Skip to content

Honey and Ginger Biscuits

November 15, 2021

book, cup of tea and honey and ginger biscuits star-shaped

I was doing some food photography for a social media client, and needed some edible stars.

Appearance was the priority, they had to be edible (no food waste) but I wasn’t too worried about the taste;  I cobbled something together.  You know those types of biscuits that you eat one of, then realise you’re taking another, then another? Yes – these are the ones.

The recipe is quick and simple which means you can put them on your cake stand for afternoon tea, bring out a plateful with morning coffee or fill the biscuit tin to keep the builders happy.

The dough is not quite as forgiving as my favourite gingerbread but would still be good for baking sessions with children. Use any shape you like; you could play around with different spices or flavourings, just don’t overdo it. I made some small thumbprint cookies with a piece of crystallised ginger on them as well as the stars.

Not my usual post but, as I slipped some onto a saucer with my cup of tea, I wanted to share this happy accident. Still reaching for simple pleasures in these strange times.

assorted honey ginger biscuits a cookery book

Honey and Ginger Biscuits

  • Difficulty: simple
  • Print

Easy-to-make biscuit dough that's versatile for all sorts of occasions. Ghostly shapes at Hallowe'en, Christmas stars, birthday nibbles or part of afternoon tea. Light, spicy, moreish.

Makes about 30 depending on the size of your cutters.

Ingredients

120g butter
100g caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons raw honey
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon ground ginger
180g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1-2 tablespoons milk

Method

Preheat your oven to 180C/ 160C fan / gas mark 4
Cream the butter and sugar in a bowl or a food processor. Add the honey and egg yolk a little at a time, stirring in well.
Sieve in the flour, baking powder and ginger; fold in until combined. The dough will start to become firm. Add a splash of milk if it’s too stiff.
Form the dough into a ball then, on a work surface dusted lightly with flour, roll out to about 1 centimetre thick. It’s best to make them a bit thicker for larger sizes.
Cut into your desired shapes and place on a baking tray lined with non-stick baking paper. Leave room between each one to allow them to spread a little.

Put in the middle of the oven for 10-15 minutes. Check at around 8 minutes as, depending on how big your shapes are, sharp edges like the tips of stars, can burn quickly.

Leave on the tray for one or two minutes then transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Let me know if you make some and what shapes you make.

honey and ginger biscuits

One Pot: Three Ways cookbook review. Why eating vegan doesn’t have to be difficult or boring

November 7, 2021

Vegan recipe book by Rachel Ama

‘Save time with vibrant, versatile vegan recipes’ is the by-line on the cover of One Pot: Three Ways by Rachel Ama.

Cooking for vegans

Both my daughters are vegan. Often when I tell people this they commiserate. “Oh no!” they lament sympathetically and give me a look of pity as though my pet had just died (probably not the most appropriate analogy but you get the picture).  The main concern is that cooking for vegans must be a nightmare.

My own experience is very different. I’m proud of my daughters’ choices and supportive, even if my way is different. Both of them cook healthy and delicious vegan food that we’re all happy to eat. When they come and visit, more often than not, they will cook for us.

Treating vegans as a different species has, thankfully, started to wane since they make up over 1% of the population in UK. This makes them attractive in economic terms and the sections of vegan products in the chill cabinet of the supermarket are now familiar. These dairy and meat alternatives are marketed partly as substitutes and partly for their convenience factor. They are processed foods and designed, just like all other processed foods, to be quick and easy to prepare and eat, but specifically by vegans.  My daughters would rather cook things from scratch, as I do, but we’re all busy.

Vegan recipe book by Rachel Ama

One Pot: Three Ways

One Pot: Three Ways by Rachel Ama is a cookbook for busy people who want to eat well. It’s designed around a simple system where you cook a main, one-pot recipe then have the choice of three options to make it into different meals.  The main recipe is enough for four portions and the recipe options use two portions so you are already set for a couple of meals that week. They are versatile so you can increase or decrease the quantities.

A few vegan cookbooks have crept onto my shelves and many of the well-known ones seem to be polarised into two categories: recipes for vegan versions of traditional dishes like shepherd’s pie (“you won’t miss meat”), and dietary-related health issues (“being vegan made me feel amazing”).  Rachel Ama’s main approach is to devise her own recipes that she enjoys, with big, plant-based flavours, and believes other people will too.  There are a few recipes for ‘basics’ at the back of the book that include riffs on Spaghetti Bolognese, Shepherd’s Pie and Moussaka but they are the exception. She mentions the positive impact on her body she found in giving up dairy in the intro, but doesn’t labour the point.

My heritage plays a huge role in the food I make; my immediate family are Welsh, St Lucian and Sierra Leonean, so it’s fair to say I grew up visiting family members with very different-smelling kitchens across London, and each smells like home to me.

Vegan recipe book by Rachel Ama

Key ingredients

Flicking through the cookbook, the pictures of food are vibrant in reds, oranges, yellows and greens – very different to the beige, lentil-brigade reputation that vegan food is still shrugging off. Some ingredients crop up many times such as mushrooms, red peppers, avocados, kale and cauliflower. There’s the usual range of pulses that are essential eating healthy on a vegan diet (a good source of protein and iron).

Other ingredients are a little less easy to find here in rural Devon. While tinned jackfruit has made it’s way onto supermarket shelves, hearts of palm aren’t often stocked, I haven’t found ackee and getting a fresh, plantain is impossible.

Rachel came into people’s homes via YouTube where she gained avid fans. She’s warm, friendly, attractive and explains things well, all factors that probably contributes to a large following. However, I think it’s her use of spices and flavours that has made the recipes catch on. Tahini, red chilli flakes, lemons and limes, miso paste, harissa, with lots of fresh herbs are on her kitchen counter. Paprika, cumin, garlic powder, allspice, turmeric, Madras curry powder, nutmeg and cinnamon make up the core of her dried spices.

When Rachel outlines these staples of her kitchen in the book, she divides them into three ‘stations’: fridge and fresh top-up essentials; store-cupboard essentials; sauces and flavour-station essentials. The recipes are also in three sections: One pot (a deep casserole); one pan (a good-sized frying pan); one tray (a large roasting pan). You get the impression that while she might dance around the kitchen, Rachel is a highly organised cook.

Vegan recipe book by Rachel Ama

So how does it work?

You make a centre-piece or main recipe (many of which can be done ahead) then choose from three different sub-recipes to make it into a different meal. For example, I made Harissa Hotpot from the One Pot chapter (recipe below) and served it with Green Tahini and Green Bean Salad. Alternatively I could have made Garlic, Lemon and Kale Wild Rice or Toasted Garlic Sourdough with Rocket to go with it.  These themes are repeated so you can eat a healthy and varied menu.

Roasted Cauliflower Curry, from the One Tray section can be served with minty, brown rice and cavolo nero; a coconutty white rice and chutney; or a salad of mixed leaves and cherry tomatoes drizzled with turmeric and tahini dressing.

Jerk-spiced lentils, in the One Pan chapter, can be eaten with Coconut Rice, Patacones and Pineapple Salsa on one day, Jerk Lentil Spaghetti on another or with Plantain Rotis and Salad on another occasion. Patacones are fried, rolled and refried plantain slices which I’ll try to make if I can find this elusive fruit.

Our verdict

One of my daughters had been eager to see the book as she’d watched Rachel’s videos and really liked the concept and the recipes.  She thought that sometimes the options were pretty similar (e.g. rice was common) and there were quite a few curries, however they looked good. There are creative ideas that she wouldn’t have thought to make. Her proviso was if you made all the recipes, the ingredient list could stack up (she’s a student cooking mainly for herself).

My other daughter is an experimental and spontaneous cook who doesn’t often use recipes. Her view was if you’re new to being vegan or only have a few meals that you know how to cook, this book would be great. Nothing seems particularly hard or complicated but there are nice flavour combinations that are probably outside some people’s boxes.

I wanted to know what someone who isn’t vegan, and doesn’t have vegans in her immediate family, thought of the book. She liked the photography and simple ingredients with the option to add things. “Not sure if I’m the target – I’d probably buy it for vegans. I like the servings information, it’s amazing how many cookbooks don’t say how many people a recipe will feed. I like the background about why she likes certain flavours, clear simple instructions, highlights in bold and not crazy ingredients.” My friend is an excellent cook and said she would like to cook from it.

KP was less enthusiastic. I asked him to select a few recipes he’d like me to cook and he struggled to choose three. However, he hasn’t tasted any yet.

So what did I think? There’s no seasonality in any of the recipes, they’re designed so you can go into the supermarket at any time of the year and make them. As I cook from my Riverford veg box, I find this a bit limiting. However, using leftovers of something I’ve cooked on one day as the foundation for a different meal is something I do regularly to minimise food waste, so I relate to the concept. This book gives me a different perspective and many new ideas.  Some vegan substitutes are included but not often: for instance, vegan mince is used for the Thai-basil plant-based mince recipes, however walnut and cauliflower mince is the basis of others. Overall, it feels like an interesting cookbook that just happens to be vegan.

As well as finding a home on the bookshelf of vegans it could be a great resource when cooking for a mixed group, which happens more and more these days.

Vegan recipe book by Rachel Ama

The Harissa Hotpot was really simple to make. I was really dubious about adding chopped aubergine into a type of stew without frying them first but they melted into the sauce really nicely. The zest and juice of orange really lifted the whole thing especially paired with the ginger. The green bean salad was a quick addition and the green tahini dressing was so delicious that I’ve made it again to serve with other vegetables.

This recipe is from One Pot:Three Ways and reproduced with permission from the publisher:

Harissa Hotpot

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: simple
  • Print

In this hotpot, aubergines and chickpeas are flavoured with aromatic ginger, cinnamon and fragrant harissa and all cooked in one big pot in the oven. This is a simple way to intensify flavours quickly and achieve very happy kitchen smells. The aubergines become deliciously soft and absorb all the flavours.

