Monday, December 31, 2012

Spaghetti with Clams - a rollercoaster ride!

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Happy New Year, tastebuds!
I’ve come across Spaghetti alle Vongole - spaghetti with clams - many times in many novels as the one dish the busy heroine or hunky hero can manage to throw together however undomesticated they are. 

Light but luxurious, comforting but with a chilli kick, I first tasted this dish in Venice where my taste buds thought they had died and gone to pasta heaven. It is a bowlful of loveliness that is greater than the sum of its parts and takes longer to describe than it does to make. Right now, it answers my craving for lighter food after the excesses of Christmas.

You’ll need a large frying pan with a lid, and with this dish, timing is everything so make sure to have everything prepared in advance as once the pan goes on the heat it is a bit of a rollercoaster ride to the plate.

To send two sets of taste buds to heaven you will need…

150g dried spaghetti
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons finely chopped celery stick
1 tablespoon finely chopped celery leaf (if available)
2 fat cloves of garlic, very finely chopped
1 fresh red chilli, very finely chopped
2 fresh (ripe) tomatoes (plum tomatoes if possible), diced
500g fresh clams, rinsed in several changes of cold water to remove any grit
150mls dry white wine
a little sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leafed parsley

Fast food!

1.                 First start to cook the spaghetti according to the instructions on the pack. Working backwards, you want to start the sauce 5 minutes before the spaghetti is cooked.
2.                 In the frying pan, heat the olive oil over a medium heat. Add the chopped celery stick (and celery leaf if using), along with the garlic and chilli. Cook for about a minute or until the garlic just begins to take on a golden tinge. Now add the tomatoes, cooking for a further minute.
3.                 Turn up the heat and add the clams and white wine, covering the pan with the lid. Shake the pan back and forth occasionally to make sure the clams are cooking evenly in the fragrant liquid and steam. They will take about 3 minutes to cook - once they are cooked they will spring open. Turn off the heat and discard any clams that haven’t opened.
4.                 Meanwhile, the spaghetti should be ready. (Test it to make sure it is not too chewy - if it is, give it another minute and test again). Drain and add to the frying pan along with the chopped parsley. Using two forks, toss the spaghetti in the clam sauce. Taste and add salt and black pepper only if necessary. Allow the spaghetti to absorb some of the delicious juices for a minute or so before serving in warm pasta bowls.
5.              Sigh contentedly.

Right, that’s it from me for 2012. Wishing you and yours the happiest New Year, full of wonderful things. See you in 2013!

Hester x

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Cointreau Cumberland – a saucy little number !

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It’s funny how Cumberland Sauce has ended up being a quintessentially English sauce when it has its roots in Germany – a bit like the royal family, you might say.
Traditionally, it comprises port and redcurrant jelly with a few other bits and pieces - ground ginger, powdered mustard etc. It should be thin, and sweet-ish, a pretty ruby colour with the gentle kick of a retired can-can dancer.
Let’s go with the dancer analogy: If I was a critic watching this sauce prance around the kitchen I would scribble the following notes:
A little too thin to carry the role... a touch too sweet... needs more attack...
Thicker than the traditional sauce - and golden rather than ruby - this saucy little Cointreau-laced number is more than able to high-kick its way across your taste buds and is well able to stand up to rich pâtés or terrines. (It is also delicious with the inevitable cold turkey and ham.)

For a sauce with more attitude you will need...

1 lemon
1 large orange
200g plum jam (or similar flavour, not too dominant)
4 tablespoons Cointreau (or other orange liqueur)
10g fresh ginger, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
100mls fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard  

1.           First, using a vegetable peeler, thinly peel the zest from the lemon and the orange, leaving as much of the white pith behind. Trim the peelings with a sharp knife to remove any of this bitter pith that still clings to the zest. Cut the peel into 4cm lengths trimming the edges so they are straight (this looks nicer in the finished sauce). You can discard the uneven trimmings. Cut the strips of zest into the thinnest shreds you can manage. Put them in a small bowl and cover with boiling water to soften the flavour.
2.           While the zest is soaking, place the plum jam in a small saucepan, with the Cointreau, ginger, lemon juice and orange juice. Heat gently until simmering and allow to bubble gently for about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. This will help evaporate some of the alcohol.
3.           Pass the sauce through a strainer to remove the ginger and any fruity pulp from the jam and fruit juices. Taking a little of the strained sauce, added it to the mustard, mixing until smooth. Return this mixture to the sauce. Drain the shredded zest and pat with kitchen paper to remove any excess water before adding to the sauce. Leave to cool. 

