Deep Fat Freedom

There’s a lot of joy to be had in frying food in the depths of glistening, bubbling oil. I’ve heard that organic, extra virgin coconut oil is the height of hedonist happiness, but my mum’s always said that coconut oil is more criminal than beef and I just can’t do it to myself. Suicide by organic oil. Sunflower is my effort to find a ‘healthy’ alternative – at least it’s low in chloresterol – though there’s little that’s healthy about deep fat frying.

But… If we can have everything in moderation, then we can still revel in the pleasure of deep frying. And to respect it as an act of cooking, it should be something worth eating. Not just leaden, breadcrumbed lumps of hybrid meat (some of them are mixed with fish) from a freezer bag, or frozen chips or scampi.

The orangey-yellow of aubergine halfmoons as they sizzle in spicy batter (curry powder, gram flour, water, salt); their warm flavour as they hit your mouth, slightly salted and too hot for your tongue; these joys are at the heart of deep fat frying.

Onion bhajis are also easy to make and have a strength of flavour and texture that you don’t get in commercial products. They are so pretty, spiky balls of dark terracotta contrasted with the white kitchen roll.

Falafels are pretty close to being healthy. Unlike battered foods, the oil doesn’t penetrate the whole piece and the chickpeas inside are cooked by heat. Freshly made falafels, still sizzling in the air can be greedily consumed with burned fingers and hot spices popping in your mouth. It doesn’t have to be as urgent, but it’s all about appreciation. And they are so full of fibre and protein that it doesn’t take many to fill you.

We’re so lucky in the U.K. Most of us don’t have to worry about whether or not we will eat. The least we can do is eat food worthy of the name and enjoy it.


250g dried chickpeas. Soak for at least 8 hours.
Take 1 tsp coriander seeds, 4 tsps cumin seeds, 2 tsps salt,  a large handful of parsley, 1/2 tsp baking powder and 1 small egg and mix with the uncooked, soaked chickpeas in a food processor until it resembles fine gravel.

Clag the gravel together in your fingers to shape an uneven croquet. If it doesn’t stay stuck together, add another egg and process the mix again to combine.

Heat the chosen oil in a large pan until it reaches the temperature that would brown a cube of bread on entry to the bubbling mass. Or guess. There’s nothing wrong with trial and error.

Form a series of croqettes, dropping them into the hot oil  one at a time. It’s easier if you fish them out in batches but safer if they go in one at a time.

Enjoy them however you see fit. It’s your duty.

Falafels, picante tomato sauce and green salad

Soul Formula

Victoria Sponge formula is a recipe for life, living, and soul, never mind cake. Think: 4-4-4-2 or 6-6-6-3 or 8-8-8-4.  Think: Everything in Moderation. A balance of everything catalysed by a small amount of potent extra to create a concoction of dreamy delight.

In the case of Victoria sponge which is arguably the easiest cake formula to remember, the 4s are butter, sugar (creamed together), and flour. The 2 is eggs. The eggs bind the mulch together and cause the chemical process (with a little help from heat) to fulfill itself.

It’s simple: if you mix these quantities in the given order, using the given methods (creaming, beating and folding), and then add heat (at 180 deg C), you WILL get cake.

How light it is, how buoyant and delectable is down to practise and error.

To complete the analogy: take equal quantities of love and good times (cream together). Beat in a half quantity of ambition or desire and fold into the mix a measure of hard work (equal to love or good times).

Too laboured? The recipe isn’t.

Peach Cake
4oz caster sugar
4oz butter
Cream the above together until pale and fluffy.
Beat in 2 eggs one at a time, so that the mixture is smooth, not curdled (although it doesn’t really matter if it is).
Sieve 4oz self-raising flour into the mix and fold in with a metal spoon, turning it over and over until the powder is incorporated. DO NOT BEAT. Resist the urge. You want air, not biscuit.

Add a couple of heaped tsps mixed spice and a handful of sultanas.

Pour into a lined single cake tin about 8-10″ in diameter.
Stone two peaches/nectarines, slice into eighths and arrange artistically around the top. Put a few dabs of butter on the top (not much).

Bake in the middle of a preheated oven at 180 deg C.

To be eaten with lightly whipped chantilly cream (because this is my favourite, but I’m sure plain yoghurt, single cream or nothing at all would be adequate).


