Sticky toffee pudding

Way back in the early 1980s, my mother used to get a magazine (now sadly defunct) called A La Carte. It was some serious aspirational 1980s stuff – all glossy pages, gorgeous photos and recipes full of exotic (for the 80s) things like sun-dried tomatoes. Long after the rest of her collection had vanished, one issue of the magazine stayed downstairs on the cookery book shelves. It was Easter, so there was a fluffy rabbit frolicking in salad leaves on the front, and a bold headline saying ‘Lettuce play’. Page upon page of salad with more bunny porn followed – along with a recipe for something called an Ooey, Gooey Sticky Toffee Pudding – the sole reason for preserving this issue of the magazine for thirty years.

These were the dark days of the Falklands and the miners’ strike. Nobody else in Bedfordshire seemed very interested in food. At school and at my friend’s houses, pudding was always instant Angel Delight, a scoop of fatty, pink ice-cream or jelly. At home, it was different – where the other children were eating bowls of instant custard with a banana chopped into them, my lovely Mum was making sticky toffee pudding, and we had the most inventive salads in town.

To make sticky toffee pudding for six, you’ll need:

150g stoned dates
250ml hot water from the kettle
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
60g softened unsalted butter
60g caster sugar
2 large eggs
150g self-raising flour

200g butter
400g soft brown sugar
1 vanilla pod (or a few drops of vanilla essence)
250ml double cream

Heat the oven to 180°C (370°F).

Chop the stoned dates finely with a small sharp knife and put in a bowl. Sprinkle over the bicarbonate of soda and pour over the hot water, stirring well. Set aside for ten minutes while you prepare the rest of the cake mixture.

Cream the butter and sugar together, then beat the eggs into the mixture. Gradually stir in the sifted flour, then fold in the date mixture. Pour the batter, which will be quite loose, into a greased, 20 cm square cake tin, and bake for 35-40 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean. The cake will have risen, but not dramatically – this is quite a dense pudding.

Make the sauce while the cake is baking. Melt the sugar and butter together with the vanilla pod and cook over a medium heat, stirring, for five minutes. Stir in the double cream and bring to a low simmer for another five minutes.

Make holes in the top of the cake with your skewer and pour over half of the sauce. Serve immediately with extra sauce to pour over at the table, and a jug of cold double cream. (Some like this dish with ice cream, but I like cream best.)

Easter chocolate competition

Easter is coming around the corner very quickly and everyone wants that extra special Easter Egg! Gastronomy Domine has teamed up with Hotel Chocolat to offer you a chance to win some of Hotel Chocolat’s extra special, Extra-Thick Easter Eggs. To enter, click here and simply answer six questions which will take you on an Easter egg hunt to find the secret code. Once you have answered each question, use the first letter of each answer to reveal the secret code. If you have found the right answer you stand a chance to win one of Hotel Chocolat’s stunning Extra Thick Easter Eggs!

Fennel salad

This is so easy – just slice and bung on a plate – that I hesitate to call it a recipe. Let’s call it an assembly.

A fennel bulb has an aniseedy, aromatic taste. Its flavour is very smooth, with no hint of acid to lift it, so I like to add some lemon juice whether I’m roasting it or eating it raw. It’s a lovely, underused vegetable – try making this very quick salad next time you have a pizza. It’s a great accompaniment to tomato-rich foods.

To serve two, you’ll need:

1 fennel bulb
1 shallot
1 small handful parsley
Juice of half a lemon
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper

Slice the fennel bulb into thin rings, and arrange to cover a plate. Reserve the herby tops of the bulbs. Slice the shallot finely and separate into rings. Lay these on top of the fennel. Squeeze over the lemon juice and drizzle the olive oil over, sprinkle over salt and a generous amount of pepper, then leave at room temperature for at least half an hour for the flavours to meld. Just before serving, garnish with the reserved fennel tops and the parsley.

For shame!

I don’t know what makes me sadder in this article – the behaviour of the animal rights terrorists or the final capitulation of the restaurant. Members of an animal rights group threw bricks through the windows at Midsummer House, attacked their conservatory with glass-etching fluid, used paint stripper on the doors and spray-painted the building with slogans in protest at the restaurant’s use of foie gras. Chef Daniel Clifford has, after consultation with police, reluctantly responded by taking foie gras off the menu. Yet another let-down for diners in Cambridge, in a week which has also seen Bruno’s Brasserie announce its closure.

