Archive for November, 2011

…he’s going to be living with us for the next Month.

He’s our Christmas pudding. And that bottle behind him is his medicine.

Its not very often that anything you cook hangs around your house for a whole month but since he’s going to be with us for a while, he’s my first Christmas pudding, and I have to feed him once a week… I’m already quite attached. It seemed only fitting to give him a name (and it had to be something grand of course).

Because you have to store your pudding somewhere cool and every room in our house is now almost constantly warmed by central heating, he’s living in a large tub at the top of the stairs to the front door which is the only cool part of the whole house. So I pass him every morning and evening as I am heading for the door. I’ll probably start saying hello soon.

You also have to look after your pudding. He needs fed once a week with brandy. It may seem like a lot of alcohol for one pudding but if I was sitting in the cold for four weeks, I would also need a fortifying spoon of liquor every now and then to keep me going.

So if you like the idea of a pet for Christmas, its not too late to make your own. Here’s a recipe with a bit of a twist if you like your pudding a little less traditional.

Cherries and Berries Christmas Pudding (aka Tarquin)

I’ve used cherries and berries instead of the plain mix of raisins, currants and mixed peel and cherry brandy instead of plain. As long as you have 350g fruit in total you can make your own combination. Of course I havent had a chance to taste it yet but going on smell alone, I think I’m going to enjoy eating Tarquin just as much as I like looking after him.

  • 100g dried blueberries
  • 100g berries and  dried fruit mix (mix of cherries, cranberries, blueberries and raisins)
  • 50g dried cranberries
  • 100g dried currants
  • 125ml cherry brandy
  • 90g unsalted butter
  • 75g breadcrumbs
  • 50g plain flour
  • 50g ground almonds
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 75 dark brown sugar
  • 1 eating apple, grated
  • 2 medium size eggs
  • 70ml sour cream
  • 2 tsp vanilla essence
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp all spice
  • 100ml vodka (for serving)

Butter a 3pint pudding basin and lid. The plastic ones are cheap and definitely less fuss than a bowl and foil top so although I normally don’t like having to find specialised cooking contraptions, in this case I make an exception (once you realise how easy it is to make a pudding you will use it every year too). Put the fruit and brandy in a pan, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 min. slice the butter over the fruit, put a lid on and leave to sit for another 10 min. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl, add the grated apple and then the fruit. Mix together the eggs, sour cream and vanilla and beat into the fruit mixture. If like me you allow yourself to get ridiculously over excited about Christmas and follow every daft tradition with an inane sense of glee then this is the point when you take your bowl around the house and get everyone to take a turn at stirring the pud (in my case that meant one bemused husband).

Once you have returned to the kitchen, spoon the pudding batter into the prepared basin and put on the lid. Place the basin in a large pot, pour water up to about half way up the sides and put on the pot lid. If you are not using a plastic basin that floats then you will need to place an upside down side plate in the bottom of the pot. You will also need to make sure you securely fasten a lid of kitchen foil and dont let any water get in which is not a problem with the plastic kind. Now bring the water to a gentle boil and steam the pudding for 4 hours, topping up the water as necessary. After 4 hours take the pudding out and leave it to cool before wrapping the basin in cling film and storing it somewhere cool and dark. Once a week, take your pudding out off his hiding place (its at this point that your pudding starts to develop a personality) and give him a tablespoon of cherry brandy before putting him back to bed.

When its time to serve, steam him for another 3-4 hours and turn out onto a serving dish. Warm the vodka, light it and pour the flaming liquid over the pudding (seems a little violent now that he’s a pet but what a way to go).

P.s. For thos of you who are interested, my topics for this month’s cooking challenges are as follows

  • Reinventing a classic – mince pies
  • Technical skills – french macarons
  •  As well as the usual “extraordinary flavours”

If you’d like to submit your own mince pie reinventions I will be doing a round up and there will be a little prize for the best one so please let me know if you are joining the challenge by leaving a comment/message, either on here or my facebook page, with a link to your post by the 31st December 2011 .



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Success! After last week’s disastrous attempts I was sceptical about whether or not I was going to be able to say that.

Technical skills challenge

Thanks to a lot of encouraging advice from friends and family after my plea for help, I summoned the strength to try again on Saturday. So out came the blackberry crème patissiere (which I had to stash in the freezer while I regrouped – turns out it freezes very well by the way), piping bag and other paraphernalia and off I went again. This time I used a recipe with slightly less water (thank you Judy!) and  made a few other tweaks which I’ve highlighted in the recipe and as soon as the choux buns went into the oven I could tell this batch was going to behave itself.

