Saturday, 31 January 2009

Saffron and basil breadsticks - belatedly

Oh dear - our semester doesn't start until next week and already it's proving hard to find time for blogging! This is a post which has been waiting to be written for ages - since the Night Before Christmas in fact (yes truly!). I actually made it with a mind to sending it in for December's Bread Baking Day which had seasonal breads as a theme that year. I even managed to make it just in time for the deadline - and then completely forgot to post about it. Sigh. Still, I didn't forget to take it with us to Granny T's, where it was destined to be a contribution to our Christmas Eve dinner. I didn't want to make anything very sweet which most Christmassy breads seem to be, so in the end I decided to make some breadsticks spiced up with one of the flavours traditional in festive and enriched breads: saffron. The basil was from my increasingly straggly home-grown pot, but it stood up to give a sturdy tastiness against the subtle fragrance of the saffron. I was guided by The Scientist's preference for crunchy breadsticks but you could easily take them out of the oven a bit sooner if you like them softer. Or you could make them thicker to make them breadier still. All this time later I can't actually remember what we ate them with, but they were very popular and have been marked down to try with a whole lot of other flavours in the future: garlic would be great, as would a tasty cheese I should think. Meanwhile you can see the seasonal breads which did make the deadline over at Annarasa's blog!

Saffron and basil breadsticks (from Martha Day's Complete Baking)
Makes 32 sticks

generous pinch of saffron strands (or turmeric if unavailable)
2 tbsp hot water
450g strong white flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp easy-blend dried yeast
1/2 pint lukewarm water
3 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp chopped fresh basil

Infuse the saffron strands in the hot water for 10 mins
Sift the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the yeast, then make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients. Pour in the lukewarm water and saffron liquid.
Add the oil and basil and mix to a soft dough
Turn out and knead the dough on a lightly floured surface for about 10 mins until smooth and elastic. Place in a greased bowl, cover with clear film and leave for about 1 hour until it has doubled in size.
Knock back and knead the dough on a lightly floured surface for 2-3 mins
Preheat the oven to 220C/Gas 7. Divide the dough into 32 pieces and shape into long sticks. Place well apart on greased baking trays, then leave for a further 15=20 minutes until they become puffy. Bake for about 15 mins until crisp and golden. Serve warm.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Parnip and lemon couscous - in the spirit of Burns night

Neither The Scientist nor I is Scottish, have lived in Scotland or indeed have been to Scotland together. However, we do like to have a little celebration for Burn's Night - because it's the night we first met. I know, awww (or alternatively, bleurgh). Our eyes first met amid a reel at a Burn's Night dinner and ceilidh at my college in Cambridge, where The Scientist had been brought by our mutual friend Vicki. After the ceilidh we all retreated to the MCR (common room for graduate students, with added rah because it's in Cambridge) where The Scientist and I talked for hours about the romance of sleeping under the stars. It was a memorable evening, although I still think he should have given up his chair to me instead of making me sit on the floor :) We didn't get together for another few months but things were definitely set on the path of eventual cat-ownership that night.

Our Burn's Night celebrations aren't terribly traditional - certainly not as traditional as the college dinner that night was. We sometimes manage neeps or tatties, and occasionally both, but I've never tried making - or even buying - a veggie haggis. This year our dinner was definitely more in the 'spirit' of Burn's Night than the actual letter. We'd been away for the weekend, you see, and we had most of our neep-less veggie box still to get through, so I subbed parsnip. It's a root vegetable after all. The Scientist was still fuelled up on the huge leisurely breakfast he'd had at the hotel that morning so we wanted to eat quite small. I looked up parsnip in my newly devised card classification system and settled on a lemon and parsnip couscous from the Riverford Cookbook. It was pretty easy anyway but I made it even easier by simply soaking the couscous and cut out the oil it would have been mixed with as well. The recipe called for boiling the parsnip which didn't seem to me to be as flavourful as roasting it but I went with it and it was nice. The lemon raised the dish to a much more interesting level and gave it a nice fresh zing. So, not a particularly Scottish dish, but enough to make us remember our more authentic dinner all those years ago. And yes, we have shared many a night's sky together since then - although we do still need to make a trip north of the border together :)

