January: Five things I’m lovin’ this month

What a crazy-busy month! It always takes a week or so for January to get rolling, but once it did this year, I was back to back with work. Just the way I like it! Here are a few things that have got me through the busy month.

1. Za’atar from the Palestinian tent, Global Village, Dubai

An old Palestinian lady behind a stall at the back of the Palestinian tent looked up at me smiling as she handed over a fresh piece of pitta, dipped in olive oil, and then covered with her lemony fresh za’atar. She handed me piece after piece, with different za’atars on to try. I selected the ones I want and when I asked for 200 grams she laughed: as most spice sellers do when I ask for my tidily western quantities. This Za’atar is out of this world good. Za’atar blends can be a bit dusty- particularly if they’re too heavy on the thyme. This one is heavy on the sesame seeds and sumac. I asked a Lebanese friend where the best place to buy Za’atar is in Dubai and she agreed with me. Here’s the link for more info about Global Village.

2. Unroll me

Until 2 weeks ago I would wake up to at least 30 newsletters in my inbox every morning. Then I saw a friend tweet about this amazing website. I was very pessimistic. A promise to get rid of all my unwanted subscriptions to newsletters? In 2 minutes? Impossible. I was wrong. Five minutes later, I’d set my email up with them and received a promise that I wouldn’t get any more emails from companies I unsubscribed from. And I didn’t. I’ve spent hours previously unsubscribing one by one, email by email. This service is amazing. And free at the moment!

3. Wingsters

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Shameless plug, but nonetheless a very well deserved one, for my friend Ahmed and his amazing Wingsters restaurant in the Marina, Dubai. Ahmed has opened Dubai’s first themed mobster-style Buffalo wings restaurant. As someone who has visited the city of Buffalo wings, where they were invented, over ten times, I feel qualified to tell you that these are the real deal. For the daring amongst you, he’s running an ‘initiation‘ – a challenge only the hardest of chilli lovers should take on to confront his spiciest sauces and come out alive on the other side. Succeed and you’ll earn your photograph on the wall of fame. For those less adventurous the Buffalo wings rock my world. His make-your-own milkshakes are pretty darn good too. Not to mention how good his food photography is…. 😉

4. Frying Pan Adventures

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I met Arva, who runs Frying Pan Adventures in December and as soon as I met her I knew I had to join one of her tours. I went on the ‘Arabian Food Pilgrimage’. I can’t wait for my Mum to visit again so I can take her on this, and then follow it a few days later with the ‘Little India on a Plate’ tour. From start to finish Arva’s energy and enthusiasm for the food and history of the region was infectious. Although we didn’t cover a large distance physically, in food we went from Egypt, to Palestine, to Syria, Iran and back to Egypt. I don’t want to include any spoilers, but our group of 12 tried desserts made from a type of root which can also be used as soap, learnt how to make falafel and ate ice cream with our hands. I’ve lived in the Middle East for five years and learnt more than I ever expected to. Wonderful.

ps. I’ve just noticed they’re number 1 for activities to do in Dubai on Trip Advisor. If that isn’t a recommendation I don’t know what is!

5. The Lebanese Kitchen by Salma Hage

This is the kind of book you open up and dig straight into. Some books I work my way through, and bookmark with post it notes and scribbles about the type of occasion on which I might make something. not this one. Book propped up, cupboards open, oven on. As I received this for Christmas my husband was bombarded in the first week of the new year with fresh, healthy, home-style Lebanese food. I didn’t hear any complaints. The book is well laid out. The recipes are not complicated, perfect for the beginner. As a Lebanese friend told me the other day- a Lebanese person would never refer to a recipe book, they’d use their mother’s recipes. Well for those of us without Lebanese mothers, this is the book to use. I particularly enjoyed the sumac crusted tuna. Recipes to come on here soon. And on that note, I’m off to my kitchen to cook from it!

