Friday, December 24, 2010

It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

Finally beginning to feel a little Christmassy. All the last-minute preparations are well underway and we are awaiting the safe arrival of my in-laws. I've mentioned before that it will be strange having my first Christmas away from 'my' family but I've really enjoyed planning our own festivities and deciding what we'll eat over the next few days. On the other hand, we've be fairly shocked at how the shopping bills have added up and I now look at my mother's Christmasses with a whole new level of appreciation!

I iced my Christmas cake last night and, have to say, am quite pleased with the results. I've probably only iced one or two other cakes in my life so I don't think this is too bad for an amateur! It is a very simple yet bold design. I can't find any subtle pins, so you'll have to excuse the safety pin that is currently holding the bow in place in these photos.

Here's how I did it...

I turned my mature cake upside down onto a cake board to give me a flat surface on the top. I then filled in the gap at the bottom with 'sausages' of marzipan. Using warm apricot jam as the glue I then filled in any major 'holes' in the surface with little balls of marzipan which I then smoothed to give and even-ish surface. Next I rolled out a large piece of marzipan and covered the whole cake, trimming the edges to fit.

I left the marzipan overnight to dry out a little and then covered with fondant icing, glued on with warm apricot jam. I used my handy 'smoothing' tool to smooth over any cracks in the surface (thought there are still a few on the corners!). Next I rolled out red fondant icing and cut out the snowflake shapes which I stuck in position with a little water. A piece of red ribbon completed the cake!

I'm looking forward to reading about everyone's Christmas feasts over the next few days and wish you all a very Happy Christmas!

And just because I can't resist, here is a snowy picture of my rather handsome little furry friend. He's wishes you a Happy Christmas too (he told me so!).

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Heston's Christmas Pudding

What a month! There has been vitrtually no time for blogging (or cooking for that matter). I've been hard at work assisting with the organisation of the Cirencester Christmas Market, a spectuacular German-style Christmas market which took place in my home town. Hours have been long and I have been completely exhausted upon returning home each day having spent nine hours each day outside in the freezing conditions.

I'm so pleased to finally be 'on holiday' and am looking forward to sharing all the festive treats that I'll be cooking over the next few days. Like many, we have vast amounts of snow preventing us from getting out and about - the perfect excuse to spend time in the kitchen.

Before I get onto the things that I've been cooking recently, I must post a very overdue review of the spectacular Christmas pudding sent to me by the kind people at Waitrose. I'm a huge fan of Waitrose in general and, as it is my local supermarket, am seen there fairly regularly. The partnership with Heston Blumenthal is one I've been following with interest. To be honest, Heston's style of cooking isn't one that I'm naturally drawn in. I adored a meal at his pub the Hinds Head in Bray I have to admit, but The Fat Duck wizardry just doesn't appeal to me. I do enjoy watching his culinary experiments on television too but I prefer to view cooking as art rather than science.

However, I was intrigued by the sound of the Christmas pudding he has developed for Waitrose. Being Heston, this is no ordinary pudding. It looks like one from the outside, but it hides a little secret! In the centre of the pud is a whole, candied orange. The notion reminds me somewhat of a Sussex Pond pudding which houses a whole lemon and wonder if perhaps this is where he got his inspiration.

Anyway, I did consider buying one of these myself out of curiosity. But, as always, I have made my own pudding so there was really no need. Imagine my delight to be sent one to review. The pudding is smartly packaged and cooking instructions suggest steaming the pud for best results or microwaving if time is short. At first I was unsure with whom to share this treat - my husband does not like orange and the pudding is large enough for at least eight hungry people. In the end I served it for dinner when my parents came to visit - a pre-Christmas celebration seeing as I won't see them over the next few weeks.

We all looked at the pud with a critical eye - it certainly looked and smelt fantastic. We couldn't wait to dive in and sample Heston's work. We were not disappointed. The pudding was absolutely divine. It was fantastically moist and juicy - I imagine juices from the orange seep out into the pud whilst it is cooking. The candied orange looked very festive in the centre and tasted good too. Even my husband enjoyed the pud although he wasn't a fan of the actual orange, unsurprisingly. The flavour was excellent - a nice balance between fruit and booze with the orange flavour more subtle than you might expect. It is quite a nutty pudding, something that I wasn't so keen on (I prefer nuts chopped very small rather than in big chunks) but others enjoyed. Heston suggests serving with Cointreau butter but I stuck to traditional brandy butter which worked very well too. Leftovers heated up well in the microwave over the next few days and were very much enjoyed too. 

