Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Asparagus & Pasta Bake (Drama-Free)

A quick belated post with a dinner from last week - no excitement, just a very tasty veggie thing. (Funner stuff to come when have a bit more posting time.)

The Recipe: Asparagus & Potato Bake
(Again courtesy of Dairy Diary Hearty & Healthy book)

  • 1 lb 4 oz (550g) sweet potatoes, peeled & cut into slices about 0.5 in (1 cm) thick
  • 1 lb (450g) new potatoes, scrubbed & cut into slices about 0.5 in (1 cm) thick
  • 9 oz (250g) asparagus spears
  • 1 oz (25g) butter
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed [or 1 shallot, minced, in our case]
  • 1 oz (25g) all purpose flour
  • 1 vegetable stock cube, crumbled
  • 16 fl oz (1 US pint; 450ml) low fat milk
  • 2 oz (50g) mature Cheddar cheese, grated [you might want a bit more]

Serves 4

1. Separately, steam the sweet and new potato slices for 15-20 mins, until just cooked. (Take care not to overcook, as they could break up. Note that the sweet potatoes will cook more quickly than the new potatoes.) [Nuking would probably be quicker.]

2. Meanwhile, snap off and discard the woody end from each of the asparagus spears. Wash and cook in large saucepan of boiling, lightly salted water for 5-10 mins (depending on thickness) until tender. [I steamed for 5 mins, as was on a roll with all the steaming.] Drain, refresh under cold tap, drain well.

3. Preheat oven to 425F/220C.

4. When cooked, arrange new potatoes in bottom of large, very lightly oiled, shallow baking dish. [Ours is 2 quart and was the perfect size.] Arrange the sweet potatoes on top, and then add the asparagus spears.

5. To make the sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan, add the garlic and saute until soft. Stir in the flour, and add the stock cube and milk. Bring to the boil, stirring continously. Season to taste, and pour over the layered vegetables.

6. Sprinkle the cheese over the sauce, then bake in the oven for 15-20 mins until bubbling hot, and the cheese is melted and golden brown. Serve with a crisp green salad. [We had peas, as always.]


Can't think of anything - it was great. Jack did perhaps regard it more as a side-dish than a main course, but he doesn't have my pescatarian tendencies.


Steamed veggies:

Sauce in progress, featuring very pretty new whisk (thanks, Kate!):

About to go in oven:


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fun/Stupid Links

A couple of fun things for a Thursday morning...

1) Gross, right?


2) Did you see this article on NYTimes re twittering recipes? I know, Twitter, sigh, but the recipes are kinda fun...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Chaos & Chocolate Chip Cookies

Wherein we learn the perils of baking under the influence, and that quiet cats are rarely being good cats.

We had just finished dinner (see previous post), and a leisurely couple of glasses of wine, and I said to Jack "I think it's too late to start baking cookies." But then he looked at me with those big teddy-bear eyes, and I gave in. Which is when the trouble started...

The Recipe: Best Chocolate Chip Cookies

Found the recipe on Cooking Stuff, where Bob cooks the kind of stuff that makes you take his cookie recipe recommendations very seriously.

And sure enough, even though I did just about everything wrong (how can you do cookies wrong?! see below...) they came out delicious. That makes them the best chocolate chip cookies in the world as far as I'm concerned.

I'm no connoisseur though - you need an American for that job, and Jack pronounced them excellent, crisp at the edges, but soft and chewy in the middle. Then he started reminiscing about his mum's cookies, how she used to put walnuts in them, etc. So these may not be absolutely the best to his mind. But I'm definitely not getting into a bake-off with my 80-year-old mother-in-law, so am just deliriously happy that they were worthy to be compared with hers.

Oh, and a big shout-out to Kate, who gave us the baking equipment as a wedding present.


Bob has all these great step-by-step instructions, with pictures too - but these can only help you if you actually read them.

Somehow I managed to put the sugar in with the flour, instead of keeping it separate to mix with the melted butter. So in despair just threw everything in together and hoped it would work itself out.

Then noticed I should have let the butter cool first. Oops.

