Almost instant banana bread

Banana bread

I have a real problem with throwing bananas away. I like them when they are already quite spotted, so for me, the line between perfectly ripe and brown and shrivelled is not that big. Added to that are the bananas that travel around in a bag in case of toddler snacking needs and emerge a bit bruised from the experience, but otherwise edible, and there are often bananas that are a bit past it in our house.

When this happens, I like to make them useful, and make banana bread, or banana muffins. Not everyone enjoys the smell of banana cake. It is certainly distinctive. I’ve read that bananas that ripen on the tree smell quite different, and that there are many varieties of banana, with different scents.

I like to think that baking with a very ripe banana recaptures some of those tropical aromas and complexities. For me, it’s a buttery, fruity smell, reminiscent of toast and apricots and flowers.

Banana bread is a quick bread, meaning that it’s not structured the same way as a cake, and is risen with baking powder or bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) rather than eggs or yeast.

Bananas add a lot to a muffin or quick bread mixture. They bring sweetness, allowing you to cut back on the sugar. They help bind things together, removing some of the role that eggs would usually play. They provide a flavour in their own right, and some added liquid for moisture.

As banana bread is a solution to a fruit problem, I like the recipes to be as quick and easy as possible. I have posted on here before about my go-to banana muffin recipe. I have also tried a banana cake recipe, made in muffin cases, which uses dates as the sweetener, and seems to work well for my toddler.

More recently, I’ve been looking at ways to make banana bread in my Thermomix (or food processor), without getting any other dishes dirty, and having some success.

Behind the recipe

This is a cake made much like a muffin, with oil, not too much sugar, and leavened with bicarbonate of soda (baking soda). The usual direction for this sort of recipe is to mix the wet and dry ingredients separately, and then combine them together very gently, even leaving in a few lumps so as not to mix too much.

While this will probably give the optimum texture, a great virtue of these recipes is speed and convenience, so if you can apply a little power with a blender or food processor (I use my Thermomix), it makes these even more feasible on a weeknight (or during naptime).

As a quick bread only needs the ingredients mixing briefly together, it’s important to not overmix using the motor. If needs be, stir the last bit together by hand. It also helps to layer the ingredients in. Start with the liquid ingredients on the bottom, including the bananas, and put the dry ingredients on top, finishing with the flour. This way, the flour is the last to be mixed in. You can also leave the flour not quite combined, or with some flour still remaining around the edges, and fold the last bits in while scraping down with a spatula.

There is no need to mash the bananas, as they will just be pureed with the other liquid ingredients at the bottom of the bowl. Pulse the blades of the blender or food processor so that you don’t mix more than you have to. Then scrape down and combine the last bits with a spatula.

Scrape and pour into a lined loaf tin (I use these Lakeland tin liners for extra speed) and bake for anything from 45 minutes to an hour – it should be risen with no wet mixture remaining.

Almost instant banana bread

Banana bread. Hastily made in the Thermomix, not too sweet. Adapted from @smittenkitchen

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s jacked-up banana bread.


  • 3 to 4 ripe bananas (230g peeled weight)
  • 75g sunflower oil
  • 150g light brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of (baking) soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 200g plain flour

Add the peeled bananas, broken into pieces to the bottom of the processor bowl. On top, add the sugar, oil, egg, vanilla essense and bourbon/rum. Mix the flour, the bicarbonate of soda, spices and salt in a small bowl and add on top of the other ingredients. This helps to make sure the bicarbonate (baking) soda is evenly distributed, and to make sure there are no lumps in it. There may not be time for these to be thoroughly mixed in otherwise, and lumps of bicarbonate of soda taste revolting.

Pulse or mix on a medium speed until just mixed together. Scrape down the sides and mix any remaining flour in by hand. Pour into a lined 2lb loaf tin and bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour at 180C/160C fan. I often use two 1lb loaf tins (as above) and bake for 40-45 minutes.

This will keep, wrapped up, for several days, and freezes really well.

A taste of spring: making fresh ricotta

Ricotta on toast with olive oil and salt

I read a New York Times article some years ago that really annoyed me. It was an edition of food questions and answers, and in the cooking section they posed the question “what should I stop buying and make instead?”. And their answer? Condiments. They actually suggested that the best thing to spend your precious home cooking time on was mayonnaise and ketchup!

The only reason I can think of to make your own ketchup is if you have a serious glut of tomatoes, and have exhausted all the tomato sauce, soup and purée options. But I can’t deny that there is something deeply satisfying about making very basic foods from scratch: things like bread, cheese, or jam. You can delude yourself into thinking you’re some kind of frontierswoman (only with central heating and YouTube). “In the event of an apocalypse”, you think “I can make my own bread! All I will need to find is clean water and ready-milled flour and I’ll be fine!”.   I have made plenty of bread, and quite a few jars of jam, but I hadn’t attempted cheese since cooking school. Smitten Kitchen wrote about making ricotta, and that post, and particularly the video of the company making fresh ricotta in Brooklyn stuck  with me.

