Monday, 29 December 2008

Happy 2008

I got this idea from Wendy at A Wee Bit of Cooking (only please don't compare the quality of my photos to hers'!). Like her, I've had a bit of an up and down year, but making this collage made me smile so many times that I can only conclude that the balance ended up in the right direction.

Happy new year to all, and may our 2009s have more ups than downs :)

A Kiwi anniversary

It's a whole year since Kiwi Family went Down Under which is very odd. It doesn't seem like a year although they have produced a whole new person since then which plots out the passage of time quite forcefully! We had a celebratory meal with the Ecos to mark the occasion since Kiwi Family are enjoying their new life so much and meanwhile we are a year closer to seeing them again :)

Of course I wanted to make something distinctively Kiwi to eat, but it's quite hard as an outsider to find things that are particularly Kiwi rather than antipodean more generally. New Zealand lamb would have been an option but since meat and air miles were off the menu that was a non-starter. I thought of a vegemite pie or stew, but apparently Kiwis tend to prefer our own Marmite (though tell that to Kiwi Sis, who has been missing her fix). When Kiwi Family first arrived Kiwi Bro's school organised a welcome ceremony with a meal cooked in a traditional pit oven or hangi, but I'm afraid I baulked at digging up the garden. However, I went to New Zealand myself in my gap year after university (when The Scientist was still far off the radar in The Other University in the Fens) and I do have some particular food memories of it, namely of sweet potato and pumpkin (and spirulina - green milkshake that tastes of banana - strangely addictive though it helps if you shut your eyes as you drink it). I don't think I'd ever had sweet potato (or kumara as the common variant there is called) before going to New Zealand and then we found it often in cafes, served as baked chips with sour cream and paprika. Yum. And I'd only had pumpkin once or twice before then as well, but met it often enough on my travels that my friend and I cautiously bought a wedge and made it into something or other one night in a hostel. This time I fancied something new on that theme and settled on a focal point of pumpkin gnocchi.

I must apologise now for the lack of photos of the gnocchi. They weren't too photogenic and I wouldn't want to put anyone off trying them themelves - they looked much better in real life :) I also wasn't very scientific in my method of making them. I defrosted the pumpkin and then heated it gently in a pan to drive off the excess moisture. I also added a bit of ordinary cooked potato to bulk it out. Then I added enough plain flour to turn it into a dough, and seasoned it with salt, pepper and some fresh herbs (I happened to have a winter variety pack which contained oregano and sage so I used that). I rolled the dough into balls and then put them in boiling water for five minutes or so until they rose to the surface. So far so good. The dough was, however, extremely gluey, no matter how much flour I added, and the best way to describe the cooked gnocchi was 'dense'. They certainly filled you up and I'm glad I'd only done five each. I served them with a cold sundried tomato dressing and it was nice to have something cold and fresh to lighten them up a bit. We also had sagey beans with them, some braised tofu which one of our hosts over Christmas had bought to feed me and donated me the leftovers, and some braised cabbage with caraway. None of those were particularly Kiwi - just the contents of our veg box this week. I would work on improving the gnocchi before serving them again but it was an interesting and varied meal :)

Dessert was easier to settle on - although there I was spoilt for choice. I chose a pavlova for two reasons. One is that it is quintessentially antipodean, although it almost certainly originated in Australia rather than New Zealand. It does, however, feature in the classic Kiwi Edmonds cookbook. The second is that it was also serving as a birthday cake for Eco Bro, and since they had a truly amazing pavlova at their wedding, I thought it was a nice personal link to them as well as Kiwi Family. I used a recipe from my Good Housekeeping cookbook and it was *really* good. Just make sure you give yourself a bit of time as the meringue cooks quite slowly and it needs to cool before it's topped. I was going to halve the recipe to feed four but we polished off the full sized one with no effort at all, to our calorie-laden shame. It's just a big meringue base topped with cream (I used half whipped double cream and half low fat Greek yogurt) and then fruit. Kiwi fruit would, of course, have been the obvious way to go but they are completely out of season here and I couldn't find frozen ones, so I used frozen fruits of the forest instead. They weren't completely defrosted when I served it up and we all agreed that we liked it that way. Eco Sis wants the recipe which is always a good indicator of a popular meal!

