Sunday, December 30, 2007

The brownie syndrome

We're about to head off to Limerick to see in the new year - but I've just got enough time to squeeze in one last post for 2007...

People get just a wee bit possessive about their brownie recipes. On two different occasions recently, I was chatting to some friends, both exceptional cooks, and mentioned that I’d stumbled across a fantastic brownie recipe.

‘What?!’, each one glared at me accusingly, ‘Better than mine?’

Erm. How to answer that?

I think I mumbled something diplomatic like ‘No, of course not…’. But, and this isn’t an attractive quality, my brain was screaming, ‘Yes! Yes it is! It’s the best-ever brownie recipe in the world and it can’t be beat! Just wait till you try it!’

Clearly, I’ve also fallen victim to the Brownie Syndrome. Every cook thinks they’ve discovered the secret combination of ingredients that leads to brownie nirvana and and I’m no exception. However, there are probably as many ‘ultimate’ recipes out there as there are brownie lovers – it depends on vitally important matters such as how much flour you add to achieve your preferred consistency and whether you like nuts, dried fruit, chocolate chunks or perhaps fresh raspberries scattered through the mix. Serious stuff.

This contender for the crown (the winner! the winner!) comes from the kitchen of (who else?) Dorie Greenspan. As it happens, there are eleven different brownie recipes in ‘Baking…’ and I’ve got to admit that I’ve only tried two so far. But with its wonderful fudgy texture and the warm hint of cinnamon that hits the back of your throat, I just can’t see how anything could top this version. Guess I’ll have to try them all and report back…

Hope you all have a wonderful new year's celebration - see you all in 2008!

French brownies from Baking – From my home to yours by Dorie Greenspan

You’ll need:

½ cup of plain flour
a pinch of salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup raisins
1½ tablespoons water
1½ tablespoons dark rum
6 ounces dark chocolate (70% cocoa content), finely chopped
180g (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces at room temperature
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar

1. Centre a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 150C/gas mark 2. Line an 8-inch square baking tin with foil, butter the foil and place the tin on a baking sheet.

2. Whisk the flour, salt and cinnamon together.

3. Put the raisins in a small saucepan with the water, bring to the boil over a medium heat and cook until the water almost evaporates. Add the rum and let it warm for about 30 seconds, then turn off the heat, stand back and ignite the rum with a long match. Allow the flames to die down and then set the raisins aside.

4. Put the chocolate in a heatproof bowl and set it over a saucepan of simmering water. Stir occasionally until the chocolate melts. Remove the bowl from the saucepan and add the butter, stirring until it melts. It’s important that the chocolate and butter doesn’t get very hot. However, if the butter isn’t melting, you can put the bowl back over the still-hot water for a minute. If you’ve got a couple of bits of unmelted butter, leave them – it’s better to have a few bits than to overheat the whole.

5. Working with a stand/hand-held mixer, in a large bowl, beat together the eggs and sugar until thick and pale – about 2 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed and pour in the chocolate-butter mixture, mixing only until it is incorporated – you’ll have a thick creamy batter.

6. Then finish folding in the dry ingredients by hand with a rubber spatula. Fold in the raisins, along with any liquid remaining in the pan. Scrape the batter into the baking tin.

7. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until the top is dry and crackled, and a thin knife inserted into the centre comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool to warm/room temperature.

8. Carefully lift the brownies out of the tin, using the foil edges as handles, and transfer to a cutting board. Cut into 16 squares, each roughly 2 inches on a side.

Cook’s notes

I didn’t have any dark rum the first time I made this recipe, so I just left out the raisins (step 3) and added about a teaspoon of vanilla instead. Not sure if it made any difference, but the resulting brownies still tasted good :-)

Don't be tempted to add more than the amount of cinnamon specified. One eighth of a teaspoon may not sound like a lot (especially to a cinnamon fiend like me) but it's just right.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Would you like some more pudding?

The in-laws had gone to midday mass when we rocked up to their house for Christmas lunch, so we took a detour to Killiney beach to while away some time:

It's mainly made up of pebbles, which made for an interesting experience as I was wearing heels (a very rare occurence, let me tell you) and didn't have any boots in the car (curses!), so off I wobbled on Mr. B's arm to take in some sea air:

Along the way, we saw this young guy, who went for a bracing Christmas Day dip in the freezing cold water (that's his dad on the right-hand side, waiting with towel in hand):

He was the only Christmas dipper we saw, but it's quite a popular past-time both in Ireland and the UK. (It's a tradition/hangover cure in Edinburgh, when some brave souls go for a swim in the Firth of Forth on New Year's Day.) We declined the dad's suggestion that we try it out, despite his offer of a spare towel. Maybe another time :-)

Then we went back to enjoy Christmas dinner with the family. We all brought starters or desserts to help out, as there were eight adults and six kids in total, so asking one person to do all the cooking would have been insane.

Mr B's brother made the suprise hit of the day - curried banana soup. Don't pull a face, it really works! I have the recipe and will make it for the blog some day soon. He also brought along an outstanding sticky toffee pudding, while Mr B whipped up the family trifle (sponge, lashings of sherry, custard, some more sherry, cream, another splash of sherry, topped off with grated chocolate):

If a policeman breathalysed you after eating this pud, the counter would go through the roof.

As well as the Daring Bakers yule log, I made an extremely creamy lime-mascarpone cheesecake, based on a recipe from an old Sainsbury' advert. I swear it's actually a very light green in colour, but all the pictures came out more creamy-yellow:

We're going to be eating pudding for the next month at least...

What about you guys? What do you have for dessert on Christmas Day? Traditional plum pudding and Xmas cake (which were also present at our meal)? Or do you hate the sight of brandy-soaked, fruit-stuffed, stodgy pudding and go for something else altogether?

Lime-marscapone cheesecake adapted from a Sainsbury's advert of yester-year

Serves 12

You'll need:

100g butter, melted
400g gingersnap biscuits

4x 250g tubs of mascarpone cheese
zest and juice of 4 limes
80g icing sugar, sifted

1. Crush the gingersnap biscuits into crumbs - either in a food processor or by hand (there's much therapy to be had in whacking a bag of biscuits with a rolling pin).

2. Mix the biscuit crumbs and melted butter together and then spread across the base of a 9-inch round cake tin (preferable springform, as this makes it easier to get the finished cheesecake out of the tin). Put in the fridge to cool for 20 minutes.

3. In a large bowl, mix together the mascarpone cheese, the lime zest and juice, and the icing sugar.

4. Spread the mascarpone mix across the top of the firmed-up biscuit base and use a fork to make a pattern on top. Put back in the fridge for at least two or three hours before serving.

Cook's notes

The original cheesecake recipe was only for a 7-inch tin. If you'd like to make this smaller version, just halve the amounts given in the recipe above.

I think the original version also stipulated something about frosted grapes and chocolate leaves for decoration - something I've never done but it would look great for presentation purposes.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone!

Hope Santa brought you everything you wanted :-)

A big thank you to Mum, Dad and J. for the lovely presents they sent over from York (cookbooks, of course!) - they'll be put to good use and I imagine the results will feature on this blog pretty soon!

And an enormous cyberspace hug goes to VeggieKate for the fabulous tea cosy in the picture above. It made me laugh out loud when I opened the parcel :-) How cool is that? She knows me so well...

We're off to my sister-in-law's for the big meal and we're taking along the yule log I made the other day, as well as a lime cheesecake, which I'll post about whenever I get a spare moment...

Have a good one :-)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Daring Bakers challenge - festive yule log and meringue mushroooms

Ta da! Here's my first completed challenge for the Daring Bakers - a yule log with meringue mushrooms nestling around the edges for a bit of woodland scene-setting.

I've got to say, it was a lot of fun, even though it's a bit hectic at the moment (for obvious seasonal reasons). Actually, it's been quite therapeutic - having the chance to escape to the kitchen, taking some time out to focus completely on each step of making this cake, in the midst of all the chaos.

