edited main eton mess

In truth, the world doesn’t need another recipe for Eton Mess. They’re not exactly thin on the ground. But I’m sharing this because it’s such a favourite at Pen and Spoon HQ – it’s virtually synonymous with summer for us.

Although traditionally made with strawberries or bananas, this British classic really is a blank canvass to paint with what you fancy or have in the fridge. In my book, it has to contain fruit, cream and meringue, but beyond that I’m up for scoffing most variations (bring on the banana and caramel).

This version obliges you to make meringue rather than use the shop-bought stuff, but it’s really very little bother, especially if you don’t have to separate the eggs.  After I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the current egg-white craze in the UK and US, the kind ladies from Two Chicks liquid egg white company sent me some of their product to try.  Although I have an aversion to most pre-prepared ingredients (illogical, I know, as I happily cook with shop-bought pasta), I can report that these are brilliant. They whip well and save you the hassle of using up the yolks, or worse, throwing them out.

close up strawbsChocolate Meringue Eton Mess

For the meringue

  • 2 egg whites
  • a good pinch of cream of tartar
  • 120g fine caster sugar
  • 3 tablespoon cocoa powder, sifted

For the rest of the Mess

  • 500g strawberries, hulled and quartered
  • 1/2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • about 4 tablespoons icing sugar
  • 300ml double cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, or to taste

Heat the oven to 110°C/225°F and line a baking sheet with baking paper. In a scrupulously clean and dry bowl, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until soft peaks form that hold their shape. Very gradually beat in the sugar until glossy, then fold in the cocoa. If you don’t fancy the chocolate version, omit the cocoa from the egg whites, but add the scraped-out seeds of a vanilla pod to the cream.

Using a spatula, spread the mixture out on the prepared baking sheet to a thickness of about 1.5cm – it doesn’t matter about the shape as you will be breaking this up into bits. Bake for about 1 hour 15 minutes, then turn off the oven and leave the meringue to cool with the door open. This might take a couple of hours.

strawbs in tabAs soon as the meringue is in the oven, place half the strawberries in a pan and crush with a masher. Add the balsamic vinegar and half the icing sugar, and simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until the fruit has cooked down to a thickish sauce. Set aside to cool. (I know you can simply blitz the fruit to a sauce in a blender with a little icing sugar, but it’s especially flavourful if you do it this way.)

cream being stirredWhen – and only when – the meringue is cold, whip the cream with the remaining icing sugar and cinnamon to a soft dropping consistency, being careful not to over-beat. Add more cinnamon or sugar to suit your taste.

choco shards

Crumble the meringue and fold through the cream. Gently fold through most of the strawberry sauce and most of the strawberries.

Distribute into bowls and serve drizzled with the remaining strawberry sauce and topped with the remaining strawberries.

 

 

 

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How to make a picnic pie

Picnic pie

I know. Lavish picnic preparations are often harbingers for lousy weather.  But I believe it’s still worth making an effort when it comes to al fresco food.  The sky might cloud over and chill winds might blow, but delicious things to eat can rescue any outdoor occasion.  And picnic pies are perfect al fresco fare:  yummy ingredients enveloped in flaky pastry that can be eaten warm or cold. They’re far tastier and lovelier than sandwiches but equally transportable, and not that difficult to make. Especially this one.

collage of countrysideI’ve made lots of picnic pies over the years. Nigella does a delicious version (although she doesn’t really intend it for picnics) called Pizza Rustica. I once made this to the letter and although it was fabulous, it was quite a process to make and involved a long shopping list. I’ve also made muffuletta-style sandwiches by scooping out the insides of rustic loaves, filling them with tasty goodies, and popping the lids back on like Paul Hollywood does with his Picnic Loaf.

This picnic pie is based on a recipe by award-winning food writer Rose Prince. The genius of it is the layering of herby egg pancakes with the other ingredients, making this a really satisfying picnic feast. The recipe is from her book Kitchenella (also view it on her video); she sensibly goes the simple route, using ready-made puff pastry and an egg, ham and cheese filling.

