Thursday, July 31, 2008

A sort of raspberry trifle for one

Whilst I adore summer berries, I have to confess to occasionally being rather bored of the summertime custom of serving a big bowl of them in lieu of a proper pudding. Whilst I am by no means suggesting for a minute that there is anything wrong with ending the evening with glistening berries on a regular night, if I go out for dinner I like to be a little bit spoiled. Some of you will know only too well how I feel a little short-changed when there is not a pud in sight. It is mean of me. Rude, even. And certainly greedy. But hey, this is my blog and I can write what I please. I'm sure people feel short changed when they come to me and I haven't bothered with a cheese course. Not that I don't love cheese, you understand. Just wanted to make that clear. I just love pudding that little bit more...

I'm not saying that I expect friends to have created the perfect strawberry mille-feuille or the lovliest of summer fruit jellies. I'm just saying that it is nice to have a little something to accompany the berries when it is a special occasion. Trouble is, I am often lacking inspiration in this department at this time of year. The berries are indeed so lovely on their own and it really is too hot to be slaving away at the stove. I've concluded that the embellishment needs only very little effort. A few crushed meringues and cream make for a moreish 'Eton Mess'. A little plain yoghurt, some crunchy brown sugar and a hot grill or blowtorch make for a tasty little brulée. Even a little good balsamic vinegar sprinkled atop strawberries makes me happy - virtually no effort. If I'm feeling a little more adventurous (or the weather is a little cooler) I might make this simple yet scrumptious clafoutis.

I bought some lovely Scottish raspberries last week (Scottish raspberries are by far the lovliest I've discovered to date) and I'd eaten a fair few for breakfasts with yoghurt and a touch of honey. I had a few left over though and fancied doing something a little more exciting with them. I found some marscapone in the fridge and also had a bit of plain cake that was going a bit stale in the bread bin. It was obvious - a raspberry trifle (of sorts) was called for!

If I am being honest, this is not really a trifle at all, since trifles should actually contain custard. This one does not. It was all about speed and not having to mop my brow to much in the heat you understand... However, I decided it did not matter. Some years ago, I attended the International Trifle Festival (a must for any self-respecting lover of trifles) in the village of Terling, Essex - there was a bacon and egg trifle featured amongst the 50 or so entries. I think anything goes really!

I doused the sponge in alcohol, but you could use fruit juice. Ideally, I would have gone for an eau de framboise, but sadly the drinks cupboard didn't yield such delights. Instead I used up the last of
last year's damson gin. Most acceptable! Quantities are vague - I just threw it all in. As you do.

Raspberry trifle
Serves 1 but easily doubled/tripled/quadrupled etc...


Plain sponge cake (angel or madeira cake works well, or try crushed amaretti biscuits)
2-3 heaped tablespoons of marscapone
handful of raspberries
caster sugar, to taste
eau de framboise, Cointreau, fruit juice or other appropriated liquid
dollop of creme fraiche

1. Take a glass bowl* and break up sponge cake to line the bottom of the bowl. Sprinkle over a little of your chosen liqueur.

2. Put marscapone in a bowl and mix together with the raspberries and sugar. Add sugar a little at a time until you reach desired sweetness. You want a little of the tartness of the fruits to come through. I used a small whisk for this - don't use an electric one, you still want lumps of raspberry in the filling.

3. Pile the pink mixture atop the sponge and smooth out. Top with a little creme fraiche or whipped cream and decorate with raspberries and maybe some flaked almonds if you have them and are feeling a little retro!

4. Chill in the fridge for a couple of hours so that the flavours get a chance to mingle.

*glass bowls are key. A trifle should be pretty with its lovely layers - we want to see them!

Incidently, for those who are interested, the annual International Trifle Festival is taking place on the 7th September this year!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Chilled avocado soup

I've probably said this before but, if given the choice between living somewhere permanently hot and sunny and spending the rest of my days here in damp and murky Britain, I'd choose the latter. Don't get me wrong, I love a hot sunny day as much as the next person, but what I love best of all is an English summer's day. So rarely do we get a spell of perfect sunny weather over here, when we do, we really make the most of it. I think the unpredictability of the British summer makes it all the more appealing. Today, the sun is out and my spirits are immediately lifted. I feel energised and spontaneous and excitable. If it was like this all the time, I'm not sure I'd feel the same.

Outdoor events are something that the British do rather well, I've always thought. Come rain or shine we put our best foot forward and enter into the spirit even if we are soaked through the skin. There is a certain British pride in gathering together and making the best of an unkind summers day. We shall wave our flags, even if we have to do so wearing head-to-toe ponchos.

