Blackcurrants in Brandy

If you’re a regular reader, you may have seen my summer pudding two years ago. This is a classic British dessert made from ripe summer fruit encased in white bread. You leave everything to sit in the fridge overnight, and in the meantime the fruit juices will spill out into the bread, leaving everything a deep purple-red colour. A fruity slice, covered in cream, is hard to beat.

Well, I claim that this was my summer pudding but in fact the honour really has to go to my mum. The fruit was all grown by her own fair hands in her garden in Scotland, and the recipe was hers too. Whereas she has a garden with Victoria plums, redcurrants, strawberries, blaeberries, brambles…I’m scraping in with some never-quite-ripe figs and one stubbornly green tomato. I guess I’ll just have to work on my green fingers!

I was up in Scotland a few weeks for the Commonwealth Games, and it turned out to be the two-year anniversary of the previous summer pudding triumph. However, my plans to have another go were trounced by the inconvenient reality that my mum’s fruit crop had not done quite so well this year. There were a few raspberries, some lone strawberries and a scrap of redcurrants. Not quite the bounty I was hoping for, but there was one star amount then – my mum’s two blackcurrant bushes were positively groaning with fruit! A combination of lots of warm and sunny weather and the fact they were near a south-facing wall meant that they were dark, juiced and perfectly ripe. My mum was happy for me to take some, so I seized my chance and picked a generous punnet. In fact, I waited until my last day in Scotland, and picked them in the morning with the hope that they would survive six hours in the train back to London. The good news – they did.

So back in London, with the glow of the Commonwealth Games a fading memory, I had to think what to do with these blackcurrants. Jam would have been quick and easy, but I had been on what can only be described as a preserving binge earlier in the summer. Strawberry, peach, kumquat and passion fruit, raspberry and grapefruit all line my shelves, so another jar of jam was about the last think I needed. No, the clear choice was to bottle them and preserve them in brandy. This had been my mum’s suggestion back in Scotland, so a lesson to always listen!

blackcurrantsinbrandy

There are various ways to preserve fruit. The most complex version I’ve seen involves making a sugar syrup, cooking the fruit gently, and finishing off by heating everything in a hot water bath. My approach is far simpler – just pick the berries from the stalks, rinse them, then cover in brandy and add a little sugar. No spices, no cooking, no making a simple sugar syrup. The booze does all the hard work of preserving the fruit, and all you have to do is wait until Christmas to enjoy them. This technique is very similar to making a German Rumtopf but rather than adding different fruits as they come into season, you just throw the berries into a jar and let nature take its course. As you can see from my pictures, after a few weeks, the brandy has taken on an intense black colour from the berries. It’s also worth noting that you can adjust the sugar to taste – if you want, add less than I’ve suggested, and if you need to add more later, you can add a few more spoonfuls to balance the flavour. If you’re planning to eat these berries on their own, more sugar is probably good, whereas you could get away with less if serving with meringue or sweetened cream or ice cream.

One little tip that I did see when I was still in Scotland was to add a few blackcurrant leaves to the jar. They apparently contain more of the fragrant oils that give blackcurrants their flavour, so adding a few to the jar should provide a little boost while everything is steeping. That, and they do look rather pretty in the jar. I think if you were to add a little of the syrup to a glass of fizz, one of the leaves curled around the inside of your champagne flute would look rather pretty.

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Oh…and did I mention that in addition to boozy fruit, you’ll get a delicious home-made cassis liqueur? Perfect to add to champagne, cocktails or just have as a little post-dinner digestif.

To make blackcurrants in brandy:

• blackcurrants
• blackcurrant leaves (a handful)
• brandy
• white sugar

1. Clean a large jar with hot, soapy water and rinse well (we don’t want soapy berries!).

2. Remove the blackcurrants from the stalks. Rinse and add to the jar along with the blackcurrant leaves.

3. Now add the brandy and sugar until the fruit is covered. For every 100ml of brandy, add 30g of sugar (or less if you prefer).

4. Leave the jar in a cool, dark place for several months. Every couple of weeks, shake the jar to make sure the sugar dissolves.

Worth making? So far, so good. Check back at Christmas!

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Beijinhos de Coco (Brazilian Coconut Kisses)

A few days ago I tried making Brazilian brigadeiros and have been really surprised at just how popular they are – I think they’ve had more comments than just about any other of my posts! As the weather has been rotten here, I found myself looking again at the cuisine of Brazil for some inspiration, and came across another sweet treat, very similar to brigadeiros, but made with coconut rather than cocoa. Again it is a simple matter of cooking up some condensed milk with a little butter plus your desired flavour, then cooking the lot until thick.

I’m rather impressed with how these turned out – they have a really excellent coconut flavour and a nice chewiness, rather like a firmer and chocolate-free Bounty bar. They are traditionally rolled in more coconut and finished with a whole clove. This might seem a little odd, but the hint of spice that this adds is surprisingly good (just remember to remove the cloves when you eat them!). If cloves aren’t your thing, you could try dipping them in dark chocolate for a more sophisticated treat.

