Tag Archives: sweet treats

January greens

January is such a grey and dismal month: nothing doing in the garden, even less on the allotment, bar those stalwart crops that keep on growing come rain, frost, wind or snow, like leeks and parsnips. Where would we be without them? News of a UK courgette shortage this week made me laugh; I wouldn’t dream of eating courgettes at this time of year (apart from in frozen ratatouille from the heady days of summer courgette gluts), especially the tasteless and fleshy imported ones that are the only kind available. Apparently bad weather in Spain has reduced supplies, so the clean eaters of these isles, with their spiralisers and juicers, are having to forego their vegetable of the moment. Whatever happened to seasonal eating? With broccoli, kale and spinach in abundance now, I rarely buy vegetables at any time of year – and I’m convinced you get better taste and vitamins the sooner after picking you eat, to say nothing of the environmental benefits of those reduced food miles…

Still, man cannot live on veg alone, and I had three egg whites in the fridge recently, left over from the New Year bakeathon. I fancied a change from my usual macaroons, so decided to experiment with Nigella’s pistachio macaroons. She uses two egg whites, but I adapted the quantities to three, and rather than the pistachio buttercream, which rather struck me as nut overload, I thought I’d sandwich them together with lime curd – heaven! Next time, I think I’d be tempted to add some lime rind to the macaroons themselves, though they really were delicious as described.

Pistachio & Lime Macaroons

pistachio-macaroons

110g shelled pistachios
185g icing sugar
3 large egg whites
25g caster sugar
Grated zest of 1 lime (optional)

Lime Curd

lime-curd

120g caster sugar
30g butter, cut into small pieces
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
juice and grated zest of 2 limes

Grind the pistachios in a food processor with the icing sugar (to stop the nuts turning into an oily paste) until very fine. Whisk the egg whites until fairly stiff, then whisk in the caster sugar until very stiff. Fold the pistachio mixture into the whites until combined. Pipe small rounds using an icing bag with a 1cm plain nozzle onto a silicone macaroon sheet if you have one or onto a baking tray lined with baking parchment. Should make 40-50 individual macaroons.

pistachio-macaroons-on-silicone-sheet

Leave to dry for 20-30 minutes, then place in an oven preheated to 160°C, Gas 4. Cook for 12-14 minutes or until set. If you gently peel one off the base, it should lift off without leaving any sticky residue. Remove from oven and allow to cool on the baking sheets.

Meanwhile make the lime curd by placing the sugar, butter, eggs, lime juice and grated zest in a pan over a moderately low heat. Whisk frequently for 10-12 minutes, until it is thick enough to hold the marks of the whisk. Immediately remove from the heat and sieve into a bowl. Allow to cool, then use to sandwich the macaroons together. Any leftover curd can be kept in the fridge for a couple of weeks.

Enjoy! Just the thing to brighten up a gloomy January day….

pistachio-macaroon-single

Baking with courgettes…

The recent unexpected late summer heat has meant that the courgettes are still going great guns. Blink, or miss a day or two of harvesting, and you have marrows to contend with! Fortunately, I love courgettes, so courgette pasta, courgette & feta pancakes and grated courgette & beetroot salad have all been on the menu this week – hardly any wonder that I turn virtually vegetarian in the summer months.

Another way of using up courgette gluts is to use them in baking. Bread and cakes with added courgette seem incredibly light and airy – and decidedly virtuous: green AND making inroads into the courgette mountain!

I first made courgette bread  a few years ago when I stumbled across a delicious-sounding recipe on Jack Monroe’s website, then called “A Girl called Jack”. The website has now been rebranded “Cooking on a bootstrap“, but the recipe remains the same – along with the intention of providing tasty food on a shoestring. I’ve adapted it slightly for use in a breadmaker, but it is fundamentally based on Jack’s original idea – and a really nice way of using up some of those courgettes. (See the original website if you want to make it the old-fashioned way.)

Courgette, Lemon & Sultana Bread

courgette, lemon and sultana bread

1 medium courgette
300g strong bread flour, plus extra to knead the dough
1 tsp dried yeast (I like Dove’s Farm)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
50g sultanas
zest and juice of 1⁄2 a lemon
1 tsp caraway seeds (optional)
Water
Poppy seeds to sprinkle

Grate the courgette finely into a large mixing bowl and set aside with a sprinkling of salt in a colander to allow some of the liquid to drain off – especially important if using juicy homegrown courgettes! Put 1 tsp dried yeast, 300g strong bread flour, salt and sugar into the breadmaker, then add the drained courgette, sultanas, lemon zest and caraway seeds if using. Add the water to the lemon juice and make up to 100-120 ml – I would tend to add the lesser amount if using homegrown veg. as they are very juicy. Set the breadmaker to dough mode – this takes 2 hrs 20 minutes in my Panasonic machine, but every machine will be different.

When the dough is ready, turn out onto a floured surface and knock down. You may need to add quite a lot of extra flour at this stage, depending on the juiciness of the courgettes. When the dough is soft, but able to be moulded without sticky fingers, pat out an oval on a greased baking sheet and leave in a warm place to prove for 30 mins – 1 hour. Sprinkle with poppy seeds if using.

Set oven to 180°C/gas 4 to preheat, then cook the proved loaf for 30 minutes. It should be golden and crisp on top, feel lightweight and sound hollow on the bottom when tapped. Leave to cool on a wire rack, then serve with butter and hunks of cheese – this is also surprisingly good toasted with jam!

