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).  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

One a Penny, Two a Penny, Hot Cross Buns!

It’s been a rather busy week of baking bread, beautiful buns & creating sweet sugar bunnies for Easter treats, so this morning was no different.  After a 5.00am start, one pot of “slap you round the face” coffee & some hot, buttered toast, I was up & at ’em!  Early mornings are special for me, when everyone else is still sleeping & I’m able to get as much done as possible.  Stopping for fuel this morning at my local Sainsbury’s, chatting about chocolates to the lovely ladies who were also up early (hello ladies!), I was able to shop in blissful peace, wandering around the shelves selecting supplies to make tiny bunny toes.  It was as if the world had stopped just for a couple of hours.  By 9.00am, I had managed to hit four supermarkets & be back home (I think my shopping ninja just levelled up!).

Easter is almost here & we always celebrate, as it’s when nature is springing & sprouting, new vegetables are in season & food becomes a bit lighter & brighter.  While baking bread this week, I decided to make my usual light, fluffy bread dough & also an enriched, sweet dough.  Yes, this did involve kneading by hand for ten minutes per batch & yes, my muscles would be worthy of Wonder Woman, but it was worth every minute!  For many years, I’ve been making bread with fruit in (my Husband loves it toasted with butter for breakfast), so thought I’d make some fruity buns.  Now you all know how much I adore proper plumped up fruit in my baking, so I’ve usually got a handful of sultanas soaking in a cup of tea ready for baking (& fluffy bread demands squishy, sumptuous sultanas!).

Hot cross buns were so loved, someone even wrote a nursery rhyme about them, so they must have been popular!  Although there are some splendid shop-bought ones out there, I do love making my own buns whenever I fancy some.  My hot cross bun recipe is really easy, I promise & they freeze really well, so you can have them anytime (just leave the cross off).  I will warn you, you’re going to get messy.  So, hands washed & aprons on, here we go!

What you need:

500g Strong White Bread Flour
1 tablespoon dried Yeast (or fresh if you like)
300ml Lukewarm Water (dip a finger in it & it should feel just warm)
1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
50g Sugar
A good pinch of ground Sea Salt
1 large Egg
Splash of Semi-Skimmed or Full Fat Milk (not skimmed)
1 teaspoon each of Lemon & Orange zest (wash them first!)
1 ball Stem Ginger, chopped finely
8 Amareno or Sour Cherries, chopped chunky
A good handful of soaked Sultanas, strained
25g Melted butter (for brushing your tin)

For the glaze:

3 tablespoons Semi-Skimmed Milk
2 tablespoons Sugar
A pinch of ground Cinnamon for dusting (you won’t need much)

For the cross:

3 tablespoons Plain Flour
3 tablespoons Cold Water

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C.  For any kind of bread-making, you need your oven to be really hot, so it pays to put it on now.

In a large bowl, tip the flour, yeast, sugar, sea salt & olive oil.

In a jug or bowl, measure your lukewarm water & add the egg, along with a splash of milk.  Using a fork, whisk into a cloudy, fluffy liquid & tip into the other ingredients, using the fork to combine everything into a lovely sticky dough.

Turn out your dough onto a lightly floured surface, ready for kneading.  You will find this dough rather stickier than usual, because there’s more liquid in it, but this will give you beautiful buns!  Get yourself a pastry scraper, in case it sticks to the work top (you don’t want to lose any!).

Knead for ten minutes until you get a pliable, smooth dough ball.

Place your dough into a lightly floured bowl & cover with oiled cling film (just rub a bit of olive oil all over it).  Put it somewhere warm away from draughts (like the airing cupboard) for 30-40 minutes to prove, until it is doubled in size like a big bubble.

While the dough is proving, prepare your tin.  Get yourself a nice, large baking tray & a sheet of greaseproof paper.  The paper should overhang the tray slightly, as it will be filled with dough balls & will stop them touching the tray.

Using a pastry brush, paint melted butter all over it thoroughly.  Press the paper down into the tray, buttered side up, to make sure you have painted it all.

Once the dough has proved & is doubled in size, remove the oiled clingfilm & set to one side (you’ll need this again).  Tip the dough onto your lightly floured work surface & knock it back to remove any large air bubbles – I throw it on the worktop a couple of times & this works really well.  Knead it lightly for a few seconds & spread out on the worktop into a rectangular shape.

