Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A Winter Casserole

Oh dear - I've been neglecting the lovely blog! Forgive me ... what can I say or do, but merely plead Christmas madness and mayhem?

Anyhow, this evening I decided to finally try this recipe I've been thinking about for a while (I need to build up to these things). I wanted a wintery casserole, and a trawl of the excellently comprehensive BBC Food website left me inundated with choice. I finally chose this Rachel Allen recipe (A) because I've tried several of her recipes in the past and had a good result and (B) this one sounded like it had more of a beef bourguignon vibe and less of a straight forward stew, so that appealed to me too. Oh, and (C) it did not call for beef suet to make dumplings. (Sometimes the BBC is quite English, after all!).

The recipe suggested "stewing steak" but the local Tesco Express was ill-equipped to deal with such a request. The braising steak was already pre-diced, and I am not so keen on that - I like to be able to trim the meat as I go, and to decide the size of chunks I want and so on. So I bought a "round steak". I don't know too much about various cuts of beef but I know this is one that does need longer cooking but isn't as tough as what they call "chump steak" in the UK. So I decided to risk it - if it's not perfect, I can make notes for future reference.

Tesco Express also couldn't provide baby onions (in fairness, I wasn't expecting to find them in such a small branch) so I fished the smallest onions out of a bag and quartered them. I also added a few mushrooms - because I'd bought a punnet of posh looking "Tesco finest forrestiere mushrooms" and obviously had to try!

Anyhow, here's the recipe I used, including my own amendments in brackets - to start with, I was only cooking for two.

The weather might not be quite as wintery as such a dish demands, but it is dark and gloomy out there...


  • 1½kg/3lb 5oz stewing beef, cut into cubes (as I say, I used round steak, a little over 500g)
  • 175g/6oz streaky bacon (half a single pack of Lidl bacon bits - about 80g)
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 12 baby onions, peeled (3 small onions, quartered)
  • 18 button mushrooms, left whole (shows how well I read this recipe, I thought the mushrooms were my addition! Mine were a bit bigger, so I sliced them finely)
  • carrots, cut into quarters or 12 baby carrots, scrubbed and left whole (I used 2 carrots, chopped roughly in 3 and then those pieces quartered)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tbsp chopped thyme
  • 2 tbsp chopped parsley
  • 10 cloves of garlic, crushed and grated (I used 3 enormously huge cloves, diced as small as I could)
  • 425ml/15fl oz red wine (I used about 10fl oz red wine)
  • 425ml/15fl oz chicken or beef stock
For the roux
  • 50g/2oz butter
  • 50g/1¾oz flour
  • Champ potatoes, to serve (I used just regular boiled potatoes - it's only Tuesday, after all)

Preparation method

  1. Brown the beef and bacon in the olive oil in a hot casserole or heavy saucepan
  2. Remove the meat and toss in the onions, mushrooms and carrots, one ingredient at a time, seasoning each time
  3. Place these back in the casserole, along with the herbs and garlic
  4. Cover with red wine and stock and simmer for one hour or until the meat and vegetables are cooked
  5. To make the roux, in a separate pan melt the butter, add the flour and cook for two minutes (I did this in advance and let it cool in the fridge, as I was once told this was "the thing" to do. I don't think it matters)
  6. When the stew is cooked, remove the meat and vegetables
  7. Bring the remaining liquid to the boil and add one tbsp of roux
  8. Whisk the mixture until the roux is broken up and the juices have thickened, allowing to boil
  9. Replace the meat and vegetables, and taste for seasoning
  10. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with champ

Not necessarily the most beautiful photo I've ever taken - but I was in a hurry to taste it

Enjoy the winter; and enjoy experimenting with some winter casseroles - whatever tickles your fancy (this really really worked for me).

Sarah xx

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Cookies n (ice)Cream

The evenings are drawing in, the temperature is dropping, I'm stocking up on Penny's "cosy tights" (fleece lined - so good, I don't even want to tell you about them, so there will be more of them left for me); there's no denying it, Winter is here.

Much and all as I love winter (and I really do, snuggly warmth, electric blankets, woolly hats to hide less than pristine hair, no worrying about shaving the legs every other day, Christmas, roast dinners and rich casseroles - fab), there is the issue of the children. Namely, they require more entertaining as the weather is worse just turfing them out into the garden with paddling pool and the like is no longer such a viable option.

Two thoroughly over-excited little sous-chefs

One thing we love to do in winter is cook together. Baking is a no brainer - cookies take up a whole afternoon and then of course you have a delicious result to deal with. We do make an effort to cook with the children as well, so that it's not just all about sweet treats: chicken schnitzel (or goujons or nuggets or whatever you call it your house) is a great one, as they love getting their fingers all gooey with the dipping in egg and breadcrumbs ritual. But the real treat is, of course, baking. 

