Figs, books, memories and Kate Young's The Little Library Cookbook

kate young's book.jpg

Kate Young’s The Little Library Cookbook is a book I wish I had written.  Like Young, I’ve always had food and books on the brain, and her joyful collection of recipes and stories combines the two in way that takes me on a literary journey as well as a culinary one.

For a couple of years, Young has explored the connections between books, food and memory in her blog The Little Library Café and fortnightly columns in the Guardian. Now, it’s apposite and lovely that her literature-inspired recipes should come together in a gorgeous volume, a book to snuggle up with and leaf through, as well as cook from.

For me, the recipes trigger an avalanche of memories. Sticky marmalade roll from CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, takes me back to reading the book to my children when they were very small – a time that now, in itself, seems a magical world away. There are crumpets from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a book I haven’t read for decades, but remains one of my favourites; the romance of Manderley on its windswept English coastline was one of many fictional magnets that first drew me to the UK from Australia.  Steak and onions from Graham Green’s The End of The Affair, is bittersweet, reminding me of how much I loved reading it when I was in my mid 20s, but at a particularly unhappy point in my own romantic timeline.

Young's recipe for Bread, Butter & Honey from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle got me thinking about the food that appears in my own favourite books. I didn’t read Jackson’s classic until relatively recently, when I realised I had missed out many quintessentially English novels. I spent my teenage years immersed in Australian fiction, books like Picnic At Hanging Rock, Seven Little Australians (oh Judy, my lip still trembles for you!), My Brother Jack, The Harp In The South, I Can Jump Puddles, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, The Getting of Wisdom and The Thorn Birds (pilfered from my mother’s bookshelf, I mainly read it for the sexy bits).

The book that resonated most in my 13-year-old head and heart was Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, the tale of rebellious misfit Sybylla, who yearned for a life beyond the confines of outback NSW, and shunned romance to be a writer. I related to her in so many ways it was painful. Food in literature wasn't a major draw for me then, but I do remember clearly Sybylla nibbling on apricots and figs as she endlessly read and wrote. (I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but Franklin was associating reading as nourishment of the soul as well literal nourishment through food, a point made in Susan K. Martin’s essay on the book).

Sybylla ate her fruit freshly plucked from trees in the garden of Caddagat, the genteel property on which she stays and where she falls in love with wealthy landowner Harold Beecham. I like to think that maybe, in times of glut, she might have eaten this figgy bread and butter pudding. It's adapted from my new book Roasting Tray Magic, simply substituting figs for the strawberries and rhubarb.

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Figgy bread and butter pudding

Serves: 6-8 | Takes: 1 hour 20 minutes

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing

2 tablespoons runny honey

10 ripe figs, quartered

50g caster sugar

4 large eggs

400ml double cream

400ml milk

1 vanilla pod, split in half lengthways, seeds scraped out

grated zest of 1 orange

1 large brioche loaf, cut


Preheat the oven to 170C//325F and lightly butter a 30 x 20 x 5-cm roasting tray or dish.

Heat the 2 tablespoons butter and the honey in a large frying pan and when foaming add the figs cut-side down. Fry for a couple of minutes until golden, then turn and cook the other cut side. Transfer the figs and their sticky buttery juice to the roasting tray, spreading them out evenly.

Mix the eggs, cream, milk, the remaining sugar, the vanilla seeds and orange zest together in a jug.

Working one slice at a time, dip the brioche into the cream mixture until thoroughly soaked and arrange on top of the fruit, slightly overlapping. Pour any of the remaining mixture over the top, and set aside for 15 minutes while the bread soaks.

Bake for 40–45 minutes, or until puffed and golden.





Market to Table with Rachel Roddy - and Carla's focaccia

"Always add the rosemary to the top of the focaccia after it has baked," says Carla Tomasi " or the essential oils will turn bitter in the heat of the oven." Tomasi - chef, baker, cookery teacher and erstwhile London restaurateur - proves the point that Italy's wondrously salty, olive-oil drenched flatbread is theoretically easy to make, but true deliciousness lies in the detail.

I'm in the light-drenched Latteria Studio in the Trastevere district of Rome, for the Market to Table event run today by Carla and food writer Rachel Roddy. It's not a cooking lesson as such, more a celebration of Roman cuisine and a chance for visitors to this glorious city to learn about its food, cook together and share a wonderful meal.

The day starts at the Testaccio Market; I've never been here before but I feel I know it well through Rachel's writing. This is her much-loved local market, almost a vibrant, bold character in its own right in her award-winning cook book Five Quarters. We fill our bags with produce, swoon over towers of sculptural artichokes and discuss the best way to cook chickpeas with a shopkeeper (a pinch of bicarb and much soaking).


