Monday, 31 December 2012

Ginger Foxtails

I met my husband on New Years Eve. My flatmate had invited one of his old school friends (later to be my husband) to spend it with us. As we bar-hopped my friends disappeared one by one and by midnight only my future husband and I remained to face the unlikelihood of securing a taxi back to join my flatmate. We bonded on the hour-long icy slip-slide walk home, and started dating a couple of weeks later. Since then I have much preferred to stay in and enjoy the company of friends and family. Huddling in crowded bars, shouting to be heard and queuing in the freezing cold for a taxi are not my idea of fun. True, our lives could have been very different if we hadn't ventured out on that particular New Year's Eve. But this year my husband and I will be celebrating the New Year and our first meeting by sharing a few cocktails by the warmth of the fire, cocktails inspired by our wonderful daughter who will be (hopefully) fast asleep in bed, blissfully ignorant of the debt her existence owes to the many cab drivers who failed to stop for her parents all those years ago.

Ginger Foxtail

This cocktail was inspired by our daughter Evie who has the most beautiful ginger hair. She is also at that amusing age where she gets words a little mixed up. During the Christmas holidays she has amused us by wrapping presents with 'sellopate', singing to wish us a Merry Christmas and a 'happy new ear' and asking her Auntie Beth why we drink 'foxtails'? So, here is a 'Ginger Foxtail' inspired by Evie and her equally gorgeous, ginger fox Aunt. Evie will just have to wait a few years before she can try it.

Ginger syrup
Grand Marnier
Sparkling White Wine: Champagne; Prosecco; Cava...

For the ones I made I used a tablespoon of ginger syrup from a jar of crystallized ginger that I had in the cupboard. You could equally make a ginger syrup by roughly chopping some fresh ginger and adding it to a mixture of 2 parts sugar to 1 part water. Bring to the boil in a saucepan and stir so that the sugar dissolves. Take off the heat and allow to cool. I put a tablespoon of the syrup and the same of Grand Marnier and topped it up with the sparkling wine. 

Happy New Year!

Friday, 28 December 2012

Baked Camembert

Hygge is an inspirational word. It is a Danish word that does not have a direct translation into English. I would love it for this reason alone, for its uniqueness, its layered complexity. I like the higgledy-piggledy way that languages cannot sit side by side; words can have nuances that cannot be neatly and easily defined in a bilingual dictionary. I also love the way that language is so intrinsically tied to a place, a culture and its people. I have never been a scholar of grammar beyond necessity, but am passionate about language as a path to the discovery of another culture. My love of languages stemmed from a curiosity about other cultures, and in turn this led to a love of food and its place within a culture. Hygge represents all that I love about language and food as an insight into the soul of a nation. It is part of Danish heritage; the art of creating a comforting and cosy experience to share with friends and family, particularly in the depths of winter. 

The beauty to be found in language is one of life's simple pleasures, along with delicious food the perfect way to lift my spirits. Is there a simpler or more pleasurable experience than plunging bread into sweet and unctuous melting cheese? When the air chills and the night's draw in my cravings for melted cheese begin, most often I figuratively and, if I am lucky enough, literally head for the melting dishes of the Alps: tartiflette; raclette; fondue. But for simplicity you cannot beat baked Camembert, a lazy fondue that is delicious baked cocooned in its wooden box but which can be enhanced with so many possibilities: slivers of garlic; a splash of wine; studded with dried figs, apricots or cranberries. My current favourite is a subtle flavouring of herbs and honey. Throw in some crusty bread,  a few slices of saucisson, cornichons and capers, a snuggly blanket, candlelight and someone to share it with by the fireside. Hyggelig.

Honey & Herb Baked Camembert

This is not a recipe. It is more a state of mind to lift the spirits and a serving suggestion.  

A whole boxed Camembert (Brie makes a good substitute)
A teaspoon of honey
A few slivers of garlic (optional)
A small handful of herbs; rosemary or thyme.

