Saffron, the royalist of spices

This pungent, vibrant, intriguing spice has captured the hearts and imagination of thousands before me, leaving it’s stain on a fascinating and turbulent history. The tiny thread-like stigma from a variety of crocus known as crocus sativus is the world’s most expensive spice. It is used to colour and flavour food, dye clothes and as well as having some health benefits.

The name derives from the Arabic word zafran, meaning yellow, a reference to the golden colour that saffron turns both our food and clothes. With bright purple flowers each plant only produces just 4 and each flower only 3 stigmas. It takes over 75,000 flowers to produce 500g of spice (450 for just 10g). Add to this the fact that even today saffron strands are picked and removed by hand, it’s easy to understand why saffron is, ounce for ounce, more expensive than gold.

From ancient times, it’s colour, aroma and flavour seduced royalty. Cleopatra bathed in it, believing it made her more alluring. The Romans alleged it would cure many ills. Indians used it to dye clothes whilst Buddhist priests decreed that all their robes would be dyed orange with golden saffron. Trade brought wealth and power to merchants and growers but along with that came conflict culminating in a 14 day saffron war in 1374.

Originating in the Arab world, saffron spread from India in the east and to Europe and as far as America to the west. By the 16th century it was being farmed in large quantities in England. Former geophysicist turned saffron farmer David Smale tells us “these days saffron is more associated with exotic locations such as Iran, Morocco and Spain, but in the past English saffron has been, by reputation, the best in the world”. David, among other British saffron farmers, is looking to put the UK back on the saffron map.

Above all else saffron is celebrated and loved for it’s culinary delights. The flavour is  hard to define, but I liken it to a pungent, aromatic, but slightly metallic honey with powerful overtones of hay or dry grass made warm by the sun; it is both exotic and familiar. Often associated with rice dishes such as Indian biryani, Arabic pilaf and Spanish paella this golden spice is also the star of many classic seafood soups, bouillabaisse from Marseille, being the most famous. It is just as good in sweet dishes such as cakes, breads and even ice cream. I love to add a teaspoon of strands to vodka or gin adding an aromatic flavour and glorious colour.

Dried and fresh saffron

Saffron facts you should know

Rich in Vitamins A, C and a good source of beta carotene, saffron has long been regarded as having medicinal benefits. It has antibacterial qualities and can aid digestion, help treat stomach aches and bronchitis. There are on going studies to see if it can be beneficial in helping prevent cancer.

Today over 90% of the saffron we buy is grown in Iran, often then being packaged in Spain.

Price does not necessarily indicate quality. Buy, try and find the brand you like best, from a reputable supplier.

Buy strands rather than the powder, which should be more red than yellow or orange. The redder the stigmas, the better the quality.

Add saffron cautiously, a little can go a long way and remember you can add but you can’t take away.

As a rule saffron is steeped in water or another liquid before being added to a dish as it isn’t water-soluble. However certain dishes, such as Indian biryani, Arab Pilaf and Spanish paella have the strands scattered over the top of the rice as it cooks, staining it that wonderful golden hue where it sits.

If you are lucky enough to have a saffron farm nearby, buy direct from them for freshness.

Recipes

Strawberry and saffron jam

Make: 4 x 300 ml jars

This recipe is adapted from one that is made at a local saffron fam in The Charente Maritime Safran de l’Estaire. The addition of saffron is subtle but intriguing. You will need a sugar thermometer for this recipe and because strawberries have a low pectin level the resulting jam is not as set as some, but nonetheless delicious.

2 teaspoons saffron strands

1.5kg strawberries, hulled

juice 1 large lemon

1.25 kg granulated sugar

Grind the saffron strands to form a powder using a pestle and mortar. Set aside.

Put the strawberries and lemon juice into a large saucepan and place over a low heat until the strawberries soften. Then simmer gently, uncovered for about 20 minutes until really pulpy. Carefully remove about 1/3 of the strawberries using a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add the sugar and the powdered saffron and stir gently until the sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil and simmer without stirring for about 40 minutes or until the jam reaches 105c/221f on a sugar thermometer. Remove any scum from the surface of the jam.

Meanwhile, sterilise the jars. Wash and dry the jars thoroughly and sit, facing upwards, in a roasting tin lined with baking paper. Place in a preheated oven 100c/220f until required.

Ladle the jam straight into the hot sterilised jars and seal immediately. Label and date the jars once the jam is cold. Store for 2up to 12 months in a cool, dark place. Refrigerate once opened.

Home semi-salted cod with saffron aioli

Serves: 4

Salt cod with aioli is a classic combination popular throughout Spain and southern France.

4 x 150 g cod fillets

2 tbsp sea salt

750g sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to drizzle

350g French beans, trimmed

a handful flat leaf parsley leaves

saffron aioli

1/4 tsp saffron strands

1 tbsp boiling water

2 egg yolks

1 garlic clove, crushed

1 tsp Dijon mustard

2 tsp white wine vinegar

200 ml mild extra virgin olive oil

Place the cod fillets in a plastic container. Scatter over the salt, turning the fish so that it is salted all over. Cover with cling film and place in the fridge for 2 hours. Turn the fish over half way through.

Place the saffron strands in a small bowl and soak in boiling water for 5 minutes. Place the egg yolks, garlic, mustard, vinegar and salt and pepper in a bowl and whisk with electric beaters until pale and frothy. Very gradually whisk in the oil a little at a time until the mixture thickens and becomes glossy. Add the saffron and the liquid and whisk again. Cover the surface with cling film and set aside until required.

Preheat the oven to 200c/400f/gas mark 6 and line a roasting tin with baking paper. Place the potatoes in the prepared tin, season well and drizzle over 1 tablespoon of the oil, stir well to coat. Roast for 40-45 minutes, stirring halfway through until the potatoes are browned and tender.

