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Touring the US with Mediaeval Baebes

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Touring the US with Mediaeval Baebes

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I’ve just returned to UK reality after touring the east coast of America with my band, Mediaeval Baebes.

In fact, it was definitely more of a crash landing, and I’m feeling overwhelmed by a concoction of delight and disorientation. 

I’ve had two weeks of hilarity and salacious tales: from White Russian parties in Maryland to rooftop partying with firemen in NYC, from hazy, mead-imbued late-night encounters with ex-jailbirds to flouncing around in cemeteries for photoshoots. I’ve met more people and fans of the Baebes’ music (and it has been an honour) in the last week than in the last year, from women with heaving bosoms in skull-coated corsets to a South Dakotan ranger who discovered a dinosaur on his territory, from cage fighters Instagram influencers to wiccans. 

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Those who are involved in the music industry will know that the intense peaks of performing are accompanied by elongated troughs of waiting around before and after sound checks, not to mention the driving from venue to venue, one state to the next.

But even the stretches of time were filled: from learning how to do the electric slide (an achievement for someone who can perform a semblance of a dance only to hip hop music), playing airplane with other band members (the childhood favourite of lifting someone into the air with your feet), to hours of ‘I Spy With My Third Eye’. 

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We were gifted things from the delicious to the ludicrous (though none of the following necessarily fit into the aforementioned categories):

hand sown leather wallets, chocolates, cases of homemade mead, hand-crafted wooden lanterns inlaid with silver, pumpkin bog wine (yes, that’s its official name) and goblets straight out of Game of Thrones. I’ve also signed an interesting range of specimens including various body parts, guitars and recorders, Gandalf-style staffs and animal-bone drinking horns. 

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I’ve witnessed the way in which music makes people dance and cry, and I’ve heard accounts of how some have walked down the aisle, given birth, and woken from comas to our music.

I’ve had ecstatic highs of my own (performing to over a thousand people in the middle of forest glades, and exhausted hysterical laughter set off by the merest glimmer of a joke) and extreme lows, where the adrenalin temporarily stopped, energy levels buckled and desolation took hold.

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Being on the road for two weeks has also meant that I have been lurching between feast and famine.

The restaurant selection in NYC is almost infinite. The highlights this time round included the following:

The Pool, one of NYC’s finest fish restaurants. While I am not a huge seafood eater and am largely vegetarian, the branzino was the best I have ever eaten – delicate and tender without need for any fancy sauces or dressings. The room is elegant and slightly imposing and the service impeccable (apart from the moment when I collided with a waiter en route to the bathroom and he succeeded in pouring champagne directly down my chest). 

Barrio Chino: my favourite Lower East Side Mexican haunt. It used to be a hidden secret, without website and only noticeable in passing if you were in the know. It has now become a bit more open about its existence, but the quality has not diminished. Go for the extensive range of margaritas (from chili to berry to tamarind – the list goes on). The tacos are also delicious, but the show stoppers are the enchiladas – suffused with flavour and fresh herbs and oozing with molten queso – this is the only place I will eat them. The ambience is also electric. I went on a Tuesday evening and it was packed and totally abuzz.

The Butcher’s Daughter– I got caught in the tail end of Hurricane Florence and had to battle through headache-inducing heavy rain to get here. It was worth it. This vegetarian NYC and LA hotshot has a sublime selection of fresh and wholesome, zingy, protein-rich salads. I had the self-professed” Best Kale Salad” and added some veggie chicken into the kale, red cabbage, green apple, jalapeno, red onion, mint, turmeric and cashew mix.

Dean & Deluca– In some ways I am sad that their plans to open a branch in London fell through and that they have settled for selling a minor selection of products at Selfridges. In other ways I am not, because if they had opened here I would probably have moved in and would now be rolling around due to gorging upon their selection of salads and endless array of artisanal snacks. Every time I walked past the crisp white exterior in NYC, I felt its magnetism drawing me in. Mostly I managed to restrict myself to buying a selection of salads. All are excellent, but the highlights were the General Tso cauliflower – battered, deep-fried and coated in a moreish, sticky sweet, umami sauce - and the sriracha-soaked tofu. The soups there are as good as many you would enjoy in a high-end restaurant. 

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Conversely, I’ve experienced pit stop, intra-state, highway grub, with the choice between early-onset obesity via deep fried foods, diabetes through the sugar-laden, inevitably chocolate-peanut butter coated candies, or heart attack via the sodium-laden snacks (I opted for the latter). 

