Everything you need to know about the deadly Blue Whale suicide game

The blue whale suicide game is prompting young people to end their lives.

Something macabre has been brewing on the internet, and it sounds like the perfect plot for a third rate horror film. A depressed youngster comes across a social media group called Blue Whales. The group encourages him to take his life. It also promises to make his exit from this world fun by turning the suicide into a thrilling game. After signing up, the youngster is assigned daily tasks for the next 50 days. It includes inflicting self-injury, watching horror movies, waking up at odd hours to wrap the task and even carving a whale shape on the arms. The task keeps getting tougher with each passing day. On the last (50th day), the game admin ask the youngster to commit suicide. Those who want to back out on the last day are threatened that their family members will be hurt if they don’t abide by the game rules. There is no exit.

Carving out a whale shape on the arm is one of the task assigned.

It seems that the deadly game that originated in Russia has taken the life of a 14-year-old boy in Andheri East, Mumbai. Manpreet Singh, who jumped off the terrace of a seven-storey building on Saturday, could be the first victim of the network.

This psychopathic game started in Russia four years ago on a social networking site called VKontakte. It has already claimed over 130 lives in Russia. It allegedly led to its first suicide in 2015. Philipp Budeikin, a psychology student claimed that he invented the game. Budeikin, who was thrown out of his university, said he was attempting to weed out the society by encouraging those who have no value to take their lives. Other reports claim that the mastermind behind the game, a postman called Ilya Sidorov, 26, was arrested in Moscow, Russia. He used to encourage teenagers to hurt themselves and eventually commit suicide.

What is worrying is that despite the common knowledge that the deadly game started and spread on VKontakte, which is a hugely popular site in Russia, no checks were brought in place to contain the network. One can easily create a VKontakte account . And once you log in, and search for #bluewhale, you come across psychotic, extremely depressing messages of young people desperately wanting to play the game and end their lives. Their profiles are as macabre as it can get. There are pictures of self-injury, ghosts and horrifying sketches of people bleeding and trying to kill themselves.

When this journalist created an account on VKontakte, and asked a few users about Blue Whale, she was sent a link to a page that claimed to add people to the Blue Whale network. The page was full of eerie sketches, including one that showed a bloodied male figure hurting himself with a knife. The curator of the page called Aisha Andrew chatted with her, and told her that there can be no looking back once a person begins the game. The first task that she was assigned was to carve ‘F57’ on her arm with a blade at 4:20 am and send a picture. Here are the screenshots of the chat:

Dr Pulkit Sharma, psychologist, says that we need to immediately ban access to such social networking sites. “It’s important to restrict such content. When a person is depressed, he or she is in a very fragile state of mind. Anyone who seems powerful to them and comes across as an anchor point, can have the potential to influence their mind. When you tell a depressed person that he can live, and there is hope, they don’t find such words to be realistic. But if someone tells him that he is fit to die, and there is nothing wrong is seeking liberation and suicide is an easier, logical way out, he immediately relates to it. Exposure to such content is extremely dangerous for depressed young people.”

Sharma says that the network seems to be a creation of a psychopath. “Such people believe that they are larger than life. They are on a special mission and they have a weird agenda that makes sense to them. They are fanatical and psychopathic. They see things in extreme, in black and white, the way the alleged creator of the Blue Whale network believes that if he eradicates depressed people, this world will be a happy place,” he says. Such a psychopathic mind could be an outcome of extreme childhood abuse, neglect and trauma.

Watch out for signs of depression and suicidal tendencies:

Feeling low most of the time

Withdrawal from favourite activities

Fear, anxiety, despair

Addiction to social media

Sleep disturbances

Irritability

Aggression

Lethargy

Sluggishness

Tiredness

How to make the perfect staffordshire oatcakes

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Shrove Tuesday may have been and gone, the annual greasy round wiped from the kitchen ceiling, the dog back on non-burnt offerings – but this is one pancake that deserves to stay on the menu all year round. These floppy flatbreads are just as delicious as their crisp Scottish cousins, and certainly make a better bacon butty.

Though there are spurious links to India, with claims that the local oatcake was inspired by the chapatis the North Staffordshire regiment enjoyed while stationed there in the days of the Raj, in fact oat breads were already a staple food in Britain’s uplands before her empire was even a twinkle in a megalomaniac’s bloodthirsty eye. They were quick to produce on the hearth in the days before domestic ovens were commonplace, and Sir Humphry Davy noted in his 1813 work, Elements of Agricultural Chemistry, that “the Derbyshire miners in winter, prefer oatcakes to wheaten bread; finding that this kind of nourishment enables them to support their strength and perform their labour better”.

They were once sold from “holes in the wall” throughout the region, and specialist oatcake bakers are still going strong, each with its devoted band of fiercely loyal customers. But for those of us outside the area, the staffordshire oatcake, as it is often referred to, is a difficult beast to track down (I’m with Rose Prince in thinking that “there is something scandalous about supermarket bakery aisles groaning with pitta bread, tortilla wraps and naan but without a single traditional oatcake in sight”). Happily, however, they are not hard to master, and they make for a mighty fine weekend breakfast or tea, preferably topped with melted cheese. Once Lent is over, at least.

Mary-Anne Boermans staffordshire oatcakes

The flour

Although many early recipes seem to use oats alone, including the one published in the Burton Daily Mail in 1917, and that collected in Florence White’s 1932 Good Things in England, most modern oatcakes are made with a proportion of wheat flour as well, giving them a slightly lighter flavour and texture. The plain flour suggested by Stoke DJ and “oatcake obsessive” Terry Bossons will work, but the high-gluten bread variety preferred by Elizabeth David in her English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Mary-Anne Boermans and Marwood Yeatman will give your oatcakes a more elastic strength useful for wrapping them around a filling.

David recommends using the white kind, but testers prefer the flavour that comes from a mix of white and wholemeal in Boermans and Yeatman’s recipes. I have increased the ratio of oat to wheat flour slightly to give the cakes a more emphatically oaty flavour; if you can’t find finely ground oatmeal, follow Boermans’s advice and grind your own from porridge oats in the food processor or blender. (I like to leave them fairly coarse, because it gives the oatcakes a more interesting texture, but though this may have been the case in the past, commercially produced oatcakes these days tend to be fairly smooth.)

Marwood Yeatman staffordshire oatcakes

The liquid

Again, older recipes are generally more spartan, moistening the batter with water alone, but David, Yeatman and Boermans use equal parts milk and warm water, giving the oatcakes a richer flavour and slightly softer consistency. (Milk also precludes the need to add a pinch of sugar to help the yeast do its work, as some recipes recommend.)

Boermans prefers a “a batter that is rather thicker than the traditional, which results in a thicker oatcake. In my defence, it makes for a more durable oatcake which I can then turn easily in the pan without it breaking, and it ‘laces’ beautifully, the surface becoming dappled with the characteristic pockmarks and holes seen also on pikelets and crumpets. The thickness also allows for a wonderful contrast when toasted between the crisp outsides and the fluffy insides.” In fact, her oatcakes may well be closer to the original style than she realises: Yeatman notes in The Last Food of England that the oatcake has undergone a “change in identity” since going commercial. Once sourdough, mixed in wooden tubs “impregnated with years of barm and allowed to retain a little batter … which started the next fermentation … the modern oatcake, probably universal by 1914, is less than half the width, thinner, softer, regular and raised with compressed yeast”. However, I find a thinner batter much easier to work with.

Rose Prince’s staffordshire oatcakes

The yeast

As Yeatman explains, oatcakes these days use manufactured, rather than wild yeast, though I would love to try a sourdough version if anyone has a tried-and-tested recipe. Most of the versions I try call for fresh yeast (available from bakers, or even at the bakery counter of large supermarkets), but no one can detect any difference in flavour between fresh and the dried yeast that goes into Boermans’s pancakes, so use whichever you find easiest to get hold of and work with.

Bossons also adds bicarbonate of soda and baking powder to his batter in a belt-and-braces approach that does indeed yield a lovely lacy texture, but also gives them a marked chemical flavour no one is very keen on. Whether this is intentional or not (bicarbonate of soda isn’t an uncommon ingredient), it doesn’t go down well here. If your batter isn’t bubbly enough without it, it may be time to buy some more yeast.

Extras

Laura Mason and Catherine Brown’s book, The Taste of Britain, mentions adding a little melted bacon fat to the batter. I give it a try in Prince’s recipe, but find it makes the batter rather soft and prone to falling apart when turned – better, we decide, to cook them in lard or bacon drippings if they’re available, or simply to serve them with the stuff instead. Clarified butter also works well, but you can use just about any fat you like given that the pan only needs to be lightly greased (though if you choose coconut oil, please don’t tell me about it).

Oatcakes can be as little or large as your heart desires (the small variety are known as “little dippers”, according to Yeatman) but Mason and Brown describe the standard kind as about 20cm in diameter, and 4mm thick. They are traditionally cooked on a hot bakestone of the kind also used to make Welsh cakes and crumpets, as well as Scottish oatcakes, but these days it is easiest to make them in the same hot frying pan you would use for any other pancake, though, given their size, I find it easiest to turn them with a plate rather than attempting to flip.

Serve with just about anything you like – although I would recommend them as a particularly delicious edible plate for a fry-up.

Felicity Cloake’s perfect staffordshire oatcakes

Makes 10 large oatcakes
450ml milk + 450ml warm water
250g finely ground oats (you can grind ordinary oats in a food processor)
100g strong wholemeal flour
100g strong white flour
1 tsp fine salt
4g dry yeast or 10g fresh yeast
Fat of your choice to cook (lard, bacon drippings, clarified butter, vegetable oil)

Heat the milk with the same amount of water in a pan until about blood temperature.

