Croque Monsieur

Croque Monsieur

Earlier this week I found myself engaged in a Facebook discussion about the comparative merits of French and English food and it started me thinking about all the French food I love (I can already feel a flurry of French posts coming on…).

I suspect that most people would think immediately of complex haute cuisine but, for me, it’s all about the simple things; cassoulet, beautiful patisserie, baguettes, crepes, tartiflette and, of course, croque monsieur.

When I was a small child, someone, I forget who, bought me a childrens’ cookery book full of recipes for the usual biscuits and jam tarts and, for some bizarre reason, croque monsieur. I think it was the first time I realised that people in other countries ate different food to us and it seemed incredibly exotic to me. Bear in mind that this was the late 60s, we never ate “foreign” food at home and I had never even heard of a toasted sandwich.

Fast forward to 1989 and our first family holiday in France; 1000 miles of driving, two fractious toddlers, two exhausted parents and a café in Quimper. We sat in the sunshine watching the world go by and regained our equilibrium over a cup of coffee and a croque monsieur. It was divine, every bit as delicious as I had imagined it all those years before; the sweet bread offset by smoky ham, deep flavoured Gruyere and a smooth, moist béchamel sauce. It was instantly apparent that we were no longer in England.

I made this for lunch today and it still has the power to transport me from a cold, wet winter afternoon to a carefree summer’s afternoon in a cathedral square in Brittany. I hope it does the same for you.

Ingredients (for 2)

4 slices of good bread (I like pain de campagne)

25g / 1 oz Butter (plus more for spreading)

20g / 1 oz Plain Flour

300ml / 1/2 pint Milk

1 Bay Leaf

2 generous Slices of Ham

2 oz Gruyere (grated)

2 tsp Mustard


Make the Béchamel Sauce

Pour the milk into a pan with the bay leaf and a good grinding of black pepper. Bring to the boil then set aside to infuse.

Melt the butter in a pan over a medium heat. When bubbling, stir in the flour and cook together for a minute or two. Add the milk, a little at a time, stirring continually until you have a thick, smooth sauce. Set aside.

Make the sandwich.

Spread each slice of bread thinly with butter. Turn two slices over and spread the un-buttered side with the mustard. Top with half the grated gruyere and the ham. Top with the other slices of bread – butter side up and put the sandwiches in a dry, oven-proof frying pan over a medium heat. Cook until browned and then turn and brown on the other side.

Remove the pan from the heat and top with the béchamel sauce and the rest of the grated Gruyere. Place in a hot oven for five minutes to heat through the sauce and melt the cheese. If the cheese is not browned, pop under a hot grill for a minute or two until browned and bubbling.

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Low Calorie Hummus Recipe


Like most of the western world I am making a vague effort to eat a little more healthily at the moment.  It’s hard not to when the media are bombarding us with messages about detox regimes, getting your five-a-day, fasting and exercise programmes.  Surely it was only a few short weeks ago that the same newspapers and magazines were encouraging us to roast everything in goose fat and follow it with fat and sugar laden cakes.  How fickle they are…

However, having followed their advice to the letter before Christmas it seems only right to do so again now.  In fact I feel ready to eat a little lighter; a little cleaner – to choose food that leaves me feeling energised rather than sluggish.  I am happy to reduce my fat and calorie intake but I am not prepared to compromise on taste.

Generally speaking I tend to find lunch to be the most difficult meal of the day.  A healthy breakfast is easy to achieve, a steaming bowl of porridge and some fruit or fruit salad with yoghurt takes no time at all to prepare.  I usually have time to think about, shop for and enjoy cooking an evening meal.  But come lunchtime I have three big danger zones:  I am either running between meetings and have to rely on a shop bought (usually carb laden) instant lunch or I am training and a buffet lunch (think cocktail pasties!) is provided or I am working from home and either forget to eat at all or graze continuously throughout the day.

But I am trying to be focussed so if you come round at the moment you are likely to find a healthy pan of soup ticking away on the Rayburn or a bowl of hummus (houmous?) in the fridge along with some crudites or oat cakes.

Hummus is a healthy food anyway but it usually contains tahini (sesame seed paste) which, although full of nutrients, still has 600 calories per 100g and is over 53% fat so I tend to make a quicker, lighter version which uses fat free natural yoghurt instead of tahini.

Making hummus now is so easy – when I was a teenager I was a vegetarian and (as this was the early 80s) if I wanted to eat hummus I had to soak dried chick peas overnight then cook them for hours in a pressure cooker before I could even begin to use them.  Now I buy my chickpeas ready cooked in a can or carton.  Purists will tell you that they taste better done from scratch, which may be true, but these are plenty good enough for me.  Now, if I have chickpeas in the cupboard I can rustle up some hummus in 5 minutes flat.

Hummus needs garlic.  Most recipes use a clove or two of raw garlic which I find a little harsh so I tend to use just a small clove of raw and a whole head of roast garlic which gives the hummus depth and sweetness.

