Wednesday, 31 March 2010

My Secret Ingredient

Cakes and muffins are among the things I enjoy baking most. I started out when I was a little girl with ready prepared mixes, moved on to other people’s recipes and then began to invent my own as well. When you have made cakes and muffins for as long as I have, you start to learn tricks and ingredients that make them tasty nearly every time – things that affect not just the flavour, but also the texture and mouth-feel of these treats. And one of the ingredients I have come to value the most is one I never really even liked very much to start with - buttermilk.

Buttermilk was originally the liquid that was left over when cream was churned into butter. However as butter is made on a large commercial scale these days, the buttermilk we buy in the supermarket now is cultured. Basically, lactic acid bacteria is added to skim or non fat milk. It’s perfectly safe because it is pasturized, but I don’t like to think about it too much because no cook wants to hear the word bacteria in their kitchen! However like many things that sound a bit strange, this ingredient actually makes things taste incredibly good.

I first remember buttermilk in my mother’s kitchen. Mom wasn’t really a big baker so I can’t imagine what she used it for, but I know she would drink it ice cold from the fridge. I tasted it once and was horrified. Thicker than ordinary milk, with a tart, almost sour taste, it didn’t impress my childish taste buds one bit. Such was my dislike that when I discovered a muffin recipe not that much later which called for it, I made it a point to substitute ordinary milk. I avoided buttermilk like the plague. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I decided to make that old recipe actually using the real thing.

It was a revelation. The muffins had more body, and thus a more satisfying mouth feel. The sugar in the muffin recipe offset the buttermilk’s tart flavour, and it somehow made them taste even better. I started to use it regularly in muffins. Now people have been using buttermilk in muffins for years, but one day I got to thinking about what the results would be like if I used buttermilk in my cakes. I’d heard about using mayonnaise in chocolate cakes, and although I had never done it myself, I had tasted cakes made with it that were delicious. So much against my better judgement I used buttermilk in a sweet cake recipe – my devil’s food cake recipe in fact. The results were fantastic. Just like in muffins, the buttermilk gave the cake more body and enhanced the flavour. It didn’t make it taste any less sweet, and it was just somehow better.

Since then I’ve been using buttermilk in a lot of my recipes. Not every cake responds well to it; very light white cakes are not enhanced by it at all, and it certainly does not work well in a classic Victoria sponge. However most chocolate cakes, especially those which involve bananas, and also ginger and spice cakes get a real boost from my now not-so-secret ingredient. Not surprisingly, cakes that take a leaf out of the muffin book, like my Carrot, Walnut and Ginger Snack Cake and my Banana Maple Walnut Loaf Cake also benefit from the addition of buttermilk.

So if you like making cakes and muffins, do yourself a favour and consider substituting buttermilk when ordinary milk is called for next time. The results may surprise and - I hope - delight you!

Sunday, 28 March 2010

The 21st Century Housewife’s© French Country Chicken

This delicious recipe is another one that uses vinegar - this time it's the red wine variety. It is an old French recipe that I learned about in my travels and then played around with a bit over the years.  Like many French recipes, it is heavy on the butter and cream, so it is definitely not low-cal or heart healthy and is a dish for special treats, not every day.

Again, don't let the vinegar put you off; you really do have to taste this to believe how yummy it is. And despite the very grown up ingredients, kids absolutely love it. (The majority of the alcohol cooks off, so it really isn’t a problem.) In fact, this is the recipe I make when we have visitors whose kids are really fussy. I have one friend whose son refused to eat much else other than bread and Marmite (a spread here in England) when he was little, but this he would ask for, and he always cleaned his plate. And now he is practically grown up, he still asks for it!

The quantities here are for four, but I have doubled this recipe on many occasions with no problems at all.
4 chicken breasts, free range if possible
Salt and pepper
2 generous tablespoons butter
1 to 2 garlic cloves
¼ cup red wine vinegar
3 large shallots, very finely chopped
1 cup dry white wine (it doesn’t have to be expensive, just delicious)
2 tablespoons tomato puree
1 cup heavy cream (not whipping cream)
1 to 2 tablespoons Dijon Mustard or Wholegrain Dijon Mustard
Melt butter in a frying pan.  Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Cook the chicken for 10 – 15 minutes on each side until nearly done. Grate in the garlic cloves and continue frying.  Turn the heat up to high and add the red wine vinegar.  Boil for a few minutes to let the chicken absorb the flavour of the vinegar.
Remove the chicken from the pan, cover with aluminum foil and place it in a dish in a warm oven. 
Add the shallots to the juices and vinegar remaining in the frying pan and stir until the shallots are nearly translucent.  Add the wine and the tomato puree.  You need to boil this mixture until it reduces by half, stirring all the while.  When it has reduced, lower the heat and stir in the cream.  Add mustard to taste.  Put the chicken back in the pan and turn to coat. 
Serve the chicken with a bit of sauce on top, and pour any remaining sauce in a container to serve at the table. Delicious!


Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The 21st Century Housewife’s© Mediterranean Beef Stew

Last night I needed a meal that would comfort and impress, but that would allow me to be out of the kitchen while it cooked and give me flexibility as to when I served it. For me, that meal is nearly always stew, but if you don’t mix it up a bit, everyone can get very bored indeed with this staple go-to dinner. However I find that by playing with some unexpected ingredients, you can develop some really lovely recipes.

I’ve been to both Spain and Portugal and I love the slow cooked dishes they serve there. So I decided to try to replicate some of the tastes I have enjoyed while travelling in the Mediterranean. Many of their dishes involve one of my favourite ingredients – red wine – and they also use vinegars as the perfect foil to it. Vinegar may sound like a funny ingredient to use in a stew, but its complex flavour really adds body and depth to just about any meat dish. It also seems to make all the other flavours just that little bit more intense and satisfying. For me, one of the vinegars that really stands out in cooking is sherry vinegar.

Sherry vinegar is of course made from sherry. It’s aged in oak barrels for at least six months and even up to ten years in the same way as wines and brandies. As well as adding a lovely kick to stews and slow cooked dishes, it is wonderful in salad dressing and gravies.

Last night’s experimentation in the kitchen was incredibly successful and my recipe got rave reviews around our dinner table. I served it with baked potatoes because I had potatoes on hand, but I think next time I’d serve this dish with some rice to soak up the wonderful gravy. Speaking of which, be sure to use a good red wine (one you would be prepared to drink) for this. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but unless it tastes nice in a glass, it isn’t going to taste nice in the dish.

I hope you enjoy my Mediterranean inspired dinner as much as we did!

The 21st Century Housewife's© Mediterranean Beef Stew

¼ cup (2 tablespoons + 2 tablespoons) olive oil
2 -3 medium onions, peeled, halved and sliced
1 pound chuck or braising steak, cut in cubes (roughly one inch square)
¼ cup flour
3 tbsp sherry or red wine vinegar
1 cup good red wine (I used Shiraz)
1½ cups beef stock (from a cube is fine)
1 or 2 garlic cloves
½ tsp dried oregano
¼ tsp dried thyme
¼ tsp pepper

In a large oven safe casserole dish that is also safe on the stovetop – or in a large frying pan – fry the onions gently over medium heat in 2 tablespoons of the oil. Let them soften up slowly until they get all melty and delicious looking. This will take about fifteen minutes.

Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the onions in the pan. Put the heat up a little bit. Coat the pieces of steak in the flour and add to the pan. Cook, stirring constantly, until the steak begins to brown.

Leaving the heat just above medium, add the sherry vinegar and allow it to bubble around in the pan a bit and absorb into the flour coated meat. Pour in the wine and beef stock and stir.

Finely grate in the garlic cloves (or chop them finely and add to the pan if you prefer) and add the spices.

If you are using an oven safe casserole that is safe on the stovetop, at this point you can just move it into the oven. If you are using a frying pan, transfer the contents to an oven safe casserole at this point.

Cook at 325 to 350℉ or 150 to 170℃ (depending on how fierce your oven is) for 1½ to 2 hours, stirring every half hour or so. The beauty of this kind of recipe is that you can adjust the cooking time to suit your serving time. For example if you need to be doing something else and want to cook the stew for longer – say 2½ to 3 hours - just use a lower heat setting (but don’t go below a safe temperature). Personally I never cook below 140℃ which is 280℉.

