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Shepherd Market, Mayfair, London

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Tucked into a corner that sits behind Piccadilly and runs up to Curzon Street, near to Park Lane and Hyde Park Corner, is a gorgeous little area of central London known as Shepherd Market. While other nearby roads blend seamlessly into one another, Shepherd Market retains its own distinct identity: you walk ‘into’ it rather than through it; you are immediately struck by a difference and something a little special. I could say it was a haven from the hustle and bustle of Piccadilly yet that wouldn’t really be accurate. For arriving at Shepherd Market early evening when workers, set loose from their offices, cram into its small pubs and restaurants and spill out into its streets – even in winter – it’s not exactly ‘quiet’. Yet it is peaceful. You feel you have somehow escaped the madness of central London for a time.

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Despite the proliferation of fashionable markets popping up all over London selling artisan foods, Shepherd Market is no longer a market. Mayfair itself is named after a 15-day fair that took place on the Market’s site back in the 17th century when cattle were traded. The gentrification of the area in the 18th century killed the market off – those posh residents weren’t going to want smelly cattle around. Shepherd Market’s small square, and its surrounding warren of little roads, was developed by the architect and developer Edward Shepherd between 1735-46. By the early 20th century it had become one of the most fashionable places to live in London, but with a slightly bohemian, even at times risqué, air. It appeared in plays by Noel Coward; the fictional Bertie Wooster lived in Half Moon Street; Mama Cass Elliott died at 9 Curzon Place in 1974 and writer and politician Jeffrey Archer met a prostitute there – an event that he lied about in court, which led to his imprisonment.

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It’s still one of the most fashionable and expensive places to live and I head there quite often because it’s the home of the Curzon Mayfair, one of London’s best cinemas. I always feel a slight frisson of excitement going into this Curzon (there are a few of them in London) as a couple of years ago, while standing in the foyer waiting for a friend, I found myself standing very close to the wonderful actor Bill Nighy – who was also waiting for a friend. I was very English about it and made no sign of recognition at being so close to one of my acting heroes, but since then I’ve always had a good look round on arrival to see if he’s there again! I was there last night for a live film showing of the Young Vic’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Gillian Anderson as Blanche du Bois, which has been attracting rave 5* reviews and is the hottest ticket in town. If you can get one, of course. As I couldn’t I decided to join my friends Lucia and David at the Curzon to see it via live film instead. I’ve always been slightly dismissive of these live films (which are becoming popular), but then I can afford to be, living in London as I do and frequently going to the theatre. But if you don’t live in London or you can’t get a ticket for a popular show, then seeing it this way has to be a whole lot better than missing it altogether. In fact, it has the advantage of allowing you to get close-ups of the actors for it isn’t filmed in a stationary way but the camera moves around, as it would for any other film; tickets are cheaper than most theatre seats. I was so glad I saw it; it was amazing, stunningly good. It isn’t the same as actually being in the theatre (and there was a rather embarrassed, uncertain fumbling at the end as people weren’t sure whether to clap or not), but it was very good indeed. One little irritation was that Curzon Mayfair have introduced popcorn to the cinema. Curzon cinemas have always – thankfully! – been popcorn-free zones until now. I hadn’t managed to get a seat right by Lucia but she remarked in the interval that she found it very annoying having someone sitting next to her munching popcorn noisily through a play like this.

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I’d purposely arrived a bit early to look around and take some photos for the blog. (This intention was slightly hampered because there was scaffolding round many of the buildings – obviously lots of decoration and refurbishment going on – so I didn’t get as many photos as I’d hoped for.) I also wanted to have something to eat and wasn’t meeting Lucia and David until just before the play started. There are so many interesting and varied little restaurants in the area, a lot with tables outside, but I chose to go to the familiar Sofra where I’ve eaten a few times. Sofra is a small chain of Turkish restaurants in London and this one in Shepherd Market has been a favourite for some time where, with friends, I’ve usually enjoyed a selection of mezze early evening, pre-cinema.

