Wednesday, 30 April 2014

A final fling - for now

We are the only ones here. It feels only right, a final treat, to have it all to ourselves.

If I could bottle and sell this walk, the sense of calm that I feel as I emerge from the wooded valley onto the beach, the sound of the birdsong, clearer and richer than I've ever heard before giving way to the hush and rush of the waves, I'd be a wealthy woman.

The tide is quite high on this, the day of our final fling on our favourite beach until the Autumn. Alone, but not lonely.

We walk as far as we can, the dog chasing ahead to make sure there are no seagulls in need of a good talking to, before returning to remind me that it's high time I started throwing stones into the sea.

We turn and head back, and I marvel at the fact that we are the only ones who have seen the beach exactly as it is, in this moment. The pattern the waves leave on the shore, the configuration of the shells, pebbles, seaweed and other debris that marks the tideline.

Already the sea is washing away our footprints, imperceptibly shifting stones, reshaping sand. By the time the next visitors arrive, certainly by Autumn, it will be a different beach - although hopefully the same.




 Roll on October.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Tarragon Chicken

I have a confession.

Last night we had a guest for dinner, a senior colleague of the Husband's, and I didn't make dessert. But it gets worse. Not only did I not MAKE dessert, I bought it from the supermarket I hate the most, And it was delicious. So credit where credit's due, although it sticks in my throat. Tescos, your 'Finest' Sicilian Lemon Tart is pretty good.


The confession extends. Not only did I buy dessert but I threw seasonality, awareness of food miles and supporting the local economy to the wind, and bought tenderstem brocoli, asparagus and sugar snap peas all of which had been imported from the far ends of the earth, to go into a 'Spring' chicken casserole. Believe me, I feel badly about this - and my purse does too, because it was expensive compared to shopping in the market gardens and farm shops round here where unbelieveable amounts of veg can be picked up for less than a tenner. The problem as always is time. I was supposed to have more time once we'd moved, but what do you know? A new client, the geography and logistics of where we live, the unavoidable attraction of the beach, and all that extra time has been swallowed up just like that. And yesterday, having already established that I would have no time to make a dessert so would need to, gulp, buy one, factoring in everything else, the opportunity to visit either of my favourite veg shops was not going to materialise. It had to be the supermarket. 

Don't get me wrong, I've never said that I don't use the supermarkets - I do and am coming to see it as an inevitability of the life that we lead - but I really try to buy meat and veg, fish, cheese etc from local producers, and leave the supermarket for the boring stuff like cling film and dishwasher tablets.

So I'll beat myself with birch twigs a little longer and try harder next time, but in the meantime, the resulting chicken casserole (an amalgamation of a Leon recipe and one I found on the Good Food website) was pretty tasty, so I'll share it with you and you can make it with more ethically sourced and environmentally friendly veg...

Tarragon chicken

Serves 4 adults

1 tbsp rapeseed (or other) oil
2 rashers back bacon (or you could use the equivalent of pancetta etc)
500g skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large clove of garlic, crushed
400g baby potatoes
2 tsp dried tarragon (no fresh to be had)
450ml veg stock
freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp dijon mustard
120g sugar snap peas (trimmed if necessary)
200g long stemmed brocoli and asparagus spears (trimmed if necessary)
2 tbsp half fat creme fraiche

Heat the oil in a large heavy bottomed casserole or saucepan, add the bacon, fry for a couple of minutes, then add the chicken and brown all over before removing from the pan with a slotted spoon.

Add the onion. Fry gently for 5 minutes or so till its starting to soften then add the garlic and fry for a couple of minutes more. Concentrate. I got distracted and burnt the onions first time round so had to pretend all was fine, chop up another onion and carry on as if nothing was the matter - all while the senior colleague was asking me how we were settling in to our new home - cue fixed grin and breezy comments while inwardly swearing...

Once you've cooked the garlic for a couple of minutes, slosh in a little of the stock and scrape any bits up off the bottom of the pan. 

Return the chicken and bacon, to the pan, along with the potatoes. Sprinkle over the tarragon and a good grind of black pepper, pour in the rest of the stock, bring to the boil then simmer, lid on, for 25 minutes, until chicken and potatoes are cooked.

