Saturday, 30 August 2008

A quilt for Tracy

Please allow me to present my latest little quilt offering: a geometric number in shades of green for my BB's new young brother:

I really enjoy making baby quilts and keeping my friend in mind as I sew. Sometimes people pick out a pattern or tell me a colour theme but I do quite like to give them a surprise as well. Tracy had picked quite a geometric pattern for BB's quilt and so I thought I'd choose a similar look for his brother (who is almost a BB himself - just one week off). I just heard from Tracy that it had arrived so I hope she likes seeing it up here too. Tracy is the one person who I know wouldn't mind finding cat paw prints on her new quilts, but I think that Scooty actually managed not to decorate this one himself. I should get him to 'sign' them on the back! The pictures were taken in Munchkin Gramps' conservatory - aren't they lovely and sunny? Just right for a quilt bound for California and its new little owner.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Storecupboard cooking: squash pasta bake

Oh I wish I had a pantry. We have two cupboards of dry goods, plus some more things hanging about on top of the microwave, and a while ago they were both so full as to make opening them a bit of a hairy business. After both of us had nearly sustained an injury from falling wasabi I thought I'd better take it in hand and a) tidy it, and b) start actively trying to use up some of the hundreds of different pasta types I seem to have accumulated. Here is the offending shelf after tidying (note box to minimise falling condiment damage):

So I now have a new aim - to cook one dish a week based on the storecupboard. This week: a squash pasta bake (though actually the pasta I used was one of the microwave-toppers, so I have yet to make a dent in the box!). The reason we've ended up in this woeful state of cupboard-carb-overload is that we don't eat pasta too much, although we both like it. So this should be quite a pleasing challenge, especially as the days start to move gradually and irrevocably towards autumn. There's little that hits the spot better on a cold day than a hearty pasta bake. For this one I roasted a small squash (grown in Hampshire, coincidentally, where The Scientist hails from), and made a simple tomato and herb sauce with some borlotti beans added to it because that's what I had to hand. I cooked the pasta shapes separately, and then combined everything in the dish, sprinkled it with some nice goats cheese, and baked it for about 25 minutes in a hottish oven. Hardly rocket science, but pretty healthy and balanced.

I was very pleased with the results. The squash was meltingly soft, the beans added nice protein and a bit of texture, and the cheese had a lovely mild flavour and a bit of crunch where it had crisped up (don't you think that's always the best bit?). So far so good with the storecupboard challenge. I even persuaded The Scientist to take care of another packet from the box, though I was disappointed that it popped up white. I was hoping for pink!

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Yorkshire plum galette

Munchkin Gramps and Grandma S have a plum tree in their garden, which to be honest, I've never paid much attention to in the past. In recent years I have become a fruit-forager of the highest order though, and so as soon as we pulled up their drive last weekend I had already noted the abundance of plums just waiting for someone to come along with a basket. Sometimes that tree crops well and sometimes it doesn't apparently, but this has been s a good year, and so Grandma S was happy to let me take a few. I like eating fruit on its own best, but The Scientist is a confirmed fan of fruit in desserts, and so with the plums rapidly approaching over-ripeness, we both got to satisfy our dessert leanings.

It's one of the happy symbioses of our house that I like baking fruity desserts as much as The Scientist likes eating them, and I just take a small tasting tithe - which frankly doesn't put much of a dent in the dessert as I always over-estimate how much I'm making. This time he chose a pie and I decided to take the opportunity to make a dessert I've had my eye on for ages but have never got round to. It's a blackberry galette in Nigella's Domestic Goddess, and I've always been taken by the picture which looks wonderfully rustic and golden. Or, as Nigella describes it, 'a free-form pizza-like tart'. The dough has cornmeal in it which is apparently good for soaking up the juices, and the plums were so juicy that I thought that might be a particularly good thing. I like making pastry - I have colder hands than anyone I know so I feel I ought to be good at it - and this was very straightforward - just a bit of mixing and rubbing in (or a few blitzes in the food processor but that would take all the use out of my perpetually freezing hands). The original recipe adds creme fraiche to the blackberries but I just sliced my fruit on to the pastry disc, scattered some sugar and cinnamon over the top, and baked it as it was.

It looked nice (the pictures didn't come out too well) though the pastry didn't blow me away. I'm not much of a pastry fan though, and The Scientist liked it. He didn't notice the cornmeal but perhaps that was because of all the cream he'd doused it in! I thought it did give the pastry an interesting texture and flavour, so if pastry's your thing then I'd go for it. Anyway, I was pleased I'd finally made it, and the pie-eater in the house said he'd happily have it again, so I guess that's chalked up as a success. I went blackberrying picking in the lane near our house last night (as I say - always on the look out for fruit foraging opportunities!) so I may try it again in all its original Nigella glory. If the berries last that long :)

Plum galette (based on Nigella's blackberry galette from Domestic Goddess)

Made one smallish pie (two Scientists; possibly half a Michael Phelps)

60g plain flour
30g polenta/fine cornmeal
1 scant tbsp caster sugar
1/4 tsp salt
50g cold butter
15g (1 tbsp) vegetable shortening
1-3 tbsp ice water, or enough to bind [I found that 1 was more than enough]

about 5 or 6 ripe plums
approx 3 tbsp caster sugar, or to taste
about 1 tbsp cinnamon, or to taste

To make the pastry, mix together the dry ingredients, then add the butter and shortening, and rub in until it resembles breadcrumbs (or use a processor). Add enough water to form a dough. Form it into a ball, wrap in plastic and put in the fridge to rest for about 30 minutes

Preheat the oven to 190C/Gas 5. Roll the pastry out into a rough circle, transfer to a lined baking sheet, and scatter sliced plums on to the top. I cut them over the pastry to catch the juices as well. Leave a good margin round the edge. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon, then dampen the edges of the pastry with water, and roll them over to make a nice rustic looking edge. Put in the oven for about 20 mins or until pastry is cooked and golden.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Hey hey, it's supergrains day - Greek salad with spelt

