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Sunday, 26 February 2012

Millionaire's Shortbread



One of my friends was running a charity cake sale on Friday. When she told me her plans I quickly promised to make something, but it took me a while longer to settle on what exactly my contribution would be.

Millionaire's shortbread is something I love in (very) small doses, but the thick layer of caramel makes this one of the sweetest morsels you could imagine, so I can't make a batch just for us. I sometimes make it for parties, but this was a perfect opportunity to snaffle a couple of pieces for myself before giving the rest away.

This recipe is more traditionally topped with milk chocolate, which makes the end result even sweeter; I prefer it with plain chocolate, around 65% cocoa.

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Millionaire's Shortbread
Makes 25 - 36 squares

For the shortbread:
280g plain flour
60g caster sugar
225g (2 sticks) butter

For the caramel:
130g soft brown sugar
225g (2 sticks) butter
2tbsp golden syrup
2 cans condensed milk (397g each)
1 tsp vanilla essence

For the top:
200g dark chocolate
Sugar sprinkles (to decorate)

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C, and line a 10-inch square tin with greaseproof paper.
  2. Sieve the flour & caster sugar together in a large bowl, and rub in the butter for the shortbread.
  3. Press into the bottom of the tin and bake for 25 minutess.
  4. While the shortbread is cooling (in the tin), melt the butter, sugar, syrup, and condensed milk over a low heat. Stir continuously to avoid localised burning.
  5. Bring to the boil, and simmer for 7-8 minutes, still stirring constantly.
  6. Remove from the heat and continue to stir as the caramel cools to room temperature. It should thicken, becoming smooth and glossy.
  7. Pour the cooled caramel over the shortbread base, and wiggle a little to smooth out the top surface.
  8. Leave to cool completely for a couple of hours, then melt the chocolate.
  9. Spread the melted chocolate over the top. Shake the tray to level the surface, scatter sugar sprinkles across the top, and put in the fridge to chill overnight (or for at least a couple of hours until the chocolate has hardened).
  10. Use a large, sharp knife to cut the shortbread into small squares before serving.
Freezer Instructions
Cut before freezing to make it easy to pull out a square or two when you need a sugar rush - then just defrost overnight.


Friday, 24 February 2012

Wine Tasting



A couple of weeks ago, some friends asked us whether we'd like to go to a wine tasting. I'm a long way from being a wine expert, so it sounded like a fun opportunity to learn a bit more and to broaden my horizons in good company.

The evening was designed around pairs of wines, in each case matching a well-known wine with a more unusual variety.

White wines
Chablis and Godello
Muscadet and Soave
Viognier and Albariño
Sauvignon Blanc and Bacchus
Gewurztraminer and Hárslevelű

Red wines
Pinot Noir and Nerello Mascallese
Merlot and Zweigelt
Malbec and Durif
Shiraz and Alentejo
Pinotage and Agiorgitiko

Now, I hadn't even heard of all of the 'common' ones (Viognier? huh?), let alone the more obscure selections. But when did a little thing like that ever stop me? I'm certainly quick to decide what I do and don't like.

It turns out that having a good eye (or should that be tongue?) for flavours is something that translates easily from food into wine. I can usually pick out the herbs and spices that have gone into a sauce, and it turns out that getting the fruit flavours of a wine is pretty much the same skill. Have a taste, compare to your mental dictionary of established flavours, and away you go. Cue excited cries of Raspberries! Peaches! Under-ripe apples! Though of course, not everything tastes of fruit (even if it is made of grapes) and I had to add strange wine words like 'tannin' and 'vegetal' to my vocabulary once we got onto the reds.

It was a fun evening, and definitely educational, although nothing tempted me quite enough to fill out the little order form that came with the booklet.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Cheat's Ciabatta



I have a confession to make: I hardly ever bake bread. This is strange, perhaps, for someone who enjoys baking as much as I do. But even though I don't have a very sweet tooth, I've always found cakes and biscuits more fun to experiment with.

But when my dad came to visit at Christmas, he introduced me to the idea of bread mixes. It feels like cheating, and I was very reluctant at first, but he persuaded me to have a go. I was really pleasantly surprised by how fresh and delicious the resulting breads were. My favourite was the ciabatta mix, which makes two loaves or (my preference) 10 really nice rolls.

Despite my purely emotional resistance to the idea of baking from a packet mix, this is actually significantly less cheating than what I usually do, which is just to buy a loaf of bread from the supermarket when I need one.

ciabatta bread mix

I thought it might be fun to compare the cost, time, and effort involved in the two methods of acquiring bread. These comparisons are based on the assumption that we need to go and buy bread outside of our regular grocery shopping, requiring a separate trip, which is quite often how it works out.

