Monthly Archives: November 2011

{3} Pfeffernüsse

For the third part of the “Twelve Goodies of Christmas” I’ve made another of the festive classics – German Pfeffernüsse.

This is a classic version of the recipe, which contains a lot of spice and good amount of freshly ground black pepper. These pack a bit of a punch, but that is the way I like them – you often eat them with a glass of mulled wine, so they need to be able to hold their own and provide some contrast to the sweetness of the wine.

I’ve also jazzed up the decoration of these cookies – rather than just simple white icing, I added a sprinkling of crushed red peppercorns. This makes for a jaunty little festive touch and a little extra bit of extra peppery punch. It’s warm and aromatic, but without being too hot.

I made these last year, but as I recently did with my Aachener Printen, I’ve put a bit of effort in to getting the right ingredients, specifically the raising agent. In this case, it’s ammonium bicarbonate. Read more about it here, but essentially it gives more “lift” to biscuits, but it comes at a price – it stinks during the baking process! The strange aroma does vanish once the cookies have cooled, but it certainly livens up the process.

On balance, I think that it does make a difference – the texture is lighter, the resulting cookies are softer. Baking powder works, but ammonium bicarbonate is better if you can get hold of it. Look online, or I’ve put a source in London at the bottom of the recipe.

Now, you may ask, is it not a little early to make these things? Well, like a lot of spicy cookies, they get better if you store them for a while. So with them iced and decorated, these little fellows are tucked away in a box, waiting for Christmas.

To make Pfeffernüsse (makes around 20-25):

• 125g honey
• 50g brown sugar
• 25g butter
• 225g plain flour
• 50g ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon ammonium carbonate(*)
• 1 egg
• 2 heaped teaspoons Lebkuchengewürz or mixed spice
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Making the cookies:

Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper and grease lightly.

Put the honey, sugar and butter in a small saucepan and heat gently until the sugar has melted. Leave for a couple of minutes to cool slightly.

In the meantime, in a large bowl combine the flour, ground almonds, ammonium carbonate, spices and pepper. Stir in the honey mixture and mix well. Add the egg and keep mixing until you have a smooth but sticky dough.

Using damp hands, divide the dough into around 20-25 portions – each should be the size of a small walnut. Roll each cookie into a ball between your hands (keep them moistened with water) and place on the baking sheet. Bake for around 10-12 minutes until puffed and just starting to brown.

Icing the cookies:

• 200g icing sugar
• 4-5 tablespoons kirsch, rum or water
• crushed red peppercorns

Put the icing sugar and kirsch/rum/water in a bowl. Mix well until you have a smooth, thick paste. It should just flow. Dip each cookie in the icing, then transfer to a wire rack to dry. Sprinkle some crushed peppercorns over the iced biscuits.

To get ammonium carbonate in London, you can buy this from Scandinavian Kitchen in the city centre (61 Great Titchfield Street, London W1W 7PP), tel: 020 7580 7161. Tube: Oxford Circus.

Worth making? I love these cookies. Sweet, spicy and very festive looking. Perfect with a glass of mulled wine after a bracing walk in the cold!

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{2} Speculaaskruiden

If you’re going to make festive biscuits, you need to get spicy!

Hence the second part of the “Twelve Goodies of Christmas” is a traditional spice mixture from the Netherlands.

Last year, I made a batch of German Lebkuchengewürz. Rather than trying more of the same, this year I’ve taken some inspiration from further west, and made a batch of Dutch speculaaskruiden (speck-oo-lass-krau-den).

My last mixture served me well over the past year, in everything from biscuits to fruit pies and compotes. So if you’re a little apprehensive about making a batch of mixed spice on the basis you won’t use it all, don’t worry. A little pinch of these sort of mixtures will add a lovely gingerbread flavour in place of plain old cinnamon.

I know that you would not normally arrange spices on neat little paper squares, but I found it quite interesting to see how the colours of each spice vary, and as you work with each, the different aromas will fill your kitchen with the most wonderful warm, woody smells. The warmth of cinnamon and ginger, pungent cloves, fresh cardamom and coriander and aromatic nutmeg, star anise and mace.

