Spritz duo


A couple of weeks ago, it was my birthday, and to his dad’s great dismay my son had decided that they would bake and decorate a cake for me. Whilst my husband seemed quite confident about the decorating, the baking was causing him a bit of worry (interestingly, for me it’s the other way round) and he admitted to me he had never baked a cake in his entire life. Whaaaaat?! I was shocked. Then I began to realise that a lot of things I take for granted in the kitchen are probably far from obvious to some other people. So I helped him choose a recipe which I thought would be easy (I opted for Mary Berry’s sponge cake, for its simplicity: basically chuck all the ingredients in the bowl, mix, put in the tin and bake), I pointed him in the right direction for all the decorating supply, and left him to his shopping list. On the day the baking took place I deliberately stayed out of the way because I was worried if I was too close to the kitchen I would be too tempted to stick my nose in, so I had a good tidy up in the garden instead. But my husband came out looking for me when he had questions: “You know when you’ve put all the ingredients in the bowl, do you mix them with your hands?” (Oh it was so tempting to say yes, try and picture it, I know I did…. muahahah… Now if you’re not sure: it’s normally things with yeast that you mix/knead by hand). Then a question about which tins to use, which prompted me to go in the kitchen to show him and realise he was all ready to put the mixture in the oven, but the oven hadn’t been switched on: there is a reason why nearly every single recipe BEGINS with “pre-heat the oven to x degrees” (and that would be to make sure the baking powder doesn’t stand around in the mixture, otherwise it doesn’t work as well and your cake won’t rise properly – which it didn’t). I was annoyingly impressed with the decorating though: I’ve never felt I was too good at it and it’s taken me a few attempts to get to something I was happy with, but he just does one and it comes out lovely. Grrr. And the cake tasted very good, my husband was very proud of himself and rightly so. However when I asked him if he’d enjoyed the process, the answer came fast and blunt: he hated it, found it stressful and cannot fathom how I can find it relaxing. Oh well… Looks like I’ll still have the family monopoly on cake making then 🙂

Why all this rambling on then, you’re asking? Well because a few weeks ago it was also my mum’s birthday, and I baked her something which I thought would be a good recipe to post on this blog, until my husband baked that is. So whilst I have decided to still post this, I’ve come to think it might not be as easy as I thought and so it comes with a label “not for beginners” 🙂 The recipe comes from my favourite biscuits book “Petits fours et bredele”, on baked goodies from the Alsace region in France. The biscuits from this recipe are the two-coloured ones at the bottom of the photo, the others are spiced squares (recipe here: https://aghowker.wordpress.com/2014/01/29/spicy-squares/) and of course baklava (recipe here: https://aghowker.wordpress.com/2014/05/15/baklava/)

Ingredients for 25-30 biscuits: 180g unsalted butter – 110g icing sugar – few drops of vanilla extract – 1 egg white – 10 tbsp milk – 250g plain flour – 3 tbsp cocoa powder

Pre-heat the oven to 140 degC.

Soften the butter (either for a few seconds in the microwave, or by leaving it out for a couple of hours before you start baking – you want it soft and squishable but not all melted). Whisk the butter, then sprinkle the icing sugar and whisk until well combined and with a mousse-like texture (go slowly at first or you’ll end up sniffing in a cloud of icing sugar). Add the vanilla, egg white and 7 tbsp milk and mix well.

Sift the flour in the mixture and mix with a wooden spoon.

Divide the mixture in 2 and add to one of the halves the remaining milk and the cocoa powder. I must add that at this point I tasted the mixture and didn’t find it chocolatey enough, so I carry on adding cocoa powder until I was happy with the taste, then added some more milk until the consistency of the mixture looked similar to the vanilla’s.

Fit a large star tip on a piping bag and fill the bag with the vanilla and chocolate mixture side by side. Note there is no easy way of doing this (or I had the wrong kind of piping bag!). I put the vanilla mixture if first, laying the bag on the worktop and trying to keep the vanilla on one side, then added the chocolate mixture with a teaspoon alongside the vanilla. It is messy.

Pipe lines, S shapes or circles (or all of them) on a baking tray covered with greaseproof paper. Bake for about 10 minutes or until the biscuits hold themselves (ie don’t sag when lifted off the tray) when removed from the oven. Leave to cool on a cooling rack.

