Tuesday, 29 July 2008

All mouth and no housework

Cats. They make promises and they just don't deliver. Pooky loves nothing better than to relax next to housework, but does he ever darn well do any? Does he heck. And he hasn't done the catfood run for ages either.

But he is just too cute to hold it against him!

Festivals and picnics

Once more unto the festival breach we went, and this time the sun shone and the heat beat down. After our wash-out (though still enjoyable) experience of Henley Festival, we were keen for a taste of a more traditional festival. Eco Sis had done a thorough trawl of possibilities earlier in the summer, and we picked Womad, a festival of world music held near Malmesbury in Wiltshire as our second try. It could hardly have been more different from the Henley Festival (although it did share one band - Show of Hands, the folk duo plus guest singer we'd enjoyed so much). It was much bigger, much hotter, with a lot more bands, and generally a lot less clothing per visitor. Bikini tops and small shorts were the order of the day for the ladies, and bare chests for a lot of the men. We all stayed a lot more clad ourselves, but it was the sort of place where anything went. The whole festival lasted all weekend and there was a nice leisurely atmosphere, no doubt cultivated by the people who were in no particular rush as they had days to soak up the rays and the music. We just went for the Sunday but the chilled feeling rubbed off on us too, and we definitely took things at a nice slow pace.

Picnic: individual drunken-housemate-surviving Eco salad at bottom; pongy Eco cheese to left; roast aubergine dip, right; roast pepper dip, top right

We got there at about 12.30, so we started off with a picnic on the grass in listening distance of the BBC3 tent, in the shade of a tree (The Scientist and I both get grumpy if we're in the sun too much, and I didn't like to inflict that on the Ecos). We brought our posh picnic backpack with us, plus some pittas, an aubergine dip and a red pepper dip, both courtesy of Moosewood Low Fat Favourites. The aubergine one, which is flavoured with sesame oil, soy sauce, star anise seeds and rice vinegar, was a big hit, though the roasted pepper one (with cannellini beans and lemon) needed a bit more flavour [update: the leftovers made a very nice pasta sauce with some softened onion and fennel :)]. The Ecos offered some delightfully pongy cheese (I was so relieved when they got it out as I'd thought the aroma was something odd in our car! Or them, but I hadn't liked to mention that) and some salad, very ingeniously packed in one-person-portions in saved take-away containers that they could bin. There were recycling bins everywhere round the ground, so we could even dispose of them thoughtfully. Their plan had been slightly scuppered when their housemate got home drunk the night before and ate one of the salads, but they had been generous in their portions, so no matter. For dessert I'd made a raspberry and oat slice, based on a tried and trusted Delia recipe for plum and cinnamon oat slice. I'd healthied it up a bit in the past, substituting half of the butter with applesauce, and cutting back on the sugar. I'd actually meant to include some choc chips this time as I had become taken with the combination of raspberries and chocolate when I saw the lush berries at our farmers market this week, but forgot. I was probably too busy eating the extra berries and lost focus. Anyway, this time I subbed raspberries and coconut instead of plums and cinnamon and it was delicious. I halved the recipe and it made one big slice each. Oh, those berries were good. I wish I'd bought more.

The picnic taken care of we meandered into the main part of the park, and spent some time ambling, orienting ourselves, and narrowly missing a lot of music through indecisiveness and distractability. There were several very big tents and several smaller ones, and the acts ranged over practically the whole globe including song, instrumentals and dance. We watched a dance display but didn't dare join in, and a Japanese drumming workshop which looked and sounded amazing. We got ourselves organised to listen to a Chinese singer which was very good, though got a bit much for me after a while, so I went for a wander round the stalls and craft stands. I managed to restrict myself to buying a couple of cards - Eco Bro got the award for most inventive purchase: a mandolin, which he stashed back in the car asap to avoid being asked for a performance (he has yet to learn how to play it, but we await an impromptu virtuoso rendition with Eco Sis on the tin whistle at our next visit).

Festival flags and Big Blue Tent

As well as clothing, craft and music stalls there were loads of food vendors and a lot of veggie options. We fitted in a quick taste survey before Show of Hands came on - the Ecos both went for burritos (Eco Bro's favourite) which were ok, I had a garlic mushroom crepe which was v tasty (cue 'I'm loving my dinner' dance), and The Scientist had a chickeny thing in pitta, and then a banana and chocolate crepe with enough chocolate to induce a sugar coma. Luckily he recovered in time to drive home. Show of Hands were just as good as they were in Henley (though slightly more casually dressed) and I've since ordered two of their CDs as I liked them so much. By that time it was mercifully cooler, and we headed off home at about 8.30. I realise that this post is a bit short on the music we heard but really it was more about soaking up atmosphere and background music than hearing particular bands for us. The choice was amazing, and although I enjoyed good old West Country Show of Hands the most, the Japanese drumming was a good second. I get grumpy when I camp as well so I'm not sure I'd go for the whole thing, but you could possibly bribe me with the vegan canteens!

Show of Hands with guest Miranda Sykes performing

I'm sending my picnic raspberry oaty slices to Susan at Food Blogga as she's hosting this month's Sugar High Friday, which has berries as its theme.

Raspberry oaty slices (adapted from Delia)

Makes 4 large slices or 8 squares

225g raspberries (I used fresh but I'm sure frozen would work - though might need draining)
1 tsp desiccated coconut (or more - you couldn't taste them too strongly in my version)
75g porridge oats
140g plain wholemeal flour
1/2 tsp salt
55g butter/marge
55g unsweetened applesauce
30-55g light brown soft sugar, depending on taste (the lower end isn't too sweet but not in the 'this must be good for me' bracket)

Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 6/400F/200C.

Lightly grease a loaf tin

Place berries in a bowl and toss gently with the coconut.

