Friday, 29 February 2008
I know it looks as though it's destined for sushi, but it's actually a dragon fruit which is the fruit of a cactus, native to Central and South America and Southeast Asia. Frankly, how could you resist it on its name alone, let alone its alarming yet enticing pinkness? Inside it's surprisingly white, with lots of tiny little black seeds .
It's very mild in taste, and quite watery - to be honest a trifle disappointing given its exciting outside, but very nice with some vanilla yogurt, melon and assorted seeds. It was certainly a hell of a lot better than my last reduced-produce buy, the custard apple, which was basically just seeds and not really worth the effort. This one at least made my breakfast look happy.
The second unusual thing I ate this week was tonight's dinner. We'd vaguely thought of having jacket potatoes, but on the way home I had a sudden craving for macaroni cheese. To be honest I've been vaguely wanting to eat macaroni cheese for months and months, but The Scientist doesn't like it (he says it's too stodgy which surprised me as stodge is generally a good thing in his book), and I'd always had other plans to cook when he was away. Since he was happy with his potato though, I thought I'd seize the opportunity, and - why be hung for a lamb when you can be hung for a sheep - use the vegan 'cheezy' sauce I'd been reading about in my new copy of Veganomicon.
I was very hungry by the time I got home from a day of intensive conferencing and student advising, and got the pasta on as soon as I got in through the door (actually as soon as I'd opened and shut the back door twice while the indecisive pooky cat made up his mind which side of it he wanted to be on). I wanted to put roast squash in with the pasta and sauce but was too hungry to roast that and then bake the pasta, so the squash went in on its own. The pasta was put on to boil, and the tome that is Veganomicon was hauled out. The recipe is based on nutritional yeast, which I had bought against just such a purpose at the weekend. You just fry some garlic, add some thyme, salt, turmeric, stock-and-flour, nutritional yeast (or 'nooch' if you're a pro vegan) and stir vigorously. When it's thickened you add some mustard and some lemon juice. Point 1: it was much browner than I'd expected. Not a problem, I thought. Yuck said The Scientist. No matter; he had his potato. I stirred in the cooked pasta and added some sweetcorn and olives just in case I didn't like the taste after all (note how I was starting to waver). Into the oven it went.
I was quite impatient by this stage and so it only baked for 10 minutes or so which was a shame as it didn't get a chance to crisp up as much as I would have liked. Too hungry to debate it further, I dived in. Point 2: this sauce is really....weird. And I'm being quite polite there. It was very dense in taste, almost too overflavoured, and drowned out the taste of the corn. I ended up lightening the taste with some yogurt and raw tomato as it was just too heavy. 'Hmmmm' said I. 'I like jacket potatoes' said The Scientist, 'how's your yeast?'
I had been very intrigued about this recipe and so I don't regret making it at all. I will, however, not be making it again. If anyone would like to suggest things I did wrong, or ways to improve it, please do say, but it's not going to be one I'll be trying to sneak under The Scientist's radar any time soon. I used wholewheat pasta - it's not just the sauce that made it so brown, in the interests of fairness. I am still, however, craving macaroni cheese :(
I have higher hopes for tomorrow night, when we have a new challenge for dinner: Scientist meets Masterchef. Report will follow...
By the way, people who tell me they're reading my blog: it would be nice to hear from you in the comments!!!
Wednesday, 27 February 2008
Luckily, my love of reading Nigella's recipes (the baking ones, anyway - I get a bit fed up with all that meat) leaves me with a wealth of alternatives sitting about in my brain, and I knew I'd copied one out for a translucent apple tart which was similarly lovingly described. Say what you like about Nigella's latest tv series (and I do), the woman can write about food in a way that makes you long to rush to the kitchen, or just stuff your face. Happily, I had also stumbled on a fun blog challenge - I like to cook's weekend cookbook challenge - and just guess who this month's author was? Well, no prizes for getting that one right.
I do like making pastry. For once my permanently cold hands are a bonus, and I like the way that it makes me feel directly in touch with generations of women who mixed and cut and rolled out their own. I'm a bit of a purist - no processors here, just a wooden spoon and some elbow grease. It doesn't seem like a chore, but at the same time it gives you a whole extra relationship with your food, as you've taken the trouble to craft it from the bottom up. I used Nigella's own recipe for sweet pastry, but any would do. The filling is pretty low effort - a bit of melting, a bit of stirring, and a brief frenzy of peel-core-grate (the word 'quickly' in a recipe always alarms me. Perhaps it's because the first time I encountered it it was in a profiterole recipe which was a complete disaster. Who knows if my little black cinders got that way because I wasn't quick enough, but it could be, it just could be). Alacrity seemed to work out ok this time, and the pie went into the oven. The bottom of my flan tin has never emerged from the house move, so I planned to make two small ones. In fact the filling only filled one, though perhaps it was deeper than Nigella had intended. It was so gorgeously appley though that I'd recommend just using an 8'' or so tin if you only use one apple. It fed all four of us with a piece cold for The Scientist the next night as well. Grating the apple gives the filling a nice thick texture and fills your mouth in a new and exciting way compared with chopped apple. Can't say exactly how, but it was good. Not rhubarb, but good, and I'm sending it over to the weekend cookbook challenge in praise of Nigella.
Nigella's Translucent Apple Tart (from How to Eat)
Sweet pastry: enough to line a shallow 23 flan tin (though see above - I made it to line two though only filled one). There's no need to bake it blind.
