Monthly Archives: June 2010

Dulce de Leche

A couple of days ago, the sunny weather was gone, replaced with a threatening dark sky. I sensed it would be a day to stay at home and make something that would benefit from long, slow cooking in view of the very high chance of being soaked if I ventured outside (if you are interested, I did pop out later, and I did indeed get drenched). I’d been keen to try dulce de leche for a while, so this was my chance.

So why make this? Well, why not? I have a few jam jars sitting empty since I finished all my bramble jelly, and I happen to like this stuff. Dulce de leche (which translates as “sweetness of milk” – nice!) is a South American classic, which (I believe) originates in Argentina, although each nation now seems to have its own version. It involves slowly cooking sugar and milk over a gentle heat until it is thick and golden. The scientific explanation that the mixture undergoes caramelisation and the Maillard reaction (which is the responsible for why a whole range of foods taste good when they have been cooked),  but I like to think of it more like magic. It is amazing how such simple ingredients become something so good. By sheer luck, the timing of this post coincides with Argentina’s kick-off match in the World Cup. Perhaps I will blog about foods depending on who is playing that day? Hmmm…

I’m good on the theory, but how would I actually make the stuff? Lacking easy access to the secret recipe of an Argentinian grandmother, I did a little research and very quickly found the classic quantities seem to be 500g of sugar to 1 litre of milk. However, I felt this was a lot of sugar. I like jams that contain a lot of fruit relative to the sugar, so I wondered if I could try something similar here. Eventually, I came across one version at Chez Pim where she had grappled with the very same issue, and had tried using 500g of sugar to 2 litres of milk with good results. I took a leap of faith, and decided to use similar quantities.

I filled one large pot with whole milk, sugar and a teaspoon of salt. Not every recipe seems to call for salt, but I think it is essential for caramel or fudge. It doesn’t render the final result salty (unless you use too much!) but instead it adds an extra dimension to the final flavour, and just cuts off any excessive sweetness. Some recipes also use vanilla, but I was after a “pure” flavour, so didn’t use any.

I brought the mixture to a boil, stirring all the time with a whisk. It developed a foam on top (like a very, very, very large latte) and…well, I left it to simmer very gently for around 4 hours. Dramatic or exciting cooking this ain’t. Fearful that it could burn on the bottom of the pan and/or that there would be a dry skin on top of the milk, I kept popping back every 10 minutes for another quick whisk. All a bit OCD, I know.

After all that cooking, I had four jars of golden, smooth caramel. Happy days. The end product is smooth and tastes of caramel, but there is also an intense milkiness and the overall result is well-balanced and not too sweet (possibly the salt?). I wanted something that I could spread on bread, or stir into yoghurt or use in a cake, and I got just what I was looking for. Result!

I do wonder what my change to the recipe did to the final result. The final dulce de leche has just a little texture to it (as you can see in the picture), which I put down to the higher than usual proportion of milk solids, but it was still delicious and probably creamier than if I had used more sugar to milk. The texture using more sugar would probably have been smoother, but it would also have been much sweeter and more like a caramel sauce. So on balance, I like it my way!

For 4 jars of dulce de leche:

• 2 litres of whole milk
• 500g granulated white sugar
• 1 teaspoon of salt

Put all the ingredients to a large, wide pot. You must allow quite a lot of space for the mixture to bubble up – it will, and when it does, if your pot is too small, you will be scraping burnt milk and sugar from the stove for quite some time.

Whisk the mixture well to dissolve the sugar and salt, and bring slowly to the boil. You will know the mixture is boiling as the foam that forms on top due to the whisking will seem to expand. Turn down the heat, and let it sit on a very, very low heat so it is just simmering. Allow to cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced and golden in colour (you will probably get one-sixth of the original volume at the end). I checked every 10-15 minutes and gave it a stir with the whisk to stop things from sticking. The cooking time can vary, and in my case, took nearly 4 hours.

The texture you are aiming for is like custard – place a little on a cool plate, and it should hold its shape.

Once ready, pour into sterilised jars, seal, allow to cool and store in the fridge.

