Kick Start Your Tarts!

Here we are in the middle of a perfect July & let’s face it, Summer has been a long time coming!  Due to the magnificent mini-heatwave we’re having, all the pretty pots of plants are sprouting with lots of lovely flowers & fruit.  Sitting on the patio having coffee early in the morning is one of the best feelings, just relaxing & starting the day with a little sunshine.

Although I love rich, comforting food as much as anyone, it’s time to lighten up & let loose with the luscious array of amazing produce available to us right now.  One of the best things about Summertime is that we have a rainbow of fabulous fruits & vegetables coming into season, all ready to inspire us into cooking something fresh & exciting.  Bright berries & vivid vegetables to fill you with inner sunshine, giving you a well-deserved boost after being wrapped in woolly pullys for so long (that’s sweaters if you don’t know).

Food shopping is part of the anticipation of cooking & I shop like a butterfly, flitting from shelf to shelf, selecting colourful choices & deciding what to transform them into as I go (most people have a list, I have a recipe agenda in my head).  Thanks to the temptation of my local shops, I recently stocked up on some beautifully fragrant fruits & vegetables, perfect for pairing with pastry!  Forget those overloaded, soggy-bottomed, smudgy layered mouthfuls of the past (that’s where they should stay).  Savoury or sweet, tarts should be sumptuously satisfying & stuffed with just enough filling to keep you happy.

Now just to clarify, a fruit tart should be a fruit tart & not a hidden layer of custard or crème patissière under a pile of fruit!  I’m not a fan of custard & especially surprise custard!  As a child, I remember excitedly biting into a sweet, strawberry laden pastry, only to get a mouthful of cold custard (it didn’t end well).  An attentive boyfriend in my early 20s used to bring me a strawberry tart for our mid-morning coffee breaks & would always ensure they were custard-free, so I didn’t have to relive the horror.  Obviously, I make sure my own home-baked versions are definitely free of custard too.

This particular recipe is for a delectable apricot tart called Crostata di Albecocche, which is bursting with plump, peachy-blush tinted apricots.  Tinned apricots are beautiful too, but there’s something spectacular about the flavour of fresh ones!  They taste of Summer for me, all golden glorious sunshine wrapped in a soft velvet skin, delicately perched on a pastry blanket.  This tart is great as a tea-time treat or as a relaxed dinner party dessert, just add great company.    Ready to get baking?  Aprons on, hands washed!

What you need:

For the filling:
1 punnet of fresh Apricots
1 jar of Apricot Conserve or Jam (use a nice thick jam for this recipe)

For the pastry:
12oz Self-Raising Flour, plus extra for rolling out
4oz Vanilla Sugar (stick a vanilla pod in a jar of sugar & leave for a couple of hours or overnight, then you’ve got vanilla sugar)
4oz Salted Butter (plus a little extra melted for lining your tin)
2 large Eggs
Zest of an Unwaxed Orange & Lemon (optional, but very nice)
2 teaspoons of Ground Almonds
2 tablespoons Milk (for brushing pastry with)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C.

Prepare your tin.  You don’t need a fancy pie tin for this – I use a pizza tin, but you can use a loose bottomed one if you like.  Brush the inside & outer lip of the tin with melted butter (you can use your fingers for this too, whatever you find easiest).  Sprinkle with a little flour & shake it all around the tin, tipping out the excess onto your worktop.

At this point, you can always add a disc of greaseproof paper in the bottom (or criss-cross a couple of long strips of greaseproof paper & hang over the edges by a couple of inches).  I’ve baked this tart so many times over the years, both with & without greaseproof, so it’s up to you if you want to add this extra lining.

Sprinkle with the ground almonds & ensure the bottom of the tin is completely covered.

Now to make the pastry!  Into a large mixing bowl, add all the pastry ingredients together – the flour, eggs, sugar, butter & some zest.  Get your hands in & squish everything together to form a silky soft ball of pastry.

Dust the worktop & your rolling pin with a little flour (dust, not drench!), cut off two thirds of the pastry & roll out carefully, gently lifting & turning it then rolling again, until about half a centimetre thick & slightly bigger than your tin.  Dust more flour underneath as you go, so that it doesn’t stick.  If it’s too moist, roll it up & reshape, then start again.  Because the weather is warm, you might experience this – don’t worry, it will be fine (just go steady with the flour dusting, as you don’t want to use too much or it will alter the recipe & not in a good way!).

Lay the pastry carefully over your rolling pin & slide the tin underneath the pastry, laying it loosely onto the tin.  Push gently into the edges of the tin, being careful not to poke your fingers through.  Trim the edges off the pastry base & put back in the bowl (you’ll need these for decoration later).

Wash the apricots in cold water & gently pat dry.  Run a paring knife along the natural line around the middle of each fruit, then twist as you pull them apart (the riper the fruit, the easier this is).  The stone/pit will stick in one side, so just prise it out with your fingers & discard.  Continue until you have stoned all your fruit.

Cut each half apricot into half again, so you have apricot quarters & leave to one side.

Spread the jam gently all over the pastry case & then start adding your apricots in a pretty pattern, until the base is completely covered.

Now to decorate the top.  Take the leftover pastry & roll out into about half a centimetre thick.

Cut into strips about the same size – if you’ve got a pizza or ravioli cutter, use this & make life easier for yourself.

Take a pastry strip & pinch or twist it carefully, so you don’t break it, then lay it across the middle of the tart.  Brush the ends with a little milk & attach to the edge of the pastry base.

Do the rest of the strips in the same way, then do the same with more strips going over the top.

Gently brush a little milk on all the pastry edges & place on a baking tray in the centre of the oven for about 25 minutes, turning halfway through cooking.

Once the pastry has turned lightly golden & puffed up, the tart should be ready.

Remove from the oven & place the tin on a cooling rack to rest until thoroughly cooled (you don’t want to eat it hot, it will be like lava).

 

Once cooled, serve generous slices with a splodge of silky smooth cream – whether clotted, whipped, poured or iced, they all work well with this dessert (although clotted is my fave).

If there is any left, wrap in greaseproof paper & take it to work for a little treat the next day (probably best not to tell anyone at the office though, or it might evaporate).

This fabulous fruit-filled pastry can be made a few hours in advance & stored in the fridge on a serving plate until dinner (slide a pallet knife under & gently lift it out of the tin).  I can’t tell you if it freezes or not, because none has ever lasted that long, but I have frozen the pastry before & it always comes out perfectly.

So next time you see a punnet of peachy petite apricots, turn them into something special & kick start your tastebuds with this tasty apricot tart!  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pining For a Proper Pasta Pile Up!

Here we are in the middle of glorious Summer sunshine, bright blue skies & toasty temperatures!  When it’s hot like this, the last thing anyone wants is to be cooking some long-winded dish in a hot kitchen.  Salads are great, but when you’ve had a long day, a more substantial supper is required to hit the spot.  Pasta is probably the most loved food in our house (well, apart from cake obviously).  We indulge in this versatile staple several times a week (that’s not including leftover lunches).  If I’m not making it, I’m thinking about making it & what I can put in it or on it.  I’ve even got a dedicated pasta shelf in the pantry!  We don’t live in a vast mansion (it’s more like a doll’s house), so a few years ago we put the cupboard space under the stairs to better use than a home for the hoover!  It’s now fully stacked & packed with all our staples – pasta, tins & jars of various sweet & savoury delights to whip up a wonderful plateful at a moment’s notice.  Obviously, that’s where all my sugar paste lives, because it’s cool & out of the way (the marzipan lives here too, but don’t tell my Husband or I’ll have none left!).

