Friday, 9 May 2014

How not to bake a bone-shaped cake: Clandestine Cake Club April



As a child, I enjoyed being the centre of attention. Kind people might have called me 'confident'. Those more realistic might have described me as a show-off. One of my favourite toys was a magic set and I loved putting on elaborate magic shows for poor unsuspecting guests and family members. I loved magic and was often practising card tricks and slight of hand vanishing acts. I was enthralled by Paul Daniels and at one point actually wanted to be him when I grew up (…or a female version at any rate).


In adulthood, I have thankfully put my desires to be a professional magician to one side. These days, it is the alchemy of baking that holds me in its thrall. Is there a happier thing to do than bake a cake? I love every part - the careful weighing of ingredients, the mixing together, the sneaky taste of cake batter, the smell and anticipation as the ingredients work their magic in the oven, the patience required as the cake cools, the decorating and finally… the eating! Perhaps the best thing about cakes is that they are designed to be shared and, as such, bring happiness to others. 


The ingenious Clandestine Cake Club was founded on the notion that the sharing of cake is wonderful and special thing. Thanks to its founder, across the nation (and world, in fact) a love of cake is bringing strangers together. The idea is a simple one; each month the organiser chooses a theme and members must bake a cake that meets with the theme and bring it along to the meeting to share with others. No judging, no individual cakes - just whole cakes for sharing and enjoying. We all try a tiny (or not-so-tiny) slice of each and at the end of the meeting share out slices of each cake to take home.


I joined my local branch of the CCC in November last year and have thoroughly enjoyed each meeting. Themes have included 'Euro delights', 'What's your tipple' and 'One of your five-a-day'. This month though was the toughest challenge to date. Over the next few months, my local town is playing host to a fantastic hare hunt. Planted throughout the town are fifty or so giant hares which have been decorated by local artists, celebrities, school children and businesses. At the end of the year, the spectacular hares will be auctioned off for charity. Our challenge this month, was to use the hare hunt as inspiration for an appropriately decorated cake.

Now, I do love to bake cakes and I even quite enjoy decorating them but (and this is a big but), I am not particularly imaginative. I like to look at a cake and copy the decoration. And I am definitely not any good at 'shaped cakes' so a hare-shaped cake was out of the question. A happy Saturday afternoon spent hare hunting gave plenty of food for thought - a pyramid-shaped cake as an homage to the splendid egyptian P-hare-oh perhaps? A millionaire's shortbread inspired cake in support of the Million-hare which sits in the window of a local hairdresser? In the end it was the 'Bare Hare' that caught my imagination. This hare finds its home at the Royal Agricultural University and depicts the anatomy of a hare - bones, muscles and all. I instantly thought of a blood-red velvet cake and then set upon my design. A bone seemed an obvious choice seeing as the traditional red velvet icing is white. It was here that my 'good' idea ended. Unsure as to how to create a bone shape (cutting the shape out of a rectangular sheet cake would be the answer next time (next time? I think not, but you never know!). Instead I decided upon a loaf cake for the main part of the bone with two heart shaped cakes for the ends. A little trimming and I'd have the classic bone shape. Or so I thought.



Having turned my kitchen into something resembling the scene of a massacre, I came to the conclusion that (as suspected), shaped cakes are definitely not for me. My bone cake ended up being ENORMOUS. Worried it might be dry, I split each cake in two and iced the middles. The icing on top went badly. In haste, I didn't have time for a crumb coat and so it was liberally speckled with bright red crumbs. Mr LBG suggested another layer of icing. It seemed like such a good idea! Not so much. The cake was now white but, much as I love a cream cheese frosting, this ended up with almost an inch of icing. Just a touch on the sickly side.


Not to be discouraged, and putting aside all sniggers from Mr LBG about how it looked rather… rude, I persevered. A small family of fondant hares added a cute touch to my otherwise monstrous bone. I carried it on a huge tray to the gathering where it loomed large amongst an array of beautiful, artistic and more elegant creations! A good time was had by all however and it is the taking part that counts, of course.

