Monday, 30 June 2008

'Le Weekend'

Our friends Lesley and Dudley came to visit us on Saturday night with two of their children - Elliot, Guy's Godson and Tilly - our God-daughter. They had been to Lego Land for Tilly's birthday. So I needed a kid friendly birthday dinner, but also something comforting and a little bit elegant for the grown ups. I did not want to be fussing in the kitchen either as I wanted maximum visiting time.

After much thought, I decided to bake some potatoes, sausages (really good quality Waitrose ones) and chicken breasts (marinated in a bit of oil, lemon juice and balsamic vinegar) and serve them along with some steamed broccoli and carrots. In order to jazz things up a bit for the grown ups I decided to try a version of the Mustard and Tarragon sauce I made a few days ago, but one that I could make in a saucepan. So I melted the butter in the saucepan, then stirred in some single cream and a mustard and cooked it together, stirring constantly. I threw in some chives at the end instead of using the shallots hoping to keeping it a bit milder in flavour. It was a tremendous success and even the kids were scraping it up off their plates. The whole sauce pot went, and ironically it was even more popular with the sausages than with the chicken, which was a possibility that had never crossed my mind.

The birthday cake was my Devil's Food Cake (recipe follows) topped with my favourite Betty Crocker Vanilla Frosting. I have to say, I have never enjoyed making my own icing - I often end up in the "add more icing sugar...oh no its too thick...add more milk...oh no it's too thin..." vortex of doom. I do make scratch frosting, but certainly not all the time. I decorated the cake with chocolate buttons and smarties and Tilly's face just lit up when she saw it. It's may favourite trick when decorating a cake for children, just to cover it in sweets and candies. In my experience, they love it.

We had a really lovely visit with our friends, who stayed overnight. After a breakfast of fresh fruit and French pastries on Sunday morning, they made their way back home.

Sunday evening we decided to have baked chicken again, but this time I used another one of my favourite sauces, one that I have already featured on my website . In a saucepan I mix together a half pint of chicken stock and four tablespoons of marmalade (thin cut). I heat it all together and bring it to the boil., then lower the heat and cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly. I usually add some fresh thyme at this point, but as I had no thyme in the fridge I used tarragon instead. It was a very successful substitution! You can serve this sauce poured over the chicken, or in a sauce boat for people to pour over the chicken for themselves. It's a delicious sauce, and I often find people put it on their potatoes as well!

For dessert, we had leftover cake - what else?!

The 21st Century Housewife's Devil's Food Cake

2¼ cups plain flour (all purpose in North America)
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I use Cadbury’s)
1½ teaspoons bicarbonate of soda (baking soda in North America)
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1¾ cups granulated (white) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 large eggs
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons cold water

Grease and flour two 8 inch round cake tins.

Sift together the flour, cocoa, bicarbonate of soda and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl (I use an electric mixer for this but you can mix by hand), beat the shortening until light and fluffy. Add sugar and vanilla and beat until creamy. Add eggs one at a time. Beat well after you add each egg. Add the dry mixture alternately with the water, beating lightly after each addition.

Pour the batter into the cake pans.

Bake at about 150 C (fan oven) or 160 C (conventional oven) or 350 F in North American ovens for about 25 - 30 minutes until a piece of spaghetti inserted into the layers comes out with no batter clinging to it. Watch carefully the first time you bake them and adjust time and temperature according to your oven.

When they are cooked remove from the oven and cool on wire racks. When they are completely cool, ice and stack the layers on top of each other. Then ice the sides. Unless you are a complete chocoholic, I really do recommend a vanilla icing for this cake. These little cakes are really rich all by themselves, and chocolate icing has always been a step too far for me! You can also make cupcakes with this recipe, which makes about 24 large ones. Bake them for about 15 to 20 minutes. I often decorate the iced cake or cupcakes with sweets or chocolate. Maltesers make great decorations, as do Smarties or M&Ms. Or you can sprinkle hundreds and thousands over top. Use your imagination and have fun!

A delicious variation is to mix about 1 cup of chocolate chips – dark, milk or white or a combination of all three – into the batter just before you bake it. Yum! If I do this, I generally sprinkle some of the chocolate chips on top of the icing.

Cupcakes will freeze before icing. They will keep well for about a month in the freezer. They taste delicious even without icing, so they are great to tuck into a lunchbox frozen and they will help to keep other foods cold, whilst defrosting in time for lunch!

