On a lobster hunt in Nice

On the rare occasions I take a trip into Nice, I always reflect that I don’t visit nearly often enough. I generally try to steer clear during Carnival, as the traffic is horrendous. Recently my beloved met with a business colleague in Nice on a Monday during Carnival (Parade-free day) which gave me a rare opportunity to visit the Cours Saleya and have a poke around its Mondays-only antique market – better stalls tend to be found towards the centre.

I’m always on the lookout for old linen tablecloths large enough to fit my table, cookery and cycling books, cycling posters and silverware. This time I was also looking for some fine wire to repair one of my chandeliers and there’s a stall towards the rear of the market which sells bits to repair chandeliers but, sadly, not fine wire!

The weather was wonderful and as usual there was a veritable babel of foreign languages. After leaving the market empty-handed, I had a mooch round a bookshop before heading for lunch at one of Nice’s newer lobster bars. As you know, I’m very partial to these crustaceans.

On our previous trip, in December, we’d eaten at Lobsta which had earned a thumbs up from both of us. It’s a very small restaurant in a side street off the Prom. The rolls are prepared to order and, while not a patch on those in New England, were very tasty with plenty of lobster meat. I shall definitely darken its door again.

This time I tried out Super Lobster which unfortunately did not live up to its billing. The restaurant was quiet, pretty much what you’d expect on a Monday, giving the staff an opportunity to give of their best, or not. Sadly, it was the latter. Flabby, burnt sweet potato chips, burnt bun and a flat (totally unforgivable) Aperol Spritz. The bun had more additions (coleslaw and advocado) than the all-important lobster. Generally, the French do their own cuisine plus that from former colonies best. Though in Nice, because of its proximity to Italy, you’ll also find excellent Italian food. But that’s largely it.

Super Lobster is in a poor location, I was hard pressed to find it and I know Nice well. Restaurants are all about location. You have to be really special to thrive off the beaten track. Its offering is definitely inferior to that of Lobsta which, while not in an ideal place, is easier to find. It’s lobster rolls are also superior, more lobster – always a winner in my book – and closer to the real thing. Cuisine doesn’t always travel as much as we’d like to think.

I had assumed my beloved would be lunching with his colleague but he’d not eaten when we met up which gave him an opportunity to try out another newly opened franchise The Copper Branch, this time a vegetarian offering. He tried the falafel sandwich with oven baked french fries. He found the sandwich underseasoned though its garlic aioli dressing was overpowering – I can atest to that!. The first portion of chips were cold but a replacement hit the spot. This restaurant is in the main drag and its salads looked very enticing. I’ll be giving it another go but it’s unlikely to deplace vegan restaurant Gorilla in my affections.

Postscript: We tried out Lobsta again during the recent Paris-Nice bike race. The menu is now better focused, shorter and, more importantly, the lobster is still delicious.

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

Method

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.

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

Method

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.

The Musette: sourdough pancakes

Sourdough starter is easily made — all you need to do is whisk together some flour and water — and its benefits are many. Not only does it give baked goods, from breads to pancakes to waffles to muffins and everything in between, great flavour and texture, it’s also really good for you because of its amazing probiotic benefits.

So, I have my sourdough starter from which I’ve made bread, pizza and focaccia, now what? Breakfast pancakes! These are US style rather than French crepes and are fluffy and melt-in-the-mouth awesome. My beloved and I have become instant converts. This recipe is perfect for a big crowd — you can just pop one or two large pancakes into the oven to feed everyone together, rather than slaving over a hot stove making them one by one.

I like to serve them at week-ends so these vegan, sourdough, pancakes with fresh seasonal fruit get your Saturday or Sunday off to a perfect start.

Ingredients (serves 8 hungry cyclists)

Sponge

  • 265g (1 cup) sourdough starter
  • 250g (2 cups) plain (all-purpose) flour (you can use plain, whole wheat or a mixture of half and half)
  • 1 tbsp raw sugar
  • 500ml (2 cups) almond or any non-dairy milk
  • 2 tsp apple cider vinegar

Pancakes

  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
  • 95g (1/4 cup) apple sauce
  • 3 chia or flax eggs (3 tbsp chia/flaxmeal whisked with 9 tbsp water)
  • 4 ripe eating apples (or equivalent in pears, plums, nectarines, peaches) sliced
  • 1 tbsp coconut nectar
  • 1 tbsp calvados or white wine
  • I vanilla pod

Method

1. Make the sourdough sponge the previous evening by mixing in a large bowl the sourdough starter with the flour, sugar, almond milk and apple cider vinegar.

