Monthly Archives: March 2011

Sugar, spice and all things nice – Chelsea Buns

It occurred to me the other day that while I happily call my blog “LondonEats” I have not really looked at London recipes. So time to make a bit of a change, and presenting the famous Chelsea bun.

They are said to originate from the 1700s, and were apparently a particular favourite of the then-new monarchy, the House of Hanover, including George II and George III (he of the “Madness” fame) and Queen Charlotte. History does not, alas, record whether these buns played any role in George III’s deterioration, or indeed in his subsequent recovery.

The name tells you about exactly where they sprang from – a bun house in Chelsea, called – surprisingly – The Chelsea Bun House, located between Chelsea and Pimlico. Even if the original is long-gone, you can still stroll down Bunhouse Place today. Well…actually…this street is now technically in Pimlico, but it’s probably too late to try and change the well-established name of this sticky treat.

So what are they like? Think of an enriched yeast dough (not too sweet), which is formed into swirls and studded with dried fruit, baked in a single tin so that the buns merge into each other as they prove, then glazed with a sweet, sticky syrup which seeps down into the fruit filling. The result is fruity and delicious, and utterly perfect with a cup of tea. Most English cakes are at their best with a cup of tea.

When it comes to exact recipes, there is, as ever, a variety of recipes. Some contain cinnamon, some recipes feature nutmeg, and then there are those with a little or lots of citrus peel, and those that have just currants or sultanas. Even the syrup has lots of variants – ranging from a light glaze through to thick, sticky, sweet  coating with butter and honey.

Taking all this in the round….I came up with my own version. The biggest shock to myself was that I didn’t include any cinnamon. I’m normally a huge fan of cinnamon, but I thought that this could so easily overpower the flavours from the sultanas, brown sugar and honey. In the event, each of these ingredients still imparted a subtle “spiciness” to the finished buns, which was very welcome. The filling was otherwise a combination of mixed dried fruit (currants, sultanas and a few dried cranberries) plus candied peel. But if you want to add nuts, cherries or anything else, then feel free. Spices and fresh citrus zest can also go in there if the mood takes you.

So give them a bash! Perfect to tuck into while you are watching the Royal Wedding on 29 April.

To make Chelsea buns (makes 9, can easily be doubled):

For the dough:

• 100g plain flour
• 125g strong white flour
• large pinch of salt
• 40g butter
• 2 tablespoons white sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 120ml milk
• 1 egg, beaten

For the filling:

• 100g dried fruit
• 25g candied peel, chopped
• 50g soft brown sugar

For the glaze:

• 25g brown sugar
• 50g honey
• 1 tablespoon milk

• Pinch of salt

Put the flours and salt in a bowl, and rub in the butter. Add the yeast, sugar, milk and egg. Start mixing with a spoon, then use your hands. Work for around 5 minutes, until you have a smooth dough. Cover the bowl with cling film, and leave somewhere warm until the dough has risen and is about double the size (30-60 minutes).

Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°C) and lightly grease a square tin with butter. Take the dough, knock it down, then on a floured worktop, roll out into a large rectangle.

Now prepare the filling: mix the fruit, candied peel and brown sugar in a bowl. Scatter evenly across the rolled dough. Roll up the dough like a swiss roll (roll lengthwise), seal the edge, and cut into 9 pieces. Arrange cut side down in the tin (the buns might not touch when you put them in the tin – this will change when the puff up, as in the pictures).

Leave the buns to rise for about 30 minutes or until doubled in size. Bake for around 25-30 minutes until the buns are golden-brown. Just before the buns come out of the oven, melt the honey, sugar, salt and milk to make the glaze. Allow the buns to sit for a couple of minutes when the come out of the oven, then brush with the glaze. Leave to cool.

Worth making? If you like fruity breads, then you will like these buns. They are very easy to make (if you’ve got a bread machine, you make the first stage using the dough cycle). The result is rich, sweet, sticky and delicious.

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Spicy Mixed Bean Stew

I don’t cook very much using beans, which is odd given that they are tasty, I like them and they are very healthy. For example, I love the things Wahaca do with beans – their black bean and cheese quesadillas as divine and I frequently over-order them. But I just don’t cook much with beans at home. So, it’s time to change that.

This recipe is nothing more than “a collecting of things in the kitchen” but the result is surprisingly good. It involves minimal effort, provided that you have the wherewithal to be a little organised and make sure things are left to soak or simmer for the requisite amount of time. Really, don’t skimp on soaking the beans. I can’t speak from personal experience, but if you don’t do it properly, I have read about people who have suffered all manner of “digestive issues” (which I take to mean nasty cramps) from eating undercooked beans. So whenever that thought pops into my mind, and I’m not sure if beans are cooked enough, I leave them boiling a little bit longer. Just in case. But let’s move on.

