In praise of The Pauper’s Cookbook

I often tell people that I can cook because my mother couldn’t, or wouldn’t. She was far more interested in studying, writing, teaching and taking us to museums and bookshops, on walks along the riverbank in Durham and, importantly, instilling in my brother and me a love of whiling away afternoons in cafés. All of these are very important life skills.

But she did sometimes cook more than the usual, hasty beans on toast or egg and chips, and when she did, it was from Jocasta Innes’s The Pauper’s Cookbook.

I was just writing something about 70s food, which made me pick up my old, yellowing copy for the first time in years. Flipping through it, I can see it through my mother’s young eyes and understand why it must have been so appealing.

This book is about as far away from the 70s housewife world of perfect garnishes and dainty hors d’oeuvres as it’s possible to get. It’s crammed with recipes for the hurried, harried and skint. It has a let’s-get-on-with-it tone and a spirit of adventure, with recipes such as brandade of tuna fish, tortilla, and Suleiman’s Pilaff (bits of leftover cooked lamb, mixed with garlic, patna rice, tinned tomatoes and ‘a pinch of thyme or rosemary’ – the ‘pinch’ makes me think that the assumption is they’re inevitably dried, not fresh).

Welcome to the 70s, so many beans, so much brown earthenware.

I love the cover photograph, with its earthenware dish which would look quite at home in many of today’s faux-rustic East London restaurants. I love the trickle of burnt-on sauce from the pork and beans, and I love, love, love the blurb on the back cover:

‘So leave it to the affluent to court indigestion at the Waldorf-Ritz: here’s how to live it up in your own squalid tenement without recourse to poaching, rustling, guddling, scrumping or shop-lifting.’ How could you possibly resist? And now I need to go and find out what the hell ‘guddling’ is.


French onion soup

I wanted to make something from the book without having to run out to the shops (too cold, too lazy), so my eyes fell on Jocasta’s recipe for French onion soup. Her recipe was much simpler than the one I create here. Its ingredients are 1 quart basic stock, 4 large or 6 small onions, knob of butter, 1/4lb grated Cheddar, 4 slices toast, salt and pepper. But with my Twenty-First-Century fancy London ways, I have at my disposal wine and brandy, Gruyère cheese and an end of slightly stale baguette. But it is absolutely in the spirit of Jocasta, if not to the letter.

SERVES 4-6

80g butter
4 large yellow or white onions, about 1kg prepared weight, halved and thinly sliced
100ml white wine
1 litre beef stock
1 tbsp brandy
About ¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
4-6 slices of baguette, about 1cm thick
100g Gruyère cheese, grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Warm the butter over a medium heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan
 or casserole. When it stops foaming, add the onions and a good pinch of salt.  Fry gently, stirring often, until they are just beginning to turn golden – they shouldn’t caramelise at all. This could take at least 30 minutes, up to 45 minutes.

The raw sliced onions…
…transform into these soft, golden ones.
 

Pour in the wine and stir again for a couple of minutes until almost completely evaporated. Next add the stock and some salt and pepper and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Grate in the nutmeg, pour in the brandy and season with more salt and pepper if necessary. 

Heat up the grill.

Ladle the soup into heatproof bowls. Place a slice of bread on top and scatter the cheese over the top. Grill until golden and bubbling. Serve immediately. 

I love the way Gruyère melts into delicious stringiness.

What’s the fastest cake in the world?

 

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Cheddar cheese scones, cucumber sandwiches and dark mocha cake.

When he was a little boy, my nephew Angus’s favourite joke was ‘What’s the fastest cake in the world?’. Answer: ‘Sssccccone!’, delivered with tousled head moving rapidly left to right. His second favourite joke was ‘What’s the second fastest cake in the world?’ Answer: ‘Merrrrrringue!’, delivered in the manner of a car racing around a tough corner at Brand’s Hatch. He’s now in his second year at Sheffield University and his jokes haven’t got any better. At least not the ones he tells me.

On Friday, I invited my friends Jane and Lola to tea. A batch of scones was certainly in order, along with cucumber sandwiches and cake. A plain scone with raspberry jam and clotted cream is a fine thing indeed, but as the cake was a dense chocolate number with a rich, coffee buttercream icing I thought a savoury scone might be better. They certainly vanished very quickly, quicker, in fact, than you could say ‘Sssccccone!’.

Cheddar Cheese Scones

This is the basic recipe but you can adapt it as you wish. Add a pinch or two of chilli flakes, or some finely chopped thyme, dill, chives or oregano if you like.

