Espresso Yourself!

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

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

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

What you need:

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

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Add the walnut pieces & stir in gently to combine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

A Pearway to Heaven!

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

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

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

What you need:

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

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Swing Your Panés!

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Resplendent Risotto & the Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Tiny Little Arancini

Here we are, at the start of a brand new year, full of hope & a handful of resolutions!  After decadent December’s sparkly finale of festivities, January’s bright, crisp sunshine has been a welcome sight.  Although we’re barely into the New Year, piled up platefuls of plenty are replaced with sparse-looking salads, kale on a crispbread & some rather questionable smoothies.  Personally, I don’t go in for all that stuffing & starving yourself (there are other ways to be miserable).  As I’ve mentioned before in a previous blog, there are two things to remember: (1) your “in door” is much larger than your “out door” (think about it) & (2) everything in moderation (one slice of chocolate cake, not six).  January is not a sponge to wipe away the over-indulgences of December!  It’s still Winter & we need warming, cocooning comfort food that satisfies the appetite & fills you up, so this is no time to start depriving your body of much required sustenance!

Weekends here usually involve whizzing around on a Saturday doing chores, catching up with friends, family & phone calls, followed by a lovely lazy Sunday with the Husband, a glass or two of wine & watching old movies together while dinner’s cooking.  Sometimes, I’ll cook a roast chicken & make chicken stock at the same time (multi-tasking at it’s finest!).  Homemade stock is extremely easy to make, you know what’s in it (no hidden nasties) & is very versatile too, being the base to many soups, sauces & dishes.  It also means that we can have a rich, rib-sticking risotto on a Monday night, made with fabulously fresh chicken stock, a bit of bacon & a variety of colourful vegetables.  Here’s a link to my easy roast chicken & chicken stock recipe:  http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/beauty-the-baste/

Risotto is a simply sumptuous staple dish & as long as you give it your full attention (no wandering off mid-cooking to check the score or your social media), it will reward you with a rich, resplendent rice dish.  Once you master the basic recipe, you can add your favourite flavoursome ingredients & toppings.

This is a recipe I’ve been cooking for years & have found it works well every time, plus the leftovers can be made into some rather tasty arancini – risotto is a bit like the gift that keeps on giving.  Gorgeously gooey & glossy risotto is beautiful piled on a plate, adorned with shimmering roasted vegetables & a drizzle of the oil from the pan with all it’s garlicky goodness.  A tray of roasted veggies will cook in about the same time too & any leftovers are perfect on pizzas, tossed in pasta or just topping some toasted ciabatta rubbed with a little raw garlic & olive oil, creating a beautiful bruschetta anytime (I’ve usually got a jar of these in the fridge).  If you’re cooking this risotto as a vegetarian meal, simply swap the chicken stock for homemade vegetable stock instead.  Ready to give it a go?  Hands washed, aprons on!

What you need:

For the Risotto:
Chicken stock (I usually have 2-3 pints in a pan heating up)
4 rashers Smoked Streaky Bacon or Pancetta
3 sticks of Celery, washed & trimmed
1 bunch of Spring Onions, washed & trimmed
4 large handfuls of Arborio Rice (or you can use Carnaroli if you prefer)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 large glass of Dry White Wine (Pinot Grigio is good with this, but dry un-oaked white wine will do)
4oz grated Parmesan (because you’ll need some for garnish)
1oz Butter
Freshly ground Black Pepper

For the Roasted Vegetables:
Half a punnet Baby Plum or Cherry Tomatoes, halved
2 Peppers (each a different colour), deseeded
1 Courgette, trimmed
1 Red Onion, trimmed & outer skin removed
3 cloves of Garlic, chopped
Freshly ground Black Pepper
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

What to do:

Firstly, get your stock ready.  If it’s already strained & been chilling in the fridge, simple scoop off any layer of fat from the top (there shouldn’t be much).  Strain into a large saucepan using a metal sieve to remove any bits in the liquid (if you’ve forgotten to do this, just use a sieve when adding the stock to the rice).  This is important, as you don’t want any gritty bits in your risotto.  Because homemade stock already has salt in it, you won’t need to add any to this recipe (there’s no added salt to the roasted veggies either – it draws the water out & makes them mushy).

Put the lid on the pan & heat gently on a low heat until nice & hot – don’t rush this, it will only take a couple of minutes.  Sometimes, I’ll add a cup of boiling water from the kettle if I’ve made a smaller amount of stock & need more liquid.  It’s best to have more than you need, just in case.

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C & prepare your roasting vegetables – wash thoroughly & apart from the tomatoes, chop into chunky pieces.

Chuck them all into a roasting tin or large dish, with a good glug of olive oil & some black pepper (a little goes a long way, so go steady with this).