My second bread recipe came about when I realised I hadn’t left myself enough time to make a yeasted dough and had people coming for lunch. A quick internet search (I find myself doing this more and more nowadays despite my many recipe books!) brought up this BBC recipe, which is amazingly good considering how quick it is – and yes, it uses up yet more courgettes! I adapted it to what I had in the fridge, as ever, but honey aficionados might like to check out the original recipe.

Courgette & Cheddar Soda Bread

Courgette and Cheddar soda bread

400g self-raising flour, plus extra for dusting
2 medium courgettes
50g rolled oats
1 tsp salt
1½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
75g mature cheddar, grated
few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
285ml natural yogurt
1 tbsp maple syrup
1 egg, beaten or milk, to glaze

Heat oven to 180°C fan/gas 6 and grease, then dust a baking sheet with a little flour. Coarsely grate the courgettes, then place in a clean tea towel and  squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Put the flour, oats, bicarb and 1 tsp salt in a large bowl. Add most of the cheddar (save a little for the top), thyme leaves and grated courgettes. Mix the yogurt and maple syrup, then pour into the flour mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon until the dough starts to clump together, then tip onto a work surface and knead briefly to bring all the loose bits together – try not to overwork the dough or the bread will be heavy.

Shape into a round loaf and place on the baking sheet. Brush with egg or milk and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Use a sharp knife to score a deep cross on top of the loaf, then bake for 30-40 mins until deep golden brown. Best served warm, but leftovers will keep for 1-2 days. Delicious with soup, cheese or hummus – and makes delicious toast!

My final baking suggestion is a courgette cake. Inspired by Bake Off’s drizzle challenge this week, I fancied a courgette drizzle cake – and sure enough, my internet searches brought up a few promising candidates. I plumped for a gluten-free option (always worth experimenting before you’re expecting guests) from the Waitrose recipe site, and was amazed by the results: you would never guess this was a GF cake – sublime!

Courgette Lemon Drizzle Cake

Courgette drizzle cake

250g courgettes, coarsely grated
175g butter, softened
175g caster sugar
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g ricotta
125g Doves Farm self-raising flour
85g polenta
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
Finely grated juice and zest 2 lemons
Handful thyme sprigs
6-8 tbsp icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas 4. Grease and base-line 2 loaf tins (or one if you prefer a larger cake for a crowd – bear in mind that cakes made with fresh vegetables don’t keep as long, especially in the warm summer months. I made one to eat and one to freeze.). Put the grated courgettes into a clean tea towel and squeeze out excess juice.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until creamy. Gradually beat in the eggs, adding a spoonful of flour if it looks as though it is starting to curdle, followed by the vanilla and ricotta. Fold in the flour, polenta, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. Finally fold in the lemon zest, grated courgettes and thyme leaves, reserving some for decoration.

Spoon the mixture into the loaf tin/s and bake for 1 hour (large tin) or 35 mins (two tins) until risen, golden and a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin, then turn out onto a wire rack.

Mix the lemon juice with the icing sugar and a sprinkling of thyme leaves. Spoon the drizzle over the cooled cake and leave to set. Slice and serve with a cup of tea for a delectable afternoon treat.

Courgette drizzle cake_closeup

Queen of the Crops

Soft fruit has to be one of the most rewarding crops a home gardener can grow; it does its own thing for most of the year and then suddenly, come June/July, you have more fruit than you know what to do with – not really a hardship, I’m sure you’ll agree! Given the price of fruit in the supermarket, where tiny punnets of raspberries cost a small fortune and often go off disappointingly quickly, this is somewhere you can save pounds. It’s also very hard to even find the currant family, or even gooseberries, in the shops these days, unless you have acess to a farmer’s market or pick-your-own farm.

Admittedly, it’s a good idea to net most of the soft fruit family; redcurrants are particularly prone to bird attack (even when netted!) and I’ve known gooseberries and blackcurrants disappear too, though whether due to birds or passing humans, I’ve never been quite sure… My raspberries seem to thrive without netting and I have a bonus crop this year from raspberry runners that have decided to take up residence underneath my Bramley apple tree – permaculture in essence!

The strawberries are usually first to arrive and have given me a good month of generous pickings: from strawberries on my breakfast muesli (such decadence!), to Strawberry Cheesecake, strawberry meringue and strawberry ice cream. Another old favourite, simplicity itself to make, is a Summer Fruit Crème Brûlée, a recipe I picked up on a Sainsbury’s recipe card many moons ago. The ice cream, another dead-easy recipe, is adapted from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook and puts shop-bought impostors well and truly in their place – you’ll never want to taste bought ice cream again!

Strawberry Ice Cream

Strawberry ice cream

500g fresh strawberries, washed and hulled if necessary
Juice of one orange
Juice of one lemon
300ml double cream
150g caster (or vanilla) sugar

Blitz the strawberries, orange and lemon juice in a blender. Add the cream and sugar until well mixed. Churn in an ice cream maker, or make the old-fashioned way by freezing for an hour or so, then whisking in the ice crystals and repeating until softly frozen.
Serve as is or with more fresh strawberries – divine!

