Blueberry and Clotted Cream Shortbread Tarts

Something about the term superfood really grates me.  I mean I've never imagined a blueberry in a cape or an avocado ridding the world of all tyranny. Sure, I believe in the power of consuming foods that are nutritionally good for us, but this talk of foods we must be consuming (and buying at a premium) to rid ourselves from potential ailment and disease doesn't sit well with me. I do believe there is a relationship, if not direct correlation, between diet and health (physical and mental) and we shouldn't sneer at sound advice. The term superfood (as used in marketing terms) is just used as leverage by the supermarkets and suppliers to charge an exorbitant amount for something that was 50% cheaper last year and it's my belief that this isn't sound advice.

Okay, so this is clearly fuelled by demand and supply, but this illusory demand has been created by the media and their shit-mongers. I'm here to give you a piece of really good advice. You don't need to spend £10 on goji berries or have a shot of aloe vera before breakfast. No, what you need in your life is...brace might have heard this's...balance! Oh how simple was that? Eat your greens, don't fry everything, switch to using rapeseed (canola) oil, make sure you get some fibre, drink plenty of water and exercise once in a while. There's also no problem in treating yourself every now and then so don't feel bad about it. To both completely remove the shackles of faux-nutritionists and parody the superfood ideal, I've used blueberries in my version of a shortbread tart (and topped them with clotted cream). You could alternatively make biscuits out of this recipe by rolling the dough and baking it on a flat tray. Either way I hope you enjoy this. Bon appetit!

150g plain flour
25g rice flour
50g sugar
100g good quality butter
100g of blueberry jam
50g of clotted cream
a few blueberries to decorate

Mix the two flours, the sugar and the butter in a bowl by hand. You want to form the ingredients into a dough that just about sticks together (hence the term short). If it's not quite right you can use a splash of water or milk to get it there. Refrigerate the dough for half an hour before diving into equal sized balls. Grease a muffin tin and place one ball in each mould (should make about 12) before pressing down in the centre and working to the sides of the muffin tin (so you have a hollow muffin base shape out of the dough). Bake until golden at 180-200C making sure to prick the bases with a fork every 3 or so minutes to stop the dough from expanding. Cool on a wire rack before filling each shortbread base with a tablespoon of super-duper blueberry jam and a teaspoon of clotted cream. You could use any other kind of jam if you aren't convinced by the muscles of the humble blueberry - I think apricot is pretty damn delicious. Make yourself a pot of tea and have some fun.

Grilled Halloumi with Mango and Mint

Sometimes words only exist to complicate something so simple. Out of Monday blues and summer-lust comes this recipe combining three simple ingredients: ripe Pakistani mangoes, a traditional sheep and goat's milk halloumi and freshly picked mint. Not a hint of Lebanese to it. Oh well.

200g diced ripe mango
200g sliced halloumi
5-6 leaves of freshly picked mint

Heat up a griddle pan and and sear the halloumi for 30 seconds on each side. You need the pan to be smoking hot to get good grill marks. Dice the mango and pick the mint leaves before combining the three ingredients. Make yourself a drink, grab some crusty bread and make your way to the garden to enjoy this delicious salad.

The Cupcake Tops

I have a love-hate relationship with cupcakes. Maybe it's just that I find cupcakes rarely satisfying enough as a dessert or a snack. They're one of those things that I find really challenging to make, let alone perfect. It's taken me three batches to get to a level where I was happy enough to publish a post on them. Contemporary cupcake places rely heavily on the icing or frosting to mask an inferior base. For me the base is the hard part - if the actual cake element isn't up to scratch then the frosting is but a layer of polish. Maybe calling it a base is a mistake. The cake simply has to be worth eating. Just like a muffin has to be delicious beyond the top. We can't just go around eating the tops and leaving everything else!

