If I could ban any phrase, it would be that overused, viscerally irritating, and far-from-innocent term, the Guilty Pleasure. No one should feel guilty about what they eat, or the pleasure they get from eating; the only thing to feel guilty about (and even then I don’t recommend it) is the failure to be grateful for that pleasure.
I am very aware that the joy I celebrate in food is a privilege. I know I might seem soupy when I say that I see every mealtime, every mouthful, as a celebration of life, but (with lamentable exceptions) I do, or I try to. It’s such a waste otherwise.
The sad refrain from women ever since I can remember has been, “I shouldn’t be eating this, but … ”; and when I had a daughter, I vowed those words would never come from my lips. But even the words we don’t say out loud can run riot in our heads. It perhaps sounds improbable to be able to train yourself out of the cycle of reproachful self-indulgence and self-recrimination, but I’m living proof it can be done. I was brought up by a mother – the cook I have learned most from – whose exuberant output in the kitchen was set in painfully sharp relief, and indeed fostered, by an ever-expanding pattern of self-denial and self-punishment; not an uncommon syndrome. Diagnosed with terminal cancer two weeks before her death, she started eating – for the first time, she said giddily – without worry or guilt. How unbearably sad to allow yourself unmitigated pleasure in food only when you receive a terminal diagnosis.
And so I protect fiercely the deep enjoyment I get from food. This doesn’t mean I just carry on eating as much as I can and for as long as I can. When I eat chocolate, I linger over each square, deciding which I will let melt slowly in my mouth, which I’ll chomp on rapaciously, feeling how different the sensations are. At no time do I feel guilty, and at no time does it become mindless. For I am not talking about that egregious misnomer, comfort eating. For me that conjures up an unhappy search for mind-numbing obliteration: food as narcotic, not food as a celebration of life.
Of course, there’s a lot of snobbery bound up in the term, too. You name something your guilty pleasure if you feel that were you not to jump in with the word “guilty”, others might suspect you of seriously thinking a processed-cheese triangle is the choice food of the connoisseur. But it is truly impossible to enjoy the taste of something ironically; it is just a shame-induced distancing stance.
I have little time for purists who disdain the lowly tastes of others. Nor do I wish to ally myself with the defensive mockery of inverted snobs, who feel that those who love any sort of food they themselves find fancy are simply pretentious frauds. Eating is such an elemental pleasure: what a strangely puny act to want to police it. But perhaps it is because it is so personal that we genuinely cannot conceive of feeling differently, and so distrust those who do. I admit that I have had to train myself out of forcing forkfuls of food – “Just try it!” – into the mouths of those I’m eating with, even after numerous polite refusals; and I am somewhat abashed to say that I don’t mean my children here.
I can’t help but feel, you see, that to share a pleasure is to increase it. I relish eating alone and cooking for myself. But once I’m around others, I am greedy for them to find the happiness in food that I do.
Mine-all-mine sweet and salty chocolate cookies
The lone-dweller, in need of the balm that only a freshly baked biscuit can provide, is faced with a most unsatisfactory choice: do without or make a batch big enough to keep a huge, hungry household happy. I had to put that right. To this end, I have created a cookie recipe that answers my every requirement: deeply chocolatey, sweet but not too sweet, and sprinkled with sea-salt flakes. It requires no more than a couple of bowls, a wooden spoon and a spot of stirring. And while I urge you to eat one when it’s still warm, so that it’s crisp around the edges, its centre gloriously gooey, you can leave the other until the next day (but no longer), when it will be slightly sandy and softly chewy. But these are big old biscuits, so, if you find yourself in company, you can graciously offer one of them without feeling short-changed. Makes two large cookies.
50g plain flour
⅛ tsp baking powder
⅛ tsp bicarbonate of soda
⅛ tsp fine sea salt
50g soft, unsalted butter
25g caster sugar
15g soft, dark-brown sugar
¼ tsp vanilla extract
25g dark-chocolate chips
¼ tsp sea-salt flakes
Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)/360F/gas mark 4, and get out a baking sheet. You don’t need to line it if it’s non-stick; otherwise, place a sheet of baking parchment on it.
Stir the flour, cocoa, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and sea salt together in a small bowl.
In a slightly larger bowl, vigorously beat the butter, both the sugars and the vanilla with a wooden spoon until you have a buff-coloured, creamy mixture.
Add a generous spoonful of the dry ingredients to the creamed butter and sugar, and beat it in gently. Then beat in the rest of your dry ingredients, in about three batches. Once they’re absorbed, you can beat vigorously until you have a sticky, rich-brown dough that clumps together, at which point you can stir in the chocolate chips.
