Monday, 30 December 2013

Olive & Chilli Rolls

Olive & Chilli Bread

Not much beats the smell of fresh bread straight from the oven (or the breadmaker; I'm not ashamed to admit to cheating, especially when it's the kind of cheating that means I can have fresh bread for breakfast without having to get up any earlier).

In winter, I find the fireside is the perfect place to prove a batch of rolls. And over the last few weeks I've been folding in all sorts of tasty morsels: onions, herbs, spices, cheese, peppers. It's all good.

Olive & Chilli Bread

This particular batch came about as a consequence of an email press release announcing Black Dog Delicatessen, a new range from FoodHQ. I was intrigued by their premise: a share of all profits from the range is being donated to support the Labrador Rescue Trust. The founder has two rescue dogs, so this is clearly a cause that's close to his heart.

They kindly sent me a few samples, which included a bottle of olive oil, and a jar of green olives. I happened to have a few red chillis that my dad grew. As I unpacked the box, a plan was already forming in my mind.

Black Dog Delicatessen

The olive oil is light and fruity; nowhere near as peppery as some of my other bottles, but ideal for bread-making. The olives are huge and juicy, in a subtle marinade; it was hard to stop snacking long enough to put some in the baking.

Olive & Chilli Bread

Olive & Chilli Rolls
Makes 4 large rolls

For the dough:
1tsp sugar
½tsp yeast
170ml warm water (about ¾cup)
300g (10½oz) strong white flour
½tsp salt
1tbsp olive oil

For the filling:
1tbsp olive oil
1 small red chilli
8 large green olives
  1. Mix the yeast and sugar together with a little warm water, and set aside until frothy (about 5 minutes).
  2. Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl, and add the salt, olive oil, and yeast mixture.
  3. Mix until combined to a dough, and knead for five minutes.
  4. Rest for about half an hour, or until doubled in size.
  5. Knead for a further five minutes.
  6. Chop the olives, and finely dice the chilli (discarding the seeds).
  7. Knead the olives and chilli into the dough.
  8. Divide the mixture into four balls, and flatten onto a heavy-duty, nonstick baking tray.
  9. Place the tray in a warm place for 45 minutes, to allow the rolls to rise.
  10. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).
  11. Brush the tops of each roll with the remaining olive oil.
  12. Bake for 15 - 20 mins, until the tops are golden brown, and the rolls sound hollow if you tap the base.
  13. Cool on a wire rack (or eat them hot from the oven; just mind your fingers!)

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Chocolate Cherry Cheesecake Trifle

Chocolate Cheesecake Trifle

Every now and then, I try to make something a bit like a trifle.

This is a challenge. I don't like blancmange or cold custard, I don't do jelly, and I'm not really a big fan of cream... which significantly reduces the number of traditional trifle ingredients available to me.

However, there's a lot of scope within the broader class of layered desserts containing fruit, alcohol, finger sponges, and something-a-bit-creamy. This time, I decided to use cream cheese to make my 'cream' layer, in the style of a chocolate cheesecake. We picked up some kirsch-soaked cherries at the BBC Good Food Show, and they worked wonderfully, but you could equally well use any bottled cherries and add a generous dash of kirsch.

I'm submitting this to December's We Should Cocoa challenge, hosted by Choclette at Chocolate Log Blog, for which this month's festive theme is alcohol.

Chocolate Cheesecake Trifle

Chocolate Cherry Cheesecake Trifle
Makes 2 individual portions

75g (3oz) dark chocolate
2tbsp single cream
75g (3oz, ½ cup) icing sugar
110g (4oz, ½ cup) full-fat cream cheese
3 trifle sponges
120g (½ cup) cherries
4tbsp kirsch

  1. Melt the chocolate together with the cream (use a bain marie or similar to avoid burning the mixture).
  2. Meanwhile, sift the icing sugar into the cream cheese.
  3. Stir the melted chocolate into the cream cheese mixture.
  4. Cut the trifle sponges in half, and arrange three pieces in each serving dish.
  5. Spoon cherries and kirsch over the sponges.
  6. Divide the chocolate mixture between the two dishes, and smooth the tops.
  7. Chill for at least an hour before serving.

