Perfect Pastafication!

It’s been a busy week here, as I’ve been working on new projects & the weather has been a bit random, making things interesting!  While I’ve been designing cake, making tiny tea sets & small sugar bunnies to sit on the top, I’ve also been writing & doing numerous things at the same time, like the multi-tasking ninja that I am.  When the weather is unpredictable, there is one thing you need to be able to rely on & that’s a rich, rib-sticking dinner to warm you through!

As most of you know by now, I’m rather passionate about pasta.  In our pantry, I have a dedicated pasta shelf bulging with a wide variety of conchiglioni, tagliatelle, lasagne, fusilli & penne, all waiting to be magically transformed into something heavenly, hearty & wholesome.  It’s efficient, versatile & quick to cook.  Making pasta is one of my favourite things to do & it’s something we make together as a family.  When my Son is home, we make pasta & pizzas, all congregating in the kitchen & chatting simultaneously, whilst we work on creating dinner.  It’s what cooking is all about for me & that’s how our children learn, by cooking with us.  There are times when stress will start to invade your life & making pasta is one of the best things to de-stress, relax & take your mind off everything.

Now although I adore making my own pasta, sometimes I need to pull together dinner quickly, which is where the pantry comes in handy!  Because my Husband works shifts, I like to make a variety of dinners & freeze them in two-portion pots, ready to be whipped out of the freezer at a moment’s notice.   Usually, the freezer has at least one whole drawer filled with a selection of lasagnes & they’re all different.  There’s the lasagne al forno, which is the one with meat (usually beef), a sumptuous spinach & cream cheese layered lovely & then, one of my favourites: vegetable lasagne!  I have been a vegetarian a couple of times & this luxurious layered dish is one of my favourite indulgences!  It’s lighter & quicker to make than a meat lasagne, but fabulously filling & you can create this velvety vegetable version in around half the time.  Plus you can make it in advance & freeze it in individual pots for those evenings when you need instant pasta gratification.  Fancy a go?  Hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

For the Vegetable Ragu:

1 large Red Onion
1 large Courgette
2 Peppers (red & yellow are my choice, as the Courgette brings green to the dish)
1 small punnet Mushrooms, wiped thoroughly with a damp cloth
2 tins Italian Plum Tomatoes
1 tube Tomato Puree
2 teaspoons Sugar
6 cloves fresh Garlic, chopped finely
1 teaspoon Dried Organo
2 teaspoons Dried Basil (you can use fresh if you like, just finely chop half a dozen leaves)
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper to season
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

For the Cheese Sauce:

3oz Plain Flour
3oz Salted Butter
1 pint Semi-Skimmed or Full Fat Milk
2oz grated Cheese (mild Cheddar is great for this)
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper to season

Also, you will need:

4oz grated mixed Cheese (I use 3oz mild Cheddar with 1oz Parmesan or Grana Padana, but you can use whatever hard cheese you have)
Dried Oregano
1 pack dried Lasagne (or make you own fresh if you like – see my recipe here: 

What to do:

Prepare the veg.  Top & tail the courgette, then slice lengthways in half, then into half again & chop into small slices.  Place in a large dish.

Take the seeds & any white pith out of the peppers (save the seeds & you can plant them in eggboxes on the windowsill).  Chop the peppers into bite-sized pieces.  It doesn’t need to be perfect or anything.  Add them to the dish with the courgettes in.

Slice the mushrooms in half & then slice them into chunky pieces.  Add to the other veg in the dish.

Top & tail the onion, slice into chunky pieces.  Leave on the board while you chop the garlic finely.

Heat a tablespoon of the olive oil in a large skillet or frying pan & add the onion & garlic.  Stir fry for about 30 seconds to gently soften – you don’t want it to colour up, as the garlic will burn if you’re not careful (it won’t taste nice if it burns).

Add the other vegetables, tipping them in carefully & stir-frying them for a couple of minutes to get them heated through.

Pour the plum tomatoes into the pan, breaking up any large pieces as you do so & combine with the vegetables in the pan.  Stir well to ensure it’s all mixed together.

Add the tomato puree, Basil & Oregano, along with the sugar & a good pinch of the black pepper & sea salt to season your vegetable ragu.  Give everything a good stir to distribute the puree & seasonings thoroughly.

Simmer for about five minutes on a low heat, stirring occasionally until it thickens slightly, then turn off the heat & set to one side while you make the cheese sauce.

Gently melt the butter in a large saucepan.  Remove from the heat & add the flour, put back on the heat & stir thoroughly to combine into a thick, shiny roux by using a whisk.  Traditionally, you would use a wooden spoon, but if you want to make sure you don’t get any lumps I suggest using a good metal balloon whisk.

Add about a quarter of the milk to the mixture & whisk in, until it loosens up & then add the rest of the milk carefully.  Keep stirring with the whisk, getting to the bottom of the pan to ensure nothing sticks.

As the sauce thickens up, you should start to feel some resistance with the whisk.  Keep whisking (swap hands if your wrist aches) & when you are satisfied with the thickness, add a couple of ounces of the grated mild cheddar & whisk until melted.  Turn off the heat.

Add a little pinch of sea salt & black pepper to season, then taste it.  The consistency of the sauce should be thick like natural yoghurt & it should coat the back of the spoon well.  If you think it needs a bit more seasoning, add a bit more, but go steady with it as you’ll be adding Parmesan to the top & that is quite salty.

So now you are ready to start building your lasagne!  Get yourself a nice, large lasagne dish or large pie dish.

In the bottom of the dish, spoon half the vegetable ragu & spread evenly across the bottom.  If you’re using fresh pasta for this, drizzle a little olive oil across the bottom of the dish then add a layer of fresh pasta before adding the ragu.

Here’s a tip to help you fit your dried pasta sheets to those rounded corners of your dish.  Take your dried lasagne sheet & snap off the top corner edge with your thumb, about 1cm in.  Lay the lasagne sheet with the missing edge nearest the corner, then take the piece you snapped off & turn it around, placing it in the corner with the pointy end towards the middle of the dish.  You’re welcome!  All these years, we’ve all been trying to make it fit & then a few years ago, I decided to use up some random pieces & that was it!

Cover the ragu with a layer of lasagne, making your corners fit as above.

Now pour on a layer of the cheese sauce, starting at the edges & working your way in, so that all the little corners & any random bits you have used will all stay in place.  Spread evenly across the layer using the back of a spoon.

Gently add the remainder of the vegetable ragu, again starting at the corners & carefully working your way into the centre.  Ensure it is evenly spread across the layer.

Add another layer of the pasta, as you did before & then pour on the remainder of the cheese sauce, again starting around the edges & working your way in.

Spread it evenly with the back of the spoon you used before, then sprinkle liberally with the mixed grated cheese.  This will give you a gorgeous, crispy cheesy topping.  Sprinkle a good pinch of dried Oregano over the top, squeezing it in the tips of your fingers as you do so, to release the pungent fragrance of this wonderful herb.

If you’ve used the dried lasagne, leave it to stand in a cold oven for a couple of hours, or you could even make it in the morning & leave it to stand until dinner time (sometimes, I’ll let it cool & then cover it, before putting it in the fridge until the evening).  Most people will whack their lasagne in the oven straightaway & then wonder why the pasta won’t cook properly.  By allowing the dish to stand, the pasta will absorb the moisture in the dish, your lasagne won’t turn into soup & everything will be beautifully baked!

When you’re ready to cook it, pre-heat the oven to 180*C.

Place your lasagne on a baking tray to catch any drips (trust me, when it starts bubbling there will be spillages).

Put in the centre of the oven & bake for about 35-45 minutes, until the cheese on top has turned a gorgeous golden colour & is crispy around the edges.

Remove from the oven, place on a cooling rack & cover loosely with some foil or another tray (don’t press it flat, or your cheese will stick).  Leave to stand for 10-15 minutes, as it will be hotter than the sun & you will burn your mouth!

Serve with a huge green salad & maybe a few chunky chips, if you feel the need.  Any leftovers can be packed up into pots for lunches (hot or cold, it’s rather nice), or frozen for lazy late night suppers, curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine.

Next time you fancy something luscious & light, layer some love on the lasagne for perfect pastafication!  Stay hungry 😉  A x







Go Ahead, Make Mother’s Day!

March is a truly magnificent month & this year, it has arrived with a dazzling display of serious snow & storms to herald the new season!  “In like a lion & out like a lamb”, as the saying goes & whoever said that definitely got it right!  Spring is so close you can almost taste it & it’s a well-needed breath of fresh air for us all, as the chilly curtain of Winter is being whisked away, revealing vibrant new life springing up all around us!  On my way into town this week, there were bundles of colourful crocuses starting to show through the verges & tiny white snowdrops, proudly peeking out of long grass.  It’s almost time to start planting seeds for beans, peas & tomatoes, & I can’t wait to get the garden sorted (there’s something I never thought I’d say!).

If you’ve been following my antics on social media, you’ll know I’ve been working on a few (or rather a lot of) floral creations of my own over the last couple of months (which is why my blogs have been a bit all over the place recently, so apologies).  Recently, I’ve been making sugar art surprise gifts, including a pair of sparkly snow white roses for a wedding present & three beautiful birthday blooms for a lovely friend.  Now I’m working on bunches of blossoming roses for Mother’s Day gifts & although my kitchen looks like I’ve opened a sugar florists, I am still managing to bake my usual fayre (although my bread has recently developed a subtle sparkle from the edible glitter, because no matter how much you try to clean that stuff up, it gets everywhere!).

What better way to start the season of newy newness, than with a fabulous celebration for Mothers everywhere!  Mother’s Day has always been special for me, so I like to go all out & celebrate in elegant, ladylike style.  All my friends know that I absolutely love making afternoon tea – dainty, dinky delicacies, miniature gateaux, sumptuous sultanas embedded in fluffy scones, sweet strawberries perched on pastry cups & crustless, slender sandwiches filled with cream cheese & cucumber (not my usual doorsteps of bacon & egg, or meatballs & tomato sauce!).  Tea is served in chintzy china cups, with wafer thin lemon slices floating like lilypads on the surface, often accompanied by a glass or two of pink fizz.