Remove the Camembert from the box and take off the waxed paper. Return the cheese to its box or a dish that fits the cheese snugly. Make a few slits in the top with a sharp knife and push in the garlic. Top with a spoon of honey and a sprinkling of herbs. Bake at 180°C for 20-25 minutes, until the cheese is molten. Serve with your choice of charcuterie, cornichons, capers, crusty bread, boiled potatoes or toasted brioche and for preference a small glass of sweet sherry.   

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Grandma's Russian Toffee

When I was little my Grandma would send us bags of treats: home-made biscuits, cakes and sweets. Russian toffee and her fruit cakes were my favourite. For the uninitiated, Russian toffee is not toffee in the usual sense; it has a buttery fudge-like taste but with a more pleasingly crumbly texture. There is a similar confection known as Scottish tablet, though this usually comes in much chunkier pieces. I like to follow my grandma's lead and smooth it into flatter pieces. It is very sweet; a little goes a long way. I should warn you that although this recipe is very easy, you do need to stir the toffee constantly for about 20 minutes, so it is a recipe for a day when you are in the mood for a mindless, repetitive task. It is certainly worth the effort and makes a great present when visiting friends and family at any time of year.

Grandma's Russian Toffee


A can of condensed milk (397g.)
500g. sugar
250g. butter
A couple of tablespoons of water.
A few drops of vanilla essence (optional)

Line a baking tray with parchment and put a large saucepan on medium heat. Put the sugar and the water into the saucepan and warm to dissolve the sugar. 

Add the butter and condensed milk, melt all ingredients together. Constantly stirring, bring the mixture to the boil. You want to keep the mixture bubbling gently, you may need to reduce the heat a little if it starts to spurt with the ferocity of an Icelandic geyser.

Keep stirring and bubbling until the mixture turns a caramel colour and thickens. After about 20 minutes, it will become more difficult to stir. At this point pour it into the baking tray and smooth down the mix with a spatula or pallet knife. You need to work quite quickly as the mix will start to set. 

When it has cooled for a minute or so cut into pieces with a sharp knife and then leave to cool in the tray. Stored in a jar (the ones in the picture are 75 pence from Ikea), it will keep for weeks; decorated with ribbon they make a lovely home-made gift.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Cranberry Frangipane Tartlets

We had a lovely laid-back Christmas Day, just the three of us. Much as I love to entertain a crowd, it was nice to linger for a little too long in our pyjamas and have a loose schedule to the day. We grazed through the morning and early afternoon, culminating with an early evening Christmas Dinner. The cranberry sauce leftovers were used to make this little treat to savour after Evie was tucked up in bed.

Cranberry Frangipane Tartlet

Makes 4 tartlets.

Shortcrust pastry (I used some leftover ready made that I had stashed in the fridge - see Gooseberry Tart recipe if you need to make some)
8 tsp. cranberry sauce
50g. butter (at room temperature)
50g. caster sugar
50g. ground almonds
1 egg
1tsp. cinnamon 
A handful of flaked almonds.

Preheat your oven to 180°C. Roll out your pastry and line 4 tartlet tins. Spoon a couple of teaspoons of the cranberry sauce into the bottom.

Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and creamy. Beat in the egg, then carefully stir in the ground almonds and cinnamon. 

Spoon the frangipane over the cranberry sauce to fill up the tart cases and place a few flaked almonds on the top.

Bake for approximately 25 minutes or until the frangipane is cooked through and the almonds are lightly toasted. Serve warm with a dusting of icing sugar.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012


