Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Alternative Christmas 'pudding' ideas

Jamie's Winter Pudding Bombe

My actual bombe

I don't mean as a direct alternative to that dried fruit pudding English people have after Christmas dinner (which I now love, I actually made my own two years ago for the first time and make them a year in advance now). But I mean, something to eat for pudding on or around Christmas Day.

Chocolate Chestnut Rum Roulade

Every Christmas I make this amazing Chocolate Chestnut Rum Roulade. It's an Icelandic recipe that I got from the Waitrose magazine twelve years ago. It is so good. I make it every Christmas and my eldest asked for it for her birthday this year. It's really not that difficult, can be made ahead and put in the fridge.

Another thing I make is Jamie's Winter Pudding Bombe. This is superb made in advance and stuck in the freezer. I do make some changes to this as the clementine he asks for just freezes solid (obviously) and I don't find it very nice to eat. So I do his recipe but instead of the bits he asks for  I add some dark glace cherries, some candied fruits, some sour cherries soaked in marsala (I use marsala instead of vin santo throughout) and then some toasted pistachios and hazelnuts. I think you could easily customize this bit.

I also use home made vanilla ice cream because it's tastier and cheaper.  The quantity in that recipe I've linked to make the perfect, perfect amount for this recipe.

Need I point out that you don't use expensive panettone for this.

You can make it in advance, as I said, and then just turn it out when you want to serve it, and pour the chocolate over the top.

Annie Bell's Blackout cake, as near to chocolate cake perfection as possible.

Lastly, for something that doesn't look as festive but is really, really delicious. Annie Bell's Brooklyn Blackout cake which is as close to chocolate cake perfection as I can take you. I guess you could make it more festive with gold leaf or something. I don't know, up to you. It's sensational however and once people start eating it they won't care if it looks festive or not.

Do feel free to share your Christmas pudding alternatives.

update: mid January 2013. We just at the last of the bombe, which had been nestling in the freezer since I made it on 21st December. I thought you might like to see inside. It was still really really good.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Laptop lunches, the best lunchboxes ever

The Laptop Luncbox. Clockwise from top left: a popping candy chocolate lolly; grapes; fennel; ham sandwiches. Most of these inner boxes also have lids. But we never rarely feel the need to use them as the main lunch box has a lid that closes down on everything.

I need to warn you, immediately, that these lunchboxes are neither cheap, nor easy to get.

But they are worthwhile if you can get hold of one. Let me tell you about them.

Some years ago, in early 2008 to be precise, I was still co-founder, and a very active part of an excellent parenting website called I Want My Mum. It doesn't exist anymore as we shut it down last year. But it was a great place for collective wisdom.

When my eldest was due to start school, I asked the mums and dads on there what lunchboxes they'd recommend and a few of them said Laptop Lunchboxes. Which were, then, available to buy in the UK.

LLBs consist of a main lunch box with a lid, and in this are four other boxes, some with lids, some without. The whole lot sits in an insulated, zip up bag. The beauty of it is that it helps you think outside the box (yes, yes) with what you put in the lunchbox, and also you don't end up with loads of un-eco wrapping or loads of renegade plastic boxes. Of course, despite best intentions, our eldest still goes to school with sandwiches 99% of the time, but she also has crudites, potato salad, orange segments, grapes etc. They all fit beautifully inside and are protected from the disdain that a young child, quite rightly, treats its lunchbox. Her lunchbox (made mostly by her father) is a thing of beauty and the one I've photographed above is my youngest's first lunch made in her lunch box. It was incredibly boring but she wanted something fast to take on a great cycling expedition around the garden and it's the only photo I have. But imagine colourful wonderfulness spilling from every box and beautifully cut sandwiches that perfectly, perfectly fit the boxes and you'll get an idea of the care taken by my partner in making his daughter's lunch.

That first lunchbox cost about £25 as I remember. Not cheap but really good. It was so good I decided to buy us all one, but when I went to reorder, the website no longer did them and instead were offering frankly vastly inferior things that were little more than stacks of plastic boxes. I found LLBs in the States and emailed them. Good news! I could order direct from them! Bad news? With taxes and shipping it came to about £70.

It's a good lunch box, but not that good.

My youngest is due to start school in a year's time. My excellent friend and Godmother to one of my daughters, CC, was in American and due to come home for good. This was an excellent time to ask her if I could buy one and get it shipped to her and she could bring it back for me.

This is what happened and hence the youngest now has her own, and it cost £25-£30.

Of course, in the way of things, my eldest went through a stage of hating her lunch box and wanting one like everyone else. But now has come round to the fact that her lunch box is really cool and looks like new, after four years of continuous school service (she has a packed lunch every day, occasionally she will have soup in a food flask). This is something to remember when you buy something cheap that might not't last. I reckon I'd have spent more than that by now on replacement boxes.

So I know this is a bit of an annoying post, but look, we live in the world of travel and have foreign friends. If you are going to America, or live there or know someone who does and can get it shipped to them and they send it on to you,  this is feasible.

And these are really good lunch boxes.

The selection is a bit mind blowing, you can get just the bag, just the box etc; but the ones I got were in the Bento Kit (bag, box with compartments, knife and fork). And although the colourway we have isn't shown at present, this is identical to ours in all but colour: this one, with the bag with shoulder strap which I think is useful for children.

I had really good service from this company. There was a problem with my payment and a real person answered my emails and tried to help.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Hot chocolate pops

A hot chocolate pop

I cannot lay claim to this. Hot chocolate pops are all over the place. But I'd never tried them before and I gave them a go.

You can melt the marshmallow before hand, but I just don't for ease.

Here's what you need:

Some milk or plain chocolate. I used plain, 70% cocoa
Some white chocolate, I always use Green and Black's
Some marshmallows
Something to make them in, either cake pop moulds or something similar. I do, of course, have a special mould just for these which is just a round chocolate mould but bigger than what you'd use for chocolates.

Put the marshmallows at the bottom.
Melt the dark chocolate (either milk or plain) and pour on, half way up the mould.  Put sticks in, I put mine so they stick out at the side (as seen) not so they come out perfectly at the  centre as I have no way of keeping them upright and I like the off-centeredness. Set in the fridge.
Melt the white chocolate, pour on til it comes to the top. Fridge until set.

When ready to eat, heat some milk and dip in. I can't pretend it's the best hot choccie you'll ever have as the chocolate melts in bits and it's not all homogenised. You could, I guess, whizz it up. But really the fun here is in half licking, half stirring the melting pop.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Silk pillowcases and how they might provide good skin and hair care

Silk pillow cases, said to reduce friction and therefore make your face less creased, your hair more glossy and less likely to fall out and generally the world to be a better place.

Last year, I went along to the John Lewis bed department as they were running "how to make a bed" workshops. I went along in a professional capacity because NO-ONE can teach me how to make a bed. I have a Napolitan mother and I was in the army. Although I rarely actually make my own bed, when I do, it is frighteningly precise.

And of course, I ended up teaching the people at John Lewis how to do a hospital corner. (They weren't doing it properly at all.)

Anyway, while I was there we got talking about pillow cases and I did learn something new: that silk pillowcases are meant to stop your face creasing. I looked into this in a lazy, hazy way and I found out some women swore by silk pillowcases to stop your hair looking like you've been doing handstands in bed.

Although I have to say, I quite like my bed-hair.

And it made their faces less creasy and puffy in the morning.

