Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Baking: From the Heart

Over the weekend Cramps turned to me and said to “you’ll never really understand love until you get a bulldog, will you?” To which I had to totally agree.

Now don’t get me wrong, we don’t have children, so we’re not experts on unconditional love but we’ve both had other dog breeds before and stand by the fact that nothing can prepare you for the love (hair, puddles of wee, poo, ruined rugs…) that a bulldog brings to your life. We didn’t take the decision to get a puppy lightly. Our research told us the breed was fairly low maintenance in regards to exercise but needed a lot of love. They could be stubborn but were very loyal and affectionate. It seemed a great fit for our lifestyle. We had both been totally won over by the bags of character the breed have, a quick search on YouTube and you’ve got more hilarious videos of bulldogs than you can shake a stick at.

Part of their charm is their tough appearance that melts away in an instant! In fact I would say Benson is the soppiest dog I have ever met.  This is a dog who despite getting on for 25kg feels climbing onto your lap for a cuddle is a totally appropriate thing to do.  He will sit on feet while we are eating at the table and never leave our side once all day. He even follows me into the toilet or bathroom when I shower. His love knows no bounds. He is obsessed with soft things, cushions, rugs, blankets and will often burrow into said soft furnishings for a quick nap leaving a trail of dog hair and a musk of hamster bedding…hmmm aren’t we just so lucky. Forget independence Benson hates being left alone, the guilt inducing face he has perfected for when I try and leave the house is so perfect that he often rides shotgun while I do my errands. He is never left alone for more than 3 hours and that is only when absolutely essential.

He has about 100 different facial expressions, each one incredibly funny. To him you are everything. While it hasn’t always been easy to adjust I love having Benson in our little family. You will never feel as loved as when you walk through the front door to a bulldog that’s shaking with excitement to see you. If you have the time and commitment that it takes to look after a dog who needs so much love I can’t recommend this breed more. If you already have one then you will know what I mean. A truly special breed, one in a million.

While this isn’t my usual kind of recipe I decided to create this for a couple of reasons. My little mutt is so sensitive- he seems to be allergic to everything! Nightly Sudocrem massages and an avoidance of any foods with artificial colours help to keep his itching to a minimum. We once tried one of his dog treats to see “what all the fuss was about” I swear they are made of compressed cardboard. So as a token of my appreciation for his love and ensure I know what he was eating I had a go at making some tasty little dog treats for him. Really these biscuits could be eaten by us too as they are much like a savoury oat cake, however I think I’ll leave these for Benson, sharing food with a pet is a questionable at best. Once made they will keep for a week or so in an airtight container. He loved them; mind you he would literally eat anything if he had his way.

Bensons Biscuits
Makes about 50 small biscuits.

180g wholemeal four
100g polenta
55g oats
30g wheat germ
50g light brown sugar
½ tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
½ cup water
85g butter, cold, chopped into pieces
1 egg
1 Heat oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4. Put all the ingredients, apart from the egg in a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles crumbs.  Add the egg and pulse again then gradually add up to 50ml of cold water until you have a soft but dough. Divide into two balls and roll out each one in turn on a floured surface about ½ cm thick.
2 Stamp out hearts, bone shapes or whatever you fancy. Vary the size if you like depending on how good/big your dog is. Divide between flat trays lined with parchment. Re-roll any trimmings. Cook on the middle and bottom shelf, swapping the trays half way through, for 18-20 mins, until light golden and crisp. Cool. Keep in an airtight container. 

Monday, 19 January 2015

Have your cookie & eat it too!

So another year has passed already, I swear they whizz past quicker each year. Are you starting yours with good intentions? While resolutions can be a little cliché lets not forget about all the benefits of starting your 2015 with a fresh approach and a healthy attitude. When we all feel part of the same club or in the same boat there’s a much larger support network plus less fear of missing out. Lets be honest when you think all your friends are doing the same it makes it a lot easier to stay in with a bowl of healthy soup, than to opt for a night at the local pub followed by a late night Indian! Not only that but the papers, magazines and TV are inundating us with tips, advice, and relatable stories that can give us just the boost we need. Lastly after all the fun and excess of December our bodies really do need it, well mine certainly does anyway.