Lemon parsnip couscous - based on Riverford
Serves 2 as a main dish

2 parsnips, peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces
100g couscous
juice and zest of one lemon
1 tsp or so parsley and coriander (would have used mint as well but we didn't have any)

Cover the couscous with hot stock and leave for ten minutes or so. Add more liquid if it seems to absorb it very fast.
Bring a pan of water to the boil and simmer the parsnip for about ten minutes or until soft.
Fluff up the couscous, add the parsnip, lemon zest and juice, and herbs. Stir to combine flavours and serve topped with toasted sunflower seeds.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

To have one's fruit - and dry it

Dried apple rings are my favourite snacks and I get through loads of them. They have no added sugar but because you only eat a ring at a time you don't get the massive fruit-sugar high you can accidentally get by eating a whole box of raisins (which, believe me, I could - I love ALL dried fruit). Recently I noticed that my dried apples came from China though, and that made me sad as I try really hard only to buy European, and preferably British fruit to keep down their carbon footprint. I've been thinking about whether it was worth buying a food dehydrator ever since a friend told me how much she loved her's but it never seemed like a very cost-effective thing to do. I was pretty sure it would fall into disuse and just take up space. With my new-found worry about the impact of my beloved dried apple on the environment though I decided to take the plunge.

I looked around on the internet and settled on one from this company. I think they may have changed their exact range since I ordered, but you get the idea. You can dry all sorts of fruit in it, plus vegetables and herbs - and meat and fish, should you wish to do so. You can also dry fruit purees to make fruit leather which I mean to try some time soon as well. The dehydrator arrived really quickly - in fact it turned up by special delivery much earlier than our usual post, and while The Scientist was in the shower, so he came down to find loads of mystery white trays drying on the draining board with no apparent source of delivery! The trays are filled and stacked - as many as you want although it's more energy efficient to do quite a few at once. The top has a motor in it which dries the contents over a long period of time.

My first attempt at dehydration was, of course, apples. I tried two different types of apples, and also threw in a pear which was hanging around in the fruit bowl. I washed them all, sliced them quite thinly and dried them for the full recommended 8 hours. Lesson 1: coring an apple with a knife is a pain in the neck and it's much easier just to slice them and then cut out the hard bits. And no, I'm not adding further to our repertoire of single-use gadgets by buying a corer :)

The home-dried apples were a lot thinner and drier than the ones I'm used to, but they had an amazing apple flavour. The pears were actually by far the best as they kept a bit more moisture. For my next batch I tried drying the apples for a shorter time - more like 5 or 6 hours, and this time I used less thinly-sliced apple, and banana. I liked the thicker apple slices better but they were still a bit chewier and drier than I would like. The bananas were amazing though, especially when they were still warm - little bites of intense chewy banana flavour. They didn't last long. Just now I am drying some thicker slices still of apple and pear, and I mean to take them out after a shorter time again. I'm not sure what the impact on their keeping power will be, though that's not usually a problem round here.

So I have still to replicate my bought dried apple rings but I'm making progress and it's fun trying out other types of fruit. I like the idea of being able to dry anything in season - I mean to buy big batches of tomatoes and dry them later in the year. It is quite a big machine though, and I have yet to find a proper home for it when it's not in use. It's also quite noisy so you can really only set it running when you're not going to be in the next room all afternoon. And I do want to find out how much energy it uses since it's on so long. I just hope it's less than flying the bought ones over from China!