Makes 6 large scones or 10 smaller ones.

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220g self-raising flour, plus a little more for dusting the cutter
1 tsp English mustard powder
Pinch of salt
60g unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small cubes, plus a little more for greasing the baking sheet
50g mature Cheddar, grated
A few grinds of black pepper

About 150-180 ml whole milk, plus a little more for brushing the scones

Preheat the oven to 220ºC/425ºF/Gas7. Lightly grease a baking sheet.

Sift together the flour, mustard and salt. Rub in the butter with your fingertips then use a knife to mix in the cheese and pepper. Make a well in the middle and use the knife to stir in enough milk to make a soft dough.

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Turn out onto a lightly-floured surface and knead very gently, just enough to bring it together. Pat the dough out into a round about 2cm thick. Dip a 7cm cutter in flour (or a 5cm one if you’re making smaller scones) and cut the dough out into rounds. Transfer them to a baking sheet.

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Gently knead together the leftover dough and cut out some more scones until you’ve used up all of the dough. Brush the tops lightly with milk. Bake for 13-15 minutes (10-12 minutes for smaller scones), until risen and golden. Cool slightly on a wire rack and serve warm with plenty of butter.

Beware of Crocheters Bearing Gifts…

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I attempt to master a double crochet stitch.

There was a great, whispered scandal in my family when Auntie Dolly’s granddaughter rejected the wedding dress she’d crocheted for her as a surprise. It wasn’t a scaled-up version of something which might primly cover up a loo roll, rather a two-ply marvel of gossamer beauty and intricacy. At least it was to my seven-year-old eyes.

All of those Blair girls had good hands. Each one of them could make pretty much anything, but they all had their specialist areas. My grandmother Barbara was the compulsive knitter. Auntie Louie was a marvellous baker. There was always something sweetly delicious in a tin at her house. But Dolly was the crochet queen. She could, with a certain amount of accuracy, have been called Auntie Doily. She once crocheted my mother a highly-unseaworthy bikini in shimmering white and gold, sort of Ursula Andress meets the Women’s Institute.

To be fair, a surprise wedding dress isn’t high on any sane person’s wish list. Nonetheless there was much Cissie-and-Ada-esque bosom heaving and lip pursing over the tea cups when The Ungrateful Granddaughter rejected it in favour of some synthetic lace number bought from a shop. The Blair sisters’ outrage was assuaged only slightly when The Unwanted Wedding Dress won first place in the craft section of the village’s flower and vegetable show.

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The tempting, colourful shelves of Knit With Attitude.

I thought of Dolly when Erika Knight’s new book, Crochet Workshop: Learn How to Crochet with 20 Inspiring Projects dropped through my door. Though I’m a keen knitter (thank you, Barbara), I’ve never mastered crochet. Along with the usual blankets, cushions and mittens, Erika’s projects include more unusual things such as bejewelled brooches, a laptop cover, a rag rug and a dog bed. It’s a very pretty book. I would say that. It’s shot by the wonderful Yuki Sugiura, who took the pictures for Gifts from the Garden and is also one of the most elegant people I’ve ever met.

The book has clear, detailed instructions for a novice like me, but I like to learn things in company if I can. My friend May Linn Bang, a fiendish Norwegian knitter, recently opened a gorgeous wool shop in Stoke Newington called Knit With Attitude. On her beautiful shelves you will find yarns of every imaginable shade and substance: lambs’ wool of course, but also alpaca, llama, bamboo, silk, hemp and milk fibre, and all carefully sourced to be eco-friendly and sustainable (this is Stoke Newington, after all).

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Every month, Maya hosts Stoke Knittington in the shop, an evening to get together with fellow knitters and crocheters to make things over a glass or two of wine, bowls of crisps and lots of local gossip. I won’t be crocheting a surprise wedding dress anytime soon, but by the end of the evening I’d just about mastered a double crochet stich without bursting into tears or flames. I think Auntie Doily would have approved.

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Maya knits.

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Stoke Knittington nights.

Stoke Knittington meets on the second Thursday of the month, 6pm. Suggested donation, £3. 10% off yarns bought on the evening. Yarns also available mail order.

Knit With Attitude shares its space with Of Cabbages and Kings, a great source of British arts, crafts and gifts.

127 Stoke Newington High Street
London N16 0PH

www.knitwithattitude.com

Happy Birthday, Sweetness



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It was Séan’s birthday last week. He insisted on making his own cake to take into the office. I’m fairly certain this is the first cake he’s baked in the 15 years we’ve been married. I did not help. It turned out brilliantly. I was slightly irked. I threatened to install the new router on the computer, fix the dodgy loo cistern and put a new blade on the lawnmower.
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The cake Séan made.