Chocolate Cheesecake Trifle

Friday, 27 December 2013

Orzo Risotto with Spinach & Peas

Orzo Risotto

I've been wanting to experiment with orzo for a while.

There's just something fun about trying out different pasta shapes, so I tend to buy them whenever I see something interesting. And while it's by no means the rarest, orzo is one of the most unusual I've encountered. With small 'grains' that look a bit like long-grained rice, it feels like it needs a different treatment to regular pasta.

Perhaps the most obvious thing to do with pasta that looks like rice, is to make a dish that looks like risotto. I decided to go with peas and spinach, two of my favourite risotto ingredients.

The resulting dish was bright and very tasty. The orzo has a rather different texture to arborio rice; it comes out creamy but retains a bit of bite. Being pasta, it's also less likely to stick to the pan, which takes some of the stress out of cooking (I was able to wash up while dinner cooked itself, which certainly isn't true of risotto).

The December theme for Pasta Please, hosted by Elizabeth's Kitchen Diary, is speedy pasta dishes that can be on the table in less than 30 minutes. This is definitely a really quick meal, and one that will go on my mental list of quick weeknight dinners.

Orzo Risotto

Orzo Risotto with Spinach & Peas
Serves 2

1 small red onion
½ leek
1 clove garlic
1tbsp olive oil
200g (1 cup) orzo pasta
60ml (¼ cup) white wine
500ml (2 cups) vegetable stock
100g (4 cups) spinach
130g (1 cup) frozen peas
2tsp dried garlic flakes
  1. Finely chop the onion, leek, and garlic.
  2. Heat the oil in a deep saucepan and fry the onion, leek, and garlic until soft.
  3. Toss the orzo into the pan.
  4. Add the wine, and simmer until evaporated.
  5. Add the stock, and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  6. Stir in the spinach and peas, and continue to stir gently until the vegetables are cooked (another 2-3 minutes).
  7. Sprinkle with garlic flakes before serving.

Tickled Pink at 504 Main

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Merry Christmas!

Happy Christmas, everyone!

I'm not really blogging on Christmas day, but for anyone who happens to drop in, here's a charming Yorkshire carol from the wonderful Kate Rusby. We went to see her last week, the second time we've attended her Christmas tour, and would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a bit of festive music.

P.S. If you're looking for something seasonal to read over the holidays, I've been collating Christmas book reviews.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Baked Camembert for One

Baked Camembert

My tastes in cheese are quite a bit broader than Andy's, which means our fridge is usually well stocked with cheddar, and relatively little else. I get my exotic cheese fix at party cheeseboards and in restaurants - especially whenever I spy a baked cheese on the menu. Whether it's breaded brie or mozzarella in carrozza, I tend to go for the melty option.

However, the idea of baking a whole wheel of cheese just for myself has always seemed a bit overwhelming. I love a nice piece of cheese, but I don't love it quite enough to eat a whole one. Then I heard that it was possible to 'bake' camembert in the microwave, and the idea of being able to make tiny portions suddenly became more plausible.

This super-simple, two minute 'recipe' (it's hardly worthy of the name!) would also make a great option for individual dinner party starters.

Baked Camembert

Individual Baked Camembert Portions
Serves 1

¼ wheel of camembert
1 large garlic clove
1 sprig of rosemary
  1. Finely mince the garlic, and chop the rosemary.
  2. Slice the camembert in half across the middle of the wedge.
  3. Fill the middle of the cheese with the garlic and rosemary.
  4. Place in a small microwave-proof ramekin (make sure the sides are higher than the top of the cheese).
  5. Microwave for 30 seconds on high power. If the cheese isn't bubbling, give it a few more seconds.
  6. Serve with crusty bread or crackers.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Light Christmas Fruitcakes

Christmas Fruit Cakes

I don't know about you, but as much as I love Christmas food, it can all get a bit much at this time of year. Sometimes I want something a little lighter than the traditional heavy fruitcakes and steamed puddings... and yet I can't quite give up the excuse to eat boozy fruit.

