My black cat is just waiting for my ginger girl to move so he can steal the bigger box.
Cake to keep (for two or three weeks)
For at least the last 10 years I’ve been using the same Christmas cake recipe, with the only variation being whether I soak the dried mango and pineapple in spiced rum or spiced mead. It’s a nice cake, but this year I felt like a change. We’d enjoyed the Simnel cake recipe I’d baked from Vegetarian Cooking Through The Year so last week I decided to give the Christmas cake recipe from the same volume a try.
My first challenge was finding dried pears; I couldn’t get them anywhere within walking distance of home! I thought about the rest of the fruit in the cake, currants, sultanas, raisins and apricots, then looked at what we had on the shelf at work and decided that dried sweet cherries would do nicely.
The next challenge was to find a vegetarian sherry. I eventually found an amontillado (how suitably Poe), a nip of which will also make a nice companion to cooking Christmas dinner. At this time of year my drinks cupboard gets a bit scary; sherry for the cake, brandy for the mincemeat, rum for stollen, and possibly some kirsch still to add for a dessert I want to make for Christmas Eve or New Year… I might be making up some jars of boozy fruit in readiness for next Christmas.
Making the cake was nice and simple. It smelt lovely getting home the day I’d left the fruit and chopped almonds infusing in the sherry, ready to bake in the evening. Cheating a bit, as usual, I mixed the flour, spices, ground nuts, fat and eggs, in the food processor then stirred the mix through the fruit by hand. It all looked right going into the tin and tasted right when I cleaned the bowl out before washing it; I’m afraid when it comes to cake mix I do take my chance with raw egg. Two hours into the baking time, when I went to check on the progress of the cake, I realised I’d missed an ingredient or two; there on the side was the still sealed jar of molasses with the honey alongside it, too late to do anything about it I shrugged my shoulders and concluded that since the mix had seemed right, and the cake smelt and looked good, the lack couldn’t be too serious.
Now of course it’s waiting time. The cake is wrapped in baking parchment, securely in it’s tub, being unwrapped to be fed a tablespoon of sherry about every 4 days; the recipe doesn’t actually mention feeding the cake but it’s a Christmas cake, of course it needs feeding! In two weeks time I’ll add marzipan and icing. I’m looking forward to seeing if it tastes as good as it smells.
4.5 out of 5 for well written instructions and ease of baking
I can’t really grade the tastiness just yet!
And a cake to eat (now)
Having made a cake which wasn’t for immediate consumption I thought perhaps I should make another cake this week. I’d been given a glut of ripe bananas so a banana cake of some description was the obvious choice. I picked up the Cook’s Encyclopedia of Bread Machine Baking and thumbed my way to the chapter on teabreads and cakes. Banana and Pecan Teabread looked nicely tempting.
I had most of the ingredients in the cupboards but I did need to buy shelled pecans. Again, using the food processor to mix everything, this was a doddle to make. When I’m mixing a fruity cake in the food processor I mix everything except the fruit, then use the pulse option to mix the dried fruit in so as to keep as much of the fruit whole as possible. The only thing I would disagree completely with the recipe about is the cooking time; the recipe suggested an hour’s baking for the size I was making, with perhaps a few minutes more; I ended up giving my cake an extra half hour, which to me is more than a few minutes. Minor grumble aside, the cake is moist, tasty, and moreish; I’m likely to bake it again.
4 out of 5 for ease of baking and well written instructions
4.5 out of 5 for tastiness
I’ve been so busy having adventures that I nearly forgot to write about the recipe I tried last week. A far more interesting, I hope, post about my adventures will follow just as soon as I can whittle down my choice of photographs to illustrate it. In the meantime I give you…
This particular recipe is from The Book of Vegetarian Cooking. It’s very easy but I’m pretty sure it’s not very authentic. Aside from the button mushrooms, which are briefly fried whole, all the ingredients, onions included, are puréed raw to make the sauce; the sauce is then poured over the mushrooms and the lot is heated through for about ten minutes.
At first taste I wasn’t keen but by the end of my meal I felt the dish had potential. My biggest dislike was that the sauce, which should have had a mildly spiced, creamy coconut flavour tasted strongly of raw onions; I like raw onions in salad but the flavour was too strong and overpowering for this curry.
The simplicity of this means I may try it again but I’ll be deviating a bit from the recipe as written. The most significant change I’ll make will be to cut the onion into wedges and fry it with the mushrooms, hopefully giving a sweeter, more subtle flavour. I’m also likely to use a mix of mushrooms as button mushrooms alone are a bit boring.