Leftovers will keep for a couple days in the fridge, and you can easily freeze this stew once it has cooled completely.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

My Grandma's Special White Cake

My Grandma’s name was Ruby Sybil Wilde, and she was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, which is very close to the Welsh border. Her mother brought her to Canada when she was a little girl where she grew up and eventually met and married my Grandpa. They had two daughters, one of whom was my Mom. Grandpa was the Reeve (Mayor) of the town they lived in for over thirty years, so Grandma used to do lots of entertaining and people always talked about what an amazing cook she was. Sadly I never got to meet her as she died in her early sixties, four years before I was born. (If you want to read a bit more about her slightly mysterious story, you can click here.)

I don’t know why Grandma called this ‘Special’ White Cake but it may have been because it tastes amazing. It’s a lovely light cake that you can eat frosted or unfrosted, and as the original recipe calls for ‘2 teaspoons vanilla or other’ you can flavour it pretty much how you like. Next time I might try using almond flavouring. As Grandma wrote on the recipe card (you can just see it at the bottom of the photo), this is “a good size cake with some body to it”. You could use just about any flavour frosting, from something seriously chocolatey to something light and lemony. I think it would be nice served with fruit too. On this, my first attempt with it, I‘m going to just sprinkle confectioner’s sugar over the top to make it look pretty and to emphasise the vanilla flavour.

I did fiddle about with the method a bit because I was using an electric mixer so I didn’t feel I needed to separate the eggs and add the whites separately as they used to do back in the days before electric mixers were common. I also misread the recipe and added a cup of milk instead of the ½ cup Grandma called for but I didn’t realise until after it was in the oven. It all turned out beautifully anyway. Plus it uses store cupboard ingredients and takes about ten minutes to throw together. I baked this in a 9 inch square pan, but I’m sure you could use the mixture for cupcakes if you preferred - just don’t bake them as long. I can’t wait to experiment with this recipe; it’s got so much potential! Thanks Grandma!

Ruby Sybil Wilde’s “Special” White Cake

½ cup butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla (or another flavouring of your choice)
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk (recipe originally called for ½ cup but 1 cup worked nicely)

Cream the butter and sugar together using an electric mixer. Beat in the eggs. Add the vanilla.

Sift the flour and baking powder together, and add alternately with the milk, beating after each addition.

Bake in a greased and floured (or lined) nine inch square pan at 350℉ or 160 to 170℃. Be careful, the cake tends to brown very quickly and ideally you want it to be fairly pale. Mine took about thirty minutes to cook, but I did lower the heat to 150℃ (about 325℉) for the last five minutes. I would suggest setting the timer for fifteen to twenty minutes and then keeping an eye on it after that, depending on how fierce your oven is.

Frost if you like, or sprinkle with some confectioner’s sugar. As you can see, it does want some sort of adornment as it really isn’t all that pretty, but it smells and tastes so good I’m struggling not to just eat it plain, straight from the tin!

In the end, I served this cake sprinkled with icing sugar with a bit of good vanilla ice cream on the side, and it tasted amazing.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

The 21st Century Housewife's© Italian Style Beef Stew

I had some really nice chuck steak in the freezer and the other night I wanted to use it up, but I felt like eating Italian food so I used some of the flavours I remember from our visits to Italy. It turned out really well and I was very pleased as it is an easy, nutritious and economical midweek meal. It serves three to four hungry adults, and leftovers can be cooled and stored in the fridge for a couple of days, or frozen if you prefer.

I use my large shallow Le Creuset casserole for this recipe. If you have not got a large casserole that will go from stove top to oven, do the first steps in a frying pan and then transfer the browned beef and onions to an oven-safe casserole before adding the remaining ingredients.

2 – 3 tablespoons mild olive, sunflower or Canola oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 cloves garlic (optional)
1 pound of beef chuck, cut in cubes
½ cup flour
2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 cups plain tomato sauce
or 2 small cans of chopped tomatoes
2 cups beef stock
3 to 4 tablespoons basil pesto
1½ to 2 cups uncooked macaroni

In a large casserole that will go from stove top into the oven, gently fry the onion in 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat until it is beginning to soften. Dredge the chunks of beef in the flour and brown them, stirring frequently, along with the onion in the oil. (You may need to add another tablespoon of oil at this point.)

Add the tomato sauce or cans of chopped tomatoes, beef stock and the basil pesto and stir through well. Stir in the carrots. If you are using garlic, grate the cloves into the stew at this point and stir.

Cook in the oven at 350℉ (or 160 to 170℃ for an hour and a half, stirring every half hour.

