Friday 31 August 2007

Carrot & Chickpea Soup

I had had some dried chickpea lurking in my cupboard for far too long and so decided to turn them into soup. I often thicken my soups with beans or pulses as I find they are a great way of getting extra fiber and minerals into your diet. They also add quite a creamy texture to the soup, especially the white beans such as butter beans.

You will see below in the recipe that I have stated to use either 450g dried chickpeas or 900g canned. This is because dried chickpeas will absorb water as they soak overnight and will increase in both size and weight, meaning you need only half the quantity of dried to pre cooked.

I paired my chickpeas with carrots and fresh thyme that I have growing on my windowsill. I am sure that dried thyme or other herbs would work equally well. The soup turned out very thick, which I love as it actually makes it feel more like a meal compared to thin watery soups. It had a lovely flavour with a slightly earthy overtone. I served it with a thyme infused bagel I made a while ago and it was very comforting. The leftovers were great to take to work for lunch the following day. It also freezes well.

Carrot & Chickpea Soup

450g dried chickpeas or 900g canned chickpeas.
3 large carrots
1 onion
2 tsp fresh thyme
1 tbsp vegetable oil
Small knob of butter
5 pints vegetable stock

Soak the chickpeas in cold water overnight. Drain the water away, rinse them and then simmer in plenty of water according to pack instructions.
While the chickpeas are cooking, heat the butter and oil in a large pan.
Roughly chop the onion and carrots and add to the pan. Add the fresh thyme and cook for several minutes until the onions are softened and just starting to brown.
Pour over the vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 20-25 minutes until the carrot is softened.
Once the chickpeas are cooked, drain away their water and add to the soup, or add drained chickpeas from a can.
Allow the soup to cool slightly before blending until smooth using a hand blender or a liquidiser. The chickpeas will cause the soup to thicken.
Serve in big bowls with fresh bread.
Serves 4-6

Wednesday 29 August 2007

Daring Bakers August Challenge - Milk Chocolate & Caramel Tart

For the past few months I have kept an eye on what challenge the group known as ‘The Daring Bakers’ had been set that month. I loved the concept of it. A group of baking fanatics all given the same recipe, baking it and posting about it on the same day and discussing the results. I found it amazing the way the same recipe and different peoples interpretations of it could produce such varied results. Some had failures while others had roaring successes, either way they had a great time and were brave enough to take up the challenge.

Recently I found myself longing more and more to be a part of this group, to become a Daring Baker. It was seeing the results of the last two challenges, bagels and a strawberry mirror cake that spurred me into action. I emailed the founders, Lis and Ivonne, asking permission to join and after sitting with crossed fingers I was accepted and sent my first recipe challenge. I have never felt so excited. I was dancing round my room and the fact we had to keep it secret until the posting day made it even more exciting. This months challenge was chosen by Patricia and Veronica and they selected a Milk Chocolate & Caramel Tart.

My first thought upon seeing the tart was ‘oh yum, that looks divine.’ Reading through the ingredients I realised there were quite a few but nothing I wouldn’t be able to get hold of. Upon reading the recipe I realised it was going to take some planning but feeling confidently excited I set to work.

The first task was to make the chocolate hazelnut pastry, as this needed time in the fridge overnight before rolling out. I decided to go ahead and make the whole batch even though only 1/3 of it is needed for the tart, as the rest would keep in the freezer (who wouldn’t want a lovely batch of hazelnut pastry in the freezer?) My first mini challenge was finding the hazelnuts. The recipe stated using ground hazelnuts, which I found impossible to get hold of. Instead I bought some fresh nibbed hazelnuts and decided to grind them down in the food processor. This worked well and I ended up with some small, almost paste like hazelnuts and some still in small chunks which I was quite pleased with as I thought this would add a nice texture. I prepared the rest of the pastry following the recipe to the letter whereupon I was struck by my first bought of doubt. The pastry was a lovely chocolaty brown colour, smelt amazing and tasted pretty good too, but was it supposed to be the texture of thick buttercream? I doubled checked the recipe, no I hadn’t left anything out. How was that supposed to be rolled out? Feeling a little apprehensive I squished it into a log shape, wrapped it in clingfilm and placed it in the fridge.

The next morning I apprehensively opened the fridge door. My pastry looked the same as before. I tentively gave it a poke, and… success! It was now very firm and more pastry like. Hooray! Feeling elated I cut off the required amount and proceeded to roll it out using lots of icing sugar to dust the counter. As I rolled, it became softer, but I managed to form a large enough circle for my tart case. I decided to line the base of my tart case, even though it was a loose bottomed one, as I know from past experience that they can still sometimes be hard to get out. I decided to use a round fluted tart tin, one because it’s a little more decorative and two, because I didn’t have a straight edged one. After doing this I returned to my pastry only to find it had now gone very soft and stuck itself firmly to the counter. Oh nuts. I managed to unstick it and lifted it into my tart case. The base got there in one piece, but most of the sides just fell away. Feeling undaunted I tore little bits of pastry into segments and moulded it into the tin as I have previously done with other pastries. This worked well and I soon had an evenly lined pastry tin. I blind baked it, complete with baking beans and a layer of tin foil for easy removal. Once the allotted time was up, the pastry sides had puffed up slightly but not shrunk at all. Smiling happily I scrunched up the foil and removed the baking beans. The smile promptly fell from my face as the top layer of pastry base came away with the foil. What?! Nooooo! I hastily discarded the baking beans and scraped the pastry off the foil and arranged it back into the base of the tin (thankfully it was a little undercooked). I then put it back into the oven for a couple of minutes to firm up. This worked and I now had a fully baked pastry case. Hahha you silly pastry, you will not beat me!