However, when I initially read through the challenge, I have to admit, there were a couple of parts that I found daunting:

- the genoise sponge - the last time I made one, it turned out flat as a pancake, so I've been a bit wary ever since

- the buttercream - if you take a peek at the recipe below, you'll see that there's a lot of whipping-eggs-over-hot-water action (same with the sponge). All I could think was that it would be too easy end up scrambling the eggs or curdling the whole lot when adding the butter

- and I don't like coffee. So the coffee flavouring/colouring for the buttercream went right out the window

But I didn't join the Daring Bakers because I thought someone would set a challenge to make chocolate krispie cakes :-) The clue is in the name. It's all about getting out of that kitchen comfort zone and stretching yourself a bit.

In the end, the genoise sponge worked out well - the instructions were clear and thorough, so any apprehension I felt disappeared pretty quickly - I'm a genoise convert. It's a good, flexible base recipe and I'd definitely try it again.

To solve the buttercream-flavouring/colouring problem, I melted 100g of Green & Black's dark chocolate and, after letting it cool down a little bit, I added it to the mixture. Also, to prevent curdling, I made sure that the butter was thoroughly warmed through before use by leaving it in front of the fire for a while (and hoping it would soak up some loggy vibes whilst it was there).

Another tweak I made was to spread some berry compote across the cooked genoise sponge before adding the buttercream - a bit of sweetish-sharpness to cut across the creamy chocolate filling. But if I was going to make this again, I would use cherries soaked in kirsch to create a Black-Forest gateau-type dessert (which would be quite appropriate for a yule log). The jam is ok, in fact it works well, but the cherries would really pull out all the stops for a spectacular, boozy pud.

My log-rolling skills were a bit rubbish though - I didn't end up with a log, so much as a plank (rolling from the long end). It's probably something that comes with practice, needing a quick, deft touch - I was a bit too hesitant to make the roll tight enough. All good knowledge for next time :-)

Mushroom-wise, I had no option but to make the meringue version. The challenge offered a marzipan option but it required almond paste and corn syrup - neither of which are available locally (although I think the wonderful Fallon & Byrne in Dublin stock both products). Apart from nearly squirting meringue all over the kitchen when I first put it in the piping bag, this was an enjoyable side project to the main challenge and added a lovely touch to the finished cake. Although I think I made them quite large - I certainly didn't get 48 mushrooms out of the meringue mix.

Next time, I think I'll make a lemon version, with lemon zest in the sponge, lemon curd spread across the sponge and limoncello in the buttercream. Mmmmmmm - next time might not be too far away!

Thanks for such a fab and delicious challenge, Ivonne and Lisa - it's been a lot of fun and I can't wait for the next one. Take a look at the Daring Bakers blogroll to see how everyone else got on with this challenge (I'm off to have a look now). Merry Christmas everyone :-)

Yule Log from Perfect Desserts by Nick Malgieri and The Williams-Sonoma Collection: Dessert

Serves 12

Plain Genoise

3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
pinch of salt
¾ cup of sugar
½ cup cake flour - spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off (also known as cake & pastry flour)
¼ cup cornstarch

one (1) 10 x 15 inch jelly-roll pan that has been buttered and lined with parchment paper and then buttered again

1. Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees F.

2. Half-fill a medium saucepan with water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat so the water is simmering.

3. Whisk the eggs, egg yolks, salt and sugar together in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Place over the pan of simmering water and whisk gently until the mixture is just lukewarm, about 100 degrees if you have a thermometer (or test with your finger - it should be warm to the touch).

4. Attach the bowl to the mixer and, with the whisk attachment, whip on medium-high speed until the egg mixture is cooled (touch the outside of the bowl to tell) and tripled in volume. The egg foam will be thick and will form a slowly dissolving ribbon falling back onto the bowl of whipped eggs when the whisk is lifted.

5. While the eggs are whipping, stir together the flour and cornstarch.

6. Sift one-third of the flour mixture over the beaten eggs. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the flour mixture, making sure to scrape all the way to the bottom of the bowl on every pass through the batter to prevent the flour mixture from accumulating there and making lumps. Repeat with another third of the flour mixture and finally with the remainder.

7. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

8. Bake the genoise for about 10 to 12 minutes. Make sure the cake doesn’t overbake and become too dry or it will not roll properly.

9. While the cake is baking, begin making the buttercream.

10. Once the cake is done (a tester will come out clean and if you press the cake lightly it will spring back), remove it from the oven and let it cool on a rack.

Coffee buttercream

4 large egg whites
1 cup sugar
24 tablespoons (3 sticks or 1-1/2 cups) unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
2 tablespoons rum or brandy

1. Whisk the egg whites and sugar together in the bowl of an electric mixer. Set the bowl over simmering water and whisk gently until the sugar is dissolved and the egg whites are hot.

2. Attach the bowl to the mixer and whip with the whisk on medium speed until cooled. Switch to the paddle and beat in the softened butter and continue beating until the buttercream is smooth. Dissolve the instant coffee in the liquor and beat into the buttercream.Meringue

Mushrooms

3 large egg whites, at room temperature
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ cup (3-1/2 ounces/105 g.) granulated sugar
1/3 cup (1-1/3 ounces/40 g.) icing sugar
Unsweetened cocoa powder for dusting

1. Preheat the oven to 225 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment. Have ready a pastry bag fitted with a small (no. 6) plain tip. In a bowl, using a mixer on medium-low speed, beat together the egg whites and cream of tartar until very foamy. Slowly add the granulated sugar while beating. Increase the speed to high and beat until soft peaks form when the beaters are lifted. Continue until the whites hold stiff, shiny peaks. Sift the icing sugar over the whites and, using a rubber spatula, fold in until well blended.

2. Scoop the mixture into the bag. On one baking sheet, pipe 48 stems, each ½ inch (12 mm.) wide at the base and tapering off to a point at the top, ¾ inch (2 cm.) tall, and spaced about ½ inch (12 mm.) apart. On the other sheet, pipe 48 mounds for the tops, each about 1-1/4 inches (3 cm.) wide and ¾ inch (2 cm.) high, also spaced ½ inch (12 mm.) apart. With a damp fingertip, gently smooth any pointy tips. Dust with cocoa. Reserve the remaining meringue.

3. Bake until dry and firm enough to lift off the paper, 50-55 minutes. Set the pans on the counter and turn the mounds flat side up. With the tip of a knife, carefully make a small hole in the flat side of each mound. Pipe small dabs of the remaining meringue into the holes and insert the stems tip first. Return to the oven until completely dry, about 15 minutes longer. Let cool completely on the sheets.

Marzipan Mushrooms

8 ounces almond paste
2 cups icing sugar
3 to 5 tablespoons light corn syrup
Cocoa powder

1. To make the marzipan combine the almond paste and 1 cup of the icing sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat with the paddle attachment on low speed until sugar is almost absorbed.

2. Add the remaining 1 cup of sugar and mix until the mixture resembles fine crumbs.

3. Add half the corn syrup, then continue mixing until a bit of the marzipan holds together when squeezed, adding additional corn syrup a little at a time, as necessary: the marzipan in the bowl will still appear crumbly.

4. Transfer the marzipan to a work surface and knead until smooth.

5. Roll one-third of the marzipan into a 6 inches long cylinder and cut into 1-inch lengths.

6. Roll half the lengths into balls. Press the remaining cylindrical lengths (stems) into the balls (caps) to make mushrooms.

7. Smudge with cocoa powder.

Assembling the Yule Log

1. Run a sharp knife around the edges of the genoise to loosen it from the pan.

2. Turn the genoise layer over (unmolding it from the sheet pan onto a flat surface) and peel away the paper.

3. Carefully invert your genoise onto a fresh piece of parchment paper.

4. Spread with half the coffee buttercream (or whatever filling you’re using).

5. Use the parchment paper to help you roll the cake into a tight cylinder.

6. Transfer back to the baking sheet and refrigerate for several hours.

7. Unwrap the cake. Trim the ends on the diagonal, starting the cuts about 2 inches away from each end.

8. Position the larger cut piece on each log about 2/3 across the top.

9. Cover the log with the reserved buttercream, making sure to curve around the protruding stump.

10. Streak the buttercream with a fork or decorating comb to resemble bark.

11. Transfer the log to a platter and decorate with your mushrooms and whatever other decorations you’ve chosen.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Daring Bakers challenge - a work in progress...

