Apricot, lavender and heather honey shortbread cookies

April 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

Spring is starting to bloom into summer, with golden hazy days and Pimms-drenched afternoons becoming part of the daily routine. As I have most of the day off (a rare occurence), I decided to try out the new heather honey I bought recently. I don’t know if any of you have tried Walker’s Oatflake and heather honey biscuits, but the second I tried these I fell in love. I’ve finally got around to trying to make them with a little twist, as usual.

Using some more of my lovely lavender sugar from Waitrose, and some of my own vanilla sugar that I made last time I used it for strawberry, vanilla and basil ice cream (the recipe for which I’ll put up once I’ve perfected it), I made these shortbread cookies. They may be a little sweet, but they’re perfect for tea.

With the addition of a little chopped apricot, these are the right mix of fruity and sweet, with the herby lavender and heather notes balancing the taste well.

To make these delectable little treats, you will need:

  • 230g plain flour
  • ¾ tsp sea salt
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • 1 tbsp lavender sugar (mostly flowers if you can pick them out)
  • 2 tbsp vanilla sugar
  • 100g icing sugar
  • 150g unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 tbsp heather honey (large spoonfuls, mind)
  • 50g semi-dried apricots chopped into 5mm cubes

Mix together the flour, salt, baking powder and lavender sugar in a medium bowl. Set this aside to use in a little while. In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter, vanilla sugar, icing sugar and heather honey. Cream these together until smooth and then add the chopped apricot.

At this point you add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients – the best way to do this is to add the flour one third at a time, mixing well in between. You’ll form a soft dough, which you scoop out onto a floured board or worktop.

Roll this into a log that is roughly 2 inches in diameter, and then wrap up tightly in cling film. Refridgerate the wrapped up dough for at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 180°C and cut the refridgerated dough into ½ inch cookies. Place onto a parchment-lined baking tray about 2 inches apart and bake for 10-12 minutes, or until golden around the edges. They’ll be a little soft in the middle when they come out, so either stick them in for another 2 minutes if you want them crispy through, or let them cool completely.

The sea salt forms little salty pockets in the shortbread which work wonderfully with the sweet bites! These are best enjoyed with a hot cup of Earl Grey tea, or drizzled with a little melted white chocolate if you have an even sweeter tooth!


Leftover lamb gnocchi with apricots

April 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Once again, I have to apologise for such a lengthy intermission between posts. I’ve been so bogged down with work, moving house, networking, and travelling that I’ve hardly had any time to pick up a fork let alone a spatula.

However, I really made the effort this Easter. I forgot to take photos, mind, as I’m terribly rubbish like that. I made a rolled leg of lamb roast stuffed with spinach, apricots and pine nuts, served with thyme potato dauphinoise and honey and thyme glazed sticky carrots. It was delicious! But we had a fair amount of roast lamb leftover for the next day which was still really juicy and tender, so we decided to make a leftover’s recipe based on the combination of flavours we’d worked with the night before.

Lamb and apricot are a marriage made in heaven. The idea of combining lamb with the fragrant apricot is very Moroccan and Middle Eastern. Many Middle Eastern dishes, such as tagine, use fruits and spices alongside meat to create a unique complement.

However, the idea of combining them with gnocchi is fairly unusual and probably not one that you’d start off considering. The real beauty of this dish is how all the flavours come together and are just right – no particular ingredient overpowers the other. Although apricots aren’t in season at the moment (May to September is the usual time), dried apricots are the main star of this dish – plus with all the hot weather we’ve been having it almost feels like it’s summer already.

So, some of these are estimations as it’s based on how much we had leftover! But here we go:

  • 500g storebought gnocchi
  • 100-150g fresh baby leaf spinach
  • 6 semi-soft dried apricots, chopped
  • 2 tbsp pine nuts, toasted
  • approximately 100-150g roast lamb
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 stems rosemary, finely chopped
  • a few sprigs of thyme, leaves only
  • a splash of cream
  • a pinch of nutmeg
  • flaked sea salt and pepper
  • parmesan, for sprinkling

Start off by toasting your pine nuts in a large frying pan – just dry roasted as there is no need for oil. After about 3-4 minutes these will be done and you can remove them to a small bowl while you prepare the sauce. Wash the spinach and put into the frying pan with a knob of butter and the chopped garlic. Let this reduce for about 30 seconds or so before putting in the chopped apricot and pine nuts. Chop up your leftover lamb into bitesize chunks and then add to the sauce.

Stir gently to combine, then add the thyme leaves and chopped rosemary. Season with Maldon sea salt if you have it, otherwise some normal sea salt is really brilliant in this kind of dish. Add some black pepper to taste and a pinch of nutmeg. Stir everything together and turn the heat off.

