Home baked home truths (or the rantings of a rabid fan).

I have never been much of a baker, though not for want of trying . My scones have ranged from lead balls to doughy underbaked embarrassments. My cakes are inconsistent and dangerously representative of my indisciplined self. I can turn out some pretty good chocolate chip cookies (though on their last outing they were unremarkable, for reasons unbeknownst to me), and Nigel Slater’s chocolate brownie recipe give the impression that I have talent (when in fact its just the beautiful alchemy of fat, sugar and chocolate dumped together that overcome despite this cook’s limited ability). I am a good cook but alas only a very average baker.

This in no way dampens my enthusiasm for basking in the reflected glory of other’s baking achievements. The Great British Bake Off being the pinnacle of such baking glory. I love it, everything bit of it, and will happily defend it’s twee, garden fete, WI-ness in the face of all nay sayers to the bitter end. A bit emphatic I know? But I am an expat who has been living in France for the past seven years and any reminders of home, fringed with a bit of bunting brings a nostalgic tear to my eye, and has me humming  “the village green preservation society”. Ray Davies (The Kinks) wasn’t wrong, “god bless strawberry jam and all the different varieties”.

I should probably point out that I have very rarely come in contact with the delights of pastel coloured fabric scraps as village fairs were a long way off from my north London suburb and its sounds of Asians, overground. As a a first generation British Asian, I have nibbled a bit of Batenburg, set my teeth on edge with Fondant Fancies and wondered why oh why anyone would want to adorn anything with revolting glacé cherries. Thanks to  Mr Kipling  I had a  window into that other world. Cakes were occasionally baked and enjoyed in our house (by my dad the baker), preferably whilst still blisteringly hot and came in two very welcome varieties, plain sponge and sultana, but this was hardly the source of my dewey eyed daydreams. My village green dreams are a construct of The Archers, Darling Buds of May with a bit of River Cottage thrown in for good measure. A love child born out of these country concoction all rosey cheeked perfection with a sun dappled complexion and a perpetual soft focus glow. And so the Bake Off is my chocolate box England, where I even enjoy the sickly sweet soft centres.

But the Bake Off had now made its way to this side (the french side) of the Channel, same intro, music, marquee, bunting and a distinctly English looking setting? In fact right down to the interiors and candy coloured appliances it appears to be the same.  But this alas is where all similarities end. “Le meilleur Patissier”, a title that immediately moves away from any notions of best amateur baker, and favours ‘best’ full stop, in a humourless, mastercheffy way.  No history lesson about the origins and types of dunkable biscuits. No Mel and Sue to lighten up the proceedings, but a skinny “I only occassionally nibble at a sliver of cake” presenter (the most amateur of all the participants). No Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, firm, fair and frothy. Rather France’s overbaked celebrity (michelin annointed) chef Cyrille Lignac and food blogger named Mercotte (it seems some cooks opt for a mononyme in an attempt to rival rock star like Cher, Brittney, Rihanna but to no avail). Judging is a rigorous exercise in preservation of the high art of patisserie and allows little or no room for original flights of fancy. There will be no cupcakes with popping candy here, nor any flavouring that may offend French sensibilities. A nod to maccha is permitted (as all things Japanese are “de rigueur”) and a bit of cardamom or cinnamon is allowed an appearance so long as one is prudent. All offerings must resemble works of art as prescribed by the likes of  Laduree and Pierre Hermé. In short there is nothing remotely home baked or half baked here. Please do not misunderstand my critique,  I love french patisserie. It is almost always delicious, refined and exquisite to look at. But its not home baking, in fact France is really not a nation of home bakers. “Le meilleur Patissier” is not a warm hug but rather a frosty greeting. Maybe no one really cares, that much is lost in translation, afterall the BBC must be chuffed that they have sold the concept of to around 20 different countries. But I love the original and have no time for its Gallic cousin. Sorry, “its just not British!”

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Frugal this festive season

Last christmas I doled out a list of my then favourite online sellers of edible, if somewhat expensive goodies. I am undeterred this year too in my conviction that food is the ever better option to the otherwise pointless possible tat available, that illicit obligatory smile/smirk/grimace.

