Everything-free chocolate cherry flapjacks

By flapjacks, I mean the UK word – the baked oat bar thingies. Not the US pancakes. Having had two facebook arguments (well, not arguments, but you know) in two days about the meaning of the word, I think that bears clarification. My American friend claimed these were ‘oatcakes’, but as any fule kno, oatcakes are flat savoury crackers that are generally served with cheese. Divided by a common language, indeed.

Anyway, continuing the theme of wheat-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free &c &c &c, I decided that I’d make something that required actual baking in an actual oven. They were a birthday treat for my flatmate, so I thought a bit more effort than just some rice puffs was in order. I cobbled together several recipes to come up with this one, with appropriate adjustments.

You need:

150g vegetable fat (I used Trex)
80g soft brown sugar
80g golden syrup
Vanilla extract
250g oats
100g dried or glacé cherries, chopped into halves or quarters
50g plain chocolate, broken into small pieces.

Preheat the oven to gas mark 4/180°C. Grease an 8 x 12 inch baking tin.

2 Melt the vegetable fat in a decent-sized saucepan (it has to be big enough to hold all the oats). Add the syrup and the sugar and heat gently until they’re melted. The fat and sugar may be a little reluctant to combine properly, but that’s fine. Once you stir the oats through, it all binds properly.

3 Remove the pan from the heat. Add about half the oats and mix well. Add some of the cherries, then more oats, then more cherries, until it’s all combined. Add the chocolate last. I hoped it would stay solid, but unlike chocolate chips, it doesn’t really keep it’s shape, so it will probably mostly melt through the mixture, but that’s more than fine. What’s not to like about chocolate all the way through?

4 Once the oat mixture is thoroughly coated, transfer it to the baking tin. Smooth the surface as much as possible with the back of a spoon, and bake for around 20 minutes.

5 When you remove it from the oven, the mixture will be bubbling and seem very liquidy, but that’s fine because it firms up as it sets. Let it cool for around 15 or 20 minutes, then slice into squares while in the tin and still warm. It’s soft enough that you can just use the round tip of a palette knife to do this (which also avoids scratching your tin). Let them cool a bit more, and then transfer to the fridge to chill, if you like. I also drizzled a bit more melted chocolate over the top, just because.

A very hurriedly staged photo taken before work so I could get the daylight looked like this:

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I didn’t add any salt to these, which is most unlike me, but I don’t think they needed it. Sometimes you just want something to be rich and chewy and soft, and these hit the target nicely. My flatmate’s verdict was that they ‘taste amazing! So happy I could cry’, which, as reviews go, is pretty positive.

He also ate too many in one go, which resulted in him doing this self-portrait, so perhaps pace yourselves, yeah?

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Everything-free choco rice puff snack … things

I’m so bad at writing about what I’ve been doing!

My flatmate’s still on an exclusion diet and I’ve been baking and so on a bit less, because a) I don’t want to eat entire cakes to myself, b) it seems a bit cruel and unusual to be all ‘Hi! Here’s a delicious cake THAT YOU CAN’T EAT’, c) I’m really wary of getting the reputation of The One Who Bakes at work, where people start expecting you to take stuff in and so on, or make stuff for people’s birthdays and d) when I have tried to make everything-free stuff it hasn’t gone so well.

I really like making pikelets (they’re like crumpets, but a lot thinner and a bit less regular shape because you just pour them into the pan, not into a crumpet ring). Sorry to explain – I always thought they were common knowledge, but the amount of times I’ve had the ‘What’s a pikelet?’ conversation, apparently not. Anyway. I tried to make some with gluten-free flour and rice milk instead of regular flour and regular milk. They were … not a success. As the flatmate said, they were like jellyfish. Which is all rather disheartening.

So I thought, fine. Less baking, more … combining, I guess? Nothing that relies on gluten or milk or eggs or ground almonds for binding, and while I know you can do marvellous things with coconut and dates and all sorts of clever tricks, I wasn’t feeling up to it. So I reverted to childhood and made rice krispie cakes, except a wee bit more sophisticated. (Only a wee bit.)

I took
175g plain chocolate (I used a Waitrose one because it uses sunflower lecithin, not soy, but that’s by the by)
30g vegetable fat (Trex, in my case)
Around 30ml golden syrup
Vanilla essence
Sea salt
100g rice puffs (I used Kallo, because they’re just plain rice)
35g salted popcorn (I used Tyrrel’s, for the same reason: corn, salt, nothing else)
80g dried mixed cherries and berries.

1. I melted the chocolate in a mixing bowl over a pan of water. This was the large bowl I was doing all the combining in, because transferring melted chocolate isn’t always easy, and you lose a lot in the process.

2, Once the chocolate was melted, I added the vegetable fat and syrup and mixed until it was thoroughly melted and combined – it makes the chocolate a bit slacker and easier to work with. I added a splash of vanilla and a good pinch of flaky sea salt.

3. Then I just threw all the rest of the ingredients in. It’s better to do it bit by bit, as it helps ensure you get everything coated. Just keep scraping the sides and lifting the mixture from the bottom to the top and you’ll get it all coated in the end.

