Paul Flynn’s roasted spiced plums, oatcakes, apple compote and ginger ice cream

The recipe below is one I was walked through by Paul Flynn during our food bloggers’ weekend in Ireland. Paul has been called Ireland’s greatest living chef (“I don’t know who the dead ones are,” he says). As Nico Ladenis’ head chef back in London, he collected a positive galaxy of Michelin stars; and it was a surprise to everybody when he upped sticks and returned to Ireland, eventually settling back in his quiet hometown of Dungarvan to open his own restaurant with his wife Maire.

Spiced plums with apple compote, ginger ice cream and oatcakes
Roasted spiced plums, oatcakes, apple compote and ginger ice cream

That restaurant, the Tannery, has been running for ten years now, and these days also supports a cookery school bristling with technology (Paul says that shortly, you’ll be able to stream video of lessons you’ve participated in over the internet), a rambling kitchen garden, supplying all the restaurant’s vegetables and herbs, that overlooks Paul’s old primary school (coincidentally, also the primary school of Niamh from Eat Like a Girl – there must be something in the water), and the Tannery Townhouse, a pretty little boutique hotel around the corner from the restaurant. We visited the cookery school for a lunch demonstration – there’s nothing like watching a chef like Paul Flynn prepare your dinner to work up the old appetite – the fruits of which we later got to empty down our throats like starving baby birds.

Bloggers bolting bouillabaisse
Bloggers bolting bouillabaisse

I don’t usually get a lot out of cookery lessons; it is annoying to be taught not just how to suck eggs but also how to separate and whisk them when you’ve been doing it for years. Paul’s great, though, tailoring classes to the skills level of his students without an iota of condescension, and I really enjoyed our few hours in the kitchen. Classes vary in length from the five-day, hands-on courses to evening demonstrations where a group can watch as Paul talks them through a three-course meal.

Paul Flynn and bloggers
L-R Signe Johansen, Denise Medrano, me, Paul Flynn, Ailbhe Phelan, Niamh Shields, Aoife Finnegan

The recipe below is for oatcakes with spiced plums, and despite (or perhaps because of) the simplicity of its four elements, it absolutely blew me away on the day. You know those Prince Charles oatcakes from Dutchy Originals? The ones that taste a bit like salty cardboard? These are absolutely nothing like that. Creaming the butter and sugar together until the mixture is white and fluffy, then resting the dough (this is important – it needs to be very firmly chilled) in the fridge for several hours results in an almost shortbread-like texture, with a gloriously nutty flavour from the oats. These little oatcakes are very easy to put together, and the dough, uncooked, freezes very well, so it’s worth making a large batch and taking sticks of the dough out so you can cook some oatcakes fresh whenever you want some. As well as matching effortlessly with these plums, the oatcakes are beyond fabulous with a nice salty cheese. Over to Paul for the recipe (and thanks to Tourism Ireland for the two group photos):


225g butter
80g sugar
100g flour
200g jumbo oatflakes

Cream the butter and sugar together, then add the flour and oatflakes. Roll into sausage shapes, wrap in clingfilm and rest in the fridge. Cut into 1cm thick discs and place on a baking tray. Bake in 150ºC oven for 15 minutes.

Stem ginger ice-cream

375ml milk
375ml cream
125g egg yolks
125g sugar
6 pieces of stem ginger, chopped

Mix the cream and milk.  Bring to the boil with the ginger.  Whisk the sugar and egg yolks together. Add the boiling milk and cream to the sugar and egg mixture.  Bring back up over a medium heat, stirring all the time until the custard starts to thicken.  Strain and allow to cool and when cold, churn in an ice cream machine.

Apple compote

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and diced
1 heaped tablespoon golden caster sugar

Bring apples  to the boil with the sugar and stew gently until they start to break down and the juices start to flow. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.

Spiced roasted plums

Allow 2 per person, cut in half

To make the spiced butter:

100g soft butter
½ tablespoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon golden caster sugar

Combine the butter with the allspice and sugar and roll into a sausage shape and chill.  To serve, cut a thin slice of butter and place on the plums, and place under a hot grill until bubbling.

To put the dish together, spoon some of the compote onto the oatcakes, and top with plum halves. Serve with a dollop of ginger ice cream.

