Coriander Rice

Rice is often viewed as a bland accompaniment to strongly flavoured dishes, but treating it that way does it a huge disservice. Like pasta and potato, rice is an excellent carrier of flavour and a little ingenuity with your rice goes a very long way in turning a good curry into an exceptional meal.

I have a large repertoire of rice side dishes, this is one of the simplest but it still packs a punchy, aromatic flavour.

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RECIPE – feeds 4-6 people 

Basmati rice, cooked and cooled

2 tbsp groundnut oil

1 tsp coriander seeds

2 kaffir lime leaves (dried or fresh), finely shredded

2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander leaves


METHOD

First, weigh out your rice. You will probably know how much rice your family and friends will eat, it varies greatly among people so I have avoided giving a defined quantity. As a rough guide, if you need it, a small mug filled with dry rice will easily feed two people with leftovers at my table, as an accompaniment to other dishes.

Cook your rice, tip into a sieve to drain and leave to cool completely.

Tip: Back in the days when I could only manage to cook a small handful of simple dishes, the one and only thing that I could cook well was rice. In my hands it always had perfect bite coupled with softness, each grain was distinct and separate from its neighbour and there was no hint of stodginess. Then it all went wrong.

I learned that the way I cooked rice was incorrect. I convinced myself that I should be using exact volumes of rice and water, cooking for exact times, sealing pan lids, leaving it to sit for ages, using tea towels as steam absorbers – the more instructions I followed, the more I got away from the simple pleasures of cooking rice simply, the worse my rice got.

My wife was in despair; “you have lost your rice mojo” she told me. Eventually I did the sensible thing and went back to cooking my rice the wrong way, and now it’s perfect again.

In my world, you put your rice in the largest pan you have and cover it in a lot of cold water, at least an inch of water over the level of the rice. Season the water with a very little salt and over a high heat bring the water up toward boiling point. Before it actually boils, turn the heat right down so that the water settles into a very gentle simmer. This will prevent the rice grains from bursting.

The time it takes your rice to cook can differ greatly, so check your rice after 3 or 4 minutes at the simmer and check it every minute thereafter. Your grains should be soft but with a definite firmness to the grain. Overall, your pan of rice should emerge as clean, distinct grains that will be a pleasure to eat.

When almost ready to eat, make your coriander rice at the last minute.

Heat the oil in a saucepan large enough to comfortably hold your rice. When hot but not smoking add the coriander seeds, agitate the pan constantly and when the coriander seeds begin to pop add the shredded kaffir lime leaves. Cook for a minute or two, ensuring that you don’t scorch the seeds or leaves, then add the rice. The pan will be hot so the rice will quickly heat through, stir thoroughly so the kaffir lime leaves and coriander seeds are well distributed, then add the chopped fresh coriander leaves and stir through again until well combined.

Serve alongside any dish where you would normally use plain rice.

Chapatis

A quick and easy way to make a slight dish much more filling, chapatis – an unleavened Asian flatbread – can be on the table 15 minutes or so after weighing out the flour. Traditionally eaten alongside curry, where it is often used as a scoop in place of a fork or spoon, chapatis are also excellent with middle eastern dishes and make delicious vegan wraps.

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RECIPE – makes 4, will feed 2 people as a side dish

125g wholemeal bread flour

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

85ml water


METHOD

Weigh the flour into a bowl, add the salt, make a well in the centre and add the water. Using your fingers in a claw-like grip, pull the flour into the water, pulling and kneading with your fingers to get everything off the sides and bottom of the bowl. The dough should start off sticky but quickly become stiff and silky. At this point take it from the bowl to a lightly floured work surface and knead it for 7-10 minutes.

Heat a skillet, or large dry frying pan, until very hot. While it heats up, divide the dough into 4 equal pieces and roll them out into a rough round shape, adding small amounts of flour to prevent sticking as you roll. The chapatis need to be thin, thinner than a penny piece. If you have trouble rolling them out thinly, cut two squares of baking parchment, dust them with flour and roll the dough out between them.

To cook, lay the rolled chapati in the hot skillet and cook on each side for a minute or so. They should scorch and even burn a little; that’s fine, that’s where a lot of the flavour comes from.

