Hob To It & Wake Up To A Bake Up!

The mornings are now fabulously frosty, so we all need suitable sustenance to start the day.  It’s been seven weeks since the new kitchen project began & we are still technically hob-less, which doesn’t help when we fancy a fry up.  It’s the simple stuff you miss when you don’t have a working hob, like cooking a proper breakfast.  Even a basic boiled egg has become a rarity, which isn’t good when it’s boiled egg & soldiers season!  All the stress of this project has taken it’s toll (obviously made worse with the hob issues), so I’ve had to get even more creative in the kitchen (I’ve been baking plenty of bread & taking my stress out on the dough!).

Initially, I had thoughts about building a camp fire at the bottom of the garden (s’mores on toast anyone?), or borrowing a barbeque so I could at least use my skillet to whip up a bacon butty, however these weren’t really viable options.  Having a microwave is essential in hob-free times, but I must admit I’m not very good at microwave cooking, apart from reheating & defrosting stuff.  My Husband is somewhat of a microwave magician though, so I’m very lucky!

After a fed up phone call to my Mum, bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t even fry an egg, she suggested baking eggs on a tray in the oven, a bit like a hot plate & it works really well (obviously, because Mums are always right).  So this Monday morning, I decided to start the day with a “bake up” instead of a “fry up”!  I defrosted a few frozen rashers of smoked bacon, laid them out on a baking tray (no oil required) & put them in the oven to crisp up.  Several sizzling minutes later, the bronzed bacon rashers had given up their oil onto the tray, ready to plop some eggs into.  Now I didn’t want runaway random shaped eggs & I don’t have any fancy cooking rings like those you see on TV shows (or the budget!), so I used a couple of stainless steel pastry/cookie cutters instead with the flat side down.  They work perfectly!  As I like my eggs cooked through (yolk should be runny, but not the white thank you very much!), halfway through cooking just after they turned white, I spoon a little hot bacon fat over them.  The rings keep it in place, making sure the tops get cooked nicely & you don’t have to flip your eggs half way through (risking a burst yolk in the tray).  Obviously, you can use whatever shape you like – dinosaur, star or flower, as long as they’re ovenproof!  Another bonus to cooking this way is that you don’t need to stand watching pans, you just chuck it all in the oven!  When I put the eggs in, I also like to place a dinky dish of baked beans in the oven too, along with a couple of croissants (a bit like posh beans on toast).  So in about fifteen minutes, we had an effortless breakfast bake up & minimal washing up afterwards – bonus!

There’s also another very easy way to do this using a patty or muffin tin to make bacon & egg cups, which is great if you’re cooking for a few people.  Line each muffin tin with a layer of bacon (no need to grease them because the bacon does that), pressing down firmly all around, pop in a hot oven for about five minutes to start the cooking process & make the bacon nice & crispy.  Then simply crack an egg into each one & bake for a few more minutes until the egg is completely set.  You can always place a hot tin or some foil over the top for a few minutes extra, just to make sure the eggs are completely cooked through.  Once they’re ready, gently ease each one out with a palette knife onto a couple of slices of warm, buttered toast & watch them disappear!  If you use ham instead of bacon, just brush each tray with a little oil using a pastry brush.

Personally, I like brown sauce with my breakfast bake up & this is my very quick version.  This little treat came from having a fry-up & discovering we only had half a bottle of tomato ketchup in the pantry.  Obviously, this would never do & so I poured a glug of good Balsamic vinegar into the bottle (about a teaspoonful or two) & shook it vigorously (with the lid firmly on) for a few minutes until it was thoroughly mixed.  Give it a quick taste test & add a little more Balsamic if you think it needs it.  That’s all you need to make luscious, lovely sauce, ready to drizzle on a bacon butty!  Squeeze some into a small cup or dish with a spoon, so everyone can help themselves to a splodge.  I’ve not bought brown sauce since & just keep a good supply of tomato ketchup handy.  There are other ways to enhance the flavour, just have a play with different ingredients using the ketchup as a base.

So if you find yourself in a similar situation, just hob to it & begin the day with a breakfast bake up!  Stay hungry 😉 A x

 

 

 

 

Freezing Your Assets!

Autumn is now well underway – the clocks have gone back , the darker nights are drawing in & the bright mornings have a frosty freshness in the air, meaning it’s that time of year when we begin craving proper, rib-sticking comfort food.  Everyone has their favourite suppertime stodge, whether it’s a rich roast dinner or luscious layers of cheesy lasagne, but not everyone has the time when they get home.

Working full time, different shifts or having a jam-packed day can mean that time is limited when it comes to preparing a home-cooked meal.  Whilst shopping at one of my favourite supermarkets on Tuesday morning, I had a similar conversation at the till, as I talked about making a week’s worth of stew & biscotti (hello to the lovely lady who served me!).  This is where a bit of “stealth cooking” helps, taking the pressure off by preparing a few items in advance & keeping a stash in the freezer for when you need them.  If you cook a little bit extra every mealtime, you’ll be more prepared than a Scout!

Once a month, I like to make a few meals for week-nights, so that when we get home we can pop them in the oven & relax.  Everything is ready, there’s very little washing up & we get to eat fuss-free good food.  Making a huge steak, ale & mushroom stew at the weekend, then freezing it in individual pots means instant pie filling anytime!  Just take a couple out of the freezer to defrost in the morning, then knock up a bit of pastry when you get home & bake in the oven for a speedy version of a  slow-cooked, sumptuous pie.  Simple mashed potatoes can be wonderfully warming too when the seasons start to cool & having a few tubs in the freezer is always handy.  My tip is to make a huge batch (at least double), then leave to go cold before dividing into separate two-portion tubs for freezing – there’s no point in cooking a small amount when you can make plenty with a little extra effort!  It  just takes a few minutes to reheat in the oven or microwave & also doubles up as pie lids for delicious stews (even more lazy!).

For fast mash, just wash, peel & slice thinly a 2kg bag of potatoes (keep the peelings for later) – I use a food processor if I’m short of time.  Pour just enough boiling water over to cover them, add a sprinkling of sea salt & simmer until cooked (obviously, I have to do this in the microwave, because at the time of writing I still don’t have a hob that I can use – week six!).  The reason I slice the potatoes thinly is because they cook so much faster & I really have better things to do than stand around watching pans boil.  If you don’t have a food processor, just slice them by hand or chop into small chunks.  It shaves a bit off the cooking time (always a bonus!) & makes a smoother mash.

Once cooked, drain & tip them back into the pan (or casserole dish if you’ve microwaved them).  Add a generous chunk of butter, a couple of tablespoons of cream cheese, about 2oz of grated cheese & get mashing!  Serve some immediately & leave the rest to cool, before freezing in double portion pots.

If you want to cheese up your mash a bit more, butter the inside of a casserole dish, tip the cheesy mashed potatoes in (fresh or defrosted) & spread roughly, making sure you get into all the corners.  Sprinkle liberally with even more  cheese, then grate half a crust of bread over the top – fine or chunky, whatever you prefer.  Dust with a good pinch of dried Oregano, then bake it in the oven at 200*C for about 10 minutes.  The cheesy crumb topping will go all golden & crispy, with fluffy, buttery, cheese infused mash underneath.  Dish up & dig in!

Remember to keep your potato peelings, along with any carrot or parsnip ones & make homemade crisps out of them – it’s like free treats & no waste!  Simply spread them on a baking tray & drizzle olive oil on top, along with a good dusting of sea salt & freshly ground black pepper, then bake at 200*C for about 15-20 minutes, turning them mid-way.  Once crispy, tip them into a metal sieve to shake off any excess oil, then pop onto some kitchen paper & serve.  Add a bit more seasoning if you like, maybe a splash of balsamic vinegar too.  They’re great for munching while you’re catching up on your emails or watching a film (they also disappear rather quickly, which is why there’s no picture).

One of my favourite lazy ways to cook mash is to make miniature jacket potatoes & chuck them in the food processor afterwards.  Carefully slide a few raw baby potatoes on a metal skewer & pop them in the oven at 200*C for about 25-30 minutes (no baking tray required).  The metal skewers cook them from the inside as they heat up (I use this method for larger potatoes too – just use two skewers per potato).  Once cooked, slide them off the skewers & put them on a board to cool for a couple of minutes.  Put them in the food processor, along with a chunk of salted butter & a dusting of freshly ground black pepper, then whizz them up, crispy skins & all!  If you like, add a splash of milk to make them creamy.  Then tip into a small casserole or pie dish, grate cheese over the top & put back in the oven for five minutes to give it a nice crunchy cheesy topping.