Meanwhile, mix the oats, flours and salt in a large bowl. Mix the yeast with a little of the warm liquid and then cover and leave until frothy. Stir into the dry ingredients and then whisk in the remaining liquid until smooth. Cover and leave in a warm place for about an hour until bubbly, or overnight in the fridge if you prefer.

Grease a large frying pan with a little fat and put on a medium-high heat. When hot enough for the batter to sizzle as it hits it, give the bowl a quick whisk, then add a ladleful to the pan and tilt to spread it out. Cook until dry on top, then loosen the edges and carefully turn it over (depending on the size, it may be easiest to flip it on to a plate or board slightly larger than the pan) then slide it back into the pan. Add any toppings you would like to melt or heat through (cheese, for example), and cook until golden on the bottom. Fold over and eat, or allow to cool then cover and store in the fridge or freezer, reheating in a dry pan before use.

 

How to cook the perfect boeuf bourguignon

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It’s a mystery to me how this giant of the French classical repertoire has escaped the clutches of this column for so long. Richard Olney (another big beast of the Gallic cookery scene) describes boeuf bourguignon as “probably the most widely known of all French preparations”, while Elizabeth David introduces it as “a favourite among those carefully composed, slowly cooked dishes, which are the domain of French housewives and owner-cooks of modest restaurants rather than of professional chefs”.

Sounds manageable. Yet Olney goes on, slightly worryingly, that “beef burgundy certainly deserves its reputation – or would if the few details essential to its success were more often respected. There is nothing difficult about its preparation, but there are no shortcuts.” And David doesn’t help the situation, with the airy assertion that “such dishes do not, of course, have a rigid formula, each cook interpreting it according to her taste”.

According to Larousse Gastronomique, la bourguignonne refers to anything (generally “poached eggs, meat, fish or sauteed chicken”) cooked with red wine and “usually garnished with small onions, button mushrooms and pieces of fat bacon”. That much we know. Everything else, it seems, is up for grabs.

The beef

While, like most stews, this will work with almost all slow-cooking cuts, chefs have their own particular preferences. Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham call for “well-hung sinewy beef – chuck, shoulder or shin perhaps” in The Prawn Cocktail Years. Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook specifies paleron of beef, which, a helpful butcher informs me, means featherblade. Richard Olney’s much lauded French Menu Cookbook suggests Desperate Dan-style heel (which takes a while to track down) and Michel Roux Jr’s The French Kitchen opts for “braising beef (chuck is good but cheek is best)”. Harry Eastwood is also a fan of cheek, writing in Carneval that: “My father introduced me to the joys of eating cheeks … [and] it turns out that beef cheeks are the perfect vehicles for a bourguignon since they absorb all the flavours in the pan and the meat surrenders completely.”

Anthony Bourdain’s boeuf bourguignon

Featherblade proves the least successful with testers – it’s just too lean, which makes it seem rather dry in comparison with the more gelatinous cuts. A good well-marbled chuck (not always the case with supermarket versions) does the job, and the more gelatine-rich shin and heel are even better, but my own favourite is the cheek, which seems to offer the best balance between meat and melt. Cut it into relatively large chunks because, as Hopkinson and Bareham observe, “A true boeuf à la bourguignonne is not about little cubes of meat stewed in Hirondelle.”

Olney’s is the only recipe to marinate the meat before use; Roux cautions against it, warning that “I find this makes for a gamey flavour that’s not entirely true to the original”. Some testers agree, but my problem with it is that, far from tenderising the meat, it seems oddly to have dried it out slightly. Whether or not the wine is actually to blame, the meat should have plenty of time to absorb its flavour in the oven, rendering such a step pointless.

Hopkinson and Bareham also add a gelatine-rich pig’s trotter to the stew, presumably in order to give it body and richness. This certainly works, but trotters are not always easy for everyone to get hold of. One tester suggests that the more commonly available oxtail might do the same job even better is a good one. You can leave it on the bone if you like, although I prefer to strip it off after cooking so the meat is more evenly distributed.

Marinaded meat in Richard Olney’s beef bourguignon.

The pork

Boeuf bourguignon almost always contains cured pork, too – after all, this is a French recipe, and two meats are better than one. Certainly my testers are not happy with its omission in Bourdain’s dish. Olney, who I am quickly learning to fear, warns me that “if good lean salt pork is not available, omit it; do not substitute bacon, the smoky flavour of which … distorts and muddles the otherwise clean, distinct flavour of the sauce”. Proving that one man’s muddle is another’s masterpiece, Eastwood’s smoked lardons and Roux’s smoked streaky don’t seem to go down too badly with the panel, but the simpler savoury flavour of green bacon seems less likely to distract from the wine, which is, after all, the whole point of the dish. (If you have access to salt pork, you may wish to poach it briefly before use to tame its aggressive salinity, as Olney does. There’s no need with bacon or pancetta – you’ll only spoil it.)

The vegetables

The traditional Burgundian garnish of button mushrooms and miniature onions ought to be non-negotiable, preferably sauteed until golden in the fat from the bacon, as Eastwood, Olney, Hopkinson and Bareham suggest. In this way, they absorb some of its savoury richness. The Prawn Cocktail Years recipe adds the vegetables to the stew for the entire cooking time, while Roux and Olney cook them through separately, which is a bit of a faff, especially when the former demands they’re done in three separate pans. All very well with a kitchen brigade at your disposal, but I prefer Eastwood’s method, which adds the the sauteed vegetables to the beef for the final half hour of cooking instead. Much easier.

Instead of the tiny pearl onions most recipes recommend, Bourdain uses the ordinary kind, thinly sliced and caramelised. Some testers like the sweetness they add to the dish, but we all agree their assertive flavour does give his version something of the soupe à l’oignon. If you can’t find pearl onions or another diminutive variety, small shallots are better than nothing.

Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham add a pig’s trotter.

Carrots are also common; the baby variety favoured by Eastwood and Roux make the most pleasing garnish aesthetically, but ordinary sized ones, cut into large chunks, work just as well in the flavour department. (The same goes for ordinary mushrooms as opposed to the button sort.)

The liquids

The principal flavour here ought to be dry, fruity red wine of the kind produced in Burgundy, although for those of us buying wine in the UK, I’m not convinced that sticking an actual Burgundian pinot noir into the oven for 3 hours isn’t a criminal waste of both wine and money (Olney demands a “good red burgundy” no less). I make one with the authentic product (the cheapest I can find over here is nearly £9) and the rest with an inoffensive but rather cheaper red from the south-west, and no one remarks on the difference, even when it’s pointed out. So, unless you have an extremely discerning palate, I’d recommend saving your cash for a good burgundy to drink with it instead.

Puzzlingly, Bourdain uses only a cup of wine in his version, which might explain why everyone describes it as more like beef stew than a bourguignon, with one observing that, “If you added some dumplings it would make a lovely hotpot.” A whole bottle is required for maximum impact, preferably reduced to concentrate its flavour: Olney does so after cooking, but this involves lifting out the meat and vegetables and then warming everything back up together so it seems far easier to do all the simmering first, as Roux and the Prawn Cocktail Years recommend, so the dish can be served straight from the oven. While you’re at it, add a few aromatics, as the latter recipe suggests, for a more rounded gravy.

A splash of brandy, although not absolutely necessary, does add a little more complexity to the dish. If you don’t have it, however, it’s not a disaster.

Harry Eastwood’s beef bourguignon.

Other liquids

Most recipes also use stock of some kind, generally beef, veal or even, for a lighter gravy, Eastwood’s chicken or vegetable alternative. Bourdain tops up the wine with water instead, and even with his optional couple of spoonfuls of demi glace, or concentrated veal stock, testers find his gravy thin and a little insipid. “It’s just very … ordinary.” And ordinary is definitely not what we’re after here.

Flouring the meat will both help it brown more quickly, and thicken the sauce more quickly, though it’s certainly not essential if you would prefer to keep the dish gluten-free.

Aromatics

Like any respectable French classic worth its salt, boeuf bourguignon benefits from a bouquet garni of bay, thyme and parsley, and a little garlic. If, after all that hard work, you feel it needs a little help in the flavour department for some reason (and sometimes it happens), add a dash of Worcestershire sauce before serving, as Eastwood does, although it ought not to require any tomato puree, dijon mustard or indeed Hopkinson and Bareham’s redcurrant jelly. Add a dash of lemon juice if you think the dish needs it, but I like mine unapologetically rich and sticky.

Cooking and serving

You can cook boeuf bourguignon on the hob – it’s no doubt the original method – but I find it much easier to keep the heat constant in a moderate oven. (Plus it’s easier to clean up after yourself with the pot safely bubbling away out of sight.)

Bourguignon is traditionally served with steamed or boiled potatoes, but Roux proves he’s a true Brit by preferring his with mash. Gordon Ramsay’s celeriac puree would also work, as would Julia Child’s buttered noodles or rice. Delia Smith, meanwhile, goes for full-on flavour with pommes boulangère or ratatouille. I agree with Roux, but each to their own – just as long as there’s wine.

The perfect boeuf bourguignon.

(Serves 6)
1 bottle of fruity, relatively light dry red wine
1 onion, peeled and cut into 6 wedges
1 large carrot, scrubbed and cut into 2cm chunks
2 garlic cloves, peeled and squashed with the back of a knife
1 bay leaf,
Small bunch of parsley, plus a handful for garnish
2 sprigs of thyme
2 tbsp olive oil
35g butter
200g unsmoked bacon lardons or a thick piece of unsmoked bacon cut into 2cm cubes
24 pearl onions, or 12 small shallots
18 baby carrots
200g button mushrooms
2 tbsp flour
1kg beef cheeks, cut into 3cm chunks
400g oxtail
60ml brandy
250ml good beef stock

Put the wine in a pan with the onion, carrot, garlic and herbs and bring to the boil. Simmer for 30 minutes until reduced by about half. Heat the oven to 150C.

