Monday, 6 December 2010

Festive Speculoos in celebration of St Nicholas

Way back when (so long ago I don't care to work it out exactly...), I spent an amazing 6 months living and working in Brussels. Now whilst I'm not a huge fan of typical Belgian cuisine (apart from those frites...they are mighty fine), on account of most traditional dishes being meat based, I do have ultimate adoration for their strong tasty beers, a piping hot waffle on a cold winter's evening, fine chocolates to die for and the simple biscuit which is the 'speculoos'.

Speculoos are spiced, crunchy biscuits originating in Belgium, Holland and (by some reports) Northern France. I came to know them when I lived in Belgium, not only do they accompany every cup of coffee you buy, they are traditionally made and given to children on the St Nicholas (6th December in Belgium). I remember fondly watching children run out into the street to greet St Nicholas as he passed on his sleigh handing out festive shaped speculoos, as excited as any child here in England on Christmas Eve.

Since then, the 6th December is a date that has always stuck in my mind and I've often spent a few days back in Brussels visiting friends and enjoying the Christmas Markets around this time. It's such a magical place to be in December with the markets on and around the Grand Place, the beautiful decorations and lights in Sablon and the best Christmas decoration shop I have ever been to in my entire life (worth a trip over there alone!).

So with the festive spirit in the air and whilst reminiscing about the good times, I decided this morning that it was about time I had a crack at making speculoos... There are many recipes out there which claim to be 'THE' recipe, but I settled on this recipe which I've translated into English and adapted slightly below.

Traditionally speculoos are made with 'cassonade' which is an unrefined dark moist sugar. The darkest sugar I had to hand was Billingtons molasses sugar which seemed to me to fit the bill nicely.


350g flour
250g butter (at room temperature)
250g dark brown sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground mixed spice
1 tsp ground ginger
1 egg


Beat the butter, sugar and spices together until they form a thick paste. Add the egg and beat again until combined. Then sift in the flour and baking powder a little at a time and mix until you have a soft dough.

Split the mixture in half, wrap each ball of dough in cling film and pop into the fridge. the original recipe says for 12 hours, but those were 12 hours I didn't have to spare, so I just left mine for an hour or so.

Roll the dough out until it is about 3mm-4mm thick. As the dough is sticky (and to avoid using more flour), this might best be done between baking parchment or cling film.

Cut into rectangles or festive shapes and bake in an oven preheated to 180C for around 10 minutes. Leave to cool and then enjoy (with or without children!).

Something more important than food? Surely not...?!

For what seems like forever, food has been the one thing that has consumed my thoughts, both day and night. As a small child I was once known to have thrown the table over when the nursery teacher didn't feed me fast enough. Then, when my ability to express my love of food became a little more refined, I would regularly (OK, probably daily) ask what was for lunch and dinner before I'd even started on breakfast. I've spent days, weekends, whole weeks just cooking, reading cook books, creating new recipes, blogging about food and most importantly feeding people.

Then a certain someone came along at the end of August this year who takes up pretty much my every waking second. So much so that I can't remember the last time I dipped into one of my favourite cook books! Baby GG (as he's affectionately referred to on twitter...) has now of course pipped 'food' to the top of the list of things I love...

At first I honestly wasn't sure I'd ever sit down to eat a meal again, let alone cook one, but as time has gone on I am managing to find a little time to cook again. And what better time with Christmas approaching - I might not have managed Christmas cakes this year, but mince pies are definitely on the baking menu next weekend!

Monday, 24 May 2010

Leek & Cheddar Tartlets

Tartlets are so versatile - you can fill them with almost any vegerables and cheese you have to hand. There seems to have been a bit of a proliferation of 'caramelised onion and goat's cheese' tarlets served up as the token vegetarian offering in recent years (which not everyone is fond of...although I'm quite partial to a homemade one made with caramelised red onions and thyme), but this shouldn't put you off! Mushrooms work particularly well with pastry, especially in a thick bechamel flavoured with tarragon, garlic and brandy (like the Crank's recipe for Mushroom Lattice Tart), as does asparagus at this time of year. Other favourites of mine as the weather starts to warm up are tomato with either dijon mustard and gruyere or soft goat's cheese and thyme or fresh peas and broad beans with feta. All of which are great serve hot, warm or cold as part of a picnic.