All in all, a thoroughly glorious pudding. My mother found it so good that she raced out and bought one for Christmas Day, despite having already made her own! I might well have considered doing the same but our Waitrose (along with many others) has sold out. I was amused to see that they have managed to secure 5 further puddings and have decided to raffle these off to customers, such is the popularity of Heston's twist on the traditional favourite. This pudding worked for me as it remained true to its roots whilst also being innovative and different. It won't dissappoint the traditionalists but will please those looking for something new. If only I could get hold of another!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Chocolate and pear crumble

We have been rather overloaded with pears this year - the tree in the garden was positively groaning in them and they seemed to ripen all at exactly the same time. We picked the lot and left them in the cool shed whilst we pondered their fate. We ate a few here and there and used them in various puddings but the greatest thing we did with our pears was this fantastically warming chocolatey crumble.

Chocolate and pear is a fairly classic combination. I've never been entirely convinced by the pairing myself. I'm a bit funny about chocolate with fruit in general. My only true exception is chocolate and orange which I adore but sadly my husband hates orange so it is a combination I don't get to enjoy all that often. He loves chocolate and pear though. His favourite pudding is something he calls 'chocolate pear upside down pudding'. I've tried to recreate this fondly-remembered childhood pud but sadly I find myself lacking. He always declares it 'very good', but 'not quite what my mother used to make'.

I'd decided to leave this well alone and move on but then I spotted an interesting sounding recipe in a newly acquired Aga cook book. The 'Aga Bible' by Amy Wilcock is an excellent tome for anyone new to Aga cooking (or for new ideas for those who've had one for years). It has plenty of advice and a good mix of classic and more imaginative recipes. This crumble is much like a regular crumble only the 'crumble' has the very welcome addition of cocoa powder and grated dark chocolate. The result was spectacularly good. I'd love to say that 'this is terribly rich so you'll only manage a small helping' but I'll tell you now that even though it was rather sweet and rich, I greedily devoured two helpings.  Best served with vanilla ice cream or regular cream.

Chocolate and Pear Crumble
Serves 6

100g chilled butter, plus a little extra for greasing
6 ripe pears (I used Conference)
1 tsp ground ginger
80g plain flour
60g ground almonds
100g golden caster sugar
3tbsp cocoa powder
75g chilled dark chocolate

1. Lightly grease a deep medium-sized ovenproof dish with butter. Pre-heat oven to 180C.

2. Peel, quarter and core the pears before chopping into chunks, popping in the prepared dish and sprinkling with ginger.

3. Using a food processor, whizz together flour, almonds, sugar and cocoa until blended. Cut chilled butter into small pieces and add to processor. Pulse until you have crumbly breadcrumb consistency.

4. Coarsely grate the chocolate into the processor and give another whizz. Pour/spread crumble mix over the pears.

Conventional cooking:
Bake for 25 minutes until golden brown.

2-door Aga:
Put dish into Aga roasting tin and hand on 4th set of runners in roasting oven. Cook for 20-25 minutes and then transfer to simmering oven and cook for a further 20-25 mins or until the fruit is tender.

4-door Aga:
Cook on 3rd set of runners in baking oven for 35-40 minutes.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My favourite Christmas cake

Christmas Cake in disguise!

It is with a mixture of apprehension and excitement that I await Christmas this year. It will be my first Christmas as a married woman and the first that I will be the one hosting the festivities. It will be the first Christmas I will spend with my in-laws. It will also be the first Christmas I have spent away from my parents and family.

My mother has always played the most integral part in my Christmas. She is the sort of woman who does Christmas properly. She is the sort of woman who has five sets of Christmas placemats. The sort of woman who, over the years, has amassed a collection of 'special' dishes which come out only once a year. There is a special platter for the turkey, bowls featuring a Holly design for holding the brandy butter, a festive plate for the Christmas pudding and glasses etched with reindeer to delight her grandchildren (...and children for that matter). This may all sound rather kitsch, but I can assure you it is not - my mother's Christmas manages to be both artistic and tasteful whilst also being great fun.

