Letting go

Autumn is finally here, introducing itself with a firm handshake this Monday as temperatures dropped and the winds picked up. I'm not sure what's wrong with me this year. Normally, I look forward to the change in seasons, welcoming the crisp air that cuts through the stickiness of summer. The problem is, I never felt very sticky over the past few months, never felt the heat was getting to be too much. I'm having a problem letting go of summer. Maybe it's the deep seeded fear I have of the impending cold, but I can't quite bring myself to pack away summer's cotton clothes in exchange for wool.

To pluck up a bit of cold courage, I've delved deep into my favorite autumn recipes and am planning some serious kitchen time this weekend. I've bought a big bushel of honeycrisp apples, only available this time of year, which in my opinion are the king among apples here in the mid-west. I also picked up a pumpkin from a local market to display proudly on the front step until it's time to carve. If I can't look autumn in the eye now, I never will.

First in the autumn line-up is this fig tart, inspired by one of my favorite places to eat in Islington, Ottolenghi.

The first time I walked in, I had mixed emotions. I've always had dreams of owning my own restaurant, and I thought this was the place I had in my mind. Through the glass doors on your left is a picturesque display of pastries, cakes and the biggest pile of meringues you've ever seen. On the right are platters of savory dishes including meats, vegetables and quiches which you can choose to combine any way you like. Sliced rare roast beef with home made dipping sauce or the roasted chicken were always delicious. Roasted squash with chilli and yogurt or cold, crunchy broccoli with sliced almonds were lovely accompaniments.

Down the center of the narrow restaurant was a long, smooth, never-ending corian table where people sat in bright orange chairs next to strangers. For breakfast, Dualit toasters plugged in from sockets up above in order to "toast-as-you-go."

Needless to say, I loved this place. What I most remember about Ottolenghi is taking my Mom, Pam, there on her very last visit to London. She came on her own, which was very special. I took her here for lunch on the first day and she made me go back twice for the fig tart. She was at a stage in her illness that made her pickier than usual and this tart really did it for her.

I used black mission figs here, which are perfectly in season at the moment and are lusciously ripe. Use them as soon as you buy them, or they will spoil. I say this is a tart, but it's more of a sponge cake with fruity caramel topping. You can use any type of fruits for this. In fact, I had planned on making a plum tart but turned them into jam several weeks ago.

I feel like I claim that many things that I make are simple, but this is quick and easy and the results is visually impressive. I must warn you about making the caramel sauce. It's such a straightforward thing, caramel sauce, yet if you don't watch it closely, you have a dangerous mess that is unusable. On my first attempt, I got a little distracted and didn't watch it- big mistake. It quickly turned black and burnt and if this happens, you have to wait for it to cool before pouring it out and starting over. Don't put cold water in or it could splatter and burn. I carefully poured mine into an empty tin can.

If you watch the caramel sauce, it will start to turn slightly golden, take it off the heat and it will be ready to accept the little halves of figs. This is literally a one pan process. You make the caramel in a shallow pan, arrange the figs in a design you'd like to see on the top- I normally start with an outer circle of figs and work my way in. Then you simply dollop the sponge cake mix on top and pop it into the oven to bake.

I adapted this recipe from a grocery delivery company I used in London called Ocado. They had a recipe section that I would often go to for week night inspiration. I found this and worked with it until I was happy with the outcome.

Pam's Fig Tart

For the caramel sauce:
1 1/3 cups of sugar
3/4 cup of water

For the sponge cake mix:
2/3 cup of butter at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1/5 cups self-raising flour
3 eggs
2 lbs figs, halved lengthwise

Preheat the oven to 325F. Halve your figs and place to one side. Combine the sugar and water in a shallow pan to make the caramel sauce. Over low heat, stir the sugar until it has dissolved and then bring the sugar water to a boil. Once it's boiling let it simmer without stirring until it starts to turn slightly golden.

Remove the pan from the heat- it will continue to bubble and become richer in color.