Grannie Dunning’s Lemon Curd

Grannie Dunning's Lemon Curd

I feel like I’m committing family treachery by sharing this recipe. The photo above is from my Grandmother’s recipe book. Which means it came from her Paternal Grandmother, which makes me the fifth generation to make this incredible recipe, and now I’m sharing it with you.

It’s funny the things we remember about people from our childhood. I remember Grandma always got up at 5am. I’ve no idea why, she didn’t work, but she got up at 5am and she would always have finished her toast with lemon curd before I came down for breakfast. This to me, aged 5 and a half, was a significant characteristic of my Grandmother. I didn’t know anyone else who would get up so ridiculously early. Now as an adult, I can better understand why she’d like to start her day at 5am. Have a couple of hours to herself before anyone else woke up. Potter around in the garden without anyone interfering, listen to the radio, catch up with her reading, and eat her toast in peace. I love having people to stay, but the only thing I don’t like is having my morning routine disturbed. In the morning I get up and put the kettle on, water my plants, make breakfast and catch up on my emails.  Beware the guest that tries to chatter with me about the day’s activities before my morning coffee!

This recipe is divine. I have been known to swirl it through crème fraîche, add meringues and freeze it. You know you want to. Otherwise, simply spread on a slice of toast you will wonder why you EVER bought lemon curd from the store. There is no comparison.

In case you can’t read my Grandmother’s writing here’s the recipe!

Grannie Dunning’s Lemon Curd

Ingredients

Juice and grated rind of 4 lemons

175g butter

250g caster sugar

4 eggs

Method

Using a double boiler, or a bowl set over a saucepan of boiling water, melt the butter together with the juice and rind of the lemons. Dissolve the sugar in the mixture over the water.

Remove from the water and leave to cool for 10 minutes. (If you don’t leave it cool the eggs will scramble! Yuck!)

Beat the eggs together. Place the bowl of lemon mixture back over the boiling water and add the eggs, stirring constantly.

Keep stirring until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon.

Pour into sterilised jars and keep refrigerated.

 

Canadian Blueberry Muffins

It’s 8 o’clock on a hot, Canadian, Tuesday morning in August 1999 and I’m 17 years old. My host family are sat around the breakfast table eating blueberry topped cereal. Would I like some?  Blueberries? On my cereal? Absolutlely! I don’t think I’d ever seen a blueberry before, other than perhaps one or two tucked away under some banana in a fruit salad. We were on a school field hockey tour to British Columbia, and I was eating blueberries for breakfast, lunch, dinner and afternoon tea.

Following the expansion of global fruit distributors, and my move to the desert, blueberries are now a regular guest in our fridge, but what follows is the very first recipe that got me hooked. This recipe reminds me of hockey matches, incredible scenery, playing ‘mafia’, the beach, and some of the most welcoming and hospitable people I’ve ever met. It smells of Vancouver Island’s bear inhabited forests and West Vancouver’s beaches. Most of all though, it reminds me of a particularly generous host-mother turning up at our minibus as we were about to depart with a BUCKET of these muffins, stuffed full of more blueberries than I thought possible. 14 of us hungry hockey players demolished them in a matter of minutes.

Turn on your oven and dig out the blueberries (frozen works too). These uncomplicated, fresh blueberry muffins are perfect for entertaining a crowd.

I wish I could remember the hockey-mum that gave me this recipe but I can’t. Instead I’ll dedicate it to all the mums in BC that were so kind to us in the summer of ’99.

Canadian Blueberry Muffins

Makes 20 large muffins

Ingredients

110g butter

200g caster sugar

2 eggs

240g self-raising flour

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp vanilla essence

1/2 cup of milk

2 cups blueberries (fresh or frozen, if using canned rinse first)

2 tsp sugar for topping

Method

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees C

Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and beat well.

Add the dry ingredients alternately with the milk and vanilla.

Gently stir in the blueberries.

Put in paper lined muffin cups (I often use cupcake cases which make smaller muffins).

Sprinkle with sugar.

Bake for 20 minutes until a skewer inserted into the middle of a muffin comes out clean.

Learn from my mistakes! This mixture can’t hold more than 2 cups of blueberries!

