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.