Sunday best

IMAG0270 Before: Dog as tweed cushion.

However hard I’ve been trying to convince myself – and believe me I have – there’s nothing festive about balls of dog hair blowing silently across the floor. I considered spraying them with glitter or weaving them into a festive wreath, but concluded that there is a limit to all of this wild, free-range, organic and home-grown business. Barney really needed grooming before I looked like a mad lady walking a tweed cushion on a lead along Church Street.

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Groom Dog City recently opened a salon (Is it a salon or a parlour? Parlours make me think of poodles with more pom-poms than the Dallas Cowboy cheerleading squad, so I think we’ll stick to salon) in Ravenscroft Street, just off Columbia Road, so I booked him in for their Drop and Shop service – he gets groomed while I get to raid the market unencumbered by a frisky hound on a search and rescue mission for bits of dropped bacon sandwich. We even managed to fit in lunch at the lovely new restaurant, BrawnColchester oysters, pork belly and a delicious pudding of warm pear compôte, crème fraîche and toasted pain d’épice crumbs, thank you very much.

IMAG0284 Warm pear compôte, crème fraîche and toasted pain d’épice crumbs at Brawn.

We picked up the dog, transformed* from miniature woolly mammoth to sleek dog about town by friendly, skilled groomers. No pom-poms, but he did get a little green bow on his collar. It looks pretty festive, actually.

IMAG0290 After: Barney transformed –though I think he’s looking a bit put out that he missed the pork belly.

* Hand stripping a border terrier takes about two and a half hours and costs £40.

A little gentle preparation and forty tiny claws

Jars of Mincemeat

When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?

Michel de Montaigne, Essays, 1580

It’s about that time. Lights go up on Stoke Newington High Street for Eid and Christmas, the shops fill with glitzy cards and brightly coloured baubles and otherwise sane souls believe the affection of the ages can be conveyed by hastily wrapped scented candles or cashmere scarves.

I love Christmas. I love the sight of people dragging trees down Church Street, queuing for my turkey at Godfrey’s, midnight mass at St Mary’s and most of all, I love the peace that descends on London for those few short days. In order for me not to careen into the holiday like Wile E. Coyote screeching off a cliff, I try to do a little gentle preparation in the weeks before to make the run up as pleasurable as possible.

And today’s recipe is as gentle a recipe as ever met heat. Making your own mincemeat fulfils that desire for a homemade Christmas without heaping on the stress. It also makes the house smell wonderful, better than any scented candle. Take THAT, Jo Malone.

I’m keen on simple recipes at the moment as they leave me with maximum kitten time. Yes, kittens, life’s greatest deadline-dodging displacement activity. After Oscar died last year and free-spirit Liberty went missing, never to return, in January our house has been sadly lacking in feline presence. Chairs remained unscratched. Roast chickens sat unmolested on the kitchen counter. It was miserable, though Barney might disagree.

Enter Dixie and Prune, slaloming across the marble counter, scaling ten feet of curtain as though it’s nothing, chasing each other’s tails, loving Barney into grumpy submission as they edge their way onto his favourite chair and crowd into his basket. They sit on my shoulders as I type like purring epaulettes, chase the cursor across the screen and generally show disdain for anything as undignified as, oh, earning a living. It’s wonderful.

All 3 together Begrudgingly, Barney shares his favourite chair

Prune It’s hard to know whether Prune’s laughing at you or preparing to eat you. Probably a bit of both.

Prune & Barney ‘You will love me.’

APPLE, PEAR AND GINGER MINCEMEAT

Apple, Pear & Ginger Mincemeat

This mincemeat is intensely fruity and the crystallized ginger adds a dash of sweet heat. It contains no suet, which I think gives it a brighter, fresher flavour. Make some now and it’ll have time to mature for Christmas, though I like to keep a jar back to enjoy next year, too. Use it in mince pies, of course, but it’s also very good as a stuffing for baked apples and delicious in my Mincemeat Crumble Tart.

The recipe comes from River Cottage Handbook No 2, by Pam ‘the jam’ Corbin, queen of all things jarred, bottled and preserved.