Chop the garlic & add to the tin, giving everything a good toss around (get your hands in there!).  If you prefer, just give the garlic a bash with the back of a knife & chuck it in the pan whole – it will flavour everything, but more delicately (plus you can squeeze it onto crusty bread later for a snack).

Put in the middle of the oven to cook while you make the risotto.  Give everything a shake after about 10 minutes & return to the oven.  Once cooked, pop them on a cooling rack (this will be when your risotti is finished, but here’s a picture to give you an idea of what to expect).

Prepare your risotto vegetables – wash them thoroughly, trim the ends & chop finely.  Set to one side.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet or frying pan & using a pair of scissors, cut the bacon into small pieces into the pan.

Add the onion & celery, stir frying for a couple of minutes until softened slightly & a little translucent.  Make sure you keep everything moving, as you don’t want the onions to “catch” & burn.

Add the rice to the pan, stirring well & ensuring it is thoroughly coated in the oil (this is important).

Pour the glass of white wine into the pan & stir well (the scent of this bit is always lovely!).  Always use the wine you would drink & absolutely never anything marked “cooking wine”!

Add a couple of ladles of stock into the pan, stirring thoroughly into all the ingredients.  Keep stirring gently until the liquid has been absorbed by the rice & repeat this step.

After about 20 minutes, give it a taste & the rice should be al dente (just like pasta – cooked “to the tooth”).  The rice should be easy to bite through, yet it will still be firm.  If you think it needs a bit longer, add another ladle of stock, stir well & when absorbed, taste it again.

Once you’re happy with your risotto, add a generous handful of Parmesan, along with a couple of small chunks of butter dotted around the pan & leave the pan to one side (you can cover it up if you like).  Give it a couple of minutes to rest, then slowly stir in the puddles of butter & melted cheese.

Spoon generously onto a plate & top with roasted vegetables, dust with a little black pepper & Parmesan, then tuck in!  This rich, warming comfort food tastes lovely with leftover chicken from Sunday dinner or try topping with crispy chicken legs roasted with honey, lemon & fresh Thyme.  Have a wander around my other recipes to give you some ideas.

Due to my lack of portion control, there are always plenty of leftovers, which are perfect for creating the most amazing arancini (which literally translates as “little oranges”).  Because the amount leftover varies each time I make risotto, I don’t tend to measure the ingredients when I make these beautiful little rice balls, so these are approximate measurements below.  An ice-cream scoop comes in very handy when you’re making these & I have been known to use a melon baller on occasion, hence the title to this blog.  Ready?   Let’s get rolling!

What you need:

Leftover Risotto (cold & preferably left overnight)
Breadcrumbs (4-6 thick slices of bread, whizzed in the food processor should do it & any bread – I’ve used seeded, white, brown, whatever needs using up)
1 large Egg, beaten
2oz Plain Flour
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

What to do:

Tip the cold risotto into a bowl & break up any large lumps.  Using a tablespoon or an ice-cream scoop, take little heaps of cold risotto & shape into balls in your hand (yes, you’re going to get messy but that’s half the fun).  Leave them on a tray in the fridge to chill for at least half an hour (if you can leave them for a couple of hours, this will be better).

Put the flour in a flat bowl or casserole dish lid.  Do the same with the breadcrumbs.

Beat the egg in another similar dish (tip: add a tiny pinch of salt to break down the egg & make it smoother).

Roll them around in a little flour, shaking off the excess, dip in the beaten egg, shaking off the excess again & drop into the breadcrumbs.  Give them a good roll around, making sure they are thoroughly coated in breadcrumbs & put on a large plate while you make the rest.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of the oil in a large frying pan & gently shallow fry a few of the arancini at a time, moving them around the pan gently.  Cook them until golden all over, which takes just a couple of minutes.

Once crispy & golden, remove the arancini & place on kitchen paper to remove the excess oil (or tip them into a metal sieve & shake).

Perch these plump little treats onto a watercress salad, drizzle with beautiful balsamic vinegar & add a dusting of black pepper.  My homemade tomato sauce goes very well with these – the richness of the risotto is cut by the sweet, but tart tomato (see my meatball blog for tomato sauce recipe).  These more-ish little mouthfuls are perfect for munching, whether for lunch, supper or as a simple starter (also great for nibbling with pre-dinner drinks or curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine & a good film).

Next time you cook a roast chicken for dinner, make some stock & rustle up a resplendent risotto & itsy bitsy teeny weeny tiny little arancini!  Stay hungry!  😉  A x

Get Your Glammon!

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Super Cauli-Flower Cheese-ness!

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

For the cheese sauce:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remove from the heat & add the flour, put back on the heat & working quickly, whisk thoroughly to combine into a thick, shiny roux.  Traditionally, you would use a wooden spoon, but if you want to make sure you don’t get any lumps I suggest using a good metal balloon whisk (nothing fancy, just a plain wire one will do).

