Christobel Heginbotham’s ultimate parkin and other Bonfire Night treats

October 31, 2011 § 2 Comments

A name to die for isn’t it? I met the lady in question eight years ago after tucking into platefuls of cake in a scout hut at the edge of the Pennines after completing the annual “Autumn Leaves” fell race. The local running club organising the race have the inspired idea of combining it with a village cake competition and the runners get to eat the entries afterwards. Brilliant. So not only did I get to eat the most fantastic parkin (which in case you haven’t come across it is a a moist sticky gingerbread cake, a speciality from the North of England) but it had the baker’s name on it so I was able to find her and she very kindly emailed the recipe to me. I’ve been making it annually ever since, a recipe to treasure, and traditional for a Bonfire Night party.

The cake mixture, made simply in a single large saucepan by the melting method, looks disconcertingly runny when poured into the prepared cake tin:

But fear not, it will turn into this sweet, sticky, spicy, springy cake when cooked:

Which, as you can see, can be eaten straightaway – no wrapping and storing for a week as some recipe suggest. No need to seek out tricky-to-find oatmeal either – the recipe works just fine with rolled oats which you probably have in your cupboard already for making porridge.

By the way, golden syrup seems to be a peculiarly British ingredient. Looking at various web forums, the best US substitute might be a dark corn syrup – hope this works for you.

Thinking about a fireworks party theme, I have a great recipe for an Argentinian-inspired beef stew served spectacularly in a serving bowl fashioned from a pumpkin. Perfect for a party as it can be made well in advance, warming, substantial and full of healthy veg! Actually it would work really well for a Halloween party too and you could then pull out all the stops and serve it with black pasta (the stuff mixed with squid ink) or black rice if you can get hold of some. Perhaps more economical would be a mix of fettucine type noodles, some black, some green and some plain. Similarly a mix of basmati and wild rice rather than just wild rice or Vietnamese or Piedmont black rice.

Sorry, no photos available from when I last cooked this dish but I think this consignment of squashes from Riverford Organics currently decorating my front porch are destined for this dish next weekend:

Finally, a reliable recipe for toffee apples from my ever trustworthy Good Housekeeping recipe book. It wouldn’t be a proper party without toffee apples and the recipe is literally child’s play as my son Arthur proves:

Boiling the toffee to the correct “soft crack” stage isn’t as tricky as it sounds. Drop a teaspoon of the hot toffee into a bowl of chilled water. It’s ready when the syrup doesn’t just form a ball but separates into hard but not snappable threads.

Try my trick of shoving the handle of a teaspoon into the apple as a handle if you find yourself making these at the list minute with no wooden lolly sticks in your kitchen drawer.

Recipe for parkin

With thanks to Christobel Heginbotham. I bake this in a shallow rectangular metal baking tin approx 20cm by 25cm (see pic above) but you can, as Christobel suggests, double the recipe and bake in a square deep cake tin “to make a fair sized cake”, in which case a longer cooking time may be required.


100g butter
50g soft brown sugar
2 large tablespoons (this weighs 75g) black treacle
2 large tablespoons (ditto) golden syrup
175 ml milk
100g plain flour
2 teaspoons (10g) baking powder
1 teaspoon (3g) ground ginger
half teaspoon ground cinnamon
half teaspoon ground cloves (or ground allspice)
100g rolled porridge oats

Preheat oven to 170 degrees C (fan). Line a 20cm square baking tin with baking paper.

In a large saucepan melt the butter, sugar and treacle together over a low heat. Be careful not to let it burn or bubble. Remove from the heat and stir in the golden syrup and milk.

Add the plain flour, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon and cloves or allspice. Mix well, beating to remove any lumps. Stir in the oats.

Pour into the baking tray and cook for 35-45 minutes. Test by pressing the top with your finger tip. It should spring back and not leave a dent. Cut into squares and leave to cool in the tin.

Recipe for Carbonada Criolla – Argentinian beef and vegetable stew served in a pumpkin

Adapted from a recipe in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book.

