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cherry blossom in the garden

The highly-talented Yvonne of It Had Better Be Good has tagged the entire blogosphere with this book meme and it looked like fun, so I thought I’d take up the offer.

The rules are simple:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people and acknowledge who tagged you.

Well, I’m currently noodling through The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke – a collection of short stories set in the same universe as her epic doorstop of a novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (which I enjoyed greatly, if for no other reason than it starts in York Minster – somewhere I spent a lot of time when I was at school).

And the above instructions led to this passage:

‘Mr Baillie told me that newborn children are generally the colour of claret; sometimes, he said, they may be dark as port-wine but this child was, to all intents and purposes, black. He was, however, remarkably strong. He gave me a great kick as I passed him to the old woman.’

Does that make you want to keep reading? Who is Mr Baillie? Do you want to know what happens to the baby? The mother? How did the narrator come to the point where he/she was delivering a child?

I haven’t even got to that story yet!

Like Yvonne, I’m not going to tag anyone – but pick it up if you want to have a go. It’s an interesting way to find new books 🙂

The pictures have nothing to do with anything really – just something I snapped at the weekend. The flowers are from the cherry blossom tree in our garden – it finally decided that it might just possibly be springtime around here. I guess I just wanted to record that there has been at least some progress towards better weather – even if we had thunder and rain the next day.

cherry blossom close up

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cheesecake pops

Advance planning – clearly not my strong point!

Here are my ever-so-slightly-late results for April’s Daring Bakers challenge – cheesecake pops no less (or popsicles, as I keep calling them). Set by Deborah of Taste and Tell and Elle of Feeding My Enthusiasms, this task saw DBers around the world roll up their sleeves to get busy with gallons of cream cheese and melted chocolate to whip up this recipe from Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey. Check out the Daring Bakers blogroll for many rather more elegant versions than mine. There are some very talented people out there 🙂   

So yes, advance planning and/or a practice run would definitely have come in handy. Not because the recipe was tricky but because the whole shaping side of things went a little wonky and the results lack a little finesse on my part.

Partly that’s because I have the artistic abilities of a two-year old. But I think I also tripped up by not chilling the cheesecake for long enough before scooping it into the rather lumpy shapes you see above. Less haste and more speed… Nevermind – it was still a lot of fun rolling the pops into shape and dunking them into the melted chocolate, before making judicious use of my sprinkles (that’s the second time in one week those babies have come out of the cupboard).

I halved the recipe as we’ve got limited room in the freezer just now and that went just fine, which I was pleased with. Sometimes it’s not just a matter of chopping the ingredients in half to achieve the same result for a smaller batch. But after cooking it in the bain marie for about 45 minutes, the cheesecake had gone a beautiful golden-brown on top and had set quite nicely too. Seemed a bit of a shame to break it all up with the icecream scoop!

The slightly lumpy results didn’t affect the taste at all – they’re scrumptious! Many thanks to Deborah and Elle for setting this challenge not just for the kitchen fun but also because they solved my dilemma about what to make first from this book. I picked up a copy when I was in London a few weeks ago and have been drooling over the contents so much ever since I’ve been unable to decide where to start! Perhaps this recipe has set the sticky, chewy, messy gooey ball rolling. If a ball like that could roll, that is.

Cheesecake pops from Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey by Jill O’Connor

Makes 30 to 40 pops

You’ll need:

Five 8-ounce packages cream cheese, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup plain flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 large eggs (When I halved the recipe, I just used two eggs rather than messily trying to get a ‘half’ too)
2 egg yolks
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup cream
boiling water as needed
Thirty to forty 8-inch lollipop sticks
1 pound semisweet flavoured, milk chocolate flavoured, or brightly-coloured confectionery coating

1. Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 170C/325F

2. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer set on a low speed, beat together the cream cheese, sugar, flour and salt until smooth. Add the whole eggs and the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well (still on a low speed) after each addition. Beat in the vanilla and cream.

3. Lightly grease a 10-inch cake tin (not a springform pan). Pour the cheesecake batter into the cake pan and place in a larger roasting pan. Fill the roasting pan with boiling water until it reaches halfway up the sides of the cake pan. Bake until the cheesecake is firm and slightly golden on top – 35 to 45 minutes.

4. Remove the cheesecake from the waterbath and cool to room temperature. Cover the cheesecake with plastic wrap and refridgerate until very cold, at least 3 hours or up to overnight.

5. When cold and very firm, scoop the cheesecake into 2-ounce balls and place on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Carefully insert a lollipop stick into each cheesecake ball. Freeze the pops, uncovered, until very hard – at least 1 to 2 hours.

6. When the cheesecake pops are frozen and ready for dipping, prepare the chocolate coating. Place the chocolate wafers in a microwave-proof bowl. Microwave on high for 30 seconds. Remove and stir. If the chocolate is not completely melted, microwave for 30-second intervals, stirring until smooth. (Or just melt some chocolate in a bowl over some boiling water.) 

7. Quickly dip a frozen cheesecake pop into the melted chocolate, swirling quickly to coat it completly. Hold the pop over the melted chocolate and shake off any excess. Place the pop on a clean parchment paper-lined tray to set. Repeat with the remaining pops, melting more chocolate if needed.

