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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Step by step blueberry pancakes and the case of the indestructible cat

Blueberry pancakes

So the other night, I was driving the boys round to meet their buddies, the lovely Marshes (they’re twins so they’re always referred to this way – makes it easier).  As we drove along, a little black speckly cat ran straight at us from the grass verge.  We all saw it and gasped and, of course, knew exactly what was going to happen – I slammed on the brakes (without even checking my mirror, I’m horrified to say), there was screeching (both from me and the tyres) and… BANG!  Of course I did what any animal lover did, which was to stay rooted to my seat and burst into tears – I couldn’t bear to get out.  The boys, smothering me with cuddles and reassuring me it wasn’t my fault, took a deep breath and got out to look…

Nothing.

No cat.  And it was a big bang.  We looked all around grass verges where we we’d stopped, then a very kind couple stopped and asked if we were okay and the man checked all underneath the car… but really, no cat.

Sooo we heaved a deep breath, got back in the car, thanked our lucky stars there were no cars behind us when we screeched to a stop, and I dropped them off.  When I got home, I walked down to where it happened to have another search and there, under some bushes, was the little cat, definitely the same one, looking a bit dazed and wide-eyed, but no visible damage.  I went to touch it, but it got up and ran away.  Incredible.

Anyway, to soothe myself after this ordeal I headed home for comfort food, and spotting the punnet of blueberries in the fridge, I set to and made myself an enormous stack of blueberry pancakes.  What?  They were medicinal.  For the shock…

Blueberry pancakes:

225g self raising flour

4 level tbsp caster sugar

2 large, free range eggs

1/2 pint milk

Couple of handfuls of blueberries.

Sift the flour into a bowl and stir in the sugar.   Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and whisk in the eggs and milk to make a thick batter.  Now you can either stir in the blueberries, or wait until you’re cooking and pop them on to the pancakes – I prefer this way as it makes it a bit more even – plus it looks prettier.

Next, heat a heavy-based frying pan and lightly brush the surface with oil (I use rapeseed).  Dollop a couple of tablespoons of the mixture into the pan, trying not to let them touch.  Pop the blueberries on, then wait until you see bubbles on the surface before flipping them over.  If you’ve got big blueberries (ooer), you might need to squish them gently just to make sure the pancake batter touches the surface of the pan, but generally I’m not an advocate of squishing pancakes as it forces the air out.

So after a big pile of light, fluffy pancakes studded with beautiful soft little fruity jewels, with a dollop of thick Greek yogurt and a drizzle of honey, I felt a bit better.

Bet that poor cat’s got a headache.

Orange and honey granola: a step by step fruity breakfast granola

Orange juice really is a thing of beauty.  From a zingy glass of fresh orange juice first thing in the morning to a punchy tropical cocktail, it has so many uses in the kitchen. It’s great as a substitute for alcohol (if you don’t like it – can’t think why you wouldn’t but there you go) in things like Christmas mincemeat and – a sneaky tip here – if your Chinese recipe calls for sherry, orange juice makes an excellent replacement – and is fabulous in cakes, biscuits and savoury dishes too.

I really like muesli, but I’m aware they’re not always that healthy, so this one uses the orange juice for extra flavour and freshness and the honey for sweetness.  As long as you stick to the basic quantities, it’s quite adaptable.  If you don’t like nuts, for example, just add more of something else – bran or coconut, maybe? It’s your breakfast!

150g oats (organic jumbo are best)

250g mixed nuts and seeds.  I bought packs of pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, linseeds, brazil nuts and macademia nuts and mixed them together.

1 tbsp rapeseed oil

4 tbsp runny honey

4  tablespoons orange juice

50-100g dried fruit (DON’T add until after the rest is baked – chopped dried apricot goes really well with the orange, but you can use sultanas, raisins, cranberries… whatever you like.

Preheat the oven to 180/gas 4 and mix together the oats and the nuts and seeds – remember, don’t add the dried fruit – it goes rock hard and horrible in the oven.

Mix together the rapeseed oil, honey and orange juice and drizzle over the oats, nuts and seeds.  Give it a mix but don’t worry that it won’t be all combined at this stage – it gets mixed a lot more.

Tip the mixture out onto a non-stick tray (or use some Bake-0-glide) and pop into the oven.  After 10 minutes, take it out and give it a really good stir around.

Pop it back in for a further 10 minutes, but keep an eye that it doesn’t catch – I stir again after 5 minutes just to make sure – you want it golden brown, but not burned:

Now leave it to cool, stirring a couple of times until it’s completely cold (if you don’t stir you’ll have a big slab of granola – don’t say I didn’t warn you).  Add in the dried fruit and save in a jar or airtight box.

This granola is really lovely served with yoghurt and fresh fruit – a really hearty start to the day, with the advantage of knowing that it’s home made!

Brunch: lazy weekend eating. It’s the new breakfast

So when it comes to the weekend, breakfast has become a thing of the past, especially now we have teenagers in the house who don’t emerge until a) there’s a phone call inviting them somewhere exciting, or b) they smell bacon.

Brunch has become the new breakfast, and it’s a great opportunity for me to get baking (which also passes the time until everyone’s out of their respective pits).

What to cook, then?

Well, the aforementioned bacon happens to be a staple of our brunches. Free range and preferably streaky, it’s stuffed into crusty bread and piled onto teetering mounds of pancakes before being drenched in maple syrup. You can use any flavour yogurt for the pancakes, but if you’re planning on eating it with bacon, sometimes natural is best. If you’re going to eat the pancakes with fruit, then try Yeo Valley’s raspberry flavour. It goes deliciously with maple syrup for some reason. Dollop a bit more yogurt on the top too:

Yogurt Pancakes

2 eggs

150ml milk

150ml Yeo Valley yogurt

225g self raising flour

4 level tbsp caster sugar

So sieve the flour and stir in the sugar (f you’re using a sweetened yogurt, cut this down to 2 level tbsp).  Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and whisk in the eggs, yogurt and milk to make a thick batter.