Anyway. I got one and I'm simply not going to promise a silk pillowcase will offer a miracle anti-wrinkle/crease cure. But this is what I've found:

Your hair really does seem smoother and somehow more glossy after sleeping on one.

I don't really suffer from creasy morning face (yet), because I took the precaution of selling my soul to the devil at an early age, and keeping a portrait in the attic. BUT yes, it does also seem...smoother.

My silk pillow doesn't get as hot as my cotton one, by that I mean, I was constantly having to flip my pillow at night to get the colder side (am I the only one that does that?) and the silk doesn't seem to get so hot.

I got my pillow case from John Lewis, but you can get cheaper ones and I thought it might make a nice thing to go on a Christmas present list.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Chorizo and red lentil soup, just what you need for a cold winter's day

Beautiful, delicious, simple.

 This soup recipe is adapted from one in the excellent Donna Hay's Fresh, Fast, Simple. It doesn't look like much and the first time I made it I thought "oh dear" when I saw it but then I tasted it and belies its meagre ingredients. I eat it with a poached egg in it, which I poach separately and pop into the soup just before serving, just for a little extra protein sustenance.

  1. 2 teaspoons of vegetable oil
  2. One finely chopped onion
  3. Some chorizo, up to you how much, I use about so much (6" of a small circumference chorizo) and I slice it and then half the slices so you end up with half moons.
  4. A few sprigs of thyme leaves
  5. 150g red lentils
  6. 1.25L of chicken of vegetable stock, stock cubes are fine. I use Kallo Organic
  7. Sea salt and pepper

Heat  the oil in the saucepan and add the onion and chorizo. Fry gently until the onion is soft. Now add the thyme (I add the whole stalk and the leaves come off and then I fish out the stalks at the end, do pick off the leaves if you want to), lentils and stock. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

That's it. The lentils should have started to break down. Taste it and see if it needs salt and pepper, it may do depending on how salty your stock was.

This serves about four people.

With poached egg in. It sounds weird but I promise it works. Unless of course you don't like eggs.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Thermals for girls, or pyjamas

Autograph for M&S girls' thermals. Not overly easy to see design but pretty floral stuff.

As a veteran fisherman, I can tell you that no-one makes thermals as efficient as Damart. But the problem with Damart thermals is what makes them so good: what works outside doesn't really work inside and you end up sweating like a pig on market day indoors.

Anyway. For every day wear I wear Uniqlo heat tech. But this isn't about me, it's about thermals for children or more specifically, girls (much as I'd love to say boys too, the set I'm going to suggest is flowery and no boy I know would wear them under the age of five. If yours would then great).

When my eldest was small, I'd buy her thermals from Petit Bateau. They are brilliant: wool on the outside and cotton next to the skin. But expensive. All her old PB thermals have passed onto the youngest now.

What I was looking for were some thermals as layers for my eldest, for when it gets really cold here in the country and I found these in M&S Autograph section. The reason I want to tell you about them is that they have proved a huge success with my girls. I ended up buying them for the nine year old, but the youngest wanted a pair too and even though she has the Petit Bateau hand me downs, I ended up buying her a pair too. I even bought myself a pair in age 15-16 and they almost fitted but not quite..

They are comfortable, really cosy, warm, pretty and they wear them as thermals, PJs and the tops as outwear too. So a pretty hard working two-set. I recommend. Buy.

In sizes from 18mths to 16 years, £11-£14.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Pretty fairy lights, battery operated

John Lewis LED finewire snowflake lights, £6

Some years ago, as a present, Tesco sent me some really pretty blue flowery fairy lights that were battery operated. Doesn't sound like much now, but at the time, they were pretty innovative (the battery part). They cost £5 in the shops and I wish I'd bought more as they've proved strangely useful. My children use the in tents, we drape them over any corner that needs a little pretty illumination. I've been tempted to go out wearing them (you could, with the battery pack in a pocket. I mean, come on). I don't know, they just make me feel good. Even though they are, you know, from Tesco's.

Anyway. These are not like them. They are very very fine and delicate. The wire between them is really fine wire. But they still look nice on my mantelpiece and every evening, as dusk fades and "the clouds turn pink" as my daughter says, I switch them on and they make me go aaah.

I'm easily pleased.

They also come in little green trees, red hearts or blue stars. And the size above is about actual size.

Buy them here.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Head torches

Petzl Tikkina XP 2. My headtorch. Pick it up for between £35-£50.

Whenever anyone asks me what they should someone for a present, be that person a child or an adult, the first thing I always say is: a head torch.

They are fab. Admittedly if you live in a city, and are an adult, you probably don't fully understand the need for them; but if you're a child they can be used in tents, hidey holes, under bed clothes etc. And if you're an adult and you live in the country they are, I think, essential for getting firewood, putting the bins out, getting to your car (this will sound crazy to those with street lighting...). I also use mine when cycling or running.

The one I have is, of course, top of the range with a price tag to match: the Petzl Tikka XP 2 (but I have just the head torch, not the charger etc). Mine has three different white light permutations (bright, economy, flashing) and it can also go to a red light (which preserves night vision) in constant or flashing. It tilts (a really useful facility so you can look at things on the ground or straight ahead) and is very bright. Most normal people don't need this but as I also use mine for the aforementioned cycling and running, it's pretty imports for me. Mine costs between £35-£50 (do a search on Google they're not difficult to find), but although it's top of that range, there are others that go up to £200, but really for people climbing Everest..

Petzl Tikkina 2, for about £15.

Otherwise the Petzl Tikkina 2 is the one to get. It has two white light modes (strong or economy) and tilts and is really everything you'd need. You can pick them up for about £15 and they're - Petzl's -vastly superior to any other head torch I've tried. Also comes in pink, blue, green, gold.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Tab grabber, aka a clever way to keep hold bits of paper

Tab grabber. Just one small section..

Tab grabbers are those things you see in restaurants. You place an order, the waiter writes it on a piece of paper and then s/he sticks it into a tab grabber for the kitchen staff.

Well they're also a great way of holding other bits of paper in the home. I have an entire run of them under my window sill, right by my desk. And although a part of it is used to keep drawings that my children do for me, I use them largely to hold invites to forthcoming work events.

You can get them in all different lengths, or obviously use more than one. They're like metal bars with marbles inside, and it's the marbles that hold the bits of paper up.. Bit hard to explain unless you know what I'm talking about...No sticky tape or drawing pins are needed so it's a great way to just hold stuff and because of this especially easy and safe for children to use. Purposeful, industrious, totally unmarking. You can stick them on the wall - they come with sticky pads - or screw them in, I strongly recommend the latter.

We also have one on the back of the front door for things to remember: shopping lists, letters to post, those bits of paper you have to return to school. Note: you can also use them for photographs, but you lose about an eighth of the photo in the marble bit.

They cost from about £10. Just put Tab Grabber into Google. You can get them from various places on line that don't pay their taxes. Or try commercial kitchen shops.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Hot Dog and Hot Duck

Hot Duck and Hot Dog. 

I bought these last Christmas for my girls to give each other in an incredibly contrived gift exchange.

They are cuddly toys with some sort of stuff inside that you can heat up in a microwave. Hence why these are called Hot Dog and Hot Duck.

Living in the country it's colder here, sooner and for longer than in the city. Plus I keep the heating right down, because I'm mean like that. So Hot Dog and Hot Duck make a nice companion at bedtime, or on cold early morning car journeys; my youngest has even been known to take it with her in the front of my bike. They feel like bean bags so are actually pretty tactile. I am not a cuddly toy person but have even been known to treat these quite well.

