Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Delia Smith vs Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

You see, the reason I can't abide Delia Smith is all about pastry. Yes, she's patronising and moves around her kitchen like a thunderbird, but her recipes do work and she has doubtless got many more people cooking than otherwise would, and for that I forgive her much. But have you read what she wrote in 'How to Cook - Book 1' about making pastry?

"If you can't make pastry, or don't even know where to start, the very first thing you need to do is forgive yourself and not feel guilty - please understand it isn't because you're born inadequate or not born to such things, it's probably because no one's ever actually taught you how"

Now I take issue with this on many levels - why would any one feel guilty that they can't make pastry? - but basically, I can't make pastry. And it's not because I wasn't taught either. My mum is a fantastic cook and she showed me on many occasions how to make pastry. I just don't seem to be able to do it. But every time I think of these words, I feel my blood boil. You see, my name is Sally and I can't make pastry.

Not that it has ever stopped me trying. Whenever the pastry gloves come out, my husband retreats to the bottom of the garden with the children to avoid the flying rolling pins and the language. I had moderate success with some suet pastry for a steak and kidney pudding, but that is an entirely different animal. However, all the attempts have done is made me adept at patching up cracked pastry either by using left over uncooked dough, or by the scrape technique, whereby I use the end of a knife to scrape the pastry surface to make crumbs and then stuff them into the cracks. I have also been known to line the bottom of a pastry case with cheese slices. Or alternatively, find me in the chiller section of the supermarket surreptitiously stuffing jus rol into my trolley.

Or at least that used to be the case, until I read River Cottage Everyday. Hugh has a recipe in there for a poached leek & blue cheese tart which I thought looked fairly fabulous, and I gave the husband the requisite 24 hrs warning that a pastry attempt was in the offing. But it wasn't necessary - what do you know - it worked! Not only did the dough come together easily, but it rolled out fabulously, lined the tin easily and baked like a dream.

I am writing about this now because Recipe Junkie is smugly sitting here with her morning cup of coffee while yet another pastry case bakes blind in the oven ready to be turned into quiche. 'Horribly smug' in fact - but mainly because she has turned disaster into triumph. Having done the weekly internet shop I opened my notebook on Saturday (the one where I do meal planning on one side and the shopping list on the other side) to find that I had planned not one meal for this week. Strange that I had managed to spend £75 on groceries all the same, but there we go. I think the idea was to use up stuff in the freezer before we go on our hols but I had failed to carry this through and actually check out what was in the freezer to eat up. A quick ferret round and I find a pack of bacon lurking at the bottom of the freezer drawer. 'Quiche' I think; 'pastry' I think, and there we have it. Dough knocked up and in the fridge before I set off up to school with the kids (yes - they are still at school - one more day to go) Now I just need to hope that the chickens aren't on strike today and lay some eggs. 

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Missing my dog

I am missing my dog.

Fred arrived as a cute bundle of springer spaniel puppiness on 15 May 2010. As he trotted down the garden after the small son that first sunlit afternoon, I felt an overwhelming sense of well being. "My life is complete" I thought, "and I never even knew I was missing something".

That was before he playfully sank his razor sharp teeth into the small son's calf, and then, while small son was wondering how something so soft and cuddly could inflict so much pain, Fred bounced him, tigger-style and knocked off his specs.

Those first few weeks were fairly traumatic. I had grown up with dogs but never been responsible for one. In fact it had been my husband who had for many years gone on and on about how having a dog would be so great. He grew up with cats. He used to be in the Army. Before we had children and we lived in Army land on the edge of Salisbury plain, I commuted daily up to London. "It'll be great" he would say. "I can take the dog in to work with me. Everyone does". I gently reminded him that he wouldn't be able to take a dog to work when he was in Afghanistan but he tried to shrug that off as a minor detail.

Fast forward a few years and the opportunity to acquire a springer puppy came up. Small son had been in remission for a year and at school. Smaller daughter at playgroup, I was working from home, the time just seemed right. Strangely, the husband didn't seem so keen, but I didn't really hoist that in. Fred was sooo cute, with a perfect little liver spot on the top of his head. I was in love and I had to have him.

I knew I was in touble when, a few days after Fred's arrival, with the children terrified of another of Fred's 'playful'ambushes, and the husbands best shoes in tatters, the husband said "Well, the thing is, you said 'no' for so long that I thought you meant no for ever". This is husband speak for "This is all your problem, do not involve me".

We went to puppy classes, Fred stopped savaging the children, the husband, me, the furniture, the shoes... finally we had an almost civilised (well, for a springer) dog.

And then tragedy struck. October 2010, during a stay at my parents, Fred ran off a 30 ft drop and broke his back left leg. If I had been blogging at the time, I could have recounted in detail the trauma, the anguish, the months of the poor animal hauling round a load of metal work in his leg, the slow rehab walks and then further disaster when he ran off after a hare and came back limping badly. Subsequent xrays showed that the leg had never truly healed, and the fracture site was by then a total mess. We decided to have the leg amputated.

It was an awful decision, but from Fred's point of view, I am convinced that it was the right one. Within a few days he was completely comfortable on 3 legs. We had a couple of awkward leg cocking moments, but he has sorted that out, and now the only noticeable issue he seems to have is when his left ear is itching - cue smothered hilarity as the poor chap tries to bend round far enough to scratch while the stump twitches furiously. Awful but horribly funny.

