Posh Cheese on Toast — aka Parmesan Cream on Tomato and Olive Toast with Edible Flower Salad

Cheese on toast was a won­der­ful ally when I worked nights as a break­fast tele­vi­sion reporter. The shift star­ted at 9pm and ended at 9am… and it was bru­tal. Com­plex­ion, fash­ion sense, good tem­per and appet­ite all dis­ap­peared through the metal-framed win­dows of BBC Tele­vi­sion Centre by about 3.25 each morn­ing. Cheese on toast became the only sus­tain­ing, com­fort­ing thing to eat. 

I still love cheese on toast, des­pite its asso­ci­ations with cold, grey dawns wait­ing with a cam­era crew to ask huffy politi­cians why they weren’t tow­ing the party line on a single cur­rency. I like it so much that I’ve just made a posh ver­sion for old friends, includ­ing one of my fel­low night shift report­ers from all those years ago. 

At the end of our gruelling shifts we would decamp to the BBC canteen, so tired that we didn’t know if our cheese on toast and mugs of tea coun­ted as break­fast or din­ner. This time around we ate our posh ver­sion at 9.30 in the even­ing, drink­ing Sauvignon from smart glasses. 

Parmesan Cream with Tomato and Olive Toast with Edible Flower Salad

Serves 4

185 ml double or heavy cream 

160 ml full cream milk

150g Parmesan cheese cut into very small pieces

2 eggs

1 extra egg yolk

100g mini­ature plum tomatoes

50g black olives

Pinch of sugar

Hand­ful of salad leaves and edible flowers

4 slices bread, either whole­meal or good qual­ity white

Olive oil

A little fine lemon zest

Season­ing 

4 small ramekin dishes, buttered well. 

Com­bine the milk and cream in a small pan and bring vir­tu­ally to the boil. Take off the heat, stir in the cheese, cover and let infuse for 2 hours.

Finely chop the toma­toes and olives, add a little salt and black pep­per, a pinch of sugar and put aside.

After two hours, pre­heat the oven to 180 degrees C — don’t be temp­ted to increase the tem­per­at­ure unless you want scrambled eggs. Place the pan con­tain­ing the milk, cream and cheese back on the heat and bring it almost back to the boil again. Strain the mix­ture through a fine sieve into a bowl. Whisk the eggs and yolk into a second bowl and then mix gradu­ally into the cream and cheese. Season. 

Pour the cream and egg mix­ture into the buttered ramekin dishes and cover each with a disc of sil­ver foil. Place the dishes in an oven-proof tin, pour in enough hot water to reach half-way up the sides of the dishes and then bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Remove when the cus­tard is firm-ish but still a little wobbly. Care­fully take the dishes out of the pan of water and allow them to cool. 

Toast the bread and cut into circles about the same dia­meter as the parmesan creams. Pour off any liquid from the tomato and olive mix­ture and divide it evenly between the four circles of toast. Run the point of a sharp knife around the edges of the ramekin dishes, turn the dishes upside down and tip the parmesan creams care­fully on top of the tomato toasts.

Dress the salad leaves in a little oil and grated lemon zest and pile a heap of leaves on top of each cream. 

Parmesan cream sounds more com­plic­ated than it really is. It’s infin­itely more demand­ing to make than its rugged cousin, but eas­ily worth the effort. Think of it as Chris­tian Louboutin heels com­pared to Wel­ling­ton boots. There’s a place for both.

Seeking Chicks and Finding Elderflowers

The pot­ter Edmund de Waal, author of the mem­oir The Hare With Amber Eyes, describes his favour­ite Japan­ese net­suke, or mini­ature sculp­tures, as ones where you can ‘feel the wear’. They’re the ones that have ‘been changed by being handled; they’ve had a life, and a his­tory, and been knocked around and rubbed away.…’

I was just think­ing that my favour­ite people could be described in exactly the same way when I got a mes­sage from my very clever friend. If you’ve been read­ing Eggs on the Roof over the months you will know that she’s my neigh­bour who grows end­less amounts of deli­cious things, appar­ently effort­lessly, in a garden that can best be described as bucolic. The brief mes­sage said 3 chicks now. Newly-hatched chick­ens soun­ded worth see­ing, so I stopped think­ing about people who’ve had a life and star­ted think­ing about creatures just about to embark on theirs.

