Peanut cookie drops with fleur de sel

The tiny sprinkle of fleur de sel on each of these little honey peanut cookies brings out the lovely peanut flavour without getting in the way of their honeyed sweetness. The finished biscuit is soft and a little puffy, and goes very well with a cup of coffee at the end of a meal.

There’s no flour in these, just the peanut butter, so these are great if you’ve got guests who can’t eat wheat. These cookies use honey instead of sugar, and are also good with a little extra honey drizzled over the top at the end if you don’t like the idea of the fleur de sel.

Fleur de sel is a hand-harvested salt made from the very top layer of evaporated salt, collected before it sinks to the bottom of the salt pan. Its name comes from the shape of the salt crystal – fleur de sel comes in beautiful, frilly little crystals a bit like a large snowflake. You can also buy Portuguese flor de sal, which is just the same, but less expensive. I’ve heard suggestions that it’s meant to taste saltier than normal table salt, but that’s not my experience with it. I do, however, think it has a very fine taste and a lovely texture, and it looks great on the finished plate. At the moment we use a small pot (from our break in Hyeres last summer) as table salt, and there’s a large bag from Portugal in my salt pig which I use for cooking.

To make about 60 peanut cookie drops you’ll need:

350g (1 ½ cups) peanut butter
250g (¾ cup) runny honey
2 egg whites
Fleur de sel to sprinkle

Preheat the oven to 180° C. Beat together the peanut butter and honey with the egg whites (I used an electric whisk, but elbow grease will do the job too) until everything is smooth. The oils from the peanut butter may make the mixture glossy as you beat – don’t worry if they do.

Place teaspoonsful of the mixture onto non-stick baking trays, a couple of inches apart. Bake for ten minutes until golden and a little puffy. Sprinkle over a very little fleur de sel (or drizzle with honey for a different take on things).

These little biscuits will keep in airtight containers for a few days.

Lisbon, anybody?

I have to go to Lisbon for a few days next month. The last time I visited I was 12 and didn’t pay much attention to where the restaurants were, although I do have very fond memories of Bom Jardim, or Rei del Frango (King of Chickens) which is still, apparently, there. Nineteen years ago, Bom Jardim was fantastic – a high-ceilinged, slightly dingy room where you were handed a spit-roasted chicken, a bowl of peri-peri oil and a small paintbrush with which to annoint your chicken. I hope it’s not changed.

Do any readers who have been in Lisbon more recently than me have restaurant recommendations, food shopping ideas or any useful bits of Portuguese? Please leave your comments below!

Flowering teas

One of the things I loved about Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was the way the food and drink in the movie was treated as an important character, as well-dressed and given as much attention as the talking, walking Madame Dubarry. I’ve already mentioned the patisseries from Laduree which the film featured. Today it’s the turn of the tea from the Emperor of China which Marie Antoinette shares with her brother, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II.

The unprepossessing bullets of dry, twisted leaves below are the first stage of Numi flowering tea – the same astonishingly beautiful tea that’s used in the film. It’s available to order online from Numi’s website; I found mine at the food hall at Harvey Nichols, where it’s also served at the 5th Floor Cafe. The leaves are sewn together by hand in China – on the outside of these Dragon Lily tea balls you can see long, grassy leaves of white tea. The flowers open once you pour over hot water, and inside, things start to get really interesting.

Sewn inside the ball of leaves is a red lily flower, and inside that are sprinkled a teaspoon or so of tiny, scented osmanthus flowers that escape from the large flower and float in your cup of tea. If all this loveliness weren’t enough, the tea happens to be extremely delicious as well, with delicate apricot head notes and a lovely grassy finish.

Numi has a range of nearly 20 different flowering teas, white, green and black, so you are sure to find something you love. It’s worth splashing out on a box if you fancy drinking something cinematic with your afternoon macarons.

Chocolate brownies

I’ve had a couple of emails asking for a brownies recipe to accompany the blondies I posted here a few weeks ago. Your wish, dear reader, is my command.