Fresh ricotta

Ricotta is a soft, slightly grainy cheese that you may have come across in plastic tubs in the supermarket. It is used to fill pasta, to make flourless gnocchi (called gnudi), and can also be used for lasagne, cheesecakes and more. The supermarket incarnation is fairly uninspiring. Ricotta, meaning recooked, is made from the whey left over from making other cheese. When reheated with acid, more curds can be generated, and ricotta is made by draining these.

However, there is another ricotta, one that doesn’t resemble the authentic original, but something between a cream cheese and ricotta that is fresh, and lemony and makes you want to spread it thickly on toast. By heating not leftover whey, but milk and cream with acid, you can make something that is a hybrid between true ricotta and soft cheese. And by using good quality milk, salting it judiciously, and eating it fresh, you can make something really good to eat, rather than something that is just functional.

But more than the flavour or the (dubious) economy of making your own ricotta, its more worth doing for the science experiment thrill of seeing this cheese emerge from a pan of liquid. This transubstantiation, and the (fairly small) effort involved are more than repaid in fascination and satisfaction with the end result.

Of course, this isn’t something you really need to do every day, but the remarkably small effort involved means you can do it much more regularly than you might think. The best thing to do is spread it thickly on slices of toasted bread, sprinkle with coarse salt and drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil. As Smitten Kitchen enthuses, it’s perfect summer food. But it’s also a way of imagining it’s spring, slightly before it actually appears.

Ricotta curds before draining

Behind the recipe: what happens when you make ricotta?

Why does ricotta form? Most cheese uses rennet, containing enzymes that cause the protein to cling together into curds, so that the liquid whey can be separated and drained off. Ricotta uses acid instead of rennet to create the curds. The acid you use will have some affect on the taste. You can use vinegar, lemon juice or buttermilk (Serious Eats details the differences here). Lemon juice is the least precise but most delicious one of these.

You heat the milk, add the acid and then leave it to form the curds. Then gently drain off the whey through a cheesecloth or a a very fine sieve. Leave it for a short time for really soft cheese, let it drain longer for something firmer.

The essential elements are just enough heat, but not too much, and enough acid to start clumping the proteins together. I have had good results using a Thermomix to gently heat the milk, stirring all the time.

The cream is optional: it gives a lovely creamy result, a bit more like cream cheese than true ricotta. You can use single cream or whipping cream if that’s what you have.

Recipe: homemade ricotta

  • 1 litre whole milk
  • 150g double cream
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon (15g) lemon juice – about half a lemon
  • 1 tablespoon (15g) distilled white vinegar

On the stove:

Heat the milk and cream in a saucepan, just until you see the first bubbles appear at the edges, or until it reaches 85-90C on a thermometer. Stir as it heats to prevent the milk proteins catching on the base of the pan. When it is heated, stir in the salt, if using, and then gradually add the lemon juice and vinegar. Stir in very gently, and then leave for two minutes for the curds to form.

Meanwhile, line a sieve or colander over a bowl with a layer or two of damp cheesecloth, or damp paper towels. Spoon or ladle the curds very gently into the cheesecloth and leave to drain for 15-20 minutes. After that time, spoon the ricotta out of the sieve into a container and refrigerate. This will keep for four days in the fridge.

Spooning the ricotta curds

In a thermomix: (Adapted from a recipe on Super Kitchen Machine)

With the butterfly attachment fixed, add the milk and cream to the Thermomix bowl, and heat to 90C on speed 2. Turn off as soon as the 90C light comes on (will take around 10-12 minutes). Set 1 minute/speed stir and add the lemon juice and vinegar through the lid. Turn off and leave to rest for a few minutes to let the curds separate. Gently scoop the curds into a sieve or colander lined with cheesecloth. Leave to drain for 15-20 minutes, depending on how thick you want it.

Things to do with your fresh ricotta:

Spread it on really good toasted bread. Scoop it onto roasted veg as a salad.

Make ravioli or tortellini. Add it to pasta sauce.

Serve as dessert with fruit and drizzled with honey.

Make this excellent Jean-Georges Vongerichten recipe for squash on toast.


Life-changing pasta advice

Did as I was told with the pasta tonight, following @rachelaliceroddy instructions on all the ways to get it wrong.

Advice on pasta? Really? It’s not that hard. No, it’s not, and really, I’m quite happy with the pasta I already make. Well, everyone eats it, don’t they? And what could I be missing? I know how to boil water, add salt, taste it to see if it’s cooked. What could a cookbook possibly teach me about cooking pasta?

I was browsing through Rachel Roddy’s excellent Roman cookbook ‘Five Quarters’, one of my Christmas books, and came across the inevitable chapter on pasta. Just as I was considering, as I often do, why I don’t make fresh pasta that often, and trying to remember where in the kitchen the pasta maker will clamp to the counter, I saw a page about cooking pasta where she confesses that her husband thought she was making pasta all wrong, and insisted on giving her some pointers.
I thought I knew what I was talking about when it came to pasta, at least as much as the next non-Italian, but then so did she. So I paused to read the directions, and then I put them straight to work.

