Monday, 31 December 2012

Of changed plans, wet walks, recipe fails and socialising with children

New Year's Eve 2012.

It's been a good year on every level, and here we are celebrating the end of the old and the dawn of the new. Before I get distracted on my usual ramble, I'd like to get a little sentimental here and say how much I've enjoyed my time in the blogosphere - it's been brilliant, and I'm hoping for plenty more in 2013. Obviously, it's an outlet for my culinary meanderings, but what has really made it so great has been meeting lots of fantastic people (both virtually, and in a couple of cases, in real life), the comments, the tweeting. Thank you for reading my blog.

And now the ramble. Get on your glad rags and your gaiters - have you seen what the weather's like out there?

New Year's Eve is probably my worst night out. From when I can remember, I always wanted to go to a glamorous party, everyone in cocktail dresses (well the ladies) having a sparkling and sophisticated time. The party in When Harry Met Sally - that type of thing - the one where Harry ends up running through the streets of New York to find Sally and tell her that actually he really does love her. Sigh.

I have never been to a party like that.

Not that I have had many bad New Year's Eves, but there seems to be this massive pressure to have absolutely the best time ever on this one night. I've spent New Years Eves in clubs and at parties. I've spent them at home on the sofa, toasting the New Year early and going to bed at 10.30 with a warm cup of cocoa and (skip over this part, Mum) on one occasion, had to leave the festivities early after a mortifying "being sick in the street between pubs" incident in York. Let's draw a quiet veil over that one, shall we, particularly the bit where I tried to argue with the bouncer on the door of the second pub (who had witnessed everything) that I was completely and utterly sober and had every right to be in his establishment? It was a long time ago.

The best times have been those spent with one or two good sets of friends - drinks, dinner and low key amusement. Particularly since the arrival of Blue and Pink, and with babysitters at a premium on NYE, something at home, has been the order of the day. This year, we were supposed to be spending this afternoon and evening in the company of old and dear friends who we haven't seen much of this year. Unfortunately, norovirus on their part has put paid to that, so our celebrations this year kicked off with me and the children "enjoying" a particularly wet and miserable dog walk while the Husband enjoyed an even better (and wetter) wade through the mud 'run' with a group of friends from the village where we live. 
Can we have some haribo NOW??

I tell you, there is nothing more dispiriting on a wet and windy afternoon than bribing 2 bedraggled and reluctant children with haribo to walk just a bit further...

the dog enjoyed it, though

We regrouped for mulled wine and mince pies, walks and runs over, and discussed plans for the evening. You see, having postponed our low key dinner with friends, I threw myself on the mercy of another friend who had previously invited us to their big party. Turns out it is likely to be THE party locally this year. The invite I had previously declined.

We have done more and more socialising with the children as they have got older - particularly parties where we all start out at, say, 6, and then end up carrying the home around 9.30. This has worked pretty well. We do most of our 'going to parties with children' in the village so there will usually be friends for them wherever we go, and the usual form is that the adults cram themselves into the smallest room possible and talk loudly and raucously, then, perhaps, dance, while the children rampage, Lord of the Flies style, around the rest of the house. We tend to not then see the kids apart from the occasional raiding party made up of the smallest, sent in between the legs of the adults, to swipe food and bottles of whatever fizzy drinks (the soft ones) are on offer.

Actually going out at 8, which is now the order for this evening, is new for us. As I type, the Husband is trying to keep them amused, but I know they are tired. They've had a busy day, to be fair - the first day of that holidays that I actually wanted them to be up and out so we could brave the shops early for supplies for the dinner we were supposed to be hosting, and they actually slept in - and I'm not sure if they will stay the course. Still, given how foul the weather is, I can confidently predict a duvet day tomorrow whatever happens this evening. 

Before the plan changed today, the Husband and I made soup and cooked chilli, and, spurred on by the overall success of the roulade I made a few weeks ago, I had another go, this time a chocolate sponge type one. All went well until, buoyed up on the post walk mulled wine, I set to, to make the final ganache.

Don't you hate it when a recipe is either wrong, or misses some crucial aspect out? I'd based my pud on one from an issue of  a Woman & Home publication: "Feel Good Food Christmas", although had decided to change the filling swapping raspberries for chestnut puree. The sponge cooked brilliantly, and rolled up

 and then rolled out perfectly.

I filled it with whipped double cream swirled with raspberry coulis, rolled it up and started on the ganache. A water ganache - where you melt the chocolate by pouring boiling water on to it and whisking furiously. Well, I don't know what happened, but I just ended up with chocolate water. I whisked and whisked but nothing. There was nothing in the recipe about cooling or whisking - the implication was that once the chocolate was melted and smooth, the whole thing would be spreadable.

