Wayward tarts. It’s not you, it’s me.

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Look, I tried my best. I’m sure it was my fault. Two days of fizz-fuelled festivities blunted my baking arm. I’d promised Lady de B two tarts for Easter Sunday lunch, Blood orange meringue pie and Black bottom pie from Lindsey Remolif Shere’s Chez Panisse Desserts so I got up at 6.30am on Sunday to make good on my promise.

Can I start by saying I love this book? Many a summer evening has ended with scoops of its Beaumes-de-venise ice cream melting alongside slices of apricot tart. In autumn and winter, its apple crisp or espresso cognac mousse are to be found on my table almost as often as salt and pepper. But I just couldn’t get my tarts to behave. The blind-baked tart shells cracked like river beds in a drought, requiring patching, cursing and coaxing into usefulness. I struggled on. They were fine but not the perfection I was seeking.

But no matter. I was playing to the home crowd, those most likely to forgive my failings. Besides, after a feast of Lady de B’s homemade gravadlax with mustard sauce, barbecued shoulders of lamb, cheese and salad, the tarts vanished quickly enough so they can’t have been too horrible.

DSCN1498 Barney and Patrick play in the garden.

DSCN1413 So many glasses, so little time…

DSCN1405 Richard made collages of parties past and laminated
them into placemats.

DSCN1529 Tucking in.

DSCN1479 Lady de B’s home-cured gravadlax with mustard sauce
and cucumber salad

DSCN1507 Barbecued shoulder of lamb with roast potatoes and
cauliflower gratin

DSCN1514 I think Kim and Steve raided a particularly fine French restaurant to come up with all of these fabulous cheeses.

DSCN1532 The smell of the cheese brings Patrick to the table.

DSCN1556 Wayward tart No. 1: Blood orange meringue pie

DSCN1561 Wayward tart No. 2: Black bottom pie

DSCN1612 Naughty Claudia feeds Barney at the table.

Chez Panisse blood orange curd

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What was delicious and easy was the blood orange curd I used to fill the meringue pie so at least I can offer you that. I’ll try the tarts again and post them later.

Makes about 1 ½ cups

2 blood oranges (about 275g/10oz)
1 tbsp lemon juice
¼ tsp cornstarch/flour
¼ cup/55g caster sugar
1 egg
4 egg yolks
6 tbsp/85g unsalted butter

Wash the oranges and finely grate the zest into a non- corroding bowl. Juice the oranges, strain 7tbsp of the juice into the bowl, and add the lemon juice. Mix the cornstarch/flour and the sugar – this prevents lumps from forming when it’s mixed with the eggs. You may omit the cornstarch/flour unless you are filling a tart that you want to brown. Put the egg and yolks in a small, non-corroding saucepan and whisk the sugar-cornstarch/flour mixture into them. Stir in the juice and zest mixture. Don’t be alarmed if it seems to curdle; it will smooth out later. Cut the butter into several pieces and add to the mixture.

Cook over a low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon as for crème anglaise. Remove from the heat and stir for a minute or two until the heat of the pan dissipates so the custard won’t curdle on the bottom. Pour into a small container and chill.

A Sunday morning in spring

Columbia Road Daffodils

Finally, our fruit trees arrived – two espaliered apples, a Bramley Seedling and a James Grieve, and a fan-trained Morello cherry.

Our garden is quite small, about 20 feet by 50, standard issue for a London terrace. It slopes upward slightly at the back, as many London gardens do. During the great housing rush at the end of the Nineteenth Century, builders seldom took away their rubble. They just slung it all into a heap at the far end of the garden and covered it with a bit of soil, before racing onto the next house, the next street, the next parcel of profit. When I’m digging, I often turn up an odd fragment of blue and white china or chunks of thick, greenish bottle glass among the broken bricks and shattered slates. Once we even found a stoneware flask from a local wine and spirit merchant.

Columbia Road - Pot

We built a deep, raised bed along the back fence of the garden, open to the ground, for the apple trees. Séan hauled 40 litre sacks of topsoil, 34 of them, through the house to fill it. We planted the trees. I thought they looked majestic, like sails. Our neighbour Paul thinks they look crucified. He has a point. With their two, parallel rows of horizontal branches they do resemble a pair of Orthodox crosses on an altar. In a few weeks, frothy blossom will soften their austerity.

