Tuesday, 13 October 2009

A Veggie Affair

At the moment life is running at full tilt and time is a very precious thing to me. Everyday is flying by me at an alarming rate and there just never seem to be enough hours in a day to do everything I wanted to at the start. This ultimately means that even preparing simple dinners have become something that gets rushed through to purely serve the purpose of filling our tummies.

Realising that not only is this rushed lifestyle not good for me physically, it also is not good for my soul. To put this right I have decided that no matter how crazy and busy my week might be, I will set aside one evening a week to cook us a proper, healthy dinner. This will give us the kick of nourishment and vitamins that we need, but most importantly will also help my mind and body to relax and to just again enjoy cooking.

The changing weather is the biggest influence in my choice of what to cook at the moment and this week I again took my inspiration from the beauty and bounty of Autumn. After a quick visit to my much loved local green grocers, I returned with a bulging bag of amazing veggies to grill to perfection and drape generously over home made, olive oil drenched focaccia and top with sticky, poached quail's eggs. After making the yeasty focaccia dough and waiting for it to raise and proof, I spent a good hour to prepare the vegetables; Peeling and turning the artichokes, revealing the fleshy heart and cooking it in a vinegar solution, snapping, trimming and par-steaming the asparagus, de-seeding and roughly slicing the multi-coloured peppers, peeling and halving the sweet, baby shallots and lastly popping the crimson red plum tomatoes off their vines and rolling them in sea-salt and black pepper grounds. All this went into the roasting tin, drizzled with olive oil and straight under a very hot grill to char and bubble their way to veggie heaven. While this was happening, I formed the bread dough into the rustic focaccia shape, waiting to go into the oven as soon as the vegetables were ready to go to the bottom shelf of a cooler oven.

Minutes before we were ready to tuck in, I cracked the delicate little quail's eggs into boiling water to lightly poach and turn into tiny pillows of perfection. As all my labours of love came together on our plates, and we happily ate our way through it all, I knew that finally I was not just feeding my body, but also my soul :)

Monday, 28 September 2009

Daring to Relax

Another month has flown by and my, what a month it has been. Things at work have gone from being busy to being down right crazy, with orders flowing in from all directions and big department stores queuing up to get our cookies into their foodhalls. Don't get me wrong, I'm not bragging or complaining here. I'm just trying to explain why, when I opened up the Daring Bakers website this month and saw that our challenge this time will be Vol-au-vents, I didn't exactly jump with joy.

I love working with pastry and really wished that this challenge had been set at a less hectic time. I could have spent hours in the kitchen, making all sorts of different shapes and sizes, each batch getting a different delicious and creamy filling to make all of the senses pop. Unfortunately, I was lacking both the time and the energy for this sort of venture, and therefore decided to make only a small portion of the pastry and to use it for large vol-au-vents for one of our mid-week dinners.

After reading through the pages of discussion from the other Daring Bakers, and realising that many of them did not succeed on their first go, I was a bit hesitant on using one of my rare days off to make the pastry. However, I was determined not to let this challenge pass me by and after deciding to just go for it, got my rolling pin out. I was only a few minutes into the process, getting ready to roll the butter into the leaves of the beautiful, soft dough when I realised that I was starting to relax and I could actually feel the stresses of my month rolling away with each turn of the pastry.

By the time the pastry was ready to finally roll out and cut into the required discs, I was so relaxed and happy to be in my own kitchen again, that my head was buzzing with ideas of fillings for the gloriously golden, wonderfully risen cups. After a quick rummage through my fridge, I decided on a delicate and soft, whole grain mustard flecked, cream cheese filling, topped with a wafer thin slice of smoked salmon, a small and piquant peppadew pepper and a bright green sprig of rocket. Needless to say, leftovers were not a problem and I luckily remembered to snap a picture of them before they dissapeared into hungry tummies.

The September 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking With Julia by Dorie Greenspan.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Figs and Family

In my life, I have upped roots and relocated more times than I care to remember. When asked were I grew up, I can never give a simple answer, but rather have to list the names of several cities and towns were me and my family had lived. This wasn't always a bad thing though, as each new home brought new friends, new experiences and new regional fresh produce. One of our many moves took us to the affluent suburbs of Pretoria and we lived in a big old house with a long established garden. Although this was by no means my favourite house, I remember this garden very fondly as in it there was a mulberry tree, a plum tree and most amazingly a fig tree. We spent many a Saturday up in the branches of these trees, filling our stomachs to bursting point with all the juicy, purple fruits. Since then we have lived in many more homes and I have even moved half way across the world, but I still miss that fig tree.

Although I decided to move to the UK years ago and it's a choice I have never regretted, living so far away from my family has never gotten any easier. There are however things that make their absence almost bearable, regular calls thanks to the wonder of Skype, quickly typed emails to share a joke, or even eating one of their favourite foods. Here, once again my thoughts turn to figs. Not only are they a reminder of days spent back home with family, but they have also come to be a reminder of wonderful visit here in London with my mum and aunty. The three of us, sitting on the steps in front of St. Paul's cathedral, wrapped up warm against the chilly autumn wind and breaking open our figs' purple skins to reveal the bright red flesh inside. This is why, when these fruits start making their appearance in the green grocers and supermarkets, I cannot leave the store without a few of them in my shopping bag.

They are such amazing fruits, that I usually eat them all, fresh and unadorned before I even have time to think about making anything more from them. However, when I brought home a bag full the other day, I somehow managed to stop myself from eating them all and starting thinking of making a dessert with them. Cut into quarters, drizzled with honey, beautifully arranged on a crisp palmier and served with a generous dollop of Greek yoghurt, this tasted so heavenly that I completely forgot to take a picture of the end result! I did however remember all the good times, spent in the company of the ones I love.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Fishy Business

As I pull open my curtains in the mornings, I am met by yellows, oranges, browns and faded greens, all rustling in the chilly wind as I walk to work. The evenings are drawing to a close earlier each day and once again I find myself searching for meals to warm me from the inside out.

Meaty, rich red burgers with chunky oven crisped chips. Fat, round and glossy brown sausages on a bed of creamy mash smothered in a luxurious onion gravy. Silky smooth and flavourful broad bean and butternut risotto, is to name but a few dishes that regularly make it onto our dinner plates. There is however something that does not make its appearance on our plates often enough and that is fish. I am not the world's greatest lover of fish. Sea-food I simply adore, but when I am faced with a pink, raw piece of salmon or a whole sea bass, I very quickly turn up my nose. This is once again my childhood fussiness making me prejudice to something that is both extremely good for me and actually truly delicious.

Yet again determined to change my own mindset toward another one of my food dislikes, I have tried and tested several ways of cooking all sorts of fish. Obviously, coating a piece of white fish in a bubbly batter and deep frying it, is one of the easiest ways to disguise the taste of the fish, but is by no means a healthy plate of food. Grilling salmon fillets and serving it with lemony veggies is a much healthier option and I will every so often prepare and eat this meal, but it still wasn't the answer. Then, very unexpectedly and thanks to another request from Paul, the answer came to me, fish pie!

The perfect combination of oily, white and smoked fish, all delicately poached in a milky fish stock. Then smothered in a rich and creamy white sauce, dotted with pink prawns and green peas and covered with fluffy mash and strong cheddar gratin. This was exactly what I was looking for, and exactly what I prepared when another chilly evening pushed me into the warmth of the kitchen. Taking the bubbling pie dish from the oven, my mouth was already watering for a bite. Happiness :)

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Last Hurrah

The August Bank Holiday signifies three things to me. Firstly it's a weekend when London is overrun with tourists, all blowing on whistles and admiring the bright and beautiful costumes of the parades of the Notting Hill Carnival. Secondly comes the knowledge that the next Bank Holiday we will have is Christmas Day and that the year is fast coming to an end. Thirdly it officially and boldly signals the end of Summer.

I always approach this weekend with a jumble of mixed feelings and a certain amount of anticipation. After having lived in the hub of the Notting Hill Carnival for several years and having experienced both the good and the bad sides of this crazy street party, Paul and I no longer have any desire to go anywhere near it. We therefore usually see this as an opportunity to escape the city and go find ourselves some greener pastures. Knowing that time has again made a fool of us and that all too soon we will be feeling the brisk bite of the Autumnal winds, we try to squeeze a little bit more pleasure from the last days of Summer. But it also means that I will again have access to the abundance of hedgerow fruits and late Summer English plums with which to bulk up my preserves stocks to my heart's content.