Firstly, sort out your sarnies!  The simpler the sandwich, the better & you really don’t want to over-complicate things when you’ll have lots of other stuff to do!  You can make the sandwiches earlier in the day, then put them in the fridge on a plate covered with a clean, damp tea-towel & wrap the whole thing in cling film (I saw the fabulous Mary Berry do this on the TV once & it really works, but then of course it would).  This will keep them fresh & lovely, while you go & make yourself fresh & lovely!  Select delicate fillings (& make sure you pick your Mum’s favourites), such as cream cheese, wafer-thin sliced cucumber, breaded ham, maybe some smoked salmon slices.  I tend to pick two or three fillings & just do a batch of each.  Remember to cut the crusts off & slice your sandwiches into elegant fingers (keep the crusts to make breadcrumbs & pop them in the freezer).

Usually, you need scones for any decent afternoon tea (with soaked, squishy sultanas, of course), but I think it’s about time I did a cake recipe for you all, especially an easy one that you can use for any occasion!  There is one thing that I love making & that’s cake!  This is quite honestly one of the best chocolate cakes I’ve ever made & I think you’ll love it too.  It is a standard 4oz recipe that I tweaked slightly & makes a dozen cupcakes (or a single layer 7 inch cake), so if you want more just double the recipe.  So, hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

2 large Eggs
4oz softened Butter (you can use Stork or Sunflower Spread if you like)
4oz Caster Sugar (chuck regular sugar in the coffee grinder if you don’t have any caster)
3oz Plain Flour
2 teaspoons of Baking Powder
1oz Cocoa Powder (please do not use drinking chocolate – it’s mostly sugar & will alter your cake)
1 teaspoon instant Coffee
1 tablespoon Milk (either full fat or semi-skimmed)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 190*C.

Get your patty tin prepared by placing muffin sized cake cases in each space (they don’t need to be fancy, because you’ll be discarding them after baking).

Tip all your dry ingredients into a large bowl & mix well with a spoon.  Set to one side.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter & sugar together until a lovely, fluffy texture & light colour.  You can use the electric mixer for this if you prefer, but it’s just as quick with a wooden spoon.

Add one egg carefully to the bowl, then sift in half of the dry ingredients using a large sieve.  Gently blend this together until fully incorporated.

Add the last egg & the remaining dry ingredients using the sieve, then repeat the above step.

Add a splash of milk to the mixture & blend again to a smooth consistency.

Using either a couple of spoons or an ice-cream scoop, splodge into the cake cases equally (or as equally as you can do – even with a scoop, this can sometimes be hit & miss, so don’t worry too much).

Bake in the centre of the oven for 18-20 minutes until risen & small cracks appear on the top.

Remove from the oven & place each cake on a cooling rack (don’t leave them in the tin, otherwise they will become heavy).

Now, that’s your cake done & they just need to be turned into mini gateaux, filled with rich, black cherry jam & lightly whipped cream, then smothered in a silky smooth chocolate sauce.


1 jar Black Cherry Jam (or Sour Cherry Jam – Lidl do a lovely one!)
1 dozen Amareno Cherries, strained
300ml Double Cream, whipped with a little icing sugar (1 teaspoon)
Chocolate Sauce (recipe below)

What to do next:

Whip the double cream with a teaspoon of icing sugar (this allows it to hold it’s shape), or you can use buttercream if you prefer (blend 2oz icing sugar with 4oz softened butter).

Remove the cupcakes from their paper cases & set the cakes on a board.

Get a cookie cutter, just smaller than each cupcake & use it to cut each cake into a round, so they are all the same size.  Save the leftover trimmings in a bowl to make cake pops (chocolate cake on a stick – what’s not to love?!).

Slice each cupcake in half & spread a little black cherry jam over the bottom slice, then pipe on a little buttercream or whipped cream & pop the top of the cake on, pressing down lightly to make it stick.  Time to make some chocolate sauce!

What you need:

4oz softened Salted Butter
8oz Chocolate
14oz can of Sweetened Condensed Milk

What to do:

Put everything into a saucepan & heat gently to melt, stirring carefully until everything has melted into a dark, delectably dense pan of silky deliciousness, it’s done.  Store any leftovers in a sterile jar in the fridge & spread on toast, cake or cookies (don’t get me started on how gorgeous it is on cookies!).

Spoon some of the cooled chocolate sauce on top of each cake, so that it runs down the sides (don’t overdo it though, or you’ll have a chocolate puddle!).

Plop an Amareno cherry on top of each cake & put them in the fridge on a plate lined with greaseproof paper, so they can set for an hour or so before serving (they won’t set completely, so you might want to eat it with a spoon or fork).

If you do have time, you could make some cake pops from the crumbs & get the kids to decorate them as their gift to Mum.

Simply crumble up the cake trimmings into a bowl & add some of the leftover buttercream (I usually mix two parts cake to one part buttercream, so don’t worry about weighing anything).  This will make a light, sticky “dough” & you can shape it into little ovals or rounds.  Leave them to set in the fridge for a couple of hours on a sheet of greaseproof paper, then you will have a nice solid base for decorating.

Dip the end of a cake stick in some melted chocolate, then gently insert into the base of a cake ball.  Gently spoon melted chocolate over the cake ball, removing any excess by lightly tapping the stick (carefully though, you don’t want to lose it!).  Leave them to set by standing them in a jar or mug full of dried semolina or rice.

Once set, decorate them with edible glitter, sprinkles, wafer flowers or have a go at making your own flowers with fondant icing or modelling chocolate (you might have to knead the fondant to soften it up for children to use, as it can be quite solid).   Don’t worry if you make a mistake – just roll it back up & start again!   Flowers are all unique by nature, which makes each one special.

So that’s your Mum’s elegant afternoon tea sorted, just add a pot of tea & a flute of fizz!  Here’s wishing a fabulous Mother’s Day to Mum’s everywhere (& the Dad’s who do double-duty as both)!  Stay hungry 😉  A x








Souped Up Sunshine!

From all the sprouting greenery in the garden, Spring is finally on it’s way, although it appears to have been delayed somewhere!  Zesty yellow daffodils brighten up frost-bitten hedgerows & windowsills, giving a bit of hope that warmer weather is approaching.  When it’s frosty & frozen outside, food tends to become more like a comfort blanket to pacify our need for warmth & contentment.  There are those chilly days where it’s barely above zero on the thermometer & you just want to wrap yourself head to foot in the duvet, like some cocooned caterpillar, inside & out.  All you need is a little warmth to take the edge off the chill & bring a little sunshine into your day.

Soup isn’t something to be sniffed at, it’s to be savoured & relished, almost smugly, as you dunk thickly cut, thickly buttered, crusty fresh bread in a bowlful.  It’s heavenly, hearty & wholesome – perfect for luscious liquid lunches or steamy suppers.  Wandering around the kitchen one lunchtime, opening all the cupboards & the fridge while looking blankly into their abyss for inspiration, I decided to make soup.  There were various little tubs of leftovers, some fresh vegetables that needed using up & plenty of pots of chicken stock in the freezer.  Just over half an hour later, I had a blissfully beautiful bowl of spicy soup to tuck into!  So why go for that tin of ready-made when you can have your own made ready?  It’s one of the easiest things to make, uses up all those bits of veg you were going to chuck out & will give you a boost for the rest of the day.  Whether you’re at work or at home, if a lunchtime sandwich just won’t cut it, this sumptuously sunny little number will get your engine revving until dinnertime & brighten your day.  So, aprons on & hands washed, let’s get started!

What you need:

5 large Carrots
1 large Parsnip
4 small Potatoes (I used baby ones, but just use whatever you have)
1 medium Red Onion
1 litre of Vegetable or Chicken Stock (homemade preferably)
(or use half boiling water from the kettle & half stock if you like)
Quarter of a teaspoon Cumin
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper for seasoning
1 small knob of butter
1 – 2 tablespoons Cream Cheese
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (just a spoonful)
Chopped fresh Parsley or Coriander (to garnish – optional)

What to do:

Get yourself a nice, large saucepan with a lid.  Prepare your vegetables by peeling, topping & tailing them.  Chop the carrots, parsnip, potatoes & onion into small chunks.  They don’t need to be perfect, but they will cook faster if they are cut smaller (meaning you get to eat quicker).  If there are any other veg you want to add, chuck them in the pan (if you’ve got a handful of frozen sweetcorn, they can go in too).

Heat a teaspoonful of the olive oil in the saucepan, add the onions & stir fry for a couple of seconds, just to get them softened.

Add the rest of the vegetables & stir fry them for about a minute.

Carefully pour your stock (or water & stock) into the pan, gently stirring the vegetables into the liquid & reduce the heat.

Simmer with the lid half on, for about 25 minutes or so, stirring occasionally – make sure you get that spoon to the bottom of the pan & get everything mixed in.

Once cooked, test the vegetables – the potato should crumble under the back of a spoon, so just press it against the inside of the pan.  The carrots should be firm, but easy to cut.

Take half the mixture at a time (put the rest into a jug or another pan) & pour into a blender very slowly – use a ladle to do this if necessary, so that you don’t splash yourself.   Be careful not to over-fill your blender & only go up to halfway, otherwise you’ll have a soup shower!  Whizz up for a few seconds at a time or pulse until it’s the consistency of textured yoghurt – if you want your soup more silky smooth, just give it another quick whizz up.  The vegetables will give up their colour & turn everything into an gorgeously golden liquid.

Pour the soup back into the saucepan, on a medium heat & bring it back up to a gentle simmer, then turn the heat down to low.

Sprinkle the Cumin across the top, along with a pinch of sea salt & black pepper – not too much though, you’re just seasoning it a little.  Give the soup a gentle stir to mix them in.

Add the knob of butter (around a thumb-sized chunk should be fine), along with the cream cheese.  Gently stir them through the soup until thoroughly melted.  The butter & cheese will give your soup a lovely creamy consistency & add a little thickness.

Have a taste.  If you think it needs a bit more seasoning, add another pinch of the sea salt & black pepper, then taste again.  When you’re happy with the taste, turn off the heat & serve.  Simply spoon your soup into a bowl & serve with a warm, freshly baked bread roll or baguette, smothered in cold butter, ready to dunk.  If you’re serving it as a starter, perhaps decorate with a little chopped fresh Parsley or Coriander & a couple of Parmesan shavings.