And if you look closely - you can see the stump. But honestly - who needs 4 legs?

He does seem to be rather accident prone though. 3 weeks after being back on his feet following the amputation, I was running with him 4 or so miles a day, when one night I noticed 3 huge gashes under his front right leg - in the 'armpit'. There had been no blood, and no indication at any time that he had hurt himself in any way. He needed stitches, so £250 later, we were back to short walks on the lead etc. 10 days later, back to the vet for the stitches to be out at 09.00 and I made some smart alec comment on Facebook about opening a book on how long he could stay injury free. 2 p.m. that afternoon I was back at the vets after he had stuck his head in a patch of nettles and stung his eye so the whole of the right side of his face had swollen up....

And why am I missing him? Well, on Friday (29th July) we are heading off in Daisy our VW camper for 10 days at the Haarlem Jamborette (http://www.haarlemjamborette.nl/2011/) with our local scout troop (husband is a Scout Leader) followed by 4 days in Paris ("1 day at Disneyland Paris and 3 days in REAL Paris" as the small daughter will tell you). Last weekend we were headed up north, leaving the kids with my parents while we attended a civil partnership celebration, and as mum is having Fred while we are away, it seemed the most sensible thing to do to leave him then rather than making a seoncd trip this week. But just because it's sensible doesn't mean it was easy. The children cried most of the way down the M1, and the small son cried at bed time for at least 3 days afterwards. "Fred" (my mum) has since written to the children telling them about what he's been getting up to on his holidays - mainly pricking his nose on hedgehogs, barking at his reflection in Mum's greenhouse window and digging holes in her veg patch (he clearly does have a death wish - or at least a very reduced sense of self preservation) and they seem OK now, but I am still missing him.

Still, he'll be back soon and I'm sure I will be blogging about what scrapes he has got himself into and what a nonsense he is, but the truth is - I MISS MY DAWG!!

Jammy dodgers and custard creams

I was trying to decide what delicious treat to bake for my lovely children to take to school in their packed lunches last week and was flicking through Tana Ramsay's ' 'Family Kitchen'. "Mmmmm" thought I, "Jammy Dodgers"...

The recipe is really easy although the dough needs to rest (according to Tana) for 5 hours in the fridge so when I embarked on it at 4.30 in the afternoon I realised I was going to be baking at 10 p.m. However, undeterred, I carried on. The kids 'helped' and we had the dough in the fridge in no time. The dough was pretty easy to roll out once it had been in the fridge and cut into the number of biscuits she indicated which was good. I was a bit disappointed that the jamming didn't happen till after the biscuits are baked - I'd imagined that you somehow sandwiched the unbaked biscuits together and then baked - along the lines of jam tarts. I might try it sometime and see what happens.

But back to the recipe. The other downside is that the ground almonds in the recipe meant the kids couldn't actually take them to school (but I didn't take long to convince myself to carry on anyway), and as they weren't to be consumed all at once (honest) I decided to sandwich at point of consumption rather than doing them all at once, putting them in a tin and watching them go soggy. We didn't have raspberry jam as specified in the recipe, but homemade strawberry jam was delicious, as was shop bought apricot. The biscuits sandwiched together pretty easily, although the top biscuit (the one with the hole cut out) was prone to cracking, but I think that might have been my cack-handed sandwiching more than anything.

Anyway, I had an attack of nostalgia and spurred on by the success of these, and also Hugh F-W's digestives from River Cottage Everyday which I made a few months ago and about which I am sure to blog more, I remembered a Nigella recipe for Custard Creams that I'd seen somewhere. Turns out the recipe is in Feast - Custard Cream hearts as part of a Valentines day feast - and not Domestic Goddess, but of these 3 biscuits, they are definitely the ones that taste most like  what you're expecting, but without the additives etc (well, apart from the rubbish that's in the custard powder, but let's not worry about that). The biscuits are easy to make and the cream is delicious - a kind of custard buttercream. I didn't have heart cutters so I just used round ones and my daughter helped with the decoration so while I was trying to emulate the Great One with her neat edging of dots, she did a more 'eclectic' design. They all taste the same though, and the good news is that as they are nut free, the kids can take them to school.

Shame we ate them all in about 2 days flat. Better do some more baking...

The birth of the Recipe Junkie

When my son was 2 yrs 3 months old he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia. I was 6 months pregnant, working as an 'in  house' lawyer for a major mobile telecomunications company. Our lives were thrown into complete and utter disarray, living a life set entirely by his chemotherapy regime, weekly blood tests, blood & platelet transfusions and frequent unscheduled hospital visits to deal with infections that his poor immuno-compromised body could not fight off. In the midst of the chaos, and being a control freaky type of gal, I picked up How to Be a Domestic Goddess (by the goddess of all domestic goddesses, Nigella Lawson) one day and decided that I would cook every single recipe at least once.

That was February 2006. 5+ years on, he is in remission after 3 years of chemo and 2 yrs of follow up and and his sister is 5. I never did quite cook every recipe out of Domestic Goddess but I am on the case. The trouble is that every time I pick up a new recipe book, or cookery magazine, I become obsessed. And that's where the trouble starts.