If the liquid has reduced a lot, boil about a cup or two of water in a kettle and stir it in at this point as you are going to cook the macaroni in the sauce. (Careful not to overfill the casserole as the macaroni will displace the water when it goes in!) Add the macaroni, stir through and return to the oven for another 15 to 20 minutes or until the macaroni is tender.

Serve with hot crusty rolls.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Family Food History and Recipe Project - Auntie's Spice Cake

I'm slowly making my way through all the recipes in my Mom's old recipe box as part of my Family Food History and Recipe project. Last week I came across this one.

You can see the title 'Spice Cake' on the left hand side, and the word 'Aunties' on the right. 'Auntie' was a pet name used for a lady named Margaret Piott Jones by her nieces. Although she married, she never had children of her own, but she had two nieces and five great nieces (and that was just on her side of the family). Actually, she has six great nieces, but I was not born until after she died. I’ve known a lot of folks who knew her, and I have never heard anyone speak of her with anything but the greatest of affection. Her desk, which she left to my Mom, sits in my library upstairs. I use it nearly every day. The vase she gave to my Mom for her twenty-first birthday is on a window ledge in our entry hallway. What I didn't realise is that my Mom's old recipe box also contains some of her recipes.

I never remember my Mom actually making this recipe, but then she rarely made cakes as she was always watching her weight. Having never tasted it before I was a bit concerned as it seemed like there was a lot of spices in it, but actually, it tasted beautiful - kind of like gingerbread, but with a much deeper yet somehow milder flavour. It fits perfectly in a nine inch square tin, and I iced it with buttercream. In fact it was so nice I took it to my in-law’s as a birthday cake for my husband.

The only thing I changed was to replace the sour milk called for with buttermilk because I like how it tastes in cakes and muffins, and I was never really that into the idea of adding a teaspoon of white vinegar to milk thing to make sour milk. However, if you don’t have any buttermilk you can always do that. The method of making this cake is different to the one used most commonly today but I highly recommend it. It gave a beautiful light texture to the cake.

Auntie Margaret’s Spice Cake

½ cup butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar (I packed it lightly)
1 cup buttermilk or sour milk
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon nutmeg (I used freshly ground, but the ground variety is fine)
1 teaspoon vanilla

Beat the butter, sugar and egg yolks together. Mix the milk and soda together and add to the mixture along with the vanilla.

Sift the flour and spices together and add to the mixture.

Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. (I used a whisk for this and it didn’t take all that long but you could use a mixer or food processor.) Fold into the cake mixture.

Pour into a greased and floured (or lined) 9 inch square baking pan. Bake at 350℉ (170℃ but my fan oven runs hot so I put it at 160℃) for about 25 to 30 minutes until a piece of dry spaghetti inserted in the cake comes out with no batter clinging to it. I watched the cake after 20 minutes so it didn’t over cook.

You could definitely serve this without icing, or even just sprinkled with icing sugar, but it was delicious with the buttercream icing. Just mix ¼ softened butter with 2 cups icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar) and add enough milk or cream to make a spreadable icing (usually about 1 to 2 tablespoons). Here’s how it looks ‘naked’ :)

And here's how it looked dressed up with a bit of frosting and some sprinkles.

If you want to frost the cake, cream ¼ cup softened butter with 2 cups of icing sugar (confectioner's sugar). Add 1 teaspoon vanilla and enough cream (usually about 2 to 3 tablespoons) to make a soft, spreadable icing.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

The 21st Century Housewife's© Mocha Cake

I've been working on developing some new cake recipes recently, so when my husband's birthday was not very far off, I asked him what kind of cake he would like if he could have any cake in the world. Well, it turns out his Mum used to make him mocha cake for his birthday and he remembers it very fondly, so I decided to try and develop a recipe of my own. (Yes, it would have been easier to ask his mum for her recipe, but I wanted to develop my own!)

I have not cooked extensively with coffee despite the fact that I love it. My husband is a tea drinker so I've never sought out dessert recipes involving coffee. I love making Devil's Food cake, and I have a recipe of my own for that, so I decided to use it as the jumping off point to make my first mocha cake. I had heard about using espresso powder, but I didn't have any, so I decided to use instant coffee instead. It was quicker than brewing a pot and I figured I could make the flavour more intense that way. So I used a couple teaspoons instant coffee and blended it with one third cup of water. Here's my recipe.

