I got really over-excited at the 20% off Le Creuset sale at John Lewis, and was delighted to get home late this evening and find that my pie dish (in ‘cassis’) had arrived. I’d planned to make the courgette and rice filo pie from River Cottage Veg Every Day! at some point this week, and this seemed like as good a time as any. It’s delicious and very easy, and I’ve just made it having been to one of those drinks parties where people keep topping up your glass so you lose track of how much you’ve had, so I can vouch for its simplicity.

Courgette and rice filo pie (from River Cottage Veg Every Day!)

500g courgettes, coarsely grated
75g long-grain rice
1/2 medium red onion, finely chopped (I love onion in all its forms, so I put a whole one in)
75g hard goat’s cheese or mature Cheddar, grated (you might like to add some feta too, adjusting the seasoning accordingly)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tbsp olive oil
A handful of dill, chopped
A good handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
250g filo pastry (if you can get a slightly larger pack, do – you always end up with one really raggedy sheet per packet)
75g unsalted butter, melted
Salt and pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 190°C.

2. Mix the courgettes, rice, onion, cheese, eggs, olive oil and chopped herbs together in a large bowl, and season well with salt and pepper. It really does need quite a bit of salt, especially if you’re not using feta.

3. Lightly brush a sheet of film pastry with melted butter, and use it to line an ovenproof dish – leave the excess hanging over the sides. Repeat this with all but the last sheet of pastry, lining the dish the whole way round.

4. Pour the filling into the pastry-lined dish. Fold the excess pastry over to cover the filling, dabbing with melted butter to encourage the pastry to hold together. Crumple the last sheet of pastry in your hands a bit, before placing it over the top of the pie and tucking in the edges.

5. Brush the top with a bit more butter, and bake for 45 minutes until golden. Depending on how late it is and how tipsy and/or hungry you are, you could eat this with some Turkish-/Greek-influenced mezze dishes, or just shovel a slice down and go to bed.

… I’ve started a Tumblr, for all non-food-related things that I want to go on about. You’ll find it here, should you so desire: http://sarahruddick.tumblr.com/

(I know the current title’s a bit rubbish. I’ll give it some thought.)

Unencumbered as I am by ‘normal’ adult concerns like mortgages and small children, my brain generally concerns itself with questions such as, ‘Whose turn is it to put the kettle on?’, ‘Do I watch too much Black Books?’ and ‘What am I going to do with all those egg whites cluttering up the fridge?’ I’m keen on custard-making, which has the unfortunate (ha!) side-effect of using every egg yolk you can get your hands on, leaving you with bowls of sad-looking whites, destined for meringues that will never be made. Normal procedure is to leave them in the fridge until they go all watery, then chuck them out when you need the space to chill another bottle of wine.

These little cakes, from Lucas Hollweg’s Good Things to Eat, use five eggs whites. Five! Joy of joys. They’re very simple to make too, with no creaming of butter and sugar necessary; you needn’t even bother remembering to take the butter out of the fridge to soften, as it just needs to be melted. I used vanilla extract (Hollweg’s suggested alternative) instead of lemon zest, just because I fancied something vanilla-y with the raspberries.

Right – I’m off to make five egg yolks’ worth of custard.

Little almond cakes with raspberries (or almondberry cakes, as I’ve dubbed them)

Makes 12

175g butter, plus extra for greasing
250g icing sugar, plus extra for dusting
140g ground almonds
60g plain flour
finely grated zest of 1 lemon (I substituted about a teaspoon of vanilla extract, which I stirred in just after the egg whites)
5 medium egg whites (I used large, and this doesn’t seem to have hurt the cakes at all)
12 raspberries (or blueberries, blackberries or blackcurrants, as Hollweg suggests. I agree with him that strawberries would be BAD)

