Sunday, 13 December 2009

Pear and Almond Cake and Chocolate Chip Cookies

I recently bought Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's book River Cottage Everyday, which I've been pouring over for hours, accumulating an ever growing list of recipes I want to try, and longing for a life out in the countryside, with land, a big vegetable patch with what seems to be a relentless supply of produce during every season, a few chickens, ducks, maybe a goat or two...ahhh, to live Hugh's life!!! Anyway, fantasy life aside, the book is filled to the brim with delicious, comforting and homely recipes, which avoid the pitfall of most recipe books - hideously long lists of ingredients to buy for one single recipe.

I finally settled on a pear and almond cake, which was on the television programme River Cottage 2009 too, and looked too good to pass up. I've never really given much thought to pears, I tend to get over excited by apples, pumpkin, squash, and so on when autumn rolls around, however good old Hugh inspired me to give the humble pear some attention this year. And I'm really, really, really glad I did. I think this is probably the nicest cake I've ever made (well, the Chocolate Cake I made is a fairly strong contender, maybe I have two favourites!!).

The pears are quartered and cored, and softened in butter and sugar (I used vanilla infused sugar for a little extra delicious-ness) which are then set aside to cool while the sponge batter is made. This is a mix of the usual suspects - butter sugar eggs and flour, but with the addition of ground almonds for an extra moist sponge which also gives it a denser texture. The butter is whipped until pale and glossy, then the sugar is added, followed by the eggs, then flour and ground almonds. This produces a satisfyingly gloopy batter, thick and heavy, which is then transferred into a lined cake tin, and the pears are laid on top of the mix, with the sugar and butter caramel-syrup poured on top - for extra nutritional value!!

Then bake in the oven at about 180 degrees for 40 minutes. The pears will sink slightly into the cake, which is a little less pretty than when it first goes in the oven, but when you slice into it you discover hidden gems of pear, soft and yielding, sweet and buttery, encased in moist, dense and almond flavoured sponge, which is truly lovely.

Now, I'm not going to lie, we got through an embarrassingly large amount of this cake in a very short amount of time. However, there was a distinct chocolate shortage going on in the house, so I made a batch of chocolate chip cookies - using Terry's Chocolate Orange to give it a bit of a Christmassy feel! Another Hugh recipe, I melted some butter, then beat it into some caster sugar and soft brown sugar, before adding eggs and flour. Eight minutes in the oven, and hey presto, chocolate fix sorted!!

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Roasted Partridge with Roasted Carrots and Redcurrant Sauce.

I love this time of year food-wise generally, but I particularly love the variety of meat we're offered when the colder weather draws in and the leaves are turning golden. There's autumn lamb, pheasant, venison, beautiful duck, and what we decided on last week, partridge. We popped in to the butchers at the end of the day on Sunday looking for something a bit different, and settled on a couple of partridges. They were inexpensive and ideal for a quick meal, as they are so dainty and cook in no time at all - just under thirty minutes in the oven after searing. We had fairly simple vegetables with them, roasted carrots (mmmmm, I loooove roasred carrots, really sweet and caramelised, delicious!), and some lovely boiled new potatoes and cabbage. We also had a simple redcurrant sauce with it, which was just some sweated onions and garlic, redcurrant jelly, a splash of red wine and a little stock.

A lovely quick dinner that took all of 40 minutes, and beautiful meat that needed nothing much done to it for a deeply satisfying Sunday night meal.
Just a short blog post this week, I'll be back soon with what I hope are some more delicious cooking exploits!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Delicious Lasagne and Apple Pie

Autumn just makes me want to snuggle up on the sofa with a giant mug of tea and lots of warming food. The colder weather and drizzly days are such a great excuse for whipping up a load of comforting food and indulging in some really cosy nights in. I love baking on a wet and rainy Sunday afternoon, filling the house with delicious smells and eating home made scrumptiousness!! This weekend we had a busy Friday and Saturday, and Sunday was really gloomy and rainy, so it seemed the perfect day to hole up in the kitchen and make lasagne and apple pie - possibly two of the most warming, comforting dishes ever to have been invented. I mean, having a creamy, rich and meaty lasagne followed by sweet apple pie with melt-in-the-mouth pastry for dinner can only make things better...and a perfect end to the weekend!