Then emptied the whole packet of chocolate chips into the mixture, and immediately wondered if 12 oz by weight is really the same as 1.5 cups by volume. (Still haven't got the hang of the American cup system.) Anyway, it did seem like an obscene amount of chocolate chips (though hey, what's wrong with that?)

But went ahead and stuck them in the oven. At which point a cry went up from the bathroom. While we'd been baking, this had been happening:

Peanut (supposedly the "good" cat) sitting in the wreckage like - as Jack put it - a drunk surrounded by his empty bottles:

Back in the kitchen, the cookies took a bit longer than the 10-14 mins in our oven, but they came out perfect. You definitely don't want to overcook them, though, as they will firm up over time (a few days later and some of ours could use being a wee bit softer). They do pack a big punch of sweetness with all those chips - we might use dark chocolate next time? Or perhaps (horror!) fewer chips?

A few tips for other newbies:
  • Didn't know how to tell when the cookies were done - this is what the internet is for - but once again, don't overcook
  • They also recommend cooling the cookie sheet between batches, otherwise the cookies will spread
  • Also, in a more sober moment, I'd researched silpat vs parchment - the conclusion seems to be that people prefer parchment for cookies (though this is probably a bit of a nicety if you're the kind of person who completely messes up the recipe...)


With everything that was going on, I only got shots of the final product:

Chicken with Mustard Cream Sauce

This is another pre-resolution recipe. Like the pork chops & apple chutney recipe, it's from a very useful little book called called Quick Food: Easy Everyday Ideas for Busy Cooks.

The sauce was always good - plate-licking good, in fact. And now I've actually heard of fond and deglazing, and thus no longer make the mistake of using a non-stick pan, it's even better.

They suggest serving with green beans and baby yellow squash (we normally just do potatoes).

The Recipe: Chicken with Mustard Cream Sauce
From Quick Food: Easy Everyday Ideas for Busy Cooks

4 6oz chicken breasts
2 tbspn vegetable oil
1 clove garlic, crushed [we have to use shallot]
0.25 cup dry white wine
2 tbspn whole-grain mustard
2 tspn chopped fresh thyme [we typically use dry - about half the amount]
1.25 cups whipping cream [we use half & half]

Serves 4

1. Pound each chicken breast between sheets of plastic wrap with a mallet or rolling pin until about 0.5 inch thick [don't really like pounding meat, so we just adjust the cooking time].

2. Heat the oil in a frying pan over high heat. Cook the chicken breasts for 4-5 mins on each side or until done. Remove and cover with aluminum foil.

3. Add the garlic to the frying pan and cook for 1 min over medium heat, then deglaze with the wine, and add mustard and thyme. Increase the heat to medium-high and pour in the cream. Simmer for 5 mins or until the sauce has reduced and thickened slightly, then season to taste.

4. Serve, pouring a little [actually, you'll want a lot!] of the sauce over each chicken breast.


Have made this a few times now, so generally manage it without messing anything up.


Sauce thickening:

On the plate:

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Introducing... The Cats

OK, I do take responsibility for my actions. But really hadn't thought of posting about the cats here until came across a very fun and funny cooking blog, Cooking Stuff, where the host, Bob, does regular Sunday posts about his cats. So let's blame Bob, shall we, rather than mad cat lady syndrome - sound good to you?

We adopted them in January, at 11 weeks old, so they're now just under 6 months old.

Peanut, the orange tabby, is a pretty normal cat. Friendly, sometimes aloof, scared of loud noises. Favorite things: chasing his sister, playing fetch, sniffing things, licking his bottom (typical guy).

Marmite, the tortoiseshell, is not normal. We've decided she's a mutant cat-monkey-ferret-dog-kangaroo hybrid. Favorite things: anything and everything, the more naughty and dangerous the better. But especially climbing, stealing bread rolls, getting wet, and cuddling.

Kitten Peanut

Kitten Marmite

Kittens in the in-box

Cats in the in-box - squashed Peanut

Cats on the bed

Cats in the bathroom

Cats fascinated by the bathroom

Marmite helping in the kitchen

Peanut sitting on Alton Brown

And not forgetting, because he will never be forgotten, their predecessor - our lovely Leo (1990-2007).

He always had to have the last word, so here he is, having it.

