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I’m not much of a one for buying gratuitous amounts of value-added food products. You’re obviously paying a premium for the time and hassle spent by someone else pimping the raw product into the finished article so that you don’t have to. Clearly there are things that I have neither the equipment, nor the skills, nor the patience nor, indeed, the desire to make for myself and I include in this category most dairy products (I wouldn’t know the first thing about making cheese!) and most beverages (our kitchen isn’t big enough for vats of fermenting beer).  If I feel that I can add the value myself, then I’d much rather because my time is free and the resulting product is often much better in terms of flavour, quality and nutrition. Most of our meals are made from scratch these days (luckily for me, most convenience foods are jam-packed full of gluten so I am forced to eat much more healthily) and I object to paying through the nose for things that I can easily do myself, such as shelled nuts, skinned and deboned fish, jointed chicken, washed salad…the list goes on.  It’s not all about money, though, for me – most of all, I love doing it, especially if there’s a challenge involved. I think I must have inherited this predilection from my father: as I write this, I remember one Christmas when, rather than going down to the supermarket to buy a bottle of Malibu, he spent the best part of Christmas Morning trying to create a homemade version using vodka, coconut milk and coffee filter papers!!!

So, I’ve just been raving about adding value myself to products and taking on a challenge, but now I’m going to post a recipe that uses a shortcut, that I’ve no doubt paid extra pennies for. I love banoffee pie but I haven’t eaten it in years. I obviously can’t eat it when I go out because the pastry case will be glutenasty and I haven’t eaten it at home because the idea of leaving a can of Fussell’s boiling on the stove for about four hours and the dread of it spitting its lava-like contents all over me, as I ineptly hack my way into it with a tin-opener, fill me with horror. The first time I tried an Alpro soya caramel dessert, the taste reminded me straightaway of banoffee pie and I immediately thought that using this would be the easiest way to make one without the faff outlined above. I tried it for the first time last night as a twist on the traditional pancake (lemon and sugar are so dull!). Yum! You could also easily make a traditional banoffee pie by just substituting the pancakes for a gluten-free shortcrust pastry case.

Gluten-free easy boozy banoffee pancakes

These pancakes are traditional British ‘Pancake Day’ pancakes – they’re thin and pliable and ideal for folding around and wrapping fillings, either sweet or savoury.

Serves 4

75g gluten-free plain (all-purpose) flour
2 eggs
250ml milk
1tbsp vegetable oil
375ml Alpro soya caramel dessert (3 individual tubs)
30ml rum (optional)
4 medium-sized bananas
2 handfuls flaked almonds, toasted
whipped cream, to serve

You will also need a large (25cm), non-stick frying pan (skillet)

First, make the pancake batter. You can either do this in a food processor or by hand. If using a food processor, whiz the eggs, flour, milk and vegetable oil together until completely smooth. If doing by hand, place the flour in a medium-sized bowl. Using a whisk, break up any lumps in the flour. In a separate bowl or jug, lightly whisk the eggs, milk and oil together. Pour the liquids slowly into the centre of the flour, whisking as you do so, bringing the flour in gradually to the middle. This should ensure that there are no lumps. (You can leave the batter to rest for about an hour but if I’m pushed for time, I don’t usually bother and I never seem to notice much difference).

Lightly grease a large (25cm), non-stick frying pan with a little oil and place over a medium heat. When the oil is hot, pour about 100ml of the pancake batter into the pan (I use a soup ladle) and swirl and tilt the pan until the bottom is thinly covered. After about 1-2 minutes, loosen the edges of the pancake all around with a palette knife or fish slice and peek at the bottom. When the pancake is a nice golden brown, flip it over and cook the other side. The pancake is ready when you can see dark brown blisters on the underneath. Remove to a plate and keep warm. Repeat with the remaining batter, separating each pancake with a sheet of baking parchment.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix the caramel dessert with the rum and slice the bananas into 5mm rounds (if you want to be cheffy, you can do them on the slant!). Place each pancake on an individual serving plate. Spread a quarter of the caramel mixture over each pancake. Mentally divide the pancake into quarters and pile 1 banana’s worth of sliced banana on one of the quarters. Fold the pancake over to make a half-circle and then again to make a quarter-circle. Spoon over whipped cream and sprinkle with toasted, flaked almonds.

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I love cookbooks. I have a small library that I’ve collected over the years. Some are Christmas presents and books that I’ve bought from new, including tomes by the likes of Delia Smith (High Priestess of the Temple of Yum), the ubiquitous Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater (my very favourite cookery writer – I can’t wax sufficiently lyrical about his food), Antoinette Savill and Darina Allen and Rosemary Kearney (both really good gluten-free cookbooks). These are books I love going to on a regular basis as they’re jam-packed full of reliably delicious nosh.