You chuck them in the microwave for a couple of minutes and bingo. I got mine from a large organisation which is now being investigated for tax reasons, but you can get these anywhere. Perhaps even support your local shop...Mine cost under a tenner each and are made by Intelex and the range is called 'Cozy Plush' (sic).

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Home made bourbon biscuits

My glorious bourbon biscuits

Although I make almost all the biscuits and cakes we eat, I do think there are some things that are just better shop bought. Shop bought custard creams are just what they are and impossible to replicate at home. (This doesn't mean I won't try but I won't expect to get them to compete with shop bought and compete is the right word here.)

But a few weeks ago, I was out for brunch and gossip a very important business meeting with my friend Fiona Hughes and we went to the Orchard Cafe in London's Holborn.  On the way out, after we'd devoured extremely good scrambled eggs with home made bread and smoked tomato ketchup, I spotted a giant bourbon biscuit, filled with salted caramel goo.

Now. I don't eat biscuits and cakes 'n' stuff like that, during the week, only at the weekend. And as this was a Tuesday, I couldn't justify it.

However, because I am a greedy thing at heart, the memory of these biscuits scratched away at me, like a sticky out label on a T-shirt, and eventually I decided to try to make my own.

I finally found a mention of an edition of Jamie Magazine that had a recipe for home made bourbon biscuits and so determined was I, I tracked a back issue down, paid for it and waited for it to arrive.

These biscuits are great. Really, really good. I do of course want to get a specialist rectangular cutter and maybe a Barbieri stamp. But until then, I just cut a line of these, and then cut the rectangles by hand. It made for a very artisan finish but no less impressive.

You need:

For the biscuits:

50g soft butter, unsalted
50g soft brown sugar (I used dark)
1 tablespoon of golden syrup
110g plain flour
20g good cocoa powder (don't go using any of that 'bad' stuff)
half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
a bit of caster sugar for sprinkling

For the filling:

75g icing sugar
50g soft butter
1 tablespoon of cocoa powder
1 teaspoon of cold, strong coffee (note I used milk instead as I didn't think my children would like the coffee, so no idea what it's like with the coffee)

Put the oven on to gas 150C. You need a baking tray lined with baking parchment.

Either cream the butter and sugar for the biscuits by hand, or use an electric whisk (the recipe calls for latter, I did former). Do this until pale and fluffy. I love the word fluffy.

Then beat in the golden syrup using a wooden spoon (even if you've used an electric whisker you're now instructed to STOP and use a wooden spoon and put your arms to work). Then sift in the flour, cocoa powder and bicarbonate and beat into an even dough. You may need a few drops of milk. Try not to use it but if you do, literally put the milk in half a teaspoon at a time, you want a fairly dry, low hydration dough not something really sticky.

Turn it out onto a piece of baking parchment and top it with more baking parchment so you roll it out between two sheets of baking parchment. Roll until about 3mm thick. Because you want the biscuit to be crisp, don't make it too thick, although you can't make it too thin either. Get the ruler out, this is biscuits for goodness sake. It's important to get it right.

Cut the dough, however works for you, into about 24 fingers of about 5cm x 3cm. I cut long rectangles and then cut into smaller rectangles. Place on parchment lined baking tray, with about 1cm gap in between (they do rise a bit but not much). I prick with a fork for a birruva pretty pattern.

Sprinkle with caster sugar and cook for 8-10 minutes. Make sure they are cooked, not soft as they won't harden up much and you really do want these to be crispy not cakey. But of course, don't overcook (am I being too bossy? I want you to get these right you see).

When done, wipe the sweat from your brown, transfer to a wire rack etc. Cool.

For the filling mix the sugar and butter together, add the cocoa powder. At this point it will look pale and unpromising and you may start to panic. Have faith! When you add the milk (a scant teaspoon, just to bring everything together), it will go dark and glossy and glorious and you will be SO pleased with yourself.

Spread on one biscuit, sandwich with another. Daintily arrange. Eat and be amazed.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Keeping your wood burner glass clean, a tip

This is my woodburner. And I think you'll agree the glass is pretty clean

So this isn't the sexiest blog post I could do. No food porn or sex tips (I do actually have plenty of those but I charge for them). But if you have a wood burner I hope you'll find it useful.

Indeed, if you have a wood burner, you'll know that the glass can get smoked up. And as part of the fun of having a fire is staring at it with your mouth slightly open and your thoughts far away, it's imperative that the glass is kept clean.

A really good tip is coming up.

Every morning, before you light your fire, get a damp rag/piece of kitchen paper. Dip it in yesterday's ash, clean the inside of the glass with it (the ash is abrasive). It'll go into a horrible looking paste all over our glass and you'll think 'ewww'. But, then give it a wipe over with a clean bit of damp whatever (you may need two if it's particularly dirty, and I also dry with a clean, dry bit, because I'm a bit mad about having really clear glass) and hey presto.

Clean glass.

You don't need to use anything else.

I wish I could lay claim to this, but it came to me via my partner, via his friend Nigel.

You're welcome.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Two things I really want to tell you about: boots and socks

I'm going into my third winter with the best boots I've ever bought: Ecco Voyage.

I first wrote about them here.

When I say going into my third winter, I mean I wear them every day from end of September til about April.

They may be slightly superfluous if you live in a city (you'd still find them useful though), but living in the country as I do they are fantastic and vital and here's why:

They're warm
They look smart
They're waterproof
They're comfortable
They have a great grippy sole

I have a love/hate relationship with Ecco in that several of my walking boots that I bought from them (and my partner has had this same problem) have fallen apart after only a couple of years (not what I'd expect). But these seem different. Not cheap at £160 this year but on a price per wear basis they're a bargain.

And these are the socks to wear with them from Uniqlo. Warm, comfy, keep their colour in the way that other black doesn't (because they're synthetic but don't be scared of this, synthetics are so much better now). And they're not overly thick.

Not easy to see detail but they're these. £9.90 for two.

Friday, 2 November 2012

When to play fast and loose with laundry

Laundry is a sexy motherflippin' subject. If I had to give any man over the age of 35 a tip to get a woman to move in with him it would be this: promise her a laundry room. Want her to move out? Tell her you're going to smash up the laundry room to make way for your own personal tanning salon.

So that's my tip. And now here's my story for today. A few weeks ago on Facebook I noticed that a friend of someone I'd never met was called Isabel de Vasconcellos. I thought this was the most amazing name. So much so that I said it outloud a few times whilst pretending to pick up a telephone and speak into it thus:

"Hello, this is Isabel de Vasconcellos, bring the car round immediately."
"Hello, this is Isabel de Vasconcellos, I need flowers in every room."
"Hello? Isabel de Vasconcellos? This is she."

"Isabel de Vasconcellos" I said to my boyfriend, "isn't that the most fabulous name you've EVER heard? Even more fabulous than my own multi-syllabled, melodic, mellifuous name.

He agreed. So I friended her (she's a writer/curator) and only occasionally take on her identity when I'm out and about.

Today she messaged me asking if she could put her new top in the wash at 40C, even thought the label says 'wash at 30'. In order to answer her I had to know the fibre content. I suspected viscose and I was right. It contained 85% viscose, the rest was polyamide and elastane.

