Monday 25 February 2013

A Question of Taste

I begin as usual: reading the ingredients; checking I have everything; looking through the method; pre-heating the oven…you know the ritual before you begin to cook. Especially when you’ve never made it before. Except, as usual, I don’t have some of the ingredients required, or the time necessary to complete the cooking, or indeed the desire to actually make the final product. So what is wrong? Well, nothing. This is how most of my cooking and recipe following usually goes. Especially the part about never having the right ingredients. I either think I’ve got everything, begin, then find I don’t, or can’t find quite the right product at the supermarket, so choose what I believe will be a suitable alternative: It rarely is!

Goodshoeday (Linda) over at With Knife and Fork, tweeted recently that she was programmed never to follow a recipe properly and can’t resist tweaking each one. I feel much the same. It’s not that I don’t want to follow it: I prepare and embark on each recipe with all good intentions, much like John Thorne, one of America’s most loved food writers, who states that he was propelled straight to the stove after learning the science behind the cooking in Russ Parson’s ‘How to Read a French Fry’ (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2001), and was ‘ … sincerely expecting to stick to Russ’s recipe.’ (The Reviewer and the Recipe, Simple Cooking, Issue 75) Like him, however, what we actually end up eating often varies considerably from the original idea.

So why is it many of us, it seems, have tens, if not hundreds of recipe books which we regularly browse, but never seem to follow? What is it that makes us think we know best? Again, like John, I prefer to find my own way to solve the problem set rather than follow another’s method, which is why I rarely add amounts or definite ingredients to my blog recipes – I believe (rightly or wrongly) people just want the initial idea. When at school completing my Art GCSE and A-Level I could never ‘get started’. The inspiration often wouldn’t come. But once I had an idea, it grew, developed and metamorphosed along many, often divergent, paths to several ends. I find now that my cooking replicates this method…I begin by trawling recipes for the same, or a very similar outcome, much like Simple Cooking suggests as a ‘best way to learn more about a dish’, however, John also wonders whether ‘recipes for entirely different dishes might have something to say to each other’, which I had never considered. Should I be searching for recipes with similar main ingredients, cooking methods, or country of origin to see if there are common factors, then creating my own ‘combo recipe’? I don’t think so: I’m in agreement that a recipe should be a starting point painted in very broad brushstrokes.

One of the keys to successful cooking is, in my opinion, remembering to record key factors of a dish if it goes right and is particularly tasty. At least that way, you’ll know how to make it again perfectly. I was trying to come up with a take on Mince and Onion Pie and ended up throwing in, as I usually do, whatever needed using up from the bottom of the fridge. Ingredients included sweet potatoes and carrots as well as the more usual fare, but the thing that really made it tasty was the spicy pepperoni and cheddar cheese topping before adding the puff pastry. After eating, I quickly scribbled the main ideas down, just in case I forgot next time. Now when I make it, I don’t divert from these because it suits our tastes just as it is.

So, if you’re trying out a recipe and choose not to follow it to the letter, don’t worry. As long as you enjoy it, that’s what’s important: it’s all a question of taste.


You can find John Thorne online here, but he has, unfortunately for me and many others, decided to ‘wrap things up’ at Issue 100 of his popular subscription ‘Simple Cooking’. Having only just discovered this food-based newsletter I will definitely be subscribing to the remaining issues. At least there are nearly two-years worth of quarterly reading remaining!

Many thanks to Linda for suggesting delving into John’s archives, so to speak, and to John himself for the prompt response with exactly the right article. Thank you.

References: Simple Cooking, Issue Number 75, Sept. – Dec. 2001, John Thorne

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Root Vegetable & Chicken Risotto–Toddler Teatimes

I still find I cook different meals for the LO and am trying to incorporate making our meal with hers, but this is still something I struggle to do as we never eat at the same time. To make things easier, cooking up a large batch of something that you can have later and she can have earlier is something I’m trying more and more to do. After I saw how quickly my 20 month old wolfed down a Little Dish risotto, I decided that I could make a big batch of similar, freeze it and, fingers crossed, she’d do the same with a much cheaper version. As it’s quite sloppy, and there’s not much chewing involved, this is now a firm favourite for Frankie and both of us, even if we don’t eat together: Something that I always feel guilty about.


