Crispy Caper and Polenta Salad

by Miss South on September 14, 2014

fig saladOk, let’s get the humour about Northern Irish and Scottish people not quite understanding salad out of the way. This one does contain fried things, but what do you think those lovely croutons in your Caesar salad are, huh? So let’s carry on with what is really a perfect early autumn lunch instead and celebrate crispy crunchy fried things in style.

This salad is built round polenta which is the other Italian staple carbohydrate in town.  Made from cornmeal cooked into a thick porridge, British people have never quite taken it to their hearts like they have with pasta. This is partly because we have little connection with eating corn in this country beyond the odd tin of Green Giant and partly because polenta can be quite bland.

In fact, the first time I had polenta as a child, I was actually quite repelled by its blandness. Almost offensive in its nothingness, it kept me away from eating it for years. Then I realised you should never ever buy precooked polenta and that like all the best foods on earth, it needs a liberal hand with the butter. Now I’m a regular polenta eater.

However, I’m not an authentic polenta maker. Firstly I usually make it in the slow cooker rather than stand around stirring slowly to make it smooth and creamy the old fashioned and energetic way and secondly, I add stock to mine. This is near sacrilege to a friend whose family are Northern Italian, but it’s the only way I can add enough flavour without bunging an entire block of Kerrygold in there and missing the point of peasant food.

polenta cubesI tend to make a big batch of polenta and eat half like a thick porridge to soak up ragus or stews (also usually done in the slow cooker) and then allow the other half to cool into blocks and eat it almost like a springier version of cornbread. This cooled polenta is especially good cubed and fried until crispy round the edges. Here I’ve scattered it over a salad but it works well as a breakfast dish with scrambled eggs and tomatoes too for a filling and gluten free start to the day.

Crispy Polenta, Caper and Fig Salad (serves 2 as a main meal)

  • 250g cooked polenta (see below)
  • 75ml olive oil
  • 1 romaine lettuce, finely shredded
  • 1 head broccoli, lightly blanched
  • 2 fresh figs, quartered
  • 2 tablespoons capers
  • 1 tablespoon fig relish (see page 133 of Recipes from Brixton Village)
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  • 25g parmesan, shaved
  • 1 red chilli, chopped

Slow Cooker Polenta (serves 4)

  • 175g coarse cornmeal
  • 850ml boiling water or stock
  • salt and pepper
  • 50g butter
  • 50g parmesan (optional)

Start with your slow cooker polenta. I make this the day before and have the salad as a leftovers based lunch. Polenta is often labelled ‘coarse cornmeal’ as well which tends to have the effect of reducing the price by at least half in supermarkets. Look out for Dunn’s River in the red bags in the World Foods section rather than someone like Merchant Gourmet in the Italian aisle.

Pour the dry cornmeal into the slow cooker crock and add the water or stock. Make sure it is as close to boiling as possible. I usually use chicken stock, but veg stock would be lovely here too. Season it all well with salt and pepper and then add a bit more to counteract any blandness.

Put the lid on the slow cooker. Cook the polenta on low for 6-7 hours or high for 3-4. The polenta will thickened and become creamy textured after this time, but don’t be surprised if there is a little water on top of it all and it looks slightly separated when you take the lid off. This is quite normal and all it needs is a good stir. Add the butter and parmesan at this stage.

Serve now if using with a stew (I’ve got a pig cheek number to share with you soon) or pour into a well lined baking tray and smooth the top down evenly. Allow to set overnight before cutting into 3cm cubes the next day.

Heat a frying pan with the olive oil and make sure it gets almost spitting hot before dropping a few of the polenta cubes in at a time. They have an annoying tendency to stick if you don’t heat the oil well, but be careful as it will make a bit of a mess now as they fry. The cubes need about 2 minutes either side, flipping half way. Drain them onto kitchen roll and repeat until they are all cooked.

Prepare your broccoli by steaming it for a few minutes. I usually do this in a covered bowl in the microwave as I don’t have a steamer. Allow to cool slightly and set aside. Finely shred your lettuce and place in a large salad bowl. Toss the broccoli in. Halve the figs and carefully peel the purply green skin back to expose just the white pith and jewel like seeds. Quarter them and set aside.

