Sunday, 8 December 2013

Utter piefection...

The thing about marriage is that you get constant surprises along the way. And sometimes the change in pace at times like Christmas can bring these surprises to the fore.
Sometimes these are random in a positive way, such as when Mr P sent me a URL with photos of "The best Christmas nail art". Bizaare and unexpected, but cool nonetheless.
However, sometimes marriage can give you a hideous insight into the darkest parts of another person's soul. And this is what just happened on our pre-Christmas food shopping trip.
Now I don't mean to over-dramatise, but it left me shaken. And stirred.
The cause of my distress?
Mr P put a packet of mince pies in our trolley. A packet. Of pre-made mince pies. Supermarket ones. Very much not cool.
So, after vetoing the purchase, I came up with this bit of supporting evidence for why shop-bought mince pies are just not cricket.
1. Pre-made ones are invariably over-pastried and dull.
2. Home-made ones are actually really simple to make.
3. If you think it's too much effort, you can cheat with shop-bought mincemeat.
4. Or even shop-bought pastry, if you must.
5. But you can add your own special touches - brandy, rum, or a super-scrumptious marzipan top.

That's my top tip. Even committed marzipan-haters go wild for these mince pies - the baked marzipan turns almost caramel-ish. Utter piefection!
Marzipan-topped mince pies


For the pastry:
225g plain flour
pinch salt
25g caster sugar
100g margarine, butter, or a mixture of both
cold water to mix (about 2tblsp)

A jar of good quality mincemeat (unless you want to make it yourself)
A glug of brandy, mixed into the mincemeat
OR a couple of knobs of brandy butter
100g marzipan

1. Rub the fat into the flour, until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

2. Stir in the sugar.

3. Using a knife, mix with sufficient cold water to make a stiff dough.

4. Knead lightly on a floured surface, and roll out.

5. Use a frilled cutter to make the bases of your pies - you can put these directly into a muffin tray with no need to grease or line.

6. Put a generous teaspoon-full of mincemeat into each case, leaving a little room for it to expand when cooking. You can add a little blob of brandy butter on top of the mincemeat for a special treat (though probably not if you added brandy to the mincemeat!)

7. Knead the marzipan and roll out onto a surface lightly dusted with icing sugar. Use a cutter to create lids for your mince pies - I like to use a star-shaped cutter to differentiate them from standard pastry tops. Stick them to your cases with a little milk, then brush the tops with either milk or an egg wash.

8. Bake for 15-30 minutes at 190 degrees Celcius, taking care not to let the marzipan tops burn.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Pasta frittata

My little family is right slap bang in the middle of moving house at the moment. We hadn't planned to move right now, with the hungry caterpillar so small, but sometimes life just gives you a shove and you have to go with it. Luckily we have amazing friends who have come through with muscles and enthusiasm each and every time we've had to move, with little in return apart from cps of tea and the odd free dinner.

Anyway, after all the hoo-hah, proper cooking just seems way down on the list of priorities, especially when all the sensible cooking equipment is still boxed up. So here's  a nice easy solution - pasta frittata.

This one might sound weird, but you'll just have to trust me on it. It's a dish I've been served numerous times in Russia and it's one I used to rely heavily on for carb-heavy hangover days (in pre-hungry caterpillar days when I still went out and drank wine!) Nowadays it makes a great simple supper, when you need something that requires neither time, though, skill nor patience. It works well in the summer with a nice peppery salad and juicy tomatoes, or in the winter with steamed broccoli and green beans.
Pasta frittata
(Serves 4)
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cups pasta shells, cooked al dente
5 free range eggs, beaten
pinch of salt
copious amounts of ground black pepper
2cm x 2cm x 6cm block red cheddar, grated
1. Fry the onion in the oil over a medium heat until softened and translucent.

2. Add a pinch of salt to the beaten egg, then throw the egg into the pan, making sure it completely surrounds the pasta and onions.