In order to find a cake I was happy with, I experimented around with different techniques and recipes but settled on one that I thought could yield results similar to what I was aiming for. I used a pound cake recipe and then drizzled some of the cakes with syrup before layering on the buttercream. I made three different cupcakes: lemon, strawberry and rose, and ultimate vanilla. I think the strawberry and rose cupcake was the most successful but my guineapigs came to different conclusions.

150g plain flour
125g caster sugar
125g unsalted butter - softened
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons of baking power

1 part sugar
1 part water
flavouring (for the rose syrup: good quality rose water; for the lemon syrup: juice and zest of a lemon; for the vanilla syrup: vanilla extract)

85g butter - softened
160g icing sugar
flavouring (I used strawberry extract for the rose and strawberry cupcake and vanilla extract for the other two cupcakes)

Sift the flour and baking powder three times and set aside. Whisk the other ingredients on a fast speed setting for 3 minutes until the mixture has expanded and paled in colour. Add the flour and baking powder and whisk for an additional minute. Spoon the mixture into eight muffin size cups and let rest at room temperature for half an hour. Bake at 180C for 20 or so minutes until golden and puffed. Whilst the cakes are baking you should make the syrup of your choice. When the cupcakes come out of the oven (and are still hot) you should poke the surface of the cakes with a toothpick before layer a teaspoon or two of syrup. Let the cupcakes cool and then make the buttercream by working the icing sugar slowly into the butter. Add the flavour and then using a piping back (or a palette knife) layer the buttercream onto the surface of the cupcakes. That's your chance to be creative (and messy; see pics).

A Lebanese BBQ

It's that time of year when pretty much everyone is on holiday and you get to spend more time with family and friends. The recent good weather coinciding with the start of the English Premier League season brought about a fun weekend filled with excessive football viewing and excessive meat consumption. We're all allowed to take weekends off from saving the planet with our flexiconscious approach to meat consumption. I guess there's a part of me that has to do the exact opposite of what celebritits tell us to do (clickity click). Okay I just really wanted to say celebritits. I will make sure Monday is meat-free. But before that I have some food porn to share.

Shish Taouk
600g of skinless chicken breasts - cut into large cubes
2 cloves of garlic
1/2 a cup of yoghurt
1 teaspoon of cumin
a large pinch of cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons of ketchup
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper

Barbecued Sea Bass
4 sea bass - cleaned
4 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons cumin
1 tablespoon crushed coriander seeds
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper

Shish Taouk
Ideally you'd marinate the chicken overnight. The yoghurt helps tenderise the meat and keep it succulent so you want to give it time to work its magic. All you need to do is pretty much prepare the marinade and let the cubed chicken sit overnight to take on the flavour (and colour). Once the BBQ is hot enough, you should put the cubes of chicken on (preferably metal) skewers and grill until completely cooked through. You can serve this with barbecued peppers and onions or next to some garlic yoghurt.

Barbecued Sea Bass

Once again you just have to mix the ingredients for the marinade and let the sea bass take on the flavour. I think 1 hour will suffice. BBQ the bad boys up and serve with lemon wedges and on the side of some tabbouleh.

Fig Sfouf

Figs hold a special place in my heart. They remind me of being quite young and of my grandparents. That subtle floral taste from a freshly picked fig is a memory that lingers at the back of my mind. I don't remember the first time I ever tasted a fig (I'm sure I was still in nappies) but it's a taste that evokes so many different thoughts and so many different visions. I love this time of year because a friend of my father has a fig tree (yes, here in London!) and he usually sends a box over when they've sufficiently ripened.

Figs are a fruit so delicate that they should be eaten within three days of being picked or they'll start to spoil. I don't think we made it past the first day with these. I was fortunate enough to prize three or four away to use in this classic Lebanese semolina cake that's lightly spiced with turmeric. This is a great accompaniment to tea or, more enticingly, ice cream.

