In spite of loving Ladurée’s delectably jewel-coloured macaroons, it had never crossed my mind to attempt to emulate them at home until yesterday. But flicking through my trusty Ottolenghi cookbook with the aim of finding something suitably small and sweet to take along to a dinner, the lime and basil macaroon recipe jumped out at me. They seemed unusual and pretty enough to make an interesting contribution to the meal, but tiny enough not to overwhelm or impose. An enormous part of the appeal was the fact that I hadn’t promised to take anything, which removed pretty much all of the pressure when constructing the delicate morsels; if they went horribly wrong, I could just eat the mess at home and no-one would be any the wiser.

As it happened, they were fairly straightforward. I made the filling first: a simple buttercream with plenty of lime zest and juice beaten in, along with some finely chopped basil leaves. The biscuit mix was also quick and easy, especially with the help of an electric whisk: egg whites and caster sugar are whisked into a meringue mix, which is then folded into icing sugar and ground almonds, along with more lime zest and chopped basil. The only fiddly bit is creating similar-sized blobs of the mixture on the baking parchment-lined tray (I don’t get on well with piping bags, probably due to lack of practice, but a teaspoon did the job). After a 15-minute rest, they go into the oven for about 12 minutes (they needed 16 in my oven) before cooling, filling, and leaving to firm up.

I’d have to say, cautiously, that my first foray into macaroon-making was fairly successful… they seemed to go down well, even at the end of a long meal of many, many boozy courses. I particularly liked how zingy the buttercream filling was – it contained enough lime juice to make combining the ingredients a job for a powerful mixer (or a strong beating arm). Ottolenghi’s recipe gives you more buttercream than you need, so I’ve made a second half-batch of macaroons today. Somehow, this seems more acceptable than just eating the buttercream from the bowl.

Lime and basil macaroons (adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook)

110g icing sugar
60g ground almonds
2 free-range egg whites
40 caster sugar
5 large basil leaves, finely chopped
finely grated zest of 1 lime

For the buttercream filling:
100g unsalted butter, at room temperature
45g icing sugar
juice and finely grated zest of 1 lime
5 large basil leaves, finely chopped

1. Make the filling first: beat the butter and icing sugar together until pale and light. Beat in the lime juice and zest and the chopped basil until well mixed – it’ll seem like a lot of juice, but if you keep mixing it will go into the butter eventually. Cover the mixture with cling film and leave in a cool place (not in the fridge).

2. Preheat the oven to 170°C. Sieve the icing sugar and almonds together into a large, clean mixing bowl.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites and caster sugar together until you have a nice firm (but not dry) meringue. Fold this mixture gently into the icing sugar/almond mixture, a third at a time; make sure each batch is thoroughly incorporated before adding the next one. Continue until it’s all added and the mixture is smooth and glossy, then fold in the basil and lime zest.

4. Take a couple of large baking sheets, putting tiny blobs of the macaroon mixture here and there to stick down a piece of baking parchment on each tray. (Depending on the size of your trays and the efficiency of your oven, you’ll probably need to bake several batches of the macaroon.)

5. You can use a piping bag to create two-pound-coin-sized discs of the mixture on the baking parchment, but it’s easy enough to do this with a teaspoon. Try to keep the discs as uniform as possible; you’ll need to pair them up once they’re baked, which is far, far easier if you do this bit carefully. Leave plenty of space between the blobs to avoid unsightly merging in the oven.

6. Tap the underside of each tray once it’s covered with macaroon blobs – this will smooth them out and help them to spread. Leave the trays out, uncovered, for 15 minutes before baking.

7. Bake each tray of macaroons in the preheated oven for 12 minutes, but they might take a little longer (they took 16 minutes in my oven, for what it’s worth). They’re ready when they come off the paper easily with a palette knife, but don’t lift them off the paper altogether when they’re still warm, as this seems to make them collapse. Leave the biscuits to cool down completely.

8. Pair the macaroons up, and sandwich the pairs together with a blob of buttercream filling (squeeze them together as gently as possible). Leave them at room temperature to set. You can chill them to speed this up, but let them come to room temperature before serving.

 

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I suppose I should admit that although I have been cooking plenty of things from the new Ottolenghi book (see ‘A Woman with a Plan’, below), finding the time to write about them has been more of a challenge. I really need to get back into the habit; it doesn’t help that my camera’s broken.

Anyway, I accidentally had a dinner party last night. It wasn’t in my usual style, which involves planning for weeks and keeping the night before free for cooking (and the night before that for shopping). Finding myself in possession of some actual ingredients, for a change, and with my friend Claire coming round to join Paul and me for the France/Uruguay match and a bite to eat, I decided to whip up some spaghetti with homemade pesto, followed by Nigel Slater’s hot chocolate puddings. It might have been nutritionally deficient – although doesn’t basil count as one of your ‘five a day’? It’s green, after all – but it did the job.