3. Reduce the heat in the pan to slowly cook the egg through.

4. When the frittata is mostly cooked, but still wet on top (after about 5-10 minutes), scatter the grated cheese on top and finish with a liberal sprinkling of black pepper.

5. Pop under a medium grill for about 3 minutes until the omelette has finished cooking and the cheese has melted.

6. Whack on a bit more black pepper and serve hot or cold.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Friendly Vegetables

A long time ago, my lovely friend A introduced me to the simplest little curry imaginable... a curry with no name. It's nice and simple, easy to make, and ready in a little over half and hour.

It was also one of the few things I could stomach through my horrific morning sickness (a curry, right - weird or what?) It's wholesome and healthy and supremely comforting - hence the name I've given it.
Sadly, since she moved away from Manchester, I don't get to see A half as much as I'd like. But every time I make this, I think of her and it makes me smile.
Friendly vegetables
(serves 4)
1 tblsp vegetable oil
1 onion, finely chopped
3-4 fist-sized potatoes, chopped into 1cm cubes
1/2 tsp yellow mustard seeds
1/2 tsp fenugreek
1 good-sized cauliflower, broken into smallest-sized florets
1 tblsp tomato puree
2 tsp turmeric
handful of frozen okra (optional)
1. In a large wok with a lid, fry the mustard seeds and fenugreek in the oil over a medium heat with the lid on. When the seeds start popping, add in the onion and fry for a couple of minutes until slightly softened.
2. Add the potato and cauliflower, and fry for a couple of minutes with the lid off, stirring frequently. If the mixture starts to stick, add a splash of water.
3. Add the tomato puree and turmeric and continue cooking for another couple of minutes.
4. Add a tablespoon of water, stir well, then turn the heat right down and replace the lid on the pan. Allow the vegetables to steam in the pan for about 15-20 minutes, until tender. If the mixture starts to stick, add a little more water, but the final curry should be fairly dry with a very thick sauce, rather than a runny one.
5. If using okra, add to the vegetables about 5 minutes from the end of the cooking time.
6. Serve piping hot, and think of your best friends. 

Monday, 30 September 2013

Rhubarb and Orange Cake

This month I got the opportunity to think outside the 'birthday box', since I wanted to make a cake for my friend Messner's birthday, and he ain't a sugarpaste kinda guy. It was also a rather big birthday, and since I spend so much of my time making up recipes as I go along, I thought I'd make a special effort to actually follow a real recipe. And had it not been for a minor shortage of ground almonds in my cupboard, I'd have managed it.

He's a big fan of rhubarb (who isn't?!) so that seemed an obvious place to start, and I found a great-sounding recipe in my BBC Good Food 101 Cakes and Bakes book.

It's a little involved, but the end result is magnificent, and you should really give it a go!

Here's the original BBC Good Food recipe (together with my very minor necessary amendment).

Rhubarb and Orange Cake

350g/12oz prepared rhubarb, cut into 4cm lengths
200g/8oz golden caster sugar
finely grated zest and juice of half an orange
140g/5oz butter, softened
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 tsp baking powder
85g/3oz self raising flour
100g/4oz ground almonds
(I only had 75g/3oz ground almonds and it turned out fine!)

For the topping
25g/1oz butter, melted
25g/1oz light muscovado sugar
finely grated zest of half an orange
50g/2oz slivered almonds
icing sugar, for dusting (I totally forgot to do this)

1. Mix the rhubarb with 50g/2oz of the caster sugar and the orange zest. Leave for one hour, stirring a couple of times.

2. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celcius/gas mark 5/. Butter and line the base of a deep 9inch round cake tin. Cream thebutter and remaining caster sugar. Add the eggs, baking powder, flour and ground almonds. Beat gently, but don't overmix.

3. Stir in the orange, juice, spoon into the tin and level. Drain the rhubarb and spoon over the top. Bake for 25 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, combine the butter, sugar, zest and almonds.

