Love Love Love!

Unless you’re living on a remote island without any media, you’ll know that St Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.  As we’re being bombarded with heart-shaped novelties, cheesy cards & rows of roses everywhere, the story of the real St Valentine has always fascinated me.  One legend in particular says when he was in prison (apparently something to do with secretly marrying couples against the wishes of the Emperor of Rome at the time), Valentine befriended the Jailer’s Daughter.  Just before his execution, he left her a note signed “Your Valentine”.  Maybe that was the birth of the Valentine’s card, who knows!

When you’ve got the love bug, you can’t resist showering your beloved with tokens of your affection!  All love should come from the heart & it should be personal (let’s face it, anyone can buy something from a shop), which is why a romantic home-cooked dinner à deux can be rather appealing.  Making a romantic three course dinner for your beloved just requires a little imagination & preparation time.  I’ve put together a simple menu for you, with some easy to make recipes (most of them can be made in advance too, so you can spend a bit of time pampering yourself before your date arrives).  Before you do any kind of shopping or cooking, it would be a wise idea to ask if your Amour has any food objections, allergies or requirements.  They might not like certain foods & the last thing you want to do is serve it to them!   

If you have a few minutes free, why not make a couple of floral centrepieces for your table too – half fill a couple of pretty glass jars with seashells, fill up 3/4 of the way with water & put in some herbs, a couple of roses & some sprigs of gypsophila flowers.  The seashells help stabilise the roses so they stay put & don’t move around.  Candles are fine, but you don’t want to be worrying about putting them out later (if dinner goes well, you might be distracted!).

Now because this blog is a little bit longer, I’ve split it into three sections: starters, mains & desserts.  Here’s your menu:

Bite-sized Beetroot & Feta Heartlets to start, then
Honey & Lemon Chicken Thighs (for your Honey), accompanied by
Love Apple Focaccia & Roasted Romantic Vegetables, followed by
Warm Chocolate Fondue with Raspberry & Strawberry Ice-Cream.

Firstly, starters orders!  You want something you can prepare in advance, nothing that needs stirring or that’s going to take your attention from your delightful date.  Bite-sized beetroot & feta heartlets take about 20 minutes to make & are light enough for a starter, plus the pastry cases can be baked the day before, then filled & baked just before your date arrives.  Now I’ve got a blog dedicated to this recipe that gives you all the info you need, so have a look at “Beetroot to Yourself” – here’s the link:

http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/beetroot-to-yourself/

If you don’t have any heart-shaped baking cases, just cook a regular sized tart then use a heart-shaped cookie cutter to make lots of little lovehearts!  Arrange on a large platter as nibbles to serve with a glass of something nice, or you could just pop a couple on individual plates with a few salad leaves as a starter.  A little tip for you: by adding a little more cream cheese to the mixture & less beetroot, you can make the colour a romantic blush pink (well it is Valentine’s Day!).

Next, the main attraction!  As it’s a Valentine dinner, we really should keep the courses quite light (because falling asleep after dinner with your buttons undone is not going to get you another date!).  This recipe for Love Apple Focaccia is really simple & can be prepared in advance, so that when your date arrives you can give them your undivided attention!  Here’s a bit of romantic trivia for you: tomatoes were known as “love apples” & the French called them pommes d’amour.  In history, apparently they were once considered an aphrodisiac because of their beautiful heart shape, making them quite appropriate for Valentine’s Day!  This can be baked earlier in the day & pre-pampering (you’re going to work up a sweat with this one).  Aprons on!

What you need:

500g Strong White Bread Flour (plus extra for kneading & dusting)
15g Dried Yeast (or 12g fresh if you prefer)
Half a teaspoon ground Sea Salt
300ml Lukewarm Water (dip a finger in it & it should be just warm)
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil (plus extra for drizzling)
Half a punnet of Baby Plum or Cherry Tomatoes, washed & halved (you need the other half punnet for the roasted veg later)
1 sprig Rosemary (fresh or dried, chopped)
3-4 cloves Fresh Garlic, chopped finely
Sea Salt & Black Pepper
Coarse Semolina (optional – for your baking tray)

What to do:

In a large mixing bowl, tip the flour, salt & yeast together & give it a good stir.

Add the olive oil & the lukewarm water, giving everything a firm mixing until all the ingredients form a soft, sticky dough.

Tip onto a lightly floured worktop & knead for ten minutes (your arms will be lovely & toned!).  The dough might need a little extra flour occasionally as you’re doing this – be careful not to overdo it, otherwise it will alter the recipe & not be very pleasant.  Remember, the effort you put into the kneading now will result in a fluffy, risen bread later, so give it some elbow grease!