2 cups semolina
1 cup flour
1/2 cup ground almonds (optional)
1/2 a teaspoon turmeric
1/2 a tablespoon baking powder
1 cup of melted butter
1 cup caster sugar
1 1/2 cups of full-fat milk
1/2 cup of water
3-4 ripe figs
1 tablespoon of icing sugar

Preheat the oven to gas mark 4 (180 degrees C). Mix the dry ingredients and then work in the melted butter. Slowly whisk in the milk and then the water. Mix well until a relatively thick paste is formed. Slice the figs as thick as you like (you could dice them). Pour the mixture into a greased cake tin and layer the figs on top. Dust the figs with the icing sugar. Bake for 30 minutes until golden brown. Let cool for 20 or so minutes before serving it with tea or ice cream. I served this with a shop bought apricot ice cream.

Portobello Mushroom Melts

Folklore and Super Mario have us believe that mushrooms endow us with superhuman strength and vitality. The ancient Egyptians believed mushrooms to be the plant of immortality. Some fungi are so prized that they fetch nearly £2000 a kilo. But all the aforementioned withers when you're trying to convince a committed mycophobe to sample something you've just cooked. I think the texture as much as the taste is what gets to people. I don't think mushrooms are an acquired taste per se (but then again I was shocked to hear some people think of olives in the same light). I think many people who have an aversion (and not a full-blown phobia) to mushrooms can succeed in overturning their dislike by trying different kinds of mushrooms (there are over 38,000 varieties) in all sorts of recipes. I realise there's no real motivation for people who've avoided mushrooms to venture into the Mushroom Kingdom (I can't help myself) but I believe more people should give mushrooms a chance!

One of the best ways to make mushrooms appealing is to choose a variety with a meaty texture (with a good helping of umami). Portobello mushrooms are perfect grilled, baked and in the ubiquitous veggie burger. I believe they can succeed in convincing your children or fussy other-half that mushrooms can be delicious. This recipe is so simple to execute for lunch or dinner that it's worth giving it a go. I baked my Portobello mushrooms with a garlic aioli (or toum in Lebanese Arabic), freshly picked young sage, pine nuts and a nice Provole cheese. You can substitute the garlic for pesto and the Provole for a stronger cheese (I'd be tempted to make this with Roquefort and walnuts).

4 Portobello mushrooms
4-8 cloves of garlic
4-5 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
8-12 leaves of freshly picked young sage
a handful of pine nuts
as much Provole cheese as you like
salt and pepper to taste

Clean the mushrooms with a damp cloth. Crush the garlic (with a little sea salt) in a pestle and mortar. Slowly add the olive oil a spoonful at a time and work with the pestle until the garlic and olive oil emulsify. Layer the sage leaves, the aioli of garlic and olive oil, the pine nuts and cheese onto the mushroom caps. Place in a baking tray and cook at a medium heat until the cheese bubbles and browns and the mushrooms are your preferred texture. Serve immediately.

Momo's Cheesecake

It was maybe 1AM when I finally put my head on my pillow ready to turn in for the night but my mind was racing. In that period between sleep and consciousness my mind always seems to go through a shut-down ritual of analysing events that had occurred that very day. Maybe it's a way for salient themes and events to be transferred into my long-term memory. This twilight period also produces an opportunity for me tease out creative ideas and hypotheses. What if I hadn't had that last piece of piece of pizza? What if I read more instead of wasting my time watching Micky Blue Eyes (for the third time)? Why can't I get to sleep? Why are there no desserts with cucumber as a starring ingredient?

In all fairness it wasn't the first time I'd thought of using cucumbers in a sweet dish. The thought had crossed my mind a few months back whilst preparing a simple salad. Surely there was room for a crossover with a vegetable that didn't really have a distinct flavour that only pertained to savoury foods. And then it clicked...Candied cucumber cheesecake!

...Or so I thought. Several hours spent in the kitchen trying to produce a candied cucumber amounted to nothing (nothing particularly tasty). In fact I lost track of the candied cucumber experiment and moved on to make cucumber jelly, cucumber jam and a flavoured cucumber juice. The taste of all three had promise but didn't match the creamy cheesecake I wanted to pair it with. The subtle cucumber taste was lost in a sea of cream cheese which rendered it as useful as adding a flavourless jelly to the mix.