5. Reduce the oven to 180 degrees Celcius/gas mark 4. Sprinkle the topping over the cake and return to the oven for 15-20 minutes or until firm.

6. Cool in the tin, then transfer to a wire rack.

7. Dust with icing sugar (or don't!), and serve warm with whipped cream, or just on its own with a cup of tea. Yum!

Friday, 20 September 2013

Simplicity defined - customisable cupcakes

I love a good cupcake. It's amazing when you have a tiny package of sugary perfection with unexpected treats hidden inside and lashings of frosting on the outside. It puts me in mind of a sucrose-loaded wonderland where all your diabetic dreams can come true.
But I also love an easy ride, and sometimes there's just not time to faff around with complicated recipes. At these times, I return to a trusted favourite - standard cupcakes 'like Granny used to make'. This was back in the days of pounds and ounces, which makes the recipe super easy to remember. In ounces, it's
The same of everything, and half as many eggs.
This simple mantra is a revelatory truth in the kitchen.
e.g. 2oz each of Sugar, butter and self raising flour, plus one egg.
It's easy to multiply up, and it's also very easy to customise. So here are some ideas and examples...

Classic cupcakes
2oz (55g) unsalted butter
2oz (55g) sugar
2oz (55g) self raising flour
1 free range egg, beaten
1. Cream together butter and sugar.
2. Stir in the egg.
3. Fold in the flour.
4. Divide the mixture between 9 cupcake cases and bake for 20 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius/gas mark 4.
Customise those bad boys!
You want a classic chocolate cupcake? Remove a dessert spoon of the flour, and replace with two dessert spoons of cocoa powder.
You prefer a bit of chocolate fudge? Replace the caster sugar with muscovado sugar. And while you're at it, why not cut up some small chocolates, and plonk a lump of each into the centre of each cake!
Vanilla's more up your street? Well, be my guest and add a teaspoon of vanilla extract to your batter! Hell, if you're fancy, you can even scrape the seeds our of a vanilla pod instead and add those.
Want something delicate and fluffy - go for golden caster sugar instead of the standard stuff!
Fancy a bit of fruit? Stir a spoonful of berries or jam through your batter before spooning it into the cupcake cases! Or stir in half the juice and the grated zest of an orange, lemon or lime (save the rest of the juice to make up a simple icing with icing sugar).
Get decorating
Batman cupcakes
Go for a simple icing of icing sugar and water, or icing sugar with fruit juice (and colouring for a bit of a change). Whilst it's wet, you can add whatever jellies or sprinkles you fancy.
Add a thin layer of melted chocolate - super simple! And why not chuck on some mini eggs for giggles?! Another variant of this is to melt Mars bars in a bain-marie, and spread the resulting fudgey gloop over the top of your cupcakes. Yum.
Load it up with a fancy ganache or a simple buttercream (see here) or if you're feeling lazy, you could always try a shop-bought frosting - though I have to admit when I tried Betty Crocker's chocolate fudge, I was pretty darn disappointed. You can use custom-made (non-edible) decorations for super-speedy decorating.
Get creative with sugarpaste - the key to effective sugarpaste tops is to simplify ideas to their component parts and that way you'll have really eye-catching designs. I made some chocolate fudge cupcakes for a friend's recent Batman-themed birthday party, and based the tops on the motifs and costumes of some of the characters from the comics.

Batman cupcake
Robin cupcake
Joker cupcake

Harvey Dent/Twoface cupcake

Poison Ivy cupcake
Harley Quinn cupcake


Thursday, 29 August 2013

Hey, remember me?

Ladies and gents, please accept my most humble apologies. I know I have neglected you lot awfully in recent months. I could wax lyrical with the sincerest sorries you could imagine...
...or I could just shift the blame.
Onto this little snookie pookum.

