Wednesday, 29 October 2008

When the snowman brings the snow...

Nope, it's not Christmas yet, but if you lived here you'd think otherwise. There's been all sorts of weird and wonderful things going on, from Christmas chutney making, new Christmas cookbooks arriving, and some very festive muffins indeed. None of this was entirely intentional to be honest. Chutney has to have at least two months to mature, hence it being now. The cookbook was on offer and I couldn't wait and I thought it would take longer to arrive, but apparently not. The festive muffins were just a by-product of the chutneys really.

The snow however...the snow is nothing to do with me at all. Snow, in October?! I was only just gearing up to Autumn and the meteorological gods throw snow at me?

There's a huge backlog of post that should be making their way up over the next few days. I am hoping they will have a more autumnal than festive theme. I may be prepared, but I'm not going to get Christmasy in October. It's just wrong.

So yes, over the next week or so you should expect; more jam, galette, dinosaurs, muffins, and of course some Halloween related action. As for now? I'm off to stir my soup and pray that Harry Redknapp hasn't turned Spurs round fast enough for them to wreak havoc this evening. Come on Arsenal!

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Leave the gun...take the cannelloni.

So I went a bit cooking-herical today. I don't know what got into me, especially as last night I was up until 2am making chutney (note to self: chutney takes a loooong time, don't start it at ten in the evening). Despite the late night exploits I still felt the need to make more jam, and then more chutney, and in between I knocked up a batch of cheese scones for lunch and a cannelloni for dinner.

Not bad for one little lady. N says he now understands why Italian women often spend between seven and nine hours in the kitchen! He was also very sweet indeed in his appreciation of our lunch of cheese scones and homemade chutney; a meal entirely homemade.

I don't want to reveal much about the preserves as I am possibly going to unleash them on people as Christmas presents. However I do want to talk about the cannelloni.

I've never made cannelloni before. My only experience of it is my childhood memories of my Mum standing over a pot of sauce patiently stuffing tubes of dried pasta and whisking white sauce. The result was one of my favourite meals back when I was a meat eater. Now it's the veggie versions that occupy that place. It has to be one of my favourite pasta dishes, and I might even go as far as saying it's one of my favourite dishes full stop.

And yet for some reason I'd never attempted it myself. Then last week a huge batch of spinach arrived in our organic box and I decided to attempt a spinach and ricotta lasagna. We'd had once at our last DnD session in Lancing and it was absolutely delicious. So there I was wandering our local shop searching for lasagna sheets, when the tubes caught my eye. The second I saw them I knew it was fate. Cannelloni it was going to be.

So it was that this evening, whilst stirring chutney with one hand, and chatting to a friend with the phone crooked in my neck, that I came to be messily and frantically stuffing dried pasta. I'd adapted the filling from Delia Smith's spinach and ricotta lasagna (and by this I mean totally changed. It still used the spinach and ricotta but that's where the similarities end!) and decided that since neither N or I care for white sauces that I would top it with a very basic tomato sauce. Nothing too rich, just a bright flavour to cut through the creaminess slightly.

Having stuffed the tubes, laid them in the dish and covered them in the sauce I popped it in the oven covered with foil for 40 minutes, then uncovered it for the final five minutes.

The result was a lovely mix of the earthy spinach, creamy ricotta and the clear taste of the tomatoes. We didn't even have anything with it. Another winner, and definitely worth posting as one of the few savoury dishes that makes it onto the blog (mostly because we eat them too fast and I don't get to photograph it, not because I don't make or enjoy savoury things!).

Spinich and ricotta cannelloni with tomato sauce (mine served two, but they were large portions, so it might serve four with a side dish and dessert).

NB: I did most of this by approximation in a bit of a Nigel Slater "toss it all in and give it a go" way.

