All posts by Charlotte

Sunday’s custard tarts

There are a few things that I get in my mind that I want to cook “sometime”. Custard tarts are one of those things that I’ve been mulling on for at least a year. I love a good custard tart but it’s so difficult to come across a good one, that I rarely choose this when out and about, even if a supermarket mark-down bargain. When visiting Lisbon last year I had the pleasure of tasting a “pastel de nata” – and from that moment on I knew that when I did finally make a custard tart it would be of this variety. On Saturday we took delivery of half a dozen eggs from my brother-in-law and I made the mistake of mentioning in front of Bess that I might use them to make custard tarts. Cue 3 year old’s declaration that she was going to help me. She doesn’t forget a thing and was on about making custard tarts from as soon she woke up. Having done a little recipe research I was having 2nd thoughts but despite various displacement tactics by 3.30pm I could see no way to get out of it.

The internet provided me with a great variety of recipes. None of which seemed to be particularly child-friendly in terms of processes required. Some instructed you in the production of your own puff pastry but there was no way I was doing that as I had some perfectly acceptable pre-made in the freezer. Some used only egg yolks, others a combination of whole eggs and yolks. Some required you to make a sugar syrup – definitely not child friendly. After much deliberation I chose the one that looked least likely to fail in the event of interruptions.

I got Bess to start by greasing the tins. This mainly involved me politely requesting that she didn’t eat the butter while doing so. She’d got about half way through when I realised we should be using the muffin tin and not the fairy cake tin.

So I salvaged what butter I could and gave the muffin tin a generous greasing while Bess weighed 200g of caster sugar. With normal people the greasing would take a lot longer than the weighing, but as the weighing involved a lot of me politely requesting that she didn’t eat the sugar and what was going in the jug was about 10g at a time we were well matched.

One of the jobs that Bess loves is cracking eggs. This was a little perilous today as once cracked they needed to be separated. I usually avoid recipes requiring egg separation anyway, but there was no getting away from it. So after Bess had given them a good whack I swiftly extracted them from her. And amazingly we ended up with six perfectly separated eggs.

Next into the jug with the sugar went 3 exceedingly estimated tablespoons of corn flour and 225ml-ish of milk. More measuring for Bess. This particular recipe didn’t include lemon or spices but many of the others that I had found did so along with a shake of vanilla extract we added a shake of cinnamon, a little less of nutmeg and some lemon juice. I’m sure proper lemon zest would have been better but we didn’t have any.

And then the interruptions came. Matt brought the baby in from outside (where she had allegedly been helping him clean the barbeque) as she needed a feed. Bess started doing an urgent looking wee dance. I was feeding the baby so called Matt back in to help Bess but despite her best efforts it was too late. After the clean up she refused to put dry knickers and trousers on so we really did have a bit of a naked chef thing going on (with apron of course!).

I now enlisted Matt’s help to help Bess with the rolling of the pastry as I was still feeding the baby.

They rolled out flat, then into a long sausage shape – a technique I had seen advised in a different recipe for obtaining pastry discs to line the muffin tray. As we have a 12 hope muffin tin I requested the sausage be cut into 12. After Matt and Bess had pressed the discs into the muffin tin it became apparent that the sausage had actually been cut into 13. Matt assures me that his engineering is a whole lot more accurate, and Bess was delighted to have some raw pastry to play with (eat) anyway.

Emboldened by my recent success of making white sauce in the microwave I decided to try the custard that way too. By now I had the baby in the sling and using the microwave was also safer than the hob. Bess gave the jug with the sugar, corn flour, milk and flavourings a good mix. I gave it a better mix and then proceeded to whizz it in the microwave, a minute at a time, whisking vigorously each time. It probably took 6 or 7 rounds of this until it had thickened to a reasonable extents. I poured about half of that mixture into the egg yolks, mixed and then all of that back into the remaining thickened milk mixture.

After it had cooled slightly Bess and I scooped the mixture into the puff pastry cases and sprinkled the tops with icing sugar.

The tarts were then baked for about  25minutes at 180ºC.

There was a bit of calamity at bath time when Bess realised that she had forgotten to have one after tea, but she was appeased at the prospect of one the following day. Matt and I had one after the girls were asleep. Verdict? Good but not as good as those we’d had in Lisbon. They were better the next day

 

Wednesday’s oatcake

My strategy when in charge of both the baby and the toddler is to actually mainly let the toddler be “in charge”. She understands that the baby needing a feed trumps most other things (my only true dilemma is the unhappy coincidence of a toddler toilet demand and a baby feed), and that a stinky nappy is a category 2 emergency but other than that I have found my life is made much easier by letting her choose the activity.

So today got off to a not bad start with her choice of marbles. This is actually Kerplunk which she has loved with since about the age of 16 months. (I have only occasionally been worried about the consumption of marbles, but I already get the sense that her sister will be one of those who puts anything she can get her hands on in her mouth.) The day then deteriorated somewhat with the impasse that was the toddler’s refusal to tidy up said marbles, and my refusal to get out any more toys until that had been done. This may seem draconian but otherwise the whole house gets covered in stuff in a metaphorical nanosecond, and even I – with my high level of tolerance of mess – just can’t deal with this. We are both extremely stubborn. Cue much moaning, eventually I could take it no more and suggested a change of scenery to the kitchen. I wanted to make this evening’s dinner and I tempted her in with a promise of baking.

Baking with the toddler may charitably be described as chaotic, but she loves it (even more than Kerplunk!), and it holds her attention for more time than anything else. No good for if you want to knock out a quick batch of something or other, excellent if you need to pass some time doing something you both enjoy. Since today I needed to multitask I chose an exceedingly simple recipe: oatcake, kind of like flapjack but better (in my humble opinion)!

