Monday, 30 June 2008

Intercontinental blog challenge - picnics

It’s time for another round in my occasional Intercontinental Blog Challenge with Lisa of Unique Little Bits. It was Lisa’s turn to suggest the theme this time, and she picked the very seasonal ‘picnics’. The idea is that we eat create a dish from the other’s cuisine, and it’s already introduced me to some interesting reading and cooking.

It’s a good thing we give ourselves quite a while to plan these events as it usually takes a bit of mulling to come up with initial ideas and then find out whether they're actually in anything more concrete than an episode of Friends. My first plan was to do something terribly cultured and recreate an iconic picnic from American literature. But I couldn’t think of one. Then I got stuck on the fact that I couldn’t think of an American version of a sandwich which didn’t use a non-American bread like bagels or baguettes. Worried that I was just trying to Americanise an English picnic, I turned to our friendly family Yank, Eco Bro, and asked him what made up the picnics of his childhood. He looked at me as though I was crazy to need to ask such a question, and replied ‘barbeque, of course’. Apparently you just turn up at a park with a disposable barbeque and some burgers and buns, or use the ones they have there. I don’t want to imply that’s by any means unheard of here, but it didn’t leave me a great deal of manoeuvre for this veggie event. I took the general theme and ran with it though, deciding to make veggie burgers with buns and relish. I’m of the personal opinion that a picnic is not a time when you want a fancy home-made bun (though I could be persuaded for the right sort of picnic, I’m sure); instead you want some of those pleasingly squishy mass-manufactured buns, and only in white, of course. I made the other of our favourite burgers, from a Rose Elliott recipe, which we like to eat with tomato relish and salad. They’re firm enough that you could pack them and transport them to the venue of your choice, though you’d need to be a little careful with them on a barbeque.

Salad formed the other part of my foray into American picnics: potato salad and a corn, bean and avocado salad. Potato salads came up in every website I found on picnic food, and the traditional corn and bean combo seemed like another winner. Our picnic actually took place a couple of weeks ago as I wanted to share it with Eco Sis and Eco Bro, and so the chances of eating it outside were pretty small (who am I kidding – we planned to have a picnic this weekend and it wasn’t really warm enough then either!). As we so often have to do over here, we had our picnic inside, but I kept to the theme and laid the table out with a picnic rug and our best plastic cutlery. The salads were served out of Tupperware, and we drank out of plastic glasses. I love occasion food, even if the weather doesn’t oblige (and it’s better than miserably eating crisps in the English rain, or fighting with your siblings while you watch the windscreen wipers trying to clear the view of the beach)! Our little feast was still a success despite being indoors, and was a nice veggie take on what I imagine an American back-yard picnic might be like.

Lisa has already told me that she included Pimm’s in her picnic, so it sounds to me as though she’s pretty spot-on with her English theme. I just hope that she got better weather than we usually do here!

Spicy beanburgers (from Rose Elliot's Vegetarian Slimming)

Makes 8

1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped or grated [I grate because I like the texture better in the cooked burger]
1/2 green pepper, de-seeded and chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
1/4 - 1/2 tsp hot chilli powder (optional) [but good!]
1 tsp ground coriander
2 cans red kidney beans
50g soft wholewheat breadcrumbs
salt and pepper
100g dried wholewheat breadcrumbs, to coat
a little extra olive oil

Preheat the oven to 200 C/Gas 6

Heat the oil in a large saucepan, add the onion and stir. Cover and leave to cook over a moderate heat for 5 mins, stirring occasionally. Then add the carrot, green pepper and garlic, stirring occasionally. Add the spices, stir for 1-2 mins, then remove from the heat. Mash the beans and add to the onion mixture together with the breadcrumbs and seasoning to taste. Divide into eight, form into burgers and coat with dried breadcrumbs. Place on an oiled baking sheet and bake until brown and crisp on one side, then turn over to cook the other side. [I find this takes about 20-25 mins altogether] Drain on kitchen paper. Serve hot or warm.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Chilled summer borscht

I do like a good soup for lunch, and they're especially comforting in the depths of winter. I like them so much that I'll still make our favourites in the summer sometimes, but I do branch out into a variety of chilled summer soups, too. As I mentioned before, The Scientist doesn't like cold soup, but we've found a few which do well at either end of the temperature spectrum. One of my favourites is borscht, which is a Russian beetroot soup. Served chilled, it's really refreshing, sweetish (just the natural sweetness from the beetroot) and a very satisfying shade of vibrant purple. Served warm it's back in the comforting zone, and I like to contrast its warmth with little swirls of chilled yogurt.

I also like borscht because it was a favourite of our Grandad's, who ate it as a child. Grandad was always endearingly vague on the details of his childhood memories, and claimed not to remember anything from his youth. Sadly he died the same year as Israel Grandpa, just managing through sheer force of will to hang on to hold his first great-grandchild - the Munchkin. However, the borscht had somehow stuck in his memory, and I think it was a dish one of his grandmothers used to make. His family had emigrated from Russia at the start of the last century, and he grew up living with both his grandmothers, who, amazingly, didn't speak to each other. None of that is related to the Russian-ness, but their origins do explain the borscht. Grandad and Granny T used to make it in summer and we had it with them quite often. Their house, where Granny T still lives, is near Brighton and The Scientist and I spent a lot of time with them while we lived in Lewes. Having lived hundreds of miles away through most of our childhood it was lovely to be able to get to know them better, especially since Grandad got ill soon after we moved to the south coast. We spent all the Christmases of our childhood with them, and they had one of those amazing houses which could always stretch to fit two or three more children in, produce just a bit more food, and always contained an adult who was willing to play board games with you (actually that was always Granny T who has the endurance of a coppit-playing saint). I never realised how much of an exercise in planning Christmas dinner was until very recently, as a huge feast would just roll seemingly effortlessly out of their kitchen. Those memories are all of roast parsnips, meringues and fruit cake, but now borscht has joined the list of foods that will always make me think of them.

I looked out for beetroot at the farmer's market this week with this soup particularly in mind, but was especially gratified to find some in such an unusual shape!

Is this the brightest and cheeriest soup in the world?

I'm sure there are many many slight variations on the recipe, but I like to use the one from Entertaining with Cranks because it's the same book Grandad and Granny T used. It suggests that you add sour cream to the chilled soup, but I just put a pot of yogurt on the table for people to add as they like. Without the sour cream it makes more like five helpings than six, (four when you're catering for The Scientist) but that's as a main course with bread rather than as starters. Actually I find I don't care for bread so much with it when it's chilled, but some crunchy croutons might be nice. It's a very easy one to make, but of course everything you touch once you've started will get dyed purple.

