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 210*C for about 15 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 210*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!  Stay hungry!  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 delicious pie, 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!

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.  Hands washed, aprons on!

What you need:

12oz Self-Raising Flour (plus extra for rolling)
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
Optional: 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)

3 – 4 regular sized apples, washed, peeled, cored & thinly sliced
Large handful of blackberries, washed & drained well
2 tablespoons Vanilla Sugar (for the filling)
2 tablespoons of Milk for brushing on top
Half a teaspoon 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!   There are a number of ways to eat this delicious pie, but simple is always best – serve warm with a scoop of soft vanilla ice-cream.

So next time you have an abundance of blackberries, forget the crumble & pack them in a pie!  Stay hungry! 😉  Aimee 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 (I actually weigh my eggs – you need them to be the same size, about 2.3 – 2.4oz each)

* 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 or dry spaghetti 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!  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!  Ready to bake it happen?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

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 & while it’s still warm, run a knife around the edge of your oaty bake.  Leave the whole thing to cool for about five minutes (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 again 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!  Stay hungry!  Aimee 😉 x

 

 

 

 

 

Grate Expectations

Apparently, so my sources tell me, Italian Cheese Week is being celebrated from 15-22 June 2017 (like I need an excuse!).  So, in honour of all things cheesy, I decided to share a couple of really easy recipes for you that I’ve picked up over the years.

There are a few things I like to have a good stock of & cheese is one of them.  As with my pasta shelf, I also have a cheese shelf in the fridge (yes, really).  Grana Padana, Gorgonzola (preferably Dolce, but I don’t mind a bit of Picante), Mozzarella, Mascarpone, Ricotta, Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan) & usually a bit of mild Cheddar all live happily together (albeit in diminished quantities by the end of the week).  And there’s always at least one tub of proper, full-fat cream cheese too.   As you all know, cream cheese goes with pretty much anything – mix with a splodge of pesto to make a creamy pasta sauce or, if you’re feeling naughty, it’s really nice spread thickly on a digestive biscuit with a dollop of raspberry jam on top (don’t judge me, try it – it’s addictive though!).  Recently, I’ve been a bit unhappy with my usual brand of creamy cheesiness – because according to it’s list of ingredients, it’s more fillers than actual cheese (locust bean gum anyone? No, didn’t think so) & therefore I have switched to another brand.  It always pays to read the back of a packet, because if like me you want a pure product for a specific recipe, you need to know that’s what you’re getting.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been making my own Ricotta cheese – thanks to the lovely Gennaro Contaldo’s recipe in “Gennaro’s Italian Year” (which was given to me by my guys & like them, it is very much loved!).  Now before you all start going “ooh!  that must be really difficult!”, it’s not.  All you need is a few pints of milk, some fresh lemon juice & a big saucepan (I use my pasta pan, which is pretty huge).  It takes a few minutes to bring the milk to the boil, then just take it off the heat for roughly 30 seconds before repeating the process a couple of times.  Finally, put it back on the heat & squeeze in the lemon juice, bring it back up to the boil & turn it off.   Then give it a stir – it will separate into curds (the cheese) & whey (the cloudy looking liquid). Tip it into a sieve & leave it to stand over bowl, so that the liquid drains away & as if by magic, you are left with a lovely soft cheese.  While that’s cooling, I’ll whizz up some wilted spinach in the food processor with a few pine nuts (untoasted), a little lemon zest, a spoonful of my favourite full-fat cream cheese (just because I like it) & a shake of sea salt & black pepper.  It’s then mashed up with the ricotta, before I pop the lot into a piping bag, ready to fill my favourite ravioli!

Sometimes (quite often), I will have a little leftover pasta & the lovely cheesy mixture, so I like to ladle some of my homemade tomato sauce into individual dishes, then layer up the lasagne sheets with alternating fillings of piped cheese & tomato sauce.

Adorn the top layer with a few ripped pieces of Mozzarella, a grating of Parmesan & a pinch of Oregano, then bake for 15-20 minutes at 200*C until everything is bubbling up around the edges & the cheese is crispy & golden on top.  They make a tasty simple starter or a light lunch, served with a gorgeous green salad.

