The Oval Epicure is moving. Strictly speaking, TOE moved over a year ago, but the blog hasn’t caught up with my new location until now.

As of today, all the existing TOE content will (hopefully!) be moving to a new home in South East London at The Greenwich Gourmand. As well as all the fabulous recipes, side-splitting banter and general fabulousness you’ve come to expect from TOE , TGG (doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it? Oh, well) will be featuring regular updates about South East London’s burgeoning food scene. Ooooh yes. Apart from Borough Market, because it’s horrible there.

So pop in and say hello.


Low-carb moussaka

Okay, moussaka’s quite low-carb anyway (except when people put potatoes in it – what is that about, exactly? But this is quite a fun variation, using butternut squash and courgette instead of aubergine, fromage frais instead of bechamel, and with added puy lentils. No, not really moussaka then. It’s lovely though.

Serves 4 generously

2 onions, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
3 carrots, grated
4 sticks celery, chopped
200g mushrooms, sliced
500g minced lamb
500ml red wine
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1/2 tsp allspice
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp dried thyme
200g puy lentils
1/2 a butternut squash, peeled and thinly sliced
3 courgettes, thinly sliced lengthways
3 tbsp fromage frais
1tsp cornflour
1 egg
3 tbsp fat-free natural yoghurt

Saute the onion, carrot, celery, mushrooms and garlic in a large pan with a little olive oil, while you brown the mince in another pan. Once the vegetables are translucent, add the lamb, wine, tomatoes and spices. Allow the mixture to simmer and reduce a little before you add the lentils. Cook until the lentils are tender and the mixture has reduced until it’s quite dry. Meanwhile, lightly brush the courgette and butternut slices with olive oil and place under the grill until they’re turning golden brown (the thin end of the BNS makes better slices than the end with the seeds!).

Preheat the oven to 190°C. Mix the cornflour into the fromage frais until smooth, and beat the egg and yoghurt together. In an ovenproof dish, layer the meat mixture, grilled vegetables and fromage frais (I do meat, fromage frais, veg, meat, fromage frais, veg, meat), and top with the egg mixture. Bake for about 20 minutes until it’s piping hot and the topping is brown (as you can see from the pic, mine got slightly blackened but it was none the worse for that!). Serve with a salad.

Today in Greenwich Market, we bought raffle tickets from the lovely Natasha Orubie from www.nocakesrbetter.com (that’s her on the left of the first photo, with my partner and me), who had make this incredible edible head of Her Maj to raise money for Cancer Research. We only went and won the thing! There is no way that we will be able to do it justice, so we’d like to find a deserving home for the cake.

We’d be happy to consider generous offers of a donation to Cancer Research to help Natasha’s chosen cause further, or possibly give the cake away if there is a nursing home or shelter who would treat her with the reverence she deserves!

Whoever gives Liz a home would need to collect her from us in SE10 as she weighs a ton and we don’t have a car. She is currently in residence in a sturdy cardboard box.

As you can see from the photos, this is an absolute work of art – we are in awe (and a little bit scared!). The entire cake is edible – the base is fruit cake and the head is rice crispie cake covered with chocolate, although there is a cake stand supporting her through the centre and some wires in the tiara.

Please get in touch if you’d like the opportunity for an “off-with-her-head” moment at your Jubilee street party!

Up with smoke

Yesterday I had another post published on the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog – get me!

It’s about smoking. That’s food, not fags, although those in the TOE inner circle will know that I am not un-partial to the latter. I really enjoyed chatting to the proper producers of hot and cold smoked products of wonder, and also had a bash at some hot smoking in my kitchen. This really isn’t as hard as you might think.

First up was haddock. I bought a lovely piece of fish from The Fishmonger in Greenwich and a pizza screen from Nisbet’s, lined my wok with two pieces of heavy foil, and stuck some tea, basmati rice, star anise, mustard seeds and brown sugar in the bottom.

Then I placed it on a high heat until wisps of smoke began to appear, added the pizza screen with the fish arranged on it (remembering that the outside of the wok will be hotter than the middle, because that’s how convection works, innit).

Then I sealed it all up with another piece of foil, and paced the kitchen nervously for half an hour.

The mustard seeds came in handy here, because as long as I could hear them popping occasionally, I knew the heat was sufficient – if the popping slowed down, I turned it up a bit. To my amazement, at the end, I had hot-smoked haddock, and it was lovely.

Note the lovely burnished golden colour. I did, with great smugness.

