I recently spent some time helping out a few of the lovely nannies from Freckles Childcare Agency with some cooking skills. This cake was one of the recipes we made and I only wish I had come across it before. It is the model of simplicity – just throw everything in a bowl, whisk well and pop in the oven. Less than half a hour later you have a scrumptious cake, light as a feather and all that remains to do is the fun of whipping up an indulgent cream cheese icing. It’s a great recipe to have up your sleeve for those times when you want a really yummy cake but don’t have a lot of time to make one.

How you finish it is up to you but I suspect that no one will burst into tears at the sight of some good old fashioned chocolate flake liberally adorning the top. Alternatively, just fill the centre and finish with a sensible dusting of icing sugar.

This recipe uses an American cup measure – if you don’t have one a medium sized mug will do.

1 1/2 cups self-raising flour
1 cup caster sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup sunflower oil
1 large egg

ICING

300g icing sugar, sieved
125g cream cheese (use philadelphia as it holds up better, some go a bit soft)
50g softened unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
(If you are icing the top of the cake as well you may like to make a bit more icing, eg 400g icing sugar, 175g cream cheese and 70g butter)

Pre-heat the oven to 180c

Grease and line two 8″ sandwich tins

Measure all the ingredients into a large mixing bowl. Whisk well until the mix is smooth. Divide evenly between the two tins.

Bake in the oven for 20 – 25 minutes or until the cake is springy to the touch.
Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tins.

While the cakes are cooling, whisk the icing ingredients together. If you like you could add cocoa powder to make a chocolate icing.

Either fill just the middle of the cake or use the icing to fill both the centre and put on the top. Sprinkle over crumbled chocolate flakes (two is about right) or dust the top of the cake with icing sugar.

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Everyone needs a go to quick supper recipe that is light, healthy, easy to make and preferably using as few pans as possible. I am currently loving using all the wild garlic that is growing rapidly in my garden. I can hardly keep up with the supply! Pesto is one obvious use for this delicious leaf but I also love to use it where I might otherwise have reached for some spinach. Here it is a natural fit with a spanking fresh piece of cod loin. Pesto over the top, wilted leaves underneath and the courgetti just adds that bit of necessary mildness that calms the who thing down. The tomatoes are something that you could leave out but I love the extra splash of colour that they give. If you need more, a side of some crispy fried potatoes is perfect.

For Four

4 pieces of cod loin (about 150g – 175g each)
Rapeseed oil for frying
3 medium sized courgettes, spiralized or shredded with a julienner
Two handfuls of washed wild garlic leaves (or use spinach)
Four heaped tablespoons of wild garlic pesto, made with dill as well
Four small tomatoes, cored and roughly chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper
Dill and extra pine nuts to garnish

Heat a frying pan with some rapeseed oil and have four plates ready warming in the oven.

Season the cod well and fry until golden on each side and only just cooked through. Remember that they will keep cooking whilst you keep them warm. How long very much depends on the thickness of the fish but approximately two to three minutes on each side should be about right.

Keep the fish warm on a plate in a VERY low oven. Quickly heat more rapeseed oil (about a tablespoonful) and add the courgette and tomatoes. Stir around fpr a minute or so and then add in the wild garlic to just wilt. Season and add a squeeze of lemon juice.

Take your plates and divide this mix between them. Sit the cod on top and then drizzle the pesto over and around. You may want to loosen it up with more extra virgin oil. Garnish with dill and squeeze more lemon over the whole thing, along with a final dusting of sea salt and black pepper. Serve at once.

If you are making this for lots of people you could of course bake or roast your fish in the oven, about 200c for six to eight minutes. Sit on a buttered baking tray, dot more butter over the top of each piece of cod. This will help get it a little bit golden. You could of course use oil but harder to get any colour on the fish.

PS This is also lovely with salmon, hake, pollock, haddock etc

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City v Country….I love both. But it is the arrival of Spring that reminds me how very lucky I am to live in a beautiful part of Wiltshire. The air is heady with the scent and promise of bounty bursting forth and the first tentative shoots are gathering confidence. Everywhere the hedges, verges, woods and fields are springing into life and nothing is more rampant than that foragers’ favourite, wild garlic.

