Monday, December 20, 2010

Spiced Orange Shortbread – a celebration of festive laziness

Pin It Laziness is vastly under-rated. As far as I am concerned it is an unrecognised but significant catalyst for inspiration, motivation and resourcefulness. Laziness prompts the dawning of that great realisation: there must be an easier/faster way of doing this – whatever this is. That realisation, in turn, sparks creativity in pursuit of that easier/faster way.

Oh I wish it could be Christmas every day-ay-ay! 

I had been planning a chickpea and chorizo stew as a savoury change from all the sweet baking I’ve been featuring lately, but the chickpeas need overnight soaking and there’s lots of gathering of herbs and chopping of vegetables and slicing of meats involved. That’s not normally any hassle at all, but I have yet to trim the Christmas tree, write the Christmas cards, wrap the Christmas presents – all on my To Do list today - and I want something I can produce quickly, with minimum effort – something extremely lazy.
I ask myself what could be easier/faster? The answer that quickly springs to mind is shortbread.
Measure! Mix! Bake! (Eat!!!)
It couldn’t be lazier easier. Measure. Mix. Bake. What’s more, it is so true to my philosophy - simple ingredients, magical food – that I know it is meant to be.
Santa baby, slip some shortbread under the tree for me...
I don’t have a particularly sweet tooth, but shortbread is my downfall. I can safely say this one is the best I have ever made. With the barest touch of clove and cinnamon and studded with tiny nuggets of caramelised orange peel, it is utterly festive. I have redeemed my complete lack of effort slightly by dipping half of these little stunners in melted dark chocolate. Oh, raise a glass to laziness!
For about 30 shortbread cookies you will need...... to pre-heat the oven to 170°C

175g butter, softened
75g caster sugar
200g plain flour
50g corn flour
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/16 teaspoon ground cloves
a pinch of fine table salt
2 tablespoons candied orange peel, diced
2 tablespoons iced water

1.      Place the butter and sugar in a food mixer or a large bowl and mix together until fluffy and paler in colour.
2.      Mix in the plain flour, corn flour, vanilla essence, ground cinnamon, ground cloves and salt. When these are mixed into a fine sandy crumb, add in the candied peel.
3.      Finally, add in the water, mixing just until the ingredients come together in a ball.
4.      Roll out on a floured surface to a thickness of about 7mm / ¼ inch. Cut out Christmassy (or other) shapes and place on a non-stick (or lightly floured) baking sheet. Squash any off-cuts into a ball and re-roll.
5.      Bake the cookies in the pre-heated oven for 12 – 15 minutes or until evenly golden.
6.      Transfer to a cooling rack. When cold, dust with icing sugar or dip in decent quality melted chocolate – dark, milk, or white, I’ll leave it up to you. I’m feeling far too lazy to make that decision!

Aaah - the perfect antidote to Christmas shopping!
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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pine Nut and Almond Macaroons – and not a pink poodle in sight!

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When I think of macaroons, the first image that comes to mind is of the currently fashionable Parisian version available in a variety of pastel shades and exotic flavours. For me they are the confectionery equivalent of the pampered pink poodles you find trotting along the Promenade de la Croisette in Cannes, looking over-primped and more than a little absurd.
Pine nut and almond macaroons - one is never enough!  

Then a very fond memory swoops in, of a time I spent in Almería in Southern Spain, and the gorgeously simple macaroons I found at Almería’s favourite pastry shop.
If you get a chance to visit Almería, seize it! It is a little jewel of a town, full of romance and the history of millennia (and a large helping of petty thievery – so keep a weather-eye open). It is right on the coast so you can swim away the extra calories you are bound to take on board while you are there - Almería has some wonderful places to eat.
As the heat begins to fade from the day, the paseo begins. Crowds emerge and begin a stately promenade around the town. It is a chance to see and be seen. If you are a people-watcher, you could hardly get a better ringside seat than the pavement tables outside La Dulce Alianze, the 19-Century pastelería on Paseo de Almería. It is like a more refined and much smaller Bewleys of Grafton Street. You will be lured in by the stunning window display. An Aladdin’s cave of chocolates and pastries will call to you as you make your way to the stylish café area at the back. Resign yourself to the fact that you will emerge with at least a half-dozen prettily-wrapped sweetmeats (maybe these macaroons) to eat later.
Meanwhile, here’s something to whet your appetite in advance of your visit. These little beauties make a light, slightly chewy treat during the festive season, and not a pink poodle in sight!

