Snow Days and Sort-of Bruschetta

As you may have heard on the news (or noticed by looking out the window!), the UK is currently enjoying typical balmy springtime weather. Not. Belfast is currently being blown away by crazy winds and hiding under a foot or two of snow – which mightn’t sound too awful, but almost all our electricity sources are above ground, and the aforementionned crazy winds are playing havoc with our lecky system and a lot of the city is without power.

My dad and I were lucky enough to have the day off work yesterday, and my mum was even luckier to have been granted a snow day, so the whole fam were enjoying the day being snuggled up under copious blankets and drinking countless cups of tea. I was feeling very lazy and, come lunchtime, felt an assembly-job, rather than a gourmet meal, was in order. So I produced this little belter, which is just continental enough to make Belfastian unfortunates who are also snowed into their domiciles feel better. Close your eyes, take a bite and think of Sicilian sun. Aaaah, much better!

 

Sort-of Bruschetta

Serves three hungry hermits

  • One bake-at-home ciabatta loaf
  • 2-3 tbsp basil pesto
  • 6 slices Italian ham (I used prosciutto but choose what you like)
  • 2 salad tomatoes
  • 1 ball mozzarella

1. Bake your loaf according to the instructions on the packet and leave to cool slightly. Preheat the grill to 200⁰C while you assemble your bruschetta.

2. Slice the bread in six and set flat. Spread the pesto on each slice, then pop on the ham. Slice the tomatoes and mozzarella and top the bread with them, with the cheese on top.

3. Place the slices on a baking sheet and grill for 5mins or so, until the cheese is melted and bubbly.

4. Munch away and think of summer.

 

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Steak and Guinness Pie

A few weeks ago, the boyf and I made our second weekend trip ever to Dublin. The first time, we got a Groupon to stay in a village called Leixlip, which is very quaint and about 20mins outside the city centre. We discovered when we were there that Leixlip is the hometown of Arthur Guinness, who, everyone knows, created the delicious beverage and gave it his name.

Now, I have a confession to make; I never liked Guinness. This might make me a bad Irishwoman, but there you have it. I like my beer girly and golden, preferably Spanish and with a wedge of lime stuck in the top of the bottle to make every sip zesty-fresh. So when, during our more recent second trip to Dublin, I suggested to the boyf that we visit the Guinness storehouse, he (and a small part of myself) thought I had taken leave of my senses.

“You do realise that all you do is learn about and drink Guinness when you go there?” he said to me, a look of confused incredulity on his face.

“Yes, but you can have my pint,” I said blithely, and off we trotted, happy in our touristy cliché.

To cut a long story short, I now LOVE Guinness, and feel justified, after four hours wandering awed-ly around the storehouse and quaffing several pints, in proclaiming that the boyf and I are now Guinness connoisseurs.

When we got back, I decided to incorporate my new favourite tipple into my cuisine. And so, just a little late for St Patrick’s Day, but nevertheless excellent, my post today is another savoury one, and the first of a few Guinness-inspired recipes.

Steak and Guinness Pie

(serves four)

For the pastry

  • 300g plain flour
  • 150g cold butter
  • pinch salt
  • 4-5tbsp cold water

For the filling

  • 500g diced beef or stewing steak
  • 2tbsp butter
  • 2tbsp plain flour
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 large onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 can Guinness (I used draught, but feel free to use extra stout for a more punchy flavour)
  • 1 beef stock cube
  • 1/2 tsp dried rosemary
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten, to glaze
  • 1tbsp cornflour
  • water

You will also need a 24cm pie dish; I used this one.

1. Start off by chopping the onions and frying them in butter, in a casserole over medium heat. While they’re cooking, dust the steak with flour and shake off any excess. When the onions are soft and transparent, add the steak and brown all over.

