Monday, 26 December 2011

Last-minute Christmas stollen

In the midst of getting stuck into the thousands of gingerbread cookies, glorious chocolate cheesecake and messy but yummy mince pies (thank you free Mary Berry recipe in this week’s Stylist!) that came out of my kitchen over the past few days, I noticed on Christmas Eve that I had a container of candied ginger that as yet did not have a recipe assigned to it. That was soon remedied, and a version of Christmas stollen was born. I cheated and did the dough in my bread machine, making it by far the easiest recipe of the season. Definitely on the baking list for next year.

Ingredients (makes two 10in loaves):
4½ cups (610g) bread flour
¾ cup (175ml) water
½ cup (130g) butter, softened
1 teaspoon almond extract
1½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
½ cup (100g) sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1½ packets of yeast*
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup (about 200g) candied ginger
¾ cup (about 200g) raisins or sultanas

Lemon glaze:
1 cup (130g) powdered (icing) sugar
teaspoon lemon extract
1-2 tablespoons milk

1. Mix and knead the dough by hand as you normally would and allow to rise until nearly double, or add the ingredients into a bread machine pan in the order recommended by the manufacturer and select the dough setting.

2. Punch down and separate into two sections. Roll out each section into an oval, approximately 8-9in diameter. Fold lengthwise and place onto a greased baking tray. Cover and let rise for about an hour, or until you see that it has risen to about 1.5 times its original size.

3. Bake at 350F (180C) for about 40 minutes, or until golden brown. Place on a wire rack to cool.

4. Cover with lemon glaze and powdered (icing) sugar. Top with maraschino (glace) cherries and almond flakes if desired.

*Note: whether due to the freezing temperatures outside, the humidity of the kitchen, random stubborness or all three, the dough just didn’t rise very much. I know stollen is meant to be more dense than your average white loaf, but just to be on the safe side, I’ve added a bit more yeast into the recipe below to compensate – I haven’t tested this though.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Gingerbread latte cupcakes

What tastes describe Christmas? Peppermint, orange, spices, candied fruit, almonds…although, I personally believe that anything with ‘Christmas’ in front of the title and with a spring of holly as the decoration can pass as a festive treat. 

It’s always fun finding out peoples’ family traditions when it comes to Christmas breakfast, dinner and dessert – for the former, I’ve heard about waffles and ice cream, apple pancakes, croissants and mince pies (why wait for dessert later when you can have it when you wake up?). None of them are particularly Christmassy (well, except the mince pies), but because they've been given the coveted title of Christmas Breakfast, Rudolph himself might as well be delivering it to their table.

To clarify, these are not on the menu next Sunday morning…

Cupcake ingredients (makes around 24):

½ cup (120ml) vegetable oil
cup (70g) sugar
1 egg
1 cup (220ml) molasses (dark treacle)
¾ cup (175ml) hot water
2 ¼ cups (290g) flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ginger
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt

Frosting ingredients:
3 cups (380g) powdered (icing) sugar
cup (75g) butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons milk
2-3 teaspoons instant coffee (depending on how strong you want the coffee flavour to be)

1. Preheat oven to 350F (180C). Blend liquid ingredients together, then add the dry ingredients until just mixed.

2. Prepare a muffin tray with cupcake wrappers. Fill each one three-quarters full with the gingerbread batter.

3. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool completely on a wire rack before frosting.

4. To make the frosting, cream butter and sugar, then add the rest of the ingredients. Blend thoroughly.

5. Frost each cupcake. Top with chocolate shavings, if desired.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Thanksgiving menu

If ever there were a time for a (an American) baker to shine, it’s during the weeks between the fourth Thursday of November and 25 December. Everyone’s cooking up something, or thinking about it, or frantically searching for ingredients for it, or trying to find someone else to do it all for them.

I love the reason for Thanksgiving, and miss the pleasant hubbub that takes place back home. I explain it to British friends as Christmas without the presents, but with the encouragement to reflect on the past year and be thankful for events big and small that have brought us to where we are today. 

Cooking a big roast dinner is just too much to ask on a non-holiday Thursday night in the UK (though I have taken it as a day off in the past, when heading up a dinner for 12…), so T and I designated the following Saturday as our Thanksgiving day. The feast (and many, many leftovers) included:

- Herb encrusted turkey crown
- Roast potatoes
- Sweet and sour red cabbage with bacon
- Candied sweet potatoes
- Pork and celery stuffing (traditional Grammy recipe)
- Peas (just to have a token green vegetable)
- Gravy
- Pumpkin pie

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Apple oatmeal cookies

Oh, how often dishes and desserts come about because ‘it was what I had around at the time’.  These have a similar story – one cooking apple that really should be used, a tiny amount of maple syrup from a large bottle that’s been taking up cupboard space for months (waiting for a pancake breakfast that never seems to happen), and the need* to make something small and sweet to bring to work during the week.

