Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas crafts

The festive season is a time when foody bloggers everywhere are cracking out the sugar, chocolate, cream and cranberries to combine in ingenious ways to express their love for friends and family. For me, this year's little home-made offerings have mainly involved wool and fabric rather than edibles. Here's a selection which speak for themselves:

Felt and button advent calendar, one made for the Munchkin and Munchkinette, and one for Science Nephew

Jewellery case made for a secret santa with my new crafting buddies- we each provided materials and selected a pack for each other to make something from

Leopard and Snow Leopard costumes for the Munchkin and Munchkinette (pictured). I want one too!

And lastly, one which I forgot to photograph, but which its new owner fortunately did - this little gift which went to the lovely Johanna for her daughter Sylvia. I was sad not to be able to fit in a trip to see them when they were in Scotland last month, but you can read all about their holidays at Johanna's blog.

There are more coming, but not yet delivered to their recipients! In the meantime, have a happy festive season everyone! xx

Sunday, 20 December 2009

BIrthday cupcakes

I mainly write about my family on this blog, but The Scientist has a munchkin nephew of his own, too, and a couple of weekends ago we went to his first birthday party. His mum had asked if I'd do some baking (actually I think I'd asked her if I could do some baking!), so I went a little crazy with three types of cupcakes. I've noticed that even quite simple cupcakes are often the quickest things to disappear at party buffets, especially if they have pretty frosting, and I wanted to do my nephew proud.

These two types pictured here are both from the Magnolia Bakery vanilla cupcake recipe. I'm not much up on posh bakeries, but I think that this is the one popularised by Sex and the City. Hey, if it's good enough for Carrie it's good enough for Science Nephew. I found the recipe here, but added cocoa powder to half the batter to make half vanilla and half chocolate. The recipe was nice and easy, but I was interested to see that it uses both plain and self-raising flour. I don't know it that was the reason but the cupcakes were beautifully light and moist. I frosted them with a simple buttercream, again, half vanilla and half chocolate. And then I got a bit carried away and tinted half of the vanilla frosting pink just for the hell of it. A bit of sprinkling with hundreds and thousands finished them off.

We had to travel for a couple of hours to get to the party, so I took the cakes un-iced, and decanted the frostings into separate plastic containers, kept cool with an ice block. When we arrived I set up a little production line in the village hall kitchen, piping the icing onto some, and spreading it on to others. I did sustain a bit of a cartoon comedy cupcake injury half way through, when I stuck my finger into the plastic tip of the frosting bag to push out the last of the icing so I could wash it - and got my finger stuck! The little prongs on the tip jabbed into my finger so I couldn't pull it out again, and I had visions of having to go to hospital to have my domestic injury fixed. Luckily a bit of twisting and pulling, and running my finger under the cold tap so I couldn't feel it, and I got myself out again, and only a bandaged finger testified to my incompetence!

I was really pleased with my pretty cupcakes and they disappeared very quickly. The impact on the kiddy guests was a bit of a shock - the volume and energy levels soared immediately and I may have to look into a 'come-down cupcake' in future! The Munchkin and the Munchkinette got to sample one each when they visited us the next day, and although the Munchkin seemed to get as much on his face as in his mouth, they both loved them, and especially helping to decorate their own. Kiwi Sis is bringing them up to be good little baker-helpers :)

Just by way of comparison, a week or two later I made some more cupcakes to send to a friend, and this time I tried the Hummingbird bakery's recipe. It was quite similar to the other one, but came out quite a bit denser. I don't know if it's because I halved it, and got the quantity of liquid a bit out, but the batter was definitely less runny. I liked the Magnolia ones better but my friend liked her gift very much, and The Scientist thought that they tasted like doughnut in cupcake form. I'm keen to make them again and put some jam in the middle to test this further! Oh, and in looking up how best to post the second batch, I came across this very funny post. Needless to say, I didn't send them off in a jiffy bag :)

Thank you for all the nice comments while I've been offline. Now that teaching is over for Christmas I hope to get back to the blog a bit more.

Magnolia bakery cupcake recipe here

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Lemon and lime meringue-less pie

It was The Scientist's birthday on Monday. I asked him a few days beforehand what he would like for a birthday cake, but it was a fairly academic question - I knew the answer would be lemon meringue pie. He surprised me though - he said lemon and lime meringue pie. I ran a few recipes by him and he picked a totally decadent one by Rosemary Shrager - the deputy head on one of the few reality tv shows we watch, Ladette to Lady. She teaches cooking at the finishing school on the programme and I like it that she's an old-fashioned sort of Home Economics teacher like the ones I had at school. I did HE for years but the only dish I remember making was lasagne, and that's because I had forgotten to bring any lasagne sheets and had to go round borrowing one spare from all of my classmates. I must have learnt something else though because those classes are how I know how to make a roux sauce - but I wasn't sorry to drop it, and the teacher didn't seem particularly sorry to see me go either. Must have been the lasagne melt-down.

Rosemary Shrager's pie was amazingly decadent. A ton of eggs, butter, cream (yes cream - I've never seen that in a meringue pie filling before), and caramelised sugar in the meringue. I was particularly pleased with the pastry, which I made from a recipe in my standby Women's Institute cookbook (the recipe said to use shortcrust pastry but I went for an enriched flan pastry). The middle layer was fairly involved, partly because it involved a lot of zesting and juicing - thank heavens for the juicer attachment on my food processor, but after that it was straightforward. Getting it into the baked pastry case on the other hand - it took two of us and a lot of careful lowering and tilting but we got it in the oven intact. So far, so good.

The meringue, on the other hand, was a real challenge. The recipe said to heat the sugar gently until it dissolved. This really foxed me as 'dissolved' surely meant that it should be in water? After some discussion we decided that it was ok as long as she meant 'melted', but it took mine an age to melt completely and I ended up turning the heat up quite high. I kept stirring and stirring, but in the time it took to whisk the egg whites (during which time the sugar was off the heat) it burned and made the meringue mix taste just awful. By this time I was very fed up and we decided to abandon the top layer for now. Lemon and lime pie it was.

