Friday Night Fakeaway!

Autumn has well & truly painted the garden some beautiful bronze, ruby & amber colours this year.  Our little cherry tree saplings seem to be in some sort of Fall foliage competition with each other, while the tomato plants are still heavy with their fruits, defiantly resisting the change in seasons.  The warm October sunshine has kept the garden blooming with bright bold colours, especially the vivid, almost flamingo pink clematis flowers climbing their frame.  Even the potted chrysanthemums have tiny buds of deepest magenta & pure white emerging from their greenery.

After a busy week of flying by the seat of my pants, Friday is a rather welcome change in pace.  Usually, I tend to cram as much into every day of the week as possible, prepping meals, writing, baking cakes for people & creating various sugar art, which means I get to relax on Friday.  Recently, my Husband took me out for a couple of lovely weekend day trips (we’ve been a bit like ships that pass in the night in the last few weeks), which involved walking for miles & indulging in some well-deserved treats, so it was really nice to spend some time together.  Friday nights are great for getting all the family together & having a relaxing dinner, but trying to get everyone in the same room at the same time can be a bit difficult, as we all work different shifts & have various commitments.

It’s not every weekend that our Son comes home to visit because of this, but sometimes he will turn up with his friends as a surprise, knowing that there will always be a mini feast (yes, I know – I don’t do mini, let’s just say I do more of a small banquet).  Sometimes I get a call en-route, giving me time to do some prep in advance – a whole chicken can be filleted,  vegetables sliced, then everything bagged up & popped in the fridge, so whatever time our Son arrives, a takeaway-style dinner can be whipped up at warp speed!   I’m not sure how other parents feel when their adult offspring come home, but for me it’s an opportunity to cook some of his favourite foods & spoil him while he’s here (for my Husband, it means he can share the truckload of treats I make & I swear I can hear his waistband breathe a sigh of relief).  The hardest decision the guys will have to make is what they want to eat (I try to limit them to about half a dozen options, because I want to eat before midnight).   Within a few minutes, we can have the whole weekend’s main meals decided, along with a few breakfast requests thrown in for good measure!

The guys love a homemade sweet & sour chicken with fluffy egg fried rice, along with a few bowls of locally bought prawn crackers (even I draw the line somewhere & the Chinese restaurant up the road makes the most lovely huge, crispy crackers, so it would be rude not to buy them).  It’s hard to resist those thinly sliced strips of brightly coloured peppers & baby button mushrooms, with wafer thin wheels of chopped spring onions & slender baby sweetcorn, all stir-fried into a sumptuously sticky, scarlet-hued sauce.  Pretty, plump pineapple chunks are sprinkled across the top, sinking into the simmering liquid like little yellow pebbles.  Then everything is tipped into a casserole dish, lid on & goes into the oven (on very low), just to keep warm while I make the egg-fried rice.   Lots of munching & crunching later, plates are empty & everyone’s full, happy & relaxed.  Mission accomplished!

This recipe was given to me some years ago & to be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d like it at first (it’s got ketchup in it?!).  However, after my first attempt was rather well-received, it became a regular favourite fakeaway & perfect for impromptu last minute meals with friends.  The best bit is it takes very little time to prep & cook – you can generously feed four hungry people in well under half an hour (because Friday nights mean you want food fast!).  It also tastes amazing as a vegetarian dish & I like to make a huge pan full of the sauce – maybe add a handful of cashew nuts, bean sprouts or sliced water chestnuts too (my fave).  It’s great for freezing the sauce as it is (you can always pour over cooked chicken or prawns for the non-veggies), or pour into pots for packed lunches  – it reheats in a couple of minutes & trust me, when that microwave pings, suddenly everyone in the office wants to be your friend!  Ready to whip up a swift sweet & sour?  Aprons on, hands washed & here we go!

What you need:

2 Chicken breasts, skinned & sliced thinly
1 each of Red & Green Peppers, deseeded & sliced finely
1 bunch of Spring Onions, washed, trimmed & sliced finely
1 punnet Mushrooms, wiped with a damp cloth & sliced finely (I use little closed cup ones, but you can use whatever mushrooms you like)
1 pack of Baby Sweetcorn, washed & sliced
4-6 Pineapple slices, chopped into chunks (fresh or tinned is fine)
3 cloves Garlic, chopped finely
1 chunk of fresh Ginger, skinned & grated (about the length of your thumb & twice as wide)
500ml bottle of Tomato Ketchup (I tend not to go for the branded ones because they are too sweet)
2 tablespoons Runny Honey
Balsamic Vinegar (a good splash will suffice, about a tablespoonful)
Soy Sauce (a sprinkle of this will be fine)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (or Sunflower Oil if you prefer)