For the filling:
150g ricotta (I've since discovered you can use tofu, hurrah for the vegans out there)
300g spinach (stalks removed)
grated parmesan (or vegan cheese)
freshly ground pepper
slug of milk (soy is what I used)
dried cannelloni tubes

For the sauce:
one small onion, or preferably a shallot
one 400g tin chopped tomatoes
squeeze of tomato purree
dash of balsamic vinegar
pinch dried basil
glug of olive oil

Put a small knob of butter in a large saucepan over a low heat and then add the spinach. Place the lid on and leave for a minute or two, then stir and leave for another a minute or so. When it's completely wilted strain using a sieve. When it's cool enough to handle squeeze it to get rid of the very last of the water. Then chop finely. In a bowl mix the ricotta with a small slug of milk and some freshly ground pepper. Then grate in some parmesan. Once combined add the spinach and mix together. Then stuff in the cannelloni tubes.

To make the sauce:

Finely chop the onion and the fry in some olive oil until softened, add the herbs and continue to fry for a minute to release the flavour. Then add the tomato puree and balsamic vinegar. Mix to make a slight sauce then add the chopped tomatoes. I also add a dash of white wine to make it a slightly richer, but bright flavour. Cook over a reasonably high heat to evapourate some of the excess liquid. Then remove from the heat and cool slightly. I then whooshed mine with a hand-held blender to make it smooth.

Spoon the sauce over the top of the prepared cannelloni and then cover with foil. Bake at 160C for 40 minutes, then uncover and bake for a further 5-10 minutes to crisp up the top.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Let the "pain" commence - part deux

Today N had his breakfast the European way: coffee and a pastry. A homemade pastry to be precise, because I did indeed master the intricate rolling, folding, resting, rolling, folding, rising, of croissant dough. My results weren't as flaky as a French croissant, they were slightly more doughy, but that suited me as the Italian ones we had were more bread-like and as I'm sure you've gathered by now we LOVE bread in this flat! I did however keep the very dark, almost bitter chocolate that the French tend to prefer. In Italy they use Nutella, or something similar. It's nice, but a bit too sweet and indulgent for me really. I prefer the more adult kick you get from a really bitter bite of chocolate. Perfect to shock you awake alongside your coffee!

I'm afraid I'm not going to post the recipe, not only because I didn't adapt it in any way, but also because it's two pages long and I can't be bothered. Shame on me, but I'm lazy, and probably should be actually doing work rather than blogging. Oops. Instead you'll just have to make do with the pictures. Sorry.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Let the "pain" commence.

I have begun a bit of a challenge.

Whilst in Italy N and I really enjoyed having just a pastry and coffee for breakfast. So much so that N pondered about having it at home. Cue me to hunt out the recipe for pain au chocolate, or brioche con cioccolate as they call it in Italy. "How hard can it be?" I thought to myself.

Apparently quite hard. I looked at lots of blogs about croissants and every single one seemed to say what a nightmare they are to make; time consuming and fiddly. Hmm...perhaps I was a little too quick to suggest I have a go.

However, a friend recently surprised me by treating me to Bake by Rachel Allen. As I eagerly flicked through I noticed that the lovely ribbon bookmark was coincidentally marking the page for croissants. It was a sign, a baking omen, and fortunately her recipe looked manageable. So today, with N back at work (boo) and me all alone in the house again, forced to do work (because the cat just wants to run about in the falling leaves chasing his tail) I decided to venture into the experiment of intricate foldings of butter and dough.

So far I'm about three hours in. It seems to be going pretty well, but then all I've done is roll out some dough, place some butter in it and roll it out and fold it again. The real test will come when I actually bake them.

I shall keep you posted...

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Apples, plums and crumbs

More friends, more excuses for dessert, and another outing for the pie dish. This time for one of my all-time favourite dishes: crumble.

I love crumble. I think because it embodies all the things I love about autumn, which when it's true and proper is my favourite season. I don't mean the autumns like we've been having the past few years, I mean a proper one; blazing blue skies, the slightly weaker, but still warming sunshine and the crisp clean cold mornings. Autumn should be hues of red and gold, not grey and grey. It should be crisp, yet warming. Just like a good crumble. Golden baked crumbs topping the hidden delight of warm spiced fruit that retains a little sharpness.