Light & Fluffy Pancakes, with Banana Rum Sauce

Decided to make pancakes for Jack last weekend. Had meant it to be a surprise but the weather moved our plans around, so had to tell him. It was like telling a seven-year-old boy that he was going to meet Spiderman - he really wanted to think it was true, but just couldn't believe his luck, and kept peppering me with questions of a skeptical nature. So, these pancakes, what are they going to have in them? These pancakes, have you made them before? Are you sure you're going to have time before we go out? Etc., etc.

Bananas are his favorite, so they would be banana pancakes. I never had made pancakes, not even with a mix. And, emboldened by the baking, I'd decided to make a sauce too, it being Easter and all. So I was a bit worried about timing, not having made a syrup before either.

Since I'm such a newbie, it seems unbelievably reckless to say anything that amounts to "this has to be the best recipe for x, and the only one I will use for the rest of my life." But here we go: I believe this must be the best pancake recipe in the world, and I really can't imagine using anything else. So there. Try it and let me know what you think.

The sauce was great, too, though a bit over the top for pancakes - I'd definitely make it again, but would give it the more sophisticated context it deserves.

The Recipe: Light & Fluffy Banana Pancakes
(Note to UK readers: these are American-style breakfast pancakes, not crepes)
From How to Cook Everything (10th Anniversary Edition) by Mark Bittman
  • 1 cup milk
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • Dash salt
  • 1 tbspn sugar
  • 1.5 tspn baking powder
  • Butter or neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn, as needed
  • 3 bananas, sliced
Serves 4

1. Heat a griddle or large skillet over medium-low heat while you make the batter.

2. Beat together the milk and egg yolks. Mix the dry ingredients. Beat the egg whites with a whisk or electric mixer until fairly stiff but not dry.

3. Combine the dry ingredients and milk-yolk mixture, stirring to blend. Gently fold in the beaten egg whites; they should remain somewhat distinct in the batter.

4. Put about 1 tspn of the butter or oil on the griddle/skillet and, when butter melts or oil is hot, add the batter by the heaping tablespoon, making sure to include some of the egg whites in each spoonful.

5. Press banana slices into top of cooking pancakes. Cook until lightly browned on the bottom, 3-5 mins, then turn and cook until the second side is brown, a couple more minutes.

6. Serve or hold on an oven-proof plate in a 200F oven for up to 15 mins.

The Recipe: Banana-Rum Sauce

I found this via foodgawker. It's really supposed to go with a very lovely-looking pavlova.


Making the sauce was slightly nerve-wracking, as had my eye on the clock, and it seemed to take ages to get to the syrupy stage. Also was terrified of burning myself/the cats with the superheated liquid - seemed like a horrible accident waiting to happen. But it was definitely worth it - very sweet but so banana-y, rummy, and good.

Looking at the pics, my sauce came out a lot darker - guessing I used darker sugar, but maybe it was something else. Also, didn't strain it, we don't have a strainer, and the banana bits were too tasty.

Pancakes were super easy and wonderful, though we did manage to burn the first batch on the bottom. We're making them again tomorrow.


Sauce, finally syrupy

Batter ready to go

Slightly odd shaped pancakes due to miscomm-unication between chef & sous-chef

Jack flipping
On plate, pancakes slightly singed on bottom; yes, that's Reddi-wip, I have no shame

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Spring Vegetable Pasta

This recipe doesn't count as part of the resolution, as I've been making it since sometime last year. But it's very nice - with delicate fresh flavors - and perfect for the season, so thought it should be shared.

The Recipe: Spring Vegetable Pasta
Another book from the Dairy Diary series, called Hearty & Healthy.
  • 8 oz pasta (e.g. penne, twists, or bows) [8oz for 4 people might be a little on the light side, I do 5 oz for 2 of us]
  • 8 asparagus spears, woody ends trimmed and cut into 2 in lengths
  • 4 oz peas (fresh or frozen)
  • 4 oz spinach, washed and drained, and torn into strips
  • 1 tbspn capers, rinsed and chopped if large
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • Handful mint leaves, shredded
  • Handful basil leaves, shredded
  • 5 tbspn half fat creme fraiche [we can only get full fat, oh well!]
  • 3 tbspn toasted pine nuts (To toast: Heat small frying pan, add pine nuts and stir over medium heat until evenly colored. Don't walk away from them!)