When is spelt not farro? Or farro not spelt? My Wholegrains diet miracle book is pretty clear that they're different - although farro is an ancient relative of spelt - but when I found a tin of spelt in the new local posh supermarket, the main ingredients was listed as 'farro'. I'm confused. Anyway, both are very ancient grains, and full of good stuff, especially fibre and B vitamins. Spelt can even reduce the incidence of migraines because of its high riboflavin content. So I think we're covered on all fronts there. I used my tin of spelt/farro to make a salad based on one in Wholegrains diet miracle. It was described as a take on Greek salad, and since my felt/sparrow was already cooked it was an absolute cinch to make. I just mixed the grains with a little lemon juice and dried dill (sadly I didn't have any of the lovely frondy fresh stuff), chopped up some cucumber, spring onion and feta cheese, and served it on rocket leaves. And guess what? I have a new favourite grain - although I appreciate I do say this every time I try a new grain (except the amaranth, which was entirely over-rate in my opinion). It's got that nice chewy texture that barley does so well, but with a little more bite. It went really well with the saltiness of the cheese and the crunch of the cucumber and was interesting and filling enough to make a very tasty lunch. I had it on its own, and The Scientist and Munchkin Granny had it with baked marinated salmon and new potatoes. We followed it up with elderflower and gooseberry crumble which I forgot to take a photo of, but was very good.

This meal was our Bank Holiday Monday lunch and we felt very classy eating something so sophisticated. We needed a bit of sophistication as we spent last Friday in the rowdy West Stand at Headingley Cricket Ground, watching England beat South Africa in a day/night match. Watching the audience there is almost as good as watching the cricket. I saw a team of bananamen, a troupe of knights, a penguin, lots of superheroes of dubious pedigree, and even more drunk fans spending their time making 'snakes' out of empty beer glasses. And that's not even considering the bizarre array of finger wiggles and leg thumps which denote the umpires' decisions. Cricket - it's as mad as the English summer weather, but you've got to love it. The Scientist has been practising improving a novice's knowledge of the game on me over the years, and he's now ready to take on the family Yank. Next summer's Headingley highlight: Eco Bro does International Cricket. I must start sourcing matching bananamen costumes.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Double birthday cake

It's my birthday today. More excitingly, however, since I like to keep my birthday quite quiet, it's my little Birthday Buddy in California's birthday too! One day I hope to celebrate a birthday with him in person, but in the meantime, I made this cake for us to share in spirit (I realise that BB may take issue with the fact that only I actually get to eat it, but I'm sure that his parents will be organising him a cake of his own).

My ideal birthday is a nice quiet day and a romantic and tasty meal out for the two of us. I have a work deadline coming up soon so I couldn't take the day off, but I did skip out for a few hours for a potter in town, and to make myself and BB a little cake. I had been drawn to red velvet cakes when I was choosing what to make for the last round of my cooking challenge with Lisa, which had featured birthday cakes. I decided against it because the recipes all used so much red food colouring, but then I found one which used beetroot instead. I think we may have established by now that I am strangely drawn to unusual ingredients in baked goods, and this one lurked in my mind. Lurking turned to downright jumping up and down with a flag that said 'bake me!' when I found a low-fat version from Jessica Seinfeld's Deceptively Delicious that didn't use any artificial colour at all on Not Quite Nigella. I wasn't sure how The Scientist would feel about it, but it's my birthday cake and if I want odd vegetables in it, then that's my prerogative, I believe. It's his birthday in a month and he can have all the lemon meringue pie he wants then with nary a beetroot, courgette or sneaky squash in sight.

That's not the crest of my old college hiding on the edge of the plate, oh no
I forgot to say the first time round: the clock is pointing to 3 o'clock because that's how old BB is today!

As seems to be my wont, I halved the recipe since it was just for two of us, and baked it in a brand new 6 inch round tin (thank you Vet Dad's parents - The Scientist's surrogate second family since childhood :)). I just used one egg rather than halving a full egg and two egg whites, and I did the milk and vinegar trick instead of buttermilk as I never have that regularly on hand. I followed the oil rather than butter option and it didn't get at all creamy, but it seemed to work fine, and the batter was gratifyingly crimson. The baked cake smelt absolutely gorgeous, too (and no repeat failing to bake problems this time).

The decoration of this cake was also fated long ago. Several months ago now I was chatting to a colleague about the cakes she used to make for her children when they were at school. One of their favourites was a Hickory Dickory Dock cake from an old Reader's Digest book. I had a look on ebay for it so I could surprise her with a replica, but to no avail. Then, however, Johanna wrote about her magnificent green giraffe cake, which was based on a pattern in an Australian Women's Weekly cake book (not sure if that link is actually to the right edition - the picture's too small to tell!). Someone left a comment for her linking to a facebook group devoted to childhood cakes from this book, and in an idle moment I went and looked it at (I'm not commenting on what this implies about either my work rate or my character). To my great amazement, one of the other cakes in the book was a hickory dickory dock one. I found it on ebay and it was mine. I've been saving it all this time, and it seems like an appropriate cake to share with my young birthday buddy in California.

I'm not very experienced with decorating cakes and have so far shown no original talent on that front at all. I was hoping this one would be easy, what with a picture to follow and all. I will let the photos stand as testament to my success or otherwise. I used cream cheese frosting as that's traditional on a red velvet cake apparently, although I didn't flavour it with cocoa as the cake recipe suggested as I wanted a white clock face. The decorations are sweets, and the mouse, rather endearingly, is made out of a prune, which isn't something I would have thought of for a children's cake. I have to admit, I was rather proud of it. It also tasted very good indeed. You couldn't taste the beetroot, and I was a little disappointed that it wasn't pinker - Not Quite Nigella's was much more colourful. The beets lent it moistness though, and the icing set it off beautifully. I enticed The Scientist into trying a bit and he liked it too, and was relieved about the lack of beetroot flavour. He was full of chocolate biscuit cake though, which was the product of an idle twenty minutes before my potter into town to use up some biscuits, so he probably wasn't the most discerning taster.

