Tag Archives: apricots

Bonfire Night Flapjacks

If you’re planning to go to a Bonfire Night celebration, then chances are you’ll be looking for something to munch on as you’re looking skywards to take in the fireworks.

With this in mind, I’ve played around with my go-to flapjack recipe to make it a bit more seasonal. In addition to the usual butter, sugar and oats, I’ve also added some spices as well as a rather random selection of things from the store cupboard – pumpkin and sunflower seeds, apricots, dates, sultanas, hazelnuts and spelt flakes. The result is sticky, delicious and has a very autumnal flavour. It also takes about ten minutes to make, so it is incredibly easy to whip up in a hurry. Just to make the point, I’ve got the recipe below – and you’ll see that all the “extras” are measured either by the teaspoon or by the handful.

bonfire_flapjack

If you’re keen to have a go yourself, you really don’t need much more than sugar, butter and rolled oats. Otherwise, just add whatever you want (or more realistically – whatever you have in the cupboard). Dried fruits work very well, as do nuts and seeds. The one unusual thin on the list is spelt flakes – I love using these in flapjacks as they stay very crisp and add some interesting texture. It’s actually taken me a while to track them down – I used to be able to buy then in a shop in Stoke Newington, but have not found them in Clapham. Lucky for me I stumbled upon a new Wholefoods store near Piccadilly Circus, so I’ve now got easy access to all manner of weird and wonderful ingredients. Result!

So there you have it – a quick and fairly healthy idea for Bonfire Night, or just to enjoy during a quiet moment with a cup of tea.

To make Bonfire Night Flapjacks (makes 16):

• 175g butter
• 175g soft brown sugar
• 40g (2 tbsp) golden syrup
• pinch of salt
• 200g rolled oats
• 45g (3 handfuls) sultanas
• 35g (3 teaspoons) candied ginger
• 20g (2 handfuls) pumpkin seeds
• 15g (1 handful) sunflower seeds
• 20g (2 handfuls) spelt flakes
• 40g (1 handful) apricots, chopped
• 25g (1 handful) hazelnuts, chopped
• 25g (1 handful) dates, chopped
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
• 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1. Pre-heat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Line a 20cm (8 inch) square baking tray or cake tin with non-stick paper.

2. Put the butter, sugar, syrup and salt (if using) in a pan. Heat gently until the butter is melted, and then boil for one minute. Add the candied ginger and mix well.

3. In a large bowl, mix all the other ingredients. Add the butter/sugar mixture and stir well. Put into a tray, spread the mixture evenly, press down and bake for 20 minutes. It should have a rich brown colour when done.

4. Once the mega-flapjack is cooked, let it cool completely, then turn onto a chopping board and cut into pieces.

Worth making? Absolutely! This reicpe is incredbily easy to make, tastes delicious, and can be

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{7} Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

It is so easy at Christmas to get obsessed with food. But it also has a fabulous cultural heritage which really makes the season special. This time of year has some of the most wonderful music, and one of my favourites if the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.

It’s light, sparkling music that makes you think of flickering candles and glittering frost. It’s also a special, secret sort of music, very careful and measured, not in a hurry – lending itself to the idea of magical things happening when no-one is looking. That hint of sneaking downstairs to look at presents when everyone else is asleep.

While we all know the melody, one question remains: what exactly are sugar plums?

I have to admit, even here in jolly old Britain where we usually go crazy for just about any twee Victorian treat at this time of the year, they are not very common these days. I had a look in town, and while they could be found in the food hall of Fortnum & Mason (or online here) you don’t really see them anywhere else. Now…just compare that to the ubiquity of the mincemeat pie or mulled wine!

I find this quite puzzling. And the reason I find it puzzling is because the idea of the sugar plum is actually still very much a part of Christmas folklore, at least in the English speaking world – in the famous poem The Night Before Christmas the children are asleep “…while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads…” and of course we know of the fairy and her famous dance. So does this mean that sugar plums are destined to be something that lives on only in stories and turns of phrase?

Well, a little more sleuthing also revealed something else to me – there are, in fact, two candidates masquerading for the title of sugar plums!

First, there are whole plums that have been preserved in syrup, dried and coated in layers and layers of crysallised sugar. A very time-consuming method which sounds just like the sort of thing people might prepare as a special festive treat.

The other is a mixture of chopped fruit and nuts, mixed with citrus zest and spices, rolled together into “plums”. This might sound like a healthy Christmas alternative to the richness of chocolates and cream puddings, but we should not just think with our modern minds. What would this have meant to people but 150 years ago? Dates, prunes, apricots, almonds, exotic spices, oranges – this was the stuff of sheer luxury, that would suggest the flavours of the Orient and other far away lands. In context, this latter version starts to sound like the more luxurious treat.

