Category Archives: Picnics

La crostata rustica

La crostata (it means ‘crusted’) is oft made in my family in Italy.

It’s usually a thing of some precision, the pastry laid out, put in a tart or pie tin, filled with fruit or, sometimes, jam, and then criss crossed with thin, fluted strips of pastry.

This crostata is different in that it makes a virtue of its pulled together-ness and the pastry is, anyway, too fragile to handle much (this is because of the lard, which also gives it its deliciousness..). It has become my new favourite tart.

You can use any suitable soft fruit for this – peaches, berries, plums. I used plums as that’s what the original recipe called for. It’s really easy but, as I’ve said, beware because the pastry is very tricky to handle but that’s okay cos it’s all about a rustic look!

This is adapted from a Donna Hay recipe.

The pastry

225g plain flour

55g caster sugar

the rind from half a lemon

60g butter, fridge cold and chopped

40g lard, fridge cold and chopped

2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar

60ml ice cold water – but you may not use all of it

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

The filling

500g of suitable tart fruit, sliced if necessary.

75g caster sugar

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

10g cold, chopped butter

1 beaten egg

some demerara sugar

(some juniper berries if you like and you remember)

40g ground almond

Method

Put the flour, sugar and lemon rind in a bowl and mix together lightly – you can do this by hand or in a food processor (I used the latter, work lightly). Add the butter and lard and mix to resemble the famous ‘fine breadcrumbs’. Now add the vinegar and vanilla and just enough water to bring it all together. If using a food processor, pulse and stop before the pastry has come together but looks clumpy. Bundle together and put in the fridge to rest for fifteen minutes or more (until you are ready to work with it, you can do it overnight).

When ready, roll out onto baking parchment, either into a round shape or, as I do, an oblong. I must confess to half rolling, half pressing the pastry to shape with ice-cold fingers (cold hands, cold heart). You want to get it to about 3-4mm thickness. When you’ve rolled it out so it’s at it’s final dimensions, put it back in the fridge for ten minutes.

Preheat oven to 200C.

In the meantime mix together the (sliced) fruit, sugar and vanilla.

(Note: you can make the fruit bit in advance and keep it in the fridge, but bear in mind the sugar will leach water from the fruit and you don’t want to put this (the juice) onto the pastry, so if you do make it in advance, just pour off any excess juice and serve separately over the tart, there isn’t much.)

Slide the baking parchment onto a baking tray, so the pastry base sits on the tray it will cook on.

Spread the ground almonds on the base – leaving a rim of about an inch. Now plop the fruit on top, spread it out as far as you’ve put the ground almonds and fold the sides over. I find the pastry really hard to handle at this stage: do your best. Don’t worry if it looks very home made, it all adds to the charm. Brush the pastry edge with the beaten egg and sprinkle with the sugar.

Place in the oven for 15 mins, then reduce temperature down to 175C for 30-40 mins until the pastry is nice and golden and the fruit is bubbling. (Check after 30, I have two ovens and both vary hugely, one was perfect after 40 mins one was more than done after 30.) Let cool for ten minutes. I served it with this ice cream and let me tell you, it was a magical moment.

 

 

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Apricot and cinnamon breakfast muffins.

Of course, you can eat these beyond breakfast time. I made them because I was told I am borderline anaemic the other day, and apricots are a good source of iron. Not as good as a rare-cooked steak served with green leafy veg and washed down with a Guinness and an orange juice, but possibly easier to carry in your bag. These are very filling, not particularly sweet and keep me going if I can’t be bothered to eat lunch. Well, until about 4pm. I love how chewy the top apricot goes.

This recipe is from the free little newspaper Waitrose provides each week.

It makes 12 and you need to allow a little time for soaking the apricots.

You need:

250g dried apricots, I prefer the organic variety here as they have less stuff on them, it does mean they are quite dark though and not all zesty bright.

1 large orange, juice and zest

275g self raising flour (I used some wholemeal too)

2tsp baking powder

2tsp cinnamon

75g porridge oats, plus a bit extra for sprinkling

150g caster sugar

285ml buttermilk or kefir milk if you make it

2 medium eggs

50g butter, melted

3 tablespoons of apricot preserve

You also need a muffin tin lined with muffin cases.

Method

Reserve 12 of the apricots. Roughly chop the rest and put them to soak in the orange juice and zest. I do this the night before, but 30 mins is fine.

