Coupler Soup

Summer appears to be racing by at a dizzying pace, wildly spinning the wheel of weather as she goes.  From sultry heatwaves to spectacular storms, August has given us plenty of gloriously sunny days too.  It’s always a busy month for us, celebrating birthdays in the first few days & our anniversary later in the month (there’s much cake to be baked & eaten!).  Breakfasts, lazy lunches, pasta & Prosecco have all been enjoyed on the patio,  while the plants have been abundant with their produce & easily picked for dinner.

The last few months, I’ve been sharing the home office with Mr Hungry (his upstairs, mine down) & it’s been a change most households have seen this year.  There are some downsides (other people can hear & see you on live calls), but there are plenty of ups too!  Not so long ago, we would meet for lunch in town to share a coffee & a few kisses, before wandering back to work.  This brief interlude would put a pep in my step & make the afternoon brighter – we have now have resumed our mid-day meet-ups.  Even though we are all in much closer proximity at the moment, it doesn’t mean we should become territorial about sharing space with our loved ones.

Shopping has recently become a bit like a treasure hunt, heightening our resourcefulness & making us more aware of our limited pantry.  This is nothing new to some of us, especially those on a limited budget or diet.  Being frugal can be a blessing, especially in the taste department.  Think of it as one of those old TV shows, where you were given a bag of ingredients & had to make a delicious dish.  It’s a challenge, but you’re up to it!

One of my favourite frugal recipes is based on an old minestrone soup.  Hearty, healthy & heaped with lots of little ingredients that don’t cost much.  We call this the Coupler Soup, because you need a couple of this & a couple of that.  We’ve all bought a tin of this, a packet of that, hoping to use it in some elaborate & exquisite dish, but shoving it to the back of the cupboard.  Bits of leftover dried pasta, a random tin of beans & that twisted up tube of tomato puree with a tiny bit left.  All seemed a bit pointless when you popped them in there, but now they are like gold dust!  You might notice I’ve used spinach instead of Cavolo Nero or cabbage.  This is simply because I like spinach on my pizza & there’s always a bit leftover, just enough to chuck in a soup or whizz into a delicious pesto, as you will know if you’ve been following my blog.  Over the years, I’ve adjusted the recipe to accommodate whatever ingredients were available, but it always has the same result – soupy satisfaction!

One of the main ingredients for this recipe is fresh chicken stock & here’s the link to my stock recipe:  https://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/a-bird-in-the-hand-is-worth-ten-in-a-dish/ .  I dilute it for this recipe, with a little water to wash out the tomato tin.  If you prefer to use a stock cube, make enough according to the instructions on the pack.  Ready to take the plunge?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

2 pints of fresh Chicken Stock, well-strained if homemade
4 rashers Bacon (I used streaky smoked or whatever is in the freezer)
1 medium Onion, finely chopped
2 medium Carrots, washed & finely chopped
2 sticks Celery, washed & finely chopped
2 dried Bay Leaves
1 tin White Beans, drained (such as Cannellini or Haricot beans, whatever you have available)
1 tin Italian Plum Tomatoes (save the tin for measuring your pasta)
2 handfuls of Dried Pasta (see above)
2 handfuls of fresh Spinach, washed & chopped chunky, stems & all
1 tablespoon Tomato Puree
1 sprig fresh Rosemary – remove leaves & chop finely (keep the stalk)
2 cloves fresh Garlic, chopped finely
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Sea Salt
Freshly ground Black Pepper

What to do:

Prepare your ingredients first – wash, peel & chop finely as above.  Set them aside, ready to start.  Keep the Rosemary stalk & dry it – they make fabulous skewers for mini kebabs (slide whole cherry tomatoes & bocconcini on, then bake for 5 minutes in a hot oven – delicious!).

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a deep saucepan (you will need the lid for later) & using some good kitchen scissors, finely snip the smoked bacon into the pan.  Let it sizzle for a couple of moments, allowing it to render it’s fat (this adds essential flavour & in all honesty, it’s a miniscule amount).

Add the onion, carrot & celery to the pan, mixing well with the bacon & oil.  Give everything a good stir & fry for about 4-5 minutes, until slightly softened & the onion become glossy.