Worth making? Yes! If you like caramel, you will love this dulce de leche. I have made caramel using tinned condensed milk in a pan of hot water, which undoubtedly works and is quicker, but the flavour from this method is far superior. It is a breeze to make, you just need to be around the house for a few hours, but you are rewarded with a sweet treat that will last for weeks, assuming a modest degree of self-control.


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An evening with Yotam Ottolenghi

So far, all I have blogged about is places I have eaten and things I have made myself. Nice, but I do get up to a bit more than that.

Last night, I attended a cookery demonstration in town to celebrate Yotam Ottolenghi’s new book, Plenty. I already have his first book (the self-titled Ottolenghi), which contains a wonderful array of dishes inspired by European and Middle Eastern culinary tradition. He is also the chef/patron of the rather great restaurant of the same name on Upper Street in Islington. The talk was just £6 for a glass of wine and a chance to see the expert at work – what’s not to like?

My very own copy!

The format was very informal – Waterstone’s bookshop on Piccadilly have a great little setup with a kitchen, and ample seating from which we were able to throw questions at the expert about what he was making, his business and his food philosophy. He ran through four dishes in total (roasted cauliflower with saffron, burnt aubergine salad, herb cous cous and beetroot salad), and at the end, we got to taste each of them. They were all great, and I will be trying the aubergine salad and the cous cous as soon as I can. They flavours were fresh, bright, light and rich.

I love his style of cooking. The focus is not about exact measurements and scientific methods, but rather about balance and getting flavours to shine and work with each other. More of an art than a science. He seems quite happy to work with “some” of this, and “a bit” of that, as long as you are checking the dish and can develop a feel for how things are working together. I liked his emphasis on how food tastes, encouraging the audience not to be scared of adding seasoning. We all seem to have a collective phobia of salt, but the truth is that you can’t cook well without it. But in any event, if you are cooking yourself, you are more aware of how much you are adding, and you probably on balance consume less of the stuff than if you just buy processed food. Anyway, the point is that he likes to think in terms of taste and flavours, and encouraged us to do the same. He also spoke at some length about presentation and his liking for colourful food. To demonstrate, the aubergine salad was transformed with the addition of chopped coriander and jewel-like pomegranate seeds. I also loved what he called his “million dollar cous cous” – stirring a herb paste through the cooked grains to make a bright green dish. He thought that colour matters not just in the food, but how it is presented. Perhaps this means it is time to get in a new set of dishes? It seems my penchant for picking up eclectic (i.e. mis-matched) bowls and dishes is finally, finally trendy!

Having sat through an inspirational talk and tried some truly wonderful food, I duly picked up a copy of Ottolenghi’s new book and got it signed. I have to admit, I was just a touch excited and came across like an over-excited schoolchild, gushing about my favourite recipe. Anyway, no harm done, better to come across as enthusiastic than to stand there and brood. I have to say, it is a beautiful publication in its own right – the cover is slightly padded and thus feels luxurious. In terms of recipes, it only covers savoury, which is probably a good thing for me, so I can steer this blog towards a better balance of sweet and savoury. The recipes are arranged by ingredient, making it easy to pick up items when you are out and about, then come home and pick out what you want to make. It also looks wonderful – lovely photography of bright, vibrant dishes, accented with outline art of various key ingredients. It all looks very stylish, and the book is currently enjoying well-deserved pride of place on my coffee table.

So, time to hit the kitchen and honour the dedication – keep on cooking!

(Postscript – I also have to add that I feel very privileged that I am able to attend these sort of events. It was my resolution at New Year to start doing more of these foodie things rather than just cooking and posting pictures of my food, and I am so glad I went. Looking forward to the next one!)

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Asparagus Fritters

My recent success with elderflower fritters seems to have cured me of my phobia of frying food at home. An illogical fear, I know, as I really love tempura, but I have only ever had it when I’m out for dinner. I like it when the batter becomes crisp and you can still see what the vegetable is. I’m not so keen when there is a lot of batter and just a little bit of vegetable. The batter then tends to puff up and become soft, spongy and heavy. So, feeling a bit bolder, I wondered…would I be able to make something tempura-like(*) at home according to my preferences without setting fire to my kitchen?

