Lemon posset

Lemon posset with cherry compote

I’m a sucker for anything with lemon in it — it’s my favourite flavour. Lemon posset is utterly simple: just lemon, sugar, cream. It’s rather indulgent, so make small quantities and pair it with something more virtuous; I added hot cherry compote to the chilled possets, so that made them part of our five a day. Choose plain glasses to show off the pale, creamy possets, and serve with crisp biscuits, such as tuiles, langues de chat, or Maggie’s shortbread thins.

Ideally, make it 24 hours ahead, but I’ve chilled it for only four hours, and it’s still set, if less firmly.
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A Feast of Flavours by Annie Bell: cookbook review and recipe

Cardamom rice with prunes

I’m continuing my trawl through the reserve collection.This claims to be a “vegetarian” cookbook, although a few of the recipes include fish or shellfish. It is definitely not the 70s/early 80s style of vegetarian cooking with lots of wholewheat stodge and mushy lentils. Like Nadine Abensur’s, Annie Bell’s dishes are creative and elegant, letting the flavours of fresh vegetables shine. This book is clearly geared towards entertaining, as it’s organised as a series of seasonal menus, most involving five or six dishes.

Not that this is a criticism. Her philosophy of vegetarian cooking is that rather than having a “main” ingredient (a chunk of protein) and some side dishes, a meal can be composed of a harmonious selection of smaller dishes. It’s a philosophy I like, even though it’s more work, so is likely to happen only on special occasions.

I haven’t cooked any complete menu from this book, but I have bookmarked a number of recipes. Actually, in true neglected cookbook style I hadn’t cooked anything at all from it till today, when I decided to try the cardamom rice with prunes.

Rice pudding and stewed prunes … hmm, sounds like British canteen fare. Happily, it is not. I’ve always liked rice pudding, although I do normally prefer to eat it hot, with jam or maple syrup. The cardamom makes this version decidedly un-English. The prunes are not an unappetising brown mush, but whole pruneaux d’Agen simmered in an Armagnac-laced syrup with cinnamon and vanilla. If I’d done the whole menu, I would also have served spaghetti marrow and vermicelli with watercress cream, cannelloni omelettes filled with spinach and gruyère, with a tomato sauce aux fines herbes, and a green salad with avocado and toasted walnuts. You can tell she used to run a restaurant.

Anyway, here’s my version of the rice. It turned out a bit runny, and over-sweet to my taste, so I’ve adjusted the quantities slightly to reflect this. It was very nice cold, with the prunes making an attractive colour contrast. And of course it can all be prepared hours in advance — fortunately, since the rest of the menu seems to involve an awful lot of last-minute frying, pasta cooking, and salad dressing. The recipe seems long, but really it’s very simple and not time-consuming. I’ll definitely keep this book because even if the complete menus are too much work there are a lot of small, stylish dishes. It’s out of print — so if you want to give it a try you can buy it for a penny on Amazon!
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Three good things to do with mincemeat

I made my mincemeat this year according to Delia’s recipe, adapted to local circumstances (mine included chopped dried figs and apricots, and dried cranberries, as well as glacé cherries, raisins and sultanas). I used most of the first jar to make some common-or-garden mince pies, but was not satisfied with the results, so I hunted around for alternatives. Here are three other ways of using mincemeat.

1. The simplest: mincemeat palmiers

Buy a block of ready-made puff pastry and roll it out thinly into an oblong. Spread thinly all over with mincemeat, then starting from a short side, roll up the pastry like a Swiss roll. Cut into slices about 2 cm thick, and lay them on a non-stick baking tray (or a tray lined with silicone/baking parchment). Put in the fridge for half an hour or so.

Preheat the oven to 200C. Put the tray in and cook for about 10 minutes, till the pastry is golden. Remove and cool to lukewarm before sprinkling with icing sugar and serving. This is a great and easy alternative to conventional mince pies.

2. Classic and luxurious: almond paste mince pies

I used this recipe; I don’t know why it’s called “almond paste” because there are no almonds in it, only almond essence. I was very pleased with these; the pastry was crisp and golden, and the “almond” paste makes for a lighter topping than pastry. Delicious. I didn’t have a piping bag so I just rolled the paste into small balls, flattened them and placed them on top of the mincemeat. So they looked a lot less elegant, but still tasted good. If, or rather when, I make these again, I’ll substitute ground almonds for some of the flour in the paste though!

