Sicilian Sardines

From Living Within, June 2016

A creature of habit as a rule, travel-wise, I have just returned from a rare trip off my beaten track, meeting old friends in new scenery.  SE Sicily is Montalbano country (you would be AMAZED how much he gets about there); the commissario, so urban legend has it, has almost single handedly rejuvenated the local tourist industry by highlighting the Baroque architecture (molto barocco), fabulous scenery, and sublime food of the region.  It is hard to get food wrong in Sicily; great ingredients are plentiful, Sicilians know what they like, and what they like is very, very good.

We breakfasted on granita and brioche in Modica, we dined on seafood on the beach at Marina di Ragusa, where the locals found our English voices exotic (something that has never happened to me before).  They also laughed as we laughed at hand towel tablets that enlarged when anointed with a little water (viagra translates directly) - some reassurance there that they were laughing with and not at us.

The stage is set for an early bird.

The stage is set for an early bird.

One of our most memorable lunches was the one we had sitting on a traffic island - not an uncommon place to eat in Sicily apparently, but perhaps only in a quiet corner of a seaside Sicilian town could such a venue not only be almost entirely devoid of traffic, but also utterly charming in every detail; I long to go back for more. 

The real McCoy

The real McCoy

We ate, among other things, sardines flavoured with oranges - stuffed; rolled; tails fetchingly pointing upwards; bookended by orange slices - a little bit moorish, in every sense of the word.  I have tried to recreate a feeling of them for you here although oranges, I will caution, are just ending their long season in Sicily about now; you can, of course, always ignore that fact or substitute lemon instead.  We may not be within striking distance of a charming fishing village, but we do have Williams and Bunkell on The Parade in Claygate who can provide the necessary in terms of fresh fish of high quality prepared by experts - which is, perhaps, the next best thing.

You’ll need about a kilo of sardines - heads removed, cleaned, deboned and opened out butterfly style. Marinade them in the combined juice of one orange and one lemon (or either, or even neither, as you prefer) while you prepare the stuffing.  Zest the citrus before you juice it, and keep to one side.

For the stuffing: finely chop one medium onion and leave to soften gently in some good olive oil over a low heat.  Roberta, who looked after us and whose husband Antonio was our chef, explained that you should not be able to easily recognise onion as one of the ingredients - they need to sweat down so that they are almost melted before they are ready to play their part.  “Sudare” is the Italian verb denoting, in this case, a sensuous dissolve over plenty of time and a low, slow burning flame, as opposed to a frazzling experience played out with any sense of undue heat or urgency.  Add in a small handful each of breadcrumbs, pine nuts, and sultanas and cook until the former are beginning to look golden around the edges and the last is softening and sweetening the mix.  Finally stir in the reserved citrus zest and some chopped fresh parsley and mint leaves - combine well and adjust the seasoning (NB: it’s nearly always best to season gently as you add ingredients, then all you will have left to manage at this stage is minor adjustment).

Lightly oil a gratin dish and take your sardine fillets from their marinade - dry as best you can with kitchen paper, season very lightly if you think your stuffing is not seasoning enough, and add a spoonful of stuffing to what was the head end; roll carefully and as tightly and tidily as possible, and place into the prepared dish one by one so that all are packed together in traditional sardine style.  Sprinkle with a little more oil, or with some more breadcrumbs first (or the remains of the stuffing) if you want extra texture on top, and bake in a hot oven (at least 180ºC or equivalent) for about 15 to 20 minutes.  Serve warm from the oven or at room temperature, as antipasto, with citrus slices tucked all around.

Buon Appetito!