Flushed with success, I decided to move on to bigger things – a piece of smoked brisket, to be precise. For this, I wanted more oomph than rice and tea would provide, so I invested in a tub of pecan chips from the rather wonderful website Cream Supplies, which sells all manner of cool stuff for your more out-there cooking experiments. (But you must not use the canisters of nitrous oxide for a quick, safe, legal high, ooooh no.) Anyway, the wood chips arrived the next day as promised, I purchased a lovely bit of brisket from Dring’s and I was good to go.

In to the trusty wok went the shavings and on went the pizza screen.

I’d rubbed the meat with a mixture of pepper, chilli powder, smoked paprika (why I am not sure – perhaps as a kind of flavour insurance policy), cumin and coriander.

Once again, I sealed up the foil, put the wok on the heat, closed the kitchen door, whacked up the extractor fan and sat down to wait.

The wok-smoking process really doesn’t generate an awful lot of smoke, but if you have a very sensitive smoke alarm it’s a good idea to disarm it, and obviously you should make sure your kitchen is well ventilated, unless you want to house to smell of barbecue for days. And if you do, far be it from me to judge.

I’d also invested in a meat thermometer to help me judge the done-ness of the meat, and I’m glad I did, although there was a blip when my never-very-reliable brain told me I needed to get it to reach an internal temperature of 160°C. It’s 160°F, of course, or around 71-77°C for a meat like brisket – proof if it were needed that all the technology in the world won’t save you if you are being a total idiot. Thankfully I realised my mistake in time, and after about five hours’ slow cooking/smoking, the brisket was done.

Alongside it, in keeping with the American barbecue theme, we had coleslaw and hush puppies, made to Jamie Oliver’s recipe – they are fab and I really recommend them.

So there you have it. If any readers fancy having a stab at this at home, let me know how you get on – it’s fun, simple and produces really cool results, which is a massive win in my book.

A lovely man who runs cold-smoking courses has been in touch inviting me to one of them – I will certainly take him up on it and let you know how I get on.

Last Christmas I had a bit of a rush of blood to the head, after realising that nice chocolates cost about a pound each. “I know!” I thought, crazed with the madness of the festive season, “I shall make my own!” So off I went to Waitrose and bought loads of dark chocolate and double cream (because that, gentle reader, is the sum total of what you need for this enterprise), and I switched on Radio 4 and made my own chocolate truffles. It was terrific fun. The first attempt seized irretrievably, and my kitchen ended up looking like it had been the setting for the Oompa Loompa Spring, but they tasted great. So I tried again this year, with more success. Next year’s will be even better, I hope. I’d make them more frequently, but at the rate we get through them I wouldn’t be able to fit through the door of Waitrose after a couple of weeks.

100g of chocolate (70% cocoa solids, natch – I have yet to attempt this with milk chocolate) and 100ml double cream gives you about 15-20 truffles, allowing for waste and picking. Allow extra chocolate for coating, if you’re going to attempt it. If you’re going to infuse the cream with anything, allow two hours for this.

Bring the cream to the boil and add flavouring. I made a batch of chilli, to which I added a pinch of dried red chilli flakes, and a batch of Earl Grey, to which I added a teabag. The flavour of the latter was v subtle – next time I will use loose leaf tea. Allow to infuse for two hours, then strain.

Process all your chocolate in the food processor until finely chopped/reduced to rubble. Divide it into bowls, allowing 100g to every 100ml of cream. (I made 150ml worth of chilli cream/150g plain chocolate; 150g of tea-infused cream/150g plain chocolate; and 150g of rum-flavoured cream, which didn’t need to be infused – I just chucked the rum in with the cream once it was hot, and mixed with 150g chocolate.)

Boil the flavoured cream again, or the unflavoured cream for the first time, and pour it over the chocolate while it’s still very hot, so the chocolate all melts and you end up with a homogeneous choclately goo. Mix well, and resist the urge to take it to bed with a spoon. Ideally at this stage you should leave the mixture for about four hours to cool at room temperature, but if you’re impatient you can stick it in the fridge, stirring it often until you have a smooth, moldable paste.

Use a teaspoon to scoop out lumps of the truffle mixture and form it into balls by rolling between your palms. Have a sinkful of hot soapy water ready, because this gets messy. Once each truffle is rolled, plonk it on to a plate with plenty of cocoa powder and roll it around a bit. Repeat and repeat and repeat until they are all done, washing your hands whenever you can no longer bear it, and chilling the chocolate if it gets too melty. It goes without saying that you should keep the batches separate if you’re planning to put different coatings on the different flavours. Once they’re all done, put them in the fridge to solidify for a couple of hours.

