There are still nine days till Christmas and I am preemptively festively plump. I’ve drunk cocktails and sprained my ankle and danced on it anyway already. The tree is up, wrapping paper has been purchased, and still it does not feel like the season, because none of these things, in this city, are part of the traditions.
It’ll be almost time for the real festivities when I catch the train home, listening to “Driving Home for Christmas”, carrying a suitcase containing far more pairs of shoes than are at all necessary.
It’ll feel like December when I get the chance to sneak-peek at the presents.
It’ll be Christmas when I’m at home, sat in front of the fire with one of my mum’s boozy mince pies, watching Miracle on 34th Street yet again.
The best mince pie I’veever had remains a mystery to me – it was eaten during the sweltering part of summer 2012 in a test kitchen, where I was part of a team sampling dozens of Christmas puddings and mince pies. It was tough work. The one I loved was flaky, and buttery, and had just the right amount of booze and…I have no idea who made it. It will forever remain a mystery to me.
So rather than go around every supermarket trying to find it, I thought this year I’d break with tradition just a little bit. I put my own twist on it to make a festive variation that keeps in with one of 2013’s biggest baking trends, the hybrid dessert. Bottom half mince pie, Viennese whirl top, 100% delicious. Continue reading →
Last weekend, my mamma suggested that I try meditating. My very first thought was, so typically, “I don’t have time for that.”
I thrive on keeping busy, and have a creative mind that doesn’t rest even when I’m sleeping. I’ve been guilty before of juggling multiple projects, writing to-do lists broken down into many different sections, and realising too late that it’s worth taking a step back every now and then to avoiding burning out.
As Friday evening rolled around, the long weekend with no commitments stretched ahead of me, I realised that it had been weeks since I last baked, and weeks since I last didn’t feel on edge. And I remembered that, as it always has been, baking is my meditation.
So I baked, and baked some more, and then I had to find someone to take cookies off my hands. And now, my head’s in a more peaceful place.
Of course, it helps that there’s clafoutis in my fridge now too.
Before this weekend, I’d never eaten clafoutis, and to be honest wasn’t even 100% sure how to pronounce it. I’m that person who goes to an Italian restaurant and picks what to eat based on how easy it is to say: a lisp and a slight country bumpkin accent have set me up for a lifetime of pronunciation errors without even factoring ignorance in. It’s all kinds of embarrassing.
But with three empty days, and puddles to avoid as summer and autumn exchange pleasantries, the decision to stay inside and try something new came easily. Any ingredient list that includes sugar, milk, eggs, flour, and blueberries is guaranteed to pique my interest.
What came of it wasn’t like anything I had half-heartedly expected (having, really, no idea what to expect at all). I’d been fooled into likening the appearance to that of a cake; tricked myself into thinking it’d be like some bizarre sweet quiche. But clafoutis isn’t any of those things. It’s a smooth texture – hard to describe but kind of like a cross between a no-bake cheesecake, custard, and an English style pancake.
The addition of lemon gives the mixture a little lift, a zing right at the end of each mouthful like a full stop. Only it’s hard to fully stop because it’s so damn good. The recipe says it serves 6…but I honestly wouldn’t judge anyone who accidentally ate 2 servings in one sitting. (What? No, of course I didn’t. Maybe.)
95g plain flour
Pinch of salt
Finely grated rind of 1 lemon
2 large eggs + 1 egg white
Juice of approx. 1/3 a lemon
1) Preheat oven to 190C and butter a 25cm round dish.
2) Sift together flour and salt, then stir in the sugar and lemon rind, before forming a well in the centre. Beat the eggs and pour into the well, whisking to gradually incorporate the flour. Slowly add the milk, and then lemon juice, whisking continually until you get a smooth batter.
3) Spread the blueberries in the buttered dish, and pour in the batter. Bake on the centre shelf for around 40 minutes, until golden brown and just set in the centre. Allow to cool before dusting with icing sugar and serving.
– Frozen blueberries are fine! They’re what I used. If using frozen blueberries, allow them to defrost and transfer to the baking dish using a slotted spoon so that as little juice as possible is added with them.
– It may be worth putting a baking tray on the bottom of the oven to catch any drips or blueberries that spill over when the clafoutis rises.
– Pedant’s note: technically a non-cherry clafoutis isn’t a clafoutis at all – it’s a flaungarde.