In making this, I used ground spices for a number of the ingredients – I’ve tried to grind cloves before, but they are tough little fellows, so you end up using a coffee grinder, and frankly – you’ll never get rid of the smell! Fine if you happen to like spiced coffee, but I don’t. So for the really tough ones, I buy pre-ground. However, I did grind some of them myself – the cardamom seeds were tackled with a mortar and pestle, while the nutmeg and star anise got the grater treatment. Just be sure to pass them through a very fine sieve, so you get rid of any woody bits of spice.

What you will notice when you compare the Dutch and German recipes is that they use many of the same basic spices – cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg – but in different proportions. And just as with so many spice mixtures, there are dozens of recipes and many people have their own ways of making them. So treat the list below as a guide, and adjust the amounts as per your preferences. For the authentic flavour, you need to add the cinnamon, cloves, mace and ginger, but add or omit anything else that takes your fancy.

Now, the big question – what to make with this mixture?

Well, speculaaskruiden is the typical flavour in a number of biscuits – speculaas in the Netherlands, speculoos in Belgium and Spekulatius in Germany. As the names suggest, these are similar types of biscuit – they’re crisp, buttery, sometimes with almonds, and with lots of spice. While they are eaten all year round, they do tasty particularly festive.

That, or add it to cakes, muffins, carrot cakes, crumbles, compotes…whatever your imagination can come up with!

To make speculaaskruiden:

• 7 teaspoons ground cinnamon(*)
• 2 teaspoons ground cloves(*)
• 2 teaspoons ground mace(*)
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger(*)
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1/2 teaspoon ground anise seeds or star anise

(*) These are essential. The other spices are entirely optional

Put everything in a bowl. Mix well – that’s it! Store in an airtight jar in a cool, dark place.

Worth making? This mixture is fantastic – different notes come out from the different spices, and adds a pleasant spicy note to many recipes. If you’ve got this to hand, it makes for an easy way to add a rounded spiced flavour to just about anything. Really recommended.

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On Location: Fred & Fran (Stoke Newington, London)

I had three months off last summer when I changed jobs. Much of that time was spent hanging out in London, mostly in the park, reading the papers every lay and lazing around in the sunshine. And there was the frequent mooching around in the cafes and coffee shops of Stoke Newington Church Street. All good.

But I am now also a little annoyed, as Fred & Fran have chosen to open their new cafe now, rather than last summer when it would have suited me. Because this is just the sort of place I could have seen myself wandering over to every day for coffee and a snack to accompany a little light reading.

Fred & Fran is a great little place serving great food and excellent coffee. It’s a couple of streets back from Stoke Newington Church Street, so it’s a little quieter and, in my experience, this means you stand a sporting chance of getting a table when you turn up. Not that the place is not busy, but for the time being (and until the world finds out about this place) they’re getting it right.

As you can see from the pictures, there are quite a few rather charming retro touches. Tea pots come with knitted cosies around them, and the teacups are fancy old-fashioned flowery variety. Water is served in old milk bottles, and in my case it was a bit of a blast from the past to see a bottle carrying an advert for Balisto chocolate bars. A quick search on Google suggests they are about to be re-launched in the UK. What goes around comes around, eh?

When you come in, you’re face to face with a large selection of very tempting cakes, which were driving several children into a bit of a frenzy.

But it’s not all cake, and I was seriously impressed with the savoury dishes on offer. It was a flip between the spinach and nutmeg soup or an open sandwich, but in the end I went for bruschetta with cannellini bean spread, feta and roasted peppers, and a roasted aubergine, lemon and goat cheese affair. Both were delicious – lots of bold flavours and very satisfying. The latter also had a good shot of garlic in there. This is veggie food that is very far from being dull.

After my satisfying lunch, the debate was around whether it was time for cake. I concluded that it was.

While I was a little full, but it seemed wrong not to finish off my pot of Earl Grey without a slice of something sweet. And what a choice! Lemon tart, pear and yoghurt cake, mini fruit loaves, almond tarts…all looked great. And on previous visits, I’ve seen lovely croissants, Chelsea buns and a fab ginger and stout cake. But what stood out as the jewel in the crown was the carrot and walnut cake. It had to be that one.