Despite this setback it was a really successful dessert. I don't like lemon meringue pie but it's largely because I think that the meringue layer is pointless. Without it it was a lovely, rich, soft tart, with soft and decadent pastry. The citrus taste was gorgeous - really tangy without being overpowering (the cream, I suppose). I confined myself to licking the knife - the old 'if it's not mine it doesn't contravene my (no dairy) dietary rules' rubbish, though the knife probably didn't strictly need licking as often as all that :) The Scientist loved it, which is just as well as our lunch guests turned out not to like lemon pie! Luckily I'd made some krispie banana muffins as well, as they had a young child with them. The Scientist enjoyed the naked pie so much that he didn't even request a meringue layer the next day and I think it will go down as the new special occasion lemon dessert. I've tried freezing half of it since we had so much, and The Scientist has a plan to try eating it frozen. I'll keep you posted :)

Rosemary Shrager's lemon and lime (not) meringue pie: recipe here

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Polenta plum cake

I like to play a game if I'm in a cafe or at a farmers' market - which cake would I have if I were going to have a piece of cake? I get all of the pleasure of selecting without the worry of it not living up to its looks. If The Scientist is with me I like to play which cake would he pick if he were going to have a piece of cake too. This is risky as he's more likely to actually buy some cake, which can on the one hand make me feel all happy that I know him so well if he goes for my guess - but then on the other leave me feeling bewildered, disorientated and wondering what's happened to my carrot cake and apple tart loving boyfriend when he occasionally veers off trend and pick something completely unexpected. There's a risky world of cafes and relationships out there.

Of course for me it's not usually so much which cake would I buy, as which cake would I like to go home and make myself. There's a stall at our farmers' market which often has golden, fruity little polenta cakes in fancy wrappers which always catch my eye. I've searched for recipes which look similar - sometimes they're polenta cakes, and sometimes yogurty cakes, sometimes with ground almonds and sometimes not. I now have so many possibilities bookmarked that I've never actually tried any of them, but last week I happened to have bought some more polenta; I happened to have acquired some plums; and I happened to have stumbled on a promising-looking recipe for grape polenta cake on Lucillian Delights.

The plums were from the tree in Munchkin Gramps' garden (the same one which gifted me the fruit for a plum tart last year). They've had another good year but I only had very limited carrying capacity when I was up there last week and a shopping trip with Kiwi Sis to nurse them through (I LOVE it that Kiwi Family are now characters on this blog instead of the intended audience, btw). I brought home more than enough to top a small cake though, and I only had a small cake in mind, to bring out as a lunch dessert for Scientist Sister and her husband when they popped in last weekend.

The cake was unlike anything I've made before. The polenta is steeped with warm flavoured milk and then mixed with eggs - that's it. The fruit goes on the top and the whole thing is baked. I made it as a little break from a work task on Friday, but it was so simple that steeping apart it was all over in the time I could have made a cup of tea. I baked through nicely and looked very promising.

When we came to eat it, I have to admit that I was disappointed. It was quite dry, and not very sweet at all. I thought it was disturbingly like a savoury baked polenta with fruit on the top and really needed either some sweetener in the batter, or a nice fruity sauce. The Scientist drizzled some maple syrup on his which he said improved it, and everyone else did seem to like it more than me - or they said they did anyway :) So I have yet to find my polenta cake nirvana. I think that next time I will try one with some ground almond or other flour to lighten up the polenta. In the meantime I will go back to playing my dangerous cake games in the local cafe.

Thank you to Munchkin Gramps and Grandma S for the plums, and Kiwi Sis for a lovely afternoon of sisterly bonding, and for spending more money than me on our shopping trip :)

Plum polenta cake (based on a half sized version of the grape polenta cake at Lucillian Delights)
125 ml milk
125g polenta
1 1/2 - 2 Tbsp sugar (or more - see above)
1-1 1/2 Tbsp butter
the peel of half a lemon
dash of salt
2 eggs
plums for the topping

Bring the milk to the boil with the butter and the lemon peel. Mix the polenta with the sugar and salt, and then pour on the hot milk. Mix well and leave for at least 30 minutes at room temperature. Preheat the oven to 200C.

Remove the lemon peel, add the eggs and mix well. Pour mixture into a cake tin (I used a small one - perhaps 5 inches across). Place sliced plums on the top and bake for 35 to 40 minutes.

I'd recommend serving this with some fruity sauce or syrup, and dusting with icing sugar.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Cooking Italian

A couple of weekends ago Munchkin Granny and I did an Italian vegetarian cookery course at the Vegetarian Society's Cordon Vert Cookery School. I used to see adverts for this school in the back of the old vegetarian cooking magazines which disappeared years ago, and always thought that you must have to be terribly well-off and serious about cooking to go on one. Well, roll forwards fifteen years, and there were MG and I, aprons on, hair tied back, sitting round a shiny metal table in the pro kitchen at the Cordon Vert (and for the record, we're neither terribly well-off nor serious cooks). We'd picked an Italian day, partly because the date worked out well, but partly because we both really like Italian food. We had an introductory talk from the tutor, and then between the group of about 9, cooked a three-course meal which we all shared, family style, at the end of the day. We all made pasta, which I've made before at home, but never so successfully, and divided the other dishes up between us. MG made a lemon risotto cake, and I did a tomato sauce for the pasta, and a Mediterranean chickpea salad. Other dishes included stuffed peppers, baked fennel in cream, focaccia. spicy courgettes, and for dessert, a really yummy marinated boozy orange dish with chocolate vegan ice cream and biscotti. The whole meal was really lovely and we all left weighed down with the amount of food we'd eaten, and full of enthusiasm to get back to our own kitchens.

I haven't tried making pasta again since then, but I was tempted to revisit the chickpea salad. On the day of the course I had made it exactly as the recipe stated, but at home I fiddled around a little. My first substitution was to replace celery with red pepper (neither of us likes celery), and the second was to reduce the oil in the dressing from 4 tablespoons to 1. To be honest, I think that the best would be somewhere between 2 and 4. The 4 Tbsp version did coat the salad more satisfyingly than the reduced oil one, although you still got the zingy flavours of capers, lemon and garlic which are sauted in it in my version. I suppose in my one the dressing was more like a garnish, but either way, the flavours in the dressing are what make the main salad ingredients really come together and stand out. I made it for lunch when Scientist Sister and family popped by and it was a hit with everyone. I had to serve the olives on the side to appease The Scientist's palate, but a little self-assembly never hurt anyone.