Black Forest trifle

Black Forest trifleI was sent a lovely big jar full of Kirsch-soaked Griottine cherries to try a few weeks ago. The brand’s new in the UK, and they’re very good – big, boozy, stoned Balkan Morello cherries steeped in a heck of a lot of Kirsch for six months. These Griottines are available online in the UK; you can also use cherries you’ve steeped yourself in this recipe if you do a bit of forward planning in the summer.

I do love a Black Forest cake, but it’s the non-cake bits I enjoy the most: the cherries, the chocolate, a creamy filling. So I decided to use them in a Black Forest trifle, which also gave me the excuse to make a chocolate custard, stick it in a bowl and call it art. There are several stages in making this trifle, and making everything from scratch will, of course, give you the best end results; but you can cheat a bit if you want by buying a chocolate cake rather than making one, or by using a pre-made custard as the base for the two custard layers before you add the chocolate, vanilla and marscapone. I promise not to tell anyone.

To serve eight or thereabouts – this is a party dish – you’ll need:

85g cocoa powder
170g plain flour
240g caster sugar
1½ teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
¾ teaspoon baking powder
2 medium eggs
180ml milk
60g softened butter
1 teaspoon almond extract

Custard base
2 tablespoons Bird’s custard powder
1 vanilla pod
500ml milk
4 egg yolks
2 tablespoons vanilla sugar

You will also need
75g good dark chocolate
750g marscapone
250ml whipping cream
About 400g (the contents of a Griottines jar) cherries and their very alcoholic soaking liquid. I say “about” because I found myself busily scoffing them as I put them into the trifle, so the resulting dish didn’t contain a whole jarful.

Preheat the oven to 180ºC while you prepare the cake mix. Grease a 25 cm loaf tin.

Sieve together all the dry ingredients in a large bowl, add the eggs, milk, butter and almond extract, and beat with an electric mixer for about five minutes until you have a thick, smooth batter. Scrape the batter into your prepared tin  bake for 1 hour. When the cake is done, a toothpick poked into the middle should come out clean. Cool for a few minutes and invert onto a wire rack to finish cooling.

Make up the custard base, which you will use for both the vanilla and chocolate custards, while the cake is cooking. Some purists abhor Bird’s custard. I love the stuff. If you can’t bring yourself to use it (or if you don’t live in the UK and can’t find any in your local shops), use 2 tablespoons of cornflour instead. Mix the sugar and custard powder/cornflour in a bowl with a little milk taken from the pint until you have a smooth paste. Bring the rest of the milk to a bare simmer (it should be giggling rather than chuckling) and pour it over the mixture in the bowl. Return the whole lot to the saucepan over a low heat and, whisking hard, add the egg yolks and the seeds from inside the vanilla pod to the mixture. Keep cooking until the custard thickens and remove from the heat. Transfer to a jug, lay a piece of cling film directly on top of the custard’s surface, and chill until cool.

When the custard is chilled and the cake is cool, melt the chocolate in the microwave. Pour half the custard into a separate bowl, and beat it with the chocolate and 250g marscapone with your electric whisk until smooth. Beat the other half of the custard with another 250g marscapone and set aside.

In a third bowl, beat the remaining 250g of marscapone with the whipping cream and sugar until the mixture is stiff.

To construct the trifle, cut the cake into slices and line a large glass bowl (mine broke a while ago, which is why the picture at the top of the page is of a single portion of trifle) with it. Sprinkle the liquid from the cherries all over the cake to soak it, and scatter over a quarter of the cherries. Smooth the plain custard layer over with a spatula, adding a few more cherries as you go. Make sure plenty of the cherries are pressed up against the glass sides of the bowl. Add the chocolate custard with some more cherries, and finish with the layer of cream and marscapone, scattering more cherries on top.

Rhubarb sorbet

Rhubarb sorbetLast winter, my friend Kate and her family moved into an enormous and ancient pile of a house in one of the nearby villages. You know the sort of house:  the street is named after it; it’s got medieval bits, Georgian bits and Victorian bits; there are wonderful corners all over the place for the kids to play hide-and-seek in; and there’s a huge, leafy garden I’d give my right arm for.

