Monday, 28 July 2014

Homemade Granola

Making granola - heck, even eating granola - can seem to mark you out as being a bit of a hippy.  But I'm holding up my hands and admitting it, it's my latest favourite breakfast!  I'm not a huge fan of cereals in general because I don't really like milk, but a bowl of this granola with a large splodge of full-fat Greek yoghurt, and maybe an extra drizzle of honey, can't be beaten.  This isn't the dusty muesli you can buy in every supermarket, this is a crunchy, nutty, fruity, even chocolately treat which is nonetheless full of slow-release energy in the form of oats, and plenty of 'good fats' in the nuts.  It certainly fills me up for the morning, reducing the desire for that mid-morning snack.

My neighbour Barbara inspired me a few months ago as I saw her making a large batch of granola using an Ottolenghi recipe.  I tasted some and thought I'd investigate making it myself.  Not actually owning any of Ottolenghi's books (I've had them out of the library instead), I found this recipe online, courtesy of the lovely 'Tasty Pi' blog.

I made this version a couple of times, but inevitably I'd find I didn't have quite the right amounts/types of nuts/fruit, so I soon began improvising.  Now I don't even look at the recipe when I make it, just throw things together.

All amounts are approximate, as are the ingredients...  It strikes me that it's a bit of a cheek to call this a recipe actually, but that's what I love about it!

400-500g oats (I use Tesco Value)
200 nuts - whatever you like.  I always use some chopped brazils, but also include almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, cashews, whatever I happen to have.
100g seeds - again, whatever you like.  My current batch uses pumpkin seeds, but I often buy a bag of 'mixed seeds' to throw in. 
1 tsp salt

Mix all the above ingredients together, then mix up the following:

100ml oil (I like to use coconut oil, but otherwise sunflower or vegetable oil is fine).
150ml honey (I sometimes supplement this with maple syrup, or some of the gingery syrup from a jar of preserved ginger)

I tend to warm this syrup in the microwave, especially if using coconut oil which is generally solid, then pour it over the oat mixture, stirring well.  I think the original Ottolenghi recipe uses rather more syrup for the dry mix, so it is stickier.  Mine is therefore a little drier and less sugary, but you could definitely use more oil and honey if you prefer your granola a little more sinful!

Spread the mixture out on a couple of baking trays, making a layer no more than 1cm thick.  Bake in a 140 degree oven for about 40 minutes, stirring a couple of times during the cooking time to ensure it's evenly browned.

When the granola is golden brown remove the trays from the oven and add about 200g chopped dried fruit.  This could be as simple as just sultanas, or as varied as you like.  I've used dates, apricots, cranberries, figs (actually, all the leftovers from when I made Christmas Puddings last year!).

And if you're feeling especially naughty, you could also follow my lead and sprinkle some dark chocolate over the hot granola...  I've used half a bar (50g) of Green & Blacks Maya Gold, chopped, when I've been very indulgent, but a cheaper brand - or indeed some chocolate chips - is fine too. 

Leave to cool (the chocolate, if you've used it, will have helped to clump the granola together as it's melted and cooled), then store in an airtight container.  A batch this size lasts me 2-3 weeks (and no one else is allowed to eat it!) so I know it keeps perfectly well for at least that long.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Chicken Breasts with Parmesan and Herbs

Salisbury Library has an awesome selection of cookery books, so while Ted browses in the children's section, I can usually be found not far away (keeping a watchful eye on him!) at the food and cookery shelves.  I can always find someghing I fancy looking and cooking through, and it means I can experiment with lots of different writers and recipes without spending huge amounts of money buying cookbooks I have nowhere to store.  It's a win-win situation.

This week I have out Lisa Faulker's second cookbook, The Way I Cook.  I'm not a huge Celebrity Masterchef fan, and didn't watch the series that she won, but I've always liked her as an actress, and she comes across very well in this book; friendly and down-to-earth.

So far I have made a couple of recipes from this book, a Leek & Garlic tart which, while delicious, didn't quite live up to Ottolenghi's amazing Caramelised Garlic Tart (from Plenty), and a lovely chicken breast dish which I want to remember, hence this blog post.  The recipe title is actually 'Chicken Breasts with Parmesan and Parsley' but as I have an illogical aversion to parsley I substituted it for thyme which was delicious.  I'd imagine that other herbs could be used too to good effect, perhaps rosemary, sage or oregano? 