I'm sending this Italian salad to Jacqueline and Lisa for this month's round of No Croutons Required, which has 'Mediterranean' as its theme.

Italian Chickpea Salad (adapted from the Cordon Vert School's Italian workshop)
Serves 4

1 Tbsp olive oil (or more)
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 Tbsp capers, drained and chopped
1 Tbsp parsley, finely chopped
1/2 Tbsp dried red chilli flakes
1 lemon, grated rind and juice
1 can chickpeas, drained
6 sundried tomatoes, rehydrated (or from a jar)
half a pepper, chopped small
sliced green olives, to taste
1 bag mixed salad leaves, including rocket

1. Heat the oil in a small pan, adding the garlic, capers, parsley, chillies and grated lemon rind. Saute for 2 minutes.

2. Place the chickpeas, sundried tomatoes, pepper and olives in a bowl. Pour the garlic mixture and 1 Tbsp lemon juice over them.

3. Arrange the salad leaves in a serving bowl and add the chickpea salad.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Buckwheat crepes - flipping the French way

This title is a blatant attempt to take away from the embarrassingly poor quality of the photos of my crepes. What can I say - the light is fading in the evenings and I was very hungry and keen to get on with my dinner. But these crepes were really nice and so I wanted to post about them anyway.

I've been cooking with wholegrains for some time, but I haven't really experimented with wholegrain flours. This is largely because I don't want to let myself buy even more bags of sundries than I already have - the staples storecupboard has recently become even more of a hazard as I discovered several new types of noodles (and I can't resist a new noodle). However, I do have a coffee grinder, and I have discovered that it is extremely easy to grind the grain into the flour. This is how I made the chickpea flour I used in the sweet potato falafel I made a while back, and it's also great for grinding linseeds/flaxseeds. This time it ground me some buckwheat flour with no problems at all.

I was interested in buckwheat flour because it's the basis of traditional French savoury crepes, or galettes. It's also very nutritious, according to this website entry, plus it's gluten free. After a bit of searching about I found a recipe that used almost all buckwheat flour, plus a little plain flour (the recipe is actually gluten free, so it uses GF flour, though I imagine that any other would work just as well). It's from the brilliantly titled 'Book of Yum' blog - I do like a good name to go with a good recipe. I halved it since The Scientist doesn't like savoury crepes, and it made me four good-sized ones. The first night I filled it with The Scientist's best ever bean chilli (so smoky - unfortunately he says he can't remember what he did differently from usual so I'm hoping that intuition will lead him down the same path next time. I would happily have eaten this chilli every night for about a month it was so good). The second time I was eating alone while the best beloved was out playing his last cricket match of the season (65 not out and a catch - not a bad way to end), and I made a mushroom and leek filling with the 'cheezy sauce' from Veganomicon. Both tasted great and photographed badly. But don't let that put you off. I will definitely be making these again as I particularly liked the nutty wholesome taste of the buckwheat. But I didn't flip them properly, I have to admit - just a gentle little blip with a spatula to turn them over.

Not only did I have a jolly tasty supper while The Scientist was out batting like crazy, but his return also brought more excitement. One of the team asked him if I would like to make a dessert for 20 people for the cricket club quiz next month. Needless to say I am already building up excitement levels - I'm currently favouring a tart (lemon or chocolate - or both), or a big pile of cupcakes. Any thoughts?

Buckwheat crepe recipe (gluten free - and there is also a vegan option on the same blog): here

Friday, 4 September 2009

Oaty banana bars - new snack of choice

I've been trying to think of some new healthy snacks recently, and fancied trying out some variation on a seedy munchy bar. Seeds are a good way to get some good oils into my snacks since I don't like nuts, and I thought that oats and bananas would be a good way to keep them moist, sweet and substantial enough to see me through an afternoon of battling with data not meant for twenty-first-century analysis (standardised names? Pah. Dates which correspond with the modern calendar? Piffle. Entries obscured by 18th century dirt? A mere trifle).

You get the picture; let's get back to the bananas.

I searched around for recipes that featured my main ingredients and came upon a site called Patty Cakes - a blog by a Canadian baker who features lots of healthy recipes which are suited to various special diets as well. This was a recipe called Banana Booty Bars which immediately tickled my fancy, and even more so when I noticed that Patty had included a variation which used coconut oil. I had bought some of this on the Norse Goddess's recommendation, and it's also favoured by one of my favourite bloggers, Heidi of 101 Cookbooks and Super Natural Cooking. It's unrefined, which I like, and it's also solid at room temperature which is sort of fun. If you use the oil they're vegan, and they're also wheat-free. I omitted the walnuts and used sunflower seeds instead, and raisins instead of the dates. I did add some grated orange peel, but decided to try them without choc chips this time. So many variations!

The bars were really delicious. I was probably quite light-handed with the sugar as I wanted them to be fruity-sweet, and it was just the right balance. They didn't taste particularly of coconut but it was nice to know that the fat was a relatively healthy one. The raisins and bananas together kept them really moist, while the oats and seeds lent them bulk and crunch. I made half a batch in a standard loaf tin, so they were quite thick. They were still lovely two days later, and I've put the rest in the freezer to snack on when the data get particularly obstructive. They're great with a cup of tea, and they travel well, too (I ate one on the train home and didn't even get crumbs on my laptop. Though it might explain why I seemed to have an oat stuck under my Ctrl key most of the morning....) Go on, make these now, and go and have a look at Patty's other great recipes too!

Banana Booty Bars (vegan and wheat free): recipe here

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

New family baker - so proud :)

We have a new creative baker in the family! Look at what Junior Sis made to welcome home Kiwi Family. Everyone's been so busy marvelling over how it looks that I completely forgot to ask how it tasted, but I'm sure it went down a treat. Junior Sis should be eating celebratory cake herself after doing ama*a*zingly well in her GCSEs!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009


This week we went on a special trip. We got in our car one morning, and we drove down the motorway for a long-awaited reunion. And at the other end was a small person we'd never met before, and a wrapped up sleeping slightly bigger person with jet lag. And there was a Munchkin Granny with a very big smile on her face, and a long-missed sister and brother-in-law.

