Cups, Spoons, Weights and Measures

China measuring cups with a silver spoon

It’s the sea­son to take stock, count up, meas­ure out, pledge, prom­ise and decide. I’ve made res­ol­u­tions for the first time in five years and on my list is ‘read more poetry’. Expert resolution-makers say that simply vow­ing to do more of some­thing is cheat­ing. But I’m happy with my slightly vague ‘more’ and who­ever said that poetry con­sump­tion should be cal­ib­rated, anyway?

Stems of red berries in a white jug

Stems of fresh red ber­ries on my kit­chen table are throw­ing a new shadow on the wall, but the sil­hou­ettes of the Christ­mas candles are still there too. It’s that time of year when old passes to new and, for once, we actu­ally take note.

Three spoons on a cloth

With all the fren­zied men­tal meas­ur­ing that’s been going on, I wasn’t in the mood to do too much weigh­ing and meas­ur­ing in the kit­chen. For times like this, I have the per­fect recipe.…. Chocol­ate and Crunchy Pea­nut Ice-Cream. It’s an adapt­a­tion of a David Lebovitz recipe, from his inspir­ing but depend­able book The Per­fect Scoop. In fact, while I’m on the sub­ject of New Year’s res­ol­u­tions, to aim to be both inspir­ing and depend­able sounds ideal. I may add that to my list.

Chocolate ice-cream with almond brittle

This is the kind of recipe that you can make while read­ing a book of poetry at the same time, so easy and mem­or­able is it. A cup of this, a half cup of that and you’re almost there.


  • 1 cup double cream
  • 1 cup semi-skimmed milk (you can use full cream if you prefer. I’ve even tried it with skimmed. All three grades of milk work per­fectly fine)
  • Quarter cup pure cocoa powder
  • Half cup caster sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • Half a jar of crunchy pea­nut but­ter — this equates to roughly 175g, but a little more or a little less really doesn’t matter

Tip all the ingredi­ents, apart from the pea­nut but­ter, into a pan. Over a mod­er­ate heat, stir with a whisk and bring briefly to a hearty sim­mer. It will bubble up in the pan, at which point take off the heat. Mix in the pea­nut but­ter, allow to cool and churn in an ice-cream maker. It’s as easy as that. My chil­dren have asked if I will make a New Year’s res­ol­u­tion to cre­ate it even more reg­u­larly than I already do.

If in fanci­ful mood, make some almond brittle to poke in the top. Toast the almonds in a small non-stick fry­ing pan. Put to one side. Pour half a cup of caster sugar into the same pan. Without stir­ring, heat the sugar and swirl it around the pan until it melts to a light car­a­mel liquid. It burns eas­ily and also gets fero­ciously hot, so be care­ful. Stir in the nuts and quickly spread out onto a piece of bak­ing parch­ment with a pal­ate knife. It will set almost imme­di­ately. Snap off a piece to suit your appet­ite and your conscience.

Almond and toffee brittle

To my mind, the true meas­ure of a good piece of brittle is that it should be trans­lu­cent enough to read a poem through it. That way, if your New Year’s res­ol­u­tion is the same as mine, you can have your cake while read­ing it at the same time. And who could argue with that?

Scoop of chocolate ice-cream with shard of almond brittle

Both/And not Either/Or… Black Olive Chocolate Truffles

This week­end a bril­liant new exhib­i­tion opened at the Vic­toria and Albert Museum in Lon­don — Post­mod­ern­ism: Style and Sub­ver­sion 1970–1990. I’ve writ­ten before about the chal­lenges of teach­ing Eng­lish lit­er­at­ure under­gradu­ates about post­mod­ern­ism. Ask them what it is and they’re more likely to say what it isn’t. The V and A’s entran­cing exhib­i­tion makes it all clear.

The post­mod­ern archi­tect Robert Ven­turi, designer of the Sains­bury wing at London’s National Gal­lery, clev­erly cap­tured his concept of post­mod­ern­ism, describ­ing it as ‘both, and’ rather than bor­ing old ‘either, or’. As far as I’m con­cerned, that’s a notion to glory in. Instead of choos­ing one or the other, you com­bine both.