The most radical of trends that emerged was the “substance on a stick” that prevailed as a dining option in the Maryland Renaissance Festival. The good folk of the festival clearly thought they were on to a good thing with this particular serving contrivance and didn’t feel the need for variation. Options included the following (see pictures for evidence):  white chocolate-coated key lime pie on a stick, dark chocolate-immersed cheesecake on a stick, sausage on a stick, chocolate-covered peanut butter pie on a stick, and macaroni cheese on a stick. The lattermost culinary innovation was my favourite - a praiseworthy feat of science, concocted to adhere strictly to the theme. Even the choice meat option, turkey leg, was by its very nature “on a stick” – the Neanderthal look of gnawing the dull red flesh from the bone worked well with those who were dressed in animal horns and fur (of which there were many).

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And so I am back in reality – or what I can piece together:

it may only have been two weeks away but it feels weird to have to pronounce the “t” in water again (rather than a “d”) to make my request understood, to ask directions for the “loo”, not restroom, to not be in a tour bus laughing hysterically with eight other wickedly funny band (coven) members, to not feeling the daily adrenaline rush of performing and experiencing post-gig tequila-fueled highs, to not dancing to old school hip hop tunes in hotel rooms until 3am, and to reverting to cutlery after becoming accustomed to sticks. 

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Maryland Renaissance Festival

NYC

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Virtuous Vegan Date & Peanut Butter Cookies

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Virtuous Vegan Date & Peanut Butter Cookies

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If I told you that a vegan, refined sugar-free, protein-rich, wheat-free, ancient-grain (and if you so desire, gluten-free) cookie existed, you’d think it was the stuff of myth and legend or, alternatively, something so disgusting that it couldn’t be deemed edible.

Well, it does exist.

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After an overindulgent stay in NYC, I made these for my birthday. They aren’t overpoweringly sweet, and they aren’t going to be equivalent to the 500 calories a pop thick, fudgy cookies you see in bakeries. However, they are delicious in their own right, soft and just sweet enough. Plus, being vaguely healthy automatically entitles one to devour 5x the quantity. In fact, for a snack to be officially deemed a source of protein, it needs to contain 6g protein. Well, 3 of these cookies contain just that.

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They are extremely quick to conjure up and would be good for that weak-point, late afternoon slump when you crave something sweet, and delicious, too, paired with a (vegan) ice cream for dessert, or even with a wedge of stilton and a dollop of pear compote if you’re going down the non-vegan route. If you want a slightly more savoury option, substitute the dates with figs as in the photos.

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Ingredients (makes 20 medium cookies)

160g pitted medjool dates, roughly chopped (about 10) (if you want a more savoury cookie, substitute dates with figs, as per the photos)

4 tbsp orange juice

4 tbsp water

1 tsp vanilla

½ tsp finely grated orange zest

80g smooth peanut butter

200g spelt flour (or gluten free flour)

½ tsp mixed spice

¼ tsp salt

baking tray lined with baking parchment

4-5cm round cookie cutter

 

Method

1)    Pre-heat oven to 180°C

2)    Place the chopped dates, orange juice, water, vanilla extract and orange zest in a small pan over a medium/high heat and allow to come to a boil. Stir continuously for about 4/5 minutes until all the liquid has evaporated and the dates have turned into a thick, sticky pulp.

3)    Place the date mixture together with the peanut butter in a blender and pulse until smooth. Pour in the spelt flour, mixed spice, and salt and pulse until it comes together to form a slightly sticky dough.

4)    Lightly flour a board and roll out the dough to a 0.5cm thickness. Stamp out cookies with the cutter and place on the baking tray. Bake in the oven for 7-10 minutes until firm and slightly golden. Allow to cool, then devour.

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Roasted Strawberry & Vanilla Cake

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Roasted Strawberry & Vanilla Cake

...& 14 Thoughts from the Kitchen Sink

From the moronic to the morbid, here’s an insight into what happens when I bake and let my mind wander:

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-      Drowning in a vat of sticky bread dough would probably be the worst way to die.

-      When you sieve icing sugar and it puffs into the air in clouds, how many calories are there in one mouthful of air?

-      Why do so many obscure meats taste like chicken and not beef?

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-      What is the significance of sometimes craving baby food - especially rusks, and pureed apple and banana?

-      Why do we delude ourselves that avocado on toast has been ‘smashed’?  I’ve never seen anyone smash an avocado.  I suppose ‘smeared’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.