Oops – I got my weeks mixed up.

The cheesecake is cooling on the counter as I type and I will be sticking it in the freezer tonight. Then it’s just a matter of a little chocolate melting, a little light sprinkling of, er, sprinkles and hey presto, we’ll have some chocolate cheesecake popsicles to enjoy.

Back soon with the finished product…

Check out all the other scrumptious results over at the Daring Bakers blogroll.

chocolate birthday cake with smarties and sprinkles

Oooh – would you look at that. This site is one year old.

In blogging years (which are a bit like dog years, I think) that’s practically ancient.

Wow – well, let’s check the stats (the not-so-secret dirty pleasure of every blogger) and see what’s been happening around Bird Towers over the past 12 months:

Number of posts thus far:

114 – including this one.

The posts you liked best:

A little bit of what you fancy (banana bread)
Things that make you go mmmmmmm (gingerbread)
Daring Bakers Challenge for January – lemon meringue pie (I’ve been a bit remiss with my challenges lately but I’m back on the case with the next one, I promise!)

Interesting searches that got you here:

– What eats a bird
– A bird which eats stones in 5 minutes
– Fruit hurts my teeth
– Like tea birds sexy sites
– Recipes to blow up birds

I hope you all found what you were looking for. Except that last one. I mean, really? Seriously?

On another note, I’d just like to say thank you to everyone who has dropped by for a gander or said hello in the comments. It’s been a pleasure to meet you all. Long may the happy cooking and blogging continue 🙂

Right, on to the important stuff – cake. Let’s face it, a first birthday deserves a kids’ cake if we’re going to celebrate the whole thing properly.

This recipe comes from the aptly-named Gorgeous Cakes by Annie Bell. There are so many fabulous-looking confections in this book, my ‘to make asap’ list has grown several pages longer – banoffee cupcakes, red velvet bonfire cake, raspberry-mascarpone layer cake, chocolate prune cake, pistachio choc-chip meringues, fig streusel… then there’s all the cheesecakes… And Caroline made a mouth-watering lemon traybake from this book the other week, so that’s another one tagged to try.

But for my first bloggie birthday, I’m going to have to plump for the kiddies’ dream traybake. It’s got what every small (or grown-up) child would want to honour this kind of occasion: chocolate sponge, chocolate icing, and a liberal application of Smarties and sprinkles. Bring on the sugar rush…

Plus there’s a fun ‘magic/science’ bit when you add the bicarb of soda to the cocoa mix and it expands rapidly. It’s entertaining and edible. How many cakes manage that?

Kiddies’ dream traybake from Gorgeous Cakes by Annie Bell

Makes approx 20 squares (Hmmmmm – not in this house. We like big wodges of cake, so it makes about 12 slices.)

You’ll need:

For the cake:

75g cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
4 medium eggs
370g light muscovado sugar
180ml vegetable oil
200g self-raising flour, sifted

For the icing:

150g dark chocolate (about 50% cocoa solids)
3 tablespoons milk
Smarties (2 tubes) and sprinkles to decorate

1. Whisk the cocoa with 200ml of boiling water. Whisk in the bicarbonate of soda and leave to cool for about 20 minutes. (If you do this in a pint-sized measuring jug, the liquid will expand up to about the pint level.)

2. Preheat the oven to 160C (fan)/180C/gas mark 4 and grease a 23 x 30 x 4cm traybake tin. (There’s no need to line it unless you’re planning on turning the cake out whole.)

3. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar and oil. Then stir in the flour, then the cocoa solution. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 30-40 mins or until risen and firm, and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Run a knife around the edge of the cake and leave to cool.

4. To make the icing, gently melt the chocolate with the milk in a bowl set over a pan with a little simmering water in it, stirring until smooth. Using the back of a spoon or a palette knife, coat the surface of the cake. Scatter over some Smarties and sprinkles, and leave for a couple of hours to set. Cut into squares to serve.

Cook’s notes

If you think the big kids at work will like this, just leave it in the tray – makes it a lot easier to transport.

You could play around with this recipe a bit and add orange peel or maybe some peppermint essence for variety.

Pear and chocolate meringue

… but I defy anyone to have any patience whatsoever when putting this dessert together.

There was supposed to be grated orange zest scattered over the top. There was supposed to be vanilla scenting the whipped cream and roasted, chopped hazlenuts dotted throughout the mix. The chocolate sauce was supposed to be artfully drizzled, not dolloped on in an excited hurry of -oh-my-god-I-need-to-eat-this-NOW!