Erica

Before it passed from Persian into Arabic, “orange” was a poetic Sanskrit word meaning “where the elephant loves to go”…
— Roberta Corradin

chacun ses oignons

from "Living Within", March 2016

roscoff onions, well tressed

roscoff onions, well tressed

Since the early 1800’s there has been a vision of French commerce abroad that has become a part of legend in certain parts of the country.  Stripy shirted Breton men, in berets and on bicycles, bearing onions to sell door to door in Blighty.   Mostly long since consigned to history, there has been at least one surviving example of the species - once widely known as the “Onion Johnny” - who used to call at the doors of Esher, Molesey and Walton, as well as a fair few other venues not so far from our south coast.  He would sell strings of onions to my mother and to me, amongst other loyal fans - quite a highlight in fact as he made his tri-annual rounds, each one at just about the time the last string had given up its last onion.

What a lovely surprise a week ago when Pascal returned - he has been absent for about a decade!  A one off for the house to house, he informs, but he will be at various local markets in the weeks and months to come - do look out for him.

The onions that he sells are particularly special - sweet, pink, Roscoff, AOC branded - in a class of their own and tressed to thrill.  Long strings of them, in the traditional manner, suitable for shoulders and handlebars, should you ever need to transport them.

In honour of this rather special visit, I have baked a French speciality involving onions; this one from the Mediterranean end of France rather than the Northern coasts.  It is a Provençale Pissaladière, otherwise known as an onion tart.

northern light, but you get the picture.

northern light, but you get the picture.

Traditionally made with a bread dough base, I have substituted short crust pastry; I prefer it this way - it is also probably easier to make.  I will assume you have your favourite method for pastry (I will turn a blind eye if it is to buy it ready-made).  Whatever it is, make a quantity of pastry for a tart, roll it out - into a round, a square or a rectangle - place it on a baking sheet (lined with baking parchment) and then crimp up the edges in whatever way works best for you - turn it over, create a rope effect, use a fork or your fingers but give it a little ledge.  Chill (in the fridge) until needed.

Onions_Chopped.jpg

Take about 1kg of onions - any variety will do, I, of course, used my newly acquired Roscoffs.  Peel and slice as thinly as you can.  Warm a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy based sauté pan (one with a lid), add the onions and a pinch or two of salt.  Cook, covered, on a low heat for an hour or so.  Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon or spatula.  The onions need to soften to almost a purée consistency, but you don’t want them to colour to anything more than a very pale gold.  It’s not necessarily traditional, but I like to add some thyme leaves to my onions while they are cooking too.  When the onions are soft and melting and very much reduced in volume, remove the cover from the pan, and allow any remaining liquid to cook away.  Allow to cool.

Oven_Ready.jpg

To finish you will need some anchovies and some olives (small, blackish niçoises if you can find them).  You can use both to decorate the top of your tart, but I prefer to chop two or three anchovies very finely (you could also use anchovy paste as substitute), and spread them evenly over the bottom of your pastry shell - this way you can distribute their flavour most evenly.  Top with the onions spread evenly into the pastry case, and decorate with a few olives.  Bake in a moderate oven (about 180ºC) for 25-30 minutes - until the pastry is cooked, and the onions look golden brown.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Erica x

For those who believe that an onion is an onion is an onion, the pink onions from Roscoff are a revelation.
— Country Life, 1997, via http://pascalonions.pagesperso-orange.fr

hair shirts and hummus

from "Living Within", February, 2016

It is becoming traditional for the start of the year to bring encouragement to “atone” for excesses, perceived or otherwise, of the preceding festive season.  “Dry January” has become “a thing”, the papers link words like “health” and “detox” to their conversation about food and drink, and I may even have read somewhere this year something that equated veganism to virtue!  I try not to engage in ways of thinking that focus on fads or factoids - a little of what you fancy doesn’t have to be bad, and a balanced diet is not based on any form of deprivation in my book.  My normal instinct might be to voice such contrary opinion, loudly and boldly, but it rarely makes me popular, and as I am also having trouble this February working out what season we are in, I am going to write about something that feels like comfort and is unlikely to challenge anyone; it also happens to be weather proof - as comforting served in the depths of cold weather as it can be refreshing on a warm day - and, maybe importantly, it’s a long way from extravagant.

