Monday, 27 August 2012

A dinner of herbs....

Apparently artichokes don't grow in jars...
Some time ago I discovered that having to go out and buy fresh herbs every time I needed them for a recipe was doing one of two things; either (1) dissuading me from trying any recipe that required fresh herbs, or (2) costing me a fortune... So for Mother's Day last year, I requested some plants of my own. Having heard somewhere along the way that the Supermarket 'growing' herbs are not the hardiest I went to our local Farmers Market and purchased a thyme, parsley, chives, rosemary, mint & something else which, since Saturday, I'm now pretty sure is Oregano...

The most surprising part of this story is that these plants are still pretty much alive, well apart from the parsley which I've discovered does not fare well if brought into contact with straying donkeys (don't ask). Anyhow, buoyed up by this success I've decided that in the Spring I'm going to attempt to 'branch' out and start a small Kitchen Garden. I love having my little stash of herbs, they are ridiculously handy and its a rare day that I'm not popping out to the big stone pots at the kitchen patio doors for a snipping of chives or a sprig of mint (minted peas are my new addiction - divine...)

Anyhow, only last week I spotted that the lovely Caitriona of was organising a tour of  The Herb Garden and Argilllan House's Kitchen Gardens on Saturday and in a moment of spontaneity (what is happening to me since the birth of this blog!!) I put my name down. It was to involve a food blogger's picnic too so I decided to make a quiche and fish one of my banana breads out of the freezer...
So armed with my picnic I set off to the Naul on Saturday morning. It transpired that probably due to Friday's inclement weather a few bloggers decided against making the trip so the tour was re-designed slightly on Saturday morning.

Did I mind? Not a bit, a morning out with like minded folk and no children... what's not to like...
Any day out that starts with
coffee and cake al fresco is
fine by me!
The Herb Garden is a little oasis set deep in the North County Dublin countryside... Denise first of all offered us coffee, which we enjoyed sitting al fresco in her beautiful garden (the banana bread made an appearance and to date I've not heard of any resulting cases of food poisoning) whilst listening to her fascinating stories of where her love for all things homegrown came from. In fact the whole tour was peppered with interesting anecdotes and I would definitely recommend that anyone interested in the subject make her acquaintance.
Then our tour commenced. Denise prides herself on her garden being 100% organic so the garden pretty much does what it wants, unfettered by chemical weedkillers... I did think guiltily of how much Round Up it takes to keep our gravel yard weed free and will take this into account when figuring out our plan for next year but its hard to see a way around it...
Such a beautiful setting...
I won't go into detail of the many, many plants that Denise spoke to us about, suffice to say I now know a lot of more than I did before the tour, and also that there's even more information available on Denise's website. I strongly recommend you pay it a visit if you are thinking of, or already in the process of, growing your own...

We didn't make it to Ardgillan House, the glorious weather we'd enjoyed in the morning literally disappeared in a flurry of raindrops just as the tour finished. However, Denise did furnish us with a delicious slice of Spanish tortilla kindly cooked by the lovely Sofia which I devoured on my journey home, my head spinning with all my new plans.

All in all, a truly delightful morning. I even got a present of a Basil plant which, with all my new found knowledge, I am determined to keep alive until Christmas... Though my husband did find it odd that I was putting him outside in the sun for a few hours on Sunday morning, I think he thinks having to bring in and out the rabbit bad enough... Oh well, the fact that he's getting a rotovator for Christmas will soon distract him...

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Chocolate & Mint Fairy Cakes

I blame the mint crisp chocolate bar that was first available during my teenage years (am I giving my age away here? Oh dear, yes - there will be a very significant birthday later this year!) as I really went for them in a big way at the time and really went off them in the end, but I really dislike the mint / choc combo. But reading this recipe from Eunice Power in the Irish Times some months ago gave me pause for thought - I loved her lemon and raspberry cake recipe that was also published that day; the author's sons do, apparently, describe these cakes as "unreal" - and on reflection, I've never knowingly refused an After Eight (or two!), so thought I'd try it out...

Willing Helpers 
Now, Himself had cycled off to run a race this morning (750m swim and a 5k run at Bull Island, we are extremely proud!) so we thought we'd grab a quick picnic and join him - and we thought mint chocolate fairy cakes would be the perfect "after picnic" treat and great way to keep them away from the television for a short while. My two little helpers got their aprons (and a chef hat) on, and were very willing assistants - especially when it came to licking the bowl and beaters! Definitely one of the perks of "helping" Mum, and fondly remembered from my own childhood, and yours too, I'd make a safe guess.

The buns themselves were very straightforward to make, pretty much the usual recipe but with some cocoa powder thrown in and peppermint extract instead of vanilla. The recipe suggested a cooking time of 15 - 20 minutes, I found that mine needed closer to the full twenty. The icing is also regular butter icing, with a drop of green colouring and again, peppermint instead of vanilla extract.

This recipe makes 12 regular sized fairy cakes, or you can also make them bite-sized, 48 mini muffin cases. Eunice Power (the original author of the recipe), suggests the bite sized ones are best, she says they are nicest "eaten whole". I'll have to take her word on that - I only have a regular tin and neither my local Dunnes nor Tesco could provide a mini tin. I was too lazy to go further afield, I'll get one in town one day. Anyhow, they were gorgeous and we weren't complaining.

