Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hallowe'en pumpkin soup

This year I have really been getting into the Hallowe'en spirit. I think it all started when I carved a pumpkin the other day and made Pumpkin Lasagne. Yesterday my dear friend Krystle came over to help me sort out the OTHER pumpkins I had in the house: one large pumpkin from Sainsbury's and one cute little pumpkin from Asda. 

As both myself and Krystle are now following the Slimming World plan (it's my third day today!), we decided to make a Slimming World friendly pumpkin soup.

We started by carving out the pumpkins as usual. I was shocked to discover that the little pumpkin I was carving did not appear to have any seeds. "Is this even a pumpkin?" I asked Krystle. Turns out it was, and the seeds were just under the bit I had opened. Silly me.

As it happened, Krystle was really good at carving pumpkins. Much better than me. Her pumpkins looked super cool, I even had to ask her to help me make the one I was carving look good.

I now have three pumpkins in my house called Neil Diamond, Daniella Westbrook (looking suitably haggard) and Justin Bieber. They are very happily making my house look spooky right this minute.

After we had carved the pumpkins we went on to make the soup. We didn't follow any particular recipe and more just threw together what was in the cupboard, but it turned out absolutely delicious. It was really thick and flavoursome and went really nicely with a bit of toast. It was also really filling, so much so that after eating it we decided against going out and just sat on the sofa instead.

Making the soup with Krystle made me realise there is something very relaxing about cooking with a friend. Carving pumpkins seemed to appeal to my creative side too, I would definitely recommend it as a therapeutic half term holiday activity.

Recipe (serves four):
1 large pumpkin
1 mini pumpkin
1 sweet potato
1 onion
1 and a half pints of stock
Fresh parsley, chopped
Fresh coriander, chopped
Cayenne pepper
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper

Open up the tops of the pumpkins and remove all the flesh. Separate the seeds from the flesh and get rid of the seeds. 

Peel the sweet potato and chop into cubes. Add all the ingredients except the salt and pepper to a large pan and bring to the boil. Simmer until the sweet potato is soft. Take the pan off the heat and blend all the ingredients together. Put back on the stove on a low heat while you make some toast. Season to taste and serve.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Pumpkin Lasagne

What's one to do when one has TWO pumpkins?

Today I found myself in this situation and decided I would carve one of them up and make a meal out of it. However, Bailey had warned me in no uncertain terms that he does not like pumpkin at all, so I had to think on my feet to create a dish that he would like even if it was full of pumpkin. So I thought, who in their right mind doesn't like lasagne? And that's how pumpkin lasagne was born.

Before I begin I must note that before today I had never carved a pumpkin in my entire life (sad, I know). I had no idea what to expect and thought it would be really difficult to break through the skin. It in fact required a lot less elbow grease than I thought and the lid part came off dead easy.

Unfortunately, these previous assumptions meant I was so heavy handed while carving the face, that I accidentally made our pumpkin's nose cave in, earning it the nickname "Westbrook".

Using the ingredients I had knocking about in my fridge, including cream cheese, sage leaves, bavarian smoked cheese and parmesan, I came up with this recipe for pumpkin lasagna. It looked, smelled and tasted delicious and Bailey ate it all up, had seconds and, I quote, said: "This is the kind of meal you'd really enjoy in a vegetarian café". So there you have it, a pumpkin lasagne suitable for even haters of pumpkin.

Recipe (sorry, I wasn't really measuring any ingredients out as I was making it up as I went along):
1 small pumpkin, carved
5 sage leaves
About a quarter of a pint of vegetable stock
1 onion chopped
1 yellow bell pepper chopped
Half a tablespoon light brown sugar
Two tablespoons plain flour
Half a tub of cream cheese
Bavarian smoked cheese (or any other cheese you may have... this wouldn't have really been my first cheese choice)
Grated parmesan cheese
A few pinches of nutmeg
Lasagne sheets
1 block of mozzarella cheese
Salt and pepper

Chop up the pumpkin flesh. Add one knob of butter to a frying pan and fry the sage leaves, before adding the pumpkin and a few pinches of rosemary, salt and pepper and frying for several minutes until soft. Gradually add the stock to the frying pan and stirring in until nice and saucy. Take the pumpkin out of the pan and blend up a bit. To the same pan add another knob of butter and melt. Add the chopped onion and fry for a few minutes before adding the sugar and allowing to caramelise. Add the peppers and cook for a few minutes longer. Add the pumpkin sauce back into the pan and cook for around 5 minutes.
In a saucepan melt another knob of butter and add the flour to make a little buttery flour ball. Gradually add milk and boiling water until you have made a béchamel sauce. Add the cream cheese and the other cheeses until you have a fairly thick cheese sauce. Add the nutmeg. Take an oven dish. Add a layer of the pumpkin sauce to the bottom, followed by a layer of the cheese sauce, followed by a layer of lasagne sheets. 

