Something for the train

The English seaside. Not for the faint hearted. 

You know those conversations. You’ve had them. Sitting around in the pub with your mates and someone suggests you club together to buy a barge, or take up Morris dancing, or go part shares in a racehorse. It’s going to be brilliant. And then it’s tomorrow and no one ever mentions the barge, or the jingle bells or the horse ever again.

Only this time, Nick was at the table and he’s the most efficient person on the planet. When he suggested a trip to Blackpool, his hometown, to see the Illuminations and we said yes, the tickets were booked and the day planned before the condensation had even dried on those craft ale glasses. 

On Friday we took the 8.30am train from Euston. I’d packed a bacon and egg pie and an iced thermos of Bloody Marys. The six of us were in a high old state of excitement and I felt a little sorry for the people surrounding us, clearly on their way to work, hoping to get a few hours on their laptop to catch up with their emails or play games or whatever. We were definitely the people you didn’t want in your carriage. We’d made a good inroad into pie and bloodies and laughing when Kirstin said ‘Is it even 9 0’clock yet?’. It wasn’t. I was worried we’d peaked too early.

Pie on a train.

Pie at midnight – last minute preparations for our train breakfast.

Train picnic: the Eccles cake v Chorley cake taste off, with some Lancashire cheese, naturally.

We hadn’t. We had a blissful day. This is what happened:
  • Our bus got stuck in the funeral cortege of the man who allegedly kept the Krays out of Blackpool. Inside the vintage Austin hearse, his trilby sat on top of his coffin along with a huge cross of white chrysanths. On the side of the coffin, in foot-high letters, more white chrysanths spelled out ‘MIXIE’.
  • A delicious fish and chip lunch at Seniors (National Fish and Chip Award winner, 2012). I highly recommend it. The fish is super fresh, the batter light, the chips a proper shade (not the pale, sad things which’ve barely flirted with the fryer you get in the South), and the staff are charming.
    Seniors for lunch. Cod, chips, gravy, mushy peas and tea. 
    Note the correct colour of the chips.

    • I tried (very hard) and failed to win a pony key ring on the penny falls slot machine.
    • I got far too goosebumpy at the sight of elderly couples waltzing around the Tower Ballroom in their best shoes, so nimbly and with so much mutual devotion in their eyes, as the Wurlitzer played Sunny Side of the Street.
    • We whizzed up to the top of the Tower. I loved the views over the frigid North Sea and the rows of colourful Blackpool terraces. Nothing would induce me to step foot on the clear glass floor and look 380ft below to My Certain Death.
    Nothing would have got me onto the glass floor.
    • We skipped across the Comedy Carpet, Gordon Young’s tribute to English variety. A pleasing number of terrible food-based gags.
    • We saw a murmuration of starlings swirling above our heads as we walked along the wide, wooden pier in the grey, growing dusk.
    The Pier
    • We rattled up and down the sea front on the tram, any city cynicism evaporating as the lights twinkled all around us.
    A tram, decked out with lights and dressed as an ocean liner.

    • We walked along the last part, enjoying the tableaux, listening to grandparents tell their grandchildren about the light shows they remembered from their own childhoods, reciting nursery rhymes, holding on tightly to tiny gloved hands.
    Alice in Wonderland.
    • Wine and cheese at Nick’s mum’s. We all agreed she looks like Helen Mirren.

    What didn’t happen…
    I didn’t have candy floss, whelks, a hot dog or my fortune told by Madame Petulengro. I also still want that pony key ring from the penny falls. For these reasons I must go back.


    Breakfast pie
    Breakfast pie – Note the whole eggs.

    My great auntie Louie was an excellent baker and made delicious bacon and egg pies. Hers most definitely did not have pancetta in them, but I was trying to use up some things from the fridge and I had a nice chunk hogging a corner of the deli drawer. You can use just bacon if you like – just cook a bit of it to render out the fat to fry the onions in, and leave the rest raw to bake in the pie.


