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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Champignon The Wonder Pie!

Gazing into the garden while sipping my first coffee of the day, there is an Autumnal air about it.  The early sunshine is just peaking over the rooftops, causing the dew laden lawn to shimmer in the sunlight & perfectly summing up the Summer.

August has been very much “all or nothing”, either a raging hot heatwave or shivering shade, deluge or drought, & nothing inbetween.  The poor plants don’t seem to know which way to turn & our multi-tasking willow tree has been happily soaking up the excess water, whilst providing welcome cool shade to the local wildlife.  There are baby olives on our little olive tree trying to ripen, green tomatoes just starting to blush red & a bounty of blackberries waiting patiently to be plucked.  The garden seems to be clinging on by it’s very leaf-tips to the last days of Summer, as Autumn has quietly arrived & begun to unpack her colourful attire across the landscape.

Before Autumn settles in, there are some comforting meals we can indulge in to soften the seasonal switch.  Fresh produce is all around us, just waiting to be turned into tasty transitional treats.  Some of my best ideas come from mooching around the markets, shopping when everyone else is sat in traffic (or still in bed), & picking up some fabulous bargains.  The early bird always catches her worm & although thankfully not very worm-like, earthy foods have caught my eye recently – the beautiful but humble mushroom.

Soft, light & flavoursome, mushrooms are one of the most versatile ingredients in cooking.  They go with pretty much everything, adding both subtle & substantial flavour to dishes, & the variety is truly amazing!  From the tiny to the tawny, closed cup or open, the frilly or the flat, these fabulous funghi are just waiting to be turned into delicious dishes!

As I wanted them to be the main attraction, I created my Champignon the Wonder Pie – a delicate mushroom & vegetable stew, tucked in under a crisp comforting blanket of buttery puff pastry.   This is one of those lazy afternoon recipes to make, rather relaxing & a little therapeutic even.  Although simple to make, there is going to be some prep involved – I hear you groaning, but I promise it’s all easy stuff, no mysterious ingredients & worth every minute when you taste the results. 

Firstly, you’re going to need vegetable stock – use either a stock cube or fresh, whatever works best for you & the time you have available.  I make my own & freeze it, as it uses up all the veg trimmings & you know what’s in it (too much salt & mushrooms = watery mess & a soggy pie).  My easy vegetable stock recipe means no standing around watching pans either.  You’ll need a couple of carrots, an onion, two celery sticks & a handful of fresh herbs (half a dozen Sage leaves, some sprigs of Thyme & a couple of Rosemary stems work well), along with any mushroom stems, parsnip, bean or pea trimmings – wash everything well to remove grit & dirt, then chuck them all in a roasting tin with 2-3 pints of cold water, a splash of olive oil & a few good grinds of black pepper & sea salt.  Cover it with foil to seal in all the juices & bake at 200*C for just over an hour, then strain & that’s it.  Use it fresh, stick it in the fridge for a couple of days or freeze it.  Save the veggies to whizz up into soups or sauces & pour any leftovers into jars for the fridge or ice cube trays to freeze.

If you prefer, you can swap the vegetable stock for chicken stock (as long as your guests are not vegetarian) – both work well & it tastes just as lovely either way.  A little bit of tasty trivia for you here: vegetable stock is actually a broth, as stock refers to a liquid that has bones cooked in it.

Next, although I have used two types of pastry (shortcrust for the base & puff for the lid), you could use shortcrust all over or just use shop-bought puff lids if time is limited – please make sure it’s proper all-butter puff to do your pie proud.  If you do fancy having a go at making your own, here’s the link to my puff pastry recipe: https://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/puff-up-the-volume/   You will only need half the amount, so reduce the measurements accordingly.  It’s easy to make & just needs an hour to rest in the fridge before rolling, so you could make this while the stock is in the oven.

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

What you need:

For the filling:
250g Mushrooms approx (I’ve used closed cup & flat but use what you like here)
1 stick of Celery
1 medium Carrot
1 medium Red Onion
2 tablespoons of Sweetcorn
100ml Vegetable Stock approx
25g Salted Butter
25g Plain Flour
1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil

For the base Pastry:
6oz Plain Flour, plus extra for rolling out & prepping your tin
2oz Salted Butter, plus extra for your tin
1 large Egg
A little cold water, about a tablespoon

4oz Puff Pastry (see link above to make fresh or buy all-butter puff pastry)
2 teaspoons grated Parmesan or Medium Cheddar
1 Egg & 2 tablespoons of Milk, whisked together to make egg wash

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C & prepare a pie tin.  I’ve used an 8″ square cake tin because it was handy.  Smudge a little butter around the inside of the tin & then sprinkle with flour.  Tip out the flour (save for rolling out) & set the tin aside.