Fortunately, my latest evening of flag-waving was blessed with good weather. Last weekend, I headed back home to the Isle of Wight for a thoroughly British evening of picnics, Rule Britannia, classical music and fireworks. The 'last night of the Proms' type event took place at wonderful Osborne House, holiday home of Queen Victoria.

We were blessed with a perfect English summer evening although there was a bit of a nip in the air! I just love to eat outdoors - the food always seems to taste better somehow. Picnics are a real favourite of mine and like Julia over at
A Slice of Cherry Pie, I like to do them properly. With linen napkins and proper knives and forks. Fortunately, so does my mother as it was her who made the preparations for this particular event. I am proud to say that I am fairly sure that we were the only ones to have a properly ironed linen tablecloth!

Sadly, we were slightly outdone by a neighbouring table who had bought a candelabra. We were the ones who were smug though as they couldn't get theirs to stay alight in the breeze - our pretty glass holder sheltered the nightlight from the wind.

Anyway, earlier in the day, we (..or rather my mother..) prepared a delicious chilled avocado soup for our starter. It is superb and a real summer favourite of mine. I know some people are hesitant at the idea of a chilled soup, but I think there is nothing more refreshing on a hot day. Gazpacho is another favourite of mine. The recipe is one I've grown up with - just one mouthful makes me feel all summery. I think the recipe came originally from our old milkman, believe it or not. But I could be wrong.

It needs to be made a few hours in advance so that it has adequate time to chill, though you can speed it along with a few ice cubes. It is the simplest of soups to make - you chop everything up and whizz it together in a liquidiser. I like to serve this for summer suppers or lunches in the garden. I have some pretty glass bowls that set it off perfectly. For our picnic, we transported in in a thermos with a few ice cubes and then poured it into mugs. Not to be outdone by our fellow diners, my mother even snipped a few chives and wrapped them in clingfilm ready to sprinkle on top. Now that is what I call a civilised picnic!

I'm entering this cooling soup into an event called 'Beat the Heat' hosted by A Southern Grace. Grace is compiling recipes from the blogosphere that do not require us to fire up the oven during these hot summer days. Do take a look at her lovely and entertaining blog and, even better, why not submit one of your own heat-beating recipes.

Chilled avocado soup
Serves 4-6 (4 as a lunch dish, 6 as a starter)


150ml single cream
2 large ripe avocados
2 tbsp lemon juice
575ml cold chicken stock (well-flavoured) You could also use vegetable stock, of course.
300ml milk
2 spring onions
Worcestershire sauce - a few drops to taste
chives - to garnish
Salt and pepper

1. Chop the avocados into chunks and slice the spring onions. Do not throw away the avocado stones.

2. Place everything into a liquidiser and whizz until smooth. Taste the soup and season well. You may want to add more Worcestershire sauce.

3. Cover and chill, placing avocado stones in the soup until ready to serve to prevent discolouration.

Incidentally, having enjoyed our soup, we moved onto an array of Marks and Spencer's goodies - looking around at the other picnics, I'd say that good old M&S did pretty well out of us concert-goers. The strawberry tarts were particularly good!

In August I am lucky enough to be going, for the first time, to Glyndebourne. I have been charged with bringing dessert so am searching for good ideas. It needs to be easily transportable yet impressive. And, as it might be a hot evening and we won't get round to eating it until late, something that won't melt/fall apart. A tall order and I have a few ideas, but I would welcome any ideas or suggestions that you may have...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Busy bruschetta

I returned from my lovely holiday last weekend yet it seems an absolute age away! I have been enormously busy ever since and have barely cooked a thing, let alone had a moment to blog about it. I'm sorry. I've been a bad blogger. Slapped wrists all round.

Last week was spent mainly in Lancashire at the fabulous
Northcote Manor. I was hosting a couple of dinners there for work and it was certainly a treat - the food, cooked for us by Nigel Hayworth, was extremely memorable. Delicious and clever without being too clever.

No sooner had I returned from the north and I headed down to the Isle of Wight for a fantastic outdoor concert featuring all the rousing British classics such as Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory. We waved our flags and ate a delicious picnic, more of which later on.

Tomorrow it is off to Cornwall for more work events - I feel like I've barely drawn breath. Oh to be back refreshing myself in the pool in Tuscany...

Since returning from holiday, I've rediscovered my passion for Italian food. That is not to say that I had ever really lost it, just that I'd perhaps become a little staid in my choice of Italian staples. Most weeks feature pasta in some form. Usually with homemade tomato sauce or pesto. Simple and quick. Always.

On holiday it was wonderful to have time again to potter in the kitchen and create some Italian classics using the freshest of ingredients. It gave me a little inspiration for when I returned home and I've been cooking simple Italian fare ever since.

