Monthly Archives: April 2011

Boterkoek (Dutch Butter Cake) for Koninginnedag!

Whew! We’ve just had all the excitement of the Royal Wedding in London (congrats to Wills and Kate!), so now we look across the water to the Netherlands. Yes, we are celebrating Koninginnedag, the official birthday of Queen Beatrix.

And in honour of that, we’re also got a funky Dutch-themed header, with windmills and tulips in the Dutch national colour, orange.

Like our Queen Elizabeth II, Beatrix’s actual birthday is sometime in February January, but she wisely decided that if her birthday was to be a public holiday, it was much more sensible to stick with 30 April, the birthday of her mother, Queen Juliana, given that there is at least a sporting chance of nice weather, and a resulting happier population.

If Dutch food is something you’re not too familiar with, a selection of foods include anijsblokjes, poffertjes, appeltaart, muisjes and mini Queen Beatrix cakes. OK, that last one is made up. Possibly. And then there are the usual suspects – stroopwafels, fries with mayonnaise, plus gouda and edam cheese. But today we are looking at boterkoek, roughly translating as “butter cake”, which is a bit of a hidden gem of baking in the Low Countries.

Boterkoek is a traditional Dutch recipe, somewhere between a tart and shortbread. It’s got lots of butter and has an almond flavour, reminiscent of frangipane, and makes a great mid-morning treat with a cup of coffee. But given just how key butter is the flavour of this recipe, really, really try to use the best, freshest butter you can, and don’t even think of cracking open a packet of margarine or (shudder) non-dairy spread. If you’re trying to be healthy, make it properly, then just enjoy a small slice of the real thing.

It’s also simple to make, so perfect if you’ve got to produce something at short notice. Eet smakelijk!


To make boterkoek:

• 150g butter
• 200g caster sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
• 1 egg, beaten
• 200g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 20g flaked almonds

Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Line a 23cm (9 inch) cake tin with greaseproof paper.

In a medium bowl, cream the butter, sugar and almond extract until light and fluffy.

Remove one teaspoon of the beaten egg and set aside. Pour the rest of the egg into the mixture, and stir well. Add the flour and baking powder, and mix until you have a smooth dough.

Transfer the mixture to a baking tin, and pat down with the back of a spoon until smooth (you might find it easier to use clean hands to smooth the mixture). Mix the teaspoon of egg with a teaspoon of water, and brush on top of the boterkoek. Sprinkle with the flaked almonds, and bake for 25-30 minutes until just golden and firm to the touch.

Worth making? Boterkoek is a really simple recipe with surprisingly good results for something so easy. I’m also happy to report that this recipe has been tested on real life Dutch people, who all agreed that it did indeed taste like grandmother’s version. Definitely give this one a try, and great to mix up in a hurry when you have surprise visitors.

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Hark, the Royal Wedding! Maids of Honour Tarts

You might remember in the dark days of last winter, the announcement came from the Palace that there would be a royal wedding in 2011. Reactions were…muted.

Fast forward to Spring, and actually, the country seems to be completely cock-a-hoop about the whole thing. And the excitement is not contained to these fair isles, it seems the American media are really only just about able to contain how thrilled they are. We’ve seen Kate launching a lifeboat in Wales, Kate flipping a pancake in Ireland…yes, we (more accurately, the media) just can’t get enough of it. Kate shops, Kate crosses the road, buy Kate’s ring, wear her dress, and from late 2011, see her wax figure at Madame Tussauds. If you’ve got questions, there is a very helpful FAQ website here.

We were all supposed to throw street parties. We all thought “nope, won’t be doing that”. And then the shops were full of bunting and Union Flags for a bit of waving by the masses on the big day, and actually, we’ll probably all be doing it after all. The British, it seems, really do quite like a royal wedding after all. And best of luck to them!

To keep in with the mood of the nation, there obviously needs to be a little culinary nod to HRH Prince William and his future wife, and what could be more fitting that Maids of Honour tarts?

These certainly have a royal pedigree, but as with a lot of cakes that have a story to tell, there are a few versions floating about. Here are some of my more interesting findings:

Theory one: the maids of honour attending one of Henry VIII‘s Queens (possibly Catherine of Aragon) would nibble on these custardy, lemony treats (and the lemon link does fit with Catherine’s Iberian origins). So far, so nice. However, there is a darker element. The King, upon seeing how much the ladies enjoyed them, tasted one for himself, found it to be very good indeed, and so had to ensure that no-one else could learn the secret. How was this to be achieved? The unfortunate cook was locked up when he or she was not preparing pastry or zesting lemons. It’s probably a good thing we have moved from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.

Theory two: these cakes were enjoyed by the maids of honour of Queen Elizabeth I when they were at Richmond Palace. The richness of these cakes (and remember – back in the day, lemons, sugar and butter were luxuries) made them famous and they were small objects of desire for fashionable members of the royal court.

Theory three: Henry VIII called these cakes “Maids of Honour” when he offered one to a future Queen, Anne Boleyn.

So we have learned…that we’re not exactly sure where they came from, but the Richmond link is strong, even to this day, and it seems to be a safe bet that they were around in the times of the Tudors. At this point, I confess that I am a huge fan of the recent TV series. Historically accurate? Maybe not, but a jolly good watch every weekend.