Of course, I did none of these things. They don’t sound much fun to be honest. Instead, for his birthday party yesterday, I made three cakes. That’ll teach him. Eighteen of us went to The Russett, a great café along the road from our house, for roast chicken and then piled back into our kitchen for crisps, cakes and prosecco.
I’ll blog the rest of the recipes over the next week or so, but I’m starting with the red velvet cake because this is the one the birthday boy requested. As it’s his birthday, I bent my usual house rules about using only seasonal fruit and veg. Don’t judge me (yeah, Nick).
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Marmalade and chocolate cake, red velvet cake and apple and cinnamon bundt cake.


Red Velvet Cake
I’ve made this cake loads of times, for birthday parties, engagement parties, bridal showers and just for the plain old love of the light sponge combined with the tangy cream cheese icing and mountain of fruit. It’s very easy, very pretty and is always a big hit. I was once stopped in the street by a woman I didn’t know who’d had a slice at a friend’s party to say it was the best cake she’d ever tasted. Sweet.
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Leo, being patient.

For the cake:
300g plain flour, sifted 2tbsp cocoa, plus a bit more for dusting the tins 1 tsp baking powder 1tsp bicarbonate of soda ½ tsp salt 250ml buttermilk 1 tbsp red food colouring 1 tsp cider vinegar 1 tsp vanilla extract 320g caster sugar 120g unsalted butter, softened, plus a bit more for greasing the tins 2 large eggs


For the icing:
110g unsalted butter, softened 500g full-fat cream cheese, room temperature 1 tsp vanilla extract 300g icing sugar, sifted A couple of punnets of raspberries A couple of punnets of blueberries

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas mark 4. Lightly butter two 23cm springform cake tins and dust them with cocoa powder.
Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt into a medium-sized bowl. I like to sift everything twice so all the ingredients are well blended.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, food colouring, vinegar and vanilla. It will be the most beautiful colour.
Using a stand mixer, beat together the butter and sugar. Don’t expect it to become light and fluffy, but it should be well blended. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in a quarter of the dry ingredients followed by a third of the buttermilk mixture. Repeat until all of the ingredients are incorporated, ending with the final quarter of the dry ingredients (dry, wet, dry, wet, dry, wet, dry).
Divide the batter between the prepared cake tins and bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cakes comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool in the tins, on a rack, for 10 minutes. Turn out of the tins and cool completely.
To make the icing, beat the butter in a stand mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in the cream cheese a little at a time until everything is very well blended. Beat in the vanilla. Beat in the icing sugar until everything is smooth.
When the cakes are completely cool, place one cake on a plate, spread some of the icing on top and arrange a generous layer of raspberries and blueberries over it, pressing lightly so they stick to the icing. Place the second cake on top and cover the whole thing with the remaining icing. Top the cake with the rest of the fruit.
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A slice of red velvet.

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Not much left …

There’s Something About Turkey

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My default setting for dealing with leftovers is to throw them all together and cover them with pastry. Eat and repeat. Until January, when some law about dusting off the juicer and salad spinner comes into play.

Please excuse the less-than-stellar sunshine brightness of these photographs. They were taken in my parents’ kitchen which, like the kitchens in many Victorian houses, is in the far northern corner of the house. In the days before refrigeration, it gave the food a fighting chance of staying fresher for longer. Even now in this kitchen you can happily leave butter out between September and June without any risk of it being easily spreadable on anything other than the hottest of toast. It is the perfect kitchen for making pastry.

Until recently, the kitchen was even more crepuscular. A thicket of trees comes almost up to the house, shading the mossy path to the front door. The house is at the top of a valley and even the gentlest of breezes whips and licks around its walls in the most ferocious fashion. In a storm last spring, a huge tree was whipped and licked right into the kitchen wall.

Tree for Debora

My parents, who were in another part of the house at the time, didn’t notice. They were alerted by the postman who came to the back door rather than the front and explained his usual route was barred by several tons of unruly tree. It took my brother and nephew a whole day to clear a path to the house, then a gang of men with proper machinery arrived and, over several days, transformed the tree into neat logs and mountains of chippings.

So I suppose what I’m saying is sorry about the pictures but it could have been a whole lot worse.

