Experimenting with Indian Winter Greens and a Recipe for Mustard Leaf Pancakes

An recent, unexpected, quiet weekend at home was a perfect opportunity to take some time to experiment with North India’s leafy green winter vegetables. Recipe: Mustard Leaf (sarson) Pancakes Continue reading

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A Plum Flaugnarde to Share and Plums on Toast for One

IMG_5313   For the past few weeks, it has been blistering hot here in New Delhi. Step outside and you feel as if your eyeballs are melting, retreat inside and the air conditioning is wilting and the water from the cold tap is hot enough to scald you. To make matters worse, someone has devised a smartphone app which tells you not just that you are suffering in 43-degree heat, but that it actually feels like 50 degrees. Although, on the plus side, there is lots of fun to be had frying eggs on the bonnet of your car. Anyone who can has bolted to the hills or Europe to cool down. We had a big birthday to celebrate in our family last week—one with “0” in it—so we decided to scoop up our nearest and dearest and spend a long weekend at the wonderful Sitla Estate in Mukteshwar, Uttarakhand. We sat under the apricot trees and watched the sun go down over the slopes. We drank to longevity, devoured mulberry crumble and slept like babies in the cool mountain air. Too soon, though, we were on our way home—and there’s nothing more dispiriting than a 10-hour, bum-numbing drive with the prospect of only searing heat and dodgy air conditioners at the end of it. But for me the journey home was made bearable by the hundreds of roadside stalls selling freshly picked soft fruit, and I drifted off into a reverie of recipes involving peaches, plums and apricots. We stopped at a long row of stalls to try the fruit, first choosing a particularly voluptuous display of peaches. The vendor cut off a slice and handed it over. I put it in my mouth, expecting an explosion of soft, sweet flesh, but the vendor had sprinkled the perfectly ripe fruit with a liberal amount of salt and with a single bite my reverie was over. I’ve often said that a certain amount of sharpness in fruit is best for baking but salty fruit? I don’t think it will catch on. Once I had recovered from the salt attack, I bought vast amounts of peaches, apricots and plums, and their beautiful aroma sustained me for most of the journey home. The peaches were the most ripe and delicate so they were eaten quickly raw and in a cobbler, but the apricots and plums have kept very well in the fridge so I have been able to savour them in a variety of dishes. I made compotes and fools with the apricots and the plums have nearly disappeared in various attempts to make a good dessert with them. I wanted to turn them into a dessert similar to clafoutis called flaugnarde from the Auvergne, Limousin and Périgord regions of France (strictly speaking, and the French are always quite strict about these things, this dessert can only be called a clafoutis if it is made with cherries, with all other fruits it’s called a flaugnarde). But the first couple of attempts weren’t sweet enough—baking the plums seemed to enhance their sharpness. So I have upped the sugar quantities and rounded out the sharpness with some ground almonds and orange flower water, just enough to showcase the beautiful plums. The result is a perfect, quick, summer dessert. Plums on toast, the recipe for which comes from a 1950s Elizabeth David book, French Country Cooking, is more of a snack than a dessert. But what a snack—simple and quick, and so much more than the sum of its parts. It makes the perfect solitary elevenses, I discovered, along with some beautiful mint tea made from hand-stitched tea bags I had also brought back from Sitla. For a moment, the roar of the ACs subsided and I was almost back in the hills.

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Plum, Almond and Orange Flower Flaugnarde

Serves 6-8

Ingredients

400g plums, halved, stones removed and each half cut into three 4 eggs 125g sugar 450ml milk 50g flour 25g ground almonds 2 tsp orange flower water A handful of flaked almonds Method Butter a 10-inch baking dish. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Put the eggs, sugar, milk, flour, ground almonds and orange flower water in a bowl and whisk until completely smooth. Put half of the plum slices at the bottom of the baking dish and pour over the batter. Bake for 20 minutes until the flaugnarde is puffed up and golden. Take the flaugnarde out of the oven and arrange the remaining plum slices over the top, sprinkle on the flaked almonds. Bake for 5-10 minutes—the plums on top should be soft and the flaked almonds lightly toasted. I prefer this warm or at room temperature but it’s also good cold from the fridge.

Plums on Toast

Serves 1 (I can’t urge you strongly enough to try this. You could serve it as a rustic dessert but I prefer it as a solitary treat.)

Ingredients

2 slices of good-quality fresh white bread, crusts on—for a more indulgent version, use fresh brioche Soft butter (unsalted tastes best here),50-75g 4 plums, halved and stones removed Brown sugar, 50-75g Method Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius. Butter an ovenproof baking dish large enough to hold the slices of bread. Butter the slices of bread thickly on one side. Arrange four halves of plum on each slice, cut side up. Put a little butter and sugar into each half plum and put the slices into the baking dish. Cover the slices with butter paper and put the dish into the oven near the top. Bake for about 30 minutes, by which time the bread will be golden and crisp and flavoured with delicious buttery, sugary, plummy juices.

