Thursday, 17 April 2014

Chocolate or Vanilla Cupcakes? Why not have both?

When my daughter and I decided to do some baking yesterday we were both in agreement that we'd make cupcakes with lashings of butter cream. The only problem was that we couldn't agree what flavour they'd be. I had two new ingredients that I wanted to experiment with, vanilla pod powder and lavender and I'd found a few ideas to suggest that these two ingredients work very well together so I was thinking that vanilla and lavender cupcakes would be perfect. My chocoholic daughter, though, had other ideas and was envisioning some rich, dark cocoa-laden creations instead. 

Now, I know that I could have insisted that it would be vanilla no matter what but my daughter is, and always has been, very strong willed and single-minded and I wasn't at all in the mood for a debate on the merits of chocolate cupcakes over vanilla. So, in the interests of keeping the peace, I decided to take the diplomatic approach and make half and half. We made up a batch of vanilla cupcake mix that was enough for 12 cakes and split it in two. We left half of the mixture as it was and added cocoa powder and a bit of chilli (one of my favourite additions to chocolate cake) to the other half. They were spooned into cupcake cases and then baked in the oven at the same time. 

We took the same approach with the butter cream - made up a full batch then flavoured half with vanilla and half with cocoa. We finished them off by piping the butter cream on the top of the cupcakes and then decorated the vanilla ones with a sprinkling of lavender flowers and added some edible glitter and sugar decorations to the top of the chocolate cakes.

It was so easy to do and we ended up with two types of really delicious cupcakes - vanilla and lavender and chocolate and chilli and, more importantly, peace and harmony continued to prevail in the Brass household!

A note about my two new ingredients. Vanilla pod powder is made from pure vanilla pods that are ground down to a powder. It can be used as a substitute for vanilla extract and should be replaced on a like for like basis (1 tsp vanilla extract = 1 tsp vanilla powder). I thought it worked really well both in the cake and the icing and a positive side-effect was that it gave the icing a nice speckled effect, a bit like using vanilla seeds from a fresh pod.

The lavender flowers on the top of the vanilla cupcakes gave the finished cake a nice hint of perfume but I have been warned to use it sparingly as it can become quite overpowering. It's important to ensure that lavender flowers used in cooking are suitable for eating. Lavender bought at garden centres is most likely not due to pesticides / chemicles previously sprayed onto the flowers so it's wise to check!

Vanilla and Chocolate Cupcakes made in one batch

Basic cake batter:
110g (4oz) soft butter
110g (4oz) caster sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract (or 1 tsp vanilla powder)
110g (40z) self-raising flour
1-2 tbsp milk

Basic Buttercream:
150g (50z) soft butter
300g (10oz)icing sugar
1-2 tsp milk

For Vanilla and Lavender cupcakes add:
¼ tsp vanilla extract (or ¼ tsp vanilla powder) 
¼ tsp edible lavender flowers

For Chocolate and Chilli cupcakes add:
50g plus 1tbsp cocoa powder
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
¼ tsp dried chilli flakes

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C / 350°F / Gas Mark 4 and line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper cases.

2. Cream the butter and the sugar together until the mixture is smooth and pale in colour. Gradually add the eggs bit by bit and beat the mixture to ensure it is well combined. Add the vanilla extract or vanilla powder and stir this well into the mixture.

3. Fold the flour into the mixture, adding milk to ensure a smooth, dropping consistency. 

4. Spoon half of the mixture into another bowl and fold in the 50g cocoa powder (make sure it has been sifted first), cayenne pepper and chilli flakes ensuring it is well blended into the mixture. Add more milk (or some water) if the mixture seems a little dry.

5. Spoon both mixtures into the paper cases so they are roughly half-full and place in the pre-heated oven. Bake for 10-15 minutes until well risen. Allow to cool fully.

6. To make the butter cream, beat the butter in a large bowl until soft. Add the icing sugar gradually, beating the mixture well to ensure it is fully blended. Add milk as required to ensure the mixture is smooth and creamy.

7. Put half of the mixture into another bowl.

8. In one half of the mixture add the vanilla extract or powder and mix well. In the other half of the mixture add 1 tbsp of sifted cocoa powder and mix well.

9. Pipe or spoon the butter cream over the top of the cupcakes. Sprinkle the lavender flowers over the top of the vanilla cakes and decorate the chocolate cakes with chocolate chips or sugar decorations.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Homemade Herb-marinated Olives

Before I found out how to make my own marinated olives I lost count of the number of times I'd open a jar of olives, use half a dozen in a recipe then put the jar with the leftovers at the back of the fridge and forget about them. More often than not, the jar would sit for so long that by the time I needed olives for something else the contents would be fit for nothing! So they'd go in the bin and off I'd go to the shop to buy some more, only for the whole cycle to start again. 

