Lime tea and madeleines

July 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

The air outside is still fragrant with the scent of the blossom of the stately lime trees which line our pleasant suburban street. This is the year that I have finally harvested and dried some of these blossoms. They make the most delicately flavoured of tisanes to serve alongside a plateful of madeleines to recreate that oft-referenced literary reminiscence in Marcel Proust’s “Du Côté de Chez Swann”, the first instalment of the mighty novel cycle “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu”.

Towards the beginning of the novel, the narrator’s mother sends out for a small cake to serve with tea “un de ces gâteaux courts et dodus appelés Petites Madeleines qui semblaent avoir été moulés dans la valve rainurée d’une coquille de Saint-Jacques”.

Tasting the morsel of cake dipped in hot tea triggers in the narrator a childhood memory of eating madeleines dipped in his Aunt Léonie’s lime tea. The narrator is fascinated by the shape of the madeleine “the form, too of the little shell made of cake, so fatly sensual within its severe and pious pleating”.

The shape of the madeleine is undoubtedly part of its appeal. Its dainty size and unadorned simplicity make it the antithesis of an oversized, overfrosted, overdecorated cupcake.

The good news is that madeleines are very simple to make. The recipe I use comes from Frances Bissell’s book “Entertaining”. The key step before you start is getting hold of the essential madeleine moulds. Be sure to invest in at least two trays as it’s very frustrating being able to bake just 9 madeleines at a time. I picked up my pair of silicone moulds in a kitchen shop in France but there’s no need to travel – there’s a huge selection of similar moulds available on Amazon.

Some cooks insist that only metal moulds give good results but I’ve had excellent results with my silicone moulds which I grease lightly before use. I sit them on a baking tray to make the job of putting them in and taking them out of the oven risk-free.

I give the full madeleine recipe below, together with a slightly more complex recipe featured recently on BBC Radio 4’s “Woman’s Hour” which I haven’t tried out yet. Why bother when the basic recipe works so well?

You can ring the changes a little by flavouring the madeleines classically with a little orange zest and a teaspoon of orange flower water, or a little lemon peel. In the last batch I made, I finally found the opportunity to use my latest food purchase – a precious little tin of must-have Tonka beans – and grated just a little into the batter to impart a subtle spicy richness.

Another trick to add depth of flavour to your madeleines is to take your melted butter to the beurre noisette stage before stirring it into the mix – this is something I learned to do from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Génoise Classique recipe from her aptly named “Cake Bible”. It’s also something that the second more complex madeleine recipe suggests.

Mixing the batter is very straightforward – no tricky creaming as the butter is melted and is incorporated very easily. It takes only a tablespoon of batter to fill each mould and the mixture really is quite runny – don’t be alarmed, this is how it should be.

OK, so that’s the madeleines taken care of. Now for the tea to dip them in.

The lime trees outside my front door may smell divine but are too close to the road to contemplate gathering the flowers to make a tisane. Lime trees are in flower for a very short time – just a week or so – so when a warm dry day arrives to gather the blossoms, you have to drop everything and seize the moment.

When the right day arrived, I headed off to nearby Dunham Park where lime trees grow in a perfect rolling parkland setting well away from roads:

I spread out the blossoms I’d collected on a wicker tray to dry gently in the dining room out of direct sunlight:

And a week later, I was ready to prepare my tisane and enjoy my Proustian moment.

So much more refined than dunking a jaffa cake into a mug of PG tips. Come to think of it, there’s a great literary pastiche to be written here…

Recipe for madeleines (1)

From Frances Bissell’s “Entertaining”

Makes 24


100g (4 oz) caster sugar
100g (4 oz) self raising flour
pinch of salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
130g (5 oz) unsalted butter, melted

Butter and flour madeleine moulds. Sift together the sugar, flour and salt. Beat in the eggs, and then mix in the melted butter. Pour the batter (which is quite liquid) into the prepared moulds, and bake in the top half of a preheated oven at 220 degrees C/450 degrees F/gas mark 8 for 5-7 minutes. Remove from the oven once the madeleines are golden, well risen and have the characteristic “bump” in the middle.

Recipe for madeleines (2)

Michael Vanheste of Betty’s cookery school’s recipe as featured on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour earlier this year.


60g (2 oz) lightly salted butter
1 medium egg
50 g (1.5 oz) caster sugar
30g (1 oz) plain flour
20g (1/2 oz) ground almonds
1 lemon, zested

1. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees (fan assisted). Gas mark 5.