Mix the flour and oats together with the salt in a mixing bowl, then melt the butter and sugar in a small saucepan over a fairly low heat, stirring from time to time until the butter has melted. Add the melted butter and sugar to the oat mixture, and then add the applesauce. Mix, starting with a wooden spoon but finishing off with your hands so you end up with a lump of dough. Halve the dough and press one half into the cake tin, pressing it down ('like a wall-to-wall carpet', says Delia, but you get the general idea). Next scatter the berries evenly over the surface, then top with the remaining oat mixture, again pressing down firmly.

Bake on the centre shelf of the oven for 25-30 mins, or a bit longer if you like it crispier. Remove from oven and allow to cool for about 10 mins before marking out squares or slices. Serve warm, or allow to cool completely in the tin.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Simon and Garfunkel pasta

When I was little and in bed at night my dad (aka Munchkin Gramps) often used to play music while he did a bit of work at his desk. I would lie in bed waiting to go to sleep and hear the melodic strains of Simon and Garfunkel or Leonard Cohen coming from the sitting room. It was a lovely sound: it meant all was right with the world and everyone was in their proper place. I have a very soft spot for that music even now, and have my own little collection of Simon and Garfunkel songs. One of my favourites is 'Scarborough Fair Canticle':

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine

The singer sets his love a set of impossible tasks before he will take her back, and she responds in kind. I never really thought about what it meant when I was younger; it was just a wistful and beautiful song of love lost, but it has some of the loveliest lines I've ever heard: the clarion call, the child of the mountains, and then the abrupt call of a soldier to arms.

I already mentioned that a few weeks ago I was given some free samples of sage, rosemary and thyme at a food fair, and of course I couldn't help but think of the song. I decided to try combining them together to see if they could make more than the sum of their parts. I wanted to showcase the herbs themselves, so settled on really simple pasta sauce of blended fresh herbs (I added some parsley from the freezer to complete the quartet) with a little oil, garlic and lemon zest. I added some water from cooking the pasta, and served it with some English asparagus I'd snapped up at a market the same week.

I'm sorry to say that my tribute to one of my favourite songs did not have me singing. It was a nice idea but the sauce needed to coat the pasta better. I think I was just a bit light-handed with the oil. It might have benefited from becoming more like a traditional pesto with some ground nuts, or even a fresh tomato or two. The herbs and lemon were pleasingly evident, but the texture wasn't what I'd hoped. Nor was the asparagus at its best, as you might perhaps expect for July - rather woody and lacking in crunch. I did have a label for my blog posts called 'complete and utter disasters' (created after the marshmallow incident) but I think I will change it to 'could do better' as this dish could yet reach better heights with a bit more work. For now I think I will stick to Simon and Garfunkel.

Simon and Garfunkel pasta

Blitz up a small handful each of fresh parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme in a mini blender, with some oil (to taste - but don't be as stingy as I was), a finely chopped garlic clove and some lemon zest.

Cook pasta, drain but save a little of the water to add to the sauce.

Steam chopped asparagus.

Toss all the components together and serve with parmesan cheese.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Irish chocolate cake

This is a cake I made for The Scientist to take on his last role-playing trip. I have been SO good about not baking except when there's a reason, and this time it was one of his friend's 30th birthdays so I went all out with sweetie decorations as well!

I fancied making a nice squishy chocolate cake and found a recipe with a twist in a little book of Irish baking I bought when we were on holiday. So what's Irish about it? Well, it has Irish liqueur in the creamy filling. Not very original you may think - well, ha ha, it has something even more Irish in it as well. You'll have to look at the ingredients to find out what, but the headnotes in the recipe says it makes it particularly moist, and the raw mixture, which was the only bit I tasted, was superlative.

I actually had a small disaster while baking the cake as I had forgotten that we were almost out of butter, so The Scientist had to go on an emergency mission to the local shop - and when he got back I discovered I only had one egg as well. Rather than send him out again I subbed some yogurt for the second egg. The gamers reported no yogurty weirdness, but then they didn't spot the surprise extra ingredient either so I doubt their gourmet discernment over appreciation of chocolatelyness. On the whole I think I prefer that (especially given my propensity to run out of ingredients and forget things....)

I had fun with this cake because of the frosting and filling. The Scientist was travelling by train which constrained how much decoration I could do, but I created a guard for the cake out of a larger tin which meant he didn't have to carry too much back with him either. The frosting was really velvety and creamy and set just enough to get it there in a reasonably neat state. I decorated it with kiddie sweets - I was going to do a '30' but The Scientist had a crisis of confidence at the last second that it really was a 30th birthday (it was, but it's probably nicer to distribute the sweets more evenly over the cake anyway). It got a good response from the gamers anyway, though as I say, they eat almost anything - and I have yet to quantify the 'almost'!

Irish chocolate cake from A Little Book of Irish Baking
175g self-raising flour
1/2 tsp salt
50g dark chocolate
110g butter
175g caster sugar
80g cooked mashed potato [there you go!]
2 eggs. beaten
4 tbsp milk

110g dark chocolate
125ml double cream
50g icing sugar
3 tbsp Irish cream liqueur

Preheat oven to Gas 5/190C/375F and grease and line two 20cm/8 inch cake tins

Soft flour and salt into a mixing bowl. Melt chocolate. In a separate bowl, cream butter and sugar together until fluffy, then beat in the chocolate and mashed potato. Gradually beat in the eggs, adding a little flour with each addition. Fold in the rest of the flour and stir in the milk. Divide the micture between cake tins and bake for 25-30 mins or until the top is firm but springy to the touch. Remove from the oven and after a few minutes, turn out onto a cooling rack.