My mother has been 'doing' Christmas for around fifty years so it is hardly surprising that she has perfected the art. Her tree is always beautifully decorated (red, silver and green only), there will be a lovely wreath on the door, a festive swag running up the staircase and a stunning flower arrangement in the centre of the dining table. Each year is the same and this is what I love. The familiarity of annual traditions, our Christmas Day routine (stockings, church, Champagne and smoked salmon, present opening, lunch...) and the joy of being with the people who know you the best.

The idea of a Christmas without all of this is quite alarming . Even more alarming is the fact that I want 'my' Christmas to be equally glorious yet I have none of the experience (or Christmas accessories) that my mother has accumulated over the years. Despite this level of alarm, I am actually looking forward to Christmas is my own home. I'm looking forward to staying put, not having to travel and just enjoying spending time with my husband in our new home. I'm looking forward to decorating the house 'our' way (though the red and silver theme is fairly ingrained) albeit on a very limited budget. And fortunately, my mother is willing to spare one of the sets of placemats!

I'm not entirely in the dark. I have cooked the Christmas lunch before and with some success. I have also been in charge of the Christmas pudding for the past few years - this has been made and is safely stored away maturing ahead of the big day. For my foolproof recipe, please see this link. I've also made a Christmas cake before - I followed Delia's recipe and enjoyed the results but (guess what) it didn't quite match up to my mother's cake. To be fair to Delia, I actually prefer a slightly lighter-coloured cake to the traditional very dark fruit cake. The recipe that my family swear by is actually taken from an old wedding cake book. My sister is a professional wedding cake maker and this is the cake she uses for her cakes. It really is the nicest fruit cake I know of - beautifully moist, sticky and reasonably boozy yet quite pale rather than treacley-black.

The cake is best made at least three weeks in advance and left to mature nicely until ready to ice. An important part of the maturation is the addition of a soaking mixture which is drizzled over the cake sporadically whilst it matures.

The recipe is for one quantity of cake mixture. Underneath the ingredients I have listed the number of quantities according to the size and shape of your cake tins. This is also useful if you are making several tiers of a wedding cake. I made a 9 inch square cake and used 6 quantities of mixture. Unless you have digital scales, you may find it easier to use pounds and ounces to measure the ingredients - I give both!

My favourite Christmas Cake

Ingredients for one quantity of cake mixture. See below for guide to cake sizes.

2oz/57g plain flour
2oz/57g brown sugar
2oz/57g butter
2.5oz/71g currants
2.5oz/71g sultanas
1oz/28g seedless raisins
1oz/28g glace cherries
1.5oz/42g mixed peel
3/4 oz/21g ground almonds
2 tsp brandy or rum
1 large egg
pinch nutmeg
pinch mixed spice
pinch salt
1/4 lemon zest and juice

For 8 inch round, use 4 quantities of mixture and cook for approx. 3.5-4 hours
For 8 inch square, use 5 quantities and cook for approx. 4 hours
For 9 inch round, use 5 quantities and cook for approx. 4-4.5 hours
For 9 inch square, use 6 quantities and cook for approx. 4.5 hours

Soaking Mixture:
Equal quantities of rum, sherry and glycerine (or spirits of choice!). Glycerine is available from the chemist or, in small bottles, in the baking section of larger supermarkets. Add 1 tablespoonful per 1lb of cake when cooked.

1. Pre-heat oven to 140C. Line cake tin with a double layer of buttered greaseproof paper.

2. Clean the dried fruit by tipping onto a clean tea-towel and sprinkling with flour. Roll up in towel and agitate to release any bits of stalk/grit.

3. Halve the cherries then mix all the fruit together with lemon zest. Sift flour, spices and salt and set to one side.

4. Beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually add eggs, beating after each addition. Stir in ground almonds and then fold in the flour and spices.

5. Add brandy or rum, fruit and lemon juice. Give everything a great big stir to combine ingredients thoroughly.

6. Transfer to prepared tin and place in center of oven. Below the cake place a roasting tin containing one pint of water. This will create sufficient humidity to keep the top of the cake moist and ensure level results in baking. Remove water after half the baking time (mind had evaporated by this stage!).