And now, my pièce de résistance: cheese biscuits.  These are probably one of the easiest things to make – you just chuck everything in a bowl & squish it together.  It’s great for using up all those random leftover bits of cheese that seem to congregate at the back of the fridge.  Want to get cheesy?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

8oz grated mixed cheese, at room temperature (I use 80% medium Cheddar, then 10% each of grated Parmesan & Grana Padana, depending on what I’ve got in the fridge)
8oz plain flour
8oz salted butter, at room temperature
Half a teaspoon sea salt
Half a teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Half a teaspoon English mustard (the pre-made type, not the powder)
Quarter of a teaspoon of cayenne
Optional:  a teaspoon of fennel or poppy seeds

How to do it:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C & line a couple of trays with sheets of greaseproof paper (unless you want to do lots of washing up later, lining your trays this way will mean that you simply lift the paper out after cooking & transfer to a cooling rack, leaving clean trays – you’re welcome!).

Mix the cheese & butter together in a bowl with the mustard – use a spatula or the back of a wooden spoon to make it into a smooth type of thick paste.

Mix the dry ingredients together & slowly add to the cheese & butter, stirring well to form a soft, pliable cheesy dough.

On a lightly floured work surface, take a third of the dough & carefully roll it out to about half a centimetre thick.  Using a palette knife, slide this under the rolled out dough to ensure it is not stuck to the worktop & add a little more flour underneath, if need be.

Cut into shapes – either use small cookie cutters or slice into finger length strips, just create whatever you like!  Lift them onto the lined baking trays, leaving about an inch gap all around (they will not grow too much) & then repeat the above, until you have used up all the dough.

No cutters?  No problem!  Roll your dough into a sausage shape, about an inch or so around & then wrap in cling film, twirling the ends tightly like a big sweet wrapper (cut the biscuit sausage down into 2 or 3 sections if it’s too big).  Pop them in the fridge for 10 minutes to firm up, then use a piece of cotton to cut them up into equal slices!  You can also freeze these for future snack emergencies too (trust me, it happens).

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 10-12 minutes, until they are lightly golden, then transfer to a cooling rack & remove from the greaseproof paper.

Once cooled, either eat them as they are, top with various cheeses as a snack, or make into canapes to go with pre-dinner drinks!  These crisp little bites of melt-in-the-mouth moreishness have just the right amount of kick too – the heat sneaks up on your tongue, so be warned!

Here’s to a “grate” week of cheesy delights!  Stay hungry 😉  Aimee x

 

 

 

A Bird in the Hand is Worth Ten in a Dish

If I had to count how many single portion meals I can get from one fresh chicken, I would have to say at least ten – yes, you read that correctly: ten!  That’s ten individual meals from one regular sized chicken.  I’m not Merlin the Magician, I’m just a mere mortal woman who insists on getting value for money & doesn’t like waste.

We’ve all done it – shopping tired, hungry, after work or at the last minute, so you buy pre-prepared chicken portions to cook for dinner.   Not only is it ridiculously more expensive (think of the wine you could buy!), but learning to do it yourself is a great skill to have & it’s very satisfying knowing that you’ve got meals in the freezer for when you can’t be bothered to cook.

This is how I bone & fillet a chicken – I’m self-taught, it’s just me in the kitchen at home & this is the way I do it.  If you’re squeamish, please skip the next couple of paragraphs (I understand).

Before I begin, I usually give my husband a beer & hustle him off into the lounge (because he doesn’t like to watch, bless him).  Then I get to work!  If you prefer, you can ask your Butcher to do this for you.  I am in no way expecting anyone to follow my lead here, but if you wish to try, you will need the following equipment for this stage.  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

1 sharp boning knife
1 pair of good strong kitchen scissors
A chopping board (only use for cutting raw meat on)
A tea towel or cloth

What to do:

Firstly, wash your hands thoroughly & dry them (wet hands & sharp knives don’t mix!).

Find a space in the kitchen to work, with enough “elbow room” so you can move about comfortably.  This sounds obvious, but halfway through prepping your chicken you don’t want to have to shift everything because you keep banging your head on a cupboard.

Run the cloth/tea-towel under the cold tap, wring it out well so it’s slightly damp.  Place it on the worktop & then put the board flat on top.  This will help to stop it sliding around when you’re preparing your chicken.

