Wednesday, 30 January 2013

My afternoon - with apologies to Edward Lear #sendgin

There once was a mother called Sally,
Whose children would drive her doolally.
She stifled her screams
as she cooked them baked beans,
and then urged them to bed, not to dally.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

You shall have a fishy...Smoked Mackerel Salad with Yoghurt, Horseradish & Dill Dressing

I'm not a great charity shop shopper. I do go in and buy things - I've found our local Hospice shop to be a great source of hardly worn Boden clothes, for one thing, but I'm not one of those passionate thrift shoppers. The Husband loves nothing more than spending hours mooching round second hand shops and antique markets, but it's not my thing. 

However, recently, I have been pleased to discover a few lovely things for the kitchen (or rather, the table) in the same hospice shop I mentioned just before. Don't panic, this is not suddenly going to morph into a blog about 'old tat' shops, but isn't this serving plate lovely?

So far, I've used it for cheese and also for a cake (I mean once the cake was on the plate, you couldn't see the fish), but the other evening, I made a smoked mackerel salad and for once, I felt like not only was the food lovely, but I had absolutely the right thing to serve it on. 

Doesn't happen to me often.

This started off life as a Good Food lunchbox idea but as the Husband mused when he read the recipe after we'd eaten "You changed it?". But of course.

Smoked Mackerel Salad with yoghurt, horseradish & dill dressing

8 spears of long 'tender stem' brocoli
200g sugar snap peas (cringe, they had been imported from a long way) 
3/4 bag of watercress, rocket and spinach salad
2 smoked mackerel fillets, skinned

150ml low fat natural yoghurt
2 tsps horseradish sauce
juice of half a lemon
about a tablespoon of finely chopped dill

Quickly steam the brocoli and peas till they are cooked but still have bite. It really won't take long. Run them under the cold tap quickly to refresh.

Spread your salad leaves over a beautiful, thriftily sourced, serving dish (or on individual plates), then artfully arrange the cooked brocoli and peas around ad through the leaves, Flake over the smoked mackerel.

Make up the dressing by mixing together the yoghurt, horseradish and lemon juice, and stir through most of the dill. Drizzle this over your plateful of salad, and scatter the remaining dill over the top. 


The dill gave the dressing a lovely flavour so I am also entering this into Karen's lovely Herbs on Saturday challenge, hosted this month on Bangers & Mash


Sunday, 27 January 2013

Forever Nigella 22 - Norwegian Cinammon Buns

Well, I couldn't host Forever Nigella, and not enter myself, could I? 

The subject of challenge (which I chose) is food to cherish your loved ones with and really, the reason I chose this was for these cinammon buns.

Warm, fragrant, oozing cinammony sweet butter. What better way to cherish your loved ones (foodwise, that is) than to knock up a batch of these beauties for that most important of meals, breakfast. I'm not saying I make this sort of thing every morning, but every now and again, well, I think you know what I'm saying.

I have a Swedish friend who I don't see nearly enough. She and I 'raspberry leaf tea'd and long brisk walked' our way through the final weeks of our first pregnancies. We were due 10 days  apart and ended up giving birth to our sons within 12 hours of each other, albeit in different hospitals. She coped with it all much better than I, birth, breastfeeding, the whole babyness of babies, and within weeks she was my Scandi saviour, bringing down to earth common sense to my hormonal, slightly post-natal slump, and Swedish cinammon buns.

It was she who was our saviour a couple of years' later, the chaotic day, 3 months in to Blue's treatment for leukaemia, that Pink arrived and Blue was very poorly following some chemo. When, later on in Blue's illness I turned to How to be a Domestic Goddess in an attempt to cook my way out of the frustration and anger that had built up inside me, I saw this recipe and immediately thought of her. This was one of the first things I made from that tome, and it has stayed firmly in my repertoire ever since. 

I do not know anyone who would not happily eat 2 or 3 (or, ahem, more, she said, red-faced) of these beauties. They have become the birthday breakfast of choice here and they are well worth it. The first few times I made them, I got terribly het up about the wetness of the dough, and also with the timings - because I never quite read the recipe through properly and they ended up taking me longer than anticipated. However, with my new found bread-making confidence, when I served them up this morning I was feeling calm and serene - very Domestic Goddess (although without the knowing pout or the slinky dressing gown).

When I made the dough up, I was careful with the addition of the liquid, and I stopped short of using it all, reserving what was left (a milky buttery eggy mixture) to glaze the buns on the final prove. I also made the dough up the night before and gave it the first rise in the fridge, so that in the morning, I just had to get it out of the fridge and let it come to temperature before forming the buns, giving it a second prove, and baking.

Norwegian Cinammon Buns

(makes 10-12)


300g strong white flour
50g sugar
pinch of salt
11/2 sachets (about 10g) dried yeast
50g unsalted butter
200ml milk
1 large egg


75g soft unsalted butter
75g soft brown sugar
1 tsp cinammon

(possibly an extra egg to glaze) 

You will need a lined baking/roasting tin - the one I use is 20 x 25cm.

