The bare bones of the plants we eat


Jovita’s Banana Cake

Posted by vilb 1 Comment

I am back again to blog after a long break and with a very simple recipe to take that chill out of my bones. Here in London, it is supposed to be spring, but brrr there is still a very sharp nip in the air, but the landscape is beautiful with almost all the trees unfurling their pale green leaves after the long hard winter.

This cake always takes me back to my days at The Natural History Museum when I used to share the student’s room with Jovita and Neil. With rich pickings to be had in the common room with all kinds of food brought back by colleagues from far flung field trips, we also experimented with putting different ingredients together to not only add spice to our ever hungry senses but also create new dishes.

First concocted by Jovita, I have modified her original recipe to suit busier lifestyles without compromising on nutrition or taste. It takes about 10 minutes to put together and around 35 to 40 minutes to bake.


5 Bananas
Half a cup of oil
1 cup dark or light brown Muscovado sugar.
1 and a half to 2 cups of Jumbo oats
3 eggs beaten well
Quarter teaspoon of cinnamon powder
Good pinch of clove powder
Good pinch of nutmeg powder
1 heaped teaspoon of baking powder
1 teaspoon of vanilla essence


A grated apple or chopped up pear adds a twist and makes it less sweet. A handful of roughly chopped walnuts, pecans or dried fruit makes it richer and really tasty. I use dried fruit steeped in brandy and these include raisins, sultanas, mixed peel, currants, cherries and stem ginger. As the dried fruit mixture gets used, I top it up with a fresh lot and brandy, so there is always a big bottle on hand to dip into. If you prefer not to have alcohol just use the dried fruits and nuts.


Lightly mash the bananas with a fork. Add the sugar, oats, oil, beaten eggs, spice powders, vanilla and baking powder and just mix to combine all the ingredients. Do not beat or stir vigorously. If the consistency is very runny just add more oats so it still flows and transfer into an oiled 8 by 8 inches cake tin or dish.
Bake at 180 degrees C for 35 to 40 minutes. To check if baked, a thin knife or skewer inserted in the centre of the cake should come out clean of any batter or cake particles.

Transformation of the humble banana!


Oil – I use the best olive oil I can afford as it is going into my stomach
Sugars – other sugars can be used but I prefer muscovado sugars as it is unrefined and not only makes the cake moist but also gives it a rich toffee like caramel taste.
Oats – Best to use the old fashioned jumbo oats as the oval flakes give the cake a lighter texture. This is because the flakes are larger and keeps its shape and so traps some air pockets between them. You can mix some semolina or bread crumbs instead of just using oats. Here again the taste of oats between brands vary so try what suits your palette.

If using a fan oven bake at 160 degrees C.

Greetings from Greece!

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The last week of November I was swimming in Greece.

No, I’m not crazy, it was sunny and I did not find the water cold … OK, I will accept that I come from Peru where the sea water is cold, even in summer!

Vilma and I went to Neo Itilo with Saimir and had an incredible time with his family. We could not have been more spoiled: ate octopus freshly hunted and cooked by Martin, we had a go at olive picking and saw the whole process to make olive oil, we learned how to make the deliciously light spanakopita with Marci (Greek spinach pie with filo pastry), drunk lots of Greek coffee (thank you Ola!), were amazed by the fairy-like Vychlada caves, did some compulsory honey and olive shopping at Areopoli’s Saturday market, visited the ruins of a castle located between the towns of Neo Itilo and Kelefa … and I converted a couple of ladies into Zumba addicts!

From the field to the market, olives and olive oil in Greece. Clockwise from bottom left: olive picking in Itilo with battery activated rake, market in Areopoli, olive picking with rake in Itilo, green Olives and olives market stall in Athens, machinery to make olive oil near Itilo.

From the field to the market, olives and olive oil in Greece. Clockwise from bottom left: olive picking in Itilo with battery activated rake, market in Areopoli, olive picking with rake in Itilo, green Olives and olives market stall in Athens, machinery to make olive oil near Itilo.

I spent a few more days in Athens where Vilma would have gone crazy at the variety of olives on sale and I walked around the city following the itinerary tailored by my friends Panorea and Stavros.

Recipes and more comments on yummie food should follow soon, in the meantime if you are interested in olives and olive oil and happen to be in London this week you might want to go to Vilma’s free talk on this subject at the Natural History Museum. Vilma, please remind us the specific time and place.

Posted in: Fruits and berries | Tagged:

Tania’s versions of the Irish Brown Bread

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I’ve made this delicious and easy to make soda bread a couple of times since Vilma posted the recipe. I could not avoid altering the ingredients according to what I had in my cupboard at the time and also I knew I wanted to add some crunchy seeds anyway.

