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Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Potato Croquettes and Sugared Doughnuts

I often talk in my blogs about making use of the fruit and vegetables that I grow but I sometimes feel that the boastful, flamboyant, and sometimes badly behaved fruit and vegetables, grab all the attention. It reminds me of a class full of children where some people just turn up reliably every day, listen carefully, follow instructions and get the work done without making a fuss. They are sensible, dependable and co-operative and yet come parents' evening the teachers struggle to put a face to the name on their class list despite longing every night to have more children in their classes that behave like them. In the vegetable world I am talking about things such as onions, potatoes, carrots and leeks. Where would our cooking be without them yet how often do we think to mention how their presence in a dish really made the difference? Well, I've decided that in 2016 I shall make an effort to acknowledge and appreciate these hard workers and give them the attention and credit they deserve.

My sister-in-law told me years ago that she didn't like potatoes. I can't say this piece of news particularly thrilled me at the time as I was attempting to cater for a family gathering and I already had someone who didn't like garlic or anything spicy, a general (but non-specified) fussy eater and a vegan to cater for. I can't remember what I cooked for that meal now but clearly we all got through it still on speaking-terms. Years later my brother- and sister-in-law got an allotment and dabbled with growing their own potatoes and the next time I saw them, my sister-in-law confessed that she now liked potatoes and understood that they could in fact be very tasty. It turned out that her dislike of potatoes had been a consequence of childhood trauma created by being served meal after meal of boiled "white" potatoes. I understood and sympathised as I too had endured a childhood like that. Not that I blame my parents. That was back in the day when supermarkets only sold "white" potatoes with the occasional opportunity to buy "red" potatoes. They were large, floury and general purpose. Since then shops and consumers alike have learnt the names of potato varieties and appreciate that certain potatoes are more suited to particular jobs than others. We have been introduced to the concept of "salad" potatoes and "new" potatoes and "roasting" potatoes and "baking" potatoes. Even the more disinterested amongst us can probably name at least two potato varieties. Jersey Royals, King Edwards, Rooster, Maris Piper, Desiree, Estima and Charlotte are all commonly found in the shops now.

Anyone who has ever grown their own potatoes will know that the first new potatoes of the year are as exciting as, say, the first strawberries. They are simply the tastiest potatoes ever and they need nothing cheffy done to them to make them better. Boiled gently for 10 minutes and served with a little melted slightly salted butter and they are divine. It is no challenge to create a beautiful dish when gifted such perfect ingredients.

What is more of a challenge is making potato dishes that are a delight at this time of year. We may be able to go to the shops to buy another bag of potatoes whenever we like but the potatoes we buy this week are no fresher than the ones we bought last week. The farmers are not going out weekly to harvest potatoes at this time of year - probably just as well given the images of flooded or snow-covered fields that we see on the TV during the winter months. No, the potatoes in the shops now were harvested at the end of the summer and into the autumn and then put into temperature controlled storage. The only difference we make is that when we bring them home we don't store them cool enough and they start to sprout before we have used up the bag. Nonetheless, a potato in storage gradually converts more and more of its starch into sugars so that potatoes we eat in winter and spring are sweeter and harder to cook, tending to brown more rapidly when fried or roasted and determinedly refusing to crisp up. These potatoes do not make nice chips, wedges or roasts regardless of the care taken to select a suitable variety. We may as well boil them to death and reminisce about our mother's cooking!

If you can show me a way to cook an old potato out of storage at this time of year that renders it delicious, I am keen to learn. So, when my daughter, fresh from her evening YouTube recipe watching, declared that she wanted to give potato croquettes a go I was all ears. This effectively involved making some plain mash potato, shaping it into stubby cylinders and coating it in breadcrumbs before frying it. This is an ideal way to treat old potatoes as they do still make reasonable mash potato but it is the breadcrumbs and not the potatoes that crisps up. Panko breadcrumbs are perfect for this as they give a lovely crispy texture and are available in all supermarkets.

Potato Croquettes (allow approximately 225-250g of raw potato per serving)

1kg potatoes
A little butter
Plain flour
1-2 eggs
Panko breadcrumbs
Oil for frying

Peel the potatoes and cut into small cubes then boil until tender. Drain the water and put the potato into a large bowl with a couple of knobs of butter and some salt and pepper. Mash the potatoes thoroughly until there are no lumps. When cool enough to handle, take out spoonfuls of the mash and shape into croquettes and place on a board or plate. Using 3 small plates, scatter flour on one, beaten egg on another and some breadcrumbs on the third. Take each croquette in turn and roll it in the flour, dip it in the egg and then coat it in the breadcrumbs. Set aside until ready to cook. Heat some oil in 1 or 2 frying pans (depending on how many croquettes you have made) and shallow fry them, turning occasionally to brown all over. Remove onto a plate with kitchen towel on it to remove the excess oil then serve hot.

These turned out to be the best potato croquettes I had ever had. Forget those sad frozen things you can buy. They were beautifully crispy on the outside, delicately soft in the middle with perfect seasoning and without the weird taste that you can't quite pin-point that lurks around processed freezer food. Needless to say, we were keen for her to make them again on another occasion and as my brother- and sister-in-law were due for dinner a couple of days later I asked her if she would make them when they came. I'm pleased to say she was keen as this was the perfect opportunity to serve up tasty potatoes to a woman who once said she disliked potatoes and to show-off my daughter's cooking skills all in one go, whilst leaving me free to concentrate on creating spectacular steak & ale pies.

The second potato croquette session went as well as the first and our guests delighted in both watching our daughter cook them and in eating them. My daughter, of course, enjoyed their lavish praise too so I am glad she was brave enough to take the risk.

