As fresh as it gets.

Man cannot live on cake alone.  I’ve tried.  To keep things fresh and light for the summer, I’ve been mixing up the evening meals to include things that make use of the herbs in my garden.  Mint, lavender, parsley, sage, thyme, Greek oregano and lemon thyme are all bursting into life right now, so it would be silly not to take advantage.

The recipe I’m sharing with you today is a far cry from the chocolate craziness that I’ve thrown your way before.  It’s really delicious, a doddle to prepare and it goes well with so many things that you’ll easily be able to make it a part of at least one meal.  All you need are some fresh herbs and a few minutes to make this classic crowd pleaser!

Tabouleh

4 tblspoons fresh mint (finely chopped)

1 bunch fresh parsley (finely chopped)

100g cous cous

half a cucumber (chopped)

1 onion (finely chopped)

4 ripe tomatoes (chopped)

juice of half a lemon

4 tblspoons extra virgin olive oil

sea salt

black pepper

I used cous cous to make my tabouleh which is a deal-breaker for many people.  Bulgur wheat is used in a traditional tabouleh.  Cous cous was all that I had to hand on the day that I made this and I’ve no regrets.  I also added a little more olive oil than stated in my recipe, but it’s really up to you to season this beautiful salad how you like it.

I cooked the cous cous for a few minutes in boiling water until soft and set it aside to cool.  I then lined a bowl with mixed leaves.  In another bowl I added the cous cous and the rest of the ingredients.  I gave them a good mix and kept tasting as I seasoned everything.  A little more lemon juice here, a bit of oil there…it was fun getting a nice balance.

Once everything was nicely combined, I tipped the tabouleh carefully into the bowl lined with salad leaves.

You can serve the tabouleh immediately or cover it and leave it in the fridge for an hour or so like I did.  The flavours were wonderful.  This is a seriously uplifting dish and one that benefits from the use of ultra fresh ingredients.  I can’t wait to serve this with some grilled lamb and lots of pita.

Natural sugars don’t count- Part 3: Banana muffins with honey cream.

I’m not sure if you know this, but bananas are boring.  Who am I to criticise Nature’s most popular yellow creation?  Well, I’m someone who really loves food and I’ve eaten my share of bananas, but I always come to the same conclusion: bananas (despite their nutritional value) are incredibly boring.  Something must be done.

Banana fritters with syrup?  Yes.  Chocolate and banana cake with peanut butter?  Yup.  Muesli with slices of banana on top?  Are you serious?  Never!  To bring a little sugary fun to the dullest fruit on the stand, I decided to make some banana muffins and add a little something to perk them up.  This is such an easy recipe, so if you’ve got any spare bananas and you’re sick of smoothies, give this a go!

Banana muffins with honey cream

4 bananas

300g plain flour

200g caster sugar

1 egg (beaten)

65g melted butter

1 tspoon bicarbonate of soda

1 tspoon baking powder

1/2 tspoon salt

4 tblspoons double cream

2 tblspoons clear honey

Begin by sifting all of the dry ingredients into a bowl and set them aside.  Next, mash up the bananas and mix them with the sugar, butter and eggs.  In a large bowl, combine the banana mixture with the flour mixture.  Keep stirring until there are no dry bits in the bowl.

I told you this was an easy recipe.  Pour the muffin mixture into muffins tins.  Fill each about halfway because the muffins will rise in the oven.  Slide them into the centre of the oven for about twenty minutes at 180C.  When they’ve risen and are golden, they’re ready to rock.

To make the honey cream, whisk the cream until it is quite thick and then briskly stir in the honey.

Once the muffins have come out of the oven and cooled, use a teaspoon to scoop out a little section from the top of each one.  Now pipe the cream (or dollop it with a spoon) into the hole you’ve made.  What?  You thought there was more?  Nope.  Now it’s time to tuck in!  Enjoy!

Baklava.

Who needs a snappy title when you’re posting about baklava?  It’s the sweetest, most indulgent thing I make and it’s about time I stopped holding out on you.

Baklava has many variations, but essentially, it is crushed nuts between layers of filo pastry soaked in syrup or honey.  You can find baklava everywhere from Syria to Serbia served with tea or the thickest, darkest coffee you can imagine.  Baklava seems to have remained in a number of cultures after the spread of the Ottoman Empire and I’m happy to say that the Greeks continued to make it long after the invaders were gone.  Head to a zaxaroplasteion (a bakery that makes and sells lots of sweet pastries and biscuits) and you’ll have a choice of rich and glossy delights.

Recently, my local community organised an International Night at our parish hall.  The idea was to invite everyone in the area to bring food from their culture and share it.  There was African drumming, a food quiz, cheese tasting, chocolate tasting for children and of course, food from around the world!  It was a great evening.  The highlight for me and my son (The Tomato Monster) was definitely the gołąbki (Polish cabbage rolls).  We shared them and were devastated when they were all gone.  N was happy because she didn’t have any trouble getting him to sleep.  A belly full of Polish food ensured a restful night!

Last year I took along a big pot of beef stifado and a tray of baklava.  This year, I was pushed for time and decided to take my orzo and tomato bake and another tray of baklava.  You see, making bakalava isn’t that difficult, but it isn’t cheap and a full dish of baklava sitting in the house just isn’t conducive to a healthy heart.  Therefore, I only make baklava for larger gatherings.  International Night was the perfect excuse.  It meant that I could finally share with you one of the most special recipes from my kitchen.

There’s good baklava to be had in Mostar. The views aren’t bad either!

I’ve had some brilliant baklava in Bosnia where there are large Muslim communities who continue to make it and serve it with a host of other sweet treats.  The best examples were in Mostar which also had some of the most pleasant views.  Predictably, however, my preference is for the syrup-soaked offerings of Greece and so my recipe is closer to what you’d find there.

Get ready for the sweetest thing on the menu!

Baklava

12 sheets filo pastry

600g caster sugar

250g butter (melted)

200g walnuts

200g almonds

120ml golden syrup or clear honey

2 tblspoons ground cinnamon

1 tspoon vanilla extract

Begin by the chopping the almonds and walnuts in a food processor with the cinnamon.  Don’t turn them to dust.  We just need them finely chopped.  I’ve done this by hand in the past, but it takes longer, makes more mess and the results aren’t as good.

Place a sheet of filo on the bottom of your dish or tray and use a pastry brush to cover it in melted butter.  Repeat with another four sheets.

Now begin to sprinkle the nut mixture over the filo.  Cover this layer with another sheet of pastry and brush it with melted butter.  Continue to cover each layer with nuts and add a layer of filo on top until you run out of the nut mixture.  Butter and layer any remaining pastry and finish by brushing the top with butter.

Taking a very sharp knife, carefully cut the baklava into as many pieces as you like.  Some people prefer to cut diamond shapes.  I cut mine into squares.  Cutting the filo at this point will allow the syrup to soak into it every part of the pastry and nuts.  It is also easier to cut the filo without damaging it before you bake it.

Sprinkle some water over the baklava to stop the filo from wrinkling and slide it into the oven at 180C for about forty minutes.  It should come out golden.  If it starts to burn before the time is up, cover the bakalava with foil.

While the baklava is baking, make the syrup.  Pour the sugar and 450ml water into a small pan with the vanilla and syrup or honey.  Bring it to the boil while stirring then simmer it without stirring for a full five minutes and then set it aside until the baklava is ready.

Remove the baklava from the oven and pour the syrup over it while it is still hot.  It looks like there’s too much syrup, but trust me, the pastry will soak it all up.  Leave the baklava to cool for a few hours.  During this time, the syrup will soak in and become firmer and stickier.

You don’t need to refrigerate baklava, but you can if you wish.  Keep it covered and it’ll last for a fortnight.  (Though I have to say, that I’ve never heard of that happening-  baklava is just too good to keep!)

Molten lava burgers.

It was only a matter of time before I posted a proper burger recipe and this is it.  Slow Food is important for a number of reasons, not least because you should end up with a tasty end product that knocks shop-bought items out of the park.  However, I’ve cooked plenty of things from scratch and wished I’d gone to the shops instead.  My burgers, for example, haven’t always been worth the time and effort I put in.   I’m happy to say that I’ve finally made a delicious burger that is going to revolutionise my summer eating!

