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Trafalgar Square

I am skipping off to London this weekend for a long-planned trip with VeggieKate.

And by ‘long-planned’ I mean it’s my 30th birthday present (thanks Kate!).

Except I’m now nearly 32.

We are useless besoms. Still, life gets in the way and all that… We’ve respectively had house moves, country moves, weddings and new jobs getting in the way of our chumly fun and that trip just slipped down the list – until now.

All I know is – there will be food. Oh yes. Lots of food. And wine.

See you when I get back – have a good weekend everyone 🙂

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rhubarb and walnut muffins

If you’d been a fly on the wall, or rather in the car, at the weekend, you’d have heard this passionate defense of my native county:  

‘But, but, but… the rhubarb triangle of Yorkshire really does exist!’

Mr B. didn’t believe me. (In fact, he was laughing so hard at the idea of a triangle dedicated to rhubarb that he nearly crashed the car.) And even now, I think he’s humouring me the way you do with kids and Santa (‘Sure, honey, of course it exists… Whatever you say…’).

Ah well, us true believers will have our day 🙂  (Check out this, this and… this if you’d like to know more.)

In the meantime, we can celebrate with these plain but rather tasty muffins – the sweet/sharp tang of the rhubarb plays nicely off the walnuts, and the handful of wheatgerm makes you feel a little bit virtuous and able to justify them as breakfast treats (although I very rarely need to justify eating delicious baked goods…).

Rhubarb muffins from It’s Raining Plums by Xanthe Clay

Makes 12 muffins

You’ll need:

250g soft brown sugar
120ml vegetable oil
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
225ml buttermilk or plain yogurt
170g rhubarb, diced into 1cm pieces
80g walnuts, chopped (optional)
280g plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp baking powder
40g wheatgerm

1. Preheat the oven to gas mark 6/200C/400F. Grease or line a twelve-cup muffin tin.

2. In a large bowl, mix the sugar, oil, egg, vanilla extract and buttermilk or yogurt.

3. Stir in the rhubarb and nuts.

4. Sift over the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda, and add the wheatgerm. Fold together until just blended but still rather lumpy and uneven looking. Spoon into the muffin tin and bake for 20 to 25 minutes.

5. Leave for 5 minutes to cool before removing from the tin and scoffing.

Cook’s notes

I can’t find any forced rhubarb. I’ve had my eyes peeled for the last couple of months but I’ve seen nothing. Apparently, there’s no difference in taste between unforced and forced rhubarb, but the latter is much prettier for cooking with, being that much pinker. And it’s probably just my imagination but the unforced version tastes a bit more sour. Anyone else know where I can get some of the good stuff?

Conference pears

My ever-loving husband brought back some pears from the shop the other day and the first thing that popped into my head wasn’t, ‘Awwwwwww! He cares deeply about my well-being and remembered my recent comment about wanting to get more fresh fruit/veg into my day because, no matter how hard I wish, chocolate isn’t a nutritional equivalent and the crap-filled snack machine at work is not my friend (pause to draw breath…) – it’s the little things like this that make me love him more…’

Oh no.

It was more along the lines of, ‘Fan-bloody-tastic! My boy’s a mindreader! Now I can make that cinnamon pear cake with vanilla fudge sauce that I’ve had filed away since the dawn of time and was wistfully dreaming about the other day. Hurray!’

Then I had to go back to the shops and get the rest of the ingredients but, hey, it was the spur I needed to try out this recipe.

cinnamon-pear cake - closeup

And oooooooh – it’s a keeper! I think I’m going to start up a Hall of Fame for Outstanding Cakes and make Nigel Slater the first inductee/honorary president for life. What more could you want than a softly-crumbed, almost pudding-like cake, stuffed with cinnmon-infused pears and, the killer move, a sexy vanilla fudge sauce to top the lot off?  Oh. My. Word. This cake is the business and then some. Time for another slice, methinks… 

Cinnamon-cooked pears

Cinnamon pear cake with vanilla fudge sauce by Nigel Slater, from Sainsbury’s Magazine.

Serves 8

You’ll need:

For the pear mixture:
740g ripe pears (I used Conference pears)
1/2 lemon
40g butter
3 tablespoons unrefined light muscovado sugar
1/2 heaped teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the cake:
200g unrefined golden caster sugar
200g unsalted butter, at room temperature
200g self-raising flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3 large eggs, lightly beaten

For the vanilla fudge sauce:
95g unrefined light muscovado sugar
95g golden syrup
50g butter
142 ml double cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

And… 24cm/9½-inch loose-bottomed (springform) cake tin, lightly buttered and lined with greaseproof paper.

