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Thursday, 3 December 2015

Mind blowing yoghurt!

Yoghurt has never been a subject to get me fired up one way or another. It is probably the definition of neutral. Inoffensive... unless you have a dairy allergy. Uninspiring. It is not the sort of thing I find myself irresistibly drawn to. I don't sit there, trying to suppress my urges to eat yoghurt or throw open the fridge door, wondering what to eat and think - my God, let's have yoghurt!

OK, I think you get my point. It is, however, pretty much a household staple and that must be the case in most households given that supermarkets dedicate a double-sided aisle to the stuff. It must be a vast industry. Certainly my kids get through a fair amount of the stuff, as does Steve. Quite honestly, I don't usually bother. Often we have Frubes or similar tube yoghurts that are easy to squeeze directly into the mouth without a spoon and so are handy for lunchboxes (once your child is old enough to execute successful opening and mouth-squeezing without squirting it all over themselves, that is). My girls are also very keen on "corner" yoghurts, one preferring the ones with fruit compote and other the ones with rubbishy chocolate coated cereals. I only ever buy those when they are on offer (which does seem to be most of the time) and then you have to by two packs at once which seem to take up an inordinate amount of space in the fridge. I have dallied with cheaper versions of these from the likes of Lidl and Aldi but the fussy of the two daughters soon declared that the yoghurt in these tasted like emulsion paint. I wasn't aware she'd ever tasted emulsion paint but I think I got her point.

The other day I was flicking wistfully through the Lakeland catalogue, mentally making a Christmas list in case anyone should ask what I wanted this year. As usual, they had a section dedicated to yoghurt making. Usually, I thumb past this fairly swiftly as yoghurt making has never held any appeal. It was something my mum used to do in the 80s when I was a kid and it seemed to involve various Tupperware-type plastic containers that created tasteless yoghurt that I didn't much fancy. I was, after all, a kid of the 80s where Angel Delight in lurid colours and vivid flavours could be whipped up in minutes with the help of a Kenwood mixer. Why would I want to eat natural yoghurt?

Nonetheless, I found myself hovering on the yoghurt making section a little longer on this occasion, reading the descriptions and working out exactly what you would get in a kit and trying to decide if this was something I might like to put on my Christmas list. I confess that I have moved a long way foodwise since I used to think that a powder whisked up with milk was some sort of treat yet here I was wondering if I wanted to put a sachet of powder into milk to make flavoured yoghurt at home. How, I found myself asking, was this different from buying a yoghurt from a supermarket except they had already added the powdered ingredients to the yoghurt for you?

In the end "Yoghurt making kit" didn't make it to my Christmas list but it did inspire me to Google yoghurt making to see what exactly was involved. It turned out that it required little more than some milk, a saucepan, a thermometer, thermos flask and a pot of natural yoghurt. I figured it was worth a go so duly bought some whole milk and a small pot of organic natural yoghurt.

It really was a simple process to make the yoghurt and I was surprised by how successful the result was. With enthusiasm, I fed some to my children. As usual the non-fussy eater loved it and the fussy one was less impressed. She tried sweetening it with honey, which helped, but declared it too thin and runny. Not deterred, I returned to the internet to google the method for making Greek yoghurt. This was something I had read about and I knew that real Greek yoghurt is made by sieving it. This does reduce the overall yield of yoghurt so makes it more expensive. Many manufactures of "Greek-style" yoghurt use thickeners instead to maintain the quantities and to be able to sell it cheaper... not something I'm keen on.

It turned out that making Greek yoghurt was also very simple. I lined a nylon sieve with a piece of scalded muslin and tipped my homemade yoghurt into it. It then dripped for an hour, the whey accumulating in a bowl below, and the yoghurt above getting thicker as a consequence. I then used a spatula to scrap the thick yoghurt back into its container. It did dramatically reduce the amount of yoghurt I had but it was as thick and luxurious as whipped cream.

On the occasions that I get a posh dessert from somewhere such as M & S, I tend to keep the plastic container and squirrel it away in the back of my cupboard to making my own posh desserts. One afternoon I took out one such container - something a little larger than a shot glass - and spooned some raspberry jam into the bottom of it. On top I added some of my lovely thick homemade yoghurt and topped it with a sprinkling of my granola. It certainly looked the part and I sat down with excitement to eat it... yes, excited anticipation for a yoghurt! I stirred it all together and tucked in and, my God, it tasted amazing. I mean, really amazing! The humble yoghurt had been transformed into something you would expect to find on the menu at a high class restaurant. The flavours positively zinged around my mouth. Later I whipped up another couple of these and presented them without comment to my girls. They eyed me questioningly, stirred the concoction together and then their faces light up as they tucked in.

It was a funny thing really as it had take only a minute or two to put the dessert together so it seemed like a ridiculously simple dessert - jam from a jar, yoghurt from the fridge, granola from the cupboard. However, when I thought about it I realised that I had grown the raspberries, made the jam, made the yoghurt and made the granola. If taken as a whole process the dessert had taken literally hours to make. But you know what, you could really tell. When you taste food like that you really find yourself wondering what the hell they do in factories to make food taste so flat. Needless to say, I won't be going back to shop bought yoghurts in a hurry but instead will enjoy experimenting with lots of different flavours of jams, and fresh fruit come the summer, and will try to convince my fussy daughter that there is more to yoghurt than chocolate coated cereal. If only I could source corner shaped pots then I think I will have cracked it!

Homemade Yoghurt

500ml whole milk
2 tablespoons live natural yoghurt (you can use some of your previous batch once you have some)

Pour the milk into a saucepan and heat gently to 80°C - you will need to have a thermometer in the milk to monitor this. Remove the milk from the heat and monitor the temperature. Once it reaches about 42°C add the yogurt to it and stir in. If it is cold from the fridge, this will bring the overall temperature down to 40°C. Pour the mixture into a 500ml capacity thermos flask and leave to stand for 4 hours. After 4 hours, pour the yoghurt into a suitable plastic container and put it into the fridge to finish setting. You can eat it as this point or add it to smoothies or use it as a yoghurt drink. To make a thick Greek yoghurt, scald a piece of muslin with boiling water from the kettle and line a nylon sieve with it. Pour the yoghurt into the sieve and leave it to stand for an hour. Tip away the whey and scrap the thick yoghurt back into the plastic container and return it to the fridge until you wish to eat it. It will keep in the fridge for about two weeks.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Do You Know Quince?

I've heard some people talk nostalgically about the smell of cooking quince reminding them of autumn days at their grandmother's house. I can't say that this rings any bells with me as quince did not feature at all in my childhood. Indeed, the first time I became aware of it was on the second craft fair I ever had a table at way back in 2003. I found myself on a table next to a man wearing an apron embroidered with the words "Quince Charming" and his table was stacked with a variety of different products all made in some way with quince.

I was young, inexperienced and a little nervous at the time and I was in two minds as to whether I should stand quietly behind my stall, allowing people to browse my products in peace or whether I should attempt to draw them in with loud questioning. Quince Charming was clearly not in any doubt as to what he should do and every person who strolled to within a few feet of his table was asked, "Do you know quince?" Looking slightly startled and taken unawares they would usually mutter something about having quince growing in their garden to which he would take pleasure in pointing out that that was "Quince japonica", a rambling shrub and that he was talking about "true" quince. I admired his efforts and one way or another learnt a thing or two from him about what to do and what not to do regarding capturing people's attention. Certainly, by the end of the weekend I knew his speel as well as he did, and still do to this day!