Anyway, this recipe is incredibly simple and quick, and has the added bonus of being made from things that I pretty much always have in the fridge/freezer/cupboard, so I suspect it may become a staple in this household.  The recipe in the book is for 4, but as I cooked it for just 2 I have halved it here, although I've kept the lemon juice amount as written and would double it if I was cooking for 4:

2 chicken breast fillets
2 eggs, beaten
30g Parmesan cheese, grated
a small handful of chopped fresh herbs (see above), plus extra for serving
flour, for coating
oil, for frying
30g butter
juice of half a lemon
salt and pepper

Wrap the chicken breasts in clingfilm and flatten by hitting with a rolling pin (fun!).

Put the beaten eggs, cheese, herbs and salt and pepper in a bowl and mix together.  Put the flour in another bowl.  Coat the chicken in flour first, tapping gently to remove any excess, then dip in the egg mixture.

Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the coated chicken breasts over a medium-high heat for about 5 minutes on each side.  Add the butter as you turn the chicken.

Set the chicken aside to rest, then add the lemon juice to the buttery oil in the pan.  This can be used as a dressing for a side salad, or a light sauce.

Lisa suggests serving this with spaghetti, but I served it with new potatoes.  Sprinkle with the extra herbs as you serve it.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Bun Thit Nuong - Vietnamese Pork or Aubergine on Noodles

I used to read voraciously, at least 1 novel a week, but since having a child I barely read half that amount, some months only managing a measly 1 book.  I tend to fall asleep the moment my head hits the pillow (knowing I'll be wakened before long by a small person wanting a cuddle), and gone are our long lazy weekend mornings reading in bed with cups of tea.  It's no doubt just a phase in our lives (and there are many compensations for it) and I will get back to more regular reading at some point I know.

I spotted a book in Salisbury Library recently that I thought would be interesting:  Fragrant Heart, a Tale of Love, Life and Food in Asia, by Miranda Emerson.


We love Asian food and cook it regularly at home, and I also enjoy reading about it, and as this was a travel book that focused on food it appealed to me immediately.  It turned out to be...  just OK.  Whilst I was interested in the author's time in Beijing as my brother has recently moved there, and I liked reading about her travels in Vietnam and Thailand (places we too had travelled), I was rather less interested in her love-life and her obsession with having children, so found myself skimming through the more introspective sections.  However, every chapter did end with one or more recipes, and I was drawn to this Vietnamese one straight away.  I made it last night and thought I'd blog it before I return the book to the library.

I made the vegetarian version, but I would like to try the pork version next.  It would also be good with beef or chicken.  I made the recipe with a few variations which I have mentioned below.

Serves 2
Preparation and cooking time: 2.5 hours

300g pork, sliced, or 1 large aubergine, quartered then sliced (I also threw in some quartered mushrooms)
2-6 tbsp unsalted peanut (use more in the vegetarian version because this is your protein)
300g rice vermicelli (I only had a 200g packet so used all of that, and it was a perfect amount)
Half a handful of mint leaves (I had a pack of Thai Basil so used that as well as the mint)
5cm piece of cucumber, unpeeled and cut into matchsticks
1 tbsp pickled vegetables (I didn't have these so didn't use them, and I don't think the dish suffered for it)

50g minced lemongrass (I used 2 stalks)
50g sugar (I used a heaped dessertspoon)
2 tbsp fish sauce (veggie alternative: 1 tbsp light soy and 1 tbsp dark soy.  I used the fish sauce)
1 tbsp ground black pepper
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 shallots, minced (I didn't use these and didn't substitute anything)
3 tbsp groundnut oil (I used sunflower)

Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce
6 tbsp of a solution of 1 part sugar to 3 parts water (I put 2 tbsp sugar in a bowl and added 4 tbsp of boiling water to dissolve it)
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 tsp lime zest (I didn't bother)
2 tbsp fish sauce (or light soy for veggies)
1 clove garlic, crushed or minced
1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes

Combine all the marinade ingredients and toss the pork or aubergine in it.  Leave to marinade for 2 hours (I only had time to leave it for an hour, it was fine).

Dry-fry the peanuts in a pan until slightly browned.  Remove from heat, crush lightly and set aside.

Prepare the nuoc cham by combining everything and decanting into dipping bowls.

When the marinating time is up, heat up a frying pan until hot (I added a tbsp of oil).  Remove the pork or aubergine from the marinade (er, I chucked it all in!) and fry until well cooked.  Remove from heat.