This year, to get away from the crowds we headed to the tranquil and soft green surroundings of the beautiful New Forest for our last Summer hurrah. Walking through the winding forest trails, feeding the free running horses and admiring the lush green foliage, we stumbled upon a natural treasure! Overgrown hedges bursting with deep purple blackberries, ripe and ready for the picking. Quickly finding some empty containers from our lunch, we foraged our way through the prickly bushes. Even with a lot of berries making it into our mouths rather than the containers, we still managed to pick enough for me to make a couple of jars of jam.

Once we arrived back from our trip, relaxed and happy I took out the little fruits and grabbed the basket of colourful plums I had bought on the way home, ready to start my little one woman production line. I have plenty of books and notes on the subject of preserving, but the two gurus I turn to again and again for advice and guidance are the WI and Pam Corbin of the River Cottage Handbook. With the help of these lovely ladies, I soon had the kernels of the plums cracked and blanched, the plums stewing away in a fragrant syrup and the blackberries washed, checked for creepy-crawlies and ready to add to the pan.

Pouring the last purple spoonful of jam into the hot, sterilised jar I was sad to say goodbye to the splendour of Summer. But with my cupboards filled with preserves, chutneys and jams I also looked forward to starting a new season and enjoying all of the culinary opportunities it will bring.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

A Daring Challenge

The August 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Angela of A Spoonful
of Sugar and Lorraine of Not Quite Nigella. They chose the spectacular Dobos
Torte based on a recipe from Rick Rodgers' cookbook Kaffeehaus: Exquisite
Desserts from the Classic Caffés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague.

If you spend as much time as I do searching the Internet for ideas and recipes for lovely things to bake, you have no doubt come across some mention of the Daring Bakers. At first these posts and mentions only slightly tickled my curiosity, but I never thought to look into it any further. Then a few months back my sister introduced me to the amazing blogs of Tartlette and Canelle et Vanille. These two awe-inspiring bloggers both posted monthly about their Daring Bakers challenges and this got me even more intrigued, pushed me to look into it a bit more. However, the final push for me was when my sister told me that she had signed up to be a Daring Baker, and I knew that I had to do the same. There's nothing quite like a bit of healthy competition, right?

So, after filling in the required form and waiting (im)patiently for the website to update with the months challenge, I was finally a daring Baker too:) These bakers definitely mean it when they refer to themselves as daring, this challenge was not for the faint hearted. It was to be a six layered Dobos Torte, complete with an egg based butter cream and a caramel top. I have to admit that I was slightly disheartened at first when I saw that I will have to use melted chocolate for this creation (as mentioned before, I try and avoid this when not at work), but then decided to embrace all of the new things that I will try my hand at when making this cake.

Luckily for me it was my brother-in-law's 30th birthday this month and my husband's entire family were visiting us for a few weeks. This meant that I had the perfect occasion to bake this wow-factor cake for and that none of my hard work will go to waste. Knowing that this was not going to be a quick and easy job, I set aside the entire day for this project and got to work early in the morning. I started by making the six sponge cake layers, each one carefully spread into the circle drawn onto baking parchment and given a quick blast in the hot oven. While these golden discs were cooling all over the kitchen, I got started on the butter cream. I have never liked the idea of using whole eggs in icings, as I don't consider the eggs to be cooked enough for my taste. However, this was after all about trying new things and pushing my boundaries and in the end I was very pleased that I did not stray from the recipe, as I was rewarded with a luxuriously rich and velvety smooth butter cream.

The last and possibly most intimidating step was making the caramel layer. I have not worked with sugar that much before and the few times I did venture into this area I have always ended up with a bit of a disaster. Determined not to fail on what was undoubtedly the crowning glory of this cake, I googled my way through to a couple of informative websites on the matter. My worries and doubts were soon forgotten as the sweet, lemony scent wafted up from the liquid amber in the saucepan and I managed to pull of an almost perfect caramel on my first try. I strayed slightly from the recipe here and cut this layer into seven pieces instead of the recommended twelve, as I thought the latter was slightly too skimpy on size.

After a full day of baking, mixing and creating, I finally assembled the cake, sprinkled on the slivers of almonds and carefully placed the caramel pieces on-top. This truly is a spectacular cake and after a rather precarious car journey across London with the it balanced on my lap, it definitely was the star of the birthday dinner.

I probably won't be baking this cake again in a hurry as it is both costly and time consuming, but it was worth the effort as I can now truly say that I too am a Daring Baker :)

Monday, 24 August 2009

A nutty choice

Once in a while, my husband Paul will find one of my recently perused Foodie magazines lying around the house, and will take it upon himself to find the most unusual recipe in it and then set me the task of creating the dish. This month was no different, and when I saw him walking towards me with the new WFI in his hands, I steeled myself for what was coming. For a few seconds I thought that I would have it easy this time round as he pointed out an ice-cream recipe, but he did not disappoint when I realised that this is no ordinary ice-cream flavour. In fact even the author of the recipe admitted that when she serves this to her guests, she does not immediately reveal the main ingredient to the unsuspecting diners. Instead she lets them have a guess at what it might be while they enjoy the ice-cream without any prejudice. So what is this mystery ingredient, I hear you ask? Well, believe it or not, Paul's choice was, a Nutty Brown Bread ice-cream.

Amazingly, this is not a new idea, and dates as far back as the Victorian period. Obviously back then it was no more than frozen cream with stale bread crumbs stirred through. For us in the 21st century, things are a bit more complicated and thankfully a lot more appetising. Using malted brown bread, hazelnuts and light muscovado sugar to create a golden, crunchy, almost caramelised mixture to stir through the rich, vanilla flecked custard base, you will not turn your nose up at a couple of scoops of this ice-cream.

Having had a busy few weeks with my parents-in-law visiting and some big developments happening at work, I jumped at the chance to spend some quality time in my kitchen and eagerly set about making the ice-cream. Quickly the delicious smell of toasting bread and nuts were wafting through the flat and the eggy custard was thickening on the stove. As the finished mixture was left to cool before churning, I used the left over egg whites to whip up a batch of rose-water meringues to slowly dry-out in the cool oven and washed and sliced a couple of ripe peaches to lightly caramelise once the ice-cream was frozen and ready ro serve.

When Paul came home from work after another gloriously hot and sunny day, he happily tucked into a big bowl of the dessert, feeling rather pleased with himself for picking out such a wonderful recipe, sure to become a family favourite :)

If you want to try this amazing ice-cream for yourself, you can find the recipe here

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Lemon-Melon Sunshine

It's not often that we are blessed with hot, sunny Summer's days here in London. So when they do roll round for a few weeks a year, we try and squeeze as much enjoyment from them as we possibly can. For the past couple weeks this was exactly the case, and to celebrate this glorious weather I decided to borrow the ice-cream machine from work and fill my freezer with tubs of frozen delights!

At work I make a lot of ice-cream, but all of them are custard based and very high in fat. At home I wanted to revisit the beautiful days I spent in the sunny, fountain filled squares of Roma, eating tub after tub of heavenly Gelati. So, for my and my family's own consumption, I decided to make delicately sweet and fruity sorbets that would really make the most of the Summer's abundance.

After a few hours of Internet research, I realised that nothing could be simpler than making the base syrup for your sorbet and that the flavour possibilities were indeed endless. With my head full of ideas, I headed down to my local green-grocers and could hardly choose from all of the amazing fruits on offer. Although I could happily eat my way through several punnets of red, blue and black berries and I'm certain that all of them would make delicious sorbets, I wanted to try out more exotic flavours for my sorbets. For this reason, I picked up an amazingly fragrant, bright orange Cantaloupe melon and could not resist the baskets full of sunshine yellow lemons, coincidently my two favourite flavours from the Gelateria we frequent.

