Thursday, 30 October 2008

Thoughts of apples and scones

Two different things melded into a wonderful whole for my dessert tonight. Firstly, I have a large surfeit of apples, if that's not a tautology - like being 'a bit pregnant'. The Scientist's mum and his grandparents both gave me loads of their home grown apples and I love apples so much that I gleefully accepted them all. I've been eating as many as I can for midmorning snacks, but there are still a lot left, and I WILL NOT allow them to be wasted! We had apple pancakes for dessert last week and I have a few more recipes in mind to come, but was still pondering which to make when...

...I got an unexpected and very sweet email from one of The Scientist's gaming buddies asking if he could have the web link for my blog so that he could get some more baking ideas. I sent him the link to his very own birthday cake (which I think he hadn't known had potato in it until now :) ). He's been making scones and wants to move into new types of baked goods. I hope you find some good ideas, LGD!! His email set me to thinking of scones, and then I remembered a recipe I'd found ages ago for apple scones. The dessert quest ended right there. (Actually it didn't quite because I carelessly mentioned the words 'apple crumble' to The Scientist when he got home from work and so I had to make a little one of those as well a small batch of scones because he got fixated).

The recipe I'd found was from a website called which sounds like an invitation to visit if I ever I heard one. It was for one big circular scone which you divide into 8 wedges. I followed the recipe but made only a quarter quantity. I also used applesauce for about two thirds of the butter - both for more appleyness and to lighten it up a bit. And I went easy on the sugar and used fruit sugar as I prefer flavoured scones not to be too sweet. My batter was quite runny but I just added more flour and got two nice little triangle shaped scones out of it. They came out of the oven all soft and golden and fluffy and the butter melted onto them like a dream. I definitely need to set up some sort of backdrop lighting device so my pictures actually look half decent in this wintry gloom (it snowed this week. Ridiculous). I ate mine with some salsa flavoured vegan cheese and I liked the contrast of slightly sweet with savoury. Even two scones only used up half of one of The Scientist's mum's cooking apples, but another one and a half went into the mini crumbles, which The Scientist devoured with much vigour. Unfortunately I can't be sure why the recipe worked so well so I don't know if I can replicate it. At least he has a second mini one for his dinner tomorrow while I'm out at a conference meal, and I have another scone to get me through a day of non-semi-vegan conference food!

Apple scone (from Rampant Scotland)

(Can be made with vegan milk and butter substitutes)

Main Ingredients:
One medium cooking apple
8 oz (250g or two cups) self raising flour
½ teaspoon salt
Level teaspoon baking powder
2 oz (60g) butter
2 oz (60g or ¼ cup) castor sugar
Up to ¼ pint (150ml or half cup) milk

Ingredients for glaze:
A little milk
1oz demerara (light brown) sugar

Pre-heat the oven to 200C (400F or Gas Mark 6).
Peel and core the apple and then finely chop. Sift together the flour, salt and baking powder. Then rub in the butter followed by the sugar and chopped apple and mix. Add milk until you have a soft but not sticky dough.
Roll out on a floured surface to about ¼" thick and 8" round and mark into 8 wedges. Place on a greased baking sheet, brush the top with milk and sprinkle with the demerara (light brown) sugar. Bake in the pre-heated oven at 200C (400F or Gas Mark 6) for 20-25 minutes. Serve warm with butter.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Pumpkin couscous with prune and onion confit

Pumpkin and squashes are among the very best things about autumn. I have to admit to going a little crazy whenever I see new varieties, but I think we can all guess why this little creature just had to fall in my shopping trolley in Sainsbury's last week.

I generally roast squashes or put them in soup (sometimes both) but I wanted to try something new, as gourds are the theme of Cook, Sister's Waiter there's something in my.... this month. I thought of a frittata, I remembered a cornbread, but in the end plumped for this pumpkin and prune couscous dish from The Crank's Bible. I borrowed this book from the library last week and have been relishing its recipes ever since. I think it was the photo of little moons of pumpkin that won me over, plus I was attracted by the prune confit. I was also intrigued as to whether I could get it past the generally averse to dried fruit in savoury dishes although not *always* Scientist. I ran it past him in advance - something I don't normally do as making decisions about what he's going to eat more than about an hour in advance of eating it is not really his thing, but he said he was prepared to give it a go.

Apologies for the naff photo - I'm still getting used to photographing in the dark evenings!