    SERVES 6-8 

    For the pastry 
    400g plain flour, plus more for flouring the surface and rolling pin
    ¾ tsp fine sea salt
    100g lard, chilled and cut into cubes
    100g unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
    2 eggs, lightly beaten
    2-3 tbsps iced water

    For the filling
    20g butter
    80-100g pancetta, cut into small cubes
    1 onion, diced
    Bay leaf
    5-6 new potatoes, cooked and thickly sliced
    4 slices streaky bacon, unsmoked or smoked, whichever you prefer, rind cut off and cut into small pieces
    4 spring onions, white and pale green part only, finely sliced
    6 eggs, plus 1 more for glazing and filling
    80ml double cream
    2 tbsps finely chopped parsley
    1 tbsp finely chopped sage leaves
    A few gratings of nutmeg
    Salt and freshly ground black pepper

    To finish
    A couple of pinches of flaky sea salt
    1 tbsp finely chopped sage leaves

    To serve
    HP sauce, if you like

    First make the pastry. Whisk together the flour and salt in a bowl then rub in the lard and butter until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs – you still want some lumps of fat in the dough to ensure a nice, flaky pastry. Make a well in the middle and add the eggs a little at a time, using a knife to cut them into the mixture. Add just enough water to bring it together into a dough, kneading very lightly with your hands to bring it together into a smooth disc. Wrap in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for at least an hour. You can make this a day or so before you want to make the pie if you like. Of course, you can make this in a food processor but be very careful not to over process it – use the pulse button and only work it until it just comes together.

    Lightly flour a clean surface and a rolling pin. Cut the dough in half and roll one piece out into a circle of approximately 30cm diameter. Use the pastry to line a 23cm loose-bottomed flan tin, pressing it gently into the corners, then trim and crimp the edges. Put it back into the fridge to chill. Roll the second half of the pastry out and trim into a 23cm circle (use a plate or the base of a flan tin as a template); place on a baking sheet and put it in the fridge. Chill the lined flan tin and the top for at least 30 minutes.

    While the pastry is chilling, prepare the filling. Warm the butter gently over a medium heat and when it stops foaming, add the pancetta. Cook until it’s rendered some of its fat and turns lightly golden. Remove to a plate with a slotted spoon. Tip the onions into the pan with a pinch of salt and a bay leaf and reduce the temperature to medium low. Cook, stirring from time to time, until the onions are soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Put the potatoes into the pan along with the reserved pancetta. Turn everything over for a couple of minutes then remove from the heat and discard the bay leaf. Cool.

    Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C Fan/Gas 4. Place the lined flan tin on a baking sheet. Prick the base and sides with a fork. Line the tin with crumpled baking parchment and fill with baking beans and/or uncooked rice or pulses. Bake for 18 minutes. Remove the parchment and baking beans. Return the flan tin to the oven and bake for 7-10 minutes until the base is completely dried out and beginning to turn golden.

    Increase the oven temperature to 200°C/180°C Fan/Gas 6.

    Spoon half of the pancetta, onion and potato mixture into the bottom of the pie. Scatter on the bacon and spring onions, then spoon the remaining pancetta mixture over the top. Using the back of a spoon, make six evenly-spaced hollows around the edge of the pie. Crack a raw egg into each of the hollows.

    In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining egg with the cream. Tip a couple of tablespoons of this mixture into a small bowl and reserve it to glaze the pie. Stir the sage, parsley and nutmeg into the remaining mixture and season well with salt and pepper. Pour over the top of the pie filling and give the tin a little shake to distribute it evenly. Brush the edge of the pie with some of the egg and cream wash. Carefully place on the remaining disc of pastry. It should be a good fit, with no overhanging pastry. Press it down firmly with your thumb or a fork to seal. Brush the top of the pie with the egg wash then sprinkle on the chopped sage and a little flaky sea salt. Cut three short slits in the middle of the pie to allow the steam to escape. Return the pie to the oven and cook for 30-35 minutes, until the pie is golden brown all over. Serve warm or cold, with brown sauce if you like.

    From the Comedy Carpet, some food-based gags…

     
     
     
     
     

    Welcome Home Breakfast Eggs


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    I spent most of the summer, with a little back and forth, in south west France. You’d think a person couldn’t live on oysters, peaches and rosé alone but I’m here to tell you if you try very hard and put in the hours, you really can. As delightful as that sounds and, hell, is, I miss Hackney – my dearest, dirty, cranky and sometimes just plain weird belovèd – when we’re apart too long. I miss being able to eat lunch whenever you want, a petition on every counter and a pop-up on every corner, I miss the bearded boys and the tattooed girls and being able to buy five different kinds of anything you want at midnight.

