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Follow my kitchen experiments, catastrophes and triumphs


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The world’s best home made mince pies

Summer Christmas for us in New Zealand! The weather has been lovely, although a summer Christmas still seems SO wrong. However, I’m not going to allow the thermometer to dictate my festive foods. My brother has come out for a visit with his family, so we have a great reason to cook up a storm. They’ve been here two days and so far we’ve baked Gingerbread Christmas stars for the kids to decorate, easy banana muffins, eaten a lot of my traditional Christmas cake and some mince pies. Actually, rather a lot of mince pies. And they are amazing! This is not an exaggeration. My brother, who is a mince pie connoisseur, has rated these as the best ever. Considering he’s had our Gran’s incredibly yummy ones, and some also seriously posh British ones (from whence these originate), he is well placed to judge.

Some people like flaky mince pie pastry cases (eeurgh) and the people with really good taste prefer a good, short, crumbly sweet shortcrust. I’m sure you can tell which camp I fall into.

The filling I made using a recipe, highly recommended by a friend, from stuff.co.nz and includes figs, ginger and chocolate. Good mix. Great mix actually. I’m never making plain sultana mince ever again. Ideally you want to make this a couple of months before making the mince pies. For the pastry I combined a couple of recipes to make a short sweet pastry that I liked. I baked mine in small catering foil pastry cases because they help my pastry cases get nice and crisp. However, you can use a muffin tin for small muffins, simply don’t use the full height of the muffin holes. Christmas Mince Pies

The Fig, Ginger and Chocolate Mince Filling

Ingredients:

3 cups packed dried figs
1 cup sultanas
1/4 cup crystallised ginger
150g dark chocolate
1 apple, peeled and grated
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup brandy

Method:

Chuck everything apart from the brandy and sugar into your food processor and roughly chop. Mix through the sugar and brandy.

Cover and leave in a cool place for two days, stirring occasionally.

Pack into two large sterilised jars and seal well. Leave to mature for at least 1 month before using.

Sweet shortcrust pastry (for approx 36 pies)

Ingredients:

450g cold butter cut into cubes
700g plain flour
200g golden caster sugar
1 jar of your mince meat
2 small eggs
around 4 tablespoons of cold water

Method:

Cut the butter into the flour. Try and use a pastry cutter if you can to keep the butter from melting. If you don’t have one, use a sturdy fork, or rub it in with your hands. Once the butter and flour mix resembles fine bread crumbs, stir in the sugar. Using a spoon, quickly stir through the eggs, and use a teeny amount of water to bind the pastry dough together. You are looking for a fairly dry and crumbly mix that only just holds itself together. I used 4 tablespoons of water today, but this can vary. Add a tablespoon at a time and see how you go. If you add too much, the dough will get sticky and be useless.

Wrap in clingfilm and chill for 30 minutes.

Pre-heat your oven to 180 degrees C (fan). Roll the pastry out to approximately 3mm thickness. You want the pastry to be quite thin if you can manage it. Cut rounds slightly bigger than your  muffin tin openings so that you can form the base and sides of the pastry bases. Fill these 2/3rds full with your mincemeat. Cut a smaller round or a shape to top off the pie. If you use a solid circle for the topping, don’t forget to poke a cross with a knife to let the steam out. Bake for 25-30 minutes.

Once cooled on a cooling rack, top with sprinkled icing sugar.

If you want to freeze these, do so before baking them.

 

 


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Fake Pesto = Popeye Pasta sauce for kids

I love a fresh basil pesto pasta. But basil pesto sort of sucks without the parmesan cheese if you’re dairy free like me. And then, much as I know basil is rammed full of healthy goodness, I’m always quite keen to add a few more veggies into anything I serve up to my kids. Plus some kids seem to hate the taste of basil, unfortunate little souls, and this is a good way to introduce the taste a little more gently. Enter fake pesto sauce. I whipped this up in mere minutes and the kids wolfed it down even more quickly.