Yeah, I think I'll do that. I'll blame her.
Just after my last post I was taken into hospital with some pregnancy complications, making blogging on of my lesser priorities. Anyhoo, long story short - a couple of weeks later, I emerged from the hospital, chrysalis-like, with my very own healthy hungry little caterpillar in tow.
And what wonder should await me, but this amazing 'congratulations cake' made by my usual cakey partner-in-crime the wonderful Mel. Pretty damn good, huh?

The period since then has been something of a milky blur of poo, posseting, and an awful lot of baby giggles. But I'm going to endeavour to do better. Although I warn you that my posts are going to be a bit different from now on, relying, as they do, on a hell of a lot of one-handed chopping-whilst-balancing-a-baby-on-one-hip and other similar feats of multitasking motherhood. But bear with me and you might just enjoy the ride.
And just to whet your collective appetites, I'll leave you with a picture of the fist sugarpaste creation I have made since the little caterpillar's arrival - a flower-power wedding cake for a low-key 70s wedding.
Hope you like it! And let's not leave it too long next time, eh?

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Welsh Laverbread Cakes

This New Year, Mr P and I spent a lovely few days with our friends Beth and Pete on Anglesey. the trip was memorable for many reasons, not least the following conversation:
Pete: Ooh, I'm going to cook this egg in the log burner.
Me: I'm pretty sure it'll explode.
Pete: Don't be daft, it'll be amazing.
Me: Hmm.
A couple of minutes later...
Me: I really think you should get it out before it explodes.
Pete: It's going to be perfectly cooked, and then you'll be laughing on the other side of your [BANG].
Sometime life grants us comic timing that would just look implausible in a sitcom. As you can imagine, I was laughing on both sides of my face after that little incident. Hysterically. For a long time.
But I digress.... why am I telling you a story about a trip we took almost 4 months ago?
Because it was on that trip that I decided to buy a tin of laverbread, a traditional Welsh delicacy that I'd neither eaten, nor used, before. And I only just got round to trying it out. So after checking out various recipes for laverbread cakes, I came up with this one. It's got a higher proportion of oats to laverbread than you often see, mainly because when I opened the laverbread it absolutely stank (and not in a good, brie-esque way). Although I don't know what authentic laverbread cakes are supposed to taste like, these actually turned out to be not half bad.
Welsh Laverbread Cakes
Makes 4
120g laverbread
45g jumbo oats
1 tblsp sunflower oil
1. Mix together the laverbread and oats.
2. Form into four 'cakes', and fry in the oil in a frying pan on a low-medium heat until the oats are crisp and the laverbread is cooked through (flip half way through the cooking time).
These are traditionally served with bacon, I believe, but wold be lovely with a nice poached egg on top!

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Chocolate and Ginger vegan cupcakes

Call us stingy if you like, but due to our grand plan of trying to save for a house deposit one day before we are both old and grey, Mr P and I try to stick to a budget of £50 per week for our food and other household shopping. I'm constantly amazed by how well we live on this, even though the inspirational Michelle Rice at Utterly Scrummy Food for Families has totally blown our efforts out of the water this week, with her £50 family meal plan - epic!
Anyhoo, occasionally if we have extra expenses like bus/train tickets etc, we end up 'borrowing' from a futue week, and then trying to claw ourselves back by living on whatever we have in our store cupboard. And this often leads to a great tendency to experiment, and also to some interesting foodstuffs making an appearance on our table.
This week, when I fancied a naughty little sweet treat but we were out of eggs, the obvious answer was vegan cupcakes. We had the syrup from some stem ginger left over from Christmas ready for just such an emergency, so I adapted the Basic Chocolate Cupcake recipe from Vegan Cupcakes take over the world to come up with this scrumptious Chocolate and Ginger delight.
Chocolate and Ginger cupcakes (vegan)
makes 12
1 cup soya milk
1tsp apple cider vinegar
3/4 granulated sugar
1/3 cup rapeseed oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 cup self-raising flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cream of tartar (original recipe called for baking powder, which I'd run out of)
For the toppings
1 tablespoon ginger syrup
1/2 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 tablespoon icing sugar
orange/yellow food colouring (optional)
jelly sweet decorations (optional)
1. Pre-heat the oven to 10 degrees celcius and line a muffin tray with cupcake cases.
2. Whisk the soya milk and vinegar together and set aside to curdle for a few minutes. Then add the sugar, oil and vanilla extract and beat until foamy.
3. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, cream of tartar and ground ginger.
4. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients in a few small batches, and beat together until there are no large lumps, then pour the mixture into the cupcake cases.
5. Bake for 18-20 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean.

