Tag Archives: pepper

Spiced Tomato Jam

It’s a public holiday today in London – but my visions of a warm day at the beach or in the country were knocked on the head by the lashing rain that appeared this morning! Making the most of an unexpected day in the house, I’ve finished sorting through three years worth of administration and vacuumed and generally tidied the house. I know – very rock’n’roll! Then the moment came to reverse all the good work in the kitchen by embarking on a spontaneous culinary exploit.

So, forgetting the rain, today was also the start of what might be tentatively called “festive baking” as I’m making something that I’m looking forward to eating at Christmas – a sharp-but-sweet spicy tomato jam that is a great addition to a cheeseboard. It also means I can use some of our garden produce and enjoy them later in the year – our tomatoes were better this year than we managed last year (2014 yielded just three tomatoes!), but I’ve also got some big plans for next year to really get the most out of our garden. It might be small, but I’m determined to use it to grow useful things out there!

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This is actually somewhere between a sweet jam and a chutney – it sets and is made with a lot of sugar (like jam), and while it has spices, salt and vinegar that you’d expect in a chutney, it doesn’t have onions or sultanas. It is in turns fruity, sharp, tangy and savoury, with little bursts of flavour from the spices I used. It is absolutely delicious with strong cheddar on oatcakes or crackers, and a little goes a long way.

I made this using cherry tomatoes – partly the result of a glut that we’ve got in the garden at the moment, but you could just as easily do this with bigger tomatoes, red, yellow or even green. I cut half of the cherry tomatoes in two, and trimmed the rest into quarters so that there is some variation in size in the finished jam. If you’re using bigger toms, then you’ll need to chop them into smaller pieces, unless you’re the kind of person that enjoys really chunky jam! I also let the tomatoes cook down in a bit of water so that they break down a bit before adding the sugar. If you add the sugar with the tomatoes at the start of cooking, it can stop them breaking down and leave you with large lumps. This doesn’t affect the flavour, and I think is really just a matter of aesthetics.

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A word of warning – this recipe does not make a lot of jam, but that is not really an issue as you only need a little as it is packed with flavour. As it is easy to make, you can play around with different versions – I like nigella and cumin seeds, but you can also try aniseed or ginger and chilli. Using different colours of tomatoes also looks pretty – yellow tomatoes will keep their golden hue, while red tomatoes will produce anything from a deep orange to a ruby colour. I’ve ended up with one small jar that I can eat over the next couple of weeks, plus a large jar that I can keep in a cupboard for the December festivities. Now…let’s see what cheese I’ve got in the fridge to test out this batch?

To make spicy tomato jam (makes 2-3 small pots):

• 600g cherry tomatoes
• 100ml water
• 2 teaspoons nigella seeds
• 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
• 4 whole cloves
• pinch freshly-ground black pepper
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 75g soft brown sugar
• 100g white sugar
• 2 teaspoons pectin powder
• 60ml white wine vinegar
• juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Rinse the tomatoes and cut into a mixture of halves and quarters, removing the stalk part from each. Place in a saucepan with the water and cover. Bring to the boil, then simmer gentle for around 20 minutes.

2. In the meantime, dry toast the nigella and cumin seeds – put them in a saucepan and warm over a medium heat until they smell fragrant. Once done, pour them onto a cold plate.

3. Add the rest of the ingredients (apart from the lemon juice) to the tomatoes. Mix and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for around 10 minutes. Add the lemon juice, the boil until the setting point is reached(*) before decanting the jam into prepared sterilised jam jars(**).

(*) 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 minute. Push with your finger – if the jam visibly “wrinkles” when you push it, the jam is done. If it stays liquid, then cook longer and check again after a few minutes.

(**) 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 100°C / 210°F for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven using gloves, allow to cool slightly (they should still be warm) and fill with the hot 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.

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Savoury

Hot Ginger

From time to time, I get a request in my inbox suggesting I have a go at something, and from time to time, that suggestion is really rather tempting. This was an invitation from the folk at Johnnie Walker Red Label whisky to have a go at making my own ginger mixer.

The brief was pretty broad: A big, bold whisky such as Johnnie Walker Red Label demands a mixer to match. So I was to go forth, and make a ginger beer (the real stuff, brewed with a little yeast for lots of natural fizz) and try to craft the flavour to work with a bottle of Johnnie. So…how on earth was this going to work?

ginger_beer

First off, I need to fess up that I’ve never made ginger beer before. All I knew before starting was that you need a lot of fresh ginger to get a robust flavour, and there is the ever-present danger that the brewing mixture can get a little too frisky and cause glass bottles to explode, so it is essential to start your brew in plastic bottles, and then only store in glass when everything has settled down. Even then, you need to open the top from time to time to let all that gas escape, which is usually accompanied by what looks like a wisp of white smoke.