The verdict: I was very pleased with myself! I always found piping quite tricky but after 2 or 3 attempts I got the hang of the pressure to apply on the bag to get the correct width, and I piped S shapes and circles which had nothing to be ashamed of. I put a good quantity of biscuits in my mum’s selection tin, and there were a few left for us which disappeared extremely quickly, so they must have tasted nice too 🙂

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Cheddar and Marmite scones

Marmite scones

Marmite haters, look away now, Marmite lovers follow me! I came across this recipe on the trusted BBC Good Food website only recently, and since I love Marmite I was immediately tempted. The other day at work we were talking about things we’d cooked recently, and I mentioned these scones. Cue gipping noises from my English colleague (a hater) and questioning looks from our French intern. Well, have you ever tried to explain the concept of Marmite to someone who has never come across it before? There is no way of making it sound appetising. A by-product of the brewing process? The brewer at the french brewery we visited last summer looked at us like complete loonies when we asked what he was doing with his yeast extract (throw it away, of course!). So sadly, the cheese and Marmite scones didn’t elicit much enthusiasm from my colleagues but I hope I’ll get more from you. Mum, Dad, you know these Marmite jars you keep on your shelf for decorating purposes? They could be put to good use with this recipe (and also with this one, by the way: https://aghowker.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/cheese-and-marmite-pasties/)

I served these scones as an accompaniment to a salad, to bulk it up a bit. I reckon you could similarly serve these with a vegetable soup to great effect, or as a picnic food.
Ingredients for 8 scones: 450g plain flour plus some for dusting – 1 tbsp baking powder – 3 tsp Marmite – 1 large egg – 250ml milk – 1tbsp sunflower oil or other vegetable oil (I used rapeseed) – 140g grated mature cheddar – 100g full-fat cream cheese
Heat oven to 220C and dust a baking tray with a little flour. Mix the flour and baking powder in a large bowl. Put 1 tsp Marmite in a jug, add the egg and make up to 300ml with the milk. Stir in the oil, then beat really well to dissolve the Marmite.
Tip 85g of the cheddar into a bowl and mix with the cream cheese and remaining Marmite to make a spread. Toss the rest of the cheese through the flour mixture, then pour in the milk mixture and stir quickly with the blade of a knife until it comes together.  Tip onto a lightly floured work surface and gently knead the mix without overworking it.
Lightly roll the dough into an oblong about 20 x 25cm. Spread with the Marmite mixture and roll up from the longest side to create a tight, fat cylinder. Pat the ends of the cylinder to straighten them, then slice into 8 pinwheels and put on the baking tray, patting them to make flattish rounds. Bake for 12-15 mins until golden and cooked.
Leave for a few mins on the tray to allow the cheese centre to harden a little, then transfer to a wire rack to cool.
The verdict: my son wasn’t keen at all, my husband and I loved them! These scones are best eaten on the day you make them, but if you keep them in an air-tight container they’ll keep for 2 or 3 days and will make a lovely addition to your lunchtime salad.

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Sweet chestnut mousse

chestnut mousse

At Christmas my brother, sorry, Santa, gave me a cooking book called “Better made at home” by Esterelle Payany. The book aims to give you recipes for all these French cupboard staples and store-bought items… If like me (and my brother) you’re an expat, this book is like gold dust: there are some things which cannot be found anywhere else but in France. Those who have been walking past my desk since my last trip to France will have noticed a big bag of Stoptou sweets, which cause me to walk round the factory leaving a distinct whiff of Pastis or Sambucca behind me, and my colleagues are probably looking for signs of intoxication every time they talk to me. Some other things that I stock up on when I go to France? Chestnut puree, of course, decent saucisson or even saucisse seche, crozets, cacao Poulain… I could go on a while. Some things though, have too short a shelf life to be imported, and here is the beauty of this book: some of my favourite things are in it.

Of all the things you can spread on toast, crusty bread or crepes, I am having trouble deciding which I like best between Nutella and sweet chestnut puree. Whist Nutella can be found in any supermarket, the great british public doesn’t seem to have been seduced by sweet chestnut puree and I have to resort to illegal import whenever I have visitors or go to France. My son loves it in a bit of greek yogurt, I can make a mean yule log with it, and I am always looking for new ways of using it in recipes. So it was quite naturally that the first recipe that I tried out my new book, was sweet chestnut mousse. Obviously, you need some sweet chestnut puree for that (and the proper stuff too: only Clement Faugier will do), which I cannot find in any supermarket. However while writing this post I had a brainwave and looked it up on Amazon, and there it is ladies and gents… so now you know, and if I run out I don’t have to ask my mum for a humanitarian parcel anymore.

One thing to bear in mind: these things need at least 4 hours in the fridge before you can eat them, which is ideal for a make-ahead desert for a dinner party, but not so much so if you are keen to have a taste.

Ingredients for 6 servings: 1 sheet gelatin – 2 tbsp milk – 200g sweet chestnut puree – 200ml chilled whipping cream

Put the gelatin sheet in a bowl with about 250ml cold water and soak for at least 10 minutes.

Squeeze the water out of the gelatin sheet. Put the milk in a small saucepan and warm up. Add the gelatin to the pan and let it melt. Take care that the milk doesn’t boil or it will affect the gelling powers of the gelatine later on. Once the gelatin has melted stir in the chestnut puree and remove the pan from the heat.

