Pastry and lemon and sugar oh my.

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Small House #2. I’ve made the butteriest of buttery pastries, it’s chilled in the fridge, I’ve rolled it with – not even the standard wine bottle, but a bottle of posh cranberry cordial. The baking beans are, of course, elsewhere, and so I’ve lined the pastry case with baking parchment and then filled it with flour. It just needs a bit of weight (and it’s Dan Lepard’s idea, and I’ve come to trust him). The oven is hot (the top oven that is: a cheap oven bought on the Holloway road came with so many promises, but delivered a fan oven with a broken thermostat. Our house-warming supermarket curry met a sorry end on account of temperatures rising to well over 300℃. Making do with a tiny oven in both our small houses – keeps with the general theme, I guess). The roast is out and on the table, and with our guest waiting politely to eat I take a shortcut, and don’t bother to move the oven trays around. I’m sure it will cook just fine on the top shelf.

It does. So does the baking parchment.

My beautifully (rustically) prepared pastry case boasts black tips above an (admittedly perfectly cooked) blond base. Burning (alight) leaves of baking parchment are smothered with a Jamie Oliver Special Collection oven glove. My first thought (I now admit) is to save the pastry, not the kitchen. Onto the floor (and the hob, and the top of the washing machine, and my just laundered jeans) goes the charred baking parchment. And all of the flour. But the pastry is saved (note in the photo the little triangles of missing crust? They were the burntest burnt bits).

The others are still waiting to start the non-dramatic, non-fire-inducing, and now not-so-hot roast dinner in front of them. But at least they can look forward, without disappointment, to a Mary Berry tart au citron at the end of the meal. The roast tastes damn good, too (and anyway. On Masterchef – it’s back! – John and Greg are always eating the final contestants’ cold food and not minding too much. It must be a palate thing). The concluding tart delivers on flavour if not on appearance (icing sugar goes a long way but you’ll probably have seen through it). Not supermarket-own smooth, but worth it for the sweet sharp zest that cuts through the cream – the pile of lemon skins indicate not a speck of pulp left unsqueezed.

Puddings involving crisp, short pastry (with no soggy bottoms) and the beautiful sweet-sharpness of lemon-meets-sugar seem to be a theme this Spring (or should we still be calling it Winter? It’s snowing outside). You lucky things, I’m treating you to a double whammy: here’s a photo of this weekend’s Treacle Tart (another one à la Mary Berry – I can hardly blame the pastry fire on her). While it contains a whole pot of Lyle’s Golden Syrup (and amusement as the shocked faces of family and friends watch the spatula scrape every ounce of syrup from the tin), there is enough lemon to give it a wonderful tang. Not to mention plaited lattice work on top. What a beauty. We thought we’d have a hard time finishing it. We didn’t.

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Sugar, sugar, sugar: Fudge, Caramels, Brittle, and everything in between

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Every six weeks I have an appointment to sit down for an uninterrupted hour and talk about baking, cooking, and Masterchef. Oh, and get my hair cut at the same time. This week my hairdresser and I share our affection for Keri, the last woman standing on this year’s Masterchef: The Professionals and a worthy finalist not because of her gender but because she cooks food that I, and Greg Wallace thank god, really want to eat. We also bemoan the fashion for the ‘smear’ of [insert your choice of vegetable here] purée that adorns practically every plate of food on the show. Imagine if you were the first person to invent that smear. How bored would you be of it by now. Must come up with something different. My hairdresser’s Christmas menu sounds out of this world, the kind that you might see on a restaurant menu card: the kind that will struggle with how to smear onion purée across a plate without ‘smearing’ onion purée across a plate. My Christmas menu will have no such problem, as it will be as traditional as can be with everything doused in gravy with no thought for presentation. That’s what it’s all about.

IMG_0494To add to preparations for Christmas festivities we’ve spent the last week with a fake dog. Not a cuddly toy dog as a present for my nephew, no. Something much more sensible: an imaginary dog. In order to decide whether we can really fit the responsibility of being parents to a little furry creature into our busy lives, we try to start each day by deciding, for instance, ‘who’s going to take care of Frankie today’ (choice of name not mine). Or, alternatively, ‘I need to go to campus for a couple of hours but I’ll make sure I’m back in time to take Frankie for a walk’. Or, of course, ‘where’s Frankie going to spend this week, in Small House #1 or #2?’ And so on. Frankie has been a delight, but has also taught me not to leave unwrapped fudge on the counter top.

IMG_0492The fudge is now wrapped and accompanies a variety of other flavours and textures of sweets. I have spent the whole weekend making them, to the disapproval of my mother, whose ‘oh dear’ over the phone tells me she doesn’t trust me not to eat them all myself. I am careful to only leave myself the odd ends, however, and once the rest is packaged up ready to distribute to assorted family and friends there’s no chance I’ll unravel them. The real showstopper is cardamom and white pepper fudge which is, if I do say so myself, out of this world, with an enduring heat from the pepper. It is also, satisfyingly, my own recipe, although I am indebted to inspiration from both Dan Lepard and Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra. I want to put white pepper in everything now I have discovered its effectiveness, and I add it to a batch of biscuits that finish the weekend in style – orange blossom and pistachio, adapted from a tried-and-delightedly-tested cardamom and rose water shortbread recipe from Sugar and Spice. I still haven’t made the Panettone, as an exhausted end-of-term weekend deserves more frivolity than a recipe that (if authentic) demands four rounds of proving. There may well not be enough hours in the day.

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