This year's hot cross loaf (the buns were all snaffled up before photos could be taken)
Being of Norwegian-Irish-Scottish-Jewish-Lithuanian-German extraction I've stopped crossing my buns.
What inspired such subversive behaviour in the week leading to Easter? Misplacing my piping bags. And out of sheer laziness I decided to forego making my own piping bag from silicone paper and just skipped the wobbly white crosses altogether this year. Not Cross Buns taste just the same as Hot Cross Buns, and come to think of it a pinch of heretical cardamom made its way into this spiced spelt dough. Hot cross bun purists will tut and shake their heads but I go by what tastes good, not some arbitrary notion of culinary tradition. Besides M&S are putting apples and cranberries in their buns so I'll stick to my cardamom thank you very much.
Anyway! These slow-fermented Not Crossed but rather tasty buns are suitable for lazy Sunday breakfasts so I hope you'll give them a whirl, with or without the crosses, the spelt, the cardamom...
Not cross buns (adapted from the Leiths bible standard hot cross bun recipe)
200ml milk, scalded (ie, brought to boiling point and then allowed to cool) 85g butter 300g refined spelt flour 150g wholemeal spelt flour 55g caster 1/2 tsp salt (1 tsp if using unsalted butter) 1 generous teaspoon mixed spice 1 tsp cinnamon 1/2 tsp cardamom (not strictly kosher but who cares) 20g fresh yeast or 7g sachet dried yeast 2 medium eggs, lightly beaten 100g sultanas
I slow ferment this dough overnight before baking off the buns/loaf. You can of course make them in a few hours but I find the slow fermentation adds a complex flavour and reputedly the slower the fermentation the more digestible the buns or loaf...
First, scald the milk along with the butter and cool to less than 50°C. Above 50°C and the heat will kill off the yeast so if you don't have a digital thermometer stick your finger in and the milk should feel lukewarm but not hot.
Meanwhile sift the flours, spice, salt and sugar in a large bowl. If using dried active yeast add it at this stage. If using fresh yeast, mix with 1 teaspoon of sugar in a small bowl. It should dissolve after a few minutes, and foam slightly - this is a sign the yeast is active. A good sign!
When the milk has cooled sufficiently, make a well in the centre of the dried ingredients and add the milk, butter, eggs, and (if using) fresh yeast.
Stir through and bring together with a large spoon. The great thing about spelt is it doesn't require much kneading. The dough should be quite sticky but simply stir through with your spoon for 5 minutes. You should see the dough become pliable and a little stretchy from the gluten strands forming.
Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, large enough to allow the dough to double in size, and then cover with oiled clingfilm and refrigerate for 12-18 hours, depending on when you're ready to bake the buns.
When the time comes to start shaping the dough into buns, take the dough out of the fridge and allow it to 'come to' temperature. Ie, let it warm up for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, soak the raisins in enough water to cover and drain the excess liquid off after 15 minutes.
Roll your dough out into a rough square or rectangle shape and scatter the raisins over. Bring the dough together like a parcel, sealing it off, and then just give it a couple of kneads to seal the dough and make sure the raisins haven't all clumped in one section of the dough.
Using a sharp un-serrated knife, slice the dough into 12-16 bun shapes of equal size. I weigh mine to 60g portions so they all bake evenly but you don't have to be as fastidious a fuss-pot as me.
Roll the buns into as round shapes as you can by gripping each bun in the palm of your hand, cupping your whole hand over it and then swirling around on your work surface in tight circles for a few seconds. This creates a tight;y structured bun and a round, even shape. I found I had too much dough to make buns for one tray to fit in my small oven so the remaining quarter of the dough I shaped into a mini loaf and baked after the buns were finished.
Place the shaped buns a couple of centimetres apart on the baking sheet and cover with a sheet of oiled clingfilm on top, allowing the buns to double in size in a warm place. This should take 30-40 minutes, but keep checking after 25 minutes. The buns will be ready to bake when you poke one and the imprint of your finger remains, ie. it doesn't spring back.
Finally, preheat the oven to 220°C. Brush each bun with a little milk - this will help to make a soft crust when the buns bake.
Place the baking sheet on an upper-middle shelf of the oven and turn the heat down to 200°C after 5 minutes, bake a further 15 minutes. Keep an eye on them so they don't burn. The buns will be done when they're golden brown, and sound hollow when you tap them. For the loaf allow an extra 10-15 minutes depending on the size of the loaf.
That's all there is to it. Freeze the buns or loaf for future use as they refresh really well in a 150°C oven for 10 minutes...
Those who know me will tell you few things make me happier in life than good bread slathered with indecent amounts of butter. When time permits the ritual of baking and breaking of bread is one of this cook's favourite pastimes, but more often than not I'm racing around like a whirling dervish and the bread baking goes by the wayside.
So it was with some breadgeek joy that I chanced upon Peter's Yard wholemeal crispbread this time last year. Served with smoked salmon as a canape at a Scandinavian dinner hosted by "Denmark's Delia" Trina Hahnemann at the emporium of pong La Fromagerie, I may or may not have snaffled more than my fair share of these canapes.
