Monday, 31 March 2008

Cottage cheese muffins

I’m tired today, so I’m just going to post the recipe for the nice savoury muffins I made last week. We were woken up in the night by yowling from downstairs, and were both out of bed and on the landing before we were even properly conscious. Whatever evil cat had somehow managed to get in through the magnet-locking catflap had shot out again, leaving a very unnerved-looking pooky cat, and the unmistakable signs of a cat tussle in the living room. We were pleased to note that the bits of fur on the floor were not white, suggesting that despite his cuddle-loving soppy exterior, pooky had kicked some evil cat bottom. I used to like all cats; now I dislike all cats who live near our cats. They both seemed ok today, but the upshot was that it took me quite a while to get back to sleep and I’ve been a bit fuzzy round the edges all day in consequence.

So, to the muffins. They were inspired by some cottage cheese and sundried tomato muffins on 101 cookbooks, taken from Rose Elliot’s Vegetarian Supercook. I liked the idea and fancied a savoury muffin to have with soup. I don’t often make savoury muffins, partly because The Scientist doesn’t like them, but I loved the idea of the moistness of cottage cheese paired with sundried tomatoes. I get through gallon loads of cottage cheese anyway, so incorporating it into another foodstuff just seemed like a bonus way to get my fix. Heidi of 101 cookbooks described the muffins as being something like a quiche which didn’t appeal quite so much, so I turned to good old Moosewood Low Fat Favourites, and adapted a herb and cheese muffin recipe. I used cottage cheese instead of the cheddar and extra egg white since I thought it would bring its own moistness, and the muffins were certainly nicely moist. I also did the milk and vinegar trick instead of buttermilk as it’s not something I tend to have on hand. I also added chopped sundried tomatoes and basil to the mix, and I halved the whole batch as it would only be me eating them. They were delicious – quite cornmealy, but with a really nice flavour from the tomatoes and basil and, they went really well with my soup at lunchtime. I’ve since defrosted one from the freezer and warmed it in the microwave and it had no ill effects at all. I’ll definitely be making these again!

Cottage cheese, basil and sundried tomato muffins (adapted from Moosewood Low Fat Favourites)

Makes 12 muffins (I halved it)

1 cup white flour

1 ½ tsp baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

1 cup cornmeal

1 tbsp brown sugar

1 whole egg

1 egg white [I omitted this]

1 cup buttermilk

3 tbsp minced scallions/spring onions

½ tsp Dijon mustard

1 tsp dried dill

½ tsp dried thyme

¼ tsp ground black pepper

1 tbsp canola or other vegetable oil (optional)

1 cup grated low fat Cheddar [I used the same amount of low fat cottage cheese]

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C

Prepare a 12-cup muffin tin with cooking spray or a very coating of oil

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Thoroughly mix in the cornmeal and brown sugar. In a separate bowl beat the egg and egg white until frothy. Add the buttermilk, scallions, mustard, dill, thyme, pepper, and optional oil to the beaten eggs. Reserve 2 tbsps of the grated cheese and stir the rest into the egg mixture. Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients, stirring just enough to make a uniformly moist batter.

Spoon the batter into the muffin tins and sprinkle the muffin tops with the reserved cheese. Bake about 20 mins until a knife inserted into the centre of a muffin comes out clean. Cool in the tins for 5 mins, loosen each muffin by running a knife around the edge, and then tip out onto a rack to cool completely

Friday, 28 March 2008

Quarter-versary cookies

I was wandering about in the supermarket yesterday in that dangerously unfocused state of mind which always has bad effects on the wallet when I noticed some reduced mini creme eggs. I wouldn’t usually buy them (the goopy bit makes me feel sick) but I thought they might come in handy for a baking project, so I popped them in the basket. I had some inspiration on how to use them the very next day, as I wanted to make something a little bit special and a little bit personal. For today it is three months since Kiwi Family arrived in New Zealand.

It’s been a tough three months on both sides I imagine, but with no land line and no computer at their end, it’s been hard not knowing how they’re getting on. We’ve exchanged letters and texts, and we have spoken on the phone a few times, but we’re all looking forward to being in touch more regularly. I have text message sized snippets of what the Munchkin is up to (in the paddling pool with a soggy biscuit, or this morning, with his breakfast all over him). He’s 18 months old now, and TALKING for heaven’s sake. Roll on skype.

I wanted to bake something to mark their first quarter-year, preferably something which would mean something to Kiwi Sis. I settled on another family favourite – a simple chocolate chip cookie, but known for some reason as chocolate chip cuckoos among us. But instead of normal chocolate chips, I would use the mini eggs. Creme eggs do make me think of Kiwi Sis, not because I’ve ever seen her eat one I don’t think, but because she was sweet enough to send some out to one of our Israeli uncles one year. I imagine you can probably get creme eggs in New Zealand, so I’m sending her these pictures of eggs in a cuckoo instead. I will take the real things to Oxford tomorrow when we visit Eco Sis and Eco Bro, so we will toast Kiwi Family in goop.

I had imagined nice thick cookies with glistening pearls of sliced creme egg peeping through the shell – but of course they didn’t turn out quite that way. I divided the mixture in two and added chopped up eggs to one half, but just in case that didn’t work I left the other half plain and added eggs bits to the top only. The latter batch kept their shape much better and so are much more photogenic, but insofar as the creme egg bits didn’t explode, goop all over the baking tray or turn the cookies yellow, they worked in the batter as well. I don’t know why these ones kept their shape better as I did them both at the same time and got equally exasperated with how sticky they (and I) got in each case. I think that I will favour the messy ones though as I took them out slightly earlier and I like a gooey cookie. Sorry, cuckoo. I would LOVE it if Kiwi Sis made a batch too and then sent over a picture of The Munchkin covered in goop. Go on, if I can’t spoil him in person…

Chocolate chip cuckoos (makes about 12 medium sized cookies)
125g butter/marge
125g sugar
125g brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg
275g self raising flour
1/2 tsp salt
125g choc chips (any sort - or chopped up mini eggs)

Cream together first four ingredients, add lightly beaten egg, mixing well. Mix in sifted flour and salt. Add choc chips and mix well. I generally refrigerate it for a bit at this stage but I don't know if it really needs it. Bake at 190-200 degrees C for 10-12 mins

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Hey hey, it's superfoods day!

I’ve instituted a new initiative: hey hey, it’s superfoods day! I was reading The Food Doctor’s Healing foods for mind and body, which described the need to combine proteins in a vegetarian diet in order to get the full range of amino acids. Normally we just try to eat a range of healthy things, but I thought there would be no harm (and a bit of fun) in deliberately using so-called superfoods in more of our dishes. First up, I chose quinoa, which is on the Food Doctor’s list of top vegetarian/vegan protein foods, containing a balanced range of amino acids on its own. It’s also a good source of fibre, phosphorous, magnesium and iron, and to top it all, is gluten free.

Quinoa’s supernutritional status is hardly breaking news, but I have to admit that I hadn’t heard of it until a few years ago, when tv holistic nutritionist Gillian McKeith (or ‘evil harridan’ as we like to call her – and I don’t like being rude about people unnecessarily) starting singing its praises at every opportunity. I did try a quinoa porridge for breakfast for a while, and it was ok, but I hadn’t dared bring it into our supper dishes for fear of bringing down a tirade from The Scientist about That McKeith Woman. (To be fair to him, while I do have one of her cookbooks and like a few of the recipes, I agree that she calls for an annoyingly specialist and expensive range of ingredients which the average person would surely never have in their kitchen. And she’s as annoying as I don’t know what. Personally I wouldn't encourage her by visiting her website. I just went there to get the link and got out again as fast as I could). He was swayed by the superfoods idea though, so I snuck a bag of red quinoa into our shopping basket when we popped into the health food shop in Lewes last weekend. I think he would have let me slip anything in there as long as I hurried up and got us both out of the shop (that’s how the agave nectar got in too, and the chocolate flavour milk-from-a-bean).