How I Nearly Became a Health Freak. Then I Made These Muffins That Taste Like Doughnuts

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This is what I was going to write this week: “I along with all the other 4,678,906 people who have viewed Robert Lustig’s YouTube talk, ‘Sugar: The Bitter Truth’, have seen the light. I now fully accept that sugar is responsible for the world’s rampant obesity, heart disease and diabetes. I believe the experts when they say sugar is more addictive than cocaine and that the processed food industry with its fizzy drinks, fast food and hidden sugar with everything is our merciless pusher. Sugar is killing us and it’s time for everyone, including me, to change our ways.”
For a whole week we ate nothing but healthy meals made from our organic vegetable delivery box, and by the weekend I was feeling pretty smug and recommending wholemeal poha for a weekend treat. It was time, I decided, to take a long, hard look at my baking, replace maida (refined flour) with wholemeal atta (flour), sugar with agave nectar and this week’s recipe was going to be a red velvet cake made from spelt flour and beetroot. I even felt quietly chuffed when my husband said I was turning into a health food fascist.
Then this happened. I made some of these doughnut muffins for Sunday breakfast and with one bite my resolve and new-found principles simply evaporated. They were so good, after I had eaten the first I would have sold my granny for another. I didn’t stop until I had eaten four—by late morning I was in a sugar coma.
I decided right then that any life that didn’t contain the occasional taste of something as outrageously sweet and delicious as muffins that taste like doughnuts (and really, really good doughnuts at that) wasn’t the life for me.
One downside is that they are almost too simple to make—certainly much easier than making doughnuts: They take about 30 minutes from weighing out the ingredients to wiping the buttery sugar off your chin. True, they’re not deep-fried like doughnuts so in a sense they are a little healthier, but they still have an awful lot of what keeps Robert Lustig awake at night. But if we all did exactly what we’re supposed to all the time, life would be terribly dull. And where’s the joy in a spelt and beetroot red velvet cake?
Muffins That Taste Like Doughnuts
Makes 12 normal-sized muffins, 24 mini muffins
Ingredients
For the muffins
325g plain flour (maida)
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
110g unsalted butter, at room temperature
150g caster sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla
250ml whole milk
12 tsp strawberry jam (optional)
For the doughnut topping
100g caster sugar
100g melted butter
Method
Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Grease a 12-hole muffin or 24-hole mini muffin tin—silicone trays are ideal here.
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar for a few minutes until soft and fluffy. Gradually beat in the egg and vanilla extract. Add one-third of the flour mixture with half of the milk and mix well, repeat until both are fully incorporated.
Divide the mixture between the muffin holes. If you want to make jam doughnuts, fill the holes one-third full of muffin mixture, add a teaspoon of jam, then cover with more muffin mixture. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until well risen and browned on top and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Leave the muffins to cool for a few moments, then turn them out on to a cooling rack.
Put the caster sugar in a small bowl and the melted butter in another. While they’re still warm, roll the tops of the muffins in the melted butter, then the sugar. These are best eaten warm but will keep for a few hours if kept in a sealed tin. Frankly, you’re more likely to feel you haven’t made enough—three of us polished off 12 at one sitting.