Yes, Kiwi Family are home.

It was strangely normal to see them - I hadn't been sure if I'd blub all over the doorstep or greet them as though we only saw them two days ago. In the event, no tissues were necessary, despite there being a whole new member of the family, and the Munchkin now being a proper talking, laughing, joking little boy. We were just so pleased that they're going to be around from now on that we picked up straight where we left off.

So what does this mean for Munchkin Mail? Well, although its original purpose is now defunct, it has become other things, and so I think I'm going to carry on with it anyway. It might not be keeping in touch with a Munchkin and his growing family any more, but I've come to value it as a way of linking up with lots of other far-flung people, from Vancouver, to Pasadena and Melbourne, to Cambridge, Leeds and London. And without it we might never eat another Aztec grain or tofu-based dessert again, and that would be sad. Besides, my semester starts next month, and I think I'm ready for another Great Cookie Challenge (and this time I have a little Munchkin helper to assist The Scientist in his quality-control duties) :)

Monday, 24 August 2009

Taste and create double choc cookies

I signed up for Taste and Create again this month, and got partnered with Tania from Love Big, Bake Often. Tania is an ice-cream and baking-loving mum with two little 'monkeys' to cook for. At first I was worried about recreating her tasty treats as I don't have an ice cream maker, but then I started discovering the wealth of amazing cookies Tania has made. I had already started compiling a shortlist when she posted a new one - she called them Chocolate Toffee Rounds - basically double choc chip cookies, with added toffee bits. I don't think I need to sell them any further if I quote what Tania said about them: 'rich, chocolately cookie that is reminiscent of a brownie….with all the crispy, chewy edges a true brownie lover looks for!' Enough said. They jumped to the top of the list.

I was surprised at the small amount of butter and flour in the recipe, but it's made up for by lots and lots of dark chocolate. I wasn't quite sure about the toffee chips - I didn't know if they were actual toffee or toffee-flavoured choc chips. I couldn't find either anyway so I left them out, making my cookies a bit more of a traditional double choc chip. They were a cinch to make, and turned out exactly as Tania said - really chocolatey but brownily chewy at the same time. I made a half a batch, and am sending them home with Munchkin Granny, who has some rather special visitors arriving this evening...

Double choc chip cookies (previously known as chocolate toffee rounds) recipe here

And if you want to take part in Taste and Create, go here and sign up!

Friday, 21 August 2009

Epicurean shortbread fingers

I asked The Scientist what he would like me to make him for a trip recently, and he pretty promptly settled on shortbread 'like the sort you get in packs with a cup of tea'. I was quite pleased he felt so strongly about it - I haven't felt very decisive about cooking recently and this way there was no chance I could keep myself awake fretting over the merits of cookies versus bars. Well, less chance at least. I fretted over what to do with the rest of our veg box carrots instead. I've made shortbread bases before - for the millionaire's shortbread I made Eco Sis, for example, but I've always been put off the most traditional standalone recipes because they call for rice flour. My baking cupboard is in enough of a state without allowing myself to buy more speciality ingredients, and we only have brown rice in the house, which probably wouldn't make for a nice fluffy tea time treat.

A couple of weeks ago though, we went to Coventry for a little shopping trip, and I wandered into the market in search of a weigh-shop I knew was there. You know the sort of place - lots of bins of household goods that you help yourself to, and then pay according to weight. This sort of place is my idea of nirvana, and The Scientist was soon weighed down with little bags, with a tolerant expression on his face. The things you can get though! Cake mix! It had never previously occurred to me that you would want to buy cake mix by weight, and with no instructions. Six different types of breakfast cereal, tapioca, flour, washing powder (better not get those two mixed up), custard powder, nuts, spices - and it's only a small shop. I bought at least five or six different things, none of them big, but still, I wasn't expecting change from a fiver. £1.60. I kid you not. I wish we lived in Coventry - and I have never said that before (though I said it again when we found a nice little noodle place for lunch).

Anyway, you may have guessed that I have included this whimsical digression because one of the things I found at the weigh place was rice flour, so I could make the shortbread. Recipes for shortbread seem pretty ubiquitous but I wanted to make sure I hit the maximum heights, so I got out our copy of Marcus Wareing's How to Cook the Perfect... We've never eaten at a Michelin starred restaurant - try that on two academics' salaries with a fusspot semi-vegan as part of the party - but we like Marcus Wareing when he appears on cheffie programs, and his book includes little tips on how to get the best out of the recipe. In this case, it was handle the butter as little as possible, and rub it into the rest of the ingredients by grating it and rolling it all between your palms. The Scientist had been so particular about the shape of the shortbread that I got him to cut it, but - alas - when I took them out of the pan one broke and he was forced to try it. Let's just say that Marcus Wareing is still number one top chef dude in our house. I made his flapjack recipe at the same time, which directs you to part-bake it, then take it out and drizzle melted syrup over the top before returning to the oven. This makes the top moist and the middle crunchy apparently. Or the other way round; I forget. I'll report back on whether that worked when The Scientist gets back. In the meantime I still have those carrots to attend to.

Marcus Wareing's shortbread (from How to Cook the Perfect...)
Makes about 20 pieces

200g plain white flour
Pinch of fine salt
40g ground rice
75g caster sugar, plus extra for dusting
175g unsalted butter, from a chilled 250g block

Sift the flour and salt into a bowl and stir in the ground rice and sugar. Grate in the butter, then work it quickly into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Press the mixture into a 20cm square baking tin and level the top. Chill in the fridge for about an hour.

Heat the oven to 140C fan/160C/Gas 3

Bake the shortbread for 40 minutes until light golden. Remove from the oven and prick all over with a fork, then mark into 20 pieces, cutting right through to the bottom of the tin. Dust liberally with caster sugar, then leave to cool before removing from the tin.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Marmite munchies

We all know that nuts and seeds are good for us, don't we? I want to like them, to garner all those juicy little essential fatty acids and minerals, but I just can't get past their - well, nuttiness, frankly. The sight of a hugely magnified picture of peanuts on the side of a KP nut van makes me gag. Seeds aren't as bad, but they're still not anywhere near the top of my list of snacks. Until now. Thanks to the power of marmite, a pile of unappealing seeds has been transformed into my ticket to EFA and B12 goodness.