The first thing was to get the toddler to work on weighing the butter. I wrote 150 on a piece of paper and said she needed to put butter into the jug until the scales said the same. I’m pretty certain the only number she reliably knows is “7” (the first number on the clock when it’s acceptable to be “morning time”), but I figure eventually she will begin to recognise the others. But today I deployed a particularly cunning strategy, I sneakily weighed the butter before I gave it to her, and ascertaining that that there was only 135g left in the block knew that I could get a lot of vegetable preparation done if I was speedy, without the need for constant scales checking. I did not account for her constant pressing of the tare button, nor the amount of butter that was eaten rather than weighed. So a little more supervision was required while I gave her the next pack of butter to finish off the 150g, but part 1 of the plan had paid off and I had prepared an onion, 4 sweet potatoes and 750g of mushrooms which were now cooking with various spices on the hob, so she had my full attention to estimate when she should stop. I then did a sneaky transfer into another jug to get an accurate weight – we were at 120g so by my estimation that is about 30g of butter that was eaten. It had to be a sneaky transfer because she would be most disappointed if she thought I was intervening with her baking.

Fact 1 of cooking with a toddler – you will use at least twice as many utensils than if you were doing it alone.

Next to weigh the sweet stuff: 150g of sugar or syrup or similar. I like to use a mixture of black molasses (as I have it in my mind that it’s somehow healthy I think it has some iron in) and brown sugar. In case you were in any doubt, getting a toddler to weigh syrup and sugar is an extremely messy business. We were now onto our second pair of scales too, analogue now, as apparently the digital ones were too messy (something to do with the butter that had been smeared all over them). Apparently 2 dollops of molasses was what was needed today, I am rather pleased that the term dollop is in the toddler’s baking vocabulary.

The next bit is to melt the butter and sugar together – can be done in a pan or in the microwave. I favour the microwave. Just 30 seconds at a time as you don’t want it to get too hot.

And then I looked at the clock on the cooker. It seemed that I had lost an hour into thin air. This was worse than expected because the main clock in the kitchen (which I had previously been referring to) had been wound backwards the previous night to “make it dinner time” (at the toddlers request), and I had completely forgotten. So we actually only had 45 minutes before we needed to leave the house to get to playgroup. Bear in mind that it usually takes about this much time to persuade the toddler to put her shoes and coat on and get in the pushchair and now I had to persuade her to eat some lunch too. So the baking was put on hold until we came back from playgroup. This was accepted with a surprising degree of enthusiasm from the toddler.

Fact 2 of cooking with a toddler – it will take you at least 3 times as long than if you were doing it alone.

Made it to playgroup (after a slice of toast, I suppose it was the most I could hope for after being somewhat fueled on raw butter and sugar), only a few minutes late. Started recalling the morning’s events to a friend. Hit by sinking feeling that in my haste to leave the house I had left the hob on. Toddler persuaded to stay at playgroup while I marched back down the hill to find that I had turned the hob off after all. Marched back up the hill in time for tea and biscuits at playgroup. Devoured several custard creams.

On returning home the next task was to weigh 150g of oats, followed by 150g of plain flour. The toddler was very gracious in letting me help her pour these out, but not so gracious in letting me help her mix them. All I wanted to do was to hold the bowl to prevent massive losses over the side but this was apparently unacceptable. So I left her to it while I remelted the butter and sugar mixture and got the dinner back on the go. Sure enough the worksurfaces, the chair the toddler was standing on and the floor were liberally adorned with oats and flour but she had done a nice job of mixing them other than that.

Fact 3 of cooking with a toddler – it is at least 4 times as messy as doing it alone

I poured in the butter and sugar mixture and she did a great job of mixing it all up. She was very proud of that bit, and clearly concerned about it all falling on to the floor, so she let me pour it into the baking tray. And her best bit of all was then pressing it down, paying a surprising amount of attention to making it all flat.

This recipe is very forgiving, much more so than flapjack. Which is a good job because about 2 minutes before it was due out of the oven the toddler declared that she needed the toilet. She was desperate to try it, and against my better judgement I said she could have some before dinner. But as it was full of sugar it was probably not such a bad idea to keep it away from bedtime a little. She was so proud of her baking and delighted in offering me some, and Matt when he came home too.

Fact 4 of cooking with a toddler – it is at least 24 times as satisfying than cooking on your own

You may be wondering where The Baby Who Will Not Be Put Down was during all this. Well, through the wonder of “modern” parenting she was mostly wrapped to my chest. Sometimes dozing, sometimes taking note of what was going on, occasionally stopping for a feed.

OATCAKE

150g butter

150g sugar/syrup (or combination as you wish)

150g oats

150g plain flour

1. Melt butter and sugar together

2. Combine oats and flour

3. Mix butter/sugar into oats/flour

4. Press into lined baking tray

5. Bake at 180◦C for 15-20 minutes

6. Cut into chunks

Saturday’s freezer arrival: part 3 – falafel (and more soup)

After my busy morning of cooking I realised that my supplies were getting depleted. In fact I had no onions left (apart from red onions which Matt must have bought at some point as I never buy red onions), no chopped tomatoes left (this almost amounts to crisis in my kitchen) and no chickpeas left. Now you might think that the first two items would be the most critical but I was desperate to make some falafels so the chickpeas were actually rather critical.