Repeat until all four chapatis are cooked, the ones made previously can be kept warm in a low oven under a tea towel.

This recipe is easily scaled up to feed four or more people, just scale all the ingredient quantities up in equal ratios.

Bombay Potatoes

For an amateur cook, there are some seemingly unattainable holy grails when it comes to making curries:

  • getting a curry to taste just like it does in the restaurant
  • making the perfect naan
  • making the perfect Bombay aloo

I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is the perfect Bombay potatoes recipe, but it’s the best refinement yet of a great many that I have tried, and it’s as close to perfection as I’m likely to come. Those who have tasted it prefer it to the one that we have in our local Indian restaurant, and theirs is very good indeed.

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RECIPE – feeds 4-6 people depending on what you have with it

3 large potatoes, peeled and halved

a knob of ginger as big as both of your thumbs, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

2 large tomatoes, one quartered the other cut into thin wedges

3 tbsp ghee

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp brown mustard seeds

1 large onion, roughly chopped

1 tsp ground turmeric

2 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp garam masala

1 tsp hot chilli powder

1 tsp nigella seeds

a small handful of coriander leaves, roughly chopped


METHOD

In a large pan of slightly salted water, boil the potatoes until they are just tender. Drain, and when they are cool enough to handle cut them into 2cm cubes. Set aside.

In a mortar and pestle, grind the ginger, garlic and quartered tomato into a smooth paste; set aside.

*Tip: It seems that every time I read a recipe that calls for finely chopped ginger it tells you to peel the ginger first. That is a huge waste of flavour. All I do is cut off any rough and dry bits on the outside and make sure that it is clean, then chop it finely skin ‘n’all.

In a small bowl, add a little water to the ground turmeric, ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala and hot chilli powder, stir to a paste and set aside.

Heat the ghee in a large frying pan over a moderately high heat, when melted add the cumin seeds and brown mustard seeds. When the cumin seeds start to darken (a minute or so) add the onion, stir thoroughly and cook for a minute longer then add the ground ginger, garlic and tomato mixture, the ground spice paste and a pinch of salt. Gently saute for a minute or two, check the seasoning and correct if necessary.

Add the tomato wedges, and cook for three minutes then add the cubed potatoes and nigella seeds. Cook for a further 3-5 minutes until done to your liking, sprinkle with the coriander leaves and serve.

To make it vegan, simply use vegetable oil in place of the ghee.

 

Curry Powder

The best curry-making advice I ever received was this: never, ever, EVER use a jar of curry powder that you have bought from a shop. I remember reading, years ago, that commercial curry powder is mainly comprised of the scrapings and dust from the factory floor; while I doubt that is actually true, some of the curry powders I have tasted over the years are so disgusting that it wouldn’t surprise me at all.

Many curry recipes don’t call for curry powder at all, instead they require freshly roasted and ground whole spices. I have an extensive spice cupboard filled with all kinds of whole and ground spices that I use so frequently that there is never a danger of anything going beyond its best. That is the  first true secret to a great curry: use the freshest spices you possibly can. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using ground spices from a packet, just make sure they are from a reputable, high-quality manufacturer – I don’t do endorsements but you will quickly learn which ones are the best – and make sure they are as fresh as possible. If that means digging into the back of a shelf in the store to get the newest stock then don’t be embarrassed.

There are times however when a good curry powder is exactly what is needed, and this mix – compliments of Madhur Jaffrey – is as good as it gets. It has layers of complex flavour and aromas, it bursts with life and does a little dance with your taste buds. If that all sounds like I’m getting a bit carried away, make it and see for yourself…


RECIPE – makes a small jar

2 tbsp coriander seeds

1 tbsp cumin seeds

2 tsp black peppercorns

1 1/2 tsp brown mustard seeds

6 whole cloves

1 tsp fenugreek seeds

1 1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes

2 tsp hot chilli powder

1 tsp turmeric


METHOD

In a large pan – NOT non-stick – place the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, black peppercorns, brown mustard seeds and whole cloves. Put over a high heat and stay with the pan, shaking every few seconds. Within a minute or so the spices should start to become aromatic, this is the dangerous time…

If you burn your spices you have no option but to start again, so watch them carefully. Just as the cumin seeds start to darken and you can really smell everything – this takes just a couple of minutes at the most – add the fenugreek seeds. Shake the pan for ten seconds then take off the heat and immediately empty the spices onto a plate (preferably a metal one) to cool. The pan will be very hot so if you had left the spices in it they would burn.