Make the dough. Melt the butter and set aside to cool a little. Combine the flour, sugar, salt and yeast in a large bowl, then whisk together the melted butter, milk and the egg.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients gradually, stirring to combine. You want a reasonably wet dough, but not so wet that it becomes unreasonable to manage, so if you don't use all the liquid don't worry - I had around 30ml left over. When you have a rough dough, turn out and knead to a smooth, springy ball of dough. You can do this in a mixer with a dough hook just as well as by hand - it won't take as long. If you don't use all the liquid, reserve the left over for glazing

At this stage put the dough back in the bowl and cover with clingfilm. You can leave the dough to rise for 25 minutes or so on the work top, or overnight in the fridge (which is what I did - if you do this, just get it out and let it come to room temperature before continuing with the next stage).

Preheat the oven to 230C. Make the filling by mashing and mixing together the butter, sugar and cinammon.

Take 1/3 of the dough and on a lightly floured surface, roll and stretch it out to fit the bottom of the tin. You then need to roll out the rest of the dough to make a rectangle. I completely failed to measure how big, but probably about 30-40 cm long by 15-20 wide. Certainly longer and wider than your tin, Not very helpful is it? Nigella herself makes a double quantity and rolls her dough to 50x25 cm.

Spread the filling all over the rectangle of dough 

and then roll up along the long side. When you have a big old roll of dough in front of you. slice it up into 2 cm slices, placing the little rounds into the tin swirl side up. They won't fit together snugly at this stage, but wait till they have puffed up and risen during the second rise and in the oven...

Glaze the buns with either the left over liquid from the dough, or with a beaten egg, and leave to prove under a tea towel for 15-20 minutes, then bung in the oven for 20-25 minutes, turning half way through.

It's going to be hard but try and wait for them to cool down a little before tearing apart and devouring with a cup of coffee and the satisfied sighs of delight from your loved ones. "Mummy, this is such a TREAT!". May be I'll make them more often...

Forever Nigella is the monthly blogging event organised by Sarah at Maison Cupcake, I'm hosting it this month and the announcement post where you will find all the rules and the linky is here.

Sunday Special - Slow roast merguez shoulder of lamb - and a comedy potato

Just before Christmas, we were in receipt of a lamb. Melvin's lamb.

I think I have written before about Melvin's pork (although I can't find the post). Melvin is our friendly, local, slightly erratic small holder. A couple of weeks before Christmas, the Husband rang Melvin to inquire about the availability of logs for the woodburner. During the course of the conversation, Melvin let slip that the lamb that he and the Husband had discussed some months previously was about to be butchered. We had all but given up on getting a lamb this year. A week before Christmas, realistically, we had neither budget nor freezer space for a butchered lamb, but these opportunities do not come along everyday, and before I knew it, Melvin was on my doorstep with the lamb, and the freezer is now creaking.

Fast forward to last Sunday and we have friends for lunch and a shoulder of said lamb out of the freezer. What to do, what to do? Faced with the meat, I had a crisis. Slow roast or conventional cook? English traditional or something more adventurous?

Much as I love the traditional English pairing of lamb with garlic and rosemary, my time in the South of France, on the Mediterranean coast near the Spanish border, has made me a huge fan of the 'merguez' flavours from North Africa. I have fond memories of barbecued merguez sausage - spicy and piquant: chilli, harissa, garlic, perhaps fennel, cumin and coriander...

Lamb as good as Melvin's already has a fantastic flavour, but it was too much of an opportunity, and 'adventurous' (if Sunday lunch could ever really be called adventurous? I don't know. Humour me) won out, although I kept the chilli down as a nod to the the less mature palates at the table. 

The only thing you really need to know about this is that it does need about 4 hours in total to cook, so get in the kitchen early, but then you have the luxury of just leaving it to do its thing while you get on with other stuff.

Slow roast merguez shoulder of lamb

1 shoulder of lamb (bone in) - 2 kg will feed 4 adults and 4 kids, possibly with leftovers
1 tsp each cumin seed, coriander seed, fennel seed & black peppercorns
1 cinammon stick, broken into pieces 
1 tsp smoked paprika
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 large sprigs of rosemary, leaves only, finely chopped
zest of a lemon, finely grated
2 tbsp olive oil
1 glass of red wine
1/2 glass water

First, pre-heat your oven to 220C and score the skin of your shoulder of lamb. While the oven is heating, make your paste: toast the seeds (cumin, coriander, fennel and peppercorns) and cinammon stick in a dry frying pan over a medium heat for a minute or so. Bash up the toasted spices with the paprika, rosemary, garlic, lemon zest 

and mix with the olive oil, then smear half of the resulting paste over the scored lamb (which you have, of course, put in an appropriately sized roasting tin. (If you were more organised than me, you could of course make the paste and smear the lamb the night before).