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As with making chocolate brigaderos, I recommend that you don’t make these too far ahead of time. They can dry out, and you want them to be smooth and chewy. It is also worth saying that the longer you cook the mixture, the firmer the final sweets, so if you want them to be softer and more creamy, cook for less time, for very firm and more toffee-like, cook a little longer.

To make Beijinhos de Coco (make 25):

• 1 tin sweetened condensed milk (400g)
• 30g desiccated coconut (unsweetened)
• 30g (2 tablespoons) butter
• extra desiccated coconut, to roll
• whole cloves

1. Very lightly butter the bottom of a dish and place to one side.

2. In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Mix in the coconut and condensed milk. Keep stirring over a gentle heat until the mixture looks thick and comes away from the sides of the pan (around 10 minutes). Pour the mixture into the buttered dish, cover with cling film, and leave to cool completely.

3. Take walnut-sized pieces of the mixture and roll into balls between your hands. Roll in more coconut, press a clove into the top of each beijinho, and put into miniature cake cases.

Worth making? If you like coconut, these are a delicious and easy sweet to make at home. Recommended!

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Kardemummainen Rahka-Mustikkapiiras (Finnish Blueberry Tart)

Now be honest – have you ever made a recipe from a tea towel? Well, today that is what served as my inspiration for this post. Sometimes it is travel, sometimes it is a mystery ingredient I bought on impulse, but today, it is a tea towel.

In fairness, this is not just any random tea towel. I got them as a gift from my friend Anne who was on holiday in Helsinki and St Petersburg over the summer. The theme is blueberries – one featuring two big black bears who have come across a woody glade filled with fruit, and the other has a rather full bear (complete with a blue tongue) and a recipe for a blueberry and sour cream tart – the Rahka-Mustikkapiiras in the title of this post.

These tea towels are from a Finnish company called Finlayson, a textile maker founded by a Scottish engineer called James Finlayson in 1820, who decided to set up a cotton mill in Tampere on Finland’s west coast. I like the idea of a brave pioneer decided to set out and live in one of the few places that is colder and darker than his native Scotland…but I’ve experienced the mosquitoes in Finland, so I’m sure they served as a reminder of the Scottish midges to cure any homesickness.

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Now, before I could even dream of using these cloths to dry things, I just had to try this recipe. The problem was that it is in Finnish, a language that I have no real idea about. A few trips to Finland have left me with the most limited of limited vocabulary extending as far as (and I am not making this up): yksi (one), kaksi (two), moi (hi), tervetuloa (welcome), kipis (cheers), glöggi (mulled wine), kiitos (thank you) and joulupukki (literally “Christmas Goat” but now closer to Father Christmas). So if I met two festive boks in the street, I would be able to count them, welcome them, toast with a glass of mulled wine and say thanks, which is clearly a very useful life skill indeed.

So…I had a recipe in a language I had not a hope of understanding. I could have looked online for a similar recipe and made that instead, but that felt a bit like cheating. Instead, I typed each and every strange word into a translation website, and got a rough approximation of a recipe. At least I knew what the ingredients were, how much I needed, and roughly what I should be doing with them. I say “roughly” because the method was a bit rough and ready. But still, this felt like quite an achievement!

So what is this mysterious tart? It is rather like a simple blueberry cheesecake with a cardamom-flavoured biscuit crust. During baking, the berries release some of their juice, and the surface of the tart takes on a lovely mottled purple pattern. The whole thing probably took me about 20 minutes to make, so it really is a very, very easy recipe to have a go at.

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Traditionally this tart is made with a thick yoghurt-like fermented milk called viili. Lacking easy access to Finnish produce in London, I just swapped it out for some tangy cream cheese, but I think you could equally easily use yoghurt, or crème fraîche.

So – how was the recipe? I had to admit, I had a couple of wobbles and made a few changes to the flavours. First off, my translation of the recipe suggested that I melt the butter, then pour into the rest of the pastry ingredients. My head was telling me that this would produce an oily pastry, and I was right. However, it was fairly easy to press into place and the end result was fine. However, if I was making this again, I would use softened butter (rather than melted) and cream everything together, which would also make the dough easier to work with. The recipe also calls for a teaspoon of ground cardamom, but I found that this was a bit too much when the tart was at room temperature. I would go for half a teaspoon for a milder flavour, but bizarrely, the flavour was less intense when the tart was chilled. I’ve suggested half a teaspoon below, but if you love the flavour of cardamom, then go crazy. In terms of the filling, I added more berries than the recipe called for (who doesn’t love more berries?), and used only half of the suggested teaspoon of vanilla extract. This final change was a good call, so that there was a hint of flavour rather than anything too overpowering.

All in all – this was a success. The tart is easy, looks great and it does plug into those fashionable Nordic flavours of blueberries and cardamom. This is lovely with a cup of coffee as the days of autumn get increasingly nippy. Maybe we should all be using tea towels to inspire our baking once in a while?

To make Finnish Blueberry Tart

Pastry

• 100g butter, softened
• 50ml sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• 200g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2
teaspoon ground cardamom

Filling

• 400g blueberries (fresh or frozen)
• 50ml milk
• 200ml sour cream or 200g cream cheese (full fat versions!)
• 50g sugar
• 1 egg
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F).

