Natural sugars don’t count- part 1: Pear & pecan toffee crumble.

Given the amount of marketing that goes into promoting fruit and vegetables as the way to protect your heart and ensure longevity, it’s amazing how many adults still choose to eat nutritionally poor food on a daily basis.  We’ve never been more aware of the content and nutritional values of food, and yet, obesity is prevalent in a number of wealthy countries with high levels of literacy.  Why don’t people make the right food choices for their bodies?

In my humble opinion, I think choice itself is part of the problem.  Sugary food, food laden with flavourful fat and food containing too much of what we don’t need is often more appealing than healthier, natural options.  I adore peas, love broccoli, would kill for olives and feel incredibly happy when eating sweetcorn, but burgers, pizzas, chicken korma and anything covered in melted cheese is hard to resist.  What hope do greedy folk like me have?

The best thing to do is to treat yourself to the unnecessary sugary and fatty items every now and again and most importantly, to acknowledge that they are just that; a treat.  A couple of days of eating poorly is all it takes for me to get back on track.  Too many treats and they stop feeling like a treat and I enjoy them less.  Over the last few weeks I’ve been making an effort to cut down on the naughty things so that I begin to appreciate them again.  Baking every day is not conducive to this, so I’ve started giving away almost everything I bake to friends and family.  It feels good, but it’s hard to wave goodbye to the freshly baked goods as they leave my flour-covered hands forever.

Vegetables will always be on my plate, though and I love them.  However, what my diet has in vegetables, sadly, it lacks in fruit.  I’m just not a fruit fan.  I love watermelon and I’ll eat just about every fruit going, but I’ll never ask for it or make an effort to eat it.  For all the colour, variety and goodness in fruit, it just doesn’t register on my food radar.  And pudding?  No.  Fruit, no matter how nicely presented, is not and never will be an acceptable pudding.  Scanning a dessert menu, my eyes narrow scornfully should they come across fruit.  Disgraceful.  I want the finest sugars known to humanity and I want them now!

Natural sugars don’t count.  They don’t cut it with me.  I’ve decided to try to address the lack of fruit in my diet by incorporating fruit into my treats.  The first of these is about as sugary as it gets and so delightful, I almost talked myself out of giving it to my mum today.  I said almost.  Mum got the pudding to serve at dinner with my brother and uncle and I got to make what I believe is the nicest fruit-based pudding I’ve tasted.  It wasn’t too difficult to give it away because I’d made a test version last week and the poor pudding didn’t even see the next morning!  I’ll wait a few more weeks before making it again.  Moderation is the key.  Meanwhile, I’ll see what other ways there are to turn fruit to the dark side.  Watch this space…

Pear & pecan toffee crumble

(For the filling)

6 pears (peeled and roughly chopped)

4 tblspoons demerara sugar

3 tblspoons golden syrup

2 tblspoons dark muscovado sugar

30g butter

1 tblspoon milk

(For the crumble topping)

120g self-raising flour

100g butter (diced)

5 tblspoons demerara sugar

2 tblspoons pecans (finely chopped)

Rub the flour and butter together to make the crumble topping.  They should look like breadcrumbs in yoru bowl when you’re done.  Pour in the pecans and the sugar and bake in the oven for five or six minutes at 200 degrees Ceslius until golden.

Next, make the toffee sauce.  In a milk pan, gently heat the syrup, muscovado, demerara, milk and half of the butter.  Once it has come to the boil, let it simmer for five minutes and stir constantly.

In another pan, cook the pears in the remaining butter for about five or six minutes.  Pour the toffee into the pan with the pears and cook for another five minutes on a gentle heat.  Stir the pears so that the toffee doesn’t burn.

Finally, put the mixture into an oven-proof dish and then spread the crumble over the top.  Sprinkle extra demerara sugar on top, if you’re a sugar fiend like me.