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On my own last night, I decided to have just one main course – a moussaka. Moussaka is generally thought of as Greek, but as so often, a popular dish has variations in the surrounding geographical area and thus I enjoyed a Turkish version last night. It was quite early when I went in so only a couple of other tables had people sitting at them – it gradually filled up while I ate and I would normally book a table. The service is always friendly and efficient and as the evening was warm, the big windows were open, letting in the pleasantly cool air from outside. I was immediately brought bread and a dish of hummus.

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The hummus was excellent: very light, creamy and fabulously smooth – a very authentic Middle Eastern version. These are ‘complimentary’ – although there is a £1.50 cover charge on the bill, so you are kind of paying for them. It was very nice to have as I love this kind of mezze and when I told the waiter how good I thought it was, he offered to bring me more. However, by this time my moussaka had arrived.

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This was good too and I chose a glass of Turkish rose wine to go with it; rose wine because it’s such a summery drink and I’m all for enjoying the last of summer for as long as I can! I finished with an espresso, then headed out for a little wander before going into the cinema. There are some interesting shops. A traditional cobbler:

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A cigar merchant:

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An old-fashioned barbers:

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Then it was time to head into the cinema. Coming out late into the dark when the play ended, it was a short walk back to Green Park tube station. And no doubt it won’t be long before I’m back at the Curzon Mayfair and Shepherd Market again. If you’re in the Piccadilly area of central London, do make a little diversion off the main streets and explore this gem of an area too.

For more on Shepherd Market see: www.shepherdmarket.co.uk

For what’s on at Curzon cinemas see: www.curzoncinemas.com

To find Sofra Mayfair and other branches see: www.sofra.co.uk

Sofra on Urbanspoon

French Toasted Brioche with Berry Compote & Chantilly Cream

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It’s a rare thing for me to make a dessert for myself when I’m eating alone. Especially one that is so wonderfully indulgent. It came into being by a roundabout route, as these things often do. I’m looking after Jonathan and Lyndsey’s dog, Zeph, for the weekend as they’ve gone to a wedding in Somerset. Jonathan sent me a text saying that when I picked Zeph up from their house, he’d left out two ripe pears for me that needed eating. They get a weekly fruit and vegetable box from Able & Cole and the produce is always so good and tasty that in all honesty, I could simply just have enjoyed the ripe pears on their own and do nothing fancy at all. But the unexpected edible gift seemed like a challenge for this food blogger: what could I do with those pears? If they were very ripe, they wouldn’t stand poaching. I could make a lovely pear sorbet – one I used to make a lot – but two pears wouldn’t go far; it would be a very small amount of sorbet. Then I remembered a dish Nicola and I had for dessert at the fabulous Balthazar’s Keuken in Amsterdam in March: toasted brioche slices with stewed plums and sweet cream. Now that was a path to follow. I thought I could lightly fry pear slices in butter and sugar to caramelise them, then sandwich them between French-toasted (i.e. with egg) brioche slices with some Chantilly cream. I bought an individual brioche from Paul bakery this morning and a small pot of double cream in the supermarket.

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However, when I was picking up Zeph, so distracted was I by getting all his paraphernalia into the car and one very reluctant little Yorkie who didn’t seem to want to leave his new home, I forgot the pears. Once home, Zeph was delighted to find himself in Bella’s house again and went off in search of my poor cat. A little later I took him down the road to Sapori TW1, a local Italian cafe who welcome him fondly and I’m even allowed to sit inside (not possible in most cafes). They brought him water – which, surprisingly he drank; he won’t normally take food or water from a stranger. Ingrid though has met him before and she told me it was because they now had an understanding.

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I settled down with a cappuccino and my current book – Ian McEwan’s wonderful The Children Act – while Zeph enjoyed being admired. And in my moment of relaxation it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t picked up the pears. Well, I wasn’t going back for them but I wanted to use the brioche and cream, so I’d have to make do with whatever fruit was at home. And thus, the toasted brioche was served with a raspberry and blueberry compote. And very good it was too!