Sprinkle the sultanas evenly over the top, followed by the chopped cherries, ginger & zest.  If you don’t like cherries, try adding dried chopped apricots.

Fold the dough into thirds & press it together well to seal everything in.

Carefully cut in half, then half again & once more (probably once more too), until you have sixteen even-sized little lumps of fruit filled dough.  By now your worktop is a bit sticky, but persevere – you’re getting there!

Using floured hands, roll each dough lump into a ball & place on the buttered greaseproof paper, leaving roughly an inch between them.

Once done, cover with the oiled clingfilm you used before & leave to prove again for 20-30 minutes, until they have doubled in size again (they will have already started to do so before you finished filling the tray).

Before they go in the oven, you need to put the crosses on.  Mix the plain flour & water in a cup using a fork, until it resembles a gloopy paste.  Scrape into a piping bag & snip the end off (don’t make it too big, just enough to draw a decent sized line), then pipe crosses on the tops of your buns, which will have all snuggled up next to each other nicely & filled the gaps.

Put the tray in the centre of the oven & bake for about 15 minutes.  You will need to turn the tray around a couple of times to ensure they are baked evenly (trust me, you don’t want raw ones in the middle).

When the buns have turned a gorgeous golden colour with lovely cream coloured crosses, they should be ready.  To check any bread, just tip it over & tap it on the bottom – if it sounds hollow, it’s ready!  Be careful not to break up your big batch of buns!

Lay the whole lot out on a cooling rack, placing the greaseproof paper carefully underneath the rack on the worktop.  This will stop your worktop getting messy & you can just roll it up afterwards.

Immediately brush on some cold milk & sprinkle with sugar, then dust very lightly with a little Cinnamon.  The milk will absorb quickly & they will smell absolutely heavenly!

While they’re still warm, gently pull apart or cut into batches of four or even just individual buns.  Freeze any extra ones in bags & you’ll have a treat anytime.  These fluffy, flavourful buns taste fabulous just as they are, lavishly spread with butter (the good stuff), or toasted.  They’re great for tea breaks, breakfast or just when you need something nice to nibble.

You don’t need to wait til Easter though & can make these any time you want a fruity filled bun – just replace the cross with a drizzle of my zesty zingy icing.  It’s really simple, here’s what you need:

5oz Icing Sugar
Juice of half a Lemon
Juice of half an Orange

What to do:

Mix the juices together in a jug & remove any pips.

Put the icing sugar in a bowl & add some of the juice, about a teaspoonful at a time, until you get a silky but slightly thick drizzly consistency (a bit like yoghurt).  If not there yet, add a bit more juice until you feel it’s right.

Get a teaspoon & dip it in the icing, then swirl over your buns in whatever pattern you like (I did zigzags on mine).  Leave them to set.

Smuggle them into your bag for nibbling on with your afternoon cuppa or just have them for breakfast.

So when Easter comes around, why not bake some beautiful buns & share with family & friends!  In fact, I might just have one now with another cuppa!  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

Souped Up Sunshine!

From all the sprouting greenery in the garden, Spring is finally on it’s way, although it appears to have been delayed somewhere!  Zesty yellow daffodils brighten up frost-bitten hedgerows & windowsills, giving a bit of hope that warmer weather is approaching.  When it’s frosty & frozen outside, food tends to become more like a comfort blanket to pacify our need for warmth & contentment.  There are those chilly days where it’s barely above zero on the thermometer & you just want to wrap yourself head to foot in the duvet, like some cocooned caterpillar, inside & out.  All you need is a little warmth to take the edge off the chill & bring a little sunshine into your day.