For the egg-fried rice:
3 large Free-Range Eggs (I generally use one egg per person)
Cooked Rice (either cook dried rice, according to the instructions on the packet, or you can use microwave rice which takes 2 minutes)
1 tablespoon Olive Oil (or Sunflower Oil) – for your pan

What to do:

Assemble your prepared ingredients, ready to go into the pan in order: chicken, vegetables, ginger & garlic, liquid ingredients, pineapple (if you’re adding cashews & water chestnuts, keep them until the end too).

Pre-heat a large skillet or frying pan on a medium heat & add a little olive oil.  Pre-heat the oven at 150*C too (if you’re cooking egg-fried rice, chances are you’ll need the same pan & some room on your stove top, so this is for when your sweet & sour is cooked).

Stir fry the chicken slices for a couple of minutes until opaque (no pink bits, just white).

Add the vegetables & stir fry well with the chicken, keeping everything moving (I use a good pair of silicone tongs or a wooden spoon/spatula).

Add the garlic & ginger, mixing thoroughly with the chicken & vegetables, then stir fry for a few moments. 

Pour in the tomato ketchup, all around the pan & add the honey, balsamic & a few spots of soy sauce (I prefer the light one, but you can use the dark if you like).

Taste your sauce & if you are happy with it’s sweety sourness, pop in the pineapple chunks, dotting them all around the pan & gently stir in.  Simmer everything gently for a couple of minutes on a low heat.

Take a piece of chicken out & cut in half – it should be pure white inside, moist & lovely.  Chuck it back in the pan (or eat it if you like – chef’s perks).  Turn off the heat.

If you want to use the same frying pan for your egg-fried rice, carefully transfer the sweet & sour into a large casserole dish or similar, pop some foil on top or a lid & put it in the oven to stay warm, then wash your pan out.

Prepare your rice, whether you prefer cooking it yourself or using the pre-cooked packs.  For speed, I usually open a couple of packets of microwave rice (the ones that take two minutes are brilliant for this & I use Aldi or Lidl rices – both taste great).

Heat a tablespoon of oil in the clean pan on a medium heat.

Beat the eggs in a bowl & tip into the hot pan.

Stir fry until you start to get fabulously fluffy egg pieces & then add the rice.  Stir fry everything together for a few moments to combine & it’s done!

Serve your sweet & sour & the fluffy egg-fried rice in separate serving dishes for everyone to help themselves at the table, or just spoon some onto individual plates, with a plentiful supply of crispy prawn crackers for dunking.  Usually this is when I have to tell my guys to wait until I’ve dished up, because they’re jostling behind me with plates, ready to tuck in!  If you do have any leftovers, either box them up for lunch tomorrow or freeze them for those lazy nights when you want something nice, but don’t have time to cook.

So next time you fancy a takeaway, rather than doing the “dial a dinner” thing, have a go at making your own fast food Friday fakeaway!  Stay hungry!  😉  A x

 

Pollo Put The Cacciatore On, Let’s All Have Tea!

After a truly magnificent Summer, the sweltering heatwave has subsided into a beautifully balmy Autumn, bringing with it an array of amber & ruby rouge coloured leaves in the garden.  Sultry Autumnal evenings require soothing, slow-cooked, substantial suppers full of rich colour too.  Working long hours or shifts, whatever your line of work or study, can have a knock-on effect when it comes to preparing a hearty, satisfying evening meal.  As  the nights start to draw in, we begin to crave richer & robust fayre to comfort us in the cooler evenings ahead.

Preparing meals in advance is a definite must for the cooler seasons, so with a little planning you can have a tantrum-free tea-time without a fuss & feel good about feeding a wholesome, homemade meal to your family.  Not everyone has the luxury of a couple of spare hours in the day to prepare food & sometimes it can all seem a bit too much, so ready meals become a regular option.  It’s easy to come home, flop into an armchair & dial up a delivery dinner, but it’s not a good idea every night.  When I worked in an office, I would prepare food at every opportunity I had – the night before, in the morning, the weekends, even during my lunchbreak on occasion!  It just needs a little organising & teamwork – I have help from my fabulous assistants (aka Husband & Son).  Whole chickens are boned & filleted, before being turned into simple suppers & frozen in readiness for rewarding after-work dinners.  Vegetables are sliced & chopped (my little food processor is an absolute treasure for this!), then popped into pans of water or stored in the fridge for when you just need a handful of veg.  Pots of stock can defrost on a cooling rack, waiting to be whipped up into a rich, rib-sticking risotto, topped with a couple of roasted, crispy chicken legs.  One of the best things about a risotto is there’s always enough left to make arancini for lunch the next day too, which means you’ve already covered meals for two days & there’s no waste!