For the fairy cakes

  • 125g soft (room temperature) butter
  • 125g caster sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 125g self raising flour
  • 20g cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp peppermint essence
  • 2 tbsp milk
  • Preheat the oven to 170C / gas mark 3 
  1. Put all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse until blended (I just whizzed them with the electric hand mixer)
  2. Spoon into bun cases
  3. Bake until cooked - about 15-20 mins for the bun size and 10 mins for the mini ones, then leave to cool on a wire rack

For the icing

  • 250g icing sugar
  • 125g butter, softened
  • 1 tsp peppermint essence
  • 1 - 2 tbsp milk
  • A drop or two of green food colouring
  1. Beat the butter til creamy, add the sugar and beat in, adding a drop or two of milk to bring the mixture together (very little is required)
  2. Add the peppermint essence and a drop of green food colouring (I use the pastes, they are great - expensive, but you need very little, literally a dip a cocktail stick and use a tiny dot, you can always add a little more - as the original author put it, you want "a gentle shade of green, not a patriotic one" and I totally agree)
  3. Spoon icing onto the buns and decorate with some shards of chocolate flake
Enjoy - these would make a lovely dessert for a sunny day, they are not at all heavy or dense and I would think that in mini form they would be a lovely sweet bite for after that groaningly massive barbecue (I don't know about you, but I always eat to much at a barbie!) and just enough "to take the grease from your mouth", as my grandfather said.

Sarah xx

Mint Chocolate Fairy Cakes, with my mint plant in the background

Sunday, 12 August 2012

And the medal goes to...

So after two glorious weeks of armchair-olympics, it’s time for the closing ceremony… I did worry what I would obsess about when there was no diving/boxing/rowing but have been reliably informed that both the Great British Bake Off and Masterchef will be on our screens from early next week so I just might be ok…

But we still have one last glorious evening of London 2012 viewing to go and how better to celebrate than with the ultimate tv food – pizza.  I’ve wanted for years to try making my own pizza but was always put off by the fact that I’d have to use yeast, which along with gelatin, is enough to stop me reading any recipe. However, how pleased was I to see a recipe for Homemade Pizza in the Lidl/Tom Doorely Home Cooking bible (I added the bible bit because its currently the most leafed book on my cook book shelf!).

I’ll give you the recipe first and incorporate my comments into the method…

For the dough…
400gr Rivercote Ciabatta Baking Mix
240ml blood temperature water
2 teasp Primadonna extra virgin olive oil

For the sauce…
2 cloves of garlic
a little Chantesel salt
2 tbsp Primadonna extra virgin olive oil
400gr tin of Nostia chopped tomatoes
2 tbsp Nostia tomato puree
ChanteSel salt & Kania black pepper

Put the ciabatta baking mix into a mixing bowl and the water (I used cold with just a drop of boiling to achieve the ‘blood temperature’ effect) and I tbsp of oil. Using a dough hook of an electric mixer or a wooden spoon, mix well to form a dough. (Couldn’t find my dough hook so just used the K-beater of my Kenwood) Continue to mix on a low speed until a smooth ball of dough has formed and the sides of the bowl are clean – about five minutes. Alternatively you can take the dough out and knead it on a lightly floured work top till smooth & springy (7-10 mins).

Add the other tbsp. of oil and coat the dough with it, then cover the bowl with clingfilm. Leave bowl in a warm place for 1 – 1.5 hours.

Dough should double in size.

NOW I have to stop here for a second. On my first attempt I left my bowl in the hotpress and went off for 1.5 hours only to come back and find it the exact same size as it had been when I left it. I was distraught  and there may have been some screaming involving the words ‘yeast’ and ‘should have known better’. However during the course of my howling I did one clever thing, I ran it by renowned baker & blogger AnneMarie of StrictlyBaking and she calmly told me to stick it in the oven on a low heat, which I did and in about twenty minutes my dough had doubled and my tears dried. So that’s what I’ve done since then, no hotpress, straight into warm (NOT hot) oven. Simple.

Then to make the sauce, peel and crush the garlic. Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed pan and add the garlic, cooking gently for a short while – not letting the garlic get brown. Add the tinned tomatoes and the tomatoe puree and stir well. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5 mins, mashing the contents with a potatoe masher (or whatever you have). Simmer the sauce until it is no longer watery and when you make a line in the sauce it doesn’t fill up again.
Leave to cool.

Now, my note here is not to underestimate how long this step takes… you don’t want watery sauce so don’t rush it. The aroma will drive you crazy though and you wouldn’t be blamed if you wanted to hurtle along to the next step but just keep stirring and offer up the pain of waiting…

And now, onto toppings. Basically knock yourself out. Lidl (and most supermarkets) do great value in salami and other similar meats, you could put diced bacon or chicken, or just stick with peppers and mushrooms. Again, the first night I made this I totally over did it and put every thing on at the one time – don’t get me wrong, it was delicious but not exactly ‘beautiful’… The next time I restrained myself to mozzarella & cheddar cheese and salami & pepparoni. Yum.

So back to business… Take the dough out of the bowl and gently divide into four equal pieces. Shape each one into a ball, dust with flour and leave to rest for ten minutes. Roll out the first ball as large/thin as you’d like and put on a lightly oiled baking sheet.

 I recently invested in a pizza stone and this has to be preheated first so make sure you have a protected space on your work top to place the hot stone on whilst you do this step…

Spread with some tomato sauce and the rest is up to you…

I need to add here that on one occasion I found myself with too much dough so faced with this quandary I turned to twitter and the answer soon arrived. Excess dough can be refridgerated or even frozen. Now that I know this, I think I will make my dough the night before in future as there is quite a few steps involved in this whole process and I’m all about low hassle. Likewise the tomato sauce freezes beautifully so I’ve since made enough for several pizzas and frozen in individual containers – I mean, fast food is meant to be fast, right?

My children ADORED this pizza and were agog at the fact that ‘Mammy made the dough and all…’ No more agog than Mammy, I can tell you.

But it's gorgeous, it's easy (now that I know how!) and it's well worth a try…

Best of luck, and do let us know how you get on…