Charlie 16th birthday cheesecake

The Birthday Challenge: chocolate peanut butter cheesecake for Charlie

My baby boy is 16. How did that happen?  I’ll save you the ‘it seems like only yesterday’ speech, mostly because it doesn’t seem like only yesterday, in fact, I can barely remember those first few weeks, to be honest, plus it’s a bit yawny when parents start getting all misty eyed.  Suffice to say, we’re the proudest parents, we love him to bits and we’ll move on to the birthday cake of choice.

Read more

Flapjacks

Weekend baking: fabulous fruity flapjacks

So, amazingly, Charlie has stuck to his rash ‘I’m not eating chocolate any more’ decision with incredibly amounts of willpower, even as we’ve been tucking into all sorts of treats we’ve been sent.  He’s not even been eating his previous post-school staple of chocolate brownies.  He is, however, still eating other treats, so I’m not overly worried that this is one of those mad teenage diets.

Read more

Frozen creme egg

The one with the frozen Cadbury Creme Egg

I’m generally more of a cake lover then chocolate (you had no idea, right?) but there’s something about Cadbury Creme Eggs (yes, it’s Cadbury, not Cadbury’s – y’know, like Cinderella Castle at Disneyworld) that makes me long for Easter every year (the season is actually quite short – they’ll be gone from the shelves again on April 20th).  I think it’s a bit of a comfort thing in miserable January and February (plus March is my birthday month and I associate it with Creme Eggs!).   I’m a ‘bit the top off and lick the goo out’ person, but recently we’ve become a bit addicted to popping them in the freezer.  The filling doesn’t set solid, but becomes firm and fondanty.  Delicious, and a bit easier to scoff on the sofa, admittedly.

Read more

Guinness cupcake with ganache

Ginger Guinness cupcakes for St Patrick’s Day

Regular English Mum readers will know that Ireland means a lot to us all here at English Towers.  In fact, it’s the reason why this little part of the interwebz even exists.  Long, long ago (eight whole years to be precise) we set off on a new adventure to the Emerald Isle and spent many happy years living first in Dublin, then later Meath and finally beautiful county Cavan.

Mr English is of Irish descent and the boys are proud of their heritage. Charlie can even wow you with a bit of Gaeilge if you ask nicely (although it’s mostly swears) so when Paddy’s Day approaches, it instills in us all a mixture of nostalgia and longing for places and friends left behind.

Read more

Spiced lamb puff pastry pie

Weekend baking: spiced lamb puff pastry pies

Continuing with my new menu planning obsession (honestly, it’s saving me A FORTUNE – I’ve got my favourites saved on the online shopping app and I just tweak it every week, then buy the odd bit of fresh stuff from the farmer’s market or my fab local farm shop), I thought I’d share another of my staple ingredients: puff pastry.  I do quite like making puff pastry (well, rough puff), but there’s certainly no shame in using ready made, and a pack of all butter puff pastry is the perfect thing to keep in the fridge to make tarts, pies and much more.

Read more

shortbread biscuits

Weekend baking: quick and easy shortbread

It’s lovely to have a few perfect recipes that you can trust to work time and time again, and this is definitely one of those.

Once you’ve got the hang of shortbread, you can do so many different things with it – it’s perfect for cooking with kids (Mothers’ Day is on the way!) or it can be served as part of a dessert, say, with chocolate mousse or lemon creams.

Read more

Ready for butter and damson jam

Easy no knead no rise Irish soda bread

One of the best things about living in Ireland was the amazing food.  I learned so much when we lived there, and of course was spoiled with all the fabulous ingredients: Irish cheeses, butter, beef, lamb… all incredible.  I absolutely adore Irish soda bread and still make it all the time.  It’s quick to make and requires just a quick mix – no kneading, no yeast and no waiting.  Perfect for breakfast (you can make a lovely sweet version by adding sugar, dried fruit and orange zest), or if you’re having soup, you can knock it while the soup cooks.  Traditionally you need buttermilk, but I tend to just squeeze the juice of half a lemon into normal milk and give it a quick stir. It thickens up instantly and works the same way.

Read more

Red velvet cupcakes and melted marshmallow topping

Red velvet cupcakes with melted marshmallow icing

Firstly, I’d like to say – for the purists out there – that of course I know a REAL red velvet cupcake needs proper cream cheese icing.  Sadly, the object of my affections dislikes cream cheese icing.  And in fact buttercream too, so I have to be a bit more creative.  Using a marshmallow appeals to my lazy, cheaty side, and if you time it right, makes a deliciously gooey topping.  They’re obviously not going to look the same as a perfect swirl of cream cheese, but they taste divine so it doesn’t matter.

Read more

Cherry and chocolate roulade

A cherry and chocolate roulade for Valentine’s Day

Mr English isn’t the romantic type, so we’ve never really embraced the whole flowers and chocolates thing, although we do send a card to each other (not really the same when you’re pretty certain who your secret Valentine is).  People tend to fall into two camps Valentines-wise, they either love it or hate it.  I think that if there’s a day in the year when you’re reminded to tell someone how much you love them, then so much the better.  And what better way to express your love than with cake?

Read more

Chocolate brownie sandwich castles

Castle brownie sandwiches for Justin and the Knights of Valour

I’m not hugely creative when I’m baking. I tend to prefer substance over style (ie, a really big cake over anything too delicate or fiddly). So when the lovely chaps promoting the DVD and Blu-ray release of the new film Justin and the Knights of Valour asked me to make them some knighty/castley kind of cakes to celebrate its release, I was a bit worried.

Read more

Toad in the hole

Easy step by step toad in the hole

Oh the rain!  I just think it’s gone away and it comes back again.  The pupster pings around the house like a lunatic if she doesn’t get out an about so it’s wellies and hat on and out into the wet and cold I go.  

Of course, this calls for a comforting, winter dinner (any excuse) and what better than a scrummy toad in the hole with lashings of onion gravy.

