Saturday, 23 April 2011

Happy Easter!

  Just one more sleep and many of us will be too full of chocolate to move. Although, sadly, not in my house. We have all reached that miserable age where, along with being struck off the visiting list of the tooth fairy, we are all deemed too old for a gift from the Easter Bunny.  So, taking into account the lack of chocolate that will be brightening up my Sunday morning, and my Granny’s rather depressing comparison of her Simnel cake to a brick, I think it is about time I stop sunbathing in the garden and get busy in the kitchen.

Having already taken the rather predictable step of making chocolate nests (see below...) I feel in need of a new recipe that tastes wonderful and allows me to fulfil my springtime desire for pastel icing and mini-eggs.  Simnel cake, decorated with exactly 11 marzipan balls representing each of the disciples and bursting full of raisins and zesty lemon, is a very traditional Easter treat that unfortunately involves spending a lot more time in the kitchen than such a sunny day deserves.

These little biscuits on the other hand, are extremely quick and easy and a lot lighter than the rich Simnel cake, perfect for the hottest Easter weekend in history. Decorate them any way you fancy, although I think they look just perfect drizzled with pale pink and yellow icing and topped with chocolate eggs, as long as the Easter Bunny has not stripped the shops of all available chocolate already...

Simnel Biscuits (makes about 15)

175g butter
115g caster sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
2 egg yolks
225g plain flour
50g currants
400g marzipan
200g icing sugar
Food colouring
Mini eggs

Preheat the oven to 180oc

Cream the butter, sugar and lemon zest together until light and fluffy

Beat in the egg yolks and then the flour and currants

Mix until fully incorporated and firm. If it is a bit soft, add a sprinkling more flour and put into the fridge for at least an hour

Roll out on a sheet of greaseproof paper (or they will stick..) to about 5mm and cut into medium sized rounds. Transfer to a greased baking tray

Roll out the marzipan to the same thickness and cut into rounds of about half the size of the biscuit. Place on top of the dough and press down the edges to stick

Bake for about 12 minutes or until just golden, remove from the oven and transfer to cool on baking sheets

Put the icing sugar into a bowl and add a small amount of water to make a reasonably stiff paste.

Divide between 3 bowls and add a tiny dot of food colouring to each one.

Drizzle over the biscuits (when cool) and stick on the eggs, EAT!

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Home Sweet Home...

Thank heavens for the holidays. Or so I thought. Perhaps I should be a little more careful what I wish for in future, considering the mountain of work that is threatening to ruin my fun and the ever advancing menace that is final exams...But c’est la vie (French revision never ends) and home is the place where cooking can happen without worrying about which pan has been washed up or the lack of ingredients that are lurking in the cupboard.

So, at home and not so fresh after a four hour train journey and seemingly endless amounts of time spent dragging around an enormous suitcase filled with at least fifteen books and far too many clothes; my first port of call is, as always, the fridge. I (and certainly my Mum) would be nervous to learn how many hours I have spent staring into that food-filled, sparklingly clean, gloriously white treasure chest, searching for new additions and wondering how much cooking I can fit in before the holidays are over. A very welcome novelty after a week of obsessively avoiding the temptations of the supermarket and using up the remains of my last food-shop in ever less appetizing combinations.

Faced with more food than I can handle and in desperate need of distraction from the books that have still not ventured out of the suitcase, the kitchen is a true haven and cupcakes are the perfect remedy. Stirring away the stresses of the day, the end result sweetens the thought of
everything you have yet to do, in addition to being the ideal treat when your only company seems to be your laptop.

And if you’re going to make cupcakes, why not go all out? Red Velvet cakes are certainly not for the fainthearted. Any cake that involves this much food colouring requires a certain amount of nerve, and a steady hand to prevent the kitchen table looking scarily like a crime scene. If you are as clumsy as I am, definitely avoid wearing a white t-shirt. But most importantly, don’t be shy; the cakes really lose their vampy red appeal if you go too easy on the colouring, turning a vaguely pink sludge colour that is significantly less attractive. The bright red, cocoa flavoured sponge looks incredibly chic topped with silky cream cheese frosting, and despite looking extremely festive, they are certainly not just for Christmas...