Ginger Drizzle topping (top)
This topping needs to be made whilst the cupcakes are still warm: Prick all over the surface of the cupcakes with a cocktail stick, then drizzle 1 tsp of ginger syrup over each of them. Sprinkle generously with granulated sugar.
Ginger icing (middle)
Mix the icing sugar with approximately the same amount of ginger syrup, and a little food colouring, if required. Add a little water if needed to thin the icing out. Use this to cover the top of your cupcakes, and finish with a jelly sweet, if you like.
Chocolate buttercream topping (bottom)
I had a batch of vegan chocolate buttercream in the freezer, so used some of this to cover my remaining cakes. To make it yourself, you can veganise this buttercream by replacing the stork with Pure vegan spread.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Chilli and Vodka pasta

We've had a couple of days of really blustery gusts in Manchester this week, and poor Mr P has had to cycle to work in - not very nice at all. So I decided the best way to mitigate this would be by making him a nice bone-warming dinner to sort him out after his latest 14 hour day.
This dish has a little bit of everything you need in this situation - the pasta helps you to carb back up after a tough bike ride, the protein in the kidney beans helps to keep you full, the chilli peps you up when you're dog tired, and although the cooking process destroys the alcohol content of the vodka, it leaves behind a little bit of fiery 'je ne sais quoi' that leaves a satisfied smile on your face.

Plus, the whole meal can be easily prepared in under half an hour - bonus!
I'm entering this recipe into the monthly Pasta Please, run by Jacqueline at Tinned Tomatoes. This month the theme is chilli, and it's hosted by hosted by Shaheen at A2K.
Chilli and Vodka Pasta
serves 2-3
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 red chilli (with seeds), chopped
1 tablespoon tomato puree
2 measures (50ml) vodka
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 tin kidney beans, drained
enough pasta to feed 2/3 people
1. Start to cook the pasta on the hob, whilst you prepare your sauce.
2. Gently fry the onion in your oil in a saucepan until it starts to soften. Then add the chilli, garlic and tomato puree, and cook for a minute or so more. Adding the tomato puree at this early stage helps to take away any bitterness and give a slightly sweeter flavour.
3. At this point, add the kidney beans, vodka and chopped tomatoes and stir well. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for a further 15-20 minutes or so until the sauce has thickened somewhat.
4. Meanwhile, when the pasta is cooked al dente, drain well. Serve either with the sauce on top, or stir the pasta into the sauce at the last minute for full coverage.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Draniki (potato pancakes)

