Goat’s cheese and asparagus tart

Slice of asparagus tart
Asparagus tart

I kind of wish that supermarkets wouldn’t sell asparagus out of season – we’re all familiar with the tasteless, slightly limp kind whose sugars have long turned into starch, because the spears themselves have been bussed in from South America. Nothing’s going to taste good after that long in a cargo hold. It’s enough to make you forget just how good a sweet, fresh English stem of the stuff can be. The English season is short, but it’s worth ignoring asparagus for the rest of the year and waiting for early May. From now on, we’ll have about eight weeks of tender local asparagus in the shops.

I’ve got two great asparagus recipes for you this week. This tart is a doozy; it takes advantage of the lovely affinity between asparagus and goat’s cheese, and can be served hot or cold. I haven’t called it a quiche because I know some of you are squeamish about quiches…

To make one 20cm tart, you’ll need:

Shortcrust pastry – either buy a pre-made roll or make your own with:
175g flour
50g butter
25g lard
A little water

3 banana shallots
50g pancetta cubes
200g fresh English asparagus spears
120ml creme fraiche
3 eggs
1 heaped teaspoon thyme leaves
200g goats cheese log (I used Neal’s Yard Ragstone, which is pretty strong – for a milder flavour use a younger cheese)
1 tablespoon butter
salt and pepper

Asparagus tart
Asparagus tart, straight out of the oven

If you are making your own pastry, rub the fats into the flour with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, and add just enough water to make everything come together into a ball. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Roll out on a floured surface.

Use the pastry to line your 20cm tart dish, and pop the whole thing in the freezer to firm up for 30 minutes while the oven heats up to 200ºC (390ºF). While the pastry is chilling, fry the finely chopped shallots with the pancetta cubes in the butter, until the shallots are golden.

When the pastry has had 30 minutes in the freezer, prick the bottom a few times with a fork, line the base with greaseproof paper, pour in some baking beans to hold everything down, and blind bake (this is just a way of saying part-bake; you’re doing this so that the crust is crisp and cooked) for 20 minutes.

Remove the tart case from the oven and turn the temperature down to 180ºC (350ºF).

Arrange the raw asparagus spears, chopped into pieces, to cover the bottom of the pastry case. Sprinkle over the pancetta and shallot mixture with the thyme. Use a fork to beat together the eggs and crème fraîche with half a teaspoon of salt and plenty of black pepper until smooth, and pour the egg mixture into the case. Finally, slice your cheese log into ½ cm pieces and lay them on the top of the tart.

Bake in the cooler oven for 30-40 minutes, until the filling has set and the top is golden. Serve hot or cold.

Parmesan, leek and thyme scone bread

Cut parmesan sconeInspiration comes from funny places, on this occasion Dr W’s nostalgic thoughts about a parmesan and leek scone that Starbucks sold when they first arrived in the UK and we all discovered Frappuccinos and comfy chairs. I remember that scone dimly, and it seems the scone in my imagination and the scone in his are not the same thing at all. The scone I remember was a dry and sad production with not enough cheese, not enough leek, and a miserable little pot of cream cheese to smear inadequately on the cut surface to moisten it. Dr W remembers it as some sort of delicate überscone, a scone of youth and freedom. I love him, so I came up with a scone bread for his dinner that might remind him of the original (not too closely, obviously, because I didn’t like the original much – this one’s much moister and packs a lot more flavour).

You shouldn’t need any butter to moisten this scone; it’s very rich. Treat it as a bready accompaniment to go with ham, some hard cheese, chutney and a salad for a quick supper. It’s best served warm from the oven, but it’s terrific cold, and will be great the next day in a lunchbox too. A bread leavened with baking powder like this is great for those who are nervous around yeast, and, because it doesn’t need long periods of proving and rising, is much quicker to make than a yeasty bread too.

To make enough for six portions, you’ll need:

240g plain flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
100g salted butter
100g leeks, green and white parts
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, picked from stems
75g Parmesan cheese
50g Cheddar cheese
2 large eggs, plus one to glaze
120ml semi-skimmed milk

Parmesan leek sconePreheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).

