The Musette: Tarta de Santiago

We used to host BBQs at the cycling club to thank our many volunteers and their families for their ongoing support as without their assistance we wouldn’t be able to hold our various events. I like to prepare from scratch the pre-BBQ nibbles, accompanying salads and all-important desserts, leaving M le President to handle the grill.

Of course, I also liked proving to the French that Brits can cook and I enjoy the challenge of mass catering. It’s as easy to cater for 100 as it is for 10, you just need to spend a bit more time on planning and preparation.

In these instances my go-to cookery book is one by Ferran Adria, the chef of the former legendary el Bulli restaurant. You can however put your chemistry sets away as this book The Family Meal contains the recipes he used to cook for his staff in the restaurant. They’re no less delicious and each recipe gives the quantities for generally 12, 20 and 75 portions. As I’ve found to my cost, particularly with baking, it’s not merely a question of doubling up a recipe however many times when you’re catering for large numbers.

The first time I made the cake, I didn’t appreciate its significance. Although it’s made all over Northern Spain, it hails from 16th century Santiago de Compostela, the city where Saint James’ body lies, and to where many make a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago (the way of St James). Typically, the cake will have the cross of St James stenciled on its top.

Ingredients (serves 24)

  • 150g (1½ cups) whole blanched almonds, toasted
  • 4 large organic eggs, approx 45g each (1⅔oz) without their shells
  • 150g (1cup) golden caster sugar
  • 1 tsp freshly grated organic lemon zest
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • Icing (confectioners’) sugar for dusting the top


1. Preheat oven to 180ºC/160ºC fan/gas mark 4 (350ºF/320ºF fan).

2. Generously grease and flour a baking tin. I typically use a disposable tin-foil baking tin 18cm x 23cm x  5cm (6” x 9” x 2″). They’re easier for storing the cakes in the freezer, which I line with a couple of strips of greaseproof paper to make it simpler to remove the cake. This amount fills two tins to the required depth.

3. Finely grind the toasted and cooled almonds in a food processor.

4. With an electric mixer – or a strong arm –  beat the eggs with the sugar for around five minutes until thick, foamy and the whisk leaves ribbons in the batter. You’re aiming to get as much air as possible into the mixture.

5. Add the cinnamon and zest to the ground almonds, mixing well to combine.

6. Carefully fold the almonds into the egg mixture with a spatula so as to retain as much air as possible.

7. Pour the batter into the baking trays to a depth of around 1.5cm (about ½”) and bake in the oven for around 20 minutes, or until evenly risen, golden and shrinking away from the sides of the tin.

8. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the tins before turning out. Take care as it’s quite a fragile cake.

9. Just before serving, use a small fine sieve to generously dust the top of the cake with icing (confectioners’) sugar.

10. Allegedly, the cake will keep in a tin for four days but, honestly, it’s so scrummy it’s always eaten the day it’s cooked.

11. It should also keep well in the freezer for a month or so but omit the icing sugar. Dust only when fully defrosted.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the cakes in the oven, put the timer on for 3-5 minutes less than the cakes should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. If you think the cake is browning too quickly, particularly at the edges, cover it with an aluminium-foil tent.

4. If you don’t like cinnamon, substitute with 1 tsp of freshly grated orange zest.

5. The first time I made this cake, I served it with strawberries in balsamic caramel, but it would go equally well with other fresh fruit in season.

6. The cake would be gluten-free except that the baking tins are both greased and floured. Omit the flour and instead fully line the tins with greaseproof (parchment) paper for a truly gluten-free version.

Senior moment

It’s happened and I’m going to have to get over it. Another birthday and my first senior moment. I’m on the slippery slope. Next I’ll be “having falls” and buying slippers and cardigans.

When I travel on business with my beloved, I take charge of all those pesky receipts. You know the ones he loses en route or I find months later in the pocket of something.

Having returned from our recent trip to Toulouse and Castres, I took out all the receipts, annotated and sorted them before putting them into an envelope. Their destination was the “expenses” drawer where I store everything until month end. At the same time I dealt with what seemed like an inordinate amount of post, much of which ended up being vertically filed.