Make the dressing by placing a heaped tablespoon of the fig relish into a jam jar and adding the balsamic vinegar. Screw the lid on and shake well until you have a pouring consistency. You might need to add a drop or two of water to it as well. If you don’t have any fig relish, just add a little splash of honey to the balsamic vinegar instead.

Dress the lettuce and broccoli with the figgy dressing and add the quartered figs. Drop the drained capers into the remaining hot oil and fry for 2 minutes until they are crispy and sizzling. Scatter them and the still hot polenta croutons over the salad. Garnish with the chopped red chilli and parmesan shavings and eat promptly. This makes an excellent alternative to the ubiquitous Caesar salad and will convert anyone to polenta in no time.

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Homemade Alcoholic Ginger Beer

by Miss South on September 7, 2014

ginger beerI have been mildly obsessed by ginger beer ever since I grew up gorging myself on Enid Blyton novels with their constant mention of it. (I did always wonder how English people had so much ginger knocking around when it was as rare as hen’s teeth in 1980s Ireland in comparison.) My only taste of ginger beer as a nipper was the occasional can of Idris Fiery Ginger Beer and this also confused me as to how the Famous Five could make fizzy drinks at home. But then again, I never found any shipwrecks round my way either so I think I knew not to compare myself to them too closely.

Living in Brixton these days, I drink a lot of ginger beer made from fresh ginger and often given a hearty slug of dark rum at my friend Brian’s restaurant Fish Wings and Tings in Brixton Village. Fiery and refreshing, it was perfect in the hot weather earlier this summer.

However my tastes in drinks run to the sparkling. Anyone who has ever been to my flat knows that I order fizzy water in quantities so immense I should really have stop using bottles and just park a tanker outside instead. Could I make a fizzy ginger beer to tick all my beverage boxes at once?

Mister North recently got a copy of The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz and has been making kefir and other fermented drinks at home while both he and our mum have the successful touch with their sourdough starters. Still slightly resentful of the time someone chose to break up with me so they could spend more time with their new sourdough starter, I have resisted the fermenting trend thus far. But I discovered you can make a ginger beer ‘plant’ with ginger and yeast and it will fermented to make both bubbles and booze you can drink. My time had come.

Recipes told me that I could use both dried ginger and fresh ginger for this plant, but believing the dried powder to be too good to be true, I decided I would experiment and try a batch of both. I also didn’t want to have to splash out on champagne yeast so having finally obtained some fresh yeast tried it instead. I did get bubbles this way but the flavour was so intensely damp and yeasty, it was undrinkable.

I tried again with some champagne yeast I bought off Ebay and the overpowering yeasty flavour was replaced with something more subtle and crisp due to the tight little bubbles it created. Unfortunately there was no flavour or fire from either the fresh or dried ginger and the whole thing was unpleasantly bland.

I went for third time lucky and decided to adapt Brian’s recipe in Recipes from Brixton Village to combine it with my fresh ginger plant and create a fizzy ginger beer with a kick. Instead of just relying on the plant for flavour, I steeped fresh ginger and sugar in water overnight as well and it was perfect.

Full of flavour and fizz and just alcoholic enough to warm the cockles further, it was well worth the experimenting. It’s not a quick recipe but it’s fun to do and works out much cheaper than bottled ginger beers from the supermarket if this is a favoured tipple.

Alcoholic Ginger Beer (makes 3 litres)

For the plant:

  • 750ml warm water
  • 1.5 teaspoons champagne yeast
  • 250g grated fresh ginger
  • 8 teaspoons sugar

For the ginger beer:

  • 3 litres water
  • 500g grated fresh ginger
  • 1 kg sugar

The whole recipe will take about 2 weeks to make from start to finish, including creating your plant and fermenting the ginger beer. It will then keep for several weeks unrefrigerated, ready to drink when you choose.

Begin your plant by mixing the yeast and the warm water in a clean glass jar. The water should be no warmer than blood temperature so you don’t kill the yeast. Allow it to sit for 5 or 10 minutes so that it begins to bubble and froth. Add the grated ginger. You don’t need to peel it. The skin of the ginger is particularly abundant of wild yeasts that will aid fermentation so just grate it coarsely on a box grater and bung it into the jar.