It wasn't.

I added more chocolate. No luck.

I tweeted and googled, and the lovely Slice of Barnes confirmed something I'd read - whisk it madly and refrigerate. The whisk again.


I'm not going to add the recipe here because it's time for me to get on my glad rags and some make up (it does happen sometimes) and head out with the Husband and the children to the party. I'll take some time tomorrow to tell you how I did it, but for now, feast your eyes, my lovelies:

I wish you all a very happy New Year. xxx

[Update: here's the link to the recipe!]

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Bubble & Squeak, Nigella style

Yes, yes, I know I implied that I wasn't going to post for the next few days, but I just can't stop myself. I hope you've all had a lovely time.

The brilliant thing about hosting Christmas Day is that I usually hang up my apron around 2 in the afternoon to rapturous applause (well, perhaps not quite, but some fairly gratifying noises of satisfaction as the table groans under the weight of all that has been laid upon it) and a glass of something, and then I don't have to do more than whip out leftovers in various guises (or soup from the freezer) for about 3 more days. 

This year has been no exception. We had a really great Christmas Day, nothing out of the ordinary food-wise (the usual turkey etc) but it was all utterly delicious, and although I say so myself, I probably managed to make the best gravy I have EVER made, borne out by the fact that there wasn't much left to have on Boxing Day with the Bubble & Squeak.

I'd opened Feast at the appropriate page just to remind myself generally how Nigella does B&S. My Father in Law saw it and remarked that he wouldn't have imagined that people would have a recipe for it, it was just a question of bunging all the left over veg in a frying pan... To an extent (although it pains me to admit it), he is right, but since reading how Nigella does it a few years ago, I have always taken this approach to B&S. It still doesn't fall into the category of 'cooking' in my book, although to be fair, it does involve slightly more than getting everything out of the fridge. But the oven was on anyway to warm up the mince pies, and this really does work better than just bunging it all into a frying pan.

So basically you take all your leftover cooked veg - yesterday there were about 12 chantenay carrots, a good couple of handfuls of sprouts, and about 4 baby leeks - all of which had been steamed, and then from the left over roasties, a good load of celeriac and parsnip and a few potatoes. I had to save some of the roast potatoes to be straight up fried in a pan.

Put all your veg in a food processor with an egg and whizz up to a chunky puree.

 Heat some oil in a large-ish frying pan that you can put in the oven and pre-heat the oven to about 180-200C. Make sure the oil has covered the base of the pan to prevent sticking, then scrape the veg puree in and spread it out. 

Fry for a few minutes, then bung it in the oven for about 20 mins till it has browned on the top.

Remove the pan from the oven (remember that the handle will probably be hot so you will need an oven glove. You don't need to ask why I'm reminding you of that) and invert over a plate so the cake hopefully comes out in a beautiful whole, ready to be sliced and served with the leftover gravy - which may or may not be warmed, according to taste!


I am linking up to Maison Cupcake's Forever Nigella event, hosted this month by Laura on her blog lauralovescakes . Enjoy!

Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Sunday Bake Off - the Festive Episode & Christmas Cake Part 3 - The Icing

So here it is - pretty much. Christmas 2012. 

We had our annual outing to the panto yesterday (Oh yes we did!) - Aladdin at the Theatre Royal in Winchester with my mother in law who buys us the tickets as a Christmas present, and then went out for a pizza before returning home. I'm not a lover of panto, but I like the one at Winchester. This is the third year we've been. A lot of the actors are the same every year, and the dame is always exceptional. This year there was much heckling from the junior members of the audience and as a result, much improvisation from the cast, which is always a good thing. We had a good meal, and despite the unseasonally mild, wet and windy weather, Winchester looked beautiful with the lights illuminating the high street. Actually, I watched the Wartime Farm at Christmas the other day, and was very interested to learn that the myth of our 'white Christmases' is almost entirely down to Charles Dickens who experienced the frost fair years of the early 19th century and perpetuated the idea that it is always a white Christmas, frosty, glorious in his novels. But I digress.

I was up early this morning. There's no denying that I am a 'lark' and I consider the early morning at the weekends to be 'my time'. The kids have unfettered access to the TV, the Husband sleeps, and usually, I will be out walking the dog. The dog has been staying with mum for the last 10 days, so this morning, I had a rare opportunity to potter in the kitchen.