I keep vast quantities of this frozen in little cubes in my freezer as a quick pasta sauce for my kids. Its pretty versatile and works brilliantly if you half and half it with a béchamel sauce, stir through some scrummy cheese and shredded chicken or tuna. You can even use it for a pasta bake. Or as a puree for a really small baby, or as a base for a pasta sauce for adults.

Green pasta sauceIngredients:

1/2 a finely chopped onion

A couple of cloves of crushed garlic

2 medium courgette, grated

A large handful fresh spinach (or a few cubes of the chopped frozen variety)

A big sprig of fresh basil leaves (optional if your kids can’t stand it)

Method:

Sweat the onion in a little olive oil in a covered pan until very soft and full of flavour. Add the garlic and saute for a minute. Add the green veg and  cook gently until everything is well softened before blitzing with an immersion blender, liquidiser or food processor.

To freeze, portion out into ice cube trays, cover till cool, then freeze. Once these guys are frozen solid, you can flip them out of the tray into a ziplock bag. They will keep for roughly 3 months in the freezer.


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Apricots and slow cookers

“I love apricots. They’re so fuzzy they’re furry. They’re like little pets you can eat legally.”
― Jarod Kintz

They are also fantastic in savoury dishes. I  usually use them chopped in meatloaf with apricot jam for the glaze. But my absolute favourite way to eat them, is with chicken, yum yum! My fortnightly meal challenge this week will be to do Apricot Glazed Roast Chicken Pieces. I’m so excited by the idea I have in my head that I simply can’t WAIT to do this. Keep an eye out for the results.

And as an added bonus, apricots are a fairly good and healthy choice in terms of fruit. High in vitamins A and C, Iron and Potassium AND three apricots are roughly 50 calories, what’s not to love!!!! They’re my favourite dried fruit to snack on!

I also have lovely memories of the apricot tree in our back yard when I was a child. It’s still there and roughly 80 years old now. It doesn’t produce fruit any more, but my Dad has kept it for the lovely peaceful shade cast by its heart shaped leaves every summer.

When I was young and limber, we used to climb it almost every day, great practise for picking the fruit when it eventually ripened. Just thinking about that tree brings back endless hot days, the sound of the cicadas rasping away and the mielie ladies calling their wares as they made their way along our road.

I remember my Gran making the most delicious apricot jam. She never had need for a jam thermometer, or jam sugar, or special tongs to hold the hot bottles. I guess she had a lifetime of preserving practice behind her, which does help. I absolutely adore her recipes, they really evoke that warm, comforting and safe feeling I remember about being a small child. Reading her tiny, faded scrawl in her hand written recipe book, falling apart from years of daily use and making her bakes and jams gives me such joy.

I get my craving for comfort foods from her cooking. Now that winter is approaching, I’m starting to get quite excited by all the casseroles and pies I have planned. I especially love that it will be cold enough to leave a load of fridge groceries in the boot of the car for the whole day without fear of them spoiling. We have to have SOME positives about winter. Its also the time of year I crack out my slow cooker.

Sadly the ceramic insert of my slow cooker cracked last week. Do you remember the clementine and sage roasted chicken? Well I then shoved the remains into my slow cooker and made a heavenly chicken soup and a risotto in the slow cooker and then craaaaack *cry* I am very sad as it was a wedding present, and the manufacturers no longer make slow cookers. Boo! Which means I’m now weighing up the pro’s and cons of other options and relying on my oven instead. Luckily my oven is now all clean and sparkly and ready for action! The result of some housework yesterday!


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Chicken soup and pasta necklaces

I think that women just have a primeval instinct to make soup, which they will try to foist on anybody who looks like a likely candidate ~ Dylan Moran

It’s a cold, wet and miserable day here today. As it’s the first rainy day in ages, I feel that it’s ok to stay indoors with the kids, playing random games and watching way too many DVDs. Yesterday’s roast chicken carcass is currently hanging out in my massive crockpot, accompanied by some onion, celery, garlic, a parsnip, 2 carrots, a sweet potato and red lentils. I doubt it will be ready for lunch, but the kids and I will definitely be enjoying a thick and comforting broth with big chunks of sour dough bread for tea tonight. I’m quite looking forward to it.

