Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Farewell 2008 / 200 posts and counting

Oh dear, it seems it will be 2009 before I even get around to posting Christmas recipes, and that seems rather too late to be bothering. Shame on me. I have excuses though, mostly to do with drinking wine, celebrating birthdays and reading cookbooks.

I also must apologise to both Molly and Nicole, I owe them both a post about the Christmas Cookie exchange, especially as my amazing package from Nicole arrived on the 22nd and has been enjoyed thoroughly. I promise as soon as the new year kicks in I shall do a long post about all the tasty and decorative goodies I received.

Until then I'm afraid I am going to leave you in order to play with my new toy:

Oh yes, a Kitchenaid! I can't believe it really. It was in the sale and I had some birthday vouchers (thank you parents, you're the best) and so I got it at a ridiculous price that meant even N insisted not only that I have it, but that he carry it home on the tube so I didn't have to wait for delivery - yes he's a total sweetheart.

So the close of 2008 brings not only my 200th post (eek!) but a promise of great things to come. There are so many exciting things ahead: learning to sew; continuing my knitting (and hopefully making more than just scarves!); a raft of new cookbooks to explore along with a mixer to help me out (yay!); and, the final hint, a potentially massive project in August!

I hope the new year brings goodness for you all. I offer a toast to 2009 and all the potential it holds *chinks glasses*

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Merry Christmas!

Wishing you a very happy Christmas, let the food be delicious, the company merry, the wine flowing and may Santa Paws bring you all that you wish for.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Bon Fete!

Bonjour, et bon fete!

I know, I know, I've been terribly slack the last two weeks. I had big plans for writing in December, a multitude of posts containing all things festive. Alas, it's all gotten away from me a bit. I have a stack of photos sitting to be riffled through, and recipes to post, but somehow all I want to be doing is pottering about grinning at the fairy lights.

I have other excuses too. We've just returned from a quick trip to France where we drank lots of wine, played on the Wii (loads more fun than I had anticipated, seriously get the skiing, it's HILARIOUS!) and swapping presents with N's family. Although the trip ended in the seemingly typical festive fog (last time we were there at this time of year the fog was so thick we were worried out flights would be cancelled), we did have one day of glorious winter sunshine, so bright and warming that we managed to sit outside in a cafe whilst gazing at the marche - then again, it might have been the Christmas spirit and cognac that was warming, but who's arguing?!

I will try and post about some of the numerous Christmassy things I've been up to in the kitchen, but until then I shall leave you with a selection of teasing photographs from en France.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Filling bowls and breaking scales

Yesterday I made the Christmas cake. A little late, as I was intending to give it at least three weeks to mature, but everything got the best of me, all good intentions had to be put aside, and yesterday it was. It'll still have at least a week to soak up a good sloshing of brandy, and then some time under it's icing coat before we dig in, and hey, at least I managed it in the end.

I very nearly didn't because of mis-reading the recipe, and misunderstanding just quite how large this cake was going to be. I know, I know, it
said "feeds twelve...", but I thought it meant, feeds twelve with ickle slices and chose to ignore the "...somewhat generously" remark that followed. We're lovers of cake, how hard is it going to be to eat a bit of Christmas cake over the festive week? Ahem, perhaps a little harder than I imagined. There's a kilo of dried fruit in there, and half a pound of butter! It should keep though, so we can cunningly re-name it an Easter cake, because yes. it's probably going to last that long!

I adapted the recipe from Nigel Slater - of course! - adding a few of my own little touches, some due to mis-reading the recipe, some because I just think it's madness
not to soak the fruit in port overnight! Nigel asks for 650g of dried fruit, like prunes, figs, glace cherries and candied peel, and then a separate 350g of currents, sultanas etc. I of course missed these separate instructions and dutifully made my 650g up of whatever dried fruit I fancied and had kicking around. In went figs, maraschino cherries (because I find even the dark glace cherries too sweet and plasticy), cranberries, sultanas, currents, peel in many forms. I smugly totted it up to 650g, and sloshed a generous glug of port over it and headed to bed.