Now, I can promise you that this one tastes as good as it looks. Nice and spicy, moist and with generous chunks of walnut. There was also a good cream cheese frosting to cake ratio. I loved it. In face, I probably ate too much of it. But I would happily go back there again, and again, and again. Also a perfect place to pop into for a fortifying cup of coffee and a snack before going off on a long walk down towards the river or through the back streets of East London.

Fred & Fran – good to have you here and welcome to the neighbourhood!

Fred & Fran, 55 Kynaston Road, London N16 0EB. Tel: 07788 158 742. Bus: 73, 393 or 476  (stop: Bouverie Road).

LondonEats locations map here.

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{1} Aachener Printen

Why does this post start with a number?

Well, it has reached that time of year again…Christmas is around the corner, and this year I’ve decided to take on the challenge of making the “12 goodies of Christmas”. I’ve veered away from just doing cookies as there is a lot more festive fare out there. I’ll leave it at that, but there are a few interesting things in the offing in the coming weeks!

That said, for the first post, I am actually revisiting something that I made last year, the famous Aachener Printen.

Printen are traditional German biscuits which originate from the town of Aachen, near the border with the Netherlands. They are made from honey, citrus, spices and flour, but no egg or milk (so good if you don’t/can’t eat dairy, and you can substitute the honey for beet or other syrup if you want a vegan cookie). Traditionally, all those spices made them expensive and they were considered to be health-giving, so they were sold in pharmacies. Mercifully, spices are now available to all of us, and while I make no health claims, but I can confirm they are really very tasty.

This is not, however, a carbon copy of last year’s attempt. I’ve made one seemingly small but fundamental change. The secret is the raising agent. Last time, I used baking powder. This year, I have been pounding London’s pavements in search of a magic ingredient.  After much searching, I managed to track down the thing that the Germans traditionally use – Pottasche, or potassium carbonate. This both gives the dough a “lift” but also causes it to keep absorbing moisture after baking, so the biscuits will become softer with time. As the Printen have sugar crystals in them, this makes for a nice texture contrast too.

That’s the theory. But does it work and was it worth it?

Well, the difference using the potassium carbonate was clear almost right away. The biscuits puffed up much more than last time, and they are softer from the out. Last year, I was left with some rather hard cookies that took a long, long time to soften. No need to wait this time. But if you can leave them, they do get better with time. In short – if you are able, I really, really recommend trying to get your hands on this magic powder!

Another quite nifty little thing about making Printen is that they lend themselves to being made when you have a spare few minutes. You make the dough ahead of time, let it sit for a few days so that the aroma of the spices can develop, then shape and bake them a few days later.

If you’re feeling fancy, you can also dip them in dark chocolate. The soft, spicy gingerbread, crunch sugar crystals and smooth, dark chocolate is quite a revelation. Enjoy!

To get potassium carbonate in London, you can buy this from the German Deli at Borough Market (3 Park Street, London SE1 9AB), tel: 020 7378 0000. Tube: London Bridge.

To make the Printen (makes around 20 large or 40 small biscuits):

• 250g honey(*)
• 25g sugar
• 250g plain flour
• pinch of salt
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground aniseed or star anise
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 50g candied orange peel
• 1 teaspoon potassium carbonate (“Pottasche”)
• 1 tablespoon water or orange blossom water
• 50g candy sugar (the large crystals for coffee)

Stage 1: The dough

Chop the orange peel very finely. Either do this by hand, or pulverise in a food processor.

Put the honey and sugar in a saucepan and heat gently until the sugar dissolves. Turn off the heat and put the pan to one side.

Add the flour to a bowl with the salt, cinnamon, aniseed/star anise, cloves and nutmeg.

Add the orange peel and the warm honey to the flour. Mix until the ingredients are well combined. The dough will be soft initially, but will start to become very firm as it cools.

Place the dough in a plastic container, seal, and leave at room temperature for at least two days. I’ve left it for up to two weeks with no ill effects.

Stage 2: baking the cookies

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Lightly grease a sheet of greaseproof paper.

