Easter Monday: an orange, marzipan and chocolate disciple cake

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Easter orange, marzipan and chocolate disciple cake

I didn’t have to make lunch on Easter Day this year; that duty and pleasure fell to Abraham, my ex-husband, who did a fantastic job with a leg of lamb. I contributed pudding in the shape of a meringue stack piled up with lemon curd, fresh mango and whipped cream. Later, back at home, the children piled into their Easter eggs while I made this Easter orange, marzipan and chocolate disciple cake.

It’s a take on a Simnel cake in that it sports eleven marzipan balls on top – to represent Jesus’s loyal disciples, the ones who hadn’t done the dirty on him for thirty pieces of silver. But this version of a festival cake for Easter is much more to my taste than traditional Simnel. It’ll actually get eaten. It’s not a rich fruit cake – or indeed, any kind of fruit cake.

Instead, it’s a cake involving ground almonds and almond extract, orange zest and juice, and crystallised lemon or orange peel (bought in long shreds which, though they look rather unappealingly worm-like, manage to retain some moisture, unlike those ghastly little chopped pieces which are the other option). I’ve made this cake once before, four years ago, and loved it.  This time I added some glace cherries (vermilion-tinged rather than the garnet-red dark undyed ones), and some pistachios – just to make the colours even more Pascal and spring-like.

Easter cake in sunlight

This recipe originally came from Hello!, circa 1998 – a period of upheaval in my life when rather than take to chemical enhancements I had a phase of craving anodyne yet ultimately pernicious materials drawing on the lives of minor European royals, C-list celebrities and Joan Collins for an inspirational message of family, wealth, births, marriages, ‘unpleasantnesses’, and face-lifts. I needed Hello! at the time, and it served its purpose. And I have a few torn-out recipes that I’m very grateful for.

Be that as it may. At the time of writing – Easter Monday, coffee-time – the cake’s still virgin and unbreached – we couldn’t have managed it after yesterday’s lunch – and I’ll press-gang people to come and eat a bit later. My father will say, ‘yes, dear, lovely, it’s very light, isn’t it?’. He’d prefer to be at home in his flat down the road, listening to Radio 3. The children will probably say they’re too full of chocolate. But the idea is, such family rituals will keep them off crack cocaine in the coming years. My marzipan’s quite something.

PS… five hours later, it tasted great and we’re three disciples down, eight to go!

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Good Friday fish stew with red and yellow pepper rouille

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Good Friday fish stew

I gave up Christianity long since, but traditions are traditions, and eating fish on a Friday may not feature on my weekly calendar, but it certainly feels the right and proper thing to do on Good Friday. When I was married, my Ethiopian in-laws used to put me to shame in the ways that they marked Lent; my mother-in-law sleeps on a concrete floor with just one blanket for weeks on end, and eats vegan.

None of that self-denial going on here; instead, there’s the pleasure of using a religious festival as an excuse for self-indulgence, and you know what? Bugger it, why on earth not. Part of me still feels the guilt of doing this, but I’m fighting it, hard. The picture I’ve posted above makes me feel very, very grateful for my life and everything in it.

So I got out my saffron and my dry vermouth, checked I’d got fennel (both bulb and seeds) as well as celery, garlic, tomatoes and onions, and then went off to the fishmonger to buy haddock (wanted pollock, more sustainable, but no luck) – and squid, and mussels. This kind of investment in fish, and the time and energy and hope involved in cooking it, requires something more than a trip to the Sainsbury’s fish counter.

Fish stew from above

I used a James Ramsden recipe from his book Do-Ahead Dinners, but made a few changes, as you do. The resulting Good Friday fish stew with red and yellow pepper rouille I’ve posted here includes my tweaks. Some of them were good, but not the fact that I chopped my veg very finely in the Magimix – I should have left the fennel in elegant slivers, and the celery in its little ‘c’s; had I done that and also used tinned tomatoes, not fresh ones as James suggested, I’m sure the sauce would have been more voluptuous in terms of texture. I added tomato paste to deepen it, though, and the taste was fantastic.

The children pointed out that you could loop a squid ring over your wrist and it’d be reminiscent of the Make Poverty History bands. I was asked for permission to do so, and permission was denied. It’s no coincidence that all these foodies like me doing supperclubs and blogs are cropping up in our era of austerity and food insecurity – not lost on me at all. But looping squid over our wrists isn’t going to be a huge help – best to give a donation to the Trussell Trust.

Treacle tart

We followed it up with another of St James of the Supperclub’s recipes – for treacle tart, which as an Englishwoman and daughter of a good baker I can make anyway, but I just like seeing how other people do it. It was delicious.

Treacle tart on plate

I like treacle tart to taste pretty plain – no messing around with ginger, which in my book turns it into something quite different. Ezra complained about the lemon rind in it, but I thought that was good. Lemon juice sharpens it up (my addition) – and we agreed on the sea salt. I love that salt has become so trendy as an ingredient in caramel and toffee puddings – I know, it couldn’t be worse for one. But having said that, I’m not expecting an Easter egg and I have to take my pleasures where I can.

Sicily, the spring, and Signorina Salvini’s chocolate dolce: my seventh supperclub

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Massed ranks of S Salvini

My seventh Supperclub event, last Saturday, was full of the sweet, sour and savoury tastes you get from cooking from Sicily, and other places on approximately the same bandwidth as it were: Southern Spain, and the northern shores of Africa. At my supperclub, I cook and share what inspires and delights me, the foods I want to make and eat myself.

Me in the kitchen

I’ve not yet been to Sicily, but I’m so ready to go. The closest I ever got was watching Inspector Montalbano - a (very bad) Italian cop show a few years ago – I had a boyfriend who thought it quite the thing. I tried to suspend my judgement: the most interesting aspect was the evocation of place, and the food. Specifically, some rather splendid cold meals left for Inspector Montalbano to eat by his (old crone of a) housekeeper. That food gave me ideas.

These Southern tastes are huge flavours, breaking through like thunder in a still, warm, oppressive sky. They’re like the popping candy of real cooking: explosions in your mouth. Hardly surprising that they lack subtlety as they’re older than refrigeration; the sourness of vinegar, the spicing of fennel and saffron.

 Goats yoghurt granita

When I’m planning each month’s popup home restaurant dinner, I start with one dish that captures my imagination, and the rest is planned around it. Inspiration for this menu started from an amazingly romantic-sounding savoury goat’s yoghurt granita with preserved lemons, caramelised walnuts, pomegranate molasses, and basil. The recipe’s from Kerstin Rogers, aka Ms MarmiteLover, doyenne of London supperclubs. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve ever eaten – a burst of soft icy crystals, the sweet, glazed crunch of nuts, the unctuous sour trickle of the pomegranate syrup.

Before Saturday’s supperclub guests ever got to sample the granita, though, they’d started with something more solid. Roasted chicory – bitter, crisping, brown charred leaf-edges curling in the heat of the oven – served with San Daniele ham, and Roman-style black olive and fig chutney, with crunchy roasted fennel seeds.

Roasted chicory, San Daniele ham, black olive and fig chutney

The main course was Catalan chicken with picada, and saffron orzotto. The chicken’s a Diana Henry recipe (as so many of mine are; I’m a tweaker of recipes, honouring their provenance, and collator of menus; not claiming originality, since I find reading and learning from others a totally indispensable part of the pleasure of cookery. Diana’s my very favourite – she gets the literature, orientalism, adventure and romance of it all).

This recipe uses picada as a thickening agent: it’s a traditional Spanish paste, which flavours as it melts into the sauce and cradles the chicken. There’s white wine, pounded almonds, bread, and sweet biscuits. The casserole ends up rich, golden, plumped with sherry-soaked raisins, scattered with parsley. Perfect food.

Catalan chicken plated up

You need the dark strength of plain chocolate to round off the sharpness of this menu, with all its sour complexity. I made Signorina Salvini’s chocolate dolce: an intensely rich chocolate mousse studded with amaretti biscuits, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, dried cherries. Scented with amaretto, and served in little, vintage harlequin dishes.

4 Salvinis

In the 1970s, Josceline Dimbleby (Henry of Leon fame’s mum) inspired my mother to make it for her own dinners. It’s pictured at the top of this post, tweaked and updated for 2014 and the next generation. I considered rechristening it Signorina Sweetman’s; then thought, no. I served the chocolate dolce with pools of double cream. My mother, in contrast, would have whipped hers and sprinkled it with grated chocolate. How we have progressed as a species.

Menu on the mirror

Two last-minute spaces at my table tonight, Sat 5th April

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Good morning all! And this is becoming a monthly ritual – two last-minute cancellations at my table for dinner tonight (book one or two, either is fine). The menu is really, really lovely – spring, sour-savoury-sweet, ancient Roman tastes, vintage 1970s via Italy dessert. I’m excited and I’m just getting the leftovers. Judge for yourself. And click this link to book… at 25 pounds, you know it makes sense!

Hibiscus flower-scented Prosecco with new-season Sicilian olives, salted almonds, roasted peppers with feta stuffing (on the house)

Roasted chicory with sherry vinegar, San Daniele ham, black olive and fig chutney

Yoghurt granita with caramelised walnuts. pomegranate molasses, preserved lemons and basil

Catalan chicken casserole with picada, saffron orzotto and salad leaves

Cheeses

Signorina Salvini’s chocolate dolce with pistachios and dried cherries

Thyme-scented goat’s cheese mousse and drunken oranges

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goats cheese mousse

Today started with me spotting a tweet about sheep’s cheese mousse as an element of a rather complicated pudding. I love the farmyard tang of sheep’s and goat’s milk and, since I’d got a little log of Welsh goat’s cheese in the fridge and an old friend coming for lunch, I thought I’d use the idea as inspiration.

The eventual goat’s cheese mousse scented with thyme that I came up with was really rather good. It’s obviously more like summer in the Alps than spring in Oxfordshire, but you won’t mind that any more than I do. I look forward to trying making this recipe with a really decent cheese – it had enough of a goaty aftertaste even made with bog-standard supermarket goat’s cheese to put one of my children off. But I didn’t, quite honestly, make it for him in mind. So I hope I get to reprise this mousse with something rather more robust quite soon. (There was no cheese stall at Wolvercote Farmers’ Market today – I did try!)

You could eat this with any fruit – figs would be lovely; rhubarb, of course, to be seasonal; or orange segments, as I did today, with a whiff of Cointreau.

P.S. I preceded this with beetroot risotto with trout fillets, with lots of dill chopped into it. Risotto recipes are ten a penny – you need to make it with some white wine and garlic in it, and then stir in some beetroot puree when the risotto’s finished. Plenty of parmesan needed, more dill sprinkled over the top. Nigel Slater was my first risotto guru, giving the basic recipe in his Real Fast Food published twenty years ago – the book that his latest, Eat, aims to replace for the way we eat now. Happy to say it isn’t only me who still eats risotto – it’s on pages 224-5 of the new book.

Salt cod, spring lamb, and a nice cup of tea: Portuguese flavours at my sixth supper club event

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Brandade with roasted peppers plated up 2

This time last week I was cooking like a thing possessed for the twelve strangers coming to dinner at my supperclub event. They’d booked and paid for a menu including the best possible English spring produce I could find at the Covered Market in Oxford: organic saddle of lamb, purple-sprouting broccoli, spinach, young rhubarb stems. But I’d accentuated these with flavours from Portugal and Spain: lemon, peppers, harissa paste, ginger and cinnamon.

Here’s the menu – spot the typo, but Joseph’s getting pretty good:

Menu

So, to the salt cod brandade with roasted harissa peppers. You bury the raw fish in a crystalline heap of sea salt, and leave it to consider its position in the fridge for four days. The grave-juices ooze out of it (it is somehow redolent of embalming). Then you drain the fish, and cook it with olive oil and milk, as if it’s mashed potato. The result is a rich, unctuous paste evoking the ocean and fishing boats with that almost-rotten deep savoury aroma of Mediterranean cuisine. The purists will cringe, but I added some fish sauce to deepen the flavour. With red, orange and yellow roasted peppers and homemade harissa, this brandade was a lovely way to start the meal, and I’ll be doing it again.