60g lightly salted butter (I used margarine, as usual)
60 caster sugar plus a few drops of vanilla extract (or use vanilla sugar)
1 cooking apple
Preheat the oven to 210 degrees C/Gas 7
Melt butter and sugar together over a very low heat. Remove from heat and beat in egg.
QUICKLY!!!!! peel, core and grate apple coarsely and stir thoroughly into the butter mix
Pour over the pastry and bake for about 15 minutes until golden. Lower heat to 180 degrees/Gas 4 for a further 15-20 minutes.
Serve warm or cold - it's delicious both ways.
Tuesday, 26 February 2008
One of the things Tracy was keen to share with me when I visited was lunch at her favourite dumpling restaurant. It was very busy, and we were given an order form on which we marked what we wanted to eat. Thank heavens Tracy was a regular as I wouldn’t have had the first clue what to order. A few deft ticks later, and all was sorted, and our food arrived an amazingly short time afterwards. The main dish we had was vegetable dumplings, which came in their own bamboo steamer. I was so excited about it all that I actually can’t remember what was in them, but they were very nice – soft yet chewy and each one a very satisfying mouthful. We also had a side dish of a green vegetable (my memory is appalling on the details given how nice the food way, but let’s say it was either broccoli or spinach), and a pressed rice dish which I have only just trawled up from the depths of my memory, but was amazing. It was actually my favourite dish, and completely unexpected. I had imagined that it would be noodly, but it looked more like tofu, although completely different in texture. Yum. I’m almost happy I’d forgotten about that dish because I’m so pleased to remember it suddenly now. We also ordered sweet dumplings for dessert, by which time we were absolutely stuffed, but we took some of them away with us, and they were also very good.
So, I now associate dumplings with Tracy, and I’ve been very curious about the recipes I’ve seen since then about making them at home. Most of them use wonton wrappers, which I have previously been unable to find, but finally tracked down in the freezer compartment of the unexpected Asian supermarket lurking at the bottom of town. As so often seems to happen in blogland, as soon as I started thinking about making something, there was a bit of an explosion in people writing about it, which was great. Lisa has posted about several variations on the Japanese version, gyoza, and Johanna at Gourmet Green Giraffe also made a pumpkin-nutty version in broth recently. I’m not sure what ethnic parentage my own take on them had; since Tracy just called hers dumplings, that’s what I’m calling mine, too.
I love sweet potato, so I decided to use that for my filling, especially since I wanted to keep my first attempt quite simple. I just steamed and mashed it, and then added some fried onion, garlic and vegetable seasoning mix. The wonton wrappers themselves were amazingly easy to use – just hold one in your hand, plop a spoonful of filling in the middle, dab a little bit of water around two edges, and seal it up into a little triangular parcel. Some of mine did achieve a bit more of a puckered up purse effect, which I think is what they’re really supposed to look like, but I was a bit random in how I managed that.
The next question was how to cook them. The traditional way, I gather, is to fry them on one side, and then steam them briefly in water in the same pan. The authentic ones are thus browned on one side only. Another alternative is just to steam them, and since that was closer to what I’d eaten with Tracy, I went down that road. I used our rice cooker, which has a vegetable steamer basket to fit inside it. It worked perfectly, although the dumplings lived up to their ‘potsticker’ name, and were a bit reluctant to come out. I wonder if lining the basket with hole-punched greaseproof paper might help. The wrappers went a bit translucent, so the sweet potato filling glowed orangely through it, and The Scientist was very impressed with how they looked. I'm just sorry that I didn't manage to focus the camera better! In fact none of the pictures came out very well. I may need to invest in a plainer plate for photography. I served them with some stir-fried sesame broccoli and some noodles, dipping sauce on the side (soy sauce, rice vinegar, and a pinch of chilli powder), and birthday thoughts for Tracy.
Verdict: fun to make, and very tasty, dippable bite-sized morsels. Both of us really liked them - I love food that’s fun to eat And of course the possibilities for different flavours is just enormous – I can’t wait to try some more. I think a chillied carrot number would be good, and Lisa has made a lovely-sounding tomato, spinach and artichoke combination with tomato sauce. I imagine that you don’t want big sticks of veggies in there or it would be hard to seal, but anything chopped fine would work.
So, Happy Birthday, Tracy – may the opportunities for eating dumplings together in the future be many!
Sunday, 24 February 2008
My own experience of American breakfasts and brunches is limited, but a central feature has been choice and plenty. I was in California in November, and woke up starving at about 3am on my first night. I was still awake at about 6, so I got up and found a 24-hour diner near the conference hotel, and treated myself to a pancake. I was expecting the small size which I sometimes cook at home but no - it was gargantuan! Thank heavens I only ordered one (and that I had nothing to do but digest for a while). It was extremely nice, needless to say - light and sweet, and came accompanied by a little dish of maple syrup (I like that, given that I'm ultra fussy. My American visit was about the first time I felt normal asking for everything to be modified from the menu, or on the side).
So, choice and plenty was a good start. That meant that the more guests I had the better, so I made Eco Sis, Munchkin Granny and Granny T, who were visiting this week (and who appreciated the newly tidy study) my unwitting participants. Last time Eco Sis stayed I accidentally defrosted a mini Christmas cake muffin for her for breakfast instead of a banana one, but she ate it happily so I thought probably I could win her over. Munchkin Granny is generally happy to participate in any nonsense I’ve dreamed up. I was pretty sure that Granny T would laugh at me, and certainly have no truck at all with being experimented on for the sake of my blog, so I planned something more sensible which I could pretend was part of the American experience. Thus porridge became oatmeal. I really wanted to use the word grits, but I’m still not really sure what they are. The Scientist was still away visiting his friends (and no doubt eating leftover pizza for breakfast – which actually perhaps is just another take on breakfasts in all-male households everywhere) so he missed out on the extravaganza this time. I did some web-surfing on American brunches to authenticate my ideas, and came up with a bewildering array of muffins, scones, biscuits and gravy (I'm very confused about this, especially since Eco Sis, who is married to an American, tells me that the gravy really is savoury), pancakes, eggs, tortillas and oats.