Next, heat a heavy-based frying pan and lightly brush the surface with oil.  Dollop a couple of tablespoons of the mixture into the pan, trying not to let them touch, then wait until you see bubbles on the surface before flipping them over.  The first one will be a disaster, it always is, but after that you’ll get light, fluffy pancakes.

Might I add that these also make a lovely dessert, served with some boozy fruit and a big dollop of creamy Greek yogurt.

To serve your brunch, pile the table high with bowls of fruit and yogurt, piles of gorgeous pancakes, a big tray of sizzling bacon and some crusty bread.  Some of Yeo Valley’s fruity favourite muffins would be an excellent addition here too.

And then it’s completely permissible to go back to bed for a little snooze.  Or is that just me?

Step by step pancakes, and more about cage free eggs

We love pancake day.  Let’s face it there aren’t many days in the year when we go ‘sod it, let’s skip dinner and go straight for dessert’ so being total gluttons, Shrove Tuesday  (21st Feb) is a big favourite in the English household.

Even if you’re not very confident at cooking, it’s really easy to make pancakes. Here’s a little step by step guide.

I usually make an obscene amount of batter, but this amount will feed a family of four quite generously.  You’ll find a gazillion different pancake recipes, but this is an old favourite and works a treat, so why mess with it?:

All you really need is:

200g plain flour

2 eggs (make sure they’re cage free – see below)

600ml milk

So just sift the flour into a large bowl. Make a well in the centre of the flour and crack the eggs into it.

With a wooden spoon, break up the eggs and start stirring gently, gradually bringing the flour into the mix.

Now, slowly add in the milk, stirring all the time (you can change to a whisk here if you like) until you get a nice smooth batter (this batter can be made up to a day in advance and kept, covered in the fridge).

When you’re ready, add a tiny splash of oil into a heavy-based frying pan (you really don’t need a lot at all – I very rarely top up after that initial splash – as long as you’ve got a decent non-stick pan).  Pour in enough batter just to cover the bottom of the pan evenly when swirled around (any more and your pancake won’t cook evenly). Now leave it to cook on the bottom. Carefully lift up an edge to check how it’s cooking, and when it’s lightly browned, give it a shake to free it from the pan.  Feel free to flip here, or just flap it over with a wide fish slice.

Keep your finished pancakes warm in a low oven, covered loosely with foil, while you make the rest.

Now to fillings: we’re classic lemon and sugar, generally, but try fruit compote, Nutella, bananas and honey, or that lush salted caramel sauce stuff from Marks and Spencer (nomnomnom).

If you don’t fancy big, flat ‘crepe’ style pancakes, you can also make ‘Scotch’ pancakes, the small, American-style ones.  Here’s a link to one of my recipes (my lot prefer these for breakfast with bacon and lashes of maple syrup:

And now a note on the humble egg.  It’s true that battery cages have been banned in the EU, but so called ‘enriched’ battery cages are still allowed.  This horrible practice gives each bird just about the size of an A4 piece of paper.  I know, right?  That teeny space for all the lovely perchy, scritchy rootly, flappy stuff that hens love to do.  Obviously meaning that they have great trouble doing it.  And as a former hen-keeper, and knowing what lovely, intelligent, happy little dudes they are, this upsets me.

All of us can vote with our feet (and our wallets) and make sure we don’t buy eggs from these cages.  The less we buy, the less demand there will be and, hopefully, the less ‘enriched’ battery cages will exist.  At the very least, switch to barn eggs (I’m not a huge fan, but at least they’re cage free).

The RSPCA have produced this handy guide to the (often confusing) wording on egg packaging.  And it’s not just boxes of eggs that could contain these caged eggs – there’s sandwiches, mayonnaise, pasta, cakes and quiches.  I think it’s time for a little transparency so we all know what we’re buying.   Lots of supermarkets already offer ranges that contain free-range eggs, including ALL Marks & Spencer products, all Waitrose own-brand products, all Sainsbury’s own-brand products, all Co-op own-brand products, Morrisons ‘The Best’ range, Tesco ‘Finest’ range and the Asda ‘Extra Special’ range.

Let’s all make sure we pick wisely eh?

More information about the RSPCA’s campaign and cage-free eggs: http://www.rspca.org.uk/eggs

A Yeo Valley surprise and cooking with yogurt

Recently, the lovely chaps at Yeo Valley set me a little challenge: ‘fancy checking out a few of our products and then letting us know how you cook with them?’  ‘No probs’, I said, ‘piece of cake’ (see what I did there?).  So yesterday I had a call from a courier.  Not your normal ‘yes, I’m just leaving Dublin – can I have directions?’ (you want an hour’s worth of directions? I hope you’ve got a big notepad), but a lovely friendly one ‘I’ve got some stuff for you from Yeo Valley – it’s refrigerated so I’m going to personally drop it to you now’.  How’s that for service.  When it arrived, my jaw did drop somewhat, though:

Er… wow.

After unpacking (and letting a delighted D next door take her pick), I moved it all into the garage and called Poppy’s Mum to take all the children’s yogurts and those cute little tube things (she looks after two little tinies).  After weighing her down with butter, compote, pots and creme fraiche and fifteen minutes of hysterical laughter when I took the packing peanuts out to the bin and was caught by a gust of wind (it was like a packing peanut snow storm), my fridges looked like this:

Unlike Laura, there will be absolutely no lemon curduments.  Anyone seen looking even remotely suspicious near the lemon curd ones will be prodded with a sharp implement until they back the hell off.  I might even bare my teeth and snarl a bit.  What? They’re my favourite.

So what will I be doing with all this lovely stuff?  Well, I’m going to try Laura’s Lovely Lemon Curd Cheesecake, but with the Mango and Vanilla flavour instead (nomnom) and I’ll be making my talented friend Like Mam Used To Bake‘s gorgeous healthy home-made granola to stir into the little fat free blueberry pots of probiotic yogurt for breakfast.  We’ll be spooning the rhubarb yogurt over a slice of home made lemon and almond cake, and freezing the strawberry one in an ice cube tray to add to smoothies with banana and milk.  Their fruit compote is a new one for me.  I’m going to be popping a spoonful in the middle of some vanilla breakfast muffins this weekend and eating them for breakfast.

