Comfort Food Week: Sloppy Joes

The idea for this dinner was borne out of the desire to cook a lasagne, which seems to be the only thing that I feel like I could eat when I have that ‘I don’t know what to have for dinner’ feeling. Unfortunately, though, I don’t think it’s worth making a lasagne unless you do it properly, which takes a long time and isn’t something I want to be doing when I get home from work. It’s definitely one of those things you need to cook up a big batch of on a rainy day and then freeze it for those desperate moments when only lasagne will do (there will be more on this another day). Every time I make any kind of mince-based meal though, I tend to make twice as much and freeze the rest, so I can have another dinner or two without any more effort than taking something out the freezer and reheating it.

This dinner is perfect for those days when you want to just put some stuff in a pan, let it sit there, and then eat it straight away without cooking anything else to go with it. Minimal washing up, minimal effort, total comfort. There is something incredibly comforting about eating a your dinner out of a soft white roll which is full of meat and cheese, whilst sat on the sofa in front of the tv.

I know that Sloppy Joes are generally cooked with some spices and peppers in, but I wanted to use the leftovers for bolognese so I just made the ragu the usual way. If you wanted to make these more authentic, some chilli, cumin, paprika and red peppers would do the trick. Obviously you could easily make these veggie by using Quorn mince and leaving out the bacon.

Sloppy Joes

Serves 2, with half leftover for freezing

500g minced beef/Quorn mince

4 rashers streaky bacon

Olive oil

1 onion

4 cloves garlic

1 carton passata

Glug of red wine

1 tablespoon oregano

Salt & pepper

Cheese and a bread roll, to serve

Method

Heat some olive oil in a pan and fry the bacon. Whilst the bacon is frying, chop the onion finely and add to the bacon once crisp. Cook gently until the onions are soft. Add the garlic, crushed, and the mince and cook until browned.

Once the mince is browned, season and add the oregano, tomatoes and red wine. Simmer for as long as you can, at least half an hour. Serve dolloped into soft bread rolls with a good grating of cheese. Eat with a salad if you feel the need to be healthy, but make sure you have napkins to hand!

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Comfort Food Week: Cauliflower Cheese

Despite the fact that, for me at least, all food brings comfort, comfort food is an entirely different way of eating. It often seems that the things that define comfort food are those things that evoke nostalgia, most often from childhood. Personally, the things I find most comforting are the things I’ve been eating for years, that were cooked for me by my Mum and Dad. It may well be that I cook them differently myself now and have adapted the recipes slightly as my tastes have changed, but the relationship I have with the food remains the same.

I think it’s almost implicit in the term ‘comfort food’ that the food isn’t going to be healthy. Think of comfort food and you think of stews with dumplings, steamed puddings, rice pudding, cakes… these things might not be good for your waistline but I definitely think they make you feel that bit better about the long winter ahead. And above all, comfort food needs to be soft, easy to eat, nothing that’s too hard to chew or too crispy; everything should just melt together and be embracing, as opposed to an effort. It’s not just comfort food but comfort eating. And this brings me round to the first recipe of Comfort Food Week: Cauliflower cheese.

One of my absolute favourite things that my Mum would cook for me is cauliflower cheese. Cauliflower is probably my favourite vegetable, and I remember eating it with Sunday roasts from a pretty young age. My Mum taught me how to make cauliflower cheese, and I still use the same recipe now. Every time we go to my parents’ house for a roast dinner, she always cooks a cauliflower cheese for me because she knows I love it so much. Isn’t that the best thing about Mums?

This cauliflower cheese has a little kick to the sauce and, when topped with breadcrumbs and grated cheese, gets a nice crispy top under the grill which is perfect against the tender cauliflower and creamy sauce. Total comfort food. Obviously you could use a mixture of cauliflower and broccoli, or use all broccoli, but I just love the pale serenity of the white cauliflower with the pale yellow sauce. It feels less intrusive than a burst of vibrant green.

