Brandy snaps

Scones and brandy snaps for tea

A true classic for afternoon tea. They look much more difficult than they are: very quick to make, and once you’ve grasped that you need to wait a minute before lifting them off the tray, they are a doddle to shape — much easier than tuiles. They’ll be crisp within 10 minutes, ready to fill with piped whipped cream.

Note: most recipes have brandy in them. But this is not why they are called brandy snaps, and I think it’s neither necessary nor authentic. The “brandy” is more likely to refer to the fact that they are brannt or burnt, i.e. caramelised. So it’s absolutely fine to leave it out.
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Classic scones

I went through a phase of failed scones, and eventually returned to the tried and tested, never fails, Katie Stewart recipe, from the Times recipe book that was one of my formative culinary influences. Here it is converted to metric. The secret of scones is to handle the dough as little as humanly possible, and be particularly gentle rolling it out. Katie also says you have to sprinkle the baking sheet and the top of the scones with flour. No idea what effect this has, but since she says so, I always do it.

Scones are great if you need to suddenly provide afternoon tea, as it only takes 20 minutes or so to make them. They can really only be eaten on the day they are made; they just aren’t the same after they’ve hung around for a while. If you do have leftovers, it’s best to freeze them and then reheat from frozen before serving.
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Vegetarian chilli

Adapted from a recipe in the Slimming World magazine — a useful source of low-calorie recipes that don’t compromise on flavour. I cooked my lentils from scratch, but if you’re lazy or in a hurry, you can use a can. A very easy midweek dinner.
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Bread and orange curd pudding

This is just a variation on bread and butter pudding, created because I had brioche and some home-made curd that needed using up. In my case it was Seville orange curd, but lemon curd or even passion fruit curd would both be fine too. It turned out even better than I expected, a good orange tang, caramelised top, and little cranberry flavour bombs. Feeds 3-4 depending on how greedy you are.
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Ham, leek, and potato pie

Based on a recipe from BBC Good Food; adapted to make it a bit more Slimming World friendly (OK, pastry will never be syn-free, but the rest of it almost is). It may sound fairly ordinary, but it was really delicious and well worth repeating — it’s the mustard that really makes it shine. If you’re not on a diet you can use crème fraîche instead of quark, but we found the quark worked really well; the flour in the sauce stops it curdling. The original recipe specified puff pastry, but we just used home-made shortcrust and it was fine. In fact thinking about it, you could maybe use a few layers of filo pastry on top to reduce fat further. It’s best to make the filling ahead of time and let it cool before adding the pastry.
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Sourdough pitta bread

Well, it had to come to this — with starter always on hand, I was eventually going to try making pitta bread with it. Turns out a quick Google was enough; I found a recipe on sourdough.com that worked first time. Here’s my version of it for the record. Strong bread flour doesn’t exist in France, so again I adapted it according to what I have. This recipe involves leaving it in the fridge overnight, but you don’t have to do that — you could just leave it at room temperature for 2-3 hours if it’s more convenient that way.

See also my non-sourdough version, which you can do on the dough cycle in a bread machine.
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Neglected cookbooks: Simple French Food by Richard Olney

Simple French Food by Richard Olney

I was given Provence, 1970 for Christmas and have just been reading it. In it, a group of well-off Americans, all interested in food, gather in Provence in autumn 1970, cook, dine, and have endless conversations about food and wine. They just happen to include Julia Child and her husband Paul, M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, and Richard Olney. I enjoyed it in a cosy sort of way, eavesdropping on their gossip and occasional snobbery. The author, Luke Barr, is MFK’s great-nephew, and he used letters and especially his great-aunt’s notebooks and diaries, to reconstruct whole evenings of conversation in a convincing way. I have to say that I wasn’t surprised to find that Olney, while probably the best cook of the lot of them, could be a somewhat unpleasant character — his Simple French Food is written in such a way that I never felt I’d be comfortable in the kitchen with him, just as I wouldn’t be with Elizabeth David. Whereas Jane Grigson, MFK, or Julia Child would surely be good company. It was a bit disappointing to find that Sybille Bedford (partner of an old friend of MFK’s) could be rather obnoxious as well though.