For approximately 20 macaroons you will need... pre-heat the oven to 160°C

Scatter with pine nuts and
press lightly into the batter  
 2 egg whites
¼ teaspoon table salt
150g caster sugar
130g ground almonds
20g plain flour
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
Pine nuts and flaked almonds to decorate

Icing sugar to finish

You will also need sheets of rice paper or non-stick baking parchment

1       In a large mixing bowl (or food mixer) whisk the egg whites with the salt until the whisk leaves soft peaks in the mixture when you lift it out.
2       Mix in the caster sugar, ground almonds, plain flour and vanilla extract until combined.
3       Cover two baking sheets with ricepaper or non-stick baking parchment onto which you place teaspoonsfuls of the mixture about 5cm apart, flattening them slightly. You should get about 20 macaroons from this mixture.
4       Sprinkle 10 with pine nuts and 10 with flaked almonds, pressing the nuts lightly into the batter so that they stick.
5       Place in the pre-heated oven for 15 minutes or until evenly golden.
6       Transfer the macaroons – still on their backing paper – to a wire rack to cool. When cold, peel away the rice paper if that’s what you used (it doesn’t matter if some sticks – it’s perfectly edible) or carefully remove the non-stick parchment paper*.
7       Dust with icing sugar.
These are wonderfully Christmassy and just the thing to accompany a cup of real hot chocolate.
Tip: *If your 'non-stick' baking parchment sticks, don’t panic! Any paper that adheres is easily scraped away with a knife.

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Coconut Brioche – cupboard-diving reveals a little treasure

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Once upon a time, I met this surfer dude from California.  He was busking his way around the world with more infectious enthusiasm than musical talent. When necessary, he supplemented his income with a variety of jobs, mostly busboy or short-order cook.  His home was furnished with the fruits of his favourite hobby: skip-diving. He had evolved a uniform – which included thick boots, strong overalls, and gloves. And thus prepared, no skip was left unturned.
As you can see, this loaf bit the dust before I got to take the photos
It was the challenge that attracted him, the sheer creativity needed to assess his discoveries and to transform them into something wonderful. Some of his treasures included a custom-built computer cannibalised from assorted bits, a reconditioned antique dressing table for his wife’s birthday, a stunning dolls' house for his youngest daughter, and a parade of bikes for his whole family. 

Often he would find little treasures ready-made: a ruby ring in a jacket pocket; and, more often than you’d expect, he’d find bundles of cash!
While not quite in the same realm, cupboard-diving can be a bit of a culinary adventure, (Yes, the snow still hasn’t melted!) putting a variety of surprise ingredients in front of you if you venture into the shadowy recesses. For me, snaring store cupboard ingredients in this manner takes them a little out of context because I usually start with a dish in my head and then gather up the necessary bits. This way, the process is reversed.  
The first treasure to emerge was a tiny pot of paté de foie gras. This set my thoughts wandering in the direction of brioche. My discovery of a shortage of cow’s milk coincided with the discovery of a can of coconut milk with its sell-by date looming.  By now, the thought had developed into a craving for the light fluffiness that can only be had from Brioche.  Hmmm...  said my cooking brain, today I cannot live without brioche...  milk is milk... isn’t it?
The result is this divine coconut brioche.

For 2 lovely loaves you will need:
... to pre-heat the oven to 180°C towards the end of step 5

400g plain flour
50g desiccated coconut
1 sachet dried yeast
1 teaspoon table salt
175mls coconut milk, warmed slightly
70g runny honey
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
150g butter, softened
4 eggs, at room temperature, beaten
a little beaten egg to glaze
a large pinch of desiccated coconut to scatter over the top

A little star in a universe of canapé bases!