2. Next, add the garlic and carrots and sauté for a minute or so. Pour in the Guinness (yes, the whole can!), crumble in the stock cube and add the rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper. Bring it to the boil, then lower the heat, cover and simmer gently for 45 minutes, until the carrots are soft and the steak is cooked through and tender. Add a few drops of water to the cornflour, enough to dissolve it and create a smooth mix, then pour into the filling and simmer for another 5mins, until the gravy is rich and thick. Set aside to cool slightly.

3. While the filling is cooling, make your pastry. Dice the butter and combine it with the flour and salt in a food processor. Blitz until you have a sandy mixture, then, with the processor still running, slowly add your water until the pastry begins to come together. Remove and work into a ball with your hands, then divide in half.

4. Now, preheat the oven to 180⁰C. Flour your work surface and roll out each half of the pastry until about 3mm thick, then line your pie dish with one half and trim the excess. Brush the pastry with beaten egg (this stops a soggy bottom – thanks, Mary Berry!), then add your steak-and-Guinness filling. Brush the edge of your pastry with egg, then top with the other half. Press the top and bottom edges of the pastry together, then trim the excess. You can use a fork to press the edges together more thoroughly and leave a pretty pattern!

5. Brush the top with egg and slice a hole (or few) into the top to allow steam to escape. You can use any excess pastry to create pretty decorations for the top – just remember to brush them with egg after! Pop your beautiful pie in the centre of the oven and bake for 30-40mins, until the pastry is golden brown and the filling piping hot. Serve with mash and peas, and – of course – a pint of the black stuff to wash it down!

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Pollo Alla Pinot Grigio

In hindsight, the title of this blog is a bit inaccurate. I should have called it, “Bake AND Cook in Belfast”, since, if I’m honest, I prefer cooking to baking. I feel slightly ashamed to admit this, but it is a sad truth. Baking is much more precise and scientific than cooking, and I was never much of a scientist; I feel my chosen subject area – modern languages – is much more suited to cooking than baking.

I learned how to cook when I was living in France; I spent eight months in the Centre region as part of my degree, and was fascinated by the French attitude towards cooking. My colleagues kindly invited me to dinner at their houses on a number of occassions, and made everything look so effortless; one lady whipped up an INCREDIBLE chocolate mousse for dessert in five minutes flat, casually informing me, “pas de souci” (loosely translated as, “no worries!”), when I exclaimed over her culinary skills. Every meal had three courses, with wine to match each one, and they casually tore bits of bread off a loaf and munched them down with gusto throughout the evening. And nobody was stressed! The meals all lasted about three hours (I was never home before midnight when I went to someone’s house), and the wives meandered around the kitchen, making casseroles or soups or assembling cheese boards while the husbands chose the wine and carved the meat.

I was in awe. I longed to be like these women; I longed to be French. Or Nigella Lawson.

Nigella is the other reason why I love to cook. She is a true Domestic Goddess. And, burkini aside, I think she is amazing. She, like my French colleagues, makes entertaining effortless, and I hope, one day, to be as casually cool as she is while making dinner for endless friends every Friday night after a 40-hour week.

(I realise this isn’t how Nigella really spends her time, but still, a girl can dream).

So, for my last soiree with the boyf, I decided to channel Nigella, but put an Italian twist on things, just to mix it up a bit!

 

Pollo alla Pinot Grigio

(serves 6; adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Coq au Riesling)

  • 12 skin-on chicken thighs on the bone
  • 175g pancetta
  • 1 leek, finely chopped
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 300g button mushrooms
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 bottle (750ml) pinot grigio
  • salt and pepper
  • tagliatelle, to serve

 

1. In a casserole, fry the pancetta over medium heat; once they begin to crisp up and release yummy fat, pop in your chicken thighs, skin side down (you may need to do this in batches). Brown the thighs to get the skin nice and crispy, then take them out of the casserole and set to one side.

2. Add the leek and onion and fry with the pancetta until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and fry for one minute.

3. Pop in your carrots and mushrooms, then add your chicken thighs, bay leaves and the wine. Season well with salt and pepper, cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Serve with tagliatelle, or your favourite pasta.