5 out of 5 for clear instructions and ease of cooking.
3 out of 5 for flavour.
There’s been a bag of red lentils languishing at the back of my cupboard for months, ever since my disastrous attempt at Baked Rice. I’ve used countless (well two or three) bags of puy lentils over the course of the year but those red lentils were in danger of becoming long term lurkers. This week I decided that they needed to leave the cupboard and find their way into the pot.
The World Vegetarian Cookbook offered an option to use all my leftover lentils and the Herbed Lentil Stew I chose to make only required me to buy one ingredient, fresh spinach, everything else was already in my kitchen. This was really easy to make and, while cooking took around an hour and a half, preparation took next to know time; it would have taken longer if I’d needed to chop the coriander and crush the garlic but I was cheating a little and using them in ready prepared form. I skipped using the potatoes, the instructions regarding them were vague to say the least and once I got to the mention of them it sounded like I should have cooked them along with the lentils ahead of adding them to the spinach and onion mix. The recipe was also a little muddled on what it’s ingredients should be; the ingredients list stated cayenne pepper, which I used, but the method stated black pepper and made no mention of cayenne.
Despite not being as well written as it could have been the stew itself turned out reasonably well. It was certainly filling and was tasty enough, though it wasn’t as good reheated as it was cooked fresh. Not something I’ll be in a rush to cook again but not something I’d rule out either.
3 out of 5 for ease of cooking and clarity of instructions (if it wasn’t so easy it would be scoring less).
3 out of 5 for tastiness.
Normally if I have a day at home on my own there seem to be a never ending procession of chores that I need to catch up with, sometimes though I get a day when all I need to do is whatever I want to do; yesterday was one of the latter. I’ve been wanting to make more use of the mint from the garden so I started the day by finding a recipe for apple and mint jelly, simmering the fruit with a bunch of mint and leaving it to strain for several hours while I did other things.
Next on the to do list was setting the bread maker to work. I only needed to bake for me this week so I decided to indulge myself with Carrot and Fennel Bread from The Cook’s Encyclopedia of Bread Machine Baking. First grate your carrots! Then decide on a couple of tweaks to the recipe; I don’t have skimmed milk powder (or even almond milk powder at the moment) and I’ve not been keen on the texture of other loaves I’ve used sunflower oil in, so I replaced the oil with goats’ butter and ignored the powdered milk altogether. Then it was a case of letting the machine do it’s thing. Four hours later this loaf was the deliciously scented and rather tasty result:
Coffee was my next priority and, as the kitten was sleeping, I decided to spend an hour knitting while I indulged in my caffeine habit. I’ve a couple of projects on the needles to choose from but I’d rather like to have the current scarf project finished to give as a birthday present later this month, though realistically it might end up as a Christmas present. I’m enjoying the slightly crazy yarn I’m working with even though I’m experiencing a touch of mid-point tedium with the project itself. I suspect it’s the type of yarn you either love or hate, I’m fairly confident the intended recipient will love it.
From the sofa back to the kitchen to make bath melts. I came up with the basic recipe for these several months ago, and have enjoyed some myself and gifted others. As I was finishing my coffee prior to making yesterday’s batch I received a hint from the last person I made some for that they might like some for Christmas, I think this is a recipe I should be writing up!
After making the bath melts and putting them aside to set I stopped for a late lunch before doing the dishes. It’s amazing how much easier washing up is when you’re doing it to create the space to do something fun rather than just because it needs to be done! A bit more knitting and some play time with the cats had to be fitted in, then it was time to make the jelly. Chopping the mint that was going to be mixed in at the end took quite some time but eventually I was happy that I had enough and that it was fine enough. Jars went into the oven and jelly making proper began. This was a slightly experimental jelly in that I was using my sugar thermometer to tell me when it was at setting point; normally I test for set using the chilled plate technique but, since it was a relatively small batch and I would have time in the week to reboil it if needs be, I thought it a worthwhile experiment. Initially it did seem quite liquid in but today it looks like it has set properly, obviously the true test will come when we sample it. I have to say, I think it looks rather pretty in the jars, hopefully it will taste as good as it looks.