2. Make the pastry – cream everything into a smooth dough. Press over the bottom and sides of pie dish – don’t worry about it being a little rough, the rustic look is part of the charm.

3. Sprinkle the blueberries into the pie dish. Mix the milk, sour cream/cream cheese, sugar, egg and vanilla until smooth. Pour slowly over the berries.

4. Bake for 30 minutes or until the filling is set (it should wobble, but not look runny). Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Serve cold.

Worth making? Yes! Who knew a tea towel recipe could be so good?

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Brigadeiros

I think every cook has a few technically complex things that they aspire to be able to make really well. In my case, it’s a pretty long list (I’ve got a thing for mastering tricky techniques) but I would love to be really, really good at making sweets. Fudge, caramels, chocolates…for all the artistry involved in making them, they also contain a decent amount of science, as too much mixing (or not enough), or being a degree or two above or below the right temperature can ruin you sweets or change them completely. When I was growing up, we had a “Candy Cookbook” with recipes for making fondant, then dozens and dozens of recipes to make with that fondant. Needless to say, my poor mother suffered years of sugary mess in the kitchen which yielded inedible results with tedious regularity.

For this reason, I’m always rather happy to make something that is easy and has pretty much guaranteed success attached to it, and brigadeiros tick that box. They originate in Brazil, and I would describe them as chocolate caramel truffles. They are also dead simple, as they are made from just butter, cocoa and condensed milk. I’ve also added a pinch of salt, both to get just a hint of that salted caramel vibe going, but also to cut through the sweetness of all that condensed milk.

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These little chocolate treats were said to have been created in Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s by supporters of Brigadier Eduardo Gomes, who was running for the Presidency of Brazil. Their slogan was “vote no Brigadeiro que é bonito e é solteiro”, which translates as “vote for the Brigadier, who is handsome and single”. Unfortunately for him, the power of confectionery was not enough, and he ended the campaign handsome, single and not the President. However, his name lives on in the form of these little bonbons which are a perennial favourite at parties in Brazil.

Actually making brigadeiros was a complete breeze. Just melt the butter, mix in the cocoa until smooth, then add the condensed milk. Keep stirring over a low flame until the mixture comes away from the sides of the pan. If things seem to be getting a little lumpy, just beat vigorously with a whisk until smooth. No worrying about setting points, whether things have been tempered or how to encourage the “right” sort of crystals to form. Just beat, boil, cool, roll! This is sweet making for the impatient, and suited me perfectly.

The traditional coating is to roll them in chocolate vermicelli sprinkles, but there are other options too. I’ve also used some finely chopped pistachios, and coconut would also look rather good with the white flakes contrasting with the dark cocoa interior.

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Finally, a little advice – you can make the filling ahead of time (e.g. the night before) and then roll the truffles in chocolate sprinkles just before serving. However, be careful about making them too long before you intend to eat them – as the ingredients are fairly simple, they will dry out after a couple of days, so you won’t have that lovely smooth texture. You could play around with the recipe and start adding glucose syrup and such like, but I recommend keeping things simple and just making them a little bit before you want to serve them.

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To make Brigadeiros (makes 18)

• 1 tin sweetened condensed milk (400g)
• 30g cocoa powder, sifted
• 30g butter
• pinch of salt
• chocolate sprinkles, chopped nuts, coconut etc. (for rolling)

1. Lightly grease the bottom of a dish and place to one side.

2. In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Mix in the cocoa and condensed milk. Keep stirring over a gentle heat until the mixture looks thick and comes away from the sides of the pan (around 10 minutes). Pour the mixture into the buttered dish, cover with cling film, and leave to cool completely.

3. Take walnut-sized pieces of the mixture and roll into balls between your hands. Roll in the topping of your choice and put into miniature cake cases.

Worth making? Considering how ridiculously easy these are to make, they are really delicious. This is a great idea for kids to make, as they look great on a plate, and you can add all manner of toppings.

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Rødgrød med Fløde

Chances are you’re probably sitting there wondering what on Earth does that mean and how do I even begin to pronounce it?

Well, it is Danish, and a literal translation is “red groats with cream”. However, you can translate it more freely as the enticing-sounding Danish red berry pudding with cream. Something like this.

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I say something like this as this is one of those recipes that looks oh-so-simple, but in reality, many people have their own version, and everyone thinks not only that theirs is best, but that theirs is the only way to make it. So for any Danes out there that happen to read this, I’m fully aware that you’ll be rolling your eyes, and possibly tutting, but I think this version tastes pretty decent, and at the end of the day, that’s what matters.

My first experience with the words rødgrød med fløde was actually way back in the late 1990s, when I was an exchange student in Germany. There were a couple of Danes in our group, and the communal view at the time was that it was a “robust” language to outsiders with a “unique” sound. The Danes thought it was hilarious to ask us to pronounce rødgrød med fløde, which we all got spectacularly wrong. I just could not force myself to make those sounds! All to do with the fact that Danes swallow a lot of the contestants at the end of words, so what you might think is something like roo-d groo-d med floo-hd is closer to rhye-gry-meh-floo-e. If you’re keen to find out, you can hear people getting it right here. Then try to copy them – see how hard it is?

