Give Sultanas A Swirl!

There are some things that just don’t do it for me & that includes anything with really over-dried fruit in it – shop bought mince pies, heavily laden fruit cakes that are more fruit than cake (that’s just plain wrong), & anything with shrivelled up sultanas in it.  Scones, buns, cakes or fruit bread should all be graced with sweet, sumptuous fruits & nothing dried of any description.

Sultanas have always intrigued me since I was a child.  In those days, those wrinkly, chewy chunks were picked & flicked from whatever pastry they had dared to adorn!  I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them & always found them to be hard, chewy & just not very nice!  In the history books, a Sultana is depicted as a beautiful bejewelled Queen, so it’s hard to associate such a regal sovereign with this dried delicacy.

My Mum & Grandma taught me to show the sultana some respect & give these fabulous fruits a bit of a pre-bake pampering.   Before I bake anything with sultanas in, I give them a good soak in a fragrant warm tea bath, sometimes with a splash of Brandy or Sherry in it.  One of my favourite teas for doing this is Chai, especially at this time of year because of it’s heady, spicy scent.  The sultanas soak up all this luscious liquid to make them plump & pretty again.

There are a variety of treats you can rustle up with these little beauties & on a Sunday morning, if my Husband isn’t making croissants (his speciality), I will make my Sultana Swirlies.  They’re pretty much twirls of enriched dough with squishy sultanas in a swirl of sugar, butter & cinnamon.  If you don’t have the time to make the dough, use pre-made all butter puff pastry (the good stuff) instead.  So get your apron on & here’s the recipe!

What you need:

1lb 4oz Strong White Bread Flour (plus extra for dusting)
Half an ounce of Fresh Yeast (or dried equivalent)
Half a pint lukewarm water
1 large Egg
A quarter of a teaspoon of ground Sea Salt
2oz Vanilla Sugar (plus another ounce for sprinkling)
1oz melted Butter (salted)
Ground Cinnamon for dusting (only a tiny bit – a little goes a very long way!)
2-3 tablespoons Milk (for brushing on at the end)
1 Chai Teabag
Quarter of a pint of boiling water
1 handful of Sultanas (about 2 or 3oz should be sufficient)

What to do:

Firstly, soak your fruit: put the sultanas in a small bowl or a large coffee cup along with the tea bag, pour on the boiling water & stir well.  Put a lid on it (a saucer or small plate will do) & leave to one side for a couple of hours at least.  If you want them to really plump up, do this just before bedtime the night before & leave them until you’re ready to use them (I’ve left them for 24 hours before, so they will be fine).

While the sultanas are soaking in their bath, get the dough made!  Put the yeast into a measuring jug, pour over the lukewarm water & stir with a fork until the yeast has dissolved.  Crack in the egg & give it a quick whisk with the fork until fully combined.

Tip the flour into a large mixing bowl, add the salt & mix in with your hands, making a well in the centre of the flour.

Pour in the liquid & using the fork, draw the flour into the liquid centre, stirring well.  Then get your hands in & bring it all together to form a dough, leaving the bowl almost clean.  Tip the dough onto a flour dusted worktop & sprinkle a little flour in the bottom of the bowl you just used (you’ll need it again in a few minutes).

Knead the dough for ten minutes by hand (free mini-workout! Yay!).  If you’ve never kneaded dough before, simply push it firmly away from you with the heel of your hand then pull it back over, turn it to the side a quarter turn & repeat.  Be careful not to tear the dough, you just want to stretch it so that it will rise later.  Once you’ve finished kneading, the dough will be noticeably smoother & more elastic.  The more effort you put in now, the more risen your dough will be when you bake it, plus you’ll have lovely toned arms.  Pop it into the floured bowl, cover with a bit of oiled clingfilm (use a pastry brush, it’s easier) & place on a tray in the airing cupboard to prove for an hour.

While the dough is proving & your sultanas are soaking, relax.  There’s not much you can do here, so put the oven on to 220*C, put the kettle on & make yourself a cuppa.  Prepare your baking trays – brush with butter & flour them, or line them with greaseproof paper.  I’ve used pizza tins for this & they work quite well.

Once the dough is ready, your sultanas will be too.  Your dough will have almost doubled in size & have a domed top (your hard work will have paid off!).  Scrape it out of the bowl & onto the worktop, then knock it back – give it a quick knead & throw it onto the worktop a couple of times.  This knocks out any large air bubbles.

Strain your sultanas thoroughly using a sieve, giving them a good shake to remove any excess moisture.  Leave them to sit in the sieve & put this over the bowl they were in (to catch any drips).

On a lightly floured worktop, stretch your dough into a rectangular shape, dust with a little flour & roll out to about a quarter inch thickness.  The dough will snap back, just be patient & if it needs a little more flour underneath, dust some sparingly just to prevent it sticking to the worktop.