Strawberry ice cream serving

Summer Fruit Crème Brûlée – serves 4-6

Creme brulee portion

250g fresh strawberries, washed and hulled
1 nectarine or peach
125g grapes
14-16 Amaretti biscuits
2 x 200ml tubs crème fraiche (I like the half-fat organic one from Yeo Valley, but full-fat is good too)
150g soft brown sugar

Arrange the strawberries, nectarine and grapes in a round 20cm soufflé dish. You can add a tablespoon of Amaretto at this stage if you wish, but I find the fruit makes its own juice as it chills. Place the Amaretti biscuits on top, evenly spaced. Spoon on the crème fraiche to completely seal the fruit and chill in the fridge for a good couple of hours.
Sprinkle over the sugar, completely covering the cream, then grill for 1-2 minutes (or use a blow torch if you have one!) until the sugar caramelises.
Allow to cool slightly, then serve to general acclaim.
You can of course, use any soft fruit of your choice in this recipe – raspberries are good too, or just strawberries.

My final recipe is an adaptation of my standard strawberry cheesecake instructions to accommodate the current raspberry glut. I ended up picking over a 1kg raspberries in torrential rain yesterday, so a cheesecake and delectable accompanying coulis seemed the way to go.

Raspberry Cheesecake – serves 8-10

Raspberry cheesecake

75g butter
250g Speculoos biscuits (I used Lotus)
150ml double cream
200g full-fat cream cheese
200g crème fraiche
Juice and zest of 1 lime
75g caster sugar
Few drops vanilla essence
Fruit to top: 500g raspberries

I make this in a shallow 30cm x 20cm rectangular tart tin with a loose bottom, but you can use an equivalent round tart tin if you prefer. Grease the tin with butter.

Melt the butter in a small pan and add the crushed biscuits (the old-fashioned way using a plastic bag and a rolling pin, or food-processor if you prefer). Mix and turn into the base of the tin. Spread out and refrigerate while you make the filling.

Whip the cream lightly with the sugar, then add the lime zest and juice, cream cheese, crème fraiche and vanilla essence, continuing to whip until the mixture makes soft swirls. Turn into the base and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight for the best set.

Top with fresh raspberries and serve with raspberry coulis if liked.

Raspberry Coulis

250g raspberries
Juice of 1 orange
1 tbsp icing sugar, sifted

Blitz the raspberries (I used the squishy ones from the bottom of my punnet after picking in pouring rain!) in a blender with the sifted icing sugar and add the sieved orange juice. Strain through a sieve to remove the seeds and serve with the cheesecake or with ice cream. You can add more orange juice if too thick, of course.

What to do with black bananas?!

I don’t know how it is that I always seem to end up with blackened bananas in my fruit basket. I suppose at this time of year there are so many other fruits coming into season and being transformed into pudding (rhubarb, gooseberries, even strawberries) that poor old bananas, that winter standby, get forgotten. When eating them raw, I like my bananas bright yellow, just after the first tinges of green have vanished. Yes, yes, I know that they are easier to digest the riper they are, but once they start to develop brown spots, eating them as is just isn’t an option for me. Puddings and cakes are the way to go then. I’ve given recipes for my unctuous Banana cream before, but if you’re faced with REALLY black bananas, what then? Banana & cherry cupcakes are one option, but only use one banana. What if you’ve managed to overlook four bananas and can’t bear the thought of wasting them?

I was in this situation at the weekend and couldn’t find quite the recipe I had in mind, so ended up combining a couple of ideas, as is often the case. Nigel Slater’s chocolate muscovado banana cake was my starting point, but I had envisaged a dark chocolate cake, rather than chocolate chips. Here’s what I did:

Chocolate Banana Loaf
Chocolate and banana loaf

250g self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
125g butter
235g dark muscovado sugar
2 eggs, beaten
4 overripe bananas, peeled and roughly mashed (add a squeeze of lemon juice to prevent oxidation)
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g dark chocolate

Grease and line two loaf tins (you can make one large cake using one tin, but I split the mixture between two and freeze one). Heat the oven to 160°C fan, Gas 4.
Cream the softened butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.
Beat in the beaten egg and vanilla extract, then fold in the mashed banana.
Melt the chocolate over a pan of hot water, or in the microwave, if you prefer, and allow to cool slightly before folding into the mixture.
Fold in the flour and baking powder.
Transfer to the prepared loaf tins (or tin if you’re going for the jumbo option!).
Bake for 35 – 40 mins (or 50 mins if you’re baking the larger cake), testing with a skewer that there is no sign of uncooked cake mix.
Leave to cool in the tins, then serve and enjoy with the virtuous feeling of having transformed unprepossessing beginnings into the most delicious chocolatey cake!

Another favourite of mine is simplicity itself to prepare and happily converts the blackest of bananas into an amazingly sophisticated dessert. The recipe came originally from John Tovey’s Wicked Puddings book. You can tell how much I’ve used it by the splattered pages and the lack of spine – although that is partly due to one particular labrador in his puppy years… The joys of a full-length bookcase in the kitchen cum dogs’ bedroom!

Leo at the hunt
Brazilian Rum Banana Cream – serves 4

300ml double cream
2 tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp coffee essence
2 tbsp dark rum
2 ripe bananas (works well with yellow ones too if that’s all you have!)
Crumbled meringue shells or amaretti biscuits to taste
Grated dark chocolate to serve

Whip the cream with the caster sugar, coffee essence, then fold in the rum.
Roughly chop the bananas and fold into the cream mixture.
For added texture, fold in crumbled meringues or crushed amaretti biscuits.
Transfer to four sundae dishes and grate dark chocolate over.
Chill before serving – and wait for compliments!