Be absolutely sure of what you are picking – don’t confuse the poisonous leaves of lily of the valley which can look alarmingly similar. The smell is the first sign you should look for – it really is pungently garlicky. Wild garlic first appears at the end of March and by April it has really gathered pace and tends to be prolific, so you needn’t worry about picking a bunch or two. If you don’t have any in your garden you are likely to find it in local woods where it will carpet vast swathes of the ground, much like its friend and neighbour the bluebell. Pick the young and tender leaves, keeping a long stalk if you plan on popping them in a jar of water to keep them fresh for a day or two. You can also freeze the leaves – just wash, dry well and pop them in a freezer bag. Then use straight from frozen later in the year to jazz up a risotto, pasta dish or stirfry.

Once the pretty, edibile white flowers appear they are a lovely addition to salads or warm new potatoes.

Make sure you wash the leaves well before you use them. I love them as here in a simple pesto (also great to freeze – put into an ice cube tray and then turn the cubes out and store in a freezer bag). Or wilt the leaves as you would spinach, add to a frittata, make a wild garlic and potato cake or a delicious soup (you will find a recipe for that on this website).

When I make this pesto I tend to add other herbs in just to temper the strong flavour of these leaves but you may prefer to go for the full hit and leave the parsley/basil out. If I am making the pesto to use with fish I often add in a handful of dill. Any soft herb is great and just use this recipe as a guide.

You could also make a pea pesto and add the wild garlic into that, or kale, or spinach….the possibilities are endless!!

Two big handfuls wild garlic, washed
1 small bunch flat leaf parsley
Handful of fresh basil leaves (Or any soft herbs you have to hand)
60g freshly grated parmesan
60g pinenuts, walnuts or almonds
Approx 200ml extra virgin olive oil or rapeseed oil
Sea salt
Black pepper
Squeeze lemon juice

I use a mini chopper or processor to make my pesto but a big pestle and mortar and some elbow grease is fine.

Put the herbs, parmesan and nuts into your chopper. Add a good teaspoon of salt and a glug of oil. Whizz for a few seconds and then add more oil until you have a consistency you are happy with. Add a squeeze of lemon juice, more salt and black pepper to taste. Keep in a jam jar with a layer of oil poured protectively over the top and refrigerate.

Lovely with goats cheese on crostini, stirred through pasta or risotto, stuffed into a chicken breast, swirled onto a soup…….

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There is no doubt that there are some wonderfully delicious ice creams available to buy in the supermarkets but, slightly on a par with growing your own veg, there is something deeply satisfying about making you own. Not to mention the fun of playing around with flavours and perhaps more importantly, regulating the amount of sugar you include.

This recipe is based on a very old one out of an old seventies classic ‘the Hamlyn all Colour Cookbook’. It has stood the test of time and I have just updated it a bit, using creme fraiche as well as double cream, reducing the sugar content (quite considerably!) and adding in honey as an additional sweetener. Here I am using blackberries – any frozen berries will do and in the summer, when fresh berries are abundant just use whatever you can find or pick. Bear in mind, however that the blackberries that you find in the hedgerow are not the same as the cultivated variety which I find make much better eating. That isn’t exactly relevant in April but if, like me, you have a stockpile in the freezer leftover from Autumn foraging, this is a good way to use them up. Otherwise the supermarkets are full of useful packs of frozen fruit which are perfect to use here. Play around with the flavours here and just use this as a basic guide. Roll on sunshine!!

Makes about approx a litre

500g bag of frozen blackberries, defrosted
75g caster sugar
Rind of two oranges (optional but nice)
2 large eggs
2 – 3 tablespoons runny honey
125ml double cream
150ml creme fraiche (full fat is essential)

Put the blackberries and 50g of the sugar in a saucepan and heat gently until the juices start to run. Bring up to a simmer (important to cook the berries as they will be re-frozen) and after a couple of minutes, pull off the heat. Add in the grated orange rind, stir well and then strain, reserving the berries. At this point you could sieve out some of the seeds. I don’t particularly mind them but you may prefer a seed free ice cream. Put the juices back in the saucepan and simmer hard for a few minutes until you have a syrupy consistency. Pour back over the berries, deserted or otherwise, stir and leave to cool.