Part of Kate’s garden appears to have been looked after, a century or so ago, by a kitchen gardener with a fondness for rhubarb. Rhubarb crowns grow very slowly indeed, but Kate’s rhubarb patch, having been around for a good long while, is now about the size of a couple of transit vans. No one family can consume that amount of rhubarb in one year without severe intestinal upset, so a few months ago she gave me a few kilos of stalks. Since then, they’ve been sitting, chopped and cleaned, in the freezer, coming out occasionally to be stewed and consumed with custard. Time to ring the changes – here’s a non-custardy application of rhubarb which is grown-up enough to be wheeled out at your next dinner party. There’s a lovely balance of tart and sweet in this sorbet, and it’s a glorious colour. You’ll find it works well as an in-between-courses palate cleanser, or as a dessert. Leave any custard well alone; this stands up on its own.

To make about a pint and a half of sorbet, depending on your rhubarb’s age and water content, you’ll need:

1kg rhubarb
200g caster sugar
30ml water

Put all the ingredients in a saucepan and simmer very gently with the lid on until all the rhubarb has collapsed into a greenish mush (about 20 minutes). Remove from the heat. Strain through a jelly bag, a fine sieve or a muslin-lined colander for several hours or overnight and let gravity do its work, without poking at the mixture – you want the juice and only the juice. You’ll notice that the solid bits of rhubarb left in the jelly bag look a lot like wet hay; all the pinkness will be in your juice.

Eventually, you’ll have a bowl of pink, fragrant syrup. Chill the syrup in the fridge for at least six hours.

Follow the instructions on your ice-cream maker, or pour the syrup into a freezerproof box and put straight in the freezer, removing after an hour to attack with an electric whisk to break up the ice crystals. Freeze for another thirty minutes and whisk again, then keep repeating every thirty minutes until you have something that’s recognisably sorbet. This sorbet will keep in the freezer for months, but I doubt you’ll be able to leave it alone for that long.

Peach and mango meringue pie

Peach and mango meringue pie
Peach and mango meringue pie

This one’s for my friend Michael and his daughter, who are going in for a pie competition this weekend. I’m very pleased with the way it turned out – it really does taste as good as it looks. This pie is made with an all-butter pastry (none of your revolting shortening here, Californians) which is flavoured with lemon zest, and has a juicy filling that’s very easy to put together. I have been obsessing a bit about meringue recently, and the lovely puffy cloud that makes the lid of this pie is a beautiful and really delicious way to top things off.

Michael and Yael are cooking in the US, where weighing scales are not the norm – unfortunately, cup measures aren’t the norm here in the UK, and I have real trouble using them when I’m baking.  As a result, I’ve measured by weight, not volume, below. For those who don’t have a set of scales at home,  there is a decent conversion tool here.

You’ll need an 11 inch (28 cm) flan case with fluted edges and a loose base that you can push out, and some baking beans (some use ceramic beans – I just used half a pack of dried butter beans from the cupboard). If you plan on transporting your pie, you may prefer to use a foil dish.

To make one totally fabulous pie, you’ll need:

225g plain flour
25g icing (confectioners) sugar
100g salted butter
Zest of 1 lemon
1 egg yolk
3 tablespoons water (approx – see below)

4 large, ripe peaches (I used white peaches – choose the most fragrant fruit you can find)
3 ripe mangoes (I used Alphonse mangoes, which are my favourite)
2 tablespoons caster sugar
3 level tablespoons semolina (cornmeal for Americans)

6 egg whites
225g caster sugar
1 tablespoon white vinegar

Peach and mango meringue pieStart by making the pastry. Sift the flour and sugar into a large bowl, and rub in the butter with your fingertips until you have a mixture resembling breadcrumbs. Try to keep things as cool as possible as you work; your pastry will be crisper and shorter if it stays cold. (My grandmother used to make pastry in a large bowl placed in the kitchen sink while she ran cold water around it – perhaps there’s a degree of overkill in this, but it does work well to help your pastry along in hot weather.)

Use a butter knife to stir the lemon zest, yolk and water into the mixture until you have a stiff pastry. You may need a little more water according to the weather; the behaviour of pastry varies horribly according to how much moisture there is in the air on any given day. Wrap the pastry in cling film (saran wrap for Michael and Yael) and put it in the fridge for 30 minutes to rest.