Now, desperation to make falafels might seem a bit extreme but I had a recipe card that I had picked up from a supermarket a number of weeks previously for beetroot falafel and it had been on the kitchen table taunting me ever since. They sounded (and looked) delicious and finally I had a good opportunity to make these.

Matt needed to go to the DIY store so I decided to take a break from the kitchen too – he could drop me at the supermarket while he did his bits. Oh, and we decided to take advantage of being toddler free to go for a nice civilised lunch at a local cafe.

As well as the above items I also picked up a few more tins of beans (they’d always keep if I didn’t use them immediately), and there was some watercress going cheap which I just couldn’t resist – more soup was on the agenda. And I love watercress soup.

When we got home I resisted the urge to start the falafel first, as the sensible thing was to get the soup on the go. I started off cooking a chopped onion in a little bit of olive oil. Then I mused over the choice of thickener – unable to decide I opted for a combination of potato and lentils. So I chopped a potato and added this to the pan, along with a load of lentils, covered with boiling water, added a spoonful of vegetable stock powder and planned to leave it to simmer until the potato was nearly soft. Unfortunately I neglected to account for the fact that the volume of the lentils significantly increases when they cook and I needed to keep adding more water. It was all looking rather precariously close to the top of the pan and I still had to add two bags of watercress.

While the soup simmered I got on with the falafel. As was becoming a bit of a theme the first thing to do was to fry a chopped onion. Since we had this stray red onion I decided to use that up now. To the frying pan I added some ground cumin and a bit of that pre-prepared garlic that you get in a jar. Once the onions were cooked I added them to the food processor where I had already put a tin of drained chickpeas, 250g of pre-cooked beetroot (the vacuum packed stuff – not pickled!), an egg and 125g of couscous.

You might think that the couscous is a bit of an odd ingredient and you’d be right. The recipe actually required 125g of fresh white breadcrumbs, which I didn’t have. This should serve to teach me to read a recipe in full before I embark upon it, but I doubt that it will. I decided that couscous was the closest thing I had to breadcrumbs.

Matt turned up in the kitchen at this point and I let him have the honours of blending everything in the food processor – it is a power tool after all and would allow him to think that he has contributed to the mammoth catering effort.

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The mixture seemed to be ok, not too much the worse for the use of couscous instead of breadcrumbs.

Now, obviously falafel are supposed to be round, but as I was trying to get on with so much more cooking at the same time I was reluctant to a) spend time rolling the mixture into balls b) get my hands covered in sticky eggy/beetroot mixture. So I decided just to put the mixture into a greased baking tin, cook it as a “tray bake” and cut it into squares once it was cooked.

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I baked at 200°C for 25 minutes, with only a small degree of trepidation.

While they baked I squeezed the watercress into the soup pan. That would only take a few minutes to cook, and by now my back was aching so I took the opportunity to sit down and contmeplate my next moves. It was only just gone 4pm, plenty of time remaining and I thought I could get at least three more dishes done – I’d do feijoda (something new, recommended by a friend), stroganoff and one more soup.

The pinger went for the falafel (don’t worry, I had remembered to take the watercress soup off the hob – it smelt good and hadn’t made too much mess!) and to my delight it looked like my gamble had paid off. I was able to cut the giant falafel into smaller squares that didn’t fall apart. I don’t think I’ll ever bother with spherical falafel again.

Saturday’s freezer arrival: part 2 – a curry and a casserole

Soup was all very well, but we needed some proper meals too and alongside I set to work on a (vegetarian) sausage casserole – starting by cooking the sausages in the oven. This is a fairly standard meal in our house, it contains something to please us all. Carrots for Bess, sausages for Matt and mushrooms for me. Bess’s dislike of mushroom is somewhat of a challenge as I absolutely love them so I am forever trying to introduce them surreptitiously, or at least trying to make things from which they can be easily picked out.

I chose my biggest pan for the casserole as I intended to make a BIG one. It barely seems worth writing about the casserole method as it’s so simple – the standard protocol for much of my cooking to start with. You chop an onion and cook it in oil for a while, when it’s starting to get soft you add some chopped celery (I think I used 6 sticks on this occasion – you wouldn’t have thought that would be a toddler’s favourite but she really does enjoy it!), when that’s starting to get soft you add some chopped carrots (4 big ones this time) and a big trays-worth of mushrooms. Then once the mushrooms started to release their juices I chucked in a couple of tins of chopped tomatoes, a couple of tins of beans, the sausages (which I had removed from the oven and cut into thirds) and a little bit of vegetable stock powder. I decided to really go to town and used a little bit of red wine to rinse out the tomato tins (which I then added to the pot, I didn’t drink tomato tinted Merlot). I let it bubble away until the carrots were soft. This always seems to take so much longer than anticipated and in the meantime I started on the curry.

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I had no plans to deviate from our “usual” curry – sweet potato, chickpea and mushroom – apart from to add some normal potatoes too in order to make the whole thing go further. I would have liked to have used my biggest pan for this too, but would have to make do with my second biggest and hope for the best. Again I started off by gently cooking a chopped onion and then adding some curry powder – it was going to be a BIG curry so I used two tablespoons. If I was being clever I would have used some selection of spices that I chose and mixed myself, but I wasn’t and the pre-mix “medium” is just fine. Then I added the mushrooms (another big trays-worth – it’s another meal from which they can be easily removed and Bess is more than happy with the potatoes and chickpeas); once their juices were coming out I added the chopped sweet potatoes (x4) and plain potatoes (x2 standard jacket size). Recently I have taken to just using “jacketing” potatoes for all plain (ie. not sweet) potato related purposes – jackets of course but also mash and wedges, it seems to work just fine and saves a lot of aggravation and is probably cheaper too.