We spent most of the weekend in the garden, tidying, weeding, encouraging the roses’ new shoots over the pergola. We joined the masses at, well, the closest lots of Londoners get to Mass: Columbia Road Flower Market. In that narrow street, for a few hours on Sunday morning, spring is in riot.

Columbia Road - Window A house at the entrance to the market.

I always start my floral pilgrimage in the little courtyard off Ezra Street, where they sell the best coffee in the world, and that’s official.

Columbia Road - Gwilyn's coffee

I can’t decide whether these oysters are the breakfast of champions…Columbia Road - Oysters

Or this chorizo sandwich?Columbia Road - Chorizo sarni

Barney Barney, meanwhile, holds out for a sausage.

Séan's Chair A chair on Sean’s stall (no, not my Séan).

Baguettes from the French cheese stall

Not an ordinary bin!

Columbia Road - Olives

Columbia Road - Bits and bobs I can’t believe I resisted the temptations of this
book by M.E Gagg…

Columbia Road - pots Or these pots.

Suitably fortified, we edge our way into the market.

Columbia Road

Every week, I buy my flowers from Carl. He has the most interesting selection and they’re the best in the market. They always last for at least 10 days; I tell him this must be bad for business.

Columbia Road - Carl Grover Carl’s stall

 Columbia Road - Tulips Tulips

Columbia Road - Roses Roses

Columbia Road - Cherry Blossom Cherry blossom

Columbia Road - Mimosa Mimosa

My garden, kitchen and cooking owe much to the wonderful herbs, fruit and vegetables bought from Carl’s lovely mum and dad, Mr and Mrs Grover, who have had a stall in the market for more than 35 years.

Columbia Road - Grover's herbs Mr and Mrs Grover’s herb stall.

Columbia Road - Grover's Mint Mint

Columbia Road - Grover's Thyme Thyme – how could you resist running your fingers through it?

Columbia Road - Rhubarb Tiny rhubarb plants, pies in waiting.

And onwards into the rest of the market…

Columbia Road stall Hyacinths, cyclamen and primroses.

Hyacinths Before…

Hyacinths … and after.

Cyclamen Tiny cyclamen petals, like butterfly’s wings.

Daisy Cheerful little daisies.

Perennials Perennials in their clods of earth
‘What will I be when I grow up?’

An independent sort of lunch

Spring Spring is here.

On Sunday, I arranged to meet Katy at the flower market at 11 and I’d invited a few friends to join us for lunch afterwards. I needed an independent sort of recipe, one that would allow me maximum bouquet bothering time, something I could nudge into being with a little light prep and then bung in the oven to become lunch all on its own.

Seven hour leg of lamb is a good candidate on such occasions. I’ve been wanting to try the one from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook for ages. (I have a weakness for a bad boy with a batterie de cuisine and he has to be the very best of that genre.)

The ingredients

Now if you try this recipe, don’t do what I did and buy a joint so big it won’t fit in your largest pot, thus requiring your husband to go around to the neighbours’ to borrow a hacksaw. ‘You doing a bit of DIY?’ asked Kev. ‘No, sawing through bones,’ said Séan. ‘Oh right, we’ve got plenty of black bags if you need any later.’ I love living next door to a very, very dry Scot.

Along with the lamb, I needed a side dish with an equally self-sufficient spirit. Step forward, AB’s gratin dauphinoise. The oven time is shortened because he simmers his potatoes in cream to part cook them first, so all I had to do when we got back from the market was pop the potatoes simmered in cream (it makes me happy just typing those four words) into the oven with the lamb while we sipped chilly glasses of fizz, nibbled olives, salami and roast cauliflower, read the papers and swapped gossip.

Mel Mel asks ‘Just how big is the leg of lamb?’

Judy Judy, surrounded by the papers.

Tom, Beth & Richard Tom, Beth and Richard

Cauliflower Roast cauliflower

Salami Salami

Barney Barney sat on Stuart’s lap to make sure he didn’t miss anything.

Tom checks his iPhone Tom and Stuart

PS A huge, huge thank you to those of you who sent me first anniversary good wishes. I had no idea when I began my blog how much fun it would be. Pressing ‘publish’ for the first time was a strange feeling, much stranger than seeing my work in a magazine or newspaper. More intimate, somehow, and much more personal. But I’ve loved it. I love the quirky imperfection of it. And I love it most of all when you share your own stories, too.

