Elderflower and polenta cake from Lombardy

27 May 2022

In this very instant it’s the best cake in the world. It is a fairy godmother cake from another time. It belongs in an ancient garden, dappled, overgrown, heaving with ivy and tangled roses. It needs friends with whom to share it. Right now it’s just me in my urban fox-ravaged patch, with this cake. But when I close my eyes I am displaced.

There are many things I should rather be doing this morning than baking, or eating, a cake… but the elderflowers are in full bloom, the time will pass in an instant. So I walk over to the elderflower tree at the bottom of our road, nip a few overhanging flowers, and begin to bake.

I saw this cake just a few days ago on Stefano Arturi’s Instagram. Stefano is the author of the excellent blog Italian Home Cooking, and, as with all of his recipes, he explains the origin and stories behind this nearly forgotten, old-fashioned pàn de mèj (millet, originally). He describes it as ‘a dry cake, exquisitely perfumed, whose restrained elegance and goodness should be revived.’

I totally agree, and now is the time.

Elderflower and polenta cake recipe barely adapted from Stefano Arturi’s Italian Home Cooking

3 to 6 heads of elderflowers, depending on the size
150g white flour (I used spelt)
150g coarse polenta
1 tsp baking powder
Good pinch of salt
Grated zest from one lemon
120g sugar (I use golden caster sugar)
80g butter, melted and cooled
40g light olive oil
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 170C (330F). Line with parchment paper and butter a small (23cm / 9in) cake or pie tin.

Shake the elderflower heads to get rid of any small bugs.

Mix together the flour, polenta, baking powder, salt, lemon zest, and sugar.

Add the melted butter, olive oil, beaten eggs, and vanilla extract. Stir to combine.

Pick the flowers from the stems and chop them up a little. Combine 5 tablespoons of the flowers into the batter.

Scrape the batter into the cake tin.

In a small bowl, mix together 2 tablespoons of elderflowers with 2 tablespoons of sugar. Sprinkle over the cake.

Bake the cake for about 30 minutes, until a knife or skewer comes out clean.

Eat warm or at room temperature, traditionally with a pour of cold single cream, though it is delicious as is.

Almond & buckwheat pound cake with a flume of rhubarb

21 May 2022

Sometimes a bowl of rhubarb compote in the fridge inspires cake, and so the other day.

A quatre-quart — ‘four-quarters’ as the French call a pound cake — is often my basis for a quick cake improvisation; a ‘snacking cake’ — such a perfect denomination. The term was recently popularised by Yossy Arefi thanks to her book ‘Snacking Cakes: Simple Treats for Anytime Cravings,’ which she describes as ‘a single layer cake, probably square, covered with a simple icing—or nothing at all—and it must be truly easy to make.’ Though I don’t own the book, the term immediately imprinted itself. I now often think of a cake I’m about to make as a ‘snacking cake.’ This is the perfect example.

The basis is a simple pound cake — equal weights of eggs, butter, sugar, and flour. But I’ve lowered the sugar slightly, as usual, and divided the flour ratio into three (unequal) parts: white spelt, almond, and buckwheat. I’ve noticed buckwheat flour appear in recipes more and more often recently and its popularity is well deserved. It adds depth and is a great addition to many cakes. I started using it some years ago when I began spending most of my summers in Brittany, where buckwheat is the local flour. As it doesn’t keep for very long I often have an open packet that needs using. I find using little is often best.

Almond & buckwheat pound cake with a flume of rhubarb

250g unsalted butter, left out to become very soft
210g sugar
4 eggs
150g white spelt flour
30g buckwheat flour
70g almond flour
1 mounded tsp baking powder
Zest from one lemon
1 tsp salt
Rhubarb compote

Preheat the oven to 175C (350F). Line a 30 x 10cm (12 x 4 in) — or equivalent capacity — cake tin with parchment paper and butter the paper generously.

Beat the butter and sugar vigorously until very soft and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and continue beating well. Stir in the flours, the baking powder, the lemon zest, and salt. The batter should ideally feel mousse-like.

Scoop half of the batter into the tin, then a generous layer of rhubarb compote, and finally the rest of the batter.

Place in the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until a knife or skewer comes out clean.

Wait for the cake to cool completely before cutting, if you can.

Student food (or weeknight meal) | Chicken and broccoli

28 February 2022

This is one of my favourite weeknight meals, so good and very quick to make, but I’m placing it in the ‘student food‘ category because Leo, who is currently at university, immediately asked me how to make it when he saw a picture I’d posted on instagram. Laggard that I am — I was on holiday after all — it took me a few weeks to send the recipe, in a stream of whatsapp messages, and I am happy to report that the method has already been duly tested and approved.

Here it is, all in one, more easily accessible hopefully than those bits and pieces of a conversation.

Chicken and broccoli recipe
Note: I actually use 2 different types of soya sauce — ‘light soya sauce’ which is quite salty and good to use instead of salt and tamari which is dark (but not the same as ‘dark soy sauce’) and has a deeper taste.

Recipe for 2:
200g tenderstem broccoli (or broccoli which is cheaper)
2 boneless chicken thighs (or breasts, but thighs are juicier)
One 1/2-thumb-size piece of fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves
Oil (any vegetable oil works)
Soya sauce
Rice wine vinegar
Sesame seeds

Trim off the stem ends of the broccoli. If using regular broccoli rather than tenderstem, cut it into small florets. Wash it in cold water.