Cauliflower cheese

Serves 1

1 small cauliflower

25g butter (a large knob)

25g flour (a few tablespoons)

Pinch cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon mustard powder

200/250ml milk

Handful grated cheddar cheese

More cheese and breadcrumbs for the topping

Method

Steam or boil the cauliflower for around 10 minutes until tender. Drain in a colander but don’t shake it or you’ll break the florets up. Just leave them in the colander to dry in their own steam for a minute or two.

Meanwhile, you can make the sauce. Melt the butter in a pan and add the flour, cayenne and mustard. Mix to a paste (this is the roux) and cook for a few minutes. Gradually add the milk and whisk into the roux until you’ve got a thick, silky sauce. You may need more or less milk, it depends how much butter and flour you use, the particular flour you used etc and I never weigh it! Once it’s the right consistency (and I really think it should be quite thick, otherwise you won’t be able to eat it very well!), season with salt and pepper and, with the pan off the heat, whisk in the grated cheese.

Put the cauliflower into a baking dish and pour over the cheese sauce. Top with breadcrumbs and some more grated cheese and place under a hot grill until bubbling, blistered and golden brown. Enjoy with a nice piece of crusty bread!

Plum, hazelnut and chocolate cake

I’m really excited about the arrival of autumn, because it’s my favourite time of year and I have a lot to post about! I love everything about this season; root veg, squashes, game, soups and comfort food.

This cake is probably one of the first things I made as autumn arrived; in fact I sort of made it to mark the onset of the season as it felt so autumnal to me. It was really really delicious too! I love cakes with fruit in (as opposed to fruit cake, which is the devil’s work) as they’re always nice and moist. The chocolatey chunks provide a welcome touch of sweetness and richness which works really well with the hazelnuts which are pretty savoury here. The real beauty of this cake is not just that it’s autumnal in its flavour and ingredients, but even the look of the thing is autumnal; the burnished hazelnuts split their skins and go all golden brown, and the redness of the skin on the plums oozes into the golden flesh in the centre and it looks like a real autumnal show in food form. I love it when that happens. In fact, I love it so much I made it into the new blog header picture for autumn!

I got the recipe from BBC Good Food, and it says to use ground hazelnuts in the recipe. Now, I’ve never seen ground hazelnuts in the supermarket, and as I didn’t have any ground almonds in the house either to substitute I ground my own in the food processor. They didn’t grind down as fine as ground almonds, but then the slight grainy texture was quite nice in the finished cake. This is a really great way to use plums, and actually I think it would be great to just make a plain, spiced sponge cake, heavy with cinnamon, and poke some plums into the top before it goes in the oven. I might try this very soon! In the meantime, the recipe for the plum, hazelnut and chocolate cake:

Plum, hazelnut and chocolate cake

175g butter

500g plums

175g light muscovado sugar

175g self-raising flour

175g ground hazelnuts

3 eggs

1 tsp baking powder

50g dark chocolate

2 tbsp hazelnuts

2 tbsp redcurrant, damson or plum jelly

Method

Preheat the oven to 180C and butter and line the base of a 20cm cake tin (I used a loose-bottom one for convenience).

Halve and stone 4 plums and keep by for later, and chop the remaining plums.

If you can’t find ground hazelnuts, grind them in a processor. Then put the sugar, butter, flour, ground hazelnuts, eggs and baking powder into a large bowl and beat with a wooden spoon or electric hand mixer for 1-2 mins, until smooth and light or do what I did and put it all in the processor. Roughly chop the chocolate into fairly small pieces.

Stir in the chopped plums and chocolate, then tip into the prepared cake tin and smooth the top.

Arrange the halved plums over the top of the mixture, pressing them down lightly, then scatter over hazelnuts.

The recipe says to bake for 40-50 mins, but mine took about 10 minutes longer to cook, but I did cook it in a non-fan oven. Once it’s golden and feels firm in the centre, remove it from the oven and cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then take it out and cool on a wire rack. Heat the jelly, then brush over the top of the cake before serving (I left this bit out actually).

This cake is so delicious. Hope you enjoy it!

