Champignon The Wonder Pie!

Gazing into the garden while sipping my first coffee of the day, there is an Autumnal air about it.  The early sunshine is just peaking over the rooftops, causing the dew laden lawn to shimmer in the sunlight & perfectly summing up the Summer.

August has been very much “all or nothing”, either a raging hot heatwave or shivering shade, deluge or drought, & nothing inbetween.  The poor plants don’t seem to know which way to turn & our multi-tasking willow tree has been happily soaking up the excess water, whilst providing welcome cool shade to the local wildlife.  There are baby olives on our little olive tree trying to ripen, green tomatoes just starting to blush red & a bounty of blackberries waiting patiently to be plucked.  The garden seems to be clinging on by it’s very leaf-tips to the last days of Summer, as Autumn has quietly arrived & begun to unpack her colourful attire across the landscape.

Before Autumn settles in, there are some comforting meals we can indulge in to soften the seasonal switch.  Fresh produce is all around us, just waiting to be turned into tasty transitional treats.  Some of my best ideas come from mooching around the markets, shopping when everyone else is sat in traffic (or still in bed), & picking up some fabulous bargains.  The early bird always catches her worm & although thankfully not very worm-like, earthy foods have caught my eye recently – the beautiful but humble mushroom.

Soft, light & flavoursome, mushrooms are one of the most versatile ingredients in cooking.  They go with pretty much everything, adding both subtle & substantial flavour to dishes, & the variety is truly amazing!  From the tiny to the tawny, closed cup or open, the frilly or the flat, these fabulous funghi are just waiting to be turned into delicious dishes!

As I wanted them to be the main attraction, I created my Champignon the Wonder Pie – a delicate mushroom & vegetable stew, tucked in under a crisp comforting blanket of buttery puff pastry.   This is one of those lazy afternoon recipes to make, rather relaxing & a little therapeutic even.  Although simple to make, there is going to be some prep involved – I hear you groaning, but I promise it’s all easy stuff, no mysterious ingredients & worth every minute when you taste the results. 

Firstly, you’re going to need vegetable stock – use either a stock cube or fresh, whatever works best for you & the time you have available.  I make my own & freeze it, as it uses up all the veg trimmings & you know what’s in it (too much salt & mushrooms = watery mess & a soggy pie).  My easy vegetable stock recipe means no standing around watching pans either.  You’ll need a couple of carrots, an onion, two celery sticks & a handful of fresh herbs (half a dozen Sage leaves, some sprigs of Thyme & a couple of Rosemary stems work well), along with any mushroom stems, parsnip, bean or pea trimmings – wash everything well to remove grit & dirt, then chuck them all in a roasting tin with 2-3 pints of cold water, a splash of olive oil & a few good grinds of black pepper & sea salt.  Cover it with foil to seal in all the juices & bake at 200*C for just over an hour, then strain & that’s it.  Use it fresh, stick it in the fridge for a couple of days or freeze it.  Save the veggies to whizz up into soups or sauces & pour any leftovers into jars for the fridge or ice cube trays to freeze.

If you prefer, you can swap the vegetable stock for chicken stock (as long as your guests are not vegetarian) – both work well & it tastes just as lovely either way.  A little bit of tasty trivia for you here: vegetable stock is actually a broth, as stock refers to a liquid that has bones cooked in it.

Next, although I have used two types of pastry (shortcrust for the base & puff for the lid), you could use shortcrust all over or just use shop-bought puff lids if time is limited – please make sure it’s proper all-butter puff to do your pie proud.  If you do fancy having a go at making your own, here’s the link to my puff pastry recipe: https://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/puff-up-the-volume/   You will only need half the amount, so reduce the measurements accordingly.  It’s easy to make & just needs an hour to rest in the fridge before rolling, so you could make this while the stock is in the oven.

Ready to bake it happen?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

For the filling:
250g Mushrooms approx (I’ve used closed cup & flat but use what you like here)
1 stick of Celery
1 medium Carrot
1 medium Red Onion
2 tablespoons of Sweetcorn
100ml Vegetable Stock approx
25g Salted Butter
25g Plain Flour
1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil

For the base Pastry:
6oz Plain Flour, plus extra for rolling out & prepping your tin
2oz Salted Butter, plus extra for your tin
1 large Egg
A little cold water, about a tablespoon

4oz Puff Pastry (see link above to make fresh or buy all-butter puff pastry)
2 teaspoons grated Parmesan or Medium Cheddar
1 Egg & 2 tablespoons of Milk, whisked together to make egg wash

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C & prepare a pie tin.  I’ve used an 8″ square cake tin because it was handy.  Smudge a little butter around the inside of the tin & then sprinkle with flour.  Tip out the flour (save for rolling out) & set the tin aside.