Once kneaded, sprinkle a little flour into the bottom of the mixing bowl & pop your dough back.  Drizzle a little olive oil onto a sheet of clingfilm & loosely place over the top of the bowl, put that on a tray & place in a draught-free place to rise for an hour (I usually put mine in the airing cupboard).

Preheat the oven to 220*C & prepare a large baking tray by sprinkling a little coarse semolina across it or just a little flour, or a little of both.  Your oven will need at least an hour to get hot enough.

When your focaccia dough is ready, it will have doubled in size.  Simply take the oiled film off & tip your dough onto a lightly floured work surface, making sure you scrape any remnants of dough from the bowl (you’ve put a lot of work into this, so don’t waste any!).

To knock out any large bubbles that may have formed, give it three good throws onto the worktop.  Then roll out & stretch until it is the size of your tin & 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 indentations all over the top of the dough.

In these little indentations, place half a tomato & dot them all around your focaccia dough, spacing them out evenly.

Sprinkle the chopped garlic all over the top, along with the Rosemary, a bit of black pepper & a pinch of sea salt crystals, sprinkled on top like sparkly shards (everyone likes a bit of sparkle).

Bake in the top of the oven for about 10-12 minutes, until the bread has risen & turned golden, with crispy, dark tomato skins.

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 & place on a wire rack.  While it’s still warm, drizzle with a little more olive oil & leave to cool.  Try not to eat any before your date arrives!  When it’s cooled, wrap in clingfilm to keep it from going stale.

Now, onto the other elements of your main course – let’s start with preparing the roasted vegetables, ready for later.  If there are any here that you don’t like, just replace them with ones you do like.  Ready?  Here goes!

What you need:

1 each of Red & Yellow Peppers, deseeded
1 large Courgette, top & tailed
1 Red Onion, top & tailed
Large handful of Mushrooms, wiped & clean
Half a punnet of Baby Plum or Cherry Tomatoes
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Freshly ground Black Pepper
A little Sea Salt
Oregano (dried is fine)

What to do:

Get a large roasting tin.  Prepare the peppers first – wash, deseed & chop into chunky pieces.  Chuck them in the tin.

Next, prepare your courgette – wash, top & tail, then slice on a slant into quarter inch thick slices.  Cut these slices in half lengthways & add to the peppers in the tin.

Wash & dry your baby tomatoes, cut into halves & add to the tin.

Wipe the mushrooms, trim the stalks & cut into quarters or halves if smaller.  Add them to the tin!

Top & tail the onion, take off the outer skin, then cut into thick slices & cut these into chunky pieces.  Again, add to the tin.

Drizzle all over with a little olive oil & give everything a stir, so that all the veg mix together.  Sprinkle some pepper on (don’t go mad here – you only need a little) & add a couple of pinches of dried Oregano across the top.  Really important bit:  do not add any salt until you are just about to cook it, otherwise your veg will become watery, mushy & un-roastable.  Just add a pinch before it goes in the oven.

Cover with cling film & leave in a cool place until later – you can always pop it in an airtight container in the fridge until dinner time, then tip into the tin just before roasting.  If you’re going to present your main course in the roasting tin with the chicken, you could put some of the veg onto metal skewers at this stage, so you can place them around the chicken when cooked.  That way you can serve your date at the table.

Finally, it’s time to prepare your chicken thighs.  This is one of those “chuck it all in a dish & bake” kind of meals & doesn’t need you to stand over it.  Hands washed & apron back on!

What you need:

6-8 Chicken Thighs, skin on & bone in (yes, 6-8 because … leftovers!)
1 large Lemon (make sure it’s ripe – the riper the lemon, the juicier it is)
4 cloves Garlic
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Sprig Fresh Rosemary (or fresh Thyme sprigs, just use a handful)
Sea Salt & Black Pepper for seasoning
2 tablespoons Runny Honey

What to do:

Preheat the oven to 200*C.  Get yourself a large roasting tin & put the chicken thighs in, skin side up.  Usually, I get a pair of scissors & trim off any excess skin.  Drizzle the chicken with a little olive oil.

Cut the lemon into quarters & give each one a gentle squeeze over the chicken pieces, then put in the roasting tin around the chicken.

Get the unpeeled garlic cloves, give them a bash with the back of a knife & chuck them in around the chicken.

Rip up the Rosemary into four smaller sprigs & chuck that in with the chicken too.

Season the chicken with the salt & pepper, then put the roasting tin in the middle of the oven & roast for about 25-30 minutes.

