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Monday, 30 June 2014

Indulgent Strawberry Chocolate Desserts

We've got into a sort of routine on a Saturday morning which I'm coming to rather enjoy. My husband takes my youngest daughter out to her dance class, leaving me at home with my eldest daughter. Whilst I make a batch of jam, my eldest practices her guitar for a while then pulls out the "Colossal Cookie Cookbook" and decides which recipe she's going to make. With such an enormous book to work through, it'll be a while before we have the same thing twice!



Fortunately for her, I keep in my cupboard 6 different types of flour and 7 different types of sugar, along with a variety of other baking essentials so it doesn't matter too much which recipe she decides upon; we have probably got everything we need already. This week she was undecided between a triple chocolate chip cookie and a chocolate filled shortbread. Scanning the ingredients of both, I determined we had everything we needed for either recipes but the chocolate filled shortbread required double cream and the cream I had in the fridge was in need of using up before it went past its date so I suggested she made those and saved the triple chocolate chip cookies for next weekend - looking forward to that!

So, off she went and made the biscuits, which didn't turn out at all how they looked in the photo, mainly due to them spreading considerably more in the oven than suggested and completely losing the lovely heart shaped she'd carefully cut them into. Next she made the chocolate filling which was a straightforward case of gently heating up 5 tablespoons of double cream in a small pan and then melting 2 oz of dark chocolate into it. This produced a liquid not dissimilar to melted chocolate ice-cream but not all suitable for sandwiching between two biscuits. Despite no instructions in the recipe to do so, I decided that giving it a good whipping would create a spreadable texture. This worked and my daughter sandwiched her odd shaped biscuits together and then we popped them into the fridge. By the time we were ready for a snack in the middle of the afternoon, the biscuits were nicely chilled and stuck together perfectly.



We polished the biscuits off over the weekend but we hadn't needed all of the chocolate cream filling so I had put it into a container in the fridge. Today I took it out to examine it and found it had set to a lovely mousse consistency and this gave me an idea - a simple dessert with some fresh strawberries from the allotment. So, I gently reheated the creamy mix for a few seconds in the microwave and then poured it equally between two containers and popped them into the fridge to set whilst I went out to get some strawberries. I decided 4 strawberries would enough for these two little desserts so I washed them and sliced them. In a bowl I added a drop of hot water into a heaped teaspoon of some of the Strawberry & Vanilla Jam I had made on Saturday morning then added the sliced strawberries to this. Once the chocolate cream had chilled enough to return to its thick consistency, I spooned the strawberry mixture on top. Dead simple really but definitely not a health food despite the strawberries!


Saturday, 28 June 2014

Weapons in the Cherry War

Those of you who follow my facebook and twitter feeds will know that this year the birds have been particularly determined to strip our cherry tree of cherries before I have chance to pick them. We usually have a few take an interest but as our garden backs onto the allotment site and this is lined with a hedgerow full of wild cherries, we usually find that there is plenty of other sources of food to keep them occupied. I can only assume that this year's increase in bird activity is due to our neighbour being particularly keen to feed the birds. I think this has probably increased the number of birds in the area and, as they fly over to reach this reliable food source, they couldn't help but spot our cherries.



As a principle, I don't mind feeding the birds, and I wouldn't mind too much if they helped themselves to the odd cherry or two. What I find somewhat annoying is that they start to peck at them well before they are ripe and that they take one bite and then discard the rest of it, coming back later to peck another perfect one. Usually it is just a blackbird or two but this year we had blackbirds, a whole troop of starlings, a couple of magpies, some pigeons, blue tits and a jay!

There isn't an awful lot that can be done about this. The tree is too big to cover with netting and I have heard that birds can get themselves tangled up in the netting anyway and I don't much fancy dealing with that. We have strung a load of CDs into the tree as bird scarers but, given that the young starlings wouldn't even budge when I was in the garden, unless I threw a bit of gravel in their direction, it is hardly surprising that the CDs don't make much of a deterrent. Instead, we spent a fair bit of time dashing out into the garden, clapping our hands and shouting. Steve even rigged up a few empty plastic bottles with some gravel in the bottom into the tree which could be jiggled up and down from the conservatory and greenhouse thanks to several meters of string.