It was upon re-reading the recipe the next morning that I discovered the additional 350g! Oops! So I made it up with more of the same. After all Nigel is one in favour of tweaking recipes, and a large variety of fruit is all good in my book.

It was at this point that I should have thought about how large a cake this was going to be, but I happily continued creaming butter and sugar, adding eggs, brandy, orange and lemon, then the dried fruits.

It was at this point, as you can see above, that I began to feel that even my large mixing bowl might not quite be up to the task. Folding new ingredients in was beginning to be a rather diplomatic task, with all efforts concentrated on managing not to mix, but more to keep the mixture in the bowl.

The the magnitude of this cake hit. I tried to add the flour, and so placed the bowl on the scales, and tried to set them to zero so as to just throw the flour and baking power in. Simple, I thought. Oh no, all I got was a rebelious error message! My cake was too heavy, it was over the weight limit!

This cake was going to be in a class of it's own!

So I used the bowl that once contained the dried fruit, and then with some more diplomatic folding, and scooping managed to get the mixture combined and into my carefully double-lined tin.

Two and a half hours later it appeared from the oven looking dark and very pleased with itself. I know it might sound strange, but believe me, this is one smug cake. It knows the indulgent goodness it contains. It is now tucked safely in a cake tin, where it will remain, quitely getting drunk on brandy top-ups, before I ice it next week. Stay tuned for that inevitably hilarious, and very messy episode!

For now, here's the recipe, as I made it:

Uber (smug) Christmas cake - feeds twelve GENEROUSLY!!!

1kg of mixed dried fruit of your choice, soaked overnight with a good slosh of port or bandy over them. (I didn't have them sitting in a bowl of alcohol, I just added enough to plump the fruits up a bit and give them some life after being stored in the cupboard)

250g softened butter
125g light muscovado sugar
125g dark muscovado sugar
3 large eggs
65g ground almonds
100g shelled hazelnuts
3 tbsp brandy (plus more for feeding)
zest and juice of 2 clemantines
zest of one lemon
1/2 tsp baking powder
250g plain flour

Line a 20cm round baking tin, with a removable base (I used springform) with a double layer of lightly buttered or greased parchment paper, making sure it comes at least 5cm above the sides of the tin.

Set the oven to 160C.

In a LARGE bowl, beat the sugars and butter together until light and fluffy and cappuccino-coloured. Add the eggs one at a time, don't worry if it curdles. Then slowly mix in the almonds, hazelnuts, dried fruit, brandy, juice and zests. Stir slowly until combined and then mix in the baking powder and flour, folding them lightly in and trying to keep everything in the bowl! Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the top. Place in the oven for an hour, and then without opening the door turn the oven down to 150 and bake for another hour and a half. Check whether the cake is done - a skewer should come out with a few crumbs, but no raw mix on it. Leave to cool before removing from the tin.

Feed the cake by pouring brandy into it every week until Christmas. Cover tightly and store in a tin until needed.

I am not going to put a layer of marzipan over mine before icing because N doesn't like it, so I shall be just adding my royal icing layer next week. I can't wait!

Monday, 15 December 2008

A berry festive twist

A while ago I made blueberry crumb bars, and they were fantastic. I've been aching to try out new flavours, as I was convinced that they would adapt to any filling I wanted. I had ideas about spiced apple crumble bars, raspberry or rhubarb. Then this week, whilst pondering the fate of the newly arrived fruit box, it hit me: spiked, spiced cranberry bars. Perfect for the festive season, a hint of tartness, under the tender sugary crumble.

So off I went!

As with last time I made a half batch. Unfortunately I didn't really have enough cranberries, I really think I could have done with one cup more, maybe even two. Nor did I have any lemon juice, but with cranberries being both very tart and full of pectin I opted for port instead. A logical switch, as I'm sure you'll agree!

