Malaga memories: On finally appreciating Picasso

“I was born of a white feather and a small glass of Andalusian eau de vie. I was born to a mother the daughter of a fifteen-year-old girl born in the percheles of Málaga the handsome bull who sired me with his forehead crowned with jasmine.” – Picasso: Écrits. Paris. Réunion des Musées Nationaux Gallimard, 1989.

Mercedes swivelled suddenly, her brown leather bag stuffed with tickets stubs and empty water bottles crunching against my hip as she held my arms and looked me square in the face with dark eyes livid and shining, bubbling over with barely concealed passion.

You would have thought that I was used to the fire and the fervour that seemed to simmer just below the surface of most of the Malagans I had met so far, but it still jolted my prim little English self like a rabbit caught in the glare.

“Do you know Picasso? Do you love him? Well, today you will.” She intoned in looping, Spanish splashed English, punctuating her sentences with empathic head nods, like a bright little bird observing a worm it’s just trapped in its claws.

“Ah…good.” I replied meekly, trying to muster some convincingly reverent energy against the mega watt rays of her enthusiasm.

“Come, come, we will explore eaaaavarythink. I will show you it all.”

She refocused the intensity of her gaze into the first room of the Palacio de Buenavista – a great, sweeping Andalusian mansion that has been turned into the home of some of Picasso’s most intimate paintings – and ushered me on, honing in on a painting that, from a distance, looked like a mess of square and splotches.

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I’ve never really got Picasso. Well, to be truthful, that’s an understatement. I never really liked him. That also may be an understatement. I have, without doubt, never understood him.

There was always something that rankled, perhaps the harsh, geometric lines, those misshapen, melting faces broken apart and reformed like your own reflection is mangled in water when you stick your finger in and swirl.

They’re indistinct and fragmented and, underneath it all, there’s that venomous little slithering whisper that thinks given enough paint and canvas any artistically gifted child could do just as well.

But then, one sunny Spanish morning in Malaga, where Picasso was born, my guide Mercedes whisked me around and began to slowly instil her deep seated and deeply rooted adoration for this renegade painter and serial womaniser in me.

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It grew slowly, burning softly at first, born from a grudging respect that sprouted in my belly and grew in increments, finally bursting forth in front of one painting that managed to wrench tears from me as Mercedes stepped back, finally satisfied that her job had been done.

But it took a few paintings before I got there, each picked out from the multitude by Mercedes who pulled me from room to room, positioned me at different viewing points; forced my eyes to watch from doorways and corners and impossible angles to reveal strange aspects in seemingly ordinary pieces and opened a deep well of pure, unfettered emotional attachment to paintings I would have, save for her, observed politely before shrugging off.

As a rather unproductive writer, I can’t help but admire such a prolific artist as Picasso was. He produced thousands of works of art and was still painting in his 90s before he died. He had mastered and dismissed stuffy still life and angular, Renaissance perspectives by the time he was 17, although that’s not to say he didn’t admire the masters: El Greco, Matisse, Degas…he just liked them deconstructed and reformed through his own eyes.

Which is probably why I find it hard to appreciate his work, because he paints everything at once and it’s too much. Picasso saw that real people moved, and objects showed you their whole selves from every angle at once; not just a blank, prettily one dimensional facet. So his works became a multitude of positions and expressions all contained in one canvas. It’s confusing, it’s arresting, it’s bold and it’s what made him unique.

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But it wasn’t Picasso’s reinterpretations of still life or inanimate objects that made me love him, that made me feel him. It was his women, which he talked about through the portraits he painted of them. And one woman in particular, Olga Stepanovna Khokhlova, a Russian ballerina and his first wife.

They weren’t his most famous pieces and they certainly weren’t his most celebrated, but they were, to me, his most accessible and they were all tucked away in this little collection kept in his home town.

“I think about Death all time, it is as a woman who will never leave me.” – Pablo Picasso

It started with a painting that wasn’t actually of Olga, it was of one of Picasso’s later lovers, a photographer called Dora Maar. It’s her face that later became The Weeping Woman and it’s her screaming face I see in Picasso’s most famous piece: Guernica.

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“Look at her hands, fighting and clawed; look at her eyes, she is full of fear and pain.” Mercedes whispered to me.