First successful bake: using a random amount of hemp seeds, wheat bran and strong flour instead of extra coarse wholemeal flour and using a mixture of milk, buttermilk and yoghurt to make up the 290ml of liquid required. I did not note down the exact amount of the ‘new’ ingredients, but remembered to keep the proportions mentioned in the original recipe.

Second successful bake: replacing the 113g of extra coarse wholemeal flour by 5g hemp seeds, 5g linseeds, 5g wheat bran, 98g strong flour and adding 1 tbsp treacle which gave a nice brown colour to my bread but also made it a tiny bit sweet. The picture talks by itself!

Have anyone tried other variations of this recipe? Please share your results with all of us!

Irish brown bread
Irish brown bread

Noel and Mary’s Irish Brown Bread

Posted by vilb 2 Comments

Sitting on a wooden bench in the ring fort of Cahercommaun, with our lunch all laid out in front of us, is an experience I will always treasure. The remains of this triple stone-fort is perched at the edge of a steep inland cliff, and overlooks a wooded valley that just stretches into the horizon. This is part of the Burren in county Clare in the Republic of Ireland. Noel (Senior) who was showing me around this rugged and sometimes surreal landscape had packed us a picnic lunch. Half a loaf of his homemade soda bread, a big chunk of local cheese, pats of butter from the Burren’s happy cows, two big slices of Mary’s (his wife) fruit cake and two flasks of tea. I had also picked up two more slices of cake, a tangy lemon and gooey ginger, from the farmers market in Ballyvaughan, in case we got hungry while we walked up the hill.

We ate our way through the lot and washed it down with the tea, while all around us the music of silence played its variations, interrupted now and again by the lone call of the cuckoo and our voices. The bread was just delicious and when Noel told me how easy it was to make, I was hooked and have made five loaves since I got back to London.

With Noel’s permission, here is the recipe that both he and Mary I am told take turns to make. It takes around 10 minutes to put the ingredients together and about half an hour to bake.

Ingredients (makes 1 loaf)

  • 170g/6 oz self raising flour
  • 113g/4 oz Howard’s extra coarse wholemeal flour
  • 1 tablespoon of wheat germ
  • 1 tablespoon of pinhead oatmeal
  • Pinch of salt
  • Half a teaspoon of baking soda also known as sodium bicarbonate
  • 290ml/half a pint of buttermilk
  • 1 tablespoon of sunflower oil
  • 1 egg


Mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl so that the baking soda is evenly distributed. In a separate bowl, lightly whisk the egg, oil and buttermilk and add to the dry ingredients. Mix quickly and spoon the mixture into an oiled loaf tin. Spread evenly and smooth the top. Bake at 200 degrees C for about 30 minutes and test with a skewer. If it comes out clean, take it out as it is done and cool on a wire rack. Enjoy this yeast free bread!

Brown Soda Bread
Eat when slightly warm when the butter just melts.


As we cannot get Howard’s flour in London, I used the strong whole meal, stone ground, organic bread flour instead. Baking soda not only produces the carbon dioxide which influences the texture of the bread, but also sodium carbonate, which is strongly alkaline and can give bread a bitter soapy taste. To neutralise this, acid ingredients like buttermilk, live yoghurt, brown sugar, molasses, fruit juice, vinegar or chocolate are added. A rule of thumb is half a teaspoon of baking soda is neutralized by 1 cup/240 ml of fermented milk, (buttermilk or yoghurt) or 1 teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar.

This evening I did not have buttermilk so used live yoghurt instead and when I next bake will add very small pieces of jalapeño peppers to see what it tastes like – or maybe jalapeño with chocolate?

Fresh Fennel

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Browsing through the farmers’ market last month I spotted a box of fennel bulbs, two for £1.50. The last time I bought fennel it was for a particular recipe, and I paid quite a hefty price in the supermarket. That recipe (a delicious salad of fennel, watercress and pear with a lime dressing from Nigel Slater’s beautifully written ‘Kitchen Diaries’) was too wintery for a sunny May afternoon, but I had oranges and sunflower seeds at home. Instant inspiration. The delicate aniseed crunch of the fennel combines beautifully with citrus.

Today the market made its monthly appearance and I quickly hunted out the fennel, managing by great strength of will (and an empty wallet) to avoid the temptation of cakes, handmade chocolates and posh cheeses.

As it happens it’s grey as Mordor out there today, so I came home and had pasta. The second the sun comes out though, that fennel is for the chop!

A Summery Fennel Salad

Wash and very finely slice two bulbs of fennel
Toast and lightly crush a generous handful of hazelnuts, or use sunflower seeds or a combination.

To make the dressing, whisk the juice of two freshly squeezed oranges with olive oil, Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper. Adjust to your taste.

