One of the most glorious food items that gets utterly ruined when people try to mass market it is Key Lime Pie. One of the biggest food faux pas is when people mistake or knowingly substitute your regular green limes for key limes, which are not the same thing at all. The key lime is a tiny thing, the size of a cherry, and looks like a yellowish-mottled kumquat. Its flavor is far less tart than its Hulkier cousin, too — instead it is sweet yet piquant, with none of the bitterness of a lemon. The pie made from it is designed especially to showcase this lovely citrus flavor, and is well worth making.
First, you’ll need to zest and squeeze 20 or so key limes. Use a plane zester and an old-fashioned glass squeezer upon which you can palm each half lime. I find myself giving it a quick press and then pinching the spent skin over the glass knob to finish it off. I also take my time, alternating with other chores; try to do them all at once and you’ll bugger up your wrist something chronic.
Make a graham cracker or biscuit crumb base. If you’re American this means zapping graham crackers in a food processor (or just buying it already crumbed); if you’re British it means doing the same with Digestive Biscuits. Mix with the melted butter and sugar, press into a tin, and bake for 5 minutes or so until it’s firmed up a bit.
Mix the zest in a bowl with the egg yolks and lime juice, then add the condensed milk. A tin of condensed milk out to be a pantry staple for emergencies. Be sure to use a spoon to scrape every last succulent, sugary drop of it from the tin rather than simply diving after it with your tongue.
You’ll have a luscious, pale custard. Pour this into the biscuit base, set the whole thing onto a baking sheet, and pop in the oven for 15 minutes until the heat has had a chance to work its magic on the eggs. It will still seem a bit too wobbly when you take it out, but that’s OK — the next step firms it up. Once it has cooled to room temperature, put some cling film over it and pop in the fridge for a couple of hours.
The finished pie will be diminutive in height, and a luxurious creamy color flecked with bits of pale green zest. Cut small slices; this baby’s rich.
If there’s any left, refrigerate until midnight, then sneak out of bed and polish it off.
Crust: 14 graham crackers or digestives, 1/3 cup sugar, 1/3 cup melted butter
Custard: ½ cup lime juice, two egg yolks, 1 14oz can condensed milk
Regular cake tin; moderate oven, cold fridge.
On a dark, blustery winter’s day when you burst into the warm house after school, grabbing off your satchel and kicking off your boots in the hallway with a trickle of wet snot running to your lip, all you want is to feel like you’ve come home — and the best way to do that is with a belly full of cake.
A traditional jelly roll is just such a cake. A long spiral of Génoise sponge, red jam and whipped cream, it practically oozes love, each slice a big, wet kiss.
The only real secret to success is in the fat-free batter, which gives the sponge just the right flexibility to stay curled up without cracking. It tastes like sweet, moist air. I made this one with half a jar of leftover cherry jam I’d made the day before, so it also gave one the sensation of being able to eat Kirsch, though any jam will do.
Pre-heat oven to 350. Line a 10 X 15 inch baking tin with parchment paper.
Separate 4 eggs.
Whip the whites with 6 tablespoons of sugar until they refuse to slide when the bowl is tipped.
Whip the yolks with 4 tablespoons of sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla until it folds in on itself in big fat pale ripples.
Sieve together ½ cup of cake flour with ¼ cup of cornstarch and a pinch of salt.
Carefully fold some whites into the yolks, then some flour, then some whites, then some flour, etc., until you have incorporated them all together in a silky, voluminous batter.
Gently spread the batter out on the baking pan and bake on a low shelf for just 10 minutes. The cake should be just starting to turn golden, and feel springy to the touch.
As soon as you take it out of the oven, turn the cake out onto a tea towel dredged with sugar. Peel the parchment off. Slice off one of the short ends, and use the tea towel to roll it up. Leave to cool rolled up.
Once cooled, unroll, spread with jam and cream, and roll back up.
If you are English you will no doubt have grown up with Crunchie Bars. This is because they have been around since 1929. Light as a feather, they give a very satisfying snap when pressure is applied with the teeth, so that the piece of “sponged” toffee coated with milk chocolate that breaks off into your warm, wet mouth immediately starts fizzing as it dissolves. As your saliva breaks down the sugar walls of each bubble, it releases the gas that got there when bicarbonate of soda was added to rolling hot liquid caramel and jet-puffed it up to several times its volume.