I particulary love this sauce with this ridiculously easy chicken liver pâté.
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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Pupcakes – the main ingredient is imagination!

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When my sister said “Cake Sale... Next Saturday... For charity... Inspiration for the novice baker please?!”, it had to be Pupcakes.

These are my (current) favourites. They are a little fiddly to make but so worth it when you see the reaction they get. Both kids and grownups deliberate for ages over their choice. When I point out that each of these little cuties tastes the same, I often get the reply “But, Hester! They all have different personalities! I have to find the one that’s right for me!”

For 1 dozen cute pupcakes (each with their own personality) you will need...
... a small star-shaped piping nozzle such as a Wilton 22 and a piping bag (or a freezer bag with the corner snipped off to accommodate the piping nozzle).
1 dozen vanilla-flavoured plain cupcakes

Buttercream Icing
250g butter (not dairy spread), at room temperature (i.e. soft)
275g icing sugar, sifted
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1.                 Place the soft butter together with half the icing sugar in a large mixing bowl or stand mixer. Mix together slowly to avoid filling the kitchen with a sweet sugar cloud. When mixed, add the second half of the icing sugar and the vanilla essence and whip until light and fluffy – I usually mix this in my stand mixer, leaving it running for 5 minutes. This amount will decorate 12 cupcakes.

To decorate the pupcakes you will need...
6 red/pink Starburst sweets (or similar soft fruit caramels), for the tongue
6 marshmallows for the muzzle, snipped in half so you have two discs from each
a further 4 marshmallows for the ears, each snipped into 4 long slices then rolled out to make long floppy ear shapes
24 Smarties (or similar sweets) for the eyes (pairs of matching colours if possible)
12 Smarties (or similar) for the nose - pink or brown look good

a little imagination 
Mmmmm, I feel like a kid in a candy store!

2.                 First, make the tongues: Unwrap 1 Starburst (or soft fruit caramel) and place it in the microwave for about 4 seconds to soften it slightly. Roll it out to a thickness of about 2mm. Using a kitchen scissors, cut out rounded teardrop shapes about the size of your index fingernail. You should get 2 tongues from each sweet. Fold each teardrop gently in half, then unfold to create a line down the centre of the tongue. Gently bend to make natural-looking tongue shapes (as shown in the photo above). Ok, that was the difficult bit. The rest is an easy assembly job.
3.                 Next, If your cupcakes are domed, cut the tops off in line with the top of the cupcake cases to make a level surface for your icing.
4.                 Half-fill your piping bag with the freshly-whipped icing (piping bags are a lot easier to work with if not too full).
5.                 Cup a cake in one hand and, with the other, pipe icing all over the surface using little stabbing motions to mimic the appearance of fur.  It doesn’t have to be too neat.
6.                 Place a marshmallow half – with the sticky, cut side, down - off-centre to create the muzzle. Cover this with icing too. Place 2 Smartie eyes on the cake as shown in the photo below. Top the muzzle with another Smartie for the nose.
7.                 Press a pair of marshmallow ears either side of the eyes, making sure a sticky side is in contact with the icing as this helps it adhere.
8.                 Insert a Starburst tongue between the muzzle and the cupcake to secure.
9.                 Finally, pipe a cute little curl just over the eyes. Once you’ve done one, the rest are much quicker to assemble. Store in a cool dry place (not the fridge!)
Start with a level base; use half a marshmallow for the muzzle; add marshmallow ears
and candy eyes and nose; finally poke the tongue just under the base of the muzzle. 

The event, at St Matthias Hall in Killiney, Co. Dublin on Saturday, December 1st, 12 noon to 2pm, is in aid of the Intellectual Disability Association of Lesotho. Christmas music... mulled wine... tea, coffee, hot chocolate with marshmallows...  mince pies.... cakes, buns, cupcakes etc. as well as some Christmas crafts... Break Christmas in gently...

Come along on Saturday and meet the Ambassador of Lesotho and his family as you deliver a delicious donation, or simply take time out to enjoy one of the gorgeous creations on offer along with a cuppa and maybe even get some of your Christmas shopping done.

And, hey! Hands off! That one's mine!