2. Cover with cling film (plastic wrap) and allow the batter to stand overnight in a warm spot. In the morning, it should be puffy and visibly bubbly.

4. Before making the pancake(s), preheat the oven to 230 ̊C/210 ̊C fan/450 ̊F/gas Mark 8.

5. Add the bicarb (baking soda), applesauce and chia/flax eggs to the sourdough sponge and mix thoroughly but gently.

6. Heat an oven-safe frying pan on the hob (stovetop) add sliced fruit, coconut nectar, seeds from vanilla pod and alcohol. Cook gently until fruit softens, and all the liquid is gone. Turn off the heat and remove half of the fruit (for the second pancake) and arrange the remainder to cover bottom of the pan.

7. Pour half the pancake batter over the fruit. Immediately place the pan in the oven and bake for 20 minutes or until the pancake appears golden-brown and the sides are pulling away from the pan.

8. Flip the pancake upside down onto a plate and cover with aluminium foil to keep warm. Repeat the process one more time to make the second pancake.

9. Serve the pancakes warm with maple syrup or anything else your heart desires!

10. Any uneaten pancake – as if! – can be stored in the fridge for a couple of days. You can either reheat or eat cold.

The Musette: sourdough focaccia

I have an Italian girlfriend who makes the most divine focaccia. Whenever I buy some my beloved and I taste and compare it to her’s. “As good as” is as good as it has gotten.

As I’m plumbing all things sourdough, I thought I’d give sourdough focaccia a go and the results were quite surprising. It’s actually one of the easier things to make because there is no folding and no shaping. In short, it looks like: stir, long rest and rise, a short rest and rise, dimple, then bake. Then  – importantly – devour.

Making this focaccia is a two step process. First, you must prepare the sponge which helps to enrich the flavor, generate larger holes in the bread and keeps the bread light, crisp and airy. It is an incredible easy process and will significantly enhance the aroma and flavor of the bread.

While the actual time spent making the dough really isn’t much time at all, the entire process takes over 24 hours. It is absolutely necessary to prepare the sponge and let the dough rise for the recommended amount of time. Fortunately, no kneading is involved and all you need is a large bowl and spatula to prepare the dough.

Ingredients

Sponge

  • 530g (2 cups) sourdough starter
  • 125g (1 cup) whole-wheat flour
  • 250g (2 cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 500 ml (2 cups) filtered water

Focaccia dough

  • 250g (2 cups) plain all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp fine sea salt
  • 2 tbsp olive oil

Method

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1. If necessary, two days (or more) before you want to start the process, feed your starter each day, 60g (2 1/2 oz) each of flour and water, to build it up. You’ll need 530g (2 cups) for baking.

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a693c1db-41a9-4d0a-af8a-b54457fb50bc2. Make the overnight sponge by mixing together the sourdough, water whole wheat flour and 250g (2 cups) plain (all purpose) flour. Mix well and let it stand overnight or for eight hours, covered, in a warm place. The surface should be covered in bubbles.

3. Add the salt and olive oil and mix in the remaining flour, 50g (half a cup) at a time, until you have a fairly loose batter that just comes off the sides of the bowl but does not gather into a ball.

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4. Cover the bowl with a cling wrap and let the dough rise for 1 hour and 30 minutes.

5. Using a spatula, gently turn the dough over on itself in the bowl about 9 or 10 times, trying not to deflate too many of the lovely bubbles that have formed.

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6. Oil a large, approx. 38-40cm (15”) baking pan and pour the batter into the centre of the sheet and, using a spatula, help it along so it fills or nearly fills the pan. Brush on some olive oil to keep the batter from drying, but don’t cover it up with a towel or cling film (plastic wrap) – both will stick to the dough.

