Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Raspberry blondies

On Saturday, two events occurred.  Ben's birthday and the first Tin Pan Alley - a vintage market in Norwich, set-up by my friend Amy. 

Now, what I am about to say will probably be considered near blasphemous for a middle class, twenty something who likes brogues and tea cups; but I hate vintage markets.  The word 'vintage' is so often used to cover a multitude of sins, which anywhere else would just be considered 'a load of smelly old shit'.  You spend hours trawling through rails and rails of stained dresses resembling your nan's curtains and may occasionally come across something comparatively pleasant but then can't face buying it because you know the smug bastard who's put a £20 price tag on it picked it up in the local Oxfam for 75p.  And at least if you got it from Oxfam you'd have the satisfaction of saying "Oh this? I got it for 75p in Oxfam" when the person who asked was really hoping you'd say ASOS.

Not to mention, vintage clothes don't fit me.  Everything was so SMALL back in the day.  But I suppose they didn't have pizza or Hobnobs to contend with.  If I were to shop vintage according to a sizing era then I'd probably end up circa Botticelli, with less visible bosoms.

And it all reeks of moth balls and death.

So, I am probably not best placed as the friend of the latest vintage entrepreneurs.  When the idea was first raised I nodded and grinned and said 'ooh, lovely', a bit like you do when you first meet someone's baby and it's hideously ugly.  But as plans progressed it was clear this was not going to be your run-of-the-mill jumble sale for people with victory curls. For a start half of it was going to take place at night time, with booze and bands (now you're talking).  It was going to be in an awesome old building, there would be furniture, not just smelly clothes, and people selling necklaces made out of buttons and broken crockery had been outlawed. 

I warmed to the idea.  And when it came to the main event I had to eat my high-street-bought hat, because these ladies pulled off a blinder.  The building had been superbly decorated from head to toe, with different goods on different floors.  The atmosphere was full of joy de vivre, with none of the awkward, 'PLEASE BUY MY STUFF/I should have listened to Mum and got a job at Aviva' air from stall holders hiding behind dog-eared mannequins.  Everyone was up and about, having a natter, making new BFFs, drinking gin.

And the goods were good.  Minimum amounts of smelly old shit, and stuff which I actually wanted to buy.  Below is a charming little posie from Jo Loves Flowers, who I sadly can't find any reference to online.  I also picked up a lovely plate (at which Ben did the ugly baby reaction) and a cardigan which fits (is made for a boy)! Tin Pan Alley, I doff my cap to you.

Going back to a few weeks before the event, Amy asked if I would make some cakes to sell on the Sunday.  I swiftly agreed - mainly though flattery at the idea that anyone would still be interested in buying my baked goods - then later that day realised the market was actually on Ben's birthday, resulting in a lot of swear words.  So, I bowed out of the baking on the basis that I would be required for festive quality time.

The night before the market and I get a phone call from Amy.  "Erm, we seem to have got confused between bicarbonate of soda and baking powder....the banana cake's gone wrong.  Can you help us out?".  Again I decline, feeling horrible, but I am determined to be a good girlfriend and do something wholesome with Ben, like a picnic, or a coastal walk, or getting him to paint the landing or something.  I hang-up, anticipating mass GF brownie points, only to be informed that the birthday boy is actually scheduled to spend the entire afternoon holed up in a box room recording noises and pressing buttons.  OH BLOODY SPLENDID.

So, I conclude that I will bake something in the name of Ben's birthday and double the quantities to help Amy out.  I ask him what sort of thing he'd like (fruit cake, coffee cake, or something with booze), all of which I dismiss on the grounds of being too complicated or too gross and tell him he's having raspberry blondies.

If you, like everyone else I have used the term to, haven't heard of a blondie before then they are basically the white chocolate alternative to a brownie.  When I tried one straight out of the oven I have to say I did a massive 'MEH'.  But put them in the fridge overnight and, woah mama, they are an artery clogging delight.