Cookies are ideal - they are quick and easy to make, the children are well able to help stir the flour and they especially love helping to roll out the dough (and sneaking it into their mouths when Mum's back is turned!). I posted a gorgeous chocolate cookie recipe here before, but we can't make the same thing every time. I was also looking for a handy dessert - it was meant to be "date night" and I had already vetoed Himself's selection of sticky toffee pudding in Superquin (having had a gorgeous one the previous night while on a rare night out with my DinnerLady partner and some others). He was so crestfallen, I had to make something, but of course I had feic all ingredients to hand and also not a lot of time. Flicking through Nigella Lawson's "Domestic Goddess" book, I considered the peanut cookies I'd made before that I know he loves - but I wasn't feeling the love for peanut. There's also the Snickerdoodles recipe, but again, I didn't have the love for the nutmeg and cinnamon flavour. And then I noticed this recipe, for "Granny Boyd's Biscuits". What dragged me in was the mention in her little recipe intro piece that she, Nigella, doesn't "think there is any more chic an accompaniment to a tub of good vanilla ice cream ... dark, smoky and melting". I knew we had a tub of the seriously yummy Lidl stractiatella (or "scratch-me-telly", as the girls call it!) ice cream in the freezer - so decision made.

Oh lads n lassies - they are lovely! Now, the chocolate chip cookies are still fabulous, but these are a little bit more sophisticated. I only cooked half the batch of dough last night, but still there were only three cookies left this morning. And this morning at about 9.30am, sitting up in bed with the papers (Himself was gone for his weekend sea swim - yup, certifiable) the two little minxes landed up with the three cookies - "one each, Mummy" - how could I refuse?! It was a naughty and nice little treat for us! So tonight I cooked off the other half, and we had them with some more ice cream after our roast chicken... what can I say, I was very popular!

So, here's the recipe (ps, apparently "Granny Boyd" is the granny of Nigella's editor Eugenie Boyd, who gave her the recipe).

Granny Boyd's Biscuits

  • 300g self raising flour
  • 30g cocoa powder
  • 250g soft butter
  • 125g caster sugar
  • 2 baking sheets, greased; and preheat the oven to 170C
  1. Mix the flour and cocoa in a bowl and leave to one side
  2. Cream the butter and sugar until pale and soft, then work in the flour and cocoa (I did this with the electric hand mixer on a low setting). It might look like it needs liquid,but keep working the ingredients in and it will form a dough
  3. Roll into walnut sized balls (perfect job for little helpers) and arrange these with a decent space between them (as they'll spread) on the baking sheets, pressing down with the back of the fork to make attractive tine-marks; you will find it helpful to dip the fork occasionally into a glass of water, to stop the dough sticking to the fork
  4. Now pop the baking sheets in the oven and cook at 170C for 5 minutes, then turn the oven down to 150C and bake for a further 10-15 minutes. It's hard to tell by looking at them when they are done as the dough starts off so dark, but they should feel firm on top, although not hard; they will continue to cook and harden as they cool
  5. Remove from the oven and transfer immediately to a wire rack to cool
    Makes about 35
Granny Boyd's Cookies

Here also is Nigella's recipe for the peanut cookies; also fabulous served with ice cream as a dessert treat.

Sweet and Salty Peanut Biscuits

  • 75g light muscovado sugar, plus more for dipping later (I think I used soft dark brown, as that's what I had)
  • 100g butter
  • 50g vegetable shortening ("Cookeen" or "Trex" or similar - the hard white fat that you might use for pastry)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 175g self raising flour
  • 125g salted peanuts
  • 2 baking sheets, lined; and preheat the oven to 190C
  1. In a large bowl, mix together the sugar, butter, shortening, egg and vanilla. Just beat it together, no ceremony, to combine well. You may well find this easier to do with an electric mixer (as I did).
  2. Stir in the flour and then the peanuts - and that's your dough, done.
  3. Now drop the dough in rounded teaspoons about 5cm apart onto the prepared bakig sheets.
  4. Oil the bottom of a glass, or brush with melted butter, and dip it into some more light muscovado sugar and then press getly on the biscuits to flatten them.
  5. Bake for 8-10 minutes, by which time they should be cooked through (though remember that biscuits always continue to cook for a while out of oven), then remove to a wire rack to cook
    Makes about 30
With Christmas coming, both of these cookie recipes should be useful for school bake sales / coffee mornings / treats for Santa / homemade presents for adoring grandmothers ... Not to mind a tasty finisher to a weekend family roast dinner.

Sarah xx

Monday, 28 October 2013

Chicken Pie

This is such a cheat, coz let's face it - I didn't even make it. Himself did, my lovely DinnerHusband and professional chef (honestly, it's really useful to have one of these around! They are a bit messy, being used to kitchen porters cleaning up after them in work, but I can live with that for the super tasty results).

We were checking out the fabulous BBC food webpage and came across this chicken pie recipe. We've been trying to widen the children's tastebuds, as we only get to eat a family meal once or twice a week and if I see roast chicken one more time, I might combust. And the little one does not like roast chicken. I coax it into her, but she far prefers her chicken to come in a gooey sauce. 

So we had a great success last week with roast lamb, which they both liked, but it is very expensive. DInnerHusband suggested another roast chicken and I made a total "meh" face (and sound) so we went searching for something a little different that would re-ignite some kitchen interest and also tickle the junior tastebuds.

So, back to the chicken pie. The idea and recipe seemed easy enough, although we knew they wouldn't go for green pepper in a pie - to be honest, I wasn't breaking out in love at the thought of it either.

So the lovely DinnerHusband, full of brio after an early morning swim in the Irish Sea at Sandycove (yes, he is officially certifiable) said he'd take charge and do it, adapting the BBC recipe and the Avoca Chicken & Broccoli Bake recipe to come together as something new.

