Sunday, 25 November 2012

Like it or not, its on its way...

For more reasons than I care to go into here, this Dinnerlady hasn't been having the best of months. I'm putting it down to November blues, and the probably more relevant December-is-coming blues... But then, one too-dark-too-early evening this week, I received our new DinnerLadies Christmas logo and within seconds I could feel the fog lifting...

Christmas is coming folks and love it or loathe it, there's definitely no avoiding the oncoming season of goodwill...

At Dinnerladies HQ, we have lots of plans for the next few weeks.

We want to share our traditions (and test out some new ones) in addition to helping anyone who might be feeling a bit overwhelmed at the thoughts of what is, essentially, only a meal involving a rather large chicken. And you know, thats all it is, whatever else you want to add is completely up to you. Starters, vegetables, desert and leftovers... we'll share our thoughts and you pick whats relevant.

On that note, please don't be afraid to contact us with any questions you might have, we have a trained chef on retainer so we can practically guarantee that nothing we suggest we lead to you killing the in-laws (unless you want to, of course...!!)

 There will be talks of timetables, planners, notebooks and a clip board (from me) and probably a million types of desert options (from Sarah) but most of all, we hope to have a bit of craic.  

Christmas can be stressful for loads of reasons. We can't guarantee that you won't fight over the remote control, or that Auntie Pauline won't get merry on the sherry trifle, but we can certainly try to take the stress out of the food element and maybe even save you a few bob at the same time...

Its just a dinner folks, stick with us...


Saturday, 17 November 2012

Plain and Simple Sponge Cake


A scaled up birthday cake
I've covered this before, when I posted about my coffee cake in the post "Yet More Cake", but I was honestly recently surprised by some friends who are both very good cooks and confident bakers mentioning that they were not sure with this type of sponge cake, and never really make it - but a basic, straight forward cake is one of the easiest things in the world. It is so gorgeously old fashioned that you really do feel like a domestic goddess for being able to rustle it up, so I URGE YOU ALL to give it a go. And I thought a post on ordinary, honest to goodness sponge cake was required.

The first thing you need to know is that a sponge cake is massively simple. The simplest cake to make is the one using the "all-in-one" technique, and; as the name implies; it couldn't be simpler. You literally bung everything into a bowl and mix it and that's pretty much that.

Now of course, there are couple of secrets. But they're neither that hard nor that secret. I know you might know some of it already, so sorry for the repetition, but it's worth repeating anyhow. Here goes:

  1. You must preheat the oven, even if (like me) you normally shove stuff in regardless. For cake (and baking), it must be preheated. Not so bad with the frozen pizza, but for baking you preheat.
  2. Secondly, ALL the ingredients need to be at room temperature. I don't even bother storing eggs in my fridge, I just leave them out all the time. Think about it - when you buy them in the shop, are they on the shelf or in the fridge? The shelf, correct. They will be fine and do not need to be refrigerated. Take the butter out of the fridge the night before or, if you forget or decide on the spur of the moment (me, again!) then weigh it out, cut it into smallish cubes and leave somewhere warm. In my house, the window sill above the radiator is perfect, or the table in front of it. DO NOT stick it on the rad or into the microwave, if it melts it is too oily and greasy and not what you want at all. If the recipe says melted butter, then fine; but if not, then don't.
  3. You need the right tins. Two round 8 inch tins. That's 8 inches. NOT 7 and not 9 - they would need either less or more ingredients.
  4. Line the bottom of the tins with parchment paper (also called baking paper).
  5. DO NOT open the oven while it's cooking. Stand firm, it will be fine. DO NOT check until the time is up. If you really really must, then check it 5 mins from the end - BUT NO SOONER!
That's pretty much it. Oh, one thing - although I usually use the metric measuring system, for cake I always use imperial (pounds and ounces) coz it's so so simple; literally 6-6-6-3. That's 6oz each of flour, butter and sugar and then 3 eggs; then beat them together for 1 minute with an electric mixer, and that's more or less it! After that, you can flavour it - a bit of vanilla for a plain sponge, cocoa powder for a chocolate cake, a bit of coffee and a few walnuts for a coffee cake.... 