Put the meat in the hot oven for 30 mins, after which, remove from the oven, and smear the remaining spice paste over the meat - use a wooden spoon or somesuch to do this. Pour the wine and water into the tin around the meat (but NOT over the meat - you don't want to wash that paste off), then cover the joint with tin foil, seal it round the tin and put it back in the oven. Reduce the heat to 130C, and cook for about 3 hours, when it will be easy to pull apart, and taste delicious.

In my usual haphazard fashion, I made a gravy from the juices, some sherry and the water that I'd parboiled the parsnips in. We had whole roasted new potatoes (from last summer's crop - still going strong in a thick (and large) paper bag), parsnips (also homegrown) roasted with honey, rosemary and ground cumin, and steamed carrots and leeks. The great thing about home grown veg is the opportunity for amusingly-shaped specimens, and I'm sorry, but I can 't resist showing you this potato (snigger)

Haphazard gravy and comedy potatoes aside, this is a really fantastic way of roasting lamb. Hugh suggests roasting at a slightly lower temperature for longer (6 hours) but by the time I was contemplating what to do, a 6 hour roast would have meant eating at around 3 in the afternoon - no good when small children are involved. Also, I have done a longer roast and for me it hasn't turned out quite so well, although I added more liquid to the roasting tin this time than I have previously, so may be that helped. It's a method of cooking that lends itself to fiddling around, and because it's at a low temperature, there's less chance of ruining the meat by overcooking.

We had a fabulous afternoon, a lazy lunch then we sent the kids outside to build an igloo while the grown ups stayed firmly ensconced around the table with the wine. As we got our snow on Friday, and had already had plenty of opportunities for sledging and snowballing, what better way to spend a snowy Sunday afternoon?

Friday, 25 January 2013

Oven Baked Broad Bean & Bacon Risotto - and a good dose of humility

Excuse me for a moment while I state the obvious, but isn't feeding children just sometimes the most frustrating thing?

Just when you think you've got it sussed, that you're congratulating yourself that they've obviously grown out of all that toddler faddishness and realised you're not trying to poison them, they chuck in a curve ball. 

Just when you're feeling slightly pleased with your "Must-taste-without-retching-noises" rule and your "Eat-as-many-mouthfuls-as-your-age-if-you-want-pudding" rule, and the diverse range of foods that your kids will actually eat, and just, dare I say it, when you might be sounding a teeny bit smug about it all (strike me down, for I know I am that woman), they bring you straight back down to the bottom line and refuse something that is completely inoffensive, nay something that others would consider a bit of a treat.

So there we have it - oven baked bacon and broad bean risotto. Creamy, comforting on a cold evening. It's got bacon in it, for goodness sake. To be fair, I suppose Blue isn't a fan of rice , and generally, Pink has been fairly ambivalent about broad beans recently despite our attempts to jolly her out of it (mainly because we had a good crop of them in the garden and we are lucky enough to have some left in the freezer that need eating). But really? What's not to like? Everything, apparently.

"Mummy, let me tell you that broad beans and bacon do NOT go together" Er excuse me? Are you my child? I believe you may have been swapped at birth. (I didn't actually say that to him).

Ho hum.

Onwards and upwards.

The Husband and I loved it though, so for that reason alone, I'm going to share it with you all - and what could be easier. I know that really, for risotto, there should be loads of stirring love going on, and the purists will strike me down, but when the chips (or perhaps that should be the rice) are down, if there's an easy option, I'd like to know about it, and this certainly ticks that box.

Oven baked Bacon and Broad Bean risotto

1 tbsp olive oil & a knob of butter (what does a 'knob' of butter mean? I just chopped a smallish corner off my block - probably no more than 10 grams, because I'm trying to lose a little weight, but you could add more if you wanted)
1 onion finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
200g smoked bacon, chopped
200g frozen broad beans (you could also use frozen peas, or fresh of either in season, but they will take less time to cook - remember that. Nothing worse than an overcooked broad bean...)
300g risotto rice
700ml chicken or veg stock
100g or so of grated cheese - parmesan, or whatever you have

Pre-heat the oven to 180C.

Heat the oil and butter in an oven proof dish with a lid, and add the bacon. Cook for a few minutes till the bacon starts to colour, then add the onion and garlic and sweat gently till softened. 

Stir in the rice and keep stirring for a minute or so to coat the rice in the pan juice/oil. 

Tip in the stock, bring to a simmer, put the lid on and pop in the oven. Cook for about 20 minutes, then remove the pan from the oven, stir in the broad beans, put the lid back on and cook for another 5 minutes or so till the beans are cooked (if you are using fresh broad beans, it will need less time. 

Take the dish out of the oven, stir in most of the cheese and leave to stand, with the lid back on, for 5 minutes. Apply salt and pepper as required, then serve with the rest of the cheese to sprinkle on top.