While the pastry is resting, turn the oven to 200ºC (400ºF) and prepare the fruit. Quarter and peel the peaches, then cut each piece into three. Dice the mango in pieces the same size as the peach bits (I’m sure you all know the mango trick, but here’s a YouTube video of someone preparing a mango just in case you’ve not done it before). You can keep the fruit around the stone section to nibble off as a chef’s treat. Cover and set aside.

Roll the pastry out on a cool, lightly floured surface to fit your flan dish. (I have a marble slab for pastry that my Mum bought for me at a gravestone shop. Again, this is probably overkill. It’s also a bit sinister, now I think about it.) Line the dish with the pastry, use a fork to prick the base of the pie case all over, and cut a circle of parchment paper to fit in the bottom. Slip the parchment inside the pie and cover it with baking beans. Bake blind – that is to say, without any filling – for 20 minutes until the pastry is golden. Remove the beans and parchment and cook for another 5-10 minutes or until the base is dry and golden too. Turn the oven down to 150ºC (300ºF).

Prepare the meringue by whisking the eggs and vinegar for about five minutes until you have stiff peaks (the vinegar will not add a detectable flavour to your pie, but it will make the peaks of the meringue simultaneously crisp and chewy, like a baked marshmallow), adding the sugar a tablespoon at a time as you go. You should end up with a very stiff, glossy mixture.

Sprinkle the semolina into the base of the pie dish – this will soak up excess juices from the fruit. Fill the dish with the fruit mixture (depending on the size of your peaches and mangoes, you may find you have some left over to make a fruit salad with) and sprinkle over the sugar.

Spoon the meringue carefully all over the top of the pie in a dome, making sure there are no gaps, and use a spoon to tease it into lots of peaks on top. Put the pie in the oven at the cooler temperature (don’t worry if the temperature hasn’t quite settled down yet – a little bit of extra heat at the start of cooking won’t hurt it) and bake for 1 hour – 1 hour 10 minutes until the pie is an even gold colour all over and marshmallowy inside. Serve warm or cold, but do make it as close as possible to serving as you can manage to keep the meringue nice and high and puffy.

Rhubarb Pavlova

Rhubarb lemon pavlovaFor the last couple of weeks, I’ve been blogging from a Booklet laptop lent to me by the friendly folks at Nokia, who saw me mention on Twitter that my own laptop had died horribly. (It was a long and sad process, the worst part being the fortnight before it gave up the ghost completely, over which period it tried its damnedest to barbecue any lap it was put on.) The Booklet goes back to Nokia today, and I’ll miss it; while the screen’s a bit too small to edit photos and work through piles and piles of text on optimally, its portability has been an eye-opener, and the 3-G-ness is brilliant – it’s been lovely to work on a machine that’s small enough for a handbag, that fits onto one of those pathetic trays on trains, and that I can easily manage in one hand while waving a wooden spoon in the other. Adieu, little Booklet. I shall miss you.

So then. Pavlova. In the dark days of the early 80s, I was set a piece of homework for our “finding out” class, where I was meant to write a short essay on Anna Pavlova. Nobody in the family knew anything more about her than that she was a 1920s ballerina, and so I ended up submitting an essay about meringue instead, which, happily, was something that everybody at home was more than educated about. The Pavlova is a New Zealand dessert which was named after the dancer in the 1920s (a period when naming a dish after a celebrity was a signal honour – like Peaches Melba and Melba Toast, Omelette Arnold Bennett,  Eggs Benedict and other eponymous dishes). Being a reasonably easy recipe which looks so handsome, the Pavlova, with its ballet skirt of meringues, is a favourite at Christmas in NZ – I wish Christmases here were sunny, so we could do away with the leaden puddings and have meringue instead. Tart fruits are best as a filling – I’ve made a lemon cream using some home-made lemon curd (it’s quick to make, and it’s a good way to use up the egg yolks, but shop-bought curd will do the job just as well) and some roast rhubarb from my friend’s garden. I’ve used Polish cherry squash to pink up the rhubarb – if you can’t find any, use grenadine or another reddish cordial.

The inside of a proper Pavlova reaches that lovely marshmallowy texture thanks to the addition of a little vinegar and cornflour to the meringue – when you have meringue, which magically turns itself from yellowish, wet egg-whites into glossy clouds, then into a simultaneously crisp and chewy nest, who needs molecular gastronomy?