I've had a very happy birthday, not least because of the lovely gift I opened first thing this morning from a certain family in New Zealand - a framed picture of the Munchkin and Munchkinette relaxing on the quilt I sent them. The Munchkin looks like a proper little boy, not the baby who left here 8 months ago, and he's looking so sweetly at his sister, who is holding his hand. That was a very nice start to the day, and we've just ended it with a lovely meal at an Arabic restaurant in Coventry called Habibi. It was recommended to me before we moved here and it was a really good experience. We sat at low tables in an outdoor (heated) tent, and ate babaganoush and fatoush salad with pitta, a veggie tagine for me, and a mixed grill for The Scientist. The staff were really friendly, and they even do belly dancing classes for ladies during the week! It's also five years to the day since I met the little mewling scraps of fluff who became our cats, so they have had some tuna as their treat (I picked out the piggle cat that day - Scooty was a bonus extra when we went to pick her up a month or so later, but a most welcome bonus :)). And it's 32 years since Munchkin Granny and Munchkin Gramps became parents, which I think is the biggest thing of all :)

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Blog party 37: going retro

This month Stephanie from Dispensing Happiness has picked 'Retro' for the theme of her blog party. This gave me the perfect opportunity to make something from my copy of Victory Cookbook by Marguerite Patten. I found it in one of those remaindered bookshops several months ago and have read it quite extensively but haven't yet cooked any of the recipes. Marguerite Patten was a Home Economist at the Ministry of Food during the second world war and was responsible for coming up with and publicising new ways for families on the home front to cook cheaply and healthily. The cookbook covers the war years and after, since rationing didn't end in Britain until 1954, and includes lots of recipes, advice and cartoons published by the Ministry as well as notes from Marguerite on how rationing worked and changed. It's really interesting social history as well as a cookbook, so of course I find it fascinating. I'm particularly drawn to this period of history, and especially the experience of life in Britain. It's so easy to forget what our grandparents' generation went though, or to downplay it, and yet it was so utterly life-changing even for those at home. I find the famous war epitaph almost unbearably moving: 'When you go home, tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, we gave our today'. The Scientist's grandpa served in Burma during the war and when he died a few years ago, some elderly gentlemen from the Burma Star Association came to his funeral and recited that verse over the coffin as they stood to attention with the association's flag. It was very touching.

Anyway, this is all just to say that although I made my party offering in fun, it's something that makes me quite thoughtful. Since the party is a happy occasion though, I thought I would follow some of the suggestions for a children's victory party. VE and VJ day were celebrated with lots of street parties, and some of them were especially for children. Marguerite notes that some children tasted ice cream for the first time at those parties - it was rare in a time when most people didn't have a fridge. I didn't try the wartime ice cream recipe, but followed some of the suggestions for other tasty morsels - sandwiches and tarts.

I wanted to get really into the spirit of things, so I followed a bread recipe in the same book for my sandwiches. Bread wasn't rationed during the war itself, although it was afterwards, but it was scarce and expensive, as was flour. People were recommended to eke their flour out with oatmeal, so I used that to make up a quarter of the total amount of flour. Wartime flour was much coarser than modern flour, but I did use plain rather than bread flour since that wasn't on sale in the 1940s. I was expecting a bit of a brick of a loaf, but it was actually quite nice and fluffy and just tasted a little more wholemeal-like from the oatmeal.

So, bread made and sliced, I turned to the list of suggested sandwich fillings. A lot were potted meats and fish, so I chose a mixture of grated cheese and carrot, with a little bit of milk to moisten, and mock banana, which was mashed parsnip with banana essence and a little sugar (bananas weren't available at all during the war because of the shipping blockades). I didn't have banana essence so I used a bit of the liquid that frozen bananas leave behind when they defrost. It was sweet enough with that not to need extra sugar. I quite liked it, though I'm impressed with 1940s children if they were happy to have it on their sandwiches. Perhaps it just needed mashing a bit more, or maybe they all went for the potted shrimp and jam ones instead. I hope they also got sandwiches with tops - I ate mine open and the carrot and cheese filling kept falling off. I suspect this is my fault not the sandwich topping, and if you can't make a bit of mess with your tea party when war's over, when can you?

My book suggested a selection of cakes, tarts and biscuits to go with the sandwiches and I selected some tarts as I was interested to see how wartime pastry turned out. Fats and sugar were in short supply - as were eggs - only 1 per week at the most, and many of the recipes call for reconstituted dried eggs instead. My pastry didn't need eggs though I think the proportion of fat is a bit lower than usual. I filled some with jam and turned the others into Maids of Honour - another recipe in the book which I hadn't heard of before, and which consist of a little jam topped with a margarine, sugar and breadcrumb mix. They were quick and easy and were perfect child-sized finger food. The Scientist is a jam tart fan and he liked them very much and thought that the Maids of Honour had a certain treacle-tart quality to them.

Of course I need a drink to send to Stephanie's party as well, and the book was pretty clear on what to serve: lemon or orange squash. I can't really even imagine what the end of the war must have meant to people who'd lived through it but making my party entry has definitely made me think a lot about cooking with wartime restrictions. I plan to try out a few more recipes in the future, so expect to see Pete Potato and his friends featuring a few more times!

Wartime bread (from Victory cookbook)
450g plan flour (you can sub in a quarter of this with oatmeal
heaping 1/4 tsp salt
300ml water
2 tsp dried yeast

Sift flour and salt into a mixing bowl. Heat the water until just warm. Add yeast and sugar to the water, top with a sprinkling of the flour and leave until frothy (12-15 mins)

Make a well in the centre of the flour, pour in the yeast liquid and mix well. Turn out on to a floured board and knead until the dough fills in a hole made by your finger. Shape into a ball and return to the oiled bowl. Leave in a warm place to prove until doubled in size [I did this in the fridge overnight]. Turn the dough out and knock back. Form into a round loaf or place in a loaf tin and leave to prove again until it's almost doubled in size. Cover it very lightly with a cloth. This stage will take 45-60 mins at room temperature.

Meanwhile preheat the oven to 22C/425F. Bake for 35-40 mins until the base sounds hollow when tapped.

Maids of Honour (from Victory Cookbook)
Pastry: [I halved this quantity but still made 12 little tarts]
6 oz self raising flour
pinch salt
1 1/2 - 2 oz margarine
water, to mix

Sift flour and salt into a bowl. Rub in the marge, add enough water to make a firm rolling consistency. Roll out and cut into circles. Place one circle in each indentation in a fairy cake tin.