 Stand back and wait for the "oooos" of delight or, alternatively, the retching. If the latter, I share your pain. If the former, feel free to be smug in the comments below.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Feeding the Ravenous Hordes - Chickpea Ketchup 'Chilli'

Sometimes I get a little annoyed with even my favourite food writers. The thing that gets on my nerves is when their idea of something doesn't accord with mine. What might constitute the contents of a 'store cupboard' for example.

Apparently, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall thinks fresh ginger is the sort of thing you might just have lying around in your fridge waiting to be used up. Hugh, let me tell you this. I buy fresh ginger, and freeze it in chunks ready for use. It goes very mushy on defrosting but that's fine because I'm usually mushing it up in pastes for curry. However, it's not just lying around ready to be used in emergency suppers. The days when you really haven't given any thought to what you might eat until it's actually tea time and the ravenous hordes are, well, ravenous. 

On the day in question, then, while I didn't have the ginger available to make the Ketchup Curry which appears in Veg Everyday in the Storecupboard Suppers section. I was inspired by the suggested alternative of ketchup chilli and knocked up my own version with chickpeas - and no ginger.

This, for me, really is 'store cupboard'. The fresh ingredients are an onion, a couple of cloves of garlic and a red pepper, which I nearly always have in (onion and garlic I use pretty much every day, and if nothing else, I chop up the pepper in lunchboxes). You wouldn't need to have the red pepper - and if you are proper swanky, you might have a jar of them knocking around actually in your store cupboard (I aspire to this but in reality, there never is a jar of beautiful red peppers in my store cupboard). I'll admit to having far too comprehensive a selection of spices, but cumin and paprika are ones that I use regularly and always have in. You could use hot smoked paprika or chilli powder depending on the palate of your ravenous hordes. It does use quite a lot of ketchup, but again, it's always in the cupboard and I'm sure you could use tomato puree or a can of tomatoes, depending on what you had to hand.

I served it as a topping for baked potatoes, with grated cheese and some left over soured cream. There was also some watercress. In a surprise verdict from my own ravenous hordes (and my fiercest critics), Blue loved it, while Pink wasn't so keen (I was anticipating the reverse). I liked it a lot.

Chickpea Ketchup Chilli

Serves 4

1 small-ish onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, also finely chopped
1 red pepper, finely chopped
olive oil
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp cumin
2 x 400g tins of chickpeas, drained
10 tbsp tomato ketchup

Put a good splash of olive oil in a pan, and gently fry the onion and garlic for 5 minutes or so and add in the pepper, the paprika and cumin. Stir together then cook on a gentle heat for another 5 minutes or so, stirring every now and again, till softened. Tip in the drained chick peas and add the ketchup, plus a little water, stirring as you go, to make a sauce. Make sure everything is heated through, then serve as your store cupboard or fridge permits - on baked potatoes, with rice, on its own, even...


Monday, 21 January 2013

Of Parallel Universes, snow and Chocolate Hazelnut & Black Cherry Zebra Cake

There's a film called Sliding Doors which (though I probably should be ashamed to say it) is one of my favourites. It's no blockbusting epic, no quirky indie pic, but I love it. If you haven't seen it, the premise is this: pretty, slightly scatty PR girl is living with vaguely handsome but no good (in an affable kind of way) boyfriend 'writer'. On the day she is fired (for drinking some company vodka), she just manages to catch a tube train home, has a passing conversation with enigmatic stranger, discovers affable-but-no-good boyfriend in bed with slightly psycho-ex girlfriend, and after soul searching and much Grolsch, she pulls herself up by her kitten heels, opens marvelously successful PR agency, gets it on with enigmatic stranger, gets pregnant, and is hit by a car at the height of blissful happiness. Or not. Because the film also offers the alternative reality where she misses the train and as the result of a combination of circumstances, doesn't find the boyfriend in bed with psycho-ex. Her immediate post-fired life is much less glitzy, and involves making and delivering sandwiches around London including to psycho-ex. However, at the end of it all, she still meets enigmatic stranger, and at the conclusion of the film looks like it's going to be a much more satisfactory life all round, with significant opportunities for unashamed blubbing. You should see it.

Nothing so dramatic has happened to me over the last few days - you'll be pleased to know that I haven't found the Husband in bed with anything other than his Christmas pyjamas, and there have been no other life changing events - apart from the snow.

Snow does this to us, the English, doesn't it. Life can be trundling along quite happily, and then there's the whisper of the white stuff and we whip ourselves up into a frenzy. The prospect of snow makes us all excited because we can do that most English of things and spend HOURS talking about the weather - "They say it's going to snow. A foot at least" "More like 3, I heard - it's that wind coming from Siberia" "School will be closed" "Better get some more milk in". Snow gives us the opportunity to raise eyebrows and exchange words with complete strangers, and to panic buy. Whatever anyone says, it is my firm belief that the siege mentality that understandably developed here during the first and second World Wars is still ingrained in our national psyche - witness the madness of over-food shopping before Christmas for one - and the prospect of snow gives an opportunity to indulge this. The mere whisper, the sight of a steely cloud, and our local Co-Op might as well have had a plague of locusts land, such is the speed with which the shelves are emptied - because you never know... Normal life is suspended. Nothing works. Committed office dwellers skive off and go sledging with their kids work from home.