Walnut Bread

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I made a big mistake the first summer I lived in Dubai. I booked our summer holiday for the end of June. Ramadan was at the end of August. For those of you who are not familiar with summers in the Middle East, the temperatures go off the scale. The hottest temperature our thermometer has recorded in five years is 53 degrees Centigrade, and it hangs in the shade. Ermm… that’s hot enough to fry an egg outside, cause me to faint (numerous times), and HEAT PLATES.  That meant I had 3 stinking hot months ahead of me, with little happening and most people fleeing the heat for cooler climes. The kitchen was my refuge.

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 One of the best things about the heat is that I can use the balcony like an English airing cupboard, for my bread to rise. (In England the warmest part of any house is the cupboard with the water boiler in it, and it’s where we leave our dough to prove). For some reason I find this entertaining even five years on. In the summer when the sun only serves to scorch, I’ve found a use for it. On my balcony pretzel dough doubles, sourdough forms bubbles and doughnut dough rises.

So, here’s a recipe I discovered this summer. This bread is absolutely stuffed full of walnuts, and is divine served with goats cheese and figs. It’s easy to make- I’ve made 4 loaves and they’ve all turned out great. It just requires a bit of time. I normally get started with it on a Saturday morning when I wake up and by the time I’ve finished getting ready for the day, doing a bit of tidying and cleaning, with some low-energy kneading in between the loaf is ready for the oven.

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Adapted from Short & Sweet by the fabulous Dan Lepard who has taught me nearly as much about baking as my Mum.

Ingredients

300g strong white flour, plus extra for shaping

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

2 teaspoons fast action yeast

125ml red wine

75ml water

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon honey

150g coarsely chopped walnuts

oil for kneading

Mix the flour, salt and yeast in a large bowl. Using a liquidizer, blend the wine, water, oil, honey and 50g of the walnuts until smooth. Pour this over the flour and add the remaining walnuts. Stir to make a sticky dough. Cover and leave for 10 minutes. Knead the dough on a lightly oiled word surface, 8 to 10 times only. Oil the bowl slightly and return the dough to the bowl. Leave for 10 minutes. Repeat the kneading process and place back in the bowl. Leave in a warm place for 30-45 minutes until increased in size by 50%.

Line a tray with baking paper, lightly flour the work surface and roll the dough to roughly 15cm x 20cm. Roll the shorter side up to form a tight sausage and place this seam side down on the tray. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave outside again for an hour. Heat the oven to 200 deg C/180 deg C fan/390 deg F/gas 6. Lightly dust flour over the dough with a small fine sieve or tea-strainer and make rapid criss-cross cuts with a sharp knife. Bake for 40 minutes and then leave to cool on a rack.

 

 

Chewy Chocolate and Raisin Rye Cookies

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These cookies were a fabulous surprise. Having bought a bag of rye flour to use 100g making a loaf of bread which didn’t turn out how I hoped, I had 1.4kg of rye flour sat in my cupboard. Every time I opened my baking cupboard it looked at me, asking to be used, and every time I reached over and picked out the self raising flour, or plain flour. What on earth was I going to do with all that rye flour? Dan Lepard had the answer. Chocolate and Raisin cookies. Well, they sounded a bit boring, but they ticked the boxes, I had all the ingredients and they use rye flour. I could also kid myself they were healthy with all the rye and raisin. (Ha- I ignored the 125g of butter!)

Well, as soon as my bag of rye flour is finished I’ll be straight out to buy another one. These are the best cookies I’ve had in years. A self confessed chocoholic, even with only 2 tablespoons of cocoa in them, these are rich and heavy and chewy and so very morish. I omitted the bicarbinate of soda from the original recipe, which means they don’t spread as much, and thus are chewy and dense rather than crispy and thin. If you want a crispier biscuit add half a teaspoon of bicarb to the flour. They are stuffed full of chewy raisins too.

These are particluarly scrumptious straight off the baking tray. But aren’t all cookies?