I’ll be making Anjum Anand’s Bengali Yogurt Fish (from her I Love Curry book) with the Greek Yogurt (one of my favourite fish recipes) and of course my own easy peasy tandoori chicken with the fat free natural yogurt (yummy in the boy’s packed lunches with crusty ciabatta, a blob of mayo, some rocket leaves and a teaspoon or two of mango chutney).  Talking of Indian food – I’ll also be making my Indian spiced courgette fritters and serving them with a cooling yogurt and mint dressing.

I’ll be using the creme fraiche to make my friend Erica’s gorgeous wild mushroom tagliatelle and the lovely fresh butter for all manner of cakes, biscuits and, of course, for spreading thickly on hot toast.

What an amazing selection.  I’m very impressed.  Now back to guarding the lemon curd.  Go on, just try me.  I dare you.

Farmhouse Breakfast Week 23rd – 29th January

So this week is the delightfully named Farmhouse Breakfast Week.  I am a huge fan of breakfast (who am I kidding, I’m a huge fan of breakfast, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper…).  I get up early with da brevren every day and make them a proper brekkie.  The Death Wish Child is a two fried eggs on toast addict, especially now Mrs Nutty is producing some beautiful, golden-yolked eggs, and can often be persuaded into a bowl of porridge (no fruit though – just golden syrup – I don’t mind too much as he has fruit in his packed lunch).  The Mad Professor, not being a morning person, needs cajoling to eat anything and sometimes it’s a battle.  To be honest – I’d rather he went to school with two cookies and a glass of milk inside him than nothing at all.

At the weekends we really enjoy our late breakfasts – I often make pancakes with maple syrup and bacon, but I honestly won’t buy horrible bacon, so sometimes it’s just the pancakes.  It’s so difficult to get good bacon (and pork) here – I mean, you can get standard supermarket bacon, but there is NO choice at all: no outdoor reared/free range piggies… I mean, aren’t there any ‘happy pigs’ in Ireland (at least where supermarkets are concerned)? I love bacon, but I can’t buy intensively reared bacon.  I just can’t.  Marks and Sparks seem to have well-labelled, decent bacon, so I stock up if I’m near one, which isn’t very often.

Happily, the lovely chaps at Denhay Bacon sent me a mahoosive big pack of their lovely bacon to try, and I have to say I was delighted.  Their Spoilt Pig range (www.spoiltpig.co.uk) is outdoor reared – the piggies having the opportunity to rootle and tootle and live happy lives.  I know some people don’t care what happens to their meat before it dies, but I want mine to be treated properly.  Not only that, but it grilled to perfection, without giving out all that horrible water that a lot of the brands on sale do, and wasn’t overly salty OR smoky.  Perfect.

For more info on National Farmhouse Breakfast Week, and some great breakfast recipes to try, check out shakeupyourwakeup.com

What about you – are you a breakfast bod? And do you care where that bacon in your sarnie came from?

Chocolate, oat and apricot cookies

One of my golden rules here at English Towers 2 (and there aren’t many, in fact, I think that’s the only one – oh no, hang on, there’s the no saying ‘eurgh’ at the table… oh and then there’s not referring to one’s wedding vegetables as ‘nads’ – I hate that…) is that everyone has to have breakfast.  I will never complain if I’m asked to cook poached eggs and toast first thing in the morning (which I often am) as I’d so much rather they ate something.   Sometimes it’s just a biscuit or a slice of toast and a quick mug of hot chocolate (oh, there’s another golden rule – there’s a 5 marshmallow limit to each mug).

But here’s the rub: if they’re going to eat biscuits, or worse, force down a cereal bar first thing in the morning, wouldn’t you rather that you had: a) some control over the contents and b) the chance to sneak in some healthy stuff, even if it’s covered up by the taste of chocolate?  Yes?  Here, then, are my ‘not very healthy but better than a Weetos bar’ breakfast (or anytime) cookies:

You’ll need:

125g butter

150g dark brown sugar

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla paste (or extract, never essence)

150g flour (make it wholemeal if you like)

50g oats

50g chocolate, chopped

Handful dried apricots, chopped

So cream the butter and the sugar until it’s light and creamy.

Then add in the egg, beating well, and then the vanilla paste:

Chop the chocolate:

then gently stir in, along with the flour and the oats…

and the apricots (chop finely first):

Blob the hideous-looking mixture onto a non-stick baking tray (a dessertspoon per cookie is about right):

…and bake at 180 degrees/gas 4 for about 12 minutes.  They’re better when they’re still a bit soft in the middle.

Store in an airtight container.  They’ll last a couple of days (what am I saying?  they’ll last about ten minutes).  Serve as a last resort ‘oh Mum, I don’t want any breakfast’ kinda thing with a glass of milk or a hot chocolate.

Healthy lunches, fruity peanut flapjack and a small moan

(c) Englishmum.com

So things aren’t going well  here at English Towers.  In fact, that’s a total understatement.  Things are going shite (recession, you b*stard, go take it out on somebody else for a change).  Anyhoo, instead of making you read a whole big chuntering moan all about how terrible my life is, I thought I’d tell you about my little trip to the  lovely little local school yesterday where I took great pleasure in watching as #2 turned puce with embarrassment as I manned a healthy eating cookery stall.  See, they had a fabulous bash for the launch of their new School Healthy Eating Policy, and they kindly invited me along, knowing that I’d be tempted out of my kitchen here at English Towers with the promise of an afternoon of showing off and the chance to embarrass my youngest child. 

Now as you probably know, in Ireland there’s no such thing as school lunches.  Nope, Sir Jamie of Oliver’s magic wooden spoon hasn’t touched these vibrant shores, and kids are still taking a peanut butter sandwich and a Mint Club to school (ooh, I love Mint Clubs…), furring up their little arteries and basically making themselves into little chubby sumo wrestlers.  So in an inspired bit of  forward thinking, they took it upon themselves to come up with a healthy eating policy, encouraging the children to bring healthy food in their lunchboxes and banning the undesirables like sweeties, crisps and fizzy drinks.

