There are weeks, like the one just gone where I can barely remember the slightest thing of interest happening in day to day life.Most noteworthy was hurriedly inflating an air bed on the pavement outside my in-laws' house fifteen minutes after the children were due to be asleep on it in our bedroom as there were guests needing theirs. I had to do it outside, in case you were wondering, because the air pump attaches to the car's cigarette lighter. It wasn't because I love the great outdoors.I immediately punctured it on the thorns leading up the path to the house. This is what comes of doing things last minute. We've had this mattress ten years without incident, using it perhaps three times over the decade. The one time we really need it a prick burst it.I've barely cooked this week at home –by home I mean the in-laws house as we continue our stay away from the dust sheets and collapsed lost tomb of the Incas our place resembles– which has made a welcome change. It is nice to have an occasional break from the kitchen, if a little odd. As much as I love feeding people, I like the control I have over something and the feeling I get when making other people happy. Filming every day this week I haven't been around much for my family; I've felt my absence keenly.Still, the food cooked for me by mother-in-law Sue has been delicious. Highlights were the mushroom risotto and an incredibly irresistible pineapple pudding from a Jane Grigson recipe that over the course of three helpings with ice cream overcame my avoidance of sugar during the week. I have a feeling that in a fortnight we will have extended waists as well as a redecorated home.But I have cooked a couple of things. A simple ten second pasta sauce for the children on Saturday (blitz together one tin of tomatoes, 1 clove of garlic, olive oil, a pinch of oregano, a dash of tomato purée and a pinch of salt then cook quickly) which everyone tucked into except me. I had bratwurst onto which I spooned the remains of the salsa verde from the other night. Its zing and freshness had faded like a green velvet curtain left in the sun, it's lost grandeur just a reminder of better times. And because everyone else seems to hate bratwurst in my family I got all the sausages.On Saturday night, as we all sat down to watch 'Strictly', the children's eyes kept open with matchsticks, zombified with tiredness yet unwilling to admit defeat to the enemy of sleep, we ate bowls of haricot beans slowly stewed with chorizo, sofrito, a dash of stock and chicken thighs first browned in the paprika infused oil then left to slowly simmer in the mix until tender. Comforting and very tasty.Here's a recipe the children helped me to make the weekend before we shipped out. The sourdough starter and longer ferment gives the brioche stronger structure and deeper flavour than the standard brioche so it stands up a little more to serious abuse from pouring over a load of hot chocolate sauce, if that's your kind of thing. It is mine. At least when I'm not avoiding sugar...Ingredients2tbsp starter200ml lukewarm water plus 50ml350g flour plus extra for kneading15g fresh yeast (or 7g dried)1 egg, beaten60ml milk, lukewarm80g butter80g golden caster sugarAnother 150g flourA generous pinch of saltChocolate buttons, I used a mix of dark, milk and whiteMethodAdd the water to the starter and stir well until dispersed. Stir in the 350g flour and mix well. Leave to rest for about half an hour.Add the salt and the 50ml water and knead together until mixed. The dough should be quite wet and sticky.Add a little more flour and start to knead on the bench, folding and pushing it until it starts to become smooth and elastic. Add flour a little at a time until it becomes tacky rather than sticky and you can shape it into a nice firm but soft ball of dough.Leave in the bowl, covered with a cloth for four hours.Add the yeast to the milk and stir to dissolve. Pour onto the rested dough and add the butter, sugar and egg to this. Mix into the dough. It will be quite sloppy. Add the 150g flour and knead well for another five minutes, adding a little more flour if the dough gets too sticky. Don't make it too dry and firm though, it needs to be on the wet side of tacky.While kneading, add a little more flour if you need, just so it doesn't stick to the bench too much. It will become sticky but silky enough to handle and shape into a ball.Leave to rise for a further two hours then knock back and shape into eight balls.Put the balls in two lines in two brioche or loaf tins. Brush the top with beaten egg mixed with a splash of milk. Dust the top with sugar crystals and a sprinkle of grated chocolate. Leave to prove for another half an hour and bake at gas 7 (190c) for 25 mins until golden and cooked through. Don't have the heat on too high and blacken them as I did. Leave to cool until just warm before serving.