Homemade crumpets with homemade salted butter

If you fancy a bit of pottering around in the kitchen this weekend then making some crumpets could be the very thing for you! I’m on a total crumpet kick at the moment; I’m having them for breakfast every morning (breakfast at my desk has been replaced by breakfast in my car) and feel like I could never get tired of eating them. So a few weeks ago I figured I’d have a go at making them, since everything home-made generally tends to taste better than shop-bought. I have always wanted to know how they get their bubbly tops and stringy, spongy centre.

I used Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe which was SO easy. It took just a few minutes to whip up the batter; the limiting factor on making these is the time the batter takes to rest and the time the crumpets take to cook. It’s best to make them on a day when you’ve not got much else on, and can just keep checking on the batter/cooking crumpets as and when you need to (I wouldn’t advise making them on a Sunday morning when you’re supposed to be going out like I did!). One thing I will say about the recipe is that it says to add 10 grams of salt, and once I’d measured this out I realised that this is a LOT of salt. Even though the recipe makes a lot of batter, I still didn’t think that 10 grams was necessary, and as a result I put in probably about 6 or 7 grams. Still though, my husband complained that they were too salty, although I did make salted butter so maybe it was just all too much. Next time I’d put in even less salt though; there’s nothing worse than eating something that’s too salty.

Cooking the crumpets was, er, interesting. Not that it was hard, but it took a bit of trial and error to get the correct thickness. Unfortunately I had one of those moments where you just blindly follow the recipe rather than using your own common sense, so I added enough batter to come ‘almost to the top of the crumpet ring’, although my crumpet rings are particularly tall. So I ended up with a crumpet about an inch thick that took about 20 minutes to cook, and even then was still a bit gooey in the middle. I obviously made the subsequent crumpets a lot thinner. Next time, I will be more prepared for the time they take to cook, they’re totally worth it. They were really delicious!

I’m convinced this whole enterprise was doomed from the start, as when I bought the egg rings I took them to the till at the supermarket with a 15-rated DVD and got ID’d. What 14-year-old buys egg rings?! Seriously. I am obviously retaining my youthful good looks, being mistaken for a 14-year-old at the ripe old age of 26.

As for making the butter, it’s something I’ve wanted to do since one of my work colleagues bought a book on making “traditional” things like cheese, butter, bread etc. In this book, the method seemed slightly laborious, but luckily I was watching an episode of Jamie Oliver’s 30 Minute Meals and he made butter in the processor and it took no time at all. Obviously then I had to give it a go. Even if you don’t have a processor you could do it, essentially you just need to over-whisk double cream until the curd separates from the whey. You could do this by hand (Hulk arms are a MUST though) or with a marble in a jam jar, or any other weird and wonderful way you can think of to whip cream. Then it’s just a case of squeezing out all the fluid (I do this via a combination of a sieve and lots of kitchen towel, although since I made these I managed to score some butter pats from a car boot sale), putting any flavourings into it that you want, and then eating it! I couldn’t believe how easy it was and it’s really delicious too. A really easy way to impress friends or family that you’ve had to stay at breakfast!

Crumpets

The recipe says it makes 12 but once my batter was rested I could have easily got a lot more than that out of it!

450g plain white flour

350ml warm milk

350ml warm water (approximately)

5g powdered dried yeast

10g salt

1 tsp baking powder

A little sunflower or vegetable oil

Homemade butter

Tub of double cream (it really doesn’t matter what size, it all depends how much butter you want to make! I think I used a 284ml tub which makes a generous amount)

Pinch sea salt

Method

In a large bowl whisk the flour, milk, water and yeast into a runny batter the consistency of single cream. Cover with cling-film and leave for an hour until really bubbly (or three to four hours, if need be).

To make the butter, use whatever method you want to whip the cream. Keep whipping it until it goes really stiff, then it will get lumpier and lumpier, and eventually you’ll see the fluid come out and will hear a sloshing sound. This means it’s done!

Now tip everything into a sieve and squeeze the butter to get rid of the worst of the fluid. Next, I spread the butter out onto a sheet of greaseproof paper into a thin layer and dab all over with kitchen towel until the liquid has all gone.