Mix the Pottasche and the water (or orange blossom water) in a cup until the powder dissolves. Add to the dough and mix until smooth. It doesn’t seem like much, but it turns from being very stiff to quite pliable.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/2 or 3/4 cm thickness. Sprinkle with the candy sugar(**) and pass the rolling pin lightly over to press the sugar crystals into the dough.

Cut the dough into pieces of 4 x 8 cm (large cookies) or 4 x 4cm (smaller cookies). Place on the baking sheet, and bake for around 12 minutes until risen and brown. Turn the baking sheet half way through.

If you like your cookies to have a nice shine, when they come out of the oven, brush with a simple sugar syrup made with 100g white sugar dissolved in 100ml water (heat in a pan until the sugar dissolves). Store the cookies in an airtight tin – they will keep for several months.

(*) If you want to make a vegan version of Printen, replace the honey with the syrup of your choice, such as beet syrup or dark corn syrup. Aim for something that has the consistency of thick runny honey.

(**) You might have to crush the sugar crystals to make them smaller. The ones I bought were about 1cm long, so I used a mortar and pestle to break them down into pieces of 2-3mm.

Worth making? The ones I made with baking powder last year tasted nice, but these are sensational. If you can get hold of the Pottasche, then these are straightforward and delicious, with the real “taste of Christmas”.

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On Location: Vertigo 42 (The City, London)

When I go out, I have a strong, strong preference for down-to-earth places that serve great food and are a relaxed place for a drink.

But…every now and then…it is nice to go to something of a landmark bar. And this is very much the case with Vertigo 42, located at the top of one of the tallest buildings in the City. As you can see, from street level, it’s a long, long way up. A whole 42 floors.

Now, this is not the sort of place that I would normally drop into for a casual drink. This is in part because you need to book ahead, but also because this is a champagne and cocktail bar, with the sort of prices that you would expect from this sort of venue in the middle of London’s financial centre. You get the point…

All that said, the whole reason for going is that it does offer some of the most amazing views across London, especially on a clear day as the sun is setting. You can gaze at the Shard of Glass that is being built on the south bank of the Thames, admire the sun setting over west London (and really understand what prompted to Kinks to write their famous hit) and take in the London Eye, Tate Modern and Houses of Parliament and St Paul’s Cathedral. Towards the east, you can see the towers of Canary Wharf and the nearby 30 St Mary’s Axe (better known as the Gherkin).

You can see below why I recommend getting there as the sun is setting – you’ll see London in the daylight, then enjoy the sun setting and seeing the city light up in front of your eyes. Even at these prices, the views are stunning.

After all that boozing at the top of the tower, a little wander through the chilly streets was much-needed before going off to dinner. To put it all in context, this is the more familiar view of St Paul’s Cathedral at night.

Would I go back? Well, as I said, it’s not a place for a casual drink, but great to visit or impress guests. Just be aware that the best views are for twos or fours (towards Waterloo – sunsets! landmarks!) so be sure to extract a guarantee about where you’re sitting if at all possible. Be prepared for a hefty bar tab, but remember – those views!

Vertigo 42, Tower 42, 25 Old Broad Street, London EC2N 1HQ. Tel: 0207 877 7842. Tube: Bank or Liverpool Street.

LondonEats locations map here.

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Take it sloe…

‘Tis autumn, and lo! In the local park, there is a patch of thorny bushes that have changed from green to golden, and those leaves are now starting to fall. And behind those tumbling leaves…the sloes appear!

Not everyone knows sloes. I make this sweeping statement based on a survey of one person. I got chatting to an American lady in the Refuel bar at the Soho Hotel last week, and she was unsure what to order. She asked me, and I suggested the sloe gin fizz, on the basis that sloe gin is very British, and it was also seasonal. She went for it and seemed happy with it. So one convert to sloe gin…but back to the point: what are they?