Apart from bumping into Quince Charming a few more times at craft fairs over the years, I didn't really have much to do with quince until a couple of years ago when one of my regular customers asked me if I could make quince jelly. I told her I couldn't as I didn't have any quince but I put a plea out on Facebook, asking if anyone knew where I could get hold of some. I soon tracked down someone who was more than happy for me to come and help myself to the quince on his tree... but he said I would need a boat! It turned out that his tree was on an island in the middle of a small lake. We went up to have a look but there was no way to get to the tree and our pleas for a boat on facebook were not successful. So another year went by without quince in my life.

I give talks to various gardening clubs and other associations and in them I go through the kitchen garden year, month by month, looking at what needs doing in the garden and what can be harvested. My November section always mentions quince, it being one of very few things that are harvested at this time of year. I mention too, my desire to use some but my failures to date. However, this year, my fortunes changed when someone who had seen my talk emailed me to say she had arranged for me to pick some from someone she knew who had a tree in her garden that was cropping abundantly. Eagerly, I set off with my fruit picker and harvest bags, returning shortly with two bags full.

Finally, with some quince to play with, it was time for me to "get to know quince". It certainly does have a strong aroma, that quickly fills any room they are put in. It isn't, however, an unpleasant smell, it being sort of like clementines cooked in hot butter. They look like large, misshapen yellow pears but they are hard, tough to peel and with a core that takes a fair bit of effort to cut through. The core is quite big too, relatively speaking, so there isn't that much usable fruit compared to the other familiar members of the Malus family: apples, pears and crab apples. The fruit too is quite dry and covered with a fluffy grey down. I had read not to attempt to enjoy the fruit raw as it is dry and unpleasantly tart but to be honest I didn't find them particularly appetising to look at anyway.

I didn't think the quince would keep well, so with the clock ticking, I flicked through my recipe books and decided what I would make from them. Quince jelly was first - relatively easy to make in that the whole, unpeeled or cored fruit are cooked up and then allowed to drip through a jelly bag over night. I made two batches of this and another batch with added gooseberries from the freezer. From the pulp that was left behind, I made quince cheese, or membrillo, as it is known in Spain. This is supposed to be amazingly tasty with Manchego cheese so I purchased some of that and gave it a go. It didn't blow my socks off but I could see that some people would adore that flavour combination.

When I had been collecting the quince, the tree owner had recommended an apple and quince sauce recipe from the River Cottage Preserve cookbook so I gave this ago, using the Bramley apples she had also kindly given me from her garden. This was a beautiful sauce and went very well with the roast pork I had at the weekend. The flavour notes from the quince would help it to go with other meats too, I suspect and it was certainly less sweet than some apple sauces. Inspired by this idea, I had a fiddle with the recipe and created a quince and cranberry sauce that I think will go very well with turkey. As it contains quince, apple, cranberry and pork I think it will go well with anything served up at Christmas actually.

As I neared the bottom of my second bag, I made a batch of lemon and quince marmalade and then moved on to chutney, making one from pumpkins and quince, adapted from a recipe from River Cottage. I really had no expectations as to what a pumpkin and quince chutney might turn out like but I was surprised to find it turning a beautiful glossy dark brown with a fruity sweetness not that dissimilar from Branston Pickle; a chutney I have long attempted to imitate.  That's not to say that I think Branston is all that wonderful but it is certainly something that people are familiar with and one that they are comfortable to use so anything that is like it is sure to be a hit. Branston Pickle is a completely meaningless and undescriptive name so it seemed fitting that I should come up with a name that is equally as obscure... So "Ps and Qs Pickle" was born; a nod to the two principle ingredients and a reminder to use your table manners!

So that was it, I had ticked everything off my wish list in terms of what I wanted to try with quince but I still had a handful of fruit in the bottom of the bag. I had briefly searched the internet for quince related cake recipe but it was clear that quince is not used in baking with the abandon of its cousin the apple or even the pear. However, I have a pumpkin and ginger tea bread recipe that is my husband's all time favourite cake... when it goes right. It is a weird thing because often it produces the most beautiful loaf, like a divine Madeira cake with gingery favours but equally as often it fails to cook properly, remaining undercooked and stodgy in the middle no matter how long it is left in the oven. Having chatted to a friend, who also makes this cake, we decided it must have something to do with the pumpkin used. Some pumpkins are quite wet and others dry so maybe the cake fails if the water content is wrong. My theory would be that a dry pumpkin would more likely work. With this in mind, I wondered whether the dry flesh of the quince would work, adding to the cake the citrus butterness that seems to define the fruit. And it turned out I was right as the last few fruit went towards making this beautiful cake.

That completes my voyage of discovery regarding the quince for this year at least and now I feel that should I wander to within a few feet of Quince Charming, I would honestly be able to say yes should he ask, "Do you know quince?"

Quince and Ginger Tea Bread

175g melted butter140g clear honey1 egg, beaten250g grated quince flesh100g light muscovado sugar350g self-raising flour1 tablespoon ground ginger1 tablespoon Demerara sugar

Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4 and line a 2lb load tin. Mix together the butter, honey, egg and quince. Add the muscovado sugar, flour and ginger and stir until well combined. Pour into the tin then sprinkle over the Demerara sugar. Bake for 50-60 minutes until risen and golden. Leave in the tin to cool for 10-15 minutes before turning out to cool on a wire rack.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Apple Plait

Here is a lovely recipe that looks and tastes amazing but is actually really easy to make if you have a bread machine to do all the kneading and proving for you. It is tasty to make with just the apple and cinnamon as the filling but on a recent occasion I had just finished making a batch of Apple & Cider Mincemeat and had a little smidge left-over so I added that as well and it made it super tasty!

Apple Plait

100ml milk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
250g strong white flour
1/2 tsp salt
25g unsalted butter, diced
25g caster sugar
1 tsp fast-action dried yeast
1 large apple, peeled, cored and chopped
1 tsp ground cinnamon and 25g caster sugar (or use mincemeat instead).
Sliced blanched almonds and egg to coat.

Add the liquids to your bread machine and then stack the flour, salt, butter, sugar and yeast on top (or do this in reverse if that's how your bread machine works). Set the machine onto it's dough setting and let it run through this program. Remove the dough from the machine and knock back on a floured surface. Roll the dough out to the rectangle about 30 by 25cm. Put the apple mixture down the middle of the length of the dough. Make diagonal cuts out and down from the apple to the edge of the dough on both sides at 2.5cm intervals. Fold the strips of dough in towards the centre to form a "plait". Place on a greased baking sheet and cover with greased Clingfilm and leave to double in size. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Brush the plait with beaten egg and scatter on some blanched almonds. Bake for 20 minutes until golden then transfer onto a wire rack to cool. Serve hot or cold, on its own or with custard, cream or ice-cream.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Don't waste your pumpkins!

With food waste really hitting the headlines and as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstale's new series about waste on the TV this week, it is alarming that so many pumpkins will be thrown in the bin this week. It is estimated that 18000 tonnes of pumpkins will end up in the bin after Halloween. Sadly, most people who buy a pumpkin at this time of year do so to only carve it into a lantern and have no idea how and no inclination to eat it.  And yet pumpkins are amazingly versatile vegetables and can be used in many different ways in the kitchen from savoury recipes such as curry to sweet bakes such as cakes.