Now, if I've got half a jar of olives left I like to marinate them in a mixture of herbs, spices, garlic, oil and vinegar and, as they're so delicious, they get eaten quickly and don't get the chance to go off! 

This recipe works well with all kinds of olives - green, black, pitted, whole, stuffed, kalamata. I think it's best with those that have been packed in brine but if they've been canned or jarred in oil they are great too - just use some of the oil from the jar in place of the olive oil in the recipe.

Homemade Herb-marinated Olives

Notes: What I've outlined below really is just a suggestion. The oil and vinegar are essential but beyond that there are no rules. You could add a little bit of chopped chilli or some rosemary in place of the thyme, sprinkle in some dried herbs if you don't have any fresh ones or omit the garlic if you'd rather. The quantities are based on a 340g jar, including brine, so just adjust the amount of ingredients based on the amount of olives you are using. Don't worry too much about being precise.

¼ tsp coriander seeds
¼ tsp fennel seeds
½ tsp thyme, finely chopped
1 tsp parsley, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 340g jar of olives in brine

1. Drain the olives and place in a bowl.

2. Crush the coriander and fennel seeds to a powder in a pestle and mortar. Add the herbs, garlic, vinegar and oil and mix together. 

3. Pour the marinade over the olives and stir to ensure the olives are well coated.

 4. Cover, or put in a jar, and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight.

The olives will keep fresh in the fridge for up to 1 week.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Cauliflower Cheese - a great British classic

I don't think we Brits have a fantastic reputation when it comes to our culinary prowess. I seem to remember, not that long ago, a French president was allegedly overheard saying 'one cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad' - and he was talking about us! I don't know why he held this view - perhaps he'd had the misfortune to have a British school dinner at some point! But I don't agree that our cuisine is that bad. In fact it's really, really good! 

I originally wanted to use this post to share some of the food classics that we do very well in Blighty but when I started my list one particular item kept coming back to the top time and time again - cheese! 

Lots of countries across Europe have their own great cheeses such as Camembert from France, Feta from Greece, Mozarella from Italy...all delicious. But in Britain we have created some of the most fantastic cheeses of all - Stilton, Cheddar, Wensleydale, Red Leicester, Cheshire, Cotherstone, Stinking Bishop, Shropshire Blue and Sage Derby to name a few. There are so many that I couldn't list them all here - the British Cheese Board website claims that there are over 700 different varieties! 

So, I decided to share one recipe that is typically British and includes, in no small part, one of our best foodie offerings. Here it is! Cauliflower Cheese made with classic, mature Cheddar cheese. Delicious with a good dollop of English Mustard!

Cauliflower Cheese

Cauliflower Cheese with a cheesy, rich cheese sauce

Notes: For me, cauliflower cheese is best when it's made with a strong mature Cheddar but any strong-tasting cheese would also work. A combination of Cheddar and Stilton is also fantastic. 
The servings from this dish will vary depending upon the size of the cauliflower. The one I used was quite small so would serve 4 as a side dish or 2 as a light lunch dish with some crusty bread. 
The cauliflower can be broken down into florets rather than kept whole - this is better for larger cauliflowers. Florets will need slightly less cooking time so it should be reduced to 5-10 minutes.

1 whole cauliflower
40g butter
40g plain flour
400ml milk
½ tsp English mustard 
100g strong, mature Cheddar cheese, grated
salt and white pepper to taste


1. Remove the outer green leaves from the cauliflower and remove as much of the central stem as possible without allowing the florets to become detached.

Once the flour and  butter have been combined, the milk can be
added gradually...
2. Bring a pan of salted water, large enough to fit the cauliflower in it, to the boil and place the cauliflower in it. Boil for approximately 10-15 minutes, depending upon the size of the cauliflower. The cauliflower should be tender but not too soft. When cooked, remove from the pan and place in a colander to drain.

3. While the cauliflower is cooking, melt the butter in a saucepan and add the flour. Mix together and cook over a low heat for 5 minutes.

4. Take the flour mixture off the heat and gradually stir the milk into the mixture bit by bit. After each addition of milk stir well to ensure the milk is combined and there are no lumps.

...until it looks like this!
5. Once all the milk has been combined, put the pan back onto a low heat and, as the sauce heats it will begin to thicken. It is important to keep stirring continuously during this time, until the sauce has thickened, to prevent lumps from forming.

6. Once the sauce has thickened add the mustard and most of the cheese and continue to stir until the cheese has melted. Keep some cheese back for sprinkling over the top at the end.