Heat the oil and butter in a large casserole dish over a medium-high heat, and when the foam has died down, add the bacon. Fry until golden, then scoop out with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add the bay carrots and mushrooms to the pan and saute until lightly golden, then scoop into a fresh bowl. Add the onions, turn down the heat slightly, and fry until just beginning to brown. Meanwhile, put the flour on a plate, season, then roll the beef in it. Add the onions to the other vegetables and turn up the heat slightly in the pan.

Fry the beef in batches until crusted and deeply browned, being careful not to overcrowd the pan or it will boil in its own juices (add a little more oil if it feels like it’s burning rather than browning). Scoop out and set aside in a bowl. Turn up the heat.

Add the brandy to the pan and scrape to dislodge any caramelised bits on the bottom. Strain in the reduced wine (discarding the vegetables), followed by the stock. Return the cheeks and oxtail to the pan and bring to a simmer.

Cover and bake for two and a half hours, then tip in the pearl onions, mushrooms and carrots and bake for another half an hour.

Scoop out the oxtail and strip the meat from the bones. Stir back into the pan with the lardons and season to taste. Add the remaining parsley and serve with mashed potatoes.

 

How to bake the perfect swiss roll

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ow do you make a swiss roll? Push him down a mountain. Sorry, it had to be done. Thankfully, however, there are easier ways to score a slice of this much loved and, despite the name, very British cake. Neglected in recent years in favour of flashier rivals, it’s one of those rare pieces of patisserie to combine both style, in the form of that joyous spiral of jam, and substance – though not too much: it’s a sponge, not a roly poly.

Thankfully, for something that looks so impressive, the swiss roll is surprisingly simple to master, but, as with so many such recipes, appropriately Swiss-style precision is the key to success. So what’s the secret to a featherlight sponge, and that perfect spiral of jam?

The flour

A soft sponge demands a low-gluten flour, which is why US recipes tend to cut plain flour with corn flour or some other lower-protein variety, American wheat being naturally higher in protein than the European sort. British versions occasionally flirt with the same idea in pursuit of a more velvety result. TheFortnum & Mason formula uses almost equal parts plain and potato flour (which is, apparently, popular in Scandinavian roll cakes), and Jane Hornby’s book What to Bake and How to Bake It adds a little cornflour instead. The Fortnum’s recipe in particular is so soft it’s like biting down on a cloud (reminding me fondly of abright green roll cake I once had in the Far East) but testers prefer the flavour of the all-wheat versions. British flour tends to be fairly soft in any case, but if you are after something very delicate, seek out the stuff marked as sponge or cake flour, which will have especially low levels of gluten.

Diana Beard’s lemon curd swiss roll: uses self-raising flour.

Diana Beard, a contestant in the 2014 series of The Great British Bake Off, is unfortunately remembered more for her role in Bingate than her baking, but her recipe for “Mum’s Sunday tea lemon curd swiss roll”, included in one of the series’ spin-off books, is unusual in that it uses self-raising flour, while Delia Smith’s version adds extra baking powder, too. Both rise well, but it feels a bit like cheating when, as the others prove, it’s perfectly possible to get enough air into the mixture without chemical assistance.

The eggs

Jane Hornby’s swiss roll: generous ratio of eggs to sugar.

What you do need if you’re not using baking powder, however, are eggs, and in some quantity – Beard gets away with fewer thanks to the self-raising flour, but I have stuck with the fairly generous ratio suggested by Hornby on the basis that eggs taste better than NaHCO3 and C4H6O6.

Most recipes direct the baker to whisk the eggs and sugar until “pale, very thick and several times the volume” as Annie Bell’s Baking Bible has it, but Fortnum’s goes one step further by beating the yolks with the sugar and whisking up the whites separately, so they can be folded into the batter at the last minute, allowing them to retain more air. This, I conclude, is the principal secret of its sponge’s magnificent rise – easy, once you know how.

Beard whisks her eggs and sugar over a pan of simmering water to cook the eggs, stabilising the proteins, which, in theory, traps more air and makes the mixture less likely to collapse in the oven. However, this seems like unnecessary faff given the impressive airiness of the Fortnum’s cake.

The sugar

Annie Bell’s swiss roll: dusted with icing sugar

Little argument here. Finer grained caster sugar will melt into the batter more easily than larger particles, without adding the extra moisture of less refined substitutes, which may be why I don’t come across any recipes recommending anything else (though if you do have a treacle swiss roll up your sleeve, please do pass it on – and wash your shirt immediately).

Caster also makes an excellent topping for the roll – and though it’s not quite as good at hiding imperfections as Bell’s icing sugar, the slight but pleasing grittiness it adds more than makes up for any deficiencies in the disguise stakes. I try granulated sugar, hoping to add more crunch, but it doesn’t adhere properly, leaving the finished roll looking like a half-shorn sheep. If it ain’t broke, etc.

The fat

Traditional recipes tend to stop there: flour, eggs and sugar are all you really need for a sponge cake. However, Hornby and Smith add butter, too. The latter, curiously, creams the spreadable kind together with the other ingredients, as if making a Victoria sandwich – delicious, but not elastic enough to roll up easily. Hornby, however, makes the standard whisked base, then stirs in melted butter and a dash of milk to make up a similar volume of liquid as in those recipes with a very high ratio of eggs to flour. Though the extra fat may mean the cake does not attain the lofty heights of, say, Beard’s or Fortnum & Mason’s recipes, the richer flavour and moister crumb more than makes up for this slight deficiency in stature. (In my experience, the best-looking roll cakes can err towards the bland: consider this a happy medium.)

The flavouring

Delia Smith’s swiss roll: flavoured with vanilla,

Smith and Fortnum & Mason both flavour their rolls with vanilla, which testers welcome in such a plain sponge, and the latter also adds lemon zest, which none of us can pick up. Hornby recommends a decent 1/4 tsp of salt, rather than the more common pinch, balancing out the sweetness of the jam nicely.

Lining, baking and rolling

A cake that stands or falls on its appearance will always demand as much care in its execution as its ingredients, and the swiss roll is no exception. Be sure to line your tin before starting (buttering and flouring, as the Fortnum’s recipe suggests, is not sufficient to stop the batter sticking) and keep a watchful eye on it towards the end of the baking time. Whip it out too soon, as I’m afraid I did to Bell’s recipe (sorry Annie), fearing it was about to catch, and it will be damp and squidgy – delicious, but unlikely to win many prizes. Leave it too long, and it will be dry and liable to crack when rolled. It should be set, but still springy to the touch.

Most recipes note that it is easier to roll the sponge while it is still warm and flexible – though the Fortnum’s version, which leaves it to cool first, does roll, it’s not an easy process, and critical testers spy a few cracks. It’s easiest to roll the sponge up and leave it for an hour, before unrolling it to add the filling, as Bell and Hornby recommend.

The filling

Fortnum & Mason’s swiss roll: adds whipped cream and fresh berries.

Beard fills her swiss roll with lemon curd, but delicious as this is, we all agree we prefer the visual contrast offered by a darker fruit preserve, such as the classic raspberry. Fortnum & Mason also adds whipped cream and fresh berries, turning its version into more of a dessert roulade, and Hornby suggests buttercream, which proves very popular with younger members of the testing panel. I don’t think my recipe really needs it, given the butter in the sponge, and the extra layer does make that neat spiral harder to achieve; but for a special occasion such as a birthday, it would make a pleasing addition. Of course, you can fill the roll with just about anything you like, from green tea and beans to bacon jam; once you have nailed the technique, the world is your oyster. Or, perhaps, your Alp. Happy rolling.

Perfect swiss roll

50g butter
130g plain flour, sifted
1/4 tsp fine salt
4 eggs
125g caster sugar plus 2 tbsp extra for sprinkling
Dash of vanilla extract
Jar of jam of your choice

Felicity Cloake’s perfect swiss roll.

Melt the butter in a small pan and set aside. Grease and line a tin roughly 30cm x 21cm and heat the oven to 180C.

Sift the flour into a mixing bowl from a height (don’t be tempted to skip this step). Add the salt.

Separate the eggs into two medium bowls and add the caster sugar and vanilla to the yolks. Whip the whites to soft peaks using a hand whisk or electric beaters, then whisk the yolks and sugar until pale and voluminous (doing it this way round means you don’t have to wash the whisk). Whisk in the butter.

Fold the flour into the yolks, being careful to keep as much air as possible in the mixture, then fold in a little of the whites to loosen the mixture, then fold in the rest.

Tip into the tin and tilt to cover, then lift and drop the tin on to the workspace a couple of times to get rid of any air bubbles. Bake for about 10-12 minutes until golden and springy to the touch.

Meanwhile, cut a piece of greaseproof a little larger than the tin and dust with the extra sugar.

Loosen the sponge round the edges and then invert on to the paper with one of the short sides facing you. Trim the edges with a bread knife to neaten, then score a line about 1cm across the side closest to you.

Roll up as tightly as possible, rolling the paper in with it. Leave rolled up tightly until cool, then unwrap and spread with jam and roll back up without the paper.

How to cook the perfect miso ramen

Less a fast food than a national obsession, ramen inspires levels of devotion in its millions of fans that can seem puzzling to anyone who has never had the – considerable – pleasure. Yet one ridiculously rich, intensely savoury and scalding slurp is enough to explain why this simple noodle soup is fast becoming a global cult. Though it is not a dish with a long and distinguished pedigree (it was introduced to Japan by Chinese tradesmen in the 19th century, helped by imports of US wheat during the postwar years and then sent stratospheric by the invention of the instant noodle in the late 1950s), ramen has, it is claimed “come to define Japanese food culture in the 21st century”.

Though there are many different styles, the essential components of ramen remain constant: the broth (generally, though not always, rich and meaty); the tare, or seasoning, which defines that particular variety of ramen; the noodles (bouncy and chewy, rather than soft and yielding) and finally the toppings, a land of infinite and delicious possibility, though more often than not involving slow-cooked pork, spring onion and marinated eggs. Though it would take a lifetime to address all possible variations, this miso ramen, from chilly northern Hokkaido, is my own favourite – a pure umami bomb which takes this reliably satisfying dish to a whole new level of deliciousness.

