I’ve been catching up on some reading lately and realised that I must be longing for a holiday. Both of my bedtime reads (I’m afraid I’m one of those people who has several on the go at the same time) have had a distinctly French flair. I’ve finally been spending some time with David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen, which is full of fantastic recipes and stories from his expat life. I’ve been interspersing this with Julia Child’s letters to Avis DeVoto, which I’ve been dipping in and out of for a while. It’s great for when I need a kick up the bum – those women crammed so much into their lives!
All this has me longing for a trip across the Channel, but for the time being I’ll have to make do with some homemade French treats. I’ve also been working with Expedia recently who wanted me to make something from their World on a Plate campaign, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to dip into a patisserie challenge.
These eclairs are totally decadent and the flavourings really sprung from a desire to use up the kirsch I made with a glut of cherries over the summer when they were in season. The choux pastry is actually pretty straightforward, this one is really all about having fun with the decor. Yes, there are a lot of steps, but you can keep it simple by just making a plain vanilla pastry cream instead of a chocolate and/or cherry one. Give them a go if you want a baking project for one of these rainy Autumn days.
Black Forest Eclairs
Makes 12 eclairs
I added an extra biscuit topping to my eclairs, which gives them a lovely crisp exterior and definitely worth the extra trouble.
You will need:
For the eclairs:
250g plain flour
150g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
100ml whole milk
4 large eggs
For the chocolate and cherry pastry cream:
400ml whole milk
1 vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped
4 egg yolks
75g caster sugar
325ml double cream
2 tbsp cherry jam
100g dark chocolate, 70% cocoa solids, finely chopped
1 vanilla pod
cherries soaked in kirche, glacé cherries or fresh cherries
a few chocolate biscuits, like Oreos or Bourbons
super shiny chocolate glaze (recipe below)
1. Begin by making the eclairs. Dice 100g of the butter and keep very cold. Add this to a magi mix along with 125g of the flour, 125g of the sugar and the vanilla extract. Blitz until it comes together to form a sticky dough. Flatten to a thick disc shape, wrap in cling film and refrigerate until needed.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C and line two oven trays with baking parchment. Place the remaining butter, milk and 100ml of water in a large saucepan. Heat to slowly melt the butter. Sift 125g of flour into a bowl with 25g of sugar and a pinch of salt. When the liquids are simmering, tip the dry ingredients into the saucepan. Remove the heat and stir briskly with a wooden spoon until the mixture comes away from the sides of the pan and forms a ball.
3. Transfer to a large bowl and allow to cool for 10-15 minutes before adding the eggs, one at a time, beating to incorporate. You should have a smooth, shiny dough. Fill a piping bag with the mixture and pipe out your eclairs onto the oven trays. They should be about 10cm long and 2-3cm wide. Be sure to leave plenty of space between them.
4. Get the chilled dough you prepared earlier and roll out as thinly as possible. Cut out 12 rectangles, each just large enough to cover the eclair, with some overhang. Drape the coverings over the eclairs and place in the oven for about 30 mins, until puffed up, golden and dried out in the middle. You can leave the oven door open just a little after about 15 mins to let some of the steam out. You should end up with crisp eclairs, with a crackled-looking surface.
5. While the eclairs are in the oven, make the pastry cream. Heat the milk, vanilla seeds and pod in a sauce pan and bring to a gentle simmer, then remove from the heat. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar and cornstarch until thick and pale. Remove the vanilla pod from the milk and then pour over the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Clean out your saucepan and then pour the mixture back in. Heat gently until very thick and holds a trail on the surface when drizzled with a wooden spoon.
6. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter. Allow to cool completely then refrigerate until needed. Once ready to use, whisk 225ml of the cream to stiff peaks. Fold into the chilled custard to make the pastry cream. Divide into separate bowls and add your flavours. I made a cherry version by adding a few tablespoons of cherry jam (strained to remove any larger bits of fruit) and some very finely chopped cherries soaked in kirsch. Be careful not to thin too much or it will be too runny to pipe. You can also add a little food colouring for effect.