Serves 15-20


1 large beautiful pumpkin which will fit comfortably into your oven

For the meat stew

2 large onions, chopped
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
olive oil for frying
1.5 kg cubed chuck steak
2 tins (14oz size) chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoons tomato purée or 4 tablespoons passata
2 litres beef stock (made from cube is fine)
bouquet garni (a handful of parsley stalks, a sprig of thyme, and 2 bayleaves, tied together in a muslin bundle with a long string handle to aid removal from the pot)
1 heaped teaspoon dried oregano
2 teaspoons sweet smoked paprika (or ordinary paprika if you don’t have the smoked kind)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 kg sweet potato, peeled and cut into 2cm cubes
1 kg waxy potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled (unless you prefer them peeled) and cut into 2cm chunks
1 kg pumpkin or squash (choose a variety which will collapse and melt into the sauce when cooked to act as a natural thickener) peeled and cut into 2cm cubes or chunks
0.5 kg frozen sweetcorn kernels (or the equivalent canned or fresh if you prefer)
a pack of baby sweetcorn
12 canned peach halves sliced – you could use canned apricot halves if that’s what you happen to have in the cupboard – drained contents of 2 cans should be about right
Syrup from the canned peaches or apricots

Begin by preparing the pumpkin. Wash and cut out a lid from the top, keeping the stalk on to act as a handle. Cut a small nick out of lid and base to aid repositioning the lid accurately. Using your hands, a spoon and a small sharp knife, pull out and discard the central fibrous part of the pumpkin along with the seeds. Now cut and scoop away the solid pumpkin flesh, working carefully as you need to leave a good wall of pumpkin flesh for structural integrity when baked and the skin needs to be unpierced/intact. Weigh out the pumpkin flesh needed for the recipe and set aside.

Brush the inside of the pumpkin with a little olive oil. Replace the lid and set the whole thing in a shallow roasting tin.

In a frying pan, cook the onion and garlic in a little oil until soft but not browned. Transfer to a large lidded saucepan or casserole dish.
Add a little oil to the frying pan in which you cooked the onions, turn up the heat and brown the beef cubes in batches, transferring them to the large saucepan with a slotted spoon as you go. Add to the beef and onions the tomatoes, tomato purée, salt and pepper, bouquet garni, oregano and paprika. Now take about half a litre of the stock and use it to deglaze the frying pan. Tip the deglazing liquid into the saucepan containing the other ingredients along with a further half litre of stock. This means that you will have incorporated into the dish about half the stock at this stage.

Cover and simmer until the meat is almost cooked – an hour or so. Add the sweet potato, potato and pumkpkin plus more stock so that the pan contents are covered. Return to the boil and simmer with the pan lid on for a further 20 to 30 minutes until the meat is tender, the potatoes cooked and the sauce thickened with the collapsed pumpkin. Taste and correct seasoning. Remove and discard the bouquet garni.*

Finally, add the sweetcorn and peaches but not their syrup at this stage and simmer for a further 15 minutes. Taste and add a little peach syrup at this stage to sweeten the sauce if liked.

* You can prepare the beef stew ahead of time to this stage. Best not to finish the stew until you’re ready to serve to prevent the baby corn and canned fruit becoming to mushy in the reheating process.

To complete the dish, switch on your oven to 180 degrees C (fan)about 1 hour before you’re ready to serve. Bake the pumpkin for half an hour or so. Safest to keep it underdone as you don’t want the walls to collapse so check it after 20 minutes. After half an hour, ladle the hot stew into the pumpkin then pop back into the hot oven for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Recipe for toffee apples

Adapted from a recipe in UK classic cookery book “Good Housekeeping”. Mine is the 1985 edition.

Makes 6-8 apples


450g (1 lb) demerara sugar (turbinado sugar in the US)
50g (2 oz) butter
10 ml (t teaspoons) vinegar – I use malt vinegar but a white wine vinegar would be fine and a cider vinegar would be appropriate for apples wouldn’t it?
150 ml (1/4 pint) water
15 ml (1 tbsp) golden syrup (dark corn syrup probably OK as a substitute)
8 small/medium apples and the same number of wooden sticks

Wash and dry the apples and push the sticks into their cores, making sure they are secure.

Place the butter, sugar, vinegar, water and syrup in a medium-sized heavy based saucepan. Heat gently, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until the sugar is dissolved. Bring to the boil without stirring further and boil rapidly until the syrup reaches the “soft crack” stage (143 degrees C or 290 degrees F if you’re using a sugar thermometer).

Remove from the heat and working swiftly to prevent the toffee from setting, dip the apples into the toffee, remove and twirl for a few seconds to allow excess toffee to drip off. Set on a sheet lined with baking paper to cool and harden.