Whip the chilled whipping cream until it doubles in volume. Carefully stir in the chestnut mixture into the whipped cream (the same way you would stir it in egg whites: doing wrapping motions rather than stirring). Divide the mousse into 6 ramekins, cover with lids or cling film and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

The verdict: well firstly I must confess that I was greedy, or my ramekins were too big. But I filled my ramekins, and only got 3 servings and not 6. Said servings turned out to be a bit too big even for my keen palate, so I would suggest sticking to the recipe and actually making 6 servings out of the above ingredients. Apart from that, wow! Very, very, very nice. The sweet chestnut mousse I remembered from my childhood was a little bit more moussy and lighter, and I think next time I will try a version with less whipped cream and maybe some egg whites instead. But the taste was most definitely there and it was fabulous.

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Spaghetti and meatballs

Spag meatballs 2

You’ve probably looked at the title and thought I wasn’t making much of an effort today: spaghettis and meatballs, really? To be honest, I did ponder quite a bit about shall I / shan’t I put it in the blog, but at the end of the day it’s a very nice recipe, and you might still be eating meatballs from a tin when they’re so easy to make.
Recipes can come to you in funny ways, I have said it before, and this one is one of those. A few years ago I was sent to Spain for 2 weeks for work (yes I know, life is hard ^^) with 3 if my colleagues. Naturally in 2 weeks you have time to talk about many things, and at some point the conversation came onto cooking. I found out that one of my colleagues was the designated cook in his household, and he talked about homemade meatballs. I was intrigued: my only contact with meatballs had been in Sweden (very tasty but I never got the recipe) or from tins (disgusting!). I asked him for the recipe and a few days later there it was all written up by hand. The beauty of these is also the sauce, homemade too and quite versatile as you could use it as a simple pasta sauce or for bolognese or lasagne. All in all, a good find, and if you’re not an accomplished cook it’s not overstreching and it might actually get you into cooking, who knows?

Ingredients for 6-8 servings:

For the sauce: 2 or 3 cloves fresh garlic – 1 large onion – 1 tbsp mixed herbs – 3/4 tsp mixed spice – 2 tins of tomatoes – good squeeze of tomato puree – 1 red pepper – black olives to taste – 1 oxo cube – salt and pepper to season – 1 cup water – olive oil

For the meatballs: 2lbs / 1kg good quality lean steak mince – 1/2 tsp mixed spice – 1 tps mixed herbs – pinch of chilli powder (optional) – 1 oxo cube – 2 slices dried bread (I use French toast, 4 slices, because we don’t tend to have dried bread in our house) – 1 egg

Prepare the sauce first: chop the garlic cloves finely, dice the onion, seed and dice the red pepper. In large (large!) pan, such as a cast iron pot, soften the onion in olive oil. When soft and clear, add the garlic and the herbs and cook for another minute. Then add all the other ingredients except the olives, stir well and simmer for half an hour, uncovered. Give the sauce a stir now and again or it will stick to the bottom.

While the sauce is simmering, prepare the meatballs: pre-heat the oven at 200 degC. Process the dried bread / French toast into fine crumbs. Mix all the ingredients together well and evenly. Knead and squish the mixture thoroughly: the more you do, the tender the meatballs! Form into small balls, lay them on an oven tray and bake for 20 minutes.

Once baked, transfer the meatballs to the sauce with the olives for a further 20 minutes. Serve with spaghetti.

The verdict: always a real success in our house, but who doesn’t like spaghetti and meatballs? I’ve never tried but I suspect the sauce could be improved (not that it’s needed at all!) by adding a splash of red wine or even replacing some of the water with red wine. I’ve also found that it is better to leave the sauce to simmer until most of the water is evaporated, and this can take more than 30 minutes. Finally, taste the sauce before adding the meatballs: you might find that it’s quite sour: a teaspoon or two of sugar will do the trick, but tread carefully because too much makes the sauce quite disgusting!

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Italian breadsticks


It has been absolutely AGES since my last blog post… There has been a lot of turmoil in my life recently, and when I had a good week off where I could have had the time and the inclination to blog a bit more, both my son and I caught a sickness bug, which quite frankly put a dampener on any cooking ardours I may have had. Since it’s not the first time I have dropped off the face of the earth like that, I have even pondered about stopping the blog altogether, but I have decided against it for now… I should at least reach the magic 100th post!