-      If I could subsist on one food for the rest of my life it would most likely be oats.

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-      Nandos’ ‘hot’ sauce is anachronistic.  It was created about 20 years ago and people’s (i.e.my brother’s and my) tolerance for heat has gone up.  They should downgrade it to ‘medium’.

-      What was the exact moment when someone decided to put sugar, milk, butter and flour together to make the very first cake?

-      How do you know nigella seeds are nigella seeds and not mouse droppings?

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-      If 2017 was the year of slime porn, why can’t 2018 be the year of dough porn? 

-      Earlier this year some pig farmers tried to halt the use of pig terminology as connotative of greed.  Imagine if other farmers were to do the same: we couldn’t exclaim something was cheesy, or call people ugly cows, or ask people with whom we’re angry if they want beef, or complain that bland people are vanilla, or exclaim that someone is mutton dressed up as lamb, or taunt cowards as being chicken…

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-      How many times in my life has a waiter spat in my food on purpose?

-      Why do I have six jars of preserved lemons in my cupboard when I only use a small shaving of one once a year?

-      The smell of freshly baked bread should be a perfume.

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That’s enough musing for one day.

Here’s the recipe for an exceedingly luscious cake. It is succulent, and filled with roasted strawberries so that there is at least one deliquescing in every bite. The berries on the surface turn almost jam-like in the oven.  Absurdly quick and easy to make, it is totally moreish. 

NB. This cake can be made gluten-free by substituting the flour for gluten free. 

Luscious Strawberry cake  

Serves 6-8 (depending on level of greed)

Ingredients

85g unsalted butter, at room temperature

160g caster sugar + 2 tbsp for the topping

1 large egg

120ml milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

190g white spelt flour (or gluten-free equivalent)

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

400g strawberries, after having been hulled and halved

20cm diameter round springform cake tin, either totally lined with baking parchment (if you’re feeling lazy and you don’t mind crinkly cake sides), or thoroughly greased with butter and the base lined with a circle of baking parchment

 

Method

1)   Preheat the oven to 180°C. 

2)   Either by hand or in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the butter and sugar together until soft, light and fluffy (which should take about three minutes).  Then pour in the egg, milk and vanilla extract and beat to combine. It may look slightly curdled but that is not a problem.

3)   Into the wet ingredients sieve the flour, baking powder and salt. Gently fold the dry ingredients through until the batter is smooth and fully combined.  Pour into the prepared cake tin.

4)   Arrange the strawberries cut side down in the batter. You make need to overlap some or push some down to fit them all in. Sprinkle the 2 tbsp of caster sugar over the top and place in the oven. 

5)   Bake for 45-55 minutes (depending on oven), checking after 30 minutes. You may need to cover the top with aluminium foil if the surface looks at risk of becoming too dark. When ready, the top should be a deep gold and a cake tester should come out batterless (moisture from the strawberries will prevent it from coming out totally clean).

6)   Allow to cool on a wire rack and devour on the day, or within two days, of baking.

(Adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

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Spring Pea, Spinach & Mint Soup

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Spring Pea, Spinach & Mint Soup

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Nowadays we have the fired-up drama, programmes that are lurid, sweary, and sweaty: Iron Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, the straw-haired, backward-sunglass wearing entity that is Guy Fieri. I still find myself sucked into the carefully contrived vortex of dramatics, where someone burns their hand off or the climax is a grotesquely-sized burger oozing with cellulite-whispering cheese.

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But I have an enduring appreciation for the most simple of concepts that were the foundation for many of today’s cooking programmes: green peppers, red tomato; Ainsley Harriet, metre long streams of oil with one arm tucked behind his back; clotted nests of finely spun sugar; dishes named with achingly tenuous puns. Sometimes I long for those days of Ready Steady Cook in its original format. Particularly captivating was the down to earth “quickie bag” challenge: a handful of seasonal ingredients, an on-the-spot declaration of the dish to be conjured up, followed by a frenzied 10 minutes to make good on the promise. 

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It was raw, unedited, unscripted and exposed – a rare combination these days. And that challenge which has now mutated into the MasterChef mystery box challenge is one that I try to set myself every time the contents of the fridge begin to look pitiful. One man’s debris can be another’s feast. All it requires is a little creativity and imagination (unless your fridge stocks only alcohol, like that of several people I know…).

