Wednesday, February 14, 2018

‘Just because...’ cookies - and Valentine's Day rebooted !

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If you listen hard you will hear the unromantic din of cash registers chi-chinging all over the world. That’s the sound of big business cashing in on the scurry to live up to romantic expectations - your own, or someone else’s - on February 14th.
Valentine’s Day is quite possibly the least romantic day of the year. If you are someone’s special someone, hopefully you’ll already know it - and show it - in a thousand tiny ways throughout the year. You will be least in need of a day of ersatz romance.
Love is bigger than just romantic love. It’s in the everyday things: in the sticky pre-licked sweet my tiniest niece presses into my hand when I know she really, really, really wants it for herself; it’s in the email/card/text/call that says between the lines “Hey, I was thinking of you”. It’s in making the dinner/walking the dog/cleaning the bathroom/rescuing the laundry from a sudden rain shower without having to be asked. It’s in accepting the irritating imperfections right along with the good qualities that are so much easier to love, whether you are family, friend, or lover.
Since 2011, there has been a move to ‘reboot’ Valentine’s Day as Generosity Day; to make it less ‘cosy couples’ and more egalitarian. At first glance, this smacks of an ‘everyone-gets-a-medal’ race, but why not!  Generosity Day is an opportunity to practice random acts of, well, generosity. It is a day for giving rather than taking.
I’m celebrating February 14th (whatever you want to call it) with my fully customisable ‘Just because...’ cookies. I don’t need any excuse to make them. They can be ... Just because... I wanted to say thanks. Just because... you make me smile... Just because... sometimes you can read my mind. Just because... well... just because!

For 40 - 50  ‘Just because...’ cookies (depending on size) you will need...
... to pre-heat the oven to 160°C
200g butter (at room temperature)
100g icing sugar
1 tablespoon orange zest
250g plain flour
50g cocoa powder, sifted to remove any lumps
a small pinch of fine table salt
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon instant coffee dissolved in 1 teaspoon of boiling water 

To decorate you will need chocolate and sprinkles. I’m not going to be too prescriptive about this bit of the recipe – this is the ‘pimp my cookie’ bit, where you get to customise these cookies for those lucky people who are loved by you, but I’ll tell you what I did. 

1.                  First make the cookies - Place the butter, icing sugar and orange zest in a mixing bowl or stand mixer and beat together until fluffy and lighter in colour.
2.                  Mix together the flour, cocoa powder and salt and add to the butter mixture about a third at a time, beating until well combined. Finally, add the egg yolk and dissolved coffee and mix until the ingredients come together in a ball.
3.                  Turn onto a lightly floured work surface and roll out to a thickness of about 3mm. Using cookie cutters, cut into shapes – I’ve chosen hearts in a variety of sizes. Any leftovers can be squashed into a ball and re-rolled.
4.                  Place on a baking tray and bake in the pre-heated oven for 10 minutes. When the cooking time has elapsed, remove from the oven and leave to cool on the baking tray for about 3 minutes before transferring carefully to a cooling rack. When completely cold, decorate as desired.

Here’s what I did: 

5.                  I melted 100g of good quality white chocolate in a small Ziploc freezer bag by removing all the air, sealing it and putting it in a bowl of hot water. In another Ziploc bag, I placed 50g good quality dark chocolate together with 50g good quality milk chocolate and melted it in the bowl of hot water. This gives a subtle two-tone, two-flavour effect.
6.                  While the chocolate was melting, I prepared a variety of sprinkles: chopped dried sour cherries, chopped dried apricots, chopped toasted hazelnuts, Maldon sea salt crystals. Use your imagination - the world is your sprinkle :)
7.                 When the chocolate had melted, I snipped a tiny corner off each bag, drizzling chocolate directly onto the cookies.
8.                  While the chocolate was still melted I sprinkled my chosen toppings onto the cookies.  

Just because... you deserve a treat!

When the cookies have completely set, make yourself a cuppa and taste-test a couple of these treats before packaging them prettily and distributing them to your loved ones, just because... 

