Food and Recipes

inner mary berry bakewell slice

bakewell-slice-tea

With the baking hot weather (no pun intended) we've had in the UK this summer, I have barely turned my oven on. Meals have been mostly salads, breads, cheeses, dips, anything that involved minimal cooking. Vegetables picked from my garden which required blanching in boiling water at the most. 

But then came the most welcome cool change, and I found myself basically turning into Mary Berry last Sunday, baking a cake and a slice to use up the last of the butter, sugar and jam that had found their way into my kitchen after a wonderful visit from my parents. 

In fact, it was my mum who suggested a Bakewell slice to use up all the jam. I'm very partial to a Bakewell, so immediately thought this was a brilliant idea. But, as I say, had to wait for the all-pervading heat to dissipate slightly before I could even entertain the idea of turning the oven on.

I love almonds but I'm not overly fond of a strong, synthetic almond taste that you often find with marzipan and the like. So I used up a bag of ground almonds very happily but forwent the almond essence that was in the original recipe. By all means include it instead of vanilla if you're an almond lover! 

After Tom and I had enjoyed this fresh out of the oven, I knew the solution to avoiding temptation all week was to take the rest of the slice into my office on Monday to share with my colleagues. I don't often take my baking in, as I use a lot less sugar than most people are used to, as that's what I prefer. But to my surprise, the slice was hoovered up and I got so many compliments. So if you're looking to win some brownie points in your office, seriously, make this slice and take it in. I have already been asked to make it again! 

 

Bakewell slice

Adapted from this recipe

1 sheet ready-rolled shortcrust pastry
Roughly 1 cup (a little less is fine) jam of your choice (I used a mixture of raspberry and strawberry)
200g organic unsalted butter
175g caster sugar
4 eggs
150g ground almonds
100g self-raising flour
Dash of vanilla extract
Flaked almonds for the topping

Preheat the oven to 180 C (fan). Unroll your pastry sheet, roll it out a little with a rolling pin and then place it, including the baking paper it comes with, into a baking tray of roughly 30 x 20 cm size. Spread the jam over the pastry.

Beat the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time and beat until well combined. Add the almonds, flour and vanilla and stir well. Spread this cake mixture evenly over the jam and pastry.

You can either scatter the top with flaked almonds now and just keep an eye on it and cover with foil once the almonds get brown, or you can add the almonds when the slice has about 10 minutes baking time left. If you choose the latter, they won't be embedded into the cake as much as the mixture won't be wet any more. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. For me, I can't stand a burned nut so I'd rather go with the second option and err on the side of caution! 

Place the tin in the oven and bake for about 30 minutes until golden brown and the cake has risen nicely. If you choose the second option with the flaked almonds, remove after 20 minutes and scatter the flaked almonds over the surface, then return to the oven for the rest of the cooking time.

Allow the slice to cool in the tin. You can ice it, as the original Delicious recipe suggests, but I was happy (and found it sweet enough) with just plain flaked almonds on top. 

bakewell-slice

Cut into slices, take it into your office and watch your popularity soar! It's absolutely perfect with a hot cup of tea or coffee. 


 

 

 

summer couscous salad

couscous-salad

You know how you go through phases of not eating something for years - perhaps a decade - and have written it off in your mind as a bit boring, but then you rediscover it and think "why did I ever stop eating this?!" That is the story of me and couscous.

Twenty years ago, when I first tried couscous, I thought it was the best thing ever. My uncle made a lovely dish with it, lightly spiced, full of fresh herbs and studded with dried apricots. My favourite dish at a local trendy restaurant - Rockefellers, I think it was called - was their roast vegetable couscous salad. Every time I cooked it myself at home, I pretended I wasn't a bored 17-year-old living at home with three rowdy younger siblings, but some sophisticated trainee journalist in her Sydney or London apartment (clearly I thought trainee journalists living in such places were loaded). But like so many things, I had it so often that I got couscous fatigue. After a few disasters where it ended up clumpy and gross rather than fluffy and perfectly cooked, I threw in the towel and hadn't bought couscous since. 

I'm on a mission to clean out my pantry at the moment, dragging all the packets that were flung to the back when they were hopefully bought in 2014 or 2015 (eek) out to finally fulfil their culinary destiny. I found a packet of couscous, amongst the packets of kombu and nori when I was going through my making seitan from scratch phase, and felt a pang of nostalgia. Why not, I thought. 