We were left with a little bit of leftover mash potato after making the croquettes but my daughter was quick to tell me that she had come across a recipe for sugared doughnuts that used mashed potato in them and she was keen to give it a go. Not having a deep fat fryer, I had always assumed we couldn't make doughnuts at home but she assured me these could be made on the hob. So the next day, with a friend over for the afternoon, I found myself in the kitchen with 3 girls and a great deal of floury mess but by the end of the afternoon we had enjoyed freshly made ring doughnuts and their friend was sent home with a paper bag of doughnuts to share with her family. Actually, the extra people in the kitchen was handy as we got a bit of a production line going with each person working on separate jobs and it might have been a bit of a strain to do it all on my own.

So there we are, quiet, unassuming plain white potatoes can have their moments of kitchen triumph after all!

Sugared Doughnuts

200ml milk
7g dried yeast
Pinch of sugar
225g plain flour
80-100g mash potato
80g caster sugar (plus extra for coating)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (plus extra for frying)
Cinnamon (optional)

Warm the milk to body temperature then add the yeast and pinch of sugar and leave to activate for 5 minutes. Put the flour, potato, sugar and vegetable oil in a bowl then add the milk mixture and combine until a dough forms, adding more flour if required. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for a few minutes until smooth. Place back in the bowl, cover with greased Clingfilm and set aside for an hour to prove. Turn out onto a well floured surface and roll out until about 2cm thick. Cut out large circles of dough and then cut a smaller circle out of the middle to make a ring. Heat about 2-3cm of oil in a wok until just beginning to form bubbles below the surface. Test the oil by dropping in a little of the dough to see if it sizzles gently (not too vigorously). Put 2-3 rings of dough into the oil at a time. Leave to cook for a minute then flip over with a slotted spoon and cook on the other side for the same time until golden brown. Turn out onto a plate with kitchen towel on it to drain off some of the oil then toss on a plate of caster sugar (with cinnamon added if you like). Repeat until all the mixture is used. You can re-roll the dough to cut out more doughnuts and you can put the "holes" back into this or you can fry them as small doughballs and coat them in icing sugar to make "Yum yums".

To view the original YouTube video that inspired my daughter see it here at Sortedfood.com

Friday, 22 January 2016

Starting a new food business

When I was asked to give a 15 minute presentation designed to inform people interested in starting their own food business, I could not help but think about my own evolution from newbie to confident food business owner. It was not without its mistakes but I have learnt a lot along the way.

The "journey" started back in 1998 when we grew our first blackcurrants. Blackcurrant jam is my husband's favourite and, having picked a couple of pounds of currants from our bushes, I decided I ought to find out how to make jam. It wasn't tricky to find a recipe. It called for a "large pan" so I borrowed one from a friend. And off I went, cooking the fruit, stirring in the sugar and setting it onto a rolling boil. The recipe said it might take 10 minutes before the setting point was reached so I decided that probably gave me enough time to go and water my hanging basket and window box. When I returned to the kitchen there was molten red liquid pulsing out of the pan and oozing down the front of my cooker. It looked like someone had been murdered! That day I learnt what it had actually meant by "big pan" and that sometimes it's better not to attempt to multi-task. These were the first lessons on my way to becoming a food business owner but they were by no means my last.

That experience, fortunately, did not put me off jam making and over the next few years I learnt a lot about growing my own fruit and vegetables and how to make them into all sorts of delicious things, not least jam and chutney. Back then I would save the jars from other things and I only ever used the preserves myself or gave away a hotchpotch hamper of goodies to my family at Christmas. Over those years the preserves improved, as did the presentation of my products and my skills and list of equipment grew. Importantly, my enthusiasm for it never waned. In fact, I quickly found my enthusiasm outstripped my family's ability to eat it all!

It was December 2002 when I had my first stall at a craft fair, under the name Hazel's Homegrown. I remember the year distinctly because I'd had my first child in the October of that year and this was the first time that I had left her with my parents. I shared the table with my friend Judy, who made items out of fabric, and I mostly had on my half gardening related products and crafts. It was both exciting and terrifying and we felt like frauds and wondered why anyone would buy anything from us. They did of course buy from us but that feeling of not really knowing what we were doing hung around for quite a few craft fairs after that.

For the next 5 years I dabbled in craft fairs whilst juggling caring for two babies and having a job as a secondary school teacher. Over time I started to make preserves to sell on my stall. By then I had started to buy jars especially for the purpose and had worked out how to print my own labels. However, it was also during that time that I found out, mainly from other stallholders, that my labeling didn't contain all the legally required information and that I should be registered with Environmental Health.

In April 2007 I left my teaching job and became officially self-employed. This was when I properly sorted myself out. I told the Inland Revenue that I was self-employed and went on a free half-day course on how to file a tax return. I have been filing a tax return annually ever since. It doesn't matter how little you earn or even if you make a loss, you still need to declare this to Inland Revenue and let them tell you if or what you owe in tax. Should you be fortunate enough to make a decent profit then I strongly recommend that you put money away each month so that in January you have funds available to pay your tax bill otherwise it can be a bit of shocker straight after Christmas!

