Monday, 2 March 2015

Dark Chocolate Cowboy Bark (Secret Recipe Club)

Cowboy bark

My assignment for the Secret Recipe Club this month was Cindy from Hun... What's For Dinner?

Cindy has loads of great recipes to choose from. I was seriously tempted by her tex-mex rice parcels, but we're trying to clear out our freezer and pantry at the moment, so buying all the extra ingredients was out of the question.

Instead, I went for something that sounded not only delicious, but a great way to use up a bunch of half-finished packets that were hanging around.

It's called cowboy bark.

I'd never heard of this before, but the idea seems to originate with Trader Joe's in the US. I always shop there if I'm in the States for long enough to need groceries, but somehow this had passed me by.

I made a few adjustments to Cindy's recipe, primarily by skipping the Oreos (I'm not a fan) and reducing some of the other quantities as the tray filled up. I also skipped the extra salt, since the pretzels and nuts are already salted.

Cowboy Bark

Cowboy Bark
Serves 4

400g dark chocolate
1 cup salted pretzel snacks
⅓cup salted peanuts
⅓cup roast almonds
⅓cup fudge pieces

  1. Measure out all the ingredients in advance, and line a deep baking tray with greaseproof paper.
  2. Roughly chop the almonds.
  3. Melt the chocolate in a bain marie or (carefully!) in the microwave. Keep back about a quarter, and grate it, to stir in once the majority has melted; this will temper the chocolate and give a cleaner break.
  4. Pour the melted chocolate onto the greaseproof paper, and smooth with the back of a spoon.
  5. Arrange the pretzels over the chocolate surface.
  6. Sprinkle over the peanuts, almonds, and fudge pieces.
  7. Allow to cool before eating.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Goals 2015: February Checkpoint

We're two months into the year (yes, that surprised me, too), and I thought this might be a good time to reflect on my 2015 goals.

As I've learnt in previous years, having targets only helps me if I remember to check my progress against them on a regular basis. So here's a little accountability for myself.

1. Finish my thesis & graduate as a Doctor
I've been working on my redraft intermittently, although I was briefly sidetracked into working on a conference paper instead. As this covers some of the same results, which I needed to write up anyway, it's far from wasted effort, and will give me another publication credit. The paper has been accepted for a conference in April, which also means a trip to Cairo (bonus!).

2. Write another novel
This is on hold for now until I finish the next draft of my thesis. However I am allowing myself to work intermittently on short pieces, since it feels like my brain will explode if I don't allow some of the fiction to trickle out.

3. Submit short stories to five different venues (2/5)
I've sent in two stories to paying markets this year: a flash fiction piece set in the high Arctic, and a sci-fi piece that revolves around hacking game. No responses, yet.

I've also self-published The Falconer, a little fantasy mystery that's free to download. This is set in the same world as Watersmeet, so if you enjoyed that setting, I hope you'll like this one. (For those who care about such things, it's about 10k words, so in that awkward space somewhere between short story and novella.)

4. Read & review at least 52 books (14/52)
Starting strong on this one - which isn't too surprising since it's probably the easiest of all my goals. I've already read more than a dozen books towards my goal; all but two fit the Strange Charm demographic of speculative fiction by women, and I'm also doing much better at remembering to update my Goodreads account as I go.

5. Log at least 104 runs or walks over 5k (17/104)
I've been enjoying lots of lovely walks, this winter: so far this has consisted of exploring local footpaths, holidays in Cornwall and the Isle of Wight, and walking to work in Sweden.

6. Log at least 104 physio & weight-lifting sessions (5/104)
I'm a little behind on this one, mainly because I need to figure out how to keep up with my physio while travelling. If anyone has experience of this, please, share your hints and tips.

7. Take an introductory Persian class
I'm about half way through the beginners' course that started in January, although I sadly missed a couple of lessons thanks to an impromptu trip to Sweden. I'm busily catching up, though.

8. Develop and post 52 new recipes (3/52)
Slightly behind on this one, although I do have a couple outstanding that have been made but not yet blogged. My favourite so far was this gnocchi bake with mushrooms & artichokes.

9. Participate in SRC for at least eight months (0/8)
My first post of the year, for March, is publishing in a couple of days. I knew I wouldn't be doing January or February, so this is on track, even if it doesn't look like it.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Signal to Noise: Musical Fantasy in Mexico City

With National Literacy Week on the horizon, I was asked to contribute to a list of most-anticipated 2015 releases over on tombola times (the article is coming soon, I'll update the link once it's live).

I had to think really, really hard about this one. I get quite a lot of advance review copies, so I'm regularly reading books that aren't out yet, but it's still a lot of pressure to select one title in particular that stands out.

Since Joanna and I started Strange Charm, I've been consciously reading more widely and diversely, which has led to discovering a number of books that I might otherwise have missed.

Signal to Noise is one such: a tale of magic and community set in Mexico City. For me, one of the greatest pleasures of reading is the opportunity to immerse myself in another world - which I suppose is why I read so much fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction in the first place. This title stood out for its combination of a unique magical style with a detailed portrayal of Mexican family life.

The story follows Meche through two phases of her life: as she discovers magic in her teenage years, and years later, when she returns to Mexico City as an adult to attend her father's funeral.

The magic Meche and her friends discover is enmeshed in music, and it's brutal. This is not the story of a teenage heroine saving the world: rather, it's a recognisable portrayal of just what might unfold if a troubled girl was given the power to throw out physical harm along with angry words.

As an adult, Meche is still haunted by her youthful experiences. She thinks she's put her childhood behind her, but all she's really succeeded in doing is running away. Forced to return and confront her disfunctional family, and her one-time friends,

The result is a thoughtful, unusual look at the consequences of magic, projected firmly into the real world and its everyday concerns.