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C, and smear the holes of a 12-hole muffin tin with plenty of butter.
  2. Melt the butter gently until frothy and bubbly. Mix together the 250g icing sugar, almonds, flour and lemon zest (if using) in a large bowl. Stir in the egg whites and beat vigorously for about 10 seconds, until everything is nice and smooth, with no clumps of almond or sugar. Add the vanilla extract now, if using. Pour in the butter and mix it well – it’ll take a bit of elbow grease to get it incorporated. What you’ll have now is much runnier than a normal cake batter.
  3. Divide the mixture between the 12 holes of your tin (easier said than done when it’s this runny. I used a ladle and it still went everywhere). Put a raspberry on the top of each one – no need to push it in – and bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes. They’re done when they’re golden brown round the edges and still a little unset in the middle; this will become firmer as the cakes cool.
  4. Leave them in the tins to cool before prising out with the help of a metal spoon, then dust with a little icing sugar just before serving. Enjoy.

My birthday, falling as it does on the last day of August, marks the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. I can’t feel particularly sad about waving goodbye to the hot days for another year, not least because a) this is England, for gawd’s sake, and b) I hate being too hot. I hate picnics (I am forever plagued by wasps and dogs), sunstroke, and the indignity of sleeveless tops. (However, I can’t express my joy at the coming of autumn better that Eva Wiseman did in the Observer on Sunday.)

So, a year older and wiser, I am newly obsessed by the cosiness of autumnal comfort food. (If you don’t see much of me for the next few months, check my bed and then my kitchen.) Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg Every Day! is my new favourite kitchen tome; I made the squash and fennel lasagne yesterday, and tonight seemed like a good time to try the swede and potato pasties. Even if they didn’t taste great, these would be worth making for the lovely rootsy savoury smell that wafts around your house while they’re in the oven; luckily, they’re also absolutely delicious. I’m taking one in for my packed lunch tomorrow (with age cometh thrift).

Swede and potato pasties (from River Cottage Veg Every Day!)

Makes 4

For the pastry:

300g plain flour
A pinch of sea salt
150g chilled unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

For the filling:

225g potato
125g swede
75g carrot
1 small onion, grated
Leaves from a handful of parsley, finely chopped
Leaves from a few sprigs of  thyme, chopped
1 teaspoon vegetable bouillon powder
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
50g strong Cheddar, grated (Hugh says this is optional. I say: sling it in.)
30g butter, melted

To finish:

1 egg, lightly beaten with 1 teaspoon milk, to glaze

  1. To make the pastry, mix the flour and salt together, then add the pieces of butter and toss them in the flour until each little cube is separately coated. Add about 150ml of chilled or iced water to form a fairly firm dough. (Clumsy as ever, I added a little too much, but a well-floured work surface and rolling pin did the trick.)
  2. Shape the dough into a rectangle with your hands on a well-floured work surface, and then roll it out away from you, in one direction only, until the rectangle is about 1cm thick. Fold the far third towards you, then fold the nearest third over the top of that – you’ll now have a rectangle made up of three equal layers. Give the pastry a quarter turn, and repeat the rolling, folding and turning five times. Wrap the pastry in cling film, then chill in the fridge for between 30 minutes and an hour.
  3. Preheat the oven to 190°C. If there’s someone in your house who likes a bit of painstaking chopping, call them into the kitchen at this point.
  4. Peel the potato, swede and carrot and cut into 3–4mm dice. This is quite pleasing really, once it’s done. Put the chopped veg in a bowl, along with the grated onion, herbs, bouillon, seasoning and cheese. Melt the butter and stir that in last.
  5. Roll out the pastry to 3mm thick, and cut out 4 circles using a small plate (around 19cm diameter) – you’ll probably have to squish together the trimmings and roll them out again for the last one.
  6. Divide the vegetable mixture between the four pastry squares, keeping it to one side of each circle. Brush the edges with a little water, fold over the other half of pastry, and crimp the edges together securely. Patch up any holes that appear as you stretch the pastry over – you don’t want leaky pasties.
  7. Line two baking sheets with baking parchment. Place the pasties on the sheets, and brush them with the egg glaze. Bake for 35–40 minutes until golden brown.

If you’re always on the lookout for new recipes then you’ll no doubt have various scraps of paper cluttering up your house, each featuring a scribbled or printed recipe that you’ll just never get round to sticking or copying into that special dedicated notebook you got for Christmas (and the person who gave you that book is probably sick of the clutter too). Guilty as charged, over here.