7. Leave the baking pan in a warm place for an hour or so until the dough has risen to fill the entire pan.

8. About half an hour before you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 200C/180C fan/400F/gas mark 6.

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9. Now’s the time to add any toppings and, if you feel so inclined, make the trademark dimples in the dough. Just try not to deflate it.

10. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes or until the top is lightly golden and the bread has started to pull from the sides. One way to tell your bread is done is to press it slightly, and if it springs back, you know it’s ready.

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11. Here’s the tricky bit. Let the bread cool on a rack at least 30 minutes before cutting and serving. Now would be a good time to add further olive oil and salt to taste.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1.I prefer plain focaccia but you can add all sorts of topping: cherry tomatoes, garlic, herbs, olives, grapes, onion, cheese………..let your imagination run wild!

2. I replenish my starter with an equal weight of flour and water. For example, when I used a cup of starter for this recipe, I replaced it with an equal amount (in terms of weight) of flour and water. Thus may starter has 100% hydration. If you use the equal volume replacement method your starter will have a 166% hydration. Why does this matter? Well, if your starter has a 100% hydration you might need to use a little less flour than is listed in the recipe. Just keep that in mind when mixing the dough.

3. It’s best eaten on the day it’s baked otherwise slice it into portions and pop it into the freezer for later.

The Musette: sourdough pizza

Homemade sourdough pizza is an eye-opening experience, with so much flavour in the dough and a crispy chewy texture to the crust. Of course, if only I had a wood-fired pizza oven I could add a smokey note, toasted crust edges and more intensely caramelised topping. A girl can dream can’t she?

Ingredients (enough for 4-5 individual pizzas)

  • 510g (31/2 cups) Italian tipo 00 flour
  • 90g (1/2 cup + 3 tbsp) wholemeal flour
  • 390ml (1 2/3 cup) filtered water
  • 120g (1 cup) sourdough starter
  • 14ml (1 tbsp) olive oil
  • 12g (2 tsp) fine sea salt
  • 2-3 tbsp additional flour for kneading
  • 1-2 tbsp additional oil for coating the dough bowl

Method

1. Prepare the sponge by mixing the starter with 120g filtered water and 120g flour. This is a 1:1:1 starter preparation, but other builds are fine too. Cover the bowl with clingfilm (plastic wrap) and let it sit at room temperature for 4-8 hours until roughly tripled.

2. Now, mix all the ingredients together by hand, or in a mixer with the dough hook attachment for 5-10 minutes, until everything is incorporated and forming a ball around the hook.

3. Scrape the dough out onto a floured counter and knead it for 3-5 minutes, adding a small amount of flour until the dough is manageable, but still sticky.

4. Lightly oil a bowl, then lay dough top side down in the bowl and cover with oiled clingflm (plastic wrap).

5. Let the dough rise until it has approximately doubled. Alternatively, you can leave the dough at room temperature for a few hours and then put it in the refrigerator for a day or so, and finally pull it out when it is fully risen or close to fully risen and just needing a few more hours at room temperature.

6. When the bulk fermentation is finished, lightly oil a sheet pan and your worktop.

7. Scrape out the dough onto the oiled counter, gently press out most of the air, and divide the dough into 4-5 pieces. The total dough weight is approximately 1140g. This makes approx.  approx. 225g or four 285g pizzas. (You can go larger and smaller, but you may need to adjust cook time.)

8. Form each piece into a ball by folding the sides of the piece inward. Then hold the ball in one hand with the taut top on your palm, while you pinch the bottom pieces together with your other hand.

9. Place the balls in the oiled pan seam-side down, and cover with clingfilm (plastic wrap) or put the entire pan in a plastic bag. The final proof can be at room temperature for 45-90 minutes or in the refrigerator for 8-12 hours. It’s at this point, I’ll freeze any additional dough.

10. Before the dough has finished proofing, set up your toppings and the area where you will be stretching and “decorating” your pizza. My preferred pizza sauce is my home-made tomato one. I make it ahead of time, and simply pull it out of the refrigerator to warm up a bit when I’m setting out the toppings.

11. About 30 minutes before your dough has finished proofing, preheat your oven to 260C/230Cfan/500F/gas mark 10, using the top shelf if you have a top grill (broiler).