Turkey Pot Pie

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Don’t be put off by the long list of ingredients for the pie. At Christmas, I usually have all of this stuff kicking around in the kitchen and I suspect you may do too. If you’re missing anything, don’t worry. Just add a bit more of something else. Essentially, it’s leftovers in a sauce with pastry over the top. Adjust any of these ingredients depending on what you have – if you have any leftover ham, that would certainly be good. The only important thing about making this pie is that you make it without having to go to the shops. That’s the best seasoning of all.

A large knob of butter
1 large onion, diced
1 bay leaf
A couple of sprigs of thyme, plus more for seasoning later
1 large parsnip or 2 small, cut into 1cm dice*
2 carrots, cut into 1cm dice*
1 celery stick, diced (optional)
250g chestnut mushrooms, halved, or quartered if large
2 garlic cloves, diced
1 rounded tbsp plain flour, plus more for dusting
About 700ml chicken or turkey stock, or leftover gravy if you have it, hot
100ml white wine
Leftover cooked turkey, skinned, and cut or shredded into large chunks
1 bunch spring onions, trimmed and cut into 1cm pieces
A couple of handfuls of frozen petits pois
2-3tbsp crème fraîche or double cream
1 tbsp Dijon mustard, wholegrain or plain
500g ready-roll, all-butter puff pastry or shortcrust pastry
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten with a little water

*You can use leftover roasted carrots and/or parsnips if you have them. Leave them whole and add them towards the end with the turkey.

Melt the butter over a low heat and add the onions, a pinch of salt, bay leaf and a couple of sprigs of thyme (on the branch). Sauté gently, stirring from time to time, until the onion is soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the parsnip, carrot (unless using roasted ones, add these later) and celery if using and sauté for a further 5 minutes until slightly softened. Turn the heat up and add the mushrooms and another pinch of salt. Sauté, stirring from time to time, until the mushrooms have given up their moisture and started to brown slightly. Add the garlic and stir for a minute. Sprinkle over the flour and stir for a couple of minutes. Add a ladleful of the hot stock or gravy and stir, scraping up any bits which have stuck to the bottom of the pan, then add the rest of the hot stock or gravy along with the wine. Bring to a simmer and let it all bubble away for 5 minutes until the sauce is thickened slightly.

Add the spring onions, peas and turkey (and roasted veg if using). Remove from the heat. Stir in the crème fraiche and mustard. Stir in about a tablespoonful of fresh thyme leaves, removed from the stalk and roughly chopped. If you have any parsley, chives, tarragon or chervil kicking around, you could also add a sprinkling of these, either alone or in combination. Season with salt and pepper. Cool.

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6. Either leave the turkey mixture in the pan you cooked it in, so long as it’s ovenproof, or pour it into an ovenproof dish.

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Dust the work surface with a little flour and roll out the pastry so it’s large enough to cover the surface of the ovenproof casserole or dish with about 5cm to spare. Brush the edge of the dish with a little of the egg wash, drape over the pastry, crimp it to the edges and trim. You want an overhang of about 2cm. Brush the top with egg wash, sprinkle on some salt, pepper and thyme leaves. Place on a baking sheet and cook for about 30-35 minutes, until the filling is bubbling hot and the pastry is golden.

Don we now our gay apparel. Or not.

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My nephew Angus with Barney Candy Striper.

Last Thursday was one of my favourite days of the year: Stoke Newington dog walkers’ Christmas party. The morning when a few dozen people and dogs gather by the ponds in Clissold Park at our normal dog-walking hour of nine-ish, and – for one day only – our paper cups are filled with mulled wine rather than coffee. Christmas cake and mince pies and biscuits and brownies are scattered across the picnic table in a haphazard selection of foil and Tupperware. I always bring my chorizo sausage rolls. I get up early to make them so they’re still warm. I reckon that should stand me in good stead with Santa and the Baby Jesus.

Barney even had a special outfit. I made it for our Church Street Christmas carols and mulled wine evening last week. There was a Most Festive Dog competition and I hoped dressing him up as a parcel would distract from his eternally-serious terrier face. It didn’t. He was trounced by his pal Roxie, a smiley Staffie who in the summer won Most Regal Dog (headscarf, pearls, tiara) at our Jubilee street party. We now call her Roxie Two Time and she may be the most famous dog in Stoke Newington, possibly the world.

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Roxie and Willie, in Jubilee finery.

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Roxie, Most Festive Dog.

