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

 

 

 

La vita non e’fatta di solo pane (you cannot live on bread alone), but you can bake it!

During my extreme shopping trip today (which is where I hit three supermarkets before 10.00am like some sort of ninja with a trolley), a couple of people asked me about baking bread & how come it’s so hard/messy/time-consuming (you get the picture).   My reply:  it’s not (well, it’s not the way I do it).

Firstly, I don’t possess a bread making machine (save your money – buy a pasta machine instead).  I make all my bread by hand – I’m not built like a brick shed with muscles & you don’t need to be either.   Baking bread is like creating some sort of magic in the kitchen!  There really is nothing quite like that heady, warm scent of a freshly baked loaf – especially if you’ve made it yourself.  Both my Husband & Son bake bread – I taught my Son this recipe when he was at junior school (which he proudly told his teacher was better than her packet bread mix & refused to make it – she wasn’t impressed!).

Now I’m not disputing that there are some beautiful artisan breads out there which take time, effort & years of experience, but if you just want some good, basic bread to feed your family, then this is for you.   It’s cheap, really easy & you get a free mini workout with every batch (“Yay – free stuff!” I hear you say).   So, let the floury fun commence!  Hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

12g fresh Yeast (or the equivalent of dried)
500g Strong Bread Flour (plus a bit extra for dusting your worktop)
330ml (approx just over half a pint) lukewarm water (stick your finger in it & it should be the same temperature)
Half a teaspoon of ground Sea Salt
A little Olive/Sunflower Oil or melted Butter – to brush around the inside of your loaf tins
2 loaf tins (standard size) – you can do it free-form too, just dust a baking tray with a little flour
Cling film

Optional ingredients:

2 tablespoons Olive/Sunflower Oil – this is down to individual taste, but I personally prefer Olive Oil
Seeds/herbs/dried fruit – you can put whatever you like in (my favourite is to mix a teaspoonful of poppy, linseed, sesame & pumpkin seeds together or add a tablespoon each of tea-soaked Sultanas, chopped Amareno Cherries, Stem Ginger & a little orange zest)

How to do it:

Dissolve the yeast in the water, which should go a light muddy colour (give it a good stir with a fork).

Put the flour & sea salt in a large mixing bowl, slowly pour in the yeast water (add the oil at this stage, if using) & stir into the flour until it forms a dough ball & the bowl is clean.  Sprinkle a little flour in the bottom of the bowl & set aside for later.

Dust some flour on a clean worktop, place the dough on it & start kneading – here’s your free mini workout!  Kneading is simply stretching the dough, making the gluten in the flour flexible & will make your bread rise well.  Give it ten minutes, firmly pushing the dough away from you with the heel of your hand, then pulling it back on itself. Once kneaded, it should feel more elastic, so just put it in the floured bowl, brush a bit of oil on some clingfilm & put this on top of the bowl (oiled side down), making sure there are no gaps.  Put it on a tray in the airing cupboard or a warm place, where there are no draughts & leave it for about half an hour.  This is called proving the dough.

Heat your oven to 220*C.  Brush the inside of your tins with a little oil & place on a baking tray.

Take the now risen dough from the airing cupboard (put the oiled cling film to one side) & put onto a floured worktop.  To knock out any large air bubbles, I like to throw it on the worktop a couple of times, knead it for a few seconds, then split it into two equal balls.  If you’re putting seeds/fruit/etc in, gently stretch it with your hands into a rectangle, sprinkle some seeds on a third, fold it over, sprinkle some more, fold it again, then sprinkle the rest.  Fold it gently again to distribute the seeds/fruit in the dough, shape it to fit your loaf tin & pop it in.  Repeat with the other dough ball.  Cover with the oiled clingfilm & leave for a further half hour to prove again.

Now you’re ready to bake!  Remove the clingfilm from the tins – the dough will have risen again & is ready to go into the oven.  Put the tray in the middle of the oven & bake for about half an hour.

Once done, it will be golden & risen above the tins, so just tip out onto a wire rack to cool.  To test if it’s cooked, give your loaf a tap on the bottom – it will sound hollow if it’s ready. Resist the urge to eat it before it’s cooled a bit!