The advice she repeats is likely things you have heard before, but I think it makes a real difference to actually follow them. So for once I weighed out the pasta, (200g for the two of us) and then measured the water into the pan (2 litres, using the marks on the inside of the pan) and then weighed out the salt (20g). That’s quite a lot more salt than I was expecting. I know that the water is supposed to be well seasoned, but somehow I was never tempted to take a sip of the rapidly boiling water, and made do with a generous shake of the Saxa. I turned out to have the amount of water about right, but needed probably twice as much salt – about a tablespoon for a two litre pan of water.

Then I cooked the pasta until the chalky centre had gone (go any further and my husband can’t tolerate it – something I attribute to his being taught to like pasta by a Roman). I saved a ramekin of pasta water – something I do sometimes, but not consistently. I warmed serving bowls and a large bowl, to mix the pasta in. I added grated parmesan to the pasta first, followed by the ragu, and a dribble of pasta water. Then I tossed the whole thing together and served it.

I find it hard to dislike pasta with homemade ragu, but I do think that this one had a more rounded flavour, and was better for following these directions.

Even when you think you know all there is to know about even simple cooking directions, someone can persuade you to think again, and bring something new to the party.

Starting as I mean to go on with @rachelaliceroddy 's broccoli pasta. Lick-the-bowl-clean good.

Why does this advice work?

When you cook dried pasta, water is absorbed into the pasta and swells and softens the starch. At the same time, some of the surface starch lifts off and dissolves into the water. When you boil pasta in too little water, it takes a long time to come back to the boil (as the cold pasta drops the temperature of the water a long way), and the concentration of the starch in the water is quite high. The starch isn’t really a problem: after all, restaurant kitchens reuse their pasta water for many servings of pasta at a time. But the real problem is that the pasta doesn’t have enough room to move about and can start to stick together in the pan as it cooks. This can mean it cooks unevenly.

Undersalting often makes the difference between good restaurant food and home cooking. It’s easy to assume that a recipe isn’t good, or that something is just a bit underwhelming, when a bit of salt can make all the difference. Because the pasta absorbs a lot of water, properly salting the water allows the pasta itself to be seasoned well, and tossing it with parmesan before the sauce also helps this process. When each bite of pasta is salted well, the taste is very different.

Finally, much has been written about using pasta water in the sauce. The starch left in the water helps add some gloss to the sauce. The extra liquid dilutes the sauce a little and helps it to cling to every groove and ridge on the pasta, something that’s particularly important when you’re using good pasta, made with bronze dies so it has a good craggy edge to it.

Finally, Harold McGee has tried breaking all the rules and cooking pasta in too little cold water – it sort-of works, but is not approved by Italian cooks!

Roasting chicken and salting meat

Roast chicken with vegetables

I’m thinking of a gloomy grey Sunday. Rain pattering on the skylights in the kitchen. The Viburnum outside the window scratching back and forth. The distant rumble of the motorway carrying on the wind. It was the last day of the Christmas holidays, the eve of work beginning again. It felt like a good day to put a roast on the table.

For me, a Sunday roast means dinner, not lunch – prepared in the afternoon and eaten about 6 or 7pm. That was how it always was at home. Sunday afternoons meant mum in the kitchen, making dinner. Gran peeling vegetables and doing the ironing. Dad would probably be in the garden, or engaged in some DIY task. The veg would be peeled and put into a dish of water. The main might be roast chicken, often done in my mum’s old enamel roasting tin, which had a lid with dimples on. It could be roast beef, with slivers of garlic studded into the meat. A leg of lamb was my mum’s favourite, served with jellied mint sauce. But I think it’s the smell of roasting chicken that’s the most evocative. The scent of crisping skin and sizzling fat permeating the kitchen. Steam from the vegetables fogging the windows.

When I roast a chicken, I have a few different approaches I use, none of them very complicated. I might follow Laurie Colwin and sprinkle the top with paprika. I might scent it with a pierced lemon, approximating Marcella Hazan or Nigella Lawson. Or I might use herbs and onion in the cavity. But always, I will sprinkle the whole thing inside and out with salt. And if possible, I’ll do this a few hours before putting it into the oven.

Judy Rodgers’ ‘Zuni Cafe Cookbook’ is probably the best expression of salting a chicken in advance. Her roast chicken bread salad is hard to beat, but it does require a small chicken, and salting a good two days ahead. But why salt in advance at all?

Behind the recipe: salting meat

Recipes for roasting or braising meat often ask you to add salt to it some way in advance of cooking. This might be in the form of a rub or marinade, or just a sprinkling on the surface either a little or a lot of time before it goes into the oven or pot. What is the point of doing this, and is there any advantage to doing it a long way in advance?

Cookbooks will often describe salting in advance ‘to draw out the juices’, especially from cuts like steak and chops. Yes, salting will do this, through a relatively simple process of osmosis, where the concentrated salt on the outside persuades water to come out of the meat cells to dilute it, making the salt concentration more similar to that on the inside of the cells. However, this isn’t the only thing that happens.