The 21st Century Housewife's© Mocha Cake

½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 ¾ cups white sugar (caster for preference, but granulated will do)
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
3 large eggs, preferably free range
2¼ cups all-purpose (plain) flour
½ cup cocoa powder
1½ teaspoons baking soda
2 generous pinches of salt
1 cup buttermilk (ordinary milk works, but the flavour is not as rich)
⅓ cup strong instant coffee


Preheat the oven to between 160℃ and 170℃ or 325℉ to 350℉ (depending on how fierce your oven is).

Cream the butter until it is light and fluffy. Add the sugar and vanilla and cream together. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt into the butter and egg mixture. Mix the milk with the coffee and stir in.

Divide the mixture evenly between two round cake tins and place in the oven. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes until a piece of raw spaghetti inserted in the centre of each layer comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.

For the icing, I used a basic buttercream recipe of ¼ cup softened butter and 2 cups icing (confectioner's) sugar blended together. I then melted a quarter cup of dark chocolate chips and blended them in. Next I made some very, very strong coffee - about 2 tablespoons of instant coffee in about ⅓ cup of boiling water. I added this a bit at a time, and in the end only used about 2 tablespoons. You may find you have to add a bit more icing sugar to get the consistency right for spreading.

When the cake was cool, I iced it and sprinkled it with some sugar snowflakes to make it look pretty. (I'm not that good at elaborate cake decoration, but sprinkles I can manage!) We ate the cake after dinner with a glass of champagne. It was a huge success. My husband said the cake reminded him of his childhood, and even I (a huge critic of my own work) thought it was absolutely delicious. I was so pleased. I went to bed very, very happy.

....and woke up at 3.58 am utterly and completely wide awake - only to discover my husband was wide awake too. It wasn't long before I heard our son up and padding round the house as well.

It took us ages to get back to sleep - I know I laid awake until just after six am. This was a great pity as my alarm was set for seven. We were all exhausted.

It wasn't till I was standing in the kitchen holding my first cup of (you guessed it) coffee, that my husband said to me, "Just how much coffee did you put in that cake?" When I worked it out, I had probably used the equivalent of about six or seven cups of coffee in it, plus the chocolate has caffeine in it too. Oops.

Therefore, unless you enjoy insomnia, please use decaffeinated instant coffee when you make this cake!

Monday, 8 March 2010

The 21st Century Housewife's© Easy White Wine Sauce

For some reason I had never made my own white wine sauce until a few weeks ago. I don’t know why I was intimidated by the idea of it, but for some reason I thought it must be really complicated. Then I tried out my own version and I can promise you, it’s really not difficult at all.

I started out with the usual butter and flour roux, and then just added stock, white wine and some cream to make it special. Since then I’ve been using this sauce really regularly. It goes beautifully with chicken, pasta and fish - particularly salmon. It’s also good poured over vegetables, and it’s easy to make it vegetarian - just use vegetable instead of chicken stock.

Use good white wine for this sauce - it doesn’t have to be expensive, just tasty. You can use whatever herbs suit the dish. When I made the dinner in the photograph I flavoured the white wine sauce with just a pinch of oregano and garnished it with parsley, but you could use dill, tarragon or just about anything you fancy. Or let the simplicity of the sauce shine through by just leaving it plain. The stock has seasonings in it anyway.

For a really special treat, you can substitute champagne for white wine to make a champagne sauce. It tastes amazing, and as you only need 1/2 cup, there will be plenty left to drink!

This amount of sauce should serve about four to six, or dress four to six servings of meat, fish, vegetables or pasta.

2 generous tablespoons butter
2 generous tablespoons flour
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 cup white wine
about 1/4 cup light (single) cream or half and half

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and allow the mixture (which is called a roux) to cook for about a minute. Gradually whisk in the stock, allowing the sauce to thicken between each addition. Whisk in the white wine.

The sauce should be fairly thick at this point, so gradually add the cream, a bit at a time (you may not need it all or you may need a little more) until you get the sauce to a nice, pourable consistency. If you want to add any herbs or flavourings, now is the time to do so. (I always go carefully, and only add a bit at a time because this sauce tastes so lovely it only needs the barest minimum of enhancement.)