Next, brush on the melted butter all over from edge to edge using a pastry brush.  Sprinkle the sugar evenly all over the buttered dough, followed by the sultanas.

Then comes the fun part – rolling it up to form a big spiral, sultana-filled sausage.  It doesn’t really matter which way you roll it, towards you or away from you, but it just needs to be rolled carefully so you don’t lose your fruit.  Gently roll the filled dough, until you have a long, sultana-filled sausage.

Using a sharp knife, cut the sausage in half, then cut each half in half again.  You should be left with about 16 slices, each one about an inch thick.  Lay them in a circle on a prepared baking tray to make a flower shape, leaving about an inch gap between them.  Press them down slightly to flatten them a bit.

Cover loosely with greased clingfilm to protect them, then leave them on a draught-free worktop to prove again for about half an hour.  They will have doubled in size again & filled the tins completely.

Bake them in the centre of the oven for about 12-15 minutes until golden brown & risen.  When they are ready, gently ease them out of the tin onto a wire cooling rack – to test if dough is cooked, give it a tap on the bottom & it should sound hollow.

While they are still hot, brush with cold milk & dust sparingly with ground Cinnamon, plus another sprinkling of vanilla sugar, before leaving to cool.

These fragrant, fluffy swirls taste great as they are, but I like to make some glacé icing & drizzle it over the top, filling the curves like a little icing path to the centre.  You can use freshly squeezed lemon or orange juice to make your icing instead of water & give it a zesty zap.  They make lovely lazy breakfasts (you’ll burn off all the sugar by lunchtime), or a gorgeous snack with coffee.  However you have them, just remember to treat your sultanas like a Queen.  Stay hungry 😉 A x

 

 

 

 

 

Gentlemen Prefer (Chocolate Chip) Blondies!

Even in Summertime, soggy mornings make me think of massive mugs of heavenly hot chocolate, teeming with a mountain of mini marshmallows on a cloud of whipped cream, dusted with chocolate shavings.  It’s guaranteed to put a smile on even the sourest of faces, especially if there’s a chunky chocolate chip cookie to dunk in it. I must admit, I like my hot chocolate made the old-fashioned way – boiled milk, slowly poured over flakes of grated chocolate & whisked up until silky smooth with a delicate foamy froth.  After one of these & a cookie, I can take on the world (albeit slowly!).

Over the weekend, I was invited to a beautiful ladies’ afternoon tea at one of my lovely friend’s homes & took some of these naughty chocolate chip delights as a little gift for her (fresh flowers are nice, but you can’t really eat them!).   These are based on a blondie recipe & are really rich & indulgent, because they are full to the brim with so much chocolate, then swirled & drizzled with more chocolate (just to make sure there’s enough in them!).  The chocolate chip & peanut butter version was a kind of happy mishap – I was experimenting with the recipe & added a splodge of smooth peanut butter into each scoop, encasing that nutty, buttery centre in the cookie dough.  As they bake in the oven, the peanut butter starts to melt & infuse the cookies (& kitchen) with that nutty flavour & sweet scent.  Of course, they are drizzled with melted chocolate too & a few chopped, salted peanuts sprinkled generously on top – the slight saltiness complements the chocolate so well!  These are not for the faint-hearted, nor are they for everyday munching really – they should be a treat, or for those days when you’re just feeling a bit pants & want a “pick me up”.   If I’m feeling particularly decadent, I’ll make some with plain chocolate chunks & shards of stem ginger (my favourite), or chopped dried apricots with white chocolate pieces.  The choices are as endless as your imagination!  The best bit?  They are really easy & take minutes to make.

What you need:

100g vanilla or caster sugar (I make my own vanilla sugar, so it’s naturally flavoured)
125g light Muscovado sugar
150g melted butter
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
300g plain flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (the proper stuff, not “essence”)
Half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
200g milk chocolate & 100g plain chocolate, chopped into chunks (I chuck mine in the fridge for an hour, then whizz them up in the food processor)
200g milk chocolate (for melting)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 170*C.  Prepare a couple of baking sheets by lining them with greaseproof paper (no washing up tins later!).

Gently melt the butter & set aside to cool slightly.

In one bowl, sift the flour & bicarb.

In another bowl, mix the Muscovado & the vanilla sugars.  Muscovado is a bit moist, almost like damp sand in texture, so break up any lumps with a whisk or fork.

Pour the melted butter, egg & egg yolk into the sugars, along with the vanilla extract.  Whisk together until just combined & you get a creamy, caramel coloured liquid.

Slowly add the sifted flour & bicarb to the caramel liquid, stirring well until it is all incorporated & turns into a lovely firm cookie dough.

Add the chocolate chips to the cookie dough, distributing evenly.

