Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Just Pootling around

The current obsession of our resident Small Person is Q Pootle 5. I don't mind this one bit, since the series is charming, funny, and generally utterly brilliant, and I hope it stays a favourite in the long term.

In the medium term comes Small Person's birthday. She'll only be 2, so it won't be a full-on party, but I suspect there will be a Pootle cake or similar to share with a few friends. During the (many, many) times we have watched the programme, I've spotted all kinds of food that the gang from Okidoki like to make and share with each other, and I wondered if there was scope for Pootle-themed party food. Of course there is :)

Top of the bill has to be Astro Cake (renamed Comet Cake), which was made by Oopsy with (no) help from Pootle - a three-layer sponge sandwiched with jam and topped with icing, chocolate moons, jelly stars, sprinkles, and a shooting star on a stick. Another cakey option is the chocolate cake Stella makes for Ray on bath days, but frankly Astro Cake has the wow factor here. It should be easy enough to recreate if you can only find the right toppings! I think I am definitely up for this one.

Making regular appearances are Oopsy's Crackle Cakes. I like to think of these as chocolate crispie cakes, maybe with a dash of popping candy for real crackle, topped with white chocolate and a cherry. Small Person and I have actually just made something very similar for Daddy's birthday...

Sunwiches have to be a party staple, especially as they are so flexible. Jam (as found by the treasure map) and cheese have both cropped up, in fact I think Oopsy names several cheeses in her skipping rhyme. Perhaps Bud-D's boiled eggs could provide another filling (presumably with moon mayo). But really you could have almost anything with a suitably space-y name.

You can't forget Groobie's favourite, sausages. Maybe not with gravy, peas, parsnips, cheese, or onion rings, but sticky mini sausages on good old fashioned cocktail sticks would surely be a winner. Another option could be Mouldy Meteors - mini meatballs made with the addition of some sort of green veg for the 'mould' (edging towards Halloween there...), or for a meat-free option maybe mini felafel with herbs in.

Wobblyfruit would be awesome too - orange jelly would do the trick. And what else would you serve it with but Cosmic Whipple Ripple ice cream? Swirling together a couple of different ice cream colours/flavours with fruit sauce or sweeties would be one way to do it.

It's not all sweets and treats, there's healthy options too. Fruit and veg make various appearances, from Ray's favourite Tangle Berries (when not being used for Groobie's special... eyebrow shampoo... *cough*) to Stella's Moon Marrows, Evenfruit, and the suspiciously rhubarb-like Lunar Sticks that nearly left Oopsy stranded on Bockety Moon. I reckon you could at least have a platter of veg sticks from Stella's patch on your party table, but you'd have to come up with good names for them all :)

And of course, we need something to drink. What else but a selection of smoothies? Combinations of fruits and yogurt, maybe some sparkling water for proper astro-fizziness, and you're all set. Oh for a magic smoothie machine like Groobie's that can dispense whatever you wish for!

I'll be keeping an eye out for other ideas as the day approaches, but to be honest I think a full-on Pootle Party would suit an older child better. So let's just hope the Okidoki addiction lasts a while longer :)

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Sweetcorn & spring onion... eggy... thing

Well, I started with this: Corn, cheddar & scallion strata, from Smitten Kitchen. I had spring onions to use, and some fresh corn, and there are always eggs and cheese around. I'm not sure where "I made this" morphs into "I tweaked this" and on into "I made something vaguely like this". I think I am probably in the latter camp.

Eggs aren't a family meal in this house, with husband not eating them, but Small and I love them. As Small has been off-colour lately, I was trying to tempt her appetite back, and this sounded good. What I ended up making was a corn and spring onion omelette/frittata with breadcrumbs and cheese, which was successful in that it was hoovered up.

I always have breadcrumbs in the freezer, from trying to be thrifty/anti-food-waste with the ends of bread. I don't often have a loaf of bread, and that was the case today, but I was glad to use one of the umpteen bags of crumbs clogging up my drawers. It gave the omelette more body but also a softness compared to the can-be-rubbery-ness of well-cooked egg.

