Monday, 31 August 2009

Chocolate cake

It was a Sunday evening at the end of August and felt like summer was over. My housemates and I were slumped on sofas in need of something to perk us up. Chocolate cake! Bringer of happiness and lovely kitchen smells!

This is the most basic cake recipe based on twice as many ounces of flour, sugar and butter as eggs. I would normally think of food in terms of grammes and kilos but the formula for cakes is so much easier in ounces. It is worth using a good cocoa powder (don't even think about using drinking chocolate - this will result in bad things) and I borrowed a Green and Blacks one from my housemate.

Even though I made the cake itself with margerine I used butter in the icing because I think that the texture of butter is much more noticeable in the icing. Out of laziness I didn't cut greaseproof paper into the shape of the tins to line them but just placed a square of it over the tins and dolloped the mixture in. This resulted in the cakes being a pleasing flower shape and if I'm not planning on icing the sides of a cake (which I hardly ever do anyway) then I will carry on doing it this way.


6oz Butter
6oz Golden caster sugar
3 Eggs
4oz Self-raising flour
2oz Cocoa

Beat the butter briefly to soften it (don't put it in the microwave to melt it, I've done this and it gives the finished cake a funny texture) then beat in the sugar until its smooth. Add the eggs one by one with a bit of of the flour and cocoa mixture between each one. Properly you should fold the flour in so as not to lose the air created by all that beating but I just stirred it in and the cakes did not seem heavy.

Tear two squares of greaseproof paper, larger than the sandwich tins, and place them on top. Spoon the cake mixture into the middle and spread it out a bit but don't worry about making it reach the edge of the tins, the wobbly edges will be part of their charm.

Bake at 170 degrees for about 20 minutes. If you can't put both tins on the same shelf then swap them over halfway through.


I played this by ear so can't give exact quantities with any confidence but I beat about 75g of butter until it was soft and then added about 200g of icing sugar. At first it looks like this it far too much but keep beating and eventually it will yield to a smooth paste. Then I stirred in 50g of slightly cooled melted dark chocolate.

I know you should wait until cakes are cool before icing them but I couldn't wait and the warmth of the two layers hugging the icing caused it to begin to melt just a tiny bit which emphasised the generally gooey goodness. From now on I'm going to judge cakes according to the volume of 'ooh' they create. This one did well.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Bill's Produce Store, Lewes, East Sussex

Bill’s is a greengrocer’s, deli and café in the quaint town of Lewes – the only town with its own currency - that sells both locally grown produce and food made from it. I’d been there once before in winter and really enjoyed it, but sitting at an outside table by a wall covered in ivy in the August sun it was even better. I went with my mum and even though it was a weekday nearly all the tables were occupied when we arrived.

I had smoked mackerel, spinach, grilled tomato and poached eggs on toast which was fantastic. The mackerel was the best I'd had in ages, sweet and not too smoky, and the grilled tomatoes were intensely tomato-y and slightly charred. I meant to take a photo of it when it arrived couldn't resist diving into it first.

My mum had a plate of salads which included shaved fennel and sprouted seeds, Israeli cous cous and a sort of coleslaw with red cabbage. Most of the vegetables and fruit sold at Bill's are grown locally and all of these were really fresh and tasted strongly of themselves.

The bread that came with both these dishes was fantastic - toasted sourdough with mine and, if I remember rightly, olive bread for my mum.

I bought a loaf of sourdough in the shop afterwards and am keen to make things-on-toast: fried tomatoes, sardines, mushrooms, and maybe the smoked mackerel, cheese and cream on toast from Nigel Slater's 'Appetite' book.

The shop attached to the cafe was a greengrocers, Willy Wonka style: piles of vegetables in amazing colours (I particularly liked the yellow and orange beetroot), huges bunches of herbs and dried chillies hanging from the ceiling, and armfuls of wild-looking flowers.

As well as the sourdough I also bought a slice of sheep's cheese called Duddleswell that is sweet, nutty and almost crumbly. The two make a good combination.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Green pie

It is a familiar situation: I had decided to take food to work rather than buy it at the overpriced canteen, but it was getting late and I couldn't find anything in the house I would have wanted to eat the following lunchtime. All I could find was some eggs and salad, and although egg salad would do in an emergency, I wasn't feeling excited by it.

Then I remembered some spinach and peas in the freezer, and that with some flour and butter I could make pastry. Spinach and pea quiche it was, then.

I make fairly awful pasty. This doesn't seem very fair when my Mum makes some of the best pastry I've ever tasted. Maybe pastry-making ability skips a generation, like twins. So I crumbled the butter into the flour, trying to think light thoughts while I did it, then slowly mixed in some cold water.