These mini sponge cakes are made from a lighter mixture than the traditional British fruitcake, but they're still jam-packed with the essential ingredients of fruit, nuts, spices, and festive spirits. (Though if you can't have alcohol, you could skip that stage and just soak the fruit in a little water instead.) The recipe is also vegan.

I used a selection of fruit and sugars from the Traidcraft store, so these were almost entirely Fairtrade fruitcakes. Although I often buy fairly-traded products, this was the first time I've used the online store, and I'd definitely consider it again - the quality was great and it was convenient to have my pantry replenished with a couple of clicks. (And I might have slipped a few Divine chocolates in with my order. Maybe.)

Light Christmas Cakes

Light Christmas Cakes

Light Christmas Fruitcakes
Makes 18

2tbsp dark rum
2tbsp brandy
100g (4oz, ⅔ cup) raisins
50g (2oz, ⅓ cup) apricots
50g (2oz, ½ cup) glacĂ© cherries
50g (2oz, ½ cup) candied orange peel
50g (2oz, ⅓ cup) walnuts
50g (2oz, ⅓ cup) brazil nuts
350g (12oz, 2 cups) plain flour
110g (4oz, ½ cup) golden caster sugar
110g (4oz, ⅓ cup) dark muscovado sugar
1tbsp mixed spice
2tsp baking powder
240ml (8 fl.oz, 1 cup) water
120ml (4 fl.oz, ½ cup) sunflower oil
  1. The night before baking, chop the apricots, then combine along with the raisins, rum, and brandy in a small bowl. Cover and set aside.
  2. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F).
  3. Chop the cherries and nuts into small pieces (and the same for the candied peel if you have big slices), and combine with the raisins and apricots.
  4. Sift together the flour, sugars, spices, and baking powder in a large mixing bowl.
  5. Add the water and oil, and stir until no dry flour remains.
  6. Add the fruit and nuts to the batter, and mix until evenly distributed.
  7. Divide the batter between 18 mini cake tins, leaving space for the mixture to rise (remember that this is a sponge cake rather than a dense fruit cake).
  8. Bake for 20 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean.
  9. Cool on a wire rack before serving.
  10. Optionally, you could cut a circle of marzipan and/or sugarpaste icing for the top (see below).
Light Christmas Cakes

I'm submitting this recipe to December's Calendar Cakes round-up, hosted by Dolly Bakes and Laura Loves Cakes.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Chocolate Brioche French Toast

French toast

If you're looking for a special breakfast recipe that's still easy to make (maybe for a Christmas treat before you start on the presents?), you could do a lot worse than this.

I only really discovered French toast when I was working in the US last year, as it was one of the hotel's rotating breakfast options. It took me a couple of weeks of experimenting to figure out that it was best when slathered with chocolate and sprinkled with nuts.

So when Brioche Pasquier recently sent me some of their products to try, along with a recipe booklet, the idea of using brioche rolls for French toast immediately caught my eye. Brioche is a light and airy kind of bread which makes it perfect for soaking up the egg mixture, but holds its texture nicely while keeping the end result light. (Plus it's French, which seems appropriate for French toast. Unlike, say, the French horn, at least there does seem to be evidence that French toast may have originated in France!)

I've included the quantities per two rolls (which uses one egg). If you want to make more, you can mix up all the egg mixture in one batch, but heat another spoonful of butter separately each time.

French Toast

French Toast

French Toast

Chocolate Brioche French Toast
Quantities per 2 rolls

2 small brioche rolls (such as Brioche Pasquier's pain au lait)
1 egg
1tbsp double cream
1tsp milk
½tsp sugar
½tsp vanilla essence
1tsp unsalted butter
2tsp dark chocolate spread
1tbsp chopped, roasted hazelnuts
  1. Slice the brioche rolls in half.
  2. Lightly beat the egg, and add the cream, milk, sugar, and vanilla. Whisk to combine.
  3. Heat the butter in a large frying pan over a medium heat.
  4. Add the brioche to the egg mixture and soak for ten seconds. Turn over to soak the other sides for a further ten.
  5. Using a slotted spoon, lift the brioche slices from the egg mixture into the frying pan.
  6. Cook for two minutes on each side, until golden brown.
  7. Remove from the heat and spread chocolate onto each slice. Sprinkle with chopped nuts before serving.