The lasagne was a giant dish of hearty goodness, layers of deep tomato and meat sauce, cheesy bechamel and pasta, topped with even more cheese. I softened some onion and garlic, then added the beef mince and browned it off. After that I squeezed in a tablespoon or so of tomato puree and cooked it out for a couple of mintes, a splash of red wine, a tin of chopped tomatoes, about half a tin of water, and seasoning. Then I let it simmer for about 45 minutes for a really deep flavour. For the cheese sauce I made a simple bechamel and added a generous couple of handfuls of cheddar cheese. Then I assembled the lot layering the meat, then pasta, then cheese sauce, and repeat finishing with the cheese sauce and an extra sprinkling of cheese. Bake for about 30-40 minutes in an oven at 180 degrees until the pasta is soft (I checked it by skewering it with a butter knife, and took it out of the oven when the knife slid through easily). And then a lovely big portion each, Yummmmmm!!!

Then on to the apple pie :-)

I used a pastry recipe from Valentine Warner's book 'What to Eat Now, More Please!' which was really lovely. Pastry is always a slightly nerve-wracking prospect I think, but this one was really buttery and short, and deliciously melt-in-the-mouth. Not overly sweet, it complemented the cinnamon flavoured apples beautifully, and an extra sprinkling of vanilla sugar on top was perfection! I didn't have a pie dish, so I used a cake tin, which worked just as well, and made for a deeper pie, which can never be a bad thing!! For the apple filling I followed a Hummingbird Bakery recipe, which I've used before for brownies, cupcakes and a chocolate cake. The Bramley apples are sliced and cooked in butter, cinnamon and caster sugar until slightly softened, then placed in the raw pastry case, and baked for about 35-40 minutes at 180 degrees until golden brown. Leave to cool for a while, then we had it with a healthy dollop of custard.

Needless to say we put away a hefty amount of pie in one sitting, and were completely stuffed... and happy!!!

Monday, 26 October 2009

Rich Indulgent Chocolate Cake

Cake is the answer to all problems. There is nothing that cake can't make you feel better about (except maybe feeling sick from too much cake...but let's not focus on that). And when cake is on the cards, why do it half-heartedly? I baked the most rich, indulgent, and completely over the top chocolate cake this weekend. It was another Hummingbird recipe, like the cupcakes I made a few weeks ago. The sponge is so rich yet not heavy, and the frosting will completely blow you away!! It is creamy, buttery, chocolatey heaven, and teamed with the sponge it's a chocolate hit that really hits the spot!

When freshly baked the sponge was delicious on it's own, add a lashing of frosting which slowly melted with some seeping into the cake, and it was comfort food perfection! Obviously, my impatience got the better of me and I iced the cake slightly too early...but it led to the lovely warm icing bleeding into the sponge, which, whether or not it looks perfect, tastes divine. Obviously we demolished a wedge right away with a cup of tea, and after it had cooled later in the evening I couldn't resist another sneaky slice with a glass of wine - complete and utter heaven!!

This is definitely my absolute favourite sponge recipe. You whisk the dry ingredients and the butter until they resemble a sandy texture, then add the egg and milk to make a batter. So easy, yet so successful. So you go from this...

To this...!!

The cupcakes take about 12 minutes, and the large cake took about 25 minutes - however, my oven is pretty bizarre and I think is hotter than usual, so a normal oven at 180 degrees may take a little longer!

Considering how big the cake was, it was pretty impressive how quickly it disappeared!! Between very few of us, a considerable amount was devoured over the weekend, and I brought some back to Bath for my housemates which went down pretty well, leaving a satisfyingly small wedge at the end of the weekend. If ever there was proof of a delicious cake, it's a plate covered only in crumbs a mere 48 hours after baking!!

