A sweet kiss

Last autumn I began to get quite interested in cocktails, exploring beyond the limited confines of the ones such as Martinis and occasional Manhattans that I had previously constructed in the glass without particular thought about measuring proportions or employing any of the techniques that professional bartenders use to get consistently good results. I found a number of cocktail-related YouTube channels (my two favourites being Cara Devine’s and Anders Erickson’s, though there are plenty of other good ones out there too) to provide inspiration and tips (or “sips, tips and recipes” as Anders refers to the content of his own channel), and invested in a set of basic bartending gear (cocktail shaker and strainer, bar spoon, etc.) and a few extra bottles of booze, and set about my cocktail voyage of discovery (to borrow a catchphrase from Ciara O Doherty, another cocktail vlogger whose channel I’ve enjoyed, though she now seems to be shifting focus onto the adventure of buying a house – so I should probably stay tuned to that one, but that’s a subject for another post 🙂

Both my wallet and my liver are probably quite glad that my initial burst of enthusiasm has waned a bit, but I’m still putting my new-found skills and equipment to good, if not quite such frequent, use and keeping an eye out for new cocktail recipes.

With my latest online grocery order I got a small pot of cream in order to make a handful of cream-based cocktails I’ve previously enjoyed (such as a Grasshopper and a White Russian, though I ended up having to tweak both those recipes a bit this time round as I realised I was missing other vital ingredients). On a whim, I also decided to have a look for cocktails involving rum and cream.

A quick bit of googling turned up a recipe for a cocktail with the enticing name of a Bee’s Kiss, which I found on a blog post for National Rum Day. I’m fairly sure that the nation in question is the USA, since the bloggers themselves are apparently based in Nebraska and certainly use ounces as their basic measure whereas most of the rest of the world use metric measures. I wasn’t aware that there was such a thing as National Rum Day but I’m not very surprised as the Americans seem to have a national day for just about everything there isn’t already a international day for. Some of them are, I think, worth celebrating more widely. For instance they have a National Pie Day (23rd January), which I forgot to celebrate this year and which shouldn’t be confused with International Pi Day (14th March), which I fully intend to celebrate (probably more by eating some homophonic pie than by doing any calculations involving the mathematical constant that’s actually being celebrated).

Actually, when I googled just now to find out the date of National Rum Day (which didn’t seem to be mentioned in the blog post linked above) I discovered references both to National Rum Day and to International or World Rum Day. Either way, it seems to be celebrated on 16th August, which would be a good time of year to enjoy nice refreshing daiquiris or mojitos. I’ve now added it to my calendar and realised that it’s the same day as a friend’s daughter’s birthday, but since she’s going to be turning 13 or so this year I don’t think she’ll be celebrating with rum just yet!

To return to the Bee’s Kiss, I tried it for the first time tonight and I like it. Given the name, it’s probably no surprise that along with the rum and cream the other ingredient is honey. To me it tastes a bit like a liquid version of a rum gateau – a cake I’m very fond of (though I haven’t had one for several years); again, that’s perhaps not surprising, given the ingredients.

I made a few minor tweaks compared to the recipe linked above.

Firstly, it calls for aged rum but I didn’t have any so I used a 50:50 split of dark (Captain Morgan) and white (Kingston 62), 30ml (approx. 1oz) of each. I’m sure it would work just as well with only dark rum, and probably fine with just white rum though you wouldn’t get such a nice golden colour in the finished drink. Still, for a future occasion this could be a good excuse to get a bottle of aged rum.

Secondly, I didn’t make quite enough honey syrup so there ended up being about 20 to 25ml of that, instead of 30 (it’s meant to be 2:1 rum to honey). Also, I didn’t measure the honey and water very carefully so it probably wasn’t quite the 4:3 ratio they specified in the recipe. I just mixed a desert spoon full of honey with a scant desert spoon of boiling water and left the mixture to cool. A full tablespoon of honey would probably be about enough for one drink’s worth, or you could make a bigger batch and save what you don’t use. I expect it should last at least as well as regular sugar syrup, which is good for at least a week or so if kept refrigerated.

Finally, I used single cream, which is probably a bit lighter than the heavy cream specified in the recipe. Terms for different types of cream seem to vary quite widely from one country to the next, even within the anglophone world, and often they don’t seem to be exact matches, but I think heavy cream in the US is closer to what we call double cream over here. As I was using lighter cream I pushed the amount up slightly, from 3/4oz to 1oz (or rather 30ml).