7. To make a chocolate pastry cream, begin by making a simple ganache. Place the chocolate in a small bowl and bring 100ml of the cream to a simmer in a small pan. Pour the cream over the chocolate and leave for a few minutes. Gently fold the cream through the chocolate, so that it melts completely, leaving you with a thick ganache. Be careful not to over stir or it will seize up. Once cool, combine with the remaining bowl of pastry cream. Refrigerate until needed.
8. To fill the eclairs, I made 2-3 small holes on their underside and piped the cherry pastry cream into half, using the smallest nozzle I had. I erred on the side of caution, but you can be quite generous here, allowing the eclairs to ‘puff up’ a bit. Repeat with the chocolate pastry cream to fill the remaining eclairs.
9. Finally you are ready to decorate. I piped dots onto the chocolate eclairs, alternating vanilla whipped cream and a bit of the remaining chocolate pastry cream. I also used a few cherries soaked in kirsch and crumbled a few chocolate biscuits over them. Finally, I liberally drizzled the eclairs with some cherry jam let down with a bit of water for a drizzle-able consistency. For the cherry-filled eclairs, I used a super shiny chocolate glaze (recipe below) and some red sprinkles I had to hand.
Super shiny Chocolate Glaze
(makes a small amount, double to cover a cake)
You will need:
4g leaf gelatine (about 2 sheets)
125g caster sugar
50g cocoa powder, sifted
50ml double cream
25g dark chocolate, minimum 70% cocoa solids, chopped
1. Leave the gelatine in a small bowl of cold water to soak for 10 mins. Place the sugar, cocoa, double cream and 75ml of water in a small pan. Bring to a simmer, whisking to dissolve the sugar.
2. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate, stirring to melt. Leave to cool for about 10 minutes then add the drained gelatine. Strain through a fine mesh sieve and allow to cool completely. You may find you need to stir it a little before using.
3. To decorate the eclairs or a cake, spoon over, allowing to pool and spill down the sides. Leave to set a little, although it will still be tacky to touch.
It seems like ages ago now, but for almost two glorious weeks around Easter I was in Italy on what can only be described as a gastronomic tour to give both Elizabeth David and Elizabeth Gilbert a run for their money. It was also a most efficient holiday as I managed to spend time with my husband, my family and friends all in one trip. We started in Rome, without plan or agenda, simply walking the streets in search of new sights and good food and wine. On our first day we gave the Easter crowds a wide berth by avoiding the Centro Storico and Vatican. Instead, we headed to the neighbourhood of Monti, with its quieter streets, more peaceful squares and treasure trove shops. This was followed by a walk to Said chocolate shop, which has been producing treats for the Romans since 1923. After stocking up on truffles and Easter eggs, we nipped in for dinner at Pastificio San Lorenzo across the road. An excellent place to try a few dishes that veered away from the pasta/pizza fare of the centre of town and the perfect place to people watch over an aperitivo.
After this city break and in the midst of the Easter rush, we escaped to the countryside. After surviving what was possibly the most terrifying taxi ride of my life (our driver felt he was quite capable of turning around and chatting to us at length while speeding down the motorway), we picked up our car at the airport and drove up through Lazio into the heart of Umbria and where my Dad is gradually semi-retiring. We met him in his tiny little village near Orvieto, perched at the top of a hill with views stretching out into Tuscany.
Umbria is sometimes overlooked by tourists, but this relative quiet really only adds to its charm. It is known as the il cuore verde d’Italia (the green heart of Italy) because of its verdant hills and agricultural abundance. It certainly seemed like everywhere we turned there was wonderful produce – from the olive groves and vegetable patches around the village we were staying in, to the nearby vineyards and saffron fields. Over the Easter period there were plenty of markets in the nearby towns and villages, manned by proud farmers showing off their produce. We particularly enjoyed a blustery afternoon spent in Citta della Pieve, tasting salame, cheeses, beers and hog roast panini.
After a few peaceful days in Umbria, I waved goodbye to my family and headed up the country to Florence, where I met a group of girlfriends for a long weekend. Walking around the city was a strange experience, it seemed like there were ghosts of a past life on every corner, echoes from a long time ago. I lived in Florence for a year when I was 16, my father’s infatuation with Italy brought the whole family there at the turn of the millennium. I went kicking and screaming, not wanting to leave my friends and established life behind. Of course when we moved from Italy year later, it was in further floods of tears. I’d fallen hard for the city, the weather, the people (Italian boys, of course!).