Now, viscose's (more commonly known as rayon in the US) easy-to-wearness belies a fragility. It's great in garments as it makes them hang so nicely and they can need very little ironing. But, if wrongly washed they can shrink. She didn't need to worry about the polyamide part as polyamide is just the European name for nylon (just as Tactel is nylon but it's a brand name) and elastane is the generic of Lycra (also a brand name, hence the upper case).

The fact that the top was black was in its favour as white garments with synthetic fibres can, if washed at too high a temperature, go grey.

So my advice was to wash it at 30C to be on the safe side. There will come a time when it mistakenly goes in at 40C and then she'll discover if it can withstand that extra ten degrees. But until then, don't play fast and loose with viscose or rayon clothing. I speak as someone who has never dry cleaned cashmere - it always goes in to the washing machine but only if it has a hand wash cycle. (And bear in mind I've never had anything other than an AEG or Miele machine.) Natural fibres* you see, are - up to a point - more forgiving than certain synthetics.

*viscose/rayon is a man made fibre from a natural polymer (cellulose).   Polyamide and elastane, since you ask, are manmade fibres from a synthetic polymer - petrochemicals.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Conkers, moths and spiders

Conkers, not to be confused with chestnuts

Although September is spider month, October is conker month. The two are connected because spiders hate conkers and having conkers around the house can keep spiders away.

Why it works, I don't know. This isn't science. But it does seem to work.

The other thing conkers seem to repel is moths. I get asked a lot about moths and moths are subject close to my wool-clad heart as I've suffered much at the jaws of moth caterpillars.

It is of course, not the moths that do the damage  but the baby moths, aka caterpillars. Moths usually only reproduce twice a year, but because we heat our houses now, they can reproduce all year round (if you want to protect your clothes, and your bills, keep your house heated to below 20C, which I now do, look at me, I am so virtuous).

You don't need to be scared of all moths, well, not so far as your clothes are concerned. The moth larvae that does the damage is a clothes moth, of which there are three in this country. The most common is the webbing moth, which is small (no more than 10mm long) and is the sort of colour Martha Stewart loves: beigey caramely.

All moth repellents, at least that I know of, work on repelling the adult female. And that includes my conkers but they're so much nicer than conventional moth repellent, natural and free. Repellent is fine if your clothes are egg free, but if they're not then they won't kill the eggs already laid (which, incidentally, are often deposited where there is any food spills, which is why so much damage is done across the chest area...). You cannot tell if an egg has been laid, you can only see the caterpillar. If you suspect you have eggs on your woollens - and yes they do favour high quality cashmere (it's softer) and colours like caramel, because they've had less done to them - the only way to get rid of them is to clean (hand, machine wash or dry clean) or freeze. Conservationalists freeze items at a temperature of minus 28 to 32C for seven to ten days. If your freezer doesn't go that low, just freeze for longer.

If you want to store precious items, do so after washing/cleaning/freezing and put in individual closeable plastic bags to limit any damage if you have missed eggs. But really, as moths like dark, undisturbed places, the worse thing you can do is pack things away in a dark, undisturbed corner; the best thing you can do is take your dress/coat/jumper out frequently. I once had a precious dress hang on the back of my bedroom door and it never came to any  harm. My gorgeous wool dress in the cupboard was eaten to pieces.

If you do use moth repellents, change them every three months, and once you're sure you're moth free, keep your cupboard doors closed. (I always, always go in and check on favourite pieces regularly having lost many precious pieces to the moth.) If you hoover your cupboards out, change the bag as a closed, dark bag full of dust and clothing fibres is like a moth nursery that's been rated Outstanding by Ofmoth.

At room temperature, it takes 7-10 days for the eggs to be laid and them to hatch and start munching, so you see how quickly the damage can be done.

I think it's time for tea now.

BTW: if you're wondering how I know so much about moths it's cos I interviewed an entomologist at the National History Museum a while ago.

Monday, 24 September 2012

My Plum Crumble

The name of this recipe is a total lie. It's not MY plum crumble. But I don't remember where the recipe came from, and I make it so much that it is, in my head at least, mine. I know I got it in a rush one day because my esteemed friend Wendy was coming round for dinner, to show me her newly bought Aston Martin (as you do). Wendy is a vegetarian and I wanted to prepare dinner with what I had in the house. So I ended up making two things I'd never made before, and that were both magnificent successes. Mercifully, I wrote down the recipe for the plum crumble and have been making it ever since. The other recipe, for butternut squash risotto - which was STUPENDOUS - is lost forever.

Here is the plum crumble. I often use half wholemeal plain flour and half white plain, without noticing any difference other than a more nutty flavour. But as ever with recipes, I'd start off with doing it as it says before experimenting.

700-800g plums, stoned and quartered
175g dark brown soft sugar
a squeeze of lemon
175g plain flour
150g butter, cold and cut into pieces
50g porridge oats (as in the flakes, not pinmeal)

Quarter the plums and put into a dish about...hmmm. I use a Le Creuset dish that holds 1.6l. This pudding serves about 6-8 so you know, just kinda guess. The plums should fit snugly across the bottom.

Squeeze the lemon over the top, add two tablespoons of the sugar and 125ml of water.  Mix around so all the plums are coated.

Now in a food processor, mix up the flour and rest of the sugar. Especially if you're using that soft brown sugar that clumps together. Now add the butter and pulse for a few seconds, and finally the oats. Pulse briefly until starting to clump together.

Put over the plums evenly. Put the dish on a baking dish (in case the plums ooze their juice all over the oven floor) and cook at 190C for about 40 minutes until all nice and brown.

This is obviously delicious, but I feel the need to point it out anyway, with custard, cream or a little vanilla ice cream. If home made, so much the better. I do kid myself that it's good for you, as it's fruit and the topping has oats (I conveniently forget the sugar). You can reheat it in the microwave, it doesn't harm the topping too much. I just find this crumble really warming and satisfying and generally, spirt lifting. But I may give my puddings too much importance.

I don't have a picture. Sorry.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Snuggle suits, aka all in ones

Fleece snuggle suits. Be warned, they also come in adult sizes.

All in ones are an inescapable feature of your wardrobe when you're a baby. But as you get older, these frankly super useful items of apparel are jettisoned in favour of separates.

Some years ago, Gap sold waffle cotton all in ones for grown ups. Think cowboy style long johns and long sleeved vest combined, in jolly colours like red. Reader, I had some and they were fantastic. I wish I could tell you that I saved them for nights in alone. But no, I didn't.

I won't go into any further detail on this.

Last year my mother, who is able to find items of clothing I never find in shops, that my children both love and find incredibly useful, found an all in one navy PJ thing for my eldest (who is eight). Okay, it had a picture of Mickey or Minnie Mouse on it but my daughter loved it. She felt all cosy in it and it was great for after a bath in the way that draughty separates just aren't.

We live in a small, draughty house in the country and after a bath, I wanted something for my children to be able to put on that would be snug, so I was thinking: fleece. These all in ones with a front zip are so easy to find when your child is under 24 months, but over that? Forget it.

I eventually found the All in One Company.  I ordered two - made to measure as they all are. I ordered them in a colour that had chocolate in the title, because you can't really go wrong with this I thought. I was right. Although my children do look like small bears wearing them.

Do please read the sizing instructions as you can't return them unless they are faulty, but you have to order a basic 'age' size and then you can customize it so if your child has particularly long legs or arms or bodies - they can do it accordingly. The variations - colours, combination of colours, add ons (tails!?), etc, are a bit mind boggling. But you'll get there in the end.

