Grandma’s Chocolate Pudding

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And now for something completely different.

One of my most enduring childhood memories is family Sunday roast dinners. Going back as far as I can remember, and continuing pretty much up until I left home, my family would sit down together every Sunday for a roast. When I was small, this usually included my mum’s parents, at our house or theirs.  We would all meet after church, the adults would drink sherry, and we would be allowed a coke. Sometimes, we would be joined by friends and neighbours – leading to the now famous incident when I, as a small child, told my grandparents’ local MP off for not eating his vegetables. How embarrassing.

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We have been blessed with our grandparents: my dad’s parents retired before I was born to Alderney, in the Channel Islands, and we spent wonderful summers there as children. My dad’s father died when I was very young, and it is one of my real sadnesses that I didn’t know him better. Dad’s mum, however, was a big feature of our childhood, and in particular of our fantastic holidays in Alderney.

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My mum’s parents, in contrast, were much closer to home, and therefore more involved in day-to-day life. They helped with the school run, and we would sometimes go to them for a night or two for ‘holidays’ – which were probably holidays for everyone except them! They were truly magical times: my grandfather was forever full of magical tales and games; we would spend hours with him in the garden – ‘helping’ with his vegetable patch, building ‘fairy gardens’ (for the fairies to visit), and cubby holes for us to hide in. There were all sorts of fun things in the garden – his shed, which contained all manner of treasures, from a thurible (used for incense in church), to spades and saws and home-made furniture; a mini windmill thing (honestly, I can’t begin to describe it); and his pride and joy – his barbecue. As a red-blooded Australian male, his barbecue was of paramount importance, and his was a home-made triumph: constructed from an old metal oil drum standing on its end, with a section cut out and racks inserted for the coals to sit on, and an old sheet of metal on top to cook on. No barbecue before or since has come close.

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Speaking of cooking – there, as well, my Grandad had a unique approach. My Grandma was never an early riser – in fact, she would send us to bed with the words ‘sleep well, see you in the morning – not too early!’. Grandad was usually up early, and we would come down for breakfast with him. Tea and toast were central – very weak black tea with sugar, and toast dipped in it. To this day, when I want something comforting, I have ‘grandad tea’. His talents didn’t end there, and such classics as orange in a basket (an orange, with two almost quarters cut out of the top to create something like this, but with the orange still in rather than berries, and with sugar sprinkled on the cut sides), ketchup sandwiches, egg-in-a-nest (a piece of toast, with a hole in the middle with an egg cracked in and fried – like this), and Aussie chips (sauteed potatoes, to anyone else…) were legendary.

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Where my Grandad is an outdoors kind of chap, who would prepare breakfast in his vest and pants, and taught us to clean pans with dirt ‘like in the army’, my grandmother was the opposite: always stylish, beautifully turned out, and glamorous to a fault. They went to Australia every year to visit their other children and grandchildren, and the family joke was that Grandma would take an extra suitcase for all the shoes and handbags she would buy! Where he was always early, she was always late – he used to sit in the car when he thought it was time to leave, and she would come out when she thought it was time to leave. On paper, you couldn’t find two more different people – but they were married for more than 55 years, until she died 10 years ago this year.

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She was also a great, if slightly unorthodox, cook – her recipe scrapbook was full of gems. One of the best things about our Sunday roasts was Grandma’s chocolate pudding – in my mind, we had this every week, although I’m sure that can’t be true… Either way, it is so delicious, and simplicity itself to make.

I asked my mum for the recipe for Grandma’s chocolate pudding; she sent it over, along with a word about the recipe which I will share, because it made me laugh, and sums up my Grandma better than I ever could:

‘You will remember that Grandma rarely measured anything carefully and if she didn’t have quite enough of something she would wing it so that is why it was always different.’

Which seems like a very good approach to me!!

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This is what’s known as a self-saucing pudding – which is also why it’s never the same twice. You prepare a batter, and then before baking, sprinkle over a mix of sugar and cocoa powder, and pour over a cup or two of water. This then soaks into the pudding in the oven, creating a layer of sauce underneath. It’s like magic – and, depending on how much water you add, how hot your oven is, how long you cook it for, etc, you might either end up with a chocolatey sauce which you can spoon over the pudding, or a thick, sticky layer, too thick to be properly called a sauce. This also means it’s very forgiving – it’s rarely a problem if it’s in the oven a little longer than planned, which is a good thing if you’re lingering over lunch…

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Grandma’s Chocolate Pudding 
Serves 4-6

  • 4oz / 115g caster sugar
  • 4oz / 115g butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 6oz / 170g self raising flour and cocoa mixed: add 2-3 tbsp cocoa to the measuring bowl, then add enough flour to bring it up to 6oz. You can use more or less cocoa, to taste.

For the sauce:

  • 2 tbsp cocoa
  • 3-4 tsp sugar
  • 1 – 2 cups water (see instructions below)

Preheat the oven to 175C / 350F.

Cream the sugar and butter together until they are light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs. Gently fold the flour/cocoa mix into the batter.

