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

Optional:

100g Milk Chocolate chunks (chuck a bar in the blender & pulse it to get chunks)
Or:
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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

A Sea of Strawberries

There is something heavenly about the heady fragrance of fresh, ripe juicy strawberries that always makes me think of Summer.  When my son was young, we would spend many a sunny afternoon in a strawberry field, gently plucking plump berries from their leafy beds & enjoying their tantalising fragrance on the way home, eagerly looking forward to devouring them!

Now we all know they go very well sandwiched in a scone with jam & cream (if you don’t, you’re missing out), so I like to include these beautiful berries in other delights too.

For a quick impromptu dessert (unexpected guests will love this), whip up a fluffy, fat-free sponge & layer between thinly sliced strawberries & piped cream.  It looks like you’ve spent all afternoon baking, but actually takes about 20 minutes from start to finish & most of that time is spent on the assembly!   Dust it with icing sugar & if you really want to make it look extra fancy, make a pattern in the sugar with a hot metal skewer across the top (wear an oven glove though – the scent of burning fingers is never attractive).

Then there is the fabulous “Fraggle Tart” from one of my favourite Italian cookbooks – my family call it this because the Italian name is crostata di mandorle e fragoline (please note, no fraggles were harmed in the making of this treat).  Of course, the pastry has to be homemade with soft butter, eggs, sugar & flour – if you’re going to do these beauties justice, have a go at making your own.  I’ve used various types of flour, even wholemeal once as you can see, but if I’m honest I prefer plain.  

Another favourite of mine are strawberry jam tarts – I have my own take on these jammy little pastry cups & this is for those over-ripened fruits, the slightly squishy, sad looking ones that have been living in your fridge for a few days & need eating.  Put a spoonful of the squished berries in the bottom of pastry cases, spoon a little warm, seedless jam over them (only half fill, as jam tends to grow), then bake. Once cooled, just add a swirl of soft cream & a sprig of mint!  I try to keep a few in an airtight container for the next day, but they somehow evaporate …. !

However you decide to honour the strawberry, I hope I’ve inspired you to do more than just chuck them in a bowl with some sugar on.  A x