I made my crumble the epitome of my thoughts about autumn; a lightly crispy golden crust covering the deep scarlet of plums and the sharpness of English apples. And it, like the current autumn, didn't disappoint. I probably should have used more fruit, as I like a deep layer, but it was done in a hurry and the chopping of more apples and the stoning of more plums just didn't happen. However it worked well. I tend to lean towards rhubarb or plain apple crumble, or even gooseberries if I have some, but it was plums in the fridge and apples in the bowl and so that's what we had. Having learnt from the pie experience I decided to gently simmer the fruit first with a little water and spices to soften them slightly and draw out the juices. Then I just covered with the topping and let it do it's thing.

This was all that was left this morning, so I think it went down pretty well!

It was intended to make us warm, and hold warm thoughts for a cold morning in London (our friend was doing a half-marathon this morning and I figured he might need something to keep the engine going), but as it happened it was nearly 20 degrees here today! Not crumble weather after all, but there were no complaints from any of us. Perhaps it was the succumbing to true autumn recipes that made the sun realise that it hadn't been out much in summer and so should start showing it's face a little more now to make up for it?

Spiced Sunshine-bringing Crumble: (If it doesn't bring the sun for you at least it might warm you up) - Serves 6-8

Four largish plums, stoned and chopped
Three medium apples, cored and chopped (peel left on)
cinnamon/mixed spice/ginger, to taste ( I used a large dash of each)

100g plain flour
100g wholemeal flour
75g soft brown sugar
1tbsp demerara sugar
large dash cinnamon
100g cold unsalted butter, cubed

Preheat oven to 180C

Place the plums, apples and mixed spices in a saucepan with two tablespoons of water and leave to simmer until just hinting at being soft and the juices have run slightly. Leave to cool. While the fruit is cooling place the flours, sugars and cinnamon in a bowl and mix together. then cut or rub in the butter until you have a coarse breadcrumb consistancy. Place the fruit in a deep pie dish and make as level as possible. Then sprinkled the crumble topping over the fruit. Make sure it's even without patting it down. Bake for 35 mins, or until the top is golden and the fruit just bubbling at the sides. Remove from the oven and rest for 5 or so minutes until serving.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Goodbye will power...hello cheesecake!

I've been trying to be good. Having made a pie, and thus broken-in the new pie dish and resurrected the idea of Baking Day (because as some of you might have noticed I did an awful lot of baking over the summer, playing fast and loose with the idea of only baking very indulgent things once a month) I decided that it would be best if I laid off the baking for a while and concentrated on trying not to stuff my face too much before the decadence of Christmas rolls around.

Then the fruit lady had blueberries for the very last time and I couldn't resist. I could have just added them righteously to the top of my muesli in the morning, but N doesn't tend to eat breakfast, and since he's the bigger fan of blueberries it would be mean to save all the pleasure for myself.

So I baked him a cheesecake.

The excuse I used for this was that we'd invited friends round for dinner and needed a dessert idea, one that would use up the berries that had been sitting in the fridge while I pondered their fate. Truth is, two of N's most favourite things are cheesecake and blueberries, and when it comes to the last berries of the season, a season that hasn't once included a single non-tofu cheesecake, not using the berries to make one would be a crime.

And you know what? It was worth the wait. I made a blueberry streusel cheesecake from a recipe I'd cut out of the Sainsbury's magazine months ago. It seemed to combine all the perfect elements: the fresh berries of summer, the crumbly goodness of autumn and of course the all-round favourite of cheesecake. The other good thing about it was it didn't require a bain-marie, just to be put in the oven for an hour and then cooled.

The recipe called for full-fat cream cheese, and in a desperate attempt to make it a little less calorific I used half-fat. I was worried this might affect how it set (as I've had problems using low-fat cheese in cream cheese frosting before), so I added a little more cornflour than the recipe called for. However I needn't have been concerned as it set perfectly.

The crumble topping is also what is packed for the base, and during the long cooking time this becomes almost caramalised. I slightly missed the more traditional (or traditional to me at least) base of crushed biscuits, especially as that tends to be less sweet. However, since the thing that ranks alongside cheesecake and blueberries in its sweet gastronomic greatness for N is caramel, the base went down a treat!