Sloes are part of the plum family, but much smaller than the varieties we are used to enjoying. They have a deep purple colour and a blueish bloom. But the real surprise is the taste. As a child, we were all the victim of someone who convinced us to taste one, only to recoil in horror as you realise that sloes might look nice but they are unpleasantly astringent. It’s like eating alum. Your whole mouth goes dry and your mouth puckers. The whole thing is…well…just downright horrid. And from that point (typically aged seven or so) you learn to avoid the little devils, no matter how ripe and juicy they might look on the tree. And then, in due course, you play the same trick on your friends and younger cousins.

Well, you avoid them, unless you are me.

Two years ago, I thought I would get clever and have a go at making sloe jam. On paper, it was all going to go marvelously well. I had read a little about them, and understood that the astringency will vanish if the fruit is frozen overnight. This also has a basis in homespun folksy wisdom – sloes would traditionally be picked after the first frost, so the freezer is just giving Mother Nature a little helping hand. Now, I have to admit that while the freezer option is much easier, there would of course be something terribly romantic about wandering through the trees on a cool, misty autumn morning as the fruit is tinged with frost…

So, I got my sloes. I picked them, froze them, and then chucked them into a pot. I made the jam and it set to a fabulous garnet colour.

The next morning, I settled myself on the sofa with a cup of tea, the Sunday papers and several slices of hot buttered toast with a generous spreading of sloe jam. At first, it was quite nice, a like damson jam.

Then it hit. The pure, pure horror.

I had basically just succeeded in making eight jars of astringent paste. It was inedible. Awful. So the lesson? If you’re going to do “stuff” with weird fruit, be very, very sure you know what you’re doing with it. With hindsight, I might had gotten carried away with how nice the fruit looked on the tree and should have waited longer for the fruit to ripen…but I still look back on that jam with dread…

And you know what? You would think that I would have learned. But no. Last summer, a similar disaster unfolded when I tried to get clever and make rowan jelly. Again, it was unpleasantness in a quivering, jewel-coloured form. And again, probably the fruit was picked based on looks rather than ripeness…

This is all a very roundabout way of bringing me to the issue of today’s post: how do you solve a problem like the sloe fruit? Well, there is one option which is perennially  popular tipple in Old Blighty. You take the little chaps and immerse them in alcohol. Yes, I’ve made a batch of sloe gin.

To get all technical, this is not really a true gin, but more like a fruit liqueur based on gin. The idea is very simple indeed – you just take some large glass jars, fill them with fruit, sugar and alcohol (gin or vodka) then leave the flavour to infuse. After about a month, the alcohol is drained off and left to mature, while the fruit can be used for pies or jam.

The sloe gin itself can be enjoyed neat to ward off the chills outside, or used in a range of cocktails (sloe gin & tonic or a sloe gin fizz).

As with so many traditional recipes, this is one that contains its own little rituals. You should pierce the skins of each sloes two or three times either with a silver needle or a thorn from the sloe bush. Now, I don’t have silver needles lying around the house, so I toyed with the idea of going back to the wild part of the local park to get a thorn. However, I thought better of it. I had picked them with three friends and we all emerged with large cuts in our arms and legs (nothing serious, but they looked dramatic). You see, the sloe bush is also known as the blackthorn, and as you can see from the top picture, there are some vicious looking thorns on the bush. So all things considered, it was safest to use a cocktail stick.

The recipe is actually quite easy – take a clean jar, fill one-third full with sloes. Check the weight of the sloes, and add three-quarters of that weight of white sugar. Then top up the bottle with gin or vodka, and shake gently. Then you shake the bottle every day for a week until the sugar dissolves, then shake it two times a week thereafter, and after a month, remove the sloes and store the sloe gin somewhere dark to mature.

As you can see in the picture below, the gin starts to take on the colour of the sloes straight away. I write this on day four, and all the sugar has now dissolved and the colour is now a deep pink colour, which should become stronger with time. So for the time being, this is tucked away in a cupboard. Let’s see what it’s like by Christmas!

Update: you can see how it turned out here!

To make sloe gin:

• sloes
• white sugar (three-quarters of the sloes)
• gin or vodka

Rinse the sloes and remove any bruised fruit, leaves, stalks and insects (yup, there will be some in there!). Put the sloes into a tub and leave in the freezer for a couple of days.