Using a small electric coffee grinder – I have a small, cheap one which I use exclusively for grinding spices – or a mortar and pestle, add the chilli flakes, chilli powder and turmeric to the toasted spices, and grind to a fine, well mixed powder.

Store in a jar in a cool, dark place and this mix will easily last 3 months or more without losing much of its vitality. It is quite exceptional when used straight from the grinder.

 

Ghee

If you like cooking Indian curries, middle eastern cuisine or southern Asian food in general then it is essential that you have a supply of ghee in your fridge if you are going to get the very best results.

Ghee is used in place of vegetable and other oils because of its high smoke point (the temperature at which its molecules begin to deteriorate) of around 250C, higher than most vegetable oils, and also because of the unique taste and scent that it adds to a dish.

Ghee is a kind of clarified butter that has had the milk solids removed and is slightly caramelised, as such it is incredibly easy to make. You can of course buy it, many major supermarkets now stock it and if all else fails you will definitely find it in specialist Asian shops. Why go to the bother of searching for what may well be a more expensive yet inferior product though? The chances are that what you buy will not be made from the best quality butter and will have all kinds of preservatives and other chemicals added to it to extend the shelf life. You can make home-made ghee with the butter that you like, and with nothing added it will last for months in the fridge.

Ghee


RECIPE – makes enough to fill a small Kilner jar

1 kg unsalted or slightly salted butter

 


METHOD

Place the whole blocks of butter in a large pan over a very low heat and allow to melt slowly and completely. Once melted, the butter will begin to separate into three distinct layers: foam will appear on top, the milk solids will begin to drop to the bottom, and the clarified butter will float in the middle.

Turn the heat up very slightly and leave, undisturbed, for up to an hour. The butter will take a little time to fully clarify, and the longer you leave it the more the ghee will caramelise, giving you a distinct and delicious flavour.

Three important points to note while cooking it:

  • DO NOT LET THE GHEE SMOKE
  • DO NOT LET THE GHEE BURN
  • DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, STIR YOUR GHEE

Turn the heat off when the ghee is coloured to your liking, which could be anything between the yellow in the picture above to a deep, dark toffee brown. It is all a matter of taste so feel free to experiment to see how you like it best.

Without disturbing the pan, skim off the floating sediment. Allow the ghee to cool a little, for ten minutes or so, then strain the ghee through a muslin cloth into a sealable jar. The muslin will catch the solids at the bottom, which will likely be very dark brown by this stage.

Refrigerate your ghee and use every time your recipe calls for vegetable oil. It will go solid in the fridge, but if you take it out half an hour or so before you need to use it then it will soften sufficiently for you to get a spoon into it.

 

Faux Chicken, Leek and Mushroom Pie

I hear you ask: what is a faux chicken pie?  It’s a chicken pie without any chicken in it – and before you ask what is the point, let me tell you that when my father and grandfather ate it on Sunday evening they had no idea that there was no chicken in it.

It’s all thanks to the magic of Quorn, a meat substitute that has improved enormously in the past few years. I don’t generally like substituting for the real thing, but when I am cooking for hardened meat-eaters of my parent’s and grand-parent’s generations as well for my vegetarian wife, I have the choice to either carry out a con trick or cook two meals. Well, the con trick will win every time.

When I revealed what they had just eaten there was general amazement and a reappraisal of how good vegetarian food can be. I can prove it too; I was supposed to take a picture of the two pies that I had made before they went on the table, but people were hungry. I ended up taking a picture of the last little piece of the one pie that was left after four hungry people had eaten their fill. The pitiful amount remaining speaks for itself.

I used two smaller 9 1/2 inch oval pie dishes this time, but usually make it in a larger, deep 12 1/2 by 9 1/2 inch oblong dish. Don’t worry overmuch about what you cook it in, just use what you have.