Yesterday, the school launched their new policy with the help of a fabulous committee of children, a few random Mums (of which I was one) and a very nice lady from the HSE (sorry about the butter thing, Mary, I just can’t bring myself to cook with anything that starts with ‘mono-unsomethingorother).  Mrs Galway C and a few other ladies spent hours peeling and chopping masses of fruit and vegetables to give the children the opportunity to taste everything from watermelon to spring onion, and yet more Mums brought in their fabulous home-grown vegetables and fruit (I kept quiet at that point, thinking that the comedy cauliflower from my garden would probably frighten the children).  The kids did all sorts of pictures and displays (one of which was a fascinating wall display showing the sugar content of several items represented in actual lumps of sugar – scary).

For my part, I printed up a few healthy recipes and brought along some blueberry muffins, flapjacks with dates and apricots, some easy hummus with lots of dippy vegetable sticks, and a broccoli and salmon quiche (okay, tarte, if you’re posh) for the children to try. Oh yeh, sorry, the recipes:

Fruity Date and Dried Apricot Flapjack

140g butter

2 tbsp peanut butter  (or omit and use 170g total butter)

4 tbsp golden syrup or honey

100g brown sugar

30g dates (or chopped nuts)

60g dried apricots, or cranberries work well here too (see pic)

400g oats

So melt the butter along with the peanut butter (if using), golden syrup/honey and brown sugar over a low heat in a large saucepan.  Chop the dates (or nuts) and apricots very finely and stir into the butter mixture. 

Finally, weigh out the oats and stir them into the mix.  Press into a very well buttered non-stick baking tin (I use bake-0-glide as these have the potential to stick, concrete-like to the bottom of the tin).  Now, I’ll let you in on a secret, if you let them sit for half an hour before baking, they’ll be even soften and more delicious when they come out.  Finally, bake for 15-20 minutes at gas 4/180 degrees until just golden.

Hummus (especially for Anouk):

1 tin chickpeas, drained

2 tbsp olive oil

1 clove garlic

Salt and pepper

Squeeze of lemon juice

Place all ingredients into a blender and whiz until puréed.  Serve with breadsticks, sliced pitta bread and fresh vegetable sticks for dipping.  Hardly a recipe, but very yummy all the same.

There was the odd ‘bleurgh, what’s THAT?’ to the hummus in particular, but plenty more of the kids tried things for the first time, and even vowed to have a go at the recipes at home.  And let’s face it, if that makes one less teeny sumo wrestler, you’ve got to chalk it up as a success.

Last word, though, must go to Little Miss Lovely, who, when asked whether she wanted a recipe sheet, waved it away saying ‘oh no, I’ve got the internet’.  Bless.  My biggest fan.

Some say he isn’t machine washable: all we know is, he’s The Stig

The Stig

So happily, some semblance of peace has been restored this weekend in the garden here at English Towers.  I have to take most of the credit for this (well, me and several small children) as, finally, the coop has a run.  Oh yes, don’t say I’m not handy with a hammer… well, a couple of electric fence poles (not live, natch), some chicken wire and a few cable ties anyway (one upside of living in a rural farming community – the Co-Op has everything you can possibly imagine and incredibly cheap too – 10m of chicken wire for €8 for instance).  Laydees and gennlespoons, I give you… the run:

Chicken run

And yes, alright, before anyone’s sarcastic (Moon), I appreciate it’s not exactly chicken Central park, but it’s relatively sturdy, easily moveable (when they wreck that bit of lawn, it’s onwards and upwards) and fine for a little tootling, rootling, pecking and clucking before one retires to the coop to lay fabulous eggs (not Stig, natch) and bed down for the night, securely double-locked away from nosey foxes (or should that be  foxy noses).

Happily, now they’ve all got a bit of room, the girls have decided that they do quite like The Stig after all and have decided he can stay.  Now they’ve stopped pecking him, he’s stopped bleeding everywhere and everyone seems a lot calmer.  Bless him, we’ve worked out he’s actually about eleven weeks old – I can’t send him back, I haven’t the heart.  Plus, he makes lovely little chirrupy tweeting noises at me when I’m hanging out the washing, and picks all the peas and sweetcorn out of our leftover veggie rice in the most adorable manner.  Plus, as I was debating with my cousin Bugs over in Canada, when he grows up, he might turn out to be a very fun way to annoy D next door, should the mood take me.  Cockadoodledoo!

Minnie and Chilli, for their part, are making like veritable egg machines and churning out their golden-yolked wonders at a rate of one each a day, although Patrick, the nice man that we got them from, said that due to the trauma of being moved this could stop at any time for any number of weeks.  Dread the thought.  We’d stop being able to have lovely scrambled eggs with home-grown spring onions, little red spikes of chilli and a sprinkle of parsley out of the garden for breakfast:

Breakfast eggs

Get me eh?  I’m practically a farmer.  Ooarr.

The Good Friday photo: Hot cross buns or ‘not cross buns': you decide.

Not cross bun

So I’ve gone a bit hot cross bun mental recently.  I was testing recipes for them ages ago for the magazine as I think I mentioned, and as people keep scoffing them, I’ve just kept making more and more.  I’ve made them with crosses cut in the top, with crosses piped on, with crosses dribbled on… with no crosses piped on…I’ve made them in round tins, or on baking trays… you name it.

Anyhoo, here the ressup.  Do with it what you will:

450g strong white bread flour

1 tbsp mixed spice

1 tsp salt

75g sugar

 1 x 7g sachet dried yeast

100g sultanas (or mixed peel if you must – bleurgh)

150ml milk

150ml water

Zest of 1 orange

50g butter

First, then, sieve the flour and ground mixed spice together into a large bowl.  Next, stir in the salt, sugar, dried yeast and sultanas.