Serves 4

1. Add the pasta to a large pan of boiling water. Stir well and when it comes back to the boil, cook for 5 mins. Add the peas, bring back to the boil and add the asparagus, then simmer for another 3-4 mins until the pasta is just getting tender.

2. Drain the pasta and vegetables well. Put the spinach in the pasta pan and tip the pasta and vegetables on top. Stir gently so that the spinach starts to wilt.

3. Stir in the creme fraiche, capers, and lemon juice, and add seasoning to taste, keeping the pan over a low heat for a couple of minutes to heat everything through. Add the shredded mint and basil leaves.

4. Spoon the pasta mixture into hot serving dishes and sprinkle with pine nuts. Serve immediately while hot.


Hmmm - can't think of anything.


Pasta in the spring evening sunshine -aaah...

Slow-Roasted Salmon with Fennel

So, the thing about doing some crazy baking is that other recipes seem so much easier. Though this one was pretty simple anyway.

It had been on my to-do list for a while - ever since we got a whole bottle of Pernod to use one teaspoon, and then were left wondering what to do with the rest of it (a common problem, apparently).

The Recipe: Slow-Roasted Arctic Char (or Salmon) with Fennel

It's from Culinate and was actually for artic char, but we couldn't get any, so used salmon instead.


It was good, and certainly could be a dinner-party dish, though you'd want something very refreshing for dessert. The creamy sauce did make it rich.

It actually took about 50 mins to cook in our oven at 250F, rather than 25 mins, which makes sense considering the name of the recipe. (Don't know about you, but 25 mins doesn't seem especially slow.)

The only thing I wondered was how their sauce ended up looking so saucy - there really wasn't very much liquid in mine, and I didn't just want to keep adding cream. Wasn't sure what to do about it. But maybe mine just festered too long while we were waiting for the fish. Any suggestions gratefully received.

Oh, and they use fennel pollen. We did not - it costs $30 a jar! Followed their suggestion and used some crushed fennel seeds instead (no curry powder though as we didn't have any).


Sauce cooking

On the plate, not very saucy

Saturday, April 11, 2009

First Ever Baking Attempt: Hot Anxious Buns

Aaaahhh, a long holiday weekend. The perfect time to... do something terrifying. My mum and I had some hot cross buns when I was over in England this week, and it planted the seed of a very foolish idea. Of course this meant completely ignoring my mother's advice ("don't start with things that need yeast, it's too complicated"), even though I knew she was right (nothing new here).

Consulted Mr B. and Ms W. for advice, but you know, bless them, they really didn't have enough detail for a total beginner/nitwit, especially one who doesn't have a food processor. But stumbled on a fantastic site, Baking 911 - with almost too much information - and it held my hand through the entire process.

The result? A little chewy (see mistakes section below), but bore a striking resemblance to the real thing, and actually tasted good - spicy and just sweet enough.

It did all take a long time. I know that theoretically you can go off and get on with your life while the dough is rising, etc., but I ended up hovering like a new mum by the crib. Was the yeast doing anything? Was the dough rising? Too much? Not enough?

The experience? Nerve-wracking, but fun. Like many of the better things in life, she observed, sagaciously...

The Recipe: Nigella Lawson's Hot Cross Buns

Took the recipe out of my mum's Radio Times (quaintly-named UK TV listing mag; the recipe originally appeared in the book Feast). Would normally avoid Nigella on principle, as she's far too annoyingly hot herself.

For the dough:
  • 6 fl oz (175 ml) milk
  • 2 oz (50g) butter
  • Zest 1 orange
  • 1 clove
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 14 oz (400g) bread flour
  • 1 tbspn superfine (caster) sugar
  • 0.25 oz (7g, 1 packet) instant yeast [I used active dry, since it was all they had in the store - "how much harder can it be?" she thought, oh how naively]
  • 4 oz (100g) mixed dried fruit [in the UK we use sultanas, raisins, currants, and something called "mixed peel" that I couldn't find here - just some rather chunky candied lemon peel, which I cut into little pieces]
  • 1 tspn ground cinnamon
  • 0.5 tspn ground nutmeg
  • 0.25 tspn ground ginger
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg, beaten with a little milk to make egg wash

For the crosses:

  • 3 tbspn all-purpose (plain) flour
  • 0.5 tbspn superfine (caster) sugar
  • 2 tbspn water

For the sugar glaze:

  • 1 tbspn superfine (caster) sugar
  • 1 tbspn boiling water

Makes 16 buns.