Time to prepare your vegetables!  Give them all a good wash in cold water & remove the onion outer skin.  Top & tail all of them, chop finely & set aside.

Prepare the mushrooms next.  Give them a good wipe with a damp cloth to remove any dirt or grit (if they’re small, use a pastry brush).  Take out about half a dozen & set to one side whole.  Chop the rest up finely & set aside too.

Heat a large frying pan or skillet.  Add the butter & oil, mixing well until melted together.

Add the carrot, onion & celery, stirring well to coat in the oil butter mixture, then fry on a medium heat for 3 or 4 minutes.  Give them a nudge around the pan from time to time, so they don’t catch & burn.  You want them to soften slightly, but not go squishy.

Add the mushrooms & give everything a good stir fry for a couple of minutes.

Sprinkle in the plain flour around the pan & stir fry everything together until the flour has disappeared.  This is going to make a roux in the pan, as it will absorb the butter & oil in the mixture, thickening everything up nicely.

Add the stock gradually & stir well into the mixture, making a smooth sauce.  When everything is combined, turn off the pan.

Slice up the whole mushrooms you saved into bite-sized bits & stir them into the stew.

Make the base pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour.  Add the egg & stir into the flour mixture using a metal spoon or knife.  As it starts to come together, add a trickle of the cold water to form a soft dough.

Turn it out onto a floured surface, sprinkle a little flour on top & roll out until slightly larger than the size of your tin all around.

Flop the pastry over your rolling pin & carefully lift into the tin, draping it inside as you do so.  Press gently into all the edges & leave a little hanging over the tin (to attach the puff pastry lid to later).  Try using the end of the rolling pin for this, as it’s smooth & won’t tear your pastry.

Roll out the puff pastry to just over the size of your pie tin & set aside.

Tip the mushroom pie filling into the pastry lined tin & spread out well.  Dip your finger in a cup of cold water & run it around the edge of the pastry.

Put the puff pastry lid on top & press the edges down to seal the pastry base to the lid.  Prick all over with a fork or a sharp knife.

Brush with a little egg wash all over.  If you want to make little pastry decorations with the leftover bit of puff, do that now & lay them on top, then brush them too (not too many though).  Sprinkle with a little grated Parmesan.

Bake in the oven for about 25 -30 minutes, until thoroughly golden & the layers are starting to show at the edges.  The sides of the pastry will come away from the tin slightly when it’s ready.

Put the pie tin on a cooling rack for a few moments to relax before serving.  That’s it!  Just get everyone around the table & dig in!   Meaty but meatless, this mushroom-packed pastry goes well with either a generous scoop of cheesy mashed potatoes & steamed crisp vegetables, or a zesty green salad scattered with a few spots of aged Balsamic vinegar & toasted pine nuts.  Slice it up cold for a luscious leftover lunch or freeze in slices for indulgent lazy suppers after a long day at work.

However you serve it, this crispy champignon-crammed pie is the perfect comfort food for chilly almost-Autumn evenings.  Stay hungry! 😉 Aimee x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All On A Summer’s Day!

Summer has arrived & although the sunshine has been a bit shy just lately, there are some fabulous fruits in the shops right now, ripe for the picking.  Summer for me has always meant strawberries & as a child, I would love to both pick & eat them.  We grew them in pots in the garden & sometimes would go strawberry picking at a local farm, but they were always lusciously lovely & the mere scent of strawberries brings back those memories instantly!  Sunny Summer afternoons spent sitting on the grass, sipping a glass of my Mum’s homemade elderflower fizz (now there’s a recipe!) & pretending it was the finest Champagne, the hum of bumble bees buzzing around & warm sunshine on my face, whilst indulging in a beautiful blanket banquet.  This would obviously include a bowl of freshly picked strawberries, washed & dunked in a little sugar before being devoured.  This is why I always smell strawberries before buying them (& probably why I get such funny looks from other shoppers!).  The sweeter the scent, the sweeter the berry!  Sometimes the simplest of treats is the most delicious & satisfying to all the senses – we don’t just eat food with our mouths, all the other senses chip in too!