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First of all I made the compote. I put just a few berries into a pan, sprinkled over a little sugar and a dash of creme de cassis. I let it all bubble up and once the fruit was starting to break apart, I lifted it out with a slotted spoon into a small dish and then allowed the juices to bubble up and thicken more. Once well reduced, I poured them over the fruit and left it all to cool.

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Then I whisked a little double cream with a teaspoon of icing sugar and the smallest amount of vanilla paste until thickened.

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Then I broke 1 egg into a small bowl and added a dash of milk, a teaspoon icing sugar and a pinch of cinnamon and whisked it all together.

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Now I was almost ready to go. I sliced the small brioche into three – taking just a small ‘hat’ off the top to finish the dish with at the end, and making the other two, thicker slices as even as I could.

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I melted about 25g butter in a small pan till bubbling. Then I dipped each of the larger 2 slices of brioches in the egg mixture, covering both sides. I put them into the sizzling pan, turning the slices when the bottom side was nicely browned – and this happened quite quickly, so watch carefully.

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I didn’t cook the top ‘hat’ slice. I transferred the cooked brioche to a cutting board, then put the bottom slice on a plate. I put on a dollop of compote followed by a dollop of Chantilly cream and then topped with the other toasted slice and repeated it all.

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Finally, I put the uncooked brioche ‘hat’ on top. Wow! It did look pretty amazing, I thought.

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And also rather large. How would I eat it all? Haha! Of course I ate it all; how could I not! But actually it was very very light. The brioche was light and airy to begin with and the custardy coating added an extra lightness. The slightly tart berry compote was actually perfect with the buttery and eggy brioche and sweet cream. Probably better than sweet pears would have been. It was all fun and easy to put together and even if it was indulgent, well, it is the weekend.

Grilled Figs with Goats’ Cheese, Honey & Walnuts

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I love figs. They’re such a gorgeous exotic fruit: deep grown-up colours, a soft fragrant centre and, when ripe, a heady perfume that excites the senses. Their sensuous quality was most famously described in Ken Russell’s 1969 film version of DH Lawrence’s Women in Love when Alan Bates (playing Rupert) explained to a table at a garden party how one should eat a fig – both the ‘polite’ way and the ‘vulgar’ way. In both cases, he threw the skin away but I have to say that’s something I rarely do. Occasionally, when I’ve been lucky enough to be given fresh figs from a friend’s tree, the skin will almost rub off when they’re ripe. Usually here in UK these homegrown figs have a thinnish green skin but the ones I bought this morning – far too tempting to leave behind on M&S Simply Food’s shelves – was dark Bursa figs from Turkey with black-purple skins.

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While wonderfully delicious eaten just as they are, one of my favourite ways to enjoy them is grilled with some goats’ cheese, over which I then drizzle a little runny honey. And I decided that was what my lunch would be today. I thus bought some goats’ cheese too and a pack of walnuts. Back home, I heated the grill. Then I cut the top of the stem off two figs and sliced them into quarters from the top, but take care not to cut all the way through. Now gently ease the quarters apart to make a hollow where you can put the cheese. Brush the fig with a little olive oil then put slices or crumbled pieces of goats’ cheese, depending on what kind of goats’ cheese you have, into the centre.

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Put under the hot grill and leave until the cheese is melting and browning at the edges. Meanwhile toast a few walnut halves in a dry pan and then chop roughly. On a serving plate, put a handful of salad leaves, drizzle over some olive oil and a little balsamic or cider vinegar and season. Toss lightly with your hands.

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When the figs and cheese are ready, carefully transfer to the plate, laying them on top of the salad. Now drizzle a little runny honey over the cheese and scatter over the walnuts. Season with a little more black pepper if you like.

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Well, there was an almost instant and gorgeously delicious lunch, which I was able to enjoy in the garden, the sun finally making its way through the clouds on this mild September Saturday. The tangy, slightly salty cheese had melted beautiful and made a fantastic contrast to the sweet fig. Figs cook beautifully too; the warmth suits them.

