Shortcuts: not always a bad thing.

There are days when you just need a cookie. This often falls on a day when I don't have the spoons to stand up for too long so that's a bit of a bugbear and today was one of those days.

I found a box of Betty Crocker cake mix in the cupboard which needed to be used but, to be honest, cake doesn't really get eaten in this house so I fell to pondering what else I could do with this box of semi-instant heaven.

I remembered my friend Pat making Lemon Burst cookies from a boxed cake mix and thought oh hell, why not just make some cookies from this box. So I did. There had to be a certain amount of Googling as I couldn't remember what amounts of additional Stuff was needed, but after a while (put the size of the boxed mix people!) I found it.

And lo, within half an hour I had cookies.

1 14oz package Devil's Food Cake cake mix
1 large egg
1 level tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup small chocolate chips
1 x 100g bar good quality dark chocolate, chopped into tiny bits (I used Lindt Sea Salt as I love salt and sweet)

Put the cake mix in a large bowl. Add in everything else and mix like crazy until all the liquid is incorporated.
My mix looked a bit too dry so I added 1 tsp of milk at a time until it just held.
Squidge handfuls of the mix together until it holds in ball shapes then place on a baking sheet and bake at 170C/350F for about 10 minutes until they have flattened a bit and smoothed out. They do spread so space them.

Leave them on the tray to firm up and then lift them onto a rack to cool.

They are really very lovely! I can get American cake mixes from a couple of shops in Covent Garden, but I expect that any Supercook or Greens cake mix would work just fine.

Crushed hazelnuts would be a rather nice addition.

These do not stay soft and squidgy. They turn crisp and quite hard but man they tasted good.


The Cricketers, Clavering, Essex

There was a nasty rumour going around last month that The Cricketers had closed because Jamie Oliver's mum and dad had retired and Someone Else had taken over. This was a bit upsetting as it is a lovely place that we have visited a few times but huzzah! Hurrah! It turned out to be just that, a nasty rumour. I don't know whether Mr and Mrs Oliver have indeed retired or just taken a back seat after all the years of running the place but the pub and the food is definitely infused with their warmth and good taste. There are still photos of a very young Jamie on the walls too. It's all good.

It's my mother in law's 70th birthday on the 31st, (and she doesn't look a day over 50) so as No 1 Husband's brother had to pull out of lunch because his wee toddler was ill, we decided to take her to lunch there as we all like it and we no longer needed a pub with a 'play area' for the kiddies. The Cricketers is fine for kids, they welcome them, but young A is...rambunctious at the best of times and a larger space would definitely have been needed!

It was very cold and damp when we arrived, after a nice drive through the country lanes observing iced over ponds, and so we opted to go straight in rather than hang about waiting for Mom and Dad. When you walk in - and for goodness sake do mind your head as the ceilings are very low - you see the lovely bar and then, to your left, the wonderful sight of a proper open fire. The log pile outside is not just for show. Last time we were there Trevor Oliver was busy stocking that up, which just makes for a proper, homely feeling. We were greeted by smiley staff, and shown to our table. Oh the luxury! A round table with a corner banquette with lots of cushions. We settled down happily and perused the menu. I use peruse in the true sense of the word - to read with thoroughness and care - because there is so much to choose from that it is very hard to decide but you don't want to miss anything. I had to have a small pot of tea to warm up so sat there happily taking the chill off my hands whilst the menu was making my tummy rumble.

A photo that was taken of the menu by accident but it turned out quite well! There is much more to the menu, this was the daily specials page. But look! VEAL T-BONE.

A basket of fresh home made bread was brought immediately, with a dish of grassy green olive oil and a splash of the nicest balsamic vinegar I have tasted in a long while. There are tiny pots of sea salt and black pepper already on the table so bread plus oil and vinegar plus sea salt it was.

Mom and Dad arrived quite soon after us, but we did still have to ask for some more bread. *ahem* Serious menu searching took place and the staff were very smiley and patient with us. Finally we made our decisions and were set. I have photos of only my main course as I am still rather shy of taking photos in restaurants, plus people were hungry!

Dad had the lamb shank with wholegrain mustard mash, from the main menu, and given the rate at which it disappeared I am certain that it was gorgeous. It smelled divine. Mom chose slow roast duck with a plum and honey sauce and I tried some of that. It was very good indeed, with the sauce properly tart to cut the richness of the duck. Mom said it was too tart for her but then she seems to find that with a lot of foods that others find fine. Though this is a woman who ate green, unripe grapes from our vine and said they were sweet. *blink* Anyway, she added a wee bit of sugar to the sauce which sorted it out. No 1 Husband chose the liver and bacon but with mash instead of the polenta, and they were more than happy to substitute that. I tried the sauce, which was beautifully rich and am assured that it was very good indeed, with extremely nice bacon.