I picked a recipe from another Food Doctor book to try out our new superfood: a roast vegetable quinoa pilaf. The original recipe had courgettes in it too, but I had to leave them out as they’re on the list of Scientist nasties. It also called for grilling the peppers separately but I thought that was an unnecessary faff, and roasted them with the tomatoes (which I left in for longer than it said to get them nice and juicy). The Scientist supplemented his with salmon, which is also a superfood but I’m not letting him count it as we didn’t both get the benefits :). We both really liked the pilaf though. The texture of the quinoa surprised us – I was expecting something like couscous, but it’s quite ‘springy’, and really quite different. The different veggies all added nice roasted flavours, while the cinnamonny red onion not only smelt nice but added a good sweetness, too. I added a little bit of goat’s cheese to mine, but it was nice without as well. I halved the recipe but it could easily have served three if not four people anyway. I’m considering having leftovers with a poached egg on the top for lunch tomorrow. Best of all, the super nutritional qualities of quinoa have made it a possible crop in NASA's Controlled Ecological Life Support System for long-duration manned spaceflights. The Scientist doesn’t know that yet – I only just found it on Wikipedia, but I suspect that’s going to make up for The McKeith Effect.

Roast Vegetable Quinoa Pilaf (slightly adapted from The Food Doctor Everyday Diet Cookbook)

Serves 4 (the author suggests serving it as a side with grilled meat or fish, or as a veggie main course. I halved these quantities and it still served at least 3)

Splash of olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

400g quinoa, rinsed and drained

500ml stock

4 or 5 plum tomatoes (the original suggested baby ones)

Freshly ground black pepper

1 large yellow pepper

2 medium red onions, finely sliced

A few squeezes of lemon juice

1 tsp balsamic vinegar

½ tsp cinnamon

2 tbps fresh mint, chopped (I didn’t have any and forgot to add any dried in the end)

Heat oil in a large pan. Soften the onion over a low hear, add the garlic and stir. Add the drained quinoa, stir for a minute, then add the stock. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for about 20 mins, by which time the stock will all be absorbed.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4

Cut the tomatoes in half (or smaller if you’re using larger tomatoes), and chop the pepper. Put them on a baking tray, toss with 2 tbsp olive oil and season with black pepper. Roast in the oven for about 15 mins (or longer) until soft, with the juices running. When cooked, drizzle with the vinegar.

Heat another splash of oil in a frying pan, add red onion and cook over a low heat for about 10 mins, turning frequently until it starts turning brown. Sprinkle with the cinnamon and cook for another couple of minutes.

Put the quinoa in a warmed bowl and toss with the tomatoes, pepper, lemon juice, vinegar and a little oil. Crumble some feta over the top if you wish, and serve with a mixed leaf salad

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

A race to bake

I had such a nice day yesterday. British universities have an extra discretionary bank holiday the Tuesday after Easter, and I decided to take it and spend a day pottering. I had my breakfast in bed with both the cats, did some errands in town, went to a pilates class, and had a lovely mushroomy lunch (The Scientist had gone in to work as he has a meeting to prepare for). I spent the afternoon planting some herb and vegetable seeds, finishing a sewing project, hoovering the house and baking some really nice savoury muffins which I’ll blog about later. The pinnacle of achievement, however, was reached with a cake I made for A Slice of Cherry Pie’s Easter Cake Bake.

Having made hamentaschen for Purim and hot cross buns for Easter, I decided to go secular with this one, and made a Boat Race cake. The Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race takes place around this time every year, but since Easter was so early this year they almost coincide. The Scientist and I met at Cambridge, but I did my undergraduate degree in Oxford, so Boat Race day always brings an edge of competition to our house. We’ve had a number of close-run races over the last few years and I can’t wait for this year’s event on Saturday.

The cake is a simple Victoria Sponge, but I experimented with making it lower fat, just to see if I could. I substituted two thirds of the butter with apple puree, and also used fruit sugar, so only needed two thirds of the stated amount. It did indeed work fine, and you could taste the apple in both batter and baked cake. The Scientist didn’t even notice any difference, though it’s possible that he was distracted by the lemon butter icing. I rather liked the additional appley taste.

Since I made the cake, the dark blue Oxford smartie crew is in the lead. In fact the light blue Cambridge smartie crew is frankly not in good shape – their bowsmartie looks as though he’s blown too early, and number 3 smartie seems to have his oar embedded in the bank. They also look set for a blade clash which is never good for crew focus. I suspect they may be distracted by the suspiciously clean state of the Thames, and perhaps also by the snow on the bank (the Cambridge crew really were playing in the snow this week – it was on the news and everything!). I predicted Oxford smartie victory, although not in the sudden and decisive way which was in fact played out, when the Cambridge smartie crew got unexpectedly eaten by a giant Scientist. Ah well, as long as the right crew won. Let’s hope the outcome is duplicated on Saturday.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Bill's: the real thing

A little while ago I posted about a Masterchef meal which I challenged The Scientist to devise. He cooked a 'Bill's brunch' based on our favourite cafe in Lewes, in East Sussex. Over Easter we got to re-experience the real thing when we went back to visit Granny T, and it was worth the wait.

Bill's started off as a greengrocer by the river in Lewes. Then Lewes flooded REALLY badly about 6 or 7 years ago (before we lived there), and the people in the unit next to Bill's gave up and sold up. Bill's expanded, and became a cafe as well as a shop. They serve good-quality food at only slightly expensive prices, in a laid-back and chatty atmosphere, all amid casually enticing displays of luscious-looking veggies, jams, chutneys and bread. When we first moved to Lewes a lot of the produce was quite exotic, but over the years there has been more of an emphasis on locally-grown and organic veggies, which I think is just great. I love it that you can buy sweetcorn, asparagus or plums which are labelled as coming from just a few miles away. The exotic stuff is still there - Bill's is the first place I had seen a stripy aubergine or a UFO squash - but the balance is definitely going in the right direction. Not long before we left Lewes they expanded again (I don't know if the people further down the street are starting to look edgy as Bill's popularity seems to know no bounds), and they now have a lot more seating space as well as the signature long table you share with other diners. They also have a branch in Brighton which we visited a few times - also top notch. If you follow the link above it shows the Brighton branch - I do prefer the Lewes one, which is cosier. The Brighton one is in an old bus depot, and it's massive!

Bill's was our brunch-spot of choice whenever friends visited, as well as for treaty lazy Saturdays ourselves. Kiwi Sis and Kiwi Bro definitely ate there with us at least once, although we couldn't remember if the Munchkin made it before we moved. I had raved about it to Munchkin Gramps, and was then worried when we took him down there in case he didn't like eating elbow to elbow with strangers (admittedly very nice, middle-class strangers - this is Lewes, after all), but he loved it, too. Even the children who eat there are well-behaved. Were we worried it wouldn't live up to our best memories after six months away? Not for one second.