Ingredients

Harissa hotpot (main recipe)

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon rose harissa
  • 1 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 red onions, finely sliced
  • thumb-sized piece of fresh root ginger, minced
  • 2 aubergines, quartered lengthways, then chopped into triangular slices
  • 1 x 400g (14oz) can chickpeas, drained
  • 2 x 400g (14oz) cans tomatoes
  • zest and juice of ½ orange
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Garnish

  • Handful of fresh flat-leaved parsley
  • 2 tablespoons shelled pistachio nuts, crushed


Directions

  • Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/400°F/gas 6.
  • Heat the olive oil in a deep, ovenproof pot over a medium heat. Add the harissa paste, paprika, cinnamon and onions and cook for 5 minutes until the onions are translucent. If they begin to stick to the pan, add a splash of water to loosen them. Add the ginger and aubergines and mix to combine, then stir in the chickpeas, tomatoes and orange zest and juice. Season with salt and black pepper.
  • Cover the pot with a lid and place in the oven. Cook for 20 minutes, then remove from the oven and stir. Return to the oven for another 20 minutes until the aubergines have softened.
  • Garnish with the fresh parsley and pistachio nuts before serving with your choice of option dish*. The hotpot is now ready to be used in the recipes (*option one: garlic, lemon and kale wild rice; option two: toasted garlic sourdough with rocket; option three: green tahini and green bean salad – see below)  or it will keep in the fridge for 3 days, or in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Vegan recipe book by Rachel Ama

Green Tahini and Green Bean Salad


Ingredients

  • 2 portions of Harissa Hotpot (above)
  • 300g (10½ oz) green beans, trimmed
  • 1 Little Gem lettuce, leaves separated
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Green tahini dressing

  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½-1 teaspoon maple syrup
  • handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • handful of fresh coriander, finely chopped
  • 2½ tablespoons tahini
  • 2 garlic cloves, grated
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • sea salt


Directions

  • Warm the hotpot in a deep saucepan over a high heat. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a low heat and simmer for 6 minutes, stirring occasionally, until piping hot.
  • Meanwhile make the dressing. Place all the ingredients for it in a bowl, adding just ½ teaspoon maple syrup at first. Add 2 tablespoons water and mix well until smooth. Some tahini brands can be thicker or more bitter than others, so taste the dressing: if it is too bitter, add a little more maple syrup: if it is too thick, add an extra splash of water to loosen. Set aside.
  • Fill a saucepan with salted water and bring to the boil. Add the beans and boil for 2-3 minutes until tender, but still rich in colour and with a slight bite. Drain well, then place in a large salad bowl. Add the lettuce leaves, then drizzle over the dressing and the extra-virgin olive oil. Toss the salad together and season to taste with salt before serving alongside the hotpot.

This bean salad can be eaten warm or at room temperature.

Personal note: I used honey instead of maple syrup as I wasn’t cooking for vegans at the time. Honey is not considered vegan.


walnut and cauliflower mince recipe in Rachel Ama cookbook

Thanks to Yellow Kite Books, Hachette UK (Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.) who published this book and sent me a review copy. All views my own.

What do you think of vegan cookbooks? If you aren’t vegan would you cook from one? If you are vegan are there any challenges you find when cooking or using cookbooks? I’d love to hear from you.

Please forward this review to any cookbook-loving friends you think might be interested or share on social.

Thyme and leek (or onion) tart recipe

October 11, 2021

Leek and thyme tartHaving a store cupboard tart recipe is deeply rewarding. Whipping one up for supper, lunch or last minute gatherings with little effort is so much better than grabbing something from supermarket shelves. Even delicatessen quiches pall in the fridge and are costly if buying more than one slice. I love to have a few recipes that I can turn to with without a second thought.

The pages of Herb/a cook’s companion are already well-thumbed and I’ve cooked the Lemon Thyme and Leek Tart several times as it’s deliciously simple.

The fiddly part of savoury tarts is baking the crust blind (lining a tart tin with pastry, putting in baking paper and beans, cooking for 15-20 minutes) before adding the filling. My usual standby, mascarpone and bacon, dispenses with this stage without suffering from the now ubiquitous condition of ‘soggy bottom’; fearing having a layer of rather stodgy, almost uncooked pastry underneath your eggy topping.  This tart goes a step further in simplicity as you don’t even have to line a tin (meaning the dreaded shrinkage is not a problem either). You just fold the edges in for a rather lovely rustic look. If cooking competition perfection is your aim then this might not be for you – or you could make it in a tart tin.

Herb cookbook and thyme and leek tart

My herb patch doesn’t include lemon thyme this year. Recipe writer and author Mark Diacono recommends it but also describes the difference that each variety offers in the recipe intro.

Lemon thyme makes the sunniest, orange thyme is altogether more resinous and autumnal, and common thyme gives a tart you could eat for breakfast, lunch and tea and not tire of it.

Even if I’ve had to pull on my wellies and raincoat, I’ve found picking my own leaves fresh from the garden a simple pleasure. The scent of them is deep and sombre. Thyme is a woody herb and withstands the obstacles of the supermarket supply chain pretty well. I’ve found it pretty easy to grow, both in Dubai and the U.K. (Herb has helpful instructions for this too).  A pot on your windowsill is a happy medium.

Here’s Mark’s recipe with a few notes from me. Like all good recipes, it’s started to evolve to my kitchen and way of cooking.

 

Uncooked onion and thyme tart

Thyme and Leek Tart

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: simple
  • Print

A really simple to make tart that can be tweaked. I made it with common thyme, but lemon thyme and orange thyme all give different characters.


You can replace the leeks with onion, cooked in the butter slowly until they are sweet and melting. This amount of flour makes a generous amount of pastry. Don’t roll out too big a round or the filling won’t be very deep. Make cheese straws with any leftover bits. I only had dried bay leaves but use fresh ones if you have them.

Ingredients

For the pastry

  • 250g (9oz) plain flour, plus a little more for rolling
  • pinch of salt
  • 150g (5oz) unsalted butter, cubed
  • 1 medium egg, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon picked thyme leaves

Ingredients

For the filling

  • 30g (1oz) unsalted butter
  • 500g (1lb 2oz) leeks, white part only, thinly sliced or 500g onions (about 2 large) thinly sliced
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 150g (5oz) sour cream or crème fraîche
  • 1 tablespoon picked thyme leaves
  • 1/4 whole nutmeg, or to taste, grated
  • freshly grated nutmeg (generous 1/2 teaspoon)
  • 20g (1/4oz) Parmesan or Cheddar, grated
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


Directions

  1. For the pastry, put the flour, slat and butter into a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the thyme and pulse very briefly to combine. Add the egg and pulse until the mixture just comes together. (Alternatively, mix the butter into the flour and salt in a bowl using your fingertips until it resembles breadcrumbs, stir in the thyme, then add the egg and mix to form a dough.) Bring the dough together with your hands and shape into a round. Wrap the pastry in cling film (or greaseproof paper) and rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.
  2. Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6.
  3. Melt the butter in a pan over a low-medium heat, add the leeks and bay leaves and cook until really soft and sweet – about 15 minutes for leeks, 30 minutes for onions.
  4. Beat the eggs in a bowl, then scoop out a couple of tablespoons of beaten egg to glaze later. Add the sour cream, thyme leaves and nutmeg to the bowl. Stir in the leeks or onions and season to taste.
  5. Remove the pastry from the fridge and roll out to a circle about 3mm (1/4in) thick, leaving no gaps or holes. Place a sheet of baking paper on a baking sheet, and put the circle of pastry on to it. Spoon the creamy leeks (or onions) on top, spreading it out evenly and leaving a 1-2cm (1/4-1/2in) gap around the edge. Fold the edge of the pastry over to create a lip. Nudge the bay leaves to the top. Glaze all exposed pastry with the reserved egg and sprinkle the cheese over the top of the filling.
  6. Place the tart in the oven on a middle shelf and bake for 35-40 minutes until the pastry is crisp and pale golden and the tart filling is set. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 5 or so minutes before cutting into wedges to serve. A swirl of herb oil or picada on top is optional.

onion and thyme tart with slices on plates

Herb – a cook’s companion: cookbook review

July 20, 2021

cookbook and onion tartOpening a new cookbook on your kitchen table, tearing scraps of paper to mark the most tempting recipes is such a pleasure. But the cookbooks that you put on your bedside to delve into more deeply, savouring the stories, slowly turning the pristine pages are the ones I treasure most.

Herb/a cook’s companion by Mark Diacono falls firmly into the second category and couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.

Since last Autumn, every time I’ve drawn the curtains I see a large garden. It’s abundant with grassy knolls, wild meadow areas, an apple tree, hedges and flowers, but no edible plants.  The unpredictable impact of the pandemic meant that a brief stay turned into a longer one without a firm end date in sight. I made tentative plans for a herb garden, dug out a border and ordered some seeds. In part, this was a longing for the freshness, flavour and profusion I’ve become used to in Dubai. Shoppers – both men and women – inspect every bunch, raising them to check the scent, the buoyancy of the leaves, the crispness of the stems and return them to the shelf with a look of disparagement if they fail the test.

Herb garden is probably a grand name for my tentative steps into horticulture; a small bed with a few aromatic plants might be more accurate. I scrounged a few cuttings, planted a lot of seeds in pots and sprinkled into the ground. The result has been mixed, I’ve learned a lot, some have not thrived, but I have a few herb varieties in abundance. I need inspiration and advice for dealing with quantities that far exceed the sad, limp offerings of British supermarkets.

herb cookbook

Herb/a cook’s companion is a beautiful book to handle; the hard cover is embossed with green leaves, it’s solid in my hands and very tactile. To describe Herb as just a cookbook is inaccurate, more a comprehensive guide to growing, harvesting and storing herbs as well as using them in the kitchen.  While the recipes and ideas are inspiring for my glut of herbs, it’s the book I wish I’d had before I sent off for a single seed packet or dug my trowel into the soil.