The squash was baked so we're not going too far from my normal comfort zone here. I just love the smoky sweetness it gets from baking. Mmmmmn. I did change the confit a little though as it contained slow-cooked caramelised shallots, which make me nervous. This is because I once had a completely sleepless night of heart-burn after eating a piece of caramelised onion tart, which ended with a visit from paramedics because as soon as you say 'chest pain' to NHS Direct - even in the context of 'my girlfriend has heart-burn and was sort of wondering if there's anything she can take to make it go away and get some sleep, they send out the crash carts. I was very traumatised by the whole embarrassing event, and have never risked slow-cooked onions since, just in case. The heart burn just went away on its own, too. So I just lightly fried the shallots and then added the prunes and liquid to them. They probably didn't take on the same depth of flavour but it was still very nice, and provided the desired for fruit sweetness to accompany the soft baked squash and the lovely nubbly texture of couscous. Another time I will leave more liquid in the confit as I would have liked a little more sauciness from it, but I enjoyed every mouthful, and so, I am happy to report, did The Scientist. The no dried fruit thing apparently only applies to places where dried fruit should not be - which still leaves me a little confused but happy that it worked out this time.

Moroccan pumpkin couscous with a prune and onion confit (adapted from The Cranks Bible)
Serves 6

For the confit
500g small round shallots, peeled
900g pumpkin from an orange-fleshed pumpkin, like Crown Prince or butternut squash
2 tbsp light olive oil of sunflower oil, plus extra for basting
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
A dash of Tabasco
A dash of soy sauce or tamari
1 tsp soft brown sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
4 garlic cloves
400g soft prunes, stones left in [I used pitted ones]

For the couscous
500g couscous
Boiling water, to cover
A pinch of saffron
Bouillon powder
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley to garnish

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6
Remove the seeds from the squash and cut into crescents about 1 inch thick. Spray with olive oil, together with a little salt, pepper, Tabasco, soy sauce, sugar and cinnamon. Roast in the oven for 25-30 mins or until brown and caramelised.

Heat oil in a pan and fry the sliced shallots until they are brown and golden. Season with a little salt and pepper and add the whole garlic cloves, then add the prunes and enough water to just cover. Simmer on quite a fierce heat until it is all absorbed, adding water a little at a time, until the shallots are golden and the prunes are soft and starting to dissolve (about 20-25 mins).

Reconstitute the couscous in a volume of boiling water roughly equivalent to its weight and seasoned with the saffron first as well as a good pinch of bouillon. When the water is absorbed, fluff up with a fork [optional: stir in a knob of butter]

Serve the couscous onto a platter or individual plate, top with the pumpkin, and top with the confit. Scatter a little parsley on top and serve.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

The Great Cookie Research Project: The Cream Cheese One

This cookie was, I'm sorry to say, not the highlight of the whole Choc Chip Cookie experiment. It was actually the very first one I made (it's been our reading week this week so I saved this one to write up) and I was quite embarrassed to have started with such a blooper. I can't remember quite how I stumbled on the recipe but I had some cream cheese I needed to use up and liked the idea of a cream-cheese-esq cookie. This was not one of my better decisions when starting out as the self-styled baker of the department. It was posted by Minnie on Foodproof, and she says that the original recipe may have come from a well-known brand of cream cheese. It also contains angostura bitters which caused me some headaches to find, and I think were responsible for the orange flavour identified by one taster.

I should really have thought through the implications of introducing such an unknown quantity as cream cheese in a cookie into a taster audience of university academics. They got quite bogged down in the definition of what a cookie was, and thus what their reaction should be. Was I calling it a cookie or something else, they wanted to know? As a cookie it was not popular (my Russianist colleague said it was the first cookie he had ever left unfinished, much to my shame). As another sort of treat (here there was some debate, with my erudite French historian colleague coming up only with 'thing') it did better. See what I mean? Historians can't start to tackle a question until they've defined all their terms. I'm surprised my feedback sheet didn't come back with footnotes and references.

The sticking point, I think, was the texture of the 'thing'. The cream cheese was very noticeable, making it both soft and creamy. This, of course, is no bad thing - it's just not what people were expecting from their cookie experience. I think if I'd baked it in a cake pan and called it a choc chip cheesecake bar it would probably have gone down much better. They also didn't look too attractive as they were sort of flat and pale. Their average score was 6.5, with most people voting 7. The Russianist damned it with a 1, but a colonial history colleague gave it a 10 (I think he was startled at being offered a cookie in the corridor!). Comments varied from 'I'd buy them!' to 'a little chewy', 'not very cookie-like', 'subtle orange flavour' 'perhaps a little waxy on the texture' (I'd agree with that one), and - from the despairing Russianist - 'try frying it like a blini'. Clearly, this was a confused cookie!

The Cream Cheese one: recipe here

Friday, 24 October 2008

New top favourite broccoli and tofu stir fry

We eat stir fry pretty often but this week we found a new absolute top favourite recipe. It was inspired by a combination of two things: a recipe for a braised broccoli and tofu dish in our Riverfood Cookbook (and some broccoli in our Riverford veg box), and by some rice cakes I'd bought a few months ago from an Asian supermarket in Birmingham after eating something similar with my friend Tracy in California. This was the same occasion that we ate tasty little dumplings, but the rice cakes were up there with them on taste. When Tracy recommended them I had imagined little noodle cakes, but actually they were compressed white slabs which had a chewy consistency. They soaked up the flavours of the liquid they were braised in really nicely and were unlike anything I'd ever eaten before. I wasn't sure if The Scientist would like them though, and the packet had been sitting in the storecupboard for ages, awaiting their hour.