After its vague and short-lived attempt at Spring, Manchester has gone drizzly and miserable again, and if there's one thing guaranteed to make me crave comfort food, it's miserable weather.
This recipe is for a traditional Russian/Belarusian dish of Draniki, or potato pancakes. In fact, according to wikipedia, variants of this item are fairly common in the cuisines of countries across Central and Eastern Europe and beyond, and when you've tasted them, it will be obvious why they enjoy such widespread popularity.
When I've had these in Russia and Belarus, the traditional accompaniment is sour cream. However, I've also had them with vegetable slaw (in Russia) and apple puree (German style). Here's the basic recipe for the Draniki, together with two alternative condiments to serve them with. Although these are best served fresh, they can be reheated and still taste pretty darn good. Though I have to admit, I've rarely experienced a case of leftover Draniki... just sayin'.
1kg potato, peeled
1 onion
1 tblsp plain flour
1 medium egg
a liberal amount of sunflower oil
1. Grate the potato and onion. Considering that Draniki are a traditional peasant dish, the idea of doing this manually fills me with dread - if you've got a processor with a grater attachment, let it take the strain!
2. Mix the grated vegetables with the flour and egg in a large bowl.
3. Heat a little oil in a good frying pan to a low-medium temperature (use several frying pans if you have them - you'll save a lot of time if you get a few on the go at once). Place a dessert spoonful of Draniki mixture into your pan, and flatten with the back of the spoon. Repeat with as many as you can fit in the pans. Gently allow the Draniki to fry without burning. You will know that they are cooking at the right kind of rate if the top side starts to go dry whrn the underside is just pale golden. At this point, flip the Draniki to cook from the other side. Make sure you keep topping up the oil, as this helps them to cook evenly.
4. When the Draniki are cooked through, drain them on a piece of kitchen towel. If you've still got a large batch to fry up, you can keep them warm by placing on a warmed plate and covering with tin foil, or popping in an oven on a very low heat.
5. When ready, serve with your choice of accompaniment.
Spiced carrot slaw
2-3 medium carrots
3 pieces of stem ginger, finely chopped
1 dessert spoon of ginger syrup
1. Peel the carrots and grate finely.
2. Combine with the other ingredients, and serve. Simplicity itself!
Apple puree
2 eating apples
dessert spoon of honey
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1. Peel the apples and cut into small cubes.
2. Put the cubed apple into a saucepan, and add enough water to rise about a third of the way up the pieces.
3. Simmer over a medium heat until the apple is tender, adding the honey towards the end of the cooking time.
4. Allow to cool slightly, then add the cinnamon and blitz to a puree. Can be served warm or chilled.


Monday, 18 March 2013

Cinnamon Rolls

A tasty breakfast treat: cinnamon rolls
I've always been a big believer in breakfast, possibly because I tend to wake up starving hungry most days! Anyway, whilst breakfast is undoubtedly my favourite meal of the day, I tend to most enjoy super-healthy cereals that a lot of people find boring - weetabix, porridge, muesli and the like.
Mr P, on the other hand, is not a fan of breakfast - possibly partly because he often has to leave for work super early in the mornings, and can't face breakfast at that time. Hence one of the recurring dilemmas of our marriage - how to bribe Mr P into breakfast (the other is the annual conundrum of how to jazz up sprouts enough for him to give then a go at Christmas).
So far from being a healthy and nutritious start to the day, this recipe is, frankly, a bribe. It's a way to make the breakfast so appealing (and so portable) that there are no excuses to fast until lunch. We particularly enjoy these as a Christmas morning treat with coffee, but they are equally good as lunchbox fillers or as sneaky afternoon pick-me-ups.
Cinnamon Rolls

