1st birthday carrot cake

The Moo turned one last Saturday and, being relatively new to the kiddie-scene, I made an enthusiastic cake for the occasion. Not much of a baker, I started the project with relatively low ambitions, but grew in confidence until, with a third layer in the offing and a flight of icing butterflies spread over the kitchen table, The Heid said, “Enough!”

It was good advice. Any bigger and we would have had a Tree of Knowledge hat situation (see below) and struggled to transport it to Hyde Park.

Why is your hat so terribly tiny?

Thank god, the sun was shining so ten under-twos could run amok with my lovingly crafted egg sandwiches, mashing them into the picnic rug and taunting the dog, who licked the birthday cake and stole sausages, making toddlers cry until they found more Philadelphia to smear or ice-cream to dribble before swarming the cake.

Boys and their cake - a deceptively civilised scene

Through the chaos, I learnt a lesson that will no doubt guide me through the many years of children’s parties to come: drink Prosecco and lots of it. In doing so, any pointless angst over your perfect picnic being trashed by an army of bedlam-bent toddlers dissipates into a happy haze. And yes, the carrot cake was a hit. Thank you Paul Hollywood; Great British Bake Off, here I come!

Drink Prosecco - and lots of it!

1st Birthday Carrot Cake
Adapted from a Paul Hollywood recipe, taken from Delicious Magazine

Ingredients

For the cake (repeat for each layer – I did two)

155ml sunflower oil, plus extra for greasing
230g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp mixed spice
½ tsp ground ginger
230g light brown muscovado sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 satsuma or mandarin, plus strips to decorate
100g pecans, halved (I used walnuts)
260g carrots, coarsely grated
3 medium free-range eggs, beaten

For the icing

50g butter, softened
200g full-fat cream cheese
150g icing sugar, plus extra to dust
2 tsp orange juice

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/fan160°C/gas 4. Grease an 18cm loose-bottomed round cake tin and line the base with baking paper. Sift the flour, baking powder and spices into a large bowl. Add the sugar, zest, pecans (walnuts) and grated carrots, then stir until well combined. Stir in the beaten eggs and oil, then mix well.

2. Pour into the prepared cake tin and bake in the oven for 1 hour or until a skewer comes out comes out clean. Transfer to a cooling rack leave in the tin for 5 minutes, then turn out and leave to cool completely before icing.

3. For the icing, beat the butter in a large bowl with a hand mixed until really soft. Add the cream cheese and beat again until well mixed. Sift over the icing sugar, add the orange juice, then beat until smooth. Store, covered, in the fridge until needed.

4. For the decoration, Paul recommends using an icing bag to pipe lines. In absence of one of these, I used a spatula to put icing into the middle and onto the top layer of the cake then grated lime and tangerine zest onto each. I took my first layer of cake out of the oven too early so that the middle collapsed into a depressing raw crater. I saved the day by cutting the raw bit out and filling the hole with tangerine segments, which had the advantage of being very baby friendly and looking pretty too. For decoration, I made a few flowers and a number 1 from coloured icing from Ocado then added wafer butterflies and happy birthday candles (also from Ocado) to complete the dazzling and delicious (well, I thought so…) end result.

The Moo and her cake

Fish Risotto

It’s only been a year or so since my last post. Since then, I’ve had a daughter (The Moo), changed a lot of nappies, lost a lot of sleep, eaten a lot of biscuits, watched a lot of Nashville and generally immersed myself in the funny old world of full-time motherhood. Eleven months on though, and I think I threw my brain out with a dirty nappy. It’s time to re-engage, people!

Against all the odds, The Moo is quite a tricky eater and is liable to refuse anything I make for her especially, so I don’t. She eats our leftovers. That way, if she ends up chucking food on the floor or mashing it into her tray, I know that at least someone (me) has enjoyed it first.

Sometimes, I’m surprised at the stuff she’ll hoover down. This fish risotto, for example. I made it for The Heid and I one Saturday evening and served it up to The Moo (minus the prawns and squid just in case) the next day. She loved it! And so did we.

