Greek food tastes best the day after it’s made: The two-day tray.

Thank goodness that mum learned to cook lots of Greek dishes while in Crete.  It allowed me and my brother to keep our links with Greece during a confusing and rather chilly time.  Moving to England was strange and the comfort of familiar flavours was important.

One of the dishes that has graced mum’s dinner table over the years is stuffed vegetables.  Mum would spend time preparing the mixture of beef and rice with herbs and then cook a range of peppers and tomatoes in a roasting tin until the aromas filled the house with the memory of warmer days.

As children, the variety was a big draw and the colours brought excitement to the table.  For once, vegetables were the centre of the meal.  We didn’t care what mum served the stuffed vegetables with.  Often we’d have them on their own or with a salad.  They are quite filling and cheap to make; another reason why mum made them regularly.  The best part though, was knowing that we’d be eating them the next day too.  Mum always made what I came to regard as a “two-day tray”.  God bless you, mum!

Something I’ve enjoyed making is spanakorizo, which is a mixture of rice, spinach and tomatoes.  It makes a lovely side dish, but I decided to use the spanakorizo to stuff some tomatoes and peppers and roast them in the oven like mum used to.  We ate the vegetables over two days and really enjoyed them.  I hope you do too!

Spanakorizo-stuffed vegetables

4 peppers (halved)

3 beef tomatoes

350g long grain rice

350g spinach

1 tin chopped tomatoes

chicken stock

1 tblspoon dried oregano

1 tblspoon fresh mint (chopped)

1 tbslpoon tomato puree

olive oil

sea salt

pepper

Cook the rice in the chicken stock until it has absorbed the liquid and cooked through.  Add the chopped tomatoes and oregano and bring to the boil.  Add the spinach and tomato puree and simmer until the liquid has reduced.

At this point, I usually pour in a good glug of olive oil and stir it through the rice.  I also season the rice with sea salt to taste.  Grind plenty of black pepper over the rice and mix in.  Finally, stir in the chopped fresh mint.  Now you’re ready to stuff the vegetables.

Cut the peppers in half and drizzle some oil in each half before adding spoonfuls of the spanakorizo to them.  Cut a lid off each of the beef tomatoes and scoop out the seeds and flesh.  Drizzle some oil inside and then fill with the spanakorizo.

Roast the vegetables in the middle of the oven at 160C until the rice is beginning to brown and go crispy on top.  I love olive oil, so I usually drizzle all of the vegetables with more oil and season them again before they roast.  As the juices in the tin collect, baste the vegetables every now and again.  This keeps the flavours in your vegetables.

If you want the rice on top of the tomatoes to crisp up, just take the lids off for a while in the oven.

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Caramel monster cake.

The first Halloween at The Last Piece of Cake!  I’ve been determined to make something special for Halloween, but I promise to spare you the awful puns and themed vocabulary.

The marketing monsters have really cranked Halloween up in England and not a shop is without a splash of orange, a little purple or a cobweb in the window.  Yes, I think America would be proud of the influence it has had on Halloween festivities here.  Soon, however, the plastic spiders, the chattering skulls and glow-in-the-dark witch’s fingers will be packed away and quickly replaced with snowy scenes and glitter-covered dangly decorations.

Swiftly then, let’s get onto the good stuff!  As I’ve mentioned before, my mum is The Queen of Puddings.  It’s not an official title and to be fair, it’s likely that somewhere in the world, there is a genuine Queen of Puddings who would become rather flustered if she were to hear me bestowing the title on my mum in a food blog.  The fact is, my mum lives for everything that is sweet in this world and far from simply gorging on it, she also creates a fair amount of sugary awesomeness for her adoring family.

This week, mum made some very chocolatey brownies to welcome us back from a trip to London.  Yesterday, she visited with the rest of the brownies because there were too many for her to get through.  You can see how hard my life is, can’t you?

