food

3 Ways with Christmas Cookies

Gifting Christmas Cookies

Cookies are a great last-minute gift; it’s lovely to arrive at other peoples’ houses bearing something homemade, and so Harry and I have been busy making cookies using the dough we froze earlier in the month.  First up, deliciously festive oatmeal cookies with a holiday twist, which we’ve packaged up with bells, ribbon and candy canes.

Fruit and Oat Star Spice Cookies

I used the fruit & oat cookie recipe from the wonderful Hummingbird Bakery cookbook, and simply doubled the measures of spices for a holiday feel.  Drizzled lemon icing and a scattering of white chocolate stars complete the cookie and raise them above the everyday… I’ve added the recipe at the bottom of the post; for the icing just mix together icing/powdered sugar with pure lemon juice until it drips off a fork, then drizzle lightly back and forth over the cooled cookies.  Our white chocolate stars are from here.

oatmeal and raisin cookies cooling cookies with drizzled icing

And two other cookie ideas from our kitchen for inspiration, both using the basic no-spread gingerbread recipe which I posted here; firstly Twinkle-Toe Gingerbread Men; the buttons are tiny chocolate beans held in place with a dab of icing; bakers’ twine scarves and a dusting of rianbow glitter on the hands and feet make them suitably christmassy….

Gingerbread TwinkleToes

And secondly a forest of decorated Gingerbread Spruce Trees, made by dusting the tops with a blend of edible food colouring powder (seen below), plus a dab of silver food powder, followed by a drizzle of icing and some carefully placed white shimmer baubles.  These were the first to disappear when we had friends and family over last weekend; a sure sign of their attractiveness!

spruce christmas cookies

Gingerbread forest gingerbread decorating kit

We’ll be out and about this weekend, delivering cookies and celebrating the season with friends; the blustery wind and rain make it slightly less festive than we’d hoped for, but are a very good excuse to stay inside in the warm.

Have a wonderful weekend wherever you are and whatever you’re doing!

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Basic oat & raisin cookie recipe from the Hummingbird Bakery;

(if you’re working in US cups & measures, try Martha’s gold-plated recipe here)

  • 270g unsalted butter
  • 160g caster sugar
  • 160g soft dark brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 0.5 tsp vanilla extract
  • 380g plain flour
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 0.5 tsp of ground cinnamon (I doubled this, and also added a pinch of nutmeg and allspice)
  • 110g rolled oats
  • 220g raisins

To make, simply mix together the butter and sugars, before stirring in the eggs and vanilla extract.  In a separate bowl, sieve together the flour, bicarb and cinnamon, then add the oats and stir together.  Add the butter mixture to the dry ingredients and stir into a ball.  Roll into small balls and place on a greased baking sheet, well-spaced as they will spread.  Bake for around 10 minutes at 170C/325F 9slightly less for chewier cookies and longer for crispy ones).

Autumn Tablescapes

The weekend is drawing to a close – a blustery, windswept close here in our small corner of England – but it’s been a rather magical one.  We’ve had a brief but promising flurry of snow prompting Harry to announce, rather prematurely, the imminent arrival of Father Christmas, and we’ve had walks through the autumn leaves and evenings snuggled in front of the fire.  Like all the best weekends though, it began with a lovely event; dinner here with some of our closest friends on Friday night.

Usually when we’re hosting dinner, it’s something of a mad rush; whilst in my head I imagine myself uncorking a bottle of wine and pottering around the kitchen in a form-fitting silky number as delicious smells waft from the stove, I am more usually arm-deep in bath time suds whilst my husband does emergency runs to buy forgotten ingredients, and the first guests to arrive have to tactfully remind me that I have only made-up one eye before getting distracted, and thus look like a freeze-frame from a You Tube video on how to apply eyeliner.  In the early days of dating my husband, I even managed to accidentally lock myself in the bathroom during the early stages of a dinner party (don’t ask how; it’s surprisingly easy I promise you..), and had to eventually ring him from my mobile phone to come rescue me.  This, after 20 minutes of waiting for him to notice my absence, I should add.

So, my history as a hostess is a somewhat chequered one, and evenings with us are nothing if not excitingly unpredictable – or so I tell myself.  On this occasion however, I managed to pull it off; the table was decorated with nature’s finest autumn finds, the menu was delivered without culinary disaster, and I even remembered all of my clothes and make-up.  I think I shall retire at this new-found high; it’s surely downhill all the way from here…

In a nod to Halloween, I added shimmering grey bat wings to small gourds and nestled them in martini glasses at each place-setting; I drew these freehand onto a piece of card stock then made small incisions into the sides of the gourds to slide them into place.  The name cards were glued to small pins which I pushed into the stalks.  I added tiny seed pearls to the tips of the wings.. and then decided I had better stop faffing around and concentrate on the actual cooking and cleaning *sigh*.