Back in my sunny kitchen, I got the churner freezing and started making the base syrup for the sorbets, mixing equal parts caster sugar and water in a saucepan. As the sugar was slowly dissolving over a medium heat, I scooped out the little seeds from the soft, juicy melon and cut it into haphazard cubes. Next up was finely zesting one of the lemons and squeezing every last drop of zingy juice from the fat little fruits. With the sugar syrup ready and slightly cooled, half went into the blender to pulverize the melon cubes and the other half was mixed in with the lemon juice and zest. Both mixes were popped into the freezer for a few minutes to quickly cool down and then I churned each mix to that soft, smooth, icy consistency that makes the perfect sorbet.

As my husband and I sat watching the sun setting on another glorious day and licking our ice-cream glasses clean, I was already contemplating the next batch of flavours to try out and will now be off to the green-grocers again :)

Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Joy of Baking

For the past seven weeks I have been busier than a bee, baking thousand upon thousands of cookies, brownies and chocolate slices and churning home-made ice-cream by the litres full in the professional kitchen for my new employer. There is no doubt in my mind that this is by far the best job that I have ever had, no matter the long days, the hard work or the tired and sore bones and muscles! This is the start of something amazing :)

There is one problem with this job though; When I'm not working and sitting at home and the inspiration to bake something delicious and wonderful takes me, I find myself slightly unenthusiastic to the idea of baking on my days off. Worrying that after a couple months I would have forgotten how to bake anything other than a chocolate cookie, I decided to get out of my lethargic state and get cracking, some eggs that is :) Grabbing my folder of favourite recipes from the shelf, I already knew what I wanted to make. After checking the fridge to make sure I had all of the ingredients, I switched on the oven and got out my much loved spring form cake tin. Today there would be no chocolate in sight of my baking, only fresh, clean flavours and something smooth and luxurious to savour on a long summer's evening. Today I'm baking my husband's all-time favourite cheese cake.

I found this recipe a few years ago in a foodie magazine, crammed into the bottom corner of the page, almost hidden from sight. I have mentioned this cake before and have made it countless times, but it's always a winner and have converted even the most adamant of cheese cake haters I have served it to. It has the customary crushed digestive biscuit and butter base, which is lightly baked in a mild oven to crisp up. Then comes the creamy, dreamy filling: Low-fat cream cheese is slowly whisked with thick double cream which has been slightly soured by the juice of a fresh lemon. Added to this are a couple whole organic eggs and one extra yellow yolk for an added richness. Next a generous sprinkling of caster sugar, a big splash of real vanilla extract and a blast of finely grated lemon zest. When pouring this mixture into the tin, I was hit by the fresh lemony smell and it immediately got my mouth watering. Unfortunately I had to wait for the cake to slowly bake for almost an hour first, and then of course give it several hours to rest in the fridge to firm up.

The wait was definitely worth it, and as you can see from the picture we've already managed to devour half of the cake. But for me the best part of it all was that even though I spend hours each week baking already, I can still find joy and pleasure in baking something special at home!

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

An Egg-cellent Easter

After weeks of anticipation and preparation, Easter Weekend finally arrived. I have always loved this time of year, but since moving to England and marrying a Catholic Pole, Easter has become an even more momentous occasion in my annual calender.

In Poland, Passover and Easter Sunday are celebrated to the same extent as Christmas and food plays a major role in this celebration. This year I wanted to incorporate some of the Polish traditions into our weekend, and prepare some of the traditional dishes. Boiled eggs, symbolising the Resurrection, are a main ingredient in many of these dishes and feature predominantly on the menu. Although I am not a great fan of boiled eggs, I have to say that they just taste different on Easter and that even I can eat my fair share of them. One of my favourite Polish dishes is a vegetable salad, which is usually served on special occasions. This is made by simply dicing equal amounts of boiled potatoes, carrots, parsnips and eggs, mixing this with a peeled and diced apple, a can of sweetcorn kernels, a cup of green peas and a few sliced pickled cucumbers and generously covering everything in a mayonnaise and mustard dressing. It's quite a bit of work to prepare, but is well worth the effort and it can be served during breakfast, lunch and dinner (and believe me, you can eat that much of it).

Easter Sunday is the main event, and we got the day started with a traditional breakfast of sliced cured meats, boiled eggs, horse radish and apple salad, slices of cheese and the vegetable salad. When we returned from Mass, I immediately went back to the kitchen to get the pot-roasted pork joint in the oven to slowly braise for a couple of hours. While I had some time on my hands waiting for the meat to cook, I got a bit carried away with decorating the table with brightly coloured, cheery flowers, both real and origami, all to brighten up the grey London day. When the meat was wonderfully tender and juicy, I got my boiled potato wedges into hot oil in the oven to roast, sliced and peeled the butternut squash to bake in lightly caramelised butter, spooned my home-made pickled beetroot into a bowl and put the crackling onto the top shelf to crisp up. To finish off this wonderful feast I had brought along a selection of the chocolate truffles and macaroons from my new job.

As with all good things in life, the weekend came to an end and the last of the leftovers were turned into sandwiches for lunch. But we all had a happy Easter and I hope you all had a good one too!

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Pink, Yellow, Purple, Blue, Icing I'm in Love with You

There have been some exciting new developments in the life of this Rambling Chef lately. Today I will be entering a completely different level in my cooking and baking obsession, as I start my new job working for a lovely little company that makes chocolates, cookies, brownies and ice creams. I am going to be in the heat of their kitchen, helping to create some of their amazing chocolate treats! Words cannot even begin to describe all of the emotions that have been coursing through me for the past few days, and I'm finding it difficult to contain my excitement as I ready myself for my first day.

I had to curb my enthusiasm slightly though, as I had another task at hand over the weekend. Following the success of my Red Nose Day cupcakes, my old office asked me last week to bake them another batch of goodies for their Easter Bake Sale to raise some money for their chosen charity, the NSPCC. Jumping at the opportunity to bake Easter treats on a large scale, I immediately agreed to their requests of Banana Breads, Bunny Cakes and pretty Royal Iced Sugar Cookies.

Never having worked with Royal Icing before, I turned to the experts on Cake Decorating on the Internet, and watched some amazing instructional videos on this amazing art using this wonderful icing. After a couple of hours of watching in awe, I felt inspired and confident enough to have a go myself. So, on Sunday I turned my kitchen into a one-woman production line once more, and worked my much loved mixer and less loved oven to their limits. Searching through my extensive cookie cutter collection (which takes up an entire drawer in my kitchen and covers all important holidays and events that occur throughout the year), I found all of my cutest Easter cutters for the task at hand. After several hours of rolling out and cutting the dough and baking sheet after sheet of golden-brown cookies, I started mixing up the fluffy, brilliantly white icing. Dividing the icing into little airtight containers, I mixed them each one respectively into pastel-toned pink, yellow, purple, green and blue and filled my pastry bags to start the fun.

Letting my imagination run wild, I spent many happy hours decorating bunnies, chicks, ducks, eggs, butterflies, flowers, leaves and umbrellas in all of their colourful glory, growing ever more in love with working with this amazing icing. After I packed up each cookie in its own cellophane wrapper and looked at the basket full of Easter splendour, I could not wait for my next decorating project.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Almond Passions

For reasons unknown, the one product that I associate with Easter more than any other is Marzipan. The golden yellow colour, the sweet almond smell and the soft texture of this wonderful paste, make it a dream to work with and a pleasure to eat. With a bit of imagination, some food colourings and a few kitchen tools, you can mould and shape it to create amazing edible decorations for your cakes and bakes. Rolled into little balls and dipped in melted chocolate, it makes for a great snack. Grated finely and folded through eggy cake batter, it gives an amazing richness and aroma to the baked cake.

I could give pages more examples on how versatile this product is, but the one use that marzipan is perhaps best known for is to cover cakes, something that has been practised by artisan bakers for many years. The main reason for this is to stop air from reaching the cake, and therefore protect it from drying out and going bad. As an added bonus, it also gives your finished cake a delicious, sweet, almond taste.