If anyone's dropping by to see my results for the latest Daring Bakers challenge (hi!), please, please, please come back tomorrow for the finished item :-)

The yule log has just gone into the fridge to firm up (only a bit of cracking at each end, phew!) and I'm now off to whip up some meringue mushrooms.

But here are the results so far...

The genoise sponge topped off with some berry jam and chocolate buttercream:

The finished roll, ready to go into the fridge for the night:

Update: I've just realised what time it is and the mushrooms are going to take about an hour and a half to make. Think I might tackle them in the morning with a fresh brain!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hurray!

Woohoo! I passed my driving theory test this morning!

Of course, this now means I'm going to be let loose in a vehicle on the roads next year. Look out Ireland!

As a little treat after the test, I wandered up to Hodges Figgis and picked up some early Christmas presents for, er, me:

Nigel Slater's Eating for England - how can I resist the UK's most treasured food writer?

AA Gill's Table Talk - a collection of pieces showing off the acid-tongued restaurant reviewer at his best. Always entertaining and good value, unlike anything else in the Style section of The Sunday Times.

Pauline Nguyen's Secrets of the Red Lantern - a beautifully put together book about Vietnamese food and stories from Pauline's family. A real object of beauty.

I should probably point out that I did buy presents for other folks too. But I can't say what they are as I know some of those people read this blog. So no spoilers before the big day!

I'm looking forward to curling up with all of these fantastic books but right now I've got to run out the door, grab a train and go to Mr B's office Christmas party. Tis the season!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Housekeeping

I've just enabled comment verification on this blog - something I really should have done in the first place but hey ho. It seemed only sensible as I received this comment from 'Adam' overnight:

'Hello I just entered before I have to leave to the airport, it's been very nice to meet you, if you want here is the site I told you about where I type some stuff and make good money (I work from home): here it is...'

OK Adam, pull the other one - it's got bells on it. What the !!! I've never met the bloke - it's clearly just a scam (and not a very good one at that). Although I know 99.9% of the bloggers out there are genuine and it's great fun to have the comments interaction, I was daft not to have some level of security on my blog in the first place to prevent spam.

I deleted the comment but the guy's profile link is still displayed - I don't know if I can get rid of it. So please, if you're reading the comments on Playing with sharp objects, don't click on the 'Adam' link. God know where it leads.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Four things...

I was tagged a while ago by the highly-talented Laura of Eat, Drink, Live with the 'four things' meme that's going around. So, here are my highly scintillating answers...

4 jobs that I've had...

Chambermaid: my first proper paid job when I was a teenager. They tried to promote me to breakfast waitress with disastrous results, so back to the cleaning I went. (That was in York, hence a slightly tenuous link to the pic of York Minster and St Michael Le Belfrey above.)

Sandwich maker: oh wow, the perfect job, especially for a cash-strapped student. I got to make sandwiches all day, eat as much as I wanted and take leftovers home. If they'd paid the equivalent of say, the CEO of British Telecom, I'd still be there, no question.

Door-to-door sales person: I lasted precisely one day at this - and only because I was being dragged around in a car with a training group and couldn't get away more quickly. It made me sick to the stomach to watch the oily team leader go to work on persuading vulnerable grannies that they really wanted restaurant vouchers that they couldn't afford. Yuk.

Shopgirl on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh: I worked for a couple of student summers in a shop selling vastly overpriced (but suprisingly nice) knitwear to tourists. Because this put us in the heart of Festival territory, we spent a bit of time gawping at any famous people walking by, who were trying to be 'normal'. Like Christopher Lloyd - looking very grumpy and lost - or Terry Gilliam, who came into the shop and bought a jumper for his wife. We were all very unreasonably overexcited and star-struck. But no one did a silly walk or quoted Python at him, so I think we carried ourselves through the occasion with some measure of dignity.

4 places that I've been on holiday...

Scotland: it's where we used to go on holidays when I was a kid and I loved it to pieces. May explain why I ended up going to uni there too.

Paris: went with an ex-boyfriend. Should have gone on my own.

Australia: I travelled for a month around Oz when I was 25 and just wish that I'd stayed for longer. Have grand plans to go back one day...

Dingle: this one's special as it was during my first trip to Dingle with Mr B that we decided to get married. No big sweeping proposal (sorry to any romance fans out there), just a mutual decision and then celebration with a couple of pints of Guinness and some Murphy's icecream. But not at the same time (although nearly).

4 favourite foods... (this one is subject to change on a whim at any given moment)

Mikado biscuits: this is a recent discovery, since moving to Ireland, and one that can do no favours for the waistline. If you've never encountered a Mikado before, it's a biscuit composed of marshmallow, jam and coconut. So the nutritional value is absolute zero. Complete crud. And, in the run-up to Christmas, I've discovered that you can buy big variety boxes of them and that they have a close cousin in chocolate form. The outlook for my figure isn't good.

Pickled cucumber: it's a family thing. My maternal grandad used to make jars of the stuff, which we'd greedily consume every time we went round to visit. Better than anything you can buy in the shops. Unfortunately, Grandad was never the type to write down recipes and, now that he's passed on, no one knows how to replicate the master formula. I've tried and failed miserably.

Bread: I went on one of those detox diets once - you know the kind I'm talking about: you give up everything that offers any kind of pleasure in the hope of losing a couple of grams. This particular version (lets call it the Varol Corderman diet) included sacrificing bread. I lasted for two exceedingly grumpy days before I cracked and stuffed my face after passing a bakery.

Apples: or, more precisely, apples with cinnamon. What a perfect combination. Apple pie, apple cake, apple pancakes, apple muffins... Oh the possibilities.

4 places I'd rather be...

In a second-hand bookshop - nothing like a good rummage through the stacks looking for hidden gems. And the smell of books gently mouldering has a magical appeal that makes me all giddy and child-like.

In The Manna House Bakery in Edinburgh - rosemary and rocksalt-spiked fougasse that will make your jaw ache with its chewyness (in a good way, of course), apple brioche with a suprise custardy centre and many other wonderful bakery gems to boot. Why did I ever think I could do a detox that involved giving up bread? Madness.

Back in Italy with Mr B - we went there for our honeymoon last year. I managed to badly hurt my leg by falling down some stairs during the first few days, which put a serious limit on our sight-seeing etc (especially in Florence, where there was a beautifully-timed taxi strike). It didn't ruin our holiday, just constrained it a bit. So it would be wonderful to go back and explore everywhere properly. And next time I'll look where I'm going before wandering down some slippery stairs.

Sitting on the Dingle Peninsula, eating sandwiches on a sunny day, admiring the nearby Blasket Islands before heading back to town for some more Murphy's icecream.

Now... who to tag next? I nominate Holler, Winedeb, Lynn and Carrie. But only if they have time! That's something in short supply around this time of year!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Playing with sharp objects

Inspired by Holler's smoothie making the other day, I went off in search of our juicer to give it a whirl after far too long on the shelf (along with all the other 'must have' kitchen widgets that we've accumulated over the years). But then, quite typically, I was distracted by the first shiny object that I saw - the mandoline.

And so I rushed off to find things to slice (apart from my fingers). And look up recipes that required lots of finely sliced things. If you're in the mood for a mighty fine potato tortilla, then I can highly recommend this recipe over at Smitten Kitchen. But if you want something that looks and tastes a little bit Christmassy, then please give this fennel and smoked salmon salad a try. It's one of those dishes that offers maximum flavour and enjoyment in return for not much effort. Let's face it, we could all do with a few more time-savers at this time of year :-)

For the record, I only nearly lost the tip of a finger - when I took the safety guard off the mandoline and tried to squeeze through one last wafer thin slice of fennel. And almost slipped. That was a close call!