In a small saucepan (or jug if you’re doing it in the microwave) warm the milk, water, orange zest and butter until the butter is just melted, then turn off the heat.  The liquid should be about blood temperature when it’s added to the dry ingredients.  If you’re using a mixer (mine finally exploded during my last batch, sending Hubby and #2 scurrying to the kitchen to see what I’d blown up, and if I’d survived the blast), set it on low and slowly pour in the milky mixture until the dough comes together (you might not need all of it so go steady), then plug in the dough hook and set it to knead for a good five minutes.

I’ve come to believe, though, that they come out nicer and lighter if you knead them by hand for at least ten minutes.  Yes, I know, sorry, but it’s true.  Knead away, then, getting a good kitchen workout into the bargain.  The sultanas keep trying to escape, but grab any trying to make a quick getaway and poke them back in.  Keep going until the dough is nice and springy and firm (apparently, good dough should be the texture of a woman’s breast). 

Dough

Erm anyway, moving swiftly on… when your dough is sufficiently boob-like, leave it covered in a warm place until it’s doubled in size.   Then, just knock it back with your fist (imagine it’s someone you can’t stand – nice bit of culinary therapy there), and cut it in half, then half again and half again.  Form each of your 8 pieces into a ball and place them on a baking tray.  Cover and rise again until they’re puffed up.

If you want to add the cross, then mix about 2 tbsp flour, a tsp of caster sugar and enough water to make into a paste and either just dribble it with a teaspoon, or pipe it onto your buns (ooer Missus).  Or, you can cut a cross in the top of the buns, like so:

Ready to rise

 …and pipe the cross into the little lines like so:

Dodgy piping

But whatever you think.  Let’s not obsess here, they’re just buns. 

Ooh, one thing, though, you can spread them out inside a large, springform tin, which produces a little circle of buns that you have to tear off – good for novelty value:

Not cross bun round

Bake for about 15-20 minutes at 180/gas 6 until they sound hollow when patted on the bottom (sorry, I seem to have gone all Les Dawson in this recipe).  Finally, when they’re just out of the oven, glaze with a tbsp of sugar to which a drop or two of boiling water has been added, or warm up some apricot conserve and brush it on for extra glossy stickiness.

Now, to the important business of face stuffing: if you’re eating them straight out of the oven (a move I heartily recommend), slather them in butter and be done with it.  But if you’re eating them maybe the next day, split and toast them first.  If you’re going to freeze them, slice them in half first so they can go straight in the toaster.

Buttered

Oh, and if you’re going to go all Jamie Oliver, you can slice them, spread them with marmalade, pour over some custard (although I would have thought that ready-made would be disgusting, I’m sure he knows more about it than me) and bake them in the oven.

Erm... is that one mine?

Either way, have a wonderfully happy Easter break/secular celebration of the start of springtime/excuse to stuff yourself with chocolate /insert your own excuse here… with your loved ones.

Back soon!

Bagels: the rather scrummy roll with a hole

Bagel

I love my kitchen.  I’d love it more if it was painted pink, but that’s a bit contentious on the Hubby front and might take some serious marital bargaining, probably best not described on a family blog such as this.  Still, today I had a bit of a reorganisation (well, I suppose I should say ‘we’, seeing as it involved taking plugs off things and drilling holes) and moved the microwave and blender into the utility room, leaving me much more space and hopefully sorting out the ‘aaaaahhh shiiiiiiiiit!’ dilemma which occurs when picking up a very hot saucepan and not being able to find space anywhere to put it down, whilst simultaneously scorching away the skin on your fingers.

To test out my newly acquired workspace, I obviously needed a recipe with a suitable amount of fannying about involved (you can usually check this by watching my family’s reaction as they wander into the kitchen when I’m cooking – if it’s a bad one, Hubby will raise one eyebrow whilst cleverly performing a 360 and disappearing back from whence he came rather than get involved in holding up a muslin while something drains, or being enlisted to stir something).  This one, then, involving all sorts of kneading and poaching and glazing and stuff, was perfect.  The result, fresh out of the oven, is so densely chewy and delightful that I promise you won’t be disappointed.  Credit where credit’s due, this is adapted from the recipe in Rachel Allen’s must-have tome, ‘Bake’, but simplified for the terminally cack-handed amongst us, namely me:

450g white bread flour

1 x 7g sachet of yeast

2 tsp salt

250ml warm water

2 tbsp honey

1 tbsp oil

To poach:

Boiling water

Sieve the flour into a bowl and stir in the yeast and salt.  In a jug, mix the water (remember it must be nice and warm to activate the yeast) with the honey and oil.  Stir the liquid into the dry ingredients and bring together into a firm dough.  This needs kneading for about ten minutes and – be warned – it’s seriously tough, so if you have a dough hook on your food mixer I’d suggest you use it.  Otherwise, work those pecs, baby, and whilst cursing me, you can be all smug that I’m helping guard against bingo wings. 

When the dough is nice and smooth and elastic, and bounces back when you poke your finger into it, leave it somewhere warm to rise, covered with a clean tea towel, until it’s doubled in size. 

Once it’s ready, divide the dough into about 6 pieces and roll them into sausages, linking them into a ring by wetting the ends and squishing them together.  Once formed, put them back in the airing cupboard (or wherever) to puff up again slightly.

 Leave to puff up again

Preheat the oven to 220/gas 7, but  remember that first you have to poach them, so get a really big pan of boiling water going.  Plop the bagels in, two or three at a time and once they’ve come to the surface (watch they don’t stick to the bottom of the saucepan), give each bagel about 3 minutes bathtime, turning occasionally. 

Poach in revolting treacly water

Lift them out to drain on a wire rack, then brush them with a bit of beaten egg  (you can sprinkle them with stuff at this stage if you like: poppy seeds or whatever) and bake them for about 10 – 15 minutes, then turn them over and give them another 5 – 10 minutes to cook the bases.  Cool on a wire rack, then eat smothered with cream cheese, or butter and jam, or peanut butter…ooh, the possibilities are endless…

The finished article

EDIT: Having made this a couple of times, I’d definitely recommend that you don’t put 3 tbsp treacle in with the poaching water as Rachel Allen  suggests.  Not only does it create the most revolting smell, but I don’t think it really adds much in the way of flavour either.

