Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Savoury Scones for the Six Nations

One of the very different things about living in Wales as compared to England is the strength of feeling invested in rugby. In England, yeah, plenty of people like rugby, but it's not a patch on the all-consuming, national pride inducing, mass tear provoking, beer fest PASSION that it is here in Wales.

For a start, EVERYONE is involved. I mean everyone. When I went to London on the train last November, everyone between Carmarthen and Cardiff was either going to to the game or talking about the game and using it as an excuse to have a drink at 10.00 a.m. And I mean EVERYONE.

At the start of the Six Nations tournament a couple of weeks ago, the kids came from school engaged in a very serious conversation.

"Did you sing?"


"I opened my mouth but I didn't sing the words"


Apparently, the school had assembled to sing the Welsh national anthem in advance of the competition, and specifically the opening match against England. While I haven't asked about this year, I can attest that in their primary school in Hampshire, there was no singing of the English national anthem prior to the Six Nations in the years before we moved.

Despite the grumblings of the Husband, I haven't investigated this further to find out exactly what happened, and much as there's a worrying voice at the back of my mind questioning whether such displays of patriotism are strictly necessary, there's another part of me that admires this devotion to their national sport that the Welsh have. True, I haven't been on the receiving end of this passion in any negative sense (not that I'm aware of anyway - my welsh skills being nascent and distinctly wobbly), and I can see that taken to the extreme, it could lead to all sorts of unpleasantness, but on the whole, the passion seems to be a good natured and healthy love of Wales and the Welsh rugby team. The children do tell me that on the board in school featuring pictures of the different national rugby teams involved in the 6 Nations, the English players do seem particularly Neanderthal-like. Whether those responsible did that on purpose, or whether the English rugby team is simply looking a little Neanderthal these days, I couldn't possibly comment...

Anyway, given this background, you'll appreciate that it's not as surprising as it might otherwise have been to have a baking event themed to the Six Nations. Branching away from cakes (although there will still be clandestine cakes), the Cardigan Bay Bakers has formed to bake beyond the boundaries of a cake tin, and the inaugural meeting had 'Six Nations Savouries' as its theme.

Now, despite having an idea that I'd make 6 kinds of flavoured savoury scone each reflecting a different nation, the reality of doing so was slightly traumatic given that I'd been back in England, in Leeds to be precise, for my school reunion involving 12 hours driving and an extremely late, riotous and thoroughly enjoyable evening on Saturday. Visions of 6 differently and delicately flavoured scones went out of the window when I realised I had hardly any flour in the house, nor much to add to create the '6 nations-ness'. I did have a leek, some parmesan cheese and some cold mashed potato, but such was my panic that I didn't take many pics, preferring to concentrate on actually cooking something.

I made leek & parmesan scones using welsh butter & leeks (doubly appropriate given St David's Day) and also some pesto (Italy again as well as the parmesan) potato (Scotland & Ireland) scones, some to serve with goats cheese (France) and some with smoked salmon (Scotland) which I purchased on my way to the event. So I figure I got most nations covered given that the flour I did have was English, and there's some mustard powder in there. Nothing like being organised, is there?

Leek & Parmesan Scones

makes 10 medium sized scones

1 small leek, trimmed and finely chopped
50g butter
75g plain flour (I ended up using 00 which was all I had)
75g wholemeal self raising flour
1 tsp English mustard powder
a pinch of cayenne
1 tsp baking powder
good pinch of salt
about 80g parmesan finely grated
1 large egg
3-4 tbsp buttermilk

Pre-heat the oven to 200C (Fan) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. Make sure you have your biscuit cutter (I used a 6cm one) to hand.

First, melt 12g of the butter in a small pan and sweat the leeks till softened. Don't let them catch. Set aside.

Combine the flours, mustard and cayenne, baking powder and salt in a bowl, then add in the cooked leeks and the grated cheese and stir together.

Combine the egg with 3 tbsps of buttermilk and stir into the dry mixture - add the extra tbsp of buttermilk if you need it to make a soft dough.

Pat out the dough on a floured surface and use a 6 cm cutter to cut out your scones, reshaping the dough if necessary to get more scones. 

Bake for 15-20 mins until browned and ready to eat. Serve with good, salted butter. Preferably Welsh...

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Bread by any other name

I haven't been baking much bread recently, at least not in the conventional sense. Bread is something I do tend to go through phases with, and I'm in a 'not baking bread' phase, which I feel a little uncomfortable about, but there we go. We're not eating that much conventional bread day to day. The kids prefer wraps rather than traditional sandwiches, and, despite everything Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says, I'm just not up for knocking up tortillas that would undoubtedly be declared substandard when presented to them for packed lunch.