Time to prepare your vegetables!  Give them all a good wash in cold water & remove the onion outer skin.  Top & tail all of them, chop finely & set aside.

Prepare the mushrooms next.  Give them a good wipe with a damp cloth to remove any dirt or grit (if they’re small, use a pastry brush).  Take out about half a dozen & set to one side whole.  Chop the rest up finely & set aside too.

Heat a large frying pan or skillet.  Add the butter & oil, mixing well until melted together.

Add the carrot, onion & celery, stirring well to coat in the oil butter mixture, then fry on a medium heat for 3 or 4 minutes.  Give them a nudge around the pan from time to time, so they don’t catch & burn.  You want them to soften slightly, but not go squishy.

Add the mushrooms & give everything a good stir fry for a couple of minutes.

Sprinkle in the plain flour around the pan & stir fry everything together until the flour has disappeared.  This is going to make a roux in the pan, as it will absorb the butter & oil in the mixture, thickening everything up nicely.

Add the stock gradually & stir well into the mixture, making a smooth sauce.  When everything is combined, turn off the pan.

Slice up the whole mushrooms you saved into bite-sized bits & stir them into the stew.

Make the base pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour.  Add the egg & stir into the flour mixture using a metal spoon or knife.  As it starts to come together, add a trickle of the cold water to form a soft dough.

Turn it out onto a floured surface, sprinkle a little flour on top & roll out until slightly larger than the size of your tin all around.

Flop the pastry over your rolling pin & carefully lift into the tin, draping it inside as you do so.  Press gently into all the edges & leave a little hanging over the tin (to attach the puff pastry lid to later).  Try using the end of the rolling pin for this, as it’s smooth & won’t tear your pastry.

Roll out the puff pastry to just over the size of your pie tin & set aside.

Tip the mushroom pie filling into the pastry lined tin & spread out well.  Dip your finger in a cup of cold water & run it around the edge of the pastry.

Put the puff pastry lid on top & press the edges down to seal the pastry base to the lid.  Prick all over with a fork or a sharp knife.

Brush with a little egg wash all over.  If you want to make little pastry decorations with the leftover bit of puff, do that now & lay them on top, then brush them too (not too many though).  Sprinkle with a little grated Parmesan.

Bake in the oven for about 25 -30 minutes, until thoroughly golden & the layers are starting to show at the edges.  The sides of the pastry will come away from the tin slightly when it’s ready.

Put the pie tin on a cooling rack for a few moments to relax before serving.  That’s it!  Just get everyone around the table & dig in!   Meaty but meatless, this mushroom-packed pastry goes well with either a generous scoop of cheesy mashed potatoes & steamed crisp vegetables, or a zesty green salad scattered with a few spots of aged Balsamic vinegar & toasted pine nuts.  Slice it up cold for a luscious leftover lunch or freeze in slices for indulgent lazy suppers after a long day at work.

However you serve it, this crispy champignon-crammed pie is the perfect comfort food for chilly almost-Autumn evenings.  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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All On A Summer’s Day!

Summer has arrived & although the sunshine has been a bit shy just lately, there are some fabulous fruits in the shops right now, ripe for the picking.  Summer for me has always meant strawberries & as a child, I would love to both pick & eat them.  We grew them in pots in the garden & sometimes would go strawberry picking at a local farm, but they were always lusciously lovely & the mere scent of strawberries brings back those memories instantly!  Sunny Summer afternoons spent sitting on the grass, sipping a glass of my Mum’s homemade elderflower fizz (now there’s a recipe!) & pretending it was the finest Champagne, the hum of bumble bees buzzing around & warm sunshine on my face, whilst indulging in a beautiful blanket banquet.  This would obviously include a bowl of freshly picked strawberries, washed & dunked in a little sugar before being devoured.  This is why I always smell strawberries before buying them (& probably why I get such funny looks from other shoppers!).  The sweeter the scent, the sweeter the berry!  Sometimes the simplest of treats is the most delicious & satisfying to all the senses – we don’t just eat food with our mouths, all the other senses chip in too!