Given this array I may have selected a fairly orthodox choice for my guests, but I just felt too weird cooking gravy and tortillas for breakfast. Maybe a future choice for this event can be 'outlandish breakfasts'. At any rate, I am happy to report that brunch at Lysy's Diner went down very well. My guests were greeted with a menu of options for their selection, complemented by orange or pomegranate juice (I had the most amazing fresh orange juice in California; I'm afraid mine was from Sainsburys). Munchkin Granny was a little disappointed that the coffee was instant (in an ideal world if would, of course, have been filtered and served in one of those big glass jugs, but neither The Scientist nor I are big coffee drinkers, so we have eschewed all that paraphernalia), but she rallied and had tea. Everyone selected pancakes with maple syrup or honey, and Granny T and Eco Sis tackled the muffins, too. In fact I had done Granny T a disservice and she took part in the whole affair with relish. She has no truck with blogging, so I can safely say that she endorsed my brunch as the best she has ever tasted with no risk of being contradicted. In the end I was the only taker for the oatmeal and compote, which was really nice, and all the better for having an exotic name.Nigella Lawson's (from How to be a Domestic Goddess), and the muffins were from Moosewood Low Fat Favourites. I made the compote by simply nuking some dried fruit in an egg poaching pot in the microwave with a bit of water. I would normally simmer them in some orange juice over a low heat for a while, but there was too much going on on the stove top.
I'm very intrigued to read about what Lisa's English Diner served up. The next event will be Lisa's choice, and I'm looking forward to it already. Anyone for seconds?
**Update: read about Lisa's amazingly tasty-sounding take on an English brunch here. I will definitely be trying it out myself!**
Saturday, 23 February 2008
I’m hoping that Kiwi Family’s belongings have finally arrived in
Anyway, the other exciting thing about Kiwi Family’s stuff arriving is that it means they will have their computer, and so we can all be properly in touch again. I really hope, however, that they did a better job of sorting out their admin before they left than we did when we moved. We moved house nearly six months ago, but did the classic thing of sorting all the rooms out except one (my study) which ended up housing piles of paper and vital although possibly at the same time useless things. Eco Sis, Munchkin Granny and Granny T are coming to visit this weekend though, and I am too embarrassed to let anyone sleep in the study in exactly the same state it was in at Christmas (probably worse, given the amount of paper two academics manage to generate). So, last night, I set to, and filed everything. The cats are just lucky that there wasn’t a space marked ‘pooks’ anywhere. I shredded a whole bag’s worth of junk with our personal details on it, and put out a tonne of paper and cardboard for recycling. I found notes and forms I had given up all hope of finding (and others I didn’t know I’d lost), and lots of photos and mementoes, which are now in a box waiting for the next fit of energy. I’m typing this sitting at my desk surrounded by happy photos: Kiwi Sis and Kiwi Bro at their wedding; Eco Sis and I hula-hooping in our bridesmaids’ dresses at a random funfair outside the registry office; Eco Sis at her wedding; Kiwi Sis and The Munchkin, in a pocked-sized photo I got done to put in a keyring for her when she went back to work; The Scientist and I after our PhD graduation; The Munchkin looking singularly unimpressed with the world, wearing a bib marked ‘Wednesday’ (if only it said ‘Monday’…); and a picture of Brighton beach at sunset.
I don’t know why I’m telling you this, except that I am now feeling cleansed and purified, and smug at the state of the filing cabinet. I hope that having all your stuff will do the same for you, Kiwi Family. I know you’ve got lots of the same photos: put them out somewhere where you sit, and think of us. Perhaps the other reason I’m telling you this is that it’s putting off hoovering the upstairs floor - my other excuse being that pooky is comfortably on the bed, and he HATES the vacuum cleaner. Junior Sis: hang on to not being responsible for household admin for as long as you can. Piggle is eying my deskchair; I think she’s ready to start counting the nanoseconds.
Wednesday, 20 February 2008
* aargh, that motorist is actually going to drive into me
* what part of myself am I going to land on?
* hmmm, the ground is quite hard
* thank goodness I don't have my laptop in my bag this time (it had valiantly placed itself in between me and a car wing mirror on a previous occasion - I know, how close does a car have to be to hit a cyclist with its wing mirror?! Sadly it paid with its hard drive...)
I was ok - just slightly battered and a lot shocked, but had the presence of mind to get the driver's number in case of bike damage. He even had the temerity to ask me for a pen though! The poor bike seems to be fine too, though it needs its handlebars re-aligning with the front wheel. And just to compound the insult, I got home, was very happy to meet the piggle cat outside, only for her to clang into the back door as she thought it was open! Poor little puss. We both limped inside (her through the front catflap, me through the deceptive back door) and were comforted by The Scientist.
So, the purpose of all this ranting, apart from being a blatant call for sympathy, is to plead with all motorists: PLEASE look out for cyclists! I know some of us are rule-breaking fiends, but most of us are not, and we're very breakable.