1. Peel the pears and core them. Cut them into chunks and drop them into a bowl of cold water, acidulated with a few good squeezes of the lemon, which will stop them going brown.

2. Melt the butter, sugar and cinnamon in a shallow pan over a moderate heat, stirring occasionally. Drain the pears and add them to the pan, taking care that they don’t spit at you. Let the pears cook until they are tender and the sauce is thick and coats the pears. Stop before the sugar turns dark and bitter. Set aside to cool.

3. Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/gas mark 3. To make the cake, put the sugar and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until light and creamy. Sift the flour and baking powder together. Add the eggs and a little of the flour alternately, so that the mixture doesn’t curdle. Fold in the remaining flour and then the cooked pears with their syrup.

4. Scoop the mixture into the tin and smooth lightly. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until risen and golden, then check with a metal skewer (it should come out clean).

5. Remove the cale from the oven and leave to cook before lifting out of the cake tin.

6. To make the sauce, put the sugar, syrup and butter in a small, heavy-based pan and bring to the boil, stirring only enough to stop it sticking. Stir in the cream and the vanilla extract and cream (watch out, the mixture can foam a bit at this point), and leave to cool. The sauce will thicken.

7. Sprinkle some extra muscovado over the cake and serve with icecream and fudge sauce.

Cook’s notes

All that fruit can make things a bit soggy – I found it took an extra 20 minutes in my oven to make sure this was cooked in the centre.

cinnamon-pear cake

If the blog looks a little different from its recent incarnation, it’s ‘cos I’m messing around a bit. Mainly for fun, but partly because I want a lighter-looking template. And because I have a low boredom threshold.

Anyone know any good ones? I’m quite partial to this version but I’d like to make all the text sans serif (and I have no idea how to do that)… Then again, I might go back to the previous look – that’s just the kind of mood I’m in today. So picky…

Update: Oh look – I changed it again. I’ll try sticking with this version for oooooh… at least a week (it has tabs and sans serif font, yay!) and see how it goes.

black bean chili soup

…but for some reason, I’m thinking that toasty, crunchy bits of tortilla might go down a treat with this black bean chili soup – my entry for Holler and Lisa’s monthly challenge. Maybe some melty cheese too. Mmmmmm. Melty cheese…

There will be some more text here, hopefully by tomorrow evening, but I’m sliding under the slowly-closing temple door, Indy style, to get this one in on time (deadline = midnight tonight), so please excuse the lack of usual waffle in the meantime (or maybe you’ll be happy about that!). Let’s just say it’s a real corker – I mean, two whole tablespoons of chili powder, folks – it more than qualifies for this month’s ‘spicy’ theme! (Naturally, there’s a cinnamon hit in there too 🙂 )

Espresso Black Bean Chili Soup adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman

Chili serves 6 to 8 (Soup serves 3 to 4)

3 tablespoons neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn
2 onions, chopped
2 tablespoons minced garlic
3 cups canned tomatoes
1/2 to 1 cup freshly brewed espresso, 1 to 2 cups brewed coffee or 2 tablespoons espresso powder
2 tablespoons chili powder
1/4 cup dark brown sugar or 3 tablespoons molasses
One 3-inch cinnamon stick
1 pound dried black beans, washed, picked over and soaked for around 8 hours (easy to do before slogging off to work)
Salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Put the oil in a large pot with a tight-fitting lid over a medium high heat. When hot, add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute.

2. Stir in the tomato, espresso, brown sugar, cinnamon and beans, and add water to cover. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat so the liquid bubbles steadily but not violently. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans begin to soften, 30 to 40 minutes. Add a good pinch of salt and pepper.

3. Continue cooking until the beans are tender – anywhere from another 45 minutes to 1 hour and 30 mins. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more sugar, salt or pepper.

4. This is actually the point that the real recipe stops and I started playing around because the recipe produced a lot of chili and I had to think of different ways to use it all up. So, for a soupy treat…

5. Take about half the beans and place in a separate pan with 1 pint of stock. Whizz the lot up, until reasonably smooth.

6. Spoon in some more beans if you’d like a bit more texture. Freeze the rest of the chili to eat another day/turn into soup or feed it to your starving husband who says he ‘gets a bit of a tingle from the chili but it’s not blow-your-head-off hot’. 