Soup isn’t something to be sniffed at, it’s to be savoured & relished, almost smugly, as you dunk thickly cut, thickly buttered, crusty fresh bread in a bowlful.  It’s heavenly, hearty & wholesome – perfect for luscious liquid lunches or steamy suppers.  Wandering around the kitchen one lunchtime, opening all the cupboards & the fridge while looking blankly into their abyss for inspiration, I decided to make soup.  There were various little tubs of leftovers, some fresh vegetables that needed using up & plenty of pots of chicken stock in the freezer.  Just over half an hour later, I had a blissfully beautiful bowl of spicy soup to tuck into!  So why go for that tin of ready-made when you can have your own made ready?  It’s one of the easiest things to make, uses up all those bits of veg you were going to chuck out & will give you a boost for the rest of the day.  Whether you’re at work or at home, if a lunchtime sandwich just won’t cut it, this sumptuously sunny little number will get your engine revving until dinnertime & brighten your day.  So, aprons on & hands washed, let’s get started!

What you need:

5 large Carrots
1 large Parsnip
4 small Potatoes (I used baby ones, but just use whatever you have)
1 medium Red Onion
1 litre of Vegetable or Chicken Stock (homemade preferably)
(or use half boiling water from the kettle & half stock if you like)
Quarter of a teaspoon Cumin
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper for seasoning
1 small knob of butter
1 – 2 tablespoons Cream Cheese
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (just a spoonful)
Chopped fresh Parsley or Coriander (to garnish – optional)

What to do:

Get yourself a nice, large saucepan with a lid.  Prepare your vegetables by peeling, topping & tailing them.  Chop the carrots, parsnip, potatoes & onion into small chunks.  They don’t need to be perfect, but they will cook faster if they are cut smaller (meaning you get to eat quicker).  If there are any other veg you want to add, chuck them in the pan (if you’ve got a handful of frozen sweetcorn, they can go in too).

Heat a teaspoonful of the olive oil in the saucepan, add the onions & stir fry for a couple of seconds, just to get them softened.

Add the rest of the vegetables & stir fry them for about a minute.

Carefully pour your stock (or water & stock) into the pan, gently stirring the vegetables into the liquid & reduce the heat.

Simmer with the lid half on, for about 25 minutes or so, stirring occasionally – make sure you get that spoon to the bottom of the pan & get everything mixed in.

Once cooked, test the vegetables – the potato should crumble under the back of a spoon, so just press it against the inside of the pan.  The carrots should be firm, but easy to cut.

Take half the mixture at a time (put the rest into a jug or another pan) & pour into a blender very slowly – use a ladle to do this if necessary, so that you don’t splash yourself.   Be careful not to over-fill your blender & only go up to halfway, otherwise you’ll have a soup shower!  Whizz up for a few seconds at a time or pulse until it’s the consistency of textured yoghurt – if you want your soup more silky smooth, just give it another quick whizz up.  The vegetables will give up their colour & turn everything into an gorgeously golden liquid.

Pour the soup back into the saucepan, on a medium heat & bring it back up to a gentle simmer, then turn the heat down to low.

Sprinkle the Cumin across the top, along with a pinch of sea salt & black pepper – not too much though, you’re just seasoning it a little.  Give the soup a gentle stir to mix them in.

Add the knob of butter (around a thumb-sized chunk should be fine), along with the cream cheese.  Gently stir them through the soup until thoroughly melted.  The butter & cheese will give your soup a lovely creamy consistency & add a little thickness.

Have a taste.  If you think it needs a bit more seasoning, add another pinch of the sea salt & black pepper, then taste again.  When you’re happy with the taste, turn off the heat & serve.  Simply spoon your soup into a bowl & serve with a warm, freshly baked bread roll or baguette, smothered in cold butter, ready to dunk.  If you’re serving it as a starter, perhaps decorate with a little chopped fresh Parsley or Coriander & a couple of Parmesan shavings.

Any leftovers can be frozen in a couple of freezer bags or plastic pots with lids on, or you could stash some in the fridge in jars to take to the office – just warm it up when you need it!  Soup is a great portable one-pot lunch if you’re working & can be made in advance, so you can just grab one as you’re leaving the house.  It also makes a perfect pasta sauce too – ricotta stuffed ravioli draped in this silky soup & sprinkled with grated Parmesan will definitely warm you through!

So when you need a bit of sunshine in a bowl to warm up a wintry day, just soup it up!  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

 

 

Comforting Conchiglioni, the Cold Conqueror!

