Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ring Out The Old, Bring In The New

I did promise you a break from my ramblings over Christmas but I can't go cold turkey (geddit???) and not write something.  It's New Years Eve and for the first time in FIFTEEN years, The Hubs is off today.  Most people would mark this momentous occasion by going out for a long healthy walk, perhaps a lunch somewhere in front of an open fire and visiting friends.  Sod that, he yawned.  We'll have a lie on, I'll let you watch Saturday Kitchen without moaning and we'll sofa surf all day.  Well, I'm an obedient wife, so that's precisely what we did.  Actually we went out for dinner last night to The Loft which was lovely - the service is now precision-run by Roz at front of house and the food was delicious.  Afterwards, we went downstairs to the bar where I met up with some old friends, the drinks were flowing and we headed home in merry mood, ready for a day of relaxing.

No Looking Back...

Tonight we'll be at home eating lots of canapes, drinking champagne and having a lovely evening in, remembering people dear to us who sadly left our lives in 2011 and who we will miss greatly.  We'll also be thankful for our health and the great things we did this year - both turning 40 was a bit of a shock to the system, but it was tempered by our dream holiday where we renewed our vows in Vegas & ate some outstanding food, some of which I still have to write about!  It was also a great year workwise after a dreadful 2010 - I started the year in a great contract job where I made some fantastic friends and ended the year in a new and very challenging job which is going to keep me on my toes for the foreseeable future.

2012 for me will be about enjoying what we have and making the most of the experiences that will come our way.  I'm looking forward to finally eating at La Cucina in Limerick, going back to The Tannery with my wonderful girlfriends and hopefully coming up with new recipes to keep you all entertained.  I write this blog because I love doing it and I hope that you continue to read it and most importantly continue to comment like mad because it's no fun without you.

Wishing you all a very Happy New Year.

Aoife x

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Christmas Recipe Roundup

That's it, I'm done cooking for you lot for the year - it's time for me to take a break and put my feet up while mainlining Baileys Biscotti and mince pies.  Real work has also finished so I am going to spend the next week sleeping, reading, watching the tellybox and possible eating and drinking a few choice morsels.  I shall not be getting up at stupid o'clock and spending both hours in the car and the GDP of a small African nation on diesel.  Sadly, the Hubs is working for almost all of the holidays but he is off on Christmas Day for which I am thankful and because I am a nice wife, I am cooking his favourite dinner on Christmas Eve... Chicken and Pea Risotto.  He's a man of simple yet refined tastes!

So, in case you missed any of the recipes, here's a roundup of this and last year's festive food

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Boozy Yule Log

It's time to turn Christmas into an adult affair (steady there, English Mum, don't be getting ideas...) and forget all this nonsense that it's all about the kids.  It's all about the adults who need copious amounts of sugar and booze to get through it all without having a tantrum.  This Yule Log packs a healthy slug of much-needed alcoholic refreshment in both the filling and the icing.  If you don't drink, just leave it out.  If you do, and you don't like what I've used, go mad and improvise.  Either way, you're onto a winner with this sweet treat.

I used the same icing recipe which covered The Hubs' Birthday Cake but added a few tablespoons of Kahlua, tasting as I went, to get the balance right.  The centre of my Yule Log was filled with some more icing and lots of delicious Avonmore Baileys Cream which was part of a hamper which Avonmore sent me for being a runner up in their Cook With Avonmore competition a few weeks ago.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Spectacular Sprouts

With less than a week to go, people are frantically planning their Christmas dinner and half of the country is probably mentally shuddering at the thoughts of rock hard stinky brussels sprouts contaminating their plate of turkey and ham.  My brother in law is a sprouts hater but one year I decided he wasn't going to get his own way and refuse to eat them, so I fried them with pancetta, put them on his plate and kept quiet.  He ate the lot.  That's all the proof I needed to know that if you change the way you cook something, then you can convert the haters.

