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Baklava

 

My mother’s birthday came as the ideal opportunity to test my cooking on the food perfectionist of the family. My mum is a very good cook: precise and talented at difficult feats in the kitchen. It was therefore time to impress.

For Sunday lunch, I made a three-course meal consisting of Crushed Petit Pois & Ricotta Bruschetta, Cider Glazed Salmon, and Baklava with Vanilla Ice-Cream for dessert. It was a leisurely lunch eaten outside, a relaxing birthday celebration.

I had never made baklava before but its stickiness and sweetness has always appealed to me. I settled for a Claudia Roden recipe from my Mum’s cookbook collection. I halved the ingredients as 30 pieces of baklava would have been an indulgence too far!

 

Baklava

Adapted from Tamarind and Saffron: Favourite Recipes from the Middle East by Claudia Roden

Makes about 15 pieces

250g filo pastry (about 12 fine sheets)
90g unsalted butter, melted
250g pistachio nuts or walnuts, medium to finely ground

For the syrup:

250g sugar
150ml water
½ tbsp lemon juice
1  tbsp orange-blossom water

 

Method

Prepare the syrup first. Put the sugar, water and lemon juice in a pan and simmer for 5-10 minutes until the syrup thickens just enough to coat a spoon. Stir in the orange-blossom water and simmer for a few seconds more. Allow to cool, then chill in the refrigerator.

Brush a large square baking tin, a little smaller than the sheets of filo, with melted butter. Lay half the sheets one at a time, one on top of the other, in the tin, brushing each with melted butter, pressing it into the corners and letting the edges come up the sides of the tray or overhang.

Spread the nuts evenly over the sheets. Then cover with the remaining sheets, brushing each, including the top one, with melted butter. With a sharp-pointed knife, cut parallel lines 4-5cm apart, then cut other parallel lines diagonally so as to have diamond-shaped pastries. Cut right through to the bottom.

Bake the baklava in a preheated oven at 180C for 30-35 minutes hour, or until it is puffed up and golden. Remove from the oven and pour the cold syrup all over the top of the hot pastry, especially along the slashed lines.

When cold and ready to serve, cut the pieces of pastry out again and lift them out one by one on to a serving dish, or turn the whole pastry out (by turning it upside down on to a large sheet and then turning it over again on the serving dish) and cut out again along the original lines.

As the pastry at the base of the baklava was saturated with syrup, it was quite flat. To serve, I therefore put together two pieces base to base creating a (large) sweet, sticky and nutty dessert!

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Summer, Summer, Summertime

It has made a late appearance. Finally. If the forecast is to be believed, an Indian summer is on its way. I am rather sceptical… Anyway, it does not detract from the fact that summer is about salads. I love salads, so many possibilities, so much freshness and perfect for your packed lunch.

A lifelong love affair with red cabbage had me in a creative mood on Friday evening and emboldened by some rosé wine, I created this little delight:

Red Cabbage, Radish & Pistachio Salad

One small red cabbage, sliced very finely

5-6 radishes, sliced

A good handful of pistachio nuts, chopped roughly

Dressing

2 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp Kressi vinegar or any herb vinegar

Salt and pepper

Mix the cabbage and sliced radishes together. Make the dressing and toss into the salad. Sprinkle pistachios on the salad after the dressing is mixed in so they remain crunchy for longer.

It’s a very pretty salad, all dramatic shades of purple and red with the pistachios adding a little contrast, with their vibrant green colour. The Kressi vinegar is a must, although it’s virtually impossible to get hold of in the UK.

For good homemade herb vinegar (Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme is a good combination), wash the herbs very well under running cold water. Push them into a tall, clean bottle and top up with white wine, cider or sherry vinegar. Cover and leave to infuse for a couple of weeks before use.

Another of my favourite salads is a creamy cucumber salad my parents used to make. Oh the decadence of it, cream with healthy foodstuff. Indecent I hear you say… but not before you’ve tried it!

Cucumber Decadence

Cucumber, Parsley & Cream Salad

1 cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced (preferably with a mandolin)

1 shallot, finely chopped

2 tbsp of chopped parsley

75ml of single cream

Knorr Aromat Savoury Seasoning

Pepper

Place the slices of cucumber in a flat serving dish, then add the shallot, sprinkling it evenly over the cucumber. Pour the cream. Sprinkle with parsley and season with Aromat and pepper. Mix before serving.

Incredibly simple and very tasty.

Veni, Vidi, Vici: Helvetia

Petit Col Ferret

Returning to my homeland is always a pleasure: the fresh air is reviving, the view of the mountains is always beautiful and the cheese is, well, delectable and invariably calorific!