7. If the cake is browning too quickly, protect the top with a layer of foil or baking paper. Every oven differs and the timings are only a guide. My mother and sister tell me the cake usually takes much longer than the specified times in their ovens. In my oven, the timings seemed about right. Test the cake with a skewer to see if it is done.

8. When cake is ready, remove from oven and leave in the tin for 24 hours. After this time prick the top with a skewer, cocktail stick or knitting needle and sprinkle with appropriate quantity of soaking mixture (see above). Wrap cake in waxed paper for at least 3 weeks, topping up with soaking mixture if required.

As for decorating the cake... You'll just have to wait and see!

Monday, November 15, 2010

'Aga' drop scones

My new job has been eating into blogging and cooking time which means that getting used to the Aga is taking longer than I'd hoped. There have been a fair few disasters which, I have to admit, have had me tearing my hair out in frustration. My biggest gripe is that we struggle to keep a constant heat and, as we have to fill up with solid fuel once or twice a day, the kitchen is permanantly covered in a layer of black soot. Not very appetising!

However, there are aspects of this cooker that I already love and know I will miss terribly when we move. I love the instant heat - no pre-heating required here. Water boils instantly. Meat is sealed in moments. And the kitchen has a lovely warm glow. Having acquired an old Aga kettle we no longer need to use the electric version and the toaster is looking dusty in the corner too - crumpets and toast cook perfectly using the heat that is already there. But my favourite thing about the Aga involves the simmering plate (top right hand side) and a piece of Bake-o-Glide. Actually, we don't have Bake-o-Glide. It is fearfully expensive. We have some kind of supermarket imitation that does the job just as well. It is basically a non-stick, re-usable sheet of silicone (I think?!) which can withstand fairly high heat. We place it over the simmering plate and cook directly on it. Fat-less 'fried' eggs are a favourite - just crack an egg onto the non-stick sheet and lower (yes, really) the lid. A few minutes later, lift the lid to a perfectly-cooked, super-healthy egg. Butterless toasted sandwiches are a real hit - we favour a mature Cheddar and some onion chutney. Make the sandwich, place on the silicone sheet and put the lid down again. A few minutes later, flip the sandwich and repeat. Moments later you'll have a scrumptious, perfectly cooked toastie without messing up a sandwich toaster and without an ounce of butter smeared on the outside. Lovely!

The 'baking sheet-simmering plate method' is also a winner for all kinds of pancakes. Drop-scones (or scotch pancakes) cooked directly on the top are an Aga classic. I have a few Aga cookbooks which feature various 'Aga' classics. In slightly arrogant tone they refer to 'Aga' shortbread, 'Aga' drop scones, 'Aga' breakfasts and 'Aga' flapjacks. This makes it sound as though 'Aga' shortbread is vastly superior to any other kind - I'm not convinced by this but at least it makes me laugh! Anyway, the drop scones are a hit with me. I've made them several times in various guises. For pudding with maple syrup and pears or bananas. For an indulgent weekend breakfast with honey and berries. For a dinner party starter with added herbs and served with smoked trout and horseradish cream.

Here is the recipe I have used. I believe it is a Mary Berry recipe. Feel free to vary the batter. Good additions include cinnamon, raisins, blueberries or fresh herbs. An Aga is not necessary - these will be equally delicious cooked on a griddle or in a good non-stick frying pan! Please excuse a selection of terrible photos - light was awful and I was in a hurry to eat them.

'Aga' Drop Scones


4oz self-raising flour
1oz caster sugar (omit if making savoury pancakes and season with salt and pepper)
1 large egg
1/4 pint milk

1. Mix flour and sugar together and create a well in the centre.

2. Crack egg into the well and mix with a wooden spoon to combine.

3. Add the milk a little at a time, stirring between additions, until you have a smooth batter.

4. Lightly grease a frying pan, griddle or the top of the simmering plate on an Aga. If you have a solid fuel Aga like us, place a piece of non-stick silicone liner over the simmering plate. Drop tablespoonfuls of batter onto the pan or liner and leave to cook until bubbles begin to form on the surface. Carefully flip the drop scones with a palette knife and cook the other side. This should only take a minute or two.

