I think I have to finally admit that Christmas is actually happening. Soon. Like, in a few days. Pretty soon I’ll be putting the out of office email reply on and heading down to Devon. It’s taken me a while to get in the festive spirit this year. Especially since the weather has been so warm (apparently there were colder days in May than in December – my current favourite weather anecdote). But after consuming more mulled wine than was probably good for me and listening to Annie Lennox’s rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen on repeat, I’ve finally got on board with the whole thing.
I usually make something edible as Christmas gifts. Last year it was honeycomb, and the year before that, florentines. Both of which featured relatively stressful processes involving sugar thermometers. Last year, I almost reached breaking point when making the honeycomb, covered in bits of glue-like caramel frantically trying to unstick the stubborn buggers from each other. So this year, I opted for something simple. I melted chocolate, spread it out on a tray and and covered it in stuff. Easy.
It’s been a while since I’ve put a post on here, I know. There have been several things that all happened in a concentrated period recently that led to me feeling not quite at the top of my game. Up until now, the thought of getting it together to make myself a lunch that was anywhere near photograph-worthy, let alone actually photograph it and write about it, seemed a daunting task. But now I’m feeling a bit more myself, I decided to intentionally carve out some time to make a blog post.
That time came today, a rainy Saturday, where I suddenly found myself with little on the agenda other than some household chores. The idea for lunch came in part from a recipe in Nigel Slater’s most recent cookbook (Kitchen Diaries III), a book so evocative in its descriptions that it sets me off on wild cooking fantasies. I adapted a recipe for grilled lamb steaks with cannellini bean and spinach puree, as I had a hankering for griddled chicken.
I do a lot of food photography for work, but doing photography that is just for me always feels like exercising a different muscle. There’s a lot more freedom involved in taking photographs that don’t have a specific brief, and it’s completely up to me the direction in which they take. I always feel I’m more able to take risks and experiment with composition and angles, and the outcome usually surprises me. I found a day spend gently pottering in the kitchen, then arranging bits of material, deciding on which plate to use (a lengthy process) and photographing the dish, bought a sense of much needed restoration.
I have recently decided to jump on the gluten-free bandwagon. Going ‘gf’ seems to be all the rage at the moment. I feel sorry for people who genuinely are coeliac, as there seems to be a surge in people suddenly and miraculously developing a gluten ‘intolerance’ overnight. Consequently, I’ve found that telling people you don’t eat gluten is often met with an eye roll and an accusatory ‘yes but you’re not actually allergic, are you’.
Anyway, I thought I’d give it a go, as I’ve heard so many positive accounts of what avoiding gluten can do. The first hurdle was baking. I made some relatively successful gluten free (and dairy free, just to give myself a challenge) cookies, using rice flour and coconut oil. So next I thought I’d try a cake. Lemon polenta cake is one of the easiest things to make gluten free, as the polenta acts as a good substitute for the flour, and gives the cake a pleasant grainy texture. I topped the cake with some ricotta whisked with honey, and scattered over some blueberries.
I am firmly in the camp that believes as much butter and sugar as humanely possible should be shoved into brownies. My favorite brownie recipe – from the one and only Nigel Slater – requires a whole block of butter and an eye-watering amount of sugar. The resulting brownies can only be eaten one at a time (unless things really are getting tough) as they are so rich.
I thought this was my brownie recipe of choice for life, until I stumbled across this these sweet potato brownies. This recipe is from the queen of vegan smugness, Ella Woodward, who writes the blog Deliciously Ella. Once you get past her insufferable writing style, waxing lyrical about how ‘awesome’ quinoa is, the recipes on her blog are actually pretty inspired. This recipe uses sweet potato and dates to give the sweetness to the brownies, and, to add to their virtuousness, they don’t contain any butter. Ella calls them ‘gooey bites of heaven’. But she would.