Repeat the process until you have run out of the sauces. Bake in the oven at 150 degrees C for about 40 minutes. Take out of the oven and add a shredded block of mozzarella to the top. Turn the oven up to 175 degrees. Cook until the cheese on top is golden brown and serve.

Pumpkin on FoodistaPumpkin

Gwen Morris' amazing Christmas cake

Today I had a very nice morning thinking about my nan, Gwen. In fact, I always feel nostalgic when I think about Nan's cooking. Nan's talents used to stretch from cakes to hearty British meals to every flavour of jam and chutney you could imagine, all home made and all delicious. I was a very greedy child (much like I am now but with even less restraint) and most of my favourite childhood food memories are from big family meals at Nan and Grandad's where I could eat lots of delicious things I wasn't allowed at home. In fact, the only thing that would stop me eating every morsel that was put in front of me was the look that my mum would give me across the table to say 'you have eaten quite enough'.

Very very sadly, Nan isn't really well enough these days to cook the same as she did, so it was a great honour for me to be presented by my dad with her very well looked after copy of Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course. It has been fantastic to have because it is stuffed full of lovely memories including dated magazine cuttings, hand-written recipes, a bill for a meal we went for (with Nan's review written on the back: "Most enjoyable. All agreed. Food good. Service excellent") and notes she has made in the book alongside recipes including the dates she made things.

Imagine my delight to discover amongst the book's pages Nan's notes for how to make the perfect Christmas dinner AND the recipe for my all time favourite, her amazing Christmas cake recipe! As soon as I saw it I knew I had to make it this year, especially with our special guest Jocelyn joining us for Christmas.

As I seem to recall Nan would have her cake made by late September to give it plenty of time to mature, so today I set about making the cake. I found the process very relaxing; while I made it I spent the whole time thinking about Nan and even when I had to do the tricky bits like creaming the butter and sugar together I made sure I did them properly to her high standards.

I was surprised by the sheer amount of dried fruit that goes into the cake. No wonder it always tastes so heavy and fruity!

It took a lot less time than expected to make the cake mix and I started to think that people Nan's age must think our generation is so silly to buy everything ready made when doing it the old fashioned way is really enjoyable, actually not that difficult and I'm sure will taste loads better.

The only thing I struggled with was lining the cake tin with greaseproof paper. I don’t know if I did it right as I have never lined a tin before. Sorry Nan!

Anyway, the cake has now been baked and will later be put in an airtight container. This is only the beginning of the cake's journey as in ten days I have to 'flavour' the cake with booze and then right before Christmas I have to ice the cake. Therefore, this blog entry is definitely To Be Continued! 

Small glass of Sherry
200g butter
200g soft brown sugar
2 teaspoons golden syrup
4 large eggs
1 and a half teaspoons of brandy, rum or sherry
225g plain flour
1 kilogram of dried fruit (including currants, sultanas, raisins, apricots, glacé cherries and candied peel)
50g flaked almonds 

Soak the fruit in the glass of sherry overnight. The next day, preheat the oven to 160 degrees C. Cream the butter, sugar and golden syrup together. 

Whisk the sherry into the four eggs. Add the egg mix to the creamed mixture. Sift the flour into the mixture gradually, folding in at the same time. 

Add all the fruit and almonds and mix well. Line a cake tin (if you actually know how unlike me). Pour the mixture into the cake tin and press down on the top with moist fingers. Bake in the oven at 160 degrees C for one hour and a quarter. Then reduce the oven temperature to 140 degrees C and bake for a further two hours.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Surprisingly Good Brekkie

This morning with only 20 minutes to get ourselves a decent breakfast at 10am on a chilly Sunday, our options were limited. After a scout around town we reluctantly found ourselves in a J.D. Wetherspoons.

