Polenta and pear crossover deluxe

Lemon polenta cake means it’s birth­day time in our house. A sack of polenta has a solid heft; plump, sturdy and chirpily yel­low. You could have a good pil­low fight with a bag of polenta.

But, birth­days aside, some­times a pud­ding is what you need. So this is my polenta cake/pear pud­ding cros­sover deluxe.

I’ve adap­ted the base of this recipe from the River Cafe’s lemon polenta cake. The ori­ginal is a vast, deli­cious mat­tress of a cake; my ver­sion is less of a duvet, more of a blanket.

225g but­ter (If it’s unsalted, add a pinch of salt. If your but­ter is slightly salted, which mine always is, just omit the pinch)

225g vanilla sugar

225g ground almonds

2 tea­spoons vanilla extract

3 eggs

Juice of 1 lemon

Zest of 2 lemons

115g polenta

1 tea­spoon bak­ing powder

Mix the but­ter and sugar thor­oughly together. Stir in the almonds and vanilla extract and add the eggs, one at a time. Fold in the lemon juice and zest, along with the polenta and the bak­ing powder. Pour the mix­ture into a buttered flan dish, about 10 inches in dia­meter. Peel, core and thinly slice the pears.

Poke the slices of pear into the polenta mix­ture, in two con­cent­ric circles.

Bake at 160 degrees C for about thirty minutes. The top should be a rich dark brown and the pears soft.

Enjoy for break­fast, lunch and tea — if you’re lucky, all on the same day.


I’ve found a sen­sa­tional word.…. gloomth. It was inven­ted by the Gothic nov­el­ist Hor­ace Wal­pole (1717–1797) to describe a place that was both shad­owy and mys­ter­i­ous but airy and soph­ist­ic­ated too. Wal­pole had a way with fash­ion as well as words. My favour­ite out­fit of his is a huge and intric­ately carved solid wood cravat. But I should prob­ably con­fess that I’d like a solid wood hat and a wooden hand­bag too.

It strikes me that gloomth sums up this time of year per­fectly. Walk­ing through the Tuiler­ies Gar­dens and then on to the Rodin Museum early on a March morn­ing, I was shrouded in Walpole’s mist and shadow, but there was a palp­able sense of spring.

So when my organic veget­able box was delivered, it was pure serendip­ity (another Wal­pole word) to find some gloomthy veget­ables in there. No more parsnips thank good­ness, but one auber­gine and six tomatoes.

It got me think­ing about a recipe I adored as a child. It was the height of soph­ist­ic­a­tion when I was a teen­ager, although don’t for­get that when I was four­teen, posh food meant Chicken in White Sauce with Tinned Asparagus, and Roast Beef Bathed in Golden Veget­able Dried Packet Soup.

I now real­ise that auber­gines baked with toma­toes, gar­lic, onions and herbs, isn’t a soph­ist­ic­ated dish at all. It’s just plainly, gloomthily, effort­lessly divine.

## Gloomth d’Aubergines et Tomates aux Herbes ##

I’ll give you a recipe for 4 — 6 people, but since my single auber­gine won’t stretch to a gloomth this size I’ll have to eat mine all by myself.….

  • 3 auber­gines
  • Sev­eral glugs of extra vir­gin olive oil
  • 2 medium onions
  • Two thirds cup of water
  • 4 large toma­toes, ideally the same dia­meter as the aubergines
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • Half cup dry white wine
  • A hand­ful of fresh thyme
  • One cup freshly grated parmesan
  • Sea salt and black pepper

Slice the auber­gines about 1 cm thick, dis­card­ing the ends. Strictly speak­ing you don’t need to sprinkle them with salt to release any bit­ter juice, because the new class of auber­gines isn’t bit­ter at all. But I still like to salt them for half an hour because it will release water from the flesh and make the slices less likely to soak up shock­ing amounts of olive oil in the fry­ing pan.

Wipe the slices dry and then fry until golden. You may have to do sev­eral batches to fit them all into the fry­ing pan without crowding them. Remove the slices and heap them on a plate while you wrestle with the onions. Chop the onions fairly small and fry them in the pan you’ve just used until they’re soft, but not brown. After fif­teen minutes of gentle cook­ing, add the water and con­tinue sim­mer­ing until you have a sort of onion mush.