7. Place the cauliflower in a heat-proof serving bowl. Pour the cheese sauce over the cauliflower and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Place under a preheated grill for a few minutes until the top is golden.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Crunchy and Aromatic Rhubarb, Apple and Ginger Crumble

I love to eat rhubarb at this time of year. As it's one of the first fruits to appear in spring it reminds me that winter is behind us and summer is on it's way (hooray!). It also has to be one of the easiest fruits to grow too - although it's not the most attractive. 

When we had our house in France we had a large rhubarb plant in the garden and although we didn't really look after it at all it would spring to life every year from nowhere, give us tons of fruit and then disappear back into the ground again as the summer went on. This meant we had a short window to use as much of it as possible before the supply ran out. Jams, jellies, tarts, compotes, sauces, cakes crumbles, trifles - you name it and I've probably made it with rhubarb!

I like to stew rhubarb with some sugar and a splash of orange juice which makes a really simple compote to have with yoghurt or rice pudding (or just on its own) but, for me, the most delicious complement to rhubarb is ginger. It doesn't matter if it's fresh, crystallised, ground or bottled, I just love the gorgeous aromatic and tongue-tingling effect of these two ingredients when they're put together.

This recipe for rhubarb, apple and ginger crumble is really simple and produces a lovely crunchy crumble to top off the soft, sweet, fragrant fruit.

Crunchy and Aromatic Rhubarb, Apple and Ginger Crumble

Notes: Serves 4. I've kept this really simple as I don't think it needs anything else but if you want to you could add orange juice in place of water when stewing the fruit. For extra gingeryness (if such a word exists) add ½ tsp ground ginger to the crumble topping.

6 stems rhubarb
3 eating apples
3 tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp water
1 inch (2½cm) piece fresh ginger (or ½ tsp ground ginger)
100g plain flour
75g butter
50g porridge oats
100g demerara sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/ 400°F/ Gas Mark 6.

2. Cut the rhubarb into chunks approx 1½ inches (approx 3½cm) in length. Peel and core the apple and cut it into chunks approx ¾ inch (approx 1½cm) in size. Peel and grate the ginger.

3. Put the fruit into a medium sized saucepan with the caster sugar, water and ginger. Heat over a medium heat until the sugar  has dissolved and allow the fruit to stew gently for approx 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. The fruit should be soft but still retaining its shape. When done, put the fruit into an ovenproof dish.

4. To make the crumble topping, put the flour and butter in a food processor with a chopping blade and process for a few seconds until the butter has been chopped finely and the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the oats and demerara sugar until well combined and sprinkle over the fruit to completely cover.

5. Place in the preheated oven and bake for 25-30 minutes until golden.

Serve with custard, cream or as it is. 

Ready to pop into the oven.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Chilli Chocolate Muffins

chilli chocolate muffins

 One of my all-time favourite books is called Chocolat written by Joanne Harris. It's a half-amusing, half-sad tale centred around a mysterious woman who descends on a small village in rural France and causes a commotion when she opens a chocolaterie (chocolate shop / cafe) opposite the local church at the beginning of Lent. Joanne Harris gives the whole business of chocolate making an exotic and magical feel and her descriptions of the chocolate concoctions the woman creates in her shop always make my mouth water even though I've read the book about ten times! 

It was in this book that I was first introduced to the concept of chocolate and chilli - the rich, dark, hot chocolate with a pinch of chilli pepper that was served in the cafe sounded delicious! Chocolate and chilli are two ingredients that I'd never thought to put together before but it seems to have become really popular of late and I have to say that it works!

This recipe uses a combination of dark and milk chocolate as well as cocoa to create a really chocolately muffin that has a nice hint of chilli, which gives the muffins a bit of a kick. 

Sifted ingredients - flour, baking powder, cocoa and
cayenne pepper

Chilli Chocolate Muffins

Notes: Makes 12 large muffins. I use a combination of dark and milk chocolate in my recipe but if you like it really rich use all dark. Fresh chilli could also be added - replace the cayenne pepper and dried chilli flakes with 1 tbsp of chopped fresh chillli.

70g plain chocolate (min 70% cocoa solids)
70g milk chocolate
375g self-raising flour
1tbsp baking powder
50g cocoa powder
1tsp cayenne pepper
85g caster sugar
1tsp dried chilli flakes
2 eggs
375ml milk
6tbsp sunflower oil
2tsp vanilla extract
100g chocolate chips 

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/ 400°F/ Gas Mark 6. Line a muffin tin with 12 paper cases.