12. Remove a dough ball from the proofing pan and gently grasp one side of the circle with both hands. Holding the top edge of the circle (10 o’clock and 2 o’clock), let the rest of the dough droop/stretch downward while you then rotate and re-grab the dough like you’re turning a steering wheel. This will develop about a 1/2-1 inch crust edge and stretch the middle. (Using a rolling pin is fine too.)

13. Lay your pizza dough on a piece of floured parchment paper. If necessary, stretch and adjust the dough a little more.

16. Now top your pizza dough to your liking and put it in the oven for 7 minutes, then switch to the grill for 1 minute more. This will brown the top of the pizza and caramelize the sugar in the toppings.

17. Remove the pizza from the oven and enjoy! Repeat process with next pizza.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. As above, I often make two large rectangular pizzas to share among four/five rather than individual ones simply because it’s quicker.

2. My home-made tomato pizza sauce is made as follows:-

Marinara sauce: Ingredients (makes 3 cups)

  • 800 g (28 oz) tin of Italian tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 30 ml (2 tbsp) dry white wine
  • 1 tbsp of tomato puree
  • 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 fat cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Method

1. Heat a large saucepan over a medium heat. Swirl around the olive oil to coat the pan and, when the oil is hot, add the shallots, garlic and red pepper flakes. Stir constantly until the shallots are translucent, around 2-3 minutes.

2. Pour in wine and cook, again stirring for 1 to 2 minutes to evaporate some of the alcohol. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 1-2 minutes before adding the tomatoes, salt and pepper and bring to simmer.

3. Reduce heat to medium-low, crush the tomatoes lightly with the back of a spoon as they cook, stirring occasionally for a minimum of 60 minutes until the sauce thickens. Liquidise sauce.

4. If you’re not going to use it right away, it’ll sit happily in the fridge for a week, or the freezer for a month.

The Musette: part two – what a pickle!

Now I’ve whetted your appetite for pickles, we can move onto kimchee. The backbone of most recipes is the white Chinese “napa” variety of cabbage with its wide stems and pale, crinkly leaves, large white radishes, ground chilli, garlic, chilli sauce and rice vinegar. Some versions, like this one, include fish sauce and ginger – a few neither. True Korean versions are masterpieces of the art but are often too stinky for me.

My own is far from authentic Korean. Of course I want heat. Not your actual teary-type heat, but at least enough to make your eyes sparkle. I don’t use the Korean gochujang chilli paste but ordinary red chilli paste, as I’ve yet to find the former in Nice. Plus, I shy away from leaving the salted cabbage several days to ferment at room temperature – the process that makes kimchee kimchee – partly out of impatience, and partly because I like the crackle of the crisp veg.

So mine is more a crunchy, hot, salty, sour condiment – and is none the worse for that. It is sensational with absolutely anything.

Here’s my recipe for Kimchee:-

Ingredients (makes one 2ltr jar)

  • 700g (25oz) finely sliced chinese cabbage
  • 200g (7oz) finely sliced red cabbage/fennel/celery/carrot
  • 150g (5oz) radishes
  • 3 tbsp sea salt
  • 100ml (3.4fl oz) rice wine vinegar
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tbsp chilli paste or flakes (preferably Korean)
  • 2 fat cloves garlic
  • 6 spring onions (scallions)
  • thumb-sized piece ginger

Method

1. Halve the cabbage, remove core and shred it roughly. Do the same with the red cabbage (if using) or fennel. then put both in a colander and rinse under cold running water.

2. Slice the radishes into quarters or thin slices, then mix with the cabbage and tip into a bowl. Scatter the salt over. Place a plate on top of the cabbage, put a heavy weight on top, and set aside in a cool place for 4 hours.

3. In a small bowl, mix together the rice vinegar, fish sauce, chilli paste or chilli flakes into a soft, deep rust-coloured sauce. Peel and finely cut the garlic and ginger into paper-thin slices and add to the sauce. Slice the spring onions, stirring them also into the sauce.