Gigot de sept heures

Gigot de sept heures Plated up

Look, it’s not going to win any beauty contests but it’s tender, intensely flavoured and delicious.

Serves 8

1 leg of lamb, about 2.7kg/7lbs
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced, plus 20 whole garlic cloves
55ml/1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper
2 small onions, thinly sliced
4 carrots, peeled
1 bouquet garni
250ml/1 cup dry white wine
225g/1 cup plain flour
250ml/1 cup water, though I think you need less (see below)

Preheat the oven to 150C/300F/Gas mark 2. Using a paring knife, make many small incisions around the leg. Place a sliver of garlic into each of the incisions. Rub the lamb well with olive oil and season it all over with salt and pepper. Place it in a Dutch oven or large casserole and add the onions, carrots, bouquet garni, unpeeled garlic cloves and wine. Put the lid on the Dutch oven.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour and water to for a rough ‘bread dough’, mixing it well with a wooden spoon. Now, Anthony B suggests an equal amount of flour and water which was a bit too sloppy to stick to my pot. Just add enough water to make a rough paste – don’t worry you’re not going to eat it. Use the dough like grout or caulking material to seal the lid onto the pot so no moisture can escape. Put the pot in the oven and cook for 7 hours.

Remove the pot from the oven, break off the dough seal and breathe. It’s intoxicating. At this point, you will be able to carve the lamb with a spoon – not for nothing do the French sometimes call this dish ‘gigot d’agneau à la cuillière’.

Gratin dauphinoise

I must have made hundreds of dauphinoises in my life, but never one like this, where you simmer the potatoes in the cream before putting them in the dish. I rather like it – great if you’d like to do all the chopping and simmering ahead and just slip it into the oven an hour before lunch. I added the Gruyère, as instructed, and though it was good I think I prefer it in its naked, unadorned, uncheesy state. Obviously, leaving out that 115g of Gruyère almost makes it into health food.

Serves 4 – so I doubled the quantities here.

8 Yukon gold potatoes (I couldn’t get hold of these so I used Desiree), peeled and cut into 6mm/1/4 inch slices
500ml/2 cups double cream
5 garlic cloves, slightly crushed
1 sprig thyme
1 sprig rosemary
1 sprig flat-leaf parsley
Salt and white pepper
Freshly ground nutmeg (go easy)
1 tbsp unsalted butter
115g grated Gruyère cheese

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4. Place the potatoes in a large pot and add the cream, 4 of the garlic cloves and the herbs. Season with salt, white pepper and a little nutmeg. Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer. After 10 minutes of simmering, remove from the heat and discard the garlic and herbs.

Use the remaining garlic clove to rub around the inside of the gratin dish. Butter the inside of the dish as well so that is evenly coated. Transfer the potatoes and cream to the gratin dish and sprinkle the top with the cheese. Place in the oven and cook for 40 minutes, or until the mixture is brown and bubbling. Remove from the oven and rest for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

Keep ‘em peeled

Keep ‘em peeled

This morning, we were woken at 3.30am to find a rather unpleasant person helping himself to Sean’s phone from his bedside table. Sean roared. I screamed a strange, animalistic scream that seemed not to come from my own mouth. Unpleasant Person took off down the stairs, out of the front door, into our car and away.

Mercifully, we’re not hurt and nothing we can’t replace was taken. Two wonderful policemen arrived within five minutes, all reassuring calmness and kindness, followed by a delightful Scene of Crime Officer who carries the tools of her trade in a bubblegum pink leather case.

The UP did take our camera and the laptop I keep in the kitchen. This means normal posting might be suspended for a little while until they can be replaced. In the middle of this, ‘The One Where The Spoons Got Burgled’, episode, I did have a wry smile at the thought of someone trying to offload my laptop in a local pub. I use it almost exclusively for writing and adjusting recipes, trotting between stove and keyboard, invariably my hands covered in offal, oil, tomato sauce, crumbs, so it’s a little gummy. There’s so much butter and flour in its workings it might, without too much exaggeration, be called ‘computer en croute’.

For the record, Barney slept through the whole thing. At the foot of our bed. He is officially the world’s worst guard dog. What can I say? He’s a lover not a fighter.