These cookies have been made with whole wheat flour, a bit of butter, reduced sugar (in an effort to balance the maple syrup) but the same amount of flour and oats that you’d normally find in oatmeal cookies. They’re cakey rather than cookie-y, so adding nuts might make them all fall to pieces, but mixing in flaked almonds could work. These also might be good as bars.

*Ok, perhaps not ‘need’, but it’s nice to have a little something with that afternoon cup of tea or coffee, giving you a final jolt of caffeine and sweetness to get through the last hour or two. Who's with me?

½ cup (115g) butter
½ cup (110g) sugar
1 egg
1 cup (135g) whole wheat flour
1 cup (85g) rolled oats       
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons maple syrup
2 teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
1 apple, finely chopped
Raisins (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 375F (190C). Cream butter and sugar.  Beat in the egg, maple syrup, then add the rest of the dry ingredients one at a time, with the flour and oats last. Stir in the apple and raisins.

2. Drop mixture by tablespoonfuls onto a cookie sheet (very lightly greased, if not using a non-stick cookie sheet).

3. Bake each tray for 10 minutes, or until cookies have started to brown. Cool before removing to a wire rack.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Chinese chicken marinade

Cooking during the week is always a challenge, but one untapped area of shortcut magic that I really want to try to do more of is overnight marinating for stir fries. While yes, it does just push the work of chopping meat (yuk) mixing ingredients and clearing up afterwards from one night to a previous one, there is the reward of then preparing a meal that takes 15-20 minutes to make, with two pots and two plates’ worth of washing to do afterwards. And after a long day working and commuting, anything that can save my precious evening minutes is like being given a plateful of fresh brownies.
Mmm, brownies…maybe that’s what I’ll do with the time I’ve saved…

¼ cup (60ml) soy sauce
¼ cup (60ml) sake (or dry sherry)
4 tablespoons of chilli oil
2 tablespoons chopped ginger
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
6 green (spring) onions, chopped

Mix all the above ingredients well. Put the chopped chicken into a bowl, pour over the marinade and refrigerate overnight.
When cooking with it the next day, pour the entire contents of the bowl into a hot pan, adding any other vegetables you’d like. Season to taste.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Pumpkin apple muffins

This could also be titled ‘what I did with my extra hour’. Clocks in the UK fell back last Sunday, and I thought that hour would be a great time to test a new recipe idea I had for muffins with both pumpkin and apple in them (but not quite the same as what I’d been finding online). So, into the kitchen I went, turned on the radio, and….someone was talking to a baker in a kitchen in Bristol who was also whipping up something delicious in her extra hour. So much for originality.

The recipe, however, turned out pretty well! I wasn’t expecting to get more than 12 out of it though, so it highlighted the fact that I could really do with another muffin tray…

(Makes 16 medium-sized muffins)

1 cups (270g) sugar
⅓ cup (80ml) vegetable oil
2 eggs
2½ cups (320g) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup cooked pumpkin (forgot to weigh this one, but it should be about 250g)
1 large, tart apple, chopped
Rolled oats (optional)

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F or 180°C. Grease muffin tray, or line cups with paper.
  2. Mix the sugar and oil. Beat in the eggs. Add in the dry ingredients, but do not over-stir. Mix in the pumpkin and chopped apple.
  3. Spoon the batter into the prepared tray, filling paper about two-thirds and greased cups about  three-quarters. Sprinkle rolled oats onto the top of the batter.
  4. Bake for 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean. (Note that if you stick the toothpick into an apple, it will come out with some baked apple on it but this does not mean that the muffins aren’t done.)
  5. Leave the muffins in the tray for about 10 minutes, then place them on a wire rack to cool.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Pumpkin season

I love everything about autumn – that ‘autumn smell’ and crispness in the air, the vibrant colours on the trees, being able to snuggle into a warm sweater and cosy gloves on a cold morning, and – above all – pumpkins. For me, autumns in the UK have a big pumpkin-shaped hole in them, as not even Starbucks sells pumpkin spice coffee, and people give me strange looks when I mention pumpkin pie.

That of course doesn’t stop me making it and many other pumpkin delights. It is possible to buy pumpkins around this time of year (though the standard kind are usually sold as carving pumpkins for Halloween rather than just pumpkins you can use in cooking). So, every year I buy a few, cut/boil/mash them and freeze two-cup portions that I use for breads, cookies, etc. I’ve found one grocery store in this country – a ‘posh’ store – that sells canned pumpkin, which I prefer to use when making pies and cheesecakes.

We did try to grow our own pumpkins this year, but started a little too late in the season, and had to self-pollinate in order to get any fruit. Only one miracle pumpkin made it to the orange stage (shown above).

One advantage to being in a country that tends to use pumpkin in savoury rather than sweet dishes is that I’ve been trying pumpkin more often in things like risottos, casseroles and stir-fries. The pureed portions I freeze are great for stirring into a vegetable risotto, which adds a comforting autumnal taste as well as a bit of colour.

