Monthly Archives: May 2013

Fried Dates

I have what could be modestly described as a large collection of cookbooks, and like most people I go through cycles of using them. At the moment, I’m working my way through The Essential Madhur Jaffrey, which contains some fantastic Indian recipes. I’ve actually had this tome for nearly seven years, so its about time it gets used properly. Each time I looked through it, there was a recipe that caught my eye. One to make at some point. That recipe was for fried dates, and finally, I’ve made this dessert. All I can say is – wow!

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While I love Indian food, I tend not to eat Indian desserts. This is not because they are not nice (they are!) but they seem just a little bit excessive once you’ve nibbled on curry, dahl, rice, chapatis, poppadoms, pickels and chutneys. What you do want, if anything, is something small.

Fried dates seem to tick this box – it’s a small dish, but boy does it pack a punch! Madhur Jaffrey’s original recipe is almost foolishly simple – shallow-fry dates in oil for around 30 seconds until hot, then serve with cream and chopped pistachios. The quantities suggested are very modest, and you initially thing that it will never be enough. However, when you try these dates, those doubts will melt away. It is very rich and very sweet, so you can reliably work on the assumption that each person will actually consume only two whole dates.

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When I got round to making this, I made some inevitable tweaks. The original recipe was silent as to the type of dates to use, other than they should be pitted and of “good quality”, so I plumped for juicy medjool dates. Given that these dates would be fried, I wanted to be sure they would not be too dry, and the delicious medjools seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Madhur also suggests using vegetable oil to fry the dates, but I wasn’t so sure. Instead, I opted for clarified butter. If in doubt, use butter…

The result is spectacular. This is a buttery, sticky, chewy dessert with a rich, caramel flavour (yes, this might just remind you of sticky toffee pudding). The richness of the dates is balanced well by thick double cream and has some colour and crunch from the pistachios. You won’t be able to eat too much of this, but it does mean you’ve got a very simple, very delicious way to finish off a meal.

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To make fried dates (served 4-6):

• 50g unsalted butter
• 12-16 medjool dates, pitted
• thick double cream
• unsalted pistachios, chopped

1. Clarify the butter – melt in a saucepan, skim off any foam, and allow to sit for a few minutes. Pour off the clear liquid, leaving any milky liquid or solids at the bottom of the pan.

2. Slice each date lengthways into quarters.

3. Heat the clarified butter in a frying pan until it starts to bubble. Add the dates, cooking for around thirty seconds (they should be hot, but should not start to brown!). Remove the dates from the butter using a slotted spoon, letting as much butter as possible drain off. Divide the dates between small plates.

4. Top the dates with a generous teaspoon of double cream, sprinkle with pistachios and serve immediately.

Worth making? Why, oh why, did I wait so long to make this? It’s just about the richest thing I have eaten for a while, but it makes a quick, elegant dessert for the end of an exotic meal. Delicious!

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De Zeeuwse Knop

What, you may be wondering, is a Zeeuwse Knop?

The names translates as the “Zeeland button” and is a traditional piece of jewellery from Zeeland, the most south-westerly provide of the Netherlands. The button could be worth either as a collar tie for men, or in the hair of women. The shape is also very distinctive – a central ball, with fine metalwork and a ring of smaller balls around it, but with myriad variations on the basic design reflecting different regions. While it isn’t seen very much today, it does appear in more modern guises, either as cuff-links and jewellery, or in more unexpected places like the tops of bottle stoppers or baking trays. Yes, baking trays, of which more later.

I’m telling you all this because I was recently in Middelburg, the capital of Zeeland. The city is wonderfully preserved, with much of the ancient centre still intact. It has the typical ornate buildings on the main squares, but one feature that I found particularly charming was that most of the old houses had the name of the occupant painted on the front, as well as some sort of symbol to identify the house. Perhaps this was for a time when people didn’t know how to read and write, but they would be able to offer directions based on the “golden sheep” or “red rose” or my particular favourite, the “pomegranate”.

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During my visit, I popped into a shop called De Keukenkroon (meaning “The Kitchen Crown”). They had a vast array of culinary delights, from pots and pans to cutlery, tea-towels and crockery, but one thing really caught my eye. Yes, it was the knop reinterpreted for the modern age in the form of a cake tin. I was determined to come away from the city with something local and rather special, and this was going to be it.