Let it cool slightly before placing the fruit in a nice formation (circular if you'd like.) This will be the top of your cake. In a food processor or mixer, combine the sugar, flour and butter until mixed. Add the eggs one by one until combined. Stop as soon as it comes together to form a nice sponge mixture.

Spread the mix on top of the fruit and bake for one hour. Remove from the oven and let it cool completely. Run a knife around the edges and turn it out onto a plate. Serve with creme fraiche or a dollop of greek yogurt.


Press the button

In my effort to impress friends during breakfast, I woke early, started the coffee machine (to the maximum 10 cups it would make) and started rolling out the puff pastry. All of this sounds seriously taxing for an early Saturday morning, but I'm a cheater. I was following Ina Garten's recipe for Easy Cheese Danish, I had already made the filling mix and it was waiting for me in the fridge, Martin had the coffee ready for me to press the button, and I was rolling out defrosted, store-bought puff pastry.

I'm not sure about you, but this is about all I can muster when it comes to serving breakfast for guests, especially if I've indulged in a few glasses of wine the night before. Don't get me wrong, I want it to be a warm and welcoming meal, but the fact that we're all out of bed WAY before 8am means that I'm moving slower than normal in the kitchen. Therefore, if I can do a few special items for guests, like make some homemade jam days before, or put together a basket of flaky danish at the last minute, it still feels special with minimal effort.

I don't normally start the day with a danish, so these feel like a special treat. I'm a huge advocate of eggs for breakfast on the weekends, but these really do feed a crowd. When you've got a group that will be up at slightly different times, running around grabbing a shower and feeding kids, these are great because you can pile them into a basket with a lovely napkin and everyone can help themselves. I've begun using my Mom's linens and so many of them seem to have been designed specifically for ladies luncheons on a sunny day. I guess that's exactly what you want at the bottom of a basket filled with creamy, lemony delicious danish.

Ina uses an electric mixer here which is one of my favorite kitchen electronics. My precious cherry-red kitchen aid mixer (that my Mother bought for me as a wedding present) was one of several electrical casualties in my move from England. Like an idiot, I stupidly thought I would be able to get a converter for all of my kitchen appliances and they would work. They did not. I use a hand mixer these days as I have not brought myself to part with a large portion of money for another mixer, but I know the day is imminent.

When I plugged in my beloved Dualit toaster and popped two pieces of bread in, it made all of the right sounds and felt warm on the outside. I thought, "eureka"! Sadly, it only warmed the bread and did not toast. After several attempts, Martin blamed the "damn American bread" before he realized his mistake.

Easy Cheese Danish
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa At Home by Ina Garten
Makes 8 Danish

8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
2 extra large egg yolks, at room temperature
2 tbsp ricotta cheese
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp kosher salt
grated lemon zest from 2 lemons
2 sheets (1 box) frozen puff pastry, defrosted
1 egg beaten with 1 tbsp of water for egg wash

Preheat the oven to 400F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.

Put the cream cheese and sugar into a bowl of an electric mixer with a paddle and cream together on a low speed. When it's smooth, add the egg yolks, ricotta, vanilla, salt and lemon zest. Mix until just combined and don't whip.

Carefully unfold a sheet of the puff pastry and roll it out on a lightly floured surface until it's 10x10 inch square. Place a heaping tablespoon of the filling into the middle of each square, brush the borders with the egg wash and bring two opposite corners into the center. Brush the overlapping corners so they stick together and the brush the top of each pastry. Place them on the prepared sheet pan and repeat with the second sheet of pastry.

Pop them into the refrigerator for 15 minutes and then bake for 20 minutes until puffed and golden.

You'll notice that I opted to make little rectangles instead of overlapping the corners and keeping the filling exposed. Either way, these little guys are addictive and you'll wish you made more than one for everyone.


Right as rain

I've just picked up the last of the deflated balloons on my porch from the first birthday party we had for Oliver during my friend's visit from London, and I can't help feeling the same- deflated. Sure, the sun is shining and I should be out basking in it, but the house seems too quiet without two little ones racing across the floor with toy cars and the constant "Wheels On the Bus" song that played consistently for 10 days.