Because it’s usually dark when T and I leave and come home from work, we didn’t realise that a tree in our backyard was slowly turning into this…

...a lovely site to behold as I sip pumpkin spice coffee from the stash I’ve smuggled here from back home. 

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Infused oils

They can look so pretty in a kitchen – rows of coloured bottles of oil, artfully shaped, assembled and positioned to make the room seem like the home of a serious cook who knows how to use them. Infused oils are one of those things that always looks great to buy, but then I see the price and think, “really? I’m sure I could do that myself for a lot cheaper…” and of course, I never do.

Perhaps not as aesthetically pleasing as more
expensive versions, but it's the taste that counts..right?
So, during the few manic hours of packing, cleaning and preparing to fly back to the Motherland for a few days, I naturally decided that was the perfect time to reverse that habit and make my own infused oils. To be fair, I’d already been collecting empty salad dressing bottles for a few weeks, and had bought the bits and pieces I needed earlier that week.

Which brings me to the first thing I found out – you can’t just put any old thing in a bottle of olive oil and walk away happy. Fresh herbs, fresh lemon rind, fresh garlic, fresh chilli…seeing the pattern?...are all forbidden unless you’re happy to keep the oil in the fridge and use it within a week or so at most. Anything that hasn’t been dried will have water in it, which is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. Even though fresh herbs look so much prettier in the bottle than dried, it’s not a good idea unless you have the fridge space (which means no one can see how pretty it is anyway) and the recipes in mind to use it that week.

I read that dried herbs, etc. take a couple of weeks to infuse properly, but that the risk of bacteria isn’t a problem so you don’t have to use it all right away. It’s still a good idea to keep the oil stored in a cool, dry place, and to make sure it’s not hanging around for months.

Using proportions of 1/4-1/3 herbs, and 3/4-2/3 olive oil, I used:
  • Sundried tomatoes
  • Dried, chopped garlic
  • Dried whole red chillis
  • Peppercorns
  • Dried mix of shitake, oyster and porcini mushrooms (mostly shitake, as I’d read that they’re particularly flavourful)

They’ve been infusing for three weeks now, and I used the garlic one in a moussaka last night. Not really the best recipe to test it on, as there are so many other spices as well, but I’m looking forward to trying the others in stir-fries later on.

On another note, I look with shame on the dates between my last post and this one. Life circumstances have altered somewhat (in a good way!) and meant that blogging time is more difficult to find than before, but that just means cooking and baking are even more of a necessity to step back from a hectic daily schedule. T and I have been trying to add some new recipes to our usual repertoire, and I hope to be sharing some of those soon!

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Rana’s turmeric & fennel cake

I love pulling out old recipes, or ones passed down from friends and relatives because each time I make them it’s like recreating a bit of history. Someone else – whether last week or decades ago – put those same ingredients together in the way they liked best, and served it to people they loved. It's why I like making the few recipes my Italian grandmother gave to us…I never met her, but feel that I can get to know her a little by enjoying the same things she did.

I caught a compelling interview on the radio last Sunday morning with Rana Jawad, a BBC journalist who lives in Tripoli. She described the unimaginable difficulties she and her family have faced over the past few months, as well as her resolve to keep writing about what was going on with the constant fear of being captured by Gadhafi’s forces. She then spoke of how she’d relax in the midst of it all by baking, making up her own recipes, and serving her freshly-made cakes to her loved ones.

While I do not pretend that I can even begin to identify with someone in Rana’s position, what we do share is the simple truth that baking does indeed provide a welcome escape from daily events. Perhaps it’s the comfort of having something that’s a little bit in our control, or just being able to step away from life’s dramas and instead ponder over whether you should add another teaspoon of cinnamon to a recipe.

So, when the radio presenter said that some of Rana’s recipes would be posted on their website (you have to scroll down a little), I was very intrigued. I made her Turmeric & Fennel Cake, which she says is inspired by desserts from her home country of Lebanon. It’s absolutely delicious. There are also recipes for Chilli & Chocolate, and Rose Water & Apricot cakes. 

NB - If anyone out there doesn't have scales, I'd be happy to do a cup conversion for you.

Someone else thought it looked delicious, too (note our photo studio, aka the sun porch,
aka where laundry dries, aka the only room that actually gets decent light)

Sunday, 28 August 2011


As nice as it is to stick to what you know about baking, every now and then it’s good to challenge skills with something ridiculously complicated (or, ridiculous for me – someone who’s more the “throw it all together and see what happens” kind of cook).

I must confess that I’m very easily swayed by what I see on tv – foodwise. Watching The Great British Bake Off right now makes me want to create whatever it is they’re cooking up each week. An episode of last season’s Desperate Housewives inspired me to make a pineapple upside-down cake when we visited my mother-in-law that weekend. And so, watching a re-run of Everybody Loves Raymond one early weekday morning put the thought in my head to try braciole.