Hopefully you’ve boiled a kettle of water in preparation, but if not, boil some water and stick it in a saucepan with the gnocchi (make sure you salt the water well). Once the gnocchi rises to the surface of the water it is ready to drain. When you’ve drained the gnocchi, put the sauce mix back on the heat and add a splash of cream. Stir about to combine, then add the drained gnocchi. Combine well, then serve in shallow bowls with grated parmesan over the top.

Rose cupcakes

August 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

It has been an unacceptably long time since I last posted. Life seems to have sped up when I wasn’t paying attention, and sadly, cooking was the first activity to go. I finally stole some time for myself today and made a batch of cupcakes – a pleasure that I have not had in some time.

As we’ve explored before, rose is an excellent ingredient for desserts, main courses and many beverages mainly in the Middle East but also in many parts of Asia. Its delicate taste and scent can transform normal desserts into regal treats. However, capturing the essence of roses is not as simple as using rose petals – the easiest way to cook with rose is to use rosewater or rose essence. Rosewater can even be made at home by steeping fresh rose petals in boiling water for a couple of hours, letting it cool and infuse overnight, then draining off the fragrant water for culinary use. Another method is to dry out rose petals and grind them into a coarse powder, which can then by used to flavour sauces and as a decorative addition to desserts.

We’ve used flowers in cupcakes before (lavender and chamomile cupcakes) with beautifully fragrant results, so I tried out rose for good measure and was not disappointed. These cupcakes are lovely and moist, but distinctly scented and have a delicate taste that would be an excellent accompaniment for afternoon tea.

To make 15 domed cupcakes you’ll need:

  • 175g unsalted butter
  • 175g golden caster sugar
  • 3 medium eggs
  • 175g self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp vanilla essence
  • ¾ tsp rose essence
  • 1 tbsp dried, crushed rose
  • 1 tbsp milk (optional)

Start off by preheating your oven to 180°C and line your cupcake tray with cases. Then cream together the butter and the sugar until they are pale.

Then add the eggs one at a time, beating each one thoroughly through the mixture before adding the next. You should have a smooth mixture forming at this point, but don’t worry if you have a few buttery lumps as they’ll smoothen out soon enough. After you’ve added all the eggs and beaten them evenly, add the vanilla essence and the rose essence and mix well.

At this point I measured out the self-raising flour and added it to the mixture in thirds, so that I could combine the mixture well. You can either do it this way, or add the whole lot in one go. Additionally, you could add the baking powder to the flour beforehand, or add it to the mixture afterwards.

Now add the dried rose and fold the mixture together gently, until combined.

If the mixture isn’t of a dropping consistency at this point, you can add1 tbsp of milk to loosen it a little. Then comes the fun part! Spoon out the mixture evenly into the cupcake cases – you will find that the batter leaves about 1 cm space at the top of each cupcake case. Then place the tray in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until a skewer in the middle of the cupcake comes out clean.

Stand the cupcakes for about 5 minutes and then you can either enjoy them by themselves or with a freshly brewed cup of tea. If you’re feeling especially indulgent, enjoy them while they’re still slightly warm with a good helping of clotted cream.

Student Gastronomy

March 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

I recently wrote an article on good food on a student budget for the ‘London Student’ newspaper that I used to be on the editorial team for. Here’s the article and recipes for you to read and try out. Especially if you’re on a student budget!

Beans on toast for breakfast. Sandwich and a packet of crisps for lunch. Beer and chips for dinner. ‘Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it’ is generally the resounding advice you get when you start off life as a student, but there’s more to food than what’s quick and easy. You don’t have to break the bank and indulge in fine dining (with the equally “fine” bill at the end of the night) to have a quality meal.

I must admit, I’m not a traditionally lazy student stereotype and I don’t think most of us like to be lumped into the category of “can’t cook – won’t cook”. It’s just the resources we’re lacking: time, money, and the know-how in some cases.

With hosting eat-in dinner parties being the new alternative to a lavish meal out, it’s well worth looking into the budget-friendly set menu for students. Eating well doesn’t have to mean buying expensive ingredients – it just means looking around for alternatives and knowing how to balance your diet.

Cooking is not only a great way to spend time with your mates without spending all your money, a fantastic home-cooked meal might just be the best way to impress someone and put you permanently in their good-books.

