Apple Of My Eye – apple and marzipan cake

A quick bonus recipe for you this evening – scribbling this down mostly for my own reference – as I definitely intend to make this again – but also because a couple of people on Twitter and elsewhere have asked for it.

Apple and Marzipan Cake

This rather spanking apple and marzipan cake is adapted from an apple cake recipe in the River Cottage Handbook ‘Cakes’ volume by Pam Corbin, adjusted for my taste and available store cupboard ingredients. Apologies for the lack of ‘making’ photographs – this one wasn’t really for the blog at all!

You will need -

  • 230g self raising flour
  • 20g wheat bran
  • 1/2 tsp bicarb of soda
  • 2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp mixed spice
  • Pinch of salt
  • 125g unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 125g soft brown sugar
  • Two decent sized apples – cookers or eaters, whatever you have that needs eating up, I used one of each.
  • 50g marzipan
  • 1 egg
  • 50ml milk

To decorate -

  • Another apple – ideally an eating apple
  • Handful of sliced almonds
  • 1 tbsp golden granulated sugar

First, set the oven to 180 C. Butter a 7″ or 8″ deep loose bottomed cake tin generously, and line the base.

Combine the flour, bran, bicarb, spices and salt in a large mixing bowl. The recipe called for a mix of white and wholemeal self raising flours, but I only had white so I made up the volume with a little bran, which after all is the stuff that you sift out to turn wholemeal flour into white flour in the first place! The spice mix is to my taste – cinnamon would be very traditional with apples, but Hubby doesn’t like it. The recipe called for ground cloves, but I find them medicinal-tasting and a bit overwhelming, so follow your inclination!

Chop up the softened butter roughly and rub it through the flour mixture with your fingers until it’s the consistency of breadcrumbs. Now mix in the soft brown sugar.

Peel & core your two apples (if they’re lovely freshly picked home-grown apples, you might consider leaving the skins on – but these had been stored a while, and looked it!) and chop them into dice about 1cm to a side, and do the same with the marzipan. Mix these cubes into the dry ingredients.

Beat your egg with a fork and mix in the milk. Add this liquid to the rest of the ingredients in the bowl. It won’t look like there’s enough – but if you keep moving the contents of the bowl around, eventually all the dry ingredients will combine with the liquids to form a rough batter. It won’t look like there’s enough ‘cake mix’ for the diced apple, either, but don’t let this bother you too much. Spoon the mix into a deep sided cake tin – something like a 7″ or 8″ tin you’d make a Christmas cake in, rather than a sponge tin. Level the mix as well as you can.

Now take your extra apple and core it, leaving the skin on. Slice reasonably thinly and arrange the slices over the top of the cake to decorate. Sprinkle over some sliced almonds. Finally, dust the top of the cake with a tablespoon of granulated sugar.

Pop it into the oven (turning if necessary to keep the cooking even) for about 45 minutes, then check to see if a skewer comes out clean. Mine actually needed about an hour in all to cook through. The batter, implausible as it might seem, will have managed to step up to the mark, and it will look like a nicely risen cake, rather than the chunky mess that went into the oven. Leave the cake in the tin for about half an hour after it comes out of the oven (it’s quite a crumbly texture and I suspect it would just fall apart if you took it out straight away) then ease it out of the tin and leave it on a wire rack to cool completely. It will then keep in an airtight cake tin for longer than it’ll take you to eat it (2-3 days, easily).

Sliced appearance

I love this cake! With nutmeg the dominant spice, it’s not over-sweet, has lots going on in the texture department, and is a very ‘grown-up’ sort of treat (though I’m quite sure that kinds would love it too)! The marzipan adds lovely gooey sugary melty bits, which I just adore, while the texture of the rest of the cake is nice and light. The granulated sugar, apple slices and almonds add a lovely appearance to the top, too; and it’s a ‘self-decorating’ cake, which is a bonus – it comes out of the oven ready to go, which is a great time saver. And it looks utterly mouthwatering, which is even better!

Tuck in!

Hubby loves this, and I think you will to – so give it a try. Make yourself a nice cup of tea, and tuck in!

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Rhubarb Cocktails, from The River Cottage Year – Cooking the Books, week 15

Against the grain of this blog series, the recipe for this week is actually one that has been a regular pleasure going back all the way to my university days! I remember treating myself to this book, at about this time of year. It was an indulgence on my student budget, and a distraction, I suspect, from upcoming exams!

Love it or hate it (this is a bone of contention in my marriage – Hubby thinks it’s the Devil’s vegetable), it’s rhubarb season! This rhubarb syrup is delicate and fruity with subtle floral notes, and makes a glorious cocktail ingredient. It’s simplicity itself to make, too, and will keep in a jar or bottle in the fridge for longer than it will take you to drink it all (about a month, according to the recipe, but I’ve never managed to test this!).

You will need -

  • Rhubarb syrup ingredients400 – 500g of trimmed rhubarb (the pale pink forced rhubarb is fine, if that’s what’s available locally, and will produce a lovely syrup with a more delicate colour)
  • ~100g of sugar (I used golden granulated, but white sugar would be fine)
  • 2 oranges

Chop your rhubarb into ~1″ chunks and put them in a saucepan. Add the juice of your oranges (I ended up using three because they were disappointingly un-juicy ones) and four tablespoons of sugar.

Stew the rhubarb until soft

Stew the rhubarb gently until soft, then strain it. You can eat the rhubarb after straining if you like – it’s very tasty with ice cream, and waste not want not! Pour the syrup into a clean bottle or jam jar and stick it in the fridge to chill until you’re ready to use it.

Strain the stewed rhubarb  Strained syrup  Store in a jam jar in the fridge

My favourite way of using this syrup is mixed with sparkling wine to make a rhubarb bellini – a ratio of syrup to fizz of about 1:4 seems perfect for me, and makes a fresh, cheerful cocktail with one of the unmistakable tastes of spring. It would make a lovely little aperitif, I think – how about making it this Easter?