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Disaster averted - and some swirly shortbread

Well, I spoke a bit too soon about my laptop being all better. Its new brain was perfectly functional, but its memory had sadly not made the transition with it, and for a few hairy days I seemed to be missing all my worldly documents (and blog photos, though I have to admit that the document situation was bit more hairy). And of course, like the lax idiot I always swore I would never be, I hadn't backed it all up for a few weeks longer than I'd thought. Sigh - won't be repeating that error (I hope). Anyway, Laptop (I feel it should have a name after all this but don't want to rush into anything hasty) has been back to the tecchie hospital for a few days, and has emerged triumphant with its memories restored, and I am one relieved blogger. So apologies for the lack of posting, and also for the lack of commenting on other people's blogs. I will be catching up soon, I hope.

All stacked and ready for rolling

Today's post is about some chocolate swirled shortbread I made for Christmas presents for some family friends. The recipe is from the Green and Black's chocolate book and I liked both the name ('Scrummy Chocolate Swirl Shortbread) and its description as 'clumsy and rustic'. Shortbread makes good presents as it's pretty robust, and it bypasses most allergies and dislikes. For these ones you split the mixture and chocolatify one half. Then you stack them, scatter chocolate over the top, and roll the whole lot up. The biscuits are cut from the big fat rolled up log and so they're nice and sturdy and eminently gift-packable. I presented them in stacks in little party bags tied with red ribbon and they looked very festive. I can't pretend that there isn't a lot of butter in these rustic eye-pleasers but for a treat they were very good. The recipe notes state that they were actually made originally for a vegan friend using vegan margarine so I will tag them as vegan as well.

Green and Black's Scrummy Chocolate Swirl Shortbread
Makes 14

Shortbread 1:
150g plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
50g caster sugar
125g unsalted butter or vegan margarine

Shortbread 2:
125g plain flour
25g cocoa powder
1/2 tsp salt
50g caster sugar
125g unsalted butter or vegan margarine
100g dark chocolate, minimum 60 per cent cocoa solids, or milk chocolate, preferably 34 per cent cocoa solids, chopped into pieces [I used all dark]

Preheat the oven to 150C/Gas 2/300 F

To make the first shortbread sift together the flour, salt and sugar. Rub in the butter until the mixture combines. Knead lightly, then place the dough in the fridge for 30 mins before rolling out.

Follow the same step for the second shortbread, but include the cocoa with the flour

Roll out both doughs on a lightly floured surface into equal-sized rectangles about 1cm thick. Place the plain shortbread on a sheet of greaseproof paper, place the chocolate shortbread on top of the plain one and then put the bigger pieces of chocolate onto the middle of the shortbread and scatter the smaller shards over the rest of the surface.

Carefully roll the shortbread like a Swiss roll, as tightly as possible, using the greaseproof paper to support it. Mine crumbled a bit but you can squidge it back together and it all just makes for more rusticity. Once rolled, pinch both ends together to prevent the chocolate from falling out, then using both hands, squeeze it until it is 22cm long.

Using a very sharp knife, slice the roll into 1cm slices. Lay well spaced on to a baking tray lined with baking parchment. Bake for 25 mins or until the plain shortbread has darkened slightly to a light golden colour. Cool on a wire rack.

Friday, 16 January 2009

A birthday quilt for MG

I've had an enforced rest from blogging for a week or so because my laptop became suddenly stricken with a nasty and debilitating sickness, and had to be rushed to the nice tech support people at the university for immediate attention. One brain transplant later (isn't modern medicine wonderful?) and a small amount of anxious waiting to find out what had happened to all my files, we are all now recovering, eating ice cream and happy to receive visitors.

Our first post back (my laptop has taken on some sort of collaborative role in this now after its hairy experience) is a quick one to say 'Happy birthday!' to Munchkin Granny. Her present has been an ongoing and - for the first time - collaborative quilt-making project between me and Eco Sis. We sewed half the smaller squares each using our own fabrics, and then swapped them about to make up the bigger squares. We unveiled it in its partially finished state at Christmas but then took it straight back again to sew the strips together, add the borders, wad, back and finish it. It's now, ahem, nearly finished, but I wanted MG to have a picture of it to open on her birthday when Eco Sis goes to visit her tonight. It's to go at the bottom of her bed to keep her feet toastie in the chilly winter nights! Happy birthday, MG!!