Wash and dry the salted fish. Place the fish in a steamer, cover and cook for 4-5 minutes until cooked through. Rest for a few minutes. Meanwhile, cook the beans in a pan of lightly salted, boiling water for 2-3 minutes until al dente. Drain well.

Divide the potatoes and beans between warmed serving plates and top with the fish and a spoonful of the saffron aioli. Drizzle with a little extra oil. Garnish with some parsley and serve at once.

Risotto Milanese with a twist

Serves: 4

A classic risotto Milanese is made with saffron and frequently served with osso bucco. Here the marrow bones are used on their own to add a lovely depth of flavour to the rice dish.

4 small veal bones (ask your local butcher to source these for you)

4 sprigs fresh thyme, plus a few leaves to garnish

1-1.2 litres good quality chicken stock, heated until just boiling

½ tsp saffron strands

50g butter

2 shallots, finely chopped

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

300g Arborio rice

100ml Italian dry white wine

50 g freshly grated Parmesan cheese

salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 225c/425f/gas mark 7 and line a roasting tin with baking paper. Place the veal bones in the prepared tin, sprinkle the marrow with salt and pepper and top with a thyme sprig. Roast for 20-25 minutes until the marrow is hot all the way through (check with a metal skewer) and sitting in a pool of melted marrow. Keep warm.

Place the stock and saffron strands in a saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer.

Meanwhile, melt the butter and in a saucepan and gently fry the shallots and garlic with a little salt and pepper over a low heat for 10 minutes until really soft, but not browned. Add the rice and stir for about 1 minute until all the grains appear glossy.

Increase the heat to medium. Add the wine and simmer for 2-3 minutes until it is almost all evaporated. Gradually start adding the gently simmering stock about 200 ml at a time, stirring the rice constantly with a wooden spoon, allowing the rice to absorb most of the stock before adding more. Continue this for about 20 minutes until the rice is al dente and the stock all but absorbed.

Stir in the Parmesan and the juices released from the bone marrow and as soon as the cheese is melted spoon into serving bowls. Place a roasted bone marrow in each bowl and serve scattered with extra cheese and some thyme leaves.

Simple lamb brochettes with saffron pilaf

Serves: 4

With its origins firmly imbedded in the Middle East saffron is integral to many of the countries classic dishes and pilaf is just one of these. Here the rice is cooked separately and served with brochettes of spiced lamb.  

250g basmati rice

500g boneless lamb neck

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 tbsp ground sumac

75g butter

2 onions, thinly sliced

2 tsp cumin seeds

4 cardamom pods, crushed

1 cinnamon stick, bruised

75g raisins

75g pistachio nuts, chopped

1 tsp saffron strands

2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander

juice 1/2 lemon

salt and pepper

Greek yogurt and lemon wedges, to serve

Place the rice in a bowl and cover with cold water, leave to soak for a couple of hours. Drain and shake dry.

Cut the lamb into small bite size pieces. Combine 2 teaspoons of the sumac with the oil, salt and pepper and toss with the lamb. Thread onto skewers and set aside until ready to cook. Combine the remaining sumac with 1 teaspoon salt.

Melt 25 g of the butter in a frying pan and fry half the onions with a little salt for 15 minutes until crisp and golden. Set aside.

Melt the remaining butter in a saucepan and fry the remaining onion and spices with a little salt and pepper for 5 minutes. Add the rice, stir well to coat the grains and add 500ml water. Bring to the boil and scatter over the raisins, pistachio nuts and saffron, cover and simmer over a very gentle heat for 12 minutes. Turn the heat off and leave to sit for a further 10 minutes, then stir in the coriander.

Meanwhile, char-grill the lamb either under a hot grill or on a ridged grill pan for 2-3 minutes each side until cooked on the outside but still pink inside. Transfer to a plate and squeeze over the lemon juice.

Serve the rice scattered with the crispy onions and the brochettes with some yogurt and the sumac salt.

Orange, cashew and saffron syrup cake

Serves: 10

The saffron and orange syrup is poured over the cake as soon as it comes out of the oven, so it absorbs both flavour and moisture as it cools, resulting in a lovely aromatic and moist cake. It keeps well for 3 days wrapped in foil and stored in an airtight tin.

175g unsalted butter, softened

175g soft light brown sugar

grated zest 1 orange (juice reserved)

3 eggs, lightly beaten

2 tbsp orange flour water

225g self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

75g cashew nuts, finely ground

orange and saffron syrup

pared zest and juice 2 oranges

125g caster sugar

1/2 tsp saffron strands

crème fraiche or Greek yogurt, to serve

Preheat the oven to 170c/150f/gas mark 3 and grease and line a 1kg loaf tin. Using electric beaters, beat the butter, sugar and orange zest together until pale and creamy and then gradually whisk in the eggs and orange flower water a little at a time until combined, adding a little flour each time to prevent the mixture curdling. Fold in the remaining flour, baking powder and ground cashews until evenly combined.

Spoon into to the prepared tin and smooth the surface making a slight indent in the centre. Bake for 11/4 hours, covering the surface of the cake with foil after 45 minutes if it begins to brown. Pierce the cake with a skewer, if it comes out clean, the cake is ready.

Meanwhile, make the syrup. Place the juice of all 3 oranges and the sugar in a saucepan and bring slowly to the boiling, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Add the orange zest and simmer for 5 minutes or until the mixture is thickened and syrupy. Remove from the heat and stir in the saffron. Set aside to infuse, keeping it warm.

As soon as the cake is cooked, pierce holes all over the surface using a metal skewer. Spoon over 2/3 of the syrup and leave the cake to cool in the tin.

