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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How to make mince pies – step by step

Tree mince pie small

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

200g cold butter

400g plain flour

1 tbsp caster sugar

Pinch salt

1 egg

1 clementine or tangerine, zest and juice (optional)

Cold water and a tablespoon (have them ready)

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

Butter small

Mix gently until it resembles breadcrumbs:

Breadcrumby

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

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

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

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

Pies

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

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

star mince pies

How to make a Victoria sponge, and a webby birthday

Victoria spongeHappy birthday to me!   

So it turns out that today, this little website is seven years old!  Imagine – seven years of blathering, recipes, mad teenagers (well, they weren’t even teenagers when I started), silly stuff, holidays, giggles, beaches, family, chicken-with-lemon-up-the-bum, the odd sad bit, cake, friends, Ireland, cocktails, England, embarrassing waxing incidents, and much more!

If you’ve been with me for the journey, I thank you for the bottom of my bottom for stopping by and reading my waffle, and if you’re new, thank you just as much and I hope this will be the first visit of many.

To celebrate, I baked a cake.  Well, you have to don’t you.  This is a special cake, because you know that baking ONLY works when you put your heart and soul into it, and if you’re not in the mood, nothing rises or turns out right.  This cake contained beautiful, fresh Buckinghamshire duck eggs from just down the road, and jam made today with raspberries picked by my Dad from his garden.  With that much love, it was bound to turn out well.

Making the jam

Victoria sponge with home made raspberry jam and chantilly cream

For the home made jam:

This jam is quick and easy.  It won’t last a massive amount of time, but it’s handy if you want to make small quantities.  You will need:

Raspberries (I had a large bowlful from my Dad’s garden – about 600g)

The same amount of sugar – I used half jam sugar and half granulated, but you can use all granulated, it will just be a bit runnier.

Weigh out the raspberries, then pop them in a large saucepan.  Weigh out the sugars so they come to the same weight as the raspberries, then pop that into the saucepan too.  Start on a low heat.  Stir until the sugar has melted and there’s no gritty feeling at the bottom of the saucepan, then crank up the heat and boil vigorously for about eight to ten minutes.  Watch out for boiling hot flying jam lava.

Do the little test when you put a teaspoonful on a cold saucer and see if it crinkles up when you push your finger through it.  If so, it’s fine.  If you don’t use it all, save the rest in a sterilised jam jar (here’s a link to my friend Mammy’s advice on sterilising jars) in the fridge and use it up within two or three weeks.

Leave the cakes to cool

For the vanilla sponge:

I used duck eggs (they make beautiful, moist, rich sponges and hey, it’s a special occasion), but hens eggs are fine too. Make sure they’re large and free range.  Weigh the eggs in their shells, then use the same amount of butter, sugar and self-raising flour.

So, you’ll need:

Butter, room temperature

Caster sugar (I used golden)

3 large eggs

2 tsp vanilla extract

Self-raising flour, sifted

2-3 tbsp milk

Whisk the butter and sugar with an electric whisk (or by hand if you’re feeling beefy) until it’s soft and pale and fluffy.

Break the eggs into a bowl and give them a quick mix with a fork just to break them up.  I add the vanilla in with the eggs too, then little by little whisk those in to the butter and sugar.

Have the flour weighed out ready so if it starts to curdle a bit you can add a spoonful in, otherwise just stir it in after you’ve mixed in all the eggs.

Add a splash of milk to loosen the mixture a bit, then divide it between two buttered medium cake tins and bake at 180/gas 4 for about 20 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Turn the cakes out onto a rack and leave them to cool completely.

For the chantilly cream:

1 tub double cream

2 or 3 tablespoons of icing sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

Whip the cream in a food processor or with a whisk until it’s just soft and fluffy.  Add in the icing sugar (sifted) and the vanilla extract and whip lightly again to combine.

To construct the Victoria sponge:

Place one cake on a flat surface and spread generously with your raspberry jam, then dollop on the cream.  I always make loads and cover the top cake too, but if you want, just pop all the cream in the middle.

Now place your second cake GENTLY upon the first.  Either add more cream (and maybe a few strawberries), or just shake a little icing sugar artily over the top.

TA DA!

Now if you’d like to sing a round of Happy Birthday, I’d be honoured…

Happy birthday to me!

 

How to make barbecue sauce – an easy step by step guide

Like many things in cooking, barbecue sauce is one of those things that you buy, until you finally make it yourself, then instantly realise that home made is ten times better than bought.

This sauce gets made all the time in our house.  It’s scrummy poured over meat, like pork belly strips, or sausages, before you cook them, or you can bubble it away a little to thicken it up, then serve it as a condiment with any sort of roast meats, burgers or chicken.

It’s delicious and really easy. I promise once you’ve made it once, you’ll be making it all the time!  If you’ve got lump-phobic children, you can give it a quick whizz with a hand blender for a smoother finish too.

You will need:

1 tbsp oil

1 red onion, finely chopped

About 1 tsp fresh ginger

4 tbsp cider vinegar

4 tbsps runny honey

2 tbsps brown sugar

1 tbsp worcestershire sauce

2 tbsps soy sauce

4 tbsps tomato ketchup

Pinch dried chilli

1 tbsp tomato purée

So firstly, pop the oil in a saucepan, and gently fry the onions until they’re starting to go a bit translucent.  Grate in the ginger (I keep my ginger in the freezer and grate it straight in), then basically just add in all the other ingredients.

If I’m cooking sausages, lamb chops or belly pork strips, what I do now is spoon about half of the mixture over the meat (make sure you line the tray with foil as the sauce does caramelise), and pop them in the oven for about half an hour.

With the rest of the sauce or if you just want it to serve with burgers or at a barbecue, just simmer until it thickens.  It will keep in the fridge for a few days too.

 

How to make chocolate brownies: an easy, step by step guide

There’s no getting away from it: brownies are yummy.  They’re also incredibly easy to make with basic ‘store cupboard’ ingredients.  I make these at least once a week, if not more, and their gorgeous, slightly squidgy fudginess is just perfect as an afternoon treat or poshed up with some whipped cream as an easy dessert.  Here’s how it’s done.

A word about chocolate

Firstly, a little note about chocolate.  Don’t, whatever you do, use cooking chocolate.  In fact, don’t EVER use it for anything, it’s poo.  Having said that, you don’t need to spend a fortune either.  Purists will recommend 70% dark chocolate, and yes that gives a lovely result, but I always keep a couple of bars of Bourneville in the cupboard, and I find it the perfect dark chocolate for cooking: not too bitter, but full of flavour.

Right, then.  On to the recipe:

How to make chocolate brownies:

You will need:

200g dark chocolate

170g salted butter (or add a pinch of salt if using unsalted)

3 free range eggs (room temperature is always better)

200g soft brown sugar (caster is fine if you don’t have any)

110g plain flour

So firstly, assemble all your ingredients together, and preheat the oven to gas 4/180 degrees.

The method

Step one: melt the butter and chocolate in a bain-marie (basically, a heatproof bowl (so not a plastic one) over a saucepan of just-simmering water – don’t let the bottom of the bowl come into contact with water).  Turn the water off when it’s just bubbling and stir the mixture gently until it’s combined.  Take it off the heat and allow to cool to room temperature (if you pour very hot chocolate into the eggy mixture, you risk getting blobs of scrambled egg in your brownies. Ick).

(c) Englishmum.com

Step two: meanwhile, whisk the eggs and sugar together until pale, light and frothy.  There is no raising agent in brownies, so the air whisked in at this stage will stop them being a big chocolate brick.

Step three: pour in the cooled chocolate/butter mixture and stir well.

Step four: lastly, add in the flour and any extras you’re adding (nuts… raisins… smarties… whatever, see below).  Stir briefly until the flour disappears.

Baking

I use a square silicone cake ‘tin’, given a little spritz of cake release spray, but any square or rectangular tin will do.  Make sure you line it very well as the brownies will stick.

Step five:  bake for about 30 minutes or until the top is cracked and shiny.  The centre should still be slightly soft and squidgy.

And that’s it. You are a brownie baker.  Reward yourself with a massive slab of brownie, served warm with ice cream (or if you’re serving as a dessert, whisk some cream with a bit of icing sugar and a slug of booze) or allow to cool and place in an airtight container.