(By the way, the scientists among you will not be surprised, as I was, to find out that if you freeze salt cod after the alchemy’s happened, it stays flexible, just as vodka stays syrupy and semi-liquid if you store it in a domestic freezer. I initially thought I’d left the freezer open, but not so.)

Broccoli with lemon Hollandaise plated

Next on the menu last Saturday – because we couldn’t really do a Spring dinner without it – was purple sprouting broccoli with lemon Hollandaise sauce.  I love Hollandaise so much I used to eat it with potatoes as a student as my whole evening meal. I survived those years, so that’s good. Note to self, though: delicious, and no regrets, but it’s just a bit too edgy to make Hollandaise for 12 when you’re 100 per cent of the labour available in the kitchen and doing most of the front of house too.

Saddle of Lamb with fennel and black olive gratin, plated

It was a relief to make it to the main course: saddle of lamb stuffed with spinach and merguez sausage, with fennel and black olive gratin. The flavours here are quite delicious; I was happy.

I opted to finish the meal with another seasonal English taste: rhubarb and ginger-beer jellies, with ginger mascarpone and ginger shortbread butterflies. These were lovely, but I messed up on the night, over-decorating. It threatened to turn into Come Dine With Me… I came back from the brink and learnt a lesson.

Rhubarb and ginger jellies

This picture was taken the following morning when I made the jellies all over again. It mattered to me. Perfectionism at its most tight-arsed, I know.

And, you will ask, what’s with the ‘nice cup of tea’ in the title of this post? Well, my son Joseph got the orders wrong on Saturday and six people who wanted peppermint tea (this is Oxford after all) ended up with ‘normal’ tea. I thought this was rather atypical when I was making it. Imagine my surprise when, while randomly googling to try to find an interesting fact or two on Portugal and English connections, I found out Catherine of Braganza (Charles II’s Portuguese, and much-put-upon, Queen) was responsible for making tea popular in England. I hope a good cuppa cheered her up when he made his mistress lady of the queen’s bedchamber. And do the Portuguese wash their salt cod down with Tetley? I think I need to know.

Waitrose styling in my kitchen

PS: burning to tell you this. On Friday, amid the prep for the supperclub, I had a visit from a team of three strong men and true (a photographer, art director and photographer’s assistant) to take a photo of me for Waitrose Weekend, which is featuring an interview with me in a coming issue (they say it’s likely to be the one piled up on the tills on 10 April – but this may change). They took three hours to take just the one pic. Perfectionists anonymous, come on down (if there was such a group, I think I’d join it myself, and they should too…shifting jugs of rhubarb and tealights a tiddly, tiny bit to the right… and then the left…) The camera survived without breaking, but I think it overheated. It was fun seeing what they did to make me and my kitchen look suitable for Waitrose’s select clientele. After we finished, I tried the brandade on them, which they said was better than a sandwich on the motorway. (One for my review page?)

I bought a fab dress for the photo – Fifties, fitted, full skirt, bespattered with flowers on stiff cotton damask. A little red cardigan just fell off the shelf into my basket at Cath Kidston, too, when I was in Oxford getting the saddle of lamb from Fellers in the Covered Market.  See it in all its glory soon in a branch of Waitrose near you…

 

One space at my table for Saturday 1 March….

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Sorry, this space has now gone, but look at my Events page to book for Saturday April 5th.

Calling an adventurous, sociable foodie-type person to come to dinner at my table on Saturday! You’re the missing link – yes, you! The menu’s glorious – English spring seasonal flavours with a Portuguese and Spanish twist.

Kir Royale with marinated olives

Salt cod brandade with roasted red peppers and bruschetta

Purple sprouting broccoli with hollandaise sauce

Lamb stuffed with spinach and chorizo with fennel and black olive gratin

Cheeses with homemade onion seed oatcakes

Rhubarb and ginger jellies with ginger mascarpone and rhubarb shortbread

 £25.00 for five courses with a complementary cocktail – what’s not to like?  Book here, and my address in Wolvercote will be shared on booking. Bring your own wine.

Macaron heaven, macaron hell: top tips from a less-than-perfect cook

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Macarons in tin

I took this tin of home-made macarons with different lovely flavours to the New Year’s Resolutions Club – a motivational, social networking group of Oxford women. The organisers had invited me to their meeting last week, to talk about loving what you do, and my experience setting up Wolvercote Supper Club. I wanted them to see something I’d put real effort into, and hadn’t yet quite got right. I had a really lovely time burbling on about the Supper Club. The macarons I took along were far from perfect (as you can see in the photo), but I’m learning to accept myself (and my macarons) as OK, even if we’re a work in progress. 

They were the outcome of a lot of labour in the kitchen that day and the day before. Spring half-term 2014 will be remembered by my sons for the rain and the amount of time they got to play on the X-box, and for me, it’ll be the time I got to grips with making macarons. Again, and again, and again. I’m damned if I’m going to let a recipe beat me.

My feeling is now, as I look back on seven batches of the things, that it’s a draw. Macarons 1, Caroline 1.  

This match was long-anticipated on my part – it was around Maytime last year that I took myself off to the Lakeland shop at Bicester and bought a book on making macarons together with little vials and tubs of every variety of flavouring essence and colour paste they stocked, along with some rather pretty boxes to put the finished products in (ever the optimist).

As is often the case, buying all the equipment made me feel I had done enough for now, and I never quite got round to using any of the stuff until this past week when the children were on half-term, it rained incessantly, and I needed something to do – ‘I’m bored, children’.

So I whipped up my first batch, and after the second I’d memorised the recipe – it is, on paper, so laughably easy.  All it is is a meringue mixture made with ground almonds. How hard can it be to do that? You separate three eggs and whip up the whites in a big bowl, mix in a little caster sugar, and drop in the flavouring and colouring (the fun bit – Potions classes in Harry Potter). Then you gradually fold in icing sugar and ground almonds, spoon the molten, bubbly mass into an icing bag, and pipe the mixture in little rounds onto baking paper on a baking sheet.

Caramel macarons uncooked on tray

You give the tin a sharp tap on a hard surface to release any big bubbles, leave them well alone for around half an hour to an hour to become firm on top, shove them in a fairly hot oven for ten minutes or so, and voila! What do you have?

The answer is, a different result each time.  The first ones were lime and chocolate macarons, and I had beginners’ luck with them. Lime zest flavoured the shells, and I made lime curd and chocolate ganache to  fill them.

Lime macarons with fillings

I got all confident then. The second batch was blackcurrant and chocolate – fantastic flavour combination, but the difficulty of achieving the right colour by mixing red and blue colouring and ensuring it was well-mixed-in while not destroying the bubbles in the meringue was considerable. And then, and then, a second and utterly unrelated pitfall became apparent – if you undercook them, they don’t end up with a hard bottom surface so you can’t get them off the buggering baking sheet.

Out of my seven batches though, made over two days, only one was a disaster and the rest, once filled with lovely fillings, looked very respectable – even pretty, even if you’d never mistake them for Laduree or Oxford’s own Sara O’s (which are beyond wonderful in terms of their looks). However, and this is what’s important, the textures were the right blend of melting and crisp, and the flavours were really lovely – my strength, I think.

raspberry macaron on plate

I made Earl Grey, coloured faint grey-blue, and filled with white chocolate ganache with tea leaves in it; raspberry, flavoured with raspberry flavouring and coloured pink of course, with sieved best raspberry jam and Chambord liqueur-flavoured buttercream within (pictured with one of the blackcurrant and chocolate variety, above), and caramel, with vanilla essence flavouring the shells and a heavenly mixture of salted caramel sauce and mascarpone inside.

These little elegant mouthfuls of crisp, almond-sugar crumbliness melded with a melting filling which actually becomes one with the macaron shell are fascinating to me for their potential. I’m going to do such things – I know not what they are, but they shall be the terrors of the earth (King Lear making macarons, now there’s an image to conjure with – maybe I’m having a sugar rush).

St Valentine, patron saint of beekeeping: honey as an antidote to schmaltz

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Greek honey cakes

It’s been a couple of years since I was in a relationship on Valentine’s Day, and woke up to the sound of the text messager heralding an onslaught of romantic endearments. The text was adorned with little pink emoticon hearts, and expressed the writer’s hope that this would be ‘the first of many years together’. Such is the heady, high-octane stuff of long-distance relationships in middle age. It was lovely – but it was over by July.  Page on and one year ago, I was alone but shortly to meet someone else, fall in love, and sadly (in the immortal words of Natalie Lue of Baggage Reclaim), ‘lather, rinse, repeat’. 

This year, I’m (to paraphrase an actor’s phrase), ‘resting’ from romance. Solo living at Valentine’s demands resilience, and nice food to make up. Yesterday I started the day with a message on my email from Debenhams – ‘LAST CHANCE for Valentine’s Day…’ – but you know what? That’s for me to judge…

And in the meantime I’m cooking and eating with honey, to mark St Valentine in his lesser-known capacity as patron saint of bee-keepers. I looked him up on Wikipedia and found out what a broad brief this obscure third-century Christian Saint actually had. He isn’t only the go-to saint for married couples – he’s there for bee-keepers, and sufferers of plague and epilepsy, too. Tough work, but some saint had to do it.

So I’m offering some honey recipes here, to mark the day. First is butterflied leg of lamb with honey, rosemary, mint and hazelnut pesto, which I’m making for dinner tonight. Here it is, before it went into the oven just now:

Butterflied leg of lamb with honey, mint and rosemary pesto - before cooking

And, after the children and I feast on this lamb (which I’ll serve with mustard and caper mash and spinach), we have a fruit salad spiked with honey that wasn’t in the plan – but I found Joseph making it for me when I came home a bit earlier than expected this afternoon. It’s my Valentine, along with two tubes of Parma Violets and a card with him and me cuddling, photoshopped (God, I’d better make sure he doesn’t read this – it’ll be really embarrassing). This was the best bit of the day.

If we have room, after the fruit salad, there’ll be Greek honey and spice buns - loukoumades - flavoured with star anise and cinnamon and honey once more. They’re little white bread buns, dripping with spiced honey syrup, sprinkled with cinnamon.

Well, then. Be my Valentine, dear reader.

… and the rogue French recipe that I forgot: spiced whipped butter for slathering

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Maitre d'hotel butter 1 February

Seems a shame to have forgotten to blog this devilishly simple, devilled butter recipe in the last post, on my fifth supperclub last weekend – particularly because I was asked what was in it by guests who enjoyed it.

The answer is that I kind of flung this together, to eat with the crusty bread I served with cassoulet, after reading about maitre d’hotel butter in a whipped butter article on the Interweb. So apparently maitre d’hotel butter just contains lemon and parsley, but my version (of course) involved a great deal else. ‘More is more’ is my motto, as regular followers of Wolvercote Supper Club’s blog and past guests at my table will know. I know astrology’s crap and I know all about confirmation bias too, but I am going to explain this love of excess in terms of being a Taurean woman. And this is my blog, so I’m free to do so…

So this lovely, light, spicy whipped butter (shall we call it Maitresse de Supperclub butter? Do we have to? maybe not) – contains soft butter, crushed garlic, Tabasco, grated lemon zest, chives, parsley, black pepper and finely chopped Kalamata olives. It’s great melted in a pat on steak or slathered onto baked potatoes, or on a crumpet if you share my love for them. And the pictures are so pretty. Next time I’ll add anchovies.