Boil a large saucepan of water and cook the rice vermicelli according the packet instructions (mine just said to leave in boiling water for 4 minutes).  Eat a strand to check it's cooked through, then drain and refresh in cold water.

Place the noodles in a bowl and top with the pork or aubergine.  Sprinkle over the mint, cucumber, pickled veg (if using) and peanuts.  Serve with the nuoc cham spooned over. 

I forgot to take a photo, but will add one to this post the next time I cook this dish - which I definitely will again.  Like much Vietnamese food it's light and refreshing, yet with really punchy flavours; a perfect Summer dish.

The Best Chips in the World, Ever!

I recently posted a photo onto Facebook of the steak & chips supper that I'd cooked for Rob's birthday.  Fillet steak, medium rare, peas and home-made chips, pretty much always the meal of choice for both our birthdays, and a fabulous treat.  Despite the fact that it was a fairly poor phone-snap, the chips received a lot of online admiration, so I thought I'd blog my method for making them.  I think it's very simple; no deep-fat frying, no critical timing, but a world away from oven-chips in quality and taste.  They're basically just roast potatoes in chip form, but not your pallid smooth roasties, these are roughened, crunchy and crispy, but concealing a soft and fluffy interior.  Here's how I do it:

Peel your potatoes and cut them into chunky chips.  It is CRUCIAL that you use 'good' roasting potatoes, for example King Edward or Maris Piper.  A regular 'white' potato simply won't give you the same result.

Par-boil the chips for about 5 minutes until they are just beginning to soften (check with the point of a knife), but watch carefully, these floury potatoes can turn into mash if you're forgetful and leave them a little too long.  Basically you want to be able to 'roughen them up' slightly when you shake them in the pan once drained, so bear that in mind when checking.

Meanwhile, pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C (350 F) and place a large roasting tin inside the oven, with a large slug of vegetable oil in it.  If you were being super-indulgent, a splodge of beef dripping or goose fat would be an excellent addition to the oil.  You need the oil to be covering the base of the roasting tin, but only to a depth of about 1mm.  Even if I'm only cooking chips for 2 I will use a large roasting tray as the chips cook better when they're not crowded together.  If I were cooking for 4 I'd use 2 trays rather than try and squeeze them all into 1.

When the chips have par-boiled, drain them and let the steam evaporate for a minute (you don't want any water left in the pan) and then put the lid on and gently agitate the saucepan.  The chips should now be slightly rough around the edges.  This will ensure a crispy outer.

Carefully remove the tin of oil from the oven and tip the chips into it.  The oil should be nice and hot so the chips will sizzle when they hit it.  Use a spoon to baste the chips (cover them with oil) and return the roasting tray to the oven.

Leave them for at least half an hour before you're even tempted to fiddle with them.  If you try and turn them over too soon they may stick to the base of the tray and you'll break them up trying to move them.  However, after about half an hour shake the tin and use a spatula to flip the chips over to ensure that both sides are equally crunchy.  Cook for a little longer.

My timings are slightly vague becuase much will depend on the size of your chips and the temperature of your particular oven, but it also depends how well done you like them.  I like them pretty well-browned, but others may tend towards having them a bit paler, it's up to you.

Whenever you think they're ready, remove them from the oven and tip the chips onto a warmed plate lined with kitchen roll to absorb any excess fat.  Sprinkle with a generous amount of flaky salt and serve with the meal of your choice.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Birthday Cakes

I realise with not much shock that I never got round to blogging about Ted's first birthday...  and he was TWO last weekend!  So here's a quick first-and-second-birthday-cake round-up!

First Birthday

Ted's favourite book was one of the Ladybird 'Baby Touch' series of books, which feature a cheerful tiger called Tickly Tiger.  I rashly decided that I would attempt a Tickly Tiger birthday cake.  Not only would I be making my first attempt at using fondant icing, but I would be creating a stripy sponge cake beneath too.  AND I had invited 22 children (plus their mums of course) to a birthday party.  What could possibly go wrong?! 

In the event, thank heavens, nothing went wrong.  The cake 'worked', and was actually pretty tasty, the sun shone, and we all had a lovely afternoon.

The finished cake, complete with the book that inspired it.  

I ordered the orange and black fondant from a seller on eBay and actually found it remarkably simple to use.  It's just like playdough!  I also had a couple of cake-decorating-experts on hand (via FB messaging) to help me out with the technicalities such as putting a 'crumb coating' of buttercream around the cake before icing to stop any crumbs getting into the fondant (thanks Kirsten and Kath!). 