So, imagine me, in the kitchen, going mano a mano with a ginger beer kit. It was pretty cool actually – a bottle of Johnnie plus a selection of different types of fresh ginger. Sweet picked ginger, familiar Chinese ginger, fiery galangal and…eh…one that I forget the name of, but I didn’t like it. The idea was to major on the ginger, then use whatever additional flavours I wanted to round out the mixer.

Now, I’m all for the throw-a-bit-of-everything-into-something-and-hope-for-the-best approach when it comes to deploying spices, but I felt the need to adopt a more sophisticated approach. I was a little concerned that if I threw too many spices in there, the result would be more like a loaf of gingerbread laced with whisky. Pretty nice, but probably not what you might think of as a “bold mixer”. Then I had a flash of inspiration – something Caribbean, with notions of juicy limes, hot ginger and fiery pepper. This seemed like a good place to start.

All well and good, but I felt that I had to think a little about the ultimate pairing. No point in making a mixer that didn’t go with that all-important measure of Johnnie Red. Off I went into the living room to retrieve a Glencairn glass, and I poured myself a tot of whisky. I mulled over the flavours that I was getting, then added a tiny dash of water to open up the flavour (not loads, and definitely not on ice – I know on the rocks is a classic, but I prefer to sip my whisky in a way that allows me to taste it properly). There was a clear mellow sweetness coupled with a slight hint of pepper. I had been thinking of using black pepper to provide a bit of zing to my mixer, but it wasn’t quite right. As you can imagine, I was sitting on the sofa, glass in front of me, and then comparing it to an array of spices. Cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, mace, nigella and saffron were all rejected as just not being right. Tonka beans smelled delicious (think tobacco, marzipan and vanilla) but they would have been the flavour equivalent of driving a truck through the whisky, all impact and no subtlety. Then came the red pepper. Almost overlooked, but that warm, aromatic heat seemed to complement the whisky perfectly. Plus, Johnnie Red and red pepper, surely a bit of a good luck sign?

ginger_beer_pepper

The actual brewing process was great fun – shred loads of ginger, mix it up with lime juice and watch it turn from pale yellow to soft pink. Then I added a good amount of crushed red pepper, and mixed in a bottle with sugar, water and a little yeast. And…that was it. Now a case of watching and waiting. I got quite a thrill when I could watch my little creation fizzing away as the yeast got jiggy in the bottle.

whiskyginger1

As I had enough time to do this, I let the mixture ferment for 48 hours. By that stage, it was fizzy, but still sweet enough to make for a pleasant drink when chilled. The pepper was there, not slap-in-the-face obvious, but more a deeper warmth when you drank it. When mixed up on ice with a generous shot of Johnnie Red and a slice of lime, I was pretty pleased with how it tasted. More complexity than pure ginger, but not with so many different flavours that it was confused as to what it was trying to be – this was ginger and red pepper, pure and simple, with a twist of lime.

So what happens next? Well, my little bottle of magic was last seen cocooned in bubble wrap as it was whisked off by a courier to be judged by Bompas and Parr (the jellymongers – whatever you’ve dreamed of in jelly form, those men can do it) as well as Ross Purnell, London Brand Ambassador of Johnnie Walker Red Label. Fingers crossed that red pepper will do the trick…

whiskyginger2

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with how this turned out, and I tested it on a few willing victims to check that I had actually done a decent job. However, there were two characters who had major objections. Those objections came from our cats, Tommy and Persy, who initially scarpered every time I opened the brew to let the gas escape. The loud hisssssssss  was not to their liking! By the end of the second day, they had gotten used to this, and instead just cast over a series of withering looks whenever I did this. Here you can see typical “before” and “after” looks, with faces ranging from disdain to indifference…

persy tommy

Now, the big question…will I make this again? Well, the flavour was great when the drink was at its peak, and it was fun to make, but given the random nature of the British weather, I’m not sure I’ll be brewing ginger beer on the off-chance that it might be a nice weekend. I also found this was a fickle drink. A few days later, I found the flavour had gone really flat – clearly the yeast was still fermenting away, and the amount of sugar had dropped.

So I will be making more spiced ginger mixers in the future, but I’ll go for a different method. In fact, I’ve already got a recipe up my sleeve. How will I make it? Well…you’ll have to wait for my next post, but at least it is cat-friendly. Happy guessing!

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Filed under Drinks

{11} Pepparkakor

Many years ago, when I arrived in Stockholm to study there for a year, I discovered pepperkakor, Swedish spicy gingerbread biscuits. Admittedly, I arrived there in August, and it was not really until December that we got into the Christmas mood, but you get my drift.

Unlike the slabs of soft, squidgy gingerbread we know in Britain, these are rolled out thinly, cut into just about any shape you can imagine, and then baked until crisp. They can be finished with royal icing and jazzed up with silver balls, drizzled with melted chocolate, or left au naturel. Or served in the shape of an elk. To each his own…

pepparkakor8

I love pepparkakor for the very simple reason that they are among the least fussy of Christmas biscuits. They don’t need masses of decoration, and given they are rarely drowning in icing, jam or chocolate, you can happily nibble on them on an almost constant basis. Their spiciness also goes well with tea, coffee or the ubiquitous mulled wine.