While the cakes are cooling, make the filling. Melt the chocolate, stir in the other ingredients and mix well. Use the filling to sandwich the cakes together and coat the top and sides of the cake.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Thyme soda bread

This is another of the breads I made during my herby bread-baking marathon the other weekend. It was the easiest of the lot as it requires no rising - and it's delicious - and it's pretty healthy, especially when you use wholegrain flour and low-fat yogurt. I was astonished when we were in Ireland recently to discover that you can get soda bread flour in the supermarket - it's like an instant mix. I really don't know why you would need a mix when it's so easy, but perhaps I'm missing some critical secret Irish ingredient. I love my version anyway, so I left the packet on the shelf. I use a recipe from Anthony Worrall Thompson's GI Diet and I've made it with all sorts of combinations of milk, yogurt and buttermilk and it always turns out great. I always mean to record what combination I've used so I can work out whether some are moister or creamier or sharper than others, but I never get round to it. Soda bread is one of my favourite breads, so perhaps I'm not able to be that critical! Anyway, I've tried adding sage to a different recipe in the past, so this time I took Anthony's tried and trusted, and just added some chopped fresh thyme. You could use any herb you liked, and dried would work just as well, too. I particularly like this bread with soup but it makes great sandwiches and toast as well. I think that in Ireland it might actually be called wheaten bread because of the flour, but it's a very close cousin of soda bread.

Last time I made the herby version I had forgotten it wasn't plain and had a nice little secret moment of recollection as I brought my sandwich up to my nose. That's because it smells so nice, not because I eat with my nose or anything. Anyway, here's the recipe:

Wholegrain herby soda bread (from Anthony Worrall Thompson's GI Diet)

If you use milk instead of yogurt or buttermilk in this recipe you will only need to use about 350ml [I generally just add the liquid until the dough is the right consistency, so it's easy to adapt according to what mixture you're using]

Makes 1 loaf

500g wholegrain brown flour [I generally use a granary one]
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp bicarb of soda
1 tsp caster sugar
About 425ml skimmed milk, low-fat natural yogurt or buttermilk
A good handful of fresh herbs of your choice

Preheat the oven to 230C/450F/Gas 8

Stir the dry ingredients together in a mixing bowl. Make a well in the centre and pour in 350ml milk or 450ml yogurt or buttermilk

Using one hand in a circular motion, mix in the flour to form a dough which is softish without being too wet or sticky - add more milk or flour if necessary. Turn the dough out on to a floured board. Knead just enough to tidy the dough into a neat ball.

Pat the dough into a round 4cm deep and cut a deep cross on the surface. Bake for 15 mins on a floured baking tray then reduce the heat to 200C/400F/Gas 6 for a further 25-30 mins. To test whether it's cooked, tap the bottom of the bread and if it sounds hollow, it is ready.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

A burst of moral indignation

I've become quite proud of my little array of fruits and vegetables growing in pots on our deck. One of my particular joys is a little blueberry plant (that's it in the corner), which is actually producing some fruit. It had a whole cluster of beautiful purple orbs last time I looked which were getting very close to being harvestable. My first home-grown blueberries! I was so excited! Imagine my horror then when I went out into the garden today to find that they had all gone! Some evil amoral thieving so and so had eaten the lot! What snivelling life form would stoop so low? I was bewildered, hurt and outraged. I am thinking of setting up a feline watch, but am worried that our cats aren't very task-oriented. Pooky can focus when the whim takes him, but it's mainly on sleeping. This picture pretty much sums up his laid-back attitude (his other state is extreme alarm, which probably doesn't bode well for his catching any blueberry thieves):

Mausel, on the other hand, is extremely on the ball when occasion arises. These occasions generally involve some poor little critter she has brought in from outside. This is her keeping watch outside the wardrobe, where she had accidentally lost a bird she brought in a week or two ago. She brought it into my study to show me (what a sweetheart) but it got away and flew straight into the open wardrobe. Luckily it got itself jammed between the sliding doors and I was able to release it while Mausel was frantically searching inside the cupboard itself. It flew straight out of the window, thank heaven, but Mausel wasn't to know that, and stayed on watch for hours. I always feel very bad when she does that, but she knows the rule - if she brings it in, it gets taken away (with lots of stroking and praise of course). If only I could harness the predator in her to watch over my blueberry plants I would have my culprit within hours. Sadly she doesn't care for blueberries and wandered off while I was trying to explain the situation to her. I may have to resort to netting.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Sage focaccia

It’s about time I finally got round to posting about the herby breads I made before I went away last week. As I mentioned, I was given some free sage, rosemary and thyme when we went to the Birmingham Taste Festival last week (yes, I noticed the Simon and Garfunkel song in there too -watch this space). With only a couple of days’ potential cooking time before going away for a week, I went mad baking as many different herby breads as I could. This is actually the last one I made that night: sage focaccia, made for a lunch with The Scientist’s parents the next day.

I'd already made three breads by the time I got to this one and I was somewhat weary, so I tried out an overnight rise in the fridge. It worked really well and had the added advantage that the bread could come straight out of the oven for lunch. That’s got to be worth some daughter-not-in-law points, right? I’m so used to being careful with getting the water you add to the yeast warm enough to activate it that it didn’t seem right that rising could happen at such a low temperature, but I suppose it’s because the yeast has already been activated before it goes in the fridge. Anyway, it worked a treat, and I just let it sit on the counter for a while to return to room temperature the next day before shaping and baking it.

The recipe for this bread was a mixture of two Nigella recipes from How to Be a Domestic Goddess. I based it on her schiacciata with gorgonzola and pine nuts because I liked it that it used some ‘00’ flour which was a bit different from the other breads I’d been mixing, but got inspiration for the focaccia style from her garlic and parsley hearthbreads. Somehow a schiacciata/hearthbread cross became a focaccia in my mind, which I imagine just shows I don't know one flat bread from another :) All it took was a bit of stirring up, an overnight stay in the fridge, and then some pulling and shaping the next day. The other focaccia I’ve made recently was a potato one from the Wednesday Chef (and in fact I made this again with rosemary on the top as part of my bread marathon). I really liked that one but The Scientist found it a bit doughy in the middle and that happened again this time even though I was alert to it. The Nigella version (which doesn’t use potato) was crispy all the way through and I was happy to serve it to guests (even ones who aren’t obliged to like me because I live with their son!). We ate it with spinach and thyme soup and some salad out on the deck. The bread was pleasantly thick without being too chewy and the sage gave it a really nice aroma. I love the feel of fresh sage, with its lovely velvety leaves. It’s almost a shame to cook with it but I suppose the leaves wouldn’t stay velvety for long in the fridge!