Despite all this I have managed to bag about 4 or 5 pounds of cherries from the tree this year but I am relieved that there aren't any on the tree anymore so I can relax. Mind you, this morning I had to chase a squirrel out of the hazelnut tree. Here we go again!

Anyway, given all this, we have a tendency to hoard old CDs and DVDs and a while ago I came across a lovely idea on the internet for making CDs owls and I have fancied making them ever since. So, today, when the weather was too wet to allow me to pick the soft fruit that would otherwise be demanding my attention, I decided to use the CD owls as a perfect excuse to sit down with my girls for a bit of crafting. We used 2 CDs per bird, cutting one up to form wings, plus some jam jar lids (I've got plenty of those!), crown caps from beer bottles and some old buttons.



My girls are 10 and 11 and pretty skilled with their hands but should you be doing this with younger children, there are certain parts that need to be done by an adult. Because they are intended for outdoor use, you will need some suitable glue - I opted to use a glue gun but care needs to be used when using these as they get hot. CDs are quite hard to cut too but can be done with sharp scissors and strong hands, although they can crack unexpectedly when doing it so it is handy to have some spares. So really, allow your child to arrange all the bits to make their owl but then assemble it yourself. The hardest part was deciding what to use to make the beak. I opted for an old toggle off a coat, but we also tried a piece of plastic cut out of a margarine tub, and a bit of broken CD. Unless you particularly like using a drill, I would recommend leaving at least some of the central hole clear so that you can thread the string through it so that you can hang up the finished owls.



We made an owl each in about half an hour and by the time we had finished, the sun had come out for a brief show so I strung them up in the cherry tree. They are certainly more fun and more attractive than the other CDs hanging from it and who knows, it might just fool the birds into thinking they are being watched by those big eyes... or maybe not!


Thursday, 26 June 2014

Individual Focaccia

I always aim to eat homemade bread with dinner once a week as an alternative to potatoes, rice or pasta. Tonight I whipped up a batch of individual focaccia bread. I say "whipped up" as if it something you can do in 5 minutes but of course it takes about 3 hours to make bread from scratch. Although that sounds like a long time, there is very little of that time when I'm actually needed, particularly as I use a bread machine for the first hour and a half for mixing, kneading and resting. It does mean a bit of forethought and planning and being around at key points but whilst the bread was making I managed to make a cake, do the washing up, pick some strawberries, bring in the washing and have a bath.

I made the focaccia bread recipe for the first time last month, adding a spoonful of my green garlic pesto to it for a bit of flavour. One way or another it must have worked because the family raved about the bread. The recipe had made 8  individual portions of bread and so I served up one each, thinking I might freeze the other four to reheat for another meal at a later date. However, having eaten her bread with enthusiasm, my daughter eyed up the remaining bread and asked if she could have another. I explained my plan to her but she looked at me with her big eyes and said, "But it is always best when it's fresh." This sentiment was quickly supported by her dad and between them they decided it was a good idea to eat another one each. Personally I was satisfied with just having the one with the meal and my youngest daughter was full up with her portion, so I was left with 2 pieces at the end of dinner. What was I to do with those when there was no longer enough for another meal? Hmmph!



The next day, come lunchtime, I contemplated the remaining focaccia and wondered how to make a sandwich out of it. I quickly dismissed this idea and wondered about turning it into cheese on toast instead. Even better, why didn't I smear on a bit of passata first, sprinkle on some herbs, top with cheese and call it a pizza? This was a brainwave and was delicious... so much so, that I went back for seconds and made the last focaccia into another mini pizza and scoffed that too!



So tonight when I made the recipe again I was quite determined not to eat two for dinner so that I would at least have one for tomorrow's lunch even if the rest of the family pigged themselves on two. I'm pleased to say that one and half weren't eaten and I'm rather looking forward to tomorrow's tasty lunch.