White Chocolate, Blueberry & Pine Nut Cookies

Garage bed May 2016

Younger son came home unexpectedly this weekend, so my empty cake and biscuit tins (after a week of hectic evening sporting activities following full-on working days) were crying out to be replenished this morning. Having picked armfuls of rhubarb from the allotment yesterday, along with my second decent harvest of asparagus of the season (yum!), my favourite Rhubarb Shortbread was a no-brainer, but I also felt inspired to make White Chocolate, Blueberry & Pine Nut cookies. These were originally from a recipe by Sophie Grigson, adapted as is my wont, but absolutely delicious with a good cup of coffee. Suffice to say that extra helpings of both have headed back to Reading with my son and his girlfriend this evening… (Praise indeed when an American girl approves of your cookies – thanks, Lauren!).

The rest of the rhubarb went into a Rhubarb & Almond Crumble after tonight’s herb-roasted lamb dinner: rhubarb cooked briefly in the microwave for 4-5 minutes, sweetened with Demerara sugar to taste and 2 tbsp Amaretto liqueur, then topped with an almond crumble made with 75g SR flour, 25g ground almonds, 50g butter, 25g caster sugar and a handful of flaked almonds – so simple, yet so good! And absolutely sublime with Amaretto Ice-cream on the side…

White Chocolate, Blueberry & Pine Nut Cookies

150g butter, softened
150g caster sugar
220g self-raising flour
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp vanilla essence
50g pine nuts
100g white chocolate, roughly chopped (I use Waitrose Belgian white)
75g dried blueberries

Heat the oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Grease two large baking trays.
Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add the beaten egg, vanilla essence and sifted flour and mix well.
Stir in the pine nuts, white chocolate (I find a small mezzaluna brilliant for chopping chocolate quickly and easily) and blueberries.
The mixture will be quite wet, but this is fine. Either roll into 24-28 balls with dampened hands and place, spaced apart, on baking trays, or use a spoon to make walnut-sized blobs. Press down with a dampened fork to form rough discs.

Cookies pre cooking
Bake in the pre-heated oven for 10-12 minutes until pale golden-brown, cool for a minute or so on the tray, then transfer to a rack to cool.
Serve with good coffee and a very happy grin!

White choc & blueberry cookies

Chocolate Indulgence

Thalia II

There are times when only chocolate hits the spot. Despite the sunny weather we’ve experienced this week, it’s still pretty cold here on the Kent/Sussex border. After a mild start to the year in which some of the early daffodils bloomed in January, my beautiful Thalia daffodils are still flowering away, yet the tulips are still for the most part in bud – apart from down at the allotment, where they’re flowering away in the middle of my asparagus bed, strangely! I can’t think it’s warmer at the allotment site, as it’s on an exposed (but sunny) hillside, but perhaps they’re planted less deeply than the bulbs at home. These are the bulbs emptied from last year’s tubs, so I’m delighted they’ve flowered again – but can’t bring myself to pick them as they look so pretty!

Tulips in asparagus bed

My seedlings, sown before my recent skiing holiday, are doing well in the conservatory, but the soil is far too cold to sow straight into the ground, so I’m going to have to hold fire this weekend and hope for warmer weather by the end of the month. Tomorrow’s tasks will include pricking out and potting on the seedlings – and hoping that the conservatory window ledges are big enough to hold the many resulting individual pots! My second-early potatoes can go into the ground, though, as they’re planted sufficiently deeply to avoid any lingering cold or frost.

The house is pleasantly heated by the warmth of the sun from the conservatory during the day, but I still have the heating set to come on morning and evening to take the chill off. Even so, comfort food is definitely the order of the day and that nip in the air means that only chocolate will do! This is one of my favourite indulgent recipes, from Nigella Lawson, and probably amazingly calorific, but absolutely delicious at the same time. Think Marathon bars (or Snickers, if you insist!), only ten times nicer, and you’ll get the picture. To be made once in a while, when you’re in need of a pick-me-up, salty yet sweet at the same time. Just make sure you have plenty of guests to share it with, as it’s far too tempting to sit in a tin and ration….

Nigella’s Chocolate & Peanut Crunchie Bars

Choc and peanut bars

200g milk chocolate
100g dark chocolate
(or any combination, all dark, all milk, etc – I prefer all dark, personally)
125g butter
3 x 15ml golden syrup
250g salted peanuts (yes, salted!)
4 x 40g Crunchie bars

 1 x 25cm round cake tin or 1 baking tray approx 30 x 20 x 5cm

Line tin with foil.
Break chocolate into pieces and put in a saucepan with the butter and syrup.
Melt gently over a low heat, stirring as you go.
Tip the peanuts into a bowl and crush the Crunchie bars in their packets, then add the pieces to the bowl.
Take the melted chocolate off the heat and stir in the nuts and crushed Crunchie bars.
Mix together and tip into your lined tin, pressing down with a spatula.
Refrigerate for at least 4 hours, then cut into slices, either 24 skinny wedges if using a round tin, or 20-24 large rectangles if using a baking tray.
Enjoy!

My next indulgent recipe is a variation on a brownie that’s suitable for gluten-free visitors as it’s flourless – but definitely not for anyone looking to cut down on their sugar intake! Every now and again, though, you can surely bend the rules and treat yourself to these insanely good brownies? The recipe came from the Waitrose Kitchen magazine in the first place, along with a number of other scrumptious traybakes that I make again and again (see also Rocky Road Flapjack and Blackberry, Lime & Elderflower Drizzle Cake).