These brownies are very easy to make. They’re squodgy, squishy, chocolatey and have that lovely caramel-nut flavour that only toasted pecans can give. It’s very easy to adapt this recipe – if you want to try toasted hazelnuts instead of the pecans, or to add some chocolate chips, you have my blessing.

For families who fight over the slices of brownie which have come from the edge of the tin (the pieces with a crisp, chewy edge and a wonderful gradation of softness into the middle), there’s a solution to your problems: the Edge Brownie Pan. This baking tin is designed like paths in a maze, and ensures that every slice of brownie you bake has at least two edges. (The cook deserves the pieces with three.) I really must buy one of these.

Use a chocolate which has as high a percentage of cocoa solids as you can find. To make a large tray (mine measures 10 x 14 inches, just right for making enough brownies for a party), you’ll need:

1 pat salted butter (8 oz, or 110 g)
4 oz (100g) plain dark chocolate, high in cocoa solids
4 eggs
1 lb (450g) caster sugar
4 oz (100g) plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
Pinch of salt
6 oz (150g) toasted pecan nuts

You can toast the nuts yourself in a dry frying pan over a medium flame. Watch carefully to make sure the nuts do not burn – they can turn from nicely toasted to bitter and burned in moments.

Preheat the oven to 180° C (350°F).

Melt the butter and chocolate together. You can use the microwave or a bowl suspended over some boiling water (a bain marie).

While the butter and chocolate are melting, beat the eggs, salt and sugar together with the vanilla essence, and line a baking tin with greaseproof paper. Stir the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture and sieve the flour into the bowl. Stir until everything is well blended.

Turn out the brownie mix into the lined tin, and sprinkle the pecans over the raw batter. (I prefer to add the pecans to the mix when it’s in the tray rather than adding them in the bowl, as it means you’ll get a more even distribution.) Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes, until the mixture starts to come away from the sides and the top has a dry, crackling look to it. It will still be soft in the centre.

While the brownies are still hot from the oven, divide into squares. After about ten minutes they will have firmed up enough to transfer to racks to cool.

Dr Weasel’s lemon raspberry cake

Dr Weasel, my fine and upstanding husband, has an uncontrollable urge to bake about once a year. This year’s annual cake orgy has just taken place – he made several for a shared birthday party at work, where twenty ageing computer programmers played competitive Dance Dance Revolution in the office and ate cake at each other.

There were cupcakes, a couple of chocolate cakes, trays of brownies and this lemon raspberry confection. This particular cake was going to be a nice short semolina sponge, sliced across and glued together with jam and whipped cream. Unfortunately, it didn’t really rise enough in the middle to be sliced in two across the bottom successfully, but Dr Weasel, undaunted, raided the fridge and made one of the best quick cake toppings I’ve tried. He successfully disguised any sag in the middle, created something quite delicious, and ended up with something nearly as popular as my brownies. I am shocked. Has he been having lessons while I’ve not been looking?

This cake will work just as well if your semolina sponge rises better than Dr Weasel’s did (I think his egg whites were not whipped sufficiently – it still tasted brilliant, though). You’ll need:

4 oz (100 g) caster sugar
2 oz (50 g) fine semolina
½ oz (15 g) ground almonds
3 separated eggs
Juice and zest of a lemon
5 fl oz (150 ml) whipping cream
5 tablespoons lemon curd
Fresh raspberries to cover (about a punnet)

Preheat the oven to 180° C. Grease and line a round cake tin.

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together with an electric whisk until they are pale and frothy. Add the lemon juice and keep whisking until the mixture thickens. Fold in the lemon zest, semolina and almonds.

Clean the blades of the whisk very carefully to remove any trace of egg yolk. In a different bowl, whisk the whites of the eggs until they form soft peaks. Fold the beaten whites into the semolina and yolks mixture, turn into your lined cake tin and bake for about 30 minutes until golden (and, hopefully, risen).

When cool enough to handle, turn the cake out onto a wire rack and cool completely. Meanwhile, whisk the cream until it is stiff, fold in the lemon curd and use a palate knife to spread the thick lemon cream over the top of the cake. Stud the surface with raspberries and serve in slices.

Save Oriental City!