As it cooled I set to work preparing the caramel filling. I wasn’t feeling too worried about this as I have made caramel once before and the instructions seemed pretty straightforward.

I slowly melted the sugar in a dry pan and swirled it until it turned a lovely golden brown. It then said to add the cream and butter to it, and as I hadn’t remembered to remove them from the fridge beforehand I thought that adding very cold cream to very hot sugar was a bad idea and that it would probably set instantly. So instead I heated it very gently in the microwave until it just felt a little cool rather than cold. I added them to the caramel and stirred, only for it to do exactly as I feared and set into solid lumps. I put the whole lot back on a very low heat and stirred slowly and ‘oh joy’ it all melted and blended back together with only a few small stubborn caramel lumps. I then had to add a flour and egg mixture and as I was by this point feeling a little frazzled I mixed the flour and then the added the eggs on top in a small bowl with the result that it formed a few stubborn flour lumps. Stupid girl, you should had slowly added the eggs to the flour to make a paste not just plonked the whole lot in together. I added it to the caramel anyway and then hit upon the idea of sieving the caramel into the pastry case, like when making a custard tart. This worked perfectly and meant I ended up with a silky smooth glossy caramel. (I would advise using a metal sieve as I suspect a plastic one might melt from the heat of the caramel). I placed it into the oven to bake and licked the sticky caramel remains from the saucepan with my fingers. It tasted amazing, so creamy and rich and it reminded me strongly of something from my childhood. I tasted some more and realised it tasted exactly like Werther’s Original, those set butterscotch, oval shaped sweets that always feature a grandfather and grandson in the adverts. Only this was even better, as this was soft and gooey. It came out of the oven with a lightly set sugary top, looking a bit like a treacle tart and it took a lot of restraint to prevent diving in with a fork there and then.

After it had cooled I prepared the chocolate moussey topping. This was so quick and easy compared to the rest of the tart. The recipe stated to smooth it into an even layer over the top of the caramel, but I wanted something more decorative than this. I had worked very hard over my tart and I wanted it to look more impressive. Instead I filled a piping bag and swirled the mousse over the top and decorated the edges with rosettes. I was thrilled with the outcome. It was now the afternoon and so I put the whole lot into the fridge to firm up before we feasted on it after dinner.

I had tasted the individual components along the way, but eating the whole thing together as one was amazing. All the flavours worked so well. There was the nutty cinnamony pastry which complemented the caramel and chocolate top so well. The pastry turned out crumbly and full of flavour. The caramel was heavenly. Sweet, soft and creamy, yet still firm enough to hold its shape when cut. On its own it was a little too sticky but the light creamy chocolate mousse helped to cleanse your pallet and free your tastebuds, ready for the next mouthful. I had some mousse left over and so I serve some extra with each portion. It tasted SO good and I was so proud of my efforts. I had overcome the little hurdles and set backs that the tart had thrown at me, but this only made the achievement feel all the better. If the recipe had gone too smoothly it wouldn’t have felt like a challenge and I wouldn’t have enjoyed it so much. This way, I now truly feel like a Daring Baker and can’t wait to see what new challenge we will be presented with next month.

Would I make the tart again? Definitely, especially now I know the little snags and problems to watch out for and how to overcome them. I made this while I was at home for the weekend, as I wanted to have people to share it with. My dad ate three pieces in one sitting and even my brother polished off his plate and he doesn’t usually like ‘fancy’ desserts. I think if I made it again I would probably use dark chocolate for the mousse topping rather than milk, as I love dark chocolate and I think this would help prevent it from becoming too sickly sweet (meaning you could have a bigger slice!).

Thank you so much Patricia and Veronica for selecting this tart for our challenge. It is not one I would probably have chosen to make myself, but I had such a brilliant time making it and an even better time demolishing it. YUM!

P.S. we had the option of making some brittle caramel shards to sprinkle over the top of the tart, but I decided to leave these off as I am not a fan of brittle caramel. Plus, I thought the tart would probably be sweet enough as it was.

Here’s the recipe. It’s originally from Sweet and Savoury Tarts by Eric Kayser.

Milk Chocolate and Caramel Tart
Makes One 9-inch(24-cm) square tart or one 10-inch (26-cm) round tart.