So being a thrifty sort who believes firmly in cost per wear, I thought Barney could don his splendid bit of doggy couture for the dog walkers’ party. (Aside: More correctly, haute glueture as it is, I believe, a fine example of all the good things that can happen when you bring together felt, ribbon and glue gun.) He wore it for approximately 30 seconds before I had to admit that given the dripping, sloshing, gushing rain it would only weigh him down in the inevitable flood and he would be swept away to Finsbury Park and beyond. So he went nude, which is his favourite state.

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Pah! Rain.

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Stoicism, N16.

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Dorie and Taz.

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Karen’s homemade chocolates

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I always take a batch of Doggie Breath Bones too.

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Intrepid Lexie.

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Barney, nude.

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Barney, with Nero, a slightly larger dog.

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Composition: Damp leaves, damp dog.

Kipper pâté


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When I was about six, I lived in a house where the kitchen had wooden saloon doors which swung out into the dining room. As I spent most Saturday afternoons watching cowboy films, I thought this was brilliant. It also allowed for a perfect ‘ta-daaaah!’ moment when I brought something out to the table. It’s hardly surprising I learned to love cooking early.

In that little kitchen, I performed my first experiments, mostly drawn from the pages of a free Be-Ro recipe booklet – rock cakes, fairy cakes, Victoria Sponge – the sugary, buttery, floury triumvirate of the 70s tea.

The first savoury dish I ever remember making was tuna fish pâté. I don’t recall there being any cookbooks in that house, other than the free pamphlet sort, so the recipe probably came from the back of the tuna tin.

It went something like this: Drain the tin of tuna then pound it together with half its weight in softened butter and season with black pepper and a little lemon juice (from a squeezy Jif plastic lemon, of course). Spoon into a bowl and arrange on a plate with some Jacob’s crackers. Leap through the saloon doors and serve to your flame-haired mum and flame-haired neighbour Bernice, who are probably drinking sherry and listening to Glen Campbell. They will try very hard to look pleased and not get too many buttery stains on their suede trouser suits as Glen trills, ‘And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time…’ for the third time that afternoon.

I was thinking about my early kitchen experiments the other day when The Handpicked Collection sent me some oak-smoked kippers. I do a little consultancy work for them and they wanted me to try a few of the things from their new Foodstore Collection. I adore kippers for breakfast with a poached egg, but I also thought it might be time to revisit another 70s dinner party classic, kipper pâté. (Taaa-daaah! Door swing.)

Now if you, like me, love kippers but are sometimes put off cooking them because of the lingering smell, here are my top tips. For recipes like this one, ‘cook’ the fish in boiling water in a jug which dramatically reduces the whiffy-ness.

Of course, for breakfast kippers, you’ll want to brush them with melted butter, grind some black pepper on them and grill them. This is much more smelly but infinitely more delicious if you want to eat the kippers as they are. In this case, remove all of the fishy remnants, the bones and heads, from the house as soon as possible. Do not read the paper, do not finish the crossword, do not check your emails. Bag up all of the bits and put them in the outside bin. Dump the grill pan in a bowl of soapy water. Put a small pan of water on the stove with some chopped up lemon or orange, a cinnamon stick, some cloves, star anise – raid the spice drawer for anything which smells delicious, essentially – and let it bubble away for a bit. You might also consider making a cake. This is the best case scenario. You’ve had kippers for breakfast, your house smells delicious and you have cake for later. Or right now. As a reward for all of that hasty housekeeping.

Kipper pâté

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1 pair of kippers, about 600g (which will produce about 350g flaked fish)
300g unsalted butter, cut into cubes and softened
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
Juice of half a lemon
A bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the kippers heads down in a large jug and fill up with water from the kettle so that they are completely submerged, bar the tails. Leave them for 10 minutes and discard the water. (Fill the jug with soapy water.)

When the kippers have cooled down a little, remove the heads and bones. It will take a little while to pick out as many of the tiny bones as you can, but that’s what Radio 4 plays are made for.

Put the flaked fish into a food processor with 200g of the butter, the cayenne pepper and lemon juice and pulse until fairly smooth. Taste and season with salt and pepper (you may not need much, or any, salt as the kippers are already quite salty). Spoon into a pot or jar.

Melt the remaining butter in a small pan and let it cool slightly. Carefully pour into a small jug, trying your hardest to leave as much of the cloudy milk solids in the bottom of the pan as possible. Place the bay leaf in the middle of the pâté and pour the butter over the top. Cover and refrigerate until the butter is set. It’s even better the next day and will keep for about 4-5 days in the fridge if covered tightly with cling film or foil. Serve with hot toast. Or Jacob’s crackers. Taaa-daaah.