4. Rinse the cabbage in a colander, removing much of the salt. The cabbage will have relaxed. Transfer to a large bowl then tip in the chilli dressing and toss thoroughly to coat the leaves. Pile into the clean storage jars, pushing down  – I use a rolling pin – to eliminate spaces, seal and set aside in the fridge for 4 days.

5. Turn the jars upside down each day to encourage the dressing to trickle over the vegetables, keeping them coated.

6. Four days later, dive in! I love it on sandwiches, with felafel and even straight from the jar!

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. Sterilise your preserving jars with boiling water and let them drain, or bake them at a low temperature in the oven for 10 minutes. This batch will fill two 1-litre Kilner jars or one 2-litre one. It will keep, for a couple of weeks, in the fridge. Turn the jars over every few days.

2. Once ready to eat, it’s amazing how many things you can eat it with.

3. Feel free to change the ingredients but maintain proportions.

The Musette: part one – what a pickle!

As a child I loathed most pickles, including Branston, though bizarrely I loved my grandmother’s home-made pickled shallots, picallili  and pickled red cabbage. It’s only as I’ve matured that I’ve come to appreciate chutnies and all manner of other pickles – preferably home-made.

Now the top two shelves of my fridge are a shrine to them. There are glistening rows of ruby, purple and emerald vinegars, chutneys and relishes to go with cheese, cold cuts, frittatas, quiches, savoury pies and so on………

Danya Kukafka says it best:

There is a reason we have pickles, and it is the same reason we crave good art: we are in it for the pleasure … we are in it for the rush of salt, the crunch and satisfaction, that perfect bite.

While I’ll happily buy my jars of perfect bites, I enjoy making them, too – although, as much as I like the idea of a fridge filled with rows of jars, I typically only make small batches of preserves. It feels manageable, both in the making and the storing, because if something does go awry then it doesn’t really matter.

As a rough guide, 1kg (2lb) vegetables, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces, needs 750ml (3 cups) pickling liquid made by mixing 550ml (2 cups) vinegar (sometimes my home-made vinegar) with 200ml (3/4 – 1 cup) water in a pan, then adding a heaped tablespoon each of fine salt and sugar, and whatever you fancy of the following: a crushed red chilli, peeled or crushed garlic, bay, dill, peppercorns, juniper berries or coriander seeds etc etc Try to pick flavours that will complement the vegetable. Then heat it slowly. Once at boiling point, add all the vegetables, stir, cover the pan and leave on the heat for a minute or two before bottling in sterlised jars.

Here’s a couple of easy recipes:-

Quick Pickled Red Cabbage (makes one jar)

  • 1/2 small/medium head red cabbage
  • 250ml (1 cup) filtered  water
  • 125 ml (1/2 cup) apple cider vinegar
  • 125 ml (1/2 cup) red wine vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons muscovado sugar (or coconut sugar, brown sugar, pure cane sugar)
  • a piece of licorice stick (optional)
  • 2 star anise
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 5 cloves
  • 1 tsp sea salt

Method

1. Slice cabbage in half. Slice one half in half again. Remove the core. Shred cabbage finely with a mandolin slicer or very sharp knife. Place in a large glass bowl or jar.

2. Place water, vinegars, salt and sugar in a saucepan and heat gently until the sugar and salt has dissolved. Stir in the spices and then pour over the cabbage.

3. Seal or tightly cover the jar/bowl and let sit on the counter for 3-4 hours. Stir then seal and place in the fridge until chilled (at least 1 hour).

4. At first the liquid will not cover all of the cabbage but as it starts to soften it will be fully covered after just a few hours. Best served at least a day after making. Keeps for about 2 weeks in the fridge – rarely lasts that long!

Now for pickled cucumbers:-

Ingredients (makes one jar)

  • 6 pickling cucumbers , or 2 regular-sized cucumbers
  • 2 banana shallots
  • 2 teaspoons mustard seeds
  • ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 2 star anise
  • 75 g (1/2 cup) caster sugar
  • 150 ml vinegar

Method

1. Cut the pickling cucumbers in half lengthways, and slice regular ones through the middle, then into fingers. Peel and finely slice the shallots.