Rhubarb Bellini

Through my student years I’ve taken little bottles of this nectar to a few parties, and experimented with some different (and, indeed, ‘different’!) variations. I can report it’s good with almost everything, but do beware, mixed with ice cold vodka, this is glorious, and far more quaffable than is really good for anyone!

River Cottage Year - cover**
The River Cottage Year, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Hodder and Stoughton, 2003
ISBN 978-0-340-828212
Hardcover, 256 pages, full colour. RRP £18.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

Full of highly seasonal recipes for garden produce and hedgerow ingredients, of course I was going to be drawn to this book. It’s a smaller book than many of the River Cottage tomes, but none the worse for it in my opinion.

River Cottage Year - page viewIf you grow your own, or shop at farmers markets, then this will give you some great inspiration for how to use your produce at it’s best and freshest, month by month. It’s not a vegetarian book, but with veggies the really obvious seasonal ingredients, there’s inevitably a fruit and veggies bias to the recipes, which, in a world where we’re now supposed to be eating seven-a-day, is probably no bad thing!

If you’re vegetarian, or cook for one regularly, I would definitely recommend you give this book a look. An honourable mention for fresh seafood dishes, too, which look stunning – unfortunately, living in the Midlands, these are of limited use to me at the moment. You never know, this may change..!

Really, what’s not to like?

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Milk Loaf, from ‘How To Bake’ by Paul Hollywood – Cooking the Books, week 14

This bread, I have to tell you, is a revelation – a genuine flavour of my continental childhood. The first taste was one of those ‘madelaine’ moments, where time peels away and you’re no more than five or six years old again, standing in your childhood kitchen with a slice of bread and butter in your hand. Heaven.

Of course, milk bread may not have the same associations for you as it does for me. Still, I would suggest you give this bread a go, because, childhood memories or not, it’s marvellous.

For one large loaf, I used -

  • Milk loaf ingredients500g strong white bread flour
  • 30g unsalted butter (softened before use, if you keep it in the fridge)
  • 25g caster sugar
  • 320ml semi-skimmed milk
  • a 7g sachet of instant yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Olive oil
  • Some extra milk for a milk wash before baking

In a large mixing bowl, rub the butter roughly through the flour until no large lumps remain. Then add the sugar, salt and yeast to the bowl, keeping the yeast and salt on opposite sides of the bowl. Add about two thirds of the milk, and mix gently using your fingers.

The recipe calls for the addition of warmed milk. To save on wastage, I warmed 250ml of milk to blood heat in the microwave, and used this for the initial addition. The rest of the milk, I added straight from the bottle. Add it a little at a time until you form a nice soft dough. My favourite way of judging this is to add the milk (or water, in a traditional bread recipe) until the dough is *just* getting a bit too wet, then add back a sprinkle of extra flour to compensate. That way, you know your dough is as well hydrated as it can be.

Before provingOil your work surface and knead the dough until it is soft, smooth, silky, and elastic. I love kneading bread, there’s something deeply therapeutic and – dare I say it? – sensual about it. Then return your dough to an oiled mixing bowl and cover loosely with cling film, and leave it to rise for a couple of hours.

Risen doughI find that this dough goes off like a rocket – it must be the sugar in the mix, the little yeasty beasties really set to and it rises like a balloon being inflated. Still, give it time (which develops flavour, too) and let it tripple or more in size.

For me, milk bread has to be in the form of a plaited loaf. It’s just traditional. This dough is remarkable, elastic stuff, something I learned to my cost the first time I made it. If you work it too much during knocking back, before trying to form your loaf, you will end up with tight springy little balls of dough that resist stubbornly any attempt to shape them into the long sausage-shapes you need to make your plait.

So, turn the risen dough out onto an oiled work surface, and divide it by eye into three even portions (they won’t end up even, but don’t worry about this too much!). Taking each one, knock it back gently and then immediately start folding the sides towards the centre to form your sausages. You may need to roll these a little, using your hands as if the dough is a rolling pin, to get the length you need.

Turn out your dough  Divide into three  Form into sausage shapes

Once you have your three pieces, join them together at one end, make a plait, and turn both ends under to make it tidy. Place your plaited loaf on a lined baking sheet, cover loosely again (I prefer oiled cling film), and set it aside to rise. Allow it to at least double, just be careful it doesn’t rise so fast it tries to escape from your baking sheet!

Place the plait on baking sheet  Cover loosely with oiled cling-film  And allow to rise!

Once it’s well risen, pre-heat your oven to 210 C. Brush the loaf gently all over with a little extra milk, and then slide it straight into the oven and bake it for 25 minutes until the crust is quite a dark brown colour and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped underneath. Cool on a wire rack (or on a cold oven shelf, which used to serve me perfectly well for cooling loaves and cakes before I bought a ‘proper’ one).

Brush with milk  Fresh from the oven!

What can I say about this loaf that isn’t unbearably mawkish? Well, it’s pretty perfect. That dark, shiny crust conceals a wonderful soft even white crumb. It’s not sweet, despite the sugar addition, but has a rich smoothness from the milk. It’s wonderful on its own, with butter and jam, but also makes a quite marvellous soft bacon sandwich. I commend this loaf heartily to you.

Slice, and enjoy!

 

 

**
How to Bake - cover‘How To Bake’, by Paul Hollywood
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2012
ISBN 978-1-4088-1949-4
Hardcover, 304 pages, full colour. RRP £20.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which was a lovely recent birthday gift! I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

I reviewed ‘Paul Hollywood’s Bread’ earlier in this series, and this book is it’s immediate predecessor, on the same imprint. As you’d expect, then, pretty much everything I said then also applies here – with lavish illustration throughout and good ‘step by step’ photography of the basic processes.