If you’re really organised, next time you make stew just freeze a few ladles of gravy in a tub or zipped freezer bag & defrost it when you fancy proper gravy.   If anyone checked out my freezer, they would find an icy treasure trove of ingredients & delightful dishes.  I’ve always got a few bags of berries for puddings, plus some sweet crumble topping (I usually make extra just to keep in reserve).  There are bags of breadcrumbs, portions of lasagne, meatballs, homemade garlic & bacon butter, along with generous pots of cauliflower cheese, mashed potatoes, chicken stock, random rashers of smoked bacon & homemade gravy.   If you add to that the pizzas & chicken dishes I’ve made too, like kievs & cacciatore, it’s like my own little freezer shop at home!

By cooking just one extra portion of food for each meal & freezing it, you’re giving yourself time to do other things, even if it is just putting your feet up with a glass of wine in the evening.  The best bit is you can also share the cooking with the rest of the family – get yourself an eye liner pencil & write cooking instructions on each tub (being careful not to smudge them) before freezing – it sets in the freezer & washes off afterwards too, so it doesn’t spoil your tubs.  Then everyone can cook a proper, homemade meal & you can relax in the knowledge that your evenings are your own.  Stay hungry 😉 A x

 

 

 

 

 

Beetroot To Yourself

This time of year gives us some stunning pink sunsets & amazing natural colours to brighten up our meals on those frosty days.  The fruits are dark, rich & intense; the vegetables are vivid, flavoursome & versatile.  It’s Nature’s way of getting those essential nutrients into us via such attractive packaging (most of which you can eat too!).  Working or not, lunches can often be random sandwiches with questionable fillings, or pasties filled with even more questionable meat.  Sometimes we need to set aside half an hour to whip up something a bit more substantial than a shop-bought sandwich from the local garage on your way to work (I’m not judging, we’ve all done it).

There are some things I really don’t like – rude people, empty jars put back in the fridge & beetroot.  Growing up, my parents ate beetroot & so did most of my friends, but I really couldn’t abide the taste.  My Mum would slice it so prettily, lay it on a delicate plate surrounded by salads & dishes full of delectable delicacies, trying to entice me to taste some (it didn’t work).  One so-called friend actually put it in a health drink to get me to try it (it didn’t end well).  Then a couple of years ago, someone gave me a savoury tart recipe to try with beetroot in it, so I decided to give it another go.  If I didn’t like it, my Husband would eat it (he likes beetroot).   Plus, beetroot has all those important vitamins, minerals & heavy metals that are good for you (I don’t mean Metallica or Iron Maiden, I’m talking folic acid, iron & copper).

This savoury tart is crammed full of luscious cheese & finely chopped beetroot adorns the filling with beautiful deep amethyst & magenta colours.  Everyone knows how much I love cheese, so I began my experiment with a positive attitude.  I adapted the recipe, mainly because my experience with grating anything by hand usually ends up with me grating my knuckles or a fingernail.  The original recipe had grated beetroot & just one cheese, so I’ve added a few more to give it a more rounded flavour & it’s good to use up various bits of leftover cheese (apparently leftover cheese is a thing in some homes!).

What you need:

For the Filling:
2 medium-sized Beetroot, drained & chopped finely
100g Feta Cheese, crumbled
1 tablespoon Cream Cheese
1oz grated Parmesan
1oz grated Grana Padana
2oz grated Cheddar (mild or medium)
3 large Eggs
Splash of semi-skimmed Milk
Freshly ground Black Pepper
Fresh Thyme (just a couple of sprigs is sufficient)

For the Pastry:
6oz Self-Raising Flour (plus extra for rolling out)
2oz Salted Butter (room temperature, cut into chunks)
1 large Egg

[You will also need a bit of extra butter & flour for preparing your tin]

What to do:

Preheat the oven to 180*C.  Prepare your baking tin – I prefer to use a 12″ loose-bottomed flan tin.  Butter the inside of the tin, making sure you get into any corners or edges (especially if it’s fluted around the edge), then sprinkle flour all over & tap out the excess.  This recipe is really easy & quick to make, so you could always double the mixture up & make a large one in a Swiss Roll tin, or make smaller single portions in individual tins or silicone tartlet trays.

Make the pastry: tip the flour into a large mixing bowl, add the butter & crack in the egg.  Get your hands in & mix it all together to form a firm dough.  On a lightly floured worktop, roll out the dough to about 5mm thickness & make sure it is larger than the tin you are using (a couple of inches extra all around should be enough).

Using your rolling pin, carefully transfer the pastry to your prepared tin & lay it over the top.  Gently pat it into the tin, being careful not to put your fingers through it.  Push it into all the corners or fluted edges & then prick it all over with a fork (this stops it from puffing up all over the place).  Don’t worry about cutting off the excess pastry too much – you can do this once it’s baked & this will leave you with a nice smooth finish to your pastry case edges.  Usually, I just make a nice decorative edge of pastry instead, so it’s down to personal choice here.

Grab a sheet of greaseproof paper & screw it up, then unravel it & lay it over your pastry in the tin.  In a previous blog, I’ve mentioned about baking blind, so if this is something you will do often then I suggest you get some ceramic baking beads.  If not, use a couple of handfuls of dried pasta such as fusilli or penne.  Tip them onto the greaseproof paper, then bake in the centre of the oven for about 10 minutes.

While that’s baking, prepare your filling.  In a mixing bowl, add the three eggs & a splash of milk, then give them a quick whisk to break up the yolks.  Add  the grated Parmesan & Grana Padana, half of the Cheddar & Feta, plus the Cream Cheese.  Give everything a light whisking using a fork to make sure everything is combined, then add a sprinkling of the black pepper.

Remove the pastry case from the oven & carefully lift out the greaseproof paper & baking beads.  Leave them to one side to cool down before putting them away.  If you used pasta, you can reuse this a couple of times so keep it for another time.

Sprinkle an even layer of the finely chopped beetroot pieces in the bottom of the pastry case & save a handful to one side.  Pour the egg & cheese mixture into the pastry case, covering the beetroot.  Gently dot the remaining beetroot pieces around the cheese filling, along with the grated Cheddar & crumbled Feta that you kept back.  Strip some leaves from the Thyme sprigs (hold it upside down & run your fingers along the stem to release them all) & add a few to the top.

Return the tart to the oven for about 15-20 minutes, until firm & golden on top.  Test it by touching the top – if it feels firm, it’s done.  Leave the tart in it’s tin on a cooling rack for about 10 minutes.  If you left the pastry edges on, carefully cut the excess pastry off from around the edges with a sharp knife.

If you have used a loose-bottomed tin, simply turn a small bowl upside-down & place the tart in it’s tin on top.  The base will stay on the mug, the edge will drop off around the bowl below.  Transfer the tart to a serving plate or chopping board, either leaving it on the base to serve or sliding a palette knife underneath to separate the two.

This beautiful beetroot tart is perfect for packed lunches & keeps for a couple of days wrapped up in the fridge or you can always freeze some.  Serve in slices, either on it’s own or with a gorgeous green salad & well-buttered jacket potato.  Even though I don’t like beetroot, I actually adore this & it adds a semi-sweetness to the soft, creamy cheese filling.  Obviously, my Husband loves it too, so I make two & there’s plenty to go around.

Have a go at making your own bejewelled beetroot tart for your packed or unpacked lunches & have a sandwich sabbatical!  A x

PS: For those who want to know, the kitchen is almost finished & although we don’t have a working hob just yet, we will do shortly (hopefully – keep those fingers crossed please!). A x

 

 

A Kitchen Nightmare: Readymeals, Set, Go!

Firstly, apologies for the delay in writing my blog, as we are in the process of having a new kitchen fitted (week three, yay!).  As you’re probably aware, the kitchen is my sanctuary, my haven of foodliness & culinary creativity.  It’s one of my favourite places when life gets stressful, where I go to take my mind off things & create sweetness when there is none (or knead the crap out of some dough for a bit to de-stress).  When I can’t cook or bake, I tend to get a bit tetchy!  I started the first week like SpongeBob on his first day at the Krusty Krab (“I’m ready!”), but rapidly transformed into Donna Corleone by the end of the second.  It’s never straight-forward when you’re having building work done, even a small kitchen & no matter how organised you think you are, you’re not.  As I discovered, even the most perfectly planned projects can go a bit awry & bring out your inner DeNiro.

