When life gives you lemons

Hope is something we’re in short supply of at the moment, at a time when we need it most. I’ve never been so aware of the power of light as during the pandemic. The long, light-filled summer days were like a balm that soothed the wounds inflicted by months of self isolation, making a difficult situation more bearable. Spending months on my own, I became acutely aware of the passing of time, and with it the changing seasons. As spring unfurled into summer, the warmth and abundance of light seemed like a symbol of hope; a reminder of brighter days ahead.

The clocks went back today and by 5pm the sky had turned to ink. As our days get shorter and light more scarce, the need to cling to hope becomes ever more important. For those feeling blue, solace can be sought in the simplest of ingredients – the lemon – the ultimate symbol of hope. Its vivid yellow hue and delightfully dimpled skin is enough to lift the spirits. There’s something inherently optimistic about lemons. They embody all that is wonderful about the world – a distillation of sunlight and warmth. Ripening slowly, like a photograph they capture a moment in time, expressing the essence of summer in their bracing juice.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Girl Holding Lemons

I find it hard to imagine life without lemons – it would be like living without sleep or sunlight. While we regularly cook with them, we almost never enjoy them as a solo act, but their power cannot be underestimated. A spritz can enliven all manner of dishes, from a delicate piece of fish or a simple salad to a decadent dessert. The lemon is as fundamental and important to cooking as salt for enhancing flavour.

My love of lemons is entwined with my love of Italy. I remember being beguiled the first time I saw the size of the lemons growing on the Amalfi coast. They looked like colossal mutant cousins of the dainty citrus fruit we get in the UK. Staying true to his Italian roots, Alessandro Palazzi uses Amalfi lemons in his lethally strong Martinis at Dukes Bar, pinching the lemon peel so its essential oils infuse into the gin, meaning before you take your first sip, you’re treated to its potent perfume.

The word lemon comes from the Persian word ‘limu’. The origin of the fruit is disputed, though citrus trees have flourished in the foothills of the Himalayas for centuries. The lemon is thought to have first grown in Assam in northeastern India, entering Europe via southern Italy in the second century AD, though it would be a long time before the fruit was widely cultivated. Considered a rare luxury in ancient Rome, before being used in food, lemon trees served as ornamental plants and were used in medicine. It wasn’t until the 15th century that they were widely cultivated, with Genoa, rather than Sicily or Amalfi, serving as the production hub.

My ultra zingy lemon drizzle cake

What better way to let the lemon express itself in all its mouth-puckering glory than in a lemon drizzle cake? I’m often bitterly disappointed by the whispering suggestion of lemon in shop bought versions, as if us Brits might not be able to cope with the zingy onslaught of the real deal. Citrus fiends looking for a confident hit of lemon in their drizzle cake, should give this recipe a go. It bills itself as ‘the world’s best lemon drizzle cake’, and, having made it five times, I’m inclined to agree.

I go one step further and add the juice of two lemons to the batter, in addition to using two lemons in the syrup. This pushes the cake to its lemony limit, weeding out all but the most ardent of citrus lovers. It’s a celebration of sourness and the high juice content means it stays marvellously moist for days. As the nights draw in and sunshine becomes more scarce, the lemon serves as a reminder of brighter days ahead. That this too shall pass. That spring will return and life will renew itself. That however dark it may feel right now, there is reason for hope.

No time to baste

The money shot – a dry brine crisps up the skin

Dear reader, I have a confession to make. I have never roasted a chicken. Quite how I’ve managed to avoid such a classic dish my entire adult life is a feat that surprises me, but roasting a bird has always seemed like a culinary step too far. I have, thus far, felt ill equipped to tackle such an endeavour. There are so many ways to slip up, I’ve never had the gumption to give it a go. “You can always judge the quality of a cook by roast chicken. A juicy, brown, buttery, crisp-skinned, heavenly bird requires a greed for perfection,” says Julia Child. No pressure then.

“Some of the most glorious French dishes have been created for chicken – the most important aspect is that you procure a good, flavoursome bird,” advises Julia. “If you buy on price alone you’ll often end up with something that tastes like the stuffing inside a teddy bear”. The Holy Grail of the poultry world is Poulet de Bresse – a breed of chicken from eastern France revered for its rich depth of flavour and tender flesh. While chickens have been eaten as far back as 600BC, they didn’t become a staple until the Middle Ages, when spit roasting came into fashion.