January is always a bit of a fresh month, both in weather & starts.  The freshness outside at “OMG it’s early!” was a bit bracing this morning, as we were driving through a downpour in the darkness.  Fresh starts are also being encouraged – every which way you look, there are adverts for skinny salads, sugar-free snacks & fat-free fodder, none of which help when it’s freezing cold & you need a decent dinner to warm you through!  As you probably know, I don’t do diets & a bit of lettuce & a rice cake won’t give you much energy, especially in this weather!   It’s all about balance & there are plenty of other things to make life dull – food should definitely not be one of them!

On our morning drive, my Husband & I always discuss dinner before I drop him off – it’s a sort of ritual we have & the anticipation of what I’m cooking builds during the day, making dinner that much more enticing.  Pasta is undeniably one of my favourite foods!  It’s easy to prepare & a pleasure to eat, especially when it’s crammed full of flavoursome fillings or dressed in a rich, sumptuous sauce, or both!  When I discovered these pretty pasta shells on a random shopping trip some years ago, I had already decided what kind of fillings I would make, the sauce, the herbs, everything – all before reaching the checkout!  Now I appreciate not everyone gets excited by a bag of pasta (I have a dedicated pasta shelf in the pantry), but they inspired me to create something wholesome & filling – proper rib-sticking, colourful comfort food to warm you on a chilly day like today, without taking all day to make.  This recipe for Stuffed Conchiglioni is something we enjoy making together as a family & definitely eating together!  They can be made in advance & the best bit is there’s going to be plenty of leftovers for lunches (hot or cold) & maybe a couple of pots for the freezer, for those “can’t be bothered” nights.  So here goes – hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

500g of dried Conchiglioni (1.1lb)
400g of Full Fat Cream Cheese (the good stuff – check it’s not got locust bean gum in it – that’s not cheese) or use Ricotta if you like
4-6 slices of day old bread, whizzed into breadcrumbs
400g packet of Bacon (smoked or unsmoked), trimmed of fat & cut into about 1cm pieces (use scissors for this & make your life a bit easier)
1 large Red Onion, topped, tailed & finely chopped
1 ball of Mozzarella
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Dried Oregano
Sea Salt (for the pasta water)

For the Sauce:

4 tins of Italian Plum Tomatoes
Half a bulb of fresh Garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of Tomato Puree
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Basil (fresh or dried)
Freshly ground Black Pepper
Pinch of Sea Salt
2 teaspoons of Sugar

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C.  Heat a large skillet or frying pan, add a drizzle of the olive oil.

Chuck in the chopped onion & bacon pieces, stir fry for a few minutes, keeping the onion moving so that it doesn’t catch & burn.  If any liquid forms around the bacon, simply strain it off & discard.  Add a little more olive oil if needed.  Once cooked, leave to cool for a few minutes.

Tip the breadcrumbs into a large mixing bowl, along with the cream cheese.  Add the fried bacon & onion, mixing thoroughly to create a lovely thick stuffing.  Cover the bowl with a plate & leave while your pasta cooks.

Put the kettle on to boil the water for your conchiglioni (it saves time doing it this way).

Add a teaspoon of sea salt in the bottom of a large saucepan – it needs to be big enough to hold the pasta & water easily, so try it out dry before you put the water in.  Pour in the water & reboil the kettle if you need more – you should have enough water to reach two thirds of the way up the pan.  Use your judgement here – you’re going to have to lift this lot up, so make sure you can take the weight or cook it in two separate pans if you’re not sure.

Carefully tip in the pasta & give it a good stir with a wooden spoon.  Bring to a rolling boil, stirring occasionally to separate the shells & cook according to the instructions on the pack.

When your conchiglioni are cooked, they should still have some firmness to them & hold their shape.  Strain into a colander & sit it over the saucepan.  Put to one side to cool for a few minutes, ready for stuffing!

In a large casserole or lasagne dish, drizzle a little olive oil & smudge it all over the inside of the dish (this stops your pasta from sticking).  You might want to prep another, slightly smaller dish for any extra shells (OK, there are always extra shells, trust me on this).

Then get yourself a teaspoon, your stuffing mixture (& any glamorous assistants you might have to help you) & start stuffing!  Scoop a teaspoonful of the stuffing into each shell, being careful not to overfill them (they will just overflow).  My technique is to take a shell in my hand, then gently pinch the top & bottom together, opening up the middle nicely to fill.