Once you’ve done this, scatter the salt over the surface, and fold the greaseproof in half, smooshing the butter together. Peel back the greaseproof and fold the butter in half again using the paper, so that it’s a quarter of the original size. Do this several more times; flattening it out and folding it up so that the salt is evenly distributed. Using the paper to squash it together stops the heat from your hands melting it. Once it’s done, cut a circle from greaseproof paper, dollop the butter into the middle of it and squash up the sides, making a little patty encased in the paper.

Obviously you could just leave the butter plain, or put in herbs/garlic/chilli etc and use it on steaks or over vegetables. Yum! If you want to use it for these things you can freeze it; just form it into a sausage in some greaseproof paper, wrap it and put it in the freezer. Then you can cut disks off as and when you need it.

Once the crumpet batter is rested, heat a frying pan or griddle over a medium heat. Whilst the pan is heating, whisk the salt and baking powder into the batter. Lightly grease some crumpet/egg rings and the pan, and then make a test crumpet. Pour some batter into the ring, about 1 1/2 cm thick. If the mixture runs out the bottom of the ring, you’ll need to add more flour to the batter to thicken it. Otherwise, as the crumpet cooks small holes will appear on the surface. Once the surface is set and the crumpet looks like it’s cooked through (this will take around 8 minutes or so), flip it over and cook for a further few minutes until golden. Once you know your batter is ok you can cook several at once.

They’re best eaten straight from the pan, with the homemade butter and jam, nutella, cheese… anything!

 

Culinary disasters: cranberry and almond flapjacks

Unfortunately, all too often things in the kitchen don’t quite go as planned. It doesn’t take much to take your eye off something for a few minutes, during which time it’s burnt; to break egg yolks when you’re trying to separate them from the whites or to misread the scales/measuring jug and put way too much/little of something into a recipe, which you might not notice until you come to eat it.

I have taken steps to try to prevent the egg disaster from happening though; I now break the eggs into a small bowl before transferring the yolk-free whites into the main mixing bowl, so that if the yolk breaks I don’t end up contaminating another 2/3/4/5/6 egg whites (believe me this was a slow learning curve). Unfortunately though, there are some things that you can’t really avoid unless you apply Mad-Eye Moody’s philosophy of CONSTANT VIGILANCE, and even then you might still make mistakes. I therefore figured that there was something to be gained from sharing my culinary disasters in the hope that I can pass on the benefit of my experience, and hope that you don’t make the same mistakes as I do!

I guess this particular flapjack disaster was more of a lack of rational thought than of neglect or lack of dexterity. I wanted to make a sweet treat for my colleague on his last day before he leaves for his new job, but as I knew he was cycling to work I thought he probably wouldn’t appreciate a cake full of fat and sugar when it came to cycling the 13 or so miles home. So I thought I’d make flapjacks, as oats are pretty energy-tastic. As it was for a special occasion (i.e. not for me to eat the full batch by myself) I thought I would use my “posh oats”; that is to say the whole rolled oats which I bought for my muesli making. Whilst I was making the flapjacks, which I rammed full of flaked almonds and dried cranberries, the oats looked so lovely and glossy when I coated them in the melted butter and syrup. However, when I took them out the oven I thought they felt quite soft still, but as they were nicely golden on top I didn’t want to leave them in the oven any longer. I let them cool and tried to cut them in the morning, but when I did they just crumbled into bits in the tin. I was so gutted; I bought them into work anyway as some bits remained in reasonable-sized chunks but the bulk just crumbled into a fine rubble (much more like granola, actually!). They might have ended up as little bits but they’re some very tasty little bits!

They didn’t cohere properly because the oats are too large – they don’t form such a strong cement as the quick-cook oats I usually use. In the past I’ve made these exact same flapjacks with total success when made with the quick-cook oats. That’ll teach me to try and show off! If I’d have blitzed these in the processor for a few seconds before using them they would have turned out perfectly.

The recipe is really straightforward and, as you might imagine, takes about 5 minutes to make. Here is the recipe, from Nigella’s How to be a Domestic Goddess:

Cranberry and almond flapjacks

Makes around 18 bars

450g quick-cook rolled oats (i.e. not readybrek!)