A couple of years ago, our Son was working in Naples, Italy & staying in the rather picturesque Pozzuoli (he took the lovely pictures of the sea I’ve shared here).  During one of our daily chats, he sent me a picture of him cooking Spaghetti alla Carbonara (he has the cooking bug too).  I was so proud that he was cooking proper Italian food actually in Italy – especially when he reminded me of how I used to cook the same dish when he was young.  Over the years, I adjusted the recipe & used a variety of different pasta (spaghetti is still the best), but I had forgotten just how beautiful the original recipe is.  It also made me realise how much of an impact my cooking has had on our Son & his approach to food.  It’s kind of big when you think that the simplest of things, like preparing food for our children, is something they carry with them into adulthood.  Obviously, as soon as I put the phone down, I headed off to the kitchen to make a pile of pasta!

One of our favourite pasta dishes is “The One With The Pine Nuts” (as it is fondly known in our house).  It’s colourful, cheesy & quick to make – what’s not to love?!  It’s great for using up vegetables in your fridge that are starting to look a bit tired & all those little leftover bags of pasta in the pantry that everyone has.  If you don’t like bacon, you could leave it out altogether & maybe add courgette slices, or swap it for thin strips of chicken instead – it’s your choice.  This is one of those great last minute dishes too, so if you suddenly have a houseful you can feed everyone easily (I get 4 huge portions out of this).  Hungry?  Hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

Approx 250g dried Pasta (Fusilli, Farfalle, Penne, Conchiglie – whatever you like)
200g Gorgonzola Dolce
8-10 rashers of Bacon (smoked or unsmoked)
2 Peppers (I’ve used 1 red & 1 yellow, but use whichever you like)
1 Red Onion
1 bag Fresh Baby Spinach (about 4 huge handfuls), washed
100g Pine Nuts
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Sea Salt (for your pasta water)

What to do:

Firstly, we need to toast the pine nuts, so gently heat up a large skillet or frying pan & add the nuts to the dry pan.  On a low heat, keep moving the pine nuts around the pan so they don’t burn.

Once they have turned a golden colour, turn off the heat & tip into a bowl to cool – don’t be tempted to eat them at this stage!

Next, prep all your veggies!  Top & tail the red onion, deseed the peppers & chop everything into chunks (don’t worry about them being perfect, just get chopping).  Set aside.

Trim & cut the bacon into roughly one inch pieces, removing any fat (I like to use scissors for this, as it’s much easier than chasing a slippery bit of bacon around the chopping board!).

Heat a teaspoon of olive oil in the skillet, add the bacon pieces & stir fry on a medium/low heat.

While the bacon is cooking, get the kettle on & boil some water for your pasta (quicker than waiting for it to boil on the stove!).

Add roughly 1 teaspoon of sea salt to a large, deep saucepan, carefully pour in boiling water (about half way) & put on the heat until you get a rolling boil.

Add your pasta to the water, stir with a wooden spoon & cook according to the instructions (usually dried shapes take about 10 minutes max, giving us time to cook everything else).

The bacon should now be going a bit crispy, so add the vegetables & stir fry for a few moments until they are slightly softened, but still firm.  Turn off the heat.

The pasta should be done now, so take a piece out & taste it – it should be al dente (“cooked to the tooth”, meaning to your personal preference, your individual tooth).  Strain the pasta & set aside for a moment.

Sprinkle handfuls of spinach onto the bacon & vegetables in the skillet.  Now tip the pasta carefully all over the top – this wilts the spinach nicely, so it softens slightly.

Add the Gorgonzola now – break it up with your fingertips or cut into small pieces & dot all around the pan.

Sprinkle about three-quarters of the toasted pine nuts over the top, then get a couple of wooden spoons & gently toss everything together, until fully combined.

That’s it!  Dinner’s ready to dish up – a huge skillet full of crispy, smoked bacon pieces with gorgeously glossy, jewel-like vegetables & vibrant emerald-green spinach leaves.  Generous chunks of Gorgonzola melt into the warm swirls of pasta, giving it an oozy smoothness that attracts all the other ingredients together, followed by a substantial showering of the toasted pine nuts, adding an almost popcorn-like flavour to everything.

Grab a few bowls or pasta plates & dig in!  Just before heaping a huge helping into a bowl, I sprinkle on a few more pine nuts, followed by a couple of twists of freshly ground black pepper (maybe a dusting of Grana Padana too).  On sultry Summer evenings, this goes well with a couple of glasses of good wine & maybe some fresh, warm slices of baguette to scoop up any gooey, cheesy remnants that attempt to escape – in Italy, this is known as “fare la scarpetta”, which means to “make the little shoe” with the bread to mop up any sauce (now that’s a shoe I do love!)

If there is any left, once cooled divide it into plastic tubs with lids & stick them in the fridge – that’s tomorrow’s lunches sorted!

Next time you’re pining for a proper pasta pile up, why not give this a twirl!  Stay hungry!  😉 A x

 

A Dessert Storm

Sitting at my desk writing my blog this morning, drinking a cup of tea as the warm sun is sparkling through last night’s rain on the window, it occurs to me that we’re hurtling into Summer rather rapidly.  The changeable weather is free-wheeling, which is giving us all wardrobe issues (cue carrying various rainproof supplies – brolly, raincoat, shoes instead of sandals, to name a few!).  We layer up in the damp, chilly morning, only to find that by lunchtime it’s blazing brilliant sunshine!  One thing that is benefiting from all this random weather is the garden.  Our pots of plants are flourishing & fabulous flowers are blooming between splashes of rain & sporadic sunshine, giving us some glorious fruit & vegetables to look forward to, hopefully very soon!

The bees seem to be having a great time in the blossoms too.  My Husband calls me the Bee Whisperer, because I’m always rescuing them.  The bees are very important to us & we should look after them – after all, no bees means no fruit & veggies (or wine, beer & chocolate!).  If you see one resting on the ground, he’s probably just tired & needs a rest.  Gently move him to safety (use a piece of paper to slide underneath) & give him an energy boost – dissolve a little sugar in some tepid water & put it in a little bottle cap next to him.  Trust me, once they’re rested & recuperated, they will buzz back with all their little friends (aka the Pollinators!).

Bees aren’t the only ones to like the sweet stuff & sometimes we need a little treat too.  When it’s warm outside, it’s hardly surprising that no-one feels like standing in front of a hot oven, baking a selection of sweets & treats for dessert.  Even I like a day off every now & then!  Recently, I’ve had a couple of friends ask me for oven-free dessert ideas, so here are a few to inspire you.  Whether a couple of unexpected visitors turn up or a crowd of friends, these luscious little lovelies should keep everyone happy!

