Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Fastelavensboller, or Lenten cardamom buns

spelt cardamom bun with vanilla cream and marzipan

It's Ash Wednesday and even a girl of Lutheran-Jewish-Catholic-Heathen extraction understands the basic human need to mark certain days in the calendar with a confectionary blowout. There's much talk of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday but I already checked that 'Heathen pleasure" box on Sunday when I made plump American style spelt and buttermilk pancakes replete with blueberries, crispy streaky bacon and indecent amounts of organic maple syrup. There may have been a few pats of butter involved in this pancake feast. You can tell I'm in urgent need of a Lenten fast.

In Scandinavia we mark the arrival of Lent with fastelavensboller (Norwegian), or semlor (Swedish). These are cardamom buns sliced in half as you see above, and filled with marzipan and lightly whipped vanilla cream. Simple but utterly irresistible, cardamom buns are so easy to make and they remind me of my Norwegian grandmother who made the most fluffy, light fastelavensboller ever. Mine are a close approximation to those buns of yonder, except without the raisins Granny Johansen used to include in the buns. Raisins are a little too virtuous for these confectionary gems!

The recipe I've used is one adapted from Trina Hahnemann's Scandinavian Cookbook. I've simply exchanged plain flour in her recipe for refined spelt flour which I find more digestible and delicious than plan wheat flour, and upped the caster sugar content slightly. Do try making them, cardamom buns aren't just for Shrove Tuesday and make a great weekend brunch treat (when you tire of pancakes) with or without the cream and marzipan filling...

Ingredients: (makes 14)

25g fresh yeast
375ml lukewarm whole milk
25g butter, melted
500g refined spelt flour (Sharpham Park and Shipton Mill are both excellent)
1 tsp ground cardamom
3 tbsp caster sugar (you can increase this by a couple of tablespoons if you like a sweeter bun)
1 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten


1) Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm milk in a bowl. Add the melted butter and stir through. In a large bowl sift the spelt flour, cardamom, sugar and salt together and add the milk mixture to this. Add the egg and stir with a large spoon until a dough has formed. Turn it onto a floured work surface. It should be quite a wet sticky dough and I find the easiest way to knead it is to lift it with a dough scraper to stretch the gluten and distribute the yeast:

Do this for 5 minutes until the dough starts to feel smoother and a bit more elastic. Place this back in the mixing bowl:

And cover with a damp tea towel. Place in a warm place and allow to double in size. This should take 1 hour but given the enriched nature of the dough it may take 1 1/2 hours:

Tip the dough out on a floured work surface and punch the dough to knock it back. Knead into a log and slice off 14 pieces of equal size. Shape the buns into round balls and carefully place them on a large baking tray on some parchment paper. Cover with a damp tea towel and allow to prove and double in size again in a warm room/cupboard. This should take 20-30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 200 C while the buns are proving

Finally, lightly glaze each bun with a little beaten egg and bake on the upper shelf of the oven for 20-25 minutes.

Allow to cool on a wire rack before lightly whipping 300ml whipping cream with 1 tsp vanilla extract and 2 tbsp caster sugar. Slice the bun in half, then place thin slices of marzipan on the bottom of each bun. Spoon or pipe the whipped cream on top of the marzipan and carefully place the bun 'hat' on top. I defy you not to get vanilla cream all over your face!

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Food is the best medicine

An apple a day they say, keeps the doctor away. Be it the common cold or a nebulous norovirus, everyone seems to be down with some debilitating ailment at the moment. As far as I'm concerned, winter can end now. Much as I love Nordic skiing and the winter Olympics snow does not belong in London, and I would quite like to pack away my thermals, ear muffs and wool scarves thank you very much!

If you're finding yourself beset by recurring sniffles here are a few tips on eating your way to good health. Inspired by helpful responses I received after asking on twitter what foods help boost the immune system, I've incorporated the tweets with tips in each section, along with a few basic recipe suggestions too. Sipping endless cups of Lemsip and taking antibiotics when you need to might seem the easiest route to recovery but trust me after having been on antibiotics twice this winter I definitely recommend pre-empting future illness with healthy eating. The best strategy I've learned is eat a balanced variety of the following foods for optimal health and you'll feel - and look - better in no time :-)

1) Spices

@scandilicious you can boost immune system with teaspoon or 2 of good quality honey (manuka) & teaspoon of cinnamon with it, twice a day.
9:02 PM Jan 14th from Tweetie in reply to scandilicious

This was a brilliant suggestion, cinnamon and honey tea not only tastes delicious but cinnamon is a potent weapon against pretty much everything from colds to diabetes. I sprinkle it on my daily porridge and try to bake with it as much as possible.

