Friday, 30 September 2011

Cheesy Ham and Leek Gratin

Remember the ham in coca-cola, the ham that was far too big for just the two of us, the ham I so blithely suggested buying in a large size? Well, this was my ulterior motive. The leftover ham is so delicious that you could perfectly well slice it, sandwich it and feel yourself pretty well fed. But if I'm being honest, this was in my mind all along. I had secret plans for that leftover ham and those plans included creamy sauce, tender leeks and an unholy amount of cheese.

This recipe is one of my mum's classics and I think it is one of my favourite forms of comfort food. You might think that it looks simple, even a bit retro - and you would be right. But never think that it will be plain. This is the best possible home for leftover ham. Imagine macaroni cheese, then take away the boring macaroni and add in tender, sweet leeks and succulent, salty ham, all smothered in extra cheese and a few breadcrumbs for crunch. Incidentally, if you don't have any breadcrumbs or if you want to go deliciously low-rent, my mum used to crush up a packet of crisps and scatter the crushed shards on top. Bonus points if the crisps are cheese and onion flavour!

Despite all the cookbooks I own (now locked up in storage) and food blogs I drool over, I still keep coming back to my mum's old recipes - and they're still among my absolute favourites. Years of helping to fry courgettes, chop apricots or steal spoonfuls of crumble mix have worked their way deep into my psyche and helped to make me who I am.

As she was feeding our family, every day of every month of every year, each dish helped to forge and strengthen the bonds linking us to each other. Even when we share the basic recipes with uncles, aunts and cousins, I know for a fact that no other family in the world makes Russian salad, fishcakes or Granny's tomato pasta sauce in exactly the same way that we did and we do.

In the hackneyed words of Sex and The City's Carrie, I couldn't help but wonder. In the dim and distant future when I have little people loitering around eager to lick the bowl, which recipes will they remember? Which dishes will always remind them of their embarrassing old parents, and which will they pass on to their children? Will it be cheesy leek gratin? It won't be one of the prettiest candidates, nor the fanciest, nor the most impressive. But to me, it tastes of home. Delicious, cheesy home.


Cheesy ham and leek gratin
An old recipe of my mum's - proper, classic family comfort food
Serves 3, or in our house 2 for dinner and 1 packed lunch the next day (just 3 mins in the microwave will reheat it perfectly)

- 2 big leeks, trimmed, thoroughly washed and cut into logs the width of your dish. I always halve them lengthways to get all the grit out, too, but you don't have to if you've found a better way to get them clean (and if so, please tell me what it is!)
- ham - either enough slices of bought ham to wrap around each log, or a healthy quantity of chunks of leftover baked ham
- biggish knob of butter
- tablespoonful of flour
- milk (I don't know exactly how much you'll need, but you will definitely have enough if you have a couple of pints)
- about two big handfuls of cheese, grated (we always use a mixture of mature cheddar and parmesan but you could go with what you've got)
- freshly ground black pepper
- a teaspoon of mustard or mustard powder
- some breadcrumbs to scatter over the top (or crisps, as above). 

Preheat the oven to about 180C and get out an ovenproof dish big enough to hold your leeks snugly. Steam the leeks for about 10 minutes, or until just tender.

While the leeks are steaming, make your cheese sauce by melting the butter in a pan over a medium-low heat, then stirring in the flour. I should point out that I use a whisk to stir the sauce right from the beginning, to cut down on washing up later (ahem, lazy). Keep stirring this paste over the heat for a couple of minutes. It will start off brown and moist and become slightly lighter in colour, and drier and crumblier in texture.

Add the milk a splosh at a time, whisking well after each addition. Don't fret if it looks like it's going lumpy, just keep whisking and the lumps will disappear. Keep adding sloops of milk until you have a runny sauce that looks like enough to cover the leeks generously.

Season the sauce with plenty of black pepper and the mustard (you could also add a tiny shake of nutmeg, if you fancy). Stir in most of the grated cheese, keeping some aside to scatter over the top. Then let the sauce simmer over a medium heat for about 5 minutes or until it thickens, whisking it to get rid of any lumps. Once it's thick and smooth, taste to see if it needs more pepper/mustard/cheese. If your leeks aren't quite done yet, or you need time to faff with the ham, you can turn off the heat and leave the sauce for a bit - a skin will form on top, but you can just whisk that in before you use it and otherwise the sauce will be completely unharmed.

The leeks should be ready by now so take them out and arrange them prettily in the ovenproof dish. If you're using slices of ham then wrap each leek in a slice before tucking it into the dish; if you're using chunks of ham, then just scatter them on and around the leeks. Pour the cheese sauce over the top, trying to cover all the leeks evenly, then sprinkle the rest of the grated cheese on top along with a handful of breadcrumbs (or, indeed, crushed crisps). My mum also sometimes arranges sliced tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes on top, but I think the watery tomato juices interfere with the creamy, cheesy sauce so I leave them out.

Bake in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes or until the sauce is bubbling and the top is golden and crunchy. You will want something to lick out the dish like a potato wedge or a bit of bread. Or, let's be honest, a finger. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Ham in Coca-Cola

Today, I'd like to defend Nigella Lawson. The considered opinion among foodie-types seems to be that she's mental - gimmicky recipes full of novelty liqueurs, far too much finger licking and dressing-gowned midnight snacking, not a proper chef and not a proper recipe inspiration. And I do understand these criticisms, truly I do. I find her TV programmes toe-curlingly embarrassing to watch. But nonetheless, my central thesis stands. I genuinely, honestly think she's fantastic. 

For one thing, all her early books in particular (How to Eat, Feast, Domestic Goddess) are really great. They're stuffed full of interesting, easy, tempting dishes for all sorts of occasions, from "oh god I've got ten people coming over after work tomorrow" to "it is so cold and dark outside, I want to eat something comforting while snuggled under a blanket". Her recipes may not always be 100% reliable (I've had a couple go wonky on me) and some - although not all - are heart-stoppingly unhealthy. But lots are absolutely magnificent, true showstoppers which I make over and over again. If nothing else, she provides great inspiration for those of us without fancy knife skills or chef training to have a go at making something delicious. So, in summary, I think she's great. So there!

This particular recipe is a Nigella classic. She inspired me to try cooking ham in the first place (because really, who does that?), and then inspired me never to try making it any other way. This ham is sweet and spicy and salty and savoury and succulent, delicious both hot and cold. I can't even describe to you how amazing the little almost-burned nuggets around the edge are. Seriously, just try a bit from the edge. 

In true Nigella style, this recipe is a) easy, b) impressive, c) a bit gimmicky, and d) I'm saying it again, delicious. Although it takes time, there's very little work for you to do and the smell in your kitchen is definitely worth it. I think this is at its best with some kind of sloppy vegetable on the side - cauliflower cheese, potato dauphinoise, stewed red cabbage, something like that - but it's also brilliant cold and sliced in a sandwich. Either way, I guarantee you'll enjoy it. All thanks to Nigella! See, I told you she was great.

Nigella's Ham in Coca-Cola
From every Nigella book ever, not to mention her website

- 1 joint of gammon/bacon (not sure what the difference is, to be honest)
- 1 big bottle of full fat coke
- 1 onion, peeled and cut in half
- a few dessertspoonfuls of demerara sugar
- a few dessertspoonfuls of mustard (or if you want to follow her recipe exactly, mustard powder and treacle - I just used what we had)

To start with, you have to address the issue of excess saltiness - either rinse the meat under cold water, like the nice man in the farmers' market told us to do (yes, this was very posh ham), or follow Nigella's suggestion by covering it in cold water, bringing the water to the boil then pouring it away. 

Whichever one you choose, do that then plonk the ham in a saucepan, skin side down. Try to use a saucepan that the ham only just fits into, otherwise you'll need gallons of coca-cola. Chuck in the onions and pour over coca-cola until the meat is covered. 
Bring to the boil over a medium-high heat. Yes, I know it's difficult to tell when it's boiling and when it's just the coke fizzing, but you'll have to trust your instincts. Then reduce the heat to a good simmer, stick a lid on the pan and simmer for about an hour per kilogram. Just before it's done, preheat the oven to full whack.
Once the time is up, line a roasting tin or baking tray with foil and carefully lift the ham out of the coke onto the tray, skin side up. Cut off the skin, leaving  a thin layer of fat on top of the joint, and chuck the skin away. Score the fat with a sharp knife into diamond shapes, then spread a generous dollop of mustard over the top and scatter with a good handful of demerara sugar. She says to stud the top with cloves but no one likes eating cloves - fact - so I just left them out.
Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes or until the glaze is burnished and bronzed. Slice, eat, marvel at the deliciousness of the crunchy edge bits. And the tender middle bits. Well, all of it really.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Butternut Squash and Ricotta Bake with Pesto

I still haven't quite recovered from the magnificence of Heston Blumenthal's Dinner (as blogged by Greedy Gusto here). That meat fruit! The tipsy cake! Wowee. Just to manage expectations right at the start, there isn't going to be anything quite as amazing as that today, I'm afraid. Something simple and tasty and hearty? Yes! But fluffy, sugar-topped brioche soaked in gooey brandy and sauternes, alongside caramelised pineapple from a specially designed pineapple spit roasting station? I WISH.

Anyway, as the Dine at Mine household are currently homeless vagabonds, this particular dish was cooked for us at Dine at My Parent's house and very delicious it was too. Golden chunks of butternut squash were roasted with thyme, then layered with ricotta, onion, parmesan, pesto and sunblush tomatoes to form a sort of lasagne-style, cheesy-topped bake. Admittedly the best you could say of its appearance is "colourful" (and not in a chic Farrow & Ball way, in a "that 5 year-old has gone bonkers with crayons" way), but aesthetic fascism aside, this was a seriously tasty lunch.

I think I'd make some changes next time, though. For one thing, it came out quite oily - probably the fault of the sunblush tomatoes and the pesto, but a bit offputting nonetheless. Next time, I'd be tempted to keep the flavours of the pesto but skip the oiliness by using basil leaves, toasted pine nuts and extra parmesan instead. The pine nuts would also add a welcome crunch, as would some crispy shards of prosciutto (thereby sacrificing the vegetarian credentials, but sod it). But give it a go and see what you think. At the very least, it's a nice seasonal bridge between summery salad flavours and the roasted roots of autumn. And at the most? Butternut squash smothered in cheese! You can't go wrong.

Incidentally, there's nothing like a blog to bash you over the head with a bit of self-awareness. I didn't know it before, but apparently I am obsessed with butternut squash: see also salad with chickpeas, salad with mushrooms, a soup, a chilli, and some muffins for good measure, not to mention sweet potato salads and chips. And surely we're only just entering butternut squash season now? The future is orange around here, people. 

Butternut Squash and Ricotta Bake with Pesto
Serves 4 - 6

- 1 butternut squash, cut into chunks (not peeled)
- a few fresh sprigs of thyme
- olive oil, salt and pepper
- one onion, chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic,  chopped
- 1 pot of ricotta cheese
- 1 egg
- a couple of handfuls of parmesan, grated
- about 4 tablespoonfuls of green pesto (from a jar)
- some sunblush or sundried tomatoes (about 10-12)

Preheat the oven to 180C and toss the squash chunks in oil, salt, pepper and thyme then roast for around half an hour or until tender. Meanwhile, gently fry the onion and garlic in a little oil until softened (about 5 minutes). In a separate bowl, mix together the egg, ricotta and most of the parmesan, with a good few twists of black pepper. 

Once the squash is cooked, start to layer everything up in a big oven-proof dish - first half of the onion/garlic mix, then half the squash, then half the sunblush tomatoes, half the pesto and half the ricotta mixture. Don't worry about smoothing or spreading the layers, just blob it on fairly evenly and hope that the heat will spread it all for you. 

Repeat all the layers again and finish by scattering the rest of the parmesan on top - we also crumbled a little bit of feta on for extra flavour. Bake in the oven for around half an hour, or until golden and bubbling.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Restaurant Review - Dinner by Heston Blumenthal

I know that it's been all whinge and moan around here recently - packing and moving and ow-my-shoulders-hurting - but today we gave ourselves a massive treat which made all the moving house hassle totally worth it. We went for lunch at Heston Blumenthal's Dinner. The most expensive meal we've ever had (other than the wedding, when there were 75 other people there after all). And 100% worth it. It was incredible! Amazing! I don't have enough exclamation marks. I hereby hand you over to my resident restaurant critic, Mr Greedy Gusto (of the brilliant blog Wine At Mine) for an in-depth analysis and our furtive phone photos...

A big hello again from Greedy Gusto! It's good to be back at the keyboard. And I've got a lot to tell you about after our visit to Dinner by Heston Blumenthal today. We booked the table 7 weeks ago, and it's not too difficult to get a reservation - just go to the website on the first day of the month before you want your table, and book online. So for example, if you want to book a table in November, be on the website at 9am on 1st October.

Before we get on to the food (and plenty of photos), first a word about the restaurant itself. It's situated in the swanky Mandarin Oriental hotel on Knightsbridge in central London, just opposite Harvey Nichols and down the road from Harrods (but don't hold that against it).

Upon arrival at the hotel, we were escorted by a member of staff from the hotel entrance to the Dinner reception desk, by a second member of staff from the reception desk to the restaurant entrance, and by a third member of staff from the restaurant entrance to our table. And each time they asked how our day was going. It was a friendly and attentive start to the "occasion" (this wasn't just a meal...), though would I rather have found my own way to the restaurant entrance and knocked a few pounds off the bill?

Throughout the meal we received the same level of service, with knowledgeable waiters frequently proffering information, such as the history of a dish, the source of the meat, or the fact that Heston always has tea at the end of a meal.

For starters we chose the Meat Fruit and the Roast Scallops. And before we can even begin discussing the taste of the food, we have to mention the visual experience. Every dish was served up as treat to the eyes as well as the mouth. In particular the Meat Fruit (seen in the top photo), which is chicken liver parfait surrounded by a mandarin jelly, was served to exactly resemble a mandarin. It was uncanny to put your spoon through the "skin" only to find that it was a soft mandarin sauce, which really tasted like mandarins, covering a smooth and creamy parfait. The grilled bread provided a perfect contrast to the rest of the dish, adding a crunch against the smoothness and a grilled charcoal edge against the creaminess.

The Roast Scallops were perfect, and I've never had them served on cucumber before, but it really worked. So far Heston, good job!

We then chose the Hereford Ribeye and the Spiced Pigeon for main course. I have to insert that the attentive service temporarily broke down at this point, as there was a long wait between the starters and the main course (45 minutes?). We didn't mind too much, as it gave us time to soak up the atmosphere, but by the end of the wait we were getting a bit restless.

Nevertheless.. the ribeye was cooked perfectly (I'm going to stop saying that everything was cooked perfectly. Of course it was. Just assume from now on that everything is cooked perfectly, and I'll stick to the interesting bits). Perhaps even nicer than the steak were the triple cooked chips on the side. They were absolutely chiptastic. And dipped in the mushroom ketchup or soaked in the red wine juice, they were even better.

The Spiced Pigeon with Ale and Artichokes was beautifully tender, but neither Mrs Dine at Mine or Greedy Gusto could taste the spiciness or the ale. It tasted good, but not as interesting as the menu promised. And at £33, this is about the most expensive main course on the menu, yet next time I would choose something else. (I say "next time" - I'll obviously have to win the lottery before we go again).

Finally, the puddings. First up is the chocolate bar, which has a passion fruit jam in it and is served with a ginger ice cream. This, along with the spiced pigeon, was the other dish that slightly disappointed. The chocolate bar just didn't hit exactly the right note of sweetness and chocolatiness; and you really had to push hard with your spoon to break the biscuit base. The ginger ice cream tasted nice, but was more like a sorbet than an ice cream. I would have preferred something creamier to balance against the rich chocolate.

However, perhaps the chocolate bar only suffered in our eyes because it was sharing the table with the Tipsy Cake. Which. Was. Delicious. Full stop.

The Tipsy Cake was, in both the refined eyes of Mrs Dine at Mine and the greedy eyes of myself, the *DISH OF THE DAY*. The cake itself is a brioche, which has a sweet sauternes and brandy sauce over it, and served with a piece of spit roast pineapple. The whole dish just worked so well. I was thinking how to describe it, and the best I can come up with is that it tasted like your favourite school pudding, made ten times tastier because Heston Blumenthal has designed it.

When you're ordering your starters and mains at the beginning of the meal, the waiter will ask if you want to order a Tipsy Cake as well, as they take up to 45 minutes to prepare. So do! From the restaurant you can see into the kitchen, and you can see the pineapples roasting on spikes in the corner, rather like a kebab shop.

Ok, I'd better not finish a review of Dinner by Heston with a kebab shop simile, which doesn't befit the culinary greatness of the restaurant.

The total damage for the two of us, with two glasses of wine each (it was only lunchtime) was £176 including service. So for most of us, this isn't an everyday restaurant (£176 could probably buy ten visits to Pizza Express with their 2 for 1 vouchers). There were some diners for whom the cost clearly wasn't an issue, and who looked like they'd just popped in for a bite of lunch. One table was a family with three young children. Honestly - that is an expensive family outing. But a lot of diners were young couples like us, clearly enjoying a special occasion.

The location is swanky but not stuffy. The food is inventive but not ridiculous. In summary, Dinner by Heston is magnificent.

P.S. you'll notice I haven't commented on the wine. A) there was no room to review it here, and B) you'll find the review soon on the WineAtMine blog. See you there.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Roast Chicken, Barley, Broccoli and Spinach Orzotto

Well, it was a massive pain (I speak both figuratively and literally - I have only just regained use of my shoulder muscles) but we did it! We moved out. Our belongings are scattered like the wind, we are officially no longer home owners, and we're on a sort-of-holiday staying in other people's houses. The only difference is that we still have to go to work. But nonetheless, after a weekend of bloody hard graft, we did it! I wasn't 100% sure we'd make it.

Of course, all that carrying and loading and storing didn't leave much time or energy for cooking. By the time we collapsed on Saturday evening, after a solid 12.5 hours of hard physical labour, we had ravenous appetites but barely the energy to order a takeaway. A kind family member gave us a food parcel for Sunday evening, for which I was weepingly grateful. And now, as the aches and pains have subsided, we're getting back to normal. We've had a couple of days to get used to living in someone else's house - how does the washing machine work? where do they keep the corkscrew? is that noise normal? - and tonight, for the first time, we cooked a proper meal.

Because all our recipe books are in storage (along with 9 cubic metres of our other junk - who knew you could fit so much in a one bedroom flat?), we sort of winged it with this. No recipe, no measurements, just a handful of this and a scattering of that. We tried a sort of risotto using pearl barley instead of rice, which I think I prefer to normal risotto - it's got a bite, a toothsomeness to it which makes it feel a bit more aggressively healthy. But normal risotto rice would be just as good, and would cook more quickly.  You know, if you hadn't used up all the risotto rice before moving.

We added pretty much anything we had, namely left over roast chicken, spinach and broccoli, and smothered it liberally with parmesan. What we ended up with was pleasingly autumnal - just right for this time of year. Have you noticed that it's getting dark earlier in the evenings, and it's a bit nippy in the mornings? Who knows, by the time we have a home of our own again, it might be fully-fledged winter. It might be spring! Please god, can we have a home before summer. Anyway, while we're in this in-between stage, at least we've got food, wine and somewhere to live. Keep your fingers crossed that we can find somewhere permanent to make a pearl barley-scented home.

Roast Chicken, Broccoli and Spinach Orzotto

- left over roast chicken (we had a whole breast and a whole load of brown meat shreds)
- pearl barley (I think we had about 400g? Not sure)
- an onion, finely chopped
- a clove of garlic, ditto
- splash of white wine
- 500ml of chicken stock
- a couple of portions of broccoli, cut into small chunks
- a handful of broad beans (we used frozen)
- a couple of big handfuls of spinach
- parmesan
- oil, butter, salt and pepper

Sweat the onion and garlic in a bit of oil until softened - about five minutes - then chuck in the barley and stir it around for a few minutes. Add the wine, stir until the pan's dry again, then add some stock. 

Because barley doesn't go as creamy as risotto rice (but does take longer to cook), I got lazy and poured all the stock in at once rather than doing the normal risotto bit-of-stock-stir-stir-stir-bit-more-stock-stir-stir-stir thing. I just poured it all in, let it simmer for about 20 minutes, then topped up with more water when it looked like it was getting dry. 

After about 20 minutes, taste the barley and see if you think it's nearly done or if it needs longer. I think it needs about half an hour, forty minutes in total. When it's verging on tender but still has a bit of bite, chuck in the broccoli, broad beans and chicken. About ten minutes later, check everything's done then season it, add in the spinach and a good grating of parmesan, along with a knob of butter. Stir, let it sit for a few minutes, then ta-dah! You're done.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Lentil, Tomato and Red Pesto Salad

I promise, this will be the final post about using up stuff from our cupboards. I know it's tedious to read about using up half full jars of stem ginger, a piddling amount of dessicated coconut or a piffling quantity of broccoli, but if it's boring to read about it then be glad you're not living it. For the next few months, Dine at Mine will be a wandering minstrel, mooching off friends and relatives, dependent on the contents of their fridges and freezers. In a way, it's quite cathartic.

We've emptied, packed, wrapped, charity-shopped and rubbished our way through the flat. A mountain of boxes has gone to storage, black sacks are bulging with the contents of our wardrobes, and the boot of the car already holds a couple of bags of the scary free-floating paperwork that you don't think you should chuck away but you never got round to filing. All that's left is the hoover for a last minute clean (what good vendors we are), some picture hooks on the wall and a lot of memories. And we're taking all of them with us. I can't wait until I can invite you to Dine at Mine again in a new house - but until then, please bear with us. We are homeless, you know.

But this is the very last recipe to come out of our old flat (sob!) and although it might not be the most flamboyant, attractive or impressive, it's quite a nice one. Using up - I know, boring - some red pesto, a tin of lentils and a jar of sundried tomatoes, I concocted a lunchbox salad which was actually incredibly satisfying. Pasta at lunchtime makes me fall asleep by 2pm - I'm not exaggerating, you should see the size of my yawns. But this tasted just like a rich, delicious bowl of pasta and pesto, with all the proteiny healthy goodness of lentil and no snoozy side effects. Why did it take me so long to discover this?

Lentil, Tomato and Red Pesto Salad

- one tin of lentils, drained and rinsed
- handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
- handful of sundried tomatoes, halved
- some cooked peas
- tablespoon of red pesto, or however much you want to use up from the jar

Dilute the pesto down with a bit of oil (I used some from the jar of sundried tomatoes), then add everything else and toss together.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Broccoli Slaw

As night follows day, as Autumn follows Summer, as Home and Away used to follow Neighbours (I think that shows my age), so too do salads follow cakes. In my ever-more desperate efforts to use up the contents of the fridge, I went to my favourite salad site, Smitten Kitchen, for broccoli inspiration. And against all the odds, I found it.

Come on, admit it - this sounds weird. Raisins, nuts and broccoli, with a creamy lemony dressing? I didn't expect it to be good. I mostly made it because I like the word "slaw", and I had (and wanted to use up) all the ingredients. This slapdash approach meant that I didn't really follow her recipe exactly, or take note of the measurements of what I used - I just did a splash of this and a handful of that. I know, I'm a disgrace to my blog.

But the good news is that it really worked. I'm just as shocked as you! Crunchy and fresh, with a tangy, sharp dressing and pops of sweetness from the raisins. For something so virtuous, it was surprisingly easy to get through a whole tupperware-full. And, unlike any leafy salads, this didn't go the slightest bit sad and wilted when I took it to work. In lunchbox terms, that's a winner! So next time you're trying to use up broccoli, mayonnaise, spring onion, almonds and golden raisins, you know exactly what to make with them. I think that's a very likely scenario, don't you?

Broccoli Slaw
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen 

- one person's portion of raw broccoli
- a handful of almonds, cut into chunks
- a handful of golden raisins (or she recommends dried cranberries)
- a spring onion, cut up fine

For the dressing
- about a teaspoon of mayonnaise
- splash of milk
- squeeze of lemon juice
- salt and pepper
- splash of white wine vinegar (we had already packed the cider vinegar, which she stipulates)
- a pinch of sugar

Cut up the broccoli into small bits - really small, you don't want anything that'll protrude from your mouth embarrassingly when you eat. Toss them together with the spring onion, almonds and raisins. In another bowl, mix together the dressing ingredients and taste to check the balance of flavours, then pour over the salad and stir to combine. Eat and feel virtuous.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Coconut and Raspberry Fairy Cakes

When I was little my mum used to make some delicious mini tarts consisting of a pastry base, a blob of raspberry jam, and a golden dome of coconut sponge on top. They didn't look massively appealing - brown sponge plus brown pastry was never going to be a looker - but they tasted absolutely delicious and I still remember them fondly.

These fairy cakes are the dressed-up, flighty younger sister of those tarts, the one who ran away from home to go on the stage and came back ten years later covered in diamonds and furs. Without the pastry these are much lighter than the tarts, very fluffy with the beautiful soft dampness of real raspberries lurking at the bottom of each cake. Also, I don't know what it is about those raspberries, and the snowy drift of coconut, but I think they look adorable. I'm sure they'd look even more amazing if I had individually removed each hair from the raspberry with tweezers like posh patisseries apparently do, but COME ON. That is crazy talk. 

Either way, these looked and tasted like a real treat. I should point out that Peyton and Byrne (from whose beautiful cookbook these come) scatter their cakes with long flakes of coconut, which looks even more elegant and stylish in their photos. But the whole point of this baking extravaganza was to use up what we had without buying anything new, so posh flaked coconut was out. Besides, dessicated coconut is old-school and classic! Be prepared to be hoovering it up for about a week, though.  Lucky for us we're moving home anyway so a bit of desiccated coconut on the floor is the least of our worries.

Coconut and Raspberry Cupcakes
From my new Peyton and Byrne British Baking recipe book, which is incredibly beautifully designed and photographed - you've got to see it
Makes 12

- 100g soft unsalted butter
- 125g caster sugar
- 2 eggs
- 150g self-raising flour
- 30g desiccated coconut (plus more to decorate)
- 60g natural yoghurt
- 200g raspberries - put aside 12 to decorate

Preheat the oven to 170C and line a fairy cake tin with paper cases. Drop a couple of raspberries in the bottom of each paper case. Remember that these raspberries will turn to mush anyway, so preserve 12 beautiful ones for later and drop the broken, squished ones in here. Ahem, not that I did that.

Unlike the crazy Hummingbird Bakery method, this is a classic fairy cake. Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then beat in the eggs one at a time, followed by the sieved flour. Add the coconut and yoghurt and mix quickly until just incorporated.

Divide among the paper cases so that each one is about three-quarters full, then bake for 15 minutes or until risen, golden and springy. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

To ice these beautiful creatures, I used the Vanilla Icing from the Hummingbird Bakery, recipe in my previous post here. I'm sure that the Peyton and Byrne Coconut Cream icing is amazing, but it required separating eggs and heating sugar and all sorts of nonsense that I really couldn't be doing with at that stage of the day. Besides, I didn't have any coconut cream.

So if you're lazy like me, just swirl on whichever icing you want, then scatter each cake with dessicated coconut, and top with a raspberry. 

Monday, 12 September 2011

Stem Ginger Cupcakes

I warned you that there would be cake. As explained in my previous post, over the weekend I took a break from the neverending administrative burden of moving house to have a go at using up the contents of the cupboard in baked goods. Not the most conventional approach to packing, I grant, but what can I say? It made sense to me.

First for the chop was an almost full jar of sticky stem ginger - too full to throw away, too sticky to even consider moving to another fridge. Hey presto, the Hummingbird Bakery book showed me the way and it was metamorphosed into a batch of chunky, warmly spiced cupcakes. Very autumnal, with a nice heat from the ginger, this is the kind of packing that I can really get behind.

The Hummingbird Bakery method for making cakes is mental, by the way. You combine the butter with all the dry ingredients (as if you're making crumble), then add in the wet stuff to make a really sloppy mixture. I decided to trust them blindly and just went with it, and my faith was rewarded - the cakes did turn out really well. It still feels weird to me though. I'm a child of the classic, cream-the-butter-and-sugar, Delia and Mary Berry tradition. 

Talking of Mary Berry, is anyone else watching the Great British Bake Off? I love it. I love everything about it, from the kind and knowledgeable judging to the Union Jack bunting and oh so shabby chic, Cath Kidston decor. I love Mel and Sue, treading the line between tongue in cheek and actually taking it seriously, and the wonder of Mary Berry (I want to be her when I'm 76). I even like Paul Hollywood, incredibly tanned and obviously quite arrogant "Master Baker" (ahem). Everyone is terribly polite, and the height of dramatic tension is someone dropping a cake. It's the televisual equivalent of wrapping yourself in a warm towel after a hot bubble bath. I love it.

Anyway, I'm sure Paul would have quibbled that my cakes weren't all exactly uniform, but I think Mary would have appreciated how I matched the yellow paper cases to the colour of the ginger. More importantly, that's one more ingredient used up and not needing to be packed! Hoo-bloody-rah. Now for the rest of the cupboard.

Stem Ginger Cupcakes
From the Hummingbird Bakery cookbook
Makes 12

- 120g plain flour
- 140g caster sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
- half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon
- quarter of a teaspoon of ground allspice
- pinch of salt
- 40g soft unsalted butter
- 120ml whole milk
- 1 egg
- quarter of a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste
- 200g stem ginger in syrup - finely chop the ginger, don't chuck away the syrup. 

Preheat the oven to 170C and line a fairy cake tin with paper cases. In a big bowl or KitchenAid if you have one (jealous!), mix all the dry ingredients plus the butter until you've got a sandy consistency. Pour in half the milk and beat until just mixed, then add the egg and vanilla to the remaining milk, whisk together quickly and pour the whole lot in. Mix it all together for a few minutes until smooth, scraping down the side of the bowl to catch any lumps of flour, then stir in the chopped ginger (saving a few bits to decorate the cakes at the end). 

Divide it among the paper cases so that each one is about two-thirds full - the mixture is really sloppy so don't fret if you drip it everywhere, I certainly did. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown and springy to the touch. 

Once it comes out of the oven, pour about half a teaspoon of the reserved stem ginger syrup over each cake. The book tells you to go through some complicated fandango with adding water to the syrup, then reducing it down again, but I couldn't see the point so just used it straight from the jar. Anyway, once you've anointed each cupcake, give them a few minutes to settle in the tin then lift them out onto a wire rack to cool.

I didn't use the icing they suggest, because I was making other cakes as well and wanted my icing to multitask (come on, I was not making two different types of buttercream). I went for the classic, which was...

Vanilla Icing
From the Hummingbird Bakery cookbook
They say this amount ices 12 cakes, I used it to ice 24 (and not too skimpily, either). Let your greed guide you.

- 250g icing sugar
- 80g unsalted butter at room temperature
- 25ml milk
- half a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste

Start by either sifting the icing sugar, or just blitzing it with your electric beaters to get rid of any lumps (I went for the latter option). Then add the butter and beat together on a slow speed. The cookbook says to do this "until the mixture comes together and is well mixed", but there seemed to be far too much sugar in this sugar:butter ratio for it to turn into a "mixture", so I just did it until it looked like fine, even, pale yellow crumbs with no lumps of butter. 

Add the milk and vanilla, a few spoonsfuls at a time. Then turn the beaters up high and keep whisking it until light and fluffy - the book says to whisk it for at least five minutes, saying reproachfully "the longer the frosting is beaten, the fluffier and lighter it becomes". That's all very well, but I kept an eye on the clock and let me tell you, five minutes is a looooong time to stand with an electric whisk in your hand. After the five minutes was up, I turned the beaters off pretty damn quick and didn't give it any longer.

As I've said, the Hummingbird Bakery says to use this quantity of icing for 12 cakes - I found it easily iced 24. For the ginger ones, I mixed a final few spoonfuls of ginger syrup into the icing, then swirled it on each one, topping with the saved chunks of stem ginger and a bit of grated lemon zest. Ta-dah! Gingerrific.
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