As far as play on words go, that was pretty bad, I know. I’m sorry. Let’s move swiftly on, shall we? This is a longish story, and perhaps contains a little too much information. I’ll probably cringe as I hit the publish button. It’s a story about my face, inspired by this post on adult acne by the oh-so-fabulous Laura Jane Williams, who also wrote an entire ebook on acne which is pretty damn good.
Now, I wouldn’t call my face situation adult acne, mostly because at 22 I don’t class myself as an adult, despite the fact that I now have to pay council tax. Sadly, to the rest of the world that’s probably what I am.
During my teenage years, the universe, not content with making me ginger, overweight, short sighted and a brace wearer, threw a healthy dose of pizza face my way. Really, it was never that bad and I’ve not been left with any acne scars, but it was enough that I spent 8 years on the hunt for a cure.
When I approached my doctor, they prescribed me with a roll-on solution, with an aroma much like chip shop vinegar, to apply to my face every morning and night. It worked. It made me smell like a fish and chip wrapper, and gave my skin the feel of a recently wiped chalkboard, but it really did help my skin.
Sadly, the last thing an 18-year-old girl wants is vinegar face, particularly when it comes to snuggling down for the night with a fella. Nothing says “Worship me, for I am a goddess” less than snogs that taste like that anti-biting nail varnish your mum made you use when you were 7.
At university, passed between doctors that saw dozens of students every day, things improved slightly, starting with a puzzled GP asking me why I was on the pill and applied acne medication. She looked at my records and saw that at no point had my doctors at home tried to merge these 2 medications by moving me onto a pill that’s better for skin.
It was a start. But none of them – none of the dozen or so doctors I’ve seen in the past 8 years about my skin – mentioned that I might not need medication for it at all.
Let’s back up a second. That original medication. The one that worked, but made my face smell distinctly unappealing. The active ingredients in that solution had 2 main functions: inhibiting bacteria growth (ew), and getting zinc into the skin.
The recommended daily allowance for zinc is 5.5-9.5mg for men and 4-7mg for women
So I did my research and it turns out that zinc is an unsung hero. Despite being one of the lesser vitamins and minerals in terms of recommended intake, it’s linked to a wide array of bodily processes: most notably, the immune system and cell renewal. It’s also linked with fatigue, which explained being constantly tired, and stress. The puzzle pieces all came together and, without any medical professional saying so, I knew that the problem wasn’t acne that needed meds. I just needed to get more zinc.
You could say that making the following changes means a generally healthier diet which would of course lead to improved skin. But when I flicked through my mother’s well-thumbed copy of “Foods That Harm, Foods That Heal”, I raced to the shops to buy supplements, not actual food, and within days the situation got better. These days, it’s all about getting it through small changes in diet, and if I fall off the wagon a few green smoothies sort me right out. Here’s my top 5 foods for getting more zinc without faddy eating.
Spinach isn’t just for Popeye. I can’t say it’s made me particularly strong yet, but it’s one of my favourite ways to get a quick hit of zinc and a load of other vitamins, blitzed up in a green smoothie with apple juice and ginger. Zing!
But it doesn’t have to feel like a health food, as this deliciously cheesy spinach bake at Smitten Kitchen shows. Good news there, too – 100g of cheddar cheese will give you 3.11mg of zinc. I probably wouldn’t recommend eating that much cheese, though. Nobody likes the cheese sweats.
0.53mg per 100g
Also a good source of: vitamins K, A, C, B1, B2, B6 and E, and manganese, iron, and calcium.
Roasted pumpkin and squash seeds and dried watermelon seeds provide a whole lot of zinc in a really small space, with about 10mg of zinc per 100g, so there’s no excuse for not eating those watermelon pips. Throw seeds into your breakfast, straight into your mouth, or on top of a cake (totally counts). There are also some amazing sounding recipes for pumpkin seeds here.
I know, I know, it just keeps getting better and better. High cocoa content (70-85%) dark chocolate contains up to 9.6mg of zinc per 100g, whereas milk chocolate contains around 2.3mg.
Nope, that doesn’t mean eating a lot of houmous. Chickpeas can be worked into main meals really easily, by adding them to meat dishes and curries to make the most of their 3.4mg/100g zinc levels. For a sweeter tooth, honey cinnamon roasted chickpeas may be the way forward.