Monday, 16 December 2013

8 Things To Do In Amsterdam

I'm in the fortunate position of doing some work with a team at the University of Amsterdam, which means that I get to visit at least once a year. We also spent a weekend here for our second wedding anniversary, and have passed through several times since. So if you're planning a city break in Amsterdam, here are a few ideas to keep you entertained.

1. Tour the Canals


Reading a map in Amsterdam involves as many canals as it does roads, so any stroll around the city is guaranteed to take you over a few bridges and along tree-lined towpaths. If the weather is good, it might also be worth hopping on a boat to see the city from water-level.

2. Buy a Museum Card

Like every capital city, Amsterdam is chock full of museums. The prices of these can really add up, so we tend to find it's best to buy a card that allows you to pop in and out at leisure. The i amsterdam card includes a cruise on the canals, and public transport for one, two, or three days. But if you're likely to visit more than once within a year, or to venture beyond Amsterdam to see other Dutch cities, the national Museumkaart may be more economical.

The Rijksmuseum is perhaps the most famous museum in the city, an imposing building which houses some significant art collections. Personally, I love to learn more about a place when I visit, so the historical museums are my favourite.

3. Watch Diamond-Cutting

Diamond polishing in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is the centre of the European diamond market, but even if your budget doesn't stretch to a shiny souvenir, it's free - and fascinating - to watch the process of cutting and polishing. Try Coster Diamonds, in the Museum Quarter, which is also attached to the Diamond Museum. Diamond cutting has recently been added to the Netherlands' inventory of intangible cultural heritage, which is the first step towards possible UNESCO recognition.

4. Eat Indonesian

Indonesian food

Indonesian food is as common in Amsterdam as Chinese food in England, and for similar reasons: Indonesia was one of the Netherlands' main colonies. The rijsttafel (literally 'rice table') is a Dutch-Indonesian speciality, and if you only have time to try one Indonesian meal, it's a great way to sample a variety of different dishes in banquet form.

5. See Some Windmills

Zaanse Schans

No visit to Holland would be complete without seeing a few of the famous windmills. The Zaanse Schans museum is on the outskirts of Amsterdam, and features a couple of working mills which you can tour for a small fee.

6. Buy Flowers

Amsterdam flower markets

You wouldn't want to try and take a bunch of tulips home on the plane, but at the flower markets you can buy a huge variety of bulbs to grow your own. Most also offer a delivery service if you're running short on space in your luggage.

7. Eat Apple Cake

It will come as no surprise to anyone that I think every trip should include a stop (or several) for coffee and cake. In the Netherlands, apple cakes seem to be a particular speciality. We love La Place, tucked into the corner of the V&D department store - everything is really fresh, great quality, and mostly organic.

8. Take A Day Trip


The Netherlands is a pretty small country, and there are great train and bus links, so day trips to other beautiful towns are easy. And there are a lot of very beautiful towns. Edam (above) and Gouda have both been made famous by their eponymous cheeses, but they're also stunning.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Spiced Nuts & Seeds

Roasted nuts & seeds

If you need a last minute Christmas gift idea, and fancy making something which is quick but has that hand-made touch, then this recipe for spiced nuts and seeds might be just what you're looking for. It's very, very simple - all you have to do is stir the ingredients together, then keep an eye on them in the oven to make sure nothing burns.

The resulting nuts are very slightly sweet, but mostly spicy. To present them, I used two (well-rinsed) glass coffee jars, the size that comes with 100g of instant coffee. But a large jam jar would work just as well.

Of course, they'd also make a delicious snack for your next Christmas party.

These should be fine for at least a week. Unfortunately, we didn't hang on to any for long enough to see how well they last over a longer period!