We bought a nice cheap chicken, and he put it on to boil. This could easily be done all the one day, but as it is a lovely long Bank Holiday weekend and we were kicking back taking it easy, he stuck it on to boil on Saturday, cooking it off before we had to take the junior miss to a birthday party (her first on her own - she was
so excited!) and bring the older miss for a compensatory MacDonalds. All the more reason to want to get some proper nutrition into them the next day!

The process is simple; get a big old pot, stick the chicken in it (whole) with some veg - a roughly chopped carrot, a quartered onion, a few peppercorns, a chopped celery stalk and a couple of bayleaves. Bring to the boil and cook for about an hour. He also made a roux to be used to thicken the sauce later - simply melt 50g of butter and stir in 50g of plain flour over a low heat. Cook over a low heat for about 3 minutes, then leave to cool (preferably in a fridge for a few hours, but it's not a dealbreaker).

Then he just turned it off, and left it til the next day. On Sunday, he took the chicken out of the liquid and brought the liquid stock back up to the boil. Then he left it to boil on a high heat without a lid til the liquid was reduced to about a pint. He added a sprinkle of dried tarragon, a good splash of cream, and stirred in some mushrooms which he had sautéed in a pan (chopped large enough for my small folk to pick out - some things are a battle too far!). He thickened it all with the roux made earlier and chilled for a wee while.

Stripping the chicken down, he added the chopped up chicken to a large enamel dish (any oven proof dish would work) and poured the sauce on top.

Then he rolled out soma sheet of shop bought puff pastry (you do have to read the instructions to let this defrost in enough time) and popped it on top, brushed with some beaten egg and baked at 180C for about 30 minutes.

Bob's your uncle! Served with boiled potatoes, mashed carrots and parsnips and none of us were able to finish our plates.... Pastry, rich sauce, potatoes - I was as full as I have ever been.

Well done, that man! Thank god we replaced the broken dishwasher though... And I can safely say, it went down a treat with all the ladies in the house, from 40 down to 4. 

While there were a few processes to follow, it really was not a difficult thing to make. A lovely dish to make for a cold autumnal evening. I suggest you send the small people off to the park with a responsible adult, and spend a leisurely afternoon making this yourself. Make sure that you have a good book, a pot of tea, maybe a glass of wine on hand, as there is some waiting around to be done while the chicken cooks etc. Might as well use it to your advantage!


Sarah xx

Monday, 9 September 2013

Keralan Coconut Fish Curry

The British chef Gizzi Erskine is some one I'd heard of, but had never paid any attention to - frankly, I wanted to be annoyed by her, one of these new young breed, with her funky / odd name... I've enough to keep up with already, with your Jamie's and Nigella's and the like! She's taken over as the food writer in the Sunday Times magazine, so I've taken to at least reading her stuff. The first couple of weeks cheered me up no end, I was able to completely pooh-pooh her recipes, they seemed complicated and full of exotic ingredients that might be available in the posh supermarkets in the trendy hip areas of London she undoubtedly hangs out in, but have yet to make it to the shelves of Tesco on the Crumlin Road, much less Lidl or Aldi, where I do all my shopping these days.

But then, dammit, her recipes started to draw me in a little, much to my disgust. Last week, she had some recipes for "Midweek Suppers" that seemed so exactly to fit the ethos of this blog - quick and easy tasty meals - that I read with some interest. There was a not very appetizing looking picture of some meatballs, that seemed a bit of a faff, but on the next page were two much more interesting sounding affairs; a coconut fish curry and a Thai chicken stir fry that both seemed at the very least to be quick and easy.

It's a bargain - HONEST!
I did need to make a visit to the Asian shop anyhow, every now and again I need to replenish. And I do love having a nosy around all the unfamiliar ingredients and smells. And it's SO cheap. Case in point - I needed garam masala for the recipe. Now, I know my local Tesco would actually be able to provide that, but I was nowhere near Tesco so I thought I'd just grab it there. So I did. It was €2.95. Not madly cheap, you think... I've just checked online at Tesco and they have a couple of offerings; a Scharwtz one for €2.29 and a Tesco brand one for a mere 99 cent. But the quantity is the difference - 38g Tesco jar, 30g Schwartz jar... Or a 400g bag from the Asian Market. Yes, well over TEN TIMES more. That works out at 7 cent per 10g, whereas even the cheapest next option from Tesco is 26 cent for 10g. Aren't you glad I worked all that out for you?! I wouldn't normally work out to such a degree the levels of saving, but this was so obviously a massive difference that I decided to see the detail. Now, in fairness, I'm not sure I really need 400g of garam masala, so if anyone needs a bit, just give me a call! I would usually buy in smaller quantities but it would've certainly cost more in diesel to hightail it back to Tesco for the sake of a smaller pot. Although as the recipe only needs a quarter teaspoon, it's gonna be a while before I need more (on that note, you should actually replace spices reasonably frequently - let's say annually, as they do loose their flavour).
Anyhow, I had a great nosy round the Asian Market - you get all sorts of things there (Worcestershire sauce for €3 - a big bottle! Another saving over Mr Tesco - and, as they say themselves, "every little helps"). Coconut milk on offer - two for €2, again cheaper than.... So delighted was I with all my bargains that I bought all sorts of things I don't really need.