Pollo alla Cacciatore is one of our favourite Autumnal dinners & it’s really easy to cook too.  The name cacciatore means “hunter” (so does chasseur in French too), & this dish is cooked or prepared in the hunter’s style.  Apparently, it was usual for the hunters to cook the meat, whether it was chicken, rabbit, boar or whatever they had, adding some slices of speck (a type of cured pork) or pancetta to the pan, along with a few foraged mushrooms & herbs.  Some would add wine (depending on the region, it would be red or white), some would add tomatoes & maybe a few carrots, then everything would simmer slowly in a steamy cooking pot.  Obviously, there are a few different recipes out there, as everyone has their own version & it’s down to personal choice.

My recipe is one I’ve been cooking for over 30 years (in my kitchen, I might add, not the woods!) & is always warmly welcomed on chilly evenings.  All it takes is a few minutes to prepare & an hour to slowly stew in the oven, so all the meat falls off the bone & the flavours infuse into the sumptuous sauce.  You can buy ready prepared chicken portions if you prefer & use whichever cut you enjoy.  Chicken legs & thighs are perfect for this recipe as they are much more flavoursome, especially when they’re cooked on the bone.  These portions of meat tend to be overlooked & so often wasted, yet they are a much cheaper, just as tasty alternative to chicken breast.  If you do use chicken breast, you will need to reduce the cooking time as they cook quicker & the meat can go stringy (don’t worry, I’ll remind you later on in the recipe).

Two things I will recommend are: (1) get yourself some good tongs for cooking the chicken (trying to manoeuvre slippery chicken portions in a hot pan with a spatula is a bit tricky!).  (2) If you do add wine, only use the stuff you would drink – don’t use cheap plonk, it will make your dish taste cheap (there’s no wine in my recipe, however you can add a small glass of red wine with the tomatoes if you wish).  Those dinky two-glass mini bottles are brilliant for these types of recipes.

My recipe feeds four hungry people, but you can halve it if it’s just two of you dining (I regularly do this if I’ve got a couple of spare chicken legs).  Ready to prep your pollo?  Aprons on, hands washed & here we go!

What you need:

4 Chicken Legs or 6-8 Thighs (skin on & bone in) or 4 Chicken Breasts (skin on, halved)
4-6 rashers Smoked Streaky Bacon (freeze the rest in 4 rasher batches, so you always have some when you need it)
2 tins Italian Plum Tomatoes, crushed by hand in a bowl (get your hands in, you’ll wash!)
Half a tube of Tomato Puree
6-8 cloves fresh Garlic, chopped finely or crushed
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (at least 2 tablespoons)
2 teaspoons Dried Oregano
Half a dozen fresh Basil leaves, chopped roughly (or 2 teaspoons Dried Basil)
1 or 2 teaspoons Sugar (this is to soften the acidity in the tomatoes)
1 large Red Onion, topped, tailed & chopped chunky
1 each large Red & Green Peppers, deseeded & chopped chunky
1 punnet Mushrooms, wiped with a damp cloth & quartered, or left whole if small
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper to taste

What to do:

Preheat the oven to 180*C & get yourself a large, lidded casserole dish big enough to take your chicken & the sauce (there is always more sauce than you think & you don’t want it overflowing!).  Sometimes I use two dishes & then leave one untouched for freezing.

Prepare the onion & vegetables, chop the garlic & set aside.

Prepare your chicken (if you’re doing it yourself, please have a look at my blog here: http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/a-bird-in-the-hand-is-worth-ten-in-a-dish/).  Trim off any excess skin on the underside of the legs (use kitchen scissors to save yourself any stress of chasing a raw chicken around a chopping board).

Do NOT wash the chicken – the heat will kill any bacteria, plus it’s going in a hot pan & believe me, cold water & hot oil do not mix!  Do wash your hands well though.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet or frying pan, then fry the chicken portions skin side down for about a minute.  Add the bacon & fry this alongside the chicken.

Turn over the chicken portions once they begin to brown & fry the underside for another minute – for chicken breasts, ensure all the sides are sealed & there are no pink bits.  If you’re pan isn’t hot enough or your chicken portions are big, it might take a couple of minutes each side.  You just want to seal the meat here, not cook it through.