Capri lemons, Vesuvius lemons, Sorrento lemons

October 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Zingy, sunshine-yellow, mismatched, lumpy, bumpy, fragrant lemons will be the abiding memory of our recent half-term trip to Naples and the Sorrento peninsula in Italy. We found them everywhere adorning roadside granita stands:

ready to be turned into the most refreshing pick-me up ever – and I can’t abide the Americanised translation of a granita as “slush” which is just not right for something as elegant as this:

sipped overlooking a view like this one in Positano:

or maybe this one overlooking the Faraglioni rocks on Capri’s southern coast:

There were boxes of lemons stacked outside the humblest little cafés and restaurants like these spotted in Pompeii:

destined for a spremuta di limone, the Italian version of lemonade – fresh lemond juice and water in a tall glass with ice – add your own sugar and stir for the most refreshing drink imaginable, eye-wateringly, mouth-puckeringly sharp:

perfect for sipping on as you wait at Sorrento’s Marina Piccola harbour for the jetfoil across the bay to Naples:

Perhaps best of all spotting the lemons growing on trees in groves right in the heart of Sorrento town, in most cases still a slightly unripe green:

and we soon worked out that strolling through the Cataldi citrus groves was a much pleasanter way of reaching Sorrento’s frenetic Piazza Tasso than braving the Lambretta and Fiat crowded narrow streets:

Sorrento lemons are turned into all sorts of lemon products of varying quality and taste. Most famously there is the signature lemon liqueur Limoncello. At its best it can be rather good, aromatic, zesty with a touch of bitterness to cut through the sweetness. At worst, it’s like a chilled LemSip decanted from a dodgy cupid-shaped bottle.

How is it that the Italians have a reputation for being stylish when they produce some of the worst tat in the world? A country of many contradictions…

as a holiday souvenir, I left alone the lemon-flavoured bottles, packets, jams and soaps and contented myself with half a kilo of fresh lemons complete with fragrant green foliage from the local fruit and veg shop.

What to do with my precious cargo now we’re back home? I’ve collected together the following four lemon recipes I fancy having a go at in the next week or so. There’s a zesty lemon cake from Capri, a classic lemon granita, a simple pasta recipe and an unusual lemon salad. Having belatedly checked in one of my favourite cook books, Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book, I’m pleased to say that none of these recipes appear there – it would have been a bit of a downer to repeat what’s already been done! I’m sure they’ll bring a ray of Mediterranean sunshine into the approaching English autumnal gloom…

Recipe for Caprese al limone – Capri lemon cake

Caprese al limone

This cake along with its dark chocolate cousin, is served up all over the island of Capri. I’ve hunted down a number of different recipes and this one, adapted from Salvatore di Riso’s “I dolci del Sole” sounds the most workable whilst remaining authentic.

Serves 10 or more


100g extra virgin olive oil
120g icing sugar
200g blanched whole almonds
180g white chocolate, finely chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
grated rind of 1 Amalfi lemon (or 2 medium or 3 small normal lemons)
5 medium eggs
60g caster sugar
50g cornflour
5g (1 teaspoon) baking powder

Line the base of a 22cm round cake tin (preferably springform or loose bottomed) with baking paper and butter and flour the interior.

In a food processor or liquidiser, grind the almonds to a coarse powder with the icing sugar. Set aside

Whisk together the eggs and sugar using an electric mixer for 10 minutes until you have a thick foam (as if making a génoise mixture).

In a large bowl, combine the ground almond and sugar mixture with the grated chocolate, the grated lemon rind, the cornflour and the baking powder. Mix together well.

Add the olive oil, vanilla extract and the beaten egg mixture to the bowl and mix well to combine not worrying unduly should the eggs collapse a little. This is a dense, moist cake rather than a light fluffy one.

Pour the mixture the prepared cake tin. Bake at 200 degrees C for 5 minutes then reduce the heat to 160 degrees C and bake for a further 45 minutes.

When the cake is done, cool in the tin. Turn out and serve sprinkled with icing sugar.

Recipe for lemon granita

Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s master granita recipe given in “The Classic Italian Cookbook” but incorporating the lemon water ice trick of infusing the lemon zest in the syrup for added zing. You’ll notice there’s much less sugar than in a classic water ice recipe.


8 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (maybe 4 lemons?)
peel of 4 lemons removed using a vegetable peeler, roughly chopped
325ml water
50g granulated sugar

Put the sugar and water into a small saucepan and bring to the boil stirring to dissolve the sugar. Once the mixture has come to the boil, turn off the heat, throw in the chopped lemon peel, cover and leave to infuse until the mixture is cold. Strain and stir in the lemon juice.