The night before making the gin, remove the sloes from the freezer. Spread them out on a plate or a try, and leave somewhere cool to defrost.

The next day, pierce each fruit 2-3 times with a needle or a cocktail stick. If you’re making a lot of gin, this is best done sitting at the kitchen table with the radio on as it can take quite some time.

Fill the jar one-third full of sloes. Weight the sloes, and add 3/4 of the weight in sugar. Fill the jar with gin or vodka, seal the jar, and shake gently. Store the jars in a cool, dark place (the back of a cupboard is ideal). Shake the jars gentle each morning and each evening for a week, then shake them twice per week for the next three weeks. After a month, strain the gin and decant into a sterile bottle. I’ll keep an eye out for some ideas for the boozy fruit!

Worth making? No idea. Normally I would be in a position to say that I made something and it was either amazing or awful. But not today. This stuff will take a while to develop, so you’ll just need to remain patient and check back in a few months. But I’m quietly confident and expect rather great things from this. Fingers crossed!

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Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November…

Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot…

Yay! Tonight is Guy Fawkes Night, so we will all wrap up warm, stand round a large bonfire, and look up at the fireworks over Alexandra Palace, while partaking in a collective ooooh and aaaaah as the sky lights up. Alexandra Palace is not a royal residence, but was purpose built in the 1870s as an entertainment venue, and as it is perched in a hill, if is the perfect place for a fireworks show. I’ve been in previous years, and it’s great, but this year, I’m lucky enough to be heading off to the house of some friends who live nearby, so I get all the benefits of an amazing show, but all the comfort of being in someone’s garden, with food and drinks within easy reach.

For the party, I produced two contributions. One batch of spicy roasted tomato soup (see here) which I had jazzed up with a bit of Piment d’Espelette, so I won’t repeat that one today. And to offset this healthy, hearty and savoury soup, I also whipped up a batch of toffee apples.

As you can see, they are the classic sort – small, on a stick, and bright, bright red!

This was the first time I’ve made them, so there were, of course, a couple of things to think about.

First, what sort of apples? While I have a source at work who comes in each Monday morning weighed down with cooking apples, they were too large and a bit too tart for this. Perfect for a pie or a Waldorf Salad, but not here. No, the apples need to be smaller, but sweet, juicy and crisp. So at the greengrocer, they were selling small russet apples. Perfect!

Now, the obvious next question – what to coat them with?

Should it be the pure sugar caramel coating, coloured shocking red, or a more muted butter-and-brown-sugar toffee? Well, I went for a combination of both. The dipping toffee is a combination of white and brown sugar, butter, cream, vinegar (!), golden syrup and a dash of salt, then a good dash of food colouring to get the classic red colour. I know, I know that I could have stuck with the natural colour, but this is a night for bright colour. Plus, it’s only once a year.

So…if you fancy making them, then there is still time today! Just get apples, wash and dry them. Then make the toffee, dip the apples, and you could be enjoying them by the bonfire in less than an hour.

And if you want to make them ahead of time – be warned! The sugar coating will absorb moisture from the air, so make them as late as possible, or store them wrapped in lightly greased or buttered cling film in a sealed container. You’ve been warned. Don’t blame me if then turn into a sweet, sticky, red mess!

Enjoy the fireworks – and enjoy them safely!

To make toffee apples (makes 8-10):

• 8-10 small, crisp apples
• 300g white sugar
• 100g brown sugar
• 1 teaspoon white vinegar
• 25g butter
• 4 tablespoons (80g) golden syrup
• 1 pinch of salt
• 50ml cream
• 50ml water
• 1 teaspoon red food colouring (optional)

First, wash the apples. Put into a sieve and then pour lots of boiling water over them (this will help to remove any wax – you’ll see that the wax turns white and can be wiped off). Dry well with a clean cloth. Put a twig or wooden skewer into each apple. I used wooden chopsticks. Prepare a baking tray by lining with greaseproof paper, and grease lightly with butter.