The trick is to shred the sprouts from the base upwards and then separate them into strands with your hands - they just look like shredded savoy cabbages when you do this.  I also steam or microwave them very briefly, just to par-cook them before adding them to my shallots and pancetta.  Any leftovers can be turned into fantastic bubble and squeak if you have some mashed potato lying around... and we usually have 3 or 4 types of potato with Christmas dinner, so this should be easy enough to sort out!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Santa Butter Cookies

I'm in the middle of my Christmas baking and I've been dying to use a 3D Santa shaped cookie cutter I bought a few months ago but I needed a cookie dough that stays really stable when it's baked.  After a bit of experimenting, I think I've got the perfect buttery crunchy biscuit that anybody would love to receive as a Christmas gift..  Don't fret if you haven't got a fancy schmancy cutter like mine - cut out circles or use any cutter that you have - it's how they taste that's most important and this makes delicious cookies.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Beef and Winter Vegetable Stew

It has been absolutely freezing recently.  There's nothing like trekking out to the car in your dressing gown to thaw out the thick frost to wake you up in the morning.  Brrrrr...  And it's cold all day so you try to wrap up warm in layers of clothing and then melt when the heat kicks in and you shed items of your wardrobe all over the place (usually a coat, cardigan and scarf on the back of my chair in work).  At mealtimes, all you want is something to take the chill out of your bones and this is where my stew comes in.

It uses a really cheap cut of meat so it won't break the bank, it's jammed full of really filling seasonal root vegetables and it freezes like a dream which is very handy for impromptu lunches and dinners.  Because the meat  is inexpensive, it needs long slow cooking on a low-ish heat.  Don't try to take shortcuts by cooking it quickly on a higher heat because you'll end up with tough, chewy and frankly inedible meat - you need to take the time to cook this meat right down because it turns into meltingly tender chunks of beef with incredible depth of flavour.  Feel free to vary the root vegetables in this stew - I'm not a fan of parsnips, but if you love them, throw a few in. I usually serve this with an extra portion of green vegetables - to add to the five a day - and some lovely mash to soak up the delicious gravy.  I get about 6-7 portions from this quantity so if you want to cook for a big group, double or triple the quantities (use a bigger casserole, of course!)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Cheese Star Biscuits

I know, the last recipe was stars too but it's Christmas and the perfect excuse to get out all of your fancy cutters and make your food look all pretty.  These are moreish little biscuits for people who prefer to nibble on something savoury during the holidays (like my parents who were the recipients of this box of yummy stuff).  You can mix up your cheeses if you like - I like the contrast between cheddar and parmesan but if you want to go with something else, feel free to use whatever you like, once you stick to a hard cheese that grates well.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Festive Star Bar

I have some friends who are bake-phobic but want to join in with the festive food fun.  This recipe is perfect - all you need is a pot, a hob and a big deep tin.  It's also very flexible once you stick to the basic proportions of chocolate base and extra ingredients.  I know for a fact that one of my more dipsomaniac friends plans to soak her dried cranberries in Cointreau for a more grown-up result (she'll do anything to justify necking liqueurs during the day...).  My one piece of advice if you're going to use flaked almonds is to toast them yourself and not buy them ready toasted - the difference in flavour is unbelievable as they're aromatic and completely delicious.

I know this recipe is good because I brought it into work and it quite literally vanished.  Polite people who thought they would wait before having some were bitterly disappointed.  Luckily I had a spare piece at home so I was able to make somebody tremendously happy...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Three Ways with Stuffing

Christmas is the time to eat your fill of porky products with glazed ham, glossy chipolatas, rashers over your turkey to keep it moist and my most favourite thing of all - stuffing.  I get shivers of horror when I see readymade packets of "stuffing" in the supermarket which are nothing but a container of dusty breadcrumbs with a bit of dried onion and herbs thrown in.  It's so much easier to take 5 minutes and make your own.  Seriously, just 5 minutes.

In the interests of multi-tasking, I've come up with three different ideas to change the basic stuffing mix so you can feed your family, entertain a crowd and make your Christmas dinner delicious.  My one non-negotiable standpoint is that you use good sausagemeat with a really high meat content (75% minimum).  If you can't find sausagemeat, use sausages and just chuck the skins.  The other day I was in a discount frozen food retailer (think Stacey Solomon) where their sausagemeat was only 46% pork - that meant that over half of it was filler.  Would you really want to eat that???