The humble chickpea - easily available in cans or jars, otherwise simple to cook from dried, albeit requiring a day’s forethought (and, like nearly everything else in cooking, with the end result likely to be at least marginally superior to its ready-to-go alternative) - is the staple ingredient for hummus; the “dip” that has come to dominate sections of the chilled cabinets in our supermarkets, and over which, if you have read your Yotam Ottolenghi you will know, wars have been fought and peaces negotiated.

It is very easy to make your own - although it does, almost always, require a food processor.  If you are cooking rather than buying in jars/tins, take a quantity of dried chickpeas - 250g will make a reasonable amount for a few people or a few days, and leave to soak overnight with a generous covering of cold water.  Drain the following day, and place in a saucepan covered with an equally generous amount of fresh water; bring to a boil.  You can, if you like, throw in a split garlic clove or two (or half a head even).  Skim off any scum that rises to the top, and then leave all to simmer skimming off later any loose skins that float to the top.  The chickpeas are cooked when they are soft but not mushy - start checking them from about 20 minutes onward, although they are likely to take more than 40 minutes and can take an hour and a half or more (much depends on how long they have been dried and/or hardness of cooking water).  Drain them but reserve their cooking water.  If you are using ready prepared chickpeas start from here by draining them and reserving their liquid.

Whichever way you have come by your cooked chickpeas, put them now into a food processor and blend until almost smooth.  At this stage add in some tahini (sesame seed paste) - you can start at about 4 tablespoons or go up to a part of tahini for every four parts of cooked chickpeas (everything about hummus is “according to personal taste”), and a clove or two of garlic (crushed to a smooth paste first with some salt).  Garlic will chop in a food processor but it will not be smooth unless you pre-crush it.  If you don’t like the strong taste of raw garlic in your hummus and you have cooked your own chickpeas with garlic cloves in the cooking water, don’t tell any purists that I said so, but you can either use the cooked garlic as substitute for raw, or just let the garlic taste that has already permeated the chickpeas be sufficient - it will be subtle, but that may suit your tastebuds.  Add in salt, and the juice of at least one lemon and blend again until the hummus is the consistency that you want - add in some of the reserved liquid if it is not looking smooth enough - it is OK, however, to like it thick and chunky or to want it super smooth.  Remember also to taste it, and adjust all of your flavours as seems right to you.

Serve dressed with olive oil and garnish with any or all of chopped parsley, lemon wedges, a sprinkle of paprika, cumin or sumac and some toasted or fried pine-nuts.  It should be left for at least half an hour to let the flavours find their level before serving, but can be kept in the fridge (covered closely with cling film) for a few days.  Serve at never less than room temperature and with crudités and/or bread.

Erica x

When I started out in restaurant kitchens, I didn’t think hummus or a chopped salad could ever be cool
— Michael Solomonov

lady marmalade

from "Living Within", January 2016 (abridged and adapted from earlier blog post, but with new method edit attached)

As the new year begins and summer jam supplies start to look a little depleted the preserving British faithful turn their thoughts to marmalade.  In spite of the fact that there are some countries where the word “marmalade” pretty much translates as “jam”, marmalade, at its bitter orange best, is pretty much exclusively a British obsession.  Seville Oranges - sour, coarse, pippy - arrive fleetingly on our shores from the beginning of the month; the Spanish seemingly happier to sell their crop to us than to use their own harvest.  No other oranges will really do to make proper marmalade, the bitterness of a Seville being essential to a sophisticated marmalade palate.

Marmalade making, like all preserving, is more science than art. A certain proportion of fruit to liquid to sugar is necessary, with the natural pectin of the fruit also put into service to provide a set; method and detail, however, will allow the maker to exercise both choice and skill.  The shred can be coarse and chunky or fine and delicate; marmalade can be very tangy with pith included in its body, or it can be clear gelled, pithless and shredded fine or, in extreme cases, shredless (although I think the fans of this last variety probably buy theirs off the supermarket shelf).