The best onion bhaji recipe I ever found was printed on the back of a gram flour packet, and I’ve only gone and thrown it out. So last night I was forced to branch out and try a different recipe (as much as anyone can be forcibly compelled to make onion bhajis). I’ve made sweet potato bhajis to Rose Elliot’s New Complete Vegetarian recipe before, so I tried her suggested variation to make the more traditional onion version. It wasn’t wholly successful, as there didn’t seem to be enough gram flour mixture to hold each bhaji together; they worked better that I thought they would, though, and were light and crispy. The dried chilli gives just the right amount of kick, and I love that Rose Elliot includes fresh coriander. I’ll try them again soon to work out the optimum quantities, but please send me your tried-and-tested bhaji recipes! I’m desperate.


Onion bhajis
 (from Rose Elliot’s New Complete Vegetarian)

Makes eight, apparently. They don’t hold together too well, so smaller ones might be your best bet, in which case obviously you’ll end up with more than eight.

450g onions (red or white)
125g gram flour
1 tsp dried red chilli flakes
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp chopped fresh coriander

  1. Slice your onions. A straggly onion bhaji is a beautiful thing, so keep your slices longish rather than chopping them finely.
  2. Put the sliced onions in a bowl and add the gram flour, chilli flakes, baking powder, salt and coriander. Give it a really good mix – you can do this with a wooden spoon, but you might find it easier with your hands; I know I do. The moisture will be drawn out from the onions so everything should start to come together, but you can add a little water after a good mix if everything still feels dry. I find it easiest to form the mixture into lumps of whatever size you fancy (I wouldn’t go bigger than about a tablespoon of mixture) at this stage, laying them out on a chopping board ready for frying.
  3. Choose a medium-sized saucepan and pour in enough vegetable oil to half-fill the pan (you can always strain and reuse the oil afterwards, once it’s cooled down), setting it over a medium-high heat.
  4. Start adding your bhajis once the oil reaches 180°C, or when a cube of bread rises to the surface and turns golden brown in under a minute. To be honest, I just take a punt on it and start putting them in when it looks hot. Depending on the size of your pan, it’s probably best to only fry three or four bhajis at once, to prevent the oil cooling.
  5. After about four minutes, the bhajis should be deliciously golden and crisp, and cooked right through. Drain them on kitchen paper and keep them warm in a low oven while you fry up the rest.
For a really tasty sweet potato variation, peel and grate 350g sweet potatoes in place of the sliced onion in the recipe above, and add one very finely chopped onion to the mixture too.

After a couple of weeks of admirable almost-austerity, this has been a week of sheer indulgence. Not only have I managed to acquire a new laptop (unlike my last one, it actually works for more than five minutes without the display dissolving into a migraine-inducing quivering fuzzy mess), but I’ve eaten at St John Bread & Wine, da Polpo and (fanfare please) The Ledbury. Add to this some quality boozing at Zetter Townhouse and B@1 – I can’t apologise for the latter; I love it there – and I really have no idea how I woke up at 6.30am today. Oh yeah: my laptop was due to arrive and I was as excited as a child at Christmas.

St John Bread & Wine was as fantastic as ever, and I was particularly pleased to see my old favourite, fennel and Berkswell with pickled walnuts, on the menu. No trip to Fergus Henderson’s Commercial Street outpost would be complete without one of their incredible Eccles cakes with Lancashire cheese. Every time I have one I’m tempted to order a spare for the next day’s breakfast. One of my favourite festive moments involved unexpectedly running into my friend Adam on the train up to Northants a few days before Christmas, and discovering that we’d each brought an Eccles cake for the journey. AND he’d brought a wodge of Lancashire cheese. Unfortunately, neither of us had thought to bring a hip flask.