1.   First, mix together the flour, desiccated coconut, yeast, and salt.  Mix together the coconut milk, honey and vanilla extract and mix into the flour mixture (a food mixer with a dough hook is best for this job as it is quite a wet dough).
2.   When the milk mixture has been incorporated, drop in the softened butter - about a tablespoonful at a time - mixing until incorporated before adding the next piece of butter.
3.   When all the butter has been added, mix in the beaten egg, about a quarter at a time. When the egg has been incorporated, keep mixing for a further 5 minutes then cover and leave to rise in a warm place for up to 2 hours or until doubled in size.
4.   When the dough has doubled in size, lightly butter and base-line two 2 LB loaf tins. (To base line a tin, sit it on greaseproof paper or baking parchment and using a pencil, trace around it. Cut out the shape just inside the pencil lines. Lightly rub the inside of the tin with butter so that the paper sticks to the base. This makes it easier to remove the brioche from then tin when cooked.)
5.   Uncover the risen dough and mix for 5 minutes using the dough hook – it will deflate alarmingly. That’s ok - it is supposed to. Divide the dough between the two tins, cover loosely with cling film and leave to rise once more for about an hour or until doubled in size. Towards the end of this time, pre-heat your oven to 180°C.
6.   When the dough has had its second rising, very gently remove the covering, brush lightly with a little beaten egg and sprinkle with desiccated coconut.
7.   Transfer to the pre-heated oven and bake for 25 minutes or until golden brown and firm to the touch. Cool for about 5 minutes in the tins before turning out on a wire rack.
Best eaten warm, this is also wonderful used in a luxurious bread pudding or – as I did – cut into stars, toasted and used as tiny rafts for my pot of paté de foie gras.
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Monday, November 22, 2010

East Meets West... and Begets ‘Mozzarella in Samosa’ with a Spicy Tomato Sauce

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A few months ago, I saw an appeal from a fellow food blogger for a decent Mozzarella in Carrozza recipe. Doesn’t it sound delicious – Moz-za-relllllllla in Carrr-rro-zza! What a great name for what is essentially a fried mozzarella sandwich.
Naughty? No, just really, really nice!    
For me, the original version - sealed in squishy bread and fried - has never quite lived up to its promise. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong. It just seemed too much: too much bread; too much oozing mozzarella; too much fat from frying. Too much!
There was a horrible storm a few nights ago and I couldn’t sleep.  Embarking on a samosa recipe at 3am seemed like a sensible thing to my sleep-deprived brain. I fell into the soothing rhythm – fill, fold, fold, fold and seal. Repeat 24 more times.  It was like Strictly Come Dancing for hands. While my hands were busy with the samosa production line, my head was busy thinking... can this work for Mozarella in Carrozza, (errr... Mozzarella in Samosa?) As samosa aficionado, Barack Obama, might say... Yes! It! Can!

Mozzarella in Samosa at the start of its career...  
These little pastries stuffed with mozzarella, Parma ham, and pesto are a delight. Not too much of anything and just enough of everything.

I’ve given two methods for cooking: oven baked for the low(er) fat option that doesn’t taste ‘low fat’, or deep fried for the “I might as well be hung for a sheep, as a lamb” option.
If you’ve never folded a samosa before, I suggest you print out the diagram and practice with that first!
For approximately 10 you will need...
250g strong white flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
Approximately 150mls cold water

Spicy Tomato Sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
500mls pasata
½ teaspoon mild chilli powder
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

1 ball mozzarella, patted with kitchen paper to absorb excess moisture, then finely chopped
1 tablespoon pesto
3 slices Parma ham, shredded

