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) :)