So, a few Saturdays ago I had invited a few friends for dinner – yes, again, I go through phases like that, and also it would appear that it’s a very French thing to do, unless you are on Come Dine With Me, which by the way I NEVER want to go on as I don’t think the world needs to see the contents of my knickers drawer. But that’s by the by. So as I was saying, a few Saturdays ago I had invited a few friends for dinner, and on such occasions I always worry about feeding my guests too much. Us French think nothing of a copious 3-course meal (4 if you count the cheeseboard), preceded by “l’aperitif” and the nibbles that go with it, and followed by coffee and biscuits, but my British friends usually look a bit scared when I mention it. I was trying to keep things light at the beginning, especially as the pudding would involve generous servings of sweet chestnut puree and mountains of whipped cream. I decided to skip the starter all together, to serve the salmon pie (…) with a side salad, and to replace the crisps and other shop-bought nibbles I would normally eat with “l’aperitif” with some homemade Italian breadsticks.

You see, I have this recipe book solely about bread. I have actually mentioned it in a previous post quite a while ago, it’s called “Bread” and is by Eric Treuille and Ursula Ferrigno: if you’re interested in bread making I cannot recommend it enough, I would be surprised if your bread didn’t turn out perfect from your first attempt. Anyway, this book contains loads of recipes of bread and other yeasty bakes from all over the world, and amongst others they had this Italian breadsticks recipe which looked gorgeous. As bread goes, it is faster to make than usual because you don’t leave the bread to rise for too long. Think up a couple of flavours you’d like, get your apron on and off we go.

Ingredients for around 40 breadsticks: 500g strong white flour – 2tsp dried yeast – 325ml water – 1tsp malt extract – 2tsp salt – 3tbsp olive oil – 2tbsp semolina – egg glaze, made with 1 egg yolk and 1tbsp water – toppings of your choice (for example sesame seeds, poppy seeds, thyme, rosemary, coarse sea salt…)

Sprinkle the yeast into 125ml of the water in a bowl. Leave to stand for 5 minutes, then add the malt extract and stir to dissolve. Mix the flour and salt together in a large bowl, Make a well in the center, pour in the yeasty mix and the olive oil.

Use a wooden spoon to draw the flour in from the sides. Stir in the remaining water as needed to form a firm sticky dough.

Turn the dough out on a well-floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes). Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rest for 10 minutes, then knead again for a further 10 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degC.

Shape the dough into a rectangle about 30cm x 20cm x 1.5cm thick. Cover with the clean tea towel and leave to rest for 10 minutes.

Lightly oil 2 baking sheets and sprinkle them with semolina (both oil and semolina are very important otherwise you’ll be eating baking paper as well as breadsticks later!). Cut the dough rectangle lengthways into 4 equal pieces, then cut each piece lengthways again into 10 strips. Stretch each strip until it’s about 25cm long. (In fairness this might well happen by itself when you lift the strips off the work surface). Place the strips about 1cm apart on the baking sheets.

Brush the strips with egg glaze and sprinkle with the topping of your choice. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer the sticks onto a wire rack and leave to cool.

The verdict: I was super impressed with how the breadsticks came out and tasted. They looked totally professional and tasted so good that I am never buying breadsticks ever again. We ate them with “l’aperitif” with my friends, but there were loads left and they made perfect snacks for the following days. I made 4 different flavours: sesame seeds, thyme, rosemary and coarse sea salt. My absolute favourite was the sea salt, it’s nearly dangerous because it lends an addictive quality to the breadsticks… As for the cooking process, once you roll out the dough in a rectangle and start shopping it into breadstick you have to work very quickly because the dough never stops rising… If you don’t the last sticks you cut will be significantly fatter than the first ones. I would also suggest to make a quantity such that you can bake them all at once otherwise you will definitely have some discrepancies in the rising. Another tip to eat them: dipped in melted Camembert 🙂

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Banoffee pie

banoffee pie

This recipe could also be called “all-in-one-weekly-calories-allowance” pie, or “Early-onset-diabetes-in-one-slice” pie. Yep, you’ve got it: if you’re on a diet, walk away now, or go and read this:  https://aghowker.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/healthy-salads/ instead, because a light recipe this is not.
Banoffee pie is strictly, 100% non-French in all its glory of custard with whipped cream on top. I had never had it before I came to England, never even heard of it, and the first one I ever ate was the frozen Marks&Spencer’s version. Which I must say, is particularly yummy. But last weekend we had some friends over for diner, and I had to come up with a nut-free dessert (not as easy as it may sound when you don’t normally pay attention to these things). After I’d gone through my entire recipes ring-binder without finding anything that lit my fire, I looked for inspiration in my Humming Bird Bakery cookbook, and came across their banana cream pie, aka banoffee pie, recipe: lightbulb moment, I’d found my nut-free dessert! As I was reading through the recipe I commented that it looked fairly time-consuming, to which my husband said “you don’t always have to make everything you know”. Does the man not know me at all??? I do despair sometimes. It turns out though that yes there is a fair amount of preparation work, but in 2 1/2 hours I managed to make a complete banoffee pie, a soup for the main (this one: https://aghowker.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/smoked-haddock-and-puy-lentil-chowder/) and still have some time to give the bathroom and myself a last minute scrub. So there, not so bad after all. Please note that there is some resting time involved in the pastry, the custard and the overall pie, so you need to start baking probably a good 4 hours before you intend to eat the pie.