Other bake sale ideas include:

Honey, Lemon and Almond Tartlets - this recipe makes 18
Banana, Pear and Coconut Loaf - excellent with coffee, improves if made ahead of time

If you have your own favourite bake sale recipe that you’d like to share with the bakers participating in the sale, please email me your link at, and I’d be delighted to add it to the list. Pin It

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Rosemary Garlic Sautéed Potatoes – pretty close to perfect

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As an Irishwoman, I am genetically predisposed to adore potatoes. Mashed... baked... fried... chipped... roast... steamed... you name it, I’m there, knife and fork - or just plain fingers - at the ready.
It is very hard to pick a favourite. A strong contender - and a simple classic dish that I’ve rustled up since childhood - is sautéed potatoes. Excellent with roast or grilled meats, with a delicious golden crust, and laced with garlic and rosemary, I think this version is pretty close to perfect (and if onions make you cry, read the simple tips at the end of the recipe).

As a side for 2 greedy people, or 3 – 4 more restrained appetites you will need:
500g floury potatoes such as Rooster, peeled and cut into bite-sized cubes (of about 1.5cm)

25g butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, halved from top to bottom, then sliced thinly into half moons
1 teaspoon of very finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 clove of garlic, very finely chopped

50g butter
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt (I prefer Maldon for this dish)
1.                 Place the potatoes in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil then simmer gently for 10 minutes. Carefully drain off the water and set the potatoes aside for a couple of minutes to allow the steam to evaporate. You want the potatoes to be as dry as possible. They will still be a little firm but that’s perfect. You don’t want them to break up when you start to fry them.
2.                 While you are waiting for the potatoes to cook, place 25g of butter together with 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the sliced onion. Lower the heat and cook gently until the onion starts to turn golden (about 7 minutes). Add the rosemary and garlic and cook for a further minute. Remove from the heat and transfer to a bowl.
3.                 Wipe out the frying pan with kitchen paper before adding the remaining butter and olive oil. Place over a medium-high heat and when the butter has melted and stopped sizzling, add the potatoes cubes. Cook for about 5 minutes or until the sides of the cubes touching the pan have started to turn golden. Gently turn the potato cubes and continue cooking until gloriously golden all over.
4.                 Scatter the cooked onion mixture over the potatoes, sprinkle with a little sea salt and continue cooking for a minute or two to heat through. Serve as soon as you possibly can, although this dish will relax happily in a warm oven for 20 minutes if necessary.

Note: If preparing onions makes you cry, read on for some simple tips to avoid weeping into your sautéed potatoes...
When you cut into an onion, it releases a volatile compound that irritates nose and eyes. Use a sharp knife to avoid excessively crushing the onion cells, releasing less of the compound in the first place. Breathe through your mouth to avoid the onion vapours going up your nose and lean slightly away from the onion so that the vapours don’t rise into your eyes.
Or wear some stylish goggles like my lovely assistant, Naomi...
(Photo by Veronica Casey)
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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Apricot and Almond Scones – easy, lazy, delicious !

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I’m a brunch kinda gal. I’d rather skip breakfast than breakfast in a hurry so my cupboards are usually bare of boxed cereals (unless specifically bought for a recipe). So when my nieces and nephew come for a sleepover, there is usually a mad scramble to find hungry tummies something to eat in the morning. Luckily they are used to this routine by now and know that empty cupboard breakfasts can produce French toast (in about 20 minutes); buttermilk pancakes, (about the same); and that scones, while taking just a bit longer, are a fun hands-on activity, and open to all sorts of flavour customisation: apple... nutella... chocolate chip...
My latest favourite is Apricot and Almond. This mixture is easy, lazy, and delicious. Kids (of all ages) love to get involved in cutting out and glazing.  Guaranteed a big hit with little and large tummies alike.

For 8 or 9 scones you will need...
... to preheat the oven to 200
150g plain flour
75g wholemeal flour
50g ground almonds
10g baking powder
¼ teaspoon fine table salt
50g butter, cut into small cubes
100g ready-to-eat dried apricots, very finely chopped
½ teaspoon almond extract (optional)
150mls fresh milk 

To glaze
1 egg, beaten (or a little milk for a less glossy finish)
a little brown or white sugar for sprinkling  

1                    Place the white flour, wholemeal flour, baking powder, ground almonds and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the butter and rub it into the flour, lifting and crumbling the mixture between your index and middle fingers and your thumbs, until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
2                    Add the chopped dried apricots.
3                    Mix the almond extract (if using) with the milk, and pour into the bowl. Mix gently until the ingredients have formed a soft dough and no dry flour remains.
4                    Lightly flour your hands then turn the mixture onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead gently to form a ball. Pat the dough out into a round approximately 2cm thick (you could use a rolling pin for a more professional finish but I’ve found that hungry kids don’t much care for perfect symmetry).
5                    Using a 6cm (3”) cutter, stamp out scone shapes from the dough reforming any scraps into a ball and once again patting into a thickness of 2cm. This mixture yields between 8 and 9 scones.
6                    Place the prepared scones on a non-stick baking sheet and brush the tops with beaten egg. Sprinkle each with a pinch of sugar and bake in the preheated oven for 12 – 15 minutes until risen and golden brown.
7                    When cooked, remove from the oven and place on a cooling rack for about 5 minutes before serving with butter and jam. Scones are best served the day they are made but generally there are no leftovers so this won’t be a cause for concern J

