My favourite things

Mark Hix chooses mouthwatering recipes from the cook books that have made his year
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Indy Lifestyle Online

My addiction to old cook books was getting out of hand. So one of the selling points of our new house, apart from the large kitchen complete with the Viking cooker, was the opportunity to convert an existing workshop next to the kitchen into a library. The habit began when I first bought a handbook of gastronomy by Brillat Savarin from 1840 and a first edition Savoy cocktail book. I was straight on to the serious stuff and from there on my collection has grown to what must be a couple of thousand books. I just can't resist scoring something unique and irreplaceable.

It's not just old books that accumulate on the shelves. Publishers send new ones, and I also buy intriguing-looking volumes with interesting titles. The past year has been no exception and my shelves are looking worryingly full even though we unpacked the books only a few months ago. Coincidentally - or is it? - several of the books that have caught my eye this year were photographed by Jason Lowe, whose pictures adorn these pages. But then who can resist a cookery book called Roast Figs and Sugar Snow, or Lobster and Chips - both titles that certainly get the taste buds going.

Then there's Roast Chicken and Other Stories, another mouthwatering title, by Simon Hopkinson, my predecessor on this column. First published in 1994, this book shot into the bestseller list last year after being voted the most useful cook book by Waitrose Food Illustrated magazine. This prompted Simon to come out of his writing retirement, thank God, as he was sadly missed, and a reprint of the book appeared. Next year, the follow-up book, Roast Chicken and Other Stories: Second Helpings, is published in paperback, five years after it first came out, and no doubt thanks to the renewed interest in the first volume.

Antonio Carluccio's Italia, with photography by a neighbour of mine, Alastair Hendy, is another that has found a place on my shelf, sitting comfortably among the other important titles and authors from the 1800s to the current day. Before long I'll have to extend the bookshelves - or build an extension.

Harry's Bar's custard pancakes

Serves 4

This comes from Simon Hopkinson's Roast Chicken and Other Stories: Second Helpings (Ebury, £12). It's as good as the first volume which got all the attention this year, and should enjoy more time in the limelight when a paperback reprint comes out next March. This is a favourite greedy afternoon treat of Simon's between long lunches and a late dinner, and he confesses that he managed to eat them twice in the space of 24 hours at his favourite Harry's Bar in Venice.

for the batter

100g plain flour
A pinch of salt
1 egg
1 egg yolk
Finely grated rind of half an orange
50g butter, melted

for the custard cream

400ml milk
100g caster sugar
2 pieces of pithless lemon zest
3 large egg yolks
40g plain flour
1tsp pure vanilla extract

to serve

A little extra caster sugar
100ml Cointreau

First make the pancake batter. Simply put all the ingredients into a liquidiser and blend well. Pour through a sieve into a jug and allow to stand for at least half an hour. Take a 15cm frying pan, melt a small amount of butter in the pan, and allow to become hot and sizzling. Pour in enough batter just to cover the base of the pan. The first pancake is often a bit of a mess; if so, chuck it out and start afresh. This is good for "seasoning" the pan anyway.

You should not need to use too much extra butter in the pan as you cook the pancakes, just a trace now and again as the pan becomes dry (the melted butter in the mix usually adds sufficient lubrication). Try to make the pancakes as thin as you dare, flipping them over in the usual way with a palette knife, and then lay out on a dry tea towel as each one is cooked. The yield should be about 12 pancakes. Wrap in foil while you make the custard cream.

Put the milk, 40g of the sugar and the lemon zest into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for several minutes. Discard the lemon zest. In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the remaining sugar. Whisk in the flour a little at a time until the mixture is smooth. Continuing to whisk, incorporate the milk in a steady stream until well blended. Pour back into the pan and cook very gently, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, over a low heat, until the mixture is very thick and there is the occasional boiling blip. Allow to "cook out" for a few more minutes, still stirring and, if possible, using one of those heat-diffuser pads. Stir in the vanilla. Allow to cool before filling the pancakes.

Pre-heat the oven to 230C/gas mark 8. A rounded tablespoon of the custard is spooned on to the middle of the open pancake (have the better-looking side of the pancake underneath so that it shows at its best when arranged in the baking dish) folded over in half and then with more care, folded over once more into the shape of an open fan; or prosaically, a quarter circle. These are then laid in the lightly buttered oval dish, delicately sprinkled with caster sugar and popped into the oven for about 5-10 minutes. The sugar becomes crunchy on the surface, the custard warms through and the very thinnest edge of the pancake burns a little. This is how they arrive at the table in Harry's. But then the finishing touch that makes them really come alive is the dousing in Cointreau. Do this while the dish is still hot from the oven and then light with a match. Tilt and swirl the dish so that the alcohol mingles with the butter and sugar and forms a sauce of sorts. The flames will eventually subside.

Braised cuttlefish and potatoes

Serves 4

Lobster and Chips (Absolute Press, £12.95) is Trish Hilferty's first book, and it's chocka with great simple fish dishes from around the world. Trish is chef of The Fox in Shoreditch, which is one of my local gastropubs. As a term for pubs that serve grub it's wearing a bit thin, but when the term was first coined for The Eagle in f Clerkenwell, where Trish used to work, it seemed appropriate. Then again, Franco Taruschio ran the legendary Walnut Tree Inn near Abergavenny as a gastropub for 30-odd years before the phrase was invented. Trish cleverly slips a potato of some kind into every recipe and the inspiration for the book was, as the title says, lobster and chips, which is also one of my favourite dishes and a popular menu item at The Ivy and our Rivington Bar & Grill.