Anyway, I cooked the potatoes for a while before adding a couple of tins of chickpeas and a couple of tins of chopped tomatoes and then let this all bubble away until the potatoes were soft before adding a bag of spinach that had somehow found its way into my fridge (I don’t normally buy this unless a) it is going cheap or b) I have something specific in mind, as it always goes of really quickly) and a tin of coconut milk and cooked for just a little longer, until the spinach had wilted into the mixture.

Briefly back to the casserole…… If we were going to eat this the same day as cooking I would sometimes put some dumplings on top of it, but as we weren’t and I was unsure of the freezability of dumplings I didn’t. They can always be added when it’s reheated.

(Apologies for the lack of photos – I was rather engrossed in the cooking!)

Saturday’s freezer arrival: part 1 – some soup

I have been on at Matt for ages to get a second freezer. The “deadline” for this was the expected arrival of baby #2, which is creeping closer and closer. The delay was Matt’s ongoing insistence that he was going to “do” the utility room. Eventually I think Matt realised that he was not going to “do” the utility room before the arrival (it’s not like there’s nothing else to do!) and agreed to order a freezer. I needed minimal persuasion that a chest freezer was our best option and left it to Matt to measure and choose.

The freezer arrived while I was out on Saturday morning and Matt sent me a picture – it was twice as big as I had expected and couldn’t wait to get home to start cooking to fill it.

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But I called in at the supermarket first (mainly to reclaim my parking money) and filled my trolley with loads of different ice-creams – something that I haven’t had the luxury of with just a modest 3 drawer upright freezer until this point in my life!

I sprung through the door at home delighted with my purchases, sure that Matt would share my enthusiasm (he’s almost as big a fan of ice-cream as me), but he told me you have to wait 6 hours before switching it on. So we decided that the best thing would be to fill it with all the stuff from the old freezer (+ the ice-cream) and use it as a giant cool box for the time being.

Bess was off with her Nanny for her first ever unaccompanied overnight visit to her caravan (my mother-in-law’s, not Bess’s!) so we had the relative luxury of being able to get on with things without a toddler “helping”. For me, the opportunity to do loads of batch cooking was not to be missed. The plan was to make as much as possible so that when the new baby arrives I would simply be able to pull out bags to reheat from the freezer. We survived on a lot of jacket potatoes when Bess was born, but now having to provide nutritious meals for her too (and she is not the easiest to please) added and extra-dimension to the challenges we are about to face.

I started off with some soups. I’d had this planned to some extent and bought a couple of bags of very cheap parsnips at the budget continental supermarket to turn into spicy parsnip soup. This is one of the easiest soups to make – I used a couple of onions as I had so many parsnips, chopped and sweated and then a big heaped tablespoon of curry powder – you could use a mixture of your own favourite spices but I just went with the pre-mix this time. Meanwhile I peeled and chopped the parsnips into smallish chunks, then added these to the pan with just enough boiling water to cover it all, and a teaspoon of vegetable stock powder. You leave it to simmer until the parsnips are soft, so while that was happening I started the next dishes.

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That makes it sound like I had a plan, which is somewhat of an overstatement. The plan was “fill the new freezer”, the “what with?” was not quite so defined, but as well as the cheap parsnips I had bought some cheap leeks too and decided that they could be turned into soup as well.

The leek soup is slightly more complex than the parsnip one, but only because it has a few more ingredients. In a pan with olive oil I added, in this order: onion (x1, I think, sometimes I don’t put an onion in), celery (x2 sticks), carrots (x2), leeks (x3), potato (x2). Then covered with just enough boiling water (+ a teaspoon of vegetable stock powder) and simmered until the potatoes were cooked.

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Once the soups are cooked I think the easiest way to blend is with a stick blender. Recipes always say to leave them to cool before blending. I’m not sure if this is because of some weird culinary thing that happens if you blend them while still hot (unlikely I think but I haven’t paid it much thought!), or simply a health and safety recommendation (more probable). Either way I needed my pans to get on with more cooking so I compromised and let them cool a bit, but not a lot. You might not think that there’s a lot of technique to using a stick blender, and you’d be right. But there is some technique, and mainly that technique is: ensure you completely submerge the blender beneath the surface of whatever you are blending. I was wearing an apron, but it only went so far as to cover my body – leaving my arms exposed, and I proceeded to get spicy parsnip soup all over the arm of my clean cardigan. Maybe I’d be better off in overalls.

Once blended you end up with some pretty thick soups – more like purees really. But these are ideal for the freezer as you can add more water when you actually want to eat them. You can also add more salt and pepper to taste but as I am partially catering for a toddler I keep the salt fairly low during cooking.

Friday’s quiche

Woah – long time no blog! So here goes, and let’s hope I’ve not forgotten how to string a sentence together.

Those of you who know me in real life will know that 2 things have been going on over the last few months which I would like to us as the excuse for the absence of Slack Lasagne.

  1. I am pregnant. This has resulted in a significant loss of appetite – especially for sweet things. Which has been helpful in preventing me from absolutely ballooning, but has also meant that I have been rather disinclined to cook (as Matt is trying to lose weight and Bess probably wouldn’t like it anyway my family is not really suffering too much).
  2. I have been campaigning –  first in the local elections (where I stood as a candidate for the first time ever) and more recently in the EU referendum. Suffice to say neither of the results went my way but pounding the streets is also a rather effective way to keep the kgs off.