Now, at this stage, I realise two things. The links to the Tudors is probably not the parallel the I want to make with Wills and Kate (to whom I wish the best of luck). I’ve also failed to tell you what these cakes are actually like.

The cases can be made of shortcrust butter pastry of puff pastry. I used shortcrust here, but for the Big Day I will try them again but with puff pastry. The filling is a mixture of eggs, cream cheese, almonds and lemon zest plus a few aromatic “extras”. The filling sets when they are baked, so they are a little bit like mini-lemon baked cheesecakes. Some versions also add a little dash of something else under the filling – either lemon curd (to make them extra-citrussy) or some jam. I liked this idea, so I made some with lemon curd and some with seedless raspberry jam (typically British), but you could also use marmalade, apricot jam, strawberry jam or whatever else takes your fancy.

Now, the practical but – how exactly to flavour the filling? Lemon is a constant in all recipes, but as we are looking to make Maids of Honour for a Royal Wedding, I looked back to what would only have been available only to a royal kitchen back in Tudor times, and I went for broke: a pinch of saffron, citrus zest, orange zest, ground almonds, almond extract, orange blossom water, a pinch of cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg. Clearly not the sort of things your average peasant would have been able to get hold of. For for a queen indeed.

If you’re looking to make these, they are well worth the effort and make a nice treat for a picnic or tea. However, use saffron only if you like the flavour. I know it can be an acquired taste, so if you prefer, just play it safe and stick with the lemon and spices, which will still give a wonderful flavour and delicate aroma.

To make Maids of Honour (makes 10):

For the pastry:

• 125g plain flour
• 80g unsalted butter, cold and cut into cubes
• pinch of salt
• 2 teaspoons caster sugar
• iced water

Put the flour, butter, salt and sugar in a bowl. Use your fingers and work until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add enough iced water until the dough comes together (no more than 1-2 tablespoons). Wrap the dough in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.

For the filling:

• 50ml milk
• very tiny pinch of saffron strands (optional)
• 150g cream cheese
• 40g ground almonds
• 50g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon orange blossom water
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• zest of 1/2 lemon
• zest of 1/4 orange
• pinch of cinnamon
• pinch of nutmeg
• 50g butter, at room temperature

If using saffron: put the milk in a saucepan and heat until almost boiling. Turn off the heat, add the saffron strands and allow to sit for 10 minutes until the milk is infused with the saffron colour and aroma. Put the cooled milk and the rest of the ingredients in a bowl, and mix with a balloon which until smooth.

If not using saffron: put all the ingredients in a bowl, and mix with a balloon which until smooth.

To prepare the tarts:

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Grease a cupcake tray with butter.

Roll out the dough as thin as you can – you might find it easier to work the dough with your hands so that it is pliable and does not crumble. Cut our rounds of pastry, put into the to 2-3mm thin, and cut out rounds to line a cupcake tray. Use fingers to press the dough as thin as you can (we want a high filling-to-pastry ratio).

Add one scant teaspoon of jam or curd to the bottom of each case (not too much – or the jam will boil and leak out when baking). Fill each tart two-thirds with the filling mixture – it will puff up slightly during baking.

Bake the tarts for 20 minutes until the filling is puffed and the pastry is golden. You may need to turn the baking tray around half-way to ensure they colour evenly.

Once cooked, remove from the oven, and serve with a light dusting of icing sugar (which would also have been an extravagance in Tudor times).

Worth making? These are very simple but elegant little tarts, which are relatively straightforward to make, and taste great. The filling can be customised depending on exactly what you like in the way of flavours and spices. Will Kate eat them on the big day? We don’t know that yet, but might just be the perfect thing to impress guests are you’re gathered around the television on Friday.

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Mamma Mia! Pea Shoot Risotto

OK, mamma mia indeed.

I can imagine Italians out there rolling their eyes as yet another cook thinks this is a way to jazz up a risotto, and how odd to do it with an ingredient as English as pea shoots. I, of course, being Scottish, would be outraged at that suggestion. Just kidding! Bring on the creativity.

Now, let’s start by admiring the grace of the pea shoot. Very art nouveau, isn’t it?

The idea for this risotto came to me from seeing quite a few recipes recently for pea shoot pesto. Now, I flatter myself that I can make a pretty darn good risotto anyway, and I make a version with peas and mint that is usually very well received. So it was not much of a mental hop, skip and jump to combine pea shoot pesto and my risotto. Literally – make the risotto as usual, but stir in the pesto right at the end, so that the intensely fresh “pea” flavour of the shoots is retained.

I ummed and aaahed a little about how to approach the pea shoot pesto.

I had initial plans to make something involving olive oil, cashew nuts and Parmesan, but I did not want to detract from the delicate flavour of the shoots. So instead I added the pea shoots to a blender with a little water, and blitzed them to a puree. I left this mixture to drain in a strainer – the liquid that drained off went into the pot early to give the rice a jaunty green colour, and the now-slightly-drier puree went in at the last minute.

The result was a brilliantly green risotto – bring, fresh and very spring-like. A nice counter-balance to all those chocolate eggs and hot cross buns we’ve been eating of late.

