Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Champagne Tea, Waddesdon Manor, Bucks

Waddesdon Manor is a imposing, Renaissance-style house, based on a loire-style château, in North Bucks. Built in the late 19th century for the Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild to entertain guests and display his vast collection of art treasures, it has now been bequeathed to the National Trust and is the second most visited Trust property charging an entrance fee.

Although the Manor, with its vast collections of art, furniture silver, sculptures and ceramics, is well worth a visit, we were here on a bright and frosty December day for the Christmas food fair, held down in the grounds of Waddesdon Plant Centre, followed by afternoon tea. 

After stocking up on British cheese, game pies and wine down at the food fair we enjoyed an alfresco 'light' lunch of a duck burger with BBQ plum sauce, and an organic lamb and wild rosemary burger with mint jelly. Despite the ample amount we had already seem to have consumed a stroll through the stables and grounds and up to the Manor House soon whetted our appetites for the main event.

Although the Buckinghamshire porter cake with Oxfordshire blue cheese caught my eye we were both swayed by the Champagne tea, with its array of seasonal sandwiches, scones and cakes and a glass of festive fizz. For the virtuous amongst us, or those with allergies or intolerance, they even offer an 'amazing cake' that is fat, sugar and egg-free.

We were offered a choice of teas and a glass of either Waddesdon's own label champagne or rose.  As was Christmas who could resist a glass of, very nice, pink bubbles. The teas, from Jeeves and Jericho in Oxford, came in little iron tea pots and I enjoyed my 'light and elegant' darjeeling first flush while the Ewing went for the good old Earl Grey, made with Estonian cornflowers no less, taken with plenty of milk and sugar.

The open faced sandwiches came out first; a selection of smoked salmon and prawn mayo on dark rye, and brie and cranberry and egg mayo on crusty white. The salmon was fine, but the prawn was delicious; the prawns were big and sweet and the sauce rich and tangy. The brie was nice, but the cranberry sauce was on the sharp side, even for someone who loves sour things as I do, and it overwhelmed the soft lettuce and creamy cheese slightly. As I don't like eggs the Ewing got double bubble on the egg mayo (despite not proffering one of her sarnies to me as a swap). She reported it as 'lovely, the second best sandwich on the plate'.

The cake stand from top to bottom: Panna cotta with mulled poached pear; chocolate roulade with chantilly cream; mini mince pie; freshly baked scone; strawberry jam and clotted cream.

The scone with jam and cream.  Simple and lovely, the only criticism being it was served cold, meaning you miss out on that little puff of warm cake-scented steam as you break it open.

Their was a great festive twist to the panna cotta, the rich vanilla set custard, with just the right amount of wobble had been topped with slices of pear that had been poached in mulled wine.  The chocolate roulade was properly decadent, a centre of rich cream surrounded by dense chocolate sponge and covered in a chocolate carapace dusted with white chocolate shavings.

The final hurdle was the mini mince pie drenched in icing sugar.  I must admit I was struggling by this point, but, although the pastry was a little on the thick side, this was too tasty to pass up and I happily washed it down with the last dregs of tea and fizz. 

At £40 including service this was an afternoon indulgence that seemed well worth it. A glorious, bright winter's day spent in beautiful surroundings, with some lovely grub and a giant Christmas tree to boot! Quite the civilised festive treat.

Friday, 23 December 2011


Part three of the thrilling rice pudding collection, and what could be more timely than the Danish seasonal special risalamande? Ususually served on Christmas Eve, this version of rice pud is very rich and creamy with a pleasing hint of Christmas spice provided by the cinnamon and vanilla.

Traditionally there would be an almond hidden somewhere in the pudding. The lucky recipient would recieve a small prize, such as a chocolate or marzipan figure, on discovery (The discovery usually being concealed for as long as possible, so the rest of the guests are obliged to finish the whole dish of pudding, despite being full of festive food already).