Some of my favourite meals though were our 'everything' lunches. In fact, those sort of lunches have always been my favourites. Lunches where you haul everything out of the fridge (salad, leftovers, cold meats, cheeses etc) and pop it all on the table for everyone to create their own unique combination. These lunches happen not just on summer holidays, but also at Christmas and are equally welcome at both times of year.

This photo of one of our Tuscan lunchtime feasts pretty much sums it up...

We couldn't have put more on the table if we'd tried! I love that you have a bit of everything and that you occasionally end up with a mouthful combining tuna salad with parma ham. Not quite what you intended, but strangely acceptable when on holiday!

Anyway, a great Italian favourite of mine is bruschetta. Toasted bread topped with tomatoes or ham or cheese. Whatever takes your fancy really. Every menu features bruschetta and it is perfectly acceptable to have just mixed bruschette with a glass of wine for lunch. A favourite lunch out consisted of 'surprise bruschette': a selection of toppings chosen by the chef.

Back in the villa, bruschetta (or should that also be 'bruschette' in the plural?) featured as a starter most nights. Just perfect to nibble on with a drink as the sun set...

One of our group made a great topping with grated courgettes and parmesan - I loved it. Once home, I was hankering after this favourite treat and whipped some up for a speedy yet satisfying lunch. I stuck to the traditional tomato and basil for mine although I did make a couple with melted Pecorino and parma ham. Sadly, the view wasn't quite the same as it was in lovely Tuscany...

...but I sat in the garden and the flavour of local tomatoes and fresh basil did momentarily transport me back to my holiday. I used French baguette which wasn't even vaguely authentic. It was fine, but really, bruschetta should be made with a denser, slightly chewier kind of bread. Next time, I'll make the effort to seek out the real thing. I'm popping a recipe down not because I think you don't know how to make bruschetta, but just to document how I made mine!


1. Pre-heat oven to 200C. Slice some dense Italian bread into half-inch slices and place on a baking sheet.

2. Brush bread with olive oil. Slice a clove of garlic and wipe cut side of garlic over each slice to impregnate with garlic flavour.

3. Bake the bread until crisp (about 10 minutes) and then set to one side.

4. Chop tomato into smallish dice (concasse). Mix together with chopped basil and a little slug of extra virgin olive oil. Season generously.

5. Top each bit of toasted bread with a generous amount of topping. Alternatively top with Pecorino cheese and pop under the grill until melted and then top with parma ham.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Tuscan Feast: cantucci con vin santo

Why is it that holidays always go so quickly? I'm sure that last week went far faster than any normal work week. For want of a better cliché, time does indeed fly when you are having fun. I returned yesterday afternoon from a week in a beautiful villa in Tuscany, shared with twelve friends. Days were spent lazing by the pool, books in hand and evenings feasting upon the best of local produce both liquid and solid (!)

I also visited some of the region's charming hilltop towns and villages: Pienza, Montepulciano, Radda in Chianti and Montalcino. The attraction of this area is clear to see - beautiful towns untouched by the passing of time amidst eye-pleasing countryside of rolling hills, vineyards, cypress trees and olive groves. What is not to love?

Although I did venture out for a couple of typically Tuscan lunches, we cooked for ourselves in our villa. It was interesting to be with a number of keen cooks and learn from their inventiveness in the cucina. Each evening we gathered round a huge table outside and feasted on Italian produce by candlelight whilst putting the world to rights (...and fending off the mosquitoes).

Of course, no trip to Italy would be complete for me without taking some time to learn a little more about the nation's wonderful wines. Italy's wine offering is surely the world's most diverse with thousands of indigenous grape varieties and myriad styles. As well as visiting a favourite Chianti producer (Fontodi), I also spent an afternoon visiting the domaine of Gianni Brunelli in Montalcino. The view from his family home (and offices) was stunning. As indeed were his wines.

Having said that, the view from the hammock back at the villa wasn't that bad either...

Usually when I return from a holiday I find myself craving something thoroughly different to eat - perhaps something Thai or a British classic such as shepherd's pie. On this occasion, however, I was still firmly in Italian mode and wasn't ready to move on from one of my favourite cuisines. So, today, I found myself back in my favourite space (my kitchen) pottering about and producing a thoroughly Tuscan feast. Clearly, I wasn't ready to let the sun set forever on my holiday...

(Hope you appreciate that seamless yet entirely gratuitous link to my sunset picture - I just love those rays of light coming from between the clouds?!).

Anyway, as regular readers will know, it is usually the last course that first gets my attention. For that reason, I'm staring with sharing this recipe for cantucci. Cantucci are small, crunchy biscotti which are served throughout Tuscany alongside a glass of
vin santo. The idea is to dip them into the accompanying sweet wine.