The next thing I did was register with Environmental Health. This needs to be done at least 28 days before you intend to sell any food to the public. It is essential for any food business but it can seem like a daunting task and the thought of having your kitchen inspected can be scary. Even the WI selling at a church fete has to be registered with Environmental Health if they are selling food to the public - there are no exceptions and no loopholes so if you intend to sell any kind of food to the public, get yourself registered and make sure you understand what you have to do regarding hygiene and paperwork. The paperwork side of it is probably the most important as you are likely to be inspected only rarely and the paperwork is your evidence that you are following procedures when the inspectors are not there. I also went on a basic hygiene one day course at MK College and got a certificate. This is very straight forward but does help you make sure you are thinking hygienically whilst you work. The paperwork can also help form your evidence should someone wish to sue you as it demonstrates that you have been paying "due diligence". Talking of being sued, it is important also to take out Public Liability Insurance (and Product Liability Insurance) so that if something should go wrong and someone tries to sue you, your insurance will pay and you won't have to sell your house to pay their damages!

Environmental Health make a distinction between "high" and "low" risk food producers. So if you make things such as jams, cakes, fudge or bread then you will be considered low risk and will only be inspected about once every 5 years. If you sell hot food, raw food or food that needs refrigerating then you will be high risk and will be inspected more often and will need more rigorous procedures. If you want to know more about registering with Environmental Health, what is expected and so on, then have a read of this bit I wrote back in my Hazel's Homegrown days.

Once you are registered with Environmental Health, depending on what sort of business you have, they are likely to pass on your details to Trading Standards who may pop round to inspect your labels. What is legally required on your labels depends on what you are selling and how you are selling it. It is a good idea to research the food labeling standards that affects your products. Note, however, that there is a distinct difference between "direct" and "indirect" selling and your labeling requirements may well differ depending on what you are doing.

Direct selling is when you are there in person, behind the table/counter and are there to answer any questions that your customers may have. Indirect selling is when someone else is selling on your behalf or you are selling over the internet. This requires more detailed information on your label because you are not there to answer the questions so the customer needs to be able to find the information on the label. Anyone who reads labels on the food they buy will have a fair idea what is required but it's things such as product name, weight, ingredients, allergens, contact information. Don't think you can trade anonymously because people have to be able to contact you in the event of a problem. In 9 years of trading as a business I have only had one person contact me to complain, although I have also had a handful ring me up to praise my products! There is more information on Trading Standards requires that I wrote previously here.

So, having registered with Inland Revenue, Environmental Health and Trading Standards, I was happy to make jams and chutneys to sell to the public at craft fairs and this is what I did for a while. Then at the beginning of 2011 I decided what I really wanted to do was get my products into shops. This was, of course, indirect selling, so I had to improve my labeling, including working out the percentage sugar in the end product for any batch of jam. This can only be determined by using a sugar refractometer and not having one or knowing how to use one had been a stumbling block to my progress for a while so I decided to bite the bullet and soon discovered that refractometers can be purchased for as little as £20 and are very easy to use.

I was also having a crisis of image at this point and found that "Hazel's Homegrown" just wasn't interesting enough for the customers. Instead I wanted something that made more of the fact that I made jam and chutney in Milton Keynes from fruit and vegetables grown in Milton Keynes. I wanted to position myself as a Milton Keynes brand and tap into the local food movement and the tourist industry. It was at this point that a friend suggested the name Jammy Cow, giving a nod to the famous concrete cows of MK. So I underwent a re-branding.

My next stumbling point was not having bar codes. With the way modern shops work, it seemed impossible to me to get my products into shops without a bar code. I looked into this and found that you can buy bar codes online, although often you have to buy them in bulk and they can work out quite expensive for a small business like mine. In the end, I decided to approach businesses that don't necessarily use bar codes such as bakeries, butchers, cafes and hotels. I also approached Frosts Garden Centre and when I raised the matter of bar codes they said that they could put that on my products along with the price label. It seemed that bar codes were not the brickwall I had imagined either.

And so, over the next couple of years I traded under the name Jammy Cow, positioning myself as a Milton Keynes based food business and getting my products into shops as well as attending craft fairs. I also created a webpage, facebook page, twitter account, blog and gave talks on growing fruit and vegetables and making jam. I felt confident about what I was doing and proud of what I had created.

Then in January 2014, I was contacted by a woman who told me that she had trade-marked the name Jammy Cow and asked that I ceased trading under it or face prosecution. This was a horrible moment as I had worked hard to build my business under that name. However, a search in the Intellectual Property Office webpages determined that she had indeed registered this name as a trademark before I had ever started using it and that, although she had never traded under that name and had no internet presence that I could have detected, she was well within her rights to ask me to stop using it. So after a rapid re-branding Jam Moo Kow was created, the labels given a new lease of life and my positioning as a Milton Keynes brand made stronger. And business resumed as normal, if not a little stronger, prouder and more determined.

So, from those early days to now I have learnt a lot and have watched several food businesses come and go.  I have made mistakes, and overcome issues that I didn't even know about at first, others that had seemed a big deal but turned out not to be and some that I really didn't see coming. From those I have created a "tick-list" of things that anyone contemplating starting a food business should check first - something I wished I'd had. Although they might seem daunting, mostly they are not and once you have ticked them off you feel better and more confident and able to grow both as a person and a business.

1) Make sure that you choose something that you are confident about doing and that you are sure you can do over and over again without losing enthusiasm and that can be fitted in around your life. What seemed like fun when doing it as a hobby can become a chore when you have to do it over and over. If your products need to be made fresh, can you dedicate the time to it before an event? Are you able to give up your weekends and evenings to attend events?

2) Register with Environmental Health and consider taking a course in basic hygiene.

3) Tell Inland Revenue that you are self-employed and find out what filing an annual tax return involves so that you keep all the relevant receipts from the start.

4) Research the food regulations that apply to your area and make sure your labeling is legal. Also make sure your labels look professional and appealing. People buy on the basis of appearance not on flavour.

5) Buy public liability insurance and if you are selling products that they take home with them make sure it also includes product liability insurance.