A big thank you to our organiser for another fun evening of cake! Here are a few of the more elegant creations…

Red velvet 'hare' cake

'The Sneaky Harebush'

'The Original Hare'

Carrot cake with a strawberry hare


'The Hare that was Never There'



Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Final roast of the season? A herb and garlic paste for roast lamb.



Is there a finer feast than the 'Great British Roast', I wonder? I enjoy so many different styles of food but a traditional Sunday roast delivers comfort like no other. I would be hard pushed to choose a favourite meat to roast. Would it be beef, served pink with billowing yorkshire puddings and creamy horseradish sauce? Or lamb which reminds me of my childhood (it was the family favourite) and of Spring? Perhaps chicken with bread sauce and a sage-scented stuffing - the ultimate comfort food, surely? Pork with crunchy crackling and apple sauce takes some beating too. Game, when in season, is frequently on the menu is our household too.

At this time of year though, I'm always drawn to lamb. I love to roast it with strong, woody herbs like rosemary and thyme and love it too, slightly charred, on the barbecue once the weather allows. Recently, rather than stuffing slivers of garlic and sprigs of rosemary into slits in the meat, I have been making a delicious herby paste to smear all over the lamb before roasting. I push it deep into slits in the meat to ensure the flavours really penetrate the meat. A little goes a long way and the recipe below was plenty for a sizeable half-leg of lamb. I know many who claim not to like anchovies, but I defy anyone to recognise the flavour here. They simply add a lovely salty, savoury tang which goes brilliantly with the distinctive sweet meat.

Throughout the Winter and early Spring we have a 'roast' most Sundays. Usually in the evening once Master LBG is tucked up in bed, it is our way of enjoying the very last bit of the weekend and banishing the Sunday night blues. Accompanied by a decent bottle of red, it is a tradition that we love and always insist on a 'proper' pudding afterwards. Sometimes, the feast will move to lunchtime so that our son can join in or friends can join us too. A lunchtime feast is always jolly and tends to be followed by a dog walk and an evening film with cheese on toast if we have space.




This weekend we enjoyed what I suspect may be the last 'proper' roast for a while. Mr LBG would probably like us to have a roast with all the trimmings every Sunday throughout the year but I'm afraid I simply can't bring myself to sit down to gravy and roast potatoes once the warmer weather arrives (ever hopeful). Instead we'll enjoy roast chicken with roasted vegetable couscous, butterflied leg of lamb barbecued with an array of salads or rare roast beef with a Thai-inspired salad. Mr LBG may be disappointed but I look forward to the fresher and lighter flavours of late Spring and Summer. Do you sit down to a traditional roast or special meal on Sundays? Do you adapt your Sunday feast according to the seasons or stick with the traditional accompaniments year round?

Herb and garlic paste for roast lamb
Enough for half a leg of lamb (approx 1.5kg)


4-5 decent sprigs of fresh rosemary
Small handful fresh thyme
2 medium cloves garlic
2 anchovy fillets
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

1. Strip the leaves from the rosemary and thyme sprigs. Roughly chop the rosemary.
2. Roughly chop the anchovy fillets and garlic.
3. Using a pestle and mortar, grind everything together until you have a smooth-ish paste.

To prepare lamb:
Using a sharp knife, make deep slits through the fat and into the meat of the lamb. Rub the paste all over the lamb, pushing it down into the slits where possible. Roast as usual.



I am entering this herby paste into this month's Cooking with Herbs blogging challenge hosted by Karen over at the fabulous Lavender and Lovage. This month she has asked that we try to use fresh herbs in our recipes so I hope that she will approve as these herbs came straight from the pot outside my kitchen door - from pot to paste in all of five minutes. I love to grow fresh herbs but am hopeless at remembering to water them. Rosemary and thyme always seem to survive my very erratic watering habits and I therefore use them both a great deal in my cooking!

