Coconut bread

The holidays are a distant memory now aren’t they? Those few precious days of still, thoughtful calm have been replaced with To Do lists (and they are long), emails and the general drudgery of January. Our festive season ended with a birthday dinner for my Mum, who has hit her 70th year with style. And I mean that: I’ve been looking at pictures from a decade ago and the men in the family now look, well, ten years older. The girls, on the other hand, are wearing pretty well, all told. Happy birthday Mum!

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Happy birthday Mum!

I am struggling with the lack of light. It’s not so much that the days are grey, it’s just that we live in a really, really dark house. No wonder the Victorian period is remembered as being a big grim: living in brick terraced houses like this, with no electric light and no heating, they must have been depressed for half the year. If Charles Dickens had had the LED bulb, what a difference it might have made to our perceptions of 19th century living…

Don’t misunderstand me: I love our house. But it is undeniably nicer in summer. My remedy for this is to get on with some home repair (the living room got repainted this weekend) and to cook, cook, cook.

So I turned to that personification of sunshine, Bill Granger, for a breakfast bake that he recommends “for days when you’d rather be in the Caribbean”. I’ve been making this coconut bread for a few years but it’s only now that I’ve tried it with fresh coconut. What a difference it makes! So get yourself a ripe fresh ‘nut, prepare and blitz it as described in my beef rendang recipe, and then you’re good to go. This bread is in the American style of quick, baking-powder-raised sweet loaves. I serve it in thick slices, toasted, with a slick of butter, ricotta or – brace yourself – Nutella.

Bill Granger’s Coconut Bread
from Sydney Food

Preheat the oven to 180c and grease and line a large loaf tin.

Sift together 375g plain flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder and 2 teaspoons cinnamon into a large bowl. Stir in 200g caster sugar and 150g fresh shredded coconut.

In a jug, melt together 75g unsalted butter and 300ml milk. Leave to cool slightly, then whisk in 2 large eggs and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Gradually stir the liquid into the dry ingredients, until the mixture is just smooth. It is quick a stiff mixture. Don’t overmix, else you’ll have a tough loaf.

Pour the batter into the tin and bake for 1 hour, until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. I like to check the bake after 30 minutes and move it around in the oven, to prevent it catching in my oven’s hot spots. It is appears to be browning too quickly, cover with foil during baking.

Cool in the tin for five minutes then remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Keeps pleasingly well in a tin for a week or so, or it can also be frozen.

Oxtail rendang

‘Tis the weekend to deck the halls. In Lichfield they are taking this to extremes, with this extraordinary installation of paper angels in the Cathedral. They hang from the vaulted ceiling as if tumbling from the heavens. Simple but very effective.

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Angel installation in Lichfield Cathedral

In the more simple surroundings of Bearwood, someone’s been getting all hygge… At the advanced age of 2-and-a-half, Gertie is finally appreciating the joy of a naked flame. (Yes I know it’s gas and therefore not a real fire, but it’ll do.)

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Gertie enjoys the fire

These short, dark days demand warming food. I love to have stews, soups and pies squirreled away in the freezer, ready for a quick nourishing supper or lunch. I say ‘quick’, but that’s a misnomer. They’re quick to defrost, but certainly not to cook in the first place. And so I present oxtail rendang, a country-girl take on the traditional Malay classic. This takes hours to cook – even longer if you decide to use fresh coconut, as I did – but it’s simple enough and packs a punch of flavour on a cold Monday evening.

Rendang is usually made with braising steak (the Rick Stein recipe that I adapted recommends blade or chuck) but I had some oxtail in the freezer and an idea that its rich, gelatinous quality would suit this slow-cooked creamy coconut curry well. I was correct! This rendang is aromatic with lemongrass, lime leaves, chillies and cinnamon, but the most important ingredient is the coconut. It’s best to make this a day ahead so that it’s completely cold when you flake the meat from the bones – plus it tastes better this way. Make double, freeze the leftovers, and there’s a good meal waiting patiently for when it’s needed.

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Crack yourself a coconut

So dear reader, first, crack a coconut*. You can do this the hard way as I did, with a pruning saw (yes really), or the easy way, as shown on this video. Once you’re in, remove the flesh and pulse it to a pebbly-powder in the food processor.  *Or you could just buy some ready-prepared fresh coconut from the supermarket, your choice. I have tried this recipe with desiccated coconut and it’s not as good, so go fresh if you can.

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Pulse the coconut to a pebbly-powder in the food processor

The coconut is the basis for our curry paste. Measure out 50g blitzed coconut (freeze any leftovers) and toast in a dry frying pan until golden all over. Tip the now-aromatic coconut back into the food processor along with 4 dried Kashmiri chillies, a knob of fresh peeled ginger, 3 cloves of garlic, 1 small onion and 3 fresh red chillies. Blitz for a minute or two until finely chopped. In a pestle and mortar, bash 1 tbsp coriander seeds with 1/2 tsp cumin seeds until powdery, then add to the food processor with 1/2 tsp turmeric. Blitz the lot with 100ml or so of water until it reaches a smooth paste – you may need to keep the machine running for several minutes.