I have made this version using the leek and cheddar combination a few times recently after picking up some lovely farmhouse cheddar whilst on holiday in Dorset. They're perfect for lunch or a light Spring supper accompanied by some English asparagus - especially in this gloriously hot and sunny weather!


For the pastry:

60z plain flour
3oz butter
2-3floz cold water
a pinch of paprika (or cayenne) (optional)
a pinch of salt

For the filling:

2 medium leeks (trimmed, washed and sliced)
1 egg
5floz mixture of milk and double cream (or just milk if you prefer)
4oz mature cheddar cheese (grated)
1 - 2oz butter
1 tsp mustard
salt & pepper


Firstly make the pastry. Mix the butter and flour together (either by hand using your fingertips or in a food processor) until they ressemble breadcrumbs, then add the paprika / cayenne (if using) and salt. Add the water a little at a time until the mixture forms a soft dough (taking care not to 'over-handle' the dough). You may need more or less water which is why it's best not to add it all in one go. Wrap the ball of dough in clingfilm and refridgerate for at least 20 minutes.

To make the filling, start by heating a large knob of butter (at least 1oz) in a heavy based pan over a low heat, then add the sliced leeks. Saute the leeks for around 10 minutes until softened but take care not to let them colour. In the meantime, beat the egg and add the milk and cream (or just milk), most of the grated cheese (keep a little to sprinkle on top of the tartlets), mustard a pinch of salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper.

Remove the pastry from the fridge and roll out to line 4 greased fluted tarlet tins. Return the tins to the fridge for 10 minutes (or longer - they can be prepared in advance). Blind bake the pastry cases for around 15 minutes at approx 190 C (depending on your oven). To do this, line the pastry case with a piece of baking parchment and fill the parchment with baking beans (or rice or dried pulses). Then remove the parchment and baking beans and bake for another 5 minutes.

Divide the leeks between the part cooked tartlet pastry cases and then pour over the egg, milk and cheese mixture, taking care to make sure the cheese is equally divided between the tarlets. Sprinkle the remaining grated cheese on top and put back into the oven at approx 180 C (depending on your oven) for 10 - 12 minutes until set and golden.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Rhubarb & Rose Tart

I always begrudge parting with my hard earned cash for rhubarb. Especially in London where a mere crumble's worth is likely to have the bank manager come knocking. I'm used to getting it free you see as my parents have a fantastically prolific rhubarb patch. Alas, the 8 hour round trip to Derbyshire is a just a touch on the excessive side (even for good homegrown rhubarb)...

So when I spied some lovely fresh pink rhubarb in my local grocers a couple of weeks ago I couldn't resist. There had been quite a lot of talk of ways to use the new season rhubarb amongst some of my fellow food bloggers (good old crumble, fool, compote, muffins...) and what to match it with. I'm a big fan of stem ginger with rhubarb, especially in a layered fool, but Linda who writes the blog With Knife and Fork mentioned that she'd opted for rose water in her rhubarb fool. After some to-ing and fro-ing with Linda and Jan (The Ample Cook) over poaching methods and rose water I set to making this delicious tart.


1 quantity of sweet pastry (8oz plain flour, 4oz butter, 1oz icing sugar, 1 egg and 1 egg yolk)
4oz ground almonds
4oz butter
4oz caster sugar
1oz plain flour
2 eggs
4 - 5 stalks rhubarb
2 tbsp rose water
2 tbsp golden caster sugar (or more to taste)


Make the pastry: I do this in the food processor, but if you don't have one mix the flour and butter in a large bowl with your fingertips until they resemble breadcrumbs, add the icing sugar and mix and finally, beat the whole egg and egg yolk together and add to the bowl. Bring the ingredients together with your hands to form a ball whilst handling as little as possible. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least half an hour.

Roll out the pastry to line a fluted tart tin (or several smaller tartlet tins), prick gently all over with a fork and chill again. Blind bake for around 15 minutes at 180 - 200 C (depending on your oven). To do this, line the pastry case with a piece of baking parchment and fill the parchment with baking beans (or rice or dried pulses). Then remove the parchment and baking beans and bake for another 5 minutes.