1.       First make the dough: Mix together the flour, salt and sunflower oil. Mix in the water, a little at a time, using just enough to bring the mixture together in a ball, leaving the bowl clean. Refrigerate for an hour.
2.       Make the tomato sauce: Heat the olive oil in a small saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onion and cook for about 5 minutes until the onion has softened without colouring. Add the rest of the ingredients and allow to bubble gently over a medium heat until the sauce has thickened (about 20 minutes). This can be served hot or cold and keeps for a few days in the fridge.
3.       Now make the filling: Mix together all the ingredients for the filling.
4.       Divide the dough into two pieces. Lightly sprinkle a clean work surface with flour and using a rolling pin, roll the dough out into a rectangle about 2mm thick. Cut the dough into strips approximately 8cm x 20cm. A pizza wheel is perfect for this job.
5.        Place a teaspoon of the mozzarella mixture about 1cm from the narrow edge nearest you. Moisten the first 5cm of the right edge. Then take the left corner (corner 1), and fold it diagonally over the mixture (to corner 2), pressing to seal the edge you’ve just moistened. Fold diagonally twice more as in the diagram – folding corner 3 to corner 4, then corner 5 to corner 6. (You’re allowed curse while making the first one but you’ll soon get the hang of it). When you have made the third fold, cut away the dough strip, leaving a 1cm border (7 in the diagram). Moisten this flap and fold over the triangular parcel you’ve just made.
6.       Place on a lightly floured surface, while you make the rest (or place them directly on a non-stick baking sheet if you are going to bake them).

Practice makes perfect... (ignore the one on the right!)  
To bake pre-heat the oven to 180°C (350°F)
Place the triangles on a non-stick baking sheet, brush lightly with a little beaten egg, and bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Serve hot with the tomato sauce.
To deep fry, pre-heat your deep fat fryer to 190°C (375°F)
Gently lower one of the parcels into the hot fat followed closely, one-by-one, by as many as will comfortably fit in the fryer without overcrowding. You may have to do this in batches. Keep the temperature at 190°C (375°C), turning the parcels after 4 minutes.  When they have had 6 – 8 minutes and are golden brown, remove from the fat and drain on kitchen paper.
Caution: however tempted you are, do not stuff the hot pastry into your mouth – the filling is like molten lava! Serve with that warning, and the spicy tomato sauce.
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Monday, November 15, 2010

Mini Mango and Ginger Cheesecakes – the best things come in small packages, cupcake!

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Perhaps because I am snack-sized myself, I have a weakness for mini-food of all types. If there are canapés on offer, I’m there. Too often, by the time I’ve polished off a proper dinner, I have barely enough room left to read the dessert menu, never mind actually tackle the average confectionery... unless of course it’s a cupcake.
When this winter rolls over into January 2011, trendy foodies will be saying “Cupcakes are so last year!”  Tsk! What a shame, because many people – me included – love the endless variation of form and flavour (and mini-ness) that cupcakes represent.
What lies beneath?  
What is going to replace the cupcake in my affections?
I know! The mini cheesecake! It is petite perfection, with about half the calories of a regular old-fashioned slice (unless you devour two). Just like the cup cake, the mini cheesecake can take on endless form and flavour. 
Say "Cheese!"

For approximately 15 mini Mango and Ginger cheesecakes you will need:
Ginger biscuit base
150g Ginger Nut biscuits, crushed
75g butter, melted

1.   First, line a muffin pan with paper muffin liners. Mix together the crushed biscuits and melted butter and divide between the muffin cups, packing the mixture down lightly with the back of a spoon.
Mango cheesecake mix
1 x 568ml (1 pint) packet orange jelly (Jell-O) – I use the 135g Chivers brand
125mls boiling water
350g full-fat soft cheese (low-cal won’t set properly)
110g caster sugar
125mls double cream
1 x 397g tin sliced mango in light syrup
25mls fresh lemon/lime juice or 25mls Maguary Passion Fruit concentrate if you can get it

