Pastitsio vs Stifado

“You can’t beat a good stifado” he said, pointing at me and grinning mischievously.  Years later, surrounded by the aroma of tomato and beef infused with cinnamon, I’m tempted to say that the maths teacher was right.

At high school, I had a perfectly friendly maths teacher who did his best to get his pupils to where they should be, but every now and again, a colleague of his would stride into the classroom and on his way in or out, would strike up some friendly banter with me about the merits of various Greek dishes.  His opening line was always the same: “Had any stifado recently?”

Having guessed that my origins were Greek from my name, this chirpy maths teacher (Mr. J) enjoyed sharing his memories of beef stifado and seemed to like hearing about my own affections for pastitsio: a dish that my mum made and that I still make now with a mixture of love and utter glee.  Note to self: must update the recipe to include my own bechamel sauce which has been perfected recently.

The maths teacher and I would continue our faux argument over which dish was champion until it was time for him to let the lesson continue and for me to focus once more on things more likely to help me gain qualifications.  I wished that the stifado enthusiast was my teacher, but he wasn’t and so our conversations rarely moved beyond sauce and seasoning.

Stifado is essentially pieces of meat cooked slowly in tomatoes and red wine with baby onions.  I like beef stifado, but it can also be made with rabbit.  It’s a wonderfully warming dish with a rich sauce and satisfying flavour.  I wonder what Mr. J would make of my version of the classic Greek dish?  I dare say he’d prefer it to my first attempts at high school maths.

Beef stifado

500g best braising beef

500g baby onions

1 glass red wine

2 tins chopped tomatoes

half cup olive oil

4 cloves garlic

2 tspoons ground cinnamon

1 tblspoon dried oregano

If you want to marinate the beef in red wine and garlic overnight, be my guest.  It does help.  If you don’t have that kinda time or forethought, then begin by shallow frying the peeled baby onions until golden.  Remove from the oil and set aside.

Next, brown the beef in the onion oil and add the cinnamon and oregano.  Pour in the chopped tomatoes and bring to the boil.  Add the red wine and boil for a minute or so to burn off the alcohol.  Drop some cloves of garlic into the pot.  I usually give them a quick bash with the back of my knife so that they release their flavour during cooking.

Simmer with the lid on for an hour.  Keep the heat low enough not to burn everything in the pot, but just high enough to keep everything on a gentle simmer.

After an hour, add as much black pepper as you dare and plenty of salt to taste.  Tip the onions in and cook uncovered for at least another hour until the beef is very tender and the sauce thick.  If the sauce reduces too much, just top up with water or stock.  Eventually, you’ll end up with a nice thick sauce, melt-in-your-mouth beef and beautifully flavoured baby onions.

Stifado goes well with potatoes and I sometimes have a fresh cabbage salad on the side because it has quite a rich sauce.  You’ll certainly need plenty of your favourite bread to mop it all up!

No bake chocolate cake.

I can only apologise for the delay in food action this week.  Preparation for my baby boy’s baptism have given me little or no time to get close to my beloved oven.

There’s no way that I can resist making something, so it was a real guilty treat to knock together my no bake chocolate.  Essentially, it is nothing more than melted chocolate and some tasty bits, but it does the trick.

No oven, no special techniques or weird ingredients.  Just plenty of chocolate and a gorgeous cake in no time at all.  Been promising to try a recipe out, but not had the time?  Perhaps this is the one for you.  Enjoy!

No bake chocolate cake

250g dark chocolate

230g butter

200g chocolate digestive biscuits

60g demerara sugar

4 tblspoons black coffee

100g pecans

100g glace cherries

100g mini marshmallows

half tspoon vanilla extract

Melt the butter, chocolate and sugar together in a pan and then stir in the vanilla extract.  Crush the biscuits, but not too finely.  Plenty of biscuit chunks is what you’re looking for.  (Plain digestives work just fine, but I’ll take any excuse to get more chocolate into the recipe!)