5. Remove cooked scones from heat and keep soft in a clean tea-towel until ready to serve.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Timbale of trout and dill

I've just started a new job which is exciting but also rather tiring, particularly as we've had guests staying every weekend recently. I feel like I'm permanent sheet-washing duty! Anyway, I haven't had much time to blog but we are excited to have finally got our Aga working. We haven't quite got the hang of the re-fuelling as yet - my husband seems able to keep it going but as soon as he goes away with work it mysteriously goes out. I do my bit - riddling and emptying the ash pan, filling it up with anthracite and hoping for the best. But it seems not to like me much...!

When it has been working, we've been enjoying Aga classics such as the fatless 'fried' egg, fantastic butter-less toasted sandwiches (honestly) and wonderful drop scones cooked straight on the top of the simmering plate. I'll be reporting on these treats later in the week but firstly, I wanted to share this lovely little starter that I made the other night.

It emerged out of leftovers - as the best things often do. We don't often have a starter but I had some leftover trout which needed eating and wasn't enough for a main course. It took moments to throw together but looked impressive and tasted fantastic. An inpromptu starter for us but something I'll do again for a dinner party perhaps.

It was so simple that I hardly feel it requires a recipe. I used a 'cheaty' ingredient which was a jar of dill and mustard sauce I had in the fridge - the sort that you serve with gravadlax. I'm addicted to it and love it with all smoked fish too. You can make your own very easily too - there are plenty of recipes on the web, such as this one. To make your starter look attractive, use a big biscuit/cookie cutter or a timbale mould.

I use the word timbale in the loosest sense possible. I think it really refers to things that are baked in a circular mould. I find a regular round biscuit cutter can make all sorts of things look dinner party-ish. Rice, mashed potato, ratatouille, mousses all look strangely accomplished when served in a neat little shape like this!

This starter is the base for many. You could use leftover salmon, for example. Or try cooked chicken bound together with a little mayonnaise, curry powder and mango chutney. Smoked mackerel with creme fraiche and horseradish perhaps? The world is your oyster!

Here is the basic recipe...

Timbale of trout and dill
Serves 2


1 small fillet cooked trout
2 tbsp dill and mustard sauce
1 inch piece of cucumber
half and avocado

1. Halve cucumber across the middle and scrape out the watery seeds. Chop into smallish cubes.

2. Peel avocado and dice.

3. Combine trout, sauce, cucumber and avocado in a bowl with salt and pepper. Add a squeeze of lemon juice if you think it needs a little more acidity (depends on the sauce). You may need a little more or less sauce in order to bind the ingredients together.

4. Push the mixture into a circular mould or biscuit cutter on a serving plate and refrigerate for half an hour if you have time.

5. When ready to serve, remove the mould carefully. You should be left with a nicely shaped mixture. Arrange some salad leaves on the plate, if desired. Garnish with dill or chives.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A forage in the fields: sloe gin

The husband and I are worried that we may be turning into a parody of ourselves. When making the transition from an urban existence in London to the much-longed-for country life, we were keen to fit in and avoid potential hostility from the neighbours who had lived in the area for a lifetime. In our eagerness to look the part, we may perhaps have gone a little far...

The black labrador was really a non-negotiable and, to be fair, he was part of our lives before we made the move. From black labrador, it was a very short step to the Barbour jacket. An essential for muddy walks, I would argue. Green wellies too are a necessity (in the city I'd favoured a more flamboyant floral wellie but when these sprang a leak, I felt that only green would do). Soon after, I invested in a Driza-Bone hat. This too seemed necessary for dog walking - my bright pink umbrella screamed 'townie' and is hardly practical when carrying dog lead, whistle, poo bags, dog treats and other canine-related paraphernalia. So far so good...

But then the husband decided the time had come to buy a flat-cap. This, he argued, was a necessity for keeping his head warm and dry on early-morning walks (...and trips across the fields to the local pub, no doubt). I was uncertain but came round to the idea once I'd seen it on. As yet, it remains unworn. He's put it on a few times and then removed it in a state of uncertainty - is it just one step too far? Are we taking country living a little bit too seriously? After all, he managed dog walks on cold mornings in London perfectly well without the need for such a garment.