Traditional cantucci are made with almonds but today you find them in all kinds of flavours: chocolate, pistachio, raisin, lemon. You name it. A favourite I discovered on holiday was cantucci con fiche (cantucci with figs) and so I decided to try and recreate these. I didn't have any almonds to hand but decided that I'd try using toasted pine nuts. My cantucci con pinoli worked rather well, I think.

Just to clarify the difference between biscotti and cantucci: biscotti is the Italian for 'biscuit' and covers all kinds of biscuits and cookies. Literally, it means 'twice-cooked (and indeed these biscuits are cooked twice). So, cantucci are a type of Italian biscuit. 'Biscotti' is all-encompassing. Cantucci is specific. Are we all clear on that now?! I hope so.

Anyway, you can flavour these beauties however you fancy. I divided the dough in two to create the two types. You could go traditional and choose the almonds (toast them first) or add chunks of chocolate or any other flavour you favour. The world is your oyster.

Cantucci con fiche e cantucci con pinoli
Makes around 24


250g plain flour (plus extra for dusting)
250g caster sugar
pinch of salt
2 large eggs
40g pine nuts (a smallish handful)
6 dried figs

1. Pre-heat oven to 220C. Toast the pine nuts in a dry, non-stick frying pan until fragrant and just brown.

2. Sieve the flour into a bowl and mix with the sugar and salt. Make a well in the centre and add the eggs. Mix together thoroughly - start with a spoon and then get your hands in there. At first you'll think that it will never come together but resist the temptation to add water - it will come together eventually.

2. When the mixture had just come together, divide in two. To one half add the toasted pine nuts. To the other half, add the figs, chopped into smallish bits.

2. Turn each mixture in turn out onto a floured surface and knead until you have a smooth and elastic dough. This will be sticky so you'll need a fair bit of flour to dust hands and surface. You'll get there eventually! Roll the dough into loaves: round sausages which you then flatted very slightly.

3. Oil a baking sheet and dust with flour. Place loaves on top and bake for 25 minutes until just golden but still softish inside.

4. Remove loaves from tray and slice on an angle. Each biscuit should be around 2cm in width.
5. Place back in oven and bake until crisp and golden - another 10 minutes.

5. Enjoy dipped into a glass of vin santo or a cup of coffee!

Please note - contrary to the evidence, I did not make monster-sized cantucci. The glass is very small!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Gooseberry crumble

Another joy of British summertime is the gooseberry. I find something rather amusing about gooseberries, though I'm not sure why. I think perhaps it is that they are hairy and a little awkward looking:

What delicious little fruits these are though. They have a short season so grab them while you can. Whilst later in the season you can find red gooseberries, which are sweeter, these stripy and hairy green beauties are more common. They are very tart so require the addition of sugar to balance out the flavour. Stewed and added to cream or custard, they make a terrific fool or ice cream. But my favourite way to eat them is beneath a layer of buttery crumble. It might not seem the most summery of puddings, but it really is good.

I terribly miss hot puds in the summer and this really satisfied my craving. I'd been enjoying supper al fresco last weekend and as I served this indulgent dish, there was just a slight nip in the air. This was just perfect for warming me back up so that I could enjoy sitting outside a little later. A bowl of cold berries or homemade ice cream might have seemed more appropriate, but would surely have had me retreating indoors far earlier!

Gooseberry crumble is delicious at its simplest of course, but there are a couple of additions that I think lift it a notch in the flavour stakes. I added a little elderflower cordial to the fruit and also some ground almonds to the crumble mixture. I think both flavours compliment the gooseberries well.

In a bid to make you all jealous, I thought I'd let you know that I am off for a week's holiday to beautiful Tuscany tomorrow. I can hardly wait (thought I've not even got the suitcase out yet). There will therefore be a lull in posts. We are staying in a stunning villa and will be doing our own cooking though so I'm sure I'll have lots to report upon my return!

Gooseberry crumble
serves four


1kg gooseberries
elderflower cordial
caster sugar

6oz plain flour
4oz butter
2oz sugar
4 tbsp ground almonds

1. Pre-heat oven to 180C. Rinse the gooseberries and then top and tail. Place in the bottom of an ovenproof dish.

2. Sprinkle over some sugar to taste - I would suggest around 3-4 tablespoons. Drizzle over a little elderflower cordial - a couple of tablespoons should be about right. More if you are especially fond of elderflower.

3. Prepare the crumble by rubbing the butter into the flour and sugar until you have crumbs. You can do this in the food processor but go easy - I sometimes find that it makes the crumble too fine. Mix in the ground almonds.

4. Sprinkle the crumble over the fruit and bake in the oven for 40 minutes, or until golden on top and bubbling around the sides. Serve with custard, cream or ice-cream.

Notes - gooseberries can also work well in some savoury dishes and are particularly good with oily fish such a mackerel.