To serve 4 (or 2, with lots left over):

For the risotto

• 25g butter
• 2 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 onion, finely chopped
• 1 clove garlic, finely chopped (optional)
• 250g arborio rice
• 1 glass dry white wine
• 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
• 1 litre vegetable stock
• 120g peas (fresh or frozen)
• 50g Parmesan cheese, grated
• handful of fresh mint, finely chopped
• 2 tablespoons cream

For the pea shoot paste:

• 100g pea shoots
• cold water

Start by making the pea shoot paste – rinse the shoots, then put most of them in a blender with some water (keep a few for decoration) and blitz until smooth. Transfer to a sieve and allow to train (reserve the liquid).

Next, start the risotto. Melt the butter and olive oil in a pan over a low heat. Add the onion and fry gently until translucent. Add the garlic (if using) and cook for another 30 seconds.

Add the rice, raise the heat to medium, and fry for 2 minutes, stirring all the time. Add the wine, and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated and the rice seems “oily”. Add the black pepper, the liquid from the pea shoots and the stock (one ladle at a time, stirring well after each addition). Add more stock when the previous addition has almost evaporated.

Once all the stock has been added, add the peas and cook the risotto to the desired consistency (some like it runny, some like it thick). Add the Parmesan cheese, stir well, and remove from the heat. Stir in the cream, chopped mint and pea shoot paste, then and allow to sit for two minutes with the pot covered.

Serve with a generous sprinkling of grated Parmesan and an artfully arranged pea shoot.

Worth making? If you are a risotto fan, this is a great version for spring time. The result is impressive and looks stunning on the plate, and all for not too much effort.

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Little Simnel Cakes

In keeping with the Easter theme, I’ve tried to make a traditional Simnel cake, but in miniature form. To to be clear, these are miniature cakes. Let’s just not use the work “cupcake”.

A Simnel cake is an Easter tradition – a spicy fruit cake which also includes a decent amount of marzipan. You probably have to love marzipan to want to eat Simnel cake, but if you do, you’ll love it. Circular reasoning, but true.

It has a long pedigree, first appearing in mediaeval times, and was originally associated with Mother’s Day, but with time, this has come to be linked with Easter. The Easter connection is also seen in how the cake is decorate with marzipan – there should normally be eleven marzipan balls on top, representing the true apostles, minus Judas. For rather obvious reasons.

The mixture itself is really simple to make, and can also be changed depending on what you’ve got in the cupboard and your personal preferences, provided you keep the quantities the same and don’t do silly things like replacing raisins with fresh pineapple. Dried fruit can be swapped out for another type of dried fruit, but sweet, juicy fruit could do all manner of things to the mixture. By all means experiment, but you’ve been warned. I used candied peel, sultanas and raisins, but a few chopped nuts, dried cranberries, dried blueberries or even dried pineapple or mango would all work too.

The marzipan is the fun bit. Traditionally, the bright yellow marzipan is used, and by all means, go with that, but I prefer the look of white marzipan, which I think is rather more elegant.

Now, you do get a real marzipan hit with a Simnel cake. It’s not just on the cake, it’s in it too. You can either chop some into chunks and fold into the batter, or roll out a disc and place in between two layers of the uncooked cake batter, so that marzipan bakes into the cake. Then you finish the cake with another layer of marzipan and the marzipan balls, and finally – brush with egg white and pop under the grill to give the cake a lovely burnished golden look. Otherwise, use a handheld blowtorch to bring a little more finesse to the burnishing. There may be reason for this touch, but I don’t know what it is, beyond the fact that it’s traditional and looks rather pretty.

For the record, and for the curious, the recipe below can easily be scaled up to make a full cake (20cm diameter), but just be sure to adjust the cooking time accordingly.

Happy Easter!

To make mini Simnel cakes (10 mini cakes or one normal size):

For the cake:

• 300g self-raising flour
• 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 teaspoon mixed spice or Lebkuchengewürz
• 120g butter
• 120g soft brown sugar
• zest of 1/2 lemon
• zest of 1/2 orange
• pinch of salt
• 3 tablespoons golden syrup(*)
• 300g mixed dried fruit (**)
• 50g chopped candied peel
• 2 eggs
• 100ml milk
• 200g marzipan

Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Grease and line a large muffin tray with paper cases.

Mix the flour and baking powder. Rub the butter into the flour using your fingers. Add the rest of the dry ingredients (spice, sugar and dried fruit) and mix well. Add the egg, golden syrup and milk. Stir well, then add until the mixture is soft but not runny, and drops easily from a spoon.

Put half the mixture into the muffin cases.

Next, divide the marzipan into pieces and roll into discs. Place one into each muffin.

Add the rest of the mixture on top of the marzipan, smoothe down, and place in the oven to cook for around 30 minutes (until an inserted skewer comes out clean). Leave the cakes to cool then decorate with the marzipan.

(*) If you don’t have maple syrup, use dark corn syrup, rice syrup, agave nectar or maple syrup.
(**) Currants, raisins, sultanas, cranberries, blueberries…whataever you want, as long as it’s dried.