Cook’s notes

Yep – I should have made about half of the recipe but didn’t think it through. And, with limited freezer space, I had to find ways of squeezing black bean chili into everything, except maybe my morning cereal.

Didn’t have any espresso, so I nicked some of Mr B’s fresh coffee. He was a bit upset about that until he tasted the end result. He is a convert 🙂

There may even be a better photo, if I get the chance to take a snap during daylight hours…

Chocolate bread and butter pudding

Sooooooo…. Delia – misunderstood genius of our times or completely barking bonkers? Somewhere in between? When is a shortcut a step too far? Latest pointless obsession of the chattering classes? Don’t know and don’t care?

I throw it open to the floor 🙂

In the midst of all this palaver, I thought I’d go for a bit of old-skool Delia with this chocolate bread and butter pudding, and try to remember why we all loved her in the first place. Personally, I miss that version of the lady. Maybe we could perform an intervention and get her exorcised of whatever evil spirit is possessing her right now. (Don’t anyone make a crack about that spirit being gin – I got there first.) 

Unfortunately, there are no pics of the cooked product as we had the in-laws round for tea and I got a little camera shy when they were here. So here’s the bread soaking up all that chocolatey, custardy, cinnamon-scented gorgeousness…

 Chocolate bread and butter pudding 

Chocolate bread and butter pudding from Delia’s Winter Collection by Delia Smith

You’ll need:

9 slices, each 1/4 thick, good-quality, 1-day-old taken from a large loaf.
150g dark chocolate (75% cocoa solids), chopped into smallish pieces
425ml whipping cream
4 tablespoons dark rum
110g caster sugar
75g butter
1/8th teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 large eggs
Double cream/icecream to serve

1. Butter an ovenproof dish 18 x 23cm and 5cm deep.

2. Remove the crusts from the slices of bread which should leave you with approx. 10cm squares. Cut each slice into four triangles.

3. Place the chocolate, cream, rum, sugar, butter and cinnamon in a bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water. Stir occasionally until the butter and chocolate have dissolved into the mixture. Remove from the heat and give it another really good stir.

4. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs and then pour the chocolate mixture over them. Whisk again very thoroughly to blend them together.

5. Spoon about a 1cm layer of the chocolate mix into the base of the dish and arrange about half of the bread triangles over the chocolate in overlapping rows. Now pour half the remaining chocolate mixture over the bread as evenly as possible then arrange the rest of the triangles over that, finishing off with a layer of chocolate. Use a fork to press the bread gently down so that it get covered very evenly with the liquid as it cools.

6. Cover the dish with clingfilm and allow it to stand at room temperature for 2 hours before transferring it to the fridge for a minimum of 24 (but preferably 48) hours before cooking.

7. When you’re ready to cook the pudding, pre-heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4 and bake on a high shelf for 30 to 35 minutes, by which time the top will be crunchy and the inside soft and squidgy.

8. Leave to stand for 10 minutes before serving with icecream/chilled double cream.

Cook’s notes

Now I come to think of it, this is sort-of convenience food. OK, You have to make it a bit ahead of time (I only managed 24 hours) but that bit of planning comes in handy because, come the day and the hour, all you have to do is shove it in the oven and forget about it for half an hour.

I was going to try and write something deeply poetic that linked all my pics together in some oh-so-clever theme but my brain is well and truly fried… So, probably to everyone’s great relief, here’s a quick run through of ‘What I did on my afternoon off in Lisbon’.

So, to start with, I trundled down the Avenida da Liberdade to the Praca Dom Pedro IV…

square in Lisbon

…where I became obsessed with the wavy, snaking patterns of the cobblestones…

patterned cobbles, square in Lisbon

Then a tour bus conveniently rolled past and I jumped on, thinking that would be a great way to see as much of Lisbon as possible in an afternoon, only to find it took me back the way I’d just come – along the Avenida da Liberdade… Although the view from the top of the bus meant I could snap a better pic of some more cobblestones:

06_03_08_avenue_de_liberdade_cobbles.jpeg

There then followed a lot of blurry pics as the tourist spirit took over and I frantically tried to snap everything from the bus as it chugged up and down the hills of Lisbon (after five minutes of being there, you realise everything is on a hill). Although I managed to get a clear one of the Basilica at Estrela:

Basilica, Estrela

Eventually, we wound up near the Jeronimo Monastery in Belém:

Jeronimo Monastery, Lisbon

Now, I’d pretty much decided that I was going to hop off and have a look around anyway but then the tourguide seductively whispered something about ‘world famous custard pastries’ into my earphones and I was off that bus quicker than you can say ‘greedy little besom’. UNESCO world heritage sites, yeah – they’re alright. But custard pastries, well, they’re in an elevated category unto themselves 🙂

OK, the bus stop just happened to be positioned oh-so-conveniently opposite the cavernous Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, but for once I didn’t mind walking straight into a tourist trap. Pastel de nata, I fell hard for your wobbly, warm, custardy charms… The flaky pastry side of things wasn’t bad either. And then they go and offer you a little shaker of cinnamon just in case, you know, you have a cinnamon fetish and feel the need to smother all your desserts in the good stuff. Ahem.