Crunchies used to be made in England, but now they’re made in Poland.
Crunchie is a good name for it, but you won’t find it called that in recipe books. There, you’ll find it under sponge candy, or sponge toffee, or cinder toffee, or honeycomb, or any variant thereof. It’s easier than pie to make. If you live in a country where Crunchies aren’t sold, this will be a lifesaver. If you do happen to live where Crunchies are sold, you should still make them by hand because they have a gorgeous mellow smoky flavor, and will impress the living daylights out of children.
Liberally butter a largish cake pan.
Into a medium to large saucepan melt ¾ cup of sugar with 4 tablespoons of light corn syrup. (You can substitute the corn syrup for maple syrup if you want to go the extra mile.)
Let it come to a golden bubble.
Take off the heat, and quickly whisk in a tablespoon of bicarbonate of soda.
It will immediately puff up – pour it into the greased pan, but do not attempt to smooth it out.
When it’s cold, you can turn it out, and crack it into lovely wedges. I find the best way to do this is to give each bit a sharp jab with the tip of a butter knife; it will split nicely right where you want it to.
If you can wait before eating it all, dip into melted chocolate and let set for the proper Crunchie Bar experience.
Can there by anything more evocative of an English autumn than pulling a red hot and steaming tray of toad-in-the-hole (toads-in-the-hole? toads-in-their-holes?) from the oven, and serving them with glossy green peas and a rich onion gravy?
The answer is no. If you said yes, you are wrong and must come to the front of the class and write “toad-in-the-hole is glorious” 100 times on the blackboard.
Toad-in-the-hole was invented in the golden age of British cooking when a harried mother of many children and a hungry husband found nothing much in her pantry except a nice fat fist of sausages and an onion. Some of the screaming bints wanted pancakes; others wanted the sausage. The husband just sat there poking at a hole in his trousers and blowing raspberries at the baby. So she decided to please everyone and combine the two: sausages baked in batter.
At least, that’s how I like to think of it. There has been much speculation over the years as to why this dish bears such a strange name, and I think I have discovered why. When I served it to my own hungry family the other day, I had just pulled the tray from the oven and set it on the stove in order to reach for a butter knife with which to pop each one out of its tin. I turned back to see the sausages bobbing up and down as if they were puppets — yet no-one was touching them. The steam trapped in the batter kept forcing them up and down, so that they popped their heads in and out of their big puffy Yorkshire pudding cases. They looked just exactly like toads appearing and disappearing from their holes! I’ve never actually seen toads doing this, but I’m fairly certain that if they did, it would look just like it.
If you’ve never made Toad-in-the-hole, you must: it’s dead easy. All you have to do is make sure the oven and fat is really piping hot before you pour the batter in.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Prepare batter: sift 1.25 cups flour and a pinch of salt into a bowl and crack into it 3 eggs. Pour over this 1 cup of milk and whisk until smooth like heavy cream. Stir in a generous tablespoon of grainy mustard, pepper, and a big handful of snipped chives. Set aside.
Cut four big fat sausages into thirds.
Into each cup of a 12-cup muffin tin pour a scant teaspoon of vegetable oil and let this heat up in the oven. When the oil is hot, stand a piece of sausage on its end in each one, and return to the oven for 4 minutes.
Working quickly, spoon batter into the cups around each sausage and return to the oven for half an hour or so until each one is a huge golden puff. Be sure to leave them while they cook — DO NOT open the oven or they will not rise. Turn on the oven light to appreciate how fabulous they look while they cook.
In a heavy-based saucepan, gently sauté a finely diced red onion in a tablespoon of olive oil along with a teaspoon each of dark brown sugar and balsamic vinegar until the onions are a deep brown. Remove onions. melt a big pat of butter in the pan, add 1 tablespoon of flour and cook a bit. Add to this 1.25 cups of beef stock and a dash of Worcestershire sauce, and stir until thickened. Return the onions to the pan and gently simmer until ready to use. A nice shot of Madeira towards the end can’t hurt.