There are numerous techniques, preferences, and conflicting tips: there are those who boil whole oranges and then cool, peel and shred them before adding sugar, and there are those who juice and peel or slice raw fruit; there are fast workers who will typically have their marmalade made in a day and others who may take a couple of days over the affair.  There are those who swear by unrefined sugar to avoid ‘toxic froth’ (although I think that this may in fact be toxic tosh and the unrefined and brown sugar contingent simply prefer their marmalade darker and more caramel tasting); the opposing camp profess that a better colour and flavour will be created by white granulated sugar (never caster or icing which will give you problems), and there are those who warm their sugar while others think that this is a waste of time.  I am yet to find anyone who recommends using preserving sugar (with added pectin), although the choice is, of course, yours to make.

Having tried long drawn out methods in the hope of a superior product, I am now of the opinion that as long as the desired effect is achieved, there is no need to draw out the whole affair.  Recipes abound - you will find them in books and Sunday supplements, online and via supermarket giveaways - so long as you know the important principles to bear in mind there is more than one way to skin an orange.  The best advice might be to know what end result you want to achieve before you start and then set out to find a suitable recipe.

A basic recipe requires 1kg oranges to 2kg sugar to which you will add about 2 litres of water and the juice of a lemon*.   Before you start also make sure to have ready some sterilised jars (with lids or other suitable covers), and some small plates in the freezer together with a few frozen tea spoons.

A basic method might look like this:  squeeze the juice from the oranges and the lemon into a pan suitable for making preserves (ie large, wide at the top, and not made from aluminium or other reactive metal).  Gather together the remaining pulp and all the pips and put them into a muslin bag - tie it together with kitchen string leaving a longish tail.  Cut the orange peel into strips slightly bigger than the size you want to see in your marmalade (they will shrink during cooking).  Put the muslin bag into the pan along with 2 litres of cold water and all of the orange peel; bring to a boil and simmer for a couple of hours, or until the peel is softened.  Squeeze the muslin bag to extract as much pectin as you can from the pips and then remove it.  Add the sugar and, over a low heat, allow it to dissolve completely.  Turn up the heat, and boil rapidly for about 15 minutes before you start checking for a set - or alternately take its temperature and start to check for the set once it reaches 103ºC-104ºC.  A set is reached when a small drop of marmalade put onto a cold saucer with a cold teaspoon will wrinkle when pushed with a finger.  When your set is achieved, turn off the heat and move the pan away from the heat’s source; allow the marmalade to cool for ten minutes or so before transferring it into your waiting jars.

Erica x

I came all the way in a lifeboat, and ate marmalade. Bears like marmalade.
— "Paddington Bear" ~Michael Bond

* Later edit:

This year, my marmalade making did in fact take three days, and my quantities were 1.6kg seville oranges (9 oranges); 1 large + l small lemon; 2.4kg white granulated sugar (proportions 1 x fruit : 1.5 x sugar); 20cl water (approx) per citrus fruit (I counted 11), plus the juice of all the fruit (about half a litre).

Method: 

Day 1:  Halve and juice all the fruit - reserve EVERYTHING! (including pips).  Slice the peel finely; put the pips in a muslin bag (made with bits of string and imagination), put juice, peel, pips, water into a large bowl - cover and leave for 24 hours - somewhere not too warm.  Do not leave a tail of muslin hanging over the bowl - it will siphon water onto your worktop. #Ilearnthelessonsoyoudon'thaveto

Day 2:  Bring all to the boil in a Maslin pan (or equivalent), and allow to simmer for about 20 minutes; transfer to a bowl, cover and leave for an additional 24 hours.

Day 3:  Strain the liquid from the peel (top up the liquid in the bowl first if it is looking a little dense in your bowl and you lack faith that there is enough - allow the liquid to just cover the peel to get the quantities about right).  Put strained liquid back into the Maslin pan; add the sugar - (Keep the faith! even at this scant ratio, the sugar looks monstrously generous, but Seville oranges are super bitter!). 