Bake in the oven at 200 degrees Celsius for twenty minutes.  The crumble should be golden brown, but not burned.  It might be a little too sweet for some, so a scoop of vanilla ice-cream is a good choice when serving.

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The many faces of filo.

“Aah, filo pastry.  We have been expecting you.”  I can’t help feeling guilty when I make something using filo pastry.  First of all, pastry isn’t exactly a superfood and folk who take care of their bodies won’t thank you for a big ol’ pie.  Secondly, filo pastry is so versatile and easy to use.  Yes, I said easy!  Don’t let the television scaremongerers put you off experimenting with it.  Filo does dry out quickly and is very delicate, but it is also easy to cut, fold, layer and shape.  The fact that you can produce savoury or sweet dishes with ease, adds to the appeal.

Previously, I’ve had fun making chocolate filo parcels and when it comes to Greek puddings, filo is never too far away (that reminds me, I need to post a recipe for a lovely Greek pudding).  Filo has always been my go-to pastry for sweet stuff, but over the weekend, I found myself with some spare fresh filo and a box of beautiful chestnut mushrooms.  They have a wonderful nutty flavour and I’ve stocked up on them so that I can make my favourite mushroom soup.  However, we needed lunch in a matter of minutes and I wanted something interesting.  Filo to the rescue.

Le Roule & mushroom filo parcels

(Recipe makes 2 parcels)

2 sheets filo pastry

250g chestnut mushrooms (sliced)

2 small handfuls fresh rocket leaves

2 tblspoons Le Roule cheese

25g melted butter

salt & pepper

Begin by preheating the oven to 200 degrees Celsius.

Lay the sheets of filo out and cut them in half to form two squares.  Brush the squares with melted butter and lay a second filo square on top of each.  These will be your parcels.

Meanwhile, fry the mushrooms in a little butter on a high heat until cooked through and beginning to brown at the edges.  Grind some black pepper over them, but  don’t add salt yet.  Salt draws out moisture from the mushrooms and makes them soggy.  Yuk!

Put a little pile of fresh rocket onto the filo square and top with half of the mushrooms.  Season with salt.  Add a tablespoon of Le Roule on the top and then brush the edges of the square with melted butter.  Now bring two opposite corners of the square together, placing one under the other and brushing them with a little more butter.  Do the same with the remaining corners to form a parcel.

Brush the whole parcel with melted butter and place on a lined baking tray in the centre of the oven for about fifteen minutes or until the parcel is golden and the pastry crispy.  Be careful, the contents will be very hot.

Feeling hungry, I went on to make another parcel using baby plum tomatoes and basil leaves.  I added grated Cheddar instead of Le Roule and sprinkled some dried oregano on for good measure.  The result was something like a little pizza parcel, so it goes without saying that I was enthralled.  Filo may not be forgiving, but it is rewarding.  Give it a go!

I’m so glad that my little brother hated vegetables.

Comfort food can take just about any form and who am I to try to narrow that category?  Whatever food makes you feel good and safe and happy is comfort food.  There are a few obvious examples of comfort food and my favourite has to be mashed potato.

Being a soft and fluffy food, mashed potato does all of the comforting as soon as you place it in your mouth.  Partnered with some good butter and a little milk, mashed potatoes will practically anaesthetise me and I guess you can’t ask anything more of a comfort food.

Why do I need comforting?  I don’t, but a good pile of mash on the plate next to sausages will put pay to any winter blues quicker than you can say “onion gravy”.  Lucky for me and the other members of my little, greedy family, winter is still doing a sound check and we probably won’t hear the opening bars for a few weeks yet.  That said, when N asked for mashed potatoes with our meal, I got a surge of joy at the prospect of seeing my old buttery friend again.

My mum used to mash up carrots with the potatoes in a bid to get another vegetable down the throat of my veggie-hating little brother.  We’ve loved carrot and potato mash ever since and I decided to make some (to please my inner child).  At the last minute, I realised that we had some coriander that needed to be used up.  Before I knew it, I was chopping fresh leaves (and stalks) and mixing them into the creamy mashed potatoes and carrots.  Carrot and coriander is a tried and tested combo, so I knew it was a safe bet.