Smoked salmon and fennel salad from Tossed, 200 fast, fresh and fabulous salads

Serves 4

You'll need:

2 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced, fronds reserved
200g smoked salmon, cut into strips
2 tbsp snipped chives
rocket leaves, to serve
4 lemon wedges

For the dressing:

2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp caster sugar
125 ml olive oil
2 tbsp lemon juice

1. Thoroughly whisk all the dressing ingredients together and put to one side. Chop enough fennel fronds to make up 1 tablespoon and add to the dressing.

2. Arrange the rocket, fennel, salmon and chives on a plate and serve, with the dressing and lemon wedges along side. Or toss all the salad ingredients with the dressing and then serve - however you prefer to do these things.

Cook's notes

I used a little less oil than the recipe suggested. I couldn't tell you exactly how much as I just guess-timated in order to have a sharper, less oily salad.

I forgot the chives. Oh well - that's nothing new. Spring onions were a perfect substitution.

It worked out suprisingly well as a main course salad. I thought it would leave us hungry for something else afterwards but, with a bit of crusty bread along side, it was all we needed for dinner.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A wodge of stodge

Yay, my laptop was returned yesterday! The scribbled note that accompanied it said there had been something wrong with the mainboard. Does that mean anything to anyone? My lack of techno-knowledge is shameful. Anyhoo, they fixed it and I'm back up and running :-)

So, what have I been cooking in the meantime? Lots of things that went wrong, as it turns out! I tried making rugelach for the first time and managed to weld them firmly to the baking sheet. A cranberry orange sorbet turned out a brilliant deep red colour but only tasted of oranges (nice but not the point...). Then a salmon dish I was convinced would be a total stunner ended up just being, meh, ok. Soon I'll be burning toast.

When it all goes wrong in the kitchen, there are certain fall-back recipes that I return to repeatedly because they never ever, ever let me down. Like this shepherdless pie - it's certainly a great big wodge of stodge with all that mashed potato on top but it's also crammed with veggies in the lentil layer, so you feel like it's doing you some good, even as you roll away from the table to collapse on the sofa in a starch haze. Perfect cold weather food.

Right, now that I've got my proper list of favourites back, I'm off to catch up with the rest of the blogosphere!

Shepherdless pie - adapted from a Good Food magazine recipe somewhere back in the mists of time

Serves 6

You'll need:

2 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, chopped
2 celery sticks, diced into small pieces
3 carrots, diced into small pieces
2 peppers, diced
400g can of chopped tomatoes
¾ pint / 425ml veggie stock
2 tbsp tomato pureé
100g red lentils, rinsed
3 tbsp green pesto

For the mash:

1.5kg floury potatoes, such as Roosters (told you there was a substantial starch element)
Milk
Cheddar cheese, grated
2 to 3 garlic cloves, crushed

1. Heat the oil in a large pan with a heavy base. Add the onions and fry for about 10 minutes, or until soft. Add the celery, carrots and peppers, and continue to cook for another 5 minutes.

2. Stir in the chopped tomatoes, stock, tomato pureé and lentils. Bring the mixture to the boil, then cover and simmer for 20 minutes, until the lentils are tender.

3. Take off the heat, season well, stir in the pesto and then spread the mixture in a 1.7 litre capacity ovenproof dish.

4. Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6 and get on with whipping up the mash - you don't have to use the version above if you have a particular or favourite way of making it. But you'll need about 1 to 1.5kg of potatoes, depending on how much you love spuds. Me, I love them, so I err on the side of greed and chuck in a couple of extra.

5. Spoon the mash over the filling, sprinkle some more cheese over the top and then bake in the oven for about 30 minutes, or until the topping is crispy and golden brown.

Cook's notes

My friend uses red pesto for this recipe and we sometimes argue (nicely) about which is better - green or red. I still think green wins out - adds a real zip to the recipe.

This is a great one for the freezer - divvied up into individual portions and stashed away, it can be a bit of a lifesaver in the dark, miserable days of winter when the inspiration/motivation/energy to cook goes right out the window.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Jinxed

There's obviously something weird going on with me and technology at the moment. First off, I managed to mist up my camera lens when trying to take a picture of some soup (which was completely tasteless by the way and somehow makes the misted lens situation worse - cos it would have been worth it if the soup tasted great?).

Now my computer has gone kaput.

The extremely helpful people at PC World think it's just the power port but it could be the motherboard... So my laptop has to go off for a proper check-up. Which could take a couple of weeks.

Eurgh. No internet. No email. No blog? Noooooooooooo! The room is starting to spin...

However, it's not all doom and gloom as Mr. B has said I can use his laptop for the duration. What a lovely guy :-) Just hope I don't unwittingly damage this computer with my techno-jinx...

This means I should be able to get round to reading/leaving comments on everyone's blogs as per usual but if I haven't done so recently then you know why!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The icecream man cometh

Just the sheer number of cinnamon-spiked dishes I've posted on this blog probably speaks volumes about how much I love this spice. I will happily make any recipe in which it is the main star or I will sneak in a little extra if it's only meant to have a supporting role. In short, I am a cinnamon fiend.

So when Kieran of Murphy's Icecream put out the call the other week for recipe testers for his upcoming book, well... it was a shoe-in which one I would go for. Cinnamon icecream - oh wow.

Now, I've got to admit, this was a leetle bit of a selfish choice on my part - Mr. B likes cinnamon, he thinks it's, you know, ok and all that. But it's not his favourite. So back I went to Kieran's recipe list to search for something that would preserve marital peace and harmony. And there it was - hot fudge sauce. Mr. B likes to consider himself something of an afficianado when it comes to icecream extras - he has his own special recipe for chocolate sauce, along with the sweetest tooth of anyone I know, so Kieran's recipe would be judged against stringent standards.

The icecream turned out like a dream, as the warm spice of the cinnamon partnered well with the creamy custard base - a real taste of Christmas (you know, when you're still far enough away from Christmas that it still seems exciting). And I have confirmation of that from people who aren't as enamoured of cinnamon as I am - we polished the whole lot off for dessert one evening when we had friends round for dinner, along with this scrumptious apple tart from Smitten Kitchen. Unfortunately, there is no picture of this happy event as I'm still a bit shy about taking food pictures when other people are around. I've got to get over that.

But did the hot fudge sauce meet Mr B's exacting expectations?

And how. He was seriously considering drinking the lot straight from the jug at one point. I think I mentioned that he has a seriously sweet tooth :-) In the end, he showed admirable restraint by simply drowning his icecream in the molten, fudgy gorgeousness.

I'd love to tell you that I've deliberately shot a soft-focus pic here but the truth is I think I screwed up my camera the other day when I leaned in to closely to snap some soup and a bit of steam got into the lens. Now everything looks like I'm applying for a job with the M&S advertising team. For mouthwatering pics of icecream, hot fudge sauce and many other wonderful things (along with the recipes, of course) I'd recommend a trip to Icecream Ireland.

Good luck with the book, Kieran. It's certainly been fun testing the recipes!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Old haunts

Well, I fell off the NaBlaPoMo wagon in spectacular style. Apart from a general tendency towards laziness on my part, I think part of the problem was that posting articles every day on the internet was a lot like my old job... which was posting articles every day on the internet. So, unsuprisingly, blogging became much less fun than usual.

And then I scarpered off to Edinburgh for a long weekend to catch up with all the people I haven't seen since I moved to Ireland in June. Hurray! It was good to see all the familiar faces, catch up on all the gossip and visit old haunts - but I'm glad to be back home as, pathetically, I missed Mr B soooooooooooo much.

All this means that I'm feeling rejuvenated and ready to get back in the kitchen. Normal food-related blogging will resume shortly!

PS That's a picture of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh on a grey and cloudy day (roll on winter). All very moody and atmospheric. Love it.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Lovely, lovely links

I keep meaning to update my blogroll, or maybe set up a completely separate page for all my favourites because that list is getting rather long and not everything is food-related and really, maybe I need separate categories and, ooh, suddenly it's getting complicated...

Whilst I go off and figure out some kind of blog taxonomy for my links, here are a few gems I've stumbled across recently that are either making me chuckle or salivate:

Lunch - two architects with a mission to escape the office and eat as much of New York as possible during their lunch hour. Wish I was there too.