The per­fect post­mod­ern edible ver­sion of ‘both, and’ has to be black olive and chocol­ate truffles. I’ve just been invited by Olives from Spain to watch the Span­ish chef Omar Allib­hoy cook tapas dishes with olives. Omar trained with Fer­ran Adria at elBulli, so is most def­in­itely a ‘both, and’ kind of cook. I par­tic­u­larly loved his flash fried sea bass with sherry, gar­lic, sweet red pep­pers, black olives and caper ber­ries. But the post­mod­ern stars of the even­ing were his black olive and chocol­ate truffles. Build­ing on the idea that salt enhances car­a­mel, he figured that the salty fla­vour of olives could only make chocol­ate bet­ter. Here is his recipe, which I found made around 35 truffles:


  • 150g pit­ted black olives
  • 150g double cream
  • 220g best qual­ity chocol­ate — 70% cocoa solids
  • 40 grams but­ter, cut into small pieces
  • Finely grated zest of one orange
  • Cocoa powder for dusting

Pro­cess the drained black olives to a rough paste. Heat the double cream over a low heat and just before it reaches boil­ing point, remove from the heat. Break up the chocol­ate and add to the cream. When the chocol­ate has melted, add the black olives, but­ter and zest and stir to com­bine thor­oughly. Place the bowl in the fridge for around 6 or 7 hours. When the mix­ture is firm, scoop out small quant­it­ies with a dessert spoon and roll in your hands to make truffles. Roll the truffles in a bowl of cocoa powder.

The fin­ished truffles are creamy, del­ic­ately salty and rather deli­cious. But in case you’re think­ing that a black olive chocol­ate truffle is a step too far — and that’s cer­tainly the view of my chil­dren who refused point-blank to try them — think of them this way. The olives not only make the truffles cheaper to make, they also make them health­ier to eat. Now if that isn’t the per­fect embod­i­ment of ‘both, and’, I don’t know what is. And if the French chocolatier-patissier Pierre Herme can make macar­ons fla­voured with foie gras as well as a grapefruit and was­abi ver­sion, how can any­one recoil in panic from olives and chocolate?

Happy Birthday to you…

Eggs On The Roof is one year old today.

When I star­ted writ­ing and pho­to­graph­ing Eggs On The Roof, I got used to vari­ations on a single, puzzled ques­tion: but what’s it for? The answer to start with was very simple — a slightly apo­lo­getic it’s for me. I wanted to write about food, books I’d read, paint­ings I’d seen and the funny things that happened along the way. I couldn’t do that as a journ­al­ist and cer­tainly not as part of the PhD I’m inch­ing towards com­plet­ing. But over the past year I’ve dis­covered that it’s not just for me after all. I’ve made some won­der­ful friends through Eggs On The Roof. So this birth­day is a joint cel­eb­ra­tion. Happy Birth­day to Eggs On The Roof and happy first birth­day to you too.

Any birth­day needs cel­eb­rat­ing, prefer­ably with cake. And this cake is a good one. It’s light and flour-less and just as import­antly, it’s quick and extremely easy to make. Which means you have more time left to celebrate.

Chocol­ate Mousse Cake With a Hint of Crys­tal­lised Ginger and a Whole Lot of Whipped Cream

50g best dark chocol­ate, min­imum 70% cocoa solids

50g best milk chocolate

100g Green and Black’s dark chocol­ate with ginger, which is 60% cocoa solids. If you can’t get this, use 100g of best dark chocol­ate and add around a tea­spoon of crys­tal­lised ginger, minced very finely. Just remem­ber that you need a total of 200g of chocol­ate for this recipe.

150g slightly salted butter

9 medium eggs separated

6 table­spoons caster sugar

250 ml heavy or double cream, whipped until soft peaks form

Pre­heat the oven to 175 degrees C. But­ter two 18 cm cake tins and line with bak­ing parchment.

Melt the chocol­ate and but­ter in a bowl over a pan of sim­mer­ing water — add the ginger too, if using. While the chocol­ate melts, sep­ar­ate the egg yolks and whites into two bowls. Stir the yolks with a fork and whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Whisk the sugar into the whites. Once the chocol­ate has melted fully, allow it to cool for a few minutes and then mix in the eggs yolks. Gently fold in the egg whites, sep­ar­ate the mix­ture between the two cake tins and bake in the oven for around 20 minutes. Remove from the tins, allow to cool and then sand­wich the two halves together with whipped cream. As the two halves cool they will sink slightly and wrinkle like a Saint Bernard’s fore­head. If you want a smooth top to your cake, make sure that you turn the top layer upside down.

