Tuesday, 26 November 2013

My proustian moment: simple rock cakes

A taste of childhood - the humble rock cake

Food can so often evoke powerful memories. Whether it be the aroma of freshly ground coffee, the sensation of biting into a soft, ripe peach or the taste of a homely apple crumble; what, when and where we eat food can transport us to another time or place in a moment.

The French author Marcel Proust was famously moved to reflect upon his childhood memories when taking a small bite from a madeleine. The madeleine is a pretty, delicate French cake, baked in a special mould. It is indeed a lovely treat but Proust can keep his madeleines. The treat which takes me on a nostalgic journey to my former years is slightly less elegant. In fact, elegance is nowhere to be seen. It is not even desirable here! You see, I have an inordinate fondness for the humble rock cake.

Rock cakes are craggy, ugly little cakes but beneath their rugged exterior, they are actually rather delicious. A rock cake is probably one of the first things that I baked and, as they are very forgiving, they are ideal for a kitchen project with small children on a rainy afternoon. 

We have had builders working on our house for the past week and, in need of some comfort amidst the chaos, I decided to take a jaunt down memory lane and recreate the cakes of my childhood. As I stirred the mixture together, I recalled helping my mother (and grandmother) make these treats standing on a stool in order to reach the mixing bowl and then dolloping the blobs of mixture onto the baking tray.

A rock cake is part cake, part scone. The exterior should be slightly crusty and crunchy with sugar and the interior delicately spiced, generously fruited and have a fairly robust texture (you are not aiming for 'light and airy' here!). You can choose dried fruit and spice to suit but I favour currants and mixed peel only as this is how I remember them from my childhood. Other plausible additions include dried cranberries, chopped glace cherries, lemon or orange zest. The cakes are at their best when eaten warm from the oven or on the day of baking but you can store in an airtight tin for a couple of days. Warming them for a few minutes in the oven does revive them somewhat!

My son gets very little sugar in his diet but I have to admit that I couldn't resist giving him a rock cake to sample. No surprise that he absolutely loved it and I look forward to making these with him when he is a little older.

Rock Cakes
Makes approx 9


200g self-raising flour
1tsp baking powder
1 tsp mixed spice
75g demerara sugar, plus extra for dusting
100g butter, diced
1 egg, beaten
2-3 tbsp milk
100g currants
50g mixed peel

1. Pre-heat the oven to 170C and butter or line a couple of baking trays (I use reusable silicone sheets).

2. In a food processor, whizz together the butter with the flour, baking powder and mixed spice until it resembles fine crumbs and tip into a mixing bowl. Alternatively, rub the butter into the flour mixture by hand. Stir in the sugar and fruit.

3. Mix in the egg and just enough milk to make a thick, firm and sticky dough. Try not to over mix.

4. Dollop heaped tablespoonfuls of the mixture onto the baking sheet, leaving room between each one as they will spread a little. Do not worry about shape - they should be rustic-looking! Sprinkle the top of each with demerara sugar.

5. Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack.

I am entering my rock cakes into the Tea Time Treats Challenge hosted by Karen at Lavender and Lovage and Kate at What Kate Baked.  Karen is hosting this month's challenge and has chosen the theme of dried fruit - a great way to use up some of the fruits left over from making Christmas cakes and puddings. There is already a most fantastic list of entries and I am looking forward to browsing through and getting inspired. Being greedy, we love teatime in this household and always feel slightly bereft when the cake tin in empty!

Tea Time Treats

Monday, 18 November 2013

Speedy toddler lunch: roast chicken quesadillas

When we moved house a few years ago, we were delighted to be leaving behind the freezing and falling apart mess that was our rented home for the year that we spent making sure that a 'move to the country' was indeed for us. We were excited about our new home but very sad to be leaving behind the ancient, solid-fuel fired Aga that we had come to love. We were both new to Aga cooking and, after a few disasters, soon learnt to love its versatility. Our favourite Aga treat was the fabled 'Aga toastie'. For those not lucky enough to have been acquainted with the culinary sensation that is the 'Aga toastie', it is essentially a toasted cheese sandwich. It is better though. I cannot explain why really. It just is.

