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.

Seaside snacking in Blakeney

I really like the Norfolk coast at this time of year – all bluster, leaden skies and empty salt flats. We were surprised to find Blakeney unexpectedly packed with visitors at half term weekend, and couldn’t find a lunch table at any of the local restaurants. Not such a disaster, it turns out: we equipped ourselves with bottles of dandelion and burdock and pork pies at Blakeney Delicatessen at the top of the High Street, where I also found myself hypnotically drawn to to a moist, sticky slice of orange syrup cake.

Down the hill to the quayside, where we ate our impromptu picnic. Mopping up the cake crumbs to the accompaniment of howls from a little boy whose fishing net had just fallen into the harbour, we looked up to notice that the fish van in the car park at the bottom of the High Street was open and doing good business. Twelve oysters later, we also bought half a pint of brown shrimp (skins on), wrapped up in paper. We slipped the shrimp into a plastic bag, popped them in a pocket and started to hike out along the salt flats. The perfect afternoon: walk for an hour through National Trust coastal landscape, sit on your coat with a good friend, and share a bag of sweet, sweet shrimp. These tiny brown shrimp are best picked up in the hand, the head and tail pinched together between your fingers, and the flesh nipped off between your teeth. The shells are fine and edible; a shrimp with the shell still on will be sweeter and more delicious, although the nice man at the fish van will also sell you peeled shrimp if that’s more your thing.

Back to the village, and we found a nice old gentleman in a booth next to the medieval guildhall, selling seaside sweeties. He sold me a couple of sticks of rock – if you’re not familiar with the English seaside, you’re missing a treat in sticks of rock. A brittle, insanely sweet cane of boiled sugar and peppermint, pulled and folded when still hot until it becomes slightly aerated, rock usually has the name of the town you’ve bought it in written through its length in pink, sticky letters. The words are folded into sticks of rock by hand, a bit like making (deliciously minty) millefiori glass – it’s quite a skilled job, and some of the people making rock have been doing it for fifty years or more.

Up the hill again to The Moorings, a local bistro, for afternoon tea (in my case a toasted teacake and a pot of Earl Grey – the iron-stomached Dr W managed a whole cream tea). We went to the chandler’s to buy a souvenir fridge magnet shaped like a lighthouse, and waddled back to the car via a church fete where I bought a pudding basin. It shouldn’t be the case that a day spent hiking over salt marshes should end with you feeling fatter than when you started, but I managed it with aplomb.

Coconut ice

This is a recipe that’s ideal for child-centric bake sales – school fêtes, church fairs, that sort of thing. Kids love making sweeties, and coconut ice is one of the few sweets that doesn’t require any cooking, so it’s a safe recipe for little hands to get stuck into.

If you’re making this with children, it’s worth buying pink food colouring rather than just using a teeny amount of red. Children let loose on red colouring can easily produce coconut ice that looks like the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, so spend 40p on the pink stuff for a reliably Barbie-pink finish.

I have found myself a little queasy around condensed milk since John Prescott announced his uncanny ability to “sup a whole tin of Carnation…just for the taste” (and then spew it forth again). Coconut ice a very good way to rehabilitate the stuff. The amount this recipe produces will help you erase any such nasty images from your mind via the diabetic coma you’ll fall into if you eat all of it.

To make just over a kilogram of coconut ice, you’ll need:

400g dessicated coconut
400g icing sugar
1 tin (397g) condensed milk
½ teaspoon pink food colouring

In a large bowl, stir the dessicated coconut, icing sugar and condensed milk together until you have a stiff, sticky mixture. Remove half the coconut ice to a clean bowl and add the food colouring, then stir again until the colour is blended in smoothly. (Stirring this is hard work because the mixture is rather stiff, so children will need supervision.)

Line a small rectangular dish with cling film, making sure there is plenty overhanging at the sides. (Later, you will fold these overhanging bits over to cover the coconut ice.) Grease the cling film with a few drops of vegetable oil. Take the white portion of coconut ice and pack it firmly into the lined dish, making sure you produce an even layer. Pack the pink portion into a neat layer on top of the white layer. They will stick together firmly, thanks to the amazing adhesive qualities of sugar and condensed milk. Fold the cling film over the top and refrigerate the coconut ice overnight.

When the coconut ice is nice and firm from the fridge, turn it out of the dish, using the cling film to help, and peel the film away. Chop into little squares (a serrated knife is useful here), dust with icing sugar and pack in greaseproof paper for the school fête.

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.