Either way that meant that the cheesecake I was making had to rise to the occasion and well this recipe never disappoints me. This is in fact my very own creation that is based on a few of my favourite cheesecake recipes. I'm a big fan of moist just-set cheesecake and this recipe is perfect for that. Even without the crazy cucumber idea!

2 x 300 gram packs of cream cheese
300 ml double cream
3 x tablespoons of cornflour
1 x large egg
half cup of sugar
2 x teaspoons of vanilla extract

1 cup crushed digestive biscuits
half cup melted butter
1/4 - 1/2 cup of sugar

Add the ingredients for the base in a bowl and mix together until starting to bind. Transfer to a buttered baking tin and press gently to give an even base. Put the tin in the freezer for five minutes whilst you're making the filling. Before commencing with the filling you should turn on the oven to gas mark 4 and make sure your oven shelf is in the centre of the oven. Put the sugar and cornflour in a bowl and add the two packets of cream cheese. Work with a metal spoon to a softer consistency, making sure to incorporate the dry ingredients in fully. Crack the egg and beat it in. Switch the metal spoon for a whisk. Slowly pour the double cream in whilst whisking the mixture. Make sure not to beat the mixture too much - it should be dense but also quite light on the wrist; you just want to get some air in the filling. Pour two teaspoons of vanilla extract into the mixture and slowly work it in making sure not to cut the air out.

Take the baking tin out of the freezer and gently pour the filling on top. Try and make the top as even as possible. Put the tin in the preheated oven for 30 minutes (it should be getting a brown ring at this point). Now you have two choices - dry cheesecake fans need keep the cheesecake in for up to 10 minutes (the cheesecake should have a slight wobble in the centre) whilst those who prefer a more moist centre (like me!) should turn the oven down to a lower temperature and keep the oven door ajar. Once the cooking time is up, transfer the tin to a wire rack and let cool for 3 hours. After the 3 hours are up put the tin in the fridge overnight (you could eat it then, but I think letting it refrigerate adds more to the consistency) and voila! A slog, but a damn good cheesecake!

A Pizza Special

It's funny how something so simple could captivate the minds and hearts of so many people, in so many different ways and in so many different places. Dough, tomato sauce and cheese. That's a faux-haiku I'd read over and over again. It's an evocative image that transgresses the simplicity of this complex animal. Sure, we've all had the run-of-the-mill perfectly-circular perfectly-browned pie and sure we've had abominations as severe as a Meat Feast Pizza but there's more to this animal than meets the eye. To really understand pizza one must first look at the individual components and then the relationship between those separate parts to understand what a pizza could and should be.

The ingredients of a pizza are important. I know it sounds simple but let me delve further. I'm talking about which ingredients define and characterise pizza. In its simplest form that is: dough, tomato and mozzarella cheese (sometimes others). The ordering of those three ingredients also encapsulates how much importance I place on each one. An excellent dough is probably more important than the other two components...combined. Because, let's face it, that's probably the most tricky part. But that's not to overshadow the salience of a tangy, sweet, salty, meaty tomato sauce or a buttery, rich and indulgent mozzarella cheese. The ingredients should all stand out - sure, there's the odd pizza which excels in transforming standard ingredients into an exceptional pie - but to create the best pizza you can you must use the best ingredients (and the best means you can). This doesn't necessarily mean go out and spend £25 on a ball of mozzarella. You have to discover what makes a perfect pizza for you. What each constituent part must do. For me this took a year or so to figure out and a huge number of mediocre (home-made pizzas). But I whittled down my perfect ingredients through the emotional extremes of trial and error. My essential ingredient list is as follows: a good quality flour (type '00' pizza flour is what I prefer to use), creamy mozzarella di bufala (preferably one with a low water content), really ripe fresh tomatoes, freshly picked basil, good sea salt and a fantastic extra virgin olive oil. That costs me around £30 (~$50) to make around 20 pies plus you'll have the remaining salt and olive oil to use on other things.

