Weekend herb blogging – Gnocchi alla Romana in a herbed butter

Everything in the garden is dead or hibernating. Even the slugs seem to have vanished for warmer climes. So today’s Weekend Herb Blogging post (thanks to Kalyn from Kalyn’s Kitchen for organising things again), although packed with herbs, is packed with herbs from the supermarket. I feel like I’m cheating. Roll on summer.

You might be used to gnocchi as little Italian dumplings made of potato, served in a sauce. Gnocchi alla Romana are the traditional form of dumpling from Rome, and they don’t contain potato; instead, they’re made with semolina, and they’re usually served with a flavoured butter. Clearly going to Prague didn’t manage to put me off dumplings.

Semolina is durum wheat, ground coarsely. In the UK you may find it in the same aisle as the ready-made custard, the jelly and the Angel Delight; it’s used in English cookery to make a sort of sloppy pudding. I’d recommend feigning Italian-ness for the day and using it to make these gnocchi; they’re light, fluffy and infinitely nicer than any doughy pudding. You’ll often see semolina gnocchi baked into sliced or cookie-cut shapes, but I prefer to make them into roughly-textured balls; this way you get a larger surface area, and therefore more delicious crusty bits.

The gnocchi are roasted in a garlic-flavoured butter which has been infused in a warm place with handfuls and handfuls of herbs. This time I used great gouts of flat-leaved parsley, basil and tarragon; use whatever comes to hand in yours. Chervil is excellent if you you can get your hands on any. Rosemary and sage are also very good in this.

To serve between four and six people (depends on levels of hunger; frankly, I’ve had three people finish a dish this size in about five minutes flat, making self-satisfied gargling noises), you’ll need:

Herbed butter
1 pack butter (1/2 lb)
1 glug olive oil (about a shot glass full)
5 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
Around 4 large handfuls fresh herbs – I used parsley, tarragon and basil
Salt and pepper

1 and a half pints milk
12 oz semolina
1/2 lb grated parmesan (plus some extra to sprinkle)
2 eggs
Freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper

Start by melting the butter with the olive oil over a very, very gentle heat. (I realise this is an awful lot of fat. Personally, I don’t find this terribly upsetting, but if you are the sort to be upset by butter, please still try it; you can spend the week following your triumph eating rice cakes.) Stir in all the herbs and garlic until they’re coated with the butter and leave in a warm place for an hour or so.

While the butter is infusing, grate a little nutmeg into the milk, sprinkle in some salt and pepper, and bring the milk to a simmer. When it starts bubbling, keep it on a low heat and pour the semolina into it in a very thin stream, stirring all the time. Keep pouring and stirring until you have a thick paste that you can stand a spoon in. Take it off the heat, beat the eggs and the parmesan into the semolina mixture, and leave the pan until the mixture is cool enough to handle.

Form the mixture into little balls (try for something a bit smaller than a ping-pong ball) with your hands. Don’t make them too smooth; a rough surface is better for making the lovely crispy bits. Place them in one layer in a roasting tin, pour over the butter (which will now have infused with the gorgeous rich flavour of the herbs and garlic), sprinkle with parmesan cheese, and put in an oven at 200 C (390 F) for fifty minutes until everything is brown and bubbling. Serve to loud applause.

Weekend cat blogging

And, for those of you who are only interested in my kittens (thanks to Clare at Eatstuff for organising Weekend cat blogging), here are Raffles (back) and Mooncake (front), who have now been living with us for a week. They’ve settled right in, and Raffles has decided what sort of family this is (i.e. an omnivorous one which eats too much) and has so far stolen and eaten a slice of garlic bread, a piece of gnocchi and some creamy mushrooms. We think it’s the garlic he likes and suspect that what we’ve bought here is not in fact a pair of kittens, but two small vampire monkeys with strap-on ears.

Mooncake is quieter (and seems to prefer Mr Weasel, the little rotter), but absolutely adorable, apart from when she’s weeing on your feet in bed. This has now been addressed (we think she was scared of the dark and didn’t want to go down to their tray without Raffles, who was too busy sleeping to pay much attention) and now, with landing and corridor lights on, she’s happy to go downstairs on her own. She has, as you can see below, decided the cushions match her eyes.

