Friday, 30 August 2013

Cressida Bell's cakes

Cressida Bell, Hackney, London pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Cressida Bell, Hackney, London pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Cressida's acrylic nails. Very Hackney!
Cressida Bell, Hackney, London pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Cake decorating has, for a long time, been a bit too fussy, sugary and, quite simply, naff. But now the textile designer Cressida Bell, has brought out a book of her cake décor and it's stunningly original. Her designs have the beauty and meticulous detail of mosaic.

I went to visit her in her spacious studio behind Pogo's vegan restaurant in Clapton, round the corner from murder mile. Cressida is a descendant of The Bloomsbury Set, who were a group of writers and artists in the 1920s, who were ahead of their time. They led bohemian lifestyles, were atheists, anti-war, sexually adventurous. 

Their art was figurative and decorative rather than abstract. Cressida's textile work is in a similar vein, I watched her use paint (house paint!) to brush colour onto intricately patterned drawings. She inherited her pattern making ability from her father, Quentin Bell, the potter and artist, (son of Vanessa Bell, the artist) who used to turn the annual family Christmas cake into a decorative work of art. Now Cressida does the Christmas cake.

Cressida is a keen cook but not a baker. She doesn't even like cake all that much. But cakes do offer an opportunity for design that savoury food does not. Although she has decorated whole salmon, chaud froid work.
Her tips:

  • No skills are needed. Just patience.
  • Creating these designs is meditative, lovely while listening to the radio.
  • You can buy edible ink patterns to make your own cake from Cressida's web site
  • Google circular patterns as a starting point if you want to create your own design.
  • If you aren't very confident about baking, buy the cake. 
  • Rose Prince created the cake recipes in the book. I've made Rose's Victoria Sponge recipe, one of the best!
  • Cover the cake with marzipan and ready rolled sugar paste. Cakes were originally covered with marzipan and icing to preserve them. You also want a smooth flat surface for decorating.
  • Generally each cake takes about three hours. Although the leopard skin one took more like two days!
  • Beware, you can find yourself becoming addicted, Cressida's designs became increasingly complex and time consuming.
  • You can use any sweets for the design, my favourite is probably the sugared almond/dragee cake. 
  • Glacé fruits are also very effective and don't go off as they are, by nature, preserved.

You can buy her book here.

Cressida Bell, Hackney, London pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Cressida Bell, Hackney, London pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Cressida Bell, Hackney, London pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Cressida Bell, Hackney, London pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover

Monday, 19 August 2013

Recipe: squash flower soup (sopa de flor de calabaza)

squash flower soup

squash flower soup

Flower soup. How fragrant and delicate that sounds. In Mexico they use the flower of the courgette or the squash. There are many different versions of this soup, with corn, with mushrooms, with chicken; my version is vegetarian. How to get hold of the flowers? They aren't cheap unfortunately, and I've yet to see a supermarket that sells them. Befriend a gardener, they may, if they have a good crop, sacrifice some of their courgettes or pumpkins. Once you pick the flowers, the plant won't fruit. (Update: a reader suggested asking for the male flowers, the big ones without the courgette attached, as they don't fruit). Or grow your own...we will be explaining how at the Secret Garden Garden 'Food of the Americas' session on the first of September. Buy tickets here£30 for the gardening workshop and supper.
Accompanied with corn tortillas, this soup makes a hearty starter or main course for high summer. 

1 ancho chilli, seeds removed and split in half
2 red peppers
75 g unsalted butter
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
2 corn on the cobs, corn kernals removed
4 baby courgettes, sliced lengthways into quarters, or 2 large courgettes, sliced into rounds
300 g button mushrooms, finely sliced
10 squash or courgette flowers, the stems and interior sepals removed and torn into strips
a handful fresh coriander leaves, chopped
corn tortillas, to serve

Find the rest of this recipe on the Good Food Channel here. 