Frittata with Potatoes, Courgettes & Parmesan

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I like eggs but for some reason rarely think to cook them. I’m not a cooked breakfast person. I’ve upset Cornish bed & breakfast people by refusing their ‘famous’ English breakfasts. I just can’t do it. I’m a muesli or granola, plain yogurt and fresh fruit person in the morning after a mug of warm water with a slice of lemon when I wake up. Come mid morning I’ll be desperate for a good coffee and maybe a croissant. My real eating comes later in the day and anything that resembles a cooked breakfast would certainly class as lunch or at the very least, brunch – i.e. after midday. But by then, I’ve generally forgotten eggs. Eggs have always seemed such a breakfast food to me. Sometimes I might think to have some scrambled eggs on toast or a fine French-style omelette for lunch but that for me is a light meal; it’s not my main meal of the day. (You’ve probably long gathered by now that I have a large and healthy appetite!) But then there are frittatas … or even tortillas. What is the difference? A frittata in Italy; a tortilla in Spain. I trailed the internet but found no definitive answer to what makes one rather than the other. What they are not most definitely is an omelette, that light and simple concoction of eggs brought quickly together and folded, still oozingly soft in the middle, and served immediately (see my recipe here). Both frittatas and tortillas are cooked through, finished off under a grill or flipped over, and left unfolded; both might be served cold at a picnic or in a tapas bar, cut into thick slices. They do constitute meals, however. While an omelette won’t happily take a lot of filling a frittata or tortilla can be packed tight with filling: most particularly sliced potato if you’re in the Spanish mood; all kinds of vegetables and even meat or fish. I’ve often used leftover boiled potatoes in this way, but tonight cooked some specially. I had one nice organic courgette in the fridge, some red onion, fresh herbs in a pot just outside the back door and, of course, eggs!

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A frittata will obligingly adapt to the seasons and the numbers of people you are feeding. Use baby broad beans in the spring, some fresh asparagus at the beginning of summer, some diced squash in the autumn. Simple grate Parmesan over the top as I did tonight or crumble over some tangy goats’ cheese or sharp blue cheese. Use whatever you fancy and what you think will match your chosen vegetables. I used three eggs tonight as I was cooking for just myself, and a small omelette pan, but for a large number increase the number of eggs and size of pan. Thickness is no problem. A thick tortilla or frittata cut into slices is a very good thing.

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I sliced some cooked new potatoes, some red onion and the courgette. I also defrosted a handful of frozen peas in some warm water. I picked a few leaves of basil, mint, flat leaf parsley and chives and roughly chopped. I melted a good knob of butter with a little olive oil in the omelette pan (it really is worth having a special non-stick omelette pan that you don’t use for anything else). Then I added the vegetables and herbs and cooked for about 5 minutes, turning occasionally, until starting to lightly brown and soften.

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Meanwhile, I broke three fresh eggs into a bowl, seasoned well with salt and black pepper and beat with a fork.

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Pour the eggs into the pan, over the vegetables, but don’t stir. Leave to cook gently until you see the edges of the egg are cooked and there’s just a thinnish layer of uncooked egg on top.

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Grate over a nice mound of Parmesan (or other cheese).

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Now put the frittata under a hot grill to finish cooking; until it nicely brown on top and cooked through.

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I transferred the frittata to a wooden board on which I’d laid a green salad tossed in oil and balsamic vinegar and some tomatoes, which I’d lightly salted and drizzled some olive oil over. They were black-skinned tomatoes – supposedly full of antioxidants! – that I’ve been growing in the garden.

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To serve, slice wedges and transfer to a plate.

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My frittata wasn’t very thick, of course, with just three eggs. But that didn’t matter. It still tasted wonderful! It was rich in flavour from the eggs and cheese but had a nice freshness from the vegetables. The great thing about frittatas (or omelette or tortillas) is that you generally have all the ingredients to hand: eggs, cheese, some vegetables. It’s such a quick an easy thing to put together but also, even for a hungry Single Gourmet Traveller, a frittata is a good meal!