Sieve the flour, salt and baking powder into a large bowl. Cut the cold butter into little pieces in the flour bowl and rub them into the flour with your fingers until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

Chop the leek into very small dice and grate the cheeses. Stir the leek, cheese and thyme into the flour and butter mixture.

In a small bowl, whisk two eggs and the milk together. Pour into the dry mixture and use your hands to bring ingredients together gently until you have a ball of dough.

On a greased tray lined with parchment paper, press the ball of dough into a flat, round loaf shape. Beat the egg for glazing and brush it over the surface of the loaf.

Bake for 35 minutes until pale gold. A skewer inserted into the middle should come out clean – if it doesn’t, keep cooking for 5 minutes and check again until the scone bread is done.

When the scone bread is ready, remove it to a cooling rack and leave it for twenty minutes to cool off a little. Slice into six pieces and serve warm.

Sticky orange and almond cake

This is just great for winter – a great blast of sunny orange flavour, but rather than coming from a delicious healthy glass of juice, it’s mediated through a sugary cake, made amazingly moist and dense with ground almonds. Stodge is a very important mood-lifter in the dark evenings of December.

If you have visitors this Christmas who don’t like Christmas pudding or Christmas cake, this is a very good alternative. It’s rich, heavy and very luxurious in mouth-feel, and while a spoonful of brandy butter or a slug of cream might feel like overkill, it’d be a pretty handsome variety of overkill. If you do plan on making this for Christmas and want to kick it up a level, add three tablespoons of Cointreau or another orange liqueur to the orange juice you pour over at the end, when the cake comes out of the oven. Do not use Blue Curaçao, for obvious reasons.

You’ll need:

250g salted butter, softened
225g caster sugar
4 eggs
50g plain flour
200g ground almonds
1 teaspoon almond essence
Zest and juice of 2 oranges
2 tablespoons icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Grease and line a springform tin.

Cream the butter and sugar together until they are pale and fluffy. (You really do need an electric mixer for this recipe, I’m afraid.) Beat the eggs and add them a tablespoon at a time to the butter and sugar mixture along with a tablespoon of flour, whisking as you go and adding more until the last batch is incorporated.

Fold the ground almonds into the batter and add the juice of 1 orange, the zest from both oranges and the almond essence. Stir the liquid ingredients gently and use a spatula to move the cake mixture into the prepared tin.

Bake for 1 hour, checking halfway through to make sure the cake isn’t browning too quickly (if it is, just put a tinfoil hat on it). The cake will leave a toothpick pushed into the centre clean when it’s ready. Remove from the heat, sprinkle over the icing sugar and poke little holes all over the top of the cake. Strain the juice from the remaining orange to get rid of any pulpy bits and spoon it evenly all over the surface of the cake. Cool in the tin for 20 minutes, remove to a rack and when completely cool, wrap carefully for a few hours before serving to allow the flavours to meld and the stickiness to reach a lovely peak.

Chocolate banana bread

Bananas, white and milk chocolate chunks, and a sugary, crispy crust. What’s not to like? This is a pleasingly easy recipe, and I was very pleased with the reaction when I came up with it the other evening – the entire loaf vanished before I was able to boil the kettle for a pot of tea.

For one disappearing banana miracle loaf, you’ll need:

3 ripe bananas
100g white chocolate
100g milk chocolate
180g plain flour
150g soft light brown sugar + 2 tablespoons to sprinkle
40g salted butter (softened)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Grease a 9×5 inch loaf tin.

Sift the flour from a height into a large bowl with the bicarbonate of soda and baking powder. In another bowl, use an electric mixer to cream the sugar and butter together until they are pale in colour. Use the back of a fork to mash the bananas, and use the mixer to whip them into the butter and sugar mixture for two minutes.

Wallop the chocolate, still in its packets, with a rolling pin to reduce it to chunks. (This is a lot cheaper than buying dedicated chunks for baking, and the chocolate will probably be of a higher quality too.) Use a spatula to fold the chocolate chunks and contents of the banana bowl into the flour as gently as you can – if you’ve ever eaten a disappointingly solid banana bread it’s almost certainly because the batter has been overhandled. Use the spatula to shuffle the mixture into the loaf tin, sprinkle the top with the extra sugar and bake on a middle shelf of the oven for 45 minutes. Check a skewer comes out clean – if it doesn’t, pop a piece of tin foil on top of the tin to stop the top from going too brown and add another 10 minutes to the cooking time. Cool for quarter of an hour in the tin, then move to a rack to finish cooling (or eat immediately, which is what we did, and very nice it was too).