In 16th century Britain, before steam and clockwork, spits were turned by small dogs that were bred specifically for the task. The clever canines were taught to run on a wheel that turned the roasting spit in cavernous kitchen fireplaces. How they were kept from devouring the meat is remarkable. The first thing that surprised me while hunting for a bird was how inexpensive they are. As I was only cooking it for myself, I sought out the smallest chicken I could find, which cost just £3.

Having struck upon a selection of petit poulets, I arranged them in a row in a bid to choose the prettiest bird, which sounds absurd, but they varied quite dramatically in shape, so I went for the neatest looking one. Having grappled with chicken livers for my last blog post, coming face to face with a whole chicken felt less gruesome, though seeing the pair of neck bones jutting up where its head once resided made me feel a little queasy. Bird home, before I got to work prepping it I felt I ought to do my research. While this was probably a good idea it sent me down a rabbit hole.

There is no single way to roast a chicken – the options available to the novice cook are dizzying. I ended up feeling so confused by the contradictory recipes that I putt of cooking it for a day. This worked in my favour, as I was able to experiment with a ‘cheffy’ technique – dry brining. In the quest for crisp skin, I patted the bird dry then doused it in salt to draw out the moisture, leaving it in the fridge overnight. Keen to get ahead, I made my roast potatoes in advance, adding a teaspoon of baking soda while parboiling them to crisp up their skins even further.

While olive oil is far healthier, I opted to slather my spuds in beef dripping, giving them a shuffle every 20 minutes to ensure an even roasting, and flinging in a few sprigs of rosemary towards the end for a herbal hit. They emerged gloriously golden and satisfyingly crunchy – if I ended up cremating the chicken then at least I’d nailed the roasties. You’re supposed to take your bird out of the fridge an hour before putting it in the oven. I forgot, which was the start of my downfall.

At least my roasties were a triumph

Then there’s the fiddly business of trussing, which requires the dexterity of a sailor to do successfully. Lacking butchers twine, I had to make do with thread. Tying its legs together and keeping its wings in place is said to result in a more even roast. Having generously seasoned it the night before, I was tempted to smear the bird in butter, as Julia suggests – she even massages it into the cavity – but moisture is the enemy of crispy skin and Thomas Keller advises against lubrication of any kind.

To prop the chicken up, you’re supposed to lay it on a bed of veg. All I had to hand was a bag of carrots that were on the turn, which I hoped would do the trick. The Keller recipe gives the bird a short blast of heat at a very high temperature (230°) – in an hour I was promised a golden bird with crisp skin and moist flesh. It sounded too good to be true. Cranking up the heat, I lay my bird on its bed of browning carrots, slid it into the oven and hoped for the best. Basting fanatic Julia would have been horrified that I didn’t regularly reach into the oven to moisten the bird.

My little bird, trussed and ready to go

“One is under compulsion to hover over the bird and see that it is continually basted”, she said. My fuss free recipe meant I could squeeze in a Joe Wicks workout while the oven worked its magic. After an hour I retrieved my prize and stuck a thermometer in its thigh. It shot up to 180° – higher than required. The skin had crisped up nicely – it looked like I was on to a winner. But after hours of agonising over the recipe and an anxious wait for the results, my appetite had disappeared. Just as well it had, as when I ripped off one of the legs, the flesh was pink inside.

Treating the exercise like a science experiment, I conducted a post mortem. As Keller promised, the flesh throughout was moist, but much of it was far pinker than I would have been comfortable eating. The breast meat just beneath the skin was swan white and beautifully tender, but the sight of so much pink meat put me off trying it. Roasting a chicken is a fine art I’ve yet to master. I’m looking forward to experimenting with different techniques. My next bird is getting slathered in butter and a lemon up its bottom. I may also, in Julia’s honour, give it a good basting.

Practice makes parfait

Having been given a shiny new set of knives for my birthday last week, I was eager to put them to good use. My collection thus far has come together almost by accident, acquiring the odd one here and there with each new flat share. I can’t remember how most of them ended up in my possession, but all of them are blunt beyond salvation. This made the joy of using my gleaming new quartet all the sweeter. Slicing a tomato with a pristine blade is like cutting through silk.

Having largely avoided meat dishes so far on my French culinary journey, I felt it was time to tackle a classic – chicken liver parfait. Despite enjoying many a mouthful of the luxuriously creamy starter, I’d never given its origins much thought. Scouring the supermarket aisles for chicken livers gave me a perverse thrill – like I was venturing into dangerous territory only brave cooks dare to tread. Having struck upon them, I picked up the packet and gazed in fascination at the tightly packed livers enveloped in a pool of blood the colour of ruby Port.