Friday, 9 January 2009

Marbled cinnamon cake for a sister who's 30

I didn't feel old when I turned 30, but now I feel old that I have a sister who's 30! I think that age is entirely over-rated - we know lots of people who have really been knocked by moving out of their 20s but it didn't seem to bother us. Easy to say when you're happy with where you are in life, I suppose. Anyway, I think that Kiwi Sis can feel justly pleased with what she's achieved in 30 years - a big handful of academic qualifications, a happy home, lots of intrepid travels, a move half way round the world - and two little munchkins. Not bad at all :)

The cake I made to mark her birthday is called 'The Easiest Cake in the World' by the Guardian, which is where I found it. I don't know if it's literally the easiest ever but it certainly only needed one bowl, one spoon, one mixer and a cake tin and so it was pretty easy to clean up at least. I was inspired to make it by a stupendous cake I made for Vet Dad's birthday before New Year. Vet Mum said it was the best cake I'd ever made for them but all my photos of it were rubbish so I will have to reprise it at a later date. It had sour cream in it and so I went looking for others that used it too in case it was the key magic ingredient for top tasty cake. The recipe had several variations and I went for a cinnamon swirl version for a bit of extra fancy-schmanyness (it's not every day one's sister turns 30 after all, even if one is as liberally endowed with sisters as I am). I also went with the suggestion of using a lemon water icing so that you could still see the marbled patterns. I took the cake with me to an editorial board meeting and so I haven't got any photos of it cut, or indeed drizzled with icing, but the slices were very pleasingly swirled in cinnamon-chocolate and vanilla. I was worried it was a bit undercooked as it looked rather dense, but the other board members liked it very much. I would perhaps leave it to cook for slightly longer next time although it had its full hour and the skewer came out clean. Perhaps it's just what sour cream does to cakes. The lemon icing was a really nice topping and gave a fresh tang to the whole thing. I also made the leftover batter into two little cupcakes so that The Scientist could try it and he gave it the thumbs up with best birthday wishes to Kiwi Sis. After all, you are NEVER too old for cake.

I won't copy out the recipe since I didn't make any changes to it as printed. The Guardian's Easiest Cake in the World, recipe here

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Not-a-detox sweet potato, fennel and carrot soup

The Scientist and I are both creatures of habit in the morning and we each have an unvarying set of routines we have to stomp through before we transform into bright, cheerful and functioning people ready to face the day ahead. Our house is on three floors and our mornings are choreographed so beautifully that we can stumble in and out of bathroom, kitchen and bedroom and up and down stairs without ever crossing paths from first getting up to one or other of us being ready to leave the house an hour later. We both like to listen to Radio 4 as we dance lightly through our steps to awake-ness (I say 'dance lightly' - 'weave clumsily' is probably more accurate) but we don't necessarily hear any of the same stories as we variously wake, shower, dress and breakfast. All this is a long way of getting to the fact that The Scientist heard an interesting and amusing exchange on the Today Program yesterday about the merit of detox diets, but I missed it (asleep, in shower or failing to process words coming out of shiny box). One speaker was adamant that her company's detox diet removed heavy metals from the body, while a scientist and blogger's response was that this was complete piffle. Hard science appears to support him.

Our house runs on the Power of Science, and so I make absolutely no claims about the detoxing qualities of this soup. It does, however, contain sweet potatoes (high in vitamins A and C, beta-carotene, fibre and low GI), fennel (with anti-oxidant, anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties, and high in potassium, fibre and vitamin C), and carrots (good for carotenoids and vitamin C), and has some alfalfa sprouts served on the top (good for B12 and phyto-oestrogen, so a goodie for any female veggies in particular). And it was darned tasty, just what we needed after a chilly day: warming, wholesome and with an interesting hint of something fresh and aniseedy from the fennel. I'm sending this lovely flavoursome and healthy soup to Lisa and Holler for No Croutons Required, which is featuring nourishing veggie soups this month.