As you can see, I’ve got a little crazy when it comes to cutting out shapes. Sure, I’ve got loads of the traditional stars, hearts, and circles, but I’ve also got a whole gingerbread forest going on here – trees, elks, foxes and squirrels. The elk, in particular, looks nothing short of amazing.

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pepparkakor4

While the woodland fantasy was purchased in Ikea (where else?), for the hearts and stars, it was an altogether classier affair. I received two copper cutters from my friend Anne, which not only cut the dough easily, but they look really lovely. They’ve already acquired a prime spot in the kitchen on the knick-knack shelf. These things are too pretty to hide away in a drawer.

pepparkakor5

For the recipe, I’ve used the version from Signe Johansen’s excellent Scandilicious Baking, albeit with a few tweaks. The main changes I have made is to play around a little with the spices. While Signe added a dash of black pepper as a nod to the origin of the name of these treats, I quite like the heat from pepper, adding half a teaspoon of black pepper. I don’t find this to be too much – it is actually very rich, warming and aromatic – but if you’re a little less keep, feed free to go easy on the pepper. I’ve also thrown in some coriander and allspice, and toned down the cinnamon. I like cinnamon, but I do like to get the flavours of the other spices I am using. I’ve also added the zest of a clementine for an added dash of festive goodness. The flavour is not

I’ve also used dark brown sugar to provide the colour for these biscuits, and in place of Signe’s almost equal weights of treacle and golden syrup, I’ve used just two tablespoons of treacle here. I’m just not made keen on treacle, but if you’re a treacle (or molasses) fiend, then by all means, knock yourself out.

Now, while I’ve banged on about how amazing pepparkakor are just as they are, they also serve as the perfect foil to go totally nuts in the decoration department. Whip up some royal icing and get going – silver balls look particularly good, and if you want to do something a little different, try studding them with a few red peppercorns. Not only do these look really pretty and festive, but when you bit into them, you get the warm, rich hit of spice. If you want to use them the way I’ve used the silver balls here, then feel free, but do taste one before serving to your guests. They’ll thank you for that, believe me!

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When it comes to actually making these biscuits, I’ve got a few practical tips. First, it really is important to keep the dough chilled. It makes it much easier to roll out and cut (the colder dough comes out of the cutters). Second, if you want to cut out very fussy shapes, you’re best to roll the dough onto a sheet of greaseproof paper, then cut out the shapes and remove the excess. I tried cutting the elks on the worktop, and they all fell apart as I tried to move them onto the tray. Finally, it is worth putting the tray with the cut dough into the fridge for a few minutes before baking – this will help to keep the edges of the shapes in place. If you’ve gone to all the effort of cutting out pepparkakor to look like elks, you want them to look like elks!

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It’s worth knowing that this recipe does make masses of cookies. You can either make half the amount, or bake it in batches as you need to whip up new batches (or if you’re going to leave it a while between bakes, freeze the dough in batches). If you make these cookies and find that they get a bit soft after a few days, just pop into a low oven and allow to dry out for a few minutes. They will come out soft, but will crisp up when cool, getting back their ginger snappiness in no time.

So…what’s your favourite spicy biscuit at this time of the year?

To make pepparkakor, adapted from Scandilicious Baking (make 50-80, depending on size):

• 75g light brown sugar
• 75g dark brown sugar
• 150g butter
• 1 clementine, zest only
• 50ml milk
• 120ml golden syrup (add 2 tablespoons of treacle if you want)
• 2 egg yolks
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
• 450g plain flour

1. Put the two types of brown sugar and the butter into a bowl. Beat until light and fluffy. Add the clementine zest, milk, syrup, egg yolks and spices and beat well for another minute.

2. Add the flour and bicarbonate of soda and mix to a soft dough. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Take pieces of the chilled dough. Roll out very thinly on a well-floured worktop and cut out whatever shapes your heart desires.

5. Bake the cookies for around 10 minutes until browned but not too dark. They might need more or less time, depending on their size. When done, remove from the oven, the leave to sit for a moment then transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

Worth making? These biscuits are highly recommended – very spicy, very crisp and very, very more-ish.

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

Sweet Beets

I think beetroot is one the most under-appreciated vegetables. It’s got a lot going for it – a sweet, earthy flavour and a colour that is literally shocking. But it has done rather badly thanks to the favoured British way of serving it. I mean, why would you want to use it in its lovely fresh state when you can pickle the thing in vinegar and turn it into something astringent and rather naff? I mean, why?

