fennel seeds and fresh, chopped dill. Called koofteh in Iran, kofta or kefta elsewhere, the word means to punch or to pummel, which  is how you treat the mixture, squashing and punching the meat until the fibres all but dissolve, blending with the apricot and onion for a more airy result. The cooked meatballs are finished with a yoghurt sauce, a drizzle of pomegranate molasses and a handful more dill.

I learned the recipe at a cooking class in London with Sabrina Ghayour. Her food was a modern take on the traditional Iranian, fresher and lighter. One thing we learned was that Persian food often contrasts fruit with meat; she made an incredible lamb and quince stew too. You can read her writing in the Guardian, which has an alternative meatball recipe with dried cherries or cranberries instead of apricots.

Serve these koofteh as party snacks – with kebab sticks making them into ‘lollipops’ as Ghayour calls them – and they will disappear in minutes. Equally nice for a meal with rice (Persian-style with a crispy bottom layer, or tah dig) or with flatbread and a simple salad.

~~~

Persian lamb, apricot and fennel meatballs

from Sabrina Ghayour – her book Persiana is out now. She recommends using latex gloves for this recipe as you need to bring the mixture together by hand, and the turmeric can temporarily stain your fingers. And it seems like a lot of fennel seeds but it works!

makes 30-40 depending on size – serves 6 with other dishes alongside

500g minced lamb

1 small onion

150g dried apricots

50g fennel seeds

2 eggs

2 tsp turmeric

20g fresh dill, chopped

2 tsp flaky sea salt

ground black pepper

to serve: yoghurt, pomegranate molasses, nigella seeds/black sesame seeds, more chopped dill

If you have a food processor, use it to finely chop the onion and dried apricots. Otherwise, do so by hand. Toast the fennel seeds in a dry frying pan until golden and fragrant. Grind in a mortar and pestle (or my home equivalent, a thick mug and a rolling pin).

Tip all ingredients into a large bowl and squash together with one hand. (Use latex gloves if you have some.) Punch the mixture until the meat almost disintegrates. Taste to check the seasoning – add more salt and pepper if necessary. (You can fry or microwave a small amount if you don’t want to test raw meat.) Roll into even balls. At this point the meatballs can be refrigerated to fry up later.

Heat a large frying pan with enough olive oil to cover the pan. When a drop of water sizzles in the oil, add the meatballs, trying not to crowd them too much. Fry the meatballs to a nice brown on one side, flip them all carefully and carry on, shaking the pan once or twice so they cook evenly. Cut one open to see if fully cooked. If you are making a big batch, brown the meatballs and arrange on a baking tray to finish off in the oven.

To serve: thin some yoghurt down with some water or olive oil to the texture of thick cream. Arrange the meatballs on a platter and drizzle the yoghurt sauce on top. Follow with a drizzle of pomegranate molasses (or sweet tamarind sauce or even honey) then shower with chopped dill and nigella or sesame seeds for colour.

If serving as a snack, stick wooden kebab skewers or toothpicks in each one. If it is part of a meal, serve with a salad, flatbread and extra yoghurt sauce.

 

 

abrikossnitte (apricot-pecan twists)

30 Dec

abrikossnitte coffee tangerine drawing

I spent most of Christmas Eve at our kitchen bench, drinking tea and reading the paper, watching my mother cook. It was a different kitchen, a different city, from where I grew up, but sitting at that old, scratched bench it felt like home. It was where I had breakfast and after school snacks, where I made Christmas cookies with friends, where I perched for a last cup of tea and piece of cake when the house was dark and quiet.

Open on the bench was a copy of The Cooking of Scandinavia, for the split-pea soup recipe. It is a borrowed family tradition: the Swedish have pea soup on a Thursday, we have it on Christmas Eve. A thick yellow soup, flavoured with ham, onion and a few cloves, always served with a dollop of sharp mustard in each bowl. It has nothing to do with Christmas except that it is whole and hearty, good preparation for the onslaught of rich food ahead.

Leafing through the book and laughing (not unkindly) at the old-school food styling, I remembered some of the Scandinavian Christmas traditions I have bumped into: one Christmas Eve with a friend’s family, we had Danish risalamande, or rice pudding with whipped cream and flaked almonds. The person who found the whole almond won a small marzipan pig. This year on 13th December, or Santa Lucia, a Swedish friend brought us gingerbread stars topped with a bit of blue cheese, a surprisingly delicious combination. I have also been following Fanny Zanotti’s dreamy photos and recipes from a snowy Christmas in Sweden.

Then I found a comprehensive section on Danish pastries, which the Danish actually call Wienerbrød, literally ‘bread from Vienna’, which is where flaky breakfast pastries actually originated. Hence viennoiserie in as a general term in France. The recipe is pretty similar to croissant-making, but with egg and milk and fragrant cardamom in the dough, and slightly different folds.