I also note however, with increasing distress the ever looming festive seasonal expense, the horrifying escalating cost of everything and the ever dwindling depth of my purse. The only way to prevent bankruptcy is these testing times is to offer homemade treats, boxed, or jarred and tied with a ribbon. Hardly an original thought on my part as every Tom, Dick and Blogger is bound to suggest the same but I have collated a sample of my favourites for your giving pleasure.

The following range from actual cooking to just assembling.

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Cooking the Books

I love recipe books almost as much as I love food itself. Pouring over the pages of unusual ingredients and flavour combinations, salivating at the sight of perfectly posed dishes of deliciousness, forms a magical mystery tour that I am more than happy to embark upon. The pleasures derived from them of course are highly dependant on my mood. On days when I am struggling to give wings to mundane ingredients, I am glad of a good index and a book that helpfully divides chapters into courses, and better still meat, fish, veg etc. But the allure of a cook book is not simply that it is clearly structured and easy to use. On the contrary, the meandering style of unstructured recipe books can often be more inspiring than a well formatted volume.

I must admit that I am not a fan of single theme recipes books, as in “crumble” or “soup” or “casserole”. However much I enjoy all these things in general I can never help but wonder if the author isn’t just eeking out the most tenuous and sometime implausible recipes to fit the theme, not to mention the shelf clutter possessing these involves. For example I have a soup book with a dessert section. Sounds promising? The desserts have names like “soup of apple and pear” but isn’t that just a compote? “Sweet creamy rice soup” no that would be a runny rice pudding. Or “Strawberry banana soup” judging by the ingredients, more commonly referred to as a milkshake. I even possess a book solely dedicated to “Tartars and Carpaccio” (a gift). Really. Though I am generally an adventurous type I draw the line at raw chicken. “Salmonella alarm bells”, sorry. And using a peeler rather than a grater for carrots doesn’t suddenly imply “carpaccio of carrots”, rather suggests pretensionly named carrot salad a la time consuming pain in the arse. Just not worth the effort.

I also dislike proper cheffy books, highly stylised faux restaurant food, requiring a battery of equipment, and couple of commie chefs and a dishwasher (the human not the mechanical kind). These for me are more coffee table than kitchen table books. Books who’s sole purpose is to make you feel inadequate. Feel impotent in the kitchen, whilst you nurse your creative illiteracy in interior design and lament at the architectural shortcomings of your home. Nothing good has ever from following their lead. Trust me I have tried. Desperate, demoralizing and always disappointing.

The books I prefer are those that capture the essentials of a good life. Colour, flavour, texture, variety, yet uncomplicated, convivial and the palatable equivalent of a warm hug. Above all recipe books should be a guide rather than gospel. Add and omit at will, substitute ingredients you can’t find or don’t like and remember to pencil in the changes if the results were a success. A recipe is all the better I think for being personalised to taste.

Whilst I should probably be reading a good book to improve my mind, I am happy to curl up on the sofa with a glass of wine and a bit of food porn, thank you. Belly first, mind later.

So here are a few of my current favourites:
Nigel Slater: Kitchen Diaries
(Frankly I am a fan. Incredibly simple, intensely flavourful and simple stuff. Helps to keep it all seasonal too.)

Yotam Ottolenghi: (2 books) Plenty and Ottolenghi: The Cookbook
(If you ever thought that veg was just a side dish, you’ll think again after reading Plenty. But be warned this is not health food! No meat does not mean “no calories”. The Cookbook is a wonderful window into the world of perfectly delectable salads, soups, tarts and scrumpy desserts. Eye candy, that blissfully fills the belly too.)

Mai Pham: Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table
(This is a rare treat that really allows you to recreate some truely wonderfully authentic flavours of Vietamese cooking. Not entirely easy and sourcing ingredients is involved but worth it).

Diana Henry: Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons
(Criss cross the Middle East, Mediterranean and North Africa, heady aromatic glorious recipes, that really makes everyday feel like sunkissed days. Its quite a skill to alter your view into soft focused sun dappled splendour, I love it).