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RECIPE – comfortably feeds 4 people

50g unsalted butter

1 tbsp olive oil

2 large leeks, trimmed and thinly sliced

50g plain flour

300ml semi-skimmed milk

300ml vegetable stock

1/2 tsp fish sauce

1 tsp Dijon mustard

1 tbsp fresh tarragon leaves, finely chopped (or 1 tsp dried tarragon)

250g chestnut mushrooms, sliced

350g Quorn chicken pieces

75g cheddar cheese, grated

500g puff pastry, block or ready-rolled

1 egg, beaten

 


METHOD

Melt the butter with the oil in a large pan and gently fry the leeks over a low heat for ten minutes, until soft but not coloured.

Mix the flour with a little of the milk to make a smooth paste (no lumps!) and when the leeks are soft add the paste to the pan with the rest of the milk and the stock. Turn the heat up to high and, stirring constantly, bring to the boil. Simmer until the sauce is thick and smooth and any lumps that may have appeared are cooked out.

*Tip: Many people are rightfully worried about thickening sauces with flour, having suffered disgusting lumpy sauces in their childhood. Fear not, it is a problem easily avoided if you only take the time to continually whisk and stir your sauce while it comes to the boil. If you leave it while you go and do something else then you will suffer lumpy sauce, so look after it.

Now add the fish sauce (it will smell disgusting but gives the sauce a lovely depth of flavour when cooked in), the mustard and tarragon. Add the mushrooms and simmer for a couple of minutes, check the seasoning, then add the Quorn pieces and stir thoroughly. Remove from the heat, stir in the cheese, and put aside to cool completely.

The Quorn should go in frozen but will quickly thaw in the hot sauce, and will cook gently as the sauce cools.

When ready to cook, heat the oven to 200C / 180C Fan / Gas 6.

Roll the pastry out until approximately the thickness of a pound coin. Ensure the filling is completely cold otherwise the butter in your pastry will melt and your pastry lid will be a soggy disaster.

Brush the edge of your pie dish with water, lay the pastry on top with an overhang all round. Press and crimp the top and edge all round, trim away any excess pastry, brush the pastry with the beaten egg and pierce a steam hole in the centre.

Bake for approximately 35 minutes until the pastry is a deep golden colour and has risen.

Serve with a mound of smooth buttery mash, garden peas and a smile – don’t tell anyone what is in it until they have finished eating.

 

Warm Salad of Trout, Watercress and Spelt

“Things that grow together, go together.”

I have a terrific book on my shelves, ‘The Flavour Thesaurus’, by Niki Segnit. It’s a very handy reference when you have something in the fridge and you’re trying to figure out what to use as an accompaniment; it’s also handy to refer to if you have had a wacky idea, just to check that those flavours really will work together.

On the subject of trout and cress it has this to say: “not so much a pairing as a reunification. Trout feed on the more tender leaves of watercress but they’re really after the sowbugs, tiny crustaceans that live in its thickets.” Having had the idea, and knowing that we would be attending the Watercress Festival at the weekend, I knew to look out for some trout in the farmers’ market that is at the heart of the festival. I would have preferred to have got hold of brown trout, which has a more fulsome flavour than the rainbow trout which was all that was available there, but it was no problem – all I had to do was ensure that I gave it a little help by putting other flavoursome elements around it.

Hitting the books, I found that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall pairs trout and watercress with pearled spelt (in his excellent book ‘Three Good Things’), with a strong sauce that cuts through and enhances the flavour of the fish. I was thinking of using horseradish, which goes brilliantly with salmon so should work here (and it does by the way), but I always prefer to make everything if I can, rather than opening a jar.

There was still something missing though, I thought Hugh might have missed a trick by limiting himself to just three main ingredients. What I now had planned reminded me a little of kedgeree, and of course egg and cress are a classic combination, so would eggs work here? I always presumed that the eggs in a kedgeree only really work because of the way they interact with the curry flavours; the flavour thesaurus indicated that it wouldn’t be a disaster and you’ll never know unless you try it. I’m not spoiling the plot by telling you that of course it worked, otherwise the eggs wouldn’t appear in the recipe below.