Forget fast food joints and shiny posters of burgers that don’t represent what you’re actually sold.  Grab some quality ingredients and spend a few minutes making these meaty marvels.  Not only are they really easy to make, they’re very tasty and easy to adapt to your own tastes.  Life’s too short to eat grey patties between sugary bread.  Give dehydrated onions and wilting lettuce a miss.  Instead, go for fresh and fun molten lava burgers!  Hmmm…that sounds like it should be on a poster.

Molten lava burgers

375g minced beef

1 red chilli (finely chopped)

1 onion (finely chopped)

4 tblspoons fresh chives (finely chopped)

45g butter (melted)

2 tblspoons tomato ketchup

1 tspoon smoked paprika

1 tspoon Dijon mustard

half tspoon ground cumin

Cheddar cheese

salt and pepper

I made three large patties, but you could make smaller ones.

I began by putting all of the ingredients except the chilli and the cheese into a medium-sized bowl and mixing it up with a wooden spatula.  Season the mixture with plenty of salt and pepper.  I didn’t work the mixture too much because I didn’t want a tough texture for the burger.

I cut some thick slices of cheddar ready to go into the middle of the patties.  I then took some of the beef and made a large round patty.  I gently pressed the cheese onto the beef leaving a little room around the edges.  I sprinkled lots of the chopped chilli onto the cheese.  Next, I took some more beef and pressed it onto the patty making sure to completely cover the cheese.  I also checked that there were no holes for the cheese to ooze out of during cooking.

Now lots of recipes will recommend searing the burgers in a hot pan and then transferring to the oven to finish.  I didn’t do that, but I got wonderful results.  I fried the patties in butter on a low heat until nice and brown before turning them over.  I basted the patties with butter from the frying pan every now and again to keep them full of flavour.

The slow cooking meant that the meat cooked all the way through and just needed a few minutes in a hot oven at the end to bring it up to 71 degrees.

The biggest tip I can give you is to leave the patties alone while they cook.  Don’t prod them, don’t flip them, don’t lift them every minute for a peak at the underside.  Just let those bad boys cook.  Check them only occasionally to make sure that they aren’t burning.  If you keep bothering them, they’ll begin to crumble, you’ll have bits of burned onion in your pan and there will be smoke everywhere and cheese pouring out of the sides.  Let sleeping burgers lie.

Towards the end of frying, I tilted the pan to gather the butter in a little pool and slid the patties into it.  This helped cook the sides of the patties because they were quite thick.  You may not need to do this.  It just depends on the size of your patty.

I usually pile my burgers high with all kinds of silliness, but not this time.  The burgers were so tasty that I simply housed them in a toasted cheese-topped bap and served them with salad.  The chilli cheese was a real treat, but the flavour of the burger itself was the best thing.  You can’t beat slow food.

Got a sweet tooth? Okay, prove it!

Nothing is too sweet for me.  Have I said that before?  Probably.  I’ll eat every last mouthful of every sugary delight you care to serve me.  Chocolate dome cake, caramel fudge, mud cake, baklava, treacle tart, butterscotch this and praline that;  do your worst.  My brother draws the line at halva, my mum stops at dulce de leche chocolate mousse cake.  All the more for me, I guess.

In my opinion, if a cake leaves you wanting more, it has failed.  A cake should satisfy every sugary urge and leave you wanting nothing.  If I didn’t have such a sweet tooth, I would suggest that the recipe I’m sharing this week achieves this and more.

Peanut butter and chocolate are a popular combination right now and the internet is awash with all kinds of cakes that bring together these two favourites.  One thing that I noticed was the lack of chocolate log action in this department.  Enter The Last Piece of Cake.  I tested the best components from a number of peanut butter and chocolate recipes to come up with a cake so delicious, it would surpass my previous efforts.  The result was a peanut butter and chocolate log of epic proportions.

Essentially, I made a chocolate log filled and covered with a fluffy peanut butter icing and then coated in a darkly decadent peanut butter and chocolate ganache.  This approach has been made popular by the American cake recipe book, Sky High.  My version holds true to the decadence of the original idea.  I’ve noticed, however, that some famous blogs warn readers to cut only the thinnest of slices because of how sweet the cake is.  Pathetic!  To these bloggers I say, “Halt your feeble whimpering and let the people enjoy a huge slice of one of the tastiest cakes in the blogosphere!”  To you, dear reader, I say, “Have a go at putting together this  joyful  bundle of ingredients and rest assured that it will bring a peanut butter and chocolate smile to every face that tries it.”

Peanut butter chocolate log

(For the cake)

115g caster sugar

45g melted butter

40g Fairtrade cocoa powder

4 eggs

Icing sugar

(For the icing)

250g smooth peanut butter

250g icing sugar

110g softened butter

double cream

(For the ganache)

200g dark chocolate

3 tblspoons double cream

2 tblspoons golden syrup

2 tblspoons smooth peanut butter

To make the cake, put the eggs into a glass bowl over a small pan of water and heat gently.  Whisk the eggs continuously.  Take the eggs off the heat when they are foamy and tip them into a mixing bowl.  Use an electric mixer to whisk the eggs for another five or six minutes.  Keep going on the highest speed until there are no bubbles left and the texture is silky and smooth.

Sift the flour and cocoa into the eggs and fold them in gently with a spatula until they are combined and there are no dry bits.  Gently mix in all of the melted butter.

Pour the batter onto a baking tray lined with baking paper.  My tray is about nine inches by fifteen inches.  Make sure the batter is spread equally so that it cooks evenly.  Put it into the middle of a hot oven (190C) for about ten minutes.  When a skewer comes out clean, you’ll know the cake is done.

To roll it, you’ll need to get some baking paper ready on your work surface.  Dust it with plenty of icing sugar.  This will prevent the cake sticking to the paper and breaking up.  Tip the cake out onto the dusted paper and carefully roll it up.  Take time to roll it carefully because it is hot and also delicate at this point.  Leave the roll to cool down on a wire rack.

Now it’s time to make the icing.  Yum!  Clean your electric whisk and use it to mix together the peanut butter and the softened butter.  Add the icing sugar in stages until fully combined.  Don’t put it all in at once, or you’ll finish up looking like Casper The Friendly Ghost.  If the icing gets too dry, add a little double cream.  Keep going until there is no more icing sugar to add and the icing is a nice, thick and creamy consistency.

Now it’s an assembly job.  Unroll the cake and peel off the paper without breaking it.  Using roughly half of the icing, spread a thick layer all over the cake right up to the edges.  Roll it all back up and put it on a plate.  Use a spatula to spread the rest of the icing all over the log.  It should be completely covered in the peanut butter icing incuding the ends.  There might be just a little left in the bowl for you to enjoy!  Put the log in the fridge for about half an hour to an hour to firm up.

Once the icing is firm, make the peanut butter and chocolate ganache which will coat the log.  Melt all of the ingredients together in a glass bowl over a small pan of water and mix it well.  Let it cool a little before you use it.

Okay, so I had a slice before the ganache had set. I just couldn’t resist!

The ganache should be thick and spreadable.  Pour it onto the log and spread the ganache all over.  Place the log back in the fridge for the ganache to set.  I’ll admit, I couldn’t wait and I had a slice while the ganache was still melted.  The cake tasted far better once the ganache had set, but it’s your call.

When you can tap the top of the log and it has set properly, it’s time to dig in.  My advice?  Cut a beautifully thick slice and let your cares float away!  Let me know what you think…

The Tomato Monster.

Tomatoes are one of the best foods you can eat regularly.  They contain lots of lycopene which behaves in a similar way to antioxidants and can help fight cancer.  Eating ten servings of tomatoes each week can reduce the risk of lung cancer by up to sixty per cent.  The good news is that those ten servings can be in a variety of forms.  We can enjoy the benefits of lycopene by eating pizza, adding ketchup to food and even including tinned tomatoes in our diet.  This is because the cancer-fighting qualities of lycopene are not reduced by exposure to high temperatures.  In fact, cooking tomatoes in olive oil increases the amount of lycopene that is absorbed by the body.  French, Italian and Greek cooking feature numerous tomato-based dishes, so it’s no wonder that cancer is less prevalent among the mediterranean population.  Tomatoes feature heavily in our house too.