2. Warm a heavy-based pan over a moderate heat and add the butter. Cook the butter slowly until it has melted, turned a golden colour and gives off a nutty scent, hence the name “beurre noisette”. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly.

3. In a metal bowl, whisk the egg with the caster sugar until the mixture has become light and airy. You should be able to briefly leave a figure of eight with the balloon whisk on the surface of the mixture.

4. Sift the flour and ground almonds into the bowl and gently fold into the egg mixture together with the lemon zest. Finally, gently stir the beurre noisette through the mixture. Leave to rest for about an hour if you have the time, this will allow the gluten in the flour to relax, ensuring the cakes are light.

5. Spoon the batter into the madeleine moulds filling them 3/4 full. Bake in the preheated oven for 8-10 minutes or until golden brown and springy to the touch.

6. Leave to cool in the mould for a while until cool enough to handle and then turn out onto a wire rack.

7. Once cooled, store in an airtight container.

Instructions for preparing lime or linden tea

Choose a warm sunny day to gather lime blossoms. Pick your trees carefully, away from roadside dirt and pollution. Using a pair of scissors, snip off the blossoms including the leaflike bracts. Transport the blossoms home carefully ideally in a wicker basket. Lay them out to dry on trays and leave in a warm dry place out of direct sunlight for about a week. Store in an airtight container.

When ready to brew, place 2 tablespoons blossoms (7g) in a teapot, pour on boiling water (I used 835 ml) and leave to infuse for at least 5 minutes. Strain into your favourite china cup, and if liked, sweeten with a little runny honey – choose one which is light and floral in character to complement rather than overpower the flavour of the tisane.

Valentine’s day dinner at home

February 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

The thought of going out to a restaurant next weekend to spend the evening eating overpriced indifferent food sitting amidst heart-shaped helium balloons, wilting red roses and pink napery fills me with dread.  Far better to put together a special meal for two at home instead.

Food for a Valentine’s day dinner should go easy on the garlic and other strong flavours.  It needs to be light and delicious and look pretty on the plate. It shouldn’t require too much last minute preparation as who wants to sit down next to a cook spattered with fat from flash-frying a steak?

What I plan to prepare for a main course is a koulibiac of salmon, the version given in Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons cookery book.  This has a delicious light crispy crust of yeast-raised dough rather than the more usual puff pastry.  This is not a quick dish as the dough needs to be started the day before you plan to eat the koulibiac. It is not difficult to prepare and the various elements can all be done well ahead of time.  Slip it into the oven as you sit down for your first course and it will be ready 20 minutes later.  With it, I would serve a bowl of sour cream to act as a simple sauce, some steamed spinach simply dressed with olive oil and lemon juice and perhaps one or two baby potatoes.

To start, I will prepare a carpaccio of beef, following the simple instructions (one can hardly call them a recipe) in Alastair Little’s book “Keep it Simple”. My local butcher sells beautiful beef from locally reared grass fed animals which is just right for this dish.  The truffle oil in the dressing is appropriate for Valentine’s Day  as truffles are known for their aphrodisiac qualities. A simple first course with lots of delicious savoury flavours to tempt the appetite.

For pudding, there are various options.  My favourite cheese of the moment is a buttery Ossau Iraty from the Basque country.  A wedge of this with a tiny perfect bunch of grapes and a glass of dessert wine would be one way to finish the meal.  Or perhaps slices of perfectly ripe mango mixed with passionfruit pulp, the whole brought to life by a spritz of lime juice.  Or maybe only a little something sweet will do.  I have a weakness for white chocolate, white Toblerone if I can get my hands on it, otherwise plain old Milky Bar buttons. I think I might whip up a white chocolate mousse using the recipe from Frances Bissell’s book Entertaining.  Served in dainty white ramekins together with a spoonful of sharp fruit compôte and a crisp biscuit, it should bring the meal to a stylish and satisfying conclusion.

Recipe for carpaccio of beef

From Alastair Little’s lovely book “Keep It Simple” published in 1993 but still fresh and relevant today.  A piece of beef the size specified in the recipe will serve 4-6 people so use what you need for dinner for two and eat the rest for lunch the next day.