It’s enormously satisfying when a faint idea blossoms into a recipe that you will make again and again; for mere amateurs like me it is a fairly rare occurrence, there will always be more failures along the way than successes. There’s always more to learn though, and a failure isn’t really a failure when you can learn so much from it. The main point here is to remind you that it’s okay to experiment. Don’t be afraid of ‘failure’; just read recipes, steal bits of them, adapt parts of others, play around with flavours and textures and see what happens, it can be great fun and if you can make cooking fun your eating will be fabulous, just like it is here.

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RECIPE – for 2 people as a main course, for 4 people or more as a starter

1 rainbow or brown trout, 500g or so, or two smaller fish

1 onion, sliced

2 tsp black peppercorns

2 bay leaves

a handful of parsley stalks, gently bruised

150g pearled spelt

1 tsp bouillon powder (I use Marigold)

2 good handfuls of watercress, large clumps separated

a handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped

2 duck eggs, boiled for 7 1/2 minutes and set aside

For the dressing:

50g plain yoghurt

1 tsp English mustard

juice of 1/2 lemon

a small pinch of sugar


METHOD

Lay the fish in a pan deep enough that you can completely cover it with water. Add the onion, peppercorns, bay and parsley stalks. Bruise the parsley stalks first, by gently pressing down on them with the flat of a knife.

Bring to a gentle simmer and poach the fish for 8-10 minutes. The exact time will depend on the size of your fish but be very careful not to go over – the fish flesh should be just translucent as it will cook on slightly. Lift the fish out and allow to cool completely before peeling the skin off and lifting the flesh from the bones. Try to keep the fish in fairly large chunks.

While the fish is cooling, strain the poaching liquid through a sieve to remove the onion, peppercorns, bay and parsley. Season with a teaspoon of bouillon powder and carefully adjust by adding salt, a tiny pinch at a time and testing after each addition.

You will now have a delicious fish stock, bring it to the boil and add the spelt. Simmer for 20-30 mins until the spelt is soft but still has a nutty ‘bite’.

Ten minutes or so before you think the spelt is done, boil the duck eggs for 7 1/2 minutes (if you can’t get duck eggs then use large hens eggs and boil for 6 mins) then set aside to cool slightly before cracking and peeling the shells, taking care to keep the eggs intact.

Drain the spelt and set aside while you make the dressing, by whisking together all the dressing ingredients.

On a serving platter gently combine the fish and spelt, dress with the watercress and parsley leaves, cut the eggs in half (the yolks should be soft but not runny) and place on top, then drizzle with the dressing.

This is lovely served warm as described; leftovers can be kept in the fridge for a couple of days and it is still delicious cold.

 

Cheat’s Sourdough

I love sourdough; the smell as it bakes, the way it looks as it comes out of the oven, the deep, tangy taste of it. What’s not to love?

Well… There’s all the palaver around looking after your starter. The feeding, the disposing of half the volume night after night, the mess it makes, the sheer amount of dedication it takes. If you don’t work, or your children have grown up and left home, or you don’t spend your life running from appointment to commitment then all of this is probably no problem. If, however, like so many of us your day is full from the second you wake up until the minute you finally get to sit down sometime in the late evening, who has the time or the inclination?

Thankfully, there are ways to get all the benefits of sourdough without having to endure the drawbacks. Purists may be horrified, and I’m not above being judgemental about people taking shortcuts myself, but the fact that you make your own bread is always a cause for celebration and when the results are this good your only critic will be yourself.

This cheat’s sourdough is made just like a regular sourdough, with a starter. The starter used here though is like your fiercely independent eldest child, it doesn’t need mollycoddling yet it will always be there when you need it and it will never let you down.

I also bake this sourdough a little differently, using a casserole just like this one:

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All will become clear when you read the method, so let’s get going…


RECIPE 

For the starter:

100g strong white flour

100g organic rye flour

3/4 tsp dried yeast

250ml organic dry cider (or water)

100ml of refrigerated starter (see method below)

For the dough:

400g strong white flour

3/4 tsp dried yeast

1 1/2 tsp fine sea salt

200ml water


METHOD

The first time you make this, the evening before you bake your loaf you will need to make your starter.

Combine all the starter ingredients in a large bowl, stirring with a spoon until thoroughly combined. I like to use organic dry cider in my starter because it adds more flavour and the sugar in it feeds the yeast, you can still use water though and you will not be disappointed.