After 25 minutes, stir in the dijon mustard a teaspoon at a time checking the flavour as you go, then add the green veg and put the lid on the pan and cook for 4-5 minutes when the veg should be cooked but retain the necessary 'crunch' factor.

Stir in the creme fraiche, make sure it's all hot, and serve. Nothing more needed, although some good bread to mop up the juices is an idea.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Vegetable Cawl

I have learnt a lot about my children over the couple of months since we moved, and this will probably sound like a bit of a boast, but they are my kids, and if I can't boast about them occasionally, well who can?

They have shown themselves to be resilient, adaptable, tolerant, good natured and enthusiastic in the face of not inconsiderable challenge and come out mostly smiling. I say mostly because there have been moments, especially for Blue, when it's all got a bit much, but even then, they have managed to get it all back together and on track. I've had moments too (as the fruity peanut butter cookies are testament to), but I've had years of 'character building experiences' to help me deal with this particular one (although, when does ones character stop being built??), where they haven't. And yet, they have done more than just cope.

Another thing I've learnt about them - or perhaps, been reminded of - is that, food-wise,  you can dress something up in another guise, repackage it - rebrand it if you will - and get them to eat something that they would otherwise not have touched.

Now (and yes, another boast) my kids are pretty good eaters - well, Blue certainly is, and in true sloppy attitude to second child - Pink's occasional fads simply don't bother me any more (I've come along way from the woman who once chased a 9 month old round a room with a spoonful of brocoli in cheese sauce...)

But less of the self-congratulation. Good eaters or not, there are some things that just aren't that popular with children, and as far as mine are concerned, this includes soup - lumpy soup in particular. We've made progress over the years, but a soup including barley, chunks of veg - something I would have called vegetable broth, for want of anything more imaginative to call it? You're having a laugh.

So this is where the repackaging comes in. Cawl is a traditional Welsh dish - pronounced cowel (as my kids inform me, with all the authority of those who have been learning something their parents have not yet had time to get to grips with, and not 'call' as I had thought). It's basically a broth which can have anything in it, depending on what's available, but usually includes barley type grains, making it more substantial than a simple soup. It can have bacon or gammon in it, left over chicken, pieces of lamb, or just be vegetables.

Just right for an easy supper. Except I never for one minute thought the kids would go for it, and how wrong I was. The 3rd day at their new school saw them celebrating St David's Day. I had to work hard to persuade the Husband that they could be permitted to go to school dressed in Welsh rugby shirts, but may be the very 'welshness' of the occasion (and the rugby shirts) rubbed off on them, because they came home pronouncing that cawl was so delicious that they had had thirds. Well, you can't let an opportunity like that go to waste, so armed with a packet of country soup mix, this has become a staple of the weekly menu. Not soup, not vegetable broth, but cawl. 

When in Wales, and all that.

Vegetable Cawl

Serves 6, approximately. 

Remember that you need to start this 8-12 hours before you actually want to eat, to soak the country soup mix.

150g country soup mix
1 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
1 large clove of garlic, peeled & finely sliced
2 carrots, peeled & diced
1 bay leaf
4 medium leeks, cleaned and sliced
1.5 litres hot chicken stock (or veg stock if you're vegetarian)
Chopped parsley to garnish if desired

The night before, soak the country soup mix in 500ml water - it needs to soak for 8-12 hours at least.

Heat the olive oil gently in a large pan, and gently fry the onions and garlic for 10 minutes or so till softened, then add the carrots, bay leaf and sliced leek and cook for another couple of minutes.

Drain the soup mix, add it to the pan, then tip in the stock and bring it to the boil. Boil the soup for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat and simmer for another 20 minutes or so.

Serve in big bowls, garnished with chopped parsley, and with crusty bread.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Cooking on (bottled) Gas

Cooking on gas  - to be making good progress and to be likely to succeed. Unless, of course, it's bottled gas we're talking about.