Mark Diacono is a new name to me even though he’s extolled as an ‘award-winning (and green-fingered) food writer‘ on the jacket. Brought up with a reverence for books, I  have an aversion to defacing them otherwise my pencil would be underlining great sections of his beautifully crafted passages. By the light of my bedside lamp I’m immersed in a scented border or over a pestle and mortar effusing potent aromas.  A few examples (I could easily have included more):

‘Anise hyssop looks like the offspring of a one-night stand mint had with a nettle.’

‘I used to think of dill as I do Peter Cushing: cast in a few specific roles, for which only it will do.’

‘This is the brother of the bulb fennel – both Foeniculum vulgare – this one lanky, the other has the bigger arse: Laurel to the other’s Hardy.’

‘Much as I am unable to pass a football without inclining my foot towards it, I bend to every lavender plant and play the softest tug of war with its flowers to lend my hands its scent. Somehow its perfume matches its colour. It is, like New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, as much uplifting as melancholy.’

‘This is fresher than Mae West after three gins.’

‘Once in a while, an ingredient tugs at your collar. You’ll be watching the match, chatting to a loved one, engrossed at the cinema, and a biplane will fly across your mind trailing a ribbon that says, ‘I wonder what that would be like on hot chips’ or ‘if I sprinkled that on a steak before frying as well as after…’. This salt is one of those.’

herb cookbook

The book starts with ‘Herb Skills’. Mark says that this chapter will ‘guide you through all you need to get the best from herbs in the kitchen, to capture their flavour, to preserve them, to know how and when to add them. It has all the principles you need to grow herbs too…’

This would have been so useful when planning and planting my own patch, rather than juggling individual seed packets. It gives an overview of the soil types needed, the aspect, and choosing what to grow. He recommends this is based on your personal preference; what you eat most of, ease of growing, and also a bit of exploring the unknown. Mark invites you into the garden with a clear and comprehensive guide to preparing the soil, planting out, dividing plants, watering, feeding and harvesting.

Once you’ve got them into your kitchen, there’s advice about using fresh or dried herbs, the art and methods of chopping them, capturing and preserving their scents and flavours. He takes you through freezing, drying and infusing into salts, syrups, vinegars, oils, butters and jellies.

In the chapter on individual herbs, listed in alphabetical order, each one is given a dedicated page giving varieties, growing, harvesting and how to use in cooking including a list of things they have an affinity with. I love the heading for the introduction ‘The bouncer at the door’ as Mark explains how he has chosen which herbs to include, ‘…a personal selection, with all the bias, contradiction and inconsistency that implies.’ There are many familiar friends like oregano, thyme, parsley, basil and rosemary. Then there are those I’ve never heard of including shiso, pineapple sage and winter savoury:

Shiso aka perilla, forms a rope bridge of flavour that spans the gap between mint and cumin.

herb cookbook with cherries and chocolateRecipes are the heart of the cook’s companion starting with some classic, herbal combinations. These have a lot in common but help you learn about the countries they come from in the way they differ. Simple, fragrant blends like French pistou, persillade,  Italian pesto, North African chermoula and adjika from the Caucasus plus their punchier relations – chimichurri and salsa verde.  Concoctions of salt, butter, oil and vinegar sit alongside interesting chutneys. One simmers nectarines and onions with lime leaves…

What is the collective term for supermarket nectarines…? An impersonation? An apology? A scandal of nectarines; yes that’ll do.  Cooking is their only salvation…

The book is then divided into Small Things, Soups and Sides; Bigger Things; Sweet Things; and Drinks. Most have an image of the finished dish opposite the recipe (but not all).

Again Mark brings fresh ideas with the familiar herbs, but unless you have a garden as prolifically stocked as his you may not be able to make several of these recipes.* However, if there weren’t recipes for the wide range of herbs for which he extols the virtues then this would be just another herb recipe book (there are many) and rather miss the point.

Take dried epazote (‘picked fresh [ ] it is a disgrace. You may as well suck your dog’s bed.). Mark uses it in a sumptuous-sounding Mole Verde – a lake of green, sunken with crisply-fried chicken and toasted pumpkin seeds. And there’s Apple, Quartered Charred Little Gems, Pancetta, Shiso ‘Zaa’atar where the plate is strewn with shiso’s spiky, purple leaves.

Chervil and lovage crop up quite often; these are not found in my local Morrison’s. And I don’t have access to the leaves of fig trees, blackcurrant bushes or rose scented geraniums.

herb cookbook

 

For some recipes, only the chosen herb will do, but for alternatives are given for many. I miss the huge bunches of fresh fenugreek that are available in the Middle East for making Methi Paratha, however there’s an option to use dried.  For Lamb Dhansak he says that the fenugreek leaf steals all the glory but using mint and coriander instead makes a very different, but very good variation. With others you might have to use the recipe as a guide and tinker a little.

The dishes are fresh and bright, or deeply comforting and the herbs bring old favourites to life. Herb Tempura, Herby Egg Mayo on Toast, Thyme and Parsley Honey Bread and Butter Pudding, Bay Chestnut Chocolate Cherry Cake for instance.

Several recipes are great ideas for assembling herb-laden ingredients especially salads: Spelt with Cucumber, Lemon, Lovage and Mint; Griddled Peaches, Basil, Watercress, Parmesan and Pine Nuts; Cherries, Lancashire Lovage, Honey, Lavender.

While writing this with the windows wide open, fanning myself on one of the hottest days of the year, the prospect of beef that’s been braised in ale with persillade or rosemary and fennel infused porchetta are deeply inviting for later in the year when there’s a nip in the air.

There’s odd quirky recipe; Tarragon and Olive Oil Ice Cream anyone? Intriguing. The drinks range from Raspberry and Lemon Thyme Switchel to a Tarragon gimlet.

Thyme is abundant in my herb patch right now. While thumbing the pages for inspiration I stumbled upon a tart that uses it liberally in the pastry and the filling. As it’s summer I used onions rather than leeks (sanctioned in the intro). It’s a simple recipe and I liked the easy way of folding in the rather ragged edges of my pastry rather than coaxing it into a tart case. The slightly medicinal tone of thyme and bay leaves are the perfect foil for the sweetness of the slow-cooked onion especially with a dusting of cheese that turns golden.  It’s vying for first place with my regular favourite onion tart (from Tamasin Day-Lewis – Art of the Tart).

Herb/a cook’s companion has moved into my kitchen but it’ll spend equal time as a bedtime read or out in the garden.  This book will definitely earn its keep.

*You can buy an extensive range of herbs seeds and plants online from Mark’s Otter Farm.

Thanks to Hardie Grant – Quadrille who published this book and sent me a review copy. All views my own.

Do you have any favourite herbs? How do you use them?

Please forward this review to any herb-growing friends you think might be interested or share on social.

No fixed abode – stories from a travel nomad about life without a permanent base

June 8, 2021

Epheseus

If hoarding was an Olympic sport my parents would have been in joint gold medal position. I’ve inherited some of these squirrelling away genes and have my fair share of ‘collections’ and things I can’t bear to part with. At the World Tourism Forum in Istanbul I met several people who made my mind whirl with possibilities and a little incredulity. They are full time nomadic travellers who spend their lives on the road with no fixed abode.

What do you do with your stuff? This was thing I couldn’t get my head round in the life of a global nomad. I’d heard of travellers who roam the world without a permanent home but this was the first time I’d met any. Travel tales were casually dropped into conversation; names of cities and countries sprinkled like pebbles on a path.

Did they plan this way of life or drift into it? How do they cope with having all their possessions in one or two suitcases? How about finding clothes for all climates and activities – and what about the washing? Do they miss cooking (this would be a sticking point for me)? And do they ever envisage a future where they own bricks and mortar?

I got to chat with Jane Mountain from My Five Acres as we explored Izmir in Turkey who enlightened me.

Update: I drafted this post several years ago. Since COVID restrictions and lockdown have taken over our world, this conversation and way of life seems so far away. How did it affect Jane and Stephen? Answer at the end.

Jane on a boat

Jane of My Five Acres

Did you plan this way of life or drift into it?

Our transformation into full-time travellers was partly planned and partly accidental. We had been living in Los Angeles for several years and our work visa was about to expire.

Since we had to sell our house and leave the country anyway, it seemed like the perfect time to do an extended trip. We set out on bicycles from Rome in 2013, not really knowing how long we’d be gone or where home would be when we finished travelling. During the bike trip, Stephen taught yoga all along our route and we blogged every single day (for 19 months!). After we were tired of cycling, it just seemed natural to keep travelling, teaching yoga, and travel blogging.

Stephen in shower made of a coconut

Stephen in a shower made of a coconut. My Five Acres

How do you cope with having all your possessions in one or two suitcases? Are there any tips – especially about packing and clothing?  How about finding clothes for all climates and activities – and what about the washing?

 

I am a minimalist at heart, so I found that getting rid of all the unnecessary clutter we carry through our lives was very therapeutic and freeing. It filled me with joy! For my husband Stephen, who is a bit of a pack-rat, it was initially a nightmare. But after going through the process, he admitted to feeling lighter, too. We did hang on to some of our most prized possessions (Stephen’s record collection!) which are in a storage unit back in Canada.