Make the couverture. There’s a lot of talk on the internet about the importance of tempering chocolate to give it the perfect glossy appearance and pleasing snap. Next year I might invest in a sugar thermometer and try to do this properly – for now I operated on the principle that as long as it didn’t seize it was good enough for me.

So, over a pan containing a little gently simmering water, set your chocolate to melt in a bowl. You do need to allow for a lot of waste here – 100g of chocolate covers maybe 20 truffles. I had to dash out any buy a slab of Co-op Truly Irresistable Orange Green & Black’s Maya Gold Knock-off to coat my chilli truffles, and actually it worked extremely well. Anyway, you want to get the chocolate off the heat before it’s all melted, leave it for a bit until it all has, allowing the water to cool slightly, then replace the bowl over the still warm water (off the heat) and get on with dipping.

I used two cocktail sticks, one to impale the chocolate, swoosh it about and fish it out; the other to push it on to the waiting non-stick paper-lined tray. Again, repeat until all your chocolates are done. I used plain chocolate for the tea truffles, orange as above for the chilli ones, just a dusting of cocoa for the rum ones, and dipped some marzipan left over from icing Satan’s cake into the remaining plain chocolate.

Now touch up your errors. The cocktail sticks will have left little holes in the tops of the truffles – you might want to drop a bit of extra chocolate over these to seal them. Refrigerate until the coating has set. The truffles will also have “feet” where the melted choc has spread over the baking parchment – if you are particularly anal you may want to trim this away with a paring knife, wearing latex gloves so as not to leave fingerprints on the chocolate. (Did I do this? Did I hell.)

Next, decorate your chocolates. I dusted the chilli ones with gold lustre powder, using a sponge applicator from an unused eyeshadow compact. A small paintbrush would have worked even better. My attempt to pipe white chocolate over my Earl Grey truffles was not altogether successful – they looked like the Oompa Loompas had held a post-revolution bukkake party. Oh well – lessons were learned.

From 700g of chocolate and 450ml of cream, at a cost of about a tenner, I ended up with more than 60 gorgeous chocolates. It’s a fun way to spend your Christmas kitchen pottering time, if you’re into this sort of thing, and the truffles, prettily boxed, would make fantastic presents. I’m sure I’ll get better at this with practice, so watch this space for next Christmas’s attempt. The Oompa Loompas are getting restless already…

The Christmas files

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when the food blogosphere explodes with everyone’s marvellously inventive recipes for slow-cooked belly of this and tea-smoked that. Fair play to you all – even though there will only be the boyfriend and I for Christmas dinner this year, I still find the prospect of festive cooking stupidly stressful, and rely on tried and trusted recipes (and smoked salmon. And huge amounts of fizz).

However – and this may of course be Just Me, the problem with tried and trusted recipes is that just when you need them most, you find they have gone AWOL. As part of the mission statement of this blog was to provide a useful resource for such go-to gems, I am going to stick a few of my favourites on here over the next few days, in the hope that next time I find myself googling “Satan’s cake”, I will, well, find this.

Satan’s cake

A friend of mine didn’t get on with her mother-in-law. The lady in question was, however, an ace cook, and so this recipe was named. Apparently it’s a version of Delia’s, but the useful variations are all the work of Lucifer himherself.

225g plain flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 x 5ml spoon ground mixed spice
200g butter
200g dark brown sugar
2 x 15ml spoons black treacle
½ teaspoon vanilla essence
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
800g mixed dried fruit
100g chopped mixed peel
150 g glace cherries halved
100 g blanched almonds chopped
3 tbsp brandy

Line an 8” round cake tin with non-stick baking parchment and tie a double layer of brown paper or corrugated cardboard around the outside.

Sieve together the floor, salt and mixed spice. Cream the butter, sugar, treacle and vanilla essence together until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, a little at a time, adding a tablespoon of the floor with the last amount. Fold in the remaining flour, then all the fruit and almonds. Turn into the prepared cake tin and make a slight hollow in the centre. Bake in a cool oven for 3-4 hours, testing after 3 hours by inserting a skewer into the centre; when it comes out clean the cake is cooked. Remove from oven and leave in tin until cold. Make a few holes in the top of the cake with a skewer and pour brandy over the cake while it is still warm. Wrap cake in greaseproof paper and store.