Overall the flavour was good, but on the tart side as I didn't up the sugar. I really like that, but if you have a sweeter tooth I would up the sugar, perhaps even by half a cup. One of the friend who tried this suggested slicing it into thin long bars as a breakfast treat, which is a very fine idea. I think if I was doing that normally I'd switch some of the flour to wholemeal, and maybe add some oats to get some more fibre in there. But it's Christmas and it's not about being good, so go ahead and make these for breakfast next week...

I'm afraid there are no photos of it cut into slices, we ate it too quickly!

Spiked Cranberry crumb bars - makes eight large slices.

1/2 cup caster sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 cups plain flour
4 oz cold butter
1/2 egg
pinch of salt
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp ginger

2 tbsp port
2-4 cups of cranberries (I used 2 and next time would probably use 4 to get a deeper fruit layer)
2 tsp cornflour
1/4 cup caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 190C and grease a brownie pan (sorry, I'm not sure of the dimensions of mine).

In a medium bowl stir together the 1/2 cup of caster sugar, flour, baking powder, spices and salt. comine well and then use a fork to cut in the butter and egg. The dough will be crumbly. Pat half of the dough into the base of the pan, pressing to bring it together. Set the rest aside.

In another bowl, stir together the 1/4 cup of sugar with the corn flour, and port. Add the cranberries and stir well. Sprinkle the mixture over the pressed dough in the pan. Crumble the remaining dough over the top.

Bake for 45mins or until the top is slightly golden. Cool in the pan on a wire rack and then cut into slices.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Deck the halls with bows of cookies

I think I got a little carried away with the gingerbread tree decorations. No household of two people (an
d one cat) can realistically get through as many as I found myself making. Of course I could have made a half batch, but did I? Oh no, I just steamed ahead and in a few hours found myself surrounded by piles and piles of dark spicy gingerbread in all shapes and sizes!

Fortunately the biscuits should last a little while, and I'm off to visit the lovely lady K this evening and I'm sure she'll help me polish some off. The rest are destined for the tree (and lunchboxes). I am just hoping that Sniff doesn't suddenly decide that he not only likes gingerbread, but also wants to climb up the tree to get some.

I had great fun playing with my new royal icing that I picked up in the gourmet food store near my parents. I may like experimenting, but making my own seemed like far too much hassle, so I was very pleased when I stumbled across some. Be warned, there may well be a profusion of iced things coming out of the kitchen in the next couple of weeks because I had so much fun with it!

When I made up the recipe, which I adapted from the one I found here, I was a little unsure. It sounded good, but as I started I realised that actually 2/3 of a cup of molasses is ra
ther a lot, and I'm not really that much of a fan. The treacly smell coming off the dough was a bit much for me, and I was a little worried that it wouldn't mellow as it baked and I'd be stuck with mounds of cookies I wouldn't want to eat. Fortunately, once the dough had rested and the spices in it developed a bit it smelt lovely, and then again, when baked the molasses moved to the background and allowed the ginger and other spices to shine through against a mild toffee background. So yes, there's no fear, I shall be scoffing many, many of these over the next few days! I'm pleased I made the little stars because then I can eat five and not feel too guilty. Not that I'm the kind of girl to eat five cookies at once, oh no, that would be too crazy *looks sheepish.*

So I guess now you want the recipe? I did adapt it slightly, and next time might tone down the molassas even more, adding some golden syrup instead. But this definitely makes a strongly spiced dark gingerbread, that isn't too hard, but will hold up for tree decorations.
Gingerbread for decorations - makes, well, rather a lot really! If there isn't a large family to help you out you might want to half this.

3 cups plain flour
pinch of salt
3/4 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp finely ground pepper
1/2 cup butter
1/2 sugar

1 large egg
2/3 cup molassas

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, salt, soda and spices. In another large bowl cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg, beat until combined, add the molassas and stir well. Gradually add the flour mixture until you get a stiff dough. Leave to rest for two hours, or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 180C. Line baking sheets with parchment (I used four in the end). Roll out the dough on a floured surface and cut into whatever shapes you like. If you want to use them to hang on the tree make sure you remember to make a hole at the top for the thread to go through. I used a skewer for this. Gently place the cookies on the lined baking sheets and bake for 8-12 minutes depending on the size of the cookies.

