The Pear Tart to Mandorle!

Sultry September has arrived with a slight coolness about her & although the mornings are a little chilly now, the sunrises are just as spectacular.  Getting up early means I see some amazing sunrises & Autumn never fails to deliver.  An array of moody clouds smooched across the sky this morning, kissing the rooftops as it gave way to the sunshine before we’d finished breakfast.  The garden looks prettily overgrown at the moment, all luscious long grass, wispy branches & a scattering of jewel-coloured blackberries on the hedgerows, contrasting with their dark green background.  They are happily growing at a rapid rate, replacing the ones that have already been plucked & packed in a pie with sweet sliced apples & cinnamon sugar.

Pastry plays a huge part of Autumnal food, mostly I think due to the fabulous produce that’s been growing all year & let’s face it, we all like a good fruit pie!  Although a slightly stodgy pie is very welcome at this time of year, sometimes we like something a little lighter but just as indulgent.  On one of my recent shopping trips to our local shops, there were shelves stacked with punnets of pears.  They looked so beautiful & fresh, with pale juniper green skins & a smattering of gold around the bottom.  Obviously, I had to buy some & starting thinking of how to do them some justice in a lighter pie, recipe calculating in my head as usual.  By the time I got to the checkout a few minutes later, I’d packed my basket with a selection of ingredients & headed home excitedly to start my next creation.

The filling would have included single cream, however there was a slight incident.  Upon opening the fridge, the cream pot leapt from the top shelf, unceremoniously smacking into the floor & spectacularly showering me & everything in it’s path.  Cue a huge clean up operation & a slight delay in my creation.  When things like this happen, I tend to have a look around to see what I can replace it with, rather than hit the shops again & I had some lovely over-ripe bananas that were the perfect replacement!   My Pear & Almond Tart (Crostata di Pere e Mandorle) is a simple but pretty dessert, easy to make & the addition of the dark chocolate makes it deliciously decadent.  Ready to bake it happen?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

For the Filling:
4 ripe Pears, peeled & cored
125g Ground Almonds
50g Plain Flour
3 large Eggs
100g Sugar
1 ripe Banana, peeled (if you’re weighing it, about 90g with skin on)
1-2 tablespoons Semi-Skimmed Milk
100g Dark Chocolate (the stuff you eat, not cooking chocolate!)
Quarter teaspoon Vanilla Extract

For the Pastry:
175g Self-Raising Flour (plus extra for rolling out & your tin)
60g Salted Butter (plus extra for preparing your tin)
60g Sugar
1 large Egg
2 teaspoons Cold Water
A little Orange or Lemon Zest (a couple of teaspoons should do)
Ceramic Baking Beans* & greaseproof paper for baking blind
Icing Sugar (approx 25g), for dusting

[*If you don’t have any baking beans, just use dried pasta like fusilli instead – when cooled, pop in a jar for future baking]

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 170*C & prepare your tin.

Smudge a little butter around the inside of a 10 inch loose-bottomed pie or flan tin, making sure you get it into all the edges.  Tip in a little flour & shake it all around to cover the butter, tapping the tin onto the worktop where you will be rolling out your pastry.  If you don’t have a loose-bottomed tin, when you’ve done the above stage, criss-cross long strips of greaseproof paper in the tin (make sure they go well over the edge of your tin so you can use them to lift your tart out after baking).  Set the tin aside.

Now to make the pastry!  Tip the flour & sugar into a mixing bowl, giving it a thorough stir.

Add the butter pieces to the bowl & using your fingertips, rub in the butter until everything resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Add the lemon or orange zest, mixing thoroughly.

Beat the egg in a cup & then add to the butter & flour rubble in the bowl.  Stir it well with a knife until it starts to come together into a ball, adding just a dribble of the cold water at a time until it forms a lovely soft dough.

Turn your dough ball onto a lightly floured worktop & give it a quick knead to smooth it out.  Add a little more flour to your work surface as you need it, but don’t over do it (otherwise your pastry will taste like cardboard).

Roll out your pastry to a couple of inches larger than the pie tin.  Using your rolling pin, flop the pastry over onto it & carefully drape it over your pie tin, so it reaches all the inside edges.

Push your pastry gently into all the edges of the tin, either using your fingertips or the end of a rolling pin (it’s smooth, so won’t tear your pastry).

Leave a little lip of pastry on the edge of the tin & trim off the excess – keep this for the decorations.

Take a piece of greaseproof paper, a couple of inches bigger than your tin & screw it up.  Unravel it & shape it to the inside of your pastry tin, making sure it covers the edges of your pastry to protect them.  Tip in the baking beans & bake in the centre of the oven for about 10-12 minutes, until the edges are just starting to turn golden.

Remove your tin from the oven & put on a cooling rack.  Leave the greaseproof paper & baking beans in place for at least 5 minutes (they will be hotter than the sun), then lift them out on the greaseproof paper & put in a heatproof bowl or similar to cool.

Now to make the filling!  Take the pears & halve them.  Use a teaspoon to scoop out the core.  Slice each half into fine, frond-like fingers.  Place one half in the pastry case, rounded side up & gently press to fan them out.  Add the next pear half & repeat, making sure each is nicely spaced apart.

Scatter the chocolate pieces all over the pears evenly.

Mash the soft banana in a bowl with a tablespoon of the milk, until you get a yoghurty thick liquid.  Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs & sugar together until it resembles a light cream coloured foam.

Add the banana & milk mixture, giving everything a good stir until fully incorporated.

Stir the ground almonds & flour together in a separate bowl, then fold into the wet ingredients until blended thoroughly.

Pour all over the chocolate covered pears evenly – don’t overfill the tin, as this doesn’t rise so it will just ooze out everywhere.

Bake in the lower part of the oven for about 35 minutes, until golden on top & slightly firm to the touch.  Poke a spaghetti stem in the middle & if it comes out clean, it’s cooked.  If not, pop it back in the oven for another 5 minutes or so.

Remove & put on a cooling rack to rest.  Once cool, trim off the pastry edge until level with the pie tin.  Set aside while you make the decorations.

Line a baking tin with greaseproof paper (this will make it easier to remove all the tiny pastry pieces later & it also means no washing up).

Dust your work top with flour & roll out the leftover pastry.  Using whatever cutters you have, cut out pretty shapes.  No cutters?  No problem!  Got a jar of herbs?  Take the top off & give it a wipe to remove any herbs (put the jar where you won’t knock it over).  Use the top to cut out small circles of pastry, then cut them in half & shape the flat edge slightly by pressing it gently out in the middle with your finger, so it looks like a leaf.

For flowers, you need to get a bit more creative – roll pastry into a few tiny balls, about 5mm.  Place one in the middle with five around the outside, then press with fingers to join together & form a flower.

Place your pastry leaves & flowers onto the paper lined tin & dust very lightly with a little bit of the icing sugar – put a bit of the sugar on the end of a teaspoon & tap into a tea strainer to get a fine dust.  This gives them a crispness & makes them nicer to handle when placing them on your tart.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 8-10 minutes until golden.

Lift the paper up & place on a cooling rack until completely cool.

Transfer your pie onto a serving plate, ready to adorn with your pastry foliage.

Dip a clean finger in cold water & dab a little on the back of each leaf & flower, placing them at intervals around the edge of the tart.  This is your masterpiece, so place them in any fashion you like.

Once you’re happy with your decorating skills, simply dust lightly with the rest of the icing sugar.  Use the tea strainer method I mentioned before.  It should be lightly dredged, not drenched!

