An Afternoon Tease!

Beautiful blue skies & big blossom trees in full bloom must mean Summer is finally making her grand entrance & I for one am rather pleased!  The last couple of months have been a rollercoaster of rain, sunshine & hailstorms, giving us all wardrobe issues (you go out in the morning dressed for freezing rain & by lunchtime it’s sweltering sunshine!).  It’s May Bank Holiday weekend & although it’s probably not shorts & scanty vest weather just yet, hopefully it will be soon (fingers crossed though, this is the UK remember).

May always evokes fond memories of when I was a young girl, running around the lawn barefoot in the warm sunshine, the scent of tiny pink Dianthus filling the air & lovely long Lupins, standing tall in the flowerbeds with their umbrella-like leaves.  The anticipation of indulging in various delectable delicacies was always exciting, as I could hear the faint clinking of china cups & saucers, as plates were piled high with treats & loaded onto the table, one after another.  My Mum would spend all morning baking up a storm in the kitchen & filling the house with the heady perfume of pastries & cakes!  It was bliss!

All my friends know that I absolutely love making afternoon tea & on one occasion, I made cupcake shoes for my guests to take home.  Afternoon tea should be a lavish affair – all those miniature, elegantly decorated cakes, plump sumptuous sultanas embedded in fluffy scones, fragrant ripe fruit & berries perched on pastry cups & delicious dainty sandwiches, crustless with cream cheese & cucumber.   Of course, there’s the endless cups of Earl Grey tea, with wafer thin lemon slices floating like lilypads on the surface, sometimes accompanied by a flute of fizz (or two, because there’s no such thing as leftover fizz – it’s a myth, like leftover chocolate).

Because scones are synonymous with afternoon tea treats, I wanted to share a really easy scone recipe with you.  They take very little effort to make & always look rather impressive.  If you’re going to put dried sultanas in them, I suggest you soak them first to plump them up – nobody likes shrivelled sultanas in their scone, they’re just chewy & not very squishy!  Put a large handful of dried fruit in a large mug or a bowl with a tea bag (try Chai tea) & cover in warm, boiled water (let the kettle cool for a couple of minutes first).  Give it a stir, put a plate on top & leave it for an hour or two (overnight if you can) & then drain to reveal sumptuous, squishy sultanas!   Aprons on, hands washed & here we go!

What you need (makes about 12 scones):

8oz Strong Bread Flour (plus extra for rolling out)
4 teaspoons Baking Powder
1 large Egg
100ml Semi-Skimmed Milk (approx)
2oz Butter (or Stork or Sunflower Spread) – room temperature is best
1oz Sugar
2oz Sultanas (optional – if you don’t like them, just leave them out)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C & prepare your tins – simply line a couple of baking trays with greaseproof paper (which means no washing up, always a bonus!).

Into a large mixing bowl, sieve the flour & baking powder, then add the sugar & stir everything together.

Cut the butter into pieces & add to the dry ingredients in the bowl.  Using your fingertips, rub everything in together to form a fine, crumbly mixture (a bit like fine breadcrumbs).

If you are adding fruit, strain your sultanas & add them to the mixture, stirring well to combine.  Remember, these will add moisture to your mixture.

Crack the egg into a measuring jug & top up to a quarter of a pint with semi-skimmed milk, then beat together.

Pour most of the egg & milk into the mixture, keeping some back for brushing on top of your scones.

Mix everything together with a fork, until all the ingredients have formed a slightly sticky ball of dough.

Lightly dust your worktop with some flour & tip the dough out.  I like to knead mine gently for a moment, just to make sure everything is mixed in.

Roll out on the worktop (dust on top with a little flour if you need it) & get it to about a quarter of an inch in thickness.

Using a pastry or cookie cutter, cut into circles or shapes & place each one on the baking tray, leaving a couple of inches between each.  Repeat until you have used all the dough – any leftover bits can be gently rolled into a ball in your hands & pressed onto the baking tray.  We don’t waste anything & this one can be your taste test scone (Chef’s perks).

Using a pastry brush, lightly dip in the egg & milk you saved from earlier, then brush each scone on the top to glaze.  Don’t brush the sides, because it will stop them from rising properly.

Let them rest for five minutes – your scones will start to grow & rise slightly.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 10 minutes, until risen & the tops have turned a gorgeous golden colour.

When cooked, remove from the tray & leave to cool on a cooling rack for a few minutes.