Monday, 19 October 2009

Carrot Cake Extraordinaire!

Trust me when I say, you need not try another carrot cake once you've tried this one. Immodest, I know, but honestly, this is the god of all carrot cakes. My quest for the perfect carrot cake came to an end when I was given the recipe for this delight when I was working at Michael Caines' restaurant in Exeter. Soft and moist in texture, dense yet not overly rich...that is, it's quite easy to reach for another slice. A quality I truly respect in cake.

I can never have too much cake.

It doesn't really rise that much, there is a small amount of bicarbonate of soda, but you don't want it to rise like a sponge, or you sacrifice the moist texture that makes this carrot cake so spectacular. You need to keep an eye on the cake when it's coming to the end of it's baking time, and take it out as soon as a knife comes out just about clean when you skewer it. Be brave when you take it out of the oven, it's ok if a few crumbs stick to the knife, better to be slightly underdone than over done in my opinion.

The cake itself is something to salivate over, but add the indulgent and rich cream cheese frosting, and you've got something truly special in your kitchen. A mix of butter, cream cheese and icing sugar, this is not for those looking to keep an eye on their waistline...that said, I think this cake is probably worth a little restraint the next day to even out the balance!

So here's the recipe:

Carrot Cake
120ml vegetable oil
160g caster sugar
2 eggs
large pinch of salt
110g plain flour
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
140g grated carrot
handful chopped walnuts

Beat the oil and sugar until it's thick.
Add the eggs gradually.
Then add the salt, flour, bicarbonate of soda and cinnamon.
Lastly mix in the carrots and walnuts.
Transfer the mix into a cake tin, at bake at 160 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour, checking regularly.
Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool.

Cream Cheese Frosting
75g soft butter
110g icing sugar
150g Philadelphia

Beat butter and icing sugar together until smooth, then add the cream cheese.
Generously dollop on the cake, and spread to the edges.

So there you have it, the perfect carrot cake. Try it, trust me, you'll thank me.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Stuffed Butternut Squash and White Chocolate and Strawberry Cupcakes

Well, I have had a goooood food weekend!!

It was a busy Friday and Saturday, but on Sunday I had some time to indulge my culinary desires, and decided to welcome the autumnal delights with a stuffed butternut squash. I can't tell you how much I love this dish, I look forward to October when the golden leaves which crunch and crackle as you stomp through them, and the crisp cool mornings also spell the beginning of a new food season, and one of the most exciting vegetables for me is butternut squash. It's soft sweet flesh is utterly comforting, and roasted and stuffed is a lovely start to Autumn. It's warming yet not overly stodgy, and works as a great accompaniment to a dish, as well as acting as the base for this particular recipe.

I sliced the squash in half, and scooped out the seeds as well as hollowing out some of the flesh to create a squash 'bowl' as it were, with a deep enough cavity to hold a decent amount of filling, but a thick enough wall (about 1.5cm) to support the filling and hold up during roasting.

Then I softened some onion, garlic and mushrooms in a pan and threw in some lardons until they were just cooked, and allowed to cool in a bowl. I then chopped up some of the squash into a fine mush (or as fine as you can get it!!), and added this to the onion mix, along with a handful of basmati rice, some mixed herbs, and salt and pepper. Mix all this together then spoon into the butternut squash.

Put both halves together and rub all over with some olive oil. Wrap in foil and place on a baking tray. Bake in a preheated oven at about 180 degrees for about an hour and a quarter. Then unwrap the silver blanket and I served it with some grated cheese. Delicious!!

For dessert, we had vanilla cupcakes with white chocolate and cream cheese frosting topped with fresh strawberries. They were amazing!!

I made a basic sponge mixture for the cupcakes and for the frosting I melted 150g white chocolate and set aside to cool. In a separate bowl I beat 150g of cream cheese with 50g of soft butter and 5 tablespoons of icing sugar. Then add the white chocolate to the mixture and leave to cool and set slightly.