Signal to Noise is published today.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Mississippi Mud Pie

Mississippi mud pie

Mississippi mud pie is my second entry for Janice's #recipeclippings challenge. This recipe is taken from an ASDA magazine article by Jonathan Rose, circa 1997 (based on the closing date of the competition on the back of the page).

This is a bit nostalgic for me as it's one of the first recipes I ever remember making from a magazine, back when I was only just old enough to bake by myself. I only clearly recall two things about the experience: the chocolatey deliciousness, and the fact that butter from the base leaked all over the place. Put a baking tray under your loose-based tin, folks!

Recipe Clippings

I have no idea how authentic this is as a mississippi mud pie: a little internet research suggests 'a bit', but I didn't have that option in 1997. Anyway, authentic or not, it's always stuck in my mind as being incredibly rich and decadent and delicious. The original recipe uses an extra helping of milk and white chocolate to decorate the top, but I decided it was probably quite rich enough as it is.

I actually made this on the same day as my past recipe clippings entry (the gorgeous gnocchi) so we had a two-course meal entirely inspired by my ancient magazine collection. It's great fun to rediscover things I saved in my teens.

Mississippi Mud Pie
Serves 12

For the base:
50g butter
150g digestive biscuits

For the filling:
1tbsp espresso coffee granules
1tbsp boiling water
300g plain chocolate
175g butter
175ml single cream
250g muscovado sugar
3 eggs
50g walnuts or pecans

  1. Crush the biscuits and melt the butter for the base.
  2. Combine biscuits and melted butter, and push into a loose-based, non-stick 20cm cake tin.
  3. Put the base in the fridge to chill while you prepare the filling.
  4. Preheat the oven to 165°C (fan).
  5. Make up the espresso powder with 1tbsp boiling water.
  6. Place a large glass bowl over a pan of boiling water, melt together the butter, chocolate, and espresso.
  7. Once the chocolate has melted, stir in the sugar and cream, then beat in the eggs.
  8. Chop the nuts, and stir through the chocolate mixture.
  9. Pour the chocolate filling over the pie base.
  10. Place the cake tin on a baking sheet, and bake for an hour.
  11. Reduce the oven temperature to 150°C, cover the pie surface with greaseproof paper, and return to the oven for a further 10-15 minutes until set.
  12. Allow to cool in the tin before serving. (I also dusted the top with a little icing sugar.)

Monday, 26 January 2015

Mushroom & Artichoke Gnocchi Bake

Recipe Clippings

Around the new year, Janice from Farmersgirl Kitchen was looking through some old magazine clippings, and inspired me to do likewise. During the subsequent discussion on Instagram, Janice proposed the #recipeclippings challenge, a monthly challenge to make something from your clippings box.

I have a huge box file of magazine cut-outs, which I seldom even open, so it was great to be prompted to sort through them. Most of mine date back to my teens, when I cooked less and collected anything that looked halfway interesting, so my first stage was to throw away a lot of things that now seemed much too simple to even require a recipe. Of my slimmed-down collection, though, I think I'm far more likely to actually work through them now -- especially if Janice keeps up the encouragement!

Recipe ClippingsRecipe Clippings

For my first #recipeclippings entry, I actually combined two recipes, one for gnocchi (from an extremely old copy of Prima) and a Jamie Oliver recipe for baked mushrooms (from Easy Living). The latter probably would have gone in the "too simple, throw away" pile if not for the fact that it sounded like something which would be a wonderful accompaniment to gnocchi. I followed the gnocchi recipe quite closely, but I was very flexible about the mushrooms, and tweaked quite a lot (including the addition of some artichoke hearts, which was definitely a good call).

I can't remember if I've made gnocchi from scratch before, but if so, it was long enough ago that I've completely forgotten. I also accidentally made twice as much gnocchi dough as I needed, and learnt an important lesson: you can't save the dough, even overnight. (Apparently it's fine to shape the gnocchi and then freeze them, but we had friends visiting and I wasn't quite that organised.) It's a bit fiddly, but really nice for a treat, and certainly something I'd make again.

Recipe Clippings

Mushroom & Artichoke Gnocchi Bake
Serves 4

For the gnocchi:
625g peeled potatoes (weigh after peeling)
15g butter
½tsp salt
200g plain white flour
1 egg

For the bake:
1 large red onion
2 cloves garlic
450g mixed mushrooms (I used 150g each of shitake, oyster, and chestnut)
8 artichoke hearts
a large handful of flat leaf parsley
1 ball buffalo mozarella
50g mature cheddar cheese
2tbsp olive oil

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
  2. Steam or boil the potatoes until soft, and mash together with the butter and salt.
  3. Prepare the gnocchi dough by combining the mashed potato, flour, and egg in a large mixing bowl.
  4. Knead until the dough is uniform, and set aside.
  5. Finely dice the onion and garlic, and chop the mushrooms into bite-sized pieces.
  6. Fry the onion, garlic, and mushroom together until soft (add a little extra olive oil if necessary). Drain any excess liquid.
  7. Shape the gnocchi dough into a long, thin sausage, and use a sharp knife to cut off bite-sized pieces.
  8. Coat each piece of gnocchi in flour, and shape with your fingers.
  9. Boil a large pan of salted water, and add the gnocchi a few at a time, boiling for 1-2 minutes until they float.
  10. In a large, deep roasting dish, layer up the cooked gnocchi with the mushrooms.
  11. Quarter the artichokes, and add to the bake, along with the herbs.
  12. Tear the buffalo mozarella into small pieces, and scatter.
  13. Grate the cheddar over the top, and drizzle with olive oil.
  14. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the cheese is melted and bubbling, and the mixture is heated through.
Step by step photos below:

Recipe Clippings

Recipe Clippings

Recipe Clippings

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