They filled me with terror, but, if handled with care, the reward would be worth the ordeal of cooking organs. I’m not wildly carnivorous and turn green at the sight of blood, so it took me a few minutes to muster the courage to open the packet. It was the smell I was most worried about. A smell, I feared, that may be like a tiny rehearsal for death. Julia Child’s advice to “remove any greenish or blackish spots” did little to assuage my fear. Upending the packet, my chopping board became my operating table. The livers were surprisingly silky in texture, smooth to the touch like polished pebbles. I found myself working through them with confidence, only squirming once or twice when removing the sinewy white connecting tissue.

Not for the squeamish – the ruby red livers are sautéed with shallots and thyme

Like so many French recipes, the parfait begins with a base of chopped shallots, hot melted butter and a sprig of thyme. I have no idea whether Julia intended to be saucy in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I rather hope she did, but so many of her instructions seem suffused with smut. For the handling of the livers, she advises to sauté them “until they are just stiffened but still rosy inside”, which takes around three minutes. Parfaits are raised from the mundane to the magnificent with a hearty glug of booze. Anything from Port and brandy to Madeira will work, the latter’s inherent sweetness adding to the decadence of the dish.

Having recently run out of Madeira, I opted instead for a sweet Sherry and a miniature bottle of 1992 Frapin Cognac, having been sent two samples in the post for a tasting when the first failed to arrive on time. With all cooking, the better the wine or spirit you’re prepared to use, the better the outcome. I used two shots of each. While Julia suggests lobbing the livers into the blender before they’ve seen a whisper of alcohol, I let mine mingle in the boozy broth for a minute to soak up the flavour, then reduced the sauce down to three intense spoonfuls.

At this stage allspice is added for warmth (nutmeg works equally well), along with a generous pinch of salt and pepper – confident seasoning is key to a tasty parfait – and 1/8 of a pint of double cream, because almost every Child recipe requires it. Raymond Blanc and Heston Blumenthal like to use eggs in their parfaits, but they’re by no means necessary. After less than a minute in the blender, the parfait starts to take shape. It gets its velvety texture from the slow addition of melted butter added while the motor is running as you would with oil while making mayonnaise.

The smooth liquid looks more like chocolate mousse than chicken liver

A paté becomes a parfait from one simple move – passing it through a sieve to refine its texture, making it impossibly smooth, as if whipped by angels. Reading that the recipe required a sieve made me shudder, bringing back painful memories of grappling with prawn shells while preparing a bisque. Parfait is far more forgiving. Gliding through the mesh with ease, the smooth brown liquid looked more like chocolate mousse than a savoury snack.

Julia has an aspic fetish – “a beautifully flavoured and moulded creation glittering in aspic is always impressive as a first course” – but I bypassed the jelly mould and dolloped the mixture straight into a pair of ramekins. They need at least three hours of chill time in the fridge to set, but if you can wait until the next day, the parfait will be all the more delicious, giving it ample time for the flavours to infuse. Many chefs believe parfait tastes best after two days, making it the perfect dinner party dish for time poor urbanites who like to talk to their guests.

Practice makes parfait

With chicken livers costing just £1 a packet, it’s hard to find a more luxurious dish made with cheaper ingredients. Rich, decadent, velvety smooth and creamy, my generous measures of Coganc and Sherry paid off, the alcohol adding sweetness and spice to the intensely savoury, earthy flavour of the parfait. It comes into its own when liberally slathered over brioche and crowned with a dollop of sticky fig chutney. It tasted so sophisticated I had trouble believing that I’d made it.

A word of warning – dispose of the discarded liver as soon as the parfaits are in the fridge. I made the mistake of leaving mine to fester over night and woke up to what smelt like a rotting corpse in my kitchen that took a deep clean to remove. But if you act quickly and use good quality alcohol, this French favourite is richly rewarding.

Holy crêpe

The flamboyant Luigi Cagnin makes crêpes Suzette with theatrical flair at The Ritz

Is there anything more French than a pile of paper-thin crêpes ready to be slathered in Nutella, squeezed with lemon, or stuffed with cheese then rolled up tightly like a Turkish rug? While the humble crêpe is easy to make from three store cupboard staples – flour, eggs and milk – a sweet version of the dish, crêpes Suzette, is served at grand hotels the world over and lauded as a retro classic. While the origin of the dish is disputed, it’s hard not to be taken in by one particular story involving a 14-year-old apprentice chef and the future king of England.