The stir fry was really simple, as all stir fries should be. The difference was really the braising sauce. The broccoli was cooked with ginger, garlic, chilli and onion, and then removed. Then tofu was braised in a little stock before the veggies joined them again, along with some cornflour/stock/soy sauce/rice vinegar. The resulting dish had more liquid in it than we usually do, but it was so tasty and really made the dish. I cooked the rice cakes separately in some stock - they took about ten minutes or so.

Braised broccoli and tofu with rice cakes (at the bottom)

I'm happy to say that The Scientist did like the rice cakes and they completely lived up to my Californian memory of them. They went really nicely with the crunch of the broccoli and the zing of the chilli and the ginger. It was a joyous dinner - I think we both did a little appreciative wiggle dance. In fact we liked it so much that we cooked exactly the same thing on Friday night and it was just as good. We may never cook stir fry another way again!

Braised broccoli with bean curd (from Riverford Cookbook)
Serve 4
1 1/2 tsp cornflour
150ml veg stock
1 tbsp rice wine/sherry
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil [I didn't add this to the braising liquid as The Scientist had cooked the veggies in sesame oil]
2 tbsp sunflower oil [see above]
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2cm pieces of fresh ginger, grated
1 chilli, finely chopped
350g broccoli, broken into florets, stems peeled and cut into batons
1 red onion, chopped
250g firm tofu, cut into cubes
1 tsp sesame seeds, toasted in a dry frying pan
sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper

Mix the cornflour with 50ml of the stock, then stir in the rice wine, soy sauce and sesame oil. Set aside

Heat the sunflower oil in a wok, then add the garlic, ginger and chilli and stir fry for 30 seconds. Add the broccoli and onion and stir fry for a minute. Pour in the remaining stock and season with salt and pepper. Cover and simmer for 3 minutes or until the broccoli is tender.

Remove the broccoli from the wok. Add the tofu to the wok, along with the cornflour mixture and heat through for 1 minute. Return the broccoli to the pan, adjust the seasoning and heat through. Serve sprinkled with the sesame seeds. Wiggle appreciatively.

Little treats from Germany - blogging by mail

I almost ignored the doorbell when it rang at about 9 this morning. Mausel was comfy on my lap, I was in the middle of writing a sentence and our post doesn't arrive til much later. Fortunately I braved the possibility of a cold caller, as it was a postman with a little blogging by mail package from Germany! Yes, Stephanie from Dispensing Happiness has taken on the increasingly enormous task of inviting, collating and matching people for BBM, 10 items or fewer. It's such a lovely idea - blogging made real, and full of wee treats winging their way around the globe.

My little package came from Aniko at Paprika meets Kardamom - so called because of her part German, part-Hungarian roots. Her gifts were so thoughtful and personalised, and reflect her own culinary and cultural origins too. Here's what I got:

At the front there are two Christmas cookie cutters which will be perfect for the end of semester choc chip cookies :) I love making cut-out cookies and I've been contemplating some seasonal cutters for a while so I was very pleased with those. Next to them are some poppyseeds which feature highly in Hungarian baking (and lots of Eastern European Jewish dishes too). Aniko included a recipe for a poppy seed bread pudding which is a favourite in her family :) Above them is some 'Gute-Laune-Tee' or 'Good Mood Tea' with fennel, apple, anise, verbena, cinnamon and other spices. Can't wait to try that one to perk up a Monday morning! At the back are some gummy sweets - I might not know too much German but I can definitely understand 'ohne gelatine'!! To the side are Hungarian dried sour cherries - did Aniko know that I love dried fruit?! The sour cherries rang a bell about something Johanna blogged about a while back - and sure enough, she had been trying to make some fig and dried cherry slices but could only find really expensive sour cherries so she used apricots. My cherries are destined for that original recipe as it looks and sounds amazing! Next, some Hungarian paprika - another speciality and one that we're very fond of. The Scientist loves goulash, and Aniko has also sent a tasty-sounding recipe for pumpkin goulash which we're definitely going to try next week.

What an amazing little parcel - thank you so much Aniko! I had a hard time keeping my mind on my work for the rest of the morning while I turned over thoughts for what all these lovely ingredients could become. And that you Stephanie for all your hard work too!

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Kvelling over marbled millionaire's shortbread

Kvelling is a Yiddish word meaning 'glowing with pride'. I was kvelling about my shortbread because, if I say so myself, it was darned pretty, and since it was a gift for Eco Sis, I was all the happier. I made this shortbread for Eco Sis because I went to stay with her so we could have a sisterly day out together on Monday; because she likes millionaire's shortbread; because I wanted to bake it; and because it reminded me of a little story about her childhood.