I’ve been looking for a way to use up a selection of mixed beans (“Wholesome 107 10 bean mix”) I bought in Waitrose about six months ago. They looked quite attractive in the packet – black-eyed beans, black turtle beans, butter beans, haricot beans, lima beans, pinto beans, red kidney beans, rose cocoa beans, alubia beans and mung beans. Sort of like this:

Probably the reason I am not so into cooking with beans is that when you’re home at night and hungry right then, the idea of soaking beans and waiting doesn’t really work (and besides, I don’t own a pressure cooker). However, this is a great recipe that lasts a couple of days, and has also been a great hit at lunch, topped with some natural yoghurt and a little grated cheddar in my groovy new lunchbox.

After all the stress of identifying the individual bean types (which it turned out were listed on the back…duh!), the rest of the recipe is a doddle, if you can commit to popping into the kitchen every thirty minutes for a couple of hours. I fried up some onion, garlic and red pepper, added some spice to get a bit of a kick, then added tomatoes plus a few mustard seeds (for appearance and a bit of flavour). After leaving the lot to simmer very, very gently for a couple of hours, it was rich, thick and tasty, and actually needs very little in the way of additional seasoning. Indeed, you would do well to add as little salt as possible, so that the sweetness of the peppers and tomatoes comes through, and match that with some good, tangy cheese for a tasty meal. Add a few baked tortilla chips for a very faux-Mexican experience.

My suggestion? Make loads, and feel virtuous about how healthy your lunch is at work during the week.

To make spicy bean stew:

2-3 cups mixed beans
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 onion, finely chopped
• 3 garlic cloves, chopped
• 1 red pepper, very thinly sliced
• 1 teaspoon piment d’espelette or paprika
• 1 teaspoon ground cumin
• 1 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1 tin chopped tomatoes
• 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
• zest of one lemon
• 1/2 stock cube
• plain yoghurt, grated cheddar and chopped coriander, to serve

Soak the beans overnight in cold water. The next day, drain, rinse well, then add fresh water and cook the beans according to instructions (usually – boil for 15 minutes, then simmer for about 1-2 hours until tender).

Meanwhile, heat the oil in another pot and add the onion. Cook gently until golden brown, then add the garlic, stir well, and a minute later, add the pepper. Cook until the pepper is soft, then add the spices. Cook for another minute, then add a splash of water – the spices will form a “paste”. Keep cooking until the water has cooked off, and the spice paste looks oily.

Add the tinned tomatoes, cooked beans, mustard seeds, lemon zest, stock cube and a cup of water to the spice mixture, and cook over a gentle heat until the beans are tender and the mixture has reduced to a thick sauce.

Serve topped with spoonfuls of plain yoghurt, grated cheese and some chopped coriander.

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Red Onion and Goat Cheese Crostini

I posted a recipe for onion tartlets a couple of weeks ago, and today’s recipe is a bit of a variation on a theme. Red onions instead of white, and goat cheese instead of tangy cheddar.

To make this really merit a separate post, I made a few further changes. I swapped tart cases for bread and turned them into crostini. The caramelised onions are spread ono slices of toasted sourdough baguette, then topped with crumbled goat cheese and grilled.

This really is something for when you’ve got people over for drinks, and those people love onions!

To make red onion and goat cheese crostini (makes 10-12, depending on size of bread):

• 8 large red  onions
2 tablespoons olive oil
25g butter
1 tablespoon brown sugar
salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 glass (125ml) red wine
• baguette stick, plus extra olive oil
100g goat cheese

Peel the onions, cut in half, and slice very thinly. Place in a frying pan with the sugar, butter and olive oil, then cover and cook very gently for about an hour, stirring from time to time. The onions are ready once they are soft, translucent and starting to caramelise. The onions might look unappealing and grey at one stage, but they will get their colour back towards the end.

In the meantime, set the oven to 180°C (350°C). Cut the bread into diagonal slices, brush with a little olive oil, and bake until lightly golden. Remove and allow to cool.

Add the glass of red wine and balsamic vinegar to the onions, and season to taste with salt and pepper plus the dried thyme. Stir well, and cook off the liquid.

Top each piece of toasted bread generously with the warm onions, and crumble the goat cheese on top. Grill for a few minutes on a medium heat until the cheese has browned.

Serve warm.

Worth making? These are great bite-sized morsels that combine sweetness and savoury and are very, very moreish. They take a little bit of time, but are very well worth it and go down a storm with drinks.

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Endive, Pear, Feta and Pecan Salad

I am sitting on the sofa and can see sunlight streaming through the clouds. Might Spring be here?