As water is drawn out, salt is drawn in, to balance the concentrations. This extra salt inside the meat attacks some of the proteins, breaking them up, and making the solution of salt + protein in the meat more concentrated than the now more dilute brine on the outside.

So now the operation works in reverse, drawing water back in from the outside. So we have both salt and water being drawn into the meat. This doesn’t really change the weight of the meat – the juices being drawn back in came out of it in the first place, and not all of them will go back. But now extra salt has been added to the meat, and the proteins have also been damaged a bit, making the meat a bit more tender, and also less able to squeeze out juices during cooking, as the proteins cook and contract.

Osmosis is not a very fast process, so the further in advance you add the salt, the more likely this is to happen and to penetrate deeper into the meat. Do it too far ahead, or with too much salt and the meat will become overly salty and unpleasant, or the proteins will become too damaged and be dry when cooked.

When it comes to roast chicken (and also to other cuts with the skin, such as pork with crackling) the other benefit is in drying and seasoning the skin. By helping to create a dry surface to the skin, it makes it easier to get the surface temperature hot enough to crisp the skin. When there is water there, the temperature is limited to around 100C, but as soon as all the water is driven off, where there is fat in or under the skin, the temperature can go up and up, which allows the skin to crisp and crackle.

Further reading:

Serious Eats: the truth about brining turkey and the burger lab: salting ground beef

The Zuni Cafe Cookbook – containing Judy Rodgers’ recipe for roast chicken, and lots of other discussion about brining and salting meat in advance.

Smitten Kitchen has also written about the Zuni chicken.

Behind the recipe: How to make Christmas cake


A couple of weeks ago I made this year’s Christmas cake. I make my husband’s grandmother’s recipe, although, much to his horror, I do make some adjustments here and there. But it produces a fruit-packed dark cake that we both love, so it always seems worth it. And more than ever now we are a family of three, I enjoy the ritual of digging out the fruit in October, and making the cake, knowing that it promises cosy evenings and feasting to come in a couple of months. Even when all my good intentions of early Christmas shopping and house decorating come to nought, I feel comforted knowing that at least I have a cake stored away, that will make tea times feel festive.

Shauna from Gluten Free Girl wrote a lovely post earlier this year about the ritual of making the same food each week, of having a pattern to the week that everyone recognises. I feel the same way about these annual rituals of cooking. There is great comfort in a cooking ritual that evokes a specific time of year: marmalade in January, strawberries in June. But for a Brit, Christmas is the one time of year that we celebrate with specific festive foods. Americans have Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, the Super Bowl to mark their cooking year. With Hot Cross Buns seemingly available all year round, Christmas is the last food feast in the calendar, even if it does seem to start in September.

When making a fruit cake for Christmas, there are certain rituals to the process that seem arcane. It seems to be a very complicated recipe, and it’s tempting to shortcut as many steps as possible. But why is the process so peculiar, compared to baking a straightforward sponge cake?

The main thing to remember about fruitcake is that it is (or should be) more fruit than cake. And dried fruit needs a few things to bake well: to be moist enough not to dry out; to be cooked slowly so that all the sugar in it doesn’t scorch; and to be suspended in a cake batter firm enough so that it doesn’t all sink to the bottom when baked. Here are some of the steps you might find in your Christmas cake or fruit cake recipe, and why they are worth doing:

Soaking the fruit

Many recipes start with measuring the fruit, and soaking it overnight (or for even longer). This plumps up fruit like raisins and currants, and the liquid they take in here will help keep the cake moist as it sits. And if you soak in brandy, rum, whisky or another spirit, it will also help to preserve the cake.

Wrapping the tin in brown paper

Using all my Blue Peter skills on the cake tin for the fruit cake

This is what really says Christmas to me. The idea when lining the tin with multiple layers of paper, and then wrapping newspaper or brown paper around the outside is to insulate the tin, and prevent the outside from browning, and ultimately scorching, before the centre of this dense cake is cooked through. You may also be asked to cover the top with paper, to prevent it browning too far.

Brushing/soaking with brandy/rum

This one definitely depends on how far in advance you’ve made it, and how often you remember to do this. It should serve two purposes – to help keep the crumb moist, and to further preserve the cake, and prevent any mould from forming. You should also make sure you wrap the cake well each time you do this, so that the moisture is kept in.

Wrapping in marzipan

So it’s been baked, and soaked, and wrapped, and it’s nearly Christmas. Just time to ice it. But first you have to cover it in marzipan and then let it dry out?? This is really a royal icing thing. The marzipan is there to stop the dark fruit of the cake from bleeding through the pristine white icing. And letting it dry out prevents oils from the almonds from leaking into the icing.

I’m not a huge fan of royal icing, or of shop-bought marzipan that is so sweet it makes your teeth ache. But I could be persuaded by Nigel Slater’s homemade almond paste with orange zest, and golden icing sugar icing.