My childhood was one long list of amazing birthday cakes and scrumptious bakes as mum enjoyed being creative and serving up beautiful, warm, joy fresh from the oven.  Birthday cakes ranged from wonderfully iced squares with our name and age to WWF (as it was then) wrestling rings complete with sugar laces for ropes and marshmallows for turnbuckles.  Whatever me and my brother were into at that time, mum would find a way to make a cake from that theme.  She did it with so much love and it has always touched me that she used her creativity in such a wonderful way.  It’s something I’d like to do for my family and I’ve got a feeling that this caramel monster cake will be making an appearance beyond Halloween.

I’d spotted the red food colouring weeks ago during a re-shuffle in my ingredient cupboard.  I knew there and then that the cake I’d make for Halloween would be bright red, but I didn’t know what kind of cake it would be.  Where to start?  Well, red velvet cake is pretty simple to make, but doesn’t really taste of anything.  I wanted a cake that was tasty and not just a novelty because of how it was decorated.  My mum’s cakes always tasted fantastic, regardless of the theme.  Why make a cake that isn’t full of flavour?

For some reason, the internet is awash with recipes involving caramel and salt combinations recently.  No complaints from me, but I’m not sure where the trend has come from.  I love caramel and I thought it might be cool to cover the cake with caramel frosting.  Now that would be tasty!  Plenty of salt crystals would keep me happy and stop me from reaching for the peanut butter (which I think would be a brilliant base for some frosting).  I didn’t want a peanut flavour, I wanted pure caramel.  It was an experiment from start to finish, but I’m happy with this little monster.  Maybe I can scare away the trick-or-treaters with it!

Caramel monster cake

200g self-raising flour

200g butter (softened)

100g dark muscovado sugar

100g demerara sugar

4 eggs

2 tblspoons milk

1 tblspoon ground cinnamon

2 tspoons red food colouring

1 tspoon baking powder

(For the frosting)

1 tin (390g) sweetened condensed milk

100g demerara sugar

60g dark muscovado sugar

2 tblspoons butter

2 tspoons red food colouring

1 tspoon vanilla extract

The cake itself is similar to a basic sponge cake.  The method is certainly the same.  Begin with a bowl of the flour and baking powder and cinnamon.  Add the eggs, milk and sugar and beat until smooth with an electric hand mixer.  Add the food colouring.  You may need to add more to get a really good red.

Divide the mixture between two 20cm sandwich tins lined with baking paper.  Bake in the centre of the oven at 180C for about twenty-five minutes.  The middle should be springy and a skewer should come out clean when the cakes are done.  Cool them on a wire rack until ready to decorate.

To make the frosting, heat all of the ingredients in a small pan until the butter has melted and the sugar dissolved.  Stir constantly to avoid burning the pan.  Make sure the heat is not too high so as to prevent the sugar from burning.  I was careless and burned the bottom of the pan- what can I say?  I’m a genius.

Bring the caramel to the boil and cook for two minutes.  Take it off the heat and continue to stir as it cools.  At this point, I sprinkled lots of sea salt into the pan for extra texture and the lovely saltiness that complements caramel so well.  The caramel will begin to set so you need to start working with it while it is still warm, but not too hot.  I frosted between the two cakes to make a sandwich and then coated the entire cake once assembled.  All that was left to do was to add the mouth and eyes.  I used mini marshmallows for the teeth and found some Halloween jelly sweets for the eyes.  A final sprinkle of sea salt, and the caramel monster cake was complete.

How to ruin a low GI recipe.

I made a lovely low GI recipe and what was the first thing I did?  Buried everything under sugar.  Well done, Dimitri.

The glycaemic index is a ranking of carbohydrates in different foods and how quickly they are absorbed into the bloodstream.  Foods that release their energy slowly usually have a rank of fifty-five or less and are therefore low GI foods.  Apart from a lower calorie intake, the benefits of eating low GI foods is that your body will have energy for longer periods and a reduced risk of health problems.  Sounds good, doesn’t it?

