Chocolate brownie cake

I'm not a big chocolate lover really, but once when I was ill I got a real craving for brownies, and cobbled this recipe together from the internet and various cookbooks. For the chocolate I've used all kinds - Green & Black's almond chocolate, Milka's Dime Bar chocolate, dark chocolate buttons. They all worked fine. By the way, this is only a "cake" because I only own a round cake tin. You can cut it into slices to get more traditional-looking brownies.

  • 3 eggs
  • 330g of caster sugar
  • 170g of unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
  • 60g of plain flour
  • 25g of ground almonds
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoonful of baking powder
  • 50g of cocoa powder
  • 100g of chocolate (a bar or buttons)
  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
  2. Use the extra butter to grease and line a round cake tin that's 20-ish cm across (or 8 inches), with a loose bottom.
  3. Measure out the sugar and pour it into a large bowl, then add the eggs. Beat with a wooden spoon until combined. The mixture should be sloppy but light.
  4. Melt the 170g of butter (I did it in the microwave) and leave to cool slightly.
  5. Measure out the flour, cocoa, salt and baking powder and add to the bowl.
  6. Once the butter is cooler but still liquid, mix it into the bowl (you don't want it to be too hot or it'll cook the eggs).
  7. Mix to combine, keeping plenty of air in the batter.
  8. Crush the chocolate into little bits of rubble.
  9. Pour the batter into the cake tin and scatter the chocolate rubble over the top.
  10. Bake for 40 minutes or until a knife comes out clean.

Turkey and chorizo paella

If/when I'm ever sent to the guillotine, I'll probably request this as my last meal. It's so comforting and tasty, I could eat it for days together (and have). As well as for dinner, try it for lunch spread on buttered crusty bread for a double-carb hit. You can substitute chicken for the turkey, but I prefer turkey.

  • 1 onion
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 tablespoonful of olive oil
  • 400g of turkey breast steaks
  • 200g chorizo ring (soft cooking chorizo, and as smoky and spicy as you can find)
  • 1 teaspoon of paprika powder (I used smoked paprika)
  • 250g of rice (I used brown rice for the nutty flavour and good bite, but you can use paella rice or any long-grain)
  • 1 litre of hot vegetable stock
  • ½ a teaspoon of ground turmeric (or you could use a pinch of saffron)
  • A generous dose of frozen peas (decide how many you want on the fly)
  • A grind or three of black pepper
  • A handful of flat-leaf parsley
  1. Peel and finely chop the onion.
  2. Finely chop or mince the garlic.
  3. Heat the oil in a large, deep-sided frying pan (that has a lid) over a medium heat.
  4. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 10 minutes until soft and translucent.
  5. Meanwhile, chop the turkey into little chunks, and cut the chorizo on the diagonal into slices about a centimetre thick, then chop each slice in half.
  6. Stir the garlic and paprika into the onions and cook for a minute (or until you can smell the garlic cooking).
  7. Add the meat to the pan and cook, stirring, until the turkey is white on all sides.
  8. Make up the stock (from a cube - I don't mean make stock from scratch!).
  9. Stir the rice into the pan, mixing it in thoroughly.
  10. Pour in the stock and add the turmeric or saffron. Stir to mix.
  11. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer and put the lid on.
  12. Simmer for 25 minutes, or until the rice is cooked.
  13. Chop the parsley roughly.
  14. Stir in the peas and let them cook for about two minutes. If your paella is still too watery at this point, turn up the heat and cook for a few more minutes with the lid off to reduce a little. Stir frequently though, so that it doesn't catch and burn.
  15. Season with pepper, then stir in the parsley and serve.

English cherry cake

This is my Ma's cake, which she used to bake when I was growing up. It's one of my favourites. However, no matter what I do, I can't prevent the cherries from sinking to the bottom - and boy, have I tried. My consolation is that my Ma told me she can never prevent it either - and I never noticed all these years!

  • 200g of glacé cherries
  • 275g of plain flour
  • 4 teaspoonsful of baking powder
  • 75g of ground almonds
  • 225g of unsalted butter
  • 225g of caster sugar
  • ½ a teaspoon of almond extract
  • 4 eggs
  1. Preheat the oven to 160°C.
  2. Take the butter out of the fridge to soften.
  3. Grease and line a round cake tin that's 20-ish cm across (or 8 inches), with a loose bottom.
  4. Cut the cherries into quarters, then rinse and pat them dry.
  5. Sieve the flour and baking powder together into a bowl.
  6. Take out a little of the (now self-raising) flour and toss the cherry pieces in the flour. In theory this will help them rise in the cake. I suggest attaching strings to the cherries and suspending them from the roof of the oven.
  7. In another large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
  8. Beat in the eggs one by one, followed by the almond extract.
  9. Stir in the flour and almonds, gently to keep the air in the batter.
  10. Fold in the cherries, again, gently.
  11. Bake for one and a half to two hours, until golden brown on top, and pulling away slightly at the edges.

