Sunday, 31 August 2008

Birthday cake

This is not a recipe as such, more a bit of shameless bragging! You see being of the 'roast-chicken-and-veg-followed-by-apple-crumble-and-custard' persuasion, it's nice when I make a cake and it actually comes out as planned.

This one is Nigella's Chocolate Malteser Cake from 'Feast' (page 283) which is an interesting recipe in which you whisk up eggs and an indecent amount of sugar, add what is basically a hot mug of Horlicks and a tablespoon of butter, fold in a bit of flour and cocoa and bake it until it's cake. The icing has a heap of Horlicks in it too, with a bit of cocoa again for good measure and you slap it into the sponges with as many Maltesers as you can squeeze on.

For once I didn't burn it (despite it taking 20 minutes longer to cook than Nigella's recommended 25 minutes); for once it rose all the way up to the top of the tins, and for once it actually looks like the one in the picture opposite the recipe in Nigella's book.

It tasted good too, which was nice as it was to celebrate not one but three birthdays: Mum's 70th, my 42nd and Dad's 68th. Rosie wants one for her 5th birthday in December too, so I only hope that one will be as successful.

Cakes, generally, confuse me. Like mayonnaise they seem to involve some kind of kitchen alchemy that is affected by temperature and humidity as well as quantity and quality of ingredients. On this occasion, despite not having much in the way of an actual kitchen (like cupboards or sink, for example), I got it right.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Strawberry muffins

So. It's the first day of the summer holidays. Eventually we drag ourselves from our beds.

"What would you like for breakfast darlings?" I trill at my two sweet urchins, pulling on my domestic goddess apron, plimming my bosom and tossing my hair in the style of Nigella.

"A treat," demands R4.

Rightyho. Is this the way summer is to pan out? Am I making a rod for my own back? Will they expect me to cook something from scratch every breakfast time?

Ptooey, as whatshisname says in the film 'Ratatouille'.

Anyway, today 'breakfast' is a loosely applied term, it being already pretty late. Not quite late enough, perhaps, for it to have become 'elevenses', but not quite the normal crack-of-dawnsiness one would really associate with the term.

A treat it is then. I survey the wreckage of my kitchen. I say 'wreckage' because last evening Brian took out two of the cupboards, the work surface and the radiator, then dug a big hole in the floor. No matter. I have a cooker and the top of the dishwasher, so off I go.

Yesterday was Farmers Market day in Haverfordwest, and I have a large punnet of fragrant strawberries from Manorbier. Muffins are breakfasty, so strawberry muffins it is. I turn, of course, to Nigella, at breakfast-times in need of treat, so I begin with her Orange Breakfast muffins recipe from Nigella Bites, and add strawberries.


75g butter

* Switch the oven on to Gas Mark 6 (200 degrees C) and pop the butter into the oven to melt (use an ovenproof bowl! Doh!). Then pop twelve cake cases into your muffin tin.

220g self-raising flour
25g ground almonds
half a teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
one teaspoon baking powder
75g caster sugar

* Combine in a large bowl.
* Rescue the butter!

100ml orange juice
100ml milk
1 large egg

* Mix together in a jug, then add the cooled butter.


* Not an exact science this. Start off with about 16 big juicy strawberries. Fend off small, hungry children. Fail. Chop the eight remaining strawberries into cubes.

* Roughly combine the wet and dry ingredients and the strawberries. Pile into the muffin tins.

* Any mixture that you can't squeeze in can go into the oven in the oven proof bowl you used for the butter. The children won't know about this big, flat muffin cake. Cook's perk!

* Bake for 20 minutes, until golden brown. Serve hot with butter (or, better still, clotted cream).

Makes 12 big fruity muffins (and a spare!).

Monday, 7 July 2008

Raspberry oaties

Today's recipe is one I found on this morning when I had a big punnet of raspberries from the garden and a head empty of ideas as to what to do with them.

Things like cranachan sprung to mind, but I thought I'd better not give whisky to a six year old and a four year old. Anyway I hadn't any double cream and, now that petrol is gold-plated, 'just popping to the shop' needs careful consideration; will the journey cost more than the thing you are about to buy? Yes. Go without then.

So my search led me to this recipe for raspberry oaties by Berry Scotland.

What you do is rub 175g of butter into 225g of self-raising flour to make nice rubbly crumbs. Then stir in 175g each of rolled oats and golden caster sugar. Squidge and squeeze with your hands until you've got what, to all intents and purposes, is a oat crumble topping mixture.

Next press half of it into a swiss roll tin or a tray bake tin and press it down. Then get your lovely fresh raspberries, about 300g or so, spread them out over the mixture in the tin and press.

Then, if you're like me, panic that the tin you have chosen is too small, shrug and carry on regardless. Sprinkle the rest of the crumble mixture over the surface, catch up the bits that missed the tin and are on the work surface and put them back. Then press, press and press again (until it more or less is squeezed into the tin.) It will look like this:

Next bake at Gas Mark 5 (190 degrees C) for 20 to 25 minutes until it is golden brown.