Making a huge leap of faith, I have assumed that the start of March really does mean Spring is actually here, so time for a salad. This is a tounge-tingling combination of bitter endive, sweet pear, creamy/salty feta and sweet pecan nuts, topped with a simple light olive oil and white vinegar dressing, all of which looks quite dramatic on the plate, like this:

Endives are something I am very familiar with from my time living in Belgium, must usually seen baked. I have to admit, I am not a fan of the grey, sad witloof or chicon sitting in water when brought to the table. Maybe I will work out how to prepare baked endive one day, but for the time being, I like them raw and crisp, to add an interesting dimension to a salad. The white leaves, fringed with bright yellow-green also hint at Spring arriving. My research also revealed that they go by many names. I usually call them chicory, but that can be confused with the blue flower of the same name. Then I happened to see an episode of the dreadful Hell’s Kitchen USA, with everyone talking about en-dive (rhyming with hive). Maybe I’m just posh or wrong, but I thought it was pronounced like believe. I digress.

The pears in the vegetable shop at this time of year actually work quite well here – they stay quite firm and have a little crunch, which makes the salad more interesting that using their riper – but softer – cousins in the middle of summer. The trick is to try and get them into thin, tapering slivers that look good on the plate. You can keep them pale and interesting by dropping them into acidulated water – that’s water with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to you and me.

As the for the nuts, I was fully planning to use walnuts, but realised that I didn’t actually have any. I did, however, have pecans. Walnuts are more of a nutty “savoury” flavour, but with the tang of the endive and the salty taste of the cheese, I figures that sweeter pecans could work. Well, they would have to work, as I had not checked I had everything at home before starting, and I was mid-recipe when I worked out that it was pecans-or-nothing. In the event, they worked, and worked very well. And the silver lining is that pecans are the less obvious addition than walnuts, and add an interesting flavour element to the salad. Playing fast-and-loose with the classics, eh?

I loved this salad – interesting flavours, lots of texture, and a sharp simple vinaigrette with white wine vinegar and the last of my monocultural olive oil from holiday last year. Maybe time to start looking at a little trip too?

To make endive, pear, feta and pecan salad (starter for four):

• one pear
• one endive
• 100g feta, crumbled
• 30g pecans, chopped

Peel the pear. Cut into thin slices (removing any of the core or pips) and place the pieces in acidulated water (i.e. water, with a little lemon juice – this stops the pear turning brown).

Separate the endive, and cut each leaf in two lengthways.

Just before serving, drain the pear slices. Arrange the endive, pear, feta and pecans on each plate, and add a little of the dressing.

For the dressing:

• 6 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
• 1/2 teaspoons salt
• 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
• pinch of white sugar

Add all the ingredients to a jam jar and shake vigorously until the dressing is smooth.

Worth making? This is a nice, simple and tasty dish. The flavours mean you will probably prefer this as a starter, but add green salad leaves to bulk out, add some croutons and a bit more feta, and it can also make a substantial main course. And of course, it’s great to eat outside in the warm weather that it just about to arrive…any day now…

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Pine Nut Cookies

This is a recipe that I learned to make years ago, and I really mean many many years ago, such that I can’t really remember where it came from. This is basically a simple marzipan of sugar, almonds and egg whites, which are very reminiscent of Italian amaretti morbidi – soft amaretti cookies, although I always thing the “morbidi” part sounds more sinister than it is. Sort of like “morbid amaretti”. Just a little example of a false friend that you need to watch out for when learning a language.

Funny thing about this recipe is that it has an odd habit of coming out a little bit different each time you make it – sometimes to cookies flatten out and become chewy, other times they stay as they are, with more of a baked-marzipan quality to them. Whichever way these go, these little Italian-style cookies are unfailingly delicious. In keeping with the Italian theme, la donne e mobile indeed.

These cookies are also pleasingly not-too-sweet, with a little pure almond oil just to make them more aromatic. The sweet almond flavour is balanced with the toasted flavour of the pine nuts. Not only do they look quite funky, but they taste great. If you want something more like a petit four, make smaller cookies, and to fancy things up, dredge with a little icing sugar just before serving. Basta!

To make pine nut cookies (makes 18-20):

• 160g ground almonds
• 250g caster sugar
• 2 egg whites
• 5-6 drops almond extract
• 200g pine nuts or flaked almonds

Preheat the oven to 190°C. Line two baking sheets with greaseproof paper and grease lightly.

Place the pine nuts/flaked almonds in a bowl and put to one side.

Whip the egg whites until lightly frothy. Add the ground almonds, caster sugar and almond oil, and work until you have a smooth, quite sticky dough.

Use a teaspoon to form walnut-sized balls, roll smooth with your hands, then roll each ball in the pine nuts/flaked almonds. Arrange on the baking sheet, at least 5cm/2 inches apart.

Bake the cookies for 12-15 minutes until the nuts are just lightly golden – we don’t want they to get too dark. If the cookies are cooking too quickly on one side, turn the baking sheets round during baking.

Worth making? Super-simple and absolutely delicious. Really easy, and easily adaptable to whatever nuts you happen to have to hand. Perfect if you’ve got to whip up some biscuits at the last minute.

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