The recipe didn’t specify whether to chill your glassware, but I decided to do so (by the simple method of leaving a few ice cubes and some cold water in it while mixing the drink), nor whether to garnish the drink (I didn’t, and it didn’t seem to need one) or to fine strain it (I did, as I generally do when shaking drinks, especially ones with cream where the thick, smooth texture would probably be spoiled by the little bits of ice that would get through the coarse strainer alone).

Just in case the link above should break in future, and to provide a handy recap in metric units, here’s a recipe for the Bee’s Kiss as I would make it next time (essentially as above, but with the full amount of honey syrup and maybe a different choice of rum):

Ingredients: 60ml aged rum (or dark, or light; or 30ml each of dark and light); 30ml honey syrup (see below); 30ml single cream.

Method: Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake well with ice for approx. 20 – 30s. (Fine) strain into a chilled cocktail glass (no garnish required).

Honey syrup: combine approx. 4 parts honey with 3 parts boiling water, stir and leave to cool. (1tbsp honey should provide about 30ml of syrup but a larger batch can be made and stored in the refrigerator for upwards of a week).

No butter… no problem

What do you do if you run out of butter and it’s not convenient to nip out to the shops to get some more?

I suppose there are probably many answers to that question, probably depending largely on why you want the butter in the first place (with apologies to anyone who is now thinking of Last Tango in Paris – if you don’t already know, I suggest you don’t google it!).

In my case, I wanted it to go on some bread-type products – more specifically in pitta bread and on crumpets, all in a savoury context.

As I was contemplating what to do in light of my rapidly diminishing butter reserve and the remaining pitta breads and crumpets I was hoping to finish over the weekend, before my next grocery delivery (including a couple of blocks of butter) arrives on Monday night, I remembered enjoying bread with olive oil on my visits to Catalonia a few years ago.

In fact, they have a regional delicacy called pa amb tomàquet, which consists of bread with tomato (and, as I recall, usually also garlic) rubbed in, then salt and olive oil sprinkled on top. This is very delicious. However, I’m fairly sure that bread with just salt and olive oil (or even just bread and olive oil with no salt) is also a thing in those parts, and even if not it’s certainly something I’ve enjoyed from time to time, preferably with nice fresh, still slightly warm bread.

I figured that this ought to work with pitta bread since that’s also a mediterranean thing (albeit from further east than Catalonia), and my guess turned out to be correct, so I decided to save my remaining butter for the crumpets I had lined up for tea tonight and instead enjoy my pitta breads (or pitta(s)?; pita breads or pita(s) for any visitors from the USA; I’ve no idea how the rest of the anglophone world spells them but according to a brief survey of Wikipedia in different languages, most seem to favour a single ‘t’) with oil and a little salt.

As it happened, I didn’t have quite enough butter for my crumpets in any case. I considered having the last couple with honey instead, but curiosity got the better of me and I decided to see what they would be like with oil and salt. The answer is, to my palette at least, “surprisingly nice”.

I think I’ll probably stick to butter (with a bit of salt and pepper – an idea I picked up from the classic Grammar of Cookery by Philip Harben, widely recognised as the first celebrity TV chef, though I’m not sure his name would be all that well-known these days) for my crumpets when I have it available, but it’s good to know that olive oil works as a fine alternative. And I’ll definitely be aiming to have pitta breads with oil from time to time in the future.

Not too sweet

Tonight I made an apple crumble for tea. I’ve made quite a few of these over the years, certainly dozens though probably not quite yet hundreds. This one was a bit different in two or three respects, one of them accidental.

Usually I make crumbles as a dessert (although it’s actually fairly unusual for me to have a dessert at all, which may come as a surprise to many who know me and my sweet tooth), but this one was made as a standalone meal. Mainly that’s because I was feeling too lazy after my lunch (which, as usual for a Sunday, was my main meal) and also had some yoghurt that needed using up at that point. So today I made it for tea instead, served up with custard (made up from a packet mix – not from first principles, though that would be even nicer). I don’t think it’s the first time I’ve made it deliberately as a standalone meal, but it might be.