First up was a mushroom and bean casserole to go in the slow cooker for lunch. My mother in law is a vegetarian, and this seemed to be a likely candidate for an easy lunch, out of a book by Rose Elliot which my mum gave me as an early Christmas present - quick vegetarian meals: a kind of 30 Minute Meals for veggies. Obviously, by adapting it for the slow cooker, I extended the cooking time somewhat, but the principle was the same - easy and tasty. Necessary food sorted, on to the good stuff.

Cranberry Bakewell Tart. I made cranberry jam yesterday, and the pastry (left overnight in the fridge), so it was a matter of lining the tin with the pastry, spreading in the jam and making the almond sponge topping. The pastry was direct from the recipe in Feast - it's a great pastry: including ground almonds, clementine zest and icing sugar with the flour - but you could use shop bought. The quantities in Feast are for a 26cm loose bottomed tart tin. Mine is smaller than that so I had the opportunity to make more mince pies.

The sponge is made by beating together 125g of caster sugar and ground almonds with 3 eggs, and then mixing in 125g of melted slightly cooled unsalted butted. Once it's all mixed, pour it over the jam, sprinkle over some flaked almonds and bake at 180 for about 45mins. You might want to check after 20 minutes and if it's looking like it might brown too much on top, cover with foil.

Just before serving I made a runny icing using the juice from half the clementine and drizzled it over the top of the tart. Nigella goes for a full on covering of royal icing and golden stars, but I've got wise to her sweet tooth, and the clementine-tinged drizzle was enough.

 With the left over pastry, I made some more mince pies. The ones I made a couple of days ago were OK but this pastry was much better, and if I get a chance tomorrow, I may make some more. I used the Cherry & Almond Mincemeat I made a few weeks ago.


Once the tarts were in the oven, I got on with some bread. I have been neglecting my bread making, but re-enthused by the River Cottage course, I've had a sourdough starter up and running and it's now ready to use. I mixed up a 'sponge' last night (using a third of the flour, dried yeast and liquid I was intending to bake with), and then made my full dough this morning, using the sourdough starter as part of the liquid content, as well as the 'sponge'.  There's going to be a lot more of the bread in the New Year, so for now, you'll just have to be satisfied with a photo. 

good & "rustic"!

Last but not least, I iced the Christmas cake. In the end, Dr Oetker answered all my decorating needs. I came across a can of silver shimmer spray in the Co-Op yesterday when I was supposed to be buying a paper, and was irresistibly drawn to it. I already have a pack of ready to roll white icing in the (beautifully ordered) cupboard, so in the end I went for the path of least resistance. After a minor panic when I couldn't remember where in the beautifully ordered cupboards the box of decorating bits had gone, including the heirloom Father Christmas and Polar Bear, all was well, and I went for marzipan and icing stars, all sprayed liberally with silver shimmer. Marvellous.

All in all a very satisfying potter. 

After all that, the mother in law enjoyed her casserole and left with a big slice of the Cranberry Bakewell, and my parents have arrived, bringing the dog back. We've been out for a long walk to gather in holly, the tree is up, the presents are bought and wrapped. We have a full house till Friday, my parents, one of my brothers and his wife, then my father in law. On Saturday, we're off to London to see some fabulous friends, then we're back to host more fabulous friends here for New Year. It will be busy, foodie and fun. So now, with the scent of clove and onion infused milk wafting from the kitchen, ready for the bread sauce, I am setting down the lap top for a while, but I'll be back in 2013, refreshed and ready to blog.  

I wish you all a very happy and peaceful Christmas.  Enjoy!

Saturday, 22 December 2012

What?! More cranberries? Cranberry Jam & possibly a Bakewell Tart

Now you'd think I'd have learned - the fact that I had a bag of cranberries in the freezer left over from last year which I turned into cranberry & orange sauce ready to accompany the Turkey on Tuesday, says something about the way I shop when I'm not concentrating and my head is turned. So what possessed me to virtually chuck a couple of bags of fresh cranberries into my virtual shopping trolley AFTER I'd made the aforesaid sauce is a mystery. But chuck I did, and rather than consign them to the freezer ready to be discovered next year, I decided that this year would be different.

Once again, Nigella has come to my rescue. She has a whole section devoted to cranberries in Feast, first up is Cranberry Jam.

Cranberries are full of pectin so it's a really easy jam to make - just an equal amount of cranberries to caster sugar. I had 600g of cranberries so I put a splash (literally, just enough to cover the bottom of the pan) of water in a large pan, added the cranberries and 600g of sugar and stirred over a low heat till all the sugar was dissolved.

