Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Basil & walnut pesto

Turns out, contrary to what I thought earlier this evening, that I have made pesto before - both in the conventional sense and slightly less so, but I have absolutely no recollection of doing either. I really thought I'd never made it before.

I think that this memory lapse arises because I never have pine nuts in the cupboard -  both my kids, Pink in particular, are slightly addicted to pine nuts. At one point, they were Blue's craving of choice during steroid treatment, Imagine how utterly middle class I felt (well, I am, so I can't make any apologies for that, but I really FELT it) sitting in the consultant's office as Blue tucked into a tupperware of dried cranberries, pine nuts and pumpkin seeds, while all around me his similarly steroid-crazed peers were devouring beef Monster Munch and packets of sliced ham... It was one of Blue's more expensive cravings, although I felt slightly better when I overheard a significantly more middle class mother (perhaps she was upper-middle?) than I explaining how her own son was craving lobster... Something for 'Overheard in Waitrose' I feel (if you're on Facebook, look this account out - it's pretty funny!)

Off steroids, he didn't crave pine nuts in the same rabid way, but he definitely still likes them and Pink, who has significantly fewer scruples about such things than Blue, would seek them out in the cupboard, ask for them as a breakfast accompaniment, and usually, as soon as I'd bought them, dreams of a delicious an sophisticated supper in my mindseye, they'd be gone again.

I stopped buying them.

The other thing would be lack of basil. My mum grows amazing basil plants, but we don't seem to have had quite the same luck, and it always feels quite extravagant buying that much basil just to whizz it all up again.

But today, I had basil, and I had parmesan. I still didn't have pinenuts (old habits die hard), but I had walnuts. What to have for dinner was the question - Pesto was the answer. And spaghetti.

I must remember to make pesto more often - it is just delicious. Stirred through spaghetti and green beans, it made a great dinner.

I followed the method included in the Abel & Cole Veg Box Companion which is great book I knicked from my sister in law. I've never had an Abel & Cole veg box - and I doubt they deliver in this corner of the wild West Wales so I'm not about to start, either, but I like the sound of the company, and the book is full of great ideas for veg.

You probably know how to make pesto already, but indulge me here.

Basil & Walnut Pesto

1/2 cup walnuts, toasted
1 cup grated parmesan
4 handfuls of basil leaves
a few good glugs of olive oil - just add as you process

Place all ingredients in a food processor and whizz up. You can leave it rough and rustic or smoother, as you like.

To store any pesto you don't use, pop it in a glass jar and pour a layer of olive oil over the top.


Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Salmon in a parcel

Well, the weather is still glorious - without wishing to jinx it, it feels like we've had weeks of blue skies and sunshine. Cooking has been quick and/or easy and I've had to be flexible, menu planning, then throwing the menu plan out of the window and knocking up something with what I bought which takes into account the fact that we spent longer than planned at the beach.

I had some lovely salmon from my friendly fishmonger, and have been thinking generally about fish. Even though we're just over the county border in Ceredigion, next week is Pembrokeshire Fish Week, and there has been a lot about it coming up on my Twitter feed, so fish has been on my mind more than usual. I've become acquainted with a couple of people involved in the fishing industry here, and you wouldn't believe how little of the fish & shellfish caught round here ends up on our plates. Mostly it heads off to Europe. And that, if you ask me, is a crying shame.

But I'm not here to go into the politics of the local fishing industry - it's an emotive subject and round here it would be more than my life's worth to try and tease out the complexities. Let's just say I'm trying to buy more local fish. In fact, a great local alternative to salmon here would be sea trout - also known as Sewin in these parts, fished from the beautiful River Teifi. It would work brilliantly in this recipe. Speaking of which...

So, we were going to have salmon fishcakes from an old Good Food mag, but by the time we got home from the beach, I just wasn't in the mood to do anything, and it was quite late, so I wrapped the salmon up in a foil parcel with some butter and dill, banged it in the oven, and bingo. Dinner. 

It probably took just as long as the fishcakes would have done, but it was loads less faff, and all in the oven (I used the fishcake-destined potatoes to make wedges in the oven) other than a bit of steamed asparagus and mange-tout peas, so could do post-beach clear up and get the kids through the shower, at the same time it was cooking.

Salmon (or Sewin) in a parcel

500g piece of salmon
small pack of dill, thick stalks removed, finely chopped
around 25g unsalted butter
salt & freshly ground pepper
tin foil

Pre-heat your oven to 220C. 

Pull out enough tin foil to make a double layered parcel around your salmon.

Place the salmon in the middle, scatter with pieces of the butter and the dill, grind over some salt and pepper, then seal up the parcel and pop in the oven.

Bake for 15-20 minutes depending on the thickness of the salmon.

If you open the parcel and the fish needs a little longer, just scrunch it closed again and pop it back in the oven. 