Over a gentle heat, allow the sugar to dissolve (stir from time to time - tap the bottom of the pan with a metal spoon to "hear" when the grit has softened).  Add the peel back in.  Squeeze out the muslin bag into the mix - extract every last bit of gelatinous pectin that you can, and then leave aside; it should have done it's job by now.  Pick out the bits of peel that cling to its sides.  You can leave it in for the final boiling if you like, but I find it gets in my way.  Bring all to a nice rolling boil - get your jars ready - and finish off as per usual - checking the temperature, testing for a set, etc, etc, etc …

walnut cake

from "Living Within", November 2015

For those of you who may have a walnut tree in the garden, you will already know that walnut season has been taking place since the end of September.  Unmistakeable in the litter of blackening shells on the lawn (if you fail to harvest your walnuts from the tree that is) and also, if you have ever tried to wrestle them from their fleshy green outer coatings with your bare hands, from the almost indelible stains that doing so will leave on your finger tips.  For the rest, they are now easily available in markets and supermarkets, in both shelled and unshelled form, ready for laying down for the winter.

willing hands, and specialist equipment, may be helpful

willing hands, and specialist equipment, may be helpful

Amongst all the nuts in the nut kingdom, walnuts are often considered sovereign; full of all kinds of “superfood” goodness, distinctive in taste with their slightly bitter after notes, and rather magnificent in looks with their brain-like form (which also adds to the challenge of cracking them in trying to keep the kernels whole!).  Make sure you buy your walnuts from somewhere you trust to have them fresh and well looked after - carelessly handled or stored they can turn unpleasantly rancid very quickly.

To celebrate the season, I have baked a walnut cake - a dense, moist one, with a bit of beta carotene added to the superfood mix in the form of a grated carrot and a little orange zest.  This cake will hold its own against a strong cup of coffee, or you may prefer a glass of something to compliment the complexity of the walnuts and their accompanying sweeteners - a dessert wine would be just perfect.

Ingredients:  110g unsalted butter (at room temperature); 225g caster sugar; zest of an orange; 5 eggs; 280g shelled walnuts, ground to a coarse meal in a food processor (or chopped with a sharp knife), plus a few extra whole ones to decorate the top (optional); 1 medium carrot (peeled and finely grated); 80g plain flour.

Pre-heat an oven to 160ºC; butter and base-line a 25cm cake tin.

Method:  Rub the orange zest into the sugar, then cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.  Beat in the eggs, one at a time (if you add them all at once, the mixture will curdle).  Fold the ground walnuts and the grated carrots into the batter, and, finally, fold in the flour.  

Pour all of the mixture into the prepared cake tin, decorate with the whole nuts (if you have reserved any for that purpose), and bake the cake in the preheated oven for between 35 and 40 minutes - until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean of mixture.

Leave the cake to cool on a rack in its tin, but un-mould it while the cake is still warm.  You can eat it while it still retains some heat, although I prefer it at room temperature, and sprinkle with some fine sugar or icing sugar before you serve it if you want to add a final flourish.

Erica x

A thing which I regret, and which I will try to remedy some time, is that I have never in my life planted a walnut.
— George Orwell

 

 

 

giving it some mussel

from "Living Within", October 2015

An Indian Summer is a good time to enjoy mussels and other bivalves; months without an “r” to their name are behind us which, convention has it, are the ones in which to avoid shellfish.  Mussel season traditionally starts in September/October and finishes in March/April (although they are available in other months too).  I have been enjoying some while on holiday in SW France - sourced in the North Atlantic - blue-black, easy to clean, delicious and without too many casualties to throw away.

Buy them fresh, bring them straight home and put them in the sink under cold running water.  Those that are cracked or broken or will not close when rapped sharply on the side with the back of a knife get thrown away before you start.  For the others, scrape off any barnacles, pull away any beards, wash them and either cook them immediately, or put them in a colander, cover with a cool damp cloth or some wetted newspaper, and keep in the bottom of the fridge until you are ready to use them later in the day.  Always buy them on the day you are going to cook them - they are alive, or should be when you buy them, and they will not keep!