To be honest, as usual I was too impatient and tried to ice the cupcakes before the frosting had set a little, so it was still quite runny. Instead of scooping the frosting on the top of the cupcake, I hollowed out a little of the cupcake and filled it with the runny frosting before adding sliced strwaberries. It tasted amazing slightly warm but just didn't look quite as nice. Turns out patience really is a virtue. Wonder when I'll finally learn my lesson.

After about half an hour or so in the fridge, the frosting had set and was the perfect consistency for icing the cupcakes for a cleaner and more professional look. Totally indulgent and a perfect end to the weekend!!

Friday, 25 September 2009

Brownie Semi-Success

I attempted a recipe from my Hummingbird Bakery cookbook the other day, one that I've been dying to try for months - basically since I got the book, and let's just say, it didn't go swimmingly.

It was brownie with a layer of cheesecake then whipped raspberry cream completing the three layers. You can see why I've been wanting to make it for so long! Well, the making the brownie mix went well, making the cheesecake mix was fine, then I put two trays of it in the oven and left it for 25 of the 40 minutes cooking time the recipe suggests. Mistake.

I had forgotten about the oven's uneven temperature and the one on the right side of the oven burnt to a cinder. The one on the left however, was still slightly overcooked but ok. After getting all grumpy and upset about my brownies, I turned them out, and left them to cool. Now, as much as it pains me to throw away food, I really did have to throw away the burnt one, it was practically inedible. When the brownies were cooled I topped them with the cream which was a gorgeous bubblegum pink flavour, and left them to set a little in the fridge.

They were lovely slightly warm ( I couldn't resist eating the trimmings straight away!!), but it has to be said they were better after an overnight stint in the fridge. The cookbook did say to leave them in the fridge overnight, but I'm just too impatient when it comes to food, but I do recommend following the rules it if you try this recipe!! (Well, after snaffling the trimmings immediately after cooking of course!!).

After the overnight stay in the fridge, they soon disappeared due to excessive yummy-ness and I think I'll end up making them again - but keeping a keen eye on them while they cook next time!!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The Emerald Isle

Hello!!! I'm back from the land of Guinness, leprechauns and St. Patrick's day, well rested and well fed. We spent one day and night in Dublin, then drove south for about an hour and a half for two nights at the Brookledge Hotel, a beautiful hotel and spa with a really fantastic restaurant.

But I won't get ahead of myself, first, Dublin. We arrived at lunch time, ready for something to re-fuel us and keep us going for the afternoon. Avoca is a shop in central Dublin which sells all manner of things from aprons, to cooking utensils, to childrens toys, but it also has a lovely cafe downstairs and a more formal restaurant upstairs. We opted for the cafe as we were laden with bags and didn't feel like walking up any steps to be honest, and it turned out to be a great choice. With two salad bars to choose from, as well as home made tarts, sandwiches and hot meals, and much much more, we were spoiled for choice. We all settled on the salad bar as it was just so colourful and a real variety to choose from. I had a mix of about five different 'salads', which were distinctly un-leafy, but totally delicious, like a pasta and roasted pepper salad, mange-tout, hazelnut and beef salad, tomato and mozzarella salad... I can't remember the rest but they were yummy!

Then we ambled over to where we were staying to leave our luggage, before heading off to the Guinness Storehouse. What an impressive building!! It's sort of a cross between a museum, and a bar, and a brewery! The building is 'the world's largest pint glass', which you can't really tell until you look at the map. As you go up the many, many, many floors, the glass middle of the building widens in the proportions of a pint glass. Hmm, I'm not really doing a very good job of explaining, so I suggest you go there and see for yourselves!! Each floor is fascinating, ranging from the way Guinness is made, to the history of the brewery, to the advertising through the years. It really is worth seeing, and you get a complimentary pint when you reach the top of the building to quench your thirst!!

