Thursday, 21 April 2011

Hot Cross Buns

"The flesh, alas, is wearied; and I have read all the books there are".  Stephane Mallarme (1842-1898), Brise Marin

Every Good Friday since 2007, I've made a batch of Hot Cross Buns.  I've used three difference recipes - hand baked buns from Jane Grigson's English Food, a recipe from Leith's Cookery Bible and I've also dug out my old breadmaker (long retired after heavy service) to prove a dough that then can be shaped into the buns.  I have to say, all of these come out pretty well.  The thing I struggle with is the cross!

I've taken to adding the cross after the final proving so that it's the same size as the bun (adding it before the final rise was my first mistake in 2007) but I still can't seem to get it quite right.  I think that people assume that a cross is shortcut pastry but there seem to be plenty of alternatives including; a knife slash, almond paste (marzipan) or a paste of water and flour that can be piped.  I tried the water/ flour  last year and it was very bland and a bit of a faff.  This year I tried home made almond marzipan paste.  I'd made this before at Christmas and again, it is completely different to the shop bought yellow marzipan.  I grinded whole almonds in a blender, added icing sugar, a whisked egg and lemon juice and then kneaded.  I sliced thin stips off and rolled them out with my hand to create crude crosses.  I had been hoping that they would blend into the dough, but they didn't and were a little crumbly and crude looking when the buns came out the oven.  They tasted delicious though.  I might make some more tomorrow and this time flattened the almond paste into strips (akin to shortcrust pasty) to go for a neater look.  I also did the daft mistake today (in my keenness to get the crosses on) of not glazing the buns in egg and milk until after the crosses were on.  This interfered with the crosses and made it unnecessarily fiddly.

Bread making is perfect for kids; short bursts of activity and dough is very forgiving to little fingers.  My two year old loves putting the dough down for a nap and carefully covering it with a tea towel.  I've told him that it grows in it's sleep, like him, and he says "shush" as we put it for a 'nap'.   I used bread maker dough today as I wanted to concentrate today on the crosses. At least this has given me the energy to do another batch tomorrow of which our neighbours will be the recipients.

Thunder & Lightning

"And snatched from Jove the lightning shaft and power to thunder". Manilus, 1st Century AD, Astonomica.

Thunder & Lightning is the name given to a pasta/ chickpea dish I read about in Elizabeth David's Italian Food.  The pasta is the lightning and the chickpeas, the thunder.  They are mixed together and lightly dressed with olive oil, melted butter and Parmesan cheese.   The pasta is traditionally mixed broken pasta , often leftovers.  The simplicity appealed to me and I've served it to the kids before.  However, I decided to embelish it a little for a family supper.  I used only spaghetti and finished up a jar of basil pesto.  I'd been flicking through ED's Italian food and there is little mention of pesto which is surprising considering it's ubiquity today in British/ Italian cookery.  However, I recalled that ED said pesto could also be made with parsley and Walnut and our friends at Simply Italian do a lovely Walnut pesto.  I mixed the remaining basil pesto into the spaghetti and warmed chickpeas and added olive oil, Parmesan and then a couple of tablespoons of ground walnuts I'd just whizzed up in a blender.  The side was mushrooms, garlic and courgette sauteed in wok. 

Just as I was about to start serving up, my husband invited the children into the garden to put up the tent.  We're going camping next week and so this is to check the tent out.  I knew I couldn't compete with this excitement, so instead I cleared up, prepared a soft fruit salad for dessert and put the Thunder & Lightning into bowls on a tray and took it into the garden for an al-fresco supper.  By now, my husband was finishing off the guy ropes and the kids had lost interest and were playing.  My entry was well timed and everyone enjoyed the meal, although the kids were a little picky about the courgette.  I consoled myself with the thought of their eating walnuts.  Dessert was the soft fruit salad (kiwi, mango, satsuma, banana and white grapes with ice-cream.

I haven't worked out what we're going to be eating on the real camping trip yet.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Pork & Fennel with Vegetable Rice

"Procrastination is the thief of time" Edward Young, English Poet

This was one of those occasions when I start cooking before I've decided what I'm actually going to make.   I'm chopping an onion and boiling some hot water, still with no idea what we're having to eat (so much for menu plans eh?).  However, I did have some organic minced pork out of the fridge which I mashed in a bowl before adding some brown bread crumbs, a couple of eggs, some chopped parsley, onion and a wedge of raw fennel which I'd blitzed in the food processor. I'd usually shape something like this into small balls, but I was worried they'd dry out in the oven and I didn't fancy frying them.  So instead I pressed the mixture into a buttered loaf tin and baked in the oven for just over an hour.   We ate it with vegetable rice and corn on the cob.  Very nice it was too - I cautiously put some soy sauce on the table, but no-one added any. 

The kids struggle to eat meat and in it's softer forms, they are often happier, so a meat loaf has been on the back of my mind for a while and was worth a spin. 

Give Peas a Chance!

"How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways..." Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1806-1861, Sonnets from the Portuguese, 43.

Ah the humble pea?  Peas are somewhat sullied by the bad company they often keep. But that is to do the humble pea a disservice - they deserve so much more than fish fingers and oven chips.  Kept apart from such common fare, they make fantastic pea soup, are lovely minted, make a lovely bed for other vegetables, contrast so well with carrots and sweetcorn and are a really great side to roast chicken and gravy. 

Why does it have to be frozen?  Well, it doesn't, but let's face it, most of the time in my household, it is.  I'm not actually sure fresh peas taste any better, although there is much pleasure to be had in the task of shelling.  I daren't count the number of times in a week that I reach into the freezer for a handful of frozen peas.  To me, they are a garnish, a flourish, beautiful flecks of colour across an omelette, scattered across pasta, nestling in a school besides mash potato, a bowl on their own with melting butter.  To their credit, they are nearly always there (a freezer stalwart), they cook in four minutes, provide folic acid and my kids have no strong aversion to them.  They've recently been enjoying a book by Kes Grey and Nick Sharratt called "Eat Your Peas" about a girl's mother bribing her to eat the small green balls.  This hasn't put them off, although there are now distractions of lining them up for counting or using them to craft a picture. 

Don't be embarrassed to get out those frozen peas or be put off by the strange afterlife they lead in their dehydrated form after they've rolled under the cooker.  I'll be back to the freezer for another quick fix.

My Favourite Frozen Vegetables:
1. Peas (see above)
2. Sweetcorn (also corn on the cob)
3. Broad beans (a joy!)
4. Spinach (so easy, though it can have a slight metallic flavour)
5. French beans

Vegetables that should NOT be frozen:
1. Broccoli (water retention problems)
2. Mushrooms (ditto)
3. Carrots (they have a mushy edge)
4. Asparagus (just not themselves)