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knäckebrot, or cinema crackers

16 Apr

What do chefs eat after work? David Lebovitz says it is popcorn and tortilla chips. When I worked at a bakery, I took home the leftovers, ate half a raspberry-chocolate mousse cake and fell asleep at 8pm.

Now I tend to go for: the beef satay pho from the place on the corner, which can have it ready in four minutes flat. Or: spaghetti with miso and butter. Or: frozen gyoza and frozen edamame reheated in the time it takes to boil a kettle.

Or if I am lucky, my past self filled up the tin of seeded crackers and I can eat those with Comté and sliced fennel. They taste like the really expensive crackers in the organic food aisle – not like the dry, diet ones that are basically cardboard. Good with cheese of course, or with jam for breakfast, or crumbled over savoury dishes for extra crackle.

Best of all, the crackers only take two minutes to mix up, and an hour to bake. They are mostly seeds, held together with a bit of flour and some oats. There is no rolling involved, so it doesn’t feel like work. And they can last forever, or for a fortnight, depending on how many you made and if your flatmate looks in the tin.

Or, since at the end of a long day I don’t always want to cook, talk to anyone or think about anything: I go to the movies by myself, with a paper bag of these seeded crackers, and eat them during the noisy parts.


Knäckebrot, or cinema crackers

recipe from my aunt Patricia

The quantity below is enough for one standard oven tray of 40x25cm – I recommend making as many trays as will fit in the oven at once as the crackers keep for months (ha) but disappear much fast than that. (See the spreadsheet version underneath.) Use a mix of whatever seeds you have around, and up to 10% of spices, like caraway, cumin or fennel.

50g rye flour (T130) or wholewheat flour (T150)

50g rolled oats

85g mixed seeds (any of sesame, pumpkin, sunflower, flax, nigella – and up to 10% spices like caraway, cumin, fennel seeds)

2.5g / 1/2 tsp salt

175g water

5g / 1 tsp olive oil

Heat oven to 130C. Mix everything in a large bowl for a texture like porridge. Line your oven trays with paper or silpats, and weigh 360g onto each. Spread out with a spatula over the whole tray, as thinly and evenly as possible. Pop trays in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove trays one by one and carefully cut the now set mixture into squares, or whatever you want your crackers to look like. Put back in the oven for 1 hour. If they are still a little soft, turn the oven off and leave them inside to dry out. Store in a tin.

Spreadsheet version, all in grams:

[Rye flour recipe, number 1 out of 3]


21 Dec

coriander jar

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.

cinnamon, cumin and pepper jars

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.

hazelnuts sesame and salt


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.

rebecca’s salmon and lychee salad

8 Feb

salmon salad 3

Travelling is best when you can put on someone else’s life for the weekend, see a city through a local’s eyes. Visiting yet another cousin, I was happy to bypass Parliament House and go straight to the farmer’s market early Saturday morning instead. I tagged along to a yoga class and ran a race with her in the nearby mountains. I liked her version of the green city that involved a lot of walking, with breaks for vegan chocolate chip cookies in a bar decorated with skulls and cacti. I liked that it was small enough that we bumped into her friends everywhere we went, to the extent that one of them joked he had been paid to make her seem popular. I liked that the woman in the Chinese supermarket knew and joked with her when we bought lychees and coconut milk.

Maybe it was all of the outdoors that made me hungry, the scent of gum trees and crackle of leaves underfoot, but I especially liked the supper we cooked together, better than any restaurant. It was her weekly standby, one she is happy to eat again and again, changing a few ingredients but keeping the basics: salmon marinated in fish sauce, pan-fried to give it a crisp brown edge; a bowl of greens, cucumber and lettuce and onion; the unexpected addition of lychees, canned were fine; and a lime-chili-fish sauce dressing. It was fresh, salty, tangy with plenty of crunch and bite from the chili. The generous handfuls of herbs and that addictive dressing made it totally addictive. I made it twice more in the next ten days, not always giving Rebecca the full credit! So here is her official acknowledgement; this will go down in my cavallo di battiglia folder to be made over and over.


For an easy dessert along the same theme, mix equal quantities of leftover lychee juice and coconut milk to make a quick and unusual granita: pour into a shallow metal dish and freeze for 3-4 hours, stirring every 30 minutes to break up the crystals. Serve plain or with fresh mango.