Variations

So once you’ve mastered the basic recipe, you can do all sorts of wonderful things with brownies:

  • Try folding in 50g of white chocolate buttons, or a chopped up fudge bar
  • or add 50g almonds, or macademia nuts, or any nuts
  • Add 50g raisins soaked in a little rum, then drained
  • Replace 50g of the butter with peanut butter…
  • Chuck in a couple of handfuls of Malteasers
  • Stir in a couple of tablespoons of marmalade or cherry jam
  • Dot the top with fresh cherries, pushing them gently into the mixture
And when they’ve come out of the oven, you can drizzle them with chocolate, stack them and sandwich them with ganache… whatever you like.  If you’re feeling ultra-decadent, you can even whip up a cookie dough topping for them:
Cookie Dough Topping
130g butter, softened

130g muscovado sugar

100g caster sugar

4 tbsp milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

200g plain flour

100g dark chocolate, chopped (or chocolate chips)

Whizz up the butter and sugars with the electric whisk, add in the milk and vanilla and whizz some more.  Stir in the flour (it seems a lot, but it all goes in eventually).  Finally, stir in the chocolate chips.  Spread over the top of your cooled brownie and refrigerate.

If you still don’t think it’s coronary-inducing enough, you can finish by spreading a layer of melted chocolate over the chilled cookie dough.  But that would just be silly.

Oh…

How to make a chicken pie (or any pie!): an easy step by step guide (including how to make pastry)

Pastry always seems a bit terrifying.  But honestly, have a think about it: it’s really just a vessel to hold delicious contents, all of which will spill out over your pastry making it all taste yummy anyway.  And if it’s a little thick or a bit uneven, who cares? That’s what home made food is all about.  If you know how to make a chicken pie (or any pie!) it’s such a versatile skill.  So come on, let’s dive in: practice makes perfect!

Pie dishes

A quick word about pie dishes.  By all means use a classic ceramic pie dish but you’ll get a much better result by using a metal tin. I swear by Mermaid, who do proper hard anodised aluminium tins that you can use on the  hob and in the oven (this one’s actually a tarte tatin dish) – they conduct the heat really well, resulting in nice, crisp pastry and an even bake.

How to make pastry

The best tip I can give you about making pastry is to keep everything as cool as possible.  Sweaty hands make for a big gluey mess, so try and keep to just using the tips of your fingers, and use a light touch.

For standard, shortcrust pastry, you’ll need:

200g cold butter

400g plain flour

Pinch salt

1 egg

You can make pastry in the food processor, or by hand.  Here are both versions:

Making pastry by hand:

Cut the cold butter into cubes, and add it to the flour:

… add in the salt, and then rub in the butter gently with just your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs:

Now add the egg.  It’s less messy initially so use a knife to just stir it around until it starts to come together.  Then, with your hands, bring it together into a dough.  Don’t knead it, remember, just treat it very gently.

Making pastry in the food processor

Chop the cold butter into cubes and add it to the flour and salt.  Process it until it looks like breadcrumbs.

Now plop in the egg and pulse slowly until it comes together.

Every time you make pastry it will be different: flours can have different moisture levels and eggs can be different sizes, but you should find it comes together into a ball quite well.  If it’s really dry, add a tablespoon or two of cold water, but you don’t want a wet mess, be very sparing.

At this stage, with either processor-made or hand-made pastry, you’ll have a rough ball of dough.  Now just wrap it in clingfilm and chill for about 2o minutes.

This is the stage where you can get on with making your filling.  I’ve made a creamy chicken filling, but you can use your imagination and fill it with whatever you like: beef and mushrooms in gravy… fish in a creamy sauce… (or veggies) or, if you fancy a sweet pie (add a tablespoon of caster sugar to your pastry), apple, cherry… the list is endless.  Leftovers make fab pies. We always make turkey and ham on Boxing Day, and leftover curry makes a lovely pie too.

Filling for a creamy chicken pie

1 tbsp rapeseed oil

1 shallot, finely sliced

2 large free-range chicken breasts (or leftover chicken or turkey)

Couple of slices of nice ham (or leftover gammon, cut into chunks)

Dash of double cream

About 200-300ml chicken stock (cube is fine)

So gently fry the shallot in the oil until translucent and add in your cubes of chicken breast. Fry until just coloured (remember it’ll cook properly in the oven), then add the ham (snipped into little pieces, or chopped), season well (not too much salt – the ham’s salty) and then the splosh of cream.  Pour in the stock and leave to bubble away and reduce a little (you don’t want too much ‘juice’ in the pie as it will make the pastry soggy).  Add in some fresh herbs if you like, too.  Thyme is delicious with chicken, and so is tarragon.

Once your filling is done, leave it to one side to cool while you roll out the pastry.  Oh, and this is a good time to preheat the oven to 180/gas 4.

Rolling out the pastry

Retrieve it from the fridge, flour your work surface AND your rolling pin really well.  Divide your pastry into two pieces: one about 2/3 for the base and the other 1/3 for the top.

Roll the larger piece out to about 5-6mm thick, moving the pastry around in 1/4 turns as you roll until you’ve got a rough circle.  This will prevent the pastry from sticking to the work surface.  Remember: it doesn’t have to be perfect!

Roll the pastry up around the rolling pin, then unroll it over your pie dish.  Push it down gently, and use little extra bits to fill any holes or cracks.  Don’t worry too much – it’s home made!

Now spoon in your cooled filling.  Don’t put hot filling into the pie as it will begin to melt the butter and you’ll get the dreaded ‘soggy bottom’!

Now do the same thing with the final third of pastry.  Unroll it over your filling and crimp the edges with your fingers, or a fork so that they’re sealed together.

If you’re feeling arty, make some letters (I’m desperate to do a pie that says ‘bum’) or cut out leaves or whatever.  Pass swiftly on to the eggy wash department for a brush with beaten egg or milk (grab a passing child if you can) and pop in the oven for about half an hour at 180/gas 4.

And yes, sometimes it all goes wrong (this one needed that extra bit of cold water – the patry was far too crumbly) just laugh at yourself and serve it up anyway – it will still taste lovely! (oh, and writing BUM on it is excellent therapy too, trust me).

And that’s it. YOU MADE A PIE!  You’re a genius.

Step by step spiced orange hot cross buns

Let’s face it: Easter just isn’t Easter without hot cross buns.

And chocolate.

But mostly hot cross buns.

If you’re feeling a bit daunted by the whole prospect of making your own, don’t be. Let Auntie English Mum guide you through the whole process.  Think of me as a little friend hovering at your shoulder in the kitchen.  Actually don’t.  That’s a bit creepy.

Anyhoo, it’s really easy (with a bit of waiting around), and the gorgeous scent of these spicy orangey wonders fills the whole house.  So let’s get cracking.

You’ll need:

150ml milk

150ml water

Zest of 1 orange

50g butter

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)

For the cross:

2 tbsp flour

1 tsp caster sugar

For the glaze:

1 tbsp orange marmalade, rindless or sieved

Step one:

Before you start, assemble and weigh out your ingredients.  This will save you time and prevent any flapping half way through the recipe.

So in a small saucepan (or jug if you’re doing it in the microwave) warm the milk, water, orange zest (use the finest grater you have) and butter until the butter is just melted, then turn off the heat.  Let it cool so that when you stick your finger in, it feels like blood temperature.

Step two:

While the liquid is cooling, sieve the flour and ground mixed spice together into a large bowl.  Next, stir in the salt, sugar, dried yeast and sultanas (have a quick pick over to make sure there are no stalks left).

Step three:

If you’ve got a mixer,  pop in all the dry ingredients, then 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.

If you’re old-fashionedy or are still waiting to meet the mixer of your dreams (they do actually come out nicer and lighter if you knead them by hand), you’ll have to get to it for at least ten minutes.  Yes, I know, sorry, but it’s true.  Knead away, holding the dough lightly with one hand while you stretch it away from you with the other, before bringing it together and repeating the process.  The sultanas keep trying to escape, but grab any of the little blighters trying to make a quick getaway and poke them back in. Keep going until the dough is nice and springy and firm (think the texture of a boob, or possibly a bottom cheek – poke your finger in – if the dough springs back, then it’s done – if not, knead a bit more).  Disclaimer: possibly best if you don’t actually do this with people’s boobs.