Nadolig Llawen! Merry Christmas! I know, I know... I have been absent for a month. I have been occupied by Christmas fayres, carol concerts and nativity plays, not to mention the shopping, the baking... oh and the day job. Something had to give and I'm afraid it was the blog. I have been feeling guilty about failing to inspire in the run up to Christmas. Then I heard Chris Evans on his Radio 2 breakfast show. He was explaining how he and his wife had decided that this year they were avoiding Christmas celebrations until Christmas Eve and continuing the festivities right through the traditional twelve days of Christmas. Unfortunately, by the time I was listening to this it was too late for our household; the tree was already up and Evie had already sat on Santa's knee thanks to her school holding their fayre in November. Nevertheless, I think this is a lovely sentiment and one I am going to try and go for wholeheartedly next year. Just starting to think about Christmas in this way has changed my mindset. It is all too easy to get carried away with the logistics of Christmas Day and forget that though its presents and culinary traditions are an important part of the celebrations it is actually only a small part of the whole holiday. So, as I sit in a mess of torn wrapping paper, watching Evie busily play with her new toys and open her fifth chocolate before breakfast I am excited about the fun to come: baking and crafts with Evie; family winter walks followed by lazy, comforting meals; ice-skating; teaching Evie to ride her new scooter; having time for my family and myself. This is better than any present anyone could buy. So, really the festive season has only just started and I am kicking it off with gingerbread biscuits.

Gingerbread Biscuits

I first made this gingerbread for my sister's wedding. We made snowflake shapes for the favours. It is easy to roll out fairly thinly, holds its shape and doesn't rise too much in the oven, perfect for decorative gingerbread biscuits. But more importantly, it tastes good and fills the kitchen with deliciously sweet-spiced Christmas scents.

Makes approximately 24 medium sized biscuits.

125g. butter
100g. light muscovado sugar
4 tbsp. golden syrup
325g. plain flour
1tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. ginger
1 tsp. cinnamon 
1/2 tsp. grated nutmeg

Melt the butter, sugar and golden syrup together on a low heat. Allow to cool.

Mix in the other ingredients to form a dough. Roll into a ball and squash down into a disk shaped slab. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for half an hour or a couple of days until needed. 

When you are ready to make your cookies preheat your oven to 180°C and line a baking tray with parchment. Roll out the dough on a floured surface to no more than 1/2 cm. thickness. Cut into shapes and place on the baking sheet. Bake for approximately 10 minutes or until golden.

Allow to cool and decorate. Here I used piped royal icing and edible glitter on the snowflakes and on the round biscuits I cut out ready rolled icing disks and stamped them using acrylic stampers and an edible ink pad fashioned from food colouring gel soaked kitchen paper. What better way to spend a festive afternoon? Happy holidays. Vx

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Evie's Pudding

Some weeks ago I was reading a restaurant review by Jay Rayner in the Observer. His description of menu disappointment struck a chord. 'After eating there I wanted to nick the menu and give it to someone with enough talent to realise its potential. It is one long masterclass in disappointment.' (The Observer. 4th November 2012)

Only days before I had ordered 'Butterscotch Banana Cake' for dessert in a restaurant. I anticipated light sponge moistened with a buttery caramel banana topping. I was served a huge slab of dry cake that vaguely tasted of banana with no hint of buttery caramel whatsoever. Bitter disappointment. 

I do not handle food disappointment well. It tends to turn into an obsession about the failed potential. It is a stubborn obsession that remains until I find those promised tastes and textures. Often, this means some experimentation in the kitchen: the silver lining of poorly executed menus is new recipes back home. 

Originally, in the restaurant, I had imagined an upside-down cake similar to the apple cake that I posted last month but with buttery caramel hugging the bananas and seeping into the cake. But in the meantime I have had a yearning for my mum's Eve's pudding. She would often make this for my brother, sister and I when we were children, sometimes with the traditional Eve's apple, often with tinned peaches and a sprinkling of almonds on top of the sponge. 
My daughter is affectionately known as 'Evie', and ever since she was a baby trying her first foods bananas have been one of her firm favourites. She's also becoming quite the baker herself; she makes a mean crumble topping and is becoming quite the expert at creaming butter and sugar, though her egg breaking needs a little work. So it seemed to make perfect sense that a butterscotch banana Eve's pudding be known, in our household at least, as 'Evie's Pudding'.

Evie's Pudding

For the butterscotch sauce

50g. butter
50g. light muscovado sugar
50g. golden syrup
a pinch of sea salt

For the sponge

75g. sugar
100g. self-raising flour
2 eggs

3-4 bananas, sliced.