Trail­ing through the orch­ard at this time of year is like inhab­it­ing the pages of a Laurie Lee novel. The chicks were ludicrously cute and barely an hour old.

As they were tucked back under­neath their mother to keep warm, my eye was drawn to a trio of frothy, flor­idly pink bushes in the orchard.

They’re eld­er­flowers,’ said my v.c.f. ‘Would you like some?’ I had no idea that eld­er­flowers came in bubble-gum pink and the answer was ‘of course I would’. Although I’m ter­rible at grow­ing things, I love turn­ing what she grows into some­thing worth eat­ing or drinking.

In Oxford later in the day I bumped into three friends in quick suc­ces­sion. I asked each of them if they had a favour­ite eld­er­flower cor­dial recipe ‘because’, I boas­ted, ‘I have pink eld­er­flowers’. Know­ing what an incom­pet­ent gardener I am, each asked if I was quite sure that I wasn’t about to poison myself by try­ing to cook rhodo­den­drons or camel­lias. They may have faith in my culin­ary skills, but not my hor­ti­cul­tural ones.

The recipe I devised is a little bit of Alison’s, a touch of Richard’s, a smat­ter­ing of Anwen’s and a sprink­ling of my own. The flowers were pink… but would the cor­dial be?

Eld­er­flower Cordial

  • 20 eld­er­flower heads
  • 1.5 litres water
  • 1.7 kg sugar
  • 50g cit­ric acid
  • 4 unwaxed lemons

Tap the flower heads before you pick them, to get rid of dust and any insects. You don’t need to wash them. Put them in a large ceramic bowl. Boil the water in a pan and add the sugar and cit­ric acid. Take off the heat and stir until the crys­tals are com­pletely dis­solved. Thinly slice the lem­ons, add them to the bowl and tip the water and sugar solu­tion over the top.

Stir, cover lightly and allow to steep for 24 hours. Strain through a sieve and muslin cloth and pour into ster­il­ised bottles. I filled five 50cl plastic water bottles. One is in the fridge, four are in the freezer for another day.

The day that began with chicks ended very hap­pily with the flash­i­est, show­i­est eld­er­flower cor­dial I’ve ever seen. And yes, it’s PINK.

A feast for Karen Blixen

There are many reas­ons to admire the writer Karen Blixen and Babette’s Feast is one of them. Her story of a french woman who cre­ates a mag­ni­fi­cent din­ner on which she lav­ishes her entire for­tune is one I’ve always loved. The two eld­erly sis­ters for whom Babette cooks are aghast to learn that she has spent everything she has and will be impov­er­ished for the rest of her life. Her san­guine reply is that ‘an artist is never poor’.

Early this morn­ing I found another reason to admire Karen Blixen. Read­ing a slightly whim­sical but magical book called Writers’ Houses, I dis­covered that ‘Karen liked to com­bine old roses with cab­bage leaves, or blos­soms from her garden with wild herbs gathered in the forest behind the house. On days when she received guests, she rose at five in the morn­ing to go out and gather flowers while they were still moist with dew.’

What? I’m all for mak­ing my din­ner guests feel cher­ished, but get up at five in the morn­ing so the flowers for the table still have dew on them? I’m sorry, but you have to be jok­ing. I admit though that I was so impressed by her exact­ing aes­thetic sense that I nipped out­side and gathered some rose­mary flowers for lunch. It was already 7.30 in the morn­ing, which is prac­tic­ally mid after­noon by Karen Blixen’s stand­ards — but look, they have dew!

Herb flowers are the finest part of the plant. They hold within them a whis­per of the fla­vour of the stems from which they came; a del­ic­ate, fra­grant memory of their more upfront, bossy, herby rel­at­ives. Karen Blixen liked to include herb flowers in bou­quets. I like to include mine on my plate.