When we looked around rental properties, one of the things that drew me to the one we are now living in, was that it had a gas hob. Now I wasn't naive enough to think that in the mains gas desert that is West Wales, we could somehow miraculously have stumbled on the one house that had somehow fashioned its own pipeline to the North Sea, but the heating appeared to be run from a gas tank, and I assumed the hob would run off the same - the advantage being that there's a gauge on the tank and you can see how fast it's going down, and when you're likely to run out. You can also just ring up a man, and he comes along with his truck and fills the tank up. You don't even have to be at home. Magic.

Alas, it was not to be, and like everyone else who cooks on gas around here, I am a slave to the butane cylinder, lurking behind the hedge a few metres away from the kitchen side of the house, with a dodgy connection to boot. It feels very rural here. Far more rural than 'pseudo-rural' Hampshire (as I now think of it). I'm not complaining. There are the downsides though - 40 minutes to A&E on a good run down some very windy roads. Not yet tested in an actual A&E situation, but basically = bad; driving to get practically anywhere = bad; Cooking on bottled gas = very, very bad. It's been hanging over me like a veritable sword of Damocles every tea time. I don't even know why, because we have an electric kettle, an oven (electric) and even, after many many years without (a long story) a microwave - so it's hardly likely that we're going to starve. And even if it did run out, it's not as if we couldn't get another bottle very quickly (well stocked garages at regular intervals along major A roads = good), but go with me here - it's made me nervous.

So the Damocles moment arrived as it inevitably would, at the worst possible time. Friday night, I had already gathered the kids up from the school bus at the start of their Easter hols, and had to return to school once to collect Pink's flute which she'd forgotten, and then, again, when half way down the road from the flute recce, Blue remembered that he'd left his jumper at school. If it had just been the weekend, I'd have left it, but as it was the start of the hols, I felt duty bound to return. Grr.

My mother in law was due to arrive for the weekend at 5.30 and so as the result of the sallying back and forth for various forgotten items, we missed the opportunity for some post-school beach. We arrived home. Curry for dinner. The dahl was nearly done, the curry paste whizzed, and I was just about to get the rice on for the kids who were eating before us when I noticed the flame had reduced dramatically. Gah!

It was 5.30 exactly. No sign of the mother in law; kids were firmly installed in front of their Friday treat DVD. The dog thought my to-ing and fro-ing between gas bottle and hob trying to work out if the gas was really running out, and if so what to do about it was some kind of great game, which didn't help, as did discovering that the gas bottle was connected to the pipe into the house by nothing more than a little bit of vaguely perished rubber hose. I know I scoff at our health & safety culture, but I did feel a little nervous...

It took me a few attempts to get the regulator off the gas bottle, then to get the bottle into the car. It was about as tricky to turf the kids out of the house to come with me on a gas hunt. "Come on kids!" I rallied. "But we're watching 'Frozen'!" (translates as "You are a cruel and wicked mother we have worked so hard all day and now you expect us to sit in the car so that you can get the wherewithal to cook us tea"). Yeah. Get over it. I wrote notes for the mother in law in case she arrived while we were out. In fact I needn't have worried - at that same moment she was sitting in a desolate spot about 7 miles the other side of Newcastle Emlyn, arguing with her sat nav which had told her that she had reached her destination...

We got to the garage, and had a nasty moment when the attendant wasn't sure if she had any of the small bottles of butane left. But all was well, and I managed to get some beer in too.

Back to the house, more struggling with the regulator to get it back on to the bottle and then to arrange bottle in a spot that would allow it to connect to the pipe, and all is well. We are once again cooking on (bottled gas). It feels like a rite of passage - another tick in the box of our life here - in the same vein (although admittedly less frustrating) as dealing with the utterly rubbish broadband connection and finding out that tamarind paste is not readily available. And ultimately what it means is that I will finally get round to buying the second bottle that we kept telling ourselves we ought to buy.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Clandestine Cake

I've been fascinated by the idea of the Clandestine Cake Club for a few years now. Pretty much ever since I started blogging and doing the whole social media thing. I joined up and found a club near where I used to live, but never went along to a meeting.

As part of my rather disorganised 'plan to make sure I meet some new people once we move' I had investigated whether there was a Clandestine Cake Club here in the Cardigan area, and discovered that there wasn't. Initially, I was disappointed, then I was encouraged.

Perhaps I could START a Clandestine Cake Club...