And so we enter the second year of Kiwi Family's Antipodean Adventure (and hence also the second year of this blog). I'm sure that their own celebration was a bit sunnier than ours but we think Vitamin D is over-rated anyway. Give us arctic windchill any day (are you missing Britain now?!)

Pavlova (from Good Housekeeping Cookbook)
Serves 8

3 egg whites
175g caster sugar
1 tsp cornflour, sifted
1 tsp white wine vinegar
1/2 tsp vanilla essence

Line a baking sheet with non-stick baking parchment and draw a 23 cm circle on the paper. Turn the paper over.

Whisk the egg white in a bowl until stiff. Whisk in the sugar a third at a time, whisking well between each addition until stiff and very shiny. Fold in the cornflour, vinegar and vanilla essence. I was a bit worried about using a whisk to beat in the sugar for fear of losing the air in the egg white but it was fine and I just changed to a metal spoon for the cornflour etc. I used golden caster sugar which gave the meringue a very slightly darker hue.

Pile the meringue on to the marked circle, making a hollow in the centre. Bake at 130C/Has 1/2 for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours or until slightly browned and dry but a little soft in the centre: press lightly with a finger to test. Mine was already quite brown at 1 1/4 hours and wasn't soft in the middle but it tasted just fine. Leave to cool slightly, then peel of paper. At this stage the meringue may crack and sink a little.

300 ml (1/2 pint) double cream or half Greek yogurt (I used low fat) and half double cream
450g mixed fruit, defrosted (or mainly so) if frozen. Kiwi and passionfruit are traditional, but any seasonal fruit would work ok.

Whip the cream until thick, and if using, mix with the yogurt; spoon on top of the meringue. Top with the fruit, and chocolate curls if you like (I would have liked, but forgot. Sigh).

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Festive ginger fudge

I love making sweets - it's baking plus science equals something that makes your teeth want to curl up (but in a nice way). I made some vanilla fudge for my students at the end of the semester and while good, it was very crunchy. I'd used a Nigella recipe featuring evaporated milk, which is the unsweetened version of condensed milk. Since then I've seen a lot of very enticing recipes for gooey soft fudge on other blogs, including Cupcake Project's fudge with balsamic, Rikki's ingenious cashew-nut fudge, and Heidi's Fantasy-ish Fudge which looks beautiful but contains an ingredient I'm pretty sure is native to the American market only (what is ricemallow cream anyway?). I consulted with my fudge-loving friend Sam (she of the biscuit-receiving RAF boyfriend) and she thought that condensed milk could be the way to a fudgier fudge. I bought some condensed milk to put her suggestion into action but hadn't quite got round to doing anything about it when our veg box turned up this week with a recipe for vanilla nut fudge using simply sugar, butter and milk. Everything else I've made according to the directions of the lovely people at Riverford has been a stunner so I set the condensed milk aside for another occasion (Johanna's grubs, perhaps?) and got stuck in.

I don't like nuts and I couldn't find my second choice of glace cherries (they turned up later, reclining behind a barricade of sugars), so at the last minute I grabbed some glace ginger, and partnered it with some ginger liqueur instead of vanilla essence. I'm happy to report that the fudge was delightfully gingery - not too strident but deliciously tangy. The fudge was definitely fudgier than my last attempt though still a little way from the gooeyness I was envisaging - more of a cruncher than a chewer. I was pleased enough with it to package it up for two particularly special friends though - one is yet to go off in the post so I won't spoil the surprise - and the other was hand-delivered to best-friend Tracy to share with her other half and my Birthday Buddy (Almost Birthday Buddy is probably a little young at 5 months - he can have his own next year). She liked it very much and it was lovely to catch up with her today :) It travelled well and I think it will make a good postable gift as well :)

Ginger fudge (adapted from a recipe leaflet from Riverford Organics)
400g sugar (I used golden caster sugar)
125ml milk
50g butter
100g glace ginger
1/2 tsp ginger liqueur