Bacon, cheese and potato bake

I've made this a couple of times, and it's always popular. It works well as a (very hearty) side dish, or cold the next day like a cheesy, bacony Spanish omelette. Originally this recipe was called "Grape Pickers' Potatoes" (it's a Hugh Stanley-Fearnley-Wittingstalliferous recipe) and I can imagine it would certainly set you up after a day of hard labour.

  • 750g of potatoes
  • 40g of butter
  • 300g of smoked streaky bacon rashers
  • 1 teaspoonful of rosemary
  • 150g of Gruyère cheese
  • Salt to taste
  • Ground black pepper to taste
  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
  2. Peel the potatoes and slice them very thinly.
  3. Grate the cheese into a bowl.
  4. Chop the rosemary finely.
  5. Use some of the butter to grease an ovenproof dish (I used my round metal pie dish, which is 24cm wide).
  6. Stretch the bacon with the back of a knife so that it won't shrink when it cooks.
  7. Line the dish with the slices of bacon, covering the bottom and sides, and leaving the upper third or so of each rasher to hang over the sides. I did mine in a sort of spiderweb from the centre.
  8. Place a layer of potatoes on top, season with salt and pepper, then scatter on some of the rosemary and cheese.
  9. Repeat the layers three times (or however many it takes), finishing with a layer of potatoes.
  10. Cover the top with the overhanging bacon and dot with the remaining butter.
  11. Cover with a tight, double layer of foil.
  12. Bake for an hour and a quarter, by which time the potatoes should be cooked and tender.
    The recipe doesn't mention this, but my dish was full of fatty water at this point, which I poured off. My Ma suggests to take off the cover at this point, turn up the heat and bake for quarter of an hour longer to crisp up the bacon on top.
  13. Remove the dish from the oven and leave to stand for ten minutes.
  14. Gently loosen the bacon from the sides of the dish and turn out onto a plate to serve.

Mushroom and cheese scone cobbler

The finished result, fresh from the oven
This is a very hearty, stick-to-your-ribs autumnal dish, perfect if you want to give your vegetarian friends a good warming feast, but want to accommodate carnivores at the same meal: it feels like a meat dish, even though it isn't. The recipe is from The Guardian, and its drawback is that it involves a lot of fussy transferring from pan to pan, which is unfortunate. It serves six people a little frugally.

  • 3 tablespoonfuls of olive or rapeseed oil
  • 1 onion
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 celery stalk
  • 1 large knob of butter
  • 750g of mushrooms (I used a combination of common mushrooms, including button ones)
  • 1 large clove of garlic
  • 1 tablespoonful of thyme leaves (I used fresh from my new plant)
  • 150ml of red wine
  • 250ml of vegetable stock
  • Salt to taste
  • Pepper to taste
  • Sour cream, to serve

    (for the scone topping:)
  • 175g plain flour
  • 2¼ teaspoonfuls of baking powder
  • ½ a teaspoonful of salt
  • 75g of chilled butter
  • 1 teaspoonful of English mustard
  • 75g of mature cheddar
  • 1 large egg
  • 125ml of milk
  1. Preheat the oven to 190°C.
  2. Chop the onion, carrot and celery finely.
  3. Heat 1 tablespoonful of oil in a large pan and add the onion, carrot and celery. Cook over a low heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. Meanwhile, chop the mushrooms into thick slices, but leave some little button mushrooms whole. Also, crush the garlic and chop the thyme leaves.
  5. Take another large frying pan and heat 1 tablespoonful of oil along with the knob of butter.
  6. Cook the mushrooms in this second pan in batches, stirring often. When I did this, the first batch soaked up all the butter and oil, which meant that the ensuing batches were pretty much dry-fried. But it all worked out in the end. I put the cooked batches onto a plate.
  7. Add the garlic and thyme to the last batch and fry briefly (just until you can smell the garlic cooking, but not burning). I guess this is where you should use the third tablespoonful of oil, to stop the garlic burning on the hot pan.
  8. Add the all the mushrooms (including the garlicky ones) to the other pan of vegetables.
  9. Pour the wine into the pan that the mushrooms were cooked in. Stir, and let it bubble for a few minutes. Then pour it into the other pan of mushrooms and vegetables.
  10. Pour the stock into the pan of mushrooms and vegetables. Bring to a simmer, and leave to cook while you do the scone topping.
  11. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl.
  12. Chop the butter into little cubes and add to the bowl.
  13. Rub the butter into the flour mixture with your fingers, until you have little breadcrumbs.
  14. Grate the cheese and stir it into the crumbs along with the mustard.
  15. In another bowl, beat the egg and milk together with a fork. Then stir this into the flour mix to create a soft, sticky dough.
  16. Season the mushroom stew and pour it into a wide oven dish.
  17. Drop large spoonfuls of the scone mixture on top of the stew.
  18. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes until the scones are well risen and golden.
  19. Serve with the sour cream.