I had Pie. I never make Pie at home so Pie it was. Pie is important, so it deserves a capital letter. 28 day hung Steak and Ale Pie with a suet crust.


The pastry was utterly perfect. A thin, crispy but substantial shell to hold in the steak and smooth, rich gravy. The mash was plain, but very tasty and just enough to cope with the juices and gravy that spilled out. Serious chunks of meat too, which just flaked as you ate it.

The vegetables were also perfectly cooked. Carrots roasted with caraway seeds - but only a few, mind, which is good - steamed tender broccoli and wonderful cauliflower with a light cheese sauce. Fresh and cooked absolutely right. The veggies come from Jamie's certified organic garden, not far away. No food miles here!

Everyone except Mom tried some (she doesn't eat beef) and agreed upon the awesomeness of my lunch. I actually gave some to No 1 Husband as I was getting full, and dessert was on the horizon. Plus he really enjoyed it and I like making him happy.

Now. Onto the desserts. Oh the agonies of choosing! Lemon Posset with Lemon Madeleines? Marmalade Steamed Pudding? Vanilla Rice Pudding? Coffee Cheesecake??

We made it in the end but it was very hard indeed.

Dad - Semi Freddo with Dates, Prunes and Armagnac with a Butterscotch Sauce.
Mom - Prune Egg Custard Tart
No 1 Husband - Marmalade Steamed Pudding with Custard
Me - Coffee Cheesecake with an Espresso Glaze

And here you go. Look at how pretty they are! I apologise that I don't have a shot of the Marmalade Pudding but Tex was already well into it.

The last piece that Mom got.

Every single one of them was utterly gorgeous. The semi-freddo was creamy and rich, with a dark toffee hint from the fruits. The butterscotch sauce had started to chill and went into sticky strands of sweetness.

The egg custard was sweet and thick, not a hint of separation and the prunes were jammy, the pastry buttery and crisp.

Tex said that the pudding was perfect, with the bitter hint of the marmalade coming through in the right balance. "Needed more custard" was his only comment apart from Mmmm.

My cheesecake was absolutely to die for. Solid and rich, liked a baked cheesecake should be but not at all overly sweet. The coffee came through so very well, and the base! Oh my, the base was a cross between a biscuit and a sponge, with the coffee flavour very intense there. The espresso glaze...well that I could have drunk a cup of. In the spirit of Birthday-ness, I gave Mom the very last bit. See what a nice daughter-in-law I am? See??

Absolute perfection in every way. Please, if you can, do visit them. They are truly lovely people and they make you very welcome indeed.

The Cricketers, Clavering, Nr Saffron Walden, Essex, CB11 4QT
Tel: +44 (0)1799 550442
Fax: +44 (0)1799 550882
e-mail: info@thecricketers.co.uk

EDIT: Update from Sally and Trevor Oliver in reply to my email: 

"And, no we are not retiring, there have been rumours of that nature for years. I think it's because a pub three miles away, which keeps closing down and opening up again, is similarly named (but with 'Arms'). The owners change so regularly and hence the rumours that it is us."



Red meat and me.

A few weeks ago I had a bit of a disaster cooking some steak. It turned out tough and it had no right to be so, as it was very, very good rib-eye from Westin Gourmet. I began to worry that I'd lost my steak cooking mojo. I managed to forget about it for a while until Thursday of last week when I realised that I had been absolutely exhausted for a few days, far more exhausted than was usual for me. My lovely receptionist, Natasha, said "Eat some red meat girl, you look anaemic!" As soon as she said it, I could feel the craving for rare steak start and knew that I had to find some. I trudged around Covent Garden at lunchtime looking for a cow. There were many restaurants but I had no idea which one to go for, as I was in that brain fog place when you know you want food but there's no deciding what to have. In the end I bought a rare roast beef sandwich for lunch and bought some rib-eye to cook that night. Believe it or nor I was a bit worried that I'd ruin it again but...

Thankfully I managed to cook it perfectly and could actually feel it doing me good while I ate it. I decided to make a conscious effort to eat more red meat this week, as I seem to need it. I've managed to do that quite well with a steak and broccoli stir fry on Friday night and a deeply rich and gorgeous bolognese sauce (more about that later) on Sunday, roast beef or salt beef sandwiches for lunches and steak again tonight. Thankfully it does seem to be working and I feel a whole lot better than I did last week. I really must remember to stick to it. Oh the hardship of having to eat beef.

