Gentlemen Prefer (Chocolate Chip) Blondies!

Even in Summertime, soggy mornings make me think of massive mugs of heavenly hot chocolate, teeming with a mountain of mini marshmallows on a cloud of whipped cream, dusted with chocolate shavings.  It’s guaranteed to put a smile on even the sourest of faces, especially if there’s a chunky chocolate chip cookie to dunk in it. I must admit, I like my hot chocolate made the old-fashioned way – boiled milk, slowly poured over flakes of grated chocolate & whisked up until silky smooth with a delicate foamy froth.  After one of these & a cookie, I can take on the world (albeit slowly!).

Over the weekend, I was invited to a beautiful ladies’ afternoon tea at one of my lovely friend’s homes & took some of these naughty chocolate chip delights as a little gift for her (fresh flowers are nice, but you can’t really eat them!).   These are based on a blondie recipe & are really rich & indulgent, because they are full to the brim with so much chocolate, then swirled & drizzled with more chocolate (just to make sure there’s enough in them!).  The chocolate chip & peanut butter version was a kind of happy mishap – I was experimenting with the recipe & added a splodge of smooth peanut butter into each scoop, encasing that nutty, buttery centre in the cookie dough.  As they bake in the oven, the peanut butter starts to melt & infuse the cookies (& kitchen) with that nutty flavour & sweet scent.  Of course, they are drizzled with melted chocolate too & a few chopped, salted peanuts sprinkled generously on top – the slight saltiness complements the chocolate so well!  These are not for the faint-hearted, nor are they for everyday munching really – they should be a treat, or for those days when you’re just feeling a bit pants & want a “pick me up”.   If I’m feeling particularly decadent, I’ll make some with plain chocolate chunks & shards of stem ginger (my favourite), or chopped dried apricots with white chocolate pieces.  The choices are as endless as your imagination!  The best bit?  They are really easy & take minutes to make.

What you need:

100g vanilla or caster sugar (I make my own vanilla sugar, so it’s naturally flavoured)
125g light Muscovado sugar
150g melted butter
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
300g plain flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (the proper stuff, not “essence”)
Half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
200g milk chocolate & 100g plain chocolate, chopped into chunks (I chuck mine in the fridge for an hour, then whizz them up in the food processor)
200g milk chocolate (for melting)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 170*C.  Prepare a couple of baking sheets by lining them with greaseproof paper (no washing up tins later!).

Gently melt the butter & set aside to cool slightly.

In one bowl, sift the flour & bicarb.

In another bowl, mix the Muscovado & the vanilla sugars.  Muscovado is a bit moist, almost like damp sand in texture, so break up any lumps with a whisk or fork.

Pour the melted butter, egg & egg yolk into the sugars, along with the vanilla extract.  Whisk together until just combined & you get a creamy, caramel coloured liquid.

Slowly add the sifted flour & bicarb to the caramel liquid, stirring well until it is all incorporated & turns into a lovely firm cookie dough.

Add the chocolate chips to the cookie dough, distributing evenly.

Get yourself a medium sized metal ice-cream scoop (one with a spring loaded handle is best), then scoop dollops of cookie dough up & drop them onto the greaseproof lined baking tray.  Leave a good couple of inches between them all – they will grow!   If you want to save some for another day, you can always freeze a few scoops at this stage &  just defrost them when you fancy a treat.

Bake in the centre of the oven for between 16-18 minutes, then gently transfer the cookies onto a cooling rack.  If you put the tin next to the cooling rack, you can actually pull the greaseproof paper onto the rack & then move the cookies directly onto the rack after.  They will be soft until they cool, so be careful as they are more delicate than they look.

Once cooled, put another sheet (or the same one) of greaseproof paper underneath the cooling rack.  Then melt the chocolate & drizzle over the cookies, making whatever pretty patterns you like & even adding more chocolate chips or chopped nuts on top.   That’s it!  

You might want to leave them to set before indulging, or you’ll get into a chocolately gooey mess!   Diamonds may be nice but chocolate is everyone’s best friend (especially when you share).  A x

 

 

 

Pasta Parcels

The first pasta I ever made was a very soupy looking lasagne when I was a teenager & it didn’t improve much until my twenties – it tasted very nice, but you needed a spoon to eat it (although my boyfriend at the time was far too polite to mention this).  My pasta skills have progressed a bit since then & I am happy to say, you don’t need a spoon to eat my lasagne anymore (although I do recommend wearing an elasticated waistband).