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Her hands were up, tearing through the canvas. Her body was militated and deformed into a human wheel, her mouth open in an endless, unquenched scream. Her picture, while it seemed harmless enough at first, terrified me.

And then Mercedes showed me Olga.

Olga

Picasso married Olga in 1918 and they had a son, Paulo, together.

Later, Picasso started having an affair with a 17-year-old French girl called Marie-Thérèse Walter and she became pregnant. When Olga found out in 1935, she took Paulo and moved to France and asked for a divorce. Picasso refused to divide his property with her, despite the law, so they stayed legally married until she died from cancer in 1955.

Picasso didn’t attend her funeral.

6_fgOlga Khokhlova with a Mantilla, 1917

Wearing a classic Spanish Matiquilla Picasso makes a young Olga look cold, yet dewy and rosy.  She looks like she’s made from fresh cotton and the underside of a lily; untouched and clean. When Picasso looks at Olga in 1917, a year before they were married, she appeared pristine and perfect to him. This was Picasso’s Olga at the peak of their love, at the very beginning.

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This painting might not even be specifically of Olga, but she was still his muse in 1921, which was the year she gave birth to their first son, Paulo.

Suddenly Olga has taken on a beatific, religious and almost regal air, She’s lost her almost waxy, floral glow and been replaced by a white holy fervour. Gazing fixedly at her child she looks like devotion incarnate.

She could be a renaissance oil masterpiece, a old madonna and from afar this painting makes her elegant, white and swanlike. But, as you step closer, creeping like grandmother’s footsteps,  her image mutates and she appears dumpy and squat up close, her body obscenely fat. There’s something almost cannibalistic in it, as if she’s drawing her bulk from Picasso to feed to the infant. His brush and paint devouring her image in return.

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In the final painting I saw of Olga, she was transformed again. There was none of the florid prettiness of before or of the overt womanliness. There was just a pale woman with her head in her hands. The blue of her housecoat sapping her colours.

She and her painter no longer seem to like each other, their love has dimmed and all that’s left is this painful distance between canvas and eyes. She looks withered, all her original rosy softness has been carved away to this ivory boney lines, her plumpness deflated.

As Mercedes recounted the decline of Olga and Picasso’s love and marriage it all felt so unutterably sad and as she talked, my eyes begin to mist over and the blue of Olga’s coat swam in my eyes, burning through the water.

But it wasn’t just Olga’s portraits that made me finally fall for Picasso, it was all the paintings of his lovers, his muses, his wives.

It was his French ladies, painted feline and blue, all elongated and calm.

It was the pink and round paintings of Marie, flushed with youth and gleaming.

It was the depictions of ‘The Flower’, Françoise Gilot, her face wreathed in petals.

And it was his raw, sexual and strangely regal portraits of Jacqueline Roque.

It took all of Picasso’s women for me to finally love his work, to finally connect to it, although I couldn’t help but wonder as I left the cool shade of the Palacio de Buenavista, was it really Picasso that I loved or was it the women he loved through paint and portrait.

Malaga

I was shown around Malaga as a guest of the Malagan tourism board and Monarch Airlines. You can read all about my sunny Spanish adventuring here.

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In pictures: Ten stories from Postman’s Park

I’ve been meaning to visit Postman’s Park ever since I moved to London but, somehow, something has always got in the way. Sometimes the weather, sometimes work, sometimes my own laziness. But last week, I finally made the trip to this little slice of solemn London to read about stories of sacrifice from ordinary, extraordinary people.

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Just a short walk from St Paul’s, this tiny park sits wedged against the walls of The Aldersgate Talks church and got its name because the workers from the old General Post Office used to eat lunch there everyday.

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In 1900, Victorian painter and philanthropist GF Watts installed a memorial to recognise and commemorate the heroic acts of Londoners and set their stories into glazed Doulton tiles for all visitors to see.

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On the day I visited there was a cold, weak sun like an undercooked egg leaking frigid light through the bare, skinny trees. Council gardeners were spreading fertiliser, striding through the damp and undernourished flowerbeds in eye-searing high vis jackets; wheeling barrow loads of foul-smelling muck to throw over the churned, red and raw scented earth.