Read more

Chocolate chip peanut cookies small

Weekend baking: easy, step by step chocolate chip peanut cookies

Living with two teenage bottomless pits, I tend to do a lot of baking.  I’m not for a minute trying to make out it’s some kind of chore – there’s nothing I like better than pottering about in a sunny kitchen – radio on, dog bimbling around at my feet.  I bake these cookies a lot, sometimes with the addition of oats (you can find my oaty chocolate chip version here), or sometimes like this: plain, squidgy, and with lots of chocolate.  I happened to have a bit of dark and a bit of white chocolate left over, but add in whatever you have.  The peanut version are my favourite as I love the crunch it gives them.  I got sent some cute little packs of Chikas peanuts which are hand toasted so I popped a whole pack in (40g):

Ingredients

125g butter

150g brown sugar

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla extract

200g plain flour

100g chocolate, chopped

Couple of handfuls of peanuts

So cream the butter, then add the sugar and beat together until it’s really light.   Add the egg and vanilla and beat again until pale and fluffy.  Stir in the flour until it’s just combined, then add the chopped chocolate and nuts.

Dollop the mixture in spoonfuls onto a baking tray.  I used a tablespoon but I have also been known to use an ice cream scoop to make really massive cookies.

Bake at 180/gas 4 for about 10-12 minutes.  Don’t overcook them as you want them really lovely and soft in the middle.  Serve while still warm with a nice cup of tea.

Weekend baking: easy step by step banana bread

Banana bread

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m terribly wasteful with bananas.  Mr English only likes them when they’re green and unripe, and I only like them when they’re perfectly yellow.  Once they’ve ‘gone over’ I’m afraid I tend to put them in the food recycling bin.  Every so often, though, I do remember to knock up a quick banana bread.  I’m afraid I’m not sure where this original recipe came from as it’s ancient and was scribbled on a scrap of paper, but it’s very reliable and incredibly easy.  The actual amount of banana doesn’t really seem to matter, but keep it to two or three for best results.  Oh and it’s worth adding in the extra teaspoon of baking powder, even though you’re using self raising flour, just because it lightens it up a bit.

Banana Bread

100g salted butter
175g light brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
Splash of milk
225g self raising flour
2 or 3 over-ripe bananas
1 tsp baking powder

Firstly, assemble all your ingredients and preheat the oven to 180/gas 4.  I use a re-usable bake-o-glide sheet, but if you haven’t got one, make sure you grease your loaf tin well or use some parchment paper to line it.

Cream the butter and sugar until they’re light and creamy.  Whisk the eggs with a fork and pop in the vanilla and the splash of milk, then you can dribble them into the mixture a little at a time, beating well between dribbles (technical term).

I favour a ‘half and half’ method to incorporate all the runny stuff, but feel free to just bung it all in if you’d rather:

So now add about half the flour, give it a beat, then add the bananas, mix again, then the other half of the flour.  Don’t forget the baking powder.

Flump the mixture into the loaf tin and bake for about 45 – 50 minutes.  A skewer or knife tip pushed into the deepest part should come out clean.  If it’s not quite there, give it another five minutes.

This is also really gorgeous toasted for breakfast as well with a smear of butter.  Before long, you’ll be willing those bananas to go brown so you can make this again!

Chocolate self-saucing pudding – light, gooey, delicious and surprisingly easy!

WP_20140105_15_22_39_Pro

Drizzle with some chilled double cream. Yum.

Okay, so I know we’re all supposed to be eating light and healthy now it’s the New Year, but oh, this weather is shocking isn’t it?  On Sunday, we had rain, hail, thunder and lightening all at the same time.  The poor pupster was so terrified, she did a ‘panic wee’ on the floor, bless her.

Of course, on Sundays at English Towers all bets are off anyway and I was already whipping up a bit of comfort food in the shape of a yummy chicken pie (full instructions here), so I decided to go the whole hog and add a nice, warming pudding too.

This self-saucing pud really is magic.  You start off with a very simple cake mix, then pour over an easy chocolate sauce.  Some strange chemistry-type stuff happens in the oven and you end up with light, soft chocolate sponge with a deliciously decadent chocolate sauce on the bottom.  I’ve no idea how.  But just run with it:

Chocolate self-saucing pudding

For the sponge mix:

115g butter

115g caster sugar

2 eggs

175g self raising flour

2 tbsp good quality cocoa powder

For the sauce:

300ml hot water

75g brown sugar

2 tbsp cocoa powder

Preheat the oven at 180 degrees/gas mark 4 and then butter a pie dish (make sure it’s pretty deep, this rises a bit).  Make the sponge by creaming together the butter and sugar with a hand held electric whisk (or use old fashioned elbow grease if you’re not as lazy as me) until it’s light and fluffy.  Add in the eggs a dribble at a time, and then fold in the sifted flour and cocoa.  Stir until it’s combined into quite a firm batter.  Spread this in the bottom of your dish androughly level off the top.

Level the cake batter in the buttered pie dish

Now for the sauce.  Pop the water, brown sugar and cocoa into a saucepan and heat gently, stirring until it’s all dissolved.  It’s  good idea to put the pie dish onto a baking tray just in case it overflows, then just pour the liquid over the sponge (it looks weird, but trust me, it works!).

Pour the chocolate sauce over the cake batter

Pour the chocolate sauce over the cake batter

Place in the oven for about 45 to 50 minutes.  Serve with a dribble of double cream or maybe a scoop or two of ice cream.  Yummers.

Review: Barclay’s Bespoke Offers – Virgin wines mixed case

Star and VineOver Christmas we reviewed tons of wine.  One of the selections that really stood out was from Barclays’ new website, Bespoke Offers.  It’s a new concept full of all sorts of different offers, discounts and deals, from days out and holidays through to tech and appliances and everything in between.  You don’t have to have a Barclaycard and you can also tailor the site to suit yourself, searching by postcode, for example, to find offers near you, or searching by subject, for example, if you’re looking for a spa break, you can look at all of them, or just look at the ones in your region.  You can also register your specific interests and get just the offers that suit you sent to you.  Bonus.