First though, I printed out menus onto end-pages from an old book and pegged these to each napkin; I’d bought a handful of yellowing paperbacks in our local charity shop with a view to using them in some crafty fashion, and they ran through the printer very simply; on one side guests could see what they were eating, and on the other were excerpts of letters by Evelyn Waugh – I carefully didn’t ask which side was more gripping..

Over the course of a day or so, I added odd bits and pieces to the centre of the table; blush roses and vibrant chrysanthemums, a selection of pumpkins and gourds which Harry and I dragged back from our excursion to the pumpkin patch (Harry picked up a small gourd and announced ‘my hands are all full Mummy; come along, you bring the rest!’, and marched jauntily to the car.  I see he has mastered the art of delegation at the tender age of almost-3).

Quail eggs, walnuts, corks and pine cones gave our guests something to examine and play with between courses and whilst chatting (though playing with fresh quail eggs after a couple of glasses of wine is a hazardous old business, as we found out)

As for the food itself, I tested out a recipe from my new favourite read; a magazine called The Simple Things, which is a sort of pared down Martha-like celebration of slow food, nature and living in the moment; their chicken and leek pie won the popular vote and will appear again on our table, just as soon as our arteries recover.

But possibly the best part of evenings like these is having managed to choose a husband who invariably says those magic words at the end of the night; ‘you head on up to bed; I’ll clear up down here…’

Strawberry Cheesecake Cupcakes

The eagle-eyed will have noticed a distinct absence of decadent baking in recent posts, due in no small part to my determination to win our bikini-fit diet race (an alarming thought; my husband in a bikini – let’s hurriedly think of swim shorts).  Well, three weeks have passed and I have to confess that he has won, albeit narrowly. Still, second place is not to be sniffed at, so as he bounces lithely through the kitchen flexing his newly-evident abs, I am turning a blind eye and rewarding myself by baking a batch of these perky beauties (above & below), which after all are, ahem, mostly fruit…

I adapted a recipe from the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, substituting their digestive biscuit topping for freeze-dried, crumbled strawberries, and chopping the fruit finely into the sponge mixture for even distribution (the Hummingbird crew like to place strawberries directly into the cupcake cases for a fruity puddle at the base but I find that a bit gloopy for small fingers…).  The cream-cheese frosting offsets the sweetness of the sponge and the end result is a mixture of loveliness which is neither too sugary nor too tart – and just looking at them shining in their jaunty red and pink cups while the kettle boils for an accompanying cup of tea creates a sort of delicious anticipation…

To make the cakes…

Ingredients:

  • 120g plain flour
  • 140g caster sugar
  • 1.5tsp baking powder
  • 40g unsalted butter, softened
  • 120ml milk (they suggest whole milk but I use skim which works fine with less fat)
  • 0.5tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 egg
  • 12 large strawberries, finely chopped.

Mix together the dry ingredients then pour in the milk and vanilla and blend.  Beat the egg and mix in until well-incorporated.  Finally, fold in your finely chopped strawberries (or drop them into the cupcake cases if you prefer). Bake for 20mins at 170/325 degrees c/f.

And for the frosting…

  • 300g sifted icing sugar
  • 50g unsalted butter
  • 125g cream cheese – use regular not reduced fat; the consistency of the latter is runnier and will affect the end result.
  • Dash of food colouring if desired – gel colour gives a lovely intensity and won’t make the frosting watery
  • freeze dried strawberries, sprinkles or other decorations – whatever takes your fancy!

Beat together the icing sugar and butter (I use my trusty Kitchenaid for this and indeed for all baking), then stir in the cream cheese straight out of the fridge.  I added a dash of red gel food colouring with a toothpick and gave a final blitz with the mixer for a soft pink tone and a hint of raspberry-ripple swirliness.  Pipe or spread onto the cakes when cool and then force yourself to jog around the block for 20mins in order to feel virtuous and entitled when you return… then EAT!

A Very British Affair

After two weeks of soaring temperatures, blue skies and barbecues, the heavens duly opened this Friday to mark the occasion of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the long bank holiday weekend.  Since its self-declared annus horriblis in the 90s amidst Diana’s death and Charles’s disfavour, the Royal Family has reclaimed its place in the hearts of Britain and the Commonwealth.  This weekend almost every village in England held street parties, fetes and events, and Jubilee-fever spread across the county despite the rain, not least here in our house…

In preparation for hosting a Right Royal Tea Party for Harry’s nursery friends, we decked out every surface with bunting, added red, white and blue accents wherever we could and of course chose our own wardrobe with care… (I should add that these are my husband’s legs, before I get inundated with sympathetic comments and advice on discreet depilation…)

You can’t have a tea party without cake, advice we took very seriously, so Harry and I whipped up these cupcakes (below) and adorned them with London landmark cake-toppers and sprinkles. Regal brownies, bell peppers with mozzarella and a raft of other healthy and distinctly unhealthy treats rounded out the feast.  Despite adding vast amounts of gel food colouring to the frosting we managed to achieve a watermelon shade rather than a deep red, but they looked no less perky for that.