Here is the recipe I use. The dried fruit can be varied, as long as you keep to the same weight. I like to keep a base of raisins and currants for their dark, rich flavours, but you may prefer paler, sweeter fruits: sultanas, figs and apricots chopped small, dried cherries. I have to confess that I no longer whisk the egg whites separately – I just couldn’t see how the air would survive folding in with the fruit. Instead I mix the whole eggs into the creamed butter and sugar. 

Recipe: Pendleton Christmas Cake

PREP TIME: 1 hr plus soaking

TOTAL TIME: 5 – 6 hr

This recipe – for 9 inch round tin (or 8 inch square) – 20cm square.


  • 450 gram Raisins
  • 450 gram Sultanas
  • 340 gram Currants
  • 110 gram Candied Peel — finely chopped
  • 110 gram Glace Cherries — halved
  • 75 ml Brandy
  • 75ml orange juice
  • 110 gram Almonds, Blanched — shredded
  • 285 gram Flour, Plain
  • 1/2 tsp Salt
  • 1 tsp Ground Cinnamon
  • 1 tsp Mixed Spice
  • 1 pinch Nutmeg — grated
  • 225 gram Butter
  • 225 gram Sugar, Soft brown
  • 1 tbsp Black Treacle
  • 6 Eggs
  • 55 gram Plain Chocolate, melted
  • 1/2 tsp Bicarbonate of Soda
  • 1 tsp Warm water

Combine the fruit with the brandy and the orange juice. Leave to soak overnight.

Line tin with 2 thicknesses of baking parchment and tie a band of brown paper around the outside of tin that comes 2-3 inches above the rim.

Set oven at 300F/150C/130C fan or gas mark 3.

This recipe is in three parts: the cake mixture, the fruit, and the whisked egg whites. Each part gets a separate portion of the flour mixture until they are all combined at the end.

Sift flour, salt and spices together and divide into 3 portions. Mix one portion with the prepared fruit and nuts (especially coat the cherries well in flour).

Cream the butter in a mixer, or with a handheld mixer, then add the sugar and beat well until fairly light and fluffy (at least 3-4 minutes), then stir in black treacle. [To measure the black treacle, take the lid off the tin and stand it in hot water for a few minutes – this makes the treacle more liquid and easier to measure. Also, oil your measuring spoon with a little vegetable oil before scooping out the treacle- this will help the treacle to slide off the spoon]. Melt the chocolate in the microwave, or over a pan of gently simmering water. Stir in the melted chocolate.

Separate eggs, and whisk yolks together until slightly thickened, and add to butter mixture alternately with second portion of flour. Mix gently, so as not to overwork the flour and make the batter tough.

Fold the 1st portion of flour (mixed with fruit and nuts) into the cake mix.
Dissolve bicarbonate of soda in the warm water and stir gently into the mixture.

Whisk the egg whites until holding very soft peaks and fold into the cake mixture with the third and final portion of flour.

Turn cake mixture into prepared tin, smooth top with palette knife and brush with a little tepid water to keep cake soft while cooking. Put cake into oven and bake at least 3 and up to 4.5 hours. After the first hour, place a folded square of baking parchment on the top to reduce browning (this can go on from the beginning, but then tends to stick to the mixture).

When cake has been in the oven about 1.5 hours, turn cooker down to 290F (145C) or Mark 2. At the end of cooking time (or after about 3 hours) test with a skewer to see that it comes out clean with no batter clinging to it. Leave in tin to cool for 30 minutes then turn out carefully on to wire rack.

When cold wrap in several sheets of greaseproof paper and store in completely airtight tin. Store for at least one month. Will keep for a year or more. Cover with almond paste two weeks before needed and ice one week later.

More about making fruit cake, and some recipes:
BBC Food Fruit cake
Nigel Slater’s Christmas cake
Felicity Cloake on her perfect Christmas cake

This much I know: what I’ve learned about cooking

Bourke street semi-sourdough

As much as we like to pretend that cooking is a matter of following recipes, and obeying instructions, there is a huge amount of experience that builds up as you cook. Knowing how things should look, smell or feel, based on having done it before is what separates the ‘experienced’ cook from the novice, and allows you to question instructions when you don’t feel they are right. Here are a few things that I’ve learned about cooking (so far):

  • Recipes always underestimate the amount of time you need to cook onions for. Go with how they look not how long they’ve been cooking for.
  • Bread is much more forgiving than it seems, and so incredible rewarding. You don’t need to follow all the rules, but you do need to understand a bit about yeast and about gluten to work out which ones you can break. No-knead, hand kneading, using a mixer, long rise, short rise, sourdough and commercial yeast: find a recipe that suits you and go from there.
  • Cook what you like to eat. You’re never going to put the effort and attention into something that you’re a bit unsure of in the first place. Find recipes that you would immediately order in a restaurant, and make them for yourself. Don’t make the things you’re lukewarm about, even if everyone else raves about them.
  • Find cookbooks where you share the palate of the writer. I know that Nigella and I disagree about seafood. I know that Skye Gyngell is much more fond of capers and olives than I am. Everyone has preferences, and knowing if you share the tastes of the writer is a good guide to whether you’re likely to cook a lot from the book. Libraries are a great way of trying out cookbooks before buying them.