Chilli choc chip cookies

Chillies and chocolate have a lovely affinity; they’re a traditional pairing in South America, where the locals really know how to treat their cocoa. I was making up a traditional toll house cookie recipe – actually, it’s the traditional toll house cookie recipe, as I’ll explain below – yesterday with Dr W (the family that bakes together stays together), and decided to augment the recipe with some fresh Scotch bonnet chillies. Wonderful and potent little balls of fire, they’re one of my favourite chillies. If you’ve not tried them before, be cautious, especially if you find chillies hard to tolerate; these are hot, rocking up at between 100,000 and 350,000 Scoville Units. (The humble jalapeño only rates at between 2,500 and 8,000 Scoville Units, for the sake of comparison.)

Scotch bonnets are closely related to the habanero, but have a very distinct flavour and aroma, fruity and sweet behind all the heat, which I think is just wonderful against chocolate. I’ve only used one here, chopped very finely and creamed in with the butter so its powerful capsaicin (the stuff that burns your tongue off), which is fat-soluble, can work its way smoothly through the cookie dough. The chocolate chunks are a good milk chocolate – nice and smoothly cooling on your tongue against the chilli heat.

The basic recipe I’ve used here is the original toll house cookie recipe – I’ve never found a better. The Toll House was a restaurant in Whitman, Massachusetts, where Ruth Wakefield, one of the owners, was responsible for all the recipes. She came up with this recipe around 1930. Nestle bought the rights to the recipe in 1939 – this ingredients list is from Ruth’s original recipe from the 1947 edition of Toll House Tried and True Recipes, where she calls them Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies. (As well as adding the chillies, I have left out a cup of chopped pecan nuts from the recipe – if you want to use them, stir them in with the chocolate bits.) Ruth preferred very tiny, crisp cookies, and only used half a teaspoon of batter for each one, with a much shorter spell in the oven. I like them quite a lot bigger for the squashy middle, and suspect you will too – if you want to make teeny cookies, reduce the cooking time.

To make about 20 cookies, you’ll need:

1 Scotch bonnet pepper
2¼ cups plain flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup firmly-packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons chocolate morsels (I used two bars of Green & Black’s cook’s milk chocolate, walloped into rough chunks with a rolling pin while still in the wrappers)

Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).

Chop the chilli very finely, discarding the seeds if you want to cut the heat down a bit. Sift the flour and salt together in one bowl. In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and the chilli with an electric mixer (this should take about 2 minutes). Add the sugars gradually, creaming the mixture together until light and fluffy. Beat the vanilla and eggs (one at a time) into the mixture, then the baking soda. Turn the speed of your mixer down to low and add a third of the flour, then gradually add the rest. Stir in the chocolate pieces and drop heaping tablespoons of the mixture onto baking sheets about 2 inches apart to leave space for the cookies to spread.

Bake for between 8 and 10 minutes, until the edges and tops are just turning golden. Allow to cool on the baking sheets for a few minutes so they can firm up a little, then use a spatula to move the cookies to cooling racks (or direct to your mouth).

These are a lovely, crumbly, squashy cookie. They’ll keep in an airtight container for about a week.

Ambrose Heath’s Anchovy Biscuits

If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you may have noticed a few references to Edwardian savouries and a writer called Ambrose Heath this week. The savoury used to be a course served at the end of a formal English meal. Salty, umami and often highly spiced, the savoury was packed in by English gentlemen after dessert while they discussed hats and feudalism. A salty nibble was meant to cleanse the palate of whatever gelatinous pudding you’d just eaten so you could happily assault it with a cigar and too much port.

