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.
I remember when I first discovered that it was cardamoM, not cardamoN. My world was turned momentarily upside down – a bit like when you first find out that Father Christmas isn’t real. It took a good few minutes of staring intently at the final letter of the word for it to really sink in. But cardamom it is, and this versatile spice was chosen for this recipe as it goes surprisingly well with sweet things. Even chocolate. If you don’t believe me, try this gorgeous white chocolate and cardamom mousse from the one and only Nigel Slater.
Me and Paris chose the combination of apricots and cardamom as the focus of this recipe. The delicate little pods need to be pried open and the tiny black seeds crushed in a pestle and mortar, then sprinkled over the mixture and mixed well to combine. Cardamom is a strong spice but can be very subtle when used sparingly. We decided the best choice for this recipe would be dried apricots, as fresh would be too wet. We teamed the apricots and cardamom with oats, pecans, flour and glued the whole lot together with peanut butter.
These cookies come out more like flapjacks – given the oats and honey combination. They have a pleasingly dense, healthy texture, and are, because of dear Paris, completely vegan. They keep for a good long time, only getting more moist and gooey with time. They make the perfect after work snack with a good cup of char.
Read Paris’ take on the cookies here, with some much appreciated flattery to go along with it.
This time of year is my favourite. There is a slight chill in the air, making it the ideal time wear a ‘transition scarf’, yet there is still enough of a whisper of summer left to make the occasional evening unendingly balmy. At around this time every year I take this opportunity to gorge myself on fruit like it’s going out of fashion – so much so that I’m even cajoling it into savoury dishes.
According to the Waitrose catalogue (on which I base a lot of my culinary decisions) one of the best things about this period of time, referred to as late summer, is the abundance of apricots. Paris and I decided to turn to the apricot for our next source of culinary inspiration. Such a versatile little number deserves some attention – so we’re going to experiment with how they can be used in sweet and savoury dishes.
We have discovered the joys of chargrilling fruit, caramelising the natural sugars into blackened lines. This works particularly well with soft stone fruit such as peaches, nectarines and apricots. Brushing a bit of scarlet-red, fiery harissa paste onto the fruit before grilling is a good idea, although it’ll leave a burn in the back of your throat as it cooks. To add to the harissa apricots, we wilted some chard, and piled the whole lot on top of some cous-cous. Not just any cous-cous, mind. Giant cous-cous – also known as maftoul –is, as the name suggests, a bigger, plumper version of the regular variety, with a pleasant nutty taste. The whole thing was finished off with a dollop of yoghurt with some more harissa swirled into it.
For Paris’ write up, click here.
I have just submitted the above photo to a food photography competition in Observer Food Monthly. The competition asks people to send in pictures of their favourite comfort food to get them through the winter. Well, it would be difficult to get through the winter without pudding. This is the ideal combination of comforting stodginess from the rich almond frangipane, and a hint of freshness from the tangy raspberries and sweet apricots, reminding us that summer is not too far away.
It seems to have been constantly raining for weeks on end, and we’re only now starting to see anything resembling clement weather. A day slowly pottering around in front of a warm oven seems a fitting antidote to the rain. I wanted to make something that I had all the ingredients in the house for, to save braving the raging storm outside. I found a tin of apricots in the cupboard that were (just) within their expiry date, and an icy cluster of raspberries in the freezer, from when the plants in the garden were fit to bursting in the summer.
I decided to make a tart, as the last time I made one was the Rhubarb and Custard Crumble Tart, which was the first recipe on the blog almost a year ago. When working at the café, I discovered the joys of frangipane – an Italian pastry cream made with eggs, sugar, butter and ground almonds. It’s really easy to make, unlike the more troublesome crème patisserie, as you just mix all the ingredients together and pour it into the pastry case. And the result is not bad for a casual bit of rainy-day baking.
When I get home from work, I’m usually so ravenous that the first thing I think of cramming into my mouth is a biscuit (or three). I find that the hiatus between lunch and dinner always seems more insufferably long than the one between breakfast and lunch. The other day I decided that enough is enough. So these flapjacks are a healthier snack to ‘keep the wolf from the door’, as you say if you were born in the ‘50s.
It had always mystified me slightly how flapjacks seem to be considered a healthy option – as they contain as much butter and probably also as much sugar as the average biscuit. Maybe it has something to do with the oats, with their slow-release energy wholesomeness. I decided to add fruit to my flapjacks, to make them even more virtuous, and use agave syrup rather in place of the traditional, tooth-achingly sweet golden syrup.
There is always a slight panic that sets in as we approach the end of summer- the need to gorge on all the fresh fruit you can, whilst simultaneously finding some way of preserving it. Stewing fruit with a bit of water and sugar – also called a ‘compote’ –is a good method. There is a bittersweet sadness to consigning bags of compote to the freezer, only to be bought out again when summer is a distant memory. This recipe uses apricot compote, made from fresh apricots, water and sugar, as a layer in the middle of the flapjacks.