Lay each stuffed shell in the prepared dish, then carry on stuffing until you’ve filled them all.  At this point, you can cover them in cling film & put them in the fridge until you want to eat them – they will keep until the next day.

Now to make the sauce!  Although this isn’t our family recipe, it’s a close one & tastes just as jammy.  Usually, I have this blipping away in the background while I’m stuffing.

Into a large saucepan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil & add the garlic.  Gently fry for a few seconds, then slowly add the tomatoes & their juice, giving them a good stir around & breaking up any large pieces (or you can just squish them in your hands before you put them in the pan).

Add the tomato puree, the sugar & seasoning to taste (you won’t need much salt, so go easy on this).  Add a couple of teaspoons of dried Basil (or rip up about half a dozen leaves of fresh & chuck them in).  Give everything a good stir & reduce to a gentle simmer for about half an hour with a lid loosely on, stirring occasionally.

Once cooked, the sauce should have thickened & reduced slightly, so give it a stir & a quick taste – it should be darker, rich & really lovely!  Adjust the seasoning if you need to.

Spoon your sauce generously all over the stuffed shells, making sure they are just covered & no bits are peeking out.  Dot chunks of Mozzarella all over the top & add a sprinkling of dried Oregano.

Then bake it in the centre of the oven for about 20-25 minutes, until the cheese becomes gorgeously golden & the sauce bubbles up all around the edges (put a tray underneath to catch any drips).

Remove from the oven & let them rest for a couple of minutes (that sauce will be hotter than the sun).  Get some fresh, crusty bread, get everyone to the table & get stuck in!   Usually, my guys magically appear in the kitchen while I’m dishing up, grabbing a slice of warm bread to munch on & dunking it in the sauce.

These gorgeous conchiglioni can be crammed with whatever you fancy – try chopped spinach with ricotta & pine nuts, or sundried tomato & sausage, or maybe swap silky cheese sauce for the tomato & dust with a little grated Grana Padana.

So next time you feel the chill on a dull day, whip up some colourful, comforting Conchiglioni!  Stay hungry 😉 A x

 

Beetroot To Yourself

This time of year gives us some stunning pink sunsets & amazing natural colours to brighten up our meals on those frosty days.  The fruits are dark, rich & intense; the vegetables are vivid, flavoursome & versatile.  It’s Nature’s way of getting those essential nutrients into us via such attractive packaging (most of which you can eat too!).  Working or not, lunches can often be random sandwiches with questionable fillings, or pasties filled with even more questionable meat.  Sometimes we need to set aside half an hour to whip up something a bit more substantial than a shop-bought sandwich from the local garage on your way to work (I’m not judging, we’ve all done it).

There are some things I really don’t like – rude people, empty jars put back in the fridge & beetroot.  Growing up, my parents ate beetroot & so did most of my friends, but I really couldn’t abide the taste.  My Mum would slice it so prettily, lay it on a delicate plate surrounded by salads & dishes full of delectable delicacies, trying to entice me to taste some (it didn’t work).  One so-called friend actually put it in a health drink to get me to try it (it didn’t end well).  Then a couple of years ago, someone gave me a savoury tart recipe to try with beetroot in it, so I decided to give it another go.  If I didn’t like it, my Husband would eat it (he likes beetroot).   Plus, beetroot has all those important vitamins, minerals & heavy metals that are good for you (I don’t mean Metallica or Iron Maiden, I’m talking folic acid, iron & copper).

This savoury tart is crammed full of luscious cheese & finely chopped beetroot adorns the filling with beautiful deep amethyst & magenta colours.  Everyone knows how much I love cheese, so I began my experiment with a positive attitude.  I adapted the recipe, mainly because my experience with grating anything by hand usually ends up with me grating my knuckles or a fingernail.  The original recipe had grated beetroot & just one cheese, so I’ve added a few more to give it a more rounded flavour & it’s good to use up various bits of leftover cheese (apparently leftover cheese is a thing in some homes!).