Once browned, transfer the chicken & bacon to a large casserole dish.  Using scissors, snip the bacon into pieces & scatter over the chicken, then put the lid on.

Strain off any excess fat, leaving just a little of the cooking oil & juices in the pan (add a little drizzle of oil if you think you need it).

Add the chopped onion, vegetables, mushrooms & garlic to the pan, stir frying for a couple of minutes to soften slightly.

Add the tomatoes, their juice & the puree.  Give everything a good stir & then add the herbs, mixing well.  Simmer for a couple of minutes.

Season to taste with the sugar, salt & black pepper (the sugar simply softens the acidic taste of the tomatoes, so you only need a little).

Remove the lid from your casserole dish & pour the sauce all over the chicken portions.

Put the lid back on & cook in the oven for about 30-40 minutes for chicken breast, or 45 minutes to an hour for legs or thighs (I usually leave it in for an hour).

To test if it’s cooked, pierce the thickest part of the meat with a metal skewer or sharp knife.  If the juices run clear & the meat is white inside, it’s cooked.

Put the lid back on & leave the dish on a wire rack or trivet for about 25 minutes or so.  Once rested, the meat will literally fall off the bone & be easy to pull apart if you want to remove the bones (please remove them if serving to young children).

Usually, while it’s resting, I’ll pop some dinky jacket potatoes on metal skewers in the oven.  By the time they’re done, the chicken will have rested sufficiently & you can dish up!

Serve hearty, heaping spoonfuls of this rich, ruby red chicken casserole into large pasta bowls or deep plates.  Add a few of the mini-jacket potatoes on the side, crushed up with puddles of butter & dusted with a bit of freshly grated Parmesan.  This goes very well with freshly baked, warm focaccia – just dunk chunks in the sauce to mop up all that goodness.

This recipe is brilliant for freezing, just spoon leftovers into individual pots or bags & freeze (lay an open freezer bag in a bowl, then fill & seal – it won’t move around & spill sauce all over if you do it this way).  Defrost & warm through when you fancy something warming (great for those evenings when you know you’re going to need a speedy supper!).  Any leftover sauce is really versatile too!  Simply freeze in single portion pots & use as much or as little as you need.  It’s lovely ladled onto well-buttered jacket potatoes, poured over a pile of papparadelle, or even just heated up & eaten as a chunky soup with fresh crusty bread!  I’ve even made a lasagne with it, layering between thin sheets of pasta & creamy cheese sauce.

When the evenings start to get chilly & you’ve had a long day, don’t reach for the ready meals – put the Pollo alla Cacciatore on & you’ll all have tea ready in no time!  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

 

 

 

 

Not Any Run of the Mille-Feuille!

August is always a busy month of celebrations for our family & this one is no exception.  It begins with our Son’s birthday, swiftly followed the very next day by mine (he is truly the best birthday present I could have wished for) & finally crowned with our wedding anniversary just after mid-month.  There are some pretty cakes to be shared & catch ups with family & friends, sometimes with a glass of Prosecco of course (although I never get to finish my drink because we’re all too busy chatting).

This year, we also made our own Nocino for the first time too & by happy coincidence, it was ready to drink on our anniversary.  The recipe is from the late great Antonio Carluccio’s book “An Italian Feast” (highly recommended reading) & requires green walnuts (we got ours from a lovely gentleman at Potash Farm in Kent – here’s the link www.kentishcobnuts.com).  It is a dark smooth, slightly spicy, warming liqueur & perfect for sipping after dinner.

Along with our busy August of celebrations, this glorious, sun-drenched Summer month also delivers some spectacular sunrises & sunsets, but you have to be up early!  This one was caught by me recently, early one Sunday morning while everyone else was sleeping, as I’m half hanging out of the bedroom window (our neighbours must think I’ve lost the plot, but I got some amazing shots of this beautiful sky).  Fresh berries are at their peak now too, as we see all the wild bushes & trees heavy with ripe, jewel-like luscious fruits.  Raspberries are always welcome in any kind of dessert & especially in a glass of the aforementioned fizz too, giving it a delicate pink tint if they are really ripe!  When I first started baking cupcakes many years ago, I would add a handful of fresh plump, ruby raspberries & creamy chunks of white chocolate to the batter.  Although my decorating skills left a lot to be desired back then, they always vanished rather rapidly!  Our little raspberry bush in the garden isn’t ready to give fruit this year, so I picked up a few punnets from our local shops & stashed them in the fridge to keep them firm.