Any leftovers can be frozen in a couple of freezer bags or plastic pots with lids on, or you could stash some in the fridge in jars to take to the office – just warm it up when you need it!  Soup is a great portable one-pot lunch if you’re working & can be made in advance, so you can just grab one as you’re leaving the house.  It also makes a perfect pasta sauce too – ricotta stuffed ravioli draped in this silky soup & sprinkled with grated Parmesan will definitely warm you through!

So when you need a bit of sunshine in a bowl to warm up a wintry day, just soup it up!  Stay hungry 😉  A x




Love Love Love!

Unless you’re living on a remote island without any media, you’ll know that St Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.  As we’re being bombarded with heart-shaped novelties, cheesy cards & rows of roses everywhere, the story of the real St Valentine has always fascinated me.  One legend in particular says when he was in prison (apparently something to do with secretly marrying couples against the wishes of the Emperor of Rome at the time), Valentine befriended the Jailer’s Daughter.  Just before his execution, he left her a note signed “Your Valentine”.  Maybe that was the birth of the Valentine’s card, who knows!

When you’ve got the love bug, you can’t resist showering your beloved with tokens of your affection!  All love should come from the heart & it should be personal (let’s face it, anyone can buy something from a shop), which is why a romantic home-cooked dinner à deux can be rather appealing.  Making a romantic three course dinner for your beloved just requires a little imagination & preparation time.  I’ve put together a simple menu for you, with some easy to make recipes (most of them can be made in advance too, so you can spend a bit of time pampering yourself before your date arrives).  Before you do any kind of shopping or cooking, it would be a wise idea to ask if your Amour has any food objections, allergies or requirements.  They might not like certain foods & the last thing you want to do is serve it to them!   

If you have a few minutes free, why not make a couple of floral centrepieces for your table too – half fill a couple of pretty glass jars with seashells, fill up 3/4 of the way with water & put in some herbs, a couple of roses & some sprigs of gypsophila flowers.  The seashells help stabilise the roses so they stay put & don’t move around.  Candles are fine, but you don’t want to be worrying about putting them out later (if dinner goes well, you might be distracted!).

Now because this blog is a little bit longer, I’ve split it into three sections: starters, mains & desserts.  Here’s your menu:

Bite-sized Beetroot & Feta Heartlets to start, then
Honey & Lemon Chicken Thighs (for your Honey), accompanied by
Love Apple Focaccia & Roasted Romantic Vegetables, followed by
Warm Chocolate Fondue with Raspberry & Strawberry Ice-Cream.

Firstly, starters orders!  You want something you can prepare in advance, nothing that needs stirring or that’s going to take your attention from your delightful date.  Bite-sized beetroot & feta heartlets take about 20 minutes to make & are light enough for a starter, plus the pastry cases can be baked the day before, then filled & baked just before your date arrives.  Now I’ve got a blog dedicated to this recipe that gives you all the info you need, so have a look at “Beetroot to Yourself” – here’s the link:

If you don’t have any heart-shaped baking cases, just cook a regular sized tart then use a heart-shaped cookie cutter to make lots of little lovehearts!  Arrange on a large platter as nibbles to serve with a glass of something nice, or you could just pop a couple on individual plates with a few salad leaves as a starter.  A little tip for you: by adding a little more cream cheese to the mixture & less beetroot, you can make the colour a romantic blush pink (well it is Valentine’s Day!).

Next, the main attraction!  As it’s a Valentine dinner, we really should keep the courses quite light (because falling asleep after dinner with your buttons undone is not going to get you another date!).  This recipe for Love Apple Focaccia is really simple & can be prepared in advance, so that when your date arrives you can give them your undivided attention!  Here’s a bit of romantic trivia for you: tomatoes were known as “love apples” & the French called them pommes d’amour.  In history, apparently they were once considered an aphrodisiac because of their beautiful heart shape, making them quite appropriate for Valentine’s Day!  This can be baked earlier in the day & pre-pampering (you’re going to work up a sweat with this one).  Aprons on!

What you need:

500g Strong White Bread Flour (plus extra for kneading & dusting)
15g Dried Yeast (or 12g fresh if you prefer)
Half a teaspoon ground Sea Salt
300ml Lukewarm Water (dip a finger in it & it should be just warm)
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil (plus extra for drizzling)
Half a punnet of Baby Plum or Cherry Tomatoes, washed & halved (you need the other half punnet for the roasted veg later)
1 sprig Rosemary (fresh or dried, chopped)
3-4 cloves Fresh Garlic, chopped finely
Sea Salt & Black Pepper
Coarse Semolina (optional – for your baking tray)

What to do:

In a large mixing bowl, tip the flour, salt & yeast together & give it a good stir.

Add the olive oil & the lukewarm water, giving everything a firm mixing until all the ingredients form a soft, sticky dough.

Tip onto a lightly floured worktop & knead for ten minutes (your arms will be lovely & toned!).  The dough might need a little extra flour occasionally as you’re doing this – be careful not to overdo it, otherwise it will alter the recipe & not be very pleasant.  Remember, the effort you put into the kneading now will result in a fluffy, risen bread later, so give it some elbow grease!

Once kneaded, sprinkle a little flour into the bottom of the mixing bowl & pop your dough back.  Drizzle a little olive oil onto a sheet of clingfilm & loosely place over the top of the bowl, put that on a tray & place in a draught-free place to rise for an hour (I usually put mine in the airing cupboard).

Preheat the oven to 220*C & prepare a large baking tray by sprinkling a little coarse semolina across it or just a little flour, or a little of both.  Your oven will need at least an hour to get hot enough.

When your focaccia dough is ready, it will have doubled in size.  Simply take the oiled film off & tip your dough onto a lightly floured work surface, making sure you scrape any remnants of dough from the bowl (you’ve put a lot of work into this, so don’t waste any!).

To knock out any large bubbles that may have formed, give it three good throws onto the worktop.  Then roll out & stretch until it is the size of your tin & about half an inch thick.

Carefully place your dough into the tin & drizzle olive oil across the top, gently smoothing it across with your hands.  Using your knuckles, make indentations all over the top of the dough.

In these little indentations, place half a tomato & dot them all around your focaccia dough, spacing them out evenly.

Sprinkle the chopped garlic all over the top, along with the Rosemary, a bit of black pepper & a pinch of sea salt crystals, sprinkled on top like sparkly shards (everyone likes a bit of sparkle).

Bake in the top of the oven for about 10-12 minutes, until the bread has risen & turned golden, with crispy, dark tomato skins.

To check if your focaccia is cooked, lift it up carefully at one end & tap the bottom – if it sounds hollow, it’s ready!  Remove from the baking tray & place on a wire rack.  While it’s still warm, drizzle with a little more olive oil & leave to cool.  Try not to eat any before your date arrives!  When it’s cooled, wrap in clingfilm to keep it from going stale.

Now, onto the other elements of your main course – let’s start with preparing the roasted vegetables, ready for later.  If there are any here that you don’t like, just replace them with ones you do like.  Ready?  Here goes!

What you need:

1 each of Red & Yellow Peppers, deseeded
1 large Courgette, top & tailed
1 Red Onion, top & tailed
Large handful of Mushrooms, wiped & clean
Half a punnet of Baby Plum or Cherry Tomatoes
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Freshly ground Black Pepper
A little Sea Salt
Oregano (dried is fine)

What to do:

Get a large roasting tin.  Prepare the peppers first – wash, deseed & chop into chunky pieces.  Chuck them in the tin.

Next, prepare your courgette – wash, top & tail, then slice on a slant into quarter inch thick slices.  Cut these slices in half lengthways & add to the peppers in the tin.

Wash & dry your baby tomatoes, cut into halves & add to the tin.

Wipe the mushrooms, trim the stalks & cut into quarters or halves if smaller.  Add them to the tin!

Top & tail the onion, take off the outer skin, then cut into thick slices & cut these into chunky pieces.  Again, add to the tin.

Drizzle all over with a little olive oil & give everything a stir, so that all the veg mix together.  Sprinkle some pepper on (don’t go mad here – you only need a little) & add a couple of pinches of dried Oregano across the top.  Really important bit:  do not add any salt until you are just about to cook it, otherwise your veg will become watery, mushy & un-roastable.  Just add a pinch before it goes in the oven.

Cover with cling film & leave in a cool place until later – you can always pop it in an airtight container in the fridge until dinner time, then tip into the tin just before roasting.  If you’re going to present your main course in the roasting tin with the chicken, you could put some of the veg onto metal skewers at this stage, so you can place them around the chicken when cooked.  That way you can serve your date at the table.

Finally, it’s time to prepare your chicken thighs.  This is one of those “chuck it all in a dish & bake” kind of meals & doesn’t need you to stand over it.  Hands washed & apron back on!

What you need:

6-8 Chicken Thighs, skin on & bone in (yes, 6-8 because … leftovers!)
1 large Lemon (make sure it’s ripe – the riper the lemon, the juicier it is)
4 cloves Garlic
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Sprig Fresh Rosemary (or fresh Thyme sprigs, just use a handful)
Sea Salt & Black Pepper for seasoning
2 tablespoons Runny Honey

What to do:

Preheat the oven to 200*C.  Get yourself a large roasting tin & put the chicken thighs in, skin side up.  Usually, I get a pair of scissors & trim off any excess skin.  Drizzle the chicken with a little olive oil.

Cut the lemon into quarters & give each one a gentle squeeze over the chicken pieces, then put in the roasting tin around the chicken.

Get the unpeeled garlic cloves, give them a bash with the back of a knife & chuck them in around the chicken.

Rip up the Rosemary into four smaller sprigs & chuck that in with the chicken too.

Season the chicken with the salt & pepper, then put the roasting tin in the middle of the oven & roast for about 25-30 minutes.

At this stage, take the chicken out & it should be crisping up nicely on top.  Use a spoon to drizzle honey over the chicken pieces & return to the oven for another 5-10 minutes or so.  When it’s cooked, stick a metal skewer or sharp knife in the thickest part – the juices should run clear.