We were delighted with the result and while I don’t think a whole recipe is necessary, I did want to share this mash with you.  Coriander is packed full of vitamin C and this was a fantastic opportunity to get some.  Go on, give your immune system (and your loved ones) a treat!

I will always love you.

I’m a big soup fan.  Since my student days when cooking whatever I had left in the fridge was a regular event, I’ve really enjoyed pairing ingredients in perhaps the most immediate way possible (except for the mighty sandwich).

Bad soup is common.  Good soup is everything that food should be: comforting, colourful and good for you.  Yes, I write a blog called The Last Piece of Cake, but that doesn’t mean that I prefer to eat unhealthy food all day long.  Eventually, that kind of eating will take its toll on your body and your moods.  Soup, if made with care and some well-chosen ingredients, can lift your spirits and contribute to your well being in ways that a pizza never could.

Don’t worry, Pizza.  I still love you as I always have.  It’s not you, it’s me.  I need some space.  No, there isn’t anyone else.  Me and soup are just friends.  Soup makes me feel good about myself.  What’s wrong with that?  Why should I feel guilty?  I’ve nothing to hide…except my paunch.

You know what vegetable is great for soup?  Sweet potato.  I love it.  My problem is that I often buy a lot of sweet potatoes and then I don’t use them because I’m never sure about what kind of meals to prepare them for.  Regular potatoes are plain enough to be paired with a huge variety of other foods.  Sweet potatoes need more careful deployment.  Therefore, I usually have plenty left in the basket and my solution is often to make soup with them.

Today was no different.  Some bacon in the fridge was calling out for a “Use me up” recipe and I thought, “Why not?  Sweet potato and bacon soup could be fun!”  Add to that a chipotle chilli and I had a heart-warming lunch for me and N to enjoy while we listened to the rain beating down.  I’m not saying it was pizza, but if you appreciate the warm contentment that fills you when you have a good bowl of soup, then you’ll enjoy this recipe.

Smokey sweet potato & bacon soup

3 sweet potatoes

2 slices smokey bacon

1 dried chipotle chilli

1 tblspoon vegetable oil

water/ stock

Peel and thinkly slice the sweet potatoes.  Fry the bacon until crispy in the pot you’ll use to make the soup, drain it and set aside to cool.  Add the potatoes to the vegetable oil and fat from the bacon and cook over a moderate heat.  Pour enough stock (chicken or vegetable) into the pot to cover the potatoes and bring to the boil.  Add the chipotle and simmer until the potatoes are falling apart.  Slice the bacon into strips and put a few strips aside to use as garnish.  Add the rest of the bacon to the soup.

Remove the chipotle and blend the soup with a hand blender.  Season to taste and put the soup back on the heat.  Return the chipotle and simmer gently for a few more minutes.  Just remember not to serve the chipotle!

Serve with crusty bed and garnish the soup with bacon strips.

Fairtrade chocolate brownie cake with Bailey’s butter cream.

As soon as the words had left my mouth, I felt deep and utter shame.  What had I become?  Who was this slightly overweight individual who looked for opportunities to terrorize his arteries with butter and chocolate milk?  Why had I let myself turn into someone who could conceive of such a sentence.  Brownies are not boring.

I know, I know.  The sentence left my mouth before I’d had time to think of it.  N managed to barely conceal her disbelief behind a veil of disapproval.  The dog looked at me as if to say, “Shame on you.”  The fact is, that food blogging can push a person to look for more and more unique food ideas.  Not a bad thing altogether, but it can make a food lover look beyond the simple things and that is where sentences like the one I blurted out, can find themselves released into the open kitchen air.

N wanted to know why I’d used my brownie recipe to construct a cake?  Why had I made a butter cream filling and sliced it up?  Essentially, why had I not just made brownies?  My answer was unforgivable.