Rhubarb and blackberry tart

Rhubarb! I saw it on sale in the supermarket and just had to buy it. I searched for a recipe online and there are hundreds - this one is simple (in fact I was a bit anxious that it was too simple) and delicious. You get a sort of meringue-y crust along with the rhubarb. I added the blackberries because I happened to have some left over, but they're not essential.

  • 1 pack of ready-rolled shortcrust pastry
  • 5 tablespoonfuls of plain flour, plus extra for rolling out
  • Butter for greasing
  • 300g of fresh rhubarb
  • 200g of caster sugar
  • 1 pinch of ground cinnamon
  • 2 eggs
  • 6 or 7 blackberries
  • Creme fraiche, to serve
  1. Preheat the oven to 190°C.
  2. Use a little butter to grease a pie dish that's about 23cm across.
  3. Use the extra plain flour to dust the inside of the greased dish.
  4. Unroll the ready-rolled pastry and roll it to twice its size. The crust of the tart should be really thin. Wrap the leftover pastry in cling film and put it in the fridge to use in another recipe.
  5. Line the pie dish with the pastry, and prick the base with a fork. Cover with baking parchment and fill with baking beans.
  6. Blind bake the pastry shell for 15 minutes, then remove the beans and paper and return to the oven for a further five minutes. This will give you a really crispy, browned pastry.
  7. Chop the rhubarb into chunks.
  8. Put the flour, sugar and cinnamon into a bowl, and mix them together.
  9. Crack the eggs into another bowl and beat together with a fork. Then stir into the flour/sugar mixture.
  10. Put the rhubarb into the pastry case and pour the sweet mixture over the top.
  11. Place the blackberries decoratively on top.
  12. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes. Mine came out looking very pale, so I gave it an extra 10 minutes at a very high heat just to brown it off a bit.
  13. Serve with the creme fraiche.

Pear, almond and cardamom tart

Dessert should always be served with fairy lights
I ripped this recipe out of a magazine, intrigued by the combination of cardamom and pears. It didn't say whether to use black or green cardamom, but I assume the citrussy green ones are more suitable. I cheated by using ready-made pastry, but I was pleased with the result.

  • 1 pack of ready-rolled shortcrust pastry
  • Plain flour, for rolling out
  • 15 green cardamom pods
  • 100g of slightly salted butter, plus a little extra for greasing
  • 100g of caster sugar
  • 1 lemon
  • 100g of ground almonds
  • 3 eggs
  • 5 small pears
  • Creme fraiche, to serve
  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
  2. Use the extra butter to grease a pie dish (mine's about 23cm across).
  3. Use the plain flour to dust the inside of the greased dish.
  4. Unroll the ready-rolled pastry and roll it to twice its size. The crust of the tart should be really thin. Wrap the leftover pastry in cling film and put it in the fridge to use on another recipe.
  5. Line the pie dish with the pastry, and prick the base with a fork. Cover with baking parchment and fill with baking beans.
  6. Blind bake the pastry shell for 15 minutes, then remove the beans and paper and return to the oven for a further five minutes. This will give you a really crispy, browned pastry.
  7. Crush the cardamom pods with a pestle and mortar until the shells split, then discard the shells and grind the seeds a bit more.
  8. Grate the zest of the lemon.
  9. Put the butter, sugar, cardamom and lemon zest into a bowl, and beat together until light and fluffy.
  10. Crack the eggs into another bowl and beat together with a fork. Then gradually beat the eggs into the butter/sugar mixture.
  11. Stir the almonds into the mixture to create a thick paste. Pour it into the pastry case.
  12. Squeeze the lemon juice into a bowl.
  13. Peel three pears, keeping the stalks intact. Take out the cores with a corer but leave the tops with the stalks intact. Then cut the pears in half around the middle (not lengthways). Make cuts around each piece of pear and then roll in the lemon juice.
  14. Peel and slice the remaining pears and roll them in the lemon juice. Really you could just slice all of the pears to give yourself an easy life.
  15. Arrange the pears on the almond mixture.
  16. Bake for 30 minutes. Mine came out looking very pale, so I gave it an extra 10 minutes at a very high heat just to brown it off a bit.
  17. Serve with the creme fraiche.