In his biography, Henri Carpentier claims he invented the dish by accident in 1895 when preparing a dessert for Queen Victoria’s son, the future King Edward VII, at the Café de Paris in Monte-Carlo. Aged just 14 and working as an apprentice chef, Carpentier was making crêpes for the king’s dining party at their table when the orange liqueur he doused them in caught fire. Worried he’d ruined the dessert and terrified of keeping the king waiting, he surreptitiously tried a spoonful of the syrup and found it to be “the most delicious melody of sweet flavours” he had ever tasted, which “would reform a cannibal to a civilised gentleman”.

My quartet of crêpes await their orange bath

Confident the dessert was fit for a king, Carpentier served his accidental creation to Edward, who was so taken with it that he asked for a spoon so he could enjoy every last sugary drop of the liqueur-laced sauce. Plate clean, he asked what the dish was called. Thinking on his feet, Carpentier dubbed it ‘crêpes Princesse’. In honour of the French lady in his dining party, Edward suggested the dish be called ‘crêpes Suzette’. Delighted by his dessert, the following day the king sent Carpentier three gifts to show his gratitude – a bejewelled ring, a Panama hat and a walking cane. Whether the story is true or not, it’s a wonderful nugget of culinary history.

Crêpes Suzette will forever remind me of a sublime five-hour birthday lunch I enjoyed at The Ritz last year. My mum and I were seated at 1pm and didn’t leave until after six. At one point the waiting staff began hoovering around us before a few pre-theatre couples sat down for dinner while our lunch was still in full flow. It culminated in Luigi Cagnin, the restaurant’s larger-than-life manager, a charming Venetian dressed in a navy blue tailcoat, theatrically preparing the pudding at our table while telling us the story of the how the dish came to be.

While the crêpes bubbled away happily, the addition of Cointreau failed to ignite their interest

Dousing the pancakes with a generous glug of Grand Marnier, Cagnin worked the flaming pan like a magician, filling the room with the glorious scent of melted butter. Having yet to see my mum or enter a restaurant since lockdown, the memory of that blissful afternoon is all the more precious and poignant. Keen to make the dish myself, I grabbed my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and went straight to desserts. Julia has some sage advice for crêpes Suzette novices: “If you plan to perform in public, it is a good idea to practice on your family until you become adept at folding and flaming”. Luckily for my family, I live alone.

I soon lost patience with Julia’s recipe, as the first instruction involved rubbing sugar lumps over the skin of two oranges. The recipe felt unnecessarily labour intensive, so I abandoned it in favour of Nigella Lawson’s version, who says, “If you’ve ever thought of crêpes Suzette as some amusing vestige from an irrelevant culinary canon, think again”. I quickly set about zesting an orange, which filled the kitchen with a magnificent scent that took me straight to Seville. Nigella’s recipe calls for the juice of two oranges, but, being a citrus fiend, I used three.

The scent of the freshly squeezed orange juice filled me with nostalgia. Perhaps because scent is so closely linked to memory, the fragrant citrus reminded me of the sweet smell of orange peel in an Old Fashioned and filled me with longing for an expertly mixed drink, elegant surroundings and the company of strangers. I digress… Batter made, while crafting the crêpes I put on Christine and the Queens for added French flair. Why is the first pancake always such a disaster?

My version of the dish was less syrupy and sweet than the one I enjoyed at The Ritz

I managed to make four lace-like crêpes, which I folded into quarters and arranged in a fan shape in a pan where they awaited their orange bath. Nigella’s recipe cuts corners, and sees the orange juice, zest, sugar and almost an entire packet of butter flung in the saucepan at once. Most recipes begin with creating a caramel from the sugar and butter, to which the orange juice is gradually added. Once it thickens into a syrup, you pour it onto the crêpes and let the flavours fuse on a low heat. Bottle of Blood Orange Cointreau in hand, my inner pyromaniac was gearing up for action.

Having deeply enjoyed setting fire to my mushroom stroganoff a few weeks ago, I was looking forward to giving Cagnin competition in the flame department. To my huge disappointment, nothing happened when I added two shots of Cointreau to the pan. Not even a whisper of a flame. The pancakes bubbled away nonchalantly, oblivious to the alcohol onslaught. This may explain why my crêpes were so boozy – I didn’t burn off all the alcohol – but this only added to their appeal.

The sweet syrupy symphony of orange, butter and booze is a delightful one, and I wolfed down two crêpes at lightening speed, making like King Edward and slurping up every last drop of sauce with a spoon. The other two crêpes were left swimming in the saucepan. They looked a little sad there, and were crying out for hungry mouths to devour them. Cooking a dinner party dish at a time like this is bitter sweet. It made me hanker for the chance to entertain again. To break bread with friends and talk until the small hours. I miss the freedoms we all took for granted.