However in my opinion these things shouldn’t just be for January. There’s no point in signing up for unrealistic, punishing and lets face it unhealthy regimes or diets. These extreme diets just set us up for failure and following that failure can come nasty feelings of guilt. Frankly this isn't my idea of fun at all. The good news is the secret to long-term success is easy. Everything in moderation, it’s all about balance. Eat a varied, balanced diet and offset that bit of what you fancy with a bigger bit of what your body needs and you’ll be golden! We’re incredibly lucky to have such a wealth of recipes, ingredients and information to help us cook and eat more healthily. In fact healthy eating is more accessible than ever, so no more excuses ;-)!

Years ago healthy food was seen as strange and tasteless. Picture hippies in long skirts boiling up big vats of mung beans while waving around incense stick to mask the stench. TV shows with angry women who wanted to poke around our in our poo while the nation watched. No, not for me thanks! Luckily for us now it’s the complete opposite. You can eat healthy food all day long and be totally satisfied. We all have our guilty pleasures, vices and indulgent treats and so we should. For me it’s a glass of Prosecco and a bag of crisps once the working day is done, a really good Naples style pizza, and proper chips with loads of vinegar to name just a few. For this reason I could never follow a diet that cut out entire food groups or enforced eating at strange hours or on certain days only. Instead I find if I exercise a reasonable amount, take small steps to squeeze a little more activity into each day and eat a varied diet with lots of vegetables and lean protein then I can maintain a healthy weight. And still squeeze in a pizza or two week without busting out of my skinny jeans.

So my new years resolution is this: I’ll update my blog a little bit more this year and share with you some of my easy, healthy recipes that you can use in your everyday cooking too. I love cooking healthy meals and think that if more people tried these recipes, without a preconceived idea that they wont taste good or will still be hungry after they'd be converted too. For those that already do you will hopefully find some new ideas to try and adapt. Everything from soups for the freezer to easy weeknight dinners as well as more special meals for entertaining. Starting with these healthier oat & banana cookies. I used to make a similar cookie to this but each one had around 400kcals. When I went back to the drawing board I found with a few small tweaks I could reduce that by over half and they still tasted great. They’re full of goodness; oats, banana, dates, coconut, almonds and pistachios and can be eaten morning, noon or night. So looks like this year you can have your cake, well cookie and eat it too! Happy baking and Happy New Year!

Good Fortune Cookies
Makes 14
Around 179kcals, 10.5g fat & 5g protein per cookie.
Once cooked they will keep for a good 4-5 days in an airtight container, well that is if they last that long.

85g oats (use gluten free if you want to make these gluten free)
25g unsweetened desiccated coconut
25g whey protein (I got mine from Tesco)
75g ground almonds
50g raisins (optional)
40g nuts such as pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, roughly chopped (whatever you have)
25g banana chips, roughly chopped (use extra nuts instead if you like)
4 tbsp coconut oil, melted
100g dates, stoned
65g really ripe (brown) banana
2 tbsp maple syrup
2 tbsp almond butter
1 tsp vanilla
¾ tsp bicarb

1 Heat the oven to 160C/140C fan/gas 3. Line 2 large trays with non-stick parchment paper. In a large bowl combine the oats, coconut, whey protein, ground almonds, chopped nuts, banana chips and raisins (if using) then mix to combine. Boil a kettle and cover the dates in boiling water, leave for a few mins to soften.

2 Once soft transfer to a blender with 2 tbsp of the water, the vanilla, coconut oil, banana, maple syrup and blend until smooth. Tip into a small pan with the almond butter and heat gently. Boil the kettle again and put the bicarb in a small bowl. Pour in 2 tbsp of boiling water then quickly add to the pan. Take off the heat and stir, it should bubble up and go frothy, mix well. Stir into the oaty mix.