Our first night at the spa was a real treat for the tastebuds, as we went to their fine dining restaurant The Strawberry Tree. It's Ireland's only certified organic restaurant, and serves only organic produce (unless it's wild of course!). So, let's get down to the important stuff, the food!
To start I had a beautiful mackerel with hollandaise sauce and caper cake. I wasn't sure what caper cake would be, but it was a sort of cross between a spongy savoury souffle and a fishcake with capers. It sounds odd I know, but it was really light and delicious, with the acidity of the capers complimenting the creamy hollandaise and fishy mackerel.
Then, there was a palette cleansing course - the others had an elderflower sorbet which was lovely, and I had an olive, feta and leaf salad. Really tasty lettuce and zingy feta, but it was quite a mountian of salad which was probably a little too much.
Then for the piece de resistance, my main course. I had an absolutely phenomenal beef fillet atop caramelised roasted sweet potato, and a blue cheese crust crowning the beef. It was quite a tower! It came with a red wine jus and green beans. There was also a dish of mixed vegetables for us all to share which were just lovely. Although the whole dish was fantastic, I didn't think it needed the cheese. The beef was just so good and the cheese overpowered it, turning it from a rich and indulgent meal to something a little too overwhelming. Saying that, this is just my opinion!
And for dessert I had a chocolate platter which was so indulgent! There were about five different mini-desserts on the plate, all fabulously rich! However, as much as I loved it, my sister chose a passion fruit pannacotta with white wine soaked peaches, which was just to die for. The pannacotta was so soft, only just set, and completely melt in the mouth. Yum. I was totally envious of her choice.

Then we went back to our rooms and collapsed in a heap,looking forward to breakfast!

Breakfast was quite an impressive affair too, with the usual array of cereals, fresh fruit, some really amazing yoghurt, and pastries. Then there was a choice of a cooked breakfasts, one of which was poached egg and potato cake which I had on the first morning, and the second morning I chose pancakes with maple syrup. The potato 'cake' was actually just cooked potatoes with onions, not quite what I was expecting, but delicious nonetheless. The pancakes were a better choice though I think. Very light and fluffy, and not too filling after a heavy meal the night before, with great maple syrup to give me a bit of a sugar boost for the morning!

All too soon it was time to come home, and back to normality. Hey ho, I'll just have to find an excuse for another foodie break soon!

P.S apologies for the distinct lack of photos - I was too excited about eating and completely forgot!! I promise photos next time!

Sunday, 13 September 2009

An Abundance of Organic

I'm having a relaxing day today, after a hectic couple of days travelling, and before heading across to the Emerald Isle tomorrow. Yesterday was a busy but fascinating and really fun day at the Bristol Organic Food Festival, which was a treat for the tastebuds!! Actually, it was a treat for the nose and eyes too! Beautiful stalls overflowing with vegetables, cheeses stacked high, butchery stalls full of matured meats, obviously full of flavour and depth just by looking at them!! Bottles of wine lined tables, jars of jams, pickles, chutneys and jellies adorned stalls, and smells of barbeques, cheeses and cooking demonstrations from jam to fish permeated the air.

Obviously, being the type of person I am, I didn't turn down a single offer of a taster ( I certainly didn't need to buy any lunch!!)- and my oh my did I taste dome strange things!! Of course there were the cheese stalls offering up morsels of excellence, from soft ripe cheeses to vintage cheddars to the more aquired taste of blue cheese and a particularly lovely mozzarella stand from buffalo in Hampshire, which offered a fresh clean taste. I picked up some Perl Wen cheese from one of the many cheese producers, which is a mild but tasty soft cheese in the sort of brie/camembert style. I was tempted to buy some wonderful Parmesan on display, stacked high in giant wheels which made my mouth water just at the sight of these incredible wheels, alas, I didn't want to overload on cheese when there was so much else to be experienced!!There were also Jars as far as the eye could see, the humble strawberry jam as well as more experimental flavours like carrot and cardamom chutney. As well as this, there was a demonstration for plum jam which used lavender sugar for an extra twist, which inspired me to get collecing jars and make the most of the last of the summer berries and fruits!!