Remove from the oven, place on a rack & cover with foil, giving it a chance to rest.  It is important to rest any roasted meat after cooking, so that it becomes tender.  Generally, you can leave it to rest for the same length of time it took to cook.

While that’s resting, turn up the oven to 220*C & put the vegetables in to roast, adding a tiny sprinkling of sea salt just before you do.  These

take about 20 minutes, just give them a shake about halfway through cooking.

If you want to add something extra, why not thread a few baby potatoes (skin on) onto a couple of metal skewers & roast them directly on the rack with the vegetables (they take about the same time, maybe five more minutes, depending on size).  Just pull them off the skewers when ready – give them a gentle squeeze & they should be soft on the inside & crispy on the outside, then serve with splodges of butter for mashing in.

By the time your vegetables are roasted, your chicken will be rested nicely & ready for serving.  Time to get your gorgeous courses to the table!  Slice the focaccia into thick, fluffy fingers & place on a plate with a small dish of extra virgin olive oil & a few drops of balsamic vinegar in for dipping.  Then plate up your chicken with a generous spoonful of the roasted vegetables on the side (or a skewer of veg if you’re serving at the table), with a few buttery, baby baked potatoes.

After all that luscious loveliness, you will need a delicious dessert that can top it off with ease & this dessert duo will get you plenty of Brownie points with your date (it’s essentially finger food), plus it can be prepped well in advance.  It’s a hot & cold dessert – warm, silky chocolate fondue & frosty fruit ice-cream!  Here’s the first stage – you will need your blender for this, a couple of plastic tubs with lids & space in your freezer. 

What you need:

500g Greek Yoghurt
250g frozen Raspberries
250g frozen Strawberries
Juice & Zest of half a Lemon (unwaxed & washed)
1 or 2 tablespoons Runny Honey

What to do:

Put the fruit & yoghurt in the blender & pulse a few times to break up the fruit.  The strawberries may cause it to clog, so get a plastic spatula (not a metal one, or your date might end up being a Paramedic) & give it a stir around between pulsing if necessary.  It will thicken up pretty much immediately, so take it steady.

Add the rest of the ingredients & whizz up to create a creamy, frozen flurry of fruitiness!  Tip into a couple of plastic tubs – only fill up to halfway, leave the lids off & put them in the freezer for half an hour.  Lick the spoon (because you need to taste it & it’s Chef’s perks).

Remove from the freezer, give everything a stir through with a fork to break up any pieces of ice that may have formed, then put the lids on & return to the freezer until dessert time.

Take a tub out of the freezer about ten minutes before serving, so that it softens slightly.  Here’s a tip for serving:  boil the kettle & pour a little hot water into a mug, stick a serving spoon in for 30 seconds & scooping your ice cream will be so much easier.

Now onto the second stage of your delectable dessert:  gorgeously gooey chocolate sauce to make your fondue!  I make jars of this to spread on toast & for decorating cupcakes.  It keeps for ages in the fridge (well, if you hide it in the veg drawer it does).  This one just needs a saucepan & a spoon.  Let’s get chocolatey!

What you need:

4oz softened Salted Butter
8oz Chocolate
14oz can of Sweetened Condensed Milk

What to do:

Put everything into a saucepan & heat gently to melt, stirring carefully until fully combined.

Once everything has melted into a dark, delectably dense pan of silky deliciousness, it’s done.  Store any leftovers in a sterile jar in the fridge & spread on toast when you fancy it.  As this sauce takes about five minutes to make, you can prepare it just before your date arrives & pour into a serving bowl to cool slightly (nobody likes being served a bowl of molten chocolate).  Place your bowl of beautiful chocolate fondue on a plate, surrounded by bamboo skewers of strawberries, marshmallows & pineapple pieces, ready for dunking & drizzling onto refreshing scoops of softened strawberry & raspberry ice-cream.  You could pile ice-cream into wafer cornets & drizzle chocolate sauce on top, or dip strawberries in & feed them to your Amour.  It’s your evening, so share the chocolate!

Now that’s the dinner done, there’s just the dishes (but they can wait, there’s kissing to be done!).  Have a fabulous Valentine’s Day, Lovers!  Stay hungry 😉 x ❤ x


Pour Some Sugar On Me!

Romance gushes in many guises & St Valentine’s Day is no exception.  There are the usual, traditional gifts of long-stemmed, sweetly scented ruby red roses, accompanied by cheeky cards & boxes of beautiful Belgian chocolates, all intended to melt even the frostiest of hearts.  Whether you’re a secret admirer or a “heart-on-your-sleeve” kind of person, everyone loves receiving a sweet token of affection on this particular day.  We all get the warm fuzzies when we open a Valentine’s love note or receive flowers – it’s human nature.  In the past, I have sometimes given a card & small gift to some of my single friends, just to let them know they were appreciated (not that I wanted to pick out curtains or anything).

Over the last couple of years, I’ve usually been busy creating handmade chocolate hearts in their hundreds as treats for people to give to their beloved, dipping each one in melted chocolate, decorating them by hand & turning my kitchen into my own little chocolate factory!  By the time I’d finished, I really didn’t want to see, smell or taste chocolate for a few weeks after!  Last year, my Husband was suitably spoiled as always, with a selection of his favourite handmade chocolates decorating a rather large, milk chocolate frosted heart-shaped chocolate cake (I think there was just enough chocolate in it!).

This year, I wanted to do something a bit different & as it was birthday month in our house this January, I decided to make my own sugar roses.  I did so much research that I was dreaming in fondant & buttercream!   Our lovely neighbours have been my taste testers (every time I knock on their doors, they must be thinking “oh no, it’s that cake woman again!”) & I’ve been handing out buttercream roses like I’m on some sort of quest.  Once I had realised that (a) you need a much stiffer buttercream & (b) you need the nozzle the right way up, my roses started to actually resemble flowers.  There was a lot of “woohoo-ing” & dancing around the kitchen at this point – it was a major achievement for me, as previous attempts had resulted in wavy pebbles on sticks (albeit edible ones).  As these were a success, I decided to make a small bouquet for a birthday gift.

Obviously, once I’d realised that I could make these fabulous floral treats, I couldn’t stop there & decided to create some sugar art of my own, modelling them from fondant sugar paste & even marzipan.  I made a couple of fondant roses one Summer & they lasted for a full five minutes, before retreating into a puddle of sugary petals (it was rather hot that day, so it probably wasn’t a good idea).  This time, I made them with both marzipan & sugar paste, so was quite surprised with my achievement (they’re quite fiddly & I’m not very patient).  I won’t bore you with the details, but as it took me about an hour to create each one from scratch, you can appreciate that I couldn’t watch them being eaten (the Husband kept wandering into another room every time he ate one, so I wouldn’t see).

Whatever Valentine’s Day treats you make, they should always be made with love.  Here’s a recipe that even the most challenged cook can create in their own kitchen.   We have been making these cookies for many years now & call this the 1234 recipe, because it’s so easy & only has four basic ingredients – just add chocolate!  So, aprons on & hands washed, here we go!

What you need for the basic recipe:

1oz Custard Powder
2oz Light Muscovado Sugar
3oz Softened Butter or Spread (although Butter tastes best)
4oz Self-Raising Flour


100g Milk Chocolate chunks (chuck a bar in the blender & pulse it to get chunks)
A handful of Sultanas

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C & line a couple of baking trays with sheets of greaseproof paper (no washing up!).

Put everything in a mixing bowl, get your hands in & squelch everything together to make a silky, smooth dough.  Break up any large pieces of the Muscovado sugar while your doing this too.

If you’re adding chocolate chunks or sultanas, chuck these in now & mix evenly into the dough (tip any powdered chocolate out of that blender too – we don’t waste chocolate!).

Take a tablespoonful of mixture in your hand, roll into a ball & press onto the baking tray with your fingers.  Leave about an inch gap between each & repeat until you have all the mixture done on the tray.

Bake for approximately 8-10 minutes, until just turning golden.  When they’re ready, use a pallet knife to transfer each one to a cooling rack – be careful, as they will be soft & breakable.

Once cooled, eat them as they are or drizzle all over with melted chocolate & let them set.  Keep in an airtight container or biscuit tin until you fancy a treat.  They will keep for about a week (but only if you don’t tell anyone about them).

That’s the basic recipe, but for something more love inspiring, here’s a Valentine’s Day variation for your Amour – Cookie Sweethearts.  If you don’t want to use the heart cookie cutter, you could always use a flower one & make an edible bouquet of cookie flowers instead!

What you need:

2oz Custard Powder
4oz Light Muscovado Sugar
6oz Butter or Spread
8oz Self-Raising Flour (with more for rolling out)
A quarter teaspoon of Bicarbonate of Soda

For the filling:

3oz Softened Butter
6oz Icing Sugar
Half a jar of Strawberry or Raspberry Jam (purée any large pieces of berry)

1 Heart shaped Cookie Cutter & 1 small Heart shaped Cookie Cutter

What to do:

Preheat the oven to 200*C & prepare two large baking trays with greaseproof paper as before.

Mash all the ingredients (except the jam) into a large mixing bowl, squishing everything together to make a silky dough as before & breaking up any large pieces of the sugar.

Dust your work surface with a little flour & take half of the dough, rolling it out to about half a centimetre thickness.  You will find that you need to slide your pallet knife underneath at stages, as it can get sticky.  Avoid adding too much flour, just dust it lightly, as this will alter the recipe.

Cut out the large heart shapes with your cookie cutter.  Take half of those you have cut out & place on your prepared baking tray, about an inch apart as before.

With the remainder of your heart shapes, take the smaller cookie cutter & cut hearts out of the centre of the larger shapes.  Keep the tiny hearts & put them on the baking tray to bake alongside your other hearts.

Put the hearts with the holes in on another prepared baking tray, spaced out as above.

Bake them all for about 8-10 minutes, until golden & then gently transfer them to a cooling tray.  These will be crisper than the other recipe, so they should be firmer.

Whilst they are cooling, make the buttercream.  Put the softened butter in a mixing bowl & using a spatula or the back of a wooden spoon, press it out all around the bowl to make it smooth.