So, faced with this choice, which one should I make?

Well, lacking of a jar of plums in syrup made the first option rather difficult, and I quite liked the idea of the nutty, fruity version. My sleuthing also suggested to me that the version commonly referred to in poems is the fruit-nut confection, and therefore I will pay homage to that version.

Sugar plums are actually ridiculously easy to make. You just need some honey, spices, citrus zest and dried fruit. Work out what you want in there, chop things up finely, and start mixing. You can use pretty much anything – I used toasted almonds, but you could go for walnuts, hazelnuts or pistachios. For the fruit, I plumped for juicy dates, prunes and apricots, but you can also add dried figs (whose seeds add a lovely “pop”), dried cherries, cranberries, sultanas, candied peel or preserved ginger. And the spice is up to you – I like the traditional cinnamon and allspice, but you could add cardamom, mace, ginger, aniseed, fennel or coriander. The honey can also be replaced by whatever type of syrup you like. All up to you! But once you’ve chopped and stirred, that’s it – no baking, and nothing more elaborate is needed to finish them off than to roll the mixture into balls and covering in icing sugar for a snowy look, or with caster sugar for a sparkling frosty appearance.

For all my gushing about how decadent, luxurious and delicious these sugar plums are, it’s also worth recognising that at this time of year, these “plums” actually make quite a welcome change from the heavy, buttery dishes we all get served. In fact, they are not a million miles away from those energy balls that have started to appear in health food stores. Surprising? Well, not really, when you think what they are made from – nuts, dried fruit, honey and spices. However, I’ll be bold, stick my neck out, and suggest that mine might, just might, be a little bit nicer. Maybe even enough to tempt the fairy to take a little break and indulge herself. It is nearly Christmas, after all!

To make sugar plums (makes around 35):

• 85g honey
• 1 teaspoon orange zest
• 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon mace
• 1/2 teaspoons nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
• 2 cups nuts almonds, finely chopped
• 1/4 cup dried apricots, finely chopped
• 1/4 cup prunes, finely chopped
• 1 cup pitted dates, finely chopped

Put the honey, orange zest and spices in a bowl and mix well. Add the chopped dates, nuts, prunes and apricots and mix well. If the mixture is too wet, add more almonds. If too dry, add extra honey or chopped fruit (if the fruit is moist).

Break off pieces of the dough and form into balls between your hands. The easiest way is to do this roughly first, then wash your hands, and while your hands are damp, re-roll the balls so you end up with perfect spheres.

Dust the sugar plums very lightly with icing sugar. Store in an airtight container, and re-dust just before serving.

Worth making? These are bursting with the flavours of winter – sweet, rich, nutty, spicy and citrussy. I’ll definitely make these again, using them as…eh…a healthy treat. Festive energy balls, you might say.

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Polenta and Ricotta Cake

We’ve just had a long weekend in London, so of course someone decided to organise a barbecue. Normally a cause for celebration, but there is this rather odd phenomenon in England, where by a long weekend seems to pretty much guarantee that the weather will be bad. In fairness, we’d had three days of solid rain, so at some point the skies were due to run out of water, but it seemed that Sunday was not the day that we would be lucky. I can assure you that it was pretty hard to coax me out from under the duvet, as a wet day in someone’s back garden is always far less appealing that reading the papers in bed with endless cups of tea.

I digress. Attending a barbecue, I had to take something, and I was on dessert duty. I could have gone for those staples such as fruit salad, chocolate cake or Eton Mess, but I just fancied something different. Then I remembered a recipe for (surprise, surprise) a polenta and ricotta cake that I had been meaning to try. My experience of such cakes to date has been good, and this one is jazzed up by adding a decent amount of apricots. I also liked the idea that this was vaguely  Italian, thus keeping alive the memory of my holiday, which seems so long ago when you look outside and see dozens of umbrellas and people battling the wind as they walk.

Always feeling the need to improvise and tweak recipes, I swapped cognac for Japanese plum wine as the medium in which to soak the apricots, infusing them with a delicious plummy, port-like flavour. I also omitted the walnuts suggested in the original recipe. I like walnuts, but I didn’t think they would fit this cake. I also cut down the amount of sugar, added a little lemon zest, and swapped some of the polenta with fine maize meal (because, eh, I ran out of polenta and had fine maize meal in the cupboard. As I said, it has been raining and I didn’t want to go outside more than necessary!).

This cake was a breeze to make. No messing around with eggs. Just melt some butter, then throw everything into a bowl and use and electric beater to get everything nice and fluffy. With the orange of the apricots and the yellow of the lemon zest, polenta and the butter, it was quite a “sunny” baking experience. And just to force the point, the cake was then glazed with apricot jam, leaving it with a pleasant orange glow. And a good way to use that home-made apricot jam you happen to have lying in the fridge.