Another of my 'plan to make sure I meet some new people once we move' involved a little bit of Twitter stalking networking, which resulted in me getting to know a couple of lovely people, all be it virtually, before we'd even crossed the Severn, and I was having coffee with one of them once we'd landed, and mentioned this idea. Well, what do you know? She had been talking to another friend of hers who had been wondering about the same thing.  A coffee date was hatched and the next thing you know, well here we are, and the first meeting of the Cardigan Cake Club took place on Monday 7th April, not 3 weeks later.

If you don't know about the Clandestine Cake Club (where have you been??) the idea is that a meeting is arranged, and knowing the date and time and roughly the area where it will take  place, you book a place. The exact location is then revealed to those who have booked a place a couple of days before the event. Well, we need some excitement in our lives, don't we.

Each event is themed, and you take along your cake, share it with the others and generally have a good old natter.

That's pretty much exactly what happened on Monday. My co-organiser, the fabulous Vicky North, micro-baker, workshop provider and bread club owner, had already found a venue for us, and when the time came, a select but not insignificant group arrived, with cake. You can read our write up of the event if you're interested, thinking of setting your own CCC up etc, but the purpose of this post is to share the cake that I made for the evening.

The theme was 'My Cake, My Story' which we hoped would get people talking about themselves, their baking stories, and just act as a bit of an ice breaker. It was interesting how people approached the theme. Some people baked a cake that included ingredients representing parts of their lives, for others, the cake itself represented something. For me, it was an easy choice.

As you will know, my life was thrown upside down when my 2 year old son was diagnosed with leukaemia. No more high flying legal career. No more structure to my life other than that imposed by his hospital regime. Chaos reigned, and when, 3 months later my daughter arrived by emergency caesarean, chaos doubled. It wasn't a happy time, although there were plenty of happy moments, and much of it has merged into a kind of fug. One thing that did come out of it, indirectly, was this blog. I wasn't writing at that point, but I seized on a self-imposed challenge to cook everything in How to Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson in an attempt to gain control over something in my life. And from there, eventually, came this blog.

I still haven't cooked everything from Domestic Goddess - I reckon I've cracked about 1/3 of it, but the easy almond cake represented everything I love about Nigella Lawson and about baking, and the escape that it gave me during that period of my life when everything else was so difficult. The alchemy of throwing together some simple ingredients and creating something of utter loveliness will never leave me.

In honour of the Cake Club, I added my own lemon and poppy seed drizzle icing, and very pleased I was with the result, too.

Easy Almond Cake with Lemon Drizzle Icing & Poppy Seeds

250g unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
250g mazipan, cubed, at room temperature, 150g caster sugar
1/4 tsp each almond essence and vanilla bean paste
6 large eggs
150g self raising flour
75g sifted icing sugar
juice of about 3/4 lemon
1-2 tbsp poppy seeds

You'll also need a 23-25cm loose bottomed/springform 'ring' cake tin, well greased and floured.

Heat the oven to 170C

Use a food processor and process the butter, marzipan and sugar together.

Add in the almond and vanilla, and process again, then break in the eggs one at a time while the food processor is running.

A top tip is to break the eggs into a little bowl first. I once made this and accidentally dropped a whole egg into the whizzing mixture. The cake was very crunchy...

Once the eggs are all incorporated, add the flour, process, then scrape the batter into the tin and bake for around 50 minutes until a skewer comes out clean.

Leave to cool in the tin.

Turn the cake out, and mix up the icing - you may not need all the lemon juice - to quite a runny consistency. I used a clever trick I learned to put the cake on 4 strips of greaseproof paper so you can ice then whip the paper away easily. Get me.

Drizzle over the cake from a height (helps get more even drizzles) then sprinkle over the poppy seeds.

This is delicious with a cup of tea. In fact, at the CCC, we discussed that this was almost a contender for a 'cake for breakfast' type of cake...

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Crust and Crumb: An introduction to sourdough and yeasted bread making with Vicky North

Making bread is one of the most basic pleasures of baking for me. It can also be one of the most frustrating, especially when I decide to 'just knock up a batch' in the morning, before the school run, only to find that I've got a 'wet dough' on my hands, and I end up dashing out of the door, sticky, quick drying dough all over my hands, up my arms, the end of my nose to get the kids to the bus on time... Fortunately, there was no such stress or bother, no deadlines to meet, no school buses to catch last Sunday when I arrived at Manor Deifi, tucked away up a winding lane above the village of Llechrydd, not far from Cardigan.