Fish for breakfast?

King George V and Queen Mary arriving in Delhi in 1911

One of the plus sides of being a journalist during the lockdown is that high profile people have suddenly found themselves with a surplus of time on their hands and nowhere to go, making it far easier than usual to access these celestial beings. Among the more surreal moments of lockdown so far is having a Zoom chat with Lord Carnarvon, owner of the real Downton Abbey – Highclere Castle in Hampshire – about his new gin, which is made with botanicals from the castle grounds, including lavender, orange peel and oats usually used to fuel racehorses.

Carnarvon’s great grandfather, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in 1922 with archaeologist Howard Carter. My Italian grandmother grew up in Alexandria, so Egypt has always held a fascination for me. After chatting about his gin, Lord Carnarvon told me about his great grandfather’s fateful find. “Sadly, he died in the hour of his triumph. While in Egypt he got bitten on the face by a mosquito, which got infected and led to pneumonia. Curiously, the weakest part of Tutankahmun’s gold mask is exactly the same place where my great grandfather got bitten,” he revealed.

While kedgeree can be made with salmon, it traditionally features smoked haddock

“My grandfather was quite superstitious of the story, and chose not to trumpet it as the extraordinary feat it was. After he died my father discovered an incredible collection of Egyptian objects in a hidden cupboard between the drawing room and the smoking room while doing an inventory in 1988 with his very Carson-like butler, Robert. Among the objects was a ladies make-up set, tweezers and an eye decorating kit dating back to the time of Hatshepsut, one of the first female pharaohs who pioneered expeditions to the Horn of Africa.”

The day after our intriguing phone call, a bottle of Highclere Castle Gin and a weighty coffee table tome, At Home at Highclere, written by the Countess of Carnarvon, arrived at my door. Within it was a recipe for Anglo-Indian breakfast dish kedgeree. Keen for a break from French food, I decided to give it a go. A Victorian breakfast staple, kedgeree became popular in the 19th century during the height of the British empire. According to Larousse Gastronomique, the dish’s roots date back to the 14th century, when it was a simpler concoction of spiced lentils, rice, fried onions and ginger known as ‘khichiri’.

The fish can be poached in water or stock, but warm milk and a couple of bay leaves works a treat

British colonists developed a taste for khichiri, and, with fish being a mainstay of the Raj breakfast table, Indian cooks soon began integrating the two, later adding soft boiled eggs as a garnish. The fish used was unlikely to be the smoked haddock found in kedgeree today. Rather, cooks would fling in the catch of the day, serving it for breakfast so it didn’t spoil in the heat. Keen to enjoy the exotic dish back home, the colonists brought the recipe to Britain, and it soon became a Victorian breakfast table staple, the mildness of the spicing appealing to Brits’ delicate palates – Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale were particularly partial to the dish.

One of the joys of kedgeree is its versatility – it can be eaten hot or cold at any time of day, but the sweet spot is serving it warm as a brunch dish. While wildly unfashionable at the moment, I feel kedgeree is due a revival, and could one day rival the likes of shakshuka as a hipster brunch favourite. Lord Carnarvon likes his with salmon, but I went traditional with smoked haddock, poaching the golden hunks in warm milk. Kedgeree is a relatively simple dish to make, but it’s a true test of your multitasking skills. At one point I had all four hobs on the go and felt like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia making magic with the elements from his clifftop perch.

I made enough kedgeree to feed an army, garnishing the dish with soft boiled eggs, peas and parsley

It doesn’t really matter which parts of the dish you do first – ideally you’ll be boiling your eggs, cooking your rice and poaching your fish at the same time to ensure none of them end up going cold. The haddock needs to simmer in its milky bath for around 10 minutes. For added flavour, you can cook the rice in the milk that poached the fish, but the real flavour comes from the fried onions, butter and curry powder added afterwards. A tablespoon of turmeric helps to ramp up the vivid yellow of the rice in a similar way to saffron. The eggs need eight minutes, so they’re hard enough to keep their shape but soft enough to retain their gooey yolks.

The jury is out as to whether peas have a rightful place in the dish. I love the flashes of green they brought to the party, which popped wonderfully against the sunshine yellow of the rice. Some recipes call for cream, others don’t. Lacking any in the pantry, I used crème fraîche, which made the dish all the more luxurious. For a first attempt, I was delighted with how it turned out. The only problem was that I’d cooked enough to feed an army, so ended up having to eat the damn thing for the next three days. Cold kedgeree can by jazzed up with a generous squirting of Kewpie mayo, though I’m not sure Queen Victoria would have approved.