To make an Aga toastie, you simply make a cheese sandwich according to your tastes (Cheddar and onion marmalade for me please). Grab some of that clever silicon baking sheet stuff and pop it on the hot plate. Pop your sandwich on top and lower the lid over the whole thing. Moments later, open the lid and flip the sandwich over and repeat. In just a couple of minutes flat, you have the fluffiest, toastiest toastie you have ever eaten. No need for butter on the outside so you could almost argue it is healthy.... Well, perhaps not. Maybe just 'less bad for you'.

Anyway, no more Aga toasties for us. Instead, we have discovered the joy of the quesadilla. Almost as speedy (you have to preheat the pan rather than having the instant heat of the Aga, but needs must!), and equally versatile and tasty. We all love them and I found them to be an instant hit with my son which is handy as I am always in need of a speedy lunch that can be whipped up in moments after a hectic morning of singing, clapping and waving at Jo Jingles. Yes, my life really is that glamorous!

My son could eat little mini-wedges of these at around 10 months but they would probably suit baby-led-weaners earlier than this.

Being a creature of habit, I like the cheese and onion marmalade or chutney combination best. Sometimes I throw in a slice of two of ham for added excitement. But you can fill your quesadilla with almost anything, though cheese is a fairly essential element (queso meaning cheese, after all). For my son, I sometimes do cheese and grated apple or tuna, sweetcorn and cheese (think 'tuna melt'). Today I used shredded leftover roast chicken, chopped tomatoes and Cheddar. Mushrooms and onions work well if they are fried off a little to soften before adding to the filling. My husband likes a few jalapenos for the authentic Mexican kick. The fillings really are as diverse as your imagination. Vary the cheese according to the fillings - I once tried an Italian perversion of this Mexican snack with pesto, grated courgette, tomatoes and mozzarella. It worked a treat!

Here is how to make one...

Serves 1

1 flour tortilla

Fillings of choice (e.g. shredded chicken, tuna, ham, mushrooms, tomatoes, roasted red peppers, spring onions, pesto with grated courgette and mozzarella etc...)

Handful grated cheese - Cheddar, Gruyere, Mozzarella (match the style of cheese to your filling)

1. Take a griddle pan or even a large non-stick frying pan and set it on the hob to heat up to a medium heat.

2. Lay your tortilla on a chopping board and add your fillings to one side of the tortilla only. Sprinkle with the cheese. Fold the 'empty' half of the tortilla over the fillings (don't overfill) so that you have a semi-circle.

3. Fry the filled tortilla in the dry pan on a medium heat for a minute or so on one side before flipping over and cooking the other side. You are aiming for a nice crisp tortilla and melty cheese goodness on the inside. Watch closely as they do burn easily!

Thursday, 14 November 2013

A taste of Florida: (Key) Lime Pie

I am a pudding person. No meal is really complete for me without a little sweet something-or-other at the end. It can be as simple as a square of good chocolate or as elaborate as the finest of French gateaux but I simply must finish with sugar.

This is a terrible habit which, no doubt, explains my somewhat well-cushioned girth but it is not one that I feel able to do without. I try to keep my weeknight indulgences in check: a simple yoghurt or a small slice of plain-ish cake. But at the weekend, I do like to create something a little more indulgent. 

Ask me to pick a favourite pud and I'm stumped. It is hard to narrow it down but, overall, I'd say I lean fairly heavily towards the traditional British genre. Treacle tart, apple crumble, sticky toffee pudding, bakewell tart, bread and butter pudding - all are my idea of pudding heaven. I'm pretty happy in France too with a tarte tatin, fondant au chocolat or clafoutis. 

I think though, if really pushed, that my absolute favourite hails from across the pond. I have an aunt who lives in Florida and, over the years, have fallen for the Floridian classic that is Key Lime Pie. The number of Key Lime Pies I have sampled is frankly embarrassing. I am on a never-ending quest to discover the 'perfect' Key Lime Pie and take my search pretty seriously when holidaying Stateside. Key Lime Pie graces menus throughout the USA but the 'real deal' has to be made with Key Limes which are quite different to regular limes. They are smaller and taste different and, some would argue, that there is simply no point in making a pie without these fruits. I've tried many a pie in my quest for perfection. So far, my favourite can be found here. But this is a little far to go (unless you happen to live  in South-West Florida). So, why not make your own instead?

Ok. We can't get Key limes in the UK. I know it is controversial, but you can make a pretty good pie with regular limes and I'd rather use those than the bottled Key Lime Juice that you can buy if you search high enough. 