Miso ramen by MiMi.

The base

Tove Nilsson, a Swedish chef, food writer and self-confessed “ramen addict”, writes in her new book Ramen that “the broth is incredibly important … more important than the actual noodles. You can buy perfectly decent noodles in a shop, but finding a broth that beats one slowly simmered away at home is impossible”. Comforting news to someone who has just spent 48 hours of their life boiling up bones in the hope of achieving noodle nirvana.

Serious Eats managing culinary director J Kenji López-Alt also believes there “are no shortcuts to quality”, boiling up pigs’ trotters and chicken bones for nine hours until the broth is “opaque with the texture of light cream”. Ross Shonhan and Tom Moxon’s Bone Daddies recipe book, which promises to reveal the secrets of the London ramen restaurant of the same name, starts with a chicken stock made from roasted wings and thighs cooked for 8-10 hours, until the dog goes half crazy with lust.

Not everyone is convinced: Ivan Orkin, “a middle-aged Jewish guy from Long Island” who achieved the apparently impossible, and ran a successful ramen restaurant in Tokyo for nearly a decade before returning to the US, simmers pork neck bones and mince in chicken broth until rich and thick. MiMi Aye’s book Noodle suggests starting with good-quality chicken stock, as does Mandy Lee of the blog Lady & Pups, who recommends using the homemade variety because “if your stock already has a prominent saltiness to it, you’ll have to reduce the amount of spicy miso paste to accommodate, which will reduce the miso-flavour in your soup”.

Acknowledging the impractical time commitment of spending “24 hours babysitting a pot of stock to milky-death” for a proper bowl of Japanese ramen, Lee offers “a way to fake a bowl of noodle that looks and smells (and perhaps even tastes) like a proper bowl of ramen in a fraction of the time. This way out … is called soy milk.” I cannot recommend this tip highly enough if you are after a decent bowl of ramen but don’t have an entire day to make it. The milk mimics the creamy richness of a slow-simmered stock sufficiently to be satisfying, though it does inevitably lack the depth of flavour of those I have lovingly tended for hours on end.

However, at some point, I think, there has to be a compromise between authenticity and practicality: a recipe that is realistic for when those ramen cravings hit, rather than one that demands an entire day, as well as one’s bank sort code and first-born child. If that is the kind of commitment you are after, then I’d direct you to López-Alt’s rich, nutty pork stock (or indeed to the nearest ramen restaurant). This version will be somewhere between the two; not a super-quick shortcut (if you want one of those, try Lee’s excellent take), but something you could feasibly knock up in an afternoon.

Most ramen, as mentioned, comes topped with fatty pork, which I’m going to cook in the broth itself, along with bony, collagen-rich chicken wings and some good quality chicken stock to help things along in the flavour department. (Though homemade stock would be ideal, there’s enough decent ready-made stuff available in butchers’ and in the meat section of supermarkets to mean a well-stocked freezer is by no means necessary to make this dish.) By the time the pork is tender, the broth should be well reduced and intensely savoury thanks to a few umami-rich shiitake mushrooms and a sheet of kombu (dried seaweed), plus the bottoms of the spring onions traditionally used to garnish the dish, and a little ginger for sweetness.

Miso ramen by Ivan Orkin.

The tare

This is the seasoning, or flavouring, which turns a basic broth into, say, a miso or a tonkotsu ramen and, as Nilsson observes, “it can be varied to infinity”. Unsurprisingly, however, the key ingredient in a miso ramen tare is, in fact, miso, a salty paste made from fermented grains and soy beans. Rice-based miso accounts for 80% of production, but, as Bonnie Chung’s Miso Tasty book explains, here too “there are infinite types, just as there are countless varieties of wine or cheese”.

The two most widely available are, however, white (shiro) and red (aka) miso – both made from rice. The former is fermented for about six months, giving it a milder flavour than the more mature red kind. You can, like López-Alt, use just red miso in your tare if you like, but combining it with its slightly sweeter, younger cousin as in Lee, Aye and Orkin’s recipes will give it a more rounded flavour.

Bone Daddies also add saikyo, a sweet white miso from Kyoto, which Chung likens to “warm, custard-flavoured cookie dough”, and mugi, or barley miso, which is known for its “rounded, sweet, malty, winy flavours”. Our palates aren’t sensitive enough to pick up these subtleties in the finished dish, however, so, in the interests of making it as easy as possible to put together for the home cook, my recipe is going to stick with the two kinds you are most likely to find on shelves in this country, softened, as Aye suggests, with a pinch of sugar (Lee uses honey, which you can substitute if you prefer) and a dash of sweet, slightly tangy mirin.

Lee and Aye also use fish-based dashi stock (“the bouillon cube of Japan” according to one source) to give their broth extra oomph, but this shouldn’t be necessary with a longer-simmered version. I do like Lee’s sesame paste, though, which contributes a certain fatty sweetness without going so far as to dollop in a great load of pork fat, as Orkin suggests – if you can’t find it (and tahini makes a decent, if not perfect, substitute) feel free to leave it out. (Those who think of Japanese cuisine as a model of low-fat virtue may be surprised to learn that, as Orkin explains, “fat is one of the crucial components” here. Indeed, Nilsson claims it is sometimes possible in Japan to select the level of fat in your broth and “if you choose the highest level, you can, as a westerner, get a bit of a shock”.) I reckon the broth itself should be rich and sticky enough not to require any more animal fat, and salty enough that the soy sauce some recipes demand should be surplus to requirements. As ever, however, the truth is in the tasting, so feel free to fine-tune it to your own tastes: a ramen is, as ought to be clear by this stage in proceedings, a dish with high potential for customisation. As Orkin observes, with ramen, “there are no rules: there is no rule book.”

That said, it is customary for restaurants to add the tare to each bowl and then whisk in the broth, but at home, when making just one variety of ramen, I find it easier to combine them in the pan.

By J Kenji López-Alt.

The noodles

The one place where there’s little in the way of disagreement – ramen noodles must be made with an alkaline agent known as kansui, which gives them, as well as a very faint hint of bicarb flavour, their distinctive yellow hue and the characteristic springy texture necessary for surviving prolonged immersion in boiling broth. I have a go at making my own using a recipe by Peter Meehan for Lucky Peach magazine, which swaps the kansui for baked bicarbonate of soda. But I find the dough hard to work with, and the results underwhelming. If you have a yen to work at it, I’m sure it’s a skill that can be learned, but I would recommend leaving this bit to the experts. (Ramen noodles are sometimes sold as “Chinese-style” noodles, and are often available fresh in oriental grocers, or dried online – make sure whatever you buy includes kansui.)

Aye cooks the noodles in the hot stock, but though it saves on a pan (always useful), I find this harder to control than doing them separately in boiling water.

Meat

Pork is the order of the day – belly or neck are traditional, though for a quicker fix you will also get delicious results with Lee and Orkin’s stir-fried mince, which delivers the requisite fatty qualities in considerably less time. Aye’s braised belly wins with testers, however: she slow cooks it in apple juice, soy sauce, mirin, sake and sugar, but, as I’ll be making a broth instead, it makes sense to cook the belly in there too, as López-Alt does with his shoulder. (He then shreds and stir fries the meat until crisp, but testers prefer the soft, yielding quality of the meat beforehand.) Belly will also, of course, yield a certain amount of fat to the broth, which will help in the richness department. If you are making it ahead of time, marinade it in sweet soy sauce until ready to use.

The sauce

Both López-Alt and Orkin top their ramen with black garlic oil (mayu), a pungent, smoky condiment made with burned cloves of garlic which is often served with tonkotsu ramen, the “incredibly porky” and “crazy rich” style that’s particularly popular on Japan’s Kyushu island. Testers find it rather bitter, however, preferring the fruitier chilli oil in the Bone Daddies version. If you are a mayu fan, however, you can find López-Alt’s recipe here.

By Bone Daddies.

The eggs

Everyone but Orkin adds a marinated egg to their ramen. These are universally enjoyed by testers, but I have trouble achieving that perfect soft-boiled result: after just six minutes, López-Alt’s are near impossible to peel, yet much longer and the yolks become fudge-like in texture – six-and-a-half minutes seems a good compromise, and piercing the shells with a pin, as the Bone Daddies book recommends, will help make them easier to peel. I’m also going to borrow their simple soy-and-sugar marinade, although I have reduced the sugar slightly, as sweet eggs prove divisive.

Vegetables

It is common in its Hokkaido homeland for miso ramen to be served with sweetcorn and a knob of butter, as Aye suggests, and we all enjoy the sweetness of this with the savoury broth. However, as I’ll also be topping mine with chilli oil, the accompanying butter seems unnecessary. Spring onion tops are a favourite nationwide, and other popular choices include bean sprouts and pickled bamboo shoots, both of which are pleasingly crunchy. Bone Daddies pop on padrón peppers “for freshness” as the European equivalent of Japanese shishito peppers, and Lee a sheet of nori seaweed, which looks pretty, but proves difficult to eat. But basically, anything goes.

Finally, remember that “to get the most out of your ramen and to really enjoy the flavours, it is important to eat it fast, while it’s very hot” as Bone Daddies have it – “200 degrees or something, it’s insane … [so] if you don’t slurp then you burn” according to Orkin. So don’t stop to take a photo, don’t stop to tuck in your napkin – just eat.