Growing up, I learned from my parents how to do a range of tasks around the home – building a fitted kitchen with my Mum, digging out footings & laying a wooden floor, building a conservatory, learning basic car & motorcycle mechanics from my Dad (plus how to remove oil with sugar & washing up liquid).  My ex was also rather fond of renovating houses, so I learned to plaster, install a bathroom (at 6 months pregnant, I was lugging a steel bath up a staircase with him) & build various furniture (he would come home with a stack of wood & say “I’m making a pine bed”).  So I was quite prepared for a modicum of mayhem during this project.

Until Friday morning of the second week, there was no working sink, no oven, no hob, no washing machine in place & no wine, which even for the most patient of people starts to get a bit much.  None of this was made easier by sharing our lounge with most of the large kitchen appliances (which was everything but the fridge), a dining table & six chairs, along with all the usual furniture one has in a lounge & everything the cat owns too (along with one rather disgruntled cat, who was having to share with “the staff”).  The kettle, microwave, toaster & slow cooker were all perched rather precariously on the dining table & washing machine, just across from the sofa.  It was very cosy!

Unfortunately, the kitchen supplier (a rather large, well-known company who shall remain nameless) & their kitchen designer let us down, causing a few headaches for us & the builders.  Cue a few trips to the store across town – we drove there on one occasion because I got bored of being on hold for half an hour & they answered just as we pulled up outside.  At last count, there have been 17 telephone calls (most of them with me in my best “I’m so disappointed” Mum voice), seven emails with almost a dozen photographs sent to the supplier, mostly asking what part of “like for like” didn’t they get & then there was the tile incident.  Trying to explain that a subway tile is not a floor tile was like Father Ted explaining the difference between the cows in the field & toy ones (“these cows are small, but those are FAR AWAY!”), until we met the fabulous Jas (who they should promote immediately, because she is brilliant!).  I’m pretty sure the Duty Manager has bought a one way ticket to a remote island somewhere with no wifi, just to escape me (I bet he’s got a kitchen that works though!).

As you can probably imagine, my tetchy-o-meter is now wacked right round into the red & like the smile I’m forcing, it’s not good.  As we are midway into week three, with various as yet unresolved issues (such as a gaping chasm in the ceiling where the old oven fan used to be, no hob as yet & a couple of minor head injuries from the low oven vent, which has a tea towel on to cover the blood), you can imagine that we’re getting rather vexed & I’m suffering from serious Spaghetti alla Carbonara deficiency.  Note to self: remember wine next time & double it, with a few whiskey chasers!

Before the chaos began, I prepared a few meals in advance & filled the freezer with lots of luscious treasures to keep us going.  Firstly, I made my staple Italian favourite: an enormous lasagne al forno.  This was baked using a rich, slow stewed meat ragu & my hand whipped cheese sauce (it’s all in the wrist!), then cut into eight portions & frozen individually.  It’s important to do this, because I guarantee that not everyone will want to eat what you do on the same day.

As I was making a cheese sauce for my lasagne, I decided to make double (two pints) & use up the cauliflower, broccoli & carrots in the fridge before they walked out in protest.  This really easy recipe is a favourite of ours & I used to make it for my son when he was a baby weaning onto solids (many moons ago!).  Cut the cauliflower & broccoli into chunky florets, slice the carrots & then steam them all until cooked but still firm – usually five or six minutes.  Spread the veg in a dish (a lasagne dish is good for this), pour the hot cheese sauce over & grate a couple of ounces of cheese on top – whatever cheese you have that needs using up!  I’ve mixed chunks of Gorgonzola with grated Grana Padana, a bit of Parmesan & Cheddar, which works really well.  To give it a crispy topping, roughly grate half a crust of bread over the top & spread liberally.  It can be chunky or fine, it really doesn’t matter.   Sprinkle a pinch of Oregano on top, some freshly ground black pepper & bake it in the middle of the oven at 200*C for about 20 – 25 minutes.  It will be crispy on top, the cheese will go golden & all that gooey cheese sauce will plump up the veg, infusing them with cheesiness.  Leave it to go cold, slice into portions & freeze in individual tubs.  This tastes amazing on it’s own too & is quite filling (we had it with chips from our local Chinese takeaway – gorgeous!).

The next day, I prepared a couple of fresh chickens by filleting, skinning & cutting them into portions.  This provides four chicken breasts, four legs & two carcasses with the wings on.  Have a read of my article “A Bird in the Hand is Worth Ten in a Dish” if you need help here.   The key is to take it slow,  at your own pace – there’s no rush.  The legs were used in a Cacciatore, fried with a bit of smoked bacon before baking, then frozen individually.  The carcasses went into the oven with some veg, herbs & water to make stock (which was also frozen for future risottos when we have a hob).  The chicken breasts were divided into two to make chicken pies & kievs, stuffed with homemade garlic & smokey bacon butter.

After seeing our national treasure Jamie Oliver (hi Jamie!) make this garlic butter on TV, I thought I’d try it & it’s really quite fabulous.  Once a month, I buy a big pack of smoked bacon, split it into 4 or 6 rasher batches & freeze them, so I’ve always got smoked bacon for risotto or cacciatore – now I have it for garlic butter too.  I have also used Proscuitto di Parma when I have leftover slices – it crisps up perfectly  when fried.  It makes more sense to make a large batch of the butter, rather than faffing around with piddling portions just for two kievs.  The measurements are general here, depending on how much garlic you like, so go easy if you’re unsure.

Use a regular sized 250g block of butter (salted or not), remove the wrapper,  & leave it in a bowl to soften slightly (cut it into chunks to speed the process up).  Fry four rashers of streaky smoked bacon in a dry pan – you want the fat to render out & make the bacon crispy.  Once it’s crispy, remove from the pan & lay on a chopping board to cool.  Chop the bacon into tiny fragments, then add to the butter mixture.

Snip some fresh Parsley into the butter, about a teaspoonful should be enough.  If you don’t like Parsley, try Oregano (it works well).  Chop or crush about half a bulb of garlic – about 7 or 8 cloves is sufficient.  Also, I prefer to chop garlic as I think it tastes better (plus I’ve crushed more than my fair share of garlic crushers!).  Tip this into the butter with the Parsley & bacon.  Mash everything together with a fork until everything is evenly distributed & have a little taste – be careful, raw garlic can be hot!  If you think the balance is right, then it’s ready to be rolled.

Place a sheet of greaseproof paper on the worktop, about the size of an A4 notepad.  Dollop the garlic butter into a sausage shape about an inch above the edge of the paper, leaving a couple of inches either side to twist together afterwards.  Roll away from you & keep it tight, smoothing the paper with your fingers to make a sausage of butter, tucking the edge of the paper underneath it.  Roll evenly until completely rolled up & twist the edges together.  Wrap in clingfilm & twist the edges again.  Pop it in the top freezer drawer & leave it to set for at least an hour.  This will become firm & easier to slice.  Once ready, cut a couple of slices & put to one side ready for stuffing, then put the rest in back in the freezer.  When you need to use it again, leave it out of the freezer for about ten minutes to soften slightly before slicing.

Next, prepare the breadcrumbs – you don’t need expensive, pre-made breadcrumbs.  It’s a doddle to make your own & use up those crusts that everyone says they like, but always end up on the bird table.  Leave a couple of crusts on a plate, unwrapped for an hour to dry slightly – any bread will do (I use whatever I’ve got – seeded, baguette, whatever needs using up).  Chuck them in the blender & whizz them up until fine.  Job done!  If you’re not going to use them straightaway, pop them in a bag, flatten to remove the air & freeze.  They’re always handy to have & there’s no waste.

Take two skinless chicken breasts & cut across the thickest part to make two equal sized portions.  They may look small, but once they’ve been stuffed & breadcrumbed, they will be a lot bigger!  Make a small incision (about an inch long) in the side & create a larger cavity inside to make a pocket.  Push a slice or two of the garlic & smokey bacon butter into the cavity, then close up the opening with your fingers.