Cover your starter with cling film and leave in your kitchen overnight.

In the morning your sourdough starter should have significantly increased in volume, will look bubbly and smell tangy. Get a small jam jar or similar (something with a lid) and spoon approximately 100ml of the starter into it; put the jar to one side for now.

Now add the dough ingredients to your remaining starter, in the same bowl. Curl your fingers into a claw and mix thoroughly, it will be very sticky to begin with but keep on pulling and combining for a few minutes and it will get firmer. Lightly flour a work surface and tip the dough out onto it. Knead thoroughly for ten minutes or so, until the dough is firm and silky; you will need to use more flour as you work your dough but don’t overdo it. Your hands will probably be sticky with dough, to clean them simply sprinkle some flour on your hands and rub them together, the dough will come off easily.

*Tip: I have a dough hook for my stand mixer and I have used it a lot to knead my dough rather than getting my hands dirty. It has never really worked as well as kneading by hand though so I don’t use it any more. The advantage of kneading by hand is that you can feel what the dough is doing, and somehow it just makes a better loaf.

If you do want to use a dough hook on your mixer just be careful not to overwork your dough, knead for 5-7 minutes only.

Lightly oil a very large bowl, just use a teaspoon or so of olive oil and rub it around with your fingers – all you are trying to do is ensure that your dough doesn’t stick to the bowl as it rises. Tear off a small twist of dough and add it to the 100ml of starter that you spooned into your jar earlier. Put the lid on the jar and put it in the back of your fridge.

*Tip: The jar that you have just put into your fridge will be an important part of every loaf that you make from now on. It will keep for months without needing any attention, and if it is left for so long that it starts to look a bit mangy just give it a stir to recombine everything. The jar contains a huge a huge amount of flavour which will be transferred to every loaf that you make in future, and the more you use it the better that flavour will be.

From now on, whenever you make your starter tip the entire contents of the jar into it, not forgetting to replenish the jar with starter and a twist of dough in the morning.

Shape your dough into a rough ball and place it into the oiled bowl. Cover with cling film and leave to sit at room temperature for anything between 1 and 3 hours, until it has at least doubled in size.

Take a clean tea towel and dust it thoroughly with plain flour. Gently roll your risen dough out of the bowl and onto the tea towel, be careful so you don’t knock too much air out of your dough and ensure you have used enough flour so it doesn’t stick. The dough has a tendency to spread out, to minimise this I roll the sides of the tea towel up and prop pepper grinders, small mugs and anything else I can find underneath the rolls to contain the dough and encourage it to rise upwards. Dust the top of the dough with more flour and lay another clean tea towel gently over the top. Leave for another hour or so at room temperature for its final rise.

*Tip: You can use a round banetton to hold your dough for its final rise, but it always seemed that no matter how much I dusted the inside with flour the dough always stuck somewhere, tore a hole in the dough and let the air escape. I have never had that problem using the tea towel method.

Put your casserole, with its lid on, in the oven; also put a small baking tray in the bottom of the oven. Heat your oven to 230C/ gas 8. Leave your oven long enough that it gets fully hot.

When ready to bake, using oven gloves remove the casserole from the oven and close the oven door. It never fails to amaze me how many people take the time to heat their oven and then leave the door open while they are mucking around doing other things, while all the heat is escaping into the kitchen. Again using oven gloves, remove the lid from the casserole and lightly dust the inside of the casserole with plain flour. Gently and carefully, but quickly, lift the tea towel holding your fully risen dough, place it into the casserole and gently roll the dough out of the tea towel and into the casserole. You may need to give the casserole a very delicate shake to level the dough, if you do then be gentle. Once again using oven gloves – yes, I am labouring this point but you only have to pick up a red-hot piece of metal with your bare hands once for it to stay with you forever – put the casserole lid back on and carefully place the casserole back into the oven. Bake for 25 minutes.

Oven gloves time again… Remove the casserole from the oven, close the oven door, remove the casserole lid and have a look at your dough. You should emit a gasp of admiration at the beautiful thing that you see.

Fill a glass with cold water, open the oven and quickly pour the water into the small baking tray that you put in the oven earlier, quickly put the casserole back into the oven, this time without its lid, and close the oven door. This will create steam in your oven which will give you a beautifully dark and crisp crust. Bake for a further 15 -20 minutes.