Chocolate Coconut Cakes for Mother’s Day

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So it’s Mother’s Day tomorrow—well, it is in Britain and much of Europe. To be more accurate, though, tomorrow is Mothering Sunday—a Christian celebration that is always on the fourth Sunday of Lent; the date changes every year according to when Easter falls. Churches hold special services on the theme of maternal love and the reading for the day is often from Galatians: “Jerusalem which is above is free; which is the Mother of us all.” The name dates back to times when people, often domestic servants, were given a day off to return to their “Mother”, or home church. As the workers walked along the country lanes from the big house to their village, they would pick flowers for their mothers—hence the later custom of giving presents.
I confess that I always assumed American Mother’s Day, which is celebrated in May, was devised purely as a way of boosting the profits of gift galleries Hallmark and Archies. How wrong I was. It actually appeared in the early 1900s when a woman named Anna Jarvis set up the day in memory of her own mother, Ann Jarvis, the founder of the “Mother’s Friendship Day” which aimed to reunite families that had been divided during the Civil War.
Anna Jarvis, though, deplored what Mother’s Day became even during her lifetime and in 1948 was arrested for disturbing the peace while protesting its commercialization. “A printed card means nothing,” she once said, “except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.” Before she died she said she wished she “had never started the day because it became so out of control”. She must be turning in her grave at the 21st century Mother’s Day. In the US alone, around $2.6 billion (around Rs.15,860 crore) is usually spent on flowers, $1.5 billion on gifts, $68 million on greeting cards.
Mother’s Day was also once known as Refreshment Sunday because Christians were allowed a break from the 40-day Lenten fast and baking has always been part of that tradition. Young servant girls often made a simnel cake to take home to their mothers and some English bakeries still sell mothering buns—a sweet yeasted cake covered in icing and coloured sprinkles. Whenever you celebrate Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday, you can’t go wrong with the gift of a home-made cake, surely one of the greatest expressions of love and appreciation.
My recipes today honour the two best mothers who ever lived, my husband’s and mine. My mother and mother-in-law never met. Oddly, the two recipes I often associate with them involve more or less the same ingredients but produce very different cakes. My mother Margaret’s is a simple traybake which we loved as children, an intense hit of chocolate and coconut. Brenda’s is a much-loved family cake that she always made for birthdays, and my husband thinks it was probably the first cake she ever learnt to make. I hadn’t made either for years and I have tweaked them slightly to take out some of the worst of the 1970s (margarine!).
For the cake I used fresh coconut instead of dried, but I think Brenda would have approved. The cakes brought back many fond memories for us all. As my son said, “that cake is fantastic. Just one mouthful is instant nostalgia.” I think Margaret, Brenda and Anna would all have been happy with that.
Margaret’s Chocolate Coconut Squares
Makes 12 squares
Ingredients
100g plain chocolate
50g soft butter
100g caster sugar
1 egg, beaten
113g desiccated coconut
Method
Line a tin—about 17cm square—with foil. Bring a pan quarter-full of water to a gentle simmer. Break the chocolate into a glass bowl and sit this over the pan (but not touching the water) until it melts. Spread the melted chocolate evenly over the foil-lined tin and place in the fridge to set.
Preheat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius. Beat together the butter and sugar until soft and fluffy, then beat in the egg. Stir in the coconut and spread this mixture over the set chocolate. Bake for about 15 minutes until the surface is golden brown. Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely before slicing into squares.
Brenda’s Chocolate Coconut Cake
Serves 8
Ingredients
175g caster sugar
175g soft unsalted butter (Brenda, and most bakers of the day, of course, used margarine)
3 eggs, lightly beaten
175g plain flour, sieved with
1 tsp baking powder
100g fresh, grated coconut (Brenda used desiccated but the fresh does make the cake more moist)
2 tbsp coconut milk (my addition, again in the interests of moistness)
150-200g milk chocolate (depending on how chocolatey you want the cake)
2 tbsp of coconut, lightly toasted
Method
Preheat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius. Grease a ring tin (Brenda used a loaf tin, but the ring version gives you a bit more chocolate per mouthful).
In a large bowl beat together the sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in the eggs. Gently fold in the flour, add the coconut milk and fresh coconut and mix well. Spoon the mixture into the tin and even out the surface a little. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the cake is golden brown and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Leave the cake to cool slightly, then turn out on to a rack to cool completely.
Melt the chocolate in a glass bowl over a pan of water as above, then spread evenly over the surface of the cake. Sprinkle with a little toasted coconut.

Recipes: Pearl Millet Crackers With Dukkah and Fresh Rosemary Cheese

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Well I must say, I was slightly anxious about logging on to Eat and Dust today.  It’s been almost 6 months since I’ve been here – I thought the blog police might have snuck in and closed me down on the grounds of extreme neglect!

The fact is, for the past year I’ve been working on a book about Old Delhi, and for the past few months I’ve done virtually nothing else. Anyway, I finally sent off the first draft  last week then  promptly collapsed in a heap. When I  eventually picked myself up again one of my first thoughts was “My poor blog!”

But what to write about?  I’ve hardly left the house recently except to walk the dogs so I have no new street food joints to report (although I intend to put this right very soon).  Also, my own cooking has dwindled to the bare minimum – so no new dinner recipes to suggest.  I have, though, in the interests of staying sane, managed to keep doing a little  baking.

Bizarrely, for someone so keen on sugar, deep-frying and ghee,  I suddenly seem to be thinking healthy  thoughts. Worrying, I know, I’ll be sending fan mail to Gwyneth ‘no carbs’ Paltrow next!  Anyway I’ve been experimenting with all the wonderful grains that are available in India and I have to say it has been a revelation.

According to my husband, whose job it is to pronounce on such things, this recipe for pearl millet crackers with dukkah may well be my best yet. I’m not sure how I feel about that as these crackers are little more than a dinner party twist on what food historian K.T. Achaya once dismissed as the “staple dietary item of the common folk”, bajra ki roti.

