About 18 months ago I had a real thing for date syrup. I’d discovered it in one of those funny grocer-cum-spice shops where the vegetables are all rotting and the shelves are stacked high with things the casual Western European customer may struggle to identify. Even buying the date syrup was a gamble – the label was in French and Arabic and the picture on it was of three camels ambling through a desertscape. Actually, the camels were a dead giveaway – after buying Iranian ‘Camel’ brand dates for years, I figured there was a good chance that this glossy brown syrup was date-based too.
Anyway, date syrup and all the things I made with it had become a sweet memory until a couple of weeks ago when the lovely Laura Faire emailed to ask where I bought mine from. I sent her a few suggestions for stockists, but she went one further and sent me a DIY recipe. Not only does it work a treat, it means I no longer have to worry that the date syrup I use might actually be made from camels.
Homemade date syrup is less, well, syrupy than the bought version, but it does the trick just as well. Try it on porridge, drizzled over yoghurt, or in these double date scones.
Double date scones
I made these yesterday morning when I realised we had slim pickings for breakfast. They are so easy and using spelt flour makes them very easy to eat. That is to say, a small child and her mother can easily gobble down quite a few of them without feeling in the least bit weighed down.
300g (2 cups) white spelt flour
4 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp mixed spice
1 cup dates, chopped
1/4 cup date syrup
1 cup cream
Heat the oven to 210C and put a baking tray in the oven.
Sift the flour, baking powder and spice into a large bowl. Stir through the chopped dates.
Mix the date syrup and cream together and pour into the dry ingredients. Fold together gently and quickly to make a soft dough. Turn out onto a piece of baking paper and shape into a rough rectangle, then cut into eight pieces. Transfer the baking paper and scones to the hot tray in the oven and bake for 10-12 minutes, until risen and golden.
Eat with lashings of butter or dollops of ricotta and honey.
Quite apart from the hijinks of Fashion Week (hey, it wasn’t exactly Milan, but you have to take your excitement where you find it in this life), we seem to be on the party circuit at the moment. These are the sorts of parties that involve fairy bread, sausage rolls, cake smothered in pink icing and at least one participant in tears before last orders.
Since we have a birthday party of our own coming up in May, I’m beginning to get quite nervous. It was bad enough last month, trying to keep up with the play when my father-in-law had a bash to mark a significant birthday. I rashly volunteered to make sandwiches, then had to talk my mother-in-law out of them being complicated club affairs involving several fillings and an anxious amount of cutting. “Let’s just have classic chicken and tarragon,” I said airily, before remembering I was in a place where tarragon was harder to come by than gold bars. Instead, I whipped up what I thought was the perfect chicken sandwich while small children ran amok in the kitchen and old ladies waged war in the living room. Here’s how I did it.
The perfect chicken sandwich
This isn’t so much a recipe as a set of general guidelines. To me, a good sandwich has different textures, balanced flavours and good bread.
The cornerstone of these chicken sandwiches is a good mayonnaise – and by that I’m afraid I mean a real one. Trust me, making mayonnaise is easy and much faster than a trip to the shop to buy a jar of Best Foods’ finest. The other trick to good sandwich making, especially for a party situation, is preparation. Get everything ready and set yourself up like a miniature sandwich bar. It’ll be a good skill to have when the revolution comes.
1 batch of homemade mayonnaise, to which you have added 2 Tbsp wholegrain mustard
four handfuls of spinach, finely shredded
1 large cooked chicken breast (poached or roasted), cut into 1cm dice
3/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted and cooled
1 cup green grapes, halved
salt and pepper
12 slices from a loaf of bread – light rye is good
Put the diced chicken breast in a small bowl and fold through 3-4 tablespoons of mayonnaise. It should be lightly coated rather than drowning in the stuff. Toss through the spinach. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Lay six slices of bread on a clean worksurface and spread with mayonnaise. Grind over some black pepper. Cover each with the chicken and spinach mixture, then scatter over the grapes and almonds.
Spread the remaining six slices of bread with mayonnaise and put on top of each sandwich. Press down lightly, then trim off the crusts. Cut each sandwich into elegant fingers and arrange on a plate. Cover with a damp cloth if not serving immediately.
We have started a new thing in our house where we draw up a monthly ‘to-do’ list. It’s all well and good at the beginning of the month, when you see 30-odd days stretching out before you, but by this stage there are things that will have to be shifted over to April (sigh).