Preheat the oven to 200C. Mix together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, oats and sugar. In a separate large bowl mix together the buttermilk, eggs and butter and add the soaked apricots sand orange zest/juice. Now add the dry ingredients and mix until must blended.

Divide amongst the paper cases – you’ll find the mixture is quite up to the top but don’t worry as it doesn’t rise much (despite the self raising flour AND baking powder). If you like use those fancy tulip-shaped muffin cases that look like someone artfully folded some baking paper, the ones that cost about £20 for ten (exaggeration).

Place a whole apricot atop each muffin and sprinkle with some porridge oats (this makes the muffins look good!). Cook in the oven for 18-20 mins. When still warm, mix the apricot jam with a tiny bit of boiling water and brush over the top for a lovely glaze. I wish I could tell you my children loved these. They didn’t. But my partner did!

 

Pomegranate and rose lemonade

I tried making lemonade a few years ago. It was a faff and nobody really liked it. But recently I tried this, from the Waitrose magazine and it was not only really easy, everyone likes it, it’s luridly (but naturally) pink, and you make a basic syrup which you then dilute. So it makes tons. Perfect for a summer party. It’s not overly sweet, either and I’m sure it works out that it has less sugar in than shop-bought. You can also make this with your children. Supervise the sugar boiling bit of course, but that bit only lasts a minute.

Ingredients

150g caster sugar + 100ml of water

200ml pomegranate juice – make sure you by juice and not the drink which will already have sugar in it

The juice of about 5 lemons – you need 200ml of juice

Pared zest of one lemon

1 teaspoon of rose water

Ice cue and sparkling water to serve. You can dilute with still water too, if you like, but sparkling is more fun, if worse for your teeth and bones…

Method

Put the caster sugar with 100ml of cold water into a medium sized saucepan and heat it gently until the sugar has dissolved. You can stir. Once the sugar has dissolved, bring it to the boil for one minute, then turn it off the heat. Do take care around boiling water/sugar as it’s very hot.

Add the lemon and pomegranate juice and pared lemon zest and leave to cool. Once cool add the rose water and then pour into a clean (supposed to be sterilised, but straight out of the dishwasher will do) bottle/container and store in the fridge. You can keep the pared zest in if you like (I do) but bear in mind the longer it stays in, the more lemony/sour it gets.

To serve, pour 60ml of the syrup into a glass, top up with sparkling/still water, ice cubes and drink!

Sonia’s Swiss crescent biscuits

Growing up, my mum made friends with a woman called Sonia, who worked in the dry cleaner’s kinda opposite our flats. The dry cleaning would be wrapped in this lovely navy blue paper, the like of which we seemed to have at home for years afterwards (I guess she gave us some).

We didn’t have a car, growing up, but we used to go out with Sonia and her husband, who drove a red VW Beetle. We would go to the airport and watch the planes take off, in the days when this was still possible. We also went to Windsor castle. I loved our trips out as they were the only car-trips out we had as children. (This isn’t meant to sound sad, we went to Italy a lot and I had a great childhood.)

I have a picture, of us at Windsor castle, me with a right sulk on (I peed on my mum’s lap on the way home, I think I might have done it on purpose, the shame), wearing a very flash red coat and a rabbit fur hat, Sonia and my mum looking really glamorous, but in a totally nonchalant way.

One of the things Sonia used to bring with her were these amazing little hazelnut crescent biscuits. She would have them, layer upon greaseproof-paper layer, in a tin, and as you opened the tin, the smell of them – they were coated with vanilla sugar – would hit you. They were not like any biscuits we could buy, or that my mum made.

Because they were so occasional, they were especially delicious. Sonia also used to bring  a flask of coffee, which I would drink (I was an early caffeine drinker).

When I was seven, my mum and dad opened up a coffee shop on London’s Bayswater Road. I started making cakes and biscuits for my dad’s shop. I started baking. I tried to recreate Sonia’s biscuits but I never could. For some reason I didn’t dare ask her for the recipe, or perhaps I didn’t want to because I didn’t want to make them less special.

Occasionally, these days, I will go to my mum and dad’s house, and Sonia will have been, bringing with her a box of her special biscuits. And just opening the lid of the biscuit tin (she always brings them in a biscuit tin) will transport me back to being a very little girl, sitting in a red VW Beetle, watching planes taking off, treading that fine line between showing my appreciation for her biscuits and eating a fair few, but not toppling over into greed. It’s still a line I struggle with balancing on.