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Christmas Snowflake Cake

I'm going to make a shock declaration right now : I don't like Christmas Cake.  I also can't stand Christmas pudding, traditional wedding cake, Dundee Cake, Oxford Loaf or anything filled with dried fruit.  Luckily, The Hubs shares my dislike of such things although both sets of parents think we're crackers.  I only had a tier of fruit cake at our wedding (the tiniest one...) to keep them happy because "it isn't a wedding without a bit of fruit cake".  Rubbish - the Belgian chocolate sponge and lemon madeira tiers were far nicer, I can assure you!

Just because we don't like fruit cake doesn't mean that we can't have a Christmas cake though.  I decided to make a pretty little sparkly iced cake for us to have as a special treat.  This is a lemon madeira cake, covered in  lemon and vanilla buttercream and a soft white fondant icing, and topped with disco-tastic gold and silver snowflakes.

It looks very scary but it's really simple to make.  Here's a few tips... the cake will rise and form a dome when it's cooked.  Trim the top with a serrated knife so it's level then turn it upside down so you have a perfectly flat surface for icing.  Make your buttercream in advance and make sure the butter is as squidgy as possible - the icing sugar combines much more easily.  And use ready rolled icing.  It makes the whole process much easier.  I tend to unroll the sheet and roll it a few mm thinner - you don't have to do this, but I prefer a slightly thinner icing.  If you decide to use glitter sprays, don't wear anything decent - this stuff spreads like wildfire.  Cut your shapes out on the sheet of icing plastic & then spray them.  Let them dry - this takes 15 minutes - before you attempt to put them on the cake.  I also need to clarify that I bought the glitter spray in Sainsburys in Belfast - as far as I'm aware, Dr.Oetker haven't listed it for sale here (sorry to be the bearer of bad news...)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Review : Hotel Chocolat Ultimate Advent Calendar

A few weeks ago, a very welcome parcel arrived on my doorstep  - a box of deliciousness from luxury chocolatier Hotel Chocolat to taste and review.  They have a myriad of Christmas treats to suit every palate and pocket so I chose something very suited to myself and The Hubs - the Truffles for Two Advent Calendar.  Seeing as we've no kids and there's just the two of us, this grown up box has two truffles behind each door, so there's absolutely no fighting and the flavours are adult enough to deter nieces and nephews.  What a result!

On first inspection, the box is large and sleek - it contains 320g of truffles in a purple and silver treasure trove which opens out to reveal the advent calendar within.  As there's 24 days in Advent, there are 24 pairs of truffles for two in six different varieties :  Gingerbread Truffle, Salted Soft Caramel, Mulled Wine Truffle, Cinnamon Praline, Milk Praline and Simple Dark Truffle.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

We Should Have Gone To McDonalds

Did you ever go out for dinner, sit down at the table in the restaurant and get that sinking feeling?  Welcome to our meal out in Belfast last night.  We decided a week ago to head up for the night, managed to get a hotel without spending a fortune and then the hunt for somewhere to eat began.  The ever-lovely Manuel and even lovelier LMM threw out a whole list of suggestions but they were all completely full, unless we wanted to eat at 5pm.  That's a bloody late lunch for us!  Eventually, I found a table at The Grill Room at Ten Square.  Reviews were relatively decent so the reservation was confirmed (all the time hoping that the other places would have a cancellation).

Image courtesy of Tripadvisor

Monday, November 21, 2011

Toasted Almond, Apple & Syrup Muffins

This recipe came about because of a bag of cooking apples I bought last week with great intentions.  As usual, real life got in the way and I ignored them in favour of making dinners rather than dessert.  The weekend came around and I decided to use them for my usual Sunday baking extravaganza (the new work people seem to be enjoying Monday mornings a lot more now...) and couldn't decide between a traybake or individual muffins.  I had a quick flick through my copy of The Flavour Thesaurus just to make sure I was on the right track, so decided to add some almonds and golden syrup to the basic recipe.

The trick to maximising flavour in this recipe is to toast the flaked almonds yourself.  Yes, I know you can buy ready-toasted almonds but I find that they always taste a bit stale and I prefer to put them in a hot pan, watch them like a hawk, and toast them until they're golden brown.  Nuts burn incredibly quickly and once they go black, throw them out as they'll ruin anything you bake with a bitter burnt taste.  The golden syrup gives the muffins a beautiful caramel taste and colour, while the apple keeps it all moist.