Serves 4

For the broth:
4 chicken wings
500g piece of pork belly, rolled
500ml good-quality chicken stock
5g dried shiitake mushrooms
15g root ginger, thickly sliced but not peeled
4 spring onions, whites only (save the tops to serve)
10g kombu (seaweed)

For the eggs:
4 medium eggs
1.5 tsp caster sugar
100ml Japanese soy sauce

For the chilli sauce:
300ml neutral oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 spring onion, finely sliced
1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
20g chilli flakes
1 tsp sugar (optional)
1 tbsp sesame seeds

For the tare:
150g red miso
150g white miso
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1.5 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp mirin
1 tsp Japanese sesame paste (optional)
1 tbsp oil
4 bunches of ramen noodles
100g tinned sweetcorn
75g tinned bamboo shoots

To make the broth, put the wings and pork belly in a large pot with the remaining ingredients and 1.25 litres of cold water. Bring to the boil, skim, turn down the heat, put on a lid very slightly ajar, and simmer gently for about three hours until the belly is tender, then lift out the meat. (If you are making this in advance, I suggest making another batch of the soy sauce and sugar marinade for the eggs, and submerging the cooked pork belly in it until ready to use, but this isn’t mandatory if not.)

Meanwhile, bring a small pan of water to the boil. Pierce the eggs at the round end with a needle, and then gently lower into the pan. Turn down the heat and simmer gently for six-and-a-half minutes, then drain and run under cold water until cool. Peel. Whisk the sugar into 100ml water until dissolved, stir in the soy sauce, then add the eggs and marinade for at least three hours or overnight, turning occasionally.

To make the chilli sauce, put the oil in a medium pan with the garlic, spring onions and ginger and cook on a medium heat until golden. Add the chilli flakes and turn off the heat. Stir regularly until cool, then mix in the sugar and sesame seeds.

Mix together all the ingredients for the tare except for the oil, then fry in the oil over a medium heat for five minutes.

When you are ready to eat, finely slice the reserved spring onion tops and the pork. Cut the eggs in half.

Heat the broth and whisk the tare into it. Cook the noodles according to packet instructions. When the broth is steaming, divide the noodles between bowls and pour over the broth. Top with the eggs, pork, spring onion tops, sweetcorn and bamboo and a dollop of chilli oil. Eat immediately.

 

How to bake the perfect salted caramel brownies

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Some of you, I know, have had your fill of salted caramel. You’re sick of finding it in everything from green tea to cider, still unconvinced by the idea of a savoury sweet, and that famous image of Nigella dripping head to toe in sugary, buttery saline goodness leaves you utterly cold. And I’m sorry for your loss, really I am. Because, to the rest of us, the attractions are all too clear: rich and buttery, with an intense caramel sweetness shot through with maritime undercurrents, it’s hard to think of many things that wouldn’t be improved by a dollop of the stuff. Certainly, once I had roasted a duck with miso caramel, redcurrant jelly began to look a little passe.

There are limits of course – potato crisps being one of them – but adding salted caramel to a chocolate brownie, squidgy, dark and bittersweet, feels like what might be termed in the brownie’s American homeland, a “no brainer”, assuming you concede there’s any room for improvement. Perhaps we can agree on the fact that a salted caramel brownie is not necessarily better than the ordinary kind, but it’s certainly no worse. Which makes it pretty much perfect as far as I’m concerned. (Note that this is also a good way to use up excess Easter chocolate, should such a thing exist in your household, although you may wish to adjust the sugar content depending on the sweetness of the stuff available.)

Edd Kimber's brownies.

The caramel

This column has covered the basics of both brownies and salted caramelbefore, but together they’re a rather different proposition: what works as a standalone sauce does not necessarily have the right qualities for the best supporting actor role in a tray bake. If melting sugar makes you nervous, you can, of course, use ready-made caramel – Jane Hornby in BBC Good Food beats sea salt into the Carnation tinned variety, and Emily Pahl melts caramel sweets into double cream – but if you make it yourself, then you can make it perfect. For me, that means using sour cream, as New York bakers Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito suggest, rather thanEdd Kimber or Deb Perelman’s double cream. Sour cream gives the caramel a subtle tangy flavour that helps to balance the richness of the sugar and butter in there, too. I’m going to base my caramel on Perelman’s, however, which uses less cream than some of the others to make it less soft, but still manages, somewhat miraculously, to impress with its silky thickness.

Lewis and Poliafito put corn syrup in their caramel, I think to minimise the possibility of it crystallising in the pan, but as long as you allow the sugar enough time to melt, this shouldn’t be a problem. If you are worried, however, then a spoonful of the more readily available golden syrup will work just as well.

Emma Pahl brownies

The brownie

Having, in the infancy of this column, laboured hard over my brownie recipe, I’m pretty pleased with it, even seven years on – but, having tasted five alternatives in the course of this week’s research, I have to concede it could do with a bit of tweaking to complement the all-new salted caramel filling. That said, I’m still of the school that prefers a dense, but not downright fudgy texture – both Perelman and Lewis and Poliafito’s versions, although as delicious as anything calling itself a salted caramel brownie can be, are too solid to take any more richness in the form of extra caramel. Beating the mixture until light and airy, as Kimber recommends, is still my own favoured technique and I’m also, like Nigel Slater, in defiance of many brownie aficionados, going to add a little baking powder, too.

To maintain as much contrast between the two flavours as possible, my recipe will use ordinary white or golden sugar rather than going down the toffeeish muscovado route, and there won’t be any caramel in the batter itself, as in Hornby’s recipe, for the same reason. Indeed, Perelman observes that many salted caramel brownies are “achingly sweet, as if little consideration was given to the fact that dousing an already-sweet brownie with caramel sauce might cause teeth to hurt/dentists to buy new vacation homes”. Like her, I’ll be reducing the amount of sugar in the batter to compensate, but, more importantly, I’ll be using the darkest chocolate I can find.

Jane Hornby beats sea salt into Carnation tinned caramel.

The chocolate

Hornby reckons that “for best results, it’s important to use chocolate with the right mix of 70% and 50% cocoa solids [to] help to give the brownies their rich, fudgy texture”. Lewis and Poliafito call for a cocoa content of between 60% and 72%; Kimber is roughly the same at between 65% and 75%; and Emily Pahl of the She Makes and Bakes blog, whose recipe Nigella described in 2012 as the “best brownies I ever made”, calls for “bittersweet”, which, the internet informs me, is almost always more than 50%, but frequently around 70%. Perelman, however, goes the whole hog, and uses unsweetened chocolate, which has historically been more widely available in the US than here, but is now relatively easy to find in large supermarkets. I’m expecting the results to be unpalatably bitter, but, actually, testers love them, on the basis that the intense cocoa flavour helps to counter the sweet creaminess of the caramel. (This also renders the cocoa powder in my original recipe surplus to requirements, and reducing the ingredient count always makes me happy.)

Allowing the melted chocolate to cool slightly before adding it to the batter, as Kimber recommends, is a very sensible idea to avoid the risk of any cooking occurring.

New Yorkers Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito use the caramel like icing.

The assembly

Tip salted caramel sauce into brownie batter and bake it to witness the miraculous case of the disappearing caramel – it melts into the batter as it cooks, which may taste nice, but disappoints anyone hoping for gooey strands of molten caramel.

I try several tactics in the hope of remedying this problem. Kimber and Hornby’s recipes call for me to layer the caramel between two layers of the batter, almost as if I’m filling a sandwich cake. Kimber’s proves hard to spread, and, although Hornby’s tactic of distributing the caramel in a series of thick lines, rather than a continuous sheet, is easier to effect, neither results in pockets of caramel in the finished brownie. Lewis and Poliafito simply pour it on top, like icing, which isn’t popular with my testers – there should be some mingling between the two . Pahl gets around the mingling problem by adding the caramel to a layer of half-baked brownie and then topping it with the remaining batter, but this simply results in an overbaked base – the caramel has still largely melted into the batter above.

I conclude, in a sugar-filled pit of despair, that to have any chance of success, the caramel must be thicker than average, and, crucially, as Perelman observes, it must be solid, in pieces “cold and big enough that they take longer to disappear into the the batter than the batter takes to bake”. She freezes hers, but I find this too effective, leaving me with chunks of solid toffee when I had hoped for oozing caramel. Chilling until soft and chewy, but not actually hard, seems like the better option.

Deb Perelman brownies.

The extras

Perelman, Lewis and Poliafito and Kimber all add vanilla to the batter, which, although not absolutely necessary, works very well with the flavour of the caramel. Also very much optional, but a great improvement as far as I’m concerned, is a sprinkling of toasted nuts to add a little crunch to proceedings. Nuts and caramel, and nuts and brownies are both classic combinations, so, although none of the recipes I try includes them, to leave them out seems like a dereliction of gastronomic duty. I favour pecans, but peanuts, almonds or even walnuts would work – or indeed none of the above, as you prefer. They will be delicious, whatever you add.

Perfect salted caramel brownies.

Makes 25

200g very dark chocolate, as dark as you can find
250g unsalted butter
250g caster sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
120g plain flour
½ tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
100g pecans, or nuts of your choice (optional)

For the caramel

110g caster sugar
55g butter
4 tbsp sour cream
½ tsp flaky salt

Start by making the caramel. Line a plate or shallow bowl with lightly greased baking parchment. Melt the sugar in a medium pan over a medium-high heat until a rich amber, stirring occasionally to break up chunks. Take off the heat and stir in the butter, followed by the cream and salt, until melted. Pour on to the lined plate and chill or freeze until solid, but still soft enough to scoop (about 40-55 minutes).

Meanwhile, melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over, but not touching, a pan of simmering water (or use a microwave). Allow to cool slightly, stirring occasionally. Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4, and line a 23x23cm baking tin with baking parchment. Toast the nuts, if using, in a dry pan until fragrant, then roughly chop.

Once the caramel is almost ready, beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. With the mixer still running, gradually add the eggs, beating well between each addition to ensure they are thoroughly incorporated before pouring in any more. Leave mixing on a high speed for 5 minutes until the batter has a silky sheen, and has increased in volume.