A new favourite gadget
A few weeks ago I was given a bread maker, a very generous and gratefully received early birthday present. Since then we’ve been happily testing the different bread recipes from the leaflet accompanying the bread maker. The Railway Modeller likes the white sandwich loaf because it’s soft, though I find that hard to slice evenly, the tastiest loaf I think I’ve baked was 2/3 wholemeal spelt to 1/3 wholemeal wheat flour, but our joint favourite (so far) is the white French style loaf. There are plenty more recipes still to try and I’ve a few ideas of my own to experiment with, so it’s safe to say my bread maker is going to stay a busy machine. I was interested to see that I can also bake cakes in the bread maker so last week I gave that a try.
American Coffee Bread
I’ve been given The Cook’s Encyclopedia of Bread Machine Baking, to encourage me to make the most of my wonderful new gadget, so many tasty breads and cakes to try. I wanted to bake a birthday cake for someone who likes their coffee almost as much as I do so this looked a perfect recipe. As I didn’t have pecans in the cupboard and was using almond milk as the milk, I substituted chopped almonds for the chopped pecans called for in the recipe which worked perfectly well. I think I need to practice lining the bread pan with greaseproof paper, I ended up with a few creases which the cake tried to stick to, or track down some bread pan liners; but that’s a minor niggle and didn’t impair the flavour of the cake in anyway. The cake went down well and I’m looking forward to baking the next one.
5 out of 5 for a well written recipe and ease of making
4 out of 5 for flavour (I’d up the coffee content a little if I bake it again)
Having used all of my frozen soup supply I decided it was time I tried another soup. I wanted to try something different, something I would have minimal preconceptions about, and something that wasn’t going to be too heavy given current heat and humidity. I also wanted a soup that had a reasonable protein content as I was going to be eating it as a main meal rather than as a starter. I hadn’t used The Book of Vegetarian Cooking for a while, so I decided to look at it’s soup section first; I didn’t need to look any further, there were two interesting sounding options on the very first page.
Fennel and walnut soup
I considered making watercress and almond soup but, on reading through both recipes, decided on the fennel and walnut, The recipe book recommended serving it with sage derby puffs but, since I can’t think of a good sheep or goat’s alternative to sage derby and I’m having a lot of fun with a new bread maker, I opted for a rustic French style bread instead.
This was a really simple soup to make. The challenge was in the way the recipe is written, as the instructions for the sage derby puffs and the instructions for the soup are interwoven; personally I’d have written it out in four paragraphs, rather than the two used in the book, to make it easier for a less confident chef to follow. I probably shouldn’t complain, my soup making went without a hitch and the end result was delicious. This is a delicate, slightly earthy soup with almost a mushroomy hint to the flavour.
The recipe suggests it makes four to six portions, I’m assuming they must mean as a starter. I got two portions eating this as a main course which I followed with a portion of gooseberry crumble. I’m about to make another batch to put in the freezer.
4 out of 5 for ease of making (it would have got five if better written).
5 out of 5 for flavour.
English berries and an unexpected avocado
This week I was planning to try a Turkish dish I’ve not made before, Imam Bayildi, I was even considering making my own pitta bread to enjoy with it. My plans changed when I got to the fruit aisle in the local shop and saw some lovely, large punnets of English gooseberries. I wasn’t expecting to see gooseberries for another couple of weeks but there they were and, to make them even more tempting, they were marked down to half price. I knew I’d seen a gooseberry ice-cream recipe in The Book of Vegetarian Cooking, so changed my plans and bought what I thought I would need to make ice-cream. I almost guessed what I would need correctly, there was just one ingredient I hadn’t expected… an avocado. I’m sure I could have come up with my own gooseberry ice-cream recipe without an avocado but in the spirit of my challenge I went back to the shop to buy the unexpected before creating the largest pile of washing up I’ve ever known one dish create.
2 saucepans, 1 blender, 1 sieve, 4 bowls, 1 fork, 1 whisk, 1 spoon and an ice-cream maker
Actually I only used one saucepan, because I rinsed it out between cooking the gooseberries and making the syrup, but even so there was a lot to wash up at the end. If I’d read this recipe through before getting excited about gooseberries I might not have chosen to make it.
I expected to need to cook the gooseberries first and then set them aside to cool but the rest of the method was a little different to my expectations. When I’ve made ice-cream containing egg yolks in the past I’ve always beaten the egg yolk and sugar together and then poured heated cream into them before returning it to the heat, as you would to make an egg custard; this recipe had me making a syrup and whisking it into the beaten egg yolks with the, separately whipped, cream being added right at the end. Beating eggs, then beating eggs and syrup, mashing avocado, then whipping cream, I certainly had aching arms by the time I poured the mix into the ice-cream maker; this is the most physically demanding recipe I have tried making this year, if not ever.