Anyway, back to our parallel universe theme. Before the snow happened, the Husband and I were due to go out on Friday night for a good friend's 40th to a very smart restaurant. It involved driving quite a long way, but we were very keen to go. It was to be a surprise too - I love being part of a surprise. I had a new top, and had even booked in with my friendly hairdresser to get a 'blow dry' for the occasion which is something I would never normally do. The kids (and dog) were going for sleepovers - Pink and Fred one way, Blue another, and in our parallel life, the Husband and I would be off for our glitzy night, living the high life. And then, in the real world, the snow came. School was closed, and a hospital appointment was cancelled, so the Husband and I juggled work with sledging and constant vigilance. We exchanged words like "Well, if we can get to the M3, we should be fine" "Hmm yes. But is it going to freeze?". We watched as the snow fell all day. We couldn't go.

So in the non-glitzy snow bound universe, I made a cake. A 'zebra' cake. 

Apparently these are one of this year's cake trends, so if you haven't heard it before, let me tell you that now. I know, because Good Food told me it was. I'm not particularly one for trends but I have been intrigued by how this might work. Essentially, you make up two cake batters and then fill the tin alternately blobbing one spoonful of one batter in on top of the other. 

This way you can make a cake with contrasting flavours and a fun, stripy interior. Hmmm.

Chocolate Hazelnut and Black Cherry Zebra Cake

For the Chocolate Hazelnut sponge

200g self raising flour
140g caster sugar
3 tbsp cocoa powder (sifted, or sift it in to your bowl when you add it)
pinch of salt
2 large eggs
150ml pot low fat hazelnut yoghurt
150ml vegetable oil
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

For the Black Cherry Sponge

200g plus 3 tbsp self raising flour
140g caster sugar
 pinch of salt
2 large eggs
150ml pot low fat black cherry yoghurt
150ml vegetable oil
1/2 tsp pink food colouring

to decorate

200ml double cream
50g Nutella (other hazelnut spreads are available!)
50g dark chocolate

You'll also need a 23 cm loose bottomed (if possible) cake tin, greased and with the bottom lined; Pre-heat your oven to 180C/160 fan/gas 4

Make the 2 cakes simultaneously - in 2 bowls (one for the chocolate sponge, one for the black cherry), first mix together the dry ingredients for each cake, then crack in the eggs and add the oil and yoghurt. Add the vanilla extract to the chocolate sponge and the pink food colouring to the black cherry sponge. Use an electric whisk or other to whisk the sponge mixtures together - remember to wash the whisk between bowls (I nearly forgot).

Check that the batters are of pretty similar consistency - if one is noticeably thicker (it shouldn't be) you could thin it a little with some milk.

You need to work quickly now, and with a large spoon/cup measure for each batter, spoon a measure of one batter into your prepared tin, then immediately dollop a spoon of the other batter on top, and repeat. Once all the batter is used up, bake the cake for around an hour till a skewer (or whatever you use to test cakes) comes out clean. Check it after 45 mins though and cover with foil if you think it is going too dark on top.

Leave to cool in the tin, then turn it out and ice. Put the cream, Nutella and chocolate (broken into pieces) in a small pan, and stir over a gentle heat until everything is melted. Remove from the heat and keep on stirring till you get a smooth thickened icing. If you lose faith and think it's never going to thicken, you may find that it helps to pop it in the fridge for a few minutes - or just put your coat and wellies on and stir it outside.  

When the icing is ready, spread it on to the cake, and add any other decorations you consider appropriate. I left mine unadorned on the basis that the stripy interior would be 'wow factor' enough.

Well, I was pleased with the stripes, but the black cherry layer was no where near pink enough. The problem is clearly keeping the batters the same consistency, but you don't want them too thin, I don't think, otherwise they will run too quickly as you're blobbing the batter in. I think gel colouring may be the answer if you want to really make a good pink (or other) colour.

As for the cake, well, it was moist and held together well, and pretty tasty too. The icing was definitely a hit - I'll be making it with Nutella more often, I think.

And parallel universes? Well, while I'd have loved to have gone to the dinner, the Husband and I dispatched the kids as planned and went for a curry instead. And there's cake too - so not all bad.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Pear & Custard Crumble Cake (or “Goodbye to D.I.Y”)

Now that the dust of Christmas has settled, and we are all getting on (or not) with January, I bring you a cake requires a certain amount of time and faffing in the kitchen. Don’t let this put you off. This time of year, it’s crucial to have some strategies in place to avoid those tedious ‘New Year Projects’, and I guarantee that the strategic wafting of cake before those around you is one such strategy that will absolve you entirely of participation in such projects – for an afternoon at least.  
The Husband's current project is "The Moving of The Greenhouse". Do you see what I mean? This doesn't just involve the physical act of relocating a structure from one area of the garden to another. In order to move the greenhouse, the new site requires to be prepared. Concrete is involved. And straight lines. This is not an area where I am at all qualified, or otherwise competent, nor am I a particularly enthusiastic participant, although I am more than happy to consume the eventual rewards of this endeavour - by moving the greenhouse to the new position, it will benefit from more sun for longer in the year thus extending its usefulness for growing things. Things which I can eventually cook with.