3 Use an ice cream scoop to form balls of cookie dough and divide between the lined baking sheets, with a little space to spread. Press down to form cookie shapes. Bake for 14-16 minutes, depending on how chewy you like the cookies. Cool on a wire rack. Perfect with a hot cup of tea or a glass of milk!

Friday, 22 August 2014

Nevs amazeballs

Our world is now one where it’s normal to have seen your friends and families holiday snaps before they even fly home. You will know what your cousin Alice got for her birthday before she has even had time to tell you herself and hell you probably even saw what I had for dinner last night before I even tasted it. Yep social media means that we are now more connected than ever and while it can be a pain in the ass at times (‘the oh so inspirational’ quotes or subtle digs that you don’t have to be a genius to figure out have a hidden meaning) it’s pretty amazing too as well. I love that I can keep in touch with friends all over the globe and see their wonderful pictures and posts. My nieces and nephews grow so quickly and with the help of social media I feel that little bit more connected. I feel lucky I can share those precious moments with them, that wouldn’t have always been possible. Plus, lets face it…I do actually really want to know what you had for dinner last night too.

The wealth of information can seem a little overwhelming and there are times when you feel like you’ve definitely seen more than you would have chosen to. The trick is to try not to let it influence you too much, although this is sometimes easier said than done. When life does occasionally get me down though or I have something troubling on my mind and I just want to switch of for a few hours and get away from the world I find the best thing to do is put down the technology and get into the kitchen and cook. Quite handy really considering my job! Naturally I’ll post a picture afterwards too, of course. Recently I had a go at making some iced doughnuts, kind of a traditional jam filled doughnut meets an iced bun in an attempt to cheer myself up one day.

Iced buns have always been my favourite. I don’t really have a sweet tooth so could go a whole year without eating a slice of cake or a chocolate bar but I’ve got a lot of time for the iced bun. Definitely not the most refined or interesting of baked goods I’ll agree but there’s something so charming and reassuring about their simple deliciousness that I just can’t resist. I’m guessing it must stem from my love of bread. It’s basically a wonderful combination of bread, jam and icing. These will never disappoint. I had a lot of different sprinkles in my baking cupboard (left over from other projects) and so I spent the afternoon covering balls of dough, piped full of Nutella or jam with a multitude of colourful sugary treats. My kitchen was covered. I was covered. The doughnuts were covered. Even the dog was covered in a film of sugar but by the time I’d finished my mood had been lifted to something way past happiness.

This doughnut recipe might not be the most technical, impressive or refined but I guarantee you once you finish you’ll be happy, even if they look a bit rustic. I have come to the conclusion it’s impossible to be unhappy when the kitchen floor crunches with hundred and thousands under foot and you have a still warm, icing dripping, jam drizzling doughnut in your hand.

So basically what I am saying is this. Instead of brooding and filling my day with unhappiness, worry and stress I choose to make doughnuts. It took my mind of things, cheered me up but not only that it stopped me ruining any more moments by being in a bad mood. The trouble with being pissed off is this; it’s not just the moment you spend being unhappy, it’s all the happy moments you miss out on, that’s the real loss. It may sounds stupid and oversimplified but it works, make these doughnuts and you’ll find out. Hope you have all a happy bank holiday.

Mini iced doughnuts (Nevs amazeballs)
Makes about 20

300g strong white bread flour
10g fast action yeast (1.5 sachets)
2 tsp almond extract or vanilla extract
2 tbsp golden caster sugar
1 large egg (must be large)
110ml semi-skimmed milk
About ½ jar of jam or nutella, use smooth jam or the fruit will clog up the piping bag
250g icing sugar
Sprinkles, loads, whatever you have lying around, or nuts, anything really that will stick

1 Heat the milk, butter, vanilla until melted. Allow to cool a little (about 5 mins) and stir in the egg and the yeast, leave for about 5 mins or until it looks frothy. In a machine with a dough hook fitted mix the flour and yeasty mixture until smooth and elastic, about 7 minutes, or by hand mix then knead for about 10 minutes. Leave in an oiled bowl covered with oiled Clingfilm until doubled in size. You can pop it in the fridge overnight or leave at room temperature for about 1 hour 30 minutes.