The savoury didn’t survive the period of rationing during and after the Second World War (a period which rendered English food completely joyless – it’s only started to recover recently). A grave shame, especially for those, like me, who lack a particularly sweet tooth; I’d far sooner eat a bacon sarnie than an ice-cream. Recipes for savouries are, these days, pretty hard to find, but I have several in a pre-war book by Andre Simon, and I couldn’t believe my luck when I found a copy of Ambrose Heath’s Good Savouries in a second-hand book shop last week.

Ambrose Heath was a prolific food writer: there are more than 70 books to his name. One of the first cookery books I owned was his book on sauces, which, along with his other books, appeals to the systematising, cataloguing part of my soul that lives somewhere on the autistic spectrum. His books are exhaustive and meticulous treatments of their subjects – there are multiple recipes with tiny tweaks for many of the dishes, alternative approaches and ingredient substitutions, and a lovely sense of a rather plump, happy man behind the pen. (And isn’t that a gorgeous cover illustration?)

Most of the savouries in this book are based around salty ingredients like ham, bacon, anchovy or bloaters; they’re usually spiced vigorously with curry powder or chutney, and are presented sitting on a fried crisp of bread, a puff of pastry or a hollowed roll buttered and baked crisp. This recipe for anchovy biscuits reads as follows:

To make the pastry for the cheese straws, Heath says you’ll need:

2oz plain flour
2oz grated parmesan
2oz butter
Yolk of 1 egg
A dash of mustard
Salt and pepper

His recipe will have you rubbing the butter into the flour/parmesan/mustard mixture, binding with the egg yolk and a little water, then baking for ten minutes. I changed the method a little, freezing the butter for 15 minutes and shredding it on the coarse side of the grater into the flour/parmesan mixture (to which I’d added a teaspoon of Madras curry powder), stirring everything together with a knife and binding the resulting mixture with the egg yolk and some ice-cold water mixed with four anchovies pounded in the mortar and pestle. I rested the pastry in the fridge for half an hour before rolling it out very thinly, cutting out 48 rounds with my smallest cookie cutter, and baking at 200°C for 12 minutes until golden. Rub the mixture in if you prefer, but grating in hard butter will give you a puffier, crisper result. I left out salt and pepper – the anchovies and curry powder will provide all the salt and spice you need.

To make the paste to spread on top of the biscuits, I pounded four more anchovy fillets, 1 teaspoon of curry powder (Madras again – Bolsts is my favourite curry powder, but you should use your favourite brand/ferocity), 2 tablespoons of parmesan, 1 tablespoon of chopped capers (in wine vinegar, not salt, which would just be too much with the anchovies), 1 tablespoon of oil from the anchovies and 1 teaspoon of smooth Dijon mustard in the mortar and pestle until smooth. This will give you enough to smear each biscuit with the tip of a knife – look to use a very tiny amount of the topping, which is strong and salty. If you are familiar with Marmite or Vegemite, you need to spread in about the proportions you would spread those on toast. Allow the biscuits to cool before spreading them or they will be too fragile to work with.

Pop the biscuits in an oven heated to 180°C for five minutes. The spread will go slightly puffy. Dress with a little parsley before serving warm. Rather than eating your anchovy biscuits at the end of a meal, I’d suggest you use them as nibbles with drinks – a very dry Fino sherry or a Dirty Martini will work beautifully against them.


I had an email a couple of weeks ago from a lady from Mornflake oats, asking if I’d like some samples. Now, I was a big fan of Mornflake as a kid, when the sixth-formers at school had a weekly stall in the dining room where they sold us teenies snacks of the very limited sort allowed by our health-fascist teachers. There wasn’t much that was very good – nobody really liked licorice twigs, and I would sooner die than ever have to eat a carob bar again. Happily, there was one thing on sale I loved without measure – a muesli made by Mornflake with oat clusters, coconut, and chunks of candied papaya and pineapple. Infinitely better for breakfast than school gruel.