Fish Risotto
Feeds 4

Ingredients

x2 monkfish fillets
x8 prawns (shells on)
x2 squid (cleaned by fishmonger) cut into thin slices
x2 500ml Cooks’ Ingredients fish stock from Ocado (you can also make your own, but it’s a lot more work)
x2-3 roasted red peppers, diced (I use Cooks & Co ready-roasted red peppers from Ocado though you can obv make these yourself at home too)
Arborio rice (75 grams per person)
x1 onion, finely chopped
Half a cup of white wine (or vermouth)
Parsley, chopped

Method

1. Fry the prawns in a frying pan until they are pink and tender. De-shell and de-vein them and put to one side.

2. Bring a large-ish pan of water to the boil with some salt and add a ladle or two of fish stock for flavour. Drop the monkfish in and simmer gently for 5 mins or until completely white and no longer translucent. Set to one side.

3. Add a good drizzle of oil or butter to a frying pan. Add the onion and fry slowly for about 10 minutes. Heat the stock (but do not boil) while you are doing this.

4. Once the onion has softened, add the rice and turn up the heat a bit. Keep stirring the rice until it has gone slightly translucent, then add the white wine and keep stirring until it has all been absorbed.

5. Add the stock to the rice, one ladle at a time. Stir constantly and make sure that each ladleful is absorbed before adding the next. Keep adding stock until the rice is soft but with a little bite – you’ll need to taste as you go!

6. Remove the rice from the heat and add a little stock to keep it moist while you heat some oil in another frying pan and flash fry the squid. This shouldn’t take more than about a minute or so. It’s nice if you can get the tentacles to go all crispy.

7. Add the squid, monkfish (broken into bite-sized chunks), prawns, chopped parsley and diced roasted red peppers and stir gently. If you need to add more stock, do. Serve hot and immediately to a (hopefully) grateful family or friends.

* This recipe is baby-friendly (at your own discretion) as there is no added salt, chilli or garlic (these these latter two things would be a good addition for grown-ups though). I took out the squid and prawns (just to be safe) before serving to my 11 month-old daughter.

* * I am not a professional cook or recipe writer. This is what I did, but it may not work for you. If you have any cooking tips or advice as to how this can be improved, then I’d love to hear from you below.

The importance of slimline stemware….

A bun in the oven has meant that tasty alcoholic beverages are no longer the free-flowing extravaganza they once were. And this has made me somewhat more discerning when it comes to my weekly tipple. In short, if I am only allowed two small glasses of wine a week, then I’m not going to waste one of them on a wee-coloured Chardonnay, slurped from a dirty beaker in an over-crowded central London pub.

Oh no. These days I like to imagine that I quaff in the manner of an impossibly elegant and self-controllled Parisienne: in – mais oui – extreme moderation and style. In other words,  the circumstances have to be just so.

Just so

Generally, a sweet German Riesling is the wine, just before lunch at the weekend is the hour, a comfy armchair or sofa the place. Light streaming through the window is a plus…. But, alas, if the quality of the glass is not up to scratch, none of this matters a jot. For the most important thing, I’ve discovered, when it comes to making the absolute most of my rare and precious pregnancy drinkie is a medium sized glass with an impossibly delicate, thin cut rim. It’s all about the slimline stemware, daahling.

Which is all very well, except that in eight months time (or there abouts), such refinement will no doubt be booted well and truly out the window in favour of a much needed smashup, at which point quantity will take precedence over quality with wee-coloured Chardonnay and roll-rimmed pub glasses all very welcome indeed – provided they come thick and fast. I can’t wait.

Dog’s dinner

A recent spate of babies being born amongst my friends has led to Scrabble (my border terrier) putting on a few pounds. She has managed to work out that, by sitting hopefully underneath a high-chair in which resides a messy infant, there is a high chance of scraps and spillages falling from the sky, directly into her hungry and patiently waiting chops.

Sultana and Walnut Eggy Bread

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.”

When A.A Milne wrote this paragraph for his famous characters, he may well have been thinking of eggy bread, or ‘French Toast’ as it is known rather poshly today. For what could be a more exciting way to start the day than with a couple of egg soaked slices of bread, fried in butter and topped with sprinkled sugar or cinnamon, a smear of honey, some scattered banana slices or blueberries, or some other sweet accoutrement?

sultana-walnut-eggy-bread-recipe

Last week, finding the half loaf of crusty sultana and walnut bread that I’d purchased a day earlier beginning to go stale, I decided to conjure up this childhood favourite of mine, topping it with a little honey, chopped banana and – a mighty fine addition to the mix – natural yoghurt on the side. Sweet and hot and dense and delicious, it was every bit as good as I had remembered and, I’m quite sure Pooh, Piglet and A.A Milne would agree, one of the most exciting possible ways to begin a day.