6) Think carefully about your brand, your target market and your unique selling point. Choose a really great business name and check with the Intellectual Property Office to ensure it is not trade marked. If you really think it is great, consider trade marking it yourself.

7) Get yourself online, onto social media, to events and collaborate with other businesses to get yourself out there, doing what you love and making a business out of it.


Friday, 15 January 2016

Teenagers, social media and cheese souffle

I'm sure there has never been a time in history when it has been easy to be the parent of a teenager, but it does seem particularly challenging these days with the fast-moving changes to electronic devices and social media. There is never a convenient instruction manual or handbook to refer to when dealing with your concerns but for many aspects of dealing with teenagers, you can at least fall back on your own experiences of being one. Things such as whether they should be allowed to go shopping with their friend, whether they should be doing more jobs around the house and whether they should have better personal hygiene really haven't changed all that much in the last 20 or so years. But, questions such as can they be trusted to keep an expensive mobile phone safe if they take it to school or how many hours using a laptop is too many are not easy to answer.

My daughter raised the issue of electronic devices in her bedroom over the Christmas holidays. It wasn't raised in a calm, formal way, like putting a subject on an agenda for a meeting, but instead in the usual teenage way of having an argument about it with her parents, having been caught using her tablet in her bedroom when we had thought she was sleeping. I have read and heard of various studies etc that say that the bright blue light emitted from these devices messes with your brain chemistry and keeps your brain stimulated rather than preparing it for sleep. That is an issue in addition to what would she be looking at or doing on her devices, late at night in her bedroom on her own? It is more complicated than that, of course. A phrase that someone once said to me pops into my head frequently during my motherhood experiences and that is, "Strict parents have sneaky children." This is so true; and perfectly demonstrated by the cause of this very argument. If someone really wants to do something, they will do it anyway but just without you knowing. And I would rather know. If we have an open relationship, if she comes across something on the internet that is confusing or interesting or... whatever and she want to talk to me about then that is a good thing. If the whole thing is done sneakily then she won't ask for fear of me saying, "When/where did you come across this?" What I want is a open, trusting relationship and for that I think the key is educating your children as to the dangers of using the internet and the pitfalls of social media rather than the strict policing of its use.

"Owls and Larks" adds further complications into the issue. Broadly speaking people can be divided into those people who wake up ready to get on with their day and then wear themselves out and feel tired and ready to sleep again at the end of the day. These are the Larks. The Owls on the other hand struggle to get out of bed in the morning, preferring a lay-in whenever possible, wake up properly sometime in the middle of the morning, start to get tired in the evening but suddenly come awake again and don't want to go to bed. In our house my youngest daughter and I are Larks and my eldest daughter and husband are Owls. It is hard for a Lark to accept the Owl's "weird" behaviour and they constantly want to "fix" it and think that if they can just be sensible enough to get an early night then everything would be OK in the morning. Larks have a tendency to lord their "virtuous" behaviour over the Owls, frowning over the Owls' slow start to the day and failing to appreciate their ability to function late at night (or even during the night) when the average Lark finds in hard to even string a few words together into a coherent sentence.

So, I entered the "I should be allowed electronic devices in my bedroom" debate armed with the "knowledge" that: blue light messes with your brain chemistry, the internet is a bad and scary place for young people and should be strictly policed, and that she should get an early night in order to get enough sleep. My daughter, on the other hand held the view that the light emitted from her devices was no worse than that from the TV we watched right up to bedtime and that she has even managed to fall asleep whilst watching a YouTube video on her tablet, that the internet is also the place of a lot of completely innocent and useful stuff and I should trust her to use it sensibly, and that she is an Owl so would never go easily into sleep but could make up for it with a lay-in. To add weight to her argument, she pointed out that we allowed her younger sister to have electronic devices in her bedroom. This was undeniably true. Her sister took her laptop and/or tablet up to her room on a Friday and Saturday night in order that in the morning she could quietly use it when she woke up so as not to disturb the rest of the sleeping household.

This was a bit of a bombshell moment for me and suddenly shone a spotlight on my "Lark-like" bias. It seemed it was perfectly fine for my youngest daughter to have hours of unsupervised internet use on electronic devices in her bedroom just because she was doing it during early morning daylight hours. In contrast, I had seen unsupervised internet use last thing at night as a bad thing... why... because it was dark? I couldn't even argue it was stopping her getting enough sleep if she slept in for a couple of hours in the morning instead. Where was the actual difference between her sister getting 10 hours of sleep between 9pm and 7am and her getting 10 hours sleep between 12 and 10am? Even as I write this I still feel instinctively as if that is wrong but I cannot deny my daughter's logic. I was left in the argument like a landed fish, trying to sup for breath. I had no logical counter-argument and was left with just "because it's the right thing to do" or "because I said so," comebacks. I shut my mouth and retreated for a consultation with the wise old "Owl" who could better empathise with the sleep patterns.

The next day we sat her down and had a discussion about this. We had decided, ultimately, that she was right but we wanted to establish the ground rules. This is also better than having a child sneaking around behind your back when you can't enforce any kind of rules on their unknown behaviour. The rules mainly involved the cut off times and how these would vary during school holidays, weekends and school nights but we also discussed what she should and should not do on the internet in her room. It is, of course, impossible to police so it is all about education and trust. But, once again I was left like that poor landed fish when she told me that mainly she enjoyed watching YouTube recipe videos. All that out-of-portion worry about the dangers and evils of the internet and she was actually watching a Tesco recipe for cheese souffle or some fairly cool looking guys in an equally cool looking flat, hanging out together to cook and eat noodle soup! You see, if YouTube and tablets had been a thing when I was her age I would probably have been doing the same thing! Never mind the dangers and evils of the internet for young people, it is a dangerous and misleading place for well-meaning parents seeking advice and guidance!