Although all these ingredients on their own are great they must also work in harmony to create a memorable pizza. There are two absolutely crucial elements that must deliver: a fantastic dough and a perfect sauce to cheese ratio. I've had many a-pizza where only one of these elements was delivering and that goes to show the challenge of getting both a perfect dough and a perfect sauce to cheese ratio. Not to keep saying this, but it's a really individual thing. This is just my idea of the perfect pizza and maybe only one or two will agree. But that's cuisine. That's pizza. That's its appeal to so many people whether in its mutant Japanese 'ocean catch' form or its historical Neapolitan style.

So what's a perfect dough? For me the most important aspect is texture. It has to be slightly crisp but soft and pillowy on the inside with just a little chew. Think of your perfect bagel and you've got something close. But just a teeny tiny bit behind on the importance scale is taste. A dough must taste of something. Nothing is more exciting (this may be an exaggeration) than eating a beautiful tasting cornicione. A sourdough crust can produce sublime results but in most cases I prefer using a dough that's had just a day to ferment. The dough must be thin in the centre and puffed around the outside. Air bubbles are good and a bit of char is essential.

And what about this sauce to cheese ratio? There's just nothing worse than getting too much tomato or cheese in a bite. You must be able to taste both tomato and cheese separately and the form they take on when melded and melted together. Too much cheese makes a pie too greasy and too much tomato sauce makes it too wet. Salty, sweet, umami-rich tomato must dance around creamy cheese islands. Basil completes this trinity by adding a herby almost floral note to the pizza whilst accentuating the taste of both tomato and mozzarella.

That's the theory, anyway. My journey into making my perfect pie started 14 months ago upon returning from New York City. I was captivated by the level of pure obsession this simple dish could provoke in so many sane people, that I knew I had to discover what pizza could be for me. That's not to say I wasn't obsessed with pizza before. But my level of obsession definitely peaked this past year. I used every recipe I could get my hands on. Most of the time the issue was the dough and it's taken me up until this point to create something I was ecstatic with. Something I was happy to share with all you crazy internet people. This pie was deeply influenced by Heston Blumenthal (the 'Blumenthal Hack' technique especially) and all the lovely pizza of NYC. Here it goes...hope you like it.

150g type '00' flour
1/2 teaspoon golden syrup
85g cold water
3.5g fast-action yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt

350g type '00' flour
1/2 teaspoon golden syrup
195g cold water
7g fast-action yeast
pre-fermented dough (above)

Tomato Topping
10 sizeable and ripe San Marzano tomatoes - deseeded
a large pinch of sea salt
a tomato vine

To Finish
large handful of basil leaves
one large ball of mozzarella di bufala - patted dry
good quality sea salt
good extra virgin olive oil
shaved grana padano (optional)

Mix the water and golden syrup. Sift the flour into a food mixer bowl. On the first speed (with the dough beating attachment) beat the water into the flour for 3-4 minutes. Leave the dough to rest for an hour. Add the yeast and salt and mix for 6-7 minutes on the second speed. If half-way through the process the dough isn't coming together add 2-3 teaspoons of water and beat for a further 2 minutes. The dough should cleanly come off the sides. Transfer to a sizeable bowl, cover with cling film and leave to ferment in the fridge overnight.


Mix the water and golden syrup. Sift the flour into a food mixer bowl. On the first speed beat the water into the flour for 4 minutes. Leave to rest for an hour. Add the yeast and salt and beat for 4 minutes. Add the pre-fermented dough at this point and beat for 3 minutes on the second speed. Should pull away cleanly from the bowl. Roll into a log and cut into 5 equal pieces and roll with your palms into bowls. Cover each ball in a slightly oiled zip-lock bag and leave to prove for 2-3 hours. The balls should double in size.