This hurdle overcome, the rest of the ingredients are pretty simple. Unctuous condensed milk and egg yolks for the filling and biscuits with butter and sugar for the crisp tart base. A traditional KLP would have a Graham Cracker Crust and I do have to admit that no British biscuit is the perfect substitute. Digestives will do. Hobnobs might be better. Delia suggests adding some Grape Nuts for added crunch, though I have tried this and am not convinced. I was lucky enough to receive some Graham's Crackers from a friend who was working in the US after I complained that my KLP wasn't quite up to scratch due to my use of digestives. I have been eeking them out and was down to my last mini-packet so for this pie I used a combination of these along with digestives. It worked pretty well. As did the addition of a little sugar in the pie crust. Not something I would usually typically do but I noticed that this seemed to be the norm stateside. 

I usually make this in a fluted tart tin with removable base but the base on mine has mysteriously vanished. As such, I opted for a loose bottom cake tin and made a deeper pie. Different, but rather pleasing as it happens!

Last weekend saw a lovely lunch with friends and I took along my latest incarnation of this tangy, creamy dessert.

After years of tinkering, I can finally say that I am happy with my (Key) Lime Pie recipe. Here it is...

Key Lime Pie
Serves 6-8

250g Graham's Crackers, Digestives or Hob Nobs (you can get Graham's Crackers in the UK here.)
75g melted butter
50g caster sugar

Zest of 4 and juice of approx 6 limes (150ml or thereabouts)
1 tin (397g) condensed milk
3 egg yolks

1. Pre-heat oven to 160 C. Blitz the crackers or biscuits until you have fine crumbs - you can do this in a food processor or in a zip-lock bag with a rolling pin. Pour into a bowl with the sugar and melted butter and stir to combine. Press into a 20 cm cake tin or 22cm tart tin with removable base.

2. Bake the base in the oven for 10-15 minutes until slightly golden and firm. Set aside to cool.

3. Meanwhile, get squeezing those limes. Rolling stubbornly solid limes on a work surface can help loosen them up prior to squeezing! It took six rather hard limes for me to get enough juice but you may only need four.

4. With an electric whisk, beat the egg yolks for a minute before adding the condensed milk and whisking for a couple of minutes until well combined. Add lime zest and juice and whisk together until thick, creamy and nicely combined.

5. Pour into the prepared base and bake for 15 minutes until just set but still ever-so-slightly wobbly in the middle.

6. Chill for at least four hours or, preferably, overnight.

Serve with whipped cream on the side. Never on top. Resist all temptation to top with meringue. 

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Feeling Festive (already!) - Sticky Christmas Cake

I know that it is only November but (please humour me), my thoughts are very much turning to Christmas. Or rather, the food that goes with Christmas.

Please don't get all 'Bah Humbug' on me - I have enough of that at home. I am loud and proud when I admit that I absolutely, categorically LOVE CHRISTMAS. Everything about it. But particularly the feasting.

This year, I am feeling slightly bereft though as we are going away for Christmas. Whilst I am very excited to be off to stay with my brother and his family, I am already feeling a bit lost without the usual menu planning that usually starts in earnest around now. I keep looking at food magazines and deliberating whether to do the sprouts with chestnuts and pancetta again this year or try something more radical when I then realise that the decision is taken out of my hands as it won't be me doing the cooking. It is a very strange feeling.

However, I have been tasked with making the Christmas cake. This is perfect as (modesty aside) I think I made a truly delicious Christmas cake. In fact, the only people who I believe rival my Christmas cake  for sticky deliciousness are my mother and my sister (both of whom use the same recipe as me)! They are both more adept in the decorating stakes (my sister having the advantage as she is a professional cake decorator) but I enjoy 'having a go'.

This week I baked two cakes as my husband was concerned that we wouldn't have one to enjoy 'at home' once we return from our Christmas break. I decided to bake a round and a square cake and will be deliberating over decorating ideas over the next few weeks. The picture at the top is of last year's attempt!

I usually make my Christmas cake around October half-term time. I have no idea why as I do not have school age children so half term has little impact on my life (other than it leading to a reduction of mid-week parking spots in the parent-and-child spaces at the supermarket - the sort of thing that casts a shadow over an otherwise pleasing morning). Mid-October to Mid-November gives enough time for the cake to mature nicely for Christmas although earlier is good too.