 

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Tiramisu Layer Cake

It goes without saying that I love baking. I especially like baking cake – big cakes, little cakes, cupcakes, cake pops; you name it, I’ve probably tried it. It also goes without saying that I love to eat the cake creations; hence I always bake things that I like, regardless of other people’s opinions! Most of the time, when I decide to try a new flavour, the fam are relatively enthusiastic; however, when I told Dad I would be making a chocolate-coffee cake with a rum-flavoured mascarpone frosting, he gagged and told me it was an insult to cake. Boo.

Refusing to be disheartenend, I reminded myself why I had made the, ahem, controversial decision to turn the most famous of Italian puddings into a cake. My boyf has long made it known that tiramisu is his favourite dessert, calling it a “better, grown-up version of trifle” (I tend to agree, especially as I hate trifle with a passion!). I like to make us little romantic-stylee dinners every once in a while, and always do my best to make things he especially likes. This week is Italian week, and, rather than make yet another (admittedly delish) traditional Delia dessert, I thought I’d be innovative and combine my boyf’s favourite – the tiramisu – and my favourite – cake.

Tiramisu Layer Cake

(Adapted from The Hummingbird Bakery’s Cake Days, makes one two-layer cake.)

For the sponge

  • 240ml whole milk
  • 1tbsp good hot chocolate powder
  • 1tsp instant coffee
  • 80g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 280g caster sugar
  • 240g plain flour
  • 1tbsp baking powder
  • 1/4tsp salt
  • 2 large eggs

For the frosting

  • 400g mascarpone cheese
  • 25ml dark rum
  • 25ml coffee, cooled
  • 50g icing sugar

For decoration

  • 75g dark chocolate
  • 2tsp cocoa powder

Preheat the oven to 17o⁰C. Grease and base-line two 9 inch cake tins.

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Put the milk in a jug and heat it slightly in the microwave; don’t let it boil, just warm it. Then add the hot chocolate powder and instant coffee and stir well to dissolve them in the milk. Leave it to cool and get started on the dry ingredients.

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Sift the flour and baking powder together; this makes sure the two are nicely combined, and makes the flour smooth. Then add the salt, sugar and butter, and mix them together on low speed with a hand-held electric whisk. Alternatively, you can put them all into a stand-mixer and leave it to do all the work for you, but I like a hand-held whisk better; I feel like I’ve more control over the ingredients this way!

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You want to mix the dry ingredients until they are well combined and look like dry sand. When it gets to this point, turn off the mixer and turn your attention to the jug of chocolatey, coffee-y milk you made earlier. It should be nicely cool by now; crack your two eggs into the milk and whisk lightly with a fork to break them up a little. Then, turn your whisk/mixer back onto low speed and slowly add 3/4 of the milky mixture to the dry ingredients. Keep whisking until everything is combined, then add the rest. Turn the mixer up to medium-high and mix for 30 seconds, until everything is well-combined and you have a lovely, smooth and shiny batter.

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Pour or ladle the batter into your prepared cake tins, making sure there is an equal amount in each one. They should be filled half-way. Gently tap them on the counter to bring any bubbles to the surface, and pop them with a skewer or toothpick.

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Pop the cake tins into the oven – they should be on the middle rack to ensure the tops don’t burn before they’re baked through. These babies will need 30-35 minutes in the oven; don’t open the door until 30 minutes have passed, or they might sink in the middle. Patience is a virtue necessary for all cake-bakers, and it’ll pay off here, I promise! While you’re waiting for the cakes to bake, you can get on with your frosting.

You’ll need two mixing bowls for your frosting, and your electric whisk, with the whisks thoroughly cleaned of any batter from the cakes. In your first bowl, combine the double cream and icing sugar. Beat them together on medium speed until the cream forms soft peaks – don’t over-whisk! If you do, the cream will look thick and lumpy, but it’s easily rectified. All you need to do is mix in a little liquid cream, until it comes back to being smooth and shiny.