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

A Loaf of Fresh White Bread - a Random Recipe

I'll tell you the truth - there hasn't been much cooking going on around here - certainly not of the kind that I could in all conscience post up here. I mean, I have been cooking, but repetitive stuff, stuff I've made before, easy crowd pleasers.


Well, because if there was one thing Blue being ill taught me it was to live for the moment. Now that he's had the all clear, there seems to be even more reason to do so, and given that we've had lots and lots of this

which has led to lots more of this

you'll understand that a gal's thoughts haven't turned to the kitchen that often.

But still. It's been ages since I did a random recipe, and this is the 40th challenge set by Dom at Belleau Kitchen: take the 40th book on the shelf, turn to the 40th page and cook it.

Since the move, my cookery books have been even more dispersed than they were before, and of course, I no longer have my lovely shelf. I started counting in the kitchen and ended up at number 40 in the study with The River Cottage Family Cook Book by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and Fizz Carr.

This is not so much a recipe book of family food, as cooking and kitchen related projects for children to undertake. I like it, and it's good for back to basics stuff as well as more challenging projects, including things like making your own sausages, which we have done with the kids. It's got some good stuff about food politics, about reducing waste all that good stuff you'd expect from a book of this provenance, but it's not patronising or preachy.

I pretty much knew where page 40 was going to take me before I'd opened the book - somewhere in the 'Flour' section which includes gems such as home made pasta, sourdough and pastry. And what do you know, page 40 - plain and simple "A Loaf of Fresh White Bread". Actually, page 40 was the pictures, the recipe was on page 41.

I've never used this recipe, and to be honest, it includes both oil and sugar (or honey) which I've long since ommitted from my own bread making. But rules is rules, so I made up the dough using the ingredients specified.

Where I did deviate, though, was in the kneading (or not). I've become more and more aware of the 'no knead' method of bread making, and having had massive success with this to-die-for Cardigan Bay Buns temptation (which I urge you to try) using the no knead technique, I decided to try a Dan Lepard 'hardly any knead' version on this bread recipe.

It's a revelation: with barely any kneading - just a brief flurry of folds and turns every 10 minutes for half an hour, followed by a 45 minute rise, you get awesome bread. Every brief knead the dough take on more structure, the resulting loaf is light, the crust crusty, the crumb, well, crumby. Just right.

And just because I am a complete pig when it comes to fresh bread and couldn't contain myself in the interests of giving you the whole story, I had to sample the results of the almost no knead method in a scientific manner, I can attest to the fact that it tastes great...

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Banoffee Pie

The other day I had a proper conversation on the phone with my Dad. That butt of many a telecoms company advert, the stilted "Is Mum there?" interaction that I must confess to being an all too common feature of my relationship with my father (Note to self: must try harder!).

We talked about quite a lot of things, and tangentially, my mum's current list of worries. Mum is always worrying about something, and I have many conflicting feelings about this. In my less-generous moments, I think "Well what does she have to worry about?" (sorry Mum!). Her 3 kids have all left home, we're relatively well settled, they gave us the best they could in terms of education, and for goodness sake, we're grown ups. But then, she's still working, there's my Dad (sorry Dad!), and while we may have all left home and have families of our own, well, I am sure that we, her children, and now her 5 grandchildren, give her plenty to worry about - not to mention our various dogs which she views almost the same as her grandchildren (that's good for the dogs btw, rather than bad for the grandchildren) vicariously if nothing else. She also has plenty of other things to worry about - always has done - but hasn't really let on to me. I mean, why would you burden your kids? There are lots of things she worries about, has worried about through the years that I have had no idea about whatsoever...

Me on the other hand? I have LOADS to worry about.

It's one of those things people tell you about being a parent - is it just about mothers? I can't remember - that you don't actually believe until it happens. The worry. Along with the guilt. 

Guilt and worry - I mean it's not a great combination, is it? Doesn't really sell 'motherhood' (or parenthood) does it? 

I like to think I've got the guilt thing mostly under control, although it does rear its ugly head every so often - those times when I abandon Blue & Pink to the TV so that I can work, those times when I effect excessive tiredness and drink a glass of wine instead of reading bed time stories...

But the worry? No, it's not under control at all. There are the silly niggly worries - the too much TV worries (see 'Guilt' above), the not eating enough fruit/eating too many sweets worries, the are they getting enough exercise, enough rest, are they doing too many activities/not enough activities after school, the which secondary school worries (and yes, I know #firstworldproblems all of them). Then there are the bigger, more serious worries - how our own, adult, actions, big or small will impact on them, both us personally (decamping to West Wales slots in nicely here), and humanity generally (UKIP, global warming, war,  famine, pestilence - I rest my case)

I'm beginning to actually realise this state of perpetual worry - the one I mock my mum for, is something that I too have unwittingly succumbed to, and am now in a constant sweat about something - actually a number of things - a good combination of worries, each registering different scores on the worry scale. I find myself saying "be careful" to the children ALL THE TIME, even though I want them to go out there and be adventurous, even though I collude with the Husband to put them into positions where they will need to take risks. There's always another thing to fret over, even if it's only in the abstract...