The deliberate way in which this was different from previous crumbles I’ve made is that instead of all butter I used a roughly 50:50 mix of butter and lard, as I had a block of the latter that needed using up. In fact, I still have most of it but there’s now about an ounce less to worry about. Incidentally, while I usually tend to prefer metric measurements for cooking and pretty much everything else, I consider myself to be more or less bilingual between the imperial and metric systems (though I usually have to look up the conversion factors if going between the two). I got my crumble recipe from my mum years ago when I went off to university (though I don’t think I actually made one until several years later) and it’s given in imperial units (6oz plain flour; 4oz butter; 2 oz caster sugar – though I usually halve the quantities, use granulated sugar instead of caster and add a handful of oats and some mixed spice). I can’t say that I noticed any particular difference in the flavour or handling properties from my usual version, but it is several months since I last made a crumble and my memory alone is probably not an entirely reliable guide. Really I’d have to do a side-by-side comparison (or better, a blind triangle test) but I only have one crumble dish so that would be a bit of a faff to arrange

The accidental way in which this crumble was different from my usual (though possibly not unique among all the crumbles I’ve ever made) is that I forgot to add any sugar or other sweetening agent to the apples. Sugar (generally granulated, though sometimes caster if I have it to hand, or brown if I’m feeling more adventurous) is my go-to sweetener for crumbles, but I have occasionally used honey instead to good effect. This time I forgot completely, though I did add a bit of lemon zest and juice (the latter mainly to help stop the apple going brown before I added the crumble topping and got it in the oven) and some chopped ginger, as well as a bit of water and some cinnamon. That (apart from the lack of sugar) is pretty much my standard approach to an apple crumble (and similar to how I’d do a rhubarb crumble, which is the only other kind I often cook – for that I’d probably leave out the cinnamon, but otherwise it would be basically the same, and probably suffer more for lack of sugar).

I gave it about half an hour in the oven at gas mark 6, which gave me the kind of result I particularly like with the fruit nice and soft but still having a slight bite to it. Even without the sugar it was quite pleasant to eat, as the crumble topping and custard made up for the lack of sweetness in the fruit. However, I did miss the syrup that usually forms from a combination of the sugar, water and juice from the apple, so I don’t think I’ll be dropping sugar from my regular recipe anytime soon. And I’ll probably be having another apple crumble before too long (not to mention the rest of this one, which I’ll enjoy for dessert, or possibly for lunch, tomorrow) as I still have a few apples that need using up.

Finally made it!

Tonight’s dinner was a partial success.

When I was putting together my latest grocery order, to arrive a couple of days ago, I decided to make a chile con carne as my main meal for the weekend (by which I mean that I would cook enough for several days, eat some both today and tomorrow and probably freeze the rest, not that I’d only have one proper meal over the weekend). Unlike the last several times this has been my plan, I actually remembered to add some chilli peppers to my order, so I’d count that as the first successful bit of the endeavour 🙂

When it came to making the meal, things looked promising. As well as the usual minced beef, chillis, onion and suchlike, I put in a bit of finely diced carrot and courgette, as I had some of each vegetable that were in need of using up. I also added a dash of vermouth, and I had high hopes for this being a good one.

Unfortunately I got slightly distracted doing other things while I left it to simmer and got back to the kitchen just in time to find it starting to burn as the liquid, which had seemed ample when I left it, had by now all boiled off or been absorbed. I was able to rescue it from being a complete inedible disaster (or worse, setting fire to my kitchen) but suffice it to say that this chile con carbon was not quite the sumptuous delight I had been anticipating. It will be interesting to see how it is tomorrow, as such dishes are often better on the second day when the flavours have had time to develop but in this case the flavours may be a little on the smoky side!

More successful was the side dish, as I’ve finally got round to having a go at making guacamole almost 30 years after first being shown how to make it.

Back then I was still at school, and it was a different, more innocent era in which teachers could invite their pupils over to their homes for things like extra-curricular computer programming lessons, which I very much doubt any sensible and well-intentioned teacher would dare to do these days (even ignoring the minor issue of a global pandemic). One of my teachers had lent me a computer and was teaching me how to program it, which entailed fairly frequent bike journeys (usually on Saturday afternoons) from my village to his in order to take some lessons. As well as getting a good foundation in programming (I was learning Pascal, not a language I’ve ever seriously used since then, but the basic principles of how to program a computer have largely stuck with me), I was introduced to some seriously good music (the highlight being the Penguin Café Orchestra, whose music I continue to enjoy to this day) and, on one occasion, was shown how to make guacamole. This was because my teacher, who had spent some time working in Mexico before joining our school, was preparing for a party that evening and was busy making some using an authentic Mexican recipe when I arrived.