If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll have seen a couple of my no-bake easy desserts before.  There are recipes for a gorgeous Greek yoghurt & fruit ice cream (just chuck everything in a blender & serve), plus a very easy chocolate sauce (this also tastes great on toast too!).  Here’s the link:

https://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/love-love-love/

These next two desserts are fabulous favourites of ours & perfect for when you need a sweet fix.  I’ve been making them for many years & these bake-free beauties always do the trick!  The first one is a gorgeously gooey chocolate tart.  Now this perfect pud does need at least an hour in the fridge before serving, so you can make it in advance & forget about it until dinner.  Ready?  Hands washed & aprons on – let’s get chocolatey!

What you need:

For the base:
12 plain Digestive Biscuits (you could use Biscotti or cookies – have a look through my website for recipes)
2oz melted Salted Butter (plus a little extra for greasing your dish)

For the chocolate sauce:
4oz softened Salted Butter
8oz Chocolate
14oz can of Sweetened Condensed Milk

A few fresh Raspberries
A sprig of fresh Mint leaves
A teaspoon of Icing Sugar (optional)

What to do:

Firstly, make prepare your dish – you can use a loose-bottomed tin for this too if you like.

Brush a little melted butter all around the inside of your dish or tin with a pastry brush (you can use your fingers, but this way you get into all the edges quicker).  If you wish, line with a little greaseproof paper (you can take this off just before serving).

Now to make the base!  Crush the digestives in a large bowl or chuck them in the blender, whizzing them up until fine crumbs.

Add the melted butter & mix well together, until you have a crumbly mixture resembling moist sand.

Tip the crumble mixture into the bottom of your dish, pressing firmly into all the edges to form a nice smooth base.  Place in the fridge while you make the sauce.

Pour the condensed milk into a saucepan with the butter & chocolate.  Heat gently to melt, stirring carefully until everything is fully combined & melted into a dark, delicious pan of gooey gorgeousness (resist the urge to taste it – it will be quite warm!).  Turn off the heat & leave to one side to cool for a couple of minutes.

Remove the biscuit base from the fridge & pour the chocolate sauce on top & return to the fridge to set for an hour.

Just before serving, remove from the fridge for a couple of minutes to soften slightly.  Decorate with a few fresh raspberries & a couple of mint leaves, maybe give them a light dusting of icing sugar (I use a fine mesh tea strainer for this).  Here’s a little tip to make slicing easy:  boil the kettle & half-fill a mug.  Put a sharp knife in the mug to warm through for about 20 seconds, then dry it before slicing your tart – it will cut through cleanly & effortlessly!

Sometimes I like to use ginger biscuits for the base, adding a few slender shards of stem ginger to the chocolate sauce at the end, piped with a little splodge of whipped cream & delicately dusted with grated dark chocolate.  And then there’s always the coconut version which goes down well (add a little dessicated coconut to the chocolate sauce before pouring for a tropical-tasting treat & decorate as above).

Hungry for more?  Thought so!  These sweet shots of fast fruity cheesecake can be prepared in moments.  As these are individual portions, I prefer to serve them in some pretty wine glasses, such as  Champagne saucers, Martini glasses or just large wine glasses (you can use tea-cups for children’s portions – the handles make it easier for them too).  Aprons on, here we go!

What you need:

4 plain Biscuits – Digestives, Biscotti or a handful of Amaretti, etc (whatever you have in the pantry is fine)
2 heaped teaspoons of Strawberry Jam
1 tub Mascarpone Cheese
1-2 tablespoons Greek Yoghurt (or Natural Yoghurt)
Fresh Strawberries
Icing Sugar (optional)

Crush up a couple of biscuits & place some in the bottom of each glass.

Whip up a tub of Mascarpone cheese with the Greek yoghurt to loosen it up a bit.  You can always use a little semi-skimmed milk, just a tablespoon will do.

Add the strawberry jam & slowly stir into the Mascarpone, until it turns a beautiful blush pink colour.

Spoon or pipe swirls of the strawberry Mascarpone generously over the crushed biscuits, or perhaps add a few chopped fresh strawberries to the mixture beforehand.  If you’re going to pipe it, forget using a nozzle, just snip the end off a piping bag instead.

Top with a couple of fresh strawberries, dust with a little icing sugar if you like & serve immediately.  I like to slice them 3/4 of the way to the top & leave them attached, then fan them out on these dinky desserts.   If you don’t want to use strawberries, try using apricots, raspberries or blueberries, swapping the jam for whichever fruit you use.  If you fancy something a bit special, cherries go very well with the delicate almond flavour of crushed Amaretti biscuits – just sprinkle a few toasted almonds on top to decorate before serving.  Bellissimo!

So when you need to whip up a dessert storm, try these swift, sweet solutions for after dinner!  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

 

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

Having a Ball!

After a rather hectic week, the weekend should be a relaxing affair with good friends, good food & a few good rays of sunshine!  Last week was no exception & seeing as my Husband was working over the weekend, it was nice to cook a simple Sunday dinner of rush-free, rustic fayre instead of a roast.  Sundays are perfect for making slow-cooked, sumptuous food & one of the best ways to get the whole family involved is a recipe that you can all make together.

Meatballs are perfect for this kind of lazy day & my Meatballs Casalinga (Polpette alla Casalinga) recipe is one I’ve been making for a long time, sharing various versions over the years with friends & family.  I’ve also made them in some unusual places (at the side of a riverbank while fishing & cooking them on a barbeque, next to foil-wrapped trout).  This recipe first began over thirty seven years ago when I was at school & evolved into the one I make today.  It is something I suspect would be considered as “cucina povera”, as it is quite a hearty dish made from a few simple ingredients, doesn’t cost much to make & will feed quite a few people easily!  They freeze well too & are great on baguettes for lunches (that’s if there are any leftovers – good luck with that!).

What I love most about making meatballs is they are really easy, you can’t mess up the recipe (there are three ingredients) & everyone can get involved.  When my guys are all home, we enjoy cooking together & it’s a nice chance to catch up on each other’s news while we’re standing around the mixing bowl, making meatballs & usually a mess (it also means they are done in less time than it would take me to make them on my own).  Because they are baked, it means you only have the pasta & sauce pans to watch too.

Sometimes I’ll use dried spaghetti as a swirly, silky cushion of plump pasta for the meatballs to sit on & sometimes I’ll make my own fresh (making your own pasta can be addictive, so be warned!).  Fresh pasta takes five minutes to knead & then needs half an hour to rest in the fridge, before rolling & cutting into shapes.  Before you start to panic about making your own pasta, it’s really easy & I’ve written a whole blog on this – here’s the link:  https://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/pasta-parcels/ .  Pasta machines have their own spaghetti cutters that slot into place at the front of the roller, so all the cutting is done for you at the turn of a handle!  Any extra pasta can be dried & stored for future use.  Even if you don’t have a pasta machine, you can roll it out thinly & cut into strips – make your own tagliatelle or papparadelle ribbons!  Get creative with your pasta & make whatever shapes you prefer.

Now while the pasta is being prepped & before the balling begins, I like to start making a rich, jammy tomato sauce & I’ve usually got a huge pan of this blipping away in the background.  Forget shop-bought jars of sauce with unpronounceable ingredients, unless you are using a jar of Passata (sieved tomatoes), then this one will sort you out & it won’t take long to make.  It is probably one of the most versatile sauces you will ever make & goes with pretty much everything!  Although this isn’t our family recipe, it’s a close one & tastes just as jammy.  Here we go!