One of my all time favourite treats is a petite pretty pastry, filled to the brim & adorned with ripe, ruby red strawberries.  To call it a jam tart would not do justice to them, as the jam is simply the sweet glue that bonds these beautiful berries together within the pastry cup.  These delicate delicacies are another of my childhood favourites & tremendously easy to make, all it takes is a little preparation & of course a little patience too.  They also work well with a variety of berries or fruit – try cherries, raspberries, blackberries or blueberries, or why not pineapple, apricots or apples!  Ready to bake it happen?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

For the pastry:
6oz Plain Flour
2oz Salted Butter, room temperature (slightly softened)
2oz Sugar (I use my homemade vanilla sugar – pop a vanilla pod in a jar of sugar overnight & that’s it!)
1 large Egg
1 teaspoon Baking Powder
Zest of half a Lemon & half an Orange, mixed
A little extra Butter & Flour for preparing your baking tin
A little Milk (approx. 2 tablespoons will do)

For the filling:
Half a jar of good quality Strawberry Conserve or Jam
1 punnet fresh ripe Strawberries
300ml fresh Double Cream
1 teaspoon Icing Sugar
1 plastic or metal Drinking Straw (this is an important piece of kitchen equipment!)

What to do:

Firstly, pre-heat the oven to 200*C.  While that’s warming up, prepare your baking tin.  You’ll need a 12 cup patty tin for this recipe.  Simply wipe a little butter around the inside of each cup & sprinkle in some flour on top.  Shake out the excess onto a clean worktop (where you’ll be preparing your pastry later).  This makes your patty tin non-stick & the pastries will be easier to remove after baking.

Now to prepare your strawberries – give them a wash in cold water & drain well (I usually tip them onto a clean tea towel).  This is where your drinking straw comes in!  Push the straw up from the bottom to the top of the berry, all the way through & then pull the tiny strawberry tree from the straw.  Pop those tiny trees in the composter, ready to turn into lovely rich soil for the next plants!  The riper the strawberries are, the easier it is & this will take moments, leaving you with a bowlful of beautiful hulled berries & not a squishy one in sight! 

Stand the strawberries on their end & slice the edges off, then set aside for later (pop them in the fridge on a plate covered up, espcially if it’s a warm day).  Keep the ends to make dinky decorations for your baked tarts.  Slice up the rest of the strawberries into thin slices.  Again, set aside in a dish for later, but separately from your strawberry hearts (in case they give out any juice).

There are a couple of ways to make the pretty heart-shaped strawberry slices like I have.  Either use a small heart-shaped cutter or plunger if you have one or, as the strawberry is naturally shaped that way, simply cut a little V out of the top of the slice & trim the edges to a point at the bottom of the berry.  Make sure you wash your hands after this stage & dry well.

Time to make the pastry cups.  Tip all the pastry ingredients into large mixing bowl.  Using a knife, mix everything together loosely & break up the eggs, then get your hands in & squish the ingredients together to form a firm ball of dough.

Lightly dust your work surface with a little flour & place your ball of pastry on top.  Roll it out until about 3-4mm thick.  If it sticks to your worktop, slide a pallet knife underneath it & add a little more flour to your worktop.  It is a sticky pastry, so don’t worry if it does this (the taste is worth the effort).

Once rolled, take a circle cookie cutter slightly larger than your patty tin & cut out twelve circles.  Place each circle in the prepared tin & using the end of your rolling pin, gently dab each one into place.

Pop half a teaspoon of jam into the centre of each pastry cup & top with some strawberry slices.  As jam grows, please do not be tempted to fill up the pastry cup with huge dollops of it – it will expand & spread all over like molten lava & it will burn.  Leave the spoon in the jam for later, we’re going to use it again after baking.

Place the tarts in the centre of the oven & bake for 8-10 minutes, until the jam is bubbling around the berries & the pastry has turned a golden hue.

Once baked, remove the tin & place on a cooling rack.  Gently slide your pallet knife under each tart & carefully lift out onto your cooling rack.

While your tarts are still warm, scoop another half teaspoon of jam onto the filling of each.  Don’t worry about spreading it over the fruit, it will be fine.  Allow them to cool completely before the next stage.

To get the strawberry pastry decorations I made, you’re going to need a small calyx cutter (or small star) & a small heart cutter.  You can buy these online or at any good baking retailer.

Roll out your pastry as before & cut out a dozen of each shapes, along with a few spares too (just in case!).