So, for the recipe - I'm including here also the introductory paragraph from the author, as it gives a good outline of the dish.

Coconut Fish CurrySunday Times Magazine, Sept 1st 2013, recipe by Gizzi Erskine

"Keralan food is 'My Thing': lightly spiced fish curries with a rich and soupy coconut base. If you want healthy fast food, this is just the ticket. Unlike most curries, this doesn't start with garlic and ginger, but that's normal in southern India. This most basic of curries packs a huge and unexpected flavour punch."

  • 1 tbsp vevgetable oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • ½ tsp red chilli powder
  • 200g fresh tomatoes, blitzed (I used a can of chopped tomatoes)
  • 400ml tin of coconut milk
  • 3 green chillies
  • 4 kafir lime leaves (I got a large bag of dried from the Asian Market)
  • ¼ tsp garam masala
  • 600g white fish, such as cod or pollock (I used hake, often on offer at your local fishmonger or fish counter - I usually go to Fitzsimmons in Kimmage), cut into chunks
  • Handful of fresh coriander
  • 1 lime, cut into wedges
  • Basmati rice, to serve
    Serves 4
    Prep time: 10 mins
    Cooking time: 20 mins
    1. Heat the oil in a wok and fry the onion over a lowish heat for about 10 minutes until fully softened
    2. Add the cumin, ground coriander, turmeric and chilli powder and fry for about another 1 minute
    3. Pour in the tomatoes and simmer for 5 minutes, then add the coconut milk, fresh chillies, lime leaves and seasoning
    4. Stir well and bring to the boil, then poach the fish in the sauce for about 3 to 5 minutes, until it's just cooked through - do not stir as this will break the fish up. You can gently turn the fish half way through using two spoons to ensure it is cooked evenly
    5. Serve the curry with basmati rice topped with fresh coriander and a wedge or two of lime

    This is fast food at it's absolute best - to say the flavour packs a punch is to underestimate things greatly. It was a fantastic dinner. 

    I've yet to try out the chicken stir-fry, but all I can say is; after the fish curry; I have HIGH hopes.

    Go on  try something new. It's fabulous.

    Sarah xx

    Monday, 2 September 2013

    Cauliflower Renaissance

    Cauliflower ... Not the most popular of vegetables (I think we all have memories of cauliflower that was boiled for an hour and was totally waterlogged - vile) but definitely enjoying something of a renaissance these days. I saw a programme a year or two ago now, championing foods that have fallen out of favour (I was pinned to the chair, with a sick child asleep on my lap and the TV remote control just out of reach) and watched the Hairy Bikers singing the praises of cauliflower. There was a really interesting looking cauliflower cheese that they did; a ramped up, "posh" cauli-cheese that would be substantial enough for an evening meal. It has since become a regular on the dinner rota here, it's a great midweek dinner and also really inexpensive, definitely a bonus - I even wrote a post on it here!

    Anyhow, I turned on the evening news on TV one night recently, and caught the last ten minutes of a cookery show on RTE1, and there it was again - the cauliflower. Kevin Dundon was extolling the virtues of the cauliflower, specifically a recipe for green bean and cauliflower biryani. His recipe was really quick and easy and he was really, really enthusiastic about about how fragrant his dish was, so I thought we'd give it a go. I have to say, I was pretty sceptical because it did not look pretty. But my word, Kevin was right - it was SO delicious. Really different and really easy, incredibly fragrant and just fantastic. I even mentioned it on the DinnerLadies Facebook page, I was so excited.

    Here's the link to the actual recipe on the RTE webpage, but I've also posted it below too.

    Kevin Dundon's Cauliflower and Green Bean Biryani

    Cook the onion & spices slowly
    • 1 onion, thinly sliced
    • 2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
    • 1 cinnamon stick
    • 4 - 6 cardamom pods
    • ½ tsp chilli powder
    • ½ tsp ground cumin
    • 150g green beans, cut into 2cm long pieces
    • ½ head of cauliflower, cut into bite-sized florets
    • 2 tbsp olive oil
    • 220g basmati rice
    • 600ml vegetable (or chicken) stock, warmed
      To serve
    • 150g natural yoghurt
    • 50g flaked almonds, toasted
    • Bunch of coriander, chopped
    1. Heat the oil in a large heavy based saucepan over a medium heat. Add the cumin, chilli powder, cinnamon and cardamom pods and cook for a minute or two. Add the onion and garlic and cook slowly (this is critical, you don't want the garlic to burn and you want the onion to soften slowly) and cook until softened - about a further 3 or 4 minutes.
    2. Add the rice and stir to coat in the flavoured oil. Pour in the stock and then add the cauliflower and green beans. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 12-15 minutes, until the liquid has been absorbed.
    3. Remove from the heat and leave to stand for 5-10 minutes, then pour into a serving dish.
    4. Sprinkle with the flaked almonds and chopped coriander, and drizzle with a spoonful of the natural yoghurt.
    We've had this twice now, once just alone for a midweek supper (it was fabulous) and again last Saturday night when we served it with a pork chop, to make a slightly more substantial meal. Both were equally gorgeous. It truly is a very fragrant and tasty dish, I really do urge you to give it a go.