The Husband has been taking soup to work rather than sandwiches too, and frankly if there's bread in the house, I just eat it. All. Toasted and spread thickly with peanut butter. So it's better if there isn't any knocking around at all.

But there are occasions when bread of sorts is required, and to that end I've been resorting to the quick breads that don't require any kind of leavening agent, or if they do, rely on the cake maker's friends. baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. Soda bread, corn bread, naans. All delicious in their own way, all really simple and easy. Not bread in the satisfying knead, prove, bake sense, but good nonetheless.

Oatmeal & Honey Soda Bread

300g plain white flour
200g medium oatmeal, plus extra for sprinkling
2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
200g clear honey
200ml plain yoghurt
100 ml milk

Pre-heat the oven to 200C.

Rub a little oil over a baking sheet and sprinkle over some extra oatmeal.

Combine the flour, oatmeal, salt and raising agents in a bowl, measure in the honey and then combine the yoghurt and milk and mix this together to make a dough.

Turn out onto your work surface, knead briefly, then form into a round and pat down till it's about 5cm thick. Place on the prepared baking sheet.

Score a cross into the top of the dough and scatter over some more oatmeal, then bake in the oven until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom - around 20-25 minutes.

Leave to cool a little on a rack, but to enjoy at its best, leave the breath of the oven on the loaf before consuming.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Expectation Management and Doughnuts

One of life's conundrums is, I think, how to manage expectations. Other people's. Your own. 

Frankly, I'm not very good at it. I have noticed myself painfully enunciating to the children why their plans for a treehouse (equipped with car battery powered film projection system, hammocks and Haribo filled fridge), a flying car, and other such products of their rather wonderful imaginations are very unlikely to happen. The problem is that I have been burnt, inadvertently - often by ommission - encouraging lesser flights of fancy only to be faced with accusing, tear stained faces when whatever the fancy was simply fails to materialise/be achieved. But I feel a deep sense of betrayal as I try and pour the water of practicality on their dreams.

My own expectations? Well, despite the fact that someone once described me as being "a fabulously glass half full kind of person" (I took as a compliment, rather than reading as code for "hopelessly-deluded-over-enthusiastic-akin-to-a- labrador- puppy) I'm not sure that I am. I know that I look on the bright side of life most of the time - experience has taught me that for me to do anything else is a recipe for personal disaster - but I tend to think that I am actually a pessimist, but am then pleasantly surprised when things work out better than I have expected. But that's not strictly true either. I get hopelessly excited about things - often, too, the little things - then try and stifle the excitement. Sometimes, too, I think it's the prospect of something that's the most exciting thing about it.

Before our trip to London, I had to engage in a massive expectation management exercise. The children wanted to explore far too many museums, and in the run up to departure discussed a mind-boggling itinerary that showed only that they they have watched too many films (Jonny English, Paddington) and have no regard (as indeed they shouldn't) for the reality of being in such a huge city. In the end, though, we narrowed it down to 3 museums, possibly a trip to the cinema and a visit to the skate park near where we were staying. As for my own expectations, all I wanted to do was to visit Bread Ahead in Borough Market for doughnuts. This was to be combined with the trip to the Tower of London - but I wasn't overly optimistic. In order to beat the crowds, we wanted to get to the Tower early, but not too early to avoid commuter hell on the Earlsfield to Waterloo overground. Perhaps we would have to forego the doughnuts. Tant pis thought I. Such is life

But then, it all came good. We hit London Bridge in great time, and decided to go for it, Borough Market waking up and doughnuts not yet arrived on the Bread Ahead stall which gave us time to mooch through to the Monmouth coffee house and score some steaming lattes. 

Back to Bread Ahead trying to stifle the little voice that was doing jigs at the prospect of eating what a friend confidently advised me were the best doughnuts IN.THE.WORLD. She used to be a buyer for a deli and sourced from Patisserie Valerie. I trust her judgement.

But the pessimist in me was there - they won't be that good, they're just doughnuts. Don't get too excited...

Well, reader, the doughnuts were AWESOME. No flabby, over-sugared, inadequately-jammed disappointment worthy only of a "who can eat their doughnut without licking their lips" contest. These are doughnuts of the gods. 

Fatly plump, oozing custard flavoured with praline, flavoured with vanilla, flavoured with caramel, sugared, delectable, doughnuts of the gods.

I'd like to say they were all equally good, but I couldn't bear to share my praline one, so I didn't get to try the others...