The other day, I saw Sonia and I plucked up the courage to ask her for the recipe. I don’t know why it’s taken me four decades to do so. Amazingly she had it written down (none of that “oh I do it from memory”) and she gave it to me, and, here it is:

250g plain flour

200 butter, unsalted, fridge cold

100g ground hazelnuts (I buy the chopped, toasted version and then grind them, it really makes a difference, but you can use pre-gound hazelnuts or almonds, but it won’t be *quite* as good as if you toast and grind them yourself)

80g icing sugar

5g vanilla sugar (Sonia says you can buy these in little packets but I leave this out and just add a tablespoon of vanilla essence)

Pinch of salt

Caster sugar for after (vanilla sugar if you have it)

In a food processor, pulse the butter and flour until like breadcrumbs. Add the sugar, salt and nuts and then pulse until it comes together in clumps. Don’t over mix. It will work out I promise. Of course you can do this all by hand, but I’m lazy.

If you’ve made it in a processor take it out now and, by hand, bring the mixture together. Chill for 20/30 mins.

Preheat oven to 190C

Take small bits and roll into crescent shapes. I weigh each one to make sure I don’t end up with tiny/huge biscuits, roll into sausage shapes and taper the ends, curve into crescents. If you’re interested, I do them so mine weigh about 21g in raw dough.

Put on a parchment lined trays and cook for 10 mins. Cool and then coat in vanilla caster sugar if you have it, (I put a vanilla pod in a jar of normal caster sugar and just keep it there for, like, ever) normal caster sugar if you don’t.

Then don’t eat four whilst you’re writing a blog post, because that will make you feel really, really sick.

Store in a biscuit tin, each layer interleaved with greaseproof paper.

(Sonia calls these traditional Vienna biscuits but as she’s from Switzerland, I call them Sonia’s Swiss crescent biscuits.)

Sticky cinnamon buns

Buns is a word you simply can’t say enough. If it’s not already, it should be a control word, used by psychologist in experiments, to put people in a good mood. It is a fabulously English word and, even though I try, there isn’t really any alternative in Italian. We have the rather more catch-all phrase meaning, simply, ‘pastries’.

Although we don’t really celebrate Mother’s Day (I really don’t need a day to tell me to appreciate my mum), if you were so minded, these would probably go down a treat if you made them today (as I write, tomorrow is Mothering Sunday), put them in the fridge to prove overnight, then cooked them in the morning.

They take almost no kneading. I got the initial inspiration from Edd Kimber who won the Great British Bake Off five years ago, but I’ve cut the sugar down (with no ill effect) and changed the kneading process so there isn’t really any, Dan Lepard style. I also don’t use currants or any dried fruit because my children don’t like them. I’d never thought of using cream cheese in an icing before but it’s wonderful and entirely Kimber’s idea, not mine. I am not a fan of sugar/water icing and the addition of a protein-rich food really takes the teeth-janglyness out of the icing. It doesn’t make them any less delicious, only more so.

These are life-affirmingly good about half an hour out of the oven, I’ve just eaten one and am in a seriously good mood. I’ve done a lot of gluten/dairy free baking recently and was just about to put up a recipe for a green smoothie, so thank goodness for these. My inner Nigellas and Gwyneths are still fighting but, for today, Nigella wins.

This made 20 for me.

For the buns, you will need:

250ml whole milk (I don’t suppose the world would fall in if you used semi skimmed)

50g unsalted butter

500g strong white bread flour

30g caster sugar

1 teaspoon of salt

7g fast action yeast

1 large egg, beaten – the egg should be at room temperature

vegetable oil for greasing

For the filling, you will need

100g light brown sugar, smash any lumps out

3 tablespoons of cinnamon – yes tablespoons. It seems a lot, but these are cinnamon buns

60g butter, melted

For the topping, you will need

50g soft cream cheese

50g icing sugar

This is what you do

Warm the milk and the butter up in a small pan until the butter has melted then let it cool until it is just luke warm. (If you haven’t taken your egg out of the fridge yet, do it now and set it aside to warm to room temperature.)

The milk/butter is ready when you put a clean finger into it and you can’t really feel hotness or coldness. If it’s too hot or cold it won’t activate the yeast efficiently. If you want to speed up the cooling process, take it out of the pan and put it into a wider-lipped vessel like a bowl.

In the meantime, in a large bowl, mix together the: flour, sugar, salt and yeast.

When the milk and butter mixture is lukewarm, make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients (the flour etc) and pour the milky buttery liquid in, followed by the beaten egg. Mix this all up as best you can using a fork. You’ll have a lumpy dough that will look most unpromising.

