“All the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey…” The words of that evocative song keep going around my head and really resonate with me at the moment. It feels that winter is snatching the last glorious colours of autumn and the grey skies are making themselves comfortable. Earlier this month, I spent a couple of weeks in California, and now home, I’m dreaming of the West Coast sunshine – the light, colours and mood. Still, there is a beauty too in the muted tones of an English November, and what better to cheer a gloomy day than a cup of tea and a home baked biscuit? A shortbread biscuit, with Californian pistachio nuts.
Look at the extraordinary colour of these ground pistachios! I bought a big bag of these Californian Pistachios (ground to a fine flour/meal) in my beloved Santa Monica Farmers’ Market to bring back. I say ‘my’ market because for the many years I lived in Santa Monica, my twice weekly market shop was a steadfast ritual and I have never stopped missing it since I moved away. Fruits, nuts, honey, shellfish, wild mushrooms, flowers -a true cornucopia of the region – all found at this market. So my pistachio nuts, what will I do with them? To start, these very tasty little shortbread biscuits I think.
Pistachio Shortbread Biscuits
50g caster sugar
125g plain flour
75g ground pistachios
a few drops of vanilla (optional)
Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Sir in the flour and pistachio nuts, and vanilla if using. Divide the mix into about 20 small balls and place evenly spaced on a large, lined baking sheet. Flatten each ball gently. Bake at 190 degrees centigrade for 10-12 minutes, until golden. Cool on a rack. Dust with golden icing sugar if you wish.
Now I thought I would share a few photographs from my travels, from San Francisco down the coast to Santa Monica. I’ve driven that route a few times and every time it just seems more beautiful. And the pumpkin patches and farm stands were in full swing.
Santa Barbara was celebrating the Dia de los Muertos when we were there. It’s the day when many people honour and celebrate the lives of ancestors and loved ones who have passed away. Favourite foods and drinks are enjoyed and presented in shrine, along with bright decorations,bunting and intricate sugar skulls. The festivities are joyful and we were so happy to join in the craft making, eating and drinking.
To finish, a most wonderful plate of carnitas and carne asada, tortillas and salsa. I miss that Californian Mexican food – but at least I brought home lots of corn tortillas too!
Thanks for visiting. A Christmas post next, I think.
Do you like a bit of gentle competition? I do. It brings a little frisson of tension to an endeavour and can encourage me to to do better. And it’s fun too – especially for the winner! A neighbour in our village grows the most glorious dahlias, blooms that steal the ‘Best in show’ prizes across the village and county fairs. At this time of year, I love to walk through the smallholding where he painstakingly nurtures an astonishing variety of these lovely flowers, and sometimes I am given a few to bring home.
I also entered a little competition this week. Vanessa Kimbell, warm-hearted foodie extraordinaire, together with Fortnum and Mason, Ndali Vanilla and the fabulous Faritrade association, hosted a contest and food gift exchange for food writers, bloggers, and like minded souls.
I wanted to tell you this at the end, but I can’t hold back – I won! My winning offering was this Almond Butter Toffee, dusted with Ndali Vanilla and flakes of sea salt. The recipe is below.
Fairtrade is all about helping farmers and growers, particularly in vulnerable parts of the world, achieve fair prices and wages for their products and labours. I’ve learned quite a lot about this from my young son as his school encourages Fairtrade education projects. The farmers who produce Ndali Vanilla in Uganda are able to send their children to school and feed their families because they receive a fair price for their crop. Fairtrade makes a world of difference to people’s lives and I am keen to support it – if you would like to learn more, take a look at their website. My friend Vanessa, through her connection with Ndali, is a wonderful ambassador for Fairtrade and she organised the gift swap to raise awareness and support.
The competition had four categories: confectionary, biscuits, cakes and preserves. Food writer Lucas Hollweg, Chantal Coady of Rococo Chocolates, and a couple of the Fortnum and Mason buying team judged the entries. I gulped when I saw that Chantal was judging the sweets – if anyone knows about chocolate and aromatics in sweeties it’s Chantal, and I’m certain she must be hard to impress. By the way, her new book – Rococo, Mastering the Art of Chocolate – is due out on the shelves very soon. I had a sneak preview and it is extraordinarily beautiful. I can’t wait to get my own copy.
So here it is, the winning recipe!