I bang on at length about foie gras here. It’s delicious, it’s been around since the ancient Egyptians, and it is not necessarily a cruel product. I recommend a trip to any of the small farms in the Dordogne which practise gavage, or force-feeding, if you are worried or curious about the animal welfare issue. I visited such a farm a few years before I started Gastronomy Domine, and saw happy, fat birds who often line up to be fed at mealtimes. Prices for the terroir-raised French stuff are much higher than those for the mass-produced Chinese product, which I do have reservations about: reservations which stop me from buying cheap foie gras. I’m perfectly happy to eat it and serve it to my friends otherwise; foie gras is a tremendous delicacy.

A quick Google (I’m not doing these guys the favour of linking to their site) for the people responsible for the awful vandalism at Midsummer House reveals a horrible level of sophistry (their basic conceit is that the fatty liver is a diseased liver, and that therefore Midsummer House is selling diseased meat) and a pretty transparent credo – they’ve got several banners up saying “Ban foie gras! Go veggie!” Violent, militant vegetarians are a group that have always bemused me utterly. It’s all very well softly denying your canine teeth exist and lovingly stroking a chicken, but when you do this at the same time as buzzing a brick through a restaurant window at 7pm, you’ve got a problem.

They’re denying the little person on the reading side of the menu a choice. If enough people are buying foie gras in shops and eating it in restaurants to make it a commercially viable product in this country (which it is; Selfridges have stopped selling it because of the animal terrorist threat, but you’ll still find it in the food halls at Fortnums and Harrods, as well as at a myriad smaller delis and, of course, on a bazillion restaurant tables), then this looks a lot to me like those diners have weighed the moral case and come out on the side of a nice, juicy foie. For god’s sake – you can buy the stuff at Costco, which suggests to me that the demand is out there. It’s Midsummer House’s great tragedy that the restaurant’s charming position, off the roads, in the middle of an approximately unpoliceable common, make it a much easier target for criminals wanting to make a violent point. Commiserations to Midsummer House, and I hope that foie gras makes its way quietly back onto the menu when the fuss has died down.

If you know anything about the attack on Midsummer House, which the staff discovered on Sunday morning, you can contact police on 0845 456 4564 or call Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555 111.

Typhoon, Portland, OR

Update, Jan 2009 – I’ve just been back to Typhoon, one year after I wrote the post below. It’s still just as good as it was last year – if not better – and the changes that have appeared on the menu since I was last here are fabulous. Try the lemongrass barbecued chicken if you get a chance, and tell them I sent you!

Remember Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas? Gourmet Magazine had heaped hyperbolic praise on it, and called it the USA’s best Thai restaurant. We had a good, but not shockingly good meal there in December, but I left unconvinced that the continent lacked any Thai places better than this. What do you know – it’s barely two months later, and I’ve found somewhere that beats it hollow.

We visited Typhoon‘s glossy, vampy Broadway branch at the Lucia hotel in Portland (tel. 503 224 8285). The Lucia is a very stylish boutique joint – all modern murals on the toilet doors, architectural flower arrangements, frosted glass, leather, lacquer and velvet. Typhoon’s styling sits well here, and the restaurant was busy both nights we visited (be sure to book).

Service is tight and charming. We’d asked for a booth when booking our first meal at Typhoon, but arrived to find that the booth that had been earmarked for us was still full (writhingly so) of a couple who were maybe enjoying their meal a little too much. No problem for the hostess – she put us at what she and the waitress referred to as ‘the Mafia table’, a great big booth meant to seat about six, on a platform commanding one end of the restaurant, with a great people-watching view. Thoughtfully, both places were set so that we were next to each other on the side of the giant table with the view.