Yes, pearl millet may well be the main form of nutrition for over a third of the world’s population and in India, where it is known as bajra, it is widely used to make warming winter rotis but it rarely, if ever, attracts superlatives. And although millet has been around for over 10,000 years, I’d never used it in my baking before.

But it turns out bajra, or pearl millet, has a delicate sweet, earthy, nutty flavour which made me wonder where it had been all my life. A few minutes in the oven and a sprinkling of the wonderful Egyptian roasted nut and spice mix called dukkah transformed it into total deliciousness.

Incidentally, I’ve become completely addicted to Dukkah recently – my favourite winter soup this year, during the dark days of the first draft, was a roasted carrot soup with a sprinkling of dukkah and yogurt.  It’s worth keeping a tub of it in the freezer – I can’t think of many things that wouldn’t be improved by it.

I was so excited I also decided to make a simple cheese to go with the crackers, a sort of firmed-up ricotta made from milk and buttermilk (chaach).

Just making these recipes made me feel gratifyingly rustic, as if I’d just spent the morning on a farm, especially when I used the whey from the cheese to bind the crackers. But the flavours were a revelation and the combination of spicy, nutty crackers and creamy, herby cheese was, as my husband will testify, anything but home-spun.

Bajra and Dukkah Crackers

Makes 16-20 crackers
Ingredients
200g bajra flour
100g maida (plain flour)
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
30g butter
Approximately ¾ cup (about 200ml) whey or water
Dukkah to sprinkle on top of the crackers
Method
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Sprinkle a baking tray with flour.
Sift the flours, sugar, salt and baking powder into a bowl. Add the butter and rub it into the flour with your fingertips. Add enough of the whey or water to make a soft but not sticky dough.
Lightly flour a clean work surface and rolling pin. Then divide the dough into walnut-sized pieces and roll them out as thinly as possible, no more than 1mm thick. Keep checking the dough isn’t sticking to the surface and sprinkle a little more flour if necessary. The pieces don’t need to be neat—in fact they look nice rugged and rustic. Carefully lift the rolled out dough on to the baking tray. Brush a little water over the surface of each piece and sprinkle on the dukkah (although you could also use sesame or caraway—I made a couple with dried pomegranate powder). Bake for 6-8 minutes until the crackers are lightly browned and crisp. The crackers keep well for a few days in an airtight container.

Dukkah

Ingredients
½ cup hazelnuts
2 tbsp sunflower seeds
2 tbsp sesame seeds
2 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp white peppercorns
1 tsp rock salt
Method
Put the hazelnuts in a heavy frying pan and roast over medium-low heat for a few minutes until a little browned, then add sunflower seeds and roast for a few more minutes. Tip them on to a plate to cool, then add the sesame, coriander, cumin, fennel seeds and peppercorns to the pan and heat until fragrant and popping. Be careful not to let any of the nuts or seeds burn.
Put the nuts and seeds into a pestle and mortar with the salt and grind gently—you want to retain a range of different textures. Store for up to a month in the fridge or longer in the freezer. Dukkah can pep up almost anything—salads, hummus and lentils, but my favourite winter lunch this year has been a roasted carrot soup sprinkled with dukkah and a good dollop of yogurt.

Fresh Rosemary Cheese

Makes a small cheese approximately 12cm wide
Ingredients
1 litre full-cream milk
1 litre buttermilk (chaach)
Juice of half a lemon
1 tsp salt
A small bunch of fresh rosemary, chopped
Method
Heat the milk and buttermilk in a large pan until it just reaches boiling point. Stir in the lemon juice for a minute or so until the mixture separates into white curds and greenish whey. Tip it all into a sieve (but keep the whey for bread or cracker-making!). Put the curds into a bowl and stir in the salt—you could also add other flavouring like toasted cumin or cracked pepper.
At this stage, the cheese is ricotta and could be served as it is with the crackers. If you want a firmer cheese, either wrap the curd in a piece of muslin or put it in a perforated metal paneer (cottage cheese) mould. Put the muslin or mould on a plate, then weigh it down with something heavy to press out the liquid. Leave it in the fridge for a few hours. When the cheese is as firm as you want it, take it out of the mould and sprinkle it with the chopped fresh rosemary. The cheese will keep for a few days in the fridge.