Remove the chicken from it’s packaging, cut off the string & place the bird on the board.  If you’ve got a plastic tray in your chicken wrapping, wash in hot soapy water & put it in the recycling bin.

Hold the chicken in both hands, breast side up, with it’s legs in the palms of your hands & firmly push them outwards, away from the breast – you will feel them pop out easily.

Carefully slide the boning knife between the socket & joint, then cut all the way through to the other side, removing the legs from the body – I use scissors to cut the skin between them & the body because it’s easier, especially with a larger chicken (please use proper kitchen scissors for this).

Once that’s done, carefully peel the skin back from the chicken crown (leaving it attached to the carcass) & feel where the breastbone is – this runs across the top of the chicken.

Carefully, slide the knife as closely to the bone as you can & using firm strokes away from you, cut the meat away from the breastbone & rib cage (these are quite bendy towards the tips, so watch your fingers).  Take your time, there’s no rush & go at your own pace.  Once done on both sides, the bones should be pretty much clean & all that’s left is a thin membrane with the ribs intact (check each piece of meat to ensure no bones escaped).  

Place the legs & breast meat on a plate, then put the carcass in a roasting tin.  Sometimes, I like to do this in the morning & save time at night, so I will put the portions in double freezer bags & stash in the bottom of the fridge until dinner time (raw meat should always be kept on the bottom shelf).

A few minutes of filleting done & you have a plate of prepped chicken portions, plus a carcass to make a fuss-free stock!  Homemade chicken stock is simply beautiful & a staple base ingredient for soups, risotto, gravy, sauces & all kinds of lovely meals, so it’s always handy to have in the freezer.  Making stock is really easy & this is my simple way to do it – I make mine in the oven, not on the stove (because who has the time).  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

2-3 sticks of Celery & a couple of the inner leafy stems
2-3 large Carrots
1 medium Onion & 1 small
2-3 sprigs fresh Rosemary
Handful of fresh Thyme
8-12 leaves fresh Sage
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper
Olive Oil
2-3 pints cold Water (depending on the size of your chicken/tin)

What to do:

Firstly, put the chicken carcass into the centre of a deep roasting tin.  This needs to be bout 4 inches deep, as you’re going to put liquid in & want it to be contained well.

Next, prepare your vegetables.  Wash the celery & carrots (you don’t want any bits of dirt, grit or bugs in there).

Peel any dirty outer leaves from the onion & cut the larger onion into quarters, placing in each corner of the tin around the carcass.

Chop the celery & carrots into quarters, then chuck them around the edges of the tin too.  Cut one of the pieces of carrot into slender sticks & save these for the next stage.

Peel back the skin from the chicken & cram with a handful of the fresh herbs, along with some leafy stems of celery, the smaller onion (cut in half first) & the carrot sticks you saved, pulling the skin back over the top of the chicken to hold it all in.

Drizzle the carcass with a good glug of olive oil, add a sprinkling of sea salt & few grinds of black pepper, then carefully pour the cold water around the tin (leave at least an inch between the top of the water to the top of the tin).

Once that’s done, just chuck it in the oven for a couple of hours & when ready, sit the tin on a wire rack for a few minutes to cool slightly. 

Get yourself a large metal colander & place over a deep pan that covers all the little holes (I use my pasta pan for this) & tip in the carcass, veg & stock to strain through.  I usually strain it again through a fine sieve to remove any sediment & that’s the stock done!  It will keep in the fridge for a couple of days or you can freeze it. 

To remove the layer of fat that will rise to the top of the stock, simply pop your pot of stock in the fridge for an hour.  Once it’s cooled, it will become a flat fat block & much easier to lift out with a slotted spoon or spatula (don’t mess around trying to spoon it off while it’s still liquid, or you’ll just stir it back in & get frustrated).  Again, you can freeze these fat blocks – slip them into separate freezer bags, ready to infuse flavour & seasoning in future roasting (especially good for making crispy & flavoursome roasted potatoes or vegetables!).  

That fabulously fragrant, golden stock will make a generous risotto for four people, or two portions of risotto & at least another four generous portions  of beautiful arancini balls the day after (arancini literally translates as “little oranges”).  The legs make a perfect Pollo alla Cacciatore for two people (I’ve included links for my recipes at the end), or they can simply be roasted in the oven with some wedges of lemon, a drizzle of honey & some sprigs of fresh herbs.

