Thursday, April 4, 2013

Recipes from England

Finally, we're in my territory! I've been married to an Englishman for almost 9 years, so I can actually say I know something about English food.

Except wait … I don't think I've ever actually cooked an English meal. Unless you count, you know, Indian. How can that be? In the 14 years I've known Martin I haven't ever cooked any traditional English food. Wow, I'm actually feeling quite shamed and humble.

In my defense, though, Martin doesn't really pine for the food of his youth. We do traditional English roasts quite often, but being the excellent cook that he is Martin is usually the chef for those meals. He'll make an English breakfast every once in a while, too, and English scones. But shepherd's pie, bangers and mash, steak and kidney pie—we haven't done those, nor has Martin ever said he particularly wanted to.

And then, Travel by Stove arrived in England. Suddenly he was all over it. In fact, Martin was the primary author of my menu for this week, which was great because I didn't have to do any research.

It seems almost silly to go into too much detail about England, because everyone knows about England, don't they? England is the largest country in the United Kingdom. It is bordered by Wales to the west and Scotland to the north. It rains there. A lot. And when it's not raining, it's either sprinkling or pouring.

Photo Library-21
Stonehenge on a typical rainy English day. Photo by me!

I adore English history, an obsession that actually predates my relationship with Martin. So I could go on and on about medieval kings and queens and the Tudors and the Welsh wars. But in the interests of not boring the hell out of you I'm going to skip over all of that and just say that England has also had a rather grand history of conquering and taking over other countries.  In 1922 the British Empire controlled 458 million people, which was a full 1/5th of the world's population at that time. Its physical territory included nearly one quarter of the world's land area. Of course, it did all of this after it joined with Scotland to form the Kingdom of Great Britain, so I suppose Scotland can take some of the blame.

Today Britain only has sovereignty over 14 external territories, some of which don't have any actual people living on them. In fact I've already featured about half of them on this blog: Akrotiri, Anguilla, Bermuda, British Indian Ocean Territory, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands and Dhekelia. Many of them were gigantic pains-in-the-butt, culinarily-speaking.

Anyway, now that we're in England I do want to say one thing about British food. I've visited the UK a number of times and have always had Americans warn me about the bland, boring food, which is completely unfair. English food does tend to be heavy (that's because it's cold and rainy there, and the heavy food just fits), but it's not bland or boring. I enjoy English food, particularly pub food, which makes me wonder even more why I've never bothered to try making it at home.

So that brings us to our menu, chosen in large part by my darling husband. Here's the main course:

Toad in the Hole
(This recipe comes from Delia Smith, who is England's equivalent of Martha Stewart except without all the decorating. Martin has a seriously old and falling apart Delia Smith cookbook in our kitchen that he consults any time he wants to cook almost anything.)

For the sausages:
  • 6 pork sausages (about 14 oz)
  • 1 tbsp flavorless cooking oil
For the batter:
  • 3/5 cup plain flour
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/3 cup 1% milk
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup water
For the onion gravy:
  • 8 oz onions, peeled and sliced
  • 2 tsp flavorless cooking oil
  • 1 tsp golden caster sugar
  • 2 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 level tsp mustard powder
  • 15 fl oz vegetable stock
  • 1 tbsp plain flour
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Served with Delia Smith's Perfect Mashed Potato:
  • 2 lbs red skinned potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 2 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 oz butter
  • 4 tbsp whole milk
  • 2 tbsp crème fraîche
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
I also thought I needed an appetizer, so I picked this one (also from Delia Smith):

Stilton Soup with Parmesan Croutons
  •  4 oz Stilton cheese, crumbled
  • 2 oz butter
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 leek, cleaned and chopped
  • 1 large potato, diced small
  • 1 heaped tbsp plain flour
  • 3/5 cup dry cider*
  • 2 1/2 cup chicken giblet stock**
  • 1 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 tsp double cream
  • salt and freshly milled black pepper
For the croutons:
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 8 oz stale bread, cut into small cubes
  • 4 tbsp oil
* I used a hard cider, which is roughly equivalent to a dry cider. I have seen dry ciders at BevMo, so if you have one in your neighborhood this ingredient is an easy find.

** Delia has a chicken giblet stock recipe, but I wasn't too fussed about getting it exactly right. I didn't have any carrots or celery or parsley so I just boiled some giblets with onions and peppercorns and salt and my stock came out fine. I'm pretty sure you could use a canned stock if you were pressed for time, but shhhh don't tell Delia I said so.

