Bread and Butter Pudding

I think I could live off bread. What a peculiar sentence. I mean I think I could continue to live/subsist/scrape through (delete as appropriate) if I limited myself to only eating bread everyday. Bread in all its lovely mutant forms. I like pasta, I like noodles, I like rice and I like potatoes but I could substitute all those to live in eternal bread happiness. No more ravioli, no more ramen, no more paella and no more chip...Okay maybe I overstated the point but bread makes up a sizeable part of my diet (and there's nothing diet about it). I dream about crispy, pillowy (still going with this adjective), light and airy bread. The intense savoury bubbles and the comforting texture of a good loaf is my idea of simple undemanding bliss.

One of my favourite breads is the sweet egg-yolk-enriched French classic: brioche. One of the best examples I've ever had was at the renowned Poilane boulangerie in Paris. It was a thing of simple design which excelled in the smaller details (beautifully darkened crust, buttery smooth crumb). Although brioche is hard to resist I often get left with half a loaf (maybe more) going stale and in need of quick use and one of my favourite ways to use it up is in my bread and butter pudding. There are three essential components to elevating a bread and butter pudding into a top-class dessert and they are: 1) the 'custard' that sets this has to have an intense vanilla flavour and have a smooth mouth feel; 2) the pudding needs a crispy sugar-covered top to give a different texture to what's underneath and an added sweetness (I haven't included too much sugar in the milk mixture); 3) a personal touch - mine is soaking the sultanas with rose water (amaretto works too, especially if you elect to use ground almonds in the recipe). Check these three things off and you have your own delicious dessert that you can show off this Christmas.

300g brioche
100g butter
75g sultanas
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons rose water
100g caster sugar
25g soft brown sugar
25g ground almonds
600g milk
2 large eggs

Butter a baking dish and preheat your oven to 200C. Soak the sultanas in the rose water and a little sugar for 15-20 minutes. Slice your brioche into 1cm slices and butter both sides. Drain the sultanas and place them at the bottom of the baking tray before layering on the brioche slices. Whisk the eggs and caster sugar together until pale and fluffy and then add the milk. Add the vanilla extract and mix thoroughly before pouring over the layered bread (make sure to get all the top slices of brioche wet). Mix the brown sugar and ground almonds together and scatter on the surface. Dot any remaining butter on top. Cover with foil and bake for 40 minutes or until the 'custard' has set and the pudding has expanded. Take off the foil and brown under a grill. Let it cool down and serve it warm with ice cream. This is a perfect alternative Christmas dessert.

Lebanese Cuisine Basics: Mutabbal

Here is the second part of the Lebanese Cuisine Basics series and this is another of my personal favourites. Mutabbal (or what is better known as Baba Ghanoush) is a smoky aubergine dip that is the grander, more interesting sibling of that well-known but ubiquitous chickpea dip. Mutabbal relies on the interplay between smoky aubergine, creamy tahini and the citric acidity of lemon and is more pronounced than hummus bi tahina. If the ratio and preparation are right, this simple dish is elevated into more than just something to sink a few pita chips into. Top with paprika, pomegranate seeds and a sprig of mint and you have a great salad. I guess you could cut the aubergines into chunks (once smoked) instead of turning them into pulp, which could produce an interesting texture. This recipe is one my mum has used for decades so it's stood the test of time. It's too easy to not try once!

1 large aubergine
3 teaspoons of tahini
2 tablespoons of yoghurt
5 teaspoons of lemon juice
1 clove of garlic
a good few glugs of olive oil
a  sprinkling of salt

handful of pomegranate seeds (optional)
dusting of sweet or smoked paprika (optional)
sprig of fresh mint to garnish

Pierce your aubergine a few times with a fork (to let out steam) and place it on an open flame on your hob. Use tongs to avoid burning yourself. Your aubergine should start to smoke up, blister and wrinkle (so turn on your extractor fan). Keep turning the aubergine until completely tender and charred and set aside until cooled. Peel off the skin and chop up the aubergine. Add to a bowl along with the tahini, yoghurt and lemon juice. Add the crushed garlic and however much olive oil you fancy. Season to taste and then do actually taste to check whether the ratio between the tahini and lemon juice is right. Add tahini if the mutabbal is too acidic or add lemon juice if it lacks a sharpness. Spoon onto a serving plate and dust with paprika. Cut a pomegranate in half and tap the skin with the back of the spoon to release the seeds and scatter on the mutabbal. Add a spring of mint and some more olive oil. Toast some bread and tuck in.

Lebanese Cuisine Basics: Muhammara

Wow, that took a long time! Sorry for the delay, folks, but here it is - the all new Olive Fig Grape layout! I went through a number of templates before I arrived at the one that seemed to fit best. Now we can finally get back to talking about Lebanese cuisine. A particular issue for me in my first 50 posts is that I didn't blog about enough of the basics. I don't mean how to hold a knife and how not to squeeze lemon juice in your eye but rather what constitutes the basic layout of a Lebanese table at dinner time.

A concept closely related to Lebanese cuisine is the idea of Mezze - a range of shared dishes served with the aim of inspiring congeniality and allowing for multiple tastes and sensations to be experienced (not unlike tapas, pintxos and all their long-lost cousins). Mezze is a quintessentially Lebanese concept - open your home and (more accurately) kitchen to friends, family, neighbours and whoever else because that is the essence of hospitality and the height of social interaction. Mezze platters usually consist of dishes such as batata harra, hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh and the like. Sometimes it strays into something more adventurous including things like bastirma, sujuk and one of my personal favourites muhammara. Sure, muhammara isn't technically a Lebanese creation but like much of the cuisine of the Levant, culture and identity overlap. Ful Medamas has about four million variations in the area between Cairo and Damascus and muhamarra is no different. If you didn't know, Muhammara is a hot pepper and nut dip that is great paired with hummus or simply spread on khubz. I love to eat it with grilled merguez. Mmm. The recipe below comes from my dad so any angry letters from any Syrians should be addressed to him.

1 red chilli
1 bell pepper
30g pine nuts
30g walnuts
30g pistachio nuts
30g almonds
a pinch of cumin
50g or so of breadcrumbs
1/2 a cup of olive oil
salt and pepper
juice of half a lemon (optional)

The trick here is to break up the nuts by hand (I don't mean using your bare hands, read on). You can chop them if you're confident enough or more traditionally use a pestle and mortar to crush the nuts. Don't crush them too fine. Blitz the de-seeded chilli and red pepper in a food processor and mix with the crushed nuts. Add the remaining ingredients minus the olive oil. You want to work the mixture whilst pouring the olive oil in (don't do this in a processor, the olive oil will get bitter). The mixture might need more olive oil (it should moist but not too wet). The olive oil will help preserve it and it will keep for up to 10 days. Season it and then add the lemon juice if that's your preference. Serve with khobz or pitta bread and some hummus.