2.   In a measuring jug, dissolve the orange jelly in the boiling water. A few zaps of the microwave can speed this up a little.
3.   In a food processor, purée the sliced mango with enough of its syrup to make a thick liquid and add enough of this to bring the melted jelly mixture to bring it up to 275mls on the measuring jug (you’ll have plenty left over – I drizzle this over the finished cakes). Stir in the lemon/lime juice or Passion Fruit concentrate. Leave to cool, checking every five minutes or so for the gelling process to start – this is where it begins to thicken ever so slightly.
4.   Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, beat together the cream cheese and sugar until smooth.
5.   When the jelly mixture has reached the gelling stage, add it to the cheese mixture and beat until smooth. Finally, add the double cream and beat until just combined.
6.   Divide the mixture between the muffin cups – careful to leave about  ½cm at the top. Refrigerate for about 3 hours or until set. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.
To decorate as shown:
Spoon a little of the mango purée over the surface of the set cakes. This gives them the beautiful sunny yellow in the picture.  Draw shapes on baking parchment and fill them in with melted dark chocolate, or drizzle random shapes, remembering to count one for each cheesecake and a few extra for the cook. Leave for about 5 – 10 minutes in a cool room then peel away the paper and decorate the cheesecakes with the chocolate shapes.
Choose another flavour of in place of the orange jelly and add a complementary puréed fruit in place of the mango.
Add a little chopped crystallised ginger to spice up the base, or choose another biscuit entirely – try Oreos, Digestive, Choc Chip...  So many mini cheesecakes, so little time...
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Monday, November 8, 2010

Double-Hazelnut Vanilla Caramel Cake – quite a character!

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I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help over the summer, and I cannot get one of the characters out of my mind. Appearing almost as often as the main protagonist, Minnie’s Caramel Cake seems to be a huge part of the story. It made me hungry every time I picked up the book.
Double-Hazelnut Vanilla Caramel Cake - quite a character!

I’ve tried to find a definitive recipe for Caramel Cake, but – like Irish stew – it appears to be one of those recipes that no matter what version you use, you’ll set someone’s tongue a-tutting.
Soooooo, I’m not going to try and recreate a Caramel Cake. I am going to make a Double-Hazelnut Vanilla Caramel Cake – hazelnut sponge cake, with a layer of creamy Nutella filling, slip in some crushed meringue, add a layer of caramel, another layer of Nutella/meringue filling. Top this sugar-fest with more caramel - the filling doubles as frosting.  You’ll need a sugar thermometer for the caramel topping.
For 10 generous slices you will need...
... to pre-heat the oven to 160°C

For the Cake Batter
200g Kerrygold butter, softened
180g caster sugar
4 eggs, beaten
150mls fresh milk
1 teaspooon vanilla extract
330g plain flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
50g toasted hazelnuts, chopped


·     First, butter and base-line two 23cm sandwich tins.
·     In a large mixing bowl (or food mixer) beat together the soft butter and sugar until fluffy and paler in colour.
·     In a jug, mix together the eggs, milk and vanilla extract.
·     In another bowl, mix together the flour and baking powder.
·     Slowly add about a quarter of the egg mixture to the butter, beating continuously until combined. Then, add about a quarter of the flour mixture. Continue beating while you add alternate lots of egg and flour to the butter mixture until both have been used up.
·     Finally, add in the toasted hazelnuts and mix until just combined.
·     Divide the mixture between the two buttered, base-lined sandwich tins and bake in the pre-heated oven for 30 minutes. Prod lightly with a finger. The sponges should spring back. If not, give them another 5 minutes or so and test again.
·     Leave to cool in the tin for about 10 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack. Leave to cool completely.
While the cakes are baking, make the fillings...
For the Creamy Nutella Filling
240g cream cheese
130g Nutella
220g icing sugar, sifted
2 single-portion ready-made meringues, crushed into pea-sized bits
·     Place the cream cheese, Nutella, and icing sugar in a mixing bowl and with your hand-held blender set to low, beat together until combined in a smooth mixture. The meringue comes in later...

For the Caramel Filling and Topping
330g sugar
250mls milk
30g black treacle
50g Kerrygold butter
8 tablespoons condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

·     Place the sugar, milk and treacle in a saucepan and stir together over a low heat until the sugar has melted. Turn up the heat a little, stirring continuously, until the mixture is bubbling and has reached the ‘soft ball’ mark on your sugar thermometer (116°C or 240°F). Don’t worry if the milk separates. It will all come together in the end.
·     As soon as it has reached the ‘soft ball’ stage, remove it from the heat and add the butter, letting it melt. Stir the melted butter into the mixture – it will seem like this is never going to happen at first, but persist! When the butter has vanished into the mixture, stir in the condensed milk and vanilla extract.
·     Leave the mixture to get cold, beating occasionally to break up the surface crust that forms as it cools.