When we were young, Kiwi Sis and I had piano lessons or some such activity after school which took up a relatively short amount of time, and wasn't worth Munchkin Granny and the small Eco Sis going home. So they used to go to a cafe nearby wherever we were (Oadby, in Leicester where we lived at the time, so Munchkin Granny told me at the weekend when we were reminiscing about it) and have a drink and a cake. It was a fun cafe over a gift shop, and the most memorable thing about it was that it had stuffed heads mounted on the walls. But these were stuffed toy heads, and the owner could stand on the other side of the wall and put his hand in them to make them move and talk. It was great fun keeping an eye on them to see if they were going to wake up and entertain us. Anyway, Eco Sis had a favourite cake at this cafe which she called 'the cake with long legs'. It was a bar cake, and the long legs were the stripy decoration (I'm not sure if I ever saw these cakes, but I imagine a Mr Kipling-esque slice - though less squiggly than the ones in the link). That's how cute Eco Sis was when she was little.

When I was looking out for recipes to make her a millionaire's shortbread - which is, incidentally, shortbread topped with caramel topped with chocolate - I found a recipe on Cookie Baker Lynn's blog which had a marbled chocolate top instead of a plain one. It immediately struck me that if I marbled it correctly I could give it 'long legs'. Unfortunately I completely forgot about the long legs when I actually came to the marbling as I got so carried away with the delights of making pretty patterns. However, as our great-grandmother used to say, 'it's the thought that counts'.

Striped and ready to drizzle

I used the recipe for Roxanne's Millionaire's Shortbread from Nigella's How to be a Domestic Goddess, which has handily appeared on various blogs. I halved the recipe since Eco Bro was away and I didn't want to make Eco Sis practice her coma resuscitation skills on herself, but it must make a whole heap of shortbread in its original quantity, as you can see that it still filled a square brownie pan. Nigella's instructions are to make the caramel in the microwave but I did mine in a saucepan as I was worried about burning either it or myself, as our microwave is very high up! I wasn't really sure how long to simmer it for, and my caramel could have been a bit firmer, but the taste was still there. I followed Cookie Baker Lynn's instructions for marbling though, by melting dark and milk chocolate separately, and painting them in stripes over the cake. Then I melted some white chocolate and dabbled it over the top of that, before using a cake tester to make marbled patterns through all three chocolates. Then I sat with it on my knee all the way to Oxford in the car and prayed for The Scientist to drive gently! (He did)

Drizzled and ready to marble

While my millionaire's shortbread did not have long legs, it got a very favourable response from Eco Sis (and her housemates!). The shortbread layer was quite thick, and I would perhaps reduce the quantity even further another time so that the caramel shone through a little more. With that much goopy goodness though, I don't think anyone will be complaining too much, long legs or no :) (And our sisterly day out in the Cotswolds was lots of fun too - the rain stopped us doing our walk, but we found a sewing shop and did cross-stitch in a cafe instead!)

Roxanne's Millionaire's Shortbread recipe is posted in various places
Instructions for marbling, and an alternative recipe here

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Storecupboard adventures - Bajrina rotla (millet breads)

Sometimes I am too curious for my own good. Why on earth did I buy a packet of millet flakes a while back? I had no plan for them and no particular ideas of what you can even do with millet flakes beyond porridge, which I never get round to eating (though I should). I have millet seed already, but flakes? Good gracious woman, what were you thinking? They sat in the cupboard for a while, making me feel guilty, until I hit on the idea of grinding them into flour and using them in bread. An internet search didn't bring too much up, but I did find a reference to bajrina rotla, or Indian millet flour bread in a book which is happily available via Google Books - Cooking Along the Ganges: The Vegetarian Heritage of India by Malvi and Neil Doshi (if the link doesn't work, it's on p. 434). It's described as a 'hearty' and 'rustic' and is a type of flatbread.

Rotla thinking about being puffed up over the gas flame (yes, it was on!)

The recipe stayed bookmarked for a little while, and then on Saturday we had The Scientist's parents visiting and I thought I would put together a little medley of Indian dishes. The millet flakes' time had come. Although millet flour has a short shelf life, the flakes did seem to be ok - they certainly ground up nicely. The recipe is easy, although it requires you to mix up only one pancake's worth of dough at a time, shape it, fry it and then hold it over a gas flame to make it puff up before moving on to the next one. I was making these after several hours of chopping, cooking and trying to follow three recipes at once, and after doing one of them properly I have to admit that I did mix up all of the rest of the flour and water at once. The pancakes were quite thick and didn't puff up particularly, but I'm quite sure that this was due to my inexperience/lack of focus.

Not very good photo of the rotla (top) accompanied by uninspiring-looking but tasty daal, sesame, ginger and garlic beans, and potato and spinach curry. I don't know why I put the rice at centre stage when it basically cooked itself in the rice cooker with no input from me.