For the decoration:

• 300g marzipan
• 3 tablespoons strained apricot jam or quince jelly

• 1 egg white

Use one-third of the marzipan to cover the cakes. It is easiest to use icing sugar to dust a worktop,  roll out the marzipan with a rolling pin, then use a circulate cutter to cut a circle for the top of each cake.

Brush the top of each cake with jam/jelly, then put the disc of marzipan on top. Smooth the marzipan, and if you want, use your fingers or a knife/spoon/fork to make a pattern round the edge.

Next, roll out balls of marzipan and arrange 11 on top of each cake. Brush the marzipan with a little egg white, then place under a hot grill or use a blowtorch to heat the marzipan until it is lightly browned.

Worth making? Yes – provided you’ve got the patience to do the fiddly marzipan on top, this cake is simple and delicious.

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One a penny, two a penny, Hot Cross Buns!

It’s coming up to Easter (hence the nifty rabbit-themed header for the next few days)…

…and that means Britain is awash with hot cross buns! We’ve actually been able to tuck into them since, oh, late January, but what with the lighter evenings and warmer weather, now it feels more like the right time to be eating them.

Indeed, some people might even be reciting the nursery rhyme (which is what the title of this post refers to, in case you are wondering). Bet you can’t listen to this one more than twice!

If you don’t know them, these are enriched yeast buns with sultanas, currants, citrus peel and a goodly amount of spice, then finished off with a cross on top. This can range from a simple cross made with a sharp knife to pastry crosses, or for a more luxurious finish, marzipan. Apparently they were originally eaten throughout the year, but were associated with Catholicism, so Queen Elizabeth I, sensing that banning things tends not to work too well, allowed people to keep eating them, but limiting them to Easter and Christmas. The association with this time of year established, hot cross buns have never looked back and are now a firm favourite. While traditionally eaten on Good Friday, I am sure I’ve seen them on sale in the middle of November. Yup, we love them that much!

Now, I thought that this would all be an absolute breeze given the ease with which I made panettone just before Christmas. It’s a fruity, spicy bread, just like hot cross buns, so this should also be easy, right? Well, predictably enough, it was not quite as easy as I imagined.

I started off with Delia Smith’s recipe, which is intended for a breadmaker, but first time round I ended up with overly-hard crosses and not enough fruit. Second time, it was Delia again, but the buns didn’t rise properly, which with hindsight was probably due to me not letting them rise properly in my haste to get to the local park and soak up the sun. C’mon, it was 25 degrees and a clear blue sky!

However, two instances without success put me off Delia’s recipe, and for third time lucky, I checked out what Nigella was proposing. Her recipe was similar, but with a bit less flour and a dash of powdered ginger. So I muddled through, using a composite of Delia and Nigella (Digella? Neelia?) as a bit of a guide, leaning a bit more towards the lovely Miss Lawson, and this time, things were looking up. The resulting dough was soft, silky and puffed up beautifully, and this time they had enough time to actually rise properly. Result!

With the bun mixture sorted out, time to deal with the X.

First time, I did the Delia approach of making a simple pastry with flour and water, rolled it thin and cut out strips to place on the buns. Result? Fussy and a bit like leather. With attempt number two, I made a paste and used a piping bag (or more accurately, a plastic bag with the corner cut out…make do and mend etc), which looked good, but I’d managed to get quantities wrong. Again, the paste cooked to something a little leathery. What was happening? I suspected that I was not using enough water, so when I was mixing the paste, it was developing the gluten in the flour, making it too tough when baked.

Then…third time, I finally got it right – the simple trick is exactly equal volumes of flour and water. Result? Nice and soft!

The buns are finished with a simple hot sugar glaze as soon as they come out of the oven, which makes them nice and soft and they take on the deep, rich brown colour of new conkers.

And how to eat them? They really are at their best when still warm, as the flavours of all that fruit, spice and citrus is at its best, but if you prefer, they are great split and toasted. Then serve with a large dollop of butter and a generous drizzle of honey. For me, this was the chance to open some Hamptons Honey I picked up when I was last in the US. A perfect little combination!

Seriously – did you click the link for the nursery rhyme? I think I might have  5 second tolerance limit for it…


To make 12-16 Hot Cross Buns:

For the buns:

• 400g bread flour(*)
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 150ml milk
• 1 egg, beaten
• 50g butter
• 75g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon(**)
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice or Lebkuchengewürz
• pinch ground cloves
• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g candied peel, chopped
• 100g sultanas and currants (proportions per your taste!)

(*) Make sure you are using proper bread flour – plain flour just won’t work.
(**) If you prefer, just use two teaspoons of ground cinnamon.

For the X:

• 3 tablespoons plain flour
• 3 tablespoons cold water

For the glaze:

• 2 tablespoons caster sugar
• 2 tablespoons water

If using a bread machine: place all the dough ingredients except the sultanas, currants and candied peel into the mixing bowl. Add the sultanas and peel to the raisin dispenser, and run the “dough” cycle.

If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the mixture has the texture of fine breadcrumbs. Fold in the spices, salt, sugar and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and the egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough. Work in the sultanas, currants and candied peel. Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size.