So I have conquered my first technical challenge which should bring with it some sense of achievement… but the other thing I learnt this month was that profiteroles and I still don’t quite get on.

With most things you bake, the sense of  satisfaction hits as soon as they come out of the oven, risen and golden and just as you hoped. With choux pastry, the pressure only increases when they come out of the oven. Then one has to endure the excruciating process of waiting for the last possible moment to fill them and hope that somebody eats the last one before the pastry goes all soft and frankly, inedible (I can’t bear to throw pastries in the bin, its like abandoning children). So profiteroles just don’t have that soothing effect that one gets from preparing cakes and the like and knowing your work here is done.

Having said all that I am still just a little proud of myself, and I think I’ll make them again, as more of a pudding, with a hot sauce and ready and waiting mouths to eat them all at once, which I think is how best to enjoy them.

Extraordinary Flavours

You’ve probably also noticed that these little guys are flaunting a fairly unorthodox flavour combination, because this is my November “extraordinary flavours challenge” entry as well. This idea started with Whittards flavoured tea again but this time it was a bag of Amaretto fruit infusion that got me thinking. The infusion is made up of dried almonds, rose hips and blackberries amongst other things and the fruity and yet aromatic wafts off a cup of this brewed with hot water made me think about winter fruits and warm spicy flavours and how well they support each other (think cinnamon and apples). So my brain wandered from there through various potential combinations until my stomach arrived at blackberry and chai. It definitely works… and makes you sound awfully posh in front of your guests when combined with the word profiterole. If you like the flavour idea but you don’t want to make profiteroles or you want to make something to give as a gift that has a bit more shelf life then you could just as easily use the same  idea for biscuits or cupcakes. Flavour the base with either the fruit or the tea and use the other one for the filling/icing.

The recipe

Adapted from a choux pastry recipe collected by my aunt Judy from a South African Fair Lady Magazine. The basic crème patissiere recipe is adapted from this one.


  • 50g butter
  • 125ml water
  • 70g sifted flour
  • 2ml salt
  • 2 medium eggs

Crème Patissiere

  • 50g butter
  • 3 tbsp castor sugar
  • 1 egg and 2 egg yolks
  • 400ml milk
  • 1 vanilla pod
  • half a cup of freeze dried blackberry powder
  • 1 tbsp Whittards Amaretto fruit infusion (optional – it gives the filling an extra nutty floral flavour and it was the inspiration for this recipe but not essential)

Chai topping

  • 100g white chocolate
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 spiced chai teabag and a little milk or cream

Make the creme patissiere first. Put the cornflour and sugar in a bowl and stir in the eggs to make a paste. Add the split vanilla pod and the fruit infusion if using, to the milk and bring to a simmer. Sieve the milk into a bowl to remove the dried fruit and pod and scrape any remaining vanilla seeds into the mixture. Pour onto the eggs, stirring constantly, then return to the pan and stir over a low heat until the mixture thickens. Pour into a bowl and mix in the blackberry powder.Cover with cling film and leave to cool before chilling in the fridge.

For the choux pastry, put butter and water into a saucepan and gently melt the butter.  Bring to the boil, take off the heat and tip in the mixture of flour and salt. Return to the stove and beat for 1-2 mins or until mixture is smooth and leaves the sides of the saucepan.  Leave 5 – 10 mins to cool.  Add the eggs a little at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition (with an electric mixer to beat in enough air) to make a smooth , shiny paste that will hold its shape.

Pipe 7cm circles onto a baking sheet lined with parchment and bake at 200C for 20 -30 minutes, or until well risen and golden. If you have a hot oven like mine then turn the oven down after 10 min to about 170C so that they don’t burn. Remove from the oven and make a slit in the side to release the steam. Dry out for another 5 min in the cool oven if necessary (I found they didn’t need it this time round).

To make the topping, melt the chocolate in a pan over a pot of boiling water. Infuse the chai teabag in just enough cream or milk to soak the tea bag and stir over a low heat to concentrate. Drain the teabag and add about a tsp of this to the chocolate, not too much or it wont set. Stir in the spices and cool slightly. Dip the top of each profiterole in the ganache and sprinkle with blackberry powder. Set aside to cool and set. You can do this before you fill them as it doesn’t seem to soften the pastry too much. If you were making this as a pudding you could also add more cream or milk to make a warm chocolate sauce and pour over the profiteroles at the last minute.