1. Mix the sugar, milk and butter in the pan and heat gently until the sugar melts.
2. Turn up the heat to a boil and keep boiling and stirring until a sugar thermometer gets to 115C
3. Take the pan off the heat and stir in the ginger and ginger liqueur. Leave to cool for 2 minutes
4 . Quickly stir the mixture until it goes thick and creamy. Pour into a greased baking tin.
5. As the fudge begins to set, score the surface into squares. When it has set, cut into squares and store in an airtight container.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Flying biscuits

Munchkin Gramps was a fan of Biggles books in his youth. He had a big collection of them and now regrets getting rid of them. In fact he's started collecting them again and he and Junior Bro read them together for a while - I'd be jealous if I hadn't been such a girly little girl myself. Since he was in between Biggles collections when we were young, all the name meant to Kiwi Sis, Eco Sis and I was a silly impression we would all do where we turned our hands upside down to make flying goggles over our eyes and pretended to zoom around with our elbows as the plane's wings (try it - you have to go 'zoooom' at the same time). That was the closest any of us got to wanting to fly a plane for real.

Not so my friend Sam's other half, who is an actual pilot with the RAF. I don't know if he ever ran around the house with finger goggles going zoooom, but he now actually zooms around in Harrier planes in Afghanistan. He'll be away over Christmas which is sad both for him and for Sam, and so she and I hatched a little plot to send him some extra little edible presents. I've never met Flight Lieutenant Sam's Other Half so am once again 'the mad baking lady'. I threw myself into research for this challenge so as to live up to my moniker, as the edible goods had to survive up to two weeks in transit and arrive a) edible, b) recognizable as something one might want to eat and c) festive. Eventually I found a recipe which looked sturdy, Christmassy, kept well - and most importantly, allowed me to make the most appropriate use ever of one my cookie cutters:

It's a Christmas flying biscuit! The original recipe (from cookie recipes online) describes the biscuits as lebkuchen, which name seems to cover any crisp German-style biscuit flavoured with Christmassy-type spices. These ones promised much from their ingredients list - warmed honey, spices, dried fruits, orange zest - and they delivered. They smelt *so* festive and I like the bits of cherry in particular. Apparently they are at their best two weeks after baking, so hopefully they will reach F. L. Sam's Other Half in their prime. Well, in taste at least - we have yet to see whether my packaging style will deliver them in the same number of bits I sent them in.

I'm sending these cookies to Susan from Food Blogga for her 'Eat Christmas Cookies #2' event. She's collecting recipes up to December 21st, and she's posting the entries as they arrive, so go and take a look!

Christmas Flying Lebkuchen: recipe here

Friday, 12 December 2008

Feeling toasty

Last weekend I went to visit my friend Sam and we spent a lovely evening sitting on the floor in her living room with a glass of mulled wine each, chatting the night away in front of an open fire. Girly nights are such a restorative thing.

I'm sending this picture to this month's unorthodox round of No Croutons Required, which is featuring holiday pictures

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The Great Cookie Research Project: The Winner!

Ah, it is the end of the semester. I have finished my teaching, I have completed my marking, I no longer have to get up at 6am on Tuesdays to get to Oxford in time for a 9am lecture. Bliss. I am even facing the prospect of finishing an article I've been working on for months. And the excitement that was the Great Choc Chip Cookie Research Project has come to an end.

So, which cookie was the winner? We had plain and simple, we had double choc, small and crispy, honeyed, gingery, cream cheesey (bit of a low point that one), Kiwi, biscotti, minty, and fruity. I went back through all the scores and can now announce that...[cue drum roll, flashing lights and nervous glances from contestant cookies, trying to compose themselves to look nonchalant and yet in need of your vote]....The Bonfire Night One!! Yes, the gingery treacley oaty moist one based on Den Lepard's Guardian baking column - that I forgot to add the chocolate chips to. The only one which was not actually eligible to be included in the contest has won the whole thing. But I don't care - it was the best and a ginger cookie just doesn't need to have choc chips to be a winner. Even when it's entered in a choc chip cookie contest. Its outstanding average score of 9.4 took it right to the top of the leader board, followed by the Senior Tutor's pick of The Boozy, Blonde and Fruity One, and the early favourite, The Double Choc One. My own personal favourite, The Mint Choc Chip One, came in fourth, but the winner was my close second preference so I'm happy too (as is The Scientist, who got to eat them again when I reprised them this week).