It goes beyond an 'absolute' state of worry, too. The resolution of one worry doesn't lift the burden, lessen it - it just leaves a void for another worry to slip in to. For those of you who have read this blog relatively frequently over the last few years, you'll know that my son, my Blue, had leukaemia when he was younger. Diagnosed at 2, we spent a year pretty much living in and out of hospital, followed with another 2 years of monthly chemo. Pink was born 3 months in, it was a tough time. A lot of good came out of it, but it was gruelling and terrible too (though eased by the amazing and awesome NHS team of doctors and nurses who looked after us all, and our wonderful family and friends who supported us through it)and frankly, not a time I'd like to return to.

Since the end of his chemo in June 2009, we have had check ups - initially every month, gradually spacing out to every 6 months. We've had a couple of wobbles, and on one occasion I did take him in to hospital to get his blood counts checked, but he has stayed healthy. That hasn't meant that every bruise, every nose bleed, every cold that hasn't shifted quickly enough hasn't cause my heart to stop, but slowly, this particular worry - the initial worry/panic that he would actually die when he was first diagnosed - shifted from being an ever present heart-gripping worry screaming in my ear, to one of the low level on going worries of life. 

And now its gone.

This week, we hit the magic 5 years from the end of chemo. No relapses. Although his consultant tells us there are documented cases of childhood leukaemia returning after this point, they are incredibly rare, so Blue has had the 'all clear'. Emotional doesn't even begin to describe it.

We left Piam Brown Ward, Southampton General Hospital at 4.30 on Thursday with a 5 hour drive home ahead of us, and I just wanted to sit and cry. We'd seen some of the nurses who had cared for us in the early days, Blue had even indulged in a cinammon swirl (despite his malfunctioning teeth) - the same cinammon swirls we used to tempt him out of his regular 'magic sleeps' when he had to have chemo injected into his spinal fluid every 3 months. To say it all felt bitter sweet is an understatement. As we headed up the A34, before turning West, we saw the Red Arrows flying in formation, presumably off to do D Day, and I exclaimed excitedly (perhaps misguidledly) "They are for you! To celebrate! Your 'All clear!". 

Blue sat there for a bit in the car pondering this (I have to say I'd probably been behaving a little strangely all day), then announced "I am quite excited Mummy. I found some diamond on Minecraft

No. Idea. Whatsoever.

I'm not even sure he ever registered that I have been worrying about it. But then, I spent most of the time while he was ill being positive, upbeat, trying to hold it together so he wasn't scared. Explaining calmly what would happen - that yes it would hurt but he could have a cinammon swirl at the end of it... I mean why would you burden your kids with that sort of worry? It was exhausting, but if it helped him deal with what he was going through, it was worth it. Is it a natural urge or instinct I wonder? Part of giving your kids optimism about the future, a feeling that life is there for the taking, that we protect them from our own concerns and worries?

And so now that's all over, what do I have to worry about? I feel quite at sea. I MUST have something to worry about. Well, Blue did kindly knock his teeth out during half term, so there is something to worry about with that. And on Saturday, I spent a not inconsiderable amount of time fretting about whether the banana in a banoffee pie went under or on top of the caramel layer - and what exactly to top it off with.

The kids have been going on and ON at me, since before I made the banoffee cake the other week to make this. I couldn't remember if I'd made it before - and it turns out that I produced it for a BBQ in 2012 (what would I do without this blog to remind me what we were eating 2 years ago??). After this week's news, it seemed an appropriate moment for indulgence.

I don't know why I was worried about where the flippin' banana slices should go or what to crumble over the top, but there you go. And in the end, I came down on the side of caution - with banana under and on top of the caramel, and chopped up curly wurly on top.

Trivial, may be, but, you know, I'll take trivial for now.

Banoffee Pie

250g digestive biscuits
200g unsalted butter
100g soft light brown sugar
397g tin condensed milk
2 large bananas
300ml double cream
1.5 curly wurly bars, fridge cold (you can eat the remaining 0.5)

20cm loose bottomed cake tin, greased

Gently melt the butter in a medium sized pan (or in the microwave in a reasonabe sized bowl).

While the butter is melting, crush up the digestive biscuits - I whizzed them in a food processor - then stir them in to the melted butter.

Tip into the cake tin and spread out to cover the base and up the sides a little to make a 'case'. Pop this in the fridge for 10 minutes or so to firm up.