I have to admit that the pancakes were really quite stodgy and didn't have too much taste on their own. Another time I will definitely follow the alternative suggestion to add chilli powder and turmeric. They did, however, have a nice rustic graininess from the flour and if you're after a comforting, soft in the middle, crunchy on the outside piece of stodge to mop up your curry, this is the recipe to turn to. I suggested that we put the curries on top of them so that they took on some flavour and The Scientist's parents certainly seemed to think they were ok. The Scientist wasn't keen at all - too bland and stodgy, and I can't blame him. I think I'll make making our preferred naans before trying these again, but I'm very glad to have shifted some of that millet. Perhaps porridge will start getting more attractive now that the days are getting colder...

Bajrina rotla (millet flour bread) - recipe here

Sunday, 19 October 2008

The Great Cookie Research Project: The Mini One

Week 4 of the GCRP and I stayed with the popular crunchy theme from last week. I had previously made some nicely crunchy cookies for one of The Scientist's gaming jaunts from which also pandered to my quiet satisfaction in rolling and cutting biscuit dough. I was quite busy during the week and so made the dough on Sunday and left it in the fridge until Tuesday evening. This, as anyone who followed the New York Times's investigation into the best way to make a classic choc chip cookie a while back will know, is apparently de rigeur for good flavour and shape. I don't know if it made any difference in this case but it's nice to think that my colleagues were getting the best in cookie research and method :)

After the difficulties in rolling out choc chip studded dough last week I added chips to some of the dough before rolling, and stuck others in after they were rolled and cut. The former had chips more nicely embedded in them while the latter had more noticeable little pools of meltiness especially straight out of the oven. I was quite struck by the difference - I think I preferred the chips more thoroughly integrated, but it's just a matter of personal taste and the taste of the biscuit itself was more noticeable in the topped ones.

These cookies were also popular at work - almost as popular as last week's Double Choc. People commented that they were nice and shortbread-like, and not too sweet. The cutest comment was left by someone who wrote 'had 3 just to make sure' - but the three was written over a '2' where they had evidently gone back just for one more! The Scientist rated them an 8 while warm. The average was also a clear 8 which actually puts them in the front running so far, but the range was greater than last week's - a top of 10 (from a colleague who had dropped a blooper earlier in the day and so I think was feeling guilty) but a low of 6.

So, small and crunchy is still the definite preference among my colleagues. I have a few more big spready ones to try though, so we may be moving out of the comfort zone a while yet!

The Mini One: recipe here

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Roasted and toasted squash and corn soup

This is the third soup I've made for this month's 'hearty' edition of Lisa and Holler's No Croutons Required event, but the only one I've actually managed to photograph. The first was a roasted beetroot, tomato and pepper soup, and the second was a broccoli, bean and pasta broth, both of which were very nice, but which got supped away while my camera slumbered. So here, at last, is my contribution, and probably the heartiest of all.

It was inspired by the perfectly hearty and autumnal squash, and by the gorgeous corn we've been getting in our veg box. The cooking method was, I have to admit, prompted entirely by the happy thought that I could call it a 'roasty and toasty soup' but I think that both roasting the squash and toasting the corn added a lot of extra flavour. The extra veggies - leek and pepper - were what I had to hand (in fact the pepper was a surprise bonus which had got hidden in the veggie basket!). Squash is the quintessential autumn flavour for me, and this is a lovely soup for a chilly evening - thick, hearty and comforting.

Roasty toasty soup
Makes about 4 servings

1 butternut squash, peeled, de-seeded and diced
2-3 garlic cloves, chopped finely or crushed
half to one onion, diced
Half a red pepper, chopped
a leek, chopped
About 650-700ml veg stock
The kernels from one ear of corn

Spread the squash out over a baking tray and scatter the garlic over the top. Spray/drizzle with oil and bake at 200C for about 25 mins until soft.

Put onion in a pan and cover with stock. Simmer for about ten minutes, then add pepper, leeks, and more stock to cover, and simmer for a further 10 mins or so, until soft.

Toast sweetcorn kernels under the grill until crispy

Add squash to the pan and simmer briefly to warm up. Blend soup and season to taste. Add half the corn and blend, then scatter the rest over the top.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Nursery rice pudding for an invalid

My poor Scientist worked very hard last week to make a big deadline, and was completely wiped out by Friday. He's devoted himself to a series of duvet days to get his strength back up again, accompanied by eucalyptus oil, sudafed and a collection of boy-type dvds (ie heavy on speed, plot and aliens, and low on narrative, characterisation, posh shoes and bodices). I have been nursing him by providing tea, hot lemon and honey, sympathy and his choice of invalid food, which on Friday evening was rice pudding.