Allow to cool fully on a wire rack, and then ice. Once the icing has set, thread with string or ribbon and hang on the tree.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

It's officially the festive season; we've put up our tree!I do have my concerns about Sniff's response. He hasn't looked all that interested yet, but then he did go out for a potter in the garden soon after it arrived and so hasn't seen it in full decorated glory. We've tied it to the wall in an attempt to prevent four am cat-induced tree-toppling action, but I still have my doubts, and think I may find myself performing some emergency tree rescues over the next few weeks.

But, it's up, and not only that, but it has presents under it! No we're not really super-organised, we just did a trip up North to visit my parents and do a pre-Christmas present swap. It felt really festive up there as there was snow and ice and everything!
While visiting I managed to enlist the very patient help of my Mum and asked her to teach me how to knit! How exciting is that?! Not only did she show me the basics, she also introduced me to "extreme knitting" which is where you knit on huge needles, usually with loads of yarn. I tried it with just one ball on the go and it was amazing. It's so fast because you're knitting big stitches, and I managed a whole scarf in a day and a bit.

As a result I have returned with a new hobby, and a new excuse to get out on the bike and visit the lovely knitting shop nearby. I was only going for some plain double-knit wool to practice on (knit 2, pearl 2, has been proving troublesome, methinks because of my rather inadequate maths skills!), but couldn't resist buying some weird and wonderful stuff too. So now I have two things on the go, more extreme knitting, and some normal attempts at ribbing.
Despite the difficulties I'm totally loving it. Be warned people, you'll be getting knitted gifts this time next year!

Even more festive baking will be on it's way in the next couple of days. There's the cookie exchange, some edible gifts and decorations, and all sorts of tasty things around the corner.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

In praise of libraries

I love libraries. Okay, I might be a bit biased having grown up in a house full of books and a librarian for a mother, but even if I hadn't I think I would feel like I do. Where else can you go when you have run out of things to read and pick a huge selection to take away, for free? That's just such a brilliant idea. And it's not only books, but CDs, DVDs, and of course, information.

Today I went in and got a stack of fiction to read and a new cookery book to browse, and I noticed that they had a really obscure cult book in their stock. I've already read it, but I was surprised to see it on their shelf, and very pleased indeed to know that they have such a diverse selection.

Seriously, libraries rock my world!

In other news, I have been a bit more productive today and made some gift tags. I am doing lots of homemade things for Christmas, and wanted to give the tags a try too. I am having a red and white theme this year (well, like most years in fact), and picked up some really cute moose table confetti made of felt. I've been using them on all sorts of things, and I thought they looked rather smart on the plain background.

Oh dear, the festive countdown has well and truly begun in this house. N has just been gleefully pottering around the flat saying how much he can't wait. I'm sure we never used to be like this!

Monday, 1 December 2008

The reveal

Hello, and welcome to December! Eek! How did it come around so fast? I thought I was all prepared until my Mum told me yesterday that she's already wrapped our presents! I just can't compete with that, especially as I still have a couple to get before the present swap on Saturday.

One thing I did have ready was N's advent calendar. It's a fabric one that you can put your own things in. A genius idea if you ask me
. It's hard if you commit to different things everyday, but I usually have sweets or chocolate during the week and little presents at the weekends. It worked really well last year.

Last year I went for small versions of chocolate bars that I'd tracked down, but this year I was more prepared and wanted to make something special. So last week I expanded my skills and made caramels for the first time. I'd seen a recipe for apple cider caramels on Sugar Punk and knew I had to try it. I decided to steep some cinnamon in the cream and butter when heating it, and as a result got a softly spiced caramel with the slight alcoholic kick. I had to wait until today to tell you all about them because I didn't want N stumbling on them before the surprise. I also wanted a second opinion because I really liked them, but N is a caramel connoisseur and what really mattered was him liking them.