Chocolate Shortbread Pastry
Refrigeration: overnight
Yields: enough for 3 tarts - 9 ½ inches (24 cm) square or 10 inches (26 cm round)

A day ahead
1 cup (250g ) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (150 g) confectioners’ sugar
½ cup (50 g) ground hazelnuts
2 level teaspoons (5 g) ground cinnamon
2 eggs
4 ½ cups (400 g) cake flour
2 ½ teaspoons (10 g) baking powder
1 ½ tablespoons (10 g) cocoa powder

1. In a mixing bowl of a food processor, cream the butter.
2. Add the confectioners’ sugar, the ground hazelnuts, and the cinnamon, and mix together
3. Add the eggs, one by one, mixing constantly
4. Sift in the flour, the baking powder, and the cocoa powder, and mix well.
5. Form a ball with the dough, cover in plastic wrap, and chill overnight.
The following day
½ lb (250 g) chocolate shortbread pastry (see recipe below)
1 ½ cups (300 g) granulated sugar
1 cup (250 g) heavy cream (30-40 percent butterfat) or crème fraiche
¼ cup (50 g) butter
2 whole eggs
1 egg yolk
2 ½ tablespoons (15 g) flour
1 ¼ cups (300 g) whipping cream
½ lb (250 g) milk chocolate
1. Preheat oven to 325 °F (160 °C).
2. Line the baking pan with the chocolate shortbread pastry and bake blind for 15 minutes.
3. In a saucepan, caramelize 1 cup (200 g) granulated sugar using the dry method until it turns a golden caramel colour. Incorporate the heavy cream or crème fraiche and then add butter. Mix thoroughly. Set aside to cool.
4. In a mixing bowl, beat the whole eggs with the extra egg yolk, then incorporate the flour.
5. Pour this into the cream-caramel mixture and mix thoroughly.6. Spread it out in the tart shell and bake for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Milk chocolate mousse:
7. Beat the whipping cream until stiff. Melt the milk chocolate in the microwave or in a bain-marie, and fold it gently into the whipped cream.
8. Pour the chocolate mousse over the cooled caramel mixture, smoothing it with a spatula. Chill for one hour in the refrigerator.
For the caramel decoration (optional):
Melt ½ cup (100g) granulated sugar in a saucepan until it reaches an amber colour. Pour it onto waxed paper laid out on a flat surface. Leave to cool. Break it into small fragments and stick them lightly into the top of the tart.

Serves 6 – 12 (will-power dependant)

Monday 27 August 2007


Thanks to some noisy neighbours I didn’t have a very good nights sleep on Saturday. They were playing thumping music to how knows what time. There were even one person when kept going ‘wahooo!’ which I found a bit odd. Also, they kept playing the same piece of music over and over. It would stop and I would think ‘Oh good its stopped’ and then it would start up again.

Either way I was feeling rather grumpy on Sunday morning. I don’t know about you, but one thing is almost guaranteed to put me in a good mood, and that is baking.

I decided to try my hand at making Bagels, something I have been longing to do ever since a group known as The Daring Bakers attempted them a couple of months ago. There is something quite therapeutic and satisfying about making bread. Watching the dough rise, the yeasty smell as it proves (which always reminds me of pouring hot milk over Weetabix in the winter months) and then the baking, which transforms it from a sticky pale dough to yummy golden brown bread.

I was very curious to see what effect pouching the dough in water prior to baking would have on the bagels. I have never done this to any yeasted product before. I thought the dough would be in danger of dissolving and breaking down but quite the contrary happened and it actually plumped up and became firm.

When The Daring Bakers made the bagels they left the dough plain and only used savory toppings which I am informed is traditional. However, I do like sweet bagels and flavoured dough bagels and while feeling in the creative mood I decided to experiment with a whole assortment of flavours and toppings. I ended up making 12 bagels, 6 sweet, 6 savoury, that were each unique in flavour. The flavours were as follows:
Apple & Cinnamon
Raisin & Mixed Spice
Fresh Blueberry
Dark Chocolate Marble
Cranberry & White Chocolate Chunks
Dark Chocolate, White Chocolate Chunks, Apple & Mixed Spice (it was a case of using up the leftover ingredients.
Plain Bagel topped with Cheese
Pumpkin & Sunflower Seed
Sun Dried Tomato
Last but not least, a traditional Plain Bagel

My bagels turned out quite large and were not all uniformly round, but this made have a very home made look to them. They had a great thin crispy golden crust with a dense but soft dough inside. They tasted so much better than those long life bagels that are available in supermarkets. I may have to keep making my bagels from now on. Thankfully they freeze well. The recipe states to use dried yeast but I used 45g of fresh yeast as it was all I had and seemed to work fine. The morning of bagel making cheered me up no end and I don’t care what anyone says, flavoured bagels taste good.

Below is the recipe that I used and that I have taken from Meeta’s blog ‘what’s for lunch honey.’

600-800g (6-8 cups) bread (high-gluten) flour
30g (4 tablespoons) dry baking yeast
130g (6 tablespoons) light honey or granulated white sugar
2 teaspoons salt
3 cups hot water
Vegetable oil
Water to boil the bagel in
3-5 tablespoons malt syrup or sugar
A couple handfuls of cornmeal
Step 1- Proof Yeast:
Pour three cups of hot water into the mixing bowl. The water should be hot, but not so hot that you can't bear to put your fingers in it for several seconds at a time. Add the sugar or honey and stir it with your fingers or with a wire whisk to dissolve. Sprinkle the yeast over the surface of the water, and stir to dissolve.Wait about ten minutes for the yeast to begin to revive and grow.