As I am still in the throws of my Easter baking mania, I decided to bake a chocolate-almond cake for the boys at my husband's workshop yesterday. This cake is usually baked in round tins and then filled, iced and covered with a cocoa buttercream. However, knowing that the cake would be transported in a plastic container in a backpack on a motorcycle, I thought it best to bake it in a rectangular pan so that it could be cut up into individual little cakes. So, after creaming the butter and sugar, adding the eggs, ground almonds and golden syrup and folding in the sifted flour and cocoa powder, I spooned the mixture into my silicone brownie pan. Once baked, I turned out the beautifully risen cake to cool on a wire rack, before trimming the edges and cutting it into squares. Lastly, to make sure that it exuded Easter goodness and charm, I decided to wrap each little cake in bright yellow marzipan blanket.

Obviously I had to try one of the squares myself, to make sure that they pass quality control, before packaging them up. I am glad to say that they passed with flying colours.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

My Bunny Cakes

Of all the Holiday Seasons, Easter is by far my favourite one. Not only is it a time to eat more chocolate than is good for you, but for me it also a time when I can give flight to my baking fancies. All of the pretty pastel colours which are abundant this time of year, lend themselves wonderfully to lovely tea-time treats. Plus, with the shops filled with eggs, bunnies, chicks and lambs, both real and candied, I am always so inspired to create my own Easter treats, that I cannot help but get an early start on it all.

This year is no different, and although we are still a couple of weeks away from Easter weekend, I just had to bake my special Bunny Cakes when I came back from the shops this afternoon with a big bag of fresh carrots. These delightful little cakes are essentially small carrot cakes, but with the addition of honey, use a lot less sugar and oil than the traditional big cakes. Frosted with a low fat cream cheese and orange icing they are a much healthier and lighter option, and give a welcome break from all the chocolate.

Now that I've made mine and they are ready to eat, I thought that I would share my recipe with you and hopefully inspire you all to make your own :)

My Bunny Cakes:
(makes 12)
  • 280g plain flour
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 0.5 tsp salt
  • 1 large free-range egg
  • 75 ml semi-skimmed milk
  • 120g light brown soft sugar
  • 2 tbsp clear honey
  • 350g carrots, peeled and finely grated
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 90 ml vegetable or seed oil
  • 75g chopped pecans nuts (optional)
Preheat the oven to 190°C/ gas mark 5. Prepare a 12 bun muffin pan by either greasing or lining the trays.
Sift all of the dry ingredients, except the sugar, together into a large mixing bowl, and make a well in the centre.
In another bowl, lightly beat the egg and then stir in the milk, honey, sugar and vanilla followed by the carrots and lastly add the oil. Mix everything well.
Add this wet mixture to the dry ingredients, and with a large metal spoon, mix everything together until just combined and none of the dry flour is visible. Finally add the nuts to the mix. It is really important not to over-stir this mixture, you ideally want a bit of a lumpy batter.
Working quickly, spoon the mixture into the waiting tins. Bake the cakes for 20-25 minutes or until they are golden brown and the tops spring back when lightly pressed.
As soon as you can handle them, take the cakes out of the tins, and let them cool completely on a wire rack.

Low-fat Cream Cheese and Orange Icing:
  • 70g Low-fat cream cheese, softened and at room temperature
  • 115g icing sugar, sifted
  • 1 tbsp softened butter
  • zest of 1/2 an orange
Beat the cream cheese, butter and icing sugar together until smooth and thick. Add the orange zest and mix really well to distribute it throughout the frosting. Put into the fridge for about 30 minutes before frosting the cakes.

Once frosted, you can adorn these sweet little cakes as much as your imagination allows. Sometimes, I go the whole nine yards and make tiny little candied carrots to place on-top or using marshmallows and liquorice strands, will turn the entire cake into a bunny's face. Today, I felt that they needed nothing more than perhaps a small glace cherry on top to make them hop :)

Monday, 23 March 2009


It is said that each family has a recipe that is passed down from one generation to the next. A dish, that when made, immediately transports you back to your childhood years. Something that you can't make without missing family members far away and reflecting back on days long lost.

This is as true in my family as it is in any other, and although there are quite a few recipes that had been handed down to me, the one that makes me miss my youth the most is my Mum's potato salad. Whenever I make this salad, I am so lost in nostalgia that I can hear my sisters and mum talking and laughing around me again, can smell the woody-smoke from my dad's barbecue wafting through an open window and can feel the hot summer sun caressing my skin. This salad is the one thing that makes me miss my childhood home more than any other.

As I was walking down my local high-street this weekend, I saw a little sign in the butcher's window displaying the South African flag. Overcome by curiosity, I went inside to be greeted with an " 'ello Luv" by a burly Cockney butcher, busy wrapping bangers into packages. Imagine therefore my surprise when, my inquiry into whether they had Boerewors in stock, was met with a big smile and this butcher actually knowing what I was talking about. As he wrapped the dark red sausage into a package for me, I just knew that this was the real thing, made from 100% beef, pork fat and ground spices. I could hardly wait to get it into the frying pan! However, before I could hurry home I had just one more stop to make, the green grocers. Here I hand-picked a bag full of mini new potatoes, each no bigger than bite-size, for there was one thing I had to make today, the salad mentioned above.

Once home, I straight away started preparing the salad, for it needs to be prepared at least a few hours before being served to taste at it's best. In fact, it tastes even better the next day:) After giving this recipe such a build up, I feel that it should expend pages of instructions, but as it is, this is one of the simplest salads in the world to make. The most strenuous part is peeling the potatoes; which, once they have been boiled, requires nothing more than pulling away the papery skins with a sharp paring knife. I could also have used large white potatoes, but then I would have to first peel them, cut them into squares and then boil them. Therefore I prefer to make it with these tiny potatoes, which not only cuts down on the workload, but also gives a bit more bite to the end result, and just looks prettier. While the potatoes were cooling after being peeled, I started making the all important sauce. Combing a few large spoonfulls of mayonnaise, a spoon of milk, a squirt of tangy mustard and a small spoon of condensed milk is all that was needed. After seasoning the potatoes with a few grinds of sea salt and black pepper, pouring over the thick and creamy sauce, and sprinkling a few parsley leaves over the top, all I had left to do was to exercise some will power and not devour the salad before its had a few hours in the fridge.

As we sat down to dinner, with the kitchen filled with the delectable smell of the frying boerewors and I helped myself to a huge serving of salad, I was suddenly back in South Africa with my whole family around me again as I remembered the good old days...

Friday, 20 March 2009

Strawberry Indulgence

I know that I have previously waxed lyrical about seasonal, local produce and I still stand by my opinion on this matter; However as I walked into my local convenience store yesterday I was again tempted by a display of beautiful, bright red, imported strawberries. The fruits looked so full of early summer sun and bursting with freshness that I could not leave the store without a punnet in my shopping bag.

When I got back to my kitchen and unpacked my shopping, I was immediately overtaken by the urge to make something special with these ruby beauties. At first I though of making a strawberry coolie to pour over a couple of scoops of ice-cream, but then realised that this will not do justice to these amazing fruits. They deserved nothing less than to be the star of the show, the centre of attention and to inspire awe in those enjoying their splendour. For me, there are few desserts as simultaneously pretty and delicious as an Eton Mess and I knew that this will be my inspiration for what I was going to make.

Firstly I made a giant meringue disk, spreading the glossy white mixture onto a wax-paper lined baking sheet. Not wanting the egg yolks to go to waste, I used them to make a creamy, vanilla flecked crème anglaise to pour over the dessert instead of the usual whipped cream. Once the first two components of the dish were cooked, cooled and sufficiently rested, I got started on preparing the strawberries. Leaving them whole and with the leafy tops still intact, I dipped them into dark melted chocolate to turn them into a true indulgence.

After we finished our dinner of steamed asparagus tips and yoghurt marinated chicken bites, I took out my most colourful bowls to serve the final course. Making a last minute addition, I scooped some vanilla ice-cream into each bowl, broke the meringue over the top of it, poured over the custard and finally placed the strawberries on-top. It did not really resemble the dessert that had been its inspiration, but after the first taste we all agreed that it tasted just as good and named it "Elle's Mess"

Friday, 13 March 2009

Do Something Funny For Money

I don't recall ever actually hearing the words, "If you're going to do something, you might as well do it well" growing up, but this was definitely a philosophy that my parents lived their lives by. Nothing was ever done by halves in our home. The accidental discovery of parquet wood floors underneath the wall to wall carpet turned into a three day marathon of DIY, which involved a hired industrial floor sander. My mum deciding to cook some jam or chutney, did not mean going to the supermarket to buy a few bags of fruits, but rather going to the wholesale market and buying entire crates of fruits. Making samosas and meat pies for the church fete turned our kitchen into a production line, each family member assigned with a task, all working towards the mass production of little food parcels. There are many more such memories from my childhood, and for a long time I thought that they will be just that, long ago memories. That is until I realised that I have my parents' genes, and that I too cannot do things by halves...