Pipe in the filling just before you serve them (ideally no more than an hour beforehand or they will get soft) by poking the nozzle through the bottom of the profiterole or by cutting them in half and replacing the lids after you have filled them.

Here are the lessons I learned so that you can avoid the same initial misfortune:

  • Use the ratio of water to flour as I have above and keep stirring the flour/water mix over the heat for 1-2 min to remove some of the moisture
  • Be careful with your oven temperature – you don’t want the initial heat to make them rise but if your oven is hot you need to turn it down to avoid burnt outsides and soggy deflating insides
  • Use an electric beater if you have one to mix in the eggs otherwise you don’t get enough air and a stiff enough batter
  • Try to pipe or spoon them as neatly as you can as lopsided piping or upward tails makes them go a bit wonky when they rise (although if this is your only problem then you are doing fine)

I’d love to know if this recipe works for other people so please let me know if you try it and even better send me your own flavour ideas! Next month I’ll be posting my challenge subjects at the beginning of the month so that you can enter your own versions if you’re feeling competitive!

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It started so well.

Milk gently infused with dried almonds, rosehip, hibiscus, apple and blackcurrant…

Whisked into crème patisserie and folded with freeze dried blackberries…

And then, as if to remind me why I started this challenge in the first place, and swiftly deflate my sense of beginners enthusiasm, this happened…

Exhibit A…

Exhibit B…

Crumpled and deflated profiteroles with soul-destroyingly sad, soggy centres.

Before you say it, keeping them in the oven for another 5-10 minutes made no difference whatsoever. And should you be thinking it was just a one off beginner’s mistake…I have made them twice since Sunday and on both occasions I was left with exhibit A and B…not once, twice…heart breaking…

And so the first post in my technical skills challenge (choux pastry this month in case you hadn’t cottoned on by now) becomes a plea for help.  I did try and leave the first batch in longer to see if the dough would cook through but this only served to over cook the outside and leave the insides in the same miserable state. After attempt number one I thought I might have left too much moisture in the dough after the first step and perhaps had too hot an oven but switching to a recipe with slightly less water (150ml water to 75g flour and 50g butter) and adjusting my oven, which does tend to be a bit hot, to 190 degrees instead of 200…nothing. The same soggy middle and uninspiring flump as soon as I took them out of the oven. I realise the photos dont win any awards either but why you would want to take the time to properly photograph such a crushing defeat.

So I now sit here in front of my laptop in despair. The worst part is I had decided to combine my technical challenge with my flavour challenge in one recipe which means I have nothing to show for either until I get over my inexplicable nightmare. Which is where I need help… if any of you have made choux pastry before and can provide any insight into what I’m doing wrong, please please  send instructions! My culinary education and my pride (I cant fail at the first real challenge) depends on your help.

If you are as inexperienced as I am on the matter then at least take comfort in knowing you are not alone. There’s nothing more annoying than those people who can create magazine worthy creations on their first attempt…

…no danger of that then. ♥

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Friends are always asking me if I’m going to enter competitions like The Great British Bake Off or Masterchef and although I appreciate their somewhat misguided faith in my cooking abilities it immediately focuses my mind on all the glaring gaps in my repertoire, particularly essential techniques like pastry making that I am yet to attempt, without which I would get laughed straight out of a professional kitchen.

It’s funny how people assume that when you start writing about food, you know what you are talking about. Anyone who has seen reality tv can tell that just because your creative output is displayed on a screen doesn’t necessarily mean you have any talent. However it’s that automatic faith that makes one feel as though one should be doing something deserving. So instead of continuing to guiltily brush off the kind suggestions of friends and family and walk around feeling like a culinary imposter, I am setting myself a challenge. And not being one to set myself a nice sensible target,  it has turned into three challenges.

Of course as soon as I write them down I will be forced to stick to my guns… which is partly the reason for involving witnesses… and partly to garner the moral support I think.

Challenge number 1

  • The first challenge is technical. Each month I will learn a different technical skill that I’ve been too scared or too lazy to learn before now (think puff pastry – eek).

Challenge number 2

  • The second challenge is to produce extraordinary flavours.  I’ll try to create at least one dish with a suitably unusual flavouring or combination of flavours  that I haven’t seen anyone else produce before. This one is about learning which flavours work without following somebody else’s instructions.