Filling [for 12-15 tarts]:
A little jam
1 oz margarine
1-2 oz sugar
1/2 tsp almond essence
3 oz fine breadcrumbs
2 tbsp milk

Top the pastry with a little jam. Cream the margarine, sugar and almond essence together, add the breadcrumbs and milk. Spoon the top over the jam and bake in the centre of a moderately hot oven 15-20 minutes until firm and golden

Monday, 18 August 2008

Review: Moosewood Low Fat Favourites

This is, quite simply, my favourite cookbook of all time, and since I keep posting recipes from it, I thought I would do my bit to try to encourage people to actually buy their own copy, as there are LOADS more I haven't even tried let alone posted. I normally like cookbooks with photos in them and this has none, which is just a further testament to how good the recipes are.

Moosewood Collective is a vegetarian co-op dating back to the 1970s, and their restaurant is in Ithaca, New York State (oh, how I'd love to go...). They have always had an emphasis on healthy and wholesome food, and some of their other cookbooks focus particularly on international cuisine. I was first introduced to Moosewood by my lovely friend (and new mum again - more on that soon....) Tracy, who gave me another of their books as a birthday present one year. I picked up another one at a book sale, and finally got the Low Fat Favourite after seeing a friend's copy. One of the other collective members, Mollie Katzen, is also well-known in her own right in the States.

There are several reasons I really like this book. Firstly (almost) without fail the recipes are really flavoursome and tasty. The exception was a split pea soup which blew our heads off, but which we managed to convince Eco Sis and Munchkin Granny to eat anyway (even after telling them how hot it was) though I think we had to tone it down with some butter (one of The Scientist's contributions to science in the kitchen). Secondly, most of the recipes are based on things you might actually have to hand. The only ingredient I either have to get specially, or tend to avoid because I think of it as being a bit processed is low fat evaporated milk, which features in some of the soups. I have used it occasionally in a squash soup and it's certainly a very nice dish. There are one or two low fat alternatives I find you don't really get here - fat free ricotta, for example, but on the whole this book is not based on weird, outlandish or expensive ingredients. Thirdly, they make suggestions as to other dishes to partner recipes with, which I like just to get ideas. And fourthly I like the little backstories and descriptions they write - it gives you a sense of the collective since a lot of the recipes were invented by a named person, or for a particular visitor.

The book is divided into sections - starters and appetizers (good for dips), soups, breads and sandwiches, salads, grains, pasta, stews, other mains, fish, sides, sauces and dressings, and desserts. Every dish has its nutritional infomation given below it (though you do have to note how large the serving size is. Moosewood say they err on the side of generous portions so it's by no means all water and abstemiousness). My copy has dozens of little sticky bits bristling out all over it as there are so many things I still want to try out. Some of my all-time favourite dishes from this book, in case you need any further motivation to skip on over to amazon are:

New England squash soup
Asian eggplant spread
Dried mushroom soup with barley
Southwestern corn and potato soup
Lentil salad with mango dressing
Sweet potato and black bean burrito
Vegetable filo rolls
Persian split pea and barley stew
Pineapple buttermilk sherbert

And tonight we just tried out a ginger miso dressing for some veggies, which I didn't think The Scientist would like as it has silken tofu in it, but it was actually very good. Not very pretty, but very tasty.

Herbed cottage cheese bread

This, finally, is the last of the breads I made when I had all those herbs to use up. It's from Moosewood Low Fat favourites, and I chose it because it was a bit different from the other breads I was making. I've really liked my attempts at baking savoury breads with cottage cheese before, so I gave it a whirl. It also used two of the three herbs I was hoarding - thyme and rosemary. I didn't get round to trying this loaf for a while as I was going away the next day, so I sliced and froze it. I've had it in sandwiches since, and it's nice and light. My only criticism is that it's sweeter than I would have liked. It was so long ago that it's tricky to work out why. It's quite possible that I used agave nectar instead of honey, in which case I might not have reduced the quantity enough (agave nectar is much sweeter than most other sweeteners). It wouldn't stop me making this bread again, but I would reduce the amount next time. I might even try adding sundried tomatoes another time too - hmm, the more I think about it, the more I think that could be a really good plan, although then I'd want to eat it with cottage cheese on top, and I can't quite get my head around whether that's ok.

Herbed cottage cheese bread, from Moosewood Low Fat Favourites

1 tbsp yeast
1 tsp sugar
1/2 warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
1 cup low fat cottage cheese
1 tbsp canola or other vegetable oil
1/4 cup honey [or agave nectar, in which case reduce the amount]
1 tsp salt
1 tsp minced fresh thyme
1 tsp minced fresh rosemary
3 tbsp minced scallions
1 cup whole wheat bread flour
1 1/3 to 2 cups white flour
1 tsp baking powder

Prepare a 2-quart casserole dish with a light coating of cooking spray or oil. In a small bowl, combine the yeast with the sugar and warm water. Set aside to proof until bubbles rise to the surface, 5 to 10 mins.

In a small saucepan on a low heat, gently warm the cottage cheese, oil, sugar, honey, salt, thyme, rosemary and scallions. Transfer the cheese mixture to a large bowl. When the yeast is bubbly, add it to the bowl. Stir in the whole wheat flour and beat by hand 100 strokes. Combine a cup of the white flour with the baking powder and mix into the batter, then stir in enough additional white flour to make a stiff dough. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 5-10 mins.

Shape the dough into a ball, place it in a lightly oiled bowl, and turn it once to coat with oil. Cover with a damp towel and set aside in a warm spot for about 45 mins, until doubled in size. After the dough has rise, punch it down, turn it onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 2 mins. Shape it into a ball and place in an oiled 2-quart casserole dish. Return the dough to its warm place and let it rise again until doubled, about 30-45 mins

Preheat the oven to 350 F near the end of the second rising time. When the dough has doubled in size, bake 30-40 mins until it is golden brown and sounds hollow when thumped on the bottom. Cool on a rack about 10 mins and it will be easier to slice.

Friday, 15 August 2008

The Scientist goes vegan

Ho ho - of course that post title was only true for the course of one dinner but I loved writing it. It's a good thing he's not reading over my shoulder.