I've never made rice pudding before but it's been on my list of things I quite fancy trying for some time; long enough, in fact, for me to have bought some pudding rice at a weigh-save place several months ago. The Scientist's mum used to make it when he was a child, which is always an intimidating place to start from (not that his mum would be at all proprietorial about her puddings or her role as pudding-provider-to-beloved-only-son). We read through several recipes, from Delia's baked version using condensed milk, through a Good Housekeeping single-cream enriched one, to an Anthony Worrell Thompson GI diet dish using just milk and brown rice. In the end we kept it simple, The Scientist preferring to have calorie space free for toppings. I remembered that I had read a very simple recipe on A Spoonful of Sugar blog which used pudding rice, milk, and a stovetop method rather than oven baking, so that's what we went with.

I remember my friend T (Rose's mum) telling of her fondness for rice pudding a few months ago, and extolling how easy it is to make. She was absolutely right; you just need to plan a couple of hours in advance. This method just involved boiling the pudding rice in water, and then stirring in some milk and whatever flavourings you fancy - we used vanilla. After a long simmer with occasional stirring I was amazed at how creamy it was. The milk (semi-skimmed, not even full fat) and starch in the rice gave it ample creaminess and neither of us felt that we would have wanted to add anything richer. I'm not really eating cow's cheese and milk any more in an effort to reduce my environmental footprint so I just tasted it, but it seemed to be just the thing for a poorly Scientist (and of course you could make it with soya milk instead of cow's milk). He ate it warm with blackberry jam (several times over the course of the weekend, actually, as 175g of rice makes one HELL of a lot of rice pudding!). I'm interested to try an oven-baked one, which gives more of the afficionado's crust. It wasn't quite a magical cold-curing elixir - I am typing this under the duvet sandwiched in between my invalid and a sprawling white pook - but it definitely helped him through his weekend.

Creamy stove-top rice pudding recipe here
(I used 175g rice and so upped the liquid volumes a little. It made four big portions)

Saturday, 11 October 2008

The Great Cookie Research Project: The Double Choc One

Week 3 of the Great Choc Chip Cookie Research Project, and the game has been upped! A couple of people commented last week that they preferred crunchy to chewy, plus there seemed to be a leaning towards dark chocolate. I decided that this meant deviating from most of the standard choc chip recipes, which produce big, chewy, American style cookies. Instead, I hit on the idea of adding dark chocolate chips to a favourite chocolate cut-out cookie I've made several times, and which is both sturdy and crunchy as well as darkly chocolatey. I found the recipe by googling 'chocolate cut out cookie' when looking for birthday biscuits that Junior Bro could take to school with him one year, and it's the top pick - from all recipes and highly rated.

I actually prefer making cut-out cookies to drop ones. I like the rolling and the cutting, plus it gives me an opportunity to use some of my cookie cutter collection. Just dropping the mixture onto a baking sheet isn't quite the same, so I was pretty happy to go down this route. In fact, I made a batch of these cookies sans chocolate chips for The Scientist to take gaming last weekend (they got pigs and feet - an entirely logical combination, I felt). The recipe makes a pretty big batch so I'd frozen half, and mid-week I took the rest out, thawed it, and added some cut-up chocolate. Of course this made it quite hard to roll out, and in retrospect I should perhaps have rolled and cut first, and studded with chocolate afterwards - but no matter. I also sprinkled the leftover shards of chocolate from cutting up a big bar over the top for some extra chocolate crunch. I left them in the oven a tiny bit longer than I would have ideally liked and so was a little nervous about the reaction, but I needn't have worried. These were by FAR the most popular cookies so far. Comments included 'Hurrah - they're crunchy!', 'Crunchy - like a cookie should be!' and 'Yum - like crunchy'. I think I've found my colleagues' preferred consistency :) They scored a whopping average of 8.75, with two people giving them 10s. The Scientist was also a fan, and rated his 9 fresh from the oven.

The cookies in situ in the staff kitchen

So where to go now? With the crunch and dark chocolate a clear winner, should I abandon my plan to try a lot of different flavours and focus on mining the similar vein? I still have a few alternatives I'd like to try, but I think that I'll stick with the crunch for next week at least. I have a feeling that these double chocs may yet be the winners though...

Cookies in their feet and pig incarnation
The Double Choc One
Rating: 8.75/10
Recipe here

Thursday, 9 October 2008

It's a tough life

I sometimes wish I could be one of our cats. They don't have a hard life. The whole house is basically a series of beds as far as they're concerned; they get cuddles more or less on tap given how often at least one of us is working at home; and there are lots of nice fences and gardens to frolic in and sharpen their claws on when they decide to venture outside.

No deadlines, cleaning or worries about the global financial situation when you're a cat.