Pea, Rose­mary Flower and Crab Risotto

Serves 4

3 table­spoons olive oil

2 knobs butter

1 large onion

2 gar­lic cloves

350g risotto rice

1 large glass dry white wine

1 litre veget­able stock

200g frozen peas

100g fresh white crab meat

Hand­ful rose­mary flowers — chive flowers are good too

Melt one knob of but­ter with the olive oil over a medium heat and gently cook the chopped onion and gar­lic until soft but not brown. Add the rice and a little salt and stir until coated and glossy. Pour in the white wine and stir until fully absorbed by the rice. Mean­while heat the stock in a neigh­bour­ing pan and once the wine has been absorbed, ladle a little hot stock onto the rice and stir. As soon as the stock is absorbed, add more, stir­ring all the while. If you run out of stock, add a little boil­ing water. Once the rice is cooked and creamy which will take about twenty minutes, add the uncooked and still frozen peas and stir them through for just a couple of minutes. Don’t over­cook them because the last thing you want are khaki-coloured peas. Stir in the second knob of but­ter, check the season­ing, put the lid on the pan and take off the heat. Divide between four warm bowls, sprinkle with rose­mary flowers and top with the white crab meat.

Pea, rose­mary flower and crab risotto is, to my mind, the per­fect lunch. I like to think the cre­ator of Babette’s Feast would have enjoyed it too, dew or no dew.

Green gazpacho with borage ice

Going through secur­ity for my flight from New York to Vir­ginia I noticed a sign that said ‘no snow-globes may be taken on this flight.’ It soun­ded such a fanci­ful idea to even think of tak­ing a snow-globe fly­ing that I imme­di­ately wanted to. And that got me think­ing about how to make an edible snow-globe. So far the best I’ve come up with is this.… a bor­age ice sphere.

Admit­tedly it’s more like one of those hefty glass paper­weights that are the mys­tery weapons in Agatha Christie crime nov­els, but I think it’s beau­ti­ful all the same. And since I was in fanci­ful mood I decided to pair my globe with not red but green gazpacho soup. I’ve always found the sheer bossy liv­id­ness of red gazpacho very off-putting. This green con­fec­tion is coolly eleg­ant Grace Kelly to siren fire-cracker Rita Hayworth.

Bor­age Ice

Simply add bor­age flowers (which taste of cucum­ber) to your favour­ite ice-cube mould, top up with water and freeze.

Green Gazpacho

2lbs assor­ted red and yel­low toma­toes — just so long as they smell of sum­mer and haven’t had their fla­vour anni­hil­ated in the fridge

Quarter cup gin — this idea is inspired by the chef Alex Urena. He uses vodka but I think the juni­per fla­vour of the gin draws out the taste of the toma­toes beautifully

3 green pep­pers deseeded and chopped roughly

1 cucum­ber peeled and sliced

2 stalks of cel­ery chopped

Hand­ful of cel­ery leaves

2 table­spoons white wine vinegar

1 table­spoon red wine vinegar

1 table­spoon lime juice

1 table­spoon sugar

Salt and pepper

Fist­ful of cori­ander leaves

Serves 4

Whizz up the toma­toes and gin in a blender. Pour into a sieve lined with kit­chen towel and allow to drip into a bowl in the fridge overnight. Mean­while mix the pep­pers, cucum­ber, cel­ery and cel­ery leaves with the vin­eg­ars, juice, sugar and season­ing in a bowl and place this in the fridge too. The next morn­ing chuck out the tomato that has col­lec­ted in the kit­chen paper. Add the clear tomato liquid, the con­tents of the veget­able bowl and the cori­ander leaves to the blender and whizz until smooth. If you like you can re-drip this through a paper-lined sieve if you want clear, green soph­ist­ic­a­tion. But there’s really no need and I never do.

Add a bor­age sphere to your ice cold soup. Eat while ima­gin­ing what your fantasy snow globe would contain.