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A bout de soufflé: French home cooking at my fifth supperclub, with recipes

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Toulouse cassoulet in casserole

The monarch of the table at Wolvercote Supper Club’s fifth popup at my house last Saturday was this majestic Toulouse cassoulet. Cassoulet is officially peasant food, or so the myth goes, yet it’s surely one of life’s great indulgences. As an avid reader of books on revolution, and knowing my Wordsworth’s Preludes, I find it very hard to believe that any hunger-bitten poor people ever got so much as the scent of one. Life was clearly A-OK for the French smallholders who had the ingredients and fuel to make this.  

So here’s Saturday’s menu, typed up by one of the children to give out to the guests:

Wolvercote Supper Club menu 1 Feb 2014

The part of the meal I enjoyed cooking the most was the spinach and watercress soufflés with truffle-scented cream that I served first. Soufflés honestly don’t deserve their scary reputation, and they are so truly blissful. I love the way they ooze at the centre, yet their crisp brown edges peel cleanly away from the earthenware they’re baked in. Certainly soufflés keep you on your toes timing-wise, puffing up vertiginously and demanding to be whisked out of the oven at the sound of a klaxon and eaten right there, right then. But that just means getting your ducks (sorry, guests) in a row, bibs on and forks at the ready, geared up for a rapid response.

Spinach and watercress souffles 1 Feb 2014

(I didn’t manage to take this photo fast enough for the souffle to be at its highest; nor did I remember to pour the truffle cream over…) alas.

Citrus salad with mustard and mint dressing came next: apple-scented, tautly-stretched segments of pomelo, softer ruby and white grapefruit, and blood oranges in tiny fragile pieces, layered in vintage green glass dishes.

Citrus mint salad with mustard and mint dressing

There’s a whole farmyard of animals in Toulouse cassoulet (vegetarians, look away now). The one I made boasted a whole duck, a butterflied leg of lamb, a handsomely large piece of pork belly, and (of course) Toulouse-style sausages. The meats are cooked with haricot beans, browned onions, garlic, and fennel, tomato purée, white wine from Languedoc, Normandy cider and bouquet garnis.  After four hours of slow, respectful simmering in the oven, the cassoulet is scattered with a thick layer of breadcrumbs, thyme and oregano, which melds with the fats released from the meats to create a crisp topping.

Toulouse cassoulet on plate

I prioritised local over French on the cheese course; we had Roger Crudge’s lovely Oxfordshire-made cheese (no website yet, but you can follow him on Twitter at @RogerCrudge, and find him at Wolvercote Farmers Market).

To finish, I made pear sorbet in brandy-snap cups, with pear crisps and blackcurrant sauce. Tangy and fruity, to cut through all that richness, with creme de cassis to evoke summer days on the Continent. All I’d say else is, I made brandy-snap cups so you don’t have to. It’s a thankless task which took most of Friday afternoon, and I’m not going to go there again.

Pear sorbet in brandy-snap baskets plated up 1 Feb 2014

Perhaps the reason why French home cooking isn’t the immediate cookery style of choice for many of us at home right now lies in the fact that it was the fashion food of our parents’ generation, in the wake of Elizabeth David’s writing and the lengths she had to resort to when buying ingredients – tracking down olive oil in Boots to add to her vinaigrettes.  Or perhaps our generation thinks of French cooking as up its own arse, a dated bells-and-whistles ‘fine dining’ style? Whatever the reason for the comparative lack of interest in cooking French food at home, we need to get it back. As proof, here’s a picture of Saturday’s table laid bare by lots of happy people, replete (we took this shot after the cassoulet, unlike poverty, had become history). Let’s reclaim French home cooking!

Guests at the table 1 Feb 2014

Two cancellations for tomorrow’s popup – any takers?

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STOP PRESS… sorry, the spaces have gone… booking’s open for the 5th April supperclub though 

I’ve two last-minute cancellations for tomorrow’s (Saturday 1 February) popup home restaurant event at my house in Wolvercote, Oxford… starting with cocktails at 7.45. I’m cooking all day today and it is going to be wonderful. Any spontaneous desires among the gluttons – sorry gourmets – out there for this lavish and lovely five course French/Mediterranean-inspired menu? It’s just 22.50, and the best bargain you will ever find (wish I could find my sterling sign on this keyboard…)

Kir Royale and homemade harissa-marinated olives (on the house)

Spinach and watercress souffles with truffle-scented cream

Citrus mint vinaigrette

Toulouse cassoulet with rustic home-made bread, maitre d’hotel butter and salad

Crudge’s Oxfordshire cheeses with homemade oatcakes and grapes

Pear sorbet in brandy-snap baskets with pear crisps, blackcurrant sauce

If you’re interested, (and come on, who wouldn’t be?)  email wolvercotesupperclub@live.co.uk. As ever, it’s bring your own wine.

Cabbage soup with red pepper, caraway, sesame and soy: my life as a Thinifer

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cabbage soup

If you can’t talk diets in January, you’re persona non grata. I learnt this as a teenage girl who got called a Thinifer by people at school (remember that children’s story, Fattypuffs and Thinifers? The former were the heroes, loveable, kindly, and fond of a laugh; the latter were miserable kill-joys). But my fat-thin identity’s kind of unclear right now in mid-January, like most. Hence I’m throwing you a dream January recipe:  Cabbage soup with red pepper, caraway, sesame and soy. It’s ludicrously cheap, awfully good for you, low on calories, and very, very tasty.

I’m not one of nature’s instinctive healthy eaters: being naturally thin, I’ve had no incentive to exercise and tended as a teenager to eat unhealthy but gorgeous fat-laden foods in vain attempts to acquire the all-important feminine curves. My best friend Emma used to eat her cottage cheese sandwiches at school, while I ate an eclair. She might have gone for this soup but there’s no way I would then.  It’s a spicy, lively broth with cabbage shreds, fresh tomato and onion, flavoured vibrantly with sesame seeds, caraway, and red chilli flakes.  You add wholemeal bread in cubes to it, as ballast (you can leave them out if you want, but I want a few carbs in there – old habits never die).

At 15, I just wanted my thighs to touch each other when I stood up. I drank hopeful mugs of Horlicks with every meal, wore leg-warmers to pad out my jeans, and couldn’t talk to boys.  I had a bit of an epiphany when I was 18 and bought a bottle of vile sunshine-yellow emulsion marketed as ‘Super Wate-On’. It was advertised at the back of Jackie mag, with a picture of a curvy girl in a bikini on the beach with A Boy.  At that time I didn’t recognise the taste, but in retrospect I realise that Wate-On was almost pure olive oil. I balked at it, floating in a slick on the top of my glass of orange juice. Maybe there were worse things than being thin? I threw it all away and somehow started to feel a little better, having discovered I had a price.

Back then I’d never have wasted time eating this soup – OK, so it is delicious, but I never wasted valuable eating opportunities on low-cal food. I did eventually get a boyfriend who gave me some confidence, but I carried on wanting some tits. And people kept on saying things (my goodness, I was vulnerable).  I was 23 and temping in London, for Kenneth Turner (a society florist, darling, with a line in pillar candles; he did the weekly flowers for Lady Di’s stepmother, who never paid her bills). Ken had an extraordinary showroom at the end of South Molton Street. I can see it now: filled with antiques, statuary, and glorious profusions of grapes and convolvulus. A team of young men (who shared my enthusiasm for poetry) worked in the basement, tying up the nosegays. One day, Ken’s partner Alan was heard describing me as an ‘anorexic Barbie doll’.  I tried to let it not go in, but it was difficult.

Then, one day, the long-awaited day came. I was 27. It was Christmas, and I’d had a lovely time. Suddenly I noticed my stomach was now convex, not concave. And that is the end of this particular history. Page on two decades, and I’m still able to eat more than most people and, of course, love being slender now (it’s great at this age). And I love this soup. Though it’s usually two bowlfuls, not just the one.

Let’s fly South for dinner: African food to light up dark days

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Tomato bredie 4 January 2014

At my fourth home restaurant event last Saturday, we left a wet and windy Wolvercote and conjured up some flavours of Southern Africa. It’s not all braais (barbecues), fried chicken and peri-peri sauce.  Southern Africa has a fusion cuisine ‘to die for’, as you might hear someone say in a Jo’burg suburb. It melds European, Asian and African cooking traditions, using a fantastic array of vegetables and fruits from the fertile red-earthed gardens and vineyards of the Cape.

The water carrier

So Ngwaga o mosha! (Happy New Year, in Sesotho) from me, and welcome to life on the Southern Tip.

We started with Little Chive Pies in Turmeric Pastry with Pomegranate, Ginger and Orange Relish. These little pies are golden, and the pastry’s as short as short can be. They need a stunning relish to cut through their crumbly creaminess, and this scarlet fruity one looks and tastes amazing.

Little chive pies with pomegranate, ginger and orange relish 4 Jan 2014

Apple and Fennel Soup with Fresh Herbs followed. This soup is typical of Cape cookery: sharp and sour, fruity and savoury, enriched and made intoxicating with a last-minute stirring-in of dry white wine and cream.

Apple and fennel soup in prep 4 Jan 2014

This soup’s from my prized copy of The Old Cape Farm Stall Cookery Book, offering handed-down recipes rooted in Dutch and English cookery, incorporating elements of Malay and South Asian spicing. I made cornbread to go with the soup, as a nod to the maize meal porridge that is a staple for the whole rainbow nation.

Apple and fennel soup with corn bread 4 Jan 2014

Next up for the main course was South African Tomato and Lamb Bredie – a vivid, rich, chilli and paprika-spiced stew of tender lamb (pictured at the top of the post). Such traditional dishes were created to be cooked for long hours in three-legged pots over campfires. I’d made a highly atypical Chestnut Bredie also for a non-meat eating guest. To go with, I cooked sweet potato mashed with tender basil and cinnamon butter; and a dish I learnt from my very good friend and colleague Senate Molapo when I lived in Lesotho – Moroho (African-style greens flavoured with red chillis and onions).

Chased out of shebeen

While passing the hours in my rather relaxed job in Lesotho’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, I read through dozens of South African women’s magazines (for research purposes of course). It blew me away that in a racist state the white women bought a magazine titled Fair Lady. The equivalent for black South African women was (and this isn’t great, either) - True Love and Family. But their dessert recipes were brilliant. On Saturday, I made a Lime and Granadilla Tart with Lime and Yoghurt Ice-cream. In the UK we know granadillas as passion fruit; I think it’s hard to decide which of these names is more lovely.

Lime and granadilla tart 4 Jan 2014

Lesotho is a country of sun, bone-numbing cold in the high altitudes of the mountains. Poverty, barren land interlaced with gullies created by erosion, papery, tufty maize plants, and iron-roofed stores selling single cigarettes, Cream Soda, tribal blankets made in the UK as one of the last exports of Empire.  Outside on the ground, piled in little pyramids and sold informally by women, you buy onions and cabbage; misshapen, ruby red tomatoes; roast white corn cobs; and lemons which look like limes. If I had a Tardis, I’d go back there.

Me and guests at the table 4 Jan 2014

Sadly there’s no time-travel option available (and not even the money for the airfare right now), but sharing my enthusiasm for this food is the next best thing. Saturday’s supperclub guests were a lovely group of people and the size of Oxford means there were friends in common and friends re-encountered. Some of their comments are going up on my Reviews page…

No cooking for a few days now! I upgraded to an IPhone 5S just before Christmas and was very impressed with its security which enables you to unlock the phone by placing your finger on the main button. Sadly by the time I’d finished cooking, the damn phone had given up recognising my roughened fingerprint. That’s a sign not to be ignored, and I’m aiming to eat out this weekend.

In the deep mid-winter… rosemary sugar loaf cake and salmon en croute

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Rosemary loaf cake 1 Jan 2014

Today was the final feast of Christmas – and the first one of 2014. I made this Rosemary Sugar Loaf Cake to end our meal, and we ate it in the dusk at four o’clock, with the greyness of the street kept at a distance by the warmth of the room, the glow of the tea-lights in coloured glasses, the cold bluish brightness of the fairy-lights threaded at the sash windows in the bay. I chose to make this cake because I craved something quite plain, yet utterly luxurious, with a herbal aromatic quality to act as an antidote to Christmas with all its allspice, vine fruit and rum.