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Workers were hunched against the benches in front of the plaques, scattering crumbs and sweet wrappers to the breeze and shifting either with irritation or discomfort as tourists, like myself, leaned over and looked past, studiously ignoring them to focus instead on the people pinned behind them.

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As I read about people I didn’t know and has previously never heard of, I became drawn in by simple, shared emotions: grief, fear, admiration. I read about children who died saving siblings and friends. Mothers who gave up their lives saving their babies. Men who sacrificed themselves in a single, split second decision to save someone else’s life.

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As I stood there and stared, slowly absorbing these lives, I started to forget the other people around me. I forgot to be annoyed when someone’s son started screaming about chocolate to a mother who was half-heatedly trying to interest him in the stories of kids not much older than her own who were suddenly, all in a moment, not here anymore.

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Instead I looked left and caught the eye of the elderly woman next to me and we smiled. Short and sad. A shared, paper thin sort of smile that acknowledged both how wondrous and wretched these stories were.

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It’s hard to read these stories yet you consume them tirelessly standing there in that small little patch of ground. It’s also hard to not to cry in Postman’s Park, not only from the sheer selflessness of it all, but also because of that awful, sneaking question that bubbles up and that you can’t quite quiet: could you do what these people have done?

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I couldn’t take pictures of all of the stories in Postman’s Park and these aren’t by any means favourites or ones that I have somehow deemed ‘most worthy’, they’re just ones that caught my eye.

Weekend bake: Valentine’s Day pomegranate, yoghurt and rose cake

Instead of the usual bah humbug post for Valentine’s Day, this year I thought I would do something a little more productive and bake a pink-tinged, vaguely Valentine’s themed cake.

This fragrant, almost-Middle Eastern little cake is a dense, fruity bake that combines crushed cardamom and yoghurt instead of butter with ground almonds and my favourite fruit of the moment: pomegranate.
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In fact, given the option, I think I would eat pomegranate with every meal at the moment, which is why it’s lucky that this super fruit goes with everything from salad to red meat as well as sugary puds.

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It also means that I get to use one of my new favourite baking ingredients – Nielson Massey Rose Water. I adore the smell of roses and, when used with extreme caution in cooking, their delicate, floral flavour is utterly intoxicating. Just opening this bottle flooded my kitchen with the smell of fresh laundry and English gardens in the  summertime.

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I decorated this cake with crystallised rose petals, which are one of the easiest and prettiest cake decorations I know. These delicate little sugared flowers look like something from a fairytale, but are deceptively easy to make and will keep for weeks if you store them in an airtight tub. The first time I made a batch to top some cupcakes, my friends spent the whole time ignoring the cakes and picking off the petals, devouring them like sweets.

Valentine’s Day also means that there are plenty of single roses to be nabbed at the shops, which is handy as you don’t need a whole bunch to make crystallised petals. A single rose will make lots of edible decorations, so if you’ve been lucky enough to get some this Valentine’s, why not knock some up for afternoon tea today.

DSC_5331Ingredients

for the cake
4 cardamom pods
125g ground almonds
125g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
150g caster sugar
150g greek yogurt
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence
the seeds from half a pomegranate

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for the icing
few drops of rose water
few drops of pink food colouring
100g icing sugar
2 tbsp water

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for the crystallised rose petals
petals from one rose (pink or red looks prettiest)
1 egg white
50g caster sugar

Method

  • Crush the cardamom pods (throw away the tough husks) and bash the fragrant seeds in a pestle and mortar until they break up. Drop them into a large mixing bowl.
  • Add the ground almonds, flour, baking powder and caster sugar and mix with a wooden spoon.
  • Beat the yogurt, eggs and vanilla essence together with a fork and drop into the dry ingredients, mixing well until you’ve got a thick, paste-like texture.