One of my all time favourite treats is a petite pretty pastry, filled to the brim & adorned with ripe, ruby red strawberries.  To call it a jam tart would not do justice to them, as the jam is simply the sweet glue that bonds these beautiful berries together within the pastry cup.  These delicate delicacies are another of my childhood favourites & tremendously easy to make, all it takes is a little preparation & of course a little patience too.  They also work well with a variety of berries or fruit – try cherries, raspberries, blackberries or blueberries, or why not pineapple, apricots or apples!  Ready to bake it happen?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

For the pastry:
6oz Plain Flour
2oz Salted Butter, room temperature (slightly softened)
2oz Sugar (I use my homemade vanilla sugar – pop a vanilla pod in a jar of sugar overnight & that’s it!)
1 large Egg
1 teaspoon Baking Powder
Zest of half a Lemon & half an Orange, mixed
A little extra Butter & Flour for preparing your baking tin
A little Milk (approx. 2 tablespoons will do)

For the filling:
Half a jar of good quality Strawberry Conserve or Jam
1 punnet fresh ripe Strawberries
300ml fresh Double Cream
1 teaspoon Icing Sugar
1 plastic or metal Drinking Straw (this is an important piece of kitchen equipment!)

What to do:

Firstly, pre-heat the oven to 200*C.  While that’s warming up, prepare your baking tin.  You’ll need a 12 cup patty tin for this recipe.  Simply wipe a little butter around the inside of each cup & sprinkle in some flour on top.  Shake out the excess onto a clean worktop (where you’ll be preparing your pastry later).  This makes your patty tin non-stick & the pastries will be easier to remove after baking.

Now to prepare your strawberries – give them a wash in cold water & drain well (I usually tip them onto a clean tea towel).  This is where your drinking straw comes in!  Push the straw up from the bottom to the top of the berry, all the way through & then pull the tiny strawberry tree from the straw.  Pop those tiny trees in the composter, ready to turn into lovely rich soil for the next plants!  The riper the strawberries are, the easier it is & this will take moments, leaving you with a bowlful of beautiful hulled berries & not a squishy one in sight! 

Stand the strawberries on their end & slice the edges off, then set aside for later (pop them in the fridge on a plate covered up, espcially if it’s a warm day).  Keep the ends to make dinky decorations for your baked tarts.  Slice up the rest of the strawberries into thin slices.  Again, set aside in a dish for later, but separately from your strawberry hearts (in case they give out any juice).

There are a couple of ways to make the pretty heart-shaped strawberry slices like I have.  Either use a small heart-shaped cutter or plunger if you have one or, as the strawberry is naturally shaped that way, simply cut a little V out of the top of the slice & trim the edges to a point at the bottom of the berry.  Make sure you wash your hands after this stage & dry well.

Time to make the pastry cups.  Tip all the pastry ingredients into large mixing bowl.  Using a knife, mix everything together loosely & break up the eggs, then get your hands in & squish the ingredients together to form a firm ball of dough.

Lightly dust your work surface with a little flour & place your ball of pastry on top.  Roll it out until about 3-4mm thick.  If it sticks to your worktop, slide a pallet knife underneath it & add a little more flour to your worktop.  It is a sticky pastry, so don’t worry if it does this (the taste is worth the effort).

Once rolled, take a circle cookie cutter slightly larger than your patty tin & cut out twelve circles.  Place each circle in the prepared tin & using the end of your rolling pin, gently dab each one into place.

Pop half a teaspoon of jam into the centre of each pastry cup & top with some strawberry slices.  As jam grows, please do not be tempted to fill up the pastry cup with huge dollops of it – it will expand & spread all over like molten lava & it will burn.  Leave the spoon in the jam for later, we’re going to use it again after baking.

Place the tarts in the centre of the oven & bake for 8-10 minutes, until the jam is bubbling around the berries & the pastry has turned a golden hue.

Once baked, remove the tin & place on a cooling rack.  Gently slide your pallet knife under each tart & carefully lift out onto your cooling rack.

While your tarts are still warm, scoop another half teaspoon of jam onto the filling of each.  Don’t worry about spreading it over the fruit, it will be fine.  Allow them to cool completely before the next stage.

To get the strawberry pastry decorations I made, you’re going to need a small calyx cutter (or small star) & a small heart cutter.  You can buy these online or at any good baking retailer.

Roll out your pastry as before & cut out a dozen of each shapes, along with a few spares too (just in case!).