Place the hearts on a sheet of greaseproof baking paper on a flat baking tray.  Using your little finger or a small brush, dab a drip of milk on the top centre of the strawberry shape, then pop your star on top & leave a couple of the points hanging over the top.  Press lightly to attach & there you go – one strawberry pastry shape!  Repeat with the rest & brush them all with a little milk (or use your finger to wipe the milk on), then bake for 8-10 minutes in the centre of the oven.

When cooked, use a pallet knife to carefully lift the pastry strawberries onto a cooling rack.  They should lift easily off the greaseproof paper, plus you have a clean baking tray – no washing up!  Leave to rest until completely cooled.   You can make these the day before & pop them in an airtight container until you’re ready to use them.

Once your tarts are cooled, whip your double cream with the icing sugar until thickened & you can make firm swirls with your beaters (the icing sugar helps the cream hold it’s shape when piped).  Scoop into a piping bag with your preferred nozzle (or just a bag with the tip cut off if you like).

Pipe swirls of cream, starting at the outer edge & working your way towards the centre, getting the cream taller as you pipe.

Place the pastry strawberry on top, tilting it at a slight angle & a strawberry heart on either side of the cream.  Repeat until you have decorated them all & set them onto a pretty plate.  If you’re serving them later, cover them & keep in the fridge until then.  They will keep overnight (as long  as nobody eats them!).

That’s it!  Perfect served as part of an elegant afternoon tea, a special soiree, or simply as a sumptuous strawberry treat with a chilled glass of fizz, these plump little pastries will certainly bring some sunshine to your day!  Stay hungry!  A 😉 x

 

 

 

 

Gorgeous Grissini Galore!

It’s been a proper soggy start to Summery June, especially this week (it’s been raining since Monday morning & barely stopped).  The weekend gave us some glorious sunshine & the opportunity to mow the lawns, pot some plants & generally have a tidy up around the garden.  The plants are loving the damp weather, flourishing & flowering all around (especially the peas who have pods on their vines!).  Although we all moan about it, the gardens need a proper downpour every now & then to keep them hydrated & healthy.

On days like these, I like to make my own sunshine & bake some beautiful treats!  Lusciously light sponge cakes, peachy fruit-packed pastries & velvety chocolate chip cookies all do the trick, especially with their heady perfume wafting through the house & the anticipation of tasting them later.  Recently, I rediscovered a treat that we have not made for quite some time: the gorgeous grissini!  These spindly, slender sticks of crisp, handmade bread are delicious with a few juicy olives, sundried tomatoes & of course a pan of my homemade tomato sauce for dunking.  After a long day at work or as pre-dinner nibbles for your guests, these make the perfect carpet-picnic fayre to tide you over until dinner is ready – substantial enough to take the edge off being hungry, but light enough to not affect appetites too much.

Now I’m not going to give you false hope here – they are one of the easiest & tastiest treats to make, but you will need to set aside a whole morning or an afternoon (which is perfect for soggy days!).  As each breadstick is handmade, there is a degree of patience required – you can’t rush this & I personally find it quite relaxing, therapeutic almost.  No machine required, this is all done by pure elbow grease – in fact, the only thing I will recommend is a pastry scraper (an inexpensive flat, flexible piece of plastic that will multi-task in a number of baking jobs, including wiping up worktops afterwards).  If you’re doing this alone, it can take a couple of hours to make a whole batch, so I would highly recommend getting the whole family involved (especially the children – this is great for helping them learn a basic life skill).

This recipe makes about 80-100 grissini, depending on how thin you roll them & I will tell you that the thicker ones have the most deliciously chewy texture, with just enough exterior crispiness too – these taste amazing dunked in a little aged Balsamic Vinegar & olive oil.  Grissini are definitely a ‘prepare in advance’ snack, not for those requiring instant gratification, but the results of your hard work will be rather satisfying.  Ready to get started?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

570g Strong Bread Flour (with extra for rolling out, etc)
50g Fine Semolina Flour
350ml Lukewarm Water
12g Dried Yeast
1/2 teaspoon ground Sea Salt
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Optional toppings:
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil (for brushing)
4 tablespoons Sesame Seeds
4 sprigs fresh Rosemary, chopped finely (just the leaves, not the stem) – you can use dried Rosemary, approx 2 tablespoons

What to do:

Firstly, mix the yeast with the lukewarm water to dissolve it.  It should go a muddy, light coffee colour.