Chocolate Caramel Brownies

300g dark chocolate
250g butter
2 tsp vanilla extract
350g caster sugar
5 eggs, beaten
200g ground almonds
1 heaped tsp baking powder
1 397g can Carnation Caramel

Set oven to 160°C fan/Gas 4 and grease a 30 x 20 x 5 cm baking tin, then line with baking parchment.
Melt the dark chocolate with the butter in a large pan over a low heat.
Stir in the vanilla extract and caster sugar, then mix in the 5 beaten eggs, ground almonds and baking powder.
Tip into the prepared tin, then swirl the contents of the can of Carnation Caramel over the top with a knife.
Bake for 40-45 minutes until set on top, but still moist inside.
Leave to cool in the tin before slicing into portions – at least 16!

Here’s hoping the weather picks up soon, so we can get digging to work off all those chocolatey calories….

Nigella's choc and peanut bars with flowers

Sugar-free Treats – MUCH nicer than you’d think…

Crocus close-up

After the excesses of the Easter weekend and all that chocolate, cake and family get-togethers, maybe it’s time to think about getting back on the straight and narrow?!

Whilst I’m not specifically seeking to cut down on sugar or lose weight, there’s no way of avoiding the fact that sugar has become public enemy No. 1 in the dietary stakes, far outstripping butter and eggs as previous contenders for the title! It may well change again, but I’m only too well aware that eating too much refined sugar can play havoc with your digestive system, to say nothing of your teeth. Cooking most of my food from scratch, I don’t usually fall prey to the hidden sugars that are in much mass-produced food, but I have to confess that I do have a sweet tooth and I love my cakes and puddings.

With that in mind, I’ve recently been experimenting with a number of sugar-free recipes and have been pleasantly surprised by the results. It would certainly be no hardship to have to forego sugar if the alternative was to exist on these! Many sugar-free recipes are based on honey, which is a bit of a disadvantage for me as I can’t stand the stuff – but with a little adaptation, it’s possible to use agave nectar or maple syrup instead, I find. All three recipes are gluten-free too, which is an added boon if you regularly have gluten-intolerant visitors, as I do.

My food mantra is, as ever, everything in moderation – but if you fancy a change and are looking to cut back on your sugar intake, you might want to experiment with these very tempting treats:

The first is a recipe that appeared in a little healthy eating booklet that came free with the Telegraph in the austere month of January. It’s by the “Medicinal Chef”, Dale Pinnock, although I’ve adapted it slightly to suit what I had available. I guarantee that it not only looks pretty, but tastes divine – and not at all earnestly healthy!

FRIDGE FRUIT & NUT BARS

Fridge fruit & nut bars
8 tbsp mixed seeds (I used golden flax, pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, pine nuts and poppy, but use any combination of whatever you have to hand!)
2 handfuls goji berries
1 handful pitted dates
1 tbsp chopped nuts (cashews, walnuts, brazils – your choice!)
1 tbsp dried fruit (I used dried cranberries or apricots)
4 tbsp cocoa powder (original recipe says cacao powder, but I didn’t have it, so cocoa worked fine)
1 tbsp desiccated coconut
1 tsp ground cinnamon
4 tbsp coconut oil

Topping: 1 tbsp goji berries, 1 tbsp chopped nuts, 1 tbsp dried apricots, chopped

Place the seeds, goji berries, dates, nuts, dried fruit, cocoa/cacao powder, coconut and cinnamon in a food processor and pulse until you create a coarse mixture. Melt the coconut oil in a pan over a gentle heat – this will not take long! Pour over the seed and nut mixture in the food processor and process at full speed until combined to form a thick paste. Add more fruit here if you think it looks too runny – everyone’s hands are a different size! However, it will thicken as it sets…

Line a 7” square cake tin with foil and turn the mixture into the tin, pressing down evenly with a spatula. Sprinkle over the topping ingredients and press down firmly with the spatula.

Place in the fridge to set for at least three hours. Cut into 12 pieces and enjoy!

My second recipe was inspired by a colleague on the Foodie Translators Facebook group and is equally sublime: raspberries, dark chocolate and pistachios: what’s not to like? This one definitely does need to be kept in the fridge if you use frozen raspberries as opposed to freeze-dried, but is no less delicious for that and still keeps a fair time – if given the chance! The original recipe is from Fitter Foods, here: https://www.fitterfood.com/recipe/dark-chocolate-raspberry-pistachio-refrigerator-cake/

DARK CHOCOLATE, RASPBERRY AND PISTACHIO BARS

Chocolate, raspberry and pistachio bars

50g pistachios (shelled)
50g pecans, halved
50g desiccated coconut
300g 50-70% dark chocolate
100g butter
50g maple syrup
2 tbsp cacao nibs
75g frozen raspberries (or to taste – this is far more than the original recipe above says, but I can’t resist raspberries – and it was delicious too!)

Line a baking tray, 10” x 6” with foil.
Pre-heat the oven to 150°C/gas 2.
Place the nuts and coconut on a baking tray in the oven to roast, keeping an eye on them. It should only take 10-15 minutes; remove from the oven when golden and allow to cool.
Place the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. Stir until both have melted. Stir in the maple syrup.

Add the frozen raspberries, nuts, coconut and cacao nibs.