In a round dish, arrange altern­ate slices of auber­gines and tomato cut to the same thick­ness. Heap the onion in the middle, crush the gar­lic over the whole lot and splosh over the white wine. Sea­son, sprinkle with thyme and parmesan and bake at about 160 degrees C for half an hour. If you can stand the wait, eat at room tem­per­at­ure. If not, hot is also good.

I’m about to eat my Gloomth d’Aubergines in the rain, wear­ing a thick coat and admir­ing my spring bulbs. They’re begin­ning to nose their way out of the soil, the mad, crazy fools.

EDAM aka Egg Dressed As Mouse

I’ve always been dubi­ous about food in dis­guise. A whole poached sal­mon with over­lap­ping scales of sliced cucum­ber and a reproach­ful stuffed olive for an eye is more taxi­dermy than din­ner. And a plump brown mound of chicken liver pate dressed up to look like a Christ­mas pud­ding with a sprig of holly on top is plain bad taste. But when my friend Chris­sie pub­lished a book about knit­ting I took a deep breath and threw her a din­ner party with wool-themed recipes. I died spa­ghetti with blue food col­our­ing and, even worse, served balls of moz­zarella speared with pairs of knitting-needle bread sticks. So I’m not com­pletely immune to the tempta­tions of food in fancy dress.

My new but­ter dish, imper­son­at­ing a char­ac­ter from a Geor­gette Heyer novel, has softened me up just a little bit more for food in drag. And, as of yes­ter­day, I’m a reluct­ant devotee. Egg Dressed As Mouse did the trick. I took my daugh­ter and my old­est friend Ali out for a posh lunch at Ray­mond Blanc’s Oxford­shire res­taur­ant Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Sais­ons. As soon as we sat down, Ali and I were treated to del­ic­ate tea­cups of frothy wild gar­lic soup. But my 11 year old daugh­ter was presen­ted with a mouse. Egg Dressed As Mouse. And she was com­pletely and utterly charmed by its chive tail, its cheeky almond ears, its may­on­naise coat and its poppy seed eyes. From now on, EDAM isn’t a ques­tion­able Dutch cheese in our house, but an acronym for a perky little hors d’oeuvre.

I’ve just been flick­ing through a photo album from my under­gradu­ate days. I couldn’t find any food in dis­guise — just me. There I was, at a Hollywood-themed fancy dress party, wear­ing a giant card­board box with my head and feet stick­ing out top and bot­tom. Since all the other women there were cut­ting a dash as Mar­ilyn, Greta or Judy, why did I think it was a good idea to go as one of the Brown Paper Pack­ages Tied Up with String from The Sound of Music? I have abso­lutely no idea.

Don’t call it stew

Stew is a hor­rible word. We stew in our own juice when we deserve what’s com­ing to us. We get into a stew when we’re cross. So why would we want to eat the stuff? Mrs Ram­say, mat­ri­arch of Vir­ginia Woolf’s novel To the Light­house, knew that. She didn’t waste time on stew. She served Boeuf en Daube — rich, deli­cious and celebratory.

Boeuf en Daube is why I took up yoga briefly. The yoga class was in the Town Hall, oppos­ite a won­der­ful Butcher’s. He under­stood exactly what I meant when I said I wanted to buy stew­ing steak but I didn’t want to make stew. I still buy the steak, but I don’t stop at the Town Hall.

This is my ver­sion of Mrs Ramsay’s finest moment:

  • 1 kg brais­ing or stew­ing steak cut into large pieces
  • 2 cans of Guinness
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 3 bay leaves
  • A bundle of fresh thyme
  • 50 grams but­ter
  • 3 table­spoons extra vir­gin olive oil
  • 2 medium onions
  • 6 cloves gar­lic, chopped
  • Three quar­ters cup tomato ketchup — I know this sounds odd. But the sim­ul­tan­eously sweet and tart fla­vours are just what you need, I promise
  • 600 ml veget­able stock
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Mar­in­ade the beef in the beer and wine with the thyme and bay leaves and leave in the fridge for 24 hours. Scoop the meat out of the mar­in­ade. Reserve the mar­in­ade and sea­son the meat well. Melt the but­ter in a fry­ing pan with the olive oil and add half the seasoned meat. Fry until brown. Repeat with the second batch of beef. Put the whole lot together in the pan and add the onion and gar­lic. Cook gently for fif­teen minutes. Add the ketchup — trust me — and stir for a few more minutes before pour­ing in the Guin­ness and wine mix­ture. Bring to the boil and then reduce to a sim­mer, allow­ing the liquid to reduce by a quarter. Add the stock, bring back to a sim­mer and then cook in the oven at 170 degrees C with a lid on for 1 and half hours. Add a little water if you feel you need to. Remove the lid and cook for a fur­ther half hour. By this time the meat should be soft and invit­ing. If there’s too much liquid, reduce the sauce until it’s the deep, rich con­sist­ency and col­our you like. Serve it, in tri­umph, with plain rice and green beans.