Remove the bowl from the mixer, and gently fold in the melted chocolate and vanilla with a large metal spoon, followed by the sifted flour, baking powder, salt and nuts.

Spoon half the mixture into the tin and make about 8 small divots on its surface then spoon generous blobs of caramel into them, reserving a quarter for the top. Spoon on the rest of the batter. Dot the remaining caramel over the top and bake for 30 minutes. Towards the end of the cooking time, prepare a sink with enough iced water to come halfway up the side of the tin.

Test the brownies with a skewer; it should come out sticky, but not coated with raw mixture. If it does, put it back into the oven for another 3 minutes, then test again. When ready, carefully lower the tin into the sink, then allow to cool before cutting into pieces and devouring.

 

How to cook the perfect spotted dick

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Spotted dick may have a name that only the British could love, but it’s a dish the rest of the world could well learn to treasure, and not just for the laughter it inevitably prompts. A doughty mainstay of school dinners throughout the 20th century, this steamed suet pudding – pleasingly plain yet plump with currants – feels like the product of a different age in comparison with the obvious charms of last week’s salted caramel brownie, possibly because it is. According to Regula Ysewijn’s rightly lauded history of the British pudding, Pride and Pudding, the first recorded recipe appears in the Victorian celebrity chef Alexis Soyer’s 1854 book A Shilling Cookery for the People alongside other old favourites such as rice pudding and gooseberry fool. Ysewijn also explains that, for all the amusement it causes today, “dick” is simply an old-dialect pronunciation of “dough”, but that’s the kind of disappointingly sensible detail we need not dwell on here. Instead, in the sad absence of school meals supervisors proffering chipped bowls of ambrosial stodge, this column will look at how to take a pleasant trip down memory lane from the comfort of your kitchen. Lumpy custard optional.

Spotted Dick by Saveur.

As the name suggests, this dish is all about the dough, and, though steamed puddings may have a reputation for heaviness, the suet should stop it being too Bunter-esque. This hard fat’s high melting point means that the raw dough has time to solidify around the pellets before they dissolve, leaving a honeycomb of air pockets in their wake. Tom Norrington-Davies eschews it in his book Just Like Mother Used to Make in favour of butter, on the basis that “I have tried many ‘Olde Worlde’ versions and they can be very heavy”, but, though his pudding is indeed rich, lovely and delicious, it is deemed to be more like a currant sponge than a spotted dick.

Conversely, Saveur magazine, published in the US where those familiar tricolour packets of shredded suet are, I suspect, rather harder to come by, calls for the fresh variety, chilled and grated. This is not difficult to find if you have an obliging butcher (I got mine for free), and is surprisingly easy to use. But for sweet puddings such as this, testers indicate a marked preference for the blander, more heavily processed commercial sort, as its pudding has a very distinct beef flavour – not unpleasant exactly, just unusual when combined with custard. (Vegetarians should note there are several varieties of meat-free suet substitute on the market these days.)

Tom Norrington-Davies’ version.

The raising agents

Norrington-Davies’ version uses self-raising flour and baking powder, which would be belt and braces with a suet dough: Ysewijn, Saveur and Tim Hughes’ J Sheekey Fish all go for plain and baking powder, while Delia Smith uses self-raising alone. One or the other is all that’s needed, and I’m going to go for the former. Smith is the only recipe to bulk the dough out with breadcrumbs, giving it a pleasingly fluffy consistency, but unless you have some to use up, I don’t think they make enough difference to recommend them.

The liquid

Ysewijn and Norrington-Davies both make their dough with eggs, but loosening it with milk alone gives a softer result: it should be robust, rather than tough. (You could use water instead, as Hughes recommends, but it won’t have quite such a nice flavour.) Saveur also adds double cream in a typically American touch of decadence (cream being reserved for visiting parents in my schooldays), which gives their pudding a gloriously rich, melting quality – glorious, but, we all agree, quite unlike the spotted dick we know and love. They will be serving it with ice-cream next.

Tim Hughes’ version.

The flavourings

Sugar isn’t mandatory – the plainest recipes rely on dried fruit alone for sweetness – but a little does wonders to lift the flavour, though there should still be a marked contrast between the slightly savoury dough and the currants and custard. Testers rate Hughes’ soft, light-brown sugar, but you can substitute the white kind more often found in school kitchens if you prefer.

Ysewijn, like Soyer before her, flavours the dough with a pinch of cinnamon. Hughes goes for mixed spice, which I prefer, being more of a nutmeg and ginger fan, but feel free to use either – or indeed to leave the spice out altogether if you are feeling puritanical. Whatever you go for, however, the flavour shouldn’t be overwhelming. You can also, like Smith, Hughes and Saveur, stick in some grated lemon zest, though I highly recommend trying my own innovation of candied peel; the little pops of bittersweet chewiness adding to both the texture and taste.

The fruit

What isn’t optional is dried fruit, and ideally you should go for currants. Smith uses raisins, which swell to monstrous dimensions during the steaming process. Choose the more diminutive, and to my mind at least, more pleasing currant and you can soak it in alcohol first, as Ysewijn and Norrington-Davies suggest, for a spotted dick we would all have been coming back for seconds of at school. (If you frown upon such things, try plumping them up in fruit juice or water instead.) Smith also adds chopped cooking apples, which, along with the raisins and the dark brown sugar she uses, reminds us all of mincemeat. Never a bad thing, but not necessarily what you want from a spotted dick.

Regula Ysewijn’s version.

Shaping and cooking

Most recipes steam the dough in a basin, rather like a Christmas pudding, but, like Smith, I have a nostalgic fondness for the long sausages we were served at school, which seemed to explain the dish’s unusual name to our teenage satisfaction. This method also has the benefit of requiring no special equipment beyond wrapping materials, which is always handy. (Ysewijn steams hers in the oven because she doesn’t like to leave a pot boiling on the stove for several hours, which is not an idea I have come across before, but which works surprisingly well, especially if you are making a larger pudding.)

Unlike Smith, however, I won’t be making it like a swiss roll, with the filling spread in the middle. Not only does this prove fiddly for an amateur like me, but risks dangerous cross-contamination with similarly happy memories of jam roly-poly. Which may well be a subject for another week.

Spotted dick by Delia Smith.

Serving suggestions

This is one of many occasions where custard is non-negotiable, and nothing for me will ever beat the Bird’s version (powder not packet, thank you), though heathens among you may prefer to make your own. If you are really pushing the boat out, I also recommend Hughes’s tip about golden syrup and butter, given to him by an “old gentleman” on a train. (Possibly the ghost of Alexis Soyer, given he suggested topping spotted dick with melted butter and sugar 163 years ago. For all our talk of date molasses and coconut butter, it seems our tastes in the pudding department haven’t changed much since.) Whatever you go for, however, you have still got to have custard as well. Did I mention that?

Serves 4-6
2 tbsp brandy, rum or whisky (or water)
75g currants
150g plain flour plus a little extra to dust
2 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp soft light brown sugar
Pinch of salt
¼ tsp mixed spice (optional)
75g shredded suet
20g candied peel or grated zest of half a lemon
100ml milk
Custard, to serve (not optional)

Warm the alcohol or 2 tbsp water and then pour over the currants. Leave to sit for at least 30 minutes.

 

Turn on to a lightly floured surface and shape into a fat sausage about 15cm long. Wrap loosely in greaseproof paper or cheesecloth, twist the ends to seal and tie with string. Wrap in foil, then steam for two hours.

 

How to bake the perfect pretzels

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With more aliases than the late lamented Artist Formerly Known as Prince, known variously as brezel, bretzel, brezn and breze as well as the more familiar Anglophone pretzel, the correct spelling isn’t the only thing that’s a bit twisted about this ancient bread. Named originally for the Latin brachium, thanks to its (slight) resemblance to folded arms, and often credited to monastic bakers, perhaps because children were taught to pray with their arms crossed across their chests, in the US a pretzel is often assumed to be a crisp, salted biscuit, while in Europe, it tends to refer to a fresh, chewy bread.

In short, the pretzel is a decidedly knotty topic. What isn’t, however, is that whatever form they take, they’re delicious – and while the crunchy snack is readily available in the snack aisle, it’s harder to find the soft sort in the UK, which is why, if you have a taste for them, you’ll need to get baking. Fortunately, now I’ve negotiated the surprisingly complex chemistry for you, making pretzels is considerably less complicated than deciding how you’re going to pronounce them.

Sebastien Rouxel’s pretzels from Thomas Keller: Bouchon Bakery.

Where to start(er)

That said, the recipe in Bouchon Bakery by Sebastien Rouxel and Thomas Keller takes a good week from start to finish, thanks to the addition of a liquid levain, a mixture of flour and water, leavened with wild yeasts, which sits on top of the fridge for five days, eating vast amounts of flour, and clogging up the compost bin with excess dough, which spills forth alarmingly each time the lid is opened. A tiny amount of this bubbling behemoth is then mixed with more flour and water to make a stiff levain, which, after a night on the counter, is ready to be incorporated into the actual dough. Frankly, I’m exhausted just remembering the whole process.

Richard Bertinet’s Crust gives a rather easier method, involving a 24-hour pre-ferment, which seems like the equivalent of a ready meal in comparison. Both have a great flavour, but, after trying several other recipes, I don’t think such efforts are strictly necessary for pretzel perfection. After all, they barely last the day, so unless you have a sourdough starter on the go already, it would seem a colossal waste of time to make one specially; the versions I try, using commercial yeast, are pretty damn delicious.

Richard Bertinet’s pretzels.

However, if you do have time to allow your dough to sit for 12 hours before baking, as Julia Moskin’s recipe in the New York Times suggests, the flavour will only improve – I try hers after an hour, and then 24, and the second batch is deemed better. Ruth Joseph’s Warm Bagels and Apple Strudel rests the dough before shaping, but doing it this way round allows the raw pretzel to develop the skin that will help it to keep its shape when it is dunked in liquid later.