Pour into the foil-lined tray and place in the fridge to set for at least 1 hour.
Slice into chunky bars to serve – I found it very crumbly, but this certainly doesn’t detract from the stupendous taste! Keep refrigerated.

My final recipe was based originally on a River Cottage recipe for an uncooked Fruity Fridge Flapjack: https://www.rivercottage.net/recipes/fruity-fridge-flapjacks. I’d fancied the recipe for a while, but when I made it for the first time, I was rather disappointed: it didn’t set, for one thing, even after the specified 23 hours in the fridge (!) and a token spell in the oven, and tasted rather virtuous and bland, even over-sweet (I’d used an equivalent quantity of agave nectar to the honey suggested in the recipe). My younger son, a committed foodie, refused point-blank to eat it, saying he much preferred my normal flapjack and blow the sugar and butter content – which wasn’t quite the point….! However, I thought it had potential and determined to experiment with some added oomph in the form of toasted coconut and cinnamon – and less agave nectar. This is the result – which I really rather enjoyed – see what you think! I’m not saying it can compete with White Chocolate Rocky Road Flapjack in the decadence stakes, but if it’s a healthy treat you’re after, this may well fit the bill.

JENGA FLAPJACK

Flapjack Jenga

    50g pitted dates
50g dried figs
1 banana, peeled (as ripe as you like)
50 ml agave nectar
2 tbsp coconut oil
150g oats
30g desiccated coconut, toasted
50g sultanas
50g dried apricots, finely chopped
1 tbsp hemp seeds
1 tbsp golden flax seeds
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1 tbsp sunflower seeds (or use seeds of your choice)
1 tsp cinnamon

 Line a 7” square shallow baking tin with foil.
Put the dates, figs, banana, agave nectar, cinnamon, coconut oil, (melted in the microwave if necessary) and 1 tablespoon water in a food processor and blitz to a thick purée.
In a large bowl, combine the oats, toasted coconut, sultanas, chopped apricots and seeds.
Stir in the puréed fruit mixture and mix well. The mixture should be quite stiff at this stage.
Tip the fruity oat mixture into the prepared tin and gently press it out as evenly as possible.
Put the tin in the fridge overnight to allow the flapjack to set, then turn out onto a board and slice into 12-14 long bars.

The perfect healthy mid-morning snack!

Christmas Eve Traditions – Stollen and Cranberry Relish

Tree

Having had our pre-Christmas family gathering last weekend before my younger son and his girlfriend flew out to the States to spend Christmas with her American family, today has been a much quieter Christmas Eve than usual. I’m having Christmas lunch with my elder son’s fiancée’s family tomorrow, so no last-minute dinner preparations for me – that was last weekend with a venison-based dinner for 12! Oh, and Nigella’s chocolate tart for dessert – simply divine!

Christmas Eve wouldn’t feel right without doing certain traditional things, however. It’s become a tradition to make lemon cheese, and come to think of it, my grandmother (my mum’s mum) always served lemon cheese tartlets at Christmas tea too. I still have mince pies from last weekend, but Stollen is another festive treat I feel compelled to make. I made the marzipan last weekend (so much better than the bought stuff and simplicity itself to make!) and my trusty breadmaker (Panasonic) does most of the hard work. Then finally I had a last-minute call from my friends this morning to see if I had any cranberry sauce for dinner tomorrow; well, I don’t buy cranberry sauce (me?!), but it’s a matter of minutes to make if you can source cranberries at such a late hour – and again, infinitely nicer than the jars you can buy. The aromas of Stollen and cranberry relish cooking seem like the very essence of Christmas….

Stollen

1/2 tsp dried yeast (I use the organic Dove’s Farm quick yeast)

225g strong white flour

1 tsp sugar

25g butter

1 tbsp milk pwder

1/2 tsp salt

1 large egg

100ml water

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp mixed spice

100g mixed dried fruit of your choice

150g marzipan (see below)

Place the first 10 ingredients in a breadmaker (i.e. all apart from marzipan and fruit), and prepare using Basic Raisin Dough mode, adding the dried fruit when the machine beeps – unless you have a more modern version than mine, in which case you may well have a basket that neatly releases the fruit at the necessary time! Do NOT be tempted to add the fruit at the start, as the mixing process chops it to smithereens – not the effect you want! When ready, roll the dough out on a floured surface to a slipper shape about 20cm long and maybe 15cm or so across. Wet the edges lightly with cold water and then roll your marzipan into two long sausages, just shorter than the length of the dough. Place in two lines down the centre of the dough, then neatly wrap the dough over, pressing into the middle to ensure there is dough between the two marzipan logs. (You can make one fatter marzipan sausage too, but I quite like the double hit of marzipan you achieve this way.) Flip over and place on a greased baking sheet, cover with oiled clingfilm, then leave to prove for 2-3 hours in a warm kitchen (less if you have an airing cupboard or proving drawer!).

Stollen uncooked

Heat oven to 180°C, Gas 5, then brush the Stollen with milk or beaten egg and cook for 20-25 minutes until golden-brown and firm underneath. Brush with melted butter whilst still warm and dredge with icing sugar.

Serve warm with tea or mulled wine. Any leftovers are delicious toasted for breakfast too!