Once cooled, slice it, spread it, dunk it & dip it! Whatever you do, share & enjoy it.   

As the old Italian saying goes “La vita non e’fatta di solo pane” (“You cannot live on bread alone”) – but you can bake it!   Stay hungry!  😉 A x

Simple Roasted Potatoes

Actually, “simple” doesn’t really do these potatoes justice.  Believe me, I spent hours trying to make the perfect roasted potatoes.  I’ve par-boiled them, used all kinds of different oils, fats, different varieties of potato, followed all the recipes I could & still ended up with what can only be described as cremated (but somehow still raw) missiles that you could injure yourself with!   So one day, I decided I was going to do it my way & it worked – crispy on the outside, fluffy in the middle & really easy to do.

For roasting potatoes, you need to invest in a heavy-duty baking tin for the oven & the more you use it, the better it gets.  Before using them, I like to season my tins – which is basically heating them up with a little oil in, wiping it off with kitchen paper & repeating a couple of times. Please don’t put them in the dishwasher – rinse them with hot water, dry well with kitchen paper & put them away.

What you need:

Some washed & dried Baby Potatoes, skin on (I use about a kilo to feed 4 people, so just add more if you have more guests)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Sea Salt
Black Pepper
Some chopped fresh Rosemary – optional (just strip the leaves from a sprig & chop finely)

What to do:

Heat the oven to 220*C.  On a chopping board, cut the potatoes in half lengthways.  If you want to give them a bit more texture, cut little slices in the curved top all the way along (hasselback style) to almost halfway through – don’t go all the way though, otherwise you’ll just have thin slices of potato!

Spread some olive oil on a baking tin, put the potato halves in curved side down & then drizzle more olive oil on the top, give them a good sprinkle of the sea salt & pepper.  If you want to add some rosemary, sprinkle some of that too.  Get your hands in, toss the potatoes in the oil & seasonings, making sure they are well coated & that they are all returned to their curved side down position.

Put them in the top part of the oven, for about 15 minutes until they are sizzling & golden.  If they have stuck a bit, just use a spatula or tongs (nothing metal though or you’ll damage your tray) & ease them away from the tin.  At this point, turn them over carefully & return to the oven for about 10 minutes or so until crispy.

Remove them from the tin & serve – if you want to, you can always pop them on some kitchen paper to remove any excess oil, but I find a good shake does a pretty good job & it’s not lard, so you’ll be fine.

They tend to evaporate pretty quickly in my house (which is why there’s no picture at the moment), so I suggest keeping a few back for you!  These go with everything from roast dinners to salmon fillets.

Enjoy!  Stay hungry! 😉 A x

 

My Easy Roast Chicken

One of my favourite Sunday dinners is roast chicken, slowly cooked in the oven, filling the house with that unmistakable perfume & filling everyone with anticipation of eating it later!  The one thing you can’t do is rush this – it is meant to be cooked leisurely, without any fuss or faffing about.  You don’t need to baste it, you don’t need to do anything other than stick it in the oven & forget about it for a couple of hours or so.  The best thing is you make fresh stock at the same time, without any stock cubes or boiling any bones or carcass in a pan, which you would have to watch & keep checking.  Plus it’s great for using up any veg you have forgotten about in the bottom of your fridge (we all do it & I really hate throwing anything away, so now you don’t have to).

Once you learn how to do this, your Sundays will be so easy that all you need to do is relax & enjoy your day.

One thing I will recommend is that you invest in some decent roasting tins – forget the non-stick ones (I learned the hard way that no matter how expensive they are or fabulous the guarantee is, that stuff eventually comes off on your food & spoils it).  Save yourself some hassle & invest in some plain stainless steel ones.

You will need:

1 fresh chicken, without giblets (approx size 1.2kg – 1.5kg)
2-3 medium/large carrots
2-3 sticks of celery & a couple of the inner ones with leaves on top
1 large onion or 2 smaller/medium onions (I prefer red ones)
Fresh herbs – my favourites are a good handful of Thyme, a couple of sprigs of Rosemary & a few Sage leaves
Sea salt & black pepper
A good glug of olive oil

What you do:

Heat the oven to 200*C.  Clean & chop the carrots & celery into 3 inch long pieces, cutting the carrots in half again lengthwise, then arrange them around the chicken.  Cut the onion into half (leave the skin on), or quarters if it’s a large one, putting the pieces in the corners of the tin.

