Friday, 26 February 2010

Out of focus

Is exactly how I feel at the moment. Blurry round the edges.
I will be back soon hopefully, with a cake to share, but for the moment I need to do some hiding under the duvet...

Monday, 15 February 2010

My last meal.

So I was over here, and I got to thinking about what my last meal would be. I thought it would be tough as there are many foods I adore, from the elaborate to the simple (peanut butter on toast came a very close second, and might still make it in the running for dessert!).

However, in the end the result was obvious. It would have to be aubergine parmigiana, (melanzana parmigiana to give it the correct title) and would have to be accompanied with handm
ade focaccia.This is not only the meal I would pick as my potential last ever, it also happened to be the one I decided to cook for Valentine's day. We're not that big on Valentine's day. There are no grand gestures, no expensive gifts, and certainly no trips to fancy restaurants. Instead we're low key, low budget and low maintenance. In a very cliched way we are a couple who celebrate our love for each other with random and constant acts (K, I can hear you vomiting....) and it has to be said that much of this occurs through the medium of food, not unlike other couples I know.

So as the weekend rushed forth I toyed with all sorts of ideas for main dishes. As you may (or may not) know I have a tendency toward the epic tradition when it comes to Valentine's. Y
et this year I didn't want a Homeric mission. I knew I was going to be out all day, and after all the chaos that the previous weeks had thrown I figured we'd want the food equivalent of a huge indulgent duvet. As a result I went with our favourite meal of the moment and made it the night before. I'd say it's nothing special, as we have it almost once a week, except it is special. Somehow, through some frying and some baking, a simple dish of aubergines, tomatoes and cheese becomes something far far grander than the individual ingredients. It sits happily as a starter, and yet we prefer to completely indulge and eat platefuls as a main, with the sauces slopped up with bread.

Considering I am someone who supposedly didn't like aubergines, th
is dish is a revelation, and proves that if you prepare them well, and treat them right they can become something that I would be desperate to have as my last meal.

Beware, it does take a little time to prepare. It's one to make in advance. It also tastes even better on the second day, especially made into a sandwich with any remaining focaccia. It took me a little while to get this recipe totally right, but I do now feel like it's ready to share.

Sorry about the slightly ad-hoc nature of the recipe and instructions, it's take from an email, as that's the only time I've ever written it down. I've added (what I hope are) some helpful photos

Aubergine Parmigiana - Serves four as a main just with bread, or more with salad

You'll need a 9" pie dish or something similar.

4 aubergines (sliced lengthways in thin slices - not sure how thin, I
just try for as thins as I can without a mandolin, although I know
that probably doesn't help. Also, I don't really worry about some
being thicker as you can deal with that when you fry them)
2x tins chopped tomatoes
small onion
dash of basil (I use dried in winter, fresh in summer)
olive oil (er, lots? have the bottle on hand)
Parmesan (also lots, I think I use 150g) grated finely.
salt and pepper

Righty, so you slice your aubergines and place layers of them in a
colander, sprinkling them with salt as you go. Then put a plate over
them and weight it down to get all the juice out (this is absolutely vital)
I leave them for as long as I can, probably 20-30 mins.

While they are draining knock up a quick tomato sauce. Chop the onion
into small pieces and fry in a medium saucepan in a bit of oil. When
glossy and soft add the basil and then dump in the tomatoes (and a
dash of wine if you fancy it) leave to simmer until a bit thicker, but
don't let too much evaporate.

Drain the aubergines and then dry them thoroughly. I do this with a
special tea towel or kitchen roll trying to get as much liquid out as
possible. Heat a frying pan and have a ramekin of olive oil and a
pastry brush to hand. Brush oil on one side of the aubergine slice and
fry oil side down (four or five at a time) in the dry pan. You want
them to be just about to turn browny black (you'll know what I mean
when you see it, and some charred bit are no problem, I even like
them! - see photo, where I got a bit distracted dashing for the camera and got a little over-charred, you want them a bit less brown than this),
brush the side up with oil and flip them over.Remove from the pan when done and start the next batch. This can take a while!
You can cook the thicker slices for longer at this stage to even it up a bit.

Okay, now you're ready to assemble: Get your pie dish. Place about a
third of the tomato sauce in the bottom:
cover with a layer of aubergine,and then sprinkle with a third of the Parmesan. Then repeat. You want
it so you have about three layers, (although depending on the
aubergines I sometimes get four) I think this number make it just
right. You want to finish with a layer of aubergine topped with

Don't worry about thinking there isn't enough tomato sauce in there,
and that it might be too dry. It will prove you wrong every time!

I cook mine the day before often and then re-cook the night we want to
eat it as the flavours develop really well. I also like the top of
mine to go really dark, almost charred, as I love the flavour!

Place in a 190C oven and cook for about 40-45 mins, until the cheese
has melted and going brown at the edges and it's bubbling slightly.