But, if you don’t fancy a cake that is sure to stain your lips a similar colour to those of a well fed vampire, cupcakes are the perfect vehicles for any of your favourite flavourings. Lemon, almond, chocolate, coffee, whatever you fancy, just be creative. Place a few pieces of strawberry in the bottom of the case before the mixture, cook, smear with cream cheese icing , sprinkle over some crumbled biscuit and hey presto, strawberry cheesecake cupcakes. My lovely sisters also triumphed with an extremely pretty and truly delicious rose and pistachio cake, with a dash of rose syrup in the batter and topped with petal coloured butter-cream and pistachios. I wish I could have taken credit for these...

Red Velvet Cupcakes (Makes 24)

250g plain flour
2 tbsp cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder
100g butter
200g caster sugar
1 tsp red food colouring paste, or 4-5 tbsp red food colouring (wow)
2tsp vanilla extract
150ml milk
1tsp cider vingar

Cream cheese icing

500g icing sugar
125g full-fat cream cheese
125g butter
1tsp lemon juice/cider vinegar

Preheat the oven to 170oc

Combine the flour, cocoa and baking powder in a bowl.

Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy and then add the vanilla extract and all of the food colouring (be brave!)

To this post-box red mixture, add one spoonful the dry ingredients, followed by one egg, then a few more spoonfuls, followed by the other egg, until smooth and fully combined.

Finally, beat in the milk and vinegar until silky. Divide between your bun cases (the prettier the better!) and bake in the oven for about 20 minutes.

For the icing, beat together the butter and cream cheese with an electric mixture until fully combined.
Add the icing sugar slowly, until you have made a smooth icing.

 Add the lemon juice and mix again

Smear the icing onto the cakes and decorate any way you fancy! EAT!

Saturday, 9 April 2011

A Little Bowl of Sunshine...

The sun must be back. Boys across the country are bravely venturing out in the first shorts of the season, destined not to be removed until September, beer gardens are jam packed with cider drinkers and the library is looking just a little more empty than usual. So, seeing as the sun has finally and so fabulously graced us with its presence, it would be just plain rude to salute it with anything less than a bowl of something similarly summery. 

Whilst the mercury has not yet hit the highs that see shoppers squabbling over the last bottle of Pimms, and being just a little too breezy for a barbecue to go without setting the nearest bush aflame, Jambalaya is just what is needed. Comforting enough to warm your short-clad legs when the sun has gone down, it is bursting with just the right amount of fresh and summery flavours to provide the perfect end to your day in the not yet scorching sun. Like a Creole risotto, it comes without the stodginess of your average student rice dish, but oozing with vibrant and fresh Deep South flavours. Spicy, sweet and bursting with rich tomatoes, peppers and the smoky undertones of paprika, this is like summertime in a bowl. And it looks gorgeous to boot.

And, it gives me the chance to say a few words about Chorizo. Despite its reputation as a luxury ingredient that is more at home in the plush surroundings of parent’s kitchens than the mouldy cave that (just) passes for a fridge in a student house, this smoked paprika sausage can, surprisingly, be found for less than the price of a pint. And it is definitely a lot more useful. When you experience that familiar end of semester empty fridge low, it can offer you the option of at least a slightly normal last night dinner, thankfully leaving the interesting baked beans and pasta combination in the far reaches of memory. Throw it into a quick tomato sauce, stir into your hangover Huevos Rancheros, add to a sausage casserole or simply toss into an omelette with some fried potatoes for a speedy Spanish supper. Delicious.

Finally, don’t be scared by the addition of the tea bag, you don’t have to eat it. It is a little trick that originated in a misunderstanding of Mr Neil McArthur's Jambalaya recipe. In his original recipe, the teabag was full of herbs and not PG tips as I supposed, so feel free to leave it out and just add some dried thyme and fresh parsley instead. It has become a little habit of mine now which I think just adds a little ‘je ne sais quoi’ to the dish (and I mean that quite literally, I have no idea what it actually does, I only know that it makes it even more delicious.) Try it, leave it out, either way it is sure to make you, and your tummy, very happy...

