Nico’s Birthday Cake

Today (well it’s already the 30th in the UK) my wonderful number 2 son turns 23.  There were times in the past when I wondered if you would even reach this advanced age, let alone whether we would all be talking.  Well, my brown-eyed boy, you have and we are.  You have conquered your demons and have achieved so much.  You’ve finally come to terms with being the middle child, being The Greek One and being the one who wasn’t born in the UK; in fact, you have embraced it all and grown into a fantastic person.  The man you are now is the man we hoped you’d be when you were, as Andrew used to call you, a semi-mobile smile.

You showed early signs of your slightly obsessive nature when you were Robin Hood for about six months.  I will never forget your interrupting my household chores to go down on one knee, take my hand and declare ‘Marry me, Marion’.  The next six months were dedicated to being a tyrannosaurus rex, a part you played really well as you held your arms to your side with three fingers sticking up and roared around the flat.  Sometimes you were Bert from Mary Poppins, though we eventually had to stop you watching that film because you treated the furniture like the scene with all the chimneys and leapt from armchair to sofa.  Calamity Jane was another favourite and we sang The Deadwood Stage on our way around Waitrose.  You would then descend from the shopping trolley to sing and dance to I Just Blew In From The Windy City, much to the amusement of the other shoppers.

Dad and I are so proud of the way you’ve turned your life around, and rebuilt and strengthened the fractured relationships with the rest of us.  The academic achievements are wonderful but I am prouder of the person you have become.   I could have managed perfectly well without the ramifications your life path took, but the result is pretty much perfect.

Embarrassingly I didn’t know what today’s recipe should be.  Roast lamb was the obvious choice but I know that you can already cook that better than I can.   I’ve done hummus and you make excellent melitzanasalata.  It was Suzy who reminded me that she has made this for you twice as a birthday cake, and I couldn’t believe I had forgotten it.  I am not great at making pastry so will give you two versions – one with a biscuit base (which I can make), and one with a pastry base which is your preferred choice, and why Suzy made it for you.  Today’s recipe is of course Lemon Meringue Pie.

Lemon Meringue Pie – Ingredients

(serves 6)

Pastry base – Ingredients

  • 150 g  / 8 oz plain flour
  • 1/4 level tsp salt
  • 75 g / 3 oz butter, cut into small cubes and from the fridge
  • Cold water to mix, from 1 to 1.5 tsps per 25 g / 1 oz flour

Method

Sift flour and salt into a bowl.  Add the cubes of butter and cut into even smaller pieces with a knife.  Rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips.  My Domestic Science teacher taught us that if there was flour in our palms, we hadn’t done this correctly.  When rubbed in properly, the mixture will look like breadcrumbs.  When you think you’ve finished, tap the bowl a couple of times and any remaining large lumps will come to the top and you can rub them in.  Make sure your hands are cold.  Part of the reason I’m not good at pastry is that I have hot hands.

Sprinkle some of the water over the crumbs.   Use spatula to mix together.  Add more water until it is a stiff crumbly-looking paste. Turn onto a lightly floured board and knead gently and only until it is smooth and crack-free.  Do not overwork the pastry.  Wrap in cling film and put back in the fridge to rest for at least 30 mins.

Roll out the pastry and line an 18 cm / 7 in fluted flan ring.  Prick the pastry with a fork (not right through to the tin), line with tin foil (this stops the pastry from rising) and put the flan ring on a baking tray.  Bake in a moderate oven / 200 C / 180 c (fan assisted) / 400 F / Gas mark 6 for 15 minutes.  Remove the foil and put back in the oven for another 15 minutes (or until golden).  Remove from oven.

Biscuit base – Ingredients

  • 100 g / 4 oz digestive biscuits
  • 40 g / 1.5 oz butter

Method

Crush the biscuits.  I put them in one of those sealable sandwich bags and, after making sure that as much air as possible has been removed, I seal the bag and hit it with the rolling pin.  Once the biscuits are in large pieces I then roll the bag until they are completely crushed.  Put the biscuit crumbs in a bowl and add the melted butter.  Mix together and put into an 18 cm / 7 in loose-bottomed buttered flan tin.  Press down firmly and put in the fridge to chill.

Lemon Filling – Ingredients

  • 2 level tsps cornflour
  • 50 g / 2 oz caster sugar
  • Finely grated rind of two large lemons
  • Juice of 2 large lemons
  • 150 ml / 1/4 pint water
  • 2 standard egg yolks
  • 15 g / 1/2 oz butter

Method

Put cornflour, sugar and lemon rind into a small bowl.  Mix with a little of the water until a smooth paste.  Heat the remainder of the water with the lemon juice.  When warm (not boiling), remove from heat and add flour mixture.  Stir well and return to heat.

