There was an open invitation to lunch at my flat last Sunday. The invite was worded something along these lines: “Harriet will cook. There will be food, the oven will be turned on, and Holy Crap, she will even make a trip to the market AND supermarket.” The occasion was so momentous it required me to refer to myself in the third person. I couldn’t quite believe I would enter my kitchen to do anything more than pour a bowl of cereal.
But it happened! I went to the market for fresh produce – even in the rain – enjoying the green of the spring vegetables. The people looked a little damp and and the market was quieter than usual but the vegetables looked fresh and bright. There is not a lot in the way of new season fruit at the moment – a few punnets of pale strawberries, early stone fruit yet to become juicy and fragrant and the last of the winter’s apples, their skins a little waxy from storage, but the vegetables are at their prime. Crisp asparagus spears, beautiful lettuce heads like open flowers, baby new potatoes, freshly dug, with their clear skins shining beneath the dark earth.
I wanted a simple Sunday lunch, one with easy ingredients, but one that still required actual cooking and preparation of food. I wanted to cook, to slowly put things together, to enjoy being in the kitchen. I planned my menu – a snacking sort of affair – with every recipe from Skye Gyngell’s book How I cook. This beautiful book is the latest addition to my cookbook shelf, a birthday gift from Ollie and Jason, so it is quite appropriate that Ollie was there to sample the first recipes.
Menu du jour:
Strawberries and grapes in a lemon ginger syrup
Oeufs en cocotte
Lemon and poppy seed cake
I made the lemon and poppy seed cake first. Normally I avoid bagels and cakes and sandwiches with poppy seeds, preferring the stronger flavour of sea salt or herbs for savoury foods, and afraid of spending all day smiling with black dots between my teeth. But with poppy seeds on hand, I took a leap of faith, trusting Skye Gyngell’s recipe.
But a lemon cake should only be a lemon cake, I feel. The soft sweet-sharp of lemons is enough for me. It needs no crunch, or contrast in texture, no adjustment in any sense. The only crunch I like is the smallest shatter beneath teeth of a lemon juice and sugar crust.
I stand by my aversion to poppy seeds but if you enjoy this marriage then Skye’s recipe is light and moist, ideal for breakfast or afternoon tea. The cake is iced in How I Cook, but to pour a lemon sugar syrup over a cake fresh from the oven is the loveliest way to dress a cake.
Diced strawberries and halved red grapes in a ginger citrus juice were my own addition to the menu – a reminder to myself that fruit need not boring, or simply eat-in-hand. I sometimes forget that fruit, like many things, with the simplest of tinkering can be made better, can be made to sing.
The pulled bread is a recipe I am most pleased to have in my repertoire now, and to share here. Like this beer bread it comes together in a matter of minutes and is the ideal base for all sorts of extras – sweet and savoury. Cinnamon sugar woven throughout, or berry jam – sticky and concentrated in flavour – are ideas I’d like to try. Sun-dried tomatoes or black olives – strong and salty – would give this quick bread a little extra zing. Without these additions the bread is perfectly good; dense and with a good crust, it’s a mop-up-sauce, dip-in-soup, soldiers-in-eggs sort of bread.
Which brings us to our next course: oeufs en cocotte. I had been vaguely aware of this dish for a while, either known to me as oeufs en cocotte or baked eggs, I’m not too sure, but it wasn’t until I watched Rachel Khoo make oeufs en cocotte in tea cups did they jump from the periphery to the fore-front of my thoughts. Khoo used creme fraiche in her oeufs en cocotte, Gyngell, double cream. Possibly I went out on a whim, but yoghurt, strangely, was the link between each course of my Sunday lunch. I chose to use a generous dollop of thick Greek yoghurt in each teacup, atop buttered spinach, a few torn basil leaves and strips of prosciutto de parma (from Big Bad Wolf!).