Individual Garlic Focaccia (makes 8)

240ml water
2 tbsp olive oil
1 dessert spoon garlic pesto (or use a total of 3 tbsp olive oil if you prefer)
450g strong white flour
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp quick action dried yeast
Coarse sea salt

Put the water, oil and pesto into the bread machine pan then add the flour then the salt, sugar and yeast. Set the bread machine onto the dough setting. When ready, remove the dough from the bread machine and knock back on a lightly floured surface then divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball then flatten slightly and roll out a bit with a rolling pin. Place on a greased baking tray and cover with oiled clingfilm and leave for half an hour. Preheat oven to 200°C, gas 6. Poke the surface of each piece of bread with the end of a wooden spoon to indent all over. Drizzle over olive oil and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden and serve hot or cold.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Strawberry Tarts

When we were in France for the Whitsun holiday, we spent probably more time than we should in delightful patisseries. I don't think we have anything quite like them in the UK. Yes, we have bakeries and cake shops but they are somehow don't really have anything the same as the beautiful desserts that the French put out on display in their patisseries. Some are so pretty you hardly dare damage them by sinking your teeth them; it seems such a shame. You can find yourself wonder too, how you will ever get them home without squashing them. But, they are, of course, carefully packed into pretty little boxes and tied up with ribbon and then handed over to you in such a way as you end up feeling that you have just been given a special gift rather than having made a purchase.



One of the hardest parts of any trip to a patisserie is deciding what to have when faced with these lovely choices. However, it quickly becomes clear that each of us has some sort of leaning towards a particular dessert. My husband often seeks out a tart aux citron or something else lemon flavoured. I'm more a choux pastry person myself. One daughter will always choose something chocolaty and the other will go for whatever has the biggest portion of fruit on it, such is her love for fruit. For her, strawberry tarts are a must.



Now that the strawberry harvest is upon us, I wondered about making my daughter a strawberry tart to rival the French ones she had enjoyed. The only thing is, the custard-like stuff that fills the tart (creme patisserie to give it its proper name), is something of a faff to make. The French like faff - have you ever read recipes for making croissants from scratch? Anyway, at this time of year, when the garden demands so much of my attention for fruit picking and that fruit needs dealing with too, I really don't have time for faff. So I decided to make a simpler version of a strawberry tart that could be whipped up easily from odds and ends whilst doing other things. I was, in fact, making a treacle tart anyway so used up the leftover shortcrust pastry for that making these little tartlets, and the not-quite-a-jar-full bit of strawberry jam leftover from yesterday proved used too.

So after dinner, I served up 3 beautiful strawberry tarts. They went down a treat so I asked my daughter how they compared to the French ones. They couldn't be compared, she said, because they were quite different but nonetheless delicious and definitely worth making again - soon! Given that they were so easy to make, I really don't mind making them again soon.



Strawberry Tarts (makes 3)

Shortcrust pastry - this can be made using plain flour, margarine and caster sugar. 8 oz flour, 4 oz margarine and 1 oz sugar will make enough pastry for one large tart and 3 little strawberry tart so you may wish to scale it down if only making the strawberry tarts.

2 fl oz double cream
1 tablespoon creme fraiche
1 teaspoon icing sugar
A few drops of vanilla extract

8-12 strawberries (depending on their size)
1 dessert spoon of strawberry jam
A dash of hot water

Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4 and grease 3 small tart dishes. Roll out the pastry and cut to fit 3 dishes. Place greaseproof paper into each pastry case and weight down with rice or baking beans and blind bake the pastry for 10-15 minutes until cooked. Allow to cool completely. Mix together the cream, creme fraiche, icing sugar and vanilla and then whisk until nice and thick. Dollop the creamy mixture evenly between pastry cases then place in the fridge to chill for about half an hour. In the meantime, slice the strawberries. Put the jam into a bowl and add a little hot water to make it runny. Put the strawberries into the bowl with the jam and stir until they are coated. Spoon this mixture over the creamy mixture and then return the tarts to the fridge to chill again until ready to serve.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

The perfect use of imperfect strawberries

It's June and that means the start of the soft fruit season, starting, of course, with strawberries. Strawberries seem to be everyone's favourite. So much so, that supermarkets go to great lengths to keep them in stock all year round. That, to my mind, rather spoils things. Some things are meant to be seasonal and strawberries are one of those things. There is great excitement to be had when the first strawberries are ready if you haven't eaten any for months.