If you’ll continue to read, however, I can assure you that what follows is a chocolate-filled delight and one with a conscience.

I used a favourite brownie recipe and simply cut the whole baked brownie in half so that I could sandwich the butter cream.  I used Fairtrade sugar and Fairtrade chocolate and it only took a matter of minutes to whisk up the brownie batter.  A splash of Bailey’s Irish Cream liqueur gave everything a new dimension.  Brownies are fun and delicious and so many things to so many people.  If you aren’t up for something like a cake filled with Bailey’s butter cream, I can highly recommend my brownie recipe as it is.  You’ll still end up with moist, rich brownies that have a thin, flaky crust and a chewy centre; and there’s nothing boring about that.

Faritrade chocolate brownie cake with Bailey’s butter cream.

200g Fairtrade caster sugar

100g Fairtrade dark chocolate

3 eggs

70g pecan nuts

50g butter

50g plain flour

1 tspoon baking powder

(For the Bailey’s butter cream)

200g icing sugar

120g butter

50ml Bailey’s Irish Cream liqueur

1 tblspoon cocoa powder

Melt the chocolate and butter together in a bowl.  Next, whisk the eggs and the caster sugar together in another bowl and then mix in the flour and baking powder.  Time for the chocolate!  Pour it into the flour and egg mixture and then mix in the pecans.

Line an eight inch tin with baking paper and pour the brownie batter into it.  Bake the brownie at 140 degrees Celsius for forty-five minutes.  I baked mine at 120 degrees because I used my fan oven.

When the brownie has cooled completely, cut it in half ready to assemble the cake.

Beat the butter, icing sugar, cocoa powder and Bailey’s with an electric hand mixer until they have formed a fluffy and light butter cream.  Spread over the top of one of the brownie pieces and then place the other half on top.  Fairtrade chocolate brownie cake with Bailey’s butter cream complete.  Cut off a chunk and switch your phone to silent.  You may be some time…

Don’t shoot the chef!

Today I had one of those moments when everything was perfect and I didn’t want time to move forward.  Curse you Father Time!  Have you ever been eating something that was so good that you stopped eating for a moment to take it all in?  The taste, the texture, the aroma?  Everything being just the way you want it and sadly coming closer to ending with every bite?  What else can you do, but continue eating and be thankful for the pleasure?  Boy, oh boy, was I a silent and contented eater.  I felt like Johnny Depp in that film where he eats the best puerco pibil he’s ever tasted and shoots the chef when he’s finished because “it’s just too good.”  Relax, no food bloggers were harmed in the making of this dish.  Ah, the dish…

A few years ago, I happened to catch a bit of a Gary Rhodes programme that was showing seasonal recipes.  If you’ve ever watched Gary Rhodes cook, you’ll know that he’s a perfectly nice chap with reliable recipes.  He also tends to be quite linear in his approach to food.  Let’s just say that Gary probably considers wearing odd socks to be a rebellious act.  Despite this, I was captivated by his recipe that day.  I immediately took to the kitchen to prepare my own take on what I considered to be a very promising little dish.

Me and N were hooked after that.  I made the dish regularly and tried different ingredients for fun and variety.  It’s been almost three years since I made it, but this week, I bought some duck eggs and my thoughts turned to the recipe I’d fallen in love with three winters ago.  It was time to make ducky egg pots.

Ducky egg pots (adapted from Gary Rhodes)

4 fresh duck eggs

200ml double cream

1 leek (sliced)

100g Cheddar cheese

4 slices prosciutto di Parma

butter

sea salt

black pepper

First of all, you need some ramekins.  This recipe will comfortably make four servings, so you need four ramekins.  Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius and have your ramekins ready to fill.