A Chocolate Palimpsest

I’ve found the oddest books in a second­hand book shop — First-Line Index of Eng­lish Poetry 1500–1800 in Manu­scripts of the Bodleian Lib­rary, Oxford, edited by Mar­garet Crum. The two huge volumes con­tain just the first lines of over 23,000 poems, spread across more than 1,000 pages. I hated the idea of all that effort sit­ting aban­doned on the shelves, when other more flir­ta­tious books were slink­ing out of the shop without even hav­ing to try. So I bought both volumes.

I’ve been teach­ing under­gradu­ates the his­tory of the Eng­lish novel and at the end of term I felt they deserved a treat. The choice was either chocol­ates or a glor­i­ous new word to add to their lex­icons. In the spirit of Mar­garet Crum, I chose the word over the confectionery.

My word gift was a really good one: pal­impsest — a manu­script that’s been erased and on which new words have been writ­ten. Not a word to be used very often but, like car­a­mel souffle, per­fect for the big occa­sion. I asked my stu­dents if they agreed with my choice: pal­impsest over Cadbury’s. Well, it turns out I got it wrong.

But I’m not giv­ing up on the pal­impsest. I’ve cre­ated a chocol­ate ver­sion, so the stu­dents get their way and I get mine. It’s called dip­lomacy. Or hav­ing your pal­impsest and eat­ing it too.

Chocol­ate Palimpsests

You should end up with a dozen.

Manu­script 1 — pea­nut but­ter biscuits

100g but­ter — if it’s unsalted, add a pinch of salt to the mix­ture. If it’s not, don’t.

100g crunchy pea­nut butter

125g golden caster sugar

1 tea­spoon vanilla extract

1 egg

Either 165g plain flour with a tea­spoon of bak­ing powder OR 165g self rais­ing flour.

Mix the but­ter, pea­nut but­ter and sugar until smooth, then trickle in the vanilla extract and add the egg. Com­bine the lot into a tan col­oured mix­ture. Sep­ar­ately, blend the salt and the bak­ing powder and mix well into the flour (or just weigh out 165g self rais­ing flour — it really doesn’t mat­ter.) Fold the flour into the but­ter and pea­nut butter.

On a lightly floured sur­face, roll the dough out and then flat­ten the top and sides to form a solid brick about five inches long and 2 inches square. Wrap the brick in cling film and chill in the fridge for a couple of hours. Don’t miss this bit out — if you do, the bis­cuits will ooze all over the bak­ing tray before they get a chance to cook.

Heat the oven to 180 degrees C and but­ter a bak­ing tray and line it with bak­ing parch­ment. Cut the dough into 5 mm slices and place them on the tray with plenty of room to expand. Bake for about 10 minutes until golden. Allow to cool, while you make Manu­script 2.

Manu­script 2 — chocol­ate cream

150 g chocol­ate (70% cocoa solids)

150 ml double cream

25 g but­ter

20g icing sugar

Chop the chocol­ate roughly and put it into a bowl with the cream and but­ter. Melt it over a pan of sim­mer­ing water, stir­ring well. Sift in the icing sugar. When it’s thor­oughly mixed and a uni­form glossy brown, put it to one side to set, but not too hard.

Turn the bis­cuits upside down to reveal their flat­ter sides, scoop up a wodge of chocol­ate paste on a knife and spread it on in a good, thick layer. Write some­thing important/funny/daft/endearing/educational in the chocol­ate using a skewer or a cock­tail stick.

Manu­script 3 — toasted almonds and chocol­ate shards

40g chocol­ate (70% cocoa solids)

A hand­ful of flaked almonds

Melt the chocol­ate in a bowl placed over a pan of sim­mer­ing water. But­ter a bak­ing sheet and cover it with bak­ing parch­ment. Pour the melted chocol­ate onto the paper and spread it to a 5 inch by 7 inch rect­angle. While it cools, toast the almonds in a dry fry­ing pan, or in the oven for about ten minutes at 180 degrees C.

When the chocol­ate is firm but not rock hard, pull it off the paper and tear it into strips about half an inch inch wide. Tear each strip into half inch lengths. Push over­lap­ping pieces of chocol­ate into half the pea­nut bis­cuits spread with chocol­ate paste and coat the remain­ing bis­cuits with almonds you’ve toasted lightly in the oven for ten minutes. You no longer have posh chocol­ate bis­cuits, you have pal­impsests. If the mes­sage carved into the paste is one you’d like the recip­i­ents to see, ask them to peel back the top layer of chocol­ate or nuts. If you’d rather keep it secret, stay silent while they devour the evidence.