Cake on the other hand? Well that's different. This cake delivers on many levels, being both cake and crumble, and is equally good warm or cold. It contains custard. The ‘faffing’ involves nothing more arduous than making said custard, caramelising some fruit, and knocking up some crumble topping. These tasks, straightforward in themselves, provide the perfect opportunity for hanging out and flicking through the magazine section of the paper of a Saturday afternoon, while rolling out a practiced “No I can’t possibly help you, darling, I just have to keep my eye on these pears”...

Pear & Custard Crumble Cake

2 tbsp custard powder, 2 tbsp golden caster sugar, 200ml milk, 400-450g whole pears, peeled, cored and cut into chunks, 75ml brandy, 190g light muscovado sugar, 60g oats,       140g unsalted butter, 60g plain flour, 40g ground almonds, 1½ tsp baking powder, 2 large eggs
You’ll also need greaseproof paper and a deep 20cm round cake tin – it’ll be easier if it’s loose bottomed – which you’ve greased and lined. You might want to think about some cream or crème fraiche to serve with it, too. Better to think about it now rather than later, I always say.
Combine the custard powder and caster sugar a bowl and mix to a smooth paste with about 50ml of the milk. 

Heat the rest of the milk in a medium sized pan and when it’s getting close to boiling, pour it onto the custard powder paste and stir together, then pour it all back in to the pan on a medium heat and stir constantly (or whisk) till the custard thickens.

Pour the thickened custard back into the bowl, and press in a piece of greaseproof paper to cover the top of the custard and stop a skin forming. Leave to cool until very firm.

Put the pears, brandy, 50g of the light muscovado sugar and 75ml water into a pan, bring to the boil and cook over a high heat till all the liquid has evaporated. Keep an eye on it, and stir occasionally. Once the liquid has evaporated, set the pan aside.

Make the crumble topping by rubbing together the oats with 40g of the unsalted butter and the muscovado sugar till they form oaty crumbs.

Once the custard is thick and chilled and the pears are cooled, pre-heat the oven to about 1800C /1600C for fan ovens.

Beat together the remaining butter and sugar, then add the eggs in one at a time, beating well after each. The mixture may look a little curdled but bear with it – or add a little of the flour after each egg.

Add in the flour, ground almonds and baking powder and beat again. Chop up the custard into rough pieces and stir into the mixture, then scrape it all into the lined tin and gently spread it level.

Scatter the pears on top and stir through the cake mixture, then sprinkle the crumble topping on top of that till everything is covered.

Bake for 45 – 50 minutes, and leave to cool in the tin. It will be cooked when the crumble is golden brown and a skewer comes out reasonably clean, but it is quite a damp cake.

Leave to cool in the tin.

Serve the cake with cream and a cup of tea. Alternatively, increase your chances of never being asked to mix concrete or measure straight lines again by bearing a tray with a generous slice of cake and a glass of the brandy (assuming you didn’t drink it all in the kitchen while flicking through your paper) to your New Year Project Monkey and exclaim, adoringly “Oh darling, you are clever – it looks marvellous – I could never have done it as well. Would you like some cake?”

Disclaimer (!): I wrote this post as an application for a cake column (without reference to the greenhouse moving, which is a genuine project). I didn't get the cake gig, but hey ho, we had some good cake, and I thought you'd all like it too. And if you think anyone's moving any greenhouses in this weather, think again...

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Random Recipes - Lemon Layer Sponge

I can't tell you how much my mum means to me. And I am not always grateful to her - I'm sure I don't always show it. But if I can be half the mother she is to me - or half the granny she is to my children, I will be doing OK, because she is truly fabulous.

On leaving an impromptu gathering at my Godmother's on Boxing Day, I heard my father mentioning my blog and saying that there would often be some 'horrid remark' about 'her mother' (that is, my mother). Now, I don't think this is true. Have I said bad things about my mum on these here virtual pages? I may have made a joke at her expense, but horrid? Really? If I have, please strike me down, and Mum, if I have, I am sorry, because you are wonderful and I love you.

Anyway, that over, it's time to move on to the point which is that Dom's Random Recipe Challenge this month on Belleau Kitchen is inspired by his visit to California (I am soooo jealous) for his father's 70th, and looking around his stepmother's recipe collection he came up with the following challenge:

" i've asked my step-mum Jette if I could choose my random recipes from her cookbook collection this month and i'd like you all to do the same... no, not from her collection but from someone else's kitchen... you all must have a good friend or a neighbour, or even your parents or grandparents who must have the most interesting collection of books... and you can be as random about it as you like... perhaps ask them what their favourite book is, or get them to do the selection for you over the phone and read out the recipe... however you do it it should throw up some interesting recipes..."