Pur the mixture into one or more shallow metal or plastic trays or boxes (a pair of old fashioned metal ice cube trays with the plastic dividers removed would be ideal). Put into the freezer and check after 15 minutes, stirring the mixture with a fork to break up the ice crystals, scraping them down from the sides and in the corners where they will form first. Repeat the process again after 15 minutes and thereafter every 8 minutes until the granita reaches the right texture. This may take 3 hours or so!

Serve in pretty glass goblets with a teaspoon, or more informally in a plastic tumbler with a strawer and spoon.

Recipe for fettucine al limone

Adapted from a recipe for “Danny’s Lemon Pasta” featured on the BBC Radio 4 programme “Woman’s Hour” aeons ago and which I’ve been storing in my recipe files for an age. The Danny in question is Danny Kaye and the chef one Ruth Reichl.


4oz best unsalted butter
10 fl oz double cream
2-3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
finely grated zest of 4 small lemons
freshly ground black pepper
1-2 oz freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for the table

1lb fresh egg fettuccine

Serves 4

Melt the butter in a large, heavy bottomed frying pan or sauté pan. Add the cream, lemon juice and half the lemon zest and bring to the boil over a medium heat and reduce by one quarter. Remove from the heat and cover.

Cook the pasta in a large pan of salted boiling water until al dente (this will take only 2 to 3 minutes). Reserve a little of the pasta cooking liquid and drain the pasta in a colander.

Add the drained pasta to the frying pan containing the sauce along with the reserved lemon zest, 2 tablespoons of the pasta cooking water, the grated parmesan cheese and freshly ground black pepper. Toss well.

Recipe for lemon and cucumber salad

Not for the faint hearted! Inspired by the lemon salad served on the island of Ischia where chunks of peeled and thick-pithed local pane lemons are simply dressed with olive oil and flavoured with salt, pepper and aromatic mint and flat leaf parsley.
This would work well with simply grilled fish or a thick barbecued veal chops.

Serves 4


3 unwaxed lemons, peel left on, very thinly sliced
1/2 cucumber peel left on, very thinly sliced using a mandolin
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flatleaf parsley
1 small medium hot red chilli, halved, deseeded and finely shredded
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Lay the lemon slices on a platter, sprinkle with a little salt and leave for half an hour. Once the half hour has elapsed, wipe off the salt and liquid drawn out with kitchen roll.

Arrange the salted lemon and cucumber slices attractively on a serving platter. Scatter over the chopped herbs and chilli, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Final paean to Greek food: moussaka and kourabiedes

October 17, 2011 § 1 Comment

This is my third and final post on recreating Greek food back home after our recent holiday on the Ionian coast.

Whether you consider moussaka to be a classic or a cliché, you’ll find it on the menu of every little waterside taverna like this one in the port of Vathy on the island of Meganisi:

Having eaten moussaka at Paleros’ New Mill Tavern where chef/owner Kathy serves up some of the best home-cooked Greek food around, I’m convinced that it’s a classic rather than a cliché:

What was so good about it? Its simplicity – slow cooked lamb and unctuously soft aubergines topped with a baked cheese and egg mixture – and its fantastic flavour – the meat subtly spiced with cinnamon and the cheese deeply savoury. So many weird versions of this dish abound some of which end up tasting more like lasagne than authentic moussaka.

Back home, I started looking for an authentic recipe for moussaka wanting to recreate the New Mill Tavern experience. The moussaka you find in the UK is sometimes more like lasagne or even our homegrown shepherd’s pie than the real deal. I remember my mother cooking this dish for family teatime back in the 1970s. Her multilayered creation interspersing white sauce with layers of tomatoey meat and a vegetable mix comprising potato and courgette as well as aubergine was rather good but nothing like the moussaka I’d tasted in Greece.

Delia Smith has a pretty good version in Book One of her “How to Cook” series. The meat base is spot on but the ricotta in the topping strikes an alien note for me and gives a a less than desirable spongy mouth feel.

So it was back to my new favourite cookbook, George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking” to see what he has to say on the subject. Clearly my search for an authentic moussaka was misguided as Mr Moudiotis says:

“Authentic moussaka does not exist; there are some good, some bad and some very bad versions, especially those served in most restaurants and pubs. The dos and don’ts of a moussaka are too numerous to mention. In general, a moussaka should be creamy and rich but not too heavy, the ingredients should be of good quality and well balanced. The amount of oil should be carefully controlled; it is a misconception that the more oil you use in a moussaka, the tastier it will be.”