If you haven't sterilised your jars, do so first, and make sure you keep them warm, either in the oven or in a bowl of hot water - otherwise they may crack when you decant the hot jam into them.
It does take a bit of time, and you can tell when it's all dissolved when the syrup that's being produced around the berries looks clear rather than cloudy. If you scoop a little out on the spoon and feel it, the sugar is dissolved when you can't feel anything but sticky syrup.

Then you have to increase the heat and bubble up the contents of the pan till it reaches setting point. This is where I always get the fear with any sort of jam. I was feeling more confident because I know that cranberries set very easily, but even so. In the end, although I did bung in the sugar thermometer, I also set the timer for the 7 minutes the Goddess indicates. The jam hadn't quite reached temperature at the 7 minute point but it was looking pretty jam like and I was worried that it might start to burn.

The jam went straight into the jars, and there was enough left over to go on the brioche that I made yesterday, for breakfast. Happy times.

And if I get round to it, there will be a Cranberry Bakewell Tart on the menu for tomorrow's lunch. Watch this space!

I am, of course, linking up to Maison Cupcake's Forever Nigella event, hosted this month by Laura on her blog lauralovescakes . Enjoy!

Friday, 21 December 2012

From Alsace to Yorkshire by Lionel Strub - A Review and a recipe for Brioche

Another review. Get me.

This is another book which is more than just a recipe book.

Before we get to the food, it tells the story of the hard work and dedication of the author, Lionel Strub that took him from his childhood in Alsace, North Eastern France, to his restaurant, Mirabelle in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.

It was clearly not an easy childhood, which saw him spending time in foster care, or with various friends and relations until the age of 8. He is very open about the lack of support he received at school, and it's not surprising that he left at the age of 15 to begin an apprenticeship in a restaurant.

It's easy to think that the life of a chef might be a gilded one, but this is clearly not the case for Lionel, and certainly the early years at 'Le Gran Cerf' in a town not far from Strasbourg sound fairly grim, but what is clear is that grim or not, this is where life started for him.

We learn then about his apprenticeship, his time spent on National Service cooking for soldiers, his move to England in 1986 and more hardwork in a London brasserie before heading North, first to Leeds, and then to Harrogate and his own restaurant, via a deli in Wetherby. It's an impressive story and well worth a read for any one who thinks the chef's life might be an easy one.

Now I haven't eaten at Mirabelle, but if the food in this book is anything to go by, I will be angling for a table the next time I'm up north at my parents'. Strub indicates that most of his recipes come from his Grandma, and as you would expect, there's a real French slant to his dishes. However, that doesn't meant that they are unachievable by any means. In fact, what I like about this book is that many of the recipes are surprisingly straightforward, with short but careful ingredients lists.

The recipes are wide ranging. There's an initial section devoted to Alsacienne recipes, which includes a delicious sounding warm salad of smoked bacon and chicory (salad Vosgienne), a savoury ham cake and a divine and incredibly easy sounding Gateaux aux myrtilles (translated as Bilberry sponge cake -  6 ingredients mixed together and baked - simples). He goes on to cover jams, chutneys and, breads, then starters, mains and desserts, and there's a straightforward grading system indicating the level of difficulty involved for some of the recipes. Pate en croute a l'Anglaise for example (posh pie and peas) is essentially a pie filled with duck confit, foie gras and truffle, served with mushy peas, and rated a Level 4 for the pie. He has plenty of fish and game recipes which I like, and some heavenly puddings, including some very reassuring words about choux pastry, not yet attempted by me, I should add, and a Toblerone cheesecake which is on my must make list for the New Year. Watch this space.

Each section has a little introduction with some general hints and tips, and some story or words of wisdom. Despite being a book by someone running a high end restaurant, these additions make the book much more homely than it might be. For example, in talking about setting point, rather than taking a high brow approach, he explains how "the saucers method" (the one where you put 2 saucers in the freezer, then put a dollop of jam on the cold plate and see if it crinkles when you push it) - the one preferred by his mother - is the best one by far. The fact that the saucer method makes me panic, and I have long since resorted to the jam thermometre method is by the by - I like that he chooses the method that works for him, even though it is the most low tech.

On occasion, it can seem as if there is not enough information - and this is borne out by the fact that there do appear to be some ommissions - for example, although the duck pie recipe is in the book, the recipe refers to the mushy pea recipe on an undeclared page, and no amounf of rifling revealed itself to me. The grading system for recipe difficulty isn't applied to every recipe - which may or may not be an ommission. There are also quite a few obvious typos, but I guess I have a proof copy, and hopefully, these issues will be ironed out for the final print runs.

The book is presented fairly plainly - white pages, black writing, nothing fancy - but I quite like that and there are plenty of photos to keep me drooling and happy, even if I can't find the recipe for mushy peas.