It has also been uncharacteristically hot here this past week or so. For the first time in my 11 years here, London is experiencing a proper summer. Not just one or two hot days and then cloudy grey skies for the rest of the season, but full on 29 degrees every day for well over a week now. It's a miracle. I'm loving it. 

So any meal that involves not having to turn the oven or stove on is a winner during a heatwave. But there's only so many baby gems and packets of rocket and watercress you can eat. So this is where couscous is a GODSEND. All you have to do is boil a kettle. 

And after eating this salad, it's safe to say couscous won't be off my menu any time soon. Couscous and I are friends again and I couldn't be happier! 

It's seriously sensational. You can make this for a barbecue, as part of a mezze where you serve several salads, or just have it on its own. Cook the whole packet so you can pick at it all week during the heatwave.

Summer couscous salad

Serves 10 if served as a side, makes 5 generous portions if served alone

500g couscous
4 tablespoons olive oil (plus extra if needed)
800ml vegetable stock made with boiling water and stock powder

Rocket, as much as you have/want
Watercress, as much as you have/want
2 large pieces of roasted red pepper (out of a jar), chopped
Cherry tomatoes, as much as you have/want, halved
Sugar snap peas, as much as you have/want, halved
3 tablespoons capers
200g feta cheese, crumbled or cut into small cubes
1 fresh red chilli, finely chopped
1 small bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 small bunch dill, chopped
Salt and pepper

Dressing:
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons basil pesto

Place the couscous in a large bowl, preferably a clear glass one so you can see once all the liquid is absorbed. Add the oil to the top. Boil the kettle and make the stock. Pour the stock on top of the couscous and oil, stirring briefly to combine. Cover the top of the bowl with cling film and leave for 15 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed and the couscous is cooked.

While you're waiting, prepare the salad vegetables, feta and dressing. Put the dressing ingredients in a clean empty jar, put the lid on and then shake until well combined. Set aside.

Once the couscous is cooked, stir it well with a fork to make it all lovely and fluffy and break up any lumps. If it's too dry, add a little more olive oil. Once you're happy with it, turn it all out into a large, shallow serving bowl.

Add all the salad vegetables, capers, herbs, feta, chilli, salt and pepper and stir well to make sure everything is mixed well together. Finally, dress with the dressing and give it one final toss. 

It will sit happily if you have other parts of your meal that you're waiting on, otherwise dig in! It also keeps brilliantly and makes a great portable lunch for the office.

couscous-salad-2

Seriously, I will happily make and eat this every day for the rest of the summer if it means we can have more weather like this. Alleluia. It only took 11 years but thank you weather gods for giving London a proper summer at last! 

super easy baked eggs

baked-eggs

I wrote off baked eggs from my repertoire a few years back, as I'd had nothing but disasters with them. I think, looking back, it was simply a case of not knowing the strength of my oven (they do tend to vary from flat to flat!). But I've recently been converted, mostly because I wanted a brunch dish that just made serving two people at the same time easier, rather than turning my stove into an omelette station every Sunday morning. It's a bit depressing when you finally sit down to eat yours and your partner has already finished theirs! Baked eggs alleviate this problem, furthering marital togetherness. Try them and I'm sure you'll be a convert! 

Super easy baked eggs

Serves 2

8 cherry tomatoes, halved
6-8 tablespoons of greek or natural yoghurt
1 teaspoon pul biber (Turkish chilli flakes or Aleppo pepper: use plain chilli flakes if you can't find it)
A spoonful or two of crumbled feta per portion
A handful of fresh basil and thyme leaves per portion
2 heaped teaspoons sun-dried tomato pesto
2 large eggs
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 180 C. Boil the kettle.

Butter two ramekins. Divide the halved cherry tomatoes, yoghurt, pul biber, feta and herbs between the two, stirring until just mixed. Place a heaped teaspoon of sun-dried tomato pesto on top, then make a small indent in the centre. Break in an egg and then season.

Once the kettle has boiled, place the two ramekins in a deep baking tin. Pour in enough boiling water to come roughly halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Very carefully place in the oven and bake for about 12-15 minutes but keep an eye on them....you want them just set and the yolks still runny. They can turn from undercooked to overcooked in mere seconds! 