Step 2- Make Dough:
At this point, add about three cups of flour as well as the 2 tsp of salt to the water and yeast and begin mixing it in. Use your hands for this as you really get the perfect feel for the consistency of the dough. If you are not keen on using your hands then a wooden spoon will also work.When you have incorporated the first three cups of flour, the dough should begin to become thickish. Add more flour, a half-cup or so at a time, and mix each addition thoroughly before adding more flour. As the dough gets thicker, add less and less flour at a time.

Step 3- Knead Dough:
Knead the dough on a clean, dry, flat counter top. Sprinkle your work surface with a handful of flour, put your dough on top, and start kneading. Add bits of flour if necessary to keep the dough from sticking to your hands, or counter top. Keep kneading until the dough is nice and stiff. This may take 8 to 10 minutes. It will be quite elastic, but heavy and stiffer than a normal bread dough. It should not be too dry, however, it should still give and stretch easily without tearing.

Step 4- Let Dough Rise:
Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, and cover with a clean and damp kitchen towel. Swish the dough around in the bowl to coat the whole ball of dough with a very thin film of oil. This will keep it from drying out.Place the bowl with the dough in it in a dry, warm (but not hot) place, free from drafts. Allow it to rise until doubled in volume. Some people try to accelerate rising by putting the dough in the oven, where the pilot lights keeps the temperature slightly elevated. If you choose to do this, remember to leave the oven door open or it may become too hot and begin to kill the yeast and cook the dough. An ambient temperature of about 25 degrees C (80F) is ideal for rising dough.

Step 5- Prepare Water for Bagels:
While the dough is rising, fill the stockpot with water and set it on the heat to boil. When it reaches a rolling boil, add the sugar (or malt syrup) and reduce the heat so that the water just barely simmers; the surface of the water should hardly move.
Step 6- Form Bagels:
Once the dough has risen, turn it onto the work surface, punch it down, and divide immediately into as many chunks as you want to make bagels. With this recipe, I got 12 bagels. You can not flavour the the dough or incorporate added ingreidnets or leave plain and add toppings later for more traditional bagels. Begin forming the bagels. There are two schools of thought on this. One method of bagel formation involves shaping the dough into a rough sphere, then poking a hole through the middle with a finger and then pulling at the dough around the hole to make the bagel. This is the hole-centric method. I used this method, as the dough is so easy to work with and allows you to shape and punch holes into the balls very easily. What I did was punch my thumb through the center of each roll and then rotated the dough, working it so that the bagel is as even in width as possible. I also dusted my fingers and then the middle of the hole to prevent it from closing.

The dough-centric method involves making a long cylindrical "snake" of dough and wrapping it around your hand into a loop and mashing the ends together. This method seems to be a little trickier as care must be taken that the ends do not come undone when boiling the rolls so, that you have bagel loafs instead of rolls. Do not worry if the bagels are not perfectly shaped or symmetrical. This is normal. The diversity adds to the rustic look of the bagels and each bagel is unique.
Step 7- Pre-heat Oven:
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C (400F).
Step 8- Half Proof and Boil Bagels:
Once the bagels are formed, let them rest for about 10 minutes. They will begin to rise slightly. Ideally, they will rise by about one-fourth volume. This technique is called "half-proofing" the dough. At the end of the half-proofing, drop two or three bagels into the simmering water, making sure not to overcrowd them in the pot.The bagels should sink first, then gracefully float to the top of the simmering water. Mine did not sink, they floated but it didn’t seem to effect the bagel.Let the bagel simmer for about three minutes, then turn them over with a skimmer or a slotted spoon. Simmer another three minutes, and then lift the bagels out of the water and set them on a clean kitchen towel that has been spread on the counter top to drain. The bagels should be puffed up and shiny, thanks to the malt syrup or sugar in the boiling water.

Step 9- Bake Bagels:
Once all the bagels have been boiled, prepare a baking sheet by sprinkling it liberally with cornmeal. You can not top the bagels with cheese, seeds or herbs before baking. Top with seeds etc then arrange the bagels on the prepared baking sheet and put them in the oven. (I did mine in two batches). Let them bake for about 25 minutes, then remove from the oven, turn them over and put them back in the oven to finish baking for about 5 minutes more. This will help to prevent flat-bottomed bagels.Remove from the oven and cool on wire racks. Do not attempt to cut them until they are cool. Hot bagels slice abominably and you'll end up with a wadded mass of bagel pulp. Don't do it.

Makes 12-15 bagels.

Saturday 25 August 2007

Cranberry & Blueberry Biscotti

I made these recently to send home to my grandmother for her Birthday. Biscotti are the ideal biscuits to send through the post as they are fairly sturdy meaning the receiver doesn’t open the parcel to reveal a heap of crumbs. The other bonus to biscotti is that there are numerous variations meaning you can always adapt it to the recipients taste.