Often accompanied by a (usually cherry) compote, I've descended to scoffing mouthfuls of the morerish stuff straight from the fridge. In fact this has been the only version of rice pud that the (normally happy to eat anything) Ewing has countenanced to eat. High praise indeed.


100g short grain rice (I used Arborio)
600ml semi-skimmed milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
200ml double/whipping cream
Large pinch of cinnamon
1 almond (optional)

To serve
Cherry compote (optional)

Place the rice and milk in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add sugar and vanilla and stir.
Simmer, uncovered, stirring regularly until rice is tender (20-25 minutes). Allow to cool.
Add cinnamon to cream and whip until it forms soft peaks. Gently fold cooled rice into cream mixture, add almond if using, and chill throughly.
Serve dusted with extra cinnamon.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Chocolate Dipped Candied Grapefruit with Pink Salt

When I was growing up my Nan always had a Tupperware box filled with home made candied orange peels, often dipped in dark chocolate, somewhere at the back of her cupboard. As a treat we would sometimes be allowed a few to snack on, and although the bitter, rich flavours were slightly overwhelming there was something rather exotic and grown-up about nibbling them.

As I got older the box of peels stopped being made, and I would always pass up the (usually expensive) orangettes when choosing chocolates for something containing nuts or alcohol. It was only last year, when the Ewing candied a whole heap of left over orange skins after some Christmas baking, that I realised how good they could taste, and why they often cost so much.

Although not difficult to make, the procedure is pretty time consuming involving several different steps. You need to give yourself the best part of a week from start to finish, which gives you just enough time if you want to make some as Christmas gifts this year.

Orange peels are the most traditional, but on seeing some pink grapefruit on offer while shopping, I decided to try something slightly different. After spending a Sunday morning diligently removing as much pith as I could from the pile of grapefruit peels, the Ewing came downstairs and announced that the pith should be left on as it soften and sweetens during the candying process and helps the peel hold together. No matter, both the 'peeled' peels, and the one with the pith left on, worked equally well.

After the blanching, boiling, candying and drying processes were complete I decided to half dip some of them in a mixture of milk and dark chocolate, and then finished with a sprinkle of pink Murray River salt flakes (obviously you could substitute any salt flakes, I just had some left from a trip to Australia, and it continued the 'pink' theme). As well as being the trendy thing to mix with chocolate the salt also reduces the bitterness in the grapefruit peel (as seen by some cultures adding salt to their coffee or Heston's tonic trick).

So, a bit of a labour of love, but well worth the effort. The final candied peel is zesty and sweet with a pleasing bitter finish and an added dimension from the chocolate, which pairs very well with citrus flavours. As an added bonus I chopped up the smaller pieces to use as mixed peel in fruit cakes and biscotti, far nicer than the tasteless, tough, dried lumps you buy in most supermarkets. The Ewing even managed to salvage a jar of the left over, thickened boiling syrup, full of little pieces of grapefruit flesh and zest, to use as a marmalade.

Chocolate Dipped Candied Grapefruit

8-10 pink grapefruit,
1kg sugar

150g milk chocolate
150g dark chocolate
Sea salt flakes or caster sugar to finish

Scrub and peel the grapefruit, leaving the pith on, and cut peel into strips.
Place the peel in a large pan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil.  Drain and repeat process twice more. This helps to remove some bitterness from the peels.
Cover the peel with two litres of cold water and bring to the boil again. This time simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes, or until the peels ate soft and translucent.
Add the sugar, stir until it's dissolved and simmer again, covered, for another 45 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to stand for 24 hours.
Remove the lid and bring the pan to the boil again, boiling for about 30 minutes, or until most the liquid had evaporated and the peel is covered with a thick, bubbling syrup (be careful it doesn't burn).
Cool and then place sticks of peel on a wire rack and leave somewhere warm (by a radiator or in the airing cupboard) until dry (about 48 hours).

Melt chocolate in microwave or in a double boiler and then half dip the grapefruit sticks in the melted chocolate. Place on greaseproof paper, top with a sprinkle of sea salt flakes and leave until set.