What you need for the Sauce:

4 tins of Italian Plum Tomatoes
Half a bulb of fresh Garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of Tomato Puree
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Basil (fresh or dried)
Freshly ground Black Pepper
Pinch of Sea Salt
2 teaspoons of Sugar

What to do:

Into a large saucepan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil & add the garlic.  Gently fry for a few seconds, then slowly add the tomatoes & their juice, giving them a good stir around & breaking up any large pieces (or you can just squish them in your hands before you put them in the pan).

Add the tomato puree, the sugar & seasoning to taste (you won’t need much salt, so just a pinch will do).  Add a couple of teaspoons of dried Basil (or rip up about half a dozen leaves of fresh & chuck them in, don’t worry about chopping).  Give everything a good stir & reduce to a gentle simmer for about 25-30 minutes with a lid half on, stirring occasionally.

Once cooked, the sauce should have thickened & reduced slightly, so give it a stir & a quick taste.  Adjust the seasoning if you need to, taste again & when you’re happy turn off the heat & set aside, lid half on the pan (you don’t want the steam to add any more moisture to your sauce).  It should stay warm, but you can reheat it gently if you feel it needs it.

Time to get rolling the meatballs, so hands washed & aprons on!

What you need for the Meatballs:

500g Minced Beef (don’t go too lean, as a little fat will add flavour)
(traditionally you would use half Beef, half Pork, so use what meat you prefer)
1 large Onion (Red or Brown is fine), chopped finely or minced
6 slices Bread, whizzed into fine breadcrumbs
3oz Plain Flour
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C.

In a shallow bowl (or casserole dish lid), tip the flour & spread it around the dish.

Grab a large plate & dust with flour – this is where your prepared meatballs will rest until you’re ready to cook them.

In a separate large mixing bowl, add the mince, breadcrumbs & onion.  If you’re wondering why I’m not adding any seasoning to them, it’s because there’s plenty in the sauce.

Get your hands in & squish everything together.  This is not a time to be squeamish & it will be cold, but you want to mix everything evenly into a huge ball of meat dough.  You may want to wash your hands again now, before the next stage.

Dust your hands in a little flour & scoop some of the meatball mixture up, about the size of a walnut.  Give it a roll in your hands, gently pressing the mixture together as you do so – don’t compact it though, otherwise you’ll end up with a tough meatball that won’t cook & will resemble a large marble!

Once you’re happy with your meatball shape, roll it in the flour dish then pick it up, give it a shake to remove excess flour & place on the plate you prepared earlier.  Repeat until all the mixture has been turned into meatballs & your plate is full.

In a large skillet or frying pan, heat a tablespoon of the olive oil.  Add a few meatballs at a time to the hot pan & roll around to coat them in the oil.  Brown for a few moments, about 30 seconds or so, moving them around so they don’t sit for too long (you want an even colouring).  Transfer to a ovenproof dish (a lasagne dish will do) & repeat until you have browned all the meatballs.

Place the dish in the centre of the oven for about 20-25 minutes, gently turning halfway (give them a little shake, but watch out for oil splashing).  Don’t worry too much about the fat, as it will render out during cooking into the bottom of the dish & leave your meatballs lovely & tender.

While your meatballs are baking nicely, towards the end of cooking them you should get your pasta going.  If it’s dried pasta, check the cooking times on the packet.

If you’re cooking fresh pasta, it takes about 2-3 minutes tops.  Get a large pan, boil the kettle & fill halfway up with boiling water.  Add a teaspoon of Sea Salt & bring to the boil.  Carefully add your pasta to the water & bring back to a rolling boil (that’s when the water rolls over from the edge of the pan to the centre).

Once cooked, drain your spaghetti & serve immediately (pasta waits for no-one!), swirling into silky spoonfuls on pasta plates or bowls.

Add several meatballs – they are filling, so I would say about 8-10 is a good amount (you can always go back for seconds).

Spoon over a generous drenching of the tomato sauce, coating the meatballs & serve immediately!  If you like, dust with a little freshly grated Parmesan – leave a little dish on the table with a spoon for people to help themselves.  Or you could use a speed peeler to add a few strips of Parmesan on top instead, it’s your choice.

Leftover meatballs & sauce will keep too – freeze the meatballs in a little sauce, either in bags or plastic tubs.  Pour any leftover sauce into sterilised jars when cooled & store it in the fridge.  You can use it for pizza, lasagne, pasta or just for dipping veg in (I like it on my chips).  It’s great on burgers too!

One thing I would recommend is don’t wear a white shirt while swirling sauce-laden spaghetti!  If you do get tomato sauce on your clothes, try this little tip I learned: add a spot of neat washing up liquid (any brand works, although Lemon seems to be best) & chuck the shirt in the wash.  If you do it straightaway, it should come out fine.  This works on red wine too (you’re welcome!).

So next time you fancy a lazy lunch with the family, try something different & have a ball!  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

 

Spring A Leek!

This time of year is one of my favourites, just as everything is starting to spring & sprout in the garden, refreshing & regenerating.  Buds are beginning to pop up, soon to bloom into beautiful blossoms, while the trees are turning green & growing again.  The lovely Spring sunshine seems to be a bit shy this week, making it difficult to get out into the garden, so I’ve been practising my sugar skills & learning a few new techniques.  Despite the lack of sunshine this week, I’ve still  managed to get some sparkle in the form of sugar & edible glitter though!

Having made a warren full of baby bunnies over Easter, I was inspired by the pretty pale pink blossom trees of Spring to create a chocolate tree.  If you’ve been following me on social media, you will know I’ve been excitedly sharing various pictures of my progress.  It was something I needed to try & although it took me five days from start to finish, I’m really pleased with the results, plus I’ve had some fabulous feedback – thank you so much to all you kind, lovely people (you know who you are!).  All I’ll say is that I know how Richard Dreyfuss felt about his mashed potato mountain in Close Encounters!

Most of you know by now that I like to prepare some meals for the freezer, then we can have our own ready-meals without any fuss or faff (great for when you’re working late & can’t be bothered to cook).  As it’s still a bit chilly outside, my Chicken & Leek Pie is just perfect for this inbetween weather & the bright vegetables will add some colour to chilly evenings.  Leeks are a bit under-rated & have always struck me as rather pretty.  With their slender bundles of long, frond-like leaves, tightly packed & tall, they go from being the darkest emerald green at one end to the palest, apple-flesh green at the roots.  They can be cooked in a variety of ways, but we tend to just boil them until bland, then spend the whole meal pushing them around a plate & not eating them.  What a waste!

This pie recipe uses the delicate flavour of the leek to enhance the other ingredients, without over-powering any of them, all crowned with a melt-in-the-mouth buttery pastry crust.  There’s enough for six generous portions here (or eight regular ones, depending on how hungry you are), plus it freezes very well.  Ready to have a go?  Hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

2 Leeks
2 Carrots (or a few small ones)
2 Parsnips
2 Chicken Breasts, skinned, trimmed & sliced into 1 inch pieces
150g Gorgonzola Dolce or soft Danish Blue Cheese
2oz Salted Butter
1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2oz Plain Flour
Freshly ground Black Pepper

For the Pastry:

4oz Salted Butter (softened at room temperature)
12oz Self-Raising Flour (plus extra for rolling out)
2 large Eggs
A little milk (approx 2 teaspoons)
2 tablespoons Milk (for brushing on)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C.  Prepare your leeks by rinsing them upsidedown (root up, dark leaves down), so that any dirt will be washed away.  Pat them dry on a clean tea towel, then trim the roots from the bottom.  Chop into slices, about the thickness of your little finger.  Leave the tough, dark green leaves (they can go in the compost).