Following on from my last blog about making puff pastry, I wanted to share another dessert from my childhood: the magical millefeuille (try saying it as “meal-foil” & you’re close enough).  The name literally translates as “a thousand leaves”, which is how the layers of pastry become as they bake.  As a young girl, I would watch with amazement as flat sheets of pastry would magically puff up into pillows of crisp, lighter-than-air slices.  These would then be split, filled with fruit or jam & piped with cream, then layered up into a tall, slender slice of sweetness.  Sometimes the top would be iced with white & chocolate icing in a delicate feathered pattern (so simple, yet so effective), then sometimes it would simply be dusted with a light sifting of icing sugar.  Either way, they would always be welcome as a tea-time treat or special Sunday dessert!

Millefeuille are perfect pastries for those special dinners, celebrations or just a beautiful addition to afternoon tea.  Although they do take a little longer than usual, the effort & effect is definitely worth it!  The pastry recipe is the same as in my last blog, so I’ve added it again here for your ease of reference.  Traditionally, they would be served as three layers of pastry & two layers of crème pâtissière.  However, I’ve kept these simple with just the two layers of pastry & one of cream (I think you all know by now that I don’t like custard!).  Ready?  Aprons on, hands washed & here we go!

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:
2 punnets of Raspberries (rinsed & placed on kitchen paper to dry)
300ml Double Cream
1 tablespoon of Icing Sugar (plus extra for dusting)
Lemon Zest (remember to wash your Lemon before zesting to remove any wax or dirt)

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 this heatwave we’re having, 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).  Get yourself a cuppa, put your feet up & read a book or something (if you’re like me, you’ve probably been whizzing around, so relax for a bit).

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C & then prepare your tin by brushing with melted butter all around the inside, then dusting with flour & shaking off the excess.  This makes it non-stick & 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 into a wide rectangular strip, about a centimetre thick.

Cut the pastry into equal sized rectangles, using a ravioli or pizza cutter (I find these give a smoother, clean cut).

Place the rectangles on the baking tray & dust with a little icing sugar on top of each (don’t go mad with it, you just want to give them a crispy top).

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 6-8 minutes, until fluffed up & slightly risen.  They won’t be very coloured at this stage.

Turn down the oven to 190*C & bake for a further 10-12 minutes, until golden & crispy.

Remove from the oven & carefully transfer each pastry slice to a cooling rack.  Leave them to go completely cold.

At this stage, if you have any trimmings leftover from creating your rectangles, brush them with beaten egg & chuck on some grated cheese, then twirl them up & bake in the oven at 220*C for 8-10 minutes to produce cheese straws (see my previous blog for more info).  There are no leftovers allowed when you’ve put so much effort into making that pastry!

Once your pastry slices have cooled completely, they’re ready for filling & stacking.

In a large bowl, whip up the cream with a tablespoon of icing sugar, until fluffy & smooth.  The icing sugar just adds a little stiffness to the cream & allows it to set, which is perfect if you’re serving them in Summer.

Fold in the lemon zest & scoop some into a piping bag (it’s up to you if you want to use a nozzle, but I prefer not to).

Time to cut your pastry pieces in half.  Along the side of each piece of pastry, you will see where the layers have separated.  Using a serrated knife (a sharp bread knife will do), slice carefully through the centre horizontally.  Lay them on the cooling rack.

Pipe neat, small splodges of the cream on the bottom layer of pastry – you should be able to comfortably get eight spots of cream on there.

Next take eight raspberries & pop them on top of each spot of cream, making sure they are firmly on, just don’t press too hard!

Pipe a splodge of cream on the gaps in the centre of the raspberries – this will hold the top of your millefeuille in place & make it taller.

Repeat the above stages, until all your millefeuille are finished!

Dust them lightly with icing sugar, using a tea strainer to get a fine sugar powder.

Place your millefeuille on a decorative plate or cake stand & serve!  If it’s warm weather, place them in the fridge for 30 minutes on a plate to allow them to set.  These won’t keep for very long, probably until the next day at the most, so they really should be eaten on the same day they are made.