On a nicer note, I was coming back late because I had spent the evening with Eco Sis and Eco Bro, getting takeaway from their favourite Chinese takeaway, the Pink Giraffe in Oxford. We got the vegetarian set menu which usually feeds them for lunch the next day as well, and more or less managed two people's worth between three. The menu has lots of fake meat dishes - sweet and sour chicken, and so on, which was sort of interesting. I managed the chicken ok after an initial stumble at the strange texture, but the 'beef' was beyond me. It just looked too much like real beef, though I'm sure it tasted nothing like it. I'm not a veggie who misses meat, so for me it was a fun novelty, but Eco Sis tells me that it's a good approximation for those who miss their carnivorous days. I still managed to get highly over-excited at the whole meal because it's such a novelty to be able to share a banquet like that. While The Scientist is happy to eat tasty veggie food at home, I have only known him to order a veggie meal in a restaurant once in our whole time together! We had breaded mushrooms, spring rolls, some weirdy morsels which looked like they should be in a crisp packet, and some crackers with seaweed for starters, and then the chicken and beef dishes for mains, plus stir fried vegetables and egg fried rice. We also got some 'crispy duck' with pancakes because they seemed like fun (they were). Boy, were we full, though.
I don't like to end without a picture, so here is a very long pooky-cat indeed, doing his Superpook impression, and showing off my patchwork quilt to good advantage. I wanted to post one of piggle since she shared my less than optimal end to the evening, but I can't find any good ones of her. I will start stalking her with my camera. They were both very pleased today to receive a 'scrootch' by email from their Aunt Tracy. Insert purr here.
Monday, 18 February 2008
For a starter: crostini with mozzarella and sundried tomatoes, and mozzarella and marinated courgette (an old favourite, cemented by the fact that I went on a work trip to Florence very early in our relationship, and The Scientist joined me there for a weekend. His commitment is illustrated in the fact that he put his nemesis courgette on some of them for me). This was accompanied by a cocktail (I’d managed to organise myself that far): a ‘Pick Me Up’ which sounded appropriately suggestive, and was also pink. It contained grenadine (home made, no less – thanks to Cupcake Project again), brandy, orange juice and sparkling wine, and was really nice, though strangely not as pink as I’d expected.
Main course: pea and broad bean risotto. I adore risotto, and I had shown The Scientist how to make it one time, so he thought that was appropriate. I taught him well – it was really yum.
Dessert: I thought I was really going to have to cop out and rely on Mssrs M&S, but in the end I whipped up a quick and easy upside down apple pie cake from Cooking done Light. The original was a pear and ginger one, but The Scientist particularly likes apples. The ‘light’ was an attempt not to lavish calories all over the place, and it was definitely a bit less sweet that you might hope for in a celebratory dessert. I can’t really fault the recipe for that, but the base (once you’d inverted it) was also a little stodgy. I might add a bit more liquid next time. It was still nice though – we had it with a bit of Greek yogurt, and we were pretty full by then anyway! I suspect that I didn’t do the recipe justice as its author said it was a new favourite of hers.
I didn’t take any photos because I wasn’t sufficiently organised, but we had a lovely night, and I got tipsier on the cocktails than I’d been for a very long time! And the total contribution to the Valentines economy: two Bramley apples, a couple of bread rolls, a ball of mozzarella, a bottle of sparkling wine, and a tub of antipasti from the deli counter at Tesco. If I’d had more time the Bramleys would have come from the local greengrocer.
I did, however, make up for my dereliction of Valentine’s duty on Sunday by being The Scientist’s kitchen slave all day. He got porridge for breakfast, roast garlic and cannelini bean soup for lunch, and banana daal for dinner (I can’t claim TOO much altruism since I’d wanted to make all these things!). I’d bought loads of over-ripe bananas again, and went a bit crazy baking with them in the afternoon. I decided to revisit the bananas in brownie challenge, as I’m sure there is more mileage to be had. Also, I had just bought Vegan with a Vengeance, and there was such an enticing-sounding brownie with banana pudding topping recipe in there that I just couldn’t get it out of my head. I convinced myself that I should bake while there was daylight for the photography, but I suspect that I was pulling a fast one on myself.
So, I tried two variants: one was a half-batch of the Vegan with a Vengeance super banana’d up brownie (it has banana mush baked on the top – and I use ‘mush’ in a good sense), and the other was the same low fat brownies I made for Dogophile Vegan Nurse, but using bananas instead of prunes. I don't know if it's a problem with the British edition of Vegan with a Vengeance only, but there were a few mistakes which caused a bit of a hiatus - sugar measured in fluid ounces? And no specified oven temperature - aargh! Still, I improvised (noted in the recipe below) and it turned out ok.
Much happy mushing, mixing and mess-making later, I gave The Scientist a little bit of each for him to decide which he wanted a full piece of. The result: a vote for the low fat version! They were both really moist and banana-y, and the extra banana pudding-ness on the top of the regular one got a good vote. They're the ones with the yellowy topping in the picture. Sadly I think I forced the result by accidentally adding almond essence to those ones instead of vanilla, and The Scientist said that was an obvious extra taste (even without knowing what I’d done, or which brownie was which). I thought it was pretty nice anyway but it wasn’t exactly a fair representation of the pudding brownie’s naked glory. Apologies pudding brownie. I thought it was very interesting, though, that the low-fat one had just as nice a texture and moistness as the other, and I would just as happily eat that one, happy in the knowledge that I was doing myself slightly less badness on the calorie front! I even managed to add the right sort of seeds this time, though linseeds are stout little critters – they really didn’t want to get ground up! They’ll be there with the cockroaches at the end of the world. So, a win for the low fat banana brownies, but in fact it was a no-lose contest for Isa Chandra Moskowitz, the author of the book, as they were both her recipes! Hurrah! And a shy first trial for my own attempt at better photography - what do you think??