Mussels are easy to cook; you will need about 500g per person, a large pan with a lid, a small glass of white wine, some chopped parsley stalks, a couple of cloves of sliced garlic, and strong heat underneath them.  Put the mussels in the pan with the wine, parsley and garlic, (give them a good shake about just before you and make sure they are all closed), fire up the heat under them place a lid on top of them (or some foil to trap in both heat and steam), and allow between 3 and 10 minutes for them to open in the steam that will be generated by the wine and their own juices.  Timing will depend on how many mussels and how deep the pan - a single layer will cook very quickly, a large panful will need a bit of shaking from time to time and a little bit longer.  There is no need for salt - they contain plenty of their own.  They are cooked when they have opened fully and the flesh inside looks plump - a few may not open in amongst the rest - throw these away!

You can serve these just like this, in bowls, with fresh bread and/or a soup spoon alongside with which to mop up the juices once you have finished eating the mussel flesh (and a plate or bowl for discarding the shells of course).  Alternatively, with a very small amount of extra time and patience, you can shell them and add them to the following pasta recipe - found by chance in a French magazine - that went down very well with those who helped to test it with me this week.

naked mussel

naked mussel

The pasta is the kind you would normally add to soup (or just wonder what to do with).  It looks like a bit like rice but cooks like pasta and goes by many different names in different parts of the world, from Italy through North Africa and France: risetti; risoni; puntalette; orzo; langues d’oiseau (birds’ tongues) and khritaraki, just a few.  In any case, whatever the name, the method is simple, and a 500g bag will serve about six people.  

Get the mussels cooking.  Put a big pan of water onto boil for the pasta and when it boils, skin three or four ripe tomatoes (this amount for a serving for 4-6 people) by plunging them into the water and scooping them out 30 seconds later; refresh them under cold water, peel off the skin, halve them and squeeze out as many seeds as you can - then chop into small dice.  When the mussels are cooked (again 500g, or thereabouts, per person), drain, strain, and reserve their cooking juices, put on one side and add a few strands of saffron while the juices are still hot.  

Next, heat 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large shallow pan and over a medium flame (large enough to accommodate all the pasta and the mussels in due course), and add the tomatoes - add a little salt and let them bubble until they have made a sauce (5-10 minutes).  Add the saffron-ed cooking liquor to the tomatoes and keep on a low heat, for a few minutes longer - don’t worry about the amount of cooking liquor, it might seem a lot, but the pasta will like it!

running on empty; still beautiful

running on empty; still beautiful

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in the boiling water to which you have now added salt; time it for a minute less than the packet advises.  Shell the mussels while the pasta is cooking.  When the pasta is cooked, drain it and add it to the tomato sauce and cooking liquor, stir, taste some, see if the pasta is cooked - if not, cook for a minute longer in this liquid.  Finally, stir through the mussels together with a little chopped parsley; season with some pepper (add more salt only if it needs it - taste first!).  Serve immediately!

Erica x

on mussels … they’re hard to screw up
— David Lebovitz

 

 

 

jamming (part deux)

from "Living Within" September 2015 (abridged and adapted from earlier blog version)

As summer eases into autumn we have our opportunity to preserve the fruit now abundantly in season.  I know you can buy jam in the supermarket, without needing to get your hands and kitchen surfaces sticky, but it is not the same thing at all as that which you can make in your own kitchen.  Supermarket varieties are typically top-heavy with sugar and set to the point of rigidity; homemade versions sharpen up the flavours and introduce possibility.  Here, I hope to get you started with some basics.