In the spirit of academic enquiry I thought a little bit more about what this project has revealed. Firstly, that my colleagues are very British in their tastes, consistently choosing crisp and crunchy over soft and chewy. On reflection I should really have called this the Choc Chip *Biscuit* Project. I like to think that this tells us something about resistance to the creep of American cultural hegemony. Secondly, everyone likes more chocolate rather than less (unless less means more gingery treacley oatyness). Thirdly that academics cannot leave semantics alone even when it comes to treats. The question of 'what is a 'cookie' seemed to perpetually exercise a few brains, though others were more than happy to let their tastebuds provide the data. I have also genuinely got to know some more people by becoming the self-appointed cookie fairy, and several other colleagues have expressed an interest in bringing in baked goods too. As long as I'm the one that gets to wear the wings and carry the wand :)

The Winner recipe here.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Great Cookie Research Project: The Italian One

Feedback from previous weeks' cookies has indicated that my colleagues like chocolatey and they like crispy. No messing. So this week I thought I would pick up both of those themes and go in a slightly different direction from what we've had so far: chocolate biscotti. The distinctive thing about biscotti is that they are baked twice - once as a big fat log, and then again in individual slices, traditionally cut on the diagonal. You know - the long biscuits sort you buy in coffee shops to dunk in your coffee - the crunchy nutty chocolatey ones.

There are gazillions of recipes out there for biscotti and I've made some interesting lemon and anise ones before (from Moosewood - where else?), but my only foray into chocolate and nut wasn't so interesting. I settled on a recipe from Cafe Fernando blog in the end, as Cenk, its author, used to bake dozens of them every week and I thought that that was a good sign for a tried and tested recipe. These particular biscotti were hazelnut and chocolate though I did use a bit of a mix of chocolates - I didn't have enough plain dark so I chopped up the rest of the Maya Gold left from the Ecos' chocolate gingerbread and added that as well. You could really taste the orange even thought it was only half a large bar, which I thought was really nice. The dough was quite nice to work with as it wasn't too sticky so it was quite easy to shape into logs. I think I took them out of the oven very slightly too soon, as even after cooling some of the biscotti fell apart a bit as I sliced them. My logs were pretty wide though, so even half-biscotti (biscottini?) were a pretty respectable size.

Nut-studded biscotti dough

Now, I can't comment very extensively on these cookies as I don't like nuts so I didn't eat any. The dough tasted very good prior to the addition of the nuts, but the nutty taste permeated the cooked biscotti too much for me to want to try a bit. As they baked they went through a stage of smelling very nutty indeed but then seemed to move on through into chocolate. Of course all this is only a bad thing if you're a nut-hater like me - in fact if you're a nutophile it's a positive boon.
After the first baking

What with baking, cooling and baking again, the finished biscotti didn't come out of the oven until we were going to bed, so The Scientist didn't do his usual warm from the oven taste test. I left several at home for him though as I had too many to fit in the box to take to work, and he was pretty taken with them. He gave them an 8 out of 10, and wished he had a nice glass of vin santo to dunk them into. They did pretty well at work, too: 'Truly scrumptious!' said one person (possibly one of the Senior Tutors; possibly a character from an Enid Blyton book); 'Thank you. This cheered me up no end' was another rather sweet message. I never thought when I started this that I would be brightening up people's days! 'Very good. not too hard' said another, and 'good combination of nuttiness and chocolateness' came from someone else. One person found them a bit dry (I took the ones that were left to a meeting and it's certainly true that I could hear the crunching from the other side of the room - but that's what biscotti are supposed to do so it's not a bad thing), and another said that they weren't as varied in taste/texture as other weeks'. All in all they polled 7.75 - not reaching the dizzy heights but a perfectly decent biscuit and definitely a good one for dunking. If fact that's not really fair to them - if you're after home-made biscotti they were really very good (for a nut-liker!), and I think that quite a few of my tasters just happened not to have eaten anything like them before. They obviously don't get served up in library cafes!