Turn the cooled cake out onto a platter and cut into slices. Serve drizzled with the remaining syrup and some crème fraiche or Greek yogurt.

First published by Food and Travel Magazine 2015

© recipes Louise Pickford

© photographs Ian Wallace


Roasted Courgette Soup with Lemon and Mint

It’s hard to bemoan the summer harvest when you have lovingly cared for your soil, seedlings, shoots, plants and finally the fruits, but given that I only planted 1 courgette plant this year, I am still struggling to use all my courgettes! I have of course travelled the well trodden path of shredding, spiralling, grating, frying, pickling et all, but just when I had got to the end of my courgette recipe tether, I remembered a truly wonderful soup I enjoyed a year or so back in a small cafe in Beckles, Suffolk in the UK. It was of course the recipe of today’s blog.

Today’s freshly picked courgettes and mint, sadly the lemons were shop bought. If straight from the garden, wash well and then pat dry.

Firstly, trim courgettes and cut approximately into 2 cm chunks. Take 1 lemon, chop roughly into abut 12 pieces. Add to a paper lined roasting tin with some, salt, pepper and a good slug of olive oil. Stir well. Then into the oven.

Meanwhile, peel, trim and finely chop some garlic cloves and an onion or too, depending on the size.

You’ll also need to finely grate the zest of a second lemon. Remember if they are waxed, give them a good wash and dry before using.

While the courgettes are roasting you can start frying the remaining ingredients in a large saucepan. Use olive oil and add some salt and pepper to the pan. I like a small pinch of chilli flakes here, but this is optional.

Once the onion has softened you want to measure your chicken stock. I always make my own stock, but you can use stock cubes. I measure the amount I need, then make sure I have a little but more, just in case I need to thin the soup down.

At this stage the courgettes should be nicely browned. Have a peak in the oven and remove them or continue to cook for a while longer, if necessary. You can see in the pic, that both the courgettes and the lemons have charred edges.

Using tongs, pick out and discard the lemons, squeezing any juice back into the pan. Scrape all the courgettes and pan juices into the waiting saucepan, then add enough stock to just cover the courgettes. Bring the pan to a simmer and cook.

While the stock comes to the boil, roughly chop a good handful of the picked mint leaves and squeeze the lemon juice.

And now for my secret ingredient – well obviously not so secret now! I like to add a good slug (about 2 teaspoons) of runny honey. The sweetness is the perfect balance for the sourness of the lemons. Add, taste, then add more if needed.

Once the soup has simmered for a few minutes you can add the remaining ingredients. The soup is now ready to blend – I like to blend it as is, check I am happy with the texture and if necessary, I will add a little more stock and heat through.

RECIPE

Roasted Courgette Soup with Lemon and Mint

Now we are ready to eat. I thorough recommend drizzling another good slug of olive oil over each serve – don’t forget to the bread to mop the bowl clean. Enjoy

Serves: 4

4 large courgettes, roughly chopped

2 lemons

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1-11/4 litres chicken or vegetable stock

A large handful roughly chopped mint leaves

2 teaspoons honey

Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 220c. Cut the courgette into 2 cm chunks and place in a roasting tin lined with baking paper. Cut 1 lemon into similar size chunks and add to the pan with half the oil, salt and pepper. Stir well and roast for 30-35 minutes, stirring halfway through,  or until the courgettes are browned and softened. Discard the chunks of lemon.

Finely grate the zest of the remaining lemon and squeeze the juice into a separate bowl. 

Heat the remaining oil in a saucepan and fry the onion, grated lemon zest, garlic and a little salt and pepper for 5 minutes until soft. Add the roasted courgettes and any pan juices and pour in the stock. 

Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes.

Add the lemon juice, mint leaves and honey. Process with a stick blender or in a liquidiser until really smooth. Adjust seasonings to taste and serve hot, or if preferred allow to cool, chill and serve cold. 


Summertime salads

With the wondrous fresh bounty in our veggie plots, markets and shops, it seems a no brainer that we make the very most of summer ‘s fresh ingredients with some simply delicious main course salads – add a few slices of sushi grade salmon or a local soft goat cheese and summer never tasted do good.

Salmon sashimi salad with quinoa and miso dressing

Serves: 4

150g red or white quinoa

60g baby Asian salad leaves

12 radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced

100g podded Edamame beans

1 small avocado, peeled, stoned and cut into wedges

400g sashimi-grade salmon fillet*

2 tablespoons black sesame seeds

a handful of chives, snipped

chive flowers, optional

Dressing

80ml mirin

75ml sake

1 tablespoon caster sugar

2 tablespoons white miso paste

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon sesame oil

Place the quinoa in a small saucepan with 300ml water. Bring to the boil and simmer gently, uncovered for 10-15 minutes until the grains are al dente and water absorbed. Set aside to cool in the pan.

Make the dressing. Place the mirin, sake and caster sugar in a small saucepan. Heat gently, stirring until it reaches the boil. Simmer for 1 minute, then set aside to go cold. Whisk in the remaining ingredients until evenly combined.

Transfer the quinoa to a bowl and stir through the salad leaves, radish slices and edamame beans. Add half the dressing, stir well. 

Season the salmon fillets and sprinkle with the sesame seeds, pressing lightly into the flesh. Drizzle with a little oil. Heat a dry frying pan until hot. Add the salmon and cook for 30 seconds each side until just charred on the outside. Cool for 10 minutes and then thinly slice.

Arrange the quinoa salad on plates with the seared salmon and avocado wedges. Scatter over the chives and chive flowers (if using) Drizzle with the remaining dressing to serve.