2 Once risen lightly punch back the dough and divide into about 18-20 balls. Weigh them. I know you think this is boring and a waste of time but they will look so much better. You want them between 26-30g each, it’s not that tough, just divide into 18 ish rough balls, weigh one by one adding or taking away a little until you have the correct weigh. Simples. Shape. Basically take each piece and you want to pull the sides into the middle so the surface is smooth and rounded. Once you have that use your hands as a cone to complete the ball shape.

3 Place on a parchment lined tray, with a little space to grow, cover with oiled cling film and leave for about 45 mins, or doubled in size. Meanwhile heat oven to 200C/180C fan/gas 6. Bake for about (my oven is hot so keep an eye on them) 12 mins, check after 8. Until golden and risen.

3 Allow to cool for about 10 mins under a tea towel to keep the crusts soft. Use a skewer to poke a hole in each and wiggle a little to make room for the filling. Mix the icing sugar with enough water to form a stiff but slowly pourable consistency. Fill a piping bag with a small nossel with jam, or warmed nutella (this makes it more pliable) and pipe into each bun. Place on a wire rack or tray lined with parchment (it gets messy, the parchment helps operation clean up!). Spoon the icing onto the middle of each ball, enough so it runs down the side and coats them. Sprinkle!!!!!! Smile. Breath. Feel happy. Eat!

Best eaten the day you make them. They wont be around for more than a few hours anyway.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Pizza on the BBQ...you must be smokin'

Like most good ideas, this one happened by chance. With the ongoing absence of a wood oven in my life I’d become quite creative (and perhaps a little obsessed) in my quest to create a delicious and authentic pizza at home. I’d made the dough enough times now to be confident that it was a winner but I wasn’t fully satisfied with my cooking method, which I’d borrowed from the incredible Pizza Pilgrims. (Who, it must be said, I can’t speak more highly of, they’re like my pizza idols.)

The base would start off in a smoking hot dry pan then it would be topped and left to puff up a little before flashing under a smoulderingly hot grill to melt. The result was good however, I had 2 issues with this method. The speed at which it had to be topped coupled with the fact that I had to transfer from pan to tray to be able to fit it under my grill meant I had to be very meagre with the toppings. Although an authentic pizza didn’t have a lot of toppings on it trying to explain this to hungry dinner guests who wanted the works on their pizza never seemed to end too well.

Secondly, I have an incredibly sensitive smoke alarm, and live in an apartment with lots neighbours. Said smoke alarm was not a fan off pizza nights in Nev’s kitchen and felt the need to voice this dislike at several intervals during the night. The particularly offensive alarm could only be soothed into remission by one of my dinner guests standing below it waving a tea towel up and down like a banshee for at least 30 seconds. While admittedly this is a great way to burn off some of the calories from the impending carb overload it didn’t make me particularly popular with either my guests or my neighbours. Something had to be done.

I inherited a little BBQ a few weeks ago. Some of my neighbours who were moving house had decided to leave it behind so I adopted it. At least I’d assumed that was the reason it was gifted to me….However, now looking back, it seems more likely this was a subtle hint. An act undertaken to encourage me to start cooking more outside- due to their suspicion that I had an intrinsic inability to cook anything without setting it on fire. At least this way, if I did set it on fire then I was outside anyway and more importantly well away from the dreaded smoke alarm.  Alas regardless of reason I was now the owner of a neat little BBQ and so began to wonder….could I cook my pizza in this?

The verdict? Well put it this way I’d still give my right (actually better make that left) arm for a wood oven but I think it’s a great way to cook a pizza; it’s quick, the base was crisp and no noisy alarms! Win! Also it’s a brilliant way to entertain a few friends, the style of cooking and eating lends itself really well to the BBQ and outdoor atmosphere, and although you can only cook 1-2 pizzas at a time you’re all in the garden together and people can always share, choose their own toppings and generally get involved. Make a couple of garlic pizza breads to start for people to nibble on while they wait or throw together a big antipasti board as a starter for sharing. I’d fully advise having a go instead of your next traditional BBQ! Enjoy.