Banana split pudding brownies (From Vegan with a Vengeance)
Makes 12 brownies [I halved it]
For the brownies:
115g plain chocolate, chopped
2 large very ripe bananas, mashed
5 tbsps rapeseed oil [I used vegetable, with no ill effects]
250ml/8 fl oz sugar [is this a mistake in the British edition? I did measure it out in fluid ounces and it tasted fine but I don't know if it was right!]
1 tsp vanilla extract
90g plain flour
25g cocoa powder
1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/8 tsp salt
For the topping:
2 large very ripe bananas, mashed
2 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp soy milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp arrowroot powder [I used cornflour]
Melt the chocolate in the microwave or over a pan of boiling water. Set aside to cool
In a large mixing bowl, combine the mashed bananas, the oil and the sugar. Use a handheld mixer to beat everything together for about a minute. You can use a fork if you don't have a mixer. Mix in the vanilla and the melted chocolate.
In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, bicarb or soda and salt. Add this to the banana mixture in batches, mixing with the hand mixer as you go along. Mix for about 1 minute more.
In a small bowl, combine all topping ingredients and mix with the cleaned mixer.
Spread the brownie batter evenly into a baking tin. Pour the banana topping over that and spread evenly. Bake for 30 mins [no temperature?! I put them in at the same temperature as the low fat brownies - ie 325 F]. Remove from oven and let cool. After about 15 mins move it to the fridge until fully cooled [I didn't do this because I don't like stressing the fridge out by making it cool warm things, and I knew most of them were going in the increasingly full-of-brownie freezer]. Cut into 12 squares, and serve with extra banana sliced on the top.
Sunday, 17 February 2008
I haven't posted for a week or so as I've been a bit crazy busy preparing for a research paper which I gave on Friday. Fortunately I got enough work done that I felt happy with it, and it seemed to go down ok with the audience. So now I'm back to blogging without the judgement of more senior peers hanging over me (can you have senior peers, or is that a tautology?) I've been very keen to write this post, though, as I have much prettier pictures than usual. I can't take any credit for this - it's all our friend Paul's doing - he's a keen photographer and I asked him for some tips when he and his wife Vicki came round for dinner earlier in the week. He took all the photos in this post, but I listened keenly to all his advice, and hope that I can do some of it justice in the future...
Vicki and Paul are both veggie, so I always like cooking for them, and they are also friends dear to our hearts as Vicki was the one who introduced me to The Scientist. We've even been literally half way round the world to visit them when they lived in Hawaii (this was pre such extreme concern for global warming on our part....). I didn't have too much time for cooking this week, so I made some quick but tasty curried potato and cabbage tortillas from good old Moosewood Low Fat favourites. We ate them with brown basmati rice, Scientist re-fried beans, Greek yogurt and salsa. Dessert was cupcakes - a new preoccupation of mine. I have an ongoing ambition to make cupcakes that look beautiful. I imagine little exquisite gems of piped icing, swirls of ganache, and flower-topped glossy layers of frosting. So far, I have not managed to achieve anything like this, but armed with a new piping bag and a cupcake event to aim for - Cupcake Hero's liquor cupcake roundup, I set to with renewed confidence.
I actually made two different cupcakes, such was my enthusiasm. The first was to showcase some ginger liqueur which I used very successfully in our early-December family gathering this year (I'm still eating this Christmas cake, mouse-sized portion eater that I am, and it's still beautifully moist and gingery). The cupcakes themselves were made from a family favourite recipe: Queenie's chocolate cake. This cake (made by my great aunt Queenie, though she has long since discarded that nickname in favour of something more dignified) was used for all of our birthday cakes in childhood, and had the honour of being one of the cakes at Kiwi Sis and Kiwi Bro's wedding a few years ago. Oy, how it's blossomed! It's just a simple chocolate sponge, but it's much moister than some, and in this case I substituted some of the hot water for ginger liqueur (please forgive me for meddling with the recipe, Munchkin Granny). The icing was a simple buttercream one based on a template from my new Vegan Cupcakes Take over the World book (with enormous apologies to the author since my version used non-vegan margarine, which seems to miss the point of the book slightly. I will make it vegan next time. I added lots of chopped stem ginger and a little of its syrup, too). Verdict: really good - cake nice and moist and chocolatey; icing soft, sweet and gingery. I'm not sure if the ginger liqueur added too much as I'd deliberately gingered up the icing just in case, but let's say it did.
The second cupcake was really a muffin, but I'm hoping that with frosting on the top, baked in a cupcake pan and called a cupcake (by me) it will count as one. It was an apple cider muffin recipe from Cooking done Light, as a concession to The Scientist's ongoing attempt to eating healthily, which keeps being scuppered by my desire to bake things. Needless to say, he chose the chocolate one.... I wanted to try it out anyway; after the success of the beer cakes I wanted to see if cider could hold its own as a cupcake ingredient. I left off the streusel topping in the recipe, and iced these ones with the same vanilla frosting I used for the sandwiched cookies I made for my undergrads a week or two ago, but added a pinch of nutmeg, a pinch of ground cloves, and a heftier shake of cinnamon, plus some chopped walnuts. Note to self: even chopped up walnuts do not pass easily through piping bag nozzle. Otherwise, both cakes were a dream to ice - I could imagine myself something of a pro (until I looked at the mess that the nutty frosting made!). The cider cupcakes were much denser than the chocolate ones, and not as sweet, but were still really nice and appley, and in this case the frosting added more than enough sweetness if that's what you're after. For a lightened muffin though, I was happy.