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Place a saucepan on a medium heat and add the butterscotch ingredients. Melt together and simmer gently for a few minutes until thickened slightly. If you wanted to turn this into butterscotch sauce for pouring over ice-cream you could stir in 75ml. of cream at this stage. Take the butterscotch off the heat.

Take out a couple of tablespoons of the butterscotch and reserve for later. Put the sliced bananas into the pan and stir gently before transferring them to an ovenproof dish scraping any of the butterscotch that sticks to the pan over the top of them.

Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs gradually, beating them into the mixture before folding in the flour.

Dollop the cake batter over the butterscotch bananas. Use a teaspoon to swirl the reserved butterscotch through the cake batter. 

Bake in the oven until the sponge is cooked through and golden. Serve warm with cream or ice-cream. The antithesis of a dry slab of cake. Enjoy, V xxx

Sunday, 11 November 2012

A Seafood Stew

Sorry there was no post last week. I was away in Cornwall for the half-term holidays. We had a lovely week of coastal and seaside village walks, punctuated with lingering seafood lunches and hand-warming pasties on the beach. The weather was positively autumnal but Evie still managed to squeeze in some sandcastle building and beach combing before we retreated, windswept to a cafe for hot chocolate.

One stormy lunchtime my husband and I managed to sneak off and leave Evie in the care of her grandparents while we enjoyed a delicious lunch in the charming village of Port Isaac. After braving the icy winds and driving rain on the coastal path down into the village we found warmth and inviting smells at The Harbour, which as the name suggests looks out on to the very boats from which their simple but delicious seafood is landed. We struggled to decide on what to eat but finally decided upon the scallops and red snapper. As we were tucking into dessert the couple next to us were presented with a luscious bowlful of fish stew, which looked exquisite. What's more, it was so good that, much to the delight of the owner, they ordered a second portion. I wished we too had been so heroically greedy and had hoped to return to sample the stew, but on our return to Port Isaac the very next day we were lured into another seafood gem. Fresh from the Sea is a small deli specialising in seafood landed by its own day boat, the Mary D. Here we feasted on crab soup and lobster, an indulgent but laid-back lunch enjoyed on stools with our bowls resting on the windowsill.

We never did make it back to The Harbour for a bowl of the seafood stew. It is always nice to leave some things undone; a dish on a menu, a sight to see, a reason to return. In Port Isaac, it will be the promise of delicious seafood stew.

Seafood Stew

As it may be some time before I make my next trip to Cornwall I devised a recipe to assuage my appetite for an umami-rich and cockle-warming seafood stew. 

For 2 heroically greedy or 4 restrained portions.

A glug of olive oil.
1 shallot
2-3 garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
1 tsp. fennel seeds
1 tsp. sweet paprika
A pinch of saffron
2 tsp. red pesto or sundried tomato paste.  
1/2 litre of fish or chicken stock
100ml. dry white wine or vermouth
300g. mussels
200g. prawns
200g. firm white fish, skinned and boned (pollack, hake, monkfish)
A handful of parsley
A handful of fresh cherry tomatoes per person
Optional - 150g. orzo pasta (pre-cooked in boiling water), some boiled potatoes, or 1 can of butter beans to make more of a meal out of your stew.
Essential - Good bread to mop up the juices.

On a low-medium heat, warm a good glug of olive oil in a large casserole dish that has a lid. Add the shallot, garlic and fennel seeds, and cook gently, stirring occasionally until softened. Add the sweet paprika, saffron, bay leaves and pesto. Stir everything together, adding the white wine or vermouth if you have some to hand. Boil down for a few minutes before adding the stock. Stir, then put the lid on and simmer for 10 minutes. 

Wash and prepare your seafood: the mussels will need scrubbing, discarding any that are open and do not close if you tap them gently; the fish needs to be cut into chunky bite-size pieces.  Cut the stalks from the parsley.