Tip in the garlic & Rosemary into the vegetables & then add the beans.  Add the chicken stock & bay leaves, stirring everything gently together.

Pour the plum tomatoes into your hand over the pan, squishing them carefully into the liquid (you can always tip them into a bowl & do this beforehand, if you prefer).

Fill the tin with cold water, swish it around to get the last drops of tomato juice & pour into the pan.

Using the empty tin, fill it with dried pasta pieces – whatever you’ve got in the cupboard is fine.  This recipe is to make the most of those leftover bits you’ve been saving for a rainy day – well it’s chucking it down now!  Carefully, without splashing yourself, sprinkle them into the soupy liquid.

Add the tomato puree, tip the chopped spinach into the pan & get stirring, mixing everything together.

Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer & put the lid half on the pan.  Let it bubble away softly for about 15-20 minutes, giving it a swirl around with the spoon occasionally.

Using a clean spoon, have a taste of your soup  & adjust the seasoning to your personal taste (get a clean spoon before tasting again).  It’s worth noting that any stock (homemade or shop-bought), along with bacon, contain salt, so you shouldn’t need to add much.  When you’re happy with the flavour, turn off the heat & tuck in!

Scoop your soup generously into bowls, making sure you get to the bottom of the pan!  Add some well-buttered, crusty bread for dunking & indulge in some soupy comfort food.  Ladle any leftovers into tubs or pots when cooled, pop them into the fridge & save for another day (it should keep in there for a couple of days at least).  I’ve used jam jars to stash soup in the fridge, just put an upturned cupcake case on the jar before putting on the lid (it gives it a bit of a better seal).

Although an everyday soup, it can also be turned into a souptacular starter.  Got a bit of day old bread that needs using up?  Make your own croutons!  Cut into cubes (as chunky or dainty as you like), drizzle with a little olive oil & bake on a tray in the oven at 220*C for about 10-15 minutes (give them a shake halfway through cooking).  Once bronzed & crisp, tip them onto a sheet of greaseproof paper on a cooling rack, before transferring to a serving plate for people to help themselves.  Pile a few in the centre of your soup, swirl with a little olive oil & a dusting of grated Parmesan.  That’s it!

Whether a romantic lunch or a suppertime starter, try my Coupler Soup to use up those random ingredients & create a hearty, wholesome soup!  Stay hungry!  Aimee 😉 x

 

 

A Ragu-gu-gu!

It’s been a funny old year so far, like one of those intense mystery novels with one dizzying plot twist after another.  None of us know what’s going to happen next, the author has gone rogue & the leading characters are all bickering with each other like petulant, hungry teenagers.  When everything seems to be a swirl of stress & stomach dragons are grumbling, never fear – comfort food is here!  A proper dinner helps calm grumbling of all kinds, soothing those pesky stomach dragons & restoring a little peace (albeit briefly).

Preparing a meal is something I truly enjoy.  It’s impossible not to feel relaxed, while creating something so comforting & satisfying.  The whole process requires you to focus on each task & that in itself seems to release any tension.  It’s not as precise or technical as some recipes, but it’s sheer ease brings a sense of peace as you create a meal for your family.  My adoration of Italian food began when I was a teenager & this is a rush-less ragu recipe I’ve been making for my family ever since.  It is at the heart of my homemade meat lasagne, slowly baked between blankets of cheese sauce & sheets of homemade pasta, regularly shared as a Sunday dinner & often accompanied by my Husband’s focaccia (he’s quite a talented baker).  Sometimes I make it with sausages, sometimes beef or both, usually whatever I’ve got in the freezer (I freeze meat in small batches for this very purpose).  

This is a family-sized recipe & will serve at least six people generously (it makes a decent six portion lasagne too, although I have stretched it to eight on occasion).  Keep some handy in the freezer for when you’re short on time (make sure you use fresh beef or sausage if you intend to freeze it though, not previously frozen).  