4. I transferred it to a baking tray lined with baking parchment, flattened it with the back of the spoon, drizzled over a little more melted chocolate and left it to set.

This was the finished result:
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They were a little bit crumbly when cutting. I think a bit more syrup and/or a slightly smaller amount of dry ingredients would work to make them bind better. Taste-wise, the saltiness of the popcorn combines really nicely with the sweetness of the berries and cuts through the richness of the chocolate, but if you’ve got a stronger sweet tooth than me, you could always leave out the sea salt.

Not the most exciting, perhaps, but for something that’s gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free, soy-free and egg-free, I think they’re pretty neat. (They’re also free of fish, because obviously, because ew.)

Impromptu bhajia

My flatmate is on a sort of elimination diet at the moment, part of which involves avoiding wheat and gluten. As even the corn tortillas you can buy in the shops generally contain wheatflour, he was on a mission to find masa harina, the treated corn flour that’s used to make them. But, despite the astonishing rate of gentrification that’s occurred in Balham in recent years, including its very own organic food store, it hasn’t yet developed a Little Mexico, and none was to be had.

We did, however, find gram flour and thought we’d give it a go. It worked surprisingly well, but as I am in desperate need of a new frying pan that isn’t bowed in the middle, full size ‘pancakes’ weren’t really feasible, so we settled for little ones made in the bottom of a milk pan. They were kind of like giant blinis, rather than small tortillas, in terms of size and consistency, but they were good and were fit for purpose (which is to say: to have guacamole and refried beans and steak stuck on top).

The side of the gram flour packet also had an onion bhajia recipe. As I had an bag of onions and an enormous bunch of coriander, plus all the other ingredients to hand, it seemed right to make them, plus the *must. cook. something* urge was quite strong. (I’d also been making endless batches of guacamole, hence the coriander, but mashing isn’t cooking.)

Once again, I cursed my lack of a proper deep fryer, but a milk pan full of corn oil did in a pinch. They turned out like this:

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Not bad for a first attempt, I think. They came out a tiny bit too spicy, so I think I’d go for mild, rather than hot, chilli powder in future, and the first few I tried to cook while the oil wasn’t hot enough, but that’s that lesson learned. It’s another thing for the repertoire, anyway.

Gyoza

I love gyoza. Little savoury parcels of just … goodness. Which if done right are both juicy and crispy (assuming you’re eating fried ones, that is). (And I generally am. I’m kind of the belief that there’s not much that can’t be improved by frying.)

There’s a Japanese place I often go to, and I’m always entirely predictable in what I have. Spicy chicken teriyaki don, and chicken gyoza. I kind of hate myself for not venturing off into the uncharted territories of the menu, but equally it’s a place I go to when I want to grab something quickly and not think too hard, so I don’t think it’s too much of a crime to stick to what I know.

Anyway, as is my wont, I thought I’d try to make some of my own. There was a first utterly disastrous attempt of which we shall not speak, in which I somehow managed to convince myself that rice paper wrappers for Vietnamese summer rolls would be adequate dumpling wrappers. Spoiler: they weren’t.

Incidentally, I enjoyed this ‘so near, yet so far’ packaging in the Chinese supermarket when I was on my errand to buy actual dumpling skins.
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I’ve got the filling mastered, though. It’s a combination of pork mince, prawns (I use raw ones, chopped finely), coriander, sesame oil and rice wine, with a tiny pinch of sugar.  I just combine it all with my hands, then add a heaped teaspoon to each dumpling skin. 300g pork and 150g prawns, plus the other ingredients to taste (I’m a bit slapdash about these things) was plenty to fill around twenty dumpling skins.

I found the best way to seal them was just to run a moistened fingertip around half the inside edge and then fold it up to form a half-moon and pinch it tightly closed. Then, in theory, you can choose whether to boil or steam them. Or at least, that was what I heard claimed. But boiling was … not a great idea. Some split, they stuck together, and so on and so forth. The taste was good, but they weren’t the most presentable.

Steaming worked much, much better. I gave them around ten minutes. They held their shape, and still had a little bite. And then I finished them off in the frying pan, because as we’ve established, fried = better.

I had noble intentions about having a couple, then maybe taking them to work to share out, or keep and eat over a day or two. Instead I ate 18 in one sitting. For dipping, I used chilli paste, and soy sauce combined with lime juice. But I’m telling myself that that’s a good thing, because it meant they tasted good.

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(Incidentally, that weird soft focus effect is, I think, steam on the lens. I wasn’t getting all Greta Garbo and putting Vaseline on an attempt to make them prettier.)

Spiced apple loaf cake

I’m just going to try and get up a few posts of things that I’ve made without going into any great detail, just to get back into the habit of actually writing.

So. It came into my head that I needed to make something with cardamom. From there, the thought process was basically spices, apples, something that I can actually make, something that I can easily adapt…. loaf cake!