Hummus Recipe


1 x 410g can of Cooked Chickpeas in Water

100 ml Fat Free Natural Yoghurt

A squeeze of Lemon Juice

1 small (or 1/2 large) Clove of Raw Garlic

1 Head of Roast Garlic (just pop it in the oven when you are cooking something else)


Drain and rinse the chickpeas.  Reserve a few to top the hummus (i added a few pine nuts too) and place the rest in a food processor with the yoghurt, the raw garlic and a squeeze of lemon juice.  Squeeze the roast garlic out of its skin and add to the rest of the ingredients and blitz until smooth.  Serve topped with the reserved chickpeas and a sprinkle of chopped herbs.  Season to taste.

To ring the changes try adding coriander to the mix or a sprinkle of paprika.  Serve with oat cakes, slathered on a stick of celery or as a dip with some crunchy crudites.

As we are on a health kick it is worth noting that each 100g serving of this hummus has 102 calories and 1.2g of fat.  This is significantly less than the low fat hummus at my favourite supermarket and it tastes better too.

If you are also watching the pennies then it may help to know it only cost me £1.39 to make all of this hummus which will provide 4 generous portions as a healthy snack or light lunch.


Home Made Christmas Gift Ideas

This year I decided to make most of my Christmas presents and of course most of those gifts are edible – as if I needed an excuse to spend more time in the kitchen!

As with most people this year I am trying to spend a little less than usual and homemade gifts can work out cheaper than bought presents.  I say “can” because I became less convinced about the savings as I bought presentation jars, labels and ribbons and mourned all those free glass jars and bottles that I put in the recycling over the last year – from now on I will be saving everything!

Spoiler Alert!!  If you are expecting a gift from me you should probably stop reading now as this may spoil the surprise when you open your gift this Christmas.

I love mulled wine or mulled cider at Christmas but sometimes it seems like a bit of a faff to make just a glass or two so this year I have bottled some mulling syrup.  I can now make small amounts of mulled wine in just a minute or two:

Mulling Syrup Recipe

Put 250g Sugar in a pan with 1 litre of water.  Add 2 quartered oranges, 6 cloves, 2 cinnamon sticks, 6 whole allspice, 1/4 of a grated nutmeg and a few small slices of ginger.  Heat gently until the sugar is all dissolved then bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes.  Remove from the heat and strain through a fine sieve lined with a square of muslin.  Pour into sterilised bottles whilst still hot and seal.

The syrup will keep in a cool, dark place for up to three months.

To use, heat 1/3 syrup with 2/3 red wine or cider and enjoy.  You may like to add another cinnamon stick and a slice of orange when you re-heat.  This makes a lovely gift when given with a bottle of wine or a local cider.

Jars of chutney made from your summer vegetable glut also make a lovely gift when teamed up with a local cheese and crackers or parmesan and cheese biscuits.

Something specifically Christmassy also makes a lovely gift.  I particularly like Delia’s Spiced Cranberry and Claret Jelly.  In our house it’s not a replacement for cranberry sauce on Christmas Day but it does taste great with left over turkey on Boxing Day.

If your family and friends prefer sweet gifts try making fudge or biscuits.  I’m not a great fan of fudge but it is improved immeasurably with addition of some good rum and juicy raisins.  Whatever you decide, make it and give it with love and it will be received with pleasure.  But most importantly of all – don’t forget to keep some for yourself!

Rum and Raisin Fudge Recipe

Soak 4 oz of raisins in 3 tablespoons of dark rum for an hour or so before you need them. Butter and line an 8″ square cake tin.

Put 1lb Demarera Sugar, 4 oz Butter, 5 fl oz Milk and 14 fl oz sweetened Condensed Milk into a large non-stick pan. Heat gently until the sugar has dissolved.  Raise the heat and bring to a gentle boil.  Continue to boil, stirring all the time until the mixture reaches 115 C or 240 F or the soft ball stage.

Remove from the heat and stir vigorously for 10 minutes until the mixture becomes thick and grainy.  This burns off nearly enough calories for you to steal a piece of the finished fudge!  Stir in the rum and raisins until evenly distributed then pour the mixture into the prepared tin and leave to cool until set.  Cut into generous chunks and put into gift bags.

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Treacle Toffee

Sometimes even I have to wonder about the way my mind works.

Earlier this week I was at the dentist having a filling and my dentiist told me not to eat anything hard or chewy for 24 hours.  As I was driving home I was feeling mildly irritated – did she really need to tell me that?  Is it not just common sense?  What did she think I was going to eat?  Toffee?

Then the stream of consciousness began….  Toffee?  I haven’t made toffee for ages, oh, it’s bonfire night next week, maybe I should make some treacle toffee, I love treacle toffee.  Before I knew it I was popping into the shop to buy some treacle hoping not to bump into my dentist who is forgiven for giving me some, obviously much needed, advice.

You may see some treacle toffee recipes which contain butter, this makes a softer, more chewy toffee but for proper, brittle bonfire toffee leave it out.