But anyway, for all the humour of those words, I’ve never actually had the pleasure of trying rødgrød med fløde. So how do we make it? The starting point for any batch is lots and lots of delicious summer berries, ideally red. This is the sort of dessert that really is best made when fruit is at its most ripe and the peak of deliciousness! We’re not looking for fruit that looks perfect, it’s all about taste.

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As I mentioned, there are lots and lots of versions of rødgrød med fløde out there, but at its most basic, this is recipe that calls for fruit juice that is lightly sweetened, and then thickened slightly with starch (potato flour or cornflour), then cooled and served with lashings of cream. Lashings of cream. However, even within what seems like a pretty easy recipe, there is lots of scope for variety.

Many people seem to cook the berries, then purée the lot by pushing it through a sieve. I have to admit that I’m not too keen on this approach – I like my fruit either totally smooth or in recognisable pieces. I’m just not too keen on anything that seems like mush or has lots of stringy “bits” bobbing around in it. At the other end of the scale, some recipes suggest cooking the fruit, but then straining the liquid through muslin to get a clear red juice (a bit like making jelly). This would apparently result in a clear ruby-red colour and velvet-smooth texture, but I thought it was wasteful as you would throw away a lot of the fruit (and all the fibre from those seeds!). Then other recipes took a more pragmatic approach – just boil up all the fruit, then thicken the lot. Easy, albeit with more of a thickened fruity mush.

However, there were a few suggestions that combined the second and third approaches – making some fruit into a juice, then adding more whole fruit to the juice just before adding the starch. This looked like the best option by far. I love how berries look like little jewels, so it would be a shame to lose that completely. So I cooked up some of my fruit to turn into juice – in fact, this approach was useful as I was using some rhubarb in my version, and I wanted that lovely tart flavour without the stringy “bits”. Once my fruit had cooked down, I put the lot into a muslin bag, but rather than just letting it drip to get a clear juice, I happily gave it a good old squeeze. Maximum fruit, minimum “bits”, and who really cares about the pudding being slightly cloudy? I then put the juice back into a pan, added some berries, and cooked the lot lightly before adding some cornflour to get a thickened texture. Remember you’re aiming for something like a pouring custard, not glue! The result was the colour of garnet or red damask – luxurious, sumptuous, intense.

In terms of the fruit I used, I looked to tradition. In Denmark, redcurrants (ribs) are very popular, and apparently some Danes grow redcurrant bushes just to make this dish. Next were some raspberries (hindbær) – in my view, no summer fruit selection is complete without them. This probably comes from summers when I was very young, spent picking rasps, several plastic punnets attached to a plastic string around my waist (allows for faster two-handed picking, important when you’re keen to earn your first ever £100 as soon as possible!). They also have the requisite glorious red colour you want for this dessert, but they are a complex fruit – sweet, yes, but also aromatic and also a little tart too.

Strawberries (jordbær) are also favourites, and rhubarb (rabarber) seems to feature quite a lot. Personally I love rhubarb and I think small pieces of tender pink rhubarb in there would be delicious, and all a little gentle sharpness to balance the sweetness. However, I only had bigger stalks, so I used them for their juice rather than having big bits bobbing about. Blackcurrants (solbær) and blueberries (blåbær) will also work, but they will also have an effect on the colour, but then again, the flavour will still be delicious, so that is something you could easily live with. Another choice would be cherries (kirsebær), but I didn’t have any to hand. You could even go a bit crazy and omit anything red, going instead for a combination of whitecurrants and gooseberries, but then your dessert would not be red, and you miss your chance to ask people to pronounce the name!

Once I had made my spectacularly-coloured pudding, I mused on whether I should add another flavour. Cardamom is a classic Nordic flavour, but I was not really sure it was what I wanted with fresh summer berries. What about spices like cinnamon? Well, not really. Again, I think ripe fruit stands on its own here, but if you were making this with plums or brambles later in the year, then a little dash of cinnamon or clove would be really lovely. But in summer time – it just has to be pure, lovely fruit!

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Once you’ve made rødgrød med fløde you need to give some serious thought to how to present it. First off, leave it to cool, or if you prefer, chill it in the fridge. Now, go off and find some suitable serving dishes. A lot of people seem to like ice cream cups, but I think the most spectacular way to present it is by adding a few generous spoonfuls to a wide dish, then adding a tablespoon of cream in a dramatic swirl. This will leave a fantastic and fairly stable colour contrast that will impress guests and provide a neat little nod to the red-and-white of the Danish flag. And when it comes to cream, go for the real deal. Not some low-fat version or a cream substitute. You want rich, golden, full-fat double cream!

In terms of taste, this dessert is wonderful. Rich and fruity, but also a little but sharp from the rhubarb, all balanced with cool, luxurious double cream. This really is a perfect dessert for the final days of summer.

And just the day after I made this, the weather changed. Autumn has arrived.

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To make Rødgrød med Fløde (serves 6):

Note the specific quantities of each fruit don’t really matter, just as long as you use equivalent weights of whatever you have to hand.