Rebecca’s salmon and lychee salad

Originally adapted from Bill Granger

Feeds 2-3 people, depending on appetite

2 salmon steaks

3 tbs fish sauce

1 tbs brown sugar

1 bag mixed leaves

1 cucumber

1 red onion

½ bunch coriander

½ bunch basil

1 tin lychees


1 small red chili

Juice of 2 limes

1 ½ tbs fish sauce

2 tsp brown sugar

Marinate salmon in fish sauce and sugar. Meanwhile slice the red onion as finely as possible, cut the cucumber into rounds, tear up the herbs, tip it all into a large salad bowl with the leaves. Drain lychees, reserve the juice and add the fruit to the salad. Cut up the chili (remove the seeds if you don’t like it too hot) and mix with lime juice, fish sauce, 1 tbs of the lychee juice. Taste and adjust accordingly, so it makes a nice balance between sweet, sharp, salty and hot. Pan fry the salmon until crisp around the edges, breaking it up into chunks in the pan as it cooks. Tip onto salad and pour over the dressing. Toss the salad, taste again and add more salt-sweet-sour if necessary.

noretta’s rosemary creams

27 Sep

rosemary creams 1

I found a kindred spirit and a perfect recipe.

I found an Italian relative I had never met and she gave me her cavallo di batiglia, her prize dessert.

It has only four ingredients. I wrote it down quickly, thinking it was missing something – gelatin maybe? – that I was missing something in my rusty Italian.

A pot of cream, like this. Double cream, not single. No no, not 500ml, that’s too much. Rosemary, this much. Sugar? Yes, you boil it with the cream and rosemary. For three minutes! No more! Just three. Then you add lemon juice, I don’t know, as much as you need. Quanto basta. 

Little pots, like this, it’s very rich. Then in the fridge for half a day, that’s it.

It was a revelation, magical in its simplicity. Once boiled, the cream thickens immediately upon adding few drops of lemon juice. It looks like lemon curd, or thick custard. Add a drop more, taste carefully to make sure the lemon does not overpower the key ingredient, the rosemary. Left in the fridge overnight, it becomes an unctuous smooth dessert, a pot de crème.

Reminiscent of white chocolate in its richness, cut through with the floral, woodsy rosemary, two spoonfuls are enough to set you dreaming.

They are very rich, best served in tiny ramekins or plain espresso cups. Decorate with a sprig of rosemary and serve with a bowl of ripe plums or grapes, delicate plain biscuits if you must. No dark chocolate, no coulis or drizzles of this or that. Really, you should just concentrate on the intense rosemary.

I found a perfect recipe and I cannot do it justice in words, it really is that good. I found family I hadn’t met before and she gave me this, rosemary for remembrance.

rosemary creams 2

Noretta’s Rosemary Creams

This might very well be delicious with mint, lemon verbena or basil – but I haven’t yet tried, I loved the rosemary so much. Double cream is important for the texture – if you can only get single cream, you could try replacing 75g with mascarpone to up the fat content.

makes 6 or 7 little desserts

300ml double cream

150g caster sugar

1 large sprig of rosemary (10cm)

juice of 1/4 lemon, more or less

In a small saucepan, bring to the boil the cream, sugar and rosemary. Let it bubble fiercely for exactly three minutes without boiling over. Remove the rosemary, and beat in a few drops of lemon juice. Keep adding lemon drop by drop, tasting as you go. Stop when the cream thickens like lemon curd but before it tastes too lemony – the predominant flavour should be the rosemary. Pour into six or seven small dishes, espresso cups or ramekins. Cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for an afternoon or overnight.

Serve with fruit or delicate plain biscuits.

tell me what you eat

22 Aug



Tell me what you eat, where you ate.

Like my friend Bella, a North London girl who speaks perfect menu Italian.

I can talk for hours in the simple language of main course, dessert.

I can make the gesture for ‘buono’ beloved of Italian grannies, a forefinger on the dimple in your cheek rotated a couple of times. I can use two fingers not as the English use in insult but for ‘facciamo due spaghetti’ when hungry and only a forkful of pasta will do.