Step four:

When your dough is sufficiently springy, leave it covered with a clean tea towel in a warm place until it’s doubled in size.   Then, just knock it back with your fist 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 floured baking tray.  Cover and rise again until they’re puffed up.

Step five:

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 thick paste and either just dribble it with a teaspoon, or pipe it onto your buns (ooer Missus) with a disposable piping bag.  Or, you can cut a cross in the top of the buns and pipe the cross into the little lines.  Totally up to you.

Step six:

Bake for about 15-20 minutes at 180/gas 6 until they sound hollow when patted on the bottom.  Finally, when they’re just out of the oven,  warm up the marmalade with a splash of water and brush it on for extra glossy stickiness (use rindless here – you don’t want bits of peel sticking to your buns). If you’re going to freeze them, slice them in half first so they can go straight in the toaster.

And that’s it.  Congratulations, you are a master bun maker.  Go you!

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

An ‘heirloom’, personalised Christmas Cake recipe

I’ve written at length (and ad nauseum, probably) about Christmas cake before.  There are all sorts of Christmas cake recipes out there – those ones that have been handed down from grandparents and great grandparents, and others from Delia or Nigella that people swear by.

As I’ve said before, I’ve got a bit of an aversion to food snobbery, and a healthy addiction to the ‘bung it all in and see what happens’ technique.  Basically, as long as you keep the basic proportions right, it will come out okay.  And don’t put stuff in just because it says so in the recipe.  If you don’t like peel (bleurgh), leave it out and add a bit more of something else. It’s your cake.   Some people soak their dried fruit for days (or weeks) beforehand, but I’m afraid I’m lacking in the required patience.  If you fancy the fruit soaking version though, I’d heartily recommend the recipe on Ruth’s website, The Pink Whisk.

So here’s the cake(s) that I made this year.  For ingredient notes and aternatives, please skip to the end of this recipe.

The Personalised Christmas Cake

800g dried fruit (I used 350g sultanas, 200g dried cranberries, 100g dried apricots, 100g ready to eat dried prunes, 50g glacé cherries)

175ml good quality rapeseed oil or 200g butter

200g dark brown sugar

2 tbsp honey

2 tbsp black treacle

120ml Pedro Ximenez sherry

120ml orange juice (or two fresh oranges, juiced)

About 2tsp spice (I used cinnamon, ginger and a grating of nutmeg)

3 eggs

200g self raising flour (or 300g flour and omit ground almonds).

100g ground almonds

Before you start:

Sort everything out: preheat the oven to gas 2/150 C and double line the bottom of your cake tin/tins with parchment paper, and up the sides too (tiger stripe pattern optional).  Weigh all your stuff, crack the eggs into a bowl and mix them… just get yourself completely ready.

Step one:

Pop the dried fruit into a large saucepan along with the butter, sugar, honey, booze, fruit juice and spices.  Stir gently over a low heat until the butter is melted and the sugar is completely dissolved.  You can bring it up to a gentle bubble, but don’t let it boil vigorously as your alcohol will disappear.

Now leave it to cool.  If you add the eggs straight in, they’ll be scrambled.  You can leave it overnight to steep if you like.  Oh, and at this stage, have a taste!  If it doesn’t taste sweet enough, add something else sweet (this is often the case if you’ve used brandy or whisky which doesn’t have much natural sweetness, as opposed to, say, a liqueur – Nigella suggests a tablespoon of marmalade, which I think is a great idea – or maybe cranberry sauce?).  If it’s overpoweringly, cloyingly sweet, then a squeeze of lemon, maybe?  It’s your cake – do it how you like it.

Step two: 

When cooled, stir in the eggs, flour and ground almonds.  Pile into your one large springform tin, or two smaller ones and bake for about an hour and a half for the two small ones, or up to two hours for the large.

Test by pushing a skewer into the centre of the cake.  It should come out clean.

And that’s it! Congratulations, you’ve made a Christmas cake (or two).

Cover the cake(s) in foil while they cool to stop the tops going hard.  Then, when completely cool, wrap up the cake in parchment paper and then foil, and stash somewhere until you need it, occasionally unwrapping your gorgeous present to stab it with a cocktail stick and slosh with a couple of tablespoons of your chosen booze.  Or just eat straight away.

You can do all that fancy pants marzipan and icing stuff, but for god’s sake don’t look to me for inspiration.  I have the artistic ability of a small pickled onion.

Make sure you write your recipe down.  You just created a family heirloom!  For tips on marzipan, icing and decorating, click here.

NOTES ON INGREDIENTS:

Dried Fruit

One rule here: choose what you like.  As I mentioned above, I hate peel with a vengeance so I leave it out.  Other people use glacé fruits, snipped into little pieces.  I used a 300g luxury pack of mixed raisins, apricots and cranberries which I saw in a nice foodie place and bought, then topped it up with random half packs of leftover cranberries, prunes (chopped into pieces), dried apricots and sultanas.  Pick what suits you, bin the rest.

Butter vs Oil

Generally if you need lightness in a cake, butter helps as you can beat in air and it holds it well, but I’m finding I’m using more and more oil, (you can whisk it with the eggs and get a similar airy effect), especially Rapeseed, which adds a subtle nutty flavour and, being rich in vitamin E, high in Omega 3 and half the saturated fat of olive oil is obviously a healthy option.  In this recipe you want the moistness, etc, but not the air, so use oil if you like.  I made this cake with local P E Mead rapeseed oil, which is my absolute favourite and it turned out perfectly.  There’s obviously a bit of water content in butter, so if you’re substituting oil use slightly less.  Having said that, don’t kill yourself (you know me, I don’t do adding up): 100g of butter will be about 90 – 100ml oil.

Sugar

Again, use what you’ve got – the darker the sugar, the more treacly the taste.  I used Muscovado.  You’re melting it, so it doesn’t matter how big the granulation is.

Honey

The honey here gives moistness and sweetness, but you could substitute golden syrup if you don’t like (or are allergic to) honey.  I used Rowse Supahoney with lemon, because I absolutely love its taste (I’m a bit into Manuka honey) and use it all the time so I had a pot open.  You could also use black treacle which gives a lovely dark toffee taste, or mix the two.

The Booze

No rules here.  I’ve used Morgan’s Spiced Rum which has a gorgeous vanilla flavour but not much sweetness, cherry brandy, which not only has that lovely sweet cherry taste, but gives an almondy hit too and plain brandy as well.  Use whatever you like/whatever you have.  Again, taste your mixture and adjust sweetness accordingly.  If you don’t want to use alcohol, just double up on the fruit juice.

Fruit Juice

I used cranberry juice, because I thought it would go nicely with the dried cranberries, but you can use freshly squeezed orange juice (bung in the zest too for an extra zing), or juice out of a carton.  It honestly doesn’t matter.

Spice

I make a lot of curries so my spice turnover is quite high.  All I would say is, if the jar of ‘Mixed Spice’ in your cupboard was purchased in the 1940s it’s not going to add much to your cake.  I used 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp ground ginger and a good grating of nutmeg, but use what you have: mixed spice/ginger/cinnamon/ground nutmeg (not too much, it can be overpowering).  Just make sure it’s fresh.

 

How to roast a chicken (with a lemon up its bum) step by step

So we’ve trifled with titles: roast lemon chicken, poulet au citron… whatever.  In our house it always comes back to ‘roast chicken with a lemon up its bum’.   Anatomically correct? Probably not, but it’s kind of stuck.

Roast chicken is the easiest of meals.  A quick fiddle, bung it in the oven and your work is done.  First things first, though, you must choose your chicken wisely.  ‘Oh bloody hell’, I hear you cry, ‘here she goes with that free range guff again’, but I won’t be budged: anything other than free range chicken is not an option in my book.  I’d rather have chicken less often and have a clear conscience than buy into the terrible cruelty that is intensive farming.  There, I’ve said it.  This free-range whopper (2.2kg) set me back £10.00 in Tesco.  I don’t think that’s bad at all as it’ll probably feed the four of us for two, maybe even three meals.  It’s all about using it wisely.  In our house a roast chicken will go on to be stock and then soup, and maybe risotto or pilaff too.  There are plenty of farmers markets, farm shops and other places doing really great chickens.  Shop around and vote with your money and your feet.  Right, moving on, then…

Preparation:

Firstly, as with your Christmas turkey, don’t be tempted to rinse it under the tap.  The oven temperatures will kill any nasties and you’ll just splash a load of germs around your sink.