A Syrup Steamed Pudding for our Daughter Leaving Home

Tissues at the ready – here’s last week’s sad Mint column to mark  my daughter leaving home along with a recipe for her favourite pudding…
By the time you read this, our daughter will be looking back on her first week of university in the north of England, probably relieved that the initial few terrifying days are behind her; hopefully starting to settle into her course and make new friends. Meanwhile, back in Delhi, her parents are still stifling a sob every time they pass her empty bedroom and marvelling at how one family member can take with her 60% of the household noise.
For us, of course, this moment has come too soon but then our little girl has always been in a hurry to get on with life. She arrived suddenly and dramatically while her father was still filling up the birth pool; she talked before she could walk and is now cracking on with her dream of studying acting at the tender age of 17.
As the East Riding of Yorkshire starts to wonder what’s hit it, we’re wondering if we’ve done enough to prepare her for the rest of her life. After seven years of living in India, we worry whether she’ll ever get the hang of using a washing machine, shopping in supermarkets and the Green Cross Code (a 1970s British road safety initiative—“Stop, Look, Listen, Think”).
The only thing I know for sure is that on the night before she left home, she ate all of her favourite foods, choosing pakoda-like cauliflower fritters, spicy chicken couscous and a steamed syrup pudding. Steamed puddings are traditional British fare, essentially a cake mixture which is steamed in a bowl rather than baked in a tin. There are many versions, including Christmas Pudding and Spotted Dick, but in our family the syrup variety is the only one we ever make.
One of my own earliest food memories is of the unbearable anticipation of the sound of the pudding basin rattling away for hours on the stove. The soft, sweet, sticky taste is like a great big hug on a cold wet day—guaranteed to soothe away most of life’s little disappointments. So far, the only thing I’ve found it hasn’t worked for is Empty Nest Syndrome.
 Syrup Pudding with Fresh Vanilla Custard
Serves 5
Ingredients
For the pudding
4 tbsp golden syrup
100g butter, plus a little extra for greasing
100g caster sugar
100g plain flour
2 level tsp baking powder
2 eggs
2 tbsp milk
For the custard
500ml single cream (or 250ml thick cream and 250ml milk)
1 whole vanilla pod, split in two
5 egg yolks
2 tbsp caster sugar
Method
You will need a 1-litre pudding basin with a tight-fitting lid (mine is plastic with a plastic lid but my mother used a glass bowl covered with greaseproof paper tightly tied on with string). Fill a kettle and when the water has boiled pour about 2 inches into a large pan and place over a low heat.
Lightly grease the inside of the pudding basin. Spoon the golden syrup into the bottom of the basin.
In a large mixing bowl, weigh out the butter, sugar and flour, then add the baking powder, eggs and milk. Beat together with a hand-held mixer until completely smooth, then pour into the basin on top of the syrup. Smooth the top of the mixture and put on the lid—this has to fit snugly so that no water gets into the sponge during cooking. Carefully lower the basin into the simmering water, cover the pan with a lid and let it bubble away for an hour or so. Check every so often to make sure the water hasn’t evaporated—if it’s getting a little low, add more hot water from the kettle.
To make the custard, first separate the eggs and put the yolks in a large bowl with the sugar. Mix the two together well. Put the cream into a thick-bottomed saucepan, scrape the vanilla seeds in, add the pod and bring to the boil. Take off the heat and leave to cool slightly. Then pour the vanilla cream into the egg yolks, sugar and whisk well. Clean and dry the pan, then pour the custard mixture back in.
Over low heat, and whisking constantly (to avoid lumps and curdling), bring the custard to boil. It should be perfectly smooth and in no way resemble sweet scrambled eggs. If you think the mixture is in danger of curdling, take it off the heat and place it over a bowl of ice, then whisk like fury.
When the pudding is ready, lift the basin out of the water and remove the lid. Place a large plate on top and flip the pudding over on to it. It should be golden and sweet smelling with a little puddle of syrup.
Serve hot with the fresh custard.

Chocolate and Pear Tart with Lime Syrup

With a general preference for all things sweet, buttery and if at all possible, deep-fried, I don’t think I could ever be accused of pushing a health food agenda. It is nonetheless gratifying when the two coincide. If recent reports are to be believed, for instance, the key to eternal life is eating vast amounts of chocolate.

First there was that dream newspaper headline: “Chocolate ‘may help keep people slim’”. I wonder how many people read no further before rushing out to gorge on brownies? If they had they would have seen that while chocolate is also thought to be good for blood pressure and cholesterol levels and jam-packed with antioxidants, it is also full of those enemies of eternal life, fat and sugar.

 

Now—and this is particularly heartening for someone who has started putting her glasses in the fridge and forgetting the names of close relatives—we learn that a diet high in a bedtime cup of cocoa can ward off dementia. Apparently, the flavanols contained in good-quality chocolate are believed to reduce the risk of dementia by protecting brain cells from damage. Sounds promising, but before we all jump for joy, I should point out that the research was funded by Mars.

Today’s recipe, therefore, may or may not help you live forever but it is pretty, delicious and redolent of the chocolate limes of yore. And those never did us any harm, did they?

Incidentally, I have a tart tin crush at the moment—I bought this fluted oblong tin recently and I have to say I don’t think my pies ever looked prettier.