Tomato and chilli bruschetta

Bruschetta’s a fantastically easy starter to prepare and the best thing about this recipe is that there’s no strenuous chopping involved: just put it all in the blender and you’ll have a five-star quality appetiser before you know it. Here’s a tip though – it’s really worth buying a basil plant pot, because then you’ll always have a supply of fresh basil on hand, provided you take care of it.

For a starter for 4 people you’ll need:

  • 1 large ciabatta (approx £1 in most supermarkets)
  • 2 garlic cloves (as little as 25p for a garlic bulb)
  • 500g cherry tomatoes (£1.69 Waitrose Essentials)
  • 10-12 fresh basil leaves, or a rounded tbsp of dried basil (usually about £1)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil (on average £1 a bottle of the supermarket brand)
  • 1-2 dried chillies, or 2-3 tsp chilli flakes (cheaper from ethnic stores, or alternatively you can use hot chilli powder which is about 70p)
  • Ground black pepper and basil leaves to garnish

£5.64 total, which is about £1.41 a head!

Preheat your oven to 200°C. Halve the ciabatta both ways so you have four slices, then peel and cut the garlic cloves in half. Rub each cut half of a garlic clove onto the ciabatta, placing the clove into the centre of the bread once you’ve finished that step. Place the ciabatta slices directly onto the middle shelf of the oven for about 10-15 minutes or until golden.

Meanwhile, stick the cherry tomatoes, basil leaves into the blender and pour in the oil. Break each dried chilli in half before putting it in the blender with the tomatoes, or sprinkle the chilli flakes in over the top. Mix roughly with a spoon then pulse a few times to cut up the tomatoes and mix together the ingredients.

Take your ciabatta out of the oven and place on the serving plate. The garlic halves should be nicely roasted and soft now, so use a small, sharp knife to cut it into a few slices and place evenly on the toasted ciabatta. Spoon over the tomato mixture and then grind some black pepper over it. If you’re using fresh basil leaves you can place a few small leaves on top of the bruschetta to garnish.

Spinach and ricotta cannelloni

Italian food is a great crowd-pleaser, not only because it has rich, rustic flavours and a variety of colour, but also because it can be really simple to pull together a delicious, fulfilling meal in under an hour. This dish uses frozen spinach and if you’re pressed for time, sauce from a jar. That way you can focus on entertaining your guests and catching up with your friends than spending the majority of the evening clock-watching and unceremoniously disappearing into the kitchen.

To feed 4, or for a hearty meal for 2 you’ll need:

  • 250g frozen spinach (usually £1 for a bag of frozen spinach)
  • 250g ricotta cheese (£1 from Sainsbury’s)
  • 50g Parmesan cheese, finely grated (go to the cheese counter and ask for a specific amount)
  • Pinch of ground nutmeg (usually in the range of £1 to £1.40)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 8 dried sheets of lasagne (Waitrose large lasagne sheets are best, and now only 80p)
  • A jar of tomato and chilli pasta sauce (prices range from £1-£2)
  • 30g cheddar cheese, grated (250g of a mild cheddar will only set you back around £1.50, usually)

£8.40 total, coming up to £2.10 a head.

Start off by preheating your oven to 200°C and bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Then microwave the frozen spinach according to the instructions on the pack, drain and run under some cold water to cool it down. Squeeze out all the excess liquid and put it all in a large mixing bowl. Add the ricotta, half of the Parmesan cheese, the ground nutmeg and season with salt and pepper. Don’t skimp on the ground nutmeg or the black pepper, believe me, it makes a difference.

In your large pan of boiling water, add a drizzle of olive oil and then place your lasagne sheets on top of each other, occasionally lifting them so they don’t stick together. After the lasagne sheets are almost done (al dente, if you prefer) drain them, rinse under a cold tap then lay them out on a chopping board or large plate. One by one, using about 2 tbsp of the ricotta mixture for each lasagne sheet, spread the mixture onto the sheet and roll it up. Make sure there’s an even amount of mixture on each sheet.

Spoon half the pasta sauce onto the base of a lasagne dish, placing the rolled up cannelloni on top. Then pour over the remaining sauce. Sprinkle over the remaining Parmesan and the cheddar cheese, season with some black pepper and then bake in the oven for about 20 minutes, until the cheese is melted and golden on top.

Valentine’s Day feast

February 14, 2010 § 1 Comment

Happy Valentine’s Day, all you wonderful people. This is usually the day you decide you’re going to pull out all the stops for your other half and remind them just how much you adore and dote upon them. It’s also a heavily scented reminder of the wooing that occurred right at the beginning of your relationship, and that you have to attempt to rekindle some of that enchantment for the day.

