Saturday, 31 December 2011

Snapshot: Christmas is over...

Into the bargain bin go the mince pies, brandy cream and fruit cake. No more brandy truffles or turkey until next year. But no need to be sad! You can stock up on Easter eggs instead. It's not even 2012 yet!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Takeaway's to save drunken Londoners



A drink after work turns into a few and then a few more "because its Christmas". For many, the Christmas season is all about indulgence in food and drink but for some, it turns into a serious issue. The festive period sees such a significant rise in drunken kitchen incidents that the London Fire Brigade have launched an ad campaign that specifically targets those who might consider cooking while under the influence. The campaign, which is occupying pages in newspapers as well as billboards around the capital, features a photograph of a burger with the caption "Last night a burger saved my life". Their research shows that a quarter of accidental house fires in the capital are caused by 18 to 35 year olds when attempting to cook at home when drunk. Its hoped that, by encouraging merry makers to opt for a takeaway rather than conjuring up a drunken snack, it will cut the number of fires in the capital. 

It goes without saying that I am in agreement with any campaign that is primarily aimed at saving lives. However, the link with takeaways bothers the health-obsessed part of my brain. Why a takeaway? Why not a sandwich or a bowl of cereal? The Christmas season is generally pretty decadent for the majority of people but surely our society doesn't need any encouragement to turn to their local takeaways?

Still, I would urge you to deny your chip pan cravings after a few too many glasses of vino. Just think of the resulting mess if nothing else!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Snapshot: Blue cheese stuffed figs

The Boy and I spent ten glorious days in Lanzarote back in October and while we explored the sun-soaked scenery, we ate our way around the island. It wasn't just the cacti that caught my eye on our travels but the fig trees that were starting to bare fruit. It was like sweet torture to see the branches covered in immature figs that wouldn't be ready to eat during our holiday. We feasted on dates with bacon (which were amazing - I'll have to work on a recipe!) and dried figs but nothing saited my hunger for the fresh variety.

Now that I'm back home in far less exotic climes, I spotted a carton of figs which was reduced to clear. Fortuitiously, there was also a pack of Danish Blue cheese in the bargain bin that was going for a song. I simply couldn't resist - somethings are just meant to be.

For a lunchtime treat, remove the stalks and quarter ripe fresh figs by cutting nearly all the way to the bottom of the fruit but not quite. Gently pull each one open and crumble blue cheese into the cavity before gently squeezing back together. If you're feeling fancy, you would wrap the whole thing in whisps of parma ham. Serve with a fresh salad of winter leaves.

The intensely savory notes of the cheese are countered by the sweet juices of the fig. If you can't get your hands on fresh ones, try combining blue cheese with fig jam, quince cheese or even bog-standard strawberry jam. Combine the flavours in an up-market canape by topping a bite-sized cracker with a thin slice of fig and a sliver of cheese.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Caramel Convert?

It seems that I'm not the only one who's converted by Nigella Lawson's salted caramel recipe - the Evening Standard is raving about it too! They review Nigella's piece on the "Class A foodstuff" and provide a run down of the best salted caramel confections too. With all of this publicity, I'm betting that anything salty and sweet will be dashing off the shelves so stock up if it's your latest obsession.

Click here for a readable version that you won't need a magnifying glass for.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Dark Chocolate and Bitter Cherry Brownies with Salted Caramel Glaze


Now that I’m London-based and taking the train every day, I’ve taken to reading the free papers and after a month, it’s now firmly in my commuting routine. Metro in the morning, Evening Standard during the post-office dash – day in, day out. But on Tuesday evenings, something beautiful happens. For Tuesday’s are the day that Stylist magazine is handed out at choice locations across the UK. It’s a fantastic free women’s weekly magazine aimed at city ladies with, well, style. As one of my lady friends described it, “Stylist rocks. I’d pay for it – it’s that good! But I don’t have to.” Even better.

I don’t pass any of the distribution points on my normal route so I am forced to divert in order to pick up my copy and get my weekly hit. This week, I didn’t manage to detour on my way to a dance class so I ended up coveting a fellow Tube travellers copy for a good twenty minutes – looking lovingly at the cover across the aisle – before she alighted and – RESULT! – left the object of my affections behind. 


This week’s copy was edited by Nigella Lawson and featured a rather emotive image of the lady herself dripping with salted caramel. This would normally be a complete turn-off for me as I can’t really stand the woman (The Boy and I have bonded over our joint disgust of her visibly sexual imagery, la-de-da tones and smug smile) but I turned the page as usual. Surely Stylist wouldn’t fail me, I thought. And I was right.