The rosemary potato focaccia - for comparison!

Sage focaccia (schiacciata/hearthbread, whatever) adapted from Nigella's How to be a Domestic Goddess

350g strong white flour
150g plain flour, preferably Italian 00
7g/1 sachet instant yeast or 15g fresh
2 tsp salt
300-400 ml warm water
3 tbsp olive oil
handful of sage leaves
Red onion, chopped into thin slivers

Combine the flours, yeast and salt in a bowl. Pour 300ml of the warm water into a measuring jug and stir in the 2 tbsp olive oil. Pour the liquid over the dry ingredients and mix to form a soft but firm dough, adding more water as necessary.

Now start kneading until smooth, supple and 'full of elastic life'. Form into a ball and place in an oiled bowl. Cover with oiled clingfilm and leave to rise for an hour or so until doubled in size - or overnight in the fridge.

If you've let it rise in the fridge, take it out and let it come back to room temperature before shaping. Now sit it in a roasting tin and press to fit, letting it rest for a few minutes if it looks as if it's never going to stretch to all four corners (it will). Cover the dough with a tea towel and preheat the oven to 220C/Gas 7. After 30 mins or so, the dough should be puffy and ready to be topped.

Poke your fingers all over the dough to dimple it and scatter torn sage leaves and onion over the top. Bake ten minutes, then reduce the heat to 190C/Gas 5 and cook for a further 15-25 mins until it's golden brown. Remove from the tin and cut into big slices

Other topping ideas: other fresh herbs, garlic (roasted and smushed, if you like), or mashed up gorgonzola and pine nuts, as Nigella suggests.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Simple lavender salad

I've mentioned once or twice that I've been growing things in pots on our patio, and one of those pots contains a small lavender plant. We had a big bush of lavender in our old garden in Sussex and it was partly nostalgia which made me buy some more when we moved. I've never used it for anything - not even drying and scenting drawers, much less cook with it, but when Holler announced that the theme of No Croutons Required the event she and Lisa host, was herbs this month, I thought it would be the perfect occasion to let my lovingly tended plant shine in a whole new way.

My salad is very simple - just some mixed leaves, some tomato and some spring onion, and I got the inspiration for the lavender dressing from a book called Herbs by Joanna Farrow. It was a birthday present from my friends Julie and Tracy years ago, when I first started trying to grow herbs, but so far I've mainly enjoyed looking at the pictures rather than cooking from it. The description of the lavender dressing in the book says that it has 'a natural affinity with sweet garlic, thyme, marjoram and orange'. Since I was using such a simple salad I didn't put any garlic in this time (though I imagine that some roasted garlic smushed in with a more robust salad would be a very nice addition). I just mixed up a little orange juice, honey, olive oil, thyme, marjoram, and the flowers from three stems from my plant. It was a lovely citrusy dressing, but the lavender scent really stood out and made it really unusual. I was actually glad I was pairing it with such a simple salad for my first attempt so that I could appreciate it. (By the way, you do need to check that your lavender is suitable for culinary purposes before eating!)

Saturday, 19 July 2008

When good puddings get distracted

Ok, so I was a bit over-excited about the news of my new niece from New Zealand last night and not being very focused when I was making a celebratory apple crumble for dessert. I was also in a rush to make the topping while The Scientist was dishing up the soup he'd made for the main course. So I blitzed the topping ingredients for too long in the food processor (serves me right for cutting corners instead of rubbing the fat in by hand as I usually do) and we ended up with cake batter for our topping. The Scientist and a friend we had visiting both insisted it would be fine, so I daubed it over the apples and stuck it in the oven. They were right. It wasn't crumble, but the topping got quite nice and crunchy (a little too crunchy to be completely aesthetically pleasing if truth be told) but it made for a nice contrast with the apples which is one of the nice things about crumble anyway. I'd wanted to make a crumble because it's so heartily and quintessentially English, but the English do lots of other variants on fruit and toppings, and I decided that this one could be an Eve's Pudding. I don't know what an Eve's Pudding is except that there is one, and I like the name :) I don't wish to know if it's some weird bread or suet-based thing; leave me in my blissful ignorance.

Crumble is one of those puddings which seems to have close cousins in other cultures but not be quite the same. I am always confused about what American slumps, cobblers and grunts are, for example - are they our crumbles by another name, a New World evolution, or a completely different dessert altogether? A crumble is just flour, sugar and butter, rubbed in together to form a crumbly consistency and scattered over the top of some fruit. As Nigel Slater, whose topping recipe I used this time says, this combination of ingredients 'magically produces comfort food of the first order.' I never had it as a child, I don't think, but The Scientist would most heartily concur, and I have come to relish it as well. Most soft fruit can go in as it is, but apples are generally cooked briefly to soften with some butter and sugar. And then of course you can go wild with additions - cinnamon, vanilla, ginger with either fruit or topping, oats or ground almonds in the crumble, topping packed down for extra crunch or left loose, served with cream, custard or ice cream. In our house The Scientist rules that crumble should be unadulterated by oats or almonds, although spices in with the fruits are acceptable. He will address himself seriously to any combination of fruits, but apples are a particular favourite. And his accompaniment of choice is always - always - cream. I think. Occasionally he foxes me by choosing something else in a pub or restaurant, but that seems to be the rule at home. Nigel's recipe came from Real Fast Puddings, although the quantities are pretty standard. I didn't actually weigh out the fruit: I used this quantity of topping with three very large Bramley apples, peeled, cored and sliced, and softened in a pan with a bit of butter and a sprinkle of sugar and cinnamon for five or ten minutes. It made four healthy portions. Nigel recommends tasting the apples before sugaring, as even cooking apples can be quite sweet nowadays. He also stipulates demerara sugar when using apples but I didn't have any to hand, so I used regular caster which probably means he wouldn't want to be associated with this recipe any more. Apologies Mr Slater. And if you blitz the topping up for too long it becomes Eve's Pudding instead (that's my name for it, and I'm sticking to it). It was still nursery-supper and jolly-hockey-sticks tasty anyway, and a pudding that can forgive distractions of new nieces is a good pudding in my book.