2. Place a bowl over a pan of simmering water (don't allow the bowl to touch the water though) and add the chocolate. Melt the chocolate, stirring continuously until smooth. Don't overheat the chocolate - remove as soon as it's melted. Put it to one side to cool slightly.

3. Sift together in a large bowl the flour, baking powder, cocoa and cayenne pepper the stir in the sugar and chilli flakes.

4. In a separate bowl, beat together the eggs, milk, oil and vanilla. Add the melted chocolate and stir well - if it separates don't worry just keep stirring.

5. Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and fold them together adding 50g of the chocolate chips - be careful not to beat or overwork the mixture.

6. Place the mixture in the muffin cases and sprinkle with the remaining chocolate chips. Place in the oven for 20 - 25 minutes until well risen. 

7. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Mixing the milk with the eggs, oil and vanilla

Chilli chocolate muffins - ready to pop in the oven

The book that inspired me!

Monday, 7 April 2014

Traditional Sticky Hot Cross Buns

Traditional Sticky Hot Cross Buns

I can't believe that it's almost Easter! It doesn't seem two minutes since we were putting up the Christmas decorations and here we are nearly at the middle of April - how time flies!

My daughter arrived home from Uni at the weekend for her Easter break and the house is already looking a bit more lived in than usual with her shoes left lying in the middle of the floor where she stepped out of them and just in the right place for me to trip over them and break my neck! Not to mention all the make up and hair products strewn around the bathroom. 

It will be lovely to have some mother/daughter time again though and we're already planning a few baking sessions! Hot cross buns are a favourite Easter treat of mine and, even though there's all kinds of varieties available now, I like to keep them traditional with a good helping of fruit, a hint of spice and a nice sticky sweet top.

These hot cross buns can be made using a bread machine (as I do) or by hand and I've explained the method for both below:

Traditional Sticky Hot Cross Buns

Notes: This recipe makes 12 buns. 1½ tsp of mixed spice can be used in place of the 4 different spices specified in the recipe and is just as nice. I used mixed fruit with raisins, currants and peel but any dried fruit can be added. The glaze described in the recipe makes the buns really sticky - for less stickiness only use 1tbsp sugar.

500g strong white bread flour
50g butter
50g caster sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground allspice
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground ginger
1½ tsp fast action dried yeast
1 egg, beaten
275ml milk
125g dried mixed fruit

For the crosses and the glaze:
50g strong white or plain flour
3 tbsp water
2 tbsp milk
2 tbsp sugar


If using a bread machine:
1. Add the milk, egg, sugar, salt and butter to the tin of the bread machine.

2. Spoon in the flour, sugar and spices and sprinkle the yeast on top. 

3. If the machine has a compartment for extras (e.g. fruit, nuts or seeds) put the fruit in the compartment.

4. Set the machine to the 'dough' programme and start the machine - remembering to set the programme to include extras so the fruit gets added at the right time. If the machine doesn't automatically add the fruit from a separate compartment, it should beep to tell you to add the fruit when it needs to go in.

5. When the dough is ready, continue from stage 3 below.

If making the dough by hand:
1. Put the flour and the butter into a bowl and rub the butter into the flour so it looks like breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, salt, spices and yeast. Add the egg and milk - mix it all together until it forms a soft dough.

2. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead well for 5 minutes - the dough should be smooth and stretchy. Add the raisins and continue to knead until they are worked into the dough. Put the dough back into the bowl, cover with a tea towel or oiled cling film and leave in a warm place for approx 1 hour, until the dough has doubled in size. 

3. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. Cut the dough into 12 equal size pieces, roll them into a ball and place them on an oiled baking tray - make sure they are kept well apart to allow room for rising. Cover with a sheet of oiled cling film (loosely) and leave in a warm place to rise for approx 45 minutes. The buns should be well risen and rounded - leave for a bit longer if needed.

4. Mix the flour and the water for the crosses to form a paste. Spoon the paste into a plastic freezer bag and snip one corner. Pipe crosses across the buns using the freezer bag as a piping bag.

5. Pop the tray of buns into a preheated oven at 200°C/ 400°F/ Gas Mark 6 for 15 minutes until the buns are well risen and golden.

6. Just before the buns come out of the oven, heat the milk and sugar for the glaze in a small saucepan. Allow the mixture to boil for 2 minutes until it forms a syrup. When the buns come out of the oven immediately brush them with the syrup and transfer (carefully because they'll still be hot) to a wire rack to cool.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Trying my hand at homemade Thai curry paste

My Chicken Massaman Curry - made with my own Thai Curry Paste
Normally when I make a Thai curry I use a ready-made paste which always results in a nice tasty curry and seriously cuts down the time and effort involved, not to mention the cost of buying all the exotic ingredients required. However, after getting hooked on the latest TV series from The Hairy Bikers (those two northern lads who ride across the world on their motorbikes, cooking up all kinds of delicious food in the most unlikely locations) I was inspired to try my hand at making my own. 