So the first recipe we cooked during the Christmas holidays was cheese souffle. Shortly after that she announced that she wanted to try potato croquettes and when we had mash potato leftover from that she asked if she could use it to make doughnuts. It was a leap of faith to go against the current parenting advice and my own instincts but, for the moment at least, I am glad I did as they were damned fine souffles!

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Product Review: Virtual Orchard Cider Vinegar

I get through a lot of vinegar during the course of a year and at any one time I will have in my cupboard malt, distilled, white wine, red wine, cider and balsamic vinegar. Each has its own uses, offering particular flavours and colours to a recipe. The flavour of any chutney is the combination (and culmination) of the fruit and vegetables, sugar, vinegar and spices. The careful selection of the ingredients and the care taken over preparation has a distinct impact on the result. None of these things should be taken lightly, not least the quality of the vinegar.

I use cider vinegar in many of my chutney recipes; with it going particularly well in any chutney that is fruit rather than vegetables based - those with apples and plums in particular. A good cider vinegar will add to the fruitiness of the flavours, whilst the colour of the vinegar will not mask those of the fruit in the way that malt or balsamic vinegar would. There are, of course, occasions when a dark brown chutney is desired and this can be achieved with the use of dark vinegar and dark sugar. On other occasions, the fruit or vegetable has a colour to be appreciated, such as beetroot or tomatoes, where it would be a distinct loss to cloud it in dark brown. This is when white wine or cider vinegar is desirable.

Cider vinegar is not, however, just for chutney making. It has many culinary uses such as in salad dressings, for pepping up vegetables and even in baking. However, if you care to search "uses of apple cider vinegar" on the internet you will find that it is a general cure-all, being able to do everything from aiding digestion, helping you to lose weight, combating diabetes, improving your complexion, removing warts, cleaning your hair and aiding a sore throat, and can be used as a general household cleaner. It is even fed to dogs and horses to improve the glossiness of their coat.

In the UK, Aspall pretty much has a monopoly on the cider vinegar market as far as supermarkets are concerned. You may be lucky enough to get a supermarket own brand for white wine vinegar but less so for cider vinegar. Given the lack of choice, this was the brand of cider vinegar I used for many years and was largely happy with it - having very little to compare it to. However, being friends with Laurence from Virtual Orchard cidery, I asked him whether he had ever considered branching out into the production of cider vinegar alongside his cider, apple juice, apple brandy etc. Although keen, he was also a little cautious as it would require introducing "spoilage" microbes to a vat of cider. A shame for the cider... and what if it were to contaminate other vats?

Whilst Laurence contemplated vinegar making, I went on holiday to France; to Normandy, to be precise where they celebrate apples, Calvados, cider and vinegar in a way unlike the UK. They are very proud of the apple products and rightly so. Whilst there, where other people might fill up their trolleys with wine, I filled mine up with vinegar. I couldn't help wondering if the French people in the shop were looking at me in kind sympathy, thinking I had misunderstood the labels and had mistaken it for cheap plonk! Oddly, the French stock cider vinegar and red wine vinegar but never white wine vinegar - I don't know why.

Anyway, back home I discovered that even this cheap supermarket branded cider vinegar from France was superior to Aspall's. So for several years I have stocked up on vinegar from France whenever we go over or I ask my parents to bring me some back whenever they nip over to Calais for a "booze cruise".To my mind, you can tell a better quality product by the complexity of the flavour profile. With vinegar, if all you get is a flat harshness then it is a poor quality product. It should have several levels of fruit flavours in there as well as the sourness of the vinegar and this is evident in the French vinegar.

Tasting vinegar is a tricky business. When I go to events I often have tasters out and see other producers doing the same. I offer my jams and chutneys with tiny breadsticks so that there is more in the mouth than just the jam or chutney but nothing with a strong flavour of its own to get in the way. And we are all familiar with pieces of cheese or morsels of sausage on cocktail sticks.  Laurence offers samples of cider in little shot glasses and people are happy to down these. But how would you go about tasting something as sourly sharp as vinegar? As it happens, I found this out in September when at Upton Smokery for a tasting event and was presented with a little sample of balsamic vinegar in a shot glass. I eyed it suspiciously before daring to put it to my lips but it was so smooth and tasty that it was on a par with some sharp sherries. In contrast, when I tried doing the same back home with the French cider vinegar it felt like it was burning my throat as it went down! Not for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached! A reminder as to why chutneys should be matured for 6 weeks or more before consuming.

So finally, this autumn Laurence proudly presented me with a bottle of his cider vinegar for me to try. It came in a very attractive 100ml bottle with a stopper and boasted being unfiltered and containing "mother" on the label. The "mother" is a bundle of yeast, enzymes and other biological components that can be seen as a sort of cloudiness. Some people might find this off-putting and would prefer their vinegar pasteurised and filtered. For those, I would say, go back to using Aspall vinegar as this is what they offer. However, only the finest, best quality cider vinegar contains the mother and it is a sign of quality as well as better nutritional content.