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  • Halve a pomegranate and pick out all the fruit from one half, making sure you remove all the little bits of membrane and pith. Gently stir the juicy seeds through your cake mix before plopping it into a greased cake tin. I used a ring tin as it makes such a pretty shape, but you can use any tin you have handy – this cake doesn’t rise much so don’t worry if the mixture is near the top!
  • Pop into a preheated oven at 180 degrees for around 30 minutes until the cake is golden brown and a skewer comes out clean when pushed through the middle.
  • While the cake cools – you should wait ten or so minute before you try to prise it out of the tin – make the crystallised rose petals by gently washing and drying them before brushing with egg white and dipping them into the caster sugar until they are completely coated.
  • Lay the sugared petals out on a lined baking tray. These will dry on their own if you leave them in a warm, dry place, but if you’re in a hurry, which I always am, you can put them into the cooling oven after the cake – they should dry out and go hard and shiny in about 10 minutes.
  • To make the icing, simply sieve the icing sugar into a bowl and drop in the water, mixing until you have a rich, glossy mixture that coats the back of a spoon. If it isn’t thick enough you can add more icing sugar. Add in a few drops each of the pink food colouring (beetroot-based, natural mixtures are best) and the rose water – be very careful with the rose water as a little goes a long way and too many drops will leave your icing tasting a bit like potpourri!
  • When the cake is completely cool, put the cooling rack on a tray (this icing will drip everywhere) and drizzle the icing all over before finishing with the crystallised rose petals and serving with tea or a big cup of turkish coffee.

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Dipping in: Review of Marley Spoon

“Is this all for your lunch?” The delivery man looked at me quizzically.

“Yes”, I replied, immediately on the defensive and trying to look as haughty as I could in my dressing gown at 11am on a Tuesday before grabbing the box and retreating back to my kitchen lair.

Let’s face it, there’s nothing quite as exciting as getting a big box of food in the post and Marley Spoon knows this and has capitalised on it with a bespoke recipe kit home delivery service that’s dedicated to inspiring people to cook more adventurously.

Marley Spoon is, really, only a baby on the food scene, having been launched just last December by Fabien Siegel – the co-founder of Hungry House – and Tim Neatby, the man behind German restaurant chain MexAttax; but it’s already making a name for itself with its international menu choices and emphasis on healthy, balanced and easy to cook meals.

The diverse and ever-changing weekly menus are packed the kinds of dishes you’ve looked longingly at in Olive or Delicious magazine but never actually bother to cook for yourself. Each seven day offering reads like a whistle-stop foodie tour around the world, from Indonesian Nasi Goreng using Devonshire pork to Japanese-flavoured glazed salmon with wasabi peanut potatoes and bok choi and Jamaican-inspired jerk plantain with green salsa and coconut rice.

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I was sent the Devonshire chicken supreme with Middle Eastern rice and carrot salad and the roasted cauliflower steaks with fried tofu, wild rice and a spicy almond sauce. Each order comes weighed, half prepped (there’s still some chopping, shredding and blending required to make you feel as though you’re doing some actual cooking) and with an idiot proof, step-by-step picture recipe card. There’s even a calorie breakdown and a helpline number, just in case you have a kitchen meltdown.

The first thing that struck me was the efficiency of the packaging. Everything comes pre-measured and separated into brown paper bags, including little touches like everything that needs to be refrigerated kept together, ready to be shoved into the fridge on arrival.

The volume of plastic pots and pouches (I counted seven alone for the cauliflower dish), however did seem a little excessive; I’m not sure you need to separate spices that are intended to go into the same pot of food into individual, teaspoon-sized servings. Luckily though, all of the pots are recyclable and Marley Spoon have an in house recycling system where they invite you to return bulkier packaging like the sheep’s wool insulator packs and cooling bags.

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The cooking instructions were easy peasy and the results, shocking similar to the pictures provided and tasted impressively and moreishly delicious. Truthfully, as an advocate of cheap home cooking, I thought I might have had my knives out for Marley Spoon and was ready to denounce it as overpriced and wasteful for a single plates of food. But, after a few mouthfuls of the chargrilled cauliflower, crispy tofu and sweet, nutty, spicy sriracha sauce and after I’d eaten the ridiculously juicy chicken dish, I was practically a devotee.

The second thing that impressed me was the sheer quality of the ingredients. The vegetables looked freshly picked, dewey and dirt sprinkled and the meat was firm and perfectly butchered.