Doodles on a Saturday Morning

Mark cuts the cake Mark cuts the cake, the regalia of office around his neck. Love him. If I didn’t have a dog, I might have to pay him to walk me.

I fell down a rabbit hole. A rabbit hole with desks and computers and phones which, for the past two weeks, held me captive from morning ‘til night (some of you may recognise this strange phenomenon as the thing they call ‘a job’). I came home, ate dinner – something on toast, something swirled into pasta – and began my second shift, tackling my usual workload late into the evening. So blogging came a poor second or third or fourth after, oh, sleep and stumbling, bleary eyed, into the shower. But now I’m back in the room, or at least the kitchen. Normal service will be resumed.

Yesterday morning, our presence was required at a most unusual wedding breakfast. Our dear friend and dog walker, Mark, was celebrating his civil partnership ceremony with his dapper darling, Ian, at lunchtime. But dogs still need to be exercised, even on special days, so Lindsay and Chris had the inspired idea of hijacking Gomez and Nico’s walk with a little party in the park.

At 8.30am on a damp and misty morning, smoked salmon bagels, cake, champagne and juice were laid out on Mark’s favourite bench. A happy crowd of people and dogs gathered beneath the dripping oaks and chestnuts to surprise the normally stoical, unflappable Mark. It was touching to note his usual bellow – a bellow that can halt a speeding hound hell bent on raiding a shopping trolley or stealing a sandwich at 300 metres – was temporarily silenced.

Doggie Group

Doggie Group 2

Dogs at play Dogs aren’t quite as good at standing still as their owners.


Mark’s Wedding Breakfast Chocodoodles

Beth and a doodle Beth tucks into a doodle.

Lee is our hand model

You don’t think such an auspicious morning could pass without a baked offering from me do you? Given the rabbit hole situation, it had to be something I could throw together quickly, so I went for Nigella’s Snickerdoodles from How to be a Domestic Goddess. Substituting some of the flour for cocoa turns them into Chocodoodles, which seemed appropriate. Not just because chocolate is always a good thing, but because the park is full of labradoodles, chocolate and otherwise – they’re the Staffordshire Bull Terriers of the middle classes. Yes, Polly, I’m talking to you.

225g plain flour
25g cocoa
½ tsp ground nutmeg
¾ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
125g unsalted butter, at room temperature
100g, plus 2 tbsps caster sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
2 baking sheets, lined or greased

Makes about 30.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4.

Sift the flour, cocoa, nutmeg, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside. In a large bowl, cream the butter and 100g sugar together until light, pale and fluffy, then beat in the egg and vanilla. Now stir in the dry ingredients until you have a smooth, coherent mixture. Spoon the remaining sugar and cinnamon onto a plate. Roll the dough into walnut sized pieces and then roll them in the cinnamon-sugar mixture and arrange on your baking sheets.

Bake for 13-15 minutes. Leave to rest on the baking sheets for a minute and then transfer to a rack to cool.

Dogs, biscuits and birthdays

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Biscuits
The only thing I ever miss about working in an office is those sentences which begin ‘Oh my God, you won’t believe what happened last night’. I love working on my laptop at the kitchen counter while something delicious bubbles on the stove, popping out to water my herbs in between emails, catching an old episode of Gilmore Girls over lunch. (Have you seen Suki’s culinary marvels – I consider it essential research. At least that’s what I tried to explain to my accountant when I attempted to include a receipt for the Special Edition Box Set with my tax return.)
Since we got Barney, I don’t even have to miss out on those water cooler moments. Each morning, you can find me in the park with a dozen or so people and even more dogs catching up on local scandal, swapping recipes, scribbling down film and book recommendations, sharing expertise on anything from computers to ridding your wardrobe of cashmere-crazed moths – all the while trying to avoid the ducklings in spring and the deepest, muddiest puddles in winter.
We are plumbers and teachers, opera singers and mums, actors and life coaches, social workers and publicans, decorators and gardeners…All sorts really, a bit like the dogs, who range in size from Toy Terrier to Great Dane. Mark, king of the dog walkers, is our glorious leader and Clissold Park’s answer to Cesar Milan. He loves the odd drink, an occasional cigarette and has a passion for the choreography of Matthew Bourne. Actually, what I wanted to write was ‘booze, fags and ballet’ as it scans so nicely, but that makes him sound like a lush with a tutu fetish. This may or may not be true, but he’s the one I phone at nine o’clock at night begging for a bit of doggy day care for the next morning and he always says yes. This is not something I ever wish to jeopardise. For one thing, Barney would never forgive me. And for another, Michelin-starred chefs don’t really care for scruffy terriers in their dining rooms.
Strangely, my park popularity seems commensurate with the amount of baked good I have about my person. (On a couple of slobbery occasions, this has included treats for the dogs too.) It’s my birthday today, so I thought I might make something sweet to eat with our take-away cups of cappuccino. The coffee’s so wretched you need something to take the taste away. Brake fluid would do it, but I thought Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Biscuits would be better.
Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Biscuits