To distract from the grey skies we turned the house over to toddler mayhem and had games, music and a few decidedly regal events; each partygoer decorated their own royal cookie, customised a crown to wear and earned a medal for enthusiastic participation in games with very few rules and much cheating; the best kind always are, I find…

Once every cake was eaten and the bunting trailed wearily from the bannisters, we collapsed in front of the television to watch a film about the creation of the official Jubilee song, which draws together performers from across the Commonwealth; a pretty awesome achievement, you can watch it here.  So now we’re officially Jubliee-d out, as I imagine the Queen must be too; at least I didn’t have to do all this in high heels and a hat, maintaining a smile throughout.  Respect is due, your Majesty…

A Taste of Summer

It’s raining again, plus ça change. In fact, I’m surprised that my predictive text function doesn’t automatically open each post with these words, so consistent is the dreary drizzle and grey skies.  We have chosen to rise above it and conjour up sunshine in the form of these individual bread rolls baked in terracotta flowerpots and bursting with sun blush tomatoes, feta cheese, rosemary and all manner of deliciousness.

I uncovered this recipe buried deep in a bulging and well-thumbed file entitled Magazine Clippings That Will Change My Life Or At Least Enhance It In Some Transient Way, and we set about making it this weekend.  We carefully selected some pots and gave them a good wash and burst in the oven to prepare them, then rolled up our sleeves and let loose.  Gorgeous as an accompaniment to soups and antipasti, they also went down a treat at our teddy bear Playroom Tea Party this morning, where a surprising number of rolls were nibbled and partially tasted, given that most participants were stuffed (literally), and only one, Harry, was technically capable of eating.  Hmmm… suspicious.

Recipe and tips below..

This recipe originally came from British foodie mag Delicious, and I’ve reproduced it faithfully below.  Uncharacteristically, we didn’t deviate from the instructions at all and they tasted divine; a more accomplished cook could play with a variety of substitutions and tweaks and produce some interesting variations.

Sunblush and Feta Flowerpot Bread. Ingredients & method:

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 7g fast acting dried yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 240g tub of sun blush tomatoes; set 8 aside before chopping the rest.
  • 150g crumbled feta
  • 2 tbsp freshly chopped rosemary plus some sprigs for decoration.
  1. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl and stir in the yeast and chopped rosemary. Gradually mix in 250ml of warm water to form a loose dough, and add the chopped tomatoes and a tbsp of the oil from the tomatoes.
  2. Tip out onto a clean surface and knead the dough for 5minutes until smooth.  Add the crumbled feta and knead again until it is all incorporated into the dough. Separate into 8 evenly shaped balls and place each carefully in a well-oiled terracotta flowerpot (you could just place these in a muffin tin or on a baking sheet instead).
  3. Allow to rise for around 30mins, setting the oven for 220 degrees.
  4. Scatter the remaining crumbled feta over the top and add a single whole sun blush tomato to each (below). Thoroughly soak 8 small rosemary sprigs then gently push one into each flowerpot for decoration (the wetness will stop them from burning in the oven).

Bake for 20-25mins, then allow to cool for as long as you are able to restrain yourself; these are best served warm, so eat as quickly as possible or give them a quick turn in the oven before serving later (they last 2 -3 days if you can manage it).

The Easter Hatchery

So there we were, surveying the garden and trying to decide where to locate the various bits of hideous plastic play equipment we’ve acquired since H was born, when I decided to seize the moment. ‘Where are we going to put the chicken run?’ I asked, casually, when my husband appeared to be distracted and only half-listening.  Immediately he sprung to attention and fixed me with a steady stare; ‘Chickens???’.  Sigh.  I have long maintained a mild obsession with acquiring some chickens and creating a pseudo-rural idyll where they can peck contentedly around the yard.  The trouble is that whilst I am imagining ambling down the lawn daily to collect a handful of gorgeous, still-warm eggs, my husband is quite rightly imagining that the clearing out of hen poo and the collecting of various tragic hen body parts tossed around by the local foxes will fall to him, and is thus far from keen.

