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


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


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


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 pureƩ
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)
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 pureƩ 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.