Eggbeater - the rest of us may play at making our masterpieces in the kitchen but Shuna is the real deal - a pastry chef with an overwhelming passion for both her subject and life in general.

Mollie Katzen - the Moosewood founder is online! I found this link through Winedeb (cheers!) and I've been clicking through the recipe archive, noting down many, many things to keep me busy in the kitchen. The dilemna is where to start.

Grandad - possibly the most cantankerous resident of Ireland, Grandad sticks his hobnailed boot into whatever subject is unfortunate to cross his path and gives it a good, hard kicking. Warning: this site contains some, no, a lot of strong language.

Mustaches of the Nineteeth Century - if you're on Blogger then you probably saw this pop up as one of the 'top picks' a few weeks ago. At first, I thought that this would be a subject with limited potential but oh, how wrong I was. Go on, take a peek, you know you want to...

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

In defense of cheese on toast

I can tell what you're thinking... 'Come on Jen, I know you're trying to find something to blog about every day for NaBloPoMo and all that, but cheese on toast? That smacks of sheer desperation.'

But wait, in my defense, this is lip-smackingly wonderful cheese on toast. Perhaps the best ever. Ever. And when you find out that the recipe comes from the queen of all good eating, Alice Waters, then there really can be no argument.

There's no curiously plastic day-glow orange cheese or slice of cardboard-like bread involved here. Instead, there's tangy, soft goat cheese, blended with garlic and thyme to create... well, something that had me salivating from the minute I read the recipe, let alone when it was under the grill. The smell coming from the cooking mixture had me jumping round the kitchen like a small child, checking every few seconds to see if it was done yet.

Yes, when I finally removed the slices from the grill, I managed to burn my tongue. Greedy guts.

Goat cheese croutons/toasts from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison (who cites Alice Waters as the recipe source)

Serves 6

You'll need:

170g soft white goat cheese
3 tablespoons milk or cream
1 garlic clove, minced
2 teaspoons coarsely chopped thyme leaves, plus extra for garnish
Salt and freshly milled pepper
6 large or 12 small baguette slices

1. Smooth the goat cheese with the milk or cream, then stir in the garlic, thyme and a little pepper.

2. Toast the bread slices under the grill until the tops are lightly coloured. Then spread the cheese mixture thickly over the untoasted side and put under the grill again until the cheese goes golden-brown and bubbly on top.

3. Serve with salads, stews, soups...

Cook's notes

This lasted two days for me because I used bigger pieces of bread and I made it the main course of my meal, instead of the appetiser/starter that the recipe would suggest.

As you'd expect, the garlicky taste was stronger after the flavours had a chance to mingle overnight in the fridge. Delicious.

Yesterday, I paired the toasts up with salad, today it made a good sharp foil against a lentil stew from Mollie Katzen's online site.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Cinnamon dreams

Not quite cake, not quite cookie, snickerdoodles fall somewhere inbetween in the baking lexicon. Lightly crisp on the outside, soft and tender-crumbed on the inside, they make another good accompaniment to a mid-morning cup of tea or coffee.

Have I mentioned that they're rolled in cinnamon sugar? And that there's a generous grating of nutmeg in the cake/cookie/whatever-it-is mix?

As a consequence, they smell heavenly when they're baking in the oven. Imagine the scent of cinnamon and nutmeg wafting around the house, lifting the spirits, making everything feel snug and warm on a chilly autumn day. Consider it a form of aromatherapy with edible results.

And I defy anyone to eat just one snickerdoodle alone, particularly when they're still warm from the oven. It's simply not possible. I've already eaten three while typing this up...

Snickerdoodles
from How to be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson

Makes around 21

You'll need:

250g plain flour
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¾ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
125g butter, at room temperature
100g plus 2 tablespoons caster sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon cinnamon

1. Preheat the oven to 180Cgas mark 4 and line or oil two baking trays.

2. Combine the flour, nutmeg, baking powder and salt, and set aside for a moment.

3. In a large bowl, cream the butter with the 100g of sugar until light in texture and pale in colour, then beat in the egg and vanilla.

4. Now stir in the dry ingredients until you have a smooth, coherent mixture.

5. Spoon out the remaining sugar and the cinnamon on to a plate. Then, with your fingers, squidge out pieces of dough and roll into walnut-sized* balls. Roll each ball in the cinnamon mixture and arrange on the prepared baking trays, two inches apart.

6. Bake for 15 minutes, by which time they should be turning golden brown. Take out of the oven and leave to rest on the baking trays for 1 minute before transferring to a wire rack to cool.

Cook's notes

For a chocolatey variation, replace 25g of the flour with cocoa powder.

Be careful with the baking time on this recipe. Snickerdoodles are supposed to be a teensy bit dry, making them good tea-break dunking material, but it's easy to go too far and dry them out completely.

Nigella suggests they'd be good with spicy poached plums and cream. I'm also thinking pears... Or crumbled over icecream... I wonder if you could adapt it into some kind of cobbler topping... Oh the possibilities!

They don't store well, so they would make a lovely treat to share with work colleagues or friends on the day of baking or within 24 hours at most.

*I don't know what kind of walnuts Nigella is used to but they must be tiny. She suggests that this recipe makes about 32 snickerdoodles, but I only managed to scrape 21 together at a push.

I've eaten another one to see me to the end of these notes. I don't think that Mr. B is going to get a look in.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Joker's Chair

Another couple of images from the archive. Normal food blogging will resume tomorrow once I get that camera back from Mr. B!

To set the scene: I was wandering through Merrion Square one fine summer's day...

When this quirky-looking (bronze?) chair lurking under the trees caught my eye...
Well, it was quite clearly staring at me (I mean, look at the eye on that thing!), so I stared straight back.

Once I'd stopped being so aggressive, I took a closer look at the inscription...

If you can't quite make it out, it says 'Dermot Morgan 1952 - 1998'.

Father Ted.

I don't know how much the name means to anyone outside Ireland or the UK but Dermot Morgan was an Irish comedian and actor who played the eponymous lead character of the Father Ted series on TV, making a generation of students laugh so hard that beer/alcoholic beverages of choice would spray out of their noses. Check out the Friends of Ted for some seriously devoted fans and Tedfest '07. Other (more sane?) people must have liked it too as it won several BAFTAs along the way.

Dermot was also a founding member of Scrap Saturday - a political satire on RTÉ radio during the late 80s and 90s. I would never have known about this wonderful program except for Mr. B, who was a big fan and snapped up the 'best of' CD that came out a couple of years ago. It's side-splittingly funny and has been on repeat in our house ever since.

And that was my first introduction to some of the key players in Irish politics. Unfortunately, because the series was so darn funny, it's difficult to take any of them seriously in real life. Although, come to think of it, who does?

What particularly makes me smile is that this beady-eyed memorial is only a stone's throw away from the Irish government buildings and all the characters Dermot used to mercilessly satirise. Clearly, someone else has a sense of humour too...

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Sunny memories

Mr B. has run away to Kerry for work purposes and he's taken the camera with him :-( Nevermind, he'll be back tomorrow.

In the meantime, this has given me the perfect excuse to go trawling through my photo archive, weed out the rubbish (of which there is a lot) and see if there's anything interesting and food-related to post here.

Icecream on a sunny May day at the Edinburgh farmers market seems to fit the bill. More specifically, low-fat, no-sugar, vegan strawberry icecream,* which was absolutely delicious. And I wasn't the only one who thought so - the stall selling it ran out by mid-morning.

This was a treat that sparkled with flavour on the tongue. It performed that wonderful trick of tasting more like strawberries than the real thing. Sunshine somehow captured in a cone. A real pleasure to be lingered over on a warm day, while taking in the view of the Castle - I don't know of too many other farmers markets with such an amazing backdrop. (Although I'd love to put that to the test by visiting all the markets in the world, just to make a fair comparison, of course...)