Just another thing before we get on with the recipe: the dulce de leche. For my French readership, this will be known in France as “confiture de lait” (translates as “milk jam” – ??). When I was young you could buy dulce de leche from the supermarket, they used to sell it by the ladle full at the cheese counter, and we’d eat it on toast for breakfast. A miracle I haven’t already got diabetes really. It’s not so easy to get hold of in the UK, but it seems that large Asdas sell the Merchant Gourmet dulce de leche in a 400g jar – enough to make a few pies.

Ingredients for a 23cm pie dish: for the pastry: 260g plain flour – 1/4 tsp salt – 110g salted butter – water – baking beans – for the custard: 500ml whole milk – 1/4 tsp vanilla extract – 5 egg yolks – 200g caster sugar – 40g plain flour – 40g cornflour – for the rest of the pie: 100g dulce de leche (or more to taste 🙂 ) 4 large bananas – 400ml whipping cream – ground cinnamon

First thing to do, make the pie crust. Remember it needs to rest for 1 hour and will take around 40 minutes baking too.

Put the flour, salt and butter together in a large bowl and mix with the tips of your fingers until you reach a sandy consistency and everything is well combined. Add 1 tbsp water and mix well. Add another tablespoon of water and carry on mixing. Add the water one tablespoon at a time until you obtain a smooth, even dough. Shape into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and leave to rest for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 170 degC.

Lightly dust a clean work surface with flour and roll out the dough. Line the pie dish with the dough and trim the edges with a sharp knife. Prick the dough with a fork in several places. Lay a sheet of greaseproof paper over the dough crust and pour in the baking beans. Bake the dough with the baking beans for 15-20 minutes or until the edges are lightly golden. Remove the baking beans and greaseproof paper and bake for a further 15-20 minutes until the crust is golden and cooked all over.

Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely.

While the dough is resting, prepare the custard: put 400ml of the milk and the vanilla extract in a medium saucepan over mdeiudm heat and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and leave to cool a little.

Meanwhile put the egg yolks, sugar, flour, cornflour and remaining milk in another bowl and whisk to combine.

Pour a little of the hot milk mixture in the egg mixture and whisk well to combine. It is important to do it slowly and to whisk a lot, or you’ll end up with lumps in the custard. Pour the remaining hot milk into the egg mixture and whisk until all the ingredients are combined.

Return everything to the saucepan over low heat and bring to the boil, whisking continuously (really!!). Cook until the custard becomes very thick (at least 5 minutes).

Pour the custard into a bowl, lay clingfilm directly on top to prevent a skin from forming and leave to cool completely.

Finally, assemble the pie: once the crust and the custard are both cooled down, spread the dulce de leche over the base of the pie crust. Peel and slice 3 bananas and arrange the slices over the dulce de leche. Spoon the custard over the top. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours (or until ready to eat) until the custard has set completely.

Just before serving, peel and slice the remaining banana. Pour the whipping cream in a large bowl and whisk with an electric whisk until firm peaks form. Spoon the whipped cream on top of the pie, top with the banana slices and sprinkle with ground cinnamon.

The verdict: It tasted absolutely de-li-cious! I am actually very proud of my first attempt, because taste-wise I don’t think it had anything to envy to the professional versions. However, there is a very good reason the picture I’ve put up is of the full pie, and that would be because when I cut it up it collapsed miserably and looked a right dog’s dinner. At that point I observed that I should have cooked the custard for longer (which is right), and my husband to say “Ah well, if you’d used Bird’s instant custard…” These very nearly were his last words on this planet. But yes, the issue probably was that I should have cooked the custard for longer, I naively thought that when it would cool down it would become thicker than what I had in my pan at the time, and it didn’t. So don’t be shy to leave it to thicken. But a word of warning: I have it in good authority (my mum) that if you overcook custard it turns watery again, so don’t chance it too much… And no matter what some people think, Bird’s custard isn’t a patch on homemade. Now to finish off, a little word on dulce de leche: the recipe called for 100g, but once I’d spooned and spread 100g of dulce de leche over my pie crust, it looked very miserable indeed, so I have probably used twice the recommended amount. After all, with the amount of custard and cream that gets piled on top of it, the taste needs to come through…