**Update – August 20, 2007**
I went to Oriental City at the weekend to see what was happening with the proposed closure (and to eat a big bowl of char kway teow). There’s some less bleak news at the moment – the various leaseholders at the property have managed to get an interlocutory injunction allowing the place to stay open pending a court case against the developers. There’s no set date for the court case yet – watch this space for more news.

I’ve written about Oriental City here a couple of times before. It’s a vibrant, loud, shopping and community centre in suburban north London, and is host to a number of south-east Asian shops including a wonderful supermarket and more sources of lucky porcelain cats than you can shake a chopstick at.

Oriental City’s biggest draw for me has always been its jaw-dropping foodcourt. About thirty kiosks grouped around a vast room of tables sell street food from all over Asia – you can eat Vietnamese, Korean, Malay, Tamil, Cantonese and Thai food, and accompany it with a large heap of sushi. Outside, they’re grilling satay and halving durians. The food is wonderfully authentic and inexpensive. I’ll happily drive the 60 miles to get there for a few hour’s kaffir lime-scented bliss.

As I’ve mentioned before, Oriental City is under threat from developers, who wish to turn it into luxury flats and a DIY store. This is a terrible shame – London is bristling with flats and DIY centres, but there’s nowhere else you can go to learn to lion dance, have an acupressure massage, buy a pack of ducks’ tongues and eat a big bowl of mee goreng all at the same time. Oriental City is a magnet for families like mine, and it’s an important cultural asset in this homogeneous and grey part of London. It’s somewhere where people from a number of communities can come and socialise, work, eat and shop.

The bulldozers are booked to roll in, and a trader I spoke to at the food court said they expect the place to close late this summer. The Chinese Embassy has raised the issue with the Mayor of London, people like Ian Wright (ex-footballer, chat show host) have been campaigning against the closure. Sadly, the Mayor chose not to give weight to the objections, and gave the go-ahead to redevelopment plans last month.

Redevelopment will disrupt and probably destroy 40 businesses, which employ 800 people. No provisions have been made by the developers to rehouse these businesses (as was their original suggestion) for the three years they plan to build for. The community facilities at Oriental City will also become defunct. And there won’t be anywhere to buy satay and durians any more.

There’s an online petition directed at Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Communities, asking for a public inquiry into the closure of the centre. Please take a moment to sign it, and consider visiting Oriental City for the afternoon while you still can. It’s about 300m from Colindale tube station, just off the Edgware Road.

Char siu pastry

Here’s another dim sum recipe; in Cantonese this savoury pastry, a bit like a little pie, is called Char Siu Sau. It’s a parcel of crisp, flaky puff-pastry wrapped around succulent barbecued pork in a sweetly spicy sauce.

Char siu, the barbecued pork in question, has featured on this blog before, and is very easy to make – see the recipe here. The pastry I use to make these is a Malaysian-Chinese flaky pastry, made incredibly short and delicate with a lot of fat and some lemon juice. This is an altogether fatty recipe which is best made for a party (and believe me, if you serve them at a party they’ll vanish in no time at all).

To make about thirty little pastries (they freeze very well before the final baking stage, so you can assemble them and then freeze a few for a treat later on) you’ll need:

2 fillets of char siu
2 tablespoons lard
8 fat cloves garlic, chopped finely
2 medium onions, cut into small dice
4 tablespoons soft light brown sugar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons kecap manis (sweet dark soya sauce – use 2 tablespoons of dark soya sauce and a teaspoon of soft light brown sugar if you can’t find any)
2 tablespoons light soya sauce
4 fl oz water
2 tablespoons plain flour
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 lb flour
4 oz butter
8 oz lard
1 egg, and another to glaze
2 tablespoons sugar
Juice of ½ a lemon
6 fl oz water

Begin by cooking the filling. Chop the two fillets of pork into small dice. Dice the onions finely and chop the garlic. Mix the vegetable oil and flour in a cup. Saute the garlic in the lard until it begins to give up its scent (about 2 minutes) and then add the onions, moving them around the pan until they turn translucent (another 2 minutes or so). Add the sugar, sauces, water and sesame oil to the pan, and bring up to a gentle simmer. Add the diced pork and stir until everything is well coated with the sauce. Add the oil and flour mixture, and stir until everything is thickened (about a minute).