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Chewy Chocolate and Raisin Rye Cookies

Adapted From Short and Sweet, Dan Lepard, a book I can’t recommend highly enough

Makes approx 20 cookies

Ingredients

125g unsalted butter, room temperature

100g soft brown sugar

100g caster sugar

2 tbsp cocoa

1 egg white

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

150g rye flour

250g raisins

Method

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C/160 degrees C fan/Gas mark 4 and line a baking sheet with non-stick baking paper. Using a electric whisk combine the butter, sugars and cocoa, then beat in the egg white, followed by the vanilla.

Add the flour and with a wooden spoon beat everything together until smooth. Stir in the raisins and then roll the mixture into balls slightly smaller than a golf ball. Sit them on a baking sheet and bake for 12 minutes, until the raisins puff and pop through the crust of the cookies.

Leave to cool on the tray for five minutes and then place on a cooling rack.

All-Things-Good-For-You Cinnamon Granola Crunch

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Sometimes you need to refuel the tank with the extra good stuff. And here it is. This granola really packs a punch. Good oils, vitamins, minerals, more vitamins, more minerals. Top it off with low-fat yoghurt, fresh fruit or milk and you’ve got a tasty breakfast or dessert. When I have friends coming for brunch I always make a big jar of this for the table.

My one disclaimer at this point is that it can be quite pricey to make- all those nuts and dried fruit. Remember you can adjust your fruit, nuts and seeds to the proportions that you want, as long as you keep the weight about the same, relative to the liquid you add. You can either buy mixed bags of nuts and fruit, or make your own combo. What do you add to your granola?

All-Things-Good-For-You Cinnamon Granola Crunch

Ingredients

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

125ml maple syrup

2 tablespoons honey

2 fresh vanilla pods (or 1 tsp vanilla essence)

300g rolled oats

75g mixed seeds

40g walnuts

40g chopped almonds

100g dried berries (raisins, cranberries, sultanas, apricots, dates)

50g desiccated coconut

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 tsp salt

Method

Heat the oven to 150 degrees C. Mix together all the wet ingredients in a large bowl. Add the seeds from the center of the vanilla pod.

Stir in the remaining ingredients, except the coconut and dried fruit.

Line 2 baking trays with parchment paper. Spread the mixture evenly over the trays and bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and stir through the coconut and dried fruit. Bake for another 10-15 minutes.

Leave to cool. Once cooled, put in an airtight container. Will keep very well- up to 3 months.

Four Minute Magic Pizza

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Four Minutes to make a decadent tasting but healthy, filling, nutritious meal? Can’t be done? Let me show you how.

Back when I was working in an office this meal became a regular answer to the question ‘What’s for dinner?’ It uses mostly store cupboard ingredients and less than 5 minutes prep. We coined the word magic pizza and it stuck. Seems magic to me- from fridge to plate in less than ten minutes.

The trick is to use Lebanese flatbread as the base of the pizza. This crisps up really nicely in the oven, and is very thin so you don’t feel stuffed full of carbs. Add some pizza sauce from a jar (the fewer ingredients on the jar the better), and then any ingredients you have in your fridge. A lot of the time we reduce the calories by leaving off the cheese, but of course a nice mozzarella, or goats cheese turns this into a treat.

Last night’s magic pizza was fig, mushroom and thyme. A fab combination. The sweetness of the fig was offset beautifully by the cheese and mushroom, and the hints of thyme made it taste really fresh. I suggest you add things like thyme after you’ve cooked the pizza, but it’s really up to you.

Stuck for topping ideas? Most veggies will work well on a pizza- some of them may need fry or bake before you add them, if cooking times necessitate. Anchovies, fresh pineapple, any herb, cold meats, chicken…. really anything you have in the fridge.

What’s your favourite pizza topping?

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Fig, Mushroom and Thyme Magic Pizza

Serves 1

Ingredients

1 medium Lebanese flatbread

2 tbsp pizza sauce (from a jar, I like American Garden’s)

1/2 fig, sliced

3 mushrooms, sliced

3 tbsp grated cheddar cheese

3 sprigs thyme

salt and pepper

Method

Pre-heat your oven to the highest temperature.