They are all made in the UK, so they're not the cheapest you can get. But let me tell you that the customer service was INCREDIBLE and the quality of the finished items superb. The only extras I had were hoods, to keep the costs down.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Ice cream cake

Very yummy ice cream cake

When I used to go to Italy, up to Salsomaggiore Terme, provincia di Parma, where my father is from, we used to go to Pasticceria Tosi on Sunday to buy little cakes and pastries (a very common tradition in Italy). In the fridge/freezer display there would always be ice cream cakes.

They seemed impossibly luxurious and I can still see myself looking in at them.

When I saw this recipe by Bill Granger in the August edition of Waitrose magazine, I knew I had to try it (unfortunately I can't find a link to it on the Waitrose site). He calls it tiramisu ice cream cake. Of course, being Italian, I cannot call it this.

I adapted it quite a bit, halving the proportions, adding more sponge fingers, less chocolate and taking out the Kahlua that Granger asks for (I haven't got any in my cupboard and I'm not going to spend £17 on a bottle of it to keep in said cupboard, but if you have some, do use it, maybe half and half marsala or all Kahlua, up to you). I know this recipe may seem imprecise, but the beauty of it is that you can add more or less of something you like/don't like.

This is what I did:

65ml espresso/strong black coffee
30ml marsala (or use sherry)
Nearly a whole packet of sponge fingers (about 170g)
Some vanilla ice cream, I used about half of one batch of this home made stuff
About 50g of grated dark chocolate

I lined a small loaf tin (about 6" x 4") with some parchment paper. Then I started layering up the dessert.

Mix the coffee and marsala together in a small dish. Individually dip the sponge fingers into it. Don't linger or they will fall apart. Lay the fingers down on the base of the dish, break some up if they don't fit but end up with a base of soaked sponge fingers.

Now layer with vanilla ice cream, then grated chocolate. Grating chocolate is possibly one of my least favourite jobs EVER, as the chocolate ends up going everywhere and sticking to the grater. So I didn't use loads, you can use more if you like. I probably should have used my grater attachment on my food processor, but I don't like to use it for what I consider small jobs..

Then  just keep going. Dip the sponge fingers in the mixture, ice cream, grated chocolate. Until you run out of space. I ended up with a layer of sponge fingers as I like them, Granger says to end up with a sprinkling of chocolate.

Cover with cling film and put in the freezer. Take out for about 30 mins before you need it and keep it in the fridge. It slices beautifully and my eldest loved it (although I need to point out that it DOES HAVE ALCOHOL IN IT and it is ILLEGAL TO GIVE ALCOHOL TO A CHILD UNDER THE AGE OF FIVE). I gave my youngest a separate bit with no booze in it.

Afterwards it struck me that if you preferred you could layer these up individually in little ramekins or some lovely little glasses and freeze them individually.

If making for a large party, double the recipe above and use a big old square tin. Granger recommends 26" square but use your common sense. No reason you couldn't make this in a loaf tin like I did just a bigger one. 

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Light 'n' fluffy vanilla ice cream

Never underestimate how hard it is to be a food photographer.

There are two people I discuss ice cream making with. My father and my friend Lucy. Recently Lucy told me about an unassuming little recipe she had come across for vanilla ice cream that was different to the way we usually made ice cream: instead of the custard method (which uses just the yolks of the egg), it used the whole egg. This was of particular interest to me as I make lots of ice cream and my freezer is overflowing with egg whites. There are only so many madeleines I can make.

This vanilla ice cream recipe is also great because it's quick, easy and makes a lovely light vanilla ice cream that scoops straight from the freezer and children, in particular, seem to love. I would probably go with my more luxe version if the ice cream were being served at a really posh dinner party, atop, say, some exquisite piece of patisserie.

I've adapted the recipe slightly (lowered the sugar from 100g to 80g and slightly changed how you make it).

4 eggs, separated
80g icing sugar
teaspoon of vanilla essence
300ml double cream

Get three large bowls. Separate the egg yolks and egg whites into a bowl each. Put the cream into the third bowl.

Add the vanilla essence to egg yolks. Do it NOW or you will forget and without it, you have Fior di Latte ice cream, not vanilla. Add the sugar to the egg yolks too.

Take an electric hand held whisk. Whisk the egg whites until stiff. Then the cream until it holds itself properly, like a well trained ballerina. Finally the egg yolks, sugar, vanilla essence.

Now gently fold the cream into the egg yolk mixture and finally the egg whites. Put in ice cream maker. If yours is very small, you may have to do this in two batches. I have a Magimix and I put it all in, it comes right up to the top but it reduces as it's being made.

You can of course have this on its own. Make tiramisu with it, it goes great with a fruit salad. Or fold in some chocolate coated popping candy for something a bit Heston.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Cashmere cowl necks

Clearly  nicked off the M&S website and I can't get a better picture but here's the cowl neck which is £99.

My penchant for cowl necks probably dates back to one of my primary school teachers, Miss Evans. She used to wear angora cowl necks (they had a high fluff factor) and she used to read us stories on sleepy afternoons. Some of us used to sit behind her, perched up high, and comb her hair.

She was a particularly benign and gentle teacher. But I don't remember a single other thing about her other than these lovely dozy afternoons and her jumpers and hair (flicky, blonde).

Now that I'm fully a grown up, and not scared of womanly things (although I still have problems with writing words like 'womanly things') I can embrace the wonderfulness of a cowl neck. It's a big, blousy jumper you can play with, hide behind, pull up the neck on if you're cold. And for the last three years, I've searched, not extensively, but enthusiastically, for a cashmere cowl neck in some wonderful jewel colour.

The other day, when I was already late, I was in the corner entrance of the M&S in London's Marble Arch. Possibly one of the busiest shop entrances in the world. And some lazy shopper had not put back a cardigan, a long cardigan the sort that would be part comfort blanket, part apparel. A cardigan which I happened to touch and which immediately told me this was no ordinary cardigan.

This wasn't even an M&S cardigan.

This was the cardigan. Of course it looks like nothing here, but it is snuggly and has pockets and is warm and you'll live in it this winter. It costs £129. Gasp.

It was something better.

It was 100% cashmere with a price tag to match and the label said M&S Woman. A title I found a bit nauseating but I ignored this. So I went in search of the rest of the M&S Woman stuff and found it tucked away opposite the Per Una collection (not my favourite bit). There was so much cashmere. Cowl necks, short cardigans, long cardigan, ribbed cardigans, round necks, twinset cardigans, sweatshirt and hooded jumpers. Cashmere cashmere cashmere. In blacks and navys but also COLOURS, including pinks and purples and greens.

I'm going to cut a very long story short. A story which sees an assistant called Maree spend an hour with me (not then, but later as I had to go back) watching me whilst I tried on every colour of every jumper. Watching me in a helpful way, not in a security kinda way. I learned about every place she'd ever lived so it was a reciprocal arrangement.

It involves my friend Karen, a professional personal shopper, altering her plans to come and meet me to watch me trying on lots of knitwear in various colours. It, further, involved a quasi 3hr stay in the M&S cafe with Karen whilst I deliberated over what to buy, in what colour and gave myself my own advice: about how you should always buy something when you see it, because when you need it, you can never find anything you like to wear. (We did also talk about other things. I'm not that self absorbed.)

So. I bought some cashmere. I can't tell you how much as people I know in real life read this. And if my mother is reading this, I DIDN'T buy any cashmere.

Anyway, what you need to know is this: this is a good collection with some lovely pieces. But in the way of the world, by the time it's cold enough for you to be thinking "I need a cashmere jumper" they will have sold out and swimsuits will be on sale. So if you need cashmere, buy it now. The cowl necks are gorgeous, so much better on than off. And cashmere is so warm, you can delay putting the heating on.

I'm sweating as I write this because I feel so guilty, although it could of course be the heat retaining properties of 100% cashmere.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Fantastic, fun, outdoor chalky crayons

I recently took advantage of having four strapping men round to lunch (with their partners) to move our very large outdoor table off the patio. Revealing a moss, alge covered set of paving stones which I am currently blasting with a pressure washer (Karcher, fabulous). I intend to turn this into a back yard kinda thing for the children to play in. I am all about giving my children more fun, outdoor things to do. It has, of course, absolutely nothing to do with them but everything to do with the inner child in me who was brought up in a two bedroomed flat WITH NO OUTSIDE SPACE.

Anyway. The therapy has been booked and I'm working through it. In the meantime, when I went to some friends for lunch recently they had a set of giant crayons and the children were going crazy graffiting all over the yard (I love the word yard, it featured large in my childhood stories of Mrs Piggle Wiggle). I got these which are really bright chalks rather than crayons (not sure why they are called crayons) but all you need to know is that they are REALLY BRIGHT, fun, and it says washable but I like to live dangerously and haven't tried that yet.

I paid 10p under £7 for a packet of 15 from Amazon. I think these are a perfect thing for your children to do in the autumn.

You're welcome.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Onya Bottles

Onya water bottles

I first came across Onya bags six years ago, when I was co-running the parenting website (now no longer, so don't looking for it). Onya bags (so named cos they're always 'onya') are reusable bags that scrunch up small and have a clip so you can attach them to your keys/bag/whatever. I think they were made of old parachute silk before, but now they're all made out of recycled plastic bottles. (Technology pioneered by the sportswear company Patagonia some fifteen years ago.)

Lovely Onya bags

Anyway. They made great little presents, these little bags that folded up really small, came in bright colours, and then folded out to make useful shopping bags. I featured them in my Guardian Personal Shopper column and got to know Dan a bit over the phone. Onya bags had an awe inspiring back story which I shan't share here as it's not mine to share. Suffice to say it'd make you cry. I happened to go on Jeremy Vine's Radio 2 show one day - this was about five years ago - when I mentioned Onya bags, saying I didn't know why the big supermarkets didn't use them, putting their logo on. (I felt that, hitherto, all reusable bags were either too small or too big, or just not right, but Onya bags seemed to have pretty much carved out a place as the best sort of reusable bag.)

In the taxi on the way home, Dan rang me to say that Tesco had rung him, wanting to place an initial order of 500,000. I think you can work out that this would be pretty life changing for anyone. But Dan turned Tesco down. That's just the sort of guy he is. He never publicized this amazing show of integrity.

I kept in touch with Dan, and what Onya bags were doing over the years and the whole range has come on hugely. There are now ruck sacks which unfold out of small bags, lunch rolls (really rather good, Dan sent me two free and they work brilliantly for small children as it also provides a surface for them to eat off when you're on the go), little pouches to keep your dog-poop bags in.

But the piece de resistance, for me, came when they introduced stainless steel bottles. This was right in the middle of the story that was following another water bottle manufacturer around as it couldn't confirm its liners were BPA free. Onya bottles are all stainless steel - no liner - and they come in a variety of sizes and the great thing is that you can put anything in them - water, juice, cordial, hot drinks, cold drinks (they are not thermal however). In lined aluminum bottles you can't put anything like fruit juice as the acid would erode the lining over time. I was also glad of how industrial they looked, as I was a bit over cutesy fairies and farm animals by this stage.

We all have them from the 350ml size to the 1000ml size; with the neoprene sleeve and lanyard they make a great cycling companion. My eldest takes hers to school every day. They come in various colours, but note that the coloured ones that I bought chipped in places over time - but that's okay as there's just a plain stainless steel bottle underneath. Also various ways of drinking from them: you can even get a 'teat' for a baby. My prefence is for the screw off cap as I like to drink my water straight from stainless steel and not through plastic (I've never found any sort of plastic lid you can drink through that doesn't slightly make the water taste different, and this is a pet hate of mine). But if you do choose a drinking lid - and they're great for children - then I recommend these flip and flow ones. You can also get adapters so you can use these on your bike.

I now buy the 350ml size for my friends whose children are starting school. It's a boring, but useful present. My eldest has been using hers every day since she started school four years ago and it's still like new (with a few tiny dents in it). Prices for the bottles start at £8.50.

Note: Dan gave me a discount on some of the Onya bags he sold me about six years ago, and he sent me two free Onya Lunches, quite unbidden, a while ago. Other than that, I paid for everything at full retail price.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Hula Hooping

I am on a mission to get some core stability/strength back, by doing stuff that doesn't involve leaving the house (I have two young children). I run three times a week, which is great. But not so core specific.

I've long wanted to hula hoop as I have a friend who does and raves about it. And then, after seeing  Grace Jones hula-ing at the Jubilee concert...well.  Being able to hula hoop became my summer holiday challenge. I had bought my eldest a hoop in the toy shop and neither of us could master it. This was because, someone told me on line (and I'm so sorry I can't remember who otherwise I'd credit you!), hoops sold in toy shops Too light, too small, and virtually impossible to hula with. She said I needed a weighted hoop and one that, when held vertically, came up to approximately my belly button. (In fact you can see, when she brings it on stage, the hoop Grace Jones uses is big.)

So I bought one, from the The Hoop Dance Co. I got this one - plain, £11.99 (do you NEED flourescent? Do you NEED striped? I don't think so) in 38"/625g for me and the 30"/550g one for my eldest. The smaller the hoop, the harder it is, so go bigger if you are in doubt.

Within 24 hours my daughter was hula hooping like a pro. And I can do 30 seconds without stopping. Major CV work out...I am half tempted to post a video of us hula-ing.

But no.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Staedtler gel crayons

Staedtler Gel Crayons, £9.25 for six. Not cheap, but worth it.

I knew I was a grown up when I realised that I could buy my very own box of Caran d'Ache felt tip pens. When I was a child, the number of coloured pencils/markers you had were currency. She who had a whole box of them was top of the heap and you could pick your best friend. And Caran d'Ache was the very best you could get. I of course, never had a full set, just a disparate bunch of felt tip pens that I'd accumulated along the way (don't feel too sorry for me, I had home made pizza every Friday night). I was about 25 before I realised I could buy my very own box of crayons/markers/pencils. And I did. I still don't let anyone else use them.

I must point out here that I hate cheap crayons and felt tip pens and coloured pencils that hardly make a mark on the paper. 

The other day I got sent a package from John Lewis*. In amongst other colouring sticks - retractable coloured pencils, wax crayons - were these gel crayons. They are brilliant. There's only six, so no shades of anything, but they are thick, so easy to use (the mark of good colouring stuff, the colours are rich cos they use good pigments), slightly glittery, but don't go expecting disco balls. They're not like normal crayons, but look almost like a fat lipstick. True to greedy form, I got them and when the children said "ooh who are they for?" I said, without hesitation: "Me."

*If you think because I got sent them this is why I'm writing about them, think again. I get sent all sorts of crazy shit and I never write about it. I just don't do that. No-one tells me what to recommend. But these are great.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Chewy scoop biscuits

 These have just come out of the oven. They are crispy, salty, sugary, chocolately. But not sickly, because that would be wrong.