I spent a while researching recipes – it’s not one found in an average, all-purpose cookbook. I settled on this one by Hal Licino as he explained a bit of braciole background as well as giving an achievable-looking recipe, and also because the first comment is from someone who was also put onto braciole because of Everybody Loves Raymond (I don’t really even like the show very much…)

Braciole is essentially a thin piece of tenderised steak that’s spread with a mix of breadcrumbs, cheese, pine nuts, parsley, prosciutto and currants. It’s then rolled up and cooked for hours in a sauce.

I didn’t actually make the sauce in Hal’s recipe – I just did a basic tomato sauce with thyme, garlic and carrots. I also had the braciole cooking for only 2.5 hours. It was very good, but I didn’t measure each ingredient evenly so some flavours came through more than others. Next time I’ll probably whiz everything together in a food processor first.

(Any veggies out there…you might not want to look at these pics)

Pounded, filled and rolled. Nobody seems to sell baking string,  so I had to use rather dangerous-looking combination of toothpicks to hold them together. Thankfully, all were accounted for later and we didn't eat one accidentally… 

Be warned, though – removing toothpicks from hot meat is actually a little painful.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Chocolate strawberry shortcake

Going by Nat King Cole’s apt description of summer days, ours have been more crazy and hazy than lazy this year. But, after a spate of cloudy and humid weekends, the first sight of sun on a Saturday meant a sumptuous summer fruit dessert was needed. Maybe it’s more of my New England baking reflex talking, but there’s just something about having a dish that involves sugar and berries in-hand to truly enjoy a warm summer afternoon.

In the end, by the time my choco-fied version of strawberry shortcakes cooled down enough to glaze, then set long enough for the glaze to harden, the sun had gone in and the heavens had opened. The British summer strikes again! Oh well, the backyard will have to wait another week to be mowed, but chocolate-strawberry goodness can be enjoyed rain or shine.

Chocolate scones (makes 6-7)
1/3 cup (75g) butter, softened
1¾ cups (220g) flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup (32g) baking cocoa
¾ cup (175ml) milk

  1. Preheat oven to 450F/220C.
  2. Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Cut in the butter, and use your hands to work it in until the mixture resembles fine crumbs.
  3. Stir in the baking cocoa, then the milk. Add a little more flour if necessary to create a firm dough.
  4. Place the dough on a lightly floured surface, and knead for about 30 seconds. Roll or pat the dough to ½in (just over 1cm) thick.
  5. Cut out the scones with a 3in (7.5cm) round cutter. Place each one about 1in (2.5cm) away from each other on an ungreased cookie sheet.
  6. Bake 10-12 minutes. The scones should have risen, the outsides should look fully baked and the insides should be soft but not doughy.
  7. Cool on a wire rack. Don’t start making the glaze until the scones have cooled completely.

Chocolate glaze
4 squares (30g) of baking chocolate
2 tablespoons (28g) butter
2 tablespoons sugar
½ tablespoon water

Melt the chocolate and butter together over low heat (or in a bowl suspended over a pot of boiling water), then stir in the sugar and water. Keep stirring frequently for about two minutes, or until all ingredients have dissolved and the mixture has become a thick, smooth syrup.
Cool for about 10-15 minutes. Spoon over the top of each cooled scone, letting it drizzle down the sides.

Strawberry sauce
Around 3 cups of strawberries, chopped (apologies to gram users – I forgot to weigh out this one, but I used a whole punnet of strawberries from the supermarket)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon corn starch
2/3 cup (150g) sugar
Pinch of salt

Squish down the strawberries slightly with the back of a spoon or potato masher, to release the juices and create a smoother sauce (the more you mash them, the smoother the sauce will be). Add the rest of the ingredients, and stir over medium heat until the mixture boils. Remove from heat, and cool completely.

To make up the shortcakes...
Cut one scone (warm or cool) in half , pour some strawberry sauce over it, and serve. Top with whipped cream, if desired.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Chicken, broccoli and smoked cheese pie

One of the things I love about English food is the tolerant, liberal stance on putting anything between two pastry crusts or underneath mashed potatoes or breadcrumbs, and calling it a pie. Back home, pies are generally what you have for dessert. Granted, dinner might feature an impossible pie (the brilliant creation of cooks at Bisquick) or chicken pot pie, or shepherd’s pie…but each of those is a very specific recipe and has a defining word in front of ‘pie’. You’d never tell someone “I’m having pie for dinner,” and know that the other person would understand what you mean. In England, that same statement conjures up images of yummy meat, veg and gravy mixtures that are wonderfully comforting after a long day….and it make the other person want pie for dinner too.

