Monday 27 September 2010

Red Pepper Pumpkin Soup

I love pumpkin and all the different shapes, sizes and colours they can come in. When I recently spied an unusual looking bright yellow skinned pumpkin at a farmers market, I was quick to snap it up. Upon slicing into it I was disappointed to find a very pale flesh that was rather watery. It smelt and looked very much like melon but I decided not to judge it too harshly and roasted some in the oven to taste. This improved the flavour and texture but it was still rather watery rather than being rich and fluffy. I knew instantly what this particular pumpkin was destined for – soup!

Soup is a wonderful thing and can make even the most bland, old, shrivelled or oddly shaped vegetable taste delicious. I really wanted my pumpkin soup to have more of conventional pumpkin colour and so I decided to add some red pepper and carrots to enhance the colour and bulk out the texture. I decided against adding onion or potato which often form the base of most soups as I wanted the veg to the star flavours.

Once blitzed together the pepper and carrot transformed the soup into a gorgeous deep orange colour that was flecked here and there with little shreds of yellow and red from the skins of the peppers and pumpkin – which I chose to leave on. It really looked and smelt so inviting and the taste was delicious. The pepper added a lovely sweetness while the pumpkin added its famously smooth and creamy texture. It was the perfect consistency and made for a very tasty lunch on a cold and windy autumn day.

Red Pepper Pumpkin Soup
1 small-medium pumpkin
2 red peppers
2 carrots
2 tsp dried oregano or thyme
2 pints vegetable stock

Cut the top and base off the pumpkin. Cut into quarters, scoop out the seeds and fleshy membrane and discard. Slice the pumpkin into 2cm strips and place in a large saucepan, skin and all.
Do the same with the red pepper.
Peel and roughly chop the carrot and add to the pan along with the herbs.
Pour over the vegetable stock and bring the mixture to the boil, then reduce to a simmer and leave to bubble for 25-35 minutes, until the pumpkin and carrot pieces are soft when tested with the sharp tip of a knife.
Once ready, remove from the heat and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
Then ladle the mixture (you may need to do it in batches) into a liquidiser and blend until smooth.
Season to taste and serve with crusty bread for dipping.
Serves 4-6

Monday 20 September 2010

The Cake Slice September 2010: Fresh Apple Cake with Brown Sugar Glaze

This cake was particularly special this month as not only did it feature apples – one of my all time favourite foods, but it is also the last cake that The Cake Slice group is baking from our currant cake book - Southern Cakes by Nancie McDermott. We have been baking from this book for the past year which means next month we will start baking from an exciting new cake book!! As a result we are now accepting new members, so if you are interested in joining The Cake Slice and baking with us then please see the end of this post for details.

Anyway, back to this month’s apple cake. This cake turned out to be the best cake we have made all year – it was divine, the perfect cake to end with on a high note. It consists of a thick glossy batter that it liberally studded with chunks of fresh apple and walnuts which add a wonderful moistness and texture. A brown sugar fudge-like glaze is then poured over the still hot cake and left to absorb and set into a delicate toffee flavoured sugary crust. The cake is then served in generous squares straight from the pan – delicious!

I was tempted to add some cinnamon to the mix as I always feel this should be the natural accompaniment to anything containing apples, but I managed to restrain myself and I’m glad I did. Although the ingredients look fairly simple, this allowed the nuts and apples to really shine through and be the star flavours. I used fresh apples, picked from a friends garden. They were quite sharp and tangy when raw but mellow and softened beautifully in this cake and were the perfect contrast to the sweet sugary topping. I was also surprised at how much flavour the walnuts contributed and it was wonderful to suddenly bite down on a little nugget of one, hidden amongst the light cake and squishy apple pieces.

The batter looks a little strange in its raw state, it was a little gloopy and sticky and reminded me of a choux pastry batter. I was a little dubious it would work but it baked into a lovely textured moist cake. Some of the other bakers had said it was a little oily so I replaced some of the oil stated below with water and this worked well and I didn’t find the cake greasy at all. I also reduced the sugar quite considerably as I didn’t want it too sweet, especially as it had the sweet sugar glaze on top. Even then I still found the cake sweet but the sharp apples balanced it out nicely.

I can’t recommend this cake enough, everyone who tasted it loved it and if you’re an apple fan then I’m sure you’d love it too. Click to see our blogroll for everyone else’s apple cakes.