A ragu is not fast food – to me it means “Relax And Gradually Unwind”, so just take your time & go at your own pace – there’s definitely no rush.  Ready to ragu?  Hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

200g Minced Beef or 4 Plain Pork Sausages, skins removed (or half beef & pork)
2 medium Carrots, washed, peeled & finely chopped
2 sticks of Celery, washed & finely chopped
1 medium Onion, skin removed, topped, tailed & finely chopped
2 tins of Plum Tomatoes & their juice
1 generous tablespoon Tomato Puree
1 or 2 dried Bay Leaves (if you’re unsure, just use one)
1 sprig fresh Rosemary (approx 6″ long), leaves chopped finely
3 or 4 cloves garlic, chopped/sliced finely
2 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A splash of Balsamic Vinegar (the good stuff – about a teaspoonful)
Seasoning – Sea Salt & Black Pepper, both freshly ground

What to do:

Firstly, prepare your garlic, carrots, onion & celery.  Make sure you wash the carrots & celery thoroughly to remove any grit or dirt.  Peel the carrots & trim the ends off them & the celery.  Chop finely into mini pieces & set aside on your board.

Next, peel the garlic & onion.  Top & tail the onion, then chop finely as before – you can always use the food processor for this if you prefer.  Here’s a little tip from me: wear sunglasses to help reduce any tears (obviously not dark ones, you need to see).

Chop the garlic finely & then the Rosemary.  Remove the spindly leaves from the stem first – I save these for making mini-tomato & vegetable kebabs.

Heat the oil in a large skillet or deep frying pan on a medium heat.  Add the carrot, celery & onion & fry for a few minutes to soften.  Keep them moving around the pan, so they don’t catch & burn.

Add the meat – squeeze the sausages from the skins straight into the pan if it’s easier.  Break any big chunks into finer pieces (I use tongs for this, but a wooden spoon or spatula is just as good).  Stir fry until the meat is thoroughly coloured & all the pink has disappeared.

Season with a little salt & pepper, sprinkle in the garlic, Rosemary & bay leaves, giving everything a good stir (the scent is fabulous).  I don’t add the garlic at the beginning, because it can burn quite quickly & lose it’s sweetness.

Next, add the tomatoes – I tend to buy the whole plum tomatoes & squish them by hand, evenly over the pan.  Yes, it’s messy but you’ll wash.  Half fill each tin with cold water to swirl out those last little drops of tomato juice into the pan too – we don’t waste anything!

Add the tomato puree & a good splash of balsamic vinegar (even a few drops makes all the difference).  Reduce the heat to low & let it softly simmer for about 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally.  

Give it a taste, then add a little salt & pepper as needed (depending on the sausages you use, you might not need very much).  Using a clean spoon, taste it again to make sure it’s to your liking (seasoning is a personal thing).

Once you’re happy, let it bubble away on a gentle simmer for another 30 minutes or so, until reduced to a rich, thick meaty sauce.  Give your ragu another quick taste to check the seasoning is good & adjust it if you need to.  To test if it’s done, drag the spoon through the middle (the parting of the ragu) – if it leaves a gap & you can see the bottom of the pan, then it’s ready!

Get the family together, grab a fork & get stuck in!  It makes a sumptuously lazy supper generously spooned over spaghetti (with a good scattering of grated Parmesan on top), or stuffed in a variety of pasta parcels & shapes.  This versatile rich meat sauce is especially fabulous layered up in lasagne – here’s the link to my vegetable lasagne recipe, just swap the meat ragu for the vegetable one: https://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/perfect-pastafication/

When the world gets too fast, slow down the pace & make a little comfort in your own kitchen with a fabulously flavourful ragu – Relax And Gradually Unwind.  Stay hungry!  Aimee 😉 x

Just Dough It!

It’s early Summer & thoughts turn to sunny weekends & lazy days, sipping something refreshing in the garden & eating delicious food together.  The comforting fragrance of freshly baked bread, garden-grown herbs & sweet garlic wafting through the air, always reminds me of sunny picnics on the patio.  While the Husband is gardening his socks off (with refreshing intermissions of something chilled), I enjoy creating a few treats for us to indulge in later.