The texture is not quite what you’d expect from a brownie, and they don’t have that melting ooziness that copious amounts of butter provides. But they are pretty convincingly brownie-like in taste, and if you need an excuse to eat a whole batch of brownies in one go, these might just be the ones.
My friend Ruby has recently moved to Australia. One of the things on the to do list before she left England was to have the quintessentially English experience of a cream tea. Unfortunately, this presents a slight problem when you are allergic to dairy. So I took on the challenge of making a dairy-free cream tea.
The scone part was easy – I just replaced butter with margarine – then added some blueberries to jazz things up a bit. However, trying to make something that vaguely resembles clotted cream without using anything that comes from a cow was more challenging. In the end, after lots of trawling through vegan food blogs, I stumbled upon the suggestion of using coconut milk. This, as it happens, makes relatively successful cream-like substance, when whipped and combined with margarine and more sugar than I would like to admit.
I ended up making two ‘creams’ – a one flavoured with vanilla, and a chocolate one, in an attempt to mask some of the coconut taste. The chocolate worked well with the blueberries, and with the plain Even though I’m devoted to clotted cream like only a Devonian can be, this cream tea was a much lighter, and I think equally delicious, alternative.
Although I love my current job as the marketing manager for a chain of cafes in Bristol (just a disclaimer, in case my boss is reading this) I do sometimes get nostalgic for the good old days when I worked in a café. The day to day banter with customers, many of whom were so regular I almost considered them friends, the hiss of the milk steamer and the easy access to coffee (and cake) at all times, made the job very enjoyable. Yes, you get the occasional off day when customers get shirty, or nothing quite goes according to plan, but by and large my most pressing concern was whether I’d ordered enough milk -and if I hadn’t I’d just nip up the road to the local dairy.
During my year working in this café in a sleepy little Devon town, there were two days that particularly stood out, both of which happen to be days I got to serve coffee to famous people. The first was Katherine Parkinson, a.k.a. Jen from the I.T. Crowd, who I was so shocked to see I almost spilt the tray of drinks I was carrying all over her. The second person is slightly less impressive (although equally exciting if you’re a food nerd like me) – Pam Corbin, the jam lady from River Cottage.
Pam’s book, Preserves, is one of my all time favourite cookbooks. I always dig it out whenever summer rolls around, so I can set about preserving all manner of fruits and vegetables. There’s no feeling like smugly lining up jars of homemade chutney and jam, knowing that you’ve got enough to last through winter. The recipes in Pam’s book are accompanied by charming little WI anecdotes, such as the time her strawberry jam won first prize at the Uplyme and Lyme Regis Horticultural Show. Well, we can all dream. When I met Pam, I babbled something about how I’ve made her quince jelly recipe several times and how much I love her use of elderflower in gooseberry jam, and just about restrained myself from asking for her autograph. Good times.
My friend Kristel recently came to visit. She’s from the Netherlands, and we met in our first year at university in Sheffield, when we lived a few rooms down from each other. Despite there being countries (and sometimes continents) separating us, we have stayed in touch, and I went to visit Kristel in Boston last year (read more about that here). So then it was her turn to visit me, and we spent an enjoyable week ambling around Bristol. Baking was also inevitably going to be on the agenda, and when trying to decide what to bake on a rainy Sunday, there was only one option.
This apple tart is always going to provoke incessant bouts of nostalgia for us, since it was one of the things Kristel made during our first year at uni. We were living in a flat with nine people, most of whom had some sort of dietary requirement, from vegan to lactose intolerant. Therefore, as you can imagine, group meals were somewhat difficult. Being committed to the cause of group bonding, however, we managed to rustle something up that would suit everyone.
Our group meals usually consisted of pasta with some sort of vegetable based sauce, and this apple tart for pudding (because yes, there had to be pudding). The version that Kristel made originally was vegan, involving the genius use of tahini instead of egg to bind the pastry together. This recipe is not vegan, as it uses butter in the pastry and egg yolk to glaze the top, but we retained the tahini for old time’s sake.