This is not a cake for those who like a very traditional, dark and treacly bake. It is paler in colour, perhaps a touch lighter though not much. It is very sticky and moist and, in my eyes, utterly delicious. I do not soak the fruit in alcohol before baking (though you certainly could if you have the time and inclination) but do feed the cake weekly once it is baked with a heady mixture of rum or brandy and sherry, mixed with all-important glycerin. This gives it the gorgeous sticky texture that I love so much. 

I am not quite sure where the recipe originates from - I think perhaps an old wedding cake book - it has been used by the family for many years and lives on a much-scrumpled piece of paper in my recipe folder. If anyone knows the origin, please let me know so that I can credit appropriately.

Delicious Sticky Christmas Cake
N.B. The recipe here is for one 'quantity' of cake. You simply multiply up according to the size tin you are using to bake. This makes it a handy recipe if you are planning a multi-tiered cake for a wedding or Christening. 

For 8" round, use 3 quantities - bake approx 3 1/2 to 4 hours
For 8" square, use 4 quantities
For 9" round, use 4 quantities - bake approx 4 to 4 1/2 hours
For 9" square, use 5 quantities

I like a really deep cake and so usually do one extra quantity for my cakes. It does mean the tin is very full but the cake doesn't rise much.

2.5 oz / 71g currants
2.5 oz / 71g sultanas
1 oz / 28g raisins
1 oz / 28g glace cherries
1 1/2 oz / 42g mixed peel
1/4 lemon, zest and juice
2 oz / 57g plain flour
pinch nutmeg
pinch mixed spice
pinch salt
2 oz / 57g light brown muscovado sugar
2 oz / 57g butter, softened
1 large egg
3/4 oz / 21g ground almonds
2 tsp brandy or rum

Soaking mixture:
Equal quantities rum, sherry and glycerine.

1. Pre-heat oven to 140C. Line the tin with a double layer of buttered greaseproof paper.

2. Clean the raisins, sultanas and currants: pour the fruit onto a clean tea towel. Sprinkle over a couple of tablespoonfuls of plain flour and then close the tea towel around the fruit. Give a good shake and rub of the fruit through the tea towel - this should loosen any grit or stalks which should remain attached to the tea towel.

3. Halve the cherries and mix the fruit, mixed peel and lemon zest in a large bowl.

4. Sift flour, spices and salt into another large bowl.

5. Cream together the softened butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in the eggs one at a time. Stir in the ground almonds and then fold in the flour and spices. Add fruit, alcohol and lemon juice and mix thoroughly to combine.

6. Scrape into prepared tin and level the surface. Drop the tin carefully a couple of times onto the work top or floor so that any air bubbles rise to the top.

7. Pour one pint of water into a baking tin and place on the lowest shelf of the oven for the first half of the cooking time - this will create sufficient humidity to keep the top of the cake moist and ensure level results in baking.

8. Bake cake according to timings above - it is done when a skewer comes out clean with just some damp crumbs sticking to it. The timings above are approximate!

9. When baked, leave cake in the tin to cool overnight. The next morning remove from tin and sprinkle with soaking mixture before wrapping in waxed paper for at least three weeks. Feed with soaking mixture every week or so.

10. Decorate as wished!

Monday, 4 November 2013

A riot of colour: purple carrot and goat's cheese salad

We subscribe to a weekly organic veg box scheme from Abel and Cole and recently we have been receiving some unusually coloured produce. First came a veritable rainbow of squashes (I don't need to eat another squash for some time), then the almost neon orange cauliflower and now, these little beauties:

Purple carrots.

Apparently this is the colour that carrots used to be before orange became fashionable. Word has it that they are also even healthier than their regular orange cousins - they contain the same sort of antioxidants as blueberries and can therefore be classed in the 'superfood' category. I have to admit that I do find them rather splendid. I love the way that when you cut into them, you reveal the orange inner core.

Rather than serve them up alongside an ordinary weeknight dinner, I wanted to make them the centre of attention in a dish that was as pleasing on the eye as on the palate. Although it was chilly, the sun was streaming through the kitchen windows yesterday so I decided upon a sprightly salad to eat alongside some crusty bread and cold meat for a light lunch ahead of a hearty roast in the evening.

I cut the carrots into ribbons using a potato peeler and paired them with a sharp goats cheese (feta would work just as well), some toasted pine nuts, chopped fresh parsley and a classic vinaigrette. The colour definitely plays tricks with the mind - I kept expecting the carrots to taste of beetroot (they didn't). My husband said the multicoloured ribbons reminded him of Frazzles. I suspect he was a little disappointed that they tasted nothing like!