It’s not often I demand this level of precision, but I now weigh this mixture, and divide it in two; you don’t need to be fanatical about this, a few grams here or there won’t make a difference. Squidge each half in your hands to form two fat patties about 7cm in diameter and place on your baking sheet, at least 10cm apart, as they spread while cooking.
Sprinkle the sea-salt flakes over the cookies, and bake in the oven for about 12 minutes, until the top of each biscuit is riven with cracks. At 10 minutes, they will be utterly smooth, but in the next two minutes they seem to transform themselves.
Once the surface is cracked, and the cookies have spread, they are ready. They will, however, feel very soft – even uncooked – to the touch. Whip the baking sheet out of the oven, leaving the cookies in place for five minutes. Only then may you slip a metal spatula under the cookies and transfer them to a wire rack. For optimal pleasure, leave for another 10 minutes before biting into one.
Chocolate peanut butter cake
Over the years, I’ve made many different cakes for my children’s birthdays, but for some time now this has been the chosen one, and with good reason. The cake itself is dark, damp and divinely chocolatey, but it’s the icing that truly makes it, as my daughter says, “the cake of dreams”; even my son, who is not a peanut-butter fan, adores it. I’ve yet to find anyone who doesn’t.
It is a straightforward melt-everything-in-a-pan number, and the icing is a simple buttercream. What turns the simple into the spectacular is the amount of time you spend whipping the icing, and the addition of double cream. But it does have to be made with mass-produced peanut butter; the health-shop varieties, with their dense heft, will not do, I’m afraid.
I have often been somewhat sneery about many-tiered cakes, but I recently cracked, and ordered four ultra-shallow tins to aid the baking of those multi-layered cakes I disdain. If you wish to do likewise, you will be able to fill these thin tins with the amount of batter here, though you’ll need to double the buttercream quantities. Gives 8-12 slices.
For the cake
200g unsalted butter, plus more for greasing
250ml hot water from a just-boiled kettle
100g soft, dark-brown sugar
125g caster sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
225g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 large eggs, at room temperature
For the icing (double the quantities below if making a four-tier cake)
300g icing sugar
150g soft, unsalted butter
200g smooth peanut butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp fine sea salt
4 x 15ml tbsp (60ml) double cream
4 x 15ml tbsp (30g) chopped, dry-roasted peanuts
Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)/360F/gas mark 4. Butter two 20cm sandwich tins (or four tier-cake tins) and line them with baking parchment. Don’t use loose-bottomed tins as this is a runny batter.
Cut the butter into four pieces and put into a heavy-based, fairly wide saucepan – I use one of 22cm diameter – and set over gentle heat. Add the water, and whisk in the cocoa and both sugars. Keep on a low heat, whisking gently, until the butter has melted, and you have a smooth, amalgamated mixture. Remove from the heat, and stir in the vanilla extract. Let stand for five minutes.
Measure out the flour in a bowl, add the baking powder and bicarbonate of soda, and mix.
Whisk the eggs together in a small jug. Pour the eggs gradually into the pan, whisking all the while, until they are completely absorbed.
Finally, whisk in the flour slowly until you have a smooth batter, and scrape evenly into your waiting tins.
Bake in the oven for 18-20 minutes (or about seven minutes for the shallow tins), by which time the cakes will be beginning to shrink away at the edges, and a cake tester will come out cleanish. (It’s fine if a few crumbs cling to the tester.) Leave the cakes in their tins on a rack to cool completely.
To make the buttercream, first sift the icing sugar into a bowl.
In a large bowl, beat the butter and peanut butter together thoroughly; for three minutes if you’re using a mixer, or five minutes with a handheld electric whisk, by which time you should have a light, fluffy, creamy mixture. Beat in the vanilla extract and salt.
Still beating, but now at a slightly lower speed, patiently add the sifted icing sugar a spoonful at a time until you’ve used half of it, then beat in the rest in three batches. Once it’s all in, turn up the mixer a little and carry on beating for two minutes, or for three with a handheld electric whisk. Scrape down the sides, to incorporate any sugar clinging to the bowl, and beat again for 30 seconds to one minute.
Still beating, add the cream a tablespoonful at a time and, when it’s all in, carry on beating for four minutes (or for six minutes with a handheld electric whisk).
Peel away the lining papers from the cakes, and place one of the layers, flat side up, on a cake stand or plate. If this is a two-layer cake, (armed, ideally, with a bendy spatula and a small offset spatula) spread about a third of the icing evenly on to the waiting cake layer, taking it out to the very edges; this will bulge when you place the other cake on top, which will make it easier to ice the sides. If this is a four-layer cake, spread the icing 1cm thick.
Top with your second cake, placing it domed side up, so that the two flat sides are meeting. Then spread another third of the icing over the top. If making a four-layer cake, create your tower, spreading 1cm thickness of icing between each layer, and on the top.