 

 In 4 days, wine was drunk, food was consumed and mountains were conquered. Here is how…

 

The Wine

Grapes

Having recently bought a vineyard, my father took John and I to his 700m2 plot of land for a little apéritif. It was a sight to behold, row upon row of vines drooping with gleaming grapes overlooking the valley and mountains, and my Dad, secateur in hand, trimming away the excess grapes lovingly. By the vineyard, there is a small cabane (hut) containing a rustic wooden table and two benches. A perfect place to sip a glass of Fendant, a crisp white wine made from the Chasselas grape, after a hard day at work.

 

Papa VigneFor as long as I can remember, my Dad has always loved wine and this was the logical progression for his lifelong passion. This is his first year as a budding winemaker and the vendanges (harvest) will take place in September/October, with the bottles of wine ready in May/June next year. The whole family is awaiting the wine tasting with great excitement!

 

 

 

The Food

After the apéritif and once back at the chalet, there was only one thing to do. Yes, you guessed right: EAT CHEESE. Raclette to be precise, a semi-firm salted cow’s milk cheese from Valais. Traditionally, the raclette cheese round is heated by a special machine, then scraped onto diners’ plates. The term raclette derives from the French word racler, meaning ‘to scrape’. It is accompanied by small firm potatoes (Bintje, Charlotte or Raclette varieties), gherkins, pickled onions, dried meat and dusted with freshly ground black pepper. Raclette is typically consumed with tea , or with a Fendant.

 Raclette Machine

A modern way of serving raclette involves an electric table-top grill with small pans to heat slices of raclette cheese in, which is how we enjoyed it. You can get hold of raclette cheese in the UK: online at Natoora or in any International Cheese Centre shops. It’s never as good as the raclette cheese in Switzerland but it has certainly hit the spot when I have been craving some Swiss foodstuff.

 

The Mountains

Walk Ferret

And what better way to work off a cheese feast than a mountain walk. Two to be precise: one to the Petit Col Ferret (2490 m.), a pass, which separates the Mont Blanc Massif from the Pennine Alps, between the canton of Valais and the Aosta Valley and the other to Pas de Maimbré (2362 m.), at the top of the cable car in Anzère.

 

The first walk was a shock to the system after very little exercise recently but the views were magnificent and the pain was worth it. John, having spent a couple of weeks running up and down a few mountains, was speeding ahead whilst I lagged behind, huffing and puffing (and moaning frequently).

 Pas de Maimbré View

The second walk, which my Dad accompanied us on, was a little easier and quite different. The mountain was covered in scattered clouds so it made for more dramatic scenery. Nearing the top, we were greeted by bright sunshine and an arresting view of the valley below.

 

Switzerland is, and will always be, part of my heritage and I am thankful I spent my childhood and teenage years growing up there, experiencing all it has to offer. Returning there, if only briefly, is a small pleasure which I will never tire of. Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder…

The Young Vic: a theatre after my own heart

Young Vic

 

Introduced to me by my friend Anna, the Young Vic Theatre is a must for entertainment in London. Its plays are varied, ranging from classics to new and experimental theatre. Never have I been disappointed by any of the performances I have attended: they have all been somewhat unusual but always inspired, leaving me wanting to come back time and time again.

 

The close proximity of the stage and the intimate seating arrangements ensure that you can immerse yourself completely into the story being played out. Cheap tickets (£22.50 full price, £15 on preview nights) and unreservable seats make it an unpretentious evening out and one where you are made to feel part of a community.

 

The Young Vic, which is positioned on The Cut near Waterloo station in London, is an ideal place to meet friends after work as it houses The Cut Bar, an ebullient bar and restaurant serving simple & modern food (their burgers are good) and some pretty potent cocktails. The downstairs area is rustic with leather sofas and tables alongside a restaurant area. Upstairs, there is a stylish gallery with big windows to watch the world below go by whilst sipping a Strawberry & Basil Martini.

 

I cannot praise the Young Vic theatre enough and have encouraged many friends and acquaintances to experience its unusual blend of theatre and relaxed atmosphere, all for a very reasonable price.

The Magic of Physical Exertion

We all know why exercise is good for you: it prevents the many contributory factors that can cause heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and obesity and it helps stimulate the cells that strengthen your bones. In combination with a healthy diet it helps maintain a healthy body weight, builds up your immune system and research has also shown that regular exercise can reduce your chance of developing certain cancers (colon & breast).

But more than anything for me, it helps me stay mentally healthy. The release of the brain chemical serotonin boosts my mood and reduces any feelings of anxiety and depression. By exerting myself, I am flushing away all the negativity which has built up during the day. The other thing I have found is that exercise gives me focus: as I become fitter, I feel more in tune with my body, more able to up my pace and challenge myself. In turn this makes me feel more in control of my life and health. This feeling of control gives me more confidence and as a result, I become braver and bolder in more areas of my life.

As proved by my recent lack of exercise, which has manifested itself through a subdued mood and a general sense of apathy, it is high time I got back on the road: running, cycling, walking. First stop, the Swiss mountains this weekend…

dents_du_midi

…more about that next week.