As for the icecream makers, they were local farmers who had come up with an ingenious solution to their strawberry glut (rather than just going the usual jam-making route), so it could have been just a one-off thing for them to pitch up on that particular Saturday. I don't know if they ever came back as I moved to Ireland not long after taking these photos. But I truly hope so.

*Being an inquisitive/nosy person by nature, I asked what went into the icecream. I was expecting to hear that there was at least some soya milk or cream, because the resulting flavour and texture was so creamy. The answer turned out to be just water and incredibly ripe strawberries (hence the need to make something with then before they turned bad). Who'd have thunk it?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Aya, Clarendon Street, D2

There's something quite mesmerizing about watching little plates of sushi and sashimi move at a stately pace around a conveyer belt. All those different shapes, colours and combinations drifting gently by, waiting for you to snap out of it and decide which one to pick first.

It took me a while to choose because I've never tried sushi before (how can that be?) and was quite content to enjoy the visual feast for a while. But once I'd grabbed a plate of spicy noodles, I picked up pace a bit, trying some salmon, nori rolls, a bit of tuna and then wontons stuffed with more salmon. Yum.

Many other tempting dishes paraded by as well - mackerel, prawns, mussels, squid and a couple of things I couldn't identify, but I was feeling a little unadventurous since it was my first sushi trip (oh the foodie shame).

Except for the little mystery bundles in the slightly blurry picture above.* They'd made a couple of sexy, twinkling rounds on the conveyer belt and Mr B. had noticed me eyeballing them.

'Do you want to try them? I'll go halves with you.'
'Alright then. They're such a gorgeous colour but I've no idea what they are.'

We asked the waitress and she told us it was fantail roe. None the wiser, we shrugged our shoulders and tried a piece each. Kind of peppery, kind of crunchy. Pretty nice. I'd eat it again.

Then I got home and googled fantail. DON'T CLICK ON THIS LINK if you'd rather not know what it is. Don't say I didn't warn you.

However, it hasn't put me off in any way, shape or form. In fact, the whole thing was a little bit addictive - it's nearly dinnertime and I'd like some more, please. I want to know what all those mystery dishes are, work my way through the menu, try everything at least once, maybe twice for good measure. So I'll be going back as soon as possible :-) Although that's all I need - a new food addiction...

*I'm not keen on taking photos in restaurants as I feel it's a bit annoying for other customers - they didn't ask to have a flash bulb popped in their eyes when they're there to enjoy the food. But that green was so cool, I just had to show it to you. So I managed to turn the flash off and get a couple of sneaky snaps.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The sweeter side

Butternut squash isn't something I ate as a kid but after trying it a few years ago I came to love it, love it, love it. I'll throw this versatile veg into soups, salads, stews, risotto, eat it roasted as a side dish... However, I've never used it to make anything sweet rather than savoury. High time, then, to remedy the situation.

Which brings us back round to Jamie Oliver's latest book,* in which he has a recipe for butternut squash muffins. Bingo. He mentions that the result is a bit like carrot cake, which had me hooked straightaway, seeing as that's one of my favourites (along with all the other favourites...). And, as if I needed an extra reason, there is cinnamon involved - oh yes, count me in. What I wasn't so sure about was the fact that you use the entire butternut squash, skin and all.

What? Grate the whole lot? All I could imagine was encountering bits of hard squash rind in the middle of an otherwise perfectly delicious muffin. Why? Why would you do that to yourself?

But Jamie's rarely set me on the wrong path before so I gritted my teeth, trusted the recipe and got on with the grating.

After some skinned knuckles and a bit of swearing, I realised that everything would turn out ok. I hadn't really thought about the fact that the skin on a butternut squash is pretty thin. So it would just melt into the batter as the muffins cooked - exactly the same as carrot cake. Hurray!

Of course, this means you're sneaking in an extra bit of fibre too. But sssssssssssh - don't tell anyone ;-)

Butternut squash muffins from Jamie at Home by Jamie Oliver

Makes 12 muffins

You'll need:

300g, plain flour, unsifted
350g light brown soft sugar
sea salt
2 heaped teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
175ml extra virgin olive oil
4 large eggs
400g butternut squash, skin on, deseeded and grated
a handful of walnuts, chopped

For the frosted cream topping, which I clearly didn't use:

zest of 1 clementine
zest of 1 lemon and juice of half a lemon
140ml soured cream
2 heaped tablespoons icing sugar, sifted
optional: lavender flowers or rose petals
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways and seeds scraped out

1. Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4 and line your muffin tin with paper cases.

2. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and a pinch of salt. In a separate bowl, mix together the oil and eggs.

3. Add the wet mixture to the dry mix and stir until just combined. Then add the grated squash and chopped walnuts. Stir to combine but being careful not to overmix.

4. Fill the paper cases with the muffin mixture and bake in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the oven, leave to rest for five minutes and then take the muffins out of the tin and leave to coo on a wire rack.

5. Icing: Place most of the clementine zest, all the lemon zest and the lemon juice in a bowl. Add the soured cream, icing sugar and vanilla seeds, and mix well. Taste and adjust the balance of sweet/sour by adding a little more icing sugar or lemon juice as necessary. Spoon the icing over the muffins once they're completely cold.

Cook's notes

As you can see from the photo above, I didn't bother icing the muffins. I think I've mentioned before that I'm a bit lazy.

Next time I'll add some raisins or sultanas too, making it even more like carrot cake.

If I'd read the blurb at the beginning of the recipe properly then I would have seen the sentence, 'The skin of the butternut squash goes deliciously soft and chewy when cooked, so there's no need to peel it off.' And then I wouldn't have worried in the first place. Guess I was in too much of a hurry to make those muffins!

*I renewed the book from the library - there are a few more things I'd like to try :-)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Out of the comfort zone

The great NaBloPoMo marathon has kicked off and I've got to confess that I'm too chicken to sign up. Partly this is because I'm going to be away for a couple of days this month and may not be able to post, but mostly it's just that I'm a whole barrel-load of lazy. OK, I'll commit to writing for as many days of the month as I have access to a computer. (I don't think they have a blogging group set up for the partially committed...) Although, much like Hellojed over at It Had Better Be Good, I'm not sure what I'll be writing about. Guess that's all part of the fun!

So here's the first post of 30(ish).

Something magical happens when you drop kale into a saucepan of boiling water. Almost instantly, the dark green leaves take on a striking emerald hue, becoming a little transparent in the process. In fact, they wouldn't look out of place in a stained glass window. (Hmmm - a great vegetable window anyone? No?) How can eating in winter be considered dull or a deprivation when you have such wonderful produce to play with? And I love playing with my food :-)

This dish was my lunch the other day (and the day after - it reheated well). I had to fiddle with the recipe a bit to suit what I had in the house (not enough kale, basically) but I think it worked out ok: the higher bean-to-kale ratio made it more of a main course than a side dish.

Kale with cannellini beans adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

Provides 2 main course portions

You'll need:

250g kale or mixed greens, stems and ribs removed
Salt and pepper
1 small onion, finely diced
1½ tablespoon olive oil
2 plump cloves garlic, minced
Pinch red chilli flakes
2 teaspoons chopped rosemary
½ cup white wine or water
1 x 400g tin cooked cannellini beans, rinsed well
Freshly grated Parmesan (optional)
Croutons to serve

1. Simmer the kale in salted water until tender - around 7 to 10 minutes. Drain and reserve the cooking water, and chop the kale.

2. In a large pan, sauté the onion in the oil with the garlic, pepper flakes and rosemary for about 3 minutes. Add the wine/water and cook until it's reduced to a syrupy sauce.

3. Add the beans, kale and enough cooking water to keep the mixture loose. Heat through, taste for salt and season with pepper, and serve with a dusting of Parmesan.

Cook's notes

Just for interest, Deborah specifies 1½ to 2 pounds of kale, in order to serve 2 to 4 people. The rest of the recipe is exactly the same as shown above.

I didn't have any white wine around, so I just used water. Sounds dull but worked well. But I'd like to try the wine version at some point - it probably adds an extra savoury note.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Playing around

I'm bored with my Blogger template. Again. So if this looks a bit different or downright rubbish, it's because I'm playing around...

