bake more often

Cooking the Book – June Edition

I thought I might have trouble meeting my targets for this month as I was away from home for a substantial chunk of the month. However, it turned out that the spells away from home would end up acting as motivators, as I ended up cooking both my target items out of the need to use up food I had in the house before I went away for a week.

First up I made what turned out to be a massive pot of veggie chilli. The recipe in question was actually Baked Sweet Potatoes with veggie chilli, which was utterly delicious, but I did end up making a variety of other dishes with the leftover chilli. (Or to give the dish its full name – Baked sweet potatoes stuffed with a hot bean and lentil chilli with red peppers and port. Except it was cheap red wine rather than port.) I think I’ve almost mastered the art of successfully spicing my chilli without the aid of one of those packet spice mixes. I’ve been a bit disappointed in some of Lorraine’s other takes on ‘chilli’ but this one is pretty good, though I heartily recommend adding a few large mushrooms and draining your chopped tomatoes before adding to the chilli wouldn’t go amiss. Also the recipe suggests fresh parsley if you don’t have any coriander – or like me, you’re one of those people for which it tastes like soap – and having a glut of the same in my herb garden I was delighted to find that works extremely well.
Baked Sweet Potatoes with Chilli
June’s monthly bake was once again brownies. This time they were pear and dark chocolate. It was an adaption of a raspberry and chocolate brownie recipe. Last month I bought some small pears and though they took a couple of weeks to ripen, once they did they were delicious and I absolutely didn’t mind heating two a day for a week when they all ripened at once. So I bought another bag of the exact same pears and, naturally, after 3 weeks – including one with a bunch of bananas sitting on top of them – they remained brick hard. Unfortunately a lot of recipes that involve pears state silly things like ‘use two perfectly ripe pears’ as though everyone I know who cooks pears is only cooking them because they won’t ripen! So I gave up and poached them (Japanese-style in mirin with star anise) and stuck the poached pears into the brownie mix. I like this brownie recipe better than the one for the beetroot brownies, because you melt everything in a pot rather than trying to blend the room temperature ingredients in a blender – eminently more sensible in my opinion. Though if I make them again I think I’ll add cinnamon – I’d normally use cinnamon sticks when poaching the pears but I couldn’t find any until I turned up a box hiding behind the brown sugar and by then it was too late.
Pear and Dark Chocolate Brownies

They are particularly nice warm with a generous spoonful of leftover crème freche…

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Cooking the Book – May Edition

I hoped, that last month’s post would knock something free in my brain and I would be able to get back to cooking adventurously and writing about it. It did actually knock something loose, because I managed to hit both my targets for the month within a week of writing the post. Hooray!

I manage to combine both my challenges in one during May by baking something from my new cookbook. Technically this is a more substantial variation on a theme from a previous cookbook of hers. I’ve previously made pesto pastry puffs (and for that matter nutella puffs too) from instructions that were a side-not on another recipe – a way of using up left over pastry. This time they’re the main feature and you’re supposed to fill them with chorizo and lemongrass. I chose to make a vegetarian version picking and mixing from the alternate filling option that the recipe offered to some up with smoked cheese and sundried tomato paste puffs.
Constructing the Puffs
With the chunkier filling these are somewhat more substantial than the previous versions I’ve made, but that’s no bad thing, turning them from canapés to a light lunch. They are absolutely amazing hot, but are a bit claggy cold and don’t re-heat well so I’d recommend only making them when you’ve a few people round for nibbles to help you eat them up while they’re still warm. Either that or just make a smaller batch, or maybe a half batch each of the savoury and the sweet?
Smoked Cheese and Sundried Tomato Puffs

The second one is a bit of a cheat. I wasn’t originally going to count it, but its fun so I’m going to mention it anyway. The recipe book that I’m working through at the moment is front heavy on canapés and cocktails and the like. One of those funny little things, was making fruity icecubes for cocktails and summer drinks. As the weather was rather nice for a sizeable chunk of May – it seems a very long time ago, looking out at the June rain – I decided to try my own version with blueberries. Blueberry icecubes, I’m delighted to report, are rather tasty, though I think if I make them again, I might add a teeny amount of blue food colouring to the water to really make them pop visually. The downside of blueberry icecubes, is that if the blueberry is too close to the top of the cube and end up poking out of the water as they freeze, they sort of pop, and look like they’ve frozen mid explosion. Which is kinda comical looking, but not very appetizing if you’re serving them to someone else. There’s probably a reason the recipe suggested raspberries or strawberries.

Blueberry icecubes

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Can’t Cook, Election Will Eat Me

It’s been that sort of few weeks. You know its bad when your go to de-stress activity is too stressful to contemplate. (Also my laptop broke down and was out of commission for about three weeks, adding a whole extra level of unnecessary stress.) However, I have almost been keeping up with my cooking challenges

In February I hit both my targets, making something from my new cookbook and baking something. On the baking front I made a pie, before there are few things more comforting on cold winter nights than a pie. This was a mushroom and chestnut pie, for which I finally got round to buying an actual pie tin, so I managed to actually get the pastry ratio right to give it a full lid! Though I did end up making too much filling for the pie due to it not being my usual ‘deep-dish’ pie, and I found the filling to be a little dry – I think it would have benefited from a bit of spinach of to keep it moist, or made just a more runny sauce. I have the fear of ending up with a ‘soggy bottom’ but I think my insistence on blind baking my pie before-hand probably means I’m safe on that front.

Mushroom & Chestnut Pie

From my new cookbook I made a variation of the ‘Carribean cups’. One of the alternate versions Lorraine suggests is to fill the cups with chilli con carne and I happened to have some leftover veggie chilli in the fridge needing used up. These are a slightly fiddly but delightful little dish. They make a fun lunch, the kind of thing that with a bit of practice would make a good way to turn leftovers into something a bit different when you unexpectedly have guests for lunch. Though probably only the kind of guests that don’t mind getting a little messy.

Carribean Cups

I was somewhat less successful in March, but nonetheless I managed some other successes. I discovered I had a bag of pearl barley in the cupboard, that had clearly been bought for a particular recipe many moons before and then forgotten about, as it needed used up that month. So I did a bulk cook of the pearl barley and attempted to fork my way through one of the Guardian’s four ways with a bag of what have you articles. In the end I only made two of the recipes but I made the sausage casserole several times and it’s a thing of gloriousness. Finally I’ve found an effective and tasty way to cook quorn sausages so that they a) taste nice and b) actually successfully quash my occasional bouts of sausage cravings. It’s a really satisfying and filling comfort food this dish and I recommend adding a couple of sticks of celery to it if you have them. Add them just before the spinach, so they get nice and tender but still retain a bit of bite to give the casserole more texture. I only used them because I found some lurking under the spinach in the salad box but I now can’t imagine the dish without it.

Sausage Casserole

In April, despite best intentions involving muffins, no baking actually happened. However, I did actually cook something from my cookbook adapting a chilli con carne recipe for quorn mince. Which was, fine. Over the years I’ve evolved my own veggie chilli recipe that I make a few variations on, depending on what I have in the fridge and this recipe couldn’t hold a candle to it. I mean, how much can you truly believe in a chilli con carne recipe that doesn’t involve kidney beans anyway? Perfectly edible, just a bit disappointing.

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January Friends

January ended up being more adventurous than expected in some ways and less in others.

First up, I cooked something from my new recipe book. A lot of the recipes are actually designed for things like dinner parties so aren’t actually that practical for cooking for one, so that was a little bit of a set back. As was the realisation that a lot of the recipes I actually fancy making, are very much summer-time recipes. Hopefully, at some point during the summer, I’m going to have friends round for dinner and knock four things off this list at once in the process.

Anyway, I ended up picking Peanut Soup to make, as soup is pretty much a sure fire win with me. It’s a fairly unusual soup actually, there’s not a lot to it and I found that rather disappointing. It’s designed to be used as a starter and served in shot glasses, so perhaps it needs to be as light-weight as it is for that purpose, but frankly I could have done with some lentils, maybe some celery, to give it a bit more body and texture. The recipe suggests that you can blend it but I found that there wasn’t enough in the soup to actually blend rather than spin round at great speed. All it seemed to do was lose any thickness the peanut butter had given it. It tastes nice enough but I found it too thin for my taste.

On the other hand, my first attempt at baking this year was a resounding success. I made Beetroot brownies from a recipe a friend recommended from the BBC Good Food website. I’ve had Beetroot and Dark Chocolate cake before so I knew the flavour would work for me. They’re actually quite straightforward to make, with relatively few ingredients and they taste amazing. Unexpectedly moist brownies, but that’s no bad thing. The recipe makes loads, even with taking some of them to work with me, I’ve only just finished them a week and a bit later. Also, on a learning experience front, I discovered that my kitchen in January is too cold to bring butter and chocolate to ‘room-temperature’ so that it will melt nicely when blended with the cooked beetroot. I had to make judicious use of the microwave once I realised what was wrong. You’d think I’d have learned that from last spring’s 36 hours to defrost some puff pastry shenanigans but apparently I needed the reminder.

Chocolate & Beetroot Brownies

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New Year, New Challenges

So I think we can call last year on the blog a reasonable success. I wanted to blog twice a month, I wanted to cook 2 things a month from my new recipe book and most of all I wanted to stop myself from being all feast and famine in writing terms. I didn’t entirely succeed, I only made 20 posts last year, but that was an improvement on the previous year’s 15 and while I didn’t cook two things from the cookbook every month, I did cook something from the book almost every month. And most importantly, for the first year ever, I managed to write at least one thing each month! Hopefully I can keep that up, along with writing – and much, much more importantly cooking – more.

This year, I have decided on two separate challenges to keep me writing (and cooking for that matter) on a regular basis. First up, I want to bake something new each month this year, sweet or savoury, it doesn’t matter. Despite us now having a better oven, I’ve barely baked in it. I want to master baking in this oven. I miss it and its an important part of how I relate to my colleagues – I like being the kind of workmate that appears sporadically with home-baking. Secondly, I plan to work my way through the other recipe book I got last festive season – How to be a Better Cook by Lorraine Pascale. As I’m going to be doing two different challenges, I’m only going to try and cook one recipe a month from the book – unless the thing I’m baking that month is also from that book!

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BMO – Apple(s) of my Eye

My other major food based challenge for last year was to bake more often and I must admit I was surprised by how much of a resounding success it was. Despite having a frankly rubbish oven for most of 2015, I baked a lot last year. To the extent that half my posts on here in the last year were about baking. I need to find an equally successful challenge for this year, as I want to make at least two posts a month to this blog over the coming year and while I’ve succeeded this month, I’ll need a running challenge to keep up the momentum rather than my feast or famine approach from last year.

Really this post (like the last one) should have gone up during my nablopomo stint back in November – I did intend to write them then – as my apple adventures actually took place in October. The place I was working over Mod week in October had a large apple tree in the garden and while I was working there someone gave the tree a good shake and a large bag of cooking apples appeared in the office kitchen for taking. Which made for a week or two of apple-based baking for everyone in the office as the unwritten rule seemed to be – you can take as many as you like as long as you bring some of the results in to share!

My first experiment were Chaussons de Pommes from one of my many Lorraine Pascale cook books. Chaussons de pommes are essentially little puff pasty pasties. They look rather like the savoury ‘bakes’ that you get out of Greggs bakers at lunchtime and rather make me want to try making my own savoury vegetarian-friendly varieties. The recipe instructed you to make a thick apple sauce which I did and despite having about half the apples that the recipe called for (and therefore having made half the expected amount of sauce) I ended up with lashings of sauce too much for the recipe. This was, however, no tragedy at all – though I’d have made more chaussons de pommes if I’d realised there’d be so much filling – it just resulted in me making a bunch of mini-apple tartlets. The sauce was in fact the nicest apple sauce I’ve ever eaten, I’m not normally a massive fan, but this I could have eaten on its own with a spoon.

Chaussons des pommes (apple pastries)

By happy chance when I’d gone looking for puff pastry for my chassons de pommes, there’d been a special offer on the frozen pastry and I’d ended up picking up some short-crust pastry at the same time. (I want to learn how to make my own short-crust pastry eventually but I think that’s adventure for later this year.) And then…well they had this set of mini pie tins that I couldn’t resist. So I ended up making apple tartlets – I even gave them little latticework tops! I made them on a Friday night, had one with cream for supper and took the rest with me on a road trip to Elgin the following morning with some of my roller derby team. I perked them up with 10 minutes in the oven before I left and then made a tasty breakfast on the road – if the happy munching noises of my team mates can be believed!
Tiny apple tartlets!

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Bake More Often: Pastry is my Friend?

So, given the aforementioned unreliability of the oven here, most of my baking here has been pastry based. I’ve been having all sorts of fun.

One of my odder discoveries about cooking in other people’s kitchens is that people who aren’t my mother, don’t actually have catering sized colour-coded chopping boards. I thought it was just a student thing, but apparently its widespread. Well, actually colour-coded chopping boards are quite common among cooks, but apparently a decent sized chopping board is hard to find. (Unless you want one of those glass worktop savers, but I’m always afraid I’ll break those.) I didn’t realised how used I’d got to the size of the big white board my mum uses for baking, until I came to try and roll pastry on a normal size one. My goodness it’s awkward. (The very cute but truly tiny rolling pin I have, doesn’t actually help, no matter how fond of it I am.) I manage, but, well that was an unexpected addition to the xmas list, I must say!

We're going to need a bigger board!

Pesto Pastry Puffs have become a new favourite of mine. They’re techinically canapés and intended to be made with either tapenade or sundried tomatoes – except that I don’t particularly like either of those things. The first time I made them I had a visiting gran. I’d planned to make veggie sausage rolls for lunch for my visitors but it turned out they weren’t arriving until mid-afternoon so lunch wouldn’t be required. I’d intended to bake and then hadn’t got round to it. I needed something quick and simple to knock up, that I could serve them with tea. Flicking through one of my recipe book I came across the recipe for chaussons aux pommes (which I’ll talk about in another post) but dismissed them due to a lack of apples. But beside that recipe, in its notes it offered a suggestion for using up the left over scraps of puff pastry from that recipe. And lo, I did in fact have some defrosted puff pastry sitting in the fridge from when I hadn’t made sausage rolls.

Essentially, you take your pastry, roll it out thin into a rectangle, slather it in filling (in my case pesto, picked because I had an open jar in the fridge and I figured that people use it interchangeably with sun-dried tomatoes in pasta), roll the pastry lengthways like a swiss roll, chop the roll into 1cm wide circles, place flat on a baking tray and bung in the oven for 20 minutes. Serve warm. Quick, simple, tasty. Perfect canapés – they went down a treat.

Pesto pastry puffs

I did get round to making my sausage rolls – well, I had the veggie sausages and the rest of pastry all defrosted and waiting, it would have been a shame to waste it – later in the week. I actually miss very little foodwise, being a vegetarian, but sausages are a big one. Finding a good veggie sausage is problematic but it turns out that the one thing that made veggie sausages endlessly consumable to me is turning them into sausage rolls. I love sausage rolls, especially home-made ones – in fact, long before I became a vegetarian I knew a girl who made amazing sausage rolls and her own sausages to go in them, her veggie sausage rolls were glorious. While I can only aspire to veggie sausages that can compare to Bobbie’s I’m really quite pleased with how mine turned out. (They only exploded a little tiny bit!) This is far and away my favourite way to eat veggie sausages.

Veggie sausage rolls - only slightly exploded!

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Bake More Often: Baking in Unfamiliar Kitchens

Over the last year and a half, I’ve lived in three different places, which has meant three different kitchens. One of those was my parent’s kitchen, which is familiar but having been away seemed strange and new again last winter. I adored the kitchen in my old flat. It was big and between my flatmates and me we basically had everything culinary we could possibly need (and a few things we didn’t). One of my flatmates was as keen a cook as me and the kitchen became the main social space of our flat. The weekend that I moved in there were home made brownies and I never had a chance to get nervous about cooking in this kitchen because someone else was already experimenting. There were successes and disasters and not a little heckling.

My current kitchen is different. It’s small and perfectly formed but it’s not mine. I’m a lodger and however well that situation has worked out, I’m always aware that this is someone else’s kitchen. It’s exacerbated by the fact that my landlady isn’t much for cooking herself. She doesn’t bake at all. I already spent much more time in the kitchen than she does just making dinner and preparing packed lunches. So for months I chickened out of baking. After my excellent start to my Bake More Often challenge in the first three months of the year, I didn’t bake again for another three months.

Then June arrived and with it both my parents’ birthdays. And they came to visit. In our family birthdays are always marked with cake. Even when I was writing my dissertation in sunny Bournemouth and couldn’t come home for my birthday, my parents sent me a tiny box cake in the post. I couldn’t not provide cake and pride forbade the shop-bought variety. There were some obstacles. Due to the aforementioned small kitchen, most of my non-essential cookware is in storage at my parents’. I had no cake tin and it seemed foolish to buy one up here that I would use once or twice and not again after it. Equally it seemed foolish to buy flour and sugar and all the rest when I had no room to store them and would probably only bake once or twice. So I determined to get one of those packet mixes and make a cake that way. After all I’d got back into baking back in Bournemouth after I’d found a packet on special offer and had too much fun making butterfly cakes…

Flutterby Cake

Then I discovered that neither did my landlady. In fact the extent of her baking equipment is a large bowl, a whisk, a set of scales, some wooden spoons and a bun tray. Undeterred I bought packet mix and butter, and made red velvet cupcakes. Not quite as impressive as I’d hoped but baking nonetheless. The icing was a bit of a disaster but the buns were tasty and my parents were impressed that I’d actually produced cake in this strange new kitchen.

Red Velvet Cupcake

The oven has taken some getting used to. Its highest temperature is 200˚C (it’s a fan oven thankfully) and pretty much anything I ever bake in it takes at least 5 if not 10 minutes longer than the instructions say. It’s been an experience. However, I’ve persevered, as evidenced by the fact that I have another two Bake More Often posts planned for this month. (Pastry is a bit of a theme; it seems to be the most consistently successful substance to bake in this oven.) I made Banana and Peanut Butter muffins and they were…fine. Well the recipe needs a bit of refining which doesn’t help but in the end I established that giving them a wee zap in the microwave then letting them cool down again made them quite pleasant to eat for breakfast. Given how nice they looked and smelled they were just a bit underwhelming.

Banana peanut butter buns!

Back to the drawing board with those ones I fear…

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Bake More Often: Cooking Up The Cupboards Edition

Having baked on a total of three occasions last year, it is now only March and I’ve already baked on four (or six, depending on how you’re counting as I did make the sausage rolls again) occasions. On this occasion, largely due to having ambitiously bought various ingredients with intent to bake more often and then having to use them up before I move house. I’m always a bit over-ambitious on the dried/cupboard goods front, but this evening as I was baking I was delighted to find myself finishing off numerous things. I was shaking out empty bags of flour for those last few grams, measuring out those last few drops of vanilla extract and emptying out that packet of chocolate chips that have been lurking around falling out of cupboards on me.

Both of today’s recipes came from one of the Lorraine Pascale books I received over the festive season. A gift that was inspired by my having her A Lighter Way to Bake out of the library when I was up in Inverness, which being the case meant that today’s White Chocolate Chunk Cookies – like the other week’s Pinwheel Snacks – were on my big 30 recipes list so manage to count as productivity on both counts!

First up were the cookies. I’ve never actually made cookies before so it was a bit of a stab in the dark. When I tested them after the initial cooking period they seemed very soft so I wasn’t convinced them were actually cooked and put them back for an extra few minutes, but having tried them once they were cool I think they would have been fine as the finished product was a little too brittle and biscuit-like. They went down well with my testing guinea-pigs but personally I prefer my cookies a bit softer. Weirdly, despite putting more chocolate chips in than the recipe stated they don’t really feel chocolatey enough?

Cookie Stack

I also made pumpkin muffins, largely because I knew I had a can of pumpkin puree in the cupboard. This isn’t the first time I’ve made pumpkin muffins – several years ago I bought a pumpkin at Hallowe’en determined to make pumpkin soup and embrace the joys of squashes and ended up with more pumpkin than I knew what to do with. Those pumpkins muffins were…alright…I suppose, they were pretty uninspiring and while I ate them, I never felt moved to make them again or buy them if I saw them in the shops or at bake sales. Perhaps it’s the recipe, or perhaps using canned pumpkin rather than fresh makes all the difference, I don’t know, however, these muffins were a whole different ballgame. A pleasant balance of savoury and sweet, the worked both with and without the icing. I’ve never made a cream-cheese frosting before and from experience of eating cupcakes I generally find cream-cheese frosting a bit hit and miss, but this one is really quite pleasantly more-ish. Next time I will, however, make the effort to find room to put it in the fridge as instructed to set before icing the muffins – they loose a little something artistically when the icing isn’t as firm…

Pumpkin Muffin

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Bake More Often: Off-List Edition

I suppose I should really stop teasing with my illusions to an epic weekend of baking and actually talk about what I made shouldn’t I?

Well, it started with Sausage Rolls, we had sausages that needed using up, and in my quest for a recipe to cook them up, I remembered that Sausage Rolls were on my list and not knowing how much puff pastry I’d need grabbed a big pack on my late night supermarket run. (For reference a 1KG pack is too much – I fed a family of three twice, plus lunch for two and still managed a one-person fake-pie for myself on the Monday night!) So having successfully managed sausage rolls, I had a dig through my recipe books in search of something to use up the rest of the pastry. I stumbled across a recipe that struck straight to my childhood nostalgia – vol-au-vents. But what to put in them? The recipe called for feta cheese and pomegranate and in my opinion vol-au-vents should be hot with an equally hot filling. Handily my mum was making ham soup so I pinched some of the meat, she made a nice white sauce and a tasty filling was born.

Vol-Au-Vents

If I had issues about ‘proper’ baking with the sausage rolls, they were nowhere to be seen with the vol-au-vents. Perhaps it was the cutting out and construction work involved in putting them together, but they definitely felt like ‘real‘ baking. I do take a couple of issues with the recipe as written though. First up, why get rid of the inner circles? Bake them separately and they make cute little hats/lids for the vol-au-vents, judicious application of the rolling pin would doubtless resolve the overly puffed result I got. Secondly, once they’ve been in the oven it tells you to cut out the puffed up centres and discard – cut them out certainly, but they squash down easily enough under the weight of the filling, and if you really want to remove them they make a tasty treat for the peckish cook. Particularly tasty, I find, with mashed potatoes and broccoli.

Vol-Au-Vent Meal

While I had the oven on and was using up things in the fridge, I made some Spinach and Cheese (Cheddar, Parmasan and Cream-cheese to be precise) Muffins. These are an old tried and tested favourite of mine and make an excellent savoury breakfast. A wee 30 second blast in the microwave before eating re-melts the cream-cheese nicely. Handily they also cook in the oven at the same temperature as the vol-au-vents, so I was able to whip them up while the vol-au-vents were chilling/resting in the fridge and stick them both in together.

Spinach and 3 Cheese Muffins

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