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.
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…
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…
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 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!
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:
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?
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)
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
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.
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
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
350 – 400ml buttermilk (or just sour some normal milk with juice of Â½ 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.
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
Â½ 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.
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