Cooking with Herbs Lavender and Lovage

Thursday, 24 April 2014

New take on an old favourite: mini pesto fish pies



Fish pie is one of my ultimate comfort foods. I very rarely deviate from my favourite combination of cod, smoked haddock and salmon with plenty of parsley sauce and a fluffy mashed potato topping. Occasionally a few leeks will make it into the pie and, rarer still, a layer of spinach. 

My son is similarly fond of this thoroughly British classic and I usually make and freeze mini portions in large ramekins for him. As Winter eases into Spring, I can't help but feel that making fish pie is a bit labour intensive and perhaps more suited to the cooler months. This speedy version is much more in keeping with the season and a doddle to make. You don't need to pre-cook the fish or make a white sauce - you simply assemble a few ingredients, make a bit of mashed potato and pop the pie/s in the oven. The 'sauce' is simply a mixture of crème fraîche and pesto and gives a distinctly Spring-like feel to comforting dish. I have yet to discover a toddler who doesn't like pesto so wasn't surprised that it went down well with mine. I loved this too and would certainly make it for the whole family if it weren't for Mr LBG's strange aversion to pesto.


The idea for this dish came from the latest issue of 'Feel Good Food' magazine - one of my favourites. Their recipe is for a full-sized pie and contains hard boiled eggs and peas but I decided to make mini pies for my son and adapted the recipe slightly (no eggs, extra 'hidden' vegetables, a different mix of fish and full fat dairy). The recipe is very flexible - you could use any mix of fish (though I'd probably leave out smoked fish as I'm not sure it would go well with the pesto), add prawns, add softened leeks or blanched florets of broccoli according to taste.


My son has a fairly hearty appetite and my Le Creuset mini cocotte dishes are bigger than most ramekins and so I made four pies but you could easily make 5 pies using slightly smaller ramekins. Apologies for the rather rushed photos - my son has little appreciation for the art of food photography and was distinctly unimpressed by having to wait for his lunch. He was most vocal about the situation so I had to dish up in haste!

Mini pesto fish pies
Adapted from 'Feel Good Food' Spring 2014


Makes 4-5 mini pies (dependent on size of ramekins/containers)

For the mash:
500g floury potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
4 tbsp milk
Knob of butter

200ml crème fraîche
4 tsp fresh pesto
400g mixed fish, cut into small chunks (I used salmon, cod and haddock)
4 tbsp frozen peas
small handful spinach, very finely chopped

1. Pre-heat oven to 180C. Make the mash; peel and chop the potatoes and boil or steam until soft. Mash with milk and butter and set aside.

2. In a large bowl, mix 4 tbsp of the crème fraîche with the pesto. Add the chunks of fish, frozen peas and spinach. Stir gently to combine.

3. Divide the fish mixture between four or five large ramekins or mini pie dishes. Ensure you scrape out all the sauce! Add the remaining crème fraîche to the mashed potatoes and use to top each of the pies.

4. At this point, you could freeze the pies to cook another day. Alternatively, bake for approx 25 minutes.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Crazy about the chipotle: sweet potato and chipotle mash with lime and coriander chicken




Occasionally Mr LBG has to stay away from home for work during the week. Whilst I would much rather have him here, there is a teeny tiny part of me that enjoys the fact that I don't need to think about what to cook for supper and that I can have ownership of the remote control. Whilst Mr LBG needs a 'proper' meal in the evening, some days I am happy just to look in the fridge and have a snacky type supper or keep it simple with scrambled eggs on toast or a filled jacket potato.

Earlier this week, on one such occasion, I decided to re-stock the freezer with handy meals for my son and spent the evening in the kitchen making a beef casserole, chicken and potato pies and cauliflower cheese. I hadn't given any thought to what I might eat other than throw a large sweet potato in the oven to bake. Halfway through baking and realising that I was rather peckish, I opened the fridge to see what I might put with the sweet potato. Staring at me from the top shelf was a half-used jar of chipotle paste. I LOVE chipotle paste. The smoky heat is so delicious and it adds fantastic depth to my usual chilli con carne. I am always looking for new ways to use it and once spied, I couldn't stop thinking about it. Sweet potato and chipotle mash - why hadn't I thought of this before (a quick google search confirmed my suspicion that plenty of other people had).