The mother is also the key ingredient as far as all the above health claims are concerned. You will not be able to improve your complexion or make your horse's coat shine without the mother. As such, Laurence's unfiltered vinegar with mother is a premium product, as suggested by the beautiful presentation bottle and small quantity it comes in. However, you won't find Laurence promoting the vinegar as a health product or making claims about what it can do for your digestive system or warts but not because he would say that it can't do these things but because it would be illegal for him to do so. Even though many believe, for example, that eating local honey can help relieve hay-fever symptoms, it is would be against the law for your local bee-keeper to plaster this claim on their label. To make any kind of health claim on a food product needs formal, legal approval by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and Department of Health (DH) and for this to be granted it has to be supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence (i.e. not just what someone posted on the internet). This may seem a bit over the top but I for one am glad that it is hard-work for food producers in general to put health benefit claims on their food as the food market place is a confusing enough place anyway without unsubstantiated claims making it onto our labeling. It is up to you, therefore, to decide if you think unfiltered cider vinegar (with mother) would help you with whatever health issue concerns you.

That aside, I am concerned with how it tastes. Having gingerly sipped some, I can confirm that it has a beautifully complex flavour profile and there are still flavours in there that hark back to the original cider and apples that it comes from. It didn't even burn on the way down so I sipped some more! It is certainly something I would enjoy on my chips or salad and even made the French cider vinegar seem harsh in comparison. I think I shall be having a word with Laurence to see what sort of deal he can do for bulk buying it so that I can use it in my chutney as I think it has a lot to offer flavour-wise, as well, of course, as being locally sourced rather than from France - something I'm passionate about. In the meantime, I'm carefully selecting uses for my little bottle and having made "Normandy Pork" with 3 tablespoons I'm now undecided whether to make a salad dressing or use the vinegar to improve my complexion!

Virtual Orchard Unfiltered Cider Vinegar (with mother) is available direct from Virtual Orchard at Galleon Wharf, Old Wolverton priced at £4.50 per 100ml bottle.

Normandy Pork (serves 4 to 6 when served with potatoes and vegetables)

600g pork shoulder
20g seasoned flour
1 large leek
2 carrots
Half a celery stick
65g pancetta
100ml apple juice
3 tablespoon cider vinegar
2 apples, peeled, cored and cut into pieces
400ml chicken stock
3 tablespoons single cream
1 teaspoon English mustard or 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons cornflour

Preheat oven to 150°C and get out a suitable casserole dish with lid. Cut the pork into chunks and prepare the vegetables to sizes of your liking. Toss the pieces of pork in the seasoned flour and heat some oil in a frying pan. In batches, fry the pork to brown the outside then place in the casserole dish. Fry the vegetables in the pan for 5 minutes until just softened then put this into the casserole dish. Fry the pancetta until browned. Mix together the apple juice, vinegar and 100ml of water then pour this into the pan. Let it bubble for a minute, scrapping the bottom of the pan with a spatula then pour this into the casserole dish. Add the apple to the pan with the stock to heat through then pour this into the dish too. Cover and place the dish in the oven for 3 hours to cook. Mix together the cream, mustard and cornflour and when the 3 hours are up, pour this into the casserole dish and stir through. Turn the oven up to 200°C and return the casserole to the oven for 15 minutes without a lid on to thicken. Serve hot with mashed potato and additional vegetables.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Rescuing an Undercooked Christmas Cake

Regular readers on my blog may get the impression that my kitchen is the site of one miraculous food creation after another with never so much as a bit of burnt toast or a dropped jar. This would be because when things do go wrong, I tend not to blog about them... unless, of course, I think that other people may benefit from learning from my mistakes. I remember the first time I tried making fudge, which then stubbornly refused to set. It was at this point that I discovered that there were whole websites dedicated to "fudge disasters" and what could and couldn't be fixed and how to use up runny fudge. As "What can I do with my undercooked Christmas cake?" seems to be a fairly commonly asked question on the internet, I thought I would share my recent Christmas cake disaster... and remedy.

I baked the cake 6 weeks before Christmas, using a recipe I had not used before, and then dutifully "fed" it. I did not ice it as we prefer our cakes without icing. It was Christmas Eve when we decided to cut into it but sadly, inside the cake was very soggy and clearly not properly cooked. I quietly put it back into its tin and then away in the cupboard and no one dared talk about it again. A rich fruitcake contains a lot of ingredients and is not something you flippantly dump in the bin so I thought that after Christmas I might have mentally healed enough to be able to throw it away.

It was during a post-Christmas visit from my brother- and sister-in-law that I felt able to mention the undercooked cake for the first time. My sister-in-law suggested that maybe the gooey middle could be used to make "Bread Pudding". This wasn't something I was familiar with but when I mentioned it to my mum she told me that as a child she had had some bread pudding round at a friend's house, which she had enjoyed. When she got home she told her mum about this but her mum was very disapproving, saying, "Bread pudding is what you make when you can't afford to make a fruitcake." And that was the last time she ever had any.

With the options of either throwing the cake in the bin or possibly making it into something edible, I decided to investigate the bread pudding idea further. I found a Good Food recipe on the internet and when I examined it, I decided that the ingredients were pretty much what goes into a fruitcake plus bread and milk. It was the day before I normally shop so we were down to some pretty stale bread and some milk that would probably be off in a day or two so it seems like a good way to salvage the cake and use up bread and milk that otherwise might end up being thrown away too. So I cobbled together 500g of stale bread, minus crusts and a pint of past its best milk, tore up the bread and soaked it in the milk for about 20 minutes. Then I added 600g of the ridiculously undercooked Christmas cake. This I mashed and squelched between my fingers until it had transformed into a thick stodge that any Victorian pauper would have been grateful to receive. I then tipped and pressed it into a square cake tin and sprinkled Demerara sugar on to before cooking it for an hour and half. I'm pleased to say that it worked beautifully and we had Bread Pudding and custard for afters for the next few days. Far from being horrible, it was rather like a slightly lighter version of Christmas pudding.