I'd thought before about seasoning and baking some seeds like the ones you can buy, but had never yet got round to it. The idea for the marmite was from a cookbook of Munchkin Granny's - a Marmite Cookbook in fact. I have no idea where it came from; one of Kiwi Sis's friends was obsessed by marmite, but I can't think that it extended to planting recipe ideas in other people's kitchens. Anyway, it was so easy that I whipped up a batch in about five minutes flat when I got home, and I've been snacking on them ever since.

Having established just how easy it is to turn seeds into something I'd actually want to eat I'm keen to explore other flavour options now, and other seeds. Before you know it I will be a pinnacle of good health. Either that or essentially fat :) But I think the nuts are a step too far.

Marmite seeds (from My Mate in the Kitchen; the Marmite cookbook)
1 Tbsp marmite
1 Tbsp boiling water
150g seeds (the recipe said pumpkin; I used sunflower)

Mix marmite and hot water, and pour over seeds. Stir to coat them all. Spread the seeds out on a baking sheet (I put them on a silicone sheet to stop them sticking and ease cleaning up). Grill for about 8 minutes, but start checking after 4 or 5. The book says 4-5 total but mine took longer to get crunchy. Leave them to cool, then stir them around to separate the big clumps, and store in an airtight jar.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Banana, lentil and pepper salad

Yes, that really is banana in my salad. I was thinking of ways to use up some leftover lentils, and fancied pairing it in a salad with some fruit and something crunchy. I had some small sweet peppers which would do for crunch, and some leaves and cherry tomatoes. I nearly went for mango for my fruit component but then I accidentally ate the mango (it happens). But then I remembered a very simple but tasty salad of banana and celery with curry powder some friends made for us a while back. That original recipe had come from am Oxfam Fair Trade cookbook, which I have since picked up in a charity shop - the recipe was donated by the singer Dido, who says it's weird but it works. It does. And it worked in this salad too. I stirred some plain yogurt and curry powder through the lentils, then added chopped pepper, tomato and banana, and tossed it all around with the leaves. I loved the fruity sweetness alongside the tang of curry powder and the crunch of pepper. And the lentils made it good and filling.

I'm sending this to Lisa and Jacqueline for this month's pepper-themed round of No Croutons Required.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Courgette, carrot and halloumi burgers

Tonight's dinner was inspired by a burger Munchkin Granny and Eco Sis had at Borough Market a few weeks ago. It was a halloumi burger, but it was sweet and carroty as well and I had burger envy. I only had a taste so I didn't have too much to go on in recreating it - halloumi and carrot was about as far as I got. I was thinking of adapting our favourite smoked tofu burger, but when I did some searching for possible ideas I found something that sounded very similar on - of all places for a cheesey burger - the weightwatchers website. It also had courgette in it which appealed as we got lots in our veg box this week and it's only me that eats them. Substance was added with tofu and sweetcorn, and flavour with coriander.

When I started making it I wanted to try to avoid using egg as I was making half a batch and didn't want half an egg hanging around. There was no way the mixture was going to adhere on its own - in fact even with the half egg it wasn't looking too promising, and I had to go out to the gym leaving The Scientist to work his kitchen science magic. I got back to a nice smell coming from the oven, and quite a pleased looking boyfriend. He'd just mashed it all up better in the mini processor and that convinced it to hold together. He also used some wheatgerm to give it a coating, and had happily added grated courgette to my half of the mixture.

These burgers were amazing; my new top favourite thing to go in a bun. The halloumi (which is a mix of goat's and sheep's cheese - though some also contain cow's milk) actually wasn't particularly noticeable as a flavour on its own - but the whole was delightfully fresh and tasty. The corn was probably the key flavour, but it was all gratifyingly similar to what I remembered of the Borough market burger - and not laden with bad stuff either. We liked them so much that I made another batch a few days later, so the half egg wasn't wasted after all. The first time we ate them in wholemeal pittas with lettuce and condiments, with some edamame and seaweed salad on the side, and the second time with pittas again, but with stir-fried chard, chickpeas and tomatoes.

Courgette, carrot and halloumi burgers: recipe from but the link seems to be broken, so I'll copy it out here. This is for the full quantity

Makes about 8

300g carrots, grated
1 medium courgette, grated
1 medium onion, finely chopped
50g sweetcorn
150g tofu, chopped
75g fresh breadcrumbs
1 medium egg
100g halloumi, chopped
1 Tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp each salt and pepper [I'm sure I didn't use nearly this much I just seasoned the mixture at the end]

Preheat the oven to 200C/Fan 180C/Gas 6. Mist a large baking sheet with oil spray

Put all of the ingredients in a bowl and mix well, seasoning to taste. [I found it easier to put it all in the food processor to get it really well mixed up]

Form into 8 burgers and place on baking tray [we added some wheatgerm as coating]. Bake 20-25 minutes and serve in wholemeal pittas.

Wholewheat pizza night!

First of all, may I direct your attention to the cats' lovely new photos in the sidebar? I have the Norse Goddess to thank for them - she snapped the cats in lots of languid poses while she was here, and I now feel quite guilty for neglecting to capture their cuteness so much myself. Piggle is snapped stretched out in 'I am a lady-cat of leisure and I invite you to stroke me - while putting myself in an almost impossible to reach place' pose, under the spare bed. And Pooky is looking like a man about town at the top of the stairs, from where he likes to keep an eye on the catflap. This is just in case any other cat than piggle pops in, which would be tough given that our cats have magnets on their collars to ensure that only they can get in. Luckily none of the other neighbourhood cats seems to have the same system - probably because we're the only ones uncouth enough to put a catflap in our front door, and thus ruin the look of the terrace.