Cost:
A loaf of ciabatta at the nearest supermarket costs £1.14, plus there's also the cost of petrol (we're a couple of miles away). Compared to this, a packet of ciabatta bread mix is 75p, plus electricity to heat the oven. The ciabatta mix makes a larger quantity of bread than a single loaf, almost twice as much.

Time:
Driving to the shop, buying a loaf of bread, and driving back again takes about 25-30 minutes depending on queues. Making up the bread mix only takes about five minutes, but then there's 35 minutes of rising time, and 15 minutes of baking (for rolls) - giving a total of about an hour before the bread is ready to eat.

Effort:
Going out, the whole time is spent driving or shopping. By contrast, the actual work involved in making up this bread mix is about ten minutes - mixing, kneading, and moving the bread in and out of the oven. While the bread is rising and baking, I can put my feet up with a good book.

In conclusion, we can get bread a little quicker by driving to the shop, but baking it myself results in a much fresher, tastier loaf. It's also cheaper, and takes less actual work. I've swallowed my anti-packet pride, and have now taken to keeping a few packets of this mix in the cupboard for when I need them.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Product Review: Snow Boots & Ski Socks



When Zalando online shopping approached me and asked if I'd like to do a product review, I was spoilt for choice. I must have spent hours flicking through the site, admiring photos of beautiful things and constantly changing my mind about what to try out. I was seriously tempted by one of the purple North Face jackets, but I also really needed a decent pair of winter boots.

I have really awkward-shaped feet and legs, and I hate shoe shopping with a passion, so I really wasn't sure whether it was worth the risk of ordering shoes online. On the plus side, if it worked, I would have avoided an unpleasant shopping trip... but how likely was it to work out? The Zalando site was really helpful, though, including loads of product details like the height of the boots and also the width of the calf.

In the end, I went for a pair of Anna Field snow boots and ordered a couple of pairs of funky pink ski socks to go with them. The first thing I noticed about these boots - and part of the reason I was willing to chance them - is that they're really sensibly designed. They have a zip up the side, but they've also got laces and an adjustable tongue, which is more comfortable for those of us with chunky calf muscles. (Did I mention how much I hate shoe shopping?)

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Unfortunately this winter has been milder than average in my part of the world, so I've mostly had to make do with admiring other people's beautiful snow scenes and daydreaming. But on Friday we finally woke up to find the countryside covered in white, and I went out to crunch about in the snow.

Overall, I'm really happy. The boots had a decent amount of grip (well, they are called snow boots), come a good way up my legs which will be handy when we get some deeper drifts, and have a soft furry lining around the ankles. And they fit! But the socks are my favourite: super warm and snuggly, a gorgeous colour with cute patterns, and with comfy flat seams. I wish I'd snapped up more than two pairs, because I can see I'll be wearing these a lot.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Overnight on the Lycian Way: George House, Faralya



After a day of hiking through the heat, across beautiful Turkish hillsides, we were ready for a lie down before dinner! Luckily my dad had done this before, and had already booked us a night at the lovely George House in Faralya. We helped ourselves to ripe oranges from the tree, and went to find our cabin.

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Actually, it happened that we were staying in one of the newer buildings (with en suite bathroom facilities!), but the little log cabins are adorable, aren't they?

Dinner was brought in huge bowls from which we could help ourselves: soup to start, then menemen (a kind of Turkish omlette with chilli and vegetables), courgettes in tomato sauce, and a spiced cabbage mixture. There was also some meat dish, but I didn't pay attention to that; I was more interested in the yummy veggie options. All this was served with rice, salad, and bread. I went back for seconds and thirds - walking makes me hungry!

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The beds were firm and comfy (essential!) although we were a bit chilly under the thin blanket - Turkey gets cold at night, in November.

Breakfast the next morning was more salad, boiled eggs, yoghurt, and bread. I'm not really convinced that salad is an acceptable breakfast food, so I mostly had bread with a generous helping of local honey.

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The Lycian way - blobs of paint mark the way home

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Mixed Vegetable Pasties



I'm always disappointed by the small selection of veggie pies and pasties on offer in the supermarkets. Not only is there not much choice, but they're often not very good, underfilled with anaemic fillings.

So I started to make my own.