Add one teaspoon of sugar and leave the jar somewhere fairly warm to begin fermenting. You then want to feed it one teaspoon of sugar everyday for another week. Each time you feed it, give it a little stir and listen to the sounds of it bubbling and foaming gently. Mine almost sounded like it was sighing in pleasure when I fed it and I grew quite fond of it.

On the sixth night, put 3 litres of cold water into a large saucepan and bring it to the boil. Add the kilo of sugar and stir until dissolved. Grate the ginger on the largest holes of a box grater and again, don’t worry about it being peeled. Turn the heat off when the water comes to the boil and the sugar is dissolved and then add the ginger. Put the lid on and allow to steep overnight.

Next day, feed the plant one last time. Try not to feel oddly guilty that you are about to end its life and strain the fresh ginger out through a muslin cloth, retaining the liquid left behind. Twist the cloth round on itself to drain out every drop of the liquid you can and discard the ginger pulp.

Pour the steeped ginger beer through a sieve or muslin cloth to separate out the ginger. Again, squeeze the ginger well to wring out as much of the liquid in it as possible. Discard the pulp. Add the drained plant liquid into the ginger beer and stir well to mix.

Take two clean plastic two litre drinks bottles and fill them part way with the ginger beer mix. I took mine to the top of the label, allowing lots of room for expansion. Do not use glass bottles for this. The sugar and the yeasts react to create the gas that makes the beer fizzy and glass bottles don’t have any give for this and may shatter dangerously. Do not overfill the bottles even if you are making a larger amount of ginger beer than given here. Simply use more bottles.

Screw the lids on tightly and leave the bottles somewhere warm, but not in direct sunlight for a week to ferment. You will see them start to expand and bulge and you may hear them crackle slightly. Loosen the lids slightly if they start to distort, but don’t open the bottles completely until needed.

Carefully twist the lids open a little at a time to allow the pressure to escape. The ginger beer will fizz and expand hugely as you do this so don’t do it quickly unless you want to be soaked in a tidal wave of fizzy drink. Once the pressure is settled, pour the ginger beer into glasses, add ice and rum if liked and drink.

I don’t have a hydrometer so I’m not sure what kind of ABV this is. I drank two glasses without any added rum and felt gently merry before dinner which was delightful. It’s not suitable for kids and definitely not if you’re driving. It’s much less sweet than the commercial brands of alcoholic ginger beer and much more fun to make. I think I’ve got the home brewing bug now…

 

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Slow Cooker Rabbit Stew

by Miss South on August 31, 2014

rbbitFor ages, it was tradition for me to go and visit Mister North in the countryside over August Bank Holiday weekend. My dancing all day at Carnival days are over so it was very relaxing to head to West Yorkshire to breathe in the fresh air, frequent country pubs and eat well.

Unfortunately I also cooked one of the worst meals I’ve ever made on one Bank Holiday visit. It was a rabbit stew of such dryness that it was almost completely inedible and every single time Mister North or I so much as think about eating or cooking rabbit, we mention it in hushed (and horrified) tones.

Rabbit is a very lean meat with almost no fat and thus it’s easy to cook all the moisture out of it. It’s also a meat that most people in the UK don’t regularly eat or cook because of a combination of it being seen as poor wartime food, the myxamatosis scare of the 70s and the Watership Down/Beatrix Potter effect. This means we don’t grow up learning how it should be cooked or eaten and have anything to compare our efforts too.

Even I took a while to get into the swing of cooking things I used to keep as a childhood pet, so getting the hang of rabbit took me time. The terrible rabbit stew came from a frozen wild rabbit and was then soaked in vinegar water to tenderise it. I won’t be repeating either of these things again. It might work better if I’d brined it though.

I also irrationally despise the tactic of cooking drier meats with bacon to bard them. I’m not entirely sure why this practice enrages me so much, but it’s also fairly pointless with the kind of lean back bacon in vogue these days. I seemed destined to never exorcise the ghost of the terrible rabbit stew.

Then as my slow cooker chronicles progressed and I was making seriously succulent stews, I decided to risk doing bunny in it. And it was fantastic. It was one of the dishes I enjoyed the most while recipe testing and I was really disappointed when it didn’t fit into my chapter structures and had to be set aside (hopefully for next time.) When I saw a wild rabbit at Herne Hill Market this August Bank Holiday weekend, I knew the time had come to revisit the technique, adding a beautiful big Bramley apple, some fresh tarragon and white wine this time.