Iced borscht (from Entertaining with Cranks)

Serves 6

2 tsp oil
1 chopped, medium sized onion
450g grated raw beetroot [I don't grate or chop by hand any of the vegetables but spin them in chunks in the food processor instead - much easier and less purple]
1 diced small carrot
1 diced small potato
900ml vegetable stock
2 tbsp red wine vinegar or lemon juice
1 tbsp tomato puree
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
generous pinch ground bayleaf [I just put a whole leaf in, which I have just realised to my embarrassment that I forgot to take out and must have pureed! I'm glad The Scientist doesn't read the recipe part of my posts]
generous pinch ground cloves
1/2 pint soured cream or Greek yogurt [I serve this separately]
salt and pepper, to taste
chopped chives to garnish

Heat the oil in a large saucepan and saute the onion and beetroot, stirring occasionally, for 5 mins. Add the carrot and potato, stock, vinegar, tomato puree and spices. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for about 1 hour until the beetroot is tender. Allow to cool and then puree. Chill. Stir in about three quarters of the soured cream and adjust seasoning to taste. To serve ladle the borscht into individual bowls and garnish with a spoonful of soured cream and sprinkle with chopped chives.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Rah, pimms

It's summer. It's Wimbledon. It's time for Pimm's. After looking interestedly at the inevitable displays of Pimm's in the supermarket every summer for the last six years or so, I finally bought a bottle today, and we're having a glass right now as an aperitif before going out for dinner. I served it in champagne flutes to try and look posh, with the traditional mint, cucumber and strawberries floated on the top, but I read in the leaflet that came with the bottle that actually it should be served in a highball glass. The reason that neither of us knew how it should be served is because we've almost always encountered it in a plastic pint glass before. I know, classy. The Scientist and I both did our degrees at Oxbridge, where no occasion in the summer term ('Trinity' if you went to the sensible university, 'Easter' if you went to the crazy one in the Fens) was complete without more Pimm's than you should ever drink in one sitting. Croquet on the quads, watching the rowing by the river, finishing Finals; all were toasted with plastic pint glasses of Pimm's. My undergraduate college even had a Pimm's officer to make sure that every finishing finalist got their half bottle allowance. All very Brideshead, I know, but as you long as you keep your tongue in your cheek and your best post-modernist ironic mortarboard on, the Oxbridge experience is something to be relished and looked back on with fondness. Now we're going out for sushi, which probably isn't the traditional post-Pimm's cuisine, but as I said - everything is improved with a glass of the summer nectar. Anyone for croquet?

Cheers! Note my thriving rhubarb, squash and blueberry plants in the background. I'm so proud!

Friday, 27 June 2008

Six months down

It is six months today since Kiwi Family boarded a plane for their big adventure Down Under. I thought about writing this post yesterday so that Kiwi Sis could read it on the right day - but then I realised that it's probably not yet six months since they arrived. The journey seems interminable from this end when you include the time change. Munchkin Granny is flying out from here on Monday and doesn't arrive until Wednesday (I hope she's got a good book or three. Actually I don't think she has any room for books at all what with all the jaffa cakes, marmite and babygros she taking out there!)

Six months seems like a very long time, especially when there's a small Munchkin busy growing up and learning new words every day. I prefer it this way: it's six months closer to seeing you all again. At any rate, it seemed like such a notable date that Noodle decided it was time to leap from his fruit bowl and mark the occasion in his own little way. Yes, we ate a jaffa cake in your honour, Kiwi Family. You don't get much more momentous than that.

So, this led me to reflect on what has happened in the last six months. Hmmm, I have given some lectures, made a lot of cakes, set up my stately new office space, finally put up some of our pictures, and done a lot of sewing on baby quilts. Pooky has looked wide eyed a lot, and piggle has lost her collar and is running around naked (this just happened yesterday and I still think it's funny to say that). And The Scientist has taken up poker, eaten some of my cakes, and continued his drive to become Master Of All Science. Bah, I see your emigration, new job, hugely increased vocabulary and almost-fully-gestated foetus and raise you a frozen brownie. And a Tesco's own jaffa cake.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

In the kitchen with Noodle

You may remember that a couple of weeks ago I posted a picture of a toy rabbit posing with a batch of homemade brownies. 'Random', you may have thought, and passed on. Well now I can formally introduce the young bunny in question: his name is Noodle, and he'd been helping me in the kitchen.

Noodle marshalls his ingredients

The reason that he was acting as my brownie buddy that day was that I happen to know that The Munchkin owns his identical twin - both gifts from Granny T. I thought it would be fun to make him a little photo book featuring Noodle baking some brownies which he could then replicate at home. Or at least help his mum - I'm a bit out of touch but I'm pretty sure 21 month olds aren't up to too much independent measuring and melting. Noodle duly played his part in the adventure and turned out to be a pretty good baker if the results were anything to go by, and the little book winged its way off to New Zealand.

Once introduced to the world of cakes, however, Noodle wanted more. He'd become blase about real baking after managing the giant-sized utensils so well the first time, and decided to dabble in a little ready-made cake mix. Of course cake mixes would never normally be allowed in my kitchen, but Eco Bro had cunningly picked up on my unhealthy interest in the weird and enormous array of mixes available in America, and brought me back an Angel Food cake mix from a business trip a few months ago. I've been holding out to make it for an occasion when he and Eco Sis were with us, but what with one thing and another it hadn't yet been opened when Noodle went on his convenience baking kick.

Noodle was quite surprised when he read the instructions on the pack to find that all you had to do was add water. Yes, really. He took the manufacturer's word for it, and measured out his water (dangling precipitously from the tap until he got the required amount. There's little this bunny wouldn't risk in the name of top quality cake mix). The mix whisked up into a fluffy mass almost immediately, filling a ring pan and loaf tin to boot. Neither Noodle nor I had ever had Angel Food cake before, but we gather that it contains a lot of egg whites, and as such is almost fat free. This one certainly was, apparently containing nothing other than water and sawdust. Once baked and brown on top, Noodle informed me that Angel cakes need to be inverted in their tins while they cooled, and anxious to do things properly, we improvised a cooling gantry.

It's the way they do it in America, doncherknow?

We deferred to Eco Bro on how to serve our triumphant cake, and he requested squirty cream and strawberries (shall I embarrass you, Eco Sis.......?). The cake was so light and fluffy that it needed a gentle sawing action to avoid compressing it into a slice a fraction of its former size on cutting. Once we'd mastered that though, we found it to be curiously fascinating. It was very fluffy, but in a foamy, soft way - a friend I gave some to the next day described it as dense candy floss (and then gobbled the rest up, so I think this was a good thing). The family consensus was that it was good, but more as a vehicle for cream and berries than as a delicacy in its own right. I hasten to add that this is no reflection either on the bunny-cook, or the very thoughtful courier. I welcome any future chances to mock American instant cake mixes.

Noodle poses with his finished cake. He's sitting at the cake end, which is doing a good job at blending in with the cream (or possibly Noodle got carried away with the squirty can)

Noodle hasn't requested any more baking sessions yet, and has been having a rest in the fruit bowl since his Angel Cake triumph. He's been throwing glances at my cookbook collection though, so I wouldn't rule out future installments of Noodle's Baking Adventures. He'll have to find a recipe without cream though - Eco Sis took care of that :)

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Sprouted bread - BBD 11

I mentioned in a recent post that I love buying nice breads. I also like trying to make interesting loaves, and this month’s bread baking day, organised by Zorra really caught my eye. The theme is sprouted breads, which is something I’ve never tried and wasn’t really quire sure what to do with. When I bought the organic sprouted beans which featured in my leguminous salad last week, I also had this challenge in mind.

The bread before baking (note lack of confidence that it will turn out ok after baking!)

After a peruse of The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book, a brilliantly informative book I bought recently but have yet to bake from, I found that there seem to be two main ways to go with a sprouted bread. One is to sprout wheat berries, grind them, and use them in place of some of the flour. I have never knowingly seen wheat berries over here, so I left that one there. The other is to add sprouts to bread dough, and bake them in. I’m not experienced enough with bread to know what the properties of different add-ins will do to the dough, so I decided not to risk replacing anything for the sprouts, but simply to add them as I would seeds or grains. After much dithering I selected a soya milk loaf because it sounded interesting, and it was in the same section as the rest of the sprout breads (and clearly would therefore absorb some sort of sprout karma which would bless my bread). The recipe notes said that using soya milk makes for a light loaf which tastes like an egg-enriched one. I used unsweetened soya milk, and wholemeal bread flour, though I think that regular plain wholemeal would have been ok. All the stages went smoothly and I just kneaded in the sprouts at the shaping stage. I took a photo before baking just in case they burnt, but in fact it all turned out very nicely and the bread was nice and light, with a lovely whole-foody nuttiness. The sprouts added an extra crunch which was very agreeable. I would definitely make this bread again and would happily serve it up with soup to guests (or the more whole-foody ones, anyway!). I ate another piece with my soup at lunch today and was struck again at how good it is (even after being frozen in the meantime). It's hard to describe its interesting nuttiness, almost rye-ishness and thought-provoking lightness. Just give it a go and see if you can do better!