Peel, top & tail the carrots & parsnips.  Chop into bite-sized slices (I usually cut into half, then slice).  Nothing needs to be perfect here, just get chopping.

Put the leeks, carrots & parsnips in a saucepan, cover with just enough boiling water from the kettle & par-boil for about 5-8 minutes until softened but still firm – do not add salt or they will go soggy.  Strain & leave to one side.  Keep the liquid & freeze it to make soups or gravy (homemade vegetable stock tastes so much nicer than a cube!).

While the veg are cooking, heat the butter & olive oil in a large frying pan or skillet, until combined.  Add the chicken to the frying pan & stir fry well, coating it in the beautiful buttery oil & cooking until opaque.  Turn down the heat.

Sprinkle the flour on top & stir thoroughly, ensuring all the chicken is coated well.  The chicken will become clumpy, the oil & butter mixture will cook the flour, basically making a roux in the frying pan.  This is going to make your pie filling more solid (making it easier to slice up later).

Break up the Gorgonzola Dolce or Danish Blue cheese into pieces & dot around the pan, add the strained leeks, carrots & parsnips.  Stir everything gently until thoroughly mixed.  Season with a little freshly ground black pepper (you won’t need any extra salt, as there’s salt already in the butter & Gorgonzola).

Tip everything into a large pie dish (or individual ones if you like) & spread evenly.  Set to one side while you make the pastry.

In a large mixing bowl, tip the flour, butter & egg.  Mix everything together into a soft dough – if it’s a bit too firm, add a little milk or water to make it more pliable.

On a lightly floured worktop, roll out your pastry until about half a centimetre thick & slightly bigger than your pie dish (about a couple of inches all around).

Dip your fingers in a cup of water & run them around the edge of the pie dish – this will act as a sort of glue to bind your pastry crust to the dish & help stop leaking (it’s no guarantee, but it does help).

Gently lay the pastry over your rolling pin & lift carefully onto your pie dish.  Lay it loosely on top.  Now I like a good crust on a pie & pastry has a habit of shrinking while it’s cooking, so you need to  make sure there is no gap between pastry & filling.  Tuck the edges right down in all the corners & edges, squishing & pressing the sides onto the damp pie dish edge.  Make a pattern with your fingertips or a fork handle, then prick a few holes across the top of the pie to allow any steam to escape.

Brush lightly all over with milk to give the pastry a nice gloss while it’s cooking.  If you want to decorate with leaves & shapes like I’ve done here, you can add the shapes now you’ve brushed it with milk (so they will stick).  Once you’ve finished decorating it, simply brush everything you’ve added with a little milk.  This pastry will puff up & start to grow, so you need to work quickly here (it will rise when cooked too). 

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 20-25 minutes, until the pastry has gone all golden & crisp (test with a sharp knife & it should be firm).

When it’s ready, get everyone around the table & serve slabs of your pie with a handful of homemade chips, or roasted potatoes, & a huge green salad.  Any leftovers will freeze nicely or you can cut it into slices, wrapped individually for lazy lunches or picnics.

So when you’re looking for something new to try, spring a leek (or two)!  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

 

 

 

Chop Chop, Busy Busy, Work Work, Dinner!

After a rather hectic week of baking, caking & bunny making, a form of nice normality has resumed in the Hungry household.  Breakfast bars full of oats & apricots are baking nicely in the oven & their familiar, fruity fragrance is wafting around the house, a seductive scent of apricots & buttery, toasted oats.  The coffee pot is almost empty, but that can be easily rectified!   It’s always a bit of a limbo day after a long weekend & sometimes Tuesday can feel a bit Monday-ish, so the last thing anyone wants to be doing is making a complicated concoction for dinner tonight!

Our weekends are usually a “fly by the seat of your pants” kind of affair (if Lamborghini made rollercoasters, that would be about right), so an easy week-night dinner is more than welcome.  Although I love cooking, even I like a night off every now & then, so these sticky pork chops are really easy & one of my “chuck everything in a dish” meals (yay, my fave!).  The hardest thing you will have to do is wait half an hour for everything to cook.

If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that I like to have a selection of sides in the freezer for mid-week meals & I usually have a couple of pots of my lazy, cheesy mashed potatoes for such occasions (really, who has the time or energy to mash spuds after work?!).  If you too want to be prepared like a cooking ninja, here’s the link to pre-prepped enlightenment:   https://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/freezing-your-assets/.  The best bit?  You can pop them into little oven-proof dishes to cook alongside your chops – no fuss, just fabulous & faff-free!

So, are you ready for dinner?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

6 Pork Chops (lean & preferably boned – less cleaning up)
Fresh Sage leaves (approx 12)
6 tablespoons Light Muscovado Sugar
Balsamic Vinegar
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Freshly ground Black Pepper

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C.

Drizzle a little of the olive oil in the bottom of a shallow glass dish (I use my lasagne dish).   Please don’t use your best baking tray, because when the sugar caramelises it could possibly ruin it!

Trim the excess fat from the pork chops & just leave a little around the edge.  This will add flavour & you can discard it when they’re cooked (it will just peel off).

Lay the chops fat-side out in the dish & drizzle a few drops of olive oil on top.

Carefully spoon on the sugar, about a tablespoon all across the middle of each pork chop.  Muscovado is a moist sugar, so you don’t need much & it gives a light caramel taste.

Top with a couple of Sage leaves on each chop, gently pressing them down flat.

Drizzle a little Balsamic vinegar & then dust with some freshly ground black pepper.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 20-25 minutes, turning them over halfway through – be careful not to splash yourself, as molten sugar will hurt!

Once cooked, they will turn a dark, treacle colour.  Remove the dish from the oven, cover with foil & leave on a cooling rack to rest for five minutes.  Remove the fat around the edge before plating up, along with the Sage leaves if you prefer.

Simply serve these sticky, sweet chops with some of my lazy, cheesy mash or a few crispy roasted potatoes & a heap of steamed veg.  They are filling & flavoursome, go with all sorts of sides including fragrant, fluffy rice & I’ve even served them with chips & a gorgeous green salad.

That’s dinner done, just pop the dishes in the sink to soak while you’re eating!  Any leftovers can be sliced into strips & tossed in twirls of pasta, along with some snipped up sundried tomatoes & a little grated Parmesan – easy lunch for work tomorrow too!

Now, get those feet up, grab a cuppa & have a relaxing evening.  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

One a Penny, Two a Penny, Hot Cross Buns!

It’s been a rather busy week of baking bread, beautiful buns & creating sweet sugar bunnies for Easter treats, so this morning was no different.  After a 5.00am start, one pot of “slap you round the face” coffee & some hot, buttered toast, I was up & at ’em!  Early mornings are special for me, when everyone else is still sleeping & I’m able to get as much done as possible.  Stopping for fuel this morning at my local Sainsbury’s, chatting about chocolates to the lovely ladies who were also up early (hello ladies!), I was able to shop in blissful peace, wandering around the shelves selecting supplies to make tiny bunny toes.  It was as if the world had stopped just for a couple of hours.  By 9.00am, I had managed to hit four supermarkets & be back home (I think my shopping ninja just levelled up!).