    PS - we had no dessert as a couple of the apples I'd been planning to turn into a crumble were gone off and I then didn't have enough. So I rustled up some buns quickly, and the DinnerHusband found a punnet of frozen raspberries in the freezer. He chucked half of them into a small saucepan and heated them through with a sprinkle of icing sugar, and he chopped in some large chunks of white chocolate. We served the buns with the raspberry and white chocolate sauce

    Tuesday, 13 August 2013

    Two Cakes - Moroccan Spiced Orange Cake, and Damp Lemon and Almond Cake

    It's a while since I did some cake.... So I thought I'd give you another one. I didn't know I was so concerned with cake, nor ate so much of it, but it appears I am and I do!

    Just over a year ago, on holiday in Schull in Co. Cork (or "Pirate Schull", as the DinnerBabies call it), we were brought to the marvellous Blairscove House and Restaurant near Durrus in west Cork for dinner. It still lives in the memory, it was absolutely fabulous - glorious setting, excellent food, good company; a really enjoyable night.

    Anyhow, the starters and desserts at Blairscove are served buffet style so you can help yourself. The desserts were particularly gorgeous; there was a super tasty little raspberry mousse served in a small kilner style bottle, a jelly of summer fruits that was so delicate, and a spiced Moroccan style orange cake that my brother felt was the star of the show.

    I always thought that it should be something I should be able to recreate, as it wasn't a million miles from Nigella Lawson's damp lemon and almond cake that I make regularly, as it is similar in style. So I was quite excited to hear Ray D'Arcy interview the chef Clodagh McKenna on his radio show on TodayFM earlier this summer and waxing lyrical about the spiced Moroccan orange cake she'd brought in!

    So, I got googling and I found the recipe, and it is now a firm favourite in the repertoire. Again, like the lemon and almond cake, it is a great dessert (especially as you can keep the leftovers of both cakes to enjoy after the guests have disappeared, wrapped in tinfoil and they actually get nicer over a few days). The orange cake is great for those guests who are less fond of the distinct almond flavour of the lemon cake. I made the orange cake to bring for this year's trip to Schull, with that very idea in mind, that we could have it for dessert across a few days. However, greedy guts that we are, it didn't make it past the first day as the four of us sat down and ate the whole thing in one sitting! No higher praise than empty plates though, so that was good. And I did get a couple of runs in, to offset some of the damage - and as a result of that, I've got back to running slightly more regularly and have now entered some runs as a goal, so all in all it was a good result.

    Here's the recipe, it's simple and gorgeous.

    (Clodagh McKenna, from her website)

    Clodagh says, on her website: "We made this deliciously moist Moroccan Spiced Orange Cake last Saturday in the cookery school – it’s fab served with Greek Yogurt or Creme Fraiche and lasts for 1 week!"

    • 50 g slightly stale white breadcrumbs (about 2 slices of bread, crusts cut off - you don't want dark flecks in your cake!)
    • 200 g caster sugar
    • 100 g ground almonds
    • 1 tsp baking powder
    • 200 ml sunflower oil
    • 4 eggs
    • Finely grated zest of 1 large unwaxed orange
    • Finely grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
    • Whipped cream or Greek yogurt, to serve (optional)
      For the citrus syrup
    • Juice of 1 unwaxed orange
    • Juice of 1 unwaxed lemon
    • 75 g caster sugar
    • 2 cloves
    • 1 cinnamon stick

    1. Line the base of a 20.5cm (8in) round and 5cm (2in) deep tin with greaseproof paper, then grease and flour the tin. Mix the breadcrumbs with the sugar, almonds and baking powder. Whisk the oil with the eggs, then pour into the dry ingredients and mix well. Add the orange and lemon zest. Pour the mixture into the tin, place in a cold oven and turn on the heat to 180C, 350F, Gas 4.
    2. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the cake is golden brown. A skewer inserted into the centre should come out clean. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before turning out onto a plate.
    3. Meanwhile, make the citrus syrup. Put all the ingredients into a saucepan and bring gently to the boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved completely. Simmer for 3 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and cloves from the syrup.
    4. While the cake is still warm, pierce it several times with a skewer, then spoon the hot syrup over the cake, allowing it to run into the holes. Leave to cool. Spoon any excess syrup back over the cake every now and then until it is all soaked up. Serve with whipped cream or a dollop of thick Greek yogurt, if wished.

    And it now occurs to me, as I try to link to the lemon cake - I haven't posted that recipe here ever! As this is the most common dessert I make these days, I feel I have to remedy this, so here's that recipe too.

    Damp Lemon and Almond Cake
    (Nigella Lawson, “How to be a Domestic Goddess”, pg. 12)

    Nigella says, in the book:- "I love lemon, I love almond, so this for me is cake nirvana. Perhaps it should be in the fruited cakes section, but the citrus element, though intense, just melds with the almonds to give a slab of damp, dense, sharp-toned meltiness. It is a plain cake, but gloriously plain.
    If you can, leave this cake wrapped in a double casing of foil for a couple of days before eating it: both its sharpness and its melting dampness will increase in the waiting."