Once the dough is ready, divide it into twelve to sixteen round buns. Place on a well-greased baking sheet, leaving 4-5 cm between buns, and cover with oiled cling film or a damp teacloth. Leave somewhere warm until doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F).

Prepare the paste for the X by mixing the flour and water until smooth. Next, brush the buns with milk, then use the paste to make an X on each bun – you can use a piping bag, a plastic bag with the corner cut off, or just use a teaspoon and a steady hand. Put the buns into the oven and bake for 15 minutes, until the buns are a rich brown colour. You may need to tun the tray during baking to an even colour.

While the buns are cooking, make the glaze: heat the water and sugar in a saucepan until the sugar has dissolved. Once the buns are ready, remove from the oven, and brush right away with the warm syrup.

Worth making? I’ve made this recipe twice now, and it works perfectly. The process is actually quite easy, as long as you can spend a bit of time popping into the kitchen every so often to keep things ticking along. You can also customise them according to taste – cranberries, blueberries, chocolate chips…whatever takes your fancy!

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Beaches and Buckwheat

It was a scorcher last weekend. Virtually no cloud for about three days, but it looks like we are in the final moments as there have been a few April showers since Monday. Update: by the time I got round to posting, it was decidedly cooler, but hey – good for the garden!

Like about two-thirds of the UK population with access to a car, I took the opportunity on Sunday to head to the coast and soak up some rays at the picturesque Camber Sands in Sussex, just along from the very pretty town of Rye. It used to be on the coast, but over time, the coastline moved out, and now it is about two miles inland. Well worth a visit to see the cobbled streets and charming old houses.

Camber Sands has fantastic sand dunes (some of the best in Southern England), lots of open beach and, of course, the chilly waters of the English Channel reminding those that ventured into the sea that it was still early April. I’ll be back when they water has warmed up though!

Everyone brought along a few things for the picnic. I had a green salad, various crackers and dips, and a buckwheat salad. Yup, buckwheat.

Buckwheat is a funny, some might say gritty little grain. Try one – that’s the texture, right? It appears in blinis, galettes bretonnes, poffertjes, soba noodles and…not much else, at least in terms of my cooking repertoire. Fair to say, it’s also not a frequent star on British dining tables. Bit of a shame, as they are also quite a pretty, jaunty little grain, which just happens to be gluten-free, so useful if you’re unable to eat wheat, or are just trying to cut down (personally, I’m far from being gluten free, and will happily wolf down anything a bakery throws at me…).

I’ve recently made a lot using cous cous, from the fine French type to the large-grained Palestinian variety, so I wondered if I could do something similar with buckwheat as the main grain in a dish. But how to cook the stuff? Oh, what to do?

Boiling is one (obvious) option, but that tends to be rather aggressive and can make grains break down into a gloopy, soupy, starchy mess. So I opted for the gentler option of soaking the grains overnight, then rinsing them and steaming for about 30 mins.

The result was, quite simply, amazing. Far better than I hoped for in fact. The grains became soft and plump, but stayed fluffy and kept their shape. Then I just mixed the buckwheat with some sliced vegetables and added a simple dressing for a healthy, filling dish. Also doubled up later in the week as a tasty supper.

At this stage, I realise this is sounding like every stereotype of vegetarian cooking you could possibly imagine, short of this being used to make a lentil nut loaf. Well, rest assured, the result is delicious and filling, with plenty of taste. I had meat eaters chowing down on this with glee. I put part of this down to the dressing, which contained sesame oil and a little bit of chili, so it still packed a flavourful punch and had plenty of interesting textures.

So next time you want to make a dish for a picnic, give the pasta a break and perhaps try that funny little packet of buckwheat you’ve been wondering exactly what to do with.

To make buckwheat and green bean salad (side dish for 4, main for 2):

For the salad:

• 200g buckwheat
• 100g cherry tomatoes
• 1/4 cucumber
• 1 small celery stick
• 200g green beans

For the dressing:

• 6 tablespoons dark sesame oil
• 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
• 2 tablespoons rice vinegar / white wine vinegar
• 1/2 teaspoon sambal/harisssa paste (or chili)
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• pinch of sugar

The night before, soak the buckwheat in a pan of cold water.

The next day, rinse the buckwheat well in cold, running water. Drain and place in a steamer (*). Cook for around 30 minutes. The grains are done when they are plump and soft – you may want to fluff the buckwheat every 10 minutes to ensure it is cooked evenly.

While the buckwheat is cooking, prepare the tomatoes, cucumber and celery by cutting into pieces according to your mood (chunks or paper-thin slices, as you like it!). Shred the green beans on the diagonal, and add to the steamer for the last 10 minutes of the cooking process (**). Once the buckwheat/green beans are done, put in a salad bowl with the rest of the vegetables.

Next, make the dressing – combine the ingredients in a jam jar, and shake it madly until smooth. Check the flavour and adjust to taste (you might want more oil, or vinegar, or soy, or chili…go with what tastes right to you). Pour the dressing over the salad and mix well until everything is well-coated.

Serve the salad warm or at room temperature (***).