Stollen

Marzipan

225g ground almonds

225g icing sugar, sifted

225g caster sugar

1 egg, beaten

2 tsp lemon juice

1/4 tsp vanilla extract

1/4 tsp almond extract

Put the almonds, icing and caster sugar into a large bowl and mix well. Beat in the remaining ingredients, until the paste is soft but not sticky. You may end up using your hands as it’s easier! Knead on a surface sprinkled with icing sugar until smooth. Wrap in clingfilm and store in the fridge until ready to use.

This amount makes plenty to cover a 20/25cm Christmas cake or to fill several Stollens and keeps well in the fridge. Also delicious as a topping for mince pies or mixed with apples, plums or apricots in pies….

Marzipan

Cranberry Relish

Cranberry Relish

 250 g fresh cranberries

5 tbsp port

1 orange, grated rind and juice

50g caster sugar

Put cranberries, orange juice and grated rind and port in a pan and simmer for 5 minutes or until the berries start to burst. Add sugar and cook for a further 5 minutes until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture thickens. Cool, then refrigerate until required.

Happy Christmas!

Viburnum Charles Lamont Dec 2015

Viburnum Charles Lamont in full bloom

The Sweet Scents of Autumn

Autumn is a surprisingly scented time of year, from the assorted woodland smells of foliage in various stages of decay to the tiny but sweetly fragrant flowers on eleagnus shrubs. Walking down by our local reservoir in the sunshine the other morning, I was blown away by the fabulous fresh scent of the newly fallen larch needles as I crushed them underfoot. Yet another of my favourites is the Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), with its bronze-pink tinted autumn leaves and their amazing aroma of candy floss and burnt sugar – an absolute delight for the senses on a crisp autumn day. Viburnums and mahonias are other shrubs that come into flower in November, although we’ll probably have to wait until January for the heavily-scented daphnes to outmanoeuvre the opposition.

We had our first frost just a couple of weekends ago and fortunately I’d brought my last few tender plants inside the night before: the tuberous begonias had been lifted, wrapped in newspaper and put to hibernate in the shed, fuchsias are undercover in the cold frame, but the South American tibouchina and rose geraniums have to take shelter in the conservatory over winter. My rose geranium is “Attar of Roses”, a pelargonium really, with beautiful pale pink flowers and deliciously scented, crinkled, silvery-green leaves. It will survive quite happily in the conservatory, but it often spreads to cover a wide area over the summer, so I like to trim it back when bringing it inside. You can then prune it even more ruthlessly in the spring, using any promising cuttings to start off new plants, and allowing the parent plant to reshoot.

Rose geranium Attar of Roses

This year, I decided that I would put those leaf offcuts to good use and experimented with Rose Geranium Cordial on Sarah Raven’s recommendation. What a revelation: delightfully light and fragrant – an autumn variation on the elderflower cordial theme and equally good with sparkling water. I suspect it would also be delicious with Prosecco for a very unusual cocktail with a twist! This is based on Sarah’s recipe – do try it and see!

Rose Geranium and Lemon Cordial – makes 2.5 litres

Rose geranium cordial

2kg granulated sugar

1 litre water

large handful of rose-scented geranium leaves

juice of 6 lemons

finely grated zest of 2 lemons

30g citric acid

Heat the sugar, water, lemon juice and zest, plus the geranium leaves until the sugar has dissolved, then simmer for 10-15 minutes. Allow to cool and infuse. Strain through a sieve lined with muslin to remove the geranium leaves and add the citric acid. (You can omit it, but I’ve found with other cordials that they really don’t keep long at all without the preserving effects of the citric acid.) Pour through a funnel into sterilised bottles. Keep in the fridge once open.

Dilute to taste with sparkling water or soda.

Another good use of rose geranium leaves is to make scented Rose Geranium Sugar, along the lines of vanilla sugar, for sprinkling on biscuits and lemon drizzle cake to add an extra dimension. I just layer up caster sugar in a pretty glass Kilner jar, adding a few rose geranium leaves every so often. The only thing to watch here is that the moisture in the leaves can make the sugar stick together, so be prepared to crush it with a spoon when you come to use it!

My final idea for making the most of this heavenly resource is to make rose geranium shortbread biscuits – beautiful and unusual served with mousses or ice cream, or delicious with morning coffee or afternoon tea.

Rose Geranium Shortbread Biscuits

Rose geranium biscuits

125g caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling (or use rose geranium sugar if you have it!)

225g butter, softened

300g plain flour, plus extra for dusting

50g ground rice (or rice flour or semolina work just as well)

3-4 rose geranium leaves, very finely chopped

Zest of 1 lime (or lemon)

Line two baking trays with baking parchment. Cream the sugar and butter together in a large bowl. Sift the flour and ground rice (or rice flour/semolina) into the mixture, add the finely chopped rose geranium leaves and lime zest and mix together. Using floured hands, work the mixture together to form a smooth dough. Tip onto a lightly floured work surface and knead gently until the dough is smooth. Chill in the fridge for 15 minutes.

Roll the dough out until 5mm thick and cut out biscuits using a round or heart-shaped cutter. Place the biscuits onto the baking trays, and sprinkle with a little extra rose geranium sugar. Leave to chill for a further 30 minutes in the fridge. Bake at 160°C/Gas 4 for 15-20 minutes, or until pale golden-brown. Cool on a rack, sprinkling with extra sugar if necessary.