So, here goes (see below for variations):

All-In-One Sponge Cake

  • 6oz caster sugar
  • 6oz self-raising flour
  • 6oz butter, at room temperature
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1½ tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract (for a plain cake)
  • 2 tbsp milk (optional)
  • Preheat the oven to 170C
  1. Put all the ingredients except the vanilla and milk in a large mixing bowl, and then go in with your electric hand mixer (or Kenwood Chef or Kitchenaid, if you have fancier kitchen equipment than me - kitchen envy, **sigh**) and mix for about one minute, til all the ingredients are well combined
  2. Beat in the vanilla extract, and then give the beaters a sharp tap off the edge of the bowl - if it drops off, then this is called a good "dropping consistency", and your mix is ready. If not, add a tablespoon or two of milk, and beat in
  3. Divide the mixture between the two prepared tins (level out with a knife) and pop in the oven for 30 mins at 170C, the cakes are done when they feel springy to the touch in the centre
  4. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tins for 5 mins, then turn out onto wire racks to cool completely (removing the paper from the bottom)

Once cool, you can ice them. If it's a plain sponge, then cream and jam and the corresponding fruit to match the jam is the perfect filling, just dust the top with icing sugar. If it's fancier cake - well then, the sky's the limit. I usually make a buttercream icing, which is pretty easy

Buttercream Icing

  • 150g butter, at room temperature
  • 250-300g icing sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp milk
  1. Beat the butter til creamy, then beat in the sugar. It will often be all lumpy - so add the liquid, the vanilla and milk, and beat again til you get a cohesive mixture.

Don't ice the cakes til they are fully cool (this only takes a half hour or so) as they will disintegrate on you.

Variations are easy - for a chocolate cake, keep the vanilla extract in both the cakes and icing, but just remove a spoon of flour and add a tablespoon of good cocoa powder instead. For the icing, also leave in the vanilla, and again add a spoon of cocoa powder. You can add melted chocolate for a more intense chocolatey hit, but I prefer this milder one, and then to ice the top with chocolate ganache icing, that's a great chocolate hit!
For coffee cake, leave out the vanilla and add a tablespoon of Irel chicory essence to the cake mix, and instead of the milk and vanilla in the icing, just add two tablespoons of Irel. You could also add in about 3oz / 60g of chopped walnuts - seriously good. See my original coffee cake post here.

Chocolate Ganache Icing

Chocolate ganache, with Smarties and paper for drips

  • 150ml whipping or double cream
  • 1tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp butter
  • 150g of best, darkest chocolate, chopped into small pieces
  1. Bring the cream, vanilla and butter to a slow boil over a low heat (a non-stick pan is best), remove it from the heat as it starts to boil (you can spot this as the bubbles around the edge form a ring)
  2. Add the chocolate, chopped into small pieces (best done with a kitchen scissors, I find, but whatever works for you) and stir in - you need the chocolate to be chopped small, so it will melt as you stir it in
  3. Allow to cool slighty before use, but obviously not to harden, you want it still liquid enough to use
  4. If you sit the cake on a few strips of greaseproof paper, you can remove them later to have a clean base to your cake

Coffee Cake, my own favourite

Once you are confident, you can upscale the recipe, as I have done with the square birthday cake, or new ideas - add some lemon and orange zest to the cake, and a small bit of juice, and the same to the icing, or try fillings / icings made with mascarpone cheese, or colour the icing pink by adding a couple of strawberries to the icing instead of milk, or whatever takes your fancy.

Whatever you like - just know that your mother-in-law will be SO impressed with a lovely, light, fluffy freshly homebaked sponge cake... and so will you!

PS - it really is at it's best on the day it is made, although of course it will last beautifully for a few days in a tupperware style container. But if it is to be for some one's birthday or to impress some one, then make it fresh that day.

Sarah xx

Friday, 16 November 2012


Apparently, these are quite well known in the US. But I first came across them in my beloved introduction to baking that is Nigella Lawson's "How To Be A Domestic Goddess". After some research on the internet, it appears that the "proper" US snickerdoodle is something slightly different - something much more biscuity and flatter. However,  it's very own Wikipedia page page seems to concur with the Nigella version.

Many hands make light work?!
Anyhow, whatever, we make them regularly. My kids can be fussy and often prefer shop-bought commercial products (the little horrors - they will learn, in time!) but for some reason, they love these snickerdoodles. Which is odd enough, as they include nutmeg, which is not usually something that appeals massively to small children. Whatever, these are great - the girls love to help make them; rolling them between their palms and dipping in cinnamon sugar, a perfect occupation (Mum needs EAGLE EYES though, to stop too much dough going into their little mouths!). But when cooked, they have the bonus of being a brilliant biscuit/cakey hybrid thing. Small, the perfect size to have with a cuppa in the afternoon, they are also grown up (for that, read "less sweet") enough to be served with coffee after a dinner party.

