I recently took part in a fun Twitter challenge. Jenny Linford (@jennylinford) invited her followers every day for a week to name their seven favourite cookbooks. As well as making my choices, which wasn’t easy, I so enjoyed browsing the hashtag #7favouritecookbooks. Of course many of the books mentioned were my own favourites too while some I’d heard about but never owned (and now want to!) and some I’d never come across but now want to explore. The books in my selection were well used by me, obviously, and in several cases constituted just one example of work by my favourite cookery writers like Delia Smith and Diana Henry.
Recently for friends I made the roasted vegetable couscous dish in Delia’s Summer Collection, one of my seven choices. They all remarked how the dish had stood the test of time and that it reminded them what an excellent book it is. We agreed on what an impact it had had and how it had changed the way we cooked: suddenly we were needing fresh coriander and limes all the time and as for roasting vegetables as an alternative to boiling or frying them, this was a revelation.
I make this type of roasted ratatouille all the time now, sometimes with the harissa dressing and couscous, but mostly to serve with roasted or barbecued meat. Leftovers are delicious warm or cold with a dollop of hummus. This summer I’ve been making a similar dish which particularly complements fish, but also goes well with meat; it’s the Sicilian caponata. The authentic way of making it is to fry each vegetable separately but the other day I thought I’d try roasting them all together in the same way I’d do the roasted ratatouille; this seemed to me to be the ideal Aga way. Only the tomatoes are prepared separately and then added at the end.
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced (save the frondy tops)
2-3 large, ripe tomatoes (I used plum; you could use tinned if you don’t have any fresh ones)
1/2 glass red wine
2 tbsps red wine vinegar
1 tsp sugar
Handful of green olives
2 tbsps capers
Basil leaves (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the aubergine, onion, garlic, peppers and fennel in the small Aga roasting tin
Season and stir in about 3 tbsps of olive oil, coating everything
Slide the tin onto the top set of runners in the roasting oven and roast for 30 to 40 minutes until the vegetables are soft and slightly charred in places
Meanwhile put the tomatoes in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. Leave for a couple of minutes, then drain under cold water and peel off the skins and deseed. Chop the flesh
Put the wine, wine vinegar and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to the boil on the simmering plate. Add the chopped tomato and cook in the simmering oven until the mixture has reduced to a thick sauce. Season and stir it into the cooked vegetables.
Leave to cool to room temperature before mixing in the olives, capers and the basil or fennel fronds
My plan for today was to tell you about the most delicious veal ragù I’d made but I’m afraid it was disappointing and I can’t quite work out what went wrong. I guess you win some and you lose some. I won’t give up though and when I get it right, I will let you know. Meanwhile, there’s my trusty old favourite ragù which I wrote about here.
So instead I want to tell you about an apple cake recipe I’ve recently fallen in love with. Forgive me for giving you another apple cake recipe but this one is too good to ignore. You probably aren’t surprised though, because I believe I’ve mentioned in previous posts how much I love apple cake.
There’s something about the slightly caramel flavour of this one that reminds me of the plum torte I wrote about here; the soft brown sugar is probably responsible. I came across the recipe on the Spectator website.
Spiced Apple Cake
1 large cooking apple
1 eating apple
200g unsalted butter, melted (by placing it in a bowl on top of the Aga at the back)
225g light brown sugar
225g self-raising flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp caster sugar
(Pre-heat conventional oven to 160ºC)
Lightly grease and line a 9″/23cm cake tin with bake-o-glide
Place the brown sugar, flour, baking powder, cinnamon and nutmeg in a large bowl and rub between your fingers to get rid of any lumps in the sugar
Briefly whisk the eggs in a small bowl using a fork and then add them and the melted butter to the dry ingredients, quickly mixing the whole lot together with a spatula
Peel and core the apples and cut each into 12 wedges
Pour three quarters of the mixture into your prepared tin and arrange the apple slices in a circle, alternating cooking and eating apples and starting from the outside. Place any spare segments in the centre of the circle
Spoon the rest of the mixture into the middle of the cake and don’t try to spread it to the sides. Sprinkle over the caster sugar
Bake in the baking oven, or whichever oven you use for cakes, for about 50 minutes until the top is golden brown and taught. Leave in the tin to cool for 10 minutes
Can be served warm or cold. I love serving any apple cake with whipped cream, but it’s up to you.
Baked pasta is comfort food and this particular baked pasta dish is more comforting than most. It is no less delicious and perfectly flavoured than I would expect from Simon Hopkinson. I found the recipe on the BBC website. I seem to remember watching him make it in his TV series, “The Good Cook”, a few years ago. I never got around to buying the accompanying book of the same name but am seriously considering doing so now.
This is so simple to make; simple recipes often are the best. I never thought I’d be regularly cooking recipes for only two people but the truth is it’s often just my husband and I at the kitchen table these days, and if my elderly mother-in-law isn’t up to cooking, there’s always enough to take a small portion of whatever we’re having downstairs to her. Don’t look at the quantity of pasta and worry that it’s not enough; I promise you it is. This is a filling dish. It’s also good for you: I recently read that mushrooms, especially porcini, are the best food source of two anti-ageing antioxidants. So that’s a bonus.