Add the parsley stalks, prawns, mussels and the optional pre-cooked carbohydrate to the broth and give the stew a stir.  Place in the fish fillets, pushing them under the liquid gently. Put the lid on your casserole and cook for 2-3 minutes or until the mussels have opened, the prawns have turned pink and the fish is an opaque white. 

Ladle into bowls, top with the parsley leaves and the tomatoes sliced in half. Serve with crusty bread.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Roast Ham and an Orzotto with the leftovers

My paternal grandparents always ate their Sunday lunch on the dot at 12pm. They would then eat cold cuts and salad at teatime, I imagine every week for the whole of their married lives. My parents always had a less structured approach to mealtimes and what we ate and thus so do I. Recently, though, I seemed to have fallen into a routine on Sundays. Breakfast is usually a mid-morning heartier brunch compared with the rushed bowl of muesli, slice of toast or boiled egg eaten mid-week. This gives me lots of time on Sunday morning for a little lazy kitchen tinkering and slow-roasting in between reading the newspaper. 

Increasingly, I also look to my Sunday joint to work harder and provide the family with hearty, tasty meals in the bleak midweek. Here I feel we are harking back to the traditions of my grandparents which are quite different from my own mother's approach. At the Sunday dinner table, she will (forcibly) encourage the eating of second and third helpings because she 'doesn't do leftovers', whereas I see them as a challenge to think up new recipes to make the leftover meal as exciting in its own right as the foundation recipe from which it hailed. 

Last week, my husband picked up this ham at the shop for our Sunday roast. I like ham but I would always pick up lamb, pork or chicken first. My husband loves ham, it reminds him of his grandmother's; she would serve it with simple boiled potatoes, peas and parsley sauce. Here, though, I decided to roast my ham with cider and apples and serve it with honey and butter roasted autumnal vegetables - I hope not too disappointingly. The leftovers lasted us the week in the form of the orzotto below, a minestrone soup, pasta with beans, peas, ham and pesto, and last (but certainly not least) delicious ham sandwiches slathered with English mustard. Each dish as delicious as the first.

Cider Roast Ham

2 kg. gammon joint
250 ml. sweet cider
1 onion
3-4 garlic cloves
3-4 bay leaves
Olive oil

Soak your gammon joint in water overnight to remove some of the saltiness. Drain off the water and pat dry.

Preheat the oven to 190°C . Peel and slice the onion into rings. In a frying pan, melt a knob of butter with a glug of olive oil and soften and lightly caramelize the onion slices. Place the onion in the bottom of a roasting tin or large casserole that fits the ham snugly. Add the unpeeled garlic cloves and bay leaves. Place the ham on top of the onions and garlic, and pour the cider over the ham. Rub the ham with olive oil and season with pepper. Cover with a lid, if your tin has one, or use tin foil if not. Roast for 1 hour 45 minutes. 

After this initial cooking time, remove the lid, pour the cider and ham juices into a saucepan with the onions and garlic cloves. Skim the fat from the top of the cider juices and mix the fat with a couple of tablespoons of the cider juices and the honey. Use this to baste the ham from time to time during the remaining roasting time. Return the ham to the oven, lid off for a final hour of roasting.

For a delicious gravy remove the garlic cloves from their skins and blend them into the stock with the onions. Then take out some of the stock and thicken it with a little cornflour, leaving enough to make the delicious orzotto below.

Ham & Cabbage Orzotto

Enough for 4.

200g. pearl barley
1 litre of simmering ham or chicken stock
50 ml. of cider
150g. shredded ham
100g. cavolo nero (savoy cabbage or kale)
1 onion
2 garlic cloves

Olive oil & butter
A handful of parsley

Dice the onion then melt a knob of butter with a glug of olive oil in a saucepan or casserole with a lid. Add the onions and soften, this will take about twenty minutes. Crush the garlic and add it to the saucepan and soften for a couple of minutes. Follow with the barley, stirring for a couple of minutes and coating with the butter, oil and onions. 