And then we went to the Tower of London and there was no queue for the Crown Jewels. Marvellous.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Beef & Chorizo Casserole

Ironic, I guess, and perhaps not entirely straight, that while I have been posting about having been a year in Wales, I am, in fact, in London, with the kids, staying with a great friend. We are combining collective childcare, boxing and coxing with various work commitments, taking the kids out and about, and of course catching up and enjoying mutually supportive gin drinking... I've also been seeing something of my littlest nephew, who, conveniently, lives a 15 minute walk (with his parents - my youngest brother & his wife - of course) from my friend.

Our children (mine & my friend's) are similar in age and get on pretty well, so it's working out, and I think they are having a good time. Friend and I have also managed to stay on top of work that we couldn't complete in advance of half term, so everyone's a winner, although sometimes, it can feel a little crazy. As you can imagine, half term and museums in London can be pretty chokka. 

Early is good, but getting everything done and everyone organised and out of the house can be a mission. 

This morning, for example, between us, we'd reviewed a complex legal document (friend), scheduled social media posts for a client (me), knocked up a packed lunch for 6 and put a casserole in the slow cooker, not to mention negotiated breakfast, and the getting dressed, teeth brushing and leaving the house with 4 lovely but ever so slightly scatty under 12s, and made the train to Waterloo by 9.20 a.m. for a day at the Imperial War Museum...

Slow cooking is a total boon for this sort of day - when you return home culturally replete but, let's face it, knackered, all you need do is knock up some mash (or just soak some couscous, or slice up some bread) and bingo, dinner.

Beef & Chorizo Casserole

Serves at least 4 hungry children and 3 adults

1 kg casserole steak
plain flour
1 pack 12 mini cooking chorizo
about 20 shallots
5 medium carrots
2 cloves garlic
sunflower (or other) oil
2 * 400g tins cherry tomatoes
2 beef stock cubes 
2-3 tsp cornflour

Pre-heat the slow cooker. My friend has an infinitely superior slow cooker to mine, with a timer and a warming setting. Marvellous!

Put the steak in a bowl and sprinkle a couple of spoonfuls of plain flour and a couple of grinds of salt & pepper over it.

Halve the chorizo sausages, peel the shallots, peel and chop the carrots so they are similar size to the chorizo. Peel and finely chop the garlic.

Heat  a tablespoon of so of oil in a medium-large frying pan and start off gently frying the chorizo pieces. Add in the carrot and garlic and fry gently for 5 minutes or so before transferring to the slow cooker. If necessary add a little more oil to the an, then brown off the shallots and add to the slow cooker.

Finally, brown off the beef (use a little more oil if you need) in small batches, adding to the slow cooker. Boil the kettle.

Once all the beef is added to the slow cooker, tip in the 2 tins of cherry tomatoes, crumble the stock cubes into one of the empty tins, fill with water, pour into the other empty tin, then add the beefy, tomatoey water into the slow cooker, stir everything round, pop the lid on and cook on low for 8 hours or so.

Go out for the day.

When you return, mix up 2-3 tsp of cornflour with a little cold water, add in some juice from the slow cooker, then tip the whole lot back into the slow cooker for an hour or so to thicken up. Do not sprinkle the cornflour directly into the casserole or it will go lumpy.

Make mash potato, soak couscous, boil pasta, whatever you want to go with the casserole - frankly whatever you have the energy to produce - and serve.

Pour yourself a g&t if you haven't already...

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Food for Thought, Cardigan

The anniversaries are coming thick & fast, aren't they? February seems to be the month for the Recipe Junkie clan to 'do things'. The latest? Well, we've been in Wales a year. 

And it looks like we're staying, with plans afoot for a permanent home, of which more when things are further down the line...

It seems like an age ago we were traipsing round rental properties, looking at schools and generally hanging out in cafes in Cardigan between appointments as the dreadful winter of 2013/2014 raged around us, and I did more than occasionally wonder what on earth we were doing.

Anyway, it's all turned out mostly magnificently. Not saying there haven't been ups and downs, by any stretch, and certainly it's fair to say that what this part of the country has in jaw-droppingly stunning scenery, empty, clean beaches and a slower pace of life is balanced out by various inconveniences. Broadband that could more properly be likened to having a couple of pixies doing tightrope on a very old and frayed bit of string to distribute the 0s and 1s (or whatever code it is these days), for one, and the fact that at the moment, I have to get in the car to do anything. I even have to get in the car to walk the dog who has started to refuse to leave the house on the lead. He goes and sits by the car until I relent and take him down the beach. He simply refuses to go on what was our standard 'round the lanes' walk. I mean, I see his point, but it's not always helpful. And what I'm going to do in summer when many of our favourite beaches are closed to dogs, I don't know.