Almond Butter Toffee with Chocolate, Vanilla and Sea Salt
Now before you start, there are a few things to note about making this toffee. Even though it is quite a simple recipe, working with sugar can be a bit tricky. It’s science and artistry all wrapped up together! It is best to use a candy thermometer to ensure you have the caramel to the right stage. Not hot enough – the result will be too soft, too high – you will burn the sugar. Make sure you use good cane sugar (ideally Fairtrade!) as it makes all the difference to the end result. Also, get everything ready before you start. Have hot gloves to hand and keep the decks clear and tidy. Hot bubbling caramel deserves your full attention and respect!
For the toffee:
280g butter, unsalted
225g caster sugar
100g light brown muscovado sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
200g almonds, roughly chopped
For the covering:
350g milk chocolate – choose a good rich flavoured one – broken into small squares
150g almonds, toasted and coarsely ground
1 teaspoon Ndali vanilla powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt flakes
Line a large baking tray (with sides) with baking paper.
In a heavy medium pan, melt together the butter, sugars, salt, and water. When the sugar is dissolved, allow the mixture to boil over medium heat, stirring often, until a rich golden caramel develops and the temperature reaches 290 degrees. I use F as that is what is on my thermometer. This will take longer than you expect, about 15 minutes. Add the chopped almonds and stir them in, then allow the temperature to come back up to 290-300 degrees. Remove from heat and pour right away into the lined baking sheet.
Give it a few moments to cool, then dot the toffee with half of the chocolate bits. As it melts, spread it over to cover the toffee. Sprinkle with the ground roasted almonds, sea salt flakes, and the vanilla powder. Allow to cool completely. Melt the remaining chocolate. Turn the toffee over and cover the other side with melted chocolate, almonds, sea salt and vanilla powder. Again, leave to cool completely. Break into pieces and store in an airtight container.
So, would you like to know what I won? Well, I can hardly believe it myself. I won a beautiful stand mixer from Kenwood. (much desired). I also won a lovely hand mixer from Kenwood for second prize in the biscuit category – my Pecan and Vanilla Butter Biscuits. And the fabulous prize from Fortnum and Mason, a magnificent hamper. I am so delighted, these are prizes I will treasure and truly appreciate.
Some of you might know that we are fixing up (and living in) a rustic old sixties house. I’ve come to really appreciate Midcentury style and these dahlias have just the esthetic of that era, don’t you think? I’ve placed a vase of them on my old Danish G-Plan table for you to see.
Thanks for visiting. More soon. Px
The summer has been a busy one – rich with creative opportunities for me. A highlight of the past few weeks was shooting the images for the stunning online magazine, The Foodie Bugle. Alongside Silvana de Soissons, the visionary Editor/Publisher, I worked on making a set of photographs to illustrate the magazine over the coming seasons. I would like to share a small selection of these with you. Below is a portrait of Silvana – her artistry as a cook and stylist is supreme. She is a perfectionist; a curator of all things glorious, quirky or simply beautiful. Above all, she is one who nourishes, both with ideas and food. Rarely do I eat anything during a food shoot – I am concentrating too much on the photography or I just don’t feel like eating. This wasn’t the case on location in Silvana’s country farmhouse. I was fed from morning to evening, and the food was immensely delicious and simply impossible to resist!
Shall I tell you about the food? Above is the mid morning snack that Silvana set out for me: warm from the oven bread rolls, with home grown fruit jam and a drink of elderflower cordial. We had some exquisite Italian almond biscuits with our tea. And then on to some work. Look at these quails’ eggs, one of nature’s works of art.
Making these sparkling scarlett Prosecco cocktails was lots of fun. At least I abstained from drinking these, as tempting as they were.
I have never tasted a tomato soup quite so vibrant and intense as this. You’ll have to beg Silvana for the recipe. And a dish of chicken, marinated in herbs and baked in the oven with sweet garlic and silvery sage leaves. This is just a little glimpse of our day. There was more, much more.
I hope you will spend some time pouring over the wealth of food writing, photography and stories featured on the pages of The Foodie Bugle – these are always moments well spent! http://thefoodiebugle.com
I don’t think I am alone in finding the summer holidays have flashed past. Do you feel that too?
The September new year is underway, all back to school with shiny shoes and anticipation. I love this time of year – that zest for getting on with projects and the hint of Autumn around the corner – heightened by a tinge of wistfulness for the end of summer.
Thanks for visiting, please leave me a comment if you feel in the mood – I love to hear your thoughts. P