  • Sashimi grade salmon is available from some good quality fishmongers. Ask your supplier and explain what you are using the fish for as it needs to be super fresh. Also if it is designed specifically to made into sushi it will come as a long thin fillet, ideal for slicing.

BBQ’d Korean chicken Noodle salad 

Serves: 4

500g skinless chicken thighs fillets

200g dried green tea soba noodles

2 carrots, trimmed

1 cucumber, seeded

1 nashi pear

100g bean sprouts

2 little gem lettuce, cut into wedges

a handful coriander leaves

Marinade

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon caster sugar

1 garlic clove, minced

1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon crushed black pepper

Dressing

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

2 tablespoons sunflower oil

1 tablespoon clear honey

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1 teaspoons gochujang*

a few micro herbs, to garnish, optional

Cut the chicken into 2cm pieces and place in bowl. Combine the marinade ingredients, pour over the chicken and stir well. Marinate for 2 hours.

Cook the noodles by plunging them into a pan of boiling water. Boil for 4 minutes until al dente. Drain, refresh under cold water and pat dry.

Cut the carrot and cucumber into long thin julienne. Peel, quarter and core the nashi pear and cut the flesh into thin batons. Combine the carrot, cucumber, nashi and bean sprouts. Set aside.

Make the dressing. Toast the sesame seeds in a dry frying pan. Transfer to a spice grinder and grind to a powder. Place in a bowl and stir in the remaining dressing ingredients. Set aside.

Preheat the griddle pan until hot. Thread the chicken pieces onto metal or bamboo skewers and griddle for 3-4 minutes each side until charred and tender. Rest for 5 minutes. 

Arrange the noodles in bowls and top with the salad, scatter over the micro herbs, if using. Drizzle over the dressing and serve with the skewers of chicken on the side. 

  • Gochujang is a red chilli spice paste with a sweet, spicy flavour. It is widely used in Korean cooking and is available from specialist food stores or online. 

Marinated buffalo mozzarella with orange and fennel with basil oil

Serves: 4

4 x 150g balls buffalo mozzarella

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2-4 oranges, depending on size

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 small head fennel, trimmed

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon honey

75g Niçoise olives, pitted

60g picked watercress leaves

Basil oil

60g basil leaves

150ml extra virgin olive oil

salt

a few edible flowers, such as primulas or nasturtiums, to garnish, optional 

Place the mozzarella balls in a bowl. Finely grate the zest and squeeze the juice of 1 orange into a bowl. Stir in the olive oil and season to taste. Lightly toast the fennel seeds and bash with a pestle and mortar. Add to the marinade and pour over the mozzarella. Set aside until required.

Make the basil oil. Wash the basil leaves in cold water. Then blanch the leaves in boiling water for 1 minute. Drain and immediately refresh in iced water. Drain again and dry really well with paper towel. Place in a liquidizer with the oil and a little  salt and puree until really fine. Strain the oil through a fine sieve (reserve both the basil pulp and oil, separately).

Peel and cut the remaining oranges into then slices. Shave the fennel into fine slices using a mandolin (or sharp knife) reserving any fronds. Remove the mozzarella balls from the marinade and strain the juices into a bowl. Stir the lemon juice and honey into the marinade to use as the dressing.

Arrange the mozzarella on plates with the shaved fennel, orange slices, olives and watercress leaves. Drizzle over the marinade dressing, basil oil and some pepper. Serve scattered with fennel fronds and edible flowers, if using.

  • Tip: what to do with the basil pulp. There is still a good flavour in the basil pulp so add a little salt and pepper and toss through pasta. 

Carpaccio of courgette, melted goat cheese and lemon with warm honey 

Serves: 4

2 large courgettes

60g baby spinach leaves

a handful fresh basil leaves

1 lemon

21/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 sprigs fresh lemon thyme or savory, chopped

200g goat cheese

4 tablespoons clear honey 

4 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

25g Parmesan, shaved

Using a mandolin, very thinly shave the courgettes lengthways. Arrange the slices on 4 serving plates, overlapping them to fit, if necessary. Take the courgette trimmings (there will be side

pieces left) and grate then on a box grater. Arrange the grated courgette in the centre of each plate. Top with the spinach and basil leaves.

Grate the lemon zest and set aside. Squeeze the juice into a bowl and whisk in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, salt and pepper. Spoon about half of the dressing over the courgette carpaccio, set the rest of the dressing aside.

Preheat the grill to medium. Slice the goat cheese into rounds (if not bought as individual rounds) and arrange on a piece of oiled tin foil, on baking tray. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil and scatter over the reserved grated lemon zest, chopped thyme or savory and some black pepper. Warm under the grill for 30 seconds or so until just starting to soften.

Meanwhile, warm the honey in a small saucepan until it just starts to bubble. Remove from the heat.

Carefully slide the warm cheese onto the courgettes and scatter over the spinach and basil leaves, pine nuts and shavings of Parmesan. Pour the remaining lemon dressing over the top and finally drizzle the salad with the heated honey. Serve.

Seared tuna salad with crisp flatbreads and aubergine salsa

Serves: 4

2 flat breads or flour tortilla

1/2 teaspoon baharat spice*

4 x 125g tuna steaks

100g Greek yogurt

2 teaspoons tahini paste

2 Lebanese cucumbers, sliced into wedges

50g rocket leaves

Aubergine salsa

1 medium aubergine, trimmed

1/4 red onion, finely diced

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

1/2 small garlic clove, crushed

125g cherry tomatoes, quartered

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

grated zest and juice 1/2 lemon

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons honey 

1 teaspoon pomegranate molasse

sea salt and pepper

sunflower for deep frying

Roll the flatbreads up and cut into thin slices to form strips about 5mm thick. Heat about 5cm of sunflower oil in a deep frying pan until hot (check by frying ne strip of bread, it should sizzle as soon as it enters the oil). Fry the bread strips, in batches over a high heat for 1-2 minutes until crisp and golden. Drain on paper towel, transfer to a bowl and add the spice mix and sea salt. Toss and set aside.