Raspberry Blondies

225g butter, very soft
3 med eggs
2 cups light brown sugar
2 cups plain flour
2 tsp vanilla extract
150g white chocolate (chips or finely chopped into chunks)
1 tsp baking powder (NOT BICARBONATE OF SODA, AMY)
Couple of handfuls of raspberries (I used frozen)
Pinch of salt

So, you can cream your butter and sugar and sift your dry ingredients, or you can bung it all in a bowl (all but the raspberries) and mix - the choice is yours.  I go with the bung method, as you know.  Once suitably mixed, spread out into a greased baking tin (about 10" square) and scatter over the raspberries.  Bake on gas mark seven for about 25 mins then check - you want it to be going golden and firm on the top but still pretty soft/gooey (not wet) underneath.  If not done put back in the oven and check every five mins until as desired.  Turn out to cool and slice.  If you're feeling generous you can stack and tie with a girly bow and give to someone as a present, as below.  I gave them to myself.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

One squash, two dinners

I bloody love squash.  I think it has to be one of the most marvellous vegetables around (if you're sitting there going, "It's quite clearly a fruit, it has seeds", then good luck to you trying to add it to your breakfast compote (because you are clearly the sort of person who would have breakfast compote)).  When I eat it I can't help but wonder how they have only recently become fashionable in the world of gastronomy.  It makes me look around wildly for other vegetables which, for whatever reason, we haven't noticed for a while.  And not only is it a bit like a carby, rooty pudding, but it's also good for you. GO FIGURE.

If a squash were your friend (bear with me here) they would be the sort of friend that both you and your parents approve of.  You'd go out and have a great time, but at the end of the day they're looking after your best interests; you have a few drinks, but they remind you to down a pint of water before you go to bed and text them to say you've got home safely.  Those fair-weather potato friends on the other hand, they're pretty bland characters; they suggest adding some recreational substances like cream and butter to the mix to liven things up and all too quickly the party's over and you're there with sick in your hair.

Maybe you don't all imagine being friends with your vegetables, but I think we can agree that squash is good.  So here are two squash dishes to keep you entertained. 

Squash, girolle and sage risotto

1 large butternut squash (will make enough for this and the dish below)
Couple of handfulls of mushrooms - I used girolles (poncey dried Italian ones) but use whatever you like
1 knob of butter
Slug of olive or rapeseed oil
1 white onion finely sliced
2 cloves garlic finely sliced
1 glass white wine
1 cup risotto rice (or whatever looks reasonable for two people)
Handful or parmesan
Few sage leaves chopped

Peel and chop your squash into whatever shape/size pieces you like - I did mine about 1cm cube - drizzled with a bit of oil and seasoning in a baking tray and roast in the oven for about half an hour on gas mark 6 (until they are soft and starting to colour).  If you're using dried mushrooms then soak them in some boiling water or if you're using fresh fry them off in a pan and put to one side. 

Fry off the onion in the butter until softened, then add the garlic and fry for a further minute. Add your rice and stir until it is coated in the butter, then add the white wine.  Now you basically have to stand at the hob and stir for twenty minutes, gradually adding stock until the rice is nice and soft and has a smooth/binding texture to it. 

Once the rice is done add your squash, mushrooms, sage and Parmesan and a slosh of cream if you're feeling a bit skinny.  Top with more Parmesan and sage and serve. 

Squash, puy lentil and goat's cheese salad

Half of the roast squash from above
1 tin puy lentils
1 pack of lardons or a couple of strips of bacon finely chopped (omit for veggies)
Couple of sprigs of thyme
2 firm goat's cheese
Rocket or watercress leaves

Now, if you've been sensible, and roasted a large squash for the risotto like I suggested, then this dish is a mid-week piece of piss of a dinner, yet it feels like you're being relatively civilised.  The base is also great with chicken thighs and a dollop of mustardy crème fraîche, but forgot that I've said that as I'll probably cook it in a few weeks and try and pass it off as a totally unique creation.

Fry off your lardons/bacon until starting to colour and crisp up.  To the same pan add your lentils, thyme leaves and a slosh of white wine if you've got some spare.  Cook for about five minutes until the lentils have soaked up all the juices, then add your squash and stir till it's warmed through.

Whilst the lentils are cooking put the goats cheese under a hot grill until starting to brown and go gooey in the middle.

Scatter the lentil mix over the leaves and top with the goat's cheese.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Gluttony and gallivanting

So I haven't posted for a while, my only excuse being that I have recently become horribly, horribly old.  28 years old to be precise. Typing is becoming increasingly difficult with my ancient joints and I have little purpose for a cookery blog now that I am receiving meals on wheels.  Well, that may all be a slight exaggeration but the extended celebrations/commiserations mean I have largely been stuffing my face at someone else's expense and effort.

It all began with this rather attractive moment. 