Well, time to change that. I love cooking with beetroot, and find that it is really versatile. It makes a great sauce for pasta or gnocchi (cooked up with cumin seeds, cream and fresh dill), sensational hot and cold soups and beetroot juice gives you vibrant, natural colours in savour and sweet dishes. When icing a cake, beetroot will give you one of the hottest pinks you could wish for. It can also be used in baking, making wonderful beetroot and chocolate cakes that are moist, chocolatey and nutritious. Convinced yet?

One of the easiest things to make is a Swedish-style beet and apple salad. Worth making for the stunning colour alone. My timing is also spot on – tomorrow is Sweden’s national day, so the country will be awash with flags, smörgåsbord and (probably) beetroot salad.

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This salad is just apple and beetroot, finished off with a little onion, sour cream and seasoning. It is by turns fruity, savoury, creamy and fresh. It is also incredibly easy to make – just chop-chop, mix-mix, and you have a colourful and delicious summery salad, which is great with a light lunch or as part of a brunch spread. This is my take on the version served at London’s Scandinavian Kitchen – I was too shy to ask them for their recipe (which I would imagine is secret anyway) so I’ve tried to re-create this so I can get my fix in the meantime.

beet_salad_2

This makes a good lunch served alongside other Scandinavian delights like dill potato salad, crispbread and goodies like meat and fish.

To make Swedish beetroot and apple salad:

• 4 medium beetroot
• 4 crisp apples, peeled and cored
• salt, to taste
• pepper, to taste
• 1/2 small white onion, very finely chopped
• sour cream (use a 300ml pot)
• dill, to finish

1. Cook the beetroot – drop them whole into boiling water, cover and simmer until the beets are tender (around an hour). Drain and leave to cool (this is a good thing to do the day before).

2. Peel the cold beets – trim off and discard the top and bottom, and use the back of a knife to rub off the skin – it should just come off without the need to cut the beets. Once peeled, cut the beets into small chunks and put into a large bowl.

3. Peel and core the apples, cutting into small cubes. Add to the beets.

4. Add the onion, salt and pepper to the beets, plus as much sour cream as you like. You want the beets and apple to be well-coated, but not swimming in cream. Stir well until everything is shocking pink. Enjoy cold, and watch your tongue change colour!

Worth making? This is a straightforward summer recipe – easy, fresh and delicious. Recommended!

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Filed under Recipe, Savoury

{10} Panforte

As we get close and close to the big day, the Christmas baking gets grander and grander. I’m not going the whole hog and making a Christmas cake, but the Italian panforte gets pretty close. This is a real step up from small biscuits, and looks, smells and tastes amazing!

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Panforte, Italian for “strong bread”, is not much more than lots of toasted almonds and hazelnuts paired with candied citrus peel and fruit, flavoured with spices and then bound together by a sugar and honey syrup. The result is rich, incredibly rich, but it really does have a flavour that can be described as the essence of Christmas. It’s also the sort of thing that you can have sitting somewhere, so you or guests can cut off the occasional sliver to enjoy with coffee or as an evening treat with a glass of liqueur.

This cake is a tradition from the Italian city of Siena. There are two versions, essentially white (as I’ve made here) and black, which is made with more dried fruits (such as figs and sultanas) and cocoa. It’s just a matter of personal choice which you prefer, but I like the former.

I’ve seen some recipes that say panforte should contain seventeen ingredients. This is said to link back to the number of districts within the city walls of Siena, and I quite liked the idea of trying to do this. It means you’re forced to add a bit of variety in terms of the ingredients. In my recipe, if you ignore the water in the syrup, but count the mixed peel (orange, lemon and citron) as three different ingredients, I did indeed get to the magic number. What does matter, however, is that if you’re going to make one of these, you need to go with the right ingredients, and try to use good nuts and candied peel. Almonds and hazelnuts are traditional, but I’m sure good pecans or walnuts would do the trick, but I’d  perhaps draw the line at putting peanuts in there! The candied peel is a must though – I used part candied peel and part papaya for the fruit, and while you could skip the papaya and instead use pineapple, apricots or even preserved pear, you should not miss out the citrus entirely. It’s such a fundamental part of the flavour.

You’ll see a lot of versions of panforte, from thick and even cakes in stores to my more “rustic” version. The rougher look is due to using whole nuts, rather than chopping then. You can chop the almonds and hazelnuts, but if you do, you don’t get the amazing look when you cut the slices. In addition, as the cake is so rich, I’ve kept it thin. When you taste how rich it is, you won’t feel the need to make a deeper panforte, as a little really does go a long way!

So there you have it – an Italian option in place of Christmas cake, and it’s not too late to make this – 20 minutes to prepare, and 30 minutes to bake. You’ve still got time!

panforte_1

To make Panforte:

• 100g almonds, skinned
• 100g hazelnuts, skinned
• 100g candied citrus peel (I used orange, lemon and citron)
• 135g candied fruit (such as papaya or melon)
• 50g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon ground mace
• 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
• pinch black pepper
• 50g honey (I used orange blossom)
• 150g white sugar
• 25g butter
• cold water

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C. Grease a 20cm (8 inch) loose-bottomed tin with butter. Line with rice paper (if using).