This is the messy bit:  you need to panée the stuffed chicken to make them into proper kievs.  To panée is a French term meaning to breadcrumb – for example, de la poulet panée means breaded chicken.  However, you need to concentrate & keep one hand for the wet dip, one for the dry.  This sounds simple enough, although many times I have panéed my fingers because I forgot which hand went where!  You need three dishes: one with a beaten egg, one with a couple of tablespoons of plain flour & one with fine breadcrumbs in it (a shallow one or a plate will do).

Roll the stuffed chicken breast in the flour, making sure it is coated everywhere, then shake off the remaining flour.  Using your other hand, dip the chicken in the egg then drop it into the breadcrumbs.  Using the same hand you did for flouring, sprinkle & pat the breadcrumbs onto the chicken, ensuring it is thoroughly coated on all sides.  Shake off the excess & place in a plate (sprinkle a few breadcrumbs onto the plate before you do this).  Repeat this process for the other chicken kievs, then cover the dish with cling film & put in the bottom of the fridge for an hour or so – raw meat should not be next to cooked or be above anything else, so I always use the bottom shelf.

This is where I do things a bit differently, because I prefer not to fry the kievs.  Preheat the oven to 220*C.  Get a roasting tin & lightly drizzle some olive oil in the bottom, then place the kievs on top.  Drizzle the tops with a bit more olive oil, chuck in a sprig of fresh Rosemary & bake them in the centre of the oven for about 20-25 minutes.  Halfway through cooking, grab some tongs & turn them over carefully, replacing them in the oven to finish cooking.   Once cooled, pop a couple in a tub & freeze (pour over any escaped butter & crispy bits from the tin too).  They reheat well once defrosted too – just put them in a dish in the oven at 200*C for 20 minutes or so.  Make sure they are piping hot before dishing up – stick a metal skewer in the centre & if it’s hot to the touch, they’re ready.  They go great with a huge salad & proper chunky chips.  If you’re not keen on bacon or garlic, try using different stuffings in your chicken – maybe some sundried tomatoes, a couple of slices of Mozzarella & some fresh Basil leaves, or shredded spinach, Ricotta & chopped pine nuts.

Have a go at making your own ready meals & even if you’re not having building work done, sometimes it nice to have a freezer full of pre-prepped dinners for when you’re working late or can’t be bothered to cook.  A x

 

Aisha’s Amazing Kick-Ass Curry!

We can always tell when Autumn is well & truly on it’s way. The nights are drawing in, the leaves are beginning to turn into an array of vivid rouge & rust coloured hues, the crisp sunny mornings have arrived & the students are back at Uni. I have fond memories of University, although I left with a Husband instead of a degree (totally unexpected but pretty awesome!). As a mature student & single Mum in those days, I had a few struggles & one of them was making my food budget stretch. My son was only five at the time & we were renting a tiny “two up, two down” house in an old part of town, without many luxuries. I’m not talking warm Prosecco here – I had lost my home, ex-husband, job & finally my car, all within seven days & ended up sleeping on a kind person’s spare room floor.

So, I picked myself up & dusted myself down, found somewhere to rent, decided to enrol at Uni & get my life back on track (sort of!). The house was basic, but home: I slept fully clothed on an inflatable bed that would deflate during the night, there was no heating (the only gas fire was condemned) & we didn’t have a fridge, until my parents bought me one for my birthday (we kept milk cold in the sink). But it was paradise compared to how it could have been & we made the best of it. One of my dearest friends gave me a huge microwave & I managed to acquire an oven, so at least I could cook! I don’t want pity or anything (others have gone through much worse) & I’m not even sure I should be sharing such a personal experience, but my love for cooking became more important during this time, making me very resourceful & creative, giving me the opportunity to develop some of my best recipes.

It was at this little rented house that I met my fabulous neighbours, a lovely young couple who had the most beautiful baby girl, Aisha. Her Mum & I would chat about recipes, food & family. This curry was the result of those afternoon chats & is named in honour of Aisha & her Mum. It’s a firm favourite with my guys & I have shared it with several friends over the years too. It is inexpensive, easy to make & very flavoursome, plus it makes great spicy wraps the next day (if there are any leftovers!).

What you need:

4 Chicken Legs or 8 Thighs (skin on & bone in) or 2 Chicken Breasts, cut into thin strips
1 large Red Onion, sliced thinly
2 Peppers, deseeded & thinly sliced
1 tin Chopped Tomatoes (save the tin to measure water in)
1 chunk of Fresh Ginger (about 2 inches should do)
4 cloves Garlic
Half a teaspoon of Cayenne
2 teaspoons each of Cumin, Turmeric & Coriander (I prefer leaf, but you can use ground here)
2 tablespoons of Vegetable or Olive Oil (I use whatever’s in the pantry at the time)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 180*C.

Prepare the spices & mix together in a small cup, ready for adding later.

Peel & grate the ginger, chop the garlic & slice the onion.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan or skillet. If you are using chicken legs/thighs, you need to seal the meat first, so fry for a couple of minutes on either side until the skin is browned & the flesh is opaque underneath. Set aside in a large casserole dish with a lid on.

Add the spices (be careful you don’t breathe it in though – stand back when you do this) & stir well. If it looks a bit dry, add a little more oil to loosen it up.

If using chicken breast, add this now & stir fry until opaque on all sides, mixing well with everything in the pan.

Add the peppers & stir fry everything for a couple of minutes to completely combine all the spices.

Add a tin of chopped tomatoes & half a tin of cold water. Mix well & cook for a couple of minutes, until it is bubbling away nicely (avoid splashes though – turmeric stains worktops & this sauce is hotter than the surface of the sun!).

Transfer to the casserole dish, pouring all over the chicken legs & ensuring they are completely covered in the sauce. Put the lid on & bake in the oven: chicken legs should need about 30-40 minutes, until the meat is tender & falling off the bone; chicken strips should need about 20 minutes max.

If using chicken strips, you can always cook it in the frying pan/skillet on the stove, because they don’t need much cooking. With chicken legs, to test if they are cooked through insert a skewer into the thickest part & if the juices run clear, it’s cooked. If not, pop it back for another 10 minutes.

While the curry is in the oven, cook some rice as per the instructions on the packet (maybe pop a couple of cardamom pods in the water) & make some flatbreads – I’ve been making some from a recipe my Mum gave me recently from a magazine. They take five minutes from start to finish, so you’ve got plenty of time to make them!

What you need:

8oz Self-Raising Flour (or 8oz Plain with 4 teaspoons of Baking Powder), plus a bit extra for rolling out
100ml cold Water
1 tablespoon Olive or Vegetable Oil, plus a little more for frying
2 cloves Garlic, finely chopped (optional)

What to do:

Clean out the skillet you just used – you’re going to fry these breads in it.

In a bowl or food processor, mix all the ingredients together to form a soft dough. Split into four equal sized balls & dust with a little flour.

Heat the skillet/frying pan & add a sprinkling of oil (you only need a little bit) – it needs to be quite hot.

Take each dough ball & roll it out in a little flour until very thin, shaping it into an oval shape as you do (mine are usually random shapes though, so it doesn’t really matter if you don’t).

Place two in the pan & cook for about 2-3 minutes each side, turning carefully so they don’t break up.

Once cooked, transfer to a cooling rack or chopping board until ready to serve. If you want them to stay soft, wrap individually in a bit of foil until you’re ready to serve. That way, you can chuck them back in the oven to warm up while you’re dishing up the curry & rice.

Serve straight from the casserole dish or skillet, with a dollop of cool Greek yoghurt mixed with a few finely chopped fresh mint leaves, along with the garlic flatbreads. The fresh ginger gives the curry plenty of kick, so I will warn you to have a glass of ice cold beer nearby (or milk).

Any leftovers make great lunch wraps the next day too – chop some salad up, add a little curry & a splodge of the yoghurt, then fold. No waste, plus you made your own bread in minutes to mop up that sauce!

Whether you’re studying hard or hardly studying, I hope you like Aisha’s Kick-Ass Curry as much as we do. Share with friends & add a little spice to your life!  A x

There’s More to Stew Than Just a Pie!

This time of year is one of my favourites, as the last remnants of Summer slowly hand over the baton to the slight chill of September & bring those bright, sunny sharp mornings that you can taste in the air.  The hedgerows are full of dark & glossy, ripe blackberries, vegetables are ready for digging up & the branches of trees are groaning with the weight of their various fruits.