With love from lovage

I’ve been given a fab­ulous book — The Alice B.Toklas Cook­book, first pub­lished in 1954. Alice B. Tok­las, the lover of writer Ger­trude Stein, was an eccent­ric cook. But Ger­trude and Alice’s din­ner guests were the likes of Matisse and Picasso, so the ori­gin­al­ity stakes were high. When Picasso popped round for lunch, Alice decided he would like a ‘dec­or­ated fish’, cooked using a method her grand­mother swore by. She argued that a fish ‘hav­ing lived its life in water, once caught, should have no fur­ther con­tact with the ele­ment in which it had been born and raised.’

I was start­ing to like the sound of recipe — until I got to the final para­graph. Alice sug­gests cov­er­ing the fish with stripes of may­on­naise and tomato paste. Then, even worse, she goes hard-core kitsch and coats the mayonnaise-daubed fish in a fancy pat­tern of ‘sieved hard-boiled eggs, the whites and the yolks apart.’ Picasso appar­ently exclaimed at the fish’s beauty, but sug­ges­ted that its par­tic­u­lar aes­thetic made it more suit­able for Matisse than him. What kind of tricky friend must he have been to have for lunch?

Food for friends is the best kind of food there is. Mind you, much as I love my friends, hav­ing just cooked spin­ach and parmesan tart for sixty of them, I don’t feel like mak­ing pastry again for a while. Which is why I’ve just made a cour­gette and lovage tart, using not pastry but por­ridge oats. It’s so effort­less I could hap­pily make it for six hun­dred. What’s exquis­ite about this tart is the del­ic­ate fla­vour of cel­ery bequeathed by the lovage. I picked my lovage this morn­ing from a friend’s garden. So this is food for friends con­tain­ing food by friends. And it’s a mini work of art.

Cour­gette and Lovage Tart

2 cups por­ridge oats

120 g but­ter

6 rash­ers smoked streaky bacon

3 medium onions, chopped finely

2 medium cour­gettes, quartered length­ways and sliced finely

Plump hand­ful of lovage leaves

6 eggs

175 g mas­car­pone

Salt pep­per

100 g ched­dar cheese, grated

Salt, pep­per and a pinch of sugar

Pre­heat the oven to 175 degrees c.

Melt the but­ter and stir in the por­ridge oats. Once fully mixed, tip the oats into a ceramic tart dish about 25 to 30 cm in dia­meter. Squash the buttered oats firmly down into the dish with the back of a spoon until com­pletely flat and smooth. Bake in the oven for fif­teen minutes until the oats are slightly toasted in colour.

Snip the bacon into smallish squares and fry gently until crisp, but not brittle. Remove the bacon and fry the onions in the remain­ing oil, adding a slosh of olive oil to help them along. Add salt and a pinch of sugar to encour­age the onions to car­a­mel­ise. Once soft and golden, remove the onions and add a little more olive oil to the pan. Tip in the cour­gettes and sea­son. Cook quite briskly for a few minutes and then add the shred­ded lovage leaves. Stir for a minute or so until the leaves wilt. Remove from the heat. Tip first the bacon, then the onion and finally the cour­gettes and lovage leaves evenly onto the oat base.

Mix the eggs, mas­car­pone, ched­dar cheese and pep­per well and then pour over the bacon, onions and cour­gettes, mak­ing sure everything is well coated. Bake in the oven for twenty to twenty five minutes until golden.

This tart is won­der­ful for a pic­nic because once cool it has none of the petu­lant qual­it­ies of a pastry tart that crumbles the minute it’s packed into a hamper and emerges from the bas­ket as a bundle of sulky crumbs. And lovage is just so eager to please. Not only does it volun­teer to make the most deli­cious tart, it turns itself into a straw for your aper­itif for good­ness sakes.

Take the largest stalks from the plant, snip into reedy straws, and poke into glasses of eld­er­flower cor­dial and ice. As you sip your drink through the celery-flavoured stalk, you will find the cor­dial has been magic­ally trans­formed into the most del­ic­ate and exquis­ite cock­tail. If like me you have a smart friend who grows not just lovage, but white dianthus flowers, pop a blos­som into your glass to add an extra fla­vour of cucum­ber. Frothy white flowers and a liv­ing lovage straw — Picasso would love it.