You’ll need:

2 tablespoons melted butter
8 egg whites
330g caster sugar
1 teaspoon spirit vinegar
2 teaspoons cornflour, plus extra for dusting

450ml double cream
100g lemon curd
5 fat stems rhubarb
2 tablespoons cherry cordial
200g caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 120°C (250°F). Lay greaseproof paper out on two baking trays, and brush each with melted butter. Dust the buttered paper with cornflour and shake off any excess – this will stop the Pavlova from sticking.

Beat the egg whites with an electric whisk or stand mixer, adding 330g sugar a little at a time, until they form soft, glossy peaks. Add the cornflour and vinegar to the mixture, and beat in gently.

Fill a piping bag fitted with its largest nozzle with the meringue, and pipe in a spiral straight onto the floured paper, starting in the centre, going round and round until you have a solid circle of meringue measuring about 7 inches in diameter. Be careful to leave some room around the meringue, which will swell as it cooks. Repeat on the other sheet of floured paper. You’ll have a little meringue left – use this to pipe a wall of meringue around the edge of one of the circles – this will be the bottom piece, and the lip of meringue will help to hold the filling in place.

Bake for 30 minutes, then turn the heat down to 100°C (210°F). Bake for another 40 minutes – the meringue should now be nice and dry, and should crack when you press it gently. Turn the oven off and cool the meringue in the oven with the door cracked open.

Once the meringue is cool, it can be covered and kept, without the filling, in the fridge – you can also freeze it successfully at this stage.

To prepare the filling, chop the rhubarb stems into pieces about an inch long, and put them in a large roasting tin, sprinkled with the sugar and cordial. (Use grenadine or another red cordial if you can’t find cherry – mine was from the local Polish shop.) Roast at 170°C (340°F) for 20 minutes, until tender and collapsing. Remove to a bowl and chill.

Whip the cream until it forms stiff peaks, and fold the lemon curd in with a spatula. Chill until you are ready to serve.

To assemble the Pavlova, spread half the lemon cream onto the base piece of meringue, leaving a bit of a hollow in the middle so you can really heap up the rhubarb. Spoon over the rhubarb (you won’t use all the juice, but it’s delicious, so keep it to one side to slurp at later), dollop the rest of the cream on top, and put the meringue lid on. Serve immediately.

Tarte Tatin

Tarte TatinTarte Tatin is one of those lovely recipes with an attached aetiological myth. Back in the 1890s, the Tatin sisters, who ran a hotel and restaurant in Loir-et-Cher (still open for business in 2010), had a kitchen accident when making an apple pie. Apples were left cooking an a mixture of sugar and butter for a little too long, and burned. Stéphanie Tatin, who was in charge of the kitchen, tried to save the dish by pressing a disc of pastry onto the ruined apples, and served the finished pie as a sort of upside-down tart. The hotel patrons raved about the resulting dish, a buttery, caramel apple classic was born, and the Tatin family ensured themselves fabulous advertising for their hotel forever.

These days, you can actually buy specialised dishes to cook a Tatin in. I have a Le Creuset Tatin dish which gets used for a lot more than tarts – it’s very dense and distributes the heat gently and evenly, making it great for gratins, shallow pies and other baked dishes. If you don’t have one, a frying pan measuring about 25cm in diameter will do the same job, but it needs to have an ovenproof handle – check before you cook that the length of the handle will allow you to shut the oven door.

You’ll need:

170g plain flour
80g caster sugar
140g butter
1 large egg, beaten (I used two bantam eggs, but you’re unlikely to be able to find any if you don’t have a friendly neighbour with bantams, so use a large chicken egg instead)

Apple topping

6 sweet apples (I used Cox’s)
110g caster sugar
110g butter
Zest of 1 lemon

Prepare the pastry first, and let it rest in the fridge while you warm up the oven and prepare the apples.

Sieve the flour into a bowl from a height, and rub the butter in until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, and bind with the egg. Depending on the weather, you may also need a little water to bind the pastry. Put the ball of pastry in a freezer bag and refrigerate.

Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F.