Bring to the boil, stirring all the time.  This is really important – you do not want your mixture to be lumpy.  Now is not the time to change the music on your iPod.

Simmer for three minutes.  Turn down heat and beat in egg yolks and butter.  Cook very gently for another minute, and then pour into the pastry case / onto the biscuit base.

Meringue Topping – Ingredients

  • Whites of 2 standard eggs
  • 50-75 g / 2-3 oz caster sugar
  • 1 level tbsp granulated sugar

Method

Put the egg whites into a clean bowl and whisk until light and fluffy.  The peaks of the egg whites should be stiff and stay in place when you pull the whisk through the mixture.  Carefully fold in the sugar with a large metal spoon.  You are not beating this, you are cutting the mixture so that the air you’ve just beaten into the egg whites stays there.  You must use a metal spoon, and try to do this in as few moves as possible.  Put the meringue mixture on top of the lemon filling, and sprinkle the granulated sugar on top.

There are a couple of ways of baking the meringue – it all depends on how you want to eat it.  If you want to eat the pie cold later, then you have to cook the meringue slowly in a cool oven to dry out the meringue.  If you don’t, the meringue will droop and the sugar will drip out as a syrup – tastes ok but doesn’t look great.  For this you need to cook the pie in a very slow oven / 110 C / 225 F / Gas mark 1/2 for 1.5 to 2 hours or until firm and golden.

For a hot pie, bake in the centre of a slow oven / 150 C / 300 F / Gas mark 2 for 20-30 or until pale gold.

And by the way, Nico, 23 years ago today I was feeling very pleased with myself.

Enjoy!

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

New Orleans is officially my favourite US city!  We have wandered through the French Quarter, strolled beside the Mississippi, danced the Cajun jitterbug to a Zydeco band, and eaten in some amazing restaurants.  I have tried crawfish which were much smaller than I expected, with a lot of waste, but they were cooked in a spiced broth and were well worth the effort.   Every day I ate Gulf oysters, the best oysters ever, huge, creamy and sweet.  I ate them both raw and fried.  I have tasted a Hurricane cocktail which really would knock you out.  It comes with varying amounts of rum depending on the strength of the impending hurricane.  Dad wasn’t able to finish it.  And I have tasted andouille (sausage but so much better than the original French version), gumbo (a soup), snapping turtle, dirty rice and fried pickles (absolutely amazing).  Everything was spiced to perfection and we have brought back a couple of different Cajun spice mixes, so watch this space to find out how successful we are in using them.

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Crawfish – about 2 inches long

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Dad and his soon to be abandoned Hurricane.  New Orleans is possibly the only place in the US where it is legal to wander around the streets with drinks in your hand.

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The best oysters in the world.  Unlike the East Coast oysters you do not know the exact provenance, but they tasted amazing raw or fried.

So for the first time, I am going to give you a recipe which I have never made before but which is typical of New Orleans.  It is a sauce which is ubiquitous in that city, Remoulade.  It is wonderful to dip seafood or chicken into.  I ate it with oysters (of course), crawfish and prawns.  I returned here determined to make it for myself.

Our wonderful hotel, the Soniat House, put out magazines for us and I brought home the May/June edition of Louisiana Cookin’.  Herbed Remoulade appears on page 14.  If you can’t find the US cups, I have googled and I think that 3/4 cup is about 180g.  I think that I am going to start with 150g and add more mayonnaise as necessary.

Herbed Remoulade – Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup / 180 g (see above) mayonnaise
  • 1 tbsp chopped capers
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped shallot
  • 1 tbsp chopped cornichons / small pickled cucumbers
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh dill
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh chives
  • 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

Method

Stir all ingredients together.  Chill for at least two hours before serving.  Can be kept in the fridge in an airtight container for up to a week.

Enjoy!

Yet more baking

Tom has always loved white chocolate so whenever I see a recipe that includes this, I tear it out of the magazine.  Sometimes I put it in a safe place and it never sees the light of day again, this one I found in the back of Hello Magazine and managed not to lose it!  This recipe has become a favourite, and I like to make it as a dessert when we have lots of people round.  Today’s recipe is Blondies.  They are much more biscuity than brownies, due to the type of chocolate used.  Many people argue that white chocolate doesn’t even qualify as chocolate because of the low cocoa content.  I think if it tastes nice, who cares.  I only have the recipe in grams and haven’t changed the recipe at all.  I have thought that brambles (blackberries) would work as well as raspberries, but I do love raspberries.