But it’s the second-hand books that have come my way that I find the most intriguing. There are books that have been rescued from charity shops, such as Yugoslav Cookbook (obviously dating from pre-1992), written by Olga Novak-Markovič, head chef to President Tito (it was the chapter entitled “Fish, crustacea, shellfish and frogs” that made me fork out £1.50 for it!), those that I have inherited legitimately and those that started off as a fostering arrangement but ended up as a de facto adoption (ahem!). Some of these books date from the 1950s and 1960s and these are the ones that I love reading in bed at night before I go to sleep: Cookery in Colour, edited by Marguerite Patten, donated by my mum, Good Housekeeping’s World Cookery and The Daily Telegraph’s Favourite Recipes, both of which belonged to my husband’s father. I love the measurements given in imperial rather than metric, the Technicolor photographs and the quaintly clipped formal English of the instructions that crackles across the decades, evoking an era of the stiff upper lip and “Make Do and Mend”.

It is this last book that has given me the inspiration for today’s post. It contains a recipe for Prince Charles’s christening cake (!) and others submitted by Daily Telegraph readers, along with their photographs. I have yet to try the “delicious, nutty flavoured Fruit Scone [which] has enhanced Mrs. J. E. Donald’s reputation as a hostess”(!) but, as I was flicking through, the vanilla custard biscuits, originally made with a mix of ‘cooking fat’ and ‘margarine’ caught my eye. I’ve updated them somewhat by using decadent (!) butter, orange extract and a dark chocolate coating and have cooked them for longer at a lower temperature. They’re beautifully short and melt in the mouth.

Gluten-free chocolate-dipped orange custard biscuits (cookies)

The orange flavour in these biscuits is quite subtle so feel free to add more orange extract if you want a more citrussy flavour.

Makes 12-15 biscuits

115g unsalted butter, softened
85g caster sugar
1 tsp orange extract
170g gluten-free self-raising flour
2 heaped tbsp custard powder
100g gluten-free plain chocolate (I used Tesco’s own Continental 74% Plain Chocolate, but this does contain soya)

You will also need a solid baking sheet and a 5-6cm biscuit (cookie) cutter

Preheat the oven to 160°C (fan-assisted). In a medium-sized bowl, cream together the butter and the sugar with a fork. Add the orange extract and stir to combine. Sift the flour and the custard powder into the mixture and mix together. At first it will seem like the mixture will never come together because it’s too dry but it will gradually form a lump with lots of dry loose bits in the bottom. Use your hands to knead it until a satiny smooth ball of dough is formed. Roll out the dough on a lightly-floured surface until about 8mm thick. Cut out rounds about 6cm in diameter (I use a Moroccan tea-glass because I haven’t got a biscuit cutter) and place on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes or until golden-brown.*

Remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 15 minutes on the tray – if you try to remove them immediately, they will crumble. Remove carefully to a cooling rack (I use flat tongs) and allow to cool completely. Break the chocolate into pieces and melt in a bowl over a saucepan of boiling water, ensuring that the water doesn’t touch the base of the bowl. Dip each biscuit into the melted chocolate so that half is covered and place carefully on a sheet of baking parchment. When you have covered all of the biscuits, put them in the refrigerator to set. These biscuits should keep for 4 or 5 days in an airtight tin.

*If your oven is anything like mine, it doesn’t bake evenly and I always seem to get one side of the biscuits really brown. I rotate the biscuits through 90° every five minutes and this seems to ensure an even bake.

I first came across polenta in Florence where I spent the third year of my degree in 1993. I was taken, by some Italian friends, to a rather dingy restaurant somewhere behind Santa Croce. It was away from the tourist traps on the main drag and I was told that this was where the locals ate. The menu came but I wasn’t given a choice. Polenta was ordered for me. I was told that it was a speciality of the restaurant. It arrived in a bowl, looking as unprepossessing as the locale. I stuck a spoon in and took a bite, expecting to be blown away as I was with all Italian food. Sadly (for me), I wasn’t impressed, finding it rather bland and a bit too ‘corny’. I added Parmesan and managed to eat the bowlful. I haven’t eaten it since then because how it was prepared wasn’t really to my palate.

Until tonight, that is. I wanted to make a Mediterranean-style pork casserole with red wine, tomatoes, red peppers, mushrooms and olives and I know that polenta is a classic accompaniment to such slow-cooked recipes. I thought that lemon and thyme would complement the flavours in this really well. So I chucked in some lemon juice and zest, some dried thyme, some Parmesan and garlic for good measure. I’m converted.