When you buy a punnet of strawberries you spend a couple of pounds on 500g of large, perfectly shaped fruit that smell gorgeous but may or may not have a flavour to match. They should, of course, be a beautiful red colour from tail to tip, although, unfortunately that isn't always the case. Apart from eating them straight from the punnet, perhaps the simplest way to serve them is with a sprinkling of sugar and/or cream. When you have a limited number of such beautifully shaped fruits, why would you do anything else?



When you grow strawberries you are unlikely to ever get 500g of large, perfectly shaped fruit. Instead, you could get less or possibly more than that but they will be a variety of different shapes and sizes. If you are paying proper attention when you are picking them, then they should all be properly ripe. Picked slightly warmed from the sun, they are sure to taste as good as they smell. They may, of course, be in need of a wash and may have the odd hole in them from an annoying blackbird or the perennial pesky slugs.



This may sound like a disadvantage in comparison to the supermarkets' perfect offerings but far from it. Having spent your money on your punnet of perfection, you feel almost obliged to eat them whole and unadulterated. Could you imagine doing anything as disrespectful as taking your punnet full of perfect fruit and sticking them in a blender?!! Aargh! No!

On the other hand, how do you feel about blending up your misshaped collection of berries? Even cut the holes out and throw those berries in too. Now that seems like a good idea. And from there you can enjoy making a whole range of delicious strawberry desserts.

So today, ready with my collection of strawberries that only a mother could love, I spent a pleasant morning in the kitchen with my daughter, knocking up some pretty stripey jellies and some strawberry and marshmallow ice-cream - the perfect use of those imperfect strawberries.

Stripey Strawberry Jellies (makes 4)

1 sachet of gelatine
250g strawberries
75g icing sugar
200g Greek yoghurt
A few drops of vanilla extract
A few extra strawberries or mini marshmallows to serve

Put 125ml of hot water into a small pan then sprinkle on the gelatine powder. Stir well then heat gently until the powder has melted. Remove from the heat. Place the strawberries and icing sugar in a blender and blitz until pureed. Run the puree through a nylon sieve to remove the pips if desired. Measure out 125ml of the strawberry puree and pour one third of the gelatine into it. Pour this equally between 4 suitable containers or glasses then place in the fridge for about half an hour to set. Next, mix together the remaining strawberry puree with 100g of the yoghurt and the vanilla extract. Add half of the remaining gelatine to this (you may need to re-melt it gently if it has set). Pour this mixture onto the first layer to create a new layer the same thickness as the first layer. This should not use all of the mixture. Return the jellies to the fridge for another half an hour. Mix the remaining yoghurt with whatever was left over from the second layer and the last of the gelatine. Once the second layer is set, pour this mixture on top and return to the fridge to set. Once set, decorate each jelly with a reserved strawberry or marshmallows or whatever takes your fancy and serve.



Strawberry & Marshmallow Ice-cream

350 strawberries
70 icing sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
100g mini marshmallows
100ml milk
150ml double cream


Place the strawberries and icing sugar in a blender and blitz until pureed. Run the puree through a nylon sieve to remove the pips if desired  Add the  lemon juice.  Put half the marshmallows and the milk into a suitable bowl and heat in the microwave for 1-2 minutes to melt them.  Stir this mixture, add the cream and whisk so that it thickens slightly.  Combine with the strawberry puree, mixing until the mixture is evenly pink.  Add the remaining marshmallows, pour into suitable containers and place in the freezer for 3 hours.  Remove from the freezer and beat the ice cream to introduce air, to break any ice crystals and to distribute the marshmallows throughout the ice cream then return to the freezer.