I used a whole small cob of fresh corn, kernels cut and then boiled for 90 sec in the microwave. Also two medium spring onions, finely sliced. While I softened them in a frying pan, I whisked up two eggs with a little milk, and grated some cheese. I added most of the breadcrumbs (a good handful) to the veg in the pan, and saved a little for the top, and did the reverse with the cheese (a little in the pan, most saved). I added the egg to the pan, didn't stir, and then when it was halfway set I sprinkled the cheese and crumbs on top. The panful was finished off under the grill to melt the cheese and brown the crumbs.

Next time on this version? three eggs (needs more depth) and go with the idea of a little mustard or mayo whisked in to the eggs. I'd love to try the "strata" idea and will just have to get organised to freeze so I don't have it for lunch every single day for a week.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Feijoada (Brazilian pork stew)

Second recipe in a row that's Not Cake. See? I can do it.

Another BBCGF recipe, again not on the website yet, but there are a million recipes for feijoada out there, describing it as pork & black bean stew. Mine was different, because I forgot to put the black beans in... did most of the prep earlier in the day but decided not to drain the beans as I had no more fridge space, then during cooking got sidetracked by dish size issues, and forgot them. (That said, due to the dish size issues I don't know where I would have put them...)

 "Start by getting your biggest flameproof casserole" begins the recipe. Which is a fairly poor way to start if, like me, you have only one flameproof casserole dish and it's only medium sized. So my first tip for next time is to make only 4 portions, not 6. I *think* it's a 2.6 litre dish, and this recipe left it brim-full without the beans.

In any case, the result was a lovely, slow-cooked dish with tender meat, soft veg, and a nice thick sauce. It was very tasty and tangy, and extremely satisfying.

I don't think there are many adjustments to be made to the taste, as we thought it was pretty good. Maybe a bit orange-heavy, as it was very reminiscent of pork in orange sauce, but that's not necessarily bad. I'd like to try it with the black beans before making any changes. I also omitted celery this time as I didn't have any. The dumplings were fluffy but would benefit from some salt, and I'm not sure about the extra polenta on the outside which was very crunchy. I wonder whether they really need buttermilk or could just use yoghurt, as you have to buy more buttermilk than you need and then have to find a way to use it.

Update: on reheating for the next time, I added the beans. They are definitely worth adding, bulk it out and tone down the orange a bit. I don't think I'll tweak anything next time except the dumplings.

Ingredients for 6, including dumplings but omitting the onion relish from the original recipe.

900g diced pork shoulder
2 sticks celery, finely chopped
2 onions, finely chopped.
3 bay leaves
2 tsp dried oregano
1 tbsp each cumin, coriander, allspice
1 pork stock cube
2 400g tins tomatoes
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 orange, zest & juice
2 tbsp muscovado sugar
1 tbsp cocoa powder
2 red chillies, halved lengthwise & seeded or not, as you prefer
2 400g tins black beans, drained & rinsed
400g sweet potato, peeled & chopped
2 peppers, chopped

100g chilled butter, cubed
200g self raising flour
140g polenta
140g tinned sweetcorn (small can), drained
0.5 tsp bicarb
75ml buttermilk (or yogurt/sour cream?)
1 egg, beaten

Brown the meat in batches. Soften the onion & celery with the oregano & bay leaves. Add the spices, wait a minute, then add browned meat, plus tomatoes, orange, cocoa, vinegar, sugar, chillies, stock cube. Simmer 1 hour.

Add sweet potatoes, peppers, and simmer for  another 30 mins.

Meanwhile: Rub flour & butter to breadcrumbs, mix in polenta, bicarb and sweetcorn. Add buttermilk & most of egg (reserve some to brush tops). Mix to a workable dough, split into 12 and roll into balls, coating in more polenta.