Today is Red Nose Day here in the UK, a day of laughter and general silliness, all to raise as much money as possible for charity. Every year top celebrities do their part to help with the fund raising, all with hilarious results, and the rest of the nation is asked to join in. Children all over the UK went to school dressed in home-made cartoon costumes this morning, office workers braved the tube in red afro wigs and red noses, shop owners hopped all the way down our highstreet on red space-hoppers, all in the name of Comic Relief. Not wanting to be left out of the fun and with only the best of intentions, I sent an email to my old office offering to bake cupcakes for them all to raise funds for this great cause.

Hoping to get about 30 orders or so, I was completely knocked off my feet when I received orders for 66 cupcakes!!! Now, this might not seem like a huge number of cupcakes to bake, but please bare in mind that I live in a small rented London flat with a tiny little gas oven and a space saving food processor. I had a moment of panic when I started going through the numbers and worked out how many hours I will need to get all of this done. Just as I was about to run screaming for the hills, I remembered all those days spent with my family in our kitchen running our own little production lines, and immediately I felt better knowing that I can do this!

I started unpacking the eggs, butter, flour, sugar and vanilla and turned on my little oven. As I made batch after batch of fluffy, golden, sweet-smelling little cakes I got into some sort of a zen-like state and could not believe it when I realised that more than three hours had already passed when I took out the final pan-full from the oven. Still running high on energy I started creaming the butter and icing sugar and got out my red food colouring paste, now came my favourite part. Piping the brightly coloured icing onto the cupcakes took up another couple of hours, but I was not going to stop here. Grabbing the tubs of glace cherries and a bag of mini marshmallows from my store cupboard, I started getting creative, these were after all me doing something funny for money. As I decorated the very last cupcake and saw all of the little faces looking back at me, I was overcome by a happy exhaustion and a great feeling of accomplishment.

This morning, with every plastic container I own packed full of cupcakes, loaded into carrier bags, I got onto a bus and headed for the central London office. My smile got bigger and bigger as more and more bus passengers came up to me to compliment me on the lovely little cakes. By the time I had delivered the cakes to the office, and I could hear the "oohs" and "aahs" spreading around the room, I could hardly stop the smile from going all the way around my head. But as I sit here now, with it all over and done, I have an even bigger smile on my face as I transfer the money I raised over to the charity's account. Happy Red Nose Day everybody!!!!

Monday, 9 March 2009

An Italian Vine

March is a month full of promise and new beginnings. As the wind picks up and playfully tugs at our hats and scarves, we notice that the evenings are getting longer and the days are getting warmer. London parks are transformed by fields of blue, yellow and pink Crocus chrysanthus and the odd early daffodil poking their flowering heads from the soil. Bird song rises you from your bed in the morning, to be greeted by the clearest of blue skies enticing you outside, only to be caught in a rain shower later in the afternoon. All these things put a skip in my step and a song in my heart, for I know that we are finally saying goodbye to the cold grip of Winter and hello to the beauty of Spring!

As we move into a new season, I find myself automatically changing the food I purchase and prepare. No longer do I crave heavy, starchy meals to warm me from the inside out, but find myself enthralled by new green veggies, bright eyed and white fleshed fish and soft pink and red fruits. As I walked through the fresh produce market this morning I was surrounded by baskets full of beautiful purple sprouting broccoli, brilliant little green salad onions, huge bunches of sorrel leaves, prickly-haired kiwi fruits, soft green fennels and gem like chicory. All this was already enough to make my mouth water and set my mind to work on creating amazing dishes to prepare. As I selectively filled my basket, I came across my favourite product of early Spring, Italian vine-ripened tomatoes. Cherry, baby, plum and dei moro varieties were all trying to catch my attention with their bright red little cheeks hanging from their deep green, aromatic vines.

Grown and ripened in the Mediterranean sun, these super-sweet little tomatoes are bursting with flavour, asking for nothing more than a grind of rock salt and black pepper. Eaten fresh, roasted, grilled or fried, they are the perfect accompaniment to white meat, their acidic sweetness cutting through the fattiness of pork, thrilling your tongue with their umami taste and leaving you eager for the next mouthful. With my brown-paper bag full of tomatoes and other spring greens, I headed home with ideas for dinner racing through my head.

After much deliberation and raiding the kitchen cupboards, I started by thinly slicing pork loin, and marinating the strips in a smoky barbecue sauce bought from a local deli. While letting the pork rest in the fridge, I cut a few of the larger tomatoes into cubes, added tiny slivers of Spanish onion, drizzled some balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil over it and gave it a good pinch of seasoning, to make a fresh salsa. After everything had marinated for a couple of hours and we were ready for dinner, I heated the customary tablespoon of oil in a large pan to quickly fry the meat, to which I added some bright yellow corn kernels and roughly chopped spring onions. Spooning the meat and salsa onto warm tortilla wraps, folding it into one neat little package and taking a big bite, I could not stop a smile from spreading across my face, Spring is in the air!

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Cheers to 4 Years!

Today is a very special day. On a beautiful and snowy March morning, exactly four years ago, I walked into the Marylebone Registry office together with my mum and two sisters, wearing the most special dress I have ever owned and the biggest smile I have ever smiled. Waiting for us in the foyer of this breathtaking building were my soon to be brothers- and mother-in-law as well as a couple of very close and dear friends. Today is my fourth wedding anniversary!!

Growing up I did not have dreams and aspirations of big white dresses, confetti strewn church floors, three tiered royal iced cakes or a lavishly decorated reception hall filled with more people than you could ever manage to even say "Hello" to. In fact, I did not even really entertain the idea of getting married at all. That is until I moved to London, started working in a little hotel in Kensington Gardens Square and was lucky enough to meet the one person who was placed here on Earth just for me :) A couple of months after my 21st birthday, I was wearing a sparkly diamond ring on my left hand and another few months later I was saying "I do" in the same room that Paul and Linda McCartney did back in '69. After the moving and emotional ceremony, we all got into a couple of cabs and headed to Zizzi restaurant in Notting Hill where I had booked the reception lunch. The restaurant staff were amazingly accommodating and had set up a massive table for us in the window, away from all the other guests. After a Champagne toast on us happy couple, our orders of creamy pastas, gourmet pizzas and billowing calzones arrived at our table. The afternoon was spent in a happy haze of delicious Italian fare, generous glasses of wine and the comforting company of our family and friends. I would not change a single thing from that day, except for our dads to have been there also. It was, for me and my husband, the Perfect Wedding Day.

To remember and celebrate this momentous day in our lives, I wanted to create a romantic, beautiful and truly wonderful dessert for our anniversary dinner. I toyed with several ideas, paged through numerous cookbooks and food magazines and even searched the Internet for inspiration. There were so many amazing desserts that I could choose from that, once again I could not make a choice. Then it struck me, on an occasion as special as this, there is no need to choose and you can have it all. I wanted to re-create a fine-dining experience and yet have homely desserts on the plate, and I wanted it all to taste like little bites of Heaven. So I started by making tiny little Vanilla Meringues, whisking fresh vanilla seeds into the glossy cloud of egg whites and caster sugar and dropping espresso-spoonfulls of the mix onto a greased baking sheet. While these little delights were baking in the low heat oven, I started making a red cherry jelly, which I poured into tall shot glasses to set in the fridge. Next I melted some dark, bitter, 80% chocolate together with a few mini marshmallows and a knob of butter in a bain-marie. This I then folded into soft peaks of whipped cream, which I piped into small Chinese soup spoons. Lastly, I crushed some pale-green, waxy pistachio nuts and mixed some chopped, black cherries into a tub of Greek yoghurt. This will go on-top of the jelly to create a mini-cherry trifle shot, served with a dark chocolate spoon with a vanilla meringue lid. The perfect dessert to celebrate the perfect marriage :)

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

A Recipe for Change

To say that I was a fussy eater as a kid would, quite frankly, be the understatement of the year. I remember many an evening when my mum or sisters would prepare another completely different meal, just for me. There was a period when all I would eat were white bread, tomato ketchup and mayonnaise sandwiches. I even convinced myself at one stage that I had developed an allergy to Chlorophyll and could not eat anything green, as it made my lips swell up. I had a talent for digging out minuscule pieces of mushrooms, onions and tomato from pasta sauce and would flatly refuse to even sit at the same table as someone eating prawns.