My biggest packing tip, if you’re setting out on a long multi-country trip, is to avoid packing for the entire trip. Instead, just pack for the first few months, then pick up and discard clothing you need as you go. For example, I just spent three months in the steamy climate of Vietnam and then flew directly to winter in Europe. On my last stop in Vietnam, I gave away my light trousers and got a couple of pairs of winter trousers tailored there. For expensive items like hiking boots and winter jackets, we do carry them with us, even to the tropics.

Laundry, which is a chore to most people at home, becomes a luxury on the road. The most wonderful sentence you can utter to a full-time nomad is “Feel free to use the washing machine.” The sight and smell of our clean clothes can fill us with joy! We usually do a small hand wash in the hotel room sink every couple of days and then use a laundry service or a laundromat once every couple of weeks.

people cooking

Food experience. My Five Acres

Do you miss cooking?

Absolutely! We are both food-obsessed and we love to cook and eat. We often imagine opening a vegan cafe when we getting tired of the travel life.

We find that eating in restaurants every day quickly turns from exciting to dull and we find ourselves longing for a home-cooked meal.

To work around this, we stay with friends as often as possible – full-time travel leads to a network of friends worldwide who are very generous with their invitations! We also choose hostels that come equipped with kitchens and we spend some time house sitting for people who we find on TrustedHouseSitters.com.

A trip to the grocery store in a new country is one of our favourite adventures.

(Two pics above from How to spend 2 days in Taipei  – My Custard Pie)

Do you envisage a future where you own bricks and mortar?

We do plan to settle down eventually. In every new place we visit, we are constantly asking each other: Would you live here? Could this be the place? How long could we live here before we got bored? Right now, Lisbon, Portugal, Luang Prabang, Laos, Gabriola Island, Canada and Sri Lanka are all on the short list.

Wherever we settle, it will be in a small space just big enough for a few possessions and the two of us. We dream of a tiny house or a small cosy apartment that we can leave for months on end as we travel!
What the best thing about this way of life?
The best thing about travelling constantly is the utter freedom of it. Right now, our plans only extend for the next two days. I know we’ll be in Bucharest for two more nights and I have a vague idea about the other places we’ll visit in Romania while we are here, but that’s it. The lack of planning leaves us wide open to snatch up new opportunities and new adventures as they come along.

…and the worst thing?

The worst thing about being away from home is the lack of community. We really miss having our circle of friends close by and we miss being able to visit with our parents and watch our nieces and nephews grow up. Stephen also misses having a dedicated group of yoga students that he can work with on a day-to-day basis, watching them transform as yogis and people. And sometimes, when I am in a less-than-stellar hotel with a squeaky spring-filled mattress, I really miss my own comfy bed.

hostel bed

Nguyen Shack in Phong Nha, dorms consist of two bunk beds with only three walls. The third is open to the elements. My Five Acres

What advice would you give to someone who wants to travel long-term?

Travelling for long periods is very different from going on a short one or two-week vacation. Instead of filling each day with plans and activities, we let our destinations reveal themselves as we live and work in the area. We move very slowly, often spending ten days in a city that most tourists would give 24 hours. It’s also important to plan rest periods where you stay put for a month or two, to give yourself time to recover and to process all the new experiences and adventures you’ve had.

Jane in Latvia. My Five Acres

What impact has the COVID pandemic and lockdown had on your way of life and future plans?

The pandemic has turned our lives completely upside down. When it hit, we had just settled into a temporary home in Bali. Stephen had a full-time gig teaching yoga but when the tourists went home, that job disappeared. At the same time, the traffic to My Five Acres took a nose dive, shrinking by 90% almost overnight.

We spent the summer staying at home in our Bali villa and planning for the future. It was clear that our income from yoga and blogging was not going to bounce back any time soon. So we made the gigantic decision to move home to Vancouver. We are now settled in a tiny apartment, just like we always pictured, with a spacious kitchen to cook in and Stephen’s record collection to entertain us. We have friends all over the city and family nearby.

Vancouver is a cultural meeting place and its restaurants reflect that, so we can still travel with our tastebuds. Crispy dosas, fragrant noodle soups, crunchy banh mi, perfect pizzas, soft steamed buns… they are all on our doorstep.

I don’t think our nomadic life is over forever but, for now, we are making the most of waking up in the same bed every day and having full access to our own washing machine.

Find out more

Jane is a travel blogger who believes every trip should widen your perspective, challenge your beliefs, and shake you awake into your own life. She knows that know that travel can help you transform into the person you truly are. If you want make your next trip transformational, visit My Five Acres. Follow Jane and Stephen on Instagram too.

Stephen and Jane of My Five Acres on a beach

Stephen and Jane of My Five Acres

No surprise I think this post is essential reading:

Foodie Travel Tips – How to Find the Best Food While Travelling

Read more about our experiences in Turkey:

Saturday night at the Kemeralti Bazaar in Izmir – My Custard Pie

How to visit Pergamon, Ephesus and the rest of the best Izmir attractions  – My Five Acres

So would this way of life suit you? I’d like the adventure but I’m not sure I could give up my permanent base forever.

Travel nomad

11 years of food blogging – 11 things I’ve learned

February 3, 2021

Sally in Baku

Sitting at my computer, I’m breathless with excitement. Something has dawned on me and it is so compelling that I must to do it immediately. Going to wordpress.com I set up a new blog, choose a theme and click on the ‘new post‘ button. But what should I write? I have no direction, no focus, no purpose; I just know it has to be about food.

That was 11 years ago today. Why did I start My Custard Pie in such a flurry? I’d discovered a world of fascinating food blogs online and wanted to be part of it. That’s the short version.  I had a point and shoot camera and a lot of enthusiasm but that was it. How and why I’m still going 11 years later is much more complicated. Something started on a whim without any real rhyme or reason has changed my life in ways I could never have imagined.

But first, regardless of how long you’ve been reading, I want to thank you for being part of the last 11 years. I wish it was possible to pour you a cup of tea, cut you a slice of cake to let you know how grateful I am.

There is so much going on in this online world, there is so much competition for our time and energy but this little corner of the internet has been a constant source of peace, calm, pleasure, excitement and discovery for me and I feel so fortunate that you’re here to share it.

The other things I’d like to share are a few lessons I’ve learned over the last 11 years. It’s definitely a journey and I don’t think there will ever be an ending. Taking this time to look back has made me so grateful and slightly amazed at all that this blog has brought me. So this is about the story so far but also how to prepare for going ahead too:

People who like good food are nice people

I’m digging into a slice of cake that’s deep purple. As my fork cuts through the fluffy cream, its maker explains that the natural colour is due to a yam called ube in the Philippines. Our lives are very different, we live on opposite sides of the city, come from opposite sides of the world, but this cake has connected us. We’ve formed Fooderati Arabia which unites food bloggers in Dubai of all ages and nationalities. We explore so many experiences together over several years, including this afternoon in a cafe sharing homemade cake.

When I wrote my first blog post, in isolation behind a screen, I never dreamed how many people would come into my life. Online and in person, very many of them have become close friends. Meeting people with a shared passion gives immediate common ground especially when it’s around something that can be shared in so many ways.  From exchanging recipes, to sitting round a restaurant table, it’s the generosity and openness of spirit; I joined a community of food lovers around the world. That wonderful connection is a driving force – because the joy comes from people to share our thoughts, opinions, recipes, experiences, successes, disasters and enjoyment of delicious things.

Success means different things to different people

Food blogging was an experience rather than something with an end goal when I started out in 2010. These were exciting times as things started to evolve in a whole new online world of voices and opinions. Many of us wanted to learn more about this fascinating and rapidly changing digital means of expression. We had a desire to improve our skills whether it was in food photography and styling, cooking, recipe writing, the tech side of blogging or all of these things.

As blogging became more recognised and established, some stepped out from the crowd. They became food photographers, stylists, published cookbooks, founded review sites, worked for food magazines, moved on to careers in radio and TV.

The internet is now awash with advice about how to create a successful i.e. very profitable, food blog (or Instagram/YouTube/TikTok). Much of the advice is the same, narrowed down to what will get traffic and followers, and there are so many blogs out there that also look the same.  I’m not criticising the aim of making money in any way but it seems that aiming towards a single benchmark of success can overshadow the less lucrative, but just as valuable, benefits of sharing your passion for food online.

Enjoy the journey

So I’m probably a bit nostalgic for those early days when we wanted to improve our skills but profit wasn’t the primary motivating factor……and it was fun! And carries on being fun.

As I take this time to look back over my old posts… the really old stuff… I can see eagerness, simplicity, openness (even if I cringe at the quality). There have been so many special moments, events and opportunities over the last eleven years that, without prompts, all blends into one. The thing that does stand out is the amount of joy and laughter.  It’s important to remembering how magical this is because….

Find inspiration not comparison

I’ve beaten myself up so many times about not achieving things that others did. Seeing many friends take beautiful food photos while I still struggled to get there. Reading blogs where the amount of posts published were overwhelming in quality and quantity. In recent years Instagram has ramped this up considerably with the perfect creations that ooze from the feed.

“We’re very good at self-criticism in this country (UK). Indeed, I’d say that as a nation we suffer from a crippling dose of insecurity.” Mariella Frostrup.

How this resonates, but I now have some better ways to deal with it:

Limiting how much I consume of the type of online content that makes me feel envious, daunted (i.e. I could never achieve that) or out of my league.

Do I really want to emulate that content at the end of the day? Is that a priority of what to do with my time and energy?  Is this really my kind of style anyway? It’s easy to get sucked into a ‘cookie cutter’ trend. I remind myself to do the best that I can with the resources around me.

Instead I visit sites and accounts that make me feel joyful and at ease and follow people who I have a lot in common with or relate to.

Looking for inspiration in totally unrelated places. If I’m getting overwhelmed by it all I go for a walk, reach for a book or, in times before lockdown, go to an art gallery, museum or interesting building.