Rabbit Stew with Apple, Fennel and Tarragon in White Wine

  • 1 whole rabbit, jointed into six
  • 50g plain flour
  • 1 tablespoon mustard powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt and pepper
  • 4 medium potatoes, preferably floury like a King Edward, sliced
  • 1 leek, sliced into half moons
  • 1 bulb fennel, sliced to the thickness of pound coins
  • 1 Bramley apple, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons tarragon, fresh or dried
  • 250ml white wine or vermouth (use stock if you don’t care for alcohol)
  • 100ml water
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 50ml cream to finish (optional)
  • more fresh tarragon to garnish

Rabbits usually come skinned and unjointed. I use poultry shears to divide it into six pieces: two back legs, two front legs and the body halved. Remove the offal if attached. You can pan fry it separately, but I find it a bit bitter for adding to the sauce.

Season the flour with the salt, pepper and mustard and coat each portion of rabbit well. Shake off any excess.

Prepare the vegetables as detailed above. Add half of them as a layer on the bottom on the slow cooker crock, then place the seasoned rabbit on top. Season further and add the tarragon. Cover with the remaining vegetables.

Carefully pour the liquid down the side of the crock so it doesn’t wash all the flour off the the rabbit. You could use cider here as the flavours work and it’s less expensive than a bottle of wine. I was splashing out. Cover with the lid and cook on low for 8 hours or on high for 5 hours.

The rabbit will become plump, moist and tender while you get a wonderful stock meets gravy in the bottom of the crock. The vegetables have soaked up the flavour and be soft and yielding. Any fresh tarragon you used will still be surprisingly robust after the slow cooking, but I like to add some more chopped fresh tarragon to the stew before serving. You can also add some cream at this stage too if you like it all a little richer.

Serve in shallow bowls. The rabbit should fall off the bone beautifully. All you need with it is the remainder of the bottle of wine and some crusty bread to soak up any juices going begging. Rabbit turned out to be just the thing when I wanted slow cooked comfort on an unseasonable weekend without anything being too heavy. Another slow cooker triumph (for the others see below….)

book cover

 

 

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beaters

As I’ve mentioned in a few posts this summer, I haven’t been spending huge amounts of time in the kitchen. My cooking mojo seems to have taken the holiday I haven’t and I’ve not been venturing much beyond finally getting my (non cream based) carbonara just right, breaking records for the number of frittatas one person can eat and eating lots of salad and fruit. So when I was invited to a Bank Holiday picnic it seemed like the time had come to start making a bit of an effort again.

In between not cooking very much and buying eggs in such numbers my local shop actually laugh at me, I’ve also joined Instagram. I’ve really been enjoying it, finding it complements Twitter nicely. I expected it to be about 50% photos of cats and kids but surprisingly there are few of either. What there are a lot of are photos of doughnuts.

London is in the grip of doughnut mania. I know they’ve been gradually making their way from cop show cliche to food blogger fascination for a while. St John started their journey from Krispy Kreme kiosk to the current in-thing (with a little help from The Faerietale Foodie) but call them beignets, donuts or gravy rings, they are everywhere this summer.

Inspired by the reverence with which doughnut fiends speak of Justin Gellatly, formerly of St John Bakery and now of Bread Ahead in Borough Market and because he’s a fellow Ebury author, I thought I would make his legendary recipe for doughnuts and fill them with a wonderful this lemon ricotta semolina custard by Ruby Tandoh. Her custard slice recipe with this is peerless and I needed an excuse to make the filling again.

I almost instantly ran into a problem with Justin’s recipe. It called for fresh yeast and at 8pm on a Friday night, that’s not something I could lay my hands on easily. I subbed in half the amount of dried active yeast by adding it to 50ml of the water required in the recipe and allowing it to bubble for 15 minutes before I started mixing.

And there in lay the second problem with the recipe: the mixing. It called for a stand mixer or Kitchen Aid and involved almost 20 minutes of active mixing in stages. Thing is, I don’t have a Kitchen Aid mixer and I have a serious hump about the number of recipes by big name authors and cooks these days that assume the majority of people own a piece of kitchen equipment that start at £300 and are the size of a small Sherman tank.