I usually make pesto by blitzing the ingredients in my mini food-processor, but Paul gets great results following Jamie Oliver’s advice from The Naked Chef: bashing it all up in a pestle and mortar is the way to get the best flavour from the basil, apparently. Jamie recommends a quarter clove of garlic, chopped (although I used a whole small clove), bashed up with three good handfuls of fresh basil. You’d be amazed how quickly the leaves reduce down to almost nothing when pounded… I think I’d make a double quantity next time. Next, add a handful of lightly toasted pine nuts, and continue to bash. (This is when you realise that your pestle and mortar is entirely inadequate in size.) A good handful of grated Parmesan goes in next, with enough olive oil to bind the sauce, and then seasoning. I know I should be using vegetarian Parmesan, by the way, but cheese has always been the weak point in my otherwise pretty strict vegetarianism. I really should look into the vegetarian Parmesan alternatives. I’m not a giant hypocrite, honest.

Tossed with hot spaghetti, the pesto made quite a tasty supper. For me, the downside of bashing rather than blitzing is that the basil leaves are wilted but stay almost intact rather than being chopped to a pulp, so the basil bit of the sauce doesn’t coat every strand of pasta as a more conventionally made pesto would. Still nice, though.

As more beer was drunk, a pudding seemed more and more necessary. Nigel Slater’s hot chocolate puddings (from The Kitchen Diaries) have been a favourite of mine for a few years now – it seems such a luxurious treat to have a hot chocolate pudding, but it really doesn’t take many ingredients or much time to make them. With dark chocolate (it’s worth going for the best you can get – I made up the total with Green & Black’s and some M&S Easter chocolate I still had in the house, for some reason), eggs, caster sugar, butter, and a drop of chocolate hazelnut spread, along with maybe half an hour maximum, you’re all done. Yum. The recipe serves four, which gave me the perfect excuse to have one for breakfast.

At last! An excuse to make a proper pudding. They don’t come along often. It seems just a bit too piggy and extravagant to spend the time making an enormous confection in the absence of a proper occasion and a big audience (well, bigger than just the two of us) – although frankly I can think of few things I’d rather do with my time. These opportunities must be grabbed with both (oven-gloved) hands whenever they appear, which is how, with an extra mouth to feed on Friday night, I ended up making a Queen of Puddings.

When it comes to desserts at least, I’m a traditional sort of woman. I like a hot pudding, involving some combination of sponge, jam, and custard (preferably all three). St John Bread and Wine does a fantastic line in these. With this in mind, I treated myself to a copy of Good Old-Fashioned Puddings earlier this year, and was desperate to try it out. Having tried a delicious Queen of Puddings on the dessert board at The Olive Branch in Clipsham, Rutland last year, I set about creating my own. No sponge involved, sadly, but a bottom layer of a breadcrumb-thickened custard (sounds unappetising, but it really is lovely), baked in a bain-marie and then topped with a layer of jam. I was lucky enough to have a jar of homemade apple and plum jam at my disposal, with which I replaced the traditional raspberry; lemon curd could also be used, I imagine. On top of the jam, I piled soft meringue, ready to be baked until golden. (As you’ll see in the photo, mine went a little too far the other side of ‘golden’. Still yummy though, I think.)

 

Slightly overdone? It didn't last long, anyway.

Slightly overdone? It didn't last long, anyway, so it can't have been that bad.

Since we were too greedy to wait for it to cool down, the layers didn’t stay as separate as one might have hoped, for our first helping at least. Those ye olde types certainly knew how to design a pudding though, didn’t they? The sweet jam works a treat against the blander background of the custard, finished off with that light, sugary meringue topping.

But I wouldn’t want you to think that I invite people round just for dessert… there was preamble! (Almost entirely courtesy of my boyfriend, I must admit.) Paul, Claire and I being greedy types, we decided to make the various other courses one at a time, so that we didn’t have to starve for hours waiting to be fed. We started with sherry, Paul’s homemade sourdough, and a selection of cheeses: Lincolnshire Poacher; Moody’s Rosary Ash goat’s cheese; and some lovely manchego with the obligatory membrillo.

NOT a Waitrose advert.

NOT a Waitrose advert.

There followed Valentine Warner’s fruitalia – a deep Turkish frittata-style eggy cake, filled with broad beans, feta and mint – a potato salad (with an oily dressing rather than a mayonnaise one, due to the high egg content of the rest of the meal), and a downsized take on Jamie Oliver’s pea crostini. Using yet more homemade sourdough, Paul rubbed toasted slices with garlic, drizzled them with oil, then topped them with a mixture of bashed up raw peas (straight from the pod), feta and olive oil, before finishing with mozzarella and pea shoots.

 

I don't want pea season to end!

I don't want pea season to end!

How anyone had room for pudding, I know not. It must have been yet another case of the ‘pudding-tummy’ phenomenon.