To blanch the broccoli (optional but better): Put some salted water to boil in a saucepan (like for pasta). Once the water boils, cook the broccoli for just 1 to 2 minutes, then drain the water and add lots of very cold water from the tap to cool off the broccoli quickly. Drain.

Cut the chicken into chunks.

Peel and cut the ginger into matchsticks (=> first into thin slices, then each slice into sticks)
Peel and finely chop the garlic.

Heat the frying pan well, add a little oil. Put in the pieces of chicken and fry on high heat for about three to five minutes until they are nice and brown. Stir occasionally but not too often or they won’t brown.

Now pour some soya sauce and rice vinegar into the pan, about 1 to 2 tablespoons of each, and stir everything together. Add the broccoli. Cook for a few minutes more. =>> If you didn’t blanch the broccoli this will take a few minutes longer.

Move the pieces of chicken and broccoli to one side of the pan to make a bit of space, add a little bit of oil, and fry the ginger and garlic just for a minute (be careful that the garlic doesn’t burn, or it will become bitter).
Stir everything together.

Taste. Add soy sauce and vinegar if you think it needs it.

Sprinkle some sesame seeds.

That’s it! 💚

Vin d’orange

2 February 2022

Making apéritif alcohol infusions isn’t the peak or culmination of proficiency and dedication in the kitchen. Just the opposite. Few things are as easy as cutting fruit, scooping sugar, and pouring over some strong alcohol. Everyone should try it, especially anyone who wouldn’t touch a kitchen appliance with a ten-foot pole. Unlike preserving or canning, which usually involves quite a bit of prep, macerating, simmering, and sterilising of jars, not to mention the faintest hovering threat of serious poisoning, here there is no risk attached, the combination of sugar and strong alcohol makes sure of it.

One of my oldest friends, who is probably also the one who cooks the least, has been infusing rum with fruits, spices, herbs — even, I think, vegetables! — for decades. Many start as experiments, none follow a measured recipe. She has a whole trunkful at home, dozens and dozens of bottles. For years, every time we saw her, she also brought along a bottle (or two or three) of prunelle (sloe liqueur), made by her mother, who wasn’t, I understand, a particularly enthusiastic cook either. She had quite a way with prunelle, though.

This is where I got the hint. When I want to make something but have neither much time, nor much patience, I seep fruit in alcohol. And so we have jars of fruit-seeped alcohol — and alcohol-seeped fruit — in every corner of the kitchen. I have now taken up the mantle of prunelle production, I’ve made Seville orange gin, I have a traditional rum pot macerating with summer fruit, and another with dried fruit. I’ve even experimented with quince, though the ratafia needs some fine tuning.

Vin d’orange, a delicately flavoured bitter-orange apéritif originally from the South of France, is just such a project — ridiculously quick and easy. All it needs is a bit of patience (a few weeks at least), and, later, someone with whom to crack open a bottle.

Vin d’orange recipe adapted from Samin Nosrat
I tried a couple of different recipes for vin d’orange last year. I like this one best with just rosé and vodka. I’ve adjusted quantities, the recipe remains pretty much the same.

A large, closeable glass jar with a capacity of 3 litres (and later 3 clean sealable 750ml bottles)

4 Seville oranges
1 orange
1/2 lemon
180g to 200g sugar
1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise
1.5 litres (= 2 bottles) of rosé wine (cheap but drinkable!)
350ml (= half a bottle) of vodka

Wash and dry the jar with a clean cloth.

Rinse all the citrus, cut them it into smallish chunks.

Place all the fruit into the jar. Add the sugar and vanilla bean, and pour in the alcohol. Mix well but gently until the sugar dissolves. Seal tightly and leave in a cool, dark place (or the fridge, if there is room!) for about a month. (Samin Nosrat suggests between 32 and 40 days, but I am pretty sure I left mine quite a bit longer last year. Whatever suits, it’s far from a perfect science!)

After about a month, when the vin d’orange has developed the right orangey and bitter taste, strain the liquid through a fine mesh sieve lined with two layers of cheesecloth into clean sealable bottles. The vin d’orange is now ready to drink, and will only get better and better.

Serve chilled, with friends.

12 things to cook | in midwinter

29 January 2022

In January, I’ve realised, I often cook by colour. The light is softer then, better. Colours don’t blaze, they gleam, they glow from within. It isn’t that, at other times of the year, colours don’t matter. Perhaps they are less conspicuous, or simply taken for granted!

But the sudden appearance of a fluorescent purple or a tender green against the muted winter grays instantly makes one notice. So at this time of the year, when I choose what to eat, the question is often — what colour is my mood?

Here are some of the dishes I circle back to often, by tone.

BRIGHT — Salads, of course, and citrus!

Winter technicolour salad

Endive salad

Cabbage slaw

Marmalade cake

Orange and clementine salad

GREEN — Leaves and herbs

Soup in shades of green

Soba noodle soup

Kale and cauliflower gratin

BROWN — Low and slow cooked things

Slow cooked pork belly

Slow roasted pork shoulder

Baked apples

Three ginger cake


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