Alternatively roll the peel in caster sugar and use in baking.

This will make quite a few sticks. Halve the recipe if you want, although they keep very well for a few months undipped, and a few weeks when dipped.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Brooke Burger, Pink & Lily, Lacey Green, Bucks

The Ewing and I have recently been engaged in some rural burger-sleuthing for the lovely @burgerac.  Read about our exploits trying the Brooke burger at the Pink and Lily pub in Lacey Green over at  Midsomer Burgers.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Feeling festive at Spuntino, Soho

I realise the world needs another Spuntino blog like Augustus Gloop needed a drink from Willy Wonka's chocolate river, but having recently enjoyed a long, late lunch at Russell Norman's take on a lower east side American diner with my dear friend, Beth, I feel compelled to write about the experience. Not so much to focus on the food, but for the feeling I got while dining here on a frosty December afternoon; a feeling that the Danes would probably call hygge, or the Dutch gezellig.

Although these words are often seen as untranslatable - the closest equivalent we have in English would probably be 'cosiness' -  the concept is probably best described as a feeling of togetherness, shared with close friends and family and often involving food and drink. Although the idea is often associated with Christmas and cold weather I have experienced similar moments both sipping dark beer in a brown bar in Amsterdam the week before Christmas and while singing around a bonfire on Midsummer's Eve in Copenhagen.

To be 'effortlessly' cool actually often takes a lot of pre-planning, and on our visit everything just seemed work; from the hipsters in their Christmas jumpers perched around the u-shaped zinc bar to the grungy decor featuring distressed wall tiles, chipped enamel crockery and low-wattage lighting the place seem to generate a happy buzz. The joint was full on a a late Monday afternoon (it is tiny), but fortunately a spot opened up on the only table, tucked away in the back corner of the restaurant, and we settled down for our feast.

Some of this feeling of seasonal goodwill can probably be attributed to the, small but perfectly formed,  negronis I was drinking; the perfect balance between gin, red vermouth and Campari garnished with a little festive orange wedge. Negronis are great at any time of year, but I particularly associate the wonderful bitterness of Campari with Christmas after a plum gin-induced holiday hangover that was conquered with the magic powers of Campari and soda.

There was, I'm pretty sure, a little enamel mug of complimentary warm, paprika-spiked popcorn to accompany our drinks.  But Beth made short work of it before I could grab a snap.

We tried a couple of fried snacks to start (the menu is mostly comprised of  little 'sharing' plates and nibbles); aubergine, sorry, 'eggplant', fries and stuffed olives. The aubergine was lovely and crisp, the fennel yogurt on the side married the pleasant 'mustiness' of cumin spice with a bright lactic tang.  The olives, stuffed with anchovy and breadcrumbed, were nice although I preferred them as they cooled and the tangy, fishy, briny flavours intensified.

Fennel, radicchio, and hazlenuts with truffle vinigarette. Sweet-toothed Beth shunned this dish, citing it as 'too bitter', a shame since it was easily the largest plate we ordered and I could have done with the help. Although I enjoyed the crisp fennel and crunch of the hazlenuts, finished with a big hint of truffle oil, there is only so much slaw you can reasonably get through without starting to feel like it's all to much work.

A bite of Beth's pulled pork and apple slider.  I was very surprised, and very thankful, that I actually got to sample any of this. Totalling a little more than a few mouthfuls this was a beautiful balance of rich pig and crisp fruit on a bun that was robust enough for the challenge.

Beth's clam chowder, again she was kind enough to share a couple of molluscs with me and I really enjoyed the sweet clams and creamy liquor. Although a sodium chloride lover, Beth did comment that this was on the edge of over-salted, even for her.

My cheeseburger with ultra crunchy shoestring fries. Again this was small, but perfectly formed, beef patty, glazed with cheese and served with red onion rings and pickle spears on the side. Normally I'm not so much of a fan of the DIY burger approach, but I enjoyed alternating between bites of burger and pickles. The patty was not particularly pink in the middle, but it was full of juice, as clearly demonstrated by the geezer of orange burger grease that spurted theatrically everywhere upon my first bite.