Instead of looking at my phone when I wake up I keep a pile of books with different artists’ work by the side of my bed. If I immerse myself in one of these, even for five minutes, it sets the tone for the rest of the day and gives me impetus.

Creating something in a totally different way. Splashing about with watercolour paint, trying calligraphy, tearing up paper into a collage, making loose sketches of ordinary things or making something like bread or pasta that involves getting my hands into dough. This takes my brain to a different place.

Do what’s right for you

When I bought a dining table for my new home in Dubai in 2000, it had to be circular so everyone around it could join in the banter and discussions. I started blogging because I wanted to be a part of the conversation about food, and I wanted to spark some of my own too. Sitting at my desk right now I’m imagining us all at one big virtual dinner party around that well-worn round, wooden table.

The blogging model is about ‘influence’ now, being an authority on something and building a tribe. That tribe is full of people who hang off your every word, buy your courses, learn from your wisdom, covet your merchandise.  This works for some people and I’m a loyal fan of some who inspire me. I think they are happy being at the head of a long rectangular table sharing their wisdom or opinions. I’m more comfortable exchanging ideas with my community so we can find out what works for us together.

As for paying the bills as a consequence of food blogging, my opportunities came in a slightly different way. Improving my own content and growing my online platforms meant that several food businesses got in touch.  They wanted my advice and expertise to do the same for their operations. So My Custard Pie became a shop front, in a way; demonstrating a track record and building trust (that my CV in marketing communications did not achieve). So quietly, behind the scenes, I’ve been advising, creating content and managing digital strategies for artisan food businesses for many years now. Believing in their products is important for me, to deliver something authentic; essential for their success and it taps into that driving force that got me started over a decade ago.

The niche alternative

‘Find your niche’ is the holy grail of all advice for blogs now. If you narrow down and become an authority in that particular area you will have a better chance of success.

Back to the definition of success again. There’s been an explosion of vegan food bloggers/Instagrammers as more people are eating plant-based food and a few have gained a massive following.

Personally, I may dip into these sites randomly when looking for a recipe but the ones that have been constant favourites over many years are less easy to define. For example:

Smitten Kitchen – homecooking recipes (too broad a topic to be a niche)

David Lebovitz – home baking recipes (ditto)

Ms Marmite Lover – “This is my food and travel blog, with recipes, reviews and travel stories. I also stray into politics, feminism, gardening.”

It’s their unique voices, styles of writing, personal perspectives and refusal to be anything other than themselves that sets them apart. They are their own niche.

Readers expect some consistency – nuclear physics one week and jazz artists the next might be a stretch – but knowing what you stand for is more important in my opinion.

With Deb from Smitten Kitchen and David L. it’s their wry sense of humour and the meticulous testing of their recipes. Kerstin gives you a very honest view, and is not afraid to be controversial.

Things will change

In 2010 I had two school children at home, two dogs, juggling freelance work with taxi driving said children all over Dubai (and the traffic was horrendous then). I was cooking for a family that behaved like Masterchef judges (including one fussy vegetarian) and buying from the few supermarkets available. Over that time work changed, the children grew up and left, I travelled a lot more, artisan food producers and an organic farmers’ market were established, I was cooking for two (just one Masterchef judge), I could cycle to get my food from local shops.

In the last decade climate change has become climate crisis, and the entire food system (from agriculture, pesticides, food miles, packaging etc) has a massive impact.

It’s when I follow my instincts, rather than worrying about whether a blog post or content is out of kilter, that it seems to strike a chord with people. Plus I sleep better at night.

Say yes to everything then learn how and when to say no

Yes and No

The first time our little gang of food bloggers were invited to something we were very excited. It was the opening of a pizza restaurant by a slightly alternative brand. We took it very seriously, ate the free pizza, interviewed the founder, discussed and made a record of our opinions and I diligently wrote it up in a blog post.

After that there were a couple more invites, then some more, then it started to snowball. They weren’t all of the pizza kind. Dubai is a city with over 11,000 restaurants and 100 plus 5 start hotels many with several high end dining places inside. Some of the invites were to dine out, some for cooking sessions with their chefs – some with famous ones, others to special events. All of them sounded fantastic and I accepted them with excitement and gratitude. There was a couple of years that passed in a blur as I was going out so much. I don’t expect sympathy, but I was exhausted. Some of the blog posts I wrote then are exhausting to read too – but are they interesting or relevant now? Accepting all the invites was taking me away from what I really loved about food – simple ingredients, artisan producers, home cooking, traditional recipes from a range of cultures. It taught me a lesson – I can’t say the hard way as it was a huge privilege. I began to refuse everything unless it really intrigued me, fitted with what I was really interested in, or I thought would be good to write about.

Yes

Saying yes to things that scare you is something I’ve learned the benefits of – although it often didn’t feel like it at the time.

Sara Tasker says “I’m an introvert in real life, but an extrovert online. I’ve made that category up, but I reckon it’s a thing. Who can relate?”

I certainly can and I never counted on stepping out from behind my screen to do cookery demos in real life, on video and Instagram live; be a regular guest on radio, interview some revered celebrities and culinary icons; be part of expert panels and moderate a discussion between some imminent names in the restaurant world and many other, frankly terrifying, things.

This hasn’t always gone smoothly, but little by little I’ve got better at leaving the sanctuary of my screen, testing myself and developing new skills.

No

Paid collaborations between brands/companies and bloggers was slow to start in Dubai. In food, big brands had the budgets when it happened and this is at complete odds with my whole food, artisan, sustainable, down to earth ethos. When I’ve considered some proposals which might be feasible I’ve felt uneasy so knew I had to refuse. Payment shouldn’t change whether or not I’d endorse something. If I erode the trust you put in me I’m on a slippery slope. Occasionally the stars have aligned and it’s been fun to work on a project with something I use in my kitchen already. For me, sticking to my principles is vital, and while sometimes it’s hard, this is the most important place to be firm on saying no.

Nerves are a good thing

My pulse quickens, there’s a feeling of butterflies in my stomach and slight dread.  This happens before everything I do for My Custard Pie. Every blog post, article, Instagram post, photography session, Facebook post, interview – everything. It’s sometimes hard to overcome (hello procrastination) but I’m compelled to push on and do it anyway.

Quoting Katie Piper “I don’t get obsessed with nerves and eliminating nerves, because it’s really important to have that little bit of adrenalin, to have some butterflies, to be present and be quite excited with some nervous energy, enjoying that moment, because I think when that’s gone, that’s when you know it’s time to give up that part of your life because you’ve lost the love” (interviewed by Viv Groskop on this podcast) ”

If My Custard Pie ever disappears you’ll know that the butterflies have flown!

Progress not perfection

This is something I’m still working on and is my mantra for 2021. It’s learning to press publish on a blog post when it’s ‘good enough’. It’s taking many different pics with alternative layouts and food styling using my iPhone rather than spending ages agonising over one image. It’s sharing every day experiences rather than waiting for special events. It’s doing something in the time I have available instead of waiting for the ‘right time’. It’s being brave, taking a leap of faith and saying I will do this (rather than think ‘I might fail’ or ‘this might not work.’

And back to comparison again, it’s about forgetting how everyone else is doing, and giving yourself a pat on the back for how far you’ve come. Looking back on my shaky pics, wobbly writing and wildly varying subject matter of when I started out I think I can see some improvement, one small step at a time.

Your entire life can change course because of a split-second decision

So back to the beginning in that slightly crazy moment when I unleashed some thoughts into the world. I stepped into a world of delicious possibilities that’s taken me so many places.

I’m deeply grateful that you chose to be here, to savour this food-focussed journey with me.

Simple Beef Wellington with Dijon mustard

December 17, 2020

Beef Wellington on a plate

Beef Wellington was first thing I cooked when I had people round for a ‘proper’ dinner party i.e. sitting round a dining table rather than crammed into the kitchen. Entering the room triumphantly with a generous rounded golden dome of pastry, cutting into it with a satisfying crunch to reveal moist, pink fillet steak surrounded with a soft blanket of Dijon mustard, soft mushrooms and onions, the thrill of serving something to your friends which is definitely not a weeknight meal but something delicious to be shared.

The first cookery book I remember buying was The Cook Book by Terence & Caroline Conran from Habitat. I carried it back on the bus in a carrier bag with a chicken brick (a 1970s trend) which was so heavy my arms ached for days. There were no pictures of the recipes but some lifestyle images of aspirational occasions including one where they broke chunks off a huge slab of Parmesan and floated lighted Amaretti wrappers up to the ceiling after eating Beef Wellington. I longed to be part of this (very affected) world but came down to earth (or modified my dreams) to just the main course.

Beef Wellington on a baking tray

Some recipes call for some eggy crêpes to be wrapped around the meat which is a bit fiddly. In recent years, a recipe that uses prosciutto instead of crêpes has taken off, promoted by Gordon Ramsey. This is not traditional and the porky saltiness fights with the beautiful beef in my opinion. The classic original calls for pastry, beef fillet, mushroom stuffing and a generous coating of good quality Dijon mustard around the beef to enhance its flavour. I use Maille – this is a French recipe after all.

Making Beef Wellington takes a little bit of courage (rolling the pastry is a knack and getting the temperature in the middle right a bit nerve wracking) but this is a simple recipe where all the ingredients shine. It can be made ahead up to the stage where you wrap the pastry around it and put in the fridge. Just paint it with beaten egg and put in the oven. It might take a little longer to cook as the meat is not at room temperature (but you need to keep the pastry nice and cool).

Try it for your next celebration dinner or as a fantastic thing to share when your friends and family come round.