A good deal of chopping for this afternoon's cooking, so time to get the good knife out

  • A big, sharp kitchen knife is essential. Get one a bit larger than you think you need. Learn how to use it properly. Keep it honed with a steel, and get it sharpened occasionally. It makes everything easier.
  • Seasoning needs to be done throughout if you can. Always taste towards the end to see if it’s right. If it tastes flat, or uninteresting, it almost certainly lacks salt. It may look like a lot to add, but it’s likely still less than the same meal bought at the supermarket. But seasoning is not just about salt: use pepper, lemon juice, vinegar, a pinch of sugar, a scrape of nutmeg. I keep a pepper grinder that contains black peppercorns and allspice berries for seasoning meat, greens and bechamel sauces.
  • Remember Julia Child’s maxim – never apologise. If you missed a step, or substituted an ingredient, there’s a good chance that the only person who will know is you. Don’t tell them what happened, just present it with confidence. But if it doesn’t taste good, by all means apologise, and offer to make something else!
This post was prompted by the Blogging U Writing 101 course, which asked me to make a list in today’s blog post. I’m trying this out as a way to get me back to writing (although not necessarily posting) every day.
This list was also inspired by Licked Spoon’s excellent list of 10 tips for cooking smart, which you should definitely check out.

Avoiding flapjack failure – five tips for better flapjacks

Treacle flapjacks

Flapjacks always go wrong! My flapjacks don’t work! Why do my flapjacks fall apart? You don’t have to look too far to find lots of tales of flapjacks gone wrong. Too chewy, too crunchy, but most often, just crumbly and collapsing into a super-sticky granola. I’ve had flapjack problems before, but put this down to errors on my part. After all, flapjacks are easy – aren’t they? And Nigella Lawson’s flapjack recipe in ‘Domestic Goddess’ is notorious for causing problems (there was a misprint in early versions of the book).  So when I made some peanut butter flapjacks that were a little too willing to fall apart, I decided I was going to solve this problem once and for all. What makes flapjacks so maddeningly inconsistent?  Original flapjacks

Pretty much all flapjack recipes follow the same simple pattern: melt butter with sugar and syrup, and stir in the oats. Then bake to toast the oats slightly, caramelise the sugar a bit and dry everything out enough to be sliceable.They are such a simple idea, where could it possibly go wrong? Well, it turns out, quite a few things create pitfalls for the flapjack maker. The details of ingredients and method make all the difference between a chewy slice, a crunchy biscuit – or a collapsed pile of sticky oats.

Crumbly flapjacks

After a bit of a marathon flapjack-making session last week, plus a bit of internet searching for others who had problems, here are my tips for successful flapjacks:

  1. You need the right oats – porridge oats. This is not the place for high quality, chunky, jumbo rolled oats. Those will make great granola, but rubbish flapjacks. You want Quaker oats, or Scotts – porridge oats that are rolled fairly thin. This helps them to absorb the syrup mixture, and holds the whole thing together. The jumbo oats just get coated, and the excess tends to boil over (see photo below). Instant cook/quick cook oats are a little too dusty, but can be useful to adjust the texture if there’s too much syrup.

Overflowing peanut butter flapjacks

  1. Melt the sugar completely. If you’re using sugar in addition to syrup, make sure it dissolves completely when you heat it, or you will end up with gritty sugar granules in the final result, and a more crumbly texture. The easiest way to do this is just to heat quite slowly, over a fairly low heat, and stir every now and then. To check if it has dissolved, use the trick advised in jam making: check the back of the spoon or spatula you are stirring with to make sure the liquid coating it is totally smooth and has no granules left.
  2. Adjust the oats/liquid before baking. As oats vary so much, even following the recipe carefully you can still end up with a mismatch between the volume of syrup and the oats needed to absorb it. So stop and look at the mixture once the oats have been stirred in. Is there any syrup pooled at the bottom of the pan? If so, add a few more oats, or leave it for five minutes to let the oats soak up some of the excess, and check again. Are there any dry patches of oats, or do they look thinly covered? You want everything to be coated and slightly glossy. If it doesn’t look right, throw in a bit more syrup.

Stirring in the oats

  1. Match the baking method to the type of flapjack you want. This tip comes via Felicity Cloake’s Guardian column. Some think of flapjacks as crunchy squares – something like biscuits in slice form. Others prefer a chewy and caramelised version. You can produce both, according to this blog, with the same recipe, by baking at different temperatures for different times. High temperatures will produce a crunchier version, lower temperatures a chewier one.

Four types of flapjack

  1. Bake until browned. Ovens vary, oats vary, so you need to be fairly flexible with the baking time. Adjust the temperature as above, and then bake until the top is a little browned. The oats taste better and have a greater dimension of flavour if they get a little colour.