He goes on to add that as well as aubergines you can use courgettes, potatoes, artichokes and even rice, nuts and currants. So, mum, you were right all along!

Now I have an admission to make. The delicious looking moussaka pictured below was prepared in my kitchen but by Laura who comes in to help with the boys and general housekeeping. She had the rather inspired idea of cutting the aubergine into strips which to our taste are a big improvement on the usual unwieldy big slices.

Here they are during the salting process:

And again once they’ve been fried:

It’s really important to fry the aubergines thoroughly so that they are quite soft. That way they have an unctuous melting texture in the finished baked dish. Undercooked aubergines can be a bit fibrous and bitter – not what is wanted at all.

What other changes did we make to the recipe? Well, we adjusted the portion size. I think this quantity serves 8 to 10 people rather than the 6 suggested in the original recipe. They clearly have big appetites in Greece. I’ve also tweaked the meat base ingredients a little, adding a bit more tomato passata and chopped fresh mint to the mixture.

Here’s what it looks like as it reduces:

And here is the dish as it is being assembled in layers:

The other major change to the original recipe was increasing the quantity of sauce topping. I found that there wasn’t nearly enough so I’ve increased it by half and if you plan to bake the moussaka in two or more smaller dishes rather than a single big one then I’d recommend increasing the sauce quantity I’ve given by another third. Oh, and I twiddled around a bit with the grated cheese and breadcrumb quantities.

Here is the completed moussaka ready to bake:

And again in all its golden baked perfection, and yes it tasted as good as it looks so congratulations Laura!

I won’t lie. This is neither a quick nor a simple dish to prepare. But it is good tempered (you can make it your own pace, it refrigerates, freezes and reheats well) and it’s well worth the effort.

Finally something sweet to conclude this three-part mini Greek epic.

The Greeks have a sweet tooth and you don’t have to look too hard to find an array of syrup-drenched pastries in bakeries and cafés – baklava, loukomades and the like. I came across this generous display of freshly baked icing sugar dusted goodies at Paleros’ town bakery:

I bought a bagful – they’re sold by weight – as a sweet conclusion for our island hopping picnic. They turned out to be the lightest, crumbliest buttery almond shortbread biscuits. I can attest to their crumbliness – packed in a rucksack they disintegrated into the tastiest bag of crumbs imaginable!

A little research back home confirmed these melt-in-the-mouth biscuits to be kourabiedes – a sweet Greek treat popular at easter, Christmas, weddings and frankly at any time. I give the recipe below but, a word of warning, I haven’t attempted these at home yet.

Our picnic destination was to have been the island of Ithaca, home of Odysseus. It proved to be too far for our slightly underpowered boat that day. Never mind. In the words of twentieth century Greek poet CP Cavafy:

“Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.”

Recipe for moussaka

Adapted from George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking”

Serves 8-10


For the meat base

4 medium aubergines
2 tablespoons flour
Olive oil for frying the aubergine strips
1 tablespoon olive oil for frying onion and meat
1 large onion, chopped finely
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
900g minced lamb
2 tablespoons chopped flatleaf parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
150ml red wine
150ml tomato passata
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
150ml stock (cube or Marigold powdered stock dissolved in water are fine here)
1/2 teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon dried oregano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the sauce topping (I suggest you increase this by one third if you are dividing the mix into 2 dishes rather than 1 large one)

110g butter
9 tablespoons plain flour
900ml milk
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
3 egg yolks
3 tablespoons plain thick Greek yoghurt

To assemble
Butter for greasing and dotting
2 and 1/2 oz grated grana Padano or similar hard mature cheese
4 tablespoons white dry breadcrumbs

Begin by preparing the aubergines. Wash them, cut off the ends then cut lengthwise into slices and then again into chunky strips. Sprinkle with a little salt and leave for an hour to draw out the bitter juices. Rinse and pat dry and coat sprinkle with 2 tbsp flour to coat lightly.