I liked the entire issue but in particular, it discussed a long-standing point of curiosity for me. Salted caramel. I’ve never been sold on the concept of sweet and savoury combined in this form, which I suppose is pretty strange when you consider that I like sweet chilli sauce, cheese and pineapple on sticks and sweet and sour stir-fries. Nigella wrote some predictably filthy prose about “her obsession” (honestly, the poor girl can’t even write one ‘clean’ page – who else could include “saliva-spurting lips” and “ménage-á-trois” in a food column?) with the stuff but the idea festered with me until I was drawn to try it out. We’d both enjoyed a hint of saltiness in  Source’s Cherry and Salted Caramel Brownie so I thought that I would attempt my own recipe.

Don’t be under any illusion about just how bad these are for you. But the odd occasional indulgence can’t do you any harm. They’re seriously gooey and sticky but can still be eaten with fingers (Nigella-style sultry digit-licking compulsory). Make them a day ahead of time to let the caramel soak in.

Dark Chocolate and Bitter Cherry Brownies with Salted Caramel Glaze
Makes 16 – 20 brownies

For the brownies
100g unsalted butter, softened
150g golden caster sugar
2 large eggs
75g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
3 tbsp milk (or cream!)
75g dried sour cherries
50g dark chocolate, chopped

For the caramel (adapted from Nigella's version)
40g unsalted butter
25g soft light brown sugar
25g golden caster sugar
25g honey
60ml double cream
1 tsp sea salt (fleur de sel if you have it) or to taste

-          - Preheat the oven to 180C and line a 20cm square tin with greaseproof paper
-          - First, it’s time to make the caramel. Melt the butter in a pan over a low heat with the sugars and honey, stirring occasionally to encourage the sugar to dissolve.
-          - Once it is smooth, raise the temperature and let the caramel gently bubble up. Keep a close eye on it at this point as it can burn easily; I like to remove it from the heat every minute or so to and give it a good stir to stop it catching. It’s ready when it starts to thicken and darken.
-          - Remove from the heat and add the cream, stirring constantly to combine into a smooth sauce. Once you have done this, take a little caramel on a spoon and set it to one side to cool – if it completely solidifies, add a splash of milk as you want the caramel to be semi-liquid at room temperature.
-          - Scatter the salt over the caramel and stir well to combine. Taste to check the salt levels and add more if you fancy it. Beware that the caramel may be very hot so don’t burn your mouth! Set aside.
-          - Beat the butter and sugar together in a bowl until fluffy and then add one egg at a time, whisking well between each addition.
-          - Sift the flour, cocoa and baking powder into the bowl and then gently stir in. Add the milk to loosen then fold in half of the cherries and all of the dark chocolate.
-          - Spoon into the prepared tin and level. Using half of your prepared caramel, add dollops to the brownie batter in the tin. Loosely swirl the caramel into the batter but don’t overdo it as it’ll just mix in.
-          - Bake for 25 minutes or until the top has puffed up a little and has set.
-          - Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 15 minutes then stud with the remaining cherries (I like to squidge them right into the soft brownie but be more decorative if you wish) and then glaze with the remaining caramel.

Friday, 9 December 2011

The Chocolate Festival, London


You may already be aware of my love affair with chocolate but if you’re not, needless to say that I am a big fan. I won’t go into detail (it’s best not to get me started) but there was a time when I couldn’t go a day without some form of the good stuff. I’m reformed now but it’s still my weak spot. I’m heartened that I’m not as bad as The Boy who can’t sit still if there’s an open box of chocolate on display.

With this in mind, you can imagine my frustration about the fact that on a weekend when I’m schlepping oop North (to visit a friend who lives on an organic farm – post to follow) the capital will be hosting a festival devoted to my vice. The Chocolate Festival runs from today until Sunday and will be a melting pot for over 40 mouth-watering exhibitors. There will be demonstrations from some of the world’s best chocolatiers will be taking place throughout the weekend so I’m truly missing out. 

If you’re unlucky enough to already have plans, do not despair. They have already confirmed dates in March next year in Brighton and London to spread the chocolatey goodness.  

