Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Walnut and halva cake

I set a dangerous precedent. A few years ago, when flying down to see friends in Victoria, I brought a cake in my carry-on luggage. Now, it's not possible to visit without one. The rules of carry-on cake are as follows: no delicate sponges, or sticky icing, no layers or fancy shapes. And by fancy, even round counts here. Loaf cakes only need apply, and sturdy ones at that - the sort I can wrap tightly in tinfoil, stow in a tote bag and slide under the seat in front of me. The sort that will survive take-off, landing and turbulence. The original carry-on cake, lemon yoghurt, fits this brief beautifully, as does the superlative pear, pistachio and chocolate. And now another one to add to my repertoire courtesy of Yotam Ottolenghi: walnut and halva cake.

Halva is a dense yet crumbly confection made with tahini, a mainstay of many cultures from the Middle-east to eastern Europe. My mother used to buy it for us when we were kids to satisfy our craving for something sweet after school. I don't remember having much of an opinion on it then. I'm sure I liked it fine but it was never coveted, more something that would do when we couldn't have what we actually wanted (chocolate! ice-cream! chips!). As an adult, I like it rather a lot. So much in fact that I will only buy small amounts at a time as if it is in my fridge, I will eat it: with coffee, crumbled over vanilla ice-cream, and now, in cake...

This is a beautifully light sour cream cake, embellished with caramelised walnuts and a layer of smooth, sweet halva. It's simple but a little bit special. Easy to carry on, and to carry off.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Swedish coconut cookies

My work/life balance has been seriously out of whack these last weeks which is no doubt why I'm on my second cold of the year and it's only halfway through April. So Anna Brones' and Johanna Kindvall's lovely new book Fika arrived in my mailbox at the perfect time.

Fika (pronounced fee-ka) is the Swedish expression for coffee break. It's not just about the coffee but the little something you have with it. And respect for the ritual. The idea is to stop, to savour, sit still. And so, on Sunday, I did. There are so many recipes from the book I'm looking forward to making, but I just happened to have everything for this one on hand. Chewy, sweet and fragrant with toasted coconut, these are the Scandinavian version of the classic coconut macaroon. They're gluten-free, made only with coconut, butter, sugar, eggs and a pinch of salt. Everyday ingredients for an everyday ritual. I'm going to make it one.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Raspberry rhubarb pie

I've long aspired to be one of those people who can just whip up a pie. But to do that you have to either have grown up in small town America, or practice, and much as I'd like to, I just can't make a pie every day, or even every week. My freezer (and stomach) is only so big. This means that every time I make a pie, I will fret about rolling it out, either tackle the dough too soon, or apply pressure in the wrong places and end up with pastry that needs to be pieced together. The problem with pie, is that whatever triage you have to do to get the thing in the oven, however wonky it seems when it goes in, it always comes out looking pretty impressive. Especially this one. If ever was the time to try a lattice top, this is it - the pink/red pop of the fruit spectacular against the lightly golden pastry. And it tastes even better. The rich, buttery crust balances the sweet/tart of the rhubarb and raspberry beautifully. With a dollop of cream or a puddle of ice cream it's enough to make you forget the trauma of its making. Pie will never be effortless (for me, anyway), but it's always worth making the effort.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Lightly-cured salmon

This time last year I was in Copenhagen. Freezing in spring, eating my weight in kanelsnurre and trying not to get run over by bicycles. I loved it. One of my favourite memories is of the cooking class I did, where I learned to make many of the things I'd become so infatuated with during my time in Denmark. Scandinavian food is having a moment and it's easy to see why. It's about eating seasonally, sensibly and simply, with a respect for tradition. This lightly-cured salmon is a perfect example. During the Middle Ages, Nordic fishermen would preserve their summer catch by salting and burying fish in the sand above the high tide line. Since then, generations of Scandinavian home cooks have adapted this technique by "burying" salmon in a dry rub of salt, sugar and dill. Some add a splash of alcohol too - acquavit, vodka, even gin. After a couple of days in the fridge, you simply rinse off the rub, slice the fish thinly into orangey-pink ribbons and enjoy. I like it Smørrebrød-style on rye bread spread thickly with labneh and sprinkled with capers and red onion. You could also serve it - as the Scandis do - with boiled potatoes, mayonnaise and some kind of crunchy slaw or pickle. It's slow food that's fast to prepare. The best of both worlds.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Pistachio and orange blossom cake

When I was growing up, there were two birthday cakes in heavy rotation in the family repertoire. Devil's Food was one and orange the other. As a child, I was pre-programmed to love anything chocolate, but orange had the edge in one important way: its colour just made you happy - just the sort of thing to brighten your lunchbox the day after your birthday when the candles had been blown out and all the presents unwrapped. Now I'm an adult, but orange cake for birthdays never gets old. And so I made one for a friend on the weekend.

This a celebration cake that's both simple and luxurious. Two different types of nuts (almonds and pistachios) enrich a sweet, buttery base whose texture contrasts beautifully with a smooth mascapone frosting streaked with zest and fragrant with orange blossom. Because birthdays should be bright. Orange, always.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Caramelised fennel grain bowl

A few weeks ago, I was in the United States. Every place I went, grain bowls were everywhere. I did not want a grain bowl. I was in the United States. I was on holiday. I wanted burgers and doughnuts and pizza and pancakes and pie. And Mexican food. I came home after eating all those things and I wanted a grain bowl. So I made one. Grain bowls are the new salad. As the name suggests, instead of lettuce or greens, they're built around grains: brown rice, quinoa, barley, rye, freekah and, in this case, farro. To this sturdy base, are added all sorts of different flavours and textures - salty, sweet, crunchy, chewy, spicy... You don't really need a recipe, but because I'm a recipe-follower, I found one, and liked it so much I've made it a number of times now. Fennel is a particular favourite of mine. I like it raw as much as I do braised but I'd never had it caramelised before. It turns out it couldn't be easier - just roughly chop the bulb into bite size pieces, tumble them into a skillet with a bit of oil and a sprinkling of sugar and watch them turn from white to deep, delicious coppery-brown. Add this to the cooked farro along with some sharp, salty fetta, chopped, toasted pistachios (for crunch), lemon and mint (for freshness), harissa (for heat) and dates (for sweetness). It's salad that's healthy but hearty, and packed with flavour. Better for you than a burger, and just as good.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Chocolate spice cookies

There's a lot to be said for simple. Margherita pizza. Good-quality vanilla ice-cream. A plain croissant, fresh out of the oven, with a cup of black coffee. Less is more. And then there's Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli-born, London-based chef du jour whose recipes read like an encyclopedia of ingredients. Crazy combinations in odd quantities that echo cultures but aren't conventional, layering tastes, traditions, techniques... More is more. It shouldn't work at all but it does. Case in point: these chocolate spice cookies. 

On my last visit to Hobart, one of my Tasmanian friends presented me with a jar of homemade cookies (is there any better gift?). She's a brilliant baker, and everything in that jar looked incredible but my eye immediately went to these - dark, mysterious, intriguing... They were plump, polka-dotted, glistening with glaze and garnished with gold. Like no other cookie I'd ever seen. I took my first bite and a million flavours exploded at once - bittersweet chocolate, bright citrus, warm spices... Together, they were spectacular. I immediately went home and researched the recipe because I knew they wouldn't last long. Last week, I made them as gifts for friends who'd cheered me up after a crappy day. There's something about these you feel compelled to share.