Just a little light sleeping (preferably on something which contrasts with your fur colour for maximum impact), some scary-wide-mouth-yawning, the odd potter to the food bowl, and frequent displays of cuteness to keep the strokes coming. Bliss.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Gamers' golden date slice

The Scientist went off on one of his gaming jaunts last weekend, accompanied by baked goodies as usual. He and his friends are delighted to receive any baked stuff I care to provide, which makes for a very enjoyable relationship all round. I strongly suspect that I am 'the mad baking girlfriend' but I think that's a role I can live with :)

This time there had been a special request for a recipe which one of the gamers had passed on from his mum. It's a date and carrot cake, and is always known in our house as (in hallowed tones) 'Gaming Steve's Mum's Cake'. I think she called it a Golden date slice. It's one of those heavy, moist, gingerbread-type cakes and if I'm being a little vague about how it tastes it's because I'm not sure if I've ever actually had any myself (it seems a little rude to send a cake with a nibble taken out of it!). I can, however, say that the batter is truly magnificent, and it is very very popular with The Scientist and his buddies. Hell, The Scientist starts drooling when I get the golden syrup out of the cupboard!

I asked them to take a photo of a slice of it when they ate it, and Steve himself very sweetly set up a whole photography platform to showcase it. He used the camera on his phone which seems to be a better quality one than my actual camera. As you might expect given my profession, I am not the most up-to-date when it comes to tech!

Gaming Steve's Mum's Cake (aka Golden Date Slice)
With thanks to Steve's mum!

6oz Stoneless Dates

6oz Margarine

6oz Demerara Sugar

3 oz (Approx 6 Level Tablespoons) Golden Syrup

10oz Self Raising Flour

½ Level Teaspoon Salt

2 Level Teaspoons Cinnamon

8oz Finely Grated Carrots

3 Eggs Medium to Large

2 Tablespoons Demerara Sugar

1. Heat oven to 325f/160c/gas mark3.

2. Grease a square 8" cake tin & line with grease proof paper.

3. Roughly chop dates.

4. Place margarine, demerara sugar & syrup into a large saucepan over a low heat until the margarine has melted, then remove from the heat.

5. Sift flour, salt & cinnamon into the pan, mix well with a wooden spoon.

6. Beat eggs, add to pan & mix thoroughly.

7. Stir in dates and carrots.

8. Pour into the prepared tin, level if needed.

9. Sprinkle the 2 tablespoons of demerara sugar over the top of the mixture.

10. Bake cake in the centre of the oven for 1 hour 30 minutes to 1 hour 50 minutes, the cake is cooked when it springs back when pressed and the sides have begun to shrink back from the tin.

11. Remove from the oven and cool in the tin. Once cooled, turn out and remove paper, wrap cake in foil and leave for two days (if you can wait that long) for it to develop its flavour.

It keeps for approximately 2 weeks if wrapped in foil and stored in a container (ha! Like it ever gets the chance!)

Monday, 6 October 2008

Kiwi Sis Baker

Here's the magnificent and very cute cake that Kiwi Sis made for the Munchkin for his birthday last weekend. There is a very cute picture of him actually rubbing his hands in glee with it in front of him. Ah, to be two again (mind you, I think a lot of us can empathise with the simple joys of anticipating a tasty cake made just for us, can't we?). When I was two Munchkin Granny made me a caterpillar cake composed of cupcakes. The one representing the head had a face and two candles for antennae. I was going to make one like it for the Munchkin but the opportunity to have my three-year old friend help me decorate was just too much! I like the way it looks as though there is a pair of discarded baby socks in the top left corner of this picture - evidence of the Munchkinette perhaps?

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Green's poached apricots

I was pretty excited last week to find that our fridge had won Wendy's fridge competition, but the excitement grew when I realised that Wendy was being sweet enough to send out a cookbook prize! She gave me a choice of two and I picked Deborah Madison's the green's cookbook. I picked it up from the post office depot on Friday morning on my way to the station and had to be very strict with myself not to read it all the way to London instead of writing my paper for the conference I was going to the next day. Fortunately I had a long bus ride out to Munchkin Granny's that evening and got to have a thorough flick-through.

As Wendy had said, it's a great all-round book. It's based on the recipes from Green's restaurant in San Francisco, and one of the things that appeals to me most about it is the writers' commitment to seasonal cooking. There's even an index to recipes by season, and they cover a great range of salads, soups (looking forward to exploring that section in particular), stews, pastas and desserts. I have my eye on lots of them already, but for that evening I picked out a really simple dessert recipe to round off my apple bread and apple soup dinner for Munchkin Granny: poached dried apricots with ginger. The dried fruit is poached gently in a sugar, lemon and ginger syrup, and turns out with a tasty zingy warmth and sweetness. The book was adamant it should be served really cold with cream or creme fraiche, but I was convinced that it would make a nice warm autumn pudding, and it did indeed. Thanks again Wendy - I look forward to trying out lots more of the recipes, and I will think of you and a certain little dog every time!