It’s a Nigella Lawson recipe, heavy on the unsalted butter and eggs, but essentially plain and unadorned. Spiked – quite literally – with snipped-up, fragrant rosemary blades, and topped with a crisp crackly glaze of thin sugar. It’s very moist and crumbly; the kind of cake which could accompany a glass of Madeira or port or my favourite ginger wine. Guaranteed no cloves, no dried fruit, a Christmas-free-zone, hooray. I did get out a Kilner jar of dark dried apricots in Amaretto which I’d got in my Christmas stocking as it were, to go with – and very splendid rosemary tastes with apricots. Result!

I led this post with the cake but I suppose really today’s centrepiece was the Salmon en Croute which we began with (I really can’t bring myself to call it Salmon Wellington, though the recipe did – quite honestly, all the romance of the dish dissipates as you contemplate the vision of fish in gumboots).

Salmon en croute 1 Jan 2014

The salmon was bathed in buttery, Tabasco-heated juices with garlic, chives, lemon and parsley. Like a voluptuous beauty in a health club it had this mixture massaged into its flesh before sweating it out in its (puff pastry) wrap.

I served the salmon with foamy lemon Hollandaise sauce (which I think is like souffle – people fear making it but it’s actually really easy; indeed I used to make it a great deal too often for my health as a student, counting it as my main meal if I ate it with enough new potatoes, all cooked on one ring).  But even better than the Hollandaise was the root vegetable puree I made today, of Jerusalem artichokes, celeriac, cream, and truffle paste from one of those little expensive jars. (I happened to have one by me,  lurking in the fridge left over from my memorial foray into my mother’s recipes a couple of weeks ago.)  I only thought of making it because of the advent of the artichokes and celeriac yesterday in my organic vegetable box. (Which I didn’t need at all this week, but forgot to cancel.)

So this lunch was a good start to the New Year. But having said that, I suspect there’s been a sight too much activity in the kitchen and not enough activity in the rest of the house – all cooking and no play risks making me a one-trick pony, and a bit resentful to boot. (Guess I might actually venture out soon, too!)  After this weekend’s Supper Club event (which now has its full complement of bums on seats – sorry diners! – and is going to be a blast of Southern African flavours), it’s going to be a no-cooking week next week. Or so I say.

Who’d like to come to dinner? Two cancellations at my table for Sat 4 Jan’s New Year popup!

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Roll up, roll up for two cancellations at my fourth popup home restaurant event at 7.45 this Saturday, 4 January.

It’s 22.50 for five courses – the bargain of 2014 before you’re even really started!

Poinsettia cocktails (on the house) with homemade harissa olives

Apple and fennel soup with fresh herbs

Little chive pies with turmeric pastry, with ginger and pomegranate relish

South African tomato and lamb bredie with yellow raisin rice and moroho (spring greens with chilli and spices)

Cheeses and homemade oatcakes

Lime and granadilla tart with lime and yogurt ice-cream

Contact me directly on wolvercotesupperclub@live.co.uk or call me on 07748150163. My home address is Wolvercote, and will be shared on booking. Please bring your own wine!

New Year Pavlova with pomegranate, passion-fruit, salted caramel sauce and glitter-dust

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New Year 2014 Pavlova 28 Dec 2013

On this New Year Pavlova, the ruby and amber of pomegranate and passion-fruit seeds glow in the snowdrift folds of the cream, scattered with camp gold glitter-dust. I bet they had something like this in the lovers’ feast in The Eve of St Agnes - a scene in the depths of winter, passionate lovers stealing away from cold stone walls, to a future warmed by love and hope.

Poetry aside, this is the perfect dessert for the New Year, the crisp meringue shell perfumed with orange-flower water, soft and yielding within, anointed with vanilla cream. And it’s ample, which is a virtue in itself in my book. In fact there’s half left for today, even after four adults and random child hangers-on gorged on it when I had family to my house yesterday – my brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew, over for Christmas from the Middle East, plus my father  and my children.

I pulled all the stops out on the food front, because now I’m doing the supper club my brother said he was expecting me to up my game for the Christmas get-together. I told him he wasn’t paying, so he’d have to take his chances. I did a red wine, chestnut and beef stew, followed by this Pavlova (needs capitalisation I think, as it’s named for Anna). Good fortune must surely be about having leftovers like this in the fridge, and I’m grateful.

Though I can’t say Christmas has been all that easy emotionally. It’s high-octane stuff, this solstice business and the turn of the year – ‘thou mettest with things dying, I with things newborn’.  The 28th of December last year was a really bad day, and I am such a one for anniversaries. The one before that, I was falling in love in the depths of Norfolk, trudging along a muddy track, and I feel sad for lost loves – when it’s me that has hurt, but also for the times – long ago, and closer to the present – when I’ve done the hurting.

I’m wide open to 2014 and all its potential, but there’s a temptation to look back, even if it costs. New Year is like that. I’m aware of using cooking to self-soothe (think Nigella said something along these lines this week, too). Self-soothe? Dread phrase beloved of self-help books.  Yet it’s simply doing things that make one feel happy, calmer, strong and optimistic, which are healthy and positive in themselves (that is, excess drink, drugs,  and inappropriate hook-ups don’t really qualify…) .

For me, the mood-lifters are (most importantly) hot water (in a bath with something fragrant);  and if I have a whole day and some company, I’ll do the long-bracing-walk-somewhere-with-a-big-sky option.  If I have no time at all and I’m on my own so nobody is there to look at me strangely, it might be as simple as – wait for it – kissing my own hand (clean living is our watchword here).

Cooking’s more outgoing and ultimately productive that all that, though. In the post-Christmas torpor (all catered out, all out of cash, random bits of wrapping paper and gift-tags all round the bedroom floor, with a few presents still waiting to go), you wouldn’t think more hours in the kitchen would seem like a great option. But it’s the best mood-enhancer I know.  And if there’s edible golden glitter to be sprinkled on a vast, virginal snow-white expanse of meringue and cream – these things don’t just soothe, they bring back the joie-de-vivre. If I were another kind of cook I bet I’d be knocking back the green vegetable juices by now and cooking low-fat and healthy – but we’re still in the middle of Christmas and I’m a comfort eating, and cooking, kind of girl.

My mother, 1929-2012 – a lunch to remember her

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Mother as a young woman

One year ago today, my mother, who was born Marianne Lydia Seaman in 1929, died. I wanted to do something to remember her today. She’s buried a long way away – three hours’ drive, in the grounds of Houghton Hall, Norfolk. Her family came from there (on both sides – in true Norfolk incestuous tradition, my grandparents were first cousins. Not a great idea – depression and bad backs in the next generation).

My mother was a strong, formidably clever woman. She was a terrific snob. She loved beauty in all its forms: classical music, vintage silk scarves, the best clothes bought cheap at factory shops; glorious food. She taught me how to cook. Today, I cooked lunch for her, to remember her with happiness and celebrate her, on this first anniversary of her death. I am lucky enough still to have my father, and invited him to share it with me.

Chicken tetrazzini on plate 15 Dec 2013

I made Chicken Tetrazzini, a dish which uses roast chicken leftovers in an utterly decadent way involving truffles, sherry, cream. It comes from a frail, elderly paperback of my mother’s - Entertaining Single-handed (1968), by Desmond Briggs. I don’t know anything about Desmond, but I like to think he was my mother’s type – the (sadly for her, often gay) men she fell in love with because they were interested in the arts, and as refined as she was. Innocence about sex, and morals, meant she didn’t find out her mistake early enough. She loved opera, and this dish is named for Luisa Tetrazzini, a coloratura soprano who died in 1940. It’s also appropriate because my mother was a very frugal cook, in fits and starts, and as extravagant as they come at other times – so this use of rechauffe chicken in such a glamorous dish evokes her for me so well.

My mother’s was not a life lived to its potential. She was ten when the war started, living in a very poor area of Leeds. She got to go to grammar school on a scholarship but her sex, her class and her religion hampered progress. How they hampered her. Once, when I was fifteen and being a pain, she said, ‘I didn’t have your advantages’. How ashamed I felt of laughing at the slight Yorkshire accent she’d all but ironed out before going into Leeds Libraries. She’d had to leave school at my age. There was no money to do otherwise and she had this huge brain, and a matching inferiority complex.

Here she is in a 1960 glamour shot – on holiday with her friends, first time abroad, aged 31 and never been kissed. It’s the only photo I have of her where I can see the sexuality and the fun that she didn’t really live out.

Mother on holiday

At 33, she met my father – her first boyfriend. She married him, and eagerly climbed up the social ladder into the life of a junior lecturer’s wife at a redbrick new university in the late 1960s. She ran an interior design business. She loved cooking and entertaining. Sherry parties, dinners. She once sat next to David Attenborough at the Vice Chancellor’s house. She was probably eating something along the lines of dessert today. I made Jamaican hot fruit salad - also from Entertaining Single-handed - which I remember her making very well.

Jamaican hot fruit salad 2

It’s alcoholic, ‘exotic’, designed to impress – he suggests flambeing it. In her old age, her food tastes shrank down to prawn sandwiches and ice-cream. She denied she’d ever cooked with garlic.

This is my favourite picture of her, I think. Happy (a rare memory), looking beautiful, opening a fete for her first love – Peter Stirk, my brother’s godfather, also the first man I wanted to marry (when I was four). This was a long way from the back-to-back in Hunslet where she was born.

My mother, Kirby Hill Church fete

And a family shot, now. I’m in here, aged around six, wearing a red velvet dress she sewed me. Look at my father with the 1950s suit and 1960s beard combo. My children said, ‘why did you never say Grandpa used to look like Abraham Lincoln?’. And my mother, putting a brave face on things, all that Elnett in her hair, and tranquillisers and anti-depressants in a bottle in her handbag. The Feminine Mystique incarnate. She is wearing black, reflecting her mood.

Family

When she divorced my father, she tried to be on her own.  There wasn’t much money;  she was lonely, and still only fifty. ‘You’ll never marry, you’re not pretty enough’, she told me her mother said to her. She married again, but it was a mismatch which lasted thirty years until her death last year – she said she could never face another divorce. I used to think she should have hung on and met the third man – the love of her life, whoever he might have been. I now think she needed to find her happiness and self-esteem first.

Cooking made her happy. The spices and herbs were arranged in alphabetical order – if they could have been put into the Dewey Decimal Classification System, they would have been. She loved to control. She gained some self-esteem through study, with the Open University, after she retired. She ran a very rarified and serious reading group, and joined literary societies and wrote learned articles about the Golden Age crime writers.  She had faithful, firm friends. Though I’ll always think it cost her more than it gave her, she took enormous strength from her religion, which started off as Primitive Methodism and then became Anglicanism (it was part of bettering herself, and seeking beauty). In her old age, she and my father became fast friends, sitting and making jokes and having conversations about classical music that I didn’t understand.

My mother in Walsingham, spring 2012

She had such potential, and such talent. She called me, ‘my lamb’. Her children loved her, and she loved us. She dominated my life like a colossus. I loved her, was comforted by her, feared her power. She’s inspired me, cut me down, built me up. I will always miss her. She was my mother.

Christmas in a glass, dinner on a plate: my third event

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Christmas started when we opened the door to our December supper club guests last Saturday evening. The children had decorated the Christmas tree, and I’d cooked for a whole day and a half; we’d strung up the fairy lights at the window, dressed the table, bought a whole hot-house full of lilies, red and white roses, and brought berries in from the garden –  and then, it started.  A monthly supper-club has now become part of my life. (No jokes about the influence of the moon.)