How to Bake - inner page viewThe scope of this book is a little wider than ‘Bread’, with chapters on basic and flavoured breads, an extensive section on sourdough baking, as well as good coverage of enriched doughs (croissants, pastries and brioche), and a decent selection of cakes, biscuits, puddings, pies and tarts, too. This additional breadth may or may not be a benefit, depending on your specific interests! This book lacks the accompanying ‘serving-suggestion’ recipe for each of the loaves that was a feature of ‘Bread’.

Overall I would definitely consider adding this book to your library if you’re at all interested in expanding your home baking repertoire. I can see myself experimenting with a lot more of these recipes in the future, and this milk loaf has jumped straight onto the ‘house standards’ list.

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Salmon with Leeks and Cream, from ‘Two Fat Ladies Full Throttle’ – Cooking the books, week 13

It was with great sadness that I heard of the death of the indomitable Clarissa Dickson Wright last month. She, and her Two Fat Ladies co-star Jennifer Paterson, who died in 1999, were in many ways quite the best sort of eccentric British women. They just don’t make them like that any more!

Two Fat Ladies - coverIt seemed right to choose a recipe from the Two Fat Ladies cookbook on my shelf – an Oxfam bookshop find a couple of years ago. The dust-jacket notes describe Clarissa and Jennifer ‘visiting the far corners of the British Isles in their continuing mission to rescue us from food fads and philistinism’ and really, wasn’t that always the point of the Two Fat Ladies?

The recipe I chose, as titled in the book, is ‘Salmon Cutlets with Leeks and Cream’ – and this immediately caused me a problem which would have Jennifer and Clarissa either spinning in their graves, or, I hope, chuckling gently to themselves.

Salmon cutletsThe humble salmon cutlet – or salmon steak portion – sliced straight across the fish with the backbone in the centre, and which I remember being a regular feature of the special-occasion dinner table while I was growing up has, it would appear, gone so far out of fashion that it’s no longer available from supermarket fish counters. Here in the Midlands, supermarket fish counters are they’re more or less our only fresh fish option.

The fishmonger shrugged apologetically as she explained that unless they had a whole salmon to sell off, it just wasn’t a cut they sold these days. Apparently fish with bones in isn’t the done thing any more.

And so, with profound apologies to Jennifer (for it is her recipe), salmon fillets it had to be. To serve two, you will need -

  • Slice & fry leeks Two salmon portions. Cutlets / steaks if you can get them, fillets if, like me, you can’t.
  • Two mid-sized leeks
  • 150ml double cream
  • Unsalted butter
  • ~100g of cooked prawns (mine were frozen, and defrosted before use)
  • A lemon
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 190C. Slice the leeks reasonably thinly and fry until softened with a large knob of butter.

Whip creamWhile the leeks are cooking, whip your cream until it reaches ‘dolloping’ consistency. This is remarkably hard work to do by hand, especially if like me you’re carrying an old wrist injury, so I suggest you don’t follow my example and instead use an electric whisk if you have access to one!

Spoon the remaining leeks overLightly butter or oil two pieces of aluminium foil, large enough to enclose each salmon portion generously. Start with about half the softened leeks in the centre, lay the salmon portion on top of these, and then spoon the rest of the leeks over.

Ready for the ovenFinally add a generous dollop of whipped double cream and half the prawns to each portion. Squeeze over about a teaspoon of lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Now carefully fold up your foil parcels, place these in an oven proof dish, and put in the pre-heated oven for about 25 minutes.

Fresh from the ovenOnce they’re cooked, unwrap your little packages, and serve with your choice of accompaniments (I made some boulangère potatoes, which were a good match). Squeeze over a dash more lemon juice, if you like.

This is a really nice dish – probably a bit swish for a weekday supper but actually, apart from the cream whipping palaver, pretty quick and straightforward. It feels a little bit like food from another era – and in some respects, of course, it’s just that – but the flavours are fresh, distinct, and complement each other nicely. I wasn’t initially convinced by the idea of the prawns, but they do add a sweetness and a different texture to the dish.

And serve!

**
Two Fat Ladies Full Throttle, by Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright.
Ebury Press, 1998.
ISBN 978-0-091-865-016
Hard cover, 192 pages, single-colour printing with full colour plates. RRP £17.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought second-hand from a charity bookshop. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

This book accompanied the third (and penultimate) series of Two Fat Ladies. The recipes are contributed equally by Jennifer and Clarissa and seem to leap off the page in their original voices, which is lovely. Yes, these are recipes full of sugar, butter and cream, offal, game and red meat. Really, what did you expect?

Two Fat Ladies - inner pageA lot of the recipes are highly seasonal or call for rather unusual ingredients (seafood and game feature strongly) and you may struggle to find all the bits and pieces on a trip to an average provincial supermarket! This is no bad thing in my opinion – too many recipe books these days seem to be compiled with one eye on the contents of the shelves of the local Tesco (I can’t help but think Jennifer in particular would have been appalled by how far the hegemony of the supermarkets has progressed in the last decade and a half).

The book, in both its content and presentation, couldn’t be more of a contrast to Jamie Oliver’s ‘Naked Chef’ reviewed here a few weeks back – it’s a bit startling to realise that the Two Fat Ladies and The Naked Chef overlapped on UK television in 1999 (and indeed shared a production company, Optomen Television) – they feel so much like food culture from different eras. The publication date, 1998, is just a year before Jamie’s first blockbuster book offering hit our shelves.

If Jamie was the first in the vanguard of the young, cool, celebrity chefs, then Jennifer and Clarissa were undoubtedly part of the culture of old-school cooks. As a reminder, then, that it serves us to look backwards to our own traditional food culture, as well as outward to that of other countries, these recipes deserve a place in all of our collections.

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

There’s A Hole In My Kettle, Dear Liza… Well, fix it with Sugru!

The blog seems to have been very heavy on recipes since the new year – mostly because all I’ve managed to write most weeks is the Cooking the Books post (and, you know, not always that!). There’s a lot going on in our lives at the moment that I’m not really free to talk about just yet, but which has completely put a stop to the gardening I would normally be stuck into by this time of year (my window ledges are entirely bereft of their usual forest of seedlings, and sitting on my green fingers is such torture!). But this was never intended to be just a food blog, and, of course, life goes on.