At this stage, take the chicken out & it should be crisping up nicely on top.  Use a spoon to drizzle honey over the chicken pieces & return to the oven for another 5-10 minutes or so.  When it’s cooked, stick a metal skewer or sharp knife in the thickest part – the juices should run clear.

 

Remove from the oven, place on a rack & cover with foil, giving it a chance to rest.  It is important to rest any roasted meat after cooking, so that it becomes tender.  Generally, you can leave it to rest for the same length of time it took to cook.

While that’s resting, turn up the oven to 220*C & put the vegetables in to roast, adding a tiny sprinkling of sea salt just before you do.  These

take about 20 minutes, just give them a shake about halfway through cooking.

If you want to add something extra, why not thread a few baby potatoes (skin on) onto a couple of metal skewers & roast them directly on the rack with the vegetables (they take about the same time, maybe five more minutes, depending on size).  Just pull them off the skewers when ready – give them a gentle squeeze & they should be soft on the inside & crispy on the outside, then serve with splodges of butter for mashing in.

By the time your vegetables are roasted, your chicken will be rested nicely & ready for serving.  Time to get your gorgeous courses to the table!  Slice the focaccia into thick, fluffy fingers & place on a plate with a small dish of extra virgin olive oil & a few drops of balsamic vinegar in for dipping.  Then plate up your chicken with a generous spoonful of the roasted vegetables on the side (or a skewer of veg if you’re serving at the table), with a few buttery, baby baked potatoes.

After all that luscious loveliness, you will need a delicious dessert that can top it off with ease & this dessert duo will get you plenty of Brownie points with your date (it’s essentially finger food), plus it can be prepped well in advance.  It’s a hot & cold dessert – warm, silky chocolate fondue & frosty fruit ice-cream!  Here’s the first stage – you will need your blender for this, a couple of plastic tubs with lids & space in your freezer. 

What you need:

500g Greek Yoghurt
250g frozen Raspberries
250g frozen Strawberries
Juice & Zest of half a Lemon (unwaxed & washed)
1 or 2 tablespoons Runny Honey

What to do:

Put the fruit & yoghurt in the blender & pulse a few times to break up the fruit.  The strawberries may cause it to clog, so get a plastic spatula (not a metal one, or your date might end up being a Paramedic) & give it a stir around between pulsing if necessary.  It will thicken up pretty much immediately, so take it steady.

Add the rest of the ingredients & whizz up to create a creamy, frozen flurry of fruitiness!  Tip into a couple of plastic tubs – only fill up to halfway, leave the lids off & put them in the freezer for half an hour.  Lick the spoon (because you need to taste it & it’s Chef’s perks).

Remove from the freezer, give everything a stir through with a fork to break up any pieces of ice that may have formed, then put the lids on & return to the freezer until dessert time.

Take a tub out of the freezer about ten minutes before serving, so that it softens slightly.  Here’s a tip for serving:  boil the kettle & pour a little hot water into a mug, stick a serving spoon in for 30 seconds & scooping your ice cream will be so much easier.

Now onto the second stage of your delectable dessert:  gorgeously gooey chocolate sauce to make your fondue!  I make jars of this to spread on toast & for decorating cupcakes.  It keeps for ages in the fridge (well, if you hide it in the veg drawer it does).  This one just needs a saucepan & a spoon.  Let’s get chocolatey!

What you need:

4oz softened Salted Butter
8oz Chocolate
14oz can of Sweetened Condensed Milk

What to do:

Put everything into a saucepan & heat gently to melt, stirring carefully until fully combined.

Once everything has melted into a dark, delectably dense pan of silky deliciousness, it’s done.  Store any leftovers in a sterile jar in the fridge & spread on toast when you fancy it.  As this sauce takes about five minutes to make, you can prepare it just before your date arrives & pour into a serving bowl to cool slightly (nobody likes being served a bowl of molten chocolate).  Place your bowl of beautiful chocolate fondue on a plate, surrounded by bamboo skewers of strawberries, marshmallows & pineapple pieces, ready for dunking & drizzling onto refreshing scoops of softened strawberry & raspberry ice-cream.  You could pile ice-cream into wafer cornets & drizzle chocolate sauce on top, or dip strawberries in & feed them to your Amour.  It’s your evening, so share the chocolate!

Now that’s the dinner done, there’s just the dishes (but they can wait, there’s kissing to be done!).  Have a fabulous Valentine’s Day, Lovers!  Stay hungry 😉 x ❤ x

 

Flip Your Stack!