But given the eggless character of this cake, how was it? Compared to something like a Victoria sponge, the cake does have a slightly more solid, dense character to it. The addition of the alcohol-soaked apricots therefore makes a welcome addition to the texture. I really liked it – more of an old-fashioned teacake than a big, fluffy bit of sponge, with little notes of freshness from the lemon and the texture of the polenta coming through. When paired with a spoonful of smooth room-temperature mascarpone, this made for a superb afternoon treat.

For the polenta and ricotta cake:

• 250g dried apricots (the soft type)
• 4 tablespoons plum wine or cognac
• 200g plain flour
• 70g coarse polenta
• 130g fine maize meal
• 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 100g butter, melted and cooled
• 200g sugar
• 250g ricotta
• zest of 1 lemon
• 180ml water, lukewarm
• apricot jam, to glaze

Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°C). Line a 20 cm springform cake tray with baking parchment.

Slice the apricots into slivers (easiest with clean scissors) and mix with the plum wine or cognac. Leave to sit for at least 15 minutes, ideally until all the liquid has been absorbed.

In a bowl, combine the flour, polenta, maize meal and baking powder. Pour in the melted butter, sugar, ricotta, lemon zest and water. Mix with an electric beater until creamy and smooth (around 1 minute).

Finally, fold the apricots through the batter.

Pour into the prepared cake tin and smooth the top with the back of a spoon. Try to get a swirly pattern you are happy with, as the top will not become smooth during baking.

Loosely cover the top of the cake tray with tin foil, and put into the oven. After 30 minutes, remove the tin foil. Keep baking until the cake is risen, golden and springy to the touch. An inserted skewer should come out clean. Total cooking time will be between 1 and 1 1/2 hours.

Remove the cooked cake from the oven, and allow to cool in the tin. Before serving, glaze the top of the cake with apricot jam, and serve slices with a dollop of mascarpone or crème fraîche.

Worth making? This was a lovely cake which made a change from the usual sponge cake. The flavours work well together, and it looks rustic and pretty, so minimal fuss necessary in terms of decorating. Well worth trying.

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Breakfast Bars

The eagle-eyed among you will notice that I did a lot of posts in early summer, and but have been doing less of them in recent weeks. OK, there was nothing for two weeks because I managed to go to the bits of Europe that seem to be devoid of Internet access, but even so, I’ve been less active. All of this is because I started a new job, which I absolutely love. Everything’s great, but as I get busy, there are those odd days when I end up skipping breakfast.

So what to do? I thought about making breakfast bars, which I could pack with good things to eat on those mornings when I am too lazy to get up early enough for a proper breakfast.

These bars are a breeze to make. Just use juice, nut butter and apricots to make a thick paste, then throw in oats and flour, and then whatever bits and bobs you fancy. This could be dried fruit, nuts, seeds, spice and – gasp – chocolate chips. I went for apricots, sunflower seeds and pistachios. They look kind of funky with all the flecks of orange and green.

They also taste great. They are not particularly sweet, tasting more of oats with occasional bites of nut or apricot, but if you like a bit more sweetness, then you could easily add some honey or demerara sugar to the mixture before baking. And they are filling. I think these might just do the trick to start the day.

For 20-25 breakfast bars:

• 225g dried apricots, whole
• 170g nut butter (almond, cashew, hazelnut)
• 200ml fruit juice (I used orange)
• 225g rolled porridge oats
• 125g wholemeal flour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 100g dried apricots, chopped
• 50g sunflower seeds
• 50g pistachios
• 2 tablespoons dried mixed citrus peel

Preheat the oven to 190°C, and grease a rectangular baking tray (I used 20 x 35cm).

Put the nut butter, whole apricots and fruit juice in a food processes and blitz until you have a smooth paste.

In a bowl, combine the apricot paste with all the other ingredients and mix well. Use a spoon, but hands will be easier.

Put the mixture into the baking tray and smooth out. Bake for 20-25 minutes until slightly golden.

When cooked, remove from the oven, allow to cool, then cut into bars.

Worth making? Very much yes. These are easy to make and can be endlessly changed depending on what you’ve got in the cupboard. They will also keep for a long time in an airtight container, so perfect for an early morning bite or healthy snack. If I make them again, I plan to add a little cinnamon and dried apples and sultanas. Yum!

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Bramble Jam, Apricot Jam

On holiday, I had a lot of spare time, and so had the chance to make some jam. In fact, there was quite a lot in season in France, and in the end I made two lovely batches, one with brambles (blackberries, or perhaps I should be referring to them as mûres, as I got them in France?) and the other with local apricots from a fruit shop.

