Step aboard for a joyful, nostalgic journey with Gastrono-me's Gemma Simmonite
Hey, how are you all doing? It’s completely. . . well let’s face it, is there even a word for what describes what this is at the moment? I don’t think there is a word that could come close to encompassing this passing of time? It’s affecting us all so profoundly, and so differently. If you’re anything like me, your moods are probably changing by the day, if not by the hour. It’s an emotional time for us all, and one that nobody was prepared for.
For us, of course, it felt better when we’d made sure that Gastrono-me and all its lovely team were safely tucked up and looked after. We’re lucky enough to have been able to retain them all, which is wonderful in such a challenging time.
When I finally found some time to relax I indulgently spent it looking through some old cookery books – I thought it would be nice to bake something for my family, something I don’t often get to do when Gastrono-me is rocking and rolling! So with baking in mind I went on a search for a little unassuming book just called Muffin by Susan Reimer.
I always used to use it as a lovely starting place, and it inspired a lot of the muffins I used to make to sell on the market in our very humble but happy beginnings.
The important thing as you all know for a muffin, is it has to taste fabulous, it has to rise, it has to be bountiful and light, as well as being full of ‘nubbley’ deliciousness. These muffins always did that, which then allowed me to have fun and play with flavour combinations. An accurate and good recipe is one where it should always work, especially in baking where there is no real margin for error. Yes, it’s easy to rescue a sauce or a stew by tweaking, but baking is not so forgiving. As I poured through the book I was reminded of the great lemon muffin recipe, which I used to add my own addition of limoncello and roasted rhubarb. There was also a fruit muffin that I used to like to add my own streusel topping, which tasted just like a summer crumble. But what really struck me when I was leafing through the book and travelling down my old memory lane of baking, was the gorgeous distress on most pages. When I turned to the clearly cherished recipes, the pages were literally a wreck, creased, a little torn and quite frankly ruined to most people’s eyes. But to me it was clear to see how very loved and how obviously dependable these recipes were. This then led me on to more discoveries on my bookshelves. Which other baking books had endured the same abuse? I found my old Mary Berry bible, where I used her classic sponge recipes when I was making cakes for a local garden centre and numerous tea rooms in the area. I then found Prue Leith’s book from which our fabulous carrot cake came and we sold in St John’s Street, and then Nigella’s book for our chocolate and orange cake, that was equally splodged and ear torn. I found pencil markings and calculations in all of them for scaling up, as all were needed to be made by the dozen, and even little footnotes to myself. Reading them all took me on such a joyful, nostalgic journey – I was reminded of all the lovely birthdays, weddings and christenings we catered for. One that really stood out in my mind was for a beautiful couple getting married where half of the wedding party were Italian and half Irish, so the request was we create a huge tower layered with individual fresh fruit and pastry tartlets filled with crème pâtissière, followed by a layer of individual fruit cakes naughtily laced with Irish whisky, and then topped of with a swirl of cupcakes topped with Italian meringue buttercream.
All of these cakes and pastries were from cookbooks that held my beginner’s hand and made sure that the outcome was a happy success. Chefs in my kitchens often used to laugh when I’d pull my book out for a regular recipe, as they couldn’t believe that something I made daily would require looking at again. And in truth, I barely ever did look at it, but just like a comfort blanket it was there just in case.
I’m spending time at the moment working on a recipe book proposal for Gastrono-me and it’s these facts that never leave me – how very important it is for a recipe to be encouraging, dependable and kind, for it to be clear and precise but not so stringent that you can’t branch out with a little flair and invention of your own.
This leads me on to why I’ve chosen to write today about my Spinach & Feta Muffins. It was this little muffin that we used to sell out of every Saturday on the market. Its entry in the book was simply a cheese muffin – truly delicious just with the prescribed cheddar cheese. But one day I thought wouldn’t it be fabulous with rubbles of feta and spinach (maybe my ‘Greekness’ fighting to the surface once again?). I tried it one weekend and it was a crazy hit. What was even crazier, and I promise you this happened every Saturday, despite having the clearest typed sign that advertised ‘SPINACH & FETA MUFFINS’, at least one person EVERY week would say to us or remark to a friend “Mmm, Spanish mushrooms”. We have no idea why this was ever a thing!
So here you go, try these gorgeous muffins, they are beyond delicious, make-able in 20 or so minutes, you can eat them for breakfast, for lunch or just because. . . they are that good. They also freeze terrifically, keep for a good couple of days and can even endure a quick whizz in the microwave. What’s not to love? If you decide to get inventive I’m sure a mushroom, Spanish or not, thrown in would be delicious, too!
Keep in and keep safe everyone xx
SPINACH & FETA MUFFINS
Makes around 9
255g plain flour
3tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
90g grated cheddar cheese (leave a little for topping)
150g feta cheese, cut into rough cubes (leave a little for topping)
200g frozen spinach, defrosted and fully squeezed so no water remains, then chopped
90ml vegetable oil
Preheat your oven to 200C/400F and prepare your muffin tin with paper liners.
In a large bowl sift together your dry ingredients. Stir in the grated cheddar cheese, remembering to reserve a little for topping.
In a large jug beat your egg with the vegetable oil and the milk, then add the chopped spinach to the jug also.
Pour the wet ingredients from the jug into the dry ingredients in the bowl, and combine lightly – you want the batter to be nice and lumpy, but no bits of dried flour. Just before you are finished stirring carefully add the feta and remember to reserve a little for topping.
Spoon the mix into the papers, be quite generous. Sprinkle with the remaining cheddar and stud with feta cheese.
Bake for 20-25 minutes until the tops are golden, the feta will be deliciously catching and caramelising on the edges.
Allow to cool a little (if you can wait) and enjoy slightly warm, but they are delicious cold, too!
Gemma is executive chef and co-creator of Gastrono-me, Abbeygate Street, Bury St Edmunds
Call 01284 277980
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