Grease a baking dish (the one we used was about 8inx6in), and spread the mix in the dish – you need to make sure there is at least 1.5in between the batter and the top of the dish.

When you are ready to bake, sprinkle the sugar and cocoa over the dish, and pour over the water. The amount you use will depend on the size of the dish – you are looking for all the batter to be covered by about 1cm water. Bake for around 30-40 minutes, until the top is shiny and slightly cracked.

Serve with pouring cream.

In praise of slow-cooked meat

Here’s a little song I wrote for you:

(To be sung to a truncated version of the tune of ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’)

Short ribs braising in a pot of wine,
Lamb shanks bubbling on the stove.
Big pot of oxtail, been cooked for five hours,
And now just falling off the bone.
Everybody knows…
Boeuf Bourguignon is best cooked slow
The same is true of Bolognese
Although it’s been said, many times, many ways,
Try slow cooking, try slow cooking
Try slow cooking – today! 

Yes, I have too much time on my hands. Yes, it might also be true that I spend too much time on my own without anyone to talk to. However – putting aside these minor concerns for my mental health, slow-cooked meat is completely amazing, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

I do a lot of slow cooking, and have for some years – in fact, I think almost the first thing I cooked for a dinner party was boeuf bourguignon. One of my favourite things to do on a rainy Sunday is cook some sort of slow-cooked meat-in-liquid-type-dish, and now that I *ahem* have more time on my hands, I do this in the week, as well. Braising, stewing, casseroling and the like are up there with baking bread in terms of how to make your house smell amazing, and there are few things better to eat on a cold, blustery day.

On Monday night, I cooked a somewhat bastardised version of the Brazilian dish feijoada – essentially, various cuts of pork cooked slowly with black beans. Although I’m not sure I can speak for its authenticity, it was completely delicious, and Noel asked if I was going to blog about it. In many ways, I would love to write about that recipe, because it was great, but I have held back because I feel like posting recipes for slow-cooking is sort of… cheating.

For one thing, slow cooking meat is really, really, really easy. It does take time, but all but the first 30mins or so is time that involves no effort on your part whatsoever. Cheating, also, because almost every recipe for slow cooking follows the same basic premise – brown meat, sauté onion + other veg, put meat back in pot with some sort of liquid, cook on a low heat until completely scrummy – and so I felt I had very little to add. I do have a recipe for oxtail up my sleeve which I will post on here – probably some time next month. But beyond that, there are so many great recipes for slow cooking out there, I wasn’t sure I could really add to them.

So – rather than give you my version of a slow-cook recipe, I thought I’d talk a bit instead about slow-cooking in general, and share some tips and a few recipes I’ve really enjoyed, which you might like to try.

Tip 1 – brown your meat properly. I can’t emphasise this enough – start by browning your meat properly, and everything else will fall into place. In my opinion, there are few things less appetising to eat than blond, anaemic-looking pieces of meat – and conversely, few things more tasty than meat with a nice toasty crust: this is as true for braising as it is for cooking steak. In addition, if you brown your meat properly, all the yummy crusty goodness will go towards making the final sauce that bit more delicious. There are lots of recipes out there which will tell you the same thing, but the one which, for me, summed it up perfectly is Adam Roberts’ recipe for Daube de Boeuf over on Amateur Gourmet – as he says, ‘If I had to point out how I’ve grown the most as a cook over my 9 years of doing this, it would be my ability to brown meat really, really well’, and I agree – when I figured out this basic step, my casseroles improved massively. He also offers this excellent advice: ‘don’t start chopping your vegetables until you start browning your beef. This’ll ensure that you really let the beef take its time and you don’t stand around impatiently. If you do this right, you’ll have a plate of browned meat and a big bowl of vegetables ready to go at the same time’. So true – if you have nothing else to do when browning meat, you will stand around twiddling your thumbs and the temptation is to rush the process. So give yourself something else to do, and hey presto, the time flies.

Tip 1a – don’t crowd the pan when browning the meat. This is something which frustrated me for years. Countless recipes out there tell you not to brown the meat in batches and not crowd the pan, but I never read one which explained WHY. This drove me mad! Why can’t I shove all the meat in together and speed up the process?! Finally, I found the answer in the wonderful Felicity Cloake’s recipe for ‘perfect chilli con carne’. I should’ve known she would have the answer – and here it is: ‘don’t crowd the pan, or [the meat] will steam rather than brown’. Which makes sense, really. So there you have it.