Both cats turn out to be keen typists. This week they have sent several emails (with body text saying perceptive things like ‘rrrrrrrrrrrrrttt’ and ‘~~~~~~~~~~~~~@’) and chased mouse pointers as if their lives depend on it. Here is Raffles, who has clearly started writing a blog post, become bored and passed out on some nice lady’s dressing gown.

Lemon drizzle cake

I’m coming down with a cold (this is atrocious timing; I’ve still got some Christmas shopping and a good deal of seasonal cooking to do, and this is one of the busiest times of year at work). Mr Weasel took pity on me and has done the baking for tonight’s post.

Lemon drizzle cake is a staple of church fetes, school fundraisers and coffee mornings across the country. Marco Pierre White may be driving yet another media campaign along the lines of ‘British food stinks and you’re all lazy toads‘, but he surely can’t find anything bad to say about our cakes. The lemon drizzle cake is a thing of genius, and is full of healthful vitamin C for all those of you who, like me, are brewing colds. It’s a feathery, light sponge flavoured with the natural oils from the lemon zest, and topped with a sugary, lemony, crunchy coating.

Mary Berry’s Ultimate Cakes (an excellent book you should buy if you’re even only slightly interested in baking) says you’ll need:

4oz (100g) soft margarine
6oz (175g) caster sugar
6oz (175g) self-raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 extra large eggs
4 tablespoons milk
zest of 1 lemon
Crunchy topping
juice of 1 lemon
4oz (100g) caster sugar

Pre-heat the oven to 180c/350f, and line and grease a 7in deep round cake tin.

Mr Weasel beat all the cake ingredients together until light, smooth and fluffy, turned the mixture into the tin and baked for 40 minutes. Use the patented Mr Weasel Aural Method to find out whether your cake is done; put an ear near it. (Do not burn your ear. I don’t want a McDonald’s-style lawsuit on my cakey hands.) An underdone cake will make tiny pricking noises. A done cake will be silent, which is how cakes should be.

Made the sugar and lemon juice into a paste, and prick the surface of the hot cake with a fork. Spread the paste over the top, leave it in the cake tin to cool, turn out and eat.


People come to this blog via all kinds of peculiar search terms, but I am in equal measure charmed and perturbed by the person who rolled up here yesterday via a Google search for ‘Custard warm poured knickers’. I suggest a cold shower and something non-creamy to eat.

Crostini al funghi – mushrooms on toast for grown-ups

Mushrooms on toast is a noble and ancient English nursery tea. When I was tiny, I read Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit and loved it dearly; Little Grey Rabbit would peel the pinky-beige satin skins off field mushrooms and stroke them before cooking them on her stove. In love with the bunny, I developed a fascination with mushrooms.

I’m grown up now. I can’t eat mushrooms on toast without being all post-ironic about it. In this form, though, kiddies’ mushrooms on toast becomes elevated to a dinner party amuse bouche; a gorgeous, silky, creamy, rich cloud of mushrooms on crisp slices of grilled ciabatta.

I still eat it for tea. What the hell; I’m posh.

To serve three for a grown-up nursery supper, you’ll need:

1 large knob of butter
1 punnet small chestnut mushrooms, sliced thin
1 punnet shitake mushrooms, sliced thin
4 shallots, chopped finely
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small handful (palmful, really) dried porcini mushrooms, soaked
A glug of Marsala
1/4 pint cream
Juice of half a lemon
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 large handful chopped parsley
Salt and pepper
1 ciabatta

Melt the butter over a medium heat in a non-stick pan until it’s bubbling gently, and turn the fresh mushrooms, shallots and garlic into it. Saute, stirring frequently, until they soften and give up their juices. Add the soaked porcini, and continue to saute until all the juices have evaporated.

Add the Marsala (about a shot-glass full) and simmer until it’s all evaporated and the alcohol has burned off. Add the cream, cayenne pepper and mustard, and stir in the lemon juice, tasting all the time (you might want to use more or less than half a lemon). Simmer until the mixture bubbles and thickens, stir in the parsley off the heat, and season to taste.

While you cook the mushrooms, slice a ciabatta diagonally into ten, and toast the slices until crisp. Pile the mushrooms on the ciabatta slices, and serve immediately. Little Grey Rabbit was missing a trick.

Hummus with whole spices

This one’s a real favourite for those days when I’m working at home. Homemade hummus only takes about five minutes to make, tastes great, and is cheaper and better than anything you’ll get from the cold aisle in the supermarket.