Some people may think of pasta making as a bit fiddly or time consuming (it’s like the bread making scenario all over again).  I appreciate this, because I too had a few issues in the beginning (actually, I still do on occasion) & that’s OK, because your kitchen isn’t a Michelin starred restaurant – you’re making it for family & friends, not paying customers!  It just takes a little practice, that’s all.  The best thing is pasta takes very little time to make from scratch, plus it’s fun to make when the weather is a bit pants & the kids are “bored” – get them making pasta!

What you need:

The recipe I use is 100g of strong ’00’ flour (or strong bread flour) & one large egg, per person (so if you’re cooking for three people, that’s three eggs & 300g of flour).  However, I like to mix half flour with half fine semolina, which gives it that gorgeous golden, sunshine yellow colour (& everyone likes a little sunshine).

Also, I recommend buying good quality free-range eggs – trust me, it makes all the difference.  Here’s a little test to see if your eggs are really fresh.  Half fill a jug with cold water & gently plop the eggs into the jug, one at a time.  If they sink, they’re fine & fresh; if they float, it means they are not that fresh & probably shouldn’t be used.

What to do:

Measure your flour into a bowl & tip onto a clean work surface.  Make a well in the middle, crack your eggs in carefully & combine them a little before using clean, cool fingertips to bring the flour in from the sides & gently combine into a lovely golden dough (it’s messy, but that’s half the fun).

Knead for about five minutes until flexible, then wrap in cling film & leave to rest in the fridge for half an hour.  After that, you can roll it out, stuff it with some fabulous fillings, or cut into ribbons (such as tagliatelle) & even hang some up to dry for another day (if you don’t have a rack, use a clean clothes horse).  It’s that simple!

To make ravioli, roll the dough out until it’s almost thin enough to see through.  Lay it down on a flour dusted surface (sprinkle some semolina too – this will stop it sticking).  Then simply add small splodges of your filling (about a teaspoonful), roughly an inch apart, down one side of the pasta sheet – sometimes I use a piping bag to do this (less mess & a bit quicker).  Dip your finger in a cup of cold water, run it along the edge & between the fillings, before folding the other side of the pasta over the top.  Press the edges down firmly, using a cupping action with the side of your hand to separate the fillings into individual bumps & remove any air.  Cut them into little parcels using a ravioli or pizza cutter & set aside on a plate or board, again dusted with flour or semolina (or both).

Bring a pan of water to a rolling boil, chuck in a couple of generous pinches of sea salt, then gently add your pasta to the water.  It should cook in about 2-3 minutes, so pick one out & have a taste to check – obviously, if you’re cooking ravioli or similar stuffed pasta, use your judgement on this & make sure the filling is piping hot.  Then drain (saving a cup of the water) & serve as you like it- spoon on some sauce, or just add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil & a sprinkle of black pepper.   If your sauce is a bit too thick, add some of the cooking water to loosen it up a bit & make it silky smooth (you really don’t need much).  All you need to do then is eat it!

One of the best tips I can give is to treat yourself to a robust pasta machine – forget brand names here, go for the one that you feel most comfortable with.  When I first began making pasta, I would roll out the dough by hand with a rolling pin (several times until it was thin enough & my arms ached), so my pasta machine is one of the best purchases I’ve made.  With the turn of a handle you can have perfectly precise spaghetti (they are also really good for rolling out fondant icing – bonus!).

So next time it’s a bit dull outside, create some indoor sunshine & make your own pasta parcels!  A x

 

A Pizza Cake

Fridays are fabulous for many reasons: it’s the Preekend, the fizz is chilling in the fridge & thoughts turn to dinner.  Pizza is very much loved in our house & we’ve tried them all over the years – the fresh, the frozen & the takeaways.  But nothing beats making your own, getting everyone involved & having a relaxing meal (pizza is definitely relaxed & a great way to wind down the week!).

Because I’ve been baking up a storm, I like to delegate the dough making on a Friday night to the guys & my Husband has become Chief Pizza Dough Maker.  Usually, I’ll pour us each a glass of Prosecco to sip (in “scary saucers”, which my Husband can fit his face in) & while he’s kneading the dough, we catch up on each other’s news & gossip. Here’s how to make your own.

What you need for the dough:

12g fresh yeast
330ml lukewarm water (stick your finger in it & it should be the same temperature, not hot or cold, just right)
500g strong white bread flour (plus extra for kneading, etc)
A good pinch of sea salt

What to do:

Dissolve the yeast in the water, stirring with a fork to ensure it’s all mixed.

Mix the sea salt & flour in a large bowl, then add the yeast water, stirring well to create a dough.