Tomato Sauce
Cut in half and de-seed the fresh San Marzano tomatoes. Salt the tomatoes and leave over a colander for half an hour so the salt washes away some water and leaves a concentrated taste. Put the tomatoes in a zip-lock bag along with the tomato vine and let sit at room temperature for an hour or two. Cut the tomatoes into inch-wide chunks and reserve.

Place a dough ball onto a floured work surface and work into a circular shape that is no bigger than the base of the cast iron pan you'll be using. The best way to do this is up to you. I slap the dough with my fists from side to side. But use whatever is comfortable for you. Put some tomatoes on top of the dough, then chunks of mozzarella, a few basil leaves, a sprinkle of sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil. Place on a pizza peel (or paddle) and scoop onto the base of the cast iron pan. It's best to this when the pan is underneath the grill (broiler). Cook for 90 or so seconds and voila. You have made amazing pizza.

I felt a real sense of accomplishment when I took that first bite. This pizza delivered. The Blumenthal Hack is now definitely my technique of choice. The dough was slightly crispy, with air bubbles and a little chew. It was charred just to my liking and held up with the ingredients. The cornicione had a delicate but wonderful taste. The 'sauce' to cheese ratio was to my preference. The pizza was the best I've made in 14 months of trying. It was quite possibly the best I've ever tasted. Why I didn't consult Heston Blumenthal's technique before this week is a mystery. I could make some improvements, though. I should remember to turn the pizza and maybe get the pan just a little hotter. My dough forming skills need a bit of help but I'm on my way to making my perfect pizza. I think the best way to sign off here is simply to say: I love pizza, I hope you do too.

Lavender and Pear Crumble

One of the first few things I ever remember learning to cook was a simple apple crumble. I barely processed what I was doing at the time but I was amazed at how simple cooking could actually be. I still remember plunging my hands into the flour and butter mixture and working away until they resembled breadcrumbs. I still remember taking that very first bite of molten apple crumble and the feeling of achievement. I still remember realising that I didn't put any sugar in the crumble mixture. I still remember throwing that crumble away. I still remember like it was yesterday. Oh well.

Some twelve or so years later (and still not over it) and I'm revisiting a taste of my childhood. In fact, I don't think I've had any sort of crumble for five, maybe six, years. But in those twelve years my tastes have evolved from craving a sugar-filled dessert into something more refined. In this recipe I've also included bitter dark chocolate to give further complexity to the pears but it's not entirely necessary. The crumble without the chocolate is still really satisfying. The lavender gives this dessert a wonderful perfume that I think both kids and adults would enjoy. I've used lavender that we have growing in our garden. In fact quite a few ingredients I've used we grow in our garden. Maybe I'll do a garden special soon. I'd suggest a nice scoop of ice cream to accompany this for the kids and a nice thick clotted cream for the adults. I've served this with a lavender cream. 

Lavender and Pear Filling
4 ripe pears - peeled, cored and roughly chopped
1 teaspoon crushed lavender
25ml water
zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon
50g golden caster sugar
50g dark chocolate roughly chopped (optional)

100g butter - cubed
100g plain flour
100g ground almonds
75g demerara sugar
a pinch of salt

Lavender Cream
130ml double cream
1/2 teaspoon crushed lavender
1/4 teaspoon lilac food colouring
5 tablespoons icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C (gas mark 4). Place all of the ingredients for the lavender and pear filling (minus the chocolate, if you're using it) in a pan on a low heat for 10 minutes until the pear is tender. In the meantime rub the flour and butter until it resembles breadcrumbs (haha) and then mix in the ground almonds, sugar and salt. Place the pear mixture into an oven-proof baking dish and scatter the roughly chopped chocolate (if you're using it). Scatter the crumble mixture on top and then bake for 25-30 minutes or until the crumble is golden and the fruit is bubbling on the sides. Leave to cool for 30 minutes. Whisk the ingredients for the lavender cream until stiff. Serve the crumble with the lavender cream on top and garnish with lavender sprigs. Voila!