The easiest way then is to do nothing.  Shove a good quality chicken in the oven on a baking tray with absolutely no adornment and it will still taste delicious.  However, anoint it a bit and twiddle with some flavours and it will taste spectacular.  As you know, I favour the ‘lemon up the bum’ technique: slice a lemon in half and pop it inside the cavity.  The scent of lemon will infuse into the meat beautifully as it steams inside the bird.  Dribble a little rapeseed oil on top (or rub with butter) and sprinkle with salt and pepper and you will moisten the breast and flavour the skin too.

If you want to, though, go wild.  Be inventive.  Cover your chicken with maple syrup… sprinkle with chilli flakes, or rub it with tandoori paste.  Stuff it with handfuls of herbs and a couple of onions… the possibilities are endless.

Oven temperature:

Ah the interwebz – a delectable tangle of information.  Generally, too much information.  If you search ‘how to roast a chicken’ you’ll get a thousand people (a thousand and one, now) telling you a thousand different ways: 45 minutes per kg and then 30 minutes, or maybe 20 minutes for 500g and then 20 minutes…  Gas mark 4… gas mark 5…  You get the picture.

I’m not one for faffing, so I keep it simple: I set the oven at 190/gas 5  and then if it’s a 1kg chicken, I cook it for an hour.  If it’s 1.5kg I cook it for and 15 or so, 2kg about an hour and a half.. and so on.  If you check it ten minutes before and it’s done, then just whip it out.  Not quite there? Leave it another ten.

Checking to see if the chicken is cooked:

The easiest way is to undo a leg (if it’s tied to the other one) and give it a wobble.  If it’s very easy to move, then it’s done.  You can also stab it in the thickest part of the thigh, catch the juices in a spoon, and make sure they’re clear.  If there’s any blood, pop it back in for a while.

Resting:

If you carve a bird straight out of the oven, the flesh just ‘fluffs’ up and you can’t get a decent slice.  Cover your bird with foil and a teatowel and leave it to ‘chillada’ for ten or fifteen minutes and everything will have calmed down a bit.  Now you can carve it easily.

Accompaniments:

Again, the world’s your oyster.  Serve the chicken traditional-style with gravy, roast potatoes and vegetables, or in summer try some lovely roasted veg and some minted new potatoes.  It’s lovely with couscous and wonderful just picked at with a massive salad and loads of fresh crusty bread.

In Dubai, they served roasted meat with a glorious spicy mixture of cabbage cooked in cream with sultanas.  It tasted divine.

Leftovers:

Yes, picking over a roast chicken is a pain, but stuff it in the fridge overnight and the next day it will be much easier to pick.  Don’t forget to turn it over and get all those lovely bits from underneath – perfect for sandwiches, salads, risotto and curry.  Finally, use the carcass to make stock and you’ve really done it justice.

For the wine:

… it’s over to the gorgeous Helen – a fabulous bundle of loveliness, a dear friend and… coincidentally, a wine expert (check out how fantastic wine blog, Knackered Mothers’ Wine Club):

”So, for roast chicken, a fuller-bodied Chardonnay often does the trick. However, EM has cleverly added lemon, garlic and rosemary flavours to the mix so this dish needs something with a bit more weight and flavour to it. If you want to stick with white, go for a rich style of Chardonnay with a bit of oak but – honestly – red will work better. Chianti is the answer: great flavours to match the garlic and rosemary but not too overpowering to cover the flavour of the chicken.”

Off you go, then.  And if anyone can think of a better title for the ‘lemon up the bum’ bit – feel free to let me know.

Jubilee cake

How to make a cake: a step by step guide

Everything you need to know about how to make a cake: step by step instructions and notes on ingredients, utensils, baking, flavouring, icing and filling.

If I had a pound for every time somebody said to me ‘I can’t make cakes’ or ‘I wish I could bake – it always goes wrong’, I’d be… well, not exactly rich, but I’d have a big pile of pound coins.

If you’ve ever uttered either of the above, don’t despair: here is how to make a cake – an easy, step by step, foolproof guide to the perfect light, spongey sponge cake, complete with tips, dos, don’ts and ABSOLUTELY DON’Ts thrown in for good measure. I’m not saying this is the ONLY way, but it’s a great way to start. And once you’ve got your baking confidence, there’ll be no stopping you.

First: ingredients

It goes without saying that the best ingredients will make the best cake. Baking is a feel-good endeavour. A sponge cake made with lovely ingredients, and lots of love, will be the best cake in the world.  I know I’ve said it before, but don’t bake when you’re tired, fed up or in a hurry.  It’ll go wrong – well, mine always does anyway.

Eggs

Fresh, free-range eggs with those startling golden yellow yolks will make better cakes than those awful, sad, battery-hen ones.

Butter

Likewise, gorgeous fresh farmhouse butter will make a cake taste much better than horrid, greasy margarine. Okay, it might be higher in fat, but hey we’re making a cake. If you don’t want fat, don’t eat cake! Moderation in all things, I reckon.

Flour

You don’t have to have self-raising flour. In fact, self-raising soon loses its raising power if it gets old. It’s easy to make your own self-raising with plain flour. Just add a level teaspoon of baking powder per 100g of plain flour.

Sugar

Plain old supermarket caster sugar is fine.  Don’t use granulated if you can help it as the grains are a bit too big and you can end up with a gritty texture (you could always give it a whizz in a grinder or blender to break down the grains).  Golden caster sugar is less refined than the white stuff – it’s lovely (if a bit more expensive) and gives a subtle hint of toffee too.

Temperatures

Room temperature eggs will whip better and incorporate more air into your mix, as will softened (not melted) butter. Take everything out of the fridge a good hour before you intend to start baking. If you need to bring your butter up to room temperature quickly, cut it into squares and plop it into some tepid (not warm) water. It’ll soon soften up.

Measuring

The easiest way to make a plain sponge cake is to just weigh your eggs in the shells (this sort of cake is also called a pound cake as it used to contain a pound of each ingredient – how anyone ever ate a cake that big, I’ll never know).  To make an average sized cake, use three eggs.  Whatever the eggs weigh will be the measurement you use for the butter, flour and sugar too. If you want to make it a chocolate cake, take out 1 tablespoon of the flour and replace it with cocoa powder (not hot chocolate powder – that’s different).  Giving it all a quick sieve will remove any lumps and incorporate more air.

Mixing

Here we go with the basic method, then…

  1. First weigh out all your ingredients. It’s easiest to crack the eggs into a separate bowl after you’ve weighed them. You never know when you’re going to get a bit of shell dropping into your cake mix.  So say your eggs weigh.. 180g. Weigh out the same amount of butter, flour and caster sugar.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar together. You want it really light and fluffy, which is a sign that there is lots of air incorporated, so keep going until it’s considerably lighter in colour. You can do this in a food mixer, or just with a wooden spoon.
  3. Now start to add in your eggs… dribble them in a bit at a time giving the mixture a good beat in between each dribble. Don’t worry too much if it starts to look a bit curdly. You can always add a spoonful of flour to bring it back to a creamy consistency.  If you’re adding liquid (ie vanilla essence or lemon juice), now is the time.
  4. Once all the eggs are mixed in, just fold in the sifted flour (and cocoa if you’re using it). Remember just to give it the minimum amount of folding. You’re not making bread so you don’t want to work the gluten too much and lose the lightness.  Next, spoon the mixture into a prepared cake tin.

Cake tins

Any old medium sized cake tin will do.  If you use three eggs you’ll find that this amount of mixture is perfect for two 22cm tins (perfect for sandwiching together with cream or jam), or one 26cm tin (remember it’s the depth of the cake mix not the size of the tin that governs how long it will take to cook).  Cake tins are measured by their diameter (the straight measurement from one side to the other, measured through the middle).  I have Bake-o-glide cut ready to fit my favourite tins, but baking parchment is fine too. For a circle, just take a square of parchment bigger than your tin, fold it in half, then keep folding the outsides in (keeping one point which will be the middle of your circle) again until you’ve got a triangle. Hold the triangle point roughly where the middle of the tin is, then nick the end off at the outside edge of the tin. When you unfold it you’ll have a rough circle.  You can also just brush the surface with butter, then add a tbsp of flour and shake it all around the tin, tapping out the excess.  Smooth over the surface but don’t worry too much.