The Scientist's super duper steak sandwich

We got there at about 11.30 and managed to get a table for six. We revelled in the old familiar atmosphere while we waited for the others to arrive, so au fait with the menu that we didn't even need to plan what to eat. True to form, The Scientist had a steak sandwich, which is served in focaccia bread with mustardy mayo and an assortment of grilled veggies, and I had my trusty scrambled eggs on toast. I know, I know - I make scrambled egg myself all the time at home, but these are just in another league. Granny T had scrambled egg with smoked salmon, and Munchkin Granny went for a focaccia pizza slice with pesto, walnuts and courgette, from the specials board. Our other friends had the steak sandwich and a jacket potato with home-made houmous and roast pepper spread respectively, all of which were pronounced delicious. Granny T and Munchkin Granny even took a dessert home with them - the portions are so generous that we have never once in 4 years managed a dessert although they always look amazing.
My lusciously creamy scrambled egg

Wandering about afterwards, we reflected on how much we miss Lewes. We do really like our new town, and we love our new house (and my commute to Oxford has certainly become a lot more manageable!), but we're small-town people at heart. I miss the feeling of being part of a community, the prettiness of the place, and the number of small independent shops. As we drove home that afternoon though, I realised that I was happy to see the Georgian buildings of Leamington again, and as we pulled up to our little house with a cat sitting in the window we definitely felt we'd come home. It's just a shame Bill doesn't have plans for the West Midlands.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

The willpower of a ripe banana

The vernal equinox has come and gone, but we have had a more definite proof of the start of spring: the feline equivalent of the Glorious Twelfth. Yes, pussy cat hunting season has started, and I have twice found eviscerated innards on my study floor in the last week. I don’t know who the culprit is: Mausel (piggle) is small and speedy and can turn on a sixpence, but is also very small, and I don’t know if she could manage to get in through the quite high-set catflap with something in her mouth. Pooky, on the other hand, is bright white and lives in a semi-permanent state of wide-eyed alarm, but has quite a bit of power behind him, and has certainly been known to bring in the odd mouse or bird. Neither is admitting anything currently. Neither has yet got out the Vanish carpet mousse either so I think I’m going to have to do it myself.

I completely forgot to say in yesterday’s post that the Easter biscuits were cut out and decorated with items from my blogging by mail package from April at Abby Sweets. Decorating them was a lot of fun, though we were a bit late for lunch at The Scientist’s parents because I got carried away. I also tried some of the blueberry and vanilla herbal tea she sent me last night, and I think it was the nicest fruity tea I’ve ever had. This package has just kept on giving!

But the main business of this post is my weak resolve when it comes to baking. I had decided not to make hot cross buns this year as we didn’t really need them, but then I was facing an afternoon of intensive spring cleaning today and decided I needed an incentive. So I caved. Making bread is a good cleaning accompaniment as you get a break at regular intervals, and see some real progress being made without you really having to do too much. I used a recipe I’ve used before, from an Australian Women’s Weekly book on breads, muffins and scones. The buns weren’t too sweet, so you might want to up the sugar a bit if you’re that way inclined, and I’d also go heavier on the cinnamon as it wasn’t as evident as I’d have liked. I had forgotten that I'd run out of both currants and dried peel, so mine just had sultanas, raisins and some random dried cranberries I had in the baking supplies. They were, however, very nice and light, and were lovely hot out of the oven with rosehip and crabapple jam home made by Dogophile Vegan Nurse (thank you DVN - it was lovely!). I think they’d also be good toasted. I do pipe crosses onto them despite my lack of religious conviction – it’s just another instance of tradition as far as I’m concerned. I would recommend making hot cross buns as a procrastinatory measure for cleaning. We had a nice accompaniment to our afternoon tea, and the kitchen is looking pretty spotless too.

So my weak will turned out ok for everyone concerned, really. Besides, having the willpower of a ripe banana is not always a bad thing. I got the expression from Eco Sis, who used it to refer to her lack of willpower in not flirting with someone she’d met on a placement. She was working with him; they were ultimately from different countries; she was worried about the effect it could have on the group they were with…. But she caved. And eighteen months later she married him.

Hot Cross Buns (from Australian Women's Weekly Muffins, scones and breads)

4 tsps (14g) dry yeast
1/4 cup (55g) caster sugar
1 cup (250 ml) warm milk
4 cups (600g) plain flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
60 g butter
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup (125 ml) warm water
3/4 cup (110g) dried currants
1/4 cup (40g) mixed peel
1 tbsp apricot jam

Combine yeast, sugar, and milk in a small bowl, whisk until yeast is dissolved. Cover bowl, stand in warm place about 10 mins or until mixture is frothy. Sift flour and cinnamon into large bowl, rub in butter. Stir in yeast mixture, egg, water and fruit, cover, stand in warm place about 1 hour or until mixture has doubled in size.

Turn dough out onto floured surface, knead about 5 mins or until smooth and elastic. Divide dough into 16 portions, knead into balls. Place buns into greased 23cm square slab cake pan, stand in warm place about 20 mins or until dough has risen to top of pan.

Make up flour paste for crosses by mixing 1/2 cup (75g) plain flour and 1 tbsp caster sugar in a small bowl. Gradually blend in 1/3 cup (80ml) water and stir until smooth. Place paste into piping bag fitted with small plain tube, pipe crosses onto buns. Bake in moderately hot oven 10 mins, reduce heat to moderate, bake about a further 15 mins. Turn buns onto wire rack, brush with warm sieved jam.

Makes 16.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Three-cornered baking

I was very excited on Thursday as the day marked three significant things: firstly the first day of spring (hooray!), secondly the spring equinox (hooray – days are now longer than nights!), and the Jewish festival of Purim.

The first two are fairly self-explanatory. The third marks the Jews’ escape from a terrible fate at the hands of the Persian King Ahasuerus, who had been inveigled into signing a decree that would kill them all by his evil Vizier, Haman. I pause to note that Vizier is a very good word, and somehow suggestive of evil plotting in its own right. Do we still have viziers nowadays or do they remain in legend only, I wonder? Luckily, in this case, the king’s brave and beautiful queen Esther (who was, unbeknownst to her husband, a Jew herself) and her uncle Mordecai managed to foil the plot, and Haman himself was the one who was hanged on the gallows he had built for his enemies. I think we should probably focus on the survival of the Jews part rather than the horrible retribution part, personally, as it makes me uncomfortable.

Like so many Jewish festivals, Purim celebrations brought fun and food. The story is read out in Hebrew from the Book of Esther in synagogue, and whenever Haman’s name is mentioned everyone makes as much noise as they can by stamping their feet, waving rattles, and shaking bean-filled yogurt pots lovingly made at their Hebrew Sunday school (though no doubt it’s all more high-tech than that nowadays). The children dress up and get given sweets, and it’s traditional to give food as gifts to friends, and to charity. My only clear memory of a costume I wore as a child was a hanky fairy dress, which Munchkin Granny made for me out of a lot of handkerchiefs my grandfather had had left over from some sales venture. It consisted of one handkerchief for the front and one for the back sewn together at the shoulders (I was a skinny little thing), and then lots more hankys sewn by one corner round the bodice edge. I loved it, and was the only girl not dressed up as Queen Esther with a tall pointy hat with a veil strung from the back that year. Munchkin Granny herself was made amazing costumes as a child by Israel Granny, although she remembers the year she was a wire and crepe paper lily with some trauma, as it completely prevented her from sitting down or going to the toilet. Her brothers were variously match boxes, bumble bees and chefs, which testify to some extraordinary degree of ingenuity on the part of Israel Grandma, not to say skill with crepe paper.

Food-wise, the classic at Purim is hamentaschen, which are triangular pastries filled with jam or poppy seeds – or more recently, chocolate. They are triangular apparently to commemorate Haman’s three-cornered hat (so the traditional song goes), although the name means Haman’s pocket in German, and seems to have derived from Yiddish. I really wanted to make some this year but I knew we’d never get round to eating them all, so in the end I decided to make a lightened version which I might actually eventually disinter from the freezer and munch my way through.