Makes approximately 4x450g jars

1kg Bramley apples
Finely grated zest and juice of 2-3 oranges (you need 200ml juice)
500g firm pears, peeled, cored and cut into 1cm cubes
200g currants
200g raisins
200g sultanas
100g orange marmalade
250g demerara sugar
½ tsp ground cloves
2 tsp ground ginger
1-2 tsp ground cinnamon
½ nutmeg, grated
50ml ginger wine or cordial (optional, I had neither so I used the syrup from a jar of stem ginger)
100g chopped walnuts or almonds
50ml brandy or sloe gin

Peel and core the apples and chop them into large chunks. Put them into a saucepan with the orange juice. Cook gently until they are soft and fluffy then blend into a smooth purée.

Put the purée into a large bowl and add all of the other ingredients, except the brandy or gin. Mix thoroughly, then cover and leave to stand for 12 hours.

Preheat the oven to 130°C/Gas Mark 1/2. Put the mincemeat into a large baking dish or roasting tin and bake, uncovered, for 2-2 ½ hours. Stir in the brandy or gin, then spoon into warm, sterilized jars, making sure there aren’t any air pockets. Seal and store in a dry, dark, cool place until Christmas. Use within 12 months.

Taking the lead

Carrot Cake

A dog gives you a great excuse to play truant while appearing to be busy. At 3pm, the sky cleared, looked blue for the first time in days. I grabbed the lead and took Barney for a walk in the cemetery. For his benefit, right? Not to get away from teetering piles of paper on my desk, books that defy shelving, the list of phone calls, the conked out dryer, the leaking washing machine and the problem of what to do about the vanished accountant.

Through the Egyptian gates, the air is heavy, damp. Barney weaves his own eightsome reel through the dripping nettles and worn tombstones. There is a sweet smell of rotting leaves, faintly spicy like gingerbread.

I have never seen a hound look quite as pathetic as mine does when wet. Fur sticks out in uneven clumps. His legs look spindly, his eyes huge, pleading. He could head up a Dogs’ Trust campaign. The hardest of hearts would read in his soft brown eyes a life tied to a lamppost, abandoned, not one of tweed-lined baskets, woollen blankets and organic dog food.

Barney

We get home and he runs along the hallway rubbing his head and body against the skirting as if possessed, a foxy little dervish drying himself on the carefully chosen Farrow & Ball (can it be long before Dirty Dog nestles on the paint chart between Mouse’s Back, Cat’s Paw, Dead Salmon and Pigeon?).

I make a cake. Barney sits on his favourite chair, the one that’s so tatty my friend’s eight-year-old daughter asked, worried, ‘What’s wrong with it?’. It’s been a busy afternoon.

CARROT AND WALNUT CAKE

Carrot & Walnut Cake

I created this recipe a couple of years ago for my friend Mark Diacono’s book, River Cottage Handbook No4 Veg . It’s not very refined, in the manner of grandly iced carrot cakes, but nor is it tiresomely worthy like those annoying confections whose highest ambition is to form one of you five a day. It’s spicy and rich and keeps very well for up to a week in a tin. Serve it warm as a pudding with a generous spoonful of crème fraiche, or cold anytime.

Either make your own apple sauce by simmering peeled, cored Bramley apples with a little water until light and fluffy or use good-quality ready made.

Makes 12 squares

80g sultanas
A slug of apple brandy or cognac (optional)
Knob of butter, softened, for greasing the tin
220g wholemeal self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp salt
Good pinch of ground cloves
Pinch of ground cardamom (optional)
220g light muscovado sugar, plus an extra 3 tbsps for the syrup
120ml sunflower oil
Finely grated zest and juice of a large orange
2 eggs, lightly beaten
225g apple sauce
270g carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
80g walnuts, roughly chopped
1 tbsp lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 170C/Gas mark 3. Put the sultanas in a small bowl, pour on hot water to cover and leave to soak for 20 minutes or so. You can add a slug of apple brandy or cognac at this point if you like.

Lightly grease a loose-bottomed 20-22cm square cake tin, about 8cm deep. Line the base with greaseproof paper and butter the paper. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, cloves and cardamom if using.