Brioche - makes 1 loaf

"Rich buttery, yet it's light. Brilliant for breakfast, the best bread in France"
In the bread section, there's a brioche recipe. I've been meaning to try brioche for some time now, and have been angling for a proper mould to make it in. The mould has not been forthcoming so far, but I decided that it was meant to be, and I have permission to share the recipe with you. Bear in mind that when I started out, in my return to baking fitness enthusiasm last night which saw me marzipan the Christmas Cake and also make a banana and blueberry loaf cake (about which more another time), it was quite late. so I changed the method a little, but I've just indicated that in brackets:

350g unbleached white bread flour (I use Dove's Farm)
tsp salt (I assumed 1 tsp)
25g fresh yeast (I didn't have fresh so used 10g dried)
60ml warm milk
3 large eggs
175g unsalted butter (this needs to be at room temp, or warmer if you have a cold room)
25g caster sugar

1 egg yolk
1 tsp milk

1. Seive the flour into a large bowl, melt the yeast in the warm milk, then pour into the flour, add the eggs and mix to a soft dough
2. Beat the dough for 3 to 5 minutes (I used a dough hook on the Kenwood), cream the butter and sugar together
3, Gradually add the butter to the dough in small amount
4,. Beat until smooth and elastic and leave to prove for an hour
5. Lightly knock back the dough and place in the fridge for an hour (at this point, I decided to leave mine overnight in the fridge, then this morning bought it back to room temperature before continuing)
6. Shape the brioche in a loaf tin or brioche mould if you have
7. Glaze the brioche with the egg yolk and milk mixture cover and leave for at least and hour or double the size
8. Preheat the oven to 230C/Gas 8 put the brioche in the oven then turn the temp to 190C/gas 5 and bake for 25-30 minutes
9. Turn out on to a rack and leave to cool

Rich, buttery, light? All of the above. And very good with home made strawberry jam.
I was provided a copy of the book "From Alsace to Yorkshire" for the purposes of providing the review. I was not paid and I was not required to provide a positive review. The opinions are my own!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Christmas Cake Part 2 - the Marzipan

I like to think I'm a glass half full kinda gal most of the time. Generally, I find it much easier to cope with life if I can look on the positive side and try not to dwell too much on things that haven't gone so well - the 'character building' things I was muttering about a couple of weeks ago. I know I don't always succeed, but mostly, I can pull myself together pretty quickly.

So looking on the bright side - as I can, now that the pain is under control - of this whole painful jaw episode, if I hadn't been flying on pain killers this week, I would have gone out drinking and carousing the other night. And as I have been trying to take things easy, I sat down and watched TV, instead of running around doing a million other things at home, and caught the Christmas Great British Bake Off programme. As a result of that, I remembered that I'd made a Christmas cake and it needed icing. I also realised that if I got a move on, I could do the whole icing bit properly: marzipan first, and leave it to dry, before topping with the actual icing. I even had some apricot jam knocking around, to do the whole brushing the cake bit to get the marzipan to stick. Normally, I end up using marmalade and picking out the bits - or not, depending on the mood I'm in. To be honest, the extra orange peel can add an extra something to the cake...

Now I did wonder if this year would be the year that I made my own marzipan. It's not.

So moving swiftly on, I got down the cake and unwrapped it from its foil parcel - fantastic smells all round. I have to say that it's not a particularly boozy cake - I do prefer to drink my alcohol than eat it given the choice - but there's a definite aroma of Christmas to it - sherry-tinged Christmas this year.

I have a piece of granite chopping board which I use for rolling things out (got it in Sainsburys - it's nothing grand), so I dusted that with icing sugar, then put a couple of dessertspoons of apricot jam into a small pan on a low heat to melt.

I rolled out a pack of golden marzipan so that it would cover the cake, top and sides, and some (you want to have trimmings to make tasteful decorations for the final cake, anyway). Brush the melted jam over the cake, and then cover with the marzipan. You need to get the blunt side of a knife and kind of tuck the marzipan in under the cake and trim it off. I did notice that Mary iced her cake by having the flat side uppermost, which would probably make the tucking in and trimming off bit easier, but in all the excitement I was feeling this evening about actually wanting to do something in the kitchen after the last week of indifference, I got a bit carried away and forget. Anyway, it wasn't that hard:

So now my cake is all marzipanned and can dry out before I put the icing on. This has never happened before. It also leaves me some time to consider what beautiful cake adornments to turn my left over marzipan into, instead of doing it all at once in a hurry.

Any ideas gratefully received.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Ho ho ho! Some blogging awards to go...