The Italian One: recipe here

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Festive bakes: Nigella cakes

December has started and the run-up to the festive season has begun in earnest. I have to admit that I've been doing a little seasonal baking already though: there is a large jar of mince-pie filling in the fridge (I hate calling it 'mince meat' - bleurgh) and a Solstice cake maturing in a tin on top of the kitchen cupboards. These little gems are, however, probably The Scientist's favourite seasonal treat. Well, apart from Christmas pudding. And roast potatoes. And the pigs in blanket travesty I already mentioned. But these are right up there.

These cupcakes are actually just Nigella's Easy-action Christmas cake baked small. She calls the little versions 'jewelled cupcakes' but to us they are 'Nigella cakes', and I generally end up making lots around this time of year and stashing them in the freezer for when a whim for festiveness strikes. They're easy action because all the ingredients are just melted and stirred up together and then baked. They are the reason why I occasionally have chestnut puree around (though thank you so much, Johanna, for reminding me about the chestnut mousse cake I made a while back - I made a delicious improvised version with a lot less butter after reading your post on chestnut puree!). They're one of the easiest recipes for Christmas cake I've seen and, like all others, make the kitchen smell amazing. Plus, since the cakes are small they don't take too long to cook. I left these ones plain so they don't look too enticingly shiny, but Nigella suggests glazing them with some sieved jam and decorating with glace fruits and nuts. I sometimes do that too and it does make them look very jolly :)

This first batch of Nigella cakes of the year have disappeared already - they were for The Scientist's gaming weekend last week (where they were actually upstaged by another batch of the ginger parkin cookies, but that's just a sign of how good the cookies are. I think that The Scientist undersold them so as to leave more for himself :) )

Nigella Cakes (aka jewelled cupcakes, from Feast)
This is the full quantity recipe, but I often halve it to make about 12 fairy-cake-sized cupcakes. The full recipe is for a 20cm cake, or 24 small cupcakes

775g best-quality mixed dried fruit
175g unsalted butter
250g dark muscovado sugar
1 x 250g tin sweetened chestnut puree or spread (I use unsweetened and add sugar - the proportions are given on the tin)
125ml dark rum
juice and zest of 1 orange
zest of 1 lemon
3 large eggs, beaten
250g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

to decorate: 4 tbsp smooth jam, approx 150g assorted glace fruits and blanched nuts

Preheat the oven to Gas 2/150C (though you might hold off doing this until after the fruits etc have been set bubbling). Line the sides and bottom of a deep 20cm round cake tin with a double layer of greaseproof paper, leaving a cuff higher than the sides of the tin. Wrap a double layer of brown paper around the outside of the tin leaving a cuff double the height of the tin, tying with string. This gives some extra insulation to make the cake cook slowly. If making cupcakes try to use the foil liners which are thicker than the regular sort.

Put the dried fruit, butter, sugar, chestnut puree/spread, rum and orange juice and zests into a large wide saucepan and bring to the boil gently, stirring as the butter melts. Simmer the mixture for 10 minutes and then take it off the heat and leave to stand for 30 minutes, by which time the fruits will have been soused and the mixture cooled slightly. Now, add the beaten eggs, flour, baking powder and spices and stir to combine.

Pour the fruit cake mixture very carefully into the cake tin/s. Place in the oven and bake for 1 3/4 - 2 hours for the cake, or 35-40 minutes for the cupcakes.. The top of the cake/s should be firm and dry and will have cracked a little. A cake tester will still be sticky.

Put the cake on a cooling rack and take off the brown paper from around the outside of the tin. It will hold its heat and take a long while to cool, but once it has cooled completely unmould it from the tin and wrap in a layer of greaseproof paper and then foil until you want to decorate it. I just store the little cakes in a tin, or freeze them once they're cooled.

To decorate: warm the jam in a pan with 1 tbsp water. Cool. Paint the top of the cake/s with the cooled jam and then decorate with the fruits and nuts. Paint another layer of jam over the top to give a glossy finish.