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Thirdly, it’s worth mentioning that the portions were enormous. Gargantuan even. I consider myself to be quite a little pig when it comes to food with an obligingly flexible stomach that’s willing to accommodate often disgustingly huge amounts of food. But even I was defeated by the portions here. Don’t be fooled by the delicate mounds in the promo photography – I was making leftover cold salads from the chicken accompaniment of turmeric and raisin rice and shredded carrot and halved the remaining portion of the roasted cauliflower for lunch the next day. This is, obviously, not a bad thing and proves that you’re more than able to feed a hungry family on these portions.

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Now comes the sticky issue, the price. Two portions of the Devonshire chicken and two portions of the cauliflower comes in at £11 each and there’s a minimum order quantity if four portions. While it’s less than what you’d probably pay in a restaurant for these dishes, it’s worth remembering that you wouldn’t be expected to cook it or clean up after it in a restaurant. Out of curiosity, I added all the ingredients for the chicken dish into a virtual trolley at Sainsburys and it totalled £16.04, and that was with a whole chicken and whole tubs of the spices.

IMG_4574My leftover rice, carrot and avocado salad

I do understand that the premium ingredients and free delivery hike up the price at Marley Spoon, but I can’t help but wonder who could afford to order these meals more than a few times a month. That being said, if you join Marley Spoon as a Food Club member, the prices of the dishes drops to £9.

Despite all that, if I had a dinner party with zero hours to prep, shop or even think of interesting and delicious dishes to impress with, Marley Spoon just might be my first port of call.

Originally written for the brilliant food blog, Foodepedia and can be found here.

In Pictures: Word on the Water

I’ve just opened a book that I levered off the heaving shelf in the next room, unconsciously perching on the threadbare pew that’s nudging the backs of my knees as I turn the bruised and pleasingly used pages.

“The first light of morning barely illuminated the sky as Gustad Noble faced eastward to offer his orisons to Ahura Mazda. The hour was approaching six, and up in the compound’s solitary tree the sparrows began to call. Gustad listened to their chirping every morning while reciting his kusti prayers. There was something reassuring about it. Always, the sparrows were first; the cawing of crows came later.

From a few flats away, the metallic clatter of pots and pans began nibbling at the edges of stillness…”

Certain pages are bent and folded; stained where fingers have traced over the ink of complicated passages or favourite phrases that have been memorised and pocketed away for later. Music from Porgy and Bess is spilling around, warming the whisps of the dank, winter’s day that are seeping in through the open door, dragging themselves along the dark floorboards to sit grey and heavy on my chest.

When the wind changes the air is flooded with an acrid tang of burning fuel that briefly masks the comforting smell of old dust and second-hand paper. Someone’s feet startle me out of the corner of my eye, stamping through the passage I was reading as they pause, somewhere between my head and the low ceiling.

As they continue past, I realise that the floor underneath me is moving. It lurches gently as the books on the shelf that were once perfectly level are suddenly and disconcertingly skewed and my stomach takes a slow tumble. Although I should have anticipated that really, because I’m on a Dutch book barge, where words float on water.

Keats’ chosen epitaph was “here lies one whose name was writ in water”, but luckily this watery writing hub has a little  more permanence. Founded by affable owner Paddy Screech as a solution to the threat of rising overheads involved in owning an independent shop in the capital,  this 100-year-old barge has been converted into a book-lovers’ paradise with shelves groaning under the weight of reasonably-priced (two paperbacks for £5, if you were wondering) books penned by everyone from philosophers and criminologists to Booker Prize winners.

Word on the Water changes location every so often, but for the time being it can be found moored on the murky canal just below Granary Square in King’s Cross. Marooned on the greyish waters, this is a little shop quite unlike any other and is full of little eccentricities that make it disarmingly charming – like the resident little buddha with its tattered prayer flags or the forlorn Noah’s Ark bookends propped against the encyclopaedias above the old, coal-blackened stove.

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Word on the Water might not have such a happy ending, however. The Canal & River Trust, which awards permanent moorings to worthy applicants, has just decided to give preciously rare trade moorings in Paddington away to a multi-billion pound property company British Land instead of this floating world of literature.

There’s a petition on Change.org you can sign if you think the council should reverse its decision. I’ve already signed it and urge others to do so – they only need 313 more signatures and it would be a real shame if this unique shop had to close.

Last Words…

The book barge is cash only – I stupidly forgot to bring any so couldn’t leave with the book I started.