I think when I make this again (which I will be doing as N loved it) I shall lessen the sugar in the streusel (and make less of it as despite being generous on the base and topping I had leftover) and probably double the volume of berries as I felt they didn't come through as strongly as I would have liked. I think this might be because they were late season berries, but even so, more wouldn't do any harm. I might even omit the topping altogeter and put more berries there instead of the crumble. Who knows. I think the recipe is quite forgiving, so hopefully I'll be able to play around and alter it, using different fruits and flavours. I can see this becoming my go-to recipe for cheesecake. For now at least.

Blueberry Streusel Cheesecake - Serves 8-10 (or two gluttons and a cat!*)

Adapted from Sainsbury's Magazine

Base and topping:

200g plain flour
150g light soft brown sugar
100g cold unsalted butter
1 or 2 tsp ground cinnamon depending on taste


225g blueberries
2 tbsp caster sugar
grated zest of two lemons, plus some juice
500g low-fat cream cheese
4 tbsp sour cream
125g icing sugar
15g cornflour
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 medium eggs, lightly beaten

Grease and line a 20cm springform tin and preheat the oven to 180C. Place the flour, sugar and cinnamon into a bowl and mix. Then cut in the cold butter, or rub together, until you get a breadcrumb consistancy. Pour half of the mixture into the tin and press down into an even layer. Bake for 10-15mins, until lightly coloured, then remove and cool. Set the remaining streusel aside.

Put the blueberries in a small saucepan with the caster sugar and 1 tbsp of water and some lemon juice. Simmer over a low heat until the berries just soften and the juices turn syrupy. Cool.

Place the cream cheese in a large bowl and beat until smooth. Then beat in the sour cream, vanilla extract and lemon zest. Sift in the icing sugar and cornflour and combine. Then gently fold in the eggs slowly, using a wooden spoon so as to prevent air bubbles.

Spoon the cooled berries over the base and then pour the cheese mixture over the top, gently evening and smoothing the top. Bake for 30 mintues, then remove from the oven and sprinkle the remaining streusel over the top (I didn't use it all as there was rather a lot there). Return for the over for a further 35mins. Then turn off the oven and leave inside to cool. Once completely cool in the oven, refridgerate overnight.

* Not quite true as our friends did get large portions. But it is amazing how quickly baked goods get eaten in this house and I'm not sure I can blame it entirely on the cat as he's skinnier than both of us!

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Pretty on the inside: October Baking Day and the story of the inaugural pie.

This is a story of a pie. A pie in a beautiful bright red pie dish.

I've never made pie before. Hard to believe, but it's true. I'm not quite sure how it came to be this long before I attempted pie. It wasn't really about fear, because I've made pastry before with success. It wasn't even about lack of tools, because you can make pie in any ovenproof dish and I have several pyrex ones tucked away. But for some reason the dessert has eluded me. Until now.

There was a conspiring of events, as there often are when it comes to me attempting a new recipe. First was a conversation between N and myself about the seasons changing and how it would soon be time for warming hearty food. Pie came up and I learned that N was a fan. How could he not be in fact, warm fruits, spices and pastry. What's not to love.

Then the second thing happened: Mum pointing out that Lakeland, home of all things a domestic goddess doesn't even know she needs, has a website. Disaster! Before I knew it two hours had passed and I had perused every page of the site, sometimes going back to pages for a second or third look. It's a good thing my credit card was in the other room and that I was pinned down on the sofa by the cat, otherwise the damage could have been very widespread indeed.

On one of the pages was a pie dish. A bright red pie dish with a fluted edge. It was beautiful, it was perfect and it was screaming out to join my kitchen and force me to make pie. And so the Lakeland fairy visited whilst we were on holiday (thank you Mum) and suddenly the means to make pie were there. It was like a challange.

But with a dish that sexy it couldn't be any old pie. Oh no, I wanted it to be the best pie ever, which was something of a high standard considering I've never made pie before. But I'd tackled the beast of jam making and overcome it, so I was feeling pretty confident.