I suspect my waxing lyrical about a childhood affection for Mornflake pressed some buttons, because the next morning three cubic feet of oat products arrived on the doorstep. Since then, I’ve been happily munching my way through some really fantastic muesli (the Swiss style is creamy and delicious with the traditional Swiss addition of milk powder, the Fig and Apple is gloriously crispy and tastes divine), oatbran flakes (Very Berry, with strawberries, raspberries and cherries were Dr W’s favourite) and porridge – microwavable single portions in packets, bags of rolled oats, and fine oatbran sprinkles for smooth porridges or garnishes. My cholesterol level is at an all-time low. Mornflake are a considerably older company than I’d realised; the same family has been milling oats for more than 14 generations, and they’ve just celebrated their 333rd anniversary, making them the UK’s eighth-oldest company. The folks at Mornflake tell me that oats will reduce my appetite, keeping me slim and gorgeous (a recent study from King’s College London has identified a hunger-suppressing hormone in oats, which, along with their cholesterol-squelching action appear to be almost sinister in their healthiness). They would also like you to know that a very varied assortment of people, including such luminaries as Tim Henman, Orlando Bloom, David Cameron, Kate Moss and Madonna, have gone on the record as being fans of porridge. I am not sure that this brings anything in particular to your own breakfast experience, but it may be useful for your next pub quiz.

Even after two weeks of artery-cleansing, appetite-suppressing, celebrity-endorsed oaten breakfasts, I still have a goodly portion of Mornflake’s oaten bounty left in the breakfast cupboard. Happily, there’s something really unhealthy and extremely delicious you can do with an awful lot of oats – make an awful lot of flapjacks.

Flapjacks are fast, easy and will make your house smell deliciously of caramel as they cook. To make 25, you’ll need:

275g rolled oats
225g salted butter
225g demerara sugar
2 heaped tablespoons golden syrup

Preheat the oven to 160°C and grease a 30 x 20cm baking tin. Melt the butter, sugar and syrup together in a saucepan over a low heat, and stir the oats into the molten mixture, making sure everything is well blended. Pack the oats into the greased tin, pressing down with the back of a spoon to make sure the mixture is firm and flat on the top.

Bake the flapjacks for 35 minutes, until they are a golden caramel brown. (Overcooking will make your flapjacks hard and dark – 35 minutes will give you crisp edges and a nice squashy middle, but some people prefer a crispier flapjack, so adjust the cooking time to your liking.) Remove from the oven and leave in the tin for ten minutes, then use a spatula to mark the flapjacks into 25 squares. Allow the flapjacks to cool completely before moving them into an airtight tin (or cramming the lot into your face – I’ll leave it up to you).

Fruit scones for cream tea

One of my sad, sad weekend hobbies is wandering around National Trust properties, buying a sack of books at the inevitable second-hand bookshop and then visiting the tea-room for a handsome cream tea, with fluffy scones, strawberry jam and plenty of clotted cream to slather on top. If you’re in East Anglia, the exquisite Oxburgh Hall, where you’ll find a number of embroideries worked by Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick, a priest hole you can clamber into and a very fine garden, has a really fabulous tearoom. Ickworth House (English wines, fantastic gardens, wonderful collection of fans) and Wimpole Hall (organic farm, hot-dogs made from the pigs you have just fed pig-nuts to in the barn) also do a very good line in cream teas – but to my mind Oxburgh’s intimate tearoom, housed in the hall’s old kitchens, complete with antique bread ovens and blue and white crockery displaying pictures of the hall itself, still takes the…cake. All the same, while it’s nice to visit Oxburgh once or twice a year (those gardens change gorgeously in character over the seasons), I can’t really justify driving an hour just for a cup of tea and a scone more regularly than that. Time to get baking.

I usually choose a pot of Earl Grey to go with my scones. So when, in the absence of a National Trust tearoom, I decided to prepare my own cream tea at home this weekend, I decided to use some very strong Earl Grey to soak the sultanas in before adding them to the dough. With a pot of tea, a jar of good strawberry jam (try Tiptree’s Little Scarlet or Duchy Originals Strawberry) and some clotted cream (increasingly available in supermarkets and delis – if you can’t find any, use extra-thick double cream rather than whipped cream, which has exactly the wrong texture), you’ll find yourself in possession of one of the finest things you can eat in the afternoon.

A quick note on the egg in the dough. I was lucky enough to have a box of bantam eggs a neighbour had given me, and used two – bantam eggs are tiny, very yolky and rich, and two are approximately the same volume as a single large hen’s egg. If you can find bantam eggs, I’d recommend using two in this recipe.