3. Comfort food: Eliza Acton’s mincemeat pudding

I loved this; it was my favourite of the three, although it’s a pudding rather than a teatime treat. I’d happily eat it instead of Christmas pudding. It’s basically bread and butter pudding with mincemeat in it. I found the recipe in Elizabeth David’s Christmas; the original is from Eliza Acton‘s Modern Cookery, and is labelled “Author’s Receipt”.
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Rosemary-spiked apricot and almond tart

Rosemary-spiked apricot and almond tart

I never cease to be inspired by apricots, one of my favourite fruits for cooking with. This tart has many of the same ingredients as apricot frangipane tart, but with quite different results — and it’s much quicker to make. It’s based on the very English Bakewell tart, but the usual raspberry or strawberry jam is replaced with an apricot compote flavoured with vanilla and rosemary. I venture to suggest that the result is better than the original; apricot and almond are a classic pairing, and the sharp, intense flavour of the apricot layer contrasts well with the light, spongy topping. You can serve this lukewarm as a pudding, with a dollop of crème fraîche, a pool of custard, or simply some pouring cream. Or when cold, serve as a cake with tea.

The recipe makes much more compote than you need, but this is no hardship; store it in the fridge and serve folded through Greek yoghurt, with ice cream and crisp almond biscuits, as a layer in an apricot trifle, or as a cheesecake topping.
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Vintage Feasts: Eliza Acton

The Best of Eliza Acton

It was Eliza who inspired me to try the vintage feast idea in the first place, so I don’t know why I’ve waited so long. The official “challenge” is over, but I like these old cookbooks so much that I have decided to continue an occasional series.

The book I have is an old Penguin, The Best of Eliza Acton, published in 1968, edited by Elizabeth Ray and with a foreword by … who else? Elizabeth David. You can’t read much Elizabeth David without discovering that she and Eliza are kindred spirits. Jane Grigson drew on Acton heavily for her English Food, and both she and David clearly thought more highly of Eliza than of the better-known Mrs Beeton.

Modern Cookery for Private Families was published in 1845, when Eliza was 46, and stayed in print for over 50 years. This 350-page paperback holds only a fraction of the hundreds of brief, precise recipes the original book must have contained. Her crisp prose, sharp asides, and succinct instructions that assume the reader is already a competent cook cannot fail to recall Elizabeth David, so it’s hardly surprising the latter admired her so much : “Over and over again,” she writes, “I have marvelled at the illuminating and decisive qualities of Miss Acton’s recipes.” Discussing the fact that Acton was eclipsed by later inferior writers, David suggests that it was because she was “a child of the eighteenth century …. living in the manner and writing of a style of English domestic life already doomed.” And she concludes, “Temporary eclipse has often been the fate of great innovators. In a way it is posterity’s compliment to genius.” And similarly, when the Jamies and Nigellas of this world have been and gone, Elizabeth David will still be with us.

So after all that, what about the food? I was spoilt for choice here. All sorts of things tempted me: fried potato ribbons, which sound very much like rather fantastical potato crisps, cut in long spirals; jumbles; cheesecake with no cheese in it; the famous cabinet pudding. In the end I went for a very simple menu.

To start: carrot soup. Eliza has two basic recipes for this, but follows them with a recipe for a variation: “Buchanan carrot soup (Excellent)”. With that recommendation, how could I not try it? It was delicious, deep orange with a zing from the curry powder, making it much more successful than Ruth Lowinsky’s bland 20th-century version. My only criticism was that I don’t particularly like the texture of cooked rice in my soup; when I reheated the leftovers for lunch, I liquidised it. Next up: Chicken Burdwan, which with a few adjustments could well become a regular standby for using up leftover roast chicken, and is an “Indian” dish that would certainly appeal to French people. It’s a feast of 18th-century flavours.

For dessert, I found the potato pudding irresistible. Years ago we were served a dessert of tiny dishes of impossibly smooth potato puree flavoured with vanilla at my then-favourite restaurant, Les Feuillants in Céret (sadly now gone). It was fantastic, and potatoes are my favourite vegetable, so I was certainly prepared to try another potato dessert. Of course it was nothing like that creamy dish at les Feuillants, but it did seem strangely familiar. After a couple of spoonfuls I realised it was very like the bottom part of a Queen of Puddings. So next time I want to make Q of P and don’t have any stale bread, I might use potatoes instead.

All of these were dishes I’d happily make again, so this is the best vintage feast so far. My adapted recipes for all three follow.
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Candied clementine cake

Somehow from Christmas onwards, our fruit bowl seemed to be permanently full of clementines. At one point I found myself with a 2-kg sack of remarkably tasteless ones. What to do? I remembered Claudia Roden’s famous Middle-Eastern boiled orange and almond cake; maybe that would do the trick? Googling around I found many references to it, including Jill Dupleix’s version. I tried it with a few of the clementines but wasn’t very impressed. It was heavy despite the whisked egg whites, and not very tasty (clementines no doubt to blame for that). Darn, six eggs used on that.

More googling, and I hit upon Vegan Yum-Yum’s version. Aha, no eggs! I tried it and was really pleased with the result (and so were the choir members who got to taste it).