Part 1 – the juice

• 300g rhubarb, chopped
• 150g redcurrants
• 50g blueberries
• 200g strawberries, quartered
• 100g raspberries
• 150g sugar
• 300ml water

Part 2 – for the rødgrød med fløde

• 150g redcurrants
• 50g blueberries
• 50g blackcurrants
• 150g strawberries, quartered
• 50g sugar
• 100ml water
• 3 tablespoons cornflour

To serve

• double cream

1. Put the “part 1″ berries into a saucepan. Bring to the boil then simmer very gently, covered, for 20 minutes. Break up the fruit with a wooden spoon, then strain through a muslin bag. When cool, give the bag a good squeeze to get as much juice as you can. Discard the seeds and skins.

2. Put the juice in a saucepan. Add the “part 2″ fruit, sugar and water. Heat gently then simmer on a low heat, covered, for 10 minutes.

3. Mix the cornflour with a little water, and add to the fruit mixture. Stir well until it is smooth and thickened. If too thin, add a little more cornflour, it too thick, add a little water. Check the flavour – add more sugar if needed, or add a few drops of lemon juice if too sweet.

4. Pour the mixture into a bowl, cover with cling film and leave to cool.

5. Serve in individual bowls topped with double cream.

Worth making? This is a wonderful, fresh-tasting and luxurious dessert, with the benefit that it can be easily prepared in advance. Highly recommended!

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Broad Bean Salad

I recently started getting a vegetable box delivered. I know, does seem terribly lazy, but I was spurred on by the realisation that there were really not enough greens (and of course other colours of veg) in my fridge. Pasta was becoming all too often the easy dinner of choice. The more veg I have in the house, the greater the chance that I’ll actually eat more of the stuff. That was the thinking at least.

Of course, it’s actually seductively easy to start getting your delivery at this time of the year. There are all manner of tasty seasonal goodies in the box every week. Beets, lettuce, vine tomatoes, carrots (complete with tops), potatoes, fennel…and of course, broad beans!

The funny thing about broad beans is that I never buy them when I see them in a shop. Of course they look appealing and I like the idea of them, but I know that I’ll need to carry home lots of beans to get anywhere near a decent amount to eat. Given I don’t have a car and I would like to maximise the amount of veg that I can carry home, the beans tend to get left on the shelf.

Of course, all of that is not a problem when a box magically appears outside your front door, and I’ve been enjoying shelling pods and skinning the beans over the last few weeks.

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I think one of the nicest ways to eat broad beans is just to lightly cook them, skin them (decadent, but delicious!) and make a simple salad with a few other veggies and some cheese with a light dressing. Nothing fancy, just some clean, fresh flavours and bright colours. I find broad beans, beets, tomatoes and goat’s cheese go together particularly well, and that’s what I’ve done in this very, very simple salad. Just arrange things in an artful-yet-casual way on the plate just before serving, then drizzle with some oil and vinegar, and scatter with some fresh herbs. That’s it – light, healthy and full of the joys of summer!

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To make broad bean salad

OK, there are no set measures here…I find a handful of each will make two generous salads

For the salad:

• broad beans, boiled and skinned
• waxy potatoes, peeled, boiled and sliced
• beets, boiled, peeled and sliced
• cherry tomatoes, quartered
• soft goat’s cheese
• fresh thyme leaves or other herbs

For the dressing:

• 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• freshly ground black pepper

1. Arrange the vegetables.

2. Put the ingredients for the dressing into a jam jar. Share vigorously to mix, then drizzle over the salad. Finish with a sprinkling of fresh herbs.

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Les Couques de Dinant

Earlier this year, I agreed, in a moment of generous madness, that I would cater a family wedding for around 30 people over four nights deep in the Belgian countryside. I mean…how hard could it really be? Of course, I was not going to make all the mistakes that other cooks might make. Oh no, I was going to be organised, I was going to cook everything a couple of times to be sure the recipes were foolproof, I was going to have a detailed set of plans, I would run everything to schedule. A doddle. 120 covers? Ha, I laughed at the task. It’s all in the organisation, or so I thought.

Fast forward to the actual event in May, and I found myself in a hire care, winding along rural roads from Brussels to a small village in the Ardennes. If you don’t know the area, it is very pretty – forests, hills, charming towns and lots to explore. On the way to the venue, I was confident that driving out of Brussels was going to be the only bad thing about this whole trip. Even thought I lived in the Belgian capital for four years, I never got used to some of the worst driving in Western Europe. However, once we’d cleared Brussels, taken the motorway to Namur, and finally reached a small road along the river Meuse in the strawberry region around Wépion, I felt a bit of a sense of relief. A large strawberry ice cream on a patch of grass overlooking the river told me it was all going to be fine now. I had my day-by-day planner, everything would be straightforward. Time to sit back and enjoy the countryside.

Our trip took a took a bit of a detour down to Dinant. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for this place, and from the picture above, you can see why. The Meuse snakes its way along a valley, with long, thin towns lining its banks. And the results are stunning – traditional houses in front of large rock faces. Dinant is also famous as the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, and today the evidence of this creation is still celebrated in the city.

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During this visit, I came across a traditional biscuit, the couques de dinant. The place where I discovered them was the wonderfully traditional Patisserie Jacobs, which had the various couques in just about every elaborate shape that you could think of – people, animals, baskets of flours and, of course, saxophones. It really was like stepping back in time, and after coffee and a strawberry tart, the helpful lady was happy to explain all about the ingredients, the history and the process of making couques de dinant.