Stir the biscuits and cherries and pecans into the chocolate.  Add the marshmallows last so that they don’t melt into the chocolate, but keep their shape.

Tip the mixture into a lined loaf tin and place in the fridge until it is set.  Cut thin slices and serve with coffee.


I will raise you as my own.

The English have big love for pies.  Sweet or savoury, pies are well represented on English plates.  I’ve made fruit pies sprinkled with sugar and I’ve made pies filled with meat and gravy, but I’ve never attempted a pork pie.  The classic buffet and picnic pie of choice for the English has always been something of a mystery to me.  Probably made by wisened old artisans whose knowledge of pie-making has been inherited and protected with the kind of secrecy alluded to in low-brow Templar fiction.  Or are they mass-produced vehicles for the less palatable parts of a pig?  It was time to learn something new and in the process, perhaps make something special.

First of all, what’s the appeal of a good pork pie?  The pastry is special.  A golden brown with an attractive glaze and a crumbly promise of savoury comfort.  Okay, too poetic, but pork pies are made with a hot water crust that contains lard.  This makes it tasty and gives it a wonderful texture upon baking.  The pastry is pressed against the sides of whatever it is baked in to form walls.  The walls get higher until they are ready to be filled.  Raising the pastry in this way produces what is known as a hand-raised pie.

Secondly, pork pies are good when they’re hot and even better when they’re cold.  Pickles, chutneys and relishes are fantastic with pork pies and the fact that their contents doesn’t ooze out makes them a perfect travel companion.

I looked at a few online recipes for the pastry before I attempted to make it.  In the end, I chose to use Delia Smith’s recipe for the pastry.  The contents of the pie, however, were a very successful little experiment and as I type, I’m finding it very difficult to contain my pride.  If you want a treat, go and buy a Melton Mowbray pork pie.  If you want to experience the joy of creating something tasty and beautiful (in the most rustic of ways), then it’s about time you made your very own hand-raised pork pie.

Hand-raised sausage & bacon pies

(Pastry adapted from Delia Smith)

225g strong white flour

75g lard

25ml milk

pinch of salt

black pepper

1 egg yolk (to glaze)

(For the filling)

275g sausage meat

6 slices smoked bacon

150g smoked ham

1 tspoon fish sauce

half tspoon ground allspice

half tspoon ground mace

black pepper

pinch of salt

It’s best to make the filling first so that you can work quickly with the pastry before it dries out.

I fried the bacon until crispy and then mixed it with the rest of the ingredients until well combined.  If you want to check the seasoning, you can fry a little of the filling and taste it once cooked.

As in Delia’s recipe for the pastry, begin by heating the milk and lard in a pan.  Add 25ml of water and bring everything just to the boil.  Pour it into a bowl containing the flour and use a wooden spoon to combine everything.

Now it’s time to build up the pastry crust ready to be filled.  I used little stainless steel pudding moulds.  I pressed a little ball of pastry into the base and began adding more pastry and forming the sides of the pie.  When I got to the top, I overlapped the edges and filled the pies with the filling, making sure that I pressed down firmly using the back of a spoon.  Once level, I folded the edges of the pastry in and made a little hole for steam to escape through during baking.

I used the beaten egg yolk to glaze the top of each pie before sliding them into the oven at 180C for half an hour.  I then carefully removed the pies from the molds, glazed the sides with more yolk and put them back on a baking tray to finish in the oven for another twenty-five minutes.  This made the crust golden and firm.

The pie filling looks quite pink in the photographs, but this is just the bacon.  I can assure you that the pies were firm and fully cooked through.  Their spicing was just right and the crumbly pastry was delicious.  I ate mine with lots of Branston pickle.  One thing’s for sure, I’ll be making these at Christmas and serving them with lots of chutney, cheese and some strong red wine.  Then in the spring, they’ll be coming with me to the beach and the park for some picnic action.  All in all, I’m glad I tried my hand at making these.  You will be too!