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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Cakes, Cookies & Celebrations!

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

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

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

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 190*C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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