Easter is almost here & we always celebrate, as it’s when nature is springing & sprouting, new vegetables are in season & food becomes a bit lighter & brighter.  While baking bread this week, I decided to make my usual light, fluffy bread dough & also an enriched, sweet dough.  Yes, this did involve kneading by hand for ten minutes per batch & yes, my muscles would be worthy of Wonder Woman, but it was worth every minute!  For many years, I’ve been making bread with fruit in (my Husband loves it toasted with butter for breakfast), so thought I’d make some fruity buns.  Now you all know how much I adore proper plumped up fruit in my baking, so I’ve usually got a handful of sultanas soaking in a cup of tea ready for baking (& fluffy bread demands squishy, sumptuous sultanas!).

Hot cross buns were so loved, someone even wrote a nursery rhyme about them, so they must have been popular!  Although there are some splendid shop-bought ones out there, I do love making my own buns whenever I fancy some.  My hot cross bun recipe is really easy, I promise & they freeze really well, so you can have them anytime (just leave the cross off).  I will warn you, you’re going to get messy.  So, hands washed & aprons on, here we go!

What you need:

500g Strong White Bread Flour
1 tablespoon dried Yeast (or fresh if you like)
300ml Lukewarm Water (dip a finger in it & it should feel just warm)
1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
50g Sugar
A good pinch of ground Sea Salt
1 large Egg
Splash of Semi-Skimmed or Full Fat Milk (not skimmed)
1 teaspoon each of Lemon & Orange zest (wash them first!)
1 ball Stem Ginger, chopped finely
8 Amareno or Sour Cherries, chopped chunky
A good handful of soaked Sultanas, strained
25g Melted butter (for brushing your tin)

For the glaze:

3 tablespoons Semi-Skimmed Milk
2 tablespoons Sugar
A pinch of ground Cinnamon for dusting (you won’t need much)

For the cross:

3 tablespoons Plain Flour
3 tablespoons Cold Water

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C.  For any kind of bread-making, you need your oven to be really hot, so it pays to put it on now.

In a large bowl, tip the flour, yeast, sugar, sea salt & olive oil.

In a jug or bowl, measure your lukewarm water & add the egg, along with a splash of milk.  Using a fork, whisk into a cloudy, fluffy liquid & tip into the other ingredients, using the fork to combine everything into a lovely sticky dough.

Turn out your dough onto a lightly floured surface, ready for kneading.  You will find this dough rather stickier than usual, because there’s more liquid in it, but this will give you beautiful buns!  Get yourself a pastry scraper, in case it sticks to the work top (you don’t want to lose any!).

Knead for ten minutes until you get a pliable, smooth dough ball.

Place your dough into a lightly floured bowl & cover with oiled cling film (just rub a bit of olive oil all over it).  Put it somewhere warm away from draughts (like the airing cupboard) for 30-40 minutes to prove, until it is doubled in size like a big bubble.

While the dough is proving, prepare your tin.  Get yourself a nice, large baking tray & a sheet of greaseproof paper.  The paper should overhang the tray slightly, as it will be filled with dough balls & will stop them touching the tray.

Using a pastry brush, paint melted butter all over it thoroughly.  Press the paper down into the tray, buttered side up, to make sure you have painted it all.

Once the dough has proved & is doubled in size, remove the oiled clingfilm & set to one side (you’ll need this again).  Tip the dough onto your lightly floured work surface & knock it back to remove any large air bubbles – I throw it on the worktop a couple of times & this works really well.  Knead it lightly for a few seconds & spread out on the worktop into a rectangular shape.

Sprinkle the sultanas evenly over the top, followed by the chopped cherries, ginger & zest.  If you don’t like cherries, try adding dried chopped apricots.

Fold the dough into thirds & press it together well to seal everything in.

Carefully cut in half, then half again & once more (probably once more too), until you have sixteen even-sized little lumps of fruit filled dough.  By now your worktop is a bit sticky, but persevere – you’re getting there!

Using floured hands, roll each dough lump into a ball & place on the buttered greaseproof paper, leaving roughly an inch between them.

Once done, cover with the oiled clingfilm you used before & leave to prove again for 20-30 minutes, until they have doubled in size again (they will have already started to do so before you finished filling the tray).

Before they go in the oven, you need to put the crosses on.  Mix the plain flour & water in a cup using a fork, until it resembles a gloopy paste.  Scrape into a piping bag & snip the end off (don’t make it too big, just enough to draw a decent sized line), then pipe crosses on the tops of your buns, which will have all snuggled up next to each other nicely & filled the gaps.

Put the tray in the centre of the oven & bake for about 15 minutes.  You will need to turn the tray around a couple of times to ensure they are baked evenly (trust me, you don’t want raw ones in the middle).

When the buns have turned a gorgeous golden colour with lovely cream coloured crosses, they should be ready.  To check any bread, just tip it over & tap it on the bottom – if it sounds hollow, it’s ready!  Be careful not to break up your big batch of buns!

Lay the whole lot out on a cooling rack, placing the greaseproof paper carefully underneath the rack on the worktop.  This will stop your worktop getting messy & you can just roll it up afterwards.

Immediately brush on some cold milk & sprinkle with sugar, then dust very lightly with a little Cinnamon.  The milk will absorb quickly & they will smell absolutely heavenly!

While they’re still warm, gently pull apart or cut into batches of four or even just individual buns.  Freeze any extra ones in bags & you’ll have a treat anytime.  These fluffy, flavourful buns taste fabulous just as they are, lavishly spread with butter (the good stuff), or toasted.  They’re great for tea breaks, breakfast or just when you need something nice to nibble.

So when Easter comes around, why not bake some beautiful buns & share with family & friends!  In fact, I might just have one now with another cuppa!  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

Perfect Pastafication!

It’s been a busy week here, as I’ve been working on new projects & the weather has been a bit random, making things interesting!  While I’ve been designing cake, making tiny tea sets & small sugar bunnies to sit on the top, I’ve also been writing & doing numerous things at the same time, like the multi-tasking ninja that I am.  When the weather is unpredictable, there is one thing you need to be able to rely on & that’s a rich, rib-sticking dinner to warm you through!

As most of you know by now, I’m rather passionate about pasta.  In our pantry, I have a dedicated pasta shelf bulging with a wide variety of conchiglioni, tagliatelle, lasagne, fusilli & penne, all waiting to be magically transformed into something heavenly, hearty & wholesome.  It’s efficient, versatile & quick to cook.  Making pasta is one of my favourite things to do & it’s something we make together as a family.  When my Son is home, we make pasta & pizzas, all congregating in the kitchen & chatting simultaneously, whilst we work on creating dinner.  It’s what cooking is all about for me & that’s how our children learn, by cooking with us.  There are times when stress will start to invade your life & making pasta is one of the best things to de-stress, relax & take your mind off everything.