While that rested in the fridge I put a handful of frozen peas and four spheres of frozen spinach into a pan with a lump of butter and put it over a low heat to warm through. Rather than rolling out the pastry I'd heard of people just pressing it out in the pan with their fingers until the bottom and sides were covered evenly. This was easier than it sounds, and more fun than struggling with a rolling pin!

Two beaten eggs were mixed into the pea and spinach mixture along with a teaspoon on pesto and a tablespoon of crumbled Lancashire cheese. This went into the pastry case and I intended to bake it for about forty minutes, but got distracted and eventually retrieved it after about an hour. Amazing it wasn't burned and I think the firmer texture made it better suited to being shaken about in a box on the way to work.

A slice of this, with some green salad and sun-dried tomatoes (halved cherry tomatoes, tossed in oil, in the oven on gas mark one for five hours) made a really satisfying lunch that was far better than anything on offer in the canteen. Next time I might not bother using any peas though as they didn't add much.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Aubergine purée and fried peppers

While looking through past posts I came across a terrible discovery: despite being named after them, aubergines have not featured once on this blog. Shock horror! I haven't eaten them all summer, with courgettes and broccoli taking over as vegetable of choice. Both of them have their charms, and I think broccoli is often underrated, but neither have the dark, sexy appeal or the versatility of the aubergine. This, of course, had to be swiftly remedied.

One quick shopping trip later I was ready to make aubergine purée/babaghanoush. I love this rough smoky purée as part of a mezze or stuffed into pitta with grilled lamb but today I wanted it to be the centre of attention, with some fried peppers on top for sweetness and colour.

I pricked the aubergine a few times to stop it exploding then left it under the grill for about 40 minutes, turning it every now and then, until it was charred and soft. Then I cut it in half, and scrapped the innards, seeds and all, into a sieve. Make sure you get the really dark flesh from next to the skin that has absorbed the taste of the charred skin, if you get a bit of skin as well that doesn’t matter. Roughly chop the flesh and leave it to drain for about 10 minutes.

At this point I sliced a red pepper and put it in a pan along with far too much olive oil, on a medium heat. Decant the strained aubergine goo into a bowl and beat with a fork until it's a fairly smooth paste. Add some oil to loosen it, and whatever seasonings appeal. I used a tiny clove of crushed garlic, a little salt and a squeeze of lemon, but sometimes add a pinch of chilli flakes or some tahini or yogurt as well. Tip the now soft and slightly charred peppers over the aubergine.

Good bread of some sort is essential with this; I had an olive fougasse (a flat bread from the south of France, slashed with a knife to give it several ‘arms’). If I was eating this with someone else I might serve some goats cheese or a nicely dressed salad with it. But for just me, eating it in the garden, it was perfect with a few plain leaves.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Algerian Coffee Stores Ltd

I have only recently discovered Soho as a place for food-related adventures. In the past few years I'd been there once or twice for so-so Chinese food and went to an insalubrious bar, cruelly lured in by the offer of a free shot which turned out to be Ribena.

I started cutting through Soho as a way of avoiding the hell that is the herds of aimless, ambling crowds on Oxford Street, but now go there to gaze in the windows of the Italian delis and sushi bars - window shopping for food.

On Friday, while I was gazing in shop windows at kinky accessories, reading menus posted on walls and adding to my mental lists of restaurants I want to visit I came across a little red shop that smelt strongly of roasting coffee beans. The Algerian Coffee Stores is a Aladdin's cave of all things hot-drink related: huge glass jars filled of dried flowers and herbs for tisanes, tiny Moka pots, wooden drawers with coffee beans roasted to different degrees and the prettiest tins of sweets you've ever seen. Most appealing of all was a large board listing all the different types of coffee and blends on offer.

I couldn't decide between the Lebanese blend (with cardamom) or the Arabic (with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom). The man behind the counter recommended the Arabic so I went for that one and he set about measuring out a mixture of dark and medium roast beans, grinding them and then adding the ground spices. Then to compound my love for the shop, after I had paid I was offered a dried fig dipped in chocolate to taste: I was completely seduced.

Despite the blend of dark and medium roast beans the coffee is much darker than what I'd been drinking before. The spices work really well, mingling with the aroma of the coffee to create a small and taste that is not quite like coffee or sweet spices something new, and more intriging. It's a coffee that I think is better suited to after-drinking than breakfast, and I can't wait to try it out alongside baklava. Even though six hours have passed since I made the coffee my kitchen still carries a faint scent of a Middle Eastern souk.

Algerian Coffee Stores Ltd, 52 Old Compton Street, London W1D 4BP