It's that time of year when the low-sun sky dazzles my eyes at every street corner and I have to walk with an arm half-raised in defence. Sadly the raised arm technique has not stopped the attack of the seasonal cold that this house is full of.It's at times like this that we need an old Italian nonna come round daily and look after us, feed us and let us revert to child-like states while she takes care of everything. Sadly, this is not going to happen. At least the children, thank God, are not too ill to go to school. Yet.Last week I eat more food cooked by others that by me. Not through choice, but through circumstance. Sautéed mushrooms tossed with Parmesan and served on a crisp disc of polenta; layers of aubergine with pecorino, honey and pinenuts; octopus with green lentils and romesco sauce; asparagus with crisp-coated egg and wild garlic (seasonal right?!) and a delicious Sunday lunch sat outside in the warmth of a sunny September afternoon with family and friends over (escaping?) from The U.S of A.Sue cooked us all tender and pink beef fillet, a Persian salad studded with pomegranate seeds, the dressing creamy and richly coating the cucumber. A huge bowl of kasha meant I could happily fill up, denying myself nothing as my September free of bread, rice, pasta and potatoes and sugar nears its climax. I averted my eyes as the ice cream, damson fool and homemade almond biscuits were passed around. I could eat ice cream until the cows came home and started churning their own milk, but for now, drastic measures are in place as I slowly come to the realisation that my metabolism is not that of an 18 year old. And as much as I admire Pavarotti, it's for his voice, not his girth.What I did cook was a simple tomato and egg curry, using the tomato 'sugo' leftover from the children's pasta a previous night, as a base. A pile of chickpea flatbreads mopped up the sauce and baby courgettes quickly sautéed in garlic gave some crunch.Another night saw me top some southern fried chicken fillets with a fried egg, some chopped cornichons and crisp chorizo cubes in a strangely tasty emergency supper. If you squint, you could pretend it was a schnitzel a la Holstein... It's been one of those weeks.So in tribute to the American visitors (some tribute, eh?), the fact I have a massive bag of cornmeal to get through and not much more reason than that I had a bag of hot dogs in the fridge which I thought the children may enjoy, here is a trashy-in-the-extreme recipe for corn dogs. I love them — mainly for the fact they make me feel I'm walking the streets of New York city or sitting in a car park at the ball game — but the children peeled the batter away and just eat the sausages. They may have thought I was turning into a the 'dangerous cook' that Bruce from America said of his mother. I closed my eyes and tried not to think of battered saveloys from the chippy.Ingredients8 hot dogs200 fine cornmeal150ml milk50ml buttermilk1 egg, beatenSalt and pepper, a large pinch and a twist1tsp ground turmeric gives it a healthy colour1/2tsp bicarbonate of sodaRapeseed or groundnut oil for fryingFor the chutney12 cherry tomatoes, halved and quartered randomly2tbsp chopped coriander1 clove of garlic1tbsp tarragon vinegar (or cider vinegar)2tbsp olive oilFor the avocado1 avocado, crushed with a fork to which added the juice and zest of half a lime and one chopped cherry tomato. Season well with salt and pepperMethodMix together the batter ingredients and leave to rest for about ten minutes.Lay the hotdogs on kitchen paper to dry well so the batter doesn't slide off.Make the chutney by cooking the ingredients in a small saucepan on quite a high heat until the tomatoes start to soften and collapse. Turn off the heat and leave to cool a little.Pour the batter into a tall glass, like a highball and cut the hot dogs in half.Stick each one on a skewer that is not too long to fit in a large sauté pan.Heat about two centimetres of oil in a large sauté pan to about 180c.Dip a hot dog in the batter, turning and twisting it until well covered. Let the drips fall off then gently lay it in the hot oil.Turn it over after about five seconds and cook on all sides for about five minutes. You should be able to do two or three in the pan at the same time. Be careful to cook them evenly on all sides so the batter is golden and crisp. Be gentle with them too, you don't want to knock the batter off.Drain on kitchen paper and serve with the chutney and avocado and a sprinkle of coriander.I would also highly recommend American mustard with these (Frank's is my favourite), and when I say highly recommend, I mean do it.Read: Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi, the account of his banishment to a Southern Italian village by the fascists. Brilliantly and gently written, a portrait of poverty full of warmth.Saw: Mummies at the British Museum. Overwhelming place, mainly fascinating and occasionally a load of old jugs. Seen one dirty pot you've seen them all...Lawrence of Arabia at the British Film Institute. Brand new print of this enormously long film. So long there was an interval and as magnificent as it was, I think a part of me is still attached to the seat.Eat: Chinese hot pot skewers from Chinatown. I had beef tripe, fish cartwheel (?!), pig intestine (quite a little funky if I'm honest), fried beancurd and cuttlefish. A little broth and coriander coated them and the heat from the chilli was spot on, enough to be a little painful but not too much to overpower.Listened: Accidentally to Camille while trying to put The Archers on; Jorja Smith on Jules 'Boogie-woogie' Holland's programme. Mesemerising. Mac Demarco a Canadian chap. Rather good.