Serve!  Lightly luscious & very lovely, simply cut into delicate slices & eat as it comes, or add a spoonful of slightly softened vanilla ice-cream.   I can’t tell you whether or not it freezes, as it only lasted until the next morning & the remaining slices were duly gifted to some very hard-working workmen (sharing the pastry!).  This pretty pear-filled pastry will look beautiful on an afternoon tea table or as a sumptuous treat after Sunday lunch.   So next time you fancy a fruity dessert, try my Pear Tart to Mandorle!  Stay hungry! 😉  Aimee x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cupcake Chocolat-Toes!

Sweltering Summer is here & the garden is flourishing fabulously, although the heatwave has played havoc with plans for doing any gardening!  The bees have been busy collecting their nectar & blossoms are blooming in abundance, inspiring me to create some Summery sugar art.

As you may have seen on my social media, I love making sugar shoes (usually with some of my handmade sugar paste roses perched prettily on top).  They’re definitely not for eating though, as they set like porcelain (plus it takes me at least a couple of days to make everything & I might just cry).  Simple or sassy, shoes are a wonderful way to bring a smile & shouldn’t just be for your feet!  Since I began making my fancy footwear,  I have tried all kinds of techniques, tools & templates, but always end up using a pair of my favourite shoes as a general guide.  If I’m honest, I prefer to make each one “freehand” so I’m creating something unique & special each time.

My first foray into edible footwear was making swirly stiletto cupcakes for a girly afternoon tea party with friends a few years ago.  At that point, the only cake decorating I’d done was a few blobs of buttercream frosting & although they have evolved considerably since then, I still like to make my little cupcake shoes for special occasions.  These sumptuously sweet stilettos are really easy to make & baking beginner friendly – the hardest part is deciding how to decorate them.  Because I wanted this to be for everyone’s level of ability, I would suggest using ready-made biscuits for the sole & heel in this recipe.  Ready to bake it happen?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

For the Cupcakes (12):
2 large Eggs
4oz Butter (unsalted & room temperature, slightly softened)
3oz Self-Raising Flour
1oz Cocoa Powder
1 teaspoon Instant Coffee (trust me on this, it will make the chocolate flavour more chocolatey)
4oz Sugar (I use my homemade vanilla sugar – pop a vanilla pod in a jar of sugar overnight & that’s it!)
A splash of Semi-Skimmed Milk (about 2 teaspoonsful)

For the Buttercream:
6oz Butter (unsalted, room temperature)
12oz Icing Sugar
Optional:
A few drops of your favourite food colour (try using the gel colours, as the ones from the supermarket tend to make your mixture go watery & the colours weak – I use PME Cake Decorating natural food colours)

(If you’re going to pipe flowers, remember to colour a small amount of the buttercream green for the leaves)

Decorations:
12 Chocolate Finger Biscuits or Ice Cream Cones (for the heels)
12 Plain long flat Biscuits (such as Langue-de-Chat biscuits)
(Tip: have some spares in case of breakages)
Edible Glitter, Pearls, Sugar Strands, Jelly Sweets or Sugar Flowers (you can buy these ready-made in supermarkets)

What to do:

First of all, pre-heat the oven to 190*C.  Prepare your tray – get a patty tin & line with a dozen cupcake cases, then set aside while you make the cake mixture.

Put the butter & sugar into a large mixing bowl.  Give it all a good whisk with the electric mixer (or a wooden spoon) until it turns a pale golden cream colour.

Add an egg to the mixture, then slowly mix this in to begin with until just combined.  Give it a firm whisking until the mixture is smooth.  Repeat with the second egg.

Stir the coffee & cocoa powder into the flour, then sift it into the wet mixture.  Fold the flour in using a spatula or a metal spoon & making smooth figure of eight movements to incorporate the flour into the wet mixture.  A metal spoon will cut any air bubbles, whereas a wooden spoon will knock them out & you’ve just spent ages whisking them in.

Once your mixture is completely smooth, divide as equally as you can into the cupcake cases.

Bake in the centre of the oven for 18-20 minutes, depending on your oven, until they are nicely risen.  To check if they are cooked, get a spaghetti stem & poke it in the middle – if it comes out clean, they’re done.

Remove your cupcakes from the tray & pop them onto a cooling rack.  Leave until fully cooled.

Now you’re ready to start decorating & will need your buttercream.  Put the butter in a bowl & beat until smooth, then spread it around the base of your bowl (so the sugar will stick to it).

Carefully, without causing a dust cloud, tip all the icing sugar on top of the butter.

Get a spatula & press the sugar into the butter, scooping it in from the sides of the bowl, flipping it over & repeating.  It will only take you a few moments & your arm might ache a bit, but it will create a smooth buttercream without the puff of sugar an electric mixer would give you!

Once combined, you’re ready to start getting creative with your cupcakes!  If you’re colouring your buttercream, add a couple of drops of colour & whisk into the mixture , adding a little more until you get the colour you like (please read the instructions on the bottle).  Usually, I only add about 4 drops as these gel colours are quite true to colour & don’t require much.

Once you’re happy with your buttercream, pop in a piping bag with your preferred nozzle & get swirling!  For a large swirl covering the whole cake, start at the outer edge & pipe slowly around your cupcake, heading towards the centre & finish with a swirl in the middle.  If you’re not sure how, my tip is to practise on a piece of greaseproof paper a few times beforehand.  You can always scoop the buttercream back into the piping bag when you’re ready (no point in wasting all that hard work you’ve put in!).

Put the cupcakes on the serving plate or board that you will be using to present them (once they’re made, you want to be able to move them easily).  Leave a couple of inches space between them.

Push a biscuit into the buttercream roughly at a 45 degree angle & put your “heel” under the free end of the biscuit.  Use a splodge of buttercream to hold it in place & pipe a swirl or two to make it look pretty.

Time to add some sparkle!  Decorate the buttercream on your cupcake “toes” with a sprinkle of edible glitter, pearls, sugar strands, jelly sweets or sugar flowers – it’s your creation, so make it how you like!  Use long multi-coloured sugar laces to create bows or straps on your heels too – try plaiting a few together to make a thicker shoe strap.  Because I had some sugar paste leftover, I made a few roses & leaves for the ones pictured.

That’s it!  Your sparkly shoes are ready to serve!  These are perfect for all kinds of celebrations – afternoon tea, birthdays, Princess parties, wedding or baby showers.   Because they’re so easy to make, these are brilliant for any budding bakers who want to get creative.  They also make the perfect gifts too.

Next time you’re having a few friends over for a special occasion, why not kick it off with some handmade sweet shoe treats & make my Cupcake Chocolat-toes!  Stay hungry!  A 😉 x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gorgeous Grissini Galore!

It’s been a proper soggy start to Summery June, especially this week (it’s been raining since Monday morning & barely stopped).  The weekend gave us some glorious sunshine & the opportunity to mow the lawns, pot some plants & generally have a tidy up around the garden.  The plants are loving the damp weather, flourishing & flowering all around (especially the peas who have pods on their vines!).  Although we all moan about it, the gardens need a proper downpour every now & then to keep them hydrated & healthy.

On days like these, I like to make my own sunshine & bake some beautiful treats!  Lusciously light sponge cakes, peachy fruit-packed pastries & velvety chocolate chip cookies all do the trick, especially with their heady perfume wafting through the house & the anticipation of tasting them later.  Recently, I rediscovered a treat that we have not made for quite some time: the gorgeous grissini!  These spindly, slender sticks of crisp, handmade bread are delicious with a few juicy olives, sundried tomatoes & of course a pan of my homemade tomato sauce for dunking.  After a long day at work or as pre-dinner nibbles for your guests, these make the perfect carpet-picnic fayre to tide you over until dinner is ready – substantial enough to take the edge off being hungry, but light enough to not affect appetites too much.