Well, if you read my post a couple of days' ago about the circumstances that led me to clear out the cupboards (unnatural behaviour at the best of times), you'll appreciate that the last few days have been a little bit strange. To tell the truth, I have mostly been in complete and utter agony since last Monday (over a week ago) due to what I now understand is called "Tempromandibular joint disorder" - or a bloody painful jaw. Anyway, you'll be pleased to know that after I went and cried again at the doctors' this Monday afternoon I managed to access the specially strong pain killers. I also had some acupuncture, and now I am high as a kite and almost pain free. Happy times.

I haven't been cooking much. I haven't even wanted to bake which tells you how bad it's been, although I did manage some mince pies. The Husband has been freezer diving (he's a brave man) and has found sausage casserole, chilli, and other delights to keep everyone fed. I have mostly been slurping porridge off a teaspoon. As a result, my usual blog fodder is pretty thin on the ground, but fear not! I have been sitting on a couple of lovely blogging awards for a couple of months now, and it's high time I got round to dealing with them, and passing on the blogging lurve, so here I go.

First up, I received a Leibster blog award from Ryan at Baked With Kindness . This is an award where I don't have to do anything other than to link back to Ryan's blog, to say thank you nicely and pass on the love to five bloggers with less than 200 followers who I appreciate and value. It's hard to tell exactly how many followers any one has, but please don't be offended if I pass it on to you and you do have more than 200 followers. Basically, this award means that I think that the blogs I've nominated are great. Thank you, then, to Ryan.

I also received a Beautiful Blogger award from Louise at Yummy Mummy? Really? . Thanks Louise - it was lovely to get the award from you. This award's a little more complicated because as well as passing the love on to 6 other bloggers, I have to tell you 10 things about me. Hmm.  So 10 things, that I haven't let slip one way or another in the course of blogging. 

Here goes:

1. I have a terrible competitive steak, and as a result, I am incapable of playing Monopoly in a civilised fashion.

2. I cry (indulgently) at any opportunity - I love a good cry. I cried at the film of Charlotte's Web on Sunday. I will be a mess when Pink and I read it (after I've given it her for Christmas) together. As I type this, I'm all ready to get the tissues out for the end of Last Tango in Halifax. I'm sorry if that means I drop in your estimation.

3.I once appeared on Tomorrow's World in full cycling gear, giving my comments about a new set of traffic lights.

4. The first pop concert I went to was to see Owen Paul at Leeds Polytechnic. Owen who? "You're my-ay-ay-ay-ayy - you're my favourite waste of time". Ringing any bells? May be not. 

5. After Blue was born. I had my colours 'done'. I am a 'brown summer' if you're interested and I have a little folder full of colours which I use on those occasions (not very frequent) when I buy  clothes. Yes really. I am not someone to whom the words 'natural style' could be applied, and it really, really helps.

OK still 5 more. This is hard. I think I'm going to have to get back to the foodie side of things.

6. I love jerusalem artichoke soup, despite the terrible side effect. If you don't know what I'm talking about, make a pan of jerusalem artichoke soup, and eat it. Just make sure that anyone with you in the same house eats it too.

7. The first thing I remember cooking is Coronation Chicken salad.

8.  If I absolutely had to choose between cheese and chocolate, it would probably be cheese. But please don't make me choose. I might cry (see 2 above).

9. The best meal I have ever eaten is probably the enormous steak the Husband bought & cooked for me when I came home from hospital with Blue. It was rare and wonderful. The best thing  ever after an emergency C-section and 5 days in hospital.

10.  Calamari and garlic mayonnaise. I could eat it forever.

So after all that, and as the tears roll down my face as Last Tango in Halifax draws to a close, here are the beautiful blogs that I am awarding both the Beautiful Blogger award and the Liebster Award to:

Single Married Mum her Hubbie is back from a year in Afghanistan but she's still blogging and I am so pleased. She is so creative and patient, and I love the way she writes about her craft projects, her charity shop finds, and family life generally.

Artypops OK confession time here, this is the blog of one of my friends in Real Life - the wonderful and brilliant Samantha Barnes. She's an artist, runs art classes for children and adults, and is brilliant fun. She has loads of great ideas about things to do with kids - again, arty and creative - and she's a devil of a drinking companion. 

and now on to the foodie blogs

I couldn't give out awards without including Sarah at The View from the Table . She's a great food writer and has just got married and bagged her very own column. Fabulous all round.

My next foodie favourite is Slice of Barnes . She bakes cakes and gets strangers to rate them - but her blog is so much more than that. She's very funny and her cakes are pretty amazing.