Man-handled roast tomato, basil and buffalo mozzarella

Today's post is our fun Sunday-night dinner from last night. We make pizza periodically, but this time I was moved to try a wholewheat base. I was inspired by the fact that The Scientist enjoyed one at Zeffirelli's restaurant in Ambleside. I used my usual dough recipe, torn from an old copy of Good Food Magazine, but substituted half of the white bread flour for wholemeal bread flour. I also added a generous shake of wheat germ, to up its healthy credentials even more. I was pleased with how soft the dough was as I kneaded it, and it made really tasty pizzas. They were certainly more wholefoody than your average pizza, but then home-made is never the same as you buy in the shops anyway (much better, naturally!). We both liked the extra wholesomeyness - and if that's not a word, it should be.

Potato, smoked garlic, goat's cheese and rosemary

I made several small pizzas this time, partly for variety, and partly because we've found that they don't always cook all the way to the centre if you make big ones. Besides, it makes for more fun variety in the toppings. I always make the dough, and The Scientist usually whips up the tomato sauce, while we both manhandle them onto the baking sheets. I had to do that part on my own this time as he was playing in an online poker tournament and was at a critical point when they needed to go into the oven. That explains why one of them is a little 'lacy' around the edges. I was about to make a joke about that being a professional pizza-maker's term when I remembered that actually I did work as a pizza chef in a restaurant in my university holidays. The fact that I had forgotten tells you something about how memorable the pizzas were there. Not so our dinner pizzas: we made one with slow roasted tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella and one with home-grown potatoes (sliced thin and boiled beforehand), rosemary and goat's cheese to share. I did one with shaved courgette and sweetcorn for me, and The Scientist put some cured meat and mozzarella on his.

Courgette, sweetcorn, roasted tomato and mozzarella

And how does all this cheese square with my dairy-reducing aims? Well it's particularly cow's dairy which I'm avoiding, as it has by far the biggest impact on carbon outputs. My main concerns when it comes to diet and ethics are animal welfare and environmental impact. The conventional dairy farming industry has poor conditions for milk cows, which are milked in pens made when dairy cows were much smaller, demands enormous yields per animal, and is very intensive in terms of land use. Organic is obviously better on all of these counts (although ultimately unsustainable for the whole population) and I do eat some organic cow's yogurt. Sheep and goats are farmed a lot less intensively both in terms of welfare conditions and land use, so when I do fancy some cheese, I seek out varieties using their milk - or in this case, buffalo mozzarella. When I first heard about the latter I thought I was falling for some sort of joke, but it really is made from the milk of water buffaloes. There's even a farm in Warwickshire (and you can get their cheese from Hill Top Farm Shop). And I've discovered that Mozzarella style vegan cheezly does a pretty good job of melting on toast and pizza too. But on the whole I just try to find other things to eat than cheese and I don't very often miss it.

Wholemeal Pizza - adapted from an ancient Good Food Magazine
Serves 4 (makes 2 pizzas - I made five smallish ones but I think that feeding four is a bit optimistic - it would probably feed or four mes, but possibly only two normal hungry people)

150g strong wholemeal bread flour
150g strong bread flour
1 tsp instant yeast
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp olive oil
200 ml warm water

Put the flour into a large bowl, then stir in the yeast and salt. Make a well, pour in the warm water and the olive oil and bring together with a wooden spoon until you have a soft, fairly wet dough. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 5 minutes until smooth. Cover with a tea towel and set aside. You can leave the dough to rise if you like, but it's not essential for a thin crust [I don't bother usually as it makes for such a quick and easy supper]

Preheat the oven to 240C/Fan 220C/Gas 8, and move the shelves up to high. Put two baking trays into the oven to heat up (or use a pizza stone which I am always tempted by but haven't given in to buying yet).

Roll out the dough. If you've let the dough rise, give it a quick knead, then split into two balls. On a floured surface, roll out the dough into rounds or squares, using a rolling pin. The dough needs to be very thin as it will rise in the oven.

Top as you prefer. Our quickest and easiest tomato is topping is just some watered tomato paste with some seasonings, but otherwise we make up a nice herbed sauce using tinned tomatoes and fresh herbs if we have them.

Remove the baking sheets from the oven and scatter with cornmeal. Slide, peel or tear the pizza dough off whatever you've left it on and onto the baking sheets. Bake 8-10 minutes, alternating the oven positions half way.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Vanilla poached quince and apricot

Gosh darn it, I was just about to go out to the gym and it's started raining - and The Scientist has just left to play cricket (of course). So I'll write a blog post and hope it stops. The weather we're having at the moment it might last 4 seconds or it might last all evening.

Anyway, this is a dessert I made a couple of weeks ago after finally spying some quince in a local greengrocer. I've been intrigued by quince since reading Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess, where she features it in several recipes. It's a quintessentially English orchard type of fruit and yet I have never previously seen it in the shops, despite looking. I snapped up two and gleefully brought them home with no particular idea as to what to do with them. They are hard, yellow fruits that look a lot like apples (and are related to them) but I don't believe that you would want to try biting into a raw one - not if you didn't want to spend the rest of the evening with your lips puckered inside your mouth. They have a long and illustrious history, however, being a symbol of fertility (what isn't?), associated with Aphrodite, and possibly even the fruit that Eve ate in the Garden of Eden. David Lebowitz says that they smell so nice that he likes to leave them in his kitchen overnight just for the fragrance. When I read that I went and sniffed ours, but they didn't seem to have an especially noticeable smell.

A week or so later, kitchen still unfragranced, I decided I should do something with them. I wanted something light, so I settled on a simple poached recipe. David Lebowitz has a couple, one of which particularly appealed because it used a vanilla syrup - one of my favourite flavours. I read all his instructions on how to peel these rather hard and knobbly fruits and set to work prepared for a battle. Alas, I had left my quinces a bit too long, and they were quite soft and dark in places when I cut into them. I had to cut so much off that I was only left with a small pile for poaching. I didn't want to give up, so I remembered the gingery poached dried apricots I made a while ago, and so added some dried apricots to my quince.