Post baking - phew

You could, of course, sprout the beans yourself and I do plan to do this next time, but it was such a nice assortment that I thought I’d start easy!

Soymilk bread (from The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book)

Notes from the book: 'This is often mistaken for an egg bread because it rises beautifully to give a perfect, airy slice that has good flavour and a slightly chewy, thin, dark crust. It is just right for toasting and for sandwiches'

Makes 2 loaves [I halved it]

2 1/2 cups soymilk, unflavoured [I used unsweetened]

2 tbsp honey

2 tsp active dried yeast (7g)

1/2 cup warm water

6 cups whole wheat flour

2 1/2 tsp salt

3 tsbp butter OR 6 tbsp oil [I used oil]

If the soymilk is not first-day fresh, bring it to a boil, then cool to lukewarm. To cool it quickly, place the pan in a sink or dishpan partly filled with cold water, and stir the soymilk occasionally. Stir the honey into the soymilk (if you choose to use oil and not butter, add the oil too)

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water

Combine the flour and salt in a mixing bowl and make a well in the centre. Pour in the soymilk and yeast mixtures and stir all together, adding more water or flour as required to make a soft dough. Knead very well, about 20 minutes vigorously [since I was only making one loaf I probably only did about 12 mins, as you need longer for a larger amount of dough, apparently]. If you are using butter, add it toward the end of the kneading time without melting, working small pieces into the dough until it is smooth and lustrous.

Because of the ripening influence of the soy, allow this dough to rise only once in a warm place, about 80F before shaping. Test by poking the dough with a wet finger, about 1/2 inch in the centre of the dough. If the dough sighs, or if the hole does not fill in at all, flatten the dough and divide it, forming two rounds. Let them rest, and then shape into loaves. Let rise in two greased 8''x4'' loaf pans at a slightly warmer temperature, 85 to 90F. When they are ready for the oven, slash with three diagonal lines for a pretty crust and higher rise in the oven [I forgot, much to my chagrin - it's too much to expect I won't forget a stage, after all]. Bake about 45 mins at 350F.

Good variations: add sunflower seeds - about 1/4 cup per loaf, while you shape the dough [this is what I did with my sprouts]
roll the loaf in poppy seeds
Add raising - 1/3 cup per loaf, when shaping the bread

Monday, 23 June 2008

Taste and create - Filipino style spaghetti

After the fun of making Nicole's summer tart, I signed up for this month's regular Taste and Create event. I was partnered with Gay from A scientist in the kitchen - can you think of a more appropriately named partner blog given who I share my life with?! Gay is doing a PhD in molecular biology, and likes to cook from her native Philippine cuisine. I really wanted to try out one of these creations, and her Filipino style spaghetti caught my eye. There are few meals I don't think are improved for adding a banana or two, and I liked the look of this dish as it had banana catsup in the spicy tomatoey sauce. I'd never heard of the catsup (or ketchup as I suppose we'd call it over here), but I googled some recipes, and found that it's like a spicy version of my beloved banana chutney. Gay warned in her post that the sauce is quite sweet and so unlike a traditional spaghetti dish, but it's one she loves, partly because her father makes it.

The original recipe calls for corned beef hash, but I used cooked puy lentils instead. My sauce consisted of tomato sauce with banana chutney stirred in, and some cayenne added to approximate to the heat of Gay's. The chutney already had onions in it, so I skipped the onion stage of the sauce. The lentils were added to the warmed tomato-banana sauce, and the whole was served atop some noodles.

I loved this dish. I didn't measure anything so I don't know how authentic the taste was, but I really liked the slight sweetness from the banana and the dried fruit in the chutney (this particular batch had dried figs in it, though the recipe I read for banana catsup used raisins). Gay suggested serving it with cheese but it was so nice without it that I just added a bit to the odd mouthful. I made loads and ate it all as it was so good. I can't report what my Scientist thought as he is away for the week at a meeting with some collaborators. He's never tried the banana chutney I don't think, though it's possible he thinks he's not allowed (I'm very possessive of the foods I particularly like to prevent him from scoffing them all when I'm not looking! If you're reading this in your halls room, sweetheart, you are welcome to try my chutney :)) With lentils instead of meat the sauce is not a million miles away from barbecue beans or Veganomicon's Snobby Joes, both of which are other favourites of ours, though with a little more spice. So while I don't know whether Gay's father would recognise my version of his spaghetti, I had a very tasty and satisfying dinner. Now I must lie still and digest for a while.

Here's Gay's summary of the recipe:

Cook 500g spaghetti according to package instructions. Place contents of a can of corned beef hash [or cooked lentils] in a bowl and mix with 2 tsp black pepper. Saute chopped garlic (4 cloves) and onions (1 large onion, minced) in vegetable oil. Add the corned beef hash and 2 tbsp soy sauce. Mix well then add the sauces (1 cup banana catsup and 2 pouch of regular tomato sauce - banana catsup is already sweet so no need to use Filipino-style spaghetti sauce). Simmer for a few minutes then add the cooked spaghetti. Make sure that pasta is well-coated with sauce. Serve topped with cheese.

And here's the recipe I looked at for the banana catsup, though I ended up using banana chutney with added cayenne.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Falafel - the skinny version (and a get well soon)

I’m a sucker for fancy breads, I freely admit it. When I was a child I would only eat what Israel Grandma called ‘flannel bread’ – ie, it looked and tasted like a wash-cloth. Munchkin Granny liked her grains and seeds and granary goodness, but for me, the less character my sandwich had, the better. Now I’m firmly in her camp, and flannel bread never darkens our bread bin. Take me to a bakery and I’ll make a beeline for the loaves with nary a glance at the cakes. So when Dogophile Vegan Super Nurse and I were in the fancy supermarket in Brighton last weekend it was inevitable we’d end up lingering in the bread section. There were several which took my fancy, but I was strict and only allowed myself one choice – some Turkish pitta breads. Now, what better to go in a pitta than their Middle Eastern friends, some falafel? By coincidence I’d been telling DVSN about my favourite recipe, so this was also a good opportunity to make sure I posted the recipe for her to try.

I have eaten falafel in Israel, and they are amazing. There’s something about the whole street food experience with the oily, spicy, beany falafel, the fine-chopped tomato and cucumber which make up all Israeli salads, the creamy houmous, and the optional extra relishes and chillis, all packaged in a neat white little envelope, which really appeals – and especially since it is all vegetarian. On a healthy eating level, however, it’s not so good, and so I use a skinnied down version when I make them at home. They’re not the same, of course – you need the oil from deep frying to get the authentic experience, but they’re really good in their own way. They are also ludicrously easy and store-cupboard-based – just whizz the ingredients up together, shape into balls, and either bake under the grill or fry in a very light coating of oil. Baking is perfectly acceptable, but experience has shown that frying them in even the teeniest bit of oil does give the burgers a slightly better taste. We served them up with the pittas, some salad, and some tomato relish, though houmous or a tahini dressing are, of course, the traditional toppings. The pittas were larger and floppier than the ones you get in supermarkets here (and falafel stalls in Israel), and so we rolled the little burgers up inside them like a tortilla instead of stuffing them inside. Needless to say, they tasted just as good.