But I also wanted to do a quick post because I completely forgot to say this earlier - happy Hallowe'en to everyone!

Update: I'm sticking with this look. I'd forgotten that annoying problem with the minima template when the leading between the lines bunches up if you try to add more than one photo. That's the kind of thing that irks my copy-editing soul.

Soup art

So there I was, about to attempt a fancy, swirly sourcream pattern in some beetroot soup when I realised that the blobs had shaped themselves into a cute Scottie dog - or should that be a West Highland terrier? Hmmm, I thought. You can get coffee art, so why not (accidental) soup art? I've invented soup art!

Then I remembered that soup art already exists - in restaurants. That's what they do.

Oh well, it was still extremely tasty and a rather vibrant pinky-purple to boot.

And there's a sneaky, hidden ingredient to make this a proper winter warmer... vodka! Only a teeny bit, mind - 2 teaspoons per serving. Just enough to give a little kick.

But, seeing as I'd like to enter this recipe for the Weekend Herb Blogging event (hosted by Kalyn's Kitchen), let's concentrate on the beetroot and what it can do for you, as I think we all know what the vodka does in large enough quantities. And how.

After rummaging through a couple of books*, I found out that:

  • Beetroots are an excellent source of folic acid and a very good source of manganese and potassium.

  • However, don't throw away those beet greens - they're even more nutritious because they're richer in calcium, iron and vitamins A and C, as well as containing magnesium, phosphorus and vitamin B6.

  • Beetroots have long been used for medicinal purposes, mostly to treat liver disorders, because they stimulate the liver's detoxification process (bringing us back to that vodka...).

  • The amazing colour comes from a pigment called betacyanin, which is apparently a powerful cancer-fighting agent.

  • Beet fibre has been shown to have 'a favourable effect on bowel function' (such a lovely way of describing it).

  • Those last two points mean that beetroot is thought to help protect against colon cancer.
So there you go. Beetroot - an all-round winner in the 'good for you' stakes, as well as being pretty to look at (once cooked, admittedly) and a pleasure to eat. What more could you possibly want?

Tipsy beetroot soup from A Paradiso Year (Autumn and Winter Cooking) by Dennis Cotter

Serves 6 to 8 people

You'll need:

800g beetroot
3 onions
6 cloves garlic
half a bulb fennel or 1 stick celery
olive oil
100g potato
1,500ml vegetable stock
1 tablespoon fresh dill, fennel or lovage
large pinch cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to season
vodka
sourcream to serve

1. Cook the beetroot in boiling water until tender, then peel under cold running water and chop coarsely.

2. Meanwhile, chop the onions, garlic and fennel or celery, heat some olive oil in a pot and cook them until the onions are soft.

3. Chop the potato and add it to the onions, along with the beetroot, the stock and your chosen herb. Bring this to a boil and then simmer, covered, for 30 minutes, or until the potato starts to break down. Add the cayenne pepper and the balsamic vinegar. Blend the soup to a smooth purée, season well with salt and pepper.

4. Pour the soup into the bowls and put a teaspoon or two of vodka into each serving. Then drizzle a little bit of sourcream over the top and serve.

Cook's notes

I'd maybe double the amount of potato suggested but that's just because I like a really thick soup.

Vodka - I tried the soup both with and without it, and it works both ways. So if you don't want alcohol in your lunchtime soup, don't worry, it's still delicious.

*The fantastic beetroot facts came from The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods by Dr Michael Murray and Dr Joseph Pizzorno, with Laura Pizzorno.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Nice matters


The very lovely Holler over at Tinned Tomatoes has given me this award! Cheers Holler! And she's right - nice does matter. Sometimes I wish there was a bit more of it in the world.

So, in turn, I'd like to pass on the award to the following bloggers because they always make me smile, and I think that's a nice thing :-)

Hellojed at It had better be good
CookieCrumb at I'm mad and I eat
The mysterious Caked Crusader
Debs at The Humble Housewife, and...
Carrie over at Ginger Lemon Girl

Mr B. wants to know if I can now call this an award-winning blog...

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Happiness is a warm chocolate choc-chip muffin

This is something I used to dream about in my last job, staring at a watery cuppa and a stale bun, wondering how I was going to cram all the work in unless I developed several clones. One day, I quietly vowed, on that tantalisingly out-of-reach day when I have nothing much to do except please myself, I will make delicious muffins. And I will take the chance to slow down and appreciate them properly, fresh and warm from the oven - every last soft, rich, chocolatey bite.

Today was that day.

And they were goooooooood.

Ok, I'm not working at the moment but I'm not completely free to please myself forever - unfortunately my bank account won't allow it :-( So now I have to find a new job. But at least I'll have some proper muffins to help me through any stressful times!

Chocolate choc-chip muffins from Baking – From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan

Makes 12

90g unsalted butter
110g dark chocolate (around 70% cocoa solids), coarsely chopped
2 cups plain flour
2/3 cup caster sugar
1/3 cup cocoa powder, sifted
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
Pinch of salt
1¼ cups buttermilk
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Put a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 190C/ gas mark 5. Butter or spray a 12-hole muffin pan or line with paper muffin cups. Place the muffin pan on a baking sheet.

2. Melt the butter and half of the chopped chocolate together in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water (or do this in a microwave). Remove from the heat.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, bicarb of soda and salt. In another bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, egg and vanilla extract together until well combined.

4. Pour the liquid ingredients, as well as the melted butter-chocolate mix, over the dry ingredients and with the whisk, or a spatula, gently but quickly stir to blend. Don’t worry about being thorough – a few lumps are better than overmixing the batter.

5. Stir in the remaining chopped chocolate. Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups.

6. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until a thin knife inserted into the centre of the muffins comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool for 5 minutes before carefully removing each muffin from the pan.

Cook's notes

I chopped up the chocolate into pieces that were a bit to small - so most of them melted into the batter as the muffins cooked. But they still tasted fab, so no biggy.

However, I'd probably crank up the chocolate chunk quotient next time. I'd say use 55g for the melted choc that becomes part of the batter, as per directions above, and maybe 100g for extra chocolatey chunk goodness.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A tasty burger

We're not a vegetarian household but that's how we eat a lot of the time. I'm always interested in getting a bit more variety in my diet than the monotonous meat and two veg. So I was highly excited when my copy of Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson arrived on the doorstep earlier this year. I rapidly bookmarked a whole bunch of recipes to try out, but then moving to Ireland and setting up a new life got in the way of doing... well, anything else really. It's only recently that I've had the opportunity to dive back into this book and get cooking.

Chances are, if you're into food blogs then you've probably come across Heidi by now. And if you've enjoyed her blog then you're likely to enjoy the book too. What I like about her writing is that she doesn't ever really say 'eat this, it's good for you'. Instead, she lets the recipes speak for themselves: interesting, often new (to me, anyway), ingredients from around the world, brought together in tasty combinations that stand confidently on their own, without anyone hankering wistfully after animal protein. It happens to be good for you? That's just a bonus.

And the photos? Everything looks so vibrant and beautiful, with rich, jewel-like colours shimmering on every page - colour is such an important part of stimulating appetite and appreciating food (as Heidi discusses) and the pics certainly reflect that. Also, it has to be said, I'm a sucker for interesting photography and thoughtful design - this book has it in spades. Nice paper choice too - it feels good to run your fingers across the pages. (Yes, I like to stroke books... doesn't everyone?) This is a book that's been put together with love from start to literal finish of the inside cover.

So, once I'd snapped out of my book-lovin' reverie, I had to decide where to start. Oooh - sticky teff-kissed spice loaves... Well, I'll have to go on a teff hunt first, so that's earmarked for another day. Gnocchi alla Romana... that sounds good but we've eaten lots of pasta and sauce over the past couple of days, so, again, reserved for a future date.

Then I remembered a conversation with my former workmate Chloe (hi Chloe!), in which we'd both drooled over the gorgeous-looking chickpea burgers. Yes, I thought, that's a good place to start. And what an inspired bit of thinking (Heidi's, not mine, I hasten to add) - turning the burger into the bun and stuffing it with extra veggies. No more too-sloppy or too-crumbly, tasteless concoctions for this kitchen - so often the problem with veggieburger recipes. This is a tasty, beautifully-textured burger, indeed.