The other day, T decided to make a breadcrumb-topped pie with chicken, broccoli and smoked cheese. It’s based on a chicken, broccoli and cheese pie from Sweeney & Todd in Reading that we sometimes share on a Friday (or, Pie Day, as we have come to call it). It’s easy to adapt the mix as you like, just make sure the cream/milk mixture comes over the chicken/broccoli/cheese in the baking dish, so it doesn’t come out too dry.

Serves 4

1-1½lb (500-600g) chicken, cut up
1½ cups (100g) smoked cheese, cubed
2 cloves garlic
1-2 tablespoons lemon juice
1¼ cup (300ml) light cream
1¼ cup (300ml) milk
1 cup (60g) bread crumbs
Salt and pepper, to taste

  • Preheat oven to 400F/200C*. Move rack to the middle of the oven.
  • Cook chicken with garlic, lemon juice, and black pepper. Put cooked chicken in a square glass baking dish. Add the cubed cheese and broccoli, and mix with the chicken.
  • Mix cream and milk in a bowl, adding salt and pepper as desired, and pour over the chicken.
  • Cover with an even layer of breadcrumbs.
  • Bake for 45 minutes. The mixture should be piping hot and bubbling.

*If you're cooking chips/fries at the same time, increase the oven temperature as instructed for those and put them on the very top shelf in the oven. 

Serve with peas and potato wedges...

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Garlic & cheese biscuits

Last week, I celebrated my seventh Independence Day in the country we sought independence from. But, it’s hard to act too superior as none of my ancestors really had much to do with the conflict, and I much prefer the other traditions associated with the day that involve lots of food, a smoky grill and an afternoon baseball game (with the time difference, we can still watch it). I would happily include sparklers into my standard ex-pat 4th celebrations, but the ones in the shops are usually left over from Guy Fawkes Day (November 5), and little sparkle remains.

This year, we and four friends sat in our grassy backyard last Monday night and enjoyed hamburgers, potato wedges, quesadillas, chicken with barbecue sauce, cucumber salad, veggies with a homemade spinach dip and corn on the cob, followed by brownies, lemon squares and blueberry/strawberry crisp. Yes, it was a little much, but I often get carried away when there’s an opportunity to put on a good spread.

I also made garlic and cheese biscuits…though over here I suppose they’d be called savoury scones. They really weren’t needed in the end, but it was an experiment that went well, so I shall share it here.

(Makes 10-12 biscuits)

2 cups (250g) flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup (213g) butter, softened
teaspoon garlic powder
½ cup (about 85g) Emmental (swiss) cheese, grated
¾ cup (175ml) milk

  1. Heat oven to 450F/230C.
  2. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender, or by crumbling it into the dry ingredients (I prefer this way), until the mixture resembles fine crumbs.
  3. Stir in the garlic powder and cheese, and then add the milk. The mixture should be sticky, but leave the sides of the bowl – add a little more flour if necessary.
  4. Make each biscuit either by shaping a small amount of dough with your hands into a ½in (1.5cm) thick, 2in (5cm) diameter circle, or by using a cutter that’s about 2in (5cm) in diameter. With the latter, tip the dough onto a floured surface, and knead a few times. Roll or pat to about ½in (1.5cm) thick, and cut the biscuits.
  5. Place each biscuit onto an ungreased baking tray about 1in (2.5cm) apart. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown. Let the biscuits cool for a few minutes, then serve warm or remove them from the baking tray onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Iced chai tea

The elusive British summer seems like it’s trying to prove that it really does exist, and at a good time, too. We’re well into Wimbledon season at the moment, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the aces, deuces and set points. I don’t consider myself a tennis fan generally, but I think everyone crosses their fingers for their favourite tennis player during Wimbledon.

But, I do feel a little bad for them when they have to play in the beating sun and it’s over 90F/30C out. Monday was a particular scorcher – it was hard enough to do anything more strenuous than get up to turn the fan on, never mind chase a bright yellow ball around a white-lined lawn.

While I do know quite a few Brits who are happy to drink a hot cup of tea on a day like that, it’s something I’ve never been able to adopt. Instead, I brewed up some ice tea one morning in the anticipation of needing it by the afternoon. While mixing it later, I created this chai version…

(Notice our tomato plant forest in the background)

Black tea (I used Earl Grey)

  1. Brew some strong black tea, using hot water in a teapot or cold water in a jug that’s kept in the fridge – make only as much as you will need, as it’s not recommended to keep homemade ice tea more than a day. Use at least triple the number of teabags you would normally. Brew hot tea for at least three hours, and cold tea for at least six hours, or to taste.
  2. While the tea is brewing, add 1 tablespoon of honey per two cups of tea, or two taste.
  3. After the tea is brewed, pour it into a glass pitcher with ice to cool, if necessary.
  4. Fill a glass ¼ or with milk. Add ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon (or as much as desired), and a pinch of nutmeg. Stir thoroughly with the milk.
  5. Fill the rest of the glass with ice and cold tea, and stir. 