Mornings can be a bit difficult at this time of year, especially if you work different shifts or random hours.  There are those days when the alarm goes off (several times, because you hit snooze like you’re playing a drum solo) & you lurch more than launch your body from it’s snuggly, fluffy duvet.  We’ve all been there – you really can’t be bothered with much more than a cup of coffee & a slice of toast for breakfast, the cat is curled up in your spot on the sofa & you’d rather watch Spongebob than the news (actually, I always watch cartoons in the morning – the news can be rather depressing, so it’s much better to start the day with a smile!).

You don’t need me to tell you that breakfasts are important – they kick-start your day & give you an energy boost before you boot up your laptop.  Most days, I’m up at 5.30am (fyi, it’s dark) & sometimes I don’t feel like eating much or cooking anything (especially when it’s cold & soggy outside!).  As I’m a huge fan of preparing in advance, there are usually a few of my apricot oat bars in a tub or my Husband’s homemade croissants in the freezer (they warm up lovely in the oven), so I don’t have to do much apart from put them on a plate.  Then there are perfectly plump pancakes.  I’m not talking about the delicately thin, elegant crêpes we usually eat on Pancake Day though.  Breakfast pancakes are duvet-like delicacies – substantially thick, warming & with a fluffy filling.  What they shouldn’t be is fiddly, time-consuming & boring!  Now I’m not saying you need to be standing around the stove, flipping fluffy pancakes for all you’re worth at stupid o’clock (as if I would suggest such a thing!).  The best way to get your pancake fix without the faff is to make a batch in advance & keep some ready made in the fridge (or freezer if you really want to be organised).

These plump little pillows take minutes to prepare & seconds to cook.  You can make some at the weekend & stash them in the fridge (they last for a few days in an airtight container), then warm them through in the toaster when you need one or three.  Here’s how to get your fluffy fix – aprons on & whisks at the ready!

What you need:

8oz Self-Raising Flour (or use Plain Flour with 4 teaspoons Baking Powder if you don’t have Self-Raising)
1oz Vanilla Sugar (just stick a vanilla pod in a jar of sugar overnight)
Quarter of a pint of Semi-Skimmed Milk
2 large Eggs
1oz Salted Butter, melted

What to do:

Tip the flour into a large mixing bowl (no need to sieve it).  Add the baking powder if you’re using plain flour & give it a stir.

Add the sugar, eggs & milk, giving everything a brisk whisk to combine your mixture completely – whisk it by hand, you don’t need to get the electric one out.

Add the melted butter slowly & whisk in as you do so (the butter stops the pancakes from sticking to the pan without the need for additional fat).  It should be the consistency of double cream or natural yoghurt, so if it’s a bit too thick just add a little more milk & give it a whisk again until it leaves a trail when you lift the whisk out.

Before you start cooking, get yourself a large plate & rip up some  greaseproof paper into six inch long thin strips.  Lay one on the plate & leave the rest to one side.

Heat up a large skillet or frying pan on a medium heat – your pan needs to be nice & hot before you start cooking your pancakes.

Using a large spoon or a ladle, pour a little pancake batter slowly into the pan to make small discs, about four inches across.  Do this about three or four times, depending on the size of your pan & leave about an inch gap between them as they will grow in all directions.

After about 30 seconds or so, you will see little bubbles appearing on the surface, so carefully slide a spatula under each pancake & quickly flip it over.  Give it another 30 seconds & flip it back – it should be lightly golden & have a popped bubble sort of texture all over, which means they’re ready.

Remove each pancake, one at a time & lay on the plate with a strip of greaseproof paper in between each one to separate them.

Repeat the above steps until you have cooked all the mixture.  You should have enough for about twelve pancakes in all.

If you’re serving them immediately, cover the plate with an upside-down mixing bowl to keep them warm & transfer to the table.  If not, leave them to cool & wrap a couple at a time in clingfilm, then put them in the fridge or freezer.  You can put them in an airtight container too, just keep them separated with the greaseproof paper strips, then serve when you want some.  To reheat your pancakes, simply pop a couple in the toaster for about 30 seconds to warm through & that’s breakfast prepared!

These fabulous fluffed up pancakes don’t have to be dull either!  They are perfect with an array of fresh fruit, beautiful berries or just a squeeze of fresh lemon juice & a drizzle of golden syrup.  If I have a couple of punnets of fresh berries going spare, I’ll put them in a saucepan with some golden syrup & simmer gently until they become soft & squishy, making a warm fruit sauce to pour on top.  These soft little flatcakes also taste scrumptious with scrambled eggs – great if you fancy something a bit more exciting than cereal (which is obviously for midnight snacks).