Remove everything to a large bowl and chill in the fridge. (Your little pastry packets will be easier to fill with a thick, cold mixture.)

For really successful pastry, there are a few rules: keep the ingredients as cold as possible, rest the pastry for at least half an hour, and handle it as little as you can manage. To make the pastry, mix a beaten egg with the water, sugar and lemon juice, and chill until nicely cold. Rub the butter, straight from the fridge, into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, then use a knife to chop the chilled lard into small dice, about the size of the top joint of a woman’s little finger. Stir the lard into the butter and flour mixture. Add the liquid ingredients to the bowl and use a knife or spatula (cooler than your hands) to bring everything together into a dough. Wrap with cling flim and rest in the fridge for at least half an hour.

When you are ready to assemble the pastries, roll half the ball of dough out into a rectangle about half a centimetre thick, fold it into three (as if you were folding a piece of A4 paper to put in an envelope), turn it through 90 degrees so the long edge is facing you, and roll it out again. Fold, roll and turn another four times. You’ll end up with a slab of pastry which has been folded and rolled into many, many thin, flaky layers (you can see the layers in the raw pastry, already visible partway through rolling, here on the left).

Preheat the oven to 230° C.

Use pastry cutters to make circles, or a knife to make squares, and place a dollop of the cold char siu mixture in the centre of each. Use a beaten egg to seal the edges, crimp with a fork and make a little hole with your fork in the top side of each pastry (important, this – it will allow steam to escape and prevent your pastries from gaping open when they cook). Brush each one with some of that beaten egg, and put on a non-stick baking sheet in the oven for 10 minutes. When the 10 minutes are up, reduce the heat to 200° C and bake for a further 20 minutes. Cool the pastries a little before you eat – the insides will be unbelievably hot, as well as unbelievably delicious.

Aubergine caviar

This eggplant caviar recipe is a great way to squeeze every ounce of flavour out of an aubergine. It’s extremely easy to make if you have a food processor (and only a little more difficult if you don’t; I used to make it when I was a student using a large knife to chop everything very finely instead). Although the amount of garlic in this recipe looks a bit alarming, the garlic in the finished dip is roasted, so it’s very mellow and sweet. You won’t find it overpowering.

Traditionally called ‘caviar’ or ‘poor man’s caviar’, this is not at all fishy, nor very similar to caviar. I think it got the name from the days when aubergines were much seedier; those seeds have a lovely texture a little (if you are imagining hard) like fish roe. Today, aubergines are usually propagated without the seeds, which many people do not enjoy.

This is a particularly good accompaniment for lamb, and it’s really, really good with yesterday’s kofta kebab. The roast aubergine has a wonderful natural sweetness, brought out by the raw parsley, which seems made to be paired with hot lamb. Try it some time.

To serve four as a mezze you’ll need:

2 large purple aubergines (eggplants)
10 fat cloves garlic
1 large bunch parsley
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Cut both aubergines in half lengthways. Don’t bother salting and disgorging it – the same growing techniques which have made modern aubergines near-seedless have also made sure they aren’t bitter. Peel the garlic, lay the whole cloves on the cut side of the aubergines, and wrap each aubergine half with its garlic tightly in tin foil. Bake on a sheet at 180° C for 45 minutes, until the garlic and aubergines are very soft.

Peel the skin from the aubergines and discard it. Use a food processor or very sharp knife to finely mince the garlic, aubergine flesh and parsley. Stir in the olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve at room temperature.

Aubergine caviar will keep in the fridge for a few days. Try it on its own on toast for a quick lunch.

Kofta kebab

We fancied lamb for Easter, but didn’t feel like a roast. The answer came with the weather forecast; it was a gloriously sunny weekend, so I hauled the barbecue out for its first kebab recipe of the year.