Clearly none of those things happened. In fact, I was in such an excited, giddy rush to eat this that when I transferred a slice to my plate, the meringue collapsed under the weight of that luscious chocolate-pear-cream combination and ended up looking like this:

pear and chocolate meringue

I’m happy to report that this didn’t affect the taste in any way, shape or form. But I did have a second slice, just to be sure 🙂

Tray-baked meringue with pears, cream, toasted hazlenuts and chocolate sauce from Jamie at Home by Jamie Oliver

Serves 6 to 8 people

You’ll need:

4 large egg whites
200g unrefined golden caster sugar
a pinch of sea salt
100g hazlenuts, skins removed
2 x 400g tins of halved pears, in syrup
optional: 2 pieces of stem ginger, thinly sliced
200g dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids)
400ml double cream
50g icing sugar, sifted
1 vanilla pod, halved and seeds scraped out
zest of 1 orange

1. Preheat your oven to 150C/300F/gas mark 2 and line a baking tray with a sheet of greaseproof paper.

2. Put your egg whites into a clean bowl, making sure there are absolutely no little pieces of egg shell or yolk in them. Whisk on a medium speed until the whites form firm peaks.

3. With the mixer still running, gradually add the sugar and the pinch of salt. Turn the mixer to the highest setting and whisk for about 7 or 8 minutes, until the meringue mixture is thick and glossy. To test whether it’s done, you can pinch some between your fingers – if it feels completely smooth, it’s ready; if it’s slightly granular then it needs a little more whisking.

4. Dot each corner of the greaseproof paper with a blob of meringue, then turn it over and stick it to the baking tray. Spoon the meringue out on to the paper. Using the back of the spoon, shape and swirl it into an A4-sized rectangle. Place in the oven and bake for 1 hour, or until crisp on the outside and a little soft and sticky inside. At the same time, bake the hazlenuts on a separate tray until golden brown (watch out – they burn easily).

5. Drain the tin of pears, reserving the syrup from one tin. Cut each pear half into three slices. Pour the pear syrup into a saucepan with the ginger and warm gently over a medium hear until it starts to simmer. Take off the heat and snap the chocolate into the saucepan, stirring with a spoon until it’s all melted.

6. Take the meringue and the hazlenuts out of the oven and leave to cool. Place the meringue on a nice rustic board or platter.

7. Whip the cream with the sifted icing sugar and the vanilla seeds until it forms smooth, soft peaks. Smash the toasted hazlenuts in a tea towel and sprinkle half of them over the top of the meringue.

8. Spoon half of the whipped cream over the top and drizzle with some of the chocolate sauce. (If the sauce has firmed up, melt it slightly by holding the saucepan over a large pan of boiling water.).

9. Divide most of the pear pieces evenly over the top. Pile over the rest of the whipped cream and pears. Drizzle with some more chocolate sauce, then sprinkle over the remaining toasted hazlenuts with some grated orange zest.

10. Serve straight away. Or eat leftovers for dinner the next day and don’t look at the bathroom scales. Ahem.

Cook’s notes

I didn’t have any tinned pears. So I poached some rock-hard little numbers that were just sitting and laughing at me from the fruit bowl – taunting me with the fact that one day soon they would just turn to mush without ever passing through a ‘ripe’ phase. Eddie Izzard has a joke about that somewhere…

Now, who wants to lick the bowl?

Who wants the last bit of meringue?

Piri Piri Starfish - Tessa Kiros

Hmmmmm – travel and work kind of got in the way there for a while – apologies for a complete lack of anything resembling, well, any blogging or recipes.

Nevermind. I think my exquisitely beautiful new purchase is going to provide some inspiration for playing with food. What’s more, there’s a recipe for pasteis de nata in there that has my name written all over it. To the kitchen!

Cupcakes from The Hummingbird Bakery

My mouth is watering just looking at these beauties… 

Clockwise from the top left, may I present the following cupcakes of tremendous gorgeousness: carrot cake, red velvet, chocolate with chocolate frosting, and – last but not least – nutella. All courtesy of The Hummingbird Bakery on the Portobello Road. It was a toss up between the carrot cake and nutella for the title of ‘king cupcake’. Think the nutella just scrapes that victory. Only just mind you.

Well, of course that meant we ran around London on a giant sugar high like giggling teenagers. Which was handy as we needed the energy to take in places like Books for Cooks, Tea Heaven*, Planet Organic, Wholefoods and The Gate restaurant and everywhere inbetween. 

Oh yes – The Gate. Hmmmmmmm. We had high hopes for this place and I’m sorry to say it didn’t live up to expectations. It was, meh, ok. It’s saying something when the most interesting bit of the meal was the lentil garnish on the starter. If you want truly good veggie grub, I’d have to recommend David Banns in Edinburgh. OK, that’s not a terribly helpful if you’re in London but a good one to remember 🙂 (Just check out the recent Observer Food Awards – Banns is highlighted in both the veggie and main restaurant section.)

But we’ll be going back at some point for more – we didn’t get to Borough Market and that’s just a crying shame. And then there were all the eateries that we wandered past moaning, ‘Ooooooh – we’re too full’ – they all need further, serious investigation too.

So, for future trip planning, where in London do you like to go for foodie treats? What’s your favourite restaurant? Got any gems you’d like to share? It doesn’t have to be veggie (we’d just heard good things about The Gate and thought we’d give it a whirl), just somewhere you love 🙂

If you do leave a comment, though, I might not be able to reply until Monday as, yes, I’m heading off for the weekend again – this time to York to see the folks. Back soon 🙂

cupcake crumbs

*I’m looking for the link to Tea Heaven – I have a card somewhere… This place deserves it’s own blog post.

Hello

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).
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