    And I definitely miss Turkish food. When I come home, I like to have breakfast at one of the many cafés on Stoke Newington High Street. In summer, I’ll take the trad plate of olives, feta, tomatoes, cucumber, tomato, boiled egg and simit bread with honey. Around about now, I choose menemen, a combination of hot peppers, tomatoes and chillies with scrambled eggs.

    Even on cold days, I sit at a pavement table. This isn’t just because I usually have my dog with me, but because it’s all the better to watch the neighbourhood theatre: the boys in the barbers’ having precise and elaborate patterns shaved into their hair, skateboarders whizzing past (cue Barney: ‘BARK BARK BARK’), young couples with buggies, old ladies wheeling bags of laundry, the women in the flower shop arranging their pavement display and old men absent-mindedly working colourful tesbih, or worry beads, through their fingers. If I’m really lucky, I might see a Turkish wedding – so much mascara, so much hair, so much satin, so many metres of ribbon looped into festive decoration on newly-polished cars.

    This weekend, as I sat over my breakfast menemen, I thought about how I always feel more inclined to make new resolutions in autumn than I do in the dreary milk-thistle-laced days of January. I may not have name tapes, new socks and sharpened pencils but I have new ideas and intentions. One of these is to post more here about my favourite things: daily life here in east London and all of the time I spend in France. I hope you’ll come along with me, jump in, comment, and tell me about some of your own favourite things. I’d love to hear about them.

    Autumn in East London

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    Graffiti in Abbot Street, Hackney.


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    Tree with a hole in it, Clissold Park.

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    The beginning of the football season, Emirates Stadium, when we still dare to hope.

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    Chillies, autumn flowers and leaves in the kitchen.


    Yellows and Golds at Columbia Road Market

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    Yellow mums.

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    Chinese lanterns.


    Turkish Breakfast Eggs

    DSCF1485

    You can add spicy sausage or bacon to this if you like. You can also poach the eggs in the sauce rather than scramble them. You sometimes see this described as menemen, but it’s really shakshouka. If you’d like to make a poached version, make small wells in the thick sauce with the back of a spoon, tip an egg into each well and put a lid on the pan for a few minutes until the whites are just set.

    1 tablespoon olive oil
    A knob of butter
    2 red onions, halved and finely sliced
    2 red peppers, halved, cored, deseeded and sliced (it’s more usual to use a combination of red and green, but red its what I had and I prefer it anyway)
    3 garlic cloves, finely grated
    1 red chilli, finely chopped – leave in the seeds and membrane if you like a little heat
    4 large, ripe tomatoes, cored and finely diced – don’t bother to skin or deseed them
    A good pinch of sugar
    Some chilli flakes (optional)
    4 eggs, seasoned and lightly beaten
    A small handful of parsley, tough stalks removed and chopped
    Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

    Warm the olive oil and butter in a frying pan approximately 20cm diameter over a medium heat until the butter has melted and stopped foaming. Add the onion, peppers, garlic, chilli and a pinch of salt and fry, stirring from time to time, until everything is softened. This should take about 10 minutes.

    Add the tomatoes and sugar. Stir and continue to cook, stirring from time to time, until the mixture is thickened – you want it to be rich, and not watery at all. Taste, season and add a pinch or two of chilli flakes if it’s not fiery enough for you.

    Season the eggs with salt and pepper and pour them onto the vegetables. Don’t stir them at this point. You want them to set a little before you stir them into the eggs. At the last minute, just before serving, give everything a brief stir, scatter with parsley and eat with bread.

    Miss Scarlet’s Vittles

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    Dutch rhubarb and Sicilian lemons by the counter.

    I’ve been a bad food writer. I was passing through my favourite greengrocer and second home, Stoke Newington Green, the other morning, picking up a basket of mushrooms and pumpkins, clementines and walnuts. So far, so orange and brown and seasonally correct. I almost made it out. There, by the counter, was my temptress and seducer. A box of definitely-out-of-season Dutch rhubarb so spectacularly scarlet it was in my basket quicker than you can say crimson. Reader, I was weak.

    I love red. I can’t resist it. The late, legendary American decorator Albert Hadley believed you should have a touch of red in every room. (His powerful client list reads like a roster of libraries, museums and hospital wings with all its Astors, Paleys, Rockefellers, Gettys and Whitneys.) A cushion, a rug, a vase of roses or berries, a pot of amaryllis, an enamel colander or a lacquer tray. Just a shot. It shakes up a room like a slick of red lipstick against a pale face. It’s also my emergency prescription for anything that looks too wearyingly tasteful.

