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




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








A Bit on the Side

Weeks before writing this, I was already thinking about what fabulous foods to make for Christmas Day & what I could do beforehand.  By the end of November, I had already chopped, mashed & stashed an array of side dishes in readiness, cramming pots of fluffy potatoes, gorgeous gravy & cauliflower cheesiness into my freezer.  Most of us work & don’t have the time to faff around in the kitchen, so a bit of prep now will make all the difference.  It’s like giving yourself the gift of time!   Because I’m covering a few things here, you will need some strong coffee to keep you going & a few Little Helpers to share the load (bribes at the ready if necessary!).

If you have been following my blog, you will know I like to keep a supply of freezer-friendly food (here’s the link for speed:  http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/freezing-your-assets/ ) & Christmas is no exception.  A week or two before, I make a mountain of mashed potatoes & a giant cauliflower cheese (sometimes with broccoli), then freeze them in two-person portions.  If you want your mash to look fancy, pipe into swirls on greaseproof paper before freezing (let it cool first though) & reheat when you want them!  The only spuds you need to cook on Christmas Day will be roasts & maybe some steamed baby potatoes (because there’s always someone who won’t eat mash or roasts).  These can be cooked along with the veg, cutting down on pans to watch & wash, & hunting for that ever elusive potato masher!

The freezer is also bulging with breadcrumbs – if a crust is going spare, it gets blitzed in the blender & bagged up (I can’t waste them & the birds are so well-fed in the garden, the trees are leaning!).  Normally, I use these for coating chicken goujons or kievs, along with stuffing mushrooms or making arancini from leftover risotto, but they are also the main ingredient in stuffing.

Whilst I appreciate that some lovely person invented packet mix stuffing, if you’re serving anyone who is vegetarian or vegan then you need to check the box first.  Most contain suet, which is either beef fat (& needs baking in the oven once rehydrated), or made from palm oil – it might be vegetarian but it’s not very ethical in my book!  When I was a vegetarian, shop-bought stuffing went off my list completely & I started making my own from scratch.  It’s so simple, you can make it in advance & freeze it until you need it!  If you prefer it inside the bird, just make your stuffing the day before, cover it & leave in the fridge.  Depending on the size of your dinner party or the size of your bird, just increase quantities as required (I say “bird” because not everyone eats turkey, my family included, as we prefer chicken).  Here goes!

What you need:

6 thick slices or crusts of Bread, blitzed in a blender (keep them chunky, not too fine)
1 large Onion, finely chopped
1oz Salted Butter
1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 heaped tablespoon of Sage (I used fresh but you can use dried)
1 heaped teaspoon of dried Rosemary
Pinch of fresh Thyme (this is strong so you only need a bit)
Quarter of a pint of boiling water (you might not need all of this)
Seasoning to taste (freshly ground Black Pepper & Sea Salt)
[Optional: a teaspoon of Lemon Zest or a tablespoon of chopped roasted Chestnuts or Walnuts)

What to do:

Melt the butter & oil together in a large frying pan or skillet.

Chop the onion finely & add to the butter & oil, stirring well to ensure it’s completely coated.  Stir fry on a medium heat for a couple of minutes until softened & starting to colour slightly (don’t leave them, otherwise they will catch & burn).  Turn off the pan.

Sprinkle the Sage & Rosemary into the pan with a pinch of Thyme, add the breadcrumbs & stir well.  The residual heat from the pan will bring everything together nicely, so just mix well.  Season with a little sea salt & black pepper, stirring well again.  If you’re adding the roasted chopped chestnuts or lemon zest, do this now.

Add a little of the boiling water, drizzling it around the pan & stirring to bring it all together into clumps.  If it’s too dry, add a little more water & stir again.  Once you feel the consistency is right, stop.  It should be firm, not soggy.  If you think it’s too soggy, add more breadcrumbs until firmer.

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C & if you’re making stuffing balls, lay a sheet of greaseproof paper on a baking tray.  If you’re baking it in a dish, butter the inside of a casserole dish, scoop the stuffing mixture in & use a fork to make rough peaks on the top (these bits will go crispy when it bakes).