Pot-roasted beef brisket with root vegetables

Well, I made this, but I'm not sure if I'd make it again. Not because it went wrong, but because I just didn't like the texture of the brisket. It's quite stringy, and fairly fatty too. It's just not that nice (to my taste). But I like the pot roast idea, and the vegetables were very tasty. Thanks Hugh F-S-W, but maybe no thanks too. I might just try a different cut of beef next time.

  • 2 teaspoonfuls of fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 teaspoonfuls of paprika powder
  • 2 teaspoonfuls of sea salt flakes
  • 2 teaspoonfuls of ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of English mustard powder
  • 1 teaspoon of muscovado sugar
  • 2kg of beef brisket
  • 2 tablespoonfuls of ground nut or sunflower oil
  • 200g bacon
  • 500ml of dry red wine or dark beer (I used wine)
  • 200ml of beef stock
  • 2 large onions
  • 12 small shallots
  • 10 garlic cloves
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 4 large carrots
  • 4 medium parsnips
  • 1 small celeriac
  • 4 or 5 small turnips
  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
  2. Mix the first six ingredients in a bowl to make a spice blend.
  3. Rub the spice blend all over the beef.
  4. Chop the bacon into little bits.
  5. Heat the oil in a large casserole dish. Well, I didn't exactly do this, because my casserole dish can't go on the hob, so I did all the hob stuff in a large frying pan, and then transferred to the casserole dish later.
  6. Fry the bacon in the oil over a high heat until it's crisp, then remove it with a slotted spoon and drain on some kitchen paper.
  7. Pour off all but three tablespoonfuls of fat from the pan/casserole (good luck).
  8. Put the beef in the pan over a medium heat and brown on all sides. Then take out the meat and put it on a plate. (Keep that plate handy.)
  9. Peel and thinly slice the onion.
  10. Peel the shallots and garlic cloves.
  11. Put the wine (or beer) into the pan and bring it to the boil, scraping up any meaty bits that are clagged to the pan.
  12. Boil for about five minutes, until the liquid has reduced to about 150ml (though I'm not sure how you're supposed to tell - just until it's reduced a bit).
  13. If you're using a separate pan for the hob, transfer the contents of the hob pan into your casserole dish now.
  14. Add the stock and the bacon to the casserole dish, with half the onions, shallots and garlic, and a bay leaf.
  15. Put the beef into the casserole dish, then scatter the remaining onion, shallots, garlic and bay leaves all around it.
  16. Put a lid on the casserole and put it in the oven for an hour.
  17. Take it out, turn the beef over, put the lid back on and bake for another hour. If it looks a bit dry at this stage, add 100ml of water.
  18. Peel the carrots, parsnips and celeriac, and chop into chunks.
  19. Lift out the beef and put it on a plate.
  20. Put the root vegetables (including the whole turnips) into the casserole dish. Stir around, then put the beef back on top.
  21. Cover and put it back in the oven for 45 minutes. It's done when the vegetables are tender (the beef should be tender too, of course).
  22. Take out the beef and vegetables to serve. Taste the gravy and adjust the seasoning if you like, then pour that over the top on each plate.

Salt and pepper pork

I've made this a couple of times, it's really easy and tasty - zingy, really. You can get the Szechuan peppercorns in Chinese food shops, they're reddish and give an amazing flavour. Serve the dish with some salad leaves like iceberg or romaine lettuce.

  • 1 tablespoonful of Szechuan peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoonful of black peppercorns
  • 500g of lean pork (shoulder or leg or, well, whatever a chop is made of)
  • 2 tablespoonfuls of rapeseed or ground nut oil
  • 2 tablespoonfuls of sea salt flakes
  1. Put the peppercorns into a pestle and grind them finely with a mortar. Mine weren't all that fine, to be honest.
  2. Chop the pork into little cubes, and cut off any fat.
  3. Mix the ground pepper with the pork and set aside for 20 minutes or so.
  4. Heat the oil in a large frying pan or wok, until it starts to shimmer and smoke slightly.
  5. Add the pork to the oil along with the salt.
  6. Fry at a high heat, stirring, for about five minutes until the meat has started to brown in places.
  7. It's done! Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon so that you don't get an oily dinner, and serve on top of a fresh crisp salad.

Portuguese paprika potatoes

This is another Hugh Stanley-Fearnley-Whatever recipe, which is very easy and very tasty, but it lacks a little something as a main with salad (as he suggests). Next time I think I'd at least put some mushrooms in it. Also, the result has a lot of very liquid paprika gravy with it. It either needs to be thickened somehow (maybe yoghurt?) or take out the potatoes and such with a slotted spoon and serve without all the liquid. It serves four as a main or six as a side.