For any non-UK non-booze hounds who may be reading this, allow us to give you a little bit of background on these infamous purveyors of value for money intoxicants. In every town and city you will find multiple pubs brandishing the name sometimes within a stones throw of each other. These establishments vary wildly in quality both in the décor and the clientele but there are always rock bottom prices on beverages and food. Eating here is always a calculated gamble as when it’s good it’s really good and when it’s bad it’s edible. The menu is constantly changing to suit the current trends but the standard fare consists of burgers, pies, sausages, fish n’ chips, pastas, salads and a fair stab at decent veggie options. The environment is also quite an oddity in English pubs as music is banned making it a desirable location for old people morning, noon and night.

On this fine morning the deciding factor was a sign stating that the menu was changing so free samples would be distributed… and the fact that nowhere else was open. Free samples were delivered in the form of pancakes with ‘maple flavoured’ syrup and a bit of bacon. The pancakes themselves looked like miniature USA pancakes but were quite heavy and a bit chewy while the ‘maple flavoured’ syrup was just that, a light treacle syrup with just a hint of maple. Tasted much better for being free.

On to the main event and Jules had gone for the healthy option of porridge with a blueberry compote. What arrived was in fact a creamy porridge with strawberry jam so not quite as advertised but still tasty. I ordered the veggie brekkie which was cooked to perfection (shouldn’t be hard) and consisted of two fried eggs (not too greasy), three hash browns (tastier than a hash brown should be), one veggie Lincolnshire sausage (used to be quorn, now they taste of something), baked beans (standard), a portabello mushroom (cracking) and half a fried tomato (jettisoned to the toast plate). We ordered toast on top of this and were surprised to receive four perfectly toasted slices of poppy seed bloomer bread which was fancier than expected. All of this cost six quid including a mug of tea and a cappuccino so top notch value.

We would always recommend Wetherspoons pubs as you usually get friendly service, sometimes get great food but at worst you always get at least what you pay for.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Spooky Cupcakes with Hallowe'en Icing

Both Bailey and I are lucky to have very supportive colleagues. My head of department Anne is the best boss you could ever wish for and has made sure my first half term as a newly qualified teacher has gone very smoothly. Steve, who is Head of Years 7, 9 and 11, gives me a lift to school every day and doesn't seem to mind listening to my blabbering for 90 minutes a day. Bailey's boss Kate is also amazing and has given him a great leg up the career ladder over the last three months.  So we thought what better way to thank them for all their help than by baking them a batch of Hallowe'en cupcakes?

I decided to make some simple vanilla cupcakes but to then go all out on the icing and ended up making not one, not two, but THREE different types of icing. When making the cakes I made sure I was really careful and precise with my ingredients and mixing for once, and I properly preheated the oven rather than just whacking it on and hoping for the best. Once again, it appears our new muffin tin really did the trick and out of the oven came trays of perfect cakes.

I then made vanilla icing with orange colouring, chocolate icing and our old favourite the orange cream cheese icing but with the new addition of Taste the Difference Seville Orange essence. Very fancy indeed.

To decorate the cakes I bought all the sweeties and bits and bobs I could get my hands on in Sain's and went crazy. The end result of this was not the classily decorated cupcakes I had envisaged, more cupcakes that would make you think "they look nice considering a child made them".

However, it's the thought that counts and I think what will make these gifts special are the lovely polka dot cake boxes I found on sale for £1.50 in the Arndale Food Market.

Bailey and I are going to give the cakes out tomorrow. Fingers crossed that their recipients will enjoy them!

Vanilla Cupcakes (makes 19 large cupcakes)
165g unsalted butter
335g golden caster sugar
3 large eggs
225g self raising flour, sifted
190g plain flour, sifted
A pinch of salt
180ml semi skimmed milk
Half a teaspoon vanilla essence

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees C. Cream the butter and sugar together until smooth. Beat the eggs in one at a time. Combine the flours and salt in a separate bowl. Add the vanilla extract to the milk. Add one third of the flour and beat in. Add one third of the milk and beat in. Repeat until all flour and milk has been added. Add the mixture to muffin cases and bake for around 25 minutes or until golden.

Chocolate icing (ices around 8 large cupcakes)
60g dark chocolate
75g butter
A third of a tablespoon milk
85g icing sugar.

Melt the chocolate in the microwave. Add all the ingredients together and mix.