(*) I don’t own a steamer. I improvise with a metal sieve placed in a saucepan of boiling water,and place a saucepan lid inside the sieve. It forms a pretty good seal, and seems to do the job. Might be an idea for the kitchen wish list…

(**) This way, no extra pot to clean!

(***) As the grains don’t really absorb the dressing, you can easily mix everything ahead of time, rather than waiting until just before serving.

Worth making? I was pleasantly surprised how this method of cooking buckwheat worked out. It has texture and a nutty taste, and cooked in this way with vegetables and a robust, flavourful dressing, it makes for a filling supper or a nice picnic side dish. G’won. Try it!

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Milk Gelato

What with all the plants bursting into life, the hot weather and the switch over to British Summer Time (light until eight in the evening!), time to dig out the ice cream machine. I recently saw what looked like an exciting recipe for milk gelato on Saver Magazine’s website (here). OK, so it’s not quite summer yet, but we need to get into practice. Any excuse!

This recipe reminded me of one of my favourite flavours when I was a child, which was made by Scottish ice cream producer Mackies. I always thought it was vanilla, until I actually looked at the list of ingredients and saw that there was no trace of it. This flavour was called “traditional” and was a simple milk ice cream –  just cream, milk and sugar – so it seems I was a fan of milk gelato for all those years, even if I didn’t know it.



If you are sitting there thinking hmmm, I prefer there to be a bit of flavour in there, then don’t worry. The mixture is sufficiently rich to provide a smooth, creamy gelato, so the trick is just to be sure to use fresh milk and the richest, most luxurious cream that you can lay your hands on. Just imagine serving it with raspberries, strawberries, blackberries or the rest of summer’s bounty. Exactly! Not so in need of just a little dash of vanilla now, eh?

While the resulting gelato can be frozen (eh…how else would you store it?), I think it is also served as fresh as possible, so my tip would be to prepare the base the day before serving and freeze the day you are intending to eat it. This way, the gelato will be at its best, and you will benefit from nods of approval of those devouring your creation.

To make milk gelato (just over 1 litre):

• 240ml double cream
• 720ml whole milk
• 200g white sugar
• 7 teaspoons cornflour(*)
• 1 tablespoon apricot jam, sieved(**)

Put the cream and 2/3 of the milk (480ml) into a saucepan. Heat gently until just simmering, then remove from the heat.

In a separate bowl, mix the rest of the milk, the sugar and the cornflour until combined. Pour this into the hot cream/milk mixture. Stir well with a whisk, then return to the heat and cook over a medium heat for around 10 minutes (stirring all the time) until the mixture is slightly thicker. At the end, stir in the apricot jam. Be careful with the heat, as the mixture can easily boil over, and burned sugary milk is a pain to clean up…

Cover the thickened mixture with cling film (to stop a skin forming) and leave to cool. When cold, pour into the ice cream bucket, chill in the fridge for a couple of hours, and leave the ice cream machine to work its magic.

(*)  By this, I mean the stuff you use to thicken sauce, so it may be called “cornstarch” elsewhere.

(**) To sieve the jam: heat a couple of spoonfuls in a saucepan until runny. Pass through a very fine sieve (using a spoon to push it through), and use a spoonful of the sieved jam in the recipe. Don’t know what adding the jam does, but I did it, and the result was great.

Worth making? In a word – superb. Will surely be making this again as I think it would go wonderfully with summer fruits later in the year.

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Slovenska kuhinja! Pehtranova Potica!

Živjo! If you are mystified, we’re heading to a country that has it all – scenic snow-capped mountains, verdant countryside, sunny Mediterranean coastline and a selection of beautiful towns and cities to tempt the visitor. Yup, it’s Slovenia, the only country in the world with “love” in its name.


I was recently given a challenge by Fashpolitico to make something with tarragon. Rather than go for something predictable, such as a herb-rich sauce for a main course, here is a recipe from the lovely land I just described. Here is  a recipe for potica (pronounced po-teet-sah).

But first things first: why is Slovenia such a great place? Apart from the above and some lovely friends from this part of the world,  I have fond memories of a summer holiday there, as well as a great New Year’s Even in the capital Ljubljana when the Euro was being introduced. In Brussels years before, the bars had adhered to the rule that you had to give change in Euro from the stroke of midnight, and with all the “festivities”, no-one was really able to do the required mental maths. But in Slovenia, the locals didn’t really get why anyone thought this was exciting. Ever the pragmatists, the Slovenes just ignored the “midnight” rule, so if you paid in tolar, you got tolar back. Pay in Euro, get Euro back. It was a big party, after all, and the arithmetic would only start on 2 January when our headaches had cleared and we were better able to handle such things. Euro aside, it was a fantastic New Year in a small but beautiful city. We visited the castle, looked around the food market and ate rather a lot of cake at a rather superb cake shop, Julia (Stari Trg, just off the Old Town).

And what of the potica? This is basically an enriched dough with yeast, rolled out and spread with some sort of filling, then rolled up, Swiss-roll-style before being left to rise. A little research reveals that this pastry can be eaten plain, with jam or butter, toasted or even – in a nod to Slavic tastes – with a slab of sausage. Yes, that is sausage, on what I assume is a sweet cake. Go figure.