I’ve nicknamed our boy, The Tomato Monster.  He eats everything in sight and has yet to refuse any type of food that we’ve offered him.  However, tomato dishes provoke extra approving groans and lip-smacking from him.  He just loves tomatoes and we love watching him eat plenty of dishes containing that most glorious of fruits!  Today, I’m going to share two great recipes full of tomatoes that are brilliant for a family meal.

On a day when the sun was splitting the trees and a summer atmosphere prevailed in this normally rain-soaked region, I decided to cook up a tomato storm to enjoy in the garden.  N and the boy were out for coffee and cake (or water and baby rusks) all afternoon.  This left me free to make a complete mess in the kitchen and play my music as loud as I liked.  By the time the family was assembled for dinner, I’d managed to make a herb bread with tomato and a baked orzo dish full of tomatoes, beef mince and a cheesy, golden bechamel topping.  Me and N enjoyed a glass of wine with the food and felt like we were somewhere on the Northern coast of Crete.  The Tomato Monster savoured every bite of bread and every mouthful of orzo with extra satisfied grunts and spent the rest of the evening beaming.  In my book, that’s reason enough to put tomatoes on the menu every single day of the week.

Herb bread with tomato

400g chopped tomatoes

250g plain flour

120ml warm water

5 tblspoons olive oil

3 tblspoons chopped fresh herbs (mint & Greek oregano)

2 tblspoons tomato puree

2 tblspoons tomato ketchup

1 tblspoon honey

1 and a half tspoons dried yeast

1 tspoon dried oregano

1 tspoon Dijon mustard

This recipe will make a flatbread that can be torn and shared.  Put the flour, salt and dried yeast into a medium-sized bowl and mix in the dried oregano.

Create a well in the middle and pour in the water, honey and one tablespoon of olive oil.  Add all of the fresh herbs.  Mix gently to form a soft dough.  Brush with olive oil and place the bowl in a warm place for the dough to increase in size.  About half an hour will do it.

Mix the tomatoes, tomato puree, ketchup, the remaining oil, mustard and some dried oregano together and heat in a frying pan for a few minutes until you have a thick sauce.

Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface and press it into a baking tray.  Add the tomato mixture on top and spread it evenly with the back of a spoon leaving a small gap around the edges.  Leave the bread for about fifteen minutes and then sprinkle some more oregano on top.  Bake in the oven at 200C for about twenty minutes until lightly browned.  Serve with a fresh salad, or even better, why not pair it with the awesome orzo recipe below?

Orzo & tomato bake

400g chopped tomatoes

250g minced beef

1 onion (chopped)

2 tblspoons tomato puree

3 tblspoons chopped fresh herbs (mint & Greek oregano)

1 tblspoon dried oregano

2 tspoons dried cinnamon

olive oil

salt and pepper

(For the topping)

150g mature Cheddar (grated)

2 tblspoons butter

2 tblspoons plain flour

milk

1 tspoon Dijon mustard

1 pinch of grated nutmeg

salt and pepper

Orzo is pasta that looks very much like rice.  Boil it in lightly salted water until cooked through and set aside.

Brown the beef mince in some olive oil and mix in the cinnamon and dried oregano.  Add the onion and fry gently until it is cooked, but not yet browning.  Add the tomatoes and a little more olive oil and stir thoroughly.  Bring to the boil and then stir in the tomato puree.  Lower the heat and cook gently until the liquid reduces.

Drain the orzo and mix it with the beef sauce in whichever pan is bigger.  Stir in the fresh herbs and transfer it all to a deep, ovenproof dish.  Set aside while you prepare the sauce to go on top.

The orzo, tomatoes and beef before being topped with a cheese sauce.

Begin by making a roux.  Melt the butter in a milk pan and then add the flour.  Stir immediately with a whisk for a few seconds until the flour and butter become a loose paste.  Don’t panic.  Now you can pour in a little milk and continue to whisk.  Keep adding a little milk at a time until you have a thick sauce in the pan.  Now it’s time to add flavour!  Stir in the Dijon mustard, grate a little nutmeg in and then tip lots of grated Cheddar in for good measure.  You don’t really have to measure the amount of cheese you put in.  Add however much you need to achieve a full cheesy flavour and make sure there are no lumps.

Season the sauce to taste and then pour it over the orzo.  Spread it out evenly and then grate a load more cheese on top to cover.  Place the dish in a hot oven until the cheese is bubbling.  200C for about ten minutes is a good start.  I like to finish the dish under the grill to get the cheese golden and crispy on top.  You can serve this dish immediately or play the long game and eat it the next day.  I’d made enough to feed us for two days and I’m so glad that I did.  It tasted even better the next day.  Am I becoming predictable?  Maybe a little.

Note:  I’ve included guidance on seasoning, but I didn’t add any salt when I cooked this dish recently.  Instead, we added salt to our own portions once I’d served it.  This meant that our little Tomato Monster could eat the same meal as Mummy and Daddy without added salt.

Clash of the Classics.

We shouldn’t take food too seriously.  Even if we love it and feel passionate about where it came from, how it was made and where the ingredients were sourced.  We should still take time to enjoy it and have some fun.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at the photograph above.

Having made a delicious, new cake, I could have finished it off with a light dusting of icing sugar and posted the photograph knowing that readers would be greeted by the sight of an elegant creation.  It would be the kind of image gracing only the most refined food blogs.  You know the type; minimalistic, tasteful and effortlessly sophisticated.

Instead, I went for squirty cream and sugar balls.  It sounds like a comedy double act, but in fact, it was just what I needed to lighten up a very tasty combination of custard, cream and fruity jam between vanilla sponge.

Soon, British people all over the world will be celebrating the Queen’s Diamond  Jubilee and this will cause an outbreak of Union Jacks, the like of which has not been seen since the end of the Second World War.  For some, it may prove too much.  For me, it’s an excuse for making cakes, as if I needed one.

I thought I’d post my offering for a jubilee celebration cake before the craziness began in earnest.    It’s my very own recipe inspired by two British favourites: the Victoria sponge cake and custard cream biscuits.  Both are close to the hearts of Brits and both are delicious.  I made a vanilla sponge and cut circles to construct miniature adaptations of the classic Victoria sponge.  I used Morrelo cherry jam and a custard cream made with not only custard, but custard cream biscuits too!  The results were fun and I’m not ashamed to say that the cakes didn’t see the afternoon.

If you decide to forego the squirty cream and sugar balls, you’ll still have a delicious set of cakes that have all the best elements of a classic cake and the morish custard cream biscuits.  Food should be fun.  Seriously.

Jubilee custard cream cakes

(For the sponge)

125g self raising flour

125g softened butter

125g caster sugar

1 tspoon vanilla paste

2 eggs

(For the cream)

2 tbslpoons double cream

2 tblspoons custard

6 custard cream biscuits

1 tspoon vanilla paste

You will also need 3 tblspoons Morrelo cherry jam

Squirty cream and sugar balls (optional)

First, make the sponge.  Cream the butter and sugar together with an electric whisk and then beat in the eggs.  Stir in the vanilla paste and then fold in the flour to finish.  The batter should be able to drop off a wooden spoon.  Add some milk if you think it is too stiff.

Pour the batter into a baking tray (with high sides) lined with greaseproof paper and bake for about twenty-five minutes at 180C.  Let the sponge cool on a wire rack before using a cookie cutter to cut six discs.  These will form the top and bottom of three cakes.

Whisk the double cream until it begins to stiffen and then add the custard and the vanilla paste.  Continue to whisk until the custard is combined and the consistency is thick.  Stir in the custard cream biscuits.

Top one of the sponge discs with a spoonful of cherry jam and then carefully drop a spoonful of custard cream on top.  Place a second sponge disc onto the cream and press down gently.  At this point, you can choose to dust the cake with icing sugar for a classic finish, or get the squirty cream and have a giggle.  Repeat with the other sponge discs and if you have any custard cream leftover, get a spoon and tuck in!