Heat a little olive oil in a your largest frying pan and fry the strips in batches until golden brown on each side. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a deep sauté pan or failing that a shallow saucepan and fry the onion until soft but not coloured. Add the chopped garlic and fry for a minute or so more. Add the minced lamb and cook for a further 10 minutes or so. Add the parsley, wine, passata, cinnamon, stock, honey, oregano, salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, partially cover (leave the lid at an angle) and simmer for about half an hour. Check and stir from time to time and add a little more stock or water if the meat seems to dry. If after half an hour the meat is too liquid, raise the heat, remove the lid and cook to reduce. You are aiming for a moist well flavoured meat mixture with most of the liquid evaporated. Now skim off any excess oil which will have cooked out from the lamb and discard. This step is really important if you want a light and delicious moussaka rather than one drenched in oil. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Now make the sauce for the topping (an enriched béchamel). Melt the butter, stir in the flour to make a roux and cook for about 1 minute. Off the heat, beat or whisk in the milk little by little. Return the pan to a medium heat and cook, stirring all the time with a wooden spoon or whisk until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Beat the egg yolks in a bowl then add a little of the hot sauce to the eggs, whisking all the time. Now tip the egg mixture back into the sauce and whisk again. Finally add the yoghurt or cream to the sauce and beat again until the sauce is thick and creamy.

Now you’re ready to assemble the dish. If you’re baking it straightaway, preheat the oven to 170 degrees C (fan). Butter a large rectangular baking dish. I use a big white French porcelain lasagne dish which is perfect as it withstands both the heat of the oven and the cold of the freezer too if you are preparing ahead of time.

Scatter half the breadcrumbs on the base of the dish then spread one third of the aubergines on top of the crumbs. Layer half the meat sauce on top of the aubergines and one third of the grated cheese. Start again with another layer of aubergines, meat and grated cheese. End with a layer of aubergines.

Pour the sauce over the aubergines and smooth it out with a palette knife. Sprinkle the top with the remaining cheese and breadcrumbs and dot with a little butter.

If you want to prepare the dish ahead of time, then stop at this stage, cover, and refrigerate or freeze.

If cooking straightaway, bake in the oven for approximately 1 hour until golden brown and crusty.

Recipe for kourabiedes – Greek almond shortbread biscuits

Adapted from a recipe in George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking”.

Makes about 30 biscuits


200g butter at room temperature
75g icing sugar, sifted
2 teaspoons aniseed liqueur (eg ouzo) or brandy
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
100g ground almonds
450g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

a little diluted aniseed liqueur (eg ouzo) or rose water, and sifted icing sugar for coating the baked biscuits

Cream the butter with the icing sugar until light and creamy. Beat in the aniseed liqueur, vanilla extract and ground almonds. Sift together the flour and baking powder then stir into the creamed butter and sugar mixture to make a soft dough. Wrap the dough in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 150 degrees C (fan oven). Break off small walnut-sized pieces of dough and shape each into a flattened ball. Place the balls onto baking trays lined with silicone-coated baking paper spacing them 5cm apart to allow for spreading during baking.

Bake for 20-25 minutes until firm and a very pale gold colour. You may need to adjust your oven temperature to ensure they do not overbake. Cool on a rack.

Once they are cool, sprinkle with diluted aniseed liqueur or rosewater and roll in icing sugar until liberally coated (see picture above). Store in an airtight container dusted with more icing sugar until ready to eat. They keep well apparently for up to a month (they won’t last that long in my house!)

Bhutanese breakfast

October 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

The latest in our Breakfasts of the World Project series.

The appointed day for our Bhutanese breakfast fell on my birthday this year. It’s become a bit of a family joke that my lovely husband Tim always buys me items of technical outdoor wear for birthdays and Christmas rather than more frivolous items. He was true to form this year and I am now the proud owner of my own very warm down jacket. Perfect to model while eating a breakfast from the Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan:

Landlocked Bhutan lies at the eastern end of the Himalayas between Tibetan China to the north and India to the south, west and east. The delightfully named young king Wangchuck ascended the throne in the capital Thimphu as recently as 2008. The official religion is Buddhism and the country’s policy of measuring Gross National Happiness (GNH) in addition to the more usual and mundane Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has raised its profile internationally.

Our menu was a slightly simplified version of this delicious sounding description of breakfast from Bhutan’s exclusive Uma Paro hotel. Lying in a verdant valley, Paro is a centre for tourism and the precipitously sited Tiger’s Nest monastery lies just to the north of the city. To quote the website blurb:

“For a fresh start to the day, try our rosewater lassi. And before a challenging mountain trek, consider a Bhutanese breakfast: pork and red rice porridge with egg crepe, hogay salad and ezay”

Rosewater lassi was straightforward enough to whip up and was a rather gorgeous birthday breakfast treat:

Based on what I’ve read elsewhere, red rice porridge, minus the pork, is clearly a Bhutanese staple. As Bhutan is a mountainous country, the main concern of the indigenous population seems to be the consumption of sufficient calories to survive in a cold climate. One way to achieve this is to add copious quantities of butter and cheese to pretty much every dish. Thus tea is drunk with salted butter rather than milk and rice porridge is enriched with both butter and cheese.