Bring the milk up to simmering point in a pan on the simmering plate
Add the porcini mushrooms and remove from the heat
After 10 minutes or so drain the milk through a sieve into a bowl, pressing out as much liquid from the mushrooms as you can
Melt the butter in a clean saucepan on the simmering plate. Add the flour and stir for a couple of minutes with a wooden spoon until you have a smooth roux
Pour in the porcini flavoured milk in one go and whisk vigorously until smooth and starting to thicken. Season, cover and place in the simmering oven for at least 10 minutes (can be longer: as ever where the simmering oven is concerned, it will come to no harm) while you cook the pappardelle according to the packet instructions until it’s al dente. (I bring a large pan of water to a boil on the boiling plate and add salt before adding the pasta.)
Drain the pasta and then in a large bowl mix it with the porcini, pancetta and sauce. Tip this into a lightly buttered oven-proof dish and sprinkle over the parmesan
Place in the middle of the Aga roasting oven for about 25 minutes until it’s bubbling and golden brown
Serve with a green salad and you might want some extra cheese too
The first lemon and ricotta cake I made was not a success. It was a Jamie Oliver recipe and didn’t really work, producing a rather dense cake. It may of course be entirely my fault and I might try it again one day. On the other hand, I’m not sure why I’d bother because yesterday I made a Diana Henry version from her book Simple and it was light and moist and delicious.
This cake works as an afternoon tea cake but also as a dessert served perhaps with some berries and crème fraîche or whipped cream. It’s best eaten slightly warm. It’s the ricotta that makes the cake moist but it also means it doesn’t keep that well. Don’t do what I did and make it on a day when hardly anyone’s around to share it with you because it really is best eaten on the day it’s made. If you do have some left, wrap it in clingfilm and refrigerate it. This is what I did and the next day I gave it a blast (a minute or two at high heat) in the microwave to warm it up a little and it freshened up beautifully. I was thrilled when our Italian friend, who is very particular about the food of his homeland and whose late wife was the most wonderful cook, gave it his approval.
Lemon and Ricotta Cake
Serves 8 (depending on hunger/greed)
You will need a 20cm springform tin, lightly greased and base-lined (with bake-o-glide)
175g unsalted butter, softened
175g golden caster sugar
Finely grated zest of 4 unwaxed lemons and the juice of 3
3 large eggs, separated
250g fresh ricotta, drained in a sieve
100g self-raising flour, sifted
25g ground almonds
1 tsp baking powder
Icing sugar to serve
Beat the butter and sugar together in an electric mixer until light and fluffy
Lightly beat the egg yolks with a fork and gradually add them, beating well after each addition
Stir the lemon zest and drained ricotta into the batter
Whisk the egg whites until they form medium peaks
Stir the lemon juice into the batter, then fold in the flour, almonds and baking powder
Fold two big spoonfuls of the egg whites into the batter to loosen it, then fold in the rest
Scrape the batter into the prepared tin
Put it in the baking oven and bake for 45-50 minutes; a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake should come out clean once it’s cooked
Leave to cool in the tin for 10 minutes or so, then remove the springform ring and let it continue to cool, although as I mentioned above it’s delicious served slightly warm
We’re slowly adjusting to being empty nesters. Mind you, university terms are not that long and our youngest will be home for the Christmas holidays in just a few weeks. One thing I’m struggling with though, is reducing the amount of food I buy: I keep overestimating how much we’ll need. I imagine that just when I’ve got it right, it will be time to step up the quantities again for the family returning home for Christmas. And so it is that yesterday I suddenly remembered the San Marzano plum tomatoes I’d bought and not used. I don’t keep tomatoes in the fridge because they lose their flavour. This means they need to be used within a few days of purchase. My tomatoes were fine but starting to feel a bit squidgy; it was time to make a pasta sauce. Pasta with a really good homemade tomato sauce is one of my favourite dishes to eat. We probably had it at least once a week when my children were growing up and I still make it often. I have tried lots of different recipes over the years. The one I probably make the most is this one by Felicity Cloake. But sometimes I just make it up as I go along according to what I have in the cupboard and yesterday I decided to make a sauce using roast tomatoes, based on my friend Kate Percy’s from her book Go Faster Food (you don’t have to be an endurance athlete to enjoy her recipes: I’m certainly not one). Roasting tomatoes is a great way to use them up when they’re past their best and it also intensifies the flavour of disappointingly insipid ones.
3 x San Marzano tomatoes (or other plum tomatoes)
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Pinch chilli flakes (optional)
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1 bay leaf
Glug of red wine vinegar
½ tsp dried basil (or a couple of stalks of fresh basil if you have it)
250g spaghetti or pasta of your choice
(Pre-heat conventional (fan) oven to 140ºC or 170º if you’re in a hurry)
Place the tomatoes on a baking tray lined with bake-o-glide
Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper
Sprinkle lightly with sugar
Place in the simmering oven for 3-4 hours until shrivelled and the aroma is intense
Tip the roasted tomatoes and all the residual juices from the tray into a saucepan or small casserole
Squash the tomatoes down a bit with a wooden spoon, add the passata, garlic, bay leaf, chilli flakes, a little more olive oil, red wine vinegar and basil
Bring to simmering point on the simmering plate and transfer to the simmering oven for an hour or two for the flavours to meld and the sauce to thicken. You can leave it uncovered if you want it to thicken in less time than that
(Or simmer covered on a conventional hob at low temperature for half an hour to an hour, removing the lid towards the end if you feel it’s not thick enough)
Meanwhile cook the spaghetti until it’s al dente
Check the sauce for seasoning and toss the drained pasta in it
Serve with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and some freshly grated parmesan