Apricot Caramel Upside-Down Cake

I’m one of those people who is chronically unable to accept compliments regarding my cooking. I can go further: I am a chronic apologist for my own food. This is such a consistent issue that I made a New Year’s resolution to apologize less and say thank you more.

Resolutions are great in theory but difficult to implement. Last Saturday I baked an apricot caramel upside-down cake for a party. Lovely friend Sophie helped herself to a slice and sat down beside me. “It’s a weird color because I used brown sugar,” I said. Sophie said nothing, and placed a small morsel in her mouth. “It looks dense, but that’s because the caramel soaked into the cake a little. I think I flipped it too early,” I said. With great concentration, Sophie continued to eat her cake. “I was hungover when I baked this cake, so I’m not sure if it’s my best effort,” I said. Sophie said nothing. She delicately took a bit of soft caramelized apricot on her fork and ate it. “Do you think it’s too sweet? I’m worried that it’s too sweet,” I said.

Sophie turned to me. “Let’s start this conversation again. This time, you will only praise your cake,” she said. I thought for a moment. “This is a beautiful cake,” I said. “The apricots are like a sunset over a South Pacific island, turning the water gold. The cake is like a perfumed Spring breeze, like happy memories of childhood,” I said. Sophie looked at me and laughed. She said, “Maybe you should say nothing at all. Then, when someone compliments your cake, you can say, ‘Thank you.’” Continue reading

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Duck Tagine with Quince and Apricots

A very dear friend once said to me, after I’d served her a pigeon salad with orange and figs, “Susan, you pair meat with fruit more than anyone I know.” This is one of my favourite observations anyone has ever made about my cooking, and it is true that I love to pair meat with fruit.  That same friend is imminently expecting her first child, and I have been happily making and freezing meals for her and her partner in anticipation of their first couple of weeks at home with the baby. (I was born for this kind of task.) A few weeks ago, at Borough Market, which ordinarily is one of the most expensive food markets in London, I picked up three quinces for a pound. Earlier this week, I pounced on some Gressingham duck legs, which had been discounted at Waitrose. Gressingham duck is a cross between a wild mallard and a pekin duck, which means that it is a little bit less fatty than most duck you find in supermarkets, and its meat has a more gamey flavour. I use it whenever I can find it. Yesterday I emailed my friend, “I’m cooking you meat with fruit!”

This recipe is adapted from a lamb tagine I found in my favourite Moroccan cookbook, the marvellous Food of Morocco by Tess Mallos. Duck legs are browned in butter and then slowly stewed with saffron, coriander, ginger, onion, and cinnamon, and finished with meaty, tangy quince and sweet dried apricots. Crushed red pepper adds just a hint of heat. I’d never cooked with quince before, although membrillo, the thick plum-coloured quince paste sold in Spain by the slab and served with salty cheeses, is one of my guilty pleasures. (You can find a recipe for membrillo here.) The fruit is very hard and has a dry tang to it (i.e., is not to be eaten raw), but when cooked becomes soft and tender, almost like cooked pear, and takes on a dusky pinky-orange hue. It’s perfect with meat. Continue reading