Now I’m not going to give you false hope here – they are one of the easiest & tastiest treats to make, but you will need to set aside a whole morning or an afternoon (which is perfect for soggy days!).  As each breadstick is handmade, there is a degree of patience required – you can’t rush this & I personally find it quite relaxing, therapeutic almost.  No machine required, this is all done by pure elbow grease – in fact, the only thing I will recommend is a pastry scraper (an inexpensive flat, flexible piece of plastic that will multi-task in a number of baking jobs, including wiping up worktops afterwards).  If you’re doing this alone, it can take a couple of hours to make a whole batch, so I would highly recommend getting the whole family involved (especially the children – this is great for helping them learn a basic life skill).

This recipe makes about 80-100 grissini, depending on how thin you roll them & I will tell you that the thicker ones have the most deliciously chewy texture, with just enough exterior crispiness too – these taste amazing dunked in a little aged Balsamic Vinegar & olive oil.  Grissini are definitely a ‘prepare in advance’ snack, not for those requiring instant gratification, but the results of your hard work will be rather satisfying.  Ready to get started?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

570g Strong Bread Flour (with extra for rolling out, etc)
50g Fine Semolina Flour
350ml Lukewarm Water
12g Dried Yeast
1/2 teaspoon ground Sea Salt
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Optional toppings:
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil (for brushing)
4 tablespoons Sesame Seeds
4 sprigs fresh Rosemary, chopped finely (just the leaves, not the stem) – you can use dried Rosemary, approx 2 tablespoons

What to do:

Firstly, mix the yeast with the lukewarm water to dissolve it.  It should go a muddy, light coffee colour.

Tip the flour & semolina into a large mixing bowl, add the sea salt & stir well to combine everything.

Make a well in the middle & pour in the olive oil, followed by the yeast water.  Stir everything with a fork, until it comes together into a nice big ball of rough dough.  Make sure you wipe it around the inside of the bowl thoroughly to pick up any leftover ingredients, until the bowl is virtually clean.

Tip the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface.  Keep the bowl to one side.   Start to knead the dough by placing it in front of you, pushing down & away from you with the heel of your hand.  Then pull it back onto itself, give it a half turn on your worktop & repeat.  Try to get into a rhythm, working at a nice pace & keep the dough moving (if you’re moving too slow here, the dough will stick to the worktop,  so just slide the pastry scraper underneath & flip it back).

Give it a good ten minutes of kneading, as shown in the pictures here, using a little more flour if you need to, but try to avoid it if you can – a sticky dough is a stretchy dough & you need that stretch later on!

After ten minutes, your dough should be elasticated & have a bit of boing to it – roll it into a ball, press your finger gently on the top & if it springs back, it’s done.

Dust the inside of your bowl with a little flour & place the dough inside, giving a little dust of the fine semolina or flour on top.  Smudge a little olive oil onto a sheet of cling film, cover the bowl loosely oil-side down & place in a draught-free, warm place for an hour (warm airing cupboards are brilliant if you have one).  If you don’t have cling film, use a sheet of greaseproof paper oiled in the same way & cover with a tea towel.

While your dough is proving, pre-heat the oven to 220*C  – you want it scorching hot for bread-making & this will give crispness to your grissini.

Prepare a few tins (you’re going to need them) – lightly dust a few flat baking trays with a little coarse semolina flour, just as you would for pizzas.  You don’t need any fancy non-stick stuff, just a regular baking tray should suffice.  Set to one side, ready for your grissini.

Once proved, your dough will have risen to at least double in size & will be slightly domed on top.  Remove the clingfilm & pull the dough out onto a lightly floured worktop.

Using your pastry scraper, cut the dough into four & shape into oval balls – if you’re doing them all plain, just cut a quarter of the dough & leave the rest covered with a tea towel.

Again using that trusty pastry scraper, cut a finger thickness of dough from the ball & roll into a long slender sausage shape, the length of your baking tray.  Use your fingers to pinch the ends off if too long, don’t cut them & keep the ends to one side to make more.  You want your grissini to look rustic, handmade & not just squished out by a machine.  Personally, I like to twist & twirl them to get a nice bobbly sort of  texture when they’ve baked, but it’s up to you how you do it.   Lay each one about half an inch apart, as they grow a little during baking.

You should end up with lots of slender stems of dough on your baking tray.  Place in the centre of the oven for about 10-12 minutes, until lightly golden (if you’re making them slightly fatter, give them 12-14 minutes, but keep an eye on them so they don’t burn).

Remove & lift your grissini onto a cooling rack until ready to serve.  Usually, I tend to bake them on a constant rotation of two trays in the oven while I’m prepping another two trays, until all the dough is used up.

If you’re going to add a little extra to your grissini, roll out as above & lay them on the prepared baking trays.  Brush them with a little olive oil & generously shower with sesame seeds or the Rosemary (or both, which is very tasty).  Bake as above.  One of the best bonuses of this is when all your grissini are baked, there will be a tray of toasted sesame seeds & Rosemary leftover.  These are truly splendid scattered over salads, cheese bakes, roasted tomatoes & even just for dunking a delicious tomato-sauce smothered grissini in.  Keep leftover ones in a little ramekin or glass jar for this purpose.

Once you’re ready to dive into these delectable crisp delights, lay them on a large wooden board surrounded by a selection of petite pots, filled with sundried tomatoes, olives, artichokes & other such delicacies.  If you’re serving these as a starter for a dinner party, add some slices of salami, proscuitto & an array of antipasto.

Make up a small batch of tomato sauce for dipping too (trust me, this is essential with fresh grissini!).  Here’s an easy recipe that you can whip up in a few minutes.  Tip a couple of tins of proper Italian plum tomatoes in a saucepan & squish into smaller pieces (get your hands in there, you’ll wash).  Add a good squeeze of tomato puree, a couple of cloves of freshly chopped garlic, a few fresh Basil leaves (roughly shredded) & a pinch of sugar, along with a few firm twists of black pepper (freshly ground is best) & a pinch of sea salt.  Stir everything together with a glug of olive oil & reduce on a medium heat for a few minutes.  Once it’s all bubbling like glossy hot lava, it’s done!  Turn off the heat, give it a good stir & let it cool for a couple of minutes (as with most hot lava-like sauces, let it rest).  Taste it & adjust the seasoning if you need to, then serve!

Any leftover grissini should keep for a couple of days in an airtight container (I’m being optimistic here, because even though you’ve made what appears to be squillions of slender breadsticks, they will disappear as rapidly as if you only made four).

Next time it’s a soggy day, the kids are bored or you are just out of tasty treats or snacks, just “dough” it & bake a batch of gorgeous grissini!  Heavenly, healthy & handmade – what’s not to love?!  Have a fabulous week & stay hungry!  Aimee  😉 x

 

 

 

 

 

Espresso Yourself!

Although it’s barely the beginning of March, we have been enjoying plenty of gloriously golden sunshine & blue skies, lifting everyone’s spirits.  Dainty flowers are flourishing in hedgerows & borders, a vast array of vibrant colours emerging & encouraging us to believe Spring has arrived.  It’s like we’ve just opened a window after Winter, a breathe of beautiful freshness after the cold snap.  This time of year is the most exciting for me, when the sleepy seeds & bulbs are stirring in the ground, springing from the soil & bringing a new season of flowers, vegetables & recipes!  There are always lovely smiling faces at my local shops too (hi to Rebecca at Lidl!) & although I only popped in for eggs, I always end up with a basket full of goodies (including a potted Oregano to add to my ever increasing hoard of herbs on the patio, but not the walnuts that I only remembered as I pulled into the driveway).  Whilst waiting at the checkout, I got chatting with one of our Derbyshire Fire & Rescue Fire Fighters (hi Anna!).  It never ceases to amaze me how our Fire Fighters head off into potentially highly dangerous situations (obviously they have lots of training & nerves of steel), so huge thanks & appreciation for their service!