Leave it to cool in the tin for ten minutes or so before cutting into squares. I don't make my squares all beautifully even - I do some big, some tiny. This is really so that I can say 'oh no, I shouldn't, oh go on then, just a little one...' but in fact I have one and then think, 'well was was just a tiny one...' and eat another three.

What can I say? Great recipe. A different way to use raspberries when there's a glut (I'm not a jam-maker). What you get is a pastry-like base, soft and fragrant with the juice from the fruit, a layer of soft raspberry-ness, and a crunchy, oaty topping. Very tasty.

Of course I then got to thinking about variations. Other berries, for example. I'm sure strawberries, blueberries and blackberries would all work here, and blackcurrants too as there is quite a bit of sugar to offset any sourness. You could use frozen fruit too, just thaw and drain, then carry on with the recipe as above. I have a whim to replace some of the flour with cocoa powder and add chopped dark chocolate to the topping too. Maybe next time!

Monday, 16 June 2008

Fish pie and Hot Cross Bun pudding

We had Easter again on the Preseli Hills on Sunday - not the actual choccy eggs day, more a culinary nod thanks to the freezer and a bag of Hot Cross Buns I found lurking in its murky depths.

Easter always means a fish pie and a bread and butter pudding made with hot cross buns. I'm not sure how it came to pass but it's one of those family traditions I have made which are now set in stone (but possibly only inside my own head!)

Anyway the fish pie first. Fish pie is one of those things that it is tempting to throw everything at. I've seen all kinds of fish, plain, smoked, flat, round, whatever, gherkins, capers, bells and whistles (not literally!) but the best advice I can give is KISS! Keep It Simple Stupid!

So just the one kind of firm white fish, some lovely prawns, a fabulous sauce, fluffy mash and cheddar cheese. Anything else is, in my opinion, de trop, but I'm willing to be proved wrong on that.

I begin with a couple of fillets of haddock. Lie them in a roasting tin on top of a couple of bay leaves, almost (but not quite) cover with full cream milk and pop in the oven, Gas Mark 4, until just about cooked (but not quite). The fish will finish cooking when the pie goes back into the oven, so err on the side of caution now.

Meanwhile, make mashed potato. Non-purists may prefer to leave this part, like Delia, to Aunt Bessie. I can't see what's wrong with peeling a few spuds, boiling them and mashing them with a bit of milk and butter, but then I have gardener's hands and nails. If I had a beautiful manicure, then perhaps I'd call on Aunt Bessie (but probably not!) Anyway the thing is the mash must be soft and fluffy, not big dry lumps (like school mash - ugh!). It must sit in big fluffy clouds atop the fish and sauce looking as if it might fall in at any moment. Or, in other words, it needs to be a bit sloppy.

Right. The fish should be done now. If you've got a bag of defrosted raw king prawns (from Tesco - natch!) put them into the hot milk around the fish and they will almost cook. Leave them for a few minutes and they blush a lovely pink. Then drain the milk off into a jug and pop the fish and prawns on a plate, covered, while you get on with the sauce.

Make a basic white sauce with a spoonful of butter (I just dig it out of the butter dish - it's about a heaped tablespoon) and the same of flour. Use the milk from poaching the fish and a little extra to make a nice smooth sauce. Again not too thick, it should be velvety and voluptuous, not so thick you can stand the spoon up in it. Next season with pepper and a little salt, then add the secret ingredient.

I'm not sure where I got this from, it might be my own idea or (more likely) I read it somewhere and assimilated it into the dark recesses of my brain. Anyway, the first time I added this it was to please my two little girls to whom pink is practically perfect, but it was an enormous hit with everyone, male, female, young and old. So add a goodly dollop of tomato puree and whisk it into the sauce. It turns it a pleasing corally pink, but also adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the flavour of the sauce too. It makes it more, um, saucy and I do love a saucy sauce.

Now, flake the fish and break up the prawns (I do this as I'm feeding small children with little mouths. If you've only got adults - or teeny prawns - skip this bit). Put into an attractive dish and pour over the pink sauce. Float clouds of mash on the surface. Astonishingly they don't sink. Smooth over with a fork. Rough it up again. Bits of pink sauce will peek through, but that doesn't matter. Finally grate some lovely cheddar cheese in a nice thick layer over the top, then pop back into the oven, Gas Mark 5, until all golden, bubbling and delicious.

I always serve this pie with a mix of steamed broccoli and cauliflower as they are perfect little vehicles for scooping up the lovely sauce.

For the pudding I use a pack of six hot cross buns. Split, butter and sandwich with some lovely jam. This time I used some of my friend Andrew's gorgeous greengage jam, but, as you probably don't get lovely homemade jammy gifts from Andrew, any good quality jam or marmalade will do.