Preheat oven to 180°C (fan). Stir beans into casserole, taste & season. Put 6 dumplings on casserole, and the rest on parchment/greaseproof in a tin, then brush them with the remaining egg. Bake for 25 mins.

Preparing ahead: in various snatched moments during the day I combined the tomatoes, orange, sugar, chillies, cocoa and stock cube; peeled and chopped the onion, sweet potato and pepper; combined the spices. But with the batch browning of meat ahead of the long cooking time, this is really a weekend recipe even with the prep.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Spanish roast chicken

Hot off the press - this is a BBC Good Food magazine recipe, and I'm a subscriber so this issue has only just hit the shops :)

It's paprika-covered roast chicken, but with potates, chorizo and chickpeas in the roasting pan with lemon, garlic, stock and white wine. I really don't think quantities are that vital, but it was a 1.4kg chicken, 800g potatoes, 200g chorizo, 2 tins of chickpeas, 2 lemons, a whole head of garlic, a glass of white wine and the same of chicken stock. All pretty standard - for reference, I used Revilla chorizo and it was fab, not too spicy but very tasty.

Rub the chicken with paprika, oil & salt, and stuff with 1 lemon, halved. Cook the chicken, chorizo (chunks) and potatoes (chunks or use small ones) in a big pan under foil for 30 mins (180°C fan). Remove foil, baste chicken, add other lemon (in wedges) and garlic (peeled cloves), roast for another 30 mins. Add stock & wine, mix everything around, and do a final 30 mins. Garnish with chopped parsley before serving. Original recipe suggests serving with yogurt with paprika, lemon & saffron (and adding saffron to the stock) but I didn't do that.

I found that 90 mins was not enough, and we usually do chicken for 1h40-1h45, so would increase the cooking time next time. There was quite a lot of liquid but we ate it from bowls with the chicken carved on top. Some of the potatoes were a bit solid (which seemed odd having been roasted for so long) so I'd chop them a bit smaller next time, maybe 1" or so. Hubby felt there was too much garlic in terms of whole cloves, but it didn't seem to add to the taste. Next time I would remove the chicken for carving then squish a couple of the roasted cloves and stir them in before serving.

When we'd finished, I stripped the chicken carcass and put the meat in with the other leftovers for the next day. It was even better - tangy and juicy, and reheated well.

For a really easy version I think I would use bone-in chicken thighs (and lose 1 lemon), parboil the potatoes, and make the other changes above. I wonder whether a few salty black olives stirred in before serving would also be good?

Monday, 18 August 2014

More cake. Seriously. (hidden design cake)

Look, I don't only make cake. I cook other things too. But I just don't blog them - they're too dull. Maybe I should find more interesting dinners, or maybe dull, safe, easy dinners are just fine when you are also toddler wrangling. Celebration cakes, on the other hand, are infrequent and infinitely more exciting than Yet More Pasta. This one was so exciting I even had a practice run. Oooh.

Inspiration came from this Tablespoon recipe for Rainbow Tie Dye Surprise Cake. Swiftly followed by "ow, my eyes!" "I need to spend HOW much on gel colours?" and "packet cake mix - meh". So it was then tempered down to UK standards (and ingredients) by this BBC Good Food recipe for a Hidden Heart Cake. The plan was to follow the HH recipe but partify the innards with different colours.

There's no point in telling the whole story of the practice run and the main event, so I'll just try to get a sensible recipe and all the tips down for my (and maybe others') future reference. As an overview, you make one coloured cake, cool and slice it, cut a design out of the slices with a biscuit cutter, then place the cutouts in the centre of a plain cake which you bake around them.

The basic foundation is the N-egg sponge. You take your eggs, weigh them, and then use the same amount of soft unsalted butter, golden caster sugar and self raising flour - it means you can actually make it work with whatever eggs you have to hand, small or large. I used a 3-large-egg (roughly 180g) sponge for the inner design and 4+ large eggs (~260g - see, a different source of eggs and a different size) for the main cake (see tips below).