Try and hold out not plunging a fork in immediately, it'll be so hot!

Serve with lots of bread and be smug!

Saturday, 13 February 2010


My collection of wool is growing at a much faster rate than I can knit it up. Oops!

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

It never rains...

...but it pours, as the saying goes. As it happens, we've had more snow this week. Just a dusting, which, on the much-trodden London streets, hung in the air longer than it settled on the pavements.

But the pretty white flakes weren't enough to lift morale.
There are more than a few battles going on at the moment, and I now understand why you can't deploy a single army to fight on multiple fronts. It's just too hard.

When the going gets tough there is one man who can make everything better. N is a saint, and despite bearing the brunt of the attack this week has managed to always make me smile and lift my spirits. So last night, while he was out, I decided to do a little something to lift his.This involved consulting the other man in my life who often puts a smile on my face. Nigel Slater. I know that sometimes it must seem like the Nigel Slater appreciation society over here (does this exist? and if not, why, not and can I be president?!). I do like other food writers, honest, it's just that on a cold February evening, when everything in life is a little bit rubbish, I want to read a book that feels like being wrapped in a duvet, and that's exactly what Nigel Slater's writing (and recipes) are like. They are utterly unpretentious, beautifully uncomplicated, and as warm and satisfying as a really good cup of tea. So, when N isn't here to give me that big hug, it is to the pages of The Kitchen Diaries, or Appetite, that I go running.

Last night was a double whammy. I started with his mustard and sausage pasta dish, and then finished with his coffee and walnut cake. Adaptations were made to both, but I think Nigel would take that as a complement, as intended.

It was definitely a comfort meal. Sausages, fried with onions, and then coated in cream and mustard, with a random addition of some roasted tomatoes, all mushed together with pasta. Then the cake, a classic sponge, spiked with a hit of coffee and a crumbling of nuts, sandwiched and topped with fluffy coffee buttercream. Perfect.

It feels like I am working on classics at the moment, carrot cake, coffee cake, Shrewsbury biscuits. Somehow it feels like that kind of winter, where we need something familiar easy and from a simpler time (which of course is a myth, as all times have their ups and downs, but you know what I mean).I deviated from the classic slightly by using pecans rather than walnuts. This is partly because we both prefer the slight caramel hint you get with pecans, and partly because when I went to the cupboard is was bare of walnuts. I think it worked really well, with the slight softness that pecans have providing more of a chew than a crunch in the light sponge. I think it will be even better today as the coffee has had time to develop. Perfect for that afternoon pick-me-up.

I also halved the recipe, and rather than making it in large sandwich tins made it in my little 7 inch ones. This made a smaller, shallower cake that is more suitable to a house of two people. You'll still get about eight servings from it, but they won't be quite such door-stop slabs as the original. You can easily just scale up and make a bigger cake if needs warrant. Coffee and pecan cake - adapted from Nigel Slater's recipe in The Kitchen Diaries.

For the cake:
88g softened unsalted butter
88g unrefined caster sugar
88g self-raising flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 large eggs
1 tsp instant coffee granules, disolved in 2 tsp hot water (or 2 tsp camp coffee)
35g pecans, toasted lightly then coarsly chopped

For the buttercream:
100g unsalted butter
200g icing sugar
1 tsp instant coffee dislved in 1 tsp hot water/ or 2 tsp camp coffee
aprox 1 tbsp milk
seven/eight pecan halves for decoration

Preheat the oven to 180C and line or grease two 7 inch round sandwich tins.

Cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy, then add the eggs one at a time, beating in between additions. sift together the flour and baking powder and then gradually add to the mix. Add the coffee and beat to combine. Finally stir in the chopped nuts. Divide between the two pans as evenly as possible (don't worry too much about spreading or leveling the batter, it will do this as it bakes) and then bake for aprox 12 mins or until just golden and springy in the middle. Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool completely before removing from the tins.

While the cake are cooling, make the buttercream. Beat the butter until very soft, and then add the coffee. Mix until well combined, and then add the icing sugar in three additions, beating well in between. Finally add enough milk to get the right spreading consistancy (it needs to be fluffy and spreadable, without being runny, I could describe the texture I got as cloud-like!). For me this was about 1 tbsp.

When the cakes are cool turn them out. Place one on a plate, use a third of the icing in the middle, and spread evenly on the cake, then top with other half of the sandwich. Then ice the top and sides with the remaining buttercream and decorate with pecan halves.

p.s. for those of you who asked for the cinnamon roll recipe, it's over here... This is actually a vegan version. To make the "normal" ones, just add an egg instead of the replacer powder, and use real butter. The only thing I think I've changed since first making them is to up the lemon zest in the dough (I like my things lemony!) and to leave the dough on it's initial rise for longer, as I find the flavour develops well after a longer rising time (like three hours if you have it, I just leave mine on the radiator and forget about it.). It doesn't need this, but I happened to have the time and liked the flavour.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Four days a week.