2. Put the hazelnuts and almonds onto another baking tray and toast in the oven until just starting to colour. Remove from the oven and put into a large bowl.

3. As the nuts are cooling, cut the peel and papaya/mango into chunks (aim for pea-sized pieces). Add to the nuts.

4. Mix the flour and spices in a bowl. Sieve into the nut/fruit mixture, then stir briefly.

5. Make the syrup – put the honey, sugar and butter into a saucepan with some water. Warm on a medium heat until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage (113°C/235°F). If you don’t have a candy thermometer, then drop a little of the syrup into a bowl of very cold water – it should form a soft ball!

6. Pour the hot syrup onto the other ingredients and stir with a spoon until combined. Transfer to the prepared tin. Flatten the mixture with a buttered spoon (or if you have asbestos hands, but butter on your palms and pat the mixture into shape).

7. Bake the panforte for around 30 minutes until the syrup is bubbling. The mixture will firm up when the cake cools. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, then transfer to a plate to cool completely(*).

8. When the panforte is cool, dust with icing sugar, and rub lightly with your fingers so a bit of the fruit and nut details are clear. Serve in small slices with coffee or liquer after dinner. Or any time!

(*) If the panforte is difficult to remove from the tin, put it in a warm oven to soften slightly.

Worth making? This is a superb cake, and unbelievably easy compared to just how good the final result tastes.

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{3} Sirupsnipper

Today I’m going to go back to more “traditional” festive baking, and that involves looking north, to our neighbours in Norway.

As it turns out, Norway is home to some very unique and interesting recipes for Christmas. I’d always assumed they were very much like those of Sweden and Denmark, but they have their own personality. In addition, there is a festive tradition called Syv Sorter (“seven sorts”) whereby you bake – you guess it – seven different things in order to have a properly generous Christmas spread. Some suggest there is a fixed list of items to choose from, but there seem to be about twenty different traditional bakes. While the list of what people include varies rather a lot, today’s recipe – sirupsnipper – seems to feature in most people’s lists. If you want to see some of the other recipes in the list, see here.

How I have missed these biscuits is, frankly, beyond me. They include lots of spices (which I love), and the dough should be cut into a diamond shape using a fluted pastry cutter (which I did not own, and thus had to make a fruitful trip to the wonderful Divertimenti kitchenware store). In order to be authentic, they also require one of my favourite (and rather odd) baking ingredients, good old baker’s ammonia. It makes sure that the biscuits are properly light and crisp, even if it does cause your kitchen to smell of ammonia while baking (the resulting biscuits are perfectly safe to eat though). You can use baking powder if you don’t have baker’s ammonia, and the biscuits will still taste good.

sirupsnipper

The flavours in sirupsnipper are cinnamon, ginger, aniseed and white pepper, but the resulting taste is surprisingly subtle. None of the spices is too strong, and the overall flavour is a mild gingerbread with the rich flavour of syrup. I thought they tasted a little like Belgian speculoos biscuits – very crisp and lightly spicy, which are great with coffee.

The dough is made one day, and the baking happens the next day, so that the flavours can develop a little before baking. Rolling out the dough and cutting into shape was all very easy, and I ended up with some smart-looking biscuits before baking. While in the oven, however, the sharp edges got a little less sharp, and I wondered what I could do.

Finally, and out of curiosity, once I had a table groaning with cookies, I left the last batch of six to dry overnight. I reasoned that letting the cut biscuits sit, uncovered, might mean that they would hold their shape better when baked. Well, as it turned out, this had two effects. The shape did indeed stay sharper, but the crisp “snap” was gone in the baked biscuits. I have no idea why this happened, but the biscuits were far better when not left to sit overnight. So there you have it – a little test by me so that you’re not left wondering what if…

And with that, we’re one-quarter of the way through out Twelve Bakes of Christmas. However, if I were a Norwegian having a go at the Seven Sorts challenge, I’d be almost half-way there. Maybe next year!

To make Sirupsnipper (adapted from tine.no):

A word of caution – this recipe makes about 100 biscuits! It is easiest to make batches of these cookies, rather than trying to bake them all in one go.

• 150ml double cream
• 150g golden syrup
• 150g white sugar
• 100g butter
• 450g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
• 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/4 teaspoon ground aniseed or star anise
• 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
• 3/4 teaspoon baker’s ammonia or baking powder
• 3/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
• flaked almonds, to decorate

1. Put the cream, syrup and sugar in a saucepan. Bring to the boil, then turn off the heat. Add the butter, stir until melted, then leave to cool until lukewarm.

2. In the meantime, mix the flour, spices, baker’s ammonia and bicarbonate of soda in a bowl until fully combined. Add to the syrup mixture and mix to smooth dough. Cover well and leave to sit overnight.