I can say ‘oishii’ or ‘oishi sooooo’ (delicious, looks delicious) in a perfect Japanese accent, or stamp my feet and utter ‘tabetai!” (roughly means ‘want! eat!’) My Japanese is otherwise lacking in vocabulary, but I understand the litany of ramen, unagi, tonkatsu that my colleagues sigh over every morning.

You can make my eyes light up by reciting a list of burrata, ‘nduja, spritz e stuzzichini.

Tell me what you eat, where you ate and we can talk for hours.


A longer version was originally written for the delightful Gravity Zine, issue #2. 

Buy your exclusive paper copy here please.

strawberries and shortbread

22 Apr


Making fun of the French is all too easy. It has become a bad habit that I wear as easily as my shapeless duffel coat. What can I say? Their typically closed-off rule-following ways make for good anecdotes.

There was the time I went to the department store BHV and needed to ask five (famously snooty) shop assistants before one would deign to point me in the right direction for a cake stand. There are the continual awkward encounters with neighbours, who have made small talk about the weather with me for two years, who have all accepted free cakes from my bakery – but will never introduce themselves. I know that the couple on the 6th floor has a cat named Carlos. They have given me flowers to thank me for said cake. But they still don’t feel obliged to share their names.

Then there is the insistence on correct grammar, a reverence for words that I totally understand but still find amusing when upside in a hot yoga class and a student takes the time and breath to correct the American instructor: it’s la cheville not le. 

My first year in Paris, my year abroad, I wanted to integrate. I actively avoided anglophones. However this led to living and working with only Italians, a pleasant and unexpected consequence. I learned how to salt pasta water (heavily) and that una forchettata (a forkful) means a good 150g portion. I practiced some French, tangentially, with friends of friends or as a stilted common language with the rare German or Polish colleague, all confused and a little annoyed to find themselves in the crossfire of Italian chatter in that most French of institutions in the very heart of the city, in the Louvre.


The second time around, a year later, I tried again. Granted, I was living with another Italian girl, the charming flatmate. But we made an effort to meet Frenchies, joined capoeira class, made small talk at soirees. Slowly slowly though, I started meeting English-speaking friends, an American, a couple of nice Canadians. Several girls from my tiny hometown of Hereford, all escaped to France in search of adventure. And I got to be myself a little more – my voice is squeakier and much more prissy in French, whereas in English (I hope) I am funnier, more relaxed.

Maybe my frog-mocking is just self-protection: it’s hard to fit in with the French. To break the ice without asking what someone does for a living, to slip in the subjunctive like it’s no big deal, to know how the latest thoughtful and depressing movie fits into the director’s back catalogue. It’s a little like tagging along with a sophisticated older sibling, trying to keep up. Just like brothers and sisters, the French and the English seem to be endlessly in competition, always making fun of each other more or less affectionately. That’s my excuse anyway, for pandering to stereotypes, which do nonetheless have a small grain of truth in them. And they do it too; how many times have I admitted to being English only to hear an often misinformed diatribe about how terrible our food/weather/national character is. (Oh dear, I am being a bratty little sister: ‘He does it too! He started it!’)

In the end though, the fact that I am still here has to count for something. I like all of the other cliched ideas about France, that its people take art and aesthetics, fine food and wine so seriously. I have become the Parisian who wouldn’t live anywhere else, wouldn’t give up all the city’s expos and vernissages, its street theatre, but still relishes a weekend in the French countryside with its rustic charm and simple meals. I love going to market and peering at the heaping mounds of produce, asking for that one to be ripe for tonight’s supper and another for three days time. Their care and attention when it comes to food is a kind of open-house hospitality, welcoming you in for the best they have to offer. You taste the cassoulet and mi-cuit foie gras from the farm next door and you notice immediately their pride in their culinary heritage.


All the eating is part of a larger whole, the expectation that having followed those rules, paid one’s dues – the reward is rest and relaxation. Though the two hour wine-soaked lunch is becoming less common, the French have three bank holidays in May alone (in the sunshine of course) and still make the most of their five weeks holiday a year, preferably for a long August vacation. The state is very generous with unemployment benefits – which includes free entry into museums and cultural institutions – with health insurance and with help towards paying the rent for students and those on a low wage, even for foreigners like me. Provided you fill in all the forms of course, that is the classic stumbling block. Once you have cleared that hurdle, you are free to wander the streets and markets, pretending to be French, hoping that your charming accent will go unnoticed for two more minutes.