Add about a quarter of the milk to the mixture & whisk in, until it loosens up & then add the rest of the milk carefully.  Keep stirring with the whisk, getting to the bottom & around the edges of the pan to ensure nothing sticks.

As the sauce thickens up, you should start to feel some resistance with the whisk.  Keep whisking slowly (swap hands if your wrist aches) & when you are satisfied with the thickness, add a couple of ounces of the grated mild cheddar & whisk until melted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Every Rose Has It’s Apple

Looking out of the window this morning, the brilliant blue almost cloudless sky with stunning sunshine, it’s hard to believe the last couple of weeks’ worth of weather that have wreaked havoc in the garden.  Our willow tree spent the beginning of the month with her spindly branches sideways slanted in the wind, the delicate pretty pink clematis petals have all been scattered across the lawn (which I was going to mow, until it got really windy).  Although it’s standard for this time of year here, it always unnerves me a little as I see the plants we nurture all year round getting a blustery battering from the winds & rain.  At the weekend, we did a bit of tidying up, trimming of the willow & eucalyptus trees, even discovering lost treasures (the chiminea was actually a wedding gift, found buried under a pile of leaves & plant pots – we’ve been married 13 years!).  The last of the peppers, beans & tomatoes have been harvested from their vines, with the tomatoes currently sat on the windowsill, getting a top-up tan from the Autumn sunshine.

When my parents visited recently, they brought with them a lovely gift of freshly picked apples from their neighbour (thank you, Lisa!), which I added to the wonderful wonky apples I got from our local Aldi & filled a large bowl on the table (although why they’re called wonky is beyond me – they’re beautiful, just all different shapes & sizes).  The scent of apples, especially when just plucked from the tree, is simply beautiful & their fresh fragrance fills the room.  The russet reds & pale green shiny dappled skins, with that tart crispness just beneath, are always a welcome addition to Autumnal desserts & salads.  Many Sundays gone, I would make a tasty sticky Tarte Tatin as a fruity delight to be devoured after dinner.  Flaky, buttery puff pastry would crown the curved apple quarters, all bathed in a thick, gorgeously gooey caramel syrup (usually with a bit of spillage in the oven, because I always made too much).

It’s these kind of traditional desserts that inspire me to make dainty, more petite portions to nibble on or adorn a cake.  As you probably know, I love making sugar roses & what better way to show off slender slices of apple than to turn them into floral treats.  This is a really simple recipe & I prefer to use my homemade buttery flaky puff pastry as it crisps up perfectly – if you are buying it though, please make sure it’s the all-butter proper stuff to do your dessert some justice.  The recipe for butter puff pastry is here if you want to make it & although it’s simple to make, it does need an hour to rest & allow all the layers to appear (it’s well worth it though & tastes lovely!):   http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/puff-up-the-volume/

Now even if you’re knife skills are good, cutting wafer thin apple slices is not as easy as anticipated, so any odd shaped slices can always be piled into in a pie with some blackberries or under a crispy topped crumble (freeze it for a lazy dessert another day, even in individual portions so you can have a treat anytime).  My Mum suggested using a vegetable peeler & it works brilliantly for this.  Alternatively, you can always use a food processor.  Ready to get rosy?  Hands washed & aprons on, here we go!

What you need:

8oz All Butter Puff Pastry (recipe link above for homemade)
4 small Apples, washed well & dried (any apples you like will do)
2-3oz Light Muscovado Sugar
1 large Egg, beaten with a tiny pinch of Sea Salt (for glazing before baking)
2 tablespoons Milk (for glazing after baking)
Ground Cinnamon (for dusting)
Icing Sugar (for dusting)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 190*C & prepare your baking tray or muffin tin.  Rub butter all over the inside of a muffin tin & that’s it, you’re done.  If you’re using a baking tray, line with greaseproof paper, pressing it down well, remove & turn it over, press it down again, ensuring no bubbles are visible.  Run cold water onto the butter lined tin, shaking off the excess.

Prepare your apples.  Leave the peel on, especially if they are crimson red or a peachy pink colour, as their colour will intensify as they cook.  Cut them into quarters & remove the cores (chuck these in the composter or feed them to the birds).

Slice your apples thinly using a vegetable peeler or you could put them through the food processor if you like, whatever’s easiest for you.  They need to be flexible, so the thinner the better.  Set aside & if you want to stop them going brown, squeeze a few drips of fresh lemon juice over them (don’t go mad, otherwise they will make your ears flap).

Roll out your pastry thinly (not see-through though) & cut into strips twice the width of your apple slices.

Score lightly down the centre, as you’re going to fold them & want them to do this easily.