I had a few spears of English asparagus and a little leftover homemade satay sauce. So I tried the batter I used for the elderflower fritters (minus the sugar), coated the spears and was sure to shake off any excess batter (it worked for the elderflower fritters, I reasoned it would work here too), and in no time, I had indeed whipped up a tasty little snack.

This worked really was because the batter was very thin and very crisp, it turned golden quite quickly and so looked appealing, and the asparagus was cooked but still quite firm. Also, the batter did not seem to have soaked up the oil – it may well have done, all I can say is that it was crisp and did not seem to have acted as an oil sponge! I left the satay sauce cold, and in my view, this was a pretty good snack to serve up with drinks on the terrace.

For the asparagus fritters (this would easily coat up to 50 pieces):

• 100g plain flour
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil (sunflower or groundnut)
• 175ml sparkling mineral water
• 1 egg white
• unflavoured oil, for frying (corn, peanut, grapeseed etc).

In a bowl, slowly combine the flour, oil and water until smooth. Add the sugar. Allow to sit for 30 minutes. Finally, beat the egg white to stiff peaks, then carefully fold into the batter.

Heat the oil carefully. Test it with a small cube of bread – it should brown quickly.

Using fingers, dip each piece of asparagus into the batter, shake off any excess, and drop into the hot oil. Cook until golden.

Serve the asparagus with satay sauce.

For satay sauce: fry some very finely chopped onion, garlic and ginger in some olive oil. Add 4 tablespoons of crunchy peanut butter, and stir well. Add some soy sauce and chilli sauce to taste, and enough water to make a smooth sauce. Cook for a couple of minutes until desired consistency is reached.

Worth making? I was surprised just how good this was. This is in part due to my lack of familiarity with how to deep fry foods, but I have had enough “odd” tempura over the years to be able to say that this version was a decent attempt. I will definitely be making this again in the near future.

(*) I am sticking with the term “fritter” rather than “tempura” as I don’t know enough about making tempura to claim the more sophisticated name.


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On Location: Caravan (Clerkenwell, London)

This weekend, there were a few friends staying (Swedish, Belgian and British), so the house has been pretty full. I collected the first of the houseguests on Friday afternoon, and we headed to Exmouth Market, which is located between King’s Cross, Angel and Farringdon. The street is pedestrianised, which lends itself to lots of tables on the pavement without cars whizzing by, and has a great mixture of restaurants.

The jewel in the crown is the award-winning Moro (booking essential, well ahead of time), but there are also Indian, Middle Eastern and Italian restaurants, as well as a few places for informal dining. If you’re looking for an area that’s very London and has its own unique charm, this really is a good neighbourhood to check out. If you’re up for a few drinks after dinner, try the shabby-chic Belgian-feel of Medcalf, or play table football and enjoy mojitos at Café Kick.

But today’s feature is the new kid on the block – Caravan, which we stumbled upon by chance. The afternoon was hot and sunny, and I had collected my first Swedish visitor. We wanted to sit outside and drink something sparking, we saw Caravan, and it had space. So we went for it, and took a bottle of the rather good house prosecco. At this stage, a little warning – the larger outside tables are communal, so if there are spaces, you’ll find yourself next to arty young things reading something clever (or in our experience, amusingly pretentious). It’s quite fun, but if it all gets too much, just manoeuver the large vase of meadow flowers between them and you. But if you like to eavesdrop on your fellow fellow drinkers/diners, then outside at Caravan is just the perfect for it.

Maybe it was all that sun, but we loved Caravan. Prosecco in hand, we started with a sharing platter, which the chef helpfully converted to a veggie friendly option – pita, aubergine relish, falafel, hummus, manchego cheese and pickled carrot with cumin. I thought it was all delicious – the falafel was hot and crisp, but moist inside, and the pickled carrot was great. Bright orange, still firm and vibrantly seasoned. I particularly liked that I was not just faced with yet another selection of dips.

After a bit more chatting and prosecco and now with a second Swede at the table, we ordered the edamame beans and some blue cheese peanut wontons. The beans were as you expect (blanched and topped with salt crystals), and were a fun snack with the prosecco. Maybe I am very sheltered, but I don’t usually see these beans outside of Asian-inspired establishments, so this was good little combination for me.