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Delia Smith’s Blueberry and pecan muffin cake

pecan blueberry muffinpecan blueberry muffin 2

A little while ago in one of my Sunday magazines, I came across a Delia Smith recipe which looked extremely appetising, a blueberry and pecan muffin cake. Picture a muffin preparation, baked into a standard cake dish: brilliant! For some reason that I can’t pinpoint, I am not a great fan of Delia Smith, however this recipe looked good, therefore it didn’t matter whose it was. I gave it a go, and I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the result, so I made a few tweaks and tried it again the other week while my parents were visiting. The problem is, at that time I had a massive head cold which deprived me of all sense of taste and smell. And whilst I know the cake looked very good, and everybody duly hum-ed and ha-ed at it, I couldn’t possibly make any comments on its taste compared to the previous attempt. But in the interest of this blog I thought I would ask my husband if he had noticed any difference with the first time I made this cake. Well, it’s a bit like asking my colour-blind son to discuss the advantages of turquoise vs sky blue: the subtleties are completely lost. The only significant thing, I believe, was that the blueberries didn’t taste as nice the second time round: I used frozen berries the first time and fresh ones the second. Now I am not entirely convinced that it’s the frozen vs fresh that’s critical, but fresh berries are bound to be nicer when in season, and middle of February isn’t blueberry season as far as I’m aware. Apart from that, my subtle adjustments of salt and sugar quantities went completely unnoticed… Maybe they were too subtle! Anyhow, here is what I believe to be the best version:

Recipe for a 20cm cake pan: for the cake mix: 275g plain flour – 1 tsp ground cinnamon – 1 tsp baking powder – 1/4 tsp salt – 170ml milk – 80g golden caster sugar (or plain caster sugar if you don’t keep golden) – 2 large eggs – 110g unsalted butter – 275g blueberries – and for the topping: 75g blueberries – 1 heaped tbsp demerara sugar – 75g pecans – icing sugar for dusting

Grease the cake pan and pre-heat the oven to 190degC. Roughly chop the pecan nuts.

Melt the butter in a large glass bowl and leave it to cool slightly. Whisk in the milk, sugar and eggs.

In a separate bowl sift together the remaining dry ingredients, ie flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt. I did not know this, but the sifting is very important to give the flour a good airing, it makes the muffins light despite the very little mixing that takes place later on. So lift that sieve!

Now put all the dry ingredients back in the sieve and sift them straight into the butter-milk-eggs mixture. Using a large metal spoon fold the dry ingredients quickly into the milky mix. The key words here are fold (NO stirring) and quickly: 15 seconds max. Yes, the mixture will look uneven but that is how it should be. After that quickly fold in the blueberries (again NO stirring).

Spoon the mixture in the cake pan. Sprinkle the topping blueberries over, followed by the demerara sugar and the chopped pecans.

Place the cake in the centre of the warm oven and bake for 1 hour. Let the cake cool in the tin for 30 minutes then loosen it with a palette knife. Take it out of the tin and leave it cool completely on a wire rack. Lightly dust with icing sugar just before serving.

The verdict: very much appreciated! Someone at work tried it with the original Delia recipe, and said it tasted very “healthy”. It is true it’s a cake with a barely-there sweet taste, but I think this is how muffins are supposed to be. If you’re going to use frozen blueberries defrost them fully before using them, and beware of the amount of juice they will produce – don’t put it in the cake mix. I think the recie would turn out just as well if you decided to make individual muffins, but not having tried it (yet) I can’t advise on quantities!



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Parsnip and chorizo soup

parsnip and chorizo soup

Those of you who might have been reading my blog on a regular basis, will know that I am a great fan of soup in the winter. My problem with soup, is that my husband easily finds it boring, therefore a simple mixed vegs soup doesn’t really cut the mustard and I have to find something more interesting. Spices, meat, poultry or fish are all good ones, or a combination of. And for some unknown reason, quite a few of our favourite soups end up having chorizo in them (maybe because I cook a fair bit with chorizo and invariably have leftovers): this one is no exception. If you’ve been following me for quite a while, you may remember this recipe: https://aghowker.wordpress.com/2013/11/17/parsnip-chorizo-and-chestnut-soup/. Well, see today’s recipe as a nut-free version of the earlier one.

The other thing which I believe warrants a blog post for this soup, is that I went to town on the “accessories”, and served it with parsnip crisps. Now, I don’t know if you’re one of these purists for whom crisps are made from potatoes, end of story, and what’s with all that vegetable crisps nonsense. Me, on the other hand, I really took to the vegetable crisps that have appeared in the supermarkets, you know the mix with beetroot, carrots and parsnip crisps: love it! So I wasn’t gonna miss the opportunity to have a go at the home-made version.

Ingredients for 6 servings: 40g butter – 1 onion – 225g potatoes – 400g parsnips – 4tsp paprika plus extra to dust – 1.1l vegetable stock – 450ml milk – 4tbsp double cream – 75g sliced chorizo – salt and pepper to season – grated Parmesan to serve – 1 parsnip to make into crisps

Prepare all the vegetables: roughly chop the onion, peel and chop the potatoes and the 400g parsnips. Slice the chorizo.