Use the bendy spatula to get a dollop of buttercream on to the side of the cake, then spread it gently to cover, and smooth, ideally with an offset spatula. Carry on until the cake is covered. Then run the offset spatula round the cake again to smooth the buttercream. Leave plain or decorate with the chopped peanuts.
Luscious vegan gingerbread
I am preposterously proud of this squidgy gingerbread, and I don’t mind who knows it. It’s everything you want out – sticky, spicy, deeply aromatic – and you would never miss the butter or eggs.
Warning: ideally, you need to make this at least a day before you plan to eat it. Harsh, I know. Gives 12 slabs, but could easily be cut into 18.
150ml vegetable oil
200g golden syrup
200g black treacle
125g dark muscovado sugar
75g pitted soft prunes (about eight)
30g fresh ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground allspice
⅛ tsp ground cloves
¼ tsp ready-ground black pepper
¼ tsp fine sea salt
250ml oat milk
300g plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 x 15ml tbsp warm water
2 tsp regular cider vinegar
Heat the oven to 170C (150C fan)/340F/gas mark 4. Line a 23cm square tin with a sheet of baking parchment, so it covers the bottom and comes up the sides. Leave something heavy on it to keep it down while you melt everything together.
Measure the oil in a jug, and pour it into a fairly wide, heavy-based saucepan; I use one of 22cm diameter. Measure the syrup and treacle using the oily jug, as this will stop them sticking and help them pour out easily into the saucepan.
Tip the sugar into the pan, and chop the prunes finely before adding them. Peel the ginger and grate it finely into the pan. Sprinkle in the spices and salt, and warm over gentle heat, whisking to combine. Don’t whisk too much: you do not want to get a lot of air in the mixture.
Once everything’s melted and mixed, take the pan off the heat; it should be warm, rather than boiling hot. Add the oat milk, whisking gently to make sure it’s incorporated.
Whisk in the flour in three or four batches, getting rid of any lumps as you go. This will take a few minutes; the only lumps you should see are the little bits of prune, which will melt into the gingerbread as it bakes.
Dissolve the bicarbonate of soda in the warm water in a bigger cup than you think it needs, then add the vinegar and quickly whisk the fizzing mixture into the pan.
Pour the gingerbread batter carefully into the lined tin and bake for 50-55 minutes, though start checking at 45. It may look cooked at 45 minutes, but as it’s so damp, a cake tester won’t help enormously – you’d expect some crumbs to stick to it – so take it out of the oven and touch the top quickly. If cooked, it should bounce back a bit under your fingers.
Leave to cool in its tin on a rack. To taste this at its best, wrap the tin first in baking parchment and then in foil, and leave for a day or two before cutting into it.
Rice pudding cake
This is every bit as wonderful as it sounds: an Italian torta di riso, refracted through the prism of someone who loves a bowl of very British rice pudding. The Italians like to stud their rice cake with candied peel, bake it in a tin lined with breadcrumbs or crushed amaretti, and eat it cold. I sprinkle mine with nutmeg, and serve it warm, most frequently with a jewel-bright jam sauce made by heating 200g of seedless raspberry jam with two tablespoons of lemon juice. And you might well consider adding a splash of Chambord, too.
You could make it with pudding rice, but the larger grains of arborio lend it a far better texture.
I’m happy to eat leftovers cold (very much recommended for breakfast), but first time out, I feel, it must be warm, by which I mean rather nearer room temperature than hot. Then the cake is still quite tender, so I should caution you against trying to remove it from its base. Gives 8-12 slices.
150g arborio rice
700ml full-fat milk
¼ tsp fine sea salt
75g soft, unsalted butter, plus more for greasing tin
3 large eggs, at room temperature
75g caster sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
Nutmeg, for grating
For the sauce
200g seedless raspberry jam
2 tbsp lemon juice
Put the rice, milk and salt into a heavy-based saucepan – I use one of 18cm diameter – and finely grate the zest of the lemon into it. Over high heat, and stirring regularly, bring almost to boiling point, but not quite. Turn the heat down to low, and continue to cook for about 30 minutes, stirring every now and then, until the rice is cooked and the milk is absorbed. Keep an eye on it, as you don’t want the milk to start boiling, nor do you want the rice to stick to the bottom of the pan.
Take the pan off the heat, and stir in the 75g of butter until melted. Scrape the contents of the pan into a bowl large enough to take all the remaining ingredients. Leave for about an hour to cool. Once it’s at room temperature, heat the oven to 160C (140C fan)/320F/gas mark 3, and butter a 20cm springform cake tin.