Spiced Nuts & Seeds

350g (14oz) whole nuts
150g (6oz) seeds
1 egg white
25g (1oz) icing sugar
¼tsp salt
½tsp paprika
½tsp garam masala
¼tsp mixed spice
  1. Preheat the oven to 120°C.
  2. Weigh out the nuts and seeds, and (optionally) chop any large nuts into bite-size pieces.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk the egg white until stiff.
  4. Stir in the sugar, salt, and spices.
  5. Add the nuts and seeds to the egg mixture, and stir until well coated.
  6. Spread out on a non-stick baking tray, and bake for one hour, stirring every twenty minutes to turn the nuts.
  7. Allow to cool before packaging in an airtight jar.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Are You A Supertaster?

I've always been fascinated by the subjectivity of perception.

How do we know that I see green the same way that you see green? It's the colour of grass, and we can point at other things that are grass-coloured, but that doesn't mean we have the exact same experience of the colour itself. Indeed, someone who is red-green colourblind will find a number of things the "same" colour that I would say are different - but I'll never know whether, when they look at grass, they see what I call green or what I call red.

Likewise for the smell of roses or the taste of chocolate. We can only ever describe our perceptions by analogy, in the language of the things we perceive.

So I was intrigued to learn that some people have more tastebuds than others, and that there are certain compounds that only some of us can taste. In fact, about a quarter of the population are classified as supertasters. I first heard about this phenomenon from a friend who had been to a talk at the Cheltenham Science Festival, and whose husband tested (very) positive. Now, you can buy a set of supertaster test kits online to try for yourself at home.

Supertaster test kit

The test consists of a strip of paper impregnated with a harmless chemical, which not everyone can taste. Although the testing kit doesn't look like much (just a couple of strips of test paper, and a page of accompanying notes), I had great fun feeding paper to my friends and watching their reactions, which ranged from bemused expressions and comments that "it tastes like paper" through to face-contorting grimaces.

I really, really didn't think I would get a positive result. Some of the 'indications' include disliking broccoli (which I love), coffee (which I love) and dark chocolate (which I really love, obviously). But the moment the paper touched my tongue I knew I'd been wrong about that. I spat it straight out and reached for a bar of chocolate to take the taste away!

I now know four people who've tested positive as supertasters, and those are two married couples (myself and Andy included). It's a very small sample, but I do wonder if that's random or not; unfortunately I can't find any scientific literature on the question of tastebuds and relationships.

Three other friends couldn't taste anything at all - though I deliberately targeted those with foodie tendencies.

Research is inconclusive as to whether supertasters just have more tastebuds, or whether they also have a different kind of taste receptor. Being able to detect the supertaster compounds is inversely related to being able to taste another bitter compound, which is particularly interesting. I hope there will be more research in future looking into these fascinating areas.

Disclosure: I was sent a few test strips to sample. Thoughts and opinions are my own.

Friday, 6 December 2013

5 Helpful Mobile Apps for Fitness

There's not much that's more important than staying healthy, but it can be hard to form - and stick to - the necessary good habits. (Especially in the depths of winter!) One thing I've found helpful over the years is to really track what I want to achieve; somehow, having a list of what I have (or haven't) done makes me feel accountable, even if it's only to myself.

Fortunately, these days there's a lot that modern technology can offer to help us out with keeping records and staying on track. In fact, if anything, there are too many choices out there, so I thought it might be helpful to share a few of my favourites.

Each of these suggestions specialises in a different area.

My criteria when determining what makes a quality application include:
  • easy to use with an intuitive interface
  • a free version with good functionality (even if an upgrade is available)
  • ability to synchronise data across devices
  • available for both Apple and Android platforms
  • ability to work offline, particularly when I'm travelling and don't want to use roaming data
  • a web version with access to the same account information, in case I want to see it all on a bigger screen
  • privacy and sharing settings - ideally, the ability to lock down my data to just me
Here, then, are five of my favourite health and fitness apps. As we get towards the end of the year, I'm sure a lot of people will be looking at fitness-focused new year's resolutions, so I hope my recommendations can help out.

For Running & Walking

Endomondo uses GPS to track your walks, runs, ski trails, and other outdoor activities. You can store your favourite routes to compare your times between different sessions, and on the website you can retrace your steps on Google Maps, for instance to see how fast you were going at any given point. The accuracy of the route, of course, depends on the GPS on your phone... so the mapping can be a bit variable.