Place the hearts on a sheet of greaseproof baking paper on a flat baking tray.  Using your little finger or a small brush, dab a drip of milk on the top centre of the strawberry shape, then pop your star on top & leave a couple of the points hanging over the top.  Press lightly to attach & there you go – one strawberry pastry shape!  Repeat with the rest & brush them all with a little milk (or use your finger to wipe the milk on), then bake for 8-10 minutes in the centre of the oven.

When cooked, use a pallet knife to carefully lift the pastry strawberries onto a cooling rack.  They should lift easily off the greaseproof paper, plus you have a clean baking tray – no washing up!  Leave to rest until completely cooled.   You can make these the day before & pop them in an airtight container until you’re ready to use them.

Once your tarts are cooled, whip your double cream with the icing sugar until thickened & you can make firm swirls with your beaters (the icing sugar helps the cream hold it’s shape when piped).  Scoop into a piping bag with your preferred nozzle (or just a bag with the tip cut off if you like).

Pipe swirls of cream, starting at the outer edge & working your way towards the centre, getting the cream taller as you pipe.

Place the pastry strawberry on top, tilting it at a slight angle & a strawberry heart on either side of the cream.  Repeat until you have decorated them all & set them onto a pretty plate.  If you’re serving them later, cover them & keep in the fridge until then.  They will keep overnight (as long  as nobody eats them!).

That’s it!  Perfect served as part of an elegant afternoon tea, a special soiree, or simply as a sumptuous strawberry treat with a chilled glass of fizz, these plump little pastries will certainly bring some sunshine to your day!  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

 

 

 

 

A Pearway to Heaven!

The Spring might seem a little way off yet, as this morning’s Wintry winds & persistent downpour are proving, however Nature is just as persistent.  Beautiful golden daffodils, delicate narcissus & tiny tête-à-tête trumpets are all blossoming on patios, windowsills & supermarket shelves, their slender sleeves tightly packed together with golden tips peeking out of the top, ready to burst into brightness!  Nature is defiantly poking her tongue out at the world, with crocuses & snowdrops lining the grass verges too.   It’s this beauty amongst the harshness of Winter that has been my inspiration recently, especially with the sugar art I’ve been creating.  Just the scent of daffodils lifts the spirits, so I decided to try making a sugar version in their honour.

Family birthdays have been at the forefront throughout January, with both my Parents’ birthdays & the Husband’s arriving within ten days of each other (that’s a lot of cake to consider!).  After the end of year festivities, it’s always nice to make birthday cakes especially light, bright & slightly Spring-like.  Thoughts turn to tiny flowers, pretty petite petals & floral freshness, inspiring me to create a very chocolatey, two tier birthday cake of slightly epic proportions for my Husband’s birthday (there are only two of us now, so anything bigger than a regular cake is epic for us).  The cake had four layers of rich chocolate cake in each tier & took me two days to make & decorate, but the actual decorations took just over a week & a bit to make, as they needed to dry/set before they could be added to the cake.  Fred Bear, a white modelling chocolate creation I made, was sat by the cake with sugar paste balloons for the birthday boy (worry ye not readers, Fred is currently sat with some sugary friends & won’t be eaten – he took a while to make & is far too cute!).

Chilly weather always invites pudding after dinner & this recipe is based on one my Mum used to make when I was a young girl, a flavoursome fluffy sponge cake crowning a layer of sweet fruit.  Now, in those days this was made mostly with apples & earned the name Eve’s Pudding, however I’ve adapted it over the years & used other fruits (usually whatever’s in the fruit bowl that needs using up).  This sumptuously sticky version is my Pearway to Heaven, made with really ripe eating apples & pears (apples & pairs is Cockney rhyming slang for stairs, hence it’s name).  The delicious caramel syrup enveloping the fruit has a light, zesty flavour & will satisfy any sweet cravings during this cold snap, plus that fading fruit in the bowl will be used up, so no waste!  If you’re buying fresh, check out any that are “wonky” or on sale – really ripe fruit has plenty of natural sweetness & requires less sugar.  Ready to get your pud on?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

6 Pears
4 medium Apples (eating apples, like Cox’s Pippin or similar)
3oz Salted Butter
3oz Light Muscovado Sugar
Half a ball of Stem Ginger, finely chopped
Zest of half a Lemon & an Orange, mixed together
Pinch of Ground Cinnamon
Quarter teaspoon of Vanilla Extract

For the Sponge topping:
4oz Butter
4oz Sugar
4oz Self Raising Flour (or Plain with 2 teaspoons of baking powder)
2 large Eggs

What to do:

Firstly, pre-heat the oven to 170*C & grease a casserole dish big enough to get your fruit in (a medium sized one should do).  If you have the wrapper from the butter, these are brilliant for this job – I also save them & stash them in the fridge/freezer for future greasing of cake tins, etc – just fold them over butter side together & pop in a freezer bag.  Once you’ve finished with them, they can go in the recycling.