Just as the seasons begin to change, so does our desire for more hearty, substantial meals.  I love going outside early in the morning to collect the tasty treasures from our garden!  As I wander around, so does my mind as I consider what fabulous meals I’m going to make with these wonderful ingredients.  Obviously, we only grow a small amount of fruit & vegetables, so I like to head to the local shops & pick up whatever is in season.  Most people go shopping with a list; I like to just see what’s available, then decide what I can make from that.

Although I like a good pudding as much as everyone else, I absolutely adore a proper stew, made with a few simple ingredients & a lot of patience.  Everything is slowly cooked for a few hours, as the whole house is filled with it’s heady aroma & your stomach dragon starts to gurgle in anticipation of dinnertime!  Growing up, my Mum would make the most amazing stews & halfway through cooking, I would pester her for a cup of the rich gravy to dunk some crusty bread in.  Eventually, she would give in & I would sit on a stool, talking to her & clutching onto my cup as I savoured the steamy, flavourful liquid.

Everyone has their favourite recipes, their own way of doing things, but this is how I cook my Steak, Ale & Mushroom stew.  It is perfect for packing into pies & pasties to warm you up on a chilly Autumn evening, or just eating hot from the pot with a few slices of crusty, buttered bread.  It’s a really easy to make “chuck it all in a pot” kind of meal, very filling & it’s completely faff-free!  This makes two casserole dishes, because why make one when you can make two at the same time?  I can get about six very generous portions from this lot, so it could feed eight (my mini-pie dishes are actually not very mini really, they would feed two).  Freeze what you don’t use, it keeps very well & you can always keep a stash in reserve for evenings when you just don’t fancy cooking.

What you need:

500g Stewing Meat – I prefer beef, but you can use whatever you like (adjust which herbs you use accordingly)
2-3 Onions
4 Carrots
2 Parsnips
(you can use whatever root veg you like here – if you don’t like carrots, use something you do like)
12 Baby Potatoes (I usually have a few leftover in the fridge from other meals)
1 punnet of Mushrooms
A handful of fresh Thyme sprigs
Gravy Powder & water (I usually use 6 heaped spoonfuls to a pint & half of cold water per casserole dish)
Freshly ground Black Pepper
25cl Beer (one of those small, dumpy bottles is plenty)

How to do it:

Preheat the oven to 150*C.  Put the grill tray in the bottom of the oven, to catch any spills (if you follow my instructions though, there shouldn’t be any, but it’s best to be prepared).  Move the shelf to the lowest setting in the oven.

You will need two casserole dishes with lids, just the regular sized ones should do.

Divide the meat up equally between the dishes, removing any gristle or excess fat (slight marbling of fat in the meat is fine, because that will cook out & adds flavour, but anything else can be removed).  Use scissors for this – it’s so much easier that chasing a slippery chunk of meat around a chopping board with a sharp knife!

Prepare the vegetables – peel, top & tail the carrots, onions & parsnips.  Dice the onions.  Chop the other veg into bite sized pieces – I usually cut them down the centre lengthways, then again & chop them into pieces.  Share them between the two casserole dishes.

Leave the peel on the potatoes, just wash them.  Cut them the same way as the carrots, quartered lengthways, then chop into bite sized pieces.  Again, share equally between the dishes.

Clean the mushrooms by wiping them with a damp cloth to remove any grit or dirt.  If you’re using Chanterelle mushrooms, use a pastry brush instead to flick out any bits of dirt.  Cut into pieces or leave them whole if small enough, then share between each casserole dish.

For each dish, make up a pint of gravy as per the instructions on the packet (I used Bisto Gravy Powder because it was in my cupboard, but it’s your personal choice).  You could use fresh stock here if you prefer, or a stock cube.  I prefer the powder, as it also seasons the stew perfectly – no need to add any salt.

Share the bottle of beer between the dishes.  Stir everything together & make sure the liquid covers everything.  The mushrooms will float for now.  Season with the black pepper to your taste, then stir in.  Add the sprigs of Thyme, just plonk them on the top.

Put the lids on, put the dishes in the oven & forget about them for a couple of hours – it takes about three hours in total for a good stew to cook, as all the lovely ingredients slowly infuse the gravy.

After a couple of hours, take the dishes out of the oven & give them a stir, put the lids back on & bake for another hour.

The stew should be cooked after that, so take the dishes out & give them a stir.  Taste the stew, try not to burn your mouth (we’ve all done it!) & test the meat.  It should melt in the mouth, so if it’s still a bit firm, pop it back in the oven for half an hour to an hour.  I usually cook my stew for about four hours, as it just intensifies the flavour & the meat falls to pieces beautifully.

Once it’s cooked, place the stews on a cooling rack or thick wooden chopping board.  Using a fork & spoon, fish out the Thyme twigs & discard them – the leaves will have gone into the stew.  If you want to thicken your gravy, my tip here is to strain some off from each pot, about half a pint each, then heat it up in a saucepan while stirring.  This thickens it up nicely, without going like treacle.  Then pour it back into each pot, stirring into the meat & veg, before serving in huge bowls with lots of fresh, thick cut bread to mop up the gravy.

If you’re making pies, do this to the gravy just before serving, so it’s ready to pour over the lovely pastry once they are cooked.  Use a nice, rich pastry (see my article “Good Pie, the Blackberry Way” for the recipe) & decorate it as you like (3.14 is actually pi – it’s a little pi(e) pun I have with my Husband!).  I have also frozen batches of this gravy for Sunday lunches (again, sometimes you just can’t be bothered & lazy lunches really are the best).  Pour the cold gravy into plastic zip bags or tubs, then freeze (double bag it if you’re worried about leaks).

This sumptuous staple will make all kinds of dishes, not just pies or pasties.  Try making a savoury crumble with butter & flour, add a little grated cheese & sprinkle generously on top before baking in a hot oven, or roughly dollop mashed potatoes across the top instead & chuck on some chunky breadcrumbs, grated Parmesan & a little Oregano.  For an elegant evening supper, why not make filo parcels with a spoonful of stew inside, squish the edges up together, brush with melted butter & bake!

So embrace Autumn & all it’s edible treasures, maybe indulging in a big bowl of steamy hot stew, snuggled up on the sofa, with a few slabs of crusty buttered bread & a glass of red wine. Sometimes, the simple stuff is the best.  A x

 

 

The Blanket Banquet Three Ps: Plan, Prep & Picnic!

It doesn’t need to be a fabulous Summer weekend to enjoy a perfect picnic, it just needs to be fabulous.   Contrary to popular belief, I don’t spend days in the kitchen packing up a feast full of moreish munchies.  It’s all about the three Ps:  planning, preparation & picnic!  With a bit of clever organising, you can pack up a portable party & be out of the door in no time.

First thing to do is the planning.  Most people (including me) don’t have a hamper or an ice box for picnics, but obviously we all want our treats to arrive cool, fresh & full of flavour.  What I do have though is a couple of those freezer blocks/bricks (I always have at least two in the freezer, ready to go) & a few padded freezer food shopping bags from my local supermarket.   This also ensures that everyone can help carry the food & nobody is left lugging a huge ice box behind them.  No freezer blocks?  That’s easy – just stick a bottle of lemonade in the bottom of the fridge overnight to act as a cooling aid in the bag!  Mini plastic bottles can be frozen, but the liquid expands as it freezes, so tip a little out of each before doing that or you’ll have to do some cleaning up before you go!    Don’t forget to put cups, cutlery & condiments in a separate bag too – wrap them up in a couple of tea-towels to pad them out & avoid breakages.  This can all be done the night before, ready to go.