Whilst the pastry case is cooking you will need to poach the rhubarb. Wash the rhubarb well and cut into pieces approximately 1 & 1/2 inches long. Put into a wide based pan or casserole and add the 2 tbsp rose water and 2 tbsp caster sugar (you may want more or less sugar depending on your own tastes). Put the pan on the hob and poach the rhubarb for about 5 minutes. You want the pieces to be tender but not so cooked that they break down.

In a clean bowl (or food processor), make a frangipan by mixing the rest of the ingredients together (almonds, butter, sugar, flour and eggs).

Remove the tart case from the oven and fill with the frangipan mixture. Add the rhubarb pushing it into the frangipan mixture slightly. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until the tart is golden brown and the frangipan is set.

Serve hot or cold with lightly whipped double cream or clotted cream.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Showing off Sugar (Muscovado Custards)

A few weeks ago, the nice people at Billington's sent me some sugar to play with. I say play with because it's not really the sort of sugar you'd put in your tea or coffee but is more suited to a baking extravaganza (or possibly sprinkling on your porridge).

Now I've bought Billington's sugar on occasion before, but not for any reason other than the fact that it was what I needed at the time. I mostly bake with golden caster sugar and most bags of muscovado or soft sugars end up at the back of the baking cupboard and rock solid next time a recipe calls for them.

Billington's sugars are unrefined and undergo minimum processing. The sugar cane is cut, shredded and juiced and that juice is then clarified and crystallised. Nothing added and nothing taken away (unlike some brown sugars which are apparently refined white sugar coated to add colour and flavour...).

As luck would have it, the very same week I picked up a copy of the March 2010 edition of Waitrose Food Illustrated which had a feature spread about different types of sugar and their uses, along with a few recipes. This recipe for Muscovado Custards caught my eye as it called for both the dark muscovado and molasses sugar which Billington's had sent.

Although I followed the recipe to the letter (and allowed a little extra cooking time) they didn't set completely. The only thing I can think is that my eggs were a touch on the small side? Despite them not setting, they certainly showed off the sugar to its best. They were rich with a real deep, earthy sweetness. The sort that lingers on the tongue long after the mouthful has gone.


300ml double cream
75g dark muscovado sugar
25g molasses sugar
1/4 tsp salt
4 large egg yolks
1/2 tsp vanilla extract


Preheat oven to 150C.

Warm cream, both sugars and salt over a medium-low heat in a small heavy based pan until sugar has dissolved. Put to one side.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks and then slowly whisk in the cream mixture and vanilla extract. Strain into a jug and then poor into ramekins. Now, the Waitrose recipe says to pour the mixture into 4 x 120ml ramekins. Given how rich the custards are, you could probably get away with using smaller ramekins and making 6, but would need to adjust the cooking time.

Put the ramekins in a deep roasting tin. Pour boiling water into the tin until it comes to about one third of the way up the sides of the ramekins. Cook for 20-25 minutes until the custards are just set but still wobble slightly in the middle (they will set further on cooling). Remove from the tin and chill for at least 3 hours.

It is this final step where my custards didn't seem to want to play - they needed longer than the 20-25 minutes stated in the Waitrose recipe and then they didn't continue to set when cooling. They set nicely around the edges but two of them simply didn't set in the middle at all. So if I make this recipe again, I'll make sure my large eggs are just that - large - and that I cook them for a little longer, keeping my eye on them for when they set.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Chocolate & Orange Tart

A few months ago I had the good fortune of being invited, along with a few fellow food bloggers, to an evening of chocolate tasting with the inimitable Paul A. Young at his quaint shop in Camden Passage, Islington.

A revelation! That's what the whole, marvellous evening was - a revelation. I've eaten my fair share of chocolate in my time, but I'm no chocoholic - far from it. I certainly don't go weak at the knees at the sight of a chocolate fondant like one friend I can think of, nor am I an habitual eater of the chocolate bars us Brits have a love affair with (if we are to agree with Jay Rayner's recent musings on the humble chocolate bar).

But for the first time I learnt what it is that I do like and why, what flavours work for me and what I'll be steering clear of in future. The winner by a country mile for me being dark chocolate made from Madagascan beans (in particular the Valrhona Manjari 64%) - fruity, mouthwatering (literally!), citrus flavours. Delicious!