He tends to save his advent treats and have them in his lunchbox so he has a little something in his afternoon to keep him going. When I asked him if he'd enjoyed it today he said they were really nice. When I made a comment about having made them he said he hadn't realised, and was really impressed. I think I did the right thing then!

I would definitely recommend them, as they were easy to make even for a complete caramel novice. I think I'm going to make a second batch, this time a spiced brandy version!

I won't post the reci
pe because I didn't really change it, and I really appreciated all the hints and tips in the original and am convinced this is what made it so easy. Instead you can find the recipe here.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Great PhD Pudding Stir-Up

Today was The Great PhD Pudding Stir-Up

What a way to celebrate the final post in a month of blogging every single day; with a post about 20 people getting together to make Christmas puddings!
That's right, today I brought the tradition of homemade Christmas puddings to an international group of pudding novices. We had Americans, Canadians, Germans, Portuguese, Thai, Malaysian, and even a couple of token Brits. It was such a laugh. Who knew such hilarity could be had by communally measuring ingredients, grating apples, beating eggs, and stirring a massive pan of pudding mix, whilst sipping mulled wine and making wishes.
It was the perfect way to welcome the beginning of the festive season. By the end of the afternoon everyone had a pudding to take away, having had their turn stirring and making a wish. The washing up was quite a task, and explaining the intricacies of steaming somewhat difficult to justify ("What? You steam it twice?! You cook it once now and again on Christmas day?!") but hopefully when people tuck into their homemade PhD pudding on Christmas day, and can share a little bit of traditional goodness, it'll all be worth it.
Today to make 19 puddings we used:

3.4kg dried fruit soaked in 500ml brandy (sultanas, currents, figs, apricots, candied peel, cherries and cranberries)
6 apples, grated
zest and juice of 6 oranges
18 eggs, beaten
750g suet
750g breadcrumbs
1kg muscovado sugar
525g self-raising flour

6tsp mixed spice
3tsp nutmeg

That's a whole load of pudding mix and it took some strength to stir it all together!
I certainly had a fantastic time and can't wait to organise the next PhD baking social get together. Cupcakes at Easter anyone?p.s. As of midnight NaBloPoMo is over. No more frantic dashes to the computer at the last minute in the hopes of finding some inspiration. I've really enjoyed it, and I have to admit that I'm rather proud of the fact that I've managed it. I never thought I had this much writing and baking in me, and we're not even part-way into the proper Christmas cooking! I hope you've enjoyed it too, and tomorrow I should have a little reveal to add some icing to the NaBloPoMo "cake." Daily posting might be over, but watch this space!

Friday, 28 November 2008

Tart that's not a tart, cos it's a pie!

So last week we had a whole load of confusion about a tart. I kept calling it a pie, and it wasn't, it was a tart. Now I have the other problem, I've made a pie, but it's in a tart dish, so it's blatantly a tart!

This is indeed the pie I was going to make last week when all this confusion started. Back then I didn't have the ingredients, and so instead we had to struggle on like the troupers we are and make do with a cranberry and pecan frangipane tart. We suffer in this flat we really do.

Tonight we have friend coming for dinner and I wanted a nice dessert. The cranberries in the fridge were still good and I had a nice new batch of cooking apples. It just had to happen. This time however, it wasn't having the ingredients that was the problem, it was quite the opposite, I had the butter, and could plan for the cream cheese, except one of our friends doesn't eat dairy. When asked by N if this was a problem, I laughed, "no no," I said, "it's not a problem, it's a challange!" I definitely enjoy this stuff far too much.

So yesterday I prepared the pie, veganising it as I went along. It wasn't actually as difficult as I'd expected. I replaced the cream cheese with silken tofu, and the butter in the pastry with vegan margarine, and the egg with soya milk. This made the pastry less fluffy, but it still looks pretty good. In fact, I think it looks downright pretty if you ask me.