Whatever you can do the day before, do it.  Because I bake bread most days, I’ve usually got a couple of baguettes or focaccia & slice them before we go, so they can be filled when we get there – no pre-made sandwiches taking up your time.  If there’s any leftover pizza (I’m being optimistic here), that gets sliced, wrapped & put into the picnic bag.  I’ll also pop in a couple of jars of “sandwich enhancers” too – olives, sundried tomatoes, roasted peppers, that sort of thing.  Then I’ll chuck in a selection of our favourite foods: salads, cream cheese (great for spreading or dipping), a couple of mozzarella balls, some sliced ham, spicy breaded chicken strips (I make these in huge batches so there are always leftovers), cooked pasta & pretty much whatever I’ve got stashed in the fridge, along with a jar of my homemade tomato sauce.  Although I make this sauce for pasta, it’s perfect as a dip or relish & I’ve usually got a couple of jars in the fridge (OK, at least four).  Anything that needs slicing or chopping, do it now & put it in a bag or a container.  You don’t want to be trying to cut up a tomato on a wonky blanket!  One thing I do bring along is a nice dessert or pudding, usually a few cupcakes or slices of fruit pie – individually portioned & wrapped, so no messing about when we get there.

That’s the planning, now for the preparation!  Everyone likes a nice cold beverage & obviously ice doesn’t travel well, so if you like your drinks chilled, this can be a problem – nobody likes a warm drink on a hot Summer’s day (unless it’s a cup of tea!).  One of my favourite solutions is to use frozen fruit instead – strawberries, raspberries, cherries, blackberries, anything I can get my hands on!  Just before you set off en route to your picnic, put a box of frozen fruit in the bag with a freezer block underneath them.  This should keep them cold for a couple of hours.  Then when you pour your drink, pop a couple of frozen fruit pieces in your glass for instant chill!  Plus, you can eat them when they’ve done their job & defrosted (we all love a bit of multi-tasking!).  Don’t just use berries though – freeze thin slices of fruit like peaches, pineapple, lemons, limes, oranges, apples, even cucumber (yes, it’s a fruit!).  Or try a couple of frozen grapes plopped into a glass of Pinot Grigio.  This time of year is great for blackberries – freeze them in a single layer on a tray, then once frozen you can pile them into a plastic tub with a lid on, ready in the freezer for whenever you want a few!  Create you own frozen fruity flavours & enjoy their colourful combinations.

Now you all know I enjoy finding ways to use everything up & have very little food waste.  Here’s a lovely little snack to make the day before & add to your picnic.  Do you peel your carrots, potatoes & parsnips, then throw the peelings out or compost them?  Why not turn them into healthy homemade crisps instead (no waste & free snacks – what’s not to love?).  Before you peel your veg, wash them thoroughly beforehand, making sure you trim any bad bits off.  Drizzle a little olive oil onto a baking tray – don’t be stingy, this oil will add flavour.  Lay your peelings onto the oiled tray, ensuring they are well coated all over.  Sprinkle on some sea salt & a little freshly ground black pepper, then bake them in the oven at 200*C for about 15-20 minutes until crispy (depending on how many you make).  You can shake them halfway through cooking if you think they need it.  Once cooked, pop them on some kitchen paper on a cooling rack until cooled or tip into a metal sieve, then put them in an airtight container until you need them.  Have a taste & add a bit more seasoning if you like – take some vinegar with you to sprinkle on them just before eating too.  These taste great on their own or dipped in cream cheese or salsa.  Not bad for something we would usually chuck in the composter!

Want more oven baked goodies?  How about some really easy, low fat, low fuss onion rings.  These can go in the oven at the same time as the crisps, just to make things easier.  Get yourself a couple of big onions, top & tail them, peel the outer skin off, then slice them thickly.  Separate all the layers, keeping the rings whole if you can (although you really won’t care once you taste how good they are!).  Beat a large egg in a bowl, then put the onion rings in the egg & toss around to coat them thoroughly (I will warn you, this smells awful at this stage).  In another bowl, tip a couple of tablespoons of plain flour, add a pinch of sea salt & black pepper to season, then stir well.  Chuck in the egg coated onion rings, a handful at a time & toss around in the seasoned flour, making sure they are completely coated.  Shake off the excess & lay them on an oiled baking tray.  Drizzle on a little more olive oil & bake in the oven at 200*C for about 15-20 minutes, turning over half way through to ensure they are crispy on each side.  Once out of the oven, let them cool before stashing them in an airtight container to eat later!  They’re lovely hot or cold, naked or dipped, plus all the flaky crispy bits leftover on the baking tray taste so good sprinkled on a salad (bonus gift!).  These gorgeous onion snacks go very well with a tub of Greek yoghurt to dip them in (mayonnaise is lovely, but I like the slight sourness of the yoghurt).

Once you’ve devoured your fabulous feast, there’s the little problem of sticky hands & fingers, but I’ve got a simple solution for that & it’s re-usable.  This  was originally something I saw on a random TV show one afternoon as an addition for packed lunches, but it works equally brilliantly for picnics too.  What you need is a packet of those small washing up sponges (without the scratchy side), a large fresh lemon (sliced thinly), a few sandwich bags with little handles & some room in the freezer (I always forget this bit & end up on my knees in front of the freezer, trying to rearrange everything like some sort of frozen Jenga!).

Run a sponge under the cold tap & squeeze out the excess water, but leave it quite moist.  Put a slice or two of lemon on top (lemon is a natural de-greaser) & put the whole thing in a sandwich bag.   Tie the little handles to seal the bag (try to remove any air without squeezing the sponge) & pop in the freezer overnight.  The next day, put one of these little bags in with the picnic for each person – not only will it keep the food lovely & cool, but once defrosted it will also act as a refreshing wipe after they’ve eaten!  No more greasy, sticky little mitts – just fresh, lemon-scented clean hands (you’re welcome!).  Plus you can re-use them as I mentioned – simply wash them in warm soapy water when you get home, rinse well, repeat the steps above (replacing the lemon with fresh slices) & they’re ready to be used again – much better than a one-use wet wipe!

Finally, all that’s left to do is the last P – picnic!  So don’t panic over your picnic pack up – just follow the three Ps & you’ll have a blanket banquet to remember!  A 🙂 x

 

 

 

Good Pie, the Blackberry Way!

It’s that time of year, when the hedgerows are bursting with delicious, deepest dark purple blackberries, just waiting to be plucked from their brambles.  There’s something satisfying about picking fresh fruit that instantly transports me back to childhood – I would pick apples, blackberries, raspberries & cherries for my Mum to turn into the tastiest treats, carefully carried home (usually in my skirt turned inside out & filled with berries that stained – sorry Mum!).  I’ve always grown blackberries in the garden – they are really easy to grow either in pots on the patio or along a hedgerow & the more fruit you pick, the more they seem to produce.  Plus they have the prettiest little white flowers that the bees adore, so I’m doing my bit for them too!

One of the best ways to enjoy blackberries is encased in pastry, adorning slices of crisp apple & making them pink with their juice (although, I like to freeze a few & pop them in Prosecco to make blackberry bubbles!).  Pastry making used to elude me.  It is one of those voluptuous little vehicles that carry fabulous fillings into your mouth.  Yet, despite it’s beautiful taste & crumbly texture, it can be a bit of a nightmare to make your own – mine used to resemble tasty cardboard!   There are so many different types to choose from, then there are all the rules you should follow – keep your hands cold, only use your fingertips, don’t handle it too much, only roll it out once 28 degrees north while standing on one leg, blah blah.  It’s exhausting just thinking about it!

Although I would never attempt to make my own filo pastry, I have made my own puff pastry in the past (it’s like making the croissant dough – lots of folding, plenty of butter & leaving to rest for a bit).  It does take time, but it is absolutely worth it & I know exactly what’s in it!  Shop-bought pastry of any kind can be nice, however I’m pretty sure that all those added little extras they put in are not good for us (don’t get me started on unnecessary & unpronounceable ingredients!).  Plus, when it says “all butter” on the packet, it doesn’t necessarily mean just butter (have a look next time you go shopping).

Sometimes a recipe will say “bake blind”.  That does not mean tie your apron over your face & wander around your kitchen blindfolded (apparently).  It means that once you have lined your tin with pastry, put a sheet of greaseproof paper on top, along with a layer of ceramic baking beans to hold the paper down & allow the pastry to cook a little before you fill it.  Baking beans can be found at most supermarkets or good baking supply stores – I got mine from Nisbets Catering Supplies (they are on Fletcher Gate in Nottingham – it’s an Aladdin’s cave in there).  In an emergency, you can use dried pasta shapes – they can be reused a couple of times, however they tend to break after that.  Once you have baked your pastry case, then it’s ready to be filled or frozen for when you need one!  If you are making a fruit pie like this one, you don’t need to bake it blind as your filling isn’t going to be too wet.