Most fruit can be “jammed”, but I will stick to plums for now; these will be everywhere soon - all sorts of varieties - and damsons, my personal favourite for jam, will disappear almost as soon as you first see them (if you are lucky enough to find any in the first place).  Plums make great jam, damsons make the best jam of any fruit that I know, but I won’t pretend that they can’t be a massive faff - they are small and fiddly and time consuming, and sometimes wormy.  Nigel Slater believes that it is masochism to stone a damson before you cook it, maybe especially for the quantity that you will need for jam, and there is talk amongst experts of how there is no real need - pits obligingly bobbing to the top of the jam pan to be relatively easily skimmed away after the jam is cooked.  But I think these experts may be telling half truths - not about the masochism aspect - it is a truly painstaking process to pit damsons (and will take about an hour per kilo) - but about the ease of managing the pits post cooking, especially if you want to be sure of the safety of your consumers’ teeth.  I also confess that I ignore their possibly wise counsel and take the time to pit them all before I start.

Jam making is not particularly complicated, but it does involve science, and it is shrouded in a bit of mystery and specialist language.  You need to know what is meant by a “set”, although some cooks also express preferences for “their” set, which can give a degree of leeway for when setting is proving difficult - a “soft” or “loose” set may be preferred to the “firm” version found in industrial varieties, and it may be a way of forgiving yourself for when your jam is looking a bit runnier than the kind that will win prizes (for perfectionists and experts it’s definitely not only about flavour).  

You will also need some equipment: an appropriate large pan - preferably one with outward sloping sides (not a necessity, but it speeds up the process); jam jars (sterilised ones) plus suitable lids; a thermometer can give a degree of security but is not a necessity either; saucers; teaspoons; a freezer shelf; a suitable stirring spoon (wooden, silicone or metal but, importantly, one that has no taint of anything like an onion lingering on it); a sharp edged skimmer, and a ladle.  Finally, you will need to find a quiet time of day and a measure of patience.

The ingredients are worked out in ratios -  roughly speaking, for plum jam (any variety) these can translate to 1.2kg of fruit (approximate net weight after stoning will be 1kg) to 800g sugar (granulated, white), and the juice of a lemon; you can scale up the quantities, but it is often easier to make several small batches than to attempt one large one.

Check your fruit - it should be ripe but firm and have no significant blemishes or mould.  Wash, halve and pit (big plums are typically easy, small ones not - use a small sharp knife to help coax pits from flesh).  Layer the fruit with the sugar in a large bowl and add the lemon juice (it will prevent the cut fruit from browning, and stop you from forgetting to add it later).  Cover closely with cling film, and leave to macerate - an hour will do if you are pushed for time, 24 hours is about your limit.  Meanwhile, prepare you jars and put a small stack of saucers and a few teaspoons into your freezer.

Transfer fruit and sugar to your (scrupulously clean) large pan - put it on a gentle heat and stir occasionally until ALL of the sugar has dissolved in the juices.  Turn up the heat and start to boil the jam vigorously.  Continue stirring occasionally (to distribute the heat evenly and to stop the jam from “catching” or burning on the bottom of the pan.  It will take about 10 minutes of vigorous boiling for the jam to reach setting point(technically, this should be when it reaches about 105ºC - in real life, for all sorts of reasons, the temperature registering may not indicate the jam is there just yet, so… take the pan off the heat, take out one of your saucers and spoons, dip the spoon into the jam and let a drop of jam fall onto the saucer.  If the jam spreads into a liquid it is not set, if it forms a neat pert bead that will wrinkle slightly if you push it, it is.  If it is not set, you need to repeat this process every few minutes until it is.  As the jam calms itself down, skim off any scum that is left at the surface and discard.  Leave the jam for a few minutes to cool and settle, but while it is still hot, ladle it into the jars, seal, allow to cool, and store until later; enjoy at will over the coming months.

Erica x

“That’s why I hate to get started in these jam sessions.  I’m always the last one to leave.”~ Elvis Presley

clafoutis clafoutis

from "Living Within" June, 2015.