3. The next day, preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Roll out portions of the dough (thickness of 3mm) and use a fluted pastry cutter to shape into diamonds (or just use a knife). Transfer to the baking sheet, then dab a little water in the middle of each biscuit and lay a piece of flaked almond in the middle.

5. Bake the cookies for around 5-6 minutes until golden (turn half way). Remove from the oven, cool for a moment, then transfer to a wire tray to cool.

Worth making?This is a great recipe, and I’m just confused I’ve never seen it before. Simple crisp, spicy cookies, and perfect if you need to bring a large box to feed colleagues.

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

Pumpkin Gnocchi

Yes, I am back from my big holiday in the US – lots of pics and a write-up coming soon! In the meantime…my “back from holiday” recipe

If you’re anything like me, you will have recently gotten into the Halloween spirit and bought lots of pumpkins and squashes, carved them, and then been left with some amazing lanterns plus lots of pumpkin flesh. So what can you do with it? Well, I made the lot into soup, but got back from holiday this week, and still found an assortment of squash in the fruit bowl. So…

While I think I have a pretty amazing pumpkin soup recipe (I usually enhance the flavour with lots of spice and top it off with toasted pumpkin seeds for a bit of crunch) as with so many things, there comes a point where you want something a bit more creative than soup. Back at home, suitcase in hand, I wanted to make something that did not involve a trip to the shops – I’d just “enjoyed” 8 hours in a plane, two busy airports, a severe lack so sleep, jet lag and a trip on the tube, which made a trip to the local store unappealing. So I came up with the idea of making pumpkin gnocchi with the stuff I had in the fridge and cupboard.

At this point, I can imagine some Italians clasping their hands to their faces in horror as an outsider commits culinary heresy with their classic little potato dumplings, but this was a tasty little dish so frankly, I’m not too worried. Indeed, there’s actually a lot of variety out there with gnocchi seemly made from just about anything you can imagine, so there may even be a strand of Italian authenticity in here somewhere.

This is a remarkably easy dish to make, provided you’ve got a little time to dedicate to it (i.e. quite good when you’re unpacking cases and making the washing machine work overtime). The squash is roasted in the oven with a little oil and garlic until tender, then mixed up with cheese and flour to make the dough. What was a sheer delight when making the dough was the colour – somewhere between the deep orange of the squash flesh and the sort of vibrant yellow you get from using saffron. My picture doesn’t really do it justice, but it is very firmly on the jaunty side of things.

One realisation I had in making this is that while you want the squash to be soft, you also want it to be on the dry side. I would therefore avoid steaming (which will get you a soft texture, but increases the moisture in the dough) and instead opt for roasting. Pop the squash pieces in a dish, mix with a little olive oil, add some garlic, then cover in tin foil and bake until tender, before uncovering and allowing the edges of the squash to caramelise. This imparts flavour, and keeps moisture levels down. The result? You need less flour in the gnocchi.

I actually made this gnocchi in two batches – one for pictures and a quick bite to eat after my travels, and another the next day for lunch (yup, I’d taken an extra day off to get over the jet lag). The first attempt was based on making large gnocchi. Or at least, these were my attempt at normal-sized gnocchi, they just turned out slightly larger. I had them with a little butter, black pepper, nutmeg and pecorino cheese. While they might look a little large on the place, they were very tasty, with a clear flavour of squash.

For the second version, I rolled the dough into very thing strands, and cut out what were really tiny gnocchi (the side of peanut M&Ms). They looked very pretty when cooked, piled up on the plate, but this time I made a change when serving them. I added only a tiny knob of butter, and instead used a dash of pumpkin oil to impact a rich toasted flavour to the dish. This combination was, frankly, sensational, giving two very different pumpkin flavours in the same dish.

So here you have it – squash gnocchi, made with butternut squash and goat cheese. Now all I need to get hold of is one of those proper little gnocchi rollers to get the ridges right!

To make pumpkin gnocchi:

• 400g squash, peeled and cubed (I used butternut squash)
• 2 cloves of garlic
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 100g soft goats cheese
• 1 egg
• 25g pecorino cheese, grated
• 200-225g plain flour
• salt and pepper, to taste

1. Heat the oven to 200°C (390°F). Place the squash pieces in an ovenproof dish. Add the olive oil and garlic cloves, and mix. Cover with tin foil, and roast until tender (at least 30 minutes). Once ready, remove the tin foil and continue to roast until the edges of the squash are just starting to brown and caramelise. Remove from the oven and allow to cool – if the squash seems watery, reduce the heat to 150°C (200°F) and cook uncovered for another 5 minutes, then check again.

2. Put the cooled squash into a bowl (make sure to peel the garlic and discard the skin). Mash, then add the goat cheese, egg and pecorino cheese. Add enough flour to make a soft dough – it will still be quite sticky, so be careful not to over-work. Try to keep your hands and surfaces well-floured to prevent sticking, rather than adding more and more flour to the dough.