Friday, 27 June 2008

Quick and Easy for Two

My wonderful husband Guy was away last night in Ireland on business so it was just our son Alex and I for dinner. I decided to make one of our favourite easy comfort food dinners - Fish Finger Wraps. These are such an easy thing to make and yet so delicious and filling that you really don't need anything at all to go with them - except perhaps a bit of coleslaw on the side if you fancy it.

Fish Finger Wraps invite creativity and everyone seems to have their own favourite relishes to go with them. Alex insists ketchup is the way to go, and I like tartar sauce. We both agree you need some fresh, crisp lettuce to top the whole thing off though. The recipe couldn't be easier and I urge you to lose all prejudice against the much maligned fish finger and try it as soon as you possibly can!

Fish Finger Wraps
Serves 2 (2 wraps each)
4 high quality fish fingers - I recommend Waitrose Chunky Cod Fish Fingers
2 tortilla wraps
two good handfuls of chopped lettuce
ketchup, tartare sauce or a relish of your choice, to taste

Cook the fish fingers as directed on the package.

When they are cooked, heat the wraps briefly in the microwave (just for about 10 seconds). Do them one at a time or they will stick together. Lay the wraps on a board and spread the relish of your choice over it. Now pop a fish finger on the one side of the wrap. Sprinkle with lettuce and roll into a sausage shape. Repeat with remaining fish fingers and wraps.
That's it - instant comfort food. A yummy filling dinner with almost no effort at all!

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Brilliant Banana Muffins

Yesterday afternoon, I found two leftover bananas that were just ready to bake sitting in the fruit bowl in all their brown spotted squidgy glory, so I decided that I'd make good use of them. I developed this recipe years ago and it is one I come back to time and time again. You can use anything from two to three medium bananas for it. Two bananas makes for firmer muffins, three makes for squidgier ones - squidgier being a technical term, of course! Both are delicious, so just go with what you have.

These muffins are great for breakfast, lunch boxes, tea time or an anytime snack. You can freeze them as well. Either just pop them into a lunch box frozen and and let them thaw at room temperature (while also helping to keep other things in the lunch box cold) or thaw and then microwave for twenty seconds on half power just to warm them up a bit. Of course, they are most delicious when they are fresh. Alex and Guy like them straight out of the oven, but I find them too crumbly and squishy at that stage. I prefer mine just off warm with a nice cup of coffee!
Banana and Sultana Muffins

Makes 12 - 15

1/2 cup good unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
2 cups plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
about 2 to 3 medium bananas, mashed
1/2 cup creme fraiche
1 cup sultanas or raisins
Demerera sugar for sprinkling

You'll need about 12 - 15 large muffin cups for this recipe. I always line them with paper liners as I am far too impatient to butter and flour them, and anyway, I find no matter what you do, muffins stick if you don't use paper liners. I don't mean to be bossy, but I suggest you do this first as it makes it easier in the long run. Putting liners in muffin cups with sticky fingers is not fun!
Preheat the oven to about 170C or 350F. Remember ovens are very temperamental and they are all different so you need to go carefully when baking. Err on the side of lower temperature, less time. You can always cook something more - but you can't save it once it's burnt!

Cream the butter and sugars together. You can use an electric mixer for this if you want, or be brave and do it by hand! Add the vanilla and then the eggs. one at a time, stirring well after each addition.

If you have been using an electric mixer, it's time to switch to the good old fashioned method of using a wooden spoon. Add the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt and mixed spice to the creamed butter mixture. Stir the flour, leavening and spice in really gently, just to mix. Do not beat or your muffins will have tunnels! Now, gently fold in the bananas and the sultanas or raisins.
Put the mixture into the muffin cups. I use an ice cream scoop for this and it makes it so much easier. If you don't have an ice creams scoop I do recommend getting one, but in the meantime, you can use two dessert spoons, one to scoop the muffin mixture out of the bowl and the other to push it off the spoon into the muffin cup. Sprinkle the tops of the muffins with a bit of demerera sugar, just to give them a lovely crunchy topping.

Put the muffin pans in the oven and bake the muffins for about 15 minutes. Check them at this point by taking a piece of spaghetti and poking it into the centre of one of the muffins. If it comes out clean, they are done. If not, they need to go back in the oven. Go gently at this point, adding another five minutes at a time until the spaghetti is coming out clean and the muffin tops are starting to go a golden colour. Don't be afraid to play with the oven temperature if it is too hot/cold. Once you've made the recipe in your oven once, you'll have a better idea of how hot the oven needs to be and how long you need to cook them for.

When the muffins are cooked, remove the pans from the oven and allow them to cool in the pans for about five minutes. When they are cool enough to touch, remove them from the pans and allow to cool on wire racks. Once cool, store them in an airtight container. If you know you will have too many and need to freeze some, now is the ideal time to do so as they are super fresh. They will keep at room temperature for about two days.