While you are doing this, slice up one of the bananas. Once the case has set, arrange the sliced banana over the biscuit base and set aside while you make the caramel.

In a heavy based saucepan, gently melt together the butter and sugar over a low heat stirring all the time to prevent burning.

Tip in the condensed milk, turn up the heat and bring to a boil, stirring all the time. Boil for around a minute till you have a golden, thickened caramel. Do resist the temptation to stick you finger in for a taste.

Pour this over the banana layer, then back in the fridge for at least an hour to cool and set.

When you're ready to serve, remove the pie from the fridge and unmould the pie (It ill still be on the tin base, but it will be much easier to slice if you have got rid of the sides. 

Slice up the second banana and layer that over the caramel, then softly whip the cream and spread this, over the top of the banana. Cut up your curly wurly bars into varying sized chunks and scatter artfully over the top of the cream.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Canadian Ketchup Cake

Ketchup has long been a source of some debate in our household.

Not in the 'won't allow it to darken my door' type of debate - I gave up on that ages ago - when I realised that Blue would eat salmon fish cakes aged 18 months if they were liberally smothered in the stuff...

There's the ongoing red vs brown saga that rumbles on every time bacon appears - the boys prefer brown, Pink, red, and I sit on the fence.

Since we've moved to Wales there's been a more specific issue too. Pink declared that her favourite type of ketchup comes from a specific supermarket - the one that likes to help you live well for less. This store's own brand is apparently infinitely superior to Heinz's version. I have no problem with this, except there is no Sainsburys anywhere near us, so the Husband has had to divert on at least one of his business trips to include Bridgend. Large bottle procured she then announced that she didn't actually mind what type of ketchup she had. Grrr.

When I was researching possible cakes to take along to yesterday's Clandestone Cake Club meeting, I sparked even more ketchup controversy in the house. The theme was Commonwealth Cakes - in anticipation of the Commonwealth Games - and while I was tempted by various Carribean delights (one in particular involving the creation of pineapple marmalade, another involving significant amounts of condensed milk) I couldn't resist the lure of a Canadian cake, created to mark the 100th anniversary of Heinz in Canada, including - you've guessed it - Ketchup.

"Please don't" implored the Husband.

I did.

Canadian Ketchup Cake

250 g  self raising flour
1.5 tsp baking powder
 0.5 tsp bicarbonate of soda
 1 tsp cinnamon
0.5 tsp ground nutmeg 
good pinch of ground ginger
120 ml Heinz Tomato Ketchup (I did use Heinz - I find it much thicker and psychologically was more prepared to put Heinz in a cake than Pink's preferred)
125 ml water
10 g red food colouring*
170 g unsalted butter, softened
300 g packed dark brown sugar
2 large eggs  


170g cream cheese at room temperature 
170 g butter, at room temperature
1tsp vanilla extract
500g icing sugar 
 To make the cake, first, grease and line the base of 2 23cm spring form cake tins and pre-heat the oven to 180C

Sift together flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and the ground spices into a bowl.

Mix together the ketchup, water and food colouring*

Beat together the butter and sugar till soft and fluffy, then beat in the eggs one at a time, making sure each is well combined.

Stir in the flour and then the liquid ketchup mixture, then beat gently to combine, then increase the speed and beat vigrously for a minute or so (at times like these, I am so pleased I have a Kenwood).

Divide the mixture between the prepared tins, smooth gently, then bake for around 30 minutes till a skewer comes out clean. 

Leave to cool completely.

Make the frosting by beating together the cream cheese, butter and vanilla until smooth and completely combined, then sift in the icing sugar (you may want to do this a bit at a time), and keep beating till fluffy, then fill and cover the cake with the frosting. 

It was quite warm when I made this, so I popped it in the fridge to settle down for a couple of hours.

So - does it taste like ketchup? Most emphatically no - and not in the least tomatoey either. Instead, it's a bit like a carrot cake - the spices obviously add those flavours, the frosting, and also the texture - it's just a moist cake - and pretty tasty.

I was pleased to report back to the Husband that the cake had gone down very well with my fellow cake clubbers. "That's excellent news" he replied, in a voice that suggested that neither hell nor high water would entice him to try it. 

Some you win.

In case you were wondering, at the same time, for the Husband, I made a much more conventional maple syrup & walnut cake that I found on another blog. It is delicious, and I commend it to you with the brown sugar maple frosting suggested in the footnotes to that blog post. But you should try the ketchup cake too, at least once!

* The original recipe suggested 30 ml of red food colouring. In the same way that I have never made a red velvet cake because all that colouring just can't be right, I couldn't face putting so much in this cake. It's not as red as it might have been, but I think red enough. Plus. I hadn't clocked how much I needed before I did the shopping and didn't buy enough...