So, we moved to the photography. The cupcakes struck their poses, the lighting was adjusted, and Paul found more settings on my camera than I'd used in two years. As you can see, he did them proud - doesn't the icing look lush, and that's not a word I use often - and taught me a lot, too. If there's anyone else reading this interested in photography advice, here's some of what I learned:
Use the camera close-up pre-sets
Experiment with not using the flash (I'd already started on this one, but was having hit and miss troubles with colour trueness)
Use a tripod - Paul had a really nifty small one which certainly won't break the bank. He also told me about a gorillapod one which can be wound round anything you fancy.
Take A LOT of shots so that you can discard the duff ones
Don't stop when the photo is taken - experiment with close-ups and colour and lighting shifts once you've got it on your computer. It's ridiculous I hadn't done this before - I just hadn't really known where to start, but it's so easy and fun to do! Paul showed me Picasa, a free software package from google which is great. I haven't really done anything to the photos I've put up here, except for the black and white one, because I thought they were so good already, but in future, I'll be doctoring with the best of them (well, among the more incompetent of them anyway)
So, great boozy Hero cupcakes, great pictures, great advice. I've just baked some brownies, so am keen to try out my new-learnt skills alone. If it all goes wrong, there will be another dinner invite in the post to Vicki and Paul forthwith! In the meantime, I seem to be living with a crazed woodpecker - The Scientist is breaking in his new cricket bat, by whacking the living daylights out of it. You've got to admire his enthuasism at any rate.
Queenie's chocolate cake
150g self-raising flour
150g caster sugar
175g soft margarine
150g drinking chocolate
3tbsp boiling water
Add the sugar and margarine to the flour and drinking chocolate. Mix
Add the water
Bake at 180 degrees C. I didn't have written down how long for, so I started checking the cupcakes at about 22 mins.
I halved this and it made about 9 cupcakes, I think
Ginger Buttercream frosting (with apologies to Vegan Cupcakes Take over the World!)
1/4 cup shortening
1/4 cup margarine, softened
2 cups icing sugar
2 tbsps orange juice (I used part ginger syrup from the stem ginger jar)
1 tbsp finely grated lemon zest (I missed this out)
1 tsp vanilla extract
In a small bowl cream the shortening and margarine until well combined. Add the icing sugar in roughly 1/2-cup additions. After each addition of sugar, add a splash of orange juice and beat well with a handheld mixer on medium speed. Add vanilla nad beat for another 3-4 mins until smooth, creamy and fluffy. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.
Note: do not transport leftover iced cupcakes in a box in a bag slung from your bike handlebars and expect them to reach their destination looking at all attractive.
Monday, 11 February 2008
By the evening I was back into seasonal mode and made roasted winter veggies for dinner, with a Cantonese-style glaze. I had loads of veggies left over, and since wasting food is an absolutely cardinal sin in my book I decided to roast them too, and turn them into soup. I wasn't sure how the glaze would transfer into soup, and was after something more hearty in flavour, so I did them with smoked paprika and a Schwarz spice blend for vegetables which The Scientist picked up in Sainsburys a few weeks ago. The vegetables smelt amazing, and I just whizzed them up in the processor with some stock until they were a nice consistency. The flavour was so good that I didn't need to add anything else except a little salt and pepper.
We had the soup for lunch the next day and it had all the hearty smoky creamy wintryness I'd hoped for (even if we had the patio door open as the weather was so nice, much to the cats' delight. They much prefer going out of the patio door than using their own catflap in the front. Perverse creatures). I'm sure the depth of flavour was partly because I used Jerusalem artichokes (see how I slipped them in again, Eco Sis?!) and parsnip, but it's a soup which could be endlessly adaptable. Mine also had swede, carrot, garlic and onion in it. It was good that I'm entering it for Holler from tinnedtomatoes and Lisa from Lisa's Kitchen's 'No Croutons Required' veggie soup event. The rules are that it be a soup a carnivore would love: The Scientist ate every bit and even managed to pick out the Jerusalem artichoke flavour. I still need to work on my photography though...
The recipe, such as it is:
Hearty wintry roast veggie soup
Preheat oven to 200 degrees C (400 F)
Chop selection of seasonal root veggies into chunks (about 1 inch) and scatter over a lightly greased baking tray. Season with smoked paprika and selection of herbs/spices (I used Schwartz 'special blend for vegetables'). Roast for about an hour, until the veggies are tender. I added some onion and garlic after about 15 mins.
I let the veggies cool for a little while here, but that's really because I was eating my dinner, and it probably made no difference! Blend up in a processor with enough stock to make the consistency you like. Taste and season.
Serve to hungry and appreciative boyfriend.
I used about 2/3 of a large parsnip, 1 1/2 largish Jerusalem artichokes, a big carrot, 2/3 of a swede, a shallot and a huge clove of garlic, and it made three portions, but it depends a lot on how thick you like your soup, I suppose!