That is not to say that we haven’t been eating, but it’s generally been rather simple meals – jacket potatoes, pasta, fish fingers & potato waffles, stir fry & noodles etc. This has suited Bess and her new obsession with carbohydrates, I seriously think her preferred meal right now would be plain boiled pasta with mayonnaise to dip it in!

But my appetite is improving and this weekend just gone was politics free (as much as it ever is with me) and we were meeting friends so I dug out the food processor. Of course, I didn’t dig out the food processor before I knew what I was going to cook. We had various bits of veg to use up and I thought that a quiche would travel well. Plus the friends we were meeting always seem to like a quiche.

As usual I did not have the ideal conditions for baking. Struggling to make this quiche while at the same time cooking dinner (Bolognese sauce with pasta) and working around a toddler who progressively covering both herself and the floor in paint.

Obviously the place to start with a quiche is the pastry. So I used the basic recipe of 225g plain flour, 100g butter (I added a pinch of salt as I was using unsalted fat) and just enough water to mix it to a dough. I still have a “thing” in my mind that making pastry is a faff, and I think if you do it properly it is, but with a food processor it is very easy. Apart from if you have a toddler who doesn’t like loud noises when you can only process for a few seconds between having to console her and explain that the food processor is a self contained entity and that as long as she keeps her fingers out it won’t do her any harm.

Once I had managed to make the dough I rolled it out between two plastic sheets. This has the benefit of not making your rolling pin dirty (although you do make two plastic sheets dirty) and also it is relatively easy to flop the pastry into the quiche tin. I chose a deepish tin, about 15cm diameter (remember that figure, you will need it later!), which I copiously greased. In an effort to avoid a soggy bottom I blind baked for 15 minutes.

 

20160701_193730The paint situation was now becoming severe and dinner was imminent, but rather than focusing on that I attempted to turn the left over pastry into some cheese straws. I was thwarted somewhat when I discovered we had no cheddar cheese (how this happened defeats me) so I used the Parmesan that I got out for dinner instead, and added a few seeds for good measure. The lack of cheddar also meant that I would have to have to change the scheme for the quiche too, but that would now wait until after dinner.

 

We did a kind of half clean of the toddler before dinner, but the mess she had gotten herself into guaranteed a bath this evening, so while Matt dealt with that I was able to continue my quiche preparation relatively unimpeded (excepting the terrible state of the the kitchen). Over dinner I had adapted my plans for the quiche filling – it would now be feta and pepper, thus guaranteeing that Bess would screw her nose up at it! I chopped the peppers into approximately 2cm squares and pre-cooked them in some olive oil (if you are really fancy / organised you could oven roast them, but mine were fine done on the hob); and cut half a pack of feta into approximately 1.5cm chunks (this obviously leaves the other half pack which I must remember to do something with).

I put the feta and cooked peppers into the pastry case (which I had decided was probably too thick and probably would have a soggy bottom)20160701_204115

and then came to the problem of how much “custard” to make. The feta and peppers seemed to take up most of the space, while this concerned me a little, it didn’t concern me a lot as I actually don’t like the taste of egg so it was crucial for my enjoyment that the quiche-y bit served only as a binder. This is where the 15cm diameter comes into it. I needed to calculate the volume of quiche to be filled using the equation πr²d (where r=radius and d=depth). This gave me a volume of 265cm³. I figured that quite a lot of that was taken up with feta and peppers so decided to make 200ml of custard on the basis that I had probably somewhat underestimated the depth and it would be better to have a little bit extra than not enough. So I cracked 2 eggs into a jug, topped up with milk to make 200ml, whisked up with plenty of black pepper and poured. And miraculously it was the perfect amount.

I very carefully transferred it back to the oven and now baked at 180°C for half an hour. (By the way, the cheese straw things took about 10 minutes at 200°C – or they should have done but I left them in a couple of minutes too long so they were rather crispy, but not unpleasant.) By now we were in the full throes of trying to get Bess to bed so I failed to take a photo, but take it from me it looked amazing when it was done, and the smell matched.

We waited patiently until Saturday lunchtime to try it, not bothering to reheat and it was indeed delicious. So maybe I haven’t lost my skills and it’s time for me to get back to tricks in the kitchen.

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Saturday’s aubergine bake

Yet again I had bought aubergines with no particular intention for them. They usually end up sitting in the vegetable rack until they will last no longer and I am forced to put them into a curry. Neither Matt nor I particularly like aubergine, not that we particularly dislike it either; and it’s never been a hit with Bess (something to do with it falling into the category of “vegetable” I suspect).

We had planned to have pizza for dinner (more specifically Matt had planned to make pizza) but time had somehow run away with us I wanted to eat before 9pm so volunteered to cook something and postpone the pizza until tomorrow. We had eaten pasta for the last 3 consecutive days and I really didn’t want more. The obvious choice was jacket potatoes (I fancied one with some smoked mackerel and horseradish) but Matt screwed his face up at this idea (I think because it’s something he can “cook” another day). So I decided to try and use these aubergines in a somewhat imaginative way. And what my imagination came up with was a sort of moussaka-y thing, but without the white sauce (I have made quite enough white sauce recently).

I didn’t really plan too well what would go in the “filling”, just started off by chopping a couple of onions and some sticks of celery and cooking in some olive oil. I added some lentils (I would have used all red lentils but discovered we actually hardly had any so used half red and half green) and then covered in boiling water.

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While the lentils cooked I fried aubergine slices in a little bit more olive oil. It seemed rather fortunate that my frying pan was exactly the right size for one whole aubergine.

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I cooked for maybe 3 minutes on each side and then put the first set of slices into an ovenproof dish.