Beef Wellington or Beouf Wellington

  • Servings: 5-6
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 1kg centre cut of beef fillet (from a tenderloin)
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons of Maille Dijon mustard
  • 60g country bread without crusts
  • 600g mushrooms (white, chestnut or mixed)
  • 1 knob of butter
  • 1 red onion, chopped finely
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped finely
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 500g puff pastry
  • Plain flour (to dust)
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • Sea salt and ground, black pepper


Directions

Preheat oven, and a baking sheet, to 200˚C (180˚ fan) and arrange shelf in lower third of oven.

Pat the fillet of beef dry with kitchen paper. Put a tablespoon of oil in a frying pan and heat it until it shimmers. You want it to be as hot as possible. Sear the fillet of beef on all sides and the ends, browning in parts. Turn it regularly so that it doesn’t cook inside.

Remove and, with a brush, liberally coat the fillet with Dijon mustard in an even layer. Leave to cool.

In a food processor blitz some fresh bread into medium-sized crumbs. Remove to a large bowl.

Break the mushrooms into large pieces with your hands and blitz in the food processor. You might have to stop and stir the mixture a couple of times so the mushrooms don’t blend to a mush. The pieces must be quite small but leave some texture. Alternatively, you could chop by hand.

Melt a knob of butter in the frying pan over a medium heat. Sauté the onion and garlic with the thyme leaves until it softens but doesn’t colour.

Transfer the mushrooms to a sieve set over a bowl. Take out the mushrooms a handful at a time, squeezing to remove as much water as possible and put into the pan with the onion mixture.

Cook, stirring frequently, until all the water has evaporated and the mixture holds together. Take the pan off the heat, season the mixture well, leave to cool then stir into the bowl with the breadcrumbs.

Dust your work surface with flour and roll out the pastry evenly to a large rectangle, about 30cm x 40cm.   It should be about 3mm thick so you might need to roll it larger. Trim to size (you can decorate the Wellington with the trimmings later if you wish).

Carefully transfer the pastry to a piece of greaseproof paper slightly larger in size. Paint a 5cm margin around the sides and the top edge with beaten egg.

Starting at the edge nearest to you, spread the mushroom mixture evenly over the pastry up to the 5cm margin on three sides but right up to the bottom edge. Put the fillet of beef lengthways in the centre of the pastry. Roll up the pastry away from you around the fillet using the paper to smooth it firmly around the meat. You want to remove any air pockets. Press the overlapped edges together with the handle of a spoon and then position it with the seam underneath (if it overlaps too much trim the excess – a big double layer of pastry may not cook through). Fold the pastry at each end of the Wellington like you are wrapping a present. Use an extra dab of egg wash if you need to, sealing it firmly. Brush all over with the beaten egg.

Transfer the greaseproof paper and wellington onto the hot baking sheet and cook for around 25-40 minutes depending on how well done you want the meat, and the pastry is golden (if it starts to brown too much cover loosely with tin foil. Carefully insert a meat thermometer from the side right into the centre to check the temperature. It should be 50˚C for rare, medium rare 60˚C, medium 65˚C and well done 70˚C.

Remember that it will carry on cooking while resting and the ends might be a little bit more well done.

Remove from the oven and leave to rest for 5 minutes, then cut into large slices. Serve with gravy and lightly cooked greens.

This recipe was commissioned by Maille, and, as I have always used their mustard, this was a pleasure. I only write about things that I genuinely cook with or endorse.  All opinions my own.

You might also like:

Top 10 Cookbooks which have influenced me

Your guide to ghee; through the eyes of people who grew up eating it

December 4, 2020

coriander spices and ghee

The golden ghee on the spoon appeared to have more in common with body butter than cooking fat. It smelled a bit like caramel, was soft and grainy, melting on the tongue and tasting like fudge. I wanted more.

This was totally different from the ghee in green tins, piled high in Dubai supermarkets. I now understood why friends back in the Emirates went misty-eyed when talking about ghee and said they only used homemade.

I fried things with my ghee, stirred it into cooked lentils, rice and pasta, roasted potatoes and parsnips in it (fantastic by the way) and tried to resist eating it straight out of the jar. It was a gorgeous game-changer but when I raved about it to friends in the UK there were a lot of questions that I couldn’t answer with conviction.

So I sought help from friends of Indian heritage who grew up with ghee. They shared their knowledge, experience and much, much more. They told me stories that are not just about something delicious to eat; ghee is woven into their lives, memories and culture. This is a guide to ghee through their eyes:

What is ghee?

Used for centuries as a way of preserving cream from the family cow, ghee is a type of clarified butter that can be heated to high temperatures for cooking and will not go off for a long time. It’s known as ghee in India (a Hindi word) and at the heart of all the stories here. So many people I spoke to described it as a pot of gold.

Ghee is used in other countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka but there are variations of clarified butter in countries around the world. From a type of fermented ghee called smen that is used throughout the Middle East and North Africa to beurre noisette in France. Ghee is also used in UAE cuisine which is a fusion of tradition and trading influences, a topic for another day.

ginger spices and ghee

Making ghee

“The ghee parable” as Shiyam called it.  He told me that ghee was born out of necessity. Butter has a shelf life of ten days and will become rancid, while clarified fat will keep for up to 100 days or more. Cow or Buffalo milk is soured by lactic acid bacteria into dahi (curd), it is churned to obtain butter, the leftover buttermilk is made into chaas. Souring improves the quality of butter and imparts a unique flavor to the ghee.

Butter from the sour curd is heated between 90-120C, the water evaporates and the milk solids that brown, drop to the bottom of the pan. The clarified ghee is rich in antioxidants which delays the onset of rancidity. 1kg of cultured butter will yield 650-700g of ghee.

Shiyam grew up eating ghee, “We have cows and buffalo at home in India. My grandmother lives in a small town called Udumalipettai, in the foothills of the Western Ghats.  She makes homemade ghee and has a ritual; she churns the curd everyday and collects butter in an earthenware pot at six in the morning. She uses a long, wooden churner with a bulbous head attached with string. The rhythmic strokes, and the ray of sun hitting the pot, warm the curd just enough to separate the butter. 

The butter which is derived from curd has a funk which develops over a couple of days. 
In a copper (kadai) she sets the butter on embers (choola is the traditional wood burning stove). The butter melts and starts to bubble, the smell wafts through the house. She increases the heat slowly and this lets the water evaporate, the milk solids to settle to the bottom and the milk to brown. She adds a few sprigs of moringa leaves to flavour the ghee during the summer; during winter she adds black peppercorns and betel leaves as it has warming properties. 
The ghee is gently strained and stored in a brass container. 
Jaggery (a type of unrefined sugar) can be added to the milk fat along with cardamom and edible camphor and reincarnated into a sweet.  As kids we used to fight to clean the vessel as you get to scrape the leftovers.”

This same ritual is passed down through generations. Sarah’s mum was a teacher so juggled prepping ghee for her family with a full-time job where they lived in Pune (Poona). “My mum used to make ghee every two weeks. She would boil milk (from glass bottles) until a thick layer or skin formed. This would be skimmed off and kept in a tub in the fridge, then made into butter. She would cook this slowly until there were 3 layers – milk solids at the bottom, clarified butter in the middle and foam on top. When the milk solids turned golden brown, she would skim the foam off and strain the liquid. She poured it into a jar, left it to cool, then kept it in the fridge. She would use the milk solids in sweet chapatis, with a bit of sugar and some cardamom. They were a lovely treat.”

Devina’s mum shed light on how to adapt traditional ghee-making to a busy life in the city of Dubai. “In India, people first collect the malai (cream) which forms on the milk after it is boiled. After a lot of malai has been collected, it is boiled on a low flame until it turns liquid and translucent. Care must be taken not to burn it at the bottom, and it should be a nice golden colour.

Here in Dubai, we don’t have time to collect malai and boil milk! So I boil unsalted Lurpak butter instead using the same method. Just take care not to boil it to the extent where it burns – this is because the milk solids which separate from the liquid can burn and give off an awful smell.”
.
ghee and spices

Cooking and eating ghee

“Growing up in an Indian household the use of ghee is the inevitable,” says Delna summing up the thread that is shared by all.   “I’d even go one step further to say using ghee is also a sign of extending heart-warming hospitality, love and care for your family and guests. It’s that sudden gush of aroma when food is served that only ghee can achieve, which sets the tone of ‘we’ve prepared the very best for you’. This may be a generous smear of melted ghee on Indian breads (rotis, naans), mini-dollops of ghee as the finishing touch of the biryani before it goes on dum (steam cooking) or even using ghee, instead of oil, in the tadka (seasoning) of spices and herbs as the final step when making dal (lentil curry) or rasam (spiced pepper water).”

“Any roti or any hot or reheated bread with ghee works,” advises Mufaddal, “like good bread with good butter – you don’t need anything else.” This ideal partnership of bread and ghee is eulogised by everyone:

Sarah’s mum would wake up early and make rotis, putting a dot of ghee on each while still warm as she slipped them into lunchboxes for school. Delna remembers that on a rainy day or a cold winter morning her Mom would enjoy her cup of chai along with a toasted slice of bread with a generous spread of ghee sprinkled with sugar.

This was called ‘toop-sakhar’ (ghee-sugar) in Devina’s house and she asked her Mom to make it for a snack as she ran into the house after school. She also has fond memories of her Dadi (her paternal Grandmother) “who used to make the best puran polis in the world”. These are an Indian flatbread that are stuffed with a mixture of dal and jaggery then doused in ghee. She says that every sweet bite is a reminder of her Dadi’s generosity with her time and food.

Using ghee for deep of shallow frying, instead of oil, is a practice that goes back centuries in India. But these days, good quality ghee is prized as too good for using as a cooking medium. It’s eaten as is (as I discovered) or for finishing a dish at the end where it adds a lot of richness and flavour. ‘We drizzle it over everything’ is a phrase I hear again and again.  This is either plain ghee or as a tadka, which translates as tempering. Whole or ground spices are briefly roasted in ghee to infuse it with their flavours and aromas.