When the miserable weather really set in, as it can only do in the UK, we have to just grit our teeth, don our rain gear and head on out into it. Its a pretty trying time really. Toddlers get bored, mothers get frustrated and cabin fever sets in for everyone. The easiest way for toddlers to deal with the whole situation seems to be through horrific behaviour. Its understandable really as they have no way to burn off the same amounts of energy as they can on a nice warm sunny day.

I used to struggle to deal with the behaviour, and particularly, with preventing it happening in the first place. Thankfully I have a very good friend who is also an amazing Mummy. I remember a very ranty chat we had where I was moaning about the Terrible Two’s and she gave me the most brilliant solution. Create a “Special Box” of crafty bits and pieces to be brought out on particularly bad days. Genius idea. So far, no tantrums today. J is threading a pasta necklace. Its kept him occupied for almost an hour so far. I made sure the stiffened lace end wasn’t too perfect to make sure it takes a bit more time dexterity.

No beads? Make your own with pasta in your kitchen! There are loads of tutorials out there. You just need threadable pasta (I used Penne), ziplock bags,  food colouring and some vinegar (or rubbing alcohol).Use one zip lock bag per colour. Add in a tablespoon of vinegar and some food colouring. Drop in your pasta and swirl around till it is all well coated with colour. I left mine for 5 minutes before spreading it out on waxed paper to dry.Very easy. You should try it before the tantrums strike!


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The art of easy home cooking

Nothing beats the nutritional benefits of fresh properly prepared home made grub. And as my 2 year old says, “Mummy food is super TUMMY!” He means yummy by the way. Just in case you were wondering. Somehow even the simplest sandwich made with love tastes better.

So much of what we read in the media or watch on the telly tells us that ready made food and take out is bad for you. They don’t always clarify why. Some are laden with saturated fats, salt and e numbers and some just taste revolting, but I’m pretty sure not all convenience foods are that bad for you, and certainly not as an occasional break from the kitchen graft treat. I’m a firm believer of Happy Mummy = Happy children. So if I occasional need a break from the kitchen, by feeding myself and my kids crap, I ease the guilt with a glass of wine and a reminder that I’ve saved my kids from having shouty Mum today.

Generally though, I feel like I simply HAVE to do home cooking all the time. So many of my mummy friends are truly inspiring and amazing, making wonderful home cooked food every single day! HOW?!!?! I’ve also realised I’ve stuck in a bit of a cooking rut, cooking the same old boring meals over and over and over again. Not good. So I’ve come up with a five point plan to improve both the frequency and quality of my family cooking. Hope these work as well for you as they are for me.

1. Set myself a regular new food challenge

I was lucky enough to get to test some recipes for my chefy friend, L. She’s writing a book! Lucky me! Trying her recipes really opened my eyes to new ideas for feeding the family. I’m far more inspired now. My kids get a much wider range of food as a result, and I get the feeling they’re a load less picky too.

Try set yourself a realistic cooking challenge. I try and cook something totally new for dinner once a fortnight. You might only be able to manage once a month. That’s fine. Just try it and see if it changes how you view the kitchen grind. If you can manage once a week, I’ll come over and be your guinea pig!

2. Cook in bulk:

If you’re cooking anyway, cook double, or triple quantities. Portion out the extra into freezer bags and you have a microwave meal ready to rock and roll. With NO e-numbers or preservatives either! What’s not to love. Microwave rice is my go to starch for a quick option at the end of a long day, but putting potatoes on to bake are even easier, as long as you remember to do it a good hour before you want to eat.

Don’t forget to date and label your freezer bags. And to save on precious storage space in your teeny tiny freezer, stuff the freezer bag (with as much air squeezed out as possible) into a tupperware. Once its frozen, pop it out and voila, stackable box shaped frozen food without using up all your tupperware containers. I’ve invested an incredible amount of effort into determining exactly the right shaped tupperware that will hold a meal for my family of four AND fit into exactly 25% of my freezer drawer footprint. Sad, but true.