Sultana and Walnut Eggy Bread, with honey, banana and natural yoghurt.
(Feeds 1)

sultanta-walnut-eggy-bread-recipe

(Pictured without the yoghurt on the side, which I only thought of half-way through)

Ingredients

Generous pat of butter
Splash of milk
2 eggs
4 slices of a small artisan sultana and walnut loaf (slightly stale)
Honey
Full-fat natural yoghurt
Cinnamon
1 banana

What to do with them

1. Cut four reasonably thick slices of bread (if the loaf is a big one, you’ll only need two slices for one person).

2. In a bowl large enough to fit one slice of bread at a time, whisk together two eggs with a splash of milk and a little cinnamon if desired.

3. Soak each slice of bread in the mix thoroughly, making sure to cover both sides.

4. Melt a generous pat of butter in a frying pan and add the egg-soaked bread.

5. Fry for around two minutes on each side or until the bread starts to brown.

6. Remove the eggy bread from the frying pan and arrange on a plate. Add a light smear of honey to each slice, then slice a banana on top.

7. Dollop a generous spoonful of natural yoghurt on the side or on top and tuck in!

San Sebastián (and three pinxtos bars not to be missed)

Pix, the popular London chain of tapas restaurants that takes its inspiration from the Basque pinxtos bars of San Sebastián (known as Donostia in Basque) and recently opened a branch on Portobello Road, is good, but it’s not a patch on the real-deal, the real-deal, of course, being found in San Sebastián.

Over the many years that my family has been going to south-west France, we have made numerous day-trips across the border to this beautiful city to weave our way uncertainly through the back streets of the old town in search of high-calibre snacks.

High-calibre snacks

Laid out on the bar counters in sprawling visual feasts for punters to (seemingly) help themselves, we have never quite got to grips with the pinxtos ordering structure, which seems to rely completely on trust and remembering just how many pinxtos one has actually scoffed. Not speaking the language either, I am always amazed at how charming, tolerant and un-phased the Spanish bar staff and locals seem to be when faced with this hungry, dithering group of very tall tourists cluttering up their bar. Or perhaps I am just used to the French.

Either way, after various hits and misses over the years – and a little local knowledge goes a very long way if you want to avoid bad pinxtos (always VERY bad) – we have finally narrowed it down to three top bars not to be missed. Give them a whirl next time you’re there.

TOP TAPAS BARS, SAN SEBASTIAN

1. Zeruko, Kalea Pescadaria

A new favourite. Takes the basic concept of pinxtos (basically a humble piece of bread with topping held together with a toothpick) to a whole new level.

Highlight: Asparagus wrapped in parma ham and a very light, fresh filo pastry. Served with a thick, high quality balsamic vinegar.

2. Ganbara, Kalea San Jeronimo

An old favourite. There’s a great atmosphere in this traditional bar with punters often spilling out into the street by 2.30pm.

Highlight: The ham croqetas. Made without potato – just hot, oozy béchamel and chunks of Iberico ham.

3. Beti Jai, Kalea Fermin Calbeton

A potential favourite. We walked past this all-white, very modern looking tapas bar and, tempted though we were by the delights laid out on the counter, were too full after Ganbara and Zeruko to eat anything. It’s on the list for next year.

WHAT TO DRINK

Zurrito = a quarter pint of beer

Txakolí = sparkling white wine

Sidra = cider

Txapa = Basque wine-based apéritif

AND FOR AFTERS….

If you fancy something sweet – or a present to take home – make your way up Kalea Erregina Erregeordea towards the bridge to the pâtisserie Argitan Gozotegia for liqueur-soaked chocolate cherries (cereza de licor), chocolate covered orange peel (irazanja choco) and custard cream buns.

irazanja choco

Do share your own recommendations/ tips if you have any!

Porky or preggers?