Add the icing sugar & repeat, pressing it into the butter until you have a creamy consistency.  This is how I make buttercream, because I’ve been covered with a cloud of powdered sugar by using the mixer & it’s not fun (the damp tea-towel over the bowl didn’t work for me).  Once it’s all smooth, give it a quick whisk up with the mixer if you like & it will become light, fluffy & airy.

Put the buttercream into a piping bag (you can use a nozzle if you like or just snip the tip off the bag) & set aside.

Tip the jam into a small bowl & give it a stir with a wooden spoon or spatula to smooth it out.  You want the jam to soften, so that you can pipe it.  Sometimes, you can just give it a whisk by hand in a bowl until it’s smooth.  Break up & purée any large pieces of berry (or eat them – Cook’s bonus).

Pour into another piping bag & again, you don’t need a nozzle – just snip off the end of a bag, but keep it small this time.

Take your whole hearts & pipe a thin layer of buttercream on top.  These will be the base of your heart biscuits.  Put one of the open heart biscuits on top & press gently to attach – wipe off any excess buttercream that might ooze out of the sides & smooth with a fingertip or back of a teaspoon.

Pipe a small amount of jam carefully into the tiny heart-shaped hole on the top & leave to set on the cooling rack.  Repeat the above filling stages until all your biscuits are double layered & have pretty jam centres.

Remember all the little heart centres that you baked?  Simply pipe a small splodge of buttercream into them & make little layered lovehearts, for bite-sized treats.  You can always drizzle melted chocolate over the top of these if you want to make them extra special.

Any leftover jam can be put back in the jar & left in the fridge until you need it (don’t throw jam away!).  The same goes for the buttercream – just wrap up the end of the piping bag & fold over the snipped end, then keep it in the fridge to use on random cupcakes or chocolate puddings.  If you’re really feeling adventurous, tip it into a bowl & add more icing sugar until a bit firmer, then use it to pipe some buttercream roses onto cookies (if you make a mistake, scrape it off, shove it back in the bag & start again – great for teaching kids & keeps them entertained for ages).

So this St Valentine’s Day, give your Sweetheart some sugar & share these love bites!  Stay hungry 😉  A x





Flip Your Stack!

Mornings can be a bit difficult at this time of year, especially if you work different shifts or random hours.  There are those days when the alarm goes off (several times, because you hit snooze like you’re playing a drum solo) & you lurch more than launch your body from it’s snuggly, fluffy duvet.  We’ve all been there – you really can’t be bothered with much more than a cup of coffee & a slice of toast for breakfast, the cat is curled up in your spot on the sofa & you’d rather watch Spongebob than the news (actually, I always watch cartoons in the morning – the news can be rather depressing, so it’s much better to start the day with a smile!).

You don’t need me to tell you that breakfasts are important – they kick-start your day & give you an energy boost before you boot up your laptop.  Most days, I’m up at 5.30am (fyi, it’s dark) & sometimes I don’t feel like eating much or cooking anything (especially when it’s cold & soggy outside!).  As I’m a huge fan of preparing in advance, there are usually a few of my apricot oat bars in a tub or my Husband’s homemade croissants in the freezer (they warm up lovely in the oven), so I don’t have to do much apart from put them on a plate.  Then there are perfectly plump pancakes.  I’m not talking about the delicately thin, elegant crêpes we usually eat on Pancake Day though.  Breakfast pancakes are duvet-like delicacies – substantially thick, warming & with a fluffy filling.  What they shouldn’t be is fiddly, time-consuming & boring!  Now I’m not saying you need to be standing around the stove, flipping fluffy pancakes for all you’re worth at stupid o’clock (as if I would suggest such a thing!).  The best way to get your pancake fix without the faff is to make a batch in advance & keep some ready made in the fridge (or freezer if you really want to be organised).

These plump little pillows take minutes to prepare & seconds to cook.  You can make some at the weekend & stash them in the fridge (they last for a few days in an airtight container), then warm them through in the toaster when you need one or three.  Here’s how to get your fluffy fix – aprons on & whisks at the ready!

What you need:

8oz Self-Raising Flour (or use Plain Flour with 4 teaspoons Baking Powder if you don’t have Self-Raising)
1oz Vanilla Sugar (just stick a vanilla pod in a jar of sugar overnight)
Quarter of a pint of Semi-Skimmed Milk
2 large Eggs
1oz Salted Butter, melted

What to do:

Tip the flour into a large mixing bowl (no need to sieve it).  Add the baking powder if you’re using plain flour & give it a stir.

Add the sugar, eggs & milk, giving everything a brisk whisk to combine your mixture completely – whisk it by hand, you don’t need to get the electric one out.

Add the melted butter slowly & whisk in as you do so (the butter stops the pancakes from sticking to the pan without the need for additional fat).  It should be the consistency of double cream or natural yoghurt, so if it’s a bit too thick just add a little more milk & give it a whisk again until it leaves a trail when you lift the whisk out.

Before you start cooking, get yourself a large plate & rip up some  greaseproof paper into six inch long thin strips.  Lay one on the plate & leave the rest to one side.

Heat up a large skillet or frying pan on a medium heat – your pan needs to be nice & hot before you start cooking your pancakes.

Using a large spoon or a ladle, pour a little pancake batter slowly into the pan to make small discs, about four inches across.  Do this about three or four times, depending on the size of your pan & leave about an inch gap between them as they will grow in all directions.

After about 30 seconds or so, you will see little bubbles appearing on the surface, so carefully slide a spatula under each pancake & quickly flip it over.  Give it another 30 seconds & flip it back – it should be lightly golden & have a popped bubble sort of texture all over, which means they’re ready.

Remove each pancake, one at a time & lay on the plate with a strip of greaseproof paper in between each one to separate them.

Repeat the above steps until you have cooked all the mixture.  You should have enough for about twelve pancakes in all.

If you’re serving them immediately, cover the plate with an upside-down mixing bowl to keep them warm & transfer to the table.  If not, leave them to cool & wrap a couple at a time in clingfilm, then put them in the fridge or freezer.  You can put them in an airtight container too, just keep them separated with the greaseproof paper strips, then serve when you want some.  To reheat your pancakes, simply pop a couple in the toaster for about 30 seconds to warm through & that’s breakfast prepared!

These fabulous fluffed up pancakes don’t have to be dull either!  They are perfect with an array of fresh fruit, beautiful berries or just a squeeze of fresh lemon juice & a drizzle of golden syrup.  If I have a couple of punnets of fresh berries going spare, I’ll put them in a saucepan with some golden syrup & simmer gently until they become soft & squishy, making a warm fruit sauce to pour on top.  These soft little flatcakes also taste scrumptious with scrambled eggs – great if you fancy something a bit more exciting than cereal (which is obviously for midnight snacks).

If you’re having an impromptu dinner party, they also make a delightfully light dessert.  Use a cookie cutter to cut out shapes or circles, then build them with up however you like – try layering with rich, dark black cherry jam & a spoonful of whipped cream, dusting a little grated chocolate on the top to finish.  One of my favourite ways to serve them is to splodge spoonfuls of apricot jam in between the layers with whipped cream, top with a couple of fresh raspberries, then drizzle with pureed peaches – open a tin of peaches, chuck them in the blender, whizz up with a squeeze of lemon juice & pour into a serving jug!  If you don’t want to use cream, maybe use strawberry or raspberry ice cream instead.  These sumptuous stacks of sweetness look impressive & are really quick to assemble (especially if you have a few pancakes already made).  There would have been pictures, but they never last long enough!

Next time you fancy a fluffy breakfast without the faff, flip a stack of these fabulously plump pillows onto a plate & enjoy a little indulgence.  Stay hungry 😉 A x




Comforting Conchiglioni, the Cold Conqueror!

January is always a bit of a fresh month, both in weather & starts.  The freshness outside at “OMG it’s early!” was a bit bracing this morning, as we were driving through a downpour in the darkness.  Fresh starts are also being encouraged – every which way you look, there are adverts for skinny salads, sugar-free snacks & fat-free fodder, none of which help when it’s freezing cold & you need a decent dinner to warm you through!  As you probably know, I don’t do diets & a bit of lettuce & a rice cake won’t give you much energy, especially in this weather!   It’s all about balance & there are plenty of other things to make life dull – food should definitely not be one of them!

On our morning drive, my Husband & I always discuss dinner before I drop him off – it’s a sort of ritual we have & the anticipation of what I’m cooking builds during the day, making dinner that much more enticing.  Pasta is undeniably one of my favourite foods!  It’s easy to prepare & a pleasure to eat, especially when it’s crammed full of flavoursome fillings or dressed in a rich, sumptuous sauce, or both!  When I discovered these pretty pasta shells on a random shopping trip some years ago, I had already decided what kind of fillings I would make, the sauce, the herbs, everything – all before reaching the checkout!  Now I appreciate not everyone gets excited by a bag of pasta (I have a dedicated pasta shelf in the pantry), but they inspired me to create something wholesome & filling – proper rib-sticking, colourful comfort food to warm you on a chilly day like today, without taking all day to make.  This recipe for Stuffed Conchiglioni is something we enjoy making together as a family & definitely eating together!  They can be made in advance & the best bit is there’s going to be plenty of leftovers for lunches (hot or cold) & maybe a couple of pots for the freezer, for those “can’t be bothered” nights.  So here goes – hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

500g of dried Conchiglioni (1.1lb)
400g of Full Fat Cream Cheese (the good stuff – check it’s not got locust bean gum in it – that’s not cheese) or use Ricotta if you like
4-6 slices of day old bread, whizzed into breadcrumbs
400g packet of Bacon (smoked or unsmoked), trimmed of fat & cut into about 1cm pieces (use scissors for this & make your life a bit easier)
1 large Red Onion, topped, tailed & finely chopped
1 ball of Mozzarella
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Dried Oregano
Sea Salt (for the pasta water)

For the Sauce:

4 tins of Italian Plum Tomatoes
Half a bulb of fresh Garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of Tomato Puree
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Basil (fresh or dried)
Freshly ground Black Pepper
Pinch of Sea Salt
2 teaspoons of Sugar

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C.  Heat a large skillet or frying pan, add a drizzle of the olive oil.