I grow pumpkins every year, with the hope that at least two will be big enough and impressive enough to make into Halloween lanterns. Growing anything is not an exact science so it is impossible to only grow what you need for Halloween. One year I accidentally grew 19 pumpkins! Since then, I have become something of an expect in finding ways to use pumpkins. My All Hallows Marmalade is an orange marmalade with pumpkin. My Lime Pickle is a lovely chutney suitable for Indian food that contains pumpkin, and in the absence of mango, I use pumpkin to make a "Mock Mango Chutney". Even my Tomato & Piquant Pepper Chutney has pumpkin in it, as does my "No Added Sugar Tomato Ketchup". But I use most of my pumpkins up in every day foods such as soups and cakes.

I think the problem starts when people think about either trying to eat pumpkin as an ordinary vegetable or they think about making something like a pumpkin pie. Plain boiled or steamed pumpkin is pretty gross. It is bland and the texture isn't all that pleasant either. However, that lack of flavour makes it wonderful for using in recipes because it takes on the flavours that are added to it so it is ideal in curries. I use small strips in stirfries because it adds colour and crunch without changing the over all flavour. Similarly it can be added to casseroles where it is hard to tell the difference between that an any of the root vegetables floating around in the gravy. Whereas pumpkin pie may be pretty disgusting, pumpkin works brilliantly in other bakes. In cakes it can be grated in in much the same way as carrot is used, or it can be steamed and mashed first and the added to the batter of things such as pancakes or drop scones. Here, the flavours of mixed spice work perfectly to make satisfyingly warming autumn bakes.

So, how to avoid wasting your pumpkin lantern.

When I carve (or rather when my daughters carve their pumpkins) we save the bits that are cut out for things such as eyes, mouth etc. This year, I grated the flesh straight off the skin from these fiddly little bits and had enough grated pumpkin to make Lakeland's medium pumpkin cake. This I decorated to look like a pumpkin and we ate it at a Halloween party.

Today (Tuesday), 3 days after Halloween, I brought in the smaller of our two lanterns and set about chopping it to pieces. Lanterns tend to keep better if an LED light is used inside them rather than tealight candles and with the cool conditions, this pumpkin was in really good condition. It took about half an hour to chop it up into cubes, cutting off the dried out exposed surfaces and the skin. In total, I had 2lb 12 oz of cubed, usable pumpkin from this one lantern.

This evening I used 1 lb of pumpkin, and l lb of butternut squash to make a batch of soup that I bagged up to freeze. It made 6 portions in total. Then I made some pumpkin salsa to go with our dinner. This was a new invention for me but definitely something that is worth making again. I bottled most of this and put it in the fridge for future use. Tomorrow I will make a batch of Lime Pickle with the remains of this lantern and see about cutting up the other one.

It would have been wrong to have thrown the lanterns in the bin when they are such a useful vegetable but if you have a lantern and really have no inclination to eat its remains, or they have already gone mouldy, then at least put it into your compost bin or into your food waste and not the black bin. Next year think about all the tasty things you can make from your lantern, making that Halloween purchase a true bargain!

Pumpkin & Butternut Squash Soup (makes 6 portions)

1 lb cubed pumpkin flesh
1 lb cubed butternut squash flesh
2 garlic cloves, chopped
10 fl oz vegetable stock
1/4 pint sieved tomatoes (or passata)
1 tsp curry powder
Salt & pepper to taste

Put some oil in the bottom of a large saucepan and gently saute the cubed vegetables for about 5 minutes then add the garlic and fry for another minute. Pour in the stock and tomatoes and add the curry powder. Put a lid on the pan and simmer for 30 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Blend until smooth, taste and season as necessary. Eat hot or cool and freeze in portions.

Pumpkin Salsa

8 oz cubed pumpkin
1/2 pint sieved tomatoes (passata)
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
1 large clove garlic, peeled and chopped
1/4 red pepper, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
Dash of lemon juice
Pinch mixed spice
1 tsp sweet chilli sauce
Pinch of salt

Put the cubed pumpkin in a small saucepan with the sieved tomato and bring to the boil. Simmer for 20 minutes or so until the pumpkin is soft then blend to make a small puree. In a medium saucepan, fry the onions until just beginning to colour then add the garlic, pepper and tomatoes. Pour the puree into the pan with these vegetables and add the other ingredients. Simmer with the lid off for about 10 minutes to thicken then taste and season if necessary. Allow to cool or pour into a glass jar and seal whilst still hot to keep for later.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Fig Roll Recipe

When I was a kid one of my very favourite biscuits was the "fig roll". I never did give much thought to what that lovely, squidgy filling was and despite the name, it would not have occurred to me that it had anything to do with figs. I'm not sure I even knew what figs were anyway back then.

I haven't had a fig roll in years but when I was thumbing through the Good Food Magazine the other day I came across a recipe for fig rolls. Actually, to be more actuate, it was a recipe for Sticky Toffee Fig Rolls. It was a recipe by Barney Desmazery, where he says he has based his recipe on the traditional fig roll in terms of shape and appearance but added chewy toffees to the figgy filling to add to the sweetness. I suspect that Barney has a bit of an issue with a sweet tooth as he is the same guy that wound me up in the spring by suggesting substituting the currants in hot cross buns for chocolate chips to make the recipe more child-friendly. Quite the opposite to me, as I usually find that cutting the sugar content of the recipe by a couple of ounces improves it. Anyway, it made me realise for the first time that it is possible to home-make fig rolls.

Given my general mission to eat less processed food, I was quite excited by the prospect of making a batch of fig rolls. Homemade food rarely tastes the same as processed food and, as much as the concept of highly processed food with questionable ingredients grates against my food preferences, sometimes I actually prefer the shop-bought version! I suspected fig rolls might be one of these times. None the less, I gave Barney's recipe a go, following the pastry instructions to the letter but substituting the chewy toffees for a grated ripe pear. Yeah, I know, they really aren't the same thing at all but I had a glut of pears at the time and had just been making a batch of Figgy Pear Mincemeat so I knew the flavours work together.

Anyway, the filling was delicious (even if not much like the shop-bought biscuit) but the pastry was all wrong. It was very much like a crumbly short-crust pastry and the whole thing was a bit like eating a sausage roll shaped mince pie. Clearly the pastry needed a rethink.

A week or two later I came across a recipe on the internet for fig rolls (don't know how, because I can't find it again now!). The pastry in this recipe was different to Barney's version and the figgy filling was just figs and water. So I decided to give it a go, using my modified version of Barney's filling and this new pastry. However, having made the filling, I discovered I was all out of wholemeal flour so had to use all plain. I decided that adding a bit of oat bran might help in the absence of wholemeal so I put that in as well.

I'm pleased to say that the whole thing cooked perfectly and came out looking like a fig roll. I could hardly wait for the biscuits to cool before trying one and that first one had slightly crispy pastry, which was lovely but not at all like the commercially made ones. However, the next day, after a night in the biscuit tin, the squidgy filling had made the pastry go soft and it was much more as I had imagined. It has been a while since I last ate a shop-bought fig roll so I can't directly compare these ones with those but I have a sneaky suspicion that my homemade taste better and I can guarantee that the ingredients are a good deal better!

Fig Rolls (makes 12)

200g soft dried figs, chopped
Zest and juice of 1 orange
1 ripe pear, peeled and grated
1 oz caster sugar
180g plain flour
20g oat bran
75g margarine
25g light muscovado sugar
Pinch of salt

Place the figs, orange zest and juice, pear and caster sugar in a small saucepan and cook for 10 minutes until thick and sticky. Set aside and once cooled, blend. Preheat oven to 180°C and grease a tray. Rub together the flour, oat bran and margarine to form a crumb texture. Stir in the sugar and salt then add a little water to form a dough. Roll out the pastry, quite thin, into a rectangle and cut in half lengthwise. Spoon the mixture into long lines down the length of the two pieces of pastry. Brush the edge of each piece of pastry with milk then roll up. Cut each length into 6 pieces and press each one with the back of a fork. Transfer onto the baking tray and bake for 25-30 minutes until golden. Transfer onto a wire rack and cool.