  • 3 tablespoonfuls of red wine vinegar
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 tablespoonfuls of paprika powder (he says to use sweet, I used smoked)
  • 1 can of chopped tomatoes
  • 4 large potatoes
  • 400g of cooking chorizo
  • 1 big handful of flat leaf parsley
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 tablespoon of ground black pepper
  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
  2. Pour 700ml of cold water into a roasting tray (which has quite deep sides).
  3. Put the paprika into the water and mix with a whisk until dissolved.
  4. Peel and roughly chop the onion.
  5. Chop up the parsley.
  6. Peel the potatoes and chop into chunks.
  7. Chop the chorizo into chunks.
  8. Put all the remaining ingredients into the water and mix together.
  9. Bake, uncovered, for two hours, stirring halfway through. It's done when the potatoes are tender and cooked. Hugh suggests sprinkling with chopped parsley to serve, which would be nice, but I'm forbidden to do that in my house, due to parsley bigotry.

Beef meatballs with lemon and celeriac

This is Yotam Ottolenghi's recipe for a surprisingly light dish that has a delicate and (to me) unusual flavour. I think it's a recipe from Jerusalem. It makes about 20 meatballs, enough for four people, which you can serve with rice.

  • 400g of lean minced beef
  • 1 medium onion
  • 120g of breadcrumbs (I bought ready-made crumbs - I've been stung by trying to make my own in the past)
  • 20g of flat-leaf parsley, plus extra to garnish
  • 1 egg
  • ½ a teaspoon of ground allspice
  • 2 tablespoonfuls of olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • A generous grind or three of black pepper
  • 1 small celeriac
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • ½ a teaspoon of ground turmeric
  • ½ a teaspoon of ground cumin
  • ½ a teaspoon of ground cinnamon
  • 1½ teaspoonfuls of fennel seeds
  • ¾ a teaspoon of ground smoked paprika
  • 500ml chicken stock
  • 3½ tablespoonsful of lemon juice
  • 60g of Greek yoghurt
  1. Peel and finely chop the onion.
  2. Finely chop the parsley.
  3. Crack the egg into a little bowl and beat it with a fork for a bit.
  4. Put the beef, onion, breadcrumbs, parsley, egg, allspice, half a teaspoon of salt and some pepper into a large bowl.
  5. Mix together with your hands and form the mixture into little meatballs.
  6. OK, so far so good. Now chop the celeriac into little thin batons (5cm by 1.5cm says the recipe).
  7. Crush the fennel seeds slightly.
  8. Peel and crush the garlic.
  9. Heat the oil in a large frying pan (that has a lid).
  10. Sear the meatballs all over for about five minutes.
  11. Remove the meatballs from the pan.
  12. Put the celeriac, garlic and all the remaining spices into the pan. Cook on a high heat, stirring, for two minutes.
  13. Put the meatballs back in the pan, along with the stock, lemon juice, the other half-teaspoon of salt and some pepper to taste.
  14. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and put the lid on.
  15. Simmer for 30 minutes.
  16. Take off the lid and let it bubble away for another 10 minutes, until the sauce is quite thick.
  17. Remove the pan from the heat, and let it settle for a few minutes. Taste it to see if you want to adjust the seasoning, then serve with a dollop for yoghurt and a sprinkling of chopped parsley.

Scotch beef casserole

OK so this is the easiest and most delicious beef casserole I've ever made. The recipe came from the Scotch Beef marketing board, so I suppose they know what they're talking about.

  • 25g of pearl barley
  • 675g of lean Scotch beef braising steak.
  • ½ a swede (the orangey-coloured root vegetable, which seems to go under many pseudonyms)
  • 1 leek
  • 5 baby carrots
  • 250g of haggis (I used vegetarian haggis - you can also try black pudding)
  • 12 button mushrooms
  • 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 1 tablespoon of tomato puree
  • 275ml of dark stout or other flavoursome beer (I used Guinness)
  • 300ml of beef stock
  • 2 tablespoonfuls of horseradish sauce
  • A generous grind or five of black pepper
  1. Put the pearl barley into a bowl and cover with water. Leave it to soak while you're preparing everything else (I think it might need to be longer - but to be honest I forgot to do this, and just put the barley in dry, and it turned out to be fine. But that was probably just lucky).
  2. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
  3. Cut the steak into little chunks.
  4. Peel the swede and cut it into little chunks.
  5. Cut the leek into chunks.
  6. Peel the carrots.
  7. Take the skin off the haggis and cut it into chunks.
  8. Drain the water from the pearl barley.
  9. Put all the ingredients into a large casserole dish and mix together.
  10. Bake in the oven for 1 and a ½ to 2 hours (or longer) until the meat is tender. Put a lid on the dish if it looks like it's drying out.
  11. At this point it's done, but all a little al dente for me. If you want really falling-apart meat, turn the oven down to 150°C and bake for another hour or two.
  12. Serve with mashed swede, parsnips and potatoes.