Here's my baking buddy, Noodle, in a disgraceful state after helping us dispatch the bottle of new niece champagne. I like to keep corks from memorable occasions and write on them what we were celebrating. See how there are two dates on this one? It's because she was born on the 18th here, but the 19th in NZ. I think that's two parties and two cakes for the foreseeable future...

Apple crumble (based on Nigel Slater's Real Fast Puddings)
I include the ounce measurements as well as grams as they are so much easier to remember!

150g/6oz plain flour (Nigel actually suggests 40z flour and 20z rolled oats, but see above for The Rule in our house)
175g/6oz butter
100g/40z demerara sugar [I used caster]

Whizz the flour and butter in the food processor for a few seconds till the mixture looks like crumbs. Stir in the oats, if using, and the brown sugar. Or, mix the flour and sugar by hand and then rub in the butter. Or, don't read the directions properly, put everything in the processor at once and then whizz for too long so it becomes batter.

Sprinkle [or dollop] over prepared fruit in an oven-proof dish and bake at 200C/400F/Gas 6 for 30 mins, or until crisp on top. Serve with single cream, double cream, ice cream or custard. Or Greek yogurt, Or plain. But not clotted Devon cream which The Scientist got in a pub once and found strangely repellent.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Break in baking transmission

I break off from my planned transmisison of bread baking posts to announce....the arrival of a mini Munchkinette!! Kiwi Sis popped into the hospital for a mere four-hour labour (note how only someone who has never given birth uses the word 'mere' anywhere near the word 'labour')!, and has been on the phone to Munchkin Gramps herself already, sounding very cheery. It's all quite surreal, and I can't quite believe that my little sister has a daughter. I'm off to buy something suitable to toast the new arrival, although of course it isn't really her birthday here yet as she was born in the early morning in NZ. Does that mean we can spend all of tomorrow toasting to her as well? Many many congrats Kiwi Sis, Bro and Munchkin!

For obvious reasons no photo of mum and baby themselves, but here are some pictures of the present which is awaiting Munchkinette's return from hospital.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

A Tasty day out in the Big Smoke of Brum

Goodness me, it turns out to be quite distressing being away from the internet for a few days! I hadn't planned to go so quiet, but spent the weekend baking up so much bread that I didn't have time to post about it all before going away. I've only been away since Monday but the lack of email at my research trip/conference has driven me to the local unethical purveyor of hot drinks just so I can use their wi-fi :) Bizarrely, although I am in Liverpool, my internet connection thinks I am in Germany and all my web searches are coming up auf Deutsch! What a mad and inexplicable world the internet is (unless there's some weirder stuff going on in Merseyside than I'd realised...)

Anyway, I might not have been organized enough to write up the recipes for my breads before I left, but the breads themselves are all nestled in the freezer awaiting my return, so I will blog about them then. In the meantime, here is
a brief mention of the Birmingham Taste Festival which we went to on Friday. It was a great day out to the local Big Smoke for us little small-town mice, and it was all the better for being a work day. I love that naughty feeling of doing something fun and non-work-related on a work day, even if it’s taken out of your holiday allowance.

The Birmingham festival was the last in a series of national events, designed to promote local produce and restaurants. They have their own special paper currency which you can exchange for small dishes cooked by top restaurants, and there are also cookery and wine tasting demonstrations, a local producers’ market, and lots of all stalls all falling over themselves to let you try morsels (and large morsels at that) of their wares. Most of the actual dishes were very meaty, but there was so much to taste that I didn’t really even need the very nice stuffed dhosa I shared with The Scientist. He, on the other hand, got free rein to spend my share of the Taste Crowns as well as his own on posh meaty dishes he wouldn’t usually get to try. We were too busy stuffing our faces with cheese samples to get round to taking any photos, but I did get one of our last Crowns purchase, which was a limoncello trifle to share. It turned out to be not veggie-friendly, so I just tasted the biscuity bits (The Scientist was strangely upbeat about this), The bits I tried were very good, and The Scientist was very pleased with the top layer, which was a fluffy Heston-esque foam.

This was two days after our very rainy trip to Henley Festival, and it rained on us again, but only intermittently, and there was more than enough free chocolate and cheese (and awnings to shelter under) to make up for it. We did make some purchases as well as munching on freebies – some green herby cheddar cheese, some fruit wine, some white balsamic vinegar, and a posh new kitchen knife which I have fallen in love with. Unfortunately up here in the north-west, I can’t remember the names of any of the producers, and so can’t credit them properly :( The nicest thing about them was how free they were with knowledge, information and enthusiasm as well as samples. It’s a very lively demonstration of how vibrant our local food market is (although in today’s financial climate of course, they are arguably increasingly luxury items…). There were some national companies there too, including Gu puddings (oh yes, some of those seemed to make their way into our bag to keep The Scientist going while I’m away. I wonder if I should have stipulated whether I wanted to be able to try any on my return!).

In the Taste kitchen we watched Aldo Zilli make fresh pasta and sauce, and we did a wine tasting of French reds in the wine stall. I deliberately cultivate a complete lack of appreciation of fine wine so that I can happily continue to enjoy cheap plonk, but I came away really quite squiffy on all the samples. And to crown the day, as we were leaving I was accosted by a man from – I’m guessing – a herb marketing board, giving out free herbs. I spied some rosemary, which I adore the smell of, but my eyes became as wide as (wine-spiked) saucers when he said I could have ONE OF EACH! I bore away a big bunch of thyme and sage as well as the rosemary – hence the mad bread-baking session to use as much as I could up before I left.