Skinnied-up falafel, with pitta bread and couscous salad

Before I write out the recipe (which was copied from a book which belonged to my friend Vicki, so I can't credit it properly, unfortunately), here is a little cheer-up photo for Kiwi Sis, who is sick and in bed. She's only a few weeks off her due date, and Munchkin has been ill too, so they're not the happiest household at the moment. Kiwi Bro is playing nurse, and I think they're all looking forward to Munchkin Granny arriving in just 10 days. Here is the piggle cat having a Sunday chillout in my lap, which is a cute enough image to cheer anyone up anyway, but she is also showcasing a peek of my current quilt project (apologies, people I make quilts for. There is frankly no chance that it won't have been sat on by a cat before it was finished). Who can this one be for though? Let's just say it's got a long journey before it meets its new owner. Get well soon, Kiwi Sis - I hope the photo makes you smile.

My favourite falafel

Serves 4 (but halves easily)

2 cans chickpeas
1 small onion, in chunks
handful of parsley leaves
zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 tsp each ground coriander and cumin
6 tbsp plain flour and extra for dusting
4 tbsp olive oil [I just use a spray when frying]

Put the first 6 ingredients into a food processor. Season, then pulse into a chunky paste [I used to use a mini blender but it's a bit small even for a half quantity to go in in one go.] Tip onto a floured surface and mould into burger shapes.

Dust with a little more flour. Heat the oil in a large non-stick frying pan and fry for two minutes on each side until crisp. OR, brush with a little oil and cook under a preheated grill for 8-10 minutes on each side until browned.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

100th post, and a cake to celebrate

This is my 100th post - I can't quite believe it. I'm not sure whether to be pleased or embarrassed to have inflicted so many words on anyone who reads this. Either way I moved swiftly on from self-reflection to selecting a cake to make in celebration. I've been really good about only baking when I have an immediate outlet recently - and the freezer does not count as an outlet, sadly. I've had a yen to make a swiss roll for absolutely ages, but with no outlet, no roll. Tonight, however, we're going for dinner at Vicki and Paul's house, and I thought probably they wouldn't mind if I turned up with a dessert :)

There are several reasons I've been wanting to make a swiss roll. Firstly, they are absurdly easy and taste extremely nice. Secondly, they look fun. Thirdly, Munchkin Granny went through a phase of making them for us when we were little so they have nice memories attached to them (she had a chocolate version and a plain one). Fourthly, you can jazz them up to the heavens with fruit and cream, or you can keep them simple. Fifthly (and most importantly), I wanted to use up the last of my heavenly rhubarb and vanilla jam before it headed off to the great preserves cupboard in the sky.

I used a fatless whisked sponge cake recipe for my cake just because that was the one I'd found most recently, but you can just as successfully use your favourite Victoria sponge cake recipe and bake it in a Swiss roll tin. I actually meant to add chopped strawberries to the jammy filling as well,but clean forgot until the cake was all rolled up. I tried out baking the cake on my reusable silicone baking sheet thing (part of my obsession with not using disposable items if I can avoid it) and it was very easy to peel off. Unfortunately you still need another sheet to invert the cake onto, but I will work at making that stage environmentally friendly too next time.

I haven't tried the cake yet as I thought turning up with a partially-eaten cake was a bit less classy. Happily though, one of the stages in the recipe involves trimming the cake, and The Scientist reported that the trimmings were very good. I was too busy licking the jam spoon. Happy 100th post, Munchkin Mail!

Jammy swiss roll (from Martha Day's Complete Baking)

Serves 6-8
3 eggs
115g caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
75g plain flour, sifted
1 tbsp boiling water
6 tbsps jam (the original recipe was for peach, but I used rhubarb this time and I'm sure any
other would work beautifully too. Mind you, I haven't tasted it yet]
icing sugar, for dusting

Preheat oven to Gas 6/200 C. Grease a 12x8 Swiss roll tin and line with non stick baking paper. Combine the eggs and sugar in a bowl. Beat with an electric whisk until thick and mousse like (when the whisk is lifted, a trail should remain on the surface of the mixture for 15 seconds [I have to admit that I didn't get it quite to this stage, though probably beat for about 5 mins. It was still quite thick though, and turned out fine]

Carefully fold in the flour with a large metal spoon, then add the boiling water in the same way.

Spoon into the prepared tin, spread evenly to the edges and bake for about 10-12 mins until the cake springs back when lightly pressed.

Spread a sheet of greaseproof paper on a flat surface, sprinkle it with caster sugar, then invert the cake on top. Peel off the paper.

Neatly trim the edges of the cake [and feed to appreciative boyfriend]. Make a cut two-third of the way through the cake, about 1cm from the short edge nearest you [presumably this makes it easier to start rolling]

Spread the cake with the jam and roll up quickly from the partially cut edge. Hold in position for a minute, making sure the join is underneath [I forgot - no ill consequences]. Cool on a wire rack. Dust with icing sugar before serving.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Marshmallows: the swan song

A little while ago I made a list of foodie things I wanted to get round to making some day. I haven’t put too many ticks against that list yet, and it keeps growing, but with a heavy heart, I must now put down my first big black cross. Ah, the marshmallows that were never meant to be.

After the two failed efforts I already wrote about – both using Supercook Vege-Gel, one beaten using the whisk attachment in the food processor and the other with an electric balloon whisk, I decided to do some more research. I found this really useful article which gave a step by step illustrated discussion of the method I’d been trying – ie gelatine (this is the British spelling, I have discovered) but no eggs. I also read through the extensive comments under the post and was dismayed to find that some of them reported syrupy disasters when trying the recipe using veggie gelatine. It seemed that agar agar might work – but mine, alas, was based on carageenan. However, the article gave some more useful information, including the temperature you should heat the syrup to, and some of the comments suggested that you should separately heat the gelatine, which I hadn’t previously done. In fact the instructions on the packet also mentioned heating when getting the gelatine to set, but since I hadn’t been sure if that applied to marshmallows I hadn’t done it.

So, attempt number 3. While I had quite high hopes with my new information I wasn’t prepared to risk binning another whole batch, so I did a quarter quantity again. This time I heated the gelatine and water gently. I also boiled up the syrup for much longer, until it reached the hard ball stage (125° C–133° C) and then added it to the warned gelatine. The balloon whisk seemed to work fine for a small amount in my previous attempt, so I used it again, whisking for the required 12 minutes. Did it work? Not one tiny bit. Vege-Gel does not work for marshmallows, I am sorry to report. The only other suggestion I would make is to try using agar, but I’m not going down that route until I’ve used up the rest of my gelatine. It’s lucky that jelly is another of the things on my list. It might be a little while before I can face the VegeGel again though…

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Sprouts and bulghar salad

I picked up some sprouted beans at the international supermarket in Brighton last weekend with a few little plans in mind. I liked the idea of adding their crunchiness to a salad, and thought I'd try partnering them with a grain I've only ever used in bread so far: bulghar wheat. Actually no, I did make tabbouleh with it once but I found the combination of parsley, mint and lemon just too much and have never gone back. This time I soaked the bulghar wheat in some stock for some extra flavour, and then mixed in the sprouts and an assortment of other things I had in the fridge - cherry toms, cucumber, red onion and chives. I've stashed it in a box to take on a research trip tomorrow, but plan to drizzle a little oil and lemon juice over it before I set off. It tasted very good undressed, but I think that the dressing will add a little extra zing. The bulghar and sprouts together are a nice combination of bite and crunch, so I may even have laid the ghost of the tabbouleh to rest. This is my contribution to Lisa and Holler's No Croutons Required event, which features legumes this month.