As the pale winter light faded and the sparkling lights of London started to spring up outside we had just enough room to share some pud before wrapping up to brave the crowds on Reagent's Street. The PB&J sandwich was masterful desert; strawberry jam oozing from between layers of creamy peanut parfait, topped with a generous handful of crushed nuts. The licorice ice cream with pineapple seemed like an intriguing choice too, and reason for a return visit in less inclement weather.

In a perfect world casual little hole-in-the-walls like Spuntino - where you can pop in for a quick snack, cocktail or full blown feast - would exist on every street corner.  But for now this remains a hip Soho gem, and the perfect afternoon spot for reclaiming that fuzzy feeling inside.

The lovely Beth

Spuntino on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Cauliflower, Chickpea and Coconut Curry

With its creamy, tight curds, and bright green leaves the cauliflower is a beautiful vegetable that can be both completely splendid or absolutely awful. When it's blanketed in a mustardy cheese sauce, or roasted with a little chilli, to bring out the nutty flavour as the Italians do, there is little to rival it.  Too often though it can be bland, waterlogged, overcooked and sulphurous smelling, sad little beige lumps, sitting unloved on the edge of the dinner plate.

Recently we've seen a cauliflower Renaissance; first Yottam Ottolengi featured it as one of his 'key ingredients' on Radio Four, and then the Hairy Bikers dedicated a whole programme (and chapter of the first book) to it for the Great British Food Revival.  Although now available all year round the brassicas are at their peak during colder months, and one of my favourite ways too cook a cauli is in an Indian style, often with other vegetables and pulses, especially chickpeas and lentils.

When I first moved out of home, and in with my veggie boyfriend at the time, veg curries became a staple. It took me a while (and several pots of spicy, brown sludge) to realise tha,t unlike most meat and poultry based curries, vegetables do not need to be simmered for hours on end.  In fact the key to cooking cauli in curries is to briefly steam and then add to the sauce to finish off cooking, making sure it still  retains some 'bite'.

Cauliflower, Chick Pea and Coconut Curry

1 large cauliflower 
2 tins of tomatoes
2 tins of chick peas, drained
1/2 tin coconut milk (or 50g creamed coconut dissolved in a splash of hot water)
1 large onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
nugget of fresh ginger, grated
2 tbsp Medium Curry Powder
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
salt and pepper

to serve
Small bunch fresh coriander
Natural yogurt
Lemon Wedges
Naan/roti bread

Cut the Cauliflower into florets and boil or steam for 5 minutes. 
Add the Onions to a casserole, and soften in vegetable oil until starting to brown.  Add ginger, garlic and spices and continue cooking for another few minutes until mixture is fragrant and golden.
Add the tomatoes, chickpeas and coconut milk and season well.
Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook for 20 minutes.
Add cauliflower and simmer for another five minutes,or until cauliflower is just cooked.
Sprinkle with fresh coriander and serve with yogurt, lemon and steamed rice or Indian bread.

Although it's a great showcase for the cauli, you can substitute pretty much any other veg you've got in the fridge.  And like most curries it tastes even better over the next few days, especially when accompanied by a couple of tandori naan or roti from the local takeaway and a cold lager or two.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Rice Pudding

How much debate can a handful of starch and a splash of dairy generate? Judging by the comments on Felicity Cloake's recent article about porridge on the Guardian website (250+ and still counting),  quite a few.

As I've mentioned in previous posts the simplest dishes often seem the most highly disputed.  Often if I'm writing about, say, an pasta dish, dim sum or tapas I will take some time to learn about its history, regional variations and any 'controversial' additions or omissions to keep things (reasonably) authentic. (Ketchup on your hot dog or Parmesan on a prawn risotto may get you a few funny looks in certain parts of the world.) But a traditional baked English rice pudding, despite it's many permutations, it's far easier to write about; quite simply I know what I like.