@scandilicious Ginger Increases the body temperature to help fight off infections ...Gingerale contains some ginger or add ginger to food.
12:17 PM Jan 14th from web in reply to scandilicious

Ginger is another top immune boosting agent, and one I've been incorporating into my raspberry & ginger smoothie, recipe of which you can find here

Niamh of Eat Like A Girl also posted a gingery note today on the healing powers of Lemon, Ginger and Honey Tea here a drink I'm trying to have every day to strike back at all dastardly bugs!

2) Vitamins (and the sun)

@scandilicious Get Fresh Air and some Sun every day. Eat foods with Vitamin ..( A / C / D ) every day.
12:12 PM Jan 14th from web in reply to scandilicious

Sensible advice from the somewhat fiersome sounding XXorcist. We tend to hibernate in winter, and I don't know about you but a few rays of sunshine on a cold, crisp winter's day make all the difference to my mood and outlook on life. Interestingly enough, food writer Fiona Beckett also came across research here that correlates vitamin D deficiency with a compromised immune system, so up your fruit, veg and dairy intake to increase the level of vitamin D in your body. And get outside as much as you can on sunny winter days!

3) Probiotics

@scandilicious Probiotics :-)
12:09 PM Jan 14th from Gravity in reply to scandilicious

@scandilicious yoghurt(with live bacteria!!) And royal jelly!
12:06 PM Jan 14th from UberTwitter in reply to scandilicious

@scandilicious Eat live yoghurt (doesn't have to say pro biotic, it's all the same). Try not to take painkillers.
11:38 AM Jan 14th from Gravity in reply to scandilicious

@scandilicious probiotic yoghurt, smoothies with real fresh fruit. I add Innocent to the smoothie mix. Get well soon!
11:36 AM Jan 14th from Tweetie in reply to scandilicious

All great tips from the probiotic crowd! We hear much about the healing powers of probiotics, but steer clear of gimmicky probiotic drinks that are packed full of sugar, and probiotic supplements in health food shops. A Scot in London gave excellent advice on buying probiotics that have to be chilled, they are the only ones potent enough ('live' enough if you will) to survive the acidic environment of our stomachs. I picked up some at my local health food shop Alara and am amazed at how much better I felt within a week of taking them. Ask for refrigerated probiotics in your local health food shop and eat plain bio yoghurt from brands such as Yeo Valley and Rachel's Organic on a daily basis. Royal Jelly and bee pollen are also meant to be excellent for perking up the immune system.

4) Citrus

Citrus fruits are famously good for upping your vitamin C intake, try blood oranges which are currently in season and taste delicious drizzled with a bit of honey, a sprinkle of cinnamon and some scattered walnuts on top.

@scandilicious 'Orange' juice- satsumas, oranges, clem, mango: ginger, peach, dried apricots, oats, echinacea. 1 tsp of PB - Blend, drink xx
11:58 AM Jan 14th from web in reply to scandilicious

@scandilicious vit C, zinc, echinecia (or however its spelt) and don't forget to eat some protein with all the veg and fruit & carbs pls ;)
11:43 AM Jan 14th from TweetDeck in reply to scandilicious

5) Echinacea

@scandilicious echinacea?
11:35 AM Jan 14th from Echofon in reply to scandilicious

@scandilicious Echinacea
11:34 AM Jan 14th from web in reply to scandilicious

Another well-known cold and flu fighter, the easiest way to take this is in supplement form...

6) Spelt

Easy spelt bread with fennel seed, recipe here

@scandilicious spelt contains immune-system boosting properties
11:31 AM Jan 14th from TweetDeck in reply to scandilicious

@scandilicious @aforkful I'm working on a spelt-ish (in fact it is the old Roman grain - Farro) risotto mix. More bite than rice, love it.
11:39 AM Jan 14th from web in reply to scandilicious

This intrigued me, being an avid spelt fan! I knew spelt was more digestible and I've been using it in bread baking for ten years now as diabetes runs in our family and spelt is better for maintaining steady blood sugar levels than plain wheat. It's also chockfull of flavour and I've taken to using refined spelt for cinnamon buns, cakes and pancakes recently. Try it, you won't be disappointed.