Thankfully, as I grew older and more interested in cooking, my sense of taste also developed and I got over my childhood food hang-ups, well most of them... There are still a few things that I'm not that keen on eating; For example, as much as I love the smell and flavour of mushrooms I still can't bring myself to bite into one, and even though lamb stews regularly make an appearance on our dinner table, I never eat the meat myself. I also included Indian curry dishes on this list. Although I am now a lot more adventurous, and willing to try everything at least once, for some reason I still clung to the idea that I do not like Indian cuisine. However, over a dinner of Thai green curry last week, my husband asked me why I don't ever prepare or eat Indian food. For the life of me I could not give him a decent answer and the more I thought about it, the more I wondered what's not to like. These dishes are so wonderfully fragrant and perfectly balanced in flavour, spice and seasoning, that it takes years to become an accomplished curry chef. This cuisine is so popular that there are entire streets lined with one curry house after another in the famous Brick Lane area of London, attracting millions of diners each year. England even declared it's national dish as Chicken Tikka Masala, as this is several times more popular than their own Fish and Chips.

Faced with these facts and resolved to move Indian cuisine from my "Dislike" column to my "Love It" column, I decided to make a Chicken Korma for dinner last night. Knowing that the recipe books on my shelves won't be of any use to me this time, I turned to the very useful World Wide Web for inspiration. After a good hour of Googling, trawling through countless recipe search engines, and reading pages upon pages of discussion forums, I soon found myself lost amongst all the different variates of recipes for this dish. Luckily, I'm not that easily discouraged, and after picking elements from a couple of recipes that did not include travelling to North India to roast your hand-picked spices on a flat hot-rock, I compiled my own recipe for a mild and creamy Korma to add to the millions already floating through cyberspace, and here it is:

For the marinade:
150g tub natural yoghurt
Pinch of rock salt
8 Whole cloves
Pinch of saffron
1 Cinnamon stick
6 Cardamom pods, crushed
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp cayenne pepper

Mix everything together in a big bowl and add 450g diced chicken breast, and place in the fridge to marinade for at least 2-3 hours.

For the main sauce:
1 large onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed under a knife blade
3 cm piece of root ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp hot chilli powder
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
75g creamed coconut
50g flaked, toasted almonds
100ml single cream

Put the onion, garlic and ginger into a hand blender, and blitz to a smooth paste, you might have to add a scant teaspoon of water to the mix. Heat a tbsp of veg oil or ghee in a cast iron pot or thick-bottomed pan. Once hot add all of the spices and fry for one minute to release the flavours. Next add the onion paste and fry for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly to stop it from burning. Once the mixture is nicely coloured and the onion paste is cooked, add the chicken pieces and the marinade to the pan, omitting the whole spices, and fry for a further 10 minutes until the chicken is lightly browned and cooked through. Lastly add the pieces of coconut and the almonds and pour over enough warm water to cover the chicken, stirring everything well until the coconut has completely dissolved. Cover the dish and let it cook on a medium to low heat for 35-40 minutes until the chicken is wonderfully tender. Taste the dish and adjust the seasoning if necessary, add the cream and let it boil down for about 10 minutes until the sauce starts to thicken.

Served with steamed basmati rice and a couple of Naan breads, this dish easily served 3 people for dinner. Most importantly, I am happy to report that I have officially knocked another item off my list, and can't wait to develop other recipes for Tikka Masala, Kashmiri, Tandoori, Vindaloo...

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

From the Frying Pan

This morning children and adults all over the UK were waking up to the sweet smell of frying pancakes, letting everyone know that today is Pancake Day!

Also named Shrove Tuesday, this day traditionally marks the last day before Lent, a time of abstinence and giving up luxuries and pleasures. During the 40 days and 40 nights of Lent, Catholics historically - and still to this day - would give up eating things like fats, eggs and dairy products. Not wanting anything to go to waste, families would have a feast on Shrove Tuesday using up any foods that would not last the entirety of Lent.

As plenty of fats were used during these feasts, the day became known as Mardi Gras or "Fat Tuesday" in France, which in turn gave rise to Carnival in many famous cities all over the world, including Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and New Orleans in Louisiana.
Alternatively, in Poland the feast was traditionally held on the last Thursday before Lent and became known as Tłusty czwartek or "Fat Thursday". During the day families would eat Pączki (Polish Donuts), a tradition that is still celebrated by Polish communities all over the world.
Here in the UK however, pancakes became an integral part of this day, using up your eggs, milk and fats with only the addition of flour, and in time became known as Pancake Day.

In modern times, the religious connotations of this day might no longer be the main focus, and most people celebrate Pancake Day without partaking in Lent. However this day is still steeped in tradition and you can join in many activities such as Pancake Races, Pancake Flipping competitions, Mob Football games and the famous annual Pancake Grease, held by Westminster School.

Not one to let an opportunity to cook something special pass me buy, I was first one in the kitchen this morning. I already had the eggs cracked, the milk and oil whisked, the flour sifted and the thick, smooth, cream-coloured batter ready by the time the rest of the house started the process of getting out from under their warm duvets. Although English pancakes are usually very thin and served with caster sugar and lemon juice, I decided to brake the mould and do things my way. I used an American breakfast pancake recipe for the batter, which uses both self-raising flour and baking powder to give risen, fluffy pancakes to really sink your teeth into. After heating my frying pan with a tiny dash of oil, pouring the eggy-batter into it and giving it a swirl around, I threw caution to the wind and added a handful of blueberries. As I turned out one golden pancake after another, the delicious smells drifting throughout the flat soon brought everyone to the kitchen, tousle-haired and all. On the table I already had waiting, bowls of blueberries and sliced bananas, a pot of my orange sugar (caster sugar infused with orange rinds), a tub of runny honey and some whipped cream. As we all devoured the breakfast feast, my Polish husband not even caring that there weren't any Pączki, I knew why this tradition has lasted for so long :)

Friday, 20 February 2009

This little Piggy

In the wise words of Samuel Johnson, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life" lies more truth than many people would believe. Even after living in this city for well over 5 years, there are still many places in London that will slap a massive, unstoppable smile on my face. One is walking across Waterloo bridge, from which you can see so many famous landmarks your head starts spinning to take it all in. Another is walking through the revolving door of the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery, knowing that you are only a heartbeat away form some of the most amazing master pieces created in the history of art. But the place that gives me the biggest of thrills is coming out of London Bridge Station, crossing under the railway bridge and being hit by the noise and bustle of the London Borough Markets.

These markets recently celebrated 250 years of trading on its current site, and the history of the market can be traced back for almost 2000 years. Tucked under railway arches and flanked by the magnificent Southwark Cathedral, this market holds such an abundance of mouth-watering produce, it truly is a food-lover's heaven. Stalls upon stalls containing home-made breads, pastries and baked goods. Cheese and dairy products originating from all corners of the globe. Hand reared, free-range and organically fed fowl, pork, lamb and beef as well as game and venison. Variates of fresh fish and sea-food to make the jaws of even the most seasoned cooks drop in awe. Barrels filled with olives, pickles, nuts and dried fruits, dazzling all passers-by with their multi-coloured displays. Tasting glasses filled with home-pressed wines, ales and ciders, enticing all with their fragrant bouquets. Fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers in all sizes, shapes and colours. Here you will never be left wanting, as you can find anything your heart might desire, from the most extravagant truffles to the humblest of chicken eggs.This morning after a short telephone call from my sister, during which I exclaimed, "Of course I'll be home, I don't have anywhere to go!" I realised with a jolt that there is always somewhere to go on a Market day! So with the sun making it's appearance and finally turning the perma-grey sky of London to Periwinkle blue, I grabbed my trusty Nikon, a large shopping bag and made my way to London Bridge station. This little piggy was going to the Market :)

Before you can even see the market, you are met with the enticing smells of frying sausages and home-made burgers, North African spiced flat breads, stewing curries and many more amazing meals being served up by the traders. The crowds of people are something to be reckoned with, especially if you hit the market at lunch time, but it's good for the traders and therefore good for the market.

