Paneer and chickpea curry

Goodness this November is a drag. Without wanting to sound a total misery (which I’m not), but doesn’t it feel that the dreariness of February has arrived three months early? Lockdown, as a friend of mine eloquently put it, has taken the sheen off life. Have we ever valued the simple act of sharing a cup of tea with a neighbour, having real-life creative conversations with colleagues or a wander round the shops, so much as we do now? I realised yesterday that this is the first year in forever when – forgive me – there’s been no chance of getting a pig roast, whether it’s at a wedding, country fair, open day, you name it. All I can now think about is crackling. Make of that what you will.

It seems to me that there are two ways of dealing with the drudge. You can either forget the present and project yourself into the future – it’s no coincidence that several people near me have gone WAY EARLY with their Christmas decorations. Or you can immerse yourself in something completely different, a diversion ideally of a comforting and creative nature. And so this weekend I found myself leafing through the superlative River Cottage Meat Book, reminding myself of the joy of solid, classic, non-poncy, ingredient-led cookery.

River Cottage Cookbook with notes

I can feel some project cookery coming on. Back in Lockdown 1 we were all about house and garden, messing around with tulips and plug plants. Lockdown 2 is looking likely to be about lard. And suet. Plus butter, obviously. I still dream of cooking a whole ham (A WHOLE HAM!) but given that it would serve at least 20 people, it is perhaps not the best vehicle to relieve lockdown fatigue. Ditto the proper fore-rib of beef. I will probably take it easy with a spot of salt beef…and as thoughts turn to Christmas, maybe a pork pie or two. I’ll keep you posted of progress.

In the meantime, here is a far simpler dish, one to have a go at mid-week when a bit of gentle kitchen pottering is needed after a day of Zoom calls. It’s vegetarian, inexpensive, authentic and – most importantly – really tasty. I have got into the habit of keeping diced paneer in the freezer, and there’s always chickpeas, tomatoes and spices to hand. So consider it the perfect store cupboard curry – and what could be more 2020 than that?

Paneer and chickpea curry
Serves 4. Adapted from Waitrose Weekend recipe by Chetna Makan.

Sunflower oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp black mustard seeds
2 onions
2 green chillies – the long thin ones – left whole. (If you like it hot, slice them up)
2 fat cloves of garlic, bashed and chopped
a thumb of ginger, peeled and grated
1/2 chilli powder (or more/less to taste)
1 tsp ground tumeric
1 tsp garam masala
2 tomatoes, chopped
about 200ml water
400g can chickpeas
about 200g paneer, diced
1 tsp sugar

I use a karahi for this but you can also use a heavy-based sauté pan or casserole.

Heat the oil over a medium heat, add the cumin and mustard seeds until they sizzle, then tip in the onions, chillies and good pinch of salt. Gently fry for about 5 minutes, until quite soft and turning golden. Add the garlic and ginger, then the ground spices – fry them for a scant minute just to cook the spices – then add the tomatoes and sugar. Cook for 10 minutes or so until you have a thick, amalgamated sauce, loosening with water as needed.

Tip in the chickpeas and paneer, then cook for another 10 minutes to allow the flavours to come together. Taste and adjust the salt and sugar as required. Serve with rice, chutneys and maybe a piquant chopped salad of onion, cucumber and tomato.

Paneer and chickpea curry

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Chicken in white wine, with leftovers turned into a filthy chicken tartiflette. Gingerbread. Ordering the Christmas meats and, as every year, my plans of beef or something else interesting has been given up to tradition: turkey it is.

Garden and allotment: Clearing last of the annuals, cutting back perennials. Planted out hellebores. Started off broadbeans. Clearing the masses of leaves that have blown into both front and back garden. The cosmos etc started last month are a leggy mess so once again I ask, what point is there starting annuals in the autumn?

Also: Trying to dodge the ‘what am I doing with my life’ lockdown gloom with cookbooks, plus starting Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View. I have totally lost my ability to drink all alcohol other than traditional-method sparkling wine, coming out in instant allergic reaction at the mere sip of wine or beer. Spirits are a distant memory. Whilst I partly enjoy how pretentious my liver has become, this is a source of great sadness.

Chocolate-hazelnut couronne

Occasionally a magazine will come up with an image so brilliantly filthy that the recipe begs to be cooked. Such is this, from the February issue of Waitrose Kitchen. A bread stuffed with posh home-made Nutella? Yes. Please.

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The original

They’ve called this a babka, which is a traditional Polish enriched bread, stuffed with nuts and cocoa then folded four times into a tin to make a giant loaf. It was featured on last year’s Bake Off, when all the contestants messed it up by baking for too short a time. I’m pretty sure that babka has Jewish roots…I’ve made a mental note to research that properly.