After watching Liz and Claire make endless pots of tuna pasta for the kiddies, I made a grown-up version for Martin and I for a mid-week quick lunch. I wished the bowl was never ending. It was simple and comforting and even though mine contained salt, it was very nutritious. Next on my "inspired by children's food list" was rice pudding. I watched as Claire stirred the "pudding rice" that she brought from England and wished I could dive in. Instead, Stanley lapped up every bite during his not-so-picky phase that lasted until we left Chicago.

So this week, my Stanley and Oliver inspired rice pudding made me head to the store for another carton of whole fat milk, which normally never graces the inside of my refrigerator, but was something we couldn't live without during their stay.

If ever there was a dessert that made you feel right as rain, rice pudding is it. The creaminess that surrounds each soft grain of rice should be scooped mouthful after mouthful.

I added a simple twist to my rice pudding by adding two crushed cardamom pods, something I like to add to rice when cooking it normally. You can add a little vanilla extract or a scraped vanilla pod as well or on it's own. The slight hint of gingery spiciness from the cardamom not only kept the rice from becoming too sickly sweet, it also paired well with the stewed apples I spooned on top for my first nod towards autumn.

Again, my friends had just done a few stewed apples for the boys and it reminded me of when my own Mother made them for us as children. A few slices of apple combined with brown sugar and butter make a perfect topping to rice pudding that no child or adult can pass up.

This recipe is partly adapted from Claire's pudding and a recipe in this month's Bon Appetit paired with my Mom's stewed apples.

Cardamom Rice Pudding with Stewed Apples
Serves 6

For the rice pudding
1/2 cup arborio rice
4 cups of whole milk
1/3 cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 1/2 cups of water
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cardamom pods, crushed

For the apples
2 gala apples
2 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 cardamom pod, crushed

Bring the water and a pinch of salt to a boil then add the rice. Boil for ten minutes, drain and discard the water. Put the rice to one side. Add milk and sugar to the pan and bring to a boil over medium high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Watch the pot during this process or you'll let the milk boil violently over like I did whilst chit-chatting to my sister.

Crush the cardamom pods with the back of a knife.

Add the rice and cardamom pods and reduce to a simmer. Cook for about 35 minutes until the rice is tender and the sauce has thickened and reduced to about 3 cups. Stir occasionally to make sure it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan. Remove from heat, fish out the cardamom pods and stir in the vanilla extract. Transfer it to a bowl, press plastic wrap onto the surface of the pudding so a film doesn't form and let it cool to room temperature then refrigerate until cold.

You can do this up to 2 days ahead.

When you're ready to serve, cut the apples into slices or cubes as I've done here. I don't like to peel them because it gets rid of all the beautiful color. Combine them in a saucepan with the brown sugar, butter and cardamom pod and cook them over medium-high heat until the sauce and apples are simmering away. Cook for about 5 minutes until the apples are softened but still have their shape.

Serve the puddings in little glasses as I have done, or a nice bowl and spoon over the hot apples. The cool rice and the hot apples will send you straight back to childhood.


One for the ladies

Like a cheesy DJ in a night club, I'd like to shout into a microphone that this dessert goes out to all the lovely ladies. I first made it for my Aunties on their first visit to see me in Chicago last summer and it went down a storm. I just whipped up a batch of six for my friends from England, and it was particularly popular with Claire and Liz.

Panna cotta is an Italian dessert that usually consists of milk, cream, sugar and vanilla mixed with gelatin. It then gets set and turned out onto a dish to serve. This version light, creamy and smooth as silk. Best of all, it stays in the little ramekins rather than bothering to turn them out.

As we're just reaching the end of peach season, this is a perfect tribute to the end of summer. I'm currently in Michigan and the sun has not stopped shining. I have felt extremely lucky that the weather finally decided to cooperate, especially when our best friends from England were visiting. I think Michigan knew it owed us one. When we were up earlier this summer, most of the week was freezing cold and raining.