Was it worth the effort?
The finished ice-cream was (is, I still have a little left) delicious, I won’t be following this recipe again though. For a start, why the avocado? The note about the recipe claims that the avocado is there for the texture of the ice-cream; the texture was not discernibly different from what I think I would have achieved with my usual egg-custard based ice-cream, so if I want a rich gooseberry ice-cream in future I’ll be going back to familiar methods. If I want a lighter ice-cream, which in summer I might, I’ll try making gooseberry fool and putting it in the ice-cream maker. Either of my preferred techniques would create less washing up and cause less of an ache in my arms than this week’s recipe gave me.
2 out of 5 for technique – this was fiddly for the sake of being fiddly (I don’t need something to have been hard work to view it as a treat).
5 out of 5 for flavour- I can’t fault the finished dish.
Still in season, still locally grown, I had to try another asparagus dish this week. The indulgence levels crept even higher this time though, with fennel and baby leeks amongst the vegetables creeping in with some double cream to accompany the asparagus. Following it with strawberries was pure decadence.
Pasta with Spring Vegetables
I didn’t quite follow the recipe as written; Vegetarian Classics would have had me boil each of the vegetables, one after another, in the same pan of water then keep them warm while cooking the pasta and the sauce, instead I steamed them together and cooked the rest of the dish towards the end of the steaming time. My approach worked perfectly well and seemed simpler.
The sauce called for fresh mixed herbs so I raided the garden. In addition to the suggested parsley, thyme and sage I used lemon thyme and oregano. The lemon thyme particularly worked to compliment the fennel and asparagus and even in less extravagant suppers I will be combining those flavours again. Asparagus and lemon thyme omelette is crying out to be created.
As is often the case with vegetarian cookery books, Parmesan was the recommended garnish for this dish; I’ve said it before and will no doubt find myself saying it again but Parmesan is not vegetarian. I have had this cookery book for 10 years so perhaps more recent publications have finally started getting this right! I’d have been substituting on the cheese anyway as cows’ milk doesn’t like me but it does irritate me when vegetarian recipe books specify non-vegetarian ingredients.
3 out of 5 for clear instructions and ease of cooking (too much faffing about as written)
5 out of 5 for flavour
The best of this season’s veg’
It can’t be beaten, locally grown asparagus that is. I know the supermarkets try to tempt us with asparagus year round but that just doesn’t work for me. Part of the joy of asparagus is that it has a relatively short season; I indulge, as far as budget will allow, while that season lasts but before I can make myself sick of it or start to feel guilty about the extravagance of it the season is over. Asparagus season marks Spring transitioning to Summer and, while we’ve already had some uncomfortably warm nights, I do relish the longer days and lighter evenings. White asparagus is different, I’ve never seen it UK grown and it’s fiddly to prepare from fresh (I have done so when I was treated to a bunch from Germany), and I do occasionally use it from jars in the later part of the year but green is to be enjoyed in season from local growers.
Souped not steamed
Usually I steam asparagus and serve it with, well, anything really! It pairs well with French toast and is fabulous alongside baked mushrooms with goats’ cheese. This week though I was offered some beautiful asparagus at a discounted price, it would have been rude to say no so I bought three bunches and tried the Asparagus Soup recipe in The Greens Cookbook.
There’s no cheating in this recipe, it starts with using the ends of the asparagus stems and the greens of the leeks to make a stock. Boiling the stock up is the longest part of the proceedings, once the stock is made it takes about 10 minutes to make the soup itself. Instructions are given for making this either a clear soup or a creamy one; we had cream open in the fridge so I opted to make the slightly more decadent version. This soup was easy to make, probably just as well since I was making it late at night to have some for the freezer and some to re-heat over the next couple of days.
I might make this again, if I get another chance to buy good quality bargain asparagus, but I’ll do a couple of things differently if I do. When I make the stock I’ll reduce the volume of water used but keep to the same quantity of asparagus stalks, I might also add a second bayleaf, as it was almost too delicately flavoured a stock and I had half as much again as I needed for the soup. I’ll also reduce the leek content and possibly increase the asparagus as the flavour of the leeks was attempting to overpower the flavour of the asparagus. It was tasty but definitely more a leek and asparagus soup than an asparagus one.
5 out of 5 for clear instructions and ease of cooking
3.5 out of 5 for flavour
I froze a tub of this soup, which I defrosted and reheated a month after I made it. The flavour of the asparagus came through much more in the portion that had been frozen than it had when I first made it.