This is me, turning 28 and cramming a haggis scotch egg into my face, courtesy of my good friends Claire Burns and Leisa Thomas ("We wanted to get you something you could blog about!").  Whilst this may not be particularly flattering, I can assure you it didn't get any better from here.  There was a jaegerbomb in there somewhere and a moment when I cried in our hotel bathroom because the thought of waking up and checking out by 11am seemed physically and emotionally impossible.

We checked out at 12. There was a lot of head and stomach clutching, then this.

Then a lot more head and stomach clutching.  We sat in the cafe for 3 hours, until the floor stopped feeling like the English channel.

An unfeasibly short time after eating a gammon steak the size of my laptop (a real laptop, not even a tablet) it was time for my Birthday dinner at St John Bread and Wine.  Now, if you're considering making a trip to a restaurant which predominantly serves vast quantities of offal, you might want to go easy on the vino tinto the night before, because there was more than moment here when I wanted to yack into my napkin.  We ordered optimistically; whole crab, smoked spratts, faggots (try ordering faggots without smirking, I challenge you), ox cheeks..... and I mostly just ate bread in fear of vom.  I'm sorry, St John, I'm sure your selection of organs is delectable, but I was in dire need of medicinal macaroni cheese.  Ben loved it though.

A week later and I had just about recovered enough for my present from my folks, a trip to Adlards in the Country.  David Adlard used to run Adlard's on St Giles' St in Norwich, which I unfortunately never witnessed, but by all accounts it was excellent.  Adlard's in the Country is basically a bed and breakfast, or bed, dinner and breakfast - you stay in David and Diane's lovely house and they cook for you.  It's like going to dinner at your friend's house but you don't have to make small talk with said friend or take them a box of chocolates or offer to help with the washing up. On arrival there is tea and scones, then you go and doll yourself up (have a lie down) and come back down for drinks and immaculately constructed cheese straws, then dinner.  Our menu consisted of:

Cream of pea soup with orange zest
Tart of confit cherry tomatoes with basil pesto and balsamic reduction
Gressingham duck breast with creamed lentils and wilted spinach
Chocolate fondant with Adlard's vanilla ice cream

It was delicious and we all got merry and full.  Now I'm sorry I don't have a photo of every course, but people who take numerous photos in fancy restaurants make me want to sauté their smartphones (Hypocrite what? Shut up, places that serve ham, egg and chips don't count).  Same goes for people who watch entire gigs with a shit digital camera balanced above their head (NOBODY WANTS TO SEE THOSE PHOTOS).  Here's some nice flowers instead. 

Tomorrow I'll get off my lardy arse and write about something I've cooked, honest.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Rhubarb caramel cake

You know yesterday, when I was banging on about how great spring was? Yeah, well you can all blame my cockiness for the horrendous gale which is going on outside right now.  I took the eiderdown off the bed, I got carried away, I'm sorry. 

Now, doesn't this sort of weather make you crave lots of nutrients and omega threes and healthy stuff to stave off the inevitable spring cold? Does it fuck - it makes you want cake.  So here one is.  And it's got rhubarb in it, so that's your five a day done and dusted.  Plus the icing alone will provide a useful layer of lard around your waist, pretty much immediately, so if you'd got carried away and switched the central heating off too, this is not only tasty but also V practical.

Before we get started, a couple of notes about cake making and me.  Firstly, and this applies to all my recipes, you will notice I switch between metric, imperial and the cup system.  To be honest I don't even know which one is metric and which is imperial, but I remember different recipes in different denominations, so you'll just have to work it out (or use your scales, they'll tell you both).

Secondly - a few things which will give most cake snobs heart palpitations.
1. I think when it comes to cakes, Stork is better than butter.  And as someone who has made A LOT of cakes I feel qualified to put this argument out there. 
2. Creaming butter and sugar and sifting flour is a massive, pointless, ball ache.  Shove it all in the mixer, give it a good spin, and voila.  You will have exactly the same cake and half the washing-up. 
3. I don't like Mary Berry.

Let's move on...

Rhubarb caramel cake

For the cake
3 free range eggs (yes they must be free range, otherwise there is a high chance the cake will spontaneously combust, or become fatally poisonous, or come to life.  Do as you're told.)
5 oz self-raising flour
1 oz ground almonds (replace this with an extra oz of flour if you don't have almonds, or are allergic)
6oz golden caster sugar
6 oz stork
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 sticks of rhubarb
1 lemon (juice of half and zest of whole)

For the icing
1 cup double cream
1/2 cup soft brown sugar
Hazelnuts, toasted and chopped (optional)
1 tsp vanilla extract

Chop your rhubarb into roughly one inch pieces.  Cook briefly in a pan with a spoonful of sugar and the juice of half a lemon, until softened slightly. 