A word about chillis:
We tend not to be able to grow or buy the correct fresh Mexican chillis in the UK so we are obliged to buy the dried versions. ( I feel like Elizabeth David in the 1950s complaining about not being able to buy fresh herbs or olive oil in the UK. I do hope suppliers start to grow things that cooks actually want: poblanos, tomatillos, yuzu.)
In this recipe, we would normally use three poblano chillis which are large and mild, rather like a smoky green pepper. I've replaced that with the dried version 'Ancho' which is readily available on food websites e.g:
The technique with dried chillis is this: Removing the stem and seeds, splitting it and briefly dry roasting it on the hob until it slightly changes colour, then soak it in a little hot water (enough to cover the chilli) for ten minutes until soft. Then I grind it up in a food processor or in a mortar and pestle and add to my dish.
squash flower soup

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Meet the Fockers, a recipe for gremolata or Death and Hummus

So The Teen has a boyfriend. From the North. She brought him down to London and I invited my entire family to inspect him over dinner.
This visit is negotiated, after many fights and accusations of being a 'Victorian mum' for I won't let him sleep in The Teen's bedroom. I'm making the boyfriend sleep in the shed. (That's not as bad as it sounds, I have a nice shed, with a bed and a wood fire.) I feel he has to earn the right, to show me he's respectful, long-term, towards my daughter, for me to have them, officially, in the same bed. I explained this to my friend Fat Les who has a teenage daughter too. He was surprised: 'You are like a Chinese Tiger mum, that's how they think. I didn't realise Western mums do that too'.
Maybe they don't. This is my first time, welcoming a sort of 'in-law' and I don't know how to behave. The teen wants me to be 'normal'. I'm going to try very hard to be normal but my basic bohemian-ness, of which I'm scarcely aware, keeps leaking out. This used to happen at parent-teacher meetings too.
This morning I baked him tea cakes for breakfast from scratch. I made him Yorkshire tea, leaving the bag in for ages until it resembled a thick caramel. I frequently have to ask him to repeat sentences as he's from Bradford and they don't make the 'th' sound there.
'Did you sleep well?' I asked.
'No. There was a white spectre above me in the morning' he said, unsmiling.
'Wow, really? There's a ghost in the shed?'
'I was joking'
He's a science student who thinks he made an obvious joke because no one believes in ghosts. But I not only believe in ghosts, I'm scared of them. This is a problem. I can't tell when he's being funny.
I found myself, this morning, whilst buttering the tea cakes, asking if he was circumcised. It was the natural lead-on from where we were at, conversationally. I immediately realised, fractionally too late, I  failed on the 'normal' mother test at that point. Then The Teen, being raised by me, mentioned Louis CK's routine about cleaning out tiny vaginas. None of this is normal. We can't do normal. We just can't.

The evening meal: my sister, who is louder than me, funnier than me and has much bigger breasts (believe it or not, I'm the quiet one in my family) threatened to arrive in a bikini. My mum said she'd be coming wearing elbow-length white gloves and a sprigged crinoline. My whole family are really enjoying this. The best revenge for parents is becoming a grandparent.

This is what I cooked:
Fava bean hummus using British dried beans by Hodmedod
Mixed leaf salad with hay-smoked rapeseed oil dressing
Grilled aubergines with basil, preserved lemon, breadcrumb gremolata
Aga roasted potatoes in olive oil with artichoke hearts.
Green lentil salad with pomegranate molasses, griddled spring onions and cubed feta
Gooseberry pies and cream

While helping out with prep, I found out the boyfriend didn't know what a spring onion was. He held it up asking which bit he should keep. He had never eaten pesto before he met my daughter. He's never tasted sushi either which is understandable, but I'm sure they have spring onions in the North. They are just young onions aren't they? The teenage daughters to old brown wrinkly onions, surely?