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This soup is so simple that it could almost have been formulated from one of these challenges. The ingredients are few, but their freshness and the way they are only lightly cooked, enhances the flavours. In the UK, we have been starved of spring, but this soup will help compensate in its exuberant and zingy viridity.

Although they are to be enjoyed alongside the soup, the Parmesan spelt crackers featured in the photos are by no means a sideshow, and I shall follow up with the recipe for them. They are frighteningly addictive – I unwittingly crunched through half a batch in one hour.

NB: this can be made vegan by substituting olive oil for butter.

 

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Ingredients (serves 4)

50g butter (substitute with 3 tablespoons olive oil if making vegan)

1 large potato, scrubbed but not peeled, and diced

3 cloves garlic

4 sticks celery, roughly chopped

30g sugar

Large sprig fresh thyme

100ml white wine

1 litre vegetable stock.  (I use Marigold, which is also available as vegan recipe)

500g frozen peas

20g fresh mint, leaves stripped from stalks

100g fresh baby spinach leaves, washed

½ tsp salt

¼ tsp ground black pepper

Method

1. Melt butter over medium heat, or gently heat the olive oil

2. Add potato, garlic, celery, sugar, thyme and pinch salt and pepper, and sweat together for about 10 minutes or until the potato is soft, stirring from time to time

3. Add the wine, and cook until the liquid has reduced by roughly one third

4. Add the stock, and bring the mixture to the boil. Keep boiling for 4 minutes

5. Remove the thyme, add the mint leaves, spinach and peas to the boiling mixture, and remove the pot from the heat immediately

6. Blitz in the liquidizer. Adjust the seasoning, and serve warm. 

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Sticky Date & Amaretti Crumble Bars

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Sticky Date & Amaretti Crumble Bars

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A trip to Toronto when I was seven years’ old is anchored for me by one thing: not the CN tower, or Niagara Falls or my cousin’s wedding, but a visit to the farmers’ market, and in particular, a potentially life-changing stall.  A tall, russet-cheeked man was in command, his floured apron stretched taught over his protuberant belly. 

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And on his table lay not the garish, sprinkle- speckled swirls that would have drawn a normal child. Instead, tray after tray of rubbly slabs of oat and date crumble bars were arrayed. 

The date layer of the bars was jaw-clenchingly sticky, and thick – not like the mean, shop-bought equivalent. The oaty outer layers were both crunchy and then soft, golden and not overly sweet, allowing the natural date sweetness to shine through. 

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. For the last seventeen years I’ve been raiding bakeries and markets, seeking to relive the experience, but the date and oat crumble bars always disappoint – too saccharine, too solid, too floury. In between raids, I’ve been working on my own: these are the closest I have come to Toronto’s best kept secret. I added the crushed amaretti to give them a little twist. Feel free to leave the sugar out of the crumble if your palate is adjusted to the less-sweet. 

It’s incredibly hard to resist them when they emerge from the oven golden and crisp, but I think they taste even better when they have cooled and the flavours are more distinct (or maybe try them both ways, just to be sure…).

NB. They can be made gluten-free by substituting gluten-free flour for spelt. 

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Ingredients

Date filling

400g medjool dates, pitted & roughly chopped (about 20)

3 tbsp fresh orange juice

120ml water

2 tsp vanilla extract

½ tsp mixed spice

½ tsp finely grated orange zest

 

Crumble

250g oats

120g butter

100g wholemeal spelt flour

50g dry amaretti biscuits

40g light brown muscovado sugar

¼ tsp mixed spice

½ tsp vanilla extract

¼ tsp salt

A square 20cm baking tin (or tin of equivalent area), lined with baking parchment, with sides and base fully covered.

Method 

1)    Preheat oven to 180°C

2)    Place all ingredients for the date filling in a pot and place on a medium heat. Stir as the mixture begins to simmer. After about 5 minutes, when the dates have broken down into more of a paste and all the water has evaporated, remove from the heat and set aside.

3)    Pour all the crumble ingredients into a blender and pulse until the mixture still has some texture  and is slightly coarser than sand.

4)    Pour 2/3 of the crumble mixture into the base of the tin, and, with your fingers or the back of a spoon, press the mixture down evenly across the base of the tin until firm and compact. Pour the date filling over and spread evenly across the base. Then pour over the remaining crumble mixture and press down until even and as compact as possible.

5)    Place in oven to bake for 15-20 minutes until golden and firm to the touch.