I know profiteroles are dreadfully 1985, but I rather like them — a toothsomely flaky crunch of pastry holding some creamy concoction, all drizzled with spun sugar or chocolate syrup or flaked almonds. I’ve never had a problem with them; the directions are simple enough. I even made them for my Home Economics GCSE, which was otherwise sabotaged by the teacher’s provision of a block of frozen spinach over fresh (I had stupidly forgotten to specify — but I didn’t know at the time you could even get it frozen, so naïve was I).
So I decided to make éclairs for my future in-laws when visiting them the other weekend. I am on a programme of trying to win them over with the regular application of home-cooking, either at their house or sent in parcels back with my beloved. They liked the lemon curd, the jams, the madelines, the two flavors of gelato, the blueberry pancakes, the acorn squash soup and the coq-au-vin. In the oven they went, all nicely piped out in 4-inch tubes of smooth paste on a moistened baking sheet.
And out they came: exactly the same, only flatter and more solid and ever so slightly more golden. I only averted disaster by inventing a dessert called “whipped ganache sandwiches” whose architecture you can imagine for yourselves. Especially as I didn’t honor them with a snapshot.
I do not take failure well, especially in the kitchen, so this weekend I was determined to salvage my reputation by making a big batch of profiteroles for some houseguests. The lovely golfball-sized nuts of glossy dough went into the oven……and out they came, just as they went in, only as leaden versions of what youthful promise they had going in. I didn’t even try to rescue them, so in the bin they went.
Have I fallen afoul of some pastry gods somewhere? Have I not made the right sacrifices with the right things at the right time? Is there a hush-hush choux curse known among patissiers of which I am unaware? Are the atmospheric and astrological conditions not right? (Note how ready I am to blame the cosmos) — or is it just me? Have I lost my touch? I am at a loss, waiting for the next choux to drop.
My pâte brisée remains, thankfully, unscathed by demonic influence, so it’s quiche tonight. Go on, ‘gis a quiche. Come to think of it, maybe it’s the puns.
I love honey. I love my Honey. I love both of them; the exquisite golden substance unique to nature produced by the humble honey bee and my sweetheart, whose pet name seems to embody all that is good and unique in nature wrapped up in his lovely person.
The two are connected in more ways than one, however. Back when I met my Honey I was busy making honey. As a member of the Nature Department at summer camp, I was partly responsible for maintaining the hives. We had 20,000 bees (give or take) housed in a couple of those beautiful wooden hives parked at the edge of some meadows in Ohio. Every now and then we’d take brave campers out to see them, armed with nothing but a tin smoker stuffed with pine needles and set alight; you could pull a lever to emit a puff of white smoke that would temporarily subdue the bees into docile fuzzies. After removing the lid, you could lift up a frame heavy with thousands of busy writhing bodies, and sweep some off with your hand to reveal the oozing maze of honeycomb underneath.
It was a big hit, not least because the kids could go back to their scaredy friends and boast of having stuck their hands into a seething hive. No bees were crushed, and no kids were stung, but I was when my summer romance with the future Mr. Honey fizzled out.
At the end of the season we harvested the honey, squeezing it out of the combs and straining it off into small jars which were given to all of the staff. It was the very last of that honey to be handed out; after a hundred years or so the camp closed down after that season in 1988. Generations of Cincinnati residents had spent their summers there; it was a place where you could see graffiti your grandparents had etched into the wooden walls of whitewashed cabins, and many marriages were made of folks who had met as campers or counselors.
I doubt that any of that honey still exists … apart from the single unopened jar my Honey nursed all that time, and which now sits on my mantelpiece. To anyone else it probably looks like a jar of tar, inexplicable as an ornament — but to me it is the most wonderful love token ever. Over time the honey has thickened and darkened to become incredibly dense; he tried shining a military-grade 250-lumen light through it to no avail. I like to think that jar contains the magic that brought us back together so improbably 23 years later. It’s not every day that you are given a jar of honey you yourself made a lifetime ago. But then again I am all a-buzz with love, so don’t mind me.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll have spent many a summer holed up in a caravan parked on some grassy cliff with a plastic flamingo planted by the door. You will have entertained yourself by scrambling down a rocky path to a beach whose sand has been formed by the relentless pummeling of the North Atlantic since the last Ice Age. There, you spread your blanket, strip off your clothes down to your rather hopeful string bikini (biting your lip so as not to gasp when the bitter summer breeze sets fire to your skin), and huddle down as close to the sand as possible so that the wind hurries over, as opposed to onto, you. If you hold a cheap paperback to your face you can somewhat avoid the exfoliating effects of the hostile air but quickly become cross-eyed.