I’m a huge fan of Russell Norman’s Polpo group of restaurants, and da Polpo, the Covent Garden-based new addition to the family, is no exception. The queues are of a far more palatable length than at the Beak Street original, and although da Polpo’s menu is less varied, the convivial atmosphere, friendly service and unfailingly tasty food makes for a reliably great night out. I headed there, with my friends Vicky and Helen, after four cocktails apiece at B@1 (it’s buy one get one free until 7pm, and you just can’t argue with that), all distinctly peckish but unwilling to end our evening too early. We gorged ourselves on pizzette, ‘meatballs’ and two salads (zucchini and Jersey royals), stuck to tap water and left very happy and each only £11 lighter of pocket.

Yesterday, in celebration of the lovely Sarah’s ‘big birthday’, five of us headed west… to Notting Hill’s Ledbury Road. The Ledbury is a two-Michelin-starred establishment that boasts the best service I’ve ever been lucky enough to experience – so wonderfully good-humoured yet faultlessly efficient. The staff didn’t even laugh at me (too much) when I arrived and thought I spotted my party at the back of the restaurant, only to discover that it was in fact their reflection in the huge mirror that makes up the back wall.

And the food…

Our waiter cheerfully produced an entire vegetarian set-lunch menu for me to peruse over a shared bottle of Nyetimber (this alone made my day), from which I chose a heritage tomato salad followed by celeriac baked in ash. I can’t even begin to tell you just how good the tomato salad was: served at room temperature for maximum flavour, the mixture of dark-skinned, green, cherry and classic red tomatoes was accompanied by a herby (but not overpowering) dressing and dried olives, as well as two flawless feuille de brick pastry tubes filled with perfectly light, creamy goat’s curd.

The celeriac, with its deliciously ashy coating, was beautifully combined with hazelnuts, summer truffle and grated hen’s egg. I’m not usually a truffle fan, but these had an extremely delicate flavour that only added to the perfectly balanced dish. And as Mr Ottolenghi has shown us, nuts should be liberally sprinkled over pretty much all food for instant yumminess.

The set menu dessert of elderflower panna cotta didn’t appeal (not veggie-friendly), so I chose brown sugar tart with gooseberries and stem ginger ice cream from the full menu. It was as amazing as it sounds. I don’t think I could do it justice with mere words. This feast was followed by coffee (fresh mint tea for me and the birthday lady) and petits fours in the form of raspberry jellies, salted caramel chocolates and tiny hazelnut shortbreads sandwiched together with something delicious and a bit creamy.

For the first time ever, I’d managed to attain that ideal level of fullness and tipsiness that leaves you warm and happy rather than alarmed and queasy. Still, a bit of a walk was in order for Paul and me after lunch, and we headed towards Books for Cooks on Blenheim Crescent. I managed to resist buying anything, and Valentine Warner was there. All in all, a perfect afternoon.

(Photos courtesy of Paul)

Once you’ve got your starter, making a loaf of sourdough bread is dead easy. My standard loaf is adapted from Dan Lepard’s recipe for white leaven bread in The Handmade Loaf.

Transfer 200g of lively starter to a big bowl and add to it 325g of warm-ish water. Combine the two with a spoon or a whisk and then add the flour. The recipe calls for 500g of strong white flour, which makes a fine loaf. However, you can happily experiment with different flours. Stealing an idea from another standard sourdough recipe (in Richard Bertinet’s Crust), I often substitute some of the white flour with spelt flour (say, 425g white and 75g spelt). This makes a slightly darker, more characterful loaf.

So, add your flour and, at the same time, 1½ tsp sea salt. Give it all a good mix and start to form it together into a dough. You might need to add a bit more water or flour to get the right consistency. As ever, what is right for you, in the conditions you’re working in, is moot and it’s hard to make generalisations. You need a looser, wetter dough than most people are used to, so you are looking for something that does stick annoyingly to your hands and the work surface (for that reason, little plastic scrapers are strongly recommended). However, there’s always a limit to it – you still have to knead it and so there has to be scope to manipulate the stuff. Most people tell you to avoid adding more flour but sometimes you just have to, or it’s impossible to work with.