Now, I’m sure you all know about Sugru by now – I waxed enthusiastic about it to my little sister last summer, only to discover she’d been an early convert (but had somehow neglected to mention the wonderful stuff to me?!), so I know I’m late to the party. But just in case you haven’t come across it, let me tell you a little bit about this wonderful stuff. Sugru is a mouldable putty, rather like play dough or blue tack. It comes out of a little sealed packet, and then you have 30 minutes to play with it before it starts to set. The Sugru then cures, in the air, at room temperature, in the next 24 hours (longer if it’s a particularly big piece), after which it is set permanently, with a silicone-rubber character.

Sugru pack

So, what? Relatively slowly setting modeling clay doesn’t seem so exciting perhaps… Well, it bonds permanently to a very wide range of underlying materials (plastics, glass, metals, ceramics, fabrics, wood and so on), and will tolerate a wide range of temperatures from -50C to +180C, as well as being flexible, waterproof, electrically insulating… You get the idea, it’s clever stuff! [Full details on the Sugru website, here.]

Back in the summer, I used my first pack to finish my denim strap replacement up-cycle on a pair of flip flops. They held up extremely well to the wear and tear they were put through in the course of what was an unusually hot summer. I’m looking forward to wearing them again this year.

Sandal soles sealed with sugru   Denim strap upcycle - complete

Some of the leftover from the pack, I used to mend and re-attach a cracked knob on our cooker. That repair has held up so well – and is so ‘seamless’ – that until I started writing this little post, I’d almost forgotten I’d ever mended it in the first place!

Broken knob   Blob of Sugru inside knob   Hold knob tight and wait to cure

A few months ago, now, I noticed that our kettle had started leaking, apparently from the join between the metal body and a plastic viewing window set into it. We have very hard water here, so I suspect limescale got established in a little gap and slowly pushed it apart. For a while, it was just the odd drop or two when I boiled a big kettle of water, but then one day, at the end of January, there was rather a big puddle of rather hot water on the kitchen counter after I’d boiled the kettle. Obviously water and electrics are a great mix! I nearly chucked the kettle in the bin and went to buy a new one, but I do hate to throw things away that might still have some life in them – and after all, the kettle still ‘worked’… Then I remembered the Sugru, hiding in the fridge (refrigeration extends the shelf life of the product before use).

Leaky kettle

It seemed too good not to try – I mean, the worst that could happen was still the kettle ending up in the bin anyway. This is one of the reasons I love mending things so much – you can justify all manner of experimentation that you might hesitate to try on a working item for fear of breaking it. My plan was really quite simple – to make a Sugru gasket or seal for the plastic window, by pushing it into the gap all around the outside, and then the water wouldn’t be able to get out any more. So far, so obvious, right? I shared my plan with Hubby, who looked a little unconvinced and told me ‘not to make it look rubbish’ – well, there’s nothing like a vote of confidence from your nearest and dearest…

Now, the surface preparation instructions that come with the Sugru are very simple – they boil down to ‘make sure the surfaces you want the Sugru to bond to are clean and dry’. I admit, I didn’t do this carefully enough. I’d given the kettle a really good wash to remove any grease, and removed as much of the limescale as I could using vinegar. I gave it all a good dry with a tea towel but didn’t really think that there would probably be some residual water (and probably detergent) in the gap I was planning to seal. It turns out soapy water acts as a release agent for uncured Sugru. You have been warned!

Insert Sugru into gap   Trimmed away where adhesion failed

The process was simple enough – roll out little lengths of Sugru, and stuff them into the gap. Then smooth off the surface (to avoid it ‘looking rubbish’). Problem being that around the lower left part of the window, the Sugru refused to adhere and kept falling out again. This was particularly vexing as I’m pretty sure this is where the worst of the leak was coming from! Eventually I gave up and peeled the Sugru away everywhere it wasn’t sticking, tidying up the edges with a putty knife, and left the rest to cure for 24 hours.

Finished job!Fortunately, I had a second pack of red Sugru in my stash, or it would have been a funny multicoloured fix that might have upset Hubby’s ‘rubbishometer’!

On day two, with my second pack, I was able to complete the seal all the way around, without any obvious difficulty. I left it to cure for another 24 hours, and then couldn’t wait to test my repair.

Well, it works. You can see from the photo just below, taken a day or two ago – almost two months after the repair – there is a little bit of limescale visible in a couple of places around the repair. It does still leak *very* slightly – the odd drop of water manages to sneak through while the kettle is boiling energetically, and evaporates on the spot, so for my money, the repair is a success – no more water on the worktop! I’m pretty sure that if I’d waited for the kettle to be really dry (and, lesson learnt, I won’t make that mistake again!) then the repair would have been completely successful.

After two months, with some limescale showing

Will the leak get worse as time goes by? I don’t know yet – it may be that the limescale will continue to do its thing and will slowly push the gap wider. Then again, because the Sugru stays flexible after curing, it may be able to accomodate this without additional leakage. Anyway, in the meantime hopefully I will have worked out what replacement kettle might look best in my new kitchen…

And think, if only he had some Sugru, Henry could have fixed his bucket – mind you, I’ve never worked out how the straw was going to help – can any of you shed any light on the matter?

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Spaghetti with Red Onions, Sun-dried Tomatoes, Balsamic Vinegar and Basil, from ‘The Return of The Naked Chef’ – Cooking the Books, week 12

We’re running behind again! So a quick little recipe to catch us up today. This is a great little store cupboard dish, quick, simple, satisfying and tasty. Vintage Jamie Oliver, in other words!