Why the excitement at finding a new crispbread? To a Scandinavian wholemeal crispbread is practically a birthright, we love it so much it's rare a storecupboard is without a packet of Wasa rye or sesame. Suffice to say I was mildly horrified when I first bought Ryvita as a university student back in the pre-Peter's Yard 1990s. Just a glance at the oesophagus-busting Ryvita in supermarkets still makes me shudder, it's very existence constituting a singular crime against gastronomy.
So when I tasted Peter's Yard sourdough crispbread and was reliably informed this was made solely with wholemeal flour, milk, honey, and a smidgeon of butter (oh yes!) I was transported to crispbread nirvana. The pure wholemeal taste, enriched with a touch of sourdough goodness and a gentle sweetness from the honey... it's hard to convey how delicious this crispbread is. It's Wasa for grown-ups, even those like me who suffer from periodic arrested development.
As I was soon to discover, the nascent crispbread business is run by two of the most generous and lovely people I've met in this hard-boiled industry: Wendy Wilson-Bett and Ian Tencor. We met one fine day at the Real Food Festival last year and I've been an advocate for their awesome crispbread ever since. Unpaid of course, lest you think this is a PR-led product placement. I do it because Peter's Yard is a bona fide sourdough crispbread and if it were up to me I'd mandate that every restaurant, deli and cheese emporium up and down this country serves this glorious product alongside proper homemade bread.
Peter's Yard deserve to be successful and I do what I can to help them, so when they asked me to join on a two-day innovation session at Shipton Mill in the heart of the Cotswolds I had to pinch myself. Recipe-testing is something I never tire of, and gallivanting around the English countryside is great but getting to see a MILL IN ACTION! My cup runneth over...
In the coming weeks I'll be sharing recipe ideas for crispbread, which of course you can easily apply to open-faced sandwiches. In the meantime, here are a few snaps of the Peter's Yard and Shipton Mill team in action:
A modest Norwegian log cabin of course, heaven forfend none of those plush Alpine chalets. Just a quaint log cabin with a few basic amenities: workable kitchen, a fireplace and a sauna. Moose antlers to grace the front door, a polar bear rug on the floor and a few choice pieces of vintage Norwegian furniture to lend the cabin authenticity. There will be books scattered all over the place, and comics, lots of old comics. Under-floor cable heating installed throughout the cabin will mean I can scamper around barefoot from sauna to kitchen, foregoing the thermal and fleece socks I've been wearing all winter back in London. A requisite fat sofa will sit in front of a window with a magnificent panoramic view of the local fjord, the surrounding forest and the little woodpecker nest hidden in the nearest tree.
In this cabin I'll retreat from the world, read books and comics, drink aquavit, and take in the breathtaking vista of my fatherland, all whilst having exceptionally warm feet.
There's only one problem.
In order not to be lynched by the locals I need to ski. It's no good retreating to a cabin in Norway and not ski. Norwegians are fierce ski enthusiasts and some wise scribe once irritatingly claimed we Norwegians are all born on skis, suggesting we're pre-destined to be superhuman skiers. My parents met when dad was a ski instructor in Breckenridge and mama johansen was a voluptuous snowbunny, so I had no choice but to ski from a young age:
Snowbunny junior ca.1984
But there is a grain of truth in the notion that we're born to ski: one of my earliest memories is of dad holding me carefully as we skied slowly down gentle slopes in Oslo. From the age of five I was racing both cross-country and downhill in the local Tomm Murstad ski school. It was practically the law. Back in the '80s there were no plump Norwegian children playing on their playstations. We were all skiing six months of the year, eating wholesome sandwiches, fruit and the requisite kvikk-lunsj (akin to a kit-kat but somehow cannily marketed as an essential foodstuff for skiers). It was the Norwegian Ideal and a perfect parenting strategy: expose children to crisp winter air all day and total exhaustion will render us sweet and placid.
Living on top of a mountain in Oslo, our house was near a ski jump called Holmenkollen where the winter olympics were held in 1952. As I was musing on the abovementtioned log cabin fantasy I discovered the beloved Holmenkollen ski jump of my childhood had recently been renovated:
Yowzers. The world's fastest ski jump on your door step. Times have changed.
While I watched the winter games last week it occurred to me how spoilt we are in Norway: you walk out the door, put on your skis and simply set off into the wilderness for a day's cross-country, or head for the nearest slope to go downhill. The easy access to nature and great ski terrain is a constant reminder of how achingly beautiful Norway really is, thus making die-hard patriots of us all. Despite my better instincts I get pangs of nostalgia when I think of Nordmarka, the national park behind our house, and of course Holmenkollen.
Being contrarian I decided at a young age that downhill was for adrenaline junkies, and adrenaline junkies who are co-ordinated at that. With cross-country you have time to absorb your surroundings and it also means you're less likely to ski into a tree, as I was prone to with downhill. As you might imagine, this didn't go down so well with the parents. Dad's visions of my becoming an olympic downhill champion were shattered, and to this day he still ribs me about my dislike of downhill. Sadly I haven't skied cross-country with any regularity since moving to the UK ten years ago. For shame!