Chocolate Breakfast Pancakes, and grown up cranberry and orange ones

We love a pancake for breakfast.  They also make a delicious dessert if you’re entertaining – you can make the batter in advance and just whip them up in minutes – even better with a splash of booze!  Still, if you’re a bit too young for all that, these chocolate breakfast pancakes are the best breakfast EVER!

For the basic breakfast pancakes:

225g self raising flour

4 level tbsp caster sugar

2 eggs

1/2 pint milk

Then for the cranberry and orange ones, you’ll need:

Handful dried cranberries

Zest and juice of one large orange

So sieve the flour and stir in the sugar.  If you’re making the grown-up version, it’s really nice to heat the cranberries in the orange juice and zest in a small saucepan to soften them up a bit.  Then just make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and whisk in the eggs and milk to make a thick batter.  Now, remove most of the cranberries from the orange with a slotted spoon and stir them into the batter.  Add a couple of teaspoons of sugar to the remaining orange liquid and bubble gently to reduce into a fruity syrup.

Next, heat a heavy-based frying pan and lightly brush the surface with oil.  Dollop a couple of tablespoons of the mixture into the pan, trying not to let them touch, then wait until you see bubbles on the surface before flipping them over.  The first one will be a disaster, it always is, but after that you’ll get light, fluffy pancakes studded with beautiful soft little fruity jewels  Serve with your orangey syrup.  These also make a lovely dessert with a slug of Cointreau added to the fruit juice, and served with mounds of whipped cream.

Or make the basic mixture, then stir in 50g chopped chocolate.  Make the pancakes in exactly the same way and serve them with more chocolate in the shape of chocolate spread, or gag-making amounts of golden syrup.  Nice one!

My bestest chocolate chip muffins. No, really.

So we woke up this morning to the wonderful smell of baking.  ‘Mmmm’, I thought, ‘I love baking in the morning’.  Then, ‘that’s strange, though’, I thought after that, ‘I’m baking and yet I’m still in bed’.  Of course, it was the smalls in the kitchen: Head Chef #1 was knocking up a batch of chocolate chip cookies, ably assisted by his slightly grumpy Sous Chef, #2.  And very nice cookies they were too, except… ‘they need a bit more butter’.  ‘What?’, says #1, ‘why?  They seem perfect to me’.  ‘Meh’, says I, ‘I just think they’d be nicer a bit more buttery.  Whose recipe did you use?’.  ‘Yours’, said the little sod, with just a small hint of triumph.

But that’s the thing about cooking, you see.  Nothing’s ever quite perfect is it?  Take my Bounty Cake.  I was so pleased with the result, I thought I’d try and make a chocolate version, but when I replaced the coconut with cocoa, the result was all horrible and powdery.  Back to the drawing board then.  So anyhoo, no, you’re not getting the cookie recipe just yet as it obviously needs a bit of tinkering.  Instead, I’ll let you into the secret of my chocolate chip muffins.  I make hundreds of these, often for breakfast.  My thinking being that I’d rather have my children eating something homemade in the morning, than some fat-soaked cereal bar, the ingredients of which I don’t even understand, let alone approve of.  The recipe for these, then, has been tinkered to death, and I’m pretty sure it’s foolproof:

200g plain flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

75g granulated sugar

50g muscovado or dark brown sugar

2 eggs

100g butter, melted

125ml milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

100g dark chocolate, chopped

So get your oven on to about 190 degrees, gas 5, and put a dozen of those little paper muffin cups into a muffin tin.  Sieve the flour, baking powder and bicarb together, then stir in the sugars. 

In another bowl, whisk the eggs with a fork, then add the melted butter, milk and vanilla, whisk briefly to combine them, then pour this into the dry stuff.  Add the chocolate, then remember the golden muffin rule: mix as briefly as possible until everything is just combined.

Put a spoonful in each paper muffin thingy, then bake then for about 20 minutes or so, until they spring back to the touch and they’re a lovely golden brown.

Give them a try.  Oh, and feel free to burst my bubble if they’re a horrible failure for you, though.  Nobody’s perfect, eh?

Gardening news, steaks, potato wedges and rhubarb crumble

So I’ve had ups and downs with my first year of vegetable patch ownership.  For example, the sweet peas went completely mental but didn’t give me a single bloody flower, the pumpkins, coriander and basil all died (too cold? we didn’t really have any sunshine) and the cucumber covered the whole plot in huge leaves and spidery tentrils, but no cucumbers (well how was I to know it was a climber).  On the upside, there are two or three courgettes ready to go, the dwarf french beans have given us a sizeable crop; the fennel, parsley, mint and thyme are all huge and the carrots are surviving .  In the greenhouse, the tomatoes have been fruiting like wild things, but all the fruit is green and the weather is definitely on the turn here (our morning walk was both rainy AND cold – Bert was not impressed).  The aubergine has a tiny fruit but again it might all be too late.

The rhubarb absolutely excelled itself, growing to triffid-like proportions while I scoured local garden centres for one of those terracotta things to ‘force it’.  My kitchen gardening guru, Mr Titchmarsh, says that by the end of summer, the rhubarb will be too tough to eat, but ours has been amazing.  Sunday, then, saw us tucking into the biggest, juiciest steaks ever, complete with home grown french beans, garlic-roasted butternut squash and some very pleasant home made potato wedges  (four or five medium sized potatoes, cut in half, then into four wedges lengthways, blanched in boiling salted water for ten minutes, then tossed in olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper and baked in a 200 degree oven until golden brown and crispy), followed by a huge rhubarb crumble with cream.

 

For the crumble, then:

Four or five big fat stems of rhubarb

Big splosh of apple juice or water (say 100ml?)

