Chocolate crème brûlée surprise

You’ll probably need cheering up this morning after the election results and, if you want to make a dinner party-worthy dessert that will make you friends for life, look no further than this chocolate crème brûlée surprise. It’s ridiculously simple to make ahead and you can mix up the surprise element every time you serve it. You tap into the crisp caramel topping, scoop up the trembling, rich dark chocolate crème and then a little bit of something extra at the bottom of the dish…….a little cherry conserve, some sharp orange curd, a touch of salted caramel perhaps. I’ve experimented with lots of different surprise layers – all delicious!

chocolate creme brulee

Makes 6

  • 175g of good quality (at least 70%+ coco-solids) dark chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 3 egg yolks (save the whites to make pavlova – they freeze well) 
  • 500 ml double cream
  • Caster sugar for the brûlée topping
  • For the surprise: 6 dessert spoons of Morello cherry conserve, or dulce de leche, or orange curd…..any surprise you like!
  • Optional: a tablespoon of Kahlua or dark rum. Omit if you will be serving this to children.

To make…

  • Preheat the oven to 160°C.
  • creme brulee prepPlace six individual oven-proof ceramic mousse or ramekin dishes in a large roasting tin. Add a dessert spoon of the ‘surprise’ of your choice in the bottom of each dish and spread it evenly across the base.
  • Pour the double cream into a non-stick milk pan and add the chocolate pieces. Over a low heat, melt the chocolate in the cream. Whisk until smooth. Set aside to cool slightly. Add the Kahlua or rum now if you’re going for this option.
  • Meanwhile, whisk the eggs yolks thoroughly in a large mixing jug – I use my Pyrex one as it makes it easier to pour the mixture into the serving dishes.
  • Pour the cooled chocolate and cream mixture into the yolks, whisking quickly as you pour. Whisk until smooth and the eggs are thoroughly incorporated.
  • Fill the six pots equally with the chocolate mixture.
  • Boil a kettle of water and fill the roasting tin with the chocolate pots until it reaches about half way up. Be careful not to get the water into the chocolate.
  • Put the tray in the oven and bake for 12 minutes. A thin film should have formed on the top of each chocolate pot. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, lift the pots out of the water and refrigerate overnight. I usually empty the water from the tray, put the pots back in and then store them in the fridge.
  • A couple of hours before you want to serve the dessert, take it out of the fridge.
  • No more than 30 minutes before you serve, make the brûlée topping. Cover the top of each pot with caster sugar, swirl it around a little so the top is evenly covered and tip away any excess sugar. Using a cook’s blowtorch, or a very hot grill, melt the sugar so that it melts and forms a thin, crisp caramelised crust. Be careful not to burn it or it will taste bitter. Don’t refrigerate them again or make the topping earlier than 30 minutes before you want it or the sugar topping will liquefy.
  • Serve to moans of delight………especially when they find the surprise!


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Chickpea and bulgar wheat salad with fresh herb dressing

The nutty flavours of bulgur wheat and chickpeas go beautifully with the fresh olive oil and lemon dressing and the tang of the fresh herbs in this delicious Middle Eastern salad. It’s great with roasted and BBQ meats, or as part of a vegetarian feast.

Chickpea and bulgur salad

Serves 6

  • 200g bulgur wheat
  • 1 chicken stock cube or stock-pot
  • 1 x 400g tin of chickpeas, drained
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • Juice of 2 lemons, the zest of one
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1 large bunch of mint, chopped
  • 1 small bunch of fresh coriander, celery tops or lovage, chopped

To make…

  • Cook the bulgur wheat in a saucepan of 500ml hot chicken stock made with a good quality stock cube or gel stock-pot. Cover with a lid. The wheat should absorb all the stock and cook through in the steam. Allow to cool and fork through so it fluffs up.
  • Meanwhile, mix the oil, garlic, lemon and seasoning together in a large bowl and add the chickpeas. Leave to marinate until the bulgur wheat is ready.
  • Mix the bulgur, chickpeas, dressing and chopped herbs together. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
  • Transfer to a serving bowl.
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Baby tomato and roasted pepper salad with sherry vinegar dressing

The secret to this beautiful and vibrant looking salad is the colourful mix of red and yellow peppers and baby tomatoes; the sherry vinegar dressing brings out their natural sweetness.

heritage tomato and pepper salad

You will need…

  • 2 x 250g packs of mixed yellow and red baby tomatoes – sliced in half. I used Tesco Finest mixed baby tomatoes. 
  • 3 large red and yellow long pointed peppers – I bought mine from Sainsbury’s. These are much easier to roast and skin than bell peppers and have a lovely sweet flavour. 
  • Dressing: 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon of sherry vinegar, a pinch of sea salt.

To make…

Preheat the oven to 220°C. Place the peppers on a baking tray and roast for 30 minutes until the skins blister. Remove, allow to cool. The skins should slip off easily, remove the seeds and cut into strips.