To make about 16 scones, you’ll need:

225g plain flour
2½ teaspoons baking powder
50g butter
25g caster sugar
1 large egg OR two bantam eggs
Milk (enough to make up 150ml when added to the beaten egg)
100g sultanas
1 large cup strong Earl Grey tea

Start by brewing the tea (make yourself a cup to drink while you’re at it) and preheating the oven to 220°C (425°F). When the tea is nice and strong, pour it over the sultanas in a bowl and leave them to plump up for half an hour while you prepare the dough for the scones.

Sieve the flour and baking powder into a bowl, and cut the softened butter into it in little chunks. Rub the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar.

When the sultanas have had half an hour in the tea, drain them in a seive and add them to the flour mixture. In a measuring jug, beat the egg. Top the beaten egg up with the milk until you have 150ml of liquid, and stir it gradually into the flour mixture (you may not need all of it), mixing all the time with a wooden spoon, until you have a soft dough that holds together but is not sticky. Try not to over-handle the dough so that your scones are light and fluffy. Roll the dough out on a floured surface to a thickness of about 1cm, and cut out rounds with a 5cm circular cutter.

Place the rounds onto greased baking sheets and brush the tops with any remaining milk/egg mixture (if you have none left, plain milk will do). Bake for 10 minutes until golden brown.

These scones are at their very best served as soon as they come out of the oven, split in half, spread with jam and cream. Once cooled, they’ll keep for a couple of days in an airtight tin.

Iced sugar cookies

These little cookies are delicious, easy to make, fun to ice, and will keep for about a week in an airtight tin. What’s not to like? Even I, who singularly lack artistic skill, a steady hand or any visual imagination at all, had a total blast making a big batch of these for Dr W’s birthday.

You’ll be using royal icing and flood icing to colour these in. Piped lines of royal icing make little reservoirs which you will later fill with flood icing – royal icing which has been watered down a very little to make it flow into the shape you’ve outlined. I like to use squeezy bottles for icing rather than an icing bag (much less messy). Bottles are available at most cookware shops for under £2, and they come with a plastic piping nozzle which is perfect for this job. The amount of icing in the recipe below should be sufficient for filling six bottles in different colours, first for outlining, then, with a little water, for flooding.

It’s important to use food colouring that won’t dilute and loosen your icing. Gel icings, which come in tiny round pots to be added to your plain icing with a toothpick, are simply brilliant. I got Wilton’s set of eight gel colours from good old Amazon, and used a licorice pen (from the Elizabeth David shop in Cambridge) for black detail like eyes and buttons. Eight colours will probably be more than you’ll need for any single project, and the pots, although tiny, last for a very long time; you only need the tiniest dot of colouring for a batch of icing. Make sure that you blend the colour with the icing as thoroughly as you can; you don’t want any streaky bits.

Sugar cookies
300g plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
230g vanilla sugar
230g butter
1 egg
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Royal icing (see instructions below for flood icing)
1lb powdered sugar
5 tablespoons meringue powder (available at cookware shops and some supermarkets)
2 tablespoons water

Start by baking the cookies. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Sieve the flour and baking powder together and put to one side. Cream the sugar and the room-temperature butter with an electric whisk. Add the egg and vanilla extract, and continue to whisk until everything is blended together. Gradually add the flour mixture, beating gently until it is all incorporated.

Roll the dough onto a floured board and use cookie cutters to cut out shapes. Lay out on greaseproof paper on baking sheets and bake for about 12 minutes. Leave the cooked cookies on the sheet for a few minutes to cool a little and firm up, then use a spatula to transfer them to a cooling rack.

While the cookies cool, make the icing by beating together the sugar, meringue and water with your electric whisk until the mixture reaches stiff peaks (this can take several minutes). The icing will keep, covered, in the fridge for a week, so you can make and colour it before making the cookies if you fancy. Colour the icing according to the instructions on the gel colouring pack. Divide the icing between squeezy bottles, and get to work piping outlines on all your cookies – make sure there are no gaps in your outlines for the flood icing to dribble out of later.