App screenshots App screenshots

In theory you can add other kinds of exercise (such as weight lifting) to your log, but the recording functions in Endomondo are geared towards GPS tracking. It doesn't really have a way to store any detail beyond "time spent" for other types of exercise, so I tend not to bother. You can get more stats by upgrading to the paid version.

For The Gym

Fitocracy is a workout app with a built-in library of exercises. You can group these together into your own favourite routines, or just pick exercises ad hoc from the list. The application gives you points for completing different exercises, and allows others to give you 'props' for completed workouts, although I have to say that I tend to ignore these aspects of the program. However, it's really easy to use and has fairly good coverage of bodyweight and weight-lifting exercises.

App screenshots App screenshots

The range of exercises, while good, is limited; although you can recommend a new exercise, you can't just add your own, so at times when following my physio regimen I've had to resort to recording something "similar" to what I'm actually doing. However, of the few apps I've tried with a wider range of exercises, I've yet to find one that's half as easy to use (I found Jefit crashy on Android, and Fitness Buddy very fiddly, with heavy limitations unless you want to pay).

For Healthy Eating

MyFitnessPal takes a food diary approach to tracking your calorie intake. For pre-packaged food, you can use your phone's camera to scan the barcode, with very good coverage - although a couple of times I've had to correct it. You can also link MyFitnessPal to a number of other accounts (such as Endomondo) to import your exercise data, if you want to compare calories used to calories eaten. If you record your food intake accurately, you can then review your daily and weekly nutrition statistics, giving a good idea of areas where you might need to improve.

App screenshots App screenshots

The app is geared to weight loss, although you can also set it up with goals to maintain or gain weight. I don't worry too much about the daily calorie limits that it suggests, not least because the 5:2 method doesn't really lend itself to flat daily limits (and the app gives warning messages if you record a low-calorie day!), but I do find it very helpful to keep an eye on what kind of foods I'm eating.

For Sleep

Sleep is also crucial for good health, in the long term. SleepBot is an app which measures your sleep patterns using the accelerometer on your phone. You can track how long you sleep for, how much you move around, and even whether you talk in your sleep. It's easy to use (just stick the phone under your pillow and hit the 'sleep' button) and you can even ask it to silence or disconnect your phone while you sleep.

App screenshots App screenshots

There's a smart alarm function, which uses the accelerometer readings and tries to wake you up at the point when you're sleeping most lightly. I have a memory foam mattress so the accelerometer doesn't always record much variation (unless I actually sit up), but if I'm feeling tired it's very helpful to be able to look back over the past couple of weeks and see if I'm going to bed too late.

For Meditation

If you're struggling to relax enough to get a good night's sleep, then sitting quietly in meditation might help. This is something I'm trying to do more of, so I thought a dedicated app might help. The Insight Meditation Timer is a simple application to help you meditate without clock-watching. You simply set your goal time, and the timer will chime at the end to let you know you're done. Of course, you can pause the timer part-way if you're interrupted.

App screenshots App screenshots

Optionally, the paid version of the app allows you to set chimes every few minutes to mark your progress, and to pick from a wider range of sounds, but I haven't felt the need for these functions yet. There's also an online community, and you can check your stats on the website.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Chocolate Box Cake

Chocolate Box Cake

This is a really simple but effective way to make a chocolate cake just that little bit more chocolatey... by covering it in chocolates. I've seen a few versions of this cake around, and quite fancied giving it a try myself.

I used a mocha cake recipe that I got from my mum years and years ago, but you could make the same design from any basic cake - a firm texture is best, though.

I also used thin cake-board card to make the sides of the box. If I'd had a little more time to colour and roll the icing, I might have done it all in sugarpaste, but I was in a bit of a rush and just wanted something that looked good, quickly.