The yoghurt cooked up beautifully, warm and salty and a bit like cottage cheese. Oeufs en cocotte is one of those dishes where the ingredients are so simple and so good in their natural state that it seems unlikely for anything overly wonderful to happen after 10 minutes in the oven, but that is probably why magic does indeed happen here.
Skye Gyngell’s Lemon and Poppy Seed Cake
The recipe calls for a 20x11cm loaf tin – I need a bigger loaf tin so made my cake in a 20cm diameter cake tin. Apart from the lemon sugar syrup I poured over the hot cake, and the choice of tin, this recipe is unchanged from the original. Perhaps half milk, half yoghurt would be a good idea next time, and lemon juice added to the batter.
115 grams unsalted butter
175 grams caster sugar
finely grated zest of 3 lemons
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
35 grams poppy seeds
275 grams plain flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
230ml whole milk
4 large egg whites
juice of 2 lemons
2 heaped tablespoons caster sugar
Preheat oven to 170°C. Line a 20cm cake or loaf tin with baking paper.
Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and smooth. Add lemon zest, vanilla and poppy seeds, then sift flour and baking powder together over the mixture. Stir a couple of times, then pour in the milk and briefly stir again.
Whisk the egg whites in a clean dry bowl until soft peaks form. Fold a third into the batter using a metal spoon, then slowly fold in the rest of the egg whites.
Spoon the mixture into prepared tin and bake for 1 hour, or until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. While the cake is baking mix the syrup ingredients together until most of the sugar has dissolved. Once the cake is removed from the oven pour over the syrup while cake is still in tin. Leave to soak in for several minutes before turning out onto a wire rack.
Cake best served warm.
Skye Gyngell’s Pulled Bread
This recipe was barely adapted from the original, save for an egg yolk wash and an extra scattering of rock salt on top before baking.
450 grams plain white flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 egg yolk plus a dash of water (optional)
Pre-heat oven to 220°C. Sift dry ingredients into a large bowl. Make a well in the centre and pour in the milk. Using one hand scoop the flour and milk around the bowl until a dough forms – the dough should be soft but not wet or sticky.
Turn the dough onto a well floured surface and knead lightly for a couple of seconds. Shape the dough into a long sausage, bend in the middle and loosely weave together. Make the egg wash by combining the yolk with a small amount of water.
Place dough on a baking sheet and brush egg wash over the dough. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes before reducing temperature to 200°C, then bake for a further 15 minutes. The bread should be golden on the outside and when given a tap with your knuckles should sound hollow.
Transfer to a wire rack to cool, but serve slightly warm with salted butter.
Skye Gyngell’s Oeufs en cocotte
Instead of a tablespoon of double cream in each ramekin, I used a tablespoon of thick Greek yoghurt placed on top of the spinach and beneath the egg. I also reduced by half the amount of parma ham, so 4 slices instead of 8, due to the size of my ramekins/tea cups.
200 grams spinach
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
knob of butter
a few torn basil leaves
4 slices of prosciutto de parma, or similar
4 large eggs
4 tablespoons thick Greek yoghurt
freshly grated nutmeg to taste
50 grams Parmesan cheese, grated
Pre-heat oven to 200°C. Thoroughly wash the spinach leaves and drain well. Place a large dry pan over a low heat and add the spinach. Cook briefly until the spinach has just wilted. Set aside until the spinach is cold enough to handle, then using kitchen towels squeeze all excess moisture from the spinach.
Place the blanched spinach in a frying pan with the knob of butter and heat through. Season with salt and pepper. Divide among the four ramekins then add the basil leaves. Place a dollop of yoghurt in each ramekin or teacup. Arrange parma ham on top of yoghurt, then a small grating of nutmeg. Crack an egg into each ramekin, and finish with a small amount of grated Parmesan cheese.
Place the ramekins in a roasting dish and pour hot water to come two-thirds up the sides of the dishes. Cook for 8-10 minutes or until the egg whites have set and the yolks are to your liking.
Lift the ramekins out of the bain marie and dry off. Serve on a plate with bread cut for dipping into yolks.