We reviewed a Christmas Treats mixed case of wine from Virgin Wines which contained some outstanding bottles.  Our favourite reds were the Chilean  Tierra del Corazon Casablanca Pinot Noir Reserva 2013 - a gorgeously fruit-filled Pinot Noir and the Star & Vine Lodi Shiraz 2012 - I love a Shiraz anyway and this one didn’t disappoint, with berry, cherry flavours and perfectly festive spicy notes coming through.  Yum.

The whites didn’t disappoint, with a lovely crisp South African Hope Springs Bush Vine Chenin Blanc 2013  and the outrageously good Florentyne Reserve Margaret River Riesling 2012 which was just off dry and beautifully aromatic and fresh, topping our list of favourites, but honestly, there wasn’t a bad bottle in there.

If you want to have a look at the food and wine offers on the Barclay’s Bespoke Offers website, just click here.  I think we’ll be returning for another look very soon.

New Year wine, a lazy loaf and a clementine drizzle cake

Nigel Slater's lazy loaf

I love the time after Christmas when we have a few lazy days before everyone goes back to school and work.  We had a quiet New Year with Gary Barlow (not literally, I’m not THAT lucky).  Sam’s girlfriend has American parents and had us popping a piece of fruit into our mouths on every bong on the countdown to midnight – I think it’s a Spanish tradition, but it’s hilarious and by the last bong everyone’s cheeks were bulging and we were all drooling and laughing.

We’ve opened some really lovely wine over the festive period.  At midnight, we toasted 2014 a delicious Wolf Blass Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir (on spesh at Asda at £5.75 at the moment I notice – SNAP IT UP!).  We also opened the front door to let the old year out and the new year in – think that one’s Irish.  My own favourite wine of the season was the Cune Crianza Rioja 2010  – an absolute beaut with that hint of vanilla that I seem really drawn to.  Again, on spesh at the moment I think.

Mr English is very keen on Pinot Noir.  His favourite of the season was the Californian Clos du Bois Pinot Noir (Majestic, £9.99 if you buy two American wines).  There’s something herbal about it (which doesn’t sound nice, but is) but it’s still full of really ripe fruit.  Yum.

The Big Bro recommended a splash-out Amarone, perfect for Christmas.  I’ve got this one on my wish list from Majestic: Amarone Classico ‘Vigneti di Roccolo’ 2010 Cantina Negrar.   It’s a pricey one at £23 but comes down to £18 if you buy two fine wines.  One for when the coffers have been replenished.

Baking-wise, I’m loving Nigel Slater’s wonderful lazy loaf.  It’s a soda bread, but because it’s baked in a cast iron casserole, it develops a wonderful chewy crust.  Delicious, and barely 30 minutes to make – with no kneading.  I also used up the last of the Christmas clementines with a clementine drizzle cake.  Exactly the same as lemon drizzle cake:

Clementine Drizzle Cake

3 eggs

Same weight (about 175g) of caster sugar, butter and self raising flour

Juice and zest of a couple of clementines.

So just weigh the eggs in their shells, then weigh out the rest of the ingredients to the same weight.

Beat the butter until soft, then add in the sugar and beat until light coloured and creamy.  Add the zest and juice of the clementines to the eggs and give them a quick whisk with a fork.  Add them a dribble at a time to the butter/sugar mix.

Stir in the flour, then dollop the mixture into a buttered cake tin and bake at 180 degrees/gas 4 for about 30 minutes until springy to the touch or until a knife point comes out clean.

Mix the juice of a final clementine with a  couple of teaspoons of sugar and drizzle over the warm cake.  Delicious.

Clementine drizzle cake

 

In pupster news, she’s settling in really well, has made a best friend at puppy classes (a cute and ridiculously soft Vizsla called Ellie) and thinks having everyone at home over Christmas is wonderful!

 

Cute

Step by step: how to cook a turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings

So it’s that time again.   The pupster woke me up at 7am this morning, and we’re snuggled on the sofa by the twinkling tree (I’ve just put a piece of tinsel back on after she’s nicked it for the fifteenth time), I’ve got a cup of tea in my ‘Happy Christmas’ mug, and a scented candle flickering.

Lyra snuggle

If, like me, your thoughts are turning to your Christmas dinner (whether you’ve cooked it before or not), my best advice to you is just to think of it as a roast dinner on a slightly larger scale.

Rule 1: it’s all in the planning

You’ll have a much calmer Christmas if you spend a little time beforehand planning and preparing, so grab a pen and a piece of paper, and write down a rough plan.  Start at the time you want to serve the dinner (or lunch) and work backwards.  This means that when Christmas day is in full flow, you can quickly refer to your timings and know exactly what you’re doing.

First things first, weigh your turkey and work out the cooking time.  If you’ve gone for a free range turkey it will often look a bit less plump than those ones you see in all the Christmas adverts (check out the pic of my turkey from last year, below).  This is because they lead a more active lifestyle though, which is a good thing.  They will also be full of flavour and really succulent as they’re allowed to mature slowly (and they’re happier, obviously – happy turkey = yummy turkey).  Free range turkeys also take a little less time to took, so check with the retailer for their recommended cooking times.  In general though, my lovely chums Lean on Turkey, have both cooking AND defrosting timings on their website).  As a general rule:

Turkey under 4kg: 20 minutes per kilo, plus a further 70 minutes

Turkey over 4kg: 20 minutes per kilo, plus a further 90 minutes

Remember, if you’re steaming a Christmas pudding on the day, you’ll need to add this to your timetable.

Rule 2:  prepare as much as you can in advance

Potatoes: peel them, cut them into even sized chunks and blanch them for as long as you dare (the softer they are the fluffier the centre will be when you roast them).  Drain, leave to sit until cool and then pop them into a bag and store them in the fridge.  You can also open freeze them on a tray until solid before popping in a sealable freezer bag and chucking them in the freezer (if you freeze them straight into the bag they all fuse together in one big lump).  On the day they can go straight into the hot oil/goose fat from chilled or  frozen.