Friday, 23 October 2015

The "Sugar Tax" debate makes me angry!

There has been a lot of talk in the media this week about the introduction of a "sugar tax" to help tackle Britain's obesity problem. I am in no doubt that something needs to be done to help Britain improve its diet and tackle all the health issues but talk of introducing a sugar tax makes me really cross and for many reasons.

1) Firstly, I think people should learn to take more responsibility for themselves and stop looking around to see who else they can blame and to particularly stop blaming the government for not doing things when they do actually have individual choice and self-control. I fear that the current generation of adults is acting like a bunch of spoilt, self-indulgent children who are used to getting what they want, when they want it. We have everything "on demand" and the cash/credit to buy what we want. The creation of foods such as "Cookie Dough Ice-cream" perfectly illustrates the sort of society we live in. Being allowed to lick the spoon or bowl when cooking with mum as a child is supposed to be a special memory that brings back warm fuzzy feelings of a loving moment of shared enjoyment. As tasty as raw biscuit dough is when five years old and enjoying some attention from your mum, it is not something to spoon into your mouth by the bowlful whilst watching TV as an adult. As adults we are perfectly aware that some foods are full of sugar and best not eaten and we should avoid them most of the time, indulging in them occasionally if we wish. We do not need the government to force an increase in the price of fizzy drinks in order to have a lightning-bolt moment of realisation that these things are not the best thing to put into our bodies. And is something that adds an estimated 7p on a can of fizzy drink going to have an impact on people who like to drink them? Given that cigarettes are already highly tax but people still smoke them would suggest not, at least for some. Indeed, it is the poorest people who generally have the worse health largely due to smoking and diet. These people find the money for cigarettes by compromising on other things. Sadly, processed food usually works out cheaper than "real" food so someone struggling on a small budget is more likely to eat more processed food and anything that puts up the cost of food/drink is just going to make them eat less well. If the government want to make it so that your earn more by working than living on benefits, they should also see about making it cheaper to eat real food rather than junk. If the sugar tax can do this then I will heartily support it.

2) The obesity crisis and the appalling state of our processed food industry is a huge problem and a sugar tax will not solve it. I am worried that the introduction of a sugar tax will tick some box somewhere and the powers-that-be will sit back and say, hey, look we are helping, we have done this where in fact they should be thoroughly dissecting the issue and sorting all of it out. Although I do blame people who eat and drink obviously unhealthy foods for their health issues, I also appreciate that most people are eating stuff that they are unaware of and, despite making a conscious effort to eat better, are still ending up with stuff inside their bodies that they would wish to avoid given the choice. Although I say that people should stop blaming the government and take personal responsibility for their lifestyle choices, I do think the government should take the food industry in hand and properly look at what goes into processed food in terms of sugar, salt, fat, additive and processing aids. Much clearer labeling on food should be made compulsory so that we are better informed and can make better choices. All sugar ingredients should be labelled as such so that people are aware that other ingredients, such as fructose, maltose, corn syrup and alike are still sugar and that forms of modified starch get instantly converted into sugar by the body too once eaten. Fizzy drinks and iced doughnuts aside, it is all too easy to eat too much sugar when eating processed food.

3) It worries me that if a tax is put on sugar, they will replace it with other stuff that I really don't want to eat. This is something that already hugely bothers me and is already an issue. If sugar is seen as the enemy then artificial sweeteners will be used more and become harder to avoid. I hate artificial sweeteners, not least because they taste awful. Their health impact is extremely questionable, with talk of some being carcinogenic. More immediately, when you eat or drink something with artificial sweetener in it, your body detects the sweetness and prepares the body for the associated calories, including releasing insulin into the blood. When the calories do not follow, you are left with cravings and this can result in you eating something else to compensate. There is research to show that people who consume artificial sweetener instead of sugar actually get fatter. It also maintains the "sweet" taste in the mouth, meaning that the palette is not retrained to accept and appreciate less sweet food. If you wish to reduce your salt intake you are advised to cut down on salt and retrain your palette to enjoy less salty food. This is what needs to be done when reducing sugar intake, not substituting it for chemicals that are often hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. If the food industry were to make "reduced sugar" food and drinks that actually just had less sugar in them that would be a good thing but they don't - they put artificial sweetener in instead. And, what's more, they have to add other things to that food to replace the sugar they have taken out such as bulking agents, preservatives, things to improve the gloss or colour and so the whole thing ends up being a cocktail of artificial chemicals.

4) We need to stop treating children as children and more as small people. Why do we need food specifically targeted at children? Why do we have children's cereals, children's snacks and children's menus? If the answer was simply in order to give them the appropriate sized portion then that would be fine but it's not. Somehow we have been trained into believing that children won't eat breakfast unless it is sugar coated, or chocolate flavoured and shaped into amusing characters. We end up preparing different meals so that the adults and the children are eating different things because we say that children won't eat what we are eating. In many countries there is no such thing as a separate children's menu - just smaller portions from the adult menu... and children eat it. Japanese children are the healthiest in the world and they eat what their parents eat and, unsurprisingly, that does not mean Cocopops for breakfast. I remember reading in the well-respected Good Food Magazine a  hot-cross bun recipe where it suggested replacing the currants with chocolate chips for the children. Do I even need to spell out why that lead me to a lengthy rant that morning in my kitchen. As a generation of self-indulgent adults we are indulging our children at an extent never seen before and we can all guess what kind of adults they will turn into. We need to get a grip on this or the problems will perpetuate through the generations. And I'm not having a go at parents because I know that it is a consequence of the society we live in and that children see things that they want on TV, on menus and from their friends so you are forced to at least let them try them, or fear creating the even more alluring "forbidden fruit" mentality. Just this week my 13 year old refused to take my homemade savoury munch seeds to school in her lunch box even though they are one of her favourite foods, just because in the past she has been teased by her peers about eating them. The contents of her lunchbox has to meet the expectations of her peers as much as her hairstyle, clothes and taste in music. And this, sadly, is a culture carried over into adult social media these days were people are proud to show how they gave into the temptation of a box of doughnuts, a whole pack of biscuits, bar of chocolate, a hot chocolate with whipped cream and marshmallows, or another bottle of wine and people "like" them for it. Yet, posting a photo of your dinner is considered a social media faux-pas, especially if it is healthy as, apparently, it is showing off and just makes people feel bad.