Tip the flour & semolina into a large mixing bowl, add the sea salt & stir well to combine everything.

Make a well in the middle & pour in the olive oil, followed by the yeast water.  Stir everything with a fork, until it comes together into a nice big ball of rough dough.  Make sure you wipe it around the inside of the bowl thoroughly to pick up any leftover ingredients, until the bowl is virtually clean.

Tip the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface.  Keep the bowl to one side.   Start to knead the dough by placing it in front of you, pushing down & away from you with the heel of your hand.  Then pull it back onto itself, give it a half turn on your worktop & repeat.  Try to get into a rhythm, working at a nice pace & keep the dough moving (if you’re moving too slow here, the dough will stick to the worktop,  so just slide the pastry scraper underneath & flip it back).

Give it a good ten minutes of kneading, as shown in the pictures here, using a little more flour if you need to, but try to avoid it if you can – a sticky dough is a stretchy dough & you need that stretch later on!

After ten minutes, your dough should be elasticated & have a bit of boing to it – roll it into a ball, press your finger gently on the top & if it springs back, it’s done.

Dust the inside of your bowl with a little flour & place the dough inside, giving a little dust of the fine semolina or flour on top.  Smudge a little olive oil onto a sheet of cling film, cover the bowl loosely oil-side down & place in a draught-free, warm place for an hour (warm airing cupboards are brilliant if you have one).  If you don’t have cling film, use a sheet of greaseproof paper oiled in the same way & cover with a tea towel.

While your dough is proving, pre-heat the oven to 220*C  – you want it scorching hot for bread-making & this will give crispness to your grissini.

Prepare a few tins (you’re going to need them) – lightly dust a few flat baking trays with a little coarse semolina flour, just as you would for pizzas.  You don’t need any fancy non-stick stuff, just a regular baking tray should suffice.  Set to one side, ready for your grissini.

Once proved, your dough will have risen to at least double in size & will be slightly domed on top.  Remove the clingfilm & pull the dough out onto a lightly floured worktop.

Using your pastry scraper, cut the dough into four & shape into oval balls – if you’re doing them all plain, just cut a quarter of the dough & leave the rest covered with a tea towel.

Again using that trusty pastry scraper, cut a finger thickness of dough from the ball & roll into a long slender sausage shape, the length of your baking tray.  Use your fingers to pinch the ends off if too long, don’t cut them & keep the ends to one side to make more.  You want your grissini to look rustic, handmade & not just squished out by a machine.  Personally, I like to twist & twirl them to get a nice bobbly sort of  texture when they’ve baked, but it’s up to you how you do it.   Lay each one about half an inch apart, as they grow a little during baking.

You should end up with lots of slender stems of dough on your baking tray.  Place in the centre of the oven for about 10-12 minutes, until lightly golden (if you’re making them slightly fatter, give them 12-14 minutes, but keep an eye on them so they don’t burn).

Remove & lift your grissini onto a cooling rack until ready to serve.  Usually, I tend to bake them on a constant rotation of two trays in the oven while I’m prepping another two trays, until all the dough is used up.

If you’re going to add a little extra to your grissini, roll out as above & lay them on the prepared baking trays.  Brush them with a little olive oil & generously shower with sesame seeds or the Rosemary (or both, which is very tasty).  Bake as above.  One of the best bonuses of this is when all your grissini are baked, there will be a tray of toasted sesame seeds & Rosemary leftover.  These are truly splendid scattered over salads, cheese bakes, roasted tomatoes & even just for dunking a delicious tomato-sauce smothered grissini in.  Keep leftover ones in a little ramekin or glass jar for this purpose.

Once you’re ready to dive into these delectable crisp delights, lay them on a large wooden board surrounded by a selection of petite pots, filled with sundried tomatoes, olives, artichokes & other such delicacies.  If you’re serving these as a starter for a dinner party, add some slices of salami, proscuitto & an array of antipasto.

Make up a small batch of tomato sauce for dipping too (trust me, this is essential with fresh grissini!).  Here’s an easy recipe that you can whip up in a few minutes.  Tip a couple of tins of proper Italian plum tomatoes in a saucepan & squish into smaller pieces (get your hands in there, you’ll wash).  Add a good squeeze of tomato puree, a couple of cloves of freshly chopped garlic, a few fresh Basil leaves (roughly shredded) & a pinch of sugar, along with a few firm twists of black pepper (freshly ground is best) & a pinch of sea salt.  Stir everything together with a glug of olive oil & reduce on a medium heat for a few minutes.  Once it’s all bubbling like glossy hot lava, it’s done!  Turn off the heat, give it a good stir & let it cool for a couple of minutes (as with most hot lava-like sauces, let it rest).  Taste it & adjust the seasoning if you need to, then serve!