Leave it for ten minutes.

Turn out onto an oiled surface and knead gently for a few seconds, cover with a bowl and leave for another ten minutes. Knead again for a few seconds. You should now have a smooth, soft-ish dough (it won’t be super soft and may seem a tad dry). If not, if there’s still obvious ‘bits’ to it, give it another 5-10 minutes rest and another quick ten second knead.

Now, put  it into an oiled bowl and cover with cling film and leave it until it’s doubled. This may take much longer than you think. In my kitchen (which is kept at a Spartan 18C and a humidity level of under 50) this took nearly three hours. In a hotter kitchen it can take as little as an hour. I know this bit is scary – knowing when the dough is ready always used to scare me – but what I do is I put it in a large bowl, so that the dough fills up about half the bowl. This is because, as the dough rises, you can never remember what height it was, can you? So it’s difficult to judge when it’s doubled. But if you choose a bowl where the dough comes up about half way to begin with, and then cover with cling film, you know it’s done when the dough starts to push up the cling film.

At this point tip onto a lightly oiled surface and roll out the mixture until it’s about 40cm x 50cm. It should roll out really quite easily. You may need to oil the rolling pin – I did. You will get rounded edges, no right angles. That’s okay.

Now the mixture: mix together the sugar and cinnamon and set aside for a momentino. Now, with a pastry brush, brush the melted butter all over the slab of dough, right to the edges. This is quite meditative. Think of all the people who have done you wrong whilst you do this and think that they won’t be getting any of your cinnamon buns, the bastards.

Now, on top of the dough, sprinkle the sugar and cinnamon, making sure to go to the edges as best you can. You will spill some onto your work surface, try to pick these up and put them back on or, at the end, gather the up with a clean hand-sweep and sprinkle them on top of the made up rolls.

Now, with the filling all spread, roll up the dough, with the longer end towards you so you get one long cinnamon bun roll. With a sharp knife, trim the edges off, then cut slices of about and inch and a half or so. Place the buns flat down on a lightly oiled tray measuring about 23cm x 33cm (you can even got a bit bigger, but no smaller). There will be a little gap between them, see picture.

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(If you have any sugar/cinnamon stuff left on the work surface, don’t waste it but gather it up and sprinkle it on top at this point.)

You now have a choice. If you fancy eating them soonish, cover them with cling film and leave until they have doubled in size. Anything from 45 mins to a couple of hours. But. I put them in the fridge at this stage and leave them all night. (Also, see update, below.)

Whenever you cook them, you need to a) preheat the oven to 180C b) brush the cinnamon buns with melted butter before they go in the oven (this is important). If you prove them in the fridge you can cook them straight from the fridge, or leave them at room temperature just until the oven warms up. No longer.

Cook for 20-30 minutes (mine took 25).

Whilst they are cooling make the icing, just mix together the icing sugar and the cream cheese until it’s pourable but not too liquidy. It will really seem like it’s not going to work for a bit but then it all comes together. Drizzle on top of the buns (it’s okay to do this when they are about 20 mins out of the oven). Then, prize them apart with a spatula thing and eat with a good coffee whilst making whimpering noises.

(Have napkins handy, these are sticky.)

UPDATE 20 April 2015

Having now made these a few times, I offer these observations:

These buns are fabulous when freshly made, but they go stale disappointingly quickly. Unless you plan to eat them all in one go (!) then what I suggest you do – what I do – is I now cook these in two batches. You can easily keep them in the fridge for that final stage of proving (i.e. the bit just before they go into the oven) for two days. I divide mine up onto two smaller trays and cook them over two days, thus giving me fresh buns for breakfast two days in a row. Just mix up 25g cream cheese and 25g icing sugar for each batch. Which brings me to my next observation:

I think that 50g of cream cheese and 50g of icing sugar is AMPLE icing for these in total so I’ve amended the original recipe above.

Date and ginger biscuits (gluten, refined sugar and dairy free)

I haven’t gone gluten, or dairy free. I am incredibly fortunate that I can, thus far at least, eat what I want. And I do. Last night I stuffed my face with cheesy Wotsits (I love a flourescent food stuff sometimes). Today, for the first time in eight years, I went into a supermarket and bought a loaf of white sliced and we had toasted sandwiches for Sunday lunch.

But generally, I do eat really well and also, I do like to try new things and double-also I like to have a little biscuit or something every day, and it kinda helps, now that I’m no longer 19 years old and seven stones, to think of my health ‘n’ stuff.