Once cooled, simply stack them on a huge plate, ready to be smothered with strawberry slices, juicy fruit-filled jam & splodges of cream (whipped or clotted cream is fine, whatever you like!).  They also taste fabulous eaten slightly warm, sliced in two & spread with a bit of softened butter, which melts into the scone beautifully.  Any spares can be stored in an airtight container (they will keep for a couple of days, but freshly baked on the day is always best).

If you’re doing them without fruit, why not add a few chopped nuts instead?   Of course, everyone likes scones their own way – my Son prefers plain or walnut scones (actually, he makes the best walnut scones!).

Treat yourself & a few friends to your own afternoon tea, while relaxing (hopefully) in the garden.  However you do it, afternoon tea should be frivolous, fabulous & fun!   Stay hungry 😉   A x

Love Love Love!

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/beetroot-to-yourself/

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

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

What you need:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

 

Bling up the Bananas!

Bananas – love them or loathe them, they are one of the most versatile foods & make some of the best tasting treats.  Now I don’t usually get all fired up about fruit, but they’re getting a bit of press recently & it’s not good – apparently, people are throwing away millions of pounds worth of bananas a year because they’re a bit blemished, bruised & generally not very beautiful!  So don’t throw them away – show the banana some love!

As with most things, it’s what’s on the inside that counts & for me, bananas are pure gold.  Growing up, my Mum loved banana sandwiches (I really didn’t!) & she would put bananas in smoothies, pancakes & a plethora of puddings, just to get me to eat them.  Beautiful banana splits were piled high with vanilla ice cream, squished strawberries, a swirl of cream smothered in chocolate curls, soft fragments of fudge & a handful of the original 1970s dessert topping: hundreds & thousands!  It took minutes to make & seconds to demolish.

When my son was a baby, I mashed bananas with other soft fruits for an easy but healthy dessert – in fact, I would purée all kinds of foods for him when he was weaning & freeze it in small batches, so I always had a supply of mini meals for my mini me (he’s very tall now & makes me look dinky!).  Jars were great, but it was cheaper & easier to make my own, plus I knew exactly what was in them.  As he got older, I would blitz a banana in a blender with some Greek yoghurt, a bit of honey, a splash of milk & a few strawberries or blueberries (or both).  Less than a minute later, smoothies for breakfast & minimal washing up (always a bonus!).

And then came the delightful discovery of the chocolate banana loaf & it’s one my family’s favourite treats.  Use really over-ripened bananas here – as bruised & blotchy as you can get – check out the reduced section of your local shop & if you have a few leftover, just freeze them.  My tip is to double the mixture & make two – they tend to evaporate rapidly!

What you need:

2 medium-large very ripe bananas
4oz light Muscovado sugar
5oz self-raising flour
2oz softened butter, plus a little extra for greasing the tin
1 large egg
A tip of a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda (just a tiny bit)
A few drops of Vanilla extract
3 tablespoons semi-skimmed milk
50g walnut pieces
100g plain chocolate chunks (smash up a bar of chocolate)

What to do:

Heat the oven to 180*C & prepare your loaf tin (standard size) – brush the inside with melted butter, then line with greaseproof paper.

Put all the ingredients in a big mixing bowl, except for the walnuts & chocolate.  Mash them up together until squishy & lumpy – you want it to be combined, but not purée.

Add the chocolate chunks & walnut pieces, stirring gently to evenly distribute them in the mixture.  Add the milk a little at a time until it’s a bit looser – more like a thick, natural yoghurt consistency (but with nuts & chocolate in!).

Pour it all into your prepared loaf tin (use a spatula to make sure you get all the mixture out of the bowl) & bake in the centre of the oven on a baking tray for approximately 45 minutes.  Use a skewer to test if it’s cooked – poke it in the middle (the thickest part) of the loaf & if it comes out clean, then it’s ready.  If not, give it another five minutes & check again.  Once cooked, leave it in the tin on a cooling rack for five minutes, before gently easing the loaf out onto the rack.  Carefully remove the greaseproof paper from the edges & leave to cool completely (about half an hour or so).

All that’s left to do is indulge in a thick slice with a cuppa – it’s moist, chocolatey & comforting, plus it makes a great addition for afternoon tea.   Store the rest in an airtight container or freeze a few slices for when you fancy a treat.  I really want to say this keeps well, but it never lasts very long in our house!

So get baking & bling up those bin-bound bananas!  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