If you’re making stuffing balls, get yourself an ice-cream scoop (spring-loaded will make your life easier & will also ensure they are all roughly the same size).  Put some of the mixture into the ice-cream scoop (you don’t want to damage your pan by scraping it!) & press it in gently.  Release the ball from the scoop, shape it into a nice sized ball in your hand & place on the greaseproof paper.  Repeat until you’ve used the whole lot.

Bake your stuffing (whatever shape you make) in the centre of the oven for about 15-20 minutes until golden brown on top, turning halfway.  Once cooked, either serve immediately with your roast dinner, or place on a cooling rack (still on the greaseproof paper) & leave to cool completely.  These can then be frozen & reheated on the day you want them.  That’s the stuffing stuffed!

Next, it’s time to sort out some sides & as most of these are already done by the time Christmas arrives, there’s not that much to do on the actual day.  A few days before, enlist your Little Helpers (or “Side”-Kicks?!  *groan*) then go to your local Wilkinson or Poundshop, buy a couple of speed peelers & delegate a bag of veg to each person with one of these little numbers.  Put some Christmas tunes on to get everyone in the mood (or some AC/DC, whatever floats your boat), get them all around the table & off they go!  They can peel & prep, you can pretty much leave them to it & get on with anything else that needs doing.

A firm favourite of ours is roasted baby potatoes in their skins, along with roasted carrots & parsnips.  Just prep as much veg as you need, according to the number of guests you’re expecting & leave to soak in a pan of cold water until required.  Big tip here: don’t put any salt in the water, because no amount of cooking will make them soft & you’ll have rock hard roasties instead.  Aprons on!

What to do:

On a chopping board, cut the potatoes in half lengthways.  If you want to give them a bit more texture, cut little slices in the curved top all the way along (hasselback style) to almost halfway through – don’t go all the way though, otherwise you’ll just have thin slices of potato!  Cut the parsnips & carrots into chunky wedges, in a similar size as the potatoes – they can all go on the same tray (less washing up!).  If you’re not cooking them right now, this is when you put them in some cold water until you’re ready for them.  Before roasting, strain well & tip your roasting veg onto some kitchen paper to dry (because oil & water don’t mix, they spit!).

Spread some olive oil on a baking or roasting tin, put the potato halves in curved side down & then drizzle more olive oil on the top, give them a good sprinkle of the sea salt & black pepper.  If you want to add some chopped Rosemary, sprinkle some on too (go easy with this stuff though, it’s quite strong).  Get your hands in, toss the potatoes in the oil & seasonings, making sure they are well coated & return to their curved side down position, flat side up.

Bake them on the top shelf in a hot oven at 220*C, for about 15 minutes until they are sizzling & golden.  If they have stuck a bit, just use a spatula or tongs (nothing metal though or you’ll damage your tray) & ease them away from the tin.  At this point, turn them over carefully so you don’t splash yourself in hot oil & return to the oven for about 10 minutes or so until crispy, then serve.  If you want to, you can always pop them on some kitchen paper to remove any excess oil, but I find a good shake in a sieve does a pretty good job & it’s not lard, so you’ll be fine.

The parsnips & carrots should be transferred to a warm heatproof dish, then while they’re still hot drizzle with a teaspoon of runny honey to glaze (drizzle, not drown remember) & they’re ready to serve.

Once you’ve got your sides sorted, Christmas Day becomes a doddle – just take them out of the freezer the night before, pop them into an ovenproof dish to defrost & that’s it, prep done!  They can be reheated in the oven while the bird is resting & the veg are roasting. This is also handy when unexpected extras turn up for dinner, because you’ll have a spare pot you can defrost (making you look like the most organised person ever & score major Brownie points!).

By now, you should have a sumptuous selection of sides prepared: mash, three types of roasties, veg for steaming & cauliflower cheese (for the recipe, click on this link to my blog: http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/a-kitchen-nightmare-readymeals-set-go/ ).  However, there are still a couple of things that will finish off the list nicely – starting with a pimped up cranberry sauce.