Walking around the stalls, talking to the friendly traders, sampling some of their fine produce and snapping away with my camera, I started seeing visions of a great big plate of Anti-Pasta as a special treat for our Friday dinner. Olives, pickled garlic and Dolmades were my first purchases, then I acquired a brilliantly purple aubergine, some vine-ripened plum tomatoes, sweet yellow bell peppers and a bag of chestnut mushrooms from the fruit and veg stalls. Next onto the cured meats and smoked sausages and finally a few hearty chunks of French, Dutch and Swiss cheese. It's so easy to get carried away here, and as I don't have a platinum card in my wallet, I thought it best to take my lovely purchases and start the journey home to prepare this magnificent meal.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Spread a Little Joy

This might seem like a strange thing for a self-confessed foodie to admit , but one of my favourite things to eat is jam on toast. Now, I have to add that this is no ordinary jam on toast, but rather my own home-made preserves on granary bread from my local family bakery. Just thinking about it makes me mouth water.

I usually make most of my preserves during the summer months when I have access to the glut of berries and soft fruits. Jars of strawberry jam, sour-cherry jelly and peach conserve, to name but a few, adorn the selves in my store cupboard. However, this morning I discovered that my stocks were starting to run low, and I immediately had to do something about it. Looking around my kitchen, I saw the basket of green apples that I had bought over the weekend and I knew that I wanted to make my favourite blackberry and apple jam. Certain that I won't find any plump, juicy berries in any of the fresh produce markets at this time of the year, I headed to my local Thornton's Budgens. This store is a little gem on our high street as it stocks lots of local products, foodie ingredients and organic produce. They also sell bags of frozen summer berries, with no added anything, which were just perfect for my jamming needs.

With my purchases in hand, I headed home to start the peeling, coring and slicing of the apples, washing and defrosting of the berries and weighing out of the sugar. The dark purple juice that cooks out of these beautiful berries quickly filled the whole flat with it's amazing fragrance, and it wasn't long before I could spoon the sticky jam into the warm sterilized jars. After all my hard work, I thought it only fair that I treat myself to a slice or two of toast with some warm jam spread all over it. Pure Joy!

Monday, 9 February 2009

A Fine Pair of Pears

Growing up in South Africa, I was always spoilt for choice by the abundance of fruit growing throughout the year. The Summer months produced mangoes, lychees, papayas, watermelons, peaches, plums, bananas and many more mouth-watering varieties. The Winter months in turn gave us apricots, apples, avocados and citrus of all shapes, sizes and tastes. In our house, dessert was more often than not a massive bowl of fresh fruit salad, and often I would even forego the meal and just eat the fruit.

As you can imagine, moving to the UK was a massive adjustment for me and my fruit addiction. I still remember the first time I found mangoes in my local supermarket, I could not believe my luck! I picked the best looking one from the pile, paid more than I ever thought possible for the fruit and took it home in a state of euphoria. Only my happiness was short-lived as I discovered that after being flown halfway across the globe, stacked, packed and refrigerated this little mango had lost its identity and no longer tasted of the South African sun or anything else for that matter. I did not let this incident get the better of me however, and have tried and tried again with many other fruits and markets, and am pleased to say that there have been some victories amongst the losses.

One of my best discoveries so far has been that local and in-season is still the best, no matter where in the world you are. I am not saying that I don't still occasionally get drawn in by a gloriously red and yellow mango and try my luck once more. I just now know that if I want to be guaranteed of fruit that will be fresh and bursting with flavour, then a locally grown and seasonal fruit will be the wisest choice.

When I was struck by a fruit craving yesterday morning, I headed to my nearest green-grocer to see what I could find. With the above knowledge in mind, I bought a big bag of conference pears grown on a nearby Hertfordshire farm, passing-by all of the exotic, imported fruits. When I got home, I fished out one of the perfectly ripe fruits and immediately bit into the soft, sweet and juicy flesh. I was not disappointed.

Wanting to make the most of these delicious fruits before they became over-ripe, I once again turned to my recipe book collection for inspiration. After an hour of happy reading, I decided on a dreamily light and delicately sweet pear and almond flan. After pealing, coring and slicing the beautiful pears, I sprinkled a couple of spoons of Amaretto over them to infuse them with almond flavour, while I whisked the egg whites to soft peaks and folded in the ground almonds.

After dinner, as I cut into the golden dessert with it's rows of sliced pears sitting on-top, I knew that it could not replace my childhood favourite of fresh fruit salad, but right here, right now, there was no getting better than this :)

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Love in a bowl

London has been covered under a record breaking blanket of snow since Monday, and for most us of that means spending time outside in the cold. After either playfully enjoying the powdery white snow in a park or slipping and sliding back from the tube station, we all return home with glowing red cheeks and numb fingers, looking for a respite from the cold. In my opinion the best possible way to warm up after a snowy day, is with a bowl of steaming, home-made soup.

When it comes to making soup, the possibilities are endless and is only limited by the boundaries of your own imagination. From thick and creamy broths to clear and rich consommés, they can serve to whet the appetite or stave off hunger, playing a vast variety of roles in kitchens and dining rooms all over the world.

My earliest memories of this versatile dish is my mother's chicken soup, made with patience and love in her pressure cooker. A glorious broth of fresh chicken portions, colourful vegetables, gleaming lentils and stock, this was always something special we shared as a family on cold and rainy days.

Coming home yesterday evening after an icy walk through the woods, I knew that there was no other option for me but to make a big pot of soup. I started running all of my favourites through my head; I could make a quick and easy, vibrantly green pea soup, or should I make my mother-in-law's amazing Borscsz, a traditional Polish beetroot soup. Maybe a classic broccoli and Stilton soup or I could always go French with a thick and beautiful onion soup. I thought that I would never be able to choose just one, when I remembered that I had been to the Farmers market on Sunday and had a basket full of glorious fresh winter vegetables.

I immediately heated the oven, chopped the carrots, sweet potatoes and parsnips and tossed them together with whole garlic gloves and knobs of butter into a roasting tray. When the veggies were tender and just starting to be slightly caramelised I added a few handfuls of fine green beans and gave them all another few minutes in the oven. After frying a finely chopped onion in some melted butter and spices, I added all of the lovely roasted vegetables, stirred them around the stock-pot for a minute or two and then added my flavourburst stock. Letting it simmer for another few minutes, I cut thick slices of granery bread and took out the tub of double cream, then quickly blended the soup to become a thick, ocre coloured bowl of love.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Obama and Americana

With the recent inauguration of the new American President, Barack Obama and the constant news coverage of his first week in the Oval office, it seems that all of us have spent some time reflecting on America's past and future this week. For me that naturally led to thinking about the American cuisine and it's contribution to the culinary world.

For most of us, when thinking about American food a picture of a cheese burger and fries will most likely come to mind. However, the American cuisine is a wealth of diversity and creativity, each state contributing with it's own unique style and flavours. Most of the major cities now boasts with Michelin starred restaurants, many of which are producing internationally recognised, talented chefs.

To celebrate this new era in American history, I decided to incorporate some classic American dishes into my weekly menu, all with a modern twist. I started the week with a deliciously creamy spoonbread. A classic cornbread mixed with creamed corn creating a soft and sweet accompaniment to honey glazed sausages and a pea-shoot salad. Next I served beautifully grilled plaice and steamed vegetables with a classic cheese and paprika sauce. By mid-week I created my own American inspired turkey and leek pie, encased in a buttery, crumbly pastry. I ended off the week with one of my all time favourite American inventions, the choc-chip cookie. To give it a new and exciting twist, I added some rolled oats and dried cranberries (another American favourite of mine) to the mix.