I cannot express how important food is for achieving these goals. Food – not poetry, or music – is the food of love. Aphrodisiacs, softly perfumed teas and bubbling champagnes, and fiery, intense flavours can reignite passion like nothing else. Believe me.

While roses and cute Clinton cards and teddy bears will put a smile on your loved one’s face, it’s their tummy you truly need to satisfy. Either mellow, rich tones or hot, vibrant tastes will certainly remind your other half just why they can’t live without you.

Think symbolism, shapes and flavours when cooking for Valentine’s Day. Small gifts like chocolates always benefit from a little thought on presentation, whereas having your evening supper shaped like a stuffed teddy bear might be a touch disconcerting. Why not present some chocolate truffles in a heart-shaped box in little red foil casings? Or whip up some chilli-chocolate covered strawberries and serve them with a glass of champagne tied with a red ribbon around the flute?

If you haven’t been able to make bookings at that gorgeous restaurant you’ve both been wanting to go to, don’t fret, you can have a romantic dinner in. Having a warm atmosphere will enrich the food experience even more…

Enough of the telling you what to do to decorate – now I’m going to tell you what to cook for dinner. Pheasant is beautifully tender, and really quite easy to cook. If possible try to get female pheasant meat as its usually more tender.

  • 2 pheasant breasts, trimmed (if you have big appetites you can double up on the recipe as pheasant breasts can be fairly small)
  • 1 lemon, quartered
  • 2-3 rosemary stalks
  • 6-8 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 50ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 60ml dry white wine
  • sea salt and crushed black pepper to taste
  • 500g baby new potatoes

Place the pheasant breasts into a large bowl and squeeze over the lemon quarters, which you then leave in the bowl. Bruise the rosemary stalks and pluck off the leaves to add to the bowl, reserving a few sprigs for later. Season with the sea salt and black pepper.

You can either halve your garlic cloves lengthways or leave them whole before adding them to the bowl. Pour over the extra virgin olive oil and the white wine, then mix well, coating the pheasant, garlic, lemon and herbs in the marinade. Leave to marinade for approximately 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a small pan of water to the boil and add some salt. Quickly wash your baby new potatoes to remove any dirt and then transfer to the salted boiling water to cook for around 20 or so minutes, or until tender.

Once the 15-20 minutes for the marinade are up, heat a heavy-based frying pan on a medium-high heat, with no oil. When the pan is hot, remove the pheasant pieces from the bowl and place into the pan skin side down. The pheasant breasts cook very quickly so turn the pieces often, just allowing them to colour. You should only pan-fry the pheasant breasts for 5-7 minutes maximum. Remove with tongs and place on the serving plate to rest for 10 minutes.

While the pheasant breasts are resting (and the potatoes are boiling), pour in the contents of the bowl into the hot pan and allow to reduce for about 3-4 minutes. keep stirring and brown the sides of the lemon quarters. Once the sauce has become a little thicker and darker, turn off the heat and drain your potatoes in the other pan. Place the baby new potatoes next to the pheasant breast, two lemon quarters next to the potatoes and then pour the sauce in the frying pan over the pheasant and potatoes.

Take your reserved rosemary sprigs and sprinkle them over the potatoes, and serve with a lovely glass of red wine.

What to have for dessert? If you have time before you start cooking the meal, grab some blueberries and raspberries and stick them in the freezer. Serve the frozen berries with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and some drizzled honey.

Have a happy, loved-up day, folks!

Ethnic-inspired pistachio shortbread

February 10, 2010 § 3 Comments

In these in-between days where England can’t decide whether it wants to have Winter weather or to start to open up the Spring buds, its little wonders like this pistachio shortbread which contain the best of both seasons. Its distinct pistachio flavouring is wonderfully light as a Springtime treat, however the addition of warming nutmeg and ground cardamom provide the much needed warmth that those unpredictable snowy days might require.

Pistachios are used in various sweet and savoury meals throughout the Middle East and South Asia, where it features as an important ingredient of many dishes, such as baklava. Additionally, pistachio nuts have the uncanny ability to ‘fool’ your body into eating less as having to de-shell and then eat the pistachios somehow makes your body feel full without having eaten as much. Fooled by a nut – whatever next?

The shortbread itself is soft and crumbly, but you can clearly taste the pistachio, nutmeg and cardamom with each bite. Not to mention the fact that the smell is divine… To make these you’ll need:

  • 350g unsalted butter, softened
  • 150g golden caster sugar
  • 500g plain flour
  • 150g pistachio nuts, de-shelled and processed until fine
  • 1 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom

Start off by beating the butter and sugar together until pale and creamy. I used golden caster sugar for this shortbread but you can easily use the usual caster sugar if you like.