Ghee is added to dals, khichdi, curries and rice dishes like pulaos (pulavs, pilafs). It would be impossible to imagine a good biryani without this luxurious final flourish. Others have suggested using it to make paneer masala, daal fry, roasting chicken and potatoes, in scrambled eggs, spreading it on toast, mixing it with honey to put on bread and even in baking. Eating ghee is used as a way to ward off hunger by having a spoonful first thing in the morning or stirred into hot milk to prevent midnight cravings.  As Sarah says, “That’s the tip of the ghee-berg”.

The caramelisation that makes it golden and slightly sweet, combined with its luxurious aroma and creamy taste is why it’s been popular in Indian cooking for so long and, more recently, gaining wider popularity, explains Delna.

Ghee is also at the heart of many Indian desserts, like semolina pudding and sweets. Sarah loved the smell of ghee when used in “mithai” especially when given Diwali sweets from friends. This aroma is something that divides people however and she says that her family don’t like it.

It’s clear that ghee is fundamental to Indian cuisine. “Using ghee in my cooking is non-negotiable,” confesses Delna.

Other uses of ghee

The role and importance of ghee in Indian culture is as important as in the kitchen. Shiyam sums it up, “From birth to death ghee plays an integral part.

Ghee signifies purity. It is a source of nourishment, energy, power, intellect. Annaprasanam is a ceremony that happens when a child turns six months. This is very significant as the child eats rice for the first time. Rice is cooked with ghee and jaggery and fed to the child.”

I mention smelling the scent of ghee when threading our way through the narrow lanes near the Creek in my post about Diwali in Dubai. This is because cotton wicks are put into small dishes and submerged in ghee to be lit at the Hindu temple or for religious ceremonies in the home.

Ghee is used extensively in Ayurvedic medicines. It’s one of the ingredients allowed in the Sattvic diet (which is based on whole unprocessed vegetarian foods) as it’s said to contain the essence of grass and plants that the cows eat.

Is ghee actually good or bad for your health? Like many ‘superfoods’ there are lots of disputed claims about whether it is beneficial for health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, improving eyesight and boosting the immune system to name a few, or whether it’s a contributing factor to obesity and increased levels of cholesterol in the blood.

In the past it was attributed as a factor in weight loss and, more recently, approved for Paleo, GAPS, FODMAP, Whole30, Banting and Keto diets. Without going down a ghee-health rabbit-hole, my own view is that most whole foods aren’t harmful if eaten in moderation as part of a balanced diet. Really good quality ghee does contain vitamins A, D, E and K and very low or nil levels of lactose and casein (which could be good for those intolerant to them).

It’s also a traditional Indian home remedy. I’m told that it makes a great natural moisturizer (although Mufaddel says that the smell can be an issue for some. Eau de ghee anyone?) “Use it on the soles of your feet, rub them and sleep well” recommends Cherida.  Delna agrees with its hydrating effects on lips, knees and elbows and says to mix it with a little bit of gram flour and turmeric powder, for a soothing no-fuss face DIY mask.

She tells me about a visit to an Ayurvedic resort in Mysore, India. “They kick-started our days with a spoonful of ghee, followed with some warm, melted ghee poured down your nostrils to clear stuffy noses followed by a neti pot rinse (the best sleep those days as my nostrils were superbly clear!).”

.

ghee and spices

Where to get good ghee

“It’s common to hear many conversations around ghee – from the most recommended and traditional brands in the market to sharing homemade ghee recipes which many mothers will take great pride in,” Delna tells me.

If you’re lucky enough to find some ghee that’s homemade to a family recipe in an Indian kitchen, treasure it. You could also try making your own – there are hundreds of recipes online.

Be discerning if buying ghee as there is a huge difference between the bland mass-produced stuff and the irresistible, small-batch pots of gold.

In Dubai, Cherida recommends buying Natureland A2 ghee from Organic Planet in Karama while Noorin Ansari stocks up on locally made ghee from the Waterfront market in Deira.*

In UK, the one that’s opened my eyes to the ambrosial qualities of the good stuff is Happy Butter Organic ghee** which is handmade in small batches using local, organic milk, by Kate and Rupert, in a Devon village (coincidentally 20 miles from where I am right now).

In your kitchen

Word of the delicious properties of ghee is spreading. While still fundamental, it’s not solely used in traditional Indian cooking any longer. Keen cooks and chefs are exploring how to use it with other ingredients, cuisines and cooking methods. To quote Happy Butter, ‘From bulletproof coffees, frying salmon, roasting chicken and potatoes, frying pancakes, and as the oil in any dinnertime cooking, it deserves centre stage in your kitchen.’

A quick note on storage; ghee is fine kept in the cupboard just as you would olive oil or other cooking mediums. There is no need to refrigerate unless you get water or any other food-stuffs into it. Keep dry and in a dark place – it won’t be there for long once you start using it, trust me.

Delna has the last word: “Before the world claimed and magnified it’s benefits to the world through fancy labels and packaging, our good ol’ Indian grandmas have been propagandizing the use of ghee from times past. I remember a phase when ghee was frowned upon as ‘fats to avoid’ but today, I’m glad to say, it’s the one thing we all embrace and for all the good reasons.”

.

Jar of Happy Butter ghee

Happy Butter Organic Ghee

Contributors

Many thanks to everyone who helped with my research and were so generous in sharing their personal stories:

Thanks also to Cherida Fernandez, Noorin Ansari, Stephanie Mahmoud, Nahlaa Tabbaa, Ritu Chaturvedi, Torie True, Jules and everyone who sent me their suggestions on Instagram.

And there’s a fascinating ‘Deep Fried’ podcast about ghee from Frying Pan Adventures that’s well worth a listen.  *Noorin and Cherida are guests and the latter has written a blog post: Ghee-wiz– Discovering the surprise that clarified butter holds.

** Disclosure: Kate and Rupert from Happy Butter Organic Ghee sent me some jars of their ghee. I’m under no obligation to write about it but the quality and taste is extraordinary and they’ve converted me to the ambrosial qualities of ghee. There will be a jar in my kitchen from now on.

Tell me more

If you’d like to share your stories about ghee, your favourite ways to use it and the part it has played in your life, I love to hear from you. Have you used clarified butter from a different origin (I’m especially keen to learn more about how it’s used in the UAE). Please send any questions about ghee too – if I can’t answer them I know someone who can…

Discovering Diwali in the heart of Dubai

November 15, 2020

How much do you know about Diwali? I was pretty clueless until I spent an evening in the historic area of Dubai called Bur Dubai during the festivities. My eyes were opened to the traditions, the meaning, the rituals, the excitement and, of course, the food. Join me on that journey…

It’s calm crossing the Dubai Creek on an abra but this is swiftly left behind as we land at the water taxi station and enter the Fabric Souk in Bur Dubai. This lively hub of shoppers and shop keepers is particularly busy and the frenzy intensifies as we dive into a narrow corridor. Small, shopfronts are open on either side displaying a bright array of goods, stacked in Jenga-like towers without a single inch of space to spare.  Fluorescent strip lights make the bright colours even more dazzling.

We are led through these crowded paths by my friends Arva and Farida from Frying Pan Adventures. We’re in this part of Dubai because of its trading links to India which merchants from the country have used as a trading base since the mid-19th century. After the discovery of oil and economic boom in the 1950s, the Indian population grew and businesses thrived, particularly in Bur Dubai.  These days Dubai is home to 200 nationalities of expats, but the majority are from India and many still live in this traditional heartland. As Diwali is the most important festival of the year for most people in India we are in the right place to find out more.

stall with jewellery and statuettes

people buying garlands of flowers for Diwali

As we shuffle through the corridor barely wide enough for two people to pass there is so much to take in.  Arva shows us what is being sold for the celebrations and tries to explain, in a nutshell, what Diwali is all about, which is not easy. There are innumerable dramatic, mystical tales in Hindu scripture and Diwali commemorates many important events. Among them, Lord Rama returns from exile, Lord Krishna kills an evil demon, the Goddess Lakshmi is born from the churning of the cosmic ocean of milk;  it marks the start of the Hindu New Year and celebrates these new beginnings, the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance.

Flower shops are doing a roaring trade and men pile garlands of vivid, orange marigolds into blue plastic bags. Beautiful strings (mala or haar) of jasmine and roses dangle from above and their scent mingles with the buttery smell of ghee and incense. Flowers have a role in many parts of life in India and are woven into art and literature. ‘Puja’ is the Hindu worship ritual meaning ‘flower act’ and there is a particular type of flower linked to each god.

Yellow flowers are also scattered over prasad which are small plates of food and drink that are being sold. An apple, an orange, a bottle of milk and some sweets; gulab jamun or laddus are typical. They are taken to the temple as an offering and are blessed.

Diwali or or Deepavali is also called the festival of lights and people are buying little terracotta dishes or diyas are filled with ghee (clarified butter) or oil and a wick to be lit in the temple or at home. Deepavali is from Sanskrit and means a row of lights. One Hindu temple is actually over our heads (next to the Sikh Gurdwara) and worshippers climb stairs at one end of the building and come down at the other in a constant, one-way-system procession. The other temple is in a nearby courtyard.

We leave the alleyways and head out into the streets. Coloured lights hang in streams from every single balcony and families wander along the pavements wearing brilliant robes and saris.

