Perfect millionaire’s shortbread

Millionaire's shortbread
I have only made millionaire’s shortbread a couple of times previously, and not been satisfied. I want to make some for a charity cake stall, so this time I googled and took the best bits of several recipes, so I feel like this is my recipe now. And the jury of two agreed that it really was perfect.

The key points:

  • I used the ever-reliable Felicity Cloake’s shortbread base. Including rice flour or fine semolina makes it really crunchy, a good contrast with the topping.
  • I used a thermometer to check the temperature of the caramel. It’s really important to get it exactly to softball stage (112C) so that it’s neither too runny nor too chewy, and it’s hard to judge any other way. See a recent Bake Off attempt at Twix bars!
  • Remember the name, and use really good quality chocolate. Cheap chocolate will ruin it. I used Lindt milk chocolate, which is not too expensive and streets ahead of the bog standard supermarket type.Use either milk, dark, or a mixture, according to taste.
  • Give yourself plenty of time; it needs to chill thoroughly before cutting.
  • Cut it into small squares … it’s very rich!

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Summer fruit gratin

Nectarine gratin

I stumbled across this recipe on the web somewhere as I was looking at a large punnet of nectarines that needed using. Perfect. It’s very substantial, bread and butter pudding like at the bottom, fruity in the middle, with a creamy top layer that’s slightly crispy on top. I used nectarines but it would work with almost any type of fruit — plums, apricots, peaches, maybe apples or pears too.
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La tarte à l’oignon de Caroline

Onion tart

Another recipe courtesy of a cooking lesson from a neighbour. I have previously known this as Alsatian onion tart, a concoction of slowly cooked onions, cream, an egg, and grated cheese. Caroline’s version is vastly superior; she skips the egg, saying that adding egg means it’s “just a quiche”. And she caramelises the onions slightly and spices it with cayenne and paprika, which make all the difference. Easy to do, and really delicious served lukewarm with a glass of chilled rosé.
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Tatin d’aubergines de Sandrine

Aubergine tatin

A neighbour who is renowned for her superb aubergine tart kindly submitted to pressure to reveal her secrets in an informal cookery lesson, held outdoors on a sunny day. We produced five magnificent tarts, which were shared along with glasses of chilled rosé. I will happily make these for guests, as a substantial starter or light main course.

Beyond the aubergines and tomato sauce, you can vary the other ingredients according to taste and whether you need it to be vegetarian. We used combinations of chopped black olives, chorizo, and anchovies. I think blobs of onion confit or pesto could be good as well. For the cheese, we used slices of a log of goat’s cheese. But you could substitute other soft cheeses: feta, mozzarella, sheep’s cheese …

White aubergines

Other ingredient notes: Sandrine recommends white aubergines; she thinks they are sweeter and more tender. She normally uses her own home-made passata for the tomato sauce, but you can use bought passata or pasta sauce instead. Likewise, for the pastry, either make shortcrust or buy it ready-made. Don’t use puff pastry though, it is too fatty for this recipe.
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Mirlitons de Rouen

Little almond cakes, the word mirliton described by Jane Grigson as suggesting “a cheerful twirling of skirts and light feet”. The filling is very similar to the classic filling for a Bakewell tart (as opposed to pudding). I used a recipe from Audrey Le Goff’s Rustic French Cooking Made Easy, which is a nice collection of traditional regional dishes, changing it somewhat to suit me. The original uses ready-made puff pastry, but the reason I made these is because I had some leftover sweet shortcrust. Either will work, although I’m not keen on puff pastry as a tart base personally. If you want to make pastry for them, I can recommend the recipe here. I chose to use some wild cherry jam as that goes well with almonds, but any good jam will work — raspberry, strawberry, apricot …
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Tarte rustique à la tomate

“Rustic” being code for “looks a bit thrown together”. A summery tart that I served as part of a copious apero. You could serve it as a starter or a light lunch dish as well.

If you don’t already know this, tomatoes and mustard are a wonderful combination. This recipe requires properly ripe fresh tomatoes. I made the pastry using surplus sourdough starter, but of course you can use a standard shortcrust recipe. Serve it just warm rather than hot. The bottom may be soggy, but it’s delicious anyway.

Update: You can make this with standard shortcrust, but I recently discovered a Nigel Slater recipe for olive oil pastry which is easy to make and works well with the Mediterranean nature of the tart. So I’ve added that as an alternative.
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Sourdough fruit scones

Needing yet another means of using up starter, I hit upon this idea. The starter doesn’t need to be active (although it’s also fine if it is) — it’s the baking powder that does the work. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my first effort in terms of texture, but otherwise they were fine if rather rustic. A little more liquid next time should sort it.

Use whatever dried fruit you fancy: cranberries, cherries, sultanas, chopped dried apricots … the dried fruit guy at our local market does chunks of semi-dried apple tossed in cinnamon sugar, and these worked really well, chopped into small dice. I mixed them with sultanas and cranberries.
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Sabine’s sourdough apple and cinnamon babka


Great British Bake Off fans may remember the chocolate babka from one of the technical challenges a couple of years back. Prue Leith got into trouble for saying Paul’s was better than the ones she’d tasted in New York. It’s a braided brioche loaf that originated in Eastern Europe.