Chuck in the chopped onion & bacon pieces, stir fry for a few minutes, keeping the onion moving so that it doesn’t catch & burn.  If any liquid forms around the bacon, simply strain it off & discard.  Add a little more olive oil if needed.  Once cooked, leave to cool for a few minutes.

Tip the breadcrumbs into a large mixing bowl, along with the cream cheese.  Add the fried bacon & onion, mixing thoroughly to create a lovely thick stuffing.  Cover the bowl with a plate & leave while your pasta cooks.

Put the kettle on to boil the water for your conchiglioni (it saves time doing it this way).

Add a teaspoon of sea salt in the bottom of a large saucepan – it needs to be big enough to hold the pasta & water easily, so try it out dry before you put the water in.  Pour in the water & reboil the kettle if you need more – you should have enough water to reach two thirds of the way up the pan.  Use your judgement here – you’re going to have to lift this lot up, so make sure you can take the weight or cook it in two separate pans if you’re not sure.

Carefully tip in the pasta & give it a good stir with a wooden spoon.  Bring to a rolling boil, stirring occasionally to separate the shells & cook according to the instructions on the pack.

When your conchiglioni are cooked, they should still have some firmness to them & hold their shape.  Strain into a colander & sit it over the saucepan.  Put to one side to cool for a few minutes, ready for stuffing!

In a large casserole or lasagne dish, drizzle a little olive oil & smudge it all over the inside of the dish (this stops your pasta from sticking).  You might want to prep another, slightly smaller dish for any extra shells (OK, there are always extra shells, trust me on this).

Then get yourself a teaspoon, your stuffing mixture (& any glamorous assistants you might have to help you) & start stuffing!  Scoop a teaspoonful of the stuffing into each shell, being careful not to overfill them (they will just overflow).  My technique is to take a shell in my hand, then gently pinch the top & bottom together, opening up the middle nicely to fill.

Lay each stuffed shell in the prepared dish, then carry on stuffing until you’ve filled them all.  At this point, you can cover them in cling film & put them in the fridge until you want to eat them – they will keep until the next day.

Now to make the sauce!  Although this isn’t our family recipe, it’s a close one & tastes just as jammy.  Usually, I have this blipping away in the background while I’m stuffing.

Into a large saucepan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil & add the garlic.  Gently fry for a few seconds, then slowly add the tomatoes & their juice, giving them a good stir around & breaking up any large pieces (or you can just squish them in your hands before you put them in the pan).

Add the tomato puree, the sugar & seasoning to taste (you won’t need much salt, so go easy on this).  Add a couple of teaspoons of dried Basil (or rip up about half a dozen leaves of fresh & chuck them in).  Give everything a good stir & reduce to a gentle simmer for about half an hour with a lid loosely on, stirring occasionally.

Once cooked, the sauce should have thickened & reduced slightly, so give it a stir & a quick taste – it should be darker, rich & really lovely!  Adjust the seasoning if you need to.

Spoon your sauce generously all over the stuffed shells, making sure they are just covered & no bits are peeking out.  Dot chunks of Mozzarella all over the top & add a sprinkling of dried Oregano.

Then bake it in the centre of the oven for about 20-25 minutes, until the cheese becomes gorgeously golden & the sauce bubbles up all around the edges (put a tray underneath to catch any drips).

Remove from the oven & let them rest for a couple of minutes (that sauce will be hotter than the sun).  Get some fresh, crusty bread, get everyone to the table & get stuck in!   Usually, my guys magically appear in the kitchen while I’m dishing up, grabbing a slice of warm bread to munch on & dunking it in the sauce.

These gorgeous conchiglioni can be crammed with whatever you fancy – try chopped spinach with ricotta & pine nuts, or sundried tomato & sausage, or maybe swap silky cheese sauce for the tomato & dust with a little grated Grana Padana.

So next time you feel the chill on a dull day, whip up some colourful, comforting Conchiglioni!  Stay hungry 😉 A x


Back to Work, Back to Reality!

Happy New Year everyone!  Hope you all had a fabulous holiday & you’re feeling refreshed! The festive season has finally finished & so has over-indulgence of all varieties.  January always brings everyone back to reality with a bit of a bump.  As I write this, people everywhere are making rules for themselves under the guise of “New Year’s resolutions”, vowing never to drink anything alcoholic ever again, not to let anything sugary pass their lips, or to dance in fountains in a fairy costume (which is a bit dangerous in this weather & makes your wings soggy).  December always seems to be used as an excuse for excess, leaving January to pick up the pieces (as long as they are small & fat-free apparently).

Now I’m not going to start admonishing people for being a bit generous with their portion sizing (that would be the pot calling the kettle), nor am I going to jump on the juicing wagon (think of your teeth people!).  There are two things to remember if you want to look after yourself:  (1) your body’s “In” door is a lot bigger than it’s “Out” door (I’m being polite here), & (2) that age old saying: everything in moderation.  Personally, I don’t do diets & prefer to simply eat until I’ve had enough, leave what I can’t finish & never deny myself anything (within reason obviously).  So, if you’re looking for fat-free dinky diet recipes, you’re going to be slightly disappointed here!   

Food is the fuel to our body’s engine & some get it revving up more than others!  Working lunches are usually a wilted, mystery sandwich from the local shop, accompanied by a packet of crisps, something posing as a sweet (that actually tastes like chocolate-coated cardboard with a bit of birdseed) & a diet Coke.  You’re probably thinking about lunch right now – maybe your day started with a bowl of cereal & a bucket of coffee, so the dragon in your stomach is starting to growl.  Rather than reaching for a rice cake or some other such food of the devil, a bit of prep the day before will sort you right out!  Who bought bags of salad to go with the mountain of cheese over the festive season?  Still in date & probably unopened?  Thought so.  And did you also have a roast dinner on New Year’s Day?  Leftovers languishing in the fridge (with those veg you didn’t cook) are just waiting to be transformed into luscious lunches to keep your motor running.  Right, get your hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

Half a bag of dried Pasta, about 250g (all those leftover bits you’ve been saving will do!)
1 jar Green Pesto
1 ball of Mozzarella or a tub of Boccancini, drained
200g Pine Nuts
A couple of large spoonfuls of Roasted Veg (recipe further down)
A couple of handfuls of Salad Leaves (Rocket, Baby Spinach, etc – whatever’s in your fridge)
A couple of handfuls of leftover Roast Chicken (optional – you could use bacon)
Freshly ground Black Pepper
Sea Salt (for the pasta water)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

For the Roasted Veg:

1 each Red, Green & Yellow Peppers, deseeded & chopped chunky
1 punnet Mushrooms, wiped clean with a damp cloth & halved
1 Courgette, topped & tailed, sliced chunky
1 Red Onion, topped & tailed, outer skin removed & chopped chunky
1 punnet Cherry Tomatoes
2-3 cloves Garlic, chopped finely or left whole (to be smudged onto a slice of warm, thick, fresh bread later maybe)
A few slices of leftover French bread, ripped into chunks
Dried Oregano
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Freshly ground Black Pepper

What to do:

Firstly, pre-heat the oven to 220*C.

Prep your veg as above & chuck them in a lasagne dish or similar (a large pie dish will do).  With the cherry tomatoes, halve them or at least poke a knife into them to make a vent (this is handy if you’re eating them hot – you don’t want exploding molten lava tomato in your mouth!).

Chuck in the chunks of bread (if it’s a day or two old, it’s brilliant for this).  Drizzle a good glug of olive oil over the top, sprinkle on the garlic, pepper & Oregano, then get your hands in & make sure it’s all covered nicely.  You don’t need salt for this, because it will just draw all the moisture out of the veg & leave it in a puddle.

Bake in the oven for about 20-25 minutes, giving everything a turn halfway through with a spoon.

Once cooked, leave to one side while you prep everything else.  These can be also kept in an airtight container in the fridge or frozen (great with some fresh focaccia & a bit of Balsamic vinegar drizzled on top).

In a dry frying pan, toast your pine nuts.  Be very careful here & don’t have the pan too high.  Keep moving the nuts about until they change from a creamy colour to golden.  Put them on a plate to cool.

Fill the kettle & put it on.  Once boiled, pour it into a large saucepan, chuck in some sea salt (about a teaspoonful should be sufficient) & give it a quick stir with a wooden spoon.  Add the pasta & bring to a rolling boil, cooking according to the instructions on the packet.

Once cooked, your pasta should be firm to the bite.  Strain & put back into the pan with a glug of olive oil.  Give it a shake & a stir (the oil will stop it going into a big pasta lump).  Set aside to cool for a bit (especially if you’re making it the night before work, otherwise you’ll just have a pot of steam & soggy stuff for lunch).

Get your lunchboxes ready – you can buy packs of those resealable little plastic tubs from your local supermarket or Wilkinsons & they are perfect for this!

Now, here’s where you can make different pasta salads for some variety (because the same thing will be boring).  Get four or five lunchboxes or bowls & divide the pasta equally into them all.

Tip the whole jar of pesto into the pasta (yes, all of it).  Give it a good stir around, completely coating all the pasta.

Drain your Mozzarella & rip up into small, bite-sized pieces (sometimes I use Bocconcino, which are little Mozzarella balls).  Chuck some into a couple of the pasta lunchboxes.

In two other lunchboxes, add a couple of spoonfuls of the roasted veg & mix in gently.  If you’ve got roast chicken in the fridge that needs eating, rip some of that up & add some to the pasta without Mozzarella.

Grab a couple of handfuls of salad leaves & put in each pasta box you want them in.

Sprinkle pine nuts over them all, adding more where you want & less where you don’t (it’s your lunch, so make it how you like it).

Dust them all with a few grinds of the black pepper, then cram the lids on top (I usually get my hands in & gently mix it up beforehand).  Put in the fridge until you need it.

In the morning, just grab a box before you leave & that’s lunch done!  Plus you might save a bit of money too (always a bonus).

There are lots of variations that you could try, so just raid the fridge & cupboards, use your favourite foods to give you a bit of inspiration & get creating!