We came home sated, happy and tipsy. The Taste festivals are all over for 2008 now, but we'll definitely be going again next year. In the meantime I may be putting my new-learnt wine appreciation skills to good effect toasting Eco Sis, who has just heard that she got a top mark in her big exam a few weeks ago! Congrats Smartie-Sis!!! If I can navigate my way out of Liverpool-am-Mein that is.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Henley Festival...of rain (and a cookie)

I am a square old so and so, and I have never been to a festival before this summer. Thanks to Eco Sis that is now being addressed, and last night we donned our finery and swanned off to Henley for their summer music festival. This is Henley, so it's not a gypsy dress, wellies and mud festival - or at least it wasn't supposed to be. It's a black tie affair with a floating stage, posh restaurant marquees, and art exhibition. Unfortunately yesterday it rained literally all day. Undeterred, we dressed up (there was no way I was compromising on wearing my beautiful new long black Coast dress, though I did put my long winter coat on top and picked up a hat on the way out. This turned out to be a good idea, even if the dress stayed completely hidden all night). We drove to Oxford in the rain, picked up the Ecos and splashed off.

We'd brought a picnic but it wasn't quite the weather to get the rug out, so we ate it in the car in the best British tradition, parked behind some people in a van with an awning, a brazier, some champagne and proper crockery. They were still wet though. I think that balancing a plastic plate on your knee while passing salad and strawberries back and forth, and trying to fit your wine glass into any dip in the car's interior design is a great way to enjoy a meal, actually :)

Ah, the English summer

We did eventually extract ourselves from our picnic and waded over to the venues. It's such shame it was raining as it was a lovely set-up. There were marquees and awnings arranged along the riverside, with several music venues, a whole range of artwork - some under awnings, and some sculptures on the lawn, and several food outlets from a toastie van, to a posher than posh restaurant. There was also a very effective social classification system which was denoted by the shape of your entry badge. We were Pleb Third Class, with a square tag, but we spied hexagons and shields, and The Scientist was pretty sure he saw some spikey passes which we think were probably for nudging the servants with. At any rate, our Pleb Class passes allowed us to promenade at the main floating stage, but so many people declined to take up their deckchairs in the rain that we did actually get to sit down.

The rain did undoubtedly dampen the atmosphere a little, but this is Britain, and we all rallied well. We particularly enjoyed a jazz trio. They were singing a jazz rendition of Old Macdonald as we came in, which we thought the Munchkin would have approved of. The next concert was a classical one on the floating stage, which we listened to from our socially aspirational deckchairs until we got just too damp and moved to a coffee bar. The last band was listened to was our favourite - a folk duo called Show of Hands, with a guest singer. They were just amazing, playing six or seven different instruments and with beautiful voices. We were sad to leave a little bit early to make sure we could still float the car off the car park field. However, I have since discovered that they are playing on the Sunday of Womad, which is the other festival we're going to this summer. Hooray! In any case, we had a great evening despite the damp, and would definitely go again another year. On a nice evening it would have been nigh on perfect, but even the rain couldn't stop the good cheer and good music.

So, if anyone's still reading in the hope they might find a cookie recipe, here it is. They're chocolate chip and raisin cookies and I got the recipe from this month's Sainsbury's magazine. I actually made them to take round to our new neighbours but then The Scientist got back late from playing cricket and before I knew it they'd come with us on the picnic. They're not quite on the family choc chip cuckoo level, but they held their shape nicely, were good and crunchy, and Eco Sis said she particularly liked the raisins. They were supposed to have nuts in them, but I left them out because they are evil.

PS, here is a baby-enticing charm sent to New Zealand: come on baby, come on baby, come on baby, it's time to arrive.

Chocolate chip fruit and nut cookies (from Sainsbury's magazine, August 2008)

Makes 40

125g very soft butter
185g light muscovado sugar
1 medium egg, lightly beaten
185g plain flour, plus little extra for dusting
1 tsp baking powder
50g shelled monkey nuts [I left these out]
50g raisins
50g dark chocolate, chopped

Preheat the oven to 180C, fan 170C/Gas 4. Using an electric hand whisk or a food mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until pale, 3-4 mins. Gradually add the egg, whisking. Then sift in the flour, baking powder and a generous pinch of salt. Mix in the nuts, raisins and chocolate. Bring the mixture together with your hands and form it into a ball.

Halve the ball and cut one half into 20 pieces, then, with lightly floured hands, roll each piece into a small ball. Transfer to lightly oiled nongreased baking sheets and press each one to flatten [they don't spread too much so you can put them relatively close together]. Repeat with the other half of dough. They will need three baking sheets. Bake two sheets of cookies for 12-15 mins on the centre shelf and the shelf below, swapping them halfway through the cooking time. Bake the third sheet of cookies on the centre shelf for the same time.

Leave the cookies to cool for about a minute on the baking tray (no longer or they will stick, then, using a fish slice, carefully transfer them to a cooling rack.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Hey hey, it's superfoods day: potato and amaranth cakes

I've been on a foray into new types of wholegrains recently: quinoa, barley, bulgar, and have been enjoying their range of characters. Having finished the bag of quinoa I was in the market for a new supergrain, and pretty much at random picked amaranth from the brilliant range in the shop at Ryton Organic Gardens which we visited a couple of weekends ago. It's a very small grain - smaller even than couscous, and I had no idea as to what I was going to do with it when I bought it.

According to my Wholegrain Diet Miracle book, amaranth was an Aztec favourite, but it gained unfortunately bloody associations as it was mixed with (human) blood and honey as part of religious ceremonies. The Conquistadors banned it in an effort to end human sacrifices, and it faded from view. Now it's getting more popular again: it's very high in protein, high in lysine, iron and fibre. It also contains blood cholesterol lowering forms of Vitamin E, linoleic acid - a good fatty acid - and it's gluten free. So, all that set out for Eco Sis to insert medical rejoinders, I set out to look for some recipes.

You can boil amaranth like millet, but it becomes quite sticky and sweet. The first time we ate it I boiled it, mixed it with some yogurt and herbs, and served it with grilled vegetables (adapted from a chicken recipe in Wholegrain Diet Miracle). That was the *interesting* dish I mentioned the other week - it was quite nice, but a bit odd, and a bit too goopy to make an attractive photograph. I found myself wanting to boil it more to make it drier and fluffier - or couscous in other words! We both thought that it would make a nicer dessert pudding and filed the recipe under 'strangely ambivalent'.