I’m generally not a big fan of moulded tins, mainly due to a fear that the cake will stick and I’ll never get the thing out in one piece. However, the lady in the shop assured me that rubbing the tin with lots of butter before baking should do the trick. I asked what sort of cake the pan was good for, and she gave a very direct (typically Dutch!) reply: oh, make a boerenkoek – just mix 200g of butter, sugar and flour, and 4 eggs. Flavour according to taste. So there we had it – a tin and a set of instructions. I was on my way with everything I could need to make my very own edible Zeeuwse Knop.

A few days later and back in London, I stood in the kitchen, just me and the pan. We were going to make this work. I had the pan, I had the recipe, I had….well, I realised I had no clue how to approach the cake, no method, no baking time. However, that recipe rang a vague bell – the idea of equal weights of things made me think of pound cake, so I used that method. I got busy creaming the butter and sugar, added the eggs, then some self-raising flour. For flavour, I used vanilla and some fresh lemon zest – I wanted this to be something quite simple.

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However, before all that beating, I had done as the lady in the shop instructed. I got the pan ready by popping it into a warm oven for a moment, then removed it and started to rub generously with butter. After a light sprinkling of flour to coat the butter, and a shake and a bang of the tin to remove the extra flour, we were ready to go.

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The batter went into the tin, and I smoothed the top, being careful not to disturb the lovingly-applied butter coating that was going to ensure this cake come easily out of the pan. We were taking no chances here!

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With the batter done, I popped the cake into the oven and waited patiently. Once it was baked, I let the cake stand for fifteen minutes to cool, and then came the moment of truth – when I turned it out, would it look perfect or would it split in half, with part of the cake clinging to the inside of the pan? Nervously, I lifted the pan…and…out it slipped, intact! Perfectly intact! I’ve had mixed  experiences with “non-stick” pans in the past, but this was an absolute dream. The surface was a golden colour and the details of the pan were clearly visible.

To serve the cake, I dusted it very lightly with icing sugar – and there you have it, a boerenkoek (farmer’s cake) in the shape of a Zeeuwse Knop!

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If you’re keen to buy this tin for yourself, you can contact De Keukenkroon here.

To make boerenkoek:

• 200g butter
• 200g caster sugar
• 4 eggs
• 200g self-raising flour
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• zest of 1/2 lemon

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Prepare a tin (either butter and flour a shaped mould, or line the base of a 20cm diameter (8 inch) round tin with greaseproof paper and butter the sides generously).

2. Cream the butter until soft, then add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Fold in the vanilla and lemon zest. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour, and mix until just combined.

3. Transfer the batter to the prepared tin. Bake for around 45 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. If the top is darkening too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

4. Remove the cake from the oven, and leave to stand for 15 minutes, before turning out onto a plate. Serve as is, or dust lightly with icing sugar.

Worth making? This is a nice easy recipe that yields a simple but delicious cake. If you want to make it into something fancy, you can split it and fill with jam, cream, buttercream or lemon curd.

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My Seven Links

I’m now just over three years into blogging, so it seems like a good time to have a little look back at my previous posts. I saw one challenge, called My Seven Links, via London Bakes, which invites you to answer seven questions.

These seven headings are really quite interesting – some of them look just at the numbers of visitors per page, while others are more personal or subjective, and provide an interesting way to think about what I’ve been up to in the kitchen. I think the most difficult part of this is comparing some of my earlier posts, which felt like an achievement at the time, with some of my more recent posts as I have developed a feel for what works and what sort of things I really enjoy writing about.

So here we go…

My most beautiful post

I like to think that I’ve made lots of beautiful things in my time, but one of the stand-out recipes for me was for a classic British summer pudding. This recipe is simplicity itself but it really brings together the flavours of late summer. The picture was one of my most striking, taken at my parents’ house out on the terrace under late evening Scottish sunshine.

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My most popular post

Ooh, now this is a bit of a close-run thing. I’m actually going to put forward two candidates here, and as it happens, both of them hail from northern Europe.

The reigning king is my recipe for Dutch mini-pancakes called Poffertjes. This has by far and away had the most hits, and has been consistently popular since it was posted. It was one of the first things I made, so I’m naturally rather thrilled that it has been viewed so many times.

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However, hot on the heels of Poffertjes is my recipe for Swedish cinnamon buns called kanelbullar. As with poffertjes, this was a hit from almost the moment that I posted it. It’s also one of my most dependable recipes – the results are always excellent and are always popular when served up to guests.