Food I Grew Up Eating: Mum’s Cheese Pudding

Looking back to childhood and teenagerdom, there are ordinary meals that shout out to  be remembered; those I remember with no pomp and glory; oh yes, countless glorious roast dinners and fruit pies and crumbles, but the ones to which I refer are every day foods that were eaten often and enjoyed a great deal.

The cheese flan at primary school, orangey-yellow, with so much cadmium oiliness that if you pressed your knife into the top, a shallow tide would envelop the steel surface.

Lentils and rice. The boys said they now hate lentils and rice because it used to make them feel like we were ‘poor people’, but I love daal and eat it often and in accompaniment with curry.

Chicken and almond sauce. Alas, the almond sauce recipe now lost in memoriam, but soon to be resurrected (watch this space).

Welsh Rarebit; bread toasted on one side… the other clothed thickly in grated cheese mixed with beaten egg. Nice with the modern twist of wholegrain mustard swirled within, but the old version was lovely.

Haggis, black pudding and brawn. Offal? Moi? HELL YEAH!

And mum’s cheese pudding. Simple as ever, easy to adulterate with leeks or chilli but wonderful just as is. Best with beans for understated comfort glory, but more grown up with a green salad and spinach.

Cheese Pudding
Baking Dish / Casserole Dish.
Something deep enough and not too big.
Large chunk of bread/3-4 slices of plastic bread (one of the only recipes where plastic bread sludge doesn’t matter) and turn it into breadcrumbs. You want enough to make breadcrumbs that fill the baking dish you’re using.
If you’re using plastic bread, toast first, make breadcrumbs later.
Medium-sized chunk of cheese. Has to be cheddar, really, although any hardish melty cheese will work.
2 or 3 eggs, beaten with about 300ml milk

Turn out the breadcrumbs into a large bowl, add a couple of pinches of salt, mix in the grated cheese and the beaten egg and milk and squill it together with your fingers until it is a stiffish dough.

Grease the casserole dish (oil is easiest, butter is best) and turn out the dough in a big lump. Press it to cover the dish, leaving the surface nice and bumpy.

Pop into a 180 deg C preheated oven for about 30 mins until the top is nice and browned.

The picture looks ridiculous, but honestly, I just wasn’t quick enough to get a photo of the full browned glory that was.
This is all that was left (also goes well with ketchup).

All that was left.... Magpie just wasn't quick enough



A Note to Bread Lovers:

Mentioned in an earlier post, the More? Bakery which is located in a small village outside Kendal has award-winning, stunning bread. One of their creations is a sourdough called Montezuma’s Revenge, presumably because it resembles a volcano with a lava flow crust of cheese rising from its centre. It also contains garlic cloves roasted inside the bread.

Sourdough is a simple but drawn out method of baking bread, a wonderful light bread that can be made from the same ‘starter’ over and over. It’s a great sandwich bread (doorstops only), being firm yet springy but Montezuma’s Revenge is just too special for sandwiches. It yearns to be ripped apart, still warm and devoured, sludgy with butter and high with the aromas of smoky garlic and toasted cheese.

Now, sourdough is wonderful, but breadmaking takes long enough as is. Having observed how the cheese sprang from the bread, I went straight home and made a Magpie Montezuma, not quite the same, but magnificent nonetheless.

Following the usual bread recipe up to the second rising and making loaves, not buns: Cut a cross into the loaf, about as deep as two-thirds the depth, almost an inch from the edges.

Cut a cross in the dough. It will widen out as it rises the second time.

Leave it to rise for its second session under a clean tea towel. When it’s twice its original size, the cross will have widened to a four pointed star, leaving a deep crevice in which to grate a serious amount of cheese (preferably emmental but cheddar will do).

Peel four (or more) garlic cloves and push them into the spaces between the points (see diagram), just making a tunnel with each clove, rather than squashing the dough.

Garlic and Cheese Dispersal

Grating the cheese all over the top of the bread is the general idea.

Cheese n Garlic Joy about to happen....

Stick it in the already preheated oven (200deg C) for 30-40 mins and smell for the moment when it’s time to rescue it. The lovely warm bread smell starts to become slightly acrid; but that’s in this kitchen and it could be different for other people.

Baked cheese n garlic joy

Eat and be happy.