The Easter weekend is coming up, and this year my birthday is sandwiched between death and resurrection on the Saturday. I shall not be doing any cooking for the whole weekend, which will be novel. While the children run around the garden looking for eggs on Sunday, weather permitting, I shall be opening my parent's fridge and raiding their cupboards like a student back from Uni.(I would usually post a bread recipe at this time of year so I can make jokes about knocking the dough back and watching it rise again. I still find it this joke funny after countless repetitions, even if no one else does.)This recipe has nothing to do with dough, but more to do with sugar, chocolate and nuts. While I've bought various eggs for various offspring, I also decided to make a little side treat of chocolate brittle for the adults. For some reason, we had a mountain of nuts and chocolate in the cupboard and using it for this weekend seemed apposite. If you can avoid burning the first lot of caramel so much the better. I'd recommend not leaving its side until it's ready. For example to wander off and read the sleeve notes on 'Sing it Again Rod'.You'll have to work quickly when the caramel is ready and be careful to not burn yourself. Hot caramel is a new kind of pain. You can use peanuts, almonds, pine nuts, pistachios and add salt, chilli, vanilla essence and all kind of things to add variety. This one is a simple salted caramel version. You can also use less dark chocolate and replace it with milk chocolate if you prefer. The children are keen to each have one of these smashed over their Viennetta for pudding this evening, I think that is a cracking idea.Ingredients220g dark chocolate (I used 70% cocoa)30g dark chocolate buttons200g sugar150g hazelnuts, roughly chopped, some left largeA pinch of saltMethodPrepare a large sheet of baking paper on the kitchen worktop and give it a quick spray of cooking oil to help stop the caramel nuts from sticking.Slowly melt the sugar with a pinch of salt in a heavy-based pan, one large enough to fit the chopped nuts in when the sugar has melted. Copper pans are the best for this if you have one.Shake the pan every now and then as the sugar melts, be careful to not let it get too dark and burn. This is horrible and bitter, like Ukip crossed with Heather Mills.When it's melted and a lovely dark caramel colour, quickly pour in the nuts and stir well on the heat until they're all coated. Pour the mix out onto the prepared paper, shape into a rectangle with a metal palette knife and leave to cool.Melt the chocolate for one minute and 20 seconds in the microwave (you could do it the traditional way in a bowl over simmering water if you prefer, but really?).The chocolate should still look as though it's mostly kept its shape. Beat it with a small whisk and throw in the chocolate drops. Keep stirring until they melt and the chocolate is smooth and shiny.Cut the nut brittle into small rectangles or squares and dip each one in the melted chocolate. Sprinkle with some of the fallen off nuts and caramel if you like and leave to set. You can wrap these individually in paper or store in an airtight container until ready to eat/dish out.Happy Easter.
Recently, before Christmas and in the throes of trying to establish a new world record for sugar consumption, I bought a box of gulab jamun from the local supermarket. I've eaten a few Indian sweets before on the mean streets of Tooting: kulfi on a stick, jalebis and so on, each time suffering an immediate and swift ecstatic rush followed by an instant diabetic death., but these were in a league of their own. They came in a palatial bath of syrup, enough to upset even the most sweet toothed cake lover. Of course, I ate the whole box.So now, as life is slowly groaning back into gear and constantly attempting to violate our cosy January, I am as much as possible off the sugar. This, in part is an attempt to try and regain my Adonis-like figure*, which I seem to have misplaced somewhere in 1994, and also, because sugar is, really, the devil's work. However, we all need a little devil from time to time, so a little treat here and there is necessary to keep up morale.These are my version of the sugar soaked sponge, baked rather than fried and not as soaked in syrup as the original (they also don't have milk powder in them). You'll need a round mini cake sphere mould or a cake pop maker, both of which are pretty cheap and easy to find. If not, you could spoon the mix into mini fairy cake moulds. The children loved making and eating these, and it makes a nice change to the icing clad, mouth clagging fairy cakes they usually want and then give up on halfway through.I used a bought caramel sauce that I had leftover from a job, but feel free to make your own, it's not hard.*not even remotely Adonis-like, more just a lot slimmer than I am now.Ingredients100g butter100g golden caster sugar100g plain flour1tsp baking powder1 egg1tsp cinnamon powder1/2tsp ground cloves1/2tsp ground cardammonA small handful of chopped pistachio nutsSome dried rose petalsA little gold leaf and edible glitter if you fancyFor the syrup50g golden caster sugar1tbsp waterA few saffron strands2tsp ground cinnamonMethodHeat the oven to 180c or turn on the machine and preheat it.Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, then beat in the egg until smooth.Mix together the flour, spices and baking powder and add a little at a time to the butter mix, beating until smooth.Fill the moulds and bake for about seven minutes, until golden. Leave to cool a little.Make the syrup by bringing the sugar, cinnamon powder and water gently to the boil and then reducing it until syrupy, about five minutes.Pile the cake balls onto a plate, pour over the syrup and caramel sauce then sprinkle over the nuts, petals and gold. Serve slightly warm with coffee, or Thums Up! coke if you want a real rush, uncontrollable children and no teeth left.