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My most controversial post

I don’t really do controversy. I don’t set out to stir things up, and I am not looking to provoke my readers, and in all honesty, there is a limit to how controversial you can be when it comes to baking and cooking.

When it comes to recipes and fads, if something really does not work for me, then I generally don’t post it. Unless you enjoy websites like Cake Wrecks I don’t think people are looking for shared disasters (for that, we have Instagram). Equally, there are some food trends that sort of pass me by (whoopie pies, anyone?) so I just don’t feature those recipes, as I’m not sure my readers really want to read a piece where I’m negative about something or someone.

Perhaps the closest I’ve come is as part of my “On Location” posts for Swedish cafe called Fika in Brick Lane in East London. Back in early 2010, I went looking for decent cinnamon buns in London, and had great hopes for Fika – the name is the Swedish word for a coffee break. I went over there full of hope, and came out utterly deflated – they didn’t “do” cinnamon buns according to the server. That’s the nearest I’ve come to being really negative, and I’ve been told that it was clear from the post. Apparently they now do sell cinnamon buns (yay!) but in the meantime I discovered the great Nordic Bakery in Soho and excellent Scandinavian Kitchen in Bloomsbury, so I’ll be sticking with those establishments.

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My most helpful post

I’m going to chicken out here, and go for two rather than one. I’m justifying this on the basis that one of my posts acts as a cautionary tale for those tempted to go foraging and who get a bit gung-ho with their haul, and the second is a useful recipe for windfall fruit, which looks like it should be useful but can sometimes be hard to make into something nice.

My first helpful post is my attempt at making sloe gin. The gin itself was fantastically successful, but the post starts off with a tale of my mistake in trying to make sloe jam (which was absolutely horrid). It’s a testament to the fact you need to know not only what you’re picking when you go foraging (and luckily, I do) but also understand how to use your free booty to make something delicious. In addition to my nasty sloe jam, I’ve also made horrid rowan jelly, so I am now well and truly aware of the need to use these wild fruits in suitable recipes. The sloe gin itself was absolutely delicious – a sweet, aromatic and plummy liqueur which is at its best on a winter’s evening next to an open fire.

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My second choice here is a useful idea to use up windfall pears. I used to live in the upper part of a block where the woman on the ground floor (who had the garden I coveted) had a couple of ancient pear trees. These fellows were tall and grand, but their fruit was nothing to write home about. I managed to track down a recipe for making perada, which is essentially a firm pear paste (similar to the Spanish quince paste eaten with manchego). It’s quite easy to make, and I’ve had a lot of complements from people who have tried it – it seems it’s quite a rare thing to make, so a bonus that you can make it from windfall pears.

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My most surprisingly successful post

This one is easy – it’s my third most popular post of all time, my recipe for a spicy black bean stew. I think the attraction is the ease of the recipe – throw beans, tomatoes and spices into a pot, leave to simmer, and that’s basically it. Nutritious and delicious, all with minimal effort.

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My most under-rated post

I think this has to be my attempt at rose creams. This is such a traditionally English sweet, and I made them around the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. I wasn’t chasing hits, but I did think it would generate a little bit more interest than it did, so I’m surprised that it has languished, like some undiscovered Bennet sister. If you’ve got the time, patience and a fondness for things flavoured with rose, they’re actually really rather nice.

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The post I’m most proud of

This was a tough one one, as there are quite a few contenders!

However, there is one that really stands out for me. It’s one of my traditional Scottish recipes, a liqueur made from oats, whisky and honey called Atholl Brose. I spent very little time making it (it’s very easy) and had to take pictures in a bit of a rush as time was getting short. I work on the basis that if you’re going to post a recipe for New Year, it needs to be posted in good time before midnight to allow others to see it and potentially make it. The result was really quite stunning and has a real festive glamour to it.

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So there you have my seven links. What do you think? Do you agree with my choices? If you had to select your seven posts (or more, if you sneak in a few dual winners like me), what would they be?

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Hey Hey, it’s 17 May!

I’ve been on a bit of a blogging hiatus recently, which has been due to a perfect storm of holidays (yay!) sandwiched in between busy days at work (boo!), and an increasing busy social life as finally summer appears to be creaking into action. We’ve been tantalised by soft, warm days only to have the frost reappear and slap us on the face as a reminder not to take the good times for granted. Anyway, I’m back and, confirming the old saying that travel broadens the mind, I also have a few new sources of inspiration that should be popping up over the next month or so.