Assemble when the cakes and the frosting are cold
·     Split each of the cakes and fill both with the Nutella mixture. Sprinkle the filling with crushed meringue before joining the cake halves together again.
·     Pour a generous layer of caramel on top of one cake and stack the other cake on top.
·     Pour the rest of the caramel over the stacked cakes, smoothing with a palate knife. Ensure that the sides are covered.
·     At this stage it looks very brown so I coat the sides with chopped toasted hazelnuts (that makes it triple hazelnut!) or desiccated coconut and drizzle the top with dark chocolate which sets hard and makes a lovely contrast to the soft caramel. You may have other decorating ideas. Either way, prepare for a sugar rush.

Use ready-made caramel or Dulche de Leche in place of the caramel frosting if you want to save yourself a bit of stirring.
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Sunday, October 31, 2010

An Ode to Colcannon – from a Conscientious Objector to Cabbage!

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I’ve been having a bad week in my kitchen – you know the kind of week where nothing quite goes as expected. The worst was my attempt at making chocolate caramels. They turned out fine - dark, chewy, and very, very more-ish. However in the process of getting the mixture up to temperature, I enamelled my favourite stainless steel saucepan. It has taken a week of inventiveness and ingenuity to remove the shiny black sugar coating from the metal. I believe I have invented a substance that NASA might want to consider for tiling the space shuttle.
Moving swiftly on... it is a perfect Halloween evening – wild and stormy. There’s a log fire blazing and an open bottle of wine on the mantelpiece.
Tonight I am going to KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid! 

Traditional Irish Colcannon for Hallowe'en (though any excuse will do)
On the menu: corned beef with colcannon. The corned beef is a cinch to cook. Rinse it, weigh it and pop it in a pot just large enough to take it and a few ancillary vegetables. Add an onion and sprinkle in a large pinch of ground cloves. Bring it to the boil, then cover and turn the heat down to a gentle bubble, giving it 25 – 30 minutes per pound/half kilo.  The piece I’m cooking is 1.5kg or about 3lb and will take an hour and a half. I’ll fling a few carrots in to the pot about half an hour before the meat is finished cooking. Really, the meat is just an excuse to make its perfect partner – a dish of butter, peppery colcannon (cál ceannann).

As a conscientious objector to cabbage, I astound myself with my devotion to colcannon – which is essentially buttery mashed potato mixed with finely chopped curly kale (fancy cabbage, but cabbage all the same). Traditionally eaten at Halloween, I shamelessly sneak it into meals whenever I can find kale.
About fifteen minutes before the beef is finished cooking, prepare the colcannon.

 For 4 people, you will need...
4 – 6 potatoes (I use Rooster – a good, floury potato)
Curly kale, about to become something special
50g butter
110 mls hot milk
a large pinch sea salt
white pepper to taste
200g curly kale (or leafy green cabbage)
4 spring onions (scallions) finely chopped
An optional extra 50g butter to bury in the mash

1    Peel the potatoes and cut into slice about ½ cm thick. Place in a saucepan and barely cover with cold water. Bring to the boil. Turn down the heat to simmering, cover and simmer gently for 15 minutes, or until the point of a knife easily pierces the potato slices.
2    While the potato is cooking, add the curly kale (or green cabbage) to another saucepan of boiling water with a teaspoon of salt. Cover and boil for about 5 minutes or until tender. Drain and chop very finely.
3    When the potatoes are cooked, drain the water from the saucepan and leave the potatoes uncovered for a minute or so until most of the steam has evaporated. Add the butter and hot milk and, using a potato masher or a sturdy hand-held whisk, reduce the potato to a smooth mash. (Don’t be tempted to go mechanical as it overworks the potato and can result in an unpleasant gluey mess). Add salt and white pepper, mixing thoroughly. Taste and add further salt and pepper if necessary.
4    When you have prepared the basic mash, add in the curly kale or cabbage and chopped spring onions. Transfer to a warm serving dish with the optional extra 50g of butter cut into three pieces and buried deep in the fluffy mixture to melt into little pools of gold.

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