Next, prepare your fruit. Go through that fruit bowl & pick out any apples & pears that are about to walk out in protest, because they’re so ripe.  The riper the fruit, the better the pudding.

Wash, dry & peel them, then remove the cores & trim away any brown bits.  Chop into small bite-sized chunks, about the size of your little fingernail & put into a deep saucepan.

Add the Muscovado sugar, butter, vanilla extract, sprinkle in the cinnamon & zest.

On a low heat, stir everything together until the butter & sugar have melted into a gooey, caramel sauce.  Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring gently so as not to break up the fruit too much.

Using a slotted spoon, scoop the fruit into the bottom of the greased casserole dish with the caramel sauce (be careful not to splash yourself, as it’s sugar & it will burn you!).  There should be some liquid left over, so tip this carefully into a heatproof jug  & put in the fridge to chill (you’ll be needing this later).

Now to make the sponge cake topping!  In a large mixing bowl, beat the sugar & butter together until fluffy (I do this with a wooden spoon, but you can use an electric whisk if you prefer).

Add the eggs & beat into the buttery sugar mixture until fully incorporated.

Sift the flour into the creamy mixture & fold in (move your spoon around like a figure of eight in the bowl, scooping flour into the mixture).  Make sure all the flour is combined into the cake mixture & give it a good stir at the end just to make sure.

Spoon over your fruit mixture evenly, gently spreading around to the edges (be careful not to press hard, otherwise it will sink).  Don’t worry too much about any gaps at the edge, as the mixture will grow & cover these.

Bake in the centre of the oven for approximately 35-40 minutes, until risen & golden (your kitchen will smell absolutely gorgeous by now too!).

To test if your cake is ready, get a piece of spaghetti & gently poke it into the centre of the sponge.  If it comes out clean, the sponge is done.  If not, pop it back in the oven for a few more minutes & check again.

Once ready, place on a cooling rack to allow the pudding to rest & cool for about 10 minutes (it will be hotter than the sun & nobody wants a mouthful of red hot lava-like fruit straight from the oven!).  Trust me, it will still be warm & the sauce will soak into the bottom of the sponge cake nicely.

Scoop into bowls & serve with a drizzle of the leftover zesty caramel sauce.  Add a splodge of ice-cream & get stuck in!  The perfect pudding for warming up these Wintry evenings, my lightly zesty caramel version will satisfy those sweet after-dinner cravings.  Try making it with plums, peaches or blackberries to create your own favourite & use up any fresh fruit that needs eating.

Next time your fruit bowl is looking a bit sad & squishy, turn it into a Pearway to Heaven Pudding!  Stay hungry!  A 😉 x

 

 

 

 

 

Swing Your Panés!

Looking out of the window earlier this morning, the garden seemed like it had been dusted with a sprinkling of finely powdered icing sugar, as a layer of frost had settled all over.  Fresh, frosty mornings are always a good excuse to snuggle under the duvet for an extra five minutes (especially as it’s so cold at 5.00am), but every Wintry frost-filled day is another one closer to Spring.  Evenings are beginning to stay lighter,  plus we’ve had bright yellow sunshine & crisp blue skies, bringing a little hope that Winter is on the wane (although it’s been snowing up the road from here & I’m not shedding the thermals just yet).  

Here we are speeding through January, the sugar-free month of sparseness & salads, wine denial & working out, when fast food becomes forbidden.  Whether you’re worn out or just going without, it’s bound to make people a bit tetchy to say the least!  At times like these, you need food that’s quick, easy & satisfying – when you’re not feeling up to much, the last thing you want to be doing is faffing around in the kitchen.  Meals can become a bit boring if you’re not careful too.  It’s far too easy to open a packet of something or do the dial-a-dinner thing, but they don’t tend to hit the spot very often or for very long (usually resulting in ransacking the cupboards for something else afterwards).  This is where a little planning & preparation can help you have dinners done & dusted.