Overlap the slices of apple along the pastry, flat side towards the score in the middle & the curved side of the apple slices should be slightly popping over the top.

Sprinkle a little of the sugar along the flat edge of the apple slices, then fold the pastry over & press gently down.

Roll up carefully & place in the prepared tin.  Repeat with the rest until you have a bunch of apple roses.

Glaze with beaten egg around the tops & bake in the centre of the oven for about 25 minutes, depending on how large you have made them (the ones I baked in my muffin tins were huge, so they needed a bit longer).

Once cooked, they will be all golden on top & the sugar will have turned into a slightly darker caramel colour.

Gently slide out onto a wire cooling rack using a pallet knife & glaze with the cold milk, then dust with a pinch of the cinnamon while they’re still warm.  Using a tea strainer, lightly shake some icing sugar over the tops & serve!

To be honest, I made lots of different sizes when I baked these, mostly to use up all the odd bits of pastry that were leftover (after all the effort of making puff pastry, I really can’t bear to throw any away).  These go great with a scoop of my Mascarpone & Greek Yoghurt ice-cream (see my Fig-Get Me Knots recipe for details), or you could just pour over a little cream.  Don’t think these are just for eating as a sweet either – try with a little piece of Brie, Camembert or soft blue Gorgonzola Dolce (I have a fondness for this creamy blue cheese, spread on warm crisp toast with a few splodges of cranberry sauce – don’t knock it til you try it!).

So while they’re at their finest, go grab some colourful Autumnal apples & bake a bunch of beautiful blooms!  Stay hungry!  A 😉 x

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fig-get Me Knot Tartlets

Now that the Summer has slowly slipped into Autumn, the sunrises are arriving a little bit later & the mornings are just a little bit fresher.  One of my favourite things about Autumn is the amazing array of vegetables & fruits in season, all ready to create rich warming suppers & decadent desserts.  On my way back from the train station on Friday, I decided to pop into my local shops to pick up a chicken for dinner & somehow got side-tracked by the most delightful fresh figs.  Anyone who knows me will tell you that I can’t just pop in anywhere for one thing & will always leave with a jam-packed shopping bag, crammed full of inspirational ingredients that take my fancy.

This is where my little flaky fig tartlets began.  A shelf full of soft, jewel-coloured deep purple beauties just sat there, seeming to whisper “pick me!” & as thoughts of crisp puff pastry parcels with slender slices of sweet, jammy baked figs took over, I swiftly put two trays in my basket.  Obviously, once home, I decided that I would need some rather special ice-cream to top them off.  An hour later, I returned to buy Greek yoghurt (more about that later) & ended up chatting to the lovely Assistant about what I was going to make (I love sharing food tips & have been known to scribble random recipes on scraps of paper for people, as some of you will know!).

Usually, I would make a rich buttery shortcrust pastry for a fruit tart of any description, as I find it a bit more substantial.  However, something as delicate as fresh figs requires a lighter, crisp casing to contrast against the jammy fruit centre.  Now you all know that I like making my own flaky puff pastry & it does take more time to make, but once you’ve tasted this you’ll understand why all the effort is worth it!  If you do prefer to buy ready-made puff pastry, please make sure it’s got proper butter in it.  As I’ve shared my puff pastry recipe before, I’ve copied it here for you (to save you having to wander off & find it in my blog).  Ready to begin?  Hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

For the pastry:
8oz Self Raising Flour (plus extra for rolling out)
6oz Salted Butter, cold from the fridge & cut into 4 equal pieces (I used salted, as it omits the need for additional salt)
100ml Cold Water

For the filling:
4 fresh Figs, washed & stalks trimmed, each fig cut into 8 wedges
Half a jar of Apricot Jam or Preserve (you can use whatever flavour you prefer)
1 teaspoon of Runny Honey

1 large Egg, beaten with a pinch of salt (this makes it smoother to brush onto your pastry)

What to do:

Firstly, you need cool hands so wash them under the cold tap, rinsing your wrists well – trust me, pastry likes cool conditions & this works.

Tip the flour into a large mixing bowl & add one of the butter pieces.  Rub it into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Using a round-ended knife, stir together & slowly add enough water, just a little at a time, to bring it all together – take your time, as you don’t want a sticky gooey mess.  Once you have achieved a thick, dough-like consistency, that should be enough.

Turn out your pastry onto a lightly floured worktop & shape into a rectangle.  Roll away from you into a long piece, about a centimetre thick.  Try to keep the edges as straight as you can, but don’t worry too much or you’ll drive yourself loopy!  Using a dry pastry brush, dust off any excess flour as you go, especially when folding the layers (otherwise it may affect the recipe & you want flaky pastry, not floury).