No chocolate, no smile.

Some people are just great bakers.  I am not one of them.  It’s an effort for me and I have to concentrate to achieve anything approaching average or good.  This only makes me more eager to try new recipes and get better each time.

It can be disheartening when N’s good friend comes round with a gorgeous coffee and walnut cake and says, “Oh, I just threw it together before I came round.”  You “threw it together”?  I’d have spent the best part of an afternoon trying to make it and would probably have thrown it in the bin at the end.

Well, fear not!  The recipe that I’m sharing with you today is one that anybody could follow for a successful outcome.  I know this to be true because I managed to get a tasty result without any gnashing of teeth or pulling of hair.  This chocolate pudding is fool-proof and packs plenty of chocolate too.

I know what you’re thinking: Why a chocolate pudding when it is spring in England?  Honestly?  I’ll tell you why.  A week or so ago, I went for a meal with colleagues and was outraged to find that the set menu we had booked for did not contain a chocolate option for pudding.  To clarify, the puddings on offer contained not one ounce of chocolate between them.  There was souffle, sorbet and the like, but no chocolate.  There was more fruit than anything else and you know how I feel about fruit rearing its healthy head in a pudding menu.  Disgraceful!  I was sick to the stomach, but not sick enough to put me off my starter and main.  Jamais!

To be fair, I don’t always want a chocolate-based pudding after a meal, but I feel it is only fair to have the option.  Feeling disappointed, I returned home and decided to make a chocolate pudding that was quite traditional, but easy to make.  Steamed puddings were not in my repertoire, but now that I’ve had a go, I will definitely be making more!  What follows is my recipe for a chocolate pudding that is uncomplicated and satisfying.  The texture is pretty is dense, but I won’t apologise for that.  It’s a pudding that will stick to your ribs and finish your meal with a chocolate thud.  Hurrah!

What’s your favourite pudding?

Chocolate pudding with Bailey’s chocolate sauce

100g melted butter

100g melted dark chocolate

100g caster sugar

3 eggs

75g plain flour

50g cocoa powder

(For the sauce)

100g dark chocolate

50g butter

5 tblspoons water

50ml Bailey’s Irish Cream Liqueur

1 tblspoon caster sugar

This recipe will make four steamed puddings.  Begin by putting the eggs and caster sugar into a glass bowl over a pan of simmering water.  You’ll need to whisk the eggs and sugar for about ten minutes until they are light and frothy.  It’s not fun, but it’s good exercise.

Once this is done, take the bowl off the heat and gently fold in the cocoa powder and the flour with a spatula or wooden spoon.  Once combined, do the same with the melted butter.  Repeat with the melted chocolate until you have a luscious, dark liquid that is begging to be steamed into pudding glory.

Grease the inside of four pudding pots with a little butter and pour in the chocolate mixture.  Cover the puddings with foil and seal tightly around the edges.  You could use baking paper and string for this, but I didn’t and the results were good.

Pop the pudding pots into a big pan on the hob and pour in hot water.  The hot water should reach just over halfway up the sides of the pudding pots.  Keep the water simmering and steam the puddings for about forty minutes.  You can do this with the lid on the pan, but be careful not to let the water bubble up and into the puddings.  Alternatively, you can simmer the water without a lid on and just top up the water as it evaporates.

The puddings will rise up (and take over the world) and become firm on top when they are done.

To make the sauce, put everything except the Bailey’s into a small pan and melt together.  Stir the sauce, take it off the heat and then stir in the Bailey’s.  If you prefer not to have alcohol in the sauce, simply omit the Bailey’s and you’ll have a very nice chocolate treat to pour over your puddings.  You could use a liqueur of your choice.  I served mine with the sauce poured over and some coffee beans for decoration.

These steamed chocolate puddings are cute, but be careful.  I had stomach ache after finishing a second pudding.  Perhaps it’s best to eat just one.  Hmmm…an interesting idea.  I’ll certainly consider it.

They might be gigantes.

I love me some beans!  In fact, the population of the UK loves beans too.  Baked beans in tomato sauce have come to dominate the tinned food market and most people here would count them as an integral component of a cooked breakfast along with bacon and eggs.

Heinz produce the most famous tinned beans, but those who want the tastiest should go for those made by Branston.  They have a superior flavour that the bland Heinz variety simply can’t compete with.  Still, whatever people choose, the motivation seems to be the same:  All kinds of people want inexpensive, convenient food that can be eaten at any time of day with other food.  It’s no wonder that baked beans in tomato sauce appear in every cafe from Edinburgh to Plymouth.  They appear in fry-ups, on jacket potatoes, with chips, under melted cheese and more recently in pasties.

The recipe that I’m sharing today is also for beans in a tomato sauce, but it’s a little more refined and it comes from where I was born.

Gigantes are beans baked in a tomato sauce with herbs and served alongside meat and other dishes in Greece.  The dish is made with giant beans (I use butter beans) unlike tinned beans in the UK which are usually haricot beans.  It’s such a simple dish and so full of fresh flavours that make these beans perfect for all kinds of meat and fish.  It’s a real taste of summer and one that transports me back to the hills and villages where this dish is still prepared.

My recipe is very different to the recipes you may find online elsewhere.  To begin with, I don’t bake the gigantes.  Neither do I use parsley as many seem to suggest.  Fresh dill takes centre stage and brings a delightful freshness to every mouthful.  If you’re looking for a side dish that everyone in the family can tuck into as you eat in the sunshine, then look no further.  Gigantes knock the socks off any other baked beans.  Try them and you’ll see!

Gigantes (Dimitri’s way)

400g chopped tomatoes

400g tin of butter beans

1 onion (finely chopped)

1 clove garlic (sliced)

15g fresh dill (chopped)

olive oil

 half a lemon

1 tspoon dried oregano

sea salt

black pepper

Before you begin, a word of advice.  Don’t be tempted to use dried dill.  The flavour of the dish hinges on the use of fresh dill chopped just before it is added.  The dried oregano is for background flavour, but you could use fresh Greek oregano if you want a stronger one.  It’s best to pick the fronds off the main stem of the dill and make a little pile that you can chop with a sharp knife.  Discard the thick stems.

Heat some olive oil in a pan and gently fry the onion and garlic until they are softening, but not brown.

Next, add the oregano and the tomatoes and stir everything together.  You may need to add more olive oil, but do so a little at a time so that the dish does not become greasy.

Bring the tomatoes to simmering point and then stir in the beans.  Push the beans down with a wooden spoon so that they are covered by the tomatoes sauce.  This will help to cook them.  You may wish to cover the pan as it simmers gently on a low heat.  Don’t let the tomato sauce reduce yet.  The beans need to cook in the liquid.

Once the beans are soft, take the lid off and begin to reduce the liquid by turning the heat up a little and stirring until you have a thick sauce.  It’s time to season the beans to taste.  Add salt, grind some black pepper into the pan and squeeze a little lemon juice in.  Taste the sauce and add more if necessary.  The lemon juice is there to lift the dish and make it lighter, but too much will spoil it.  When you’re happy with the seasoning, take the pan off the heat and add all of the chopped dill.  Give it a good stir, put the lid back on and leave it to cool slightly and let the flavours develop.

If you’re dying to tuck in, then go for it.  These gigantes can be served right away.  I like to serve these beans the next day once all of the flavours have had a chance to mingle, but that’s just me.  As I’ve said before, Greek food is always better the next day.  We ate our gigantes last night with some grilled courgettes, potatoes and some lovely basa fillets.  Drizzle extra olive oil on the beans if they need a lift.  Enjoy!

For the love of garlic.

Garlic frying in butter.  It announces that something special is taking place in the kitchen.  It draws you in, makes your imagination create wonderful possibilities, secret hopes of what the dish might be.  It’s the very beginning of something savoury and full of depth and irresistable flavour.  Garlic does all of this, and that’s before you even taste it.