Step-by-step

Chocolate and Pear Tart with Lime Syrup

Serves 6

Ingredients

For the chocolate pastry

150g plain flour (maida)

25g icing sugar

25g unsweetened cocoa powder

A pinch of salt

125g cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes

1 egg yolk, mixed with 1 tbsp cold water

For the pears

3 ripe pears

Juice of 1/2 lime

1 tbsp caster sugar

For the almond filling

100g butter, softened

100g caster sugar

2 eggs

100g ground almonds

50g plain flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

Zest of 1 lime

For the lime syrup

The juice and zest of 2 green limes

250ml water

150g caster sugar

You will need a fluted tart tin, 35x12cm

Method

First make the pastry. The pastry shell can be made ahead and stored in an airtight tin until needed. Sift together the flour, icing sugar, cocoa powder and salt. Rub in the butter until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg and water and stir with a knife until combined. With your hands, gently and quickly (don’t handle the pastry too much) form the dough into a smooth ball. Wrap in cling film and leave to chill for 30 minutes in the fridge.

When the pastry has rested, it needs to be baked blind—to avoid what the great British baker Mary Berry calls “a soggy bottom”. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius. Put the chocolate pastry on top of a piece of baking parchment paper, then put another piece of parchment paper on top of the pastry (using parchment paper makes this quite sticky pastry easier to pick up once it’s rolled out). Roll the pastry out a bit larger than your tin, unpeel the top layer of parchment, quickly lay the pastry on top of the tin, about 2-3mm thick, and unpeel the top layer of parchment paper. Gently press the pastry into the tin, patch up any cracks that appear and neaten the edges. Take a piece of parchment paper a bit larger than the tin and lay it over the pastry. Then pour in either some baking beans or dried pulses (this is to stop the pastry puffing up in the oven). Bake the pastry for 15 minutes, remove the paper and beans, then bake again for 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

Peel, core and cut in half the pears. Squeeze lime juice over them to stop them going brown. Heat a non-stick frying pan and sprinkle the sugar in. Add the pear halves, cut side down and heat until the sugar turns into a pale caramel. Remove the pears from the pan.

For the filling, beat together the butter and caster sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy, then beat in the eggs, almonds, flour, baking powder and lime zest until the mixture is combined. Spoon the mixture into the chocolate pastry case, then gently lay the pear halves on top. Bake at 160 degrees Celsius for about 20-25 minutes until the top is golden brown and a skewer comes out clean.

While the tart is baking, make a syrup by putting the water, lime juice, zest and sugar into a small pan. Bring to the boil and simmer for a few minutes until thickened. Remove from the heat and cool. Let the tart cool slightly before serving, drizzled with the syrup or a good dollop of cream.

Hot Cross Buns for Easter

It’s Easter next weekend and for me you can keep the chocolate eggs and shower me with hot cross buns, the traditional way for Christians to break their Lenten fast.  This recipe is so easy – it doesn’t  even need any arm-numbing kneading – you’d be mad not to give it a go.  I guarantee they’ll be better than anything you ever bought in a shop.

There was a time in Britain when the monarchy was given to interfering in the baking habits of its people. In 1592, Queen Elizabeth I of England issued an extremely stern edict forbidding the consumption of spiced buns except on certain days:

“That no bakers, etc., at any time or times hereafter make, utter, or sell by retail, within or without their houses, unto any of the Queen’s subjects any spice cakes, buns, biscuits, or other spice bread…except it be at burials, or on Friday before Easter or at Christmas, upon pain of forfeiture of all such spiced bread to the poor.”

Perhaps Britain has become a nation of Republicans or maybe the Brits just can’t resist a spiced bun, but hot cross buns, once only eaten over the Easter weekend, are now available in every supermarket all year round. Though a long way from being a royalist, I resolutely only make hot cross buns at Easter, enjoying the once-a-year treat and the Christian symbolism in my baking. The start of Lent is marked by using up all the rich ingredients (sugar, milk, eggs) in the kitchen to make pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. After 40 days of abstinence, people would celebrate by eating buns crammed with good things. The buns are made from a soft, yeasted, sweet and spiced dough and marked with a pastry cross to symbolize Christ on the cross. The first record of a bread marked with the sign of the cross is thought to be in the time of Pope Gregory IX when St Clare of Assisi blessed a stale loaf and a cross appeared on it. It is also thought that the spices in the bun represent the spices Jesus was wrapped in the tomb.

There is nothing better (but only at Easter!) than a thickly buttered hot cross bun. They’re also lovely with a slice of mature cheddar—though I wonder what Good Queen Bess would have made of that.