Fry the sliced leek in butter on a medium heat until softened, but not browned.  Season the leeks to taste.  Set aside to cool slightly.  Next, pour just enough of the cream into each ramekin to cover the bottom.  Tear up the ham into little pieces and divide between each ramekin (one slice of ham per portion).  Divide the leek between the pots after that.

Press plenty of grated cheese on top of the leeks leaving at least a centimetre at the top of the ramekin for the egg to be poured in.  I like to grind some black pepper onto the cheese before cracking the egg onto it.  If you press the centre of the cheese down to make a little dent, the yolk will sit nicely in the middle.  (It’s doesn’t affect the cooking, but it’s pleasing to the eye).

So, without further ado, crack your duck egg into the centre.  Finally, pour some cream over each egg until it reaches the edge of the ramekin.  The cream forms a barrier over the egg to stop it cooking too quickly.

Place on a foil-covered baking tray and slide into the centre of the oven for about fifteen minutes.  My fan oven cooks the egg pots quite quickly, so I check on them every few minutes.  The top should be bubbling away and the yolk and white cooked through.  Test one if you’re unsure, by gently digging a teaspoon into the white.  Don’t worry of some of the cream bubbles over the top.

It’s okay to let the egg pots cool for a couple of minutes before serving.  The content will be gooey and hot.  The delight that you’ll get from digging through the creamy layers and letting the yolk and cheese ooze onto the leeks is immense.  The salty ham seasons the cream in the bottom of the pot and in return, the cream stops the ham drying out.  Everything becomes one indulgent dairy dance.

Yes you can dunk bread into them.  Yes you can be playful and make buttered soldiers for them.  Goodness, you could even mix it up with Chorizo in the bottom instead of ham and parmesan or your favourite cheese instead of Cheddar.  Truth is, this is my favourite incarnation of the dish.  I prefer it with duck eggs because of the rich flavour that you get from them, but eggs from hens work well too.

It’s taken a lot for me to share this recipe with you.  I have to admit that I thought about holding out on you, but I just couldn’t, dear reader.  These little ducky egg pots are just too good.  All I ask is that if you decide to try them, and you too have that perfect moment, you won’t come looking for me!

The game isn’t played on paper.

Some things just don’t look right on paper.  Some partnerships shouldn’t work, but they do.  Unlikely pairings and new combinations keep cooking interesting.  In life, however, we can find surprises in the people we meet.

Take my wife.  Heehee!  Joking aside, we are so different.  So different that it’s scary sometimes.  My spontaneity balanced by her need to plan ahead.  My love of the summer heat.  Her joy in the cosiness of winter.  My love of dark chocolate and her taste for white chocolate.  It’s all there.  The differences stack up whenever I think about our personalities and tastes.  Of course, balance is everything and many a sentimental word has been written about the complimentary nature of opposites.

You’ll be glad to hear that I’m not too sentimental and that my train of thought is actually chugging towards nothing soppier than a salad dressing.

When I buy a butternut squash, I always plan two dishes.  One of the dishes I’d decided to make recently was a roasted butternut squash and rocket salad.  For someone who insists they aren’t into salad, I sure am making enough of them.  This is one that I tried before, but I made a dressing with far too much vinegar and I wasn’t happy with it.  This recipe is my attempt to right that earlier wrong.  You didn’t taste it, but believe me, I need to make things right and share the outcome with you.

Butternut squash adds beautiful colour to dishes and though some criticise it for being on the bland side, I think it lends itself well to dishes with bigger flavours.  This salad is so easy to make.  You may not have thought to pair squash with rocket, but in fact, my dressing for the salad is what I find most unusual.  It’s an odd combination of ingredients.  It just doesn’t look right on paper; on screen.  It shouldn’t work, but it does.