Sugar for sprinkling

6 oz plain flour

Generous teaspoon ground ginger

4 oz butter

4 oz sugar

1 oz porridge oats

Handful of sliced almonds

So preheat the oven to 200 degrees.  I’ve been poaching my rhubarb first as I’ve been freezing some of it, so weigh out your ingredients, then, and wash the rhubarb, chopping into inch-long chunks.  Pop them in a saucepan with your splosh of apple juice and a generous amount of sugar (to taste, but remember it’s sour!).  Let the rhubarb poach gently with a lid on until it’s just tender but not mushy.  Mine took about ten minutes. 

Meanwhile, rub your butter and flour together (not too fine – a lumpy texture is better), then stir in your ginger, sugar and porridge oats.  Spoon the rhubarb into an oven-proof dish, cover it with the crumble mixture and finally, sprinkle over the sliced almonds.  All you’re doing is cooking the top so it should only take about 15 minutes to come out all golden and bubbling. 

There you have it, then: good, fresh food, quickly prepared and happily scoffed.  I had the leftovers with yoghurt for breakfast then next day too.  Mr Atkins wouldn’t like it but hey, them’s the breaks.

Nat’s Chocolate Twister Buns

Leave dough to rise in a warm place

Leave dough to rise in a warm placeWhile waiting for the dough to rise, clean up yer crap

Brush on the butter and sprinkle with the choccy…

Bake for 20 mins and…ta da!

On meeting a Yorkshireman once, J uttered those immortal words: ‘ooh, I LOVE your puddings’.  C has never let her forget it.  In the same vein, therefore, if I bumped into Frank Lampard, I’d let him know how much I like his buns (Chelsea buns.  Stop it.)  So this morning, for your delectation, I present the best recipe I’ve tried in a long time, a delectable choccy kind of Chelsea bun.  And it’s not just the fact that the end result is fabulous, it’s also the fact that it’s really fun to do some hard core beavering in the kitchen occasionally, filling the house with delightful bakery-type wafts of sweetness, and underlining your worth as a Mum, wifey and all-round good gal.  These lovely buns are the creation of Nats over at Eire Rules, who generously gave me carte blanch to go ahead and do what I like with the recipe.  In the end, though, it’s so perfect, even I couldn’t fiddle about with it.  Here goes then:

For the bread dough:

650g strong white bread flour

1 ½ tsp salt

5 ml honey or sugar

15 ml oil

7g sachet instant yeast

400ml warm water

For the filling:

200g  dark chocolate, finely chopped

100g melted butter 

Sprinkle of crunchy brown sugar

So combine all the dry ingredients, bung them in the mixer, then mix all the wet ingredients in a jug and pour them onto the dry.  Mix with a dough hook for 5 minutes, or knead by hand for ten minutes (much better result).

Bung your dough into a bowl, cover with clingfilm and a clean teatowel and leave somewhere warm for 45 minutes until doubled in size. 

Thump heartily with a clenched fist to knock down the dough, then roll out into a large rectangle.  Brush the dough generously with the melted butter and sprinkle on the chocolate, then roll up and cut into 2cm slices.  Place your slices on a baking sheet and leave them somewhere warm again to puff up and double in size.

 Finally, brush with the remaining melted butter, sprinkle with the crunchy sugar and bake for 15 to 20 minutes at 200 degrees C.  Tuck in, and do the ‘we’re not worthy’ bowing thing to Nats.  Yum.

Fruit and nut Swedish Chef flapjacks

Flapjacks and tea: bliss 

You know how you get little bits of leftover cereal that nobody seems to want to finish?  Well, for some reason these really annoy the pants off me.  Half the time I go to finish them off (even though I hate them – thrifty, moi) only to find they’re all cardboardy and chewy.  This, then, is usually the time I make flapjacks.  I have a sort of dustbin approach to flapjack making – anything remotely edible that can possibly be thrown into a flapjack recipe gets hurled into the mix in a kind of Swedish Chef approach to cookery.  Works for me.

Fruit and Nut Flapjacks:

6 oz butter

4 oz brown sugar

4 tablespoons golden syrup

8 oz rolled oats

4 oz random leftover cereal

Handful of sultanas or chopped dates (dried cranberries are lovely too)

Handful of almonds/brazil nuts/hazelnuts/whatever, roughly chopped (I like big pieces in mine)

Melt the butter, sugar and syrup in a saucepan.  If you used quite granulated sugar you’ll need to stir well and melt it into the mix. 

Mix all the other ingredients in a large bowl, then just pour over the butter mixture and stir well.  Don’t do it the other way round, there’s not enough room in the saucepan.  Press it into a buttered cake tin (worth putting some greaseproof paper in the bottom that overhangs – makes it easier to get out) and bake at 180 degrees, whatever gas mark (you know the drill) for about 15 – 20 mins.  I did mine in an oblong cake tin and it was slightly too overdone at the edges after 20 mins so check after 15.

Cool completely before removing from the tin and slicing, otherwise you’ll end up with granola.  Enjoy with a cup of tea and ignore complaints of child who doesn’t like sultanas.  Heh.

Pear and Custard Muffins

Goodness, what fine muffins.

On Sunday, I made Bill Granger’s banana and butterscotch pudding. Okay, so I admit, I left out the ‘banana and’ bit when I was telling #2 what it was, but he sussed right away. As I was making the custard I was mulling over what gorgeous stuff custard powder is. Remember those yummy rhubarb and custard sweets? So then last night, as I was lying in bed (I know, I know…) I thought ooh, I wonder if you could make rhubarb and custard muffins? But not having any rhubarb handy, I settled on pears. And the result is pretty darn good, even if I say so myself.

So remember, as usual, the Golden Muffin Rule: get your ingredients ready before you start, and don’t over mix. If you can still see a teeny bit of flour, it’s just right.

8 oz plain flour
2 tablespoons custard powder (not instant custard!)
1 tablespoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
4 oz caster sugar
2 oz brown sugar
6 fl oz milk
½ tsp vanilla essence
1 egg, beaten
4 oz butter, melted
1 large ripe pear: peeled, cored and diced into teeny squares.