Anyway, back to the original point, one of the cafes I hung out in quite a lot when we were organising the move here was Food for Thought in Cardigan.

We can recommend the squdgy lemon slice
Cardigan is a town of cafes. Something for everyone, and it seems a new one opening every week (well we've had a flurry in the last 3-4 months, and even - gasp - a 'chain' taking up residence in place of the much mourned 25 Mile). But Food for Thought has been around for a bit and I love it. It's great for coffee and cake, and they have a good selection of lunch meals from sandwiches to more substantial specials.

I have to say that since moving here, I've tended to only go there for coffee (until recently it was the only place selling decent coffee open before 10) but they've been upping their game on the food stakes (perhaps in response to the opening of the coffee chain and also an artisan bakery/coffee shop which I'll be visiting soon) and have been filling their Facebook page with tauntingly delicious sounding Asian inspired lunches. So my friend and I indulged ourselves, and went for lunch.

It's warm and cosy - a big bonus when it's either freezing cold, lashing with rain or - worst case scenario - both, I love the semi-vintage decor and combination of chairs and tables or big comfy sofas, the staff are friendly, and the food is good. They can be a little slow, but then, that's life in Ceredigion... 

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Reflections on Valentines and moving on

So it's Valentines Day on Saturday.

As ever, there are lots of tempting food tales knocking around to help you show appreciation for your loved one. And yet again, I've failed to pre-empt this and have some suitable treats to share with you here, but the thing is, I'm not very good at making a special thing out of Valentines Day these days.

You see, this is a bittersweet time of year for me. Circumstances first conspired just over 16 years ago with the outcome that our wedding anniversary takes place on 13th February (and not on 29th May as originally planned...) - cue several years of being asked if we'd got the date wrong as we booked and then sat in empty restaurants, NOT enjoying the 'specially chosen Valentines menu' because we were 'a day early'. And then, as this year, the raised eyebrow from those suspicious types that think we must be mad to have got married on the 13th and have to endure a Friday 13th wedding anniversary every so often (to that I say "13 is a lucky number in Italy". Check it out.) By the time you've got over all that and enjoyed the anniversary, well, we've mostly said it all on our anniversary.

And then, in 2006, Blue was diagnosed with leukaemia - on 13th February. Our wedding anniversary. This is absolutely not a 'poor me, poor us' post, although I guess it is quite self-indulgent. But it was a dark day if ever there was one. And although that is all over now, I still can't resist giving it a prod every now and again, just to see if it still hurts as much. Thankfully, it doesn't - each time I go there, and I go there less and less - the part of my soul that screams whenever I edge towards it is a little harder to find, the nightmare is a little less easy to wake. 

My memories of that period are slowly distilling themselves into a series of snapshots. Not quite sepia tones yet, but fading year by year as Blue shows himself to be strong and healthy, robust and nothing like the chemo-ravaged toddler I cradled for so many months, willing him to survive and hoping that the Husband & my relationship would too... 

One of those snapshots is of a table for 2, carefully laid with a clean tablecloth, the wedding present cutlery, candles ready to be lit, a fire laid in the grate. I was going to cook a special meal for the Husband that night in 2006. It was a Monday night. It was going to be Nigella's sake steak and something chocolatey. But I left the house that afternoon to take Blue for a hospital appointment and didn't go home for 2 weeks.

Somehow I've never felt like cooking for either our anniversary or Valentines since, but just as Blue has recovered so have better memories begun to replace the bleak ones, and I've become more willing to celebrate our anniversary with something more than a battening down of the hatches and a thankfulness that we're all still here and alive another year on. So this year, the Husband and I are heading out. I'm very excited. The babysitter is booked and we're heading off to Lampeter Town Hall where Tom Holden will be hosting one of his supper clubs. 

Enjoy cooking for your loved ones - while you're slaving over a hot stove, I'll be enjoying something quite delicious!

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Language matters & lemon cake

So despite my ever so slightly smug assertions that I would be signing up to Welsh lessons pretty much as soon as we moved, it took me nearly a year.

A year in which it quickly became clear that where we are living, a huge proportion of people choose to speak Welsh. All the time. Call me hopelessly naive (be kind - ignorant would probably be a better word), but I had no idea quite how extensively the language was used. Sure, the fact that most primary schools in the area were 'Welsh Medium' caused me to raise my eyebrows, and run to Mumsnet where I found stories of children being punished for speaking English in the playground (not at the specific school where Blue & Pink are now happily ensconsed, you understand, but generally) and began to panic, but I just assumed that most people - certainly of my generation and younger - spoke English outside educational establishments. I knew that road signs were bilingual, and was aware of a Welsh soap opera, Pobl y Cwm, the butt of many jokes, but I just assumed that was the end of it.