It’s a simple recipe. Chop whichever root vegetables you fancy into small cubes. I used butternut squash and sweet potato. Add a few chopped tomatoes and some tomato puree and fry off. Once they cubes are beginning to soften, add some water and leave to simmer for about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, make a basic risotto. Use finely chopped onions, risotto rice and homemade or child-friendly chicken stock. I cheated and used half a stock cube with about three times the water, then added bundles of herbs and pepper. Once the rice is soft, stir in the root vegetable mixture, adding grated cheese and tiny pieces of cooked chicken. I often make this on a Monday using the leftover roast trimmings. If you want to freeze portions and the chicken has already been cooked, add this when the risotto has cooled and before freezing.

Friday 15 February 2013

Croque Madame Lunchtime Muffins


After watching the fabulous Rachel Khoo again on Sunday mornings, I wanted to give her take on the Croque Madame a go for a Saturday lunch. An alternative to eggs on toast, she adapts the ingredients for a classic Croque Madame and turns them into a crispy, béchamel/mornay stuffed treat, perfect for all the family.

I can’t compete with the beautiful photography and wonderful writing of this little gem of a blog from ‘Eat, Little Bird’, but this is where I found the recipe. It’s a simple combination and you can really add whatever you’d like. Since it was also for my toddler, I left salt and cheese out from the béchamel as there was to be cheese on top.

You’ll need:

milk, flour, butter, grated nutmeg and Dijon mustard for the béchamel.

ham/bacon, small eggs & cheese for the filling

sliced white bread and melted butter for the cases.



Cut the crusts from the bread (I shoved these in the coffee grinder to make breadcrumbs for the freezer!) then butter both sides. I melted the butter first but don’t think this really matters as it will melt in the oven anyway!

Next, push each slice into a muffin or dariole mould (1), place some torn ham or cooked bacon pieces in the bottom of each (2) and tip a small egg on top (3). If the egg is too big (I used the small ones my chickens have just begun laying again this week) tip a little of the white out into a freezer bag and freeze to use for meringue at a later date.


Make a quick béchamel: Pop a tablespoon of butter into a hot pan and quickly whisk in some plain flour until the mixture begins to form a ball. Slowly, tip some milk in and whisk quickly over a high heat. Pour a little in at a time and continue adding until you have a thick, cream sauce. Add the mustard and nutmeg. You can add grated cheese here too. Pour on top of the egg (4).

Grate a little cheese on top, sprinkle with pepper (5) and place in the oven at 180 oC for 12-15 minutes if you like the yolks runny, and 15-20 minutes if you prefer them more cooked.


The whole process is a little phaffy (especially when compared to poached eggs and ham on toast!) but the end result was lovely: A nice crispy shell, helped, I think, by the fact I used metal cases rather than silicone; and melted insides. I’d add more béchamel next time and reduce the cooking time so the yolk was runny as mine needed a little more moisture as they were quite dry. I’d also add some chopped parsley and maybe some chives for a little more flavour. If you used a smoked bacon, that would be really delicious! I’d do this again as the ingredients are those usually found in the fridge and cupboards, but probably only if I had some leftover béchamel from a lasagne or similar to reduce phaffiness!


Sunday 10 February 2013

Sunday Afternoon Project - Mary Berry’s Bakewell Tart

My Other Half mentioned the other day that his cookery exploits ‘aren’t allowed’ on my blog. Well, this post proves they are, especially when they were as tasty as the Bakewell Tart he made last weekend. In fact, this isn’t the only thing he’s put his mind to recently: Christmas Dinner was a delicious and perfectly rare Beef Wellington; This weekend saw the first attempt at Choux Pastry to make Chocolate Éclairs, although, upon finding we had no chocolate, they were quickly adapted to Coffee Éclairs. And equally delicious. I think many recipes he’s enjoyed trying have been inspired by Mary and Paul from GBBO, and so far, the Bakewell Tart has been the most impressive, both in looks and taste.