As I've mentioned in the past, I keep all my torn out recipes in Muji PP Portfolio books. I have about 12 of them covering different subjects like 'Everyday', 'Pasta', 'Fish' and of course one just for biscuits...

I had cut this recipe out of the Waitrose magazine some time ago and recently refound it. It was the word 'chewy' that got me, even though these biscuits aren't, actually chewy (or I have not found them to be so).

Not that that matters, because they're delicious, easy to make and - best of all, for me - you can make the dough, shape them and then freeze them so when you fancy home made biscuits you're only a quarter of an hour away from them. It also means you can cook just a few at a time (important for greedy types such as me).

Anyway, here is the recipe. I didn't have hazelnuts so I used walnuts. The three types of chocolate is really important, as is the salt (obviously all the ingredients are important. But what I mean is something that seems unimportant, like the salt, is actually crucial in my view).

I didn't use an ice cream scoop, just shaped them with  my hands into walnut sized balls. My biscuits, as you can see, aren't flat like those in the magazine.

I found 12 mins was plenty, but my oven is fierce.

If you want to freeze them - and I recommend you do as this dough makes loads, you just shape them and them freeze them spaced out on a tray or plate or something. When frozen, then you can bung them all into a freezer bag (if you bung them all in to begin with they will all freeze stuck together, and you don't really want that), to pull out and cook - from frozen - whensoever you wish. If cooking from frozen, give them 15 mins.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Dan Lepard's Almond Layer cake with crushed raspberries

All my own work.

This recipe was published in the Guardian last year. I made it on the day it came out, as you can probably see from the below the line comments (Dan linked to a picture of the cake that I tweeted, for I can no longer bake in isolation, but need to share with the world). Since then I've baked it many times. It's perfect for when you want a proper teatime cake with goo. And it's not difficult.

The recipe is here. There are a few comments I'd like to make:

I don't have 18cm cake tins so I use 8" ones (which is slightly bigger than 18cm, sorry to mix imperial and metric). It's fine.

I find 30 mins just a bit too check after 25 mins.

I double up the syrup Dan uses to soak the sponges, as I find doing his amount isn't enough for my thirsty cakes.

You could easily, easily make two not-so-high-cakes out of these, by that I mean slice the cakes in half horizontally. That way you get more cream/raspberries to sponge ratio. Won't be so towering and impressive, but if you need more cakes.

Put more cream in the sandwich layer than you think you'll need. It squishes down.

Children also seem to love this. I find this is important when I just want to do one thing.

This is a really delicious cake. It's so much more than a Victoria sponge. It's so easy to make (make the cake bits ahead, assemble before you eat it) and is impressive. My friend Kate is so greedy for this cake, I can make her turn all sorts of tricks for it.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012


Minestrone with broken up spaghetti and small bits of 'pastina'

It's mid June as I write this. In Italy, where my mother is from, it's nearly 30C. Here, in Suffolk, it's 12C.

And everybody's complaining about it.

So today, I decided to make some minestrone. Minestrone is peasant food. You'd make it out of the bits 'n' bobs of vegetables you had left over. As such, there are many different versions. This is the beauty of it really, which is that you can add more or less whatever veg you have. Use bits of broken pasta that you can't use for anything else, etc.

My mother makes an amazing minestrone, but she makes it using frozen veg. Which is quite inspired really when you consider that she lives in central London now, not on the edge of a vegetable patch. And the frozen veg is really fresh and delicious. I used to hate her minestrone (sorry Mamma, although the likelihood of you reading this is as high as the Vatican ever admitting it is wrong about anything) and the one and only time I was sent to bed without my dinner was when I, one evening, refused to eat it. I thought - and still think - this was quite harsh considering that I used to eat almost everything else. Including chickens' feet and chickens' stomach and tripe and brains. I mean, come on! Give me a break.

Anyway, I love it now and this is how I make it. I'd love to say this is a recipe passed down from my Nonna, but nope, I got it from Waitrose.

2tbsp olive oil
140g pancetta, cut up; or cut up bits of bacon (entirely optional, but makes it nice)
1 onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 sticks of celery, you guessed it, diced
1 clove of garlic, diced or chopped, go crazy
1 medium potato, peeled and guess what? diced
2 medium courgettes, diced
400g can of chopped tomatoes
1 large sprig of basil
Parmesan rind (save them for this)
salt and pepper (but not salt if you use the parmesan rind)
410g borlotti beans, drained and rinsed (optional)
50g your chosen pasta, nothing too thick, I love broken up spaghetti

You can prepare each veg as you go along.

Put the oil in a large saucepan and then add the pancetta/bacon. Once it's beginning to colour, add the onion and cook gently until soft. Fry until soft.

Add the carrot, then the celery, then the garlic, then the potato, then the courgette. At each stage add the veg and let it cook for a minute or two.

Give the courgettes a couple of minutes, then add the chopped tomatoes. Fill the now empty tin with water, twice, and add to the minestrone. Now add the basil (if you don't have it, don't stress). Add parmesan rind and some pepper. If you don't have the parmesan rind then add salt too.

Bring to boil, lower to simmer. With lid off, simmer very gently for two hours. You can eat it after one hour but it's so much nicer after two hours. Twenty mins before the end, add the beans if you want to use them (I'm not a mad fan of the beans, and prefer it without).

If you're planning on eating the whole lot in one go, also put the pasta in now, otherwise you get a better result cooking the pasta separately and adding it when you eat the minestrone.

That's it. I find this really therapeutic to make and deliciously wholesome to eat.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

An easy summer dessert

My summer dessert special. If you come to my house during berry season, this is likely what you'll get.

This is, actually, really, a dessert I invented myself. You can tell by just how imprecise everything is. It was probably borne out of that great motivator: greed.

This is what you need:

Some amaretti biscuits
Mascarpone, you need about 1-2 tablespoons per person depending on size of glass.
Some berries
Some icing sugar or agar nectar stuff
Some pretty glasses
Long spoons
Vanilla extract - not essential.

Crush the amaretti biscuits. Whip up the mascarpone with the vanilla extract. And when I say whip up, I mean just kinda loosen it with a fork. You can of course simply just spoon it from carton to glass, too.

Take some of the berries and whizz them up in a liquidiser with the icing sugar or agar nectar stuff. Just a teaspoon or so of icing sugar or a squirt of the agar nectar stuff (you can of course also use golden syrup or maple syrup if you like. Be brave!). This is for the syrupy part.

Then you just layer everything, a layer of crushed biscuits, a layer of fruit, layer of mascarpone, a bit of the syrup repeat, etc. The syrup makes things really tasty, so don't skimp on it. I like to end up with a  sprinkling of the amaretti.

You can make these in advance and bring them out at the end. With a flourish.

Monday, 28 May 2012

A white chocolate lolly 'cake'

I don't even like white chocolate, but let me tell you, these were so good I almost ate them all in 'quality control' before the actual day.

Yesterday was my eldest daughter's first holy communion. I made her a cake made entirely of white chocolate lollies. Since first experimenting with chocolate lollies last year, I've really moved on with them and by investing in a few things: proper moulds, sticks and a stand, you can really make something quite simple and easy to make (but ssssh, don't tell anyone) into something that looks spectacular.

I made these the day before, and just assembled them on the day (i.e. slotted them into the holes in the stand). Once I've had an alcoholic drink, my guests have to pretty much fend for themselves so anything that can be pre-made plays to my great organisational skills and my weakness for being a dreadful, drunk, host.

I usually make chocolate lollies in 70% cocoa chocolate. But a few months ago, my friend Lucy (who is the only person in the whole of East Anglia who possibly has more baking gadgets/biscuit cutters than I) mentioned that she had made some lollies in white chocolate using crystallized violets. I stored this bit of information away in my brain, thinking white lollies would be lovely for a holy communion, instead of a cake, say. We had some crystallized violets that my partner and the girls had made for mother's day (every aspect of that sentence sounds smug, but I don't mean it to), I used Green and  Black's white chocolate (which is, I have to say, absolutely superb). And this is what I did.

Melted the white chocolate.
Poured it into the moulds.
Put in lolly sticks.
Scattered on some crystallized violets or freeze dried strawberries (from Waitrose, they come in a tube, in the baking aisle).
Put in fridge to set.
Removed from moulds after a couple of hours.
Tasted one for quality control purposes.
Decided they were so amazingly good I had to have more.
Cycle to Waitrose to buy more white chocolate.
Repeat process.
And then, when time comes, slot the lollies into the holes in the stand and da-dar.

A note about the stand. I bought mine from Amazon. It doesn't appear to be sold anymore, but I'm looking out for other stockists as it's really lovely and minimalist and classy.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Cast iron pans 'n' skillets

Everyone seems to have a tale of the cast iron frying pan that never got washed and was passed down from mother to child. I certainly have. Whenever I did the drying up with my Ma, and that drying up involved the frying pan (not a cast iron one), she would tell me about her Ma's frying pan which never got washed, just wiped.

This queer little detail fascinated me for ages. How could you not wash a frying pan?

Fast forward many years later.  And all my well meaning friends, the one who breastfeed for years and have home births and make their own bread and are...generally just like me. Well they started going on and on about cast iron frying pans. How non stick made you die, how canaries in rooms with non stick frying pans just dropped down dead.

It was really boring, so I thought I'd buy a cast iron frying pan, if for no other reason than, when they came round, I could whack them round the head with it.

And now, here I am being just like them and going ON about cast iron. It's true, owning a cast iron frying pan is like having another member of the family, someone you love and trust and who never lets you down.

Only kidding. It's not. It's a frying pan for goodness sake. But yes, there is something really nice about the weight, the solidity of a cast iron fucking frying pan. And I was actually getting fed up of non stick stuff lasting just a few years before it started to fall apart (and I'm not talking cheap pans, either, all of my non-stick pans were Berndes).

I now have three cast iron frying pans (aka skillets). They're all from Lodge. They're not expensive (I got mine from Amazon) and I stripped them all down (they come pre-seasoned, but I wanted to season them myself, so I stripped them down using oven cleaner) using this incredibly complicated, scientific formula from this rather fabulous website.

Even once you've done the seasoning in the oven, with the organic linseed oil, the prescribed six times (you need to feel the pain), it still takes a few uses for them to become really non stick, but then, you're flying (frying...).

So, the first few times you cook with them, don't use them for something where the non stick properties are really important.

Oh and according to Sheryl Canter (writer of the blog post on how to season your pan, above) you can wash your cast iron pans. We do. I gently wipe them with a non-scratch pad, hot water, occasionally a bit of washing up liquid. As she points out, the seasoning got there via a long process, a bit of hot water and soap ain't gonna get it off. Then I dry them on the hob for a couple of minutes and apply a slick of olive oil to cover the whole pan. If any bits get stuck on, if you heat up the pan you can get them off with a wooden spoon or some other more gentle implement. Don't use the pans to heat up water or anything with tomatoes in - the acid can damage the pan. You need your stainless steel pans for stuff like that. I recommend Le Pentole, superb. Mine are still going strong some 25 years after I bought them. (They're not cheap.)

A few other advantages of cast iron:

It gets really hot and retains the heat, so great for fast cooking but also great for long, slow cooking where you can turn the heat right down.

You can cook something on the hob and then transfer it to the oven (like tarte tartin).

Works out your biceps and triceps every time you lift the damn things up (that's actually a pain but I'm trying to make it into a positive).

I'm sure my cast iron pans will last for many years, and I'm sure my children will be delighted that instead of passing down my diamonds,  I'll be passing down my non-canary killing skillets.

ps: Don't confuse the cast iron I'm talking about here with enameled cast iron (viz Le Creuset).

pps: to answer Claire (below, who has asked me a question on Facebook), yes I do use my cast iron frying pan to make pancakes in. This is the pan I use.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Doughnuts, but not deep fried

Hello! Doughnuts that are delicious. But not deep fried.

A new year ritual in southern Italy, is to make zeppole, or doughnuts. They are unbelievably delicious and my aunt would make them (whatever time of year I went, because I would nag her) and lay them out on dishcloths (to soak up any excess oil) - one cloth on the bottom, one on the top. As such she built up a sort of doughnut grid system after a while. I was immensely skilful because I would take them out strategically - whilst she was frying the next batch - so that the cloth didn't sink to reveal any tell tale dips.

By the time she discovered there were gaps, it was too late. I was gone, out into the street to play 'fazzoletto'. Innocent, greedy, slim days, when all excess calories were worked off playing outside til long after the stars were out.

My aunt would coat hers in cinnamon sugar. I'm not sure how I feel about cinnamon. It makes me feel claustrophic sometimes, all cloying and needy.

Anyway. Years ago, I bought a mini doughnut tray from Lakeland. Don't go looking for it now though as they discontinued it some time ago; probably because it realised that, although the tray was perfectly good, the recipe that came with it produced pretty crap little cakes. They didn't taste like doughnuts at all, just very average tasting, round little sponge cakes that weren't even very brown.

Nevertheless, I kept the tin, and the recipe. And today, whilst my children and I were swinging in the pod chair in the garden, I had the idea of making some more.

Except this time, I thought, I'll cook 'em and then shallow fry them for a minute or two. And what do you know. They are brilliant. I think they'd make great little accompaniments to a home made ice cream or served with chocolate ganache you can dip them into. Although, for me, nothing beats a simple doughnut simply rolled in vanilla sugar.

If you want to try these, you can get a similar-looking tray from here.

This is how you make them. They are ridiculously easy and quick, so warm the oven up the moment you decide to make them.

For 12 mini doughnuts you need:

75g  plain flour
half a teaspoon of baking powder
quarter of a teaspoon of salt
55g caster sugar
60ml of milk (I used semi skimmed)
1 beaten egg
1 teaspoon of olive oil
half a teaspoon of vanilla extract

 Put the oven on at 160C.

Grease the mini doughnut tray. Little fingers love doing this. Let them get on with it as it's annoying.

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the milk and egg, olive oil and vanilla extract.

Then pour the wet mixture into the dry. Stir, then pour into the doughnut tray. The mixture will come about three quarters of the way up.

Put in the oven. Cook for fifteen minutes. Take out the incredibly unpromising, anaemic looking doughnuts. (Test they are cooked: if you press them they should spring back.)

Heat up a frying pan with some sunflower oil.  You need only enough to coat the bottom, like a puddle's depth. I have a cast iron frying pan (which I seasoned from scratch, because I am HARDCORE) so this retains the heat beautifully. Then  you just fry the doughnuts, about 1-2mins per side. Put on kitchen paper and as soon as you can, throw them around some vanilla sugar.

If you eat these warm, and you should as there is nothing nicer, they will probably give you rampant indigestion.