It may not seem like it from this blog but The Scientist does do a fair bit of the cooking when I relax my stranglehold on the meal plans. He has a set of standby dishes he likes to cook, a lot of which are one-pot versions of things I originally got from a recipe and made a whole heap more mess making. A while ago I suggested that he expand his repertoire a bit, and he agreed to have a look through a cookbook of my choice and select a recipe. I whipped out Veganomicon, plonked it down in front of him and ran away before he could protest.

Jambalaya with pan-fried greens

Now The Scientist is not averse to vegan food per se but it's definitely not in his normal remit of comfort cooking so I was very intrigued to see what he picked. He chose a jambalaya, which originally had seitan in it, but seitan is below things that come from beans and shouldn't on his list of acceptable foodstuffs, and got left out without a second thought. It had peppers and two sorts of beans in it, and it got the thumbs up from both of us. It was hearty but had enough different flavours in it to retain variety, and the flavours made it more than a big pile of stodge. I read a couple of comments on forums saying that it wasn't spicy enough but I quite liked the level of spice as it was (unlike the Snobby Joes I made a couple of weeks ago which were too hot to eat). We froze half and just ate the remaining portion the other day, which is what reminded me how good it was. I think it might even have improved, and the rice was nicely mooshed up a bit with the beans. I think the seitan would be quite a nice addition but you definitely don't need it, and without it it's even carnivore-friendly.

I'm going to duck out of posting the full recipe this time as it's not on the ppk forum and so they might not like it appearing. But the basic idea is: saute onion, celery, green pepper and garlic in an oven proof pot until they're very soft. Add some tomato paste. Deglaze with some alcohol and add rice, then diced tomatoes (canned), two tins of beans, a bay leaf, some thyme, marjoram, paprika, celery seed, onion powder and cayenne, salt and pepper. Add some veg stock and simmer, then put the whole lot in the oven, covered, for 30-35 mins (or longer if using brown rice). Allow to sit before serving.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Chocolate by post!

I have a small confession to make. The last few days I have spent the mornings on the sofa with my books and papers (and pooky cat), with the Olympics on in the background. It's brilliant - I keep just enough of an ear out for anything exciting, whilst still being able to concentrate mostly on my reading, and I've even got to keep up with a lot of the rowing. Anyway, I was sitting on the sofa yesterday, reading and half-listening away when the postman rang the doorbell. I didn't think we were expecting anything but I've often got a book on order from somewhere, and The Scientist has been known to have the odd quiet Amazon-fest. To my great delight and amazement, however, the postman handed over an oddly shaped package from California, with the return address of my very good dumpling-sharing friend Tracy!

I ripped it open to discover these lovely gems: two bars of posh American baking chocolate (100% cocoa solids - I didn't even know you could get that - well, I don't think you can here, which is why she sent me some!) and a pot of organic baking cocoa as an early birthday present. I was so touched, not least because Tracy is having a baby by caesarian TODAY and it's way beyond the call of duty that she was thinking of my birthday at all. I have some little plans for my baking goodies already, and I just wish I could share them with Tracy and her family straight away. In the meantime, I will be sending brownie vibes over the ocean to her for a happy delivery.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Intercontinental blog challenge: the cake that almost wasn’t

It’s my birthday in a couple of weeks, and so I thought it would be fun to select ‘birthday cakes’ as the theme for my next intercontinental blog challenge with Lisa from Unique Little Bits.

It wasn’t until I started reading American blogs and recipe books that I realised how many cakes there are which are unique to the other side of the Pond. I’m sure some of them have close cousins over here, but I was astonished to read about chiffon, yellow, devil, angel, sheet, and hummingbird cakes. A sandwiched layer cake seemed to be the order of the day for a celebration, and I was seduced by the description of a Devil’s Food cake with chocolate custard baked into it in a book I borrowed from the university library called The Little Red Barn Baking Book. I was all ready to come up with some lame excuse as to why I was borrowing a recipe book along with my reading on early modern Europe, but it was the only one which got any reaction out of the librarian at all, so I thought I’d allow it to get me some kudos (maybe I’ll be let off a fine some time in the future).

There seems to some confusion over the name ‘devil’s food’. I read one description which referred to other devilled foods like our devilled eggs - as in spicy, but another (and more plausible to me at least) explanation is that it’s just devilishly tempting. Mine had an extra component than a usual chocolate cake because of the chocolate custard but the batter tasted amazing. You may think that the devilishness of the batter is why my cake is Munchkin sized? Well, not quite. The truth is that my cake just wouldn’t cook through and this was a tiny side one I’d made for me to taste while the rest went off gaming with The Scientist. You may remember an earlier near-disaster I had with a Delia carrot cake not baking? Well this was an exact re-run, and I think it may be no coincidence that I was using the same tin. The cake went back into the oven several times until we really had to go to bed, and then it completely fell apart in an uncooked mockery of a tasty cake. Grrrr. In the morning I crammed the mess into one of my more trusted cake tins and stuck it back in the oven for another blast before we headed off to the university. Alas, it still wasn’t really cooked when we examined it later in the day, and it ended up being carved up into brownies and frosted like that. It was really a case of ‘shut your eyes and dive in with a spoon’ as it was still really tasty – but a complete mess. I was so relieved I’d made the munchkin one too, which I duly iced with chocolate cream cheese frosting and enjoyed on my own. It was divine – though that is perhaps not the right word to use for a devil’s food cake – very moist and chocolatey, but not too dark or bitter. I have since decided to outlaw my devilish cake tin, but look forward to trying the cake again in my smaller tin. I also had a ton of icing left over, so I added an egg to it, whisked it up, and baked it on a biscuit crumb base like a cheesecake. I took it to the Ecos at the weekend, and got a text last night to say that it was lovely. At least there was one intact winner from the devil’s challenge!

I was very amused to see in Lisa’s write-up of her cake that she also had a disintegration problem – the pressure to represent their country must have got to our cakes! At least they both tasted good despite their aesthetic problems.