After an extended debate with the dozy local depot of courier firm DHL, I was thrilled to take delivery of a single precious pack of authentic red rice imported from Bhutan via a circuitous trade route involving a Californian wholefoods supplier:

Once I’d got hold of the rice, making the porridge was a straightforward, if lengthy affair. I give the recipe I used below.

I decided that an egg crepe sounded rather like an international omelette so that didn’t make the breakfast cut. Hogay and ezay are both in the salsa/relish/salad category and are pepped up with copious quantities of chilli, the favourite condiment of Bhutan. I tossed a coin and decided to make an ezay to accompany the porridge:

What did it taste like? Well, a bit like risotto with a dollop of cheesy salsa on top, a weird Italian/Mexican/Asian fusion.

Would I eat it again? Realistically, probably not as, let’s face it, it would be hard to improve on well made risotto milanese, and if I wanted salsa I’d rather roll it up in a burrito.

Recipe for Bhutanese red rice porridge

Adapted from a recipe I found on Mark T’s life in Bhutan blog. Here is the link and thank you to Mark for making the recipe available – it works!

Serves 4

250g Bhutanese red rice (having tried the Bhutanese rice I think Camargue red rice which is more readily available here in the UK would be just fine here)
Enough water to cover the rice by about 5 cm
3 tablespoons butter
200g block of feta cheese, roughly crumbled
a pinch of chilli powder, or more, to taste
1 1 inch piece of peeled fresh ginger root, grated (best achieved with a Microplane type grater)
Salt and pepper

In Bhutan, a pressure cooker would be used to boil the rice until soft (5 whistles!) – essential at high altitudes. I brought the rice to the boil then covered and simmered for 25 minutes until the rice was cooked.

Take the lid off and check for consistency. Add more water if needed, continuing to cook with the lid off, stirring frequently. My porridge took about 45 minutes from start to finish, so another 20 minutes after the rice had softened.

When the rice has cooked down to a thick porridge like consistency, add the butter, cheese, and seasoning ingredients. Stir, taste, check seasonings, then serve accompanied by ezay (see next recipe).

Recipe for ezay – Bhutanese salsa

Serves 4-6 as an accompaniment

My own version of this dish after reading several recipes. I’ve substantially reduced the chilli to take account of our low western chilli heat threshold and have substituted cherry tomatoes for the hard to obtain Himalayan tree tomatilloes and feta for yak’s milk cheese.


Small bunch of coriander, washed, dried and coarsely chopped
6 spring onions, cleaned and coarsely chopped
2 red chilli peppers, medium heat, halved, deseeded and finely sliced
about 10 cherry tomatoes
juice of a lime
salt and freshly ground black pepper (or toasted and ground szechuan pepper if you can get hold of it)
100g feta cheese, crumbled

Combine all the ingredients except the feta in a bowl. Stir to mix and set aside in the fridge for half an hour to let the flavours combine. Sprinkle over the crumbled feta cheese when you’re ready to serve.

Recipe for rosewater lassi

Again, my own recipe after experimenting a little with proportions. I think you need a liquidiser with a chunky motor rather than a food processor to cope with crushing the ice and getting a good froth on the lassi.

Serves 4


1 450g tub thick plain wholemilk yoghurt (I used a “Greek style” variety which worked well – a true Greek yoghurt might have been too thick here)
1 teaspoon pure rosewater (from Asian shops or larger supermarkets)
4 tbsp icing sugar
1 generous cup of ice cubes (approx same volume as the yoghurt pot)
approx 200 ml cold water
a few fragrant rose petals to garnish

Put all the ingredients except the rose petals into the goblet of your scrupulously clean liquidiser and, with a firm hand over the lid in case the ice cubes are a bit rough, whizz for about 20 seconds or until the ice cubes are broken down and the mixture is frothy. Taste and add a little more sugar or rosewater if you like, whizz again, then pour into tall chilled glasses. Scatter over the rose petals and serve.

Feta with everything: more food from Greece

October 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Two more Greek classics today, inspired by our recent trip to Paleros on the Ionian coast.

This was the route of our daily stroll from our hotel into Paleros town:

On the way we’d often encounter this herd of itinerant sheep. Even if you couldn’t see them, you could often hear at dawn and dusk the evocative clink-clank of their bells echoing round the surrounding mountains:

Sheep and goats seem to graze on every patch of scrub in this part of Greece. It’s ewes’ milk and occasionally goats’ milk which is used to make the crumbly, salty pure white feta cheese which appears on every Greek menu whether in a simple Greek salad or as a filling for pies and pastries.