Separate the eggs, letting the whites fall into a large grease-free bowl, and drop the yolks into a wide measuring jug (or a bowl). Whisk the whites until stiff, and set aside. Add the sugar to the yolks, and whisk – I use a balloon whisk with vigour, rather than an electric one here – until pale and moussey.
Add the vanilla extract and two teaspoons of juice from the zested lemon to the yolks and sugar, and then pour gradually into the cooled rice, folding it in well as you go.
Dollop a large spoonful of the stiffly whisked whites into the rice bowl and stir briskly to lighten the mixture, and then fold in a third of the remaining whites gently but thoroughly, then another third. Once that’s incorporated, fold in the rest. Pour and scrape this mixture gently into the prepared tin.
Grate nutmeg over generously and bake for 45 minutes; by then the top will have set, with no hint of wobble underneath.
Sit it on a wire rack for about an hour, until it’s just slightly warm. To ease the unmoulding, slip a small spatula all around the edges, unclip the tin, and transfer the cake, still on its base, to a flat plate.
Serve each slice drizzled with a little of the sauce mentioned in the recipe intro.
Cherry and almond crumble
I’d been hankering after a cherry crumble for some time. A couple of summers ago, I extravagantly bought a kilo of cherries and set to with a cherry-stoner (which I, in Lucille Ball mode, first used upside down, shooting myself in the forehead with a bloodied kernel), only to find that the crumble was best made not with fresh cherries, but frozen.
And here it is, the crumble I needed: sweet-sharp cherries oozing fruitily into the sour pulp of butter-softened Bramleys and bubbling up brightly around the edges of its crisp but still yielding golden topping. I’ve added almonds, and in many manifestations – extract, ground, flaked – but their presence is a delicate one. I like to think they’re there to evoke the flavour of the stones I never had to bother with.
If you would like to make the crumble topping in advance and freeze it to have on standby, do. You don’t need to thaw it before sprinkling it over the fruit later. Or you can make it a couple of days before you need it, and leave it in the fridge. I don’t generally cook the apples and cherries that much in advance; I usually cook them just before I start on the meal proper, so that they are ready and waiting in the pie dish. Serves 4-6.
For the crumble topping
150g plain flour (or gluten-free plain flour)
50g ground almonds
1 tsp baking powder (gluten-free, if necessary)
⅛ tsp fine sea salt
125g cold, unsalted butter
50g granulated sugar
30g flaked almonds
For the filling
375g Bramley apples
35g unsalted butter
1 tbsp caster sugar
800g frozen, sweet, pitted cherries
1 tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp almond extract
To make the topping, put the flour, ground almonds, baking powder and salt into a bowl, and mix together.
Cut the butter into approximately 1cm cubes, add to the bowl, and blend into the flour using your fingertips, or use a mixer or processor, until you have a mixture that looks like rough, pale oatmeal, with a few flattened, pea-sized lumps of floury butter still visible. Add the sugar and use a fork to mix. Chill or freeze until needed.
To make the filling, peel the apples, then quarter and core them. Cut into approximately 4cm chunks. I don’t advise using apples other than Bramleys here – no other apple gives that sour fluff – but in an emergency you could use Granny Smiths, though you’d have to cut them to half the size, cook them for longer, and puree a quarter of them.
Melt the butter in a wide, heavy-based saucepan (that comes with a lid) over lowish heat, stir in the sugar and add the apples. Mix, then cover the pan and let the apples cook, still on fairly low heat, for 5-10 minutes, until they are soft and beginning to break down a little.
Turn up the heat to medium-high and add the frozen cherries, stirring them into the apples, and cook, covered, for three minutes only, or the cherries will make too much liquid. Remove the lid and cook for a further two minutes, by which time the apples will have been absorbed into their redness. It doesn’t matter if the cherries are not completely thawed at this stage.
Switch off the heat, stir in the vanilla and almond extracts, and turn the fruit into a 23cm round pie dish, or other ovenproof dish.
You can let the fruit stand in the dish for up to three hours, or leave it in the fridge for up to five days. When you want to bake the crumble, heat the oven to 190C (170C fan)/375F/gas mark 5. Top with the crumble mixture just before cooking. Try to scatter it evenly over the fruit, without pressing down on it, and go right to the edges.
Sprinkle the flaked almonds on top and cook for 30 minutes, by which time the filling will have bubbled up beautifully around the edges, the topping will be golden, and the flaked almonds toasted.
Let the crumble stand for 15 minutes or so, then serve with cream, custard or ice-cream, as you wish.
• Nigella Lawson’s book Cook, Eat, Repeat is published by Chatto & Windus on 29 October, RRP £26. To order a copy for £22.62, visit the Guardian Bookshop. The TV programme Nigella’s Cook, Eat, Repeat will air in November on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer.
Don’t miss part two in next week’s Feast: more exclusive recipes for comforting savoury mains