And then it struck me that the lentils were probably a bit bland. As it was Valentine’s weekend I decided to add some ground cumin (Matt’s favourite spice.) I should have added this whilst frying the onions and celery but hadn’t thought of it at the time. Then I had a sniff and it seemed a bit peculiar smelling so I added some reduced salt stock powder. It still smelt a bit peculiar so I added a glug of pomegranate molasses. This is something that we bought a number of years ago for a specific Christmas recipe and have used occasionally since, it adds a kind of sweet but tangy aspect, and seems to keep for ages!

I would have possibly avoided all this shenanigans with adding things to the lentils simply by bunging in a tin of all-redeeming chopped tomatoes but I needed to make something to go with the dinner that would have a more likely degree of approval from Bess. To that end I planned to make some basic camping couscous.

The addition of the pomegranate molasses had not stopped the lentils smelling peculiar, but they smelt more peculiar-good than peculiar-bad now. Once they were cooked I poured them over the aubergine slices and then topped off with more aubergine slices. It was a bit of a squeeze but just about all fitted in my selected dish.

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Then to the debate about whether or not to add cheese. Matt and I decided that we had never yet had a dinner to which the addition of cheese was detrimental so I chopped up a block of mozzarella (previously destined for the pizza), scattered this over the top and put the whole thing in the oven at 180ºC.

While it baked I did the couscous, prepared and cooked some green beans* and did a little bit of hula-hooping. (I had a massage the other day and apparently my muscle tone is not what it once was so I have felt some inclination to improve this and since I don’t have the opportunity to swim as much as I’d like – and I don’t really like other types of exercise! – I thought hula-hooping might fill the void. Maybe I should really be exercising instead of cooking, eating and blogging!)

Pervading my whole cooking and hula-hooping experience had been my thoughts about what a relatively pointless vegetable the aubergine is (although I think it is rather attractive in it’s raw state though, perhaps this is why I end up buying it). Not only does it not really taste of very much, it loses its attractiveness and looks grey when cooked, and as far as I’m aware it is not renowned for its nutritional benefits. Indeed a quick bit of internet research confirms that the only nutrient that aubergine has a useful amount of is manganese.

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But when it came to the eating the meal was actually rather delicious. The couscous was a success as usual, but it was the aubergine bake that was the real winner. The lentils DID taste peculiar but in a lovely exotic kind of way, and were a surprise hit with Bess. And the aubergine itself was rich and tasty (although Bess refused to even contemplate this passing her lips, it does look so ugly!).

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* I would not usually buy green beans at this time of year but they were going cheap with a red label in the supermarket the other day and made a nice change from broccoli and frozen peas which we have been mainly relying on for our greens.

Friday’s marble cake


We had determined that our colds had improved sufficiently that we could visit our friends and their 4 week old baby. Baby’s mum had warned us that they were all rather we deprived so my proposed (albeit temporary) solution  was cake (obviously along with a proper lunch). This created the dilemma of what cake to make. I know that baby ‘s dad has a fondness for my “mum’s” carrot cake, but that baby’s mum would almost certainly appreciate something chocolatey . I appraised the situation: Matt was around to help and there several hours to go until Bess ‘s bedtime  (although we did still need to eat dinner), a two cake evening was feasible.

I wasn’t sure what chocolatey cake I would make, but knew I wanted a proper big cake rather than muffins or similar. While I was searching for the carrot cake recipe I found various chocolate cake recipes that I had pulled from magazines over the years. Some of these required an extreme number of eggs (7) and / or currently unavailable  (damsons, cranberries etc). But my attention was caught by a “crumble cake” – which on closer inspection turned out to be some kind glorified marble cake.

Now, I have always liked the look of marble cakes, but have never made one. I always assumed that they were terribly faffy, an assumption I suspect is based at least in part on the fact that my mother has never made a marble cake. However a quick scan of the recipe indicated that it might not be such a faff after all.

I instructed Matt in the preparation of the dinner (does that make me the executive chef?) while I did the carrot cake. It was while I was making this that I discovered I was very low on the right type of sugar for the crumble cake. Plenty of brown sugar and icing sugar, but no granulated and only you caster. Since I was already in my pyjamas Matt agreed to pop up to the shop in the rain. And I also required an emergency telephone call to my mum as the carrot cake recipe stated just “flour” and I couldn’t decide whether it should be plain or self raising. My mum didn’t seem to grasp the nature of the emergency as after telling me that it was self raising she then wanted to tell me how to turn plain into self raising. Bess soon started making noise which brought the nature of the situation to my mum’s attention. I will let her tell me how to adulterate flour when we next chat.

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The carrot cakes (there ended up being two so I have put one in the freezer for an afternoon tea I’m holding next week) cooked while we are and then I started work on the marble cake. The first stage was to make the crumble topping: sugar, flour, butter and cocoa powder. It got rather stuck to my fingers while I rubbed it all together and rather than letting those bits go to waste I had a good lick. If the finished item tasted as good as that is be pretty happy!

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Then, after washing my hands, on to the main cake. Pleasingly it used exactly the amount of butter left over from making the crumble mixture. I creamed the softened butter with the sugar. Rather aptly Bess had been playing with her marbles in the kitchen while we had been cooking earlier. This posed an entirely new hazard, as I forgot that there were marbles all over the floor and nearly had a nasty accident while fetching the eggs. But both myself and the eggs made it back to the worktop in one peice. I beat in the eggs one at a time and then whisked in the flour and baking powder. I realised I had forgotten the vanilla extract so have it all another whizz with that.

Now to the technical bit. I greased and lined a square cake tin and put dollops (rounded teaspoonsful) into it, leaving gaps of about the same size.