Just a few days later I opened the “expenses” drawer but the documents on top were not the ones I was expecting. Where were the most recent expenses and post? I closed my eyes and indulged in a spot of visualisation. I could see myself getting the receipts out, sorting them but not putting them in the drawer. Had they gotten caught up with something else and been misfiled? Had they fallen down the back of the drawer?

I closed my eyes again and realised later that day I’d indulged in a spot of Marie Kondoesque tidying. That’s right. Anything on my desk that no longer gave me joy ended up in the waste paper basket which had already been emptied and sent for recycling! I can only assume that I had gotten carried away and vertically filed the expenses and post.

My beloved was rather enjoying my discomfort though, of course, he was thankful that it was me rather than he who’d had the mishap. He might be tempted to torment me in the future but he’ll soon forget it ever happened.

Luckily my normally excellent memory came to my rescue and I called the hotel and restaurants to request copies of those invoices which could be replicated. For those that couldn’t, such as tolls and petrol, I fortunately had a record on my credit card. My accountant’s not going to be happy as in France the rule is “no justicatif, no deduction” but I think I can cobble together enough bits of paper to keep her happy.

To be on the safe side, I’ll continue to steer clear of slippers and cardigans.

Thursday doors #4

I took a picture of this door while in Paris so it’s most likely in the Marais in either 3rd or 4th arondissement. Can anyone identify it?

I took it during the journées du Patrimoine in September 2017 which give the general public access to historical buildings not normally open to the public. I keep meaning to make a note of what I’ve photographed. Though I’ll often  remember, just not in this case…….

Postcard from Toulouse

Toulouse is typically a place we drive past on our way to the Basque country. I did visit it briefly in 2012 during the Tour de France but merely scratched the surface of this interesting city which immediately went on my bucket list for a return visit.

Seven years later, I’m partly fulfilling that wish with a few more hours looking around the centre of Toulouse, a rose-coloured gem, thanks to one of my beloved’s many business trips. However, it’s fair to say that it was more a case of what we didn’t see rather than what we did!

I always like to do a bit of research beforehand and discovered that Toulouse is one of France’s best preserved Renaissance cities. Pride towers dot the skyline. They were a sign of wealth when the merchants, known as the Capitouls, built their mansions in the city. Many are still private or have been converted to office spaces. Of course, if I see a door opening onto the courtyard of one of these impressive places, I’m honour bound to have a peek inside.

We had planned to spend the day in Toulouse and, although the sun shone, it was bitterly cold so we spent a goodly part of our time enjoying lunch! Once again we merely scratched the surface of this charming city. However, I did walk around an area in the centre that I hadn’t visited before, happily snapping away.

We started our perambulations in and around Place Saint Georges, formerly owned by the capitoulat of Saint-Etienne, a delightful square full of cafes and restaurants where everyone was wrapped up warmly and enjoying the sunshine. I understand the square has a bit of a grizzly past as it was previously used for executions. An impressive building, the Hôtel de Lafage, dominates the square and is illustrative of 18th century architecture in Toulouse. The hotel was built in 1745 on the site of some fire-ravaged houses for Count Henry Joseph of Lafage. Nowadays it’s apartments.

After lunch we wandered around the roads leading off the square but not any of the roads I’d previously visited. Of course, this means we’ll have to have a return trip to properly visit the town’s “treasures” specifically its impressive churches, in particular Cathedral Saint-Etienne, Basilica Saint-Sernin and Convent of the Jacobins. I’ve read that all of these played an important part of Toulouse’s tumultuous religious history.

I also missed out on Place du Capitole, the seat of the municipal government since the 12th century. While the sprawling neoclassical building with its eight columns representing the original eight Capitouls is impressive itself, it’s the interior 19th-century Salle des Illustres (Hall of the Illustrious) that is truly spectacular. In addition there’s a series of modern paintings adorning the ceiling of the arcade directly across the square from the town hall building.