Biting into the delightful little cookie, sipping my cup of Americano coffee I gave a satisfied salute to the American cuisine and started thinking about my next culinary adventure.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

A month of Birthdays

January is always a month that is filled to the brim with birthdays, and for me that always means plenty of birthday cakes. In the last week I had to bake cakes for my husband, one of his work mates and one of our friends, and I was in seventh heaven! I love baking delicious, scrumptious and pretty cakes. The only problem I faced was choosing which of my 1001 recipes would best suit which birthday boy or girl.

My husband's one true food love is cheese, and so it was a natural choice to bake a lemon cheesecake for him. The base was a beautiful, crumbly mixture of digestive biscuits, soft butter and lemon zest, pressed into the bottom of the spring form tin. The cake itself was a glorious combination of rich double cream, smooth soft cheese, beautiful yellow organic eggs and even more lemon zest and a fresh squeeze of the juice. It might not have been the prettiest cake in the world, but topped with birthday candles and served with love, it was a real hit with all.

Next I was asked to bake a cake for one of the guys working with my husband, to be served to all of the boys at the workshop. This one was a bit trickier to choose, as there were many factors to consider here. Firstly, the guy whose birthday it was, had landed in hospital a few months ago after a heart attack and is on a very healthy diet, but still loves his chocolate. Secondly, the boss of the workshop has an extreme sweet tooth but oddly enough this is coupled with an aversion to chocolate. Lastly, there was my reputation to consider, this had to be a manly cake and yet still emanate all of my domestic goddessness. All of this brought me to a recipe for a plain buttermilk cake. Light, spongy and heart healthy , yet still sweet enough to even satisfy the boss. I baked it in a plain loaf pan, for it to be manly, and then adorned it with dark, melted chocolate and glistening red maraschino cherries for the feminine touch.

The last birthday cake I had baked was also by far my favourite. It was for one of my friends, who is a real girly girl, drinks sparkly drinks, a queen of accessorising and is a self-confessed chocoholic. Here, finally was my chance to get the creative juices flowing and to create something truly pretty. My first and most important task was to incorporate as much chocolate into this cake as I could. For this there is only one option: death-by-chocolate cupcakes. These amazing little cakes use the best cocoa powder, melted dark chocolate and beautiful bitter-sweet chocolate buttons. This is then topped with a darkly-delicious chocolate ganache-buttercream. Needles to say, this is not for the calorie-counting amongst us. To make these little cakes even more special, I took some inspiration from Nigella and topped them with dainty little wafer roses. As I placed the cake-plate in front of the waiting guests, an exited ripple of giggles escaped from them all. Ahh, how I love this feeling :)

Thursday, 22 January 2009

The blushing rhubarb

As unbelievable as it might seem and as embarrassed as I am to admit this, I have never cooked rhubarb in any way, shape or form. Even though I have read countless recipes that either starred or incorporated rhubarb in them, I have never actually produced any of these enticing dishes.

To put this shameful gap in my cookery skills right, I finally took the plunge and bought some beautiful, bright pink, forced rhubarb stems from my local fresh produce market yesterday morning. When I got home, I got all of my favourite cookbooks out and started looking for the one recipe that would not only do justice to this amazing ingredient but also deliver a mouth-watering result. Finally I found it, a classic rhubarb crumble with a little vanilla twist.

Chopping the stems into little chunks, covering it in vanilla sugar and tossing it around in a pan with melted butter, I wondered how it could have taken me this long to cook this wonderful vegetable. I revelled in making the crumble for the dessert, rubbing the cold butter into the soft, fluffy flour with my finger-tips and covering the gorgeous rhubarb with it. I slipped the pie dish into the heated oven with a wonderful, satisfied sense of achievement settling over me. I'm afraid I don't have a picture of the finished product, as I had several eager tasters standing around the oven as I took out the bubbling crumble, barely giving me time to spoon it into bowls. This may have been my first rhubarb dish, but I knew that it most certainly was not my last.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Orange

One of my favourite things in my kitchen is a wedding present I got from my Aunty. It's an orange Le Creuset casserole dish. Whenever I want to make something special and hearty for dinner, I take out this little beauty for the occasion. From pot-roasts to meaty stews, it always delivers amazing results and brings that WOW-factor to the table. I find that it really comes into it's own this time of the year, when the long and cold evenings lend itself perfectly to big, warming, slow-cooked meals.

That is why, yesterday for dinner I thought that I would use this old favourite of mine to try out a new recipe I had thought-up, borrowing a few ideas from the new WFI magazine. A fragrantly spiced beef and tomato stew, beautifully flecked with seasonal root vegetables and a good glug of red wine. As is best with these kinds of stews, I left it simmering away for well over 2 hours on the hob to develop the flavours and for the meat to go deliciously tender. The aromatic steam rising from the dish soon filled my kitchen, bringing to mind wonderful images of Italian country kitchens, intensely burning log fires and heavily laden tables surrounded by family and friends. Needless to say, I could hardly wait to tuck into a plateful of this gorgeous stew and neither could anyone else who saw the bright orange casserole pot sitting on the stove.

Monday, 19 January 2009

The Neglected KitchenAid

This morning, after I had my usual breakfast of porridge with dried cranberries and runny-honey, I was suddenly overtaken by the urge to bake something sweet. I started going through my kitchen cupboards to see what I could make, when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted my dust-covered KitchenAid standing mixer.

About a year ago I decided to treat myself to a Christmas present and ordered the mixer on the Internet. I still remember how giddy I was with excitement, I could not wait for it to arrive. When I got it, I could hardly control myself and ripped open the packaging. I marvelled at the gleaming white machine that stood in front of me, and immediately started going through my recipe books for ideas of things to make with it. For weeks afterwards I was still on cloud nine as I mixed, creamed, kneaded and baked batch after batch of cakes, cookies and breads. Unfortunately as with all things in life, the initial excitement wore off and I started using it less and less.

However, this morning after reminiscing about those first few weeks together I suddenly felt inspired to take it out of the cupboard and make my favourite cut-out cookies. I got out the eggs, butter, sugar and flour and started creaming, mixing and enjoying myself again. As the kitchen filled with the smell of the baking cookies, I could hardly keep the smile off my face. Once they were cooled and iced, and I sat down with a cup of coffee to enjoy the results of the morning's efforts, I felt like I had just caught up with a long lost friend. Who says you need a new gadget to make you happy?

Friday, 16 January 2009

In the Beginning

Food. Everybody needs it to survive, and a lot of us eat it purely for that reason. But there are a few of us for which food has become a passion and even an obsession. By this I don't mean that I sit and think about eating all day long, but rather that I create dishes in my head, imagine what they would look like, smell like, taste like... I'll read every food magazine that I can lay my hands on, pour over thick cooking volumes, watch hours of cooking shows, and spend days in my kitchen cooking, baking, creating.

Don't get me wrong, I haven't always had this obsession. I remember my teenage years, when I used to throw a drama queen hissy fit if my mother would even dare to ask me to help with preparing a simple salad. The kitchen to me was an oppressive prison, I didn't want anything to do with it.

At the tender age of 19 I left my parents' home in South Africa, got on a Boeing 747, and moved to London, UK. Suddenly I had to fend for myself, and most shockingly of all, cook for myself!!! Not only that, but my first job here in the UK was working in the busy kitchen of a country pub with a temperamental Portuguese chef! Not to worry, the irony was not lost on me or my family. I spent hours in that hot little kitchen, prepping veg, making batters, plating puddings, cakes and desserts and washing up. Oh, how I remember the washing up... Somehow, I thrived in that little kitchen, I learned a lot about myself and about food and found that cooking could actually be a pleasure!

After two months of working myself to the ground at the pub, I realised that the English country side, was not the most happening place for a 19 year old to spend their time. So I packed my bags and got on the bus, back to the metropolis of London.

I haven't worked in a professional kitchen since then, and who knows if I ever will. But one thing that has stuck from that experience is my ever increasing love for good food and the pleasure I get from feeding people. I want to share this passion with you, giving you glimpses into my kitchen and my food, and I hope to inspire you to not only eat to survive but to enrich your life as a whole.