Take one of the three pieces of butter & cut into small chunks of about 1cm (you can just pull it apart, but the heat from your hands might melt it).

Dot the butter all over the top two thirds of the pastry.

Fold the bottom plain piece over the next third of pastry, then fold the top piece over that.  Brush off the excess flour & press the open edges together to seal the layers of butter & air in.

Dust the worktop with a little more flour.  Turn the pastry one turn to the right & roll out again, just as you did above.

Repeat the above steps a couple more times, using up the last two pieces of butter.  Then turn the pastry to the right, roll it out again & fold into thirds, brushing off the excess flour as you go.

Lay your pastry on a piece of greaseproof paper, fold the top of the paper over your pastry & put it on a plate in the fridge for an hour (you might need to leave it longer during hot weather, so probably add another ten minutes if you’re not sure – I’ve left it a couple of hours before & it didn’t do any harm).  If you’re like me & like to get organised, this would be a good time to make the ice-cream (my recipe is a bit further down).

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C & then prepare your tin by brushing with melted butter all around the inside, then run under the cold tap to add a film on top, shaking off the excess.  Your pastry should just lift off after cooking.

Once your pastry is rested & chilled, it’s time to get rolling!  On a lightly floured worktop, roll out the pastry (not too thinly).

Cut into squares, about 4 inches long on each side.  At each corner, make a cut towards the centre, stopping about half an inch from the middle (so everything is still attached).

Mix the honey with the jam & give it a good stir.  In the centre of a pastry square, put half a teaspoon of the jam mixture & top with a couple of fig wedges, skin side down.

Take the pastry edges of one of the four sides of the pastry & pinch together.  Do this to the other three sides & then pinch them all together in the centre above the figs, twisting them to make a little knot on top.  Repeat until you have used all the figs & pastry up.

Place them all on your prepared baking tray & brush with a little beaten egg.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 10-12 minutes, until golden & risen.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool if you want to serve them later, or you can serve them warm if you prefer.

Now onto the adornment of such a dainty delight!  This ice-cream actually came about from a rather lovely July Sunday afternoon & a random tub of Mascarpone in the fridge.  It goes with pretty much everything & it’s light, yet creamy flavour tastes incredibly decadent.  This is not the traditional way to make ice-cream, because (a) I don’t like custard & (b) I’m not making custard.  You don’t need a special machine, there won’t be any churning or standing on one leg with your left eye shut type of nonsense either.  If you prefer not to use Greek yoghurt, simply replace it with double cream & give it a light whip up beforehand to give it a bit of body.  Ready to get started?  Here we go!

What you need:

2 tubs of Mascarpone Cheese
500ml tub of Greek Yoghurt (the proper stuff, not diet)
Juice & zest of a Lemon (if you have large lemons, just use half)
1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
2 tablespoons Runny Honey

What to do:

Wash your lemon in warm, soapy water to remove any dirt or wax from the skin.

Zest the lemon using a fine grater or zesting tool (I use my fine cheese grater).  Leave to one side for now.

Juice your lemon into a jug or large cup.  This is so that if you have any pips or pith, they will go straight into the jug & you can strain it into another cup before adding it to your ice cream (nobody wants a sour lemon pip in their ice-cream!).  Set to one side with the zest.

Tip the Mascarpone & Greek yoghurt into a large mixing bowl.  Add the vanilla extract, one tablespoon of the lemon juice & a good pinch of the zest (you want a subtle hint of lemon here, not a “smack you round the chops” kind of taste that makes your ears flap).

Using an electric whisk, mix for about a minute or so, until everything is blended together into a creamy fluffy mixture.

Get a teaspoon & have a little taste.  If you think it needs a bit more honey or a bit more zest, add a tiny bit more – don’t go mad with them, because once it’s in you can’t extract it!  Give it another quick whisk & taste again (with a clean spoon please!).

Once you’re happy with it, spoon the mixture into a couple of plastic tubs, only filling about halfway up & put the lids on.

Place in the freezer for an hour, then remove & using a fork, give everything a thorough stir to remove any ice crystals that may have formed.

Smooth it back down into a nice swirly pattern, sprinkle a little more zest on top & put the lid on.  Replace in the freezer for another hour at least, or until you are ready for dessert.

Serve a generous scoop onto your crisp puff pastry fig tartlets (or spooned in a quenelle shape if you want to impress your dinner guests).

This light, fluffy ice-cream can also be layered onto crisp wafer cones, or any dessert that requires a simple adornment of light, lemony cool creaminess (& not a custard in sight!).  It’s also nice with a drizzle of Limoncello over the top, but that’s definitely one for those nights curled up on the sofa!

Next time you see fresh, fragrant figs in the shops, remember this recipe for my fig-get me knots!  Stay hungry!  A 😉 x

 

 

 

 

It’s Hip to be Squarecake!