Every street in central Florence brought back a memory, a conversation I had forgotten, a person I’ve lost touch with, a smell or a taste I can’t quite seem to place. It was eery and a bit sad, but also wonderful to be reminded that yes, this did actually happen half my life ago and it was great and came to shape who I became as an adult.
Not least in terms of food. I had a wonderful friend that magical year in Italy, called Hannah. She was the daughter of the priest at the American Church in Florence (who from what I could tell spent most of his time marrying Japanese tourists, even answering the phone with a cheery ‘moshi moshi!’) and she was in the year above me at school. She had bright pink, red or purple hair (depending on the week) and cooked like a goddess. It was the first time I had met anyone my age who loved food and loved cooking to that extent. Before living in Italy, I’d been a bit embarrassed by my love of food and kept it hidden and separate from the rest of my life. It was something I shared with my family and only revealed to friends at the occasional school bake sale.
But Hannah made it not only seem like the coolest thing in the world (I remember watching in awe as she chopped a peach sans chopping board, delicately segmenting each slice in the palm of her hand), but also a viable career option – she always knew she wanted to be a chef and eventually open a restaurant or bakery. Even at that young age she was taking birthday cake orders from all the moms at our school. Although I haven’t seen her in many years as she now lives in Texas, from what I understand from social media she is well on her way to making that a reality.
My year in Italy was sandwiched between the two summers I worked at Lisa Elmqvist in Östermalms Hallen, Stockholm, gutting icy herring and rolling meatballs all day long – hard, physical and sometimes monotonous work creating those classic Swedish dishes. And I loved it. So I guess that year when I was 16 cemented my future in food. I went about it in a pretty round about way, but got there in the end.
I was immensely fortunate in my choice of travelling companions over that weekend. We all share an obsession with good food and drink and so rarely went for more than an hour without eating, drinking or at least planning where our next meal was going to be. Highlights from the weekend included the Cantinetta Verrazzano for the most delicious focaccia (the truffled mushroom was out of this world) fizz and coffee taken standing up at their pastry-laden counter. The Enoteca Fuori Porta was also well worth the hill climb for a favourite for crostini and lengthy wine list. Then there was the piazza Santo Spirito for nightlife and watching the world go by. I also managed to pick up some wonderful curtains and prints from the monthly Santo Spirito antiques market.
Of course, I had to fill whatever small scraps of space in my suitcase with loot from the Italian supermarket. Olive oil, parmesan wedges, dried mushrooms, biscotti and sauame all came with me. As did a paket of curious greens that caught my eye in the vegetable aisle. I wasn’t completely sure what it was, but decided to take a risk and do some research when I got home.
It turns out I hit the jackpot – agretti, or ‘barba di frate’ (Monks’ beard) has all but sold out in the UK, I later found out. It is quite delicate and subtle in flavour that is slightly spinach-like. Cooked properly it has a lovely bite, a bit like samphire. It likes classic italian flavours – garlic, anchovies, lemon. Although it’s not so easy to get hold of, it is well worth picking some up if you do happen to stumble upon it. I also had to take some artichokes back as they were absolutely everywhere we went and wonderful to cook with. The recipes below are inspired by these ingredients and the simple, delicious dishes that Italy is so renowned for.
Agretti with Chilli, Ricotta, Caramelised Lemon and Pine Nuts
You will need:
Large bunch agretti
2 tbsp olive oil
1 chilli, finely chopped
20g pine nuts, toasted
small handful greek basil leaves
1. Remove any tough ends of the agretti before plunging into a large pan of boiling, salted water. After about a minute, drain and season with salt and pepper as well as a drizzle of olive oil.
2. Cook the spaghetti according to packet instructions. Meanwhile, strip the lemon of it’s zest using a zester or a sharp knife to create little shards of zest, avoiding any pith. Heat a little olive oil in a large pan and cook the zest until golden and beginning to caramelise. Set aside.
3. Drain the pasta and toss in little olive oil. Add the agretti, lemon zest, chilli and ricotta as well as a squeeze of lemon juice. Season and serve, topped with pine nuts and basil leaves.
