Croeso i Cymru: learning to cook my mum’s Welsh cakes

Welsh cakes coolingOne of my fondest childhood food memories is of eating freshly baked Welsh cakes straight from the cooling rack, after my mum had made up a fresh batch. Her Welsh cakes are always delicious, but especially so, when still warm from the pan. Today, mum taught me how to make them myself – a major rite of passage, in Lewis family terms.

  • Ingredients:
  • 8oz self-raising flour
  • 2oz margarine
  • 2oz lard
  • 4oz castor sugar
  • 2oz currants
  • 1tsp mixed spice
  • 1/3tsp salt
  • 1 egg
  • Splash milk.

First, slice the lard and margarine into small cubes and rub it into the flour. A light touch is required, to achieve a mixture with the consistency of fine breadcrumbs. Next, add the sugar, currants, mixed spice and salt and mix in well. Beat the egg, stir it into the mix with a fork, then use your hands to continue mixing, once the egg has soaked in. The mixture should reach the consistency of short patry. If it is too dry to form a ball, add just a dribble of milk.

On a surface dusted with flour, form the pastry into a flat circle, then roll out until it is a half-centimetre thick. Use a cake cutter to cut out individual rounds. Take a strip of the lard’s wrapping paper and smear a tiny amount of lard around a heavy pan set on a medium heat. Add the cakes and adjust heat so you can hear a very quiet sizzle.

Three minutes on each side should suffice. Once cooked, the cakes will be a rich gold on both sides. Et voila!

See below for the various stages of the process.

Marcella Hazan’s Ragu Bolognese

celery and carrotsSunday’s supper was Marcella Hazan’s Ragu Bolognese from Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking. Since Susie had another Sunday shift, I was free to prepare it early in the afternoon to the strains of 5 Live’s football commentary. I know I should get out more, enjoy the sun, maybe even go for a walk, on Sundays; but I find I’m at my most relaxed at the moment, when I’m in my basement kitchen chopping vegetables and generally pottering about. Here are a few things I learnt from making this rich, comforting and delicious dish:

  • Interestingly, there was no garlic in it.
  • The recipe called for far more chopped carrots and celery than I ever would have imagined.
  • Adding 250ml of full-fat milk realy softened the meat and sweetened the dish.
  • White wine, not read, was added.
  • In total, I reckon it cooked for four hours, on the lowest heat I could manage without the gas going out.
  • Next time I shall cut the carrots and celery finer – they looked chunky and unappealing (hence the choice of an ingredient pic above!)
  • I think it could also stand more nutmeg than Marcella recommends.

Should life be a constant meat feast?

nasi lemakLooking back over my last five posts, I see that I’ve reported on eating steak, lamb chops and lamb shanks. This is pretty much in line with global statistics. According to the Rough Guide to Food:

As a species, we are consuming more meat than ever before: world per capita meat consumption has doubled since the 1960s and, on current projections, by 2050 it will have doubled again.

Of course, much of this is down to the increasing affluence in the developing nations. But the fact remains, that in the West we eat far more meat than we need to. I used to spend half of every year in Southeast Asia with work. Time in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia taught me that tasty meals need not be based on the meat and two veg formula; and that a little meat can go a long way. Meals like Malaysia’s nasi lemak use meat as an accompaniment rather than as a centrepiece, an I think this is a really healthy attitude. Nasi lemak comprises a scoop of white rice cooked in coconut milk, to which is added ikan bilis (small, dried anchovies), roasted peanuts, fried or hard-boiled egg, sambal sauce, slices of cucumber and – perhaps – a small chicken wing or leg, or a small piece of fish. In Indonesia, I often enjoyed plates of rice which drew the majority of their protein count from nuts and tempeh (deep-fried slices of a cake made from fermented soy bean).

It’s a telling fact that, until I spent time in Southeast Asia, I never enjoyed eating meat off the bone. At Sunday lunch I would always ask or breast, not leg or wing. More fool me: not only is the darker chicken meat tastier than breast, but how spoilt I was to think that eating off the bone was somehow unsavoury or inconvenient. In many parts of Southeast Asia, people don;t have the luxury of passing up food on the bone.

In summary, a balanced diet need not revolve around a huge chunk of meat; a little meat can augment a varied dish; and bones are not evil. I must strengthen my resolve to cut down my meat intake.

[This post was brought to you by the excellent – and ad-free BBC coverage of the Spanish Grand Prix]

Saint or sinner? Giving Delia Smith’s cheats a go

Delia's potato & onionDelia’s How to Cheat at Cooking received a mixed press when it was released last year. The book presented easy-to-cook recipes that utilised specific products from named manufacturers and supermarkets. Some welcomed her recognition that many of us want to eat tasty, home-cooked food but simply donlt have the time. Others accused her of dumbing down and selling out.

Last night, Susie cooked Delia’s oven-sautéed  potatoes with red onion, garlic and rosemary, which we ate with steak and fried mushrooms. Says Delia:

A pack of frozen spuds becomes really classy with the treatment; the finishing flourish is a sprinkling of rosemary flaked seas salt.