Arte Chef – Italian Deli-Cafe-Restaurant in Barnes

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This is quite a special blog post. It’s my 500th, which to me feels like something worth celebrating. I’ve given some thought to what special, celebratory post I might write over the last few days – cooking something special, listing my favourite restaurants, my top kitchen gadgets or best new cookbooks. In the end, life has taken over. I’d arranged to take my lovely goddaughter Emma to Arte Chef in Barnes on the first day of her maternity leave and thus a review of Arte Chef would be my 500th post.

But this was all special anyway: having lunch with Emma on a beautiful sunny day and visiting Livio’s new restaurant for an Italian lunch. Livio’s Twickenham restaurant, Masaniello, has been a firm favourite since I first went there in August 2012 and he’s recently opened this new place in Barnes with his business partner Aristotile, offering an all-day experience of Italian food from breakfast, through lunch to (coming in the next week or two) dinner in the evening. Both men come from Naples, where they trained as chefs, having ‘grown up on good food as only our mothers and grandmothers can do’. At Arte Chef their food has a strong Neopolitan, southern Italy influence, not least the traditional brick pizza oven (though apologies for the bad photo!).

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Livio’s family run a pizzeria in Naples and his mother is a pastry chef who taught him to cook the most amazing babas – which can never be missed when I see them on the menu at Masaniello. This new restaurant in Barnes is located in a prime spot on Church Street and is bright and airy inside.

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We managed to park just outside and then, because it was such a beautiful day, decided to sit out at the back in the garden. It was busier out there with other people making the most of the glorious weather but when it was quieter later I managed another photo.

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Emma and I decided to share a pizza and a salad for lunch. We went for a simple Margherita pizza – tomato, fior di latte and basil (£6.95). Fior di latte is a mozzarella made from cow’s, not buffalo milk, and comes from southern Italy; the red, white and green colours are said to represent the Italian flag in this pizza. This is the kind of simple pizza most commonly eaten in Naples, along with Marinara (a simple tomato, garlic and herb sauce).

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The Italians generally don’t do pizza with lots of topping – and their way is the way I like it. With Livio and Aristotile coming from Naples, the base of their pizza is a thicker, softer crust than you’d get with pizzas in other parts of Italy. In Rome, for instance, they serve pizza on a thin, crusty base. We also chose a Melanzane alla Parmigiana salad (£9.95) to share as well. Emma and I both agreed this was one of our favourite things and the Parmigiana came with salad and a ball of mozzarella on the side and some grilled courgettes, olives and artichokes.

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The Melanzane alla Parmigiana was excellent (I teased Livio on the way out that it was almost as good as mine; thankfully he took it in the teasing spirit in which it was intended!). It was a large plate of food and along with the pizza, we were both too full for dessert and I had just a single espresso to finish.

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It had been such a lovely place, in the sunny garden, to sit over a leisurely lunch and catch up with Emma. Livio came to say hello; the food had been delicious and very reasonably priced and I liked Arte Chef a lot. On the way out, Livio introduced us to Aristotile and the restaurant’s manager, Maria, who told us they’d soon be putting up works of art by local artists and opening in the evening. They all seemed to be full of ideas to make this a buzzing, great place to head to for a little bit of a Naples experience. We saw food in the deli at the front too where, if you were local, you could come to buy some of that wonderful Melanzane alla Parmigiana or other dishes. To find out more, check them out at: www.artechef.co.uk

Aubergine with Chermoula, Bulgar & Yogurt

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My son gave me three aubergines. Jonathan is known for giving me foodie things. Some of my best kitchen items are gifts from him: my wonderful Global chef’s knife; a boning knife; my Microplane. When he goes to the local farmers’ market on Saturday morning and negotiates a good deal for multiple chickens – the more he buys the cheaper each is (well, he is an accountant) – he gives me one. But he’s never given me three aubergines before. He’d planned to make Imam Bayildi for the party on Saturday but in the end didn’t have time and thus was left with many aubergines in his fridge. He gave three to me. My party bag :) Coincidentally, while checking the recipe for Roasted Butternut Squash & Red Onion with Tahini & Za’atar in Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem, which we did have time to make (a family essential for any party nowadays), I came across this wonderful recipe for aubergines. Going home with my party bag, I knew exactly what I’d be doing with my gift.