Not everyone wants to make cranberry sauce from scratch (me included) & not everyone likes it, so do yourself a favour & buy a good quality one that you like, then pimp it up with a few little tweaks.  Simply scoop the whole lot into a small saucepan & break up with a wooden spoon, heating very gently.  Add a shot of Sherry or Port, stirring carefully into the cranberry sauce.  Sprinkle a little orange or lemon zest into the pan, about half a teaspoon, & stir gently for a minute or two.  Pour it into a small dish to cool, then cover & put in the fridge until you’re ready to serve!

And lastly, all you need is a gorgeous homemade gravy!  Everyone loves gravy & at this time of year, you might want to make proper gravy.  It’s actually easier than you think & just needs a little patience!  The best bit is you can make it before & freeze it, or make it on the day in minutes using heated stock you made previously or stock from your roast on the day.  So grab a whisk & a 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:

If you’re using fresh, hot stock from your roasted bird, simply ladle off a pint into a jug.  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 use Bisto because my Mum uses it, so whatever you like best use that).  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 just a jug & that’s the gravy made!  If you’re making it in advance, let it cool, then pour into a bag or plastic tub, seal & freeze.

So now that your stuffing & some sides are prepared in advance, hopefully it’s taken some pressure off & you can look forward to a fuss-free festive holiday!  Now, get the kettle on, put your feet up with a cuppa & relax!  Stay hungry 😉 A x









Give Sultanas A Swirl!

There are some things that just don’t do it for me & that includes anything with really over-dried fruit in it – shop bought mince pies, heavily laden fruit cakes that are more fruit than cake (that’s just plain wrong), & anything with shrivelled up sultanas in it.  Scones, buns, cakes or fruit bread should all be graced with sweet, sumptuous fruits & nothing dried of any description.

Sultanas have always intrigued me since I was a child.  In those days, those wrinkly, chewy chunks were picked & flicked from whatever pastry they had dared to adorn!  I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them & always found them to be hard, chewy & just not very nice!  In the history books, a Sultana is depicted as a beautiful bejewelled Queen, so it’s hard to associate such a regal sovereign with this dried delicacy.

My Mum & Grandma taught me to show the sultana some respect & give these fabulous fruits a bit of a pre-bake pampering.   Before I bake anything with sultanas in, I give them a good soak in a fragrant warm tea bath, sometimes with a splash of Brandy or Sherry in it.  One of my favourite teas for doing this is Chai, especially at this time of year because of it’s heady, spicy scent.  The sultanas soak up all this luscious liquid to make them plump & pretty again.

There are a variety of treats you can rustle up with these little beauties & on a Sunday morning, if my Husband isn’t making croissants (his speciality), I will make my Sultana Swirlies.  They’re pretty much twirls of enriched dough with squishy sultanas in a swirl of sugar, butter & cinnamon.  If you don’t have the time to make the dough, use pre-made all butter puff pastry (the good stuff) instead.  So get your apron on & here’s the recipe!

What you need:

1lb 4oz Strong White Bread Flour (plus extra for dusting)
Half an ounce of Fresh Yeast (or dried equivalent)
Half a pint lukewarm water
1 large Egg
A quarter of a teaspoon of ground Sea Salt
2oz Vanilla Sugar (plus another ounce for sprinkling)
1oz melted Butter (salted)
Ground Cinnamon for dusting (only a tiny bit – a little goes a very long way!)
2-3 tablespoons Milk (for brushing on at the end)
1 Chai Teabag
Quarter of a pint of boiling water
1 handful of Sultanas (about 2 or 3oz should be sufficient)

What to do:

Firstly, soak your fruit: put the sultanas in a small bowl or a large coffee cup along with the tea bag, pour on the boiling water & stir well.  Put a lid on it (a saucer or small plate will do) & leave to one side for a couple of hours at least.  If you want them to really plump up, do this just before bedtime the night before & leave them until you’re ready to use them (I’ve left them for 24 hours before, so they will be fine).

While the sultanas are soaking in their bath, get the dough made!  Put the yeast into a measuring jug, pour over the lukewarm water & stir with a fork until the yeast has dissolved.  Crack in the egg & give it a quick whisk with the fork until fully combined.