3. On a floured surface, roll out the dough into strands, then cut into pieces. You’ve made the gnocchi!

4. To cook the gnocchi, bring a pan of salted water to the boil. In the meantime, melt a knob of butter in a saucepan, and pour into a serving dish. Once the water is boiling, drop the gnocchi into the water. They are done when they float (around 2-3 minutes). As the gnocchi reach the surface, remove with a slotted spoon and place into the serving dish. Serve immediately.

To serve, add the sauce of your choice. I like to coat them in butter, add a little nutmeg and black pepper, and top with pecorino. If you have pumpkin oil, try adding a dash of that too.

Worth making? Easy? Yes. Quick? Not especially, but these are fun to make and delicious solid fare for cold days, so overall, worth the effort.

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Fiery Lentil Soup

So what are you up to for Bonfire Night? Baked spuds around the fire, sweets or messy toffee apples?

Personally, I’m a big fan of a flask of soup with some bread to keep the cold out, and I’ve got a recipe that is a guaranteed winter warmer. It’s good old-fashioned lentil soup, which is probably one of the easiest soups to make and I think by far and away one of the most satisfying.

I’ve recently been adding a lot more spices to my food, and that includes a lot more chilli. I’ve actually started to get quite experimental, and I can only apologise to everyone who has been surprised to find allspice cropping up in a range of dishes (albeit – no disasters so far!).

However, today is not an exercise in culinary risk-taking. Rather, it’s my “normal” lentil soup which has been fortified by a sharp twist of lemon juice at the end, and a swirl of chilli paste (in the form of sambal olek). The result is something that is robust, satisfying and packs rather a punch in the flavour department. However, if you’ve got folks around who perhaps prefer things a little milder, adding the chilli at the end avoids them running around looking for glasses of water to kill the heat.

So if you’re off to some Bonfire Night festivities, wrap up warm, keep your pets safe, and have a great evening!

For spicy lentil soup (serves 4, easy to double/triple):

• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 onion, finely chopped
• knob of ginger, peeled and finely grated

• 3 clove garlic, finely chopped
• 2 teaspoons ground cumin
• 1 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1 teaspoon mild curry powder
• 2 carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
• 250g red lentils
• 1 stock cube
• 1 litre hot water
• salt and pepper, to taste
• lemon juice and chilli paste, to serve

1. Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the onions and cook on a medium heat until translucent (five minutes).

2. Add the ginger and garlic, and cook for two minutes (don’t let them burn). If they get too brown or start to stick, add a dash of water.

3. Add the spices and cook for 30 seconds. If it seems too dry, add some water – this will form a thick paste, and as the water evaporates, it will become oily and cook the spices. Don’t be tempted to add more oil.

4. Add the lentils and carrots and cook briefly, then add the water.

5. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Add the stock cube, and keep simmering until the lentils are tender. Add more water if the soup is too thick, then add some salt and pepper to taste. Just before serving, add a dash of chilli paste and a squeeze of lemon juice, erring on the side of caution!

Worth making? I think the addition of the chilli takes this from a good soup to a great soup. An excellent choice to keep the chill at bay this week!

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Sweet Potato Wedges

Autumn is now with us. The mornings might be bright, but there is that unmistakable crispness in the air that signals things are about to get a lot “fresher” in the coming weeks, and the evenings are getting dark very quickly. Sure, it might still feel warm if you’re in a sunny spot, but when you’re in the shade, or a breeze blows past, you feel just how nippy things are getting.

With the chaos of moving house almost at an end, I’ve finally been back in the kitchen. All of a sudden, my cooking has moved away from the salads of summer, and quick, light suppers, and into much more substantial fare. Lentil dishes with lots of spices, curries, baked squash, soups, fritters…it’s the time of year to batten down the hatches and do all you can to fend off the cold weather that is approaching. It’s not a conscious change on my part, but there are certain dishes the you just have a craving for as the seasons roll by. I have, however, resisted the urge to buy Christmas pudding, even if my local shop has decided that this is exactly what we want to eat in October.

In much of my cooking at this time of year, I use a lot of spices, and I take a heavy-handed approach. I somehow feel that lots of cumin, pepper, ginger, garlic and sambal will help to fight off the sniffles during the colder months. It might work, it might not, but it certainly makes things a lot more tasty. It’s also worth getting a little more creating in how you season things – one of my current favourites is ground allspice, which is very common in sweet treats like biscuits and gingerbread, but it adds an interesting dimension to savoury dishes too.

It was with all this in mind that I got round to trying something that was on my “to make” list for quite some time. I love sweet potatoes baked and topped with feta, so I expected great things when they were spiced and baked as wedges.