This recipe is clearly not that. The flavours might be the same, but there is none of that tricky folding and shaping. It’s more like a couronne, a French twisted crown-loaf. So that’s what I’m calling it.

First up, make an enriched dough. This one has milk, butter, eggs and a touch of dark brown sugar. The recipe said to use some easy bake yeast but I had fresh in the fridge, so that’s what I used. It’s a soft dough but not impossibly so, and came together easily enough. I worked it by hand for about five minutes (I use the Richard Bertinet technique) and then left it for a good two hours to rise.

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The worked dough prior to its rise

Whilst it’s rising, make up the chocolate nut filling. The recipe said to use a mixture of 70% dark and milk chocolate, but I used regular dark chocolate (Bournville-type). It gets whizzed up in the food processor with whole hazelnuts, cocoa, honey, milk and cinnamon. It comes together into a spreadable paste, like chunky Nutella, but loads better. If you were so-inclined, a bit of orange zest might be a nice addition here.

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The chocolate-nut mixture

Now the fun bit! The dough needs rolling out, filling and rolling. The recipe said to roll it 60cm x 40cm, which is the kind of instruction I read without ever actually comprehending. Matt, the human-calculator, happened to be around so told me how big this actually is: “roll it bigger than your biggest chopping board”. So that’s what I did.

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It helps if someone tells you how far to roll

Then the chocolate mixture goes on top. It was freshly made and spread easily…if made in advance it might get too thick, in which case a drop of hot water should sort it out.

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Spread the chocolate filling evenly on the top

Then it gets rolled up from the shorter end. Mine was a bit wonky, but it didn’t seem to matter too much.

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Roll up into a swiss-roll, working from the short end.

I then sliced it in half length-ways, using a metal scraper. The two halves then get twisted around each other, as tightly as is possible without losing all the filling.

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Slice in half then twist the two pieces around each other

Next, shape it into a circle, tuck the ends under and pop it onto baking parchment on a baking sheet. Cover (I use a linen cloth but you could use plastic film) and leave to prove again – this one took 45 minutes. It won’t grow that much in size, but will get nicely puffy and if you gently prod it, the indentation from your finger should stay put.

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Before the second prove

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After the second prove

Preheat the oven – the recipe failed to give a baking temperature so I put it in at 200c. It took 45 minutes, but I covered it in foil for the last ten minutes to stop too much browning. It still caught a bit, though I think with all that chocolate and sugar this might have been inevitable.

The last step is to glaze. Bubble up dark brown sugar and water until syrupy, then paint it on. It’s then left for a few minutes, then glazed again. The sugar makes it taste treacly, so if you prefer a more toffee flavour use light brown sugar instead. Leave until cool until serving.

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Out of the oven and glazed

It’s really, really good. The layers of chocolate keep the dough really moist, but there’s a nice level of crust around the edge and chewiness in the middle. Plus it looks really impressive.

Now that I’ve given it a go, it’s ripe for experimentation: the same base recipe could be adapted with almonds, marzipan, fresh and dried fruit. A great offering for a gathering or party.

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All swirly in the middle

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Just a slice

Chocolate-hazelnut couronne

Adapted from Waitrose Kitchen, February 2015 edition, p87

For the dough:

500g strong white flour

10g salt

75g dark brown sugar

15g fresh yeast or 10g easy blend yeast

125ml milk

3 eggs, beaten

150g butter

For the filling:

150g whole hazelnuts

150g dark chocolate (Bournville-type)

150ml milk

3tbsp cocoa

3tbsp runny honey

1tsp cinnamon

For the glaze:

75g dark or light brown sugar

75ml water

For the dough: Mix salt into the flour and sugar. Crumble in fresh yeast. Warm butter and milk together, add to dry ingredients with eggs. Mix to a soft dough and knead  until smooth and springy. Cover with linen cloth or plastic film, leave to prove for two hours.

For the filling: Chop nuts and chocolate in food processor, add everything else and whizz to a paste.

Very lightly flour the work surface. Roll the dough into a rectangle 60cm x 40cm – the long end should be twice the length of a long ruler. Spread the filling evenly on top. Roll up from the short end, using a plastic scraper to help. Smooth the roll out into a long sausage shape. Using a sharp non-serrated knife or metal scraper, slice it in two lengthways. Twist the two lengths together and draw them together into a circle, tucking in the ends. Transfer to a baking tray lined with baking parchment. Cover again and leave to prove for 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 200c. Bake for 45 minutes, covering with foil after 25 minutes to stop it browning too much. Make a glaze by bubbling sugar and water together for five minutes or so. Glaze the couronne when it’s fresh from the oven, leave for  five minutes then glaze again. Cool before eating.