Norway goes bananas during the winter olympics, and as I watched the games I found myself thinking the following:
1) I need a log cabin
2) I need to swallow my fear and start downhill skiing again
3) why the frack is Norway always doing do well in the winter olympics?
Canada with their 14 gold medals may have reigned supreme on home soil, but Norway had its moments of owning the podium, matching that sporting colossus the U.S. with 9 gold medals. We're talking about a nation of 4.7 million people versus 300 million in the U.S.
For a time last week the most read article on the Wall Street Journal was one which asked the same question, what lay behind Norway's success in the games? I suspect the reason it was WSJ's most-read feature that day was 4.7 million Norwegians were clicking on it.
Pondering this question I wondered if it might be related to diet. Not the celebrated Nordic Diet, but something specific to Norway. Could it be the large volume of fish we eat? If that were the case, Japan, Iceland, Spain and other piscine-loving nations would surely do just as well as Norway in the winter games. No, that couldn't be it. What about our love of smoked fish and cured meat? A lot of top Norwegian skiers come from the west Norwegian town of Voss, where the local tradition is to serve smoked sheep heads to guests.
No, this wasn't it either. Icelanders eat things like sheep buried in the ground and other weird cured meat. They hardly gained a medal in the winter games.
Then suddenly...Eureka! It struck me as I was nibbling a slice of this:
It must be our geitost, or goat's cheese!
Lest you think this is any old white goat's cheese, it's known in Norwegian as brunost, or brown cheese. Made from pasteurised goat's whey mixed with either goats' or cows' milk, this cheese is cooked in large vats over a long period until the lactic sugars in the milk start to caramelise. During the slow cooking process, excess liquid evaporates and the cheese turns brown and firm. It's ready to eat and requires no maturation. Think dulce de leche with a salty twist. It's sweet and savoury cheese, with the consistency of firm yet creamy fudge.
The most popular variety of geitost in Norway is actually Gudbrandsdalsost which has the right balance of goat and cow's milk, but you can get pungent, artisan versions that are made from unpasteurised goat's milk, such as this Slow Food one from Undredal, a village near my grandparents' farm that we used to visit when I was growing up. Today the artisan brown cheese appeals, but as a kid I found it too intense, and I remember watching my grandmother cook with it. Oh yes, brown cheese as you might have guessed is full of umami, making it an excellent flavour-enhancer in sauces and stews.
Divisive as Marmite, you either love or hate this cheese, and I'll admit it's an acquired taste, but every child in Norway grows up eating brown cheese sandwiches as part of their school lunchpack. Nothing tastes better on freshly baked wholemeal bread than a pat of butter and a couple of thin slices of brunost. The ski queen equivalent you find over here is powdery and crumbly compared to the real stuff back in Norway.
As brown cheese is something of an acquired taste, babies are often weaned on Prim, a spreadable buttery version of brown cheese that isn't cooked as long as the firm cheese version. It's a sort of nutritious caramel:
Forget being born on skis, we're born with the taste of this cheese in our mouths. Everyone in Norway eats it. At the Lillehammer winter olympics in '94, then prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland was asked why Norway did so well despite being such a small country, and she replied in all earnest "It is typical Norwegian to be good" to howls of laughter from my father, who to this day still quotes Brundtland's nugget of jingoism.
Sorry Gro, it's not typically Norwegian to be good, it's typically Norwegian to eat mounds of brown cheese. It's our secret to olympic success, I promise you.
And now I'd better stop musing on log cabins, skiing and cheese. Time to start plotting how to acquire that log cabin, find a hot ski instructor to re-introduce me to the joys of downhill, and make myself a sweet brown cheese sandwich for lunch... ;-)
Top photo of Aksel Svindal CBC Canada, Second photo of Marit Bjoergen www.morethanthegames.co.uk Third photo: my parents Fourth photo of the new Holmenkollen www.dezeen.com Fifth photo of ekte geitost www.cheesestorebh.com Bottom photo of synnove prim http://www.flickr.com/photos/synnovefinden/3680517551/
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!
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 :-)
foodieguide @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.
XXorcist @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)
XXorcist @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!
Tamarizzo @scandilicious Probiotics :-) 12:09 PM Jan 14th from Gravity in reply to scandilicious
LucianaBianchi @scandilicious yoghurt(with live bacteria!!) And royal jelly! 12:06 PM Jan 14th from UberTwitter in reply to scandilicious
Kate_Q @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
brockhallfarm @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.
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.
theimpishscribe @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
goodshoeday @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
RosieFoodie @scandilicious echinacea? 11:35 AM Jan 14th from Echofon in reply to scandilicious
R_McCormack @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...
aforkful @scandilicious spelt contains immune-system boosting properties 11:31 AM Jan 14th from TweetDeck in reply to scandilicious
DiscoveryDay @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...
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!
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: 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.
* 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.
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 ;-)
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.