Christmas to me means a really splendid venison stew. Saturday’s had marinated for 24 hours and cooked gently in a low oven for a further five. Here it is, starting out, immersed in port, red wine, wine vinegar, juniper, allspice, garlic and cloves…

Spiced venison casserole uncooked 5 Dec 2013

I started cooking a prototype of this dish when I first moved back to England from Southern Africa twenty years ago. Cold weather food of this intensity wasn’t part of our diet (even though it snows in Lesotho where we’d been living). And now, we found ourselves living in Stonesfield, a village tucked behind the Blenheim Estate, outside Woodstock, Oxfordshire. The cottage was tiny and three hundred years old and unheated. Long oven cooking used to warm the kitchen up beautifully.

Group at 7 Dec supper club

So I learnt to cook such things, and rural living had me in its thrall – until I realised one day that I’d buried myself in the fields a wee bit too young, broke up with my boyfriend, and moved to East Oxford. But that cottage lives on in my fantasies, and I visualise cooking there every time I make this venison stew. It’s celestial. The meat is drowned in port, embalmed in spices, it’s inky purple and smells of gin and fruity, carnivorous decay. Enough. If vampires ate dinner, this would be it.

I’m still cutting it too fine in how long it takes me to prepare for supperclub events… but I did just manage to finish before the punters arrived, after cooking my socks off all day, to offer this:

Nigella’s Christmas in a glass, with marinated olives

Mariella Bliss’s chestnut tagliatelle, with chestnut and mint pesto

Leek terrine with lemon, ginger and sesame dressing

Spiced venison casserole with butter bean mash, red cabbage with cranberries, and caramelised apples

Roasted figs with amaretto ice-cream

I’m starting to get the hang of this home restaurant malarkey. You need to plan so you have only a very few things which need to be attended to last-minute. Saturday’s leek terrine ( served as a refreshing vegetable course before the venison) was a do-ahead, Eighties throwback which involved more leeks than you’d imagine, a bread-tin, a brick and a mummification process involving cling-film. Though you wouldn’t know – it looked awfully pretty on the plate.

Leek terrine 1 5 Dec 2013

Trouble is, if you plan ahead (well, if plan ahead) and make a bit of time, I start to go off piste. When the first guests arrived I was balanced precariously on a chair retrieving a small pot of Jane Asher red edible glitter from the back of my (very high) baking cupboard to sprinkle into the prosecco cocktail we were kicking off with. Camp as a row of tents.

Christmas tree 2 5 Dec 2013

This time, I only knew two out of the nine guests, as word gets around. Among them were Carmen and Georgie, both psychologists, who go by the name of ChilliBooChan – Kennington’s first supper club, serving Chinese home cooking – which sounds wonderful.

I also eased off on the work on the first course – chestnut tagliatelle with chestnut and mint pesto. One day soon I’ll buy a pasta machine but this tagliatelle came from Mariella Bliss, who sells it at Wolvercote Farmers’ Market and runs pasta-making classes. It’s earthy and, made with chestnut flour, conjures up medieval villages in the Pyrenees to me. (Maybe too much time reading Tracey Chevalier novels?).  My pesto to accompany it was minty, garlicky, and sweet, given crunchy texture by adding hazelnuts to the mix, and lubricated with hazelnut oil.

Chestnut tagliatelle 5 Dec 2013

After the venison and the cheese with my new trademark – onion-seed oatcakes, shaped like stars – dessert was roast figs with amaretto ice-cream. I sat down and had a great time with the guests. We didn’t finish until around midnight, and after doing a little light mopping up (thinking of my grandmother who was a kitchen maid, and would have found it very hard to believe that I actually choose to do such things for pleasure), I repaired to bed…

One of the guests said I could quote his email the next day: ‘Just a quick message to say thank you for a fantastic evening last night. The food was amazing, the conversation was great and you really are an excellent host – very warm and welcoming’. Still can’t believe this is me, but it wouldn’t be possible without my friend Lyn who holds it and me together at the sink, but does so much more too, in so many ways. Thank you, Lyn.

Christmas tree 5 Dec 2013

Merry Christmas! I’m looking forward to doing it all again in four weeks – on Saturday 4 January, when I’m cooking predominantly Southern African food… khotso, pula, nama (as my only Sesotho joke goes).

Banana, fresh cranberry, rum and raisin loaf cake

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Banana, fresh cranberry and rum-soaked raisin cake 2

This banana, fresh cranberry and rum-soaked raisin loaf cake counts as three of your five-a-day – honest, I’ve had it checked out by a nutritionist (not, but I bet I could). It’s a delicious eat and a great way to use up blackening bananas languishing in the fruitbowl, which I quite often have.

I’d just like to say that this poor stock control isn’t due to any domestic incompetence on my part (perish the thought). Rather, it’s the children’s fault for being children. They sometimes choose to descend on whatever fruit’s there – clementines, apples or bananas – and eat every one in nano-seconds, piling peel and cores up around them. At other times, it’s like someone’s tipped the two of them off that I bought the fruit from the witch in Snow White and it’s poisoned. As sensible children, they therefore opt to save their skins by avoiding fruit like the plague (I note this never happens with grapes, which I’d love to have some of myself, but they’re invariably eaten at a speed which reminds me of locusts stripping farmers’ fields on the Great Plains).

I just carry on buying the fruit and flinging it at them, metaphorically, to see what sticks.  When I see bananas lounging around, lolling in the bowl sad and unwanted, the default is to make milkshake. But last week there were other priorities. I wanted to make something nice to take into work for my team at Oxfam headquarters, many of whom are facing their jobs disappearing in a big restructuring which, like so many, needs to result in savings by April next year.

I’m lucky enough not to be affected personally, because my own work’s continuing to be a priority; you could say that the angel of redundancy has passed over. So this time is a sort of celebration for me, but it’s a terrible time for many around me. This cake recipe is both an expression of gratitude to the fates, and a symbol of empathy for my friends and colleagues, some of whom I’ve worked with for nearly two decades. The least I can do is say “I hope you’re going to be alright, too’  with cake.

And here is the finished result on my desk, before the hordes descended.

Banana, fresh cranberry and rum-soaked raisin cake 1

It’s redolent of those Cranks creations when ‘health food’ came into fashion and my mother started cooking with wholemeal everything (though this cake’s got plain flour and white sugar – the healthy feel comes from the very high fruit content). I studded it with fresh cranberries, which (and this surprised me) don’t taste too tart, even though you’re dropping them into the cake batter uncooked, and ergo unsweetened. You could go with dried cranberries or glace cherries, but the semi-sweet result you get with fresh cranberries is much nicer, not to mention seguing us nicely into the lead-up to Christmas (a friend was reminding me of that year Delia Smith cooked everything with cranberries and they ran out in the shops – innocent days, being bossed around by a soccer-mad schoolma’am – she was always much too prescriptive for me).

Finally, rum-soaked raisins seemed like a good addition though I’m not convinced it’s worth using the rum – you could get the same juiciness by soaking the raisins in water or tea.  You could leave this cake plain, but I iced it. The frosting’s made of the final banana my children boycotted, mashed with icing sugar. Simple but effective.

Hungarian beef goulash with fluffy chive and onion dumplings

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Hungarian goulash with bread dumplings 1 24 Nov 13

The first Hungarian goulash I ate was in the sedate North Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate. I still have the recipe that my mother’s friend Clare Simpson gave her in the 1970s – and here it is.  I was around eleven when I used to go round to Clare’s house with my brother, to walk her smelly, yellowing poodle, Milly, on Sunday afternoons in the autumn. Enticingly spicy scents wafted from Clare’s kitchen, where she had a photo of Telly Savalas as Kojak taped to her fridge (and told my mother she found bald men had ‘sex appeal’).

Mrs Simpson (we called her that, and she had as much mystique and style as her royal namesake in my eyes) was a woman who hosted dinner parties, and this goulash was a mainstay of the evenings she invited her bridge-playing friends over. She had an enormous, wrinkled, perma-tanned bosom (there’s a word which needs reclaiming) – nowadays no-one would believe the curves to be natural. They looked quite something in her stretchy Diane Von Furstenburg wrap dress. Clare took winter holidays with her husband in Barbados, in the years she wasn’t doing the apres-ski in the Alps instead. She told us her idea of heaven was ‘skiing down to Harrods’.  My mother told me a little later that Clare had had a secret lover, but as a Roman Catholic, her marriage vows were sacred. God, the glamour.

And Mrs Simpson’s goulash. Well, it’s a classic beef affair with masses of onions, flavoured with caraway seeds, smoked bacon, and a very great deal of paprika. You cook it for a very, very long time – her recipe says four hours.  In her large modern bungalow with wall-to-wall tan leather seating, this goulash was created in a galley kitchen, where Clare made waffles and maple syrup for Sunday tea for my brother and I when we’d come back shivering from walking the dog around the crags just down the road. The goulash would putter on the stove meanwhile. She’d serve Lapsang Souchong in rather beautiful cups, and the smokiness would float up into the general warm, comforting fug.

 Hungarian goulash with bread dumplings 3 24 Nov 13

I served the goulash with fluffy German bread dumplings today, beside greeny-purple cabbage sauted in butter, a bit of olive oil, a splash of vegetable stock, and a grating of lemon zest, cooked until soft. The purple cooked out – shame – but the lime-green looks great with all that paprika-russet sauce. Of course, you can serve goulash with bread (and it has potatoes in it which make it pretty substantial anyway), and say it’s a main-course soup.

These fluffy bread dumplings are flavoured with a little onion and some chopped chives. They need very gentle simmering in water on the stove, and then you place them gently, gently, into the goulash, and scatter with dill. I learnt to make them from a German friend and they’re very moreish. Just  don’t be off-put by the rather anaemic-looking sight of the dumplings before cooking, as pictured below  - they’re rather worryingly brain-like, now that I look at this photo.  But it’s vampires not zombies in Eastern Europe, isn’t it?

Hungarian goulash with bread dumplings 2 24 Nov 13

Ginger spice cake with ginger wine and lemon icing

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Ginger spice cake with ginger wine and lemon icing

Now this is a cake among cakes. It started off as a comparatively plain gingerbread recipe and then it took off, into all-singing, all-dancing, ginger spice cake mode, with lemon icing. You use juicy grated fresh ginger, powdered ginger, cinnamon, mixed spice, and freshly-ground black pepper. Last week I decided to hold the milk in the original recipe and try out (my final give-it-my-all gesture), ginger wine in the mix.  Golden syrup, butter, dark muscovado and molasses make it sticky in the extreme. I love this cake. It has a real kick, yet as you see, it can look rather elegant served with tea.

Ginger cake in tin 17 Nov 2013

Molasses. Speaking of which… when I was nineteen and crazily in love with a very unsuitable older man who was leading me to believe he actually cared about me (I was to find out 25 years later that this was very much not the case, but that’s another story), my mother and stepfather thought it might be a good idea for me to go off to spend a year out being an au pair in The Hague. Four weeks later, raging tonsillitis and pining away for the bounder back in Yorkshire, I embarked on the North Sea ferry crossing to come home, in February, to end all ideas of nannydom and live out the rest of my gap year as a cosmetics girl in Harrogate Debenhams (which was actually a whole lot of fun and an eyeopener to boot). Anyway, as I got off the ferry at Hull and the wind cut through me, I spotted a huge cylindrical metal storage container on the quayside. The legend ‘United Molasses’ was painted down the side. Even with my sore throat and heartbreak, this was very entertaining. I was transported with glee at the notion of a single, isolated little ‘molass’ – all alone in the world. Surely one thing most of us know is that molasses is – are? – will always be, for all time – together?