Enjoying the countryside
It doesn't end here however. Our eating habits have changed too. Not only do we find ourselves in possession of the obligatory Aga (serviced today and firing up nicely as I type), but we also find ourselves living off the land in a way we haven't done since we were children. Aside from a few efforts at 'growing things in pots' in my London courtyard garden, eating food from the garden and hedgerows is something I've not done in any significant way since I was young. Our garden has three apple trees, a plum tree and a pear tree and we've been enjoying these enormously. Dog walks have become missions in picking as many blackberries as we can carry and Sunday afternoons have become sessions of chutney-making and cake-baking. What could be more enjoyable?

I suspect that our neighbours may be laughing at us as we stagger home with punnets of foraged fruits. Whilst this is still a novelty for us, I suspect they enjoy the fruits of the land in slightly less greedy quantities knowing full well that a person cannot physically eat sixty jars of chutney before next year's crop of apples. We are clearly a little more eager than most.

But, who really cares what the neighbours think? We are loving our new life and have no shame when it comes to helping ourselves to what nature offers up (...though we do leave a little for others to enjoy!).

Blackthorn bushes drowning in sloes
Our latest haul has been of sloes. Sloe gin is a real favourite of mine and this year seems to be particularly good for sloes. The hedgerows are positively drowning in these little black fruits so we didn't feel too bad helping ourselves to a good haul.

There is much debate surrounding when one should pick sloes and how to make the best sloe gin. I've read it all and come to the following conclusions...

1. When to pick?

It is best to pick sloes after the first frost of the year. They may look enticing in September, but it really is better to wait until late October or early November. I'm not sure why this is, but it does seem to improve flavour. I picked mine a few weeks ago. We'd had a frost and they looked good. But yesterday, I picked a whole lot more with my sister for her to take home. They were noticeably riper, bigger and juicier. I wish I'd been a little more patient and waited longer... One further tip - pick only the sloes which are showing a whitish 'bloom'. Leave the totally black sloes behind.

Sloes: pick those with whitish bloom
and wait until after the first frost

2. To freeze or not to freeze?

Some advise that sloes release more flavour if they are frozen prior to use. I suspect this may be true for those picked earlier - a stimulation of the frost perhaps. I'm not sure of the science here but, as I picked mine a touch early, I washed and dried my sloes carefully and then popped them in the freezer overnight. This does cause the some of the skins to split, helping to release the juices and flavour.

3. To prick or not to prick?

Traditionally, one is advised to prick each sloe by hand before adding to the gin to release juices. This could be described as tedious and time-consuming. It could also be described as satisfying and strangely therapeutic. Some argue that freezing the sloes overnight causes the skins to split and therefore does the same job but I found that most of my sloes remained intact despite freezing. I decided to prick mine. I used a needle which I sterilized by washing in very hot water and dipping in gin!

4. Any old gin or high-quality gin?

Tricky one here. Does it really matter what kind of gin you use? I'm of the view that a recipe is only as good as its ingredients so I therefore feel it does matter. Having said that, I wouldn't use an expensive brand. I think it is important to use a gin which is over 40% alcohol. I wouldn't choose to drink a gin under this - I once studied a course on spirits and was led to believe that higher alcohol brings out the flavour of the different botanicals which give gin its flavour. Below 40%, you don't get a 'full' experience. So, I looked for a special offer on a gin which had 40% min. alcohol. Tesco had an offer on litre bottles of Greenalls gin, so I went for that.

5. What to add to your gin?

The classic 'recipe' calls simply for sloes, sugar and gin and that works for me. But I've read that other flavours work well so this year I've added almond essence to one of my bottles. Over at Dinner Diary, Kerri has experimented with a delicious-sounding spicy sloe gin. I can't wait to hear how it turns out!

6. How long do I have to wait?

Oh dear. This is where I come unstuck. I'm not the most patient of people, it has to be admitted. I know that sloe gin gets better with age. I know that to enjoy it as its best I should wait a year. But I'm afraid that come Christmas Day, I may just have to have a teeny, tiny sip. Just to see how it is coming along, you understand! Basically, the gin is 'ready' after three months but really you should try to keep it longer!