The wontons were picture-perfect. Beautifully formed, crisp and golden. And there were four of them, so we could all try one! Blue cheese might seem a bit odd, but they were tasty and interesting. The blue cheese was the main flavour at the start of each bite, but this gave way to the richness and creaminess of the peanut, with an overall result a little like satay sauce. Surprising, and something I would happily have again.

Would I go back? Definitely. This is a welcome addition to Exmouth Market. There is only one veggie main, but from chatting with the (friendly!) waiter, he suggested that they recommend combining a range of their smaller plates, and from the 14 on offer, 5 were indeed veggie, so it certainly looks promising for my next visit. The food works the fusion idea without being too wacky, and suggests that a bit of thought went into the menu. The snacks/starters were excellent, and the desserts look creative and appealing. They also have a nice-looking breakfast and weekend brunch selection which I feel I may have to try in the near future. It seems caravans are, after all, rather cool.

Caravan, 11-13 Exmouth Market, London EC1R 4QD. Tel: 020 7833 8115. Tube: Angel or Farringdon.


Filed under London, On Location

Key Lime Pie

Last November, I had a great holiday in Florida. Most of the time was spent in and around Miami Beach, taking in the sun and the art deco, but there was a trip down US1 to Key West. This truly is one of the great drives of the world – leave the skyscrapers of downtown Miami, through grassland, then you hit a road which traverses the Keys and seems at several stages just to float on the water. A really amazing trip. Key West was also fun for the night – completely different to Miami, more like a Caribbean town. I also had some of the best puttanesca sauce and lemon sorbet I have ever had.

The sea from the islands looked like this:

In the Keys, there is also a lot of Key Lime Pie, which was consumed with great enthusiasm in great quantities. This is made using the Key Lime, a smaller yellow version of the lime which has a sharper taste, which grows in the area. With the warm weather, I thought it would be good to make a Key Lime Pie. Now, I obviously don’t have easy access to Key Limes, but from my reading it seems that the result using the more familiar Persian Limes was equally good. So, it was off to the shops I went.

When I saw them in Florida, I also notice that there quite a bit of variation in the colour of the pies. Some were pale or creamy yellow, while others ranged from light to lurid green. Knowing that lime juice is pale green, I guessed that Key Lime Pie should be lighter in colour, and avoided the bright green versions. As it turns out, my hunch was right – the colour in the pie filling comes from the use of egg yolks, and to the extent there is any green, this comes from the use of lime zest. I had originally thought of adding a little natural green food dye, but I thought better of it. I also made another tweak – rather than using digestives, I used ginger nut biscuits – a little more crunch, nicer flavour, more texture, and a beautiful brown colour. This change is also nice if you make a lemon cheesecake.

I also found that there were different versions of the pie – some bake it (causing the egg yolks to cook and set the pie), while others do not need to be cooked, relying on a reaction between the acidic lime juice and the egg yolks to set the pie. If you are confident about the provenance of your eggs, by all means use this second version, but I played it safe with a recipe that required the pie to go into the oven. Just my preference!

The result was superb – this pie sets perfectly, while still being rich and creamy, and is really bright and fresh. It was a pale yellow colour, and had a vibrant, intense lime flavour. Serve this chilled or at least cool, so that on a hot day, it makes a perfect dessert at the end of a summer meal.

For the Key Lime Pie:

• 250g ginger nut biscuits (or digestive biscuits), finely crushed.
• 90g unsalted butter
• 4 medium or 3 large egg yolks
• zest of 4 limes
• 400g tin of condensed milk (the thick, sweet stuff)
• 150ml fresh lime juice (4-5 limes)

For the crust: preheat the oven to 180°C. Melt the butter, and combine with the biscuit crumbs. Use to line a loose-bottomed flan dish (mine was 21cm diameter), covering the bottom and sides. You might not use all of the crumb mixture, as you want it to be relatively thin. Pat down and smooth the crumbs with the back of a spoon, and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

For the filling: whisk the egg yolks and zest until creamy and lighter in colour (1-2 minutes). Add the condensed milk, and whisk until light and creamy (3-4 minutes). Finally, add the lime juice and stir until combined and slightly thick.