6)    Slice and allow to cool before devouring. Keeps well in an air tight container in fridge for up to 5 days, or in freezer for 2 months (also tastes delicious when frozen).

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Mini Feta & Cheddar Spelt Scones

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Mini Feta & Cheddar Spelt Scones

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I feel immense joy when I see canapés floating along the horizon of a wine-soaked room. Salty, crunchy, flavour-filled bites to pop into your mouth and stave off hunger. But in reality, the canapés path is far more obstacle- laden. Here are a few of the typical scenarios that I have endured, or have watched others enduring:

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  • The hidden two- biter: where you hesitate over whether to put the whole thing in your mouth, decide to go for it and then have to find a way to swivel the thing around inside your cheeks until it becomes vaguely chewable, all while trying to hold down a conversation
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  • The crumbler – this one disintegrates before it even reaches your mouth. This doesn’t necessarily result in interrupted conversation, but ends up being problematic when you shake hands with someone and end up leaving a stick, flaky deposit in their palm
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  • The burner – you were warned about the heat but went for it anyway. If you were alone you would probably spit it out, but in the interests of politeness and retaining friends, you endure a scorched oesophagus 
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  • The stringer – this is reserved for molten- cheese filled croquetas.  Delicious, yes, but they leave the unsuspecting devourer s with frills around their lips reminiscent of Futurama’s Zoiburg.
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The following will help you steer clear of the above pitfalls: small, savoury and succulent, these are the perfect canapés.  Indeed, they are suitable for consumption at any time. They are crisp on the outside and soft and light inside, flecked with molted feta and cheddar, and with a hint of the more exotic nigella seeds. This recipe makes 18 but I would urge you to double it as they are so addictive.  They are also ridiculously easy and quick to conjure up.

NB. these can be made gluten-free by simply substituting spelt flour with gluten-free)

Mini Feta & Cheddar Spelt Scones (makes 18)

 

Ingredients

100g sour cream

2 tbsp milk

80g mature cheddar cheese, grated

80g feta, roughly diced into 0.5cm cubes

50g unsalted butter, cold and roughly diced into ¾ cm cubes

200g white spelt flour (can substitute with plain flour or gluten-free)

¼ tsp baking powder

¼ tsp salt

½ tsp nigella seeds

[optional: ½ tsp cayenne pepper]

1 egg, beaten, to glaze

1 large baking tray lined with greaseproof paper

 

Method

1)    Preheat oven to 200°C. In a large bowl by hand, or in a food mixer fitted with a paddle, briefly mix together the sour cream, milk, cheddar, feta and butter. Pour in the flour, baking powder, salt and nigella seeds (and cayenne if using), and mix until just combined into a dough. You may need to knead the dough by hand very slightly for it to come together.

2)    Place dough onto a floured surface, pat into a square and roll it out to roughly 2.5cm thickness. Slice the dough into nine squares, like a noughts and crosses board, and then slice the squares diagonally to form 18 triangles.

3)    Arrange the triangles on the baking tray, leaving at least 3cm between them. Brush them lightly with the beaten egg and place in the oven to bake for 15-20 minutes until golden on the outside. They are best devoured immediately or on the day of baking. 

Adapted from Honey & Co's "Food From the Middle East" recipe for Bouikos

 

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Pear & Speculoos Caramelised Cookie Magic Cake

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Pear & Speculoos Caramelised Cookie Magic Cake

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Maybe they think that all the gluttony and swollen stomachs affect our ability to digest information, that all the turkey/mince/fruit/chocolate/stuffing becomes blinding and we are no longer able to read paragraphs of text.  Instead, we have to have things numbered so as to reassure us that whatever we are reading won’t detract too long from the Christmas stasis.  

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Every newspaper or magazine clearly has some greedy journalist on its team who takes it upon him or herself to rate every mince pie out there to save us all the hard work. Then the subjective lists are compiled and played back to us year after year, despite the foods remaining the same, in the identical, consumable, numbered format.

In response to this, and inspired by an affront to my eyes when opening the newspaper magazine this weekend, I thought I would do a light review of the food adverts themselves:

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WAITROSE

Apparently, it’s for fruit lovers: congealed, glistening and with blood/jam trickling through its rivulets. But what is it? Depends how you like your desserts, but I’ll pass.

1/5

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SAINSBURY’S

I know Christmas is supposedly about family and coming together, but the picture of “grandma” with a prawn coming out of her head doesn’t conjure up any feelings of warmth for me 

1/5

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