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Blitz the coconut with chillies, spice, garlic, chilli and onion to make the spice paste

That’s the hard bit done and we can get on with assembly! Brown your beef pieces in frying pan with a little oil. I used four pieces of oxtail that together weighed about 1.5kg, but you could use regular braising steak if preferred. When brown, remove the beef to a pot along with two cinnamon sticks, three bashed stalks of lemongrass and 12 kaffir lime leaves. You can buy frozen lime leaves from specialist Asian grocers and they’re waaaay better than the dried ones.

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Brown the oxtail, then pop in a pot along with lime leaves, cinnamon sticks and lemongrass

To make the sauce, heat a little oil in a frying pan, then add the curry paste and cook over a medium heat for about 10 minutes, until most of the water has evaporated. You’ll know this because the ‘hissing’ noise of the cooking paste will begin to sound different. Once you’re there, add two cans of coconut milk (800ml), 1 dsp of tamarind water (I use the ready-made kind) and 1 tbsp palm sugar or dark brown sugar and a pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer then add the sauce to the meat.

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Cook the spice paste over a medium heat…

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…add the coconut milk and bring to a simmer

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Add the sauce to the meat, along with a dollop of tamarind and sugar, then cook for three or more hours

The curry now needs cooking for a very long time. You can do this on the hob, but I always prefer to use the oven – 3 hours at 120c should do it, but longer wouldn’t hurt. Remove the lid for the last thirty minutes of cooking to reduce the sauce slightly. Once the meat is flaking from the bones, remove from the heat and leave the whole lot to cool.

At this point we have a photo fail, as it’s dark at 4pm and therefore impossible to take useful images without expensive kit that I don’t possess. So you’ll have to take my word for it: the next step is to remove the meat from the bones, and the only way to do this is with your fingers! So remove every scrap of meat that you can and add it back to the sauce. Check for seasoning, reheat and serve.

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BAD PICTURE APOLOGY. Shred the meat from the bones, add back to the sauce, and serve up with rice and sides.

As well as rice, I think this rendang needs some good sides to go with it. I usually make a little plate of  toasted peanuts, sliced red onions that I’ve tossed with rice vinegar, and a few slices of tomato and cucumber. You have a dinner that’s warm, vaguely familiar (it is a beef stew after all) but deliciously exotic for winter nights.

Oxtail rendang
Adapted from Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey. Serves 4-6.

For the curry paste:
5og fresh coconut
4 dried red Kashmiri chillies
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 small onion
3 large cloves garlic
knob ginger
3 red chillies
100ml or so water

For the curry:
Vegetable oil
1.5kg oxtail (or braising steak, diced)
4 lemongrass stalks, bashed with a knife
12 keffir lime leaves
2 cinnamon sticks
800ml coconut milk
1 dessertspoon tamarind water
1 tablespoon palm sugar or dark brown sugar
Salt, to taste

For the paste, blitz the coconut in a food processor until fine. Toast the coconut in a dry frying pan until golden, then tip into the food processor and blitz with the dried and fresh chillies, onions, garlic and ginger. Bash the coriander and cumin in a pestle and mortar until fine, then add to the food processor. Add the turmeric. Blitz again with the water until it becomes a smooth paste.

Brown the meat in a little oil until browned on all sides, then place in a pot with the lemongrass, lime leaves and cinnamon.

Heat a little more oil in the frying pan and cook the curry paste for about 10 minutes, until the water evaporates. Add the coconut milk, tamarind, sugar and salt, bring to a simmer then pour over the meat.

Cook at 120c for at least three hours, until meat is tender. Leave the lid off the meat for the last half hour to thicken the sauce. When cooked, remove the oxtail from the curry and flake the meat from the bones. Add the meat back to the sauce, reheat and serve.

Tune’s carrot salad

On Sunday we awoke to find a young fox sprawled on the back lawn, enjoying a morning kip. To begin with I thought it was dead but then it’s ears twitched, annoyed at the bug that was hovering around its head. Matt tapped on the window and the fox sprang to its feet and stared directly at us with crystal clear eyes before hopping over the back fence with nonchalant ease. It was a majestic, mesmerising creature.

The city is full of wildlife and some encounters make me catch my breath in joy. Others, alas, make me stamp my feet in irritation. Something low-slung and snuffly has been at the strawberries – they’ve already been infested with woodlouse but this week’s visitor was significantly larger, squashing some plants, chowing down the red berries and tossing unripe fruit around the bed.