So while I doubt the window seals will be replaced by the end of the week and there’s a good chance I’ll forget to take the car to the garage tomorrow, I have managed to tick ‘Fresh From The Oven croissants’ off the list. A week ago I would have thought any job was easier than tackling the flakiest of French pastries, but thanks to the amazing Karen Burns Booth and her detailed instructions, it was a breeze. Well, maybe not a breeze. But definitely a lot easier than I anticipated.
The only thing I would add is that if you’re using standard active dried yeast, dissolve it in the warm milk and water first, or it will take forever to rise (enriched doughs like this one are always slow, but undissolved yeast makes the process move at glacial speed). Also, don’t try to finish off the rolling process late at night after a glass of wine while your sister-in-law and spouse watch and make (un)helpful suggestions. You will get cross and the croissants will suffer.
The next time I make them I’ll be using the tips I found in this fantastic video, which makes the shaping process really easy to understand. But that’s a project for April.
There are many pre-Christmas things I have failed to do this year. If you’re going to the letterbox every day in the hope that I’ve remembered to send you a Christmas card, let me save you the trip. It’s December 20 and my Christmas cards are sitting on my desk, half-written. At least, I think they’re here somewhere. A box unpacked itself on the desk over the weekend and it’s a miracle I can find the keyboard.
The only thing that’s stopping me feeling like a complete failure is that I had the presence of mind to a) make the Christmas cake and b) make my famous Christmas chutney before we moved house. Yes, the 2.25g cake and a polybin full of jars added to the load, but it was worth it. I’ve been dispensing jars hither and yon all week and it’s done wonders for my festive spirit. I’m just sorry I can’t post them.
Lucy’s Christmas Chutney
I’ve been making this since 1997, when the internet was just a baby and I was just a slip of a girl (ish). It’s great with ham, cold turkey, cheese and bread, especially if all of these things are consumed while reclining on a deckchair/sofa and reading something you got for Christmas. This year I added walnuts (about a cupful) for a bit of crunch, but it’s great just as is.
450g tart green apples (about 3), peeled, cored and cut into 1cm chunks.
225g onions (1 large), peeled and chopped
8 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 cup dates, roughly chopped
1 cup seedless raisins
1 cup prunes, roughly chopped
2/3 cup crystallised ginger, roughly chopped
2 tsp salt
1 tsp curry powder
2 cups white sugar
3 1/2 cups white vinegar
Combine all the ingredients in a large pot and bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
Reduce the heat and simmer very gently uncovered for about 45 minutes until the mixture is thick and the fruit is soft. You should be able to squish the apple with the back of a wooden spoon and the raisins will look swollen and plump. Don’t wander off and forget about the mixture, it will need regular stirring to prevent it from sticking. If it becomes too thick, add more vinegar.
Spoon the chutney into sterilised jars and seal with cellophane or tight-fitting lids. Makes about four 350ml jars.
I spent ages trying to think of a fancy title for this post, then I realised it didn’t need one. I mean, ‘salted chocolate peanut butter’ drew you in fast enough, didn’t it?
Salted chocolate peanut butter
This started out as ordinary peanut butter. We’d run out, I had a bag of peanuts, I threw them in the oven to roast them, then into the processor. Then I was thinking about a friend of mine with whom I share an abiding love for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and I threw in a handful of 50 per cent cocoa chocolate that was in the pantry. And a pinch of salt for luck. A few moments later I realised it was going to take a lot of willpower (or another bag of peanuts) if she was going to get any of it in her Christmas stocking. Here’s how you do it.
200g raw peanuts
100g good quality dark chocolate, chopped
flaky sea salt, to taste (about 1/2 – 1tsp)
Preheat the oven to 200C. Tip the peanuts into a roasting dish, then put it in the hot oven for 10-15 minutes. Shake the dish occasionally and keep an eye on the peanuts – you want them golden brown and nutty smelling, not incinerated. Remove from the oven and let cool for five minutes, then tip them into the processor. Blitz until they form a grainy paste. They will make a hell of a racket and you’ll think nothing is going to happen, but it will. Have faith. When it’s looking more like a paste, tip in the chocolate and 1/2 tsp salt and whizz again. Taste and add more salt/whizz until it suits your palate. Scrape into a pretty (and clean) jar. Tie a ribbon around the top and attach a small spoon. The recipient will know exactly what it’s for.
How are your Christmas preps going? Stay tuned for more last-minute ideas in the next week or so.