5) On a personal note, a sugar tax would have a huge impact on my jam business and yet completely miss the point in terms of helping people's health. Jam, when made the traditional way, is 50% fruit and 50% sugar, so, for example, the ingredients label on my raspberry jam will read: raspberries and sugar. It is not, despite the quantity and, indeed, quality of the fruit used, a health food. However, it isn't something, unlike Cookie Dough Icecream, to eat by the spoonful in front of your favourite on demand boxset. Instead, it is a little something to enjoy on your toast. I can guarantee that even eating jam on toast every day will not make you fat if (and this is the key point) it is enjoyed as part of a balanced diet. I have been asked many times if I make jam for diabetics and I have looked into how it is possible to reduce the sugar in jam. Last year I experimented with both just reducing the sugar content and using Stevia as a sugar replacement. Because sugar is required to make jam set, I had to use a gelling agent to make it set, adding pectin and calcium chloride to my jam. In addition, the jam lost its gloss and went mouldy within a fortnight. The taste, with the added Stevia, was to my palette, unpleasant too. The resulting jam had an ingredients list that read: raspberries, water, pectin, Stevia, calcium chloride. It was a useful exercise for me as it made me realise that this was not the route I wanted to take for my products, preferring instead the natural, traditional combination of fruit and sugar. A sugar tax would make my lovely, handcrafted, artisan jam even more expensive than the trash you can buy in the supermarkets but have absolutely no affect on the health of the nation. The point here is, a blanket sugar tax is not discerning in its impact and will probably make it harder for the smaller producers, trying to craft beautiful and carefully made foods that we should be encouraging and supporting whilst having no real impact on the big boys that are the real problem.

6) On a similar note, I use sugar in my baking and a sugar tax presumably would make this sugar more expensive to buy. When I make my cakes I can see exactly what goes into them and I can perfectly control the quantity of sugar used. I can also exercise my self-control and choose only to eat one slice at a time. Making home baking more expensive will not solve the obesity problem. Home baking and home cooking does not make you fat, it is eating processed junk food and take-aways as a matter of course that does.

The sugar tax is this vague "magic wand" that with one sweep is supposed to solve our problems but what we need is specific, targeted and well-thought through changes to the food industry. Hidden sugars need to be brought out into the open so that we can make better choices and properly avoid eating sugar without realising it. We need to collectively reduce both sugar and sweetness at the same time so that we retrain ourselves to appreciate less sweet foods. And we just need to take personal responsibility for our own diets (and that of our children) and accept that we cannot continuously indulge in this kind of food and not suffer the health impact.

Monday, 19 October 2015

A review of "Swallow This" by Joanna Blythman (and the food industry in general)

When I was at university, I used to snack on Kelloggs Elevenese Bars. At the time I thought they were quite nice, being moist and springy dark sponge cakes with a richness as if they were made from dark sugar and spices; and with a topping of sprinkled oats they looked quite nutritious. I remember, quite distinctly, years later deciding to buy a pack of Elevenese Bars on an occasion when I didn't have time to bake a cake. Things had changed in the intervening years and I was now an adept home cook and baked various cakes, biscuits and flapjacks weekly in order to satisfy snack or dessert cravings. It was a surprise to me (but maybe not to you) that when I bit into an Elevenese Bar I was somewhat disappointed with the flavour and couldn't help but wonder what the hell that taste was - because it certainly wasn't home cooking!

Recently, whilst reading the Good Food Magazine, I came across an advert for a book called, "Swallow This" by one of their regular columnists Joanna Blythman. In it, amongst other descriptions, it said that if you had ever wondered what it was that made processed food taste the way it does then you should read this book. As I had been wondering ever since the Elevenese Bar incident what on Earth it is that makes commercial bakes taste so screamingly unlike home baking, I was instantly hooked.

I have now finished reading the book and I'm left in this weird indecisive place, not knowing whether it is a book I would recommend that everyone should read or whether I would recommend no one read it. It is such an alarming and detailed dissection of the food industry that I would not wish that knowledge on anyone. It is, quite frankly, enough to put you off your food. But at the same time, it strikes me as wrong that the food industry can get away with misleading us and conning us into eating rubbish and that people should be better informed about their food. If more people knew what was going on there would be more consumer pressure on these large industrial companies to clean up their acts and present us with proper, nutritious food. It leaves no doubt in my mind what is causing the obesity crisis, the prevalence of cancer and the increase in allergies. Also, from the perspective of an artisan food producer, if people fully understood what happens to food when it is processed in a factory and dished out cheaply by supermarkets, they would understand why artisan food is worth the extra price asked for it and wouldn't glibly say, "I can buy that cheaper in the supermarket."

We are all used to food scandals hitting the headlines and we all, I'm sure, make choices about food based on a desire to avoid eating certain things. However, this book doesn't talk about the familiar topics such as animal welfare, contamination of the food chain, the spread of hideous diseases across livestock or even illegal immigrates being exploited and probably handling your salad without washing their hands! Instead this book looks at the stuff that is part of the every day production of food, the stuff that is legal, allowed and accepted. Despite the food standards and European Union regulations, these are the things that go into our food. Some of them even make it onto the label. This is perhaps what is most alarming - it's not about when things go wrong but about what we are eating when things are going right.

Chapter by chapter Joanna looks at the way food is processed to create the familiar foods we buy in the shops.

"Sweet" looks at the astonishing amount of sugar hidden in processed food, including apparently savoury foods. It also talks about the use of artificial sweeteners, how they make you crave more food and can ultimately make you put on weight. In addition, it details the other additives that are required to replace the sugar that is taken out to add bulk or preserving properties.

"Oily" talks about the issues around fats, the way it has been blamed for obesity issues for years, the battle of saturated against unsaturated fats and the confusion around healthy and unhealthy fats. It also outlines the alarming, industrial way oils are extracted from their vegetables and raises questions about their quality.

The chapters "Flavoured" and "Coloured", discuss added flavourings and colourings, pointing out how highly processed food loses it natural flavours and colours and that these need to be replaced with chemical additives, some of unsavory origin.

"Watery" opened my eyes on the full extent of added water to food and the processes that meat, particularly is subjected to to make them take on and retain added water.

"Starchy" explains the ubiquitous use of modified starches to food. An ingredient I wasn't previously too alarmed to find on a food label, I now feel less comfortable about its presence... and it seems to be everywhere.

"Tricky" looks at the use of hundreds of enzymes in the food industry and how they can be used without ever appearing on the label as they are considered to be processing aids rather than ingredients. Their health implications are unclear.

"Old" discusses the additives used to prolong shelf-life, along with storage and packaging techniques and raises questions over what the term "fresh" actually means.

And just when you think you can't take any more, "Packed" pulls apart the food packaging part of the industry and looks into the chemicals that end up in our food from the wrappers and containers it is put in.

There are several reasons why reading this book disturbed me and it wasn't just the unremitting bombardment of alarming disclosures and the, at times, emotive language she uses. The first is that I am a switched on, well educated individual who really cares about food and yet I was generally unaware of the stuff she mentions. The next is that I am cynical about advertising generally and claims made about products and yet I have been as duped about the food industry as the next person and have been sucked in by claims about "freshness" or the relative health benefits of a particular product. Yet, most disturbing is how so much of what goes on does not have to be disclosed on the label or that the label has been "cleaned" - that's to say that ingredients that ring alarm bells with consumers have been taken out of the product and replaced with something just as processed but that can be put on the a label with a name that sounds like something that belongs in your own food cupboard. This to me means that even with what I have learnt from reading this book, I cannot hope to avoid things that made me feel uncomfortable when I read about them because I simply cannot identify them in the foods I buy.

So, having read this book, what now? I feel more enlightened but I think it is necessary to take a realistic attitude towards the food I eat. Joanna herself says that she doesn't treat her body as a temple and she accepts she will eat factory produced food. This to me is clear. It just isn't possible in today's lifestyle to eat a wholly unprocessed diet. Even I, as someone who makes a lot of food from scratch, cannot avoid processed food. A cake, for example, will contain flour (a processed food), a fat (processed and factory produced), eggs and flavours (processed, however natural they may be). There are also highly processed food that I really enjoy eating and don't want to give up. And, at times, when I'm scrubbing the mud off a potato, I positively hanker over a frozen potato product!