Thursday, 16 June 2011

If at first you don’t succeed…

What do you get from these ingredients (besides the name of where we usually shop)? Theoretically, it should be pasta.

Do you have a cookbook – or two – that you never use from but don’t want to get rid of because the recipes sound so fabulous? I have this kind of relationship with Mario Batali’s Simple Italian Food. Well, the other day I finally cracked it open with the intention of making one of the staples of most Italian food – pasta. I feel I owe it to my own Italian heritage – and my great-grandmother Assunta’s cooking skills – to master basics like this.

Scarily, you don’t have to use a bowl, because you keep the eggs and olive oil in the center of a mound of flour while you start to blend everything together. Something like this…

I had high hopes after seeing that this stuff stayed together long enough for me to take a picture. But then, I started to mix it. See, the problem with adding in flour with the beaten eggs and oil is that it takes away from the “well” walls. I was soon in a messy battle between falling flour and runny dough, but then gave up and just smooshed everything together so the dough would become firmer more quickly.

Once I actually had the dough, I thought that was the hard part done.  I rolled it out with my trusty wooden pin to the absolute thinnest I could go, cut it into uneven tagliatelle strips and put it in the fridge until dinner – a big mistake.

While in the fridge, the pasta meshed into a firm, cold mound that did not easily separate when dropped into a big pot of boiling water. The pasta was also very thick as I didn’t roll it out as thinly as I thought, so I added a little extra cooking time to compensate. Even so, the pile of tire-quality, congealed rubber was hardly the rustic homemade pasta I’d envisioned.

So, this is one to try again when I have done these two things: 
  1. bought a pasta rolling machine
  2. read about the proper techniques that are supposed to be followed when mixing and then storing pasta
There’s another portion left in the fridge for tonight’s dinner…can’t wait…

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Apricot brownies

If there’s one lesson I’ve brought with me to Old England from life in New England, it’s not to expect that the weather is going to be anything less than unpredictable. And judging by the summer-like April temperatures and the recent days of sun…no, rain…no, sun, no… it’s a good concept to adhere to. Perhaps T and I were a little premature in stocking up on popsicles (sorry UK, I just can’t bring myself to call them ice lollies...), but fresh fruit is something that can be enjoyed indoors or out, and in loads of great recipes.

Another delicacy that suits a variety of temperatures is the ever-amazing brownie. I’ve been making a spring-i-fied version recently with dried apricots, and I think it would probably work for a variety of dried fruits like cherries, blueberries or mangoes.

¾ cup (170g) butter
5oz (140g) unsweetened baking chocolate
1 cups (375g) sugar*
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1¼ cups (155g) flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1½ cups dried apricots, chopped (about 35 dried apricots)

*I accidentally used 1 cup (300g) once, and it still worked fine – a little less sweet and more chocolatey

  • Preheat oven to 350°F or 180°C. Grease a square baking pan.
  • Melt the butter and chocolate together over very low heat.
  • Measure the sugar into a separate bowl. Stir in the melted chocolate, then the eggs and vanilla extract.
  • Add the flour and salt, stirring until the ingredients have been combined. Lastly, add the apricots.
  • Pour the batter into the pan, spreading evenly. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out with a few crumbs on it. 

Monday, 23 May 2011

Five things I learned about making bread

The tendency to fall into habits applies to more than just what you do with your evenings, the music you listen to and the other little daily occurrences that suddenly become routine. Cooking can become a habitual process too – the same dishes coming into the weekly or monthly dinner rotation, the same cake made for guests and even the same groceries bought week after week.

Last week, I decided to come out of my own cooking habits a little and try something I’ve never really done before – make my own bread. I thought that even if it didn’t work out well on the first few tries, at least the house would smell nice.

But which bread to make? A key staple in human diet for tens of thousands of years, bread has an infinite number of variations that have come in from cultural, historical and experimental factors. I chose five kinds to sample different ways of working with flour, water and yeast. After a week filled with kneading, rising, shaping, timing and – of course – tasting, this is what I came away with…

1. Making bread is not as big a deal as it’s made out to be.
I’m not saying it’s as easy as a Betty Crocker mix, but making a basic white loaf of bread doesn’t really take much more effort than baking a cake, waiting for it to cool and frosting it afterwards.  The time comes in waiting for each stage to rise, but all that means is setting a bowl somewhere and coming back to it in an hour or so.

A basic white bread is easy to make, and tastes amazing!

2. It rounds out even the simplest meal into a special dinner.
Bread is like a meal’s accessory – just like the right shoes or handbag can turn jeans and a T-shirt into a fashion statement, the right bread can complement even something basic like spaghetti and a jar of sauce. Instead of making dinner from scratch, it can definitely be worth it to spend your time on a sun-dried tomato and olive bread to go with it.

This sun-dried tomatoes and black olives goes really well with pasta and a tomato- based sauce.