Over coffee and the most utterly delicious biscotti I think I have ever tasted (made by Vicky), those of us attending the course introduced ourselves and Vicky asked us to share our bread experiences. Despite the course title, none of us were complete bread novices: Tara, the youngest participant had made bread rolls at school, Kate mainly baked soda bread, Jason had perfected a low knead pizza dough which gives awesome results everytime (I'm going to try it!), Marianne bakes bread for the cafe/deli she owns. However, as with any skill, there is always more to learn, a different approach to absorb and we were all keen to get going.

'Super' seeded soda bread
The day is an introduction to sourdough and yeasted breads, and Vicky also incorporates soda bread which works well to show a speedy alternative to the more time-intensive loaves. We started off with a yeasted wholemeal loaf, weighing all ingredients (including the water) and using fresh yeast which is something I've never worked with before. Crumbling it in to the mixing bowl, it feels a little like plasticine, but not unpleasantly so. During the kneading process, Vicky introduced a new technique, as favoured by Bertinet, which involves slapping the dough down onto the worktop, folding it and slapping it down again. Very therapeutic - we were all keen to try it out! We moved on to soda bread, using buttermilk and bicarbonate of soda, and adding seeds to the dough, mixed up and kneaded a white bread dough, shaped the wholemeal loaf for proving and baking, experimented with the white bread dough making sesame-coated breadsticks and a fabulous tear and share cheesy garlic bread, and finally created a sourdough loaf all ready to take home, prove in the fridge, and bake the following day. All that plus a break for coffee and a delicious lunch, and yet at no point did the day feel rushed.

Vicky is hugely knowledgeable about the bread making process, and shares generously, answering questions and volunteering information - including a top tip for greasing tins using spray oil. The day was well organised and impeccably timed. Not only did we achieve everything the course promised, we had great fun into the bargain. On top of that, the bread we baked was truly fabulous - the mouthwatering smell of it wafted over us from Vicky's magnificent beast of a bread oven from the moment the soda bread went in until it was time to go home - and I can honestly say that I don't think I've baked better bread. As the Husband was going away, I froze the soda bread and the wholemeal loaf, when I got home, but the kids devoured the bread sticks and half of the garlic topped tear and share bread for their tea.The sourdough loaf went into the fridge to prove over night, and I fed my sourdough starter that Vicky sent us all home with.

The following day, as instructed, I baked my sourdough loaf. A little lopsided (still haven't fully got the hang of the oven I'm baking with), but gorgeous. Crusty on the outside, soft on the inside. Delicious with strawberry jam, tasty with tomato soup.

With my starter now happily in the fridge, and renewed confidence from the course, I am eager to get back in the sourdough groove, but I also think my use of more 'conventional' yeast will change - there will always be some sachets of quick yeast in the cupboard, but I will use more fresh yeast too. And finally, what I have learned is that a good loaf takes a little time. Not impossibly so, but I have been perhaps a little too slapdash in my approach to kneading - the benefits of a longer knead were much in evidence in the loaves I produced with Vicky. And as all these things are about sharing, I'm also keen to experiment with the low knead technique that Jason, one of the other participants, described, for pizza dough.

It's a brilliant day, and I think would have suited a novice just as well as someone with a little more experience. Perhaps you think it's a long way to come? Well, this is a beautiful holiday area, so it's perfectly possible to make a weekend or even a week of it. And if you were coming on holiday to the area anyway, this would be a perfect day to fit in. Vicky also runs courses for kids - and as it does tend to rain here, this would be a great thing to have up your sleeve. 

Garlic, parmesan & herb tear & share loaf

To get a flavour (a delicious, garlicky cheesey flavour at that) of Vicky's baking, she has kindly agreed to let me pass on her recipe for the 'tear and share' bread. This was baked in a Bundt tin - something I have never got my head around for cakes on the basis that I'd be scared the batter would stick, but I will definitely be getting one because of the awesome results. By baking the bread in a high sided tin, it keeps the resulting bread beautifully soft. And I know sometimes you want crust, but sometimes, you want delicious, soft bread. 