2. Put the cucumbers and shallots in a colander. Sprinkle over 2 teaspoons of sea salt. After 45 minutes, rinse well.

3. Combine all the other ingredients in a pan and bring to the boil. Stir until the sugar dissolves.

4. Fit the cucumbers snugly into a Kilner jar, then pour over the liquid. Seal and leave for at least 24 hours. And that’s pretty much it!

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. Sterilise your preserving jars with boiling water and let them drain, or bake them at a low temperature in the oven for at least 10 minutes.

2. The pickles can be eaten the following day, but they’ll be even better if you wait. I keep my pickles in my preserves fridge. They taste better when cold anyway: brighter somehow, the sweet and sour and taste even more pronounced.

The Musette: home-made vinegar

Who knew? All it takes to rustle up some delicious home-made vinegar is a little beer or wine, a clean jar, and some cheesecloth to let microbes in (for fermentation) and keep nasties out.

When I’m cooking, I find that a teaspoon of vinegar is often the missing link in a too-salty soup or overly spicy sauce. Also, a tiny bit of a fruity vinegar works just as well in dishes that I might be inclined to finish with a squeeze of lemon.

I started making vinegar with left over wine, generally stuff we’ve opened but haven’t enjoyed. I’ll often cook with it but sometimes I end up with too much, so hello vinegar! I just leave it to ferment in my kitchen et voilà!

You can easily check on the vinegar’s progress either by using pH strips or by tasting it. I prefer the latter method because as the vinegar ferments, any pathogens that make their way into the liquid will be killed either by the alcohol or by the acidity of the vinegar once the alcohol has transformed. I tend to age my vinegar for months rather than weeks as the flavour will keep developing as the liquid pulls in yeast and bacteria from the air.

Typically after a couple of weeks sitting on the work top in a jar, my leftover wine will stop smelling like leftover wine and start smelling faintly but familiarly like the vinegar. Finally, my outstanding ability to abandon and ignore is beginning to pay off.

Of course, once you’ve graduated from the most basic forms of vinegar-making, you can turn almost anything into vinegar. Aside from wine vinegars – red, white, sherry, or champagne –  beer is a great starting point, particularly a beer that’s low in hops (since all that bitterness will remain in the final product) but high in sugar and alcohol (which will ferment quickly).

Even with a minimal amount of effort, essentially cracking open a bottle of ale, covering the top with cheesecloth, and waiting around, you’ll end up with your own unique vinegar. Two vinegars made with the same method, and even using the same original beer, can taste wildly different depending on the flora and fauna of their environment.

I use most of my home-made vinegar in my pickles – recipes coming soon!

Ingredients

  • 1 ltr (4 cups) beer (6%-12% ABV)

Turning beer into vinegar is an ancient tradition made popular by the Brits to sprinkle on their fish and chips (malt vinegar).

One thing to bear in mind when you begin making this vinegar, is that after you mix everything together, and as time goes on, you’ll notice a layer of what looks like gelatin growing on the surface. This is the vinegar mother. Without it, the alcohol won’t be converted into vinegar.

Make sure to use a beer for this that is 6 to 12 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). And don’t use one that is too hoppy, or your vinegar will be bitter.

Method

1. Wash a 1 litre (1-quart) wide-mouth glass container in hot, soapy water, then rinse and dry thoroughly.

2. Pour the beer into the container. Stir with a spoon to dissipate the carbonation, and then let it sit for 30 minutes. You want the beer to be flat and not fizzy.

3. Cover the container’s opening with cheesecloth, securing it with a rubber band.

4. Let the container sit in a cool, dry, dark place for at least two weeks though longer is better. Then give the mixture a taste; if it’s sharp, tangy, and sour (like other vinegars you’ve had), it’s now vinegar (It’s perfectly okay to taste; no pathogens can survive in either the alcohol or the vinegar.) If you prefer, you can also judge its progress by using pH strips; I shoot for a reading of 4 or below on the pH scale.

The Musette: caramel banana cakes two ways

In the same way that you can never have too many pairs of shoes, you can never have too many recipes for banana cakes. I find that they’re consistently everyone’s favourite. And when I say everyone, I mean every cyclist. I constantly trawl the internet, magazines and my vast collection of cookery books for new ideas.