Today would have been my Grandma’s birthday, Mamma as she was fondly known to us & she was one of the best bakers I know.  Her velvety rich chocolate cake was rather famous in our family & I would love sitting at the huge table in her kitchen, watching her carefully create this magical masterpiece.  Saturday afternoons would involve watching wrestling with Grandad (it was Giant Haystacks & Big Daddy in those days), then curling up on the sofa with Mamma & a slice of cake while we watched Calamity Jane or another old Hollywood classic.  Cake should invoke happy memories, both to the baker & the eater – birthdays, weddings, anniversaries & afternoons with your favourite people are all accompanied by a good cake (or they should be).  It’s a fabulous way to show someone how much you care & baking a cake for someone is personal, unique & one of the easiest ways to make them smile.

Perfect for Springtime afternoons, my lusciously light & lovely Coffee & Walnut cake is one of my Husband’s favourites & something I’ve been making for many years.  When I worked in an office, I would bake cakes for client meetings & once made this for an important new client – I shelled the walnuts myself & a piece accidentally got in the cake, which obviously ended up in her slice!  This recipe began as a few scribbles in the back of a notebook one afternoon, when I decided to bake & discovered a lack of sugar, so used golden syrup instead (one of my best experiments!).  Before we get started, I just want to address the type of sugar for this particular recipe.  Because golden caster sugar is not always easy to find, I tend to use light golden Demerara or Vanilla sugar (just put regular sugar in a jar with a snapped vanilla pod overnight).  It blends perfectly without any grittiness, but if you’re concerned just chuck it into a coffee grinder to make it fine.  Ready to get baking?  Hands washed & aprons on, here we go!

What you need:

6oz Unsalted Butter (room temperature)
6oz Self-Raising Flour
(plus a little extra Butter & Flour for prepping your cake tins)
4oz Sugar (I use either Demerara or Vanilla Sugar as mentioned)
2oz Golden Syrup
3 large Eggs
4oz Walnut pieces (plus 12 walnut halves for decorating the top)
4 tablespoons Espresso Coffee (leftover from the morning’s fresh pot or just strong coffee mixed in cold water)

For the buttercream:
10oz Icing Sugar
5oz Unsalted Butter (room temperature)
2 teaspoons Espresso Coffee (saved from the mixture above)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 175*C & put the shelf in the centre of the oven.

Prepare your cake tins – you will need two 7 inch cake tins for this cake.  Grease with a little butter all around the inside (you can use the butter wrapper or just smudge around with your fingers).  Chuck in a spoonful of flour & shake it all around, until all the butter is covered.  Tip out the excess.

Cut two circles of greaseproof paper out to fit the bottom of your tins & pop one in each.  Although the butter & flour will make your tins non-stick, this will ensure your cake comes out clean too.

Put the softened butter into a large mixing bowl, pour in the golden syrup & tip the sugar on top.  Using an electric whisk (or a wooden spoon if you like), whip up the butter, syrup & sugar until light, smooth & a pale cream colour.

Crack in one egg at a time & whisk thoroughly into the mixture (it will become looser, so don’t panic).

Once all your eggs are combined, sift in the flour & then fold into the mixture.  Folding is just stirring in a figure of eight style around the bowl, until your dry ingredients are mixed into the wet.

Stir a little of the coffee into the cake mixture gently, just a spoonful at a time & taste it (it should be delicately coffee flavoured, not “smack you round the face” cake!).

Add the walnut pieces & stir in gently to combine.

Divide the mixture equally between the two cake tins, spreading out to the edges with a spatula (just to even out the mixture).

Bake in the centre of the oven for approximately 25 minutes, until the centre has risen & turned a gorgeous golden brown on top.

To test if your cake is ready, poke a stick of spaghetti into the centre & if it comes out clean, your cake is done!  Pop your tins onto a cake rack to cool for a minute.

Slide a pallet knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it from the tin, then tip it onto your (oven gloved) hand, peel off the greaseproof paper from the base (pull it back onto itself, not straight up or you’ll break your cake) & place the cake carefully onto the cooling rack, bottom side down.  Repeat with the other one & leave to go completely cold.

Now to make the filling!  I have a certain method for making buttercream, because I really don’t like using an electric whisk & being showered in sugar!  This is the way I do it & it’s really easy, but your arms might ache after (it’s all worth it in the end!).

Tip the butter into a large mixing bowl & give it a good beating with a wooden spoon or spatula, just to make it smooth.

Add all the sugar & using your spatula, press it into the creamed butter, using the sides of the bowl as you do.

Continue until all the sugar & butter are blended into a thick, creamy mixture.  Add a little coffee, mix in & taste (again, it should be delicately flavoured).  If it becomes too loose, add another tablespoon of icing sugar & blend again.  It needs to be stiff enough to pipe onto the cake.

Pop your buttercream into a piping bag, either with a nozzle or your choice or without (I’ve used a plastic bag with a corner snipped off when I’ve not had a piping bag to hand).

Once the cake is cold, it will be easier to decorate & less likely to break up (if the weather is hot, give it 10 mins in the fridge after the cake has gone cold & this will give you a much better base to work on).

Place your bottom layer of cake onto a serving plate & pipe around the edge of the cake – I pipe a pretty pattern around the edge & then fill in the centre bit by just piping long swirls tapering off in the middle.

Carefully place the top layer of cake onto the buttercream, pressing gently down & making sure it’s even all the way around.

Pipe a small swirl of buttercream in the centre of the cake & pop a walnut half on top, pressing gently.

Pipe further swirls around the cake at equal spaces, dotting with the walnut halves as above.  If you do have any leftover buttercream, don’t throw it away – pipe little swirls or flowers onto a strip of greaseproof paper & freeze for future bakes.  Next time you have a cake emergency (yes they do exist), you have ready-made decorations.  Sometimes, I like to dust all over with a spoonful of icing sugar (put a teaspoonful in a tea strainer & shake it over your cake like a dredging of sugary snow).

Leave to set for ……. as if I’d make you wait!  Get slicing & sharing your beautiful baking!  If you do have any leftovers, wrap in cling film & freeze for an afternoon treat.  Whether you’re celebrating or just fancy a slice of sweetness, why not “Espresso yourself” & whip up my Coffee & Walnut cake to share!  Stay hungry! A 😉 x

 

 

 

 

Get Your Glammon!

Cheery Christmas cards full of festive wishes have started arriving at the Hungry household.  Although we’re halfway into December, the realisation that Christmas is almost upon us has appeared like a flashing neon sign.  We all lead busy lives, with some days seeming to blur into one another & before you know it, you’ve got a glass of fizz in one hand, a saucepan in the other & a houseful of hungry guests.  Juggling your many hats is not an easy task – there’s the Work you, the Home you, the you who everyone turns to when things go backside up & then there’s the you who feeds everyone.  Having a little time in reserve for yourself is rare & when you do get a bit of spare time, everyone wants a share of it.  Sometimes, you have to be a bit selfish because if you don’t look after yourself, you won’t be able to look after anyone else.  This time of year can be a real drain on you too, both physically & mentally, so we all need a bit of help every now & then (& a lot of coffee!).