Devil's Food cake (from The Little Red Barn Baking Book)

280g plain flour
1 tsp bicarb of soda
1/2 tsp salt
110g unsalted butter
195g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 eggs
225 ml whole milk [I used semi-skimmed]

1 egg
110ml whole milk
130g caster sugar
110g good quality plain chocolate (min 70 % cocoa solids), chopped into small pieces

For the custard: lightly whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Add the milk and sugar and whisk until smooth. Pour mixture into a small pan and stir over a medium heat with a wooden spoon until it thickens (up to 15 mins) and just coats the back of the spoon. Remove from the heat. Add the chocolate chunks and stir gently until melted. [Marvel at the pretty swirly pattern it makes on the way, if you're me]. Continue stirring over the heat until the custard thickens slightly. Remove from heat and leave to cool

Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4. Butter and flour a 23 cm round 5cm deep cake tin. Chill in the fridge.

Sift flour, bicarn of soda and salt into a bowl. In a separate bowl, cream the butter with the sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the vanilla essence adn eggs, one by one, beating after each one. Add the sifted dry ingredients alternately with the milk, Mix gently until just combined. Fold in chocolate custard.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Bake 20-25 mins or until the cake springs back slightly when gently pressed in the centre. Leave to cool in the pan for 10-15 mins before turning out onto a wire rack. Allow to cool completely before frosting. Slice into three layers. Sandwich layers together with icing and cover top and sides with icing as well. Leave to set for one hour before serving.

Chocolate cream cheese icing [note that the recipe recommends chocolate buttercream but I didn't have any cream, and The Scientist picked this one instead. The recipe is based one from the same book and we thought it was very fine with the cake, but it's not the combination the author had in mind. Disclaimer over!]
225g cream cheese [I used low fat]
225g unsalted butter
200-300g icing sugar, sifted
2 tsp vanilla essence
cocoa, to taste, or to reach desired colour [I started with about 1 tbp]

Beat cream cheese and butter together thoroughly, using an electric mixture. Add the sugar in thirds, mixing well after each addition. Test for sweetness. Add vanilla essence. Chill for 1 hour before using. Makes enough for one large cake.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Lentil and spinach soup

My trip to Manchester last week went well on the work front, and my foodie experiences also went up a notch when Dogophile Vegan Nurse came over from Leeds to join me for a few hours on Thursday. We met at 10.30 and since she was feeling peckish we headed over to a Buddhist vegetarian place she'd visited before called Earth Cafe. I have to admit that I had imagined a very wool-shirt and worthiness type of place from the way she described it, but in fact it's a bright and comfy place with counter service and very friendly staff who work towards being mindful and ethical in the way they run their business. And the food was *amazing*. At our elevenses visit I had a peach smoothie (very nice and fruity) and DVN had some lentil and spinach soup with a hearty side of bread, and a beetroot and carrot juice. The juice-ista (which should definitely be a word) apologised that it hadn't come out in three stripes of different colours in the glass, but it was very nice and such a nice purple shade that we would never have thought it looked odd. I tasted a bit of the soup and it was so good that when I got hungry for lunch less than an hour after we left we rather sheepishly just turned back to Earth Cafe again. There's no way we could pretend we weren't the same people - I'm a giant and VDN is little, plus I had the most ginormous bag on my back, but hey, what cafe is going to get upset its customers are coming back so soon?! This time I had the soup and DVN had a vegan strawberry cake, which was a little bready and with a very sweet icing, but good all the same. Other tempting options included a daal, some veggie burgers, and a harira soup which is a regular (the lentil and spinach was a special).

My lunch reminded me how much I love lentil soup and how I ought to try to recreate this particular one at home. It didn't have any particular strong flavour - no noticeable spiciness or lemoniness for example, just a really good hearty earthy lentiliness. I elected to start my home version quite simply with the thought that I could build it up by iterations in the future. I used a standard onion-garlic-celery base, but also added some soaked dried mushrooms and their liquid because I thought it would be a nice extra layer of flavour. It wasn't like the one in the cafe, but definitely a good extra taste. I also used more spinach than the original if the much greener shade of my soup was anything to go by. Flavour-wise, I added an Italian herb mix and some thyme, and then at the end, some soy sauce and some pepper.

The finished soup was very nice indeed, and with some home-made soda bread definitely merited an appreciative lunch wiggle. It didn't quite have Earth Cafe's earthiness and I'm quite intrigued to know what the missing ingredient was. I even emailed them to ask if they'd share the recipe, but that was only yesterday so they haven't had a chance to reply yet.
DVN wondered if there was tomato in it, so that might be another avenue to try next time. In the meantime I'm quite pleased to have conjured something along the same lines - and it even bypasses the worries about posting recipes from other cookbooks I mentioned a couple of posts ago! If you're in Manchester, I'd definitely recommend Earth Cafe -16-20 Turner Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester M4 1DZ, 0161 8341996, open Tues-Fri 10am-7pm and Sat 10am-5pm. I might even have to fabricate a reason for a return trip to the archive just so I can go back!
PS, forgot to say - it's *really* good value, too!

Lentil and spinach soup
Serves two, generously

half an onion
one clove of garlic
half a celery stick
small handful of dried mushrooms
3/4 cup-ish of red lentils
1/2 tsp - 1tsp dried thyme
sprinkle of mixed Italian herbs
300-400ml hot stock
big handful of spinach (I actually used about 5 balls of frozen spinach)
splash of soy sauce, to taste

Soak the dried mushrooms in hot water for about 10 mins. Warm a little oil in a saucepan, and cook onion, garlic and celery to soften. Drain the mushrooms, keeping the liquid, and chop. Add mushrooms, their liquid, the lentils and herbs to the pan. Add stock and bring to the boil. Lower heat and simmer about 15 mins. Add spinach (mine was frozen - if using fresh perhaps let the flavours develop a little longer first since it won't take as long to cook). Blend and season with pepper and soy sauce to taste.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Cupcakes and pizza for a Norse God

Last week The Scientist and I had one of our very best friends staying with us and we were very happy. He emigrated to Canada eighteen months ago and this is the first time we've seen him since. He was one of The Scientist's housemates many moons ago, and they bounce off each other in some sort of geek nirvana (their first conversation started with 'so, what do you think of optical interferometers?' or some such craziness). Fortunately that's not his only charm and so I love him too. I was pondering what to call him on my blog when he mentioned that one of his Canadian friends calls him 'Skyhammer' on her blog, and I thought I couldn't really improve on that. It sounds like some sort of Norse god, doesn't it?