If you get peckish, there are lots of brilliant places to eat a stone’s throw from Word on the Water. Try Caravan for exceptional coffee and brunch grub; The Grain Store for interesting all-day nibbles like spiced lentil cake with cucumber salad and banana ketchup or my favourite, Dishoom.

Sitting in one of their summer house cane and leather chairs sipping chai and smelling incense feels like visiting the days of the Old Raj. Don’t leave without trying one of their impossibly creamy mango and fennel lassis or their chargrilled paneer and green chilli Roomali roti rolls.

Saint & Sinner: prawn courgette linguini with mango, avocado salad and cinnamon buns with ultimate hot chocolate

I can’t be good all the time when it comes to food. My brain just simply isn’t programmed that way. I can eat healthily for a meal or even for a day, but before long all the dairy-free, gluten free, vegan or veggie treats in the world just can’t cut it.

I’m a fan of balance – to indulge some times and cut back at others – which is why I’m embarking on a new series of recipes that give the concept of my weekend bakes a different angle by pairing them with better for you meals to cook alongside them.

Saint & Sinner isn’t about depriving yourself when you really want a treat. It’s also not about forcing in fatty meal after fatty snack; it’s about meeting somewhere in the middle, where one plate is perfectly good for you and one…well, not so much.

It’s food of two halves: one healthy, balanced and angelic and one that satisfies my darker, devilish foodie side that craves fat, sugar and gloriously guilty eating.

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My first duo combines a fresh, antioxidant boosting veggie and fruit packed main course that takes mere minutes to knock up but keeps you full and happy for hours with a decadent afternoon or evening snack that is guaranteed to satisfy your sugar cravings.

I hope you like eating them as much as I did! P.S. Don’t forget to make the buns first – you can knock the salad and linguini up while they bake and fill your house with the smell of hot butter, burnt sugar and cinnamon.

Spicy prawn courgette linguini with mango, avocado and pomegranate salad (serves two)

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This recipe uses my favourite kitchen gadget – the spiralizer, which I’m pretty sure everyone must have by now. I actually cheated a bit and used a julienne peeler for this recipe, which works just as well in a pinch.

for the linguini

155-200g fresh king prawns
2 large garlic cloves or 3 small cloves
1-2 red chillies
2 medium courgettes
small bunch of coriander
2 tbsp olive oil

for the salad

1 ripe avocado
1 ripe mango
the seeds from half a pomegranate
1 bag of washed baby spinach
2 tbsp olive oil
half a lemon

Method
  • Pop the washed spinach into a big serving bowl and then peel and slice your mango and avocado into slim pieces. Drop these over the spinach and shake over the pomegranate seeds. If you have a ripe pomegranate, the seeds should fall out of their shell with a few firm taps on the base with a knife handle.

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  • Make a simple dressing for this zingy salad by squeezing what’s left of the mango’s flesh around the stone over a cup, trying not to drop in too much of the leftover fruit as you squeeze the juice out. Glug in the olive oil followed by the juice from half a lemon and salt and pepper to taste. Add more lemon or more mango juice until you have a lovely sharp and sweet edge and then simply pour over the salad.
  • Peel and crush or grate the garlic into a heavy bottomed frying pan with the olive oil on a low heat. Finely chop the red chilli and add to the pan when the garlic starts to sizzle. Season with a good pinch of sea salt and a few twists of black pepper.

I like my food with a little kick so I always leave in the membrane and the seeds of my chillies, but you can leave them out if you have a particularly hot one. You can test the heat by holding the cut chilli on your lip. If it starts to tingle you’ve got a mildly spicy one. If it starts to burn then you’ve got a scorcher!

  • Grab your spiralizer or your specially adapted grater and turn your courgettes into green linguini. Skinny strands of courgette like this will need practically no cooking – they’re even delicious raw with just a squeeze of lemon and a shake of pepper. If you over do them all the water they hold will just spill out and dilute your dish.
  • Drop the cooked prawns into the sizzling pan and let them warm through for a minute before you pour in your courgette linguini. Turn the linguini so it gets coated in all that garlicky, oily goodness and leave to get tender. This should take about another minute.
  • Roughly chop a handful of fresh coriander before plating up your steaming linguini and prawns. Finish with a splash of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a scattering of the herbs over the top.