Separate the eggs and put the whites into a clean bowl. Put the double cream into another bowl. Whisk the egg yolks very well until pale and thick. Whisk the double cream until the soft peak stage (be careful not to overdo it). Whisk the whites until firm, adding the remaining sugar until glossy and at the stiff peak stage. Fold two tablespoons of the honey into the berries. Fold the cream into the egg yolks, followed by the creme fraiche and the berries. Taste and adjust the amount of honey you have added according to taste. Then finally fold in the the whisked egg whites.

If you have an ice cream machine, turn the whole thing into it and churn until frozen. Otherwise just put into a tub and if you remember take it out every now and then and whisk well with a fork to break up any ice crystals. This ice cream is much more forgiving than the traditional custard base and this whisking is not as essential, but does make a difference to the final result.

If you like you can keep back a few tablespoonfuls of the berry mix to use as a sort of sauce, or to marble through at the end.

Remember to take your ice cream out of the freezer and give it half an hour in the fridge before serving.

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After what seems like days and days of rain, the sun finally arrived today. What a joy to feel a little of the warmth that hopefully lies ahead. I had a halloumi cheese in the fridge, a perfect avocado and some leftover pomegranate. In other words the makings of a delightful salad that was just the thing to enjoy in the tentative sunshine. Halloumi is a great favourite in this household but is best cooked and eaten with all due speed – it somehow loses its tender unctuous-ness if allowed to get cold so this is one salad that needs to be eaten warm, straight off the griddle pan, onto the plate and no holding back.

Halloumi has a salty, deeply savoury flavour that works beautifully with sharp, fruity pomegranate. A few capers bring an intense tang and some soft, gentle avocado provide a soothing contrast. A simple dressing of lemon and olive oil, gently tempered with a little clear honey is all you need to finish. I have used a blend of oils here but if all you have is extra virgin then just use that. I find it can be a little strong sometimes.

Of course you can play around with this depending on what you have around the kitchen. Fresh mint, basil, coriander would be lovely and perhaps some roughly chopped toasted walnuts. But the point is that it is quick and simple, so I think it is perfect just as it is.

For two reasonably greedy people

One plain halloumi cheese
Flour to dust
Rapeseed oil
Two tablespoons pomegranate seeds, ruby red
One avocado, chopped
One tablespoon small capers
Two big handfuls of mixed green leaves

Dressing

Two tablespoons olive or sunflower oil
One tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Juice half a lemon
Teaspoon runny honey
Sea salt and black pepper

Whisk the dressing ingredients together. Adjust the lemon and seasoning to taste. Set aside.

Take your halloumi cheese and cut into six slices. Dust each side with a litre plain flour.

Toss the leaves, avocado and capers together and dress with a little of your dressing so that it is all lightly coated. You may not need all the dressing.

Heat a griddle pan and drizzle rapeseed oil over the whole surface. Griddle the halloumi until seared well on each side and cooked all the way through. You can keep the slices warm in a low oven for a few minutes if you need to, or even heat them through again later. Not quite the same as straight off the pan but needs must sometimes!

Arrange the salad and halloumi on two plates and drizzle over a little more dressing. Sprinkle each plate with pomegranate, grind some black pepper over the top and serve with toasted flatbreads (those Italian ones you can buy in Waitrose are rather good. The are called Mini Piada by Crosta and Mollica).

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Duck is so versatile. The rich, sweet, tender meat pairs wonderfully with a myriad of flavours. Just as great with red wine and rosemary as it is with this stunningly delicious sauce of orange, soy and ginger. Citrus flavours are lovely with duck, with honey enhancing its natural sweetness and providing a natural foil to the fiery ginger and deeply savoury soy. All marry perfectly to make a fragrant sauce that brings a little of the exotic to the duck whilst pairing rather beautifully with some crispy little potatoes and red cabbage. Fusion at its best!

It is important to remember that the deep layer of fat that lies under the duck skin needs to be rendered out. This can then be used to roast your little potatoes, so no waste there and you will be rewarded with a crisp, burnished blanket of duck skin with pink, tender meat beneath. A treat for two.