Sadly I didn’t write down that recipe and don’t remember a huge amount from it, except that it involved mashing avocados with salt, pepper and a few other things in a bowl (with a fork, IIRC). Fast forward to this evening and I had an avocado that I’d bought pretty much on a whim in my grocery order the other day; rather than do my usual thing of cutting it in half and eating it out of the skin garnished with a bit of black pepper and perhaps some mayonnaise, I decided the time had come to try out making guacamole for myself. Fortunately there are plenty of recipes online, so I was able to get a general idea of how to do it (to supplement my memories from the last millenium) and then improvised from there. I was very pleased with how it turned out.

Basically, I finely chopped an onion and a chilli pepper (carefully saved from cooking my main dish) and stuck them in a pestle and mortar (well, technically just in the mortar) with the flesh of an avocado, a bit of salt and pepper and a couple of teaspoons of lime juice. I then mashed the whole lot down (with the pestle, of course) and enjoyed eating it with a bit of tortilla. It may be worth noting that I had previously used the pestle and mortar to grind up some cumin, salt and pepper for the chile and had only given it a brief wipe out in between, so there was almost certainly a little bit of cumin in the guacamole too.

The other components of the meal also worked pretty well (namely, a bottle of well-chilled Mexican lager – not generally the sort of beer I go for, but ideal in the right context – a lovely bit of brie and then a couple of Mr Kipling’s trifle bakewells, which happened to be on special offer this week, for dessert). So if you count each of the individual components more or less equally, I’d say the whole meal rated about 4.5 out of 5.

And hopefully it will be less than 30 years before I next get round to making guacamole!

A Proper Pasty

If I had to compile a short-list of my favourite foods, I don’t think there’s a lot of competition for what would take first place. It would be freshly baked bread, still warm from the oven, and butter — optionally accompanied by a good, ripe Camembert and some Ardennes pâté, washed down with red wine or Belgian beer (though the bread and butter are definitely the key thing).

Populating the rest of the list would be a bit harder as there are many contenders. One would probably be the Cornish pasty.

I remember watching an item about Cornish pasties many years ago on Blue Peter, and being particularly taken by a detail they mentioned, namely that sometimes pasties were baked with jam at one end (separated from the meat and veg at the other end by an internal pastry wall). The idea was to provide a desert course for the tin miners who would take the pasties down the mine with them to eat for lunch.

This struck me as being a wonderful idea (I was going to describe it as “deliciously simple and simply delicious” but I’m fairly sure I used that wee phrase in one of my previous posts not all that long ago). Sadly, there are (to the best of my knowledge) no commercially available pasties that include a jam end.

I have once or twice, though not for quite a few years, tried making my own pasties and I did have a go at making them with jam at one end. As I recall it worked pretty well. But I don’t really want to have to go to the hassle of baking pasties from scratch just to get a bit of jam in them.

This evening I was microwaving a shop-bought pasty for dinner when I was struck by inspiration. I was making a cup of tea to accompany the pasty and when I opened the fridge to get the milk my eye happened to light upon a jar of raspberry jam. It occurred to me that I could add some jam to the already cooked pasty.

Once I retrieved the pasty from the microwave, I made a small hole at one end of it with a fork and excavated the filling (which tasted very nice even without its pastry wrapping), before putting a spoonful of jam in the newly vacated end.

I then proceeded to eat the pasty from the other end, and very much enjoyed the jam when I got to it. There was a certain amount of mixing between the sweet and savoury but that actually worked quite nicely.

I probably won’t do the same thing every time I have a Cornish pasty from now on but it’s good to know that I can simulate a two-course pasty without having to do all the hard work myself.

Cutting the cheese

A number of years ago, I made a very minor linguistic discovery concerning the geographical distribution of a certain idiom.

The phrase in question is “to cut the cheese”, a somewhat colourful description of flatulence that was quite common in the parlance of the young people of North West Kent in the mid 1990s (of whom I was one).

My discovery was that this same phrase was also current in Sussex about 10 years later, but evidently not (or at least not very widely known) in either North or South Wales. Admittedly my research was confined to the group of three friends with whom I was having lunch on one occasion when there was an opportunity to make a joke about cutting the cheese, which only one of them understood.