Serve both portions immediately with crusty bread/toast. Preferably in the garden. 

leftover easter* chocolate brownies

chocolate brownies

I'm sure most of you are thinking..."leftover chocolate? Are you crazy?! When does that ever happen? Thank you Phil, rub in my lack of self control!"

Oh, dear reader, I meant nothing of the sort. But if you're anything like me, you might have found yourself over the holidays with chocolate that perhaps wasn't nice enough to eat on its own but could be transformed into something magical via the wonder of brownie batter!

If you're going to have it, make it worth your while. Nothing irritates me more than wasting calories/points/tastebuds/time/money on food that just doesn't satisfy or deliver. And I abhor waste as well. So if that's you too, here you go, you're in luck!

Leftover chocolate brownies

125g unsalted butter
150g caster sugar
80g cacao powder
4 eggs
90g fine '00' flour (the kind you'd use to make pasta)
Pinch of salt
Approximately 100g chocolate-box chocolates 

Preheat your oven to 180 C (fan). 

Melt the butter, sugar and cacao in a bowl (not plastic!) over a saucepan of simmering water until combined and the butter has melted. It will look gritty, but fear not!

Beat in the eggs one at a time. Then add the flour. Beat well (use an electric mixer if it all gets a bit much!). 

Pour into a 20cm square cake or brownie pan and dot the chopped chocolates evenly on top. Bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes. You want a skewer to come out almost clean, but not quite, as you want to keep everything moist. A dry brownie is a miserable thing. You may need to bake for a little longer if your oven is a little cooler than mine.

brownies

Allow to cool and then devour, marvelling at your genius!  

* Full disclosure: I made these in January after the chocolate coma that is (usually) Christmas. Any chocolate you want to use up will work well! 

best-ever vegetarian nut roast

vegetarian nut roast

If you think nut roast is a boring vegetarian cliche, think again!

This little beauty is chock full of delicious nuts, seeds and spices that come together in a taste sensation. Don't be put off by the number of ingredients - most of these are lurking in the average spice rack and it comes together really quickly and easily. It works brilliantly as a roast dinner but also anywhere you would normally use mince, such as in a bolognese sauce, "meat" balls, rissoles, chilli or shepherds pie.

If you're making it for Christmas or Easter, you can add lots of allspice and nutmeg in addition to the named spices for a lovely festive flavour, and wrap the nut mixture in puff pastry to make a delicious Wellington-esque dish, or make sausage rolls with the mixture. The possibilities are endless! I hope you'll love it as much as I do.

BEST-EVER VEGETARIAN NUT ROAST

Serves 6

  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 200g (1 large bag) walnut pieces
  • 100g (half a large bag) whole almonds
  • 200g other mixed nuts (I tend to use cashews, pine nuts and pecans)
  • 1 cup sunflower seeds
  • 2 teaspoons sweet smoked paprika
  • 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 2 teaspoons mixed spice
  • Roughly 1½ cups breadcrumbs (add more if too wet)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 x 400g can chopped tomatoes, drained (reserve the juices for gravy)
  • 2 large handfuls fresh flat leaf parsley
  • 2 teaspoons Vegemite or Marmite
  • Juice of ½ a lemon
  • 1/4 cup grated strong vegetarian Cheddar cheese
  • ¾ of a medium red onion
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Grease and line a large loaf tin and set aside. If you're cooking the roast straight away (see further), preheat the oven to 180C (fan).

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan on medium-high heat. Once the pan is hot, toast the nuts, seeds and spices, tossing everything to coat well. Be very careful and do not let it burn. Toast for a few minutes, or until the mixture is fragrant and starting to turn golden, then turn off the heat and let it cool slightly.

Add the cooled nuts and spices to the bowl of a food processor. Add all other ingredients. Blitz until thoroughly combined, or combined to your liking (it can be nice if left a little chunky). You might need to stop and scrape it down a few times. If it's too wet, add more breadcrumbs. If it's too dry, add a little water, reserved tomato juice or even a dash of red wine if you've got some handy!

Place in the prepared pan and ideally leave for a few hours (or overnight is even better) in the fridge to let the flavours deepen and the loaf firm up. If you're in a hurry you can cook it straight away, but ideally give it at least an hour's resting time.

Preheat oven to 180C (fan). When ready, cook the roast for 45 minutes to an hour until firm and golden. Allow it to cool slightly before carving then serve with gravy and all your favourite roast vegetables.