What you need:

For the Filling:
2 medium-sized Beetroot, drained & chopped finely
100g Feta Cheese, crumbled
1 tablespoon Cream Cheese or Ricotta
1oz grated Parmesan
1oz grated Grana Padana
2oz grated Cheddar (mild or medium)
3 large Eggs
Splash of semi-skimmed Milk
Freshly ground Black Pepper
Fresh Thyme (just a couple of sprigs is sufficient)

For the Pastry:
6oz Self-Raising Flour (plus extra for rolling out)
2oz Salted Butter (room temperature, cut into chunks)
1 large Egg

[You will also need a bit of extra butter & flour for preparing your tin]

What to do:

Preheat the oven to 180*C.  Prepare your baking tin – I prefer to use a 12″ loose-bottomed flan tin.  Butter the inside of the tin, making sure you get into any corners or edges (especially if it’s fluted around the edge), then sprinkle flour all over & tap out the excess.  This recipe is really easy & quick to make, so you could always double the mixture up & make a large one in a Swiss Roll tin, or make smaller single portions in individual tins or silicone tartlet trays.

Make the pastry: tip the flour into a large mixing bowl, add the butter & crack in the egg.  Get your hands in & mix it all together to form a firm dough.  On a lightly floured worktop, roll out the dough to about 5mm thickness & make sure it is larger than the tin you are using (a couple of inches extra all around should be enough).

Using your rolling pin, carefully transfer the pastry to your prepared tin & lay it over the top.  Gently pat it into the tin, being careful not to put your fingers through it.  Push it into all the corners or fluted edges & then prick it all over with a fork (this stops it from puffing up all over the place).  Don’t worry about cutting off the excess pastry too much – you can do this once it’s baked & this will leave you with a nice smooth finish to your pastry case edges.  Usually, I just make a nice decorative edge of pastry instead, so it’s down to personal choice here.

Grab a sheet of greaseproof paper & screw it up, then unravel it & lay it over your pastry in the tin.  In a previous blog, I’ve mentioned about baking blind, so if this is something you will do often then I suggest you get some ceramic baking beads.  If not, use a couple of handfuls of dried pasta such as fusilli or penne.  Tip them onto the greaseproof paper, then bake in the centre of the oven for about 10 minutes.

While that’s baking, prepare your filling.  In a mixing bowl, add the three eggs & a splash of milk, then give them a quick whisk to break up the yolks.  Add  the grated Parmesan & Grana Padana, half of the Cheddar & Feta, plus the Cream Cheese.  Give everything a light whisking using a fork to make sure everything is combined, then add a sprinkling of the black pepper.

Remove the pastry case from the oven & carefully lift out the greaseproof paper & baking beads.  Leave them to one side to cool down before putting them away.  If you used pasta, you can reuse this a couple of times so keep it for another time.

Sprinkle an even layer of the finely chopped beetroot pieces in the bottom of the pastry case & save a handful to one side.  Pour the egg & cheese mixture into the pastry case, covering the beetroot.  Gently dot the remaining beetroot pieces around the cheese filling, along with the grated Cheddar & crumbled Feta that you kept back.  Strip some leaves from the Thyme sprigs (hold it upside down & run your fingers along the stem to release them all) & add a few to the top.

Return the tart to the oven for about 15-20 minutes, until firm & golden on top.  Test it by touching the top – if it feels firm, it’s done.  Leave the tart in it’s tin on a cooling rack for about 10 minutes.  If you left the pastry edges on, carefully cut the excess pastry off from around the edges with a sharp knife.

If you have used a loose-bottomed tin, simply turn a small bowl upside-down & place the tart in it’s tin on top.  The base will stay on the mug, the edge will drop off around the bowl below.  Transfer the tart to a serving plate or chopping board, either leaving it on the base to serve or sliding a palette knife underneath to separate the two.

This beautiful beetroot tart is perfect for packed lunches & keeps for a couple of days wrapped up in the fridge or you can always freeze some.  Serve in slices, either on it’s own or with a gorgeous green salad & well-buttered jacket potato.  Even though I don’t like beetroot, I actually adore this & it adds a semi-sweetness to the soft, creamy cheese filling.  Obviously, my Husband loves it too, so I make two & there’s plenty to go around.

Have a go at making your own bejewelled beetroot tart for your packed or unpacked lunches & have a sandwich sabbatical!  A x

PS: For those who want to know, the kitchen is almost finished & although we don’t have a working hob just yet, we will do shortly (hopefully – keep those fingers crossed please!). A x