Waste Not, Want Not

Sheffield Park pools

Inspired by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s excellent programme, Hugh’s War on Waste, on television recently, I thought I’d share some of my favourite recipes for using up leftovers. It’s always been a theme of mine, ever since I first had a house of my own and a beginner’s vegetable garden – having gone to all the trouble of growing your own, it always seems criminal to waste it! Plus, money was tight in the early days, so wasting food was doubly questionable. Delia Smith’s Leftovers section at the back of her “Complete Cookery Course” was my bible, along with Jocasta Innes’ “The Pauper’s Cookbook”, dating back to my student cooking days. Delia’s cottage pie and rissoles were stalwarts of my early forays into cooking and Jocasta’s chapter on programmed eating, based on cooking a joint or a casserole and then using the leftovers over the following days, seemed to make perfect sense. It still does! I often think the leftovers from a joint can be almost as good (if not nicer!) then the joint itself; think roast chicken followed by a chicken & ham pie or a chicken risotto, with plenty of stock to make soups over the coming weeks…. Or a gammon joint, followed up by ham and tomato pasta, a delicious quiche or as a pizza topping, plus ham and lentil soup for the freezer…. I pride myself on being able to stretch a joint for at least two, if not three meals after the main event and not including the essential stock. Definitely no scope for waste!

Halloween pumpkins

A couple of weeks ago my son and his American girlfriend came home for the Halloween weekend, bearing not one but four pumpkins! The intention was for them to decorate them for the Halloween festivities, and for my elder son and his girlfriend to do their own too. Unfortunately they didn’t get home in time, so I had two rather large pumpkins going spare. My own squashes down at the allotment have been a miserable washout this year, with only two smallish pumpkins to show for a whole season of growth – I blame the late start and not enough days of sunlight. Anyway, although the large orange pumpkins you buy at Halloween don’t have quite the depth of flavour of the home-grown squashes, I had no intention of letting them go to waste!

Cue several roast pumpkin risottos (see Butternut Squash, Leek & Bacon Risotto for the basic recipe), a delicious oven-baked pumpkin, tomato & feta frittata and the following soup recipe, adapted from October’s Waitrose Food magazine.

Roast Pumpkin, Apple & Stilton Soup – serves 6-8

½ large pumpkin, peeled and chopped into 5 cm chunks

4 Cox-type apples, peeled, cored and quartered

1 tbsp chopped sage leaves

1 tsp ground cinnamon

4 carrots, peeled and cut into 2 cm lengths

2 sticks celery, cut into 2 cm chunks

2 leeks, sliced

1 onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped,

2 red chillis, finely chopped

Olive oil

25g butter

1 l vegetable or chicken stock

125 g Blue Stilton, crumbled

Milk or extra stock or white wine to taste

Pre-heat oven to 200°C / Gas 4. Toss the pumpkin and apple on a large roasting tray with the cinnamon, chopped sage and olive oil to coat. Roast for 35 minutes until tender and golden.

Meanwhile, melt the butter and a dash of olive oil in a large pan. Add the onion, garlic, leeks, celery, carrots and chilli and cook over a gentle heat for 8-10 minutes until softened.

Add the roast pumpkin and apple to the pan with the stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes or until tender. Allow to cool slightly, then liquidise until smooth (in batches). Add milk or extra stock (or a dash of white wine!) until the desired consistency is reached. Add the crumbled Stilton and reheat to serve.

Still on the waste avoidance theme, I often end up with brown, spotty bananas in my fruit bowl and have a number of delicious ways of using them up, so I really have no excuse for them ending up on the compost heap. One such recipe is Banana Cream, simplicity itself and also delicious with perfect yellow bananas if you can’t bear to wait. Banana & Cherry Buns are another delicious use for past-their-best bananas – cooking bananas somehow transforms them into another taste dimension. One thing I don’t advise is following the advice of a certain TV chef and freezing brown bananas whole, then whizzing in a blender for instant ice-cream; I tried this the other day, admittedly with bananas that I’d put in the freezer and forgotten about for quite some time, but the resulting mix tasted revolting – like cold banana mush, just as you’d expect really!

These recipes I can vouch for, however: a perfect use of over-ripe fruit!

Banana Cream – serves 2-3

Banana cream

2-3 ripe bananas

Juice 1 lemon

125 ml double cream

125 ml natural yogurt

1 tbsp caster sugar (optional – I find I don’t need this these days)

Chopped walnuts, grated dark chocolate or blueberries to garnish

Chop the bananas into a bowl with the squeezed lemon juice and 1 tbsp caster sugar, if using. Mash roughly with a potato masher. Stir in the yogurt until blended. Whip the double cream until the soft peak stage and fold into the banana mixture. Spoon into 2-3 sundae dishes and top with a garnish of your choice.

Banana & Cherry Buns

175g butter, softened

150g caster sugar

175g self-raising flour

2 eggs, beaten

1 ripe banana

Lemon juice

125g glacé cherries, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 180°C fan, Gas 5. Place 24 bun cases in bun tins. Mix butter, sugar, flour and eggs together using a hand-held mixer until the mixture is light and creamy. Mash the banana in a small bowl, adding lemon juice to stop it browning. Fold in the banana and cherries. Spoon into the cases and cook in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes until golden brown and springy to the touch. Absolutely delicious warm from the oven with a cup of tea – although the banana flavour intensifies the longer you leave them – allegedly! They certainly don’t last long in my house…

Now I just need to find homes for all the windfall apples under my allotment trees – I’ve picked loads, given lots away, advertised them on Facebook and e-mailed my fellow plotholders to help themselves, but there are still lots on the ground. Sorry, Hugh….