Clearly the most important thing is the shape – they had to be triangular. As far as the filling was concerned I was keen to incorporate my love of dried figs, of which I currently have a superabundance due to an inability to resist two for the price of one offers. Then I remembered a recipe for lightened fig bars I’d found on the Cooking Light website a while back, and thought they could easily be cut triangular. Ta da – a hamentasch done light.

The recipe, when I dug it out, turned out to have a biscuity base, a figgy filling, and a cream cheese topping. All were easy to do, and all tasted very nice on their own out of the bowl. The filling wasn’t too hard to spread over the base, although the cream cheese topping was quite scanty. I halved the recipe as I didn’t have much cream cheese, and after much dithering, baked it in an 8’’ brownie tin. This made quite thin hamentaschen, but you could still taste all three layers, and probably make me more likely to eat them. Actually I would eat them however thick they were, as they were really tasty, rich with the dried fruit, and smooth on top from the cream cheese. They aren’t exactly authentic since they don’t have a pastry case, but I think they pass muster on a Purim themed treat. The Scientist liked them too, and snaffled two with his cup of tea. I don’t quite like to inflict my low-fat baking preferences on other people (although I’m sure they couldn’t have guessed with these little gems, so probably I just kidded myself that was why I had to keep them all), so I made some other things to give away.

We went visiting family yesterday, so for The Scientist’s parents I made some Easter biscuits (gaily mixing my cultural heritage – Easter is just a cultural festival as far as I’m concerned), and for Granny T and Munchkin Granny, the pecan and sour cream biscuits that the Tuesdays with Dorie blog group made a few weeks ago.

I assumed from the photos some of them had posted that I was making what we would call shortbread, although I was somewhat surprised at the amount of baking powder that went in. I tasted a bit of one when they came out of the oven, and it was delicious. They definitely weren’t shortbread-like though, but what we would call a scone. I am always unsure of what Americans mean by biscuits, despite endless discussions with Eco Bro about it, so this is one step closer to elucidation (I have another step in the pipeline thanks to Eco Bro’s recent trip to America, but that’s for another day). They all went down very well with their recipients, anyway, fulfilling all my Purim cultural requirements. I’ve linked to the Dorie biscuit recipe on Eat me, Delicious blog above, and the Easter biscuits were a very simple all-spice one from an old school fund-raising cookbook I have. I might post the recipe another time, but this is already getting rather long! Munchkin Granny tells me that she still has the hanky fairy dress somewhere, so that may feature on here some time, too. As to the first day of spring, it unfortunately went rapidly downhill when a 96-page document arrived in my inbox for meticulous checking, which I didn’t finish until 7.30 that night. Boy, did I earn my hamentasch that evening. I’ll have to make my bean-filled yogurt-pot shaker another day.

Fig and Cream Cheese Bars (from Cooking Light)

1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/3 cups plain flour
3/4 cups packed brown sugar
6 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into small pieces
Cooking spray
2 cups dried figs, stems removed
1 cup water
1/2 cup granulated sugar, divided
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup (6 ounces) 1/3-less-fat cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
2 teaspoons powdered sugar


Preheat oven to 350°.

Lightly spoon flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Combine flour, brown sugar, and salt, stirring well with a whisk. Cut in butter with a pastry blender or 2 knives until mixture resembles coarse meal. Press mixture firmly into a 13 x 9-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray.

Combine figs, water, and 1/4 cup granulated sugar in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook 5 minutes or until figs are tender and sugar dissolves. Cool slightly. Place fig mixture and juice in a blender; process until smooth. Gently spread fig mixture over prepared crust.

Place remaining 1/4 cup granulated sugar, cheese, vanilla, and egg in a medium bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until smooth. Pour over fig mixture; spread to edges. Bake at 350° for 30 minutes or until set and lightly browned. Cool in pan on a wire rack; sprinkle with powdered sugar.

30 servings (serving size: 1 bar)

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Pizza party!

This is another blog challenge post – they all seem to be clustering up! This time it’s for Stephanie at Dispensing Happiness’s monthly cocktail and canapĂ© party, and this month the theme is pizza. Who could resist a theme like that?? I like making pizza, but wanted to do something a little bit different for this one. I’d read a recipe for potato focaccia on Wednesday Chef's blog which sounded as though it had been through a whole process of trial and improvement (I'm always one to jump on the product of someone else's hard work!) It was The Scientist who came up with the final touch though - traffic light pizza! I think he was still in experimental Master Chef mode.

The focaccia was nice and easy to make, though mine didn't rise too much - I must buy a proper thermometer. The dough had a pleasingly soft texture to it and it filled the pan nicely. I topped it with some slow roasted tomatoes, which were another innovation (slice tomatoes, place cut side uppermost on a lightly oiled baking tray, scatter fresh basil or other herbs over the top, plus sea salt and some oil, and roast at a low heat for several hours. I actually left them in the oven with the heat off for a few more hours and I think it all just adds to the flavour). I used orange and green peppers for the other 'lights'. I thought it tasted amazing and snaffled up much more than my fair share. You could taste the potato and it give the bread a nice soft lightness. The Scientist found it a bit doughy in the middle, but he happily ate around the edges, and I could probably get round that another time by making it thinner. I would definitely make it again. We ate it with a tomaticon stew from a Moosewood book - not my usual one, but I copied it down from my friend Tracy and I'm not sure which one it was. Good little researcher that I am, I know I wrote down the whole reference, but it was on one of my other bits of paper. The Scientist cooked it while I was at the gym so perhaps I'll post the recipe another time if I make it myself.

To go with my traffic light pizza I am offering Green for Go cocktails - I have no idea what went in them as they were the product of a 'what's in the booze cupboard' evening with The Scientist's sister and brother in law. I have a feeling that Midori was a central ingredient though!

And lastly, here's that other little gift I was making for Rose:

Spicy soup

The theme for Lisa and Holler’s No Croutons Required event this month is ‘spicy soups’. I’d pondered what I could make for a while, but was feeling uninspired, and had pretty much decided to give it a miss this month. I made quite a nice Vietnamese hot and sour soup a little while ago, but it required speciality ingredients, and I’ve been too busy during the day to get to the Asian supermarket. Then on Tuesday I was making soup during my lunchbreak for us to have for supper, and as I reached for the cumin, cayenne and coriander, a small lightbulb went on it my head. ‘You seem to be making a spicy soup’, it said. And so I was. So here, after all, is my contribution to No Croutons Required – a spicy parsnip and carrot soup. I upped all the spice quantities to make it good and tasty, and it achieved a nice warming on the tongue as the flavour developed. I was pleased about that as I don’t like very hot things, and occasionally undermine my own dinner by trying to please both of our palates!

I returned to my desk as it was simmering, and was amused to find that Holler had meanwhile posted her own entry, which was also curried parsnip, but luckily paired with sweet potatoes, so I don’t look like a complete copy cat. She added mango chutney to hers which I thought sounded very fine, but The Scientist wasn’t so keen on that so I just served it as a condiment. We ate ours with dark rye bread and cheese, and jolly good and warming it was too. Although I’m very pleased that spring is slowly arriving, I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to wintry soups and squashes. Still, fresh berries and beans will make up for it – as will lovely long light evenings (I’m trying to make sure that Kiwi Family remember why they’re planning to return home eventually!)