When you remove the casserole from the oven this time, tip it upside down and your beautiful loaf should fall straight out. Tap the bottom of the loaf and it should sound hollow; if so, it is done, so let it cool completely on a wire rack.

*Tip: Until I became experienced at making bread, instructions such as ‘tap it and if it sounds hollow it is done’ used to infuriate me. What does that actually mean? How hollow should it sound? What does hollow even sound like?

A foolproof way to determine if your bread is cooked is to use an instant read thermometer, or meat thermometer. Pierce the bread through the bottom and get the probe into the middle of the loaf, if it reads at least 90C then your loaf is fully cooked. Eventually you will know what hollow sounds like and you can dispense with the thermometer.

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Your finished loaf should look something like this. Believe me, it tastes even better than it looks.

The Ultimate Victoria Sandwich

If you want to upset a member of the Women’s Institute, show them this recipe and method. It does everything ‘wrong’, and yet the result is the lightest, fluffiest, BIGGEST Victoria sandwich you will ever make.

Using duck eggs takes this cake to a whole new level of flavour, they definitely are the best eggs to use when baking. Apparently the ratio of volumes between the egg white and yolk is different in a duck egg, and they are slightly larger than a large hens egg thus giving you a bigger cake, but all that matters to me is flavour and this cake delivers it in spades.

I have specified spreadable Lurpak here, just because Delia Smith has tested every brand of spreadable butter and Lurpak is what she recommends. I have however made this cake using all kinds of spreads and there isn’t so much difference that you need to worry about it. Use whatever spread you have to hand and you will still be delighted with the results.


RECIPE 

4 duck eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract

golden caster sugar – the same weight as the eggs

Lurpak unsalted spreadable butter – the same weight as the eggs

self-raising flour – the same weight as the eggs

2 tsp baking powder

a pinch of fine salt

2 tbsp milk (approx)

For the filling:

250-300 ml double cream

1 jar raspberry jam or compote

1-2 tsp icing sugar


METHOD

Heat the oven to 180C/160C fan/Gas 4. I find it is normally best not to use a fan oven when baking cakes as it can dry out the top before the middle is cooked.

Line the base of two 20cm (8 inch) diameter, 4.5cm (2 inch) deep cake tins with parchment and lightly grease the sides.

Weigh the eggs, in their shells – write the weight down! I guarantee that one day you will be distracted by something and the weight that you had in your head will disappear. Maybe it’s my age, but once bitten twice shy…

The established way of making a Victoria Sandwich is to combine all the ingredients together in a large bowl, mix them together until just combined then bake. That method works fine, gives a great cake and is certainly quicker than the way that I do it, but in back to back tests among family and friends the method below was the winner.

Break the eggs into a large bowl together with the vanilla extract and, preferably using a stand mixer, whisk the eggs. When you think you’ve whisked them for long enough, whisk them some more. And some more. Keep going… you will end up with a froth which is several times bigger than the original volume of the eggs. Don’t be afraid to whisk at high speed for ten minutes or more, all you are doing is forcing air in and it is this air which will give your cake most of its lift.

While whisking the eggs, weigh out the golden caster sugar, self-raising flour and spreadable butter, each to the same weight as the eggs. Add the sugar to the whisked eggs and whisk at high speed for a couple of minutes.

Now add the spreadable butter, together with a couple of tablespoons of the flour which well help to prevent the mixture curdling. Whisk again for a minute or so at high speed until fully combined.

Now sieve the flour and baking powder into the mix, together with a pinch of salt, and with the mixer on its lowest speed combine the flour into the mix slowly and carefully until it is just combined. Have a couple of tablespoons of milk (any kind) at your side and add whatever quantity is required to keep the consistency of your cake mix at a dropping consistency – in other words a consistency that will drop gracefully off a wooden spoon, not stick to it in a big lump or run straight off like a liquid.