    • 225g soft unsalted butter
    • 225g caster sugar
    • 4 large eggs
    • 50g plain flour
    • 225g ground almonds
    • ½ teaspoon almond essence
    • Grated zest and juice of two lemons
    • 21-23cm Springform cake tin, lined on the bottom
    • Preheat the oven to 180°C / gas mark 4.
    1. Cream together the butter and sugar until almost white. 
    2. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, adding a quarter of the flour after each addition. When all the eggs and flour have been incorporated, gently stir in the ground almonds, then the almond essence, lemon zest and juice. 
    3. Pour the mixture into the cake tin and bake at for about 1 hour. I say “about” only because ovens seem to vary so violently, I’ve cooked this in one oven when it was finished after 50 minutes; in another when it needed 1 hour and 10 minutes. Whichever, after about 30 minutes you may well find you have to cover it loosely with foil; you don’t want the top of the cake to burn. 
    4. The cake is ready when the top is firm and a skewer, inserted, comes out cleanish: you want dampness, but no battery goo. Take the cake out and let it stand for 5 or so minutes in the tin. Then turn it out onto a wire rack and leave til cool. (NB – loosen with a palate knife before opening the spring)
    5. Then, preferably, wrap well in tin foil and leave it for a couple of days. Push some icing sugar over the cake through a fine sieve or tea strainer (I don’t bother) when serving. I can’t stop myself murmuring “raspberries” to you, either.
    Serves 6 – 8

    The recipe above is verbatim from the book – here’s my note, the smaller springform tin is better, the one I use is 8½” / 20½cm

    With many thanks to Nigella Lawson and Clodagh McKenna!

    Sarah xx

    Monday, 29 July 2013

    Summer Risotto

    I am quite excited, as this is truly the first dinner I have ever made from scratch with absolutely no recipe of any type to follow (spaghetti bolognaise does not count!).

    The raw ingredient
    We never have risotto, mostly because you normally think of mushroom risotto and I always find that a little one-dimensional and bland - all mushroom flavour and nothing else.  Although I was well aware that I have a bag of arborio (risotto) rice lurking at the back of the cupboard. I actually dragged it out recently to make rice pudding (honestly, the absolute easiest dessert I have ever made, ever. Just possibly a bit unseasonal in July!) so I was reminded of it. And I am also sick to the back teeth of our summer menu. We have alternated tuna salads ever other week (the pasta one and a nicoise), a lot of BBQ food and a lot of stir fries have been eaten, and frankly it is all getting a little predictable. I have been longing for some different vegetables, but our usual repertoire of semi-veggie midweek dinners are a bit heavy for the warmest July in about a million years.

    So I hit on a plan to do a risotto. Asparagus and courgette were the main flavours I am went with today, but being me I have also added bacon bits and used chicken stock - of course it would be the simplest thing in the world to leave out the bacon and use a good vegetable stock instead and then you have a proper vegetarian meal.

    Another thing I love about this is that is a total movable feast, based on what vegetables / meat / fish you have to hand.

    Here's the concoction I came up with tonight; experiment and enjoy your own version!

    • 1 onion, finely diced
    • Slightly less than 1 stalk of celery, diced
      Fresh green veg, frying
    • Half a 125g pack of bacon bits
    • 1 x 125g pack of asparagus tips, chopped into pieces about an inch long (halved, once you take the woody bottom off)
    • Half a courgette, cut into batons
    • 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
    • A handful of frozen peas (well, I intended to include them, but it turned out that we didn't have any!)
    • Arborio rice - 75g of uncooked rice per person
    • About 1 litre of chicken stock, made with 1½ chicken stock cubes and boiling water
    • Oil, for frying
    • Plenty of freshly grated Parmesan cheese, to serve
    • You also need a deep frying pan
    1. Start by heating some oil in the pan to a medium heat, then add the onion and celery and start to
      Getting a nice sheen, as the starches release
    2. Add the bacon bits and asparagus (I like to keep the heat reasonably high for this, so the bacon and asparagus gets a bit charred around the edges) and fry
    3. Add the courgette and garlic (I add the garlic last, so it doesn't burn)
    4. Add the rice and give the whole thing a good stir, so the rice gets nicely coated with the oil (this is actually really important, to ensure the rice releases it's starch properly so the whole thing thickens - according to Himself, anyhow, and as he has been head chef in an Italian restaurant, who am I to argue?!)
    5. Start to add the stock, ladle by ladle, keeping the rice moving (my pan is non-stick, so I didn't have to completely stand over it, but you do need to keep it moving). Let it simmer, then add the next ladle-full of stock (I don't have a ladle, I used a pyrex jug)
    6. Keep going until most of the stock has been added. It should take about 15 or 20 minutes (I find that the full 20 minutes recommended on the pack leaves the rice slightly overdone for me). How much stock the rice absorbs can depend, so as you get near the end taste as you go to see if you need to use it all or not
    7. If I had peas, I would have stirred them in with just a few minutes to go
    8. Serve in pasta bowls with lashings of freshly grated Parmesan
    Ready to serve, just add parmesan cheese

    The whole thing took less than half an hour to make from scratch and it was really delicious and satisfying, risotto really does fill you up. I will be experimenting more over the next few weeks with lots of different vegetables and flavours, it is a great meal and can be adapted for any season.

    Sarah xx

    Tuesday, 25 June 2013

    Just a Baked Spud - and a little dessert!