If it’s your first visit, it’s absolutely essential that you choose something interesting from the extensive tea list (there’s a link to a pdf of the full list at the bottom of the linked page) and that you order the Miang Kum for your starter. It’s the house special, and a rare dish that I’ve not found in any other Thai restaurant. Miang Kum is a peasant-style dish consisting of freshly roast peanuts (not a hint of bitterness here – the peanuts had been roasted that evening); tiny preserved shrimp; little cubes of ginger; slivers of bird’s eye chilli; miniature dice of lime, flesh, skin and all; shallot pieces; and freshly toasted, shredded coconut. You take a pinch of each ingredient and wrap it in a fresh spinach leaf, daubed with some of chef Bo Kline’s sweet signature sauce, and pop the little parcel in your mouth. An astonishing burst of flavours results – bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and deeply savoury all at once. I roared through the shrimp rather faster than the other ingredients, but our attentive waitress went straight to the kitchen to find some more – and when we came back later in the week and ordered the Miang Kum again, she recognised us and brought out an extra bowl of the shrimp. There’s service.

This dish sets the quality for the rest of the meal. Ingredients are fresh and bright, and sourcing is impeccable – the prawns at Typhoon are wild, not farmed, and only cuts like tenderloin and sirloin are served. “How,” asked Dr W, “are they making things taste this much without MSG?” I can only guess that there was magic in the fish sauce.

Almost everything we ate on both visits was a standout. Papaya salad was clean, fresh and full of zip. The house fried rice arrived looking unexceptional – but once in the mouth was nearly good enough to make me give up cooking. Pineapple rice, full of curry spices and the fresh fruit, could have made a generous meal on its own. Eggplant Lover made the most of this vegetable’s ability to soak up flavours (black bean in this case) and of its gorgeously velvety texture, contrasting beautifully with chunks of tofu. The larb, lip-numbingly hot, was much better than the Lotus of Siam version. Dr W ordered half a five-spice roast duck with buns from a specials list and hasn’t stopped talking about it since. The beef with grapes was inspired. And neither meal left us with room for pudding.

Sometimes I look around myself in Cambridge and wonder what the hell we’re doing. Perhaps our problem is high property prices making restaurant pitches unaffordable to everybody but the mega-chains like Wagamama, All Bar One, Pizza Express, Pret a Manger and Subway. This doesn’t excuse the downright lousy quality of some of our independent restaurants, though – we’re particularly weak on good Asian places. We don’t have any good, well-priced food of the sort that Portland seems to offer several times on every city block. Don’t the English care about what they’re eating? If you’re lucky enough to be in Portland, grab the opportunity to visit Typhoon and congratulate yourself on being in a city where identikit cardboard meals aren’t standard.

Easy chocolate truffles

It’s heartening to realise that the richest, velvety-est, most sinful chocolate truffles you can imagine are very easy indeed to make. There’s no faffing around with tempering or measuring fat/solid ratios – just some melting and chilling.

These dense little balls of silky paradise are full of things that make the animal bits of your brain go tick. The chocolate itself, packed with theobromine, stimulates the release of feel-good endorphins. The creamy, cocoa rush that emerges when they melt fatly on your tongue makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. If the way to someone’s heart really is through the stomach, these are the digestive equivalent of a scalpel: precise and potentially deadly.

You’ll need to keep these in the fridge and eat within about three days of making them for maximum freshness. If, unaccountably, you can’t manage to get through this volume of chocolate in half a week, these truffles freeze very well.

To make 50 truffles (depending on how many you find yourself eating as you roll them) you’ll need:

300g good quality, dark chocolate
300ml double cream plus 2 tablespoons
50g salted butter
Cocoa to roll

choc crumbsStart by preparing the chocolate by blitzing it in the food processor until it resembles very delicious-smelling breadcrumbs (see the picture for the sort of texture you’re aiming for). If you don’t have access to a food processor, you can grate it with the coarse side of your grater – this is laborious, but works well. Remove the chocolate to a large mixing bowl.

Using a thick-bottomed pan, bring 300ml of thick cream and the butter slowly to simmering point. I like to use salted butter in a ganache; the small amount of salt is undetectable in the finished product, but it lifts the flavour of the chocolate. Stir the hot cream mixture well and transfer it to a jug.

ganacheTo make the ganache that will form your truffles, pour the hot cream and butter into the bowl full of chocolate in a thin stream, stirring all the time. The chocolate will melt and combine with the cream, and you’ll end up with a very runny, silky, dark brown mixture. Finish by stirring two tablespoons of cold cream into the mixture (this helps to prevent the mixture from seizing, or becoming granular) until the ganache is evenly coloured. Cover the bowl and place in the refrigerator to firm the ganache up.