Any winter brassica is great with this but I particularly love the deeply purple red cabbage that has the added advantage of being all the better for early prepping.

FOR TWO

2 duck breasts
1/2 an orange (blush or normal) (use the other half for the cabbage)
Runny honey
100ml fresh chicken stock
Half a teaspoon fennel, freshly ground
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1/2 inch piece fresh ginger
knob of butter

Three medium sized king edward potatoes.

RED CABBAGE

1/4 small red cabbage, finely sliced
knob butter and a teaspoon of rapeseed oil
1/2 an orange
a small star anise
A little water
Sea salt and black papper

Pre-heat the oven to 200c

Take a small frying pan. Slash the skin of the duck breasts in three or four long lines taking care not to go through to the flesh underneath. Season the duck well and rub some fennel into the skin.

Put the breast skin side down in the cold pan and put onto a gentle heat. Leave to render for about fifteen minutes or until all the fat has run out into the pan and the skin is golden and crispy underneath.

Meanwhile peel and cut the potatoes into small pieces. Put into a baking tray and pour all the hot duck fat over. Season well and put into a hot oven for about half an hour, turning every ten minutes.

Remove the duck from the pan and put skin side up on a plate. Drizzle some honey over the duck skin. Leave to one side while you get on with the red cabbage and the sauce.

Slice the cabbage very finely. Heat the butter and oil in a saucepan and add in the cabbage. Stir around and season well. Add the rind of half an orange, the star anise and a splash of water. Put the lid on and simmer, stirring occasionally for about ten to fifteen minutes until the cabbage is very soft and glossy. Add in the orange juice and adjust the seasoning.

When the potatoes are half way through their cooking time sit the duck breasts on top of them and put back in the hot oven for about five minutes. Then take the breasts out and leave to rest in a warm place (not in any oven, even a cool one!!). Make sure they are on something that can catch any excess juices.

Put the duck frying pan back on the heat and add in the chicken stock. Simmer hard to reduce and then add the soy sauce, orange juice and rind, freshly grated ginger and seasoning. Add a teaspoon of honey or more to taste. Whisk in a knob of butter to give the sauce a shine. Pour any duck juices on the sauce.

Carve the duck lengthways (it looks so much better this way) and serve on the potatoes and cabbage. Drizzle the jus over and around.

This soup offers a splash of colour in these cold winter months. Tomatoes are not at their best in January, but roasting in a hot oven for half an hour or so does have a marvellous effect on their flavour. This soup is lovely as it is but to ring the changes add a little cumin to the onion base. Some finely chopped preserved lemon is lovely in the salsa for more Middle Eastern vibe – this is one you can play around with but just make sure you use top quality olives and certainly nothing out of a tin. You could add a few basil leaves to the soup before blending. Basil, crushed into a paste with oil and salt will also make a lovely garnish.

Serves Four

500g tomatoes
2 red peppers
Rapeseed oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Fresh thyme
1 large onion
1 small potato
2 sticks of celery
Sea salt and black pepper
1 litre chicken or vegetable stock

Pre heat the oven to 200c

Halve the tomatoes and remove their cores. Halve the red peppers and de-seed. Put them all in a roasting pan and drizzle over rapeseed oil and the balsamic and lots of fresh thyme. Season well and then roast in the oven for about thirty to forty minutes or until very soft and beginning to caramelise.

Meanwhile, chop the onion, celery and peeled potato. Heat a couple more tablespoons of rapeseed oil in a saucepan and add the onion and celery. Saute for a few minutes until softened. Add half the stock and simmer for a few minutes. Once the tomato and pepper are roasted tip all the contents of that pan into the soup, skins and all and then cover with more stock. Simmer for about five minutes and then blend well, using a hand held blender. If you want a perfectly smooth soup you could sieve it but I find that the skins blend in very well. Adjust the consistency with the rest of the stock and check the seasoning.

Serve with a spoonful of salsa stirred through.