    It's obviously the Irish in me, but I adore spuds. All sorts of spuds, in any format. Boiled, mashed, chips, roasted, rösti, gnocchi, all have a place. But for sheer completeness of a meal in a single spud, nothing beats a properly baked potato. In fact, a baked potato and chicken curry from the Bannside Restaurant in the University of Ulster at Coleraine for 66p (if memory serves me right!) saw me through college.

    On the other hand, I really have no time at all for those horrid little spuds you get from the microwave. When it comes to a baked potato, there is only one option for me, and that is a long slow baking in a proper oven. For a BBQ, I wrap them in tinfoil and stick them in the BBQ for the last ten or fifteen minutes, to give it a smokey flavour. But often, we just have a baked potato as our evening meal on a random mid week night - like tonight.

    I know the carb police are climbing the walls, but it is not a massively calorific meal, especially as I usually only have a little creme fraiche and chive and maybe a mixed salad with it. And how simple a meal it is - it totally fits the DinnerLadies ethos of an easy midweek supper!

    Gorgeous fluffy baked potatoes
    However, in order to get a "proper" baked potato with a nice crunchy skin and a fluffy inside, it is useful to have some basic instructions.

    Firstly, I used to have the oven too hot and do it too quickly - 220C is too much. I consulted Delia Smith, and now I preheat to 180C (Delia suggests 190C, but mine is a fan oven).

    Secondly, get the biggest spud from the bag - this is great for using up those big turnip sized ones you get at the bottom of the large sack! Again, Delia suggests a slightly waxy potato, whereas I (being Irish) prefer a fluffier, floury type.

    One important factor is to ensure the potato is as dry as possible, so if they are ready washed, there is no need to wash them again. If not, wash and dry as thoroughly as possible. Then prick all over with a fork, then rub in a few drops of olive oil. Lastly, rub in some crushed sea salt (Maldon is ideal, I often just end up using finely ground table salt though, depends what is near to hand when I realise the Maldon is at the back of the cupboard and my hands are covered in oil!). Pop straight onto the shelf of the oven and bake for a nice long time - I give them at least 1½ to 1¾ hours, even sometimes two hours. Delia suggests you learn to embrace the length of time they take to cook to do something else, like popping out for a bit. Personally, I find "putting the children to bed to have a supper on my lap alone / with Himself in front of the TV" is an excellent use of time!

    Ready to eat; with melted cheese, bacon & mushrooms

    Serve them with fish or your BBQ or have them on their own - tonight I am going to cook of some bacon bits and maybe mushroom and scatter them on top, maybe scatter on some grated vintage cheddar and pop them under the grill for a minute, and then serve with some "sour cream" and chive sauce (see below) and a mixed salad. I even have some coriander in the fridge, so I will probably chop that into the salad too. It will be regular curly lettuce, some rocket and coriander, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, celery, scallions and chopped red pepper with some dressing. Or not, as the case maybe - there is no lettuce after all that.

    "Sour cream" & chive sauce

    • 1 tub of soured cream or creme fraiche (hence my inverted commas! I didn't have enough creme fraiche today so I used the last half tub with a spoon of mayonnaise and a half tub of Philadelphia cheese!)
    • 1 bunch chives
    • Salt and pepper
    1. Chop the chives into the creme fraiche, season with plenty of salt and pepper and leave to infuse for at least an hour
    PS - the reason I had half a tub of Philadelphia is because I made a cheesecake.... Instructions below! I really need to row back on all these desserts - I got "Run, Fat Bitch, Run!" out of the library today, I need to swallow it and not the cheesecake!

    Baked Cheesecake
    (Adapted from a couple of recipes from the BBC Food website)

    • 200g digestive biscuits
    • 100g butter, melted
    • 500g full fat cream cheese (such as Philadelphia)
    • 3 eggs
    • Juice of ½ a lemon
    • 75ml double or whipping cream (unwhipped)
    • 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
    • 60g plain flour
    • 200g caster sugar
    • Preheat the oven to 140C
    • Line the bottom of an 8" springform tin with parchment paper
    1. Pop the biscuits into a food processor and blitz to fine crumbs, then add the melted butter and mix well
    2. Put the biscuit mixture into the tin and use a glass tumbler to roll over it and level it out, then leave in the fridge to chill while you get on with the rest
    3. Mix the cream, lemon juice and eggs in a jug, combining lightly
    4. Beat the cream cheese and vanilla together til smooth (I used the electric hand whisk on a lowish setting for this), then add half the egg mixture and beat in
    5. Add the flour and sugar, beating in again, then the rest of egg mixture, beating all to a smooth consistency
    6. Pour over the biscuit base then bake for 40 - 50 mins, you will need to check after 40 mins, and take it from there; it is done when lightly golden on top and firm but with still a slight wobble on top
    7. Ideally, when done, prop the oven door open and leave the cheesecake in til the oven cools completely, taking it out and leaving to fully cool then; apparently this will stop it cracking. However if - like me - you need the oven for something else (such as baking some fine spuds!), leave it cool in the tin, running a palate knife round the edge after about 5 minutes, to loosen

    If only I had a little berry coulis of some flavour to go with it - raspberry would be perfect for me!