Until the day that our visions collide, therefore, I will stick to making chicks the easy way, predominantly with fondant icing.  With the holiday weekend almost upon us and lots of family to visit, Harry and I set about making these freshly hatched cupcakes today, and are mightily chuffed with the result, despite the jaunty angles and tendency to wobble. Recipe and tips below for those with the time and inclination for a bit of sculpture; anyone who has ever mastered Play-Doh will find this a doodle…

Baking and Making:

  • Set the oven to 170 degrees and make your cakes; I use the Hummingbird Bakery vanilla cupcake recipe which we adore and manages to compensate for my culinary inadequacies every time, producing scrummy cakes… but any one will do.
  • Begin work on the chicks… start by rolling out balls of yellow fondant (either pre-bought or home-coloured)

  • Decorate the heads with stars of white royal icing (for shells), and more for eyes.  I added a dab of red colouring for that newborn glow, and snipped tiny candy hearts in half for the beaks

  • Whilst the chick heads are drying out a little and the cakes are in the oven, have a general clear up; enlist help to ensure all the residual cake mixture is scraped cleanly out of the bowl….

  • Place a disk of your yellow fondant on each cupcake, flattening the edges to avoid ridges.
  • Add a larger white fondant disk to cover the cake, having first cut out a star shape in the middle
  • Secure your chick head in the middle of each cake using edible glue, apricot jam or glaze. Don’t do what I once did and use a cocktail stick, unless a visit to the hospital emergency room is on your schedule.

  • Tada!! Job done.  Eat all of the leftover cake bits and icing. Feel a bit sick and have a lie down.

For any that survive the initial family tasting session, they also look good as gifts…I used a bit of fusilli to imitate straw (below) and Harry will be giving this one to his Granddad tomorrow…

Pasta la Vista, baby!

Carbs are big in our household, as anyone who knows us will attest. Given that my husband declares the potato to be his favourite vegetable, and I would request a toasting fork and crusty loaf if given notice of being stranded on a desert island, it was inevitable that Harry was going to feel a strong gravitational pull towards all things starchy. Whilst I’m secretly proud of the fact that he freely eats vegetables and would for ages misidentify any tree in a picture book as being ‘a piece of broccoli’ (no idea why; it’s unlikely, frankly, that he made this connection at home…), it’s also true that if you ask him what he’d like to do next, the statistically most probable answer at any given time is ‘eat spaghetti’.

So this weekend we whipped out our shiny new pasta machine that was the gift-of-the-year in Christmas 2010, rather like the bread machines that everyone gave and received 10yrs earlier.  A guilty confession; our machine is actually a present I bought for someone else and decided to keep because it looked so enticing; instead, they received a selection of novels and I no doubt received a great dollop of bad karma that will ensure all the pasta I make with it is cursed.  We’ll soon find out.  My cookbooks and the web are full of delicious recipes for homemade pasta involving herbs, different flours and semolina, et al, but we plumped for the simplest possible concoction (below), and got stuck in.  As you can see, this is one of those cookfests where it’s all about the journey, not the end result…

Take your 3 ingredients, create a volcano-like pile of the salted flour on your worktop, and pour the lightly beaten egg mixture into the middle.  Watch as the flour sides collapse and spend several minutes chasing egg around the table (you can see why small boys love this bit).

Mix the ingredients together.  Taste periodically if you really can’t resist.  Try not to touch anything else at all.  Once  a dough forms, knead for about 10 minutes.  Abandon your mother after 2 minutes and find something more interesting to do instead.  Do this quietly, dragging your sticky hands along the wall as you amble towards the toy box.

Hard work done, leave the dough to settle.

Roll out with a rolling pin until about 1cm thick, and then start to feed it through your pasta machine.  Of course, it’s perfectly possible to do this with a rolling pin alone and a lot of elbow grease and persistence.

Once you’ve got a long, thin piece of dough about 3mm thick, feed it through the slicer bit to create your chosen shape; we opted for tagliatelle, and draped it over a (clean!) broom handle to keep the strands separate whilst we worked on the rest of the dough.  As you can see, this offered an impossible temptation for a 2yr old and his fire engine, so our pasta curtain took a bit of a beating at this point.

Once you’ve finished making the tagliatelle, curl each strand into a loose ball and save till you’re ready to cook (the sooner the better).  We tossed ours gaily into a pan of boiling water and hastily gathered spoons, napkins and a large bowl each before stirring in some tomato sauce and basil. And you know, here’s the thing; despite starting with gusto (note the two forks used for speed, below), Harry quickly slowed to a halt and carefully extracted a piece of rubbery, part-chewed pasta from his mouth, then paused and asked oh-so-casually; ‘Maybe we can have Cheerios for tea instead, mummy?’ .  Karma. I knew it…