The second time, I searched around on the internet and found a recipe for potato and amaranth cakes on the Guardian's website by Yotam Ottolenghi. Heidi at 101 Cookbooks had talked highly of his cookbook so I thought it could be a winner for flavour without being too odd. The amaranth forms a coating to a spicy potato mash cake - always a winner for The Scientist. The amaranth in this recipe was popped, so I heated it in a dry pan to get it popping. Probably about two thirds of it popped and the other third got nicely toasted, and I had a lot of fun squeaking every time a grain popped and became a much prettier little white bubble. The recipe also calls for toasting various spice seeds and crushing them which made me feel like a real pro as well, and made nice aromas waft around the kitchen. They get mixed into some mashed potato, formed into patties, coated in the amaranth, and fried.

The verdicts? The Scientist liked this recipe, which we had with corn on the cob, some quick mango relish, and some home-grown salad leaves. Mashed potato is his favourite form of carbohydrate, and he thought that the amaranth gave the outside a nice crunch. It also went nicely with the fruity relish (Ottolenghi gave a recipe for a limey mapley dressing but I fancied something simple and fruity. I've copied his dressing out below). I liked it as far as a potato cake went, but I'm not really a huge fan of so much stodge without more zingy ingredients. These cakes did have a nice variety of spices in them but I still found them a bit bland. I think I just don't get on too well with potato cakes. Still, the amaranth was nice and crunchy and I was pleased to think that I was eating something so nutritious. I still have a lot of amaranth left, so I need to find a few more uses for it yet. I have a couple more up my sleeve to let it show its variety - if nothing else we know we can turn it into some puddings!

Potato and amaranth cakes (Yotam Ottolenghi in the Guardian)
Serves 4

4 potatoes (about 800g)
2 small onions, finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tsp mustard seeds
2 tbsp coriander leaves, chopped
1 green chilli, deseeded and chopped
1 tsp salt
30g popped amaranth [dry fry it to make it pop; some will toast rather than pop]
200ml vegetable oil, for frying [I used a lot less than this though using more would probably make the cakes moister]

For the sauce [which I didn't make!]
juice of 4 small limes (80ml)
40g maple syrup
3 tbsp coriander leaves, chopped
2 tbsp parsley leaves, chopped
1/2 clove garlic, crushed
10g ginger, roughly chopped
2 tbsp veg oil
2 tbsp water
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 mild chilli, deseeded and chopped

First make the sauce. Place the lime juice and maple syrup in a small saucepan, bring to a light simmer and reduce for about five minutes until the consistency of runny syrup. Mix all the sauce ingredients in a blender and work to a smooth paste. Taste: it should be sweet and sharp. Adjust for salt. If very thick, add more water, then set aside.

Peel and quarter the potatoes. Place in a pot of cold water, bring to a boil and simmer for 20-25 minutes, until tender. Meanwhile, gently fry the onion in oil until golden brown. Dryfry the cumin, coriander and mustard seeds in another pan over medium heat until they release their aromas, then grind to a powder in a mortar. Drain the potatoes, place in a bowl and gently mash. Add the onion, spice powder, coriander, chilli and salt. Mix well, and add salt to taste.

Use your hands to make small patties, roughly 5cm in diameter and 0.5cm thick. Spread the amaranth on a plate and press patties lightly on to it to cover both sides well. Heat up the oil and shallow-fry the patties, a few at a time, until crisp and golden on both sides. Transfer to a kitchen towel to soak up the oil. Serve warm with the sauce on the side

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Grilled strawberries with Pimm's and championship point tension

I just can't stop myself from buying summer berries at the moment; it's like a compulsion. There are generally at least two punnets of different fruits in the fridge at any one time, and sometimes they don't even get that far (like the handful of gooseberries I bought at Borough Market - the first I've had this year. They remind me of the time I took Junior Sis and Junior Bro berry picking a few years ago - Junior Bro was very keen on gooseberries until we got them home and he decided that actually it was rhubarb that he liked. I was going on holiday the next day so we passed them all on to Granny T. I'm sure they had a happy ending).

I like berries in all sort of dishes - crumbles, cakes, pies, muffins, sauces - but my top choice when they're freshly picked is plain perfection, perhaps with a little bit of sugar, or some Greek yogurt and a bit of honey or agave nectar. I found this recipe on Jamie Oliver's website the other day though, and had my fancy tickled because it was so elegantly simple: grilled strawberries with Pimm's. We had all the ingredients, and it sounded like a nice easy way to showcase two of the best tastes of summer. Having copied the recipe it's taken me a while to make it, but it's a nice lazy Sunday and it's the final of Wimbledon (we're watching it right now, at 9pm and it couldn't be closer) so I made a snap decision that today was the day. It's so quick I could nip out and make it practically between points - hull strawberries, mix with stem ginger, some stem ginger syrup, some Pimm's, and some vanilla pod seeds, and grill 'until bubbling and delicious-looking'. Ours didn't quite get to that stage both because of the lure of the tennis and because the best dish I could find was really a bit deep for effective grilling. It was still very good though: gingery and sweet but with the berries still intact and warm. I suspect that a better grilling technique (and we're talking about a grill in an oven here, not a BBQ by the way, though I'm sure you could adapt...) the syrup would have gone even more caramelly and lovely. Jamie recommended serving it with vanilla ice cream but we went for some more of my home-made mint. We both made appreciative noises while eating it, but we'll have to wait for this match to be over before we can properly put our minds to what we thought!

I'm sending this dish to Waiter, there's something in my... hosted by Cook Sister, and which has berried treasure as its theme this month. Championship point Nadal - must go...

Recipe here

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Someone misses you, Munchkin Granny...