To serve two -

  • Pasta ingredients~200g of good quality dried spaghetti (I used linguini, since it was what I had)
  • 1 small red onion
  • A large handful of sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil (probably about 8 – 10 pieces)
  • A handful of fresh basil
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Parmesan or pecorino, to serve

To make this extra special, you could serve it with fresh home-made roasted garlic and rosemary bread!

Get a big pan of well salted water boiling briskly, and start cooking your pasta. I’m a big advocate of buying proper Italian dried pasta – it’s a classic example of where spending your money on upgrading ‘basics’ pays massive dividends in terms of quality. The difference between cheap own-brand supermarket pasta and good dried pasta will only be a pound or so, and the difference in eating quality is really significant. Try it if you don’t believe me!

Cook gently in frying panIn a frying pan, heat a glug of olive oil. Chop your red onion reasonably chunky, and fry this gently until soft, sweet, and just taking a little bit of colour. After about five minutes, add the sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped, and about a tablespoon and a half of the balsamic vinegar, and warm through. Add the basil just before the pasta.

Once the pasta is cooked, drain and add to the frying pan with the onions, tomatoes and basil, season (you may not need extra salt as there will be some with the tomatoes) and mix through well. Serve, sprinkled with a little grated cheese.

And serve!

This is really solid, simple, 10-minute supper fare. It tastes great, too – there’s sort of a deconstructed-pesto feeling about it. You could add a little handful of chopped black olives, if you wanted, or a little pancetta (cooked in the pan with the onions) or parma ham if the lack of meat worries you, but I think it’s great as it is!

**
Return Naked Chef - coverThe Return of the Naked Chef, by Jamie Oliver
Penguin Books, 2002 (first published in 2000, this has since been reprinted in 2010 with a new cover and an increased RRP of £16.99)
ISBN 978-0-140-29261-6
Soft cover, 288 pages, full colour. RRP £12.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

Return Naked Chef - inside viewWhat’s to say about this little book that I didn’t already cover with my review of the original ‘Naked Chef’ a few weeks back? Well, it’s much the same sort of beast, really. But that’s not to say that it’s in any sense redundant. My feeling, leafing through this book looking for something to cook, is that it’s very much a ‘summer’ book – full of lovely fresh salads, pasta dishes, and BBQ ideas.

The Italian flavour is very obvious again, but then that’s expected. But as well as the pasta and risotto dishes, there are plenty of roast meat and fish ideas – all full of simple, clean flavours, and which would be wonderful when the fresh ingredients are in season from the garden!

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Spice Up Your Life – with these quick spicy Thai-style noodles

I have no idea how authentic these are – my honest guess is ‘not at all’ – I made them to go with the spicy crab cakes I wrote up for Cooking the Books, but they’re just too good not to deserve a recipe post in their own right. There’s a sort of a dressed noodle salad vibe going on, I suppose, but served hot – though, come to think of it, they might be very good cold, too! As well as making a lovely side dish, these would make a really great quick lunch or supper dish in their own right.

Actually, I’m a little bit gutted about the timing of coming up with this recipe – I’ve spent the last two years working somewhere with no microwave to heat up lunches, and the succession of cold lunches and soup from a flask gets a bit wearisome after a while! If you were to replace the egg noodles in this recipe with the thin white rice noodles that you can cook just by adding boiling water, this would have made a perfectly fabulous hot lunch (think top-notch, gourmet pot-noodles)! Obviously, I’ve just finished working there.

The heart of this dish is the spicy dressing for the noodles, which should keep well for a little while in a jar in the fridge if you end up with more than you need.

For the dressing, combine the following, and mix well -

  • Spicy noodle ingedients2 tbsp chilli oil
  • 2 tbsp of a neutral oil (I used cold pressed rapeseed oil, but olive oil would be fine)
  • 1/2 tbsp of roasted sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • Juice of 1/2 a lime
  • 1 heaped tsp of honey

How hot this dressing ends up will depend on the character of your chilli oil, the ratio of chilli oil to neutral oil (there’s nothing to stop you using 1:3 – or 3:1, for that matter, if you’re a hard case!) and your personal taste in chilli heat. These proportions work for me, but feel free to experiment. I would keep the combined amount of chilli and neutral oil at 4 tablespoons, though, or the balance of the rest of the flavours is likely to be off.

Cook your noodles according to the instructions (these fine egg needed to be boiled for 3 minutes – I allowed one ‘nest’ per person). You could use fine rice noodles instead, or even thin pasta, if that’s what you have to hand.

Now, prepare -

  • Prepared vegetables & dressingHalf a carrot, grated
  • 2 spring onions, chopped
  • A handful of fresh coriander leaves
  • A few peanuts, roughly chopped, if you have them (cashews or pine nuts might work, too, to give a little crunch)

When your noodles are cooked, drain them, add the dressing, mix through with the carrot, spring onions and coriander, and serve with a sprinkle of chopped nuts. Enjoy!

Serve with side dishes of your choice

This is really really good, quick, fresh, tasty (and healthy!) food. The balance of hot, sweet and sour is perfect (well, for me anyway), and there’s a real depth of flavour and complexity, and a deep satisfying savouriness from the sesame oil and soy sauce.

This dish breaks down really well as ‘lunch-box’ fare, too – just take the dressing in a little pot, and the prepared vegetables separately, and cook the noodles just before eating.

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Spicy Crab Cakes, from ‘The River Cottage Fish Book’ – Cooking The Books, week 11

The weekly market in our local town features a chap who comes up from the South coast with lots of chiller boxes full of fresh fish and seafood. Living as we do in the deep Midlands, good fresh fish can be quite hard to come by – we’re really limited to the fish counters of the local supermarkets, where we prefer not to spend money if we can avoid it, and where we’ve had more than a few disappointing experiences over the years!

Last week, little packs of dressed Selsey crab were up for grabs, so of course I had to buy some. Hubby expressed a desire for crab cakes, so we swung by the little Thai supermarket at the top of town and gathered up the obvious fresh additions – lime, coriander, ginger, and lemon grass. Then, I went to the recipe books to see what I could turn up. (This, you will note, is the wrong way round to chose a recipe and shop for ingredients, but never mind!)