Hopefully following these five tips will help you to make perfect flapjacks. And once you have a recipe that works for you, stick with the same brand of oats in future to ensure it will be consistent.

How to add crunch with crumbs and crumbles

A delicious meal has a balance of flavours, some element of contrast between the sweet, salty, sour and bitter; a sharp sauce to cut a rich meat, or a little sugar to enhance the savoury flavour of a tomato sauce. In the same way, contrasts in texture make a meal more interesting, and gives the mouth something more interesting to encounter. Texture is our sense of touch applied to food – the pressure on our teeth and tongue, the heat generated by spices, the silky feel of fat or the sparkle of bubbles.

A simple way to add another texture dimension to a dish is to add a layer of crunchy topping to it. Crumbles, granola, streusel, and breadcrumbs are all ways to provide a contrasting texture to an otherwise smooth dish. The crunch can come from toasting and drying bread, from the crisping of fat mixed with flour, from caramelising sugar, and from the built-in crunch of nuts.

Here are a few different ways to add crunch that can be prepared well in advance and stored for when you need a bit of extra texture for your dish.


Leftover and staling bread can be turned easily into breadcrumbs with a food processor or a blender(if you have quite dry bread). Stashing these in the freezer is helpful for making meatballs, gratin toppings or crumbing meat or fish for frying, but you can amplify their uses by doing a bit of additional work first.

You could simply toast the crumbs in oil or butter, getting them brown & crunchy before going into a freezer bag. This makes for extra-crunchy pasta bakes or gratins, or can be used as a pasta topping in its own right. Ruth Reichl (former editor of Gourmet magazine) thinks they are so useful they could be considered a Christmas gift.

Another option is to mix in some flavourings as you grind the bread to crumbs. Parsley, garlic and parmesan make for a green-tinged, intensely flavourful batch of breadcrumbs. Use them to top pieces of chicken or fish before baking in the oven, or add to minced meat with an egg for deeply flavoured meatballs.



Dukkah is an Egyptian nut and spice mix used to dip bread into. It has been popular in New Zealand and Australia for years, and as Middle Eastern food grows in prominence with the Ottolenghi effect, you see it here more often too. There are a range of different recipes and spice blends that can be used. Hazelnuts are used most often as the chopped nuts base, but you can also use almonds, cashews or pistachios, or a mixture. Once made, you can add this as a crunchy topping to a dip, as Ottolenghi does with this butter bean puree, or top soups or casseroles with it for last-minute flavour and crunch. Diana Henry’s new book ‘A Change of Appetite’ has a recipe for roast tomatoes and lentils with dukkah-crumbed eggs, which contrasts the dukkah with the soft, yielding tomatoes and egg yolks.


Banana granola in the jar

Granola is generally offered as a standalone choice with milk or yoghurt, but I prefer to use it as a crunchy topping to a bowl of cereal and muesli. This adds a nice contrast, but also means the dose of syrup and costly nuts per serving is reduced. Because with granola, you have to face the idea that it’s really just flapjack with a bit less syrup and a few more oats. A batch of granola can equally become a topping for cereal or yoghurt at breakfast, ice-cream for dessert, or make it into granola bars.

The crunch comes from toasting the oats and nuts in fat, but also from the caramelisation of the syrup or honey. One way to reduce the fat and sugar is to use some pureed fruit, but then more toasting is needed to thoroughly dry out the oat mix. My three favourite granola recipes:

Crumble topping

Strawberry crumble bars from @KimBoyceBakes recipe - using my homemade jam

The ideal contrast to a dish of soft cooked fruit, the recipe for crumble can provoke disagreement. Much of this is based in nostalgia for whichever crumble you had as a child, at home or school. As the American name, crisp, suggests, a crumble topping needs to have crunch. This is created by either rubbing roughly equal quantities of fat into the flour, or mixing in melted butter. Additional texture can be added with nuts and oats. Streusel toppings are along the same lines, often with more sugar, and can be used on top of a jam and shortbread base to make crumble bars.

 Further reading:

Behind the sweets – part 2 – chocolate and tempering

Dipped truffles 2

This is part two looking at the techniques used in the BBC series ‘Sweets Made Simple‘. Part 1 looked at sugar work and caramel.

Kitty Hope encourages you to temper chocolate for any of the recipes that involve making a chocolate shell or cup to contain a filling. She also makes it look quick and simple – which it is if everything goes right. But why bother tempering chocolate, rather than just melting it?

As they say on the programme, tempered chocolate is smooth & shiny and has a ‘snap’ when you break or bite it. It will also shrink away from moulds, making it easy to unmould, and resists melting on your fingers, but melts all at once on your tongue. All chocolate bars that you buy should be tempered when you get them.