Shellfish are among the most zinc-rich foods out there. Oysters ranking as the most laden with 3.49mg zinc per oyster, whereas crab provides 5.5mg/100g. There’s a good excuse to go to that fancy seafood restaurant, eh?
Please note this does not constitute medical advice. I’m not trained in health in any capacity – this is simply what has worked for me and it is possible to overdo zinc consumption. Visit NHS Choices for more information on zinc and consult your doctor before making any major changes to your diet!
A few days ago, my (food) world fell apart a little bit, with a friendly nurse in a cardigan and a swooshy skirt gently uttering six little words.
“You need to cut out carbs.”
Outwardly, I nodded solemnly as she clarified – because we all know that cutting out whole food groups is a bit ridiculous – “Well, maybe have them once a day, definitely not more than that.” But maniacal laughter echoed around my head through all the talk about BMIs and pasta, as I envisioned my life without starchy deliciousness. Stir fry without noodles. Poached eggs without English muffins. No more cake.
But this time, it’ll be more sensible – not like the disaster month that saw me shed a stone and almost a few friends when I did the Dukan diet (not even allowed fruit) and went a bit mental. It’s a good story, but one that illustrates why carbs are not optional for me.
So here we go. I’ve not really eaten much meat, until now – not because I don’t like it, but because both meat and my rent are expensive, and I am unfortunately contractually obliged to pay for the less delicious of the two.
But for now, let’s focus on biscuits. Obviously the best way to deal with all this is to make biscuits which contain both flour and polenta, as a last supper, if you like. If I was doing it properly, it’d be a last supper of something crazy like mashed potato toasties (I have no idea if that’s a thing people do. But I can’t try it out for the foreseeable future).
With the butter (£££) swapped out for margarine, these biscuits are a little cakey like a Viennese whirl biscuit, and a whole lotta delicious, thanks to the subtle addition of lemon.
110g plain flour
Zest of half a lemon
1 medium egg + 1 yolk
1/2tsp vanilla extract
1) Preheat your oven to 180C (170C for fan ovens, 350F, gas mark 4) and line two baking trays with baking parchment. Combine flour, salt, and polenta and set aside. In a separate bowl, cream the margarine, sugar, and lemon zest.
2) When light and fluffy, add the egg and then the yolk, beating until just combined after each addition. Add vanilla, and then, gradually, the flour mixture, beating until combined.
3) Transfer the mixture to a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle, and pipe onto the baking sheets about 2 inches apart.
4) Bake until just going golden at the edges – about 15 minutes.
One of my most vivid memories from childhood is, unsurprisingly, centred around food. When we were young, my mother seemed to have frequent dinner parties with five of her friends, an affair that saw her slightly on edge the days preceding the “big night”, busy with writing lists, checking and double checking ingredients while she planned an enormous array of dishes.
When the guests arrived, us kids were sent upstairs, far away from the delights that covered the dining room table and often sideboards and kitchen worktops too. I’ve since been around during these parties and heard what a group of six ladies talk about over dinner, and, um, not all of it is suitable for children’s ears.
So we hid away upstairs until the party relocated from the dining room and it was safe to emerge from our bedrooms like insects from the woodwork. We crept down the stairs and sneaked into the room to devour the leftovers. Some items were safe bets: you always knew there’d be garlic bread, and inevitably some of whatever dessert my mother whipped up, which was usually too much for six ladies to devour but the perfect amount for six ladies and three children who had stayed up a little too late.
But there was one thing that was never, ever, still on the table at the end of the night. One thing that if you wanted to get hold of it, you had to either ask very nicely, or sneak one out of the kitchen in the chaos of dinner party preparations (mum, if you’re reading, I 100% never did this. Maybe). My mother’s chocolate cups were like gold dust.
They’re one of many dishes she’s passed on to me – along with a nervous need to feed whoever is visiting – and although there’s an element of “don’t fix what’s not broken”, I couldn’t resist trying to make them even better. Everyone likes chocolate orange, right?
And if that wasn’t enough, it’s really, really funny to watch people try to take off a case that isn’t there.
Notes For the first chocolate layer, use a pastry brush as this will help you to get the chocolate into the creases in the case. For the second layer, use the back of a teaspoon instead as this will give you a smoother finish and reduce the chance of dragging white chocolate that has melted slightly with the heat of the melted milk chocolate.
100g white chocolate, broken into cubes
120g milk chocolate, broken into cubes
220g dark chocolate, broken into cubes
180ml double cream
7 heaped tablespoons orange curd
1) Set out 50 miniature baking cases, double layering them so there are 25 cases to use.