Ever since then, having learnt the difference the type of chocolate you use can make to a recipe, I've been meaning to create a recipe to do Madagascan dark chocolate justice. A few weeks ago I finally got around to trying the confit orange recipe from Paul A. Young's recent book - Adventures with Chocolate - which inspired me to make this Chocolate & Orange Tart. The addition of a little orange zest to the sweet pastry works brilliantly with the rich Madagascan chocolate filling.

You can read all about the different chocolate we tasted that evening in great detail on my friend and fellow food blogger's blog Kavey Eats. We ate a LOT of chocolate...


Sweet Pastry

8oz plain flour
4oz cold unsalted butter (cubed)
1oz icing sugar (sifted)
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
zest of 1 orange (finely grated)

Chocolate Filling

6oz single origin Madagascan dark chocolate
4 oz unsalted butter
2oz golden caster sugar
1 whole egg
2 egg yolks


Confit orange peel (I used the recipe in Paul A. Young's book Adventures with Chocolate which worked really well)


To make the pastry, mix the flour and butter in a food processor until they resemble breadcrumbs. Add the rest of the ingredients and continue to mix for a short time until the pastry forms a soft ball. Wrap the pastry in cling film and chill for at least half an hour, then roll out to about 4mm thick to line a greased 9 inch fluted tart tin and chill again (you can pop it in the freezer if you're short on time).

Put the tart tin on a baking tray and blind bake the pastry case for around 20 minutes at approximately 180C (depending on your oven). You can do this by laying a piece of baking parchment inside the pastry case and filling it with baking beans (or just some uncooked pulses or rice if you don't have the fancy baking beans). Remove the paper and beans and bake for another 5 minutes or until golden brown.

Whilst the pastry case is baking, prepare the chocolate filling. Melt the chocolate and butter in a glass bowl over a pan of simmering water. In a separate bowl, beat the sugar, whole egg and egg yolks until pale and fluffy (the easiest way to do this is with an electric beater if you have one as it takes longer than you think). Once the chocolate and butter has melted, take off the heat and leave to cool slightly before mixing gently into the egg mixture until combined.

Once the pastry case is cooked, turn the oven down to 170C. Pour the chocolate mixture into the pastry case and bake for 5 – 6 minutes. Put the tart on a wire rack to cool. When the tin is cool enough to handle, remove the tart from the tin and leave on the wire wrack to cool.

Decorate with confit orange peel and serve with caramelised oranges or lightly whipped cream.

The worst thing for a food lover... morning sickness.

My life is normally filled to the brim with food. I'm the sort of person who has planned what's for dinner before I've even had breakfast. The stack of books next to my bed is made up of cookbooks rather than trashy novels. I can spend whole weekends in the kitchen cooking up delight after delight. My notebook contains a 'hit list' of must visit restaurants, cafes and food shops.

Yet at the back end of last year I found myself unable to stand the thought of food, let alone the sight, smell or taste of it! It was all I could do to force myself to eat anything vaguely healthy. For some reason, having spent years eating a healthy well balanced diet, I found myself eating anything in crispy crumb coating - fish fingers, spicy bean burgers, cheese and onion breadcrumbed 'things' from Marks & Spencer, ready made meals and a lot of Nairns oatcakes with cheddar (whilst dreaming of oozing, ripe brie, epoisses and stichelton...).

There were a few casualties of this seemingly never ending period of purgatory. The main one which remains is broccoli. Knowing that dark green vegetables are good for me I tried my best to subsitute some of the rubbish I was eating for healthy vegetables. But for the humble broccoli this effort (even coating it in a rich cheddar sauce) was all in vain. There was and is notihng that will entice me to eat this once much loved vegetable. I'm not even rejoicing in the arrival of the purple sprouting broccoli season. This makes me sad.

Eating out became impossible. Starting with the fact I don't eat meat anyway, my choices on a standard restaurant menu are already limited. Add to that the apparent desire of many chefs to create their, often solitary, vegetarian offering from one of the millions of cheeses a pregnant woman is advised to avoid. And finally throw into the equation me - a normally food loving woman with constant nausea who had lost all desire to eat and couldn't stay awake past about 7.30pm. A recipe for enjoyable evenings out this did not make...

But here I am, through the worst (depending on who you listen to...), nearly 22 weeks pregnant, back on my horse and raring to go!