To see the difference, break up part of a bar of chocolate (dark shows the difference most clearly, because it only contains cocoa fat (cocoa butter) and no milk fat). Something like a bar of Lindt 70% is usually well tempered and you can really hear the snap with the thin squares. Melt a couple of squares, stir it around and leave them to set again on a piece of baking parchment – something you can peel them off easily.
When they are solid again, you will likely be able to see swirls and speckles of white on the surface, and if you break it, it will seem more crumbly than the stuff straight from the packet. Added to this, if you taste it, it will melt less smoothly, perhaps tasting a bit grainy.

untempered chocolate

Why the difference?
Cocoa fat/cocoa butter turns put to be quite complicated stuff that can form six different types of crystals. Tempered chocolate contains just one or two types that stack neatly together and melt all at the same temperature. When you melt and resolidify chocolate without tempering, you get a mix of all the types, melting at different temperatures, and stacking together in a jumbled way.

Tempering melts all the crystals out, then, by controlling the temperature, encourages just the good crystals to form.

So with tempering, you’re trying to encourage even crystals to form; with sugar work, you’re usually doing everything to prevent those nice even white sugar crystals forming in your syrup.

How to temper chocolate

I won’t provide a list of steps for tempering chocolate, as others have done this much better:

Kitty Hope from the series has this article on how and why to temper chocolate.

Alice Medrich, Californian chocolate queen, goes into some detail about the method and pitfalls of tempering.

Using tempered chocolate

Some of the things you can use tempered chocolate for:

  • Coating chocolate truffles
  • Making chocolate shells or cups to fill with ganache or cream
  • Dipping candied orange peel to make orangettes
  • Coating biscuits or florentines
  • Dipping fruit such as cherries

Behind the Sweets – part 1 – sugar and caramel

Chocolate caramels

I’ve been enjoying the new food TV series ‘Sweets made simple‘, catching up on the first two episodes on iPlayer.
They successfully rattle through four or five recipes an episode, and succeed in making the finished sweets look both tasty and, yes, simple.
In fact, I think they make both caramel making and chocolate tempering look a bit too simple – it’s quite possible to come across problems with both of these techniques, which they don’t really address.

As usual, my particular bugbear is their lack of explanation of the various rules and instructions (although I concede that exploring these would create a rather different programme). Here are some of the techniques and tips they mention, with a bit of further explanation about them. So here’s a bit of a breakdown of some of things they mention in passing, with a bit more on what’s behind the advice.

Part 1: Caramel making and sugar syrups

Heavy bottomed pan

They are sure to mention that you should use a heavy-bottomed pan when making a caramel. What’s so special about a heavy bottom? What they really mean is a pan that has a sandwich of metal on the base, typically a disc of aluminium, fused to a stainless steel pan. This type of pan will help distribute the heat evenly across the base, as aluminium is a good heat conductor, much better than steel. This will help to avoid hotspots, which can be a particular problem with sugar syrups and caramels, where you are trying to reach a specific temperature across the whole mixture, and where stirring could create crystals that cause the whole lot to become grainy.
In fact, an alternative to the recommended ‘heavy bottomed pan’ is a distinctly lightweight (though not cheap) unlined copper pan, as copper is an excellent heat conductor.

Temp goes fast and then slow

Kitty sensibly mentions that when making a sugar syrup, the temperature will rise fast to 100ºC and then go slowly. The temperature of the syrup is related to how concentrated it is. As it heats up, more and more water boils off, leaving a more and more concentrated sugar syrup behind. While the mixture is mostly water, the temperature will remain at, or very close to 100ºC. It’s only when the syrup is almost all sugar that the temperature can start to rise again. For instance, if you heat to 260F/ 127C you have reached ‘hard-ball’ stage, which is used to make marshmallow, for instance, and the syrup will be 92% sugar and 8% water (see here for more details on the link between temperature and sugar concentration).

This is why the specific temperatures are so critical with sugar work – they determine what the texture of the cooled sugar will be. To make a caramel, all the water has to be boiled away, until you have just molten sugar, which when heated further, will caramelise, firming new molecules and turning first golden, and then dark brown.

Caramel - 3

It will froth up

I’m thinking particularly of the marshmallow recipe, where soaked gelatin sheets are added to sugar syrup, but this applies to anything where you add something containing water, like cream, butter or soaked gelatin, to a syrup or caramel where most or all of the water has been boiled off. As the watery ingredient hits the hot syrup, the water instantly boils, producing a huge mass of bubbles that make the syrup froth and foam. This is why it’s usually a good idea to use a high-sided saucepan when doing sugar work.

Using liquid glucose

A couple of the recipes have suggested adding a small quantity of liquid glucose or golden syrup to the white sugar used for most of the recipe. The reason for these is the same as why Kitty often tells you not to stir as the mixture is heating. When you heat up sugar and water, and start to concentrate it by boiling off the water, it’s easy to trigger the sugar into crystallising again. This produces a grainy white mess in the pan. Putting in a spoon can give the sugar something to crystallise on, which is why sugar recipes often advise you only to swirl the pan. Adding a liquid sweetener like liquid glucose or golden syrup disrupts the crystallisation process, adding in sugar molecules that don’t fit, and making it difficult for the white sugar crystal to reform.

Back soon with more on chocolate and tempering.