The biscotti were very easy to make. The most time consuming thing is the double baking. For this variation, I decided to use dried cranberries and blueberries which added a lovely scattering of colour against the biscotti’s pale background. They also added a nice chew and the vanilla flavour complemented them well too. They turned out crisp, but not teeth-breakingly brittle. They are great to munch on as they are or dipped into a hot drink, creamy dessert or sweet desert wine.

Cranberry & Blueberry Biscotti
60g butter
150g caster sugar
2 eggs
40g dried cranberries
40g dried blueberries
1 tsp vanilla extract
300g plain flour
1½ tsp baking powder

Preheat the oven to 180C. Line a large baking tray with greaseproof paper and set to one side.
Place the butter and sugar together in a bowl until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well until well incorporated.
Stir in the cranberries, blueberries and vanilla.
Scatter the flour and baking powder over the surface of the mixture and beat it in until no flour streaks remain.
Dust the top of a work surface well with flour and turn the dough out. (It will probably be quite soft and sticky).
Dust you hands with flour and divide the dough in half. Shape each half into a log-like shape and place onto the baking tray.
Bake in the oven for 25 minutes until slightly puffed up and golden brown on top. Reduce the oven temperature to 150C.
Allow to cool for 10 minutes before slicing into 1cm slices. (If sliced at a slight angle you get more decoratively shaped biscotti)
Lay cut side down back on the baking tray, you will probably have to do one log at a time.
Return to the oven for 10 minutes, then remove from the oven and flip the biscotti over so that the other cut side is no facing upwards. Place back in the oven for a further 10 minutes.
Once, lightly browned and crisp, transfer to a wire wrack to cool and bake the second batch.
Once completely cooled they will keep well if stored in an airtight container.

Makes around 31 biscotti.

Tuesday 21 August 2007

Double Ginger - Gingerbread Cookies

These cookies were this weeks offering to the Monday Munchers at work. I don’t know what persuaded me to make ginger cookies this week, as although I like gingerbread and cake I’m not really a fan of ginger cookies.

I adapted this recipe from one of my favourite blogs ‘Culinary in the Desert’ and I think it was reading about their description of the cookies that made me decide to give them a go. I am so glad I did as these cookies are absolutely divine! To give them my own touch I added in some mixed spice and used black treacle in place of the molasses, as well as reducing the sugar content. I also used an ice cream scoop to measure out the cookies and as I result I ended up with 14 thick, soft, chewy, cake like cookies. Very different to the 40!!! stated in the original recipe.

The cookies themselves have a crisp edge to them when first baked which yields to a soft, slightly chewy middle that has the texture of gingerbread, helped no doubt my their thickness. Overnight these cookies loose their crispy edge, turning them more cake than cookie but in some respects this made them even better. They have a wonderful gingery spicy flavour and the black treacle lends a lovely richness and moistness too. The little nuggets of crystallized ginger buried within the cookie adds an extra burst of flavour every time you bite into one. The surface of the cookies has a lovely crackled appearance, making them even more appealing. Their smell, taste and texture is just amazing and they were instantly devoured at work (even before lunchtime). I urge you to make them, so simple and yet so delicious. Many thanks to Joe at ‘Culinary in the Desert’ for the original recipe.

Double Ginger - Gingerbread Cookies
Recipe adapted from ‘Culinary in the Desert’ blog
250g plain flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp mixed spice
150g butter or margarine
180g granulated sugar
1 egg
45g / 1 tbsp black treacle
60g crystallized ginger
Preheat the oven to 180C. Line a large baking tray with greaseproof paper and set to one side.In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar together using an electric hand mixer until fluffy.
Beat in the egg until well incorporated. Chop the crystallized ginger into small pieces using a pair of scissors and stir through the batter along with the black treacle.
Scatter the flour, baking powder, ground ginger and mixed spice over the batter and beat together until just combined.
Using an old fashioned ice cream scoop, or a tablespoon, take equal amounts of the cookie batter and place onto the baking tray about 2inch/5cm apart. (Form the dough into balls first if using a tbsp).
Bake in the oven for 12-15 minutes until puffy and golden brown on top.
Allow to cool for a few minutes and then transfer to a cooling wrack.
Bake more cookies using the rest of the dough on a fresh piece of greaseproof paper.
Allow to cool completely before storing in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Makes 14 very thick cookies.

Sunday 19 August 2007

Victoria Plum and Vanilla Jam

Yesterday my mum came to visit me and she bought with her a kilo of ripe Victoria plums. All last night thoughts and recipes kept going through my head as to what I should make with them and I couldn’t decide. Should I make an upside down plum cake, some muffins, a crumble, jam, chutney, a crumble topped cake, in a tart etc…

Thankfully this morning I woke up and had somehow decided I was going to make jam. I have made plum jam once before and really loved its vibrant colour and plumy flavour and I think it was this memory that convinced me to make jam. My next thought was ‘do I want to make a plain plum jam or do I want to add another flavour?’ I considered adding another fruit such as apple or apricot but decided against it. I then thought about the possibility of adding ginger, cinnamon or almonds to the mix but in the end I decided to use vanilla.