When my brother and I were kids, hummus and pitta bread was a favourite breakfast, up until the day I got called garlic-breath at ten-o-clock by a girl in gym at school. I swore off it for a few sensitive teenaged years. Since then, I’ve learned not to care about upsetting those around me by eating garlic. (Life’s too short; I once had a boyfriend whose mother worked as a teacher and wouldn’t eat garlic until she had retired, lest the children smelled it on her breath. For God’s sake; it’s Chicken Kiev, not twenty whiskies and soda. Nowadays I just ensure that the people I feel like doing gym with are also eating plenty of what I eat. Poor, reeking Mr Weasel.)

Hummus is one of those dishes that has been around for so long that its origins are now uncertain. It’s from somewhere in the Middle East, and variations on it pop up all over the place; there’s even an Indian version. Hummus bi tahina is made from pureed chickpeas (called garbanzo beans in America) and tahini, a paste made from crushed sesame seeds. The cumin in this is typical of Egyptian hummus – the other spices are in there because I like them.

Work by volume. For every volume of cooked, cold chick peas you use, you’ll need half that volume of tahini, so if you’re using canned chick peas (as, I’m afraid, I do, because to soak, cook and cool them would ruin the whole five-minute lunch-ness of this), you’ll need half a can’s-worth of tahini. If you’re going for the long haul and are organised enough to remember to soak them the night before, you’ll find home-cooked chick peas even nicer, and you can spend a few minutes dry-frying the spices too.

For a one-can lunch for two, you’ll need:

1 can chickpeas
1/2 jar tahini
Zest and juice of one lemon
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
1 teaspoon whole fennel seeds
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon salt
Olive oil to drizzle
Paprika to sprinkle

Put the chick peas, tahini, lemon zest (not the juice), whole spices, garlic and salt in a blender, and whizz until everything is smooth. (You’ll still have some spice pieces in there; this is a good thing. When you bite one unexpectedly, you’ll thank me.) Add the lemon juice and stir it in by hand, tasting frequently until you’ve got the desired tartness. (Add a bit more if you like, or put lemon wedges on the plates when you serve.) Drizzle with olive oil, and powder the whole thing with paprika.

Salad cream – edible by human beings

Sometimes, bad, bad things happen to good recipes. Until a few years ago, I imagined that salad cream had always been that unspeakable pasteurised egg product out of a bottle by Heinz. My grandma was a lady fond of boiled eggs and cucumber, which she always anointed with a hearty gulp of the stuff. It was perfectly repellent – eggy, slimy and wafting fumes of vinegar strong enough to knock out a medium-sized rodent. (Grandma was not characterised by her love for salad cream; she was, in fact, a lady of otherwise splendid taste. I think the salad cream thing was something to do with rationing in the war. I hope it was, because otherwise this means that I might have a vinegar-loving chromosome lurking somewhere in my genome.)

Then, I found a copy of Mrs Beeton, whose recipe for salad cream did not sound remotely like the wet slick Grandma used to top our salads with. It was a recipe full of good, fresh things; a hard-boiled egg yolk, cream, mustard and so on. I braced myself and made it. It was bloody marvellous. I’ve changed the recipe a little since then (fresh lemons are more freely available these days, and I think Mrs Beeton liked her salad cream rather more tart than modern salad-munchers might like), and present it for your eating pleasure.

You’ll need:

1 hard boiled egg yolk
6 tbsp double cream
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp Dijon mustard (no seeds)
½ tsp caster sugar
¼ tsp salt
Juice of ½ a lemon

Mash the egg yolk with the back of a spoon, and add all the rest of the ingredients except the lemon juice. Mash furiously with the spoon until you’ve got a creamy paste. (If you still have any lumps, pass through a sieve, and you’ll end up with a perfectly smooth mixture.) Add lemon juice to taste. (Mrs Beeton uses vinegar, which you can try if you like; use a white wine vinegar or a cider vinegar. She does, however, use two tablespoons of the stuff, which is far too much. Exercise caution.)

This is, against all reason, a really excellent salad dressing. It’ll keep in the fridge for about three days. It’s also extremely good with cold new potatoes, over warm asparagus and on eggs instead of mayonnaise. Spend the five minutes it takes to make some, and encourage your Grandma to stop buying the Heinz stuff.