But they are at their best on the first day, just off warm with a nice hot drink. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Dinner with Friends

I have a super house for entertaining. My kitchen is really big, and there is a comfy sofa as well as a table and chairs so you can settle in and chat with me while I'm cooking. That's where you would have found me last night, with Guy, Alex and our super friends Mike and Jayne. Everyone was sipping Kir Royale and eating salted mixed nuts (a huge weakness of mine!) while I cooked dinner.

Kir Royale is one of my favourite apertifs. You just put a small amount of Creme de Cassis in the bottom of a champagne flute and top up with champagne. It's about a four to one (ie. four parts champagne to one part Cassis) mixture. It's also a great apertif if you are on a budget, because although the Creme de Cassis can be a bit expensive, it goes a long way, and you don't actually have to use champagne. You can use a good sparkling wine like Prosecco or something similar. You need to choose a dry sparkling wine though as the Cassis is quite sweet. I use champagne almost all the time though as it does taste the best. Last night we had a lovely bottle by Canard Duchene.

As it is the time of year when produce and fresh herbs are abundant, I have been thinking a lot about tarragon recently. So I decided to make a new recipe for a sauce using cream, wine, mustard and tarragon. I really did make it up as I went along, but it turned out very well indeed. The recipe is at the bottom of this blog entry. I cooked chicken breasts in the sauce, and served it all with lovely little red skinned salad potatoes tossed in butter and mint, along with broccoli and carrots. We had a choice of Torres Vina Sol for the white wine drinkers and Louis Jadot Bourgogne Pinot Noir for those who preferred red. Actually, I had the Pinot Noir with my cheese later on in the meal instead of Port. I'm not a huge Port fan as I find it very sweet.

I decided to keep dessert nice and easy so I turned once again to Nigella Lawson. I found a recipe for Orange Scented Brioche Pudding in her book "Feast". The recipe is very similar to her Ginger-Jam Bread and Butter Pudding in "Nigella Bites" which I have made to great acclaim in the past. Hell, I don't even like bread and butter pudding and I like it! So I decided the Brioche Pudding was a very good idea indeed. I'm glad I did. It was so easy to make and absolutely delicious. If you have not got the books mentioned above in your cookbook library yet, you really must go and buy them. Frankly, any of Nigella Lawson's books are brilliant. They are an entertaining read in addition to being a source of wonderful recipes, many of which are very easy to make.

As I often do, I served cheese and Warre's Otima Port to follow the dessert. I made up a cheese plate with Brie, Cashel Blue, Le Roule and Appenzeller. I had not tried Appenzeller before, and I have to say it tasted nicer cold than as it came to room temperature. Of course, it is usually recommended you serve cheese close to room temperature, but I really did find with Appenzeller that this did nothing for it!

It was a fabulous evening, with lots of fun and laughter. I hope you have as much fun when you cook the recipe below for your dinner with friends!

The 21st Century Housewife's Mustard and Tarragon Chicken
Serves 4

4 chicken breasts
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons + 2 tablespoons butter
3 shallots, finely chopped
125 ml good white wine (preferably the one you are serving with dinner - I used Vina Sol)
juice of one lemon
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves, washed and chopped with scissors
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
350 ml double cream (you may not need it all)

Melt the first two tablespoons of butter over medium heat in a frying pan with a lid. Add the shallots and cook, stirring constantly until they just begin to turn golden in colour. Now add the next two tablespoons of butter and the chicken breasts. Grind some salt and pepper over the chicken as it cooks. Add the wine and cover the pan with the lid. Turn the chicken after about three to five minutes and then cook for another three to five minutes on the second side. Turn them again if they are still not done. You want the chicken breasts to be cooked through, with no pink inside. I always use a removable meat thermometer to be absolutely sure they are cooked.

Once the chicken is cooked, remove it from the pan and place it in a casserole dish tightly covered in foil. Set aside.

Turn the heat down a bit and add about 250 ml of cream to the buttery shallots still in the pan. Stir together. Now add the lemon juice, mustard and tarragon. Stir the sauce until heated through. If it appears too thick or you simply want more sauce, add the rest of the cream. Taste the sauce to be sure it is flavourful and add salt and pepper if necessary. If you want to add a bit more mustard, lemon or tarragon to taste, do feel free!

Return the chicken breasts to the pan and turn to coat in the sauce. Serve each one with a bit of sauce spooned over. Any remaining sauce can be served in a gravy boat so people can add more at the table if they like.