The sun is shining, the bees are buzzing & Summer is definitely making her presence felt, especially in the garden!  We might have had a few soggy moments (although the grass is still a bit straw-like), but that hasn’t stopped the bees from busily working their magic & the plants from producing a beautiful bounty of fruits & berries.  Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, redcurrants & blackcurrants, are all gracing shop shelves in their punnetfuls!  When I was a little girl, gooseberries (or “goosegogs” as they were known) were more readily available too, but seem to have become a bit rare these days.  These crunchy pale, zesty-green oval berries would turn your mouth inside out & make your ears flap with their tart tang if you ate them raw, but they also made lovely preserves & pies.  Recently, a lovely friend gave me a huge bowlful of these gorgeous green berries after she had been fruit picking with family.  We shared them with my Mum & simply ate them by the handful the next day!  Whatever your berry preference, the temptation to just eat them as they are is rather difficult to ignore, but they will give any dessert a deliciously luscious lift!

One of my best memories as a child is picking & eating strawberries.  There is nothing quite so fabulous as the heavenly scent of softly sun-ripened strawberries & it takes me right back to garden picnics, with a bowlful of berries & dipping them in sugar (it was the same with rhubarb & blackberries too).  We didn’t need fancy desserts as kids & would just pop down to the garden & pick whatever your Mum asked you to get in for dinner.  Obviously, a few things kind of evaporated on the way back from garden to kitchen (especially peas & their pods, which would be munched by the handful, fresh from the vine).  My freshly washed strawberry swag would be daintily dipped in a little bowl of sugar (I’m talking a couple of teaspoons here, not a kilo!).  It was bliss!  Now when I’m buying strawberries, I always smell them before putting them in my basket for an instant trip back in time.

As a result of a rather impromptu dinner party on a warm Summer evening (where I had to quickly improvise with what was in the fridge at the time), the simple yet spectacular Strawberry Sponge Square Cake was created!  Family, friends & neighbours have all indulged in a slice of this sweet strawberry delight & it has become a firm favourite!  Another lovely friend gave me a bowl of beautiful ripe strawberries the other day & obviously, I thought of making this cake.  This lighter than air sponge cake is one of the swiftest I’ve made, plus the sponge itself can be made the day before & kept in an airtight container with greaseproof paper between the slices, then all you need to do is assemble it!  Aprons on, hands washed & here we go!

What you need:

2 large Eggs
3oz Self-Raising Flour
3oz Vanilla Caster Sugar (or give normal sugar a whizz in a coffee grinder like I do)
A little melted Butter for preparing your tin
1 heaped tablespoon extra Vanilla Sugar (for laying your sponge on)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C.  Get a shallow baking tray or Swiss Roll tin & brush the melted butter all over the inside, or just get your fingers in it & rub it all around.

Line the tray with a sheet of greaseproof paper that is slightly bigger than the tin, leaving half an inch of paper out of the tin all the way around – you will need this to lift your sponge out at the end.  Push the paper into the corners, smoothing it down in the tin & making sure it is completely covered with the butter.

Take the greaseproof paper out, turn it over & repeat, leaving it in the tin, with the edge sticking up all the way around.  The paper will turn translucent, so you can see through it.

Crack the eggs carefully into a mixing bowl & give them a whisk to break them up.  A little tip to test if your eggs are fresh:  half fill a jug with cold water, gently plop the egg in & if it sinks, it’s fresh.  If it floats, probably best not to use it.

Add the sugar & give it a good firm whisking.  I usually use the electric whisk for this (even I have my limits!) & whisk for about 4 minutes, until you have a fluffy, pale & cream coloured cloud-like mixture.

Next, you need to fold in the flour.  Folding is easy, just take your time – you don’t want to undo all that whisking by knocking out the bubbles you’ve just put in.  Sift the flour into the bowl, then using a large metal spoon, make a figure of eight & tip the flour over into the liquid.  Repeat until all the flour has been incorporated into a lovely, thick foamy mixture.

Using a spatula, scrape the mixture into your prepared tin.  Make sure you get it into all the corners & level it out with the spatula if necessary.  Then pick up the tin about six inches off the worktop & drop it – this will knock out any large bubbles.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 6 – 8 minutes, until it is lightly golden & slightly risen.  Give it a gentle pat with a finger & it should spring back – that’s when it’s ready.

Sprinkle the other sugar onto another sheet of greaseproof laid on top of a wire cooling rack.

Remove your sponge from the oven & carefully, but swiftly, flip the whole thing over onto the sugared greaseproof paper, using the edge of the cake paper to help you if need be.

Pull off the greaseproof paper from the sponge cake & discard.  It should come away easily (& the smell of baked butter is just beautiful!).  Leave to cool for a few minutes.