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This used about two-thirds to three-quarters of the cake mixture. I added cocoa powder and chopped plain chocolate to the remaining mixture and used that to fill in the gaps – it looked like a cakey chess board. Miraculously I had just the right amount of chocolate mixture.

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I got it in the oven just in the nick of time as Bess was bellowing down the stairs demanding my services.  The outcome of the cake was now down to Matt – he needed to take it out after 25 minutes then add the crumble top and bake for another ten. He bonus for doing this task for me was to lick out the bowl! When I got back downstairs it looked like Matt had had success as there was a delicious looking cake (and a clean bowl!).

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I was desperate to try some (since Christmas I have been quite a chocoholic!) but would have to wait until after lunch on Saturday.

The wait was worth it. And I think the new parents appreciated it too!

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Thursday’s pasta souffle

Feeling flush with the success of last week’s lasagne I thought I’d try something a bit interesting this week too.

We had purchased a large bag of spinach, which I had intended to use to make spinach and ricotta cannelloni, but realised that I didn’t have the requisite shaped pasta tubes so needed a change of plan. So, while she was napping, I pulled out all my veggie cook books from the behind Bess’s kitchen. There were not that many inspiring ideas for spinach and I was thinking that I would have to fall back on some kind of curry but then I came across something described as a “spouffle” in the River Cottage Veg Every Day book. This really amounted to a glorified pasta bake so I decided that I would give it a go.

Things did not get off to a good start as Bess and I were delayed coming home from the park. This was mainly because Bess in her toddler wisdom had insisted that despite it raining and being practically dark she wanted to go to the swings. And then, upon deciding that actually it was rather unpleasant being out refused to sit on her trike a ride home, and demanded that I carry her. And I stupidly had gone out without the sling. So I was already at least half an hour behind my mental schedule before I had even started. My planned solution to this was to up my level of multitasking. Ultimately I was aiming for some cooked pasta, some cooked spinach, a cheese sauce and some separated and beaten egg whites to be ready fairly simultaneously. Juggled with entertaining Bess. Looking at that all written down it now seems ludicrous that I even attempted it, but attempt I did.

I started off with the roux for the cheese sauce. Once that was on the go I boiled some water and got the penne in; and then washed the spinach. At which point my standard complex food preparation jinx happened –  a toddler poop. I turned the heat down on the roux and did an impressively quick (by my standards) nappy change. After which my priority was to drain the pasta, during this process Matt came in so I spent some mental reserves greeting him. I would like to blame the first calamity on this fact (and I’m embarrassed to say that at the time I did) but really it was only my carelessness that was to blame: I took my eye and nose off it for a moment and the roux was burnt. And not just a little bit burnt so that I could just pick the dodgy bits out – totally ruined so I had to start again.

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Never mind, dinner could still just about be achieved on schedule as Matt was now entertaining Bess with trains. While the new roux cooked, I cooked the spinach in the microwave (in a big plastic bowl just with the water that left on the leaves from rinsing – 1 minute on high, stir, 30 seconds on high; if you take one tip from this blog today let it be this one).

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Next to warm some milk in the microwave for making the sauce. According to the recipe I should have warmed the milk on the hob with some nutmeg and bay leaf, but I was not about to be faffing with more stuff on the hob so just grated a bit of nutmeg into the roux. Bess generally drinks goat milk (well, it’s her second favourite after human milk) and I decided to use this for the sauce. I ignored the bit of the recipe that said to add a third of the milk at a time and poured it all in – immediately regretting doing so as the despite my vigorous whisking the sauce stubbornly refused to become unlumpy, it was very thick though.

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It would have to do though and I figured that as there would be bits of spinach in the sauce the lumps would probably go unnoticed anyway. I drained the spinach, chopped it up small with scissors (that’s another good tip) and stirred it into the white sauce along with 75g strong cheddar and the cooked pasta, and then took the whole lot off the heat.

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Next to the eggs, I needed 3 egg yolks and 4 egg whites. So I still have one egg yolk sat in my fridge. Apart from one little bit of shell contamination that was easily rectified I had remarkable success with the egg separation, usually one of my most hated tasks. I think it was because time was getting on so I just to go for it – fortune favours the brave and all that! I whisked the egg whites until they were very firm; but didn’t try that thing of holding the bowl over my head – maybe one day when I have more time in case of failure. I stirred the egg yolks into the cheese sauce and then folded (by which I really mean gently stirred) the whisked whites in. The mixture looked ok and smelt rather good and I poured it into a greased oven dish. There was more than could safely fit into one dish (probably because I had included more pasta than I was supposed to) so I prepared another small one.

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These days we eat carrots nearly every day as it’s one of the few veg I know that Bess enjoys (god-forbid I try to get her to eat something green, this is one of the reasons I wanted to try this spinach thing with two of her other favourite things: pasta and cheese). The second major calamity occurred while the carrots were cooking and I was having a tidy of the kitchen – I heard a funny sort of bang noise. The lid of the big pan that I had been making the sauce in, which I had left on the other side of the hob to where the carrots were cooking, had spontaneously smashed into many tiny pieces.

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Fortunately it’s made of some kind of safety glass and hadn’t scattered everywhere. Nonetheless, I felt very nervous being around it and so turned off the heat under the carrots (I would finish them in the microwave along with some peas) and got Matt away from the trains (Bess had lost interest long ago)  to carefully deal with the broken lid. Which was a good job because as soon as he got it into a plastic bag the full disintegration occurred.

Much to my surprise the souffle both rose and got brown on top.