Next up is Annie Hall who writes at Scrummy Suppers and Quirky Cakes. She's a bit of a Good Food fan (or seems to be) like me, and is a whizz at the old fridge raid supper - lots of quick and easy but delicious meals on her blog.

Finally, Ruth at Makey-Cakey another great baker. I also love that she sometimes publishes posts which are photos of all the cakes/biscuits that she's taken but not yet blogged. It strikes a chord with me - I have hundreds of photos of unblogged dishes.

So there we go. Merry Christmas! 

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Pure Vanilla by Shauna Sever - A Review

Pure Vanilla. More than just a recipe book, this celebrates the heritage and flavour of vanilla, with an interesting history of the vanilla bean from the Totonac Indians in Mexico who first discovered it to its use in the food and cosmetic industries today. It also includes a useful description of the different forms you can find vanilla in - pod, paste, extract - and 'tasting notes': I didn't know that there are different types of vanilla with different tastes and tones

I opened it up and read the introduction. I liked the style of the author, Shauna Sever, and having had a quick look at her blog, 'Piece of Cake' , I established that she was the sort of baker who would happily closet herself away with a cake and a spoon for company. In the blurb about the first actual recipe, she says "This...represents something I feel deeply about, that is to say, dessert disguised as breakfast". My kind of woman, I thought.

From breakfast (including a savoury recipe for bacon), we proceed through cake & pies and cookies & bars to candies & confections, custards & creams and finally drinks, including a vanilla mojito. I like vanilla and there are plenty of recipes that make me go "mmmm" from the title alone - Slow Cooked Vanilla Spiced Oatmeal, Cherry Vanilla Shortbread Cake Squares, Lemon Vanilla Dream bars, that mojito I mentioned - All good.

The book itself is very 'pretty' in a pale - I guess, 'vanilla' - type of way. Muted tones of cream, brown and blue. If you flick through it, there's not much that stands out to make you stick your finger in the pages and start to drool. so you do have to pay attention. There's also not as much photography as I'd like - you can go from page to tastefully designed pastel page with not so much as a doodle of a cake or a biscuit cookie. May be it's just me - but I do like to see what I'm aspiring to, but that's not the reason why I'm not leaping up and down with enthusiasm for this book.

No, not that. Here is the 'but' for me about this book: All the recipes are written in American measurements, and use the odd ingredient that doesn't fall easily into the shopping trolley in the UK. That's fair enough, the writer is American, but then the book doesn't have an easy conversion table for the measurements. Nor is there an explanation of the ingredients that might not be as familiar to the UK audience as they are in the US - such as corn syrup - and what a substitute might be. There is a conversion table in the back of the book, but it converts 'cups' and 'spoons' into a volume measurement. Call me picky, but I don't want to measure my butter in ml - I want it in grams, I'm afraid. I do have cups, but after a brief flirtation, I'm back to grams. And I have never been able to work out what a 'stick' of butter is. Even if the conversion table did the job I'd want it to do, flicking back and forward to the table is a little annoying in the first place. In Baked in America, probably my favourite American baking book so far, all the recipes have the ingredients in cups and grams, thus avoiding the need for flicking. It's a much more satisfactory way of approaching things. I'm sorry to say that this did put me off actually baking anything from the book at the weekend, when I had intended to.
If you can get over the recipe conversion issue - I'm sure I will at some point - and the lack of photos, it's a lovely book. There is a wealth of recipes to be explored, and fans of American baking won't be disappointed.  

If you're feeling like something a little less challenging to convert, rather than a whole cake or cookie recipe, the book has recipes to make vanilla extract and vanilla sugar, and I thought I'd share those here - they both have the potential to make good last minute Christmas presents for the foodie in your life (or, if that's you, then for your own purposes!)

Both these recipes and the photo are taken directly from the book, and I'm copying them with permission of the publisher.

Homemade Vanilla Sugar

Fill a lidded container with about 2 cups* of granulated sugar. Bury a vanilla bean** (or two, for more intense flavor), split lengthwise, in the sugar. Tighten the lid and shake the container like you’re competing in a dance contest at a dive bar. Store in a cool, dark place for 2 days and then open the container, take a deep whiff, and die a little from the glorious fragrance of homemade vanilla sugar, It’s that easy! You don’t even need a whole unscraped pod-use the empty scraped vanilla beans from recipes that call for just the caviar. Store the empty pods in the sugar; when your supply runs low, replenish by adding more fresh sugar on top.