You can make these panna cottas a day or so in advance- something I'm always looking for when sifting through my recipes. It makes everything so much easier when you get a house full of guests and you want to do anything but spend hours in the kitchen. It also has a wow factor. You can tell you've spent time making it, but you can whip them out of the refrigerator at a moment's notice. Mixing the peaches with lemon thyme and sugar is a perfect topping. If you can't find lemon thyme, you can zest a half a lemon in with the peach mixture.

In the panna cotta mixture, I added rose water and vanilla extract this time instead of almond extract. You could add other flavors to change this up and match it to the fruit you're using, such as real vanilla beans and strawberries for a more traditional version.

Panna Cotta with Lemon-Thyme Peaches
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine
Serves 4

1 1/4 tsp unflavored powdered gelatin
2 tbsp water
1 1/4 cups of heavy cream
1 cup of low-fat plain yogurt
1/4 cup mild honey
1/8 tsp pure almond extract or vanilla extract with a dash of rose water
1/8 tsp salt

For the peaches:
3 peaches- peeled or un-peeled, pitted and sliced
1 tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tbsp fresh lemon-thyme leaves
(if you can't find lemon thyme, then use regular thyme and a few zests of lemon)

Put the water and the gelatin in a sauce pan and leave for a minute to dissolve. Add the cream and salt and turn the heat on low until the gelatin has dissolved completely.

Whisk together the yogurt, honey and almond extract (or vanilla and rose water) then add it to the cream mixture once it's cooled slightly.

Pour it into 4 small cups or ramekins then chill for at least 8 hours.

When you're ready to serve, prepare the peaches. Mince together the thyme and sugar and mix with the peaches.

Let them sit for about 20 minutes which will make a little sauce. Pour the peaches and their sauce over the top of each ramekin and serve, with a little drizzle of honey if desired.


Crush a grape

I'm so excited, I could crush a grape. My friends, the Malkinsons and the Theakstons, are coming to visit from London this Friday. In tow will be their one year-old sons, Stanley and Oliver. I'm currently busy preparing for their arrival performing what I like to call "Operation Show Home." This really involves lots of cleaning and making things pretty and Martin telling me over and over again that the Queen isn't coming to visit.

I'm planning on several barbecues to make the most of this beautiful Labor Day weekend and September weather before we head north to our place in Michigan. In the mean time, I just made a big pot of home made jam for the weekend's breakfast. Breakfast with six adults and two babies should be interesting. I'm will be filling the center of my large table with pots of tea, cereal boxes, piles of toast and proper English breakfast accompaniments- Marmite, butter and my home made plum and cherry jam.

I bought these tiny, gorgeous Italian plums to make a fruit tart, one that was my Mother's favorite. It's still in the back of my mind, but it will have to wait. In a moment of madness I pitted them, halved them and threw them into a pot with half a bag of dried bing cherries that I had in the pantry (that I just organized or I wouldn't know they were there.)

The result is that I now have two lovely little pots of jam that can be scooped onto toast, pancakes, or even served with pork.

As you may imagine, I will have my hands full over the next two weeks. I'll be busy cuddling little boys, making sure they don't fall down my stairs or hurt themselves on anything else in my non-child-friendly apartment, catching up with my girls, drinking lots of wine and cocktails, going to baseball games, showing everyone around Chicago, building bonfires on the beach of Lake Michigan and of course, cooking.... so stay tuned.

Plum and Dried Bing Cherry Jam
Makes 2 pots

1 1/2 pounds plums
1 cup of dried bing cherries
1 cup of sugar
1 tbsp allspice and a touch of cinnamon

Remove the pit from the plums and halve them if they are a small variety, quarter them if they are large. Put a pot on the stove over low heat and add the plums, cherries, sugar and spices and stir to let the sugar dissolve. Cook over low heat for about 15 minutes, then turn it up to medium and stir occasionally for another 25 minutes until the plums have mostly broken up and the liquid is halved- you should have about 2 cups left.

Let it cool completely before putting them into sterilized jars (I just put mine through the dishwasher without any soap.)

Seal them tight and keep them in the fridge or pantry if you're not using them straight away.