Parsnips: peel, cut into quarters or whatever you like and pop the in the fridge.  They don’t need blanching, but DO benefit from a nice little squidge of honey and a sprinkling of thyme before roasting for about half an hour.

Carrots: peel and blanch, cool and pop in the fridge. They can just be warmed up in some butter on the day, or just leave them raw and roast them along with the parsnips.

Sprouts: cut a bit off the bottom and take off any scruffy outer leaves.  Blanch until just tender, cool and pop into the fridge.  On the day, fry some pancetta or streaky bacon in lots of butter in a large frying pan, then add in the cooked sprouts and stir fry until they’re piping hot.  A pack of those shrink-wrapped chestnuts go really well in this dish too.

Stuffing: Again, make this in advance.  It will keep happily for a couple of days in the fridge.

Easy apple and red onion stuffing:

(serves 4-6, double up as necessary):

1 tbsp butter

1 red onion, finely chopped

1 dessert apple, grated (don’t bother to peel)

225g pork sausage meat

100g fresh white breadcrumbs

1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

1 tbsp fresh sage, chopped

Squeeze of lemon juice

Heat the butter in a frying pan, add the onion and fry gently until soft.  Add the apple and cook until softened.  Remove from the heat, transfer to a bowl and allow to cool.

Stir the sausage meat and breadcrumbs into the onion mixture along with the herbs and lemon juice.  Once well combined, squish it into a buttered oven-proof dish, cool and bung in the fridge.  On the day, it’ll take about 25 minutes (obviously more if you double up).

Free range Kelly Bronze turkey

 

Turkey: Again, do this the day before.  Don’t bother washing it in the sink – the hot oven will kill any germs and you’ll just cover yourself and your sink in all manner of bacteria.  Just unwrap it, take the giblets out (use to make stock or cook for a lucky pet), pluck out any stray feathers (I use fish boning tweezers) and get on with it.

I use one of those massive disposable foil turkey tray things – I know it’s not the most environmentally friendly choice but hey, it’s Christmas.  Just recycle it afterwards.

It’s nice to use a few flavours to enhance the turkey so cut up a couple of  lemons or oranges, squeeze them over the bird and then stick them into the body cavity along with a halved onion and a nice bunch of bay or rosemary or whatever you have and some salt and pepper, then tie the legs together.

For extra moistness and flavour, you can take about half a pack of butter, and mush it up with some of the stuff you’ve used in the cavity – maybe some lemon zest, pepper and a little chopped rosemary or parsley.  Then separate the skin from the breast with your fingertips (you don’t have to be too careful, turkey skin is like leather), then squish the butter all over the breast under the skin.  Now smooth the skin back down, drizzle with a little oil and some salt and pepper.  You can also criss cross the breast with some lovely (outdoor reared please) streaky bacon.

I don’t stuff the turkey, partly because eating something out of a turkey’s innards puts me off a bit and partly because I think it’s better for the hot air to circulate inside it.  I make the stuffing separately and cook it in a terrine in the oven once the turkey’s resting.  If you want to, though, by all means stuff the neck end just before cooking.

Weigh your turkey (remember if you ARE stuffing, you need to stuff before you weigh) and work out the cooking time.  Write it on your timetable then just cover with foil (don’t bother buying that ridiculously expensive turkey foil – just overlap the normal stuff), then leave it somewhere cool until you need it – a plastic box in the garage as it’s nice and cold in there, but if we have a sudden warm snap you’ll need to pack a bit of ice around it (it needs to be less than 4 degrees).

Rule 3: be organised on the day

First thing, fetch the turkey from its hiding place and allow it to come to room temperature.  There’s really no point in putting a very cold turkey into a hot oven – it’ll take ten minutes to even start cooking.

Preheat the oven for half an hour before you need it, then when your carefully worked out timetable says so, just slosh a bit of water in the bottom of the roasting pan, and stick the turkey on at 190/gas 5 (180/gas 4 for fan ovens), set your timer and go and have a glass of champers.  If you want to, you can baste it every so often, but if you forget, don’t worry at all.  Some people recommend cooking the turkey upside down (on its breast) which does result in really juicy breast meat.  I guess it depends on how large your turkey is and if you’re prepared to wrestle it up the right way for the last half hour or so to crisp up the breast (likewise if you cover yours with foil, take it off for the last half hour.)

To make sure the turkey is done you should be able to wobble a leg easily, and a quick stab with a knife into the thickest part will allow you to collect nice clear juices on a spoon), drain the juices into a pan for the gravy, then cover with foil and forget it while you cook everything else.

Cooking a turkey crown:

Cream some butter in a bowl until very soft, then add the crushed garlic, orange rind, parsley and thyme. Beat well, until thoroughly blended. Gently loosen the neck flap away from the breast and pack the flavoured butter right under the skin — this is best done wearing disposable gloves. Rub well into the flesh of the turkey, then re-cover the skin and secure with a small skewer or sew with fine twine. Finally, cover the top of the crown with the rashers.

Place the turkey crown in the oven and calculate your time — 20 minutes per 450g (1lb) plus 20 minutes. Cover loosely with foil, which should be removed about 40 minutes before the end of the cooking time. The turkey crown will cook much more quickly than a whole turkey, so make sure to keep basting.

Again, to check if it’s cooked, pierce a fine skewer into the chest part of the crown, the juice should run clear. When cooked, cover with foil to rest and keep warm.

Rule 4: free up your oven before you start on the trimmings

Remember, once covered with foil and maybe a couple of tea towels, the turkey will keep warm for AT LEAST an hour, leaving your oven free for all your other accompaniments:

For great roast potatoes

You really don’t need a lake of fat to make them lovely and crispy.  Once you’ve taken the turkey out of the oven, whack the heat up high, then just cover the bottom of the roasting tin completely with oil, goose fat or lard.  Make sure the fat is very hot before you add your frozen (or chilled) potatoes.  Spoon the fat over all the potatoes then put the in your nice hot oven.  The turkey will wait until your potatoes are golden and crispy (40 mins to an hour).