I wasn’t particularly tempted by it, as I’m not a massive fan of chocolate in bread or pastries. But I recently joined a French sourdough group on Facebook which has been an absolute eye-opener in terms of the amazing things you can do with a jar of starter. Someone posted a babka they’d made with a cinnamon-flavoured frangipane as a filling. I was definitely up for that.

Warning: you will need to arm yourself with patience for this recipe. It’s a minimum two-day process if you start with a lively starter. An enriched dough like this will take time to rise, and you definitely don’t want to undermine all your work by being too hasty. Give it all the time it needs. After the first rise, you can fit it to your schedule by putting it in the fridge for as long as necessary, up to 24 hours. Also, if you don’t have a stand mixer be prepared to wear yourself out kneading by hand! It needs to be very thoroughly kneaded and the butter worked in bit by bit.

This is my translation and slight variation on the recipe: I added some finely diced apple and a few sultanas to the filling. Of course the filling can be whatever you fancy: chocolate, Nutella, praline, mincemeat, even cheese … one person did a version with a prune purée which I rather fancy, especially if you were to soak the prunes in brandy first.
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Sourdough crackers

Sourdough crackers
Anyone who is bitten by the sourdough bug will at some point find themselves wondering what to do with surplus starter. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to find out about sourdough crackers. They are a brilliant way of using up a large surplus, easy to make, and delicious. Especially good served with cheese. You can vary the flavourings; whatever takes your fancy. Chopped olives, sun-dried tomatoes, chopped nuts, herbs and spices, cheese …

Note, the starter doesn’t need to be active for this recipe. I accumulate my spare starter in a jar in the fridge over a period of a week or so. If you’ve kept it longer, do check its acidity and health before use. Also, I’m assuming your starter is equal weights of flour and water.
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Vintage Feast: Fine English Cookery by Michael Smith


Locked down and with not much to do except cook, I decided to revive my neglected “neglected cookbooks” series with Michael Smith’s Fine English Cookery, published in 1973. Mine’s a paperback reissue from 1998.

Long post, but comes with a recipe worth trying at the end, so scroll on if you just want that!

Michael Smith was a trained chef and restaurateur who was also a broadcaster. His book, while clearly treading the same ground as Jane Grigson’s great English Food, is a reflection of that. Jane herself wrote, “Of the many books on our food, his is my favourite, the one I use most.” Yet the two books have surprisingly few dishes in common, since Smith’s is biased towards restaurant food or at least dishes aimed more at dinner parties than family meals. He does draw on historical recipes, from the eighteenth century onwards but yes, this book reflects how the British middle classes ate and entertained in the 1970s!

The book has a simple structure: soups, “a medley of savoury and vegetable dishes”, principal dishes, puddings, sauces, salads. The soup chapter starts, to my surprise, with a chilled almond soup which immediately makes me think of the Spanish ajo blanco. No garlic or olive oil in this though; it’s simply chicken stock, flaked almonds, nut oil, and cream, thickened with flour. The puddings chapter is rather special too, with some delicious sounding baked puddings and tarts and, of course, a proper recipe for sherry trifle (no jelly).

In a spirit of adventure, I browsed the more unusual soups. Mushroom and mustard soup sounds interesting. But I was stopped in my tracks by chilled pineapple and curry soup. Curiosity got the better of me. It specified a fresh pineapple, but I was not about to waste one by cooking it in chicken stock and liquidising it, so I bought a tin. Other ingredients: curry powder, mango chutney, courgettes, onions, lemon juice. Served with cream swirled into it.

Verdict: it looked like snot. And the taste was pretty strange, flavours battling each other. It wasn’t disgusting, but I certainly won’t be making it again.

Main course: beef olives. I haven’t made these for decades. In the past I used an Italian recipe, with a stuffing featuring lemon zest, pine nuts, and sultanas, and a sumptuous slow-cooked tomato-based sauce. This version had a thoroughly English stuffing: yes, lemon zest featured, but with breadcrumbs, butter, and cooked ham. The sauce was a triumph though; rich with mushrooms, carrots, red wine and port. The only thing wrong with it was that there wasn’t enough of it. I’d halved the recipe but I think I should have made the full quantity of sauce. I have to say it deserves its reputation as a classic dinner party dish: yes, it’s a bit of a faff but it can be prepared entirely in advance, and it looks so much posher than a stew with the same ingredients would. I think the Italian version is superior though.

Pudding: I decided to try Maids of Honour, little tarts allegedly enjoyed by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in Richmond. I believe the traditional version of these tarts has curd cheese in it. This one doesn’t; the filling is basically frangipane, similar to Bakewell tart, with a layer of quince jelly in the bottom. They were delicious, albeit too sweet; I’ll reduce the sugar next time. A flaky, crisp pastry case, filling that’s squidgy in the middle (possibly a bit underbaked) and crisp around the edges. Of the recipes I’ve tried from this book, this is the only one I’d make again. Good enough to serve to guests: recipe below.

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