Borough Market is the new black

The ubiquitous chocolate brownie mountain photo - mmmnnnn

I have been slow to jump on the Borough Market bandwagon, but we finally made it there this weekend. There's been a market operating in this area since Roman times, but I suspect it didn't always have quite its modern character. Ever since Jamie Oliver let it be known that he likes to pop along there on Saturday mornings, foodie Brits from all around have swarmed to pick up their gastronomic delights in the graceful lee of Southwark Cathedral. We'd stayed at Munchkin Granny's flat the night before (all well, cat happy to see us) so we managed to get there at a reasonable hour and it was still on the quiet side. We were glad we arrived when we did as even half an hour later it was filling up noticeably.

Piles of mouthwatering chocolates and breads

Was it worth the trek? Did it live up to expectations? We were smitten from our first glimpse of the bread, brownie and fruit-laden stalls. It's usually my prerogative to get giddy in foodie places, but The Scientist got quite excited too. It's by far the biggest market I've been to, and the array of specialist and high-quality stalls is just amazing. There were bread stalls with loaves I could never even contemplate, cakes beyond belief, stands selling just different varieties of Emmenthal, gouda or parmesan, oils, salads, tomatoes, mushrooms, wines and juices. There was a stall selling monster cheese toasties where I would have stood happily smelling the aroma for some time, lots of beautiful berries and vegetables, tofu, Greek, Middle Eastern and German food vendors, and lots of weird and exotic meats. There was a Mexican chilli pepper stand where I was intrigued to find chipotles in adobo - an ingredient I've seen in American recipes and which Johanna from Green Gourmet Giraffe blogged about just a few days ago. I tasted a bit and it nearly blew my head off so that didn't make its way into my bag. We were going on to a tour of Lord's Cricket Ground afterwards (the original purpose of our visit) so we couldn't get too carried away, but I came away bearing a single bagel (very restrained, I thought), a whole bag of cherry tomatoes, a couple of stripy regular-sized tomatoes, some English gooseberries and cherries, and a glorious box of mixed salad and pitta from Love Veg which was the best lunch I've had in ages. The Scientist is a more convincing foodie really as he actually sampled more things - all involving varieties of meat in bread which I preferred not to enquire too closely about. We also picked out a nice bottle of wine for The Scientist's dad's birthday, thanks to the expert guidance of a vintner guy. Because the vendors are so specialist they really know their goods and really enthused about the background and history of their foods. I would have loved to have bought some more veggies and some of the different cheeses but it wasn't practical this time. We'll just have to go back...

My tasty lunch box!

The Lord's tour was good fun too. The tickets were a Christmas present to The Scientist from his parents, and we selected a weekend when there was no match on so that we could see around as many areas as possible. I'm not too much of an expert on cricket myself, but I've imbibed it vicariously from the various men in my life, and was happy to go and see the original home of the game. We had a very knowledgeable guide (perhaps too knowledgeable - the tour ran over by about half an hour), who showed us the Long Room, the Committee Room, the media centre, the changing rooms and the member's bar. We learnt lots of new things: did you know that the players have to walk through the members' Long Room after they're out - to resounding applause or deathly silence; that Shane Warne hasn't scored 100 at Lord's or got 5 wickets (because McGrath keeps cleaning up first); that the Ashes trophy has only twice ever left the Lord's Museum - including travelling on its own first class ticket to Australia last year; that the trophy Vaughan was photographed with after we won the Ashes (no need for a year there!) is a replica; or that the covers for rain 'hover' and can be out on over the wicket in 35 seconds? We left, replete with new knowledge which may one day be useful in a pub quiz, and swayed home with our foodie purchases. You would hope we had some sort of gastronomic feast after the inspiration of the market. Nope: scrambled egg on bagel. It was a tiring day :)

Thursday, 3 July 2008

No-machine ice cream

What a pleasing rhyme that title has (pure accident). I actually made this ice cream ages ago but have abruptly come up against the thing all bloggers must fear - not having anything new to blog about. I did cook something *interesting* yesterday but it turned out to be the *interesting* kind of interesting rather than the sort that makes your tastebuds cry out with glee, and also it wasn't at all photogenic. It involved a foray into a new grain, but I think I'll have to revisit it in a different form before it's photo-worthy.

Yes it was meant to be artistically arranged like that and it had nothing to do with the fact that it wasn't quite soft enough to spoon rather than slice

I was planning to write about the ice cream at some stage anyway as it's really nice and really easy, and we're onto my second batch already. I got the recipe from Everybody likes Sandwiches (recipe here), and I bookmarked it partly because Jeannette churned it in a hand-churner which appealed to the historian in me. I don't have an ice cream maker at all and I thought that churning with a hand was almost the same and so it was worth a go. I make no claims for healthiness but it's not as bad as many ice cream recipes out there - Jeanette said that she'd used milk with a bit of heavy cream, and I've tried it once like that and once with lightened Elmlea single cream. Both were v tasty. I quite like the frisson of worry you get when heating a mixture with eggs in it - will it scramble, or will it be ok? That's the sort of kicks you have to rely on when you're a university academic. The only other change I made when I did it for the second time was to omit the choc chips. Although mint choc chip ice cream was my flavour of choice as a child, I object to hard bits of chocolate in my ice cream nowadays. I think I'd rather pour warm chocolate sauce over the top to get my chocolate fix. The mixture isn't that colour naturally, of course, you have to colour it. The other reason I like this ice cream is that I didn't have any green colouring, so I used a tiny bit of blue - and it still came out a nice minty shade of green. Truly! I love that. It would even make up for it not tasting nice, but it did so that's ok. If you wanted to be really wacky you could use more colouring and have blue mint ice cream, but perhaps you have to be a pure maths academic to need that sort of a kick :)

So, the upshot is: you don't need an ice cream maker to make this ice cream (in fact you don't even need to bother getting it out of the freezer and stirring it as it freezes). And you don't need green food colouring to make green ice cream. What a confusing world this is.

I'm sorry to be posting about ice cream when I know that some of my readers live in the southern hemisphere. In fact, my antipodean readers have swelled by one in the last few days, as Munchkin Granny has Gone Down Under!! She is a very intrepid granny, and she used to make ice cream for us by hand when we were little, so this is particularly for her.