The Chocolate Festival runs from Friday 9th until Sunday 11th December 2011 from 11am - 8pm Daily (6pm on Sunday) at Southbank Centre Square, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Honey glazed carrots

A chilly winter breeze has blown in and had me reaching for my thick coat, scarf and gloves. This is the time of year has me craving comfort food in the shape of rich risottos, beautiful bakes and sumptuous soups. In addition, my stomach seems to be gearing itself up for the big day and its legendary roast of epic proportions. Although I adore the meat element of a roast, I am a big fan of the accompaniments too. Crispy potatoes, Yorkshire puddings (not just with beef, I might add) and as many different kinds of vegetables as possible (as the season allows). 

Saying that, I like to keep things simple and, in my tiny kitchen, that means minimising the number of pans on the hob. Glazed roasted roots are a fantastic way to do this as it brings out their natural sweetness while reducing your hob-top saucepans. I’ve jotted down my recipe for carrots but it would work equally as well with parsnips or beetroot depending on your tastes. A little wholegrain mustard swirled through the glaze is a delight too!


Honey glazed carrots
Serves four as a side

250g chantenay carrots
1 tbsp sunflower oil
2 tbsp honey
1 tbsp butter
Salt and pepper to taste

-          - Preheat the oven to 180C.
-          - Scrape or peel the carrots (top and tail if necessary) and slice in half.  Place in a bowl, drizzle with oil and stir or toss with your fingers to coat them evenly. Season with a little salt and pepper.
-          - Spread out thinly on a baking tray and put in the oven for 30 minutes. Stir them once or twice to ensure that they cook evenly.
-          - Gently melt the butter and honey together over a low heat or in the microwave, stirring until combined.
-          - Remove the carrots from the oven and pour over the glaze.
-          - Return to the oven for another five or ten minutes until the carrots are browned on the outside but are soft enough to cut easily.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Make your own Christmas cake "kit"?

On my adventures in supermarket-land, I’ve noticed that many of them are selling kits for making the traditional Christmas cake. Now, on the one hand, I’m happy that they might encourage festive cake virgins to give the stodgy fruit slabs a try, which has got to be a good thing. One the other hand, the pointless packaging (individual sachets of spices? Really?) immediately gets my back up and leaves me wondering: is it really that hard to weigh out a few ingredients? It seems like commercialised “convenience” to me. It's been quite the cookery conundrum for me.

The kits themselves aren’t cheap – convenience, after all, costs – and aren’t a complete cake package. Each “kit” contains pre-weighed flour, sugar, almonds and spices as well as ready-soaked dried fruit .You’ll need to add butter and eggs which come at an additional cost. The kit itself will set you back anywhere between £7.50 - £15 depending on if you get one when its reduced. Now that the furious run-up to the big day has begun in earnest, they are discounting them left, right and centre. Assuming that you use free range eggs, you’ll need to fork out at least an additional £3. With your average home baked cake coming in around the £7.50 mark, you’d do better to make your own from scratch if you’re watching the pre-Christmas pennies.

The only thing that these kits seem to offer is convenience in the form is pre-weighed and pre-soaked ingredients as well as a tried-and-tested recipe. I suppose it could be helpful if you really don’t know where to start and probably scores highly in the supermarket impulse buy league tables. For a few of my friends, 2011 has been the year of the first Christmas cake. Instead of turning to the supermarkets for assistance, they got together and made a night of it. All newbies together; no pressure to impress, just cake baking at its best.
Let’s face it; we all know how to weigh out ingredients and there’s nothing out of the ordinary in a Christmas cake. The most difficult part is remembering to soak the fruit before you make the cake but this could be done overnight if you’re really running short of time. As far as tried-and-tested recipes, you have the internet at your fingertips! The world is your cakey (Noro-free) oyster. Plus, I’m sure there’s someone – whether it’s a parent, grandparent, friend or kindly colleague – who would lend you their trusty recipe.
So please don’t be fooled into getting one of these kits. Sure it’s probably better than buying one readymade but making one from scratch – which, in this case, basically involved getting the scales out – isn’t much harder.

Complete first-timer? Not sure where to start? The first thing you need to do is soak your fruit!

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Butternut Squash Risotto


The winter cold season is well and truly upon us and there are people coughing and sneezing wherever I look. I’ve started using my newspaper as a shield during my commute (has covering your mouth when you cough and sneeze gone out of fashion?) in a feeble attempt to avoid the inevitable. So far so good though I’ve probably jinxed myself by saying that! Whether you are currently suffering or if you, like me, are desperately trying to dodge the sniffles that are doing the rounds, you could help yourself by eating right. Butternut nut squash is a fantastic versatile ingredient and it’s packed full of vitamin C (great for boosting your immune system!) and calcium as well as other fantastic vitamins and minerals. Despite its luxuriously silky texture, it’s also low in saturated fat.