By all means, use ready-made pastry without guilt,  but I’ve included my recipe for a quick and easy pastry simply because I didn’t have any ready-made to hand. Also, because I’m a zealot for using leftovers at the moment, I added stray bits and bobs from the fridge: a few rashers of bacon, a chorizo cooking sausage, some different cheeses and even some leftover cooked bulgur wheat! Served up on a picnic blanket with a simple chopped salad, it was perfect outdoor food on a recent glorious sunny day.

close up of pie

Picnic Pie (based on a Rose Prince recipe from Kitchenella)

Serves 2-4

For the pastry

  • 250g plain flour
  • 125g cold butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 4 or more tablespoons ice-cold water

For the filling

  • 4 eggs
  • a general handful of finely chopped herbs like parsley, dill, basil, chives
  • a knob or 2 of butter
  • sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper
  • slices of ham, cooked bacon, chorizo, prosciutto, mortadella
  • grated or crumbled cheese like cheddar, mozzarella, parmesan, provolone
  • cooked leftover grains or pasta
  • vegetables like onions, courgettes or peppers (tomatoes are a bit too wet)

For the pastry, place the flour in a large mixing bowl and grate in the butter (hold the end of the butter with a piece of foil to prevent it melting). Using a palette or butter knife, cut the butter into the flour until completely combined and the mixture resembles large breadcrumbs. Gradually add the water, cutting it in with the knife, until the mixture comes together into a dough. Tip onto a lightly floured work surface, quickly shape into a disc, then wrap in greaseproof paper and chill for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

While the dough is resting, make your egg pancakes. Whisk 3 of the eggs together with the herbs, and season well with salt and pepper. Heat a small frying pan – mine has a base diameter of 17cm but a little smaller or larger won’t matter. Pour in a very thin layer of the egg mixture, swirling it around the base to cover completely. Cook for a minute or so, then flip and cook the other side. Repeat with the rest of the mixture – you should make about 4 pancakes. Set aside, then cook up any other of the ingredients: dice the vegetables and sauté until tender, or fry off bacon and chorizo.

When the dough has rested, set the oven to 200C/ 390F/gas mark 6. Divide the dough in half, pop one piece back in the fridge, and roll the other piece into a disc large enough to accommodate the egg pancake leaving a 4cm border all the way around. Place on a piece of baking paper, then start layering your ingredients. Start with a pancake, then add layers of meat, vegetables, cheese and so on. Repeat the layering until the pancakes are used up. Be generous – the ingredients will sink a bit as they cook down – but you’re not looking for a picnic tower here! Roll out the other half of dough so that it will comfortably cover your filling and hang down over the bottom piece of pastry. Press the pastry edges together and then roll them up so that you have a snug pie.  Make a slit in the top with a sharp knife and shape a little flower around the slit if you have any dough trimming. Brush with the beaten egg.

Slide the pie on its baking paper onto a baking sheet. Lightly beat the remaining egg. Lightly brush the pie all over with the beaten egg and bake for about 25 minutes, until golden. Enjoy warm or cold in slices.

collage picnic

 

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Vanilla cake with fluffy meringue icing

Vanilla cake with fluffy meringue icing

I had a Twitter exchange last week with a blogger who was very upset over a sneering article that had been written about her on a well-known parenting website. Her crime? Going to too much trouble to make school lunches for her kids. Among the many nasty snipes at her was the suggestion she ‘get a life’ instead of spending so much time and energy making the lunches artistically appealing. (Actually, her blog is charming, creative and entirely aimed at encouraging her kids to eat healthy. Take a look.)

I’m not sure when it became a crime to put some effort into preparing food for people we care about, but the exchange got me thinking about how we often feel uncomfortable, or too embarrassed, to admit we’ve gone to some trouble in the kitchen. We mutter that a meal was really no effort at all, or that a dish was very simple to make when actually we’ve spent an entire (but enjoyable) day or more striving to ensure it’s absolutely delicious. Why do we do this? What’s wrong with feeling proud to have made a culinary effort?

The lunchbox episode was timely because it coincided with the 13th birthday of my daughter. While my cooking mojo is dormant at lunchbox-making hour, I usually put a sizeable effort into my children’s birthday cakes. I’ve wept hot tears over the crumbled ruins of a sponge dinosaur that lost its tail during late night carving. I’ve chopped up Barbies in the early hours to get the sweep of the icing dress just right. I’ve even driven all over London in search of just the right sized toy Noddy to sit in my sponge-confecton car. Silly? Yes. A little bit of showing off involved off? Probably. Was it an expression of how much I love my kids. Absolutely. Arrest me.

vanilla cake with meringue icingVanilla cake with fluffy meringue icing

This cake isn’t actually difficult at all – certainly nowhere near the work involved in a Noddy car! It is, however, very tasty and gorgeously pretty with its cloud of meringue icing. I’m still kicking myself for not ordering the edible flowers in time to decorate the top – but the shop-bought icing buds went down very well all the same.