That’s it, the sauce is ready to serve! Pour over fish, chicken, vegetables or stir into pasta and enjoy.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Yorkshire Puddings

It seems like my post about Yorkshire puddings last week was rather timely as it turns out Yorkshire pudding makers in Yorkshire are seeking EU protection for this food in an attempt to boost sales. Check out this article on the BBC news website.

It they get their way, I guess that means I won't be able to make "Yorkshire" puddings anymore as I live a long way south of Yorkshire!

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Beautiful Cakes

I love baking cakes, and I get lots of compliments when I do, but I've never been one to make fancy decorated cakes. This isn't because I don't like them, it's only because I find the whole idea of them very intimidating because I don't consider myself very artistic! One day I'm going to try my hand at decoration, but for the moment I'll content myself with icing and a few carefully placed adornments - like the odd sugar flower or some shiny chocolate discs.

My cousin Esther on the other hand, makes and decorates the most amazing cakes.  When we had our tenth anniversary party nine years ago, Esther made us an anniversary cake that was tastier and even more beautiful than the one we had at our wedding.  One time when we visited for a family dinner there was a beautiful cake spread over the dining room table of her Mom's house, all decorated with gorgeous sugar flowers. The only thing that has stopped her from turning her cake making into a business so far is a lack of time, but she does occasionally make cakes to order for customers in the Sarnia and Bright's Grove, Ontario area. Here are a few of her creations:-

Check out these cupcakes - yummy!

And the pièce de résistance - a 16th birthday cake complete with a hand made iPod Touch!

Esther is really generous with her recipes and shared this recipe for her chocolate and banana cake with me a few years ago. It’s one I make quite regularly as it is keeps so moist and delicious. It even freezes well (without icing).  I tend to freeze slices as opposed to the whole cake as then you can just thaw a slice or two at a the time. 

I have played around with the recipe a bit, as some of the ingredients – like Crisco - are not easily available in England.  No matter what I do though, this cake is always delicious.  Esther recommends you frost it with your favourite chocolate icing which is fabulous, although when I’ve been pressed for time or wanted to freeze some of the cake, I’ve just sprinkled it with icing sugar. It’s very tasty that way too.
Esther’s Amazing Chocolate and Banana Bundt Cake 

1 cup Crisco or softened butter
2 cups granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 ripe bananas, mashed
1/3 cup sour cream
(I have used crème fraîche when unable to find sour cream - and I use the low fat variety as well so I am sure you could use low fat sour cream)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2½ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/3 cup cocoa
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup boiling water
Preheat oven to 160ºC or 350ºF.   Grease and flour a Bundt or tube pan.
In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, cocoa and salt.  Set aside. Cream together the Crisco (or butter) and sugar in a large bowl.  Add eggs, one at a time, and continue creaming.  Add bananas, sour cream and vanilla.  Blend well.  Now add the dry ingredients you set aside earlier and stir until mixed.  Carefully pour the 1 cup boiling water over the entire mixture.  This sounds silly, but it really does work!  Blend the water in.  The batter will be quite loose, but that is okay. 
Pour the batter into the pan and bake for about 40 to 45 minutes until just starting to brown and a cake tester comes out clean.  Allow to cool for 20 minutes in the pan before attempting to remove the cake.  If you are planning to frost the cake, or dust it with icing sugar, be sure to allow it to cool completely first. 

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The Difference Good Service Makes

I have always believed that the quality of service you get in a restaurant affects your enjoyment of the meal more than anything else. Even if the food is only just okay, good service can make or break an evening. I had first hand experience of this the other night in Santana Row, San Jose.

A few evenings before, my husband and I had gone into Maggiano’s restaurant in Olin Avenue just on the off chance of getting a table. They were really busy, but the hostess said that if we waited in the bar for about 45 minutes she could get us a table. We were in no rush and I was very happy to have a cocktail, so pulled up a chair at the bar and settled in for a chat. While we sat there, I noticed plates of food coming out that looked absolutely wonderful. My mouth was watering, especially when I saw a side dish of asparagus that had more of my favourite vegetable on it than I had ever seen in one place before. I was just commenting on it when our pager went off. It was less than half an hour later so our expectations had been managed beautifully.