OLIVE, CAPER AND PARSLEY SALSA

50g good quality black olives, stoned
2 teaspoons of small capers
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
Juice half a lemon
Extra virgin olive oil
Handful of freshly chopped flat leaf parsley
Sea salt & black pepper

Use a pestle and mortar, or if you don’t have that a mini chopper will do, or just a good sharp knife.

Put everything into the mortar and cover with oil. Add a little salt and pound together until all the ingredients are broken down and well blended. Add lemon juice to taste and adjust the seasoning. The capers can be quite salty so bear in mind when adding salt.

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This fresh tasting, vibrantly colourful salad is wonderful in January, when oranges and pomegranates are at their best. It is lovely served alongside my chard, spinach and feta pie or you could serve it as a light starter. I love it with some of those tiny black olives tossed through it and if you want to add in some leaves then red chicory or radiccio work well.

Serves Four

2 oranges
1 pomegranate
1 bulb fennel
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
Sea salt & black pepper
A few tiny stoned black olives (optional)
Pinch sumac
1 handful fresh mint

Take a nice serving bowl. Cut the fennel in half and then slice very finely. Add to the bowl.
Cut the ends of the oranges and then slice all around the sides to remove the pith and skin. Holding the orange over the bowl, remove each segment, allowing the juice to fall in as well. Bash the seeds of of the pomegranate and add those and the juice. Add the olive oil and the pomegranate molasses as well as a good pinch of sumac. Season well and toss all together.

Finely chop a good handful of fresh mint and add this together with your little olives. Taste and adjust with a little more pomegranate molasses if you think it needs it. Serve fairly soon, although it will happily wait for an hour.

Few people won’t find their spirits lifted at the sight of a good pie. This one has the advantage in that the cook is spared the task of making any pastry; filo is best bought and no less excellent for that. This combination of chard, spinach, cheeses and spice is my version of that well known Greek favourite, spanakopita. It is brilliantly forgiving – as long as your seasoning is spot on and you remember to squeeze all possible water out of the chard and spinach you can’t go far wrong. It’s great as a leftover as well. Even better, somehow the next day. We prefer it warm, rather than very hot from the oven so timings can be relaxed. What you put in is entirely up to you – vary the herbs and spices according to what you have available. Leave out the leek if you don’t have any and if you prefer you could make it with all chard or all spinach. Just make sure you use enough to end up with a vibrant green filling. You may like to add in some finely chopped preserved lemon or some toasted, crushed fennel seed and while the sumac is pretty dusted over the top, a final flourish of nigella seeds would look lovely as well. Take care that the top of the pie doesn’t burn in the oven. Check after ten minutes and if it is getting too dark just cover the whole thing with foil while the pie finishes cooking. You could make mini ones too, in muffin tins.

Serves Four (or two greedy people with leftovers)

1 red onion, finely sliced
2 tablespoons rapeseed oil
1 clove garlic
Small piece of leek, very finely sliced
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
200g swiss chard, stalks and leaves separated
200g spinach
Rind of one lemon
1 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
25g fresh herbs eg mint, dill, basil, chives, parsley, coriander (any or all)
3 large eggs
150g ricotta cheese
100g good quality feta (I use Waitrose barrel aged in the black tub)
4 sheets filo pastry
30g unsalted butter, melted
Sumac
Sea salt & black pepper

1 9″ square baking tin Pre-heat oven to 200c

Heat the rapeseed oil in a shallow pan and add the onion. Fry for a few minutes and then grate in the clove of garlic and add the leeks. Cook a little longer until everything is good and soft. Add the chopped stalks of the chard and then add the spices. Season well and remove from the heat. Tip the whole lot into a mixing bowl. Add in the rind of a lemon.

Shred the chard leaves and cook briefly in a tablespoon of two of boiling water until the leaves are wilted. Drain well and tip onto a chopping board. Wilt the spinach in the same pan with a little more boiling water and drain. Squeeze out all the water you possible can and add to the chard. Mix together well and then stir into the onion spice mixture in the bowl.

Roughly chop the feta and crumble into the bowl. Mix well. Whisk the eggs and ricotta cheese together and add seasoning. Stir this in and then check the seasoning, remember that the feta can be quite salty. Finely chop all the herbs and stir these in with a good pinch of sumac. Finally, stir in the pine nuts. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter what order you do all this in as long as it all ends up in the same bowl!