When my French father-in-law visits, his suitcase is filled with all manner of food delights and this includes the ubiquitous garlic bulbs.  They’re three times the size of the puny bulbs available in English supermarkets and their flavour is wonderfully rounded and smooth.  If you want quality British garlic, you’ll have to look for it somewhere other than your local, friendly, giant, faceless, monopolizing supermarket.

With several bulbs of garlic from southern France, I felt charged with the responsibility of making something worthy of their quality.  My first thought was of garlic bread.  However, first ideas are not always the best and garlic bread is hardly an earth-shattering revelation.  Consulting colleagues didn’t yield any new ideas and I was beginning to scratch my head when suddenly, I had an earth-shattering revelation: garlic bread!

You may laugh (and possibly cease reading this altogether), but my first thought was not as silly as I’d judged it to be.  What better way to showcase the wonderful flavour of this garlic than to combine it with fairly bland, but satisfying ingredients?  I’ve enjoyed garlic soup in the Czech Republic and some wonderful chicken dishes with heaps of garlic in Thailand, but honestly, I wanted something with origins closer to home.

What follows is a recipe so full of garlic, that casual admirers of garlic may wish to turn the volume down on this one.  My recipe is for those who love garlic, I mean really love it.  Can you have too much of a good thing?  Probably.

Killer garlic bread

half French tiger stick (or plain baguette)

1 bunch fresh parsely (chopped)

10 garlic cloves (finely chopped)

150g salted butter

1 tblspoon olive oil

salt

It’s a killer garlic bread for a number of reasons.  Reading the ingredient list gives you a clue to at least one of them.  You can use more or less butter according to your taste (and lifestyle choices).  Copious amounts of butter, however, will guarantee a rich flavour and a moist end product.

After chopping all of the garlic finely, I heat the butter in a milk pan and fry the pungent cloves very gently.  If you burn any of the garlic, it is ruined.  The bitter taste of burned garlic is a real spoiler for any dish, so do take care to add enough butter to let the garlic float a little and give the pan a shake to make sure nothing sticks.  I often tilt the pan so that the butter gathers and cooks the garlic evenly.  I usually add a drop of olive oil to prevent the butter burning too.  Don’t add too much oil or you’ll end up with greasy garlic bread which is not pleasant.

The reason that I use a lot of butter is not just so that the garlic can be cooked evenly.  I need to mix the garlic butter with lots of parsley and spread it onto the bread.  Predictably, the bread soaks up the liquid, so there needs to be plenty of topping to cover the surface of the bread and also to soak into it.  We really want the flavour to seep through instead of sitting on the top.  I use a wooden spatula to mix in the parsley and then I season the buttery paste with some sea salt before spooning it onto the bread.

Tiger bread is very tasty, so when I spotted a French tiger stick, I was excited about using it to make the garlic bread.  You can use a regular baguette for the same result.  I only needed half and I cut through the length of the bread and opened it out to spread the verdant garlic butter onto the soft surface.  The parsley is essential for countering the strength of the garlic.  It also brings a fantastic colour to everything.  I left the bread for a few minutes to let the butter soak in.

I then lined a baking tin with foil and put the bread into a hot oven at 180C for about ten minutes or until the bread was crisp and golden.  Spreading the butter and parsley to the very edges of the bread ensured that nothing burned.  I ate mine with some cream cheese on the side which was a cool companion to every bold bite of this bread.  It’s delicious on its own and would go down a treat at a barbecue!  Just make sure you warn your friends that this garlic bread is the real deal.

 

Dear Dimitri, how dare you criticise British barbecuing prowess (or lack thereof)!

I love barbecue.  It’s a shame that I live in England, then.  The weather permits very little (successful) outdoor cooking and despite the best efforts of many a barbecue enthusiast, I’ve never enjoyed anything prepared outdoors in this country.  The fact is, we’re clueless when it comes to cooking meat anywhere other than the safety of the kitchen.

Tip-toe over the pond and it’s a whole different story.  Barbecue is an art and America has no shortage of towns and cities with a claim to being the home of the best barbecue in the land.  This doesn’t deter Brits from donning comedy aprons and dragging out the rusty grill at the first sign of sunshine.  No, sir!  Phonecalls are made, beer is bought and determined individuals set about preparing the area they’ll use to either cremate or under-cook a selection of poor quality meats.  Hours later and the reason why “we don’t do this very often” is clear to all.

Food companies are not deterred by inept British barbecuing either.  They thrive on it!  Sauces, marinades, sprays, sprinkles, seasoned crumbs, flavoured salt, posh pepper and a host of other flavour enhancers are widely available to mask the food-poisoning-between-bread that’s being served up.

You won’t find anything like that in my cupboard, though.  I make my rub from scratch.  Yes, sir!  Today I made a fantastic rub that is perfect for pork.  Of course, it was my good ol’ griddle that made the party go with a sizzle and not a rusty wire rack over some coals.  Still, the taste was superb and from now on, I don’t think I’ll be putting anything else on pork loin steaks!

Dimitri’s dry rub (for pork)

1 tblspoon light brown sugar

1 tblspoon coriander seeds

1 tblspoon smoked paprika

2 tspoons garlic salt

1 tspoon ground black pepper

1 tspoon ground cumin powder

half tspoon cayenne pepper

 This is a job for the pestle and mortar.  A coffee or spice grinder will probably do a good job too.  I began by toasting the coriander seeds in a dry pan until they just started to brown and release their wonderful flavour (which is nothing like the fragrant herb that they grow into).  I then ground all the ingredients to a fine powder and tipped the rub into a medium-sized bowl.

 I cut some pork loin steaks into cubes and tossed them in the powder before grilling on skewers.  I got equally good results with whole pork loin steaks cooked the same way:  A smoking hot griddle with a few minutes on each side to ensure succulence and a good char on the outside.

This rub is intended for meat that will be cooked immediately.  It’s not too sweet and not too spicy.  Perfect for summer!  Oh, and if you were wondering, no, my barbecuing prowess is sadly lacking.  I’ll keep to my griddle, thank you very much.

Cherry crackle crispies.

What’s your memory of childhood birthday parties?  Whether I attended a party at a friend’s house or was lucky enough to have one myself, one delightful memory springs to mind: Scanning the party food and spotting a big plate of Rice Krispy cakes.

Melted chocolate mixed with lots of puffed riced and spooned into cupcake cases brought (almost) endless joy to this greedy little lad.  My tendency to scoff as much as possible coupled with my preference for savoury food, made me a fiend at buffets (and still does).  Even at the age of ten, however, Rice Krispy cakes had a power over me that sausage rolls and crisps did not.

For the last few days, I’ve had an image of those little bites of fun in my head and today I was able to sate my hunger for them.  Of course, I’ve added some surprises of my own, but you probably guessed that already.

Cherry crackle crispies

300g milk chocolate

100g Rice Krispies

100g glace cherries

50g mini marshmallows

7 tblspoons cherry flavoured popping candy

Half tspoon almond extract

I just love anything flavoured with cherries, so I adapted this ultra-basic favourite to include glace cherries, mini marshmallows and an extra surprise.  I used to buy the odd packet of popping candy and pour it onto my tongue to let it fizz and crackle loudly.  I’d never put it into a recipe before, but I certainly will again!  Adding seven packets of cherry flavoured popping candy gives these crispy cakes an unexpected and not entirely unpleasant sensation.  These “cakes” really do crackle!

Simply melt the chocolate in a glass bowl over some hot water and stir in the almond extract.  Believe it or not, the almond extract is a great partner for anything with cherries in it.

Pour the chocolate into a plastic bowl filled with the rest of the ingredients and mix together thoroughly until everything is completely coated.  I reserved a few mini marshmallows for decoration, but this is optional.  Isn’t everything?

Spoon the mixture into paper cases and refrigerate for a few minutes until the chocolate has set.  Eat at the earliest opportunity and let the party on your tongue begin!

Breakfast- Last Piece of Cake style!

I suppose you could call it breakfast.  After all, I ate it before midday, certainly before brunch, and a good deal earlier than elevenses.  Is it the best start to the day?  Well that depends on what you’re doing.  For me, it was perfect.