Here's a gratuitous picture of The Scientist's tecchie sidekick

Sprouts and bulghar salad

Serves 2

Put 1/2 cup of bulghar wheat in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Add some stock powder and stir. Leave to soak up the liquid for 10-15 mins until the grains are soft.

Add assorted sprouted beans, some chopped cherry tomatoes, cucumber and red onion. Snip in fresh herbs of your choice - I used chives though parsley and mint are traditional.

Before serving, drizzle over some olive oil and lemon juice.

Chocolate dipping kebabs - or, can't talk, dipping

So this is the post which was meant to feature the marshmallows I was writing about. I will update what happened to my second and third attempts later, but suffice to say that they are not featuring in this little dish after all. Evil little critters. It's a shame they haven't co-operated because they have missed out on a royal treat. The theme of Stephanie's cocktail party this month is chocolate, you see, and I've gone for mini fruit (and not marshmallow) kebabs with chocolate dipping sauce. To be honest, I'm too busy eating hot drippy chocolate off bright juicy strawberries and lovely banana slices to care about the lack of marshmallow. The only trouble is that Stephanie may need a new carpet after her party as the sauce is quite runny. In every other respect though, it's just perfect, and to make things even better (or perhaps, slightly less bad) the sauce is from a Cooking Light recipe. So you can eat twice as much :)

My accompanying drink is a fruity cocktail - orange and rhubarb. A strange combination in a drink perhaps, but I fancied something fruity to accompany the kebabs, and had saved the rhubarb juices from the last time I stewed some for breakfast. And on balance I think that alcohol and this runny sauce might not be a good combination as far as mess is concerned...

Rich chocolate sauce (from Cooking Light)

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 cup fat-free milk
1 tablespoon butter
1 1/2 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract


Combine sugar and cocoa in a small saucepan; stir in milk and butter. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Cook 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat; stir in chocolate and vanilla, stirring until chocolate melts. Serve warm or let stand 10 minutes to thicken.

Yields 1 1/2 cups [the amount in the picture was half of this recipe]
serving size: 2 tablespoons

Nutritional info [as calculated by Cooking Light]
CALORIES 73(36% from fat); FAT 2.9g (sat 1.7g,mono 1g,poly 0.1g); IRON 0.7mg; CHOLESTEROL 3mg; CALCIUM 32mg; CARBOHYDRATE 12.9g; SODIUM 21mg; PROTEIN 1.7g; FIBER 1.3g

Veggie Delights On Sea

While my vegan marshmallows were failing to fluff, I went on a jaunt to Brighton. I was meeting Dogophile Vegan Nurse (whom I have promoted to Dogophile Vegan Super-Nurse as she’s been offered all of the new jobs she applied for), her mum and Munchkin Granny for a girls’ weekend. MG and I arrived early Saturday evening as I had to perform at a University open day in the afternoon, and while MG recovered from the drive at Granny T’s where we were staying, I headed off into town for a little light drooling with DVSN at the amazing international supermarket Raj (I can’t find a website, but it’s on Western Road). I used to love wandering around in there when we lived nearby, marvelling at all the exotic vegetables (four kinds of aubergines – FOUR!!) and unusual foods. We were relatively restrained in what we bought, since we were going on to a restaurant and didn’t want to look like mad bag ladies, but I picked up a few fun things, including some mini garlic poppadoms you can bake in the microwave. We tried them with dinner the next night, and they were fun (and tasty!).

I’d booked us a table at Food for Friends, one of Brighton’s two headline veggie restaurants. The other is Terre a Terre, which I’ve never been to, as I love F for F so much. I’ve been there four times with four different groups of people from vegans to very cautious omnivores (you know who you are, Munchkin Gramps. Or, you would if you remembered to look at my blog) and it’s always been a resounding success. They specialise in interesting dishes from a whole range of international cuisines, and what’s especially nice for veggies is that they’re not your usual cheese on pastry effort either. There are a lot of vegan dishes, and more that can be made vegan, but they’re not so *unusual* that they don’t appeal to even your most conservative of fathers. The Scientist likes their Mediterranean mezze platter, for example, and I think that Munchkin Gramps enjoyed a cheese-topped Portabello mushroom dish when we went with him. This time we ordered three main courses and a few starters and sides to share between all five of us (Granny T joined us too). We had two mushroom and cashew stir fries with noodles (which unexpectedly came sporting a nest of fried noodles on top), a cheese stuffed mushroom with sweet potato wedges and asparagus, some pitta and tahini dips, some vegan garlic bread, and some broccoli and samphire. It was all absolutely delicious. I particularly liked the stir fried veggies, which had a very tasty sauce, and were sitting on a sheet of nori which was interesting. The dips were also nice – I’m not too keen on the taste of tahini, personally, but they were flavoured with cinnamon, beetroot and chickpea, respectively, which made me happy. The mushroom was nicely flavoursome, and the extra veggies made a nice simple offering with an added saltiness in the samphire.

We polished all that off and managed four desserts between us, too: a vegan chocolate tart, some vegan ice creams, a chocolate fondant pudding, and some semi-freddo. Again, all were absolute winners – rich, luscious and very satisfying. Even with a bottle of wine and a couple of hot drinks thrown in it all came to about £20 per head, so it was very reasonable. I LOVE this restaurant and would recommend it to anyone except our friend Mike who doesn’t eat any vegetables. At all. We’re not quite sure how he’s still alive, and I’m really not convinced that strawberry Nesquick is an adequate nutritional supplement just because it’s brightly coloured.

DVSN's vegan chocolate tart

Munchkin Granny's semifreddo

We hadn’t finished with the eating yet though, because the next day we met for brunch at the Brighton branch of my beloved Bill’s. I was still full from the previous night, but DVSN pronounced her veggie breakfast to be the best she’d ever had. Her veggie guide to Brighton said that half the menu was vegetarian, and there are quite a few vegan options as well. Given that she had also managed to fit in a trip to the Vegetarian Shoe Shop on Saturday afternoon, the weekend was pretty much vegan bliss. I have to admit that although I visited all these places when we lived in Sussex it took this weekend (and six months of living somewhere else) to really realise how great Brighton is for veggies. Go there, everyone, and tell Bill we sent you.

By the way, the verdict on the equinox lemon drizzle cake from The Scientist and his gaming friends: top cake. It was extremely light and lemony, and was even preferred to the batch of Nigella brownies I’d sent along, too. A winning weekend all round.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

A huge mallowy flop - and a semi resurrection

I'm sorry to report, for those who were interested in the vegan marshmallows, that they were a complete and utter disaster. Not since a very young Scientist forgot that blenders have lids has there been such a sorry mess-up in the kitchen. My marshes simply lacked mallow. They remained like a pool of slightly liquid syrup and had neither substance nor structural integrity. Unlike the smoothie-making Scientist, however, I went back for more. Finding that my sweets had not miraculously turned into the white fluffy delights I'd imagined overnight, I tried again with another mini batch in the morning. This time I boiled the syrup more vigorously (golden syrup, sugar and a little water) before adding it to the veggie-gelatin and water. Instead of the food processor, I also used an electric balloon whisk in the hope that it would get more air into the mixture. I have the sore wrist to prove my efforts, but alas - it had no discernible impact on the marshmallows. I clingfilmed the mix up anyway, stashed it in the fridge, and went away for the weekend. When I got back tonight, it was still a pool of syrupy goop. There is no conceivable way you could put this on a skewer and toast it.