The Teen is only 19 and they aren't getting married. But it is a precurser, no doubt, to some kind of eventual marriage with some eventual person, with all the difficulties of joining up with a stranger from another family with different habits and a different upbringing.
For instance, whatever their faults, my family are talkers. We talk about everything, nothing is off-limits. Much of that is probably down to me, the relentlessly over-sharing oldest daughter. I cringe as I remember that I used to tell my mum about every single sexual encounter. I don't want my daughter to talk to me about sex. I don't want to know. So now I feel very sorry for my mum. What an ordeal!  No wonder she used to flinch when I approached her for a chat.
And this Northern boys' family use coasters and place mats. I actually think coasters and table mats are dangerous. They make things tip over. For god's sake, buy a table where scorches and stains don't matter! I made a decision when I started my own teeny fractured post-modern family that we were not going to use coasters and table mats. Now here we have the intrusion of the progeny of a coaster/table mat family. All my efforts were for nothing.
His family probably aren't talkers in the same way. They'll talk about cereal and the weather and what they are going to do today.
For him this family visit was like Meet the Fockers with me as the Barbra Streisand sexologist, over-intimate, domineering and a bit freaky.
This whole episode has tipped me into a whirlpool of single-parent tinged fear of old age and death. I know I'm going to end up like my nan, living in Rayleigh at the end of a series of roundabouts, with no public transport and me, desperate for the odd visit from my daughter who comes dutifully and reluctantly.
I know I'm going to die alone. Just like my nan. Papery skinned, yellowing like old parchment, hollowed out and toothless in a Southend nursing home.

Recipe for the gremolata.

This is so good. Like really exciting pesto. Very good on grilled vegetables.

a handful of fresh basil leaves, use as much as you've got
One half preserved lemon
Zest of 1 fresh lemon
1 thick slice of stale sourdough or brown bread
handful of pine nuts
1 small clove of garlic
50-100ml of good olive oil

Whizz all of this in a blender. Scoop it onto vegetables or fish or salad or whatever.

Do you let your teenage daughter sleep with her boyfriend in your home? How did you cope with the first serious boyfriend/girlfriend? What did you cook? Are you nice and normal? Are you a Victorian mum or a Tiger mum? Do you use coasters? Please comment below....

Fava bean hummus with balsamic 'pearls' (from Waitrose)

Monday, 12 August 2013

Recipe: fish tacos with all the trimmings

You'll often find fish tacos where the fish is fried in batter. I'm not sure a battered fish works with the slim yellow disk of corn tortilla, the crunchy shredded salad and the salsas. Here, I marinate the fish in achiote, an ochre clay-red crushed berry that imparts a saffrony, dirty-in-a-good-way muddy flavour to the dish. It's lower calorie (not that I care about that particularly), healthier and most critically, an authentic Mexican taste.
Buy a box of achiote online ( is one source). Kept in the fridge, it lasts forever and can be used in all manner of Mexican foods. You can rub achiote paste, perhaps a little bit diluted with hot stock or water, all over your meat or fish, or take a pinch and add it to stews and beans.
Find the recipe here on the Good Food Channel together with my recipe for 3 salsas. Add a quick guacamole (crush ripe avocado, a little red onion, some salt, some finely chopped jalapeno chili, juice of a lime and some chopped fresh coriander). You can also add my latest fave rave, chipotle mayonnaise. You have an entire meal with all the trimmings, just lay out all the elements and let your guests compile their own tacos. Pick n Mix!

Friday, 9 August 2013

How to make a nice cup of tea

With each infusion, the tea bud opens up, bringing different nuances of flavour. 
Henrietta Lovell, a kind of sexy Nancy Mitford, came over for a cup of tea last weekend. Ten years ago, she started her business, The Rare Tea company, and has single-handedly revived an interest in tea as a serious drink. Now there are thousands of small tea companies, which can only be a good thing, but hear this: Henrietta was the one that kickstarted this movement. 
She talked to me about the history of tea and how we got to be in the state we are in, drinking bags full of factory tea dust rather than whole leaf tea. 
All tea is from the same bush, camelia sinensis. Yes, green, white, black, oolong, the lot. The difference lies in how it is processed- white being the least, through to green, oolong, black and finally pu’er. The leaves are picked early in Spring, in the morning, just the tip, and then hand rolled in a wok.
In the 18th century, the Duchess of Bedford started a trend of drinking tea mid-afternoon in her bedroom. She'd invite a few aristo mates. 
Tea was stratospherically dear, pricier than champagne, so it was kept in elaborate wooden caddies with lead lining in cupboards under lock and key. The mistress of the house would carry the key on her belt. This tea was mostly green tea, not black tea, which is what we generally drink today. Black tea only became popular about 50 years afterwards. 
It wasn't taken with milk and sugar either. There would be a pot of hot water (a samovar), and it would be poured, just enough for each cup, into the tea pot. Tea was drunk in infusions, just as the Chinese do today. Henrietta told me that the Chinese say:

The first infusion is for your enemy

The second infusion is for your servants
The third infusion is for your wife
The fourth infusion is for your mistress
The fifth infusion is for your business partner
The sixth infusion is for yourself

In China, they spend more on tea than they do on alcohol.

As tea drinking became more popular as a social event, afternoon tea moved from the bedroom to the parlour and servants would prepare it. 

Tea filtered down (haha) to the general populace. Everyone drank tea. Up north, workers have tea instead of dinner because when they got in from work, they'd have a big pot of tea with their meal. The housewife would make a pot of tea then strain it into a Brown Betty teapot which they'd have on the table with their food. 
Middle class housewives would create their own blends with the aid of their local grocer.
Things carried on like this for ages, until the Second World War, when, horrors, there was threat of a tea shortage. Tea was considered so important for war-time morale (on a par with fuel and food) that the government bought it in bulk and stored the tea in warehouses for the duration of the war. But the government weren't buying for taste, they were buying for price. The tea wasn't very good quality. People started to add milk and sugar. 
Just after the war, in 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay on tea. Henrietta suggests that his essay was propaganda, on how to make tea with the low quality stuff. This is where the legend of the boiling water came about. Good tea should not be infused with boiling water but tea bags and poor quality tea need it, or there is no flavour.
Tea has also been used to clean: when my mother was six years old and in hospital to have her tonsils out, nurses threw damp used tea leaves onto the floor then swept up the dust. No chemicals were used in those days.
The next tea revolution came about in the late sixties, 1968 to be precise, when the first tea bags, a new-fangled thing from America, started to become popular in the UK. In 1968 only 3% of the population used tea bags. Everyone possessed a tea strainer.
In 2013, only 3% of the population use loose tea. Henrietta has been working for a decade to reverse this. She mostly works with Chinese, Indian and African tea gardens. She recommends Postcard teas for Japanese tea. It's hard for a woman to do business in Japan. She's experienced speaking to Japanese growers and businessmen and being 'blanked'. Very politely of course, it's Japan after all. It's as if you haven't spoken at all. The Chinese, on the other hand, are very meritocratic, it's all about business and gender prejudice is simply not good business. 
Henrietta created RAF tea, which is sold in Waitrose, developed with WW2 veteran Terry Clark. Ten per cent of the profits go to the RAF. She travels all over the world, forging relationships directly with farmers so that they get a fair deal for their hard work, no middle man involved. Recently she travelled to Calabria to procure bergamot (a gorgeous scented citrus fruit) for the oils in Earl Grey.
I think she'd go down a treat in America, with her energy, drive and enthusiasm and her English manners. Americans tend to drink iced tea and Henrietta is trying to convert them to cold infusions made with better quality tea.
Henrietta appeared on The Apprentice last year, which mischaracterized what she does and her product, which was a shame. Still, she's reached a different audience, so perhaps it was worth it. 

This is her advice:

  • Good tea is a luxury drink, hand-picked and rolled by small family farms. Expect to pay.
  • Use a high tea to water ratio, so only add enough hot water for the round of cups that you will pour. 
  • Drain the teapot of water each time. Don't let the tea steep in water.
  • Most electric kettles boil at just under 100ºf. Wait a minute before pouring in the water, then it will be at around 85º, a good temperature for tea.
  • Keep your tea in small airtight tins. The enemies of tea are air and light. Don't keep your tea in glass jars.
  • Tea leaves need room, space to expand. Try not to use a pot with a filter in the lid.
  • Make several short infusions
  • Green tea is often considered bitter, that means it's badly kept or not very good green tea.
  • Milk and sugar is fine for all black teas. 
  • (Personally, I put milk in first, but that's considered a bit non-U by writers like Evelyn Waugh.)
  • In terms of commercial tea, sold in bags, go Irish or Yorkshire. 
  • The Irish still care about their tea, being one of the biggest tea drinking nations on earth. I love Barry's tea.
  • Yorkshire tea, made by Taylors of Harrogate, is also good quality.
  • Clippers and all the others are industrial crap. 
  • Tea matches with food wonderfully, better with fish and chips for instance, than wine, beer or champagne. 
  • Brew in a clay teapot or glass. Not silver. Stainless steel is fine.A clay teapot retains the flavour of several brewings.
Buy Henrietta's tea here. I tried the silver tip white tea and the whole leaf green tea, both were so refreshing and delicate. We have to train our palettes to appreciate more than bog standard tea. 
There is a famous Snowdon picture called 'Einstein thinking'. I feel I've captured a similar atmosphere here. Henrietta Lovell putting the kettle on and below Henrietta pouring tea!

Watching the leaves expand

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Ceviche tostadas and chipotle mayonnaise recipes

Mexican oil cloth, it smells of petroleum. I love sniffing it. 
Inspired by my recent trip to Mexico, here is my ceviche tostadas. Ceviche itself is the laziest summer dish: no cooking involved, the acidity of the lime will do that work for you.
Famed as a Peruvian speciality, ceviche is also a mainstay of Mexican coastal food, however there are differences between the two methods. Peruvian ceviche tends to have larger chunks of fish, more lime and is often accompanied by sweet potato to soak up all the lovely 'tiger milk', the hangover-curing liquid residue of fish and lime.
Mexican ceviche is drier and the fish mostly shredded or ground. This is important for tostadas, which are deep fried crunchy corn tortillas, as you don't want to lose the crunch!
Tostadas are little known in the UK, whereas in Mexico you buy them ready made by the bag. These deep fried tortillas are a messy food, there is no way to eat it elegantly. If the tostada breaks apart, feel no shame in scooping up the fish with the fragments or even, Mexican style, your fingers.
This recipe is good as a light and zingy starter a summer barbeque. And if it's a washout, the bright flavours will remind you of sunny Mexico.
I got this recipe from Maria who runs a legendary taco stall on the street in Sayulita, a small beach village near Puerto Vallarte. If you want to be really authentic, serve it on a brightly coloured oil tablecloth, and, to save on washing up, cover your plates with throwaway clear plastic bags. This is the clever solution that Mexican street food traders, without running water, have come up with, to beat food hygiene regulations.
I've also included an easy recipe for chipotle mayonnaise. The Mexicans do love a condiment, a habit of which I totally approve. There is generally a rainbow tribe of bottled sauces and bowls of salsas on every table. There is no food that can't be improved with salt, lime and chilli: Mexicans even ladle a selection of salsas onto a bag of crisps or lurid orange cheesy wotsits.

Ceviche Tostadas with chipotle mayonnaise
Serves 4 to 6

See the recipe here for the ceviche and tostadas on the Good Food channel. I've written a series of summer recipes for them, mostly Mexican influenced.

Here is the recipe for the chipotle mayonnaise as seen in the Sunday Times new food supplement. It's so good, seriously, I'm addicted to this stuff. You can buy it ready made in Mexico but it's easy to do it yourself.

100ml of mayonnaise
1 ancho, seeds and stem removed, toasted, soaked, finely chopped
1 chipotle chilli en adobe (available here), finely chopped
( could use a teaspoon of Gran Luchito's smoked chipotle paste.)
A squeeze of lime

Mix all the ingredients together. 
The chipotle en adobe can be kept for a long time in tupperware in the fridge. Use one whenever you need a bit of spice and flavour to a dish. 