A word of warning if you’ve never cooked polenta before:  If you’re adding extra ingredients to it, you really need to have all your ducks lined up before you start because the polenta needs vigorously whisking until it all of a sudden thickens and starts spitting. You really haven’t got time to be opening jars and measuring stuff out. Finally, finishing it off in the oven is not a traditional way to cook polenta but who’s got time to stand in front of the stove, stirring the pot for 45 minutes…?

Naturally gluten-free griddled polenta with Parmesan, lemon and thyme

Serves 6

olive oil
1.25l cold water
300g polenta/fine cornmeal
1½ tsp salt
50g Parmesan or Grana Padano, grated
zest and juice 1 lemon
2 tsp garlic granules
2 tsp dried thyme

You will also need a slab tin, 24cm x 20cm x 4cm

Preheat the oven to 190°C (fan-assisted). Grease and line the tin with baking parchment. Put the cold water in a very large saucepan and slowly add the polenta. You will need to whisk furiously in order to break up any lumps. Add the salt and bring slowly to the boil over a low to medium flame, whisking all the while (if you stop, the polenta sinks like silt to the bottom of the pan). Nothing will seem to happen for a while then, all of a sudden, it will thicken up and start spitting like a hot mud spring and you have to work quite fast. Add the cheese, lemon juice and zest, garlic granules and thyme and continue to whisk for a couple of minutes.

Take the polenta off the heat and pour into the prepared tin. Cover with aluminium foil and place in the oven. Bake for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and take off the foil. Allow to cool slightly in the tin for about 20 minutes, then remove from the tin, peel off the parchment and allow to cool on a wire rack. When cool, cut into six rectangles (in half vertically and into three horizontally). Cut each rectangle in half on the diagonal.

Heat a cast-iron griddle pan or ordinary frying pan (skillet) over a high heat and brush each portion of polenta with olive oil. Griddle each side for about 3 minutes or until golden-brown. I served these with a Mediterranean-style pork and olive casserole (see pictures).

I have mentioned before my love of all things Mediterranean but couscous was an acquired taste for me. I remember eating it first on holiday in Normandy in France in the form of a tabbouleh when I was about 11 years old. I detested it.  I found the texture slightly slimy and reminiscent of frogspawn (not that I’ve eaten much of that!) and the taste of mint overpowering (another taste I have since acquired). I was adamant that I hated it and refused to eat it again for several years. I re-discovered it, again in France, but this time with seafood. I was converted. I liked it. It became a convenient, go-to standby – healthy fast food that worked with meat, fish, vegetables…you name it. Until I discovered bulgur wheat, that is. That’s when the love affair truly started. I adored bulgur wheat from the moment I first came across it, swathed in a cellophane wrapper in Waitrose. Not a romantic encounter in the bazaars of Istanbul but the grains looked like beautiful jagged shards of frankincense and transported me to the Middle East even though I’d never been there.

Losing bulgur wheat from my diet, when I went gluten-free, was what I struggled with the most…even more than the thought of never eating croissants again (I know!!!!). I grieved and I’ve been striving to replace it ever since. I’ve tried millet in a tabbouleh (yick – it looked wonderful and I was going to post the recipe but then I thought, “But I don’t even LIKE it!) and quinoa, which I quite like but it always seems cold, wet and a bit, well, seedy (in the botanical sense). I know I need to try a bit harder with quinoa. I’ve even tried rice couscous, which I came across in an organic food shop in Bristol. I was excited when I found it. I followed the instructions on the packet to the letter (which entailed boiling it for 3 or 4 minutes) and ended up with a gelatinous morass of overcooked rice sludge. I took matters in my own hands and soaked it in hot water for a few minutes. Hurrah! A result! And you know what? It tasted like…well, rice… At over £3 a packet, I thought I could get the taste of rice cheaper… And I have. I’ve started using pudding rice where you would normally use couscous or bulgur wheat, purely because it’s a much shorter grain and gives a different texture than basmati or long grain. This recipe would work equally well with a more traditional type of rice but food isn’t just about the flavour, after all. Aesthetics come into it as well. Otherwise there’d only be one shape of pasta…

Naturally gluten-free harissa rice salad with chickpeas and black olives

Serves 2 (but easily doubled)

140g pudding rice
1 garlic clove, coarsely chopped
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp harissa
juice half a lemon
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp dried coriander (cilantro) or handful fresh, chopped *
100g tinned chickpeas  (garbanzos)(drained weight)
50g pitted black olives, halved

Rinse the rice in a sieve under cold running water until the water runs clear. Bring a large pan of salted water up to the boil and cook the rice for 8 minutes or until still slightly undercooked. Drain, rinse with boiling water and leave to steam dry for several minutes in the colander. The rice should finish cooking in the residual heat. I prefer to do this rather than refresh it in cold water because I always end up with cold, wet rice which doesn’t absorb the dressing.