Just because... you are salt of the earth!

Just because... xxx
First published 13 February 2013
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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Vanilla Orange Caramel Pancake Sauce – Mardi Gras for your mouth!

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Pancakes and crêpes are nothing on their own. Left to their own devices they would never go out. Savoury or sweet, they depend on fillings and dressings to give them a social life.

Though I’m a fiend for maple syrup, sometimes something as simple as a sprinkle of sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice is just the thing to make a pancake interesting. However, for a real taste of Carnival, my current favourite is this zingy vanilla orange caramel sauce.  Pour the hot syrup over pancakes or crêpes and feel your taste buds samba!

The sauce thickens as it cools and if there is any left over, it’s delicious, cold, on ice cream.

For approximately 150mls of sweet, zingy caramel sauce you will need…
150g caster sugar
10g salted butter
zest of one orange, finely grated or cut into shreds
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract (or vanilla bean paste)
100mls fresh orange juice

You will need to exercise a little caution – melted sugar is extremely hot.

You will also need a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed, light-coloured saucepan (light-coloured so you can see the sugar change colour as it melts and judge easily when to take it off the heat.)

Put the sugar in an even layer in the pan and place the pan over a medium heat, supervising it constantly until the sugar has melted. You will need to swirl the pan occasionally so that the sugar melts evenly. I prefer to swirl rather than stir as over-stirring can cause the sugar to clump, however a little gentle poking at the melting mixture with a wooden spoon or spatula won’t hurt.

Another swirl or two will capture those sugar crystals on the side

Once the sugar has melted, keep it over the heat until it has turned a rich amber colour and starts to smell like caramel. Watch the pan like a hawk as the melted sugar can burn quickly and become bitter (if that happens, start again).

The caramel is ready when it smells like caramel and is a rich amber colour

Now add the butter, stirring until it has melted into the caramel, then add the orange zest, and vanilla and stir to incorporate.

Add the orange juice in a steady stream, stirring until you have a smooth syrup. It will bubble furiously and the cold juice may cause the caramel to solidify in places.  If this happens,  just keep stirring over the heat and any blobs of caramel will eventually melt back in to the sauce.

Bubbling furiously

Once you have a smooth sauce, remove from the heat.

This sauce can be made ahead and served hot or cold. If using hot, remember that it is super hot and warn people accordingly. As it cools it thickens up and is delicious with ice cream.

To serve hot, reheat in a saucepan over a medium heat and then pour over hot pancakes. You could also prepare (or buy) your pancakes ahead and reheat them in the sauce as in the picture below.  Click here to for an easy cider and cinnamon pancake recipe

Pancakes ready to party!

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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Jamaican Buttermilk, Apple and Ginger Cake – resistance is futile !

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An oldie, but a goodie
First published 21 October 2014

When the virtue of patience was being dished out, I was too darned impatient to wait in line. If only I’d known...
... You see, the thing with Jamaican Ginger Cake is, that while it takes under an hour from start to finish, it is best wrapped and left for 24 hours for the flavours to develop.
All those spices smell so good. I know from experience that I will probably unwrap a little corner to take a peak - just to make sure the Alchemy is working... (I’ve been know to dig up seeds to see if they have started developing roots yet...).
Before you know it, I’ll be cutting a wee slice - just a taste - and that tiny taste will call for another... the irresistible warmth of the spices... the tender sticky crumb and I’ll never learn just how good it can be when I include that missing ingredient, patience!
Up the ginger quotient by increasing the amount of allspice and fresh ginger to taste. A little finely chopped stem ginger stirred into the batter also heats things up a bit.
Will I be able to resist this time? We’ll see...
For one irresistible 1 x 2lb loaf you will need...
... to preheat the oven to 160˚C
a little butter for greasing a 2lb loaf tin
225g plain flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon of ground allspice* (not mixed spice!)
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon fine table salt 
100g treacle
100g golden syrup
100g dark brown sugar
100g butter
1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon vanilla extract 
125mls buttermilk**
150g unsweetened stewed apple***
1 egg, beaten 