Pleasingly, these are very, very simple to make – nothing much more than peeled sweet potato, cut to size, then tossed in oil with some spices, and then baked. They also have the benefit of looking very impressive – a jolly autumnal bust of orange when freshly cut, turning a deeper colour after baking. They can also be prepared hours ahead of time and left in the spice mixture to marinade (if it is possible to marinade potatoes?), and make a great snack or side dish. However it is the spices that take these from so-so to wow-wow. The spices you use are completely up to you – I went with some personal favourites (allspice, paprika, curry powder, black pepper and cumin). A tasty little dish as the long nights draw in.

As you can see below, these wedges hold their shape rather nicely too after being baked in a hot oven.

To make sweet potato wedges:

• 2 large sweet potatoes
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• spices – select 5, and use 1/2 teaspoon of each(*)

1. Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F).

2. Peel the potatoes. Cut lengthways into eight wedges, then slice each wedge diagonally (so each potato provides 16 pieces).

3. In a large bowl, combine the olive oil and spices. Mix well, then add the potato wedges.

4. Transfer the coated wedges to a tray lined with greaseproof paper and bake for 30-40 minutes until you can insert a knife easily, and the wedges are just stating to brown at the edges.

5. Serve immediately with the dip of your choice.(**)

(*) For the spices, I used allspice, paprika, curry powder, black pepper and cumin. And then I cheated and added some dried thyme too.

(**) I served these with a sprinkle of salt, and a dip made from tahini, yoghurt, sambal and lime juice.

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Mizuna Potato Salad

I was walking out the front door yesterday, and bumped into the lady who lives downstairs. She told me she had a glut of mizuna in the garden, and if I wanted some, I was welcome to it.

This is the same lady who had kindly offered me a selection of windfall pears last autumn. I had no idea what to do with those pears, but ended up with a lovely pear jelly. So I was not going to let the fact that I had no idea what mizuna was stand between me and an offer of free goodies. There is always something you can make with it, right? A few hours later, I found myself in her garden, scissors in hand, hacking away at the vegetable patch and avoiding some truly enormous insects that were hiding in there.

So…mizuna…what is it? A quick search on Google revealed it is Japanese and the name means “water greens”. It belongs to the brassica family, which was apparent from the fleshy stalks and sunny yellow flowers that topped the stalks. The flavour is hinted at by the alternative name of Japanese Mustard – it is a little like rocket, but the leaves I had were peppery with, indeed, a strong mustard taste, as well as a hearty “leafy” flavour. As you can see below, they also look rather attractive – young leaves are long, slim and elegant, and mature to large, serrated leaves with a purple tinge.

I started to look for some recipes to use up my haul, and quickly discovered that most recipes that call for mizuna seem to require the young stems, when the leaves are soft, feathery and tender. At this stage, they look like rocket leaves, and go well in salads and as a peppery garnish. However, the stems that I came to possess looked quite different. How come? Well, this is  bunch of mizuna that has enjoyed a mild British winter, then a brief burst of sunshine in March, before being soaked for about two months, and then getting a little more warmth in the last week. As such, it is less “soft, feathery and tender” and more like a triffid sitting out in the back garden, growing at an alarming rate.

So basically, I didn’t have the baby leaves, I had the grown-up plant, and this means the leaves are a little more “robust” in terms of flavour, making them better suited to cooked dishes. With this in mind, I came up with two recipes. One is the subject of today’s post, and you’ll just have to trust me on the other, and the fact that it was delicious.

This recipe is a simple German-style potato salad, with a little shredded mizuna added to the still-warm mixture and then letting it cool. While the mustard-like flavour of the mizuna leaves is strong, possibly even too strong on its own, it mellows with soft new potatoes and olive oil. I did not add any mustard to the sauce, so as you bite into the potatoes, the mizuna leaves add a little bite and piquancy. All in all, a very tasty way to use up these leaves.

Now, in case you are wondering what else I made with my robust and fiery-tasting leaves, they went into a mizuna and tofu stir-fry with a black-bean and chilli sauce. Peppery, spicy, hot and delicious!

To make mizuna potato salad:

• 750g new potatoes
• 40g (two handfuls) mizuna leaves
• 2 shallots or 1/2 small red onion
• 2 tablespoons vinegar
• 6 tablespoons oil
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoons ground pepper
• pinch of sugar

Put the potatoes into a saucepan, cover with water and bring to the boil. Simmer for around 15 minutes, until tender. Drain and leave to cool slightly.

In the meantime, peel and finely chop the shallots. Wash and shred the mizuna leaves.

Now prepare the dressing – put the vinegar, oil, salt, pepper and sugar into a jam jar, and shake vigorously until you have a smooth sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.

Cut the still-warm potatoes into chunks and put into a salad bowl. Add the shallots, mizuna and dressing, and toss gently. Serve while still warm, or allow to cool.

Worth making? This is a simple but tasty recipe and is a great way to use up greens that might otherwise to too strong to eat in a salad.

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