If you are very brave, you will give in to the wailing demands of your family to be a good sport and play some kind of beach game completely unsuited to beaches, like soccer with an inflatable ball that tears off at high speed, bouncing along the flat surface at the slightest nudge, then stand around drawing hearts in the sand with your toe while the nearest player runs off for a half-hour jaunt to fetch it.
If you are not simply brave but also very stupid, you will take your life into your hands and baptize yourself in the water’s salty depths. Very likely you will turn and crouch reflexively towards the shore as soon as that first prickly wavelet crashes against your calf, but you will force yourself to edge deeper since you are now committed to a full submersion in order to justify your holiday to the coast, because unless you actually go in the sea, it’s not a seaside, holiday, is it?
Once you emerge — a shrunken, demoralized shell of the person you once were — shivering and in desperate need of a reviving flagon of brandy and an electric blanket, you will gingerly step back to your towel, noticing for the first time how damn sharp sand can be on the soles of wet feet. Not soft at all.
Swimming (well, standing armpit-deep waving your arms about while you nonchalantly pretend you aren’t having a pee) raises an almighty appetite, so you ignore the fact that it’s a full hour before lunchtime, and crack open the cooler. Huddled in your towel, you tuck in to sandwiches you would find revolting at home but which eaten under these conditions seem to you the most perfect food on Earth. I’m talking sandwiches made with Shiphams pastes and liver paté, or egg salad made with the zesty tang of Heinz Salad Creme; none of those fancy delights that nowadays you can pick up anywhere in a little triangular box. Even when your teeth meet grit you think this is LIVING, the salty air and proximity of screeching gulls trying to snag a bite somehow making the experience more authentic and satisfying.
Instead of saving the rest of your tuck for tea (your body instinctively telling you to eat! Eat as much as you can before hypothermia sets in), you reach for the fat slices of fruit cake wrapped individually in wax paper, cut fresh from the slab made seven months ago by your grandma for Christmas. Of course by now, the rum it was soaked in has thoroughly penetrated every juicy morsel, rendering you ever so slightly tipsy with each bite. Fruit cake never seemed like such a good idea as now. What a waste only eating it in the dead of winter! Surely this fruity treat was devised to be a fortifying delivery system and/or lifesaving device?
Once it has been consumed, and every little crumb picked out of the terrycloth, the skies darken. You try to judge how long the rain will last — is it worth packing up and traipsing all the way back up the cliff? — but decide what the hell, you’re down here now, you’ll wait it out. 20 minutes later, starving, you attack the apple in the tuck box and try to do the Sudoku growing steadily transparent as the newsprint it’s on gets soggier.
What you’d give for a beer. What you’d give for a woolen jumper and scarf. What you’d give for a steaming hot parcel of cod and chips, all soaked through with vinegar. What you’d give to be back in the caravan. What you’d give for the sun to come out from behind those clouds once and for all — OK, fine, just long enough to put on dry clothes and make a dash for it. What you’d give to have one fat soggy chip in your mouth; you can taste it already. What you’d give to have gone to Majorca instead, what a fool you are. What you’d give, sitting at your desk in the hot city, to be back there now, because it was paradise and it was horrible and it tasted just exactly like August in England.
For a gardener, the culinary year begins long before the fruits of their labor show up on a plate. In the dead of winter, seed catalogues arrive in the mail, and with them the dream of a garden so large it can contain all the cornucopia of riches you’d like to grow. Writing up your order list is rather like packing for a holiday; you put in everything you need then take out two-thirds. Especially if you only have a small garden. I always order Brandywine tomatoes — an heirloom variety that produces big beefsteak tomatoes that are perfect for slicing. They have a well-deserved reputation for being the best-tasting, too. They come in red, yellow, pink and black and look beautiful on a plate.