Once your butter mixture resembles the above, add your flour and processed pistachio nuts (use a food processor to grind them to the consistency of a coarse powder). Usually pistachio nuts are salted and roasted, so you don’t need to add any additional salt to the mixture, but if your nuts haven’t been salted then you might want to add a pinch of salt to the mixture at this point.

Mix well, ensuring that you have an evenly combined batter. Then add the ground cardamom and nutmeg and combine.

At this point it started snowing violently outside.

Pour the shortbread mixture out onto a greased and lined baking sheet and (gently!) press the mix down evenly into the tray. Use the palms of your hands if you don’t want fingertip impressions all over your shortbread. Then use a knife to score rectangles, or triangles if you’re weird like me, into the mixture.

Bake in the oven for approximately 20-25 minutes or so, or until golden. Then cool on a wire rack, turn the shortbread out of the baking tray and break or cut into the pre-marked rectangles/triangles. (Suddenly it was clear and sunny again outside, what on earth’s going on?)

You can eat these with ice cream, crumbled over berries, or even with chocolate mousse. Personally, I like them with a cup of cardamom tea.

Lavender cake with buttercream icing

January 31, 2010 § 1 Comment

The long-awaited lavender cake recipe is finally here, albeit not in the form you would have expected. I decided to make a loaf cake this time, which was full of its own surprises to say the least. The lavender flowers imparted a lovely spicy-sweet fragrance and taste to the cake, and the lavender buttercream was satisfyingly rich. This is what afternoon tea was made for.

Lavender is part of the mint family of plants, which means its somewhat related to other aromatic herbs and flowers such as basil, rosemary, mint and oregano. Lavender itself cross-pollinates very easily, so there’s a whole range of different variations of the lavender species. In culinary use, lavender flowers have been used for making honey, cake decorations, additions to chocolate and tea. L. Angustifolia, better known as English Lavender, has the sweetest aroma out of all the variations and is most commonly used in culinary applications of lavender.

Lavender should be used sparingly as you can easily overdo it with the flavour, as the essential oil of lavender is contained within the flowers that are used in cooking. I use lavender sugar (with the dried flowers) in my cooking simply because the lavender and sugar complement each other really well, and the lavender scented sugar is useful for flavouring the buttercream icing (and other various ingredients not necessarily related to the cake).

The recipe itself is incredibly straightforward, although I don’t think I’ll be making the loaf again as it took much longer in the oven than previous incarnations of the lavender cake to the point where it began to harden on top and wasn’t as satisfying as, say, a pound cake. But less of the whinging and lets get onto the actual recipe. You will need:

  • 175g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 175g golden caster sugar
  • 175g self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence
  • 3 eggs
  • 1-2 tbsp whole milk (optional)
  • 1 tsp of lavender flowers

Start by preheating your oven to to 180°C and line the cake tin (either an 8-9 inch loaf tin or more preferably a 20cm springform cake tin) with baking parchment. Then cream the butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl until pale.

Crack the eggs into the butter mix one at a time and beat until fully combined, then add the vanilla essence and then sift over the flour and fold in using a large metal spoon. Add the baking powder at this point and combine well. I broke out the good ol’ electric whisk for the first part of the cake-mixing, and it gave me this beautiful pale mixture which I added my lavender flowers (with a bit of lavender sugar for luck) to.

At this point, if the mixture is not of a dropping consistency, add 1 to 2 tbsp of whole milk to loosen it up a little. Put the mixture in the lined cake tin and bake for approximately 20-25 minutes (or if you’re my crazy loaf cake apparently for around 45-50 minutes). Really, I’d suggest to just keep an eye on it from around 25 minutes, using a skewer to check if the middle of the cake is cooked. If the skewer comes out clean, you’re good to go.

Stand the cake for about 5 minutes after removing it from the oven and then cool it on a wire rack while you prepare the buttercream icing filling:

  • 25g unsalted butter, softened
  • 60g icing sugar, sifted
  • 2 tsp whole milk
  • ½ tsp lavender flowers

Beat the butter until its creamy, then sift in the icing sugar (or just bung it in as it is if you’re lazy like me). Beat the icing sugar and butter together, then add the milk a teaspoon at a time and combine well. Sprinkle the lavender flowers on top and mix well.

Slice your cooled cake in half, spread the buttercream icing lavishly in the middle and stick the top back on. This is heavenly with a cup of Chai tea. Actually. So much so, in fact, that when I went downstairs to the kitchen the next morning to have a slice with my morning cuppa, I found that half my cake had gone!

I think that’s a good testament to its deliciousness as any. Bake it, and enjoy.