Hokey pokey ice cream

Hokey pokey ice creamIf you made the cinder toffee from last week and have managed to avoid eating it all so far, you’re in for a treat. This ice cream reflects two of my favourite sweeties – Maltesers and Crunchie bars. The cinder toffee (the middle of a Crunchie) is crumbled and blended into a malt-flavoured ice cream, flavoured just like the inside of a curiously creamy Malteser.

I haven’t used any chocolate in this ice cream because I wanted the malt and toffee to stand on their own, but if you would like to make this even more similar to the sweets, add five tablespoons of milk chocolate chips at the same time you add the crumbled cinder toffee to the mixture. To make about two pints of ice cream, you’ll need:

4 egg yolks
½ pint (250ml) milk
1 pint (500ml) double cream
100g caster sugar
2 sachets Horlicks Light (see below)
5 heaped tablespoons roughly crushed cinder toffee

Horlicks is an English malted milk drink. (If any US readers could let me know what the equivalent across the pond is, I’d be very grateful!) The full-fat version is usually stirred into hot milk. Horlicks Light is stirred into water, and I use it here because it contains powdered milk, which makes the ice cream all the more creamy and delicious.

Start by making a custard base for the ice cream. Beat the egg yolks, the milk, the Horlicks and the sugar together in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Continue to stir vigorously over a very low heat until the custard starts to thicken. You’ll notice that it forms a glossy sheen on the back of a wooden spoon when ready. Be very careful not to allow the custard to boil, or it will separate.

When the custard has thickened, transfer it to a jug and add the double cream. Stir well and put the jug in the fridge until the mixture is chilled.

If you have an ice cream machine, add the mixture to the machine and follow the instructions. Halfway through the freezing time, add the crushed cinder toffee to the drum. (I’ve found the easiest way to crush it is to put it in a plastic freezer bag, knot the top, hold onto the knot and bang the bag against the work surface.) Continue until the ice cream is stiff enough to serve.

If you don’t have an ice cream machine, put the mixture in a Tupperware box and place it in the freezer. After twenty minutes, remove it from the freezer and beat the partially frozen mixture with a whisk. Remove and beat every twenty minutes, breaking up the ice crystals, until the ice cream is frozen evenly but very soft – stir the cinder toffee in at this point. Keep freezing and beating until the mixture is solid. Serve sprinkled with a little extra crushed cinder toffee. And remember to brush your teeth.

Cinder toffee

Cinder toffeeThis is an easy and delicious home-made sweet. Cinder toffee is made with vinegar and bicarbonate of soda in the mix. They react together so it froths before it sets into millions of little bubbles, and hardens into something a lot like toffee-flavoured pumice stone. Any taste of vinegar is neutralised, leaving you with a buttery toffee flavour. It’s a recipe which I don’t cook very often although I love it, because it inevitably leads to my eating the whole batch and then feeling really bad about my thighs.

Here in the UK, cinder toffee (also called honeycomb toffee) has a formative role in our childhoods as the shatteringly crisp stuff that Cadbury’s put inside Crunchie Bars. I actually prefer it without chocolate, but if you enjoy a chocolatey morsel just melt some milk chocolate over a bain marie, dip the hardened chunks in and firm up on greaseproof paper.

In the Cork and Bottle, a London wine bar specialising in a big chunk of meat called the Hemingway Burger, the New Zealand staff call cinder toffee ‘hokey pokey’, and use it in a very fabulous ice cream. I have held back from eating all the stuff I made yesterday and will use the rest in a creamy, malty ice cream over the weekend. Watch this space for the recipe.

To make one thigh-swelling batch of delicious toffee, you’ll need:

50g salted butter
30ml water
4 teaspoons malt vinegar
3 tablespoons golden syrup
450g granulated sugar
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)

Golden syrup(American readers can buy golden syrup at Amazon. Golden syrup is a by-product of the sugar refining process, with a delicious light golden toffee flavour. We use it in the UK in many of the situations where maple syrup is used in America. Don’t be tempted to substitute corn syrup or honey – they won’t taste the same, or have the same characteristics when heated.)

Grease a large baking tin with butter (mine was 11 x 7 inches). Heat the butter, water and vinegar together in a large saucepan with a jam thermometer (the saucepan should be larger than you think necessary – remember that this recipe will froth and swell) until the butter has melted. Stir in the sugar and golden syrup over the heat until they dissolve. Stop stirring, and bring to the boil. Keep boiling without stirring until the toffee reaches the hard crack stage on your thermometer (if you don’t have a jam thermometer, a teaspoon of the molten toffee dropped into a saucer of cold water at hard crack stage will form brittle into strands and crack when you try to shape it). ***Update – it is incredibly important that your toffee really does reach hard crack stage, which is 154°C, or else it may sink after rising.*** Be careful – the mixture will be unbelievably hot, and very dangerous if there are children or pets around. Remove the toffee from the heat, and gently stir in the bicarbonate of soda.