7. When and how should I drink it?

Sloe gin is a wonderful pick-me-up at any time. Wait! That doesn't sound good. I'm not suggesting you start on it at breakfast time. But seriously, I love to enjoy a small glass after dinner in front of the fire. Or a little swig from a hip flask on a really cold day when out for a walk. But it can also be delicious incorporated in a cocktail. My favourite is a 'sloegasam' (apologies - I didn't invent the name). Half a shot of sloe gin, topped up with Champagne or sparkling wine. Yum. More cocktail ideas are here.

Here is how we made ours. You will need some empty bottles or kilner jars.

Sloe gin

1. Pick as many sloes as you can find. Wash and dry them, then prick each sloe with a sterilized needle or pin.

2. Take a litre bottle of gin and pour half the gin into a jug. Put to one side.

3. Using a funnel, pour in approx. 150g sugar.

4. Top up the bottle with the pricked sloes until the level of gin has risen almost to the top. Seal tightly. Pour remaining gin into another bottle or jar and repeat steps 3 and 4.

Topping up with sloes, one at a time...
5. Give the bottles a little shake to combine. Do not worry if, at this stage, the sugar all collects at the bottom. With time, it will dissolve.

6. Store in a cool, dark place away from greedy paws. For the first week, you should turn/shake the bottles a little each day. You should then continue to do this once a week for three months. Taste occasionally and add more sugar to taste if required.

7. After three months, decant the gin off the sloes into pretty bottles. It is ready to drink although it will improve in bottle over the coming months.

Notes: the 'used' sloes can be put to good use too. I've seen recipes for sloe gin jelly, sloe gin cake and sloe gin chutney. I'll report back once I decant the gin off the sloes later in the year!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Venison casserole

Another gorgeous weekend basking in incredible autumnal weather. We had my two nephews staying and took them to the local trout farm where we tried our hand at a spot of fishing. Imagine the excitement when my five-year-old nephew caught his first fish! Once he'd met his maker courtesy of a sharp tap to the head, we took the fish home to cook for the boys tea. Anticipating some resistance and cries of 'Yuk - don't like it', I picked up some oven chips on the way home so that I could 'sell' the meal as an exciting treat of 'fish and chips'.

I needn't have worried. Those brave boys were fascinated as they watched my husband gut the fish, stuff the cavity with herbs and place it in the fish kettle to steam. Served with chips and peas they declared their catch to be 'delicious' and ate absolutely masses. A great result all round and so good for them to catch their own food. Sadly I forgot to take the camera with me but I thought you might enjoy the story!

A few weeks ago I helped organise a hen party for one of my closest friends. She loves good food and we based the evening around a special dinner cooked by all of her girl friends. Each 'hen' prepared a part of the meal whether it be a pre-dinner nibble, a vegetable side dish, starter or post-meal chocolate. I was in charge of a main course for fifteen people. I quickly decided that a one-pot dish would be easiest and hauled out my biggest casserole dish. I'd noticed that the first of the season's venison had appeared in the window of the local butcher. I adore venison and we eat quite a bit of it - it is such a lean meat and lends itself to all kinds of dishes. Often we enjoy venison steaks with redcurrant jus and bubble and squeak. We often choose venison sausages if we want a night of comfort food - just a little lower in fat than regular sausages. Venison is also great with oriental flavours and we sometimes serve strips of steak on top of stir-fried vegetables and noodles dressed with plenty of soy sauce. But my favourite way to enjoy this full-flavoured meat is braised slowly in red wine until it falls apart.

The recipe I'm sharing is a real favourite - it is a Nick Nairn recipe from BBC Good Food. I rarely tweak it although I vary the vegetables according to what I have to hand. The trick is to cook it on a low heat for a long time. The redcurrant jelly is really important here so don't leave it out although you could substitute a different fruit jelly - bramble, rowan or quince might work well. The sweetness works beautifully with the earthy, gamey flavour of the meat. The recipe is very easily doubled or halved and freezes well too. As with all casseroles, flavour improves if made a day in advance.

Apologies for the photos - it is so hard to make a stew look enticing in a photograph. I also forgot to take any photos of the 'finished' dish which was a much deeper colour with the tender meat falling apart.