Heat a ridged griddle pan until hot. Cut the aubergine lengthways into thin slices about 5mm thick. Brush the slices with oil and season with salt and pepper. Griddle for 4-5 minutes each side until charred and soft. Let cool and then dice the flesh.

Meanwhile, place the diced onion in a bowl, add the vinegar and let soak for 10 minutes. Drain.

Combine the diced aubergine, infused onion, garlic, cherry tomatoes, mint and lemon zest. Season and stir well. Whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, honey, pomegranate molasses and season to taste. Stir about half through the salsa.

Preheat a griddle pan until hot. Season the tuna fillets and sear over a high heat for 30-60 seconds until cooked to your liking. Rest for 5 minutes. 

Beat the Greek yogurt and tahini together until smooth and season to taste.

Spread a little tahini on plates and top with the aubergine salsa, tuna fillets, rocket leaves and crisp flatbreads. Drizzle over the remaining dressing and serve..

  • Baharat spice is a Middle Eastern/North African spice mix traditional used to flavour meats. You can buy it online or from specialist food stores.

© Recipes Louise Pickford

© Photographs Ian Wallace

First published by Food & Travel magazine August 2018


Perfect popsicles – everyone’s favourite ice lolly

Sweltering temperatures in Europe and beyond have us all craving a little respite and what better way to cool down than with a thirst quenching ice lolly – oh the sheer joy of a popsicle! Today’s fruitier, healthier, innovative and wide ranging versions of frozen ice on sticks are a far cry from the fluorescent, mass-produced, overly sweet versions from our childhood. From artisanal producers to innovative chefs the 21st century popsicle has arrived. Here are a few of my favourites from my latest book The Popsicle Party, published by Ryland, Peters & Small and Cico Books.

Refreshing apple and cucumber pops

Makes: 6-8 popsicles

The name says it all really and so pretty. It’s also great for kids who think they don’t like cucumber. Give them one of these and see just how easy it can be!

4 apples

3 Lebanese cucumbers

Juice 2 limes

100g sugar

Quarter and core ½ an  apple and cut into wafer thins slices. Take 1/2 a cucumber and again cut into wafer thin slices. Reserve the slices.

Pass the remaining apples and cucumber through a juicer. Add the lime juice and sugar and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. 

Divide the apple and cucumber slices between the 6-8 moulds and top up with the apple and cucumber syrup. Either add the sticks at this stage or freeze until the mixture is firm enough to add the sticks. Return to the freezer for a further 4-6 hours until frozen. . 

To remove the popsicles from their moulds, dip into hot water for a second or two. Gently pull from the moulds. 

Lime, pomegranate and rosewater popsicles

Makes: 8 small (80ml)

Pretty in pink may well have been the name of a 70’s pop song, but it works equally well to describe this delicious and refreshing fruit popsicle. The rosewater is lovely with the flavour of the pomegranate and gives it that Middle Eastern allure.

4-5 pomegranates

Juice 2 limes

30 g caster sugar

2 teaspoons rosewater or orange flower water

fresh rose petals, dried rose petals and lime wedges, to garnish (optional) 

Cut the pomegranates in half over a bowl lined with a large sieve to catch all the juice. Setting 1/2 a pomegranate to one side, squeeze out as much of the juice as you can from the seeds pressing the seeds down with a metal spoon. 

Measure the juice, you need 500 ml for this recipe (chill the rest to drink).

Stir the lime juice, sugar and rosewater into the pomegranate juice and stir until the sugar is dissolved. 

Divide the reserved pomegranate seeds between 8 small popsicle moulds  and pour in the juice. Either add the sticks at this stage or freeze until the mixture is firm enough to add the sticks. Return to the freezer for a further 4-6 hours until frozen. 

To remove the popsicles from their moulds, dip into hot water for a second or two. Gently pull from the moulds. 

Banoffee salted caramel creams

Makes: 8

Not sure what there is to say about this other than make it, freeze it, eat it – oh so delicious.

4 tablespoons golden syrup 

1 tablespoon cocoa powder

2 bananas

300 ml double cream

25 g caster sugar

25 g blanched almonds

1 tablespoon cold water

a little sea salt

4 tablespoons butter caramel sauce

Place 3 tablespoons of the golden syrup and cocoa powder in a bowl and stir well the cocoa powder is dissolved and the syrup smooth. 

Place the bananas, cream and sugar into a blender and blend until completely smooth. Pour the banana cream into 8 popsicle moulds. Carefully drizzle in the chocolate syrup and using a skewer swirl through the cream to form a ripple effect.

Either add the sticks at this stage or freeze until the mixture is firm enough to add the sticks. Return to the freezer a further 4-6 hours until frozen. 

Meanwhile, line a small tray with foil. Place the almonds, water and the remaining golden syrup in a small frying pan. Heat gently until the syrup begins to boil. Increase the heat and cook for 3-4 minutes until the almonds are browned and glazed with the syrup. 

Transfer the nuts to the prepared tray and sprinkle with salt. Leave to cool. As soon as they are cold, chop roughly. 

When ready to serve, pop a small metal tray lined with baking paper into the freezer for 10 minutes to chill. To remove the popsicles from their moulds, dip into hot water for a second or two. Gently pull from the moulds. 

Place the popsicles on the prepared tray and immediately drizzle over the caramel sauce and top with the nuts.  Return to the freezer for 10 minutes to set.  