    So anyway, this is my long-way-around attempt to explain my food writer apostasy. Rhubarb in November. So shoot me. It will leave a lovely stain.

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    Kentish plums.

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    Kentish quince.

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    Egyptian pyramid.

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    So pretty.

    Stoke Newington Green, 39 Stoke Newington Church Street, London N16 0NX

    Open every day, 7am – 10ish pm

     

    Rhubarb and vanilla jam

     

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    Sundae breakfast.

    If there is a prettier way of starting the day than a spoonful of this jam swirled through some Greek yoghurt, I don’t know what it is.

    Makes 4-5 340g jars

    1kg rhubarb, trimmed weight, cut into 2.5cm chunks
    1kg jam sugar with added pectin
    1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
    Juice of a small orange
    Juice and pips of a small lemon

    DSCN7631
    Macerating in the pan.

    Pour a layer of sugar in the bottom of a preserving pan or large saucepan and then add a layer of rhubarb. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod with a small, sharp knife and place the seeds on top of the rhubarb with the pod. Continue layering the sugar and rhubarb, finishing with a layer of sugar. Cover and leave overnight to macerate.

    The next day, place a couple of saucers in the freezer. Pour the juices over the rhubarb and tie the pips from the lemon in a small circle of muslin with kitchen string. Place the bundle in the pan too.

    Warm the jam gently, stirring it slowly from time to time to dissolve the sugar without breaking up the chunks. Once the sugar is dissolved, bring to a rolling boil and boil rapidly until the setting point is reached. This should take about 8-10 minutes. This is a soft-set jam so don’t wait for it to get too solid. A droplet of the jam on one of the chilled saucers should just wrinkle when you push it with your finger.

    Remove from the heat and let it sit for 5 minutes and remove the muslin bag. Seal the jam in warm, sterilised jars. Either discard the vanilla pod or snip a little bit into each jar. Unopened and kept in a cool, dark place the jam should keep for a year.

    When life gives you lemons (and butter)…

    Bramley Lemon Curd

    After the wedding, I had lots of lemons and some lovely French butter left over so I decided to make a few jars of lemon curd. Is there anything more delicious, spread onto hot toast or spooned under a pillow of meringue in a pie? Is there anything more cheerful than a line of golden jars stacked up on a shelf? And I’ll be honest, I was in need of a bit of cheering up.

    Oscar (Admilbu Meridian Dancer) in the Garden.Oscar
    3rd January 2000 – 14th September 2009

    Our little cat Oscar died. He’d been ill for quite a while, his sturdy frame diminished so he was light and bony as a bird, his once-plush fur rough and dull. A few weeks ago, he jumped down from his chair and his back legs gave out. He sprawled across the floor. I stayed up all night with him cradled in my arms, his head damp with my tears. In the morning, Séan nestled him into a carrying basket, lined with his Arsenal towel, for his final trip to the vet. I busied myself with mindless tasks, loading the dishwasher, folding the laundry, sweeping the floor, my skin prickly with grief.

    An hour later, Séan called to say ‘We’re coming home’. So, despite having said goodbye to him, there he was back in the kitchen, walking like a slightly drunken sailor but happily tucking into his breakfast. He’d had some kind of stroke but the vet said he was in no pain and would adjust, could improve. We treasured the bonus of his final few weeks. He nudged up beside us on the sofa, licking our hands with his sandpaper tongue. On bright days he would find a patch of sunshine on the terrace and stretch out his skinny frame on the warm slate.

    Colette wrote ‘There are no ordinary cats’. Oscar wasn’t the least bit ordinary. He was beguilingly handsome, with cashmere-soft fur in the richest shade of chocolate brown and bewitching jade green eyes. He had a profound sense of his own importance and would call nosily if he felt that his court (Séan and I) weren’t sufficiently attentive.

    Oscar & Liberty With Liberty.