We were wondering what to eat for dinner while the Norse God was with us when he told us about his housewarming party in Canada at which he'd just provided a load of pizza and cupcakes for his guests to eat. We were all immediately taken with that idea, and so while The Scientist dug out a takeaway menu, I got going on the cupcakes. The Norse God picked mint chocolate flavour, and I found a great recipe in Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World for chocolate cupcakes with minty frosting and a chocolate ganache. But I had just run out of soya milk and it seemed like an ethical travesty of the highest order to de-veganize a vegan cupcake. So I turned to Cupcake Project, thinking if anyone knew a good chocolate cupcake, it would be Stef. Stef hasn't made mint cupcakes herself as they're one of the banned flavours in her quest for the perfect wedding cupcakes for her friends. But her chocolate cupcake of choice is from Chockylit's Cupcake Bakeshop - in fact it's the basis for her Better than Sex cupcakes which I won't comment on as my little sister sometimes reads this blog. Having tasted the cupcakes I can see where she was going with the general idea though... I added a teaspoon of peppermint essence to the batter, and halved the recipe as there were only three of us, but it still made 11 British fairycake-sized cakes. For the minty frosting I did follow the vegan recipe although used regular butter (sorry), and finally turned to Nigella for a chocolate ganache.

The cupcakes themselves were beautiful (and Chockylit gives some satisfyingly good scientific reasons for her method). Weirdly though, my frosting and ganache had borrowed each other's qualities: the frosting was runny and the ganache was as thick as anything, so I spread the former and piped the latter instead of the other way round. The boys didn't mind this at all, although it meant that my cupcakes were not quite the picture of perfection I had hoped (I'm competing with professional Canadian bakery cakes, after all). The Norse God sweetly said he didn't compare like that and The Scientist was too busy eating the leftover 'ganache' with a spoon to comment. Both dispatched the cakes pretty quickly after their pizzas anyway, while discussing one-dimensional profiles or something. I found the mint frosting far too sweet for my own taste, but it was really minty (in a good way), and the cakes were minty yum. I'd definitely make them again.

The Norse God has gone back to Canada now and we're very sad, but we had a brilliant time with him and hope to visit him and his cupcake suppliers in the not too distant future.

Mint chocolate cupcakes with chocolate ganache

Chocolate cupcake recipe from Cupcake Bakeshop, here

Mint frosting
(with apologies to Vegan Cupcakes) [I halved this quantity and it still made at least twice what I needed - but then I found it was too runny to be piped nicely so used less per cake than intended. I'm not sure why mine was so runny - perhaps using milk instead of soy creamer?]
1/4 shortening
3 cups icing sugar, sifted
1/4 cup plus 1 tbsp milk
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
small drop green food colouring

Mash shortening with a fork to soften. Add1 cup icing sugar and a tbsp of milk and mix. Alternately add sugar and milk, mixing after each addition, until all the ingredients are used, and the icing is smooth and creamy. Add the extracts and mix. Pipe on top of cooled cupcakes

Chocolate ganache

I used a recipe from How to Eat, but that was a book I'd been looking after for the Norse God, and he took it away with him. Here's a link to a Nigella ganache on her website

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Bottom of the biscuit tin soup

I'm away on another research trip, this time in Manchester, and I've just had the funniest dinner. I don't much like eating out alone and since I'm away for two nights I thought I'd bring dinner for the first evening with me. But then eating cold leftovers from a tupperware pot in your hotel room can be pretty soul-sapping too, so I decided to be ingenious and make something that was at least hot. Relatively healthy hot options when your only cooking device is a kettle is tricky, but I brought a packet of flavoured couscous with me which could be rehydrated with hot water, and a small pot of defrosted frozen veggies. I emptied a small ceramic pot I found in the bathroom of its freebie toiletries and used it to hold my couscous as it rehydrated with water from the kettle. I considered putting the tupperware pot of veggies directly into the kettle to at least warm up, but luckily I mentioned my idea to The Scientist last night and he cautioned against letting the pot rest on the element in the kettle (I really hope I would have thought of this before I actually melted it but am not entirely confident!). So I abandoned that, and instead cast about and lit upon a long container which was holding the tea and coffee bags in my room which I thought could serve as a bain marie for my little pot. The peas did fine - a little crunchy but I like them like that anyway. The carrots could have done with a bit more effective warming, but were perfectly acceptable. So I managed to eat a warm and healthy dinner using a variety of hotel dishes and felt like Johnny Ball at the same time. I wished I'd had my camera so I could capture my comedy dinner, but I'd left it at home, and am about the last person in the world whose mobile phone doesn't have a camera in it.

Anyway my hotel room might be poky, my dinner might be improvised, and my best beloveds might be several counties away but I do at least have internet access. And so to the soup. I should say straight away that it doesn't actually have biscuits in it. 'Bottom of the biscuit barrel' is how Granny Munchkin and her brothers used to refer to meals that were made of leftover odds and ends - based, I believe, on improvised desserts by Israel Grandma which did actually feature the crumbs at the bottom of the biscuit tin. And that exactly describes my soup, which was put together to use up some British asparagus which was past its prime, some beetroot leaves which I couldn't bring myself to bin, and some soya beans I'd found reduced at the supermarket. I left the soup brothy which is unusual for me, but I fancied getting the crunch of the whole beans. The flavour combination worked really well, although I have to admit that I can't quite remember now what herbs I added. In the spirit of the soup I think you should use whatever you have to hand. I also liked it that the soup had a distinct purple hue which must have come from the beetroot stalks. I took it to work with me, hence the weird tupperware picture (it seems this meal is linked to tonight's experience after all!). Next to the soup is a rosemary scone I made to use up more of the rosemary I was given at the Taste Festival. Of course I made too much, and some of the rest of the veggies got turned into a tagine with some couscous. After that I called it quits - bottom of the bottom of the biscuit barrel is as far as I'll go. I feel justified in posting this recipe since it's home-devised, and anyway, so vague as to be almost completely unhelpful anyway :)

Bottom of the biscuit tin soup
Makes an unhelpful two and a half portions

half an onion
leaves and stalks from one bunch of beetroot, chopped
half a bundle of asparagus, chopped small
small container of fresh soya beans
stock, to cover and then some
handful of whatever fresh herbs you have to hand - I'm pretty sure I used chives
salt, pepper and any other dried herbs, to taste (isn't that a helpful direction?)

