There is a glow from the oven door. The reassuring golden light that tells us someone has been cooking for us. The light that, however briefly, puts everything right.
More than ever before I want to open the oven door and find my old crock pot full to the brim with beans and spices baking sweetly, or a copper pan of fat-marbled meat braising on its bones. I need to come home to a veritable cauldron of soup thick with grains or pasta, or preferably both.
I cherish these cold days. Not merely the early morning snap of frost (all too rare in the city), but the intense cold that descends in the evenings, the sort that comes with a clear, star-speckled night sky, or with piercing needles of winter rain. I welcome the cold not just for the excuse it provides to light the fire, to dig out my much-loved old jumper (or what’s left of it now the moths have had their fill), but because of the food. The thick oatmeal porridge that protects us from the morning chill; the earthenware bowl of lentil soup that welcomes us home; and, of course, the licence it gives us to tuck into a hot pudding. By which I mean something with sugar and butter or custard and cream.
The festival of denial that reigns from New Year to early spring seems, at least to me, to come at the wrong time. Those who engage with it couldn’t pick a more inappropriate season to eschew their carbs and fat. Just as nature tells us to warm our bones with broth and pudding, we get the bloody spiraliser out. Go figure.
Well, not me. There is plenty of time to celebrate lighter eating, and it isn’t while there is a chill in the air. For the next few weeks, that old crock pot will get its beans, the cast-iron casserole will wallow in stock and bones, and I will get my sticky pudding. For the time being at least, my oven will glow.
Baked spiced lentils with sweet potato
split yellow lentils 250g
ground turmeric 1 tsp
vegetable stock 750ml
sweet potatoes 750g
olive oil 2 tbsp
garlic 2 cloves
cumin seeds ½ tsp
green cardamom pods 10
chilli flakes ½ tsp
curry leaves 12
ground cayenne 1½ tsp
chopped tomatoes 1 x 400g tin
butter or oil a little for baking
Wash the lentils in cold water, until the water is no longer milky. Tip them into a medium-sized saucepan with the turmeric and stock, and bring to the boil. Lower the heat, partially cover with a lid and simmer for 10 minutes, until most of the stock has been absorbed and the lentils are almost tender.
Peel the sweet potatoes and cut them into slices about ½cm in thickness. Put them in a steamer basket or colander over a pan of boiling water, covered by a lid. Steam for about 7-8 minutes until soft to the point of a knife. Remove the pan from the heat.
Peel and roughly chop the onion. Warm the oil in a deep pan over a moderate heat, add the onion and cook until it is soft and pale gold – a matter of 20 minutes. Peel and grate the ginger. Peel and finely slice the garlic, then stir into the onion with the ginger and cumin seeds. Continue cooking for 2-3 minutes. Crack open the cardamom pods, extract the seeds, grind to a coarse powder then stir into the onion together with the chilli flakes, curry leaves and cayenne. Add pepper and ½ tsp of salt, stirring for a minute or two. Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6.
Crush the tomatoes and stir in to the lentils over a moderate heat, then mix in the onion and remove from the heat.
Carefully lift the sweet potatoes from the steamer with a palette knife. Using a baking dish approximately 24cm in diameter, place half the lentil mixture in the base then add half the sweet potatoes, followed by a second layer of lentils and then the remaining sweet potatoes. Brush with butter or oil. Bake for 30-40 minutes until bubbling around the edges and lightly browned on top.
Apple and ginger cake custard
sweet apples 350g
plain ginger cake 350g, shop bought
demerara sugar a little
For the custard:
double cream 500ml
full cream milk 125ml
golden caster sugar 50g
ground cinnamon a pinch
nutmeg for grating
You will also need a baking dish approximately 22-24cm in diameter
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Quarter the apples, remove their stalks and cores, then slice each quarter into three. Melt the butter in a shallow pan over a moderate heat, then add the apples and let them cook for 8-10 minutes until they start to soften, turning them over carefully with a palette knife.
Make the custard: break the eggs into a mixing bowl and beat with a whisk. Pour in the cream and milk, add the sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg and combine thoroughly then pour into a baking dish. Crumble the ginger cake into large lumps and scatter over the custard. Add the apple slices then sprinkle with demerara sugar. Bake for 35-40 minutes until the custard is lightly set – it should wobble a little as you shake the dish. Leave to settle for 15 minutes. Serve warm, though I should add it is good thoroughly chilled too.