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Baking

I use the middle of my oven and as it cooks slightly unevenly, I turn the cake around half way through cooking. A cake this large will take anything from 30 – 45 minutes at 180/gas 4 – depending on how wide/deep your tin is.  Smaller ones will take less time. Check them after 20 minutes.

If you think your cake looks done, gently touch the top of the cake – if there’s any wobble, or it feels really soft and leaves a dent – leave it a bit longer. You can check by popping a knife into the middle – if it comes out clean, it’s done.

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Leave your cake to cool on a rack, then you can ice, decorate or fill as you fancy.

Let’s take a minute here though – LOOK! YOU BAKED A CAKE!

Ganache

If you want to make ganache to fill or cover your cake, just melt half a large bar of chocolate (about 100g) in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water (just a couple of inches of water – you don’t want it to touch the bowl). When it’s melted, just whisk in enough double cream to get a nice spreading consistency. If you chill it down now, you can whip it go make it more airy too. Up to you.

Buttercream

Buttercream’s really easy to remember as it’s just double icing sugar to butter. Add a splosh of milk, a teaspoon of vanilla extract and whisk until light and fluffy. It makes great piped swirly things on cupcakes too.

So what’s next?

Once you’ve got to grips with making cakes you can start tweaking the recipe a little – maybe adding vanilla…dried fruit… lemon zest… chocolate chips or some chopped nuts… You can make the  two smaller sponges (reduce the cooking time) and sandwich them together with jam or cream, or layer them up with some yummy ganache or buttercream… the sky’s the limit! For an easy pudding, try using brown sugar, for a more toffeeish flavour, and adding chopped dates.  Serve warm with a quick toffee sauce made by melting  100g each of butter and brown sugar, then adding about 100ml of cream and stirring and bubbling until you have a lovely sauce.

If you’ve liked this post, feel free to try some of my other step by step guides, including:

How to make chocolate brownies

How to make a chicken pie

Step by step spiced orange hot cross buns

Sticky gooey plumptious scrumptious soft iced buns

Step by step pancakes

An  ‘heirloom’ personalised Christmas Cake recipe

Step by step chicken stock

Easy step by step bread, and how to knead

How to roast a chicken

 

Step by step chicken stock, chicken soup and herby cheesy bread

Friday was a roast chicken kind of day. We lazed around, watched the Royal Wedding (which incidentally, I thought I’d feel really ‘meh’ about, but loved every minute and even had a bit of a blub – wasn’t she divine?) and did very little.

Our dinner was a chicken, roasted with a ‘lemon up its bum’ (won’t make a page in my recipe book, admittedly, but it’s a family favourite) and some local new season potatoes and simple veggies. Afterwards, we sat chatting at the table, picking at the leftover chicken with our fingers. ‘This is my favourite way to eat chicken’, said the Mad Professor. I have to agree.

Of course, the very best thing about chicken is that you get to make chicken soup the next day. I’m a bit of a random soup maker, so there could be anything in there – parsnips… potatoes…  a handful or two of lentils… leftover bacon… whatever takes my fancy. Generally, though, my method is the same.

For the basic stock:

First, pick over the chicken – you’ll be surprised how much meat you can still get off, even when you think it’s nearly finished. With the carcass on a board, have a bowl and a large stock pot in front of you. As you pick, place the nice bits of chicken in the bowl, and any dodgy bits or skin in the pot. When you’ve finished, chuck the rest of the carcass in the pot, cover generously with water (anything up to 2L really) and then bung in your flavourings, popping the bowl of choice chicken back into the fridge.

Flavourings:

Depending on your personal preference, and what you’ve got leftover, this could be a couple of onions, a couple of carrots, a few peppercorns, parsley stalks, bay leaves, garlic… Pop in a generous pinch of sea salt, but don’t go mad, you can adjust this later.

Then just boil it up – leave it for as long as you want as the flavours will just intensify – I’ll often leave it bubbling away for a couple of hours.

Now just cool and strain. I can’t bear to throw away anything remotely edible like the carrots, onions, etc, but of course you can. At this stage you can freeze the stock, or carry on and make soup.

To make soup:

Pop in a couple of carrots, parsnips, leeks… (again, whatever you have) and then add a couple of handfuls of lentils – this thickens it up nicely. Leave it to simmer and get on with the bread…

Cheesy herby bread:

225g self raising flour

50g butter

110g strong cheddar, grated

Couple tbsp chopped herbs – whatever you have – I often just use dried mixed herbs

1 egg

200ml milk

Of course these wedges are really more like scones, but they’re so easy to make and go perfectly with soup.

Put the flour into a large bowl, season generously with salt and pepper, then rub in the butter just like you would for, say, a crumble, until it looks breadcrumby. Grate the cheese and stir into the flour mixture with a fork until well blended (you don’t want big lumps of cheese) and add in the herbs. Then measure out your milk in a jug, add the egg and whisk until combined. Pour slowly into the floury cheesy mixture, mixing until it just comes together and makes a soft dough. You can reserve any leftover egg/milk mixture to brush onto the top before baking.

Tip the dough out onto a floured surface and give it a gentle knead just until it comes together in a nice ball. Flatten it out until it’s about 2″ thick and vaguely circular and then just divide it into six or eight wedges. Brush with the leftover milky mixture and bake at 200 degrees for about 15 minutes.

Lastly, blend up the soup and add back in the nice bits of chicken, stirring to warm them through well. Serve with some yummy herby cheesy bread, and feel all smug and self-sufficient.

Oh, and remember if you’re a food blogger – it’s best to take the picture before they eat the food.

Easy, step by step bread. And how to knead.

There is nothing, I think, quite as delicious as the smell of bread baking.  I know there are times in the kitchen when you want to rush in, whip up something quick, and rush out again, but there are other times when a quiet potter is just fabulous.  For those times, breadmaking is ideal.  I love kneading bread – there’s something quite hypnotic and soothing about it – and producing a home-made loaf is possibly one of the most satisfying things you can do.

As you know, I’m a bit of a rapeseed oil nut, and it’s perfect for this recipe, being both very healthy and pleasantly nutty in flavour, but you can use olive oil or melted butter. Just make sure it weighs 50g.

450g strong white bread flour

2tsp salt (remember a tsp is flat though, don’t overdo it)

1 sachet (7g) yeast

50g rapeseed oil

300ml warm water

So first, sift the flour and salt, then stir in the yeast.  Measure out the oil, pour that in, then use the same jug to measure the warm water (it’ll pick up some of the oil that was left in the jug) and pour that in.

Stir it around with a wooden spoon, then when it’s roughly together, flump it out onto your work surface.

The science bit:

Think of gluten as the spongy network that holds all the bubbles (of carbon dioxide, but hey, that’s me being picky) produced by the yeast in place.  This is the most important bit of bread making. You want the gluten to form nice strong chains – under-kneaded bread will be tough, so don’t skimp.

Kneading technique:

Everyone’s got their own techniques, but all you’re aiming to do is stretch and develop the gluten and aerate the dough (as well as making sure that all your ingredients are thoroughly mixed).  Most forms of squishing, folding and stretching will do the trick.

First things first: don’t worry if your dough is sticky – you want your dough to be sticky.  Your fingers will get covered in dough – don’t worry!  The stickier your dough,the softer and more plumptious your bread.

Start off roughly squeezing it together and then start pushing it away from you with the heel of one hand (you have to use your imagination a bit here, because obviously my other hand was holding the camera).  Really smoosh the dough across the work surface:

… then bring it in, folding it over, and squish it together:

…then push it away from you again.  Carry on doing that until your dough is soft, stretchy and plump – about ten minutes should do it – and bounces back when you stick your finger into it (I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but yes, it should be the texture of a nice soft bum cheek).