For sweet dishes, the basic pastry I make is just butter, flour, sugar & eggs.  One of the best tips I’ve discovered is to use icing sugar – your pastry will be smooth, silky & really easy to roll.  Depending on the filling, sometimes I’ll add a bit of orange or lemon zest (or both!).  It’s always fabulously fluffy in the middle, with that melt-in-the-mouth buttery taste.  I have used this recipe for all kinds of pastry delights & it is easy to adapt, so you can change it up as you need or leave it simple & let the filling do the talking.

What you need:

12oz Self-Raising Flour
4oz Salted Butter, room temperature (slightly softened)
4oz Vanilla Sugar or Vanilla Icing Sugar (make your own – just pop a Vanilla pod in a jar of sugar overnight, or add 1/4 teaspoon Vanilla Extract if you don’t have time)
2 large Eggs

Prepared filling – peeled, cored & thinly sliced apple or pear (you only need about three or four regular sized apples/pears for a 12″ pie); washed & drained blackberries or raspberries
2 tablespoons Vanilla Sugar (for the filling)
2 tablespoons of Milk for brushing on top

Optional ingredients:

Zest of an Orange or a Lemon (or half of each mixed) – wash & dry them first to remove any wax or dirt (try to get unwaxed fruit if you can)

Ground Cinnamon (if you are using apples, a dusting of this fragrant spice will enhance the flavour)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 190*C.   Prepare your baking tin(s) – there is enough pastry here to make a large 12″ pie or a dozen small ones with lids, so it’s whatever size you are making.  To prepare your baking tins, wipe the inside with butter using a piece of greaseproof paper or just your fingers, then dust with flour to coat the butter.  This will make them non-stick & your pastry will pop out easily.  If you are making a large pie, try using a loose bottomed pie tin (easier to transfer from tin to plate), or lay a couple of long, wide strips of greaseproof paper across each other in the bottom of the pie tin & hanging over the edge by a couple of inches (once cooked, simply lift your pie out).  For smaller tartlets or pies, I’ve used patty tins & the silicone cases – they actually work quite well.  Whatever tin or case you use, always place it on a baking tray for extra support & ease when removing from the oven later.

Tip the flour into a large mixing bowl & then add the butter, eggs & 4oz of vanilla sugar or icing sugar.  If you are using orange & lemon zest, add that too.  Get your hands in the bowl & start mixing, squishing everything together to distribute evenly & make a pliable ball of pastry.  Dust a worktop with flour & place the dough on top.  Dust your rolling pin too (you don’t want the pastry to stick to it!).

Cut the pastry ball in two & set one aside (this will make the top of your pie).  Take the other pastry ball & roll it out, turn it & then roll again.  If it’s a bit sticky, add another dusting of flour underneath before rolling – use a pallet knife to slide underneath if necessary.  Try not to add too much flour to the worktop though, because it will combine with your pastry & become dry.   Once rolled, transfer it to the prepared baking tin, making sure that there is no air between the pastry & tin.  Use a floured finger to press it gently into all the corners or curves if using a fluted tin, or the dusted handle of a wooden spoon works really well.

Once your pie case is prepared, add the filling.  I use regular, uncooked ripe apples or pears that have been peeled & cored, then sliced thinly & fanned out over the bottom of the pastry case.  Top with a few luscious blackberries, dusted with a little cinnamon & a good sprinkling of vanilla sugar.  Don’t over-fill your pie case – just one layer of sliced fruit & a few berries is sufficient – too much filling will make it soggy underneath (never a good look!) & the pastry won’t cook.

Roll out the pastry top slightly larger than the base, then use your rolling pin to lift it & gently roll it over the pie.  Pinch & press the edges together into a pretty pattern using your fingers, all the way around until it is sealed up nicely.  If you feel like being a bit creative, cut out shapes with the trimmings to decorate – add after brushing with milk, then brush them too.  When I’m making a pie with blackberries in, I like to decorate with flowers, because they look a bit like blackberries & sometimes I’ll add pastry leaves too.  It’s just to use up any leftover pastry trimmings – no need to throw them away, just create some pretty shapes for the top.

Brush with a little milk, then prick holes in the top with a sharp knife or a fork.  Sprinkle a little vanilla sugar over the top.  Bake it in the middle of the oven for about 25 minutes, until it is golden & the filling will be all bubbling out of the tiny holes you made.  Don’t worry about the little pools of filling – they will bake into the pastry in the oven & it will be crispy, golden & lovely.

After baking, remove your pie from the oven & place on a cooling rack. Leave it in the tin for a few minutes, as it will be easier to remove once it has cooled down a bit.  Even if you are going to eat it hot, you don’t want to be burning your mouth – fruit fillings especially will be like molten lava & tend to be hotter than the sun, so give it a moment & save yourself (& your guests) some pain!  If you’re going to eat it cold, just leave it to cool completely in the tin before cutting it.

If you’ve used a loose-bottomed tin, just push the base up from underneath & ease your pie onto a serving plate or board.  Slide a pallet knife gently underneath the pie to separate it from the actual tin base.  If you’ve use the greaseproof paper method, simply lift it out & transfer to a plate, then slice, serve & share!

So next time you have an abundance of blackberries, forget the crumble & pack them in a pie!  A x

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cakes, Cookies & Celebrations!

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks here, so apologies for the delay in writing – we had three birthdays within the first three days of August, plus there are a few more to come & a wedding anniversary at the end of the month.  The anticipation of August arriving always hits me as July begins & reminds me of when I was younger – birthday parties being planned by my Mum, all kinds of pastries & party foods being prepared & she would always bake me a lovely birthday cake.  One year, she made me a fabulous cake in the shape of a punk rocker’s head, covered in fluffy buttercream & complete with a magnificent multi-coloured mohican hair style! Everyone loved it & we all had different coloured tongues by the end of the party!  If only I had a photo of that cake, but it didn’t last very long!

My Grandma used to make the most amazing velvety rich chocolate cake, which was a well-loved family favourite.  It was truly lovely – light, creamy chocolate buttercream would sandwich the fluffy, moist layers of cake together & completely coat the outside in a smooth, simple layer.  Grandma would freeze some, so she always had a slice ready for unexpected visitors (you never know when you will need cake!).

It doesn’t matter what your age is, everyone likes a good birthday cake & for me, homemade means so much. Someone has taken the time to create something personal, just for you, rather than nipping down to their local supermarket & buying one (I’m not dissing shop-bought cake – some are lovely, but it’s just not the same).  When I worked in an office, I would make cakes for business clients & deliver them on the way to work as a surprise. Now I just do it for family & friends – sometimes I’ll even make a bunch of flower cookies (edible flowers – what’s not to love?!).  It’s just a nice way to help someone start their special day with a smile!

The best recipes are those that work for you with little fuss & no faffing – the “chuck it in a bowl & whisk” kind of recipe.  This is that kind of recipe, because I love how easy it is.  I have adapted a traditional Victoria Sponge recipe that was handed down to me & it is quite versatile – I have adjusted it to make various other cakes over the years, so you might want to try adding other ingredients & have a play around to find your favourite too – my Husband absolutely loves the coffee & walnut version of this cake.   One tip I will share is to go easy on the wet ingredients, as they will affect the moisture of the cake & you might just end up with a soggy mess. Cake is all about balance, so remember that when you are baking & you won’t go far wrong.

What you need:

4 oz Plain Flour*
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
4 oz Softened Margarine or Butter (personal choice here)
4 oz Vanilla Sugar (pop a vanilla pod in some sugar overnight)
2 large Eggs

* If you are making chocolate cake, replace 1 oz of flour with 1 oz of cocoa powder, plus a teaspoon of coffee granules – trust me, this will make the chocolate flavour more intense.

(These amounts make a dozen cupcakes or a 7 inch sponge cake, so you might want to double the recipe to make more, depending on the size of your cake/party – for each 2 oz of additional ingredients, add one egg & one teaspoon of baking powder).

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 190*C.

Prepare your tins – lightly grease with butter, then sprinkle flour inside & tap it all around to cover the butter, shaking out the excess.  This makes them sort of non-stick & the cake will be much easier to remove later.

Cut out a circle of greaseproof paper to the size of the base of your tins & lay in the bottom.