The most promising choice was this one from ‘The River Cottage Fish Book’, a big chunker of a book which I bought for Hubby’s birthday a couple of years back, and which we don’t cook from anything like often enough. I had to make a couple of minor modifications to account for the ingredients I had available, and scale down to serve just the two of us.

To make four fishcakes (serves two) -

  • Crab cake ingredients125g mixed white and brown crab meat (simple scaling of the recipe uses 250g of white crab meat here, but 125g was all I had)
  • 50g homemade breadcrumbs (heavy on the sourdough)
  • 1 small hot dried home-grown chilli
  • 1 large garlic clove
  • About half-a-thumb’s worth of fresh ginger (why, for the love of all that is holy, do we measure ginger in ‘fingers’ and ‘thumbs’?)
  • 1 stem of fresh lemongrass (if you have any leftover lemongrass, why not propagate it so you can grow your own in the future!)
  • 1 tbsp of chopped fresh coriander
  • 1 egg (from your own garden hens, ideally!)
  • Some extra breadcrumbs for finishing

Combine ingredients

Finely chop the chilli, ginger, garlic, lemongrass (removing tough, fibrous outer leaves first) and coriander. I used a very sharp chopping knife, and kept going until I’d achieved what was more or less a minced consistency, but if you’re feeling lazy and have one to hand – or you don’t trust your knife skills! – you could definitely use a food processor for the lemongrass and ginger (and possibly the chilli, for that matter) and a press for the garlic. Failing that a pestle and mortar might also do the job!

Combine into a ballIn a bowl, combine the crab well with the breadcrumbs, and then add the ginger, lemongrass, chilli, garlic and coriander, along with the egg, and mix thoroughly. Season with a little salt, if you like. The mixture should come together as a good ball, if it seems too wet, add a some extra breadcrumbs.

Form into cakesDivide evenly into four parts and form each into a nice round crab cake patty, about 1cm thick. Pop these on a plate in the fridge – covered – for an hour to firm up a little.

Coat with breadcrumbsAfter an hour, make a layer of breadcrumbs on a small plate and gently press the crab cakes into them, so that they form a crust on both sides (you could equally use sesame seeds, as the original recipe suggests, if you have these).

Fry in a little hot oil

To cook, heat a little oil in a frying pan (I chose English cold-pressed rapeseed oil, which I’m using a lot lately, but any neutral flavoured oil which takes heat well will do). You can test whether it’s up to temperature by adding a breadcrumb or two – if they start frying immediately, you’re ready. If the oil is too cold, it will just soak into the breadcrumb coating, which isn’t really the idea.

Fry for about 4 minutes on each side, so that a good crunchy golden brown crust develops. Handle the crab cakes very gently and ideally, leave them alone in the pan for the first 3-4 minutes as they might try to fall apart unless a good crust has formed.

I served these with dressed noodles, and a mixed leaf salad picked from our greenhouse. The dressing for the salad was made with rapeseed oil, lime juice, and a little honey. The noodles were so excellent in their own right that they quite deserve their own blog post!

Serve with side dishes of your choice

Doesn’t it make a pretty supper? I do recommend you try these fishcakes, which are really excellent – well balanced, aromatic flavours, with a good solid chilli kick (obviously this will vary depending on the viciousness of your chillies – mine were home-grown last year, and dried, variety ‘Twilight’, which are seriously hot little blighters!). The crab flavour comes through really clearly, despite the reduced quantity – personally I find the brown crab meat adds a lovely rich flavour, and there’s enough of the white meat there for the texture to be appreciable. There’s a lovely crunch from the breadcrumbs, offsetting the soft but not at all pappy interior.

One criticism, which was essentially irrelevant because of the flavours in the noodle dressing, is that they lack the citrus / lime / kaffir lime leaf flavour and aroma that I would expect in a Thai crab cake. This is easily explained, I think – the recipe as presented in the book is ‘Spicy crab cakes with citrus salsa’ – I didn’t make the salsa because I hadn’t got the ingredients (one of the consequences of shopping first, and choosing recipes second!). In any case, while the combination looks like it would make a fabulous starter, it wasn’t really what I had in mind for supper, but I think the citrus deficit would be more than counteracted if you served it as suggested! Regardless, when I make these again, I would include some lime zest in the crab cake mix and serve them with a wedge of lime to squeeze over.

**
River Cottage Fish - coverThe River Cottage Fish Book, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2007 (2nd edition published 2011)
ISBN 978-1-4088-1429-1
Soft cover, 604 pages, full colour. RRP £20.

[Full disclosure: This is my husband's book, which I bought him as a birthday gift. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

This is, as I mentioned earlier, a bit of a doorstop of a book, weighing in at over 600 pages. It’s a pretty comprehensive guide to catching (or buying), storing, preparing, cooking and eating fish and shellfish, along with the usual (and important!) River Cottage message about sustainability. The back 1/3rd of the book is set aside to a natural history of british fresh and saltwater fish and shellfish, which I really must sit down and read properly one day.

River Cottage Fish - inner viewI’ve cooked a couple of times from this book recently (the crab linguine is also very good, and almost pipped the crab cakes to the post for the recipe to write up today) and the quality is consistently good.

There are recipes for all sorts of cooking techniques – including a good variety of open fire and BBQ options – as well as more exotic options including sashimi, curing, smoking, and pickling. I look forward to a time when we’ll be closer to the coast so that I can easily get my hands on a wider variety of really fresh sea food, and when that day comes, I can see this book being promoted from occasional use to being one of our kitchen regulars!

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

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Microwave ‘Roast’ Garlic – and a gorgeous roast garlic and rosemary bread

I was looking for a garlic flatbread recipe yesterday (as you do!) and came across a very intriguing suggestion… that it was possible to ‘roast’ garlic in the microwave, in just a few minutes. Could it be true? If it was, it would save quite significantly on the time and energy involved in roasting in the oven – typically 45 minutes to an hour, fine if you’re organised and remember to put your little tinfoil parcels in with something else, but irritating and inefficient if you find yourself wanting some right now!