Then we walk back across the river to Trastevere, past the Monte Testaccio hill, composed of 53 million broken amphorae, the terracotta vessels used in antiquity to hold grains and other foods, that were broken up and disposed of in this enormous dumpsite. On we go, winding our way through Testaccio's disused abattoir, once the largest in Europe, which gave rise to the district's tradition for offal-based dishes like trippa alla romana and oxtail stew. Across the Fiume Tever or the River Tiber, and we arrive at the beautiful little studio run by food stylist Alice Adams, where Carla has made us cinnamon rolls and coffee, and made a head start on the focaccia dough.

For me, the joy of the day lies as much in the cooking, prepping and discussing food communally, as it does in the learning: too many hours, I suppose, alone in the kitchen testing recipes with zip for company but Radio 4. And as Rachel says, many hands make otherwise onerous kitchen tasks easy. I would rarely contemplate making Alici impanate e fritter (fried anchovies) at home - the gutting, deboning and preparing the tiny silver fish, the most adored on the Roman table, just seems too much for one cook. And so it goes. Making fresh pasta seems fluid and simple with many shoulders to the wheel, while prepping vegetables - including a mountain of violet streaked artichokes - and other bites, seems not to much a job as a pleasant task with a soothing rhythm.

Not only have I learned the best way to bake focaccia, make pasta and prepare anchovies and artichokes - but rediscovered that many hands make light and joyful work in the kitchen. Let there be more communal cooking in my life.

For information about Market To Table days visit Latteria Studio or keep an eye on Rachel's blog or Instagram feed @rachelaliceroddy, or Carla's Instagram feed @tomasi_carla. 

Carla's Focaccia e focaccine

There are endless recipes for focaccia out there in the wild, so mine is not the definitive article, but this makes me happy and ticks all the right boxes. Light/airy/bouncy/soft crumb/keeps and freezes well. So here it is.

Oven temp.  190c. For a focaccia not too thick, bake it in tin 34 cm across. Quantities can be easily halved or bake in two smaller tins. One for now and one for later.

200 gr plain flour

200 gr strong bread flour

1 teaspoon of fast action dry yeast

1 teaspoon of fine salt

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

300 gr of tepid water Note: Measure the full amount but never add it all at once because the variants of the ability of flour to absorb liquid are many. Dry or wet flour/cold or hot day/ controlled environment or open windows and so forth..


Place flours, yeast and salt in a suitable mixing bowl and swirl around. Drizzle in the olive oil and then pour in the water. Maybe on a very cold day the water temperature ought to be on the warm side of tepid and never mix your dough in a metal bowl. The dough will chill and stop working (just like you when you get a cold). Plunge one hand in and use it as if it is the (kenwood) K beater. As you go around the bowl, gather flour from the side towards the center. Once all the flour has been incorporated, pat into a shaggy mass, cover with a cloth and leave to rest for at least 15 minutes. Do not worry if the dough feels sticky, it will be fine.

When resting time is over the dough will feel soft and pliable. Pour a little olive oil on the work surface and plop the dough on it. Flatten it out gently and then pull the dough from the edge towards the center and every time give it a quarter turn. Pull the dough four times. Upturn the mixing bowl over the dough and again leave to rest for about 15 minutes. Repeat this process twice more. Now gather the dough into a ball and leave to prove ( around45 minutes) in an oiled plastic bowl. When the dough is ready ease it gently out of the bowl and onto an oiled baking tray.  Leave to rest until the dough has relaxed( approx.15 mins) Try to finger massage the dough into shape and if it feels like springing back leave to rest for a while longer.

Once the dough has been spread out leave to rise ( preferably uncovered) well away from droughts or direct heat. If the day is really hot you may need to cover it.  Could take from 40 mins to 1 hour. If a thin skin forms on the surface of the dough it is fine, it will be easier to brush it with olive oil.

When well puffed up- you know what I mean-gently dimple the surface with your fingers and brush lightly with oil. Pop into the very hot oven and rotate the tin at lest once. Takes around 20/ 25 minutes to bake but much depends on your oven.

I would strongly advise against baking the focaccia with any herb strewn on the surface, especially rosemary because the essential oil within the herb will turn bitter due to the strong heat. For a real taste sensation chop some rosemary needles finely and shower the focaccia as soon as it is out of the oven. Boom! Focaccia freezes really well( so make two)and wedges can be reheated in the toaster quickly because of the porous crumb structure.