Bring the dough together with your hands, wiping it around the bowl to remove any excess on the sides.  Sprinkle a little flour around the bottom of your bowl (all will become clear later on!).

Dust your worktop with a bit of flour, then tip the dough out onto it.

Knead well for ten minutes using firm strokes, pushing away from you with the heel of your hand & then folding back on itself, turning & repeating.   This gives it (& you!) a good workout & makes it smooth, elasticated & easy to work with.

Once kneaded (it should spring back from the touch), place in the floured bowl & cover loosely with a piece of lightly oiled clingfilm.  It doesn’t need to be sealed tight – your dough will double in size, so needs room to grow.  As long as there are no gaps around the edge of the bowl, it should be fine.  Put it in a warm, draught-free place to prove for half an hour – I tend to put mine in the airing cupboard, except when it’s Summer & then it sits on the worktop in the kitchen.  Proving is where the dough is allowed to rest from all that exercise & all that kneading you’ve done will ensure it rises well.

Once the dough is proving, turn on your oven to 230*C to ensure it’s really hot by the time you are ready to start cooking the pizzas.  This is when I prepare my tomato sauce & get chopping the toppings.  Usually, I have a couple of jars of my homemade tomato sauce in the fridge, leftover from the various pasta dishes I’ve made in the week.  This sauce was something I started making when I was 17, in my own kitchen with a couple of Italian cookbooks for inspiration.  Fast forward 30 years & it has become a staple in my repertoire, my signature sauce & a flexible foundation for many of my recipes – especially pizza!  Unfortunately for you lovely people, I can’t share it (secret family recipe & all that, you know the score).  

However, if I don’t have time or any pre-made jars, I make this simple version.  It’s just a tin of Italian plum tomatoes, gently squished by hand in a bowl (just get your hands in there & do it – you’ll wash).   Add a little sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, a tiny pinch of sugar (to balance the acidity), a little shredded fresh Basil & that’s it, no cooking required!   Make it into your own signature sauce – add a little chopped fresh garlic or a sprinkle of shredded fresh chilli, if you’re fancy it being a bit fiesty.  It’s your sauce – create your own masterpiece & just play around with different flavours until it’s how you want it.

By now, your dough will be ready to shape into pizzas.    Dust your worktop with a little flour & remove the dough from the bowl – it will be quite sticky now, so just scrape it around the bowl to remove it all.  Knock it back to remove any large air bubbles (I throw it on the worktop a couple of times & give it a quick knead for a few seconds).

Before you start worrying about throwing spinning sheets of dough in the air like a professional Pizzaiolo, just remember you’re in your kitchen at home & how you do it really is up to you.  Cut the dough into quarters & set aside three of them on a floured worktop.  Take the piece left & shape it into a ball, then work into a circle (or whatever shape you want) with your fingers, pushing it out on the worktop, or use a rolling pin – whatever you feel comfortable doing.   Sprinkle a little coarse semolina onto a flat baking tray & transfer your dough onto it.  Set aside while you do the same for the other dough balls.

Once the dough is stretched out, I smooth a large spoonful of the sauce over the top, leaving half an inch around the edge & it’s ready to be adorned with beautiful toppings! Obviously, we all have our favourites – mine is spinach, ricotta & sundried tomatoes – shiny green swirls of wilted spinach & splodges of ricotta are decorated with snipped up, ruby red sundried tomatoes.  I am also a bit partial to Proscuitto & Pepperoni with a few plump, roasted pepper pieces on top (I buy the jars, because I really don’t have the time to faff about roasting my own & they really are quite lovely!).  

Finally, I add a little torn mozzarella, a dusting of Parmesan & a pinch of pungent Oregano.  I only use a small amount of each topping, because pizza shouldn’t be drowning in them – it will never cook properly if it’s stacked like a skyscraper & your base will just be soggy (& nobody likes a soggy bottom).  

Bake in a very hot oven, a minimum of 230*C, for about 5-8 minutes, until the melted cheese has oozed into all the gaps, before it crisps up & turns a gorgeous golden hue.  If you have a pizza oven, it will take about 3 minutes because they get to much higher temperatures (I’m going to have to invest in one, especially with the amount of pizza I make!).

Slide it onto a chopping board, slice it up & serve!

Another tip is to get yourself a proper chopping board specifically for pizza, because they also double up as a serving tray & everyone can help themselves to a slice (just use a couple of napkins – no plates to wash up!).

Have a go at making your own Friday night treat – it’s a pizza cake!  A x