Happiness in June is a bowl of cherries.  A locally sourced supply of reasonably priced fruit is in prospect, and we are temporarily spared the supermarket fleecing of imported supplies, so expensively travelled they seem priced by the cherry instead of the kilo.

life. bowl. cherries.

life. bowl. cherries.

There is nothing much that will improve a cherry’s natural perfection but they must be enjoyed in their moment, for they won’t last long - not only is their season short, but they lose their plumped up gloss quickly once plucked from the tree.  Unlike many other summer fruit, they will benefit from chilling, for both their keeping and their eating qualities.  At times of plenty, they can also be cooked in sweet sauces to complement savoury dishes, and in puddings and pies, soups and compotes.  A favourite dessert of mine, borrowed from the French, is the “clafoutis” - a simple batter pudding that can be made up quickly and that needs no ceremony in its serving.

At its most pared back and traditional the clafoutis is almost as plain as making pancakes: eggs, flour, milk and sugar, beaten together into a batter and poured on top of a pound of cherries, stones intact, baked in a hot oven is all that is needed.  Purists cook with the stones because they are supposed to improve the flavour of the cooked cherries, but it is an option, (and almost always a kindness) to spend a little time de-stoning the cherries, to make the pudding easier to eat and to avoid the possibility of accidental dental calamity.

Proportions of ingredients and variety of flavouring can vary, but the following is one guide for the methods below: 500g cherries; up to 50g butter; 70g + 3 tablespoons caster sugar3 eggs; 3 tablespoons plain flour; 70g cream; zest of 1 lemon; few drops vanilla extract; 1tsp ground cinnamon; icing sugar (for dusting).

Method 1:

(the most simple) involves putting the cherries in a buttered gratin dish, pouring over a batter made by whisking all the remaining ingredients together (excepting the icing sugar, and perhaps substituting milk for cream, and no cinnamon or lemon necessary), and baking the whole in a hot oven for between 20 and 30 minutes, until the batter is puffed and golden.  This provides an unexceptional, workmanlike, pudding, akin to a sweet “toad in the hole”. 

If, however, you are prepared to take a fraction more time (and to do a tad more washing up), the ingredients can be put together in a way that adds a level of sophistication without much additional trouble.

Method 2:

  • pre-heat the oven to 180ºC (or equivalent);
  • pit the cherries (with a sharp knife and a little patience, or with a dedicated cherry pitter - either way the cherries will spit and drool and create a mess, and you should protect their surroundings and wear an apron - your surfaces will, none-the-less, take on the look of a minor crime scene;
  • melt the butter in a sauté pan and add the 70g sugar, cinnamon, lemon zest and the cherries - cook on a very low heat for about 5 minutes - until the cherries are sitting in a thick, coarse looking, syrup and long before their shape is in danger of collapse;
  • transfer the cherries and all the buttery syrup into a gratin dish in one even layer;
  • separate the eggs - keep the whites in one bowl and the yolks in another (and it is very important that the bowl in which you put the whites is both clean and dry and that there is no egg yolk that has escaped into them); 
  • whisk the egg yolks with the remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, until thick, creamy, and pale yellow in colour;
  • add in the flour and beat together gently, then mix in the cream and the vanilla exact;
  • With a clean, dry, whisk, beat the egg whites until they stand in soft peaks;
  • add the whisked egg whites to the egg yolk mixture and fold together gently; pour this mixture over the top of the cherries and bake in the pre-heated oven for about 20 minutes, until the top of the pudding is golden and a skewer inserted can be removed free from raw mixture;
  • Leave to cool for a half hour or so - dust with icing sugar and serve warm or tepid, with more cream or crème fraîche to hand.

The resulting pudding should be light and fluffy, with no dense patches of batter (a potential hazard in the simpler version).  Don’t be tempted to serve hot from the oven, the cherries are likely to be scorching, and the flavour will be compromised

The precious unkeepable cherry … the fruit of paradise, the glimpse and symbol of perfection
— Jane Grigson