Vanilla icing (Hallowe'en stylee) (ices 6 large cupcakes)
35g butter
20ml milk
A third of a teaspoon vanilla extract
166g icing sugar
Orange food colouring

Mix all the ingredients together except the food colouring. When mixed and lump free, add the food colouring a drop at a time until it is a Hallowe'eny, pumpkiny colour.

Orange cream cheese icing (ices 6 large cupcakes)
60g cream cheese
150g icing sugar
41g butter
Zest of an orange
A drop of Seville Orange extract

Mix all the ingredients together thoroughly until there are no lumps.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Very Full Tartlets

Bailey and I have just dined upon these Very Full Tartlets for our Sunday dinner. They are based on the recipe for Very Full Tart by my beloved Ottolenghi, which I have made loads of times for parties and barbecues, but today I really wanted to try out our new individual tart tins that we bought weeks ago.
The Very Full Tart features all my favourite ingredients including roast veg, feta, bayleaves and of course shortcrust pastry. I always use shop bought pastry (if it's good enough for Jamie Oliver it's good enough for me) which is very easy to roll out and prebake.

The pastry is stuffed full of yummy roasted veg and two types of cheese but still manages to taste quite fresh and healthy.

It's really fun to assemble the tartlets, dotting them with cherry tomatoes and cheese before baking.

Today I decided to put the tarts with a rocket salad dressed with a pesto dressing - inspired by what I ate on my trip to the Metropolitan. I made the dressing by mixing green pesto, vinegar and oil and it turned out really nice, although when dressing the salad I think less is more if you don't want to drown out the flavour of the tarts.

Although the tartlets were very nice, although compared to previously made Very Full Tarts I wasn't 100% convinced. The base of the tartlets were a little soft despite the sides being crisp. I'm not sure if this could be remedied by baking for longer or by adding less liquid. It could also be due to the fact that the original recipe requires you to mix an egg with cream but as we didn't have any, I used a splash of milk instead.

Recipe (makes six tartlets):

1 packet of shortcrust pastry
1 aubergine
1 courgette
1 pepper
5 mushrooms
A couple of pinches of thyme and parsley
1 medium onion
2 bayleaves
6 cherry tomatoes, halved
Half a block of feta, cubed
Half a tub of ricotta cheese
1 egg
A splash of milk (probably best to use cream instead though)

Roll out the pastry, put into buttered tart tins and prick with a fork. Cook in the oven at 200 degrees C until the pastry is browning. Cut up the aubergine, courgette and peppers and roast with some salt, pepper, thyme and parsley and roast in an oven dish. Once the roast veg in there start to get softer, add the mushrooms, roughly chopped. Meanwhile, fry the onions in a pan with the bayleaves. I think the bayleaves really make a difference to these tarts so make sure you do include them and cook the onions nice and slowly so they take in the flavour. Spread the onions on the bottom of the tartlets. Add a tablespoon of the roast veg on top. Add the cherry tomatoes then dot with the cubes of feta and little blobs of ricotta. Remember they are "very full" for a reason. Bake in the oven until the cheese is turning nice and toasty brown. Leave to cool for a few minutes so you can get them out of the tart tins more easily. Delicious!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Pizzoccheri with Rosemary Focaccia

Last night we had Hannah, Gray and Paul over for a quiet Friday night dinner. We decided to go for a slightly Anglicised version of a classic Italian peasant pasta dish called Pizzoccheri with a rosemary focaccia.

We can't really remember when we first came across the recipe for pizzoccheri but served it up for my family one boxing day lunchtime. It went down a storm, but this is the first time we had made it in nearly 2 years. The basic ingredients are savoy cabbage, leek, potatoes, pasta and a whole heap of butter and cheese. It might not sound appetising, but it is a really hearty, tasty meal. The original recipe contains Pizzoccheri buckwheat pasta, but I have never seen it in the shops and they certainly don't sell it in our local Asda so we used tagliatelle instead.

If at all possible, lay your hands on one of these great old school cheese graters. I picked mine up at a car boot sale and it made the task of finely grating a block of parmesan very simple. Making the Pizzoccheri id really easy. The key is not to throw away your water when boiling the veg: the potatoes are boiled in the same water as the cabbage which makes them snap up all their lovely flavours. The sauce is then made by frying the veg in melted butter before adding the two types of cheese.