At this point, you have a choice. You can take the ganache out of the fridge and use an electric whisk to beat it to soft peaks about an hour into the chilling time. Be careful not to overbeat to avoid the dreaded seizing. This will result in soft, airy, fluffy truffles, and will also add volume to your mixture so you’ll have more truffles at the end. (You’ll find that many shop-bought truffles are the beaten kind – you need much less chocolate per truffle, so it works out cheaper for the manufacturer.) I much prefer my truffles dark, dense and silky, so I prefer to leave the ganache without beating.

If you are not whisking the ganache, leave it in the fridge for at least four hours or overnight. You’ll find you now have a nice stiff mixture. If you want to add flavourings or bits of nut, citrus zest, crystallised ginger or other spices, now is the time to do it, using the back of a fork to mush any well-chopped additions into the ganache. (Again, I like my truffles dark, dense and above all chocolatey, so I don’t adulterate them.)

Lay out petits fours cases and put a couple of heaped tablespoons of cocoa on a plate. Use clean hands to mould teaspoons of the ganache into balls, then roll them in the cocoa – this stops them from sticking and makes them look tidy. Place each one in a little case. Those feeling daring can roll their truffles in crushed nuts, shredded coconut or demerara sugar instead of cocoa. Presto – you’re finished. I think these are at their absolute best with a hot cup of freshly brewed coffee.

Lemon-pepper crispy chicken with tomato sauce

Lemons. Tomatoes. Lots and lots of basil. Who said it was February?

I really love a good breading mixture. This one’s just great – it’s seasoned with lemon zest and freshly ground pepper, so it’s really fresh and zingy. I’m sure there are non-fried things just as crispy and delicious as this, but I’ve yet to find out what they are.

To serve four, you’ll need:

4 chicken breasts, without skins
8 tablespoons olive oil (choose a really fruity one)
Juice of ½ a lemon
1 clove of garlic, crushed
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 eggs, beaten
250g breadcrumbs
Grated zest of a lemon
1 teaspoon chilli flakes


1.5 kg fresh ripe tomatoes
3 large onions
4 cloves of garlic
1 handful fresh basil
1 handful fresh oregano
1 mild red chilli
1 ½ tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1 large knob butter, plus extra to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper

Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces and marinade it overnight in the olive oil, lemon juice, salt garlic and ten turns of the peppermill.

Here comes the tedious bit – peel and seed the tomatoes. (This is very easy but takes a while – use a knife to make a little cross in the skin at the bottom of the tomato, then pour over boiling water and leave for ten seconds. Fish the tomato out with a slotted spoon. You’ll find the skin will come away easily. Slice open to remove the seeds.) Chop the tomato flesh and set aside in a bowl. If you are pressed for time, use tinned tomatoes. They won’t be quite as good, but they’ll still be pretty darn tasty.

Dice the onions and chop the garlic finely, and fry in a large knob of butter until translucent and fragrant. Add the tomatoes and finely chopped chilli to the saucepan and stir to combine everything. Bring to a very low simmer, and reduce (this will take more than an hour) to half its original volume or a little less. Bring the vinegar and sugar to the boil in a small pan and stir it into the sauce. Add the oregano and season with salt and pepper. Taste to check whether you need more salt or sugar. Add another knob of butter for a more mellow flavour if you like.

Combine the breadcrumbs, lemon zest, chilli flakes and a tablespoon of freshly ground pepper in a large bowl. When the sauce is nearly reduced, bread the chicken by removing the pieces from the marinade, dipping in the beaten egg, and rolling in the breadcrumb mixture until each piece is nicely coated with the crumbs and aromatics. Heat a large knob of butter and three tablespoons of olive oil together in a non-stick frying pan, and slide the breaded chicken pieces in when the oil is very hot. Cook for about 5 minutes each side, until the chicken is golden and crisp.

Serve the chicken and its tomato sauce with buttered tagliatelle or some basmati rice mixed with a knob of butter and a small handful of parmesan.