If you don’t have raspberries, why not try strawberry slices instead?  This works just as well with other berries too, so you could make them with blueberries, blackberries or cherries.  Sometimes, I just use a little jam or preserve on the bottom instead of fruit, so the choice is yours (try apricot – it’s fabulous!).  For a truly decadent treat, try making my version of Pain au Chocolat (or Chocolatines) – add a couple of pieces of dark chocolate to each slice of pastry, then roll them up, place on a baking tray & glaze with beaten egg.  Bake at 190*C for 10 minutes, then turn up the oven to 210*C for the last 15 minutes.  When they’ve cooled a little (flaming hot chocolate needs to rest for a few minutes), sprinkle with icing sugar & serve.  These go very well with a cup of coffee, as it brings out the flavour of the chocolate.

These delicately crisp, light layers of fruity pastry perfection will wow your guests at any dinner or afternoon tea!  However you indulge, millefeuille are meant for sharing.  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

Puff Up The Volume!

Driving home this morning, seeing the luscious much-needed rain has brought the gardens back to greenery & lowered the temperature slightly, I felt rather peaceful.  Last week was particularly interesting, especially as we had to part with our beloved little Peugeot, Phoebe.  Although over the years she leaked, shivered & shook, little Phoebe was like driving a rocket strapped to a rollerskate & I adored her.  So it was rather reluctantly that we drove her to our local “Car Spa”, thinking we would never find another like her.  Fortunately, thanks to the magic of the internet & a rather brilliant chap called Richard (who really knows his stuff!), we bought a beautiful cream coloured beauty & promptly named her Erica (after Eric Clapton, because he was in a band called Cream & calling her Buttercream would have been a bit weird!).  Stress levels deflated, I could concentrate on baking again & two rather rapidly approaching birthdays!

Twenty-four years ago, I was nine months pregnant with my handsome Son & as he was born the day before my birthday, we always celebrate in a double way.  Some of my friends will know that I’m making a sugar lion at the moment (hopefully it will be ready in time!) & it’s rather large, so most of my fridge is full of lion parts (not real ones – please be assured they are all made of marshmallow, chocolate ganache & rice crispies!).  Once it’s finished, I’ll share some pictures with you.  When I bake up a birthday banquet, it’s usually a relaxed affair with everyone helping themselves to the various nibbles & treats, with a triple layer, triple chocolate birthday cake in the midst of it all.  One of our favourite nibbles is cheese pastry straws made from delicate flaky, buttery puffed-up pastry.  You know the sort I’m talking about – the crisp, light, shatter-into-a-squillion-shards-in-your-mouth kind of pastry that melts into a swirl of savoury cheesy butterness once it hits your tongue.

Now usually I would buy some shop-bought puff pastry, as it’s pre-made & quick to roll out – job done!  However, despite my best efforts, I can’t find one made with just butter so I make my own version, using a recipe my Mum & Grandma made when I was younger.  My Mum used to make all kinds of delicious pastries when I was a little girl & the scent of baked buttery delights would always entice me to the kitchen.  Sat on a high stool by the door, I would watch her working her magic & creating all kinds of tantalising treats.  Delicate voluminous layers of flaky fabulousness would crown rich fruit pies, be wrapped cocoon-like around sausage rolls or made into swirly sticks, simply showered in shavings of cheese.  Of course, all magic takes a little time & I was fascinated at how a few simple ingredients can be made into something magnificent (I still am!).  This pastry recipe is really simple to make (the basic recipe is just three ingredients BC – before cheese) & although it takes a little more effort to make than shortcrust pastry, the taste is amazing & it’s really worth it!

One of the most important things when making pastry is cool conditions, so it’s best to make it first thing in the morning (I like to do this when everyone is still in bed at the weekends).  To make sure your hands are cool, after washing them run your wrists under the cold tap for a few moments (trust me, it works).

The next thing to remember is take your time.  Some foods should be made slowly, it’s like a ritual binding all the ingredients together & each process is important, so you can’t skip anything.  This pastry is one of those slow foods, lovingly created by hand – your hands & not squished out of some huge machine into a packet (don’t get me started on the random ingredients list of unnecessary additives either!).  Once you master this flaky-layered lovely, shop-bought pastry will never taste the same again!  Ready?  Aprons on & here we go!

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:
1oz Medium Cheddar, grated
Half an ounce each of Parmesan & Grana Padana, grated finely
Freshly ground Black Pepper
A bit of melted butter (a teaspoonful should be enough)
1 large Egg, beaten (for glazing)

What to do:

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 this heatwave we’re having, 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).  Get yourself a cuppa, put your feet up & read a book or something (if you’re like me, you’ve probably been whizzing around, so relax for a bit).

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C & then prepare your tins (you’ll need a couple of baking trays).  Brush melted butter all over the inside of the baking tray & then run under the cold tap.  Tip away the excess, leaving a wet film on the tin.  Repeat with the second tray & set them to one side.