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Banana & Walnut Cake

I don't know about you, but I for one can't stand eating bananas once they have even the slightest of brown speckles. The texture and flavour begin to change and, if I'm honest, they're then usually destined for the bin. But I hate wasting food, so this recipe comes in handy because the riper the banana the better the flavour of the cake.

It's based on a recipe which I hastily scribbled down from a magazine in a waiting room somewhere a few years ago. Well, I scribbled down the main ingredients and then, over time have decided on the quantities which suit me best. I like adding walnuts for the texture and because they work well with bananas, but you could add any nuts you like, or even sultanas.

It's a very moist cake so testing for when it's done can be a tad tricky, but it will continue to set in the tin once you take it out of the oven.


4 ripe bananas
4 tbsp light olive oil
4 tbsp natural yogurt
2 eggs (beaten)
1 tsp vanilla extract
8oz self raising flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp ground mixed spice (plus a little cinnamon if you like it)
3oz soft brown sugar
2oz walnut pieces (or more if you prefer)


Mix the dry ingredients (flour, bicarbonate of soda, spice and sugar) together in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl mash the peeled bananas (I find a potato masher makes l ight work of this job) and then stir in the oil, yogurt, eggs and vanilla. Add the banana mixture to the dry ingredients along with the walnuts and mix well.

Pour the mixture into a lined, greased 1 litre loaf tin and bake in the oven at 180 C for 50 minutes to an hour until golden and well risen (I baked mine at 165 C in my fan oven). Depending on your oven, it may take a little longer as it is quite a moist mixture so test with a cake tester or scewer and also press gently in the centre to see whether it feels set. Leave in the tin to cool.

You can serve it warm with greek yogurt and honey as a dessert (or even afternoon tea!) or enjoy it just as it is with a cup of tea.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with Hazelnuts

Jerusalem artichokes aren't the prettiest looking of vegetables and seem to be much maligned for their (to put it politely) gas inducing properties. But that's not to say that they can't be transformed from the knobbly roots that they are, into some delicious dishes.

I first came across jerusalem artichokes about 12 years ago when I was living in France but didn't get to taste them then as these topinomboux, which grow abundantly even in poor soil, were destined for animal feed. It wasn't until a few years later that I spotted them for sale in the greengrocers back in England that I bought some to make a wild rice, puy lentil and jerusalem artichoke salad. A lovely earthy salad, perfect for the winter months.

What I didn't know until recently was that the jerusalem artichoke is from the same family as the sunflower. Looking at the roots (which are cultivated as the vegetable we eat) I could be excused for not guessing, but it's easier to see the family ressemblance when you see the flowers of the plant.

Jerusalem artichokes lend themselves perfectly to a hearty winter soup and the addition of hazelnut oil and toasted hazelnuts raises this soup to something a little special and good enough for a weekend lunch with friends.


8 - 10 medium jerusalem artichokes
1 medium leek (white and pale green only)
1 medium onion
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 to 1 & 1/2 litres light vegetable stock
2 bay leaves
1 oz butter
dash olive oil
salt & pepper
handful blanched hazelnuts (to serve)
hazelnut oil (to serve)


Finely chop the oinion and slice and wash the leek. Add the butter, dash of olive oil, onion and leek to a large heavy bottomed pan or casserole (which has a lid). Heat gently over a low heat and then place a sheet of baking parchment over the vegetables and tuck it down to seal in the steam. Put the lid on the pan and cook very gently for abuot 10 minutes (checking and stirring regularly to ensure that the vegetables do not turn brown). Discard the baking parchment.

Whilst the oinions and leeks are cooking, peel and chop the jerusalem artichokes and then add to the pan along with the stock and bay leaves. Simmer gently until the jerusalem artichokes are cooked though.

Remove the bay leaves and then puree the soup until smooth and return to the pan with the lemon juice (add more to taste if you like) and season generously with freshly ground black pepper and salt if needed.

As the soup is warming through slowly, gently toast the hazelnuts in a dry frying pan and then crush slighty (I did this by putting them in a sandwich bag and bashing them with a rolling pin). Dish up the soup, drizzle with the hazelnut oil and scatter some toasted nuts in the centre of each bowl.

Serves 4 for lunch or 6 as a starter.