Having made this, I was left with about half of the undercooked cake. I did wonder, as it was so underdone, if I could put it into a cake tin and just try cooking it again. I know that cakes generally don't work once they have failed but I didn't really have a lot to lose so I looked around for a smaller cake tin. Instead, I found one of my medium hemisphere cake tins so decided to pack the remaining cake into this. Once I had done that it occurred to me that it was now the shape of a Christmas pudding... so should I cook it in the oven to make cake or boil it to make pudding? Given that the structure of cake is a magical, mysterious thing that does not take well to being removed from an oven before time, I decided that boiling it might actually work better. Indeed, what is the difference between the ingredients of a Christmas cake compared to a Christmas pudding? The addition of breadcrumbs in the pudding might be the answer to that question. Well, would not the cooked outer parts of the cake crumble into crumbs? So I wrapped the tin in foil and boiled it for 3 hours. After a bit of cooling, I plopped it out onto a cooling rack to discover a perfect Christmas pudding - hemisphere shaped and darkly fruity!

So there you are, two rescue recipes and no cake in the bin!

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Book Review: Blood, Sweat & Tyres by The Hairy Bikers

I'm not a big reader, unlike my husband who can read for hours on end whilst nursing a cup of coffee and claiming it as all part of a lazy breakfast. I, on the other hand, tend to flick through a food magazine whilst eating breakfast, unable to tackle anything more substantial as I know I'll only have as long as it takes to finish a bowl of granola before the guilt will set in and I will feel compelled to get on with something more productive. And that's only at the weekends - week day breakfasts are too distracted with my girls talking to me about their school day ahead. As such, I usually reserve any books I fancy reading for holidays when either I can quietly enjoy a book on a beach whilst the rest of the family are occupied or, at Christmas, where I can enjoy a quiet breakfast whilst the rest of the family are still in bed and I don't feel quite so obliged to be doing something.

This year I had put "Blood, Sweat & Tyres" on my Christmas list and my husband duly obliged. I have never read an autobiography before but I had began to realise over the past few months that I'm actually interested in people. I'm a bit of a late comer as a fan of the Hairy Bikers. When I first heard about them I couldn't imagine that a couple of hairy guys on motorbikes, travelling around and cooking food would be something I would want to watch on TV. However, like with many of the things on telly that I initially dismissed or eyed with suspicion, at some point it must have ended up on the TV when I wasn't able or energetic enough to switch channels and I became drawn in. More recently, I have been sucked into enjoying programs such as "Mother Knows Best" and even set my box to record "Northern Exposure" so that I could enjoy it at my leisure. I have even cooked a few of the recipes from that series including bigos and rye crispbread but what I particularly enjoy is the two characters themselves. They come across as genuine, fun-loving friends with a desire to give anything a go and no embarrassment factor. As such, I was interested to find out more about them and their enduring friendship.

Despite my limited opportunities for a good reading session, I read this book over the course of a week during the Christmas holidays. The book is written as alternate chapters by Dave and Si so I would sit down at breakfast and decide to read a chapter but at the end of the chapter I would want to know what happened next in Dave's life, only to find a Si chapter next. So I would think I would just read to the end of the Si chapter so I could get back to Dave next time but by then I would want to know more about Si... and so on until I would end up reading three or so chapters before giving myself a good talking to and get on with whatever else it was I was supposed to be doing.

Both Dave and Si had a hard childhood and their early lives make for interesting and compelling reading. It is heartening to know that they started in rubbish circumstances but they now have a great life and a great attitude. And none of it fell at their feet. They really worked for it and by the end of the book I felt glad that as a "fan", watching their programs and buying a couple of their books, I was in some way contributing to their success. It also made my feel that success, in whatever form that might take in your own life, is something you can make for yourself if you make the most of the opportunities, work hard and hang on in there when things get difficult. I don't think the book was meant to be inspiring but it was. And that friendship, which is so key to their popularity, is just lovely to read about. Despite the hard knocks, bereavements and health scares they have endured, this book is a fun, inspiring, honest and enjoyable read and makes me want to seek out repeats of their programs on TV.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Problems with Profiteroles!

On 30th December we decided to go out shopping to get in a special meal for New Year's Eve. M&S had been advertising their "Meal for 2 for £20" deal so we thought this would be the ideal solution. Often their meal deals can offer substantial saving and we usually manage to buy something that will feed all 4 of us with just the addition of a few veg. So the 4 of us stood in front of the offer counter and spent several minutes trying to work out which particular combination of starter, main, side, dessert and wine would work for us. The girls were mainly motivated by the prospect of profiteroles for dessert so weren't particularly bothered about what we chose for the rest of it, however, between us we couldn't find the perfect combination that felt like it would make a special New Year's Eve family meal. Eventually I suggested we stopped trying to make this particular square peg fit into a round hole and that we just shop elsewhere for something that wasn't necessarily on offer.

We gave the girls the choice then of either going to Tesco or Waitrose and to our surprise they both voted for Waitrose without a moment's hesitation! So off we went and spent some time browsing the aisles, trying to find something both special but not ridiculously expensive. But it seems that Waitrose doesn't cater for people looking for something not expensive and the prices for their meat in particular seemed high and for no particular reason. Having bought some general household shopping items from there, we gave up on getting the special meal from them and decided to try Costco.

Costco is somewhere we usually only shop about once every 6 weeks or so and we have a few select products we buy from there that seem to offer good value. They do pride themselves on the quality of their stock and we are usually very impressed by the quality of their meat so maybe we would find the centrepiece we were after. And, indeed we did, finding a whole fresh Gressingham duck for £5.20 - that's cheaper than a chicken! So with that sorted we thought about what else might go with that to create our special meal and dessert. They do sell profiteroles in Costco but only in packs of 60. A tad too many for the 4 of us!