Once your pastry is rested & chilled, it’s time to get rolling!  On a lightly floured worktop, roll out the pastry into a wide rectangular strip, about a centimetre thick.

Cut into two equal pieces & on one of them, brush a little melted butter all over the top & sprinkle on two thirds of the cheese.

Place the other piece of pastry over the top, press down & roll out again, about 1cm thick.

Brush the top of your cheesy pastry with beaten egg – just the top, not the edges, otherwise your pastry won’t rise properly.

Using a knife or a ravioli cutter (my fave tool de jour), cut into finger width strips & twist each one loosely into a twirl of pastry with the egg glazed side outwards.

Place on the baking tray & repeat with the rest of the pastry, until you have a couple of trays of twirly swirls with about half an inch between them.

Sprinkle with the remainder of the cheese, taking care to get the majority of it on the actual pastry (although you will love the crunchy cheesy chips that this produces).  Give them a quick dust with some black pepper.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 10-12 minutes, until they have risen & turned a gorgeous golden hue.  Carefully transfer them onto a cooling rack using a pallet knife or thin spatula.  Remember the crunchy cheesy chips?  Shake them into a dish for sprinkling on salad as a crispy garnish or just eat them as they are – Chef’s perks!

Serve your cheesy sticks either on their own or maybe dunked in an oozy, warm baked Camembert with a glass of chilled wine (you’ve worked hard & deserve a treat).  I doubt they will last long, but if you do have any leftover just pop them in an airtight container (they will keep for a couple of days, so I’m told).

If you want to make an alternative to cheese twists, just make cheese “sausage” rolls – instead of cutting into strips, cut into wide ribbons.  Lay grated cheese across the top half of the pastry ribbon, brush a line of beaten egg on the opposite edge of the pastry & roll over, carefully encasing the cheese inside.  Press lightly to stick the roll together, then cut into inch long pieces & brush with egg.  Bake at 220*C for about 10-12 minutes, until golden & risen.  Transfer to a baking tray to cool for a few minutes before serving.  Great for lunches, nibbles or parties.

So when your pastry needs to be buttery, puffed up, flaky & fabulous, have a go at homemade!  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
12g 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 12-15 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 😉  Aimee 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/

 

Give Sultanas A Swirl!

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Dunk Dastardly & The Unsinkable Biscotti

Sunday mornings are one of my favourite times to be up early (I like to begin baking before everyone wakes up) & this weekend was no exception.  The stunning sunrise at  “OMG it’s early” o’clock was glorious, bringing with it a bright, albeit chilly, day & …. (drumroll please) …. a new hob!  After being hob-less for eight very long weeks now, you can imagine my eager anticipation!  With a fresh biscotti & coffee in hand, I sat fantasising about heavenly hob cooking: silky Spaghetti alla Carbonara, rich risotto & fat, fluffy pancakes – it was as if my Fairy Godmother had popped in for a coffee & brought Prosecco instead!

While the two great guys from a well-known electrical company (think spicy food) turned up & got to work fitting the new hob, I discovered they had been on the road since 6.30am with no breakfast or coffee (& they were still smiling!).  Obviously, I had baked & there was a selection of biscotti & breakfast bars for them to share, as my way of thanking them (I did the Mum thing too, packing them off with a little bag of goodies).  Big thanks to Michael & Steve, you are stars!

Italian food has always been my passion & when our Son was working in Naples last year, we would chat almost daily about the amazing food there, the fabulous people, wonderful fresh food markets, coffee, Grappa & of course, the Biscotti!  Biscotti are one of our favourite treats, especially as they travel well & can resist a good dunking in a drink.  When you’re having a relaxing afternoon break sipping your caffè macchiato, you want a good solid biscuit to dunk.  That first, almost trepid, dip as you submerge it a little into the steamy liquid & the smug relief you feel as you retrieve it is quickly replaced with sheer horror, as you helplessly watch collapsing chunks plunge back into your cup!  It’s happened to us all & when your dunk is sunk, no matter how fast you try to spoon it out, it’s gone to the bottom of that cup faster than a brick & is now a murky, mushy mess waiting for you to sup up.

It’s as if biscuits are just not dunkable anymore – they lull you into a false sense of security, thinking their dense sweetness will hold up to that cappuccino you’re so carefully clutching – believe me, it won’t!  Then there’s that sneaky fracture, the one you can’t see until it’s too late & half of your biscuit is bobbing around like flotsam on a coffee pond, the rest sunk to the dark depths of your cup.