So, the elder of the DinnerBabies (5½) is having a friend over for a playdate. I don't want to make cake - that's too grand, and anyhow, I want to make a fresh one in the morning for the weekend, so what to do to entertain the girls and be nice for the mums to have with a coffee before hometime? I had a brainwave and remembered the snickerdoodles. Perfect! There is also something evocative of Christmas about them, I think it's the nutmeg and cinnamon that make them slightly Germanic and therefore lends that Christmassy air (and Wikipedia tells me that the name is thought to come from the German "Schneckennudlen", describing a snail-like shape). Whatever, I like to eat them any time of the year.

I am sorry to report that only TWO solitary snickerdoodles survived the night, and as Friday is "treat day" in school, these were duly dispatched in lunchboxes this morning. But what better accolade can a cook have, than an empty plate?

So bake and enjoy - here's the recipe.

From Nigella Lawson's "How To Be A Domestic Goddess", page 58

  • 250g plain flour
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ¾ tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 125g butter, at room temperature
  • 100g caster sugar, plus 2 extra tablespoons for dipping
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp cinnamon
  • 2 baking sheets, lined or greased
  • Preheat oven to 180°C
  1. Combine the flour, nutmeg, baking powder and salt, and set aside for a moment
  2. In a large bowl, cream together the butter with the 100g of sugar, until light in texture and pale in colour, then beat in the egg and vanilla
  3. Now stir in the dry ingredients until you have a smooth, coherent mixture
  4. Spoon out the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugae and the cinnamon onto a plate or shallow bowl
  5. Now, with your fingers, squidge out pieces of dough and roll between the palms of your hands into walnut-sized balls
  6. Roll each ball in the cinnamon-sugar mixture and arrange on your prepared baking sheets
  7. Bake for about 15 minutes, by which time they should be turning golden brown
  8. Rake out of the oven and rest for about 1 minute before transferring to a wire rack to cool
    makes about 32

Nigella also suggests a variaton that I haven't tried so far - replace 25g of the flour with cocoa to make what she calls "chocodoodles".

Anyhow, it's something new to try for your weekend.

Sarah xx

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Christmas is coming....

... And the goose is getting fat,
Please put a penny in the old man's hat,
If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do,
If you haven't got a ha'penny, then God bless you!

That was our childhood Christmas rhyme, and in these recessionary times it rings true. So, in the spirit of Christmas and saving a bit of money, this year, I decided not just to make my own mince pies, but also the mincemeat with which to fill them - a few jars of luxury mincemeat with added brandy and apple and lemon juice is definitely more expensive that a few packets of raisins and things.

For those of you having paroxysms because I mentioned the dreaded "C" word let me remind you that, as per our rhyme above, Christmas is indeed coming and this day 6 weeks is the very day - so it is time to start at least thinking about it, and if you are into baking, it's time to start the Christmas baking.

For most of us, Christmas is a time of tradition, both old and new (there is a lot of fun to be hand in creating your own traditions for your own family and cherry-picking what works for you and ditching those that don't). For me, I like to have the tree up relatively early as my birthday is in early Dec, and I like to have it up around then (the 8th by the way, and it's a very significant one this year, so if anyone wants to buy me a present, far be it from me to stop you!). I have a fresh tree though, and it's been getting a bit droopy by the end of the season, so I think I might wait a week longer this year.

Our biggest family tradition is that we spend Christmas with my Dad, at my family home in Ahascragh, Co. Galway. It's a big house, there are lots of siblings and grandchildren now too - not all will be there for Christmas Day, but they will be there for a day or two at some stage, and it's great for the little DinnerBabies to spend some time with their cousins.

When it comes to the food, we all do our bit. Dad made the puddings last night, and my job is the mince pies. These are A HUGE DEAL in our house - every year, there was so much discussion about my mother's homemade mince pies and how far superior they were to any shop bought creation and all that jazz. So, after my mother's untimely death ten years ago, it became my job to do the mince pies, as I was the baker in the family and also the one that could make mum's pastry. Turns out that the pastry was really the key, for us anyhow - the sweetened, thick and extremely buttery pastry of the shop bought versions are what the family object to the most, it seems. So, I consulted my sources (Nigella Lawson and company) and felt confident. I know that my own mother hadn't made her own mincemeat in years, and Nigella's Christmas chapter in her book "How to be a Domestic Goddess" had very practical advice - if you are using shop bought mincemeat, turn it into a bowl and grate over a good bit of sharp cooking apple (at least one cooking apple), a good squeeze of tart lemon juice (the juice of at least one lemon) and add a good slug of cooking brandy. This sharpens up even the sweetest and most cloying mincemeat and makes the world of difference.