Leaving behind the horrors of school dinner slurry, rice pudding has become quite the trendy desert again.  While it's great to see it making a comeback, many of the versions I have eaten recently have been too 'fancy' for my unusually Puritan pudding tastes. Even some of the tradition recipes seem rather lavish; The rice pud Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham write about in the fabulously retro Prawn Cocktail Years is made with cream and whole milk, while Eliza Acton's traditional recipe, followed by Delia Smith no less, also sees the addition of egg yolks and butter.  All very delicious, but the richness of the dairy, plus the custardy texture provided by the eggs, is not the rice pudding of my childhood memories.

For me rice pudding would be a Sunday treat, made in a casserole dish that was a wedding present to my parents, and placed in a low oven to gently cook while the roast meat was resting. Just pudding rice, caster sugar, semi skimmed milk and a grating of nutmeg.  Comfortingly bland, sweet and  milky, a mixture of tender rice, blistered skin and a splash of cold milk to serve. As no one else in my family was too keen on it I usually got to scoff most of it myself, and somehow it managed to taste even better cold on a Monday.

Now I'm an adult I still love a bowl of simple rice pud on a Sunday, but the real change to my pudding eating habits is is something I never really enjoyed as a child: a big blob of jam dolloped in the middle. Strawberry if you've got it. And, thankfully there's no spelling homework after dinner now either!

Rice Pudding

100g pudding rice
50g caster sugar I use brown)
800ml milk (whole or semi-skimmed)
Fresh grated nutmeg
Bayleaf (optional)

To serve
Cold milk
Strawberry jam

Pre heat the oven to 150c and butter a heatproof baking dish.
Place rice sugar and milk into the dish, stir then add the bay leaf.
Grate fresh nutmeg over the suface of the pudding and place in the oven to bake for 1 1/2- 2 hours, stirring halfway through.  The top should be golden brown, and the rice should 'wobble' slightly in the middle when ready
Serve with a little extra cold milk and jam.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

B&K Salt Beef Bar, Crouch End

The Crouch End branch of the (nonkosher) B&K Salt Beef Bar is located on a rather nondescript part of the Uxbridge Road, about two miles from the first house I ever lived in. Although I've grown up and moved away, my Grandad still lives just down the road in Pinner, and it's nice to drive back over for a weekend jaunt, especially if it involves some good grub.

The last Sunday we spent in this neck of the woods the Ewing and I eschewed the usual roast for a very nice Sri Lankan meal in Wealdstone. Despite being stuffed with spicy food and Lion lager I insisted on stopping off at the B&K Salt beef Bar for takeaway sandwiches to keep us going later.

The place is split into two areas; two seating areas on either side and a takeaway counter at the back. When we arrived at, at about half two, the place was full of older couples sitting down to liver, latkes and turkey, with a stream of younger customers coming in for food to go.

The salt beef on rye with mustard and a pickle. Although this picture shows the deep layers of hand carved brisket, generously stuffed between the caraway-studded bread, it doesn't show the juicy wonder of the meat. Even when enjoyed cold, the beef was well marbled with fat that kept it moist and tender. Costing a mere four quid, plus a pound for the pickle, this was a fiver very well spent.

Daniel Young, of Young&Foodish, currently rates the original Edgware branch of B&K as the best salt beef sandwich in London. He also points out that this is one of the only places that still brine their own briskets, and I assume it the case here too.

The latkes; barely a day has gone by without thinking about these pillows of potatoey goodness. They are, without doubt, in the top 10 things I have put in my mouth this year. I can't actually express in words how monumental these were (even eaten cold the next morning), so you'll just have to go and try them for yourselves.

The lokshen pudding, a Jewish grandmother classic made with with fruit juice, raisins and noodles.  This was my first lokshen experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Although quite unlike anything I've eaten before, it managed to be a surprisingly moreish combination between creamy and fruity.