Andina, Portland, OR

Andina (1314 NW Glisan, Portland 97209, tel. 503 228 9535) is the only Peruvian restaurant I’ve ever come across. It is, at the time of writing, one of Portland’s most popular and fashionable restaurants. I should have paid attention to this fact and booked rather than just rolling up on a Thursday night in the hope of finding a free table.

There wasn’t one, so Dr W and I ended up in the bar area, sitting hip-to-hip on a window bench at a very small table. Surprisingly, this seating arrangement turned out to be absolutely delightful; a man in a Panama hat played the guitar and sang so close to our seats it felt like he was serenading us; we tiled our table with two rounds of tapas; we were able to squish up against one another very pleasantly; and we came home filled with proximity- and music-engendered lust (and oysters). All the same, I don’t recommend the bench if you’re dining with anybody whose thighs and manly ribs you do not feel comfortable being pressed against.

Peruvian food is completely new to me. Almost all the South American food I’d tasted to date had been based around corn – Mexican tamales, nachos and a million meaty, tomato-y things wrapped in tortillas. There was the Chilean place in Madrid years ago, which I hope is non-typical, where we had rice cooked with some tomato puree, some mince, and a fried egg. Here at Andina the starches are quite different, and the emphasis switches from meat to seafood. Peruvian (or what this restaurant is calling Novoandean) food has some distinct Japanese influences as well, alongside some really interesting pre-Colombian flavours. It makes for a mixture of flavours you’ll be hard-pushed to find anywhere else. There are also some extremely handsome waiters. I like this place.

Your meal opens with a moist quinoa bread served with three ajíes, or Peruvian spicy salsas. The passion fruit and habañero one in particular is to die for – and these have enough kick to prompt you to explore the exhaustive drinks list.

Around the bar, bottles of rum lie on their sides, infusing with fruits to the accompaniment of salsa music. There are some superb cocktails on offer here (Portland seems to be a great town for cocktails), and we particularly enjoyed a frozen something called Guanabana…do doo…do doo do, which was made with banana-infused rum, guanabana puree, nutmeg and gloriously creamy almond milk. If you’re not on the booze, you’ll find yourself well catered for, with some fresh juices and concoctions like chica morada, made from purple corn, lime, pinapple and sugar syrup.

Potatoes, of course, make up a goodly proportion of Andean carbs. I wasn’t expecting them to provide colour as well, though, so the lurid violet of the Causa Morada, a cake of mashed purple potato sandwiched with smoked trout and flavoured with key lime juice, came as a real surprise. This is a visual treat, and tasted absolutely great. (Portland Food and Drink, a website I found immensely helpful in making restaurant choices in the city, has a great photo of the octopus version here.) I found the tortilla (a thick potato and onion omelette) a bit stodgy and certainly less exciting, but Dr W disagreed with me and wolfed the whole thing.

There were several oyster varieties on offer, most from the nearby Pacific coast, alongside a few Atlantic ones. We went for the local Kumamoto oysters. These are one of my favourite oysters; small, but with a deeply fluted shell, they’re juicy but not large enough to be snotty. Zingy ingredients like mangos, radish, shitake mushrooms, ginger, cucumber and more of those chillies made up the pisco rocoto, chalaquita, mango-radish and nikkei salsas served alongside, all a great foil for the richness of the little oysters.

Ají de huacatay pops up in several places on the menu, and the allergy-aware waiters will warn you that this is a peanut-based sauce. It makes for a spicy dip for deliciously fresh prawns coated with smashed quinoa and deep fried. (This is an unbelievably toothsome, crispy way to ‘breadcrumb’ food, and has inspired me to ignore my deep-seated dislike of pretend-doctor Gillian McKeith, the awful poo lady, and buy a pack of quinoa to experiment with.) The
ají de huacatay also serves as a dip for the very savoury beef-heart kabobs – slim strips of the flavourful, chewy muscle of the heart, marinated and grilled on sticks.

Chorizo was good, but I kind of wished I’d ordered something else – I love the stuff, but it wasn’t very new or exciting compared to some of the other things on the menu. Musciame de Atun (which I think was meant to come with some kind of sauce, but which arrived naked) was something I actively disliked: a cured tuna, dried and almost gamey, presented in slices. This is more likely to be my problem than the restaurant’s, though; I’ve never found a cured tuna I have enjoyed – and Dr Weasel loved it.