Tonight I found rump steak for 20% off at my local Coop so my eyes lit up and lo the steak was mine. I snuk in a piece of sirloin as well. £12 for three big steaks? Bring it on.

Take piece of steak.
Batter it with the back of a heavy knife blade (steak hammers tear it too much) and heat a ridged griddle pan until it smokes. (I used a non stick one)
Slap the steak down and leave it. Just leave it alone. I sprinkle a touch of sea salt on the surface.
When you can easily lift the steak with tongs, turn it over keeping the heat high.
I cut a slit in Husband's one so that I can check there is no pink but for me so long as it is seared on both sides it's just fine.
I held the steak in the tongs and rested the fat on the griddle so that it cooked through.
Served on plain buttered mash and called it heavenly.

This ain't just food baby, this is medicine.



I would just like to say bloody well done to my friend Gilly. This is her blog: http://gillsrecipearchive.blogspot.com/

She is the most amazing woman, and her recipes for both the Weight Watchers and Slimming World eating plans are wonderful, so they need sharing, okay? It's all too easy to fall into a slump when one is On A Diet, but Gilly's ideas are colourful and tempting. As is she!

Gilly, my dear, I salute you.


I blog, you blog, they blog, WE blog

I have been thinking rather a lot lately about this whole food blogging phenomenon that has swept across the pages of our much beloved Internet. Long gone are the days when The Interweb was purely a geek preserve, a place to swap conversations consisting of capital letters and ASCII characters, spark amazing – and not so amazing - new ideas and programmes, or even to just trade Star Wars memorabilia. It started out as a big wide world full of technical things that I really didn’t understand, much less want to get involved in. I moved on to having a few chatrooms that I visited and I could keep up with friends living far away uses them, and good old AIM, but I think that was about all my involvement.

Now we are in the days when AOL start up discs are so prevalent they are used as wall hangings, bird scarers, place mats and ashtrays and the Internet has morphed. It has changed, the media would have us believe, into some sprawling, hard to control, hyperactive Gorgon that traps innocent people into Gaming Worlds and never lets them go. A place that nurtures anti-social behaviour and enables isolation.

Of course it can be all those things, but it can also be a source of great fun and sociability. It can be a life line in many cases where, for example, you may be a new mother, feeling totally alone, and then you can log into www.mumsnet.com, or myriad other sites, and realise that what you are going through at 4am with eau de nappy burned into your nasal passages and your hair on end, is actually normal, and not even out of the ordinary. You can link with other people who feel the same way that you do, and who, hopefully, will not shout you down for it. (Yes, yes, I am well aware there are Militants out there but let’s not give them any more page room than they deserve.)

This brings me around to the subject, not so neatly I admit, of food blogging. The day that I found a food blog, my eyes were as wide and round as Botham's Yorkshire teacakes. Oh I had joined recipe sites before and found them useful, but, ultimately, wanting. Some were passionless places, some even run by people who just wanted some control and grip over their contributors. If your food ideas disagreed with theirs, heaven forfend. You were outcast into the cold, left only to wander WalMart, or Sainsburys, in search of inspiration. Luckily I shrugged that off, after a while, and branched out into finding fellow food lovers. Not just cooks, oh no, but people passionate about ingredients and contents, the history of food and how it speaks to us, the memories that go to make up a part of each dish that we serve.

I found that the majority of food bloggers are like me. They love to eat, but more importantly they love to cook and share with others too. People who get to know me realise, after a while, that whilst I adore food, and oh my goodness I really do enjoy eating, cooking for someone and making them happy, or sated, is the best way for me to be happy too. This can, of course, lead to tragedy, and when a dish fails, or people don’t like it, then I get that small voice telling me that that I have failed my friends. I also have to say that when someone rejects what I have cooked, it is one of the most staggering solar plexus blows that can be dealt to me. Well, it used to be, thankfully I have managed to get over that one but there have been times when I have been in tears over a rejected dinner.

I am very nervous cooking for new people, and I worry that it was all just be inedible, and the terrible truth will come out that I am Just Not That Good at it, that somehow I will be found out as a person who talks a good dinner but isn’t actually that great. I am well aware that this is nonsense, because I trust my friends to be honest with me, but it’s an underlying fear which probably stems from growing up watching my Nan bustle around her kitchen, creating dishes that were always amazing and delicious. Perfect pastry, beautifully risen cakes, melting casseroles and silky soups. I still have the ‘not as good as Nan’s was’ whisper when I bake.