Melt the butter in a large thick-bottomed pan over gentle heat. Add the onion and cook until soft. Add the potatoes, parsnips and paprika. Mix well and cook gently until the vegetables begin to soften.

Add the stock, milk , cream and chorizo. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 25 minutes or until the vegetables are really tender. Allow the soup to cool a little, then blend it until smooth.

While the soup is cooking, make the parsnip crisps: peel the remaining parsnip, then slice it REALLY thinly (I do it with the vegetable peeler, I find it much easier). Heat up a good tablespoon of vegetable oil in a frying pan and lay the parsnip slices in the oil. For best results the slices shouldn’t overlap, and you would be better doing them in batches. When the slices look a little golden on the first side, turn them over. Once they are crispy and golden remove them form the pan and place them on some absorbent paper on a plate. Sprinkle with salt.

To serve the soup, dish it out in individual bowls, top with parsnips crisps and a sprinkle of grated Parmesan and dust with paprika. Enjoy!

The verdict: the crisps really need to be watched at all time while cooking, because they can turn from beautifully golden, to overcooked and slightly black very quickly! I found that out at the first batch. The ones from the second batch were much more successful and tasted significantly better. The soup was declared to be very tasty by my husband, and my son finished it all off without us having to negotiate the spoonfuls (a sure sign). Personally I love parsnip, chorizo, Parmesan and soup, so it would have taken some major disaster for me not to like this 🙂

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Filed under Meat and poultry

Chestnut and chocolate terrine

terrine terrine2

This week I was in the mood for some indulgent, yet simple baking, which is why I made this chestnut and chocolate terrine I hadn’t made in ages. It is a loose adaption of a recipe from the first cooking book I ever bought in the UK, “The best chocolate recipes EVER”.

Now a little anecdote on the construction of this terrine: when I had made it previously I had used what I believe is called a loaf tin. But I don’t really like it, because the sides taper out, so that the bottom of the tin is narrow and the top is much wider. Which inevitably means a lot of messing about cutting biscuits to fit the surface of the tin at the various levels of the terrine. So in my infinite wisdom I thought that this time it would be a much better idea to use the baking square I bought in France during the summer: it’s adjustable and it’s dead easy to get the cakes out after baking, just expand the square. However… once I’d made the mixes to the required amount, I got the baking square out and found that it is adjustable, yes, but only up to a point, and that point is nowhere near narrow enough for the amount of mixtures I’d made. What’s a girl to do?? There were two options as I saw them, the first one being making more mixes: impossible, I’d already used all of the chestnut puree. Therefore I was left with the second option: finding a way to make the square smaller. After rooting round the kitchen to find something suitable, I had to extend the search to the rest of the house, and eventually settled on a book (JRR Tolkien, I apologise profusely) and a flyer for coach holidays which we would never use anyway. I wrapped up The Hobbit in cling film, placed it in the square and wedged the flyer behind it to act as a spring and make sure it wouldn’t move. There, normal service could resume!

Like I said at the beginning, the recipe below is loosely adapted from an existing one. The main change is that the original recipe was asking for a lot of rum to dip the biscuits in: in the interest of making the recipe child-friendly I replaced most of the rum with milk. (I know……)

One final thing: as the terrine need to chill in the fridge overnight, remember to make it one day ahead.

Ingredients for a 21.5 x 7.5 x 7.5cm tin: 300ml double cream – 175g dark cooking chocolate – 100ml milk – 1tbsp rum (well, I couldn’t remove ALL of it!) – 415g tin of pureed chestnuts (unsweetened) – 2 to 3 tbs icing sugar – 28 Nice biscuits (I do mean biscuits called Nice, not biscuits that are nice – for my French readers these are coconut-flavoured rectangular biscuits) – 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Melt the chocolate gently in a glass bowl above a pan of hot water (“au bain-marie”. The water mustn’t touch the bottom of the bowl). Leave to cool slightly.

Whip the double cream until soft peaks form, then swiftly fold in the cooled chocolate. Swiftly being important here, because if you don’t do it swiftly the chocolate will solidify before you’ve finished incorporating to the cream and you’ll get lumps. Not that it happened to me, of course. Put to one side.

Tip the contents of the pureed chestnuts into a large bowl. Drain the liquid that may come out of the tin and reserve for now. Sift the icing sugar into the pureed chestnuts and mix thoroughly – the quantity I used is a guideline really, add as much or as little sugar you like, but remember the chocolate isn’t sweet at all. Or it shouldn’t be, provided you’re using the proper cooking chocolate and not some disgusting random alternative. But if you’ve been reading my blog for a while I have harboured the point a few times so I really hope it registered 🙂 Add the vanilla extract and stir some more. If the mix is a bit stiff, pour back in some of the liquid drained from the pureed chestnuts tin, but the mixture still needs to remain quite firm, otherwise your terrine just won’t hold itself. Put to one side.