On the subject of fresh ripe fruit from the market, the gariguette strawberries are finally in season. I rather bossily ordered a friend coming to dinner to pick me up a punnet or two for dessert “and definitely not any of those Spanish monstrosities.” Gariguettes are small and delicate and sweet, a more translucent red than the aggresively farmed ruby berries from Spain that are available all year around. These ones come out around March to June, and are extremely sensitive. They must be handled with care for they bruise easily. (Here I could make an unflattering parallel with a prissy Parisian, but I won’t.) They collapse in a puddle of juice when bitten into, releasing a sweet perfumed flavour that I had forgotten over the winter. Like having Italian sun-ripened tomatoes after months of those tough supermarket orbs, you remember when eating gariguettes what strawberries are supposed to taste like.

Though I was planned to make a fancy mousse cake with a jelly middle, iced and beribboned, in the end I left the strawberries whole and fresh in all their glory. We ate the shortbread base plain with some icing sugar, perfectly crumbly from the subtle addition of rice flour. The fruit was dipped in melted chocolate and honeyed cream. I should be promoting the extravagant cake, but really there is nothing nicer after a big meal than sharing big bowls of fruit, reaching across the table to grab at chocolate, making a pile of strawberry, shortbread and mascarpone for each bite. It was very companionable. In fact, this improvised pudding has the best of France, England and even Italy in all its basic ingredients.


Strawberries and shortbread

technically feeds six polite people at a dinner party, but I like the shortbread so much I can eat most of it in one sitting (full disclosure, it comes from my mother’s book Seasonal Secrets)

125g butter, room temperature

50g caster sugar

125g plain flour

50g rice flour

1/2 tsp salt

zest of 1 lemon

to serve:

500g fresh ripe gariguette strawberries

more sliced fruit – kiwis or mangoes are good for colour contrast

200g dark chocolate, melted

250g mascarpone (or clotted cream)

3 tbs milk

1 tbs honey

Heat oven to 175C. Cream the butter and sugar, stir in flours, zest and salt until it just starts to come together. Line a tin with baking paper – I used a 22cm ring on a baking sheet to make  it easy to emove when baked – and press the dough firmly into it. Bake for 15-18 minutes until golden and just brown around the edges. Let cool.

When ready to eat, melt the chocolate gently over a pan of simmering water. Mix the mascarpone with the milk and honey to make a smooth dipping consistency. Cut the shortbread into diamonds and dust with icing sugar. Slice any other fruit neatly, serve the strawberries as they are. Plonk everything in the middle of the table and hand your guests skewers or fondue forks, let them help themselves.

THE chocolate cake (seventh simple pleasure)

12 Sep

Everyone has (should have) one of these. A simple chocolate cake recipe to pull out for special occasions. Everyone likes (should like) chocolate cake.  And this one is good. Dark and brooding, buttery with a touch of salt. A faintly crumbly texture from the almonds that exempts it from the truffle category. That would be too decadent, a slice of chocolate truffle.

Like a book that you need to put down several times so as not to finish it too soon – this cake is one slow, overwhelming bite at a time. Then, satiated, you need to share. To rave about it to someone else.

This is a party cake, a show off cake. (And yet it only it takes five minutes to stir together.) The cake and recipe were offered to me at our housewarming more than six months ago. Yesterday I made it for another party, to celebrate the anniversary of Frances in France. Marvelled that in one short year I had met enough friends to make a whole party. Friends that gladly dressed up as Napoleon, Asterix, the Paris Metro. Friends that danced, drank, ate cake.

Most of my simple pleasures are solitary. My personal bare necessities, carefully thought out one day in a park with a squashed strawberry-thyme tart. Eat when hungry, sleep when tired. Move your body. Be in nature. Discover the new and beautiful. Do what you do. But the final one – the caveat – was to know how to


I don’t believe that you need another half or a constant social circle to properly be. In fact I would like to know how to enjoy myself really, truly, quietly alone first –  to better share my delight later.