The soup recipe was based on one from Moosewood Low Fat Favourites but I simplified it by doing it all in one pot. My version is roughly as follows:

Spicy carrot and parsnip soup

Makes about 3 servings

1 onion, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 medium parsnips, peeled and chopped
4 medium carrots ditto
750 ml hot stock
About 1 tsp each of coriander, cumin and cinnamon (I ended up using probably almost double this)
About ½ tsp each cayenne pepper and turmeric

Fry onion and garlic in some oil until soft. Add all spices and fry for another minute or so. Add chopped vegetables and stock, and leave to simmer for about half an hour. Blend (off the heat) and check seasonings. Place random leaves found in fridge on the top to make it look nicer in photograph (in this case, celery). Eat, in a farewell to wintry days.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Blogged by mail - a more exciting Monday than most

Today was an exciting day. Not only has there been spring in the air all day, but my blogging by mail parcel arrived! This is another of Stephanie at Dispensing Happiness's initiatives, but this one is extra-exciting because it actually makes real things arrive through your letter box. I posted off my package of 'small favorites' to Katie at Girls on a Grill a couple of weeks ago, and have been hanging on to see what might come through my letter box.

My partner was April at Abby Sweets, and she put together a lovely thoughtful parcel, full of exciting goodies. There were so many little things it was like having an extra birthday - but a surprise one while you were in the middle of some fairly boring data analysis (the post arrives late around here!). Here's what April sent me:

At the back is a lovely apron (with the appliqued flower); in front of it on the left is a cake skewer (which I don't have, so that will be much-used), and a citrus peeler, which will be used almost immediately to denude the lemons which are waiting in the fruit bowl to be made into either lemon shortbread or lemon muffins. In front of them are some funky star-shaped muffin moulds, then some Easter sprinkles and some Nutella. I love it that the Nutella came with some little paddle sticks which seems to endorse you just piling in and eating it straight from the container (which is surely what everyone wants to do with Nutella). The cards at the front are some of April's favourite cookie and bar recipes, which is really sweet. I haven't made any of them before, so will definitely be trying them out. Next to the Nutella are some pink and blue writing icing tubes, behind them some really nice-sounding fruity tea, and some chocolate cake writing paper. Next to that are some Easter cookie-cutters - a bunny and an egg - and in front of them, some raspberry flavoured dipping fudge. It was all I could do to stop myself from diving straight into that (after all, The Scientist would never know it existed, would he....??), but I decided to save it for tonight's dessert. That was accompanied with some dipping pretzels, and next to them are some more lovely herbal teas.

I think you'll agree it's a pretty amazing set of little favourites, and I'm really touched at the effort which has gone into it. As April said in her note, it's hard to know what to put in a package when you don't know the recipient, but she did a lovely job. I am giving myself a mission to use each of them in turn, and have some seasonal baking and decorating plans already in place. We started simple tonight with the fudge dipping sauce and the pretzels (I put my share into a banana which I grilled in the George Foreman. It was too messy to make a nice picture, but it tasted gorgeous!).

So, thank you so much, April - go and take a look at her foodie blog. I had a quick first look today and was very impressed to see that she was one of the very first Tuesdays with Dorie bakers! This is a blogging group who makes one recipe a week from Dorie's Baking: from my home to yours. I keep thinking of joining, but we'd just end up with too many cakes! So I will continue to enjoy April's write-ups instead, and pick the odd one to try when we have guests. Thank you also to Stephanie who must have gone to SO much effort to pair everyone up - it's an inspired idea!

If you'll excuse me I have to go and apply a small spoon to a pot of dipping fudge now.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Roses for Rose

I made these for my friends T&J’s new baby, Rose, yesterday. She was born four weeks ago today, and I felt ashamed that I hadn’t managed to finish the little thing I was working on for her, so I made some flowery linzer biscuits to take round in the meantime. I’d bought a linzer cookie cutter a while ago, and while it’s not really a rose, I thought it was close enough to be appropriate.

I used the recipe from the King Arthur flour company’s test kitchen. I don’t think that this is a brand we have over here, but I keep reading about it on American blogs, and I like the idea of recipes coming through a test kitchen. I halved it and it worked out fine; if it needed quite a bit of extra flour it was probably because too much egg plopped itself into the mixture when I was trying to spoon in just a half. I hate the way raw eggs are so stringy, which is a shame because I really like cooked eggs. I suppose at least that makes the ‘eeeuw’ bit worthwhile.

Linzer cookies are (as The Scientist described them) like posh Jammy Dodgers. The top layer has a shape cut out in the middle (in this case a rosie flower), so you can see the jam spread on the bottom layer. I used home-made blackberry jam because I wanted it to look good and crimsony. They are based on a Linzertorte, which is a jam-layered cake, and apparently the oldest in the world, according to wikipedia. I am vexed by the ambiguity of this statement. Is it the oldest recipe written down? The oldest to be recorded as being eaten? As a historian I feel unsatisfied, though intrigued – perhaps it features in court records in an early version of a custard pie attack? Or in some young gentleman’s account of a grand tour? Perhaps it was made by medieval monks, or as a celebration for a patron saint. It has strengthened my desire to go to Austria so that I can find out (you can do it by train – I’ve checked!)

Unfortunately the biscuits got a little jogged about in my bag (cycling really doesn’t combine well with baked goods), but I’m pretty sure that Rose appreciated the thought. I’ve been having lunch with her mum quite regularly recently, so it was really nice to see the two of them at last! She was very lovely – alert when I first arrived, and then looking very serious as she slept. Her other little gift will be arriving soon, I promise!

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Posh frocks and pyjamas

Before the Grand Interviews with Munchkin Grumps and family about their mega-brunch-athon, I had been keeping a long-awaited date with Dogophile Vegan Nurse and her super-posh dress. DVN and I were basically out of touch for about ten years between the ages of 17 and 27, but it's been a lot of fun finding out that we have an amazing array of random stuff in common after all this time. It's not guinea-pigs, love of Sean Hughes, and biology homework any more, but we've found that we both carry random food staples around with us, aim to spend as much time as possible in pyjamas, and will never pass up an opportunity to do some baking. This weekend was our chance to put as many of these things into practice as possible.

We started off with a big chat and some home-made soup on Saturday lunchtime (me having uncharacteristically managed to find my destination without getting lost). Then some dog walking - the first time I had met Leah and Ned (who are lovely, though DVN MADE me say who was my favourite when I left! I'm not saying who I chose, though the state of my coat indicates who I spent more time with). Leah likes to stay close to her mum on her walks, but Ned gambolled all over the place, playing with all the other dogs he could find, and wandering absent-mindedly off on errands of his own.

Back from the park, we settled down to plan our evening. Our only unshakable requirement was that our dresses get an outing, and we seriously considered just wearing them to Sainsbury's to buy things to cook for supper. In the end we decided to go out to a bar to eat, and then come back to make dessert at home in our PJs. Suitably poshed up, we sashayed out (though that really doesn't accurately describe how DVN walked in her new shoes - hobbled, teetered or tottered would be closer to the mark, all accompanied with a look of complete disgust at what her footwear was making her do). The bar we went to - Seven, in Chapel Allerton, in Leeds - suited us perfectly. We wanted nice and relaxed, not posh, and it was bright and spacious, with very accommodating staff who actually knew something about the food. We both had herby tagliatelle with tomato sauce, which turned out to consist of softly cooked pieces of actual tomato rather than a sauce, and very nice indeed, and shared some pitta and houmous. The portions were sensibly sized rather than huge, which still filled both of us to the brim. I hope that we exuded style and panache, with hints of many more posh plans for the evening. Little did the other diners know that they consisted of a date with the ice-cream maker and two pairs of pyjamas.