As I’ve said before, I’m not a breakfast person, but this recipe has changed that…at least until the batter runs out.  I found a really cool low GI recipe for hotcakes and thought it would be fun to try one morning.  Of course, the original recipe lasted all of three minutes.  Well, this blog isn’t called The Last Piece of Fruit!  I wouldn’t have any readers if it was.  Truth is, I have a responsibility to you and to my taste buds and I take that responsibility very seriously.  Tasty food and nothing less.

I’ll certainly be writing about a true low GI recipe in the next few weeks, but until then, why not start a Saturday morning with a batch of these fruity hotcakes?  A jolly name for a jolly breakfast.

Fruity hotcakes

800g Greek yoghurt

280g wholemeal self-raising flour

250g frozen forest fruits

130g apricot jam

3 egg whites

1 egg yolk

 1 tspoon vanilla extract

Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until soft and fluffy.  In another bowl, mix the flour, yoghurt, fruit, vanilla, jam and the egg yolk.  Once combined, fold in the egg whites.

To cook the hotcakes, heat a little vegetable oil in a pan and drop spoonfuls of the batter in.  Let the hotcakes fry gently and turn them over as they begin to brown.  To completely ruin the low GI qualities of the hotcakes, sprinkle with lots of caster sugar and serve hot.

Deeply spiced, deeply missed.

I’ve spent all day wishing that I was back in bed.  I’m not well and all I’ve thought about at work is being snug in my cosy bed.  Arriving home, my wife told me to go straight to bed and get some rest.  Now I don’t want to go to bed.  It’s too early.  There’s only one thing that I want and I can’t have it, so I want it more than anything else!

Chilli con carne.  No wait, come back!  I’m not talking about any old chilli con carne.  I’m not talking about the minced-up slop that gets dolloped onto baked potatoes, or the stuff that comes in tins and might as well be dog food.  What my ailing physical shell is crying out for is some deeply spiced, meaty chilli with plenty of satisfying mouthfuls of flavour and comfort.  What I want is my beloved chunky chilli con carne, and sadly, there’s no chance of me having that wish fulfilled.

I made the chilli last week and thoroughly enjoyed it because I don’t make it often.  There are some things that I can make quickly, but chilli con carne is not one of them.  I really take my time, slow things right down to snail pace.  We’re talking seriously slow food.

The night before I make it, I cover the beef in spices and garlic and put it in the fridge.  The next day, I pile up the flavour and give the chilli lots of depth and a long, slow cook.  By the time it’s ready to eat, the meat is tender, full of flavour and so good that it can be served alone.  As it is, my preference is to pair it with some beautifully buttery mashed potato.  This is by no means a traditional partner to chilli con carne, but it’s something I remember from my childhood and it’s such a perfect way to make sure that every last drop of chilli is mopped up.  The chilli and mash combo is so comforting and hearty that it’s no wonder my immune system is calling out for it.  A shame then, that all I have is the memory of last week and a recipe for my ultimate chilli con carne that may just knock your socks off.

My ultimate chunky chilli con carne

400g stewing beef (roughly chopped)

1 tin chopped tomatoes (400g)

1 tin red kidney bins (400g)

1 red onion (sliced)

1 Spanish onion (sliced)

3 cloves garlic

4 tblspoons dried oregano

2 tblspoons chilli flakes

2 chipotle chillis

1 red chilli (sliced)

2 tblspoons coriander seeds

2 tblspoons cumin seeds

2 tblspoons cumin powder

1 bunch fresh coriander

1 tblspoon tomato puree

1 tspoon cinnamon

olive oil

sea salt

Put the beef into a plastic container ready to go into the fridge.  Add the cinnamon, two tablespoons of oregano, two tablespoons of dried chilli flakes, two roughly chopped garlic cloves and a teaspoon of cumin powder.  Mix thoroughly and then seal the container.  Leave in the fridge overnight if possible.  A few hours will do if you don’t have the time.