Grease and baseline a 2lb loaf tin (or line with a loaf tin liner).
Place the flour, bicarbonate of soda, ground spices and salt in a large mixing bowl.
Weigh the treacle and golden syrup directly into a medium saucepan and add the sugar, butter, fresh ginger and vanilla extract and place over a low heat just until the butter has melted into the other ingredients. Remove from the heat immediately – at no point should it simmer or boil.
Meanwhile, mix together the buttermilk, stewed apple and beaten egg. Add this mixture to the flour mixture in the bowl and stir with a whisk until combined into a thick batter.
Melt, mix, stir, pour - it's that simple !

Add the warm mixture from the saucepan and whisk until combined into a smooth, fairly runny batter. Pour into the prepared loaf tin and transfer to the preheated oven.
Bake for 40 minutes or until well risen and the surface bounces back when lightly pressed. A cocktail stick inserted in the middle should come out clean, with no crumbs clinging. (Replace in the oven for a further 5 minutes if necessary and test again.)
Leave in the tin until completely cold, then remove from the tin and wrap in a layer of baking paper, then in cling film. Leave for at least 24 hours for the flavours to develop before cutting into thick slices and devouring with a decent cup of tea or coffee.
It is not the most beautiful cake in the world, but a dusting of icing sugar works wonders against the dark crumb of the cake, or you could drizzle with a water icing made according to the instructions on the packet.

Not the most beautiful cake in the world. A dusting of icing sugar works wonders !
*Allspice is a gorgeous warm aromatic dried berry – also called Jamaican Pepper – I grind the berries as I need them as they have a longer shelf life than ready ground – and there is the bonus of the lovely aroma they release when crushed.
Mixed spice is ... um... a mixture of spices.
**If you don’t have buttermilk, simply use the same amount of fresh milk to which you have added a generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
***For the stewed apple, simply peel, core and slice a large Bramley apple or similar (prepared weight approximately 200g. Place the flesh of the apple in a small saucepan with 2 tablespoons of water, apple juice or cider. Place over a medium heat. Cover and allow the apple to steam in its own juices – stirring occasionally - for about 15 minutes or until completely soft and the slices of apple can be easily mashed with a fork. Mash to a reasonably smooth puree and leave to cool before using as above.

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Sunday, December 31, 2017

The 12th bite of Christmas ... the 12 Grapes of Luck #12BitesOfChristmas

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One of your five a day and it isn't even breakfast time yet! What a great start to 2018!

The 12th bite of Christmas (12 bites in reality) is vegetarian, healthy and somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Less a recipe and more a ritual, it is an old Spanish custom guaranteed to bring good luck and prosperity (mostly to grape farmers, I imagine) in the coming year.

You will need...
seedless white grapes – 12 per person
church bells to ring 12 strokes at midnight on New Year’s Eve (Big Ben will do the trick)
Someone who knows the Heimlich Manoeuvre on standby in case someone tries to inhale rather than swallow their portion of grapes

You will also need 12 wishes (or the same one 12 times)

The timing of this ‘recipe’ is critical so give out the grapes in advance, 12 per person (if they peel them, it makes life easier)

Count down to midnight, then consume one grape for each stroke of the bell - it isn't as easy as it sounds.

It’s a bit of fun, and a healthy start to the New Year.  Have a good one!
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Monday, December 25, 2017

The 11th bite of Christmas ... Strawberry Marshmallow Santas #12BitesOfChristmas

Pin It The 11th bite is one of the cutest, and the simplest ...

Ho ho ho - Merry Christmas!!!

… and more an artist’s impression of Santa Claus rendered in good things rather than a recipe.  Below is how I did it. You may prefer to look at the photo and figure out your own unique strawberry Santa. 

To produce these ones, I used...

Large ripe strawberries
Marshmallows for the face
Bits of liquorice for the eyes and nose
Desiccated coconut for the beard
Whipped cream for the face, beard, pompom (and 'gluing' the bits of Santa together)
Blueberries for the boots – cut them into quarters.