It was a bit soggy, and I messed up the frosting by cooking it too long, but candying the clementines gave it a really marmaladey flavour which I liked a lot. You can serve it for tea or as a dessert — skip the frosting and add a dollop of Greek yoghurt or crème fraîche. I’ve made it twice since then; it freezes well too. You do have to plan in advance to cook the clementines, but they’ll keep in the fridge for up to a week, or you can freeze them. Use the remaining syrup to make champagne cocktails (or just top up with sparkling water).
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A classic French tarte aux pommes

tarte aux pommes

I can still remember the first piece of French pâtisserie I ate, aged 18, on a hot summer day in Brittany. We came out of the bakery with our paper-wrapped slices and sat on a wall in the sunshine to eat them: my very first taste of tarte aux pommes. The pastry was flaky and buttery, the creamy layer of crème pâtissière melted into the thinly sliced apples, slightly burnt at the edges and brushed with shiny apricot glaze that stuck to our fingers. It was unlike anything I’d ever tasted, and I knew I wanted to stay in France forever, so I could eat like this every day.

I don’t think I’ve ever found quite that tart in a pâtisserie since; most of them lack the custard layer and just have plain sliced apples, or a layer of tart apple purée. Delicious all the same, but when I encountered Jane Grigson’s apple tarts from Evreux in Good Things in about 1980, I gave a cry of recognition and set about perfecting them. It took a while, but eventually, after several tweaks to the recipe, my own creations were as wonderful as I remembered that first slice being.

And then I stopped making them, turning to slutty Tarte Tatin as my go-to apple tart recipe. Whatever anyone says about the complexity of Tarte Tatin, it is frankly a doddle to make. All you need for complete success is to burn the apples, butter, and sugar, and how difficult is that? The worst of cooks can do it. It’s always baffled me that people try to make it look so complicated.

This tart is a lot more fiddly and time-consuming, but if you didn’t like spending time in the kitchen, you wouldn’t be here, would you? In any case, you can make the pastry and crème pâtissière in advance and put them in the fridge till needed. Blind-bake the pastry and assemble the tart just before the meal, put it in the oven, and serve it either freshly baked, or lukewarm.

I think this looks loveliest if you bake small individual tarts, but you can make a single large one instead, using an 18-20 cm loose-based tin.
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Roasted plums with balsamic vinegar

balsamic roast plums

Plums can be a bit bland and mushy, but this recipe really gives them some zing. Use smallish red plums. I used these to make little plum tarts: blind bake some tartlet cases of pâte sablée until crisp and golden, then tuck two or three roasted plums into each, drizzle over a very little syrup, and top with a blob of crème fraîche flavoured with finely chopped crystallised ginger and a little black pepper. You can cook the pastry in advance, but don’t assemble the tarts till the last minute.

The plums are fine on their own too, with cream, ice cream, or Greek yoghurt, and keep well in the fridge for up to a week. Or you can freeze them.
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Gâteau aux abricots et au miel

apricot yogurt cake

This is that old French favourite, yoghurt cake. Good for cooking with children or Americans because no scales are required — you just use the yoghurt pot to measure your ingredients. Of course yoghurt pots may vary slightly in size, but then so do eggs, and anyway it’s all about ratios. For this cake it’s not critical. I found the mixture a bit sloppy, so I added a couple of extra tablespoons of flour. You might need to cook it for more or less time too, depending on how wet your mixture is.

You can bake the apricots into it — or if, as I did, you happen to have a whole trayful of baked apricots in the fridge, add them before pouring the honey over. Or use any other fruit you fancy. Cherry compote for example.
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Cherry Compote

cherry compote

Pitting cherries must be one of the messiest jobs in the kitchen, but it is oh so worth it. I’m not very conscientious about wearing an apron, but this is one occasion when I swathe myself in my most voluminous apron, cover the table with newspaper, and settle down to a curiously relaxing session of pitting. We’ve eaten a lot of cherries this season – mainly because back in May I was irresistibly tempted by a 2-kg crate of cherries in a Spanish venta for only 5.60 euros. I got home wondering how on earth two of us were going to eat them all before they rotted. My new cookbook, The Real Taste of Spain, provided an answer: cherry compote. A monster, messy pitting session followed, especially as I had no cherry pitter to hand.

This recipe is so simple to do, and words cannot describe how delicious it is. For a week, our breakfast was a spoonful or two of this with dollops of Greek yoghurt, and we mourned when we scraped out the last few drops of syrup from the bowl. From then on we constantly looked out for affordable cherries, and whenever we found some, we bought at least a kilo to make some compote. The last batch is now in the freezer in several plastic boxes so that we can spin out the pleasure over the summer. So my advice is, if you make this, make plenty, it freezes really well. It goes with all sorts of things: with ice cream for an extra-special Cherries Jubilee, with yoghurt or cream, or spooned over an almond cake, for example.
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