Here's a link to the 101 Cookbooks archived recipe for sprouted chickpea burgers from Super Natural Cooking.

Cook's notes

I changed nothing. Not a thing. How often does that happen? Oh, actually, I left out the micro sprouts but that's just because I had a 'senior moment' when I was out shopping and forgot to buy any. (I'm only 31 - this doesn't bode well.)

These patties were also good as leftovers - very easy to split open when they're cold and then stuff with whatever's to hand in the fridge. That's my lunch you're looking at in the photo at the top :-)

For some reason, I'm now thinking that these would work well in a wrap with some salad and tzatziki. Mmmm - time to make some more!

Monday, October 22, 2007

I love my local library

Sometimes you open a cookbook and a recipe leaps off the page, teasing you with its mouth-watering description and general all-round sexiness. So you amble into the kitchen like a person hypnotised, cookbook in hand, because you have no other option - that recipe isn't going on any 'to make' list nor will it be filed away for another day. You have to make it now.

At least, that's what happened to me after I found this sitting happily on the shelves of my local library in all its hardback glory:

Plum bakewell tart is the recipe that worked its voodoo magic on me. There are a few others I'd like to try from this book* but the thought of a thick layer of vanilla-scented frangipane and juicy plum quarters, with a dollop of spicy jam hiding underneath... Mmmmmm. Before I realised it, I was rummaging through the kitchen cupboards, looking for the necessary ingredients. By some minor miracle, I had them all. Hurray!

Having said that, it had better be a sustained case of baking lust, as you need the best part of an afternoon to make the recipe. The pastry and frangipane both need half an hour to rest in the fridge, then there's a further hour in the freezer (!) for the pastry once you've eased it into the tart tin... And you have to make the jam. So I'm thinking it's more of a lazy Sunday afternoon project than something to whip up after work. But it's worth it. Oh yes. Like Mr O. says, it blows any factory-made version out of the water.

*Maybe I'll try for a proper book review before the library due date at the end of the month.

Plum bakewell tart from Jamie at Home by Jamie Oliver

You’ll need a 28cm tart tin for this recipe.

For the sweet, shortcrust pastry (which makes enough for two tarts), you’ll need:

500g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
100g icing sugar, sifted
250g cold, unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
Zest of 1 lemon
2 large eggs
A splash of milk

1. Sieve the flour and icing sugar into a large bowl. Using your hands, work the cubes of butter into the flour and sugar by rubbing your thumbs against your fingers until you end up with a fine crumbly mixture. Now add the lemon zest.

2. Add the eggs and a splash of milk to the mixture and gently work it together until you have a ball of dough. Flour it lightly. Flour your work surface and place the dough on top. Divide the dough into two pieces. Pat each piece into a flat round, flour them lightly, wrap in clingfilm and put into the fridge to rest for at least half an hour. (Put the half you’re not using in the freezer at this point for another day.)

Or just buy some good-quality ready made pastry. I was in the mood to make pastry this time around but that’s not always the case :-)

For the plum bakewell tart you’ll need:

A knob of butter
½ x sweetcrust pastry recipe above
1kg plums (mixed varieties would look pretty)
100g vanilla sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cornflour, dissolved in 1 tablespoon cold water
50g flaked almonds
icing sugar

For the frangipane, you’ll need:

285g ground almonds
50g plain flour
1 vanilla pod (or 1 teaspoon of good-quality vanilla extract)
250g unsalted butter, at room temperature
250g caster sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten.

1. Grease a 28cm tart tin with a little butter and make your pastry. After it has rested for 30 mins in the fridge, take it out and roll it out on a floured surface. Line the tart tin with your rolled-out pastry, easing it into the ridges at the side. Place in the freezer for an hour.

2. Put the ground almonds and plain flour together in a large bowl. Halve the vanilla pod lengthways and scrape out the seeds, using the back of your knife and add to the bowl (or just add the vanilla extract). Beat together until light and creamy. Add the eggs and beat again until the mixture is smooth. Place in the fridge to firm up for at least half an hour.

3. Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4 and bake the pastry case for around 10 minutes, or until lightly golden brown. Remove from the oven, leaving the oven on.

4. Halve the plums and remove the stones. Finely chop half of them and place in a saucepan with the vanilla sugar and the cinnamon. Cook gently until softened, with a jammy consistency, then stir in the cornflour and simmer until thickened.

5. While the plums are cooking, cut the remaining plum halves into quarters and macerate them for 5 minutes by sprinkling them with icing sugar. Carefully spoon your plum jam into the pastry case and smooth it out across the bottom. Spread the frangipane over the plum jam. Arrange the plums on the surface of the frangipane, pressing them in lightly. Scatter the flaked almonds across the top.

6. Bake the tart in the oven for about 1 hour, with a baking tray under the tart, just in case it bubbles over. Once cooked through and golden brown on top, remove the tart from the oven and leave it to cool.

7. If you like, mix together a few tablespoons of icing sugar with a little warm water and drizzle over the top of the tart before serving.

Cook's notes

So, what didn't I do as per the recipe this time? Well, I didn't have a 28cm tart tin for a start, so I filled a 21cm tin instead and used the leftovers to make free-form tarts. I think I stuffed too much frangipane into the tin but other than that, it worked pretty well.

The pastry - it was ok. I've tried other, better versions, so if you have a 'go to' sweet pastry you'd probably be better off using it. Also, I used a teaspoon of cinnamon instead of the lemon zest recommended because I was angling for a more spicy autumn flavour overall.

Jamie recommends half a teaspoon of mixed spice for the jam but my love of cinnamon won out and I chucked in a teaspoon instead. While this made for quite a spicy jam, it balanced out when paired up with the frangipane.

It is a loooooooong recipe. I think the easiest way to make it would be to make the consituent ingredients on one night and then put the tart together on the next.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

In good company

The very lovely Deborah over at The Humble Housewife has put together a list of Irish food blogs. I've added a link on the right-hand side to her post, as well as here, so if you'd like to check out what's happening around the country, take a peek.

Maybe there are now enough of us for an Irish Food Bloggers' Association. Maybe there already is one and I've just not realised! Time for some more surfing...

Friday, October 19, 2007

Camera class 101

Note to self: please, please, please remember to check the settings on the camera before taking any pics. Otherwise you'll end up with slightly blurry pics of your very last cup of fennel soup and will be left with no other choice but to post it on your blog because the recipe's so darn good it can't possibly wait for another day. Nnnnnrgh!

Fennel and almond soup from Little Red Gooseberries by Daphne Lambert

Serves 4

You'll need:

4 fennel bulbs
1 leek
50g butter
1.2 litres (2 pints) vegetable stock
4 tablespoons ground almonds
Salt and pepper

1. Cut the fennel leaves from the bulb and save for decoration. Remove the tough outer layers of the fennel bulb and chop the remaining bulb into small pieces. Remove the outer leaves from the leek and slice into rounds.

2. Melt the butter in a thick-bottomed pan and stir in the fennel and leek. Sweat gently for 5 minutes. Add the stock and bring to to boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Add the ground almonds and cook uncovered for a further 10 minutes.

3. Cool slightly then blend the soup until smooth. Heat through and divide between 4 bowls.

4. Serve garnished with the chopped fennel leaves (although I used some lovely purple watercress I found in the farmers market last weekend).

Cook's notes

As per usual, there was something I tinkered with or, in this case, left out because I didn't have it :-) The recipe specifies that 2 teaspoons of pastis should be added at step 3. So if you like a stronger aniseedy flavour, go for it. However, although I love fennel both raw and cooked, I dislike stronger aniseed flavours like liquorice, so I was perfectly happy with my non-pastis version of this soup.

I'm sure it's possible to cut the butter down for this recipe but it does add a gorgeous rounded-out flavour that complements the fennel and almonds rather well, so I'm loathe to mess with it.