I loved this colourful salad and would make it again, perhaps with a mixture of different coloured carrots and vary the nuts (walnuts or cashews would work well, I think).

Purple carrot and goat's cheese salad
Serves 2


3 medium purple carrots
50g crumbled soft goat's cheese
small handful pine nuts
small handful flat-leaved parsley, finely chopped
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp runny honey
pinch sea salt
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil or rapeseed oil

1. Toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan until starting to brown - watch carefully as they burn very easily. Transfer to a small dish and set aside.

2. Peel the carrots into ribbons with a potato peeler and place in a bowl. Crumble over the cheese and sprinkle over the parsley. 

3. Prepare the dressing: with a fork or tiny whisk, combine the mustard and honey with a good pinch of sea salt. Add the vinegar and whisk together. Add the oil and whisk until you have a smooth dressing. Season to taste with pepper and more salt if required. Alternatively, shake ingredients together in a sealed jam jar.

4. Drizzle over as much of the dressing as you like and gently and briefly toss together. Sprinkle over the pine nuts and serve.

Friday, 1 November 2013

A bird in the cauldron: Pot Roast Pheasant with Sherry and Sage

It seems that I bought a few too many mini bars of chocolate for last night's trick-or-treaters. 

Sadly, master Little Bit Greedy is still too young to indulge in chocolate.

What a shame.

Mr Little Bit Greedy is trying to lose weight. It seems unfair to put temptation in his path. 

I'm basically doing him a service by eating my way through them. Aren't I? 

I thought so. Good.

In between doling out the treats to the various witches, vampires, werewolves and zombies that came to the door last night, I cooked up a delicious autumnal feast in my cauldron casserole dish. We love game in all guises and hadn't had any pheasant yet this autumn so a hearty pot roast seemed just the thing for a special supper for two.

I think pot-roasting is a great way to cook game birds which dry out so easily when opting for more traditional roasting. Be sure to brown the birds well prior to adding the liquid, otherwise they tend to look a touch on the anaemic side. We had a smallish hen and found 45 minutes to be about right in terms of time in the oven but a larger bird would obviously require longer. Just double the quantities for four; it works just as well.

I served our bird with roast potatoes and steamed green pointed cabbage but it would be good too with a creamy celeriac mash to mop up all the lovely juices from the pan. You could equally add more vegetables to the pot (cabbage, Chantenay carrots, celery...) and forgo extra veggies on the side.

Pot Roast Pheasant with Sherry and Sage
Serves 2


Olive oil
1 oven-ready pheasant
2 rashers smoked bacon, streaky bacon or pancetta
1 red onion
1 leek
2 carrots or a handful of baby carrots
4 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
4 large leaves sage
sprig fresh thyme
100 ml sweet sherry (Madeira or Marsala would also work well)
100ml white wine
250ml chicken stock
bay leaf

1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Prepare the vegetables: peel and chop onion into wedges, chop leek and carrots into large chunks. Finely chop the sage leaves.

2. Heat the oil in a large casserole and brown the pheasant on all sides. Set aside.

3. Chop the bacon into strips and fry (adding a touch more oil if necessary) for a couple of minutes before adding the vegetables, garlic cloves, sage and thyme. Cook gently over a medium heat for around five minutes until the vegetables are starting to soften at the edges.

4. Add the Sherry and white wine and turn up the heat. Bubble away for a couple of minutes before adding the pheasant to the pan. Pour over the stock and add the bay leaf. 

5. Bring to a simmer, place a tight-fitting lid on the casserole and transfer to the oven for 45 minutes or until the pheasant is cooked through and coming away easily from the bone.

6. Remove pheasant from liquid and carve. Serve with the delicious broth and vegetables from the pan.

Cooking with Herbs

I am entering this post into the 'Cooking with Herbs' blog challenge over at Lavender and Lovage. I am  gradually finding my way around food blogs old and new and am delighted to have discovered this lovely blog.

This recipe uses two reasonably hardy herbs: sage and thyme. It is the sage that dominates here though and it is a flavour that I adore. I do find that it can be a little overpowering so tend to go reasonably easy when adding to dishes. It is a herb that I really associate with Autumn - it goes so well with the season's squashes and game.