I was glad I'd stuck with it, as it made a lovely dessert. The quince was nice and soft, but I particularly liked the contrast between it and the chewier apricots. The syrup was very sweet - you could easily cut back on the sugar if you didn't have too sweet a tooth, or were making it for a breakfast compote, but the vanilla flavour was divine. This will be on the list for the next time I stumble upon a quince - whenever that is. Funnily enough though, I also found another ingredient I've been searching for for years this week - samphire. My PhD supervisor's wife used to cook it for their summer parties, but I have never found it anywhere. I finally found it at Borough Market last weekend and brought some back. I just steamed it lightly and ate it atop a poached egg on an English muffin. It was salty and yummy. I wish I'd bought more.

Vanilla poached quince recipe here (and I can recommend adding a few dried apricots too)

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Sometimes you just need a chocolate muffin

Long week. Hard work. Guests for dinner. Needed chocolate-based dessert

That much was clear on Friday night, and the need was enough to make me cut to the chase. For once I didn't look through a million recipes and change my mind six times. Instead I searched for 'chocolate' in my geek-tastic document entitled 'Baking', where I paste all the delicious looking recipes I find on blogs and websites, and stopped when I got to Dan Lepard's Chocolate custard muffins. I don't mind admitting that it was the word 'custard' that got me in particular. Such a comforting word - the stuff of childhood and blissful ignorance of the world of deadlines and grant proposals (don't get me started). No matter that I don't remember eating custard even once as a child (angel delight was our dessert of choice); it has still entered my cultural memory and occupies a hallowed place there.

The recipe was unlike any other muffin I've made. I had imagined that it would be a chocolate cake with custard in the middle, but in fact the whole batter is a custard - starting with a cornflour/water/cocoa/sugar combo in a saucepan, and adding butter, flour, oil, eggs, etc, once it's melted and thick. I used arrowroot powder instead of cornflour, because I hadn't been able to find cornflour last time I was in the supermarket, and it was fine. Cornflour is, of course, NOT cornmeal, but a thickener. I did all the stirring and melting as I prepared dinner, and had the mixture waiting in its pan so that I could add the final ingredients, put it in the cupcake liners and in the oven as The Scientist came back from picking up our weekend guests (Eco Sis and Eco Bro, here to attend the Warwick Folk Festival with us and Munchkin Gramps et al). Dinner was a somewhat eclectic - one could even say random - stir fry with tofu on rice noodles, with shop-bought spring rolls - and potato croquettes, which had apparently leaped into The Scientist's basket with no sense of decorum or grace. They are part of his set of childhood foodie memories; to me they represent Rag Week at croquette-eating competitions at college, which does still show how popular they are amongst children and students alike. Luckily the Ecos are very open to the mix-and-match approach to cookery. We initially deferred the dessert but then got seduced by the baking smell, and tried them straight away. They were very chocolatey, so the main aim was achieved, and while we got distracted by artfully arranging them for their photo and so didn't discuss their custardyness, we did agree that they were nice and moist. I would definitely make them again, and would perhaps save some of the chocolate chips to stir in at the end so that they stayed whole. In fact I had meant to stir in some raspberries, but forgot (naturally). They could probably take all sorts of additions - banana would be very nice, I should think.

Eco Bro's elegant styling in rather poor light - I won't even mention how my efforts came out!

PS to Grandma S or Junior S if you're reading this: sorry I forgot to offer you any the next morning when you came round! I will make them again next time :)

Chocolate custard muffins, from Dan Lepard's Guardian column

50g cornflour [or arrowroot powder]
3 level Tbsp cocoa powder
100g dark soft brown sugar
225ml cold water
75g unsalted butter, broken small [I used vegan margarine]
75ml sunflower oil
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs
125g caster sugar
125g plain flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder

First make the custard: put the cornflour, brown sugar and water into a saucepan and whisk together over a medium heat until boiling, very thick and smooth [this takes several minutes but you'll know when it happens - it suddenly goes *very* thick]. Remove from the heat, beat in the butter and chocolate until melted and absorbed, then add the oil, vanilla and one of the eggs and beat again until combined. Add the remaining egg and caster sugar, and beat again until smooth and thick.

Measure the flour and baking powder into a bowl, stir together, then sift directly on to the custard and beat through until combined. Spoon into a dozen paper muffin cases sitting in the pockets of a muffin tray [I got 14], and bake in a preheated oven to 180C [that's 250F if you're making these, Norse Goddess!]/Gas 4, and bake for 25 minutes. Briefly try to resist chocolatey baking smell, and then eat, happily.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Joyous tomato and cabbage pilaf

This simple dinner was inspired by a bag of cherry tomatoes I bought at Borough Market when we were in London last weekend. That and the fact that the tomato-hating Scientist was out playing cricket (or trying to - that boy is very unlucky with the micro climate around here. He came back having got soaked; it had showered for two minutes here, only 15 minutes' drive away).

I had initially planned to make a simple tomato sauce for a pasta dish, but as the day wore on I began to fancy something featuring the crunch of my favourite grain, bulgar wheat. In the end I decided to keep with the simple and made this lovely pilaf, throwing in some cabbage we had in the fridge as well. My favourite way of eating tomatoes (apart from straight from the bag, like sweeties) is to roast them with some balsamic vinegar. It concentrates all the flavour and gives them a nice chewy texture as well. I put them in the oven and then got on with the rest of the cooking after about 20 minutes. This extra stage really made the dish, but you could just cook them in the pan when the bulgar goes in if you prefer not to turn on the oven. My dinner merited a happy dinner wiggle as I ate it, with some plain yogurt on the top, and a bit of wholemeal pitta bread on the side.

Tomato and cabbage pilaf
The trouble with making up my own dishes is that I pay no attention at all to quantities, so this is a rough guide rather than a proper recipe. I was just cooking for one, though as usual I made too much.

Cut a handful of cherry tomatoes in half (I did loads so as to have lots left over for other dishes and general snacking). Put them in a roasting tin and drizzle over some balsamic vinegar, some shaosing wine, a grinding of salt and pepper, and some fresh basil (or whatever other herbs you prefer). You can also add oil but I let the other liquids do their thing in preference. Roast in a preheated oven at around 180C for about half an hour - but leaving them longer just makes them even nicer and more chewy.