3. Kneading dough is a good workout.
So perhaps not everyone would devote a week to trying out different kinds of bread, but know this – I certainly felt the effects of spending 10 minutes a day kneading dough by hand. At the very least, it takes the guilt off not going to the gym.

White bread comes in all shapes and sizes – instead of being made in a pan, this "rustic style" loaf did its
last rise on a baking tray, but needed a lot of moisture in the oven to keep the crust from getting too hard.

4. Making bread on a cold day is difficult.
Dough needs a warm place to rise, and there is a particular spot in my house that’s perfect. Or it was, until one cloudy, rainy, miserable day when even The Warm Spot wasn’t living up to its name. As it happens, I was on the fussiest recipe of the five I chose – French bread. It took ages for it to rise, and because French bread dough needs to be refrigerated for a few hours, it was barely done in time for dinner. Props given to the person who invented bread machines.

French bread was my least favourite to make, but it tasted so
wonderful that I can't say I'll never do it again…

5. Don’t leave fresh bread hanging around.
Homemade bread – even when it’s made in a machine – will go stale much more quickly than store-bought. I noticed particularly with the French bread and focaccia that even after a couple of days, they were noticeably drier. The good thing is that bread freezes well, so even if you make more than you need at the time (the recipe makes two loaves and you only need one), you can freeze the extra and bring it out later.

There isn't much that focaccia doesn't go with, and there are lots of different versions to make.
This one was made with rosemary and parmesan cheese, and was pretty quick to do.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Asparagus, zucchini and lemon risotto

Somewhere in the midst of all the happenings that have cropped up since January 1, spring has arrived. The dramas, busy days, lazy days, day trips, projects, sorting-outs and cleaning-ups have kept me from really noticing that everything is becoming warmer, brighter and greener. The staple stews that kept us going during cold winter weeks aren’t really needed anymore, and as I pack away my thickest sweater, it’s time to bring out recipes that match the season.

Cooking for other people gives a great excuse to make something special that you wouldn’t normally make for yourself. I had such an opportunity last weekend, and thought I’d try something suitably springy. Well, I don’t know how risotto fits into spring, but I used all green vegetables….does that count? And even better, it all gets cooked in one pan for less clean-up time. Also a good thing when cooking for guests.

Ingredients (serves four)
2 onions
2 garlic cloves, crushed or chopped finely
2 medium zucchini (courgettes), chopped
1lb (500g) asparagus, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
2 lemons, juiced and zested
½ teaspoon Italian seasoning (mixed herbs)
1½ teaspoon oregano
Ground pepper, to taste
½ cup (125 ml) dry white wine
1 cup (250g) risotto rice
1 pint (½ litre) of vegetable stock (I made mine a double concentrate with two Knorr stockpot gel packs) 
4½oz (125g) grated grana padano or parmesan cheese (around ¾-1 cup)

  • Fry the onions in olive oil, adding the garlic after a minute or so.
  • Add the zucchini, asparagus and green pepper. Fry for five minutes. Add the Italian seasoning, oregano and ground pepper.
  • Slowly add the wine and stir it into the vegetables. Then, add the lemon juice and as much zest as desired (I used the zest from only one lemon, but might add more next time).  Retain a little of the zest for dressing.
  • Mix the risotto rice through the vegetables and allow it to cook gently for a minute.  Add the stock and bring back to the boil.
  • Cover and simmer, stirring frequently, until the rice is tender and the stock has been absorbed.  Add a little more hot water if it looks like all the stock will be absorbed before the rice is fully cooked.
  • Stir in the grated cheese, and serve, sprinkling the remaining lemon zest on top of each portion.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Lemon raspberry cupcakes

There’s something engrained into most New Englanders called the baking reflex. When there’s a public holiday, you bake. When there’s something to celebrate, you bake. When you’re stuck inside because of bad weather, you bake. When you want to welcome new neighbours or comfort friends, you bake (for them). I have even been known to stay up late baking on the night before moving to a new place because I thought everyone involved would want cookies. What’s that you say? Easier to just buy things rather than make them? But…that would just be wrong…

So, it’s no great surprise that after settling on my living room couch to watch the royal wedding on Friday (and seriously considering doing my own wedding over again so I could have a dress like that), the New Englander in me was struck with the unavoidable impulse to bake something. Cupcakes seemed to fit the occasion, and I thought the elegant combination of lemons and raspberries had an air of royal sophistication (or it did at the time…). The closest I could come to was a bottle of lemon juice and a jar of raspberry jam, but that could work, right? Lemon cupcakes with raspberry jam in the middle?

I tried to find out about the best way to fill cupcakes with jam, but most recipes had cupcakes with cream cheese or chocolate in the middle. Failing that, I learned how I could make the cupcake, scoop out the middle, fill it and either do something creative with the middles or just forget they existed. That sounded like far too much trouble, although it’s similar to what’s done with fairy cakes here in England. The top of the cupcake is cut off, then a bit of frosting added, then the top divided in half and placed on top of the frosting to look like wings.