2) Melt the white chocolate and paint the inside of the cases with it using a pastry brush. Allow to set completely.
3) Melt the milk chocolate, and then paint this on top of the white chocolate, using the back of a teaspoon to smooth it up the sides. Allow to cool completely. When cool, gently remove the paper cases.
4) Over low heat in a small saucepan, warm the cream and dark chocolate until half the chocolate has melted. Remove from the heat and stir until the rest of the chocolate has fully melted and the mixture is dark and shiny.
5) Allow the mixture to cool, until it is just firm enough to hold its shape when drizzled. Stir in the orange curd using a spatula and transfer the mixture to a piping bag fitted with a small star nozzle.
6) Pipe the ganache mixture into the chocolate cases. Store in an airtight container in a cool area for up to 3 days.
This time last year, I was in stress-central. I was just about finishing up at the student paper: kissing goodbye to long evenings of cabin fever and fussing over typefaces, trying to let go of the tiny frustrations that made up my final weeks in the insular world of student media.
Instead, I’d begun spending 9-5 in a badly lit room with grey-tinted windows, worrying about the projects that would decide what grade would be on that piece of paper I would receive in July. I thought back to being 18, sitting, terrified, in a local cupcake shop and conducting an interview for the first time as my voice wobbled with nerves. My dreams took on the form of the work I was doing during the day, and I’d wake disappointed that I’d spent all night working and yet had to do it all over again.
But those final months were also when we spent evenings in the park and scorched black rectangles into the grass outside our house with our throw-away barbecues. They were the days when Pimms was on offer in the Tesco down the road and we drank it from tiny paper cups adorned with union jacks. They were the hours, days, weeks, and months we tried to savour as they rushed by and took us, willingly or not, ever closer to a more grown up life.
Recently, one of my best friends asked me: if someone had told you a year ago that this is where you’d be now, would you take it?
In the not-quite-year since I finally handed in that last project and went to bed, at long last, after being awake for 30 hours, a lot has changed. I have discovered what I love to do and I’m excited for what the future holds.
I left university, left home, and watched as everyone I’d come to love in those three years was scattered across the country, leaving us connected by only wires and signals. It has been scary and it has been sad, but blackened grass, too-strong Pimms, and cupcakes will always take me back.
As I mulled over the question my friend had asked, I made these strawberry and coconut cupcakes to transport me back to the wonder of that cupcake shop, to the array of colours and decorations nestled among retro cake stands and gingham fabric.
Strawberry and coconut is one of my most recent food obsessions: like pumpkin last year, I’ve tried to put it in almost everything. Strawberries and yoghurt and honey and coconut. Porridge with jam and coconut. Plotting and planning to make dairy-free ice cream with this extraordinary pairing. Of course I had to try it in cake form. What I love most about these cupcakes – apart from the fact that the cake is really simple – is that they look totally unassuming…and then you bite into one and bam! Flavour bomb.
I baked these cupcakes and then I took them to the best place I could: to a bar, to be eaten with three of the girls I slaved over that student paper with.
Strawberry and Coconut Cupcakes
Makes nine cupcakes
100g self-raising flour
2 medium eggs
185g unsalted butter
260g icing sugar
4 1/2 tbsp desiccated coconut, plus extra to decorate
1) Pre-heat oven to 160C and line a muffin tray with cupcake cases. Cream margarine and sugar until pale and fluffy.
2) On a low speed, beat in the eggs one at a time. Fold in the flour.
3) Split the mixture between the nine cases and bake on the centre shelf for about 10-15 minutes, or until firm to the touch and a cocktail stick inserted into the centre of a cake comes out clean.
4) Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely. While they cool, whisk together the butter, sugar, and coconut on a low speed, and when combined, turn the speed up and continue until smooth.
5) When cook, use a sharp knife to make the space for the jam centre. Holding the knife at a slight angle, cut a cylinder about 1.5cm wide out of the centre of the cake. Discard (or, er, eat) these centres. Fill the space with about half a teaspoon of jam, so that the jam comes level with the top of the cupcake. Repeat for all cakes.
6) Using a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle, pipe the frosting on. Sprinkle with desiccated coconut to decorate.
P.S. Go and check out the Saveur food blog awards! There are so many incredible nominees, you need to give them your time.