Note: You could use your food processor for the first 2 steps, using whole almonds for better flavour and simply roughly chop the apricots, letting the processor do most of the work. I prefer to mix in the milk by hand as overworking the dough can make it tough.

It's called the fastest bread in the West because one moment it's there and next it's scone ...
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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Roasted Vegetable Tart Tatin – lives up to its puff pastry potential...

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I was watching The Great British Bake Off the other evening and the overriding theme was a terror of soggy bottoms. They went on about it so much I began to wonder if the judges and contestants had each had a childhood filled with compulsory picnics on damp grass without the benefit of a ground sheet.
It turns out that the dread lay in the possibility of puff pastry not reaching its full airy potential. Oh the drama of it all!
And yet, as I prepared this roasted vegetable tatin, I too began to worry about stunting the growth of my puff pastry. Ripe juicy tomatoes, plump peppers – all that juice instead of spelling flavour, now just signalled certain disaster. There was nothing for it but to roast the bejaysus (technical term) out of the vegetables before they came anywhere near the pastry. The benefit of roasting the vegetables in advance is that it concentrates the flavour no end as well as driving out those potentially catastrophic juices.
War On Waste: Because this is cooked in two stages, you could pop the vegetables in to the oven with another dish and finish the tart the next day, or you could cook something else in the oven while the vegetables are cooling (This is what I did, making this banana bread - with walnuts instead of coconut)– WOW is about energy efficiency too.
For 1 savoury tarte tatin you will need...
... to preheat the oven to 180

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 medium tomatoes (about the side of a tennis ball), halved across the waist
4 small bell peppers (again, think tennis ball), halved top to bottom, seeds removed
2 onions (yep, tennis ball), peeled, leaving the root intact, then sliced into 4 wedges through the root
1 fat clove of garlic, grated
½ teaspoon dried basil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 x 250g ready-rolled puff pastry sheet 

Fresh basil, parsley or mint leaves to garnish 

1                    Put the olive oil into a medium roasting tin and add the prepared vegetables. Dot with grated garlic and sprinkle with the dried basil, salt and pepper. Roast in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes, or until the edges of the vegetables start to brown. Remove and leave to cool.
2                    Line an 22cm (9”) round cake tin with parchment paper (this stops the vegetables sticking)
3                    Pack the cooled roasted vegetables snugly into the cake tin in one layer, bearing in mind that you’ll be inverting it to serve, so best side down...
4                    Cut the pastry sheet to fit neatly over the top of the tin. Place on top of the vegetable layer and transfer to the preheated oven.
5                    Bake for about 30 minutes (again in a preheated oven at 180°C) or until the pastry is golden and risen. Leave to cool for about 10 minutes before carefully inverting onto a serving plate. Scatter with fresh basil, parsley or mint leaves. 

Note: Although this tart didn’t hang about long enough to get a soggy bottom, I suspect that the juices would leak into the pastry by the following day so feed this to a hungry appreciative crowd who will demolish it before it has time to disgrace you.
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Friday, October 12, 2012

Lemon, Honey and Basil Ice Cream - it'd be a crime to miss it !

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Some years ago a very pleasant trip to visit a friend in France took a rather strange twist that involved a very unique (and ever so slightly stolen) car, being fingerprinted by French police (who also offered great advice on where to dine in the vicinity), and a lemon. Long story.  I’ll tell you when you come round to visit.
I was given the lemon, as a souvenir of this strange adventure, which I took back to Ireland and made into ice cream. It was the first ice cream I ever made and was a convoluted process. Was it the most exciting ice cream I’ve ever tasted? No. But it served to send me on a quest for a lemony ice cream that would create for my taste buds a little of the excitement of that trip, and here it is.

Strictly speaking, this is a frozen yoghurt but because it is Greek yoghurt it is every bit as satisfyingly creamy as an ice cream. It is also dead easy to make. With such a high juice content, you really do need an ice cream maker for this. Note: This ice cream is for grown-ups.