Now melt your butter. Remove from the heat brush a little around the base of your baking dish. I prefer to use a tin one as I think it conducts the heat better around the base of the pastry but if you are serving it at the table then you may like to use a ceramic one. Or enamel may be a good compromise. Take your first sheet of filo, brush melted butter over the whole thing (I do this quite sparingly) and lay it across the base of the dish, allowing the edges to hang over the sides. Butter side should be upwards. Repeat with the other two sheets, alternating the direction of the pastry so you have an even overhang.

Take your filling and put into the dish, spreading it out evenly. Scrunch the filo over the edges, folding it in on itself. Brush these with butter. You will have a gap left in the middle. Use the last sheet of filo, cut into four pieces. Each piece can be scrumpled up and placed on top. Brush any remaining butter over any pastry that doesn’t have a good coating and sprinkle on some sumac.

Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes until golden brown and cooked through. You will probably need to cover the pie with some foil to stop it browning too much but this will depend on your oven. So check after ten minutes to see the progress.

Take out of the oven and leave to sit for a few minutes. This pie is lovely warm or at room temperature. Serve with the orange, fennel and pomegranate salad.

The top of the pie will soften fairly quickly. It is a good idea to refresh it for ten minutes in a hot oven just to crisp it up, although I still think it delicious even if the pastry has lost a bit of crunch so good to take a piece to work instead of a sandwich.

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Holiday season aside, I spend a fair few nights each week on my own. I have never felt that a solitary supper need necessarily be any less enjoyable than one spent in company – in fact, the beauty of being entirely bereft of company is the total freedom to eat exactly what I like, when I like. Certainly I want it to be easy, reasonably quick and healthy without being puritan about it. This recipe (if you can call it that) for a veg laden risotto enhanced with just a little chorizo is typical of something I might cook for myself midweek. Comforting but not fattening, easy without resorting to anything pre-prepared or processed (okay, the chorizo is borderline but there must be exceptions!) and with bags of flavour.

I seem to be buying a lot of kale at the moment. It is, of course one of the new superfoods and right up there in food fashion but it deserves it’s new status as more than just fodder for cattle. Cooked properly it is delicious; tender, flavoursome and adaptable. It works well with the leek; the chorizo and mozzarella are particularly delicious with it but not esssentil if you want to make this vegetarian or even vegan. Make this for one or six, just multiply the recipe depending on how many people you are cooking for, but I particularly like this when I’m on my own. Fire, dog, telly and this….perfect!!

For One

Handful of carnaroli rice (or arborio if you prefer)
1″ piece chorizo, chopped into small pieces
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 small clove garlic
1 dessertspoon rapeseed oil
Fresh thyme
1 leek, in half moon pieces, 1cm
350ml chicken stock (a knorr gel pack is fine)
Big double handful kale, heavy stalks removed
Small piece mozzarella, chopped
Fresh parmesan and olive oil to serve

Heat a shallow saucepan and add the chorizo. Do not add any oil at this stage. Heat the chorizo until it is starting to release its oil and once nice and crisp remove and set aside.

Put the kale in a separate pan with a dash of water and steam until the kale is wilted and tender. Remove and set aside. Use the same pan to heat the stock.

Add the remaining oil to the pan you cooked the chorizo in and throw in the shallots. Cook for a couple of minutes and then grate in most of the clove of garlic. If very large you will only need half. Add the leeks and cook for a couple of minutes before adding the rice. Stir well and then add ladlefuls of stock at a time, stirring and letting the risotto just bubble very very gently. I add stock, stir and then leave it for a few minutes whilst I get on with other things but for the best result you should really stir constantly. Carry on, adding the stock until the rice is just al dente. You may not need all of the stock. Taste after twenty minutes and it should be nearly ready.

Add the kale (you can chop it smaller if you like) and season. Make sure the rice isn’t too dry; adjust with the stock. Stir through the mozarella and chorizo and then serve in a warm bowl with parmesan grated over the top and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.

Of course, you could add some white wine or vermouth to the rice at the start if you have a bottle open. Just pour in half a glassful and simmer it away before adding your stock.

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