Sweet potato, fennel and carrot soup with alfalfa sprouts
Serves 4

1 onion, diced
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 large sweet potato, peeled and chopped into chunks
1 fennel bulb, base and any wilty bits removed, chopped into chunks
2 carrots, peeled and chopped into chunks
Approx 1 1/2 pints veggie stock

Fry the onion and garlic in a little oil until soft. Add the veggies and cook briefly, then add the stock. Bring to the boil and then simmer on a low heat for about 20 mins or until veggies are soft. Blitz to a puree and season according to taste - I just added some pepper as the flavours were so nice. Serve with a spoonful of alfalfa sprouts as a garnish.

Friday, 2 January 2009

A rustic roll - no knead garlic beer bread

I thought I'd better have a break from all the festive sweet goods and post about a *very* easy and tasty bread I made for lunch when Vet Mum and Vet Dad (and Vet Grub though his tastes don't yet encompass bread) came to visit just before New Year. No-knead breads have been making its way round the blogosphere for a while now and I've had it on my yeasty wish-list for some time. It got promoted to the top on this occasion because I wanted to make a nice hearty and flavoured bread to go with our veggie shepherd's pie but also wanted to nip out for a quiet coffee with The Scientist before the guests arrived so lots of rising and proving time was out. I settled on a recipe posted by Farmgirl Susan, as it also used beer as the leavening agent - another of my bread-making goals. Susan suggests lots of flavour combinations to spruce up the basic dough, one of which is garlic and herb. I followed her recipe but omitted the cheese and used garlic jam instead of raw garlic, just because we had some in the fridge and hadn't been making any headway with it.

Making this bread is as simple as falling off a log, and it tasted absolutely great. It makes quite a soft and wet dough and since I fancied making rolls I divided it into muffin tins rather than try to wrestle it into stand-alone balls. I think it would have won had I tried. For a non-yeasted bread it was very light, although I made the rolls big enough that they had some heft to them (I'm always paranoid that guests might not share my small appetite, especially 6-foot ex-American football playing ones). We didn't particularly taste the beer in the bread but it might have been masked by all the garlic :) The rolls went really well with the shepherd's pie for a very hearty meal and I'm keen to try again using other flavours. Susan says that the bread also freezes well, and she's tried it with wholewheat flour, and even non-alcoholic beer. And it makes your kitchen smell as good as if you'd been slaving over the dough all morning.

Garlic beer bread (from FarmGirl Susan)
3 cups plain flour
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp each dried rosemary, oregano and thyme
2 chopped garlic cloves, 1 tsp garlic flakes or a dollop of garlic jam/relish
12 ounces beer [I used a regular 300 ml sized bottle of Bud]

Heat oven to 350F. Combine flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and herbs in a large mixing bowl. Slowly stir in the beer and mix until just combined. The batter will be thick and wet. Spread into a greased 8-inch baking tin, or divide between greased muffin cups - I used a large 6-muffin tin. Bake until golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean - about 45 minutes. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove and leave to cool for a further 1o minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Johanna's gorgeous grubs

I've been yearning after making Johanna's grubs for ages after she wrote so enticingly about them on her blog. I had absolutely no idea what they were when I first read the name, but more reading revealed that they are part of an Australian attachment to goodies based on condensed milk. Johanna said that they are a favourite of hers, and she's even tried a gluten-free version for her little niece. As I've said before, I rarely use condensed milk but I had bought some to make fudge and then used a regular milk-based recipe instead. There was only one recipe that abandoned tin was destined for, and I whipped up a batch of experimental grubs for the dessert buffet at our new year's party (the other stars were The Scientist's trifle, and some chocolate-orange cupcakes with chocolate-orange ganache).