(Whilst I’m vaguely on the subject of healthy eating, has anyone else noticed that saying you’re on a ‘whole food plant based’ diet seems to have replaced saying “I’m vegan”? I’m not saying this recipe is vegan btw, because it’s not – it contains eggs – but I’ve noticed this phrase a lot lately..)

So I found these in Hugh F-W’s new book Light and Easy (which thus far I really like although have only tried a few things). They are choc-full of good-for-you ingredients, have no refined sugar, no dairy, no wheat, no gluten and although they absolutely won’t be to everyone’s taste, they are to mine and also my youngest loves them (incredibly). They are not overly spicy or gingery, and make a great little snack when you need a treat. But are also – thanks to the fibre and protein – rather satisfying and sustaining.

You need:

200g pitted dates

15g peeled ginger, roughly chopped

2 eggs

250g ground almonds (this is not a cheap biscuit recipe..)

a quarter of a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda

One and a half teaspoons of ground Chinese five-spice

Pinch of salt

Flaked almonds for topping if you so wish

What you do:

Oven to 170C. Baking parchment or magic carpet type sheet onto a baking sheet.

Put the dates and ginger into a food processor. Not a blender, but a processor (it’s sticky and if you put this in a blender I wouldn’t want to be you cleaning up afterwards). Whizz up for a couple of minutes until the mixture is really sticky and everything is evenly chopped up. This is also the time you realise you have bought unpitted dates as the processor will start making an awful sound and then start smoking.

When the mixture is all mixy, then you add the eggs and process again until you get a nice sloppy mixture – takes seconds really. Now add all the other ingredients and pulse for a few times until everything is, how can I put this? Mixed. You will have a very sticky dough. Either drop spoonfuls onto the tray or wet your hands slightly, roll into a ball and then flatten – which is what I do. I make mine about 5cm wide. They don’t really spread out so you can pack them fairly tight – but not touching – onto a baking tray. Top with flaked almonds if you so wish (this is my addition).

I bake mine for 15 minutes and this is plenty. Hugh says 20. They should be golden but not too dark and have a ‘slight give’ in the middle. I can lift my straight off the tray, with my hands, onto a wire rack to cool.

That’s it. Eat and feel virtuous.

Chocolate and nut oat bars

I live in hope of finding some sort of cereal bar, that I can make, that my children will like. I think a good cereal bar is an excellent thing to be eaten when you don’t have much time, but need something that will keep you going. But so many bought cereal bars are full of crap.

Many years ago, I co-ran a parenting website called I Want My Mum (because that’s all I said when I was pregnant and not long after having my baby, “I want my mum, I want my mum!” I would lament. Luckily she wasn’t far). I posted a recipe on there for some sort of healthy cereal, chewy bar. Loads of people went crazy for it, saying that their children loved it.

Not mine. My children have never liked any sort of bar that I’ve made, but they look at the Kellogg’s Special K Raspberry and Chocolate bars with longing every time they go past them in the supermarket aisle.

So I saw these in my Dale Pinnock Healthy Every Day book. He’s the one I got the chocolate/coffee smoothie idea from. I adapted his recipe, changing the proportions and also, he said you should sandwich the chocolate/peanut butter layer in between the layers of oats. But this didn’t look great to me, and also, in a bid to entice my children, I thought it’d be better to coat the whole lot in chocolate. I even wrapped them up in little bags to make them look shop bought. Did they love them?

No.

The ungrateful bastards. But I really like them (just as well as I have about 18 of them now) and if you need a healthy but delicious, quite treaty snack, you can try these. Or, if you’re lucky, your children might like them.

65g unsalted butter

50g coconut oil

45g raw honey

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

300g porridge oat flakes

125g 70% cocoa chocolate

80g nut butter of choice – not one that’s full of sugar but if your nut butter doesn’t have salt in it you may want to add a pinch

Melt the  butter, coconut oil and honey in a pan. Add a pinch of sea salt if your nut butter doesn’t have it. When melted, add the vanilla extract and the oats, and coat everything.

In a bowl atop another pan of simmering water, melt the chocolate and nut butter. When melted, add to the oat mixture and stir really well.  Tip into a tin (I use one that’s about 20cm square but you can see how much mixture you have so use a tin accordingly. I line mine with baking parchment to make thing easier). Then just chill for an hour or two, cut into slices and offer to your children and when they refuse, sit down and eat the lot yourself whilst writing them out of your will.

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