1kg cuttlefish, cleaned and washed
130ml extra virgin olive oil
100ml dry white wine
50ml Pernod
2 small fennel bulbs, finely sliced
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
500g waxy new potatoes, peeled and cut into 2cm chunks
4 tomatoes, skinned and chopped
A 12cm long red chilli, split open down the middle
Pinch of saffron threads
Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves roughly picked
1 red onion, finely sliced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cut the cuttlefish body into rough 2cm squares and the tentacles into similarly sized pieces.

Pre-heat the oven to 160C/gas mark 3. Place the cuttlefish and tentacles in a casserole with 100ml of the oil, plus the white wine and Pernod. Massage the liquid into the cuttlefish, then add the fennel, garlic, potatoes and tomatoes. Put the casserole over a medium heat, bring slowly to the boil, then add the chilli and saffron. Season with salt and pepper, cover tightly and place in the oven. Cook for 1 hour, or until the cuttlefish is soft enough to cut with a spoon and the potatoes are on the verge of collapse.

Mix together the parsley and red onion and dress with the lemon juice and the remaining oil. To serve, ladle the cuttlefish into warmed bowls and top with the parsley and onion salad.

Polenta alla spianatora (polenta on the table)

Serves 6-8

Steaming polenta is poured on to the middle of the spianatora (special round wooden table), a ragu goes into the middle and everyone tucks in. This comes from Antonio Carluccio's Italia (Quadrille, £15) which covers the regions of Italy. You will find this custom in Marche, Basilicata and in the north of Italy, where the polenta is typically eaten with a stew rather than a ragu. Antonio told me that the table on which the polenta is photographed in the book is a treasured possession that's signed by his friend the artist Eduardo Paolozzi, who sadly died last year.

I love the idea of this dish and can't wait to serve it at a dinner or fridge-clearing party. My mates will think I've really gone nuts. I'd better invite Antonio and Priscilla Carluccio as witnesses. You may notice I've used white polenta here which is traditional at Christmas time, but ordinary or instant polenta is fine.

for the polenta

600g polenta flour (or instant polenta)
20g salt

for the ragu

1.2kg pork (not too lean)
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Salt
100ml white wine
2tbsp tomato purée
1kg mixed red and yellow peppers
2 red chillies, or more
6tbsp white wine vinegar

to serve

Freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino

First, prepare the ragu. Cut the pork into walnut-sized pieces. Heat half the olive oil in a pan and fry the meat until browned on all sides. Add the garlic and cook gently for 10-15 minutes, stirring from time to time. Season with salt to taste. Mix the white wine with the tomato purée, add to the pan and cook for a further 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, halve, core and deseed the peppers, then cut into strips. Heat the remaining olive oil in a frying pan and fry the peppers quite briskly until soft, letting only the edges caramelise. Add the chilli (as much as you can take), a little salt and the wine vinegar, and sauté for a minute or two. Add the peppers to the meat, and taste for salt and chilli. Cook for a further 30 minutes, or until the meat is tender.

Meanwhile, make the polenta. Bring 3.5 litres of water to the boil in a large pan, with the salt added. Pour in the polenta and cook, stirring, until thickened and smooth, about 30-40 minutes (or just 5-6 minutes if you've cheated and used instant polenta). Pour the polenta on to the spianatora or a large wooden board, leaving a space in the middle, then pour in the ragu. Sit everyone around, armed with a fork and a big appetite! Grate Parmesan or Pecorino as required.

Steamed apple and marmalade pudding

Serves 6

What a great name for a book: Roast Figs and Sugar Snow (Mitchell Beazley, £14). Diana Henry's collection of recipes is a must-have book for cold winter recipes. It doesn't have to be cold outside, but her book is based on her travels in New England, Quebec, Russia, Eastern Europe and the dishes really warm the cockles. This is just my kind of dessert: stodgy, heavy and old fashioned. I think we are going to see the revival of some of these lovely, old-fashioned steamed puddings this year.

150g caster sugar
150g butter, softened
3 eggs, beaten
75g self-raising flour, sifted
2 cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped into rough 2cm chunks
Pinch of salt
30g soft white breadcrumbs
Full fat milk to mix
6tbsp orange marmalade
2tbsp golded syrup
Butter for greasing the pudding bowl

Cream the sugar and butter together until fluffy. Gradually add the eggs, beating well. Using a large spoon, fold in the flour and apples, then the salt and breadcrumbs. Add enough milk to make a dropping consistency.

Put the marmalade and syrup into the bottom of a buttered pudding basin. Pour in the sponge mixture. Cover with buttered foil, pleated in the middle to allow expansion, and secure this by tying it with string round the rim of the basin. Make a secure handle by threading more string through the string tied round the rim. Put the pudding on top of a trivet in a large saucepan and pour in boiling water. (The foil shouldn't touch the water or you'll end up with a soggy pudding.) You can also cook the pudding in a large steamer.

Cover the saucepan and steam for 11/2 hours, until firm and well risen, topping up with boiling water when needed. Remove from the heat and leave to shrink a little before turning out on to a warmed serving dish.

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