However, there is something to make difficult dunking a thing of the past: the bellissimo Biscotti.  Actually, to refer to these luxurious lovelies as a mere biscuit doesn’t do them justice!   Here’s a bit of history for you:  Biscotti comes from an old Latin word “biscoctus”, which basically means twice-baked.  In the old days, storage options were quite limited & so by cooking them twice, the biscotti would keep for a lot longer & still be good to eat (I knew those Latin lessons would come in handy one day!).  For a while, I’ve been buying them from a little local supermarket & at one point, we had a serious stock pile in the pantry (just in case there was a world shortage, you know).  Recently however, they didn’t have any & our stash was running low, so my Husband (who adores them as much as I do) suggested I make some.  Challenge accepted! This recipe is for a nutty biscotti called Cantuccini & although I’ve adapted it slightly, it’s as close to a traditional recipe that I can get, so I hope our Italian friends like it as much as we do!  Hands washed, aprons on!

What you need:

300g Plain Flour
175g Golden Caster Sugar (or use Golden Demarara Sugar & chuck it in the coffee grinder until fine)
2 large Eggs
25g melted salted Butter
1 heaped teaspoon of Baking Powder
Half a teaspoon of Vanilla Extract
200g whole Almonds (or 100g each of Hazelnuts & Almonds)
Zest of an Orange (optional – you can make it with either nuts, zest or both)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 180*C.

Firstly, you need to toast your nuts.  Lay a sheet of greaseproof paper on a baking tray & evenly spread the almonds (& hazelnuts too if you’re using them).  Place the tray in the oven & let them toast up for about ten minutes, until their colour deepens slightly & you can smell their toastiness.  Once done, turn the oven down to 150*C & remove the nuts from the oven.  Gently ease the greaseproof paper, with the nuts on top, onto a chopping board (not a plastic one!).  Leave to cool for about five minutes or so.

Wearing oven gloves, pick up a small handful of the nuts & gently massage together in your hands, which will remove some of the papery skin easily.  Chop the nuts into large pieces – you want to be able to taste the nuts in your Biscotti, so take it easy when chopping.  Set to one side for later.

Prepare your orange for zesting by giving it a good wash in some warm soapy water.  It’s best to use unwaxed or organic oranges for this, as the last thing you want is a mouthful of icky wax!  Once washed & dried, get a fine cheese grater or zester & give it firm, quick strokes to just skim the top off the skin – if you’re getting the white pith underneath as well, you’re doing it too hard (don’t take the pith – it’s bitter).  Set the zest aside too.

Get a couple of medium-sized mixing bowls – one for the dry ingredients, one for the wet. In one bowl, sift the baking powder & flour together.  In the second bowl, crack the eggs in, add the sugar & vanilla extract.  Whisk well for a couple of minutes or so by hand until it becomes a creamy coloured, glossy mixture, then gradually pour in the melted butter & whisk again as you do so.

Add the zest & mix well, then pour the creamy mixture into the dry ingredients, stirring well with a spatula & as everything begins to combine, tip in the chopped nuts & mix to form a firm dough.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured worktop & shape into a flattish sausage shape, about half an inch deep & roughly three inches wide.  Carefully transfer onto a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper, cutting the sausage into two equal portions if necessary & leaving a couple of inches gap between the two on the tray.  Make sure any escaping nuts are squished back into the dough, otherwise they might burn & spoil your biscotti.

Place in the centre of the oven & bake for about 25-30 minutes, until firm & slightly risen.  Slide them onto a cooling rack & leave for about 10 minutes or so, keeping the greaseproof paper on the baking tray for later.

Once cool enough to handle, cut the large biscotti into slices, about half an inch wide.  Return them to the greaseproof lined baking tray, standing up & slightly separated, then pop them back in the oven for about 20 minutes for round two, until lightly golden & bronzed on top.  I like to turn the tray around halfway through, just to make sure they are toasted all around.

Remove from the oven, leave to cool completely on a wire rack & your biscotti are ready!  They make great gifts, or will keep for a week or so in a jar (if you hide them, otherwise they last about an hour if you’re lucky!).  I also like to use them as a base for no-bake cheesecakes (I make a mean lemon cheesecake with these crumbled up).

Traditionally, Biscotti are dipped in a glass of gorgeous Vin Santo wine, but these unsinkable beauties can be enjoyed with a coffee whenever you need a nutty nibble.  So for a dastardly dunk, be brave with a bellissimo Biscotti!  Stay hungry 😉 A x