Tip the flour into a large mixing bowl, add the salt & mix in with your hands, making a well in the centre of the flour.

Pour in the liquid & using the fork, draw the flour into the liquid centre, stirring well.  Then get your hands in & bring it all together to form a dough, leaving the bowl almost clean.  Tip the dough onto a flour dusted worktop & sprinkle a little flour in the bottom of the bowl you just used (you’ll need it again in a few minutes).

Knead the dough for ten minutes by hand (free mini-workout! Yay!).  If you’ve never kneaded dough before, simply push it firmly away from you with the heel of your hand then pull it back over, turn it to the side a quarter turn & repeat.  Be careful not to tear the dough, you just want to stretch it so that it will rise later.  Once you’ve finished kneading, the dough will be noticeably smoother & more elastic.  The more effort you put in now, the more risen your dough will be when you bake it, plus you’ll have lovely toned arms.  Pop it into the floured bowl, cover with a bit of oiled clingfilm (use a pastry brush, it’s easier) & place on a tray in the airing cupboard to prove for an hour.

While the dough is proving & your sultanas are soaking, relax.  There’s not much you can do here, so put the oven on to 220*C, put the kettle on & make yourself a cuppa.  Prepare your baking trays – brush with butter & flour them, or line them with greaseproof paper.  I’ve used pizza tins for this & they work quite well.

Once the dough is ready, your sultanas will be too.  Your dough will have almost doubled in size & have a domed top (your hard work will have paid off!).  Scrape it out of the bowl & onto the worktop, then knock it back – give it a quick knead & throw it onto the worktop a couple of times.  This knocks out any large air bubbles.

Strain your sultanas thoroughly using a sieve, giving them a good shake to remove any excess moisture.  Leave them to sit in the sieve & put this over the bowl they were in (to catch any drips).

On a lightly floured worktop, stretch your dough into a rectangular shape, dust with a little flour & roll out to about a quarter inch thickness.  The dough will snap back, just be patient & if it needs a little more flour underneath, dust some sparingly just to prevent it sticking to the worktop.

Next, brush on the melted butter all over from edge to edge using a pastry brush.  Sprinkle the sugar evenly all over the buttered dough, followed by the sultanas.

Then comes the fun part – rolling it up to form a big spiral, sultana-filled sausage.  It doesn’t really matter which way you roll it, towards you or away from you, but it just needs to be rolled carefully so you don’t lose your fruit.  Gently roll the filled dough, until you have a long, sultana-filled sausage.

Using a sharp knife, cut the sausage in half, then cut each half in half again.  You should be left with about 16 slices, each one about an inch thick.  Lay them in a circle on a prepared baking tray to make a flower shape, leaving about an inch gap between them.  Press them down slightly to flatten them a bit.

Cover loosely with greased clingfilm to protect them, then leave them on a draught-free worktop to prove again for about half an hour.  They will have doubled in size again & filled the tins completely.

Bake them in the centre of the oven for about 12-15 minutes until golden brown & risen.  When they are ready, gently ease them out of the tin onto a wire cooling rack – to test if dough is cooked, give it a tap on the bottom & it should sound hollow.

While they are still hot, brush with cold milk & dust sparingly with ground Cinnamon, plus another sprinkling of vanilla sugar, before leaving to cool.

These fragrant, fluffy swirls taste great as they are, but I like to make some glacé icing & drizzle it over the top, filling the curves like a little icing path to the centre.  You can use freshly squeezed lemon or orange juice to make your icing instead of water & give it a zesty zap.  They make lovely lazy breakfasts (you’ll burn off all the sugar by lunchtime), or a gorgeous snack with coffee.  However you have them, just remember to treat your sultanas like a Queen.  Stay hungry 😉 A x






Freezing Your Assets!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Beetroot To Yourself

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

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

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

What you need:

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

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

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



A Kitchen Nightmare: Readymeals, Set, Go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Good Pie, the Blackberry Way!