Now although I adore making my own pasta, sometimes I need to pull together dinner quickly, which is where the pantry comes in handy!  Because my Husband works shifts, I like to make a variety of dinners & freeze them in two-portion pots, ready to be whipped out of the freezer at a moment’s notice.   Usually, the freezer has at least one whole drawer filled with a selection of lasagnes & they’re all different.  There’s the lasagne al forno, which is the one with meat (usually beef), a sumptuous spinach & cream cheese layered lovely & then, one of my favourites: vegetable lasagne!  I have been a vegetarian a couple of times & this luxurious layered dish is one of my favourite indulgences!  It’s lighter & quicker to make than a meat lasagne, but fabulously filling & you can create this velvety vegetable version in around half the time.  Plus you can make it in advance & freeze it in individual pots for those evenings when you need instant pasta gratification.  Fancy a go?  Hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

For the Vegetable Ragu:

1 large Red Onion
1 large Courgette
2 Peppers (red & yellow are my choice, as the Courgette brings green to the dish)
1 small punnet Mushrooms, wiped thoroughly with a damp cloth
2 tins Italian Plum Tomatoes
1 tube Tomato Puree
2 teaspoons Sugar
6 cloves fresh Garlic, chopped finely
1 teaspoon Dried Organo
2 teaspoons Dried Basil (you can use fresh if you like, just finely chop half a dozen leaves)
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper to season
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

For the Cheese Sauce:

3oz Plain Flour
3oz Salted Butter
1 pint Semi-Skimmed or Full Fat Milk
2oz grated Cheese (mild Cheddar is great for this)
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper to season

Also, you will need:

4oz grated mixed Cheese (I use 3oz mild Cheddar with 1oz Parmesan or Grana Padana, but you can use whatever hard cheese you have)
Dried Oregano
1 pack dried Lasagne (or make you own fresh if you like – see my recipe here:  http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/pasta-parcels/ 

What to do:

Prepare the veg.  Top & tail the courgette, then slice lengthways in half, then into half again & chop into small slices.  Place in a large dish.

Take the seeds & any white pith out of the peppers (save the seeds & you can plant them in eggboxes on the windowsill).  Chop the peppers into bite-sized pieces.  It doesn’t need to be perfect or anything.  Add them to the dish with the courgettes in.

Slice the mushrooms in half & then slice them into chunky pieces.  Add to the other veg in the dish.

Top & tail the onion, slice into chunky pieces.  Leave on the board while you chop the garlic finely.

Heat a tablespoon of the olive oil in a large skillet or frying pan & add the onion & garlic.  Stir fry for about 30 seconds to gently soften – you don’t want it to colour up, as the garlic will burn if you’re not careful (it won’t taste nice if it burns).

Add the other vegetables, tipping them in carefully & stir-frying them for a couple of minutes to get them heated through.

Pour the plum tomatoes into the pan, breaking up any large pieces as you do so & combine with the vegetables in the pan.  Stir well to ensure it’s all mixed together.

Add the tomato puree, Basil & Oregano, along with the sugar & a good pinch of the black pepper & sea salt to season your vegetable ragu.  Give everything a good stir to distribute the puree & seasonings thoroughly.

Simmer for about five minutes on a low heat, stirring occasionally until it thickens slightly, then turn off the heat & set to one side while you make the cheese sauce.

Gently melt the butter in a large saucepan.  Remove from the heat & add the flour, put back on the heat & stir thoroughly to combine into a thick, shiny roux by using a whisk.  Traditionally, you would use a wooden spoon, but if you want to make sure you don’t get any lumps I suggest using a good metal balloon whisk.

Add about a quarter of the milk to the mixture & whisk in, until it loosens up & then add the rest of the milk carefully.  Keep stirring with the whisk, getting to the bottom of the pan to ensure nothing sticks.

As the sauce thickens up, you should start to feel some resistance with the whisk.  Keep whisking (swap hands if your wrist aches) & when you are satisfied with the thickness, add a couple of ounces of the grated mild cheddar & whisk until melted.  Turn off the heat.

Add a little pinch of sea salt & black pepper to season, then taste it.  The consistency of the sauce should be thick like natural yoghurt & it should coat the back of the spoon well.  If you think it needs a bit more seasoning, add a bit more, but go steady with it as you’ll be adding Parmesan to the top & that is quite salty.

So now you are ready to start building your lasagne!  Get yourself a nice, large lasagne dish or large pie dish.

In the bottom of the dish, spoon half the vegetable ragu & spread evenly across the bottom.  If you’re using fresh pasta for this, drizzle a little olive oil across the bottom of the dish then add a layer of fresh pasta before adding the ragu.

Here’s a tip to help you fit your dried pasta sheets to those rounded corners of your dish.  Take your dried lasagne sheet & snap off the top corner edge with your thumb, about 1cm in.  Lay the lasagne sheet with the missing edge nearest the corner, then take the piece you snapped off & turn it around, placing it in the corner with the pointy end towards the middle of the dish.  You’re welcome!  All these years, we’ve all been trying to make it fit & then a few years ago, I decided to use up some random pieces & that was it!

Cover the ragu with a layer of lasagne, making your corners fit as above.

Now pour on a layer of the cheese sauce, starting at the edges & working your way in, so that all the little corners & any random bits you have used will all stay in place.  Spread evenly across the layer using the back of a spoon.

Gently add the remainder of the vegetable ragu, again starting at the corners & carefully working your way into the centre.  Ensure it is evenly spread across the layer.

Add another layer of the pasta, as you did before & then pour on the remainder of the cheese sauce, again starting around the edges & working your way in.

Spread it evenly with the back of the spoon you used before, then sprinkle liberally with the mixed grated cheese.  This will give you a gorgeous, crispy cheesy topping.  Sprinkle a good pinch of dried Oregano over the top, squeezing it in the tips of your fingers as you do so, to release the pungent fragrance of this wonderful herb.

If you’ve used the dried lasagne, leave it to stand in a cold oven for a couple of hours, or you could even make it in the morning & leave it to stand until dinner time (sometimes, I’ll let it cool & then cover it, before putting it in the fridge until the evening).  Most people will whack their lasagne in the oven straightaway & then wonder why the pasta won’t cook properly.  By allowing the dish to stand, the pasta will absorb the moisture in the dish, your lasagne won’t turn into soup & everything will be beautifully baked!

When you’re ready to cook it, pre-heat the oven to 180*C.

Place your lasagne on a baking tray to catch any drips (trust me, when it starts bubbling there will be spillages).

Put in the centre of the oven & bake for about 35-45 minutes, until the cheese on top has turned a gorgeous golden colour & is crispy around the edges.

Remove from the oven, place on a cooling rack & cover loosely with some foil or another tray (don’t press it flat, or your cheese will stick).  Leave to stand for 10-15 minutes, as it will be hotter than the sun & you will burn your mouth!

Serve with a huge green salad & maybe a few chunky chips, if you feel the need.  Any leftovers can be packed up into pots for lunches (hot or cold, it’s rather nice), or frozen for lazy late night suppers, curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine.

Next time you fancy something luscious & light, layer some love on the lasagne for perfect pastafication!  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

 

 

 

 

 

Go Ahead, Make Mother’s Day!

