Healthy eating has crept up on me like an assassin. The fridge that was once a shrine to Sara Lee now boasts two tubs of goat's yogurt and a packet of miso. (Miso, bloody miso, in my fridge.) Right now you could probably find more to eat in Ally McBeal's stomach than in my larder.
This column has always been a safe house for the salad shirker. A haven for those who cannot pass a cake shop. I know from some of your letters that alfalfa nibblers use this page in much the same way as a trucker uses the latest issue of Big and Bouncy . I have shared my sausages and pork crackling with you and passed round my trifle. I have tempted you with buttered muffins and let you lick my ice cream. But the sad, sickening truth is that a slice of super-triple-chocolate-chip-death-cake tastes twice as good when it comes round a bit less often.
This does not mean I have embraced 'lite' eating. Nothing will ever get this cook to swap his butter for sunflower oil or knock up a recipe from the Canderel cookbook. If I am going to eat cake - and I am - then it will be made with butter, unrefined sugar, free-range eggs, chocolate and cream, but - and this a big but - it will be an occasional treat. A rare and exceptional luxury rather than a way of life.
I have always believed in a balanced diet, but I am not sure the balance was right. The point is, though, that the chocolate cake must still come round. Saturated fat and sugar may be silent killers when taken in excess, but God, do they taste good. Look, I will go along with this fruit-and-vegetable lark, and I promise to eat my oily fish and pumpkin seeds, but on the condition that sugar and fat are allowed in there, too, albeit rather less often than they were. Chocolate, sugar, butter and red meat have a sensuality in the mouth that no portion of lightly steamed fish and wholewheat pasta ever can. There is a reason that McDonald's has queues, and it is not a shortage of tellers.
What is essential is that when we decide to make biscuits or tuck into a sticky pudding, that we do so 100 per cent, with gusto, with the best ingredients and without stinting. Otherwise there is no point, and we might as well not have bothered.
It is now possible to buy organically grown flours, unrefined sugars, unsalted butter and free-range, organic eggs in all but the most basic of grocers. Most towns have a health-food shop or a thoughtfully stocked deli that offers us something better than run-of-the-mill baking supplies. And decent chocolate, with more cocoa butter than sugar and anonymous fat, is no longer hard to find.
One ingredient that will make a huge difference to the quality of your baking is the best-quality citrus peel. The ready-chopped stuff, with its layer of vegetable oil, has, to my taste at least, no discernible flavour. It seems to offer nought but sweetness and, it must be said, a sort of nibbly grittiness in the mouth. Italian grocer's shops, some of the better confectioners and some cake-supply companies sell whole pieces of preserved (candied) peel, and this is the stuff I recommend. It is often sold in plastic bags hanging from the ceiling, and is easily recognised as being a whole wedge of orange or citron peel. You will, boringly, have to cut it up yourself in the way early cookbooks suggest, but its inclusion will add a pleasingly sharp, fruity note to biscuits and cakes. Even those who loathe candied peel - and there are many - may well find they like it.
And this is the crux of it. Sweet things should be a triumph of quality over quantity. I love a cake as much as anyone, but the facts are hard to ignore. The sausage sandwiches, steak-frites and, most of all, the pastries and puddings have never tasted more blissful than since I took up what is loosely called 'healthy eating'. Since second and third portions of anything but salad have been banned; every crumb of pastry, each chocolate truffle and every sugared almond has tasted like heaven itself.
Yes, I feel better than I have ever done since tightening the reins on what and when I eat, but perhaps more importantly, what tasted good before now tastes even better.
Florentines are a bit of a fiddle, but worth every minute of your time. Made with sliced almonds and finest whole peel cut into dice rather than the ready-chopped stuff, and then dipped into the darkest chocolate, they are a different thing altogether from cake-shop Florentines. I would eat salad for a week just to get my hands on a couple of these. In fact, I just have. Makes about 20.
60g undyed glacé cherries
100g chopped peel
150g flaked almonds
90g caster sugar
3 tbsp double cream
25g plain flour
250g dark chocolate
You will also need two baking trays, lined with baking parchment or very lightly buttered and floured, and some non-stick baking parchment for cooling the finished biscuits.
Preheat the oven to 180 C/gas mark 4. Rinse the cherries in a sieve under running water to remove any excess syrup, then dry them with kitchen paper. (Don't skip this, otherwise their syrup will alter the texture of the uncooked mixture.) Chop them roughly. Chop the peel into small dice. Too large, and the biscuits will not hold together. Lightly crush the almonds with a rolling pin to break them up a little.
Melt the butter in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the sugar and bring to the boil. Now pour in the cream, then stir in the cherries, chopped peel, almonds and flour. Stir for half a minute, then remove from the heat.
Drop heaped tablespoons of the mixture on to the prepared baking sheets, leaving a 10cm gap between each. Pat the mixture down a little with the back of a spoon, then bake the first tray for 7 to 9 minutes, by which time the heaps will spread into loosely shaped biscuits.
Using a round cookie cutter or a palette knife, ease the thin, loose edges of each 'biscuit' towards the centre, to give a neat, round biscuit about 8cm in diameter.
Take the tray from the oven and replace it with the second one. As the Florentines cool, gently lift the edges of each with a palette knife. Don't try to hurry this - you need to be gentle and to keep an eye on when each Florentine is set enough to lift off. As each sets, transfer it with the palette knife to a cooling rack lined with non-stick baking parchment. Repeat until all the mixture is used up.
When the biscuits are all cool and set firm, melt the chocolate in a small basin set over simmering water. Dip each biscuit into the chocolate so that the flat underside, and a little of each edge, is covered with chocolate. Turn each biscuit upside down to cool on the non-stick parchment.
A warm, moist banana cake
I sometimes think there is an unwritten law that says banana cakes must be bland and rubbery. Not so this one. This is a deeply flavoured cake with an open texture. The smell of warm bananas fills the kitchen as it bakes. It has a pleasantly crunchy top, and its sweetness is capped by the dried apricots and yogurt. At its best eaten warm - with some thick, cold yogurt or cream on the side, this can be served as pudding or tea-time cake. Serves 8-10.
125g ready-to-eat dried apricots
200g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
4 ripe bananas
2 tbsp natural yogurt
175g golden caster sugar
3 free-range eggs
thick, natural yogurt to serve
Line the base of a 23cm loose-bottomed cake tin with greaseproof paper. Preheat the oven to 170 C/gas mark 3. Chop the apricots, but not too finely (pieces the size of a raisin should be small enough). Mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. I know this seems like a lot of salt, but it really brings out the flavour of the banana. Peel the bananas, put them in a basin and mash them to a pulp with a fork, then stir in the yogurt.
In a large basin or electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar till light and quite fluffy. Add two of the eggs, one at a time, beating them into the mixture, then add a couple of tablespoons of the flour - this is simply to stop the mixture curdling - then the remaining egg. The mixture should be thick and creamy. Scrape in the mashed banana and yogurt and then the chopped apricots, then fold them into the creamed butter and sugar mixture.
Using a large, metal spoon - which is less likely to knock the air out than a wooden one - fold the flour, baking powder and salt into the butter and sugar, taking deep, firm, slow stirs. Scoop into the lined cake tin and bake for 1hr 15 minutes. The case will have risen and cracked slightly across the top.
The cake is ready when a thin metal skewer is pushed into the deepest part and comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and leave, still in its tin, for 20 minutes or so to calm down. Slide a palette knife around the edge of the cake and remove it from the tin, then place it on a plate to cool a bit, but do serve it warm - its flavour will be deeper.