Thursday, 31 May 2012

BBC Spaghetti Pomodoro with Chilli Prawns

Do you believe in horoscopes?  I do and I don't.  The rational part of me wonders how the same set of rules can apply to one-twelfth of the population?  And can how different astrologers see different things in the same set of stars? The romantic part of me wants to believe in fate and destiny and that sometimes a higher power is in operation.

There's one particular astrologer whose monthly forecasts I read.  She gives these really long, comprehensive insights with each horoscope and sometimes they're so delightfully vague in over the length that she does indeed cater for pretty much anything happening to anyone in some veiled comment or another.  I tend to read them when I'm having a bit of a navel-gazing time in my life.  Introspective and uncertainty always drives me to look for someone else to give me the answer.

My other foible is that I tend to read them towards the end of the month so I can say 'Oh so that's why xyz happened' rather than at the start of the month when she'll say something that I interpret to mean I'm going to win the lottery when in fact at the end of the month, I actually just found a forgotten tenner stuffed in the pocket of my winter coat or something similar (this month I did win £3.10 on the Euromillions though).

Not quite Pimms jelly
Of course, this month she said that I was due the best weekend of the current decade, ever, over the weekend of 12-13th May.  Well excuse me, but if that was my best weekend of the decade then I'm in for a bloody bumpy ride up until 2020!  But equally, she was right about a career decision that I'd been pressured to make.  She suggested waiting for the right thing to come along.  I chose not to do as I was told and wait.  All without reading the horoscope first so I like to think she's right.  About me and the other half billion Capricorns in the world.

One other thing she mentioned was the current Venus retrograde which would put a kibosh on some of my creative plans. And yes, life has now tampered with my blog plans for today and tomorrow.  So instead of a nice Pimms jelly, planned in advance of the jubilee celebrations and with the hot weather we had been having in mind, I've now had to bring you a pretty pleasant summer pasta dish from the BBC Good Food website at the last minute.  Fresh, storecupboard stuff.  Quick and easy for a last minute dish after a long day at work.  And healthy too.

I also blame the Venus retrograde for compromising my plans to make my jubilee bundt tomorrow.  An action-packed day of work followed by a Jubilee party at Miss A's nursery (I'd intended to make cake for that too but the week has just vanished) and a trip to the doggie doctors in the evening has left me severely short on time and inspiration.  Now wondering what the June horrorscope will hold but of course, I can't look for another thirty days.

Recipe for the prawn dish is here

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Lil Ms Squirrel's Panzanella

I was on a course today and during the breaks (because my mind NEVER wanders when I'm at work), I got to thinking about identity and more specifically how I identify myself.  Like most courses, you had to do the 'Name, Job Title, How Long You've Been With the Company, Tell Us Something Unusual' icebreaker-y thing at the start.  Knowing pretty much everyone in the room, I may have tuned out just a little and focussed my attention on the course notes.

When on another course recently, we were asked to do the same exercise and I decided to shake things up a bit by introducing myself with my Twitter profile.  It sums me up quite well in 140 characters and tells people more about me than they would probably ever care to know.  Saying so much in such as small amount of letters is pretty amazing for someone like me who has a tendency for verbosity.

If you've never seen my Twitter profile (why not??!), I sum my self up like this:

"Slummy mummy, blogger, jogger, maker, baker, doer, high heeled shoer, daydream believer, Mrs , and international woman of mystery"

Just to clear up 'The International Woman of Mystery' bit, I work for one of those institutions that if you knew who it was, I'd probably have to kill you.  In fact, I'm now worried every time I vaguely mention my work on my blog that I'm violating our recently published social media policy.  Mostly because with a bit of smart Googling, you can find out what I do and where.  I'm not at all important.  But I like to keep people guessing.

Salady goodness

I have various personas depending on the situation but at work, if people don't know me personally, they know me as 'the lady with the shoes'.  The men always joke about who will steal my shoes (especially the red patent heels) if I have to leave them in one of the 'safe' areas before donning my oh-so-sexy safety shoes.

All of the older ladies on site are very taken with my collection of towering heels and enviously tell me that they wish they were young enough to still get away with wearing shoes like that.  And take great delight in telling me that I'll be in for a bout of varicose veins in a few years time and will find comfort in a frumpy pair of Dr Scholls like my mother used to wear when she was my age.  I'll stick to running shoes, thanks all the same.

Today, I was sporting a new pair of turquoise suede platform shoes - with a five inch heel.  Hardly practical for any job but worse when you are on a site tour with someone from H&S who has issues with high heeled shoes.  To be fair, said person was quite right and having been on my feet most of the day (normally I sit at my desk bare foot) by the time I got home, I was tired and had sore feet and really couldn't be bothered with dinner tonight.

The temptation was to just toast the remains of yesterday's sourdough and slather it with butter and jam (not all on the same area - I don't like the two things spread on top of each other - but of course, I had to try something new for the blog.

With a lack of vegetable matter in the fridge, I hit on the idea of a panzanella.  I've seen this made on the tellybox several times before and have always shied away from it because it involves stale, soggy bread.  I don't do soggy bread - I like mine crispy.  But the one thing I was pretty sure about was that this is one of those salads with a myriad of interpretations.  And I wasn't wrong.

In fact, Wikipedia (which of course is totally true) states that the modern version of panzanella is a salad of stale bread, soaked in water and dried and tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper.  It then carries on to list a whole raft of other things that you may include in a panzanella.  Stopping just short of throwing the kitchen sink in.  In fact, if you didn't know better and if you pick and choose correctly, you could actually end up with a Salad Nicoise instead. 

So, I set about making up my own panzanella.  I kept made sure I had tomatoes - which I'm actually beginning to like after all these years since I've forced myself to eat them whilst writing this blog.  And I did the bread thing, but instead of soaking it to bring it back to freshness, I actually baked mine to make croutons.  I'm sure a real Florentine traditionalist would have a dose of the vapours over that choice.  I then added some sald vegetables, fresh herbs and a chopped up pan-fried chicken breast.  With a lemon dressing (I left out the recommended garlic - mostly because I have a lot of meetings tomorrow), I had myself a really nice storecupboard salad (okay I keep my salad in the crisper in the fridge, but you know what I mean!).

And because the salad was vaguely virtuous and I've not eaten since breakfast, I think I fully deserve the last of my fully loaded brownies.

So this is how I made my salad for one.  Easily multiplied but not in this house as it contains vegetables.  And I'm the only one who eats them.

Recipe
  • 1 ripe tomato, cut into eight chunks
  • 3 inch piece of cucumber, cut into chunks
  • 1 slice day old bread - sourdough or other rustic bread is best
  • 2 tsp chilli olive oil
  • 2 tsp plain olive oil
  • 1/2 small red onion, finely sliced
  • 1 chicken breast
  • 2 tsp Schwarz chargrilled chicken seasoning
  • small handful of fresh mixed herbs, chopped - I used basil and coriander
  • half a little gem lettuce (optional)

For the dressing
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp white wine vinegar
  • juice of half a lemon
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cut the bread into 1/2 inch cubes and toss with the chilli olive oil.
Bake in an oven preheated to 220c/200c fan for 10-15 minutes until brown and crispy
Butterfly the chicken breast and sprinkle both sides with the seasoning.
Heat the 2tsp plain olive oil in a small frying pan and pan fry the chicken for about 10 minutes, turning once, or until fully cooked.  Remove from the pan and leave to rest for five minutes, then chop into chunks.
Meanwhile mix the cucumber, tomatoes and onion and herbs in a bowl.
Mix the dressing ingredients and season to taste.
Combine the chicken, croutons, vegetables and dressing.  Mix well then serve on the lettuce (if using).

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Dan Lepard's Sourdough

Tea. Just need to practice my loaf cutting skills.
It feels somewhat appropriate that my 250th recipe is baking related (top tag with 92 recipes) and by Dan Lepard (favourite book/baker) with this being recipe 29 of his and bread recipe number 22.  I didn't exactly plan it this way - I started this journey a week ago - but looking at my stats, it seemed to be worthy of comment.  And so I did.

Sourdough bread appears to be the holy grail of bread baking.  Of course, this is only me setting my foot on the very bottom rung of the ladder that is sourdough.  Nevertheless, you appear to not be able to call yourself a bread baker until you've tried this feat.  Why do I say this?  Well a while back, I was Googling the lovely Lorraine Pascale's bread recipes when I found a post questioning her credibility as a baker because she dared to make bread that didn't take a week to prepare.  And this wasn't even her 21st Century Cheese and Ham Bread (which I believe you can make in less than an hour but as the husband doesn't like cheese bread, I've not tried it).  This was a regular, yeasted bread that takes around 2-3 hours from mixing to baking.  But this particular blogger had a beef with Lorraine's loaf not being tasty enough for him and was very scathing about it.

That post angered me that someone could be so rude and condescending.  Not everyone has the privilege of being able to sit around all day waiting for endless kneading and rising and knocking back and more rising.  Surely anything that is homemade is far superior to something that is bought from a shop and packed full of preservatives?  I've made plenty of nice breads over the last year, all of which used yeast.  Maybe sourdough knocks the competition into a cocked hat but sometimes good enough is absolutely fine.

Derek - fresh from the oven
And we're not all lucky enough to have an Artisan bakery at the end of the street - or the budget to buy all our bread there.  And if this guy has an issue with Lorraine, then he will have an issue with pretty much every baker on the planet.  Some people need to get their heads out from their own backsides.  I wonder how he feels about Marco Pierre White advertising stock cubes or Dan Lepard revealing that he uses Smash in some of his bread recipes?  The blog turned by stomach so much I didn't read further.

Anyhow, because this has been an epic recipe, I'm afraid you're going to get an epic post - because I have lots of pictures and another topic I need to get off my chest.  Washing up!  I hate it.  And I only married my husband because he used to be really good at cleaning up.  To the point that he'd even rotate the plates in the cupboard to make sure they wore out evenly.  Post wedding, his kitchen cleaning declined and, having married someone who isn't a fan of cleaning, we often have 'disagreements' about me and my baking.  Especially when bread dough is involved.

I've yet to find an effective way of cleaning bread dough from a bowl without gunking up the scrubby sponge or scrubby brush that we use for manual washing up.  Then there's the issue of the bits of dough that do eventually make it out of the bowl and into the sink and weld themselves to the stainless steal before you have chance to rinse them away.  So of course, when Derek (yes, I've named my sourdough after Derek Branning - a volatile character in Eastenders) decided to escape for a better look at my worktop, I knew this wasn't going to be a 'disagreement' free week in the Crowdey household.


Day #1 Derek is born

Day #2 first signs of life (top right of jar)

Day #3 it's working!
Derek has needed nearly as much attention as a small child since he first escaped.  Luckily, unlike Miss A, he hasn't mastered the art of unlocking and opening the front door and letting the dogs out.  But with the need to remove some of his volume (dough in the sink - see above) and carefully feed him, plus check he was okay in the confines of his new home each day, I've felt like I've had a third child to care for for the last seven days (Miss A being number one and the sunburnt husband being number two).

Lepard reccomends a 500ml kilner jar which is exactly what I used for Derek's first home.  It looked like he had plenty of space to grow, but after his escape, he got moved to a 1.5l kilner.  Just in case...


Day #4 In need of a new home

Day #5 Re-homed

Day #6 - bubbling nicely

Day #7 after his last supper

Still, we made it through the week eventually.  And this morning, before work, I began his first rise.  Of course being a Lepard recipe, this involves the three ten-second kneads over half an hour rather than the traditional ten minute knead.  But it gave me time to make breakfast and coffee in between.

Although it's a Dan Lepard recipe, I got the instructions for the leaven from Azalia's Kitchen.  Short and Sweet doesn't have a full recipe for sourdough.  There are two pages of instructions about how sourdough should work but I'm guessing that Lepard and his publisher probably want you to buy a copy of The Handmade Loaf.  It's in my Amazon basket but there are so many more things I want to try (more than I'll manage before I finish this blog) that I've not yet purchased it.  Thankfully, the well documented online guide from Azalia was really helpful getting the starter made and I then used Dan's Short and Sweet advice (plus some online research) to prep my first loaf.

And we're off!
If you use Azalia's method, you really need to read all the comments too because there is extra clarification around some of the points there.  In a nutshell, however you feed your starter, a ratio of 1 part flour to 1 part water works.  Where she's specified water at 20c, I've used the water from my kettle when it's cooled so I know it's roughly room temperature.

The one thing I hadn't really been prepared for is just how long sourdough can take to rise.  Having done some research, the best ballpark figure I could find for how long it will take to double in size is between four and 12 hours.  Even Lepard himself is vague on the subject.  There are so many factors that can affect a sourdough rise apparently - from the quality of the leaven to the temperature of your room to whether or not there is an 'r' in the month (okay I didn't really read that, but I'm sure someone has said it somewhere).  I then asked Twitter's opinion and @EversNanaJules replied that it's quite happy to be left to rise overnight.  Great idea.
In need of a little more water and some rye

So yesterday morning, I gave Derek one last breakfast in anticipation of starting the bread off last night as it works best 8-24 hours after feeding.

But then I read another online article about how there is a window of opportunity for the rise of bread which is pretty predictable with commercially available yeast, but not so with sourdough.  I decided that given the currently warm weather, I didn't want to slope off to bed and find that my lovely sourdough had peaked and fallen irreparably whilst I was asleep (I needn't have worried as Miss A was awake for most of the night again so I could've checked on it).

So because I had the luxury of working from home today, I fed Derek again last night with 25g of flour and water so I could prep him this morning in that critical 8-24 hour window.  I decided to use Dan's Easy White Loaf recipe because he tells you in the book the exact measurements for replacing the yeast, flour and water with leaven.
Ready to rise

The bit I missed was a comment a few paragraphs before these instructions that a small amount of rye or wholemeal flour will help stop the dough from being so sticky - a trait of an all white loaf.  I also found I only needed 180ml of extra water so I'm glad I followed his advice to add it gradually rather than just putting it all in (he says 225ml of water).  Because the dough was so sticky as I was kneading it, I added 25g of rye flour during knead two which certainly seemed to help smooth it out.

First rise complete.  Looking smooth Derek. He's so grown up!
I left it the loaf starting its first rise at 6.45am - I love that my commute meant that I was at my desk by 6.47am (we live in a townhouse so I had to navigate two flights of baby-gated stairs with my coffee and laptop bag).  With my lunch break at 12pm, I had a half-hour window for knocking back and shaping and  it was then left for the second rise until 5pm.

Thirty minutes in the oven, and a little time to cool on the patio table and I had me a late tea of sourdough with butter and jam.  Lush!
One final picture :)

Was it worth the effort?  Yes, actually it was.  For the following reasons.

1) It tasted like bread that had been bought from a posh shop.  Even better than regular homemade white.  But not something I'd do every day purely because I don't have the time and I would come to not appreciate it.  It's a really special treat.
2) My Proud Mummy Moment (PMM) for the day was when Miss A looked at the loaf and rather than calling it 'Toast' as she does with all homemade bread, she announced that it was 'Sow-dough'.  My heart burst - she's such a little foodie at only two.
3) Because it gave rise to an interesting conversation with the husband about bread containing yeast or sourdough - both of which are live and fungus related.  He has now decided he's never eating bread ever again.  I'll relay the full conversation on another post on another day.



Monday, 28 May 2012

BBC Good Food Potato Salad with Caesar Dressing

Whilst the warm weather has made me productive in some areas (getting the washing done and dried), it's made me lazy in other areas (slaving over a hot iron/computer to write my blog/hot stove etc etc).  Tea last night was an indoor/outdoor barbecue (last Friday's post will fill you in on this).  We ate the leftover food from Friday's barbecue along with salad and new potatoes.

I always over-estimate the number of new potatoes I need (or rather that the husband will eat - approximately two) so was left with a huge pile in the fridge.  Having been to lazy to make myself sandwiches last night, I had an epiphany at about 4am this morning as to what to take to work for my lunch - potato salad.

Not just any potato salad, but a Caesar dressed potato salad - the idea coming from a recipe I happened across on Friday when looking at recipes for Caesar dressing.  Bingo.  I still had some dressing left from Friday so stirred one bowl into the other and hey-presto, I had lunch.
A little heavy on the prosciutto!

To give it some body I also threw in a chopped up frankfurter (we always have them in the fridge because it's about the only lunch the husband can make for himself).  It was a really nice lunch - mostly because my beloved grandma used to make me a similar potato salad with frankfurters for my lunch when I was a kid (and probably why I was so fat back then).

Because my dressing had been 'developing' in the fridge for a couple of days, I will admit that iit tasted fishier than I remembered from Friday and if I'm honest and was making it again, I'd probably leave them out because I'm really not a fan and I'm sure the dressing tastes fine without them - it's just obviously not a true Caesar dressing.

You can find the original potato salad recipe here.  It's much easier than the one I made Friday because it uses shop-bought mayonnaise rather than making your own.  The dressing I used came from Thomasina Miers' Mexican Food Made Easy, one of my favourite books.

And because I'm so lazy and there was so much left over, I ate the remainders for my tea - without the frankfurter but with baked prosciutto crumbled over the top.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Lil Ms Squirrel's Fully Loaded Brownies

Today Miss A and I are off to the Love Food Festival at Dyrham Park.  I've been wanting to go to one of these events for ages, but haven't been able to convince the hubby to come with me.  They're normally held in Bristol or Bath at an open market place and this worries me with my wayward toddler on the loose with only one parent supervising (ie I won't be able to look at anything because I'll be making sure she doesn't accidentally run out into the road or something).  Whereas the Dyrham Park event is at a big old stately home so there'll be plenty of space for her to race around before I pop her in the buggy and push her round for a bit while I browse the gorgeous wares on offer.

Made by my beautiful assistant
Sunday is also running and swimming day, things were a bit mental this morning as we prepared for the off.  On Friday, the husband asked Miss A to make him brownies and she's been pestering me ever since to let her do this so I figured we'd fit it in between getting back from swimming and going out to the food festival.  For once I was uber-prepared with all the ingredients weighed out ready in little bowls so we just had to mix, bake and then go.

I wanted to do something a bit different with these brownies.  As nice as my favourite recipe is, I wanted something a little more adventurous.  Rooting through the cupboards, I realised I didn't really have enough of any one ingredient or even two different ingredients so I decided I'd just weigh out 200g of random things and throw it into the mix.  Hence fully loaded.  I went for marshmallows, dark and white chocolate chunks, pistachios and dried cherries.  And it worked really well.

The marshmallows gave the brownies a really chewy texture, the chocolate chunks added bite.  There was a little crunch and a great green colour from the pistachios and a sharp tang from the cherries.200

When the husband finally got to sample one, he then revealed that what he actually wanted was my signature whoopie pies (chocolate with Baileys cream in the middle), not brownies.  He thought because they were brown they were classed as brownies.

Hey ho.  Well at least I got a new recipe out of today!  And here it is:

Recipe - Makes 16

  • 200g 40% plain chocolate (something like Bournville will do)
  • 175g butter
  • 3 eggs
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
  • 75g plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 200g mixed fruit, chopped nuts and sweet things of your choice
  • 20cm square cake tin, lined
  1. Preheat the oven to 190c/170c fan.
  2. Chop the chocolate and butter into small pieces, place in a glass bowl over gently simmering water and stir until just melted.  Set aside to cool.
  3. Lightly beat the eggs with the sugar and vanilla.  Stir into the cooled chocolate mixture.  
  4. Sift the flour, cocoa and baking powder into the chocolate mixture and stir well until just combined.  Mix in the fruit, nuts and sweets.
  5. Pour into the cake tin, level the top and bake for forty-five minutes.  The cake should be just about set with a slight wobble in the middle.  If you use marshmallows, the edges and top are likely to be a little crispier than normal brownies.
  6. Cool completely in the tin and then cut into sixteen pieces.



Saturday, 26 May 2012

Dan Lepard's Cheesy Torpedoes

Following on from last night's barbecue, I managed to convince the husband that we should go out for a picnic today as well.  To do both things in the space of a weekend is bordering on radical.  I don't remember us eating outside more than once the entire time we lived in London.  And when we moved to Wiltshire, no word of a lie, it took me two years to persuade him to go out for a pub lunch.  He's that unadventurous.

So having agreed that we could go on a picnic, I decided make an effort to not rock the boat by providing food that he likes.  Cheese and ham rolls, pork pies, cocktail sausages, hula hoops, cake and strawberries.  All store bought and full of additives and preservatives.  But if it makes him happy and means that we can picnic outside in the beautiful weather, I'm not going to make too much fuss.
Guess who's got a new camera app?

But of course, with a blog to write, I had to cook something new, didn't I?  Whilst researching what to do with my sourdough starter, I came across this Dan Lepard recipe on the Guardian Website (I don't believe it's in Short and Sweet).  What's not to like about a roll packed with cheese and then stuffed with ham salad?  A lot if you're my husband.

The actual making of these is the easiest Dan Lepard bread recipe I've ever seen.  He's a fan of ten-second kneading every ten minutes for thirty minutes rather than the traditional 10 minute knead.  I must admit, I follow his method now even if the recipe isn't his.  But with these cheese rolls, it's even simpler.  Mix the ingredients to a dough.  Rest for ten minutes.  One ten second knead.  First rise.  Shape.  Second rise.  Bake.  Job Done.  This went really well until I decided to pop to the shops with Miss A for picnic supplies.  I had an hour to kill while I waited for the second rise.  Except it took nearly two hours with her in tow (we had to stop in the cafe for a babyccino) and so when I came back, my nicely sized torpedoes were enormous.

Still they baked well and my only failure was not to put them on baking parchment because all the cheese that oozed out welded itself to my baking tray.  Then the husband saw them and announced 'I don't like bread with cheese in it', thus ending my only hope of giving him something additive and preservative free (he didn't eat any strawberries).  His loss I guess.  Actually, I should've already known this after his similar pronouncement last time I made cheese bread for a picnic.

Miss A and I enjoyed them very much although I have a feeling they have to be eaten when fresh and won't keep well.  Luckily I only made half the recipe.  Really easy to do as I just used half a beaten egg in the mix and saved the rest for the egg wash.  And the local herd of sheep came racing across the field the minute I unwrapped my torpedo, encircled us and didn't leave until I'd finished.  Can't help wondering now if sheep are partial to cheese?

I'd probably make these again if I had a social barbecue.  They'd be great filled with something tasty from the grill - maybe really good quality burgers in lieu of a cheese burger.  I know the recipe uses onions and mustard (I replaced that with paprika) but I think they'd work really well with finely diced jalapenos - and then filled with a Mexican burger with loads of guac, pico de gallo and sour cream.  Yummy!

Recipe can be found here

Friday, 25 May 2012

Thomasina Miers "The Original Caesar Salad"

My two favourite things about summer are picnics and barbecues.  Reading Good Food Magazine this time of year makes me insanely jealous because of the picture perfect family gatherings they show accompanied by pages of recipes for tasty outdoor eating.  The closest we generally get as a family to outdoor eating is a cheese and ham toastie in a pub garden - mostly because the husband wants a beer.

It's not for want of trying.  Whenever I invite my family to visit in the summer, it always rains and we end up eating indoors.  We do occasionally go on picnics to Corsham Lake but my new fear that Miss A is going to end up drowning herself looking for the sheep that was stuck in the lake on our last visit, coupled with the husband's discerning food palate (I once made cheese and onion bread for the picnic - this didn't go down well and all he ate was Hula Hoops and bananas) means that it's not really the relaxing, joyous occasion that I always hope for.

Then there's the barbecue.  Source of endless despair.  The current incumbent was purchased two years ago.  It's not been used.  Not for want of trying, but the husband has this paranoid fear about setting fire to things.  I think I only got away with having lit candle votives scattered around the tables at our wedding reception was because he was so nervous beforehand - and then so inebriated from the apple vodka a Polish friend bought - that he didn't notice  So whenever I suggest a barbecue, rather than beating his chest like a caveman (how I assume most men react to the thought of cooking large slabs of meat over open fire) he finds a way to convince me to cook indoors and eat outdoors.  I feel like Hyacinth Bucket (a reference for UK readers) with her "Indoors Outdoors Barbecue with Finger Boo-fay"

Summer lunching
But because our bottom-of-the-garden neighbour angered the husband earlier this week for randomly burning stuff in his chimenea at 11 o'clock in the morning and making two loads of washing stink of smoke, the husband is determined we will have a barbecue tonight to exact revenge and smoke out said neighbour.

There is a small flaw in this plan.  It has nothing to do with wind direction or the fact we barbecue on our patio which is a good twenty-feet from the neighbour's house.  It's the fact that the minute it stops raining and it's warmer than 10C, the bottom-of-the-garden neighbour barbecues every single meal.  Well maybe not his cocoa pops, but in weather like this, they often seem to have all day barbecues every day.  So any effect from our paltry barbecue will be lost in the fug that regularly emanates over the bottom fence.  But still, if it means we actually get to eat real, barbecued food then who am I to complain?

In anticipation, I went a bit mad with the Ocado 3 for £10 offers this week and have enough barbecue food to reciprocally barbecue every meal for the next week.  I never thought for a moment that this was an ideal opportunity to try something new on the barbecue.  And so this is why, after thumbing through Mexican Food Made Easy and rueing a missed opportunity, I settled on trying a Caesar salad.  Mostly because I still have some anchovies left over from another experiment and have no idea what to do with the strange little salty fish.

I never would've guessed that the salad had its origins in Mexico but apparently it was invented by an Italian chef in a restaurant in Tijuana.  I knew the story about it being thrown together in desperation when they ran out of food, just not that it was in Mexico - hence it's inclusion in the book.

In essence, it's just lettuce with some croutons (made using a square of the gorgeous foccacia that I made and partly froze) tossed with the ubiquitous dressing and then covered with shavings of parmesan.  But of course, it's that ubiquitous dressing that caused the problem.

Because I wanted to halve the ingredients and didn't want the faff of messing up my food processor, I toyed with the idea of making the dressing manually so researched other recipes and they pretty much all use regular mayonnaise, thinned down with a variety of liquids including white wine vinegar, lemon juice and yogurt.  I toyed with the idea but then figured that it would be someone else's recipe and not Thomasina's.  So sticking with the original quantities, I got under way.  Except the rubbish food processor attachment for my Kenwood Prospero didn't even touch the ingredients with its blades.  I ended up scooping it all back out and putting it into the blender attachment instead.  This time it worked better but I ended up with double the faffy washing up!  And the anchovies were still a bit lumpy - but you can't have everything.

Worth it for a really tasty, if unhealthy salad.  And it now means that I know what I'm having for lunch or dinner over the next few days.  Bang goes the diet :-/

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Balsamic and Black Pepper Nectarines with Lime Marscapone

The heat has gotten to me.  All I want to do is eat salad and not very much of it.  At this rate, I should be the size of Kate Moss in about a decade or so.  But of course, this is good old Blighty and the rain will come soon enough and I'll still be overweight.

I'd planned to do a Thomasina Miers Chicken Salad recipe for tea tonight but when push came to shove, I didn't have the energy to get the recipe book out.  Yep, I'm that lazy.  So as I was busy assembling a chopped green salad, a baked chicken breast, my favourite lime and balsamic dressing and reheating some of last week's lovely olive and sun-dried tomato foccacia I realised that I'd still didn't have a new recipe to try today.

I quickly Googled nectarines and marscapone because I've had a tub of marscapone sat in the fridge for ages and it's nearing its sell by date; and of course nectarines left over from last night's dinner.  Didn't get much back that was quick and easy and would serve just two people (plenty of gorgeous looking fruit tarts though).  Then I clocked the bottle of balsamic sitting on the worktop and wondered if it would work with nectarines.

Nectarines hiding under strawberries and marscapone!
From past research, I knew that strawberries and balsamic vinegar is a popular flavour combination.  My mum once made strawberry and balsamic ice cream.  I normally hate strawberry ice cream as it's a bit wishy-washy but it was honestly the best strawberry ice cream ever.  In fact, I'd pick it over chocolate or caramel if I had a choice.  A quick change of search and yes - the two flavour combos go together.

I found a really simple recipe on the Food Network website for peaches with balsamic and black pepper.  This was quickly adapted to include strawberries - only really because my I had white nectarines and they just look a bit insipid on their own.

Using the recommended quantities, I switched off my phone and set about making up my own version of the recipe, topped with some lime marscapone.  It's a great, last minute summery pud and I loved the balsamic syrup so much that I will definitely use this taste combo again.  The picture isn't brilliant as I put the nectarines in the bottom of the glass.  I'd also recommend halving the strawberries as I think they'd probably pick up the flavour a little more on the cut side - I left mine whole.

Recipe - Inspired by Mario Batali for Food Network

  • 3 ripe nectarines or peaches, each cut into eight wedges
  • 8-12 strawberries halved or quartered (depending on size)
  • 4 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp Demerara sugar


For the marscapone topping

  • 4 tbsp full fat marscapone
  • 8 tbsp low fat greek yogurt
  • zest and juice of one lime
  • 1 tbsp Demerara sugar plus extra for sprinkling


  1. Place the fruit in a small mixing bowl.  Combine the vinegar, pepper and sugar and then mix gently with the fruit.  Refrigerate for twenty minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, beat the marscapone and yogurt together until smooth.  Stir in the juice and zest of the lime and the sugar.
  3. Divide the fruit between serving glasses and drizzle with any spare vinegar mixture from the bottom of the mixing bowl.
  4. Top with a generous spoonful of the marscapone and sprinkle with demerara.  Serve immediately.


Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Grilled nectarine salad with roasted chicken, feta, rocket and peanuts

This evening I had what was very nearly a perfect meal for a perfect, summer's evening.  In fact, the meal was perfect.  There were just a few things that spoiled it.

Number 1.  My dogs.  They are intent on trying to burrow their way under the fence to Percy's house.  Percy is a scruffy little white dog who lives in our bottom-of-the-garden neighbour's house.  The need to burrow is accompanied by a lot of noise.  To the outsider, they sound fierce.  With insider knowledge of my two dogs, they just want to play.  Despite being five and four they both behave like mad puppies - even in this heat.  It's really quite exhausting - if I was a dog, I'd just want to laze on the patio.  Still - it saves me from having to dig up lots of weeds.

Number 2.  The absence of a perfect man to share the evening with.  Or in lieu of him, I ate alone as the husband is off shooting vintage pinup pictures in an oilseed rape field - yellow flowers, red-haired model, blue sky.  All very arty.  If I'm honest though, I didn't mind so much that he wasn't around because there was no face pulling that I had fruit, cheese, nuts and chicken all on the one plate.  Nor complaining that I had to take a picture of my dinner first.  Or that it was too hot to eat a cooked meal (he would've had chicken and Uncle Ben's rice with gravy because it's Wednesday).  So I sat and daydreamed about having perfect company in the absence of any.  Tall, dark, handsome, rich, well mannered, eats what's put in front of him and knows how to treat a lady.   A girl can dream.

My new favourite meal, ever!
Number 3.  A chilled glass of Chablis or Prosecco.  I generally don't drink (for no reason other than I'm a lightweight) and very rarely think of having alcohol with a meal.  And I'm certainly too old to drink on a school night.  But this dish and the beautiful evening was just crying out for a little drinky to celebrate the end of a lovely day.  Well it would've been lovely if I'd not been stuck at work all day.  But you know what I mean.

So why this dish?  Well thumbing through my Leith's Simple Cookery the other day, I happened across a recipe for nectarine, feta and rocket salad.  On the way home this afternoon, I had a sudden urge to sink my teeth into a beautifully ripe, yellow-fleshed nectarine.  And with all the other ingredients at home, I figured that would be a good recipe for tonight (I failed on the planning front this week so am just picking things randomly each day).

Then, when I looked online to see if I could find a link for the recipe to put on the blog, I happened across this recipe  by The Food Fox instead.  I was utterly sold by reading the post about the lucky, lucky person who can just drive to their local farm store and buy whole boxes of fresh-off-the-tree nectarines.  I was so jealous.  I don't even want to consider how many food miles my paltry tray of four nectarines travelled.

Nectarines are right up there at the top of my favourite fruit list.  During summer I will pretty much eat nothing else on the fruit front apart from nectarines and raspberries.  Until that very sad day when you bite into a nectarine and the flesh is all furry and you realise the season is over for another year.  I love peaches too.  I'm just not a fan of the fuzzy skin.  The only downer on the nectarine front was that I could only get white-flesh ones.  The taste is great, but the salad would've looked so much better with the juice-oozy yellow-flesh fruit in amongst the pale feta and chicken.

As the blog says, the dish is an assault on the taste buds and senses.  Salty, sweet, sour, crunchy and creamy.  Every mouthful is a different experience with the punchy mustard or the salty-smooth feta, teamed with peppery rocket and crunchy peanuts.  I would eat this every night for dinner throughout the summer and would never get bored.

It's so filling too.  Sometimes I feel a bit cheated with salads simply by their virtuousness and feel that they need some degree of carbs on the side - fresh bread, minted new potatoes in their skins, a little cooled, dressed pasta.  But with this one, I honestly felt absolutely stuffed afterwards, like I'd eaten a big, fat meal and it still came in at less than 500 calories - even with peanuts thrown in.

Now off to enjoy the last of the daylight once I've added it to my make again list.  Shame I can't have it for tea tomorrow!

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

BBC Good Food Oriental Duck Salad

Today's post is a variation on a theme from yesterday.  More duck. Still couldn't face the idea of duck and grapefruit so decided to go with an duck noodle salad for a working from home lunch.

The inspiration came from BBC Good Food although like with so many recipes, there are versions of this salad all over the shop.  And because I was time limited, I adapted it for my own needs.  I wanted something I could make in ten minutes so that I could spend the other twenty minutes of my lunch break sat in the back garden.  Admittedly I was slurping with one hand and scrawling notes with the other, but at least I got to see the sunshine for a change which was great.

Sunny lunch in the garden - love the reflections
The original recipe roasts a duck leg in the oven but as I had duck mini-fillets, I seasoned them and then pan fried them.  A little too much in fact as they were a little too overcooked for my tastes but they still tasted good.  I didn't have celery so replaced this with a handful of beansprouts.  And I warmed my noodles back up because the idea of hot duck and cold slimy noodles didn't really do it for me.

Actually, it always frustrates me when I read comments on recipes on the Good Food website where people say 'I really enjoyed this recipe.  But I didn't use the recommended meat or vegetables and I changed the spicing and cooking method yadda yadda'.  I want to shout at my screen 'So you made a totally different recipe so how could you give it five stars?  Or no stars?  Why bother commenting on a recipe for a chocolate cake when you ended up making spag bol?'  Okay so I've never found one quite that extreme.  But there are some that are nearly that bad.

So here's the original recipe if you want to try that.

And here's what I did instead

Recipe - serves 2 

100g duck breast mini fillets
1 bunch ramen noodles (I used blue dragon)
1 medium carrot, made into strips with a vegetable peeler
2 spring onions, cut into thin strips - reserve some greens for the garnish.
handful of bean sprouts
2 tbsp hoisin sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
2 tbsp sesame seeds
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook the noodles according to the packet instructions.  Drain, refresh in cold running water and place in a small saucepan.
Season the duck breasts, pan fry for four minutes then remove and slice thinly.
Mix the hoisin, soy and sesame oil.  Tip into the saucepan with the noodles and warm gently.
Mix in the sesame seeds and vegetables, divide between two serving plates then top with the duck.
Garnish with extra soy and the spring onion greens.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Duck Spring Rolls

If you're expecting a witty post today, I'm afraid you're going to be sorely disappointed.  Or maybe none of my previous posts have been witty.  Maybe anyone who finds them funny has just been laughing at me rather than with me.  I've been told in the past that that's been the case (not about the blog specifically, just in general).

The reason for this topic?  Well I read an article last night on the difference between male and female humour in the office.  Working in IT, I've always considered myself 'one of the boys'.  It's a very male dominated environment (despite what some people may have you believe) and although I'm very competent and good at what I do (I hope!), I'm sure I've been hired in the past because I fulfill the 'equal equalities' ratio.

I sometimes suspect because I once worked somewhere where my boss (jokingly!) asked me if I'd care to 'bat for the other side' and use a pair of crutches so that I could fulfill all his minority requirements (being that I'm mixed race - he was too which is how he just about got away with the comment).  But that's male humour for you.  It can cut close to the bone and whilst I could have gone running to HR screaming discrimination, I took it for the light-hearted bit of banter that it was.

Can you see the duck Peking out?  Not funny....
However, as I woman, I could pretty much guarantee I could make a similar joke in a room full of men and there would suddenly be an elephant in the room.  With a few tumbleweeds rolling around and some doors blowing noisily too and fro in the background (think Westerns here).  You see, men aren't used to women being funny or trying to be funny.  It's not necessarily anything to do with a lack of comic timing. Just that we're not meant to be funny in the office.

If I take the mickey out of myself, I might just raise a smile from the assembled ranks.  Apparently it's common among women in business to be self-deprecatory.  You just have to be careful not to do so to the point of being needy.  Which I think I sometimes do.  Like when I think nobody will be interested in what I have to say when I write these epic blog posts.  And yet I'm now averaging over 200 views a day on this blog (okay so there are a lot of posts to choose from) and have had nearly 16,000 page views in eight months.  At the six-month mark I was still a few views shy of 8,000 views.

Sometimes I just like to waffle about my day and then give a brief nod to the recipe I made.  Unless it was a recipe that particularly lit up my world or was such a disaster (like yesterday's chocolate cakes).  Today is one of those waffle days.

I bought some Gressingham duck mini fillets the other day with the intention of making a duck and grapefruit salad.  It sounded really nice when I picked out the recipe.  It would be perfect on a sunny day like today.  Except that I really really didn't feel like eating (not even the leftover bits of cake, nor the Flake that is stashed in my desk drawer for emergencies).  But of course, I needed a recipe for the blog.

So, I figured I'd give making my own low-fat duck pancakes a go.  With the help of the recipe on the back of the rice pancakes packet and a bit of my own making up, I found a great alternative to the calorie-fest that is Peking duck pancakes.

I love duck pancakes.  It's the best thing about going out for a big fat Chinese meal.  Not that I can remember the last time I did that - but still.  Using rice pancakes to make your own though is a bit of an experience.  They're like little disks of plastic which you then soften in hot water for a while.  Not difficult.  Until you take them out and try to flatten them out.  Then it becomes like playing with clingfilm as they annoying fold back on themselves and will not be spread flat without ripping for love nor money.

Third time lucky and I managed to fill them with gem lettuce (I used the tiny, inner leaves), bean sprouts, spring onions, carrot matchsticks and thin slices of duck that I marinated in hoisin sauce before pan frying for a few minutes.  Quick (aside from wrestling with the pancakes), low fat (less than 200 cals for three pancakes) and a simple show piece starter.  In fact, a great addition to a meal if you're having a Chinese 'fake-away' (healthy, home-cooked versions of takeaway food).

Really pleased with these and will definitely make again as a light lunch.

Duck Pancakes - Serves 2 (easily doubled)

  • 6 rice pancakes (I used Blue Dragon)
  • 100g duck mini fillets
  • 3 tbsp hoisin sauce
  • 1 carrot, cut into julienne strips
  • 2 spring onions, cut into julienne strips
  • 1 little gem lettuce
  • handful of beansprouts
  • spray oil


  1. Place the duck fillets into a bowl and toss with 1 tbsp of the hoisin sauce.  Leave for 15 minutes.
  2. Place a frying pan over a medium high heat, spray with oil and then pan fry the fillets for 4 minutes.  Once cooked, slice into thin strips.
  3. Soften the pancakes according to the packet instructions.  Place a small piece of lettuce onto the centre of a pancake, fill with a selection of duck and vegetables then roll to form a cigarette shape.
  4. Repeat with the remaining ingredients.  Serve with the rest of the hoisin in small bowls for dipping.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Dan Lepard's Brown Sugar Chocolate Cake

I'll be honest with you.  I got cocky.  Having made 26 other Dan Lepard recipes, I figured I could write the best part of this blog before even attempting the cake and then just stick in some pictures when it was finished and get an early night.

To sink one is careless...
And here I am, writing it all again. Because it was a complete and utter disaster.  I was supposed to be making a special chocolate cake as a gift for an old colleague of mine.  So where better to turn than Short and Sweet, I thought?  No matter what I've made before, I've always had good results.  And even when I thought I had a good recipe beforehand (like with lemon cakes and banana cakes) when I've made a Lepard one, it's just taken the game to a whole other level (see Lemon and Poppy Seed Cake and Bare Banana Cake).  Not so with this one.

I just don't seem to have much luck with chocolate cakes.  I didn't like Nigella's chocolate cake.  I was disappointed with the Hummingbird chocolate cupcakes.  I don't want to tempt fate, but I've always had very good results with brownies.  But I can't hand on heart say that I've found a chocolate cake recipe that  does it for me.  My go-to recipe is the BBC Good Food Ultimate Chocolate Cake and I only didn't make that because of the complicated delivery method that this cake required.

There were rave reviews of the cake on Dan's forums and my lovely virtual friend Sadia of Baking Elements fame told me she'd never bake another chocolate cake after trying this one.  I didn't need convincing any further.

Because it's easier to take the iPad into the kitchen (Short and Sweet is a bit unwieldy) I found the recipe online and followed along with that.  Now, in hindsight, having just cross-referenced the book with the online recipe, I may have discovered where I went wrong...

Upside down and two slices in doesn't look so bad...
Lepard helpfully tells you in the book that the cake might sink due to the high ratio of fat and sugar to flour.  I picked this up when I read through the book version of the recipe and noted the remedy was to add two extra tablespoons of flour or an egg white.  Or both.  I added the extra flour so you can understand that I was even more disappointed when my cake still sank.  Actually that's not strictly true. I managed to sink two.  I mean one is careless, but two made me seriously doubt my ability to bake...

Because I wanted to share this nugget of information with you (the web version doesn't tell you this) I snapped a pic of the book recipe on my phone so I could have it at my side while I typed.  Then I decided to compare the ingredient list with the online one.  And it's significantly different in the flour area.

The version on the Guardian website was published in 2005.  Six years before the book.  The ingredient list looks the same at first glance until you get to the eggs.  The older recipe uses one egg rather than two and 50g less flour (before you add the extra two tablespoons recommended by the book) and the new recipe adds two teaspoons of glycerine although it unhelpfully doesn't tell you what difference this made.

With my Miss Marple skills working on overdrive,  I can only assume that with the inclusion of the codicil on saving the cake from sinking, Lepard has obviously come up with a slightly less risky version of the cake.  I picked the wrong one and ended up with not one, but two sunken loaves.

Third slice in and it just crumbled....
So my colleague will be a little gutted come Tuesday as the delivery service only happens once in a blue moon when all the stars align (if I'd posted the original blog, you would've understood that better) as I left it too late in the day to bake anything else and had no ingredients to spare.

I will write this one off as a lesson learned.  And if I'm honest, I'm not sure I'd make it again.  I cut the ends off of one of the loaves and served it with fruit and yogurt as dessert.  It was okay, but it wasn't all that in my humble opinion and didn't have the 'Wow!' factor that so many of Lepard's other recipes had.  Maybe if it hadn't sunk and I'd gone on to make the Treacle Chocolate Icing to top it with, I may have enjoyed it more.

Short and Sweet still remains my favourite go-to book of the moment.  But I would now advise caution when using some of the older online recipes.  If you own the book, it may be well worth checking for differences.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Lil Ms Squirrel's Vanilla Iced Buns

Whilst idling on Twitter this afternoon, I clicked a link from BBC Good Food magazine about recipes to cook with your children.  In amongst a plethora of cupcakes and brownies, there was one recipe for iced buns.  I don't know why, but I got fixated on the idea of making my own iced buns.  I don't even really like them.  But today's planned Duck and Pink Grapefruit Salad got postponed and I found myself on a mission to make buns.

Butterfly buns
I think the reason I don't really like them is because a) once you've bitten off the icing layer, they're just a bread roll (and not too good a one at that); b) there are a million other ways I'd rather up my calorie intake and c) when I was a child, my mum used to work in a bakers and she could bring home whatever cakes were left at the end of the day.  The leftovers were always cream doughnuts (but ones with fake cream - it was the eighties after all!) and iced buns.  I think I probably ate too many of the things.

Some twenty years on since I last ate one, it seemed like a good idea to try them.  I know that they baked them for one of the technical challenges on the Great British Bake Off this year and I remember shuddering at the time as Paul Hollywood filled them with fresh cream.  Such a waste of good ingredients.  Nevertheless, like a woman on a mission, off I set to make them.

The Good Food recipe started with a packet bread mix and added things to it.  Of course I didn't have one of those in the cupboard so figured that I'd just make the recipe up myself, using my regular bread recipe (minus the olive oil) and add an egg and some sugar.  I also added some salt to balance out the sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste to make them a little more grown up.

My dough was beautifully soft and blousy after the first rise.  And when I removed it from the bowl, very elastic and  quite sticky with it.  I oiled my hands and the worktop with spray oil which seemed to keep it from sticking, but I found it really hard to shape the dough into fingers.  Being so soft, I just knew it was going to spread sideways too much, rather than forming the straight, narrow buns I was after.

More roll than finger bun :-/
Forty minutes later and my buns were very square.  Undeterred, I popped them into the oven and 12 minutes later, I had some lovely warm, vanilla-scented buns.  The outer shell was crisper than you would get on a mass-produced bun (but then it's the same with bread - who on earth can make soft-crusted Mother's Pride-type white sliced bread at home??) but the inside was really lovely and light - probably because of the extra yeast.

I really should've read Paul Hollywood's recipe before making them (I have the book after all) or read the bit in Short and Sweet again about the science behind bread dough.  I now know that Hollywood doubles the yeast and he adds a little butter and a second egg to his mixture.  He also kneads on a floured rather than oiled surface.  That's interesting because I know he's always on about not using flour because it makes the dough drier.  But who am I to question the master?  Maybe that's why mine were harder to shape?

I also had a bit of an icing fail.  I probably added about three drops too much on the water front and it slowly slid down the side of the buns.  Not fast enough for me to realise it was happening at the time so I could've adjusted the mixture.  Nevertheless, I will be more careful next time.  It's amazing how a few drops can make such a difference with icing.

Overall, they're not bad.  I shared an uniced bun with Miss A and the dogs while they were still warm and the vanilla really came through.  They definitely need the salt as well although probably only the one teaspoon unlike the two that Mr Hollywood uses.  I'd probably even go so far as to bake these again.  I'd intended to use up the last bit of raspberry curd that was left over from my epic raspberry and lime cake the other day but sadly it had 'decomposed' so I had to make do with shop-bought lemon curd.  I think lemon zest in the dough along with fresh lemon curd in the middle and a sharp lemon icing on the top would tick all my boxes on the lemon front.  If I can just master shaping them, I'm on to a winner.

Stuffed with lemon curd
Recipe - makes sixteen buns
  • 500g strong white flour
  • 300ml warm water (two parts chilled to one part boiling)
  • 2 x 7g sachets of instant yeast or 10g dried active yeast (I used dried active)
  • 50g sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract)
  • 250g icing sugar
  • 30ml cold water
  • sprinkles to decorate
  • fruit curd or jam to fill (optional)
  1. Sift the flour and salt into a bowl.
  2. If using instant yeast, stir this into the flour.
  3. If using dried active yeast, put the water into a measuring jug and dissolve 1 tsp of the sugar.  Sprinkle in the yeast and leave to bubble for ten minutes.
  4. Stir the sugar into the flour then make a well in the centre and pour in the liquid and the egg.  Add the vanilla bean paste and mix to a soft sticky dough.
  5. Cover and leave for ten minutes.
  6. Lightly oil your work surface and hands, tip the dough out and knead for ten seconds before returning to the bowl and covering.  Repeat this twice more and then leave the dough to rise in a warm place for an hour or until doubled in size.
  7. Lightly grease two deep sided baking trays.
  8. Divide the dough into sixteen pieces and shape into long roll shapes.  Place in the baking pans leaving space for them to double in size.  Leave to rise until doubled in size (about 45 minutes).
  9. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 220c/200c fan/gas 7.
  10. Bake for twelve minutes until risen and golden.
  11. Remove from the tins and place on a wire rack to cool.
  12. If you are going to fill the buns, slice them 3/4 of the way through at this point. (I iced mine first and then the icing cracked when I tried to slice them)
  13. Make the icing by carefully mixing the water into the icing sugar until a spreadable consistency is reached.  Use a palette knife to spread icing on each bun, sprinkle with decorations and then leave to dry.
  14. Finally, if filling, add a liberal amount of fruit curd or jam to the middle before serving.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Leith's Warm Sushi Salad

I lost my sushi virginity at the relatively ancient age of 23.  I was going through a difficult time and a good friend phoned me and told me he'd take me out for a swanky dinner in London to cheer me up.  I was cheered merely by his call because I had a little crush on him and the thought of dinner together made they dark day suddenly seem rosy.  He asked where I'd like to go and being completely indecisive and not knowing London very well, I said I'd leave it up to him.

He met me from the tube and walked me past many fabulous restuarants around Long Acre and Covent Garden before arriving at the doorway to a Japanese restaurant.  He asked if this was okay and not wanting to seem fussy/difficult/demanding I nodded a hesitant consent and stepped inside.

I'm not *that* old but I swear a decade ago, you couldn't buy Sushi in the local Tesco Express (did they even exist then??) so the concept was still novel to someone as green and naive as I was then.  He's a very traditional, slightly posh chap so I left the ordering up to him.  A nine course taster meal at £40 a head.  A lot of money in those days when you've not long left uni, have a huge student loan to pay off and can't actually afford to buy yourself a winter coat, let alone go Dutch on a meal (plus the drinks) like that.

I did at least know that I'd be expected to eat raw fish, but nothing prepared me for the arrival of caviar the size of Maltesers and something that looked remarkably like fish eyes.  I did manage to enjoy some bits like the gorgeous tempura prawns and the vegetarian sushi.  But it was spoiled by him betting me that I could eat the rather odd ball of pea-green paste on the side of one dish without my eyes watering.  The deal was that if I won, he'd pay for us both.  And if he won I'd settle up.

Of course, I lost (I just about held onto my dignity before I had to dash off to the ladies to fix my mascara) and whilst I was gone, he proceeded to order a rather expensive bottle of wine to toast my first foray into the world of Japanese food.

Needless to say, the bill hurt more than the wasabi and maxed my previously just-shy-of-the-limit credit card right out.  I spent the rest of the winter without a coat.

Luckily, it didn't put me totally off sushi and I'd love to have that meal over again so that I could appreciate it.  And in case you were wondering, we are still friends.  We don't speak often and see each other even less, but I count him as one of those people you can call on in a time of crisis or happiness.  Life and work just gets in the way far too often.  Last time I saw him I accidentally locked him outside of a meeting room in the snow.  It wasn't revenge, honestly!

Sharing that tale makes me wish I could go back in time and give that me a hug and tell her that things got better and a lot different and that she'll become a survivor.  What doesn't kill us only makes us stronger!

Anyway enough of the deep stuff!  The Nori, sushi rice and the wasabi I used when I made my own sushi back in January has been clogging up my store cupboard and so this recipe seemed like the perfect alternative to all the faff of trying to make perfect sushi shapes.

When I made it, it didn't look like much but it was really filling.  It's probably double the amount of sushi you'd get in one of those pre-packaged lunch boxes.  And I bet if you found it in a restaurant it would be called something trite like 'Deconstructed Sushi' and come with an astronomical price tag.

Serves 4 - Adapted from Leith's Simple Cookery
  • 225g/8oz sushi rice
  • 4 tbsp sushi rice seasoning (I used Clearspring)
  • Wasabi paste
  • 1/2 cucumber, peeled and diced
  • 225g/8oz smoked salmon, sliced (I used Waitrose Smoked Salmon Trimmings)
  • 1 avocado pear, diced
  • 2 sheets Nori - shredded
  • Japanese Pickled Ginger to serve (I didn't have any of this so decorated with bits of salmon)
  1. Cook the rice according to the package instructions.
  2. Mix the sushi seasoning with enough Wasabi paste for your taste and mix with the rice.
  3. Stir through the cucumber, avocado, smoked salmon and most of the shredded Nori.
  4. Divide between serving plates and garnish with the shredded Nori and ginger


Thursday, 17 May 2012

Paul Hollywood's Focaccia

If you're a regular follower, you may be aware that I'm on another one of those 'trying to be good' jags.  If I want to be slim, I have to work bloody hard at it and the minute I stop being good, the pounds just pile on.  I was ten pounds lighter when I started this blog.  I deluded myself that as I was training for a half marathon in March and responsible for keeping you entertained everyday with my long-winded tales that I had to eat interesting (read higher calorie) things.

Double, double, toil and trouble...
The gain probably hasn't just been caused by the blog though.  Having been in not such a good place, I've been prone to snacking at work too.  And of course licking one too many cake bowls.  I mean I'm hardly Morgan Spurlock, stuffing myself full of Maccy D's every day.  But still, I could've been a little more responsible to myself.

So last week, I vowed to myself to make an effort to maintain a food diary, resume my running and reduce the amount of baked goods I've consumed.  At the time I figured it meant no bread.  Mostly because I am far to weak to resist a slice or several of freshly baked bread, slathered with butter.  Yesterday I cracked on that front and realised that I need to follow the old mantra of 'a little of what you fancy does you good'.

Pre-baby, I used to fuel my runs with a piece of coffee cake every now and again.  I swear in that sugar- and caffeine-fuelled state I ran far better than normally.  It was my treat.  And because it was only once a month, I savoured it and the intake was balanced by the running.

I hit on the idea of making a focaccia because for the amount of flour you use, you get a lot of bread.  Plus it can be carved up into bits and popped into the freezer for later.

I was then surprised to find that my beloved Dan Lepard book doesn't have a recipe for focaccia.  It took me a while to recover from that and eventually settle on the Silver Fox's recipe from the Great British Bake Off book.  It was one of the technical challenges in the last series, however it's quite a time consuming recipe and with a full time job, I thought I mightn't get my fix til the weekend.

Dan to the rescue.  He helpfully points out that you can do an overnight rise in the fridge and just reduce the yeast by half.  Excellent.  Which is why I was faffing with my stand mixer at about 5am this morning, getting the first knead and rise underway.

Anyone who has watched Mr Hollywood in action knows that he mixes everything with his hands.  And I mean EVERYTHING.  Even runny icing.  It's something to do with getting the feel for consistency.  Or at least that's what he says.  But I didn't have time for ten minutes of kneading.  Nor the inclination to do so that early in the morning.

Impatient?  Moi?
So into the fridge it went and when I came home, it was trying to escape from the bowl.  The recipe is supposed to make two loaves, but I settled for making one in my large roasting tray.  The dough felt bitterly cold whilst shaping it to go into the tin and I was worried that the second rise would take forever but after two hours, aided by some residual heat from cooking Miss A's tea, it was merrily blowing bubbles and rising nicely.

Hollywood doesn't put the characteristic dimples in his loaf so I followed suit and instead scattered one end with sundried tomatoes and black olives and then sprinkled the whole thing with Maldon sea salt and a good drizzle of olive oil.

Into the oven and oh my gosh my belly was rumbling.  Fresh bread has never smelt so good as it does when you're on a diet.  Twenty five minutes later and I had to cut the first square out and eat it straight away just for research purposes of course!

Luckily, I'd been pretty good all day - eating salads and eschewing the gorgeous and raved about orange and pistachio carrot cake - and so I have plenty of scope to have another piece or two before bed time.  And to those who say that you shouldn't eat carbs after 6pm?  Pah phooey!

You can also find the origina recipe on the BBC's website.  My adaptation is below.  If you do the first rise at room temperature, use two sachets of yeast.

Focaccia, adapted from the Great British Bake Off book


  • 350g strong white bread flour
  • 150g 00 grade flour (the type you use to make pasta)
  • 2 tsp table salt
  • 1 sachet dried easy blend yeast
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 400ml cold water 
  • olive oil, for drizzling
  • Maldon sea salt
  • Additional toppings of your choice (optional) such as sundried tomatoes, sliced olives, prosciutto, chorizo, rosemary, thyme etc (but not all of them at once!


  • 40cm x 25cm x 5cm baking tray/roasting tin



  1. Place the flour, salt, yeast, olive oil and 300ml water into a large bowl. 
  2. Gently mix to form a soft dough then knead the bowl for five minutes, gradually adding the remaining water.  The dough will be really soft and sticky so knead gently in the bowl for a further five minutes.  Lightly oil your work surface and knead for a further five minutes.
  3. Return to the bowl, cover with clingfilm and place in the fridge for 8-12 hours.
  4. Remove the bowl from the fridge and flatten into the baking tray.  Leave to rise at room temperature until doubled in size (this could take anywhere from 1 to 2+ hours depending on how warm your room is)
  5. Preheat the oven to 220C/200C fan/Gas 7. Drizzle the loaf with oil, sprinkle with sea salt and your other toppings if using then bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes until golden.  
  6. Cool slightly on a wire rack (it gets sweaty if left in the tin) then serve whilst still warm. 


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