Rule 5: great gravy brings it all together

So that’s it.  You’ve got the last half hour to fiddle with all your little extras.  Skim off the worst of the fat from the stuff left in the roasting tin, then add a tablespoon or two (depending on the amount) of plain flour to the pan juices in a saucepan and stir well, cooking out that ‘raw’ flour taste, before adding plenty of stock (you can never have enough gravy).  Bubble until thick and taste.  If it’s at all bitter, a spoonful or two of cranberry sauce will lift it back up.

Get your veg on, stir fry your sprouts (or whatever you’re doing), and don’t forget to pop cranberry sauce on the table (here’s my favourite recipe).

Skip a starter and serve a lovely cocktail: try a Poinsettia – a slug of Cointreau in the bottom of a champagne glass, then up to about half way with cranberry juice, and top up with fizz. Decorate with a little spiral of orange peel if you have time.

If it goes a bit wrong and something gets burned or forgotten, it’s not the end of the world.  Enjoy the day, pour yourself a drink and remember:  it’s just dinner.

If you want wine advice, look no further than my lovely friend Helen’s 40 festive wines guide, and if you want any extra recipes this Christmas, try my glazed and spiced festive hamcranberry and port sauce,  home made mince pies, maybe a showstopping chocolate bundt cake, or some cute little Christmas tree jaffa cakes.

If you get stuck, drop me an email, but mostly, have a glass of fizz, hug your loved ones, dress up, light a candle, say you love it even if you hate it and please don’t drink and drive.  I need you here to keep me company.  So I’ll just say merry Christmas, from us lot, to you lot.  Have a wonderful, wonderful Christmas. Mwah xx

English Towers tree decorating team face pulling selfie 2013

English Towers tree decorating team face pulling selfie 2013

‘And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store?  What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?’

Apple and red onion Christmas stuffing sausage rolls

Apple and red onion sausage roll small

If you’re looking for an easy Christmas eve supper, or something yummy to serve with drinks when you have guests, look no further than very simple to throw together sausage roll recipe.  The filling is my easy apple and red onion stuffing, which can be baked separately and served along with your turkey, but also makes a lovely, moist filling for pies and these easy sausage rolls.  So first, make the stuffing:

Easy apple and red onion stuffing:

(serves 4-6, double up as necessary):

1 tbsp butter

1 red onion, finely chopped

1 dessert apple, grated (don’t bother to peel)

225g pork sausage meat (or you can use the innards of sausages)

100g fresh white breadcrumbs

1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

1 tbsp fresh sage, chopped

Squeeze of lemon juice

375g pack ready to roll puff pastry

Heat the butter in a frying pan, add the onion and fry gently until soft.  Add the apple and cook until softened.  Remove from the heat, transfer to a bowl and allow to cool.

Stir the sausage meat and breadcrumbs into the onion mixture along with the herbs and lemon juice.

Now, grab a nice pack of all butter puff pastry (life’s too short to make your own, I find, although if you really want to, I’ve got a rough puff recipe here which isn’t too labour intensive).

Roll the puff pastry out to a nice big rectangle (you need the thickness to be about 1/2 cm), then squish your sausagemeat down the middle in a big fat sausage.

Now, brush the edges with beaten egg, then flap the first edge over the sausagemeat.  Brush that one with egg again, then fold over the second flap, so you’ve created one big, long sausage roll.  Turn that roll over so that the seam is at the bottom.  For a supper dish, it’s nice to keep it whole and slice at the table, but if you’re wanting individual bite-sized ones for a party, cut them now with a serrated edged knife, then score the top and brush with egg.

Bake at gas 4/180 degrees for about 25 – 30 minutes until golden brown and crispy.  If you’re cutting your sausage into individual pieces, they’ll only take about 20 minutes.

English Mum’s Big Christmas Bakeoff – the entries

Ah I’ve absolutely loved looking through all the amazing bakeoff entries. Now it’s down to our lovely judge Catriona to choose a winner to receive all those lovely Yeo Valley goodies. Good luck everyone!

Joanna Arthur's mince pies

Joanna Arthur’s mince pies

Rich Tipsy fruity Yule log by Ah Har Ashley

Rich Tipsy fruity Yule log by Ah Har Ashley

Lisa Ann Tebbutt's Christmas cake

Lisa Ann Tebbutt’s Christmas cake

Lexy Law's chocolate yule log

Lexy Law’s chocolate yule log

Sara Friend's giant cupcake

Sara Friend’s giant cupcake

Peggy Falbos chocolate fudge cake with white chocolate mascarpone mousse topped with a chocolate meringue

Peggy Falbo’s chocolate fudge cake with white chocolate mascarpone mousse topped with a chocolate meringue

Natalie Zindani's Christmas cupcakes

Natalie Zindani’s Christmas cupcakes

Lynn Savage's After Eight cupcakes

Lynn Savage’s After Eight cupcakes

Katharine Bourne-Francis' enormous choux bun

Katharine Bourne-Francis’ enormous choux bun

Lorraine's Christmas cranberry, orange and white chocolate cake

Lorraine’s Christmas cranberry, orange and white chocolate cake

Kim Holgate's apricot and brandy Christmas cake

Kim Holgate’s apricot and brandy Christmas cake

Lianne O'Malley's igloo cake

Lianne O’Malley’s igloo cake

Little Lydia (and the Christmas cake!) from Kristin Burdsall

Little Lydia (and the Christmas cake!) from Kristin Burdsall

Liz Jarvis's Christmas shortbread cookies

Liz Jarvis’s Christmas shortbread cookies

Hazel Smithies' Christmas cake

Hazel Smithies’ Christmas cake

Haward family's chocolate Christmas cottage cake

Haward family’s chocolate Christmas cottage cake

Gill Saunders (and family) snowman cake pops

Gill Saunders (and family) snowman cake pops

Fiona Haward's stained glass window biscuits

Fiona Haward’s stained glass window biscuits

Emma Ellams' victoria sponge

Emma Ellams’ victoria sponge

Becky Shorting's Christmas cookies

Becky Shorting’s Christmas cookies

Becky Thorn's Christmas tree cakes

Becky Thorn’s Christmas tree cakes

Becky Thorn's gingerbread stars

Becky Thorn’s gingerbread stars

Chocolate carrot nutty cake by Victoria Ashley

Chocolate carrot nutty cake by Victoria Ashley

Christine (@afamilyday)'s reindeer

Christine (@afamilyday)’s reindeer

Adele Knight Christmas cupcakes

Adele Knight Christmas cupcakes

How to make mince pies – step by step

Tree mince pie small

So Mr English is home and the Christmas preparations can begin in earnest.  His favouritest thing in the whole world at Christmas time is a home made mince pie.   If you’ve only ever bought them, you’re missing a trick – they’re very easy and they make the whole house smell divine.  I love scenting the pastry with the zest and juice of a clementine, or you could try a teaspoon of cinnamon too, or just leave it plain – it’s your pie.  Here’s what you’ll need:

200g cold butter

400g plain flour

1 tbsp caster sugar

Pinch salt

1 egg

1 clementine or tangerine, zest and juice (optional)

Cold water and a tablespoon (have them ready)

First, then, cut your butter into little cubes and pop it into the food processor with the flour, sugar and a pinch of salt:

Butter small

Mix gently until it resembles breadcrumbs:

Breadcrumby

Now add the egg and the clementine juice and zest and let it continue stirring gently until the mixture just comes together.   Add a couple of tablespoons of cold water as it’s coming together so you end up with a nice, soft dough.  Obviously you can do this by hand if you don’t have a food processor.

Form the dough gently into two balls, clingfilm them and put them into the fridge for 20 mins.  Don’t leave them too long – rock hard pastry is not the easiest thing to handle.  One ball should make 12 pies.

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees/gas 5 and get ready to mess with your mincemeat.  Now, don’t get me wrong – normal mincemeat in a jar is fine, but let’s face it, there’s not much in life that can’t be improved with a bit of alcohol (trust me, it’s not time that’s a great healer, it’s booze), so splosh some in: I’m loving Pedro Ximenez at the moment, but anything will do: port, cherry brandy, Cointreau - whatever you have to pep it up.  I also add a handful of dried cranberries because I like the colour.  I’m also partial to a glacé cherry or two.  But don’t bother if you don’t want to.

So now, just roll the pastry out and use a cutter to make circles.  Pop the circles gently into a muffin tin and put a scant teaspoon of your boozy mincemeat in each one.  Don’t overfill or they’ll ooze everywhere and be very difficult to get out of the tin (sorry for the blurry picture – sticky hands) :

Pies

Now you can either cut out another slightly smaller circle to use as a lid, or just cut out something festive like a star or a tree, and pop on the top.  Now, pass the whole kit and caboodle onto the Eggy Wash Department (you’ll need a small, willing child for this – just use a little lightly beaten egg to paint over the pies and add a sprinkle of sugar):

Bake for about 10 – 15 minutes and that’s it, you made pies!  Give yourself a quick round of applause, then serve with more booze in the shape of some warm, mulled wine, or a lovely cup of tea.  And now you’ve got into the swing of it, try mixing it up.  The tree ones at the top were made in a deep-fill muffin pan with a plain cutter.  Or try topping your pies with sponge mixture like my festive pastry cakey pies.

star mince pies

Festive cranberry and clementine curd – perfect pie filling for mincemeat haters

Cranberry and clementine curdIf you’re thinking about baking mince pies this Christmas (you’ll find my clementine and mincemeat cakey pie recipe here), we should really spare a thought for all those mincemeat haters.  When you’re popping your pies in the oven, leave a couple of the pastry shells empty (or indeed just make a whole batch of shells), scrunch up a square of greaseproof paper and pop in a handful of baking beans.

When you take your mince pies out of the oven you’ll have a few extra shells ready to fill with something non-mincemeaty.  For a festive option, why not try making my cranberry and clementine curd?  Double the quantity and buy some nice clip-top jars (I got mine from jarsandbottles-store.co.uk) and it makes a fabulous gift too.

You will need:

300g pack fresh or frozen cranberries

4 clementines

100g butter

150g caster sugar

2 large free range eggs plus 1 extra yolk

Put the whole pack of cranberries into a saucepan.  Peel a couple of big strips of zest off each of the clementines and add that in too, then squeeze them and pour in the juice.  Bring the mixture to the boil, then allow it to gently simmer for about five minutes or until the cranberries are soft.

Take it off the heat and pour it into a sieve over a bowl.  Give the mixture a good squish to get as much juice out as possible, then measure the juice back into the saucepan. You need 6 tablespoons of juice – if you don’t have enough, add a bit more clementine or lime juice.

Add in the butter and caster sugar and stir gently on a low heat until the butter is all melted and the sugar has dissolved.

Meanwhile, in a clean bowl, whisk the eggs and yolk until well combined (if you’re being restauranty here, you can sift the egg to remove any lumps of white).

Take the  juice/butter mixture and gently pour a little bit into the egg, whisking all the time, then a bit more, then a bit more, until you’ve combined about half of it with the eggs.

Pop that lot back into the saucepan and keep whisking and gently cooking until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon. If it’s really not going to thicken, you can help it along by popping in another egg yolk and whisking again until it does. Remember it will continue to thicken as it cools.

If you’re potting it up, make sure your jars are sterilised (good sterilising advice from my friend Mammy’s Kitchen right here), but if you’re using it straight away, or pouring it into a tart case, let it cool a bit, remembering to stir it occasionally to keep it from getting a skin on. When it’s about room temperature, pour it into the pastry case and pop into the fridge to cool.

A sealed jar will keep for a good few weeks in the fridge, but opened jars should be eaten within about a week.

Cranberries and clementines

The Sunday Times Ultimate Cookbook – part 4: dinner party

The Ultimate Cookbook - Part 4 - front cover

Sadly, this weekend is the last in the series of the fabulous Sunday Times Ultimate Cookbook.  I’ve really enjoyed being given a sneak peek at all the fabulous recipes in the series and trying out cooking some new (and famous) recipes.  So far, we’ve had The Sunday Lunch editionQuick Eats, and Brunch and Baking and this week, going out with a bang (literally – read on), it’s time for the dinner party edition.