Some call it French toast, but in these parts, it is rather less romantically known as eggy bread.  I wonder how people would react to seeing that on a hotel menu.

I remember eating eggy bread with a good sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon and feeling incredibly satisfied.  It seemed to generate feelings similar to those brought on by eating lots of pancakes.  Lovely!

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve become determined to include vanilla paste in recipes recently.  My fantastic mum got me some last month and I can’t get enough of that dark, dotted, vanilla syrup.  It’s so intense and so wonderfully perfect for all kinds of sweet fun!  I knew that I would have to include it in my indulgent breakfast.  The following recipe is not recommended to those on a calorie controlled diet.

Vanilla French toast with raspberries

1 slice thick white bread

1 egg

3 tblspoons soft brown sugar

3 tblspoons caster sugar

1 tblspoon milk

handful of frozen raspberries

half tspoon vanilla paste

butter (for frying)

I prepared the raspberries by heating them in a milk pan with a little water (two or three tablespoons) and stirring in the caster sugar until it had dissolved.  I continued to heat the raspberries until they began to soften and resemble a chunky jam.

Next I  started to whisk the egg, milk and brown sugar together.  Then I stirred in the vanilla.  I poured this mixture into a bowl and then lay the bread in it to soak up the vanilla loveliness.  After that, I turned it over to soak up the remaining liquid.

In a frying pan, I heated some butter until it was beginning to froth and then placed the slice of bread in it.  I cooked this gently for a few minutes on each side until the egg was cooked through and the bread not soggy.

Taking it off the heat, I used a fish slice to transfer it to a plate and drizzled over the raspberries.  There are prettier breakfasts, but by now I’m sure you’ve come to realise that here at The Last Piece of Cake, it’s all about the taste.  Enjoy!

 

But I followed the recipe to the letter!

How many times have you followed a recipe as closely as you could and finished up with nothing but an inedible mess?  I’ll admit, that even following my own recipes jotted down after countless successful outcomes, I’ve still been left wondering what went wrong on occasion.  It’s frustrating and disheartening.  It’s also one of the reasons that I don’t buy recipe books.

I love cooking and I love reading, so it should follow that recipe books line my shelves and gather in ever-growing gangs around my house.  Instead, I’ve a handful of books on my kitchen shelf and I rarely open them.  The internet has all but killed any need for recipe books.  Blogs, recipe sites and food forums share an abundance of recipes for every imaginable type of food.  Why clutter the kitchen with glossy hard backs from television chefs when a quick look on my computer or phone gives me access to countless food sites?

I’ve only ever bought one recipe book, a classic by Jane Norman to help me get to grips with basic cooking methods when I first began to take an interest in cooking.  I still refer to it from time to time and I suspect that I’ll own it forever.  The other books that line my kitchen shelf have been gifts from well-meaning friends and relatives.  Truth be told, I tend to have a glance through cookery books once and rarely pick them up again unless I’m looking for something specific.

Last week, I happened to look through a Gino D’Acampo book (another gift) and spotted a fun-looking recipe for a creamy rice pudding.  It was simple enough for a dolt like me, so I carefully arranged the ingredients on my worktop and followed the recipe sentence by perfidious sentence with confidence.  Sadly, our passionate, Italian chef seems to have little or no knowledge of the properties of arborio rice and the methods required to cook it successfully and two hours later, I was still adding milk to stubborn grains of crunchy rice.  I was fuming.  So rarely do I put my trust in the pages of slickly designed cook books, and the moment I do, betrayal occurs in the most irritating way: a recipe that doesn’t work.

Sensing the potential for adaption, I threw away the offending pot of disappointment and started afresh.  I cooked the rice as it should be, cranked up the sugar content and added two of my favourite flavours to produce a rice pudding with all the gloopy comfort that you’d need when the mood took you.

I’ve realised over the last couple of years that following a recipe closely is not a guarantee of success.  Instead, a grasp of some basic cooking techniques for whatever ingredients you’re using combined with your own instinct is a far better guide in the kitchen.  I guess that sounds like sage advice from a wisened cook.  In fact, it’s my disclaimer.

Vanilla & cinnamon rice pudding

40g Arborio rice

30g caster sugar

milk

water

half tspoon ground cinnamon

quarter tspoon vanilla paste

I cooked the rice in a milk pan by just covering it with water and simmering until the rice absorbed the water and became tender.  This took about ten minutes.  During this time, I added more water to the rice as it was absorbed and tested the rice when I thought it was cooked.

The next step was to stir in the sugar and add enough milk to cover the rice.  I stirred the milk through until the sugar had dissolved and then added a little more milk every couple of minutes over a gentle heat.  What you’re looking for is a gloopy, soft consistency where the soft rice is lost in a thick and sweet liquid.  If the mixture becomes too dry, add more milk.  If it is too watery, continue to stir it until the milk has reduced.  When I was happy with the rice, I stirred in the vanilla paste and took it off the heat to cool.  The rice becomes a little firmer upon cooling which is fine.

My recipe makes one portion, but you could easily increase the quantities.  As long as the rice is cooked through before you add the milk and sugar, the results will be satisfying.

Ena, dio, tria…mini pasties!

The most famous of all pasties are those made in Cornwall.  This little trio of pasties is a far cry from the giant Cornish beauties, but they are delicious!

I was ill last weekend and felt so rough, that I didn’t even cook.  It’s left me feeling eager to cook and write this week.  To begin with, I needed to use up some puff pastry in my freezer to make a little room.  I had such a great time making pasties last year that I thought it would be a good starting point for something new.

One of my favourite ingredients is Chorizo, so I thought that a nice chicken and Chorizo pasty would be fun.  Some peppers, some onions and some potato for substance.  Having bought the chicken, I then started toying with the idea of another filling and soon I’d made my mind up to try making a pesto chicken pasty.

Before I knew it, I’d added a third idea; a cheese and onion pasty.  Cheese and onion pasties are popular in these parts and I thought it would be good to add a veggie option to the gang.

The idea is simple enough: choose some ingredients to make a filling for a little parcel that can be baked in the oven and then eaten hot or cold.

With my decision made, I spent time preparing each filling and began my mini pasty experiment.  I was excited to see which one would turn out best.  Deep down, I knew the cheese and onion would work, but what of the other two?  I’m happy to say that my productive afternoon ended with smiles and I’ve been feeling very satisfied since.  My favourite was definitely the chicken and Chorizo pasty, but see what you think.

Mini pasties- chicken & chorizo, pesto chicken, cheese & onion

500g puff pastry

1 egg (beaten)

For the chicken & Chorizo filling

2 potatoes (cubed)

125g Chorizo sausage (cubed)

1 cooked chicken breast (cubed)

1 onion (diced)

1 red pepper (diced)

handful of chopped fresh coriander

salt

For the pesto chicken filling

2 potatoes (cubed)

1 cooked chicken breast (cubed)

A dozen mushrooms (diced)

1 tblspoon pesto

3 tblspoons grated Grana Padano

1 tblspoon olive oil

salt

For the cheese & onion filling

2 potatoes (cubed)

1 onion (diced)

5 tblspoons grated Cheddar

2 tspoons Dijon mustard

To make the chicken and Chorizo filling, I boiled the cubed potatoes for ten minutes and then drained them and set them aside to cool.  In a frying pan, I heated a little oil and fried the onions, Chorizo and pepper until the onions had cooked through and the Chorizo had released a beautiful red oil.  I stirred in the potatoes and the chicken along with some salt before finally sprinkling in the coriander.  The first filling was done!

For the pesto chicken, it was even easier.  I boiled the potatoes and drained them.  Next I put the potatoes, chicken, pesto and cheese in a bowl and stirred thoroughly.  I fried the mushrooms and stirred them in.  A little salt to season and some pepper finished the job.

Finally, the cheese and onion filling was made by boiling the cubed potatoes and letting them cool before putting them into a bowl with the Dijon mustard and cheese.  I fried the onions and then added them to the bowl.  All that was left to do was mix it all together gently and season everything.