I started reading this book in August and have only just finished reading it because I don't have many reading minutes in any give day. I'm pleased to say that this book is so rammed with information that it is hard to hold it in your head for long. Already I have forgotten a lot of the detail and in many ways I am glad about this. What I am left with is a general feeling that I want to eat less processed food. This is not really news and is the way I have been going for years anyway and this book has just confirmed that this is the right thing to do. Food made from recognisable ingredients (better still if they are home grown) taste so much better anyway. I'm also in control of what goes into the food and I know, without doubt, the salt, sugar and fat content because I put it there. I might not always make health food and I might sometimes indulge in a cream cake but at least I'm not conning myself about what I'm eating.

If you think you can stomach it, I urge you to read "Swallow This". At least then you will be more aware of what exactly you are eating and you can go some way to taking back control over the food that ends up inside you.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Apple Charlotte - What's that?!

Sunday was the Stony Stratford Apple Day and this year, amongst other things, they were holding an apple charlotte competition. Last year my daughter had entered the apple crumble competition and had been pleased to win 3rd prize so as soon as I said we would be going to the Apple Day she asked what this year's competition was. She, like I, had no idea what an apple charlotte was so I looked it up on the internet. That was when I remembered that in the spring when I had been watching "Kew on a Plate" on TV Raymond Blanc had made an apple charlotte that I quite fancied giving a go when the apples were next ready.

So, armed with Raymond's recipe, my daughter and I set about making the charlotte. It is, essentially, a sweetened apple puree encased in bread and baked. Something like an apple bread and butter pudding or a summer pudding. Raymond's recipe called for two specific apple varieties - Cox's Orange Pippin and Orange Blenheim. However, what he was essentially getting at was that one variety was required (in this case the Cox) to cook and keep its shape, and the other (the Blenheim) needed to quickly turn to mush.

In the slightly eccentric collection of events that is my life, I happened to have been given some Cox's Orange Pippin apples. The man in the flat cap with a Scottish accent who lives 4 doors over had given a bag of them to my husband the other day when he'd been busy working in the front garden. The man (typically we don't know the name of most of our neighbours) had been to Windsor Great Park and had collected the apples from there (presumably with permission - it's not the sort of place you'd want to go scrumping!). Anyway, he said he thought that I would be able to make something with them.

As for the Blenheim, I didn't have any but one of our apple trees (variety unknown) produces apples that mush down beautifully.

The recipe requires making a caramel and cooking the Cox's in that, then making an apple puree from the Blenheims and using a bit of pectin to make it set. I don't have powdered pectin so I substituted the pectin and the caster sugar in that section for jam sugar (which is sugar with pectin added). Then, buttered bread (Raymond recommends wholemeal bread) is used to line a cake ring and the middle of the ring is infilled with the caramel apple mixed into the apple puree. This is then baked and allowed to cool and set before serving.

There isn't anything particularly difficult about making an apple charlotte so it was well within the capabilities of my daughter. However, it would have been useful to have had a photo of what we were trying to achieve and at times I felt Raymond was a little unclear - probably because we didn't really know what we were aiming for. None the less, we managed to create something that looked OK and that I was sure was going to taste great, given the apples that we had used.

Shortly after taking the charlotte out of the oven, I phoned my mum for our usual weekend chat and told her that we had made an apple charlotte. She gushed at this and said that her mum had made apple charlotte when she was a kid and she loved it. However, it soon became clear that what she had been served as a child was not in the least like what was cooling on my wire rack. A moment of panic crept in and I had to Google images of apple charlotte just to reassure myself that we had made the right thing!

The next day, we took the charlotte to the Apple Day and into the judging tent. A lady was there, accepting the entries and we had a conversation about the competition. She said that for the first Stony Stratford Apple Day they had had an apple pie competition but not many people had entered. She suspected this was because people didn't like making their own pastry these days. Last year the competition had been apple crumble and loads of people had entered because everyone can make a crumble. This year they had wanted the competition to be something again that didn't require making pastry and charlotte had been suggested. I did point out that not many people know what one is and she agreed.

Nevertheless, over the next hour a good number of charlottes were placed on the table for judging. I soon began to realise that it was possible to be quite elaborate with the appearance of the charlotte. Next time we make one I think I will arrange the apples in a circle on the top surface rather than hiding them within the puree. It also seemed obvious that white bread was the bread of choice, giving a more squidged, molded shape that our rather pert looking wholemeal. Clearly Raymond Blanc doesn't know what he's talking about! Still, we had made ours, as I do with most of my cooking, to taste great. Not that this mattered in the end as when we came back to the tent after judging, my daughter's charlotte had been awarded 3rd place but was apparently untouched and untasted, unlike those in 1st and 2nd place. Silly me, I should have realised from 12 weeks of being forced to watch Great British Bake Off that showstoppers are a visual treat first and foremost.

My daughter was happy with her 3rd place and she had been given a Snickers bar and Club biscuit for her efforts. I, on the other hand, was still interested to know how those lovely apples tasted, wrapped in their casing of wholemeal bread, so I went back to the tent to retrieve our entry. By then it was half eaten by hungry Apple Day visitors so I whipped the remains off the show bench and packed it up to bring it home. We ate it on Monday, cold and on Tuesday, reheated with custard. Needless to say, we appreciated the apples and the effort, enjoying it most when hot with custard. Definitely one to try again, perhaps tweaking the recipe and appearance next time, now that we know what an apple charlotte actually is!

Having felt that our apple charlotte was not quite as it should have been, I decided I wanted to give it another go so in November I tried again, using a combination of Bramley apples (to mush in the compote) and some other unknown variety that keeps it shape when cooked. I decided too to use white bread and my medium hemisphere pan (from Lakeland). I also decided to line the pan with bread completely to make a dome. I don't know whether it is the convention to serve it chilled but we enjoyed it reheated and served with custard. The end result was much more pleasing.

Apple Charlotte - Raymond's recipe with my changes:

For the caramelised apples
  • 80g/3oz caster sugar
  • 25g/1oz unsalted butter, chilled
  • 500g/1lb 2oz Cox’s Orange Pippin or another variety that keeps it shape when cooked) apples, peeled, cored and each cut into 8 wedges
For the compôte
  • 150ml/5fl oz fresh apple juice
  • 10g jam sugar
  • 250g/9oz Blenheim Orange or Bramly (or any others that mush when cooked) apples (about 5), peeled and chopped
  • ½ tsp vanilla purée or good-quality vanilla extract
For the hemisphere pan
For the Charlotte
  • 200g/7oz white bread, cut into fingers
  • 50g/1¾oz unsalted butter, softened

Preparation method

  1. For the caramelised apples, in a large sauté pan or frying pan over a medium–high heat, heat the sugar to a dark golden-brown caramel without stirring, then add the butter. The caramel will emulsify with the butter and the cold butter will also stop the cooking of the caramel. Add the apples and cook in the caramel for 5 minutes, with a lid on, until they soften but still hold their shape (the centre will still be a little raw). Remove from the heat.
  2. For the compôte, mix 50ml/2fl oz of the apple juice with the jam sugar. Slide the chopped apple into a medium saucepan set over a medium heat. Add the remaining apple juice and cook for 10 minutes, covered with a lid, until the apples break down. Add the jam sugar mix and vanilla purée or extract, stir and cook for a further 5 minutes to allow any moisture to evaporate. Remove from the heat.
  3. Preheat the oven to 210C/190C Fan/Gas 6½.
  4. Lightly butter the inside of a medium hemisphere tin or pudding basin and sprinkle with caster sugar. Tap it lightly to ensure an even coating; tap off any excess. Place the tin on a baking tray, using a fried egg ring to keep it steady if you have one.
  5. For the Charlotte, cut the slices of bread into fingers. Lightly spread both sides of the bread with the butter then use it to line the inside of the ring, overlapping a bit. Press to ensure they stick to the sides.
  6. To build, mix the caramelised apple into the compôte, then pour the mixture into the centre of the ring to fill the Charlotte. Place the apple Charlotte in the oven for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely for a minimum of 3 hours. This will allow the pectin to set fully and firm up, which will also make the Charlotte easier to slice. Once cool, turn the Charlotte upside down by placing a large plate on top and flipping it over. 
  7. To serve, carefully cut the Charlotte into 6–8 pieces. This beautiful dessert can be served with vanilla ice cream or crème Chantilly. It’s also perfect with a glass of your best cider. Alternatively, reheat in the oven at 180°C for 15 minutes and serve hot with custard.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Growing Cucamelons (or not!)