The beautiful crockery was a birthday gift from my lovely friend Rosanne

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Paul Flynn's Crab Creme Brulee

A few months ago, myself & The Hubs had a lovely meal at The Tannery and one of the highlights for me was the Crab Creme Brulee.  It's Paul Flynn's signature dish and I could have eaten it in industrial quantities, such was its deliciousness.  I've been meaning to make it at home for ages but never quite got around to it until this weekend when I spotted some crab in the local supermarket and decided to give it a go.

A word of advice, when a pack of crab proclaims that it is "ready to eat", it still should be checked through carefully by hand as I found many shards of shell hiding in the meat and the last thing you want is to bite down on some hard shell as it's not a pleasant experience at all.  Trust me...

This is a dish that requires some preparation in advance because the crab custard needs to sit in the fridge for at least a couple of hours to allow all of the flavours to absorb.  You also need to make the pickled cucumber a few hours in advance to allow the marinade to cool before adding it to the sliced cucumber.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Chocolate Coconut Brownies

Back in April, I made a Gianduja Brownie topped with Nutella and hazelnuts which disappeared into thin air when it arrived into work.  This time around, I decided to mix it up a bit and use coconut instead - a bit of an homage to the Bounty Bar, if you will (I love Bounty bars for the record, especially the dark chocolate ones).  In the scale of things, you don't need a lot of coconut to get a lovely moist coconutty hit so it will appeal to everybody.

As I said before, this recipe easily makes 24 brownies, so if you don't have a giant brownie pan, use two loose-bottomed deep cake tins.  Although this mixture doesn't contain any raising agents like baking powder or bicarbonate of soda, it definitely rises in the oven, so don't take a shortcut & use a shallow tin - you'll only spend the next few hours cleaning brownie mix out of the oven & swearing loudly...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Peanut Butter & Sesame Cookies

These shortbread-like crumbly melt in the mouth cookies are from the gorgeous book Make, Bake, Love by Lilly Higgins which I reviewed last week.  I've been very lucky to taste the original cookies as made by Lilly's own fair hands so I knew that I had a lot to live up to.  They were the first baking offering I brought into the new job and I was very happy with the response.  An empty tin is the best feedback!  As Lilly says, they do keep for up to a week in an airtight container, not that these stood any chance of lasting that long.  The trick here is to make sure your butter is very soft indeed as it makes your life so much easier.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Review : The Loft, Arklow

The Loft is on Arklow's Main Street and would be known to most people by its previous name, Kittys.  Kittys reigned supreme for many years but failed to reduce prices when everybody was tightening their belts and is no more.  That's enough reminiscing for now - time to tell you about what's there now.

Crostini at The Loft

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Review : Make, Bake, Love by Lilly Higgins

This book is full of warm happy thoughts and even glancing at the cover brings a smile to my face.

Let me explain, Lilly Higgins is a Ballymaloe-trained chef and a brilliant food blogger - which is where I came upon her fabulous recipes.  She teaches, styles food and is also a star of Fancy Vittles on the tellybox along with her unknown sister, struggling comedian Maeve (sorry Maeve, only joking!).  She's also baking her own little bun in the oven and when she gets a spare moment, runs Supper Clubs feeding hordes of appreciative hungry folk.  I need a little sit down just thinking about all of that.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Chocolate Ricotta Cake

Ricotta is a cheese I keep meaning to use more often but never quite get around to. After a very long week in work at my new job (they all read the blog apparently & are looking forward to being fed on Monday...), I was tired and needed to make some cake.  I missed my baking appointment last weekend because I was at Savour Kilkenny with The Hubs, eating, drinking & generally being very merry so it was time to get back on track.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review : Fast, Fresh, Simple by Donna Hay

During the summer, Good Food showed the TV series "Fast, Fresh, Simple" showcasing recipes from the new book by Donna Hay. I wasn't alone in being glued to it - Donna is the Australian Martha Stewart & out-Martha's Martha to be honest! Donna started her career as a food stylist and magazine editor and developed into a bestselling author with 20 books under her belt, her own magazine and a homewares collection.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Savour Kilkenny : Foodcamp

A few months ago, I heard about Savour Kilkenny which was happening over the October Bank Holiday weekend - I had a little chat with The Hubs who gave it the green light, so a hotel was booked and preparations began for a weekend of fun and food at the festival.  As time passed, emails and tweets began pouring in about various activities happening over the weekend so our first port of call was Foodcamp in the Newpark Hotel.  The rules were simple - show up, listen, bring food for the picnic & be prepared to enjoy yourself!