7) Garlic and chilli

Moroccan spiced chickpeas with spinach (photo courtesy of Andrew Crawley and the Daily Telegraph) recipe hereThis recipe is from the Ultimate Student Cookbook and one I never tire of. It's quick to make, frugal and extremely tasty. You've got all the wonders of aromatic spices such as cumin, coriander, turmeric and chilli, the latter of which has brilliant antiseptic properties. Garlic is well-known for its immune boosting properties, so you could up the quantity from this recipe if you're in dire straits and if you're feeling extra brave, try crushing a clove and eating it raw. I'm not a huge fan of raw garlic, but love it with seafood such as prawns:

or just gently sauteed with some anchovies, chilli flakes and tossed with broccoli in pasta...

8) Soup

Or more accurately, chicken soup. Known as Jewish penicillin chicken soup is the apotheosis of immune boosting soups. Nourishing and delicious in equal measure, a simple chicken soup requires little embellishment and is worth making in large batches and sipping (slurping?) throughout the day. Anthony Silverbrow's post on chicken soup is brilliant - as a South American proverb goes "good broth resurrects the dead" and chicken soup will do exactly that!

9) Protein

This wasn't tweeted so much as just an instinctive reaction I had to feeling unwell. I craved eggs, salmon and basically anything out of the sea. Protein is needed for strength, simple as that. Try an open sandwich of soft-boiled egg, Swedish kaviar from a tube and dill on sourdough crispbread such as Peter's Yard

For more boiled egg recipe suggestions check out Foodista: Soft Boiled Egg on Foodista
Or indeed a few slivers of smoked salmon with black pepper on the same crispbread (you can tell I'm addicted to crispbread!):

Mackerel is not only cheap but endlessly versatile and full of essential omega fatty acids. My favourite way to eat mackerel is with either a gooseberry compote or rhubarb, such as this recipe from Nigel Slater. Aim to eat oily fish at least two or three times a week.

10) Miscellaneous

Well, these are tips I picked up from an excellent book on nutrition Nourishing Traditions lent to me by the good people at Rude Health :

* Coconut oil contains lauric acid, an essential saturated fatty acid that boosts the immune system and protects against viruses, funghi and other pathogens

* Tea is full of antioxidants that help the cells in our body fight off damaging free radicals, thus keeping the cells in robust health

* Pickles such as kimchi, sauerkraut and umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums) are amazing immune enhancers. The fermentation process allows probiotic lactobacilli to develop in the pickles and these act as natural pathogen fighters. Kimchi, the Korean spicy cabbage has been linked to fighting off SARS in Korea, which you can read more about here. Whether or not you believe kimchi will protect you from dastardly viruses, it certainly tastes good.

Finally, it goes without saying that aside from eating well a few behavioural habits really help fight off lurgies:

* Wash your hands with soap after you've been on public transport, in the shops, out and about in town. My Norwegian grandmother was a nurse and she always complained that people's hygiene changed dramatically after antibiotics and medical care improved in the second half of last century. Hand hygiene is the first line of defense in combating germs!

* Have a lymphatic drainage massage. This was suggested by A Forkful of Spaghetti and it makes perfect sense. Our lymphatic system fights off pathogens and if it becomes congested then one of the most effective ways to reboot the lymph nodes is to massage away toxins trapped in the lymph nodes.

* Learn to say no. This might seem banal, but I learned to my cost towards the end of last year that saying yes to everything depleted my energy and enthusiasm for going out. Be selective, ruthless even, in how often you say yes to a favour, to going out or to events.

* Calm down! Adrenal fatigue is now recognised as a significant factor in the weakening of our immune systems. It seems we're all too stressed, all the time and the constant surge of adrenaline through our bodies - be it from working in stressful jobs, not sleeping enough, taking too many drugs, or in personal relationships - is seriously detrimental to our health. Relax as often as you can, try yoga, pilates or meditation. Chamomile, lemon verbena and valerian teas are all fantastic alternatives to boring old water to keep you hydrated and calm throughout the day. Hot baths, good novels, cooking a delicious meal - whatever it is that helps you unwind, do it. Ignore the maddening crowd and you'll feel so much the better for it. Exercise, curiously enough, can be calming as you vent all your frustrations through a game of footie, or on a run. My resolution is to dance more as I'm easily bored with gyms and running!

* Incidentally painkillers are also thought to weaken the immune system, but of course use them if you're feeling rotten and can't function. See your doctor if you're feeling utterly miserable and showing symptoms beyond just a cough or temporary food poisoning. Antibiotics are essential when you're seriously ill.