For 4 - 6 servings you will need...
... an ice cream maker

Zest of 2 lemons, grated
Zest of 1 orange, grated
175mls fresh lemon juice
75mls fresh orange juice
10g fresh basil leaves
140g runny honey
550g Greek yoghurt
¼ teaspoon sea salt 

1                    Place everything except the Greek yoghurt in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Immediately remove from the heat and leave to cool. Strain to remove the zest and basil leaves. Leave to cool, then chill in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.
2                    When chilled, mix with the Greek yoghurt and salt and churn in your ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. When the mixture has thickened to ice cream, transfer it to a freezer container and place in the freezer for 24 hours. Although it is ready to eat straight away, the flavours develop further if you can bear to wait until the following day. Before serving, allow to soften in the fridge for 20-25 minutes.

Taste-tester verdict: "Gasp!" but in a good way. 
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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Roasted Panzanella with Lemon and Caper Dressing - almost too good to be true!

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This week has been almost too good to be true. According to my email, I am the beneficiary of several generous inheritances – mostly from people I’ve never heard of in Nigeria and South America.
Some random investor in China is prepared to lend me buckets of cash with no collateral required. Meanwhile, though I cannot for the life of me remember buying a ticket, it appears I have also won the Italian state lottery this week, so I won’t need to take Mr Wong up on his generous offer.
I am feeling quite overwhelmed by these riches that are – apparently – coming my way. Don't worry, I’m not going to lose the run of myself. Until the cash actually arrives, I will continue to live a simple life.
With that in mind, I have stoked up a hunger for simple, peasant food. Panzanella springs to mind. It is a thrifty Italian salad mainly of tomato, and yesterday’s bread. I’ve added roasted vegetables for punchier flavour and a more substantial dish. The dressing is inspired by my caper-hating sister-in-law, Rosie, who recently made the most incredibly delicious caper-laced, lemony tapenade.
To serve 4 as a main, or 6 – 8 as a side you will need...
... to pre-heat the oven to 180

For the roasted vegetables
1 red onion, peeled, leaving the root intact
1 large red pepper, cut into large pieces
200g courgettes, cut into 2cm cubes
400g fresh tomatoes (a variety of different types if possible) cut into large chunks
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 

1                    First cut the red onion into 8 wedges, making sure each wedge gets a share of the root (this helps keep the onion pieces whole during cooking).
2                    Mix gently with the rest of the ingredients until coated in olive oil. Transfer to a shallow baking tray, spreading the vegetables out as much as possible so that they roast evenly. Roast in the pre-heated oven for 30 minutes or until they start to blacken at the edges. Leave to cool in the baking tray. While the vegetables are cooking, make the croutons

For the croutons
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
¼ teaspoon Herbes de Provence (or dried basil)
¼ teaspoon sea salt
125g white country bread, ciabatta or baguette, cut into bite-sized cubes 

3                    Mix the first four ingredients together in a medium mixing bowl. Add the cubes of bread and turning them in the garlicky oil until it has been absorbed and the cubes are coated evenly.
4                    Transfer to a shallow baking tray and bake in the pre-heated oven for 5 minutes or until lightly golden brown. Turn the croutons over and replace in the oven for a further 2 minutes. (Set a timer as they go from golden to charcoal in no time). Leave to cool on the baking tray. 
Simple ingredients, magical food...
For the lemon and caper dressing
4 tablespoons sunflower oil (or other light flavourless oil)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (if you don’t have fresh juice, use white wine vinegar instead)
1 heaped teaspoon capers, rinsed to remove any vinegar or salt, then very finely chopped
½ clove garlic, crushed
¼ teaspoon salt
5                    Place all the dressing ingredients in my Super Salad Shaker (a.k.a. a jam jar with a lid), seal tightly and shake until combined. Couldn’t be simpler.
Seal tightly to avoid dressing the kitchen and self in delicious lemony dressing...

To assemble the salad...
While the vegetables and croutons are cooling you will need...
200g fresh tomatoes, cut into bite-sized chunks
150g cucumber, skin on, cut into bite-sized chunks
12 fat black olives, stones removed
Fresh basil 

6                    Place the tomatoes, cucumber and olives in a large serving bowl or platter.
7                    When the roasted vegetables and croutons have cooled, add them to the serving dish along with approximately 12 basil leaves and spoon most of the dressing over, turning the contents of the dish gently to coat them evenly with the dressing. Cover and leave in a cool place (but not the fridge unless you want woolly-textured tomatoes) for at least 30 minutes for the flavours to meld (alchemy at work!) or up to 12 hours. 

I feel a picnic coming on...
Taste-tester verdict:
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