1. Heat the milk, butter, orange zest, clove, and cardamom pods in a saucepan until the butter melts, then leave to infuse. [If using active dry yeast, prepare it and prove it too, following directions on packet.]

2. Measure the flour, sugar, yeast [if using instant yeast] into a bowl and add the spices.

3. When the infused milk has cooled to blood temperature, take out the cardamom pods, and beat in the egg. [If using active dry yeast, add it to the mixture - make sure the mixture's not too hot or too cold though, as that would stop the yeast from working.]

4. Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and mix. Knead the dough either by hand or with a machine with a dough hook: if it is too dry, add a little more warm milk or water. [It seemed fine to me].

5. Keep kneading until you have silky, elastic dough, but bear in mind that the dried fruit will stop this from being exactly satin-smooth. [Baking 911 said you should knead by hand for about 8-10 mins; apparently most people don't knead long enough, but you don't want to overknead either. Aargh.]

6. Form dough into a ball and place in a buttered bowl covered with plastic wrap, and leave to rise overnight in the fridge. Alternatively, you could leave it to rise for 1.5 hrs in a warm-ish place in the kitchen, but I [Nigella] always find it easier to go the overnight route, plus I think it gives a better taste and texture. [I did the 1.5 hr thing, but would use the fridge next time - see mistakes section.]

7. Heat oven to 425F (220C). Take dough out of fridge and let it come to room temperature. Punch the dough down, and knead it again until it is smooth and elastic. [See mistakes section for thoughts on this.]

8. Divide into 16 balls and shape into smooth round buns. No need to worry unduly about their size: just keep halving the dough until it's in 16 pieces. [I somehow ended up with two runty ones.]

9. Sit the buns on a lined baking sheet. Make sure they are quite snug together but not touching. Using the back of an ordinary eating kife, score the tops of the buns to make a cross. Cover with a tea towel, and leave to rise again for about 45 mins - they should have risen and almost joined up. [Baking 911 says that tea towels etc can get stuck to the top of the bread, so she recommends making a little tent by putting glasses at the four corners of the tray and draping plastic wrap over them. Seemed like a good idea, so I did it - see pix section below.]

10. Brush the buns with the egg wash, then mix the flour, sugar, and water into a smooth, thick paste. Using a teaspoon, dribble two lines over the buns in the indent of the cross. Bake in oven for 15-20 mins. [Actually, "smear" might be a better word; I diluted the paste so it was dribble-able, and the crosses came out a bit wishy-washy.]

11. When the hot cross buns come out of the oven, mix the sugar and boiling water together for the glaze, and brush each hot bun to make them sweet and shiny.


Well, they really didn't rise enough on the second go-round. My guess, based on Baking 911, is that the dough rose too much the first time. I clung to the 1.5 hrs in the recipe for the first rise, but apparently (and very sensibly) you should go by what's actually happening in front of you, as there are just so many variables (temperature, weather, what color knickers you're wearing, etc.) that recipes are just a guide. I'd try doing it overnight in the fridge next time, a more controlled environment.

Also, I really think that the kneading part before the second rise in the recipe must be because the dough was coming out of the fridge. Baking 911 says absolutely not to knead before 2nd rise. I actually tried an experiment - kneaded the two runty buns before shaping them, and sure enough, they hardly rose at all.

Also, most of the recipes I've seen since (on foodgawker) use all-purpose flour rather than bread flour - might try this next time.

Next year.


Ohmygod, the yeast! It's working!

Before first rise - so tiny

After about 45 mins - huge! Should have stopped it here, oh well
Set up for 2nd rise - Baking 911's tent idea
Ready for oven
A bun
Another bun
Full disclosure - shot showing the runty ones

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sacrilege! Messing with Mac & Cheese

The 1970s were dark years. Very dark. Americans, this is what English people were doing to your beloved national dish.