Tutti Frutti 

Makes: 8

Remember  ‘rockets’ that multi-coloured ice pop from your childhood? This homemade version looks great and tastes even better than the original.

250 g caster sugar

500 ml cold water

2 oranges

1 lemon

2 limes

125g raspberries

Place the sugar and water in a saucepan and heat gently, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Boil for 1 minute, then remove from the heat and cool completely. 

Squeeze the juice of the oranges, the lemon and limes into separate bowls.  Add enough of the sugar syrup to sweeten each fruit juice, ending up with approximately 150 ml of each juice (you will still have sugar syrup leftover).

Place the raspberries in a blender with 100 ml of the remaining sugar syrup. Blend until really smooth and then taste for sweetness, adjust accordingly.

Pour a layer of the orange juice into each of 8 popsicle moulds. Transfer to the freezer and allow the mixture to freeze completely (about 1 hour).

Pour in an equal layer of lime juice. Either add the sticks at this stage or freeze until the mixture is firm enough to add the sticks. Freeze again until firm and repeat this process withy the remaining 2 juices. Return to the freezer for a further 4-6 hours until frozen. 

To remove the popsicles from their moulds, dip into hot water for a second or two. Gently pull from the moulds.

Buttermilk, raspberry and pistachio pops

Makes: 6 popsicles

Here yogurt and buttermilk are sweetened with agave syrup, a recent addition to the many different types of sweeteners and sugars, has a lower GI than many alternatives as it is largely a fructose based sugar. Now widely available from health food stores and supermarkets, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find – honey can be substituted. 

250 ml Greek yogurt

250 ml buttermilk

150 ml agave syrup

125 g fresh raspberries

25 g finely chopped, unsalted pistachio nuts 

Whisk the yogurt, buttermilk and agave syrup together until combined. 

Divide the raspberries between 6 moulds and top up with the buttermilk mixture. Either add the sticks at this stage or freeze until the mixture is firm enough to add the sticks. Return to the freezer for a further 4-6 hours until frozen.  

To remove the popsicles from their moulds, dip into hot water for a second or two. Gently pull from the moulds and dip the ends into the chopped pistachio nuts.

Cool watermelon, strawberry and lemon pops

Makes: 8-10 popsicles

All you need is a slug of vodka and you’d have the perfect frozen daiquiri! But, hey who needs alcohol when you can enjoy this healthier fruit version in the form of an ice pop.

300g strawberries, hulled and halved

3 tablespoons icing sugar, sieved

500 g watermelon

Juice 1 lemon

Combine the strawberries with the sugar and leave for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Discard the watermelon rind and dice the flesh.

Place the strawberries and all the juices, the watermelon and lemon juice in a blender and blend until smooth. Divide the juice between 8-10 small popsicle moulds.

Either add the sticks at this stage or freeze or leave until the mixture is firm enough to add the sticks. Return to the freezer for a further 4-6 hours until frozen. 

To remove the popsicles from their moulds, dip into hot water for a second or two. Gently pull from the moulds.

First published in The Popsicle Party by Louise Pickford, with photography by Ian Wallace

Published by Ryland, Peters & Small and Cico Books





For the love of honey

Freshly poured honey

Meeting the bee keepers

Known for both its culinary and health benefits, honey is one of nature’s true gifts. I wanted to find out more about how honey gets from the flower to our toast, so I headed off to a local honey producer in Charente Maritime, SW France where three generations of the same family have been producing honey for more than 50 years. Christian Robert along with his son and grandson were delighted to share their knowledge with me.

M. Robert, his son & grandson

‘Preparation begins in the winter’ he told me ‘whilst the bees are dormant’. Bees begin foraging for nectar in early spring as the first flowers begin to appear. They transform the pollen to honey in the combs and then cap it with a layer of wax where it remains until collected by the beekeeper. Once full the combs are removed for processing and replaced by new frames and the cycle continues throughout summer. Once collected the beekeeper removes the outer wax coating revealing the liquid honey beneath. It is filtered in an extraction machine, stored in barrels to separate off the sediment before being heated gently (below 40c) and poured into jars for selling.

So what is honey exactly

It is a highly concentrated sugar solution made up of 70% sugar (fructose and glucose) and less than 20% water plus vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Extracted honey can be liquid, crystalized (set honey) or partially crystalized and this crystallization is a natural occurrence that takes place when the percentage of glucose is higher than that of fructose.

Honey is categorised by the type of flowers from which the nectar is sourced. This is also what gives honey its flavour. The darker the honey the more intense the flavour.

Different honey varieties

Monofloral honey, considered a premium honey, is produced by nectar collected from just one flower source such as acacia, leatherwood, manuka, heather, orange blossom and other single flower varieties. It can be runny or set, light, dark, creamy or crystalline.

Polyfloral honey is made from the nectar of different flowers and is likely to be labelled simply as honey and again the colour and texture varies. Blended honey, also labelled just honey, is made by combining different flavoured honeys together and is usually the cheapest of all the types sold. The flavour of these is milder and I think, inferior. These honeys will have been heat-treated and possibly pasteurised.

Then we have ‘raw’ honey, so called due to the method of processing and must be 100% unprocessed, so once extracted it is warmed only enough to pour into jars and not enough to change it’s structure. Often sold directly from producers ‘raw’ honey is perhaps the most desirable of all honey, especially as there is now a growing demand by consumers for locally sourced honey.

The taste test

The best way to decide which type of honey you prefer is by tasting different ones, see what you like and what you don’t. As well as colour, the texture of honey differs too and is classified as creamy honey, set honey or a thin honey. Set honey is crystalline but this doesn’t mean that the honey is old or has ‘gone off’ it is just that the glucose content is higher than the fructose content. The flavour will remain the same.