makes 16
from Mary Berry's Complete Cookbook
1kg (2lb) plain flour
60g (2oz) caster sugar
1 x 7g sachet fast action yeast
1 tsp salt
about 350ml (12 fl oz) lukewarm milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
30g (1oz) butter, melted
250g (8oz) raisins
1 tblsp ground cinnamon
sunflower oil for greasing
milk for glazing
For the glaze
100g (4.5 oz) icing sugar (Mary uses double this amount)
2 tblsp water (ditto)
1tsp vanilla extract
1. Sift the flour and half of the sugar into a bowl, then stir in the yeast and salt.
2. Make a well in the middle. Pour in the milk, eggs, and butter. Stir to make a sticky dough.
3. Knead on a lightly floured surface until smooth and elastic.
4. Knead in the raisins and half of the cinnamon. This is quite hard work, just to warn you!
5. To shape the buns, Mary splits the dough into 16 even sized pieces, then shaps each into a 20-25cm (8-10in strand, before flattening and proceeding as below. I find this quite difficult due to the tendency of the dough to spring back so much, so I split it in half (to make the quantity easier to manage) then roll out each piece separately, then proceed as below.
6. Combine the remaining sugar and cinnamon, sprinkle it over your flattened doug, and roll up tightly into spirals. If you used Mary's method, you'll need to do them individually, and if you used my method, then you'll need to do two separate 'swiss rolle' type shapes, then cut them each in half and in half twoce more to get your individual buns.
7. Lightly oil two baking trays and arrange the buns on the trays, covering loosely with oiled cling film. Leave to rise in a warm place for about an hour, or until doubled in size.
8. Brush the rolls with milk to glaze, then bake in a preheated oven at 190 degrees celcius (375 degrees F/ gas mark 5) for 30-40 minutes until lightly browned. Transfer to a cooling rack.
The cinnamon rolls will increase in size as they prove
9. To make the glaze, combine all of the ingredients, and brush the rolls with the glaze whilst they are still warm from the oven. I find that it's often necessary to do a second coat once the glaze has dried.
10. Serve the buns warm or cold. They will keep well in the freezer for about 3 months.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Speedy and simple spicy soup

Speedy, healthy, spicy soup
For those of you who don't know, I've just returned from a research trip to wintry Moscow. It's such an intriguing place. Snow-covered streets give it the appearance of a fairytale wonderland, flanked with startling architecture and air that seems saturated with centuries of intense history. And luckily for me, the weather was unseasonably mild for this time of year (around about -7 degrees celcius, but still not nearly as bad as it could have been).
Yet frankly, whilst the trip was a success, I have to say I'm relieved to be back at home. The Moscow metro system is intimidating to say the least - as the third most used metro system in the world, it feels like rush hour even in the middle of the day. And if you're unlucky enough to catch yourself down there during the actual rush hour, it's a pretty horrific sardine-like experience of pushing and shoving, made all the more frightening when you're about to enter the third trimester of your pregnancy. Plus, despite the rather spectacular thermal vest and long johns I took with me, I still managed, perhaps predictably, to pick up a cold.

One of the nicer aspects of the Moscow metro

So, despite the general success of the trip, I was ready to come home, and more than ready for a bit of comfort food. However, after my trip to the midwife today, when my comment about suddenly feeling pretty darn hungry all the time was met with a snarky reply of "Well remember you're not actually eating for two you know", I ended up making a bit of a point with my super-healthy lunch. And you know what? It was bloody lovely, and was super simple to make, in around half an hour. Here's the recipe...
Speedy and simple spicy soup (vegan)
(serves 4)
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 scotch bonnet chilli, finely chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and sliced
2 potatoes, peeled and chopped into small (1cm) cubes
1 cup of red split lentils, rinsed well
handful of mushrooms , roughly chopped
1 red pepper, roughly chopped
2 pints vegetable stock
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
1. Fry the onion and chilli in a tablespoon of rapeseed oil in a large saucepan until the onion is translucent.
2. Stir in the carrot, potato, mushrooms and lentils, fry for a minute or two and then add the stock.
3. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 15-20 minutes until the lentils and vegetables are tender.
4. Add in the tin of tomatoes, bring back to a simmer, and then serve whilst still hot.
This will make your tummy smile inside, will clear your sinuses like a dream and will leave you with an afterglow of satisfying smugness at its healthy, tasty goodness. Delicious!


Sunday, 3 February 2013

Welcome... to the Crystal Maze!

Aztec zone
So, although I realise my posting has been more than a little sporadic of late, I hope that this sweet little treat will make up for the radio silence. And let me tell you this. It’s a mega treat. Because, it’s that time of year again – Mr P’s birthday!