Add the cider and boil down until almost all the liquid has disappeared and then add the stock. Cover with a lid and simmer for 45 minutes-1 hour the barley should have softened but still have a little bite to it and most of the stock will have been absorbed. Add the cabbage and the ham and cook for a further 8-10 minutes until the cabbage is tender. Taste and season with sea salt (you will not need this if you used the ham stock, it is plenty salty) and pepper. Serve garnished with the parsley.



Saturday, 13 October 2012

Chocolate Orange Brownies

Yesterday was a chocolate day. I came home from work feeling tired, cold and somewhat bruised, figuratively and literally (walking into desks is a professional hazard for a clumsy teacher). Sometimes, chocolate is the only thing that will comfort and soothe. I could have just raided the chocolate bar stash but I find pottering in the kitchen calms my mind and some light work in the kitchen was a welcome distraction from my aching feet. I had also volunteered to make some cakes for a charity coffee morning. Brownies are the simplest of baked goods and on a chocolate day the melting gooeyness of a brownie is an added salve. What's more they're a speedy solution to volume baking and need only a sprinkling of icing sugar as an adornment.

Most often, I am a brownie purist; all chocolate, no nuts or flavourings. However, on occasion, I am tempted by a subtle citrus note. This often happens around Christmas time, recreating the nostalgia of a Terry's Chocolate Orange. The urge came on a little early this year.

These brownies never last long in our house but if your household can demonstrate more dietary restraint than ours, these brownies will last for a couple of days in a tin. Enjoy, V.

Enough for a 20cm square tin

2 medium sized oranges
200g. dark chocolate
200g. butter 
3 eggs
200g caster sugar
100g. plain flour

Put the two oranges into a saucepan and cover with boiling water. Simmer for 1 hour. Allow them to cool and blitz in a food processor. Then, push the puréed orange through a sieve to remove the seeds and lumps.

Preheat the oven to 180°C. In a saucepan melt the butter and chocolate on a low heat, stir gently to combine. Allow to cool a little whilst you prepare the tin, lining it with tin foil or baking parchment. 

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the sugar and eggs together until the mixture is pale and airy. Fold in the orange mixture, then the chocolate mixture and finally the flour.

Pour into your tin and bake for about 40 minutes. I start checking it for readiness at about 30 minutes; I like my brownies underdone and gooey, so I am looking for the dull, crackled brownie top but with a hint of wobble still in the very middle when I press it. If you prefer a more cake-like texture, cook for an extra 10 minutes, you want the middle to be firm when gently pressed. Delicious with a glass of cold milk or a milky coffee.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Basil & Walnut Pesto

I always feel better when I have a jar of pesto in the fridge, and even better when it's home-made. Life is super busy at the moment; home and work are battling for my time. So lots of quick soups and pasta dishes have been on the menu in the Smith household, all of which are enhanced with a spoon or two of pesto. As I squeeze writing this post between marking books and reading a bedtime story to Evie, I am yearning for the weekend and the time to spend more than 10 minutes in the kitchen. But if 10 minutes is all I have, keeping a stash of various pesto in the fridge is a quick way of making something everyday a bit more exciting. Here, I have tweaked the traditional recipe replacing the pine nuts with toasted walnuts to give a nuttier, more autumnal flavour. It makes a particularly good dressing for steamed broccoli with pasta or a simple grated carrot salad.

Makes one jar of pesto

30 g. walnuts  
50g. basil leaves
40g. Parmesan cheese
1 clove of garlic
A pinch of sea salt
A drop of lemon juice
A glug of olive oil

Heat a frying pan, and add the walnuts. Allow them to toast, they are done when they have filled the kitchen with a nutty aroma and they are tinged brown at the edges.

Place them in a blender with all of the other ingredients and a splash of olive oil. Blitz until everything is finely chopped but still has a grainy texture. Stir through a little more olive oil until you are happy with the consistency.

Transfer to a sterilised jar and cover the pesto with a little more olive oil. Place the lid on the jar. The pesto will wait on standby in the fridge for a couple of weeks.