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.