Well, it was obvious that I would ask my mum. She has a massive collection of recipe books - we cross over a lot at the Nigella/Jamie/Hugh FW end of the scale, but she has some real great ones by people like Claire Macdonald, that I am always diving in to when we are staying there. She has more Nigel Slater than me, too, and a much bigger selection of back issues of Good Food magazine, so I thought she'd be the perfect person to ask.  I might have misread the rules - or miscommunicated them - as she has sent me her favourite recipe, but this is just as likely to have turned up from an entirely random selection from her hugely random cookery book collection. And as I had absolutely no hand in choosing the recipe, it's probably more random than it might otherwise have been, so I'm hoping it will qualify.

Within a couple of days, she'd written me down her selection and sent it to me in the post, and I can do no better than repeat her letter:

"From Good Housekeeping Recipe Book 1972 ! 

Lemon Layer Sponge (for 4)

This is my favourite because it is the ultimate comfort food - very light sponge with thick lemon sauce underneath. First had it when staying with favourite Aunt (Atholl Crescent trained and an examiner for Eastbourne School of Cookery). She used to produce breakfast, lunch (she used to go home to cook lunch) and supper for her husband and 4 children and any one staying, every day of the year and both lunch and supper were two or three courses. I look back with amazement at how she did it especially as I work on the basis that I married my husband for better or worse but certainly not for lunch!

This is a totally delicious recipe!

Juice and grated rind of 1 lemon (make sure 3tblsps juice)
2 oz butter (softened)
4 oz sugar
2 eggs, separated
1/2 pint milk
2 oz self raising flour

oven temp 400F/mark 6/180C

Add lemon rind to softened butter & sugar & cream the mixture until pale & fluffy. Add the egg yolks and beat well. Stir in the milk, lemon juice and flour. Whisk the egg whites stiffly and fold in and pour the mixture into a failry large ovenproof dish - about 2 1/4 pints. Stand the dish in a shallow tin of water and cook for about 45 mins or until the top is set and firm to the touch!"

Yum. Sweet, warming, lemony. Just about the perfect thing for a miserable January day.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Sourdough - baking a yeasted loaf

When I started this series of posts, I mentioned that you can use sourdough starter in a yeasted loaf for structure and flavour, or on its own as the only raising agent in your loaf. The latter is more like you might imagine a sourdough loaf to be - quite dense, flavourful and about as far removed from your average pappy white sliced loaf as you can get. We made a fantastic cranberry, yoghurt and orange sourdough loaf on the River Cottage Bread Course:

I made that, I did!
The straight sourdough is something I'll probably use more for eating with cheese or a starter (pate, potted shrimps or something) for a dinner party, although who knows? I'm going to try and recreate these soon, but for day to day eating, the RJ family prefer a yeasted loaf, and that's what I've been baking since the course. 

So a yeasted loaf. You use dried yeast, and the sourdough starter is used for flavour and structure. What I have found works really well is to follow the 'sponge' method - this regardless of whether you are using the sourdough starter in your dough or not. Basically, you mix a third of your ingredients (flour, dried yeast, salt and liquid) together the night before you want to bake - or it will work if you do it in the morning then leave it over the day to bubble up. This is your sponge. When you come to bake your loaf, you add this to the remaining two thirds of your loaf ingredients.

I'm working on the basis of a kilo of flour because that's what I always do. The bread freezes brilliantly so even if you're not going to eat 2 loaves, it's always worth making at least this amount and freezing the second loaf. You can scale the recipe up or down as necessary.

While we're on the subject of ingredients and quantity, I noticed while we were on the River Cottage course that Aidan, the baker who was teaching us, didn't really bother with scales. As he said - he just knows what the right proportions are, basically by eye. He encouraged us to do the same. Well, I'm no where near knowing how much flour I can fit in my hand, so I'm still weighing the dry ingredients out but I am getting better at adding the liquid by eye. You see, apparently, flour is different - even from bag to bag of the same type and brand, so if you can be a bit relaxed about it, and go with what the dough is looking like and feeling like, so much the better.

So have I wurbled enough? Shall we get on with it?

Yeasted White Bread - makes 2 loaves

1kg organic strong white flour plus extra for dusting/flouring worktops and proving baskets
10g dried yeast
20g salt
approx 200ml sourdough starter

fine semolina (for dusting baking sheets)

You will also need a large mixing bowl, tea towels, bread proving baskets, or 2 bowls, each lined with a tea towel, 2 baking sheets, a sharp knife, a water sprayer bottle

So first, make your sponge. Take about a third of your ingredients - you don't need to be exact, but say 300g flour, 3g (about half a sachet) yeast, a good teaspoon of salt - and mix it with about 200ml water. Cover loosely - a tea towel etc - and leave out overnight. Or mix up in the morning and leave for the day.