I used a creaming method to make the cakes: cream the butter and sugar really well until pale and smooth, then whizz in the eggs (and vanilla, if using), and finally fold in the flour.

For the first cake, at this point I split the mixture into 4 to add the colours. I used 2 Sugarflair colours, Royal Blue and Melon, plus a Dr Oetker red, given to me by a friend. I remembered from reading baking forums or comments on recipes that the Dr Oetker gel colours are not the same sort of thing as the "pro" gels like Sugarflair, being weaker, and boy was that the case. The blue especially was very vivid, and the red was not vivid at all. In my cake mix (remember, a quarter of a 3-egg sponge), I used almost all of the whole 10g tube of red, whereas I used a *tiny* amount (the tip of a teaspoon handle - maybe half a pea-sized amount) of the blue. I was a little (but only a little) more generous with the yellow, and added in a blob of red too to make it more orangey (to stand out from the surrounding plain cake), and then mixed yellow and a tiny smear of blue to make green. (Note: gel colours on eBay are cheaper, e.g. any 3 for £7 as opposed to £3.25 each, but you might also like to support your local cake shop!)

You can see how the colours came out in this slice:

That was pretty much the effect I was hoping for. I didn't go the whole hog (as per the Tablespoon recipe) of piping the colours in a Pollock-esque splatter, but just dropped in teaspoonfuls. Once I had used all the mixtures I dropped the tin flat on the surface a couple of times to settle them all down. For the test cake I used larger spoonfuls and swirled with a skewer but the effect wasn't mixed enough when cut, so the teaspoons are worth the extra time.

Which brings me to the tin. I used a silicone loaf tin, 2lb size (about 9" x 3"), and while this makes the cake easy to release from the tin, the sides do bow out when using a lot of mixture. Not the case at this stage, but definitely a problem for the final cake.

I baked at 140°C (fan oven) for 1h10 and the cake was done perfectly. After 10 mins in the tin I turned it on to a cooling rack and left for a good few hours to cool. I sliced it into 1" slices (depends on your cutter depth) and cut a star out of the centre of each one. The cake was tricky to release from the cutter but luckily it was a nested set of star cutters so I used the next smallest one to poke it out :) I would say you need to think carefully about your shape, and any skinny protrusions will be troublesome. Remember you not only have to cut the shape out and keep it whole, but also place it in the other cake mix and get it evenly surrounded and supported. Also the more cake you use out of the coloured loaf, the less plain cake mix you will need! Round shapes like BBCGF's heart are a great choice.

Phase 2 involved making more plain cake mix, 4 eggs this time. I put a thin layer in the bottom of the tin and then placed the stars in a tight row on top of it (making sure they were in the same order so the swirls matched up - picky, me?). I then used a piping bag with a wide nozzle to get the cake mix down the sides, before piping the last of it on top. Here the bulging sides of the silicone pan were unhelpful as they created more space and meant the mixture did not cover the stars - argh. I actually ended up whizzing an extra egg's worth of sponge together to go on the top, before I realised that there would be enough if I could hold the sides up. This involved getting a bit Heath Robinson with a roasting tin and some folded tinfoil, which upped the cooking time (almost 2 hours)... the mixture overflowed volcanically... anyway, long story short, use a metal tin if you value your sanity.

The other thing, which I have no idea how to control, is that as the cake cooked (or perhaps during my piping of cake mix, or during my fiddling with tinfoil) the stars moved, off-centre and upwards. So when I trimmed the cake top for icing, I sliced into the star (see top photo). Nooo! I never thought I would curse a cake for rising! This happened a bit with the practice cake, but not as much. My best suggestion is to use just a very thin layer of plain cake on the bottom and wedge the coloured shapes well down into it, and make sure not to pack one side better than the other.

With the cake done, I crumb-coated with buttercream (75g butter, 175g icing sugar, tbsp milk) and then coated with plain white fondant and stars cut from coloured fondant. Another learning point here: when moistening fondant shapes to apply onto the white, use barely any water to avoid coloured dribbles. A ribbon around the bottom finished it off.