This juicy, spicy kebab, also called a kofte kebab, is great served with a selection of mezze-type spreads, salad and pitta bread. I made hummus and tzatziki (just a tub of yoghurt with a generous handful of chopped mint and very finely chopped raw garlic), and a big bowl of aubergine caviar. Cooked over charcoal, the kebabs are deliciously smoky, but if the weather isn’t up to it you can cook them under the grill.

To make about eight kebabs you’ll need:

500g good-quality lamb mince
2 medium onions
4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 large handful fresh parsley
1 small handful fresh mint
1 large egg
Salt and pepper

Grind the cumin and coriander roughly in a mortar and pestle with a teaspoon of salt. Put the spices, herbs, onions, garlic and the egg in a food processor and blitz until everything is chopped. Add the meat and blitz again until everything is well-mixed. (Don’t completely purée the meat – aim for a reasonably rough texture.)

Form handfuls of the meat mixture around bamboo skewers. (The skewers make the kebabs really easy to turn and move around on the grill, as well as holding things together.) Grill on a hot barbecue or under the kitchen grill for about ten minutes, turning regularly. Serve immediately.

Pearl Liang, Paddington, London

I’m incredibly excited to be reviewing Pearl Liang (8 Sheldon Square, W2 6EZ, tel: 020 7289 7000). It’s a new Chinese restaurant in Paddington with a confident website (beware – it plays music), an interesting menu and excellent credentials (the head chef has defected from Queensway’s Mandarin Kitchen). The Great She Elephant and I went for a dim sum lunch yesterday, and my, I’m glad we did.

Dim sum is tricky. There are a bazillion restaurants in London’s Chinatown and in Bayswater serving these lovely little packets of Chinese flavour, and while some do it admirably well, some are pretty mediocre. It can be hard to find somewhere where the dim sum is exceptional, but I think I’ve found it in Pearl Liang, a couple of minutes from Paddington station.

The restaurant has a remarkable interior. It’s a bit like a 1970s brothel/disco, with plushy purple upholstery, modern flock wallpaper, lots of gilding and little ice-cube lights. It’s all in a new development at the waterside in Paddington (use the map and the directions on Pearl Liang’s website, since it can be hard to find without some help), a curious furtive mauve bolthole hidden among the office blocks.

The dim sum menu isn’t huge by Chinese standards; a selection of about fifteen steamed dishes and ten fried ones, alongside cheung fun (wide strips of silky rice noodle wrapped around a savoury filling and bathed in a wonderfully savoury sauce) and noodles are offered on a menu where you tick a box on a form to order each dish. This relatively small menu is a good move – every dim sum we sampled was cooked with real attention to detail. A sampler platter of ten individual dim sum is available for under £10, with the familiar (Siu Mai, the pork dumplings shaped like a cup, open at one end, and Har Gow, the translucent prawn dumplings) alongside the unfamiliar (a diamond of sticky rice wrapped in a leaf of seaweed and flavoured strongly with caramelised onions, and a ravishing little spinach dumpling). Perched in the middle was one of the best Char Siu Bao I’ve tasted.

We ordered the Doug (crispy dough cruller) Cheung Fun and some Lo Bak Goh to go with the platter, alongside a bowl of Malaysian Char Kway Teow noodles. The Lo Bak Goh, a delicious square of grated Chinese radish (one of my favourite dim sum options) was flavoured with a beautifully made Chinese sausage and delicate dried shrimp, and seared to a golden crisp on the outside while softly shredded inside. The Char Kway Teow was spiked with perfectly fresh prawns, and was subtly spiced. If I were being super-picky (and I am), I would have wanted more wok hei, the smoky flavour of a well-seasoned and extremely hot wok, permeating the dish, but hey – it was still as good a dish of Char Kway Teow as I’ve ever eaten in London. Service is charming and helpful.

The evening menu looks extremely exciting as well. There’s lobster steamboat (a kind of Chinese fondue), fresh fish including Dover sole and sea bass, Buddha Jump Over the Wall (the soup which was said to smell so good that the Buddha abandoned his meditation and jumped over the temple wall to sample it) and some other very interesting-sounding options like a pomegranate sweet and sour chicken. I can’t wait to get back there to sample the rest of the menu.