Once the ingredients are measured and combined, it’s really a case of tipping it all in, baking and eating. As I didn’t make it, I’m not sure if David made any tweaks to the original recipe which you can find here. I do know though, that our pastry tin is considerable wider than the one suggested, so he made up more of the filling to top it up. He also used shop bought ready-rolled short crust pastry because, as we know, life’s too short!


We at first thought that it could do with a few more minutes in the oven as the filling didn’t look quite set, but were, as usual, too quick for our own good. Once cooled, the filling had just set nicely. Our first slice was for dessert with custard. The next ones, hungrily guzzled cold from the tin. It was just too irresistible, and looked lovely to boot. I haven’t been let into the next Sunday Afternoon project but already, my mouth is watering!

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Wholemeal Pitta Breads

After attempting the Hummus, we needed the homemade pittas to dip! Again, I followed Helen's recipe and they turned out a treat, with the OH even declaring they wee the best bread I’ve ever baked.


They were incredibly easy and the mixture proved nicely, something which I have little patience for usually. They were quite ‘bready’ and only a couple had the ‘pitta pocket’ trademark, but this was my fault, I should have rolled them out thinner, but I didn’t think they’d rise quite so much in the oven. Luckily, they were still thin enough to slice and dip. Phew!


Monday 4 February 2013

Mini Caramel Lattes with Homemade Syrup

012I’m not a latte girl. I prefer a medium strength, boring filter coffee or Americano with a splash of skimmed milk. Before Christmas, however, I noticed that one of those ‘everywhere’ high street coffee shops (we, unfortunately, have very few little independent ones near us) were selling a Salted Caramel Latte. It was cold outside, I was shattered, me and the little one needed a rest, so I stopped  and I promptly ordered one. It was delicious and soon, whenever I passed one of these shops in town, I couldn't walk past without buying. When you total the cost and, not to mention, the calories of all those lattes, I decided there must be a better way to drink your coffee. But Christmas has now come and gone, the weather has turned a little milder, and I still hanker after the sweet salted caramel fix.

It was with the thought of saving money in mind that I then trawled the net to find the perfect homemade syrup idea. I found two main ones: the first being a sugar / water caramel syrup mix; the second being a basic salted caramel using cream and butter. Now it was decision time. Did I opt for the rich and creamy salted caramel, or a more simple syrup? Deciding that the closet to what I enjoyed in the coffee shops was a syrup, I chose that version. I could always add cream on top after, although that sort of defeats the point of being able to control your calorie intake!

I chose this recipe, a simple combination of 2 US cups (450g) white sugar, 0.3 US cups (66g) brown sugar and 2 US cups (473ml) of warm tap water. Tip everything, along with some vanilla essence and the scraped inside of a pod, into a pan, mix and simmer gently for 10-15 minutes. When cool, pour into a sealable bottle.


To make the latte, tip a small amount, (1-2 tbsp) syrup into the bottom of a cup. Add a small espresso and top with milk. To make it even easier, use instant coffee in hot milk and add to the syrup. If you want a lower calorie version, make a ‘mini’ latte, use skimmed milk and don’t add whipped cream to the top, although I must say, this gives a lovely topping through which to drink.

I felt the syrup was a little thin, even after cooling, so I couldn’t use it to drizzle over the top of the cream, Next time, I’d use maybe three quarters of the water and add more if it was becoming too thick. That or rapidly boil for a short amount of time to help it thicken.

After all of that, I noticed (as you may have too) that I forget to ‘salted’ part to this drink. Well, it seemed to be one or the other – a plain syrup, or a salted caramel which would possibly be the wrong consistency to add to coffee, and doesn’t last as long in the fridge. A small sprinkle of salt over the top of the syrup would definitely do the trick though, just don’t overdo it!

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