If you’re having an impromptu dinner party, they also make a delightfully light dessert.  Use a cookie cutter to cut out shapes or circles, then build them with up however you like – try layering with rich, dark black cherry jam & a spoonful of whipped cream, dusting a little grated chocolate on the top to finish.  One of my favourite ways to serve them is to splodge spoonfuls of apricot jam in between the layers with whipped cream, top with a couple of fresh raspberries, then drizzle with pureed peaches – open a tin of peaches, chuck them in the blender, whizz up with a squeeze of lemon juice & pour into a serving jug!  If you don’t want to use cream, maybe use strawberry or raspberry ice cream instead.  These sumptuous stacks of sweetness look impressive & are really quick to assemble (especially if you have a few pancakes already made).  There would have been pictures, but they never last long enough!

Next time you fancy a fluffy breakfast without the faff, flip a stack of these fabulously plump pillows onto a plate & enjoy a little indulgence.  Stay hungry 😉 A x

 

 

 

Me & Chocolate Got a Thing Going On …..

Chocolate: just the mere mention of this innocuous little word conjures up all kinds of delightful thoughts, evoking memories of sumptuous tasting treats, that unmistakable texture in your mouth & familiar sweet scent.   The Latin for cocoa is “Theobroma”, which literally translates as “Food of the Gods” & kind of sums it up really. It’s one of those special treats that can be quite mesmerising, especially if it’s “the good stuff”!  This can be anything from that inexpensive but delectable store brand that just hits the spot, to the purse-draining handcrafted, mouthwatering delicacy that is almost erotic & should come with an 18 rating on the wrapper!  Whatever does it for you, I won’t judge – chocolate is personal in every way.

The simplest of recipes will produce the best results, so I would suggest finding one that you are comfortable with & use the best ingredients available to you.  The standard recipe is equal quantities of chocolate to double cream (so 150g chocolate & 150ml double cream, for example).  Personally, I like to use a blend of milk chocolate & plain in mine, so that it’s got that right amount of “bite” & the ganache is not too sweet (otherwise you get a sickly, cloying chocolate that will set your teeth on edge & make you look like you sucked a lemon).  My tip is to taste a variety of different chocolates to find which ones do it for you – get them home, eat a couple of pieces together until you discover the right combination to give the taste you want.  Write it down, make some notes & then you can increase the quantities to make a decent sized batch.  Get creative, use a recipe as a basic template & experiment with it!

Once you have made the ganache, things get really interesting – you can add alcohol, chopped nuts, dried fruit, biscuit, etc.  The only limits are your imagination & your pantry!  Another tip is always use a bain-marie (a dry bowl over a pan of hot water) to melt your chocolate with the cream.  It is important not to let the water touch the bottom of the bowl & also, be careful not to get any water in your ganache (or melted chocolate), because it will go gritty & horrible, end up in the bin & you will be a bit miffed (trust me, you might even invent a few swear words too!).

When you have made the ganache, leave it to cool for a couple of hours in the fridge.  After this, you can start to make your truffles. I have made them in all kinds of random shapes (sculpting a pair of ladies’ size three shoes from a large piece of chilled ganache was an epic challenge, but worth it), however I would suggest starting small & making little balls to begin with.  Simply scoop out a little ganache using a teaspoon or a melon baller, set aside on a parchment lined baking tray, then continue until you have made lots of little chocolate truffle balls.

Once they are done, you can roll them in a little powdered chocolate or chopped nuts if you want to keep them simple.  Or, you can dip them in melted chocolate using a fork, tap it on the side of the bowl to shake off the excess (like excess chocolate is really a thing!), then slide the coated truffle onto a parchment lined baking tray using a toothpick. Then simply decorate them as you like – coat in coconut, roll in chopped roasted nuts, sprinkle with sugar or drizzle melted white chocolate patterns on top.   It’s up to you!

There are moulds you can use to get your ganache into little shapes, which are best to use when it’s still warm & before chilling – just press the ganache firmly into the mould shape to expel any air bubbles, then chill.  If you find moulds a bit fiddly like I do, then try using a piping bag to create shapes – I made squillions of lovehearts using a piping bag & they were all unique, which makes them so much more special.  Once cooled, they can be decorated however you choose.

One of my favourites is my Black Stone Cherry Chocolates, inspired by one of my favourite rock bands.  Once dipped in chocolate, before they dry I like to drop some chunky pieces of Amarene cherries on top with a drizzle of the syrup mixed with Bourbon (you know the one).  These have a nice kick to them & play a rich little riff on the tongue!

The best thing about making your own chocolate treats is that you can always have a secret stash in the back of the cupboard, just for those little emergencies when you need a shot of sweetness.  Share the love & a little bit of chocolate!  A x