In the various guides to bread-making, people always give their tips and their ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s. These can add up to a baffling and restrictive code for how you might operate when you make your bread, and they can really take the fun and spontaneity out of it. I’m sure a lot of the things I do would be frowned upon, but they seem to work and I’m therefore loathe to try to fix them. However, I’ve found two techniques in particular that are well worth taking seriously when it comes to the often arduous task of kneading.

Firstly, Richard Bertinet has a method which mercifully gets you away from the exhausting heel-of-the-hand-based pummelling of the dough that many of us have grown up to think is (k)needed. It’s hard to describe it so you should maybe just get either get one of his books – Dough or Crust – or, given that there are videos of it online, just google ‘Bertinet kneading method’. He manages to use his thumbs and fingertips to flick the dough deftly over on itself in a frankly quite stylish movement that really is very effective. In no time, you’ll find yourself with the kind of smooth, elastic dough you’re looking for. It’s still a bit tiring, obviously, but you don’t feel quite so bruised and battered afterwards.

Secondly, Dan Lepard helpfully points out that there’s no sense in bashing away at a dough continually when the proteins you’re working on carry on doing their thing regardless of whether or not you’re actively kneading. In other words, if you give a dough a bit of a knead and then leave it a few minutes, when you come back to it you’ll find that it’s much easier to work with – it has actually gained in elasticity since the last time you touched it. You still have to do the kneading thing – that’s what traps air inside the dough – but the proteins that form the cellular structure needed to hold gas inside the dough respond best to alternating spells of rest and manipulation. Mr Lepard writes out a detailed schedule of resting and kneading for you for most recipes, but you can be a bit more maverick than that and allow yourself to multi-task as you knead. So, give it a knead for a minute, do a bit of washing up, then come back to the dough and knead again for another couple of minutes, then make a cup of tea, knead again, and so on. It’s magic – it works amazingly well.

Once you’ve got a nice bit of dough, flour it up and leave it in a warm place. I’ve got a little lined basket (a ‘panneton’, no less) for mine but you can just as easily use a floured or oiled mixing bowl with a tea towel over the top. They say this bit takes an hour but, frankly, I’ve left it overnight in this condition and it doesn’t seem to matter. Next, you take it out and stretch it. Don’t expect it to have expanded much – everything is so much slower in the world of sourdough that you don’t tend to get that revelation of your dough having ‘doubled in size’. Stretch it out on a lightly floured surface, and then wrap it back up again, folding the corners into the centre a couple of times and then working back into a ball. Flour it again and stick it back in whatever container you’re using to prove it.

How much time you need here is pretty infinitely expandable, in my experience. It is possible to over-do it, in which case it collapses back in on itself a bit like a dying star (too much Brian Cox there), but generally the longer you can leave it, the better. I think overnight is ideal but I’ve left them up to 24 hours before and that seems to work fine still. Transfer your loaf to a floured tray, slash the top with a sharp knife (for artistic effect and to facilitate expansion) and then bake it in a hot oven. Start as hot as you can and then lower the temperature to somewhere around 180-200 degrees C after five minutes. It helps if you can spray a bit of water into the oven just as you close it, creating a damper atmosphere for the first phase of baking.

It should need around 35-40 minutes, but you’ll find you have to open up the oven and test it a few times to be sure, lifting it up and tapping its bottom in the time-honoured fashion, listening for the hollow sound you’re after. A bit of colour is nice, but don’t let it burn on the top. Flouring the top of the loaf before baking can help to avoid this but, even then, I find I often have to shove a bit of kitchen foil over the top to stop it burning while it has its last five to ten minutes in the oven.

And that’s that. The bread you get is, as always, best eaten fresh. It will keep for about a week (bread with a higher water content tends to keep longer) although probably needs to be toasted from day three onwards which, for sourdough, is no bad thing anyway.

Once you’re proudly munching your sourdough, it’s worth reflecting that you’ve truly made yourself a part of the honourable continuum of bread-making. All bread would have been made this way until the last couple of centuries. You’ve done justice to the traditional ways: you’re no slave to the yeast, you don’t rely on strange packets of dried ‘fast-acting’ stuff. You are master or mistress of the loaves. Here’s to the inner baker in all of us!

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