But playing tourist in your own city with a guest makes you look around more attentively when you are alone again. Baking for an appreciative crowd reminds you of the pleasure in the act of cooking solo.

I am thoroughly grateful for the people that surround me. The people that wake me up and spin me around. I would not have survived this year without them.

Thank-you, both new and familiar people. Please accept this cake as proof of my gratitude.

*Very much indebted to the Happiness Project for the series  idea

THE Chocolate Cake

200g dark chocolate (at least 60% cocoa solids)

200g butter

170g sugar

5 eggs

100g ground almonds

Preheat oven to 180C. Grease or line a round cake tin.

In a small bowl, melt the butter and chocolate together on a low heat in the microwave. Stir and let cool. In another larger bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar until smooth. Add the chocolate mixture, then the almonds. Mix until just combined. Pour into the tin and tap the tin against the counter to release any air bubbles.

Bake for 20-25 minutes maximum. Leave to cool before cutting into thin slices. Serve alone or with slivers of fruit.

roast chicken with mustard and cumin (sixth simple pleasure)

19 Jul

Do what you do. Love what you do.

Find the thing that makes you smile. It really is that simple.

Consider a fancy degree and shrug. Consider all the disadvantages: early mornings, ugly shoes, a permanent coating of flour. And jump up and down with excitement anyway.

Make a pros and cons list and screw it up. Work with your visceral reaction. What does your stomach tell you? Does your choice fill you with energy or make you nauseous?

Does it scare you? Then it is probably what you really want.

Do you know where it will lead? Does it matter if it makes you smile? Like running, you pick a tree in the distance and aim for it. When you arrive, you pick another tree. You keep going.

For me, at the moment, it really is that bloody simple. I am going to keep running. I am going to be a pâtissière. You can find me in a little boutique in Montmartre, covered in flour and full of joy.


(It might seem odd to offer a recipe for roast chicken instead some high-faluting dessert. But pastry people’s trousers are called pied de poule, chicken feet.

And this is the most beautiful thing I have made recently: crackly savoury skin ten times better than the simple mustard-spice marinade I stirred together. Peppery outsides, juicy insides. Two minutes preparation. Guaranteed to make you smile.)


Roast chicken with mustard and cumin

serves 4

4 whole chicken legs (drumsticks and thighs) skin on

2 tbs dijon mustard

4 tbs crème fraiche

3 tbs olive oil

1 tsp sea salt

1 tsp crushed black pepper

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp fennel seeds

Preheat oven to 180C. Cover a large oven tray with baking paper.

In a large bowl, mix together everything but the chicken. Don’t be afraid to use more mustard as the taste fades slightly when baked. Drop two chicken legs into the bowl and slather all over with the mustard sauce. Be generous – there should be a thick layer like a ladies’ face mask, not like a layer of suncream. Place the legs on the tray and repeat. (Make some more sauce if there isn’t enough left.)

With the legs evenly spaced out on the tray, put it in the oven for about 35-40 minutes. The skin should be a dark crackly brown; if you poke the insides with a sharp knife, the juices should run clear.

Serve immediately, with a grated carrot salad dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and fresh bread to soak up the last drops.

tarte flambée: alsatian pizza with creme fraiche, bacon and onions (fifth simple pleasure)

4 Jul

Notice the new and beautiful.

For me, this means travel. I have a scratch map on my wall, on which I am slowly exposing the colours, staring tormented at the great expanse of Russia. Several weekends in new cities, guided by old friends, have been the perfect relaxation this year. Being prompted to look up and around. To take photos of spiralling gold gateways or peace-and-love graffiti. (So far, Paris still has that charm for me, though I need reminding.) An excuse to visit extra art museums or to wander around the zoo and laugh at pelicans.

School exchange in Strasbourg had exactly the same elements: discovery, beauty, fun, all slightly out of the comfort zone. Just fourteen, I stammered through family meals in pathetic French. One thrilling evening we escaped la famille and found ourselves in an underground tavern with illicit jugs of beer. Rounds and rounds of tarte flambée, familiar and yet different Alsatian pizza, were casually passed around like frisbees.

We came home with photos not to be shown to the parents, more gossip about boys, second-hand clothes sold by the kilo. And a recipe for tarte flambée. Not even a recipe – the idea of creme fraiche liberally sprinkled with bacon and onions and baked crisp. Most cultures have their own version of bread or pancakes, cheap peasant food elevated by a few salty toppings.