Ruth Joseph’s pretzels.

The dough

Pretzel dough should have a fairly low hydration – in other words, it should be much drier than the sloppier, liquid batters of ciabatta, both because ciabatta dough would be impossible to knot into loops, and because this is what gives the finished article its characteristic firm, chewy texture. A hydration of between 50% and 55% is more common, and will be much easier to work with – Ihave based mine on Anne Shooter’s excellent Sesame & Spice. I wouldn’t be tempted to cut the water with milk, as Bertinet suggests, however; his pretzels are delicious, but as soft and fluffy as rolls.

Julia Moskin’s pretzels.

Though they’re more salty than sweet, most pretzel doughs include sugar of some sort to help give them their distinctive, bronzed colour. Bertinet uses caster and Joseph soft brown, but it’s more traditional to go for malt of some sort, either in the form of the malt syrup favoured by Shooter and Moskin, or the diastatic malt powder used by Rouxel. It tastes more interesting and pairs far better with beer.

Old-school recipes like Joseph’s are fat free, but a little butter, oil, or – if you’re feeling particularly Germanic – lard will improve the flavour, and make the stiff dough somewhat more amenable to shaping. Butter is the most popular with testers, but feel free to substitute either of the alternatives as you wish.

Rouxel’s is the only recipe to use plain rather than strong flour. This may be because plain flour has a higher protein content in the US but, for maximum gluten development, and thus chewiness, I’d recommend bread flour. He also is the only one to knead his dough for 30 minutes. This is perhaps a little excessive, especially if you don’t have an electric mixer, but a little elbow grease will yield good results later on.

Anne Shooter’s pretzels.

Pretzels are traditionally dipped into a strong alkali to help achieve that crispy, burnished crust, as well as the attendant slightly soapy flavour – the stronger the alkali the more it will break down the starches in the flour into sugars, which brown in the heat of the oven. This crust will also prevent the dough from puffing up too much – light and fluffy are not desirable qualities in a pretzel.

If you just want the colour, then you can, like Bertinet, simply brush them with egg and coffee before baking, but for the full flavour, you’ll need to bathe them in a high pH liquid. Unfortunately, despite my very best efforts, it seems impossible to purchase the food-grade sodium hydroxide here that’s freely available for the purpose in Germany (it’s on a list of “reportable substances”). I do find some “lye water”, sold in Oriental supermarkets for the preparation of ramen noodles, among other things, but a keen-eyed chemist friend observes that this is made from potassium carbonate rather than sodium hydroxide, and the staff of Chemistry World magazine generously calculate it measures only 9 on the pH scale: more than ordinary water, but rather less than the 13-14 claimed for lye.

The solution many recipes recommend involves dissolving bicarbonate of soda in boiling water, which will give you a solution with a pH of 8-9 – but bake it in the oven instead, and as Harold McGee explains, you’ll end up with sodium carbonate, which has a pH of about 10.5, and will give you a much browner result. Not quite as shiny and conker-like as the real thing, perhaps, but certainly better than you’ll get with the alternatives. It’s still a strong alkali, so make sure you use protective gloves, banish children and pets from the room, and ditch the non-stick cookware for this one. (If you live somewhere where lye is more readily available, assume the same precautions, dilute it with 20 parts water, and dunk each pretzel in it for 12-15 seconds before draining well.)

The baking and topping

Pretzels should be baked at a high temperature to encourage browning – Bertinet suggests a 250C oven turned down to 230C once the goods are in there, and Joseph and Moskin an only slightly more moderate 220C, which seems safer if they are to cook through before they burn. This will also be helpful if you decide to scatter them with something more interesting than the traditional rock salt – Shooter recommends poppy seeds or za’atar, and Joseph black onion seeds or softened onion, but, really, the world is your pretzel. Serve with butter, sausages, cured meat and mustard, or just a large, cold beer.

The perfect pretzels

(Makes 10)
500g strong, white bread flour
1 tsp/5g quick-action yeast
1 tsp fine salt
25g room-temperature butter, cut into small pieces
1 tbsp malt syrup
255ml warm water
150g bicarbonate of soda
Rock salt, to scatter

Form into a circle, crossing the two ends at the top
 Form into a circle, crossing the two ends at the top … Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian
… twist the ends round each other again …
 … twist the ends round each other again … Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian
… and bring down across the middle and stick down firmly at about four and eight o’clock on the circle
 … and bring down across the middle and stick down firmly at about four and eight o’clock on the circle. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Whisk together the flour, yeast and salt in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a food mixer and then mix in the butter. Whisk together the syrup and warm water, then stir in to make a firm, dryish dough – it should just come together to leave the bowl clean, without being damp, so add a few more drops if necessary. Knead on a low speed for about 15 minutes, or on a clean surface by hand for about 20-25 minutes, until smooth and very elastic. Rest under a cloth for 15 minutes, then divide into 10 pieces of about 75g each. Meanwhile, line two baking sheets with lightly greased greaseproof paper.

Keeping the remainder covered, roll out one of the pieces into a sausage about 35cm long (don’t worry if it’s fatter in the middle, just call it Bavarian-style). Form into a circle, crossing the two ends at the top, then twist them round each other again and bring down across the middle and stick down firmly at about four and eight o’clock on the circle. Put on to the baking tray and repeat. Leave covered at room temperature for 30 minutes, then uncover and put in the fridge for between two and 24 hours.

An hour before you want to bake, heat the oven to 160C/320F/gas mark 3 and bake the bicarbonate of soda for one hour. Allow to cool, and turn the oven up to 220C/425F/gas mark seven.

Wearing rubber gloves, mix 100g of the bicarbonate of soda with 500ml water in a large glass dish. Carefully dip the pretzels in the solution for four minutes each (you’ll need to do this in several batches), then drain very well and arrange, well spaced out on the baking sheets. Scatter with salt, then bake for 12-15 minutes until well browned. Eat while warm.

 

How to cook the perfect risi e bisi

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isi e bisi, a dish that’s even more fun to say than piccalilli, is a Venetian springtime speciality, traditionally made to celebrate the feast of San Marco on 25 April, when the peas are at their smallest and sweetest … and still a long way off in the UK. Like many legumes, peas are best eaten as fresh as possible, before their natural sugars turn to starch, so it’s worth waiting until the local crop hits the market to make this satisfying supper – or better still, using your own if you’re fortunate enough to have access to the homegrown variety.

As Marcella Hazan explains in her comprehensive Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, “risi e bisi is not risotto with peas. It is a soup, albeit a very thick one,” which, when made properly, should be “runny enough to require a spoon”. Elizabeth David disagrees in Italian Food, recommending the use of a fork. These two grande dames would probably concur, however, that this is a fairly unbeatable summer supper.

Marcella Hazan rise e bisi.

The peas

The stars of the show, and the subject of much contradictory advice in the recipes I consult. Hazan is firm: “No alternative to fresh peas is suggested in the ingredients list because the essential quality of this dish resides in the flavour that only good, fresh peas possess”. Russell Norman’s Polpo cookbook confirms that “to make an authentic risi e bisi you need to use young peas, the smallest and tenderest you can find. This is not one of those dishes where frozen peas will do. Absolutely not. Sorry. You must use fresh peas.”

Katie Caldesi admits in Venice: Recipes Lost and Found that, in the absence of homegrown peas, she and her husband Giancarlo “found this recipe one of the hardest to perfect” – “no matter what peas, frozen or fresh, we used to make the stock … we just couldn’t get a flavour we were happy with”. The solution proved as surprising to Katie as it does to me: “Giancarlo suggested using tinned peas, which I didn’t think fitted the romantic image of the recipe using spring’s fresh new peas. However, he insisted on having a go, and I have to admit, through clenched teeth, he was right.”

Rise e bisi by Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi.

Though I’m quite the aficionado of tinned mushy peas, I’ve never bought a can of the spherical kind before, and despite their off-putting appearance (“never seen such tiny olives,” observed a wag when I posted a picture online), it’s the texture I find hard to swallow. Soft and, yes, mushy, they’re not something I’d choose to eat as a side dish, but I’m amazed how well they work in the dish itself, especially in combination with the Caldesis’ ham stock and pancetta. The whole thing is deeply savoury, and as delicious as you’d expect from something that tastes a little like a very British pea and ham soup. However, it lacks the distinctive green sweetness of those using the fresh variety – good, but not perfect.

Nigella Lawson’s recipe in Forever Summer takes an equally pragmatic view of things and allows for the use of frozen peas, on the basis that “unless you are using youngest, freshest, flower-fragrant peas possible then you might as well just use frozen. Once a pea has sat on a shelf and begun turning to starch, then its supposed freshness – and thus its edge – has gone.” She’s right of course; some of the fresh peas I find have been imported from Italy, where the season is much further advanced, and they’re already large and mealy, so, for much of the year, sweet little petit pois fresh from the freezer are a much better bet. Get more flavour by cooking and pureeing some of them and then stirring this into the rice, as she suggests.

One of the advantages of fresh peas, however is that they’re sold in their pods, which can be added to the dish, as Hazan recommends, “to make the peas taste even sweeter”. She skins and trims a couple of handfuls of them (and trust me, you’ve never questioned what you’re doing with your life until you’ve spent 20 minutes clawing at empty pea pods) and cooks them along with the peas themselves, so they dissolve into the dish (they don’t, actually, though without the tough chewy fibrous bits I’ve peeled off, they’re pretty tasty), but it’s easier to go down Norman’s route and make a stock with them instead. No peeling required, though I cook mine for longer than he suggests, for a more assertive pea flavour – this yields a stronger colour, so the dish might not look as pretty, but it tastes great.

Nigella Lawson’s rise e bisi.

The peas themselves should be added towards the end of cooking, as he suggests – heretical as it might be to admit, simmer them for 20-odd minutes and they won’t be at their best.