Last year I came across "cucamelons" for the first time. Related to the cucumber, they look like miniature watermelons. I'm always up for growing something new so I thought I would give them ago. James Wong certainly recommended doing so, saying that they are easy to grow and a prolific cropper in a blog post http://homegrown-revolution.co.uk/savoury-fruit/growing-cucamelons/

It was easy enough to find some seeds so I ordered those and in the spring I sowed some along with all the usual members of the cucurbit family: cucumbers, gherkins, courgette, pumpkin and squash. Then a friend asked me if I had heard of them so I said I already had some seed and did she want some to try too? I gave her 4 seeds and off we went.

Germination was very slow, especially compared to the other cucurbits but eventually I managed to get 4 of the 6 seeds to germinate and my friend told me she had managed 2 seedlings. In due course, once the risk of frost has past, I planted my seedlings out. Again, in comparison to other cucurbits, the plants looked a bit weedy - thin and straggly - but I didn't know what to expect.

By July the plants had rambled their way up the cane teepee that I had erected for them and they looked like slightly exotic bindweed. They were flowering too, with small yellow flowers, backed with a promising fruitlet. I went away on holiday expecting to come back to a prolific crop.

I was surprised when, three weeks later I still had no fruit. The little fruitlets just seemed to drop off and not develop. Experience with other cucurbits suggested that the flowers were not being pollinated so I tried using my finger to transfer pollen between the flowers.

Several more weeks past and I was still disappointed by the lack of fruit. I checked with my friend and found it was the same story for her. Then, one afternoon, whilst rummaging through the foliage nearby for cucumbers, I found some cucamelons - about 6 to the precise! Excited, I took them inside to show my girls. They were excited too and there is no denying that they are the cutest fruit I've every grown. I felt as if I should find a toy farmer, put a cucamelon in his arms and take amusing photographs of his enormous watermelon! But instead we decided to eat them.

They are supposed to taste like a cross between a cucumber and a lime. Maybe this is a polite way to say that they are not sweet and have a sour note. I would say, rather than the pleasant sourness of citrus fruit, these things are just bitter, like a cucumber that has been left on the plant too long. I honestly had to spit mine out.

So, on the whole I am somewhat disappointed with the cucamelon. It was harder to grow than suggested, although not impossible, and the crop was far from prolific. The taste was unpleasant and, although it is probably possible to make a nice pickle or something out of them, the yield was so low it was not worth trying. They were, however, undeniably cute and in some ways it was fun giving them a go. I can, of course, look to the rather lack-lustre summer and point my finger at the weather and wonder if more sunshine would have helped. Maybe I will try again next year, armed with lower expectations and in the hope of more sunshine.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Pear & Pecan Choc Chip Cake

I popped round to my parents house yesterday and gathered up a bag full of pears from their patio. I usually think of conference pears as a late October/ early November crop but as these were on the ground, it would have been a shame to waste them.

Later I made a "lighter treacle tart" using the recipe from "Good Food Magazine", but using a pear instead of the apple. http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/lighter-treacle-tart. I've been making this recipe for a couple of year now and it's delicious but it only uses up one pear.

Earlier this week I had come across a recipe for pear, hazelnut and chocolate cake from "Good Food Magazine" that I thought might be worth a try when the pears were ready http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/1420/pear-hazelnut-and-chocolate-cake. As that moment seemed to have unexpectedly arrived, I looked the recipe up and decided it looked like a good way to make use of 5 pears. I checked my cupboard and, discovering I had everything else I needed, I set about making the cake.

The first problem I encountered was that the pack of hazelnuts I had in my cupboard were a couple of months past their best before date and smelt past their best. I decided to scatter these under my hazelnut tree in the garden and then enjoyed watching the squirrel returning repeatedly during the course of the day. Clearly Christmas had come early as far as he was concerned and he was busy stashing his unexpected bounty in various places around the garden.

With no hazelnuts, I decided to substitute them for pecans. I didn't actually have 100g of pecan left so I put in the 85g I had then added some oatbran to make up the quantity.

The next issue was the rather weird method for making the cake as it used the breadcrumb method of rubbing the fat to flour, which is decidedly odd for making a cake; being more commonly used for making biscuits or pastry. It didn't work very well and creaming the sugar into the butter first would have been a better method.

Anyway, having made a batter, I got it into the oven, only to discover it needed about half as much cooking time again before it was cooked through. Once cooked, however, it had a lovely golden, slightly crispy finish and, as such, I felt it didn't need to be glazed with jam.

Having made all these various alternations, I realised I had made quite a different cake to the one described in the recipe but it was really delicious so definitely one to make again.

Pear & Pecan Choc Chip Cake

  • 175g butter, softened
  • 140g caster sugar
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 85g pecans
  • 1 tbsp oat bran
  • 140g self-raising flour
  • 5 small, ripe Conference pears, peeled.
  • 50g dark chocolate, chopped into small chunks


  1. Preheat the oven to fan 140C/ conventional 160C/gas 3. Butter and line the base of a 20cm round cake tin. Cream together the butter and sugar then mix in the eggs one at a time. Blitz the pecans in a food processor until finely ground then add this and the other dry ingredients to the creamed mix. Grate two of the pears into the mix then stir in the chocolate chips. 
  2. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the top. Peel, core and slice the remaining pears and scatter over the top of the cake. Press down lightly and bake for about 90 minutes, until firm to the touch. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then turn out and cool on wire rack. 

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Apple Roses

The other day an image of an "Apple Rose" popped up in my Facebook feed. Curious, I clicked the link and watched the video instructions of how to construct a very pretty looking dessert using a couple of apples and some puff pastry. I really wanted to give it a go but it required red skinned apples and I only have green or yellow skinned ones.

Then, this week, my friend Clare asked me if I would like to pick some apples off her tree. She was a bit busy to pick them herself as she was getting married at the weekend and then going away for two weeks honeymoon. So off I went to pick the apples and was amazed by how beautiful her tree was, laden as it was, with branch bending quantities of red apples. I gratefully helped myself to a couple of big bagfuls.

Now in the possession of red skinned apples, I purchased some ready-rolled puff pastry.That just left some jam to find... not difficult in this house. In fact, I had made Toffee Apple Jam this week so some of that seemed perfect.