Raspberry Blondies – Ingredients

(Serves 8)

  • 175 g butter, softened
  • 400 g golden caster sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 450 g plain flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 100 g white chocolate, chopped
  • 50 g raspberries

Method

Preheat the oven to 180 C / 350 F / Gas Mark 4.  Grease and line a 23 cm / 9 inch square cake tin with baking parchment, making sure that the parchment reaches 3 cm at least above the tin

In a large bowl, cream the butter and caster sugar.  Beat in the eggs carefully one at a time.  Sift in the flour, salt, bicarbonate of soda and baking powder.  Mix until well combined.

Stir in the white chocolate and spoon the mixture into the prepared tin.  The recipe here says ‘Scatter over the raspberries’ but I realise that I do not scatter, I push the raspberries down into the mixture.  I have a vague memory that when I scattered, the raspberries didn’t maintain their shape and so I started pushing them instead!

Bake for 50 mins.  Leave to cool completely in the tin, then turn out and cut into squares.

The recipe now says ‘serve with a dollop of clotted cream’ – we never tried this, perhaps you should?

Enjoy!

Salade de Chevre Chaud

Even before buying the house, we visited France many times as a family.  From our main holidays to long weekends to shopping day trips it has always been one of our favourite destinations.  Not surprising really given how close it is and how easy it is to get there with the Tunnel.  Even when you were all learning French you weren’t very willing to try to speak it, so I decided that, although I would translate the menus for you, you had to order yourselves.  For several years Tom and George ordered the same meal pretty much everywhere!  Et pour moi, salade de chevre chaud, et puis steak a point, s’il vous plait.  

Dad and I used to make Grilled Goats Cheese Salad quite often as a starter when I was still working and we had people round mid-week.  It is easy, fast and tastes good – what more could you want?  The cheese I prefer is the one sold in the UK as bucheor log.  It is way cheaper to buy a whole one from Costco but it doesn’t keep well, particularly once you have cut into it.  It is better to buy the number of slices you want from the supermarket and use them that day or the next.  Once the rind starts to separate from the middle, or it develops a kind of mush between cheese and rind, it really is past its best.

The only difficult thing about this dish is the actual grilling of the cheese.  The recipe (gleaned from a UK Good Housekeeping magazine in the 1980s) says that it should be placed under the grill on a medium heat.  We found that the cheese fell through the wire tray for the grill pan.  We put foil on the grill pan, but a wee puddle of fat gathers around the pieces.  In recent years we have used the flat griddle and this has been more successful.  Just remember that if you use the grill it should be at a medium heat; if you use the griddle it should be very hot.  You only grill/griddle one side and be quick when you lift it.  I find it better to use a metal fish slice.

Grilled Goat’s Cheese Salad – Ingredients

(Serves 4)

Dressing

  • 3 tbspns walnut or olive oil (I always used walnut until we had nut allergies in the house when I swapped to olive oil.  I think walnut tastes better)
  • 1 tbspn red wine vinegar (bog standard is fine, but Vinaigre de Banyuls is better)
  • 1/2 tspn clear honey
  • Salt and ground black pepper

Salad

  • Four round goat’s cheeses, approximately 2 oz each
  • Selection of salad leaves, torn into pieces
  • 25 g / 1 oz chopped pecan nuts or walnuts (I removed these too after the nut allergies)
  • Lovely bread – Waitrose’s Pain de Campagne is the best

Method

Put all the dressing ingredients into a jar with a lid, and shake until mixed together

Cook the cheese (see above).  While cheese is cooking toss the salad leaves with the dressing and arrange on four plates.

Put a round of cheese on top of the leaves and if using sprinkle with the nuts.

Serve immediately.

There are a couple of variations.  You can toast some baguette and put the cheese on the baguette on the salad – very French!  I also think that it’s nice served with a pot of clear honey which you pour on as you wish.

Enjoy!

Two Nations Divided …

I am becoming accustomed to walking on the sidewalk while going back to the apartment.  I regularly give out my cell number, and I am confidently buying shrimp, zucchini, eggplant, cilantro and branzini and putting them into my shopping cart.  I am learning lots of new names, for example, for all the myriad bread rolls that are produced over here – kaiser rolls, subs, hoagies, dinner rolls, smiley rolls – these merely scratch the surface of my new found knowledge.  I am hugely amused that my own initials, CFM, are an abbreviation of the nickname for very high heels, commonly known as Come F**k Me shoes.  I now know that ‘I could care less’ means ‘I couldn’t care less’ – don’t understand why because it seems to say the opposite, but hey who am I to argue.  What confuses me is when we use the same word for something totally different.  When I describe someone as ‘pissed’, I now rush to clarify that I mean drunk, and not angry.  I distinguish between vests and waistcoats, tank tops and vests and I don’t know what Americans call the sleeveless knitted tops that we call tank tops!  Not so long ago though, I was offered some cake.  I asked what kind it was, and was told coffee.  Oh dear, said I, I don’t like coffee.  Giggles all round as it was explained to me that a coffee cake is eaten with coffee, it isn’t flavoured with coffee.  In my slightly embarrassed state I never asked what you call a coffee-flavoured cake.