DVN had churned the ice cream in the afternoon in her ice-cream maker, and had also made some vanilla shortbread (I hung around pestering her with questions and blithering on happily about cupcakes and cookies). We ate it with hot drinks, perched on kitchen stools in our nightwear. Ah, to be comfortable enough with yourself to be happy wearing a designer frock (DVN's - mine was from Matalan, as you can see from the hanger!) over some simple pasta, and shunning a night on the town for some home-made dessert and some quality time with dogs. Maybe that's why we're friends again after all this time.

Ned and Leah chilling out after their walk

American brunch - the real thing

A few weeks ago, I posted about an American brunch I was making as part of my InterContinental cooking challenge with Lisa from Unique Little Bits. I was quite pleased with the amount of choice I offered my guests, but this has been kicked into touch by the experiences of Munchkin Gramps and Family, at the Don CeSar hotel in St Petersburg, Florida. They went to America at half term, and had already put Sunday brunch there at the top of their itinerary after doing themselves a collective eating injury there last time they visited. I had instructed them to take photos and come back prepared to be interviewed about their experiences. So, when I popped round after my evening out with Dogophile Vegan Nurse (of whom more in the next post) this is what they told me:

The seafood platter

Me: So, tell me about the Don CeSar hotel.

Junior Bro: Well, it was huge on the outside and bright pink, and it overlooked the beach. From inside, the views were spectacular, and the service inside was equally good. We went at twelve, and we all made sure we had good appetites.

Me: Tell me about the choice of drinks

Munchkin Gramps: We got champagne to start (adults only). Granny S nearly got thrown out for letting Junior Sis and Junior Bro have a sip.

JB: We had the usual free water to start and there was an unlimited supply of orange juice and other fruit drinks, wine and other alcoholic beverages.

The crepe toppings - yum, count those vitamins

Me: What did you eat first?

JB: Last time I was at the Don CaSar I liked the pasta best, so I decided to start with that. It was farfalle pasta, with alfredo sauce, black olives and a delicious topping of cheese. They had pasta in a bowl and all these topping and they just put on what you wanted. I had three portions of that. Then I decided to try some of the fruits. I ate a lot of pineapple and a lot of melon. Then we got to the desserts and that was the good bit! I had chocolate mousse to begin with, which was very rich but also very nice. I had four of those [aghast exclamation from Lysy. Munchkin Gramps looks sanguine, since it was all a fixed price]. And then it was time for the crepes, which I had been waiting for. I had nine last time and wanted to beat my record. They had a choice of fillings, which included chocolate, strawberries, a banana thing, and they made up whatever you wanted. I’m not quite sure what the final was at [I suspect calorie-induced amnesia] but I think it was around eleven.

One of Junior Bro's many crepes in preparation

Me: What did you eat, Munchkin Gramps?

MG: [tries to access dim and distant memory and requests a ten minute break] I had salad with salmon, and then pasta with mushrooms and alfredo sauce. Then a cheese omelette garnished with unidentifiable green and orange objects. Then more salmon, and finally a mousse, or possibly two. I tried not to eat too much [other family members start to bring up other things MG may or may not have eaten as well. He looks shifty and denies it all]. And about three glasses of champagne. The most amazing thing was that you had as much as you could eat of this amazingly lavish food and it all came to $44 per head.

Me: Junior Sis, tell me more about the whole experience

Junior Sis: We were all dressed up and all the rooms were very posh. The food was all laid out very extravagantly. I had salmon, scallops, prawns, lobster, mackerel, bread, pasta with mushrooms and alfredo sauce, some mahi mahi

Me: What is that, more sophisticated than me younger sister?

JS: It’s a type of white fish, like barramundi. Very tasty. And a crepe with strawberries, and a chocolate mousse, which was really nice.

MG: How many?

JS: Only one! [MG looks askance, but JS is adamant that she is being maligned]

Me: How about you, Granny S?

Granny S: I had mainly fish, salmon, smoked salmon, scallops, prawns, crab, mahi mahi, lovely salads, nice bread, lots of champagne [goes into reverie], and a chocolate mousse and some cheese and biscuits, though there wasn't such a good choice there.

Me: Who won the big-eater prize?

Everyone, unanimously: Junior Bro!

Me: What was the best thing you all ate?

JB: the scrumptious pasta with the alfredo sauce and cheese has to be the highlight because it was just the perfect amount. [we establish that he means per portion, ‘perfect amount’ seeming to have a life of its own in this restaurant]

MG: Not the eleven mousses?!

JB: Yeah, they were good too

JS: The seafood and scallops.

Me: So it wasn’t an anti climax?

Everyone: not at all, it was as good if not better than last time.

Me: Would I have liked it?

JS: there weren’t many vegetarian things, but there was pasta and salads and eggs.

Me: Sounds good to me, but I would have whinged excessively that I was too full. I think you would have banished me to the beach.

MG: If you can take a train there we’ll take you next time [this is a reference to my no-fly ban].

Me: Did you manage to move afterwards?

JB: Yes, we went for a walk on the beach. It was supposed to be a run, but only I ran.

Me: How on earth did you manage that after all that food?

JB: I’d had a bit of a sit down for a few hours. And we didn't eat again until Wednesday.

Junior Bro realises he has forgotten his credit card

Friday, 7 March 2008

A miscellany of girliness

This is going to be a post about cakes and dresses. I don't feel bad about that: they are two great interests of mine, and they make me happy. But they do make me want to pause to reflect on how far our society has developed, that it is ok for an educated girl to choose to spend her free time making and selecting dresses and cakes. I think that it's the word 'choose' which is critical here. If I thought that it was expected of me to make dresses and cakes and maintain some feminine ideal which at the same time shut me out of doing other things I might like, I would feel very differently. No, it is the fact that I could join the TA, go for a run, take a radio apart or bake a cake which makes me embrace this inner girliness. We are lucky to live in a time when feminism has almost become irrelevant. To me it really just stands for gender equality, although I know that there was very much more to it than that when that was absent. I have never knowingly been discriminated against because of my sex, and I would be pretty outraged to find that I had. Of course, I work in a fairly gender-neutral area, but still, there are more men than women in professorships in British universities (61% of faculty were men in 1994, although this was narrowing). This is particularly skewed in the sciences and technology. In my (arts) department, there are 12 men and 11 women on the permanent staff, and of the 7 professors, 4 are men, and 3 are women. In The Scientist's research centre there are only 4 women out of 13 faculty, and only 1 of the 7 profs are female. In other professions it's much worse. And in higher education women tend to put off having children until well into their 30s. Only one of my female colleagues has a young child, although others do have grown-up offspring. As the (unpopular but sadly realistic) saying goes 'it's a book or a baby'. But how long do you wait to secure the book contract or the permanent job, and do you sacrifice the chance of being taken seriously at the round of conferences, evening seminars and self-imposed long hours by having a sproglet in tow?

That went on for rather longer than I had planned, but I think it does serve to show how while some inequality for women remains structural (not to say biological) in the developed world we do live in an era when baking and sewing can be undertaken purely for enjoyment. I'm not going to get into how far other parts of the world still need to go on this, but will pause to link to these websites.

I'm almost wishing I hadn't got into this now, as all the degrees in the world won't stop me looking a trifle shallow when I return to my cupcake story (ooh, trifle). So I will just plunge straight in.