I rolled out the pastry until it was very thin and made use of a small saucer from an espresso cup to cut a circle.  A couple of tablespoons is all that is needed to fill the pasty and it’s important not to overfill it (tempting as it is).

Brushing the edge of half the pastry circle with egg wash helps to seal the pasty when you bring the edges together.  Just crimp the edges with a fork or fold and press them to stop the filling oozing out in the oven.  Place the pasties on a baking tray lined with baking paper and use a pastry brush to add the egg wash to each one.  This will give the pasties a lovely golden glaze.

Pop the little beauties in the oven for about twenty minutes at 180C or until they are golden.  You’ll know exactly when to take them out.

These make a great little snack and can be eaten cold.  If you make mini pasties as I did, you’ll be able to get about forty by making all three of the fillings.  Obviously, if you decide to make just one type of filling, you will definitely not need 500g of pastry!

I think I might make giant pasties next time and have them as part of a main meal.  I’m so happy with how these turned out.  Let me know if you decide to give them a go!

120g Chorizo sausage (cubed)

In search of sandwich heaven.

Is there a food more versatile than the mighty sandwich?  It can be all things to all people and after years of being a favourite snack for those on the move, it is still being used as a testing ground for flavours and textures.

If the quiche has been blighted by mass production, then the sandwich has often fallen foul of plain apathy.  We take the sandwich for granted.  We don’t always take the time to prepare sandwiches with quality bread or quality ingredients, but by golly, it is so worth the effort when we do!

Cafes and even supermarkets have certainly picked up on the demand for inventive flavour combinations and well-sourced ingredients.  Nowadays, England is no longer full of train stations with wilting tomato sandwiches on rubbery white bread.  Ingredients are hand-picked, sun-blushed, vine-ripened, oak-smoked, oven-roasted, lightly salted, gently aged and freshly prepared for the discerning consumer.  Add to that a description on the packaging that would be quite at home in a H.E Bates novel and you’ve got a fairly accurate snapshot of the English attitude towards food right now.  People want basic food with a touch of luxury.  Simplicity coupled with quality and effort.

With our little boy napping and a natural lull in the rhythm of the day, I realised that it was way past lunchtime and we were due some sustenance.  I knew that I wanted a sandwich and seeing some fresh baby spinach in the fridge, I recalled a tuna melt that I used to buy from the same place that got me hooked on smoothies.  Their tuna melt was made with mozzarella, baby spinach and some red onion.  I decided I could easily top that with just a few of the ingredients at hand.

I wouldn’t make this sandwich too often because it takes time and care, but with the rain coming down in grey sheets and nothing else to pique my interest, I was more than happy to devote a little time to constructing this delightful treat.  The flavours are full without being overpowering and the textures are a joy.  The tuna melt is not a new invention and in the past I’ve gone for the bigger is better approach.  However, this toasted sandwich is going straight into the top 5 of a sandwich chart that I haven’t compiled, but probably exists somewhere in my food subconscious.  It’s nothing short of awesome, so simple that it’s hardly a recipe and definitely worth your time.

My perfect tuna melt (This will make two generously proportioned sandwiches)

4 slices wholemeal bread

1 tin tuna in sunflower oil

1 onion (sliced into rings)

2 handfuls fresh baby spinach

6 tblspoons grated Red Leicester

6 tblspoons grated mature Cheddar

3 tblspoons grated Grana Padano

3 tblspoons mayonnaise

1 tblspoon dried oregano

2 tspoons Dijon mustard 

half tspoon Cayenne pepper

butter

black pepper

I began by finely grating the cheese and tossing it all together with the oregano and plenty of black pepper.

Next, I drained the tuna and mixed it in a small bowl with the mayonnaise and Cayenne pepper.  Meanwhile, I gently fried the onion rings in a little olive oil until brown and almost crispy and set them aside.

I spread a slice of bread with Dijon mustard and lay the baby spinach on top in a thin layer.  Using a fork, I spread a very generous amount of tuna mayo onto the spinach and topped it with the fried onions.

Now the sandwich was ready to receive a pile of the finely grated cheese mix.  I pressed the pile of grated cheese onto the sandwich with the palm of my hand to keep it all from crumbling and then did the same with the final slice of bread.  I gave it a quick buttering on the outside before laying it onto a hot griddle.

A couple of minutes on each side and the melt was ready to dive into!

What’s your perfect sandwich?

God save the quiche.

Too many people say that they don’t like quiche.  In my experience, quiche gets a rough press and often deservedly so.  The problem is that there’s an abundance of bad quiche out there.  Who’d want to bring children into a world where so many crusts are soggy, fillings are meagre and texture is akin to a fritatta left out in the rain?

Join the fight then, to bring taste and texture back to the long-besmirched picnic regular.  Champion the cause of quality quiche!

For my own part, I’m focusing on three key areas that will ensure a quiche that anyone would be eager to polish off in one sitting: A dry and crumbly base, a firm, yet creamy filling and as much flavour as you can pack into every bite.

I too have been left saddened after tasting another soggy shop-bought cheese and onion quiche.  My memories of the worst buffets include a quiche covered in soggy tomatoes and a bendy base.  I’ve eaten more watery quiche Lorraine than I’d care to mention and always with the feeling that someone had picked all of the bacon out of my slice just before I got to it.  No, quiche is at the very bottom of many a food list.  Something has to be done.

The recipe I’m posting today is a favourite of mine.  I first made it about four years ago after deciding that I wanted a quiche that would sate my hunger for a really cheesy flavour and the freshness of chives.  I didn’t want a mere hint of cheese, I wanted an unmistakable celebration of it.  With that in mind, I present to you, my first (but certainly not the last) volley in the battle for great quiche!

Chutney? Don't mind if I do.

Dimitri’s double cheese & onion quiche

500g shortcrust pastry

260ml double cream

150g Red Leicester cheese (finely grated)

100g mature Cheddar cheese (finely grated)

5 spring onions (sliced)

2 eggs

2 egg yolks

1 bunch chives (finely chopped)

1 tspoon black pepper

1 tspoon sea salt

Grating the cheese finely ensures plenty of cheese in every bite.

I use frozen pastry, but feel free to make your own.  I begin by rolling it out on a floured surface until it is just less than a centimetre thick.  I place it in a nine-inch sandwich tin (which I normally use for cakes) lined with baking paper.  You can use a quiche dish or anything similar as long as it is at least an inch deep.

If you don’t have baking beans, pour in dried pasta or any type of dried bean so that they cover the base.  Bake the pastry in the oven at 180C for about fifteen minutes on the middle shelf.  Remove the beans and return the pastry to the oven until the base is golden.  This will ensure that you avoid soggy pastry.

In the meantime, beat the eggs, yolks and double cream together in a large bowl.  Add plenty of salt (so that you don’t end up with a bland quiche) and black pepper.  Next, add the spring onions and chives and finally the cheese.  Mix it all well so that the thick mixture has an even distribution of cheese, onions and chives.  You can use other types of cheese that you like.  I chose mature Cheddar for sharp flavour and the Red Leicester for colour and a mellow aftertaste.

If your pastry was overlapping, now is the time to trim it with a sharp knife.  Pour the filling into the pastry and cook in the oven for about forty-five minutes.  The middle needs to be set, so test it with a skewer after forty minutes.  If it comes out clean, the quiche is set.  Cover the quiche with tin foil if it begins to burn on top.

Let the quiche cool slightly before tucking in.  This will help it to set nicely.

You can serve the quiche hot or cold.  Either way, you’ll convert a lot of quiche naysayers.  I guarantee it.

My cookies are the best…on this street.

It’s true.  My tummy said so…and my tummy’s bigger than your tummy!  Granted, England isn’t known for its cookies and most of the population over forty would probably choose tea and cake over milk and cookies.  There will be countless more across the pond who no doubt will stand up and be counted for coffee and donuts.  However, what I’m sharing with you today is nothing less than my ultimate, works-every-time, so-easy-to-make, can’t-wait-till-they’re-out-of-the-oven recipe.  I’ve tried so many recipes over the years and often been disappointed.  That’s why I decided to combine the best bits of every recipe I’ve tried to make these beauties.