What are your top tips for eating your way to good health? Feel free to comment below, and dispute any of my suggestions of course.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Make mine a T'a: Chocolate breakfast at Maze with Jason Atherton and T'a chocolates

Chocolate is high on the list of essential foodstuffs in this household. Along with good bread, butter, porridge oats, yoghurt, anchovies and brown cheese, dark chocolate is always in stock. I began my love affair with the dark stuff when I needed all the help I could get for a dastardly International Baccalaureate maths exam in 1998 and scarfed an entire bar of 70% Lindt before going in for the trigonometry kill. Armed with a ruler, plenty of sharpened pencils and a nifty Hewlett Packard calculator I was as wired as a nerd could get.

Needless to say it wasn't the most brilliant idea and in the pantheon of hairbrained ideas I've had over the years this was sheer lunacy. I could Not. Sit. Still. and was acutely aware that as my mind whirled around like a demented dervish I was losing precious time. Forget Pythagoras' theorem, I could barely scribble my own name.

So maths was never going to be my forte, with or without the ill-fated inhalation of Lindt's 70%. But the kick that ensued from this act of theobromide madness was a salutary lesson: dark chocolate makes you alert. I mean, really really alert. I may not have been able to write anything for the first ten minutes of the exam, but then I suddenly nailed it. Why snort the Columbian white stuff when you can have an instant hit of adrenaline from good dark Venezuelan chocolate I say.

So when I received an invitation to a chocolate breakfast held at Jason Atherton's restaurant Maze to launch snazzy Milan brand T'a Chocolate I did a little dance. After a gloomy and illness-laden January I was ready to enter the land of the living and what better way to welcome February's arrival than with a chocolate breakfast at Maze?

It may have been a grey and damp day in foggy Londontown yesterday but I virtually skipped all the way way to Mayfair from Bloomsbury. Upon arrival, Andre Dang who organised the event as part of T'a Chocolates' launch at Selfridges introduced me to the lovely Jason Atherton. I'd heard much about Jason and how great he is to work with from soon to be Iron Chef and all-round great gal Judy Joo. Judy knows Jason from her time working as a pastry chef at Gordon Ramsay's Royal Hospital Road restaurant and speaks highly of him so I was curious to chat to Jason about the chocolate breakfast he'd concocted for T'a.

Along with the T'a chocolates on display at the tasting, there was a table replete with four delectable chocolate spreads. Some food connoisseurs turn their noses up at chocolate spread but it's a cherished part of my childhood and in recent months I have been known to slather both chocolate spread and peanut butter on Peter's Yard crispbread as a mid-afternoon snack. The good people at Peter's Yard no doubt wince at my desecration of their delicious crispbread, but trust me it's amazing.

All of Jason's chocolate spreads were inspired by his time spent cooking and training in Spain, Dubai, France and of course here in the UK which was a thoughtful approach to creating four distinctive flavours. The British ale vinegar and winter berries chocolate spread (picture above) was mellow and tangy at the same time, a real treat using the very best of British ingredients. Sampling his Middle Eastern-inspired chocolate spread with saffron, Greek thyme and Arabian honey I thought "Saffron and chocolate, it works!" and I can imagine this spread would knock the socks off regular chocolate spread on pancakes this coming Shrove Tuesday. We then sampled an Iberico ham and sherry vinegar chocolate spread which was subtle in its porcine and sherry flavour, inspired by his time at El Bulli. But the star of the spreads was undoubtedly this baby:

Holy mackerel! I had seconds. Being the incorrigible magpie that I am I may even have contemplated sneaking the entire jar into my handbag. Mediterranean sea salt, lemon and chocolate: this is the ne plus ultra chocolate spread. If it isn't on sale soon in Selfridges alongside T'a's chocolates I shall have to do a Lisbeth Salander and hack into Jason's laptop to nick the recipe. It's quite possibly the best way - other than porridge, smoothies and eggs benedict - to wake up in the morning: a light and refreshing lemon, sea salt and chocolate spread on sourdough toast. Or so I imagine. We had it with baguette.