1lb (450g) piece of beef fillet from the tail end

about 1/4 pint (150 ml) olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper

To finish the dish

Handful of rocket leaves
2 oz (50g) best quality parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons truffled olive oil
1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Trim the beef into a neat shape if necessary.  Brush all over with olive oil. Preheat a ridged grill pan to very hot. Lay the fillet on the grilling pan and give it 60 seconds on each side, including the two cut ends (6 sides in all), turning it with tongs.  Immediately refresh by dipping the seared beef into iced water for a few seconds, then pat dry with paper towels.  Season all over with salt and pepper, wrap tightly in cling film, place on a plate and refrigerate for several hours.  In fact the beef can be kept for several days like this in the refrigerator.

When ready to eat, remove the meat from the fridge. Wash the rocket and spin it dry. Put it into a bowl, pour over the oil, vinegar and seasoning and toss to coat each leaf. Mound a pile of gleaming leaves onto each plate.

Carve the beef into thickish slices at an angle of 30 degrees.  Distribute on top of the rocket.  Using a vegetable peeler, shave generous curls of Parmesan cheese over the top.

Recipe for koulibiac of salmon

From the Four Seasons Cookery Book by Margaret Costa.  First published in 1970, another book that’s stood the test of time. A great source of inspiration for the occasional instances when you can’t think what to cook. Somewhat surprisingly, you can buy fresh yeast at your nearest in-store Sainsbury’s bakery, maybe other supermarkets too, but I haven’t yet needed to go further afield. The recipe makes 6-8 portions, but it’s a good-tempered dish so take what you need and eat the rest cold or warmed through the next day.

For the pastry

2 oz (55g) butter
8 oz (225g) plain flour
pinch of salt
3/4 oz (20g) fresh yeast
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 small eggs
4 tablespoons (60 ml) lukewarm milk

For the filling

3 oz (85g) long grain rice
fish, vegetable or chicken stock
2oz (55g) butter
1 medium onion or two small shallots, thinly sliced
3oz (85 g) button mushrooms, thinly sliced
1lb (450g) salmon fillet
3 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
3 dessertspoons (30ml) freshly chopped parsley (or mixture of chopped soft fresh herbs such as basil, chervil and tarragon)

Melted butter; fine dry breadcrumbs

First make the pastry.  Cream the butter.  Sift the flour and salt into a warmed basin. Cream the yeast with the sugar and when it looks frothy, add the well beaten eggs and the lukewarm milk. Mix into the flour, adding more lukewarm milk as necessary to make a soft paste. Beat thoroughly with your hand and finally work the creamed butter into the mixture. Cover and leave in a warm place to rise for 30 minutes. Then leave the dough in a polythene bag in the refrigerator overnight.

Next day, start by making the filling. Cover the rice with exactly twice its volume of cold stock. Let it come to the boil, cover and turn off the heat or remove to a cooler part of the stove. In 15-20 minutes, all the liquid should be absorbed and the rice cooked through, with the grains firm and separate.

Skin the salmon, wrap in foil and bake in a 180 degree C oven for 15 minutes or until just cooked through. Melt the butter and cook the onion or shallot in it until soft and transparent. Add the mushrooms and cook for a few minuted longer. Mix in the rice and stir in the coarsely flaked cooked salmon. Mix together thoroughly, then stir in the sliced hard-boiled eggs and the herbs. Season well.

Now divide the pastry in half and roll each piece into a rectangle 12 by 8 inches (30 by 20 cm).  Put one onto a greased baking sheet and cover it with the cooled filling to within an inch (2.5cm) of the sides. Dampen the edges. Take the second rectangle and place on top of the first.  Press the edges together then make crosswise slashes at 3/4 inch (2cm) intervals to make a lattice-work effect. Knock up the edges with the back of a knife and leave the koulibiac in a warm place for 1/2 hour to prove.

Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with fine dry breadcrumbs. Bake in a hot oven 230 degrees C, 450 degrees F, gas mark 8 for about 20 minutes. Pour a little melted butter into the koulibiac through the slits and let it cool just a little before serving.

Recipe for white chocolate mousse

From Entertaining by Frances Bissell.  A book filled with lovely ideas if only one had the time, and the lifestyle. After all, how often is one called upon to prepare a picnic to be eaten on an island reached from a small boat departing from Hong Kong harbour? Don’t attempt this recipe unless you have an electric whisk to deal with the heavy duty work of beating egg whites and hot sugar syrup together. This quantity is enough to fill 8 small ramekins so plenty left for a treat another day.