The dough recipe is nice and easy, but the best part is that once you’ve got the dough recipe, you can make any type of cookie you want.  That’s why I love these.  Today I’ve made a batch that give a little tip of the hat to my favourite biscuits, dark chocolate gingers.  I have quite a thing for them and I’ve had to stop buying them lest I begin to resemble one.

You, dear friend of food, can load up your cookies with whatever takes your fancy.  I’m sure you have your own amazing cookie dough recipes and it’s likely that they will make my attempts look like My First Cookies, but let me tell you, when I’m going for an ice-cold glass of chocolate milk (and I do so far too often), these cookies are the perfect partner!

What’s your favourite type of cookie?  What should I put in my next batch?

Dark chocolate & ginger cookies

300g plain flour

215g light brown sugar

200g dark chocolate (chopped into little chunks)

170g melted butter

120g caster sugar

120g glace ginger

1 egg

1 yolk

1 tblspoon vanilla extract

1 tspoon ginger powder

1 tspoon salt

half tspoon bicarbonate of soda

Beat together the egg, yolk, butter and sugar.  Add the vanilla and combine with the soda, salt, ginger powder and flour to form a thick dough.

Tip in the chocolate and the glace ginger (or whatever ingredients you are using) and work them into the dough with your hands.  Wrap the dough in clingfilm and refrigerate for half an hour.

Preheat the oven to 180C.  Line a baking tray with baking paper.  Break off small chunks of dough, roll them into balls and press them between your palms so that you have little pucks to place on your baking tray.  The cookies will flatten and spread out in the oven, so leave enough space between them.  They’ll be done in less than ten minutes.

For years I made brittle, crumbly cookies.  It was because I used to bake them until completely brown all over (thinking that they were done).  For perfect, chewy cookies, however, it’s important to take them out of the oven to cool while they are still soft.  Wait until they are beginning to brown at the edges and then use a fish slice to transfer them to a wire rack.  They will firm up once cooled.

Enjoy and let me know how they turn out!

 

There are many reasons why I will not entertain becoming a vegetarian. Steak and ale pie is one of them.

My concern for animals extends beyond owning and loving our over-sensitive collie/lab cross.  Like many who enjoy food, my consumer conscience pushes me to find out about the origins of what I eat and how well animals are treated before I will make a purchase.  The best way of doing this is to get to know your butcher, which may seem like an alien concept if you’ve spent the last decade putting sealed plastic trays of chopped meat into your trolley.

In truth, the household budget has more impact on our attitudes towards food than perhaps we’d like to admit.  In my student days, the last thing on my mind was the welfare of livestock in our county when looking for the main ingredient in the curry I’d promised to cook for my flatmates.  Was the meat I bought even from this county?  From this country?  Who knew?  One person who does know is your local butcher, which brings us back to the issue of shopping close to home and supporting independent businesses.  The supermarkets are winning.

However, well-sourced, good quality meat that you know has come from animals treated properly, is not the reserve of the affluent members of each community.  By simply speaking to your butcher and telling them what you are going to cook, you’ll find which are the most suitable cuts and what offers value for money.  Good cooking starts with good shopping.

Of course, many among you will shake your heads knowingly and state that vegetarianism offers a wonderful diet with fewer pitfalls in sourcing.  However, I know deep down that I will always eat meat and that even the most insightful arguments against it cannot compete with steak and ale pie.

Steak and ale pie

800g stewing steak (cut into chunks)

500g Robinson’s Unicorn ale

500g puff pastry

4 large carrots (sliced)

8 mushrooms (sliced thickly)

1 onion (sliced)

4 cloves garlic (sliced)

4 tspoons Dijon mustard

2 beef stock cubes

half tspoon cayenne pepper

butter

sea salt

black pepper

plain flour

1 egg

I made this recipe using Robinson’s Unicorn, but any quality ale will do.  You could even try it with good, old Guinness.  I’m sure it would work a treat.  I drank Unicorn beer on my stag do in the Lake District and it’s a cracking pint!  I washed this pie down with a bottle of Hobgoblin and I can recommend that too.

First of all, heat a nob of butter in a heavy pan and brown the beef.  I sprinkled in some plain flour to coat the beef as it was cooking and I ground lots of black pepper in too.  No salt at this stage.

When the beef was brown, I added the onions and garlic and put the lid on to help soften them.  This only took a couple of minutes and with some stirring, the onions were cooked through.  I threw in the carrots and poured in 250ml of beer before stirring in the mustard.  Make sure everything is well combined, add more black pepper (if you love it like I do) and the stock cubes and let it simmer for about fifteen minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small frying pan, fry the mushrooms in some butter and then add them to the beef.  Sprinkle in the cayenne pepper.  Pour in the rest of the beer.  Stir.

Pop a tight lid on the beef and put it into the oven at 170C for about two hours.  Stir it every now and again and season to taste with the sea salt.

To top the pie, roll out the pastry and tip your pie dish onto it.  Cut around the pie dish carefully leaving a few centimetres more than needed around the edges.  The pastry will shrink in the oven.  When the beef is cooked and the gravy is nice and thick, tip it all into the pie dish and cover with the pastry.  Beat the egg and use a brush to coat the pastry.  This will give your pie a nice glaze.

Put the pie into the oven for as long as it takes for the pastry to puff up and turn golden.  Serve it with vegetables and your favourite beer.  Next time, I think I’ll serve it with the same ale that went into making it…and some mashed potato.  Lots of buttery mashed potato.  Winter fare doesn’t get any better than that.

Laos, ‘Nam and jam.

Jam in Japan?  Loaves in Laos?  Well, yes, actually, it’s not all noodles and rice.  Western travellers can enjoy the delights of local cuisine the world over, but sooner or later, the comfort of home comes calling.

You can thank the French for bringing their beautiful bread to Laos.  After jungle treks, boat rides and back packs, believe me, you will.  In Vietnam, street snacks often take the form of small baguettes smothered in  La vache qui rit. I can almost smell the freshly baked, crispy baguettes!

It’s a very personal thing, so I guess that everyone will have their own image of that go-to comfort food.  For my wife, no matter where we go and what we eat, eventually, that yearning for something familiar comes calling.  When it does, there’s nothing I can do to dissuade her; only spaghetti in a rich tomato sauce will do.  Try ordering that in the Mekong Delta.

I’m easier to please.  When I’ve had my fill of local dishes, I think of bread.  Good, fresh bread with butter and jam.  Plenty of jam.  You don’t have to travel to appreciate good bread though.  Recently, a friend (who knows me very well) bought me a beautiful loaf tin filled with very tasty jams, spoons, ribbons, recipe cards and wax discs.  There’s everything needed to make jam and a simple bread recipe to make a loaf too.  Needless to say that I’ve been dying to give it all a try.  Yesterday I got stuck in and made a gorgeous loaf to slice up and pile jam onto.

I used the recipe card that came in the set, but adapted it (the dough was too wet to work with at first).  The loaf came out crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.  I’m not a master bread maker, but I’m very happy with it.  Looks like I’ll be eating bread and jam every day this week.

Observe, if you will, the beauty of bread baked at night. Time to fetch the butter.

Honey bread

700g white flour

1 pint warm water

1 tblspoon honey

1 tspoon salt

1 tspoon dried yeast

Sift the flour, yeast and salt into a large bowl.  Stir the honey into the warm water until dissolved and pour into a small well in the middle of the flour.  Use one hand to hold the bowl and the other to mix until you have a dough that will come away from the sides.  If it is too wet, add more flour.

Tip the dough onto a floured surface and knead it gently.  Place into the large prepared loaf tin.  Cover with a damp tea towel and leave to prove for an hour or so.

After an hour, run a sharp knife down the length of the loaf and drizzle more olive oil on top.  Place in an oven at 180C for about half an hour.  To check if the loaf is done, tip it out carefully and tap the base.  It should have a hollow sound when ready.

Let the loaf cool on a wire rack for a little while.  Then, of course, it’s time to slice it thickly and let butter and jam do the rest.  If you’ll excuse me, I’ve left my loaf unattended and in my house, that’s what is known as a “schoolboy error”.