The next day, let the meat come back to room temperature before cooking it.  Dry fry the cumin and coriander seeds in a hot pan, but don’t allow them to burn.  Toasting them will release their flavour.  Grind them to a powder and set aside.

Brown the beef in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and then add both of the onions.  Tip the ground coriander and cumin seeds into the pot, add another clove of garlic and stir.  Allow the onions to soften and cook through without burning.  Add another couple of tablespoons of oregano and the red chilli.

Next tip the tomatoes in and stir.  Allow to cook for five or six minutes and then stir in the kidney beans and the tomato puree.  Add another teaspoon of cumin powder.  Finally, pour in just enough water to cover the beef and add the chipotles.  Make sure that everything is well mixed together.  Cover and cook on a low heat for an hour or so, stirring every now and again so that nothing sticks or burns.

The beef needs to cook slowly and become soft.  Once it is tender, take the lid off the pan and cook the chilli for another hour to allow the sauce to reduce and thicken.  If you’re into coriander like I am, chop a bunch and stir it into the chilli just before serving.  Don’t forget to remove the chipotles before tucking in.

A frangipane recipe for tough guys.

The stereotypical hunk: tall, dark, handsome and able to make a darn good frangipane.  I know what you’re thinking and the answer is no, I don’t quite fit the bill.  I’m short and my brother reckons he got all the looks.  Still, I rarely burn in the sun and my frangipane tartlets are as good as any you’ll find in these parts.  I can pretty much guarantee that last statement since I live in a part of the world that does not tolerate anything that is less than truly manly.  You’ll be surprised to learn that frangipane tartlets don’t rank very highly in the manly charts.  I know, I was as surprised as you.

A pint of bitter, a minced beef and onion pie, rugby and some sporadic sexism clock up way more in the manly stakes.  Funny then, that the top chefs in the world and some of the top pastry chefs are male.  There has always been a disparity between those who cook for a living and those who cook at home.  The former may be a cook with a modest repertoire and a list of previous employers longer than the menu of his current traditional English pub, or he might be a professional line cook with a good grounding in French cuisine and hopes of becoming his own boss one day.  Both at different ends of the spectrum, but equally understood as being dignified in their own way.

Then there’s the home cook.  Views on the male food enthusiast have begun to change over the last ten years.  For many, dad’s role was to carve meat and, if the weather permitted, cook a variety of sausages and burgers rather badly outside while the neighbours called the fire brigade.  The idea of men in the kitchen has been a source of mirth among housewives for decades.  Men not knowing their way around a kitchen, using every pot, pan and plate in the house to make even the simplest of meals and the dreadful offerings of heart-felt dross that grace tables every Valentine’s Day.  Sadly, some of these stereotypes have a firm historical truth.  In 2011, however, things are very different indeed.

As women have found their independence, so too have men found it necessary to fend for themselves in the kitchen.  Without writing an essay on social history, I think it’s safe to say that men and women have spent the last forty years re-defining their roles and the kitchen is one area that has changed dramatically.  It’s acceptable for men to cook for the family, women who lack any form of culinary knowledge are not embarrassed to say so, television chefs continue to make home-cooking a popular past time among young men and televised cookery competitions have no doubt inspired countless adolescents to pursue a career in a professional kitchen.

No matter how much things have changed, there is one thing that I suspect will not.  Your average bloke will not be boasting to the lads about his latest frangipane tartlet recipe over a pint of lager and a packet of pork scratchings.  Even with a wife and baby boy, a decent amount of self-esteem and the ability to eat my own body-weight in pizza, I feel slightly self-conscious about posting a recipe for apricot and almond frangipane tartlets.  They’re a delicate balance of flavour and texture and I think it’s impossible to make them at all manly.  Anyone for mangipanes?  Frangimans?  No, I didn’t think so.  Therefore, if my friends ask me what I’ve been making, I’ll just say something like beef brisket.