3. Cook food you think you’ll actually like:

This is a no brainer. If you cook crap food, you’re going to hate it and not bother next time. It takes no more effort to cook scrummy food. Trust me, I know. I’ve made both. Actually, I’ve put some enormous effort into some remarkably revolting fare. Have a think about what types of simple food you enjoy and then make that. Don’t try making sea bass when you know you hate fish. I also have to avoid cooking food that one person likes to the detriment of the other 3 members of our family.

4. Cook simple:

Don’t try whip up a 19 course cuisine nouveau dinner on the back of a twenty toddler tantrum day. You WILL fail!

Throw away some of your recipe books. Or at least move them to the coffee table. Far too many “celebrity chef” recipe books out there rely on loads of  ingredients that aren’t easy to source in your local grocery store, even if it is a posh one! If you’re lucky enough to have the time to wander through loads of markets and independent shops sourcing funky ingredients, then go ahead. If you’ve got kids, like me, then you might not have the time or the energy. I chucked out a bunch of my old recipe books. I had way too many. I’ve kept the ones with food I like, some with great kids meals and the ones that give me inspiration for new ideas. I also kept the ones that were gifts. Luckily those are all inspiring.

Some of our celebrity inspirations have cottoned on to this and brought out far more Super-Mum friendly recipe books with ingredients you’ve actually heard of. One of my favourite recipe books uses 5 or fewer ingredients for every meal. If you use really fresh, and good quality ingredients, you’ll make magic. Generally though, I don’t use recipes and just wing it. I suspect this is why I’ve started to fall into the boring food rut. So I’ll be leafing through my books that have achievable meals more regularly now.

5. Some wisdom from W.C. Fields:

William Claude was quite an astute chap really. A luscious wine braised stew can have a much deeper and yummier flavour. And you get to have a glass while you peel the veg, which really helps to take the edge off the overworked feel you have at the end of the day.

A Cooking Challenge:

I’ll be posting my fortnightly cooking challenge right here on my blog.  During the interim weeks, I’ll post the recipe in advance, just in case anyone is keen to try make the same thing. The hardest thing for me will be remembering to take photos. So I’ll be using this challenge to try improve my absolutely useless photography skills and stop making my camera blush.


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I’m not much of a cake person ~ Daniel Radcliffe

I love Daniel Radcliffe’s attitude. It means more cake for me, hooray!

I’m not great at baking pretty cakes. I enjoy quick and easy loaf cakes that don’t require any embellishments other than at most, a smear of good butter. But then I had kids. And they started to grow. And have birthdays. Which require parties. Which means cake!

Now as we live in Surrey this means you either fall into one of two categories. The Surrey-Mummy-With-Too-Much-Money category (or possibly the I-can’t-bake-for-bleep-but-am-too-embarrassed-to-admit-it-category). Or you fall into the uber competitive My-Cake-Is-Better-Than-Your-Cake group. Now this was a tough one for me. I am not so keen to fork out more on a cake than on wine for a party. I’ve also never really classed myself as the scary competitive parent type. I mean my kids ARE the brightest, most beautiful children in the ENTIRE world, EVER. My eldest could count to a million from 3 months don’t you know!

Now, I CAN bake. And how hard can it be to ice a cake?

So against my better judgement, I creamed some butter and sugar

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And once the easy part was done, I waved my trusty spatula and got cracking. This was my first ever attempt with ready rolled icing. It was a million times easier than I thought it would be. So take courage, those who fall into the I’d-Rather-Spend-My-Money-On-Wine group like me. Its not that hard, its actually great fun. And shhhhhhhhh, don’t tell anyone else, but you get a GREAT deal of satisfaction when the cake is all finished. Particularly when the most annoying of the Rich-BiMothers asks who your baker is!

P.S. I don’t actually know any annoying mothers as referred to above. Either I’m just really lucky or they don’t exist! 😉

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