Add the sliced peppers and tomatoes together with the dressing and mix thoroughly. Leave to infuse for half an hour or so before serving. The juices from the peppers and the tomatoes will mix together and enhance the flavour. Serve at room temperature.

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Cumin spiced lentils with pasta and caramelised onions

Savoury side dishes that mix spiced grains, lentils and pasta are very common in Middle Eastern cookery and this is one of my favourites. It’s wonderful as part of a mezze-style lunch or supper with roast lamb or chicken. Tasty, quick, easy and inexpensive to make, it will quickly become a favourite with your family too. I like the savoury combination of just the cumin, stock and onions but you could also give a little chilli kick too. I’ve also made a version of this to use up chopped leftover BBQ lamb and some fried aubergine pieces stirred through at the end to make a substantial main course supper dish. Yum!

Green lentils with pasta and onions

Serves 4 to 6 and takes about 25 minutes.

  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons of light olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil
  • 100g large green or brown lentils
  • 100g dry tagliatelle nests
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 1 chicken stock cube
  • Large handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon of cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • optional: a pinch of chilli flakes or powder

To make…

  • Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan, add the cumin seeds and allow them to sizzle for a few minutes. Add and fry the onion and garlic until brown and caramelised. Sprinkle in the ground cumin (plus the chilli option) and a pinch of salt.
  • Meanwhile, rinse the lentils in plenty of cold water. Boil them in plenty of water with the chicken stock cube for about 10 to 15 minutes until just tender.
  • Break the tagliatelle nests into the stock with the lentils and cook until al dente. I usually look at the pack instructions to see when to add the pasta – I usually cook the lentils for 15 minutes and pasta for 10 so you add the pasta after 5 minutes basically.
  • Drain quickly and toss in the extra virgin olive oil and then stir in the onions and the chopped parsley. Check for seasoning and sprinkle with a little extra Maldon salt or freshly ground black pepper to taste.
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8 pieces of kitchen equipment I can’t do without!

I spend a lot of time in my kitchen but, like most people, I don’t have an endless amount of storage and I don’t like keeping gadgets just for the sake of it. So, what am I willing to give houseroom to and what couldn’t I live without? These are a few of my favourite kitchen tools – if you click on the links in the text, you can find out how to add them to your collection if you don’t have them already.


The Good Grips range is top amongst my favourite makes of essential kitchen equipment. Well made, substantial and easy to clean, I couldn’t live without a Y-shaped vegetable peeler and this is my absolute favourite one.


Whether it’s for draining pasta, grains, vegetables, flour or tea leaves, a good set of metal sieves and strainers is an essential component of my daily-use kitchen arsenal. I really like the easy-to-hold handles on these.


It might seem like an extravagance but I love having my Magimix Le Glacier ice cream and sorbet maker primed and ready for action in the freezer drawer. It’s not so difficult to buy a wide variety of ice cream varieties in supermarkets or artisan food markets but sorbets are another matter. Lemon or mango appear to be the extent of the range and I am in my element whipping up an unusual sorbet. Check out my recipes for Wimbledon Gin and TonicChocolate EspressoCucumber White Wine and Mint, and Roasted Plum sorbets and you’ll definitely be convinced!

I have several Le Creuset cast iron casserole dishes of varying sizes. They aren’t cheap but I’ve used mine for years so, if you look after them, you can literally consider them the most solid of investments. Casseroles, curries and oven baked dishes of all kinds cook beautifully in these. The heat is evenly distributed and the finish to the final result is just always so much better than stove top cooking. Try out my Slow Cooked Brisket with Red Wine Gravy and you’ll see what I mean.

Laguiole waiter’s friend corkscrew is quite the best tool for opening the copious bottles of wine that seem to feature at Pigeon Cottage!



I don’t have enough space to keep this out on the counter all the time but I’m happy to give this Kenwood Food Processor room in my kitchen cupboard. I couldn’t grate large amounts of vegetables for salads, breadcrumbs for stuffings and gratins or make quick pastry and crumble toppings without it! I also keep a mini blender handy for quickly whizzing small amounts of garlic and ginger pastes for curries and the like.


I love making curries and spicy food of all kinds.  They taste much better when the spices have been freshly toasted and ground and I keep an Andrew James coffee grinder especially for that purpose  i.e. I don’t use it for coffee. It’s much less effort than grinding spices with a mortar and pestle anyway. Well worth the investment!


microplane graterI have a couple of box graters for coarse grating carrots, cheddar cheese and the like but these Microplane graters are just brilliant for finely grating hard cheeses like Parmesan, fresh garlic, fresh ginger and for zesting lemons and oranges. They’re also brilliant for making fine breadcrumbs from chunks of stale bread or finely grating chocolate for desserts. Try one, you’ll wonder how you managed without.


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