Johanna's description of how to make the grubs is so sweet that I won't write out the recipe again but just link straight to it. I followed her long method as I wanted to do it properly but the only time-consuming part is crushing the biscuits. I used Rich Tea biscuits and crushed a few at a time until I got to the desired consistency. I used unsweetened coconut but the grubs were still plenty sweet enough, what with the condensed milk, and we tried them both straight from the fridge, and after being stored in an airtight box on the worktop (Johanna's preference). Both were a perfectly sweet bite-sized treat. I quite liked the added chill that the fridge gave them but our party guests and also Vet Mum and Dad who visited the day before gobbled both up. I am rapidly being converted to the many uses of condensed milk! I packed most of the leftover ones up for the Ecos to take away with them after the party - and the only reason that there were any left at all was because The Scientist's trifle was such a total triumph. Christmas is not Christmas in his family without a big trifle made by his dad, and so I suggested that he took on the mantle in our house this year. He's even kind enough to use veggie jelly - even though it means less for him!

Eco Bro's veggie dogs end 2008 in style

Eco Bro hasn't lived in his native USA for over four years now, but every so often he expresses a weakness for some left-behind part of his youth. One of these is corn dogs, which are battered and deep fried sausages on sticks (isn't there a scene in There's Something About Mary where the main characters discuss the range of snacks you can get on sticks? I can't think of too many which have travelled over to this side of the Pond. Until now, that is). Eco Bro tried making them at home a while ago but Eco Sis was too repelled to discover that the batter was sweet rather than savoury for it to be altogether classed as a success. A bit of enforced tweaking later, however, and he was ready to launch his newly savoury corn dogs on the English veggie world.

Eco Sis goes crazy for naked veggie corn dogs

An opportunity for the grand unveiling presented itself in our new year's party - ten people, four of whom were veggie, three were committed carnivores, two were bona fide Yanks, and one only eats food that is beige. Luckily the corn dogs were beige enough. I've never deep-fried anything and was envisaging clouds of smoke enveloping the kitchen and grease dripping all over the place, but in fact the process was extremely clean and neatly done. The batter is a cornmeal-based mix of flour, egg, milk, salt, baking powder and sugar, which was thick enough to coat the already-be-sticked and cooked veggie sausages. The Ecos then formed a mini production line to batter each dog, dip it in a small pan of hot vegetable oil until it was crispy, and then lay it on some kitchen paper to mop up excess fat. The crowd was very impressed with their professionalism, and the dogs themselves were a complete winner. Everyone liked them, from veggies to beigies, and we were soon dipping them in ketchup and eating them as though we'd been supporting the Red Sox for years.

Eco Bro gives the corn dogs their batter coating

Dogs are fried in oil

Eco Bro's Veggie Corn Dogs (savoury version)

I'm not too sure where Eco Bro got his recipe from, but here's what he did:

1 egg
1/2 cup milk
1/8 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup cornmeal
1/2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
2/3 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup flour

Veggie sausages (Eco Bro used the frozen Tivall sausages sold under the Tesco label. He used two packs for this amount of batter)

BBQ skewers

Mix all the batter ingredients together - it will be quite thick.
Microwave frozen veggie sausages as per packet instructions. Use kitchen towel to dab off any excess oil or moisture.
Heat oil to a depth of about 4 inches in a small pan until it's boiling quite rapidly.
Stick each sausage on to a long BBQ skewer, and coat with batter - it should pretty much stay on the sausage
Hold each sausage in the oil until the batter is darkened and crisp. The size of the pan and number of helpers you have will dictate how many you can fit in the pan at one time.
Lay the battered corn dogs on kitchen towel to drain off excess oil.
Dip in ketchup and eat while singing the Star Spangled Banner. Or something.