I often like to make focaccine with various toppings and they are very easy to prepare. The above quantity of dough will be enough for 4 focaccine of 20-22 cm diameter or you could make them thinner if you wish. After the first rise split the dough in four and gather into balls. While the dough relaxes prepare the toppings. Finely slice one red onion and place in a little bowl with olive oil and thyme. Very thinly slice a small potato and toss with olive oil. Mix a couple of tablespoons of grated cheese, like parmigiano or grana, with quite few grindings of black pepper. Very finely chop some rosemary and set aside. When the dough is soft and pliable again roll it or pat it out into rounds. Place them on an oiled surface- like an oven tray or individual small tins and leave to rise till nicely puffed up and then place the toppings on. May need a drizzle of oil and some salt sprinkled on. They usually bake in around 10/12 minutes.


Spicy bean stew with mozzarella puddles

beans and mozzarella

Do you soak dried beans for 12 hours before you cook them? Or do you reach for the canned stuff because a) you cant be bothered  b) you don’t plan your meals that far ahead? c) you meant to but forgot?

Take heart. A slew of recent cookery articles has confirmed what some people have believed for years – beans don’t really need to be soaked before cooking.  Melissa Clark in the New York Times is one such Non Soaker. In a recent article she exhorted readers to ditch canned beans for dried because dried are so easy to cook from scratch: just simmer in salted water until tender without soaking first, she suggests. The keen beans at Epicurious quickly jumped on the no-soak bandwagon too.

As a Soaker I was intrigued – the conventional wisdom, echoed by many fine food writers, is that soaking beans slashes the cooking time and softens the skins. But after a little experimentation myself, involving several pans of butter beans and different cooking methods, I’m pretty much converted. By all means, soak beans if you have the time or inclination, or cheat-soak by bringing your beans to the boil, turning off the heat and leaving them to sit in their water for an hour. But really, soaking them first will save you barely any cooking time at all.

Another thing my experiment confirmed is that salting the water in which you cook the beans does not make them tough, just tastier; tossing in an onion and some bay leaves makes them even more flavourful. And this is where beans cooked from scratch have the edge over canned. Melissa Clarke describes canned beans are “a wan simulacrum, fine in a pinch but never transcendent.” While I love her description, I don’t agree – good quality tinned or canned beans can be perfectly lovely. But there is something wonderfully calming about cooking a pan of dried  beans; the starchy broth it produces is delicious added to soups and bean dishes (as Rachel Roddy explains so well in her wonderful cookbook Five Quarters). Plus, the beans you cook yourself are definitely creamier than canned.

I generally cook whole packets of beans at a time these days, rather than leave oddments in the larder, and either keep the cooking pan (with the beans and liquid) in the fridge for cooking meals throughout the week (as per Roddy’s suggestion). Or else I freeze what I’m not using immediately, for reheating in fresh water later. This is handy because if you have beans to hand you have a meal.

Beans slurp up flavours, so I cook them all sorts of ways. I often blitz them into a creamy puree in the blender, adding some of the bean cooking water to loosen, then maybe some herbs and spices, yoghurt or olive oil, a garlic clove or maybe even a little saffron crushed in hot water. To make soup, stir in lots of hot stock, or leave it thick and creamy to serve in lieu of mashed potatoes with meat (lamb chops!) or for dunking vegetables.

Beans are also fantastic in the soup pot – with or without a bacon bone – and lots of lovely vegetables, or used to bulk out stews if you’re trying to cut down on meat. I’m rather fond of the recipe below – it’s a bean stew in its own right, although the addition of bacon and/or chorizo really elevates it into something wonderful. 

Spicy bean stew with mozzarella puddles

You can easily make this a vegetarian version just by leaving out the pancetta or chorizo

  • Olive oil
  • 200g pancetta or cooking chorizo
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 tins tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 red pepper, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chipotle paste
  • ¾ tbsp dried oregano
  • 600g cooked white beans + 1 cup of cooking liquid
  • 120g mozzarella or labneh balls (or 2cm cubes)
  • salt and pepper

Warm a good splash of olive oil in an ovenproof frying pan and add the pancetta or chorizo. Cook, stirring often, until the pancetta is crispy at the edges and starting to turn golden. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and put to one side. Add the onion and a pinch of salt to the pan and cook very gently for 10 minutes, until very soft and golden. Add the red pepper and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes more. Stir in the pancetta and chipotle paste so it’s combined with all the ingredients and lovely and aromatic. Add the tomatoes and oregano, squash any big bits with a wooden spoon, and season well with salt and pepper. Add 250ml of the bean cooking liquid (or water if you don’t have any) and simmer for 10 minutes or until thickened slightly. While this is happening, preheat the grill to high. Add the beans to the tomato mixture and simmer for 5 minutes more, until warmed through. Dot the top of the mixture with mozzarella or labneh all and set under the grill for 5 minutes, or until melted into creamy puddles.