As you probably know by now, I like to prepare meals in advance as much as I can & do a bit of “stealth cooking”.  This is where I cook a couple of (or ten) extra portions of everything & freeze them for future meals – there’s very little effort in peeling a few extra potatoes or chopping another couple of carrots (especially if you delegate).  It’s like having your own fast food outlet in your freezer & all you’ve got to do is decide what you want for dinner!   Trust me, after a long day at work & being tightly packed on a train for an hour, plus having at least a 20 minute drive home, you really don’t want to be faffing around with food when you get there.  Be kind to yourself & with a little planning, you can be organised like a cooking ninja (just think of me as your Foodie Godmother).

This glamorous glazed gammon ham is something I learned to cook many years ago & is perfect for creating multiple meals.  For those of you who have never heard of gammon before, it is a pork joint made from the haunch or hind legs of a pig.  This is cured like bacon, sometimes brined & salted, but always must be cooked before consuming.  As with bacon, gammon can be smoked or unsmoked & for this recipe, I have used unsmoked so that the flavour of the fragrant spices can infuse with the meat.  The word ‘gammon’ originated from the old French word ‘gambon’ (now ‘jambon’) around the 15th century, which in turn became translated to the English word ‘ham’.

Although it’s great served as a special Sunday dinner, this heavenly ham can also go a lot further than just one meal!  Served hot with buttery mashed potatoes, crisp roasted parsnips & a golden-crusted, velvety cauliflower cheese, it really hits the spot!  Leftovers are deliciously lovely – slice thinly for nibbling with cheese & crackers, layer with salad in sandwiches & a feisty mustard mayo, or chuck chunks into a creamy, cheese-enveloped pasta bake.  I’ve fried it for breakfast, created some fabulous frittatas & it’s even graced a few of my homemade pizzas too!

Over time, I’ve tweaked the recipe but always go back to my favourite way to cook it.  The gammon is boiled & then baked, neither of which you have to stand around watching, but the best bit is the wonderfully fragrant spices, with their mulled wine perfume & delicately warm taste.  The gorgeously gooey glaze gives it a deep rose tinted finish & the scent will definitely make you feel Christmassy!  As it’s the time of year for making mulled wine too, I must confess that I have on occasion added the spices from my homemade version the night before (you can see some of the wine-coloured, slightly sozzled oranges in the photos below), with a few fresh spices thrown in – waste not, want not!  This could possibly be the shimmering jewel on your table for Boxing Day & beyond.  Ready to get your Glammon?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

500g – 1kg Gammon joint, unsmoked
5 Star Anise, whole
1 teaspoon Black Peppercorns, whole
1 teaspoon Cloves, whole
2 Cinnamon sticks
1 chunk of fresh Ginger (about the size of your thumb & twice as wide)
2 medium Oranges (room temperature)
Approx 3 pints of cold Water (it should cover the gammon by at least 3 inches, so depending on the size of your joint/pan, use your own judgement here)

For the Glaze:
Half a jar of Apricot Jam
1 tablespoon Stem Ginger Syrup (from a jar of Stem Ginger)
1 tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar
1 tablespoon Mango Chutney (optional)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 180*C & prepare a dish for the baking part of the process (get this out of the way now & you can just pop it into the oven without trying to find a dish).

Line a casserole dish or lasagne dish with greaseproof paper, making sure it comes right up & over the edges like a little paper dish inside.  This will catch all the syrupy sticky glaze & stop it ruining your best baking dishes (I learned the hard way).

Put the gammon into a large, deep saucepan (I’ve got a huge pasta pan that I use for this) – your pan should be big enough to leave about 3-4 inches between the top of the cooking water & the top of the pan.  Make sure you’ve removed all the wrapping from the gammon (including that paper circle around the edge), as you want all the lovely spices to impart their fragrant flavours into the meat.

Snap the cinnamon sticks in half & chuck them in the pan.

Add the cloves, star anise & peppercorns to the pan, just scatter them all over the gammon & around it.

Peel the ginger, cut into a few thick stems & chuck them in the pan too.

Because you want the juice from your oranges as well as their skin, they need to be at room temperature & not cold (the warmer they are, the more juice you’ll get).  Give them a firm roll on a worktop or chopping board – this will help you get the most juice from them.

Cut the oranges into halves, squeeze the juice all over the meat & pop the skins in the pan next to it.

Carefully pour the water into the pan now, making sure there is about three inches of water above the meat, plus enough room between the water & the top of the pan.  Pop the lid almost on the pan, leaving a tiny little gap to allow steam to escape.

Bring to the boil gently, then turn down the heat until it’s just a bubbling simmer.  It’s a bit like giving the gammon a spicy bubble bath & you don’t want any spillages.

Simmer for an hour with the lid almost fully on (leave a tiny gap), checking on it after about 20 minutes, just to make sure it’s all going as planned.

Once boiled, carefully lift the gammon into the prepared casserole dish.  Sometimes, the joint may have started to “unravel” itself, so get a couple of metal skewers & push through each side across each other to pull everything back together.

Stand the gammon on it’s edge, skewer spikes down, ready to be glazed.

Put all the glaze ingredients into a mixing bowl & mash together.  Make sure everything is mixed well into a gooey, gloopy syrup.  Pour all over the gammon, making sure you coat it all over the top & sides thoroughly.

Bake in the lower half of the oven for about 30 minutes, checking halfway through cooking & basting with the glaze – just scoop it up from the dish & spoon it over.

Once ready, it should be shiny & the colour will have deepened slightly.  Remove from the oven & place the dish on a cooling rack to rest for half an hour (I like to cover mine loosely with foil or greaseproof paper – just make a dome shape over the dish, so it doesn’t touch your glazed gammon).

While it’s resting, get your side dishes cooking (this is where those pre-prepared extras you’ve made come in – pop them into little dishes, whack them in the oven & relax).

Remove the skewers carefully from your gammon joint (they will still be very hot) & place the joint on a chopping board in the centre of the table, ready to serve!

You won’t need to call your guests to the table – once your gammon is ready to dish up, there will be a queue of shiny little faces at the kitchen door waiting to taste it.  If you do have any leftovers, try some of the suggestions I’ve made above (especially the pizza one – here’s the link to my pizza dough recipe to give you a bit of help: http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/a-pizza-cake/).

So there’s my gorgeously gooey & ever so slightly glamorous gammon.  When you’re fed up of turkey or just fancy something spicy & special, get your Glam-mon!  Stay hungry!  Aimee 😉 x

 

 

 

 

Super Cauli-Flower Cheese-ness!

It’s been a few weeks since I wrote my last blog (my apologies & I hope my social media pics have kept you well fed in it’s absence).  After a very busy October, filled with sugar art, baking & creating spooky treats for my friend’s little boy who was having a Halloween party, we have zoomed through a newly frosted November at warp speed & driven straight into December!  If you’ve been following me on social media, you’ll know that our Son has graduated from University in November (cue lots of photos & two extremely proud parents!).  Seeing him there in his cap & gown, clutching his well-deserved Degree, was one of those moments I won’t forget!  He’s probably reading this, so I’ll just say it’s wonderful to see all his hard work (both studying & supporting himself working) come to fruition, so congratulations once again & we’re really proud of you!

Things have been busy here in the Hungry household, what with all the celebrating & such.  Now the seasons have cooled drastically, the garden is looking a little tired & in need of some love.  The pots of pretty pink & delicate white miniature Chrysanthemums were recently in full bloom, brightening up the patio with their petite blossoms, while some squirrels had a great time munching on the buffet of bulbs we planted & flinging their furry little selves around the garden with airborne abandon (that can’t be good for their digestion).