Core and peel the apples, and cut them into eighths. Melt the butter and sugar together in your Tatin dish or frying pan over a medium heat, and arrange the apple slices neatly over the butter and sugar mixture in the base of the pan. Back on the heat, keep cooking until the butter and sugar begin to caramelise. You’ll see the brown caramel bubbling up through the apple slices. The apple slices must catch and darken, so don’t be shy about taking the pan off the heat – the brown caramel should be visible across the whole dish, which should take 15-20 minutes.

When the apples are ready, roll the pastry out into a disc the same size as your pan. Set it on top of the apples and use your fingers to carefully press the pastry into the dish. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the pastry is golden.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a few minutes, then put a plate over the top of the dish and flip it over, using oven gloves to protect your hands. The tart should drop neatly onto the plate. Serve warm, with lashings of cream.

Bread and butter pudding

Bread and butter pudding
Bread and butter pudding

English food gets a bad rap in a lot of areas, but there’s one thing we’re world-class at: nursery puddings. A good bread and butter pudding is a joyous thing; a layer of spongey, custard-dense bread at the bottom, sweetness and flavour from a careful sprinkling of preserved fruit (I like juicy, tea-soaked sultanas and little cubes of stem ginger), and golden, caramelised points of crisp bread decorating the surface.

It’s unfortunate that so many of us were exposed to disastrous variations on the bread pudding theme when we were children. School dinners and rushed grandmothers are responsible for plenty of adult nightmares about gloppy flat puddings, studded with bits of wobbly egg, a nasty rubbery skin stretched over a sheer surface. There are a few things you need to do to ensure you avoid these problems when you’re making your own bread and butter pudding.

Firstly, and all-importantly, the bread shouldn’t be submerged in the custard. Don’t drown everything in custard, and construct your pudding so that points of buttered bread, moistened with the egg and milk and brushed with a little syrup and sugar, caramelise and crisp in the heat of the oven.  And when you make that custard, beat the hell out of the egg. Nothing is more squick-inducing than a gelatinous chunk of eggwhite in the middle of your dessert plate.

For an entirely non-squicky pudding to serve between four and six, depending on greed, you’ll need:

8 slices good white bread, crusts left on
30g softened, salted butter, plus extra to grease the dish
30g caster sugar, plus one tablespoonful
3 large eggs
500ml milk
50g sultanas
50g stem ginger chunks – reserve the syrup
1 strong cup of your favourite tea
Nutmeg to grate over

Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Make a very strong cup of hot tea without milk (make another for yourself) and soak the sultanas in it until you’ve finished buttering the bread and arranging it in the dish.

Cut the slices of bread into quarters diagonally, and butter them on both sides. This is an excellent way to use up stale bread – in fact, you’ll find the stiffer slices of slightly stale bread easier to handle than soft, fresh bread.

Arrange the buttered slices of bread fish-scale style in a buttered rectangular dish measuring about 20x30cm, the crust sides touching the base of the dish and the soft points pointing upwards. The bread triangles should be snug in the dish, but need a little space between them; overlapping three per row works well.

Drain the sultanas and chop the pieces of ginger into sultana-sized dice. Sprinkle them over and between the points of bread.

Beat the egg thoroughly with 30g of sugar in a jug. Use a whisk rather than a fork, to make sure the egg is properly beaten. Pour the milk over the egg and sugar and whisk it thoroughly to make sure everything is properly mixed.

Pour the custard (because that’s what it is now) carefully over the bread, being sure to moisten all of the points with the mixture. Brush the syrup from the ginger pieces over the exposed surfaces of the bread, and sprinkle with another tablespoon of sugar. Finish with a generous grating of nutmeg.

Bake, uncovered, for 35 minutes. The bread points should be golden brown and crisp – if you think they could do with a little more colour, leave in the oven for another 5 minutes before checking again. Serve hot or warm with plenty of cream. This pudding is best on the evening it’s made, when the top will be deliciously crisp.

Salt caramels

It’s funny how quickly we assimilate food ideas. Salted caramel was considered suspiciously French, a kind of extreme sweetie sophistication, when we first encountered it about ten years ago. Now it’s all over the place – you can even buy jars of the stuff in the supermarket.