Jambalaya (Serves 4-5)

Olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 red chill, finely chopped
1 red pepper, cut into small pieces
150g chorizo, diced
2 bay leaves
2tsp paprika
1 tin chopped tomatoes
3 tbsp tomato puree
2 chicken breasts
A handful of frozen prawns
300g long grain rice
1 pint chicken stock, and more if needed.
1 tea bag (or a  large pinch of thyme and1tsp chopped parsley)
A handful of frozen peas
Squeeze of lemon

Fry the onion and peppers for about 5 minutes in a wide saucepan, or until the onion is soft. It is important at this stage to keep the pan on a medium heat and to keep the ingredients moving to prevent any burnt bits.

 Add the chicken, chorizo and paprika, along with the chilli and garlic and fry, still stirring, for another 3-5 minutes or until the chicken is lightly golden and the chorizo has released some of its delicious amber coloured oil.

Add the rice and coat in the oil and spices.

Stir in the tomatoes, stock and tomato puree and add the bay leaves.

Turn up the heat and  bring to the boil. When boiling, turn down the heat, put on the lid  and leave to simmer, stirring about every five minutes, until all the liquid has absorbed and the rice has cooked. When the rice is feeling reasonably soft, add the peas. 

(If using the tea bag, add it about 10 minutes from the end of cooking, being careful not to split the bag, as nobody wants a gritty Jambalaya! If you are substituting it for the herbs, stir them in around the same time.) 

Add more stock if it is feeling a bit dry, the end result should be about the consistency of a wet risotto. This should take about 20-25 minutes.

Remove the tea bag and bay leaves (Important!) and season well with salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice, EAT.

Ps. If you are feeling less extravagant than I do, feel free to leave out the prawns. Jambalaya literally means ‘mixed up’ so throw in whatever you have to hand, its a great way to clear out the fridge. However, if you are lucky enough to live near an Aldi, you can get a bag of the beauties for under £2. Bargains don’t get better than that. 

Sunday, 3 April 2011

The Perfect Eggs-cuse for Chocolate...

Spring has finally sprung, and I for one could not be happier. It is the season that seems to shake the world back to life; blossom fills the trees, daffodils brighten up flowerbeds and, refreshingly, the grey of the sky is replaced by a fresh, crisp blue. Well, that’s the theory...

Today unfortunately, the Sheffield sky seen from my window leaves a lot to be desired. As do the puddles currently making the pavement an obstacle course for many an optimistic person, taken by surprise in their supposedly spring suitable footwear. And seeing that this is meant to be the season to be optimistic, the rain is swiftly washing away the spring in my step.

So, as a tried and tested method of soothing almost all woes, comfort eating is a must. And what could possibly be called upon to revive my spirits at this time of year, but another of spring’s joyous new arrivals, the world’s ridiculous obsession with chocolate. Awarded the title of one of the greatest holidays of the year by many chocoholics (special mention here to Miss Kate Yardley, the most dedicated chocolate lover I know) Easter is heaven for anyone with a sweet-tooth and need for an excuse to eat their bodyweight in Cadburys. Although I don’t quite understand the connection between  the resurrection of Jesus and eating Mini Eggs until your jaw aches, I am definitely not complaining.

So, as an antidote to the depressing drizzle that is dampening my spring mood, a dose of ridiculously easy but totally delicious chocolate nests are just what is required. Cradling speckled pastel eggs, their kitschness is definitely part of their appeal, happily making your day at least a little bit brighter. They fill that Easter-time yearning for chocolate deliciously and take less time to throw together than to read this post, perfect...

Chocolate Easter Egg Nests (makes about 15)

50g Butter
2 tbsp Golden Syrup
225g Milk Chocolate
100g Cornflakes (or about 6 shredded wheat for a more nest-like look!)
Packet of Mini Eggs

Melt the chocolate and butter in a glass bowl over a saucepan of simmering water.

Add the golden syrup and then mix in the cereal until it is entirely coated in chocolate.

Put about 2 teaspoons of mixture in each bun-case and nestle a few mini eggs on top.

Leave to set in the fridge for about an hour; EAT!

P.s As I finish writing this, the sun has finally reappeared and the sky is blue once more...Who said food couldn’t solve everything?!