***A note to commonsense: making buns may seem like a good idea at the time, but you can chow through a lot of cheese that way***


A Lesson in Following Recipes… or, Disaster Strikes in Coffee Pudding Fiasco! is a varied food blog with a lot of different writers. It has a very American style and a good mix of people who write on it. Serious Eats is a bit more classy (has a beautiful foodporn page, too).  There are some foods and recipes on there that seem quite foreign to Magpie’s limited view and the urge to try them out grew too much this afternoon.

Alas, Magpie’s greed tends to interfere with her cooking.

The Thai Coffee Bread Pudding looks completely fabulous on the image. The imaginary mouthfeel is distinctly present at the front of the hard palate and curious to see if it would turn out, Magpie converted the quantities and halved them. (The recipe serves 8-10 people!) The temperature throughout was 160deg C which was surprising. I have been baking bread&butter pudding in too high a heat for years!

Two bread buns (oven baked, not steam – crusty bread unless a sweet one), cubed, weighed in at about 6oz. Dry them out in the 160deg C oven for about 10 mins and stick them in the baking dish you’re going to use.

Heat the required and STIPULATED quantity of coffee powder (that is, 3 tblsps) in 360ml milk (more on this later) till dissolved. Set aside to cool.

Whisk together:
2 egg yolks
1 whole egg

less than 1 teaspoon (tsp) each of cardamon and cinnamon.
120g light brown sugar

Whisk into the above mixture:
the coffee milk
200ml condensed milk
1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp almond extract

Pour over the bread into the baking dish and leave to soak for at least 20 minutes.

Paint 2oz melted butter over the top of the pudding, sprinkle it with white sugar and place in the oven for 30-40 mins. The idea is to eat it with orange zesty chantilly cream.

Unfortunately as you’ve probably guessed, Magpie thought the coffee taste wouldn’t be strong enough (having an odious view of freeze dried coffee granules), so dumped an extra 2-4 (can’t even remember, so stupid an idea it was) tablespoons of coffee into the milk.
It may not have been the £4 espresso powder stipulated, but it sure was strong. The look on Himself’s face as he consumed the first spoonfuls was the same one you’d expect accompanying a mouthful of lemons! The overload of coffee made it bitter, despite the dish’s aspirations to be a sweet, rich pudding. What a shame.

Always encouraging, Himself allocated a score of 9 out of 10 for effort and what Magpie suspected was a very generous 4/10 for ‘taste’.

It looked really lovely though.

The Food of Life

Bread might be the staff of life, but how many of us know how to make it for ourselves?

Turning 30 three years ago gave Magpie a new passion for bread, never felt before. She put it down to hormones; despite growing up in a household of breadmakers, she had never known the passion until then. Surrounded as we are by all manner of breads, from the steam baked, chemical filled crap, to the wonderful artisan breads by local bakers such as Patrick Moore, it doesn’t seem possible that we could create such indulgence for ourselves. But anyone who has ever tried to sell a difficult house should be able to pay testament to the selling properties of freshly baked bread.

It is excellently simple. Skill, of course, must be involved, but the techniques are so straightforward that a beginner can still get good results from the start.

Take 1lb (500g ish) of STRONG white bread flour.
Add 3 teaspoons of salt.

Using a litre sized bowl or measuring jug, add 1 dessertspoon (15g) sugar and fill it with enough warm water to dissolve the granules. Cool it to blood temperature. The way to tell this is to dip your finger in. When you can’t feel the water – neither warmer or cooler than your finger – you have the temperature just right.  You want about 600-800mls water. Different flours absorb it in differing ratios, so you just have to test it out as you go.

Using fresh yeast (Magpie HATES dried yeast, but it does work, so if that’s what you have, follow their instructions. Fresh yeast in the UK can be bought from Morrisons for about 50p and if in Tesco, you can ask the folks in the bakery and they might give you some for nothing)  take a piece about 1cm squared – a little more is fine; you want it to rise – and crumble it into the cooled sugar water. Stir with a spoon until dissolved.

Wrap the top of the receptacle in cling film and place in a warmish location for 30 mins. You should find it bubbling infinitesimally gently which will tell you the yeast is live. If you can’t see anything, lay your ear over the mouth of the jug. If you can’t hear fizzing, your yeast is dead. If you can…

…stir it up and pour some into the bowl of flour with an accompanying glug of oil. Sunflower, olive, whatever takes your fancy. Traditionalists might prefer butter, but this is altogether easier.  Stir with a table knife. You want the dough to be claggy without being sticky. Add more if it is dry, but not too much at a time. Not an easy judgement to make but one that comes better with practice. In the early stages, less has to be more. (More creates a loose dough that is hard to knead and impossible to control).