Layer the buns attractively in your dish, cutting them in half as need be to fill up any gaps. Next grab one of those small pots of double cream, 284 ml I think they are, and pour it into a bowl. Fill the empty pot with some full cream milk and add that too, along with another splosh of milk for luck. Add three large eggs and two big tablespoons of golden caster sugar, whisk and pour over the buns. I sometimes add a tot of whisky to this mix, which is nice too.

Leave it to soak, pour over more of the creamy mixture and repeat until you can't get any more in. Put the dish into a roasting tray in the oven at Gas Mark 4, then pour boiling water into the roasting tin so it comes half way up the side of the bowl. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the custard is almost set. Serve with some cream poured over.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Assembly Line Delia

Delia’s Monday night cooking programme on BBC2 was, excuse the pun, food for thought. Not the Delia we’re used too. Not Christmas, Summer, Winter or How to Cook Delia. Instead this was Assembly Line Delia. Open a packet of this, a tin of that, add some frozen mashed potato and here you are, delicious food.

We were treated to, perhaps quite unnecessarily, visits to the footballing side of Delia and, poignantly, we visited the ‘Shed of Delia Past’. A museum of previous cooking series, with serried ranks of bowls, plates, spoons and serving platters lined up on shelves. I have to admit I looked at those and foresaw the auction in years to come as Delia fans fight over the sainted one’s wooden spoons the same as fans eagerly bid for Elizabeth David’s culinary history.

But Delia isn’t usually wrong. This is the woman who knew we would all want to scoff cranberries by the truckload. Supermarkets have talked of the ‘Delia effect’ where avid cooks rushed to buy the latest must have ingredient, like white eggs from the How to Cook series, chosen not because they taste better than the brown-shelled variety, but more by design as they looked stylish on the cover of the book.

Now Delia has turned her eye on ready-prepared ingredients where all the ‘boring stuff’ has been done by someone else in an industrial kitchen. To a purist who likes to know the exact provenance of his or her ingredients, it must have looked like madness. I cringed when she opened the tin of mince, for example. But, perhaps, I would have cringed less if the label on the tin had promised that it was British beef. I worry about such things. I also live in an isolated rural area. The nearest supermarket is 16 miles away and I don’t work. I can fry up a batch of mince and onions and I often do. I also cook in bulk, freeze it in family sized portions and assemble it at the last minute, exactly as Delia was doing on Monday. I also remember as a kid with a working mum, that mum did exactly that. Including the mashed potato. Mum used to make a big batch of mash, pipe it into rosettes on grease proof-paper lined trays, freeze it and use it exactly as Delia was doing on Monday.

And isn’t that better? That little bit of preparation, that extra bit of care, than just buying an off-the-peg ready meal shepherds pie and pinging it into the microwave?

Delia made a lovely looking fish pie with hot smoked salmon and quails eggs with a pot of ready made cheese sauce and the ubiquitous frozen mash. My sister’s a dentist with two kids and a non-cooking husband. I can see her making that pie. She can afford the ingredients, but not the time, and I could see her making that on a weekday. She can cook brilliantly, but who would want to after a day in which they had done 65 NHS dental check-ups? I’d make it too, but I’d probably cook the components myself because I have the time, but not the money.

I think that is where the genius of Delia lies. These recipes are cook-able by the non-cook and the strapped-for-time-cook as well as they competent time-rich cook. Buy all of the ready-prepared ingredients, or pre-prepare your own. It’s your choice, your kitchen and you are in charge.

Last night I made chicken and rice. In fact it was a Delia recipe, a variation on her famous Chicken Basque. I did a quick cook version using the Swiss Marigold stock she was seen to use on Monday. I used white basmati rice not brown, I did cook the chicken thighs from raw, but I have been known to make it with leftover chicken, and I used dried herbs. Had Delia been cooking it on Monday she would perhaps have bought ready-cooked supermarket chicken thighs. What is the difference? Perhaps what she was really doing was the equivalent of gourmet food from leftovers? Something that seems to have been forgotten these days when food is tossed away because some have forgotten about thrift and the art of using up what is left.

I’m a Delia fan and I’ll probably watch the whole series and buy the accompanying book. But I won’t slavishly follow her directions. I might use her ideas, but I can’t see me buying a pot of ready made cheese sauce. Oh, and I’ll freeze my own mash too.

Frozen Mashed Potato

Also known as Duchesse potatoes from the Good Housekeeping Home Freezer Cook Book 1972

6lb old potatoes peeled and boiled
2 oz butter
1 egg
1 level tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper
¼ level tsp grated nutmeg

serves 10

Mash the potatoes and add the remaining ingredients (no milk) and beat well. Line a baking tray with non-stick paper. Using a forcing bag fitted with a large star nozzle, pipe onto the tray about 20 raised pyramids of potato with a base of about 2 inches.

Freeze uncovered until firm. Remove from the freezer and pack onto a foil plate or container. Cover, seal and label.

TO USE: Use in Delia’s recipes or put on a greased baking sheet and brush lightly with egg. Put into a cold over and cook at 400 degrees F (Gas mark 6) until heated through and lightly browned.