After about 20 minutes of roasting, fry some onion in a pan with a little oil. When it softens add some garlic (I used half of a big clove and it was very garlicky!). After a few more minutes add some shredded cabbage and cook for another few minutes, stirring often. Add about 50g bulgar wheat, stir and then add stock, to cover. Put a lid on the pan, and leave to simmer gently for about 10-15 minutes, until the bulgar is cooked. Serve with the tomatoes on top, and some plain yogurt to hand for drizzling. Dinner wiggle is optional, but advised.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Beetroot and rhubarb soup

I love home grown produce, but I have to admit that my own record in this regard is a bit patchy. So far this year I have failed at least as much as I've succeeded, although I have been very proud of my potatoes (grown in sacks), blueberries and rocket. My little apple and pear trees are looking a bit mournful just now, though I have just moved them into bigger pots to try and appease them, my tomatoes are ok-ish, and the strawberry plants bore fruit very briefly. The butternut squash plants which I planted from seed, and which shot to adolescence under Vicki's careful tending and sun lounge when we were on holiday got munched to bits the instant I put them in the beds, as did the courgette and the sweetcorn I bought at Kenilworth farmer's market. Evil slugs. I was very unhappy. So I have the utmost respect for anyone who manages a better crop - The Scientist's sister, for example, who has courgettes growing aplenty, and our friends E and D, who have a whole plot of rhubarb, broad beans, courgette and gooseberries. We went to visit E and D a couple of weekends ago to meet their new baby, and D very generously sent me off laden with goodies. The gooseberries became a fool, the broad beans went in a soup, and a lot of the rhubarb was stewed and eaten with yogurt for breakfast. I had a bit of rhubarb left though, and fancied making something savoury with it. I was tempted and inspired by Johanna's rhubarb dipping sauce, and Jacqueline's rhubarb and balsamic dressing. In the end I took elements from both, and partnered my rhubarb with some beetroot in a soup. I did find a recipe for this combination which gave me the clever idea of cooking each in turn in the same water. I liked Jacqueline's balsamic, but modified it to red wine vinegar, which is an ingredient in my favourite borscht recipe. I ended up eating the soup warm as it was a changeable sort of day, but I think it would be very nice cold as well. It was rich from the beetroot, with a slight sharpness from the rhubarb, which I think was enhanced by the vinegar. I was quite pleased as I rarely come up with my own recipes - though I have a number of sources to thank for my inspiration!

Rhubarb and beetroot soup
Served 2

3 small beetroots
2 small sticks of rhubarb
red wine vinegar, to taste.
yogurt, to taste

Cut the tops of the beetroot and place in a small pan of water. Bring to the boil, and cook for about 20 minutes, or until soft. Remove from the water with a slotted spoon, and set aside to cool.

Chop the rhubarb into inch long chunks, discarding the ends, and cook in the same liquid until soft - about five minutes or so. Remove from heat and leave to cool, reserving cooking liquid.

When the beetroot is cool enough to handle, slip off the skins, and chop roughly. Place in a small blender with the rhubarb and enough of the cooking water to make the consistency you like (start with a little and add more). Stir in red wine vinegar to taste, and season. You can stir yogurt through at this stage, or do as I did, and serve it on the top.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Belgian buns and Science brownie points

You know how most people have a favourite bakery treat? A custard tart or a doughnut - or perhaps one of those decorated novelty gingerbread men? For me it was always a cheese turnover - a savoury pastry which my best friend and I used to use as fuel on long shopping trips to town to spend our clothes allowances. I don't know how we stayed fuelled on them all day as they were tiny, but we always used to have one each - until the day when we found that Ainsley's bakery in Leeds had a *mushroom turnover* special. Ah, that was a good day.

The Scientist's bakery treat has followed him into adulthood, although I only became aware of it when we moved to Sussex. This is because his favourite is a Belgian bun, and they are not apparently a standard bakery item (a bit like my cheese turnovers I suppose, which I have never seen outside Yorkshire, not that I've had any inclination to look in recent years). A Belgian bun is a bit like a Danish pastry, but with a different type of accent, and made of a sweet bread dough rather than pastry. Other than that it's very similar - a big spiral containing dried fruit and some sort of sweet filling (lemon curd is a favourite) and then coated with icing and a cherry on the top. I'm not certain enough of what the true Belgian bun looks like to risk buying him one from anywhere other than a Forfars Sussex bakery, but he makes sure to pop in and get one whenever we're back on the south coast.

Unbaked Belgian buns

A few months ago we were talking to his sister about childhood treats, and it turned out that she was also a fan of the Belgian bun, although they hadn't been a shared family tradition. A long conversation about the best place to buy them in the town where they grew up ensued, during which I hatched a plan to see if I could recreate this happy childhood memory. I did find a recipe on the internet, on the endearingly named site, which looked as though it had the right sort of dough. We don't live very near to Scientist Sister (who is also busy with a young Scientist Nephew Sprog) so I thought I'd take the opportunity of a sup rise retirement party for the Scientist parentals last weekend to try it out.

The dough has the basic constituents of a sweet enriched bread - flour, yeast, sugar, milk and eggs. My recipe directed me not to knead the dough before its first rise, but instead just to leave it in its bowl in a warm place. The dough did rise nicely, and was a bit less sticky by the time it was ready for kneading. Then you roll it out to a rectangle and scatter it with melted butter, sugar and dried fruit, before rolling it back up again. Then slice it into rounds and leave again, before finally baking. I was really pleased with how they looked (though about half the size of the Forfars' model). I drizzled the cooled buns with some icing made from icing sugar and water, and would certainly have gone down the cherry topping route had we had any. Both The Scientist and Science Sister were delighted with their treats and pronounced them just like the originals. I've already had a request to try putting lemon curd in them next time. They were really fun to make, and nice to be bringing back a little of the delights of childhood. I'm sending these Belgian buns to Stefanie at Hefe und mehr (Yeast and more) who is hosting this month's sweet breads-themed Bread Baking Day.

On a slightly related topic: my treacle tart from our Alice in Wonderland party has been thoroughly usurped by this recipe, which Science Sister made at the surprise party last weekend. I'll definitely be trying it myself some time!

Belgian bun recipe here
And if you're after an enriched vegan bread dough you could try Hannah at Bittersweet's pain de mie