While the rice is drying, make the dressing. Crush the garlic along with the salt in a pestle and mortar to create a smooth paste. Add the peppercorns and crush them coarsely (I always crush the peppercorns after the garlic – that way you don’t get rogue peppercorns jumping out all over the work surface and the floor!). Add the harissa, lemon juice and coriander (cilantro) and stir to combine. Finally, whisk in the olive oil.

Put the rice in your serving bowl and add the dressing, olives and chickpeas (garbanzos). Stir through gently with a fork until the chickpeas and olives are evenly distributed and the rice grains are coated and glistening with the dressing. I served this with grilled chicken and a green salad.

* I used dried coriander because I didn’t have any fresh. Next time, I would probably use fresh.

What a coincidence that only the other day I was talking about rarely, if ever, making bread myself. The last time I tried it did not end well. I was following a recipe for focaccia from The Gluten-Free Baker written by Hannah Miles (who I believe to be a MasterChef finalist.) This is a beautiful book with gorgeous photographs of delicious-looking, drool-worthy treats (available on Amazon!). When I first came across it in the library, I actually had to stop myself from licking the pages. Just flicking through it made me realise that gluten-free food can still be so delicious that everyone, whether you have a gluten-sensitivity or not, can enjoy it.

But I digress. As I said, I was following a focaccia recipe… Actually, I’m being slightly disingenuous here. I did go off-piste somewhat: I didn’t have fresh yeast, only the fast-action dried variety so I had to try to work out how much less I needed and, what with me only wanting to make a half-batch of bread in the first place, the mental arithmetic got the better of me so I just bunged a full packet in; I didn’t have the prerequisite honey or buttermilk so used sugar and yoghurt instead; I also think I forgot to halve the salt, too much of which annihilates yeast…but I carried on regardless. How badly could it turn out, after all!!!???! Ah hubris! Lurking in the shadows with a banana-skin to chuck under my feet when I wasn’t looking. And down I went, squarely on my backside.  A salty, yeasty-smelling cowpat of a loaf. And nothing like the scrumptious-looking offering in the book. Which isn’t surprising really and is absolutely no reflection on Hannah Miles’s recipe. I let it go stale in a bowl and whizzed it up for breadcrumbs. But even these were a bit odd. This all goes to show that you mustn’t play fast and loose with recipes that others have sweated blood and tears over to get right in the first place.

So, imagine my chagrin when I discovered that I had forgotten to put my customary loaf of Genius multiseeded on the Tesco delivery order. Desperate measures were called for. I knew I needed to make some bread but the memory of the focaccia filled my nostrils with a somewhat yeasty stench. I decided to make some flatbread wraps. A lot less to go wrong… and thankfully I was right. The recipe below is actually 3-for-1: there is a basic wrap recipe (not pictured) but I’m never happy unless I’m tinkering (I never learn), so there is also the option to make garlic and herb ones or multiseeded ones as well. I discovered, as I was making them, that I’m not a huge fan of millet so I’ve drastically reduced the amount I put in at first but, if you like it, feel free to up the quantity. The garlic and herb ones are beautifully soft and flavoursome.

Gluten-free garlic and herb/multiseeded flatbread wraps

Makes 6 wraps

For the basic wrap recipe:

375g gluten-free plain (all-purpose) flour
75g tapioca flour
1 tsp fast-action dried yeast
2 tsp caster sugar
1 tsp gluten-free baking powder
1 tsp xanthan gum
½ tsp salt
150ml tepid milk
2 tbsp olive oil
160g Greek yoghurt, 0% fat (I used Total which comes in a 170g tub but when I weighed it, it only came to 160g)
1 egg, lightly beaten

To make garlic and herb wraps, in addition to the basic recipe you will need:

1 tsp garlic granules
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried thyme

Or to make multiseed wraps, in addition to the basic recipe you will need:

2 tsp millet seeds
2 tbsp sesame seeds
1 tbsp poppy seeds

Sift the flours, yeast, caster sugar, baking powder and xanthan gum into a large bowl. Add the garlic and dried herbs OR the millet, sesame and poppy seeds and the salt and stir with a balloon whisk to distribute them throughout. In a smaller bowl, lightly beat the milk, oil, yoghurt and egg together. Make a well in the centre of the flour and add the milk, yoghurt and egg mixture. Make your hand into the shape of a claw and gradually incorporate the flour into the liquid by making circular movements with your hand. As the mixture comes together as a slightly sticky dough, start to knead. If it is a bit dry, add a little water, i.e. a tablespoon. As soon as the dough has come together, tip it out onto the work surface and knead for about 3-4 minutes until it has a soft, satiny texture. It shouldn’t be that sticky that flour is needed.