Everybody’s favourite South American ingredient, chocolate, stars on the dessert menu and in some great after-dinner drinks. The Torta de Chocolate was what I’ve always imagined the River Cafe cookbook’s infamous Chocolate Nemesis (a mysteriously non-working recipe which has ruined many dinner parties) should have tasted like. This made me giddy. Dense, not too sweet, unbelievably creamy, moist and rich, it’s worth a flight to Portland just to sample it. I rounded off the meal with a boozy hot chocolate drink.

Andina deserves its wall-full of awards. If you’re visiting for the first time, I’d recommend doing what we did and going for the tapas rather than the large plates, so you can get a good sampling of the unusual flavours on offer. There are vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free menus on offer as well, so you can take your picky friends.

Chetco River Inn, Brookings, Oregon

Update, Jun 2010 – sadly, Sandra and Clay retired and sold the inn earlier this year; the new owners do not plan to run the place as a B&B. All the best to Sandra and Clay, and many thanks for the two perfectly romantic stays we spent with them.

Sometimes, amazing things just fall into your hands. We had to make our way from Portland down to Lake Tahoe a couple of weeks ago, and needed a staging post to split the journey up into two (very long) days’ drive. I grabbed a map, found a town about halfway between the two places, looked it up in a guidebook and booked a night in the first likely-looking B&B.;

I wish I’d booked a whole week.

The Chetco River Inn (21202 High Prairie Road, Brookings, OR, 97415 – email, tel. (541) 251-0087) is an utterly charming bed and breakfast in the middle of one of the Pacific coast’s temperate rainforests. These forests are magical: so damp that the all the trees are festooned with mosses and sharp-tongued ferns, they teem with wildlife. To reach the inn, you’ll need to drive 20 miles down a narrow road, un-metalled in places, with dripping trees overhanging the roadway and the pristine Chetco river bubbling alongside. The inn itself is perfectly positioned in glorious isolation by the river, and is popular with botanists, with hikers and with fishermen, who arrive for the salmon run in the autumn and stay over the winter for the steelheads. If you are lucky, you’ll find fish fresh from the river on the inn’s dinner table.

We arrived just in time for supper, and Sandra and Clay, the owners, were waiting for us at the inn with their Scottie dogs and a vat of steaming French Onion soup. We found ourself enjoying this and a beautifully prepared, enormous prime rib with a fishing group, who shared their wine (Oregon’s Pinot Noirs are particularly good, and we had a great time sampling them) with us in return for some of the microbrewery beer we’d brought down from Portland. Sandra’s freshly made banana ice cream was a rich and custardy end to the very generous meal.

We’d booked the cottage at the inn, a separate building only a few years old with accommodation for four. (These photos are taken about twenty paces from the cottage’s front door.) This lovely little cabin will sleep two downstairs, where there is a large jacuzzi and well-stocked bathroom; and two in a wonderfully comfortable king-sized bed up on a mezzanine level, overlooking the living area and kitchen. We had the place to ourself, and had one of the most romantic evenings we’ve ever experienced, falling asleep to the light flickering from the log stove which heats the cottage, and the sound of the dripping trees and night birds.

The weather in the Siskiyou National Forest is always wet but wonderfully atmospheric, with rains for most of the winter – temperate rainforests do not freeze in the cold months, and you’ll find surprisingly warm, sunny days in the middle of the coldest months – and mists in the cool summer. We got up before dawn for an early breakfast so that we could watch the steel-grey, winter light rise over the river, the clouds boiling and rolling off the forest. Sandra and Clay prepare a breakfast of legendary proportions. A sugar-dusted, maple syrup-soaked Dutch baby pancake, sausages, delicious home-fried potatoes and gallons of good coffee and juice set us up for a walk along the riverside. In a couple of hour’s gentle stroll along the shingle we’d seen an otter, an elk and a simply astonishing selection of birds. (Sandra informs me that the otters are surprisingly tame, and that summer guests who swim in the river, which is the United States’ cleanest, will often find the otters swimming alongside them.) A short drive away you’ll find Oregon’s exceptionally scenic Pacific coast, where the beaches are often deserted, while a little further south are the giant redwood forests.

This place is paradise. I’m already planning our next trip.