A favourite nibble is slender squares of fresh focaccia, warm from the oven & dunked in a dish of extra virgin olive oil & dark treacley Balsamic vinegar.  Simply topped with herbs, garlic & sparkly shards of sea salt, this fluffy delight is always welcome!  This version is a fabulously fruity version, topped with ripe baby tomatoes.  As they bake, they become darker, slightly softened & a little jammy, resembling cabachon rubies mounted in a golden cloud of fluffy focaccia.  Pardon my poetics, but this type of food can be inspiring!  Ready to bake it happen?  Hands washed, aprons on & let’s dough it!

What you need:

500g Strong White Bread Flour (plus extra for kneading & dusting)
12g Yeast (dried or fresh if you prefer)
330ml Lukewarm Water (dip a finger in it & it should be just warm)
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil (plus extra for drizzling)
Half a teaspoon ground Sea Salt
12 Baby Plum or Cherry Tomatoes (washed, dried & halved)
1 sprig Rosemary (preferably fresh but dried is fine)
3-4 cloves Fresh Garlic, chopped finely
Sea Salt & Black Pepper
1 tablespoon Coarse Semolina (for your baking tray)

What to do:

Firstly, pre-heat your oven to 220*C – it’s going to need a good hour to get hot enough.

Prepare a large baking tray by sprinkling with a little coarse semolina, to stop your dough sticking (you can use a little flour instead if you prefer).  If you’re filling the tray, use one with a little lip around the edge to contain your bread, otherwise a flat one will do for free-form focaccia.

Next, dissolve the yeast in the water & give it a good firm stir, until blended into a pale muddy coloured liquid.

Mix the flour & salt separately in a large mixing bowl, making a dip in the centre.

Add the olive oil & pour in the yeast liquid, then bring everything together until you get a soft, sticky dough.

Scoop everything onto a lightly floured worktop, leaving a clean bowl.  Dust a little flour into the bottom of the bowl & set aside for later.

Knead the dough for about ten minutes, stretching it by pushing away with the heel of your hand & pulling it back over itself.  Turn the dough slightly & repeat.  If you’ve got a good sticky dough, you might need a dusting of flour occasionally as you’re doing this – be careful not to overdo this, otherwise it will alter the recipe & become unpleasant.  Remember, the effort you put into the kneading now will result in a fluffy, well-risen bread later, so give it some elbow grease – just think of those toned arms!

Once kneaded, pop your dough back in the bowl to prove.  Dust lightly with a little flour.

Smudge a few spots of olive oil on a sheet of clingfilm & loosely place over the top of the bowl.

Place somewhere warm & draught-free to rise for at least an hour (a warm airing cupboard is good if you have one).  If you can leave it longer, then do so.  Sometimes, I’ll make the dough in the morning & let it prove all day, ready for baking in the evening – all the kneading will make the dough silky smooth, soft & pliable.

When your dough has doubled in size, it’s ready for the next stage.  Simply take the oiled film off & scoop your dough onto a lightly floured work surface, making sure you remove all remnants from the bowl (you’ve put a lot of work into this, so don’t waste any!).

Give it light kneading for a few seconds, just to knock out any large bubbles that may have formed.  On a very lightly floured worktop, roll & stretch your dough to fit your tin, until about half an inch thick.

Carefully place your dough into the tin & drizzle olive oil across the top, gently smoothing it across with your hands.  Using your knuckles, make dimples all over your dough.

Dot the tomato halves all over the top, round side up & sprinkle evenly with the chopped garlic, a good pinch of freshly ground black pepper & sea salt.  Remove the Rosemary leaves from the stem & either leave whole or chop roughly, before sprinkling them on top too.

Bake in the top of the oven for about 10-12 minutes, until your bread is lightly golden & the tomato skins have turned a dark crimson.

To check if your focaccia is cooked, lift it up carefully at one end & tap the bottom – if it sounds hollow, it’s ready!

Remove from the baking tray & slide onto a cooling rack.  While it’s still warm, drizzle with more olive oil & give it a couple of minutes to cool slightly.

Transfer to a chopping board & slice into focaccia fingers, ready for dipping & devouring!  Add a few accompaniments & turn it into a mini feast – try a few sundried tomatoes, fragrant olives, salami, Proscuitto & a few cheeses.   Place the board in the centre of the table & let people help themselves.  Perfect for a relaxed afternoon treat or a light lunch.  Next time you’re feeling kneady, just dough it!  Stay hungry!  Aimee 😉 x

Freshly Squeezed Sunshine & Sherbet Lemon Cake!

