If there was one culinary constant in my childhood it was this, the All Colour St Michael Freezer Cookery Book:
It’s a classic of 1970’s style, including such recipes as “Chicken breasts a la Kiev”, “Chicken and mushroom vol-au-vents” and “French fried potatoes”, all presented and photographed with such an overwhelming harvest gold haze you can practically feel the polyester velour backdrop. Mum had a whole cupboard of cook books, but with the exception of the Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cakes book, I don’t recall her ever consulting another.
It was published in 1976 and must still have been popular in 1978 when Mum and Dad married, I wonder whether it was a wedding present? She ended up with two copies, one in our house in Devon, and the other in the school accommodation we lived in while Dad was teaching. When my sister and I set up our own homes, and she and Dad retired, she gave one to each of us, and promptly spent so much time on the phone to Zee double checking the recipes that she gave Mum another copy. They are all three a little battered, fall open at certain pages, and are liberally sprinkled with Mum’s notes and adaptations; changes to method, or notes on oven temperatures and timings.
If I want to make a childhood favourite and I can’t remember off the top of my head, I open up St Michael, and whilst I’m unlikely ever to attempt the gelatinous wonder that is “Tomato and herb ring” any time soon, this is one cookbook from which I won’t be parted.
But there are a few things that aren’t there, the recipes that Mum knew off by heart or ‘shock horror’ got from somewhere else. They’re my nursery favourites, the food that reminds me of being cosseted and nourished as a child, the ultimate in comfort food. I want to be able to cook them for my little family, and so there’s only really one thing to do; culinary reconstruction.
Actually, that’s Plan B, Plan A, when the Riverford box arrived with a glut of baby spinach, was to phone Zee to ask if she had the recipe for Spinach and Almond flan. Her answer?
“Isn’t it in the St Michael Freezer Cookery Book?”
(I rest my case)
And after a little experimentation, I’ve concocted something that, if not exactly the recipe Mum used, produces the taste I remember. Family, friends, passing internet acquaintances and the googlebot, may I present to you:
Spinach and Almond flan a la Gill
for the pastry
6oz (150g) plain flour
3oz (75g) butter
1oz (25g) ground almonds
for the filling
1oz (25g) butter
1 onion, peeled and chopped
8oz (200g) spinach (whole if using baby spinach, centre stalk removed for grown-up spinach)
1oz (25g) flaked almonds, plus a small handful for sprinkling on top
1oz (25g) cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 pint (300ml) full fat milk
pinch of salt and pepper
- Pre-heat the oven to 180 C.
- Put the flour, butter and ground almonds in a food processor and blitz until it resembles fine breadcrumbs (alternatively rub the butter in by hand).
- Add the egg down the funnel with the motor running and keep it running until the pastry just comes together. If your egg is small or it just doesn’t seem to be working, add cold water, a spoonful at a time.
- Wrap the pastry in greaseproof paper and pop it in the fridge for at least 20mins.
- Melt the butter in a large frying pan. Sauté the onion in the butter until translucent.
- Add the spinach to the frying pan and cook over a gentle heat until it has wilted.
- Add 1oz of flaked almonds, stir, and set aside to cool.
- Roll out the pastry and use it to line a metal non-stick tin approx. 20cm x 30cm. Don’t grease the tin, that way lies a soggy bottom.
- In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with the milk and season.
- Put the spinach and almond mixture in the pastry case, then pour over the egg and milk.
- Top with grated cheese and a small handful of flaked almonds.
- Bake at 180 C for 30-35 minutes until the pastry is a light brown and pulling away from the edge of the tin and the cheese has turned golden.
- Allow to cool for a few moments before serving. It tastes pretty good cold too, if you can make it last that long.