Fresh Apple Cake with Brown Sugar Glaze
(Recipe from Southern Cakes by Nancie McDermott)
Fresh Apple Cake
360g plain flour
450g caster sugar (I used 300g)
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt
3 eggs
330ml vegetable oil (I used 250ml oil & 80ml water)
2 tsp vanilla extract
450g finely chopped, peeled & cored apples (5-6 apples)
115g coarsely chopped pecans or walnuts

Brown Sugar Glaze
225g light brown sugar
75g butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp evaporated or regular milk

Method – Fresh Apple Cake
Heat the oven to 180C. Grease a 13 x 9 inch pan or two 8-9 inch cake pans. (I used a 13x7 inch pan and got a deeper cake.)
In a medium bowl combine the flour, sugar, bicarbonate of soda and salt. Stir with a fork to mix everything together well.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs with a mixer at low speed until pale yellow and foamy. Add the oil and vanilla and beat well. Stir in the flour mixture with a wooden spoon and continue stirring the batter just until the flour disappears. Add the apples and nuts, stir to mix them into the batter until fairly uniform. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.
Bake for 45-50 minutes or until the cake is golden brown, springs back when touched lightly near the centre and is beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan. Place the cake (still in the pans) on a wire rack and spoon over the glaze while still hot.

Method - Brown Sugar Glaze
Combine all the ingredients in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the mixture comes to a gentle boil. Then cook for 3-5 minutes.

To Finish
Spoon the hot glaze all over the hot-from-the-oven cake. Let the glazed cake cool completely before serving straight from the pan.
Makes one 13x9inch sheet cake or two 8-9inch round cakes

New Cake Slice Members: Now onto the exciting bit! If you are interested in joining The Cake Slice group and baking delicious cakes with us for the next year than please email me your name, blog name and blog URL to ‘appleandspice[AT]’ with ‘Cake Slice Member’ as the subject and I will contact you with the details of how to join us! You have until October 20th to sign up.

Friday 17 September 2010

Chocolate & Peanut Butter Cupcakes

We are nearing the end of National Cupcake Week, only two more days eat as many cupcakes as possible and shrug it off with a ‘well it is National Cupcake Week.’ In the end I didn’t manage to organise a cupcake party (everyone was busy) but I did manage to bake a batch of cupcakes to share around and spread the cupcake yumminess.

As cupcakes are an American invention I decided to go with chocolate and peanut butter cupcakes. Not only a delicious combination, but also one that is decidedly American.

The chocolate cupcakes were good, but to me their main purpose was as a carrier for the divine peanut butter frosting. This is a recipe I have adapted from a standard vanilla buttecream recipe and one I have made lots of times in the past few months. It produces a thick, yet creamy peanut butter buttercream that’s not too sweet and is intensely flavoured with peanut. There is nothing worse than being promised a peanut butter flavour only to find it practically non existent.

After a swirl of the frosting I added some chocolate covered peanuts to decorate and add a bit of crunch. As I’m sure everyone has got their own favourite chocolate cupcake recipe I am only giving the frosting recipe below (leftovers taste great on toast too – shh!)

Peanut Butter Frosting
70g butter
80g smooth peanut butter
260g icing sugar
25-40ml milk

Make sure the butter is soft. Cream the butter together with the peanut butter until smooth and well combined.
Add the icing sugar, a third at a time, mixing well until incorporated. Add the milk as and when needed if it becomes a bit stiff.
Use more milk to slacken the frosting to the right piping consistency.
Fill a piping bag fitted with a large star nozzle. Pipe on top of your chosen cupcakes and decorate with a few chocolate covered peanuts to decorate.
Eat and enjoy.
Makes enough for 12 cupcakes

Monday 13 September 2010

National Cupcake Week!

Today is the start of National Cupcake Week 2010 here in the UK!
It runs from 13th - 19th September. It's only the second year of this event organised by the British Baker Magazine to highlight the joys and delights of all things cupcake.

I might try to arrange a cupcake party with some friends to celebrate before the week is out, or at least eat a fair few cupcakes. The perfect excuse to indulge!

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Spiced Apple & Plum Butter

Apples and plums are at the height of their season and the trees roundabouts are bowing under the weight of their fruit. We have a few tiny apples trees in our garden and some of our friends have trees too and as a result I ended up with a glut of apples, far too many eat and so I decided to turn some into jam.

While hunting for recipes I came across several recipes for a preserve called apple butter. I have heard of this before, but never tasted it. It turned out to be a smooth apple puree which is thick – the texture of softened butter – and often spiced with cinnamon and cloves, which many of you will know I absolutely adore. This seemed the perfect way to make use of the apples.

I was initially a little apprehensive about the recipe as I had read on several blogs that it can be quite time consuming and difficult to make. The process involves stewing the chopped apples, skin, core, pips and all until mushy and then pushing the mixture through a fine sieve to remove the ‘unwanted bits’ which results in a thick apple puree. Sugar and spices are then added and the mix is stirred constantly over the heat until thick.

This did indeed sound rather time consuming but it turned out to be remarkably easy and straight forward. I think it was actually easier than regular jam making, as not having to peel and core all the apples saved a lot of time and there was no tricky setting test to perform on the jam as its obvious once the puree has got thick enough to spread.

The resulting butter was gorgeous! It was smooth and thick and nicely spiced with the apples favourite accompanying spices of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. As I also had a large bag of plums from another fruit foraging trip I substituted a quarter of the weight of apples called for with plums. This along with the russet red skins of the apples produced a lovely pinkish blush colour of the puree.