Spread out the sliced fennel in a dish, pour over the oil, add the nuts/seeds and gently combine.

Wensleydale cheese goes really well with this salad, perhaps with some fresh multi-seed bread.

Fragrant florals – Orange Blossom and Rose Water

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No compromises here – it’s authentic or nothing. Middle Eastern brands are not widely available outside big cities in the UK but they’re worth seeking out and stockpiling if necessary. The supermarket versions lack potency while being horribly over-priced. Frankly, they’re so insipid they make me angry. A sniff of the good stuff meanwhile will make English winters just about bearable.

There are many traditional recipes for using rose water and orange blossom water in cookbooks and online, but once you’ve got the ingredients right do stray from the orthodox paths and see what you find. I added a few teaspoons of orange blossom water to a baked cheesecake recipe (from The Hummingbird Bakery cookbook) and the result was divine. The rich, smooth texture of the cheesecake was given a delicate floral lift, adding flavour without over-complicating the classic dessert.

Both orange blossom and rose water work well in the traditional English sponge cake and to flavour the icing. I like these combinations:
Lavender cake with orange blossom icing (blitz fresh lavender flowers with the sugar to flavour the sponge cake, then mix orange blossom water with icing sugar and a little water)
Geranium cake with rose water icing (lay some geranium leaves at the bottom of the cake tin to perfume the sponge, make icing as above)

Morning sunshine drink

  • Juice of a pink grapefruit
  • Juice of an orange
  • Juice of ½ lime
  • Generous splash of orange blossom water

Grilled Grapefruit

  1. Cut a grapefruit in half, use a knife to score around the segments for easier eating later
  2. Sprinkle with rose or orange blossom water
  3. Add a little agave syrup or brown sugar if you like it sweet
  4. Grill until bubbling

Vegan dessert

  • A scoop of vanilla Swedish Glace vegan ice cream
  • A scattering of pomegranate seeds and chopped pistachios
  • A sprinkling of orange blossom water

Looks messy but colourful, tastes divine.

Pomegranate Molasses

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I discovered pomegranate molasses by accident. I had treated myself to a rare jaunt up to London for a tour of the Wallace Collection and lunch at the Lebanese cafe Comptoir Libanais where I had my first taste of Baba Ghanoush. On their deli shelves were Middle Eastern brands of orange blossom water, rose water and pomegranate molasses. They clinked merrily in my bag on the way home and soon got used up.

I’m not ashamed to be addicted. I confess to feeling a flutter of panic when the bottles are down to their last quarter. Recently I had a go at making my own pomegranate molasses, following an online recipe of pure pomegranate juice with a little sugar and lemon juice. The sugar made it too jammy for my taste. Thanks to a friend I’ve got a couple of bought bottles to tide me over and afterwards I’ll try simmering down just the juice to see if that gives a more authentic flavour.

As for why it’s become so necessary, I’ve found that pomegranate molasses adds a pleasing, rounded sharpness to salad dressings, less abrasive than balsamic vinegar. It’s traditionally used to jazz up Baba Ghanoush and as a marinade for meat and is great with veggie sausages and tofu.

Baba Ghanoush – recipes vary, this is my favourite so far

  • 2 aubergines, blackened under the grill or over flames (takes a while) – flesh removed and excess liquid squeezed out.
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1-2 tablespoons tahini
  • 1-2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • olive oil
  • salt to taste
  • ground cumin
  • pomegranate seeds and chopped pistachios or chopped fresh mint to decorate

Blitz in a blender or mash together with a fork, taste and adjust seasonings. Serve with pitta bread.

Pomegranate molasses dressing for quinoa & vegetable summer salad.

  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1 stick lemongrass, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
  • juice and zest of a lime
  • salt and pepper
  • a little honey or agave syrup if sweetness is needed

Whisk together, taste and make any adjustments.

Cook quinoa and while still warm, mix in ½ of the dressing. Chop fresh beetroot, carrot, courgette, curly kale, spinach or watercress, peas, fresh herbs, and add to the warm quinoa. Roasted squash (especially with cumin & cinnamon) is a nice addition.  Sprinkle over some seeds – pumpkin and sunflower work well. Pour over the rest of the dressing, stir and serve.

Brownies – Yeliz’s very first attempt at baking

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At work, we talk a lot about food, so Yeliz decided it was time to take the plunge and start baking. So she came in last week with these mouth-watering brownies. It was not only delicious but also looked great with that wonderful glaze. For someone who had never baked this was a tall order and here is the recipe in Yeliz’s own words………..

Ok so I’ve been afraid of baking since I was young. Last night, at the age of 25 I finally plucked up the courage and made brownies after getting a simple baking book for christmas.
To my surprise they were actually firm on top and gooey in the middle..everyone loved them! Now I have told my loyal followers to beware because I am on a baking mission. I have copied the recipe below, so have a go, if I can do it ANYONE can and Happy Baking!