Saturday, 9 February 2008
But the main business of this post is Stephanie from Dispensing Happiness's latest blog party. After the fun of the last one I was definitely up for more. The theme this month, though, is 'fried', which at first left me a bit flummoxed. I'm a bit of a healthy-eating nut (no pun intended since I don't like nuts), and frying doesn't usually feature too much in my cooking. However, a little more thought and I realised that there were actually several likely contenders. I settled on a variant of potato latkes - grated potato fritters eaten at Chanukah to commemorate the fact that a tiny bit of oil left in the Jews' desecrated Temple miraculously lasted for a whole week while more could be harvested (processed? made? found? brought? I just don't know). I have tried making these before and they got a bit of a thumbs down from The Scientist. They were just a bit bland, even made with onions and seasoning. That was about 6 years ago, though, and I thought it was about time to try to sneak them under his radar again.
This time, I jazzed them up. I added grated Jerusalem artichoke to the potato, and some smoked paprika, which is one of our favourite seasonings and usually adds a real depth of flavour to anything you add it to. Latkes are so easy they don't really have a recipe - grate potatoes (and onion and/or other root veggies). Press out excess water. Add a little egg, seasoning and whatever spices you fancy. Shape into patties and fry. Curse when they fall apart.
The result: better than the last ones. I added some grated cooked beetroot mixed with sour cream as a garnish to raise them up to party level, and that definitely added to the taste as well. I liked the cold beetroot with the hot latke. The Scientist's verdict, however: 'meh'. He has decided that latkes are 'a way of making potatoes less nice'. The Scientist loves potatoes, so this is a pretty final end to the latke endeavour! Still, they made a nice little offering for Stephanie's party, and given their Eastern European origins, I am serving them with little shots of schnapps.
My spellchecker on blogger has gone on strike. Spolgies for any bloopers (I really did type that wrong but liked it more that way)
Thursday, 7 February 2008
The day, however, went well from the start. All of the traffic lights between home and the station (a not inconsiderable number) were green, or changed rapidly to green. I hate sitting at red lights, and maintain that it’s worse when you’re cycling because you’re more likely to see the lights change without being able to scoot through them. But on Tuesday all the lights went my way and I uttered up a brief thank you to the traffic light deity as I went through each one. This is a necessary precaution to ward off future bad traffic light karma. It worked: my lecture also went fine, and I only spotted one student who seemed to be asleep. And the debating competition was a great success, and so much fun!
The competition was a random idea of mine some time ago, and my colleagues were very encouraging. I debated at school myself, and thought it would be a fun event as well as a good advert for our department. We sent out letters with a mailing which was going out to all the local schools late last year, and put together a website with a registration form. It took a while and a fair amount of nervous anxiety and follow up emails on my part to get enough teams registered, but we ended up with enough for a decent evening. I had a fun afternoon brain-storming ideas for motions with The Scientist, Eco-Sis and Munchkin Granny, and several fairly tedious afternoons drafting rules and making plans. But finally, the great day arrived, and everything went off smoothly. The school teams were very impressive, and once they'd got into the swing of making 'points of information' where they could interrupt each other's speeches, really got into the swing of things. By the final, they were contemptuously rejecting each other's points, or accepting them with a dramatic sneer. The teams in the final were excellent at following their arguments and responding to the other side, and really did their teachers proud. We even had to make up another prize on the spot to reward an extra speaker. Just for interest, the motions were:
'This house believes that the internet has been the greatest advance in medicine in the last 200 years' [thank you Scientist!]
'This house believes we are due for another plague'
and the final: 'This house believes that war does more for medicine than peace' [thank you Eco Sis!]
Obviously I can't post any pictures of the event itself, but here are some cookies I made to say thank you to some of our undergraduates who came along to support the event and chat to the school students. I also had great support from several of my colleagues, the Dean of the School, and an external representative from the Wellcome Trust, who variously made up the judging panel, helped with the refreshments and publicity, and welcomed the school parties. Everyone came away on a real high, and one of the undergrads has even asked that we put on a module on debating and presentation skills!
So, thank you Traffic Light Deity. I will continue to pay homage to you whenever you give me a green light. Here are some other beliefs from my personal creed:
The cookies (let's cut to the interesting bit) were a tried and tested little chocolate number which I found on allrecipes when looking for birthday cookies for Junior Bro one time. I like cookies which need rolling out and cutting - much more fun than just dolloping them on the baking tray though I'm prepared to do that too. These ones go all nice and crispy - much more like an English biscuit than an American cookie. I decided they'd look prettier sandwiched together, so I made Double Chocolate Sour Cream frosting for some, and Vanilla Cream Filling for the others, both from Debby Naugans Makos Small Batch Baking (recipes below). Both were delicious - I liked the vanilla one even though I'm mistrustful of shortening (I don't really get what it is, and am suspicious of transfats even though it says it's not hydrogenated), and The Scientist loved the dark one. We had some of the leftovers spread on Pancake Day pancakes the next night, and mighty fine they were too.
That my bicycle is sentient and inclined to deviousness
That you should never be without a banana
That you can never have too many trousers (that's one of Kiwi Sis's, and I have to admit that I'm considering the heresy of dropping it on the grounds that one's wardrobe can certainly be too full for more trousers)
Chocolate Cutout Cookies
1 1/2 cups plain flour
3/4 cup cocoa
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
3/4 cup butter, softened
1 1/4 cups white sugar
Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt; set aside. In a medium bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in the egg. Gradually stir in the sifted ingredients to form a soft dough. Divide into two pieces, flatten and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F/190 degrees C. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out to 1/8 inch in thickness. Cut into desired shapes [you'll need quite a lot of flour on the surface - the dough is very sticky]. Place cookies on lined baking trays. [they don't spread much so I put them quite close together].
Bake for 8 to 10 mins. Allow to cool on the baking sheets for 5 mins before removing to a wire rack to cool completely [I'd recommend doing this no matter how impatient you are - they have a lot more structural integrity after cooling a little!]