March is a truly magnificent month & this year, it has arrived with a dazzling display of serious snow & storms to herald the new season!  “In like a lion & out like a lamb”, as the saying goes & whoever said that definitely got it right!  Spring is so close you can almost taste it & it’s a well-needed breath of fresh air for us all, as the chilly curtain of Winter is being whisked away, revealing vibrant new life springing up all around us!  On my way into town this week, there were bundles of colourful crocuses starting to show through the verges & tiny white snowdrops, proudly peeking out of long grass.  It’s almost time to start planting seeds for beans, peas & tomatoes, & I can’t wait to get the garden sorted (there’s something I never thought I’d say!).

If you’ve been following my antics on social media, you’ll know I’ve been working on a few (or rather a lot of) floral creations of my own over the last couple of months (which is why my blogs have been a bit all over the place recently, so apologies).  Recently, I’ve been making sugar art surprise gifts, including a pair of sparkly snow white roses for a wedding present & three beautiful birthday blooms for a lovely friend.  Now I’m working on bunches of blossoming roses for Mother’s Day gifts & although my kitchen looks like I’ve opened a sugar florists, I am still managing to bake my usual fayre (although my bread has recently developed a subtle sparkle from the edible glitter, because no matter how much you try to clean that stuff up, it gets everywhere!).

What better way to start the season of newy newness, than with a fabulous celebration for Mothers everywhere!  Mother’s Day has always been special for me, so I like to go all out & celebrate in elegant, ladylike style.  All my friends know that I absolutely love making afternoon tea – dainty, dinky delicacies, miniature gateaux, sumptuous sultanas embedded in fluffy scones, sweet strawberries perched on pastry cups & crustless, slender sandwiches filled with cream cheese & cucumber (not my usual doorsteps of bacon & egg, or meatballs & tomato sauce!).  Tea is served in chintzy china cups, with wafer thin lemon slices floating like lilypads on the surface, often accompanied by a glass or two of pink fizz.

Firstly, sort out your sarnies!  The simpler the sandwich, the better & you really don’t want to over-complicate things when you’ll have lots of other stuff to do!  You can make the sandwiches earlier in the day, then put them in the fridge on a plate covered with a clean, damp tea-towel & wrap the whole thing in cling film (I saw the fabulous Mary Berry do this on the TV once & it really works, but then of course it would).  This will keep them fresh & lovely, while you go & make yourself fresh & lovely!  Select delicate fillings (& make sure you pick your Mum’s favourites), such as cream cheese, wafer-thin sliced cucumber, breaded ham, maybe some smoked salmon slices.  I tend to pick two or three fillings & just do a batch of each.  Remember to cut the crusts off & slice your sandwiches into elegant fingers (keep the crusts to make breadcrumbs & pop them in the freezer).

Usually, you need scones for any decent afternoon tea (with soaked, squishy sultanas, of course), but I think it’s about time I did a cake recipe for you all, especially an easy one that you can use for any occasion!  There is one thing that I love making & that’s cake!  This is quite honestly one of the best chocolate cakes I’ve ever made & I think you’ll love it too.  It is a standard 4oz recipe that I tweaked slightly & makes a dozen cupcakes (or a single layer 7 inch cake), so if you want more just double the recipe.  So, hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

2 large Eggs
4oz softened Butter (you can use Stork or Sunflower Spread if you like)
4oz Caster Sugar (chuck regular sugar in the coffee grinder if you don’t have any caster)
3oz Plain Flour
2 teaspoons of Baking Powder
1oz Cocoa Powder (please do not use drinking chocolate – it’s mostly sugar & will alter your cake)
1 teaspoon instant Coffee
1 tablespoon Milk (either full fat or semi-skimmed)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 190*C.

Get your patty tin prepared by placing muffin sized cake cases in each space (they don’t need to be fancy, because you’ll be discarding them after baking).

Tip all your dry ingredients into a large bowl & mix well with a spoon.  Set to one side.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter & sugar together until a lovely, fluffy texture & light colour.  You can use the electric mixer for this if you prefer, but it’s just as quick with a wooden spoon.

Add one egg carefully to the bowl, then sift in half of the dry ingredients using a large sieve.  Gently blend this together until fully incorporated.

Add the last egg & the remaining dry ingredients using the sieve, then repeat the above step.

Add a splash of milk to the mixture & blend again to a smooth consistency.

Using either a couple of spoons or an ice-cream scoop, splodge into the cake cases equally (or as equally as you can do – even with a scoop, this can sometimes be hit & miss, so don’t worry too much).

Bake in the centre of the oven for 18-20 minutes until risen & small cracks appear on the top.

Remove from the oven & place each cake on a cooling rack (don’t leave them in the tin, otherwise they will become heavy).

Now, that’s your cake done & they just need to be turned into mini gateaux, filled with rich, black cherry jam & lightly whipped cream, then smothered in a silky smooth chocolate sauce.

Fillings:

1 jar Black Cherry Jam (or Sour Cherry Jam – Lidl do a lovely one!)
1 dozen Amareno Cherries, strained
300ml Double Cream, whipped with a little icing sugar (1 teaspoon)
Chocolate Sauce (recipe below)

What to do next:

Whip the double cream with a teaspoon of icing sugar (this allows it to hold it’s shape), or you can use buttercream if you prefer (blend 2oz icing sugar with 4oz softened butter).

Remove the cupcakes from their paper cases & set the cakes on a board.

Get a cookie cutter, just smaller than each cupcake & use it to cut each cake into a round, so they are all the same size.  Save the leftover trimmings in a bowl to make cake pops (chocolate cake on a stick – what’s not to love?!).

Slice each cupcake in half & spread a little black cherry jam over the bottom slice, then pipe on a little buttercream or whipped cream & pop the top of the cake on, pressing down lightly to make it stick.  Time to make some chocolate sauce!

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 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, cake or cookies (don’t get me started on how gorgeous it is on cookies!).

Spoon some of the cooled chocolate sauce on top of each cake, so that it runs down the sides (don’t overdo it though, or you’ll have a chocolate puddle!).

Plop an Amareno cherry on top of each cake & put them in the fridge on a plate lined with greaseproof paper, so they can set for an hour or so before serving (they won’t set completely, so you might want to eat it with a spoon or fork).

If you do have time, you could make some cake pops from the crumbs & get the kids to decorate them as their gift to Mum.

Simply crumble up the cake trimmings into a bowl & add some of the leftover buttercream (I usually mix two parts cake to one part buttercream, so don’t worry about weighing anything).  This will make a light, sticky “dough” & you can shape it into little ovals or rounds.  Leave them to set in the fridge for a couple of hours on a sheet of greaseproof paper, then you will have a nice solid base for decorating.

Dip the end of a cake stick in some melted chocolate, then gently insert into the base of a cake ball.  Gently spoon melted chocolate over the cake ball, removing any excess by lightly tapping the stick (carefully though, you don’t want to lose it!).  Leave them to set by standing them in a jar or mug full of dried semolina or rice.

Once set, decorate them with edible glitter, sprinkles, wafer flowers or have a go at making your own flowers with fondant icing or modelling chocolate (you might have to knead the fondant to soften it up for children to use, as it can be quite solid).   Don’t worry if you make a mistake – just roll it back up & start again!   Flowers are all unique by nature, which makes each one special.

So that’s your Mum’s elegant afternoon tea sorted, just add a pot of tea & a flute of fizz!  Here’s wishing a fabulous Mother’s Day to Mum’s everywhere (& the Dad’s who do double-duty as both)!  Stay hungry 😉  A x