To accompany my gloriously smoky, sweet mash, I made a speedy marinade of yoghurt, coriander and lime into which I immersed a flattened chicken breast. A quick bit of cooking on a griddle pan and a delicious Mexican-inspired supper was mine in (almost) an instant.

This recipe serves just one but is easily increased to feed more. I was all rather last-minute so only had half an hour to marinate my chicken but next time, longer would be better!

Coriander and lime chicken with sweet potato and chipotle mash
Serves 1

Ingredients:

For the chicken:
1 chicken breast, flattened between cling film sheets
3 tbsp natural yoghurt (low-fat is fine)
1tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander
1/4 tsp ground coriander
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
zest half lime
freshly ground pepper

For the mash:
1 large sweet potato
1-2 tbsp natural yoghurt
1 tbsp chipotle paste

1. Make the marinade; simply mix all ingredients together. With a sharp knife, slash the chicken breasts in several places. Take a ziploc-type food bag and place chicken inside with marinade. Ensure chicken is coated in marinade. Leave for up to four hours or at least half an hour.

2. Preheat the oven to 180C. Prick the sweet potato and bake for approx 1 hour. 

3. Preheat a griddle pan. Once hot, griddle the chicken for 5 minutes each side, depending on thickness.  Ensure the juices run clear and the chicken is fully cooked.

4. Meanwhile - make the mash. Scoop the flesh from the skin of the sweet potato and mash with yoghurt and chipotle, adding seasoning to taste. You make like a little more or less chipotle and yoghurt - just do to taste.

5. Serve the chicken on top of the mash with a crisp green salad and a wedge of lime.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Pea souper: Pea, asparagus and pesto soup




Mr LBG has given up bread for Lent. I considered joining him but couldn't quite bring myself to do so, bread-a-holic that I am. Breakfast for me is always bread-based and I must admit that lunch also tends to feature something from the bakery aisle. Mr LBG is perhaps marginally less wedded to bread but his weekday lunches do generally feature sandwiches and weekend lunches tend to be lazy soup/cheese/cold meat/lovely loaf of bread type of affairs. The upshot of his bread-less Lent so far is a very pleasing loss of weight (and guilt on my part as I tuck into toast at breakfast time).

In an effort to support him, I decided that I would give up eating sandwiches at lunch time. Not quite the same, I admit, but still a challenge as this is most often what I reach for. I love the speed and ease of a sandwich and the satisfaction that it delivers. I have been trying to find enjoyable yet equally satisfying alternatives and have been experimenting with some new soup flavours. As Mr LBG and I are both weight watching, I find that a bowl of good-for-you soup is ideal for taking the edge of lunchtime hunger whilst pondering what else to eat (I've never been a bowl-of-soup only kind of girl).


I am a huge fan of peas and a pea-based soup is always a winner for me, especially as I always have peas in the freezer. Many pea soup recipes include mint which is the only herb that I really can't abide and, as such, I am always on the look-out for other flavours to accompany my favoured peas. Whilst flicking through one of my many Weight Watchers cookbooks (surprisingly good, on the whole, if you pick and choose carefully), I was drawn to a recipe for a pea, asparagus and pesto soup.

Admittedly, asparagus is not yet in season but we are getting ever closer and the warmer weather has got me in the mood for a taste of Spring. I managed to get some fairly tasty stems (albeit from Peru) and was delighted with the resulting soup. A gorgeous colour and delicious flavour. I made a few tweaks to the original recipe and have made it twice. It is good without the pesto if you don't want to open a pot just to top your soup but it does add a nice touch and an extra burst of flavour. This was a lovely lunchtime soup but would make an elegant starter in asparagus season too.