Spice-crusted chicken with Boursin stuffing

Regular readers will note that I’m very fond of Boursin – the garlic-spiked cream cheese which comes in a dear little corrugated tinfoil hat. It’s got a lot more kick than the Philadelphia variety, and I find it much more robust in cooking than other cream cheeses.

It may be a mass-produced cheese, but Boursin actually has quite a history behind it. It’s been around for more than forty years, and was the first large-scale soft cheese production business in France. François Boursin took the idea behind the meal of fromage frais and herbs eaten in French villages (it was a popular meal in Gournay, his own home town), and turned it into “All-natural Gournay cheese”. The ad campaign with the “Du pain, du vin, du Boursin” tagline has been around for nearly as long; it started in 1968, and you can still buy wedge-shaped bits of Boursin for your cheeseboard, if you are the sort of person who has a cheeseboard and thinks Boursin belongs on it.

I like it very much on bread, but Boursin really comes into its own when it’s hot, and acting as a hard sauce.

For this dish you’ll need (per person):

1 breast joint of chicken with skin and bones
1/2 round Boursin
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
Butter, olive oil, salt

Push your fingers under the skin of the chicken until it’s loosened and you’ve got a little pocket under all the skin. Push the Boursin under it, squashing and flattening until you’ve forced it all into the pocket. (This is a lot of cheese for a little chicken; just keep going until it’s all packed in there.) Smear any that’s left over the outside of the breast – it’ll help the crust to stick.

Bash the coriander, cumin and a pinch of salt in a pestle and mortar; you’re aiming for a rough grind, so don’t go mad with it. Press the spices and salt into the skin side of the chicken breast (which you have cleverly prepared by making it sticky with cheese).

Melt butter (about a teaspoon per breast) and a slug of olive oil in a large, non-stick frying pan which will fit in your oven (if you don’t own one, use a non-stick roasting tin on the hob) over a high heat, and put the chicken breasts in it, skin side up, for three minutes. Turn the breasts skin-side down when your three minutes are up, and put the whole pan in the oven at 180c for 25 minutes.

You’ll end up with a sweet, toothsome chicken breast annointed with a creamy garlic sauce, and a crisp, herbed skin. Serve with rice, to soak up the cheese and the chicken’s spicy juices.

Incidentally, the corn in this picture, which I served with the chicken, is white corn (maïs blanc) which I found in France, produced by good old Green Giant. The kernels are paler, smaller and longer than normal niblets, and they’re delicious; buttery and sweet. If anybody has seen any in the UK, please let me know. I’ve only got two tins left, and I seem to have become addicted.

Weekend cat blogging, mooncakes

I know, I know – you don’t come here for cats. You come here for recipes and to hear me complain about other people’s cooking. But I just couldn’t resist it today; our two new kittens arrived this morning, and, like a proper feline proselytiser, have decided to share their arrival with you to encourage you to get some of your own. I will also talk a bit about food so you don’t become disheartened and stop visiting. Thanks to Clare at Eatstuff for hosting Weekend Cat Blogging.

These guys are Raffles (left) and Mooncake. Raffles is demonstrating his disdain for the Royal British Legion, and is busy finding out that last month’s charity poppy is not edible. They’re Singapuras: a breed which came out of Singapore’s drain cats. (See this site for more information on Singapuras.)

Being very fond indeed of Singapore (mostly because of the food and the fantastic hospitality, along with the shopping, if I’m honest), we decided that we should keep the theme going with their names, so Raffles is named after the Raffles hotel. (I stayed there when I was a little girl, before all the Michael Jackson visits and the rebuilding and rebranding, and had an exceptionally underage Singapore Sling in the famous Long Bar, where the drink was invented.) Mooncake is named after . . . mooncakes, the pastry traditionally prepared for the Moon Festival in China and Chinese communities.

The mooncake is only available for part of the year. It’s made from a dense, sweet paste (usually lotus paste, and sometimes red bean paste), wrapped around one or two salted duck egg yolks, then covered with an oily pastry, pressed into a mould and baked. I don’t have any photographs of the non-four-legged kind, but there are plenty with this article, which talks about the remarkable variety of mooncakes available today in Malaysia. (I feel about mooncake adulteration much the same as I do about Martinis; you put chocolate in it and it’s not a mooncake any more.) Mooncakes were used by the Chinese to smuggle secret information past the Mongols in the 14th century (presumably the Mongols didn’t go for the salted yolks); people were instructed not to eat them until the day of the Moon Festival, when the rebellion began.