Now I usually stress the need to use really ripe bananas in most of my banana muffin and cake recipes but what if you don’t have any? Then this is most definitely the recipe for you. You can either bake these as individual cakes – easier for sharing – or in a loaf-sized tin. The recipe which I’ve played around with comes from that excellent book Short & Sweet: The Best of Home Baking by Dan Lepard – required reading for any budding baker.

The end result justifies the large umber of ingredients

Ingredients (makes 12 medium muffin sized cakes)

For the caramel bananas:

  • 150g (1 cup) caster sugar
  • 50ml (3 tbsp) warm filtered water
  • 250g (9oz) or approximately four medium-sized skinned bananas, chopped into small chunks
  • 1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp freshly grated lemon zest

For the cake:

  • 100g (1 cup) raw cane sugar
  • 175ml (¾ cup) buttermilk
  • 3 large organic eggs, approx 45g (1⅔oz) in weight without the shell
  • 50g (1¾oz) plain yogurt
  • 250g (2 cups + 1tbsp) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
  • ½ tsp of fine sea salt
  • 3 tbsp of fleur de sel caramel chips (optional)

Method

1. Start by caramelising the bananas. Put the sugar and water into a stainless steel saucepan and cook over a medium heat, stirring until the sugar has completely dissolved – after that, do NOT stir again. Bring to the boil then cook over a high heat until the sugar turns to a dark reddish caramel. DO NOT TAKE YOUR EYES OFF THE SAUCEPAN. Carefully add the banana pieces, butter, vanilla, lemon juice, lemon zest – caramel can spit – and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the bananas break up in the caramel and the mixture is thick and gooey, about ten minutes. Pour the mixture into a bowl and leave to cool.

2. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC/160ºC fan/gas mark 4 (350ºF/320ºF fan).

3. Take a pastry brush, dip it in sunflower oil and gently paint it all over the muffin tin. This will stop the muffins sticking to the tin if you’re not using muffin cases. If you are, skip the oil and place the cases in the tin(s).

3. Put the sugar and eggs into a large mixing bowl and whisk to combine until air bubbles appear on the surface of the mixture.

4. Add the buttermilk and yoghurt, and whisk again. Then add cooled banana mix and combine gently.

5. Sift and mix together in another bowl the flour, salt, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda.

6. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and lightly combine. I find using a rubber spatula in a figure-of-eight movement works best. Ensure that no pockets of flour remain.

7. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tins or cases to about ⅔rds full, sprinkle on the shards of caramel and bake in the centre of the oven for about 15-25 minutes – it’ll depend on the size of your tin –  or until golden, risen and a skewer inserted comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack and then enjoy!

8. The small cakes will keep in an airtight container for 3-4 days providing I hide them from my beloved. But wrapped in cling-film (plastic wrap), they’ll keep happily in the freezer for two months.

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 five minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. You can slightly under-bake small cakes as they’ll continue cooking for a few minutes after they come out of the oven.

4. You can substitute sunflower (canola) oil for the buttermilk, or full-fat milk with a tsp of white wine vinegar.

5. The other day I found a 350g (12oz) jar of Dulce de Leche in the cupboard close to its sell-by date prompting the question as to whether I could use that as a substitute both for the caramel in the caramelised bananas and the sugar in the cake. The answer is “Yes, you can!” Though I should probably call the end result ‘Banoffee Cake(s)’.

6. I gently heated the bananas in the Dulce de Leche and then crushed them with a potato masher. I then proceeded as per the recipe above but whisked the eggs without the sugar. I baked it in the middle of the oven, on the same temperature, in muffin cases.

7. Remember baking times will vary depending on the dimensions of your muffin tin  and your oven, so check regularly. The cakes are ready when a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.

8. Allow to cool for ten minutes in the tin before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely before eating, or freezing for no longer than two months. The cakes will keep for a week in an airtight container providing I hide it from you know who!

9. Note: I’ve also baked this cake in a greased disposable tin-foil loaf tin 13cm x 23cm x 7cm (5” x 9” x 3”), which I lined with a couple of strips of greaseproof (parchment) paper, for 40-45 minutes.

banana caramel cake