    Sarah xx

    PS - many thanks to the lovely reader who spotted that I had forgotten to mention the quantity of cheese required in the cheesecake; d'oh! Amended now, S

    Monday, 24 June 2013

    An Old-fashioned Rice Pudding

    Rice Pud, with a lovely nutmeg skin
    Now I have to admit to a love of an old fashioned pudding, and rice pudding has always been my favourite, my mother would often make it as a mid-week dessert, it was great to come in from school and discover that treat waiting for us after dinner.

    I've always been under the impression that is is something very tricky to make, that it fails more often than not. Well, I'm delighted to tell you I found the world's easiest rice pud recipe ever - honestly, it was even easier to make than the lemon posset!

    What happened was I was cleaning out a cupboard and found a packet of arborio rice, for making risotto. Obviously I had great plans once for risotto, but never got round to it. I had a notion that you can use arborio rice for rice pud as well as traditional "pudding rice", so I thought I'd check the net, find a recipe and give it a whirl. Especially with the cold and windy day we had yesterday, I thought it would be a lovely comforting end to our roast chicken dinner (ps, here's a link to my favourite roast chicken recipe too, Delia Smith's fast roast chicken with tarragon and lemon - it's divine).

    The Delia Smith site failed me, as her recipe uses evaporated milk and I didn't have any. The excellent BBC Food website though and pages and pages of recipes from every celebrity chef ever. Some were quite complicated, but actually the second listing - totally uncredited - turned out to be simplicity itself so I went for it.

    The only issue was that when I weighed out the 55g of rice the recipe recommended, I knew instantly it wasn't enough, presumably because I didn't have "official" pudding rice and was going a bit off piste with my arborio rice. So I increased the amount of rice to the official portion size for two people of about 120g, and that was the perfect amount.

    Preparation time on this is a max of about five minutes, then you simply stick in the oven for an hour. BONZA, as Himself would say!

    Rice Pudding (from the BBC Food website)

    • 55g/2oz pudding rice or 120g/4oz arborio/risotto rice
    • 55g/2oz sugar
    • 600ml/1 pint full-fat milk
    • A good grate of fresh nutmeg
    • Small amount of butter
    • Preheat the oven to 160C/325F/Gas Mark 3
    1. Mix the rice and sugar together in a baking dish and pour on the milk
    2. Grate plenty of fresh nutmeg on top, and then dot with/float 3 or 4 small bits of butter
    3. Bake in the oven for at least an hour - you can also cook it for longer at a lower heat, if you wish
    Now, how easy is that?! And the kids loved it. Although I did find it on the sweet side, so next time I will reduce the sugar a bit, I would think 35 or 40g of sugar would be plenty.

    Sarah xx

    Tuesday, 11 June 2013

    The Perfect Picnic Snack - Flapjacks

    Golden Flapjacks
    Oh how I love the humble flapjack. Not cool or sexy in any way, but really simple to make, very easy to transport to a picnic (weather permitting) and oh, so yummy. And they always sound so wholesome and have that slightly worthy feel to them, don't they?

    All I can say, lovely blog fans, is don't be fooled. Unfortunately, something that tastes that sweet and tasty is of course not good for you! At it's heart, it is a mix of porridge oats (okay, I grant you, that's healthy), butter (lots of it), sugar and golden syrup. Gorgeous.

    Of course, you can make them in a variety of different ways, and add what you like. Today, I am making them for my daughter's sponsored walk from her creche, so as the audience will be mostly aged between 2 and 4 years of age, I've plumped for the straightforward option. You can, of course, make them with honey instead... But this doesn't make them any healthier, as honey is exactly the same glycaemic value of sugar, and I find the taste a bit strident, so sugar it is for me.

    The recipe I am using today is a hybrid of some internet research and the recipe from Nigella Lawson's book "How to be a Domestic Goddess".

    Firstly, you need to line a tin. The easiest way to do this is to cut a piece of parchment paper larger than required, then snipping the corners so that you overlay the corners, making it neater. Delia Smith explains it reasonably well here, with pictures.

    Next up, the recipe -a s I say, simplicity itself.

    Basic Flapjacks

    • 300g butter
    • 75g brown sugar (light brown would be ideal, today I have a mix of dark soft brown and a little caster sugar - needs must. Fingers crossed)
    • 5 or 6 tablespoons of golden syrup
    • 450g rolled oats (porridge - this can be a mix of jumbo or regular oats, or ideally a mix of both. I prefer the 250g regular to 200g jumbo proportion myself although again today, it's just regular)
    • Preheat the oven to fan 180 (or a little less, depending on how chewy you like them)
    1. Melt the butter, sugar and golden syrup gently over a low heat and stir well to combine
    2. Add to the oats and mix thoroughly (make sure to mix well, no one wants to find a big lump of dry oats in the middle of a bite)
    3. Press into the prepared tin and bake for 25 minutes (again, 30 minutes if you prefer a crunchier texture)
    4. Allow to cool in the tin; although do cut into squares in the tin about 5-10 minutes after they come out
      1. Add chopped sultanas to the dry oats before adding the melted butter and sugar
      2. Add chopped dried cherries and a generous sprinkle of desiccated coconut
      3. Sprinkle a spoon of sesame seeds on top of the flapjacks before they go in the oven
      4. Add a pinch of ginger or other spices to the mix 
      5. Dip one side in melted chocolate after they have cooled, and then leave to dry on greaseproof paper
    Perfect with a picnic - now, just pray the rain stays away!

    Sarah xx