NB I have created this recipe for people who wish to make and eat their pizza the same day, but If you want to make the authentic Naples style sourdough pizza then see the recipe at the end, great if you have a wood oven or use the frying pan/grill method if you’re lucky enough to have a normal smoke alarm!

Mini BBQ Pizzas
Makes 7-8 small pizzas, garlic pizza bread or pesto breads

NB if you have a sourdough starter, use this instead of the yeast, or add a little yeast as well if you’re short on time, but don’t forget to add less water.

500g Canadian very strong flour
10g sea salt
7g sachet fast action yeast
about 300ml water, you may not need it all
400g can really good plum tomatoes, use San Marzano if you can
Sea salt, pepper
Fresh basil leaves
2 x 125g balls mozzarella, patted really dry (or the pizza will be soggy) and cut into small cubes
grated fresh Parmesan

Then you decide, nice options include: 2 tbso of soft butter mashed with 1-2 cloves of crushed garlic, sliced salami, broccoli red chilli, sautéed mushrooms, prosciutto, ricotta, egg, wilted spinach, roasted peppers, marinated artichokes…..The possibilities are ENDLESS!

1 Make the dough

Put all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor, add about 200ml of water then while the machine is mixing add enough water to form soft dough. Continue on a slow speed for 7-8 minutes, until you have shiny, soft dough that feels elastic, smooth and soft but not sticky.

Remove the ball of dough and shape into a rough ball, put on a lightly floured surface cover and leave to relax for about 20 minutes before shaping.

2 Shape

Using a dough scraper or knife to cut into balls, about 120g each (about 200g for individual size not mini). Shape into round balls. Place on a well-floured tray, spaced apart as they will spread, cover and refrigerate for about 2 hours at room temperature or about 12 hours in the fridge for a slow rise. If it’s a hot day cover with a damp cloth and leave in a warm and shady place.

3 Get the BBQ going

Light the BBQ about 45 minutes before you want to eat and make sure your toppings are all prepped and organized nicely. Also have a plate with about 150g of flour on top; this is for shaping the pizza base. A bottle of olive oil and some black pepper ready.

4 Make and cook the pizza

Place your pizza stone or good quality pizza tray straight onto the hot coals (once they are white) add the lid and allow to heat up. Take each base in turn and place on your circle of flour (see pics to help) gently press out with your fingers to form wider circle with a rim for the crust. Spread on some sauce then your chosen toppings, not too many if you want a really crispy base. Slide onto the hot pizza stone, replace the lid and cook for about 4-5 mins, until crispy and melted. If you want a really bubbly crisp top you can flash under the grill as well just before serving. Repeat with the rest!

For a calzone, place fillings on one half, fold over to seal, brush with garlic butter and cook for a few mins more, then  brush with more butter before serving.

Proper Sourdough Pizza
Makes about 10 x 10inch pizza bases

Day 1:

500g Canadian strong flour, or strong bread flour
25g fresh yeast
100g natural yogurt
500ml cold water

Mix together, cover and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.

Day 2:

1 kg Canadian strong flour, or strong bread flour
20g salt
about 400-600ml cold water

Weigh out 200g of your starter, you don’t need the rest but you can freeze it, or keep it in the fridge if you’re making pizza again soon, or sourdough.

Put all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor with the 200g of starter. Start with 400ml of water then add more as you need to while the dough is mixing.

Using a dough hook mix the ingredients in the food processor on slow speed for 7-8 minutes, until you have a shiny, soft dough that feels elastic, smooth and soft but not sticky.

Remove, cover and leave for 20 minutes to rest.

Shape into balls, about 200g each. Place on  floured tray, spaced well apart as they will spread, cover and refrigerate for at least 12 hours but up to 48 hours. Continue with recipe above