I don’t really know why this is traditional on bonfire night but I would guess it’s because it looks like shiny, glowing coals which reflect the firelight as you eat it.

I made mine in advance so you could have the recipe in plenty of time for bonfire night so I’m afraid I had to settle for my woodburner in the photos but I will have a bag of this in my pocket at the weekend.  Then on Monday I will probably be giving my dentist a call….


A knob of Butter for greasing
1 lb / 450g Dark Brown Sugar
4 fl oz / 125ml Hot Water
¼ tsp Cream of Tartar
4 oz / 115g Black Treacle
4 oz / 115g Golden Syrup


Generously grease the base and sides of a 12″x12″ (30cm x 30cm) baking tin.

Put the sugar and hot water into a large (at least 4 pint capacity) heavy bottomed pan over a low heat.  Heat gently, without stirring, until the sugar dissolves completely.  Do not stir the mixture as this will cause sugar crystals to form, just be patient.

When the sugar is dissolved add the rest of the ingredients to the pan.

Treacle and syrup are incredibly sticky so, to avoid leaving more in the bowl than you intended, try weighing them directly into a greased bowl or warm them slightly before adding to the pan as this makes them more “pourable”.

Put a sugar thermometer into the pan and bring the contents up to the boil.  Continue to boil until the mix reaches the soft crack stage (270F/140C).  This can take 30 minutes or more so be patient and don’t leave the pan unattended as it boils quite vigorously and can change from “nearly there” to burnt very quickly indeed.

As soon as it reaches the required temperature pour it into the greased tin and leave it to cool.  PLease take care when pouring as this hot sugar can cause dreadful burns if it comes into contact with your skin.

Once the toffee has cooled remove it from the tin, if it sticks turn the tin upside down and give it a sharp tap or two to release it.  Break the toffee up using a toffee hammer if you have one or rolling pin if not.  You might want to cover the toffee up with a sheet of greaseproof paper before breaking it as shards will fly everywhere!  Store in an airtight container in a cool place.

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Wheat Free Pizza

Pizza is yet another of my guilty treats (there are so many…) and I, along with many of my friends, was really pleased by the recent opening of the Cornish Pizza Company in the village where I live.  If you live in a large town or city you probably won’t appreciate this but when you live rurally quality take away food nearly always requires a substantial drive and the food is often cold by time you get it home.

But not everyone who enjoys pizza can get away with eating the wheat base – lots of people avoid wheat for medical reasons or because of a mild intolerance or indeed because they are on a low carb diet for weight loss.

So when I saw this cauliflower based pizza base I decided to try it out – if I can get a pizza hit and add to my 5 a day then it’s definitely worth experimenting.

The base is made from mashed cauliflower, grated mozzarella and basil, all bound together with some egg.  Once baked it becomes firm and stable and the cheese browns nicely giving it that wonderful cooked cheese hit that you really want from a pizza.  You can then add the topping of your choice as you would with any other base.

I have to say I loved this pizza – it was tasty and moreish but if it had a slight downside (very slight) it is that you really need to eat it with a knife and fork – the base is not quite stiff enough to be able to pick a slice up in your fingers without a laundry disaster.

The cauliflower base is so tasty that I am also going to make it again in tiny portions because I think it will make a really good vehicle for all sorts of dips or even as a canape base.



1 medium / large Cauliflower

250g Mozzarella – grated (don’t buy pre-grated if you can help it – it’s much less “rubbery” if you buy fresh and grate it yoursef)

2 Eggs – lightly whisked

A small handfull of basil leaves, shredded.


Whatever you like to put on your pizza!  I used:

1 Red Onion – sauteed

3 or 4 Mushrooms – sliced and sauteed

Small Plum Tomatoes, halved.

10-12 Slices of Pepperoni

Some torn up, left over Mozzarella

A few torn Basil Leaves.


Makes 2 8″ / 20cm Pizzas

Pre-heat the oven to 200 C / 400 F / Gas Mark 6

Chop up the cauliflower and steam until just cooked.  Set aside to cool and then grate into a sieve over a bowl.  Squeeze out as much water as you can and discard the water.  Put the cauliflower into the now dry bowl, add the grated mozzarella, the shredded basil leaves and the eggs and stir it all together.

Lightly grease a non-stick baking sheet (it really needs to be non-stick) – you may need two sheets.  Spoon the cauliflower mixture into two piles on the sheet(s) and flatten into rough circles approximately 8″ / 20cm in diameter and 1/4 ” / 5mm deep.  If you want to be neater you can use the outer ring of a springform cake tin as a guide.

Place the tray(s) in the top of the oven for 12 – 15 minutes.  I like the crispy bits round the edge that come from longer cooking – if you do too keep an eye on it after 12 mins and leave it until it looks brown and bubbly.


Remove the pizza bases from the oven and add the topping of your choice. You can use a traditional tomato sauce but I like the freshness that comes from lightly roasted fresh tomatoes – particularly in the summer when they are home grown.

Return to the oven for 5 minutes until the topping is heated through and any cheese is melting nicely. Serve with a green salad.

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