Serendipitously, we were looking for a recipe for stuffed cabbage and found one in Olney’s book. Oh, good, a chance to revive my neglected cookbooks theme! I’ve had this book for many years and even blogged a recipe from it once, but I don’t get it out often. There’s no denying the quality of the recipes; it’s the turgid prose that puts me off. The first sentence sets the tone: it’s 124 words long. He’s the kind of person who refers to himself as “one”, and his paragraphs are unnecessarily long and rambling.

Still, the proof of the pudding and all that. Alice Waters quotes him as her main inspiration for Chez Panisse, and by and large I’ve been happy with the results of the recipes I’ve tried. He has taken traditional French bourgeois cooking and turned it into an art form. I have to say that while stuffed cabbage may sound dull, if not positively offputting, it was spectacularly good. So if you’re a fan of traditional French cooking and you can get past the convolutions of his prose style, it’s worth having on your shelf. But if you’re not an experienced cook, I still believe no-one surpasses Mireille Johnston for authenticity and accessibility. Mireille’s is the book that’s splattered with food stains in our house. Such a shame it’s out of print; on the other hand it does mean you can obtain cheap second-hand copies.

Anyway, here’s the stuffed cabbage. We made this with pork mince from organic, free-range pigs browsing under oaks in the Aragonese Pyrenees, which probably had a lot to do with the excellent flavour. We didn’t have much stock, so we just made it up with water and flavoured it with a whole peeled onion and a couple of carrots. You need a piece of muslin or a string bag to wrap the cabbage in, and some string.
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Baked chicken with marmalade glaze

This is one of those delightfully easy “stick it in the oven and forget about it” supper dishes. Other than green veg or salad, you won’t need anything with it, and even drab supermarket chicken will be suitably perked up. It’s from a Sainsbury’s magazine, slightly adapted by me: the original called for halved new potatoes, but it seemed entirely implausible to me that they would cook from raw in the oven in 45 minutes. So I cut my (non-new) potatoes into 2-cm chunks, and they were just barely cooked in an hour. If you do want to use larger pieces, you’d be well advised to parboil them for about 3 minutes first, but this makes a bit more work.

I cooked this in two gratin dishes; it will serve about six.
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Cheat’s hummus

This isn’t really hummus, because it doesn’t have oil or tahini in it. But if you’re trying to cut down on fat intake, it’s not a bad substitute, and it is very quick and easy to make using a jar of chickpeas and a few other ingredients you’re likely to have on hand. It’s part of our campaign for healthier nibbles to eat with aperos; we have it with raw carrot sticks, but you can use other vehicles of your choice, including pitta bread of course.

Words of advice:

  • Use a Spanish brand of chickpeas if you possibly can, they are just better. Jars are generally better than cans for some reason.
  • Lack of tahini and oil means you have to really ramp up the spices and garlic to stop it being bland. Don’t take my quantities as gospel — taste and adjust as you like.
  • This makes a lot; I hope it freezes well because that’s what I’ve done with half of it. It will keep for a few days in the fridge.

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Arroz con leche

When in Spain … it has to be arroz con leche, not plain old rice pudding. Truth to tell, the two are almost identical. In Spain, the arroz is always served cold, with a generous sprinkling of cinnamon, one of the three spices used in unadventurous Spain (the others are saffron and paprika). And of course the rice used is paella rice (bomba), subtly different from the round-grain Carolina rice we use. Many Spanish recipes specify partly cooking the rice in water and then adding it to the milk, but I don’t hold with that — I like my pudding thick and creamy, and you need all the starch in the rice for that.

TV chef Karlos Arguiñano’s recipe suits me; he cooks it in milk, and the only thing I changed was the amount of sugar (many Spanish dishes are over-sweet for my taste) — plus we had it hot.
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