At one entrance Arva speaks into the intercom and invites us up into an apartment block. A hush descends; flames flicker outside every doorway and rangoli cover parts of the floor. These are artistic designs made of brightly coloured powder (or sand, ground rice or flowers). The patterns are often passed down from one generation to another.

people making rangoli

Back out onto the streets there is excitement as a robed man with a large drum appears and starts a frenetic beat. A crowd gathers quickly; some men catapult out and start dancing energetically, pounding their feet, bowing low to the ground, waving their arms and clapping.  Most things in Dubai need official permission and I get the feeling that this spontaneous, public merrymaking is not quite within approval which seems to add another layer of illicit pleasure. The drummer disappears suddenly, to another corner with other eager dancers no doubt.

As we pass a glass-walled jewellery shop, the people inside invite us in to join their family celebrations. A small altar contains the remains of offerings and everyone sits crossed legged on rugs on the floor enjoying a shared feast. We’re welcomed with drinks and sweets – it feels like such a privilege to experience this special festival through their warmth and generosity. A toddler is dressed in embroidered clothes and jewels that my children would have longed for when they were little.

Hindu scripts and offerings

The excitement on the streets has ramped up a notch as groups of teenage boys run around tossing fire crackers onto the pavements and disappearing into the smoke when a police car appears*.

Families are out there too and a father throws a fire cracker at the feet of his young daughter. She laughs with joy but I’m appalled; years of ‘never play with fireworks’ messages on Blue Peter before Bonfire night make me unable to stop worrying. They are oblivious.

Maya Angelou said “I want all my senses engaged. Let me absorb the world’s variety and uniqueness.” As we wandered back, I was reeling with impact of the evening’s experiences through sight, touch, scent, sound and taste. It’s something that has stayed with me ever since. It wasn’t just a massive eye opener into the world of people I lived parallel to.  To quote Kant,  “All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason.” A night out in Bur Dubai during Diwali could be the answer to a lot of things these days.

Traditional Diwali food and sweets

Like all festivities, food is at the heart of the five days of Diwali. Savoury snacks are popular, mostly fried like samosas, vada, chakli, bonda, murukka and tikki. Also common are little flattened, spiced grains of rice called churwa or chivda. The types served varies depending on traditions within the family and which part of India they are from.

Arva from Frying Pan Adventures (who is not Hindu) says that on the savoury front most people offer snacks like churwa and she’s never had a main course that’s particularly associated with Diwali. Usually people bring out the fanciest and richest dishes but sweets are the most important.

The choice and volume is quite mind boggling with huge trays of them in shops or traditional homemade ones.

Friend Devina aka FooDee says “I’ve always had a sweet tooth, so Diwali conjures up images of an endless array of mithai (sweets). I love most mithais fairly equally, but I am extremely partial to ‘pedas**’, which you’ll find in any Indian sweet shop. They are usually round or oval, melt in your mouth, and a little thick and made with sugar and dried evaporated milk (khoya). Flavourings can be added to this, from saffron to cardamom and even chocolate. I’m salivating just thinking about it.”

Indian sweetsSome of the most popular sweets eaten at Diwali are:

Besan laddu (or laddoo)

Made with gram flour or chickpea flour (called besan in Hindi) which is added to ghee (clarified butter) in a pan on the stove then stirred and toasted until it’s a golden colour. Sugar, nuts and cardamom are added to the paste and rolled into balls. Like many sweets at Diwali they can be garnished with nuts or edible silver leaves (chandi ka vark).

Pera or peda**

Khoya or Mawa are milk solids made by evaporating the moisture from the milk over heat very slowly. Sugar, and sometimes cardamom, is added once cooled and they are shaped into discs by hand or using decorated moulds to make pera. Khoya used to be made from scratch, reducing milk straight from the cow, but now people usually buy their milk solids or use milk powder.

Barfi

There are many different flavours and ingredients used to make barfi such as varieties of nuts, all kinds of fruits to flavour and fragrant spices.  The base is a kind of fudge made with reduced condensed milk and sugar. At Diwali they are usually cut into diamond-shapes and decorated with vark. This edible foil usually made from silver or gold and has been used since ancient times due to the Ayurvedic practice of using precious metals for medicinal reasons.

These types of sweets are more likely to be homemade:

Gulab jamun

One of the most popular sweets, these are deep fried balls of dough (sort of mini-doughnuts) made with khoya and soaked in fragrant syrup usually flavoured with rose and cardamom.

Rasmalai and Rasgulla

The base of these soft spongy discs is quite similar. Lemon juice is added to saffron-scented milk to make curds which is strained of moisture and made into a paste called chena with cornflour. They are boiled in sugar syrup. Rasmalai are are served with a thick, nutty, scented milk-syrup.

Diwali table with candles and sweets

Ghughra

Chirag who gave me his Mum’s homemade sweets (pictured above) says that the little crescent shaped one is a must on the Diwali table. It’s called gujiya in Hindi and ghughra in his mother tongue of Gujurati. He compares it to a tiny sweet fatayer, fried to give the outside a nice crunch with a rich filling that is supposed to give you energy and brain power (and maybe, a tad of cholesterol).

This rich filling is usually made with ground nuts and dried fruits, sugar, spices like cardamon or cloves, mawa/khoya and semolina.

This is just the tip of the Indian sweets iceburg though. If you have chance to visit an Indian sweet shop, ask for advice or, if you’re really lucky, seize the opportunity if invited to someone’s home for Diwali (post COVID). I found Cook with Manali blog a really good resource for explaining how to make homemade sweets.

men dancing

This all happened in 2015 at the invitation of my dear friends Arva and Farida from the fantastic food tour company Frying Pan Adventures. It took me a while to process the whole experience and I felt too overwhelmed to write about it feeling I couldn’t do it justice.  With so much going on that night, I wasn’t very focused on my photography (which I don’t regret) but my images are not great in quality or in capturing the magic of the evening. With so many people unable to celebrate Diwali the way they’d like to this year due to COVID, I felt compelled to share this story, especially as we all need a bit more openness and understanding at this time.

I’d love to hear what you think. And if anyone wants to share their knowledge of the vast ocean of Indian sweets please comment below.

*The police wouldn’t arrest them, probably just give a gentle warning.

Banana, date and walnut muffins

October 6, 2020

Banana date muffins and a cup of tea

Things are a little bit bonkers now.* I’m sitting upstairs at my desk listening to birds cheeping; is it my imagination or are there more of them about singing their hearts out? If we could translate would they be saying ‘we can breathe…’?

KP is downstairs listening to music non stop. Can you work with a loud background soundtrack? Even peaceful classical intrudes on my thoughts so I close the door to keep out everything – from The Comet is Coming (which I love when not working) to Les Miserables soundtrack (which I loathe in any circumstances).

We’ve fallen into a bit of a routine around tea and cake. The future is uncertain so I’m focusing on the small things, one day at a time, and therapeutic baking works for me.

If Twitter chats are anything to go by we all seem to have a lot of ripe bananas needing a purpose. I think muffins are often very overrated. These are more like mini, gooey banana cakes and they get better as you keep them. Can you swap the nuts? Of course, use whatever you have in the cupboard. Could you leave them out? I think so, the muffins would just be a bit gooier… never a bad thing.

If you’re after a more traditional banana bread, I can vouch for this Smitten Kitchen recipe I made last week (fantastic).

*I wrote this during lockdown and a two week anti-COVID curfew in Dubai. We left our villa of 20 years (far too big for two people) and I’m now in the UK with family. Life is rather different especially as KP is still in the UAE. It feels like a completely different world (which it is for us all) – but baking is still comforting and provides necessary warmth as the rain lashes down outside the window!

Banana, date and walnut muffins

  • Servings: 12
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A great store cupboard recipe for using up overipe bananas. Warm with spices, crunchy with nuts and treacly with dates and brown sugar. Serve with yoghurt for breakfast or a cup of tea in the afternoon


Ingredients

  • 2 ripe bananas
  • squeeze of lemon juice (about a teaspoon)
  • 210g plain flour
  • 80g caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 6 cardamom pods (or 1 teaspoon of ground)
  • freshly grated nutmeg (generous 1/2 teaspoon)
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
  • 90g fresh dates, pitted and chopped*
  • 65g walnuts, chopped roughly
  • 110g butter melted, at room temperature
  • 100g dark brown sugar
  • 120ml plain yoghurt (8 level tablespoons)
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract


Directions

*chop the dates coarsely if you want chunks in the muffins and finer if you just want them for sweetness and texture.

Line 12-14 holes in standard muffin trays with paper cases or greaseproof paper (depending on the size of your bananas how much mixture there is).

Break up the banana into a bowl and mash it with a fork until mushy. Stir in a squeeze of lemon juice.

Sieve the plain flour into a large bowl. Add the caster sugar, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, ground cardamom, nutmeg and salt. Stir well to combine. Sprinkle the dates and walnuts into the dry ingredients and rub them in with your fingertips. You want the date pieces to be separated and coated with flour.

Whisk together the melted butter, and brown sugar in a medium-sized bowl. Stir in the mashed banana, yoghurt, eggs and vanilla extract until mixed together.

Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredient and pour the banana mixture into the middle. Use a spatula to gently fold the flour in from the edges. Don’t overmix, a few lumps of flour still showing is fine.

Spoon the batter evenly into the 12 muffin cups. You can use a 50ml ice cream scoop – slightly rounded scoops should portion it equally.

Bake in an oven preheated to 190C for 25 minutes or until golden brown. You can swap the tins around 10 minutes before the end to make sure they cook evenly. They are ready when springy to the touch and when you stick a wooden skewer or toothpick into the centre it comes out clean or with a small crumb attached.

Remove from the tins and cool on a baking rack. Store in a tightly closed container. No need to refrigerate especially if you eat within 3 days (or you can freeze them).

Banana date muffins and a cup of tea

I photographed these very hurriedly. I promise the one to the right was not burnt even though it looks like it in the shot!

I hope you are coping with COVID, lockdown and everything life is throwing at us at the moment.