Honeycomb

In cooking stick to runny honeys for salad dressings and marinades, as they are easier to combine with other ingredients. A thicker, darker honey is great in cake baking as this will add both flavour and moisture.

Over time all honey will set and crystalize, but it can easily be softened by warming it in a water bath or microwave. Honey will remain in the same state for up to 2 years but must be stored in a cool, dark place (not refrigerated) even once its been opened.

The health benefits

Of course honey is not only used in cooking it is also prized for its apparent health benefits. There has been much written and reported over the years to suggest honey can cure or aid everything from the common cold, sore throats, help with digestion, combat ulcers and more recently help prevent hay fever. ‘Raw’ locally produced honey is thought to be beneficial as it will contain minute quantities of the very flowers that give you the sniffles, gradually building up immunity.

Honey bees at work

It is a fact that ‘raw’ untreated honey retains all it’s original enzymes and antioxidants and has antibiotic and antimicrobial properties and protects against bacteria. Of all honeys, manuka honey is generally accepted as having the most health benefits due to a higher percentage of certain components it contains. In fact medical grade manuka honey is used to help heal wounds.

Because honey contains natural fruit sugars it means that our bodies absorb the energy they provide more quickly than other sugars, making them an ideal quick ‘energy fix’. It is important to remember though that any sugar should be consumed in moderation but if you are only going to eat one type of sugar today, make it honey on your toast.

Honey facts – things you never knew about honey and honeybees

  • Honeybees are the only insects that produce food for humans
  • They visit anywhere between 50 and 100 flowers on each trip
  • Honey is more than 1 to1.5 times sweeter than sugar therefore you need less in order to sweeten something
  • Honey is a natural antibiotic used for thousands of years to help soothe burns. The World Health Organisation lists it as a sore throat aid.
  • Honeybees communicate with each other by dancing
    Honeybees only sting when they are protecting their colony and not when they are foraging for nectar
Coloured hives so the bees can find their way home

The recipes

Rosewater and pistachio baklava pave

Serves: 10-12

Rosewater and pistachio baklava ice cream

100 g shelled pistachio nuts

50 g almonds

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 tablespoons soft brown sugar

8 sheets filo pastry

50 g unsalted butter

grated zest and juice 1/2 lemon

200 g clear honey

2 tablespoons rose water

1 litre vanilla ice cream, softened

dried rose petals buds, to serve

Make the baklava. Preheat the oven to 180c/fan-forced 160c. Place the pistachio nuts, almonds and cinnamon in a food processor and blend until the nuts are coarsely ground. Stir in the sugar and reserve 4 tablespoons for serving.

Lightly oil 23cm square tin. Cut each pastry sheet in half and trim to fit into the tin. Brush each sheet with butter and press into the prepared tin to make 8 layers. Scatter over the nut mixture and then top with the remaining sheets of pastry, brushing with melted butter each time.

Brush over any remaining butter and bake at for 20 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 160c/fan-forced140c and bake for a further 20-25 minutes until pastry is crisp and golden. Remove from the oven and using a skewer prick the surface all over the pastry.

Meanwhile, prepare the syrup. Place the lemon zest, juice, honey and 100ml water in a saucepan and heat gently until boiling. Simmer for 5 minutes, remove from heat and stir in the rose water. Immediately pour three quarters of the honey syrup over the baklava and leave to go cold in the tin.

Assemble the pavé. Turn the pastry out of the tin and cut in half. Spread a third of the ice cream into the base of a lightly oil 12×22 cm loaf tin and place one half of baklava on top. Repeat with the ice cream and remaining baklava and finally the remaining ice cream. Smooth the top and cover with cling film. Freeze overnight. Turn out cut into slices, drizzle over the remaining syrup and decorate with dried rose petals and reserved chopped nut

Coconut sesame prawns with honey sauce

Serves: 6

Coconut sesame prawns with honey sauce

100 g dried thin egg noodles

24 large raw prawns

2 tablespoons clear honey

2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine

2 cloves garlic, crushed

11/2 tablespoons light soy sauce

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

a few coriander sprigs

vegetable oil, for deep frying

Place the noodles in a bowl and add boiling water to cover. Leave to soak for 20 minutes, drain well and pat dry on kitchen paper. Peel and de-vein the prawns and wrap 8-10 noodles around each. Deep-fry in 5 cm vegetable oil for 3-4 minutes until crisp and golden, turning half way through. Drain on kitchen paper and transfer to a warmed platter.

Make the sauce. Place honey, rice wine, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 2 minutes and pour over the prawns. Garnish with sesame seeds and coriander.

Roasted chicken salad with warm honey dressing

Serves: 6

Roasted chicken salad with warm honey dressing

2 kg free range chicken, butterflied

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tbsp quatre epices (or mixed ground spice)

a drizzle honey

500 g sweet potatoes, peeled cut into cubes

1/2 red onion

parsley, mint, coriander

pomegranate seeds

dressing

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon clear honey

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon preserved lemon, diced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander

1small red chilli, seeded and diced

salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 200c. Place chicken in a large bowl and rub. Combine the oil quatre epices, salt and pepper in a bowl and rub all over the chicken. Cook on a barbecue or grill pan for 20-25 minutes each side until cooked through, brushing over a little honey about 5 minutes before finished cooking (skin side only).

While the chicken is cooking, place the sweet potatoes in a roasting tin with a little oil, salt and pepper and roast for 45 minutes, stirring half way through until charred and tender.

Meanwhile, make the dressing. Blitz together the oil, honey, lemon juice, preserved lemon and coriander and stir in the chilli and some salt and pepper to taste.

