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.

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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.

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.

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.

Nigel Slater’s Moroccan spiced lamb shanks with aubergine

lamb-shank-tagineVery bland, this recipe. I had a couple of lamb shanks in the fridge this afternoon and couldn’t find my favourite tajine recipe, so I opted for good old Nigel Slater. Slater rarely lets us down, but tonight he was found wanting in the flavour stakes. His tajine called for onions, garlic, cinnamon and a couple of teaspoons of harissa paste. It needed more flavours, more oomph. I added a good heap of ras el hanout, which I think is added at the end of cooking, much like garam masala; but I fear it may have lost its potency in the years since we bought it in a Marrakech market … Next time I’ll turn to Claudia Roden and her New Book of Middle Eastern Food.

lemon-and-corianderOn the upside, the couscous was zingy: I mixed 7 ounces of it with 250ml of hot water, then stirred in a glug of olive oil, a generous handful of coriander,  salt, pepper and the juice of a whole lemon.

[This post was brought to you by Lorelei and the Boat Train by the Pogues]

Asparagus, parma ham and (hard) boiled egg; pears and Poire William

asparagus-and-parma-hamLast night, boutique contract caterers Lexington Catering celebrated being named a Sunday Times top small company to work for 2009 and a Best Company of 2009 by throwing a party on the 33rd floor of Broadgate Tower. After a coupel of hours of champagne, canapes and stunning views of Legoland-London below, guests were sent on their way with a generous handful of Isle of Wight farmer, Ben Brown’s asparagus.

asparagus-cookingTonight, we decided to throw together an asparagus, parma ham, soft boiled egg and parmesan salad, with a hunk of soda farl. Cliched as it may sound, I realised I didn’t know how to boil an egg, at least not a perfectly gooey, soft boiled egg that would ooze over the asparagus like sunshine at dawn. Queue St Delia. Her How to Cook Book One explained that simmering an egg for one minute, then taking it off the heat, covering the pan and leaving for 6 minutes, would guarantee a “soft, fairly liquid yolk and a white that is just set but still quite wobbly”.

Uh-huh.  I followed the saint, but the yolks ended up pretty much hard boiled. Boo. Next time, I think four or five minutes of resting time will suffice. Still, the dish was a tasty treat, and the asparagus discernibly better than the twiggy stalks from the supermarket that we normally endure.

pearsWhile I tried in vain to make a hard-boiled egg look runny for the camera, Susie grabbed our copy of Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Puddings and whipped up sliced pears steeped in Poire William, chilled and sprinkled with toasted almonds – part of our crusade to use up our fruit and veg before it goes off. Delicious.

[This blog was brought to you by Crimewatch with the volume turned down and the faint noise of the water board reparing a pipe outside.]

Madhur Jaffrey’s Kashmiri red lamb stew – and a trip back to school

michael-coaker-classSusie’s at work again. I’m therefore taking the opportunity to dig out Madhur jaffrey’s Indian Cookery and cook an Indian dinner again, while she battles through the crowds of grown men running around London dressed as rhinos, bananas and deep-sea divers to get home. Sometimes I don’t get her determination to drive to work in King’s Cross when she has a Sunday shift. She points out that the trains run up into Victoria less frequently than the rest of the week; but surely that’s just a matter of checking the timetable online? Hey ho, it’s her business; all I’m saying is, I wouldn’t fancy driving across London twice on the day of the London Marathon.

I’m doing Madhur Jaffrey’s Kashmiri red lamb stew. It’s got no onions in it, which will please Susie. Interestingly, there’s also no cumin, coriander or turmeric – this hinges around cloves, cinnamon, paprika, cayenne, dried ginger and ground fennel seeds, all of which is bound together with most of a pint of natural yoghurt. (Not to self: what is asafetida and where can I buy it? Wikipedia lists devil’s dung, stinking gum among its nicknames …)

While I was stirring the meat and reducing the yoghurt, I was thinking about a fantastic, life-affirming trip I took to a school in Northolt on Friday morning. I was invited along by Michael Coaker (formerly Executuve chef at the Intercontinental, Park Lane and now a senior lecturer at Thames Valley University) to watch him deliver a Chefs Adopt a School session to some teens with learning difficulties. The charitable project was set up by a cheffing organisation called the Academy of Culinary Arts to introduce kids to the pleasures of eating real, nutritious food. Chefs including the likes of Brian Turner and the Roux family teach kids basic lessons about the food we eat and the sensations they experience when they taste (bitter, sweet …) before teaching them a simple recipe to try themselves.

In Northolt, the kids were spellbound by Michael’s lesson from the second they arrived in the classroom. He had them smelling Coriander, basil and parsley, and forking the flesh from pomegranetes, before showing them how to make tomato, mozzarella and pesto puff pastry tarts and cheese straws (above). And then they were off: flour was sprinkled, pastry rolled, shapes cut and cheese and tomato sliced. I guess what the kids were doing was the same as what I’m doing with this blog: rolling their sleeves up, having some fun, becoming more comfortable around ingredients and learning along the way. If the challenge of twisting raw pastry into spirals had the kids in hysterics, the moment when their tarts came out of the oven and were plated up had them beaming like Cheshire cats. The whole session was fantastic. I wish I could add some photos I took of the class, but I haven’t got clearance from the teacher yet.

When I got home, I spent a few minutes leafing through a book of recipes by Alain Ducasse. I must admit, his endless lists of foie gras, truffle and caviar left me a little cold after having seen how much pleasure had been achieved with a few tomatoes, a ball of mozzarella and a wodge of puff pastry.

[I wrote this post listening to the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and watching the helipcopters over the London Marathon]