In a large bowl, whisk together the 220g of light muscovado sugar, oil and orange zest until well combined, then whisk in the eggs until the mixture is creamy. Fold in the apple sauce, followed by the flour mixture until just combined. Next fold in the grated carrots and walnuts. Finally, drain the sultanas and fold these in.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake for about 1 ¼ hours, until a fine skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, without any crumbs clinging to it. If the cake appears to be overbrowning before it is done, cover the top loosely with foil.

While the cake is in the oven, make the syrup. Put the orange juice into a small pan with the 3tbsps of light muscovado sugar and 1 tbsp lemon juice. Warm over a low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves, then increase the heat and simmer until slightly syrupy, about 4-5 minutes.

As you remove the cake from the oven, run a knife around the edge and pierce the top a few times with a fine skewer. Now pour over the syrup, trying to make sure that you cover the surface fairly evenly. Stand the cake tin on a wire rack and leave to cool for a while before cutting into squares.

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.

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…

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

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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Wherefore art thou, boneo?


Two years ago, we took Barney to his first puppy class. A rather tightly-wound woman pulled a little bag out of the pocket of her quilted jacket, explaining that she only gave her poodle puppy organic liver treats she made herself. I whispered to Séan ’If I ever start baking for my dog, shoot me.’ Well, I’m still here. He’s a very kind man.

This isn’t something I tell everybody. A visit to Unconfidentialcook’s blog, with her daughter’s charming recipe for pupparoni pizza, has nudged me out of the closet, or kennel.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’m going to tell you I first made these for the Dog Christmas Party in our park. I know. While I was making chocolate crackle cookies and chorizo sausage rolls to share with the human revellers, I found myself eyeing the larder – a big bunch of parsley, a dried up end of Cheddar, half a bag of spelt flour. Before I could stop myself, Doggie Breath Bones were born.

One particularly blustery morning last December, a couple of dozen people and even more dogs assembled by the ponds for mince pies and carols. Rachel even brought a camping stove so we could warm up with mulled wine. Food and gossip were shared, bones were handed out.

Suddenly, I understood how the Pied Piper felt. Grateful, often drunk, friends sometimes say my cooking makes them drool. On this occasion, it was true. I was ridiculously, pathetically touched by the dogs’ seal of approval. Ridiculous, as they’re hardly discerning. Between them they have been responsible for the ingestion of many socks, several shoes, bits of vacuum cleaner, cat litter, sofa cushions, ipods, mobile phones, countless remote controls, money (they’re not fussy, they take cheques, cash, credit cards – that’ll do nicely) and enough Lego bricks to provide Battersea Dogs’ Home with a sizeable extension.

I’ve cooked for lots of happy people but Jess the Great Dane, Linus the Beagle, Gomez the Basset, Polly the Labradoodle, Tigger the Toy Terrier, Duffy the black Lab, Elliot the Cocker Spaniel, Malcolm the Schnauzer and the rest of their cheerful, unruly gang are perhaps my least knowledgeable (though that’s debatable) but most enthusiastic audience. They loved them. I hope your dog does too, but let’s not tell anyone about it, shall we?

Doggie Breath Bones

Parsley is very good for digestion and sweetness of breath. Apparently.

Makes about 32 bones

A big bunch of parsley, about 120g, finely minced, stalks and all
1 large carrot, grated
60g Cheddar, or whatever cheese you have left in the fridge, grated
3 tbsps olive oil
300g wholemeal flour- I used wholemeal spelt
2 tsps baking powder
130-200 ml of hot chicken stock or water

Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4 and line a couple of baking sheets with baking parchment.

Stir together the parsley, carrots, cheese. Trickle over the oil – at this point it looks like a rather attractive salad. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour and baking powder. Tip the parsley mixture into the flour and mix everything up with your hands until well combined. Gradually add half of the stock or water, mixing until you have a nice dough – you may not use all of the liquid, you don’t want it to be too sticky. Knead it together gently with your hands, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and roll out until it’s about 5mm thick. Cut them out with a 4-5cm pastry cutter (ok, so by now I have invested in a bone-shaped cutter. This means that I am officially barking). Knead the offcuts together, roll them out and cut them out too.

Bake for about 25 minutes until the biscuits have browned and hardened a bit. Cool on a wire rack. If you have a tall dog, make sure the rack is on a high shelf. Stored in airtight tin, they’ll keep for quite a while.