Startling frothing will occur. Keep stirring gently until the bubbles settle down a bit, then pour the mixture into your greased tin. Wait for between ten and twenty minutes until the mixture is set up but still warm, and break the toffee into pieces. Lay these pieces out on a wire rack until the sweets are cool, then transfer to an air-tight container (or your mouth).


UK readers might not be familiar with blondies, one of my favourite American baking recipes. Imagine a giant, tray-baked, chocolate-chip cookie, or a squashy brownie made from a sweet cookie dough instead of the regular chocolate dough. This is an easy, quick recipe, and it’ll make you a heap of blondies big enough to feed everyone in the house several times over.

I don’t buy chocolate chips or chunks for baking; instead, I use a really good bar of chocolate (Green and Black’s is excellent for cooking) and chop it up with a large knife. It only takes a couple of minutes, and doing it this way means you’ll be able to use a much higher quality chocolate in your baking than you can usually find in ready-chipped chunks.

To make 30 squares, you’ll need:

2 cups plain flour
1 heaped teaspoon baking powder
1 cup melted butter
2 cups soft light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 eggs
1 cup pecan nuts
A 150g bar of good dark chocolate, chopped into chunks with a large knife

Preheat the oven to 180° C (350° F).

Melt the butter and use a fork to mix it well with the sugar and almond and vanilla extracts, then beat in the eggs with the fork. Add the sieved flour and baking powder, blend well with the fork, then stir in the nuts and chocolate. Spread the mixture evenly into a non-stick baking dish to a depth of about a centimetre, and bake for 30 minutes, until the blondies are coming away from the sides of the dish. They will be crisp at the edges and soft in the middle.

Feel free to experiment a bit with these – use milk chocolate, a different kind of nut, more chocolate, dried fruits and whatever you feel like.

Slice into thirty pieces and serve as soon as the blondies are cool. These keep well in an airtight box, although my guess is that you’ll have eaten them all before you get a chance to test how well they keep.

Indian sweets

Monday’s post massaged my online shopping gland. For several hours after writing it, I found I wasn’t concentrating properly. My thoughts kept wandering in the direction of squashy, silky, sugary Indian sweets like the ones from Ambala Foods. Eventually I gave in and ordered a 500g box. At £3.90, these boxes are fantastic value, so their purchase won’t weigh heavily on your mind. ( Your hips are another matter.)

Ambala cooks the sweets on the day they’re ordered and ships them immediately, to arrive with you within 24 hours. I don’t know whether it’s the freshness or the light but calculated hand with highly fragrant spices that makes them so exceptionally good, but I can tell you that we polished off a whole box in one evening. My pancreas still hurts.

It hurts because these sweets are…well…incredibly sweet. If you love the milky, tooth-hurting, concentrated sweetness of good English fudge, you’ll roll over and whimper with happiness when presented with a box of Ambala’s sweets. The 500g box contains a selection of Barfis (a condensed milk block); Halvas (sweetened nut pastes cut into rectangles); some syrup-soaked, spongy Gulabjamun and Chamcham (packed in a little plastic bag to keep them moist); a ceremonial sweet called Motichoor Ladoo (the round sweet in a black paper cup at the top of the page); and my favourite, the milky, silky pera.

Here’s the Motichoor ladoo. It’s a traditional sweet, eaten only at very special occasions, like weddings and festivals. It’s also given as a very special gift. It’s a lovely little mouthful made from little pellets of gram flour, sugar and ghee, which is cooked in a sugary syrup. A little pistachio is sprinkled on top.

Pera (right) is, according to Ambala, a sweet which is loved by children. I love it too – it’s made from sugary curds of milk, flavoured with saffron, and is sweetly silky. Each of these sweets is available to order individually, alongside some other mixed boxes, including one which is full of very lovely, fudgy Barfi.

My favourite Barfi are the plain ones. Their scented flavouring is beautifully put together; the flavour comes from orris root (the root of a highly fragranced iris, which is also used in perfumery) and cardamom seed. This box also contains Barfi with almonds and pistachios, and a slice of amazing carrot Halwa, which is also flavoured with that incredible orris root.

I’ve gone off fudge for good.