We haven't tried it yet of course - it's taken some will power not to, I can tell you - so I will have to report on the flavour and response later, but hopefully it'll be a winner. I'm going to serve it with whipped brandy soya cream so if nothing else at least the booze should go down a treat!

here's the recipe. I adapted it from one in the Sainsbury's magazine.

Cranberry and apple pie (Makes one 9'' pie)

375g of your favourite sweet pastry (replace the butter with vegan marg and any egg or milk with soya milk)

250g cranberries
250g apples, peeled, cored and sliced thinly
juice of one orange
200g light muscovado sugar
200g silken tofu

Lightly flour the worksurface and roll out the dough and line the tin, collecting the scraps to make the lattice top. Chill for at least 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 180C.

Put the cranberries, apples and orange juice in a saucepan and simmer uncovered until all the berries have popped, the apple is cooked and it is a thick bubbling sauce - aprox 15mins. Stir in the sugar and then leave to cool.

Gently prick pastry shell with a fork, line it with parchment and fill with baking beads. Bake for 20 mins, then remove the beads and cook for a further 5mins, until dry. Leave to cool.

Stir half the cold cranberry mixture into the tofu and blend until smooth. Spread evenly over the base. Cover with the remaining cranberry mixture, then with strips of rolled leftover dough make a lattice top.

Bake for aprox 40-50mins, until the pastry top is golden (keep your eyes on this, in my oven it took a while, but it might be much faster in yours.

Serve warm, or at room temperature.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

So good they baked them twice

I've been having lots of fun in the kitchen today. I have been making some preparations for the busy weekend ahead. We've got friends coming for dinner tomorrow evening, DnD on Saturday and then it's the Great Pudding Stir-Up on Sunday.

I'm going to do the majority of the festive baking tomorrow, but couldn't resist giving this recipe for biscotti a go today. It was a handy one to start with not only because I knew they would keep for a couple of days, but also because there is talk of a cookie exchange in December and I wanted to try out some ideas. Someone had suggested that biscotti would be a good idea because they're somewhat sturdier than the average cookie, so good for shipping. Not having made them before I wanted to give it a go before doing the batch to send. I learnt from my jam exchange mistakes you see! No leaving it to the last minute this time around.

The only recipes I could find for biscotti were nut-based versions. What I wanted was something more suitable for the season. So I took the recipe in the Ottolenghi cookbook and replaced the pistachios and stem ginger with dried cranberries and white chocolate, keeping the little bit of ground ginger and using port rather than brandy (because I still haven't bought any since using it all up in the pudding!).

The results have come out rather well. I only had a sneaky taste of the edge pieces, but I think it's going to go down rather well on Sunday, and hopefully they will hold up for posting across the world.

I only made half a batch, but still got 11 pieces of biscotti out of it. I'll definitely be making this again - provided N likes it and could help out in the eating!

Cranberry and White Chocolate Biscotti - adapted from Ottolenghi

This recipe makes the full batch

80g unsalted butter
110g caster sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tbsp port (or brandy)
150g plain flour
1/2 ground ginger
1/4 tsp salt
80g dried cranberries
60g white chocolate, chopped

Line a baking sheet with parchment.

Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually add the eggs, beating after each addition. Stir in the brandy, followed by the flour, salt and ground ginger. Finally stir in the cranberries and chocolate.

Lightly dust the lined baking sheet with flour and spoon the mixture on to the tray. Leave to rest in the fridge for about 30mins so it firms up.

Preheat the oven to 170C

Take the dough out of the fridge, and using your hands and some extra flour roll and shape it into a log of about 25cms length (I found this to be rather sticky, so flour it up!). It will spread during baking and so it doesn't need to be perfect. Bake for 20mins then remove from the oven and allow to cool. Turn the oven down to 130C

The dough will still be slightly soft because of being partially baked. Once it's cooled, use a serated knife and cut into 1cm strips. Lay them flat on the tray and return to the oven for about 40mins. Remove and cool.