Everyone was really welcoming as we walked into the restaurant, and our server was with us before we knew it. She was really chatty and informative, and helped us to get to grips with an absolutely huge menu. There were so many choices. She mentioned that “small plates” would actually serve two people, and that we should only order a large if were really, really hungry. As servings are generous in the US anyway, and we had no fridge back at the hotel for a “doggie bag”, we decided to take her advice. So we ordered a small Caesar Salad, a plate of lobster linguini and one of those lovely side orders of asparagus I had seen when I was sitting in the bar.

When it came to the wine list, our server was really well informed, and helped us to choose an excellent wine at the price point we wanted. She did not even attempt to up-sell us, and brought us a really interesting wine with a great story behind it from Seven Daughters Winery. It was a blend of white grapes and my goodness it was delicious – nicer in fact than many other wines I have paid a lot more for.

The Caesar Salad was just right for sharing, and it was beautifully prepared. Our pasta was wonderful, and not only was the “small plate” enough for the two of us, we actually could not even finish that. The side of asparagus was absolutely loaded with beautifully steamed spears that in the end even I - the queen of asparagus lovers – could not finish. Seriously, there were at least three dozen spears of asparagus on that plate. My husband and I were just pleasantly full, and we had brilliant service throughout the meal at just the right speed – not too fast, not too slow.

We really could not manage dessert, and our server did not attempt to push us to have any. Instead she brought us a complimentary plate of beautiful half moon shaped lemon iced cookies – on her! They were light and delicious, and we managed to find room for every single one of them. The whole bill with wine was less than $75 (plus a generous tip) and we had a fantastic evening. In fact, it was so good that my husband, who was in San Jose on business, decided we should bring some of his team to dinner at Maggiano’s when they arrived in San Jose from the UK on the weekend. We booked a table for six people on the Sunday evening.

It was busy when we arrived with the others on Sunday, but no busier than on the night we had come on our own. We didn’t have to wait long for our table, but I was sad to see that our server was not working that night. Never mind, there was a nice chap assigned to us so we were sure all would be well. Unfortunately, he was clearly overwhelmed. He offered no explanation of the menu, leaving our guests a bit bemused when we tried to explain that you really did not need to order one dish each, and that it was better to share. I could see them thinking that perhaps we were trying to be cheap.

We ordered the wine straight away, choosing the one we had the first night we visited. I kid you not, it took nearly thirty minutes for the wine and soft drinks to arrive and the server still had not taken our order. We had to ask for the drinks twice. No one wants to feel rushed, but this was ridiculous. When the server finally came to take our order, he further reinforced the idea we might be trying to be a bit cheap by doing nothing to indicate he agreed with what we were saying about the serving sizes, encouraging us to order quite a lot. It was embarrassing because we knew there would be far too much food, and yet we did not want to appear to be inhospitable to our guests. We had three starter dishes between six people, all of which were very good, but by the time we had finished we were all getting pretty full. The three main courses – large plates this time – we ordered were more than enough food for seven or eight people. They were all well prepared, especially our by now favouite lobster linguini and a dish of steak medallions with garlic mashed potatoes. Sadly the delicious Shrimp and Angel Hair al’ Arrabbiata was barely touched as no one had any room for it. The service was mind-bendingly slow throughout and we were in the restaurant for almost three hours – this on a night when most of party were severely jet lagged and just wanted a nice meal before retiring. It was like pulling teeth trying to get a second bottle of wine as well.

We were so disappointed, and the other members of our party were at a loss as to how we could have raved about our previous experience. Needless to say our bill was expensive, particularly as we left a huge amount of food on the table.

And this is where it all falls down. Our four guests will never return to Maggiano’s again. Although the food was very good, the service was so poor it has put them off completely. It has certainly made us think twice about going back again or recommending it. Although we hardly live locally, we and many of our contemporaries visit the area regularly. The company my husband works for has a base in that area with a huge number of employees – and word travels fast about good or bad places to eat. It’s a bit like the old shampoo commercial – “and she told two friends, and so on and so on”. It’s not like they are going to go bankrupt over it or anything, but they will lose potential business. As for us, we’d probably give Maggiano’s one more try based on our first experience and the quality of the food. But there’s only two of us, and I’d hesitate to recommend the restaurant based on our second experience.

So often there is not enough importance put on the fact that good service can make or break a restaurant. It’s not just about the tip a server gets (or doesn’t get) that night, it’s about whether people tell their friends good things about a restaurant and whether they come back. It’s also about what people say and write. If I had only gone to this branch of Maggiano’s in Santana Row the once it would have made it on to my Recommended Restaurants page no problem. As it is, I really cannot put it there, and it is completely the fault of the server on the second night.