I’ve lost count of the number of the TV chef recipes (yes, I am looking you Ms Pascale and Mister Oliver. Stay behind after class please) that tell you to buck everything into the mixer bowl, turn it on and come back after a certain amount of time. At risk of sounding decreipt and resistant to change, getting a machine to do it all for you isn’t cooking to me, it’s assembly. Where is the education? The cues to look for? The touch, taste and feel of food? The explaining why you do something? The alchemy when it comes together?

It’s as sanitised as those supermarket ‘just cook’ ready meals that feature a chicken breast, a sachet of sauce and suggest the veg on the side. One step up from simply piercing the plastic, they are cooking at the most basic level of the word. I see nothing wrong with a proper ready meal, but something about simply preparing components with emotional detachment but calling it cooking bothers me. Even with the slow cooker, I avoid this style of just warming ingredients up, making simple, quick dishes that are still actively cooked and created in a method that teaches and engages you with your food and a specific method of cooking.

I’m well aware some of this resentment of Kitchen Aid cooking comes from the fact I can’t afford something that cost more than my washing machine (and that I haven’t had the chance to slip onto a wedding list yet) and that I’ve never really found a time when it would be properly worthe the cost and storage space. But most it comes from the annoyance that as I work hard to learn to write recipes that both work and teach people to cook, many big names take the path of least resistance and education (or effort.) It doesn’t take much to do a Nigella and give non machine methods alongside.

This isn’t to say that I’m a Luddite who does everything by hand and owns a mangle (although my dad owned a car that had to be hand cranked sometimes when I was a kid…) I love my stick blender and its little chopper bowl attachment. Clearly I’m a bit obsessed by slow cookers. I can completely understand why people with limited time, energy or grip use food processors or breadmakers. But I still like to get involved with my food and feel and see the changes rather than let something else take all the strain and responsibility all the time.

So having started making the doughnuts, I mixed mine with my electric hand whisk. The beaters simply created something akin to a dough tornado and did little. I used the dough hooks and mixed and mixed and mixed. I’ve made marshmallows quite a few times and they were as easy as falling off a log in comparison. Standing holding the electric whisk and beating the dough endlessly made me consider trawling Gumtree for any unwanted stand mixers as my arm hurt and my hands cramped.

However all the buzz told me Justin Gellatly’s doughnuts are the best in the world, so I thought it would be worth it. The fact the dough was both sticky and greasy wasn’t worrying me too much. It had to chill overnight after all so that would sort the Copydex texture, wouldn’t it?

Sadly no. Next morning the dough was just as greasily elastic and globular as the night before. The only hint in the recipe was that it should be smooth and elastic and as it was both those things as well I was baffled. This is where I needed the explanation of the sensations of cooking not just an instruction manual on timings. I know Justin is a commercial baker and uses machinery, but if you’re writing books for home cooks, that’s not much use to me.

I stickily rolled them into balls and proved them them again. Instead of looking taut and tight like Justin advised they were slacker and softer than one of my thighs and when I obeyed the instruction to cover them with clingfilm, they stuck to it like a clingy child and had to prised apart.

Getting them off the floured trays and into the oil was a disaster. They expanded into strings like cheap mozzarella, sticking first to me, then to the scraper, then to the side of the pan and finally flopping wetly into the hot oil and puffing up momentarily before subsiding into a lopside comma shape. I tried five of them, each one getting worse and more oil logged than the previous one before I gave up.

I’m genuinely not sure which of us was more deflated by the experience. Despite getting my oil to exactly 180℃ as per the recipe, the shape shifting of the doughnuts meant the outside was Snog Marry Avoid contestant tan while the middle was gluey white. The cooked bits were as bready as Mother’s Pride and even dipped in sugar, tasted bland. I threw the other 15 lumps of squish in the bin and went to M&S to stock up on dulce de leche teacakes instead.

Instinct tells me it was probably the change in yeasts that was the problem, compounded by the inability to mix the dough like instructed, but the whole experience left me frustrated. It’s a complicated recipe but relying on a costly piece of kit and a difficult to obtain type of yeast with no allowance for home cooking, irritated me. Quite simply why write commercial recipes for home kitchens without an attempt to adapt?