I love entertaining, but if you’re attempting a recipe with any kind of wow factor, you need to know that you’re not going to spend the entire evening in the kitchen, missing out on spending time with your guests.  The cleverest dinner party recipes are those that look impressive without being too complicated and time consuming.  This collection has been cleverly compiled to reflect the very best of that ethos.

Michael Caines’ curried carrot soup makes a delicious starter (and a nice family supper with a big pile of crusty bread too, I would imagine), and gorgeous Nigella’s (#teamNigella) wonderful coca cola baked ham  is my go-t0 recipe for our Christmas ham joint.  Gordon Ramsay’s cherry clafoutis recipe includes a batter that you can make the day before, meaning you’re ready to pop out to the kitchen, pour the batter and bake, then dash back to your guests.

But wait, just wait until you’ve checked out the lush, velvety fabulousness of The River Café’s Chocolate Nemesis.  Not quite a cake, but not really a mousse either, there’s enough whisking and stirring to make you feel like you’ve made an effort, but you serve it cool which means you can make it in advance.

Now for my confession.  It was all going so well – eggs whipped to fluffy lightness, chocolate and butter melted, syrup done… mixed and into the oven, baked to perfection and then…

Reader, I dropped it.

Dropped chocolate nemesis cake

Totally my own fault. The recipe clearly says ‘leave to cool in the tin before turning out’ and I just didn’t see it.  I tried to balance it on a tin to push the loose base up, realised the base was still bloody hot, fumbled…

And the whole lot fell over.  I honestly could have cried.

Still, plopped into a bowl and lavished with cream it was still utterly delicious.  Soft and dense and moussey in texture. You live and learn, eh?

Get your copy of The Sunday Times Ultimate Cookbook: Dinner Party this weekend. Featuring a selection of the finest recipes of the celebrity chef era, The Ultimate Cookbook is part of The Incredible Edibles Food Series dedicated to food and dining.

Visit thesundaytimes.co.uk to subscribe and to find out more details about exclusive Times+ chef events, hosted at some of the country’s best restaurants.

The big Christmas gift guide: creative gifts for cooks

Chocolat

So following on from fab pressies for foodies, this time it’s the turn of the cook in your life.  Don’t immediately discount cookery books as the safe option, there are some fabulous cookbooks out there at this time of year.

The wonderful Eric Lanlard, Master Pâtissier and all-round creative genius has brought out a gorgeous book, perfect for any chocolate lover: Chocolat: Seductive Recipes for Bakes, Desserts, Truffles and Other Treats is stuffed full of every chocolate recipe you could ever want, plus it looks stunning.  The perfect gift.

Sybil Kapoor

The Great British Vegetable Cookbook by Sybil Kapoor is full of really inventive vegetable recipes – both as accompaniments to main meals and as delicious meals in their own right. It’s wonderfully inspirational when you’re planning meals and would make a lovely gift for a veggie or meat eater.

Another of my favourite books of the year is A Good Egg: a year of recipes from an urban hen-keeper - by Genevieve Taylor.  Perfect for anyone who yearns for the simple things – cooking simple, delicious dinners made with produce from your garden and eggs from hens pecking in the yard.  It reminds me of classic Nigella books as it’s a lovely read as well as having some really gorgeous recipes.  A bedside book, I’d call it.  Inspirational.

Breville AuroraI must admit I did once get very cross with Mr English for buying me a breadmaker for Christmas.  It was when we’d first got together and I thought it was the most unromantic gift I’d ever received.  Now, of course, I’d be delighted with a gorgeous appliance and I’ve got my eye on this very pretty pearly Breville Aurora toaster to go with my glossy cream kitchen units.

Denhay Drum

 

 

Next up is cheeeeese!  No Christmas is complete without cheese and this one is really special (and extensively tested by me. You’re welcome).  The Denhay Dorset Drum of cheddar is a real showstopper and packs a bit of punch, flavour wise.  Denhay have now decided to focus all their attention on their bacon, so this is the last time you’ll be able to buy it.  Snap one up online (from £25 + p&p) .

Knightor Brut NV from Cornwall

For something really special, how about a bottle of English Knightor Brut NV sparkling wine from Cornish winery Knightor.  We gave it a try and it really is the perfect festive fizz – light, fruity (peachy?) and with lovely, almost creamy bubbles.  You can buy it online, priced £27 from www.knightor.com. Gorgeous.

Experiences make really interesting gifts too.  Why not treat your favourite chef/chefette to a course at Padstow Seafood School. They have a fab range of courses starting at £95 for a half day course. Gift cards are available and can be posted direct with a personalised message (they have no expiry date).   Check out rickstein.com/seafood-school for details.

MoninAnd for little stocking fillers?  Check out Monin’s gorgeous gingerbread syrup (yummy in coffee, but equally good poured over pancakes or even as an ingredient in cakes), or why not wrap up a couple of Very Lazy’s little pots – the  Smoked Chopped Garlic, Smoked Chopped Chillies (our favourite – amazing on pizzas) and Fire-Roasted Sliced Chillies are really interesting and useful – what more could you ask for?!

Very Lazy

 

 

The Sunday Times Ultimate Cookbook – part 3: Brunch and Baking

The Ultimate Cookbook - Part 3 - front cover

So following on from my first post about the Sunday Times Ultimate Cookbook, the Sunday Lunch edition, and last weekend’s Quick Eats, this weekend I’m really excited that Brunch and Baking are on the menu.

Being rather late weekend risers, we’re big fans of brunch in this household.  Leafing through the recipes (once again, I got a little early sneak peek), I was delighted to see such diverse brunch dishes as classic eggs Benedict from Le Caprice, and fresh and funky fried eggs with radicchio and torn bread from lovely Aussie Bill Granger.