The chilly days of late November sunshine & sogginess have given way to a Wintry December, which could be why we are craving richer, rib-sticking dinners & delicious desserts.  Anytime of year, we all have those days when we need something substantial to sustain our busy lives & keep us nourished, both physically & spiritually (because food should do both).  Not necessarily a full-on girdle-busting roast dinner with all the trimmings (although very welcome at certain times of the year!), but sometimes we just need a hearty helping of heavenly comfort food to give us a boost.  Some of the simplest foods can bring us such comfort, just by their fragrant aroma or even the thought of them, evoking happy memories of meals gone by.

One of my favourite indulgences is a large spoonful of creamy, crunchy-topped cauliflower cheese, enveloped in a silky smooth cheese sauce.  Although I know you can get cauliflower all year round, it seems to taste better when it’s in season during these later months.  Cauliflower is one of the most versatile veg we can eat & I’ve grilled, baked, steamed, boiled & pureed it, cooked it in curries & eaten it raw, dipped in lots of luscious pots of sauces, pesto & salsa (this came from when I was a little girl & loved to eat the stalk).   

Usually, I like to serve a rich cauliflower cheese as a side dish with a roast dinner (especially with my spicy roast & baked gammon – recipe soon), but if I’m honest, it’s simply beautiful on it’s own as a luscious veggie dish.  Pure pale cloud-like florets, steamed until al dente & draped in the most luxurious silky smooth sauce, created with a collection of cheeses & crowned with a deeply golden crispy crust – it’s spectacular as the main event, rather than just a mere side dish & this humble vegetable should be given a bit more kudos! 

There are various ways to prepare cauliflower cheese & I have shared this recipe before, but I feel it deserves an article all of it’s own.  It freezes really well & you know how much I like to have food prepared in advance (especially if it’s been languishing in your fridge & needs using up).  If you have various bits of cheese that are loitering in your fridge, now is the time to gather them all together for this delicious dish!  Half a bowl of bocconcini balls, odds & ends of Red Leicester & Double Gloucester?  Grate, slice & shred them to go in this dish.  If you are using smoked cheese, you might want to omit the Gorgonzola or any blue cheese (I find they are both strong flavours & probably best using one or the other).  Ready?  Aprons on, hands washed & here we go!

What you need:

1 large head of Cauliflower (2 if they’re small or you’re making extra to freeze)
1 teaspoon Sea Salt (for the cooking water)

For the cheese sauce:

1 pint of Semi-Skimmed Milk
3oz Salted Butter
3oz Plain Flour
6oz Cheese, grated (half for topping & half for the sauce)
Other bits of Cheese, about half an ounce each – I’ve used Gorgonzola Dolce, Grana Padana, Mozzarella, Bocconcini, Red Leicester, Cheshire, Ricotta & Cream Cheese – if it’s cheese, chuck it in!
Half an ounce of grated Parmesan (for the topping)
1 crust of bread (preferably a day or two old, but if you have to use fresh, leave it out on the side unwrapped)
Oregano (dried is fine)
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper for seasoning

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C, then fill the kettle & put it on to boil.

Prepare the cauliflower heads – trim off the leaves & remove the stalk, then separate into florets, keeping them as chunky as you can & wash them in cold water.  Place all the florets into a steamer & sprinkle with a good pinch of sea salt.

Pour the boiling water all over the florets, dissolving the salt & washing everything (salt is a purifier).  Put the lid on the pan & steam for about 8 minutes until al dente (poke it with a sharp knife & it should be still be firm, but easy to cut).

While your cauliflower is steaming, prepare your cheeses.  Grate any of the hard cheeses, such as the Grana Padana, mild cheese, etc (if you’ve got a food processor attachment, use it & make your life easier – your knuckles will thank you!).  Mix them well & set aside.  Any cheese with a rind will need it removing, such as the Gorgonzola.  Cut into rough pieces & set aside.

For cream cheese or ricotta, scoop a spoonful into a cup or bowl (leave the spoon in it) & place with your other cheeses.  Once you start making the sauce, you’ll need everything to hand so it’s best to get this organised now.

Once ready, transfer the florets carefully into a large lasagne or pie dish.  Make sure they are all floret-side up & pack them well into the dish.  I find this easier to do with a couple of forks or spoons, so you don’t burn your fingers.  Set to one side while you make the sauce.

Gently melt the butter in a large saucepan – this should be a plain or stainless steel pan, not a non-stick one as you’re going to use a metal whisk in it & you don’t want to wreck your saucepan (or get bits of non-stick coating in your sauce either!).

Remove from the heat & add the flour, put back on the heat & working quickly, whisk thoroughly to combine into a thick, shiny roux.  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 (nothing fancy, just a plain wire one will do).

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 & around the edges of the pan to ensure nothing sticks.

As the sauce thickens up, you should start to feel some resistance with the whisk.  Keep whisking slowly (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.

Add the other cheeses & whisk in again until melted.  Turn off the heat.

Take a spoon & dip it into the sauce – it should coat the back of the spoon well & leave a trail in the pan.  The consistency of the sauce should be like natural yoghurt.

Now taste it – depending on which types of cheese you have used, it might not need much seasoning as some cheeses, such as Parmesan, can be a little saltier than others.

Add a pinch of black pepper (half a dozen twists with a pepper grinder should be fine) & if you think it needs it, add a pinch of sea salt but go steady because once it’s in, you can’t take it out.

Whisk & taste again (with a clean spoon please!).  If you’re happy with your cheese sauce, carefully pour all over the cauliflower florets, drizzling slowly into all the corners & working your way towards the centre.  Make sure every floret is covered with the sauce & use a spatula to scrape out any remaining in the pan – you’ve worked hard to make this & shouldn’t waste any (or you could just dip a piece of crusty bread in & eat it – call it Chef’s perks).

Sprinkle the remaining grated cheese & the little bit of Parmesan all over the top generously, grating more if you think it needs it (I usually end up doing this).  Every little creamy cloud of cauliflower should be covered in a good sprinkling of cheese!

Do the same with the breadcrumbs, ensuring an even coating all over.

Finally, add a good dusting of the dried Oregano across the whole thing.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 20-25 minutes, until bubbling furiously & the top has turned the most gorgeous golden brown.

Remove carefully & place on a cooling rack for 5 minutes (trust me, it won’t go cold!).  This will allow everything to relax, settle & generally calm for a few moments (because it will be hotter than the sun & you don’t want to burn your mouth).

Serve either as a side dish with a Sunday dinner or simply scoop some onto a plate, grab a spoon & indulge in a little luscious cheesy delight on these cold evenings.  If you want to pimp it up a bit, scatter some chopped crispy smoked bacon pieces into the cheese sauce just before you pour onto the florets, or add broccoli to bring some colour to the dish.  Try adding different cheeses (Goat’s Cheese is a lovely alternative to cream cheese or maybe try crumbling a little Cheshire cheese into the sauce), perhaps swap fresh Thyme for the Oregano & even add a few delicate dots of red chilli to give it some extra heat!

So that’s my very cheesy, creamy Super Cauli-Flower Cheese-ness, in all it’s lusciously gooey gorgeousness!  Make it your own centrepiece for a vegetarian dinner, or even as an accompanying dish to go with your favourite Sunday roast.  Next time you want a side with substance, reach for the cauliflower & create a little cheesy indulgence!  Stay hungry!  A 😉 x

 

 

 

 

Hob To It & Wake Up To A Bake Up!