Those of you with good memories will recall that last year’s birthday celebrations provided my decorating pal Mel and I the perfect opportunity to get creative with a surprise cake based on the Plants Vs Zombies computer game, which completely blew him away. This year, we gave him a bit of a say in the creative process – to decide either the theme or the flavour. After much serious deliberation (or perhaps it was a gut reaction, since he’s been very busy applying for jobs at the moment), Mr P declared that he’d like a chocolate fudge cake.
I am utterly indebted to the marvellous Lindy’s cakes for the recipe I used – you can find their original recipe post here. Flavour-wise, Mel and I agreed that this is probably the best cake we’ve ever made. And as you probably know, I’m not a major chocolate fan, and she doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth at all, so that says a lot about the recipe. Presumably the deliciousness of the cake is inversely proportional to its  healthiness, seeing as it contains roughly a bucket of butter, chocolate and sugar and a comparative sprinkling of flour. But who am I to argue with perfection?! This cake is super moist, and stays moist very well, and is sure to go down well for any occasion.
Crystal Maze cake

Medieval zone
Richard O'Brien in sugarpaste form


As for the theme, it’s based around one of Mr P’s favourite TV shows from childhood, The Crystal Maze. I haven’t seen any other Crystal Maze cakes online, so it felt like a very original project. There are four separate 5” square cakes, each representing one of the four challenge regions from the original show – Aztec, industrial, futuristic and medieval. The research process consisted of spending two hours of my life (that I am well aware I will never get back) watching old episodes online, whilst screaming at the screen and genuinely wondering if the contestants came from another species altogether. If you don’t value your sanity, knock yourself out here 

The industrial zone
The futuristic zone


Super moist rich chocolate fudge cake
Recipe from Lindy’s cakes
This makes 4 x 5” square cakes; for one 8” round cake, just halve the quantities given below.


450g (16oz) unsalted butter
450g (16oz) good quality chocolate
2 tablespoon (30ml) instant coffee granules
450g (1lb) caster sugar
450g (1lb) light soft brown sugar
300ml (10 fl oz) water
8 large free range eggs
70ml (2.2fl oz) rapeseed oil (Lindy uses veg oil, but I think rapeseed is less detectable, and healthier too!)
200ml (6.8 fl oz) sour cream/natural yoghurt/Crème fraiche
250g (9 oz) self raising flour
250g (9 oz) plain flour
100g (4oz) cocoa powder
1 teaspoon (5ml) bicarbonate of soda

1. Preheat your oven to 160 degrees celsius (315 degrees F, gas mark 2-3) and line your tin/tins with baking parchment. I also like to line the outside of the tins with a few layers of newspaper as it helps the cakes to rise with a more even, rather than domed top (even though it adds to the cooking time a little). This is more important if you’re decorating with sugarpaste, but if you’re going for a more rustic look, then it’s not such a big deal.
2. Add the butter, chocolate, coffee, sugar and water to a pan and slowly melt together over a low heat. I know the idea of adding the chocolate and water rings alarm bells, but you just have to keep the faith here. Once these ingredients have melted together, melted allow to cool.
3. Add the beaten eggs, oil and sour cream to the chocolate mix and stir well.
4.Sift all the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl and make a well in the centre.
5. Pour the chocolatey liquid mixture into well and stir in the dry ingredients, mixing well until thoroughly combined.
6. Pour the cake mixture into your tins and bake for about 1hr 30mins (1 hour 45mins-2hrs for an 8” round) or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
7. Place the tin on a cooling rack, and leave the cake to cool inside it.
To finish and decorate:
This cake is so rich and moist that it doesn’t really need to be cut and sandwiched with buttercream. In fact, it tastes so rich and moist that even without any topping you it still tastes great.

A chocolate ganache might be overkill on a cake like this, but I think a vanilla or chocolate buttercream, or even a cream cheese frosting would work pretty well on top. In my case, I made some mild chocolate buttercream (not very chocolatey and not particularly sweet) – just enough to create a crumb layer on top. Then I covered the cakes with a layer of sugarpaste and finished with sugarpaste decorations.