Well, the fact is that I hear Welsh spoken all the time - not just in school, but in the shops, in the street. The children have friends who come from Welsh speaking homes. The commercial radio station runs adverts in Welsh. There are Welsh speaking radio stations, TV. Welsh is the language of choice of a significant proportion of the community - not just the older generations.

So I signed up on an intensive beginners course. I'll let you know how it's going another time soon

Of course, I don't HAVE to learn Welsh, but the kids have absorbed it so thoroughly that it's becoming a problem (they can talk to each other in front of me and I have no idea what they are saying - you see what I mean?). Most of the business of the school is conducted in Welsh - letters come home in Welsh & English, and the teachers speak to English speaking parents in English, but the main language of the PTA for example, is Welsh.

My own view (still under construction) about learning myself is that having expected the children to learn the language of our adopted country, I should also make the effort. If I was in Germany, Greece, Azerbaijan (for example) I would try to learn at least some of the language. For me, it's a matter of courtesy. And yes, I know everyone speaks English, but this is an area where there is a lot of pride in the language, and if I'm living here, I'd like to try and get to grips with it. Plus I'd like to know if I'm really being talked about, either specifically, me, or generally as an English person - when I go into a shop and the conversation stops, then starts up again...

There is Welsh everywhere, and the opportunities for embarrassment are considerable. I haven't yet asked directions to a place I am already standing in - like the couple who mused that they hadn't been able to find 'Aberteifi' while standing in Cardigan - the 2 are the same place...

I did, however come a cropper a couple of weeks ago following some directions to pick up Pink from a playdate. I was directed to somewhere (as I thought) called 'Dadcu' (pronounced 'Dadkey'), and from there to follow the path to the right.

I arrived in the dark, no sign of a path and no house name in evidence, so I knocked on a door and asked an elderly gentleman if he knew where Dadcu was and if I was there. He looked at me confused, asked if I was looking for Alex, and directed me accordingly. It was while Alex (playdate's mother) was explaining that the girls had been decorating cakes with Dadcu that I realised the old man was Dadcu - it's Welsh for Grandad...

Anyway, embarrassment aside, it turns out that Dadcu is a bit of a whizz with cake decorating, and Pink was keen to show me a skill she'd picked up - feathered icing. We made a lemon sponge tray bake - made as lemony as possible with the addition of lemon extract as well as lemon zest, and used the lemon juice to make 2 bowls of water icing, one white, one coloured yellow, and Pink set to. thick stripes of icing, then a skewer tip dragged through. Of course, I expect practice would make perfect, but given that cake decorating isn't something I'm naturally gifted at, I think she did a pretty good job.

Lemon Cake with Lemon feathered icing
225g unsalted butter 
225g caster sugar
275g self-raising flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 lemons
4 large eggs
4 tablespoons milk
1/2 tsp lemon extract

300g icing sugar
yellow gel paste colouring

Get the butter out of the fridge

Grease & line a traybake tray approx 30cm by 23 cm and 4-5 cm deep, and pre-heat the oven to 160C (conventional).

If the butter hasn't been out of the fridge long and isn't soft, boil a kettle and heat the bowl of your food mixer (if you have one) by pouring the water into the bowl then emptying it out and drying the bowl. Cut up the butter and add to the warm bowl.

Add the sugar, flour and baking powder to the bowl of the mixer with the butter, then finely grate the zest of the lemons and add that. Save the zested lemons to juice for the icing.
Whisk together the eggs, milk and lemon extract then tip into the dry ingredients and beat with the mixer for 2-3 minutes until everything is well combined.

Scrape the batter into the lined tin and bake for 30-40 minutes till the sponge is golden and springs back when gently pressed.

Turn out onto a cooling rack and leave to cool completely.

Once the cake is completely cold, make up the icing. Squeeze the lemons and divide the icing sugar into 2 bowls. Mix up each bowl of icing adding the lemon juice slowly. You'll need around 2 tablespoons for each bowl of 150g icing sugar, but take it steady - you don't want it to be too runny. Add the gel paste to one of the bowls to achieve the yellow colour you're after, Pink added about 1/4 tsp which may have been a bit much - it certainly gave us a very vivid yellow. Apply this in stripes. 

We used normal spoons. For more precision, you might want to use a piping bag. Once the cake is covered in stripes, get a cocktails stick or skewer etc, and drag it through the icing.