So, main cake complete but I felt guilty about the amount of offcut coloured cake. Not that it wouldn't get eaten, but it seemed a shame. Another 3-egg sponge mix was divided between 12 muffin cases with a chunk of offcut in each. As it was getting late I made the sponge with an all-in-one method (no creaming, just whizz everything together) and it was perfectly tasty, just a bit more crunchy on the top. I also stirred in a pack of sprinkles to try for a 'funfetti' effect. It was more successful than last time (I used Dr Oetker sprinkles this time). More fondant stars stuck with the last of the buttercream completed the look.

So, there we go. Been there, done that, not rushing to repeat the feat but still quite pleased with it despite my wonky stars. But blogging the experience just in case I change my mind!

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Further adventures in cake

Another birthday cake, this time for the joint first birthday party of our NCT group, which we call "winter babies". It needed to be free of both chocolate and nuts, so I went for just a sponge cake and nice decoration.

As it had to serve up to 16, I made two 4-egg sponges (4 eggs, 225g each of caster sugar, softened butter and self raising flour, done with the creaming method) with a hint of orange zest in the mix. Top tip - I found that you can get zest off the spiky side of the grater (the only way to get it fine enough, but it retains a lot) with a cube of refrigerated butter. Just press it on and lift off to take the zest with it.

I made the cakes in my two 20cm tins, although they are different designs and at 175°C (fan) one cooked in 35 minutes while the other took 40. I lined the tins with greaseproof paper but would have been better to either do it more carefully or grease and flour them, as the paper left indentations in the cakes so they weren't perfectly round. I had a choice between trimming them or filling in any major holes with icing, and chose the latter! I don't have a turntable so trying to get them even vaguely round would have been a nightmare.

To sandwich and first-coat them I made buttercream with 75g soft butter and 175g icing sugar plus a teaspoon of milk and some lemon zest, beaten until light. That was just enough for a decent layer in the middle, and a crumb/smoothing coat around the outside. I also put some lemon curd in the middle, but this was a bit of a bad move as it lubricated the cakes and let the top one slide about. Next time I'd use jam if anything, or maybe just stick to buttercream.

I'm not sure I would have known to first coat (crumb coat?) the cakes with buttercream if I hadn't done some research. This video was helpful - I can't say I'm aware of "international cake decorating expert Pat Lock" but she sounds like a no-nonsense sort of lady and the steps were easy to follow. I fudged together a turntable of sorts by placing a round cake board on top of a shiny cake tin base, sandwiched the cakes together and then lightly slathered them in buttercream. (Can you slather lightly? I digress...).

The big step into the unknown for me was the fondant icing (hence the video). I was armed with a packet of Sainsbury's ready to roll white icing, plus black, and some leftover blobs of royal blue and other colours kindly donated by one of the other mums. I kneaded the white (1kg) with the blue (a generous walnut size, maybe) and worked it until it was just slightly marbled as I thought that looked good. It was softer to work with than I imagined, so no Paul Hollywood-esque muscles were developed during this stage. Then I rolled it out on a silicone pastry mat dusted with icing sugar, to the requisite size as determined by Pat's string method (i.e. diameter of icing = 2 x height + diameter of cake). This took it to about pound coin thickness. The icing was huge - wider than my rolling pin, only just fitting on the mat. It meant I couldn't do "roll and turn" to keep it from sticking, and I just had to trust the icing sugar would do its job (thankfully it did), and then when it came to transferring the icing to the cake, I had to use my hands as the rolling pin just was not long enough. With the icing being quite soft, it did sag over my fingers a bit and I had to work quickly to pass it from mat to cake and get it centred.