There is something magical about watching these golden fleshed plumbs transform into a vibrant glossy pink colour as the colour leeches out of their skins. I used a vanilla pod rather than essence as I wanted to get a true vanilla flavour and the tiny seeds which got distributed throughout the jam make it look quite attractive. The smell as this cooked was wonderful, really fresh and fruity.

Once it had cooled I tried some on a scrap of bread and I got an instant burst of sweet plumy flavour with a lingering aftertaste from the vanilla that really works well. I left some of the vanilla pod in each jam jar, which I hope will intensify the vanilla flavour over time (that’s the black curl you can see in the larger jam jar). Mmmm delicious.

Victoria Plum and Vanilla Jam
1kg Victoria plums
120ml water
1 vanilla pod
450g granulated sugar

Wash the plums to remove any dirt or bits of grass.
Cut the plums in half, twist apart and remove the stone and cut in half once more, removing any bad bruises.
Split the vanilla pod open lengthways and place into a large pan along with the plums and the water. Bring to a simmer and allow the plums to cook for 15-20 minutes until soft and broken down.
Meanwhile wash and dry three jam jars and place into a 120C oven to sterilise.
Slowly stir in the sugar and continue to stir until it has all dissolved and the mixture has turned clear and shiny.
Bring the mixture back to a rolling boil and allow to cook, stirring every few minutes to prevent the bottom from burning.
Once the mixture starts to feel more viscous, (thicker) conduct a setting test.
To do this, simply place a small amount of the jam onto a plate and place in the fridge for a few minutes. Then gently push your index finger through the pool of jam, if it crinkles slightly then the jam is ready. If not, then allow to cook for a few minutes more before testing again.
Once ready, remove the jam from the heat, extract the vanilla pod from the jam and take your jam jars out of the oven.
Place a strip of vanilla pod into each jar and then divide the jam between the jars (a ladle or mug works well), filling each one almost completely to the top, leaving only ½cm headspace.
Screw the tops onto the hot jars using a pair of rubber gloves to prevent burning yourself. Allow to cool before storing in a cool dark place for up to a year. Once opened, keep in the fridge.

Makes 3 x 420g jars or 2½ larger jars.

Thursday 16 August 2007

Berry Delicious Smoothie

This is extremely quick to throw together and provides a deliciously thick and fruity tasting smoothie. Better yet, not a banana in sight. I like bananas, but I find they can often end up making smoothies taste quite similar. In this particular drink it’s the dense and slightly fibrous melon which provides the thickener.

Make sure to use the ripest of berries and melon to get the best flavour. Also, try to use an apple juice that is fresh and not from concentrate as concentrates can tend to give too strong a flavour and be overly sweet. Very refreshing on a hot day.

Berry Delicious Smoothie
40g Raspberries
75g Strawberries
285g Honeydew melon
250ml fresh natural apple juice (not from concentrate)

Place all of the ingredients into a food blender and whiz together until smooth. A jug and hand blender also works equally well.
Pour into glasses and drink.
Serves 3-4

Sunday 12 August 2007

Creative Tagging

Gigi from Gigi Cakes has tagged me for a Creative Tag. This involves writing 8 of your fellow bloggers names in a creative way. The first name has to be the name of the person who tagged you and then 7 others. The aim is to use a background picture of something that you find amazing in the world. Be as creative as you like.

Below is a little information about honey and honey bees from The Honey Association. Hopefully you will see why I find them so amazing.

Honeybees are the most important producers of honey. They gather nectar from flowers and plants and carry it to their hive where other worker bees then take over. They add enzymes, any water evaporates away and this, together with the action of the enzyme, turns the nectar into honey.

Honey has long been recognized as a natural medicine for thousands of years. It has antiseptic properties and can be used as a remedy for sore throats, burns and cuts.

Honey is one of the oldest foods in existence. It was found in the tomb of King Tut and amazingly was still edible. Honey is the only known food that never spoils. There is no need to refrigerate it, even once opened. It can be stored in a dry cupboard indefinitely, although, If moisture gets into the jar it can start to crystalise.
Honey has different flavours and colours, depending on the location of the hive and kinds of flowers the bees visit.
One honeybee visits between 50 - 100 flowers during one collection flight from the hive. Despite this, an average worker bee makes only about 1½ teaspoons of honey in its lifetime!

Honey is hygroscopic, meaning it attracts water, so it is good for baking cakes as it keeps them moister for longer (always a bonus).

The Creative Tags

Gigi from Gigi Cakes

Anne from Anne’s Food

Jenjen from Milk & Cookies

Johanna from The Passionate Cook

Myriam from Once Upon A Tart

Nicole from Baking Bites

Wednesday 8 August 2007

Black and White Blondies

To give them a proper name they are really Black Cherry and White Chocolate Amaretto Blondies. When Myriam of ‘Once Upon A Tart’ announced another Brownie Babe event my first thought was unsurprisingly brownies. However, I decided I wanted to do something a little different this time (having participated in event no.1) and as blondies are also allowed I decided to create my own recipe based on them instead.