Cut chicken into pieces and toss with the dressing. Combine the sweet potatoes, spinach leaves, red onion and herbs in a bowl and toss well. Transfer to a platter. Pile the chicken in the middle drizzling any pan juices over the salad. Serve at once.

Herb infused honey pots – to give as gifts, small pots of honey flavoured with herbs such as fennel flowers, lavender, rosemary etc. Simply stir in your favourite flavours, seal and store until required.

All images © Ian Wallace

All recipes © Louise Pickford

Taken from my article first published by Food & Travel Magazine, August/September 2105


Churros with chocolate & Pedro Ximenez sauce

Not quite straight, yet not quite curly.

Without wishing to offend churros oficianados, here is my version of this delightfully light, fluffy and totally divine Spanish doughnut. Traditionally Spanish churros are piped, in an almost figure of eight shaped whirl, directly into hot fat and deep-fried before being coated in cinnamon sugar. They can be served as simply as that or they can be served alongside a steaming cup of real hot chocolate. For a slightly more wicked treat I like to dunk them or drizzle them with melted chocolate flavoured with Pedro Ximenez, an intensely dark, sweet dessert sherry.

Having always been a lover of doughnuts (not that surprising really – deep-fried batter, crispy on the outside, light and fluffy in the centre and then dipped in spiced sugar – who wouldn’t) but actually not that crazy about the jam filled ones, I was wowed when I first came across churros on a holiday in Majorca, one of Spain’s Balearic islands – the fact that they were served with chocolate was the icing on the cake.

Developed centuries ago by Spanish shepherds in the hills, where cooking was limited to cooking over a log fire, a cake-like batter was dropped into hot fat until crisp and then serve dusted with cinnamon sugar. Naturally enough the idea caught on and today this wonderful snack food is popular all over the world, in one form or another.

And now that I live in SW France, the Spanish border is a short drive away, so I get to enjoy one of my favourite dishes much more often with regular trips to Spain’s Basque region. Luckily they have also caught on here in France and you often find a churros van at the local markets and fetes. Normally in France they tend to be served either completely straight or more like these ones, but really the shape is completely up to you – whether you a curly fan or a straight fan – they still taste the same!!

So let’s get cooking.

You will need water, butter – salted or unsalted, is your choice – plain flour, a pinch of salt, 3 medium eggs, caster sugar and cinnamon for the churros. Then for the sauce you need dark chocolate, single or pouring cream and a small glass (or two) of Pedro Ximenez sherry.

Pour the water into a medium saucepan, adding the butter. Place over a low heat until the butter melts. – you are literally warming it enough to melt the butter and there is no need to boil the mixture.

Remove the pan from the heat and tip in the flour and salt in one go. Then beat well with a wooden spoon until it becomes thick and sticky and the mixture comes away from the pan edges.

At this stage you need to allow the batter to cool slightly, so that when the eggs are whisked in, the heat is not so high that it starts to cook the eggs – they will cook once the batter is piped and fried – so using either a balloon whisk or electric beaters, whisk in them in one at a time until you have a smooth batter.

Spoon the glossy batter into a piping bag fitted with a 1 cm star nozzle. Make sure you scrape in as much of the batter as you can, don’t waste any! Meanwhile, heat a good amount of vegetable oil in a wok or heavy-based pan, to a depth of about 7 cm, until it reaches 180c on a sugar thermometer (or until a small amount of the dough sizzles as soon as it is dropped into the oil).

Carefully pipe 15 cm lengths of the dough straight into the oil, using a knife to cut the dough off right by the nozzle. Fry 3-4 churros at a time for 2-3 minutes until crisp and golden, turning half way through using metal tongs. As soon as the churros are cooked, remove them using a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen towel. You can keep them warm in a moderate oven heated to 180C/325F/Gas Mark 4 if you like, whilst cooking some more.

Whilst the churros are cooking, you should have time to mixc the sugar with some cinnamon. Place the mixture on a plate and as soon as the churros are ready roll them in the sugar until they are evenly coated.

Meanwhile, heat the chocolate and cream together in a small pan over a low heat until the chocolate melts. Remove from the heat and stir until smooth, then add the sherry. If you prefer you can do this ahead and warm the sauce through just before serving.

Arrange the churros on a platter and serve with the chocolate and Pedro Ximenez sauce for dipping or if you like drizzle it all over the churros.

RECIPE

Churros with chocolate and Pedro Ximenez sauce

Serves: 6-8

250 ml water

120 g butter

180 g plain flour, twice sifted

pinch salt

3 medium eggs (size 3)

75 g caster sugar

2 tsp ground cinnamon

100 g chocolate

150 ml single cream, plus extra to drizzle

a small glass Pedro Ximenez sherry

vegetable oil for frying

Heat the water and butter in a saucepan over low heat until the butter melts.

Tip in the flour and salt and beat well with a wooden spoon until the mixture comes away from the pan edges.

Cool for 5 minutes, then whisk in the eggs one at a time, using electric beaters or a balloon whisk, until you have a smooth batter.

Spoon into a piping bag fitted with a 1 cm star nozzle.

Heat vegetable oil in a large heavy-based pan to a depth of 7 cm until it reaches 180c on a sugar thermometer (or until a small amount of the dough sizzles as soon as it is dropped into the oil).

Carefully pipe 15 cm lengths of the dough straight into the oil, using a knife to cut the dough. Fry 3 at a time for 2-3 minutes until crisp and golden, turning half way through using metal tongs. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen towel.

Combine the sugar and cinnamon on a plate and roll the doughnuts in the mixture until coated.

Meanwhile, heat the chocolate and cream together in a small pan over a low heat until the chocolate melts. Remove from the heat and stir until smooth, then add the sherry.

Arrange the churros on a platter and serve with the chocolate and Pedro Ximenez sauce for dipping.