These are traditionally made from very simple ingredients – flour and honey – and shaped into elaborate shapes using wooden moulds, and then baked at a high temperature so that the honey caramelises and they take on a deep, golden colour. There is also a variation, the couques de rins, which are made with added sugar. Apparently, there are rules about ensuring careful labelling so that customers can be sure they are getting exactly the right thing.

Now, these little couques are rather hard to describe…the best I can say is that they are like very hard biscuits, but you don’t actually bite into them. For goodness sake, don’t bite into them! Well, you could, but you would probably break your teeth, and that would be bad. No, the trick with the couques is to break them into pieces, and then pop a small piece into your mouth and let it soften, rather like a sweet. The flavour is very old-fashioned, and sort of reminds me of German Christmas biscuits, also often made with lots of honey.

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When I got back to London, I decided to have a go at making these myself. The good thing about making couques de dinant is that you really can make very small amounts of them, as you just need equal weights of honey and flour. Before making a big batch, I did a little test run with a spoon of honey and an equal weight of plain flour.

What became clear to me very quickly is that the type of honey you use here really does matter. I don’t think it is so much the quality of the honey as such, but you do want something with a strong flavour. My first attempt using a very mild acacia honey was a bit lacklustre. However, a second attempt using a strong wildflower honey was much better, with a much richer flavour.

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Actually making the couques was fairly straightforward. I don’t have an elaborate foot-high wooden stamp of the type they use in traditional Dinant bakeries, but I did have some biscuit presses  from when I made German Springerle a couple of years ago, and I thought using my little pine cone mould would look rather cute. Just roll out the dough, dust very lightly with flour, then press the mould on top. This helps to stop sticking, and in my experience works better than trying to apply the flour to the mould itself (think about it – if the mould is not actually sticky, the flour will just fall off…). Once you’ve got a nice sharp imprint, just use a soft brush to gently sweep away the excess before baking.

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Once you’ve got all the dough ready, just pop in the oven and bake until a rich golden colour. When you remove them from the oven, there is another trick – brush them straight away with some plain water. This makes any remaining patches of flour disappear, and gives the finished couques an attractive sheen. And there you go – you’ve made the couques! If you want to see an expert at work, here is a rather nifty video from a baker in Patisserie Jacobs. It’s in French, but you can still get an idea of the process.

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Now…the big question…what are they actually like? Well, as promised, they are pretty tough. The thinner the couque, the more likely it is to snap, but they don’t seem to end up as crisp and delicate morsels. Just as the lady in the bakery promised, you need to bread off a piece, and just let is melt in the mouth. Not as sensational as macarons or as delicate as florentines, but they’ve got a certain old-fashioned charm, and of course, a delicious strong honey flavour. They also last for absolutely ages, so if you’re looking to make decorative cookies, these are a great option.

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Oh, and that wedding…you might be interested to know how it went? Well, for all my naïve ideas that I could plan everything and have it run like clockwork, that didn’t happen. But you already guess that! I spent the best part of the four days of the wedding celebrations running around in the large kitchen, bossing people about, with about seven different pots on the go at any one time.  Of course, what was fantastic was that with our little kitchen gang, we were able to turn out a series of delicious dishes which the guest and the newlyweds seemed to really enjoy. We did everything from scratch, and the reason we did that rather than using shortcuts was that we all wanted to do something special for the event. We were ambitious, goodness knows we were ambitious, but it all worked, so I hope that we did succeed in helping to make their celebrations a little more special.

So while I spent most of the four days of the wedding celebrations over a hot stove, feeling stressed, tired, frustrated, impatient and probably nearly shouted at lots of people, it was also wonderful, crazy, fantastic fun. I’ve learned a lot about cooking for big groups, and I’ve also realised that I probably don’t plan to open a restaurant quite yes. however, that’s not to say that I don’t still have a little fantasy to open a café floating around in my head…

To make Couques de Dinant (makes around 12-15):

• 250g runny honey
• 250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
• dot of oil to grease
• water

1. Preheat the oven the 220°C (430°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, and rub very lightly with vegetable oil.

2. Put the honey in a bowl, and add the flour, a little at a time, until you have a smooth dough. You want a texture that is firm but which can be shaped, so you might need a little more or a little less – go you your gut.

3. Turn the dough onto a well-floured surface and roll to around 1cm (1/3 inch) thickness. Dust with flour and press the mould into the dough, trim and place on the baking tray. Repeat until all the dough is used up.

4. Bake for around 10-15 minutes until golden, turning the tray half-way during baking if needed to get an even colour (watch them – the high honey content means they can easily burn). When done remove from the oven and brush each with a little water. Leave to cool.

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Gaun Yersel, Glasgow!

So, lads and lassies, did you see all that? We’ve had over a week of sporting action from the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. The opening ceremony was of course a festival of almost every cliché you could imagine – tartan, glens, bagpipes, Scottie dogs, the Loch Ness Monster and a few dancing Tunnocks teacakes – and all of that was brilliant. I went up there for a few days, and the mood in the city was amazing. Friendly people and crowds cheering the athletes. Glasgow did itself and Scotland proud!