All racked up

This is one of my favourite recipes from one of my favourite baking books, Rose Carrarini’s Breakfast Lunch Tea: The Many Little Meals of the Rose Bakery. If you’re ever in Paris, do seek out this wonderful Anglo-French café. It’s tucked away on the rue des Martyrs, conveniently close to the Gare du Nord for refuelling before you get on the Eurostar.
I’ve doubled the quantities for the biscuits (25 wouldn’t have even got us close to completing essential discussions on the latest Hackney Council lunacy), so it was a bit of a struggle to get everything into my mixer by the time I added the chocolate. I just stirred it by hand and it was fine. At least I had no complaints and that park lot can be picky. They may, however, have had their critical faculties dulled by the sight of Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls, doing an enthusiastic Hokey Cokey at his kids’ sports day which was taking place in the dog-free area at the time. ‘You put your expense claim in, expense claim out. In, out, in out, your career is in doubt. You flip your secondary residence and you shake it all about…’
Makes about 50

400g (scant 2 cups) unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing
400g (2 cups) crunchy peanut butter
500g (2 ½ cups) soft light brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
4 eggs
670g (4 ½ cups) plain flour, sieved, plus extra for dusting
2 tsp salt – I used Halen Môn vanilla salt as I love it with chocolaty things, but any salt will do
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
500g chocolate, chopped
The ingredients

The observant among you may notice a little bowl of raisins in this collection of ingredients. I’d measured everything out and realised I was 100g short on the chocolate, so added a few raisins to make up the weight. Not bad, but not chocolate…
Pretty eggs
Lovely Burford Brown eggs from Clarence Court
Chunky chocolate
Make sure you keep the chocolate quite chunky. Use whole bars and chop them up rather than miserly chocolate chips.

Beat the butter with the peanut butter and sugar until light, then add the vanilla extract. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the bowl and beater between each egg. Fold in the flour and salt. Mix the bicarbonate of soda with two teaspoons of hot water and quickly add this to the mixture. Finally, fold in the chocolate. Try to stop yourself from eating too much of the dough.
Mix it upAdd an egg or fourMixing in the chocolate by hand
Divide the dough into batches of about 300g (11oz). On a lightly floured surface, roll each batch out into a log about 4cm (1 ½ inches) wide, wrap and chill in the fridge for a couple of hours until hard. If you don’t want to bake it all at once, wrap the extra logs in cling film and freeze. You can cook them straight from frozen, just add a minute or two to the cooking time.
Rolled up and ready to chillKeep the slices thick
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/ Gas mark 4. Butter your baking trays and line them with baking parchment. If you’re making the full amount, you’ll need to do this in batches, so only cut enough dough for each batch. Leave the rest in the fridge until you’re ready to bake them. Cut the dough into slices about 10mm thick (½ an inch) and place them well apart on the trays. Bake them for 10-12 minutes until pale golden – don’t overbake or the texture will be dry. Cool on a rack. Take to the park, to the office, anywhere a conversation is likely to begin with ‘Oh my God, you won’t believe what happened last night’.

Sunday in the park with paws

This is what happens when you take a box of Doggie Breath Bones to the park…

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Click to EnlargeCharlie and Barney, who don’t stand on ceremony.

Click to EnlargeRosie, who is a lady.

Click to Enlarge Gomez, the Colonel.

Click to Enlarge Rosie and Charlie, hoping there’s more.

Click to Enlarge Is this thing on?

Click to EnlargeOlivia’s ready for her close up.

Click to EnlargeSometimes, after all that fancy food, you want to revert to the comfort of the familar. Barney chews a stick.

Click to EnlargeApple blossom….

….and Magnolia.

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