Paprika-fried halloumi

It isn't easy to improve on halloumi (surely the cheese they eat in Heaven) but Hugh Stanley-Fearnley-Wittingstall has a salad recipe that includes a halloumi and paprika combination, and it's really tasty. I jettisoned his salad and dressing and did some feeble cobble-together of my own, but here's the halloumi bit, which is well worth a try.

  • 1 block (about 250g) of halloumi
  • 50g of plain flour
  • ½ a teaspoon of smoked paprika powder
  • A grind of black pepper
  • 3 tablespoonfuls of olive oil (or other flavourless cooking oil)
  • A splash of lemon juice
  1. Drain the juice off the halloumi and cut it into thick slices (about eight slices).
  2. Put the flour, paprika and pepper into a bowl and mix together.
  3. Press each damp slice of cheese into the flour mixture and shake off any excess.
  4. Heat the oil in a large frying pan (non-stick if you want an easy life).
  5. Fry the slices of halloumi over a medium heat for about two minutes on each side, until golden and slightly softened on the inside. Don't cook it for too long, like I did for some slices - they'll still be edible, but a bit hard and, well, black.
  6. Serve immediately with a squeeze of lemon juice over the top, with a light salad of your choice.

Gooseberry and strawberry crumble

Just the other day I was complaining about how difficult it is to get hold of gooseberries in North London, and how much I love them, when a good friend of mine took my complaints to heart and gave me a punnet of gorgeous gooseberries as a present / to shut me up. Well she is now the patron saint of gooseberries in my house, and long and fruitful may her beatification be! This recipe is based on a timely Hugh Fearnley-Stanley-Wittingstall one from The Guardian, but I've made it into an oaty crumble, just because I love crumble almost as much as I love gooseberries.

  • 1 punnet (about 200g) of gooseberries
  • 1 punnet (about 200g) of strawberries
  • 75g of caster sugar
  • The zest of 1 lemon
  • 75g of plain flour (or you could use almond flour for extra sumptuousness - I will next time)
  • 75g of oats (I used rolled oats - I'm not sure if that's important)
  • 75g of unsalted butter
  • 75g of brown sugar
  • A handful of pecan nuts
  • Butter for greasing
  • Creme fraiche, to serve
  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
  2. Cut the stalks off the gooseberries and strawberries, cut the strawberries into halves, and mix the fruit in a bowl with the lemon zest and caster sugar. Leave to rest while you get on with everything else (Hugh calls this 'mascerating').
  3. Use the extra butter to grease a pie dish that will fit all the fruit in it. Or use a non-stick dish instead.
  4. Cut the 75g of butter into cubes and put it into a bowl with the flour and oats. Rub it all together with your hands until you have sort of breadcrumby little lumpettes.
  5. Stir the brown sugar into the oaty mixture and you get crumble.
  6. Break the pecans into bits and stir those into the crumble too.
  7. Put the 'mascerated' fruit into the dish and spread the crumble on top.
  8. Bake for 30 minutes. You'll know it's done because it will smell like heaven and be starting to brown on top.
  9. Serve with the creme fraiche and thankful prayers to St. Helen of the Cross.
P.S. My crumble filling turned out to be fairly liquid, which (as a critic observed) was probably because Hugh's recipe was for an open flan, in which the extra liquid would probably evaporate. Also I used more strawberries than I should have. But the liquid in question tasted like some kind of Olympian ambrosia, so it wasn't altogether unwelcome.

“Some broken down ideals”: character and ideology in A Foreign Affair

For me, A Foreign Affair (1948) rises above a mere romantic comedy. Yes, the movie questions the emotional and cultural shortcomings of its characters, as any romcom should; but it also questions the use and usefulness of their ideologies. We see two women set up in opposition to each other, to contrast them as they battle over a man (so far, so Hollywood), but that contrast also explores their attitudes towards their femininity and how it relates to power and powerlessness.