The reason I mention this now is that I was watching an episode of Bones a few days ago and a couple of the characters in that amused themselves with a reference to cutting the cheese, clearly in the same context. The episode was from around 2008 or so, and was set in Washington DC. I assume that the scriptwriters were from somewhere in the USA, not necessarily the DC area, so it doesn’t allow for the particularly precise location of another time and place (other than Kent c. 1993 and Sussex c. 2003) where the phrase had currency. Still, it was interesting to discover that its not a purely British idiom. I wonder whether it travelled from South East England to the eastern seaboard of the United States or vice versa, somehow bypassing Wales on the way, or if it reached both places via other paths.

While I’m on the subject of cheese, I should perhaps mention a surprisingly nice taste combination I stumbled upon a year or two back and still enjoy as a snack from time to time: cheddar cheese and wasabi paste.

The Pleasures of Pitta

I find myself torn between the Scylla of ending up with a blog that only updates once a year (though I suppose at least that would be nice and regular) and the Charybdis of turning into a monothematic food blog, since my last post was on that subject and the thing I’ve just thought about writing is too. Still, since it would seem a shame to put up such a short post just to say I was thinking about posting, I suppose it’s better to steer more towards the latter danger than the former one.

Recently I find myself eating quite a bit of pitta bread. It’s always been a bread product that I have enjoyed but in the last few months it seems to have become my go-to bread and I have discovered that it’s even more versatile than I thought.

A few months (or perhaps a year or two) back, I came up with an idea which is probably not entirely new in the grand scheme of things but I’m fairly sure I hadn’t (consciously, at least) borrowed it from anywhere. This is a tasty snack that I call a zapped cheese pitta and is essentially what happens when pitta bread meets cheese on toast (described by Bill Bailey as the National Dish of Wales). Or rather, what happens when I get a craving for cheese on toast but realise the only bread I have to hand is pitta and then decide that the microwave is quicker and easier than the grill.

Zapped cheese pittas are easy enough to make. First take one or two (or more, if you’re making for several people or feeling especially hungry) pitta breads, cut or tear them open and put in some thinly sliced cheese (as with regular cheese on toast, I usually use cheddar but a whole range of different cheeses work and give some quite pleasingly different results), stick them on a plate and microwave them for about a minute, leaving to stand for a short while and proceeding with caution as the cheese can get pretty hot. I quite often add a little bit of mustard, especially when I’m using cheddar. I’m sure other condiments could be used too. I suspect brie and cranberry would work nicely, and that reminds me of another pitta-related snack that I’ve enjoyed several times in the last few months…

Bacon butties (or sandwiches, if you prefer) are one of life’s great joys (and one of the reasons I don’t think I’d ever entirely convert to vegetarianism) and can be nicely enhanced by a slice or two of brie (and quite possibly some cranberry sauce, though I’m not sure I ever tried that). In recent months, most of the bacon butties I’ve consumed (pretty much all, sadly, without brie – although some have been enhanced by other delights such as maple syrup instead) have been put together with pitta breads. For these I might gently zap the pittas in the microwave to warm them through, and if I’m feeling decadent I may slide a bit of butter into them before piling in the bacon, but actually they work fine with cold pittas and no butter, just letting the heat from the bacon warm them through.

That last one was a bonus, as I didn’t actually have bacon butties in mind when I started writing this post. The thing that prompted it was in fact my discovery this evening of a perhaps surprising combination: a pitta noodle sandwich!

At the moment I am stuck in my office awaiting a meeting later on and don’t have access to my usual cooking facilities and ingredients, so I had a pot noodle for dinner. When I say “pot noodle” I mean one of the nice spicy ones from East Asia – this one from South Korea, I think – that are a bit cheaper and, IMHO, much tastier than the western version (which I pretty much never eat). To go with it, I had a couple of pittas and a chunk of slightly stale cornbread. I started with the cornbread, as that most needed using up, and it soaked up quite a lot of the liquid from my noodles so when I got on to the pittas I decided to try putting some of the noodles into the pitta rather than dipping it into the broth. It turned out to be very tasty (although I suspect not super healthy) and is probably an idea I’ll try again sometime.

Meanwhile it’s nearly time for my meeting, so I’d better publish this and go and wash up my fork.