7oz (200g) white chocolate, either buttons or bar broken into pieces
1 oz (25g) golden caster sugar
2 fl oz (50ml) water
2 egg whites, beaten until the soft peak stage
7 fl oz whipping or double cream, softly whipped
optional: 1 teaspoon chocolate or vanilla extract or a little grated orange zest

Break the white chocolate into pieces (not necessary if you are using buttons), place in a heatproof bowl and set over a pan of hot water to melt very gently.

Place the sugar and water in a small saucepan and boil until the firm ball stage (124 degrees C if you have a sugar thermometer). Pour the hot syrup in a thin stream over the beaten egg whites whilst simultaneously whisking furiously to incorporate the syrup before it sets.  Carry on whisking until the mixture is cold.

Incorporate a little of the whipped cream into the melted chocolate.  Blend the chocolate into the egg whites, then add the rest of the cream and your chosen flavouring if using.  Use a light touch and a large metal spoon being careful not to knock all the air out of the mixture. Spoon into ramekins immediately and chill until set.

Open season for Haggis – ideas for a Burns supper

January 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

Today is 25 January, Robert Burns’ birthday which means that the traditional Burns supper of haggis, neeps, tatties (mashed swede and mashed potatoes)and of course plenty of Scotch whisky will be served up to Scots both at home and abroad tonight.  We Sassenachs got in on the act early this year, on Saturday night in fact, when we were invited to a Burns supper at nearby Manchester Grammar School.

You might well ask why would anyone voluntarily go and spend an evening eating school dinners?  In fact the school did us proud and produced food of a high standard. Pride of place went to a splendidly proportioned haggis (Macsweens of course – I did check with the catering manager!) which was preceded by a bagpiper and ceremonially stabbed with the Skean dhu/Sgian Dubh (the dagger a Scotsman tucks into his sock).  You can clearly see the victim’s entry and exit wounds…

I realise this picture may not look appealing to those of a nervous disposition but, honestly, it was delicious.

Eating my meal on Saturday night, it occurred to me that hosting a Burns supper at home would be a fun evening and the food would be pretty straightforward.  To start, the obvious choice would be Scottish smoked salmon.  You could serve this as a canapé beforehand on tiny oatcakes and dispense with a starter if that suited.  Smoked venison too with redcurrant or, better still, rowanberry jelly would be good if you could source some.  A smoked loch trout or kipper pâté with oatcakes would be another option.  Don’t turn your nose up at kipper pâté – it may not sound glamorous but I can still remember some that I ate in Tiddy Dol’s (sadly now closed) restaurant in Mayfair some 20 years ago – velvety smooth and absolutely delicious with just a hint of  a peaty malt whisky in the background.

The main course would obviously be a haggis (there are vegetarian versions too to cater for all tastes) and the aforementioned neeps and tatties – these can be prepped in advance and heated through when you are ready to serve.  A little whisky poured over the haggis is all the sauce you need but you could serve a little gravy (or jus as restaurants insist on calling it) if you liked.  I like Francis Bissell’s idea from her book “Entertaining” of serving haggis Parmentier, a Scottish take on the bistro classic hachis Parmentier (a French version of shepherd’s pie). Cooked haggis, carefully spooned out of its casing forms the based of the dish with a smooth mixture of mashed potato and swede forming the top. Some finely shredded curly Scots  kale, steamed for just a minute or two to retain its vibrant greenness, would make a good accompaniment.

Pudding is a little bit of a challenge given the quantity of food you will already have consumed.  Cranachan (a combination of whipped cream, toasted oatmeal, whisky, heather honey and raspberries) would be traditionally Scottish and you could use very acceptable frozen Scottish raspberries.  If you wanted something very light and refreshing then a raspberry water ice or sorbet would fit the bill.  An individual baked or steamed pudding made with whisky and Dundee marmalade would be good for traditional pudding lovers.  My final pudding thoughts would be a Caledonian ice cream as served at Glasgow’s Ubiquitous Chip.  This is a witty take on a French style praline ice cream with frugal toasted oatmeal taking the place of the usual almonds.  You could serve this with a sauce of melted Mars bars – a nod to that other most traditional of Scots puddings, the deep-fried Mars bar….

I also give a recipe for an oatmeal shortbread biscuit as featured in the BBC Great British Menu programme.  Chef Jeremy Lee turned them into a neat stack with cream and raspberries but they are a good crisp biscuit either to eat on their own or to  provide a contrasting texture to a creamy pudding.