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I was a bit addicted to Jerusalem for a time. Well, it is a beautiful book. It became something of a food bloggers’ favourite when it was published in 2012. I tried many of the recipes, all somewhere on the blog, and it set up a deep longing in me to visit Jerusalem, which I haven’t managed to do yet. However, I do love cooking Middle Eastern/North African food – like Ottolenghi’s or Moro’s more Spanish version, or Moroccan food – and that is at least one way to bring a bit of the exotic into my day. With summer returned to UK – at least for a time – warm days and evenings mean a salad meal is perfect. The great thing about these spicy stuffed aubergines is they’re best eaten at room temperature, so like me, you could prepare and cook them earlier in the day and they’re all ready waiting for you when suppertime comes around.

The first thing to do is heat the oven to 200C/180 fan. Then make the chermoula. Chermoula is a punchy, spicy sauce used as a marinade; sometimes made into a paste. It can be used for fish or meat but here works fantastically well with the aubergines. Mix the following together in a bowl: 2 garlic cloves crushed, 2 teaspoons ground cumin, 2 teaspoons ground coriander, 1 teaspoon chilli flakes, 1 teaspoon sweet paprika, 2 tablespoons chopped skin of a preserved lemon, 100ml olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt.

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It all comes together into a brown sauce. I guess you could blend it to make it a paste if you like, but I left it as it was and the way Ottolenghi described. Now cut the aubergines in half lengthways. I had three; Ottolenghi says 2 medium ones. Cut deep diagonal scores through but don’t cut through the skin. Then spoon the chermoula over and spread evenly.

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Put the aubergines in the hot oven for about 40-60 minutes, or until they are completely soft and cooked through. Ottolenghi said 40 mins; mine needed an hour.

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Meanwhile, prepare the bulgar. Put 150g bulgar in a bowl and add 140ml boiling water. Soak 50g sultanas (or I used raisins) in warm water for 10 minutes. Prepare the other ingredients: 10g fresh coriander chopped, 10g fresh mint chopped, 50g pitted green olives cut in half, 30g flaked almond toasted, 3 spring onions chopped (I didn’t have any so used shallots), 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice and 50ml olive oil.

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Strain the sultanas and add to the bulgar with the other prepared ingredients. Mix well. Taste and add seasoning as needed.

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Now spoon the bulgar over the cooked aubergine halves. It’s fine if some falls to the side. Spoon some plain Greek yogurt over the top and sprinkle with a little fresh coriander. Drizzle over a little olive oil. I did this final putting-together just before eating; even though everything had been prepared a little in advance I thought a last-minute composition of the final dish would be better.

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It was a fabulous taste experience. The aubergines were quite fiery with the spicy mix but the soft, sweet bulgar married with them well, topped off with the fresh, slightly tart yogurt. I ate two halves as a main course supper but just one half would make a great starter for a more formal meal.

A Duo of Focaccia

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It was a veritable hive of baking activity in my kitchen yesterday. No we weren’t practising to audition for The Great British Bakeoff, we were in party mode. As I lay in my bed yesterday morning thinking there was no rush to get up, I suddenly remembered I’d promised to make two (yes two) focaccia (focaccie?) for Jonathan and Lyndsey’s house warming/Jonathan’s birthday party that evening. As Nicola and Rachael had offered to bake cakes and scones (the party was starting at teatime, English style, with pots of tea, cakes, scones, jam and clotted cream when young families were around, leading into an adult barbecue in the evening) my one and only oven was going to be in full use. I got up. It may have been Saturday. And it was only 7.30 a.m. But such is a mother’s love for her son and daughter-in-law. Though actually, I love making focaccia and it’s not exactly the kind of thing you make just for yourself,  so I was very happy to have a reason to get baking seriously.