Of course, if you say Toulouse most people think of aeronautics because the city has long been one of Europe’s most important centres for aeronautics and was the International City of Space in 2017. The massive La Cité de l’Espace has also called Toulouse home for the last 20 odd years and, as the name implies, it’s a small city of all things space including a full-scale 53m high replica of the Ariane 5 rocket launcher. There’s also a state-of-the-art planetarium which, along with Houston and Paris, is one of the world’s top planetariums – next time!

Another place I would have liked to visit is The Fondation Bemberg, housed in the 16th century Hôtel d’Assézat, which includes 30 paintings by the French artist Pierre Bonnard. So that’s another one for our next visit along with the Musée des Augustins with its impressive sculptural collection.

The Musette: macaroni cheese

It’s been surprisingly cold here, less than 10°C during the day. That’s pretty much unheard of, even at this time of year. To keep warm, particularly after some exertions in the fresh air, we’ve been enjoying hearty soups and casseroles. Over the week-end, I decided we deserved some real comfort food and what’s more comforting than macaroni cheese?

I looked at a number of “vegan” alternatives and cobbled together something that was absolutely delicious.  Was it as good as Adam Handling’s (Frog) truffle topped macaroni cheese? Err, no but it was still very tasty. Of course, I could throw caution (and the budget) to the wind and smother it in slices of truffles because everything taste better with them.

Ingredients (serves 8 hungry cyclists)

  • 1 ltr (4 cups) unsweetened oat or almond milk
  • 1 med sized cauliflower, roughly chopped
  • 1 med onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 4 fat cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 150g (1 cup) tapioca flour
  • 2 tbsp dijon mustard
  • 2 tbsp nutritional yeast
  • 1 tbsp cider or white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tbsp white miso (optional)
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 50ml (1/4 cup) extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for topping
  • 85g (3/4 cup) wholemeal spelt flour
  • 800g (8 cups) dried macaroni  – wholemeal or gluten free
  • 6 sprigs fresh thyme (rosemary or parsley)
  • 80g (2 cups) fresh wholemeal breadcrumbs


1. To make the “cheese” sauce, pour the milk into a saucepan, then add the cauliflower, onion, half the garlic and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for approx. 15 minutes, until the cauliflower jhas softened. Allow the vegetables to cool a little.

2. Using an immersion blender, food processor or liquidiser, carefully blend with the tapioca flour, mustard, yeast, vinegar, miso and turmeric. Season to taste.

3. Cook the macaroni in plenty of salted boiling water until only just cooked and still firm to the bite (about half the cooking time stated on the packet). Drain, saving some of the cooking water, and put to one side.

4. Heat the oil and flour in a heavy-based pan over a low flame, stirring well to make a roux. Add a little of the cauliflower mixture at a time, whisking out the lumps, until it is all incorporated. Bring to a low simmer and cook for a few minutes, or until thickened and stretchy. It it’s too thick, add some of the pasta cooking water to thin. Then season to taste again.

5. Add the macaroni and a splash of olive oil, stir to combine, then transfer to a large casserole dish.

6. Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4. Finely chop the herbs and mix into the breadcrumbs with the remaining garlic and a splash of extra-virgin olive oil. Season to taste, then sprinkle over the macaroni and bake for 30 minutes, or until golden and bubbling on top.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. I was aiming to replicate the look and feel of macaroni cheese. It’s hard to totally replicate the taste without cheese. I found that a tbsp of white miso gave it that missing umami flavour.

2. I would suggest that you taste the “cheese” sauce to ascertain whether you need to add  more seasoning.

3. I used cauliflower to give the sauce body but equally you could use a mixture of vegetables. A few carrots or some sweet potato would probably give it more of a cheesy colour.

4. Of course, adding some vegan cheese, particularly mixing it with the breadcrumb topping, would also be delicious.

Friday Photo Fun – revisited

I had to put this post back a day as I was travelling for most of yesterday.

The theme “Revisited” conjures up visions of places I visited years ago and have been fortunate to visit again more recently. I cannot however do “before” and “after” photos as none of my old photos have been digitized – another thing on my ever growing “to do “ list!

Instead, I’m going to post a photo from a place we’ve been visiting every year since 2010, the Basque Country and specifically, San Sebastian. The one above is from August 2014 and features the town’s La Concha beach taken from its Old Town.