Off I went to Smitten Kitchen to get the foolproof pie dough recipe. I could have used ordinary sweet shortcrust pastry, but no, this had to be special and everyone said this was the dough of all doughs. I had to do a bit of conversion work, and the amount of butter seemed very high (I used all butter, rather than a butter and shortening mix), but I decided just to go with it. For the filling? The epitome of autumn; apples and pears spiced with a mix of cinnamon, mixed spice, nutmeg and ginger.

See, see how beautiful that pie dish is? I don't deserve a pie dish that seductive. I filled the pastry case with the fruit, rolled out a nice thick top, placed it carefully over the fruit, cut slits for the steam to escape, and even made little leaves out of the left-over dough. A masterpiece.

Then disaster struck. I made the mistake of glancing in the oven while it was cooking. My perfect crust had sunk over the fruit and the shell had shrunk. NOOOOOOOOO! I had broken the perfect pie, I had failed the pie dish.

But all was not lost. There is a happy ending to the story, because despite it's rather rugged exterior, this pie was pretty on the inside, the fruits were delicately spiced and not too soft and the pastry turned out just right and didn't seem to have suffered despite the sinking.

I might fiddle with the ratios in the pastry using less fat next time, I might add more fruit to the filling next time, I might make the shell larger to prevent shrinkage next time, but the important thing is...there will be a next time. Oh yes, my pie making days are only just beginning, and there are a good five months of cold weather still to come.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Cometh the hour, cometh the jam!

So yeah, jam! In fact, jam, jelly, and "cham." All of which has been made in the past week and a half and some of which is currently winging its way across the world to one lucky lady. I say lucky, I hope she feels like that because I am something of a novice when it comes to all this jam making malarkey, and there have been a few teething problems I can tell you.

But I think I've gotten the hang of it now, and am already plotting my next jam experiments. Be warned, you will be getting jams, jellies and chutneys for Christmas, oh yes! (I'm looking at you Mum!)

Anyway, I should probably start at the beginning, but I'm not going to, instead I am going to start somewhere nearer the end. Why? Because the photos are prettier and the outcome very tasty indeed. Then I shall work backwards to other delicious offerings, less pretty (but funny) photos and a discussion about the development of "cham" the preserve I think is going to be very fashionable indeed this winter. You heard it here first folks.

And so to here:

Epping Forest. Beautiful isn't it? N and I went last Sunday in a quest for fresh air, autumn sunshine and most importantly; brambles.

and as you can see, we found them! Brambles are just the name for wild blackberries, and apparently Epping is full of them. Or at least it would have been, if we'd gotten there earlier, but it seems that someone beat us to the wonderful idea, and so instead of tubs and tubs of them three hours produced a scant 480g.

Ta do! There you go, three hours work, stained fingers, scratched arms and a tupperware of brambles. Despite not getting the huge amounts we were hoping for, you couldn't argue with a nice box of purple jewel-like berries, all for free, and a whole load of exercise thrown in for good measure. It was a lovely afternoon and I can't wait to go back and explore some more.

What did I do with the berries? Why I made jam of course! Having had some problems in my earlier attempts (more about those later) I was slightly nervous about using the fruits from our hard labour in something I couldn't guarantee to get right. But N had confidence and we had apples, so apple and bramble jam it was. I heated the brambles with a little water until very soft, then passed them through a nylon sieve giving me a rich puree. I then added this to 450g of apples that had been softening with a little lemon juice in the preserving pan. Once they were mixed together I added the same weight in sugar as I had in fruit, dissolving it slowly and the bringing to a rolling boil to reach the setting point. Then I spooned it into hot jars and sealed. (I spooned rather than poured to get a good distribution of fruit in each jar). I then waited to see if I had managed to get a correct set.

I tested the jam this afternoon when we had toast for brunch, and I have to say it was delicious. A perfect ratio of berries to apple I think because neither flavour dominated, and every so often you got a chunk of apple that had soaked up the juice. N also gave it the thumbs up. Hurrah! I've finally got the hang of this, as that was the second preserve in a row that had worked correctly. I'm on the wagon now. Watch this space for more as I ain't getting off anytime soon, not while there are empty jars in the house!