We were at talks by Helen from Knockdrinna Cheese & Clare from the Dungarvan Brewing Company discussing beer and cheese pairings.  The Hubs was a very happy man at this talk, yes indeedy.  I had to drag him out of the room afterwards.  Next up was a talk by Suzanne Campbell called "What's Ireland Eating".  This definitely made me think as Suzanne told us about US farming standards (or lack thereof in some cases) and made me feel rather guilty about what we had eaten on holiday.

Clare from the Dungarvan Brewing Company & Suzanne Campbell in full flow

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Halloween Treats : Chocolate Orange Marble Cake

The first time I made this cake, it was an unqualified success, both at home and in work.  Indeed, one of my now ex-colleagues told me last week that she missed this so much, she was thinking about making it herself!

Because Halloween is fast approaching, I decided to spook the cake up by adding a touch of orange for taste and colour, and used some of the orange sparkle gel icing I bought on holiday for a bit of bling.  My niece Gracie was the first one to sample this and pronounced it "most delicious".  She promptly cleared her plate!  I have it on good authority that my Mammy In Law also devoured her portion and even begrudgingly shared it with a friend.

Chocolate Orange Marble Cake

225g Butter, softened
225g Caster Sugar
275g Self Raising Flour
2 tsp Baking Powder
4 large Eggs
2 tbsp Milk
1 tsp Vanilla extract
Zest of an Orange, finely grated
1 tsp Orange Extract
1/2 tsp Orange food colouring/paste
1 1/2 tbsp Cocoa Powder
2 tbsp Hot Water

Chocolate Icing
25g Butter
15g Cocoa Powder
1-2 tsp Milk
100g Icing Sugar

Preheat the oven to 160°C/Gas Mark 3. Lightly grease a 900g (2lb) loaf tin & line with a wide strip of non-stick baking parchment to go up the wide sides and over the base

Put the butter, sugar, flour, baking powder, eggs, milk and vanilla extract into a food mixer for 2-3 minutes until well blended. Spoon half into another bowl and set aside.  In a small bowl, mix the cocoa powder and hot water together until smooth. 

Allow to cool slightly, then add to one of the bowls of cake mixture, mixing well until evenly blended.   Add the orange zest, extract & colouring to the other bowl & mix well.

Spoon the orange and chocolate cake mixtures randomly into the prepared tin until all of the mixture is used up, and gently level the surface. 

Bake for 50 -60 minutes, until the cake is well risen, springy to the touch and starting to shrink away from the sides of the tin - I'd recommend using a skewer to check that the cake is cooked through.  Allow to cool in the tin for a few minutes, then turn out on to a wire rack, peel off the lining paper and leave to cool completely.

To make the icing, melt the butter in a small pan, add the cocoa powder, stir to blend and cook gently for one minute. Stir in the milk and icing sugar, then remove from the heat and mix thoroughly. If necessary, leave the icing on one side, stirring occasionally, to thicken. Spread the cold cake evenly with the icing and leave to set. Using the orange gel icing, pipe lines across the cake and then use a skewer to "feather" the icing so it makes those pretty patterns you see in the photos.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Halloween Treats : Chocolate Spiced Cookies

The days are getting shorter, the Visa bill has arrived from the holidays (waaah - how did we spend THAT much???) and every evening is a symphony of illegal bangers and fireworks which means that it's nearly Halloween Time.