Then there are the very versatile chicken breasts – these are almost double the size of the ones you get in those pre-prepared packs! Usually, I can make four kievs per chicken (coating them in homemade breadcrumbs from leftover crusts), or use each breast to make a meal for two people – pie, curry, sweet & sour, whatever I like!  Plus, if someone is feeling a bit under the weather, I make a couple of bowlfuls of homemade soup using the vegetables that roasted with the carcass & a little diluted stock (which is why I always wash the veg before roasting).  It’s a great “pick me up”, especially when you have a few slices of warm, buttered bread to dunk in it too.

Let’s not forget the meat on the underside of the carcass & the wings – I strip this tender, lean chicken for our beautiful cat, who does a great Dyson impression & vacuums it from her plate!

If I can make more than ten meals from one chicken, anyone can – all it takes is a bit of practise & imagination, all for the princely sum of one lovely, whole chicken.   Where else can you get ten decent sized servings for about a fiver?

So show the chicken some respect: use the whole bird, fill your family & save yourself some money too!  Stay hungry!  Aimee 😉 x

PS:  here are the recipe links for Pollo alla Cacciatore & Risotto (including Arancini):

http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/pollo-put-the-cacciatore-on-lets-all-have-tea/

http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/resplendent-risotto-the-itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-tiny-little-arancini/

 

 

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.  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!  If you don’t have a pasta machine, don’t worry – a good solid rolling pin is just fine & a little elbow grease (your arms will be firmer after a few pasta making sessions too, bonus!).  Ready to get stuck in?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

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).

Forget pudding semolina in those tiny boxes, have a look in your local shops & markets for the proper semolina flour.  I tend to buy a bag each of coarse & fine semolina – coarse is great for sprinkling on trays before baking grissini, freestyle bread shapes or pizzas (it’s also good for crisping up your roasted potatoes).

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!  If you do save some, remember to store in the fridge because it’s got fresh egg in it.

While that’s chilling out (I hear you groaning at my jokes), here’s a fast filling that I love – ricotta & spinach.  You can make your own ricotta, I do it & it’s really easy, but we don’t all have the time so grab a regular sized pot (about 250g) from your deli for this.

Wilt a couple of generous handfuls of fresh, washed spinach in a dry frying pan or skillet.  Don’t have the heat too high though, you want to wilt it not fry it.  The spinach will shrivel up into silky emerald coloured swirls.  Put this in a blender with the ricotta & give it a good whizz around.  If it’s not firm enough, add a grating of Parmesan.   Put in the fridge until your pasta is ready.

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 (or even a small cookie 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!

Speaking of sauce, usually I make my family recipe tomato sauce for this, but sometimes there’s a bag of salad that needs using up – perfect for homemade pesto.  Try blitzing a couple of generous handfuls of fresh washed rocket, basil & spinach in a blender (I’ve used all sorts of leafy greens & lovely veggies from the fridge for this over the years).  Add a good drizzle of olive oil, a few pine nuts (almonds or walnuts are good substitutes) & about an ounce of grated hard Italian cheese – I use either Parmesan or Grana Padana (sometimes a mixture of both), but it’s down to your personal taste here.  You don’t need any salt – Parmesan will add that flavour.  Add a little of the pasta water to thin it out a bit & spoon over your handmade ravioli!

If you’re like me & make pasta very often, 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.  Take it out of the box, have a play with it before you buy it.

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 too!).

These plump little pasta parcels are perfect for meat-free Mondays, or mid-week suppers with friends!  Why not get everyone involved & make it a family event!  Stay hungry!  😉 Aimee 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 a very tall grown man 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!  Ready to bake it happen?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

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!  Stay hungry!  A 😉 x

 

 

A Pizza Cake

Fridays are fabulous for many reasons: it’s the Preekend (as it’s fondly known here), 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, I make the sauce & we catch up on each other’s news & gossip. Hands washed, aprons on & here’s how to make your own!

What you need for the dough:

12g fresh yeast or equivalent dry yeast – Allinson’s is good (read the packet directions for amounts)
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)
1 tablespoon of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (optional)
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 & olive oil, 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!  Stay hungry! Aimee 😉 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