That’s my roundabout way of saying, when you make this cake try hard to measure your molasses and syrup, but it’s not the world’s easiest task. The more you use, the stickier the outcome will be.  The recipe’s here, and I recommend you ice it as directed with a lemon zest and juice icing (with cream cheese in it to keep it soft and take away the sweetness).  Ginger cake’s perfect for these dank days – I’m sure this much spice must help against coughs and sneezes, and the spiciness makes it perfect in the Christmas lead-up. My team at work are trained to expect it to arrive in December but I made it earlier this year (in fact, the slice in the photo is what I brought home at the end of the day on Wednesday last week – and tarted up to make a pretty image here).

A credit before I end for my loveliest Heathcote bone china with the green edges and the square plates. Four complete place settings, and only out on high days and holidays. The design’s called ‘The Lea’ and in my entire (extensive) collection of old china, I think this one’s my favourite.

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A tale of two Nigel(la)s: roast pork, fennel and black olive gratin

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A tale of two Nigel(la)s: roast pork, fennel and black olive gratin

When my children were learning to read, one of them looked up at my shelves of cookery books and asked me, ‘Mummy, do you have to be called Nigel to write a cookery book?’. It’s Nigel Slater’s twentieth anniversary writing for The Observer this year, and my goodness, we’re hearing plenty about this – it’s being much-trumpeted in the paper, and marked by his publishing another book – Eat (I wish his books’ titles were as memorable as what lies within, but sadly most of them are totally interchangeable and I should know, I have them all). I was Nigel’s girl several years before when I was still reading women’s magazines, and he was food editor for British Marie Claire.

This weekend alone, I’ve made the best soup I know – Parsnip with Mustard and Cheese – from a compilation of Observer recipes published in 1995, Real Good Food – which has turmeric and chilli and emphasises roasting the parsnips in a whole load of butter until they’re toasty brown and crisp before adding the stock, and finishes off with grain mustard and cream, with melting little lumps of Cheddar. And then for lunch today I made a Fennel and Black Olive Gratin (like Dauphinoise Potatoes, really, with Parmesan scattered on the top) which he originally published in the newspaper along with a wonderful roast lamb dish, stuffed with chorizo and spinach.

But today I teamed it up with roast pork with bayleaves, from Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat (1998). She’s Nigel’s contemporary (though my goodness, what a difference in background that similarity in names, ages and foodie status belies), and when she published this, he gave it a good old plug – ‘My book of the decade’. It wasn’t her book of the decade of course – they were many, and they’re numerous on my shelves, though I’ve been selective and as she turned into Jessica Rabbit with a KitchenAid, it became progressively more tedious explaining that she was worth sticking with.

How to Eat is my first port of call when I can’t remember meat roasting times and I feel like a bit of inspiration above and beyond. She didn’t let me down:

Roast pork before cooking 10 Nov 2013

I still think Nigella’s worth sticking with: she’s a great writer, a fantastically imaginative cook, and a feminist who gets that it’s OK to love all things domestic – the key is getting lots of applause and recognition, and being able to say, ‘sod it, takeaways tonight’ when we’re not in the mood. Re this pork, look at how lovely all those bayleaves look – she says, ‘arrange, Napoleonically, some more bay leaves around the edges of the dish’, but by the time I’d piled on the red cabbage, apples, roasted green-rinded squash and the gratin, even I thought I should hold the garnish.

Roast pork 10 Nov 13

I wish girl-Nigel had been spared her recent unpleasantness with that vile ex of hers, Ad-man Charles (‘recent unpleasantness’ is, hands-down, my all-time favourite obsequious euphemism coined by Hello! magazine – responsible for so many. Hello! sub-editors once wrote a strapline for an interview with Joan Collins:  ‘Joan Collins shows us her beautiful new rented home, having put the recent unpleasantness behind her’ – masterly).  I hope she finds somebody decent soon. Speaking of which, I’ve just posted my profile on Guardian Soulmates but for what? They’re all the same men who’ve been there for years – it’s casting my bread on the waters, methinks.

My November Supper Club complete with recipes

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Group at 2 Nov supper club large

Ten people crammed around my table on last Saturday, 2nd November. I think they had a good time; I certainly did in the kitchen.

It’s November, and it felt right to respond to the bite in the air with a colder-weather menu, drawing on the traditions of West Asia (notice how much more enticing that sounds than if I’d said Eastern Europe? I think that’s down to Orientalism and post-Communism combined).  The spices and warmth that I love were present, but they were joined by feathery jade-green dill and the sweet-sour flavours of fruit mixed with wine, buttermilk, vinegar.

Five courses of food took me all day to cook, solitary, chopping and stirring along with the radio. I had a lovely time – alone, peaceful yet purposeful, anticipating pleasure. I went off-piste mid-afternoon and started making focaccia. But that’s because I was having fun.

The menu (with links to the recipes):

Spiced Ethiopian pumpkin soup with melted butter and toasted seeds

Focaccia bread with apple, red onion and parsley

Beetroot fritters with homemade gravadlax and horseradish cream

Marinated chicken with warm Georgian plum sauce, Uzbekhi golden carrots, bulgur wheat with pinenuts, aubergines and chickpeas, and tzatsiki

Cheeses, homemade onion-seed oatcakes and grapes

Middle Eastern orange cake with oranges in Van Der Hum and marscarpone orange cream

Everything I’d made seemed to be part of a whole – which is what you want in a meal. Colours were glowing purple, shades of orange to sunset pink, and yellow.

Plum sauce before cooking

As you can see from this picture of Georgian plum sauce in-the-making, the colours of the foods created a late-autumn Goth feast. The evening started with glasses of Kir Violette with crystallised violets dropped into the sparkles.

Kir violette

Judging from the laughter and the fact that nobody went home before midnight (I think, by that stage I’d sampled the Kir Violette myself), the Supper Club on 2 Nov did what exactly what I wanted it to do – the food was a catalyst into some apparently quite magical alchemy between some really random people (and I mean that in a good way – different ages, different lives).

The events planned for the future are booking up, and I’ve decided to emphasise that it’d be great for guests to come alone, with partners or with one or two friends, but the need to balance the table really precludes larger block bookings. It’s maybe quirky of me to say this, but judging from Saturday, I think we’ve got a winning formula here!

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Devilment at Hallowe’en in Wolvercote

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I think Hallowe’en and the way it’s celebrated now is a delight. I was brought up in a Christian family in the UK in the 1970s, with hellfire and damnation a weekly reality at church services, Hallowe’en was no time for having fun. So the end of October was not marked out in any way. In contrast, it’s my children’s favourite time of year. All I got to do was go to church on All Saints’ Day (1 November), and if I was lucky we’d sing ‘For All The Saints’ (admittedly one of the best, most poetic and rousing Victorian hymns of all – but I digress, and you find your pleasures where you can).

Move on forty years and in 2013, everyone’s realised spooks and sinners are such huge fun. I’ve heard tell that they even think so in Harrogate. Moving to Wolvercote in September 2006 when my children were five years old, Hallowe’en was pretty much the first time we saw community here in action, and we realised just how lucky we were to live here. Wolvercote seriously does Hallowe’en. Pumpkins lit up outside every participating house signal readiness or reluctance to be involved (and there’s no shame in wanting NOT to be interrrupted repeatedly all evening by eager, shy groups of trick or treaters – my own father views this as all very questionable and he’s within his rights to do so!). And the effort many adults put into role-playing ghosts, spectres and zombies surely cannot just be for the children’s benefit….

Hallowe’en seems to have lost its image as pagan and ungodly, but also (probably worse), as ‘American’.  The notion that Hallowe’en was an import along with Coke and Levi’s – and therefore to be frowned on, and probably rather vulgar – was a major constraint on my generation’s childhood enjoyment at this time of year.

So in adulthood we can take the brakes off and have fun with our children and celebrate the darkness, and laugh at our fears until we’ve bested them. The fact is, humanity needs elemental rites about the changing seasons, life and death, light and darkness. Whether it’s the Day of the Dead in Mexico, or being King or Queen for a day at Epiphany in France, opportunities for contemplating life and death and fate through the medium of feasting and chocolate are not usually to be quashed by religious or xenophobic sentiments.

So my children will be out there in their No-masks, fake blood dripping, exploding eyeballs at the ready, with capacious bags for their booty. And I’ll be home drinking red wine, cackling quietly, and answering the door many, many times to give out creme-filled zombie heads (and no, there won’t be a recipe for these on the site).

Schnecken buns to start half-term

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Schnecken buns finished 27 Nov 13

I cooked Schnecken this morning – from Nigella Lawson’s How to be a domestic goddess. Annoying though the constant spoon-licking has been over the years, Nigella is an intelligent, creative writer and cook and my copy of HTBADG is both stained and dog-eared (that’s the way cookery books are meant to be). This recipe is for cinnamon-swirled rich buns, which are cooked like a tarte tatin upside down, on top of a dollop of soft butter mixed with golden syrup and demerara sugar for a bit of a crunch. She suggested an unfeasibly large amount of this mixture, with lots of walnuts topping it, and my goodness, was I right in my fears that the buns would overflow in the oven. Anyway, the finished result is – as you can see – most toothsome (what a ridiculously inappropriate word to use for these tooth-rottingly sweet and spicy morsels).

Here’s what they looked like before they went in the oven:

Schnecken buns before baking 27 Nov 13

Until now, I’ve combined this recipe with another – which makes the same kind of bun, only without nuts and with more cinnamon (you can’t have too much in my view) – but then they’re cooked en masse in a big baking tin. Next time, I’m going to keep to the ‘battery bun’ (as opposed to free-range) confined method of cooking in a muffin tin. I’ll leave out the nuts, and spread little black currants into the crunchy sugar and cinnamon which gets scattered onto the dough, before rolling it out and winding it up to make the snail whirls which the buns are named for. If I do this, I think I’ll end up with Chelsea buns to rival Fitzbillies’ ones in Cambridge (I was one of the students who lived on those, back in the day).

I’m baking breads more this year. My most cherished memory of my mother, who died just before last Christmas, was her standing in the kitchen when I was a little girl, kneading dough. She baked her way through the 1970s and 1980s, making wonderful onion and herb challah (Jewish plaited loaves), and taking me to Botley Mill in Hampshire to buy sacks of strong wholemeal flour for the homemade bread and little round bread buns we had almost all the time. Up to now, bread-baking’s been one of those things which I’ve decided not to do, in order to do other things well – women really can’t have it all and remain happy and good-tempered. I’ve pursued a career I love, and done a great deal more indolent lounging around than my mother managed. I’ve talked and actually sat down at my table rather than doing the Martha role in the kitchen all the time. And I think I’m a much happier woman than she was – if you’re going to be a domestic goddess it’s good to be a fulfilled one, whereas my family house had a few too many battles up on Olympus.

PS: no more spaces left for next weekend’s Supper Club, but there are still places left for Saturday 7 December, and I’ll be posting the January event with a full menu later – we’re looking at Saturday 4th January and if we need to do another as word’s getting around, I’m up to repeat the experience two weeks later on Saturday 18th Jan.

The Supper Club’s first restaurant review!

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I’m VERY delighted to have received a fantastic review from Foodie On Tour, Jacqui Thorndyke, who came to the first event on 5th October with her two gorgeous men – Andrew, her partner, and Harry, their month-old second son. If I rated me and my food as highly as she seemed to, I wouldn’t need all those self-help books… and I’m not joking, it’s a great review. I’m still blushing, in fact!

Seems as if I need to do a spot of cooking this weekend after a very heavy week at work, in more ways than one (restructuring and widespread job losses, though touch wood not for me – won’t know for a couple of weeks for certain though). I’ll  post tomorrow after I get creative with a Romanesco cauliflower. I also feel a batch of soothing and syrupy Scandinavian cinnamon buns needs to be baked. Watch this space.

 

Beetroot fritters with sour cream, salmon, leaves and orange

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Beetroot fritters with sour cream, salmon, leaves and orangeI’m getting excited about the Supper Club Event in a fortnight’s time – places at the table are going, and here’s where the thrill sets in and I start to tee up to cook for them.