Roman Baked Artichokes
You will need:
4 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tbsp grated pecorino cheese
4 tbsp fresh breadcrumbs
4 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tbsp chopped oregano
2 tbsp chopped basil
juice and zest of 1 lemon
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus a little extra
4 medium sized artichokes
150ml dry vermouth
1. Preheat the oven to 200C. In a small bowl, combine chopped anchovy fillets, minced garlic, pecorino, breadcrumbs, herbs, lemon juice and zest. Add the olive oil and mix to form a thick paste.
2. Cut off about 2 cm of the artichoke tops and rub with the leftover lemons. Pry oven the individual leaves and stuff with the herby breadcrumb mixture. Sprinkle with a little olive oil and the vermouth. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 45 minutes, until tender. Uncover for the final 10 minutes to allow the artichokes and breadcrumbs to crisp up. Serve with chunky bread and a crisp green salad.
So it’s Shrove Tuesday, which here in the UK is celebrated with pancakes, generally something which I have absolutely no objection to whatsoever. It was pancake day on one of our first dates, so my husband and I always mark it- usually with some crepes stuffed with spinach, ham and cheese, slathered with more cheese before baking. Sweet ones to follow, of course.
But in Sweden, the tradition is to eat semlor on ‘fettisdagen’ or Fat Tuesday. Originally, these buns were really quite simple and based very much on the classic ‘vetebröd’ (literally ‘wheat-bread’) recipe. Sweetened, leavened bread flavoured with cardamom- pretty much the same thing we’d use for cinnamon buns. Semlor were served floating in a bowl of milk, for dipping and dunking. But traditions, of course, evolve. The Sweden.se homepage describes the semla’s trajectory best:
‘At some point Swedes grew tired of the strict observance of Lent, added cream and almond paste to the mix and started eating semla every Tuesday between Shrove Tuesday and Easter.
Today, no such reservations exist and semlor (the plural of semla) usually appear in bakery windows as near after Christmas as is deemed decent – and sometimes even before. This is followed by a collective, nationwide moan about how it gets earlier every year. Shortly thereafter people begin to eat the things like the world will end tomorrow.’
I know that my last post exalted the virtues of restraint and substitution in order to make a sweet treat a bit healthier. This post, by contrast, is really all about excess, which is as it should be on the last day before Lent. My take on the semla uses plain flour, which gives them a cakier texture and just a dash of cardamom- it’s more for the scent than anything else. Unfilled they freeze really well, so you can make them in advance and have a stash to hand.
Semlor (Swedish Lent Buns)
Makes 24 mini buns or 12 big ‘uns
You will need:
For the buns:
75g unsalted butter
150ml whole milk
5g fresh yeast
60g golden caster sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cardamom (or 2 tbsp pods, shelled and ground)
400g plain flour
For the almond paste
100g blanched almonds
75g golden caster sugar
Double cream, whipped
1. Melt the butter in a small pan over a low heat. Add the milk and bring to blood temperature. Crumble the yeast into a large bowl with the sugar. Pour over a little of the milk mixture and stir until the yeast and sugar has dissolved. Add the remaining liquid, 1 beaten egg, salt and cardamom.
2. Gradually add the flour, stirring until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl. Tip onto a lightly floured work surface and knead briefly, until it comes together to form an elastic dough. Return to the bowl, cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for 1 hour.
3. Meanwhile, make the almond paste by blitzing the blanched almonds to a fine powder. Add the sugar and continue blitzing to a smooth paste- it may take a little while for the oils in the nuts to release, be patient. Cover and pop in the fridge until needed.
4. Tip the dough out of the bowl and onto your work surface. Knock back a little before dividing and rolling into buns. Place on a lightly oiled baking sheet, about 2 cm apart. Again, cover with the tea towel and leave for about 45 minutes, until almost doubled in size. Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6.
5. Beat the remaining egg and use to lightly glaze the buns. Bake for 7-8 minutes for small buns and up to 10 for larger, until golden. Cool on a wire rack completely.
6. To serve, cut off the tops of the buns and scoop out a little of the bread-y middles. Fill with a spoonful of almond paste and spritz or spoon in the cream. Crown with the reserved bun tops and dust with icing sugar.