As may have become apparent, I have got into making and decorating cupcakes recently. I think it's a contagious blog meme type of thing. I have also been looking out for foodie blogs from New Zealand in an attempt to feel closer to the sort of food and culture Kiwi Family are immersed in (still without furniture, though it is now waiting to pass through customs in New Zealand at last). One I found was hosting an event called Cupcake Spectacular, which seemed like something to aim high for. Any sort of cupcakes were acceptable, as long as they looked spectacular (that is a very hard word to spell without thinking carefully, so I may avoid writing it again). I don't have a large repertoire of cupcakes to choose from yet, so I decided to pursue the Kiwi theme and make a cupcake which was in honour of Kiwi Family. After a little internet research, I came up with three options:

Anzac Cupcake (based on the biscuits made to commemorate Aussie and Kiwi servicemen for Anzac Day)
Afghan Cupcake (based on a biscuit which I hadn't heard of, but which sounded nice)
Kiwi Cupcakes (obvious, really)

The kiwi fruit in Sainsbury's were from Italy and so were acceptable on my Europe-only produce regime (though if I hadn't had this particular theme in mind it would have been locally-sourced English fruit all the way. I will do that next time). And so the idea of Kiwi Cupcake was born. For the actual recipe I turned to some of my favourite cupcakey blogs, since I wasn't confident about the effect adding fruit would have on a standard batter. Fortunately, Chockylit at Cupcake Bakeshop had made some melon cupcakes (melon in the batter AND a melon puree in the centre), so I eagerly copied that down to adapt for my little green hairy friends who were by this time sitting in the fruit bowl.

I halved the recipe, and exactly substituted kiwi fruit for melon. It worked a treat! The batter had a nice sharp-yet-sweet fruit taste (the batter is the best bit about cakes as far as I'm concerned, which is why I always need someone else around to eat the the finished products!). The cakes themselves rose nicely, though didn't look particularly attractive on their own - I was hoping for a nice green hue, but I think I left them in the oven for a couple of minutes too long, so the tops had darkened quite a bit. I cut little cones out of the centre as directed, filled the hole with kiwi puree, and popped the cones back in again, and then frosted the tops. Chockylit had made a very sophisticated white chocolate and cardomom buttercream for her melon cupcakes, but I used a simple vanilla buttercream with some flaked almonds scattered on the top.

So here we are: my Kiwi Cupcake Spectacular for HomeMadeS Spectacular event. I was quite pleased with how they looked, and I got very nice comments about them from my colleagues when I took them to an Away Day the next day (subject benchmarking? undergraduate curriculum development? Pah - I am going to make a staff development fund bid for hundreds and thousands, piping attachments and general cupcakery. It raises morale and departmental cohesion you know).

So, that's the cake part of this post (recipe is below). I'd like to note in passing that I also tried making French bread at the weekend. This was a shameless copy cat after reading about ten blog posts from Daring Bakers, who were all at it, following the same recipe. I was intrigued that some people said they found it easy, while others said they wouldn't try again. It was clear that it was a recipe which took a little time (7-9 hours!!), so with a nice lazy Sunday in prospect, I felt like jumping on the bandwagon. I won't describe it at length as blogworld is probably full enough of accounts of this bread from actual Daring Bakers, so suffice to say, it did take all day, but most of this was spent being anxious that the dough was sitting at the right temperature to rise. It did form nice long sausages, though propping them up was a bit of a faff, and then they were too long to go on the baking tray (can't blame the recipe for that though).

My French sticks propped in place as they went through their third rising. Note star placing of Kiwi Vegemite

They were worth the wait as they did taste really nice and light (we ate them with a French stew), and The Scientist was particularly enthusiastic about them. It's a shame they took too long to do for him regularly! I'm always interested in a good bread challenge, so it was definitely worth it.

My completed bread worm

Bread really shouldn't do this, but I love it that it did!

So finally, the dresses. I have to choose a posh dress to wear to go out for dinner with Dogophile Vegan Nurse tomorrow night. This was all brought on by her impulse buy of a very posh dress in the post-Christmas sales (she had worked so many extra shifts that she felt she deserved it!), and then a need for an event to wear it. I was going to go to Leeds to visit her at some stage anyway, so we decided to build the weekend around our dresses. I'm going up tomorrow, and am looking forward to meeting her dogs, doing some vegan baking, and of course, seeing The Dress, but in the meantime I have to select my own wardrobe. It's down to a blue silky prom dress with a ribbon sash (I do like a good sash), a black and white silky hmm, prom dress with a hmm, nice silky sash, and a floaty black dress with big white polka dots...and a sash. What is it with the sashes now I come to think of it? Was I deprived of sashes as a child? Am I trying to recreate some long-lost sash dream? Perhaps Munchkin Granny can help clarify. I'm veering towards the blue one as I've only worn it once and it makes me feel very posh and partyish. It's definitely one of my happy dresses (I was wearing another one today and felt all spring-like all day. That had a sash too. One of my happy skirts had the same effect last Friday until it wound itself into my bike wheel. Fortunately it had a pattern on it and you couldn't tell where that left off and the bike grease began). So, to return to my starting theme, cakes and dresses make me happy, and I would like to think that feeling happy and attractive make me nicer and more thoughtful to people around me. It's not all about being a downtrodden wife, you know. I like baking; I don't like dusting - ergo my house is full of nice smells, and you wouldn't want to run your finger along the mantelpiece. I think that's some victory for feminism.

Kiwi Cupcakes (adapted from Chockylit's honeydew and cantaloupe cupcakes)

20 cupcakes / 350 degree oven [I halved this, but am giving the full amount here]

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
8 ounces kiwi fruit, pureed
1 1/2 cup kiwi fruit, diced

1. Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt in a large sized bowl. Add sugar and mix to combine.
2. In a separate small bowl, beat eggs to break up.
3. Add the oil and vanilla to the eggs and mix to combine.
4. Add the wet to the dry ingredients, mix to combine.
5. Add the kiwi fruit. Mix to combine.
7. Scoop into cupcake papers with an ice cream scooper about 3/4 full.
8. Bake at 350 degree oven for ~30 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.

Note: These cupcakes are moist. Be sure that they are fully baked before removing them from the oven. The cake tester (or toothpick) must come out clean.


1 cup fresh cantaloupe, diced
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch

1. Add the cantaloupe and water to a pot. Cook for 5 minutes over medium-high heat.
2. Stir together sugar and cornstarch then stir into the cantaloupe.
3. Cook until thick, about 5-7 minutes.

Kiwi Filling

1 cup fresh kiwi fruit diced
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch

1. Add the kiwi fruit and water to a pot. Cook for 5 minutes over medium-high heat.
2. Stir together sugar and cornstarch then stir into the kiwi.
3. Cook until thick, about 5-7 minutes.


When cupcakes are cooled, cut out and remove a cone from the middle. Fill space with kiwi filling. Replace cone.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Anyone hiring?

No, I'm not looking for a new job (having only just finally moved within commuting distance of the one I have now). The title is about a family trip to the musicals a couple of weeks ago. I've already blogged about this event indirectly, as it's why Eco Sis, Munchkin Granny and Granny T came to visit and got fed muffins and pancakes, but I wanted a proper run-up to writing about it.

Music and musicals were a big feature of our childhood. We had a collection of favourites on video, generally missing the first ten minutes or so due to general videotaping incompetence, and we watched them endlessly. We also had a lot of musical soundtracks on tape, which we listened to (and sang along with) ad nauseum in the car. We even put on our own shows of these musicals - Joseph, Half a Sixpence (which I tried to record when it was on a few years ago, and managed to miss the start of AGAIN. I am doomed never to see the first few scenes), Fiddler on the Roof, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music... But there was one which we loved utterly without ever actually having seen it. This was The Hired Man, which Munchkin Granny and Munchkin Gramps had gone to see on their own, but had brought us back the soundtrack on tape. We listened to it and sang along to it so often that we probably forgot we hadn't seen it ourselves A couple of years ago Kiwi Sis and I made a pact that we would see it together some time, so it was with slightly mixed feelings that I saw a production of it advertised just before she left. The rest of us rallied, however, and went to see it with her in our minds.