The instructions I’d found were only a tantalising hint, unfortunately – vague on both the technique and on power and timings. So I had a little google, and discovered that apparently lots of people were doing very similar things. Convinced now that I was reinventing the wheel, and that everyone else already knew about this trick and just hadn’t bothered to tell me, I tweeted to this effect. What was said in response surprised me – apparently, no one else had heard about it, either. So, I promised to investigate and then blog my findings. True to my word then, here goes!

Obviously, you’re not really roasting the garlic, since this requires the application of direct heat. Consequently you won’t get the caramelisation which true oven-roasted garlic gains (well, you can, but more of this later!). The process is closer to steaming, but produces a soft, sweet, cooked garlic very suitable for using as a substitute for true roasted garlic if you’re short on time and organisation – and there are ways to cheat the last mile and get that caramelisation, too.

For your microwave ‘roast’ garlic, you require -

  • Ready to 'roast'One or more garlic bulbs (I suggest you start with one, until you’re happy with the process),
  • A splash of water and olive oil,
  • A microwave proof dish with suitable loose-fitting lid (or some cling film), and
  • A microwave, obviously.

Slice the top off your bulb of garlic, at a level where you’re just ‘scalping’ all of the cloves of garlic inside.

Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of water to the bottom of your bowl (enough to cover the bottom about 5mm deep), add your clove of garlic cut side up, and drizzle over some olive oil. Cover loosely – don’t seal, and if you’re using cling film, leave a small opening on one side. Pop the whole lot in your microwave.

Now – all of these directions are for *my* microwave, which is a very standard UK-type category E (800W) device. Your microwave may be slightly (or very!) different – even if it claims to be the same – so a little experimentation is going to be required!

Softened and changed colourStart by heating the garlic for 1 minute on full power. Then take it out of the microwave, remove the cover (carefully, as there will be a lot of steam!) and give the cut surface of the garlic a speculative prod with the point of your knife. It should give very slightly, and have changed colour subtly from white to a slightly translucent creamy shade.

It probably isn’t convincingly soft yet, though, so pop it back in the microwave and this time give it 30 seconds on full. Take it back out and repeat the poking process. Depending on the size of the cloves in your garlic, it may well be ready by now. If the surface of the garlic seems reasonably soft (it won’t be pulpy), and the cloves are coming away from their inner skin, then it’s worth popping a clove out to test.

If you can crush the clove easily with the handle of a spoon, then it’s done. If not then give it a little longer. My bulb had a couple of quite big juicy cloves, so I put it back in, but only for a final 15s. So total time in the microwave, for me, of 1 minute and 45 seconds.

Crush a clove to test

After letting it cool for a few minutes, I popped out one of the bigger cloves, and it squashed really easily. Job done.

Taste a little piece – it has become quite unlike raw garlic, instead mild, sweet and aromatic, just like roast garlic. Yes, it lacks a little note of caramelisation – but we’ll get to that!

Here’s the really important thing. ONCE THE GARLIC IS SOFT, STOP!

Burnt garlic bulbBecause, these photos aren’t from my first attempt. The first attempt I made turned out like this. I gave it two initial 1 minute blasts in the microwave, and so pleased was I with the progress it got another 30 seconds. A nice toasted smell started to develop, and a golden colour on the edge of the garlic. I was delighted. Right up until I gave it a poke and it was rock hard. So let my mistake stand for all of you, and we won’t have to sacrifice too many perfectly innocent garlic bulbs!

What do you do with it now? Well, if you want something closer to ‘real’ roasted garlic, heat up your oven, wrap up your garlic in a little tinfoil parcel with an extra drizzle of olive oil, and bake it for 10 – 15 minutes at 180C until it takes a little colour. Much quicker! An even ‘cheatier’ approach might be to heat a little olive oil in a frying pan and just brown off the cut surface gently until golden. No one will ever know!

But most of the time, roast garlic is going into something else, anyway. As I said, all of this came about because I wanted to make some garlic bread to go with pasta for dinner. The one I chose to make is based on this recipe from BBC food.

To make one roast garlic and rosemary bread (serves four generously as a side dish) -

  • Dough ingredients250g strong white bread flour
  • 150ml warm water
  • 1 (7g) sachet of dried yeast
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1 bulb of garlic, ‘roasted’ as above
  • 75g unsalted butter
  • 3 or 4 sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • A generous pinch each of salt and freshly ground pepper

Kneaded dough before rising

Weigh your flour into a bowl, and make a well in the centre. In a measuring jug, combine the water, oil, sugar and yeast, and stir in gently. Now pour the liquid, a little at a time, into the flour, and combine into a dough.

Knead the dough for about 5 minutes, until it becomes silky and elastic, and set aside to rise at room temperature in an oiled bowl until well risen about tripled in size is ideal). This will take an hour or so, more if your room temperature is low!

Crush your garlicIn the meantime, you can prepare your microwave ‘roast’ garlic as described earlier, and allow it to cool. Once you can handle the garlic comfortably, pop all the cloves out of the bulb and crush them with the flat blade of a knife, leaving a little texture (you’re not making garlic puree).

Chop rosemaryFinely chop your rosemary (stalks removed), and mix this, the garlic, salt & pepper into your softened butter. My butter lives at room temperature, but if yours is coming out of the fridge, a 10s blast in the microwave (with foil wrapper removed!) will soften it up and make it easier to work with. You’re pretty much all set, so go and do something else while the bread dough rises.

Well risen dough and herb butterOnce your dough is well risen, find a baking sheet or shallow-sided baking tray and line it with baking parchment. Tip the dough out onto a well oiled work-surface, and knock it back gently, shaping it to the size and shape of your baking sheet. It will be quite a thin layer, probably about 1cm thick. It doesn’t need to be perfect and I certainly wouldn’t use a rolling pin, you should be able to stretch and shape it with your hands just fine. Transfer carefully to the baking sheet – it doesn’t matter if it gets a bit ‘crumpled’ looking!