The packets arrive in the first week of February in a teeny-tiny cardboard box hardly bigger than a seed packet itself. A moist mixture of potting soil, sphagnum moss and peat gets packed into trays, and in go the seeds. A light mist of water and on with the clear plastic lid. They sit in the basement until the little green shoots appear, then it’s upstairs on any surface near a window I can find. I always overdo it and end up with a couple of hundred plants and have to give them away to anyone willing to take them. By late March they are ready to be hardened off outside during the day, and brought in at night. Meanwhile, as soon as the earth is pliable, I dig in compost and manure. This needs to be done a couple of weeks before you put the plants in or the rich nutrients will “burn” them.
Once the baby plants are put in the ground it looks like you’ve left far too much space and could pack several more in, but this is just a illusion; by June it’s a jungle so thick you have to start cutting them back or be overrun. Tomatoes are vines, so given the chance they will grow and grow and not stop growing. I end up tying mine up to the nearest immovable object so they don’t fall over, but they still top out at six or seven feet.
And then…they appear — light green at first, but turning bigger, softer, redder….
By late July, when the heat is beating down, you finally get to slice one still warm from the sun. Drizzle on a little olive oil, a pinch of Malden Salt, and voila: perfection.
One of the pleasures of city living is not feeling like you’re living in a city. I live up on a hill; out of one side of my house all I see is sky and treetops; out the other side my back garden, which is open to whatever wildlife ambles along. There is a large park nearby, and from its woodland venture wild turkeys and deer, which forage silently among the trees. Less silent is the woodpecker who lives there, and wakes me each “morning” at about 4am by drilling for grubs. Rat-a-tat-tat instead of cock-a-doodle-do.
We have small grey mice and impish chipmunks and twitchy grey squirrels. We have blue jays and cardinals and grackles and all manner of brightly colored songbirds who eat from the birdfeeder hanging under the lilac. I often look up from my table to lock eyes with a brazen member of the groundhog family which has made its home in a vast network of tunnels under a neighbor’s porch. They are like beavers without the flat tails, and huge — the size of a small dog. They’re cheeky buggers, and like to dare you to make a sudden movement in their direction, at which they will bolt, often tearing through my vegetable patch flattening everything in their path.
I planted borders of onions to keep the rabbits out because they don’t like the smell. So far it’s prevented them from nibbling on the tomatoes and, for now, the young frothy tops of carrots, but I know it is only a matter of time until the word gets out and they will devour, like the beans, peppers, strawberries and sweet peas down to the ground.
But it is the family of bunnies I find most endearing. Every day they appear on my lawn among the clover to dine on tasty shoots, and stretch, and sometimes, just roll about. When they were babies (kittens, to be exact), no bigger than a tennis ball, they would often curl up to nap in a shady divot, their presence only signaled by a petite pair of silky ears. They are remarkably tame — naively tame, in fact — though they hold very still if you come near, watching with big beady eyes.
I have named the patriarch Monsieur Lapin, and find myself talking to him when I go out to water the plants or do a spot of weeding. “I see you, Monsieur Lapin,” I will say as he turns to hop away. “Say hello to Madame Lapin for me, and tell her to mind les enfants.”
My neighbors must think I’m completely batty.
You probably know this already. That’s because you’re probably very clever. Some clever things, however, only seem that way.
Take, for instance the bright idea that someone had about how to ensure that anyone, anywhere could buy a “ripe” peach no matter how far they lived from places peaches grow: just pick them before they ripen, and let them mature on their journey. Bingo! One way to do that is to refrigerate said peaches to retard said maturity. This is why when you reach out to touch the beautiful dusky, slightly downy fruit you recoil in shock because they feel like marbles: ice cold and just as hard.
Those unfortunate shoppers who buy fruit by sight alone might never have tasted a genuinely ripe peach. This is tragic. Don’t let this happen to you. Occasionally some slip through though. Here’s how to detect them as they hide, visually identical to their tasteless, mealy cousins.
First, very gently touch each one. You will immediately be able to feel which are rock hard, and which have just the tiniest give. Pick up that peach and sniff it. Best yet, close your eyes. If it smells bitter, it is unripe. If it smells like nothing at all, it is unready. If it smells instantly like a peach — a sweet, heady aroma that makes the hairs in your nostrils tingle — then it is a likely candidate and must be placed in your basket.
Once you get home, eat your peach. They do not like to wait around all perfect until you decide you’re ready. No sir. Take a sharp paring knife, your peach, and a bowl, and get to work.
Why the bowl?
Just you wait and see.