As the world and his wife slurp their way through another mulled wine fest and champagne corks whizz past my ears, I figure there aren’t many advantages to being pregnant over Christmas, apart from maybe a seat on the tube. Except, at the moment, I could easily pass for porky rather than preggers so there are no offers forthcoming.

Reticence if one is unsure though is quite understandable. I once made the mistake of offering my seat to a woman who I, wrongly it turned out, guessed to be at least six months pregnant. “No thank you,” she said in a clipped, hurt voice, sucking her indignant stomach in with fury for the rest of the journey.

Oh well. Perhaps Father Christmas will stick a ‘Baby on Board’ badge in my stocking this year then kind commuters can be sure to avoid such faux-pas, while I can be sure of a seat.

 

Geeta’s Premium Mango Chutney – no curry complete with out it!

No curry is complete without a good lashing of mango chutney, which serves to add or temper the spice levels of the curry in question while adding a welcome dash of spicy sweetness to each mouthful. But there is no mango chutney quite so delicious as Geeta’s Premium Mango Chutney, a new discovery of mine, made this weekend past while staying with Fran & Dave down in Somerset.

Geeta's Premium Mango Chutney

Frave are our first friends to have made the brave break to the countryside from London-town, where Frances has fledged into a proper, old-fashioned country cook, creating home-made cordials, chutneys, jams and even her own home-pressed apple juice, lovingly made with apples from their own garden.

Home-made is the name of the day in this lady’s larder, but Geeta’s Premium Mango Chutney has somehow slipped through the net. Free from artificial flavourings, colourings and preservatives, it’s as good as home-made – so good that Frances’ mother buys this stuff in bulk from the Cash & Carry and brings down a few giant jars whenever she visits, just in case they run out.

And I can see why they might; while scoffing my way through one of Fran’s famous curries on Friday night, I managed to wade through quarter of a jar – it’s simply the best!

WHERE TO BUY

Buy direct from Geeta’s Foods

Where I’d rather be…

A jack of all trades, I currently find myself office-sitting at a holistic healthcare clinic while the away team enjoys sun, yoga and healthy eating at one of its retreats in Sri Lanka. While I am relishing being near an Eat (its huge hearty soups make a really perfect winter lunch), there is moderate jealously lurking that, as I battle the seasonal sniffles, huddle by a radiator and navigate puddles, they’re busy doing sun salutations and scoffing my favourite Sri Lankan bananas. It’s an image that’s proving hard to shift….

Take me there now!

Banana Bread

There were three rather sad, brown and mushy looking bananas lurking in the fruit bowl, inviting only one thing: banana bread. I adapted this recipe slightly and it worked brilliantly. The use of buttermilk helps to keep it moist, the sultanas add sweetness and it rose beautifully in the oven.

banana-bread-recipe

Some people have an instinct for when to knock on the door and Claire, my brother-in-law’s wife, is clearly one. She buzzed 20 minutes after I’d taken it out the oven and we tucked in right away. It was still warm enough for the butter to melt in luxuriously and a mighty fine example of why over-ripe bananas should never be thrown away….

Ingredients

100g unsalted butter
150g soft brown sugar
2 eggs
3 small over-ripe bananas
50g walnuts broken up a bit
50g sultanas
280g plain flour
1tsp bicarbonate soda

What to do with them

1. Take a loaf baking tin (mine is 20cm x 9cm). Cut out a piece of baking paper to fit the bottom of the tin, then grease the tin so the banana bread doesn’t stick.

2. Pre-heat the oven to 180 °C

2. Whisk or whizz up the butter and sugar until it is creamy

3. Mix in the eggs one at a time. The mixture might separate a bit but don’t worry.

4. Add and stir in the buttermilk.

5. Mash up the banana (it’s quite nice to leave some chunks, I think, but this is a matter of taste), then add to the mixture along with the sultanas and walnuts.

6. Sieve the flour and bicarbonate of soda into the mixture and fold in.

7. Pour the mixture into the tin and level off.

8. Transfer to the oven and bake for 1 hour and 15 mins or 1 hour if you like it quite gooey. It should be well-risen and golden brown and is ready when a skewer or knife comes out clean (or near clean) when inserted into the cake.

9. Cool for 20 minutes before tucking in!