Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Triple layered neopolitan strawberry cake. As you do.

So, my little girl turned one in April. It's a big deal. One year since she changed our lives forever by simply arriving. Her first ever birthday party. Her first ever candle.

You know how it is.

So, I decided to make a bit of an effort. I'd been thinking about doing a strawberry shaped cake, as we call her our strawberry girl, but then I started reading Sweetapolita's blog (, which is written by a truly talented creator of beautiful and delicious looking cakes. She got me thinking...hmm, maybe I could try a layer cake? Cut into a big strawberry and discover layers of...neopolitan!

So there we had it. I made three cakes: a chocolate, a strawberry and a vanilla (the chocolate I took from one of my old, worn cookbooks, the vanilla I found online and have now lost (it was a cake made with lots of egg whites and no egg yolks, so it was very pale white), and the strawberry I adapted from Sweetapolita (see I tried her strawberry cake recipe, but jelly crystals here must be different to the US version, as I had to use three packets to get to 3oz, and it tasted very chemically at the end. I made it again, this time adding strawberry essence and red food colouring instead of the jelly crystals.

Right, then, I cut the top off each cake, then cut each cake into two. I stuck them together with smooth strawberry jam (another Sweetapolita tip) and iced them. By the time I'd finished, I'd used up nearly a whole bottle of red food colouring. Not great for a kid's party, I realise...

 The strawberry seeds were made from rolled up bits of fondant icing (I was sick of the sight of them by the end), and the stem was made of marzipan, into which I kneaded some green food colouring.

All in all, given my usual disasters, I was rather pleased with this. It looked fairly impressive and tasted yum.

Now what on earth will I make for her second birthday party?

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Easter buns

Ahh, Easter buns.

Unfortunately, these ones were dense and a little dry, so I won't provide the recipe.

Weirdly, they also cracked along the outside crosses (which were made with a combination of flour, sugar and water). I'm not sure why.

Ah well, it's not Easter without Easter buns, and they toasted up ok.

Monday, 19 March 2012

A Union Jack cake for a Slovakian, made by an Australian

As you do.

Our friend recently acquired British citizenship, so to celebrate I decided to make him a Union Jack cake.

I'm not very good at icing decorations usually, as fiddly things tend to be too much of a faff for me. In this case, it was simply a matter of covering the cake with ready made rolled out icing (painted blue), then rolling and cutting strips of red and white to make the crosses.

Ok, so it doesn't look professional, but it was certainly striking and you can tell what it was supposed to be, which for me is success enough!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

A first Christmas stocking

I had intended to buy my baby a beautiful handmade Christmas stocking for her first Christmas. Etsy has some lovely ones. But,
having been on mat leave, I couldn't quite justify the expense. So, this year, I made an interim stocking to last her until I can go out and buy the truly beautiful one.

To begin, I hunted for old scraps of fabric. I had intended to make a hessian stocking but the hessian I bought was far too loose and simply frayed apart when I cut it. Instead, I found a pile of calico that I had left over from an earlier project. I also found some scraps of blue and pink strawberry fabric, which I had used to cover a canvas for my baby's wall. As we call her our 'strawberry girl', it seemed appropriate for her stocking. Finally, I picked up a snow blanket in the pound shop, and used a piece of white felt for the hook.

Using some cardboard, I drew a stocking shape and cut it out, then did the same with two pieces of calico. Before I stitched them together, I cut out a variety of Christmassy shapes in both colours of the fabric, then made toe and heel patches that were roughly the same size. I used interfacing to stick the pieces onto the calico stocking sides. Using my sewing machine, I used a 0.5 length, 5 width zig-zag stitch to trace each piece in corresponding colour.

After that, I sewed the two pieces together inside out, then added the snow blanked cuff. Finally, I added a hook made of white felt (felt doesn't need hemming).

Et voila, a useable stocking for my little girl's first Christmas.

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Great Baby Food Swap

My baby girl, Bess, is just seven months old. She's started eating, and pretty much likes everything I have spooned into her mouth so far (with the exception of broccoli, which makes her shudder). However, I found that her diet was getting monotonous as one pot of food cooked up ended up serving her for lunch and dinner for weeks on end.

So, I proposed to my group of mums'n'bubs the idea of the Great Baby Food Swap, which took place yesterday.

The rules:
- each participant must bring a pot of appropriate food - enough to send each other participant home with a container of food.
- the food must not contain sugar, salt, chilli or anything else that is baby-unfriendly.
- ideally, each pot should contain protein, two vegetables and a carbohydrate (in other words, a complete baby meal).

Six of us got together yesterday, and I brought with me a huge pot of pork and lentil stew. In return, I received:
- fish pie
- venison stew
- chicken casserole
- bolognese
- date syrup biscuits, banana cake and pumpkin bread.

Wow! Little Bess is going to be eating better than me this month.

Recipe for baby pork and lentil stew:
I won't include the amounts as I made such a huge pot. Just add as much as you want to end up with.

Diced pork shoulder
Red lentils
Sweet potato
Marrow / courgette
Chicken stock (I used real chicken stock, from a simmered chicken. Real stock is packed with salt)
Natural greek yoghurt

Gently brown the pork in a frying pan with paprika, then chuck into a slow cooker. I added half my marrow as a pre-cooked puree to the pork. Reserve the other half, chopped into small pieces. Cover with chicken stock and cook on low until the pork is cooked. Place lentils and sweet potato in a saucepan and cover with water. Boil until soft (you might need to keep adding water - the lentils absorb a huge amount). Add the marrow to the pork for the last hour or so.