Waiting staff are a huge part of a restaurant's lifeblood. They need to be trained and nurtured, and their performance needs to be monitored if a restaurant wants repeat clientele. Leave things to chance and a restaurant won’t just lose the people who dine there on a particular night, they'll lose future business as well. It’s a timely lesson in these days of a wobbly economy, and one restaurants will ignore at their peril.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Yorkshire Puddings

There is something so wonderful about having everyone home again after having spent two weeks in various different parts of the world. First our son was in Spain while we were in California, then he returned to England a few days before I did, at which point my husband was still several thousand miles away while our son and I were at home. Yesterday however, we were all n in one place once again and my sense of contentment was so great that I was inspired to cook a traditional Sunday dinner - roast beef and all the trimmings - including (and especially!) Yorkshire pudding.

Whether or not Yorkshire pudding was actually invented in Yorkshire is a matter of debate (except amongst those who live in Yorkshire) as the original version was actually called "dripping pudding" and first appeared in a cookbook back in the mid 1700's. Dripping of course referred to the meat drippings the pudding was cooked in - and those first puddings were plate-size, not the small individual Yorkshire puddings more commonly served today.

People seem to fall into two camps; those who feel they can make Yorkshire puddings and those who feel they cannot. Certainly these fluffy accompaniments are temperamental souls, rising and falling seemingly at a whim. I have to confess that if I am cooking for large groups I almost always buy ready-made Yorkshire puddings to avoid the unbearable suspense as to whether they are going to turn out as I want them to or not. The embarrassment of deflated puddings is just too much for me. I'd rather have the shame of hiding the wrappings from the ready made ones!

My Mom made amazing Yorkshire puddings, the kind that stayed puffed up even after they had cooled. In fact, it was a favourite shared treat of my Dad and I to enjoy the cold puddings for dessert the next day with a spoonful of strawberry jam tucked inside them. Sometimes my Yorkshire puddings stay puffed up like that, sometimes they don't. However there are rarely any left over to enjoy the next day - like any treat, they have a habit of disappearing.

Of course people still make plate size Yorkshire puddings and when I enjoyed one filled with sausages, potatoes and onion gravy one evening in the Midlands I understood why. I've never attempted that sort, although the recipe is virtually the same. Mine are always made in large American style muffin tins. I also use olive oil instead of dripping or fat from the roast. It means that my Yorkshires are suitable for everyone, even if they don't eat meat, and I feel it gives them a lighter flavour. (I've never been a fan of using beef drippings for gravy or for cooking. It's a controversial stance in some cases, but one I have always stuck to!)

So this is my recipe for Yorkshire puddings which (almost) always rise to fluffy gorgeousness. There are two key things to note about making Yorkshire puddings. The first is that you want the oven as hot as possible. I always cook them after I have removed the meat from the oven to rest and then I put the heat up to about 225℃ or 450℉. The second thing is, once you put them in the oven, don't open the door no matter what. You can see if they are done when they are risen and brown. Open the door at your peril, for they will almost certainly collapse. I speak from bitter experience here! Also, although they are pretty good at staying risen and puffy, I leave nothing to chance and serve them immediately after I take them out of the oven. (I often plate the food up while they are cooking.) Oh and one more thing - I'm never one to add an extra step to a recipe unless I feel it is utterly necessary, but please do sift the flour. The results are so much better when you do. And don't leave out the secret ingredient - it gives the Yorkshire puddings a lovely texture.

And now I will stop being bossy and share my very simple recipe for The 21st Century Housewife's Yorkshire Puddings!

1 -1/2 cups milk
4 eggs
pinch salt
2 cups plain flour, sifted
scant 1/4 teaspoon baking powder (my now not-so-secret ingredient!)

Put about a half teaspoon of olive oil in each of the muffin cups of a 12 cup muffin tin (the large American style muffin size). Put the pan in a very hot oven.

Beat the eggs and milk together until light and fluffy. Sift in the flour, salt and baking powder.

Carefully remove the pan from the oven and pour the batter into each muffin cup until about three-quarters full. Put the pan back in the oven, and shut the door carefully. Cook for about 15 minutes until risen and golden. They should look something like this:-

Serve immediately.