The apple strudel: I rate all apple strudel's against my mum's version, made for her legendary 80's dinner parties, and while this couldn't quite live up to those high standards it was still pretty good. The pastry was a nice balance of crispy and squidgy, the apples sharp and tangy and the whole thing was spiced nicely with cinnamon.

Service was very friendly; the two young guys behind the counter were full of banter, despite being pretty busy, and there is there is a welcoming, lively feeling about the place that makes you want to linger. If you want to stay and soak up the atmosphere then plates of food, including roast meats with mash and chopped liver and egg salad are available.  Next time I've got my eye on some of the tongue, with a mountain of latkes on the side. With a slice of the baked cheesecake for pudding if there's room.

And as well as feshly made sandwiches, meats (including tongue, turkey and roast beef) and salads are available to takeaway by the pound. The B&K also sells loaves of rye, meaning you can buy both your meat and bread together, for DIY sandwiches through the week.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Stir up Sunday - Chocolate Orange Fruit Cake

Stir up Sunday is traditionally the last Sunday in Advent, where families would come home from church and make their plum puddings and mincemeat in time for Christmas. Now days things are a little different. Instead of church most of us seem to spend our Sunday mornings recovering from the night before, while watching repeats of Match of the Day and X Factor; and instead of stirring up our puddings, over 90% of us will now buy a ready made version from the supermarket.

I experienced a Christmas pudding disaster a few years ago when my, slightly worse for wear, mum placed the (shop bought) pud in the steamer, and then promptly forgot about it.  We were alerted to the impending disaster by the acrid smell of burning plastic, and rushed out to find the steamer boiled dry, with the dried out and burnt pudding welded to the bottom. As I love a good old Xmas pud, flamed with brandy and served with gallons of custard this, was right up there (along with not getting the deluxe version of Castle Greyskull), as one of Christmas day's darker moments.

We're off to Wiltshire for Christmas this year, so instead of lugging my own pudding supplies with me I decided to make a Christmas cake that could be fed with booze and munched on through out the coming weeks. To be entirely accurate the Ewing made the cake while I made (un)helpful suggestions and generally got in the way. From a Nigella recipe that blends a boiled fruit cake with a little twist, the flavour combinations are not too outré for the traditionalists, and it's perfect if you don't want thick layers of Polyfila-like icing to peel off every mouthful.

I first made this cake three years ago, the first Christmas cake I had baked, so I can attest to its simplicity. At the time the Ewing was studying for exams, meaning I was in sole charge of the Christmas cooking. Although I stuck (mostly) to the recipe, in the end I had to shut the kitchen door to prevent her noticing that I was tipping honey in straight from the jar and 'estimating' how much booze to use.  The fact that it was a success shows how hard it is to really mess up cakes like this. The biggest problem seemed to come from the cooking times, it seemed to take at least half an hour longer than specified on both occasions. That, and the fact that when the Ewing double lined the tin the extra layer of brown paper ended up touching the oven roof, setting alight and setting off the fire alarm.  Luckily the cake was too dark to notice any scorched bits, and a little ash never hurt anyone...

Chocolate Fruit Cake
350g dried soft prunes chopped
250g raisins
125g currants
175g unsalted butter, softened
175g dark muscovado sugar
175ml honey
125ml coffee liqueur
2 oranges, zested and juiced
1 teaspoon mixed spice
2 tablespoons good quality cocoa
3 free-range eggs, beaten
150g plain flour
75g ground almonds
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

-Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F (150 degrees C).
-Line the sides and bottom of an 8 by 3 1/2-inch deep, round loose-bottomed cake tin with a layer of  baking parchment. When lining the tin with the parchment, cut the material into a strip twice as high as the tin itself; the height of the strips protects the cake from catching on the outside of the tin.
-Place the fruit, butter, sugar, honey, coffee liqueur, orange zest and juice, mixed spice and cocoa into a large wide saucepan. Heat the mixture until it reaches a gentle boil, stirring the mixture as the butter melts. Let the mixture simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and leave to stand for 30 minutes.
-After 30 minutes, the mixture will have cooled a little. Add the eggs, flour, ground almonds, baking powder and baking soda, and mix well with a wooden spoon or spatula until the ingredients have combined.
-Carefully pour the fruitcake mixture into the lined cake tin. Transfer the cake tin to the oven and bake for 1 3/4 to 2 hours, or until the top of the cake is firm but will has a shiny and sticky look. At this point, if you insert a sharp knife into the middle of the cake, the cake should still be a little uncooked in the middle
-Place the cake on a cooling rack. Once the cake has cooled, remove it from the tin.

Nigella decorates this with chocolate covered coffee beans and gold stars and glitter. This might be a step to far with the Christmas kitsch, even for me. I've just gone for the simple sprig of holly approach, but feel free to wheel out the Christmas decorations. You could traditionally ice it if the fancy takes you.

Because this cake is it's extra moist and sticky, it probably won't keep quite as long as a traditional fruit cake (not usually a problem in our house...). Kept well wrapped in an airtight tin it should still be fine for at least 2/3 weeks. It freezes pretty well too.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


Baked pasta dishes are perfect as the weather turns colder and the nights draw in. They are also a cinch to make, and very versatile too; from the good old student standards of tuna or sausages to ragu, chicken, spicy pork, veg and even leftover chili or stew. Just mix through some cooked pasta, top with breadcrumbs and/or cheese and stick it in the oven until golden and bubbling.

When I've got a little more time to spend in the kitchen (and can face the extra pans to wash up) nothing can beat a bake with a thick layer of creamy bechamel laying on toplike a big edible duvet. This version is the Greek twist on the Italian classic pasticcio di pasta, or lasagne al forno. As well as using hollow noodles, or bucatini, instead of flat sheets of pasta (making for an impressive looking cut through in the finished dish), the dish shows its Hellinic influence with the use of cinnamon and nutmeg to spice the ragu, and a good amount of Greek oregano.  Ground lamb can also be used instead of beef. 

Although it may take a few pots and pans, and a little bit of stirring, it's a very simple dish that's well worth the effort.  Perfect for entertaining big crowds or lazy winter nights in front of the telly. It's also a good idea to make more than needed, any leftovers will reheat very well, and it seems to taste even better over the next few days.

Meat sauce
500g minced beef or lamb
Olive oil
2 medium onions finely chopped
2 clove of garlic finely chopped
1 tin of tomatoes
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
1 tsp oregano
Grating of nutmeg

Bechamel sauce
50g butter
50g flour
500ml milk
125g ricotta (optional)
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
400g long macaroni/bucatini
Olive oil
100g Kefalotiri or Pecorino cheese, grated

Fry the mince in a casserole until browned, drain and set aside.
Add a little oil to the casserole and gently cook the onions and garlic until soft.  Add the tomatoes, cinnamon, oregano, salt, pepper, browned meat and half a cup of water.  Cover the pot and simmer gently for about an hour an a half.
Meanwhile make the bechamel sauce.  Make a roux by melting the butter in a pan, adding the flour and gently cooking out for a few minutes. Slowly add the milk, whisking thoroughly to prevent lumps and stir until thickened.  Add nutmeg, salt, pepper and ricotta, if using.  Set aside.
When the meat sauce is nearly ready preheat the oven to 180c and cook the pasta until just al dente.
Drain and add a little olive oil to stop it sticking.
Layer an ovenproof dish with a layer of pasta, followed by a layer of ragu and then another layer of pasta.  Finish with the becahamel sauce, the grated cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.
Bake in the preheated oven for 20-30 minutes until the top is crispy and golden and it is hot throughout.
Serve with a green salad and crusty bread.
It can also be made in advance, up to the final browning and reheating, and kept refrigerated for a couple of days until needed.  Heat in the oven for a little longer, (45-60 mins) and check the middle is piping hot before serving.