Divide the ball into 6 equal portions*. Wrap each ball in microwave-proof clingfilm**. When you are ready to cook them, put each ball of dough (still in the clingfilm) on a microwaveable dish and warm in the microwave on ‘high’ for 10 seconds and leave in there (or somewhere warm) for about 20-30 minutes. The ball of dough should have puffed up slightly. Remove the ball of dough from the clingfilm and roll out on a lightly-floured surface until it is about 1mm thick and about 25-28cm in diameter. I always keep a palette knife handy to loosen the rolled-out dough from the surface, should it stick. You won’t get a perfect circle – it will have raggedy edges, but I’ve decided that that’s part of its charm…

Heat a large, non-stick frying pan with a few drops of oil over a high heat. When the pan is hot, place the rolled-out dough in it (I find draping it over the rolling pin makes it easier) and toast each side for a couple of minutes, or until the surface is browned and slightly blistered. Remove from the pan and serve with your choice of filling.

* I’m terrible at dividing bowls of mixture into equal portions by eye and always end up with all different sizes. My technique is quicker to do than to explain but it works every single time. I weigh the mixture to find its total weight. Then I divide this by the number of portions I need to work out how much each portion should weigh. Then I set the scales to 0 and take out mixture until the scales read that weight as a negative value and make my portion. Then I reset the scales to 0 and start again. I carry on until all the mixture is used up.

** If you don’t want to cook all the flatbreads at once, put the balls of dough wrapped in the refrigerator now. They should keep for 3-4 days. When putting in the microwave, give them 15-20 seconds on high.

I love quiche. In my pre-glutenfreebie days, a supermarket quiche would often find its way into the trolley for a quick, mid-week meal. Pop it in the oven and put some potatoes on to boil. Salad in a bag or baked beans from the tin. There are unhealthier comfort foods than this. But not anymore. I’ve got to really want quiche now because I have to make it from scratch and it isn’t a ten minute job. I must admit that I rarely ever made pastry before either – it was much easier to buy it ready-made (and even ready-rolled!) from the chiller cabinet. Now I really enjoy making pastry and thinking of what I can add to it to make it more interesting. I really like the Parmesan in this one – it makes the pastry really savoury. I once heard Sophie Grigson say that a quiche is only worth making and eating if you go the whole hog with adding double cream to the eggs, but I don’t happen to agree with her (I’m sure she must be gutted by this revelation!).But  I don’t believe in clogging up your arteries just for the sake of it. I try to use low-fat ingredients and buy low-fat foods when I think it really doesn’t matter but if the low-fat alternative is truly unpleasant (such as low-calorie coleslaw – bleugh!),then I give it a wide berth.  I use half-fat crème fraîche in quiche and, while it might not be as unctuous as the mega-calorie version, I still think it tastes delicious.

Gluten-free broccoli and garlic mushroom tartlet with Parmesan crust

Makes 4 tartlets

For the crust:

215g gluten-free plain (all-purpose) flour
15g ground tapioca*
50g Parmesan or Grana Padano, grated
60g butter, cubed
55g vegetable shortening (e.g. Cookeen), cubed
1 medium egg, lightly beaten
30ml cold water

For the filling:

100g broccoli florets, cut small
225g mushrooms, cut into 1cm dice
1 clove garlic, crushed
knob of butter (or low-fat spread)
5 eggs, lightly beaten
6 heaped tbsps half-fat crème fraîche
salt and pepper

You will also need 4 13cm x 3cm loose-bottomed fluted tartlet tins.

Preheat the oven to 180°C (356°F).

Make the pastry. Pulse the flour, ground tapioca and grated cheese in a food processor to combine and get rid of any lumps.  Add the cubes of butter and shortening and pulse once more until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the egg and continue to mix until the mixture resembles damp sand. The amount of water you’ll need to add will depend upon the absorption of your flour mix and the size of the egg, so add about a tablespoon of the water first and continue to pulse, adding more water if required. The mixture needs to come together as a slightly sticky dough.