    Delphi, Liberty & Oscar With Delphi and Liberty. Another day, another sofa…

    When we first brought him home, a tiny kitten you could fit into one hand, we already had two cats, Delphi and Liberty. They weren’t too thrilled with this interloper. He was desperate to play with them, edging towards them unabashed by their hissing hostility. So I was delighted one morning when, as he tumbled about on our bed, Liberty jumped up and gave him a tentative lick. Did he stretch out with pleasure? Give her an affectionate nudge? No, he jabbed her clean across the nose with his paw. In later life, his favourite game was to lurk on the stairs when we had visitors, seducing them with his glorious good looks so that they would ruffle his fur through the banisters. He would purr, his whole body vibrating with pleasure, until the moment when he had drawn them in sufficiently so that they would press their faces against the wooden rails. At this point, invariably, he would give them a quick swipe with his paw and, on one notable occasion, bite them on the nose.

    In his final weeks, Oscar was too frail to climb the stairs and spent his time on the ground floor. One evening, as I was making dinner, I couldn’t find him. I searched the dining room and sitting room. Séan looked upstairs. He discovered him three flights up at the top of the house. He had scaled his personal Everest and died on our bed. And that was Oscar. Get where you need to be or die trying.

    I still look for him in the house, wait for him to swirl his way around my ankles when I come in the door, jump onto my desk and head butt me as I type. But his chair is empty. Kiddo, I miss you, you furry little fury. Living with you was a ten-year seminar in the fierce pursuit of pleasure, in hunting down the sunniest spot, the cosiest blanket, the tastiest morsel and the highest branch. It was an honour to be your devoted friend and servant.

    I'm ready for my close up...

    Our lovely vet Caroline sent us a card following Oscar’s death: ‘It was a real pleasure and privilege to treat Oscar over the years. He was a real character and was always so stoical …’

    Bramley lemon curd

    Lemons

    This recipe is from River Cottage Handbook No.2: Preserves. It’s been my great pleasure to meet the book’s author, Pam Corbin, a couple of times. She teaches wonderful preserving classes down at River Cottage, where she’s known affectionately as ‘Pam the Jam’. She says of this wonderful curd ‘It’s like eating apples and custard: softly sweet, tangy and quite, quite delicious’. She is quite, quite right. I hope you’ll enjoy it too.

    Makes 5 x 225g jars.

    450g Bramley apples, peeled, cored and chopped
    Finely grated zest and juice of 2 unwaxed lemons (you need 100ml strained juice)
    125g unsalted butter
    450g granulated sugar
    4-5 large eggs, well beaten (you need 200ml beaten egg)

    Put the chopped apples into a pan with 100ml water and the lemon zest. Cook gently until soft and fluffy, then either beat to a purée with a wooden spoon or rub through a nylon sieve.

    Put the butter, sugar, lemon juice and apple purée into a double boiler or heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. As soon as the butter has melted and the mixture is hot and glossy, pour in the eggs through a sieve, and whisk with a balloon whisk. If the fruit puree is too hot when the beaten egg is added, the egg will ‘split’. One way to guard against this is to check the temperature of the puree with a sugar thermometer – it should be no higher than 55-60 ̊C when the egg is added.If your curd does split, take the pan off the heat and whisk vigorously until smooth.

    Stir the mixture over a gentle heat, scraping down the sides of the bowl every few minutes, until thick and creamy. This will take 9-10 minutes; the temperature should reach 82-84 ̊C on a sugar thermometer. Immediately pour into warm, sterilised jars and seal. Use within four weeks. Once opened, keep in the fridge.

    Bottling joy, an every day experience

    Apricot jam

    What do you do when you have loads of fruit? Make jam. Lady de B and I bought most of the fruit for Stuart’s party at New Covent Garden Market as it was cheaper to buy a whole tray wholesale than a few punnets retail. This meant we had lots left over. So on Tuesday night, we got together for our own little preserves festival. In a few hours, we had a shelf full of strawberry jam, raspberry jam and apricot and vanilla jam, along with peach and almond chutney to go with the cheeses at Paula’s wedding in September. We were a two-woman WI.

    Preparing peach and almond chutney.From this....to this.

    One of the (many) things I love about Lady de B is that she’s my autodial person for produce. When rhubarb, blackcurrants, quince, medlars or walnuts arrive in the market, I can call her in a high state of excitement and she doesn’t think I’m mad. And it’s a reciprocal agreement. In January, I got a near-breathless call from her announcing she’d seen Seville oranges in Borough Market. The marmalade season was upon us. I dug out the preserving pan, stocked up on sugar, fished out a box of jars from the cellar.