The 2nd November menu includes – as all my menus do – some really strong and vibrant tastes, fragrances and colours. I think food should stimulate as many of the senses as possible, and I love the alchemy which happens when you put seering purples with bright oranges on a plate, set off by brilliant jade green: it’s a pleasure before you even stick the fork in and raise it to your lips!

I’m going to include a lovely recipe from Nigel Slater for beetroot fritters in two weeks, and I decided I’d remind myself about the recipe – and use the beetroot which came in my vegetable box this week – by making some for lunch today. Scandinavian flavours, in the main: I chopped some dill, and added it to sour cream together with a packet of smoked salmon offcuts. I thought an orange and chard salad would be good (smoked salmon goes with orange – honestly). Stuffed now, which is good because I’m off to see Welsh National Opera tonight and there won’t be time to eat. It’d be great if the urban myth comes true and when Tosca throws herself off the tower at the end, she reappears bouncing several times… but that’s probably too much to hope for.

NB: At the Supper Club you’ll get fritters of a slightly more elegant size (since they’ll be one course of five!), some gravadlax which I’ll make myself, and horseradish cream. Can’t wait.

Teachers on strike, toad in the hole

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Toad in the hole 1 17 Oct 2013

The teachers are on strike, and thousands of schools closed. And once I’d got my head around whether I had to be at home with the children or not, it felt like rather a nice break to use a day of annual leave for an unscheduled domestic day! (Know that’s not the case for everyone, but forgive me for having a nice employer and enjoying being at home). It’s not too painful to be here doing Mummy duty now J and E have hit the age where they’re sentient human beings you can have a laugh with (albeit it’s not terribly peaceful, but hey, I can handle most of what’s on Radio 1, and if not I can shout louder than anyone can sing – just).

And it meant a proper lunch. I cooked us toad in the hole, using sausages with fennel and lemon inside, with kale (done with caraway seeds and garlic butter, mash, and gravy with a great slug of the Oloroso sherry bought for making dessert the other day. The only trouble with eating vastly at lunchtime is not having a proper dinner to look forward to, but I’ve got a glut of carrots and am going to make carrot soup with lots of ginger.

I’m featuring in the Oxford Mail today, as one of the small group of starting-up food enterprises and activities which Katherine Macalister invites as columnists. I really hope to get people interested in the Supper Club that way – it would mean local people, which is what will ground it as a community thing – important to me as a resident of Wolvercote for the past seven years, but of Oxford and Oxfordshire for twenty.

I still have places at my 2nd November Event, which has really lovely food lined up for it: yoghurt marinated chicken with warm Georgian plum sauce, anyone? Take a look at the full menu.

My Lebanese love affair with smoked aubergine puree

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My Lebanese love affair

My friend Lina is the Director of a network of Middle Eastern women’s rights organisations, and one of the most devoted foodies I know. We met when we worked together nearly twenty years ago and she was in Oxford on secondment to Oxfam headquarters from Lebanon. We bonded over babies and writing: while she was here she had her only daughter, Yara, and she and I edited a book on gender and disability in the Middle East. We mostly worked at her home in Headington, while she was on maternity leave. While we wrote and nursed the baby, we also discovered the joy we both take in food!

I saw Lina a couple of years ago when I visited Beirut. We found lots of opportunities to visit many really amazing restaurants. Sitting on the sea front in the dusk eating mezze one evening is an unforgettable memory. That evening we’d been to an art gallery by the waterside, to see Lina’s friend’s aunt’s retrospective – Saloua Raouda Choucair is an amazing and visionary artist and sculptor.

As anyone who has eaten the food at LB’s Takeaway in Summertown knows (and to an extent, Al Shami in Jericho), Lebanese food is something special – Lina says it’s the haute cuisine of the Middle East. A shame that the stereotypes over here of Beirut are so dominated by war and turmoil – when it is a sophisticated, largely secular, liberal place with an amazing cafe culture. Lina likes smoking Hookah beside me while I dig in to the mezze. Moutabal, or Baba Ghanoush, is one of the most well-known dishes – dreamy smoked aubergine puree, lighter and more silky in texture than Houmous.

Anoint roast meats with the stuff, spread it on flatbread, eat it as a dip with drinks… there’s little I prefer, it’s garlicky and lemony and best eaten slightly tepid, straight after being made. You can find how to make it on my Recipe section on the site. And note this! LB’s make the best custom sandwich ever with Moutabal and their own LB’s Broad Beans (broiled in garlic, lemon juice and coriander – I’ve cracked how to do them at home and will share that recipe soon).

PS: As I wrote this I googled the artist Saloua Raouda Choucair, and by a strange stroke of fate I’ve found that her work has been on show in London since April this year, in the Tate Modern – and you’ve still got time to go, it’s on until the 13th November – visit tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/saloua-raouda-choucair, and go to see it! This shows the immense flowering of art and culture that is another dimension of Lebanon.

My first Supper Club event!

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My first Supper Club event!

On Saturday evening, nine brave souls signed up for dinner at mine. This was the scene. Vintage table cloth, 1930s china mixed with Victorian Christmas tree candle-holders and etched Czech glasses. I served Kir Royales with home-made harissa and lemon peel marinated olives and spicy popcorn to kick off. Three friends came, one colleague who I hope will be a friend now we’ve met again (bumped into her at Wolvercote Farmers’ Market the other week), plus five lovely new people, all of whom are foodies keen for a new experience at a home restaurant.

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Part of the experience of a home restaurant is the social side of things – being the kind of person who wants to do something like this sorts out the interesting, devil-may-care types, I think! Conversation never stopped and it seemed, as I ran around in the kitchen area with half an ear out to listen in, that people had a great time.

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I’ve had lovely comments from people since – chiefly focusing on my apparent sang-froid in the face of cooking for nine people who’ve paid for the privilege for the first time in my life!

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I gave them tomato tarts with anchoiade and salad leaves, Campari and grapefruit granita (with a pomegranate variant for a grapefruit dissenter), lamb and quince tagine with smoked aubergine puree and pumpkin pilau rice, which looked like this in the pan…

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and this on the plate…

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After which I brought out cheeses and homemade oatcakes with onion seeds, and – finally – chocolate, hazelnut and sherry cake with sherry and raisin syllabub cream.

And whew! It all seemed to go fine. I wasn’t 100% happy with the food as I never, never am – but it was my first time, and you learn and you go on. And when one real foodie calls you a wonderful hostess and says the food is delicious and the people lovely, you can feel good! Someone else says she’s going to be back with friends.

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So hugely encouraged and pleased I started this. Looking forward to the second event on Saturday 2 November – menu posted.

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Mediterranean roasted vegetables with salmon and pinenuts

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22 September 2013 salmon

I love this. It’s an old Good Housekeeping recipe for Mediterranean roasted vegetables: chiefly red peppers and tomatoes, tossed with pine nuts, anchovies and capers, thyme and balsamic vinegar. The magazine suggested this was a main course but quite honestly it wasn’t in our house – my appetite demands that this is a bed for something else to sit on, such as some fish… in this case, salmon. Even then, I think carbs are required, so I might do mash flavoured with mustard on the side, or perhaps put toasted breadcrumbs into the dish. Once I found I’d run out of anchovies and put in a shake of both Worcestershire sauce and Thai fish sauce – which tasted just fine. I do love a recipe which forgives you leaving out ingredients which seem at first glance to be key. Especially on a mid-week night when I want to opt out of the kitchen as soon as I can.

Elmthorpe Road Street Party 2013

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Street party 2013 2

We started having street parties here in Elmthorpe Road last year – not for the Royal Wedding – in fact, comfortably far from the nuptials for it to be quite clear we were doing it for ourselves. I’m sure there are some royalists down the street, but I really don’t like being a subject and not a citizen. I think at this time of poverty and cuts, best not to eulogise frugality and its virtues while toasting the Queen in home-made ginger beer.

But whatever one’s politics, it surely seems crazy that national events are the only usual trigger for people to get together in their roads and set out tables and spend time together sharing food and chatting to each other about more than the bin collection or the state of their shared hedges.

We wanted to get out of our houses and see each other, find out the names of neighbours we speak to often (and wonder what they’re called, but somehow the moment has gone for the initial greetings), eat and drink together, and (in the case of the children) draw all over the road in coloured chalks and pretend to be dead, when we’re not skating or dancing to Daft Punk and Queen. So all credit to the prime movers down Elmthorpe Road, my street, for instigating what many of us hope will become an annual tradition, last year, and for doing it all over again in 2013.

We were lucky with the weather and our bunting and gazebos remained dry, the tables and chairs meandered down the road, and the Council finished their work tarmacking the pavement just outside my house in the nick of time.

Street party cakes 2013

There was a fantastic array of food; I contributed a couple of cakes with lovely emollient matchy-matchy creams to eat with. One was the cake I’ll be serving up this time next week at my first Supper Club Event – a chocolate, hazelnut and sherry cake with sherry and raisin cream (which is just like the syllabub my mother used to make for dinner parties in the Seventies – i.e. worth eating all on its own); and a Middle Eastern orange and almond cake with orange flower water, which has a mascarpone and marmalade cream.

So there was music, a fantastic barbecue, and children running around everywhere. As a friend of mine once observed at the fireworks on Highbury Fields in London, ‘The thing about children is they get between your toes’. I love living here.I thought the orange cake needed a rather more glamorous look than it had, and thought I’d had an inspiration when I decided to put caramelised oranges on the top. It looks gorgeous, I think (you judge) – but sadly I hadn’t engaged my brain because it was hell to cut the cake with its sweet, thick varnish of sugar pressing down on the soft almondy moisture underneath. I ended up doing a kind of stabbing movement from Psycho to get it out there onto people’s plates. Everyone said it was great but I know I left my own caramel on the side of the plate – I’m amazed to have got away without anyone getting angry with me for wrecking their dental bridgework and pulling out fillings as they ate.

My father’s art, and an autumn birthday cake

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My father's art, and an autumn birthday cake

My father’s 84 today. He lives down the road from me, in a flat just off the Woodstock Road. He’s an ardent artist after a career as an academic art historian. Since his mother died aged 101, 14 years ago, he has been incredibly productive… after years of being her carer after my parents divorced. We were having a chat the other day and he came out with, ‘it can’t have escaped your notice that I’ve been able to really go for my art since I no longer had a woman in my life’. When he said that, I told him I was flattered he wasn’t implying I’ve taken on the mantle of the wife and then the mother who sapped all his creative energies. And empathised with him – it’s all about a room of one’s own, something you hear about much more from women of course.

We celebrated his birthday doing something rather nice as a family. He’s exhibiting a picture in the Oxford Art Society’s current exhibition, at the gallery in the Woodstock Museum. The private view and opening was today, and the children and I went up there with him. The children were immediately asked to hand round crisps and twiglets and wow, that brought back memories of my own childhood doing the same and running around behind the installations at exhibitions at Southampton University where my father was single-handedly the History of Art Department (and curator of the art gallery) for 26 years. An exhibition there when I was around 4 was the place I first tasted red wine – Carafino out of a huge bottle, snitched from the table when nobody was looking – I remember how thin and strange and vinegary it tasted, and how grown up I thought myself.