Tip the pastry out onto a lightly floured surface and bring together as a ball with your hands. Slightly flatten and cut into four portions. Form each portion into a ball and flatten into a disc about 5mm thick. I tend to do this with the heel of my hand, perhaps finishing it off with the rolling pin. Carefully lift the disc into the tartlet tin and press it in firmly. Remove the surplus pastry from around the rim, either with a knife or your thumb. Mend any tears in the base with surplus pastry and then prick it with a fork. There should be some pastry left over. Reserve this in case any cracks need mending after blind baking. Line the cases with baking parchment** and baking beans. Place them on a baking sheet and bake them blind in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove the beans and parchment, return to the oven and cook until the pastry is golden (about another 5-10 minutes). Remove from the oven and mend any cracks with leftover raw pastry.  Lower the oven temperature to 150°C (300°F).

While the pastry is baking, gently fry the mushroom cubes in a knob of butter (or substitute: I used olive spread). Add the garlic after the mushrooms have been cooking for several minutes, so that it doesn’t burn and also a sprinkling of salt (this should help to release the liquid from the mushrooms). Cook the mushrooms until they are a dark, golden brown and most of the liquid has evaporated (this should take about 10 minutes). Set aside to cool. Blanch the broccoli florets in a large pan of boiling water for 3 minutes. Drain and refresh in cold water. Set aside. Lightly whisk the eggs and crème fraîche together in a jug. Season with salt and pepper (but remember that some salt has already been added to the mushrooms).

When the tartlet cases are out of the oven, scatter the mushrooms evenly over the base and then divide the broccoli florets equally amongst them. Carefully pour the egg mixture into the four cases and cover loosely with aluminium foil. Return them to the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Carefully remove the foil and return to the oven for a further 10 minutes or until the outside is set but the middle is still wobbly. Allow to cool slightly so that the egg custard continues to set. Serve warm with new potatoes and a salad.

* I’m using up some tapioca that I ground myself in a coffee grinder because I couldn’t find any tapioca flour. I think tapioca flour is probably a bit finer.

** I use Heston Blumenthal’s trick which is to scrunch the parchment up several times and smooth it out before putting it in the tins.