The spuds in question here are McCain frozen crispy slices; and the sea salt from Tesco. I have to report that the potatoes were excellent: light and floury body inside a crisp skin with a good bite. Susie drizzled truffle oil over the steak (a tip from Serge at Numide). Game on.

Lamb chops, Jersey Royals, asparagus and strawberries

Jersey RoyalsSeasonality was the byword on Friday night: a celebration of Springtime in the British Isles. There’s something rotten in the UK at the moment. Before I sat down to write this post, I heard one politician after another desperately trying to defend their vast expenses claims; as I write, a roomful of football pundits are banging on about how Drogba’s post-match histrionics were somehow justifiable. Our morals might be shot; but at least we can still grow great produce and rear magnificent livestock.

The kidney-shaped Jerseys came clothed in shreds of skin, like gold leaf flaking off a  Buddha effigy in a Bangkok temple. Their feintly nutty taste was sensational, and raised up a notch by the adition of a knob of salty butter.  I parboiled the asparagus in water, then gave them a quick fry with butter. I grilled the lamb, and immediately wished I hadn’t. Nigel Slater’s Appetite has a finger-licking recipe for lamb with anchovies, garlic and rosemary, which I did consider; but then I decided I didn’t want the smack in the face of his recipe to oveshadow the subtle flavours of the potatoes and asparagus. Grilling failed to give the lamb chops that charred colour and caramelised sweetness I love. Back to the frying pan next time.

Susie likes to steep sliced strawberries in balsamic vinegar. I’m not against this, but these strawberries were so sweet, so succulent, that nothing else was needed. They were delicious and juicy.

[This post was brought to you by Henry Winter speaking Chelsea sense]

Elizabeth David and the cook book as historical document

olivesgarlicCulinary aids they may ultimately be, but cook books can also can also reward readers who have no intention of attempting their recipes. They can offer well-written prose; evoke a time or place fondly remembered (the cook book as travelogue); and reflect the society and culture of the historical period when they were written.

This last aspect was at the forefront of my mind as I read the prefaces and introductions to the various editions published of Elizabeth David’s first book, a Book of Mediterranean Food, which was first published in 1950 by John Lehmann.

“The cooking of the Mediterranean shores”, the book’s introduction begins, “endowed with all the natural resources, the colour and flavour of the South, is a blend of tradition and brilliant improvisation. The Latin genius flashes from the kitchen pans … ‘it is not really an exaggeration’, wrote Marcel Boulestin, ‘to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking'”.

By the time she came to write the preface to the first Penguin edition of the book, in 1955, David admitted that when the book was first released, “almost every essential ingredient of good cooking was either rationed or unobtainable.” In other words, the book has been published as pure food escapism, as a culinary aide memoire for those individuals lucky enough to have toured the Mediterranean before the start of the Second World War. “Even if people could not very often make the dishes here described”, David wrote, “it was stimulating to think about them; to escape from the deadly boredom of queuing and the frustration of buying the weekly rations”.

For a generation of shoppers used to buying olive oil, olives, garlic, saffron and basil in their local supermarket, it’s amazing to read David exhorting cooks to make expeditions to Soho or “the region of Tottenham Court Road” for their tahina paste, stuffed vine leaves and mozzarella, as if these places were themselves foreign and far-flung.

The UK’s food culture had moved on apace by the time David penned her introduction to the 1988 edition of the book. Now, she pinpointed the “spirit of defiance” in which she had written her recipes – defiance at a system of rationing that had left “lemons, oranges and tomatoes as rare as diamonds, commodities such as olive oil, rice and imported pasta no more than exotic memories, and fresh fish something you stood in a queue for …”

Given all this, it’s easy to look back on Elizabeth David and her peers as early food activists, stirring up a demand for unusual ingredients that has spawned a ‘foods of the world’ aisle in every supermarket. I suspect David herself would be amused to have pointed out to her the direct lineage from her post-war writings to the shelves of miso soup, Thai paste and tajine spices  we can choose from today. Afterall, her intention was only to take “refuge from reality in writing down memories of the food I had cooked and eaten during my Mediterranean years”.

The enduring appeal of eating like a student

heinzZafferano, Alain Ducasse,  ras el hanout … Scanning some of my recent posts, I’m struck by just what  a faux gourmand I sound. My diet hasn’t always revolved around Michelin stars, champagne and black truffle – and still doesn’t. Back in the day, I liked nothing better than to mix and match a couple of tins and whack their combined contents on a mountain of rice.

Last night, I rolled back the years with a hefty bowl of tuna and baked-bean chilli on rice. As you would imagine, it doesn’t take the cheffing skills of an Escoffier to create this little beauty. You take one large tin of beans, one medium-sized tin of tuna (in spring oil) and stir in a massive shake of chilli powder (imagine you are talc-ing a fat man fresh out of the bath). Cook, then serve on a bed of boiled rice. Fantastic – you can have that one on me, Gordon.