Pour the filling into the pie crust, and put back into the oven for 20 minutes. The pie should not colour, and is done when the filling feels just set when you press lightly on the centre. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, then place the cooled pie into the fridge until needed.

Serve with a dollop of whipped cream and a slice of lime.

Worth making? Yes. This pie recipe worked really well and was easy to make. No messing around with pastry, and the filling is simple to make. It can also be prepared well ahead of time and left to cool (and indeed, benefits from this). I would happily make this again.

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Les saveurs de l’été – Cloudy Lemonade

Hot weather means cool drinks. Beer, white or rosé wine or the British favourite, Pimm’s.

Something I like a lot is traditional cloudy lemonade. When I was growing up, lemonade was the colourless, transparent fizzy drink that was sweet but didn’t seem to have a whole lot to do with lemons. Today’s recipe, however, really is a zesty, fresh, citrus drink, and given the simple ingredients, also doesn’t contain some of the nasties in commercial drinks.

What’s more, it’s quick and easy (much as I love being in the kitchen, you want to be outside when it’s sunny). You take a few fresh, unwaxed lemons, take the lemon zest and juice, and leave this to steep overnight with some hot water and sugar. Doing this with the zest means that you also get all the wonderful aromas from the lemon peel for a bit of extra zing. The next day, you just top up to taste with water (still or sparking) and allow to cool in the fridge. If you want to, you can add a sprig of mint or rosemary to the steeping infusion if you want to other aromas in there too. Enjoy in the sunshine!

For almost 2 litres:

• 5 unwaxed lemons
• 100g sugar
• water, plus more to dilute the concentrate

Wash the lemons. Using a zester, get all the yellow peel into a heatproof bowl. Zesting the peel directly into this bowl means you will get more of the lemon’s essential oils, boosting the flavour. Try to keep the amount of white pith in the zest to a minimum.

Juice the lemons, and add to the lemon zest. 5 lemons should yield 250ml of juice, but if you don’t have enough, feel free to use more lemons to top up.

Add the sugar and pour over the boiling water. Stir well, cover, and allow to sit overnight.

The next morning, strain the mixture (a kitchen sieve is fine). Dilute the mixture down according to taste – I used about 1.5 litres (almost 6 cups). Also taste the lemonade – if the lemon flavour seems too strong, you may prefer to add more sugar, or a natural sweetner such as agave syrup.

Worth making? Yes! This is a great summer drink, really easy to make, and tastes sensational compared to commercial lemonade. Be careful with the sugar, as it’s easy to add more but you can’t remove it if you go too far. Bottle it up, allow it to chill, and enjoy in the park or on your terrace.

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Les saveurs de l’été – Elderflower Fritters

Yes! The weather in London in good again! I realise that I am just confirming to British stereotype, going on about how nice/cold/wet/warm it is outside. It’s just that when the sun shines, London is glorious, so we all feel the need to go crazy in the sunshine whenever we get the chance. When you don’t have it all the time, you appreciate if so much more.

Anyway…this sun means it is time to dust down the picnic basket and revisit all of our summer favourites. I’ve started a series called les saveurs de l’été (the flavours of summer) as the umbrella term for all of these dishes. It’s either cute or pretentious. I’m going with cute. Summery, out-doorsy, warm weather foods.

The first feature is elderflower fritters. I agree that this does sound a little strange and, I have to confess, I had never had them before. I therefore come before you with no preconceived ideas of whether this dish is actually any good, or whether my attempt to make them qualifies as good or bad.

As I don’t have a garden, I had to go out and look for elderflowers. They are quite common at the side of roads, but I don’t like to eat things that I find at lying on the side of the street (a rule to live by, I think you would agree). No, for the best flowers, you need to head off into a forest or some other wild sport to find pretty, fresh blossoms. I picked a few in a local park (see below), far away from traffic. Perfect.

With elders sourced, I carried them home in a plastic container. They have a lot of pollen, so I didn’t want this all over my bag. When I opened the tub at home  – wow, the aroma was quite something. The scent of summer. I was convinced that these fritters might work very well indeed.