Hairy Bikers' Asian Adventures saw Si and Dave trekking across Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan and Korea creating all manner of oriental edibles and meeting some interesting people - although I'd rather not be reminded of their attempt at Sumo wrestling! The point is that they made all their cooking look so easy! 

My hubby had bought me the cookbook from the series (to add to my already large collection) so I decided that our Friday night curry this week would be a recipe taken from my new book and made from scratch - paste and all! I picked out a few recipes, made a list of the ingredients I'd need and took myself off to one of the oriental supermarkets in Newcastle city centre. Everything I needed was there in the shop, although admittedly I did require some help from one of the assistants to locate the shrimp paste.

Galangal, Lemongrass, Sichuan Pepper. Hoisin Sauce, Shrimp Paste and
Oyster Sauce - I'm ready to try some Asian Adventures of my own!

Thai Chicken Massaman Curry is always my first choice when we eat in Thai restaurants - it's cooked with potato and peanuts and has a lovely creamy taste - so I am familiar with what a good Massaman Curry tastes like and decided to try the recipe for this.

I was surprised at how easy it was to make the paste. It simply involved chopping up some lemon grass, galangal and chilli and throwing them into a food processor with some spices, shrimp paste, fish sauce, oil, peanuts and lime leaves and blending them to a mush. Granted there were 17 different ingredients in total but if you're like me and love your spices then you've probably got a lot of them at home already anyway - cinnamon, pepper, cloves, cumin, nutmeg etc.
All the ingredients were popped into a food processor
and blitzed to a paste.

The paste was fried with chicken and onions and then a few other ingredients were added to make a sauce - potato, tomato, coconut milk, fish sauce, stock and lime juice and it was all allowed to simmer for a bit to cook the chicken through. I have to say that the results were phenomenal! This has to be one of the most delicious Massaman Curries I have ever had and I'm sure my homemade paste had played no small part in that.

So, if it was so easy why hadn't I tried it before? It's because I'd always been put off by some of the unusual ingredients that appear in curry paste recipes that I found a bit daunting - galangal and shrimp paste for example, and I thought it would be time consuming and difficult when the reality is that it's very simple and straightforward. 

In an attempt to help others who, like me, are dissuaded from making their own pastes because of fear of the weird and wonderful ingredients, I have listed the most common ones below with a description of what they are. Many will be available in larger supermarkets but I have found the oriental supermarkets better (and cheaper) for these types of products. If there isn't one such establishment near you then there are lots of online stores that sell Asian ingredients.

Common Ingredients in Thai Curry Paste

Galangal - a root that looks very like ginger but has a stronger, more pungent flavour. It is usually peeled then chopped or grated before being added. Ginger can be used if galangal is not available.

Shrimp Paste - a paste made from fermented ground shrimp mixed with salt. It has a really strong, pungent smell but don't be put off by this - it adds a subtle flavour when used sparingly.

Fish Sauce - an amber coloured liquid extracted from the fermentation of fish (usually anchovies) with sea salt. It appears in most Thai curries and gives it a distinctive taste.

Spices - Cardamom, Cumin, Cinnamon, Cloves, Star Anise and Pepper are the most common.

Kaffir Lime Leaves - usually found dried they add a citrusy flavour and fragrance to food. In pastes they are chopped very finely so combine really well into the paste.

Chillies - usually Birds Eye Chillies are used in Thai cooking but if, like me, you find them too hot, a milder chilli can be used instead. Chilli Flakes are also common - these are dried so should be added in a smaller quantity than fresh chilli.

Lemongrass - a green stalk that adds an aromatic citrusy quality to dishes. It is best fresh but if fresh isn't available there are some good jars of lemongrass pastes available that work really well.

I've posted a picture of my finished curry at the top of this post but won't replicate the full recipe - it isn't available online, presumably because you need to buy the book to get it - but I have linked to a few websites that have some Thai-inspired paste recipes that I haven't tried but look and sound good - the Massaman recipe sounds very similar to the one I tried.

I really would urge anyone who likes to make a good Thai curry to try their hand at making their own curry paste - it does take a bit of effort to get hold of all the ingredients but it's so much nicer (and more fun) than opening a jar!

Thai Massaman Curry Paste

Panang Curry Paste

Thai Red Curry Paste

Thai Green Curry Paste