Chop onion and sweat until soft in a little oil. Then add all the veggies and stir to soften. Add hot stock and simmer for about 20 mins, until everything is soft. Add herbs, and salt and pepper to taste.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Welcome home, MG!

Munchkin Granny got home yesterday after a month in New Zealand with Kiwi Family. I thought she would be feeling sad after leaving her two grand-munchkins on the other side of the world, so I wanted to cheer her up a little. I was going to surprise her at the airport but had to spill the beans when she said she was going to ask a friend to pick her up. But I did manage to produce a surprise Eco-Sis which really made her day, and had gone to her flat in advance to make sure all was tidy and aired, pet her cat after a month of being fed by her very kind neighbour, and - of course - rustle up some welcome home food so she wouldn't have to cook for a few days.

MG (who, just to clarify, is the Munchkin and Munchkinette's Granny, and Eco Sis, Kiwi Sis and my mum) was remarkably perky and well groomed after her enormous flight, and full of anecdotes about the almost unbearably cute little ones. Eco Sis and I leapt on the camera to see her photos, and see how much the Munchkin had grown since they left. I'm sure it doesn't quite make up for leaving the grand-munchkins behind, but she did like her welcome home cake, a berry clafouti cake I've been wanting to make for a while. The recipe was from a Sainsbury's magazine (I think) and I used blackberries instead of the recipe's blackcurrants which you never seem to see in supermarkets. It was lovely and moist and really easy. I also made her a pea and rocket soup which has shot to the joint-top of my favourite soup list (I'll make it again and blog about it properly), and a pasta bake courtesy of Heidi at 101 Cookbooks. Hopefully they'll at least help her over the jetlag and fuel her through a few evenings of organising her photos.

I'm a bit nervous about posting the recipe for the cake after reading Johanna's comments about a fracas between a fellow-blogger and some over-zealous recipe-owners. I've always wondered about whether there were any rules on copying recipes, modified or otherwise, but assumed that as long as they were credited it was ok. So for now I'll play it safe - there are lots of clafouti cake recipes out there, so hopefully it should be easy to recreate. Sorry for being a woos....

Welcome home, Munchkin Granny!

Friday, 1 August 2008

Little French flatbreads

This is a tale of yeast taken to the brink of despair - and rescued; a tale with a happy ending and a nice crunchy crust. This bread's story started last Friday when I planned to make a veggie stew with some little French boules to accompany it. I started the dough at lunchtime because it took a lot of rising, using a small batch recipe so I could make just three rolls. French bread only consists of flour, yeast, salt and water, and I was a bit surprised when the recipe didn't mention warming the water. I thought I wouldn't start meddling at this early stage and believe that it was a special French-bread process, so I added the cold water and left the dough to rise.

During the afternoon I started to think that my stew plan was a bit boringly healthy for a Friday feeling, and began hoping that my dough didn't rise after all. My secret hope was answered when I went to check on it after three hours: it sat in its bowl looking exactly as I had when I put it there, as if to say 'well what did you expect when you didn't give me any nice nurturing warmth to get my yeast going?' I emailed The Scientist to tell him that dinner was foraging, and since he's a boy, and being set loose in the ready meals section of the supermarket is almost always preferable to a low fat stew, he was happy. The dough got wrapped in plastic and stashed in the fridge in the hope that it could be transformed into something that required a little less rising.

The next night I was making a Moroccan stew, and I thought that flatbreads would be a lovely accompaniment. The dough was duly brought out again and left at room temperature before being rolled out thinly. Since it was very plain I added some toppings for extra flavour. On one I spread some garlic relish, in honour of its French origins, and on the other, some cumin seeds, having kneaded some cumin powder into the dough before rolling to fit in with the spicy stew. I baked them at about 220C for about 10 mins or so, with no idea as to whether they would even be edible.

In fact, they were the best flatbreads I've ever made! My previous flatbreads (generally the Nigella seed breads from How to Be a Domestic Goddess) are very nice, but somewhat puffy - more like a naan than a pitta. These ones were flatter and a little crunchier, and so were better (I thought) for scooping couscous and veggies - a foil to the meal if you will, rather than a big bite in their own right. We both liked both the toppings very much. The garlic one was quite sweet as it was more of a jam than a savoury relish, and the cumin taste was assertively present without dominating the dish. After a very inauspicious start, these are now my flatbreads of choice! My one problem is that I don't know whether to try them with warm water, or whether they would lose their character. But in that case, are they really a bread?!

After their miraculous resurrection from the brink of yeast despair I am sending these flatbreads to My Diverse Kitchen, who is hosting Bread Baking Day on the theme of small breads this month.

Little French flatbreads (adapted from Small Batch Baking by Debby Naugans Makos)
The original recipe was for 2 boules; I guestimated the quantities up by half so as to make three, so these quantities are a bit rough

1 cup white bread flour, plus more as needed, and for dusting the work surface
3/4 tsp salt
a very scant 1/2 tsp rapid-rise yeast
olive oil, for greasing the bowl

Place flour, salt and yeast in a food processor and process for three seconds to blend. With the machine running, pour a bit under half a cup of [cold] water through the feed tube. Process until the dough holds together, about 20 seconds. The dough should be a sticky mass, and it should appear difficult to knead by hand. If the dough is too dry, add more water, a tablespoon at a time, processing for five seconds after each addition.

Lightly grease a medium sized mixing bowl with olive oil. Place the dough in the bowl and turn it to coat it with the oil. Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap and let the dough rest. [I don't know if this is at all necessary if using cold water - this was the instruction for the French bread part!]. Roll the dough out thinly and top with any seeds/relishes you fancy. You can also knead flavourings into the dough.

Bake at 220C for 10-12 minutes keeping an eye on it.