And for dessert, Martin had to have spotted dick. Don't laugh. They really do eat a dessert in England called "spotted dick," and no one laughs about it over there.

Spotted Dick
(This recipe comes from Epicurious. You may be wondering why I did not choose Delia Smith's recipe. The answer will become clear to you later on. Annoyingly, painfully clear.)
  • 1/2 cup mixed currants and golden raisins
  • 1/2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1 cup cold finely chopped rendered beef suet* (or substitute butter)
  • 8 tbsp whole milk
  • Custard sauce**
* Do you know what suet is? If you're American, I bet you don't. Suet is the hard fat found around the loins and kidneys of a cow or a sheep (in this case, a cow). I didn't even bother to ask anyone at Safeway if they had suet, because I feared the expressions on their faces, and they're starting to know me by name there. I did find several other versions of spotted dick that called for butter instead of suet, so I felt safe making that substitution.

**You don't have to make custard sauce for this. Delia herself says you can never make it taste as good as what comes out of the can, so just buy canned custard.

OK, so here goes, starting with the soup:

First make the croutons. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Meanwhile, put the bread cubes in a large bowl with the oil and toss until all the cubes have plenty of oil on them. Add the Parmesan and toss some more, until all the bread cubes are coated.

Spread the cubes out evenly on a baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes or until they start to turn golden. Keep an eye on them because they will very quickly go from perfect to burned. Remove from the oven and set aside.

Now melt the butter over medium heat, then add the vegetables and a pinch of salt. Cover, reduce heat to low and cook for 5 to 10 minutes or until soft.

Stir in the flour, whisking until smooth. Keep whisking and gradually add the cider. Then add the stock and bring just to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and let simmer for a half hour.

Add the milk and the crumbled Stilton and heat until the soup is just about to boil. Adjust seasonings and add the cream.

 Transfer the soup in batches to a blender and puree. Serve with the croutons.

Now for the toad, which doesn't actually contain any toad in case you were worried.

Sift the flour over a large bowl, then make a well in the center and add the egg, salt and pepper.

Now mix the water and milk together in a separate container. Slowly whisk the egg into the flour and then gradually add the water/milk mixture. Keep whisking until the batter is smooth and lump-free.

Put the sliced onions in a bowl with about 1 tsp of the oil and the sugar. Toss until lightly coated then spread evenly onto a baking sheet. Place them on the top shelf of the oven and roast until they become a deep brown and start to blacken around the edges.

Meanwhile, put your sausages in a metal roasting pan and roast for about 10 minutes.

OK here's where Delia's instructions get a bit tricky. She says you need to remove the roasting pan from the oven and place it over direct heat until it's really hot, adding some oil if the sausages haven't released much of their own. Once the pan is hot, you can pour the batter over and around the sausages. Now, I was using a pyrex pan so I didn't do this, because last time I put a pyrex pan near a direct flame it shattered and I had to get a tetanus shot. So I just cranked up the heat in my oven as high as it would go and let the pan sit in there for about 10 minutes, then I added the batter. That seemed to work fine. If you do it this way, make sure to drop the temperature back down to 350 degrees after you add the batter. Now bake for 3o minutes, or until the batter is puffy, golden and crisp.

To make the gravy, add the Worcestershire sauce and mustard powder to the stock, with the rest of the oil. Add the flour and heat over a medium flame. Now add the onions, continuing to whisk, and bring to a simmer. Let simmer for 5 minutes and adjust seasonings as necessary. Pour over the toad and serve.

As for the potatoes:

Boil the potatoes (Delia says to steam them, but jeez, talk about complicating the issue) until tender and drain. Sprinkle with salt, then add the butter, milk and crème fraîche. Beat until creamy and fluffy. Adjust seasonings as necessary.

OK, now for the spotted dick. I originally used Delia's recipe, you know, in keeping with the whole Delia theme. I got to the part where she says to spread the filling over the dough and then roll it up like a jelly roll when Martin wandered into the kitchen and proclaimed, "That doesn't look like spotted dick."

"What do you mean?" I said with shock. "It's Delia's recipe."

"Oh no," he replied. "Spotted dick looks nothing like that." He then proceeded to look up spotted dick on my iPad and found the Epicurious recipe. "Spotted dick looks like that," he said.