Luckily I also had my wonderful mother, who taught me about all kinds of foreign foods and how to have FUN while you create delicious meals, which is far more important than any old crimped bit of pastry. My mum and my step dad far surpassed my Nan in the cookery stakes because everything was imbued with love and care – plus their cooking was OH MY GOD delicious. I still remember home made deep dish pizza, made in a circular curved pan, tuna pie made with puff pastry, and the gorgeous flatbread that went on the barbecue. Roast lamb with red onions, gammon with pease pudding, a thai style beef casserole that killed off any cold germs going around and slow cooked spicy chicken soup made in a big, brown crock pot. Now my mum is in Cyprus and she still makes me hungry when she tells me what she is making for dinner!

To find a community of people who live and love food, who will talk about it, think about it, recreate it, revel in it, that, to me, is worth more than a tonne of gold and truffles. These people will not laugh at me for taking photos of my dinner – which I did before I had a blog anyway – and they will understand when I say that I read cookbooks like novels. They will just get how happy the first asparagus of the season can make me, how a trip to a farm shop is as imbued with as much excitement as the first visit to the circus or the fun fair was as a child. I can share my obsession with these people, I can meet up and we can share food, which is just heaven on a gourmet cracker for me.

Food bloggers have also become the restaurant trade’s free form of advertising. In the same way that when Delia mentioned cranberries the shops ran out within a few days, when a well known blog praises a restaurant their bookings can soar.

Restaurants need to realise that the folks taking photos aren’t just food nerds, they are potential attractors of revenue. When bad service happens, it can start on one blog and go viral within a few hours. I would point people at www.meemalee.com to see just what can happen at even the best restaurants. Mr Blumenthal should maybe keep a closer eye on his people and possible revamp the ideas that his staff have on what constitutes service or, at the very least, jack up their willingness to help out patrons who are in distress and trying to do the right thing.

Ripping people off can no longer stay behind the closed kitchen doors. People will report it. They will blog it, they will Facebook it and retweet it. The very same way that they will heap praise upon praise for what is good and deserving of mention.

However, this does mean that, as bloggers, especially those of us who have a substantial following, (not me, I hasten to add) we do have a duty to do things right. There is a difference between constructive criticism, and a downright slating. By all means say what was wrong, but say what was right too. Remember that the people behind the food are human, and whilst a restaurant needs to know when things are not up to standard, they do not need to be told that in derogatory or insulting terms. Your visit may have been on an off day for the kitchen, they could have been down by three members of staff, we cannot know as we aren't out there doing it.

We should strive to be constructive, and fair or we shouldn't really be doing it.

Food Bloggers Unite - and be cool to each other.


Red and Black, Addiscombe.

I was actually going to go to bed about half an hour ago and then I started looking at the photos from my meal out on Friday. So now I'm hungry again despite eating the last of my brown rice and gammon bake.

Lovely New Person (okay, Col from hereonin) and I had a weekend date with East Croydon, weekend just gone. We were tempted by Miso right by East Croydon station but it was busy being a Friday night and so I opted to to go Il Cavallino, nearby in Lower Addiscombe Road. It's been a favourite of mine and Boyfriend's for ages, being quiet and comfortable, with excellent food and a wonderful host to boot so it was a sad shock for me to find that it was no longer there but had morphed into Red and Black. After a moment of "Oh dear!" we decided to give it a go anyway as it looked warm and inviting.

I am ever so glad that we did because we ended up having one of the most excellent dinners. They still do excellent pizzas and pasta but the new things are just gorgeous. The staff are very sweet, even apologising for having to move our hands as they put the food down. (Yes, yes, we were holding hands across the table, bleurgh I know.)

The menu is small but perfectly formed, though I did wish that I had been allowed to proof read it for them.

We began with three starters and it was a struggle to choose even then. A plate of Italian cured meats, with a small pile of olives and cornichons which I very lovingly saved Col from eating, a bowl of sweet and tender king prawns with garlic and parsley on fresh rocket, and then a plate with the biggest chunk of deep fried brie I have ever seen. Fair took us aback that did.

The meats were of good quality, the salami nicely spicy and the olives good and garlicky. The prawns were luscious - not too much garlic so the natural flavours came through. I loathe rocket as a rule but this was so fresh that it tasted just right with the garlic/olive oil juices from the prawns. The brie was delicious, although it could have done with being cooked for a wee while longer but with that large a wedge I can see how it's hard to judge! The cranberry sauce with it was very nice indeed. It tasted home made, and was tart enough to cut through the creamy brie. There was not a hint of greasiness at all, and the crumb was utterly perfect and uniformly golden brown and crispy.