The exhibition’s great – not just saying that, either – many pictures I’d happily have hanging in my house. I wish you saw more young people at these things though – provincial exhibitions of essentially amateur societies are very grey and grizzled affairs by and large, and actually it’s professional standard and it would be so lovely to see more of a cross-section of ages present. Afterwards, we came home, were joined by A, my ex (who is very close to my father), and we sang Happy Birthday, did the present-fest and ate cake. Dee-dah, dee-dar: obviously not the much-trumpeted White Walnut Cake after all – it’s a maple and chocolate syrup cake decorated with Italian meringue frosting and crushed-up caramelised almonds. Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Autumnal Birthday Cake. I fancied trying it and ran out of maple syrup so shoved some chocolate syrup in instead – but quite honestly, it just didn’t taste of either all that much (sad but true and I’m not making out to be a goddess when the reality is mortal). Lovely sticky frosting, and of course my father loved it. Which was the important thing. Happy birthday, Daddy xxx

Tagliatelle carbonara’s bastard child

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Tagliatelle carbonara's bastard child

I got this recipe off the cellophane packet on some Tesco’s spaghetti the year I got back from living in Lesotho – 21 years ago (oh God). I cooked it on Election Night 1992. It was a dreadful night both politically and personally – my then partner (like so many) coped with the Conservatives trouncing Neil Kinnock’s Labour by getting completely legless and abusive – hurling insults first at the television and then at the surrounding company. In the process, totally offending Sarah, one of my dearest friends, a zany graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, Boston Massachusetts. I should have taken a bit more notice of her reaction at the time and moved on out of that relationship. Instead I had my head down in a plate of this pasta. It is SO much nicer than ‘real’ carbonara – it has copious quantities of parsley and fresh tomatoes added to the fried bacon, cooked a little, then you add the cream, and use that as your first sauce, adding pasta and the egg and cheeses. Quite frankly it wasn’t comforting enough for a Conservative victory, but it was as good as I could have managed to achieve foodwise that night.

Roast duck, fresh redcurrants, and getting out there at the Farmers’ Market

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Roast duck, fresh redcurrants, and business cards on the side

Started the morning off at the Wolvercote Farmers’ Market. Nice to be back in the school hall again (the last time I was there, my children were at the leavers’ disco doing Gangnam Style on the stage – at least this morning nobody was embarrassed by the mere fact of my walking into the room – or maybe adults just cover it up better). It went well. I was a bit nervy about getting out there with a stack of new high-gloss ‘stand out from the crowd’ business cards for the Supper Club. But it was quite a high actually, because everyone I spoke to thought having a home restaurant in this village is a great idea, and not a few said they’d visit the site (hello!) and maybe book for the 5 October event – there are still four tickets left.

Others said they’d come another time, and it makes me think I’d better opt for a November date – so Saturday 2nd November, all (it doesn’t clash with South Parks fireworks, they’re on the 9th, and luckily of course Wolvercote’s own fireworks and bonfire, outside the Plough, are always on the night itself). And soon, I’ll put Mariella Bliss’s beetroot tagliatelle on the menu – it looked so totally delicious on her stall, all pinky-purple and dusty with flour (www.facebook.com/mariellabliss)

I came home with some saffron buns from the amazing bread stall at the market; really lovely, lots of saffron taste but otherwise quite plain – a boon, because the spice really came through.

For lunch this week I made roast duck and did a sauce with fresh redcurrants and the juice and flesh of a clementine. My dad and I had it with potatoes dauphinois and a green salad with another clementine cut into it, dressed with Dijon mustard, sugar (you need it) and olive oil. And then the cheesecake from the cheese stall at the market. It was really quite something. Dense, creamy and goatey. I served it with some rhubarb baked in the oven with grated ginger and lime zest.  (The rest of it will be great with porridge for breakfast for the next couple of days.) And now I’m going to fall over on the sofa and await the children’s return from football…
NB, bear with me on the photos I’m posting… this is all new and I see sauce on the rim of the plate. Bugger.

Fallopian slips and risotto (again)

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Fallopian slips and risotto (again)

It’s risotto once more for dinner tonight – this one’s lemon, marrow and chicken (nearly mis-typed that there as ‘children’ – bit of a Fallopian slip there, as a friend of mine once said at university). It’s so wet and warm in the street outside that I had to open all the windows while I cooked – even though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the cooker hood… and apparently the weather’s going to stay like this all weekend. But I don’t mind – the children are off to their dad’s (so he has the job of standing in the rain at the football on Sunday, in weather which the Today programme said would be ‘filthy’ – soooo glad it’s not my turn). And after a hard week at the day job, involving a publishing deadline and downbeat messages about cost savings to be made in the autumn, I think I’m going to hunker down, stay home and get creative in the kitchen.

Keeping the children off crack with chilli, garlic and lemon chicken :-)

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Chilli and lemon chicken for the family

My table today, loaded with food…family patiently waiting in the wings, while I photographed the spread – ‘Please can you hurry up? We want to eat!’. I always joke that the way to keep the children off crack cocaine in their teens is to insist on the family eating together on a Sunday. Don’t know if that’ll work – they’re not 12 just yet… but Sunday lunch is too good to miss anyway.

In our house, family is me, the children, my ex-husband and my father. When and if we find new partners, the family will morph again, but it’ll survive and prosper. It’s a well-kept secret how many families survive divorce to sit down and eat together like this (and for those who want to read about good divorces as a concept, look for Constance Ahrons’ wonderful book ‘We’re Still Family’ – http://www.constanceahrons.com/books-resources/were-still-family).

The children are really caught up in Supper Club fever at the moment – and enthusiastically helped me photograph our meal. We ate chilli garlic and lemon chicken (adapted from the October Sainsbury’s magazine); olive oil and parsley mash; flageolet beans cooked with garlic, tomato and dill; and yellow courgettes baked with yet more lemon and a little garlic. After that, apricot crumble. Happiness.

Thank God it’s Friday…

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It’s been a busy week! I’ve launched Wolvercote Supper Club, my twin sons started secondary school, and my ex-husband had a big birthday + 1. I’ve got seriously into the delights of Twitter to publicise the supper club (I’ve always thought I’m not a Tweeter, but now I find I love it – it’s like writing haiku and also reminds me of my days as a journalist, fitting in headlines). My friend, food photographer Roger Askew @rogeraskew says it’s going to be really something, as I seem to have attracted some key foodie followers – which is scary – but at least Roger can come along to the first event on Sat October 5th to take some photos of my food to post. I hope my food doesn’t break his camera due to what is euphemistically called ‘family-style’ presentation – Janet Street Porter and I have much more in common than I ever realised! I don’t like pretention, and I do like generous helpings… and there’s a limit to how high and wide you can build a pile on a plate… Anyway, off to cook homemade fish and chips and minted mushy peas – nothing if not traditional when I’m cooking children’s tea in my house – having said that, I’ve got some clotted cream hanging around my fridge, and that’ll dress up those peas…

Chocolate, violet and beetroot cake

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Chocolate, violet and beetroot cake

My ex-husband’s birthday today – and our twin sons’ first day at secondary school. So we needed cake. You can see I’m no exacting, perfectionist Great British Bake Off-style baker! I kept the icing simple and quick because it was slapped on after I’d come home from the office – it would have been lovelier with a proper dark glossy ganache, because that sets off the purple of the crystallised violets so beautifully. Any road up, it was delicious (or so the assembled company maintained). You can just see my best tablecloth – 1950s, embroidered with lilac. My mother used to get it out for my own birthday – as a May baby, the lilacs were in bloom, and she made my birthday cake with 1970s American ‘seven-minute frosting’ – a meringue-style white crisp shell with streaks of purple food colouring. Very pretty. I’ll do one for myself next year!

Monday night leftovers

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Monday night leftovers

Pork, lemon and fennel-seed meatballs with squash risotto, courgettes and mint. Pretty, aren’t they? And not bad for a Monday night using up leftovers (she says smugly) – actually this post represents a bit of a key achievement in other ways too, as my son Joseph took the photo – his first foray into food photography. And he and his brother are going to be front of house for me too when we kick off our home restaurant on Saturday 5 October – keep it in the family. No child labour – they’ll be getting pocket money and a half (at least! currently in negotiations).

Fab launch yesterday on my marketing and promotions via Twitter and Facebook – follow me please! Was entertained to read discussion of the Supper Club on Twitter between @bikebird13 (great name) and @DW_BrookesUnion – wondering what kind of a person opens a home restaurant… someone like me, I guess!

Mary Livingstone meets 21st century dining

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Spent the Bank Holiday shopping for little gorgeous things to use for the Supper Club, in the vintage and charity shops of Summertown, North Oxford – my Saturday morning stamping ground. I picked up some lovely pressed 1930s green glass dessert dishes with a serving bowl, some white china and terracotta serving dishes, and I’m well on the way to the vintage and ethnic fusion I’m going for.

I got inspired about this style when living in Lesotho in the early 1990s; it’s a kind of Victorian mission outpost meets African crafts look. A friend, Christabel, had a traditional rondavel (African round house) with litema work on the walls (mud and dung and straw, which naturally keeps bugs away and can be decorated with complex coloured designs…).  Christabel started off her life in New Zealand and was incredibly creative. A kind of white witch. Her house was filled with traditional Sesotho crafts – weaving and beadwork – mixed with the crocheted lace cloths and rag rugs made under the gaze of missionaries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And I loved it.

Christabel was a natural, relaxed and random cook, and served wonderful food late on Sunday afternoons, to anyone who turned up to eat with her. The inevitable barbecued meat (this was, after all, southern Africa), with all the Portuguese and Indian influences you expect in that part of the world. Spicy peri-peri chicken and hot sauces, with traditional Sesotho Moroho (greens simmered with onions and spices), with papa (polenta-like maize porridge). She served it all up from a mixture of Victorian dishes and traditional African pots – with a few Chinese-manufactured, flower-bespattered tin plates added into the mix.

When the sun went down in August there, the chill descended – we were in the high mountains of Lesotho, which boasts the world’s highest national lowest point (go think about it)…. and is in the Southern Hemisphere, so August is early spring. Memories…

Mackerel, Sundays, and late summer sun

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I’m on my own today without the children and it’s incredibly peaceful. Invited my father round for lunch. Last time we did this, a couple of weeks ago, we did a Sainsburys shop (for him to get pomegranate juice among other things, which he’s been told by a friend will ward off the Grim Reaper for a few more years yet) – and I picked up some mackerel and cooked a recipe from Guardian Food – mackerel with peas and orange. It was really lovely and made a change from my favourite recipe with mackerel which is an adapted version of a Nigel Slater involving a lot of freshly-crushed coriander seeds, and cream. Orangey flavours there too.

Today, I tried a third idea (which I started semi-consciously thinking about halfway through the night, officially asleep) – realised I’d never tried the classic combination of mackerel with gooseberries. And there was a carton of gloriously red gooseberries in my fridge. There’s something truly sensuous about the way they burst on the roof of your mouth – but these babies needed cooking as the skins were mouth-dryingly sour.

Oh, for the joys of Google – I found a recipe for mackerel with gooseberry sauce on BBC Food, which more than did the trick. You make a sauce with butter, gooseberries, cream and a little sugar. I only had clotted cream leftover from a decadent tea last weekend – so in it went. But those sour skins were still very much making their presence felt, so I sieved the sauce, before grilling the mackerel with a little seed mustard massaged into its flesh, and serving it with a pool of opaque, pinkish reddish mauve sauce, new potatoes and watercress salad. White wine.

Afterwards, we ate a flung-together apricot tarte tatin (which tasted lovely, but looked… er… ‘artisan’ – but that way you can tell it’s mine). And then a lazy afternoon with sunshine and the Sunday papers. Glorious.

Hello world, and setting a date!

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I’m setting the date for the first supper club – Saturday 5 October 2013. And paging through my recipes – many of which are my own, others date back to my mother’s heyday as a cook in the 1970s (she was the first to bake a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting among her set – funny to think that this was a cutting-edge recipe once!). Others are Southern African from the early 1990s – and then I trace my cooking interests up through East Africa (stopping off in Ethiopia) and meandering through the Middle East and Mediterranean. I think the first night’s going to have lots of influences from that region.

Very excited about this project. I’ll be up and running to promote the supper club on Twitter next – and Daily Info in Oxford – and finding out how to get listed on Oxfam eating out sites. And I’ll be looking at table settings – I have lots of lovely vintage china but I fancy a little Southern African/Middle Eastern twist there too… more on this anon.