Iced cinnamon buns and my ultimate hot chocolate

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I have been searching for the perfect cinnamon bun recipe for years, and while the sinfully delicious ones they serve at Nordic Bakery hit the spot, there’s nothing quite like baking your own and devouring them when they’re still warm from the oven and the icing is just dribbling down the sides in glossy streaks.

I first made the hot chocolate that completes my naughty recipe for pudding heaven for a bonfire night party at my flat. My housemates and I were experimenting with different boozy concoctions that could be transported in flasks when we braved the rain and wind to watch the fireworks. We made hot buttered rum, warm spiced cider and this deep, rich pan of pure calorific gorgeousness that has become infamous among my friends.

I experimented a little with the spices and alcohol, but this is the best it has ever got and, for nights in with a film or a book or for a post dinner treat, a mug of this creamy, unctuous drink can’t be beaten.

for the buns

500g strong white bread flour
8g dried yeast
pinch salt
75g caster sugar
75g soft butter
1 beaten egg
300ml warm milk

for the filling

100g softened butter
100g light brown sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon

for the icing

7 tsp icing sugar
3 tsp water

for the ultimate hot chocolate (makes two small cups or one massive mug)

1 pint semi-skimmed milk
100g 75% dark chocolate
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
good glug of Amaretto liqueur (optional)

Method

These buns use a similar recipe for enriched dough that I used for making Rosca de Reyes cake. Enriched doughs are a little harder to work with than traditional bread mixes, but are worth it in the end.

  • Put the flour, yeast, sugar and salt into a large mixing bowl, taking care to put the salt and the yeast at different sides of the bowl, as the salt will kill the yeast.
  • Push and rub the softened butter through the flour mix with your hands until it feels a bit like breadcrumbs.
  • Add the warm milk, a few glugs at a time to the dry ingredients along with the beaten egg.
  • Mix with your hands. The mixture will feel gloopy and wet at the start but if you keep working it you’ll feel the gluten building up as it stretches and becomes more like play doh.
  • When the dough becomes elastic and is peeling cleanly from the side of the bowl and from your hands, tip it onto a lightly floured surface and knead for around ten minutes. Try to resist the temptation to keep adding flour; this is an enriched dough and is inherently a little looser than traditional bread dough. If you’re unable to pummel the sticky mixture into submission at the start then use a stretch and push motion to work the dough.
  • When the dough is springy and you can stretch it without breaking it, chuck it back into the bowl and cover with a damp tea towel or greased Clingfilm and leave in a warm place until it has doubled in size. This should take about an hour.
  • Meanwhile, mix the butter, brown sugar and cinnamon for the filling in a bowl until it turns into a soft, ginger-coloured paste (try to resist easting it – I struggle with this)
  • After the dough has risen, knock it back with a good kneading for five minutes before rolling it on a lightly-floured surface into a rough rectangle shape. The dough will try to spring back and clench up but you should be able to get it about 1cm thick.
  • Spread the soft butter and sugar mixture all over the rectangle of dough and then gently start rolling the dough up from one end until it meets the other. Try to keep it quite tight so you get the maximum number of cinnamon spirals in there. When all you’ve got left is a big dough sausage, slice it into discs about an inch thick and tuck next to each other in a greased and lined baking tin. I used a circular free form tin so my dough discs looked like a spiral of flowers snuggled up inside.
  • Cover with a tea towel and put back in a warm place for a second prove. This should take about 45 minutes to an hour.
  • When the buns have risen up and spring back when you poke them, heat your oven to 190C and pop them in for around 25-30 minutes, until they’re a burnished golden brown. They will stick together as they grown and bake, this just means you have to tear them apart when you’re ready to eat them.
  • When the buns are out of the oven, leave them to cool on a wire rack while you smash up the dark chocolate and drop into a saucepan with the milk and heaped teaspoons of the nutmeg and cinnamon. Heat this on a low heat, stirring all the time until the chocolate as melted and the mixture is smooth, steaming and dark.
  • Mix the icing sugar and water into a paste in a bowl or glass – you can drizzle this over the buns when they’ve cooled from the oven.

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