The mornings are now fabulously frosty, so we all need suitable sustenance to start the day.  It’s been seven weeks since the new kitchen project began & we are still technically hob-less, which doesn’t help when we fancy a fry up.  It’s the simple stuff you miss when you don’t have a working hob, like cooking a proper breakfast.  Even a basic boiled egg has become a rarity, which isn’t good when it’s boiled egg & soldiers season!  All the stress of this project has taken it’s toll (obviously made worse with the hob issues), so I’ve had to get even more creative in the kitchen (I’ve been baking plenty of bread & taking my stress out on the dough!).

Initially, I had thoughts about building a camp fire at the bottom of the garden (s’mores on toast anyone?), or borrowing a barbeque so I could at least use my skillet to whip up a bacon butty, however these weren’t really viable options.  Having a microwave is essential in hob-free times, but I must admit I’m not very good at microwave cooking, apart from reheating & defrosting stuff.  My Husband is somewhat of a microwave magician though, so I’m very lucky!

After a fed up phone call to my Mum, bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t even fry an egg, she suggested baking eggs on a tray in the oven, a bit like a hot plate & it works really well (obviously, because Mums are always right).  So this Monday morning, I decided to start the day with a “bake up” instead of a “fry up”!  I defrosted a few frozen rashers of smoked bacon, laid them out on a baking tray (no oil required) & put them in the oven to crisp up.  Several sizzling minutes later, the bronzed bacon rashers had given up their oil onto the tray, ready to plop some eggs into.  Now I didn’t want runaway random shaped eggs & I don’t have any fancy cooking rings like those you see on TV shows (or the budget!), so I used a couple of stainless steel pastry/cookie cutters instead with the flat side down.  They work perfectly!  As I like my eggs cooked through (yolk should be runny, but not the white thank you very much!), halfway through cooking just after they turned white, I spoon a little hot bacon fat over them.  The rings keep it in place, making sure the tops get cooked nicely & you don’t have to flip your eggs half way through (risking a burst yolk in the tray).  Obviously, you can use whatever shape you like – dinosaur, star or flower, as long as they’re ovenproof!  Another bonus to cooking this way is that you don’t need to stand watching pans, you just chuck it all in the oven!  When I put the eggs in, I also like to place a dinky dish of baked beans in the oven too, along with a couple of croissants (a bit like posh beans on toast).  So in about fifteen minutes, we had an effortless breakfast bake up & minimal washing up afterwards – bonus!

There’s also another very easy way to do this using a patty or muffin tin to make bacon & egg cups, which is great if you’re cooking for a few people.  Line each muffin tin with a layer of bacon (no need to grease them because the bacon does that), pressing down firmly all around, pop in a hot oven for about five minutes to start the cooking process & make the bacon nice & crispy.  Then simply crack an egg into each one & bake for a few more minutes until the egg is completely set.  You can always place a hot tin or some foil over the top for a few minutes extra, just to make sure the eggs are completely cooked through.  Once they’re ready, gently ease each one out with a palette knife onto a couple of slices of warm, buttered toast & watch them disappear!  If you use ham instead of bacon, just brush each tray with a little oil using a pastry brush.

Personally, I like brown sauce with my breakfast bake up & this is my very quick version.  This little treat came from having a fry-up & discovering we only had half a bottle of tomato ketchup in the pantry.  Obviously, this would never do & so I poured a glug of good Balsamic vinegar into the bottle (about a teaspoonful or two) & shook it vigorously (with the lid firmly on) for a few minutes until it was thoroughly mixed.  Give it a quick taste test & add a little more Balsamic if you think it needs it.  That’s all you need to make luscious, lovely sauce, ready to drizzle on a bacon butty!  Squeeze some into a small cup or dish with a spoon, so everyone can help themselves to a splodge.  I’ve not bought brown sauce since & just keep a good supply of tomato ketchup handy.  There are other ways to enhance the flavour, just have a play with different ingredients using the ketchup as a base.

So if you find yourself in a similar situation, just hob to it & begin the day with a breakfast bake up!  Stay hungry 😉 A x

 

 

 

 

There’s More to Stew Than Just a Pie!

This time of year is one of my favourites, as the last remnants of Summer slowly hand over the baton to the slight chill of September & bring those bright, sunny sharp mornings that you can taste in the air.  The hedgerows are full of dark & glossy, ripe blackberries, vegetables are ready for digging up & the branches of trees are groaning with the weight of their various fruits.

Just as the seasons begin to change, so does our desire for more hearty, substantial meals.  I love going outside early in the morning to collect the tasty treasures from our garden!  As I wander around, so does my mind as I consider what fabulous meals I’m going to make with these wonderful ingredients.  Obviously, we only grow a small amount of fruit & vegetables, so I like to head to the local shops & pick up whatever is in season.  Most people go shopping with a list; I like to just see what’s available, then decide what I can make from that.

Although I like a good pudding as much as everyone else, I absolutely adore a proper stew, made with a few simple ingredients & a lot of patience.  Everything is slowly cooked for a few hours, as the whole house is filled with it’s heady aroma & your stomach dragon starts to gurgle in anticipation of dinnertime!  Growing up, my Mum would make the most amazing stews & halfway through cooking, I would pester her for a cup of the rich gravy to dunk some crusty bread in.  Eventually, she would give in & I would sit on a stool, talking to her & clutching onto my cup as I savoured the steamy, flavourful liquid.

Everyone has their favourite recipes, their own way of doing things, but this is how I cook my Steak, Ale & Mushroom stew.  It is perfect for packing into pies & pasties to warm you up on a chilly Autumn evening, or just eating hot from the pot with a few slices of crusty, buttered bread.  It’s a really easy to make “chuck it all in a pot” kind of meal, very filling & it’s completely faff-free!  This makes two casserole dishes, because why make one when you can make two at the same time?  I can get about six very generous portions from this lot, so it could feed eight (my mini-pie dishes are actually not very mini really, they would feed two).  Freeze what you don’t use, it keeps very well & you can always keep a stash in reserve for evenings when you just don’t fancy cooking.

What you need:

500g Stewing Meat – I prefer beef, but you can use whatever you like (adjust which herbs you use accordingly)
2-3 Onions
4 Carrots
2 Parsnips
(you can use whatever root veg you like here – if you don’t like carrots, use something you do like)
12 Baby Potatoes (I usually have a few leftover in the fridge from other meals)
1 punnet of Mushrooms
A handful of fresh Thyme sprigs
Gravy Powder & water (I usually use 6 heaped spoonfuls to a pint & half of cold water per casserole dish)
Freshly ground Black Pepper
25cl Beer (one of those small, dumpy bottles is plenty)

How to do it:

Preheat the oven to 150*C.  Put the grill tray in the bottom of the oven, to catch any spills (if you follow my instructions though, there shouldn’t be any, but it’s best to be prepared).  Move the shelf to the lowest setting in the oven.

You will need two casserole dishes with lids, just the regular sized ones should do.

Divide the meat up equally between the dishes, removing any gristle or excess fat (slight marbling of fat in the meat is fine, because that will cook out & adds flavour, but anything else can be removed).  Use scissors for this – it’s so much easier that chasing a slippery chunk of meat around a chopping board with a sharp knife!

Prepare the vegetables – peel, top & tail the carrots, onions & parsnips.  Dice the onions.  Chop the other veg into bite sized pieces – I usually cut them down the centre lengthways, then again & chop them into pieces.  Share them between the two casserole dishes.

Leave the peel on the potatoes, just wash them.  Cut them the same way as the carrots, quartered lengthways, then chop into bite sized pieces.  Again, share equally between the dishes.