Tip 2 – fat = flavour. Every recipe I have ever seen for slow cooking calls for what is usually referred to as ‘cheaper’ or ‘economical’ cuts of meat. What this means, is meat which is fattier than its more expensive counterparts – fattier, more full of connective tissue, tough as old boots if cooked quickly, but therefore absolutely ideal for slow cooking. When this meat is cooked slowly at a low temperature, the fat renders and the connective tissue breaks down, leaving the meat itself fork-tender, and the sauce in which it’s been cooked rich and unbelievably tasty. (On a side note – isn’t ‘fork-tender’ a wonderful phrase? So evocative, makes me automatically hungry). Of course, you can remove excess fat from the meat before cooking if you would like, but please don’t go nuts – leave some fat to help your dish along. Which brings me to…

Tip 3 – remove excess fat. I love fat – I am a total glutton for crispy bacon, chops, and don’t even get me started on crackling. What I don’t enjoy, however, is the greasy layer of fat on top of a sauce – and so I tend to spoon off the excess. There are two ways of doing this. Either, once the meat has had its allotted time, spoon the fat off and discard. Or, even more straightforward, if you have time, allow the dish to cool, the fat will solidify, and you can remove it very easily from the top before reheating. This has the added advantage of…

Tip 4 – slow-cooked dishes taste even better the next day. There is nothing wrong whatsoever with eating a casserole or braise straight from the oven. It will be delicious. However, if you have time and are able to plan ahead, another tip which, again, involves no effort on your part but which will take your dish straight from good to great is to leave it to cool overnight and serve it the next day. The flavours will develop and intensify, and it will taste even better. And how’s this – this means you can put a dish in the oven on a Sunday, potter around the house and do chores, then chill it overnight and eat it on Monday evening – seriously, what could be better after a miserable Monday than the most delicious dinner, ready made and waiting for you?

Tip 5 – make a big batch and freeze it. I’ve never yet made a slow-cooked meal which didn’t freeze well. It is such a great thing to have in the freezer. It is, if anything, easier to cook a big batch than a smaller one, and the leftovers will be awesome.

There you go, them’s my tips! Enjoy. To finish, here are a few recipes I’ve enjoyed over the years, and hope you do too.

Spaghetti-and-meatballs

Meatballs

So a while back, in my first recipe post, I mentioned that the weather has been cold, but not so cold that you just want stews and the like. And… three and a half weeks later, not a whole lot has changed. We’ve had some really cold days, like take-your-breath-away cold, but they have mostly been isolated days, with much milder temperatures in between. So here is another recipe which hopefully will help tide you through the in-betweeny stage.

Meatballs are a wonderful thing – they are something I order all the time when I’m out. However, so often I find them disappointing – largely because I find that they are too often hard and dry. To me, meatballs are comfort food – and they should tread a fine line between holding their form, but being soft and yielding once you start eating them. I had made them several times, but never quite got it right.

Meatball mix

I was thrilled, then, to discover Angela Hartnett’s recipe, and her trick of using milk-soaked bread to bind the mixture, rather than the more usual egg. Her recipe makes meatballs which are just the most delicious I’ve ever tasted. I have adapted her recipe slightly – I substitute pork for veal, as it is more readily available. I’ve added some chili to both the meatball mix and the accompanying sauce, and I simmer the meatballs in the sauce on the stove top rather than putting them in the oven. The result is a more homogeneous meaty sauce than the original, and you may find that the meatballs start to disintegrate a little if you cook it too long – but there are worse things in life…!

Meatballs cooking

One final thing to add is to encourage you to include the anchovies even if you do not like them (either specifically or fish in general). It is such a small amount, and they really just act to season the meat, rather than adding an overall fishy taste. Also – an apology, because I totally forgot to take a picture of the finished product! We were just so hungry by the time everything was ready, we had devoured it before I remembered about taking a photo. To make up for this, here’s a shot of the delicious meatball sandwich I made with the leftovers… That’s right, six weeks in the States and I think it’s totally acceptable to have a load of tomatoey meatball goodness in a sandwich.

Meatball sandwich

Spaghetti and meatballs

Adapted from Angela Hartnett’s recipe for The Guardian

Serves 4

  • 200g/7oz white bread – crusts removed
  • Milk – 100-200ml (enough to soak the bread)
  • 500g/17oz minced beef
  • 250g/9oz minced pork
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 red or green chili, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp grated parmesan, plus more to serve
  • 4 anchovies, finely chopped
  • 2 400g/14oz tins chopped tomato
  • 100ml red or white wine (optional)
  • Approx 1tbsp olive oil
  • Salt & pepper
  • 400g Spaghetti

Start by making the tomato sauce. Heat a splash of the olive oil in a saucepan, and add half of the onion, garlic and chili. Allow to cook over a gentle heat until cooked but not brown. Add the tinned tomatoes and wine if using, season with salt and pepper, and allow the sauce to cook gently, uncovered, while you prepare the meatballs.

Place the bread in a bowl and cover with milk. In a large bowl, combine the meats, onion, garlic, chili, anchovies and parmesan, and season well with salt and pepper. Squeeze the excess liquid from the bread, and add this to the mix in the bowl. Mix well until all ingredients are combined – you can use a spoon, but it’s easiest to use your hands.

Roll the mix into small balls – I usually aim for slightly smaller than golf balls. Heat a frying pan over a medium heat, and brown the meatballs on all sides – do this in batches if needed, do not crowd the pan otherwise the meat will steam rather than brown. Once brown, remove the meatballs to a plate while you finish browning the remainder.

Add the browned meatballs to the tomato sauce, and stir gently until the meatballs are coated in sauce. Allow to cook for around 15-20 minutes, until the meat is cooked through. Cook the spaghetti according to packet instructions, and serve topped with the meatballs and tomato sauce, and some grated parmesan.