The above is the original version. Satan’s variations:

Use just a hint of salt
Use a very good quality soft margarine
I am a bit liberal with the two tablespoons of black treacle
Soak the fruit brandy for a few days and use less currants
Never use peel
Never use chopped almonds always ground
Use more brandy
Never take the cooking greaseproof wrappings off until I marzipan the cake
Tend to be heavy handed on the dried fruit

I followed most of Satan’s instructions, except I:
Used butter as per the original
Did use peel, and also dried sour cherries, cranberries and a bit of crystallised ginger
Soaked the fruit in rum
I did remove the wrapping from the cake and shrouded it in more baking parchment and foil

I also burned the crap out of the poor cake, owing to using my new oven for the first time, but thanks to the corrugated cardboard the outside was fine – I just cut off the burned top, which became the bottom of the finished cake.

To marzipan and ice the cake, I used bought stuff. Rolling out the marzipan and sticking it on the cake with the aid of warmed apricot jam is dead easy, just use plenty of icing sugar to roll. I used pre-rolled icing but rolled it a little thinner as I was worried about not having enough extra for the decorations.

American apricot stuffing
This is the traditional stuffing I always used to make at home as a child – I think I was first put on stuffing duty aged about 12, and made it every year until I moved to London when I was 28. That’s a lot of stuffing. It’s fabulous stuff – even though we’ve having beef this Christmas I plan to make some anyway, as it’s so delicious cold.

Use 6 sausages and 250g chicken liver and 1 large onion to make enough for 12 people at least, plus cold.

Finely chop one very large onion or two small, and two or three sticks of celery. Saute in plenty of butter.

In a separate pan, bring to the boil the juice of an orange and a good slug of bandy or cointreau. Add some chopped dried apricots (maybe 12?); remove from the heat and leave to cool/plump up.

Remove the onions and celery from the pan and add six good pork sausages, skinned and broken up with a fork. Fry until no longer pink. Add 250g chopped chicken or turkey liver.

In a large bowl, mix everything together. Add flaked almonds (half a packet or more if you like), tarragon, sage, S&P, fresh white breadcrumbs (lots – maybe a quarter to a third of a loaf for this quantity) and enough chicken stock to make a hard-to-stir stuffing texture.

Put it into a well-greased dish and dot with butter. Cover with foil and cook for about 45 minutes to an hour.

At this point it can happily be left overnight or even for a couple of days in the fridge. When you are ready to serve it, spoon some of the cooking goo from the turkey over and heat, covered with foil at first if there is a lot of it. Remove the foil for the last bit of the cooking time and blast under the grill if necessary to give a crisp, brown top.

So, today is the official Last Day of the Diet. The boyfriend will be doing his last Wednesday Weekly Web Weigh-in, and no doubt writing a highly intelligent and thoughtful blog post about his experiences (ETA – he has). Of course I haven’t been Dukaning with anything approaching strictness for some time now, but I have been cooking mostly Dukan-compliant dinners for us most nights. Lately we’ve been introducing more pulses as well as – I confess – more fat.

Here are a final few recipes for those readers who are still hard at it. Keep the faith – you will get there!

“F**k the world’s marine biology” fish and mash supper

Two large tuna steaks, marinated in soy, garlic, chilli, ginger and sesame oil and seared in a hot pan – they should still be raw in the centre
Raw king prawns, pan-fried with garlic, chilli, ginger and spring onions, arranged atop salad leaves and dressed with sesame oil and lime juice
Wasabi mash, made from a tin of butterbeans and half their volume each of steamed frozen broad beans and peas, all processed together with a little fromage frais and some wasabi paste

This really is indefensible – what can I say? Thankfully the cost to you of this kind of quantity of fresh tuna and prawns is as high as it is to the species concerned, so one’s not likely to indulge very often. It’s lovely though.

Fragrant orange chicken

4-6 skinless chicken thigh fillets
1 large onion, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
Rind of half an orange, either grated or removed in large pieces with a potato peeler – I did the latter
1 tsp ras el hanout spice blend
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1 sprig thyme
1/2 tin tomatoes
1 tin butterbeans

Brown the chicken pieces in a casserole dish and set aside. Add the vegetables with a little water if the pan looks like burning. Saute until soft and golden. Add the orange peel, spices, tomatoes and the same volume of water, and return the chicken to the pan. Cover and cook slowly for 30 minutes, then remove the lid, add the butterbeans and reduce until the sauce is thick and intense. Serve with cauliflower rice and salad.