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…