ps My fond­ness for Boeuf en Daube isn’t a soppy, escap­ist obses­sion with food in fic­tion. I’ve never tasted any­thing nas­tier than the ‘sardines pressed into ginger cake’ recom­men­ded by Enid Blyton.

Smoked ham baked for six hours in a black treacle jacket

This is the James Dean of the ham world — smoky, lan­gor­ous and with the coolest black jacket in town. There are only two ingredi­ents — a hunk of smoked pork loin and a jar of black treacle.

Dol­lop a fat spoon­ful of treacle or molasses onto a large square of sil­ver foil. Slap the pork on top — a 900g piece should do it — and then, with a large knife, spread treacle every­where else. And I don’t mean a thin smear­ing as though you’re but­ter­ing a posh sand­wich. Slather the treacle on. Ima­gine that you’re lard­ing your ham with pro­tect­ive grease in pre­par­a­tion for a cross-Channel swim in winter. For a 900g slab of ham, 300g of treacle is per­fect. Wrap the ham up in the sil­ver paper and repeat with three more lay­ers so it’s a snug little bundle. Place in a bak­ing dish not much big­ger than the bundle and bake at 100 degrees for around six hours. Don’t be temp­ted to take the paper off.

Remove the steam­ing par­cel from the oven. Once it’s cool enough to handle, remove the wizened wrap­ping and par­cel it up again in a fresh, single coat of foil. Put some­thing very heavy on top of the sil­ver par­cel to encour­age the ham to keep a close, eas­ily slice­able tex­ture when it’s cold. I use the com­plete works of Chau­cer in a plastic bag. A tele­phone dir­ect­ory would work just as well I sup­pose, but strictly speak­ing ‘phone num­bers are too pro­saic for James Bacon Dean. Allow to cool for at least three or four hours with the heavy weight still on top, but overnight in the fridge is best. When it’s cold, unwrap it and, once sliced, eat with gar­lic mashed potato and buttered cabbage.

Plum tree

I have a dilemma. My neigh­bours have given me a Vic­toria plum tree. There it is, in the wheel­bar­row, wait­ing rather anxiously for the clum­si­est gardener there ever was (me) to lower it into its new home. But if neigh­bours are going to be so neigh­bourly, shouldn’t I give them some­thing in return? Wouldn’t a jar of my organic Seville orange marmalade be just the ticket? But when I look at the golden jars lined up in the cup­board, I real­ise that I am a bad per­son. The phrase “I’ve just made this and wondered if you would like some” doesn’t come read­ily to my lips in the case of marmalade, although I’ve got an embar­rass­ment of brown, sludgy tomato chut­ney if any­one would like some.

ps. I’ll tell you when my tree starts bran­dish­ing its first plums. I’m going to make plum and chilli jelly.

pps. My con­science won. I’m one jar down.

Why the eggs are on the roof

When I was ten, my mum’s best friend Sally told me that if I threw an egg onto the roof of our house and it landed per­fectly, it would never break. I loved that story. It’s true that some eggs soared right over the top and landed in a mangled mess in the grass on the other side. But count­less more van­ished into the wedge-shaped crevice between the two gables. I’m sure they never broke.

Sally taught me that the only way to be sure that spa­ghetti is per­fectly cooked is to throw a strand against the wall. When it sticks to the plaster, it’s ready to eat. Eggs on the roof, spa­ghetti on the walls, pic­nics in the rain, hot saus­ages in the snow, plum and chilli jelly made with fruit left in a car­rier bag on the front step by a friend. This is the food that always makes me happy and some­times makes me laugh…