After battling with my conscience, my finances and finally my managers, I have gone down to working four days a week.It's a decision that has made me happier than I've been in a long time. You see, at the start I loved my job. It was new, and challenging, and quite frankly it put off the inevitable post-studying "oh my goodness what on earth do I want to do with my life?!" panic. Then as time went on I realised that actually, I can't hack the 9-5. I just can't do the sitting in front of computer screen all day (ironic given that I spent three years doing that everyday whilst writing the phd), it was actually beginning to make me depressed.

So I did some sums, and some pondering, and some more sums, and even more pondering, and decided that perhaps four days a week would make it all easier. Sod the money, it's about the well being, as N pointed out to me.
Yesterday was my first of my new free Fridays. I almost danced around the flat whilst doing simple tasks such as cleaning the hob, and putting on yet another load of washing. I finally finished a quilt, the top of which I'd had sitting in a box for almost four months. I made us a treat for the weekend breakfasts. And then I took delivery of 96 beautiful new jars. Because you can never put enough things in jars.

I am going to use this time to make some plans. To do even more pondering (if it was an Olympic event I'd be right up there, I'm definitely in the world record region of ponderers), and hopefully make some decisions. I shall also put lots of things in lots of jars.
Wishing a very happy weekend to you all.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Carrots aren't just for Christmas...they're for cake.

The first year we truly started to eat seasonally, no longer nipping out to supermarkets to pick up things, but relying almost completely on our box scheme and farmer's market, we found it rather tough. We thought we knew veg, we were smug vegetarians. Summer graced us with glorious tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Autumn held pumpkins and courgettes by the armful. We were doing fine, this seasonality malarkey was great. Until the strange shaped objects started appearing on our doorstep as winter deepened."What on earth is this?!" cried N in horror as he pulled a large brown stick-like object out of our box one particularly dark, damp evening in January. "They've even run out of parsnips now" he exclaimed, "they've resorted to sticks and twigs!" It was black salsify, and the first of many new introductions over the winter months.

Now? We're well seasoned at seasonality, we scoff at another root in the
box (and cheat a whole lot by asking for the "deluxe" box during winter in the hope of getting something that isn't brown or white!) However, there are still times when I struggle with winter veg, and for some reason it's often the carrots that catch me out. I don't know why. I love them raw, and happily munch on them on days when I remember to pack them in my lunch. But more often than not they are forgotten about and then hastily added to meals at the last minute rather than being the star of the show.Then suddenly a few weeks ago I started craving carrot cake. I think I needed some brightness, a dose of vitamin D, or B, or C, or all three. I needed something that was fresh and yet comforting. I needed an all-rounder of cakes. One that wasn't just winter or summer, so no ginger cake (winter for me) or victoria sponge (the epitome of summer) would do. It had to be the perennial classic: carrot cake.So I dashed home, I hunted out the recipe and started pulling ingredients out of the fridge and cupboards. Then the huge flaw in my poorly-laid plan hit. I didn't have any carrots! A fit of "I must eat them before they go bendy" had struck and they'd been snuck into lunches and devoured. Oops!

But this week, I finally successed. I got in slightly earlier from work, and I even remembered the carrots. I managed to pull together the other ingredients, and off I went. It was worth the wait. I always forget how much I love this recipe. I didn't have icing ingredients, but I don't think it needs it. It lacks nuts for the same reason. This is my very own carrot cake recipe, and it makes me proud. I felt even prouder when N said "is there booze in this?" in a very approving tone, and I had to admit that no, there wasn't, and yet it tastes moist, and spiced and indulgent enough for you to expect a boozy addition.

Ladies and gentlemen, as an offering on this dark, damp, miserable Wednesday evening in February, a little something that I hope will lift your hearts and spirits.

Rebecca's very own carrot cake

I make this in a loaf pan, and sometimes ice it, and sometimes don't. It an adaptation of my pumpkin cake recipe, and one day I will post a marmalade version too. Until then, plain carrot it is. This manages to feel both righteous and indulgent. I wish I made it more often.

300g grated carrot
100g raisins
100ml light olive oil
175g self-raising flour
175g caster sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp grated nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp mixed spice

Grease and line a large loaf pan (mine is about 4" x 10"). Preheat the oven to 150C.

In a large bowl beat the eggs. Then add the oil, sugar, carrot, raisins and mix. Then add in the flour, spices, and soda. Mix until combined. Pour into the loaf pan, and bake for aprox 1 hour 15mins (mine sometimes takes less, keep an eye one it) or until a skewer comes out clean. Cool before removing from the tin.

p.s. can we not mention the bad photos and the lack of good light here at the moment? Thanks, you're the best.