Take the chicken out of it’s packet, cut off the elastic & pop the legs out of their sockets before putting it in the roasting tin in the middle of the veg.  Yes, I know it sounds a bit odd, but by doing this to the legs you allow the chicken to cook evenly & thoroughly.  To do this, hold the chicken in both hands with it’s legs in the palms of your hands & firmly push them back – you will feel them pop out easily.

Then you need to fill the cavity of the chicken – again, this helps the chicken cook evenly & it also flavours it nicely too.  Put together the inner celery sticks with the leaves on, a couple of carrot sticks, a good handful of the thyme, the sprigs of rosemary & about 3-4 of the larger sage leaves.  Put them inside the chicken cavity & then wash your hands well.

Pour about two & a half pints of cold water around the edge of the chicken – be careful not to splash yourself, then drizzle some olive oil over the chicken & it’s legs, sprinkle a good teaspoonful of ground sea salt & black pepper over the top.   Rip up the rest of the sage leaves, along with any bits of thyme & rosemary that fell off, then sprinkle them around the chicken in the water.

The last part is to make a foil dome to go over the top – as the moisture heats up, the steam hits the top of the foil & drips onto the chicken – this is what does the basting for you, so you don’t have to!   I usually lay a couple of equal sized foil strips on top of each other, with the dull sides on the inside (the side that goes next to the chicken), then fold the top over about a centimetre all the way along.  Do this a couple of times, then mash them together well to make sure they don’t come undone in the oven.  Put over the tin, making sure it forms a dome over the top & doesn’t touch the chicken, then press firmly around the edges of the tin so that none of that lovely stock can escape.

Put it in the lower part of the oven & leave it there for at least two & a half hours – you don’t need to be too precise here, but if it’s a larger chicken than the size I have mentioned, I just add another half hour on.

Once it’s cooked, take the chicken out of the oven to check it’s cooked.  Take a metal skewer or a small sharp knife, poke it into the thicker part of the chicken & if the juices run clear, then it’s cooked.  If you want the skin to be a bit more crispy, take the foil off & give it another five minutes in the oven.

Take the tin out of the oven & stand on a cooling rack (tip: if you have a grill tray with a wire rack in it, just use that).  Make sure that the foil is sealed around the tin to keep the juices/heat in & let it rest for at least half an hour.  By resting the chicken, the meat relaxes nicely & it also gives you plenty of time to cook your side dishes.   Usually, I turn up the oven & pop some potatoes in to roast while I prepare some vegetables to steam (or just chuck a salad in a bowl).

Once your sides are all done, the chicken will be ready for serving.  The meat will come off the bones very easily, so you don’t really need to carve it.

So, what to do with all that lovely stock?  Leave it until after dinner, so it’s cooled a bit (stealing some to make gravy first though).  Get a big saucepan, put a colander in the top (get yourself a metal one preferably) & carefully tip the contents of the tin into the colander slowly.  The stock will drain into the saucepan below & you can use it for making gravy, soups or risotto (my favourite use!).  It freezes well too & not a salty stock cube in sight!

Here’s a couple of pics to inspire you – “before” & “after”.

I hope your family enjoy it as much as mine do!

A x

 

Hello world!

Hi there!  This blog is the result of my obsession with making real food & my family constantly being asked “hope you’re hungry!” every time I make a meal.  Cooking is not some kind of kitchen alchemy, it’s achievable with a bit of planning (I’m not talking military manoeuvres either!).

After working in a professional office career for years, I still managed to cook from scratch & hated the idea of people coming home to a packet meal, defrosting something & zapping it in a microwave.   So, I decided to share my passion and hopefully inspire other people to try creating dishes in their own homes.

I’m a home cook, self-taught & not chef-y – I live with guys, so there’s no room for fancy frills, just proper food that tastes good.   It doesn’t need to be complicated or time-consuming.

Food is not just sustenance or nutrition, it’s a chance to sit down with your family & friends, talk to each other, eat a good meal that you’ve prepared & have fun!

A 🙂 x