Every taverna seems to have its own take on what a Greek salad should look like. Here’s the rather magnificent volcano-like version on offer at the Paleros Yacht Club:

But the Greek salad I like to make is based on a recipe given by Aussie chef Bill Granger in “Bill’s Food” one of his many simply written and gorgeously photographed cookery books.

You can it eat this salad on its own for lunch with a wedge of crusty bread, or serve it as an accompaniment to a simple main course. I like it with moussaka, a recipe for which will follow in new post very soon.

The salad works best if you use a tomato with a a bit of flavour – a named vine-ripened variety perhaps(or of course home-grown if you can), a tasty cucumber and authentic feta cheese, olives and extra virgin olive oil all from Greece. Just think, you’ll be giving the Greek economy a much-needed boost too!

If like me, you struggle with the harsh flavour of raw onions, then follow my tip for soaking the onion in cold water before squeezing out and chopping and adding to the salad.

Feta isn’t just for salads though- it appears in all manner of savoury stuffed pastries, like these little homemade fried cheese pies sprinked with sesame seeds and served drizzled with honey as an appetiser at Paleros’ New Mill Tavern:

And Paleros’ little bakery turns out a mean spanakopita – Greece’s famous spinach and cheese pie sold by the slice. Perfect for a beach picnic whilst touring the nearby islands of Skorpios and Meganissi:

I’ve found a classic spanakopita recipe in my new favourite cookery book George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking” which I give below. Now all I have to do is take a bite, close my eyes and imagine I’m back by the Mediterranean…

Recipe for Greek salad

Adapted from Bill Granger’s “Bill’s Food”. Serves 6


12 cherry tomatoes, halved or 4 medium tomatoes cut into chunks
1 cucumber, peeled and cut into thickish slices (you can half peel the cucumber to give a decorative striped effect if you prefer
a green pepper, halved, deseeded and cut into strips
1/2 red onion
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (I like the Gaea brand from Crete)
1 teaspoon Cretan balsamic vinegar or ordinary red wine vinegar
16 black olives, stoned, preferably Kalamata
1 tablespoon fresh mint leaves, left whole
3 tablespoons fresh flat-leaved parsley leaves, left whole
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
200g piece of feta cheese

Began by preparing the red onion. Slice it thinly and throw the slices into a bowl of cold water. After half an hour, remove the onions from the water and squeeze them with your clean bare hands trying to squeeze out as much onion juice as possible. Finely chop the resulting squeezed out onion slices. This treatment should render the raw onion mild and palatable and won’t give anyone eating the salad nasty onion breath.

Put the prepared tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper and onion into a mixing bowl and mix with the olive oil. Set aside for 10 minutes to allow the flavours to meld. When you’re ready to serve, add the vinegar, olives, mint, parsley and seasoning to the bowl. Mix well and transfer to an attractive serving bowl. Scatter over the roughly crumbled feta cheese and serve.

Recipe for Spanakopita – Spinach and cheese pie

Adpted from George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking”

Serves 6-8


900g spinach, washed, stems removed, roughly chopped
1 small bunch of spring onions, trimmed and chopped
150 ml olive oil
225g feta cheese, crumbled
4 eggs, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill or flatleaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
250g filo pastry, about 12 sheets
pinch of grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.

In a large frying pan,sauté the spring onions in 3 tablespoons of the olive oil until soft but not brown. Set aside in a large mixing bowl. Add the spinach to the pan and, without adding extra oil or water, cook over a medium heat for about 3 minutes until wilted. Tip into a colander and squeeze out all the moisture then add the spinach to the onions. Mix in the cheese, eggs, herbs and seasonings (bear in mind that the cheese is already salty so be careful not to overseason) and mix everything together well.

Brush a rectangular metal baking tray 4cm deep with oil and lay a sheet of filo in it. Brush the pastry with oil. Repeat until you have used half the filo sheets. Spread the filling over the pastry then cover with the rest of the filo, brushing each layer with oil as you go.

Using a very sharp knife or baker’s scalpel, score the top sheets into diamonds to allow steam to escape during baking. Trim the edges and fold them over the top to seal brushing with extra oil to make them stick.

Sprinkle the top with a little water to stop the pastry from curling and bake the pie in the oven for about 45 minutes or until crisp and golden brown. Serve warm or cold.

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