Poached dried apricots with ginger (from the green's cookbook)
Serves 4-6
750ml water
200g sugar
40g peeled fresh ginger, cut along the grain into fine threads
175-225g dried apricots
peel of 1 lemon, cut into fine narrow strips

Combine the water and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil over a moderate heat. Add the ginger and simmer for 5 minutes; then add the apricots and lemon peel. Lower the heat and cook the apricots gently until they are tender but not mushy, about 25 minutes. The time will vary depending on how the apricots were preserved and how dry they were.

When the apricots are done, remove them from the syrup with a slotted spoon and put them in a serving dish. Simmer the syrup until small bubbles appear all over the surface and it has thickened slightly, 5-6 minutes, then pour it over the fruit. Chill until very cold [I served it hot]. Serve plain, with cream, or with creme fraiche, beaten and thinned to pouring consistency.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

The Great Cookie Research Project: The Honey One

The Great Chocolate Chip Cookie Research Project has entered its second week and my colleagues are definitely entering into the spirit of the thing. I have been very tickled by the expressions of astonishment when people stumble on the plate of cookies in the kitchen, and they seem game for anything (luckily, since I don't feel I've hit any heights of cookie-baking yet).

This week I opted for a honey cookie, in honour of the Jewish New Year. I had read on Baking bites blog how honey is a good ingredient for keeping cookies fresh for longer, incidentally making it especially good for baked goods which are going to be shipped elsewhere. I tried out the recipe Nicole featured on her blog a few months ago using maple-flavoured syrup, which gave the cookies a lovely underlying taste. This time I used regular honey and got the same texture if not the same flavour. If I make them again I'll use the mapley syrup again, but I imagine that any strong-flavoured honey would be good too.

The cookies are quite cake-like - they stay quite thick as they bake, but don't have the spreading issue of some others I've tried. My Russianist colleague said that he wasn't so keen on the cakeiness, although he liked the flavour, and someone else said they weren't as good as last week's Classic. Another commentator (I let people comment unattended this time :) ) said that they held together nicely, and our hero administrator thought they were better than the ones from the canteen. On the whole they were popular but didn't rate as highly as last week - an average of 6.3. The Scientist again gave them an 8 straight from the oven. I asked him what would make them rate higher, and he said making them oatmeal and raisin instead :) I made some vegan ones of those last weekend when we had a lovely visit from Dogophile Vegan Nurse, so I don't feel bad for keeping on with the choc chip theme for now. I did like these cookies but they're definitely not in the crisp cookie camp. I think I might try going down that route next week - see if that hits the heights with the hard to please Russianist!

The Honey One - recipe here

Apple bread for a sweet new year

It was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, this week. It’s traditional to eat two particular types of food to symbolise roundness and renewal, and to confer sweetness on the year ahead: apples and honey. I seem to have been baking myself into a frenzy lately (as the frequency with which I’m having to stock up on eggs and flour attests!) and so I decided that this year I would keep it simple: slices of apple dipped in honey, just like we did when we were little. However, I didn’t count on all the wonderful-looking festive cakes and desserts which then turned up on other blogs and my resolve slipped silently away in a puddle of sweet honey.

My first slip-up was a spur of the moment muffin-baking moment on Monday, when Munchkin Granny came up to Oxford for the evening to go out for a Rosh Hashanah meal with Eco Sis and Bro and me. The Ecos had apples, they had a semi-working oven (long story) and they had something they called a set of scales but which seems to be more ornamental than useful. I subbed honey for half the sugar in a recipe for apple streusel muffins, and despite the creative guestimating with the scales they turned out fine. I think they improved overnight, or so the text I got from Eco Sis the next day suggested (‘appley appley appley appley appley appley yum!’). Technical incompetence prevents me from posting pictures, which are stuck on Munchkin Granny's camera - let's say they were perfectly formed, golden, fragrant, and beautifully photographed :)

My second festive baking venture was inspired by Ariela's post on autumn apple bread on Baking and Books, a very inspiring bread-baking blog. Ariela posted a recipe for an even richer apple and honey challah last year, but I went for the slightly less indulgent bread, partly also because it used fresh apple instead of dried. I was staying with Munchkin Granny last night before a conference in London, and came up with the lovely domestic image of turning up like a good daughter, bearing not only challah, but seasonal appley challah. I’ve never baked bread with fresh fruit in it before so that was fun, but it didn’t affect the kneading or rising of the dough. I decided to braid my dough like challah, and let it rest and bake unfettered by a tin - and it puffed up into a mad round thing! Still, it looked sort of fun and rustic like that, and lent itself to being torn rather than cut, which is how all good challah eating should happen. I made some leek, chickpea and apple soup to go with the bread once I got to Munchkin Granny's, and at the end of a long week for both of us it made a fine, simple but hearty dinner. And I think the good daughter thing went down well too, I'm happy to add.

MG tells me that the bread made very good toast the next day, though she put it under the grill rather than risk it crumbling in the toaster.

Apple challah recipe here