This variation, the abrikossnitte, translated as ‘apricot slips’ are little rectangles of dough – layered with apricot jam – that look like they have been twisted or plaited. I was curious to try the shape, much easier to make than it is to describe. Or draw: my original drawings made my mother laugh for how vulgar they looked. A laminated dough is not difficult, once you know how, but it does take time. (A good holiday project.) So I spent Christmas Eve alternating kneading, rolling, and reading while the dough rested. They were ready for breakfast the next day: flaky twists, sticky and sweet with a crunch from the pecans on top. Perfect with a pot of strong coffee.

abrikossnitte folds

Abrikossnitte (Apricot-pecan twists)

adapted from The Cooking of Scandinavia, by Dale Brown and Time-Life Books

Scandinavian buns are often flavoured with cardamom and may be filled with jam or almond paste as well. This variation look like little twisted rectangles, layered with apricot jam, but the dough can be used for many different shapes or flavours. Try with Nutella instead of jam, or even cheese and mustard.

The whole process will take a minimum of 6 hours (most of which is time in the fridge). Or it can be done over 48 hours, depending on your schedule: just leave the dough in the fridge between steps. If at any point the dough feels too soft or sticky to roll – pop it in the freezer for 5-10 minutes to solidify the butter, then carry on. The dough can also be frozen at any point (up to a month) and defrosted overnight in the fridge, before continuing as before.

makes 8-10

260g plain flour

35g caster sugar

5g / 1 tsp salt

5g / 1 tsp fast-acting yeast

10 cardamom pods / ¼ tsp ground cardamom

100g milk

1 egg (50g)

125g butter, cold

100g apricot jam

to decorate: a little milk + coarse sugar + chopped pecans

Mix all the dry ingredients in a large bowl. (If using whole cardamom pods, remove seeds and grind them in a mortar and pestle.) Make a well in the centre, add the milk and egg and bring everything into a dough with one hand. Add a splash of milk if too dry or a touch of flour if very wet – although it should be a bit sticky at the beginning. Knead for 10 minutes on the counter until smooth and stretchy. Wrap in plastic and chill for 30 minutes.

Prepare the butter slab: place butter in the middle of a large piece of baking paper. Fold it around the butter, like wrapping a present, to make a parcel about 15x20cm, A5 size. Tap butter with a rolling pin to soften, then roll out to fill the paper parcel, of an even thickness all over. Chill until firm.

With a lightly floured counter, roll out the dough to about 20x30cm. Carefully unwrap and place the cold butter on the top two thirds of the dough rectangle (see picture above). Fold over the bottom third, then the top third with the butter. Rotate the dough 90° (so that it looks ‘like a book’ with the seam on the side). Press down gently on each seam – top, bottom and side – with the rolling pin so the butter can’t escape.

Roll out lengthways to 40-50cm. Fold the narrow ends into the middle, then fold in half – this is a ‘double’, ‘wallet’ or ‘book’ fold. Chill for 30 minutes then repeat the double fold, making sure that it looks ‘like a book’ when you begin rolling.

Finally, roll out one more time, just long enough to fold the dough in half. Chill for 2-3 hours or overnight. (Or freeze the dough at this point for later.)

Roll out the dough block to a thin rectangle, about 20x45cm. Spread apricot jam on one long half (10x45cm) then fold over the bare half. Divide the long strip into 8 rectangles. Cut a slit in the middle of each rectangle, then tuck one end under and pull it through the cut, forming a twist effect (see picture below). Space the 8 twists out on a baking tray lined with paper. Loosely cover in plastic and allow to double in size at room temperature or in a gently warm place (no more than 25°C). Allow for at least an hour. OR refrigerate the tray overnight and carry on in the morning. OR freeze twists until later, then defrost when needed on a tray in the fridge overnight.

Preheat oven to 200°C. When twists have doubled, brush gently with milk, sprinkle with coarse sugar and (optional extra) chopped pecans. Bake for 5 minutes at 200°C then lower the heat to 180°C for another 10-15 minutes, until they are nice and golden-brown all over and underneath. Allow to cool for 10-15 minutes before eating.

abrikossnitte cuts

notes from a food conference

9 Nov

notes from a food conference

Doodles from the notes I took at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cooking, 2015. I still need to re-read everything I wrote down – all the stories from ancient to modern, from Greece to Japan. I still smile at the line “old cookbooks were just lists of ingredients, no verbs” (and no photos, bien sûr) – we have come full circle with some modern cookbooks all neat info-graphics, no words at all.

macaroni and three cheeses

2 Nov

macaroni cheese, candles

Maybe you had a bad day. Maybe you came home tired and needed to take off your shoes and your smile. Maybe your day was fine, right up until someone asked, really asked, how was your day? and instead of saying, yes, fine, you cry unapologetically for an hour. Maybe you just wept while they reassured you, feeling selfish to be sad, but without the energy to protest. Maybe because you didn’t resist, their words washed over you and into you and made you cry again, but in relief.