I decided to make the blondies extra blonde by melting in some white chocolate and to use whole black cherries which I hoped would provide a great colour contrast. During the making of the blondies I hit upon the idea of creating a brownie base layer before adding the cherries and the blondie batter, to give them a sort of baseline. As I was in an experimental mood I also added some amaretto to the blondie batter, in the hope it would complement the cherries.

The blondies are quite dense, fudgey and gooey when cooked with a slightly crisp/crackly surface and a velvety smooth texture with a slight chew. Due to the white chocolate, and their general nature, the blondies are quite sweet, but biting into a chunk of juicy cherry helps to cleanse the pallet and prevents them from being too rich or sweet. I was really pleased with how the cherries looked against the background of the blondie and I had arranged them so that there was a whole cherry included inside each square. To my annoyance I forgot to remove the stones from the cherries and didn’t realise until after they were in the oven. However, I think this helped them to retain their shape when cooked. I took these into work for the Monday Munchers and people didn’t seem to mind the stones. I think they rather liked spitting them out or nibbling around the outsides. I was a little disappointed at how the base brownie layer turned out very thin. It didn’t have quite the effect I was hoping for but its still there as a sort of outline. Next time I will use more of the batter for a thicker brownie layer.

Overall these are really tasty little treats and the flavours all worked together well. I think they actually taste better the next day, after sitting in the fridge which allows them to become even fudgeier and allows the flavours of the cherries and amaretto to develop more.

You have until 17th of August to submit your brownies or blondies to Myriam’s Brownie Babe event.

Black Cherry and White Chocolate Amaretto Blondies
100g butter
80g white chocolate
150g caster sugar
2 eggs
75g plain flour
16 black cherries, fresh or tinned.
2 tsp Amaretto
2 heaped tsp cocoa powder
2 tbsp hot water
1 tbsp additional plain flour

Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Line the base and sides of a 20cm/8 inch tin with greaseproof paper.
Melt the butter and white chocolate together in a small bowl, either in the microwave or over a pan of boiling water.
Whisk the eggs and sugar together in a large bowl until thick, creamy and paler in colour.
Stir in the melted chocolate mixture before sifting over the flour and folding in gently.
In a separate smaller bowl, dissolved the cocoa powder in the hot water until smooth. Transfer around ¼ of the white chocolate mixture into the smaller bowl containing the cocoa powder. Mix until well incorporated and add the additional tbsp of flour to thicken slightly.
Pour the dark chocolate batter evenly over the base of the prepared tin.
Arrange the cherries at regular intervals over the surface of the dark chocolate mixture.
Beat the Amaretto into the white chocolate batter and pour over the top of the cherries, ensuring they all get evenly covered.
Bake in the oven for 35-40 minutes until golden brown on top and a skewer inserted comes out relatively clean. (You may want to cover the tin with foil for the last 10 minutes of baking if it’s browning too much).
Allow to cool in the tin before removing and placing in the fridge for 30 minutes before slicing into squares.
Makes 16 squares.

Saturday 4 August 2007

Sugar in Your Tea?

This is my entry to this months Sugar High Friday which is hosted by Johanna from The Passionate Cook. This month’s theme was to cook a local/famous dish or food that originated in the region where we live. I am living in the county of Yorkshire and so I set about thinking of all the foods Yorkshire can put claim to, which as it turns out is quite a few. In the end I decided to bake a Yorkshire Tea Loaf and to make it, of course, using Yorkshire tea. You can’t get much more regional than that.

Despite knowing about Yorkshire tea loafs, I wasn’t really aware of the history behind it and so a little research was called for.

Yorkshire Tea is a black tea blend produced by tailors of Harrogate, one of the few remaining family tea and coffee merchants in the UK. The company was founded in 1886 by Yorkshire tea merchant Charles Taylor. It has a reputation for producing high quality teas.

The Yorkshire Tea Loaf was produced by Taylors as a way of using their Yorkshire tea to expand their range. It involves using the choicest fruits which are infused overnight with the tea. After the addition of flour, eggs, sugar and spices it produces a moist tea loaf which is delicious eaten on its own, sliced and buttered or in true Yorkshire style, with a thick slice of the crumbly Yorkshire cheese, the one much favoured by Wallace and Gromit…Wensleydale.

This tea loaf is quite unusual in that it contains no additional fat in the form of butter or oil, the only fat in the recipe comes from the eggs. The added sugar is also fairly low, although the dried fruit does of course add its own sugar and sweetness. Overall I consider this tea loaf to be relatively healthy. The lack of butter doesn’t mean that you end up with a dense and chewy loaf, quite the contrary. Thanks to the large amount of tea used, it is incredibly moist, so much so, that it actually makes a slight ‘squish’ sound when you bite into it. Despite the fairly large quantity of fruit, making the cake feel heavy when handled, it remains surprisingly light and even in texture.