Assemble your pizza using the ingredients above.

Cook in your oven on a pizza tray or a thin baking tray until the edges of the flatbread are golden brown and your toppings are turning brown. This takes about 4 minutes, but will vary depending on your oven. Keep checking it.

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Get Planting! The Easiest Way to Grow Tomatoes

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We have some pretty good weather for growing tomatoes in the UAE, as evidenced by the plethora of local tomatoes in the supermarket. I know very little about growing vegetables on a large scale, but it seems to me that the UAE tomato industry is in the early stages of growth and is just figuring out how it can produce tastier tomatoes, on a larger scale, to a demanding audience. We certainly have the sunshine, maybe they’re just figuring out the technology. The little I do know tells me that you can’t test the value of a seed, or a growing method without allowing nature to take its sweet time growing the plant, the flower and then the fruit. I guess it’ll be a few years til we see really delicious locally produced tomatoes in the supermarket but in the meantime grow your own!

It’s really not too hard- you just need to get started at the right time of year (September to November, not March when the temperatures are searing, as my husband once did), buy some decent sizes pots and good soil, and then some tasty tomatoes from the market. It’s not too late to start right now though. Plant them this week and they’ll do great.

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Firstly, I could launch into a list of suitable items you could recycle and use as a pot, but let’s face it, we live in the Middle East and not many people have old wine barrels or beautiful vintage trunks lying around. I bought some plastic planters from Carrefour, and some pretty ceramic pots from Dubai Garden Centre. Both have lasted me 3 years and still look in very good condition. I scrubbed them out with some washing up liquid in September before adding new soil to get rid of any diseases that may have been festering. I doubt there were any though as they’d been outside in 50 degree heat all summer (yes, you can put your plates outside to warm or fry eggs on cars at this temperature).The general rule, for your pots- the bigger the better. I think my largest is 45cm across and I wish I had bought bigger. Cherry toms will need smaller containers than beefsteaks.

A watering can is useful, but at a stretch you could use a cup. I have a trowel but more often than not use an old spoon.

Ok, so here goes- my so-easy-kids-could-do-it, method for growing tomatoes.

Choose your favourite tasting tomato from the supermarket. What the heck- splash out, hedge your bets, and choose a couple. You can assume that a locally produced tomato will have more chance of success than another.

Fill your container with soil and soak through. It should be damp to touch. Put the container in partial shade. 4-6 hours a day should be plenty in this region. You can always move it if need be.

Take your first tomato and put a hole in it with your thumb. Then bury it in the soil about 3cm deep. You’re done!

Monitor the soil to ensure it’s always damp to touch. You don’t want to over water it as the roots may rot but tomatoes are thirsty. 1 really good watering every 2 days should suffice but it will depend on the position of your pots and how big they are. The bigger the pots, the less frequently they need to be watered.

You will need to thin your tomatoes out once they start coming through. Weed out the weaker, straggly looking plants and keep the healthiest. Don be tempted to keep more than will fit in the pot, this will just result in weaker plants which don’t produce much fruit. 1 plant per 45cm pot is about right.

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Steak your tomatoes using anything you can find once they start to look like they can’t hold themselves. I am still experimenting but Ace Hardware has some good options.

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You should expect to see fruit after about 60 days. It’ll take another whopping 60 days for that fruit to grow and turn red! You’ll need patience!

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Good luck!! Let me know if you have any questions!

Why I love… American Pancakes

Amelia Johnson Photography Food Photographer Dubai United Arab Emirates Abu Dhabi Best Professional Freelance drink portrait food stylist restaurant advertising commerical good excellent dessert fast food03

 

I don’t think you’re supposed to admit, as a 30-year old woman, that American pancakes is one of your favourite meals right? It’s not sophisticated and it’s not clever… but oh boy… they taste so good. My favourite recipe follows below, but first I must explain myself.