Once completely cooled, take a large knife with a smooth blade (like a French cook’s knife) & trim the edges of your sponge (you can eat these or feed them to the birds).

Cut the sponge into three equal sized rectangular pieces & set aside while you make the filling.  The filling can be prepared the day before too, just keep it covered in the fridge.

For the filling:

600ml fresh Double Cream (the real stuff)
1oz Icing Sugar, plus extra for dusting
1 large punnet of Strawberries

What to do:

Wash, trim & hull your strawberries – that’s the tough bit under the leaves in the top of the strawberry.  Just run a little paring knife under the leaves, all the way around & it should come out.  The more ripe the strawberries, the easier it is.

Stand them pointy end up & using the paring knife, slice thinly – keep the trimmed edges to one side for decorating (or munching).  Put to one side in a bowl or large cup.

Get the electric whisk out again & whisk the double cream in a large mixing bowl, adding the icing sugar as you do so, until it is in soft peaks – the icing sugar gives the cream body & will hold it’s shape when piped.   You can whisk it by hand if you need to release some stress, but it’s really important that you don’t over-whip the cream, otherwise you’ll end up with butter (yes, really – I’ll cover that in another blog when we’ve all got more time).

Now you’re ready to assemble your sponge cake!  Take your first layer of sponge & lay it on a serving plate.

Scoop the cream into a piping bag – if you want to use a nozzle, that’s fine, or just use the smooth end of a piping bag.  Pipe a layer of cream in a decorative pattern around the edge to start, then fill in the centre.  Take your time over this, there’s no rush & you can do whatever pattern you like, whether it’s swirls with a star nozzle or plain plump splodges!

Place a single layer of strawberry slices all over the cream, leaving the pointy tips over the edge slightly & using the end slices to fill any gaps in the centre area.

Take the next layer of sponge & squeeze a few little splodges of cream on the underneath side, then carefully lay it on top of the strawberries.  Press gently to make sure everything is sandwiched together.

Repeat with the next layer in exactly the same way, leaving a layer of sponge cake on the top.

When you’ve finished, you should have a beautiful strawberry sponge square cake (yes, I’m aware it’s more of a rectangle, but just go with it).  Dust lightly with icing sugar all over the top (use a tea strainer for this & you only need a couple of teaspoonfuls of icing sugar to do the whole thing) & serve immediately.

Use any remaining strawberries & cream to decorate each person’s plate, maybe dusting with a bit more icing sugar if you like.  Or you could just hide the rest in the fridge for nibbling on later (I think you’ve earned it!).  If you don’t like strawberries, maybe use raspberries, blackberries, cherries, blueberries or even your favourite jam!  I’ve used all kinds of different fruits for this & it always turns out beautifully!

One of my favourite treats for afternoon tea is to cut the sponge into individual fingers, pipe with dark ruby-red cherry jam & whipped double cream, then sandwich together.  These fruity, fluffy pillows are then generously dusted with icing sugar, before being topped with a whole Amareno cherry & fresh mint leaf.

Another way I like to serve them is to create bite-sized sponge circles using a cookie cutter, then pipe a swirl of sumptuous strawberry conserve on the base, followed by whipped cream & make mini-sponge sandwich cakes, before sifting with a light layer of icing sugar.

For a truly scrumptious Summer treat, why not have a go at making my strawberry sponge square cake, or maybe try one of my other versions for your next afternoon tea!  Stay hungry 😉  A x

Pining For a Proper Pasta Pile Up!

Here we are in the middle of glorious Summer sunshine, bright blue skies & toasty temperatures!  When it’s hot like this, the last thing anyone wants is to be cooking some long-winded dish in a hot kitchen.  Salads are great, but when you’ve had a long day, a more substantial supper is required to hit the spot.  Pasta is probably the most loved food in our house (well, apart from cake obviously).  We indulge in this versatile staple several times a week (that’s not including leftover lunches).  If I’m not making it, I’m thinking about making it & what I can put in it or on it.  I’ve even got a dedicated pasta shelf in the pantry!  We don’t live in a vast mansion (it’s more like a doll’s house), so a few years ago we put the cupboard space under the stairs to better use than a home for the hoover!  It’s now fully stacked & packed with all our staples – pasta, tins & jars of various sweet & savoury delights to whip up a wonderful plateful at a moment’s notice.  Obviously, that’s where all my sugar paste lives, because it’s cool & out of the way (the marzipan lives here too, but don’t tell my Husband or I’ll have none left!).