Get yourself a medium sized metal ice-cream scoop (one with a spring loaded handle is best), then scoop dollops of cookie dough up & drop them onto the greaseproof lined baking tray.  Leave a good couple of inches between them all – they will grow!   If you want to save some for another day, you can always freeze a few scoops at this stage &  just defrost them when you fancy a treat.

Bake in the centre of the oven for between 16-18 minutes, then gently transfer the cookies onto a cooling rack.  If you put the tin next to the cooling rack, you can actually pull the greaseproof paper onto the rack & then move the cookies directly onto the rack after.  They will be soft until they cool, so be careful as they are more delicate than they look.

Once cooled, put another sheet (or the same one) of greaseproof paper underneath the cooling rack.  Then melt the chocolate & drizzle over the cookies, making whatever pretty patterns you like & even adding more chocolate chips or chopped nuts on top.   That’s it!  

You might want to leave them to set before indulging, or you’ll get into a chocolately gooey mess!   Diamonds may be nice but chocolate is everyone’s best friend (especially when you share).  A x

 

 

 

Pasta Parcels

The first pasta I ever made was a very soupy looking lasagne when I was a teenager & it didn’t improve much until my twenties – it tasted very nice, but you needed a spoon to eat it (although my boyfriend at the time was far too polite to mention this).  My pasta skills have progressed a bit since then & I am happy to say, you don’t need a spoon to eat my lasagne anymore (although I do recommend wearing an elasticated waistband).

Some people may think of pasta making as a bit fiddly or time consuming (it’s like the bread making scenario all over again).  I appreciate this, because I too had a few issues in the beginning (actually, I still do on occasion) & that’s OK, because your kitchen isn’t a Michelin starred restaurant – you’re making it for family & friends, not paying customers!  It just takes a little practice, that’s all.  The best thing is pasta takes very little time to make from scratch, plus it’s fun to make when the weather is a bit pants & the kids are “bored” – get them making pasta!

What you need:

The recipe I use is 100g of strong ’00’ flour (or strong bread flour) & one large egg, per person (so if you’re cooking for three people, that’s three eggs & 300g of flour).  However, I like to mix half flour with half fine semolina, which gives it that gorgeous golden, sunshine yellow colour (& everyone likes a little sunshine).

Also, I recommend buying good quality free-range eggs – trust me, it makes all the difference.  Here’s a little test to see if your eggs are really fresh.  Half fill a jug with cold water & gently plop the eggs into the jug, one at a time.  If they sink, they’re fine & fresh; if they float, it means they are not that fresh & probably shouldn’t be used.

What to do:

Measure your flour into a bowl & tip onto a clean work surface.  Make a well in the middle, crack your eggs in carefully & combine them a little before using clean, cool fingertips to bring the flour in from the sides & gently combine into a lovely golden dough (it’s messy, but that’s half the fun).

Knead for about five minutes until flexible, then wrap in cling film & leave to rest in the fridge for half an hour.  After that, you can roll it out, stuff it with some fabulous fillings, or cut into ribbons (such as tagliatelle) & even hang some up to dry for another day (if you don’t have a rack, use a clean clothes horse).  It’s that simple!

To make ravioli, roll the dough out until it’s almost thin enough to see through.  Lay it down on a flour dusted surface (sprinkle some semolina too – this will stop it sticking).  Then simply add small splodges of your filling (about a teaspoonful), roughly an inch apart, down one side of the pasta sheet – sometimes I use a piping bag to do this (less mess & a bit quicker).  Dip your finger in a cup of cold water, run it along the edge & between the fillings, before folding the other side of the pasta over the top.  Press the edges down firmly, using a cupping action with the side of your hand to separate the fillings into individual bumps & remove any air.  Cut them into little parcels using a ravioli or pizza cutter & set aside on a plate or board, again dusted with flour or semolina (or both).

Bring a pan of water to a rolling boil, chuck in a couple of generous pinches of sea salt, then gently add your pasta to the water.  It should cook in about 2-3 minutes, so pick one out & have a taste to check – obviously, if you’re cooking ravioli or similar stuffed pasta, use your judgement on this & make sure the filling is piping hot.  Then drain (saving a cup of the water) & serve as you like it- spoon on some sauce, or just add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil & a sprinkle of black pepper.   If your sauce is a bit too thick, add some of the cooking water to loosen it up a bit & make it silky smooth (you really don’t need much).  All you need to do then is eat it!

One of the best tips I can give is to treat yourself to a robust pasta machine – forget brand names here, go for the one that you feel most comfortable with.  When I first began making pasta, I would roll out the dough by hand with a rolling pin (several times until it was thin enough & my arms ached), so my pasta machine is one of the best purchases I’ve made.  With the turn of a handle you can have perfectly precise spaghetti (they are also really good for rolling out fondant icing – bonus!).

So next time it’s a bit dull outside, create some indoor sunshine & make your own pasta parcels!  A x