So let’s start the New Year with a shot of colour & a luscious lunchbox of flavourful pasta!  Stay hungry 😉 x






Beauty & the Baste

We’re almost there & as the big day draws near, gifts have been wrapped, greeting cards are written & parcels delivered.  If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll have most of your Christmas cooking prepared by now too (well done you!).  This part is all about the main event: a beautifully basted bird, & whether you prefer turkey, chicken or something else completely, you want it to be perfect.  It’s like a spectacular Sunday lunch, only with more people (& more wine).  Whether you’re having a full-on festive feast or not, everyone will be looking forward to spending a few days with their family & friends.

In the past, I have regularly cooked Christmas dinner for around 10-20 people (what was I thinking?!), including a turkey the size of a pterodactyl (it was a bit of a beast & needed two people to wedge it into the oven), along with joints of beef, pork & Quorn, plus a glazed gammon joint & various crates of veg – this involved several days, two kitchens & a bottle of Sherry!  Despite all the chaos, dinner would be done & I somehow managed to keep smiling – it’s a bit like being a swan on a pond, all calm & graceful on the top, but paddling like mad under the water!

Because we don’t eat turkey these days (nor do I try to feed the 5,000 anymore), I cook a large chicken on Christmas Day instead, but this method works equally well with a turkey too (probably not one the size of a pterodactyl though!).  For turkey cooking times, including defrosting times, here’s a link to the British Turkey website to help you get started:

The way I roast a chicken is actually quite easy & you don’t really need to prep the bird until Christmas morning.  You could do this just before bedtime on Christmas Eve if you really want to get a head start, just don’t add the salt or the water until you’re ready to roast.

One thing I always recommend is to get yourself some decent roasting tins!  Forget the non-stick ones – I learned the hard way that no matter how expensive they are or fabulous the guarantee is, that stuff eventually comes off on your food.  Save yourself some hassle & invest in some good, plain stainless steel ones – you don’t need to spend a fortune either, just check they are well-made & solid.  Let’s get started!

You will need:

1 fresh Chicken, without giblets (to feed four, I use about 1.5kg size)
(standard cooking times for Chicken are usually 20 minutes per 500g plus 20 minutes, although I tend to cook it longer by my method)

2-3 medium/large Carrots
2-3 sticks of Celery & a couple of the inner ones with leaves on top
1 large Onion or 2 smaller/medium Onions
Sea Salt & Black Pepper
A glug of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Optional: 6-10 rashers Streaky Bacon (smoked or unsmoked)

Stuffing:  either Fresh Herbs – a handful of Thyme, a couple of sprigs of Rosemary & a few Sage leaves are plenty;
Homemade Sage & Onion Stuffing (see my previous blog

What you do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C.  Before handling your bird, wash your hands thoroughly & dry them to avoid any cross-contamination – there’s a lot of hand washing, because you don’t want people to remember your Christmas dinner for all the wrong reasons!

Take the chicken out of it’s wrapper & most importantly: do not wash it!  Trust me, no bacteria will survive in a 200*C oven – the temperature require to kill E.coli & Salmonella is 70*C (160*F), so panic ye not people!

Remove any elastic or ties & pop the chicken legs out of their sockets, allowing the chicken to cook evenly.  To do this, hold the chicken in both hands, breast side up, with it’s legs in the palms of your hands & firmly push them outwards, away from the breast – you will feel them pop out easily.  Place the chicken in the roasting tin & wash your hands thoroughly again.

Wash the carrots & celery, then chop roughly into 3 inch long pieces & arrange around the chicken.  The reason we clean the veg is because you’ll be using the stock for gravy & you don’t want any mud or grit in it.  Cut the onion into half (leave the skin on if clean), or quarters if it’s a large one, putting the pieces in the corners of the tin.

Next you need to fill the cavity of the chicken – again, this helps the chicken cook evenly & it also flavours it nicely too.  There are various fillings you can use, but ultimately it’s down to personal choice – some people prefer traditional sage & onion stuffing, some prefer using a few fresh herbs & vegetables.  If you made some of my homemade sage & onion stuffing for this, simply spoon it into the cavity until full.  If you prefer your stuffing separate, bundle together a couple of thin carrot & celery sticks with the leaves on, along with the herbs (saving a couple of Sage leaves) & put inside the chicken cavity.

If you’re using bacon, layer your bacon rashers across the chicken breast, starting at the top & working your way down, with each rasher overlapping the previous one.  This is good if the skin has split on your chicken – it will keep your breast meat moist & the bacon will crisp up nicely at the end of cooking.  Wash your hands well again afterwards (they’ll be sparkling by now!).

Pour about three pints of cold water around the edge of the chicken (be careful not to splash), then drizzle some olive oil over the whole bird & legs, sprinkle a good teaspoonful of ground sea salt & black pepper over the top.   Rip up the rest of the Sage leaves, along with any Thyme & Rosemary leaves that fell off, then sprinkle them around the roasting tin.

Next, make a foil dome to go over the top of your roasting tin & capture all those lovely steamy juices.  This is the science bit that is going to save you time & effort: as the moisture heats up, the steam vapour rises to the top of the foil dome, condenses & drips onto the chicken, basting the bird so you don’t have to!  No more opening the oven every half hour to baste your bird & effectively let all the goodness escape the oven (including the heat!), nor are you going to end up with burned fingers or splashing your arms with meat juices.

Lay a couple of equal sized foil strips on top of each other, with the dull sides on the inside (the side that goes next to the chicken), then fold the top over about a centimetre all the way along.  Do this a couple of times, then mash them together well to make sure they don’t come undone in the oven. If you have a larger sheet of foil, just put a crease or fold in the middle, leaving the central part un-creased.  Put over the tin, making sure it forms a dome over the top & doesn’t touch the chicken, then press firmly around the edges of the tin so that none of that lovely steam can escape.  This is what makes your stock, infusing with the bird & veg to produce a fragrant, flavoursome fluid for making gorgeous gravy later.

Put your foiled roasting tin in the lower part of the oven & leave it there for at about two & a half to three hours – you don’t need to be too precise here, but if it’s a larger chicken than the size I have mentioned, I just add another half hour on (check the British Turkey link I mentioned before for weights & times, if you’re not sure).  As I mentioned above, standard cooking times for chicken are usually 20 minutes per 500g plus 20 minutes, however I tend to cook it longer by my method.

Once it’s cooked, take the roasting tin out of the oven, remove the foil (keep to one side) & check your chicken.  Take a metal skewer or a small sharp knife, poke it into the thicker part of the chicken & if the juices run clear, then it’s cooked.  To crisp up the bacon & skin a bit, strain most of the liquid into a large saucepan (keep this for later), leave the foil off the bird & give it another five minutes in the oven.

When you’re happy that it’s crisped enough, remove your roasting tin from the oven & place on a cooling rack (I use a grill tray with a wire rack in it for this, to catch any drips).  Replace the foil lid & seal around the tin to protect the meat from drying out, then let it rest for at least half an hour.  By resting the bird, the meat relaxes nicely & becomes beautifully tender.  Traditionally, you should let the bird rest for the same amount of time it was in the oven, but I leave it as long as it takes to cook the accompanying side dishes.

Just before serving, transfer the chicken carefully onto a large serving plate, ready for carving (you’ll find the meat will fall off the bone easily, so you might not need to do much carving at all!).

If you’re making pigs-in-blankets, do these now – they take minutes & use up any extra bits of streaky bacon.  Simply roll short bacon strips around chunky chipolata sausages, straight or diagonally, then pop them onto a baking tray (you don’t need any oil – the fat in both of them will render out onto the tray, giving sufficient grease).  Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes until crispy & bronzed, giving them a little shake halfway through.

If you’ve been following my previous blogs, this is where you grab a well-deserved glass of something nice, give yourself a pat on the back & relax, because all your sides will be prepared!  Just pop them in ovenproof dishes, then warm them through in the oven while your roasties cook (bet you’re glad you did all that prep now!).  Obviously, this is also when you tell everyone else to keep out of the kitchen while you’re working hard (on your G&T hopefully) & send them off to set tables, find tablecloths, fill glasses – anything to keep them busy & give you a five minute breather.

Feeling a bit refreshed?  Good!  Right, back to work (briefly anyway) – it’s gravy making time!  If you have pre-prepared your gravy, simply pour it into a saucepan & gently warm through, before transferring to a gravy boat or jug.  If you are making it from scratch, here’s a refresher of what to do.  Grab a whisk & saucepan!

What you need:

1 pint of chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
4 heaped teaspoons of Gravy Browning (such as Bisto powder)
A good glug of cold water (about 3 tablespoons)

What to do:

Using the fresh, hot stock from your roasted bird, simply ladle off a pint into a jug (keep the rest in the pan, put the lid on & leave to cool, then freeze).  To remove any fat from the stock (that’s the golden bubbles you can see here), get yourself a few sheets of kitchen paper & touch it gently on the top – the grease will attach itself to the paper, which you can then throw away (no faffing around trying to separate it).

In another jug, measure your gravy browning (I’ve used Bisto for years, so just use whatever you like best).  You don’t need any seasoning, because there’s plenty in the gravy browning & also in your stock.

Pour in the cold water & mix to form a smooth brown liquid, followed by a quarter of the stock, then tip into your saucepan & heat gently for a few seconds, using the whisk to mix everything thoroughly.

Add the rest of the hot stock carefully & keep whisking gently to prevent lumps forming.  The gravy will begin to thicken up nicely now, so dip a spoon in & if it coats the back of the spoon, it’s ready.

Pour into a gravy boat or a jug & that’s the gravy done!   Enlist a Little Helper to put it on the table, with a plate or saucer underneath (to catch the drips & save your table).

When everything is ready & you’re happy with it, get your Little Helpers in to distribute dishes to the table (maybe have some extra treats to reward them for their support).

That’s it!  Your festive feast is ready, everything is done & you can enjoy the fruits of your hard work.  Whatever you’re doing, whomever you’re with, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas & a fabulous New Year from my family to yours.  Stay hungry 😉  A x


Far From the Pudding Crowd

The Christmas countdown has commenced & everything has gathered momentum.  Shops are bulging with baubles & tinsel, snow dredged streets have transformed into Las Vegas-style light displays & peace has been replaced by panic, as everyone realises they have two weeks to get organised, including the food!  As you’ll probably be racing around like a crazy Christmas shopping ninja, jacked up on Java & sugary snacks, desserts for Christmas Day are probably the furthest from your mind, which is why my third Christmas blog is full of sweetness.