A good ten years later (a painful thought) I am just home from Prague. I can’t say I am particularly inspired to make breaded and fried cheese hermelin. But I have a stash of memories – from the double dutch difficulty of Czech to the sound of  a makeshift jazz band on the old bridge. The scribbled biro drawings I can’t wait to recreate on a tablet. Three days of looking UP and AROUND is an amazing tonic.


Tarte flambée

serves 6 elves or 3 actual hungry people

420g flour

1 packet instant yeast

250ml luke-warm water

45ml olive oil

1/2 tsp salt


250ml creme fraiche

1 red onion, diced roughly

250g (at least) bacon, chopped or lardons

salt and pepper

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, yeast and salt. Test the water with your hand: it should be tepid, just luke-warm. Make a well in the centre of the flour and pour in the water and oil. Roughly mix it together with a blunt knife until it starts to form a sticky blob. Now use your hands: push the dough together, scraping up the last bits of flour.

Start to knead the dough, flouring your hands as you go. It will be sticky at first but will soon become smooth and stretchy. To knead: fold the ball of dough in half and push down with the ball of your hand. Turn the dough a quarter-turn and fold in half again. Keep going for about 5 minutes. You will end up with a smooth ball. Cover the bowl with cling-film and leave in a warm place (not too hot) for at least an hour, preferably until the dough has doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 225. When the dough has grown sufficiently, gently scrape it out of the bowl onto a floured worktop and cut into six even blobs. Shape them in balls and leave them to rest for at least 10 minutes. Roll out each ball as thin as you can without making holes in the dough. To make an even round, lift it up and use gravity to stretch it out.

Spread each round with a generous dollop of creme fraiche, a sprinkle of onions and lots of chopped bacons. Season with a little salt and pepper.

Bake in the hot oven for 12 minutes, more or less, depending on the oven strength. The edges should be a crisp deep brown, the bacon sizzling and the creme fraiche bubbling. Eat immediately.

Any leftover dough (as if!) can be baked in balls to make soft white bread, perhaps sprinkled with seeds.

super energy chocolate porridge (fourth simple pleasure)

22 May

Fourth simple pleasure: move your body.

She says, trying to convince herself to turn off the computer and put on her running shoes. Staring wistfully at the green leaves and small triangle of sky outside her window.

Proper joyful exercise provides energy; it doesn’t take it away. When the music kicks in at the beginning of capoeira – vou girar o mundo – I want to jump up and down. When it finally slows to a stop and we bow, hobble out of the gym covered in dust and sweat, I still want to turn clumsy cartwheels. Exhausted, but energised.

When I have the time and the motivation to run and run and run, I find myself in a meditative headspace. The drumbeat of one foot after another accompanies a jumbled mix of thoughts that slowly smooth themselves out.

When I return, I have a list of new inspirations and ideas carefully counted on my fingers. Without even a watch, I am free of everything but my body, my brain. I can tire out the physical, enliven the mind. Write virtual letters, try out pretend recipes, call a list of faraway people. Run away from my troubles.

I come home, tomato-red, make a vague effort to stretch and prepare a generous bowl of porridge. An egg for extra protein. Cocoa because it still has to taste good. Sometimes maple syrup, sometimes molasses. Every now and then some grated carrot and cinnamon for a carrot-cake effect.

But always, always I wonder why it took me so long to get out of the door in the first place. There is nothing in the world like that tired but contented mental energy.

Super energy chocolate porridge

serves one sporty girl

30g oats

1 squashy banana

1 tbsp cocoa powder

1 tsp cinnamon

80ml milk

80ml water

1 egg

1 tbsp sweetener of choice: agave nectar, maple syrup, honey, nutella

In a breakfast bowl, mash the banana and the oats together to a delightful mush. Stir in the cocoa, cinnamon, milk and water. Blast on a high heat in the microwave until thick and starting to bubble and rise up (about 2 minutes). Beat in the egg and the syrup/nutella etc. Add a little more water if it seems too thick. Return to the microwave for 30 seconds more.

Serve with more syrup or a sprinkle of seeds on top.

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