Early mornings are the best time of day for me, when everyone else is either sleeping or getting ready to go out.  It’s usually dark when I leave & I love catching that inky blue sky as it slowly melts into an array of pretty pinks & golds.  It’s a serene time of day for me & as Christmas is getting closer, people are bustling about, bags bulging & feet burning, so I like to soak up the calm before the chaos.

Christmas cakes have been decorated with snowy scenes, presents wrapped & cards sent (except mine, because I’ve not had time to write any yet).  I’ve been sculpting little cute creatures from my homemade modelling chocolate, ready to be wrapped & hopefully not eaten.  This time of year can become a bit of a whirlwind of things to do & when this happens, I find it soothing to put on an apron & bake a cake.  Cake should be created with care, not rushed but relished & enjoyed.  A happy Cook makes a happy cake!

Cake: even the mere mention of this magical food can cause a frenzy of fresh faces at the door, eyes wide in anticipation of sweet creations.  As a child, baking always seemed like some kind of magical spell – you put a tin full of sweet tasting goo in the oven & a fluffy cloud of cake comes out!  This particular cake is the one I am best known for, my Lemon Drizzle Cake.  Lighter-than-air layers of lemon cake & whipped buttercream that seem to evaporate like a zesty zephyr with every mouthful.  It tastes like freshly squeezed sunshine & sherbet lemons, almost defying you not to feel brighter & more cheery as you eat it.  This recipe is for a seven inch three layered cake, perfect for afternoon tea with friends or a celebration of your own & yes, even Christmas!

Now you’re probably only going to need about one lemon’s worth of zest, depending on size, but you need their juice.  You all know by now that I don’t like waste, so zest all the lemons & pop spoonfuls of the extra zest in ice-cube trays & cover with a little water, then freeze for future bakes.  Ready to bake it happen?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

2-3 large Unwaxed Lemons, washed & dried, room temperature

For the Cake:
8oz Unsalted Butter, softened at room temperature
8oz Sugar
8oz Self-Raising Flour
4 large Eggs
2 teaspoons fresh Lemon Zest
A few drops Vanilla Extract

For the Syrup:
100ml approx of fresh Lemon Juice topped up with Sugar to 150ml (see picture here)
1 teaspoon fresh Lemon Zest

For the Buttercream:
5oz Unsalted Butter, softened at room temperature
12oz Icing Sugar
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed Lemon Juice
1 tablespoon fresh Lemon Zest for decoration/filling

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 190*C & prepare your tins.  You will need three 7″ cake tins.  Wipe them out with a little melted butter.  I use the butter wrapper for this – you can keep them in the fridge or freezer for future bakes (you’re welcome!).  Sprinkle with a little additional flour & shake around to coat the inside of your tins.  Tap them upside down to tip out any excess flour.  Place a circle of greaseproof paper in the bottom of each tin & set them aside on your worktop.

Next, prepare your lemons.  Wash them well in warm soapy water, drying them equally well.  Once cleaned, give them a good firm roll on the worktop.  This will encourage them to give up their juice easier.

Using a zester or the fine side of a cheese grater, remove the zest of the lemons carefully.  You just want to zip off the golden skin, not the white pith underneath, so try not to use too much pressure as you zest.  Cover & set aside.

Cut each lemon in half & squeeze the juice into a cup or mug.  Don’t worry about pips, simply pour the juice into a strainer over a measuring jug.  I use a fork to juice lemons – jab it into the middle & twist while you squeeze the outside.  Set aside.

Now to make the cake batter!  Beat the butter & sugar in a large mixing bowl until a soft golden paste.

Add one egg, beating well until your mixture is glossy & fluffy.  Repeat with the rest of the eggs, one at a time.

Sift half the flour into the mixture carefully, then fold into the wet ingredients using a spatula.  Once it’s started to combine, sift in the rest of the flour & continue to fold until fully blended to a smooth, thick batter.

Sprinkle the lemon zest across the top & stir in well.

Using your whisk, give it one last beating for about 30 seconds, just to get a good gust of air in at the end.