As promised, this version of potica contains tarragon, which is something I would usually expect to find in a savoury dish, as part of its role as one of the fines herbes of Mediterranean cooking. So let’s whack it into an enriched bread and see what happens, alongside a rich, buttery custard. Drooling already?

The dough was the easy part. The filling, less easy. I followed the directions I had, but ended up with something the consistency of milk. I may be a novice at making potica, but I knew something was not right. Given that I would have to spread this as the filling, it ought to have been thicker, and what I had was clearly going to leak out and go everywhere. So the whole lot went into a saucepan, and I stood there patiently with a balloon whisk, stirring until it seemed reasonably thick. Once it had cooled and the dough was ready, it spread perfectly. Tarragon duly chopped, it was scattered on top, and the whole lot was rolled up.

Now at this stage, I think I went a little off piste, and took the lazy route by not rolling the dough thin or large enough (to get an idea how it should be done, see here!). I probably got 2-3 turns of the dough, so ended up more with a swirl than a spiral in the finished loaf. But these are as mere details, as it still looked pretty good, the dough rose magnificently (to give some context – the loaf was the size of a large cat!) and it took on a lovely golden sheen when baking.

But most importantly of all – how did it taste? The tarragon is…odd. Actually, quite pleasant, like a mild aniseed. I liked it, and I think if you like aniseed, you would like this too. It’s a little like a brioche with some sort of custard filling, and really rather good when taken with a cup of morning coffee. It’s probably not authentic, but at least I get the credit for trying. Now I just sit back and wait for the reaction from my Slovene friends – and I’m sticking my neck out by offering to try to make this again in line with any suggestions they care to share with me!

For the dough:

• 500g strong white flour
• 10g instant yeast
• 1 egg
• 1 egg yolk
• 75g white sugar
• 75g butter
• 250ml milk, boiled and cooled
• pinch of salt

For the filling:

• 200ml double cream
• 150g butter
• 150g white sugar
• 2 eggs
• 100g white breadcrumbs
• 50g fresh tarragon leaves, roughly chopped.

To make the dough: in a bowl, combine the ingredients and knead well until you have an elastic dough (5-10 minutes). Once ready, leave to prove in a warm place until doubled in size. Alternatively, put everything into a bread machine, and leave to run on the “dough” cycle.

To make the filling: Melt the butter in a frying pan, and cook the breadcrumbs until just coloured. Allow to cool. In a large saucepan, combine the cream, sugar and eggs, and stir with a whisk until smooth. Fold in the breadcrumbs, then cook on a medium heat until the mixture thickens. Leave to cool.

To assemble: roll out the dough into a large rectangle. Spread over the filling, scatter over the tarragon, then roll up (think Swiss roll!). Seal the edges, and place onto a large baking sheet. Leave in a warm place, under a damp cloth, until doubled in size. Brush with milk and bake in the oven at 150°C (300°F) until golden brown. You may have to turn it around in the oven to ensure the colour is even.

Worth making? This was a new recipe for me, and while it was nice and did expand to hilariously large proportions, I won’t be making it exactly this way again. Why? I think the mixture works, but it would be better done as little individual rolls, and then vary the filling a little – some with tarragon to keep the Slovenian connection real, but do other with sultanas, chocolate, citrus, poppy seeds….  Maybe, just maybe, we are getting a little far from the Slovenian original, but this sort of cross-cultural cuisine is part of what Europe is all about. Srečno (good luck)!

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On Location: Demarquette (Chelsea, London)

Easter is coming, and that, of course, means that many of us will consume our own body weight in chocolate eggs. So I was thrilled when I received a recent invite to attend a tasting evening at the Demarquette chocolate boutique in Chelsea. A chic part of London that I don’t get to that often, so all the more incentive to attend.

As regular readers might have realised, I have a penchant for nice chocolates from my time in Brussels, and this little place surely did not disappoint. Greeted with a glass of fizz, we then got to sample a variety of the goodies on offer. The selection was great – showcasing the range of what they did, so a glimpse into everything from the classical to the contemporary, old favourites and new twists. There were delectable candied clementines dipped in dark chocolate, which were sweet, plump and conveyed all the flavours of Christmas. There was an utterly delicious salted caramel spread made with Cornish clotted cream. What struck me was that while this clearly contained heroic quantities of dairy and sugar, it had a rich, smooth buttery quality, rather than just cloying sweetness, so it might be appearing in a few gift packs rather soon. The two others that stood out for me were the caramel miniature eggs (of which more later) and mint and green tea chocolates. These were, without doubt, the nicest mint chocolates I have had in quite some time. Forget white fondant filled sweets, these had a rich, smooth ganache filling and tasted just like they had fresh mint leaves in them – this flavour was real, bright and fresh. Absolutely superb.

I was also intrigued by some of the flavours that I saw but did not get the chance to taste – the English Garden Collection (with a range floral flavours – rose, violet, elderflower – and aptly launched during the 2009 Chelsea Flower Show) and the British Summer Fruits (rhubarb! pear! blackcurrant! raspberries!) stood out, and I look forward to getting round to trying these in due course.