Rising:

Flour the bowl and pop your ball of dough into it.  Loosely cover with clingfilm and pop into your airing cupboard alongside the pillows and enormously fat, bad tempered cat (hence the clingfilm).  Leave it for a good hour or until it’s doubled in size.

Knocking back:

Fetch your dough, avoiding your unpleasant feline, pull it away from the edges and give it a couple of thumps with your fist to knock it back.

Additions:

This is the time to add stuff in if you’re being fancy: olives, sundried tomatoes, seeds… whatever you like.  As a rough estimate, I’d keep the ingredients to under 150g.

Shaping:

Plop it once more onto a floured surface. This time, you’re thinking finished product, so give it a quick squish and start forming it into whatever shape you like.  Being blessed with the decorative talent of an amoeba, I usually go for something plain – a rough, ball shape with a slit down the middle, but hey, if you want to plait, don’t let me stop you.

Second rise:

Flour a baking tray and place the dough on it, loosely covering it again and then it’s back to the airing cupboard or sunny windowsill for its final rise.  It probably won’t take another hour, but just wait until it’s nice and puffed up.

Baking:

Preheat the oven to 200/gas 6 and bake for about 20 – 30 minutes.  Obviously a ball shape is going to take longer to cook than a flatter shape.  When it’s done it will be browned, and will sound hollow when you tap its bottom (ooer).

This is quite a soft, farmhouse loaf, but it’s got a lovely texture.  Obviously it won’t keep as well as plastic bread, so it’s best to scoff it warm from the oven.

PS: If you’re a first-time bread maker, make sure you take a picture of your efforts – great competition coming up very soon!

You might also like:

Browse bread recipes

Christmas Pudding: step by step

Righty ho, then, so two days to Stir-up Sunday, which gives me carte blanche to get all Christmassy even though it’s still not December.  Bonus.

This is a two-day kind of Christmas pudding so I’m not sure about the logistics involved – do you start on the Saturday then finish on the Stir-Up Sunday?  Or do you start on the Sunday and finish on the Monday?

Anyhoo, I’m sure there’s no Stir-Up police or anything, so you should be fine whatever you decide.  I thought I’d get you going today just in case you need to pop out for any supplies before you start.

As with the Christmas Cake, this recipe is a guide.  Nobody’s going to hunt you down and shoot you if you don’t follow it to the letter.  Substitute orange juice or cranberry juice if you don’t like alcohol, and as usual if you eat peel (you monster, you),  add that in place of something else.  As long as you don’t mess with the quantities too much you’ll be fine.  Here goes, then:

500g dried fruit – sultanas, raisins, dried cranberries, chopped dates… whatever you like.

1 tbsp Maraschino cherries, halved (optional, but it’s nice to see a little glistening bit of red when you cut it open)

1 lemon

100ml black tea (I used Earl Grey)

100ml Morgan’s Spiced Rum (or whatever booze you like), plus extra for the cook

1 cinnamon stick, snapped in half

100g self raising flour (or rice flour for gluten free – thanks as always to the lovely Pippa for this addition)

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

150g veggie suet

150g dark muscovado sugar

25g almonds or pistachio nuts, finely chopped

1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

1/2 tsp ground mixed spice

3 eggs, beaten

1 tbsp honey

1 tbsp black treacle

1 Bramley apple, grated

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

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

The next day, then, weigh out all the dry ingredients and combine them in a huge bowl.  The muscovado sugar can be a bit lumpy so you might need to sieve it to break up any lumps.

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

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

Now butter one of those big, lidded plastic basins (3 pint/1.7  litre) or two small ones and bung in your mixture.  Put on the lid, then cover it in foil.  If your basin doesn’t have a lid you’ll need to use buttered greaseproof paper, then foil, then tie it tightly with string (or you can tie it in a muslin, or use one of those special circular moulds).

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

And that’s it, you’re done.  Let it cool then stash it away (don’t unwrap it!) for Christmas day when it’ll need to steam for about another 2.5 to 3 hours (don’t worry if it gets a bit longer, it won’t ruin it).

BTW: If you want to make these cute little mini puddings instead, remember to put a teeny piece of buttered greaseproof paper in the bottom of your ramekin, otherwise you’ll never get the buggers out.  Then you can just cover them with foil, put them on a deep baking tray, add boiling water to half way up the sides of the ramekins, and bake in the oven for 30 minutes on 180/gas 4.

BTW 2: Nigella advocates vodka rather than brandy to flame a pudding – apparently the flame is better and lasts longer.  Just mind your eyebrows

Off you trot then.  Give everybody a stir, let them make a wish, and then make them do the washing up.  You deserve a break.

For one day only, Sainsbury’s baking agony aunts will man the UK’s first dedicated helpline for first time bakers or victims of previous cake baking disasters to coincide with Stir up Sunday – 21st November.

Traditionally a day used to bake the family Christmas cake, Sainsbury’s is encouraging bakers across the UK to get baking safe in the knowledge that help is at hand to produce Christmas cakes and puddings to delight the whole family.

Phone 020 7695 6191/2 or log on to www.facebook.com/sainsburys on the 21st November to get expert advice from a select committee of baking ‘agony aunts’ who will be able to provide answers to your festive baking dilemmas, suggest shortcuts and share priceless tips used in their own kitchens.

Christmas Countdown: An easy two step ‘personalised’ Christmas cake

One of the things that fascinates me about cooking is the alchemy: why you need x when you bake with y, or how one ingredient affects the others in a dish.  This nosiness (teamed with an endless desire to be baking), often leads to disaster, but hey, if you don’t make mistakes you never learn.

I dislike the snobbery surrounding food, and, like Nigel Slater, believe a recipe is a guideline, not a set of rules to be blindly followed.  Take Christmas cake.  I’m sure a lot of people look at a Christmas cake recipe, with its lists of dried fruit in various quantities, and feel  thoroughly intimidated, but hey, it’s just fruit cake, so I’m going to let you have the basic proportions and let you customise your own cake.  Don’t like raisins?  No problem.  Hate peel (disgusting, devil’s toenails that it is), leave it out.

If you’re a Christmas cake ‘virgin’, then this is the recipe for you.  If you sort all your ingredients before you start, there are basically two steps.  Easy peasy.  As long as you have the basic quantities right, your cake will come out perfectly and more to the point, exactly as you like it.  My ultimate aim is to make a Christmas cake with stuff I’ve got lying around and not have to rush to the supermarket with a list as long as my arm for stuff I’m never going to use again.  I’ve wittered on a bit here so if you want, just skip to the cake recipe.

Dried Fruit

One rule here: choose what you like.  As I mentioned above, I hate peel with a vengeance so I leave it out.  Other people use glacé fruits, snipped into little pieces.  I used a 300g luxury pack of mixed raisins, apricots and cranberries which I saw in a nice foodie place and bought, then topped it up with random half packs of leftover cranberries, prunes (chopped into pieces), dried apricots and sultanas.  Pick what suits you, bin the rest.

Butter vs Oil

Generally if you need lightness in a cake, butter helps as you can beat in air and it holds it well, but I’m finding I’m using more and more oil, (you can whisk it with the eggs and get a similar airy effect), especially Rapeseed, which adds a subtle nutty flavour and, being rich in vitamin E, high in Omega 3 and half the saturated fat of olive oil is obviously a healthy option.  In this recipe you want the moistness, etc, but not the air, so use oil if you like.  I made this cake with Borderfields‘ gorgeously yellow rapeseed oil, which is my absolute favourite and it turned out perfectly.  There’s obviously a bit of water content in butter, so if you’re substituting oil use slightly less.  Having said that, don’t kill yourself (you know me, I don’t do adding up): 100g of butter will be about 90 – 100ml oil.

Sugar

Again, use what you’ve got – the darker the sugar, the more treacly the taste.  I used Muscovado.  You’re melting it, so it doesn’t matter how big the granulation is.

Honey

The honey here gives moistness and sweetness, but you could substitute golden syrup if you don’t like (or are allergic to) honey.  I used Rowse Supahoney with lemon, because I absolutely love its taste (I’m a bit into Manuka honey) and use it all the time so I had a pot open.  You could also use black treacle which gives a lovely dark toffee taste.