Any leftover grissini should keep for a couple of days in an airtight container (I’m being optimistic here, because even though you’ve made what appears to be squillions of slender breadsticks, they will disappear as rapidly as if you only made four).

Next time it’s a soggy day, the kids are bored or you are just out of tasty treats or snacks, just “dough” it & bake a batch of gorgeous grissini!  Heavenly, healthy & handmade – what’s not to love?!  Have a fabulous week & stay hungry!  Aimee  😉 x

 

 

 

 

 

Espresso Yourself!

Although it’s barely the beginning of March, we have been enjoying plenty of gloriously golden sunshine & blue skies, lifting everyone’s spirits.  Dainty flowers are flourishing in hedgerows & borders, a vast array of vibrant colours emerging & encouraging us to believe Spring has arrived.  It’s like we’ve just opened a window after Winter, a breathe of beautiful freshness after the cold snap.  This time of year is the most exciting for me, when the sleepy seeds & bulbs are stirring in the ground, springing from the soil & bringing a new season of flowers, vegetables & recipes!  There are always lovely smiling faces at my local shops too (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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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, but that’s half the fun.  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

 

Pour Some Sugar On Me!

Romance gushes in many guises & St Valentine’s Day is no exception.  There are the usual, traditional gifts of long-stemmed, sweetly scented ruby red roses, accompanied by cheeky cards & boxes of beautiful Belgian chocolates, all intended to melt even the frostiest of hearts.  Whether you’re a secret admirer or a “heart-on-your-sleeve” kind of person, everyone loves receiving a sweet token of affection on this particular day.  We all get the warm fuzzies when we open a Valentine’s love note or receive flowers – it’s human nature.  In the past, I have sometimes given a card & small gift to some of my single friends, just to let them know they were appreciated (not that I wanted to pick out curtains or anything).

Over the last couple of years, I’ve usually been busy creating handmade chocolate hearts in their hundreds as treats for people to give to their beloved, dipping each one in melted chocolate, decorating them by hand & turning my kitchen into my own little chocolate factory!  By the time I’d finished, I really didn’t want to see, smell or taste chocolate for a few weeks after!  Last year, my Husband was suitably spoiled as always, with a selection of his favourite handmade chocolates decorating a rather large, milk chocolate frosted heart-shaped chocolate cake (I think there was just enough chocolate in it!).

This year, I wanted to do something a bit different & as it was birthday month in our house this January, I decided to make my own sugar roses.  I did so much research that I was dreaming in fondant & buttercream!   Our lovely neighbours have been my taste testers (every time I knock on their doors, they must be thinking “oh no, it’s that cake woman again!”) & I’ve been handing out buttercream roses like I’m on some sort of quest.  Once I had realised that (a) you need a much stiffer buttercream & (b) you need the nozzle the right way up, my roses started to actually resemble flowers.  There was a lot of “woohoo-ing” & dancing around the kitchen at this point – it was a major achievement for me, as previous attempts had resulted in wavy pebbles on sticks (albeit edible ones).  As these were a success, I decided to make a small bouquet for a birthday gift.

Obviously, once I’d realised that I could make these fabulous floral treats, I couldn’t stop there & decided to create some sugar art of my own, modelling them from fondant sugar paste & even marzipan.  I made a couple of fondant roses one Summer & they lasted for a full five minutes, before retreating into a puddle of sugary petals (it was rather hot that day, so it probably wasn’t a good idea).  This time, I made them with both marzipan & sugar paste, so was quite surprised with my achievement (they’re quite fiddly & I’m not very patient).  I won’t bore you with the details, but as it took me about a couple of hours to create each one from scratch (not including the centres), you can appreciate that I couldn’t watch them being eaten (the Husband kept wandering into another room every time he ate one, so I wouldn’t see).

Whatever Valentine’s Day treats you make, they should always be made with love.  Here’s a recipe that even the most challenged cook can create in their own kitchen.   We have been making these cookies for many years now & call this the 1234 recipe, because it’s so easy & only has four basic ingredients – just add chocolate!  So, aprons on & hands washed, here we go!