Eco Sis and I agreed in advance that if the singing wasn't up to much we would stand up and join in, but fortunately there was no risk of that. It was a local amateur production but it was absolutely brilliant, and the singing was of such a high standard that it was pretty amazing to think that the actors had other day jobs. The songs were mainly wonderfully familiar, with just a few that evidently hadn't made it on to our tape to keep us on our toes. I hadn't realised how much of the story takes place outside the songs, though, so there were a few surprises and 'aaah, that's how that works' moments. It's the story of a family of agricultural labourers in north-west England over the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century. They start off on the land, move to the town where the husband becomes a miner (you can see why this story appeals to a historian of industrialising England), leaving only to serve in World War One. Much against the wife's wishes, their son follows his father first into the mines and then to the front where he is killed in action. The story ends with the central couple recovering their closeness and moving back to the land, where the wife dies tragically young, and her husband once again hires himself out as a labourer. The original story was written (somewhat unexpectedly) by Melvin Bragg, and is strangely little known as a musical. It deserves much more attention though, as it's a wonderful story. Eco Sis sang the songs all the way home, reminding me of when she danced all the way back to the car from a trip to a ballet when we were very little (I was less embarrassed this time.) I went straight on to ebay the next day to look for the soundtrack. No luck, but I've ordered the book as a stopgap. The old tape is definitely still around somewhere, unless Kiwi Sis snaffled it off to New Zealand, in which case she can listen to it and think of us, and teach The Munchkin all the songs, too.

This is a bit of a family post, so apologies to anyone else who might be reading this. I have some muffin-y, bread-y posts planned for the next few days, but in the meantime, here is my alpha-male pook with his alpha-male Scientist (yes, that is The Scientist's hand).

Monday, 3 March 2008

Masterchef challenge - the write-up

The Scientist and I have been enjoying watching Masterchef over the last few weeks. It's a bit of an annual ritual in our house, and this year the finalists were all absolutely amazing. Any of them could have won, though we were privately backing James, who was the eventual winner. In case anyone hasn't watched this program since its bad old days in the 1990s, it's now a jazzed up, fun, but very high standard cooking competition, where amateur chefs cook up a storm for two judges. As the most successful contestants went through to later rounds they had to take on an increasingly diverse array of challenges, including devising a meal from a box of ingredients, cooking in a pro kitchen, catering for an army troop in Belize, cooking lunch for a big BBC cast on location, entertaining some of the top chefs in England, and catering for a posh wedding at Blenheim Palace. We love the chefs' creativeness, as well as their passion for what they're doing. This year's final was particularly noteworthy as it featured an eighteen-year-old who was more creative and imaginative in her cooking than you would ever imagine. I particularly loved her campfire-inspired final dessert, but her all-round skill was pretty awe-inspiring. And she had a place at Oxford, was brilliant at art, and seemed like a really nice person. Some people, eh?

After the final last Thursday I asked The Scientist if he would like a cooking challenge: to do a meal in the style of Masterchef. He accepted my challenge. [that was supposed to sound dramatic - not sure if I pulled it off]

The meal was kept a complete secret in advance, to the extent that he did his own private shop at Sainsbury's while I got the main weekly groceries. He did ask me to defrost as many blackberries as I would like in a hot drink, which completely foxed me. Only enough for me? What was he doing?? Some sort of individual mushroom soup and berry shot? Suffice to say I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

Since the Masterchef contestants are interviewed as they cook, I hung around the kitchen asking irritating questions as The Scientist prepped his veggies and got going with the meal. I'm pleased to report that he handled the pressure very well, even when he had lots of things reaching perfection at the same time. He said that his meal was worthy of Masterchef because of the planning, the quality ingredients, and the attention to presentation. Here is what he started out with:

The mug contains garlicky mayonnaise, and the leaves are rocket. The bread was an organic sunflower and honey roll. He also had some chopped red pepper and asparagus (v bad as from Peru, but he's allowed his own rules :) ), some eggs, and (most baffling of all, especially since I don't like coffee) some instant latte sachets.

The Scientist is a more creative cook than me - I like to follow recipes, whereas he likes to optimise an idea. He is also apparently much more regimented in his kitchen routines:

The whole meal was very well planned, and quite quick, once the prepping was done. He had to watch over numerous different cooking processes, but all reached perfection at the same time. Here's the finished product (his had smoked salmon instead of the mushrooms):

It's called 'Essence of Bill's Breakfast'. Bill's was our absolutely most favourite eating place in Lewes, where we used to live on the south coast. It's a posh grocery shop with a cafe, but that doesn't even begin to describe its laid-back atmosphere and amazingly good food. It had one long table down the middle where you sat elbow to elbow with other punters, and there were cook books and newspapers lying around that you could browse through as you waited, and even hot water bottles in the winter. The menu was full of fresh and well-cooked but quite simple dishes, and half the time you couldn't even identify the vegetables on your plate as they were so specialised. Sometimes this meant that they were pretty exotic, but the eponymous Bill and his staff seemed to be getting more actively involved with promoting locally-grown produce in recent years, which I was very pleased about. I used to love stopping by on my way home in the summer and picking up a few local apples or a bag of greengages from the boxes that spilled out onto the street. We both always had one of two favourites when we visited: for me, poached eggs on toast, or mushrooms on toast (hey, I'm a girl of simple tastes, and one of the best things about Bill's was that they did their breakfast menu all day), and for The Scientist, steak sandwich with grilled veggies and flavoured mayonnaise, or a full Bill's breakfast. To drink we'd either have fruit smoothies (always served with a huge wedge of melon, or a giant strawberry on the rim of the glass), or a hot fruit cordial for me, and a latte for The Scientist. It was a blissful treat on a lazy Saturday and we haven't a hope of finding a substitute in our new town. Sigh.

The Scientist's Masterchef meal was designed to capture the best bits of this experience. The eggs on toast and the mushrooms represented my favoured options (I am a complete nightmare to cook poached eggs for as they have to be just so, so he sensibly went for the scrambling option), while the griddled asparagus and peppers, and the garlicky mayonnaise were reminiscent of his steak sandwich. The rocket was a reminder of the obligatory frond of greenery which always adorned the plate, but was generally sadly left to one side - a whole branch of dill is not that appealing to eat rather than to smell! The berries, which had foxed me so much, were served in a fruity herbal tea for me, while he had a home-made instant version of his latte treat.

Just look at those luscious mushrooms!

Needless to say, it all tasted lovely, and because it was so simple all the flavours of the vegetables tasted beautifully fresh. What touched me most though, was the amount of thought he'd put into it all. I was particularly taken with the attention to detail in the drinks, which really did transform it from a posh brunch into the essence of Bill's. It might not be Raymond Blanc, but The Scientist is now reigning Masterchef champion in our house. We were going out to see a comedian the same night so we hadn't planned a dessert - in fact although Bill's did the most amazing desserts we were always too full to try them. Luckily, however, I had just decorated a batch of cupcakes (see the previous Mother's Day post), and since dolly mixture-studded fairycakes were always one of the options at Bill's, we did have a fitting if impromptu end to the meal. What would John and Gregg have said of The Scientist's meal? What they always say when they're pleased: 'He is cooking what he loves, using high quality ingredients. The man can cook!'