We’re coming to the end of the winter squash season but they keep for up to three months in a cool dark environment so there’s still time to squirrel some away under the stairs or in your larder cupboard. I like to buy them up when they’re in season and cheap in the supermarket then peel and roast them when I’ve got the oven on anyway to save on energy. This is a great excuse, if you’re in need of one, to make a cake or maybe some cookies! You can then box or bag it up and freeze it cooked ready for winter salads, warming soups and hearty risottos.


Butternut Squash Risotto with sage
Serves two amply 

½  medium-sized butternut squash, seeds removed
½ onion, finely diced
1 stick celery, finely diced
1 carrot, finely diced
1 clove garlic, sliced
150g risotto rice
80ml white wine or dry vermouth
500ml vegetable stock
1 small bunch of fresh sage, chopped or 2 tsp dried sage
50g butter
50g parmesan

-          Preheat the oven to 190C. Peel and chop the squash into 1.5cm chunks. Pop them on a non-stick baking tray and stick them in the oven for 30 minutes or so while you make the risotto. Check the squash every so often and turn it with a spoon to ensure that it cooks evenly. The squash is cooked when its soft and slightly golden. If you are using pre-cooked butternut squash, you can obviously skip this step and commend yourself for being well organised.
-          Heat a little oil in a heavy-based saucepan and sweat the onion, carrot and celery until soft and sweet.
-          Tip in the rice and stir until it has absorbed all of the juices of the vegetables in the pan. Pour in the wine and keep stirring while that absorbs to ensure that the rice doesn’t stick.
-          Add the garlic and then the stock a ladleful at a time, stirring until all of the liquid is absorbed before adding more.
-          Check the butternut squash, which should be cooked through. (If it isn’t, cover the risotto and turn off the heat below it.)  Mash half of it to a course purée and stir this into the risotto with the butter, sage and parmesan. Fold in or top with the rest of the roasted squash.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Stir up... Friday!

Are you feeling Christmassy yet? No? Neither am I. But I have a plan! Since I was a little girl, my darling mother has made Christmas cake and pudding for us every year. I have fond memories of watching her weigh out her tried-and-tested mixture of dried fruits before grating in the zest of oranges and lemons and finishing with a generous measure of brandy. The smell of brandy still reminds me of the first rich mouthful of iced cake which I would squeeze in on top of the other sumptuous Christmas fare.

Stir up Sunday may have just passed but it's not too late to start soaking your fruit for your Christmas cake. It's a great way to get into the spirit of things, probably because all the alcohol fumes are enough to make anyone feel at least a little bit merry. You can ease yourself into what can be a marathon cooking season.


First, find a suitable vessel - a large sweet jar with a lid is ideal but a large bowl with a saucepan lid or plate over the top works too. Then pick your fruit; go for whatever you'd like and appeals to you. For a standard size cake and pudding, you'll need around 1.5kg of fruit. I adore dried and glacé cherries so I will be throwing a few of those in along with some plump juicy raisins, some snipped up dried dates, figs and peel. Pop them into your jar or bowl and fetch your chosen tipple. Generally, its sherry or brandy but again, there aren't any rules here and if there are, they are made to be broken. You don't have to go for something alcoholic as tea or fruit juice taste delish too. No matter what you choose, my tip would be to have one of whatever you're giving the fruit yourself - for research purposes, of course. My Mum always added the zest and juice of an orange or two as well. Pour over enough to cover the fruit and you're done! Simply stir the mixture every few days and keep in a cool dark place like your larder cupboard or fridge.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Food on the Brain


An amusing article in the Metro made me snort into my morning cup of tea. Apparently a study in the US has been evaluating the male mind. (Sometimes I toy with chucking in my job and becoming one of these mysterious “researchers” – how do you become one? It sounds like great fun!) I’ll side-step the predictable sexist remarks about there not being much to study, etc  and skip straight to the punch line. According to this study, men think about sex 19 times a day on average. That’s good and all but the interesting bit for me was that this only just trumped food (at 18 times a day) in their thought league table.

Now, you may have noticed that I’m not a boy (really really – verified by medical professionals and everything) which made me wonder a) how often to girls think about food in a day and b) how often to I think about food in a day? I’m tempted to keep a running tally on my hand though I think I’d probably skew the statistics as I tend to think about food rather a lot…

The question that dwarfs all others though, is what do men think about the rest of the time? My suggestions are detailed above!
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