Use vanilla sugar the same way you use the granulated stuff. It adds a bit more oomph to baked goods and is a delicious addition to coffee and tea. If you’re making vanilla-forward recipes like the ones in this book, vanilla sugar is yet another simple way to add that irresistibly ambrosial flavor.

To turn this recipe into a gift, pack the vanilla sugar in a decorative container-like a vintage Mason jar-topped with a scrap of fabric and festive ribbon. For an even fancier version, use raw turbinado*** sugar instead of granulated sugar.

Homemade Vanilla Extract
And it couldn’t be simpler. All you need is a clean jar or bottle with a tight-fitting lid, whole vanilla beans, and a clear neutral-tasting liquor (vodka is my top choice). For an 8-ounce**** jar, 2 split beans should do, but you can add more if you like. Let the sealed jar sit in a cool, dark place for about 2 months before using. I also add scraped seedpods to the extract jar after I’ve used them in recipes, unless they land in my container of Vanilla Sugar first. As you use the extract, top off the jar with more of the same type of liquor for a nearly never-ending supply.

Aside from being a great way to save money on a pricey ingredient, making your own extract is an excellent opportunity to use some of the more exotic flavors of whole beans in liquid form, since store-bought extracts rarely come in such varieties. Magical! You can also combine several different varieties of vanilla in one batch of extract, creating your own special blends. Few things make a more fabulous edible gift than homemade vanilla extract in a vintage bottle decorated with a darling handmade tag. Martha’s got nuthin’ on you. 

 *OK don't say I never do anything for you - 2 cups of sugar is about up to the 500ml mark on a measuring jug. **A vanilla bean is what I would call a pod, and ***'turbinado' sugar appears to be very similar to demerara, but has hints of honey****An 8ounce jar is, I believe, 250ml. 
I was asked to provide a review and received a copy of Pure Vanilla for the purposes of carrying out the review. I was not required to provide a positive review. The views expressed are my own

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Clearing out the cupboards - or how pain and chaos lead to order and mince pies

The last time I cleared out the kitchen cupboards - really cleared them out, was the morning of the day Pink arrived - 6 1/2 yrs ago. I recall quite clearly the look of alarm on the Husband's face to see me sitting, beached whale-like on the floor, surrounded by the contents of the cupboard, furiously labelling jars. 

This, then, is the contents of the same shelves in the kitchen dresser this morning. 

The shelves which have the flour, the sugar, the pasta, the rice, the baking sundries (sundries? well, the baking powder, the vanilla, the cooking chocolate (if I haven't eaten it), the half used, dried up tubes of writing icing...), the dried fruit and the nuts. Ah yes. The nuts. It all started in my quest for ground almonds.

You see, I was going to make the mince pies today, as a distraction activity (more about that later) and having perused both Delia and Nigella for inspiration on the pastry front, I decided that I needed to add some ground almonds. Trouble was, I could only find an unopened packet, and I just KNEW there was a half used packet in there somewhere.

So back to that distraction activity. Yes, while I am most definitely not pregnant, I am trying to cope with some horrible pain in my jaw muscles which has been getting steadily worse since Sunday evening - that's a whole 6 days now. Not that I've experienced much labour, being a veteran of the general anaesthetic and emergency c-section approach to giving birth, but really, honestly, this is worse than I remember that being. I am rattling like a proverbial pill bottle - codeine, paracetamol. neurofen and a low dose of an anti-depressant which is supposed to help with the spasms - and while I've used it to take the opportunity for some lovely reflexology, spending half my time with my face in a hot water bottle is getting a little boring.

After the anti-depressant was added into the mix yesterday (one to be taken at bedtime) I did have an amazing night's sleep last night, with the consequence that I went for longer than I have been without other pain relief. This morning was pretty grim as a result, and the Husband disappeared off with the kids to do some jobs leaving me to my hot water bottle. As the pain eased, I set to, determined to take advantage of the peace and quiet and get on with the mince pies, but first I had to find the almonds.

I emptied everything out on to the floor, so the shelves looked like this. So empty and inviting.

I found 3 open packets of raisins. 2 of pine nuts. 3 of flaked almonds.Several bags of plain flour at various stages of emptiness. 2 bottles of vanilla extract.  I also found the open pack of ground almonds I knew was in there. And a second unopened bag. The shame.

Then it was all out so I had to get it back. reader, I rationalised. I ordered. Where once there were 3 opened bags of raisins, now there is one. Jars have been filled, and don't tell anyone, but I actually threw out a tub of glace cherries which contained 5 little fruit and was so passed the use by date that even I had to admit defeat.

And then I put it all back in the cupboard. Amazing.

And did you want to know about the mince pies? Well, may be tomorrow. Here's a sneak preview: