bake more often

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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Bake More Often 2/10: Baking from the Big List

Well, at least one of my foodie resolutions is going well. So far this year I’ve baked three times, which is the same amount that I managed all year in 2014 and its only March! Today I want to talk about the two items I made that were also on my big 30 recipes list (I’m now up to 23 recipes tried) which is an extra kind of progress.

Technically one of those baking incidents was actually two because it was across the Friday and Saturday of an epic weekend of baking. Why am I calling it one baking incident instead of two? Well it’s silly really, but when it comes down to it, as a novice cook, determined to learn to cook properly there’s a lot of snobbery out there about ‘cheating’ at cooking. (Bless Delia Smith for her campaigning against this kind of nonsense, I may not want to cook her recipes but, she’s a kitchen legend for a reason.) I stand by my statement that life’s too short to make your own puff pastry, yet still that little niggly voice says ‘well, its not really baking, is it’. Which is nonsense. Between pummelling the pastry into submission so they didn’t attempt to take over the world, carefully trimming the sausages to fit perfectly, and making sure the rolls stuck together properly, it certainly felt like baking. Also I suspect I’ve ruined their mini frozen cousins for myself which to me is always a sign that I’ve done some proper cooking. Next stop learning to make my own veggie sausages for them!

Lazy Sausage Rolls

The other bake that I want to talk about is the batch of Bite-size Pinwheel Snacks that I made as a Cheerio Biscuits for my workmates on my last day working there. Normally when recipes say ‘tiny’ or ‘bite-size’ they aren’t even close – and make you wonder about the size of said chef’s mouth – but these actually are, perfect when you’re baking for a team of people where at least half of them are on diets. They are a bit of a challenge though they actually look more complex than they are. The mixture is really quite dry (not an egg in sight!) and I was quite worried for a while about it coming together until I thought to just get my hands in there and knead it into submission (you add the chocolate to half the mixture by kneading it in so I figured that it couldn’t hurt) after which it behaved much better. They turn out to have a pleasantly short-bready texture to them, which I enjoy. Due to not actually liking chocolate as a child – I’m still much more a crisp hand even now – baked goods in my childhood were chocolate free and it mostly doesn’t occur to me to use it when I’m baking myself now. To the extent that when I came to having to buy cocoa powder and was faced with the range of options I plumped desperately for the ones I’d seen in my Inverness flatmate’s cupboard – he made really good chocolate brownies, alright! So this was actually my first attempt at cooking with chocolate and my goodness you get in a glorious mess! Oddly enough the most frustrating bit of the process isn’t weighing and dividing the mixture or even rolling the two batches together like a swiss-roll, but having to chill the mixture in the fridge for half an hour – twice! The first time was fine, it gives you time to do the dishes, but second time round I’d run out of things to do. Definitely one to do on days when you’re making several different things. Mine weren’t as neat and tidy as the recipe-book picture, but I’m sure I’ll get tidier with practice.

Bitesize Pinwheels

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Bake More Often – 1/10

In a productive start to the New Year and my new challenges, I baked this weekend. Motivated by the presence of buttermilk creeping ever closer to its expiry date in the fridge I planned a baking afternoon for Sunday with the intent of making soda bread along with something sweet from my new Lorraine Pascale recipe book.

The soda bread plan led to my mum making a big pot of homemade soup to eat it with, which is motivation in and of itself to get round to making bread. Second day soup plus soda bread? Bliss. The second part of the plan went slightly adrift, but in a good way, due to remembering that Monday was my friend Alison’s birthday. Now surely, I hear you say, cake and a friend’s birthday are an excellent plan? Well, you’d be correct, but there was a potential issue…

Some time ago, Alison was diagnosed as coeliac and banished all wheat from her diet. We happened to get chatting about the rubbishness of many gluten-free baked goods and how difficult it was to get certain kinds right. In a moment of rash enthusiasm/foolishness, I promised her I would learn gluten-free baking and make her a birthday cake. As with so many good intentions, I kept meaning to try it out – I even bought Xanthan gum – but never quite getting round to it. And now it was the Friday and her birthday was in 3 days time and I still hadn’t done anything about it. I had a choice, admit failure and buy her some gluten-free cookies or forge ahead and make her a cake. * So of course, I spent Saturday searching through gluten-free cookbooks in the library and searching the shelves of my local town for rice flour. (There was a brief panic at the thought of trying to track down gluten-free baking powder, but thankfully the stuff I already had in the house turned out to be gluten-free by accident.) After some quick and cryptic enquiries with the birthday girl, I settled on making her an almond cake.

The recipe uses ground almond as a substitute for the flour, which actually gives a decent texture to the batter – it looks and feels like cake batter. I have, for various reasons, eaten quite a bit of gluten-free cake and generally found them to be dense and occasionally gritty in texture with a certain…aftertaste. I can’t vouch for the taste of the finished product – but some surreptitious sampling of the batter assured me that it tasted promisingly of almond. And my usual ‘is it cooked yet’ tests, suggested it was both a promising colour and the correct amount of bounce for a good sponge so the signs were hopeful.

Almond Cake

As promising as the recipe seemed, I did chicken out of its recommended icing – it started with soaking blanched almonds overnight and ended with sprinkling flaked almonds over the finished products and seemed altogether a bit excessive. So I stuck with a simple butter-cream icing, gently tinted pink with a dash of almond flavouring to tie it together. I sprinkled some pastel shaded 100s and 1000s over the top instead…

Decorated Cake

And as to the taste? Well it was a present wasn’t it? But the recipient assures me it was good so we’ll need to take her word for it won’t we…

*For those of you wondering why I didn’t just make her a batch of brownies – which are naturally gluten free – well it isn’t technically cake, I felt that was cheating.

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