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More to the point it tasted delicious – although would have certainly benefited from more cheese (even though I used the extra mature stuff!). Bess tucked into the pasta as I had predicted but demanded “spinach off” before it passed her lips. Nonetheless, this is one I’ll be making again, but not on a weeknight when I’ve got places to go!

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Tuesday’s foolish muffins

Since Christmas it has continued to be a full on chocolate onslaught in our small team at work, and I suspect that I have been consuming more than my fair share! In order to try and make amends I rather foolishly offered to do some baking for the team meeting on Wednesday. Foolish because Tuesday evenings are about the worst possible time I could try and do baking as not only has it been a work day for me so Bess wants to spend a long time attached to my chest, but Matt goes out to Tai Chi so I am going solo on the toddler entertainment front. And even more foolish as I had agreed to a specific request for carrot cake so I could not just throw any old thing together.

I was rather stumped as to what to cook for tea and Bess was just demanding sausage so rather than go to any great efforts I got said required sausage out of the freezer along with a load of other bits and pieces: lentil and aubergine curry, beetroot balls, leek pancakes, and veggie stew. I defrosted / cooked that all while I boiled up some rice. There would be something there that Bess would enjoy and Matt could have some when he got in too.

As it turned out Bess was not interested in very much of it apart from the rice, and she then came up with her first ever proper sentence, “can we go?”! I thought this might have been a fluke but when I asked her where she said “room”, by which she means lounge, which is actually a ploy to get me on the sofa and to feed her. I knew that if I was to have any in fulfilling my baking promise I needed to deploy my finest powers of distraction and I needed to get on with it right away. So I wolfed down my remaining dinner and announced that we would be doing some baking.

Score one for me on distraction as Bess was immediately demanding I get “her” bowl out for mixing. And she was inpatient for me to put some flour in it too. I put a shake in her bowl and weighed 280g into mine. She was then happy stirring (and eating raw flour….) while I added the rest of the dry ingredients to my bowl: baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, sugar and spice. The recipe called for a mixture of cinnamon, ground cloves and nutmeg. But I used sweet mixed spice and cinnamon. The sweet mixed spice was probably a bit pointless really as I had an “accident” with the cinnamon and probably ended up adding more like a tablespoon than the half teaspoon that was suggested. Never mind, I like cinnamon! I gave Bess a little shake of cinnamon too as by now she was getting a little tired of just mixing her flour.

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Then to the wet ingredients. I started by grating the carrot. the recipe stated that I needed 110g, which seemed very specific. I got one big and one small carrot and that came to 130g which seemed close enough, especially with a bit of wastage anticipated. I have started buying organic carrots, the reason being that I feel that I don’t need to peel them. Over the course of a year this could be extremely labour saving! Bess was not happy that she was not involved in the carrot action so I scrubbed one up for her too. Score two for me on distraction as she now proceeded to do some sort of carrot song and dance with it around the kitchen.

Apparently I needed the zest and juice of an orange. The only oranges I had were blood oranges (and very delicious ones at that!) but I saw no reason why they wouldn’t work, apart from maybe giving the muffins a slightly strange colour. As it was, the only problem I came across in the use of blood oranges was the fact that my worktop ended up resembling a scene from Psycho, and with Bess continuing her carrot based performing arts I needed to be particularly careful that there wasn’t an accident which would have made things even messier.

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I added the carrot, orange, some water and some oil to a beaten egg and mixed it all up. The carrot had lost its entertainment value now and Bess was pestering for booby. Score 3 for me on distraction as I managed to engage her back in the mixing process with the addition of some grated carrot and raisins to her bowl. Or the eating process to be more accurate, raisins are always good to get me a few minutes! I wasted precious moments deliberating as to whether I should paper or silicon cake cases. By the time I had got them out of the cupboard and sorted out ones that were clean enough to use (they are an absolute nightmare to wash up!) Bess had eaten all 4 of  her raisins and was again asking for booby, I knew I needed to work quickly now.  However, score 4 for me on distraction as she was very happy to be given some of the less clean cake cases and put some of her carrot and flour mixture into them to cook in her little “oven”.

I worked hastily to mix the wet ingredients into the dry (adding some raisins at the same time) and ignored the fact that Bess was now entertaining herself by throwing the silicon cake cases. But it was inadequate entertainment for her, she still had booby on her mind. So I stopped my mixing and went for the final distraction technique I had up my metaphorical sleeve – a nice juicy pear. This resulted in a few minutes of genuine peace and I was able to get the muffins into the oven.

Bess finally got her longed for booby while the muffins cooked, stopping of her own accord when she heard the pinger go off in the kitchen after 20 minutes and dragging me off then to see the “cake, oven”.  They looked done and smelt great (that cinnamon accident was surely a happy one) and my one last challenge was putting the hot tray somewhere far enough out of Bess’s reach. If there’s one thing she might like more than booby it’s cake! Final score for me on distraction as I was able to direct her in the way of her stickers while I did a little bit of tidying, such that the kitchen looked less like (although not totally unlike) a scene from a horror film when Matt got in.

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BEFORE the tidying!

I thought it was only right to test one out before presenting to my colleagues so I chose the worst looking and cut it in “half” for Bess and I to share (the “halves” approximately being proportional to our actual size). It met her approval (“mmm, yummy cake”) so I was pretty confident that the muffins would have a good reception at work (apart from with those couple of people who have embarked on post-Christmas diets).

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And indeed they went down well in the meeting too (which was also marked by our team scoring 100% on our hand-hygiene assessment!). So maybe it wasn’t such a foolish endeavour after all to try and bake on a Tuesday evening.

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