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

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

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

Optional ingredients:

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

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







Fast Breaks & Breakfasts

So who had breakfast this morning?  No, “just a coffee” won’t do.  I mean food, whether it’s porridge, a bacon butty or a boiled egg, some kind of sustenance to keep you going.  A bit of toast maybe?  Or did you grab something sweet at your local shop or a flat pack snack from the petrol station on your way to work?  Oh dear, you really do need something a bit perkier than forecourt fayre, especially if you’re going to stop your stomach doing dragon impressions at your desk (which is never a good look)!

This morning, after I had been chocolatiering all week, I really couldn’t face making anything too elaborate & wanted to make something relaxed, easy & not faffy.  This is one of those “chuck it all in a bowl” kind of recipes that we all love & anyone can make these with ease – the kids or the other half that doesn’t cook (yes, even you!).  I actually put a batch of these in the oven to bake while I had a shower – that’s how easy they are!

Now the kids have finished school for the Summer, get them in the kitchen & making some of these.  They will learn something useful, you get to have a lie in (hopefully) & as these are portable, you can pop a few in your bag for when you fancy a snack!

What you need:

7oz Salted Butter, chopped into chunks
8oz Plain Flour
8oz Light Muscovado Sugar
6oz Porridge Oats
2oz Dessicated Coconut or chopped Mixed Nuts (your choice here)
1 teaspoon Baking Powder
1 jar of good Jam (use whatever is your favourite or in your pantry)
A little extra Butter for smearing around the dish

What to do:

Turn on the oven to 180*C to warm up.  Grease your dish with a little butter, getting into all the corners – I use a large lasagne dish, so something similar sized will do.  Make sure you grease the sides too.

Tip all the dry ingredients (except the coconut & nuts) into a large mixing bowl & give them a stir to combine everything.

Add the butter pieces & rub in with your fingertips, until you have a crumble mix of what looks like moist chunky breadcrumbs.  Add the nuts and/or coconut, mix in well.  (You can add a few sultanas here or chopped, dried apricots – whatever you like!).

Tip half of the mix into the dish, spread around evenly & gently press down to form a nice layer on the bottom of the dish (make sure you get it in the corners).

Spread splodges of jam all over the top, then using the back of a dessert spoon smooth it out to form a nice fruity layer.

Scatter the rest of the crumble mixture on the top of the jam & press down very gently to form another even layer on top.  Be careful not to press too hard, otherwise the jam will squish out of the sides!

Put the dish into the middle of the oven & bake for about 30-35 minutes, until the top is gorgeously golden & the jam is bubbling around the edges (tip: use a glass lasagne dish, then you can see what’s happening).  If it needs a few more minutes, pop it back in the oven & then check again in five minutes.

Once cooked, it may look slightly risen on top – don’t worry, this will go down as it cools.  Place the dish on a wire rack & leave the whole thing to cool for about half an hour (remember, jam is like molten lava & will melt your mouth, so be patient – go & wash up or something while you wait).  When cool, the jam becomes a thick, gooey & ever so luscious layer of fruitiness, so it is worth the wait.

After it has cooled, run a knife around the edge to loosen the slice & tip very carefully onto a chopping board (it will still be quite soft).  Cut into even sized slices & it’s ready to eat!  If you’re not comfortable with the tipping out method, just cut it in the dish & use a spatula to lift them out individually.  I get 16 good sized slices from one lasasgne dish, so there are plenty for everyone.

They should keep in an airtight container, but I have no idea how long for because they didn’t last that long!   I suspect they will keep for a few days, if you hide them well.  Wrap them up in a bit of greaseproof paper to take to the office, munch at a picnic or eat on the run.  The best thing is you can prepare them in advance & then you have no excuses for not eating breakfast!  They are also great for giving you a bit of a boost in the afternoon when you’re flagging.

If you’re taking them on a picnic, why not add a few ripe raspberries to the jam layer & drizzle swirls of melted white chocolate over the cooled slices.   They make a nice alternative to a dessert & you don’t need plates or spoons, just a napkin (you all know how much I adore washing up!).  These will make you very popular though, so I advise that you keep a small stash for yourself in the back of the cupboard!

So next time you want breakfast fast or a fast break, try making these sumptuous little slices for your family – be warned though, they are very moreish!  A x