I am afraid photos did not happen there as we were too hungry to pause.

The mains...well now.

I chose slow roast pork belly because it's slow roast pork belly dammit and that is always a good test for a restaurant. They did not disappoint.

This is a very generous portion indeed. I really should have posed something next to it to show the size but, er, I was in a hurry to dig in. The meat melted and pulled apart into silken strands. The mash you can see there is a spring onion version and that was creamy, but not sloppy, with decent sized but soft onion pieces and a deep, buttery flavour. The green beans were cooked perfectly, with a bite to them but still tender. I could not stop making "Mmmmm" noises as I ate because it was so darned delicious. The gravy, jus, call it what you fancy, was rich and full flavoured, a proper porky flavour very evident.

I took the crackling off and set it aside as that was to be my last piece of the feast. Joy of joys, there was still that sticky, full of flavour layer of fat underneath the crackling, and oh how I adore that. Please, leave the fat alone. It's meant to be there and I get quite cross if people remove it. Having enjoyed the meat so much, I was wondering if the crackling could compare and it absolutely did. Thin and crispy, with a slightly chewy texture but so easy to crunch through. Marvellous.

Col had lamb fillet with butter beans and spinach.

That description just doesn't get across the depth of flavour in the dish. The meat was heady with rosemary but there were no bits of that notoriously woody herb to be seen. The fillet was superbly cooked and very tender with another rich gravy which tasted of the very essence of lamb. Knockout, all of it. I have had food in 'upmarket' Central London restaurants that could not hold a candle to this cooking.

On the strength of what had gone before - and aganst the better judgement of my stomach - we chose dessert.

My chocolate brownie was beautiful.

A thin slab of dense chocolate cake with chewy edges and a gooey centre. Any bigger a serving would have been way too much. I loved how the chocolate sauce almost froze on the ice cream whilst the ice cream itself was pooling down over the sides of the brownie. Heavenly.

Col chose a sticky toffee pudding with nuts because he has hollow legs. The smell wafting across to me was delicious.

I got to try a bit, but Col did have the "Mine! All Mine!" look on his face. The sauce was so smooth, I suspect condensed milk. The pudding was rich, but still light and the nuts had soaked up a goodly amount of the sauce, whilst still having some crunch.

After all of that we were beaten. Okay, well, Col still had a hankering to try their seafood linguine but that may just have been a pipe dream at that point of the evening!

All of that loveliness and taste, plus 2 Peroni beers and a soft drink came to £53.

We aim to go back again and work our way through the rest of the menu. Sadly they do not have a website yet and I cannot remember what else was on there, so I have to go back, right? It's a duty!

Red and Black
89 Lower Addiscombe Road
0208 656 9679 / 07800 800 082


That's the leftovers done with.

Rice and gammon bake. That's what I had in mind.

Now. I have learned a lesson here and that is that brown rice takes AN AGE to cook and far more water than white rice does.

I have cooked brown rice before, and never had any such trouble but my word, I must have had what a friend called 'super 'ard bastard rice' this time around. Nevertheless I persevered with a certain sense towards the end of die you bugger - and it did turn out rather beautifully in the end.

Simple ingredients too.

1 cup (S'ABR) organic brown rice
1 small red onion
3 thick slices of cooked gammon, cubed
2 level tsp Ras el Hanout
1 level tsp cinnamon
3 - 31/2 cups chicken stock - or more if the rice refuses point blank to soften. (I used a rather nice stock powder so needed no salt at all)
Olive oil

In a dutch oven or oven safe casserole dish (must have a well fitting lid) fry off the sliced onion in olive oil, add in the rice and stir well to coat with the oil. Add in 1/2 tsp butter here. It's just used as a flavouring.
Add in the spices and the gammon cubes and mix very well.
Pour in the chicken stock, bring to the boil, cover with a very tight lid and then bake in the oven.
Take lid off after an hour and swear at it. Put it back in the oven.
I used 170C in a fan oven, and had to bake it for nearly two hours all told to get the rice to soften and absorb the liquid.

It's a bit of a hit and miss affair. Add a bit more liquid if it needs it, but it may not...*rolls eyes*

It's dark and spicy and even worth cooking a bit of gammon just to make it. I know I could have used white rice but brown seemed to fit better with what I wanted it to taste of. It's a very comforting dish, and it made loads. Lunch tomorrow!

Oh. My. God.

Smoked salted tablet.

Thank you Gin and Crumpets!