Now Christmas is in full swing, I seem to be baking mince pies nearly every day. I always feel a bit sorry for Charlie, though, who doesn’t like mince pies and so tends to head for the biscuit tin instead. I decided to have a fiddle with my normal cookie recipe to come with something a little more festive.
The thing about home baking is that it should be a joy. My favourite times are spent in my kitchen – pinny on (Cath Kidston, a treasured present from my friend Taralara), oven on, flour everywhere, radio playing, people popping in and out for a chat or a quick taste – it’s my therapy. I’d go mad without it. Someone once told me that you should never bake when you’re miserable – nothing goes right – cakes don’t rise, things don’t taste right… it’s because the baking picks up on your mood, and I completely believe that’s true.
There’s nothing quite like that first mince pie of the season, is there? Yesterday I popped to TK Maxx and picked up a couple of bits including this AMAZING ceramic bun tin and a cute little freeform bowl. Time for some baking, then:
So have you seen the Waitrose Christmas advert? We love the story of little Ellie, the reluctant baker, who ends up mastering the art of gingerbread baking for her school fete.
Waitrose have challenged me to get involved with their #bakeitforward campaign, to spread a little love and Christmas cheer to some people I really care about by baking them a special treat. I love decorating biscuits, it’s so Christmassy – so here are my cute little chocolate Christmas tree biscuits. This dough is perfect for cutting out shapes as it doesn’t spread in the oven – it’s really easy to make too.
So Halloween’s coming up. Sadly, I’ll be missing all the fun (not too sadly as I’ll be joining the inaugural voyage of Royal Caribbean’s new beauty, Quantum of the Seas). Here are a few ideas if you’re staying at home this weekend.
As a nation, we’ve never really embraced candy corn have we? I love the look (and taste) of them, and when I was in America I tracked down these mixed fruit ones (probably terribly untraditional) and knew exactly what to do with them. What’s the best thing about Halloween? All the trick or treat sweets mixed up in a big bowl of course!
So since our original offer on the House of Bodily Fluids back in July, we really haven’t heard very much. We didn’t really chase it as I guess we’re not in a massive hurry, but all of a sudden it kind of dawned on us that we hadn’t had any paperwork, and started to chase a bit harder. Our solicitors, worryingly, had heard nothing at all from their solicitors. I drove past the house and they hadn’t even STARTED clearing it, and you can imagine what a job that’s going to be. Then we started to hear rumour that the probate wasn’t going smoothly and there were issues with the man’s business that had to be sorted before the house could be sold… Ugh.
One of my absolute favourite adventures while we were in Walt Disney World was a special, money can’t buy visit to Chef Jeff, Executive Chef at Disney’s beautiful Contemporary Resort, one of my top five Walt Disney World resort hotels. Chef Jeff and his team are responsible for all the patisserie for the resort, from gorgeous special occasion cakes, to the wonderful cupcakes available in the café.
Every time we’ve been out for a walk recently, we’ve been laughing at the dog, carefully picking off the choicest blackberries off the brambles along the way.
So it’s been a little frantic here at English Towers. First we had A level results, and then within a week it was GCSE results. Honestly, I really should have planned my children a little better.
Still, it was all good. I used the hashtag #noexamswerefailedonthisday on Instagram but in truth, one exam WAS failed. But hey, it didn’t matter. Sam got what he needed to head out into the big wide world of university, and Charlie’s off to sixth form.
If there’s one thing I always insist upon, it’s a celebration when someone’s done something brilliant. As parents, we spend plenty of time enforcing rules, cajoling, counselling (okay, and occasionally moaning), so when something amazing happens, I always think it redresses the balance a bit to celebrate. Everyone loves a pat on the back when they do something great, don’t they?
So obviously all this exam success called just such a celebration, and what better celebration is there than a whopping great warm, chocolatey, squishy brownie cake smothered in lashings of chocolate ganache? None, that’s what…
So my lovely, naughty, silly Dad is 79 this weekend. We tried to pin him down to a date to come for dinner, but he’s such a social butterfly that he didn’t have a day free. We compromised by persuading him to pop round after going out for dinner somewhere else to have the cheese and dessert courses with us! Read more
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!
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!!).
(Okay, so not really doom, but it made for a good title).
So, for the second birthday of April (our planning was a bit off, wasn’t it?), our lovely Sam turned 19. Already suffering from the blow of my youngest child turning 16, I was a bit more philosophical about this one.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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):
150g brown sugar
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.
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.
100g salted butter
175g light brown sugar
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!
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
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.
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!
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!
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