Spoon into the prepare tins equally, smoothing down the mixture until level.

Bake on the shelf just down from the centre of the oven for approximately 18-20 minutes, until well-risen & lightly golden on top.

Using a stem of spaghetti or a skewer, gently poke the cake in the centre – if it comes out clean, it’s cooked.   Place the cakes in their tins on a cooling rack for a minute.

Slide a pallet knife between the edge of the tin & the cake to loosen it.  Turn it out very gently onto a cooling rack & peel off the greaseproof paper circle by pulling it slowly back on itself – don’t lift it up or it will bring half your cake with it.  Turn your cake over very carefully & leave to cool completely.

While the cakes are cooling, time to make the buttercream.  This is my method to blend puff-free powdered icing sugar with the butter.  It just requires a little effort & will mean you don’t have a cloud of sugar.

Tip the butter into a bowl & using a soft spatula, beat & spread it around the bowl (I usually spread it halfway up around the edges).

Very slowly add all the icing sugar – do not tip it in, use a tablespoon to scoop it into the bowl & add it as close to the butter as possible.

Using the spatula, press it into the butter & scoop from the sides of the bowl, folding & pressing until all the sugar is squished into the butter to form a very stiff paste.

Once it’s all incorporated, add a little of the lemon juice & give everything a good beating with the spatula until very light textured & fluffy.  It should be the palest, creamy colour by now.

Spoon into a piping bag with your preferred nozzle (I used a large star nozzle because that’s my favourite for this).  Fold the end & pop it into the fridge while you make the syrup.

Strain 100ml of the lemon juice into a measuring jug.  Add the sugar evenly until the liquid has risen to 150ml – you should have an equal stripe of sugar & lemon juice in the jug.

Add the lemon zest & give everything a good stir.  Either pop it in the microwave for 2 minutes on full power or dissolve in a small saucepan over a medium heat.  Once the sugar has disappeared completely, your syrup is ready.  Give it a stir again & set aside to cool slightly.

Time to start assembling your cake!  Get yourself a lovely serving plate & remove the buttercream from the fridge.  I’m going to give you a couple of tips here that I’ve learned over the years too.

Firstly, take your buttercream & pipe a small half inch splodge in the centre of your serving plate.  This will stop your cake from sliding around while you’re stacking the layers.

Take your first cake layer & flip it over, so it’s flat side up.  Lay it onto the splodge of buttercream on the plate.

Using a stem of spaghetti or a skewer, poke several holes all over the cake.

Spoon about a third of the  lemon syrup evenly all over the cake – remember, you just want to drizzle not drown the cake, so don’t overdo it or it will go soggy.  Just drizzle enough syrup all over & don’t worry if a bit goes over the edges, it will soak in.

Pipe decorative swirls around the top of the cake, to make a buttercream ring around the edge.  Fill the centre in by piping around the inner edge, getting smaller until in the middle.

Take the next layer of cake, flip it over as before & carefully lay it on top of the buttercream, making sure it’s level & even.

Repeat the above steps, poking little holes in carefully – you don’t want to go through the cake, just make little vents for the syrup to seep into.  Again, don’t worry if it goes over the edges, it will be fine.  Pipe the buttercream as before.

Place the final layer of cake on top carefully, ensuring it is level & your cake layers are all in line with each other (give it a little nudge until you’re happy with it).

Carefully poke some holes in the top cake, as before for the previous layers & add the syrup.  If you have some syrup left at the end, freeze it in ice cube trays (it’s perfect poured over ice-cream or plopped in a glass of Prosecco).

Sprinkle strands of fresh lemon zest all over the top of your cake, with a few on the plate around the edge.  That’s it, your cake is ready to slice & share!  I recommend keeping it as simple as this for an afternoon treat with friends, but if it’s for a birthday or celebration, decorate as you like!

So if you need a little sunshine, try my de-luscious & delightful Lemon Drizzle cake!  Stay hungry!  Aimee 😉 x

 

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 used PME Cake Decorating natural food colours for this recipe).

(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 plumper end & slice the edges off, then set aside for later (pop them in the fridge on a plate covered up, especially 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 a 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 & 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 180*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