What you need for the basic recipe:

1oz Custard Powder
2oz Light Muscovado Sugar
3oz Softened Butter or Spread (although Butter tastes best)
4oz Self-Raising Flour

Optional:

100g Milk Chocolate chunks (chuck a bar in the blender & pulse it to get chunks)
Or:
A handful of Sultanas

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C & line a couple of baking trays with sheets of greaseproof paper (no washing up!).

Put everything in a mixing bowl, get your hands in & squelch everything together to make a silky, smooth dough.  Break up any large pieces of the Muscovado sugar while your doing this too.

If you’re adding chocolate chunks or sultanas, chuck these in now & mix evenly into the dough (tip any powdered chocolate out of that blender too – we don’t waste chocolate!).

Take a tablespoonful of mixture in your hand, roll into a ball & press onto the baking tray with your fingers.  Leave about an inch gap between each & repeat until you have all the mixture done on the tray.

Bake for approximately 8-10 minutes, until just turning golden.  When they’re ready, use a pallet knife to transfer each one to a cooling rack – be careful, as they will be soft & breakable.

Once cooled, eat them as they are or drizzle all over with melted chocolate & let them set.  Keep in an airtight container or biscuit tin until you fancy a treat.  They will keep for about a week (but only if you don’t tell anyone about them).

That’s the basic recipe, but for something more love inspiring, here’s a Valentine’s Day variation for your Amour – Cookie Sweethearts.  If you don’t want to use the heart cookie cutter, you could always use a flower one & make an edible bouquet of cookie flowers instead!

What you need:

2oz Custard Powder
4oz Light Muscovado Sugar
6oz Butter or Spread
8oz Self-Raising Flour (with more for rolling out)
A pinch of Bicarbonate of Soda

For the filling:

3oz Softened Butter
6oz Icing Sugar
Half a jar of Strawberry or Raspberry Jam (purée any large pieces of berry)

1 Heart shaped Cookie Cutter & 1 small Heart shaped Cookie Cutter

What to do:

Preheat the oven to 200*C & prepare two large baking trays with greaseproof paper as before.

Mash all the ingredients (except the jam) into a large mixing bowl, squishing everything together to make a silky dough as before & breaking up any large pieces of the sugar.

Dust your work surface with a little flour & take half of the dough, rolling it out to about half a centimetre thickness.  You will find that you need to slide your pallet knife underneath at stages, as it can get sticky.  Avoid adding too much flour, just dust it lightly, as this will alter the recipe.

Cut out the large heart shapes with your cookie cutter.  Take half of those you have cut out & place on your prepared baking tray, about an inch apart as before.

With the remainder of your heart shapes, take the smaller cookie cutter & cut hearts out of the centre of the larger shapes.  Keep the tiny hearts & put them on the baking tray to bake alongside your other hearts.

Put the hearts with the holes in on another prepared baking tray, spaced out as above.

Bake them all for about 8-10 minutes, until golden & then gently transfer them to a cooling tray.  These will be crisper than the other recipe, so they should be firmer.

Whilst they are cooling, make the buttercream.  Put the softened butter in a mixing bowl & using a spatula or the back of a wooden spoon, press it out all around the bowl to make it smooth.

Add the icing sugar & repeat, pressing it into the butter until you have a creamy consistency.  This is how I make buttercream, because I’ve been covered with a cloud of powdered sugar by using the mixer & it’s not fun (the damp tea-towel over the bowl didn’t work for me).  Once it’s all smooth, give it a quick whisk up with the mixer if you like & it will become light, fluffy & airy.

Put the buttercream into a piping bag (you can use a nozzle if you like or just snip the tip off the bag) & set aside.

Tip the jam into a small bowl & give it a stir with a wooden spoon or spatula to smooth it out.  You want the jam to soften, so that you can pipe it.  Sometimes, you can just give it a whisk by hand in a bowl until it’s smooth.  Break up & purée any large pieces of berry (or eat them – Cook’s bonus).

Pour into another piping bag & again, you don’t need a nozzle – just snip off the end of a bag, but keep it small this time.

Take your whole hearts & pipe a thin layer of buttercream on top.  These will be the base of your heart biscuits.  Put one of the open heart biscuits on top & press gently to attach – wipe off any excess buttercream that might ooze out of the sides & smooth with a fingertip or back of a teaspoon.