The next step is where it gets interesting. In a bowl, put the remaining flour, and then separately, the rest of the yeast and salt - apparently, you don't want to put the salt and yeast in to the bowl on top of each other because the salt can damage the dried yeast.

Then, using your fingers like a mixing fork, mix up the dry ingredients -

So now, once it's all mixed together, put about 300ml water in a jug.

Tip the sponge into the flour, and then the 200ml or so of starter, then add around 200ml of the water slowly, but see how the dough is looking and if it can take more (and you can cope with it) add some more. If you aren't using starter, just use more liquid.

flour and sponge - unfortunately forgot to take a pic once the starter was added too

You are aiming for a wet dough, but not too unmanageably wet. It's a bit of a trial and error thing this, but the wetter the dough, the better.

Empty out the dough onto a floured worktop. Then you need to knead. Now you can imagine that it was a bit tricky to take these photos, what with my hands covered with dough, so I enlisted the Husband to help. As I kneaded, he snapped away. Please ignore the bowl of mouldy cucumber slices and old pasta destined for the chickens there in the background.

 Back to the kneading. You're kind of tearing and pulling the dough apart. If it sticks to the work top, scrape it back with your dough scraper or whatever you are using as a dough scraper substitute.

keep going...

...even if it's really sticky - just go with it

...and as you go on, the dough will start to come together,

and eventually you'll end up with a nice ball of dough. You really will, although it might take 10-15 minutes. This is about the most time any of these stages takes.

Once you've got your kneaded dough, put it back in the bowl you started in, and cover with a tea towel. I am also experimenting with using a plastic bag at this stage - 2 carrier bags over the bowl.

You don't need to put the dough anywhere especially warm to rise. I can assure you that our kitchen is definitely cold, but it doesn't seem to be a problem. You can also put your bowl in the fridge at this stage and leave your dough to rise overnight - just remember to bring it back up to room temperature before continuing.

Once your dough has risen, you need to tip it out onto the work surface again, and divide it into 2 to shape your loaves for the second rise

So, you need to shape your 2 pieces of dough. This is where I failed to take any pics (or to get the Husband to take any pics) but you need to shape each piece into a round (if you're making a round loaf) by kind of cupping the piece of dough and turning it round in your hands and tucking it underneath. There's a pretty good film here on Loaf Online which is a very interesting website.

The key is to work quite gently, and quickly if you can. When you're done, put the dough, smooth side down, into your bread basket (or tea towel lined bowl) which you have well floured:


Leave your bread to rise again. You can, if necessary, put the dough in the fridge again at this stage (I did it the other night when I forgot that it was going to be too late - just let it come back to room temperature before continuing with the bake) - it will feel springy and have increased in size again. This shouldn't take as long as the first rise, so you can probably put your oven on - heated as high as it will go - or up to 230C.

You need to get yourself organised at this point. Get your baking sheets ready, along with oven gloves, tea towels, a water sprayer bottle (or bowl of water), and make sure you have a sharp knife and your semolina to hand. 

Once your loaves are looking risen and ready to bake, put your baking sheets into the oven for 5-10 minutes to heat up, and while that's going on, gently loosen the dough from the basket by pulling it gently from the side of the basket - in a moment you're going to be tipping it out onto a really hot baking sheet, and you don't want it getting stuck!

 Working quickly, whip your baking sheets out of the oven, dust with semolina and tip out the dough,

Slash the top a few times with a sharp knife

and whack back into the oven. Grab your water sprayer and generously spray all round the oven, or flick water from the bowl round the oven. As an update on my post about bits and pieces you might need, when baking bread, you can get water sprayer bottles in Robert Dyas for 99p. That's 99p well spent, I have to say. No more water sploshed all over the floor by the oven for me.

But I'm digressing.

So your bread is in the oven and it's baking. I've tried baking bread following lots of different temperatures and times. My current preferred method is the one that Aidan Chapman explained on the bread course, which is very straightforward - hot oven, 20-25 minutes, turn the bread round half way through baking. I haven't fiddled much with this in my post-course baking, although I have taken to turning my oven down a smidge once the bread is in - the dial says it gets up to 240 C (fan) and I turn it down to between 220-230 once I've put my bread in, but it's still a work in progress.

When the bread comes out of the oven you need to check that it's cooked - turn it over and give it a tap. It will sound hollow. If it doesn't, take the loaves off the baking tray and put them back into the oven directly onto the oven shelf for 5 minutes or so.

Hopefully you will have loaves that look like this:

Although yours will probably be round!

Or this (although forgive the lighting issues I had with this photo):

So there we have it. I hope this is easy to follow. As I said when I started this, I'm not claiming to be an expert, but I'm giving it a go and making pretty nice bread (if I may say so), so if I can help by answering any questions, just leave a comment or tweet me!

And to recap - making a starter is here; bits and pieces you might or might not need to make bread is here, and a post about looking after your starter is here.

Happy Baking!