The Booze

No rules here.  Last year I used Morgan’s Spiced Rum which has a gorgeous vanilla flavour but not much sweetness.  I’ve mentioned a bit more in the recipe below about sweetness.  I used cherry brandy, which not only has that lovely sweet cherry taste, but gives an almondy hit too.  Use whatever you like/whatever you have.  Again, taste your mixture and adjust sweetness accordingly.  If you don’t want to use alcohol, just double up on the fruit juice.

Fruit Juice

I used cranberry juice, because I thought it would go nicely with the dried cranberries, but you can use freshly squeezed orange juice (bung in the zest too for an extra zing), or juice out of a carton.  It honestly doesn’t matter.

Spice

I make a lot of curries so my spice turnover is quite high.  All I would say is, if the jar of ‘Mixed Spice’ in your cupboard was purchased in the 1940s it’s not going to add much to your cake.  I used 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp ground ginger and a good grating of nutmeg, but use what you have: mixed spice/ginger/cinnamon/ground nutmeg (not too much, it can be overpowering).  Just make sure it’s fresh.

Right, ingredients sorted? Then we’re off:

The Personalised Christmas Cake

800g dried fruit

175ml good quality rapeseed oil or 200g butter

200g dark brown sugar

4 tbsp honey

120ml alcohol

120ml fruit juice (or two oranges, juiced)

About 2tsp spice

3 eggs

200g self raising flour (or 300g flour and omit ground almonds).

100g ground almonds

Firstly: sort everything out: preheat the oven to gas 2/150 C and double line the bottom of your cake tin/tins with parchment paper (tiger stripe pattern optional).  Weigh all your stuff, crack the eggs into a bowl and mix them… just get yourself completely ready.

STEP ONE:  Pop the dried fruit into a large saucepan along with the butter, sugar, honey, booze, fruit juice and spices.  Stir gently over a low heat until the butter is melted and the sugar is completely dissolved.  You can bring it up to a gentle bubble, but don’t let it boil vigorously as your alcohol will disappear.

Now leave it to cool.  If you add the eggs straight in, they’ll be scrambled.  Oh, and at this stage, have a taste!  If it doesn’t taste sweet enough, add something else sweet (this is often the case if you’ve used brandy or whisky which doesn’t have much natural sweetness, as opposed to, say, a liqueur – Nigella suggests a tablespoon of marmalade, which I think is a great idea).  If it’s overpoweringly, cloyingly sweet, then a squeeze of lemon, maybe?  It’s your cake – do it how you like it.

STEP TWO: When cooled, stir in the eggs, flour and ground almonds.  Pile into your one large springform tin, or two smaller ones and bake for about an hour and a half for the two small ones, or up to two hours for the large.  Test by pushing a skewer into the centre of the cake.  It should come out clean (excuse the rubbish ‘in-oven’ shot here).

And that’s it! Congratulations, you’ve made a Christmas cake (or two).

When cool, wrap up the cake in parchment paper and then foil, and stash somewhere until you need it, occasionally unwrapping your gorgeous present to stab it with a cocktail stick and slosh with a couple of tablespoons of your chosen booze.  Or just eat straight away.

You can do all that fancy pants marzipan and icing stuff, but for god’s sake don’t look to me for inspiration.  I have the artistic ability of a small pickled onion.

Make sure you write your recipe down.  You just created a family heirloom!

Step by step quick and easy soft bread rolls

I have absolutely no idea why we calls these ‘milk rolls’.  Well, apart from the fact that they obviously contain milk, but then so do an awful lot of other bread recipes.

Anyhoo, whatever their name they’re a firm favourite here.  Their soft texture makes them ideal for breakfast, toasted with a little of our favourite Whole Earth peanut butter and a dollop of bramble jelly.  The boys also like them in their lunchboxes, stuffed with crunchy lettuce, poached chicken and zesty lemon mayo (they ignore the bits of knuckle along with the lemon zest – it’s okay, I’m gradually blunting the grater with my digits).

Anyhoo, enough of my bloody stumps and onto the bread.  You’ll need:

450g strong white bread flour

2 tsp salt

1 x 7g sachet dried yeast

150ml milk

150ml water

50g butter

So first, sieve the flour into a large bowl (or your food mixer bowl), then stir in the salt and dried yeast.

In a small saucepan, warm the milk, water and butter over a low heat until the butter has just melted, then turn off the heat.  The liquid should be at blood temperature when it’s added to the dry ingredients (which means you can stick your finger in without it feeling too warm).  You can do this in the microwave, but remove it as soon as the butter starts to melt and stir gently until it’s all combined, otherwise you’ll be waiting for ages for it to be cool enough.

Making the dough:

Pour most of the milky mixture into the dry ingredients and stir it around with a knife until you get a light dough.  Leave it as sticky as you can bear as you want your dough to be lovely and soft.  You can always add a bit of flour if you really want to, but seriously, the stickier you can manage, the better.

If you have a tiny bit of liquid left over, that’s fine – you can brush it over the rolls before they go in the oven.

Now start kneading.  If you’re using a food mixer, just bung it in for about five minutes and forget about it (great if you’re busy and need to crack on), but by hand is lovely and satisfying too – if I’ve got extra time I often do.

To hand knead:

With the heel of one hand, press and splurge the dough away from you, (imagine you’re smearing it across the work surface) then bring it back, squish it into a ball again, turn it over and then splurge it again.  As it’s quite a wet dough this is a bit messy, but that all adds to the fun.  Again, if you’re getting really messy, you can always add a bit of extra flour.  As you knead it, it will become more elastic and springy and less squelchy.

Double Proving and shaping:

So when you’ve kneaded for about 7-10 minutes and your dough is springy and pillowy-soft (I know I’ve said this before, but a lovely dough ready for proving looks like a nice, round bottom-cheek), cover it with clingfilm and leave it in the airing cupboard or somewhere else warm until it’s doubled in size.

Then, just knock it back with your fist (imagine punching someone you can’t stand – always does the trick for me) and form it into 8 balls.  Either place them on a baking tray or arrange them inside a springform cake tin like I did, then cover and rise again until they’re puffed up.

You can also just fashion the dough into an oval shaped loaf: cut it down the centre and bake it ‘free-form’, you get a nice crust by doing it this way.

Now bake for about 15-20 minutes (for rolls – a whole loaf will take a bit longer) at 180/gas 4 until you hear a hollow knock when you tap the loaf/rolls on the bottom.  You can glaze them if you like with a little leftover milky mixture, or just some plain milk.  I like to dust them with flour.

You can do tons with this dough: squish it flat into a small baking tray, get your fingers in there and squish it, then drizzle with olive oil and maybe dot some olives and rosemary about and you’ve got a bit of a knock-off foccacia.  Add seeds, use wholemeal flour… just experiment (and if you do, send me pics!).

If you want to make sticky buns, my sweet dough recipe is here.

Off to the kitchen with you!

Strawberry pavlova: step by gorgeous, squishy step

Wow it’s hot.  If you’re in Ireland, where I spent several summers bemoaning the fact that the south of England was always about 8 degrees warmer than us, then ahahahaha erm, I mean you’re probably not experiencing the epidermis-melting heat of the last few days here in England, but trust me, it’s hot.

And when it’s hot, all thoughts of chocolatey desserts go right out the window.  I mean, yes, there’s ice cream, but for a proper, easy summery dessert, you can’t go wrong with a pav.

Originally named after Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (the dessert was said to emulate her frothy white tutus/feather-light movements/believe what you like), it’s a lovely mixture of crispy, soft-centred meringue, softly whipped cream and luscious summer fruit.

You’ll need:

4 egg whites

225g caster sugar (I normally use golden, but for perfect whiteness use ordinary)

300ml whipping cream, softly whipped

1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract

1 punnet really ripe fruit – raspberries/strawberries/whatever you have

So first, whisk up the egg whites in a really clean bowl.  You need to get them light, airy and… erm… peaky, so it’s best to use an electric whisk or a whisk attachment on your food processor.  Remember, even a hint of egg yolk and you’ll have to throw the whole darn lot away – break each egg separately.

Now just add the sugar 1 tbsp at a time, checking the mixture by pinching it between your fingers every so often.  If it’s still grainy, you need to mix it more before the next spoonful goes in.  Eventually you’ll have lovely soft peaks of glossy white meringue.