You can, of course, make strawberry lollies using this mixture too. Don't bother adding the second half of the marshmallows, but instead pour the liquid into lolly moulds instead of an ice-cream container.






Monday, 9 June 2014

Mint Choc Chip Ice-cream

Have you managed to get away on holiday recently? One of the things I've always loved when on holiday is the afternoon encounter with an ice-cream shop. Not to a Mr Whippy ice-cream van, but instead, the counter with a selection of  tubs of excitingly coloured different flavours to choose from. You know the sort of place... where deciding if you want one scoop or two is just the beginning of the difficult decisions. Or are you one of those people who has a favourite flavour and always goes for that.

I have a favourite flavour - rum and raisin... no... toffee honeycombe... or maybe raspberry ripple... or perhaps mint choc chip.

Who am I kidding, I don't know! 

When not on holiday, I like to make my own ice-cream. I don't have an ice-cream maker as you don't really need one. All an ice-cream maker does is stir the ice-cream whilst it freezes, preventing large ice crystals forming. Personally, I'm not bothered if there are ice-crystals in my ice-cream - it gives it a sort of cross between an ice-cream and a sorbet experience! However, they are easily prevented by taking the ice-cream out of the freezer several times in the first few hours and giving it a good beating to break the crystals down to give it a smoother, creamier texture. 

I also don't put egg into my ice-cream. Again, this is done to give the ice-cream a creamier texture and richness but I'm not fond of the idea of eating raw egg. Instead, the ingredients I use are simple and straightforward and this is always a good way to eat. The basic ingredients are double cream and icing-sugar and some sort of flavouring. Inevitably, I turn to the garden for the inspiration for flavour, with soft fruits being the obvious favourites. However, before the fruit is ready, the herb garden is in it's prime, with mint being one of the most vigorous. 




Any commercial mint flavoured ice-cream will be flavoured with some sort of mint oil and probably coloured with green food colouring too. If you are trying to re-create that flavour then you can flavour your ice-cream with peppermint oil and add a few drops of green colouring. I'm not going to be snobbish and tell you not to do that. As I have already said, I buy mint choc chip ice-cream given half a chance and I'm quite partial to a peppermint cream too. I'm merely mentioning this so as to adjust your expectations because if you make mint choc chip ice-cream with fresh mint from your garden it will taste quite different. Minty, yes, but in a new potato minty way rather than a Polo type of way. If you have access to a clump of mint then I would urge you to give this recipe a go to really capture the freshness of spring and to redefine mint choc chip ice-cream.

Mint Choc Chip Ice-cream

A big bunch of mint
10 fl oz (284 ml) milk
2 oz (55 g) icing sugar
10 fl oz (284 ml) double cream
Green food colouring (optional)
4 oz (110 g) dark chocolate chips or grated dark chocolate

Remove the mint leaves from the stalks and coarsely chop. Pour the milk into a non metallic bowl and tip the mint leaves into it, pressing down so that they are covered. Cover the bowl and place in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight to infuse. Pour the milk through a sieve to remove the mint leaves. Add the sugar to the milk and stir until dissolved. Add the cream (and food colouring if using) and stir. Pour into suitable containers and add the chocolate chips. Freeze the mixture for 2 hours until beginning to freeze then stir with a fork to break up the ice-crystals. Return to the freezer for another 2 hours then stir again, making sure to stir the chocolate chips through the ice cream. Repeat again 2 hours later than return to the freezer until solid. To serve, remove the ice-cream from the freezer for 10-20 minutes beforehand to allow it to soften slightly.






Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Woodstock's The Artisan Bakery

It is almost a year now since Woodstock's Artisan Bakery opened its doors for the first time to serve the people of Stony Stratford with simply made, delicious, artisan breads and baked goods. Matthew Lane, the owner, invited me on a tour of the bakery shortly before it opened last year and I was shown around what was essentially a series of empty rooms and a shop front. He explained what would go where and with a bit of imagination I could see how things would work. Since then I have returned to Woodstocks often to restock them with my jams, which I'm pleased to say occupy a prominent position on the serving counter. Of course, it is impossible to resist buying some bread or baked treats whilst I'm there and the cheese and onion sourdough is now a family favourite. So, back in March, when my daughter was given a school project on bread to do, a trip to Woodstocks seemed like the perfect answer. Matt kindly gave up an hour of his precious time to give us a tour around the bakery and to answer my daughter's interview questions. This time the tour was quite different. With the rooms in full operation, there was no need to use imagination but instead a fascinating insight into the running of a small bakery was revealed. Like a swan, the calm shop front of Woodstock's hides the hard work that goes on behind the scenes and at ungodly hours of the day.



Woodstock's sits at one end of Stony Stratford High Street, not far from Cycle King and its blue banner can be seen as you drive around the roundabout that connects the High Street to London Road and Wolverton Road. Whenever you enter the shop you are greeted by the delicious smells of something baking and coffee, as well as the welcoming staff. Matt is a firm believer in good customer services and ensures that all the shop front staff are both friendly and knowledgeable about bread. On a day to day basis, you are likely to find Tracy, the shop manager, or Tom, Krista, Jamie or Kristi (Matt's wife) behind the counter. Behind them are shelves of tempting bread and the coffee machine. The counter starts the day stacked with rolls and French baguettes as well as my jams, and at one end is the cake stand, loaded up with pasties, biscuits, flapjacks and cakes. 



When the shop opens at 8am the shelves are stacked with different breads, baked freshly that morning. Cake making starts around this time and new cakes are added to the shelves during the course of the morning and at 11.30am soup and pizza slices are ready to be served hot to hungry customers. Then as the day progresses, the shelves gradually empty so that by 4pm when the cleaning down starts there isn't much left. This may seem to go against the grain of modern living where we are used to popping into a supermarket at any time of day or night and can buy a loaf if we fancy. However, this is the sign of proper bakery and fresh bread, unadulterated with shelf-life enhancing chemicals. When the shop shuts at 5pm, any unsold bread is consigned to the waste so good stock management is vital. It is only a few lucky pigs and horses that get to eat day old bread.




In the world of bread making, the day starts well before the 8am shop opening and this side of the bakery can be glimpsed by customers through the racks of metal shelving from which the hot pizza slices and other daily delights are served. This room consists of metal work surfaces, a big dough mixer and the oven. Stacked to one side are big plastic boxes which are filled at the end of every day with weighed out ingredients so they are ready to go straight in the mixer at the beginning of the baking day. One box will fill the mixer and will make about 30 loaves of bread. The mixer is first set on a slow speed to mix together the ingredients and then on a fast speed to knead the dough then the dough is removed and left to prove. Next it is shaped or put into loaf tins. The bread is then baked in the large oven. This has 3 sections which can be set to different temperatures for different types of bread but most breads cook at a hot temperature (250°C). Once cooked, the loaves are placed on the wire shelves to cool and to be sold.




Through a door to the back of the bakery there is a clean area used for preparation and for finishing touches such as heating glazes. Off this area are 2 other rooms, a clue that this building has a history of other retail uses and wasn't designed specifically as a bakery. In one of these rooms are shelves filled with ingredients, mainly used to make the cakes and pastries, and a machine that works like a large rolling pin and rolls out the croissant dough. All the croissants and other Viennoiseries are made from scratch on the premises. Look up a recipe for croissants and when you know what goes into making them you'll appreciate them all the more! The last room is the flour store and is filled with many 25kg bags of flour. Flour is delivered once a week to refill the room.


About 300 loaves of bread are made every week day and more for Saturdays. Gary, the lead baker, has over 30 years of experience. He arrives each morning at 2am to start the baking process. At 4.30am Matt joins him to help with weighing, mixing and shaping. All the bread is made from scratch from four basic ingredients - flour, salt, yeast and water. It is all shaped by hand and slowly fermented with at least 3 hours of proving time. And everything is done on the premises. That is what artisan, local bread is all about and hopefully knowing a little more about it will help you appreciate your daily bread just a little bit more.