I love all food that comes from around the Mediterranean: paella, cassoulet, dolmades, hummus, tagines… The list goes on. But I have to say that my true passion is for all things Italian. I fell in love with the country as a small child. There was something so romantic about the language, the art, the architecture and the food. I have absolutely no idea where this came from. When I was growing up, my family tended to holiday, in the early years, in northern France and later, further south in the Quercy region. I remember one holiday in the Algarve in Portugal, another in the south of Spain and another in Malta. But we never went to Italy. It can’t have been as popular as a package holiday destination back then. My passion for it was so strong that I started to teach myself Italian when I was about 18 and took it as an extra subject in my first year at university. By the end of the year, I had dropped the French component of my degree (I really struggled to get to grips with Racine and Molière) and taken up Italian in its place. I had committed myself to spending the third year of my degree somewhere, as yet undecided, in a country where I had never been and where I was still, really, only able to speak a smattering of the language. A real leap of faith.
But my year in Florence was to be the best of my (unmarried) life and I have to say that the food was not an insignificant part of this. One of the saddest things I felt, when I realised that I was gluten intolerant, was that I would no longer be able to enjoy Italy in the same way that I had before. It’s the home of pizza, pasta and focaccia, right? It is, but it also happens to be a country where everyone is routinely tested for coeliac disease. Hence the supermarkets have a wide array of gluten-free goodies, processed food doesn’t seem to be automatically stuffed with wheat and barley to make it cheaper and go further and when you explain in a shop or restaurant that you can’t eat gluten, you’re not immediately greeted by a raised eyebrow and a sneer which clearly says “You’re not another one of those faddy eaters, are you?!?”.
I used to love dipping biscotti into frothing cappuccini but needless to say, I haven’t had any in nearly two years. I thought it was about time. And now that we’re in December and on the home stretch towards Christmas, chocolate, orange and hazelnuts seemed the perfect festive touch.
Gluten-free chocolate, orange and hazelnut biscotti
These biscotti aren’t massively heavy on the sugar (my philosophy is the less sickly something is, the more of it you can eat!), but if you’re a bit of a sweet-tooth, you might want to add a little more.
125g gluten-free plain (all-purpose) flour
25g cornflour (cornstarch)
25g cocoa powder
115g caster sugar
1tsp gluten-free baking powder
½tsp xanthan gum
160g hazelnuts (shelled weight), roughly chopped
zest 1 orange
2 eggs, beaten
1tsp vanilla essence
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Line two baking sheets with baking parchment.
In a bowl, sift the flour, cornflour, cocoa powder, caster sugar, baking powder and xanthan gum. Stir in the hazelnuts and orange zest. Make a well in the centre and fold in the egg and vanilla essence to make a sticky batter.
Spoon onto one of the baking sheets to make two rectangular logs, about 25cm long by 5cm wide (normal raw biscotti mixture is like a sticky dough which you can roll into the log-shapes but this is more like a cake batter). Make sure you leave space in between them to allow for spreading. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, then remove from the oven and allow to cool. The loaves are easy to remove from the baking parchment with a palette knife and place on a wire cooling rack.
Reduce the oven temperature to 140°C (275°F). Cut each loaf into thin slices (about 5mm wide), using a sharp bread knife. Spread the biscuits out over both the baking trays (I use fresh baking parchment on the tray I’ve already used) and bake for a further 20 minutes, turning them halfway through. Remove from the oven and place on wire cooling racks.
I’ve been feeling very festive recently. And it’s still only the middle of November. I don’t know what it is. Possibly that we’ve already done half of our Christmas shopping because it has to be sent off to Canada to my husband’s family nice and early. It’s difficult not to feel festive when all the shops have got their tinsel out. It could also be because we’re due to move in the next couple of weeks from our current home in Bristol to a new one in Cheltenham. If we’re lucky, we’ll have three weeks to get the house straight before the whole family descends on us for the holiday. So it feels like Christmas is upon us already. I think, though, that the real reason that I’m feeling this way is because last Christmas, I was eight-and-a-half months pregnant and the size of a house (well, a small semi, anyway). I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything that is the usual Yuletide fare, i.e. any alcohol, Stilton, Parma ham, pâté… and it was also my first Christmas as a glutenfreebie. I gallantly waddled around the kitchen, breathing through Braxton-Hicks contractions, making gluten-free sausage rolls and Harry Eastwood’s gluten-free plum pudding, all the while feeling somehow deprived. This year, I intend to eat, drink and be merry because I’m so much more confident and at ease now with my diet. But I’m a firm believer that Christmas is the most magical time when you’re a child so I can’t wait to watch my beautiful son enjoy his first of many.
Gluten-free Christmas-spiced baked ricotta cheesecake
I was feeling in need of eating something sweet and Christmassy but I’m the kind of person who cannot bring themselves to eat plum pudding outside of the Christmas week. So this, I think, is the next best thing.
Serves 8-10
100g sultanas
50g candied mixed peel
200ml orange juice (juice 2 large oranges)
40ml rum (I used white rum but that’s all we had)
1tbsp mixed spice
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp allspice
150g gluten-free stem ginger cookies (I used Sainsbury’s Free-From)
50g Mesa Sunrise breakfast cereal flakes
80g butter
500g ricotta
250g half-fat crème fraîche
3 eggs
100g caster sugar
zest 1 large orange
2tsp vanilla extract
You will also need a loose-bottomed tin, either flan or springform, with a diameter of 23cm, at least 2.5cm deep, a wire rack and a baking sheet.
Put the sultanas, mixed peel, orange juice, rum, mixed spice, nutmeg, ginger and allspice into a small saucepan and bring up to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes until the dried fruit is tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed. Take off the heat and allow to cool.
Pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Grease the bottom and sides of the tin with a butter paper. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a very low heat. Put the cookies and the cereal flakes in a food processor and pulse until they are coarse crumbs. Pour them into a mixing bowl and add the melted butter, stirring until they are well-combined. Tip the butter-biscuit crumb mixture into the tin and press down firmly and evenly into the base.
In a large bowl, blend the ricotta, crème fraîche, eggs, caster sugar, orange zest and vanilla extract with an electric whisk. Stir in the dried fruit mixture. Pour the ricotta and fruit mixture on top of the biscuit-crumb base in the tin. Tilt the tin slightly so that the top of the cake becomes level. Bake in the oven on a wire rack on a baking sheet* for 40 minutes, or until the cheesecake is golden and wobbles slightly in the middle, when the tin is shaken.
Cool in the tin for 20 minutes, then loosen and remove the cheesecake and base from the sides of the tin. When the cheesecake has cooled completely, chill in the refrigerator until required.

*When I baked the cheesecake, some liquid seeped out onto the baking sheet. Placing tin on a wire rack means that any liquid is able to drain away.

Celery is my secret ingredient in this dish. I think it is a much maligned and overlooked vegetable, by home cooks at least, but, at the same time, I can kind of understand why. It is usually the unsung hero of the mirepoix in professionally cooked dishes and my memory of it, growing up in the Seventies and Eighties, consist of it being just one component of very bland and unimaginative salads… As I reminisce, it’s always a Sunday evening, Wimbledon is on the telly and the curtains are closed to shut out the last rays of the summer sun. Tea-time arrives. A few leaves of lettuce sit lethargically alongside some flabby slices of ham, a tomato cut into quarters and three slices of cucumber. A stringy half stick of celery cowering at the edge of the plate (if the plate were square, it would be in the corner) and a small pile of salt in which to dip the end of said celery stick complete this motley crew. The height of sophistication is a dollop of Heinz salad cream on the side… Eek! So it’s hardly surprising that it took me years to discover celery’s gastronomic delights. Celery and Stilton soup is now one of my very favourites and I think it adds a beautiful savouriness to any dish it’s in.