I am entering this soup into the 'No Croutons Required'  blogging challenge which is hosted this month by Lisa at Lisa's Kitchen.

Pea, asparagus and pesto soup
Adapted from Weight Watchers 'Freezer Friendly Meals'
Serves 6-8

Ingredients:

1 tsp olive oil (or spray oil if wishing to cut fat as much as possible)
1 onion, chopped
1 leek, finely sliced
2 tbsp plain flour
1 litre vegetable or chicken stock
450g asparagus
300g frozen peas
6-8 tsp pesto


1. Heat oil in a large saucepan, add the onion and leek and cover. Cook gently for 10 minutes until softened, lifting the lid and stirring occasionally.

2. Meanwhile, prepare the asparagus. Snap the woody ends off (the asparagus will have a natural break point) and chop into 1 cm pieces. Keep the tips whole so that you can keep a few for decoration!

3. Add the flour to the onion and leek and cook for 30 seconds, stirring. Pour the stock in a little at a time, stirring well between each addition. Bring to the boil and simmer for a couple of minutes.

4. Add the asparagus and peas and simmer for around 3 minutes, depending on the thickness of asparagus (it should be just cooked). Remove a few tips of asparagus for garnishing the soup, if you like.

5. Season the soup well with plenty of pepper and salt to taste. Whizz until smooth with a stick blender or use a liquidizer. Serve the soup with a teaspoon of pesto swirled into each bowl. Garnish with asparagus tips and plenty of black pepper.

If following the weight watchers diet, allow 2 propoints per serving (if serving 8).

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Toddler teatime: salmon and pea frittata




Years ago my mother (or was it Father Christmas?) gave me a very small frying pan. At the time, I cooked on gas and was unable to make the flame small enough to go underneath this miniature pan. It languished at the back of the cupboard unloved and unused. Since moving to the sticks and waving goodbye to modern comforts like gas, it has finally found great favour in my kitchen for all sorts of small jobs. It is the perfect size for a fried egg. Ideal for toasting a few nuts to sprinkle over a salad. Just right for sizzling a few cocktail sausages for my son. It is also the ideal pan for an individual frittata or Spanish omelette for my boy.


Thank goodness for eggs. When time is short, five 'o clock has been and gone and my son is getting fractious, there is nothing quite so useful an egg. In the time it takes for bread to toast, I can scramble an egg and tea is on the table in an instant. I am so relieved that he likes eggs (for the moment - we all know how fickle toddlers can be). If I have leftover potatoes in the fridge, I sometimes make a smidge more effort and turn his teatime egg into a frittata. Add a few vegetables and perhaps a sprinkling of cheese on the top and a balanced meal is yours in moments. On this occasion, I had some cold leftover salmon in the fridge too so I added this along with some peas and a new teatime favourite was born. 

Making this with leftovers makes for a super speedy meal but it wouldn't take long to boil up a couple of baby potatoes and poach a few small cubes of salmon in water before adding to the pan. I made an individual portion for my son in my mini frying pan but scale up the quantities to make one larger frittata for the whole family.  

Salmon and pea frittata
Serves one toddler


Ingredients:

Knob of butter
2 baby potatoes, cooked al dente
1/4 spring onion, very finely chopped (or a few snipped chives)
1/4 fillet of cooked salmon
1 tbsp peas
1 egg
Optional: a small grating of cheese, if you like a browner top

1. Pre-heat the grill.

2. Melt a small knob of butter in a mini frying pan (if you have one!) and add the potatoes, fry for a few minutes along with the spring onion.

3. Flake the salmon and add to the pan, along with the peas. Whisk the egg with a fork and pour over the mixture in the pan. Cook gently for a few minutes until the egg is nearly set, sprinkle with a little cheese if desired and then transfer to the grill to cook the top (cover the handle of the pan in foil if it is not ovenproof).


Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Pink and green clouds of sugar: pistachio and raspberry meringues



I'm a recent convert to 'the meringue'. That isn't to say that I don't love 'meringue'. I do. Very much so. Lemon meringue pie, baked Alaska, pavlova... I love almost any sort of dessert that incorporates meringue. A stand-alone meringue however, is a different story. I have never really understood the point of eating a meringue on its own. Even sandwiched together with cream, I've always been rather underwhelmed. I've always felt that meringues needed something else to cut through all the sugar be it a scattering of summer berries or a dollop of lemon curd swirled through the cream.


Recently though, in an attempt to shed some pounds, I have been trying to embrace 'the meringue'. It is, in some ways, the dieter's friend. Ok, ok, it is heavy to sugar. But it is also low in fat - hurrah! A short while ago, Mr LBF cooked a fabulous post-curry dessert from the Hairy Bikers Great Curries cook book involving divine pistachio meringues with raspberries and whipped double cream. The meringues were absolutely fantastic and I have been craving them ever since.


In a serendipitous twist of fate, whilst doing the weekly supermarket shop last week, I found myself purchasing a tube of freeze-dried raspberries. For no particular reason. Just 'as you do'. I had no particular plan for these shocking-pink morsels but simply felt I had to have them in my storecupboard 'just in case'. It suddenly dawned on me that the pistachio meringues could be the ideal destination for my freeze-dried raspberries. Pistachios and raspberries are, in my mind, a match made in heaven. For a start, I love green and pink together (my wedding flowers were all greens and pinks). Secondly, I just think that they work well. 

Pink and green; a match made in heaven!

I ground the pistachios up with the raspberries to fine crumbs and folded them through the meringue  mixture before sprinkling a little of each on top. The resulting meringues are a new favourite. Crisp on the outside and fantastically chewy in the middle. Importantly, the flavour of pistachio and raspberry really come through with the tartness of raspberry a welcome antidote to the sugary meringue itself. I served these with low-fat yoghurt and fresh raspberries but this was actually a mistake. These meringues are so good that they deserve to be eaten as a stand-alone treat. Whilst some lightly whipped double cream couldn't be wrong here, I really enjoyed these meringues on their own. So much so that I cannot bring myself to admit how many Mr LBG and I consumed in one sitting.

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Another joy about meringues is that whilst they take a long time to cook, they are very speedy to prepare and ideal for a make ahead dessert for guests. I reckon that these were ready to go into the oven in about 15 minutes from start to finish. As such, I am submitting them to the Dead Easy Desserts challenge, hosted by Sarah at Maison Cupcake. Entrants must blog a dessert that has a preparation time of fewer than 30 minutes. 

Here is the recipe, with thanks to the Hairy Bikers for the initial idea...

Pistachio and raspberry meringues
Makes approx 9 medium-large meringues

Ingredients

3 large egg whites
150g white caster sugar
25g shelled pistachio nuts, plus a few extra for sprinkling
2 tbsp freeze-dried raspberry pieces (like these), plus a few extra for sprinkling

1. Pre-heat oven to 125C (fan oven). Using a mini-processor or coffee/spice grinder, blitz the pistachios and raspberries until you have fine crumbs.


2. Using spotless equipment, whisk the egg whites until you have stiff peaks. Gradually whisk in the sugar, a spoonful at a time, until you have a lovely glossy mixture. Don't over-whisk.



3. Using a metal spoon, gently fold in the pistachio/raspberry mix. A little streaking is good - it doesn't need to be thoroughly mixed and you don't want the meringue to lose too much volume in the mixing!


4. Dollop the mixture into free-form blobs onto baking sheets lined with baking parchment (not greaseproof paper) or silicone liner (my preference every time!). Or, get fancy and pipe the meringues into perfect swirls.

5. Sprinkle with a few finely chopped pistachios and a few nibs of the raspberries.

6. Place in the oven and immediately turn down to 100C. Cook for 2 hours then turn the oven off and leave the meringues to cool in the oven. Do check the meringues half way through to check they are not browning - turn the oven down further if so.