In your other bowl, combine the mascarpone, rum and coffee. Don’t worry about cleaning your whisks again, just go ahead and whisk together the cheese with the liquid until it’s nice and smooth. Set your mixer aside and grab a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. Put the cream into the bowl with the mascarpone and fold it in – cut down the middle of the mix with your spatula, then rotate it clockwise in a half-circle and repeat until the cream and cheese are fully combined.

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Pop your bowl into the fridge to firm up the frosting a bit. When it’s time for the cakes to come out of the oven, check they’re ready by inserting a skewer into the centre of each one. If it comes out clean, with no batter on it, they’re good to go. If not, put them back in for another few minutes. Leave them to cool completely – if you try to ice a warm cake, you’ll find your frosting will just melt off again!

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Once your sponge is nice and cool, take them out of the tins and peel the parchment off the bottom. If your cake is reluctant to leave the tin, just run a palate knife gently round the gap between the cake and the tin to loosen it.

Now I’m going to give you a little bit of advice regarding icing a cake. It has taken me some time to realise this myself, but now I have I’m a total convert. If you want a lovely smooth finish on the frosting of your cake, buy a turntable. You can get them really cheaply on the internet, and they make the whole ordeal of icing so much simpler. You don’t need to worry that the frosting is uneven on one side, or that the cake is tipping over because of a heavy hand, or any of the multitude of worries that come with icing a cake on a plate or board. All you need to do is put the cake on the turntable, roughly layer on your frosting, and hold your palate knife to the side of the cake as you spin it, giving you lovely smooth edges with no effort whatsoever. Fabulous!

Ahem. With that small promotion over, let’s continue with the recipe. Pop one of your sponges on the turntable (or plate, if I haven’t convinced you!). If you have a slight dome on the top of your cake, turn it upside down, so the flat underside is now the top. Pile about a quarter of your mascarpone frosting on top, and use your palate knife to smooth it over the whole layer. Gently pop your other sponge on top; again turn it upside down so the flat bottom becomes the top.

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Once the whole cake is roughly covered, leave it for five minutes to firm up slightly. Then start again, gently piling and smoothing the remaining frosting over your crumb layer. At this point, you can keep using your palate knife, or something called an edge smoother; it’s a rectangular bit of metal or plastict that makes smoothing your frosting a doddle. If you don’t have one, your palate knife will work just as well.

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Once you’re happy with the smoothness of your frosting, it’s time to decorate! Feel free to get creative with the rest of your frosting, if you have any; pipe a lovely pattern over the top of your cake if you like, or anything else you can think of. I’ve kept it simple; roughly chop 75g of dark chocolate and pile it in the middle of the cake, and dust with cocoa powder.

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If you have done as I did and used a turntable, the trickiest part will be transfering your finished cake to the plate you want to display it on. I slid two palate knives underneath the cake, parallel to each other and each one about a quarter of the way from the edge of the cake, and lifted slowly and gently. Once your cake is safely on the display plate, simply slide the knives from underneath and breathe a sigh of relief.

Ma’s Millionaire Marvels

Two years ago, I spent a fun-filled month in southern Spain with a couple of lovely ladies from my university course. Before we departed, we were casual acquaintances; by the time we left, we were close friends, and each of us had assumed a role in our strange, constant commune. One of our number, who we dubbed “Ma” for her frequent affirmations that she was the Mother of the group, has since requested that I come up with a recipe for her favourite tray bake, and, after last night’s disappointing start, I arose this morning with ambition and determination in my soul. I would create something fabulous today. I would create a caramel square for Ma.

For those who are unfamiliar with this tasty treat, they are a tray bake made up of a biscuit base, soft caramel centre and chocolate topping. I must admit, I’ve never made caramel squares before, but I enjoy a challenge! So, armed with my trusty kitchen scales and maverick sense of culinary adventure, I set to work, and came up with this (pretty nifty) version of the traditional caramel square, named for the lovely surrogate Mother of our Spain days.

Ma’s Millionaire Marvels
(Makes 12 – 16 decent sized tray bakes, depending on your sense of generosity.)