The stripy interior.

I had spotted a recipe for a stripy 'Zebra Cake' in a Lorraine Pascale baking book I'd had out of the library, so looked it up online.  I found it on this blog post, for which I offer my thanks to the author.  It was perhaps the messiest cake I've ever made, as I filled piping bags with the different batters and dolloped blobs of each on top of each other...  and blobs all over the kitchen table too!  However, as you can see, it was brilliantly effective.  I flavoured the paler cake mix with orange oil and the brown one with cocoa powder to make a chocolate orange cake.  The buttercream around the edges was also chocolate flavour.

Second Birthday

Ted and his little local friends are real country lads and lasses, and are all completely tractor-obsessed.  Their DVDs of choice feature Little Red Tractor (follow link for youtube episodes, it's actually really funny!) and the beloved Tractor Ted, full of real-life farm footage; I've learnt a lot myself from them!  So what else could I make, but a tractor cake?  I went for a pretty simple option:  a very easy chocolate cake (an Ed Kimber recipe from BBC Good Food) made with oil instead of butter which made it moist and a good keeper, sandwiched together with half a tin of dulce de leche.  The other half of the tin went into the chocolate buttercream with which I covered the entire cake.  Two Cadburys Flake bars were then crumbled on the top in an approximation of a ploughed field (a very abstract approximation!) and a fondant-modelled Tractor Ted was placed on the top.

This Tractor Ted took me HOURS and I still wasn't quite satisfied with it...

But the birthday boy seemed happy!  His face lit up when I brought the cake out.

I finished off the chocolate dulce de leche buttercream by putting it onto some very simple vanilla cupcakes and topping them with edible gold stars and rice-paper tractors (purchased again from an eBay seller) to add to the general tractor theme.

So half of this blog post is very belated, but I'm quite impressed with myself for managing to blog the second birthday only a week after it happened...

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Peanut Cornflake Cakes - Jo Wheatley

I've pretty much stopped buying recipe books - well, unless it's one I really want or 'need'!  I just don't have the space to store them, and it seems profligate to have too many.  Of course I make delighted exceptions to this rule for gifts, and also for irresistable bargains...  So when I found Great British Bake Off winner Jo Wheatley's 'A Passion for Baking' in a local charity shop for only a pound, I figured I had nothing to lose in buying it.  It's full of appealing recipes, mainly sweet, and has a nice section on Baking with Children.  Ted is just beginning to show an interest in helping in the kitchen; although 'helping' in the loosest sense of the word, as only a toddler can!  However, I love to include him when he wants to help out.  Here he is starting off our chilli con carne earlier this week (eating the raw onion pieces!):

I decided to make my first Jo Wheatley recipe a seasonal one, and make her Peanut Cornflake Cakes, but substitute Mini Eggs for the Peanut M&Ms she suggests.  There's something that appeals to everyone, adults and children alike, about those mini nest-like cakes at this time of year...  And I have to say that this is the best recipe for them that I have ever found!  The addition of peanut butter to the mix makes them really special and completely more-ish.  Initially I loved the fact that the recipe only made a small amount, I didn't want to end up making 24 of them if they didn't turn out to be that tasty, but now I'm wishing I had more as this little batch disappeared within 24 hours!

A visiting friend asked for the recipe having tasted them (er, eaten two!), but I couldn't find it anywhere online.  So I thought it was a perfect recipe to blog.

Peanut Cornflake Cakes - from A Passion for Baking by Jo Wheatley

40g unsalted butter
2 tsp golden syrup
100g milk chocolate, chopped
2 tsp peanut butter (crunchy or smooth)
80g cornflakes (although I used bran flakes which worked brilliantly)
1 small bag of peanut M&Ms (or Mini Eggs, which I used)

You will also need 6 paper muffin cases or 10 fairy cake cases.

Combine the butter, golden syrup and chocolate in a saucepan over a low heat; stir until melted.  Add the peanut butter and stir until smooth.

Tip the cornflakes into a large mixing bowl, pour over the chocolate mixture and stir until all of the cornflakes are coated.

Spoon the sticky mixture into the paper cases and top with an M&M or Mini Egg.

Chill in the fridge until set.

If these are anything to go by, that was a pound well-spent, and I'm looking forward to trying more recipes from this book.

Happy Easter!