For the cake 

  • 150g unsalted butter
  • 260g caster sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 200g self-raising flour
  • 25g cornflour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • a pinch of salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 90g natural yoghurt

For the icing

  • 170g icing sugar
  • 3 egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Set the oven to 180°C/350°F. Lightly oil 2 x 20cm round cake tins. Beat the butter and sugar together until very pale and fluffy. Beat in the eggs a little at a time. Whisk together the flours, baking powder and salt, then stir this in to the butter mixture  Add the vanilla, almond extract and yoghurt and stir until just combined. Distribute equally between the cake tins, smooth the tops with a spatula, and bake on the same shelf for about 30 minutes, or until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Remove from the tins and set aside to cool.

2. While the cakes are cooling, make the icing. (I put the cakes in the fridge once they have cooled a bit as this makes them much easier to ice). Place the icing ingredients in a metal bowl – ideally the bowl of a electric stand mixer – and whisk to combine. Set the bowl over a pan of gently simmering water and whisk constantly while the mixture gets hot (this will kill any bacteria in the egg whites). You want it to reach a temperature of about 70°C/160°F – this will take about 7 minutes, by which time the mixture will be quite thick and creamy. Remove from the heat and whisk with electric beaters until the mixture is very stiff and glossy and stands up on it own in firm peaks.

3. When the cakes are absolutely cold, spread some of the icing on top of one of the cakes and place the other cake on top. Spread the rest of the icing over the top and sides, making lovely swirls with your palette knife. Decorate with edible flowers, or your favourite adornments.

 

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Beet & labneh salad with Meyer lemon dressing

Beet and labneh salad with myer lemon dressing
If it were possible to inhale kale, Californians would be in to it. In just the few days we’ve been on holiday in Los Angeles I’ve seen this vegetable superhero served more ways than I thought possible – they put it in every blessed thing, from juices and shakes to salads, burgers, toasted snacks and fried egg sandwiches.

At the wonderful Wednesday farmer’s market in Santa Monica there’s also an abundance of the stuff, and varieties I’ve never seen before: curly, dinosaur, Russian and redbor just to name a few. The market’s been going since 1981, bringing urbanites and Californian producers together over gorgeous stalls of fresh fruit and vegetables. The produce is so good that lots of LA chefs come here to buy goodies for their restaurants. I love it because it’s affordable and unpretentious, and even by US standards, the choice is amazing.

imageMy lot weren’t remotely interested in kale, preferring the heavenly-scented citrus stalls selling everything from pommellos to football-sized satsumas and manned by cheery producers passing out samples that went down well in the warm April sunshine.

It’s impossible not to want to cook with such amazing produce. I wasn’t going to win a popularity contest with kale, so I opted for a vibrant beetroot salad served with the leafy beetroot tops and some labneh, and dressed with a vinaigrette made with Myer lemons. I’ve never been able to find these lemons in the UK – they’re sweeter and much more favourful than standard lemons – and really do taste full of Californian sunshine.

Beet and labneh salad

Beetroot & labneh salad with Myer lemon dressing

About 3 each small red and golden beetroots, tops trimmed and reserved
A few tablespoons labneh (goat’s cheese, feta or buratta would also work well)
6 tablespoons mild olive oil
3 tablespoons Myer lemon juice (sherry vinegar is also good)
A squeeze of floral honey
1/2 garlic clove, crushed
Salt and pepper

First put the beets on to cook. I boiled them (in salted water until tender, about 1 hour) simply because I didn’t have any foil to roast them. For the fullest flavour, drizzle them with oil, wrap them in foil and roast in a hot oven for about 1 hour, or until completely tender. Either way, cook them with the skins on and when they’re done and cool enough to handle, peel away the skins. They should slip off easily under cold running water. Chop into bite-size pieces and set aside.

While the beets are cooking, pick over the leafy green tops, discarding the tough stems. Wash in cold water, drain in a colander, then place in a pan with the lid on. Cook over a medium heat for 5 minutes or so, shaking the pan now and then, until the leaves are tender. They will cook in just the water clinging to the leaves, so don’t add more.

Whisk together the olive oil, 3 tablespoons lemon juice, the garlic, honey and salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning and add more lemon juice, honey or salt and pepper to taste.

In a shallow serving dish gently combine the beets and beet tops with some of the dressing. Dot with spoonfuls of labneh and then drizzle over a little more dressing. Serve with some fresh sourdough or good quality bead. And a kale smoothie if you have one to hand.

 

 

 

 

 

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