I adapted a banana bread recipe, mostly because I knew the ratios would be right in terms of the size of the finished product. Because the recipe I use is very banana-heavy (500g of banana to 250g of flour), I was a bit worried about (not) retaining the moisture and ending up with some dry, dusty old thing. And so of course I overcompensated horribly. I threw in a pot of Greek yoghurt, which was a good move. But I took two big cooking apples and, for some reason, decided I needed to dice and boil them before mixing them in. Suffice to say, it was an unmitigated disaster. The mixture was much, much too wet and was never going to properly ‘set’. So I ended up with a huge big pile of (tasty!) damp apple cake mush that slithered out of the loaf tin like clumpy porridge. Mary Berry would not approve.

Second time around, it was only one apple, and it wasn’t pre-cooked. I still added the Greek yoghurt, because it gives a bit of tang, and it definitely needs something there to compensate for the lack of moisture that the banana would give. There was also the cardamom, of course, cinnamon and sultanas. It’s not quite perfect, yet. It was still a little bit stodgy, and it didn’t rise quite as much as I would have liked, but in comparison to the first one, it’s a baking miracle. It’s got a kind of wintery, Scandinavian flavour to it, and I think once I’ve had another couple of runs at it to iron out the kinks, it could be really rather lovely.

Attempt number two is below. As you can see, it’s a little bit flat, but I think I just need to whip the butter more, and maybe just say ‘sod it’ and use self-raising rather than plain flour. Attempt number one was not photographed, in an attempt to cover its shame and preserve what little dignity the poor thing had left.

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Pollen Street Social

Well, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? There’s been lots going on that’s rather drawn my attention away, but I hope to get back into the blog now. I might do a backlog of things that I’ve been making but not writing about, but for now: Pollen Street Social.

I like to eat out, but I’m not exactly flush with money most of the time, so I tend towards the little Korean diner (I’ve been eating a lot of Korean food of late) or Taste card discount end of the market. However! I was treated to the experience of Pollen Street Social. It’s the restaurant of Jason Atherton, who was under Gordon Ramsay at Maze, but has now (well, a while ago) broken off on his own.

The (extraordinarily generous) friend who treated me has been wanting to go for a Fine Dining (I think it needs the capitals) meal together for ages, and we finally got around to doing it. The original plan was to do the tasting menu, where you receive a series of dishes that the chef … well, that the chef thinks you should have, basically. It’s a way for the chef to show their range of dishes and give an idea of who they are as a chef. But that’s really only available in the evenings, and we were there for lunch, but we said that we’d hoped to do the it. So they had a word with the kitchen and brought us out around half of it, which, in terms of quantity, was more than enough. I kind of feel that really good food that you savour leads you to feel more full than cheapo stuff you shovel in, and the portions were perfectly generous, so we ended up eating, well, a lot of food.

While we waited, we had brandade (salt cod puree) and some extraordinary pork crackling. It was unbelievably light and airy – it almost seemed like bubble wrap (in a good way) – crisp, and yet melting. It’s perhaps not necessary to describe every single detail of the food, but it was all far beyond what I consider myself capable of as a cook. It was simple, but elevated and genuinely made me think again about what can be done with food. An example: tiny slivers of cauliflower, sliced vertically down the floret to give miniature ‘tree’ shapes. They retained their bite and flavour, but frankly looked far more sophisticated than little chunks of cauliflower could ever hope to. They were served alongside a crab vinaigrette and Nashi pear and peanut powder, and the sweet and sharp and earthy flavours together worked perfectly.

Cauliflower returned again with halibut, in the form of a cauliflower and cheese puree and a cauliflower and clam chowder. This was the only tiny misstep of the meal, as far as I was concerned. The fish was of such good quality, and cooked so expertly, that it was slightly drowned out by the broth it was served in. The individual components were all absurdly good quality, of course, but for me, they could have benefited from being separated to let them truly shine.

Then came Black Angus fillet, with bone marrow, charred onions and salsify. I’d never had salsify before (it always sounds like a verb. Perhaps it means ‘add salsa’. ‘We need to salsify that meal immediately!’), nor, come to think of it, bone marrow served in its own right. It was a dark, iron-tinted plate of food, and a perfect progression from the lighter dishes that started the meal.

After that, we moved to the dessert bar, where we sat and watched them be compiled, and were aided in our choice of dessert wines by a massively knowledgeable and attentive female sommelier. (I feel that it bears notice that she was a young, friendly woman. The word sommelier always conjours up snooty cartoon men with pencil moustaches, rightly or wrongly.) There we had pear sorbet, an intensely rich chocolate ganache and banana ice cream. Plus, I assume as a thank you for taking the tasting menu, Jason Atherton himself told them to make us up an additional two desserts, the most memorable component of which was a curry ice cream. That worked far, far better than it had any right to – it was a Japanese curry flavour, rather than an Indian, but the warmth of it was perfect and paired with exactly the right wines as recommended to us, it was the highlight of all the desserts.

And that was without the other three courses that the tasting menu would have given us. I have no doubt that I would have found a way to fit them all if it came to it, because when you’re eating some of the best food you’ve ever had, you’re hardly likely to say no. Financially, I don’t see myself making a habit of the tasting menu, but Pollen Street Social also has an extremely reasonable set Lunch Menu, and I definitely plan on making a return.