This recipe is from Make a Meal of Cheese (1974), a book put out by the "Cheese Information Service." Which I know sounds like something from Monty Python, but that's England for you.

Anyway, it was one of our favorite meals as children. I got the recipe when I was back home and made it last night for Jack. He... loved it! How unpatriotic.

The Recipe: Macaroni Mushroom Toss
(Adapted from Make a Meal of Cheese)

  • 8 oz short pasta of some kind [don't remember my mum ever using the little elbow stuff you use for mac & cheese - last night I used mostaccioli]
  • 8 oz button mushrooms, quartered (or regular mushrooms, sliced)
  • 1 large onion (or 2 small), chopped
  • Olive oil [the original used copious amounts of butter, but times have changed]
  • 1.5 oz butter
  • 1.5 oz all-purpose flour
  • 16 fl oz (1 US pint) milk
  • 0.5 tspn mustard powder (or 1 tspn regular mustard)
  • 8 oz mature Cheddar cheese, grated
  • Salt & pepper

Serves 4-6

1. Preheat oven to 450F.

2. Cook pasta according to directions on box. Drain.

3. Meanwhile, saute onions in a little olive oil until translucent; remove from pan. Saute mushrooms till tender; remove from pan. Combine with cooked pasta.

4. Make cheese sauce (I'm guessing my mum would use her microwave method, see below). Melt butter in saucepan, then incorporate flour and mustard powder, and cook for approx. 3 mins, stirring constantly. Add milk a little at a time and heat, whisking continuously, till thickened. Add three-quarters of the cheese and stir till melted. Season with salt & pepper.

5. Combine cheese sauce with pasta mixture. Place in greased 2 quart baking dish and sprinkle with remaining cheese.

6. Bake for 15 mins, until bubbling and browned.


No screw-ups with the cheese sauce this time, though it's still a bit stressful. I think the secret may lie in making sure both the roux and the sauce itself cook for long enough. (Didn't use the microwave method, as wanted to practice the old-school way.)


Proof, if it were needed, that you can find anything on ebay...

End of step 5

Out of the oven

Technique: Microwave Mornay

Yes, we can hear the sharp intake of breath from the purists, but it turns out that this is how my mum has made her cheese sauces for years. She taught me this as part of making a cheese souffle, but I didn't get any pics, so will have to recreate at home.

Anyway, the technique is as follows:
  1. Put the butter, flour, milk, and seasonings in a microwaveable bowl
  2. Microwave for 30 seconds on high power, remove and whisk the mixture for a minute, making sure to incorporate anything that's sunk to the bottom
  3. Repeat step 2 until the mixture has thickened (about 6 times)
  4. Mix in the cheese and microwave on medium power for 1 minute

Ta-da! It is a bit fiddly what with going in and out of the microwave and all, but the advantage is that you don't have the problem of sauce sticking to the pan and burning, etc. (an all too familiar problem). Definitely worth trying.

Nova Scotian Baked Scallops

First of all, apologies for the long gap. The resolution has been continuing, but the blogging has not. Anyhow, just got back from a trip to the UK for my mum's birthday (she's the same age as the Queen). While I was there we made this recipe, from an old booklet that she and my dad picked up when they were on vacation in Nova Scotia in the 80s.

The Recipe: Nova Scotian Baked Scallops

1 cup fine cracker crumbs
Third tspn salt
Pepper & paprika
4 tbspn melted butter
1 egg
1 tbspn water
1.5 lb scallops

Serves 4.

1. Beat egg & water with fork to mix thoroughly. Add seasonings to crumbs. Dip each scallop in egg, then crumbs. Put in baking dish.

2. Allow coating to set for 30 mins.

3. Pour melted butter over scallops and bake in hot (400F) oven till well browned, about 25 mins.


The scallops ended up cooking for about 5 mins longer than they should have done, because we were chatting and forgot to put the veggies on. And that did make them just the very teeniest bit chewy. But apart from that it was all good.


My mum's dog hoping that crumbs will fall

Not an attractive pic, they look a bit green (they weren't, honest!)