Could I get a decent picture? Could I heck…

pastel de nata, Lisbon

Oooh – this is turning into a loooooooong post. Think that’s why they invented Flickr. Must look into that. Part II tomorrow…

Lisbon - hillside and castle

Whew! I’m back! However, I think my brain is still in an airport somewhere… If you see it, please be kind and nudge it in the right direction, it’s sort of slow right now and hasn’t caught up with my body, which is currently curled up on the sofa at home, enjoying a big cup of tea.

There will be a full report some time soon…

jeronimo monastery, lisbon

little crunchy-chewy chocolate cookies

I’m going to be elsewhere for the next week on a work trip but (fingers crossed) I’m hoping that at some point I’ll have a bit of free time to sneak out and take a few pictures 🙂

In the meantime, here’s a small-but-perfectly-formed chocolate biscuit of delight – crispy on the outside, a tiny bit chewy on the inside and completely wonderful all the way through. I’m going to take a little stash with me to nibble throughout the plane flight…

See you all in a week’s time 🙂  

Chocolate biscuits from The Perfect Cookbook by David Herbert

You’ll need:

125g dark chocolate, roughly chopped
125g unsalted butter, chopped
1 large egg
1 cup lightly-packed light brown sugar
1 and 1/4 cups self, raising flour, sifted

1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Line two oven trays with baking paper.

2. Melt the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of hot water, stirring occasionally, until smooth.

3. In a separate bowl, beat the egg and sugar with a wooden spoon until combined.

4. Stir the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture. Add the sifted flour and mix until smooth and thick. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.

5. Roll teaspoonfuls of the dough into balls and place on the oven trays, allowing 5cm between each for the biscuits to spread while cooking.

6. Bake for 7 to 10 minutes, or until the biscuits are firm to the touch and the tops have wrinkled slightly. Cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight container.

Cook’s notes

The recipe suggests this makes about 24 to 30. I think I managed about 40 odd.

David suggest good variations of stirring through a cup of chocolate chips for a bit of extra indulgence or drizzling the finished biscuits with melted dark, milk or white chocolate. I was too impatient to try any of those options!

What happens when you put 400 bloggers together in a large room in close proximity to a bar?

Oooooooooh – that was fun 🙂

Although I left around midnight before I turned into a pumpkin (and because I’m on family duty today for a christening), so it may have all got a little messy after that… Will have to check out everyone else’s blogs to discover the lurid details!

It was kind of strange – as we all kept saying – being in a room full of real strangers, then spotting someone’s nametag and going ‘Oh you’re so and so! I’m X!’, and chatting away like good things about our virtual lives. The weird and wonderful world of blogging, eh?

I didn’t win in my category (and didn’t expect to) – that honour went to the fantastic Lorraine of Italian Foodies (congratulations Lor!) – but something nearly as exciting happened: I now know what Twenty Major looks like – it was… hmmmmmm… unexpected to say the least 😉 I’d tell you, but he’d probably come round and kill me. Then he’d come after you too.

And it truly was an absolute pleasure to meet Deborah, Devin, Kieran, Maz, Laura, Val, Sam, Bock, Aoife and Niall, Sweary, Conor, Manuel, Cathy and Sue (whose blog name I never got), along with everyone else. At one point, I even sidled up shyly to say ‘hello’ to Grandad but someone else dove in first and then I bottled it. His beard as luxurious and magnificent as I thought it would be though 🙂

Right, so when and where’s it going to be next year?

PS Many, many thanks to Sabrina for organising the fantastic afternoon brunch and to Damien for sorting out the whole shebang in the first place. I can’t even begin to imagine the blood, sweat and tears that goes into putting something like this together!

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I'm short of stature (a family trait) but big of appetite (also a family trait). If you're reading this then you're probably big of appetite too. Or a member of my family (hello Mum).
March 2008
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