Saturday’s Sundaes

Sometimes when the sun shines and the sky is blue, life feels like a Kinks’ song.  On Saturday, I found this especially true when surrounded by good food and family in the Chilterns.  As the sun came up, the t’wit t’twoo of the previous night’s owls gave way to birdsong.  At breakfast, gray skies rolled in and rain poured threatening our afternoon of fun.  Thankfully the sun soon emerged and everyone sighed a sigh of relief then began basking in its glow.

My three year old sat listening to the ticking of the clock in the foyer (she can’t tell time), until her cousins arrived for lunch at half past noon.  This is when the real fun began.  The kind of fun that starts with the holding of little hands in the garden, laughing at grownups, and racing up and down the lawn.  Of course this merriment ends with grass stains, wine stains, coffee stains, and endless laundry for days, but all of that scrubbing is worth every giggle and good moment.

Post chicken, ham, and leek pie, we taught the little ones about spread betting.  We had to.  It was the Grand National.  Unlucky for us, we were placing a bet on Many Clouds at the last minute but the William Hill server was too busy and the race started before our transaction completed.  C’est la guerre.

The children had no interest in the Oxford Cambridge boat race and thusly engaged in their own championship game of Beetle.  The winner got the rest of last weekend’s Easter candy.  The losers got sour grapes, marmite toast, and tea with Super Ted.

Finally, we had an all family boules tournament fuelled by brownie sundaes.  With hot salted caramel and chocolate sauce to choose from, everyone was a winner.  Below are my recipes for both.  I hope you enjoy them.  The brownies I made were Alice Medrich’s from Food 52.

through the window

foyer flowers

grand national

boat race

beetle tea with super ted





 Sundae Sauces


300ml of thick cream (double cream)

100g dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa), broken into pieces

2 tablespoons golden syrup

1 cup of caster or granulated sugar

100 grams of butter (cut into cubes)

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste

fleur de sel



For the chocolate sauce – In a heat proof bowl, combine the chocolate and golden syrup.  Place it over a simmering pot.  Make sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water.  When the chocolate begins to melt, stir it.  Add half the container of cream and continue stirring to incorporate.  Take off the heat and add 1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste and a pinch of fleur de sel.

For the salted caramel – Put the sugar in a small pot and melt over low-medium heat.  Stir constantly until melted.  When it starts to turn tawny in color, add the butter.  Be sure to keep stirring though take caution as the butter can cause the caramel to sputter.  Once that’s incorporated, add the remaining cream.  Take off the heat and add 1 teaspoon of fleur de sel and 1 teaspoon of vanilla bean paste.

Serve over your favorite ice cream and enjoy.  Keep the remaining sauces in glass jars in the fridge and reheat as needed.  I keep them for about a month.

sundae sauces fleur de sel hot fudge caramel brownie sundae

Black Bean Chipotle Chili

I don’t smoke.  I never have.  By which I mean sure I’ve had the occasional cigarette–I’ve even bought packs–I’ve just never finished them.  Not once in my life have I ever woken up and longed for a smoke.  That said, parenthood changes a person.  While I love my three year old and am convinced she hung the moon, there are days I long for a tall drink and a moment of smokey silence.  And since these days I’m a few thousand miles from my favorite cigarette, a Nat Sherman Black and Gold, my smoke of choice has become chipotle.

Chipotle chiles are peppers from Mexico that have been dried and smoked.  Sometimes they are dried by smoking.  Either way, they are imbued with a wonderful flavor.  I love to keep a jar of chipotles en adobo at all times.  That spicy jar in the back of my fridge is like my secret stash.  When I have a craving, I know right where to go.  It’s delicious stuff and lasts for ages.  If you want to make your own, follow my basic recipe.  Of course, adjust it to suit your taste.


100 g chipotle chiles

1 onion, chopped

1 bulb of garlic, chopped

1 bunch of oregano, chopped,

1/2 bunch of thyme leaves

1 bay leaf

1 tsp cumin seeds, toasted then crushed with a pestle and mortar

1 cup white wine vinegar

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

2 tbsp tomato paste

3 tbsp Demerar sugar

1 tbsp salt

olive oil



Rinse the chipotles with cold water.  Snip off the stalk ends and discard.  Put the chipotles in a saucepan and cover with water.  Simmer them for about 45 minutes or until they are soft.  Once they have reached desired tenderness, rinse off extra seeds and drain.

In a blender, combine the onion, garlic, herbs, spices, chiles and a few tablespoons of water.  Blend until you have a smooth paste.

Heat some olive oil in your heaviest bottom pan.  Add the chile paste and sauté for a few minutes.  Stir constantly to avoid sticking and burning.