  • 115g of butter
  • 85g of good quality plain chocolate minimum 70% cocoa solids
  • 4 medium eggs, beaten
  • 2 tsp of vanilla extract
  • 400g of caster suger
  • 115g of plain flour
  • 25g of cocoa powder
  • 115g milk choc chips
  • *115g of white choc chips
  • 8 butterscotch sweets roughly chopped

*instead of using 115g of white choc chips I used approximately 100g of chopped hazelnuts.


*before I started mixing anything together I measured all of my ingredients and put them in separate bowls.

  1. Preheat oven to 190 degrees C or gas mark 5.
  2. Butter a 11x7in shallow baking tin & line with greaseproof paper
  3. Melt butter and plain chocolate in heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water
  4. Remove from heat and stir in the beaten eggs, vanilla extract and caster sugar. Mix thouroghly
  5. Sift in flour and coca powder and beat until evenly mixed.
  6. Stir in milk choc chips, butterscotch pieces and hazelnuts
  7. Spoon mixture into tin and spread evenly

*For a fudge like brownie bake for 35minutes until the top is set but still moist in the middle.
*For a cake like brownie, bake for a further 5-10minutes.

Oh, they were yummy!

This recipe was adapted from ‘Easy everyday simple’ cookbook, published by Quadrille Publishing Limited.

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Flying pans and pancakes!

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Well, I never thought Saimir would take some of what we discuss about food on board, but he did. One day last week he wanted to know what he could have for his dinner so I suggested savoury pancakes with some filling. He said he had all the ingredients to make the pancakes and would like to use his new frying pan. So I gave him some options as to the filling and he said he could get some onions, peppers and cheese. Back he came the next day and boy oh boy. Here was this young lad with puffed out chest and heels rising off the carpet, proudly announcing that he had made the most delicious pancakes he had ever eaten.

So, I thought I could share this for all those hungry students out there as this is very simple and easy to make. The ingredients are as in my previous blog for pancakes made by Yeliz and Suzy but without the sugar. He sautéed the onions and peppers in a little bit of butter and said he added some dried parsley and oregano, salt and pepper to taste. He only made 5 pancakes but he said the 2 first ones did not even hit the plate but went straight down his gullet. Greed satisfied to some degree, he then layered the onion and pepper mixture onto the pancakes in layers with some sliced cheddar cheese.

We are so glad that we have set him well on the path to cook for himself with his flying or is it frying ceramic pan.

Posted in: Vegetables | Tagged: , , ,

Upside down spiced apple cake

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Once upon the time there were 5 old wrinkling apples. They were getting older by the day but could still remember their life journey. From firm fruits attached to the branches of the tree to falling on the garden grass, picked from the garden grass and placed into Elena’s basket, passed from Elena’s basket to Tania’s plastic bag, from Tania’s plastic bag to the Algerian ceramic dish on top of the fridge. And there, with some other fruits the apples looked at me for a couple of weeks. Gone were the days when the sun would wake them up and the rain would shower them. Now they seemed to ignore the time passing, resigned to see the electric light at the end of the day and maybe waiting to see the first signs of softness in their flesh. For some strange (or not so strange) reason they were not getting rotten … they were giving me a chance. Finally, their glorious day arrived, I thought I would make an upside down cake with them! I looked for recipes on the web and on my cooking books and notes, and in a Frankensteinly way I made this upside down spiced apple cake taking elements from a supermarket recipe card and from the Girl Interrupted Eating blog (

Think about the Little Prince next time when you are about to throw some food away and remember: L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

Upside down spiced apple cake


  • 5 apples, peeled and cored
  • 1 lemon
  • ½ tsp allspice
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tbsp soft brown sugar
  • 110 g butter
  • 110 g soft brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 110 g self-raising flour
  • 55 g ground almond
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ginger powder
  • ¼ tsp nutmeg


Cut the apples in slices (you decide the thickness) and sprinkle them with the lemon juice, the table spoon of sugar, and the half tea spoons of cinnamon and allspice. Set aside.  Cream together butter and sugar and when creamy, add the eggs. Incorporate all the dry ingredients (preferably sifted) to the creamy mixture. You will have a thick batter. In a silicone tin, greased pyrex or cake tin lined with baking paper place the apple slices. Put the batter on top and even the surface (don’t be shy and use your fingers if necessary). Place in a preheated oven at 200 ºC / Gas 6 for 15-20 minutes. Check if the cake is fully cooked by inserting a toothpick in the middle, it should come out clean. This cake can be kept for a few days and works very well with vanilla ice cream.