But it wasn't all spreads and creative flavours, there was the serious business of chocolate tasting too. Selfridges has a history of launching hot-to-trot chocolate brands such as Willie Harcourt Cooze's Cacao bars, so I expect we'll see a lot more of T'a Chocolate soon enough. While it may be unknown over here, T'a is owned by Tancredi and Alberto Alemagna, two brothers who come from a long line of celebrated confectioners and patissiers in Milan. Tancredi told me Alemagna was the first place to make panettone way back when, a claim I'm not entirely convinced of but I learnt never to argue with an Italian about the origins of panettone. We chatted more about the origin of the cocoa beans in his chocolate bars and the varying degrees of cocoa percentage. Nibbling my way through the 55, 60, 72 and 80% samples I found the smoothness of T'a chocolates comforting and the flavours not nearly as intense as some artisan chocolate brands such as Michel Cluizel or Amadei. Having just reprised yesterday's sampling as I type this blog post I reckon the mellowness of the 40, 55, and 60% T'a chocolates makes for a perfect afternoon lift.

Having tasted the best molten hot chocolate ever in Cova, an old-school pastry shop and cafe in Milan's fashionable Via Montenapoleone, I have absolute faith in the Milanese brothers Tancredi and Alfredo's ability to craft fine chocolate, and one that is more accessible than some of the complex terroir-laden big guns out there.

Not that terroir is irrelevant to T'a, they source cocoa beans from single estates in Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, Columbia, Brazil, Ghana and Tanzania and there's a selection of small tasting chocolate pieces, pralines and dragees to showcase the best of those countries' cocoa beans.

It just wouldn't be Milanese if it weren't stylish, and I have to confess I love T'a Chocolates' style with its vivid colours and clever packaging. It's bright, enticing and pretty. If you're looking for a gift for a chocoholic this Valentine's day then you might want to swing by Selfridges in the next week and pick up one of these eye-catching T'a Chocolate boxes:

What can I say? Good design and good chocolate do it for me. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to hack into Jason Atherton's computer for that lemon sea salt chocolate spread recipe ;-)

Monday, 1 February 2010

Chocolate Beetroot Cake

Beetroot is as mighty as vegetables come. Admittedly I spent half my life thinking it came only in pickled form as my family used to eat it with chicken liver pate and mayonnaise on an open rye sandwich. Occasionally my mother would add the same pickled stuff to salads. Otherwise I had no real conception that it existed as a vegetable until I came to the UK and saw it sold with leaves and all. Imagine my excitement!

It's still a mystery why my parents, otherwise great advocates of root vegetables in both their raw and cooked form, didn't expose me to the humble beetroot. They did an excellent job exposing me to carrot and potatoes, just not beetroot.

Endlessly versatile, beetroot I've since discovered, can be roasted with thyme and garlic, or shredded raw into winter salads. It makes a great risotto, as The Larder Lout will tell you. And beetroot works a treat in cake.

I found a recipe in the Telegraph which I tweaked slightly, reducing the sugar slightly and adding more chocolate. you can see the original here

Use raw beetroot as you would use raw carrot in a classic American carrot cake. I opted for the cooked stuff to save time on this chocolate cake; the beetroot's subtle in flavour and you'll hardly taste it with all the chocolate and cocoa in this recipe but it lends a wonderful moist texture to chocolate cakes.

Do try it, but whatever you do, steer clear of the pickled beetroot for baking and save instead for open sandwiches!


250g cooked beetroot
100g dark chocolate
125g butter
250g light brown muscovado sugar (I used Billington's)
3 medium eggs
50g cocoa powder
225g self-raising flour (or the same quality of refined spelt flour with 1 tsp baking powder and 1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda)
1/4 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius, Gas Mark 4. Lightly grease a 22cm cake tin

In a medium bowl weigh the diced butter and dark chocolate chopped in small pieces. Place this over simmering water in a medium saucepan and allow the butter and chocolate to melt completely. Set aside to cool.

Sift the dry ingredients into a medium bowl and stir to distribute the raising agents, cocoa powder and salt.

In a medium-large bowl place the eggs and sugar and beat until pale and mousse-like:

Blitz the beetroot:

Add half the beetroot and half the dry ingredients to the bowl with the egg and sugar and fold through 4-5 times. Add the remainder of the beetroot and dry ingredients and again fold through 4-5 times until the mixture is smooth.

Finally, pour this into the cake tin and bake on the middle oven shelf for 40-50 minutes (depending on how reliable your oven is. Mine isn't!) Insert a skewer to see if the cake is cooked through. The skewer should have no wet mixture when you remove
it. When the cake is done, allow to cool 10 minutes before removing the tin and placing on a wire rack. Allow to cool completely before icing with equal parts melted dark chocolate and butter, with a few tablespoons of icing sugar to sweeten the icing. If you fancy a fruity twist, pierce the cake all over with a skewer and drizzle creme de cassis over before icing.