Cream the butter & sugar in a mixing bowl – you can do this by hand with a wooden spoon or with an electric mixer (I have done both & it takes about the same time).  The colour of the mixture will become a light cream & the sugar will lose it’s grittiness.

Measure the flour into a separate bowl & add the baking powder.  If you are using cocoa powder, add this along with a teaspoon of instant coffee granules.

Crack one egg into the creamed butter & sugar, then sift in half of the dry ingredients.  Cream these together to make a smooth cake batter, either by hand with a wooden spoon or with an electric mixer.

Repeat the above step with the remaining egg & dry ingredients.

If you are making chocolate cake, add a splash of milk (about a tablespoon is enough) & whip it up again briefly, just to incorporate everything.

Pour the batter into your prepared baking tin, using a spatula to ensure you get it all out of the bowl.  Smooth gently to the edges of the tin to make a level cake, then put in the centre of the oven for 18-20 minutes.  It is important that you do not open the oven during the cooking time & make sure there are no draughts – any gust of air will make your cake go sad & sink in the middle.  If it does this, don’t worry about it too much – you can always cut the cake into pieces & use it to create a different shape.

Test the cake is cooked by inserting a skewer in the centre of the cake.  If it comes out clean, the cake is cooked.  If not, give it another couple of minutes or so in the oven.

Once cooked, place the tin on a cooling rack & leave for a couple of minutes to cool.  Slide a pallet knife around the edge of the cake to separate it from the tin, then gently tip it onto the cooling rack to cool completely.  Never leave your sponge in the tin to cool completely – it will just go heavy & dense.

While the cake is cooling, make your filling.  If you’re making chocolate cake, you really need a chocolate filling.  I have on occasion used a jar of chocolate spread – it’s OK, but it needs to be very soft to do this so pop the open jar in a pan of warm water (not boiling though!), just for a couple of minutes.  It should loosen up nicely & then you can spread it between the cake layers.  If your cake is going to be eaten that day, you could always use fresh cream, whipped up with a teaspoonful of icing sugar to help keep it firm.  However, if you’re making a cake in advance, I recommend homemade buttercream as this will keep for a few days in an airtight container & it freezes well too.

To make the buttercream, you will need to use 5oz softened butter or margarine (again, this is just personal choice) & 10oz icing sugar.  This is more than enough to fill & cover a double layer cake or a dozen cupcakes.

Using a flexible silicone spatula, beat the butter to make it soft & smooth.  Add half of the icing sugar & using the back of the spatula, press the sugar into the butter to make a paste.  Once all the icing sugar has been mixed in, add the rest & repeat.  You should be left with a very thick buttercream icing (yes, your arms might ache a bit, but that’s the hard bit done).  If you do it this way, you don’t get clouds of sugar dust in the kitchen & everywhere else (your hair, your clothes, the kids, the cat – you get the idea).

In a bain-marie, melt a small bar of milk chocolate (about 3-4oz should be sufficient).  If you don’t have a bain-marie, put some boiling water in the bottom of a pan & a bowl over the top with the chocolate in it (not touching the water!).  This is great if you’ve got broken leftover bits of chocolate in the pantry (yes, even I laughed at that – leftover chocolate is a myth in our house, just like leftover wine).  Once melted, let it cool for a few moments before pouring it into your buttercream (otherwise it will curdle & you will have to start again).  Give it a good whisk (get the electric one out for this), until the chocolate is mixed in & then add a tablespoon of milk, just to give it a silky smooth consistency & a nice satin sheen.  It should be easy to work with & thick, so you can either pipe it onto your cake or use a pallet knife to spread it onto the layers.

Once you’ve smoothed your buttercream onto your cake, you should start decorating it before the chocolate sets!  I like to use huge white chocolate buttons to add a bit of contrast, some of my own chocolates (I made a heart shaped cake for my Husband’s birthday using them), or pipe on some chocolate swirls & squiggles all over – it’s your design, so have some fun!  That way, every one is unique & you can even do some chocolate writing on top – just melt your chocolate as I mentioned before, put into a piping bag made from some greaseproof paper, then snip off the end & get writing!  Once everything is finished, pop your cake into the fridge for an hour or two to set (this also makes it easier to slice).

If you make cupcakes instead of a large cake, these are more portable & you can make all kinds of fabulous treats!  Create cupcakes with googly eyes using mini marshmallows & different sizes of chocolate buttons, or make cupcake shoes adorned with pretty pink cookie flowers.

Remember, this is cake – it’s for eating & you’re not going to hang it in the Louvre, so if it’s not perfect, that’s OK.  Get the kids involved, have fun creating your own mini masterpieces & enjoy yourselves!  Make some cake, make a mess & make some memories.  Whenever your special day is, have a Happy Birthday! A x

 

Me & Chocolate Got a Thing Going On …..

Chocolate: just the mere mention of this innocuous little word conjures up all kinds of delightful thoughts, evoking memories of sumptuous tasting treats, that unmistakable texture in your mouth & familiar sweet scent.   The Latin for cocoa is “Theobroma”, which literally translates as “Food of the Gods” & kind of sums it up really. It’s one of those special treats that can be quite mesmerising, especially if it’s “the good stuff”!  This can be anything from that inexpensive but delectable store brand that just hits the spot, to the purse-draining handcrafted, mouthwatering delicacy that is almost erotic & should come with an 18 rating on the wrapper!  Whatever does it for you, I won’t judge – chocolate is personal in every way.

The simplest of recipes will produce the best results, so I would suggest finding one that you are comfortable with & use the best ingredients available to you.  The standard recipe is equal quantities of chocolate to double cream (so 150g chocolate & 150ml double cream, for example).  Personally, I like to use a blend of milk chocolate & plain in mine, so that it’s got that right amount of “bite” & the ganache is not too sweet (otherwise you get a sickly, cloying chocolate that will set your teeth on edge & make you look like you sucked a lemon).  My tip is to taste a variety of different chocolates to find which ones do it for you – get them home, eat a couple of pieces together until you discover the right combination to give the taste you want.  Write it down, make some notes & then you can increase the quantities to make a decent sized batch.  Get creative, use a recipe as a basic template & experiment with it!

Once you have made the ganache, things get really interesting – you can add alcohol, chopped nuts, dried fruit, biscuit, etc.  The only limits are your imagination & your pantry!  Another tip is always use a bain-marie (a dry bowl over a pan of hot water) to melt your chocolate with the cream.  It is important not to let the water touch the bottom of the bowl & also, be careful not to get any water in your ganache (or melted chocolate), because it will go gritty & horrible, end up in the bin & you will be a bit miffed (trust me, you might even invent a few swear words too!).

When you have made the ganache, leave it to cool for a couple of hours in the fridge.  After this, you can start to make your truffles. I have made them in all kinds of random shapes (sculpting a pair of ladies’ size three shoes from a large piece of chilled ganache was an epic challenge, but worth it), however I would suggest starting small & making little balls to begin with.  Simply scoop out a little ganache using a teaspoon or a melon baller, set aside on a parchment lined baking tray, then continue until you have made lots of little chocolate truffle balls.

Once they are done, you can roll them in a little powdered chocolate or chopped nuts if you want to keep them simple.  Or, you can dip them in melted chocolate using a fork, tap it on the side of the bowl to shake off the excess (like excess chocolate is really a thing!), then slide the coated truffle onto a parchment lined baking tray using a toothpick. Then simply decorate them as you like – coat in coconut, roll in chopped roasted nuts, sprinkle with sugar or drizzle melted white chocolate patterns on top.   It’s up to you!

There are moulds you can use to get your ganache into little shapes, which are best to use when it’s still warm & before chilling – just press the ganache firmly into the mould shape to expel any air bubbles, then chill.  If you find moulds a bit fiddly like I do, then try using a piping bag to create shapes – I made squillions of lovehearts using a piping bag & they were all unique, which makes them so much more special.  Once cooled, they can be decorated however you choose.

One of my favourites is my Black Stone Cherry Chocolates, inspired by one of my favourite rock bands.  Once dipped in chocolate, before they dry I like to drop some chunky pieces of Amarene cherries on top with a drizzle of the syrup mixed with Bourbon (you know the one).  These have a nice kick to them & play a rich little riff on the tongue!

The best thing about making your own chocolate treats is that you can always have a secret stash in the back of the cupboard, just for those little emergencies when you need a shot of sweetness.  Share the love & a little bit of chocolate!  A x