Almonds in a dark, crisp caramel aren’t just used in European cuisine. They’re a popular Chinese nibble (although the Chinese do not pulverise them as we do in Europe), and gosh, they’re good. Praline is what the European call the powder made from pounding the toasted almonds and caramel. try making the powder, and mix it into ice-cream, a creamy cheesecake topping, chocolate sauces or meringues. Alternatively, do what I did on Saturday, and gobble the crisp little almonds whole.

Chinese caramelised almonds usually keep their little skins, as in the picture. If you’re making European praline, you’ll need to blanch your almonds before you begin. Don’t buy ready-blanched almonds (white almonds with no papery skin). It’s very easy to slip the skins off yourself – just pour boiling water over the almonds, and when everything has cooled down, pop them out of their brown skins. Blanched this way, your almonds will taste sweeter and fresher.

For every cup of almonds, you’ll need:

1 tablespoon butter
4 tablespoons caster sugar
½ teaspoon lemon juice

Put all the ingredients in a non-stick pan. Keeping everything on the move, cook over a medium heat until the almonds are brown and toasted, and the sugar is melted and golden. Keep a careful eye on everything; the almonds can burn very easily. Add the lemon juice at the end to prevent crystals forming.

Turn the contents of the pan out onto a buttered surface. I use a cold, non-stick baking pan, but in Italy and France a marble slab is traditional. Allow the praline to cool at room temperature until it is hard and brittle, then break the almonds up.

If you’re planning to use praline as a powder, put the cooled almonds and caramel into a plastic food bag. Wrap this in a tea towel, and wallop the hell out of it with the end of a rolling pin. Praline powder will keep in an airtight container for a few days, but you’re unlikely to be able to resist eating it for that long.

Reach Fair 2006 – toffee apples

First of all, an apology for not having posted for a week and a bit. A visit from family, a series of busy evenings of unbloggable dinners (at the houses of friends who weren’t seeking Internet fame, at the University where the lights are dim and the meals a bit swillish) and finally a really, really nasty brush with salmonella all conspired to stop me posting. I’m better (and thinner – positively svelte, now I mention it) again now, and I and the seven colleagues who ate the coleslaw at the pub on Perne Road have called Environmental Health in.

Cast your minds back a week and a half.

Astute readers familiar with Cambridgeshire will have worked out by now that I live in Reach, a tiny village about fifteen miles from Cambridge, set around a large green. The village is complete with a Roman canal, a ruined Norman church (I’m looking at it out of the living room window as I type – see above for a picture taken at the end of March – the roundabout on the left is the view out of the front garden from the last week of April) and marks the start of the seven-mile Devil’s Dyke, a perfectly straight chalk earthwork which was put in as defence by Hereward the Wake’s lot. It is, you might gather, a village with a fair old bit of history.

In 1201, King John granted a charter to the village allowing it to host an annual fair on May 1. Historically, the fair had huge significance in the region, and was a big event for those wishing to trade in livestock and the goods which had come down the Roman canal (which, in 2006, is still navigable, although it’s not been used commercially for about a century). Back then, the fair was a three-day affair, drawing visitors from all over the east of England.

Eight hundred and five years later, the fair is still running every year, although now it’s an old-fashioned funfair which only opens for a day, with a merry-go-round, swingboats, hoopla, a coconut shy and a helter-skelter. The local schoolkids dance around a maypole, the village is infested with morris dancers and squeezebox players, mock battles are held on the playing fields, and there’s a hogroast.

There’s food everywhere you look; excellent local ice-cream, vans full of sweets, the coconuts nobody is winning because they appear to be weighted with lead. Our very splendid local pub also has a beer tent most years. These toffee apples are particularly magnificent, and they’re a staple of the fair. To make your own, you’ll need:

450 g soft brown sugar
50 g butter
10 ml malt vinegar
150 ml water
1 tablespoon golden syrup
6-8 medium-sized apples and the same number of good wooden sticks. (I’ve used pencils in emergencies – and no sticks for your toffee apple is, as far as I’m concerned, an emergency par excellence.)

Put the sugar, butter, vinegar, water, and syrup into a large pan with a heavy base. Stir over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved, then raise the temperature and then boil until the temperature reaches 143°C (soft crack on your jam thermometer). At this temperature a drop of the mixture in cold water will separate into hard threads which are not brittle.

Push the sticks into the clean apples. Dip the apples into the toffee and swirl them around for a few seconds until they are covered in the toffee. Leave to cool on a sheet of greaseproof paper.

I’ll leave you with a photo of the fair in the 1930s. See those people sitting on the verge on the left? These days, that’s my front garden.