Am I being harsh? Or should recipe writers have a duty to cater to the majority of their readers without explicitly explaining why you need a certain piece of equipment? And does it annoy you when only the mechanical version is given or am I the only person in town still doing it the old fashioned way?

 

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cherry floatI haven’t been cooking very much this summer. Partly because I’m on a go slow in the kitchen after testing over 350 recipes for both Recipes from Brixton Village and Slow Cooked and partly because all I’ve wanted to eat for weeks are cherries.

Particularly abundant and well priced this season, I’ve been buying pounds and pounds of them from Brixton Market for £1.50 a lb and just gorging on them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They are one of my favourite fruit and it’s been utter luxury to indulge like I have been. In fact, I’ve even managed to have too many of them and needed to find ways to use them up.

Some of my lack of appetite has come from how warm it’s been and I’ve been alternating my cherry fest with ice lollies and sorbets, but hadn’t felt the urge for actual ice cream until I saw some leftover chocolate in the cupboard to go with those cherries and inspiration hit.

I have been a lip balm queen since Mister North bought me a pot of Morello Cherry lip balm from The Body Shop for my twelfth birthday. I cycled through their whole range, not dallying near the Kiwi Fruit one for long, and fell particularly in love with a limited edition version that was Chocolate Cherry. I rationed that little pot out for ages and each swipe of it reminded me how much I loved the combination. I moved on from it to a prized Dr Pepper Lip Smacker and from there to my current die hard obsession with Carmex.

I hadn’t really thought about my lip moisturising choices as a teen since those heady days, but standing there with a bag of cherries in one hand and a bar of chocolate in the other and I just knew what I had to do. I had to combine all the best things of my early years and make a chocolate cherry Dr Pepper ice cream float immediately.

Chocolate Cherry Ice Cream (makes one litre)

  • 450g fresh cherries, pitted
  • 25g sugar
  • 200g milk chocolate
  • 600ml double cream
  • 397g tin condensed milk

This is the simplest ice cream possible made to a non churn recipe I love so much I even used it for my Observer Food Monthly piece last year. It freezes quickly and scoops straight from the freezer and can be adapted to any flavour you fancy.

Begin by pitting your cherries. I find this oddly relaxing and not particularly faffy to do. I end up with lots of halved cherries. Lay them out as flat as possible and sprinkle the sugar over them to macerate them. This makes them lovely and juicy. Leave for up to an hour.

Break the chocolate into a large bowl and set it over a pan of boiling water, making sure the water doesn’t touch the base. Stir it well as it melts to keep it nice and glossy. Once melted, set it aside to cool down for about 10 minutes.

Take the macerated cherries along with any juices they have created and roughly puree them with a hand blender. A bit of texture is fine, but try not to have any bits of skin if you can help it. Set them aside.

Pour the double cream into a large bowl and beat until it starts to thicken. You don’t want it to be whipped cream, but to get to the point where it flops over lazily and thickly. At this point, beat in the condensed milk until combined and airy. An electric whisk is nice here but some old fashioned elbow grease does the trick too.

Stir in the melted chocolate and the cherry puree. Fold until completely combined. It will be a pale pinky brown in colour. Pour it all into a plastic container and put the lid on it. Freeze for at least 4 hours. It will be a lovely creamy soft serve style.

Chocolate Cherry Dr Pepper Ice Float (makes one)

  • 330ml can full fat Dr Pepper
  • 1 large scoop chocolate cherry ice cream
  • kitsch item to accessorise, either an umbrella or gaudy cocktail stirrer

To make your ice cream float, get a good sturdy glass and pour an ice cold can of Dr Pepper into it. I am that person who genuinely likes the taste of diet fizzy drinks usually, but it’s got to be the real deal here.

Then gently drop your scoop of ice cream into the glass. The soda will fizz and froth and create the finest carbonated beverage on earth. Stick a straw in the glass, swizzle with a stirrer (I favour a flamingo myself here) and set a long spoon on the side before getting stuck in.

You cannot eat or drink an ice cream float neatly so don’t try to. Simply savour the flavours and revel in it. When I say this float is the taste and excitement of my whole childhood served up in one glass, I don’t think I’m quite doing it justice. It’s my favourite thing of the whole summer, maybe even the year…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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