In a small bowl (I know, I wouldn’t like to be the person who’s going to be washing up) mix together the milk and the rum.

Now prepare your tin: cut out a piece of cling film large enough to “wallpaper” the tin and fold over the terrine once in. Place it in the tin.

Finally, build up the terrine: start by dipping the biscuits one by one in the milk, and place them at the bottom of the tin, top side (with the writing on) facing down. You will probably need to trim down a biscuit to make up the required length and/or width of the tin, I would suggest dipping the biscuit first, then trimming it. Next, spoon half of the chocolate and cream mixture on top of the biscuits layer and smooth the surface over with a spatula. Make up another layer of dipped biscuits. Now spoon all of the pureed chestnuts and smooth over with a spatula. Make up a third layer of biscuits, followed by the remaining chocolate and cream, and finish off with a layer of biscuits. Fold the cling film over the top of the terrine and chill in the fridge overnight.

When ready to eat, unfold the clingfilm from the top and turn the terrine over on your serving dish. Dust over with some icing sugar (you can use a template to make a pattern of your choice). Eat straight away and put any leftovers back in the fridge, as it softens very quickly.

The verdict: always a safe bet with my husband, this terrine didn’t really please my son because of the bitterness of the chocolate. So all in all it is probably quite a grown-up desert. It is also fairly filling, what with all this double cream in it, so if you make the amount as per the recipe you’re going to be eating it for a week unless you do it for a dinner party. I also think it could benefit from some more rum being added to the milk, as the flavour was lost in the chocolate (but could still be tasted if eating a dipped biscuit on its own). Finally, I must reiterate that the chestnut mix must be quite stiff: mine wasn’t, and the terrine collapsed quite a bit while I was cutting it to serve.



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Filed under Sweet treats



Yes, that’s right, today I shall be tackling this great classic that kedgeree seems to be. I mean, when you look at a recipe book full of traditional recipes, kedgeree is always in it. Having said that I have never, ever been talking to someone who said “oh, I’ve had kedgeree last night for tea”. Do people not cook it?? From the ingredients I am guessing it’s not come from Middle Ages british cooking, but must have been imported from the colonies at some point in the history of the British Empire. It attracted me because it’s a one-pot dish (even though I don’t usually have to do the washing up) which seem fairly do-able for a mid-week dinner.
My version comes out from a recipe book that my husband got me for Christmas (he knows me well) The book is called “Cookery Course”, from the Masterchef collection, and is subtitled “Learn to love cooking”. One would have thought from reading this blog that I was already there 🙂 But apart from the unfortunate tag line it is quite a good book because it details some techniques, some basic skills and then goes on to using them into everyday recipes. I have picked a few recipes from this book already and with quite some success I must say. So here goes the kedgeree.

Ingredients for 4 servings: 300ml milk – 400g smoked fish fillets (pollock or haddock) – 1 bay leaf – 1tbsp olive oil – 30g butter – 1 large onion – 2tsp mild curry powder – 175g basmati rice – 2tbsp chopped coriander – 4 large eggs – 4 lemon wedges – salt and pepper to season

Put the milk and 300ml water in a shallow pan with the fish and bay leaf. Cover and bring to a gentle simmer. Leave it so simmer until the fish is cooked through, turning the fish over if it looks like one side is cooking better than the other.

Use a slotted spoon to remove the fish and put it on a plate. Discard the bay leaf and reserve the poaching liquid. Flake the fish, discarding the skin and removing and bones.

Slice the onion very thinly. Heat the olive oil with half the butter in a large saucepan. Add the onion and cook gently for 8 to 10 minutes or until soft and translucent. Stir in the curry powder, then the rice. Add 300ml of the poaching liquid. Bring to the boil, then cover the pan, turn the heat low and cook for 15 minutes. You need to keep and eye on things and add some more of the poaching liquid if the rice has absorbed all of the initial liquid before the 15 minutes are up (otherwise it will stick to the bottom of the pan and burn!).

While the rice is cooking, soft boil the eggs, shell them and halve them.

Fold the flaked fish into the rice along with half the chopped coriander and the remaining butter. Season to taste.

Spoon the kedgeree into 4 plates or wide bowls. Top each serving with 2 egg halves and sprinkle with the remaining coriander. Add a wedge of lemon before serving.


The verdict: Very good! Clean plates all round which is always a sure sign. If I was to be slightly critical I would say it lacks vegetables, but I supposed you could always add a side salad or some green beans. But it is very appropriate on a dark bleak night in the middle of British winter. The perspicacious reader will have noticed there is no coriander on my photo, that is because I cannot stand the stuff, but don’t let that stop you!

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Filed under Fish