    The day before our planned marmalade extravaganza, Séan was admitted to hospital and my life of gentle, joyful domesticity vanished for five sombre weeks. The ping of the kitchen timer was replaced with the beep-beep-beep of monitors. I was in a foreign land of blue linoleum corridors and waiting. Waiting for tests, waiting for results, waiting to speak to consultants, all the time my mouth filled with the sour taste of fear.

    Our friends and families were wonderful. His room was filled with cards and visitors. Flowers and fruit arrived in amounts that would have done New Covent Garden proud. We watched movies, reruns of Friends, Obama’s joyful inauguration. We played Scrabble, read, held hands. Lady de B even smuggled Barney into the little garden at the back of the hospital so man and dog could share a few happy hours together. Friends invited me for supper, picked up laundry, walked the dog, fed the cats.

    But each evening, home alone, I felt raw with longing for our ordinary life together. Eating dinner, going to the flower market, planning parties and holidays. It seemed like a distant country. Looking back was too painful; looking forward too full of terrifying uncertainty. Every night, as I spooned chopped fruit into Tupperware boxes and washed pyjamas for the next day, I felt numb.

    Now he’s home and well and I feel a small rush of happiness every day at 7pm when I hear his key turn in the lock. He still drives me mad. Within a one metre radius of the laundry basket is not the same as in the laundry basket. Unless we’ve received some sort of nature reserve status of which I’m unaware, that lawn needs cutting. A few light bulbs in the hallway chandelier would be nice. It’s normal.

    On Tuesday night – as Vanessa and I chopped and stirred, filling the kitchen with sweet, spicy clouds of steam – I felt joyful, as if I were bottling happiness. Forget fancy cars, diamonds and designer shoes. Curling up under our Moroccan blanket on the sofa to watch a film, breakfast together in the park on Saturday mornings, Sundays spent reading the paper, drinking tea and talking nonsense with friends, a few jars of jam. These are my riches, my bounty, my daily blessings.

    Apricot and vanilla jam

    Apricot jam on hot-buttered home-made toast Apricot jam on my homemade raisin and walnut bread.

    We created this recipe from Lady de B’s copy of Mrs Beeton which was given to her mother by her grandmother and then passed on to her. I couldn’t resist adding a few tweaks, as I prefer French-style softer set jams which contain less sugar and really allow the fruit to shine. If you prefer a thicker, English-style jam, simply increase the weight of the sugar so you have the same amount of sugar as fruit and boil a little longer. We also added some vanilla because, well, how can that ever be a bad thing?

    Makes about 20 jars

    2kg apricots
    1.8kg sugar
    Juice of a lemon
    250ml water
    2 vanilla pods, split lengthways
    A small knob of unsalted butter

    Halve the apricots (reserving a small handful of kernels) and layer them in your pan with the sugar, lemon juice and vanilla pods. Pour over the water and leave to macerate for an hour or so. While you’re waiting, put a few saucers in the freezer and crack the reserved kernels. Blanch the white, almondy bit inside the kernels in some boiling water for a minute and put them on one side.

    Warm the apricot mixture over a low heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar then boil rapidly until the setting point is reached. You know you’re there when a dollop of jam on one of the chilled saucers wrinkles when you push it with your finger. I like to take it off the heat when it just starts to wrinkle as it’s so hot it continues to cook a bit afterwards. Add the blanched kernels. Don’t bother skimming off any scum that forms, just stir in a bit of butter at the end which will disperse it. Spoon into warm, sterilised jars and seal. We also retrieved the vanilla pods, snipped them into smaller pieces and added the pieces to some of the jars.

    A good night's work

    Our little harvest festival of chutneys and jams.

    For Karen, with love (and a licked spoon) x

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    My friend Karen lives in Upstate New York, in the Finger Lakes Region – an area which, because of her, I now think of as the Finger Lickin’ Region.

    A couple of years ago, she came to London for the first time and – instantly and rather poetically – came down with the worst cold of her life. Instead of running down Sloane Street, gathering heavy shopping bags until the rope handles cut off the circulation in her fingers; instead of meandering along the Thames by the Houses of Parliament and then strolling up Westminster to see that same view captured in misty, opalescent glory by Monet in the National Gallery; instead of, oh, just having a really lovely time, she spent most of her trip curled up on our fat red sofa covered in my Moroccan blanket, our cats sitting guard, sphinx-like at her feet.