Anyway, today I thought I’d give you the recipe for a very ordinary cake which could (some may say should) be eaten with coffee.   It is Madeira Cake, a plain cake which I love because of its lightness and the hint of lemon.  Confusingly this is a type of pound cake in the States, and pound cake got its name from the recipe – a pound of butter, a pound of sugar, a pound of flour, a pound of eggs …..  The resulting cake is generally too large nowadays so amounts were scaled down, but retaining the general idea of equal quantities.  The UK version got its name because it was traditionally served with Madeira wine which I have to say sounds a whole heap better than having it with coffee.

Madeira Cake – Ingredients

  • 175 g / 6 oz softened butter
  • 175 g / 6 oz caster sugar
  • Finely grated rind of 1 medium-sized lemon
  • 3 standard eggs
  • 225 g / 8 oz plain flour, sifted (so much for the equal quantities)
  • 2 tbspns milk
  • 1.5 level teaspoons baking powder (not baking soda – they’re different)

Method

Cream the butter, sugar and lemon rind until light and fluffy.  This will take about 3-4 mins if you’re using a mixer.  Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and add one spoonful of flour with each one.

Beat in the milk with a spoonful of flour, then gently fold in the remaining flour with a metal spoon.

I like madeira cake to be loaf-shaped, but I find that even with the best prepared tin it can be difficult to get it out cleanly.  So grease and line a loaf tin, and put the mixture in.  Smooth the top with a knife.

Bake at 160 C / 325 F / Gas 3 for 1.5 to 1.75 hours.  Leave in the tin to cool for 5 mins before turning onto wire cooling rack.

A true Madeira cake will have a crack running along the top – don’t worry!

And just to show that we are enjoying Spring on this side of the Atlantic, here are some photos of the bulbs in Madison Park.

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And a final one which shows that we will have tulips to enjoy for a wee while yet

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Enjoy!

Summer Salad

Yesterday I raved about the colours of the vegetables in Whole Foods and today I think I’ll continue on that theme.  I have always said that I don’t really care what the weather’s doing so long as I have the right clothes on, but it is so lovely to see the sun shining, to have bare arms, to wear sandals and to feel warm.  Even in this city of grumpy attitudes I swear there were a few happier faces when I was out (I went to get my nails done – Malaga Wine, a dark red, since you asked).

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As a family we all enjoy barbecues and I enjoy preparing the salads to accompany the meat.  I like trying new recipes, and today’s original recipe came from a vegetarian cookbook but I have changed it quite a bit, including a new tweak today.  Yes, for the first time, I am able to post a photo of the finished recipe!  I was particularly interested in this recipe because it includes tarragon.  Tarragon flourishes in our garden and I grew tired of the classic uses for it, that is, with chicken and in a bearnaise sauce.  This recipe’s main ingredient is courgette which I love and lemon juice and olive oil, my favourite dressing.

Today’s recipe is Courgette and Tarragon Salad, a favourite of Tom’s, thoroughly disliked by Andrew, and I’m not sure how Nico and George feel about it.  It is very easy to make and should be left for at least half an hour before you eat it.

Courgette and Tarragon Salad – Ingredients 

(Serves 2)

  • 1 medium courgette
  • 1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced
  • 3 tbspns fresh tarragon, chopped
  • 2 tbspns lemon juice
  • 4 tbspns olive oil
  • Pepper (and salt, if desired)

Method

Wash the courgette and slice very thinly either using a mandolin or a potato peeler.  Put into a bowl.  Add all the other ingredients and mix.  Voila!  It’s ready.

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I have a new magic ingredient which I have used the last couple of times instead of the lemon juice and olive oil.  It is a lime infused olive oil which I bought in New Zealand and which is lovely. I’m sure that you can get similar products in London.  I just drizzled the oil over the courgette and it tastes fantastic.

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By the way, courgette = zucchini = Italian squash.

Enjoy!