For the biscuit base
• 300g Digestive biscuits
• 200g unsalted butter

For the caramel
• 200g unsalted butter
• One 397g can of condensed milk
• 5tbsp golden syrup
• 1tsp sea salt

For the chocolate topping
• 350g dark or milk chocolate, dependent on your taste
• 100g white chocolate (optional)

Grease a baking sheet or swiss roll tin and line with baking parchment, making sure you leave an overhang of parchment on either side. This means the whole traybake will come out nice and easily at the end, and you aren’t left chiseling bits of biscuit off the bottom.

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Next, put your Digestives into a freezer bag and bash them to bits with a rolling pin. (You can whizz them in a food processor, but I find the bashing quite therapeutic). Keep going until they resemble fine sand.

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Melt the butter, either in the microwave or in a saucepan over medium heat. When fully melted, add the butter to the digestive crumbies and mix well, until all the crumbs are coated with buttery goodness.

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Put the crumbs into the parchment-lined baking sheet and press down flat with your fingers, ensuring the crumbs go all the way into the corners and there are no gaps. Put the pan into the fridge for 15 – 20 mins, until the base has hardened slightly.

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While the base is chilling, make the caramel. Put the condensed milk, butter, sea salt and golden syrup into a saucepan and slowly bring to the boil, stirring often to make sure the syrup doesn’t burn the bottom of the pan.

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When the mixture is boiling, let it bubble away for ten minutes. Keep stirring – this stuff burns easily – and watch it closely; you’ll see the colour change from the pale yellow of condensed milk to a lovely golden caramel colour. The mixture will thicken too, to become a cold custard-y consistency.

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When it gets to this point, quickly take your cooled base out of the fridge and pour the caramel over the top. As it is thick and sticks to EVERYTHING, don’t try to spread it with a palate knife or spoon; it won’t work, and you’ll end up with caramel everywhere but where you want it! Instead, lift the pan and tip it slowly from side to side, ensuring the caramel spreads into the corners of the pan. Make sure all the biscuit is covered and the caramel layer is nice and even across the whole surface. Pop the pan back into the fride for at least half an hour; it’s ready when the caramel feels cool, hardened and slightly springy when you touch it.

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For the chocolate topping, break the chocolate into small pieces and put into a heatproof bowl over a pan of boiling water. Make sure the water doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl – this will burn the chocolate.

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Let the chocolate melt slowly, and stir often to keep the chocolate at the bottom of the bowl moving.

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When the chocolate is melted and nicely smooth, take the baking sheet out of the fridge and pour the chocolate over the caramel. Use the same process of tipping the pan from side to side to cover the whole surface.

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At this point you can add some decoration with white chocolate. Melt 100g white chocolate in the same way as the milk/dark, and either pipe or drizzle it over the top. Put the baking sheet back into the fridge for another 15-20 minutes, until the chocolate is cooled and solid.

Once the chocolate is cool, it’s time to cut this baby into squares. Using the handy overhang of parchment, pull the whole lot out of the baking sheet and set onto a flat surface. Fill a glass or mug with recently boiled water, and get a nice big knife. You can measure out the size of each square if you like geometry; otherwise, just do what I do and run your knife lightly down the chocolate layer, leaving lines to guide you when you’re cutting.

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Now dip your knife into the hot water and dry off with a towel. The hot knife will make cutting easier, but make sure it’s completely dried – water and chocolate don’t make a pretty pair! Use your lines for guidance and cut your tray bake into squares. I did twelve, as my family like a big bun, but feel free to add another horizontal line and make sixteen if you prefer a more delicate delight.

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Enjoy your yummy square with a good strong cup of tea!

Brave New Blog

Hello and welcome! This first post will be uninteresting and photo-less, as I’ve just arrived home from work and shame my inner chef by having toast and wine for dinner. Tommorow is a new day, hopefully one that involves baking, and I’ll have some lovely photos and inspiring to show off. For now, wish me luck as I embark on a brave new blogging adventure!