That said, I’m going to go back to my occasional series on Norwegian goodies. I’ve got some good Norwegian friends, and usually make something in honour of their national day. For today is 17 May, and that means today is the day that the good folk of Norway like to make sure that you know, just in case there is the slightest smidgen of doubt, that they are extremely, utterly, passionately exited and proud about being Norwegian, rather than Swedish or Danish. That also means they go big in terms of food, drink, partying and flags. I’ve joined in one of those celebrations in Oslo a few years ago, and its tremendous fun. Thousands of people are wearing traditional costume, and it’s very strange to ride the metro in a modern city surrounded by people dressed as simple country folk from a rural idyll. Yes, a bottle of wine is eye-wateringly expensive, but the city is lovely, the people are outgoing and welcoming and the food is fantastic, in particular the traditional baking.

In previous years, I have made lefse (potato flatbreads) and marvposteier (almond tartlets). This year, it’s really a repurposed Christmas recipe called kingler (Norwegians – is this the correct plural spelling?). These are rich, buttery pastries that are shaped into loops, and then formed into a figure of eight shape (or the infinity symbol if you prefer).

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The traditional flavouring is vanilla, which goes well with the butter and cream that make these a real treat. You could go traditional, but I’ve tweaked them by keeping the vanilla, but I’ve also added a dash of freshly-ground cardamom. This is rapidly becoming one of my favourite spices, very popular in Nordic baking, and absolutely delicious in baked goods. It adds freshness and a delicate aroma, and takes these from being delicious to being something quite special indeed.

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While they look a little complex to make, there is an easy trick. You form the dough into balls, roll it into long strips, then join the ends to make a loop. Then twist two sides in opposite directions, and there you have it – the figure of eight shape, and if you’re been cunning, the seam is hidden where the pieces of dough overlap. One little trick to think about is how big you make them – you actually want a thin strip of dough, and as large a loop as possible – the closer things are, the greater the chance that the loops will close during baking. This isn’t a problem, as they still have a charming S-shape, but if you’re making loops, you want loops.

The texture of kringler is interesting – it’s not quite a biscuit, it’s softer and lighter, and more like a scone. You could certainly serve them with butter and jam if that’s your thing, but I think the best way to eat them is to enjoy their pared-back Norwegian elegance by munching on a couple alongside a cup of coffee. They are wonderful while still slightly warm, when you can enjoy them in all their buttery, cardamom-perfumed glory.

To so all the Norwegians out there – gratulerer med nasjonaldagen!

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To make kringler:

(makes around 30)

• 125g butter
• 175g caster sugar
• 1 egg
• 125ml milk
• 125ml double cream
• 450g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

• 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 3 teaspoons baking powder

1. Cream the butter until soft, then add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla and cardamom and whip until thoroughly combined.

2. Combine the milk and cream in a bowl and mix well.

3. Put the baking powder into the main bowl, and add the flour and the milk mixture to the butter/sugar mixture, a little at a time, and mix until you have a smooth dough. It will be firm but sticky, so don’t be tempted to add more flour unless essential. Cover the bowl in cling film and chill for at least 4 hours (or cheat – 30 minutes in the freezer, the two in the fridge) or overnight.

4. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Line some baking trays with greaseproof paper.

5. Take lumps of the dough and form into rough balls (about the size of a walnut – a tablespoon worked for me as a guide measure). As the dough is sticky, don’t worry about getting them smooth at this stage.

6. Once all the dough is in balls, lightly sprinkle the worktop with a little plain flour (as little as you can get away with). Start to roll the balls into long strips, adding a dash flour as needed,  until they are around 20cm long (the strands might seem very thin, but they will expand in the oven – and the bigger the loops, the more defined the shape will be). Join the ends to make a loop, and then twist in opposite directions so you have a figure of eight shape. Try to have the pieces cross on top of the join for a neat finish. Put on the baking sheet. Repeat until all the dough is used up.

7. Bake the kringler for 10-15 minutes until an even golden brown colour (turning half-way if needed). Remove from the oven, sprinkle with a little caster sugar, if desired, and enjoy either warm or cooled with coffee.

Worth making? This is an incredibly easy recipe, and ideal if you need something to serve fresh from the oven – the dough can be made the night before, and the kringler shaped and left (covered in cling film) until baking. The inclusion of the cardamom makes them extra-special and a little usual with your morning coffee.

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