Add the vinegars, tomato paste, sugar, salt, and a bit more water to achieve the thickness you desire.  Stir and simmer for about 20 minutes.  Flavor with more salt or sugar as you deem necessary.  Also, dilute with water if you think it’s too strong.  Pack in clean preserving jars and store.

I use this chipotle sauce as a salsa or in soups and stews.  It’s one of my favorite ingredients when making black bean chili, the recipe for which is below.



2 small onions, chopped

4 cloves of garlic, grated

2 cans cherry tomatoes

3 cans black beans, rinsed and drained

1/4 cup cider vinegar

3 heaping tbsp of cumin seeds

2 tsp smoked paprika

1 tsp cayenne pepper

1/4 cup chipotle sauce

2 tsp sea salt



Toast the cumin seeds over low heat.  Smash them in a molcajete (mortar and pestle).  Set them aside.

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In a large pot, add some olive oil and warm over medium heat.  Sauté the onions and garlic until soft.

In a small bowl combine the vinegar, paprika, and cayenne.  Add this to the onions and garlic, along with the tomatoes and chipotle.  Simmer and reduce for about 20 minutes.

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Finally, stir in the black beans.  Cook for another ten minutes just so the beans warm through and flavors emulsify.  I like to serve this with Greek yogurt and avocado.

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Silk Dyed Easter Eggs

Using silk to dye Easter eggs is my favorite way of decorating them.  The brighter the colors, the better.  You can use old ties, scarves, skirts, shirts, whatever.  Just make sure the fabric is 100% silk.  I can’t lie.  I often look in charity shops throughout the year for good patterns or color schemes to buy on the cheap and keep for Easter.  I found there were only so many times I could raid my husband’s tie drawer.


Here is what you need:

-white eggs (I like to use duck eggs)

-white vinegar

-rubber bands

-a large pot

-silk and white cotton fabric


Here is what you do:

If using ties, unpick them and remove the lining.  I save the linings for later use.



Next, cut the fabric into strips large enough to wrap around your eggs.  Be sure to make as much of the fabric touch the shell as you can.  Wrapping rubber bands around the fabric helps.  Tie them tightly at the ends with more rubber bands or some string.

silk wrapped

Wrap some white fabric around the colored fabric.  This is when I use the tie linings.

white wrapped

Place the eggs in a pot with cold water and a 1/4 cup of white vinegar.  Place a plate over the eggs to prevent them from floating to the top.  Once they come to a boil, allow them to cook for 25 minutes.


Remove them from the pot and transfer them to a bowl of cold water.  Cool completely.

cooling eggs

Remove the rubber bands and material to reveal your lovely silk dyed eggs.  Enjoy and happy Easter!  And yes, these make for a really colorful egg salad.

eggs carton of eggs last year's eggs 2 last year's eggs happy easter

Cast Iron Cornbread Wars

When it comes to cornbread, there are two camps.  Those who put sugar in their recipe and those who do not.  I belong to the latter.  To many Southerners, sugar has no place in cornbread and the addition of it is sacrilege.  Or as my friend’s mama from Tennessee told me when I asked her view on the matter, “Sugar?  In cornbread? Dahlin’, that’s what Yankees do! While it has its place, frankly, it’s cake.”

Personally, I think cornbread without sugar is more versatile.  You can eat it with anything–sweet or savory.  You can have it with honey.  You can also use it to make sausage stuffing, something I would never do with sweetened cornbread.  Also, just to note, two of my favorite Southern chefs, Mr. Scott Peacock and Ms. Virginia Willis, do not put sugar in their recipes.  Knowing this, nor do I nor will I ever.

The bottom line is sugar or no sugar, cornbread is a damn fine thing and the recipe by which most people swear is their grandmother’s.  Whatever she did, so will they.  And while I’m not gonna say your meemaw’s wrong, I am gonna say I think mine’s right.

NB: This will be filed under savory.


2 cups cornmeal

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 eggs

2 cups buttermilk

2 tablespoons rendered bacon fat



Preheat oven to 450ºF/230ºC/Gas 8.

Put the bacon fat in your cast iron skillet then place it in the oven.  **If you don’t have bacon dripping, you can use butter.  Just be sure not to overheat it.  Brown butter cornbread is delicious.  Burnt butter not so much.

In a large bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, salt, and baking soda.

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In a separate bowl, stir together the egg and buttermilk.  Gently fold this mixture into the dry one.

Remove the skillet and pour the dripping into your batter.  Stir it in well.

Pour the batter into the skillet and bake for about 20 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.  Eat with barbecue, chili, roasted fish, fried chicken or just about anything else you please.  Serve warm with butter and honey for a smackerel of something sweet.  When it starts to go stale (should you have any leftover), use it to make a sausage stuffing.

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Violet Cakes and California Stars

In 2009, I fell in love with an Englishman whilst on a vintage car rally in Sicily.  We got married and in 2010 I moved from Los Angeles to London.  Enter Claire Ptak into my life.  Perhaps not immediately, but almost.