Though my shelves groan under the strain of many, I still covert others, such as Comfort and Spice, Niamh Shields (I am deeply intriqued by something called “bacon jam”?)
Please recommend some of your favourites I would hate to think I am missing out.

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Goods gifts to prolong goodwill.

The season of goodwill will shortly be upon us. But I have a confession to make, my goodwill often dries up once I have unwrapped the last Christmas present. The pointless caché of gifts often hastily purchased by friends and family turn me to stone, and will eventually find their way to the charity shop after several months of idling on a shelf or in a cupboard. Guilt preventing immediate expulsion.  I realise that this undoubtedly makes me seem deeply ungrateful. But gratitude I do indeed feel, (fleetingly, I admit) but then the wave of irritation rears itself, at the thought of what to do and where to put such offerings.

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Over indulgence amongst the Roman ruins.

There is without a doubt one pervasive theme to all holidays taken. This trip to Rome was no exception. It was not the result of a much needed break or intended as an illuminating visit to become better acquainted with religious iconography or improve our understanding of the breath and significance of classical civilisation. Nothing so grandiose, nor even a thinly veiled attempt at a bit of culture …. just a food focused jolly to Rome with lashings of over indulgence.

During moments of lucid thought, when not rendered semi-comatose by carbohydrate overload, or stupified by our wine addled brains we managed to piece together our thoughts on our restaurant outings.

A feast for the eyes, stomach and the stuff of wine soaked dreams and we have the snaps to prove it. Continue reading

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Ruby Red Promise: Pomegranate Molasses

A few years ago whilst scouring the shelves of a specialist food store (a common occupation of mine), I discovered pomegranate molasses. Aside from the information on the bottle, suggesting its Middle Eastern origin, I had no idea as to the uses of the thick garnet coloured syrup and was ignorant to its prevalence in Middle Eastern cuisine.

As ever I made a hasty purchase and proceeded to allow it to gather dust, distracted by other kitchen offerings. When I finally opened the bottle I discovered that this thick syrup had a slight floral fragrance and an at first sweet, then sharp tangy flavour. Not unlike tamarind, it is used in similar ways to add sweet sour notes to dishes. Continue reading

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Comfort Food, Our Greatest Hits

I imagine that most families have dishes that are a part of their family identity, even family history and as such reside in our hearts and stomachs as comfort foods. More than just providing that inner sigh of satisfaction that occurs with the first mouthful, its food that becomes synonymous with time and place.

Whenever I eat paneer (Indian cheese) I remember Thursday night dinner in my family home. The once a week vegetarian meal that consisted of chapattis, fried aubergine, dhal and paneer. Sitting on the kitchen counter chatting to my Mum whilst she rolled out less that circular chapattis.

Roast chicken was the other regular meal I fondly remember. Loved because it was a non-Indian meal and then because who can resist bronzed crispy skin roasted meat. The English in us insisted upon the classic roast potatoes, gravy and sage and onion stuffing. So dearly loved that even my best friend (frequently at our table) credits this as one of her ultimate comfort foods. Continue reading

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Pastilla a la frigo

The children are at my mother-in-law’s and I have the kitchen to myself. This is a tantalising proposition, one I am always keen to exploit. But in the absence of small mouths to feed I seem to have omitted to buy adequate necessary sustenance for me and my husband.  So I shall have to improvise. Though generally painless and actually pleasurable, I can rarely recreate the culinary successes, as I forget to write them down. I have high hopes for this particular flight of fancy given the bit of minced beef, brique pastry, and frozen spinach my fridge freezer have thrown up.  The intention is to turn this lot into some sort of inauthentic pastilla.

So this first blog entry may be the start of some happy musings or may stall at my first failure.

In my enthusiasm to evoke North African and Middle Eastern flavours I shall have to restrain my desire to add too many warm spices. Namely can I put cumin, cinnamon and allspice in this pie alongside preserved lemon and raisins without ending up something that resembles pot pourri?

And here is the result…

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