A word on pastry - I just use regular, shortcrust pastry. Nothing fancy, just plain old hardworkin' shortcrust. It's my favourite and I think it works the best here; not just because it's the way my mother made them; but also because the mincemeat filling, although scant, is so sweet and intense that you don't need anything fighting with them. Heavy, buttery pastry just totally overwhelms the poor little pie and all you taste is the chewy case, not the Christmassy filling.

I do like an "aide-memoire"!
I've covered pastry before here, so just a quick note on quantities. As you can see from the picture, I like to make notes in my cookery books! But it makes sense, I only make mince pies once a year, I always check out this book, so where better to make my notes and ensure they don't get filed somewhere obvious that I'll never find again? So my notes tell me that pastry made with ½lb of flour and 2oz each of butter and lard would make about 24 mince pies if I roll the pastry thinly enough (also key, you don't want too much pastry, just "enough"), so I usually use 1lb of flour and get about 46 mince pies out of it.

I actually thought I might make my own mincemeat last year, as Nigella Lawson always suggested you could make an easy, suet-free mincemeat and then I read a recipe by Eunice Power in a Saturday edition of the Irish Times around this time of year that seemed to tally with that, so I thought - why not?! But I never quite got round to it. However, in the spirit of the true "Recessionista" that I have become though, I decided this year was THE year and I was going to go for it. So, I did my shopping and gathered my ingredients, and got going this weekend.

Eunice Power's Christmas Mincemeat Recipe
"Many mincemeat recipes don't involve cooking, however, when it is cooked it makes it much more digestible, so no seasonal heartburn. You can of course substitute cranberries, diced glacé cherries or diced ready-to-eat apricots for any of the dried fruit. I tend to use smaller raisins and sultanas in my mincemeat, especially if I want to make tiny mince pies. You would be surprised how much room a jumbo raisins takes up.

A motley collection of jars, but makes LOADS
  • 350g raisins (I used 300g raisins & 50g dried cranberries)
  • 350g sultanas
  • 100g currants
  • 450g grated apple (this was about 3 to 4 cooking apples)
  • 150g brown sugar
  • 175ml brandy
  • 100g butter
  • Juice and rind of 2 lemons
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp mixed spice
  • 50g chopped almonds
  • 50g chopped walnuts
  • 100g mixed peel (I added in an extra 50g diced glacĂ© cherries too)
  • 2 tbsps marmalade
  1. Mix all the ingredients together in a large saucepan
  2. Simmer for 30 minutes, then store in sterilised jars for up to one year
And it really is that simple! I found that it got a bit dry, so I added more brandy and a little water as I went, but the recipe made LOADS, which is just as good as I've offered to make the mince pies for the school coffee morning that the Parent's Association is running before Christmas - eek!

The fantastic thing about mince pies is that you can make them all up now, cook them off and freeze them. Yes, sure - they defrost on the car journey down to my Dad's, but they usually get eaten in about 2 or 3 days anyhow, so I just leave them in the back kitchen and reheat as required - I'm sure you have a utility room or somewhere else that is cooler, especially this time of year. 

Just a quick last note about the actual pies themselves. I make small ones. I think that is the perfect size; just a bite or two and they should be gone. Mine are quite "rustic", but that is part of their charm, so to that end I don't glaze them with egg-wash or milk - feel free, if you wish. I make mine in my regular bun trays, no need to grease them out as the pastry is buttery enough to stop them sticking. 
I also usually use a smaller size cutter to cut out the lids. A little brush of water helps to stick the lids on, and then I pierce the top with a fork, to let the steam escape. Cook in a hot oven - about 220C - for about 15 minutes. Use up the leftover pastry scraps by making a freeform pie ... collect all the scraps and roll out together, use a slightly larger cutter and fill one side with mincemeat, then fold over and crimp in the fashion of a Cornish pasty or similar.

Mince pie pictures will be added when I get round to making them - for now, mincemeat is enough Christmas prep for this house!

**EDIT** I found a picture of last years mince pies - as I say, rustic, but all the more charming for that, no?!

Sarah xx