    Karen is incredibly gracious. As she reclined there, like a Twenty-First Century Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she made it seem like this was exactly the trip she’d always dreamed of, greeting every cup of tea or bowl of soup as though it were a miraculous thing. One day I made her poached eggs on toast and you’d have thought I’d treated her to the tasting menu at the Fat Duck.

    I owe Karen a lot, for her friendship and wisdom, for her bountiful good humour and encouragement, but for our purposes, I owe her credit for the title of my blog. We end our many emails across the ocean with silly, often foodie, good wishes. One day, she signed off ‘Love and a licked spoon, Karen x’. It encapsulates everything that’s important to me – friendship, food, fun. So Karen, this is for you, and anyone else who really, really wants to know how to poach an egg.

    Çilbir

    I love this Turkish recipe for its simplicity of execution and complexity of flavour. An egg is a miraculous and wonderful thing, so please don’t torture them in one of those hideous egg poacher contraptions. They result in eggs that look like something from a joke shop or, worse, a 1970s boarding house dining room.

    Some people add vinegar to the poaching water as it helps keep the white together but, however little I add, I can still taste it so I leave it out and rely on my little whirlpool to keep the shape. Don’t add salt to the water – this will make the white spread out more. Season after cooking. In this case, paprika, chilli and mint should do the trick.

    Serves 2

    1 small garlic clove
    A good pinch of sea salt
    About a teacup full of whole milk yoghurt
    3 tbsps unsalted butter
    ½ tsp of sweet, smoked paprika
    2 eggs, the fresher the better
    A pinch of chilli flakes (I use Isot, the finely crushed chilli flakes from Urfa, but any will do)
    A sprinkling of dried mint (optional)

    Bring a large pan of water to the boil. As we all know, a watched pot never boils, so make the sauce while you’re waiting. On a board, chop the garlic clove into a paste with the salt. Whisk it into the yoghurt and set aside. Warm the butter in a small frying pan over a medium-low heat until melted. Add the paprika and chilli flakes, stir and remove from the heat.

    Gently break the eggs onto two saucers. When you have the water at a good, rolling boil, stir it vigorously with a wooden spoon until you have a swirling vortex. Tip one of the eggs into the middle of the whirlpool and watch as the white folds over the yolk. Cook for two to three minutes depending on their size, until the white is set and the yolk still runny. Remove with a slotted spoon and put onto kitchen paper to drain. Repeat with the second egg.

    Spread half of the yoghurt onto each of the plates, top with an egg, trickle over the paprika chilli butter and sprinkle on the dried mint. Eat immediately.

    P1140015

    P1140017

    P1140027

    TIP
    If you want to make this for a brunch and don’t fancy doing poached eggs for a dozen people on a sleepy, Sunday morning, do what chefs do and cook them the day before. Poach as above and plunge them immediately into a bowl of iced water. Refrigerate and then, when you’re ready to serve, warm them through for no more than 30 seconds in boiling water.

    Of paint and pastries

    Pilavunas on parade

    For days now, I have been thinking about the salty-sweet Cypriot bread rolls called pilavuna on the Turkish side of the island’s Green Line and flaounes on the Greek side. I decided to make them for breakfast today, to soften the blow of watching Chelsea’s rather casual 2-1 defeat of Arsenal yesterday. Who knows? If Fabianski hadn’t mistaken the half way line for the mouth of the goal, and Adebayor hadn’t played like he was having a kick about at the beach rather than playing in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, perhaps I would have been celebrating victory with çilbir, that lovely red and white Turkish breakfast dish of seasoned yoghurt topped with a poached egg and trickled with melted butter stained with paprika?

    A moment when hope still sprung eternal

    But rolls it is. I was first introduced to them by our friend Nash Khandekar when we moved into our house six years ago. Nash almost wasn’t our painter and decorator.

    We’d just bought our house. It was sound, but needed some TLC (I mean, I like lime green walls and a glitter ball as much as the next person, but perhaps not in the room where I intend to eat breakfast for the foreseeable future). I arranged to have a few companies come over and give us quotes, my very own Decorator Idol. There was the Irish one, whose curling brogue and patched sweater did a great job of disguising his capacity for gouging on prices. The Polish one with graceful manners but almost no English. The posh Home Counties one who seemed to have become a painter and decorator in response to a not-entirely-worked-through midlife crisis… And then there was Nash, who was delightful and charming and entirely won my mother over. I declared him ‘Too smooth by half’. Until the quotes came in and he was the cheapest (by half) and I decided that delightful and charming was something I could live with.