My husband and I live very busy lives. I work long hours and plenty of weekends, play lots of sport and have every hobby going. He works long hours, works long hours, works long hours. But when we’re on holiday together, we’re not doing anything other than being on holiday together. Phones and computers get switched off. Alarms have no place on our holidays, and all thoughts of chores and errands and laundry are put to the back of our minds. It’s just me and him, and our journey. We have spent a lot of time on holiday in the States over the last few years, and one of my favourite things to do is have a long American brunch before heading out for a day of sightseeing, driving, hiking or playing. Thanks to huge portion sizes, we rarely need to stop for lunch and so can keep going all day. When we’re at brunch together I get my husband’s full attention, over pancakes and maple syrup and bacon, planning and laughing and dreaming and sharing.

Occasionally I’ll make this recipe for dinner usually when one of us has had a bad day, to cheer us up. This really isn’t an everyday dinner dish. Otherwise, it comes out on my birthday, or when we have friends round for brunch.

Ingredients

180ml milk

30ml white vinegar

125g plain flour

25g sugar

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

3g salt

1 egg

10g melted butter

spray oil

Method:

Combine the milk with vinegar and leave for 5 minutes.

Combine all the dry ingredients.

Whisk the egg and butter into the soured milk.

Combine the wet and dry ingredients. Whisk until all the lumps are gone.

Heat a large frying pan over a medium heat and spray with oil.

Pour in a ladle of batter and cook until bubbles appear on the surface. At this point, flip the pancake. Cook for another minute and then slide onto a plate.

Where to start with serving recommendations? I have to say, Americans have it right, with very crispy bacon and maple syrup. Don’t write it off before you’ve tried it! Blueberries, raspberries, chocolate sauce, strawberry sauce, cream…. all delicious.

 

Freshly Squeezed: Lemon and Mint Cordial

Amelia Johnson Food Photographer Dubai

Did anyone else spend their childhood destroying their Mum’s kitchen? Broken eggs on the floor? Failed doughnut batter on the surfaces? Hot sticky lemonade puddles on the kitchen table? Well that was me. And then my Mum would come in and ask me, what was I doing? And why had I started the recipe when I didn’t have all the ingredients in the house? And did I realise I would need to wait 8 hours whilst the batter rested? Sorry Mum but not much has changed…

Attempting to recreate my Grandfather’s old fashioned lemonade was a favourite. Not that it was homemade at his house, but it tasted like it was. He always gave it to me and my brother in jeweled tin cups, accompanied by cheesy crackers.

This time I think I’ve nailed it. And there’s a cheeky adult spin to it if you fancy too, with the addition of a spirit or two. This is a great cordial to keep in your fridge for a hot sticky Saturday afternoon. Add ice, lemon, mint and it’s perfect for the kids. Add some amaretto or vodka and enjoy as a sundowner.

Finally here’s the best tip you’re going to hear all week. Possibly all month. When you need fresh lemon juice, but your lemons seem a bit dry, pop the lemon in the microwave for 30 seconds. Soon enough you’ll have an incredibly juicy lemon, burnt fingers (if you’re not careful), and a bowl full of juice.

What was your favourite childhood recipe?

Food Photographer Dubai Amelia Johnson Photography

Adapted from What Katie Ate by Katie Quinn

Lemon and Mint Cordial

Ingredients

4 cups of castor sugar

Finely grated zest of 5 lemons

Juice of 7 lemons

Lemon slices to serve

Mint to garnish

Soda water

Optional extras: raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, vodka, amaretto, gin. My brother and I did a comprehensive tasting test on your behalf. Amaretto was my favourite, where my brother preferred the vodka.

Method

Put the sugar and 2 cups of water in a saucepan over a medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to a boil and cook over a high heat for approx 15 minutes.

Remove from the heat and stir through the lemon zest and juice.

Cover and place in the fridge for 5 hours or until cool.

Once you’re ready to drink it, build your drink in a tall glass. Add ice, lemon and mint. Pour over five parts soda water for one part cordial. Mix very well.

Add extras as you wish.