Pulse the pork (and marrow if the baby is not yet eating chunks) in a blender. Mash the sweet potato into the lentils, but otherwise leave the lentils holding their shape (or blend if the baby is not yet eating chunks, again). Mix everything together, adding the yoghurt at the very end.

Freeze in small containers and reheat as needed.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Sweet Dessert Lasagna

With more than just the one sweet tooth, I thought I'd have a go at making sweet lasagna. I chucked a few bits and bobs together, et voila, a delicious sweet dessert lasagna.

Lasagna sheets (I used ready made this time, but next time might make my own, perhaps adding cinnamon or even cocoa directly into the dough)

"meat sauce"
One tin of peaches
Two containers of ricotta (about 500g)
75 g almonds
75 g hazelnuts
1 tbl honey

"bechamel sauce"
3 eggs
2 egg yolks
2 cups milk
1/2 cup white sugar

Roast the nuts in the oven until crisp (about 180 degrees for about fifteen minutes, shaking every few minutes). Rub off the hazelnut skins and pulse in a blender. Reserve about half of the nut mixture for the topping. Chop the peaches into biteable chunks. Mix together the rest of the ingredients for the "meat sauce", and set aside. Whisk together the ingredients for the bechamel sauce.

Using a loaf tin (or whatever you use for lasagna), put a little bit of the bechamel sauce in the bottom, then place a lasagna sheet down. Layer "meat sauce", then a little bechamel, then lasagna sheets until the top layer. Finish with a lasagna sheet covered with meat sauce, then fill the dish with the rest of the bechamel. This should pretty much cover the whole thing. Top it off with the remaining crushed nuts.

Bake in a moderate oven for about 45 minutes, or until the lasagna sheets are cooked.

For a nice addition, pour over a shot of cointreau or other orange-based liqueur.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

How not to make pork pies with hot crust pastry

I've never been much of a pastry cook. Everything that can go wrong, does. My pastry ends up overworked, shrunken, stodgy, undercooked and rubbery. I do it all according to the recipe, but the results are never quite right. The exception to this is choux pastry, which is made in a saucepan, and with which I have no trouble.

So, when I heard about hot crust pastry, which is made with lard melted into hot water, I thought I'd finally found the answer. A pastry which didn't need to be chilled, hurrah!

The reality turned out somewhat differently.

Lard is pig fat - something I never knew (or needed to know) before I moved to the UK. Over here, you can buy it in butter-style slabs in the supermarket. When cold, it's white and greasy, and a lot like butter, but when melted, it is clear and smells very much like pork cooking. Fatty pork, that is.

When making pork pies, it's important to make the filling first, as you don't have much time to work with the pastry. I used the following:
500g pork shoulder, including some fat
75g unsmoked bacon
one teaspoon salt
Lots of ground pepper

Most recipes also include sage, allspice and anchovy essence, none of which I had, so I added a half teaspoon of gentleman's relish, which is a disgustingly smelly spread made from anchovies. I didn't use much as I didn't actually want the flavour to get through. My theory is that it might work like fish sauce in Thai cooking, which enhances the flavour without making anything fishy.

I pulsed the meat in the food processor until it was in small chunks, mixed in the seasoning by hand and set aside. Then for the pastry...

Using various recipes for inspiration, I ended up with something like this for the pastry:
450g plain flour
pinch salt
225g lard
100 ml water and milk

Heat the lard and the liquids on a gentle heat until the lard has melted, then turn up the heat to let it boil for a bit. Try to ignore the stench of hot pig infiltrating every inch of your kitchen. when it has boiled (a rather scary splashing experience), pour the liquid over the flour and salt and mix. Knead lightly, turn out, and divide into thirds.

Two-thirds are going to be the bottom of your pie, one third will be the top.

This all sounds very well in theory but, in practice, there are dangers. For one, you have about five minutes to work with the pastry until it cools. Once cool, it gets hard and you can't work with it any more. When this happened to me, I chucked it back in the microwave for thirty seconds, and it did make it malleable again, but I'm sure I've just broken some law of cooking as the resulting pastry then became very weak.

I was trying to be clever and make lots of little pies, which was a bad, bad, bad idea. I probably just had enough time to roll out the pastry top and bottom, stuff in a load of pork filling and put the lid on. Instead, I faffed about with little tops and bottoms and the pastry cooled. It was pretty disastrous. The bottoms were ok, but the tops look pretty rubbish as the pastry was nearly cold by the time I frantically threw them on.

I then made a little hole in the top of each one to allow steam to escape and the stock jelly to go in, and painted them all with egg wash.

Into the oven they went for one and a half hours, or until golden brown. The mini ones took less time - about an hour or so.

Finally, at the end I made a jelly with leaf gelatine melted into chicken stock (I used about 1/4 pint of water to half a cube of chicken stock, I soaked one leaf of gelatine in cold water, rung it out then stirred it in). Purists boil up the bones, etc, for this part, but stock and gelatine are much simpler. This mixture is poured into the holes of the pies once they're out of the oven, then the pies are left to cool overnight.

And the taste? Quite yummy, to tell you the truth, but I'll be trying again with the hopes of ending up with a pie that doesn't look like it's been dropped on the floor.