Recipe for Caledonian ice cream

This is a recipe from Glasgow’s Ubiquitous Chip restaurant brought to the masses by Delia Smith in her Summer Collection book.  Serves 8.  I’ve tried this recipe at home and it works well with our without an ice cream maker.


For the caramelised oatmeal

3 oz (75g) caster sugar
4 tablespoons water
2 oz (50g) pinhead oatmeal

For the syrup

4 oz (110g) caster sugar
4 tablespoons water

For the ice cream

1 pint whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Start by making the caramelised oatmeal. Put the caster sugar and water into a small saucepan over a low heat and leave it for 5 minutes. Then take a medium sized frying pan, place it on a medium heat and when the pan is hot, add the oatmeal and swirl it round the pan constantly so that it browns evenly – which it will do in about 5 minutes. Remove the oatmeal to a plate to prevent it becoming over-brown. By now the sugar in the saucepan will have dissolved so you can turn the heat up and let it boil. Watch it very closely until it becomes a rich brown caramel colour. Stir in the toasted oatmeal, remove from the heat and quickly pour the mixture onto a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Put to one side to get cold and firm (about 15 minutes).  Then take off small pieces at a time and pound them in a pestle and mortar until they are the size of large salt crystals (you could do this carefully in a food processor too but don’t overdo it and reduce it to too fine a powder).  Put to one side in an airtight container until you are ready to make the ice cream.

To make the sugar syrup, measure the sugar and water into a small saucepan, place it over a gentle heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved – about 5 minutes. Then remove from the heat and allow to become completely cold.

To make the ice cream, pour the cold syrup into a mixing bowl along with the whipping cream and vanilla extract.  Whisk with an electric whisk or mixer until the mixture just begins to thicken and hold its shape. Then pour into an ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer’s instructions until firm but still pliable.  If you don’t have an ice cream maker, freeze the mixture until firm but pliable in a large plastic container, beating vigorously every half hour or so with a wooden spoon. Transfer to a bowl, stir in the oatmeal mixture, fold it in then spoon the ice cream into a loaf tin 7 1/2 by 4 1/2 by 3 1/2 inches.  Cover with a double thickness of foil and freeze until needed.

To serve, remove from the freezer to the refrigerator about 30 minutes before you need it. Dip the base and sides of the loaf tin into hot water for 10 seconds or so, loosen round the edges with a palette knife, then turn onto a plate.  Using a sharp knife dipped in hot water, cut into neat slices.

Recipe for almond shortbread thins

The original recipe title is for raspberry shortcake but I think this is confusing as shortcake to me means the American scone type soft cake.  It comes from The Great British Menu Cookbook accompanying the BBC TV series of the same name.  This recipe was cooked by chef Jeremy Lee.  Jeremy is a native Scot who is the longstanding head chef at London’s Blueprint café.  I have tried this recipe at home and it does work – the biscuits are delicious. It makes about 20 biscuits from memory (recipe says serves 4).


125g soft unsalted butter
40g caster sugar
1 tsp finely grated orange zest
40g best quality blanched almonds such as Marcona ground in a food processor quite fine but still with some texture
40 g toasted white breadcrumbs (from 70g bread chopped up, crusts on, baked at 150 degrees C/fan 130 degrees C/gas mark 2 for 30 minutes or until lightly toasted then processed to crumbs in a food processor)

To serve

250 ml double cream, softly whipped; a great bowl of raspberries, a small bowl of caster sugar, a little icing sugar for sifting

Beat the butter and sugar together well until pale. Pop in the orange zest and beat very well. Add the flour, ground almonds and breadcrumbs, and mix thoroughly into a soft dough.

Cut a large piece of baking parchment. Place the dough at one end of the paper, then roll it in the paper to make a sausage shape roughly 5cm in diameter. Seal the sausage in the paper and chill for a few hours or ideally overnight.

Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C/fan 150 degrees C/gas mark 3.  Line a large baking sheet with baking parchment. Cut the roll of dough into 3mm thick slices (about the thickness of a UK £1 coin) and lay them on a baking sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool and become crisp.

You can eat them as they are or sandwich 3 of them together with raspberries and whipped cream to form a neat stack for pudding.

Producer/other details

Macsween’s haggis

Stockan and Garden oatcakes from Orkney

Glasgow’s Ubiquitous Chip restaurant

Please do leave a comment if you have Burns supper experiences or Scottish recipe ideas to share

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