The change of location was a total shock.  The gray skies, the constant damp, the absence of an ocean or the year round availability of ripe exotic fruit.  I had trouble coping.  Within a few months, I’d lost a stone(14 lbs.) and was told for the first time in my life I had high blood pressure.  Then there was the incident at the grocery store.

Desperate for the flavors of home, I decided to make buttermilk fried chicken one day.  But I couldn’t find buttermilk.  Nor could I find peanut oil (because it’s called groundnut oil in the UK).  I also couldn’t find my favorite hot sauce.  My meal had failed before anyone had even taken a bite.

So I went home and did what any homesick California girl with Southern roots and empty shopping bags would do.  I listened to Wilco, wiped the tears from my eyes, and Googled “American bakery East London.”  And that is exactly when Claire Ptak entered my life.

Equipped with my husband’s James Smith umbrella, I braved the inclement weather and walked up Broadway Market, across London Fields, past the lido, up Greenwood Road, and finally found myself on Wilton Way.  Outside the door of Violet, I stood a soggy pilgrim (English rain blows in all directions.  Don’t be a fool and think a brolly will keep you dry).  Inside, I found my Promised Land.

Desserts were displayed in glass cases like gems at a jeweller’s.  The scent of fresh coffee (Coffee!  The drink of cowboys.), homemade vanilla extract and flower cordials filled the air.  I bought a box of cupcakes-red velvet, candied violet and Valrhona chocolate.  When I got back to the flat, I cut into my cakes.  Each one tasted like home.  Unlike the other American-style baked goods I’d had in London, these were perfect.  They weren’t too sweet.  They weren’t topped with too much frosting.  And most of all, they were moist.  I could tell there was buttermilk in them just like there was in the old country.  That afternoon, I fell in love.

A few weeks later, my husband surprised me with a chocolate birthday cake from Violet.  It came with a little banner that read “Happy Birthday Skwirl!” (Squirrel being my nickname, Skwirl being how I pronounce it as an American).  Then on Saturdays when strolling the market, I started treating myself to a macaroon.  Not a fussy French macaron in some lurid shade, but a good old fashioned coconut macaroon.  When I was pregnant in 2011, Mrs. Ptak’s chewy ginger snaps got me through.  In 2012 when my daughter turned one, we celebrated with a ginger molasses cake.  And whenever I’d meet friends for coffee at Violet, it was the banana buttermilk bread that I’d order.  Then in 2013, my family moved from East London.  I still make my pilgrimage to Violet, but only for very special occasions.  Which is why I am so thankful for The Violet Bakery Cookbook which is available as of today.

It’s a beautiful book full of gorgeous sweets and mouth-watering savories that provides practical instructions like “TASTE.”  Mrs. Ptak reminds us to taste everything we make, especially when using fresh fruit and vegetables.  As the piquancy of what grows in the garden changes from harvest to harvest, we as cooks, must make adjustments to our recipes accordingly.  The book is also full of helpful how-tos like how to make one’s own vanilla extract, candied angelica, citrus peel or jams.  She also tells us how to use smashed apricot kernels to intensify a bitter almond taste.

Mrs. Ptak’s final note is on foraging.  I was completely charmed by this.  Not because I too have been brambling at Hackney Marshes, but because like the many ingredients Mrs. Ptak uses in her recipes, this section felt organic.  Mindful consumerism is more de rigeur than ever, but many writers express their views in a way that feels like a political tirade or middle-class one-upmanship.  Mrs. Ptak writes about foraging in a way that feels so intrinsic to her recipes.  There is nothing contrived about her ingredients or the way she uses them to conjure cake magic.  It just feels like a way of life that has always been hers, a way of life she imported to England from California when she came over(like I did, for love) in 2005.

The Violet Bakery Cookbook is going to be a classic. While the photos in it, much like Mrs. Ptak’s shop, are full of vintage china plates and ditsy rose tablecloths, it avoids that Twee for Two feeling I have come to associate with bakeries and tea rooms across Britain.  The book is beautiful, the recipes seasonal and delicious, and more than anything representative of the flavors that got me through my first few really homesick years.  I look forward to raising my daughter on all of Mrs. Ptak’s recipes (particularly the strawberry, ginger, and poppy seed scones and the cinnamon buns).  I urge you to do the same.

happy birthday skwirlseptember 2010december 2012 ginger molasses cake helena's 1st january 2013 cinnamon buns scones cooling scones strawberry and ginger scones 2015-03-11 16.19.28


Fish Pie

If you observe the liturgical calendar and give up meat during the Lenten season, this is a wonderful dish.  Even if you don’t. . . It’s delicious–warm and comforting like a pie but with the briny goodness of the sea.  I tend to make it when it’s cold outside and need a meal that’ll stick to my ribs.  For me, fish pie is the lunch or dinner equivalent of steel cut oats with almonds and berries at breakfast.  It’s a dish that will warm you and make you feel like a winner and keep you going for hours.  Frankly, it’s what I like to imagine the Royal Navy and RAF had before defeating the boys in Das Boot.