Almond and apricot frangipane tartlerts

250g shortcrust pastry

1 jar apricot jam

125g butter

125g icing sugar

125g ground almonds

40g plain flour

1 tspoon almond extract

whole almonds for decoration

Roll out the pastry and cut to the size of your tartlet trays.  Line each tray with the pastry and prick the base with a fork all over.  Trim the edges and place in the fridge until you’ve made the frangipane mixture.

To make the mixture, beat the butter and sugar together until fluffy and light.  Add the eggs and beat until well combined.  Next, add the almond extract and the ground almonds.  Beat again and finally add the flour.  Beat one last time and don’t worry about the mixture having small lumps in it.

Spread jam over the base of the pastry and then pour the frangipane mixture over the top.  Don’t fill the tartlet tins to the top because the mixture will puff up in the oven and will ooze over the sides.  Leave at least a centimetre between the mixture and the top of the pastry case.  Decorate with flaked or whole almonds.

Bake in the oven at 200C for between twenty and thirty minutes.  The top will be golden and firm when the tartlets are done.  Lower the heat if the tartlets begin to burn and make sure that you leave them to cool before serving.  The jam will be extremely hot.

Where’s the treacle?

Is the following recipe any good?  Well, put it this way; it’s so good, that my wife went back for a secret slice and accidentally destroyed my beautiful, sugary creation.  It slid off the plate as N was putting it back (with an unnoticable slither missing) and was sadly reduced to a crumpled wreck.  It wasn’t intentional, but the fact remains: this is a treacle tart you’ll go back to again and (if it’s still in tact) again.

As a child, treacle tart held no appeal for me.  It was always served hot (a no-no for Dimitri) and didn’t look particularly exciting.  Nothing looks as exciting as chocolate cake.  Even the name of this super-sweet pudding seemed strange to me.  What on Earth is treacle and why would anyone eat it? 

As an adult, I’ve spent time discovering the food that I rejected at earlier intervals in my youth.  The dishes eaten by my parents and grandparents, the food that was popular before the advent of television chefs and giant supermarkets.  My mum is the Queen of Puddings and describes her favourites with delight and a wonderfully descriptive style.  Listening to her describe a good treacle tart is enough to inspire anyone to make this classic pudding.  The ingredients are simple, widely available and for me, surprising.  For a start, where’s the treacle?

Perfect treacle tart

350g golden syrup

250g shortcrust pastry

125g wholemeal breadcrumbs

125g double cream

1 tspoon vanilla extract

Roll out the pastry and use it to line a 20cm cake tin.  Trim the edges and prick the base with a fork repeatedly.  Put the tin into the fridge for half an hour and set aside the pastry trimmings.

Meanwhile, put the breadcrumbs into a medium bowl and pour in the syrup.  Add the cream and the vanilla extract and mix well.

Use the pastry trimmings to make some shapes that you can place on top of the tart before baking.

After thirty minutes, take the cake tin out of the fridge, pour the mixture into it and place your pastry shapes on top.  Bake on the middle shelf of the oven at 190 degrees Celsius for about thirty-five minutes.  The tart will be golden and just set when ready.

If you value your tongue, let the tart cool for some time before attempting to taste it.  When baking, the tart itself is hotter than the surface of the sun.  I like to serve it with ice-cream, but some double cream would be good too.

If you decide to get a sneaky slice when nobody is looking, be careful not to let the tart slide off the plate.  I forgave my lovely wife, but I got the impression that she felt the loss of the tart more deeply than the pang of guilt.  I don’t blame her!

Hip to be square…once in a while.

A dumping ground for leftovers and a chef’s favourite for Monday night specials, soup can be a disappointment if made without love.  Call me sentimental (at your own risk), but no amount of butter can make up for soup that has been made without love.