For 1 quantity of white bread dough (roughly a loaf's worth)

435g strong white flour
7g sea salt
7g fresh yeast, crumbled
230g tepid water
14g olive oil

For the Garlic Butter with Parmesan and Italian Herb topping:
100g butter, melted
1 egg, beaten
25g Parmesan cheese, grated finely
2 cloves garlic, grated

1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp dried Italian herb

Bundt tin
Spray oil for greasing the tin (a personal favourite!)

Mix and knead one quantity of dough: 
  • Weigh all the ingredients into a bowl and work together with a bread scraper initially (if you have one).
  • Splash the work top with a little water (not flour!), and tip the rough dough out onto the work surface and start kneading.
  • Knead the dough for 10-15 minutes by hand until you have a beautiful smooth and stretchy dough.
  • Scrape out the mixing bowl then return the ball of dough to the bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave in a warm place to prove for one hour.

Meanwhile prepare the topping - in a small bowl, mix the melted butter, egg, Parmesan, garlic, salt and dried herbs altogether and set aside.

When the dough has doubled in size, roughly after an hour, tip out onto your work surface and divide into 12 equal boules.
Dip each one into the garlicky butter, cover well and pop into the bundt tin.
Drizzle any remaining butter over the nestling boules and then place the tin into a large plastic bag. Seal and place in a warm spot, ready to prove for a good forty minutes, until the dough is voluminous and noticeably increased in size.

Bake at 190C for 30-40 minutes until risen and golden brown. Allow to cool for five minutes before tipping out and placing on a wire rack. You will have a deliciously tender crumb to your bread as the dough has steamed as it's baked, thanks to the high sides of the bundt tin which traps the moisture in as your bread bakes.

You can find out more by visiting Vic North Bakes . If you're local to Cardigan, you can also take the opportunity to eat Vicky's delicious bread on a regular basis by joining her bread club.

I was delighted to accept an invitation from Vicky North to attend 'Crust & Crumb - an introduction to baking'.I was not required to write a blog post, and the opinions expressed are my own.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Fruity Peanut Butter Cookies

Sometimes, there are just too many words, aren't there. Too many emotions, too much noise, too much to do, and not enough time.

And sometimes, you realise that you are a long way from a lot of the people you love and you're not going to see them that afternoon on the school run, and you can't just magically make your son feel better about being uprooted from his friends, or stop him winding his sister up because that's how he best expresses his displeasure with life.

And sometimes, you can't stop the dog licking the toads that have chosen your garden as toad-sex central, so that he is sick. Alot. Turns out toads can release toxins and shag at the same time. Nice one!

Sometimes you just need to bake cookies instead. (And eat a few of them.) 'Talking' (texting/messaging/emailing) to some of those good friends helps too (you know who you are :-))

But on the cookie side of things, I'd recommend these ones. Just saying.

Fruity Peanut Butter Cookies

200g crunchy peanut butter

125g unsalted butter, at room temperature

150g caster sugar

150g light muscovado sugar

2 tsp vanilla extract

1 large egg

125g wholemeal self raising flour

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

125g rolled oats

140g berries & cherries dried fruit mix, or dried sour cherries as you like

You’ll also need 3-4 baking sheets lined with greaseproof paper.

Pre-heat the oven to 170C

Put the peanut butter, butter, sugars, vanilla and egg into a bowl and beat until evenly mixed together.

Sift together the flour and bicarbonate of soda, then beat in to the mixture, followed by the oats and the fruit.

Spoon balls of the mixture – about the size of a walnut (shell on – I used a tablespoon measure which worked quite well) – onto your baking trays, leaving a good 3 cm between each ball, then flatten slightly with a fork.

You should get around 30, although I got 27 and ate the left over dough raw. It was that kind of a day.

Bake for 20 minutes or so till lightly golden on top but still relatively squidgy. Leave the cookies to cool on the tray for 5 minutes before cooling completely on a wire rack. Although, to be honest, eating one warm isn't going to hurt...