Roasted butternut squash & rocket salad 

Half of a butternut squash (cubed)

70g rocket (arugula)

1 sweet pointed pepper (sliced)

1 red onion (quartered)

1 tspoon dried chilli flakes

sea salt

black pepper

(For the dressing)

3 tblspoons olive oil

2 tblspoons cider vinegar

1 tblspoon light soy sauce

1 tblspoon balsamic cream (or balsamic vinegar)

To roast the squash.  Spread it out on a baking tray with the onion and drizzle olive oil over.  Sprinkle plenty of sea salt on and add the chilli flakes and toss to coat the cubes.  Roast in the centre of the oven on the highest heat until the squash is beginning to colour and soften.  This may be about fifteen minutes, but keep checking on it and tossing the squash to ensure even cooking.  The squash should maintain its shape.  We don’t want it to turn to mush.

Meanwhile, prepare the dressing.  Put all the ingredients in a small bowl stir continuously until emulsified.  Adjust to taste.  It shouldn’t be too sharp.  When the squash is out of the oven and has cooled slightly, add to the rocket with the sweet pepper and toss.  Dress the salad, add more seasoning to taste and toss gently before serving.  Try not to break the cubes of squash when you are mixing the salad leaves.  A nice touch would be to serve this with some toasted pine nuts thrown in.  It works!

Me? At sea? Heehee!

My brother is far away in the sun and I can’t help feeling that I’ve lived this moment before; rain is driving against my windows and I’m about to blog in an effort to bring warmth and sunlight into my day.  I’ll count my blessings and give thanks that I’m not a Cretan fisherman.  Now those boys see some weather.

Granted, I’ve been trapped in a snow drift, roasted alive on an airless train through the mountains, drenched in tropical downpours and even caught in a thunderstorm on a boat heading down the Mekong.  However, if you’ve made a living on the sea surrounding the beautiful Greek islands, it’s a good bet you’ll have some stories to tell.  There’s a romantic image of the Cretan people battling the landscape and the elements and at the same time living with and becoming part of them.  We’re a people known for our passion, yes, but also for a stoicism rarely seen in the pampered generations that have come to the fore in the late 20th Century.  Could I brave everything that nature threw at these determined men?  Not a chance.  I’ve spent too long drinking chocolate milk, sitting close to radiators and hailing cabs.

I may have been born in Crete, but my father (a baker) would be surprised to hear me expressing a desire to fish the waters around our homeland.  Less surprising is my love of Cretan fish soup.  As with a lot of the simple dishes of Greece, it has remained unchanged for centuries and was borne of necessity.  Fisherman would cook this beautiful soup on their boats using only tomatoes, onions and some of their catch.  The long, slow cooking would disolve the tiny bones of smaller fish and produce a thick and hearty soup to warm the men at sea.  It’s a soup that has warmed my bones this very evening as our house has done all the stoic withstanding of the elements normally reserved for the wisened face of a Cretan fisherman.  Perhaps it will comfort you too.

Cretan fisherman’s soup

250g small fish

250g chopped tomatoes

400ml fish stock

1 onion (sliced)

3 carrots (sliced)

4 tblspoons olive oil

black pepper

This recipe will make enough for two large bowls.  You can use any fish for this soup.  I used some salmon, smoked haddock and a some cod.  Remove as many of the bones as you can before you begin and cut the fish into little chunks.

Cover the fish with boiling water and simmer for about fifteen to twenty minutes.  Skim any foam off the surface and then add the tomatoes, onions and carrots.  Cover and cook gently on a low heat for two or three hours.  After the first hour, you may want to add fish stock.  I find that the liquid reduces and that topping it up with fish stock is a great way of seasoning the soup.  It’s unlikely that you’ll need to add salt, but taste the soup after two hours and season if necessary.

You’ll end up with a very rich, red soup full of soft carrots and fish that has become a part of the broth.  It’s best served with big chunks of fluffy bread so that you can soak up the olive oil.

This is the soup in it’s simplest form.  My mum makes an awesome fish soup that includes rice to bulk it up.  You could add herbs to this soup and a squeeze of lemon to freshen it up, but I love how wonderful the soup is with so few ingredients.  To me, it’s alchemy.