Now just dollop it onto some greaseproof paper on a baking tray – if you’re really precise you can draw around a plate first in pencil so you get a perfect circle – or you can make several smaller ones if you want individual portions.

Then pop it in a low oven – gas 2/150 degrees for about 40 minutes.  Open the oven door and let it cool completely.  You don’t want a rock hard lump of meringue, you want it cracky on the outside and soft and squidgy in the middle.

Just before serving, softly whip the cream with the vanilla and pile it all on top of your meringue.

Bung on your fruit (artfully, or just lob it on like I do) and present your masterpiece à table (in your best French accents please).

Oh, and remember, if it breaks when you try and get it off the baking paper, you can always just stick it together with a bit of cream, or there’s always Eton Mess.

Good old Anna Pavlova eh?  Over to you, then, what’s your perfect summer dessert?

Step by step cheese sauce – comedy cauliflower optional

(c) Englishmum.com

So one of my happier experiments in the garden were these little beauties.  They did have a name, but I’ve bloody forgotten now, although I’m sure Poppy’s Mum or GrowUp, my gardening gurus, will let me know in due course.  Yesterday, then, we decided to pick one and test it out. 

‘Ooh’, said #1, ‘cauliflower cheese!’. 

‘Yum’, said I. 

‘Bleurgh’, said the other two. 

There’s no pleasing some people.

Here, then, are step by step guidelines to making your own creamy, cheesy sauce.  What you do with it is entirely up to you: stir it through pasta and bake for easy mac and cheese, use it to layer through your lasagne, pile it on thick toast and grill it…. frankly, you can smother yourself in it from head to toe if you like… be my guest.  Anyhoo, digressing.  Here she blows, then:

Firstly, make the cheese sauce:

1 tbsp butter

1 tbsp plain flour

About 200g random cheese: I used Wexford Cheddar and Parmesan

400ml milk (ish)

Salt and pepper

Okay, so I know this is all sounding a bit random, but honestly it’s pretty hard to get this wrong.  Just melt a nice big tablespoon of butter in a saucepan on a low heat:

(c) Englishmum.com

Then whop in your tablespoon of plain flour.  Keep stirring over a low heat while you ‘cook out’ the flour and make a nice smooth paste (or ‘roux’ if you’re feeling a bit cheffy):

(c) Englishmum.com

Now slowly mix in the milk, stirring all the time.  As it bubbles, the mixture will thicken.  If it’s too thick, add a little more milk.  Season with a little salt and pepper (purists use white pepper so there’s no black bits) and that’s your basic white sauce.  To make it into a cheese sauce, just chop up and add in some random cheese:

(c) Englishmum.com

I used Cheddar and Parmigiano, but you can use whatever takes your fancy.  Red Leicester makes it a pretty colour, and blue cheese makes a ridiculously good sauce for steak or pasta.  Word of advice, here, people, courtesy as usual of English Grandma: don’t grate the cheese – you’ll end up with a big clump that takes ages to melt – chunks melt far easier (I’m a mine of useless information, me).

Now, for cauliflower cheese, blanch your comedy vegetable by plunging into some boiling, salted water until just tender:

(c) Englishmum.com

…pop into an ovenproof dish, pour over your cheesy sauce of choice, top with a little more grated cheese, and bake in the oven at good ol’ 180 degrees/gas 4 for about 20 minutes or until golden and bubbling:

(c) Englishmum.com

Serve with some big, fat spicy sausages, or a roast dinner, or just on its own as an easy supper.  If you’re going for the full body masque, though, go steady on the pepper.

Chicken & broccoli pie with step by step easy shortcrust pastry

Blimey, I'm going to need a bigger board... (c) Englishmum.com

A funny thing happened on Friday afternoon. A chap knocked on the door and delivered an enormous wicker hamper, stuffed with every possible seasonal vegetable you can imagine. I was in the garden, and was, frankly, slightly confused when #2 came out to find me and declare that ‘some bloke just dropped off a big box of broccoli and stuff’. Anyhoo, it turned out not to be an anonymous food parcel from the locals, (bless ‘em, they’ve had to stand by, helpless, whilst witnessing my shambolic attempts at gardening), but a ‘Best in Season’ hamper from those lovely chaps at Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board. So our weekend was full of absolutely yummy produce, all available right now in an Irish field near you (or a supermarket, if you’re lazy).

Saturday morning, we had a lovely big fry up, along with a huge stir-fry of big, fat tomatoes, lovely fresh mushrooms and some sliced red and yellow peppers.  Saturday evening, we had a big pot of leek and potato soup, with some home made cheese bread, and today I set to work making the mother of all pies.  So start with the filling then.  You’ll need:

1 carrot, diced

1 onion, finely chopped

1 stick celery, diced

4 chicken breasts

1 head of broccoli, split into florets (or 1 leek, which are also fabulous at the moment, sliced)

1 tbsp flour

300ml chicken stock

Slug of double cream

Grab a heavy-based casserole or frying pan, pour in a couple of tablespoons of oil, then throw in the carrot, onion and celery.  Fry gently until the vegetables soften, then add in the cubed chicken breasts.  A sprinkle of thyme would be lovely here, unfortunately I managed to kill mine.  Season well and continue to fry until the chicken starts to go opaque (it doesn’t need to be cooked through), then sprinkle over the tablespoon of flour.  Carry on stirring while you pour in the chicken stock and add in a big slug of double cream:

Add slug of cream (c) Englishmum.com

Now leave the chicken on a low heat to bubble gently and reduce a tiny bit while you quickly blanch some broccoli  in some boiling salted water and make the pastry.

A Pastry Pep-talk

Now, I feel a little word about pastry is called for here.  Let’s face it, pastry’s a pain in the arse.  Frankly, EVERYONE is crap at pastry.  It falls apart, or it’s too dry, or it sticks to the board…  but that’s kind of the point: it’s supposed to look homemade, so if it’s a bit wonky, or you have to patch it or whatever, who cares?  It’ll still be a pie that you made with your own fair hands, and infinitely the better for it.  There.  I’ll get off my soap box now.

There’s no big ‘secret’ to pastry making, although keeping everything cool and using a light touch definitely helps.  For a basic shortcrust pastry ‘pie lid’, you’ll need:

 115g plain flour

Pinch of salt

60g cold butter, cubed

Couple tbsp cold water

So weigh out the flour, add in a pinch of salt, then throw in the butter. 

(c) Englishmum.com

Now lightly, with just the very tips of your fingers, start to break up the lumps of butter, rubbing them gently into the flour until you get a mixture that resembles breadcrumbs:

Pastry at the breadcrumb stage

Now, sprinkle over a couple of tablespoons of very cold water, and with a knife, start to bring the mixture together:

(c) Englishmum.com

If it’s a little dry, sprinkle on a tiny bit more, until you can gently bring it together into a ball with your hands:

(c) Englishmum.com

If you’re doing the pastry in advance, wrap it in clingfilm and leave it somewhere cool (I find it gets too hard in the fridge, but it’s up to you).  Otherwise, sprinkle with a little more flour and roll out, turning 1/4 turn with each roll and making sure it’s not sticking, until it’s slightly bigger than your pie dish or casserole. 

Back to the chicken, then.  Now just drain the broccoli  and add in to the chicken.  Don’t worry if there seems to be a bit of excess liquid as some will disappear during cooking.  Now just roll your pastry lid over your rolling pin and unroll it over the top of your pie.  Because I’m lazy, and let’s face it, this is just home cooking, I just leave it in the casserole and fling the pastry lid on top, tucking over the edges, but if you’re entertaining or whatever, you can put the contents into a pie dish and neatly crimp the edges, brushing with a little milk to glaze the top.

The English Mum 'hurl it in' pastry lid technique

And that’s it.  Bung the pie in the oven at gas 4/180 for 20 – 30 minutes until it’s golden brown, and serve with more seasonal vegetables (we had honey roasted parsnips, carrots, peas and creamy mashed potato), then just sit back and bask in the glory especially reserved for people who make their own pies. 

Go on, you deserve it.

 (c) Englishmum.com

PS: Big, huge thanks to Bord Bia for all my lovely fresh goodies.  If you want to know what’s in season now, check out Best in Season for ideas, recipes, stuff for kids, and links to some rather fantastic food blogs *cough*.