Shaped dough with butterNow spread your flavoured butter over the surface. Again, use your fingers, blobs and knobs are fine, you’re not aiming for an effect like icing a cake, but try and share the butter around reasonably evenly. Finally, stab the bread all over with a fork, and leave to prove for another 30 minutes or so until the dough is looking a little puffed up again.

When you’re happy, heat your oven to 230C and once it’s up to temperature, slide in the baking sheet. You’ll want to watch this bread reasonably carefully, because it’s quite thin and will bake reasonably quickly, and there’s a risk of the garlic burning and taking on a bitter flavour if your oven has nasty hot-spots (mine does, sadly!). Turn the bread if you notice it starting to brown unevenly. Don’t hesitate to turn the oven down to ~190C if the surface seems to be browning too fast. It should take about 15 minutes to be lovely and golden brown all over.

Bread fresh from the oven

This was a glorious accompaniment to a pasta supper. The garlic acquires all of that sweet caramelised flavour during the baking of the bread, so there’s no loss at all from the microwave roasting process compared to a more traditional approach. After baking, the garlic is sweet and aromatic with none of the raw hot flavour you get have from raw garlic in garlic bread. I will definitely be making this one again.

And serve!There are some obvious variations, which I think would work very well with this bread. Adding some finely chopped, caramelised red onions to the butter would work very well, I think. You could also throw a handful of grated parmesan into the butter mix, which would melt beautifully into the surface. You’re really in pizza-bread territory here, and the world is your oyster! Experiment!

The microwave garlic roasting technique is the real star of this show, for me, though. One of those accidental discoveries which really will change the way I cook. I recommend you give it a try!

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Apple and Carrot Dumplings, from ‘Doggie Biscuits’ by Ingeborg Pils – Cooking the Books, week 10

We’ve been eating very well this year – with a new dish at least once a week, a wonderful side-effect of this blog series! So it was undoubtedly Dave the dog’s turn.

Today’s recipe is from ‘Doggie Biscuits – healthy homemade treats seasoned with affection’, which we were given a few years ago. Dave can be a fussy little chap, and has some dietary restrictions as a result of his serious illness last year (in particular, his diet has to be very low in fat), but a flick through the book turned up a couple of possible candidate recipes which looked like they should suit him.

I settled on the apple and carrot dumplings, because he loves eating carrots (I know, it’s a little strange!). Whether he’d like them, of course, was anyone’s guess!

To make a batch of these dumplings (~20), you will need -

  • Ingredients - apple carrot dumplingsOne small apple (or half a medium to large one)
  • Two very small carrots (one small carrot or half a large carrot)
  • One egg
  • 75g rolled oats
  • 75g mixed dark rye and wholemeal wheat flour (this substitutes for the spelt flour in the recipe)
  • Large tablespoon of black treacle

Mix ingredientsGrate the apple (I left the skin on) and the carrots (well scrubbed or peeled). Then combine all the ingredients and mix well.

Spoon out onto baking sheetPreheat the oven to 180C. Using a teaspoon, spoon out the mixture onto a lined or non-stick baking sheet.

After bakingBake for 30 minutes (turning during cooking if your oven has hot spots). After 30 minutes, turn off the oven but allow the dumplings to cool slowly in the oven. They should come out looking a little like this.

But what will Dave think?

Taste test!

Well, he seems quite pleased with them! (Frankly, I’m delighted he agreed to eat them at all – he’s like that!) They’re quite firm in texture, and seem to take a little bit of chewing, which is good as it adds to the feeding interest.

Dave's cookie jar!I tried one (well, I had to really, didn’t I?) and what can I say… There’s a good firm texture to the outside, but they retain a little softness in the centre. The dominant flavour is molasses, from the black treacle, but it’s not overhwelming. They’re not sweet, but the molasses prevents them seeming savoury. There’s an oaty back-note and a good chewiness. They’re really not unpleasant – I finished a whole one!

Tucking in!

Actually, they remind me of the sort of thing a really ‘right-on’ hippy whole-food parent might feed small children as a healthy snack!

But they’re not for me, and Dave’s verdict is a firm ‘Yes, thank you!’ and who am I to argue?

 

Doggie Biscuits cover

**
Doggie Biscuits, by Ingeborg Pils
Parragon Books Ltd, 2009.
ISBN 978-1-4075-5236-1
Hardcover, 80 pages, full colour. RRP £7.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which was a gift. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

Doggie Biscuits page view

This slightly odd little books contains 30 recipes for dog biscuits of one kind and another (but no cake recipes, despite what the cover image might lead you to believe). From a nutritional point of view they seem pretty sound, and don’t contain anything I would regard as ‘problem’ ingredients – there’s a bit of a fad at the moment for cereal-free dog foods, to my mind it’s just that and not relevant for the vast majority of dogs, but if you’ve been sucked into it, then this isn’t a book for you.

It gives the impression of having been carelessly ‘localised’ for UK publication – several of the recipes call for ‘quark’ for instance (here I was, I thought that was a subatomic particle or a desktop publishing tool – but wikipedia tells me it’s a Germanic sort of cottage cheese). Internet reviews suggest some testing / proofing problems with some of the recipes, too, though I didn’t find a problem with this one.

Appreciative Dave!Overall, there are a few cute ideas here but I probably wouldn’t have bought it myself – it may be a novelty cookbook but that doesn’t excuse poor proofing (the recipe for ground beef biscuits, for example, doesn’t appear to contain any ground beef!). Many of the recipes use quite expensive ingredients, too! It’s an interesting concept, but the reality is a little disappointing. I wouldn’t suggest you rush out and buy it.

Dave’s pleased, though, which is what matters, surely?

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

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