Obviously I’m a huge baking fan, and Mary Berry’s beautiful whole orange spice cake is one that I’ll be bookmarking for some lazy Saturday afternoon baking very shortly.  But for me, it had to be a rather amazing recipe by one of my biggest culinary girl crushes, the Sunday Times’ own gorgeous Gizzi Erskine.  Gizzi’s millionaire’s shortbread has the clever addition of rosemary in the caramel.  The boys initially turned up their noses, but as the caramel bubbled on the stove, and the delicious sweet, herbal scent filled the house, everyone was strangely drawn towards the kitchen to have a taste.

Because I’m lazy, I made the shortbread in the KitchenAid, which took about two seconds (I’ll be using this recipe next time I bake shortbread), but the whole recipe represents everything I love about cooking: pressing soft dough crumbs into the baking tin, melting chocolate and stirring sweet, bubbling caramel.  The very best form of kitchen therapy.

The finished article, with its buttery shortbread, thick caramel and crisp chocolate top, is a bit of revelation, with the rosemary adding a rounded edge which is the perfect foil to the sweetness.  Deeeelicious.

Gizzi Erskine rosemary millionaire's shortbread

 

Get your copy of The Sunday Times Ultimate Cookbook: Brunch & Baking this weekend, the third in a four-part series.

Featuring a selection of the finest recipes of the celebrity chef era, The Ultimate Cookbook is part of The Incredible Edibles Food Series dedicated to food and dining.

The final edition in the series is Dinner Party next Sunday.

Visit thesundaytimes.co.uk to subscribe and to find out more details about exclusive Times+ chef events, hosted at some of the country’s best restaurants.

The figgy Christmas pudding 2013. Make a wish!

Christmas pudding

You know me, I pop up all over the interwebs, and at the moment you can find me chatting about Stir Up Sunday on the Yeo Valley website.  Funnily enough, my recipe is the same as theirs in that you’ll need to start a little prep the day before, as the fruit benefits from an overnight soak, but if you don’t have time (or you’ve only just read this bit and were all ready to go), don’t worry – just give it as long as you have.   Now, if you need information, hints, tips, ingredient notes and a step by step guide to making Christmas pudding, please just click here.

This is my updated recipe for 2013.  This year, I’m going back more to how Christmas Pudding used to be, with loads of figs, currants and sultanas, and moving away from the more modern apricot and cherry additions.

I was chatting to our lovely friend (and wine expert) Tom Forrest from Vinopolis on Twitter about what booze to use, and he had some really lovely suggestions.  I’m a huge fan of Pedro Ximenez and Tom recommends a Pedro from the English Whisky Company (£18) or an Aussie Brown Brothers Muscat Liqueur (about £12).   You can also be more traditional and just use brandy, obviously.

Figgy Christmas Pudding

250g dried figs, finely chopped

100g sultanas

100g raisins

50g prunes, finely chopped

1 lemon
100ml black tea

1 cinnamon stick, snapped in half

100ml Pedro Ximenez or other booze

3 eggs, beaten

1 tbsp honey

1 tbsp black treacle

1 Bramley apple, grated

100g self raising flour (or rice flour for gluten free)

100g fresh white breadcrumbs (or again, ground almonds if you need to keep the recipe gluten free)

150g veggie suet

150g dark muscovado sugar

25g almonds, finely chopped

1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

1/2 tsp ground mixed spice

So on to the recipe then:

1. Weigh out the dried fruit, then have a good pick through and get rid of any stems, they’re yucky if you crunch on them.  I let them fall through my fingers into the bowl a handful at a time.  With the larger dried fruit, make sure they’re stoneless and snip them into small pieces.

2. Finely grate the lemon zest, then juice it as well.  Add the zest and juice to the fruit then brew up the tea (one tea bag is fine for that amount of water) and pour it over the fruit, along with the rum.  Add in the cinnamon stick and stir it all up.  Cover with a plate and leave the whole shooting match to steep (make sure it’s not a metal bowl) overnight, stirring occasionally if you remember.

3. The next day, weigh out all the dry ingredients and combine them in a huge bowl.  Don’t forget the spices!  The muscovado sugar can be a bit lumpy so you might need to sift it to break up any lumps.

4. Take the steeped fruit and remove the cinnamon stick pieces.  Add the eggs (give them a quick mix with a fork first), honey, treacle and grated apple (leave the peel on).

5. Stir well, then you can add all that into the dry ingredients.  Give it a really good stir (get everyone to take a turn to stir and make a wish).

6. Now butter a big basin (3 pint/1.7  litre) or two smaller ones and bung in your mixture, pressing it down well and filling as near to the top as you can.

7. Cut out a circle of greaseproof paper, bigger than the top of the basin/s, then add a layer of foil.  Tie the two layers tightly just under the basin rim with string, leaving lots of excess to make a handle.  Now there is some weird way to loop the excess string underneath the basin to make a handle, but I’ve never managed it as I didn’t pay attention at Brownies.  If you want to be extra sure no liquid gets in, add another layer of foil and tie again. Or you can use a basin with a lid, or tie it in a muslin, or use one of those special circular moulds.

And that’s it, you’ve made a Christmas pudding! Pause here a minute to give yourself a quick round of applause.

To steam it, you can use a steamer if you’re posh, but I haven’t got one so I just use a huge saucepan and balance the basin inside it on a circular metal pastry cutter so it isn’t sitting on the bottom of the pan.  This will also stop it burning if you inadvertently let it boil dry.  Add boiling water about halfway up the basin and put the lid on the saucepan.  Steam for 5 hours, making sure you go back every so often to top up the boiling water.

I rewrap it with fresh greaseproof paper and foil, but you don’t have to.  Keep it somewhere cool until Christmas day when it’ll need to steam for about another 2.5 to 3 hours (don’t worry if it gets a bit longer, it won’t ruin it).  Or you could *gasp* just microwave it on Christmas day.  Much easier, but not really traditional!

On Christmas day, just warm some booze gently, then at the last minute, pour it over the pud and set it alight.  A splash of rum or a bit more of that Pedro and a tablespoon of icing sugar in some whipped cream (Yeo Valley Organic of course) would make a welcome addition.

English Mum Christmas