Bake heaven: The buns are best fresh out of the oven. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

 

 

 

 

 

Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Hot cross buns

Makes 12

Ingredients

450g strong bread flour or plain flour

7g (1 sachet) easy blend dried yeast

1 level tsp salt

50g caster sugar

2 tsp mixed spice (see note 1)

50g butter, cut into small pieces

100g currants

200ml lukewarm milk

2 eggs

For the crosses

75g flour

80ml water

For the glaze

2 tbsp milk

2 tbsp caster sugar

Method

Grease a large baking tray. Gently heat the milk to lukewarm temperature, then beat in the eggs. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, yeast, salt, sugar and mixed spice. Add the butter and rub into the flour mixture until it looks like breadcrumbs. Stir in the currants. Make a well in the centre of the mixture and pour in the warm milk and eggs. Incorporate all the flour into the liquid until you have a coherent, soft dough. If the dough is too sticky, add a little more flour.

On a floured work surface, knead the dough gently for 10 seconds, then put back in the bowl and leave for 10 minutes. Knead the dough again for 10 seconds, cover again and leave for about 1 hour (these timings are not a misprint—try it and see). When the dough has doubled in size, knock out the air and divide into 12 pieces. Knead each piece into a smooth ball. Put the buns on to the greased tray, place the tray in a large plastic bag and leave until the buns have again doubled in size.

Heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Mix the water and flour to make a stiff paste for the crosses. Put the paste into a piping bag and pipe on the crosses. Alternatively, and quite traditionally, you can simply cut a deep cross on top of the buns. In fact, although I love the aesthetics of the cross, I prefer the taste of the buns without the chewy pastry on top. Bake the buns for 15-20 minutes (see note 2). While the buns are baking, make the glaze by heating the milk and sugar until the sugar dissolves. As soon as the buns are a rich brown colour on top, take them out of the oven and immediately brush with the glaze. Eat the buns warm, buttered on the day they’re made. If there are any left the next day, they are beautiful toasted and buttered.

• Note 1: Ready-made mixed spice blends can be bought but I usually blend my own using these proportions:

1 tbsp ground allspice

1 tbsp ground cinnamon

1 tbsp ground nutmeg

2 tsp ground mace

1 tsp ground cloves

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground ginger

• Note 2: Using an electric surface-top oven, I kept the top and bottom elements on for 10 minutes, then turned off the top element for the remaining 5-10 minutes.

Say it with Cardamom and Orange White Chocolate Truffles

 

Multi-hued: Truffles are quick to make and make for a beautiful gift. Photo by Priyanka Parashar/Mint

 

 

 

 

 

Priyanka Parashar/Mint.

For someone with a terrible sweet tooth, I’m unusually restrained when it comes to chocolate.  The previous two recipes, for choc chip cookies and chocolate éclairs, are pretty much how I like my chocolate baking, that is, as a highlight rather than a principal ingredient. If I’m honest, I usually find things like chocolate brownies and chocolate cake just too overpoweringly chocolatey.

Occasionally, though, nothing but a full-on chocolate hit will do and while I love all the artisan, high-percentage cocoa solid varieties, I also have a weakness for things like Mars and Snickers which are more sugar and fat than chocolate. I’m also particularly partial to white chocolate which, strictly speaking, is not really chocolate at all as it contains no cocoa solids, only cocoa butter and milk solids. It does, though, make beautiful truffles and these Cardamom and Orange White Chocolate Truffles would be a particularly gorgeous Valentine’s Day gesture.

There are two types of truffle—one made with egg yolks, another that only uses chocolate and cream. I decided to do the egg-free kind but this was the first time I’d made them and I quickly realized that you can’t substitute white chocolate in a dark chocolate truffle recipe. You need a lot less cream with white chocolate, otherwise the mixture won’t set enough to mould—and I have several bowls of Cardamom and Orange White Chocolate Sauce in my fridge to prove it.

Once you know that (and you do now, so no excuse) they’re quick to make, look beautiful boxed for a present and, most importantly, they taste wanton and voluptuous, just the right side of schmaltzy and sickly sweet. A bit like Valentine’s Day itself.

Valentine’s Day Cardamom and Orange White Chocolate Truffles

Makes 12-15

Ingredients

150g good-quality white chocolate (not cooking chocolate—this is for your loved one after all!)

85ml whipping cream

Zest of 1/2 orange, very finely grated

1/4 tsp cardamom seeds, freshly ground

Sieved icing sugar or cocoa powder to coat the truffles

Method

 Step by Step guide to making truffles

Chop the chocolate into small pieces, then blitz in a food processor.

Put the cream, cardamom and orange zest in a small pan and bring to a boil. Immediately pour the cream on to the chocolate and blitz the mixture until it’s smooth and all the chocolate has melted. Pour the truffle mixture into a shallow dish and chill for an hour or so.