Some of the most impressive stands were the vegetables. Tables overflowing with mountains of carrots, corn tumbling down the slopes made by the multible cobs piled high, a wall of regal beetroot, it's deep purple jumping out at you as you meander past. A variety of lettuce shooting up from earthy beds, tempting me to rip off a bunch of leaves and make a salad that actually tastes of lettuce, rather than the watery excuse we're offered at the supermarket.

There were interesting 'pastes' to try from Bio-Grape, with flavours such as Chilli Shiraz and
Cabernet Pepperberry Paste. Set with natural pectin they were a curious product, I would have thought most appropriate eaten with cheese, as you would a quince jelly.
Another interesting stall was Kentish Cobnuts. I'd never tried cobnuts before, and was pleasantly surprised by the delicate flavour and crunchy texture of the nuts. Quite 'green' in flavour, (if that makes any sense!) and a texture much like macademias, they were subtle and would be fantastic in salads. Rick Stein even has a meringue recipe using cobnuts from the producer herself in one of his cookbooks, which was proudly on display on their stall!

More inventive ideas came fram The Organic Seed and Bean Company who produce flavoured chocolates. Of course they sell the usual plain chocolate, mint chocolate which is award-winning, and the fashionable chilli chocolate, but more interestingly they also make lavender chocolate - another award winner, lime flavoured, rose flavoured, and mandarin & ginger flavoured chocolate.

I was particularly drawn to the Bacheldre Mill stall, which had an array of different flours (hardly surprising I ended up browsing there for quite some time considering my newfound obsesion with bread-making!!) from unbleached white flour, to spelt, malted blend, rye, wholemeal, and something I'd never come across before; oak smoked flour.
There were some absolutely stunning bread stalls dotted around the festival, selling beautiful loaves of a variety of loaves. We picked up some fig and walnut bread, but I was also interested to hear how they make their seeded bread. I was told that they soak the grains and seeds overnight and then add them to the mix the following day to create an even more moist and soft loaf, which would hold it's moisture for four or five days. This is a tactic I must try!!

Perhaps less sophisticated, but by no means less alluring, was a stall called Mr. Organic. Run by very enthusiastic Italian men, whose sales tactic seemed to be being loud and excitable and flirting with the women, they produced tomato based products like ketchup, passata, tinned toamtoes and other tomato based sauces. Their tactics worked though, as we picked up a very modestly priced jar of tomato sauce, which I have yet to try, so I can't tell you whether their product lives up to their enthusiasm!!

But by far my favourite stall was a Welsh farmer from mid Wales, whose farm is just outside of Newtown in mid Wales - Welsh Farm Organics. Showing off beautifully dark joints of red meat, just asking to be roasted, and glossy livers perfect for making a pate, or simply pan frying and serving with fresh salad and a balsamic dressing and maybe a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts. Delicious!! Watch this space though, because as well as their very impressive meat (the cattle is Welsh Black if you're interested, an absolutely stunning breed), I was told that they have recently aqcuired another farm to start producing wheat, grains and generally use the land for crops. If their crops are anything like their meat in terms of quality and yum-factor, then that's definitely a producer worth keeping an eye on!

By lunchtime, I was completely unhungry after having filled up on morsels of cheese, dollops of jam on crackers, cubes of chocolate, sips of wine, mini hunks of bread, dips from every corner of the world, and much much more!! So instead of queuing for an age for a burger, (which although I'm sure would have been sensational, would definitely have been too heavy) I decided on a corn on the cob from that mountain I mentioned earlier, which was served brushed with butter (a choice of normal or garlic, I chose normal for the sake of those around me!) and freshly ground black pepper. And what a lunch!! Tender kernels which fell off the cob oh-so-softly and were so sweet you'd think they'd been dipped in sugar!! Delicious!!

So, if you're free for it next year - go go go!!! It's only £5 entrance, and it really is an abundance of organic!!