Now to the reason for the jam obsession in the first place. I signed myself up for the Jammin Jelly exchange organised by Molly of Batter-splattered. It seemed like such a good idea at the time, getting involved the food blogging community and finally getting to share things with other people. Then disaster struck and I realised that it meant I actually had to make jam. Not any old jam, jam good enough to send to someone else, undoubtedly someone much better at making it than me. Oops! With no way to cut and run I had to bite the bullet and put my jam making apron on and set to it.

So first I attempted a gooseberry and greengage jelly. Except there wasn't enough liquid, so I had to give in and squeeze the muslin and make seedless/stoneless jam. This would have been fine, except I dramatically over-set it. ARGH! I'd been attempting to use the "test it on a cold plate" method, when I should have just trusted the thermometer. I tested and tested and got no set, gave in, bottled it and got, well, "cham." A cross between jam and fruit cheese. So solid it had to be spooned from the jar. The flavour however was lovely, so not a total disaster.

But I just wasn't convinced I could send it to someone as my contribution. So I tried again. This time with Apple ginger. It said set on the thermometer I swear, but I bottled it and it was like fruit in syrup. By this time I was so desperate I was in tears at the kitchen table. I kid you not, I care so much about jam now that it can induce crying. Poor N was very confused indeed, it all tasted fine to him and he couldn't see where the problem lay (I should add that he still hugged me better).

So we turn to attempt number three. Again, I wanted an unusual flavour and something a bit "English" as I was sending it across the world. So I decided to try the jelly again, this time with a more liquidy fruit. Blackberries. So I simmered the fruit with elderflower and then hung it in a muslin using my ingenius jelly-bag substitute:

Yes, you're right that is a guitar stand on my desk! A little unconventional I know, but it works. I strained overnight this time and got a good amount of liquid. I then added the same weight in sugar, some lemon juice and boiled until the thermometer said set and bottled it. I almost didn't dare check it, but it seemed that I got it right. Finally. Hurrah!

So, here are the two little jars that are off on an adventure round the world. I decided that the "cham" earned itself a place because it's flavour really is good, and it goes brilliantly with cheeses, and hopefully the set of the jelly will make up for the solidity of the cham. We shall see. I await the feedback with baited breath.

However, at least I now know I can make jam, and tomorrow will be off to the farmer's market in search of more wonderful things to preserve.

Friday, 3 October 2008

A taste of Italy.

I know, I know, I have been absent for far too long and keep meaning to post and somehow things keep getting in the way - cleaning, doing the mound of washing, putting up new bookcases, - you know, the usual things.

Anyway, here is a selection of the promised photos from Italy. I took over a thousand, so you can understand why I have had to be so select here. I am going to try and stay vaguely food related since that is the point of the blog, but I'm sure a few others will creep in! Also, they're all out of chronology because I can't be bothered faffing about with Blogger moving them. Sorry! I have at least added captions so you know what things are.

Bunches and bunches of chillies on a stall in Bologna

Bologna is a dangerous place, so much good food, so much of which ended up in my suitcase, I kid you not!

Borlotti beans

The food not in our suitcases was in our stomachs: another Tiramisu bites the dust.

Another one of my great loves, books. In the library at the University of Bologna museum.

This brilliantly mustached man was the waiter who served us cake and wine in Florence, and took our picture.

A great little Osteria in Montepulciano where we had one of the best meals of the holiday.

Pear, brie and rocket, my started on our night Florence.

Room service breakfast on our sunny balcony in San Gimignano. We made Pain au chocolate by spreading nutella in our croissants. Mmm...

The most expensive breakfast ever. In the main square in Florence. Delicious and a gorgeous setting, but it cost more than our dinner (two courses each and wine and water) the night before!

Start as you mean to go on: a litre of wine on our first night.

Bicerin: a drink invented in Turin, made with coffee, chocolate and cream. So decadent, rich, but not sweet.

Tomatoes at the end of the market bathing in the Turin afternoon sun.

A break from the relentless rain in Stresa brought us to the black cat cafe and yet another game of scrabble won by N.