Chocolate Box Cake

Chocolate Box Cake Recipe
Serves 16

For the cake:

200g (8oz) plain flour
100g (4oz) cocoa powder
100g (4oz) caster sugar
1½tbsp baking powder
290ml (½ pint) hot water
2tbsp instant coffee granules
1tbsp molasses or black treacle
100ml (7tbsp) sunflower oil
1tbsp vanilla bean paste (or extract)

For the buttercream:

100g (4oz) butter
25g (1oz) cocoa powder
200g (8oz) icing sugar
1tsp vanilla bean paste
2tbsp water

To decorate:

350g golden marzipan
16 chocolates

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F) and line an 18cm (7in) square cake tin.
  2. Sieve together the flour, cocoa powder, caster sugar, and baking powder for the cake.
  3. Dissolve the coffee granules and molasses in the hot water.
  4. Add to the flour, along with the oil and vanilla, and stir until no dry patches remain.
  5. Pour the cake mix into the tin, and bake for 30 - 40 minutes, or until a knife comes out clean.
  6. Remove the cake from the tin and set aside to cool on a wire rack.
  7. Once the cake is completely cold, you're ready to decorate it.
  8. Slice the cake in half with a sharp knife, and optionally also slice a little off the top to flatten the surface. It's not necessary to have any special equipment for slicing cakes, but do keep the knife blade parallel to the worktop, and you have to be a bit bold with the cuts or you may just end up with the knife stuck in the middle.
  9. Make the buttercream by first softening the butter to room temperature, and beating with an electric whisk.
  10. Gradually fold in the icing sugar, cocoa powder, and vanilla. 
  11. Once the icing is folded in, beat the mixture until light and fluffy.
  12. Spread half of the buttercream onto the bottom half of the cake, smooth it out, and sandwich the top half of the cake back into position.
  13. Spread the remaining buttercream across the top of the cake, mounding a little in the corners if necessary to create a flatter surface. (I did this in preference to slicing the top of the cake off.)
  14. Roll about half of the marzipan into a square just slightly larger than your cake, and place on top of the cake.
  15. Arrange the chocolates in a grid formation.
  16. Roll four thick sausages of marzipan to make the outer edges of the box. Roll eight thin sausages to create the internal dividers.
  17. Next, check the height and width measurements of your cake, and cut cardboard pieces to the appropriate size. Tape the cardboard together into a frame which should just lift on and off the cake (to allow for cutting).
  18. Decorate with a wide ribbon, tied into a bow, and serve.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Mushroom-Stuffed Butternut Squash

Stuffed Butternut Squash

Generally speaking, I'm happy when a favourite restaurant updates their menu. It means someone is being creative in the kitchen, and translates into more variety for the customer (i.e. me). Sometimes, though, it also means losing a favourite dish. This recipe is based on one meal I was particularly sad to see vanish from the tables of a local restaurant.

I love butternut squash, and the creamy mushroom filling complements it perfectly. This is also really quick and easy to make; although the roasting takes a while, you don't have to be in the kitchen for most of that time. (And my gerbil loves to eat the squash seeds, so everyone wins.)

This recipe is vegan as long as you use a vegan cream cheese (which is generally the best kind of vegan cheese, in my opinion).

Mushroom-Stuffed Butternut Squash
Serves 2

1 small butternut squash
2tsp olive oil
1 red onion
1 small leek
150g chestnut mushrooms
2tsp sage
freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
100g cream cheese
  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (390°F).
  2. Wash the outside of the squash, cut off the stem, and slice the squash in half lengthways. Scoop out the seeds.
  3. Rub the surface of the squash halves with olive oil.
  4. Place the squash on a baking sheet (cut side up) and bake for 45 minutes, or until the flesh is soft.
  5. Meanwhile, finely chop the mushrooms, onions and leeks.
  6. When the squash is about 10 minutes from ready, fry the remaining vegetables.
  7. Season the vegetables with sage and pepper to taste.
  8. Remove the pan from the heat and add the cream cheese to the still-warm pan. Stir until combined into a creamy filling.
  9. Take the roasted squash from the oven.
  10. To avoid all the filling being at one end, use a fork to mash a channel into the solid flesh of the squash.
  11. Divide the filling between the two squash halves.
  12. Return the squash to the oven for 5-10 minutes to ensure everything is piping hot before serving.

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