I shall be spending the Bank Holiday weekend in Kilkenny at Savour Kilkenny and will be missing my nieces and nephew all dressed up and looking for loot, so I decided to give them a little early gift - a batch of spooky Halloween cookies.  They're based on last year's Spiced Snowflake Cookies which they all devoured, but the addition of cocoa to the mix and some very special cookie cutters makes these ultra-scarey.  I bought my cutters for a mere dollar each in Sur La Table in San Francisco but I've no doubt you can get something similar here.

A dab of white icing turned basic cookies into scarey ghosts and spooky broomsticks. Actually I called over to Lulu yesterday to give her a bag of cookies and she told her little friend that "my Auntie Aoife makes the best cookies and cakes in the whole wide world".  And this was before she knew what I had brought over for her.  She's my favourite godchild ever*

Chocolate Spiced Cookies

50g Butter
100g Golden Caster Sugar
100g Runny Honey
200g Plain Flour

25g Cocoa Powder
1/2 tsp Baking Powder
1/2 tsp Bicarbonate of Soda
1 tsp Ground Ginger
1 tsp Ground Cinnamon (or 2 tsp Allspice if that's all you have)
1/2 of a beaten egg

In a pot, heat the butter, sugar & honey together, stirring until melted & smooth. Remove from the heat.

In a mixer with a dough hook, put all the dry ingredients into the bowl, add the melted butter, honey & sugar & mix for a minute.  Add in the half (yes, just half) egg & let the dough hook work its magic for 4-5 minutes until the mixture has turned into a smooth & shiny dough.

Now wrap the mixture in clingfilm & chill in the fridge for at least a few hours until cold.

When you're ready to use the dough, heat your oven to 160c/Gas Mark 4 and line two large cookie sheets with baking parchment.On a floured surface, roll out the dough until it's about 2mm thin and cut out shapes with your cookie cutters.  Make sure to dust the dough well with flour otherwise it's going to stick to everything... trust me, I've done it.

Place the shapes about 2cm apart & bake for 8-10 minutes until golden.  I'd suggest you check the cookies after 8 minutes & keep an eye on them as they change from cocoa to ebony very quickly.

Allow to cool for 10 minutes on the sheet before transferring to a cooling rack - let them go completely cold before attempting to ice them.  Make sure you keep them in an airtight container - they go soggy when left out in the open air.  I know this from experience...

*she's my only godchild...

Halloween Treats : Toffee Apple Cake

When we were kids, my Mum used to make toffee apples every Halloween and the local kids would clamour at the door in the hope that one would be dropped into their plastic carrier bag (no orange trick or treat buckets or bags for life back then...). We, of course would be standing behind her waving our toffee apples & gloating because we had beautiful manners.  Not.  Actually Mum saw a recipe over the weekend for a baked toffee apple and was quite appalled "how the hell can you bake a toffee apple - that's ridiculous".  Closer inspection of recipe revealed that it was just a baked apple covered in toffee sauce.  Bold Nigella!

So, I'm making my own filling-friendly tribute to Mum's toffee apples and bringing it to FoodCamp at Savour Kilkenny on Friday as part of my picnic contribution (I'm also bringing my Sausage Rolls and some Chocolate Spiced Cookies - I hope they're hungry!).  This looks really impressive but it's surprisingly easy to make.

Toffee Apple Cake

250g Butter (very soft)
225g Golden Caster Sugar
3 Eggs
1 tsp Vanilla Extract
2 medium Apples, peeled, cored & chopped
4 tbsp Dulce de Leche
200g Plain Flour
1 tsp Baking Powder
50g Ground Almonds
2 medium Apples, quartered, cored & thinly sliced

Preheat your oven to 180c/Gas Mark 4.  Line an 8-inch square cake tin with baking paper.

Cream the butter & sugar together until pale & fluffy.

Add the eggs, one by one, beating between each egg.

Mix in the vanilla extract, chopped peeled apple and 2 tbsp of the Dulce de Leche (save the rest until later).

Now sift in the flour and baking powder, mix well and fold in the ground almonds.

Pour the mixture into the lined cake tin and top with the sliced apples.  Poke them into the cake mix at an angle so they overlap slightly.  Bake for 60 minutes until dark gold in colour (check with a skewer if necessary).

Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes before removing & transferring to a wire cooling rack.  Pour over the remaining Dulce de Leche and allow the cake to cool completely before cutting and serving.