Salt caramels are still, as far as I’m concerned, a grown-up’s sweet. Buttery, creamy and velvety on the tongue, the addition of some salt to the mixture lifts the flavour, bringing out the dairy smoothness in a way you just can’t achieve in an unsalted caramel. A little extra salt sprinkled on top makes for a tongue-shockingly good contrast between sweet and salty. They’re easy to make at home, and make a great gift. Try them as an after-dinner nibble – they’re especially good with coffee. Home-made salt caramels are also a very good application for any interesting salt you might have lurking in the cupboard (the red salt in the picture here is Hawaiian volcanic salt I was given as a present just after I got married in 2004. Embarrassingly, this is the first thing I’ve used it in).

I like my caramel to have a hint of smoky bitterness. The best way to achieve this is to use an unrefined sugar in the recipe. If you prefer a lighter caramel, you can substitute another 150g of caster sugar for the light brown sugar below.

The usual boiling sugar warnings apply. Do not lick the spoon or dip your finger in the mixture until it has cooled completely. Keep an eye on the pan at all times to ensure it doesn’t boil over. And your life will be made much easier if you use a sugar thermometer – if you don’t have one, caramel at the hard ball stage should form a squishy ball that can hold its shape but can be squeezed by the fingers when dropped into a bowl of cold water.

You’ll need:

150g caster sugar
150g soft light brown sugar
80g butter (choose something with a good flavour – I used an unsalted Beurre d’Échiré)
200g double cream
75ml golden syrup
1tsp salt, plus more to sprinkle at the end

Line a square cake tin (mine measures 20cm on each side) with buttered greaseproof paper.

Combine the caster sugar with 30ml water in a saucepan, and bring to the boil over a medium flame. Swirl the pan every now and then, and keep watching it until the sugar starts to change colour. It will quickly work its way from clear to pale gold through to a reddish brown. As soon as it hits the reddish brown point, remove it from the heat and wait for the bubbles to subside.

While the sugar is cooking, melt the brown sugar, butter, cream, syrup and a teaspoon of salt together in a separate pan and stir well. Pour the mixture into the reddish brown caramel and return to the heat with a sugar thermometer. Stir gently to combine the ingredients.

Bring the mixture to a boil and continue to simmer, swirling occasionally, for between 5 and 10 minutes, until the mixture reaches hard ball stage on your sugar thermometer (125°C, 260°F). Remove from the heat and wait for a few minutes until the bubbles in the pan subside. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin and cool for an hour or so until the caramel is solid. Cut into pieces and decorate each piece with a pinch of salt. Flaky Maldon salt is fantastic here – and if there’s any Hawaiian volcanic salt in your cupboard, now’s the time to use it.

Rhubarb and custard cake

There’s one seasonal ingredient in the shops at the moment which puts a very jolly spin on February: forced rhubarb. I’ve been buying it at the market and the supermarket (for some reason, the market produce seems rather redder) to simmer with some sugar to go with yoghurt in the mornings, and with custard at suppertime. We also spooned it over pancakes on Shrove Tuesday – I’m sure I’ll be sick of it soon, but we’re not there yet, so I chucked some in a cake.

This recipe is based on one I found on Usenet in the mid-nineties. The original was very simple: a box of cake mix, a few handsful of rhubarb, some sugar, and some cream. This is my cake-mix-free version, which is just as quick to prepare. It’s lovely and moist, has a fantastic rhubarb and custard flavour, and disappears very quickly.

I don’t really understand why you’d spend the extra on a boxed mix, when it only takes a minute to measure out flour, butter, milk and sugar. This also gives your inner control-freak the ability to manage exactly what goes into your cake. A bit of googling revealed that the ingredients panel on a standard box of yellow cake mix reads:

Sugar, Enriched Bleached Wheat Flour (Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Vegetable Oil Shortening (Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Propylene Glycol Mono- and Diesters Of Fats, Monoand Diglycerides), Leavening (Sodium Bicarbonate, Dicalcium Phosphate, Sodium Aluminum Phosphat E, Monocalcium Phosphate). Contains 2% Or Less Of: Wheat Starch, Salt, Dextrose, Polyglycerol Esters Of Fatty Acids, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Cellulose Gum, Artificial Flavors, Xanthan Gum, Maltodextrin, Modified Cornstarch, Colored with (Yellow 5 Lake, Red 40 Lake).