Making pasties is a messy and fiddly job, and it takes a while. There's no getting around that. But if I make them in bulk, I can spend a couple of hours preparing a big batch, and freeze them ready for eating over the following weeks. The recipe below makes 12 pasties, but I usually double up the quantities. That way I've made six dinners for the two of us (two pasties each), which equates to a very reasonable amount of effort per meal (20 minutes). When we're ready to eat them, they can be cooked straight from the freezer.

vegetable pasties

Mixed Vegetable Pasties
Makes 12

For the pastry:
550g plain flour
250g butter (2 sticks)
cold water

For the filling:
1 small red onion
1 small sweet pointed pepper
5-6 large florets of broccoli
1 courgette
a handful of peas
200g cheese, grated
Black pepper and herbs to taste (I like a generous sprinkle of oregano)

  1. Cube the butter, and rub into the flour until no large pieces remain.
  2. Add cold water, a little at a time, until the pastry sticks together into a ball.
  3. Set aside the pastry while you prepare the filling.
  4. Chop the vegetables into small pieces (about 1cm cubed, at the largest), and steam for 2-3 minutes over boiling water.
  5. By your preferred method, roll out the pastry and cut 12 seven-inch circles. I find the easiest way is to divide the pastry into 12 lumps, and roll each one out between clingfilm sheets to the appropriate size.
  6. Divide the vegetables and cheese evenly between the twelve pastry circles. Add pepper and your choice of herbs, to taste.
  7. Brush around the edge of each circle with water, and fold in half to contain the vegetables. Press down the edges to seal.
  8. To bake immediately: Preheat the oven to 200°C and bake for 25 minutes, or until lightly browned.

Freezer Instructions
Arrange uncooked pasties on baking sheets, and put in the coldest part of your freezer to quickly freeze them. Once they're fully frozen, you can move them to bags or boxes. To cook from frozen, they'll take about 30-35 minutes at 200°C (or you can thaw them overnight and follow the regular cooking instructions).


Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Gözleme: A Recipe for Turkish Pancakes




One of my favourite meals in Turkey was the ubiquitous Gözleme, a thin pancake stuffed with yummy fillings. Veggie options typically included some combination of potato, cheese, onion, and spinach, with very liberal application of seasonings.

I haven't yet braved making my own dough for the pancakes - it's going to be hugely challenging to roll it so thinly - but I did manage to find pre-made sheets in a local Turkish grocery shop. They're called yufka. The ones we bought in Turkey were full circular sheets (folded to fit in the packet) but the only ones I've found in the UK are cut into triangles.

If I'd been aiming for total authenticity, I should have bought some Turkish cheese, but as it happened I used red leicester as that's what I had in the fridge! The Turkish "white cheese" tends to be slightly acidic, and gives a bit of a different taste to the final dish. You could use feta to approximate the flavour, and crumble it rather than grating.

Gozleme ready to eat

Yufka - dough sheets

Gözleme Recipe
Serves 2

8 yufka triangles
1 medium potato
1 onion
50g (2oz) cheese
Olive oil

Herbs & seasonings to taste:
oregano
thyme
flat leaf parsley
sumac
salt
black pepper
  1. Grate the potato and cheese, and finely chop the onion.
  2. Brush one side of a yufka triangle with olive oil.
  3. Put the triangle oil-side down in a pan.
  4. Arrange a quarter of the cheese, potato and onion evenly across the surface.
  5. Season with liberal quantities of salt, pepper, sumac, and oregano.
  6. Put another triangle on top, and brush more oil on top.
  7. Cook over a low heat for 10-15 minutes, turning frequently, until both sides are browned.
  8. Repeat for the remaining yufka sheets.

Gozleme in the pan

Gozleme filling


Sunday, 12 February 2012

SFX: A Weekend Of Scifi Madness



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Last weekend, we went to Wales. Not, as we usually do, to camp or walk up mountains. But to attend a science fiction convention, the SFX Weekender.

I'd never been to anything like this before, so I didn't really know what to expect. A friend won free tickets, and I do enjoy reading a lot of fantasy and sci-fi books, so it sounded like it might be a fun use of a weekend. There was a packed schedule: films and TV screenings, various talks and events, as well as a bar and a shopping area full of small stalls. There was a quiz one night, where we somehow managed to come fourteenth out of about a hundred teams (hint: it wasn't down to me). And just wandering around the site was entertaining of itself, as there were loads of people dressed up as their favourite characters - from Darth Vader to the daleks.