Next issue: the batter. I would go so far as to say I have a fear of frying, so I needed to be sure that the recipe I used would be dependable. I also don’t want to be that person who set fire to their kitchen by over-heating the oil. Anyway, I feel that this recipe should be light as a feather, and just barely cling to the flowers, so that the result is lacy and delicate and ephemeral. I did a bit of hunting for a recipe, and came upon one from Nigel Slater. He writes a column in the Observer, which I read with great enthusiasm each weekend. His recipes are inventive, fresh, dependable and delicious. He writes well and cooks well. I placed my faith in Nigel and followed this recipe.

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Hazelnut Baklava and a reassessment

Last week, I tried out a new baklava recipe which uses pureed orange rather than nuts for the filling (see here). Claims were made that is was the best ever.

Well…I’ve since done a little thinking about it, and I am not sure that it really was the best baklava I have ever had. You see, over the weekend, I made a batch of “traditional” baklava which used ground hazelnuts for the filling, with the addition of a few walnuts and pistachios. Not some moment of inspiration. It is just that I have been a bad, bad cook and not properly re-stocked the cupboards lately – I ran out of hazelnuts and had to make do. But this is my favourite baklava recipe, and in my view, the way baklava should be. Nutty, fragrant and very sticky. Oranges are good, but nuts are better.

In making it, the nuts are ground, but not too finely. The are mixed with soft brown sugar, and then I add some cinnamon, orange blossom water and rose water. This results in a rich, fragrant filling. This goes into a tray with filo pastry, bake until golden, and then cover in a sugar syrup. I vary the syrup sometimes, using brown sugar for a honey-like syrup with orange blossom water and rose water, or even adding a spoonful of good honey for flavour. As the filling is dry, it soaks up the syrup, so once you bit into it, the filling is moist and the syrup oozes out in your mouth so that you can taste the flavours. Heavenly.

So, as a result of my thinking, I put the orange baklava into the “dessert” category, and it was nice, but my “normal” nut baklava into the dessert/coffee/treat category, and see this as something that you can serve any time. The bonus is that as it is not “moist” like the orange recipe, it stay crisp and lasts longer. In fact, the only problem I ever have with this is that it is hard to stop at just one piece!

For the sugar syrup:

• 75ml water
• 175g sugar (white or brown, but brown will alter the taste)
• 1 teaspoon of lemon juice
• 1 tablespoon of orange blossom water
• 1 tablespoon of rose water

In a saucepan, heat the sugar, water and lemon juice until it comes to the boil. Allow it to boil for three minutes. Now add the orange blossom and rose waters, boil for a few seconds, and remove from the heat.

Allow to cool before using on the baklava.

For the baklava:

• 200g hazelnuts (or a combination of nuts – almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, pistachios)
• 100g soft light brown sugar
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1 tablespoon orange blossom water
• 1 tablespoon rose water
• 12 sheets of filo pastry
• 75g unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

Grind the nuts. We want them to be medium-fine – if they are ground too finely, the resulting filling will be very dense. Combine with the sugar and cinnamon, then add the orange blossom and rose waters and mix well. Set aside.

In a dish (I used one 21 x 28cm), cover the base with a little melted butter, then add a sheet of filo. Butter the filo, then add another sheet. Continue until you have six sheets of filo in the dish. Add the filling, and spread out. Be gentle so you don’t break the pastry. Now add the rest of the pastry, in each case adding a layer, covering with melted butter, then adding the next. Finish by covering the last sheet with butter.

Cut the baklava into shapes – long rectangles, diamonds, squares. Do this carefully with a sharp knife. You might want to leave a border of “scrap” baklava where the pastry is a bit scrappy at the edges. This means the final result is neater, and as the cook, you get to enjoy this “angel’s share”.

Bake the baklava for 15-20 minutes until crisp and golden. When done, remove from the oven, allow it to sit for a minute, then pour the cooled syrup over the hot baklava. Be sure to get the syrup in between each cut. If you see syrup forming pools in some areas, don’t worry – it will all be absorbed.

Allow the baklava to cool fully before serving.

Worth making? Of the two recipes I have done, this is by far my favourite. Using filo might seem a bit daunting, but it is actually a breeze, provided that you’ve prepared everything else. The result is also spectacular – it’s really simple, and nothing so simple should taste so good. If you’re thinking of this recipe, I urge you to give it a try.


Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things