As its called butter I had my first bite of it spread thickly on bread and for an apple lover it tasted delicious and absolutely jam packed with fresh apple flavour. I’ve since used it on top of porridge, swirled in yoghurt and as a filling for a cake. My meat eating family have also had it with their Sunday roast pork and declared it ‘fabulous.’

My only slightly negative comment is that a little apple vinegar is called for in the recipe. This helps preserve the apple butter but means a slight vinegary taste is noticeable if eaten straight away – only very very slight though. This didn’t bother me but I’ve found that this mellows out and disappears if you store it for a while – just like when making chutney. If you too have a glut of apples or fancy something a bit different to marmalade on your toast in the mornings then I highly recommend you whip up a batch of this.

Spiced Apple & Plum Butter
1.5kg apples – skin, core and all
500g plums
450ml water
225ml apple cider vinegar
400-500g caster sugar
2tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp ground clove
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg

Remove the stones from the plums and place into a large saucepan. Roughly dice the apples, leaving the skin, core and pips in. Place into the pan with the plums and pour over the water and vinegar.
Bring to the boil and allow to bubble for 20 minutes until the fruit is very soft and starting to break down.
Place a sieve over a large bowl and spoon in some of the fruit mush. Use a ladel to push and press the fruit through the sieve, catching the thick puree in the bowl below. The skin and pips will be left behind in the sieve – discard these before adding the next batch of fruit.
Weigh your finished puree and add 150g caster sugar per 500g of fruit puree. (I had 1.5kg fruit puree, so added 450g sugar).
Place 5-6 jars and their lids into a cool oven and set the temperature to 120C. Allow the jars to heat up with the oven and then sit for at least 10 minutes in the heat before using – this sterilises them and will prevent them from shattering when you add the hot apple butter later on.
Return the puree to the pan, add the sugar and spices and heat, stirring constantly for about 30-40 minutes. Don’t neglect to stir or it will start spitting at you or stick and burn to the base of the pan.
Once the puree has thickened to a spreadable consistency, remove from the heat.
Remove the hot jars from the oven and divide the hot apple butter between the jars. Screw the lids on while the contents are still hot, wearing rubber gloves to protect your hands. (Screwing the lids on while the contents are still hot will create a vacuum inside the jar as it cools down. This will seal the jars and mean they can be stored without spoiling for several months).
Allow to cool on the side before storing in a cool dark place until required. Once opened, store in the fridge.
Makes 5-6 jars
Note: You can of course use all apple in place of the apple & plum combo above

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Carrot, Courgette & Ricotta Lasagne

This is the time of year when courgettes are in abundance. Courgettes on their own can be quite bland and yet every day blogs are posting new tasty ways of incorporating these vegetables into a variety of muffins, cakes, cookies and other baked goods. However I feel that this humble vegetable should not be completely overlooked in the more conventional savoury dishes too.

This carrot and courgette lasagne allows the courgettes soft texture and subtle sweetness to be the star of the show. All it needs is a little help from some herbs and spices to help bring them alive. It’s also an incredible easy and simple dish to put together and requires very little prep time making it the perfect mid week meal.

The courgettes are grated and paired with carrots which help enhance the courgettes savoury sweetness before being mixed with garlic, thyme and ricotta to produce a flavoursome creamy veg layer for your lasagne without the need for sauce making. This is then layered up with a simple tomato mix that has been spiked with a hint of chilli to give it some warmth and fresh lasagne sheets (shop bought unless your super organised) for a delicious speedy dinner.

I loved how the grated courgette kept its colour, showing flecks of bright green throughout the layers. It made it look very Italian amongst the white pasta and the red sauce. I’ll be making this one again before the courgettes seasons over.

Carrot, Courgette & Ricotta Lasagne
(Recipe adapted from BBC Good Food)
2 courgettes
2 carrots
2 tsp fresh thyme
½ tsp chilli flakes or ground chilli
1 clove garlic
150g ricotta cheese
400g tin chopped tomatoes
150ml passata
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt & pepper and herbs of choice
6 sheets fresh lasagne

Place the chopped tomatoes, passata, chilli and some herbs of your choice into a pan and bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer and allow to bubble for 15-20 minutes until slightly thickened. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside until required.
Coarsely grate the carrots and courgettes (there is no need to peel). Heat the oil in a large frying pan and add the grated veg. Cook for 1 minute before crushing the garlic and adding to the pan along with the fresh thyme.
Cook until softened and most of the liquid released from the vegetables has evaporated. Remove from the heat and mix through the ricotta cheese.
Preheat the oven to 190C.
Spread a third of the veg ricotta mixture into the base of a 30cmx20cm ovenproof dish. Spread over a quarter of the tomato and lay 2 sheets of the lasagne on top.
Top with another third of veg, another quarter of tomato and 2 more sheets of lasagne. Repeat for the final layer and then use the leftover tomato sauce to spread on top of the last lasagne sheets. Grate over a little cheese of your choice and bake for 25-30 minutes until the lasagne is bubbling and crisp around the edges.
Allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving with salad.
Serves 3-4