Double Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting (from Small Batch Baking)
makes 2/3 cup
3oz milk chocolate, finely chopped
2oz dark chocolate, finely chopped [I used only dark chocolate as I didn't have any milk]
3 tbsp sour cream, at room temperature [I used reduced fat - worked fine]
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt
Melt chocolate in the microwave on high for about 2 - 21/2 minutes, stirring after 1 1/2 mins. Allow to cool for 5 mins
Add the sour cream, vanilla and salt, and whisk to blend well. Let the frosting cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. When it is cool, it should be thick enough to spread (if not,
refrigerate for a few minutes to thicken). Use immediately.
Vanilla Cream Filling (from Small Batch Baking)
makes about 3 tbsps
1 tbp unsalted butter at room temperature
1 tbsp solid vegetable shortening
1/2 tsp milk
1/4 tsp pure vanilla extract
pinch of salt
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar (I assumed that this was icing sugar, and it worked!)
Place the butter, shortening, milk, vanilla and salt in a small bowl and mix with a fork until a soft, smooth paste forms. Add the sugar and mix until the filling is well blended and smooth. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it aside at room temperature until you are ready to use it
Monday, 4 February 2008
Me (blearily): who won?
The Scientist: The Giants
Me (brain slowly processing that Giants are not Parrots): What?????
The Scientist (nudging small cat who has been allowed to sleep on the bed with me, out of the way): Yes, in the closing minutes, very exciting...(proceeds to fall asleep while I suffer extreme insomnia and have to find my torch and spend half the rest of the night reading Harry Potter. At least the cat was happy).
So, that is positively the last time I leave a game early. On Saturday I went out to the gym in the middle of the England rugby match, leaving us comfortably in the lead. When I came back we had inexplicably lost. And last night I went to bed just after the end of the first quarter, with the Parrots convincingly ahead, and what happens...? Cupcake Project's extra cheese and bacon must have trumped my less cheesey snacks. My only consolation is that the Giants' quarterback was named Most Valuable Player, thus living up to his older brother's record last year. Evidently mythological creatures beat birds.
In other news, Kiwi Bro started work at his new school today, and was greeted by a haka! To wish him luck, I have composed some tiddlies from a Pom (but please don't analyse their literary merit!):
There once was a young Kiwi Munchkin
Who had nothing to carry his lunch in
His stuff was all shipped
But the schedule had slipped
'The company needs a good punchin''
Kiwi Family lives by the sea
And have vegemite spread for their tea
Spurilina is great
But the bungy will wait
And they wish calling England was free
I need sleep. I pity the students in my lecture tomorrow.
Saturday, 2 February 2008
The Scientist taking a punt (thanks to Roger Stacey for the photo!)
The Superbowl is obviously as much of a social event in the
Please allow me to digress very briefly to mention the purpose of Cupcake Project. It is written by possibly the best friend in the world – a lady who not only volunteered to make the cupcakes for her friends’ wedding; not only made about a million different options for them to try over the course of a year; not only then made a million of the selected ones for the day itself; but ALSO then agreed to do the whole thing again (including trials) for some other friends! I remove my hat to you, Cupcake Project. I think this is a magnificent thing, and I enjoy marvelling over the combinations you come up with.
There, that’s what I think about that. This time, Cupcake Project had come up with a classic: beer and cheese cupcakes. I have to admit that I think this combination in a cupcake sounds fairly revolting, but it’s such a brilliantly twisted take on the salty snack theme that I was strangely taken by it. The original actually had bacon in it as well but that was at least two steps too far for a Jewish vegetarian. The Scientist is an a-religious omnivore but he didn’t get a choice in this. He gets to choice Superbowl dinner anyway, and so we're having hot dogs and refried beans J. I made the cupcakes today, and was really pleased with the results. The cakes themselves were deliciously light and moist - the influence of the beer, perhaps? - and the cream cheese topping delightfully smooth and cool. I baulked at more cheese in the icing as it was so nice as it was, so it's not quite as Cupcake Project intended, but still a top snack. I made a half a batch which did a very good 9 cupcakes (and the one in the photo is a funny shape because my cupcake liners were a little bit bigger than a standard UK fairy cake tin!)
We are staunch supporters of the Patriots in this house, The Scientist because he admires their record-breaking unbeaten record this season, and me because I misread the team's title very late one previous Superbowl night and thought they were the New England Parrots, which I liked. A heart-warming Superbowl fact: cat teams beat bird teams on average. Lucky for the Parrots that they're playing Giants this year.
I was particularly pleased with the decoration as my icings have never been up to much in the past. This icing was nice and thick and easy to spread, with none of the pooling and sliding off I've had with other versions. I cut out the shape of the Patriots logo in coloured ready-made icing, and made the little footballs as Cupcake Project had - decorated chocolate-covered almonds.
We are staunch supporters of the Patriots in this house, The Scientist because he admires their record-breaking unbeaten record this season, and me because I misread the team's title very late one previous Superbowl night and thought they were the New England Parrots, which I liked. A heart-warming Superbowl fact: cat teams beat bird teams on average. Lucky for the Parrots that they're playing Giants this year.
So, we are ready: hot dogs, ketchup, chips'n'dips, Parrot cupcakes (coffee, Pepsi Max.....). Fortunately I'm not lecturing until Tuesday! Fellow Superbowl watchers, though, a word of warning... http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_60613.html So, be careful, and enjoy (and hello to Huw and Don!)