Jean Arthur plays US Congresswoman Phoebe Frost, who comes from what I assume to be a fairly privileged background in a stable, comfortable society. She often refers to her close agricultural community and of course the libertarian values of the American political system. By contrast, Marlene Dietrich plays Erika Von Schluetow, a former Nazi sympathiser who has managed to do fairly well for herself among the ruins of Berlin; but her cultural infrastructure has been utterly destroyed by war. Where Phoebe has abundant food and clothes, friendly neighbours in Iowa and the authority of a stable political power to back her, Erika has a scavenging, mercenary black market, social relationships built on barter and deceit, and the political powerlessness of a defeated nation. At first glance, the dynamic is simple: Dietrich plays the baddie, the femme fatale with nasty values who will get her just deserts in the end, while Arthur plays the goodie (two-shoes) whose true American worthiness will win both the guy and the moral victory. And that is exactly what happens, in a way; but during the course of the movie the ideologies that these characters represent become muddled – what works in theory becomes confused in practice.

Our first view of Jean Arthur’s Phoebe Frost is a brilliantly succinct character summary, mostly wordless. Urged by her fellow passengers to look out of the plane window at the ruins of Berlin below, she meticulously puts away her pen and glasses first, in a series of special compartments and dedicated cases. She is unhurried and calm: for her, the importance of order and personal discipline prevail over the need to confront the human devastation visible with a simple glance to her right. Arthur immediately defines Congresswoman Frost as prim, correct and proper – but then undercuts this with a flash of sincere feeling. When she finally looks down at the ruins, she gasps “Golly!”. At this point I already believe that “golly” is the most appropriate expression this character’s vocabulary affords, which is consistent with the prissy business with her glasses. But Arthur injects the word with such a sense of shock that depths of soft, emotive warmth suddenly open up beneath the formal veneer.

This short scene establishes two sides of the character, but also the trajectory of her development. That “Golly!” resounds like an echo through the subsequent scenes devoted to rules, exactitude and moral vigour. It’s clear that the character is destined to rediscover the feeling behind the “Golly!” and develop that side of her personality. But first we see a third aspect of her, which is the missionary zeal, the determination to impose and enforce all-American values and morals onto the war-ravaged remaining citizens of Berlin. Arthur’s deft characterisation already implies that this woman’s reforming fervour will be undercut, but it isn’t so obvious that the values she represents will be undercut as well.

It is Dietrich’s character, Erika Von Schluetow, who shows up Phoebe’s limitations as a person, but also lays bare the inadequacies of the values she promotes. Dietrich creates her character in a very different way to Arthur. To start with, her visual impact is enormous – which is essential. Erika is and must be extraordinarily beautiful for the character to work – and of course Dietrich delivers. But Erika’s personality is revealed through a series of contrasting scenes. We see her at home, scrabbling around to get dressed and then fawning on her American lover, Captain John Pringle (played by John Lund). She gamely lets him mime strangling her and threaten to knock her teeth out, and the overall impression is of a needy, rather down-trodden woman who is desperate to wheedle gifts and favours with her physical attractions. Then later we see her singing in a nightclub, so in touch with the people working alongside her (the spotlight operator and piano player – fellow survivors of war) that she can interact with them wordlessly, using casual, intimate gestures. She commands and mesmerises the room, powerful in her glittering gown. It’s a very different person to the fawning woman we saw in the flat, and it becomes clear that this character plays different roles for different purposes in different situations – she can choose to be weak, and choose to be powerful.

But it’s a subtle and dangerous game to play. I can’t watch this movie without remembering a comparable role that Dietrich played nearly ten years later, in Witness for the Prosecution (1957). In that movie she appears as another nightclub singer in a similar bombed-out Berlin dive, but this time her glamour has no authority. Her trousers, so symbolic of Dietrich’s glamorous potency since their appearance in Morocco (1930), now frustrate the mob of sexually aggressive men so much that they rip the costume open to reveal her famous legs. This symbolic rape is much closer to the reality of what happened to many women in Berlin after the war than A Foreign Affair’s picture of Erika Von Schluetow commanding a crowd with sheer force of personality. The comparison reminds me that Erika’s power is fragile, and requires deft skill to maintain. In order to achieve it she has rejected more traditional cultural values: her songs “Black Market” and “Illusions” reveal that these have become material for barter, and therefore morally valueless. Hollywoodish romance (“such romantic illusions”), physical love (“chewing gum for kisses”) and even nobler ideologies (“ambitions, convictions, the works”) are all up for grabs, in exchange for the necessaries of life. Erika manages to defy her powerlessness by treating bankrupted ideologies as commodities, and therefore generating a detached, aloof glamour.

But some of those things that Erika is willing to barter or reject as “illusions” are the same things, perhaps, that Phoebe is desperate to preserve.