Sieve the flour, custard powder, baking powder and salt, then add the sugars (as usual you can use any sugar you like, I like the toffeeness of brown sugar in it). Just melt your butter in a jug in the microwave, then mix in the milk, vanilla and beaten egg and stir into the dry stuff. Don’t forget to add in your diced pear here (remember the GMR – a lighter hand gives a lighter result). The smell of the custard powder when you’re mixing is just gorgeous. Divide into 12 large muffin cases. It’s also quite nice if you sprinkle the tops with crunchy sugar, but I forgot.

Bake for about 15 – 20 minutes, depending on the size, at 200 degrees, then serve warm to fully appreciate the moist custardy interior studded with little pearly bits of pear….mmmmmmm.

Mini Fruit Soda Breads

My view - all weekend

So we’ve got a house-load this weekend. Me Mam’s over with my twin niece and nephew (The Fleas). The house has echoed to the sounds of thudding little feet, MarioKart wars, raucous laughter and (occasionally) indignant argument. Cries of ‘I’m hungry!’, ‘ow, get off!’, ‘it’s my turn!’ fill the air, and I’ve yet to sleep in past 7am (6am this morning with the clocks going back).

But it’s lovely to see them and fantastic for my two as they miss them loads. So this morning we had a huge, final breakfast with croissants, pains au chocolat, baguettes and these yummy little fruit soda breads, adapted from Rachel Allen’s recipe which I must have tried ten times and just couldn’t get to work for some reason.

1lb (450g) plain flour
1tsp salt
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
25g sugar
100g sultanas
1 egg
350 – 400ml buttermilk (or just sour some normal milk with juice of ½ lemon)

So first, whack your oven on as high as it’ll go and weigh out your dry ingredients. Make sure you sieve the flour, salt, and bicarbonate of soda really well. If you don’t, little bits of soda will show up in your finished scones as green lumps. Not very appetising. Then stir in the sugar and sultanas.

Crack the egg into a jug and give it a whisk, then add your buttermilk (or if you’re not using buttermilk, remember to add the lemon juice to the milk), topping it up to about 400ml altogether. You might need a bit extra but I never do.

Pour the milk mixture bit by bit into the flour, stirring with a fork. You’ll probably find you won’t need all the liquid but that’s fine as you can use it to glaze them at the end. It’s a bit messy but be patient as it’ll come together into a nice soft dough. Turn out on a floured board and pat into a big flat squareish shape. Cut into 9 or 12 or whatever, depending on how big you want them. Brush with the leftover milk mixture and sprinkle with crunchy brown sugar.

Stick your little soda breads on a baking tray (non stick preferably) and bake them on the high setting for about eight minutes (I had to turn mine round half way through as my oven doesn’t cook very evenly). Then after the eight minutes turn them down to about 200 (gas 6) for the last five or six minutes. Watch them just in case as the smaller the buns the less time they’ll need. They’ll sound hollow when you tap them if they’re done.

Serve warm with lots of butter to melt into them and enjoy the (brief) silence.

Little chunks of yumminess

Proper Irish Brown Bread

Now stop drooling, it

Now I’ll confess I have a tendency to fiddle with recipes. Usually this is just a personal taste thing, or sometimes it can be because they’ve got too many ingredients and I can’t be arsed to put them all in. This time it’s because I live in the middle of bloody nowhere and couldn’t actually find some of the ingredients. The original recipe from my mate 73 (he adds 3 tbsp bran and 2 tsp wheat germ, as well as the odd handful of nuts or seeds) is linked here and is incredibly good so please try it out. Here’s my pared down tinkered-about-with version of Mr 73’s proper Irish brown bread which we scoffed, in its entirety about 5 seconds after it came out of the oven

300g coarse brown flour
200g plain white flour
½ tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp black treacle
450 – 500ml milk

Put all the dry ingredients into a bowl and mix thoroughly. Add the black treacle then enough milk to combine into a lovely pasty mess.

Butter a loaf tin then bake in a pre-heated oven for 20 minutes at gas 6 (200º), then another hour at gas 3 (170º).

It’s a testament to the simplicity of this recipe that one of my kids turned the oven off by accident half way through cooking. When I discovered, I quickly turned it back on and it still came out perfect. It makes a beautiful, moist, dense loaf, which is crying out for a thick covering of butter and some really good jam. Nice one, 73.

Flapjack alert

Time once again, then, for a little culinary interlude. This one was prompted by #2 announcing yesterday that he was ‘too tired’ to eat scrambled egg and toast in the morning (obviously, the use of knife and fork being too much to ask at such an ungodly hour), and there was me thinking I was very ‘yummy mummy’ serving cooked food in the morning (actually, that’s a lie because it was Hubby that made it).

So, I rolled up my sleeves and donned my naked Homer Simpson apron (‘woo hoo!’) and here’s the result. Apart from falling over the dog a couple of times (nope, the brain damage caused by the dishwasher door has not deterred her from lying in front of the sink) it all went well and I’m quite pleased with this one:

Flapjack

6 oz butter (I know, but it makes loads – never knowingly undercatered remember?)
4 oz brown sugar
4 tablespoons golden syrup (messy but you get to lick the spoon)
8 oz rolled oats
4 oz rice krispies (or something else crunchy)
Handful of dates, chopped (oh, the subterfuge)
Handful of almonds, roughly chopped (I like big pieces in mine)
2 oz chocolate, roughly chopped (I used white and it went nice and gooey)

Melt the butter, sugar and syrup in a saucepan. If you used quite granulated sugar you’ll need to stir well and melt it into the mix.

Mix all the other ingredients in a large bowl, then just pour over the butter mixture and stir well. Don’t do it the other way round, there’s not enough room in the saucepan. Press it into a buttered cake tin and bake at 180 degrees, whatever gas mark (you know the drill) for about 15 – 20 mins. I did mine in an oblong cake tin and it was slightly too overdone at the edges after 20 mins so check after 15.