Gluten-free aubergine, mushroom and goat’s cheese lasagne

This lasagne recipe is a bit of a labour of love but I think is well worth the effort. The aubergine and mushroom ragú needs quite a lot of slow cooking (an hour altogether) so that the flavours combine and the sauce thickens and enriches. If time is an issue, the ragú could actually be cooked the day before because, once it’s bubbling away, it needs very little supervision. It can then be left in the refrigerator overnight. The pasta and béchamel can be cooked and the whole thing assembled and baked the next day. I think any braised dish actually gets better, anyway, if you leave it 24 hours because it gives the flavours a chance to develop and intensify. The ragú could even stand alone as a dish in its own right as part of a selection of mezze. I think it would be delicious served at room temperature, sprinkled with gremolata and scooped up with flatbread (gluten-free, of course).
Serves 4 generously
2 tbsp olive oil
small knob of butter
1 large onion, diced
2 sticks of celery, halved lengthways and sliced finely
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 medium aubergines (eggplant), cut into 1cm cubes
150g mushrooms, thinly sliced
500g passata
3 heaped tbsp sun-dried tomato paste (about 100g)
200ml water
celery salt (optional)
pepper
8 sheets gluten-free lasagne (about 160g)
25g salted butter
25g gluten-free all-purpose flour (I use Dove’s Farm)
350ml milk (either whole or semi-skimmed)
nutmeg
110g soft goat’s cheese, cut or torn into smallish pieces
You will also need a 2-litre capacity ovenproof dish
To make the ragú, heat the olive oil and the butter over a low heat in a large deep sauté pan. Add the onions, celery and a sprinkling of salt. Stir to coat with the melted oil and butter. Cover the pan and sweat the vegetables for 20 minutes or until they are softened and translucent. Add the garlic and aubergines to the pan, stir to combine and continue cooking for 5 minutes. Then add the mushrooms, stir to combine and continue cooking for a further 5 minutes. Stir in the passata, sun-dried tomato paste and water (I usually swill out the empty passata carton with the water first to get the last dregs of tomato out). Simmer with the lid off for 40 minutes or until most of the liquid has been absorbed*. Check the seasoning, adding celery salt (or normal salt), if necessary, and black pepper.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180°C. Parboil the lasagne sheets in a large pan of salted, boiling water for about 8 minutes**. Drain, brush with olive oil so that they don’t stick and set aside on a plate, ready for assembly.
To make the béchamel, melt the butter in a small saucepan. Add the flour and whisk briskly for 1-2 minutes. It should form a shiny, golden and bubbling paste. Take the pan off the heat, and pour about 325ml of the milk in slowly, whisking furiously to break up any lumps that form. Put the pan back on the heat and slowly bring back up to a simmer, whisking all the while. Let the béchamel bubble away gently as it thickens for about 10 minutes, giving it an occasional stir to prevent sticking. Check the consistency (it needs to be pourable like double cream), adding more milk if needed to loosen it. Season with a little salt, some black pepper and a scraping of nutmeg.
Now to assemble the whole dish. Mentally divide the aubergine and mushroom mixture into thirds and spoon the first third into the dish, spreading it with a palette knife or the back of a spoon until it covers the entire base. Now put in a layer of lasagne sheets, making sure that the aubergine and mushroom mixture is covered (it doesn’t matter if the sheets overlap). Repeat with the next third of aubergine and mushroom mixture and the final layer of lasagne sheets. Now spread the final third of aubergine and mushroom mixture into the dish. Carefully pour the béchamel over the top and dot all over with pieces of the goat’s cheese. (So, in sum, you should have aubergine, pasta, aubergine, pasta, aubergine, béchamel, goat’s cheese).
Bake on the centre shelf of the oven for about half-an-hour or until the béchamel and goat’s cheese are bubbling and golden. Serve with a green salad.
*The ragú needs to be dryer than you would think because liquid will continue to come out as the lasagne bakes in the oven. In the past, I’ve stopped cooking the ragú when it gets to how I would like it in the finished dish… and ended up with a dinner plate full of watery sauce and flabby pasta.
**The packet instructions on the brand I use say to boil the sheets for only a couple of minutes before using in a lasagne recipe. I tried this before and ended up eating raw and gummy lasagne hence the extended cooking time.
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