SP68 Arianna Occhipinti

A secret wine tasting and some fab new wine discoveries

My brother is really into his wine.  He’s a serious collector and really knows his stuff. He’s introduced me to some amazing wines and we’re always telling each other about our new wine discoveries.

We decided to get together for a bit of a ‘wine-off’ with Big Bro and his wife picking some wines, then me and Mr English picking some wines, and decided to make it a bit more tricky by agreeing to cover the labels.

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Spring beef and borlotti bean stew

Spring braised beef, with borlotti beans and red wine

I still feel the urge to cook a ‘proper’ Sunday lunch, even though a full on roast dinner seems a bit at odds with the time of year (although it seems to have done nothing but rain recently).  This tomato-based braised beef feels a bit lighter than my normal beef stew and dumplings, especially with the addition of some spring greens just before the end of cooking.

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Frosty lemon gin and tonic

The frosty lemon gin and tonic

Our day in Barcelona still rates as one of my very favourite travel experiences.  We’ve earmarked it for a return journey very soon, but until then, every time there’s a sunny day, my mind races back to the gorgeous restaurant at the very top of the Arenas shopping centre (the old bullring) where we sat and had enormous buckets of gin and tonic with scoops of sharp lemon sorbet.

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Scone with Greek yogurt and jam

Greek yogurt scones for Yogurt Week, 19 – 25th May 2014

Regular readers will know that I’m a huge yogurt fan, so when the lovely chaps at the Yogurt Council asked me to join in next week with yogurt week, the UK’s first celebration of everything yogurty, I knew EXACTLY what I was going to cook.

Yogurt is great for tummies, bones and muscles (it’s full of protein, calcium and vitamin B2), plus it’s a healthier alternative to cream in loads of recipes.  It’s available in a vast array of variants: low fat, Greek, fat free, fruity, chocolaty, you name it.  In fact, it’s so popular that one in five of us eats yogurt every day!

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Disney's BoardWalk Bakery

Cupcakes at the BoardWalk Bakery, Walt Disney World, Florida

So if you follow me on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook (and frankly, why wouldn’t you? There’s cake, beaches, ships and the lunatic whippet of mass destruction makes the odd appearance too), you’ll know that I’ve been visiting Walt Disney World, Florida.  I have loads to tell you – there’s news of the opening of the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a review of the frankly beautiful Disney’s Wilderness Lodge resort, and masses of food, fun and breaking Disney news (Avatar!!).

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baguette pizza

Lazy suppers: baguette pizzas

I have two basic default settings in the kitchen.  The first is ‘all out go-for-it’ where I can throw myself with abandon into making a big roast dinner or a cake with lots of different elements.  The other is ‘nah, can’t be bothered’, which usually coincides with days when I’ve been really busy working or testing recipes and I’ve just had too much kitchen time.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.