You need to plan this tea loaf a little time in advance as it requires steeping the fruit in the tea overnight. Once this stage is done the rest of the loaf is very quick and easy to put together. I tasted a little of the leftover tea that hadn’t been absorbed by the fruit the following morning and it had really taken on the sweetness and flavour of the fruit. If I hadn’t been wanting to use it in the cake I could quite happily and have drank it there and then.

The combination of the soft brown sugar, mixed spice, fruits and almost aromatic tea gave me the strong impression of a Christmas cake with all the smells mingling together deliciously. Once cooked it takes on a different appearance with a lovely sticky/glossy golden brown surface, making it look almost as if its been glazed. The curst has a slight chew to it, which yields to a moist spiced interior that is speckled with plump juicy fruit and rosy cherries. The tea gives a most unique, yet not obviously tea, flavour. Overall I love it, it’s the perfect thing to munch on in the afternoon, the crust of a currant bun and the interior similar to a fruit cake but without being too rich or dense and of course it goes brilliantly with a cup of tea.

Other foods regional to Yorkshire include Yorkshire Pudding, Yorkshire Curd Cheese Tart, Bakewell Tart, Wensleydale and Yorkshire Blue cheeses, Liquorice/Pontefract Cakes, Fat Rascals (scone like biscuits) and of all things, Savoury Ducks (the Northern version of faggot).

Yorkshire Tea Loaf
200g raisins
100g currants
50g glace cherries
¾ pint freshly made Yorkshire tea
75g soft brown sugar
2 eggs
½ tsp mixed spice
270g self raising flour

Weigh out the currants and raisins and place into a large bowl. Pour over the hot tea, cover the bowl with cling film and leave to steep for 12 hours or overnight.
The next day, the fruit will be very plump and juicy looking. Some tea will still remain in the bowl which is fine.
Grease a 2lb loaf tin and pre-heat the oven to 150C.
Chop the cherries into halves or thirds, depending on size, and add to the soaked raisins along with the sugar and spice. Stir until mostly dissolved.
Add the eggs and mix well until they are evenly combined.
Scatter the flour over the surface of the mixture. Using a wooden spoon, start at the centre of the bowl and beat the flour into the mixture, working your way out towards the edge until everything is well incorporated.
Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for 1 hour and 30 – 40 minutes until golden brown on top and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out relatively clean (it may still be sticky if you hit a raisin)
Allow to cool for 15-20 minutes in the tin before turning out onto a wire wrack to cool completely.
Serve in thick slices. I like it just as it is but it can be served with butter or with a slab of Wensleydale cheese for that authentic Yorkshire experience.
Makes 1 2lb loaf.

You have until Monday, 27th of August to cook and blog about a local specialty, so get investigating!

Wednesday 1 August 2007

Fresh Apricot Upside-Down Cake

I made this cake whilst on holiday in France. We had bought an abundance of ripe, fresh apricots from the market in the village and despite eating quite a quantity of them, in the hot weather, they soon became so ripe that they were starting to leech their juices. Something had to be done to use them up quickly and this wonderful apricot cake was the result.

Baking the apricots really intensified their already sweet fragrant flavour. They looked so vibrant and glossy studded into the cake and surrounded by pools of their sweet buttery juices. The vanilla scented cake has quite a close texture but is very light and soft. This also meant it absorbed all the apricots excess juices, allowing the flavours to mingle together brilliantly. This cake is so simple and yet utterly delicious, especially when served with a big blob of crème fraiche. I think this may in fact be the best cake I have eaten all year. I bet it would be equally good with plumbs in the autumn time.

Fresh Apricot Upside-Down Cake
(Recipe from My Cool Desserts blog)
For the topping
150g caster sugar
55g butter
55ml water
8 – 9 fresh apricots

For the cake
4 eggs
1½ tsp vanilla
55g butter
115g self raising flour
140g caster sugar

Heat the oven to 170C. Grease and flour a 9inch circular spring-form cake tin.
Cut the apricots in half, remove the stone and set to one side.
To make the topping, place the sugar and water in a pan and stir over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved.
Bring to the boil and allow to bubble for 5-8 minutes until lightly golden brown.
Remove from the heat and stir in the butter. As soon as it’s melted in, pour the golden syrup mixture into the base of the tin. (If you stir for too long then mixture can seize up and go grainy. Don’t worry if this happens, spoon it into the tin anyway and it will dissolve again during baking.)
Add the halved apricots onto op the syrup, cut size down.

To make the cake, put the eggs, sugar and vanilla into a bowl. Beat with an electric whisk for around 10 minutes until thick, pale and creamy.
Sift over the flour and fold it in gently.
Melt the butter and stir into the cake mix (It will be quite runny as this stage).
Pour the batter over the top of the apricots and place in the oven to bake for 45-50 minutes.
It should be golden brown and top and a skewer inserted should come out clean.
Allow to cool in the tin for 15 minutes before placing a large plate over the top of the tin and quickly turning out.
The apricots syrups juices will drizzle themselves down the sides of the cake.
Serve cold or slightly warm with cream or crème fraiche.