Saturday, 3 August 2013

5 great places to eat in Mexico City

Street food: blue corn tortillas with rajas, tomatillos, cheese.
A heads up: you don't say Mexico City, you say 'DF' pronounced 'Day effe', meaning Federal District.
It's one of the most populated cities in the world. The streets are full of smog, dirt, poverty and noise. The trains are like a parliament of hawkers and beggars, singing their way up the crowded carriages. But I love it. To the point that I'd live there.
Mexican food has been underrated until recently, but it is one of the world's great cuisines. There is so much variety in genuine Mexican food, it's so much more than the Tex-Mex version, heavy on the beans and cheese, that we tend to get over here.

Giant molcajete
Flauta, rolled tortilla
Potato chips with salsas and pickles. Like you do.
The food everywhere is fairground bright
Pepitos, coloured wafers with pumpkin seeds
Tripe tacos

While waiting for the toilet, why not buy a cool drink from an impromptu stall?

1. Street food: possibly Mexico has the best street food in the world, on a par with Thailand and India. There isn't a corner of Mexico where people aren't eating. Mexicans really love to eat. You might even say, ahem, that they are greedy. Every doorway, every street corner, every cranny, every park, every metro station, every bus stop, every canal, every road, has a stall or a booth or a counter or a cart or a guy with a drinks maker on his back, selling the most delicious food. From a narrow bar hacking up tripe for tacos to grandmas crouching over a hot burner toasting blue corn tortilla with rajas, to intricately carved bright fruit on a stick, or pepitos hanging like bunting on a line, Mexico City is crammed with food experiences. Even the humble packet of cheezy wotsits becomes a gourmet feast, with salsa, chilli and lime. I'm not going to recommend particular places but suggest you go on a voyage of discovery, it's rarer to have bad food than good.
The Courtyard at Azul Historico. Fantastic food.
Padrinos at 30 Isabel la Catolica. Note the bicycle on the wall. 
2. Posh food: in the Centro Historico (historic centre), I discovered a tree filled shady colonial courtyard which housed several restaurants, boutiques, galleries and food shops. Two main restaurants Padrinos and Azul Historico, the latter run by Chef Ricardo Munoz Zurita (who spent 12 years writing the weighty Mexican food anthology 'Gastronomia Mexicana' of which I bought a copy. This book is a must for anyone seriously into Mexican food). I ate at Azul Historico, which celebrates the Munoz Zuritas interest in regional Mexican cuisine by hosting monthly guest chef spots, this time for a female chef Pilar Cabrera who runs La Olla in Oaxaca.  You could order dishes such as guacamole with grasshoppers, but I tasted the enchiladas de jamaica orgánica which were very original, blue corn wraps stuffed with pickled hibiscus flowers. I also ordered a drink from a section called 'bleedings'. What's that? I asked the waiter. It's white wine or port, say, with a flavoured syrup. I had a white wine and mint. Not to my taste.
Above the courtyard you can also visit 'Culinaria Mexicana', a great resource for Mexican foods and kitchenware.

The barges
Guitarists lurking on the banks
Corn on the cob with chili and salt
Dressing the cob 'elote'
3. Xochimilco: Mexico’s Little Venice is known for its extended series of canals, all that remains of the ancient Lake Xochimilco. People travel in colorful trajineras (boats) covered with flowers. I spent three relaxing hours on my own in a boat, for it was the off-season. The canal is almost comical, with drifting barges of different kinds of musicians, from mariachi to classical, nudging up alongside your boat, urging you to hire them. You pay per song. Idling on the reedy banks are vendors for crafts. Restaurant boats and food barges cruise past, give them a wave and they park next to you, preparing your food. It's as crowded and lively as the street but on the cool breezy water.
Frida's bed (I got in trouble for taking this)
4. Coyoacan the market: near the house of Frida Kahlo. Eat there before or after visiting Frida's house. This compact market has rows of stalls with rainbow-hued salsas and ceviches, sold in heaped pyramids.

5. The market at San Juan: known as the chef's market, go to eat at market counters, have a wander and buy from the food stalls. The lunch stall of Dona Juana is very good. There are ornate religious shrines within the market.

Juice and pickles

Oil cloth

Other resources: check out Good Food in Mexico City by Nicholas Hillman. He's a snotty bugger on Twitter (what is it with American men once they leave America?) but his blog and possibly his books are well worth reading.