The base

Most of the recipes I try start with onion, gently cooked in a mixture of butter and olive oil, and David, the Caldesis and Norman also add pork, in the form of pancetta or fatty ham (this, I suspect, may have been the closest to pancetta it was possible to get when David’s Italian Food hit the market in 1954). Though certainly not essential, pork is an excellent match for peas, adding a subtle layer of meaty richness – and though either will work, it’s so hard to get fatty ham these days that pancetta is probably a better bet.

Rise e Bisi by Elizabeth David.

The stock

This may be a fresh, vegetable-cantered dish, but that doesn’t stop Hazan and David making it with veal stock, though, for variety, I try the latter’s alternative suggestion, chicken. The Caldesis call for chicken or ham, Lawson for chicken or vegetable, and Norman uses the stock made from the pea shells. Veal gives the dish a sticky beefiness that doesn’t feel quite right, ham is better, but testers unanimously prefer David’s chicken stock, which wears its richness, and its savoury qualities lightly. Use good fresh stuff if you can, rather than a cube, which do tend to be aggressively fowl-flavoured. If you’d prefer to keep things meat free, bear in mind most commercial vegetable stocks are too aggressively herby for delicately flavoured dishes like this, so choose carefully.

Rise e bisi by Russell Norman.

The rice

Not all Italian rice is created equal – according to Norman, carnaroli is best for this dish, while Hazan and the Caldesis favour the very Venetian vialone nano, and Lawson sits on the fence (David simply calls for rice, but perhaps that’s as specific as it was worth getting in the post-war years.) Either will do, but the higher starch content of vialone nano will yield a creamier result.

The technique

Both Lawson and David skip the usual constant stirring intended to liberate the starch in the rice, with the latter explaining that “risi e bisi is not cooked in quite the same way as the ordinary risotto, for it should emerge rather more liquid; it should not be stirred too much or the peas will break”. Instead, both recipes cover the pot and leave the dish to get on with things, while Hazan recommends stirring it occasionally, and Norman and the Caldesis deploy the traditional risotto method. Annoyingly, though you can get a perfectly delicious dish without stirring, testers much prefer the creamier versions seasoned with the sweat from my brow (not really), so if you’ve got the time, it’s worth the effort. Sorry.

The finishing touches

Everyone stirs in grated parmesan towards the end of cooking, and Norman, David and the Caldesis also add a knob of butter which is well worth the extravagance. Finish with parsley or, in a stroke of rather Anglo-Italian genius from Lawson and Norman, some chopped mint, which of course, is lovely with sweet peas. Serve with a spoon, or a fork, but certainly a napkin.

The perfect risi e bisi

(Serves 4)

1kg young peas in their pods
1l good chicken or vegetable stock
40g butter
2 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
100g pancetta (optional)
250g vialone nano rice (or carnaroli if you can’t find)
50g parmesan, finely grated
Small handful of mint or flat-leaf parsley leaves

Pod the peas. Fill a pan with 1.5l of water and put just enough pods in there to be submerged. Discard the rest. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for a 30-60 minutes until reduced by about half.

Strain and discard the pods. Add the pea liquid to the chicken stock and bring back to a simmer.

In a heavy based saucepan, melt half the butter with the oil, and then add the onion and cook until it begins to soften. Add the pancetta and cook for another five minutes or so, until it begins to release its fat.

Stir in the rice and cook until all the grains are well coated with fat and begin to look translucent, then turn up the heat a little and add a ladleful of stock. Cook, stirring all the while, until most of the liquid has been absorbed, then repeat until the rice is tender and the dish has a thick, soupy consistency (you may not need all the stock). Add the peas after about 12 minutes.

Once the dish is ready, stir in the cheese and remaining butter, cover and leave to sit for five minutes. Season to taste, divide between shallow bowls and top with the herbs.

 

 

How to bake the perfect strawberry tart

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Strawberries, as a rule, are above cooking. The season for really good fruit is so short, and that fruit’s perfume so very delicate, that to gild the lily with anything other than a dollop of dairy would be sacrilege – as soon as it meets heat, that fresh acidity is gone for good. If you want to cook a strawberry, use this jam recipe. Occasionally, however, the occasion demands something a little fancier than a dish of fruit and cream – like a classic fruit tart, that pretty stalwart of the French patisserie with its shiny berries and crisp golden pastry. But what’s the best way to dress up summer’s first and, arguably, finest fruit without spoiling it?

The pastry

Related image

The classic choice is pâte sucrée, a crisp, sweet shell rolled elegantly thin, and favoured by both chef Pascal Aussignac and Dr Tim Kinnaird in his book Perfecting Patisserie. As this title suggests, the latter gives very clear instructions on how to achieve sucrée success, starting by beating together the butter and sugar until fluffy, adding ground almonds and vanilla seeds, then slowly stirring in the egg before adding the flour all in one go because “the longer you take to incorporate [it] the greater the chance of developing too much gluten, which will make the pastry tough”.

Unlike the shortcrust I’m more familiar with, pâte sucrée dough is very soft and delicate, which makes chilling it for quite some time before baking mandatory if it’s not to collapse in the heat of the oven. Though undoubtedly delicious, it’s so much more of a faff than the rich, sandy shortcrusts deployed by Nigel Slater and the recipe in Rosemary Shrager’s Bakes, Cakes and Puddings that I’m disappointed none of the testers remark upon its delicacy. Perhaps in another, more highfalutin context, the difference would be evident, but for the simplest of fruit tarts I’m after here, such a palaver doesn’t seem quite necessary.

Tim Kinnaird’s strawberry tart.

Martha Stewart’s pastry, however, makes even shortcrust look like a hassle. Flour, butter, sugar and salt are whizzed together to form damp crumbs (no liquid is added), which can then be pressed into a tart tin, frozen briefly to firm it up, and then baked. No rolling out to cope with, no floury surfaces to wipe afterwards, and the most delicious crunchy, buttery sandy result, rather like the crisp shortbread that pairs so well with a dish of strawberries and cream. It’s completely foolproof, which is frankly what one needs when dealing with pastry at the height of summer, and stupidly lovely. Sold. (I try to find out the proper name for this pastry via the learned medium of Twitter, and come to no firm conclusions – it’s either pie crust or an American version of shortcrust. If anyone can shed any further light on the matter, please do.)

Shrager flavours her pastry with orange zest, Kinnaird with vanilla, and Aussignac lemon thyme – all good things in themselves, but I’d prefer to keep things as plain as possible, to let the fruit itself shine. Feel free to ignore me if you wish.

The filling

Rosemary Shrager’s strawberry tarts.

The strawberries in a traditional French tarte aux fraises sit plumply atop a layer of sweet, vanilla-scented crème patissière – a cornflour-thickened custard that forms the basis of a thousand desserts, and is often casually referred to on cookery programmes as “crème pat”. Aussignac’s version is no exception, and proves popular with testers, although, like Kinnaird’s white chocolate ganache, most of us find it so sweet and rich that it steals the show from the fruit itself. The same goes for Shrager’s lemon curd filling, against which the poor old strawberries stand no chance.

The simpler fillings favoured by Stewart and Slater prove a better pairing, with the latter’s subtly sweetened double cream and yoghurt edging ahead of the low-fat cream cheese and sugar mixture in Stewart’s tart on the grounds it tastes “lighter”. As this is generally felt to be a good thing, I’ll be using whipping cream, which sits somewhere between single and double varieties on fat content, though feel free to substitute double if it’s easier to come by. Do not, however, be tempted to replace thick whole milk yoghurt with the low-fat variety; it’ll make the mixture loose and unpleasantly sour. A little sugar is all you need. After all, both the fruit and the pastry will add sweetness – but feel free to add vanilla if you like, lemon zest or, my particular favourite, Slater’s rose water, another gloriously summery flavour.

The fruit

Nigel Slater’s strawberry tart

Kinnaird makes a strawberry and pink peppercorn jam to line the bottom of his tart, but, though we agreed we’d all eat this by the spoonful, in peak strawberry season it seems a shame to use anything but fresh fruit. It’s also, of course, much easier – you don’t even need to macerate the berries in pink wine and honey as Aussignac suggests, though the redcurrant glaze recommended by Stewart does make them look so attractively shiny that I can’t resist it.

Standing the fruit on its ends, as in Slater’s recipe, means you can cram more on there, though unfortunately I encountered a small supply error on the day I made mine, hence the slight dearth in the picture above. Put on as many as you can reasonably fit – this dessert is all about the strawberries, so gorge yourself before they’re gone for another year.

Martha Stewart’s strawberry tart.

The perfect strawberry tart

(Serves 8)

For the pastry:
200g plain flour
110g cold butter, cut into cubes
65g caster sugar
1/4 tsp fine salt

For the filling:
200ml whipping cream
2 tsp icing sugar
1/2 – 2 tsp rose water (optional)
200g thick whole milk yoghurt
About 500g ripe strawberries
4 tbsp redcurrant jelly or other smooth jam (optional)

To make the pastry, put all the ingredients in a food processor and whizz until they look like damp ground almonds – this will probably take a minute or so. Tip into a loose-bottomed shallow tart tin about 25cm wide, spread out and press with a mug or glass until you have a pastry case. Put in the freezer for 15 minutes until firm. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 180C.

Prick the base all over with a fork, then bake for about 20-25 minutes until lightly golden (overcook it and it will be crumbly). Allow to cool in the tin, then gently transfer to a serving plate.

When the shell is cool, whip the cream to soft peaks, adding the sugar and rose water or other flavouring towards the end of the process, then fold in the yoghurt. Taste and add a little more sugar or flavouring (rose waters, in particular, can vary hugely in strength) if necessary then spoon into the tart shell and smooth.

Hull the strawberries and cut into quarters, or sixths if large, and then arrange, point upwards, in concentric circles. Heat the jelly in a small pan until liquid, then brush over the fruit and leave to set for at least 30 minutes before serving.