I spent the Easter weekend with my parents at our house in France. It was lovely for many reasons (mainly involving sunshine, wine and not having to go to work). Contrary to what many people imagine, most of the restaurants around us are absolutely terrible, serving overly-fussy and complicated food at hugely inflated prices. Given the quality of the local produce, it seems such a waste.
Our favourite ‘local’ restaurant is about half an hour away in one of the neighbouring towns. It’s a grand old house that’s been converted into a charming restaurant and hotel. In the summer, you can eat in their beautiful courtyard, in the shade of the huge plane trees. In the winter, the open up a series of pretty dining rooms, all decorated in that magazine-worthy rustic French style. The food is always excellent and the kitchen goes out of its way to ensure that any allergies/intolerances/dislikes are catered for (case in point, after lunch on Easter Sunday, they brought out some petit fours for the table. As soon as the waitress put the plate down, she realised that my father couldn’t eat any of them and so rushed back to the kitchen and brought him out a separate plate of homemade strawberry marshmallows. Most of which I ate, obviously).
What I think really sets it apart though is the respect that the chefs have for their ingredients and the simplicity with which they treat them. On Easter Sunday, our first course was a small bowl of asparagus soup, sprinkled with a touch of paprika and garnished with chives. That was it and it was perfect. Later, there was another perfect dish of leeks in a hazelnut vinaigrette (admittedly this was supposed to be served with sweetbreads as we are in France after all but I skipped this part of the dish). The cheese course was just a round of mild goat’s cheese on a bed of lamb’s lettuce, dressed in olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. There were a lot of courses but nothing was fussy or intimidating. It was just good cooking. (And, given that the price included a glass of champagne and unlimited rose/red wine, excellent value for money).
Whenever I get myself caught up in knots over whatever I’m cooking/baking or feel like I’m totally off my game, it’s almost always because I’ve been over-complicating things. Last Sunday, we were supposed to be going out for lunch for my grandfather-in-law to be’s 80th birthday. Late on Saturday night, the plans changed to afternoon tea in the garden and, naturally, I immediately started scrolling through pinterest for inspiration for what to contribute. I rattled through a list of all sorts of elaborate ideas – cakes topped with macarons (even though I’ve only made macarons once in my life), a croquembouche (which we would then have to carry on a tube, on a train and in a taxi), at least three ideas which would require me to start baking there and then – when my boyfriend asked why I didn’t just bake another batch of these blueberry and ricotta muffins.
As it happens, I didn’t but I did take the hint. The food that people really enjoy eating is often the most simple. In the end, I made some basic chocolate cupcakes (a recipe I’ve made several times before and I know is reliable – to make it gluten free I used a mix of rice flour and ground almonds), sploged a little vanilla buttercream on top and added a strawberry. Nothing could have been easier but, when the time finally came for afternoon tea, they were, without exception, the first thing that everyone reached for.
This is pretty much my standard muffin recipe with a few small tweaks to account for the ricotta - using ricotta (rather than yoghurt/buttermilk) makes the muffins slightly denser in texture but still fluffy and moist (ugh) inside. I really like it. I have a pretty generous hand which it comes to blueberries - some of these are almost more fruit than muffin. I've used frozen and fresh berries without an issue in the past.
- 95g (2/3 cup + 1 1/2 tablespoon) brown rice flour
- 1 tablespoon corn flour
- 45g (just under 1/2 cup) ground almonds
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 60g (1/4 cup) demerara sugar
- 1 large egg
- 75h (1/3 cup) ricotta
- 2 tablespoons milk
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Zest of 1/2 a lemon
- A cup or so of blueberries
- Flaked almonds, to scatter on top (totally optional)
- Muffin-making is pretty simple. Take one large bowl and lightly whisk together the flours, ground almonds, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt and sugar, just until everything is dispersed. In another bowl, whisk together the egg, vanilla, ricotta, milk, olive oil and lemon zest until smooth and no lumps of ricotta remain.
- Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ingredients and gently fold a couple of times with a metal spoon, until the streaks of flour just about disappear. Set the batter aside to relax for half an hour or so before stirring through the blueberries.
- Preheat the oven to 170C/325F (fan) and line a muffin/cupcake pan with paper cases. Spoon the batter into the muffin cases and sprinkle with flaked almonds if you feel like it. Bake for 20 - 25 minutes until risen and firm to the touch. Allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes before removing