The hard part was getting it down the sides of the cake to the bottom without wrinkles. Despite the video instruction, I didn't quite manage it, but just called the wrinkly part the back, and put a wide ribbon around the bottom to hide any more errors (thanks again, Pat!). The top was good, which was the main thing. There was some minor cracking in the fondant but it didn't seem to go right through, and wasn't too noticeable. I don't have a cake icing smoother thingy so just did the best I could with icing sugar dusted fingers.

Decoration was the fun bit :) I'd already mocked it up in powerpoint, using the drawing tools to trace over a penguin I found online (edited a bit - can't leave anything alone!) so that I could separate out what I needed to cut out of black icing, white icing, etc. Printing it at the right size gave me templates to use when cutting. I found a font I liked for the lettering (Boyz R Gross - sorry, boy babies!) and another one for snowflakes (WWFlakes), but then I spotted rice paper snowflakes from eBay. Quicker, nicer looking than I could do, and very cheap. Deal!

The lettering was done with glitter writing icing in purple, and the snowflakes were affixed with the same stuff in white. Yes, at 10pm on a Friday I was in my kitchen, kneeling before the worksurface, attaching tiny rice paper snowflakes to a cake using tweezers. This is the life.


So, that's it. My first solo adventure in cake decorating. Fun stuff! Given that I have leftover blue icing and snowflakes, I know what Small's birthday cake will probably look like :)

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Christmas 2013

My first crack at a proper Christmas dinner :)

I decided on pork as I love crackling, so I ordered a roast from the local butcher as I know their meat is far better quality than the supermarket's. I didn't specify what cut but it looked like loin and there was plenty of it (I ordered for "3-4 plus leftovers") so I cut the smaller end off and it's in the freezer for another week.

Good old Delia came up trumps for a recipe: roast pork with crackling. All I had to do was dry the skin and salt it, and place the meat on a topped, tailed and halved onion. I adjusted the oven temperatures down slightly for our fan oven, and did 25 mins at 220° and then another 2h at 180°. This was a bit of a mistake as I calculated the time on the original weight and not after I'd cut a bit off. Still, the pork was well done rather than overcooked, with perfect crackling and very tender meat.

What did perhaps suffer a bit was the meat juices. Although they were supposed to go to make gravy, it was entirely fat in the tin. I poured it off, and what was left was very dark - not tempting crusty bits so much as blackened. The outer layers of the onion had also burned, so I binned those before deglazing the pan with cider and making up gravy with that, stock (~150ml each) and flour (1 tbsp plain), with water to taste later - there was a definite dark tang to it but I had no other means to make gravy so had to make it work! Straining the finished product removed the onion bits before serving, and the verdict was fairly good but by no means perfect.

Of course, it's not just the meat - alongside it we had apricot stuffing, roast potatoes, red cabbage, brussels sprouts and parsnips. Oh, and sausages in bacon, but they negate the point about the meat :)

Apricot stuffing: a fairly random recipe pick, it's American style stuffing involving an onion and 2 cloves garlic, cooked in butter with thyme, then adding chopped dried apricots, bread, and cream. It turned out rather sweet, and a dash of worcester sauce evened it out. Next time I'd use the suggested variation of subbing some of the cream for stock as it was quite rich.

Potatoes: large King Edwards, parboiled (or rather boiled, since I forgot them) and then tossed about a bit in vegetable oil and a dash of salt, and roasted in the oven for a good 30 minutes.

Red cabbage: braised with cider and apples. I used 600g cabbage, made necessity-based substitutions of a bramley apple, white wine vinegar, and tangerines, and used half of all the other ingredients except the sugar which I reduced a bit further. An hour's cooking time was fine.

Brussels sprouts: peeled, halved, and stir fried/braised with streaky bacon trimmings from the sausages in bacon. Several splashes of water, and a lid on the pan, kept things moist and helped them to steam as well as fry in about 20 minutes.

Parsnips: peeled, chopped, roasted in oil, honey and wholegrain mustard with a dash of black pepper. I didn't really roast them for long enough, so next time would pop them in for 45 mins to an hour.

Dessert wasn't my responsibility, so that's it for this year :)