A couple of years ago, our Son was working in Naples, Italy & staying in the rather picturesque Pozzuoli (he took the lovely pictures of the sea I’ve shared here).  During one of our daily chats, he sent me a picture of him cooking Spaghetti alla Carbonara (he has the cooking bug too).  I was so proud that he was cooking proper Italian food actually in Italy – especially when he reminded me of how I used to cook the same dish when he was young.  Over the years, I adjusted the recipe & used a variety of different pasta (spaghetti is still the best), but I had forgotten just how beautiful the original recipe is.  It also made me realise how much of an impact my cooking has had on our Son & his approach to food.  It’s kind of big when you think that the simplest of things, like preparing food for our children, is something they carry with them into adulthood.  Obviously, as soon as I put the phone down, I headed off to the kitchen to make a pile of pasta!

One of our favourite pasta dishes is “The One With The Pine Nuts” (as it is fondly known in our house).  It’s colourful, cheesy & quick to make – what’s not to love?!  It’s great for using up vegetables in your fridge that are starting to look a bit tired & all those little leftover bags of pasta in the pantry that everyone has.  If you don’t like bacon, you could leave it out altogether & maybe add courgette slices, or swap it for thin strips of chicken instead – it’s your choice.  This is one of those great last minute dishes too, so if you suddenly have a houseful you can feed everyone easily (I get 4 huge portions out of this).  Hungry?  Hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

Approx 250g dried Pasta (Fusilli, Farfalle, Penne, Conchiglie – whatever you like)
200g Gorgonzola Dolce
8-10 rashers of Bacon (smoked or unsmoked)
2 Peppers (I’ve used 1 red & 1 yellow, but use whichever you like)
1 Red Onion
1 bag Fresh Baby Spinach (about 4 huge handfuls), washed
100g Pine Nuts
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Sea Salt (for your pasta water)

What to do:

Firstly, we need to toast the pine nuts, so gently heat up a large skillet or frying pan & add the nuts to the dry pan.  On a low heat, keep moving the pine nuts around the pan so they don’t burn.

Once they have turned a golden colour, turn off the heat & tip into a bowl to cool – don’t be tempted to eat them at this stage!

Next, prep all your veggies!  Top & tail the red onion, deseed the peppers & chop everything into chunks (don’t worry about them being perfect, just get chopping).  Set aside.

Trim & cut the bacon into roughly one inch pieces, removing any fat (I like to use scissors for this, as it’s much easier than chasing a slippery bit of bacon around the chopping board!).

Heat a couple of teaspoons of olive oil in the skillet, add the bacon pieces & stir fry on a medium/low heat.

While the bacon is cooking, get the kettle on & boil some water for your pasta (quicker than waiting for it to boil on the stove!).

Add roughly 1 teaspoon of sea salt to a large, deep saucepan, carefully pour in boiling water (about half way) & put on the heat until you get a rolling boil.

Add your pasta to the water, stir with a wooden spoon & cook according to the instructions (usually dried shapes take about 10 minutes max, giving us time to cook everything else).

The bacon should now be going a bit crispy, so add the vegetables & stir fry for a few moments until they are slightly softened, but still firm.  Turn off the heat.

The pasta should be done now, so take a piece out & taste it – it should be al dente (“cooked to the tooth”, meaning to your personal preference, your individual tooth).  Strain the pasta & set aside for a moment.

Sprinkle handfuls of spinach onto the bacon & vegetables in the skillet.  Now tip the pasta carefully all over the top – this wilts the spinach nicely, so it softens slightly.

Add the Gorgonzola now – break it up with your fingertips or cut into small pieces & dot all around the pan.

Sprinkle about three-quarters of the toasted pine nuts over the top, then get a couple of wooden spoons & gently toss everything together, until fully combined.

That’s it!  Dinner’s ready to dish up – a huge skillet full of crispy, smoked bacon pieces with gorgeously glossy, jewel-like vegetables & vibrant emerald-green spinach leaves.  Generous chunks of Gorgonzola melt into the warm swirls of pasta, giving it an oozy smoothness that attracts all the other ingredients together, followed by a substantial showering of the toasted pine nuts, adding an almost popcorn-like flavour to everything.

Grab a few bowls or pasta plates & dig in!  Just before heaping a huge helping into a bowl, I sprinkle on a few more pine nuts, followed by a couple of twists of freshly ground black pepper (maybe a dusting of Grana Padana too).  On sultry Summer evenings, this goes well with a couple of glasses of good wine & maybe some fresh, warm slices of baguette to scoop up any gooey, cheesy remnants that attempt to escape – in Italy, this is known as “fare la scarpetta”, which means to “make the little shoe” with the bread to mop up any sauce (now that’s a shoe I do love!)

If there is any left, once cooled divide it into plastic tubs with lids & stick them in the fridge – that’s tomorrow’s lunches sorted!

Next time you’re pining for a proper pasta pile up, why not give this a twirl!  Stay hungry!  😉 A x