When you have a dough that can be handled, dump it onto a floured surface and knead for at least 8 minutes to get the glutens rolling. KNEAD, don’t TEAR. Tearing is bad. You are looking to stretch the dough.

When your dough is the same consistency of a voluptuous woman’s breasts, then you can leave it to rise for the first time. Best way is to put it straight back into the bowl with a damp, clean tea towel covering the bowl. This keeps the dough moist and if the dog stands in it (a paw print has been found before now), it doesn’t really matter.

When the dough has doubled in size (in a warm place, this should take about an hour; in a cooler one, up to three), dump it out onto the surface again and knock all the air out of it with more kneading action.
Using a blunt table knife, cut the dough approximately in half, then half again and half again. You should get about 8 ‘buns’ out of 1lb flour.  Roll them up into even-sized balls and place on a baking tray.

Cover with the cloth again, leave to rise to double one more time and then put the oven on to 200 deg C.

Place in the oven, mid-shelf, between 20-30mins.

How do you know it is baked? Turn your buns over and tap them on their flat bums. If the tap sounds hollow, you’ve got a baked bun.

Lashings of butter on warm buns, with or without cheese, nutella, peanut butter or jam makes these babies more worthy of adulation and worship than any chemical, long life creation from the supermarket.

NOTE: Oven baked bread also makes the best breadcrumbs (once stale), the best addition to homemade burgers and the world’s greatest stuffing. Plastic bread yields slime in all these uses, but home baked is the original and best.

NOTE 2: If you accidentally leave out the oil, it isn’t a disaster. The buns will be a little drier and they won’t keep as long.

One fat magpie signing off.

Cheese Scones at 3.30am

Magpie is a black and white bird. Shades of grey are unlikely, but there can be a flash of coloured inspiration, in peacock blue and green if she bothers to lift her wings and let the wind ruffle her feathers.

She fails to understand why the population gladly pays over the odds for mass produced, poor quality products that they could easily make themselves. No argument for convenience or lack of skills will stand up in the face of her disgust.

Take scones for example. (Sc-oh-ns… Scons…However you pronounce  it). An easy bread to make, they are at their best only on the day they are made and best eaten still warm from the oven. What a wonderful and simple experience so many who claim to love them are missing. The solid, bicarb flavoured monstrosities in their infernal cellophane in the supermarket bear no resemblance to the light beauties that make their exit from the home bake oven with a cheesy flourish.

Simple is as simple does. So do. And believe that you can.

8oz self-raising flour (not traditional, but simpler than plain flour with added bicarb)
2oz butter (nothing else will do, I assure you).
scant teaspoon of salt
a healthy chunk of cheddar, or indeed any cheese that is lying forlorn in the fridge.
2-3 tblsp plain yoghurt

Preheat the oven to 180deg C.

Rub the butter and flour (with the salt) between your fingers until there are no more chunks of butter, just a heap of thin ‘breadcrumbs’ that stick together briefly like damp sand. If the butter is squishy, this process is quicker and altogether less frustrating.

Grate in the cheese. Make your own judgement how much you think should go in. (More is better but less is fine). Incorporate into the sand with your fingers.

Tip in the yoghurt and mix gently using a dinner knife (think Kenwood food mixer action) but don’t faff with it. If you over-handle the dough, the scones will be solid.

Dump the dough on a floured work surface and fashion a flat rock with your fingers, making it about 1.5″ in height.

Using a small mug or glass (Magpie still has no cutters, so she improvises with a half pint glass donated one night by a tipsy Janey on her way home from the pub), cut the shapes out of the dough and shake them onto the baking tray.

Place them in the oven on the top shelf or the middle of the oven for around 20 minutes.

Split, slake with butter and consume with gusto, letting the heady aromas of cheese mingle with the saltiness of the butter.

The scones in the picture have been made with a few ounces of wholemeal flour replacing some of the self-raising, so they haven’t risen as high as if they had been made entirely with self-raising and are browner than usual. Himself wants bacon in the morning, not porridge, so Magpie is delivering fibre through a different method from usual. Cunning bird.