Every Christmas it’s always the same – boring boxes of mince pies (or the homemade ones that Queen Thistle* would be proud of), Christmas pudding (flambéed eyebrows anyone?) & fruitcake so boozy, your breath can melt glass!  We’ve all been there & said our polite thank-yous, while discreetly disposing of half-eaten mouthfuls in a napkin. [*Queen Thistle is in Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom – ask any five year old who made the bricks for Mrs Fig’s school!].

Because I don’t do anything remotely traditional about Christmas desserts, we like to create a few traditions of our own.  Before Christmas arrives, I discuss desserts with my Husband & Son, then we all pick a different one & make them.  It’s that simple & everyone gets what they wanted, because they picked it.  Usually, the guys like a tiramisu or my refreshing lemon cheesecake, scattered with a selection of fresh berries.  If I can get some good lemons, I’ll make a luscious lemon drizzle cake too – splashed with Limoncello, this makes an excellent trifle base (without custard obviously, because that’s just wrong!).

When I was a little girl, my Mum & Grandma would bake all kinds of delicious creations, including beautifully light, crisp choux pastry (pâte à choux).  Mum vigorously beat the paste with such effortless ease, until it was silky smooth (although simple to make, profiteroles need strong arms & plenty of stamina).  Once baked & filled, these piled up plump little pastries would be generously glazed with glossy, rich chocolate sauce & adorned with sparkly spun sugar.  I would watch in amazement as my Mum swiftly whipped a sugar-dipped fork through the air & glittery, golden sugar strands would appear as if by magic!  Although I don’t tend to make spun sugar very often, I do still make proper profiteroles & once you have tried them, you’ll be hooked too.  So, aprons at the ready!

What you need:

4oz Plain Flour
2oz Salted Butter (plus extra for greasing trays)
A quarter of a pint of cold Water
3 large Eggs
600ml fresh Double Cream (for filling)

What to do:

Place the butter in a medium sized saucepan & add the water.  Gently heat until the butter is completely melted, then bring to the boil.

Remove the pan from the heat & add the flour, stirring well.

Put the pan back on the heat, stirring continuously until the mixture comes together into a ball in the pan, then leave to cool.

Beat the eggs in a separate bowl.

Once the mixture has cooled, this is where you need your muscles!  Grab a wooden spoon & gradually add the eggs a bit at a time, while beating them vigorously into the mixture, until everything is combined.  Then you’re ready to pipe!

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C & prepare a couple of baking trays – grease with butter, then run them under cold water & tip off the excess (you need a film of moisture to create steam in the oven to help raise them).

Tip your choux paste into a piping bag with round nozzle attachment (usually about 1cm sized), although I like to use a star nozzle because it gives extra texture.  If you stand your piping bag over a tall mug or jug, folding the edges over the top to hold it in place, you can do this with ease & avoid losing your choux paste.  Once filled, get rid of any excess air from the bag & twist the top to close it (after all that hard work, you don’t want your bag bursting!).

Pipe the mixture into round little dollops about an inch big, leaving an inch or two gap between each of them so they can grow.

Bake for 20 minutes until risen & slightly golden.  Tip onto a wire rack & while they’re still warm, make a little hole in the side of each (gently poke the end of a knife in).  Leave to cool.

Once cooled, your profiteroles are ready!  If you are preparing them in advance, you can freeze them a few at a time in a single layer – they crisp up beautifully after a few minutes in a warm oven.  They can be filled with either savoury or sweet fillings – try filling with a fluffy cream cheese mousse to make a starter, drizzled with a little pesto on top.

Fill your piping bag with whipped cream & pipe into the tiny hole you made in each profiterole, until just full.  Stack them up on your plate or put them in the fridge in a covered dish, but don’t leave them too long as they will go soggy.

Generously drizzle warm, chocolate sauce over them & serve!  You want the recipe for chocolate sauce, don’t you?  It’s really easy to make & one of my favourite “chuck it all in a pan” recipes.  I make jars of this & store it in the fridge or the cold pantry, then warm it up to make it runny enough to pour over cupcakes (it tastes fabulous spread on hot toast too).   Here it is!

What you need:

4oz Butter, cut into small chunks
8oz Plain Chocolate, chopped into chunks (use the food processor)
14oz tin of sweetened Condensed Milk

What to do:

Pour the milk into a dry small saucepan, add the butter & chocolate chunks.

Heat gently on low, slowly stirring with a whisk & making sure everything is combined, for about four or five minutes.  It should be glossy, smooth & silky.

That’s it!  Your sauce is ready, so pour it into a nice serving jug or sauce boat just before the dessert is plated up.  This also makes a fabulous fondue with chunks of pineapple, whole strawberries or fluffy marshmallows dipped in (elasticated waistbands are advisable though).

Ready for more?  Thought so!  As most Christmas food is heavy & starchy (especially fruit-laden puddings), we tend to go for light, fresh or fluffy desserts instead & this one is all three: Strawberry Sponge Square Cake.  It was the result of an impromptu dinner party, where I had to quickly improvise with what was in the fridge at the time & it has become a firm favourite! The sponge cake can be made the day before & kept in an airtight container with greaseproof paper between the slices, then all you need to do is assemble it!

What you need:

2 large Eggs
3oz Self-Raising Flour
3oz Vanilla Caster Sugar (or give normal sugar a whizz in a coffee grinder like I do)
A little melted Butter for preparing your tin
1 heaped tablespoon extra Vanilla Sugar (for laying your sponge on)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C.  Get a shallow baking tray or Swiss Roll tin & brush the melted butter all over the inside.

Line the tray with a sheet of greaseproof paper that is slightly bigger than the tin, leaving half an inch of paper out of the tin all the way around – you will need this to lift your sponge out at the end.  Push the paper into the corners & making sure it is completely covered with the butter.

Take the greaseproof paper out, turn it over & repeat, leaving it in the tin, with the edge sticking up all the way around.

Crack the eggs carefully into a mixing bowl & give them a whisk to break them up.

Add the sugar & give it a good firm whisking until pale & cream coloured.  I usually use the electric whisk for this (even I have my limits!) & whisk for three minutes on full.

Next, you need to fold in the flour.  Folding is easy, just take your time.  Sift the flour into the bowl, then using a large metal spoon, make a figure of eight & tip the flour over into the liquid.  Repeat until all the flour has been incorporated into a lovely, thick foamy mixture.

Using a spatula, scrape the mixture into your prepared tin.  Make sure you get it into all the corners & level it out with the spatula if necessary.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 4 minutes, until it is golden & slightly risen.  Give it a gentle pat with a finger & it should spring back – that’s when it’s ready.

Sprinkle the other sugar onto another sheet of greaseproof laid on top of a wire cooling rack.

Remove your sponge from the oven & carefully tip the whole thing over onto the sugared greaseproof paper, using the edge of the cake paper to help you if need be.

Pull off the greaseproof paper from the sponge cake & discard.  It should come away easily (& the smell of baked butter is just heavenly!).  Leave to cool for a few minutes.

Once cooled, take a large knife with a smooth blade (like a French cook’s knife) & trim the edges of your sponge (you can eat these or feed them to the birds).

Cut the sponge into three equal strips & set aside while you make the filling.  The filling can be prepared the day before too, just keep it covered in the fridge.

For the filling:

600ml fresh Double Cream (the real stuff please, it’s Christmas)
1oz Icing Sugar, plus extra for dusting
1 large punnet of Strawberries

What to do:

Wash, trim & hull your strawberries – that’s the tough bit under the leaves in the top of the strawberry.  Just run a little paring knife under the leaves, all the way around & it should come out.  The more ripe the strawberries, the easier it is.

Stand them pointy end up & using the paring knife, slice thinly – keep the trimmed edges to one side for decorating (or munching).  Put to one side in a bowl or large cup.

Get the electric whisk out again & whisk the double cream in a large mixing bowl, adding the icing sugar as you do so, until it is in soft peaks – the icing sugar gives the cream body & will hold it’s shape when piped.   You can whisk it by hand if you need to release some stress, but it’s really important that you don’t over-whip the cream, otherwise you’ll end up with butter (yes, really – I’ll cover that in another blog when we’ve all got more time).

Now you’re ready to assemble your sponge cake!  Take your first layer of sponge & lay it on a serving plate.

Scoop the cream into a piping bag with a star nozzle (or a smooth round one).  Pipe a layer of cream in a decorative swirly pattern around the edge.  Take your time over this, there’s no rush.

Lay strawberry slices all over the cream, leaving the pointy tips over the edge slightly.

Take the next layer of sponge & squeeze a little splodge of cream on the underneath side, then lay it gently on top of the strawberries.

Repeat with the next layer in exactly the same way, leaving a layer of sponge cake on the top.

When you’ve finished, you should have a beautiful strawberry sponge square cake (yes, I’m aware it’s not square, just go with it).  Dust lightly with icing sugar all over the top (use a tea strainer for this & you only need about a teaspoonful of icing sugar to do the whole thing) & serve immediately.

Use any remaining strawberries & cream to decorate each person’s plate, maybe dusting with a bit more icing sugar if you like.  Or you could just hide the rest in the fridge for nibbling on later (I think you’ve earned it!).  If you don’t like strawberries, use blueberries or even your favourite jam.  One of my favourite variations is to make a tiramisu filling instead of using cream, then mix some Sherry or Brandy with an equal amount of espresso coffee to drizzle over the sponge & replace the icing sugar on top with finely grated dark chocolate.  Decorate with a few coffee beans & a sprig of fresh mint.

So that’s dessert done & dusted (with icing sugar)!  Hopefully, I’ve given you some ideas for lighter & brighter alternatives to the usual stodgy puds, something to bring a little freshness to your Christmas table.  Now you know the drill – get yourself a lovely cuppa, put your feet up for a bit & relax, we’ve got this covered.  Stay hungry 😉 x