Pipe a small amount of jam carefully into the tiny heart-shaped hole on the top & leave to set on the cooling rack.  Repeat the above filling stages until all your biscuits are double layered & have pretty jam centres.

Remember all the little heart centres that you baked?  Simply pipe a small splodge of buttercream into them & make little layered lovehearts, for bite-sized treats.  You can always drizzle melted chocolate over the top of these if you want to make them extra special.

Any leftover jam can be put back in the jar & left in the fridge until you need it (don’t throw jam away!).  The same goes for the buttercream – just wrap up the end of the piping bag & fold over the snipped end, then keep it in the fridge to use on random cupcakes or chocolate puddings.  If you’re really feeling adventurous, tip it into a bowl & add more icing sugar until a bit firmer, then use it to pipe some buttercream roses onto cookies (if you make a mistake, scrape it off, shove it back in the bag & start again – great for teaching kids & keeps them entertained for ages).

So this St Valentine’s Day, give your Sweetheart some sugar & share these love bites!  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 (fresh is easy to make & I’ve attached a recipe link at the bottom of this article)
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

PS:  If you want to make your own ricotta (it’s easy, I promise), here’s the recipe link to a previous blog I wrote: http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/grate-expectations/

 

Me & Chocolate Got a Thing Going On …..

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

The simplest of recipes will produce the best results, so I would suggest finding one that you are comfortable with & use the best ingredients available to you.  The standard recipe is equal quantities of milk or dark chocolate to double cream (so 150g chocolate & 150ml double cream, for example).

Break up the chocolate into a heat-proof bowl or bain-marie, add the cream & place the bowl over a pan with about 2 inches of boiling water in the bottom.  It’s important to make sure your bowl sits nicely on top, with no steam escaping the pan & that the water does not touch the bottom of the bowl.  Be careful not to get any water in your ganache either, because it will go gritty & horrible, end up in the bin & you will be a bit miffed (trust me, you might even invent a few swear words too!).  The steam will gently melt the chocolate & cream together.

Simply stir it gently with a spatula, until everything comes together in a nice thick chocolate paste.  Leave to cool for at least a couple of hours in a cool place or the fridge until firm (if it goes too firm, just leave it to rest on the worktop for half an hour).  Then you’re ready to start creating your own treats!

Personally, I like to use a blend of milk chocolate & plain in mine, so that it’s got that right amount of “bite” & the ganache is not too sweet (otherwise you get a sickly, cloying chocolate that will set your teeth on edge & make you look like you sucked a lemon).  My tip is to taste a variety of different chocolates to find which ones do it for you – get them home, eat a couple of pieces together until you discover the right combination to give the taste you want.  Write it down, make some notes & then you can increase the quantities to make a decent sized batch.  Get creative, use a recipe as a basic template & experiment with it!  After you have made the ganache, things get really interesting – try splitting your ganache into a few bowls & maybe add a little alcohol, chopped nuts, dried fruit, biscuit, etc.  The only limits are your imagination & your pantry!

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

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

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

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

Since writing this article, I’ve been creating all manner of modelling chocolate delights from both the above ganache recipe & my homemade modelling chocolate.  If you’ve been following me on any of my social media, you’ll have seen all the pictures I’ve shared along the way.  Alone or blended with a little sugar paste or fondant, modelling chocolate can be used to create an array of amazing animals, flowers & shapes.   

This Easter, I sculpted a selection of sugary shoes, cute bunnies & delicate roses of all sizes.  Once set, these are perfect for decorating delicious cakes or just as a unique gift for someone special.  The daffodil shoe shown here started out as a sketch & then I got to work, mixing the modelling chocolate with some emerald green sugar paste to get that gorgeous green hue.  The daffodil was hand-painted once I had mounted it on the shoe, then I made tiny stamen for the centre (getting them to stand up was interesting!).  Although you can get templates for making sugar shoes, I used one of my own as a visual aid & just went from there.  

One of my Easter bunny creations was a little rock star bunny (we called him Dave) & I made a miniature electric sugar paste guitar for him, using my Husband’s as a template.  The strings were painted on in black gel food colouring & I used some edible glitter to highlight it too.  The hardest part is knowing someone might eat them, so I try to make them as cute as possible to deter them for a while (hopefully!).  

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

 

 

Gentlemen Prefer (Chocolate Chip) Blondies!

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

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

What you need:

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

What to do:

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

Gently melt the butter & set aside to cool slightly.

In one bowl, sift the flour & bicarb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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