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I always use Antonio Carluccio’s recipe in an old book (2002) that has become a kind of family cooking bible. We all have a copy. It’s in my own top ten cookery books list here on the blog and has the best tiramisu recipe I know and other favourites. I like to make the focaccia by hand rather than in a machine. Partly because I once blew up one up – literally! An old Kenwood mixer – while making this focaccia the week in which, ironically, I would have celebrated a 30th anniversary had I still been married. The machine had been a wedding present. I’m quite certain the recipe had nothing to do with machine exploding in a puff of smoke and me having to rush out of the kitchen into the garden, but since then I’ve stuck to making it by hand. It feels safer. And really, it’s a very pleasing thing to do. Even before 8.00 a.m. on a Saturday morning …

I decided to make the two doughs separately and have two toppings: Fresh Rosemary and Sea Salt, and then a Red Onion, Cherry Tomato & Fresh Thyme version. To make one focaccia sift 500g strong white bread flour into a bowl. Dissolve 1 pack (7 1/2 g) dried yeast in 300ml lukewarm water.

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Pour the yeasty water into a well in the flour and add 10g sea salt and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Mix to form a dough then knead for about 10 minutes, or until smooth and elastic. You’ll know it’s ready if you try gently pushing into the dough with a finger a little way and seeing if the hole pops out again. By the time I got round to the second batch, Nicola had got up and come down to the kitchen where she took an action shot.

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Put the dough in a greased bowl, put some cling film over the top of the bowl and leave to rise in a warmish but not hot place for about an hour until doubled in size.

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Now knock down and knead slightly again to get out the air bubbles and then flatten out into whatever shape you fancy – oval, round or oblong. You want the dough to be about an inch (2.5cm) thick. As I was going to carry my focaccia in a car to the party I made a round one on a pizza tray and an oblong one in another baking tray. With your knuckles, press indentations into the dough then gently spread over 2 tablespoons olive oil. Sprinkle over some sea salt flakes and any other flavourings you like. On my first one I put lots of chopped fresh rosemary and a grating of black pepper.

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On the second, I added some finely chopped red onion, halved cherry tomatoes and fresh thyme. Put it aside and leave for another 30 minutes to rise a bit again.

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Bake them in a hot oven (240C/220 Fan) for 15 minutes or until nicely browned.

 

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Check it’s done by gently tapping the underside and it should sound hollow – although I gave this step a miss with my tomato version or the topping would have fallen off! Drizzle a little more (about 1 tablespoon) olive oil over the finished focaccia.

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They looked pretty good, I thought. And they’re very easy to make and great fun for parties. You could add all kind of toppings although I don’t think you want to overdo the topping. Basically, this is bread – not a pizza (which should always be simple as well, I feel) – and you want just a little flavouring. I had to hold people off at the party all afternoon telling them they were for the evening. Everyone wanted a taste! While Jonathan was finishing barbecuing the meat and we were putting salads and other food on the table for everyone to help themselves, I cut the focaccia into slices so it was easy for people to take  some.

By the time I emerged from the kitchen in the morning, the focaccia made, Nicola and Rachael were ready with cake and scone recipes (which had been the subject of deep research over breakfast; my dining table laden with cookery books as evidence to this). Rachael found a lemon drizzle cake recipe online – it was delicious but unfortunately I failed to get a photo. Nicola went with Delia Smith’s recipe for scones. The fact that they both managed to cook – and different recipes! – at the same time in my little kitchen bears witness to the strength of their partnership, I think. I wouldn’t have remained so good humoured if I’d  been sharing the kitchen while making the focaccia. Nicola’s scones were wonderful. Just look. How could you resist?

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Yes, I had to sneak one before they went off in the car to the party and ate it with a large slab of butter and blackcurrant jam and a cup of tea, grabbing a quiet moment in the garden . They were so light and delicious; wonderful scones. When I praised Nicola and said they were notoriously hard to make well, she seemed surprised. She’s obviously a natural! And may she bake more next time she visits me in London!

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