Just to finish off the celebration of all things Caledonian, here are a few Scottish recipes that I’ve tackled over the years from those of you that have been watching from further afield and who want to keep the celtic mood going, and perhaps experience some of the flavours of Scotland. Sadly, I don’t have recipe for Scotland’s second national drink, Irn-Bru, that I can share with you. I’ll leave that gastronomical experience for when you’re able to visit…

Macaroon bars. For me, these are one of the most Scottish things you could make. The centre is a simple fondant made from icing sugar and, rather bizarrely, mashed potato! They’re then dipped in chocolate and rolled in toasted coconut to provide a very calorific treat. Go for a long run after eating.

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Shortbread. This is often seen as the “jewel in the crown” of Scotland’s rich baking tradition. It is amazing that this simple combination of butter, flour and sugar can turn into something so delicious and it has been responsible for millions of boxes festooned in tartan, Scottie dogs and thistles.

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Oatcakes. As a healthy counter to those sugar-heavy macaroon bars, oatcakes are another of Scottish baking’s gems. They’re ridiculously simple, just oats, flour, water and salt, but they’re delicious on their own or with good, sharp Scottish cheese.

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Ecclefechan Butter Tart. This one is worth making for the name alone! It originates in the town of Ecclefechan near the border with England, and consists of nuts and dried fruit in a rich filling made with butter and brown sugar. It’s a little bit like Canadian Butter Tarts…I wonder if there is some link there?

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Clapshot. Another simple dish but one which is utterly delicious, believe me. Not much more than potato and neeps (aka turnips, or what the rest of the world calls swede…), mashed up with butter, salt, pepper and sprinkled with chives. This one originates from Orkney.

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Atholl Brose. This is the grand name that is given to an oat milk that is mixed with cream, heather honey and whisky to provide a celebratory tipple that was said to have been a favourite of Queen Victoria.

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Cranachan. Scotland is a big soft fruit producer, and cranachan is a great way to make the most of Scottish raspberries. This is a lovely mixture of toasted oats, softly whipped cream with a dash of whisky and honey, and fresh berries that is the essence of summer. A more sophisticated alternative to Eton Mess!

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Rock Buns. A tea shop staple that I remember from the 1980s – simply fruit buns with a dash of spice. Named after their slightly rustic (rock-like) appearance.

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Empire Biscuits. More tooth-attacking sweetness! These are two buttery biscuits, filled with jam and topped with glacé icing. Originally known as German biscuits, the name was changed to something more patriotic.

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Smiddy Dumpling. Alright, this is perhaps one that is not so widely known, but it nicely showcases the various dark teabreads you might see in Scotland. I got this one from a friend’s mum who lives on the Black Isle, to the north of Inverness. An easy loaf cake to knock up if you don’t fancy getting to grips with boiling the more famous Clootie Dumpling (in an old dish cloth, or cloot, of all things!).

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Tattie Scones. A great breakfast favourite – mashed potatoes and flour, cooked dry in a frying pan and then yours to scoff either covered in butter and jam, or as part of a cooked breakfast. Incidentally, these were being served in a bun at the Commonwealth Games…perhaps a bit of a starch overload there?

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Date Bars

I have recently been on a bit of a quest to start finding healthier snacks to take to work. Our café has been selling date and nut bars at a handsome premium, so I thought that I could easily make them myself. I mean, ground up dates and nuts, how hard can it really be? So yes…I’ve basically made what you probably already know  as Lärabars, but bear with me – I’ve actually done a bit of research here, and it turns out that these healthy sweet treats have a bit more history to them that you might think.

One of my most interesting little baking books is Cakes From Around The World by Julie Duff. One of the recipes that has piqued my curiosity is for Egyptian date cakes. These consist of nothing more than dates and almonds, ground with a dash of lemon juice, and then pressed flat between two sheets of rice paper. Julie muses that you can imagine cakes like this being made in ancient times, and having finally tried making date/nut bars, I have to agree.

These date bars are made me think of traditional festive sugar plums. I was always under the impression that sugar plums were some sort of candied treat, finally rolled in sparking crystals, but when I had a go at making them a few years ago, it turned out that they were actually rather like energy balls – little balls of dried fruit and nuts, dusted in icing sugar. It is actually quite interesting to look at that recipe with modern eyes – we see something that might pass for healthy (putting the debate about the amount of sugar in dried fruit to one side) whereas Victorians would have viewed them as luxurious treats, packed with all manner of expensive and exotic ingredients from far away lands. How times have changed.

So when I came to actually making date and nut bars, I didn’t feel that I was just having a go at making something that is a modern idea, but something that actually goes back a long, long way.

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I used a simple ratio of one cup of dates, chopped, and one cup of mixed whole cashews and almonds. In my case the dates were fairly dry, so I soaked them in cold water for five minutes, but if you’re using very juicy dates, such as medjool, then you can probably skip this step. I also added some ground spices that I hoped would provide a bit of a gingerbread effect – ground cinnamon, ginger and mixed spice. I say mixed spice, but as I was feeling lazy, I used the first thing I could find, which happened to be a pot of Garam Masala. While I’m all for using whole spices and grinding them where I can, I think in these bars it is good to use pre-ground, as you’ll struggle to get as fine a powder as you do from a shop-bought mix. You want the flavour to disperse evenly, not little bits of woody cinnamon!