What to do? I'd already thrown away the original batch, and was determined not to be completely bested again. So I did a little lateral thinking, spooned the mixture into a saucepan, added some cornflakes and a crushed up weetabix, and heated it gently with a few squares of chocolate thrown in. May I present my 'marshmallows':

At least something was salvaged, but I am still intrigued about this recipe. I'm very reluctant to write it off as Nicole from Baking Bites who posted it swore by it, and her pictures show that it works. I've never cooked with veggie gelatin before, but I followed the instructions on the box as to quantities. I didn't use a proper stand mixer, but did get a lot of air in with my balloon whisk. There just seemed to be nothing to make it fluff up. All the other recipes I've found, including one by the eminently trustworthy Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, use egg whites, but I don't really like ending up with a lot of yolks - and of course then they're not vegan any more, if that's an issue. I'm determined not to give up, so if anyone has any tips or alternative recipe suggestions, please do let me know!

Friday, 13 June 2008

Lemon summer solstice cake

I am already distracted while writing this post because I'm worrying about a new food experiment I've tried out tonight: making marshmallows. The recipes I've read on the internet make it sound variously completely foolproof and delicious, or liable to complete disaster. I have a nasty feeling that my experience is falling into the latter camp. I currently have a tray of what can only be described as dark syrup cooling in the kitchen, and unless a lot more cooling magic happens than I'm aware is possible, they are neither fluffy nor white. Sigh. Was it the veggie gelatin, the golden syrup, using the whisk attachment in the food processor, or just general incompetence on my part? I will update next time.

The business of this post is a blog event run by Another Outspoken Female, of Confessions of a Food Nazi. I visited her blog after Johanna of Gourmet Green Giraffe said she'd met her in Melbourne, and was tickled to discover that she is hosting a solstice cake event. I was tickled because as a household with a leaning towards old English traditions rather than practising (rather than cooking for) organised religion, I always call our winter fruit cake a solstice cake. I was tempted to reproduce one of our several favourites for this event, but couldn't quite bear to associate the wonder of our European summer solstice with a wintry cake.

Instead, I read up about foods which are associated with the summer solstice, and found that, unsurprisingly, they are about renewal and lightness. Oranges and lemons seem to feature in particular, as do mead-like herbs and spices (mmmn, mead, it's a long time since we've had any of that...). The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of making a light cake - light in both texture and colour, to celebrate the light evenings and summer renewal we've got (sporadically) going on at the moment. I'd promised The Scientist a lemon drizzle cake to take to his next role-playing session, so with an occasion presenting itself this weekend, I turned to a long-bookmarked recipe from Nigella's How to be a Domestic Goddess.

The cake was a cinch to make, and is gloriously lemony. It only had one lemon in it, but both cake and syrup bring a real tang to the party. It was beautifully fluffy, too, though I will have to await a full tasting report from The Scientist's gaming buddies (who are rubbish test tasters, actually, as they like everything, which I suppose brings its own catering advantages). I had planned to decorate the cake with some dried pineapple to symbolise more roundness and renewal, but I just couldn't manage to get a good photo of the whole cake. So that's how I ended up with pieces accompanied with pineapple rather than integrating it. Unfortunately that means I have completely failed to fulfil AOF's cake requirements which were that it include dried fruits and spices (can I count lemon as a spice?). I'm sending it over anyway in the hope that she'll make allowances for those of us living in the northern hemisphere, who have clearly had their talent for following instructions addled by the long hours of daylight (see comments on marshmallow disaster above for further proof)

Lemon solstice cake 2008, aka Nigella's Lemon-Syrup Loaf Cake (from How to be a domestic goddess)


125g unsalted butter
175g caster sugar
2 large eggs
zest of 1 lemon
175g self-raising flour
pinch of salt
4 tbsp milk


juice of 1 and 1/2 lemons (about 4 tbsps)

100g icing sugar

23 x 13 x 7 cm loaf tin, buttered and lined, preheat the oven to 180 degrees or gas mark 4.


Cream the butter and sugar. Add eggs and lemon zest, beat in well. Add the sieved flour and salt, folding in gently but thoroughly. Add the milk, mix in

Spoon into loaf tin and put cake in oven for 45 mins, or until golden and a cake tester comes out clean

While it's cooking, dissolve the sugar in the lemon juice, over a low heat

As soon as you take the cake out, puncture holes all over the top and pour the syrup on to let it soak in. Make sure there are lots of holes in the top so it doesn't all go down the sides. Wait until it's completely cold to take it out of the tin.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

A little give-away

I took another little craft project on holiday with me, apart from The Grub's quilt. Aren't they cute (if I say so myself)?! I can't take the creative credit - they're based on a template by Hannah Kaminsky of Bittersweet blog. I adapted what was a pear to become a strawberry as my apple was already filling the green slot, and was quite pleased with how his little fringe turned out. In fact, they've grown on me so much, sitting on the fridge for the last week, that I think I'm going to have to make another set to keep. Because these little buddies are off in the post to four people tomorrow - leave me a comment if you get one through your letterbox!

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Wednesday cricket equals courgette feast!

The Scientist has started playing cricket on Wednesday evenings. He used to play most weekends when we lived in Cambridge but he let it slide when we moved to Lewes as it tended to take over the whole weekend. He missed it though, and he didn't need much persuasion from our friend Paul to join his mid-week club when we moved here. I'm glad he has a hobby he enjoys, and a happy plus side is that his absence on Wednesdays has ushered in a whole new era of Lysy-friendly dinners he wouldn't go near. I knew I wanted tonight's dinner to feature the poor little courgette I had languishing in the vegetable basket, and had initially planned a courgette-crust pizza I've had bookmarked for absolutely ages. But I had a departmental Away Day today and wasn't sure how late I'd be back, so I had a last-minute swerve and went for a courgette, quinoa and avocado salad I found yesterday on one of my favourite blogs, 101 Cookbooks. Its author, Heidi, has published a cookbook, but she's generous enough to post loads of tasty, healthy and home-devised dishes on her blog, too. The salad appealed both on looks and ingredients, plus I could also make quite a bit of it in advance in case I got back late/too cross to cook (in fact the Away Day was quite fun and I was back at about 6.30, but it was nice not to have to worry about more than making the dressing and grilling the courgette).

The salad consists of my new favourite superfood, quinoa, cooled and mixed with a dressing of avocado, yogurt, water, garlic and basil (my substitute for coriander as it had survived not being watered for a week while we were on holiday, while the woosy coriander carked it). This is topped with grilled courgette, hard boiled egg, and some cheese - Heidi said goat's, but I used gruyere as I'd just picked some up in the supermarket. She also added pine nuts but I don't like them. I'm sure that my changes removed some pleasing crunch and creaminess, but it was very nice nonetheless. I always like a good range of textures in a salad, and this one absolutely delivered. The dressing wasn't too obtrusive but added creaminess and richness to the quinoa. The egg yolks were still slightly soft which was really nice - I followed Heidi's directions on timing them exactly, and mean to adopt it for all future hard boiling occasions as it was so successful. I grilled the courgette in the George Foreman, and it was the only hot part of the dish - another nice contrast. I might try it again with grilled aubergine for a Scientist-friendly version. So, the courgette pizza's still on the to-make list - but there's a good few Wednesdays left in the cricket season yet...