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I went to a few discussion panels where authors and other artists took on a diverse range of topics. Elf Preservation considered whether fantasy books require invented species of strange creatures; It's Not A Story, It's A Map addressed the ubiquity of maps inside the cover of most epic fantasy novels; What Makes British Comics Unique gave a lot of interesting insight into the difference between the US and UK comics scene; We're All Doomed! was about the increasingly-popular (post)apocalyptic fiction.

But the highlight for me was watching Just A Minute played by four speculative fiction authors - including China Mieville, who just happens to be one of my favourite writers. The topics were all fantasy-and-scifi related, and the writers really got into the spirit of the game as played on Radio 4.

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We also went to a few screenings, including an hour-long session of sci-fi shorts (which introduced me to the idea of comedy sci-fi), and a singalong showing of the musical episode of Buffy.

If you're at all into sci-fi, fantasy, or horror you might well enjoy something like this. I'm already hoping to win more tickets next year!

My first novel, Rebellion, is a fast-paced fantasy adventure. If you want to get a free copy, just sign up for my mailing list today or tomorrow.

Friday, 10 February 2012

A Turkish Miscellany



A few more photos from our November trip to Turkey, that didn't really fit in anywhere else:

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The Turkish flag fluttering overhead.

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Goats crossing near my dad's house.

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The men of Kemer seem to spend all day chatting and playing games - which can't be bad!

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There are several of these little huts dotted in the mountains; I can't translate the signs, but I'm pretty sure the message is that we should keep out.

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And finally, the last sun lounger on the beach at Ölüdeniz - a coastal resort which was basically a ghost town when we passed through, since it was the off-season.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Mango, Pineapple, and Ginger Cookies



I was working through recipe ideas for my first cookbook (more news on that soon!) when I decided to give this combination a whirl, and I'm so glad I did. The sweet tropical fruits are perfectly balanced by the sharp kick of the ginger, and it makes a refreshing change from the everyday chocolate chip cookie. And I'm not alone in appreciating a bit of variety: I served these alongside a few other flavours, including popular classics such as triple chocolate chip, and these ones were gobbled up first.

Mango, Pineapple & Ginger cookies


Mango, Pineapple & Ginger Cookies
Makes about 24 large cookies

3 cups (500g) plain white flour
2/3 cup (180g) white granulated sugar
1 cup (170g) soft brown sugar
1tsp baking powder
1tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs
250g (2¼ American sticks) butter, melted
¾ cup (165g) crystallized pineapple
¾ cup (165g) crystallized mango
½ cup (110g) crystallized ginger


  1. Preheat the oven to 170°C.

  2. Crystallized fruits and ginger often come in large-ish pieces - if so, use a sharp knife to cut them into small cubes.

  3. Mix the flour, sugars, and baking powder in a large bowl.

  4. Add the melted butter, vanilla extract, and eggs. Stir and knead until all combined into a thick dough.

  5. Add the fruit and ginger pieces, and knead into the dough until evenly distributed.

  6. Form into small balls, arrange on a greased baking sheet, and press gently to flatten. Make sure to leave enough space around each cookie, as they will spread to approximately double the size as they cook.

  7. Bake for 10-15 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool.


Monday, 6 February 2012

Win US$235 Cash via PayPal (open worldwide)



This giveaway is now closed - many thanks to all who entered. Why not subscribe to my monthly newsletter for exclusive giveaways and offers?



Who doesn't need a little extra cash now and then? I've teamed up with a group of fellow bloggers to bring you a giveaway where you can win US$235 in cold, hard cash (well, virtual PayPal cash, but you know what I mean!)


The contest is open worldwide, anyone with a PayPal account can win. You just need to use the Rafflecopter entry form (below) to get your name in the hat. If you haven't used Rafflecopter before, it's very simple, and you can either use Facebook to log in or simply your name and email address. You'll get extra entries for each 'action' you complete on the form.

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Saturday, 4 February 2012

A Tallinn Bakery



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Marked by a simple golden pretzel hanging outside an otherwise rather nondescript building, it would be easy to walk past this little bakery, but that would be a mistake. Indeed, we loved it so much that we came back on every day of our visit to Tallinn. Opposite the Steampunk Theatre window on Nunne St., Saksalikud Küpsetised supplied us with light lunches, mugs of coffee, and impossible quantities of cake. The staff didn't speak English, but it was easy enough to point at what we wanted from the glass display cabinets. I particularly liked the savoury pastries (with cabbage or carrot filling), and the strawberry crumble cookies. The typical Estonian layer cakes, such as the honey cake meekook, were delicious but rather too rich for my tastes. Definitely worth a detour (and you'll want to see the Steampunk show, anyway, won't you?).

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