Challenge number 3

  • My third and final challenge is reinventing a classic. This is probably the easiest of the three and probably overlaps with extraordinary flavours quite a lot but this is slightly different as it’s about picking one classic dish and creating my own recipes that remain faithful to the original idea but think outside the box a bit.

I think that should keep me out of trouble for a while. I havent got around to creating a proper plan for what to make each month yet or deciding when my self-inflicted boot camp will come to an end but in the meantime I got so enthusiastic about the idea that I went and created two dishes that fit snugly into categories 2 and 3 to get me started, and to give you some idea of where I’m going with this.

Extraordinary Flavours Challenge – Strawberry Rooibos Tea Cake

I guess I cheated a little bit as Whittard’s had already come up with the idea of pairing the Rooibos and Strawberry but I’d been thinking about a fruit and tea flavoured cake when I saw this tea and this option gets around the problem of finding fruit to bake with in winter. Even  although strawberries are normally a summer ingredient the tea infusion turns them into something more autumnal and cosy. It sounds a little obvious now that I’m writing it down but nibbling a slice alongside a cup of hot tea brings out the flavour in both the tea and the cake and works almost like a good wine with the right cheese. Perfect bedfellows. 

  • 225g plain flour
  • 225g softened butter
  • 225g caster sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 4 tbsp strawberry rooibos tea (made by stewing 4 tsp of tea leaves in about a cup of water for as long as possible and then cooling – the more concentrated the better)
  • 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup of icing sugar (depending on how much and how runny you like your icing)

Preheat the oven  170 degrees and butter and line a loaf tin. Cream the butter with an electric beater, add the sugar and continue to beat until pale and fluffy. slowly beat in the eggs one at a time. Sift the flour and fold into the butter mixture. Add 2 tbsp of the concentrated tea and mix until just combined. Pour into the loaf tin and bake for an hour or until golden and an inserted skewer comes out clean. Turn out onto a wire rack to cool.  When the loaf is cool put the remaining 2 tbsp of tea into a bowl and add the icing sugar until you obtain the required consistency. Drizzle over the cake.

Reinventing a Classic Challenge – Winter Squash Lasagne

Most people have their own specific recipe for lasagne but it always uses the classic combination of beef and tomatoes. There’s nothing wrong with a classic lasagne and you might be thinking, if it aint broke… but I’m choosing it as the first subject of my reinvention challenge because other than vegetarian versions its not something everyone attempts to play around with very often. The star of this version is winter squash. It uses Butternut squash and Courgette as the main ingredients – yes I know Courgette isn’t strictly a squash but it belongs to the same squash/marrow family in my mind and it is gentle enough that it doesn’t overdo the number of loud ingredients. I also used turkey instead of beef as it plays a supporting role instead of taking over the show so to speak.

  • 300g turkey mince
  •  2 small courgettes, grated
  • 1 small butternut squash, peeled and cubed
  • few sprigs of sage leaves
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 can chopped tomatoes
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 20g flour
  • 30g butter
  • 500ml milk
  • handful grated mature white cheddar
  • dried lasagne sheets
  • sprinkle of parmesan for the top

Fry the onion in a little oil until soft, then add the turkey mince and continue to fry until it starts to brown. Add the chopped tomatoes and chicken stock and simmer until the liquid has reduced, about 20-3o min. Meanwhile either roast or gently fry the cubed butternut until soft.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. To make the white sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan and stir in the flour. Cook over a medium heat for a few minutes and then whisk in the milk a little at a time. Keep stirring until the sauce starts to thicken and then add the grated cheese.

Starting with mince at the bottom, create layers of mince, grated courgette, lasagne, white sauce and butternut to fill a lasagne dish. It doesn’t really matter what order you create the layers in or how many you have of each but make sure the lasagne sheets have white sauce or meat on them otherwise they will be too dry. I like a layer of courgette on the top sprinkled with parmesan because it looks pretty and goes a little crispy in the heat of the oven. Once assembled place in the oven for 30-40 min until the top is starting to brown and the lasagne sheets are soft when tested with a knife.

So that marks the start of my self-inflicted cooking school. For November, I’m going to attempt choux pastry, come up with another lasagne recipe or two and think up some new flavour ideas which will hopefully merit a cursory glance.

Should you feel the urge to go one step further and join me for one or all of the challenges, I would welcome the company and love to see what ideas you have so I’ll keep you posted on the next subject. If you choose to remain a spectator, I still welcome the company and hope  you draw some inspiration from the recipes.

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