Handling the truffles needs to be done as quickly and coolly as possible—this is definitely not a hot-weather job. Run your hands under the cold tap for a minute to cool them down. Dust your hands with either the cocoa powder or icing sugar, depending on which you’re using. Use a small teaspoon to take out a cape gooseberry-sized chunk of the mixture. If it’s too soft to handle, return to the fridge for another hour. Roll the mixture quickly (or it will melt) between your hands, then roll each truffle again in either the cocoa or icing sugar. You could also roll them in melted white chocolate but you have to work quickly and make sure the mixture is very cold. Finely chopped pistachios and desiccated coconut also make pretty coatings for truffles.

Place each truffle in a small paper case, then keep in the fridge till needed. Truffles will keep happily in the fridge for about three days.

 

Easy Chocolate Eclairs

I always assumed it would be impossible to replicate chocolate éclairs at home and even if you could—well, imagine being able to conjure up éclairs whenever you felt like it—that way lies ruin. But having promised  a pro-chocolate drive, I decided to have a go. Selfless, I know.

Finger-licking: A perfect batch of home-made éclairs needs a bit of practice and lots of patience.

Priyanka Parashar/Mint

 

 

 

 

I started by consulting Raymond Blanc, a French chef, and Delia Smith, an English cook and television presenter, hoping that somewhere between the two extremes there would be a middle way to choux perfection. In the end, I had to make five batches and call on chef and author Rachel Allen and Larousse Gastronomique before I had anything approaching an éclair. The first, Delia-inspired batch was just downright flat and soggy inside and out, Allen’s and Blanc’s were like a pile of crazy paving, with deep cracks all over the surface but still soggy inside. It wasn’t until I consulted the Gallic aloofness ofLarousse and pastry chef friend Susan Jung (yes, she of the amazing curry puffs) that things started to look up.

Larousse specifies more water and eggs than other recipes, but it was the one that worked best for me so my recipe is loosely based on theirs. Susan pointed out that choux is unlike other types of pastry, in that it is made from a wet flour and water paste which has to be lightened with egg to make the pastry puff up in the oven. The most important stage, she advises, is the adding of eggs to the mixture—the paste has to be gently cooked first to dry out slightly to enable as much egg as possible to be incorporated.

Part of the problem, as always, had to do with the vagaries of my oven, which I suspect is a problem for many aspiring bakers in India, so I’m giving precise instructions for times and temperatures.

As I say, fifth-time lucky. My son and I managed to eat about 20 each and stash away 40 in the freezer. I leave it to you to decide how lucky that’s going to be.

Chocolate Éclairs

Makes about 20 finger-length éclairs

Ingredients

For the choux pastry

125ml water

35g butter, cut into cubes

1 tsp caster sugar

65g flour (maida)

2 eggs, well beaten

For the filling

Whipped double cream

For the icing

180g icing sugar

2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

2-3 tbsp boiling water

Method

To make éclair shapes, you will need a piping bag fitted with a 1cm plain nozzle. If you don’t have a piping bag, make little choux buns instead and use a tablespoon to pile the pastry on to the baking sheet.

Grease a large baking sheet and preheat the oven to 220 degrees Celsius.

Put the water, sugar and butter into a large pan. Heat gently until the butter melts, then bring to a boil. Immediately take the pan off the heat to stop the water evaporating.

Quickly pour the flour into the liquid and mix well with a wooden spoon. Put the pan back on low heat and cook the paste for a minute or so until the mixture comes away from the sides of the pan.

Take the pan off the heat and let it cool for a minute. Add a small amount of egg and beat until completely incorporated in the mixture. Continue to add and mix small amounts of egg, beating well each time until the mixture is soft and glossy. Don’t let the mixture become too runny—you may not need all the egg.

Spoon the paste into a piping bag (or use a tablespoon) and pipe 4cm strips, widely spaced (they will puff up in the oven) on to the greased baking sheet.

Place the baking sheet into the oven for 10 minutes. I use an electric stand-alone oven that has top and bottom heating elements. For the first 10 minutes, I baked the éclairs with both elements on. Then I reduced the temperature to 200 degrees Celsius for 5 minutes with both elements on. To finish, I switched off the top element for a further 5 minutes at 200 degrees Celsius to make sure the insides were cooked but the tops didn’t burn.

Take the by now beautifully puffed up and golden éclairs out of the oven and immediately split them down one side to let out the steam and leave to cool on a baking rack.

Make the icing by sifting together the icing sugar and cocoa powder, then adding enough boiling water to make a not-too-runny paste.

When the éclairs are cool, fill the centres with the whipped cream and either pipe or carefully spoon the icing on top. Neaten the icing by dipping a metal knife into a cup of boiling water and using it to smoothen the surface.