Now divide your mix equally between your prepared cake tins…

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…ensuring the top is fairly smooth. There’s no need to be pernickety about it, the mixture will rise and smooth out minor differences. Bake in the centre of the oven for 25-30 mins until well risen…

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…look at that, they have doubled in size. The cake should be just starting to come away from the sides of the cake tin, as you can see above, and a gentle pat on the top of the cake should reveal it to be soft but set. There should be no need to insert a skewer to check the middle.

Allow the cakes to cool in their tins for about 5 mins, when you should be able to handle the tins without using oven gloves. Run a knife around the inside of the cake tin to ensure nothing will stick and then turn each cake out into your hand. Bear in mind that you will want the best looking top on your cake, and also bear in mind that cooling on a rack will leave lines in your cake. So, select which will be the top of your cake and ensure that surface sits uppermost from the cooling rack; the bottom half of the cake should sit on its top. That sounds a little confusing, so to clarify – when you assemble your cake the most pleasing arrangement is to have a little ‘waist’ in the middle, presuming that your cake tins have a slight angle to their sides. To achieve the waist, you put the bottom half upside down so the narrowest part is uppermost, and the top half should sit right way up so its narrowest part is at the bottom. You will see this effect in the picture of the finished cake, below.

Some like to trim the sides of the cake so they are perfectly straight. If I were presenting it in a competition I might do that, but I think it is a waste of perfectly good cake so who cares if the sides look imperfect – they taste wonderful.

Once the cakes are fully cooled, whip 250-300ml of double cream until it is stiff – be careful not to go too far or you will end up with butter. Spread the entire jar of jam or compote on top of the bottom half in an even layer, pushing it toward but not quite reaching the edge, it will creep there on its own when the cake is fully assembled. Now using a pallet knife or spatula carefully lay the whipped cream on top of the jam, ensuring the two layers don’t mix and once again pushing it out almost to the edge in a thick, even layer. Don’t be stingy with your filling – make it thick and indulgent. Make this a BIG cake!

Now carefully place the top cake half on to the cream, ensuring the cake is level on top, doesn’t lean and is aligned parallel all the way around. Using a small sieve, dust the top of the cake with icing sugar, present, and eat!

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Chocolate Chip Cookies

“By the way, it’s the school fete tomorrow. Could you make a hundred or so cupcakes?” Not the words I wanted to hear at 6:30 on a Friday morning; making that many cupcakes would take a large chunk of the day, how would I find the time to write the Love and Fishes blog?

“How about some chocolate chip cookies instead?” was my diplomatic reply. Agreement reached, I could breathe a sigh of relief. Cookies are quick and easy to make, and are an ideal way to introduce a child to the magic of baking. They also require no finesse or skill, in fact they benefit enormously from looking rough and ready – as long as they taste delicious, which these do.

I have specified spreadable Lurpak here, just because Delia Smith has tested every brand of spreadable butter and Lurpak is what she recommends. I have however made these using all kinds of spreads and there isn’t so much difference that you need to worry about it. Use whatever spread you have to hand and you will still be delighted with the results.


RECIPE – makes 28 cookies

110g unsalted, spreadable Lurpak

150g light brown soft sugar

1 large egg, beaten

1 tsp vanilla extract

175g plain flour

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

75g toasted chopped walnuts

100g chocolate chips (use milk, dark or white chocolate, whatever your preference)


METHOD

Heat the oven to 180C/160C fan/Gas 4.

Using a stand mixer (ideally, if not then a hand mixer will do) cream the Lurpak and sugar together until light and fluffy. You can never cream butter and sugar too much so feel free to wander off and leave it beating while you get on with making a cuppa.

Add the beaten egg and the vanilla essence and mix well – again, you cannot over-beat this mixture and the more air you can encourage into the mix the lighter your cookies will be.

Fold in the flour, bicarbonate of soda, hazelnuts and chocolate chips until just combined. Be careful, you don’t want to spend an age knocking air into your cookies only to knock it all out again.

Put a walnut sized blob on to a baking sheet…

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…allowing plenty of room between them because they will spread considerably as they bake. Bake for approximately 15 mins, removing them when they are golden brown. Leave them to cool on a wire rack, they will go crispy with a lovely melting texture in your mouth.

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We took these to the fete and they were a hit – the lady on the stall next to ours had one, waxed lyrical and bought five more, then bought up every one that we hadn’t sold by the end. I’d call that a recommendation.