Clean the mushrooms by wiping them with a damp cloth to remove any grit or dirt.  If you’re using Chanterelle mushrooms, use a pastry brush instead to flick out any bits of dirt.  Cut into pieces or leave them whole if small enough, then share between each casserole dish.

For each dish, make up a pint of gravy as per the instructions on the packet (I used Bisto Gravy Powder because it was in my cupboard, but it’s your personal choice).  You could use fresh stock here if you prefer, or a stock cube.  I prefer the powder, as it also seasons the stew perfectly – no need to add any salt.

Share the bottle of beer between the dishes.  Stir everything together & make sure the liquid covers everything.  The mushrooms will float for now.  Season with the black pepper to your taste, then stir in.  Add the sprigs of Thyme, just plonk them on the top.

Put the lids on, put the dishes in the oven & forget about them for a couple of hours – it takes about three hours in total for a good stew to cook, as all the lovely ingredients slowly infuse the gravy.

After a couple of hours, take the dishes out of the oven & give them a stir, put the lids back on & bake for another hour.

The stew should be cooked after that, so take the dishes out & give them a stir.  Taste the stew, try not to burn your mouth (we’ve all done it!) & test the meat.  It should melt in the mouth, so if it’s still a bit firm, pop it back in the oven for half an hour to an hour.  I usually cook my stew for about four hours, as it just intensifies the flavour & the meat falls to pieces beautifully.

Once it’s cooked, place the stews on a cooling rack or thick wooden chopping board.  Using a fork & spoon, fish out the Thyme twigs & discard them – the leaves will have gone into the stew.  If you want to thicken your gravy, my tip here is to strain some off from each pot, about half a pint each, then heat it up in a saucepan while stirring.  This thickens it up nicely, without going like treacle.  Then pour it back into each pot, stirring into the meat & veg, before serving in huge bowls with lots of fresh, thick cut bread to mop up the gravy.

If you’re making pies, do this to the gravy just before serving, so it’s ready to pour over the lovely pastry once they are cooked.  Use a nice, rich pastry (see my article “Good Pie, the Blackberry Way” for the recipe) & decorate it as you like (3.14 is actually pi – it’s a little pi(e) pun I have with my Husband!).  I have also frozen batches of this gravy for Sunday lunches (again, sometimes you just can’t be bothered & lazy lunches really are the best).  Pour the cold gravy into plastic zip bags or tubs, then freeze (double bag it if you’re worried about leaks).

This sumptuous staple will make all kinds of dishes, not just pies or pasties.  Try making a savoury crumble with butter & flour, add a little grated cheese & sprinkle generously on top before baking in a hot oven, or roughly dollop mashed potatoes across the top instead & chuck on some chunky breadcrumbs, grated Parmesan & a little Oregano.  For an elegant evening supper, why not make filo parcels with a spoonful of stew inside, squish the edges up together, brush with melted butter & bake!

So embrace Autumn & all it’s edible treasures, maybe indulging in a big bowl of steamy hot stew, snuggled up on the sofa, with a few slabs of crusty buttered bread & a glass of red wine. Sometimes, the simple stuff is the best.  Stay hungry! 😉 Aimee x

 

 

Cakes, Cookies & Celebrations!

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

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

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

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

What you need:

4 oz Plain Flour*
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
4 oz Softened Margarine or Butter (personal choice here)
4 oz Vanilla Sugar (pop a vanilla pod in some sugar overnight)
2 large Eggs (I actually weigh my eggs – you need them to be the same size, about 2.3 – 2.4oz each)

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

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

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 190*C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fast Breaks & Breakfasts

So who had breakfast this morning?  No, “just a coffee” won’t do.  I mean food, whether it’s porridge, a bacon butty or a boiled egg, some kind of sustenance to keep you going.  A bit of toast maybe?  Or did you grab something sweet at your local shop or a flat pack snack from the petrol station on your way to work?  Oh dear, you really do need something a bit perkier than forecourt fayre, especially if you’re going to stop your stomach doing dragon impressions at your desk (which is never a good look)!

This morning, after I had been chocolatiering all week, I really couldn’t face making anything too elaborate & wanted to make something relaxed, easy & not faffy.  This is one of those “chuck it all in a bowl” kind of recipes that we all love & anyone can make these with ease – the kids or the other half that doesn’t cook (yes, even you!).  I actually put a batch of these in the oven to bake while I had a shower – that’s how easy they are!

Now the kids have finished school for the Summer, get them in the kitchen & making some of these.  They will learn something useful, you get to have a lie in (hopefully) & as these are portable, you can pop a few in your bag for when you fancy a snack!

What you need:

7oz Salted Butter, chopped into chunks
8oz Plain Flour
8oz Light Muscovado Sugar
6oz Porridge Oats
2oz Dessicated Coconut or chopped Mixed Nuts (your choice here)
1 teaspoon Baking Powder
1 jar of good Jam (use whatever is your favourite or in your pantry)
A little extra Butter for smearing around the dish

What to do:

Turn on the oven to 180*C to warm up.  Grease your dish with a little butter, getting into all the corners – I use a large lasagne dish, so something similar sized will do.  Make sure you grease the sides too.

Tip all the dry ingredients (except the coconut & nuts) into a large mixing bowl & give them a stir to combine everything.

Add the butter pieces & rub in with your fingertips, until you have a crumble mix of what looks like moist chunky breadcrumbs.  Add the nuts and/or coconut, mix in well.  (You can add a few sultanas here or chopped, dried apricots – whatever you like!).

Tip half of the mix into the dish, spread around evenly & gently press down to form a nice layer on the bottom of the dish (make sure you get it in the corners).

Spread splodges of jam all over the top, then using the back of a dessert spoon smooth it out to form a nice fruity layer.

Scatter the rest of the crumble mixture on the top of the jam & press down very gently to form another even layer on top.  Be careful not to press too hard, otherwise the jam will squish out of the sides!

Put the dish into the middle of the oven & bake for about 30-35 minutes, until the top is gorgeously golden & the jam is bubbling around the edges (tip: use a glass lasagne dish, then you can see what’s happening).  If it needs a few more minutes, pop it back in the oven & then check again in five minutes.

Once cooked, it may look slightly risen on top – don’t worry, this will go down as it cools.  Place the dish on a wire rack & leave the whole thing to cool for about half an hour (remember, jam is like molten lava & will melt your mouth, so be patient – go & wash up or something while you wait).  When cool, the jam becomes a thick, gooey & ever so luscious layer of fruitiness, so it is worth the wait.

After it has cooled, run a knife around the edge to loosen the slice & tip very carefully onto a chopping board (it will still be quite soft).  Cut into even sized slices & it’s ready to eat!  If you’re not comfortable with the tipping out method, just cut it in the dish & use a spatula to lift them out individually.  I get 16 good sized slices from one lasasgne dish, so there are plenty for everyone.

They should keep in an airtight container, but I have no idea how long for because they didn’t last that long!   I suspect they will keep for a few days, if you hide them well.  Wrap them up in a bit of greaseproof paper to take to the office, munch at a picnic or eat on the run.  The best thing is you can prepare them in advance & then you have no excuses for not eating breakfast!  They are also great for giving you a bit of a boost in the afternoon when you’re flagging.

If you’re taking them on a picnic, why not add a few ripe raspberries to the jam layer & drizzle swirls of melted white chocolate over the cooled slices.   They make a nice alternative to a dessert & you don’t need plates or spoons, just a napkin (you all know how much I adore washing up!).  These will make you very popular though, so I advise that you keep a small stash for yourself in the back of the cupboard!

So next time you want breakfast fast or a fast break, try making these sumptuous little slices for your family – be warned though, they are very moreish!  Stay hungry!  A 😉 x