Braised Venison
Serves 6-8


2 carrots
140g swede
2 onions
3 sticks celery
1 garlic clove
1kg cubed leg or shoulder of venison - ask your butcher for meat suitable for casseroling
5 tbsp flour seasoned with salt and pepper
2 heaped tbsp redcurrant jelly
450ml red wine
450ml beef stock
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf

1. Pre-heat the oven to 160C (fan oven). Roughly chop all the vegetables in preparation.

2. Heat some oil and butter in a large casserole and add the onions, carrots, swede and celery. Fry for a few minutes until golden. Crush the garlic and add to the pan. Stir to combine and then set the vegetables to one side.

3. Sprinkle the meat with seasoned flour and mix to coat. Add a little more oil to the casserole and brown the meat in batches. Set aside with the vegetables.

4. Add the wine and jelly to the pan and bubble away, scraping up all the bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Pour in the stock, thyme and bay leaf before adding the meat and vegetable back to the pan. Stir to combine and then bring to the boil. Cover and cook for minimum 2 hours (my preference would be to cook for longer at a slightly lower heat but it depends how much time I have!).

5. Remove the bayleaf and serve. Great with mashed potatoes and braised red cabbage or savoy cabbage flavoured with juniper.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Oriental steamed seabass

I spent the weekend down on the Isle of Wight. It is where my parents live and where I lived from the age of ten. It really is a very special bit of England and this weekend was at its sunniest, sparkliest best. Our dog was extremely chuffed as he was finally allowed to tear along the beach - during the summer months dogs are not allowed on the beach near my parents' house. He had his first taste of swimming in the sea and absolutely loved it. I was momentarily nervous as he hasn't done much swimming as yet (he's just 8 months old) and the tide is so strong that I worried he might be swept out to sea. Fortunately he appears to be a strong swimmer and made it back to shore before indulging in an almighty shake-out...

But this has nothing to do with food. The sea surrounding the Island is home to a great deal of food however. Earlier in the week my mother was lucky enough to be given a large bass which she'd immediately frozen so that we could enjoy it at the weekend. Seabass is a favourite fish of mine and I often order it in a restaurant but I have to admit that I'm not sure I've ever cooked it before. My favourite way to enjoy it is with lovely fresh Oriental flavours and I've eaten it recently in a Chinese restaurant sprinkled with coriander and ginger with soy sauce and sesame. Inspired by this I took a look through my  mother's books and found a recipe very similar to the one I'd tasted. The book was written by Sophie Grigson and William Black and has the very original title of (you guessed it) Fish. I don't have the exact recipe here but I can remember what we did. It was extremely tasty - the only fiddly bit was serving the fish but with practice I'm sure we'd improve!

Oriental steamed seabass
Serves 2-4 depending on size of fish


1 large seabass
1 inch piece of fresh ginger
3 spring onions
1 small red chilli (less or more to taste)
1 fat clove of garlic
2 tbsp vegetable or sunflower oil
2 tbsp sesame oil
soy sauce
large handful fresh coriander

1. Wash and clean your fish and trim the dorsal fins. Cut 3-4 slashes through the skin on both sides. Season the cavity generously and place a few stalks of coriander in the cavity too.

2. Steam the fish. We used a fish kettle for this but you could curl it up in a regular steamer over a pan of boiling water as an alternative. Depending on the size of the fish, this could take anything from 10-20 minutes. Ours was pretty large and took almost 20 minutes. You want the fish to be just cooked.

3. Whilst the fish is steaming, prepare the garnish. Peel the ginger and cut into small matchsticks. De-seed the chilli and cut into very fine matchsticks. Finely chop the garlic and the spring onions. Mix all together in a little bowl. Chop the coriander.

4. Once the fish is ready, transfer quickly to a warmed serving plate and sprinkle on the ginger, chilli, garlic and spring onion mixture. Sprinkle over the chopped fresh coriander too.

5. Heat the oils in a small pan until smoking. Once really hot, pour over the top of the fish and garnishes. Dress liberally with soy sauce and hurry the fish to the table!

6. To serve, gently ease the fillets from the backbone and spoon over the juices and garnishes. We served ours with plain boiled rice and stir-fried vegetables.