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Once I’d ground the dates to a paste and worked in the nuts, I pretty quickly realised that I had ended up with something that was very sticky and was never going to come together. Luckily, I had a bag of ground almonds to hand, and I kept adding a handful at a time until it worked. It’s hard to say how much you’re need, just keep added a little at a time until the lot seems to come together.

I’m pretty pleased with the final result – kind of fruity and kind of nutty, with a real gingerbread flavour. They are also firmer than I would have expected, and after a few days in the fridge, they defiantly had a slight biscuity/cakey texture. I doubt that I would be able to pass these off as a genuine baked good, but as an easy and fairly innocent treat (just nuts and dates! no butter! no added oil! no refined sugar!) I think they’re pretty darned good.

To make Date Bars

• 1 cup chopped pitted dates
• 1/2 cup whole almonds
• 1/2 cup cashew nuts
• 1 teaspoon mixed spice
• 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• extra ground almonds

1. Put the chopped dates into a bowl and cover with water. Rest for 5 minutes and drain.

2. In the meantime, grind the nuts. You want a fairly fine powder, but a few larger bits are not a problem.

3. Put the dates into a food processor and work into a smooth paste. Add the spices and the nuts, and mix well.

4. Remove the mixture from the food processor, and add as much of the ground almonds as needed until it comes together.

5. Roll the mixture into a square, wrap in cling film, and leave to rest in the fridge for an hour.

6. Cut into pieces and store in the fridge in an airtight container.

Worth making? I am completely impressed with how easy this recipe is and just how good they taste. A much better alternative to chocolate biscuits mid-morning!

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Secret Chocolate (Not Brazil) Nut Brownies

It’s the Fourth of July, and who could resist a tray of soft, squidgy chocolate brownies?

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Given that we’re all a little bit obsessed with the World Cup at the moment, when I first thought of posting this, I planned to give them a bit of a tropical theme, with a liberal scattering of Brazil nuts in honour of the host nation. That was Monday.

On Tuesday, the USA got knocked out by Belgium, so suddenly that didn’t seem like such a good idea any more. The Brazil nuts were out, and good old patriotic walnuts and pecans went into them instead. I also made sure that I was not using Belgian chocolate in this recipe, as that would have been a bit of an insult after the Red Devils triumphed in Salvador…

At this stage, I need to ‘fess up to the fact that this recipe is more or less one from Delia Smith, but it also has the honour of being one of the recipes that I have been making the longest. I saw this on TV early on in my university days (remember that time when you saw things on TV and had to scribble them down, rather than just looking them up on Google later? Yes, this is one of those!). The only tweaks I’ve made are to use salted butter (believe me, it works), vanilla, a bit of cocoa powder and…some great big dirty spoonfuls of Nutella!

Yes, my secret weapon for making brownies it to add spoonfuls of the stuff. I’ve found the way to make them even less healthy than they normally are (unless, of course, I were to try deep-frying them, but I’m sure there is a chip shop in Glasgow that’s one step ahead of me). Yes, Nutella sounds odd, but it really is amazing. I pour half the batter into the tray, then drizzle with softened Nutella (pop in the microwave to make it runny), sprinkle with nuts and pour over the rest of the mixture. I think my original idea was that there would be a seam of chocolate spread running through the finished brownies, but in the end, it just soaks into them and makes them extra soft, sticky and delicious. I remember turning out trays of the things, and they would be wolfed down when we got in late, during film nights…you get the picture.

So, are these babies healthy? Absolutely not. But are they naught and delicious? Of course! And if you’re in the mood for celebrating, it’s only right to treat yourself.

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To make Chocolate Brownies (adapted from Delia Smith, makes 16-25):

• 175g salted butter
• 125g dark chocolate
• 3 eggs, beaten
• 275g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 75g plain flour
• 25g cocoa powder
• 1 teaspoon  baking powder
• 100g chopped nuts
• 4 tablespoon Nutella, warmed

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a 25 x 25 cm (10 x 10 inch) square tray with greaseproof paper (I used one of 20 x 20, and filled a few cupcake cases to make mini-brownies).

2. Put the butter and chocolate into a bowl, and place on top of a pan of barely simmering water. Leave to melt. In the meantime, mix the flour, cocoa and baking powder in a separate bowl.

3. Stir the butter/chocolate mixture well, then fold in the sugar. Next, add the vanilla extract and the eggs. Whisk. Add the flour mixture and stir well.

4. Pour half of the brownie mixture into the tray. Sprinkle the nuts on top, then drizzle the Nutella as evenly as you can (doesn’t have the be perfect). Carefully pour the rest of the mixture on top, and smooth gently with a fork.

5. Put the tray into the oven and bake for 35 minutes. Watch out that the mixture does not burn – it will shrink back from the sides.

6. When ready, remove from the oven and leave in the try to cool. When cold, remove from the tray and cut into 25 pieces (I did 16, but remember I was using the smaller tray!).

Worth making?Absolutely. Got to be grateful for Uncle Sam for inventing these things!

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