Anyway, I decided to treat the jam like a cream filling and added a dollop after putting some of the cupcake batter into each paper (or cake case, as they call them here across the pond). I then put a tiny bit more batter on top, shoved the muffin pan in the oven and hoped for the best. Fifteen minutes later, I discovered the following:

  1. Just because the batter doesn’t fill a cupcake paper doesn’t mean it won’t overflow as it bakes.
  2. Cupcakes spilling over and around papers are very messy.
  3. Raspberry jam is heavier than the cupcake batter, and sticks really well to the papers.
  4. It takes a lot of lemon juice to get a distinctly lemony taste.

So, on “spur-of-the-moment” cupcakes take two, I used lemon extract and real raspberries instead. That worked loads better (though T happily ate both versions). Here’s how it went…

Lemon raspberry cupcakes (makes 18-20 cupcakes)
½ cup (115g) butter, softened
¾ cup (170g) sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
⅓ teaspoon lemon extract
½ cup (125ml) milk
1½ cups (190g) flour
½ tablespoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
36-40 raspberries, washed

Buttercream frosting
⅓ cup (75g) butter, softened
3 cups (375g) powdered/icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1½ tablespoons milk (can add a little more if needed)


  • Preheat oven to 350°F or 180°C. Line muffin pan(s) with papers.
  • Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, and beat well. Add vanilla and lemon extract.
  • In a separate bowl, mix the flour, baking powder and salt. Add this to the batter alternately with the milk, blending after each addition.
  • Carefully spoon the batter into each cupcake paper until no more than ¾ full. Place one raspberry in the middle of each one – there is no need to press it down.
  • Bake for 15-20 minutes, until lightly browned and a toothpick inserted in the very top of around the centre comes out clean.
  • Let the cupcakes sit in the pan for 5-10 minutes, then move them onto a wire rack to cool.
  • When the cupcakes have cooled, prepare the frosting: cream the butter and sugar, then add the vanilla and milk. Add more milk to make the frosting thinner, or more sugar to make the frosting thicker.
  • Swirl frosting onto the top of each cupcake. Place a raspberry in the centre.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Brownie cream cheese cake

Whether I’ve had a bad day, good day, blah day, or am bored, excited, depressed, jittery or can’t put a word on it, I can always eat a brownie. There’s something about those gooey chocolate wonders that can accompany any occasion, mood, meal or season.

Over our years together, T has also discovered the pure delight of brownies. So much, in fact, that he wanted a brownie birthday cake. With cream cheese. Not a brownie cheesecake, mind – the cream cheese had to be purely complementary. Every year, I ask T to come up with the main flavours he wants in his birthday cake, and then combine recipes to turn the tasty vision into a culinary reality. This one, however, was a challenge.

Thanks to some ideas from this recipe, I decided to try for cakey brownie layers with a cream cheese frosting. All went well until after the brownie layers cooled, and the top crusty layer completely collapsed. While this is great for individual brownies, it’s not so good if you want to make a cake layer out of them. 

The top crusty layer lifts off easily,
making the finished layer look like...
…this (ignore the fork testing mark…I know
you're supposed to use toothpicks, but I don't always)

So, I tried scraping off that top part, then mixed it into the cream cheese frosting later. Pretty tasty!

In any recipes I post here, I will always try to include both imperial and metric measurements. In the recipe below, the metric measurements have not been tested, so let me know if you have any difficulty. Enjoy!

Brownie layers (makes two):
1¼ cup (156.25g) all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
6 ounces (170g) unsweetened chocolate
12 tablespoons (187.5g) unsalted butter
1¾ cup (400g) sugar
4 large eggs
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon orange extract

Cream cheese frosting:
8oz (226g) cream cheese
1 cup (125g) butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup (125g) powdered sugar

  • Preheat oven to 350°F or 180°C. Grease two circular pans, 8in or 20.5cm diameter.
  • Mix flour, salt and baking powder. Set aside.
  • Melt chocolate and butter together over very low heat, stirring constantly, or in an ovenproof bowl over a pot of hot water. When both the butter and chocolate have melted and blended completely, remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
  • Mix the sugar into the chocolate, then add the eggs one at a time. When blended, add the vanilla and orange extract.
  • Add the flour mixture in three parts, and mix until smooth.
  • Divide the batter evenly between the two circular pans.
  • Bake 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out mostly clean – there should just be a few crumbs on it. Cool the pans completely on a wire rack.
  • When the layers are cool, carefully scrape the top crust off each one and set it aside.
  • Make the frosting, blending the cream cheese, butter, vanilla together before adding the powdered sugar. Lastly, add the crust from the brownie layers, crumbling it as you mix it in.
  • Spread frosting on top of one of the layers, then gently place the second layer on top of that. Cover the entire cake with frosting. Add chocolate shavings if desired.