By this time it is probably nearly ten o’clock, and you are tired and your cheeks are tight with salt tears, the opposite of a day at the beach. But something they said stuck with you, take care of yourself first. Make your own bed, serve yourself something you would cook for two.

If you are hungry now, or at least curious for food, you boil the kettle, heat a pot with water, salt. Stare at the water blankly. Then you look through the cupboards for something to eat – rice, potatoes, bulgur wheat. Is there any pasta? Please be pasta. Tip some elbow things, macaroni, into the boiling water, enough for one, two. Serve yourself something as nicely as if it were for someone else as well. There is just a tablespoon of butter, enough for a roux with a tablespoon of flour. Cook, stirring, in a small saucepan until nutty, then whisk in a cup of milk a little at a time. Maybe you spill some of the milk, but you don’t cry again.

There are odds and ends of cheese in the fridge from different adventures: stinky Epoisses, smoked Idiazabal, Cashel blue. You spend a minute grateful for your wanderings. Crumble or grate the cheese, and toast a few walnuts in the oven. By now the pasta is cooked, the béchamel thick, speckled with nutmeg and pepper. A bit lumpy, you don’t care. It all goes into a little baking dish – macaroni, cheese, sauce, walnuts – more grated cheese on top and into the still hot oven. You may still be tired, eyelids at half-mast, but your curiosity and appetite have been piqued. You might have made something truly delicious.

There is exactly one glass of red wine left from the night before. The pasta takes seven minutes to brown on top, which is all you need. Lettuce, dressing. By ten thirty you have dinner. Eat straight out of the baking dish, candles lit. Comfort food for company, for one.

plum and hazelnut financiers

27 Oct

autumn gourmet desserts

Working on recipes over the summer holidays, I made what was possibly the ugliest dessert of all time. It didn’t taste terrible but it looked a mess. It reminded me of being an apprentice, trying to cut corners to go faster and having to start again entirely. Short cuts take twice as long, I learned. And I could feel the ghost of our strict French chef breathing over my shoulder as I attempted to pipe this monstrosity.

My friend was polite about it: I’ll save half for breakfast! No, it was nice, honestly. But she was betrayed by her comparative enthusiasm for the second thing we made that day, these simple, little plum and hazelnut cakes. We made them in cupcake pans with sliced plums on top, and in little moulds the size of corks that we ate hot as soon as they came out of the oven, not even a mouthful.

The financier is a cousin to the madeleine, and a superior cousin at that (though I share a name with the latter). (I’m also the oldest cousin in my English family, so.) Both are little buttery snack-cakes, but financiers are made with browned butter, what the French call beurre noisette, so they already have a toasty aroma that is only enhanced by the ground nuts, in this case hazelnuts. They stay fresh for a few days too, unlike madeleines which are best eaten on the first day. Plums are a perfect autumn accompaniment, the thin slices turning jammy in the oven, with a few halved hazelnuts on top for crunch.

Apart from browning the butter, the preparation is pretty easy. Stir, chill, bake. Ideally the mixture should rest in the fridge for a few hours to properly chill for the perfect texture. It will keep for a few days refrigerated, so if you have more mixture than tins, you can make a second batch later on.

Plum and hazelnut financiers

adapted from Hugues Pouget in Fou de Pâtisserie 12. It is an easily customisable recipe – substitute almonds or walnuts; add spices, citrus zest, vanilla or even finely ground tea for different effects; use seasonal fruits like raspberries, apples, pears…

makes 20-24

80g plain flour

120g ground hazelnuts

200g caster sugar

200g butter

20g honey

215g egg whites (about 7-8)

grated nutmeg

pinch of salt

3-4 ripe plums

whole hazelnuts for decoration

Sift flour, hazelnuts and sugar into a large bowl. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat and keep going until it starts to foam and sizzle, then subside. After a couple of minutes, you should smell the milk solids in the butter toasting, similar to hazelnuts. This is easiest in a light coloured pan, as you can see them turn brown (but not black!). If you have a thermometer, cook the butter to 145C. Remove from the heat, add honey and allow to cool. Mix egg whites into flour/nuts/sugar, then stir in the cooled butter, nutmeg and pinch of salt. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours (up to several days).

Grease cupcake moulds or line with papers. Fill each mould about 3/4 full. Finely slice plums and halve hazelnuts and arrange 2-3 slices of plum and 2-3 hazelnut halves on each financier. (This step can be done straightaway if preferred and then refrigerated in the pans).

Preheat oven to 170C and bake for 12-15 minutes. They should be golden all over and brown around the edges. Will keep for 2-3 days in airtight tin.

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