Quinoa and grilled courgette salad (From 101 Cookbooks)
[Heidi notes that this quantity makes more dressing than you need for the salad]

1 large avocado, ripe
juice of 1 lime
1/4 cup lightly packed cilantro [I used basil]
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup plain yogurt
3/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt

3 large eggs

1 large zucchini, cut into 3/4-inch thick coins
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
couple pinches of fine grain sea salt

2 cups quinoa, cooked, room temperature
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted [I omitted these]
1/4 cup goat cheese, crumbled [I used gruyere]
a bit of chopped cilantro for garnish

Prepare the cilantro-avocado dressing by blending the avocado, lime juice, cilantro, garlic, yogurt, water, and salt in a blender (or us a hand blender). Set aside.

Hard boil the three eggs. Place the eggs in a pot and cover with cold water by a 1/2-inch or so. Bring to a gentle boil. Now turn off the heat, cover, and let sit for exactly seven minutes. Have a big bowl of ice water ready and when the eggs are done cooking place them in the ice bath for three minutes or so - long enough to stop the cooking. Set aside.

While the eggs are cooling start preparing the zucchini by tossing it with olive oil and salt in a medium-sized bowl. Prepare your grill (medium-high heat). If you are worried about the zucchini coins falling through the grill you can thread them onto kabob skewers (stab through the green skin). Grill until zucchini are tender and cooked through, roughly 5 minutes on each side. Remove from the grill and cut each zucchini coin into quarters. [I just grilled them in the Foreman]

Crack and peel each egg, cut each egg into quarters lengthwise. Assemble the salad by tossing the quinoa with about 2/3 cups of the avocado vinaigrette. Top with the grilled zucchini, pine nuts, eggs, goat cheese, and a bit of chopped cilantro for garnish.

Serves 4 to 6.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Luminous soup!

This soup wasn't quite as neon-coloured as this in reality. It must have been the bright sun at lunchtime (sorry Kiwi Sis - I know it's pretty chilly with you, but you were out in the paddling pool while we were huddled in our big jerseys). With a nice run of warm days recently, my mind has turned to chilled summer soups. Summer soups have to be adaptable in our house so that they can be cold for me and hot for The Scientist. This is one I've tended to make for solitary lunches, but it's very nice at both ends of the temperature scale. It's a good showcase for the seasonal wonder that is British asparagus, and is very healthy, too. I do often swirl some plain or Greek yogurt into it but today I added cottage cheese, which is surprisingly nice in soup. I got the recipe (reproduced below) from the Sunday Time Style supplement about a year or two ago, and make sure it comes out every spring. I have some other chilled (or not) soups planned for the next few weeks, so will keep this theme coming.

We bought some new garden furniture at the weekend in the hope that we could eat outside with Eco Sis and Bro - but of course it wasn't warm enough that particular evening. So we had our inaugural al fresco meal tonight, courtesy of The Scientist. He fried halloumi, toasted some pitta, and made a little lime vinaigrette (mix juice and zest of two limes, a dash of oil, and a crackle of pepper). We had lots of salads left over from the weekend and it all came together to a very nice little meal. The cats love it when we're in and out of the patio door (and we love it too, after living in a flat with no direct access to the very overlooked garden for four years). Pooky is a little worried about the new furniture, and tends to flee when he sees us coming out holding anything, but he soon settled down when he realised that dinner wasn't going to do anything bad to him. He played some excellent football with some biodegradable plant pots he found lying around, segueing briefly and effortlessly into volleyball, and then abruptly needed a lie down on the patio. The photo's not his best but he's not too sure about the camera either - most stuff makes Pook go wide eyed, poor little boy.

Asparagus Soup (from the Sunday Times)
Serves 4 (apparently, but the batch I made will only do two for main course sized portions)

1½ tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
500g (2 bunches) asparagus, trimmed
500ml good chicken stock [I use vegetable, of course]
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tbsp low-fat crème fraîche [I don't normally bother, but sometimes use yogurt instead]
1 tbsp chives, finely chopped

Heat a saucepan over a medium-low flame. Once hot, add the oil, followed by the onion and garlic. Cover, reduce the heat to low and gently fry for 15 minutes or until the onion is meltingly soft and golden.

Meanwhile, wash the trimmed asparagus in a sink filled with cold water, then cut off the tips and set aside. Continue by finely slicing the asparagus stems; the pieces should be roughly the size of peas. As soon as the onions are soft, add the stock and bring up to a full rolling boil. Add the sliced asparagus stems and boil for about 10 minutes or until they are soft.

While the soup is cooking, drop the asparagus tips into a saucepan of salted boiling water. Cook for 3 minutes or until tender, then drain into a colander and cool under cold running water. Set aside. [I find that if you've made this in advance and are reheating it, you can just cook the asparagus tips in the soup rather than boil some water separately]

Purée the soup, season to taste and transfer to a clean pan or bowl — depending on whether you are serving it hot or cold. Add the asparagus tips. If you are serving it hot, gently reheat; if cold, cover and chill. In either case, when serving, add a swirl of crème fraîche to each portion of soup. Garnish with the chives.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

A cheesecake request

When your little sister asks for cheesecake, what can you do? Especially when said little sister has been working hard for exams and has finally finished. Reader, I made cheesecake. The reason we'd been talking about cheesecake is because we had invited the Ecos round for the weekend to celebrate the end of exams, and when writing it in my diary I'd noticed that it was also Shavuot, the Jewish festival which marks the giving of the five books of the Old Testament to the Jews. This was one of the culminating points of their wanderings after fleeing from slavery in Egypt, which is commemorated at Pesach. I wouldn't like to imply that Jewish festivals are all about food; but most Jewish festivals have traditional foods which accompany them, and since I like to cook and bake for my friends and family as a sign of my affection for them, I like to capitalise on these traditions. In this case, it's traditional to eat dairy foods like cheesecake and cheese blintzes, possibly to mark the fact that the Jews were only given their strict dietary rules on not mixing meat and milk in the Old Testament. At any rate, Eco Sis had immediately endorsed the need to share our feelings for each other by eating cheesecake, and most particularly chocolate cheesecake.

What I made in the end was chocolate-swirled mini cheesecakes, using this recipe from a blog called Fresh From the Oven. The original recipe didn't have a biscuity base but I did make one, using ginger biscuits and a bit of melted marge. The cheesecake mix is a fairly standard one, but you take out some of the topping and mix it with cocoa which is then swirled into the middle of the cake. Following another recipe on the same blog, I swirled raspberry jam into two of the mini cakes instead of the cocoa, as The Scientist wasn't entirely convinced about chocolate cheesecake (though guess which one he reached for first!). The jam was a bit hard to swirl and I think that warming it, or at least mixing it up well first might have helped. But the finished product was a nice little treat and got the Eco Sis stamp of approval. Personally I preferred the jam one as I don't like very cocoa-y things, but since the base is the same it's easy to mix and match what you swirl in. I think that the biscuit base is a nice addition and a contrast with the cool creamy cheesiness of the topping, but it would still be a nice dessert without.

We had a lovely weekend with the Ecos, and had our usual board game session with them - this time Settlers of Catan and Munchkin (a coincidental title, though of course it made us think of our Munchkin. In role playing a munchkin is someone who has all the doo-hickies you could possibly imagine, though the Kiwi Munchkin got his nickname because he's dinky, not because he has a sword of cuteness or a potion of enchantment or anything (as far as I know)). I have no strategic talent at all for games like this, but to my surprise I even managed to lead for a while in Settlers despite being in the kitchen starting dinner and only running back in to the sitting room when it was my turn or when someone wanted to do some trading. Eco Sis won both games. I'd like to claim we let her since she'd worked so hard for her exams, but the truth is that she got all the strategy genes in our family. That's my excuse anyway - I don't know what happened to The Scientist and Eco Bro (full of cheesecake, perhaps?)

