Help! How can I make my tray cake more attractive?

It's about texture and taste, says our panel of cooks: don't be shy about herbs and spices, and get busy with the sprinkles to add pizazz to the usual baking tray.

I make a lot of traybake dinners out of leftover vegetables, but they're often boring. Any easy ideas to jazz it up?

Ellen, Chichester

There's a fine line between boring and brilliant tray cakes, and it all boils down to three things – “texture, taste, and color,” according to Rukmini Iyer, author of the Roasting Tin series, India Express, and one-can recipe website Dinner with Rukmini. Take the grilled eggplant: it can be completely "transformed with a strong dressing of lemon and olive oil, a handful of flat leaf parsley and chopped chili for flavor and color, and flaked mozzarella or almonds for texture and crunch".

Much like dressing at this time of year, baking trays are all about layers. First come flavors, which can be found in jars of pasta, such as Thai green curry, jerk, or gochujang, says Shivi Ramoutar, author of Cook Clever (out March). “They are inexpensive and last a long time; simply mix a small amount of pasta with a little oil and toss it into your vegetables. And don't be shy about spices either, adds Iyer: “Ras el hanout, five Chinese spices, ground cumin and coriander will add a base layer of flavors to build up your sauce afterwards.” Out of the oven, fresh herbs come out a must: Ramoutar pairs coriander with greens tossed in a paste of Thai green curry and parsley with sun-dried tomatoes, while Iyer rounds out Middle Eastern-style tray cakes with fresh mint and pomegranate seeds. Iyer brings Asian-inspired numbers to life with coriander, chopped salted peanuts and lime sauce. Meanwhile, Nicholas Balfe, Holm's co-founder and chef director in South Petherton, Somerset, is a "big fan of a good sauce," be it the cream of tahini ("beaten with water, lemon juice, and olive oil") on roasted carrots, or "spiced" yogurt with grated garlic, lemon zest, a pinch of salt, and a little olive oil with eggplant. Then there's salsa verde, AKA "one of the best condiments out there." Balfe grabs a handful of parsley and mint, tarragon, or chervil , plus some capers, cornichons and a clove of garlic "chopped finely, added a teaspoon of dijon mustard, mixed everything together, then you want enough oil to cover everything, plus a little vinegar - I like sherry but red wine is arguably more typical ." Mix again, then spoon on the baked potatoes, celeriac, or tomatoes.

For extra oomph, Ramoutar spreads toasted nuts and seeds or a handful of croutons, either store-bought or fried at the weekend with lemon and capers — "they'll last a week." Or, say cheese. “Crumbled feta always works well on traybakes,” suggests Ramoutar, and especially when tomatoes (a 2021 TikTok trend) or gnocchi are involved. “You get that lovely crust around the gnocchi, then the subtle sweetness of the greens – it's tray cake heaven.” Ramoutar climbs that ladder by mixing flavored pasta (harissa, say) with olive oil and gnocchi, then shoving it to one side of the baking tray. On the other hand she mixes in more spices and oil with shallots, garlic, tomatoes and a pinch of salt and pepper. Punch in the oven until the tomatoes are soft and the gnocchi are crisp, toss the sides together and sprinkle over your cheese. Easy to make, even easier to clean up: in a baking tray we trust.

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