This has nothing to do with speed, however.  Making soup need not be a lengthy or laboured process.  It should be a fun and essentially satisfying experience.  It should begin with simple, fresh ingredients and end in a bowl that provides sustenance and a little of the season’s best.

I’ve mentioned my sinful tampering with perfectly good recipes, but today I wanted to show that I too can create something simple and honest.  A bowl of something that is proud of the ingredients it contains.  A spoonful of something that doesn’t need dressing up.  A mouthful of something that tastes exactly as you’d expect.  I’m serious!

The nights are drawing in.  The temperature is falling.  Salads just aren’t called for.  The season of soup has begun.  My love of chestnut mushrooms means it is time for me to share my version of a classic soup.  No twists and no surprises.  Just bags of flavour.

Classic cream of mushroom soup.

500g chestnut mushrooms (sliced)

1 pint chicken stock

quarter of a pint of semi-skimmed milk

40g butter

2 tblspoons plain flour

tonnes of black pepper

sea salt

a little double cream to serve

First of all, you’ll notice that there’s no onion, no garlic and no alcohol in the ingredients list.  This soup tastes of one thing and one thing only- mushrooms.  It’s creamy, it’s tasty and it needs no craziness.

Melt the butter in a soup pan and fry the sliced mushrooms on a high heat until they begin to brown.  At this point I like to grind lots and lots of black pepper over the mushrooms.  You can do this to taste.  I like a lot.  Don’t add salt yet.  If your butter is burning, add a drop of olive oil.

Next, add the flour and coat the mushrooms.  Cook it for a couple of minutes and then pour in the stock and milk.  Bring to the boil and then simmer for a few minutes.  You may need to whisk the soup to get rid of the lumps of flour.

Take the soup off the heat and blend with a hand blender.  Don’t make the soup too smooth; it’s nice to have the texture of the mushrooms.  Place the soup back on the heat and add salt if necessary to taste.

Ladle into bowls and pour some double cream in to serve.

Natural sugars don’t count- part 2: Raspberry & almond smoothie.

Some foods should not be tampered with.  Fresh, juicy tomatoes; a little salt, maybe some olive oil, but nothing more should detract from them.  Freshly made sweet pancakes; fresh lemon juice and a sprinkling of sugar to make them perfect.  Freshly baked bread; some good butter is all you need.

My problem, is that I mess things up by over-complicating them.  I look for new ways to enliven familiar dishes.  Putting twists on classic meals gives me a secret buzz, but inevitably ruins the meals I’m trying to bring to life.  There’s a reason that some things become “classic”.  They were good in the first place and they don’t require a tune up.  Why can’t I just leave things alone?

You know what I’m talking about, right?  That unnecessary topping on an otherwise perfect pizza.  One ingredient too many in the smoothie that would have been fine.  It’s sad to say, but I’m so guilty of messing up perfectly good combinations that it’s a wonder anybody in my family is still willing to try my creations.

There is, however, one bit of tampering that I don’t feel guilty about and one that yields good results every time.  It’s what I could refer to as “The Excess Sugar Technique”.  Spotting a legitimate opportunity for sugar, I simply crank up the amount until it is sweet enough to qualify as a dessert and therefore sweet enough for me.  Exhibit A; my raspberry and almond smoothie.

I realised that smoothies could be enjoyed in a way that is not really intended or endorsed by those with an interest in health.  It wasn’t long before I was having a ‘treat smoothie’ every now and again, instead of the usual healthy glass of fruit and yoghurt.  Far be it from me to recommend this as a regular alternative to your protein-packed blended wonders.  Instead, the next time you are feeling subversive, reach for the caster sugar and load up.

Raspberry & almond smoothie

300ml semi-skimmed milk

2 scoops raspberry ripple ice-cream

150g frozen raspberries

4 tblspoons caster sugar

2 tblspoons Greek yoghurt

1 tspoon almond extract

Blend everything together until smooth.  I sometimes add a couple of soft Amaretti biscuits before blending, but this is optional.