The Ecos didn't come empty handed, by the by. In my first guest-baker spot on this blog, may I present Eco Sis's Blueberry Buckle; a delicious, moist and fruity cake, using a recipe she got from their American housemate.

I haven't got a copy of the recipe so can't reproduce it here, but the cake was lovely, and I love the word buckle because it's similar to truckle. Truckle is a good word because it makes me think of both truckle beds, which are little beds which slide under the big one during the day, like the one that Laura Ingalls Wilder and her sister Mary shared when they lived in the Little House in the Big Woods, and of cheese truckles which I don't particularly eat but which are pleasing to say. Eco Sis also brought home-made challah which looked amazing, but which I have put in the freezer to enjoy properly later as we were all stuffed from the other cooking this weekend!

Swirled mini cheesecakes (from Junior's Cheesecake Cookbook, via Fresh from the Oven blog)
[As usual, I halved the recipe and made 6 mini cheesecakes using a big muffin tin. Below is the full scale recipe]

Two 8-ounce packages Philadelphia Cream Cheese [reduced fat is fine] at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch [the jam swirled version used 3tbsps, but I used the lesser quantity for a mixture which I divided between chocolate and jam versions with no ill effects]
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

2 extra large eggs [this is U.S. extra-large - UK large]

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream

1.5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder [for the jam version, omit this and allow about 1 tsp or a little less of jam per cheesecake]

Chocolate curl (optional, for decoration)

Preheat oven to 350F. Line 12 standard muffin cups with silicone, foil, parchment, or paper liners.

Put one package of cream cheese, 1/3 cup of sugar, and the cornstarch in a large bowl. Beat with an electric mixer on low until creamy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the bowl a few times. Blend in the remaining cream cheese and 1/3 cup sugar, then the vanilla. Blend in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after adding each one. Beat in the cream just until it's completely blended. Be careful not to be overmix.

Remove 3/4 cup of the batter and stir in the cocoa.
Divide the white batter among the 12 muffin cups. Drop a heaping teaspoon of the chocolate batter in the center of each, pushing each down slightly. Using a small knife or skewer, cut through the batter until dark swirls appear. [for the jam version don't take any of the mixture out but divide it directly among the muffin cups. Then drop a tsp or so of jam into each one and swirl as above]

Place the muffin tin in a large shallow pan and add hot water until it comes about 1 inch up the sides of the tin. Bake the cakes until set and slightly puffy, about 30-45 minutes, depending on how hot your oven is. Remove the cakes from the water bath, transfer the tin to a wire rack, and let cool for 2 hours.*Transfer the cake to a container and chill for at least 4 hours.
*note: instruction from the book: After 2 hours of cooling, cover cake with plastic wrap (do not remove from the tin) and put in the freezer until cold, at least one day. [I didn't do this]

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Grub-by quilt

We had a momentous meeting last night: with our best friends' new baby, The Grub! He was born two weeks ago but we went on holiday almost immediately afterwards, and yesterday was the first time we could get down to see them all. He does, of course, have a proper name, but his parents (whom I will call Vet Mum and Vet Dad) called him The Grub while he was gestating, and it seems to have stuck. He's a real cutie little bean and enjoys dancing with his dad already. The Scientist and Vet Dad have been best friends since they were about eight, and The Scientist was Vet Dad's best man, so it was a pretty big deal seeing them becoming parents. In fact, one of the first stories The Scientist told me on our first proper date was how Vet Dad had rung him one morning and woken him up to tell him that he'd proposed. And, in fact again, The Scientist had been with Vet Mum and Dad the evening before our first ever date, and told them all about this new girl he'd met. Awwww.

We went bearing gifts - pizza for dinner, a pretty photo frame for the Grubbery, a bottle of whiskey from the Bushmill's distillery to toast the new arrival, and of course, a patchwork quilt. I wanted to use an animal theme and found the most gorgeous pattern on an American website called From Me to You. They were really helpful and put the pattern in the post before they'd even charged me the money! I try not to have favourites among the quilts I make because I make each one with thoughts of the people they're going to be for - but this one was a bit special, not least because of who it was for. It was probably the most complicated one I've made for one thing, but I just loved the animals, too. The most time-consuming part was all the little 9-blocks in the top section's background, which are individually sewn. Fortunately for me, The Grub was a bit late, which meant that with some furious sewing on our holiday. I could have it done by the time we saw him.

Since we were taking dinner I thought I'd throw in some dessert, too, and whipped up some brownies. I tried a different recipe from usual, from Cookie Madness which caught my eye because it contained golden syrup which The Scientist loves. It also uses unsweetened chocolate which I'm not sure we really get here, but I happened to have a bit left from my trip to America last November. It's unfortunate that I won't be able to recreate them until I can persuade someone to bring me some more back as they were really good - a satisfying amount of goo in the middle squares but without veering on the undercooked, and they were also nice and firm. The instructions said to refrigerate them but they were still warm when we went to bed so I left them in a tin instead and they were fine.

Why is there a rabbit posing with the brownies? Well, he helped me make them, and that will be another story anon.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Spring Taste and Create - spring fruit pies

This post is about my first entry to Nicole at For the Love of Food's Taste and Create event. Every month she pairs participants up and they select and make something from each other's blog. This month Nicole has been kind enough to create a new seasonal edition of Taste and Create for a few of us who joined in late. I was partnered with Nicole herself, and have been having a difficult time choosing which of her many delicious-looking dishes to recreate. I was finally swayed towards a dessert as today was also my first meeting of a history journal's editorial board I've been asked to join, and I thought that there was no harm in banking some brownie points against any future tardiness in reviewing articles! The journal's editor puts on a nice salady outdoors lunch for the summer meeting, so I went for a fresh fruit tart Nicole said was so good she'd made it three times in one week. It was from an old cookbook of her mother's, and consists of a dough you 'pat in the pan' (ie no rolling), a custard filling, and a layer of fresh fruit. Nicole had made one big tart topped with a mixture of berries, but I went for two smaller ones (largely because the base of my big flan tin has never emerged from our house move!) and stuck with a strictly British spring-time seasonal theme of strawberries for one, and rhubarb for the other.

The pie crust was super-easy to make, though it was different from any pastry I've made before as it used oil rather than butter. The custard was also fine, and I got through the 'stir well to avoid the eggs scrambling in the scalded milk' part ok, which is always a bit alarming to contemplate. I did that part and baked the tarts last night so they could chill in advance. I also prepared the rhubarb, which I just baked in the oven with some sugar for about 45 minutes. I kept back the juices and reduced them down this morning to pour over the fruit (this part was based on Nigella's rhubarb tart in How to be a Domestic Goddess). The other tart was topped with sliced strawberries and brushed with warm apricot jam (I'm afraid I didn't make my own as Nicole did, which I'm sure made it extra nice!).

I was a little nervous bearing my untested tarts off to my meeting - after all, what if my new colleagues didn't like my baking, and gave me all the duff jobs to do? I needn't have worried though: everyone, go and bake this tart - it is delicious! The pastry was crispy but soft in the mouth which is the way I like it; the custard was smooth and eggy; and the fruit gave a final cool and fresh taste. Everyone loved it, especially the rhubarb version, and the editor requested the recipe. I did take a little piece back for The Scientist, and he put it on a par with his mum's lemon meringue pie, which is his top favourite dessert of all time. I've never made a custard tart before, and now I also have brownie points with my new colleagues, AND top dessert kudos from my dearly beloved. Thank you Nicole - count me in again next time!