The festival falls on October 6 in 2006 – this will be the day when, according to the lunar calendar, the moon will be brightest. My own mooncake mould is an antique one I found in the UK; I may have a go at making a few for the festival next year.

Finally, here is a furry kind of Mooncake, demonstrating her prowess in killing pink ribbon. I have bought them cat toys; they are ignoring them. My kind of cats.

Prague roundup – Hotel Maximilian, hot drinks

A final Prague post – back to my kitchen on Saturday (there will be no post tomorrow, as I shall be busy adjusting my costume for the office Christmas party and later dancing ineptly, dressed as Hornblower, until the small hours).

We traveled to Prague with Voyages Jules Verne; a much cheaper way of doing it than if we’d booked the flights and hotel directly. They offer accommodation at the Maximilian, which we found to be really, really excellent; the hotel, a belle epoque building opposite one of Prague’s oldest churches was refurbished in a very minimalist but comfortable style at the start of 2005, and is immaculate inside. (My parents, who took us to Prague, had stayed in the same hotel in September and had liked it so much that they decided to return this month.) The chocolates on the pillows were by Lindt, the toiletries in the bathrooms by the White Company, the linen soft and comfortable and the breakfasts . . . whee, the breakfasts.

Ten different cheeses, every bottled sauce known to man (two kinds of Tabasco, maple syrup, three mustards, Worcestershire sauce, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, ketchup, flavoured oils, two different pestos . . . ), five different preserved meats, two kinds of hot sausage, bacon, grilled vegetables, eggs any which way, ten different breads, three home made yoghurts, six preserved fruits, honey, a huge selection of jams, an infinite variation of teabags, a whipped sour cream with chives, granolas, fresh fruits, six juices, sliced cucumber and tomato, French pastries galore and the best coffee I’ve had in a hotel.

I positively waddled around Prague.

So – a hearty recommendation for the Maximilian, which also has an honesty bar (how refreshing) and a small library full of books about the city and by local authors and artists which can be bought at the front desk. Room rates are on their website, but you may find better prices through an agent.

Now, those hot drinks. Prague in December is cold. We had some snow, nearly killed ourselves by waddling into frozen puddles without looking and sliding headlong, and I found taking photos while breathing pretty difficult because of my cloudy breath. I found a few really excellent cafes which, if you find yourself in the city, you might want to pop in to in order to stave off the hypothermia.

The Municipal House (here on the right; you’ll find it next to the Powder Tower where the city’s gunpowder was stored) is one of the most important Art Nouveau buildings in the city. Inside the building is a concert hall, a very expensive restaurant, and one of the most beautiful cafes I’ve been in. The decoration throughout the building is perfectly unspoiled; it’s still as it was in the very early 20th century; drinking in the cafe will make you feel as if you should be wearing a flapper dress and a cloche. (Or spats and a cravat – I am aware that some of the people reading this will be a little too hairy and muscly for dress-wearing.)

It was too early in the morning to drink something hot and alcoholic with my dignity intact, so I settled for a Viennese coffee (proper whipped cream this time) while Mr Weasel had a hot chocolate almost as rich and thick as those in Paris. (Any lack in richness was made up for by the decorations.)

All of the old town is easily walked; there is also an excellent tram service if you have arthritic knees. When you’ve hauled your breakfast-filled carcass up the hill to Prague Castle, you’ll find the Lobkowicz Palace, where there’s an outdoor terrace (heated; they also provide blankets) with remarkable views over the city and more excellent coffee and chocolate.

Be aware that in Prague there isn’t really any such thing as the non-smoking section; this can get pretty painful, so if you can find somewhere with a heated outdoor section, you may find it preferable to being in the cosy indoors in a fug of smoke.

Of course, you may find that you require something to drink with a bit more of a kick, in which case you’re in luck; every cafe in the city will sell you a hot punch, mulled wine, grog and a sybaritic list of other hot alcohol confections; I had an excellent glass of something involving Kirsch and maple syrup at the Art Nouveau Hotel Pariz. I’m still trying to get my own mulled wine recipe just perfect; I promise you’ll be able to read it some time before Christmas.