Back home, my daughter and I decided that we should make the profiteroles. This was something we had first done about 3 years ago when she had decided to write a short French recipe book as a project for French homework. Choux pastry was a mysterious art back then as far as I was concerned and we spent an anxious afternoon following a recipe and wondering if it would turn out OK. My memory told me that it did, although they were a little small and could have done with a bit more cream inside. Buy, hey, 3 years on we were both better cooks.

It was James Martin's recipe that we decided to use on this occasion, although without the orange zest in the cream. He is a well-respected celebrity chef after all, and particularly known for his desserts. And so, with the duck already in the oven, we cracked on with making dessert.

It had occurred to me a few days before when my daughter had decided she wanted to try her hand at making cheese souffle for lunch, that having me as an experienced cook in the kitchen with her made it so much easier to successfully follow a recipe. There are just little tips and moments of preventing mistakes that really make a difference and don't seem to make it to the instructions in a recipe, particularly if the person writing it is very familiar with what they are doing and has forgotten how easy it is to misunderstand something. Sadly, on this occasion, James Martin wasn't there was us and my expertise was somewhat lacking in the choux pastry area!

The first thing that I realised was missing from this recipe was the tip we had learnt on our previous profiterole making occasion, which is to weigh the flour onto a piece of folded paper so that it can slide off it quickly when adding the flour to the butter/water mix. The next point where the recipe is lacking is when it says to "pipe the mixture into small balls in lines across the baking sheet"
OK... but what does "small balls" mean? Something along the lines of about the diameter of a 50p coin might have been more useful. Our ideas of small was clearly way out and when we put them into the oven they puffed up to something the size of a grapefruit! To make matters worst, I'd had a new oven installed 3 days before Christmas and I was still getting used to the way it cooked in comparison to my old one. Clearly these were cooking quite quickly and after 15 minutes they were on the verge of burning even though the recipe said they needed 25-30.

It does say in the recipe that if the profiteroles are too pale they will go soggy when cool. It does not mention that if you cook them too fast they might be golden on the outside but not at all cooked in the middle and that when you open the oven door they will collapse into something as flat as a pancake. This, of course, is what happened to our profiteroles, much to my daughter's distress.

By now the duck was cooked and we abandoned the profiteroles/pancakes to finish making dinner. The duck was beautiful and the dinner excellent. After dinner we had to mentally psych ourselves up again to starting the recipe from scratch. I am proud that my daughter was able to do this as it isn't easy. Having learnt from our previous attempt, we piped the blobs to a smaller size and turned the oven down 10 degrees. This time they rose beautifully and we patiently watched them through the door of my nice new clean oven as they became unquestionably golden brown and after half an hour we removed them from the oven to cool. It was gone 8 o'clock when we were piping cream into them and nearly 9 o'clock when we sat down with our big stack to eat.

Because the dollops the second time were smaller, we didn't use all the choux pastry mixture for the profiteroles so we piped the remaining mixture into lengths and cooked it to make 5 eclairs. It was the next day when I filled them with cream and used some more of the chocolate sauce. If you are going to sprinkle the chocolate sauce as frugally over the profiteroles as shown in James' photo then I would recommend making half the quantity recommended. However, the chocolate sauce makes a lovely cup of hot chocolate if you have any left over - 3 teaspoons stirred into 200ml of warm milk. As for the profiterole/pancake disaster, we reheated them in a frying pan the next morning and served them with lemon and sugar for breakfast!

Chocolate profiteroles

Chocolate profiteroles
James Martin's profiteroles are as light as air, topped with chocolate and filled with a delicate orange cream.


For the choux pastry
For the cream filling
For the chocolate sauce

Preparation method

  1. Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6. Place a small roasting tin in the bottom of the oven to heat.
  2. For the choux pastry, place the water, sugar and butter into a large saucepan. Heat gently until the butter has melted.
  3. Turn up the heat, then quickly pour in the flour and salt all in one go.
  4. Remove from the heat and beat the mixture vigorously until a smooth paste is formed. Once the mixture comes away from the side of the pan, transfer to a large bowl and leave to cool for 10-15 minutes.
  5. Beat in the eggs, a little at a time, until the mixture is smooth and glossy and has a soft dropping consistency - you may not need it all.
  6. Lightly grease a large baking sheet. Using a piping bag and plain 1cm/½in nozzle, pipe the mixture into small balls in lines across the baking sheet. Gently rub the top of each ball with a wet finger - this helps to make a crisper top.
  7. Place the baking sheet into the oven. Before closing the oven door, pour half a cup of water into the roasting tin at the bottom of the oven, then quickly shut the door. This helps to create more steam in the oven and make the pastry rise better. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until golden-brown - if the profiteroles are too pale they will become soggy when cool.
  8. Remove from the oven and turn the oven off. Prick the base of each profiterole with a skewer. Place back onto the baking sheet with the hole in the base facing upwards and return to the oven for five minutes. The warm air from the oven helps to dry out the middle of the profiteroles.
  9. For the filling, lightly whip the cream with the orange zest until soft peaks form. When the profiteroles are cold, use a piping bag to pipe the cream into the profiteroles.
  10. For the chocolate sauce, place the water and sugar into a small saucepan and bring to the boil to make a syrup. Reduce the heat to a simmer and place the chocolate into a heatproof bowl set over the pan. Heat, stirring occasionally, until melted. Take the pan off the heat, pour the syrup mixture into the chocolate and stir until smooth and well combined.
  11. To serve, place the stuffed profiteroles into a large serving dish and pour over the chocolate sauce. Serve hot or cold.