Be my slightly less sweet Valentine this year. This decadent chocolate cake is exactly what you would want to make for a loved one or to finish a romantic meal. Except it isn’t quite as naughty as it seems. This cake is free from refined sugar, sweetened instead with dates and a little maple syrup. There’s no dairy just coconut oil instead of butter and coconut cream for the frosting. And there’s no flour or grains at all, so it’s completely gluten free. There is, however, a surprise ingredient- black beans. I recognise that this sounds a little incongruous, but trust me, it makes for a really moreish, fudgy texture. Anyway, everyone is doing it- it’s the new beetroot as far as chocolate cake baking goes and just as delicious. My apologies for the Roxette pun in the title, I couldn’t resist.
Chocolate Black Bean Cake with Hazelnut Mocha Mousse and Coconut Frosting
Makes 1 cake
You will need:
For the cake:
1 can black beans (400g), drained
2 tbsp very strong coffee
5 fat medjool dates, pitted
3 tbsp maple syrup.
1 tsp vanilla extract
30g raw cocoa powder
75g coconut oil, plus a little extra
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
5 eggs, separated
For the mousse:
150g hazelnuts, covered in cold water and soaked overnight
2 tbsp very strong coffee
1 tbsp raw cocoa
1 tbsp maple syrup
For the frosting:
150 ml coconut cream
1-2 tbsp maple syrup, to taste.
Red fruits like strawberries, raspberries, red currants, pomegranate seeds and figs, to serve
2 tbsp dessicated coconut, to serve.
1. Preheat the oven to 180C and grease two 20cm sandwich tins with a little coconut oil. Line with parchment. In a magimix, combine the beans, dates, maple syrup, coffee, vanilla and cocoa. Blitz until completely smooth- it should take a few minutes before the dates have completely dispersed into the mixture.
2. Add the coconut oil and continue blitzing untill the coconut oil has completely dispersed- there should be no white flecks. Add the bicarb, salt and egg yolks and blitz until just combined and transfer to a large bowl.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks. Beat a large spoonful of the whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten slightly. In three separate additions, fold in the egg whites until just combined. Divide equally between the two sandwich tins and bake for 20-22 minutes, until firm to the touch with a little spring and a cake tester comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tins.
4. To make the mousse, drain the hazelnuts and place in the magimix with the cocoa powder, coffee and maple syrup. Blitz until broken up and grainy, stopping to clean down the sides from time to time. With the motor running, slowly add 150ml of cold water and continue to blitz until you have a light, fluffy mixture. Set aside.
5. For the coconut frosting, whisk the coconut cream in a small bowl sweetened with a little maple syrup. Refrigerate until needed. Spread the mousse on one of the chocolate cakes, then top with the second. Frost with the coconut cream and decorate with fruit. Finally, dust with a little dessicated coconut.
Almond milk Braised Shoulder of Lamb with Cannellini Beans, Fennel and Baby Carrots
You will need:
1/2 shoulder of lamb, approx 1kg/2 lb 3 oz
3 fat garlic cloves, cut into slivers
2 green chillis, finely chopped
1 tbsp chopped parsley stalks
1/2 tbsp cumin seeds, toasted and lightly bashed
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp smoked paprika
2 tbsp olive oil
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
300ml/10 fl oz almond milk (unsweetened)
1 tin cannellini beans, drained
baby carrots, to serve
flaked almonds and chopped parsley leaves, to serve
1. Preheat the oven to 180C/160 fan/gas 4. Using a small knife, make little incisions all over the meat and insert the slivers of garlic. Mix together the parsley stalks, cumin seeds, lemon juice and zest, smoked paprika, olive oil and 1 tsp of salt (preferably sea salt) in a small bowl to form a thick paste. Rub this all over the lamb.
2. Place the onion and fennel in a roasting tray, season and pour over the almond milk. Sit the lamb snugly in the tray. Cover with tin foil and roast for 1 hour, basting a few times, then remove from the oven and tip in the beans. Continue to roast for a further 30 minutes, uncovered, until tender. Leave to rest for 10-15 minutes then scatter with chopped parsley and flaked almonds. Serve with steamed baby carrots, still slightly crunch and, if you like, some of the beans, fennel and milk whizzed into a thick sauce.