Bung the stork, eggs, flour, sugar, vanilla extract, ground almonds and lemon zest into a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until smooth.  Then fold in the rhubarb with a spoon. 

Grease a baking tin and spoon in the mixture.  You can use whatever small shape tin you want, the one I used was about 9" wide x 5" deep. Bake at gas mark 3 for about 45 mins -1 hour, checking regularly (but not in the first 20 mins, or it will flop).  To check if it's done, you want it to be firm to the touch and for a fork to come out without any mixture on. Turn out to cool.

When your cake is cooled, make the icing.  Put your cream, sugar and extract in a heavy bottomed pan and boil. Now, many recipes will tell you that you need a sugar thermometer.  I don't have a sugar thermometer, so my advice to you is to just boil the shit out of it.  It needs to bubble away for a good five minutes, stirring throughout and keeping an eye that it doesn't catch or start to get very dark.  You want all the sugar to be thoroughly dissolved and when you dip in a spoon and let it cool, the sauce should stick and go thick.  Once you think you've got it, take of the heat and leave for a minute, so that all the manic bubbling stops.  If it's still looking a bit thin you can shove it back on the heat.

Spoon over the cake carefully, so you get the right balance of messy Vs artful splotheriness.  Top wth nuts, allow to set, then stuff your face.

As an additional piece of advice; if you're busy photographing said cake, stay aware of your surroundings, or some stealth character might sneak up on you. 

Reminds me of this wiseguy.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Spring cassoulet

Well hello there, Spring! Man, am I glad to see you. Don't get me wrong, I am not adverse to winter; I think we can all agree that Christmas is pretty swell and I particularly enjoy wearing clothes that you can hide in (and the rich hearty food which makes you need clothes which you can hide in).  Autumn is all very picturesque and cosy, and at this stage the prospect of it getting colder just makes you think of the good bits, like log fires and mulled wine.  Summer, meh, I can take it or leave it; the weather is always disappointing, a fringe becomes entirely impractical and an overwhelming preoccupation with how to cover my upper arms overtakes me.  But spring, spring you are excellent.  So much promise; all the grey and brown starts to be replaced by colours and everyone becomes totally posi.  I walk down the street with an urge to shout out, "Hey, nature, I'm not wearing a coat, HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES?".  Then nature usually decides to put me in my place with a freaking apocalyptic rain storm.

So to celebrate, a lovely seasonal sausage cassoulet! What do you mean you see sausage cassoulet as more of a winter dish? Every season is processed pork season! Alright alright, I had a load of beans to use up, get off my case.

And yes, I know this looks like those tins of baked beans and sausages in a can.  But that is essentially what this is, albeit slightly more labour intensive. 

To serve two with a bit left over

2 tbsp oil
6 pork sausages, they need to be a sturdy size, no wincy chipolatas
1 red onion, sliced into half moons
4 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
1 glass red wine
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp sugar
pinch chilli flakes
Sprig rosemary
1 bay leaf
1 beef stock cube
1 tin of beans (cannelini are ideal, but I wasn't concentrating in the supermarket and bought flageolot. Chickpeas are also good)

First off, in a heavy casserole dish (or big saucepan if you use your pocket money for things like beer and lipstick rather than le cruesets) fry off the sausages until browned.  They don't need to cook through, they'll do that later, but this stops them looking like poached fingers and adds a bit of flavour.  Oh and remember to prick the skins, otherwise, KABOOM.  Once coloured, take them out and put to one side. 

To the same pot, add your onions. There should be lots of sausagey fat, but if the pan is dry add some oil.  Once the onions are softened add your garlic and fry for another minute.  Then add your glass of wine and bubble till reduced by about half.  If you happen to have had a really long week and somehow, by a stroke of unfathomable sorcery, the glass of wine becomes half a glass of wine before you have a chance to put it in the pot, nay worry. 

Once the wine has reduced, add your tomatoes (plus a tomato tin full of water), stock cube, sugar, vinegar, chilli flakes, rosemary, bay and of course your sausages.  Bubble away on a low heat for about an hour, checking regularly and adding more water if needed.  After an hour, taste and adjust seasoning if needed.  The sauce should be rich and thick. Add your beans and cook for another five mins (if you're using chickpeas then add them in earlier but beans will tend to fall apart if left too long). 

Serve with a hunk of bread, or a good spoon of mash if you're in need of some ultimate comfort.