It was at about that point that I realized I'd forgotten to use self-raising flour on Delia's version of the spotted dick, so I trashed the whole danged thing and started over. Partly because it wasn't the spotted dick of Martin's childhood, and partially because it was going to be ruined anyway.

So here's how to do the Epicurious version:

Sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Transfer to a food processor and add the suet or butter. Pulse until you get fine breadcrumbs. Now transfer to a large bowl and slowly add the milk, stirring until well-mixed. Knead until you get a slightly sticky dough.

Mix the fruit and zest into the dough and shape into a ball.

 Transfer to a buttered pudding mold (I used a very small cake tin).

Now butter a piece of waxed paper and put that on top of the cake, butter side down. Put a piece of heavy foil over that, crimping tightly to seal.

Now, I was all stressed about having to make the stupid spotted dick twice, so I seem to have missed where it said to cover it up. It really didn't seem to matter though, except for the part where Martin wandered into the kitchen (again) and said, "Aren't you supposed to cover it up? It will be soggy if you don't cover it up." Of course, by the time he gave me this helpful piece of advice the stupid thing had already been steaming for 2 hours. So if the spotted dick was soggy, we were going to eat soggy spotted dick. I wasn't going to make three of them. Fortunately, though, it really didn't seem to suffer.

Anyway after you cover (or don't cover) the pudding mold, put the whole thing into an electric steamer. Steam for 1 1/2 to 2 hours (adding more water if needed) or until the cake has risen and is cooked through, which will be a lot harder to tell if you did actually remember to cover it with waxed paper and tin foil.

When the cake is done steaming, transfer it to a wire rack and let cool for five minutes, then transfer to a plate. Serve with the custard sauce.

OK so here's how we liked it:

The Stilton soup was good, at least what I actually got to eat of it was. I originally just made it for the adults, but the kids felt slighted and complained that they wanted some too, so just to make the whining stop I gave in (yes I know, never give in to a whining child). Anyway it went pretty much exactly as I predicted: they didn't like it and I had to throw their portions in the trash, and meanwhile I hardly got to eat any. Sigh. What I did taste was good, though, it was really just a very sharp take on traditional leek and potato soup.

We only used a few of the croutons for the soup but the kids gobbled up the rest of them just on their own.

Martin had high praise for the toad in the hole, with the only criticism being that I didn't make enough batter. Now it did look exactly like Delia's picture, so I'm thinking that Martin's mum used more batter than Delia does, which means that batter quantity is subjective. Next time, though, I'll use more batter because I would have actually also preferred a higher batter-to-sausage ratio.

The sausages I chose turned out to be surprisingly spicy despite being labeled "mild." I attribute this to the near impossibility of finding actual pork sausages in a California grocery store. Most of them appear to be some sort of blend of chicken or beef. So the ones I bought were really the only pork sausage going at my local store, though Martin did assure me that his mum would make toad with whatever sausage happened to be available, and chicken wouldn't have been totally out of the question. Still tasty, though. Really tasty, and if I did it with chicken it would have also been a lot healthier.

The kids love sausages and Yorkshire pudding, so they were all over the toad even though it was a little overly spicy for kid-palettes. As soon as I said "onion gravy," though, they all went "EW!" So then Martin strained off the onions and gave Dylan some of the gravy and he did enjoy it, though of course it was all a lie because if he'd known it had once had onions in it he probably would have died from the horror.

The mashed potatoes were super-yum, actually a little decadent with the crème fraîche. I really liked them. A lot.

And as for the spotted dick, it turned out great. Of course I hate custard (nothing that texture should be edible) so I had to kind of eat around it. Everyone else though gushed and asked for seconds. Sadly it was a small pudding so there was barely enough for all of us. But I was pleased that after all that work it ended up being a hit.

I do have to say, though, I am glad that I don't normally have a national from my country-of-the-week wandering randomly into the kitchen as I cook these meals, because I don't know how much of the whole "that doesn't look like [traditional dish of my childhood]" thing I could take on a weekly basis. But it was still fun, and I liked being able to at least partially duplicate some of the food Martin had when he was a kid. Who knows, maybe I'll try tackling a shepherd's pie at some point. Just not a steak and kidney pie because, you know, ew.

Next week: Equatorial Guinea

For printable versions of this week's recipes:


  1. Great selection...Love Delia's recipes!

  2. Thanks, me too! Martin made some English scones from her book last weekend. Yum!


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