Cut the bottoms off a punnet of large ripe strawberries, so that they have a flat base to stand on.

Slice off the pointy end, about 1/3 of the way from the tip. This will form the hat.

Sit the fat end of the strawberry on a plate. Pipe a little whipped cream onto the upturned face of the strawberry. Top with half a marshmallow – cut it if necessary so that it is about the same size as the upturned face of the strawberry. Press it into place. Add a little more whipped cream on top and place a strawberry ‘hat’ on top. Pipe cream onto the marshmallow ‘face’, giving an impression of a beard.

Sprinkle the beard with desiccated coconut, then press the bits of liquorice into place for the eyes and nose.

Place two quarter blueberries at the base of the strawberry so that they look like shiny boots. (They won't stay there when the Santa is picked up, but they look great until the moment of eating and people tend to collect them up and eat them). 

Pipe a little whipped cream on top of the hat to form a pompom.

Repeat until someone hands you a glass of wine and offers to take over. Merry Christmas!!!

Hmmm - some you win, some you lose - the one on the left looks more like Santa's dog!!!
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Saturday, December 23, 2017

The 10th bite of Christmas ... Mini Chocolate Malteser Cupcakes #12BitesOfChristmas

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For the 10th bite of Christmas, I've have made for you...

Mini but magical! Mmmmmmmmm!

... Mini Chocolate Malteser Cupcakes!

I and my siblings have inherited a sixth-sense from our da: the ability to sniff out a gram of chocolate at fifty paces. It’s been useful over the years, tracking down lost boxes of Bournville and missing multi-packs of Flake that my mother had put “somewhere safe” and then forgotten. At this stage, we know every chocolate hidey hole in my parents’ home and, although we are by no means chocoholics, if someone mentions the magic word, chocolate of one description or another can be uncovered within minutes.
Only... I seem to be losing my touch. I was all set to make a savoury dish for today’s post. The text was written and I was assembling the ingredients when I was ambushed by a giant bag of Maltesers which leapt out of the cupboard at me.  Somehow, this bag of temptation had remained hidden. Perhaps the packaging is sniff-proof. Now what am I going to do?

Well... we all know that mini cupcakes have no calories right? J... 
These mini bites are in the oven as I type and the house smells like a chocolate beacon. Any minute now there will be a knock at the door and I will find my six chocolate-seeking siblings standing there...

These little cakes exist in two states - they are warm and melty from the oven, mmmmmm. However, when completely cooled the Maltesers re-solidify providing a delicious crunchy contrast. You must try both states at least twice!

For approximately 36 irresistible little chocolate bites you will need...
... mini-muffin trays and paper liners (or non-stick mini-muffin trays)

150g butter at room temperature
150g caster sugar
3 eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
100g plain flour
50g good quality cocoa powder
6g baking powder
approximately 36 Maltesers (+ a few extra as some might fall into your mouth accidentally)

a little icing sugar for dusting, (or see note below*)

Pre-heat your fan oven to 160°C and line the muffin tins with mini-muffin papers 
I pipe the mixture in for convenience but a spoon will do just as well.

1.                  In a mixing bowl, beat the butter together with the sugar until lighter in colour and fluffy (3 – 5 minutes using an electric mixer). Add in the eggs one at a time, mixing very well between additions. (If you add the egg too fast the mixture will curdle and result in a heavier cake – not the end of the world, but if you exercise patience this can be avoided).
2.                  When the eggs have been combined with the butter/sugar mixture, add the vanilla extract and sprinkle in the flour, cocoa powder, and baking powder and continue beating until these dry ingredients are incorporated into the mixture.
3.                  Half-fill each mini-muffin cup, and gently press a Malteser into the centre of each. You want to leave a little of the mixture beneath each Malteser to cushion it from the heat. Fill each mini-muffin cup to about two-thirds full, concealing the Malteser in the centre of each cup. Transfer to the preheated oven.
4.                  Bake for 11 - 13 minutes or until well risen. To test for doneness, prod lightly with a finger. The mixture will spring back if it is cooked. If your finger sinks into the mixture, give the cakes another minute or two in the oven and test again.
5.                  Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. Leave to cool before dusting with icing sugar or compounding the sin with chocolate frosting - see note (and link) below*
Mmmmmaltesers - one is never enough!