As you probably know by now, I’m a fan of being prepared & getting meals portioned up in pots, frozen for fast fixes of our favourite foods.  Bread is blitzed into breadcrumbs, chucked in bags & frozen, ready for these occasions.  At the weekends, I like to get a couple of chickens in & fillet them, freezing the legs in pairs (these are great for simply defrosting & chucking in the oven with some olive oil, lemon, fresh Rosemary & garlic) & the carcasses are turned into stock for risottos, soups & gravy (nothing gets wasted!).  The chicken breast can be turned into a variety of dishes – my Friday Night Fakeaway or Aisha’s Kick Ass Curry spring to mind, but another favourite of ours is my baked crispy breaded chicken.  This tasty panéed chicken dish is quite possibly the easiest meal to prepare, satisfying those cravings for fried fast food without actually being fried.  Leftovers can be frozen for future lazy suppers, lunchtime wraps with salad or even sliced & tossed in pasta with a little homemade tomato sauce & a few roasted peppers.  To pané means to coat in a little flour, egg & breadcrumbs (in my last blog, I did this with arancini to make crispy risotto balls).  The only tip I will give is you need to keep one hand for the dry ingredients & one for the wet, otherwise you’ll end up with panéed fingers!

These beautiful breadcrumbed chicken pieces can be baked in the oven & dished up faster than a takeaway can be ordered & delivered (yes, really – plus they’re much cheaper & so much healthier, with no hidden ingredients).  If you’re filleting a chicken, a medium sized one makes enough to feed four people generously, just add sides & a salad!  Ready to try making your own?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

2 large Chicken Breasts (you can get 8-10 pieces from this)
2 Eggs, beaten in a shallow dish with a tiny pinch of salt
8 slices of Bread (any bread you like)
2oz Plain Flour, in a shallow dish
Zest of a Lemon (wash it well in soapy water first!)
Quarter teaspoon Sea Salt
Quarter teaspoon freshly ground Black Pepper
Quarter teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
1 teaspoon fresh Thyme or Oregano (optional)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (about 2-3 tablespoons, but keep the bottle handy as you may need a bit more)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 210*C & drizzle half the olive oil around the bottom of a roasting tin.  Set aside for later.

Blitz the slices of bread, a few at a time, in a food processor until fine breadcrumbs.

Add the salt, pepper, herbs & lemon zest to the breadcrumbs, then give it a good mix.  Set aside for now.

Prepare your chicken breasts.  Using a sharp knife, slice them through the middle as if you were butterflying them – lay them flat on the board & slice across from left to right.  Remove the small piece from underneath that looks like a mini-fillet.  Taking a pair of kitchen scissors, cut out the white piece of thin tendon that will be sticking out (it won’t cook out, it will just make your chicken curl up & taste like chewy elastic).

Dip a piece of chicken in the flour & shake off the excess, then lay gently into the beaten egg.

Using your other hand (so you don’t pané your fingers), move the chicken about to coat in the egg, then shake to remove the excess.

Place the wet chicken piece into the breadcrumb mixture & coat well on both sides, patting it on to ensure even coverage.

Lay it in the roasting tin & repeat the process with all the other pieces of chicken, until all are breaded.  Wash your hands thoroughly.

Drizzle the remainder of the oil generously over the chicken portions & place the tin in the centre of the oven for about 20 minutes.  Halfway through cooking, give it a good shake to loosen them from the tin & flip them over.  Because it’s thin, the chicken will cook faster & the crumb coating will stop it drying out.

When cooked, the breadcrumbs will be golden & crispy.  Test one by cutting in half – the meat should be white inside.  Transfer to a warm plate & serve immediately with homemade chunky chips & a crisp green salad or corn on the cob & minted petit pois.  That’s it!

These crispy, crunchy chicken portions have a slightly spicy kick, so I like to serve them with a bowl of my chilled homemade tomato sauce (it’s not just reserved for pasta) or a cooling Greek Yoghurt dip to soothe the tongue.  Blue cheese dip, salsa & pesto all go well with these too, so it’s up to you how you dress them up!

These breaded beauties are perfect for supper on the sofa, snuggled up with your other half & a glass of chilled wine or fizz.  If there are any extra pieces, pop them in the freezer & defrost when you need them.  Just reheat at 180*C in the oven for 10-12 minutes (poke with a sharp knife to check they are piping hot before eating), or simply layer them cold in a sandwich, wrap or salad for lunch the next day.  Try adding a teaspoon of pesto to a tablespoon of Greek yoghurt, spread on seeded bread & pile up with pieces of crispy chicken & snipped up sundried tomatoes for a luscious lunch.

So when you’re craving crunchy crispy chicken, forget the dial-a-dinner & bake a batch of my beautiful breadcrumbed chicken instead!  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