What was sort of fun was that this was jam making à l’ancienne. I had no scales, so I had to guess. So what to do? Just recall the old “three-quarters” rule. Cook the fruit just long enough for it to soften and release its juice, measure the lot, then add three-quarters of that volume of white sugar. So if you have two cups of stewed fruit in its juices, then add one-and-a-half cups of sugar. Then add lemon juice and boil gently until the jam sets. And if it all went wrong, I would just have a lot of fruit compote to mix with yoghurt for breakfast.

In the end, I am very happy to declare both batches a complete success. The bramble jam was superb, with a rich, deep purple colour and fresh, juicy flavour. The berries went from bush to jam to breakfast in less than 24 hours! It also set perfectly, which was happy with. The apricot was also great – a bright, vibrant, sunny orange colour, and very fruity-tasting, and while it thickened, it didn’t set. I don’t know if more lemon would have made a difference, but I didn’t want to overpower the flavour of the apricots. In both cases, as there was more fruit than sugar, the jam was actually not overly-sweet. I know this sounds bizarre given how much sugar we’re talking about even in my version, but if you use equal parts of fruit and sugar, you’re getting into the world of fruit-flavoured sweets rather than jam.

So on holiday, no excuses not to make jam! Get out there and enjoy what the local area has to offer. Just remember a few tricks and it’s easy. Firstly, the three-quarters rule will usually work. Secondly, the juice of a lemon will help to set the jam. If you don’t mind a stronger lemon taste, then you can add the juiced lemon to the jam as it cooks, and remove it once the jam is done. If you’re making a lot of jam, you might add even more lemon juice, but just wing it – that’s what my grandmother did, and her jam rocked. Finally, cook jam gently – you can test regularly for a set, but you want to make sure that you don’t go too far in case the sugar caramelises (then the jam is still edible, but the caramel taste is a little strange!).

And in the end, we mashed the jam up with yoghurt anyway for breakfast. And it was delicious!

For bramble jam:

Wash your berries and place into a saucepan with a few tablespoons of water. Mash some of the fruit, cover the pan, and cook gently until the fruit is soft and the juice comes out of the fruit (around 20 minutes).

Measure the volume of the fruit. Return to the pan, and add three-quarters of the amount of sugar by volume. Stir well, and add lemon juice (roughly one lemon per 500ml of fruit juice), plus the rest of the lemon (if using).

Bring the mixture to the boil, them simmer gently until the jam sets(*). Once ready, remove the scraps of lemon, and pour into sterilised jars(**) and seal.

For apricot jam:

Wash your apricots, remove the stones and cut into quarters. Place into a saucepan with a few tablespoons of water. For every 20 apricots, add a cup of water. Cook the fruit gently until soft and mushy (around 20 minutes).

Optional: Meanwhile, take 5 apricot stones, crack them open and remove the kernels. Put them into a cup, pour over boiling water and leave for 30 seconds. Drain, and peel the seeds. Add these to the apricots. This will give a very subtle bitter almond note to the finished jam.

Measure the volume of the fruit. Return to the pan, and add three-quarters of the amount of sugar by volume. Stir well, and add lemon juice (roughly one lemon per 500ml of fruit juice). Don’t add the scrap pieces of lemon, as they will overpower the apricot flavour.

Bring the mixture to the boil, them simmer gently until the jam sets(***). Once ready, remove the scraps of lemon, and pour into sterilised jam jars and seal.

(*) How to check for a set? Chill a saucer in the fridge. Put a little jam on the cool plate, and return to the fridge for a moment. Push with your finger – if the jam  “wrinkles” when you push it, the jam is done. If it stays liquid, then cook longer and check again later. This is why you are better to cook gently but for a longer time, as if you miss the set, the sugar will start to caramelise, and the jam will be very thick, sticky and syrupy.

(**) How to sterilise jam jars? Wash in hot, soapy water, and then rinse very well – do not dry them. Now place up-side down on the shelf of a cold oven, and heat to 120°C / 250°F for at least 20 minutes. Remove from the oven using gloves, and fill with the jam. You can leave the jars in the oven with the heat turned off until you need them, as this keeps the glass warm, and warm glass is much less likely to crack when you add warm jam (science, eh?). Remember to sterilise the lids by washing in hot, soapy water, then rinsing well and then boiling them in a pot of hot water for a few minutes.

(***) Apricot jam might not set, and instead it just goes very thick. Either add more lemon juice (or liquid pectin, if you have this), or accept that this will be a runny jam and learn to love it. It’s bright orange, how couldn’t you love it?

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