Recipe, which is quite different from the classic Italian one (serves 8):
1 large savoy cabbage, roughly sliced
2 medium potatoes, chopped
250g butter
4 leeks, chopped
5 sage leaves
500g tagliatelle pasta 
200g parmesan, finely grated
300g gouda, chopped
Salt and pepper
2 blocks of mozzarella

Boil the cabbage in salted water for 1 minute. Whip it out, but save the water. Boil the potatoes in the same water for 10 minutes before draining. Boil the pasta and lay in the bottom of an oven dish. Melt the butter in the biggest pan you can lay your hands on and gently fry the sage, cabbage, potatoes and leeks until soft and saucy. Add the cheeses to the mix and stir well. Transfer the sauce to the oven dish and mix into the pasta. Top with shredded mozzarella and bake in the oven until the mozzarella is toasted.

As an accompaniment, we decided to have a go at making a rosemary focaccia bread. It was actually really simple to make although it has to made well in advance to give it time to rise. In fact it was so simple that it created a further argument for throwing our rubbish Cookworks "bread" maker out of the window into the littered streets of Rusholme.

On top of the focaccia I added home-made "sun" blushed tomatoes which I made by putting a punnet of halved cherry tomatoes in the oven at 50 degrees C for about 6 hours.

This was a good accopaniment as it countered the richness of the pizzocheri. I was nervous that it wouldn't cook through properly but a trick I picked up whilst watching The Great British Bake Off - knock on the bread and if it sounds hollow it's ready - paid off. It was nice and crusty on the outside and soft on the inside.

500g strong white bread flour
1 and a half teaspoons salt
1 and a half teaspoons yeast
2 tablespoons dried rosemary
6 tablespoons oil
300 ml lukewarm water
Sundried tomato halves

Sift the flour and salt together before stirring in the yeast and rosemary. Gradually add the olive oil, mixing with a wooden spoon. Gradually add the water but do not over mix. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for 2 minutes. The dough should be quite wet. Brush a bowl with oil, put the dough in and cover with a damp tea towel. Leave for an hour to rise in a warm place. Brush a baking sheet with oil. Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead for 1 minute. Put the dough onto the baking sheet and shape. Cover with the damp tea towel again and leave for another hour. Preheat the oven to 240 degrees C. Dip your fingers into some oil and make dimples in the dough. Put the tomatoes in the dimples. Sprinkle with salt. Turn the oven down to 220 degrees C and bake the loaf for 20 minutes until golden.

Gray is cute.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sweet potato burgers with Parsnip chips

Yesterday I made one of our old favourites for dinner: Sweet potato burgers with parsnip chips. Bailey and I used to eat this meal about once a week and had gotten so sick of it that we hadn't had it for ages.

The burger recipe was invented by myself and my dear friend Jocelyn when we were living in Peru last year. Bored of the food on offer in a country whose national dishes include beef heart kebabs and roast guinea pig, we decided to try and make our own veggie burgers.

The sweet potato burger was born as we brainstormed to adapt a mushroom burger we had made earlier in the week. The dish was loved by all our international housemates meat eaters and veggies alike and is, in my opinion, really yum.

The idea to put parsnip chips with it came later during an attempt by Bailey and me to try and eat more healthily, but they do seem to go quite well with the burgers.

Recipe (which if you're reading this Jocelyn has probably evolved over the years I'm sorry! If I've missed out a key ingredient please do let me know) - serves 2:

For the Sweet potato burgers
1 small sweet potato, peeled and chopped
1 small onion, chopped small
1 small red pepper, chopped small
2 sun dried tomatoes, chopped small
1 and a half tablespoons of oats
1 tablespoon spicy madras curry powder
plain flour
salt and pepper

For the Parsnip chips
Some parsnips
Cooking spray
Salt and pepper

Put the sweet potatoes on to boil until soft enough to mash. In the meantime fry the onion, pepper and sun dried tomatoes in some oil from the jar of sun dried tomatoes. Add the curry powder, salt and pepper. Mix the fried stuff and the mashed potatoes. Add the oats and a bit of the flour until the mixture is fairly firm.

Form into two burger shaped patties and fry on both sides until brown.

For the chips, cut the parsnips into chip-esque shapes. Spray them with cooking spray. Whack them in the oven at 200 degrees C until they start turning a bit brown at the edges.

Put the burgers in burger buns and serve with the parsnip chips. Goes well with salad cream but that might just be us being weird?!


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