    And live with we have. Ever since, we’ve called on Nash and his brother Sean whenever we need something doing in our house or garden. I remember one freezing November day when Nash was smoothing grout between the paving on the terrace he’d just laid for us (having first placed pennies beneath the slabs for good luck). His olive skin was a grey with cold. I told him to stop for the day and his response? ‘No, the Bangladeshi in me is keeping me warm and the Irish in me is keeping me working.’ How could you not love a man like that?

    When we were restoring our house, Nash and his team worked alongside us to make our six-week deadline. He promised it would be finished on time, and on moving day I pitched up at the house at 8am to find him putting the final licks of paint on the sitting room walls, leaning on a broom for support and a full day’s growth in his beard. He’d been up all night, but he made it.

    In those six weeks, I listened to more Talk Sport radio than I ever thought possible and we ate with Nash and his gang, sitting on the floor, our buffet of pides or kebabs from the local take away spread out on the wallpaper pasting table. One afternoon, he sent his wiry young assistant Chefki out to buy snacks and he came back with warm pilavuna. We ate them greedily with cups of tea while Nash prodded shy Chefki to tell us the tale of when he played professional football for a team in the Ukraine, scoring on his debut and ending up the local hero, his picture on the front page of the paper. Chefki is no longer the shy teenager, but he’s as lovely as he always was, married to Hattie, his once-lanky frame bulked out with muscles. Every time I bite into a pilavuna, I think of those happy, exhausting weeks working on our house and the friendships forged over paint, football on the radio and tea breaks at the pasting table.

    PilavunaPilavuna Ingredients

    These are traditionally made at Easter, from a seasonal cheese called flaouna. If you can’t get hold of flaouna – and let’s face it, I live in the middle of a Turkish area and even I can’t always get hold of flaouna – a mild Cheddar or an unsmoked Gouda might be nice.

    Makes a dozen pilavuna

    750g strong bread flour (actually, I ran out of bread flour so used 500g bread flour and 250g plain flour and it worked out pretty well)
    7g fast-acting yeast (a sachet’s worth)
    1 slightly rounded tsp salt
    20g caster sugar
    450ml warm water
    2 tbsps olive oil
    250g flaouna (see note above for alternatives), grated
    100g haloumi, grated
    90g sultanas
    1 ½ tbsp crumbled, dried mint
    The grated zest of a small lemon (This isn’t traditional as far as I can tell, but I like it. You can leave it out if you prefer.)
    1 tbsp plain flour
    1 tsp baking powder
    3 eggs, lightly beaten

    To finish:
    1 egg, beaten with a little water to glaze
    Some sesame seeds for sprinkling over the top

    Tip the flour, yeast, salt and sugar into the bowl of a mixer fitted with a dough hook and mix to blend. With the beater stirring, pour in the warm water then the oil and beat for about 10 minutes at a medium-low speed (if it looks like the mixer might walk itself off the counter, you’re going too fast) until smooth and velvety. You can certainly do this by hand, but it’s Sunday morning and I’m taking the path of least resistance. Put your dough into a lightly-oiled, warmed bowl, cover with a plastic bag and leave in a warm place to rise for about an hour, or until doubled in size.

    While the dough is rising, make the filling. Mix together the grated cheeses, sultanas, mint, zest, flour and baking powder. Pour in the eggs and mix to a stiff paste.

    Mixing

    Ready for the oven

    Pilavuna detail

    Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas 7. Knock back the risen dough and divide it into 12, shaping each piece into a nice round. On a lightly floured surface, roll out into circles about 12cm in diameter. Heap a good spoonful of filling into the middle of each circle. Fold over three sides of the dough to make a triangle, pinching the edges together a bit and leaving some of the filling showing. Brush the pastries with the beaten egg and sprinkle over the sesame seeds. Put on a lightly-floured baking sheet and bake until golden, about 13 minutes. Serve warm or cold, at a pasting table for authenticity.

    Breakfast

    LICKED
    I love The Arabica Food & Spice Company. They sell wonderfully aromatic blends such as ras-el-hanout and za’atar, and fiery sauces such as their Il Shaytan Chilli Sauce. Their wild mint is picked by a women’s co-operative in Jordan and it’s the most sweetly aromatic dried mint I’ve ever used.

    Wild Mint