The recipe is fairly straight forward to follow, taking about half an hour to complete before cooking and is very effective. There is something almost magical about seeing a rose form from apples wrapped in pastry and without any particular technical skill or tedious faffing. Indeed, the trickiest part of this recipe is the cooking. It requires about 45-50 minutes in the oven and the oven needs to be hot enough to get the puff pastry to rise but not so hot that the apples burn, and it needs to be slow enough to allow time for the pastry in the middle of the spiral to cook. On this attempt I would say that my apples were a little bit over coloured but it did not affect the flavour.

Indeed, the flavour was lovely. It was like an apple pie but less sweet. And everyone liked it, even my fussy daughter who has already requested that I make them again and said I should feel proud of how well they turned out!

Find the recipe here.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Roasted Beetroot

I've had a really good beetroot crop this year. I went out the other day and picked loads of them, mainly to give the remaining ones enough space to grow into something decent too. The next day I boiled up the little ones and created a satisfying 2lb Kilner jar full of pickled whole baby beets for us to enjoy in the winter. I also boiled up some of the bigger ones and ate them cold with salad over the next few days. Then there was the beetroot cake that I blogged about the other day. Fortunately, I love beetroot.

There is a bit of a downside to beetroot and that is, given that it is most often eaten cooked but cold and it takes about an hour to boil a cricket sized beetroot, it does take a bit of forward planning to have some cooked and cooled when needed. It is most annoying when assembling a meal and thinking about the veg that will go well with it to remember that you are all out of cooked beetroot; especially if you have a big bagful of raw beetroot in plain sight!

If I'm having salad and I realise I have forgotten to pre-cook the beetroot then I make some coleslaw with it instead. Some red cabbage, grated raw beetroot and a little bit of red onion, seasoned and dolloped with mayo is both easy to make and tasty. It is probably really good for you too, given all those riboflavinoids!

However, yesterday as I contemplated the best way to eat the sausages I had bought at Wolverton Farmers Market at the weekend, I realised that somewhere along my train of thought I had come to the decision that we would be having mash and gravy and cold beetroot doesn't go well with gravy and nor does coleslaw. Ahhh... but what about having it roasted?! And so in my mind developed the idea of roasted seasonal vegetables.

To hand were red onion, carrots, parsnip, patty pan squash and elephant garlic, along with beetroot of course. I peel and chopped all of them and put them in a bowl (without the beetroot) with some olive oil and seasoning and gave them a good stir. I put them in a roasting tin and then added the beetroot to the empty bowl. There was enough oil and seasoning left in the bowl to coat the beetroot and I put in a splash of Balsamic vinegar for good measure. I put the beetroot down one end of the roasting dish so as not to turn the other vegetables pink then roasted the lot at 190°C for a hour, adding the sausages to the oven after half and hour. They only needed mixing around once and came out of the oven when just beginning to brown. So that is definitely a good way to eat beetroot but now I'm off to boil some more so that I've got some cooked and cooled to eat with our burger and salad tonight!

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Product Review - The Apple Master

As someone who spends a good deal of time during late summer and autumn chopping fruit and vegetables, I'm always keen to find something that does the job faster. I like a gadget but it has to earn its cupboard space. Sometimes this means it is a multi functional tool that can be used for more than one purpose so earns its keep that way. Sometimes it means that it does just one job but so well that it is worth both the cupboard space it requires when not in use and the inevitable cleaning time. I do, for example, like my food processor and wouldn't want to be without if for certain jobs but often I would rather struggle with a bit more elbow grease than spend the time retrieving it from the cupboard, setting it up, dismantling it, cleaning it and then packing it all back neatly enough that it will go back into the space it came out of.

Over the past few months I have seen Lakeland adverts for the apple master, a devise to help speed up the processing of apples. I process a lot of apples so of course I'm was curious about this devise but to be honest from the picture it looked like a gadget just for peeling them. Having peeled hundreds of apples in my time, I am pretty speedy with a knife and I have a simple cutting tool that cores and wedges apples in one pushing action so did I really need this gadget taking up space cupboard for 9 or 10 months of the year? I wondered if the time taken to fix the apple onto the devise would outweigh the time taken to peel it by hand. In the end I decided I did not seem worth it.

Repeatedly I ignored the adverts for the apple master until one day when I was scrolling down facebook and a video clip of someone using it started playing before my eyes. At this point I realised that within that one action, the apple was peeled, cored and sliced. It was then that I started to take more interest in it, especially as at around £15, it was not that expensive as kitchen gadgets go.

Having mentally put it onto my Christmas list, I approached this year's apple season with a sort of smugness, knowing that this would be the last season where I would have to peel apples by hand. However, in a conversation with a friend, it turned out she already had an apple master and she asked me if I would like to try hers out before getting one for myself. With apples in need to attention, I readily agreed.

I was surprised by how compact the apple master is, which is a good thing when thinking about cupboard space. Keen to try it out, I gathered up some windfalls and got going. I was impressed by how easy it was to fix the apple onto it - it being nothing more than a stab. Then with the turning of the handle, it peeled it, cored it and turned it into a sort of apple spring. My girls thought this was amazing and both of them straight away wanted to eat an apple spring so that was a bonus! A spring shape isn't the most useful end result I could think of but it is easy from there to slice it into apple rings or chop it into smaller pieces for something like a pie or a chutney.

I have now used it a few times and have given it some pretty challenging apples to try out as my windfalls are all sorts of shapes and sizes and have various patches of bruising, holes and soft bits. There are limits to what it can cope with. If the core doesn't run straight down the middle of the apple then it doesn't remove the core cleanly but this is true for any devise other than a human expertly wielding a knife. If the apple has become soft within the core area then the spike doesn't get a proper grip on the apple, but again this is to be expected. And if there are soft patches on the side of the apple, it makes the peeling part of the devise sort of skip and miss patches of skin, which can be fiddly to remove afterwards. However, this was never designed with awkward shaped windfalls in mind and when I use a sensible shaped, undamaged apple it works perfectly and significantly speeds up processing time. It is easy and fun to use too, which encouraged my children to have a go, allowing them to process an apple with the speed of someone with impressive knife skills. As for cleaning, it is a straightforward design with no fiddly bits or electrical parts and no dismantling required so it can be cleaned easily with a washing up brush. Suffice to say, it is still on my Christmas list and I'm hoping I can hang on to my friend's one for a little longer too!

Here's a recipe for a delicious apple bread that I made with the aid of the apple master and a bread machine (another gardget that earns its place in the kitchen).

Apple & Cinnamon Buns (make 9)

For the Bread:
175ml milk
1 egg
350g white bread flour
1/2 tsp salt
35g caster sugar
50g unsalted butter
2 tsp dried active yeast

For the Apple Puree
4 apples, peeled, cored and chopped
1 tbsp caster sugar
2tbsp water

For the Cinnamon Butter
75g unsalted butter, softened
1 tbsp light brown sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon

Demerara sugar for sprinkling

Load the bread machine up with the bread ingredients and set onto the dough setting. In the meantime, put the apple puree ingredients into a small saucepan and cook gently, stirring often, until it mushs down into a thick puree. In a small bowl, cream together the cinnamon butter ingredients. Once the dough is ready, knock it back on a floured surface then roll it out into a large rectangle. Spread the cinnamon butter all over the dough then cover that with the apple puree. Starting at the longest side of the dough, roll up, as tightly as possible. Cut the roll into 9 even sized pieces and place these, cut edge up, in a well greased or lined tin. Cover with greased Clingfilm and leave to rise for 30 to 40 minutes. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Once risen, sprinkle the bread with Demerara sugar and place in the oven to cook for 35 to 40 minutes. Serve warm or cool in the tin and eat later.