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Evidence of a snuffling strawberry thief

The slugs and bugs are still rampant. This week has seen the first dahlia, calendula and even crysanthemum come into bloom – and every single one of these has been nibbled. But let’s look on the bright side: blooms this early bode well for a summer-long harvest.

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First dahlia of the year – and it’s already been nibbled

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The calendula have flowered with tones of peach, orange and red

Last week I wrote about the failed carrot sowings and it is then with some masochism that I give you today’s recipe – an Indian carrot salad that at first glance sounds dull as anything but is in fact AMAZING.

My friend Tune taught me with this dish a few years ago and now, everytime I make Indian food, it’s a given that this salad will form part of the feast. Tune was raised in Calcutta and is the best cook I know: when she gives you a recipe, you take note. To make her carrot salad, you temper whole spices in ghee before piling in grated carrot, coconut and cashew nuts, stir-fry them for a scant few minutes – and that’s it. Easy as anything. The carrots absorb the spiced oil and somehow manage to both toast and soften at the same time, whilst the coconut and cashews lend some texture. It’s light, so it’s a great accompaniment to steaming bowl of rich rogan josh, but packs a punch of flavour and is also cheap as chips. Or perhaps cheap as carrots.

This is best made with fresh curry leaves, which you can buy from Indian food shops or online (try spicesofindia.co.uk), but dried will do if that’s all you have. If you don’t like the heat then leave the chilli out.

Tune’s Carrot Salad 

Serves two as part of a meal, with leftovers

Oil or ghee, for frying

1 tsp black mustard seeds

Pinch of dried Kashmiri chilli flakes or whole dried chilli (optional)

Pinch of curry leaves

2 or 3 good sized carrots, peeled and grated

Heaped tablespoon of desiccated or shaved coconut

Heaped tablespoon of cashew nuts

Heat an Indian karahi (cooking pan) or a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the oil or ghee, then add the mustard seeds, chilli and curry leaves. Fry until the mustard seeds start to pop, then pile in the grated carrot. Stir fry for a minute or so until the carrot begins to soften, then add the coconut and cashews. Continue to stir and cook for two more minutes – you could add a splash of water if it looks like it might catch. When the carrots are softened but by no means mushy, remove from the heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm as part of an Indian meal with curry, rice or flatbreads.

Flapjacks with sour cherry, coconut and white chocolate

Way back when, whilst doing my A Levels, I had a Saturday job at Cooks Bakery in Upton Upon Severn. Cooks is one of those old-fashioned bakeries, very few left now, selling viennese fingers, jam doughnuts, iced buns and florentines. When I was little, my Nan would take me there for a custard slice. I would slice the slab of solidified yellow custard in half horizontally to make two open-sandwiches of puff pastry and custard, saving the one that was smothered in white glace icing until last. I still love a custard slice.

Other highlights of a day’s work at Cooks included the apple and almond slice (pastry topped with a layer of stewed apple and frangipane), the big white tin loaves (this was the time of the white-sliced, so an actual loaf of whole bread was a MAJOR treat) and the flapjacks.

The baker, Mr Russell, always put a handful of coconut into his flapjacks. Not enough to make it discernibly coconutty, but just enough to give an intriguing twist of flavours. I still do this now, but like to chuck in new-fangled things such as dried sour cherries and white chocolate.

Everytime I make flapjacks, I think of my time at Cooks: the striped pinny, the smell of vanilla and that hideous day when I unknowingly sold a dummy porkpie stuffed with newspaper. I didn’t realise it then, but what idyllic days they were.

Back to the flapjacks. Any idiot can do this: melt syrup, butter and sugar together, and mix into rolled oats and coconut.

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Melt brown sugar, butter and syrup together

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Oats, coconut and dried sour cherries

I like to sandwich the chocolate between layers of flapjack mixture. This helps to stop the chocolate catching and burning in the oven. I have used white today, but plain chocolate is also excellent.

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White chocolate chopped into chunks

Bake on parchment paper and remember to slice when still warm and pliable.

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Bake for 20 minutes and ta da!

Flapjacks

100g butter

100g light soft brown sugar

75g golden syrup

200g rolled oats

25g desiccated coconut

handful dried cherries or other fruit

50g white chocolate, chopped

Preheat oven to 180c and line a suitable baking dish with parchment paper.

Melt together butter, syrup and sugar over a gentle heat. Leave to cool slightly whilst you measure out the oats, coconut and fruit into a bowl. Prepare the chocolate and leave to one side for now.

Stir the butter mixture with the oat mixture until well combined. Tip about a third into the prepared dish, sprinkle the chocolate on top, then finish with the remaining mixture. Doing this keeps the chocolate covered, which helps prevent it burning in the oven.

Bake for about 20 minutes until golden and bubbling. Keep an eye on it, over-done flapjacks are not good at all. Cool for 15 minutes or so in the dish then remove the parchment paper and slice the flapjacks. Leave to cool completely.