Now, the contrast between the women in terms of power ought to favour Phoebe. She always chooses to be upright, correct, and to draw on her political strength. But in fact, Erika seems to hold all the cards throughout the movie, because underneath, Phoebe feels inadequate and vulnerable. This comes out in the scene where they meet for the first time outside Erika’s ruined apartment. Phoebe confronts Erika, demanding answers, determined to position the German citizen within the American moral and legal framework that the congresswoman represents. In response, Dietrich’s Erika assumes a cool, nonchalant manner and never responds to the questions, focussing instead on Phoebe’s failings as a woman, criticising her makeup and fashion choices. Erika cannot defend herself on Phoebe’s terms, so she attacks on her own terms instead – and wins. She carries the victory in the scene because she’s more confident, more beautiful, and wittier. This reveals Erika’s values: urbanity, sophistication, beauty, fashion, a chic attitude and cutting wit – and these enable her to gain power when politically and morally she is cornered and destitute. Moreover, these are the very values that Phoebe lacks, and because she lacks them as a woman (Erika makes it about being a woman) she is undermined.

This undermining produces much of the comedy: the uptight congresswoman attempts to engage with the femme fatale on the latter’s terms, buying a glamorous dress on the black market, changing her hair and makeup. This in turn leads to a breakdown of her moral values – she ends up drinking and dancing in dingy clubs, breaking and entering to read classified files, and getting arrested. Of course, true to the design of all comedy, she is restored to her right self in the end (albeit softer and wiser), but along the way the application of the values that she holds dear are seriously questioned. When Phoebe and Erika are arrested together, we see another aspect (perhaps the true aspect) of Dietrich’s character, as they address each other woman to woman. Erika explains what she went through after the fall of Berlin, and also how she managed to survive. “What do you think it was like to be a woman in this town when the Russians first swept in?” she asks, adding the world-weary refrain: “I kept going.” It becomes clear that the same lax morals and sexualised behaviour that Arthur’s character is so determined to rout in order to preserve the values of society, are exactly what Dietrich’s character uses to both survive and preserve her sense of self when society’s values completely break down.

At this point I can’t help comparing the circumstances the characters have experienced. When Erika was socialising with Hitler during the war, she was in a comparative situation of political influence to Congresswoman Frost, even if the politics involved were diametrically opposed. When the war ended, Erika rejected the values that could no longer sustain her, and focussed on those that would. But how would Phoebe have survived the Russians? Would her values (wholly good in themselves as they are) have helped her to keep going as well as Erika’s have? In such extreme circumstances, do glamour, sexual manipulation and sheer chic have equal or even more value than order, discipline and moral rectitude?

Rape and destitution can reduce a human personality to a brutalised victim, but in spite of this, Erika has managed to create herself as a woman – an illusion of desirability and therefore power. It is an illusion, but it has real utility, whereas the homely values that are supposed to be real and grounded are dismissed as the illusions instead. At the end of the movie, Erika is sentenced to carry out hard labour clearing bricks. It’s incongruous to think of Erika in that situation - it threatens to destroy her illusion, her individuality, in the same way that the appalling fallout after the war threatened to do the same. But at the last minute we see her using her power to try to escape her fate, by charming the soldiers sent to guard her. We never find out if she’s successful, but it’s depressing to me to think that she won’t be.

Cabbage and kabanos soup

English cooks are so obsessed with chorizo at the moment, that you'd think that no other spicy sausage was worth eating! I'm lucky enough to live in London where lots of Polish food is available, and often cook with Kabanos, which are really tasty, herby smoke-cured pork sausages. I invented this comforting, rich soup during a rainstorm last night.

  • 1 onion
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 teaspoonful of olive oil
  • 5 long thin kabanos sausages
  • 1 small savoy cabbage
  • 1 litre of vegetable stock
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 50g of dried green lentils
  • 1 teaspoonful of caraway seeds
  • Pinch of ground nutmeg
  • 3 or 4 small sprigs of rosemary
  • A few good grinds of pepper (I used green pepper to use it up)

  1. Chop the onion as finely as you can.
  2. Crush the garlic.
  3. Put a large saucepan on a medium heat and add the oil, onion and garlic.
  4. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened and transparent.
  5. While the onion is cooking, chop the sausages into little chunks, and then add them to the pan.
  6. Cook, stirring now and again, for another five minutes.
  7. Chop the cabbage into little shreds.
  8. Make up the stock according to the packet instructions with boiling water. If you've made your own stock, I admire but also slightly pity you.
  9. Add the stock to the pan and stir.
  10. Add in the cabbage and all the remaining ingredients, and stir together.
  11. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down to the lowest setting and put a lid on the pan.
  12. Simmer for 30 minutes or at least until the lentils are cooked. Then serve with some hearty Polish familial love.