Next, make the toffee. Put all the rest of the ingredients into a saucepan. Bring to the boil, then cook on a medium heat without stirring (for around 20 minutes), until the mixture reaches 140°C (280°F). Either use a sugar thermometer, or check by dropping a spoonful of the mixture into cold water – if you get very hard drops, it’s ready. If it is still quite soft when you squeeze between your fingers, keep cooking.

Remove from the heat, and as soon as the toffee stops bubbling, dip each apple in the caramel. Rotate the apple quickly to ensure an even finish, then place on the greaseproof paper to cool.

Worth making?  These apples are sticky and basically everything will end up reg (hands, tongue, face) but they do have a lovely caramel flavour which is super with the apples. And hey, it’s only once a year…surely not that bad for you?

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Auld Reekie and Highland Perthshire

I had a phenomenally busy summer. Running around like a mad thing. Now, this is all well and good for a short period of time, but we all need a break, and what could be nicer than to spend a little time in the Scottish capital and then head up into the stunning countryside? So a few weeks ago, I headed up north.

I started off in Edinburgh. If you don’t know it, it is in my view one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Yes, in the world. A dramatic castle on top of an extinct volcano, the imposing Old Town with winding closes and steep public staircases, the leafy open spaces of Princes Street Gardens and the graceful 18th century New Town.

All sounds very romantic, yes? So you may wonder, why is the graceful city of Edinburgh known as “Auld Reekie”. This might suggest that the place used to stink, but it’s a bit misleading. “Reekie” in Scots can also mean “smokey”, so I guess “old smokey” is probably closer. Look at the city and you can see why – many of the older buildings are darkened by soot from many years ago, but I think this adds to the atmosphere of the city.

But these days, the city is happier to appear under the far more elegant moniker of the “Athens of the North”, a very fitting name when you consider the National Monument. It was intended back in the early 1800s as Scotland’s very own Parthenon, but it was never finished. And so it was left as is, and it now looms over the city like Edinburgh’s very own Greek ruins. But the reality of the name has more to do with the Scottish Enlightenment and Edinburgh’s role as a seat of learning. The city just happens to have some fake Greek ruins!


If you get the chance to visit, one of the most spectacular views (among frankly many, many spectacular views) is from the roof terrace of the National Museum of Scotland. From here, you can really appreciate the buildings that dot the city skyline, and on a clear day, you can see down to the coast, across the water the whole way to Fife. But when I popped up, the heavens opened. A dramatic, if somewhat bracing, way to see Edinburgh.

And finally…I could not resist taking a picture of this statue – it’s Greyfriars Bobby, a little dog who waited for 20 years next to the grave of his deceased master. Now he’s got his own monument and people flock to see him. Quite fitting really!


From Edinburgh, it was a quick drive up north to Perthshire, with the chance to enjoy lots of greenery and long walks in the Tay valley. As you can see, the leaves were just starting to turn, and after a little rain, there was also an explosion of mushrooms in the forests. We went for a walk at Dunkeld up to the Hermitage – a Victorian folly built overlooking a spectacular waterfall. I was last there in the middle of winter, when everything was covered in delicate ice crystals that form from the water vapour from the falls, but in summer, it is incredibly lush.

And to wrap up the trip, we came across a little hidden gem in the village of Grandtully – the rather amazing shop of Iain Burnett, also known as The Highland Chocolatier. As you can see, the selection looks extremely tempting, and from the selection that I bought, they tasted just as good as they look.

I think my favourite was a dark chocolate ganache with black pepper and raspberry (practically the national fruit in this part of the world, so very fitting).

Alongside this dazzling selection of delicious-looking chocolates was something very special indeed. Whole candied clementines which were dipped in dark chocolate. When something is this appealing, you have to buy one!

The assistant (which was also involved in making the chocolates, and hence really knew her stuff about what was in the chocolates and how they made them!) explained that one of hear colleagues liked to serve them on a cheeseboard – the tangy-sweetness of the orange and the bitterness of the chocolate apparently went very well with certain cheeses. I probably should have tried it like that, but I ended up bringing one back home and nibbling on pieces over a couple of evenings back in London with a cup of tea. And very nice it was too!

So I hope you’ve enjoyed a few holiday snaps and it has whetted the appetite to visit Scotland!

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