The piped icing should dry quite quickly, so you can start filling in with flood icing as soon as you’re finished outlining. To turn the royal icing you outlined with into flood icing, add water a drop at a time and mix well until you have an icing just loose enough to flow when drizzled onto a flat surface. Squiggle flood icing into each outlined area, and use a toothpick to encourage it into the corners.

You can drop contrasting colours of flood icing into flood icing that is still wet to create certain effects. Make lines of wet icing and drag with a toothpick for a feathered effect; or try dripping a single drop of icing in a contrasting colour into wet icing for neat dots.

Edible sprinkles are a lovely, lily-gilding addition too. To stick them onto the cookies, wait for the icing to dry, then mix a teaspoon of meringue powder with a couple of drops of water, until you have a sticky paste. Use a kids’ paintbrush to apply this meringue glue to the area you want to stick sprinkles to, and scatter the sprinkles over while the glue is still wet.

When the icing and sprinkly bits are dry, store the cookies in single layers between sheets of greaseproof paper in an airtight tin.

Hot cross buns

I know – hot cross buns are really cheap at the supermarket, so why would you bother making your own at home?

There’s a very easy answer: home-made hot cross buns are unbelievably delicious (unlike the supermarket variety, these are enriched with butter and eggs, and have more in the way of spices and fruit in their dough) – far better than the bought variety. They’re cheap, too. And if you’re interested in cooking something that will make your house smell divine for an afternoon, hot cross buns are just the ticket.

These sweet, yeasty little buns are a treat for Lent. (Pipe a Darwin fish on yours if you do not subscribe to this religious baking stuff.) According to Elizabeth David, the hot cross bun was a cause of great concern among the Protestant monarchs of England – Catholics were rumoured to bake them using communion wafers, and all that doughy symbolism was immensely threatening. The Tudors actually tried to ban them, but the populace would not be fobbed off with toasted teacakes, and eventually Elizabeth I passed a law allowing bakeries to make them at Easter and Christmas.

To make 12 hot cross buns, you’ll need:

7g (1 sachet) easy-blend yeast
1 teaspoon soft brown sugar
100g strong white flour
200ml blood-hot milk

350g white bread flour
1 pinch salt
½ nutmeg, grated
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
Zest of one lemon and one orange
50g salted butter, cut into small pieces
50g light brown soft sugar
90g candied mixed peel
90g sultanas
1 egg

3 tablespoons plain flour
3 tablespoons caster sugar

1 orange
75g caster sugar
100 ml water

Get your yeast going by mixing it with all the starter ingredients in a small bowl, and leave it in a warm place to start working for fifteen minutes while you prepare the rest of the dough for the buns.

Mix the flour for the dough in a large bowl with the spices, pinch of salt and the citrus zests. Rub the butter, cut into small pieces, into the flour and spice mixture as if you are making pastry. When the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, stir through the sugar, peel and sultanas. Check that the yeasty starter mixture has plenty of large bubbles on the surface, and add it and the beaten egg to the dough mixture. Mix well with a wooden spoon, and when everything is amalgamated, start to knead the mixture with your hands.

Knead for ten minutes until you have a soft dough which is no longer sticky, and which stretches easily. (If after five minutes or so of kneading the dough still seems very sticky, add a little more flour – bread doughs will vary enormously in stickiness depending on variables like the humidity outside and the temperature in your kitchen.) Oil a bowl, and put the kneaded dough inside with some oiled cling film or a damp teatowel on top. Leave the dough for about an hour and a half in a warm place until it has risen to double its original size.

Knock the dough down, and make twelve round balls from it. Arrange them evenly in a baking dish, cover again and leave to double in size again in a warm place (between an hour and an hour and a half).

Preheat the oven to 220°C (425°F). When the buns have risen, make a paste for the crosses from flour and caster sugar, adding water until it is stiff and pipable. Using a piping bag or a freezer bag with a hole snipped in the corner, pipe crosses on each bun.

Bake the buns for 15-20 minutes until they are golden. While the buns are baking, take the zest and juice of the orange for the glaze and simmer it with the water and sugar until you have a light syrup. Brush the hot syrup over the hot buns when they come out of the oven.

You can serve these immediately or cool and toast them. Either way, they’re glorious with a big slab of butter.