First make your mash:

1 kg  floury potatoes , peeled, and boiled

50g butter

2 heaping tablespoons crème fraiche

1 tablespoon dijon mustard

2 tablespoons whole milk

salt and pepper to taste


Method: Once the potatoes are soft, drain them then put them back in the pot with the other ingredients.  They should be quite thick.

At this time you should preheat your oven to 400°F/200°C/Gas 6.


For the sauce:

75g butter

75g plain flour

450ml of whole milk

2 bay leaves

1/4 tsp lemon zest

2 tablespoons dijon mustard

1 teaspoon English mustard powder

2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

a small bunch of dill, chopped

salt and pepper


Method: Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat.  When it starts to bubble, quickly whisk in the flour.  Whisk constantly to avoid sticking.  Do this over a low flame for a minute or two.  Let this roux thicken but do not let it brown.  Take the roux off the flame and whisk in a bit of milk.  When it’s incorporated add the rest of the milk and return to the heat.  Keep whisking.  When the sauce looks thick enough, remove it from the flame and add all remaining ingredients.  Mix well and be sure to remove the bay leaves before using.




Now add the seafood and construct your pie:

1kg of mixed offcuts from the fishmonger (I use prawns, regular cod, smoked cod, and salmon)

Be sure the fish has no bones in it and has been cut into 1″ chunks.

Method: Put the seafood in the bottom of a deep ceramic dish.  Pour the sauce over the top.  Next, spoon on the potato mash.  Use a fork to make ridges in this top layer.  Grate a little cheese (I use parmesan and cheddar) over everything and bake for about 35-40 minutes or until the top is crisp and golden brown and the sides are bubbling.  I like to serve this with peas.

fish layers draw a fish add cheese fish pie

Why is Life Worth Living? (A Cream-Filled Cupcake Recipe)

I watch this scene from Manhattan whenever I want to be reminded of all the beauty life has to offer.  The simple pleasures–Groucho Marx, the Jupiter Symphony, the crabs at Sam Wo’s.  The exquisite pains–Swedish movies, Marlon Brando, Flaubert.  And while I love Louis Armstrong’s Potato Head Blues, were it my list, I think I’d substitute it with Thelonious Monk’s Blue Monk.  I’d also trade Cézanne’s apples and pears for Matisse’s Bouquet of Dahlias and White Book, Frank Sinatra for Hoagy Carmichael, Tracy’s face for my daughter’s, and I’d have to add my Grandma Helen’s cream-filled chocolate cupcakes.

These cupcakes are a perennial family favorite.  They have made an appearance at almost every birthday party and Fourth of July barbecue my life entire.  I have made one adjustment to my Grandmother’s recipe.  Taking my cues from The Barefoot Contessa, I use fresh hot coffee instead of hot water.  I find this adds depth and intensity and makes what is already an amazing cupcake that much more so.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I always have.

chocolate cupcakes

 Grandma Helen’s Cream-Filled Chocolate Cupcakes


2 ½ cups flour

2 cups sugar

5 heaping tbsp cocoa

¼ t. salt

2 eggs

1 t. vanilla

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup buttermilk

2 t. baking soda

1 cup strong hot coffee


Mix ingredients together except for the baking soda and hot coffee.  Dissolve soda in hot coffee then add to batter and gently stir to mix.  Don’t be alarmed by how liquidy the mixture is.  This is why the cakes are so moist.  Fill cupcake holders ¾ full. Bake at 350F/180C/Gas 4 for 18-20 minutes.



 ½ cup caster or granulated sugar

½ cup milk

2/3 cup Crisco

¼ tsp. salt

1 Tbsp Water

1 tsp. vanilla

½ cup powdered sugar


Mix caster sugar, Crisco, water, milk, salt, and vanilla together.  Beat for 5 minutes.  Then add powdered sugar.  After cupcakes have cooked, use a pastry tube to squeeze the cream filling into each cake.  Be careful not to fill too much or the cakes will crack.  Frost with chocolate frosting.


6 oz. dark chocolate (at least 80% cocoa)

1/2 lb unsalted butter

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 c powdered sugar

1 egg yolk

1 tbsp instant coffee dissolved in a tsp of hot water

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler and set aside until room temperature.  Beat the butter with an electric mixer in a large bowl until light and fluffy.  Add the yolk and vanilla and continue mixing for a few more minutes.  Gradually beat in the sugar.  Lastly, incorporate the melted chocolate and instant coffee.