*If there had been more chocolate in the house, I would have frosted these with this chocolate honey truffle frosting or a ganache, or dipped them in good quality melted chocolate. I dusted them with icing sugar and it was enough to elicit a satisfied “Mmmmm... these are ammmmmmazing” from my taste tester.
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Thursday, December 21, 2017

The 9th bite of Christmas is Buttermilk Buckwheat Blini #12BitesOfChristmas

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The 9th bite of Christmas elicits cries of Твоё здоровье! [Tvoyo zdorov'ye!]

Твоё здоровье!

Blini - bite-sized buckwheat buttermilk pancakes - are one of those things that need to be cooked at home, and eaten more or less straight from the frying pan. An amazing alchemy transforms a little flour, milk, egg and not much more into little puffs of air, barely contain within a cake of buckwheat bubbles. Make sure you weigh them down with a decent topping or they might just float away!

So light, they practically levitate - mind they don't float away!!!

Makes about 35 – 45 depending on how big or little you make them.
150ml fresh milk
100mls buttermilk
50g buckwheat flour
50g wholemeal wheat flour
50g strong white flour (bread flour)
1 teaspoon fast action dried yeast
1 teaspoon honey
2 eggs, at room temperature (separated)
½ teaspoon of fine table salt
A little olive oil or butter for cooking

... and whatever topping you decide to adorn them with.

Start the batter a couple of hours before you need it.

These little pancakes can be cooked in advance then reheated in a low oven or in a frying pan.

Heat the fresh milk and buttermilk together in a pan to about 35°C (approximately 95°F) – if you don’t have a thermometer, this is when the milk feels neither hot nor cold if you stick a (clean) finger in to test it.

Next, mix the buckwheat, wholemeal, and strong flours together in a mixing bowl, and add the yeast, stir in the milk and the honey and mix well to combine. Add the egg yolks and salt and again mix to combine. Cover and leave the yeast to perform its alchemy for about an hour or until the mixture has thickened slightly and is surfaced with bubbles.

Whisk the egg whites in a bowl to a soft peak (when you lift the whisk from the bowl, it should draw the mixture into soft mountains that flop over gently at the top). Fold* the whisked egg whites gently into the mixture, until well-combined (*see note at the end of this post). Then heat a little olive oil or butter in a large frying pan over a medium heat. When the pan is hot enough, carefully wipe away any excess fat with a wad of kitchen paper, setting it aside to wipe the pan out between batches.

Drop spoonfuls of the batter into the hot pan, adjusting the temperature if necessary to stop them burning. I use a tablespoon, barely filling it to the top of the bowl. Make them larger if you wish.

Clockwise from top left: From raw batter to little pillows of air getting a tan

Once the top of the pancakes are pitted with a rash of burst bubbles, turn them over and continue cooking for a further minute. Once cooked, place on a heat proof dish and keep warm in a gentle oven until ready to serve, or leave to go cold for reheating later.

When ready to serve, slather with a little sour cream or cream cheese, top with a little hot-smoked or cold-smoked fish and some dill/chives/caviar. Or top with whatever you normally put on pancakes – sweet or savoury.

Eat several, reflecting as you chew, that life isn’t half bad.

Твоё здоровье!

*To fold egg white into the mixture first of all stir about one-third of the egg white into the mixture to slacken it a little then taking a spatula or a large metal spoon in your dominant hand, cut through the centre of the batter. Move the spatula or spoon across the bottom of the bowl, and back up the side and across the top bringing some of the mixture from bottom to top. Give the bowl a quarter turn and repeat. Keep folding the mixture and turning the bowl until the ingredients are incorporated into the batter. Folding avoids overworking the batter keeping it light and airy.

This one's for Santa...

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