Personally, I prefer an ingredients list that goes like this:

250g plain flour
1 heaped teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
125g softened butter
3 eggs
180ml milk
450g caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4-5 stalks rhubarb
1 pint double cream

Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).

Sieve the flour into a large bowl with the baking powder and salt. Give it plenty of height, to get as much air into the flour as possible.

In a separate large bowl, use an electric whisk to cream the butter and 225g of the sugar together until the mixture is pale and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one by one, with the vanilla essence, at a high speed. Add the flour and milk a little at a time, beating as you go, until you have a velvety, light mixture.

Use a spatula to spread the cake mixture over the bottom of a metal baking tin – use a non-stick one, or line with greased parchment. Mine measured 30×35 cm; if yours is smaller, that’s fine, but be sure it has reasonably high sides and be aware that your cooking time may be a bit longer. Cut the rhubarb into small pieces and scatter it over the top of the mixture with the remaining sugar. Pour the cream over the whole arrangement and bake for 45 minutes.

Test with a skewer, which should come out nearly clean – if it’s still sticky or liquidy when you shake the tin, give the cake another ten minutes and test again. The top will be cracked and golden. This cake is good hot or cold.


I thought I’d missed the Seville orange season, which only lasts for a couple of weeks and starts around the end of January. I’d gone to the market in Cambridge last week, only to find they’d run out. Happily, another box turned up on Saturday, so I snapped up a couple of kilos.

Seville oranges are an unprepossessing fruit, knobbly and scarred-looking, and very puny when held beside the majestic, sterile, navel oranges in the next crate. But Sevilles sell out quickly for a reason. They don’t just make gloriously bitter, perfumed marmalade; they’re also a wonderful addition to recipes anywhere you might use a lemon, with their tart, fragrant juice.

Making your own marmalade is time-consuming; you’ll need to set the best part of a day aside for the project. It’s worth the effort, though – and my realisation that 14 jars of amber, jewelled preserves only cost me £7 (£3 for the oranges, £4 for the sugar) has left me full of self-righteousness. It’s also a great pleasure to be able to manage the recipe yourself so you can produce your preferred thickness of peel and syrupyness. I like a dense, thick-cut marmalade, of the sort that you just don’t seem to be able to buy these days. (So does my lovely Dad, whose name is on several of these jars.) A home-made marmalade, as you’ll know if you’ve ever had one, is much, much tastier than the shop-bought version. I am a purist when it comes to marmalade, and believe it tastes its best when it’s made with Seville oranges, sugar and nothing else. You’ll find no additions of grapefruit, whisky or ginger here – if you want whisky with your marmalade, pour yourself an accompanying glass.

Two kilos of fruit will produce about 14 jars of marmalade. Split the mixture between large pans if you don’t have a big jam pan (if you make a lot of preserves, a jam pan is a worthwhile investment). You’ll need:

2kg Seville oranges
3.5 litres water
4kg sugar

Get out your jam pan, and simmer the oranges in the water for 2 hours with a lid on. Remove the fruit from the liquid and slice the oranges in half. Use a fork (and a friend with a fork if you want to get this done quickly, because this is a somewhat tiresome job) to remove the seeds from the centre and put them in a bowl. Put the now seedless pulp from the oranges in another bowl with any juice.

Put all the seeds in a small pan, cover with water and boil vigorously to release the pectin in them for ten minutes while you prepare the skin.

You’ll be left with a pile of orange-skin shells. Chop them by hand to your preferred width – some prefer a very finely shredded peel. I like whokking great chunks. Combine the chopped peel with the pulp and put it all back in the water you simmered the whole oranges in with the sugar. Strain the seeds out of the little pan and add the resulting liquid to the marmalade.

Bring the marmalade, stirring initially to dissolve the sugar, to a rolling boil, with the lid off. After 15 minutes, dollop a teaspoon onto a cold saucer. Blow on it until it is cool and give it a poke with a finger to test the set. It probably won’t be ready yet – you’re looking for a wrinkly surface skin and a lovely amber colour. Test every 15 minutes. When you judge the set to be right (50 minutes/1 hour usually seems to be about right for a thick cut; shredded skin will come ready earlier) remove the pan from the heat, skim any scum off with a slotted spoon to prevent cloudiness, and pour into sterilised jam jars.