Queen of the Supermarket

Rumour has it that Bruce Springsteen wrote his song, Queen of the Supermarket, about a newly opened branch of Whole Foods in New Jersey.  I doubt that he goes to the supermarket very often, and he said that when he visited all he could think about was people ‘getting down and dirty’ in the aisles.  Actually he didn’t say that, but I’m trying not to get an R rating on my blog.  Well, Whole Foods is certainly lovely and I enjoy going to my local branch (5 minutes walk away), but my goodness it is expensive.  Now I haven’t been to Waitrose since Christmas and it’s possible that UK prices have shot up as well, but considering there are only two of us, the bills are stupid.  The big news is that Fairway is opening in the space underneath our block.  Someone described Fairway to me as ‘Whole Foods quality but cheaper’ which made me very happy; but someone else said ‘Fairway?  Meh, I would only buy blueberries there’ which seemed slightly odd.  Anyway, I am hopeful that the first person was correct.

In the meantime, I wander to Whole Foods and marvel at the vegetables.  They are beautifully displayed and the colours are entrancing.  I really appreciate the wide variety of mushrooms available in the States – some confusingly called by a different name; some I’ve never seen but with a familiar name; and some I’ve never heard of.  I can confidently say that to date I haven’t bought a mushroom here that I haven’t enjoyed.  I also love looking at the range of chilli peppers.  Even in Asia, I never had a choice like this.  I must admit to being slightly scared of them – other than jalapeños and Thai bird chillis, I don’t know whether they will ruin a dish or not.

My other big joy here is the range of cheeses.  On my first visit to the States in the mid-90s, I was taken aback by the cheese.  There didn’t seem to be much choice and what there was tasted rather plasticky.  I was further taken aback when a dear friend in the US gave me a recipe which included the phrase ‘take a tin of cheese’ – what the heck was tinned cheese?  If I found it, did I want to eat it?  I never did make that recipe.

With Dad and I being cheesaholics, or as I now know turophiles, we were not looking forward to moving here and not having the choice of cheese.  We were delighted to find that, just as there is a strong artisanal movement in the UK, with small producers making niche cheeses, so there is such a movement here.  A mere ten minute stroll finds Beechers, a Washington state company which makes beautiful cheeses, some based on well known European cheeses, but more excitingly some of their own.  They make the best non-Cheddar Cheddar I have ever had.  We have the Union Square Green Market with many stalls selling goat, sheep and cow cheeses.  We have the Bedford Cheese Company which imports top quality cheeses and also stocks the best from this country.  Go to Philly and you have Di Bruno Bros which knocks NYC’s Murray’s into a cocked hat.  And coming full circle we have Whole Foods which has a wide range of local and imported cheeses.  There is one that not only tastes delicious, but makes me think of Hallie every time I see it….

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And while we are back in Whole Foods, spring has brought the first of the glorious Mediterranean vegetables, most of which I know Andrew dislikes, but the rest of us don’t so maybe you should ignore today’s recipe, darling?

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For too long, I only used peppers in ratatouille or raw with dips.  Today’s recipe changed my attitude.  I found the original recipe in a book of Spanish cookery.  Now El Bulli and Can Roca apart (neither of which I have ever had the joy of visiting), I find Spanish food can be repetitive and rather dull.  I have had some splendid meals there, but I’ve also had some distinctly ordinary stuff.  There is a strong sense of regionalism in the food, and when I had eaten suckling pig for the third time in four days in Castille and Leon (I ordered it on the first night – I was given it on the other two occasions), it lost its charm.  The joy of going out for tapas also dims when it happens too often over a long weekend.  There is great food to be found – the markets show that the produce is there – but I like variety.  Anyway, enough of this!  You’ve all heard me complain about Spain and its food before and I don’t need to go on.

Today’s recipe is Griddled Peppers and it makes a great salad, side or even a full dish with warm bread and some goats cheese.

Griddled Peppers – Ingredients

  • 3 peppers – 1 yellow, 1 orange, 1 red (I don’t use green peppers because they are under ripe and tend to give me hiccups.  I much prefer the sweetness of the ripe peppers)
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
  • One lemon, juiced
  • Olive oil
  • A small handful of flat parsley, washed and chopped
  • Salt and black pepper

Method

Char the peppers on all sides, not forgetting the top.  I do this with a griddle pan but you could do it in a very hot oven, or with a heavy-based frying pan.

When they are all charred, leave to cool slightly and then put into a plastic bag.  Close the bag and leave to cool.  This makes the next stage much easier.

Remove the skin, seeds and stalk from the peppers.  I cut each one into six slices, but it’s up to you.

Layer the peppers, garlic and parsley in a dish.  Pour over 2 tbspns lemon juice and double the amount of olive oil.  Mix.  Taste.  Add more lemon or oil if desired.  Season with pepper (and salt if you like, although, as ever, I never add it).

Enjoy!