We were also treated to a little live demonstration of making ganache, where the owner, Marc Demarquette, shared his technique. This differs from the way in which I have made ganache in the past – he uses warmed cream with melted chocolate – so I will be giving this a try very soon. Needless to say, it was delicious and we were allowed to dip strawberries and brioche in the mixture to our heart’s content, subject to a strict no-double-dipping rule. All this was topped off with the chance to test some of their new creations, including some cloud-like whipped ganache chocolates. I could go on, and on, and on, but suffice to say: lovely shop, lovely staff, and delicious, innovative, creative chocolates. As if all that were not enough reason to head down there, they are also working cocoa growers in Vietnam to source great beans and do a little good for the local community. Sold yet?

Now, from the night, I have to ‘fess up and say that I expected to be more occupied with guzzling sweets and discussing exactly which type of chocolate I liked, so the camera stayed at home and the iPhone firmly in pocket. However, we were also kindly given a little goody bag, so I have used that as the basis of a few pics to share.

Without doubt, my complete, utter and total favourite where the salted caramel chocolate eggs. They had a rich, biting caramel which worked beautifully with the dark, rather fruity chocolate that encased them. I rationed them to one a day, both a massive exercise in self-control and testament to the fact that I did not think it fitting to snaffle them all in one go.

I also loved the two little Easter chicks made of chocolate, and a small gift box of six individual chocolates. In each case, the flavour was just right – just the right strength, and rather impressively, even the banana chocolate tasted pretty good, which I think is something very tricky to pull off.

In short, this was a great evening, and I am so happy to have found this store. I look forward to buying a few more goodies in the future, and popping back to the shop to take in what they have on offer. And if you find yourself in that part of London, I can assure you that it’s worth it.

And just to show a little humour – here are the chocolate Easter chickens!

Demarquette Fine Chocolates, 285 Fulham Road, London SW10 9PZ. Tel: 020 7351 5467. Tube: Gloucester Road or South Kensington.

LondonEats locations map here.

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Florentines

I have always loved florentines. I like the way they are mostly composed of all the “good bits” with a minimum of anything boring (like, oh, flour) to hold them together. They are, in turn, nutty, citrussy, fruity and chocolately, and might even be a little bit spicy if you’ve made a tweak and used preserved ginger.


Now, the name. Do they come from Florence? The name suggests they might, but that ever reliable source of information, ‘t Interweb, suggests that they are more likely to have a royal pedigree, first appearing in Paris in the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV. I think I like this tale better, makes them sound far more grand. You can imagine Queen Maria Theresa nibbling one as she peers out of the window at Versailles.

One of the major draws of florentines is not just taste, but how they look. Little discs of golden caramel, studded with nuts and jewel-like cherries. In the past, I always used the bright neon red type of glacé cherries, but recently I got all snobbish, and used a more natural variety, which have a deep purple shade. They still tasted nice, but the lack of the vivid colour meant they lost a little something. So another batch made, this time with the more flashy bling-bling glacé cherries, and they did indeed look like they should.

This recipe uses a simple base of butter, golden syrup and flour, but if you find yourself in a part of the world that doesn’t have golden syrup to hand, you can use honey or use caramelised sugar with a dash of cream. They are great either as large cookies, or very small discs of sweet, sticky goodness, so perfect for an afternoon tea or as a petit four for after a fancy-schmancy dinner. And of course don’t feel restricted by the ingredients I have used – candied ginger, different candied peel, glacé angelica, hazelnuts…whatever you like! Be creative!

To make florentines (makes around 16 mini-biscuits):

• 85g butter
• 85g golden syrup
• 30g plain flour
• 60g flaked almonds
• 15g preserved ginger, sliced
• 15g candied peel, finely chopped
• 60g sultanas
• 60g cherries, quartered
• 100g dark chocolate(*)
• 50g milk chocolate

Preheat the oven to 180°C (375°F). Lightly grease a non-stick baking tray(**).

Put the butter and syrup into a pan. Heat until the butter melts, bring to the boil, then add all other ingredients apart from the chocolate. Allow the mixture to cool for 2-3 minutes (it should thicken slightly).

Place teaspoonfuls of the mixture on the baking sheet, flatten slightly and cook for 8-10 minutes until golden (turn the tray half way). Remove from the oven and allow to sit for a few minutes until hard (when they come out of the oven, if they have spread too much, use a spoon to push the edges  back into shape while still soft). Move the florentines to a wire rack to cool completely(***). If they seem oily from all that butter, place the warm biscuits on kitchen paper.

Once the florentines are cool, melt the chocolate in a double boiler, and coat the base of each biscuit. If you like, use a fork to make a wave pattern or swirl on  the base of each florentine.

(*) You can also use all dark chocolate (150g) if you prefer.

(**) Really – I cannot stress how much easier it is to use a non-stick tray!

(***) If the biscuits do not come from the tray when they have hardened, place the tray over a hob flame for a couple of seconds, and then they should come right off!

Note: this recipe is for making small florentines (4-5cm diameter). In the pictures, I doubled the recipe to make cookies that were almost 10cm diameter (tablespoons of the mixture rather than teaspoons) – if you do this, reduce the heat slightly (to 160°C (320°F) and cook until they are golden – and really, watch like a hawk! Don’t let them burn!

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