300g butter

150g golden syrup

75g light soft brown sugar (although I didn’t have enough so I used about 45g light brown and 30g dark brown soft sugar)

A few handfuls dried cranberries

A few handfuls of flaked almonds

Method

Preheat the oven to 190C. Weigh out the butter and golden syrup and melt gently over a low heat.

Whilst the butter and golden syrup are melting, mix together the oats, sugar, cranberries and almonds in a large bowl.

Once melted, pour the butter and golden syrup over the oat mixture and mix everything together really thoroughly. Everything should be glossy.

Press the mixture into a greased (and lined if you want to) tin around 25cm square (it depends how thick/thin/crumbly/sticky you like your flapjacks) until it’s all level, and bake in the oven for around 20-25 minutes until golden brown.

Leave it to cool in the tin and then cut into bars. They’re delicious! (When they turn out right…..)

Baked mozzarella balls

I recently bought bucket of little mozzarella pearls, thinking that they would be really easy for pizza, pasta bakes, etc. Usually I’d buy the small tubs at the supermarket which hold probably 12-15 balls of mozzarella which is plenty for two pizzas. I soon realised, then, that having this BUCKET of mozzarella would take me a while to get through, most probably not before they’d gone off if I were using them at my usual speed. I was having evil thoughts about deep-frying the whole lot, which would almost certainly have induced some sort of dangerous arterial contraction, so I decided against it.

Instead, though, I thought about baking them, because there’s much less fat involved that way, and though you’re still eating loads of cheese there is just something that sounds so much worse about deep-frying cheese, right?

It’s a fairly tricky process but the result is worth it. I will put a disclaimer here that these are NOT as delicious as deep-fried mozzarella, as you can’t get the exterior quite so crispy and the interior quite so gooey without it all just oozing everywhere. But as a slightly healthier alternative, they’re really not bad. It took me a few goes to get the process right but I got there in the end. I decided to go with semolina instead of breadcrumbs for the coating, as semolina is crunchier and slightly sweet which I think goes really well. Also there is no fussing around with making the breadcrumbs or anything beforehand. The only thing I might try again is toasting the semolina before coating the mozzarella, so that it’s EVEN crunchier when the mozzarella is baked.

These would be really nice to serve as appetisers or as party nibbles (I was thinking that they would be great alongside some chorizo crisps made in the same way I made the crispy chorizo in my last post). There is a bit of faffing and watching them like a hawk, but I think it pays off!

 

Baked mozzarella balls

Below are the quantities for around 12 mozzarella balls, just increase as necessary.

12 mozzarella pearls

1/2 cup semolina

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon parmesan, grated

 

Basil leaves and tomato sauce to serve

 

Method

The first thing to do is drain the mozzarella balls and put them in the freezer for around 15 minutes. When you take them out you want them to be REALLY firm but not totally frozen.

Whilst they’re in the freezer, combine the semolina with some seasoning and the grated parmesan in a freezer bag. Line a baking tray with parchment and preheat the oven to 220C.

Working quickly, get the mozzarella pearls out of the freezer and tip them into the freezer bag. Give them a good shake until they’re coated in the semolina mixture and then tip everything onto the baking sheet. Put them into the oven for around 1 minute and then take them out and test their firmness. If they’re getting very soft, then slide the parchment onto a plate and refrigerate for a few minutes, before putting back into the oven. If after the first minute they’re not too squidgy (it really depends on your oven) then put them back in for another 30 secs-1min and test again. Once squidgy put on a plate in the fridge and repeat the process, until the semolina is crispy and the cheese is gooey but not oozing into a flat mess on the tray. I grated a bit more parmesan over them at this point actually; cheese-on-cheese, what could be better than that?!

Once they’re out of the oven, serve immediately. I like these speared on a cocktail stick with a baby basil leaf and dipped in tomato sauce. Yummmmm.

The ‘C’ word – (pistachio) cupcakes

I am almost loathed to post a recipe for cupcakes because I’m so conscious of not only their ubiquitousness, but also the twee associations they’ve gained, particularly from the blogosphere. Like it or not though, cupcakes are everywhere and have probably been covered by every food (and fashion) blogger ever. As I mentioned in a previous post, the cupcakes I go in for are those with water icing; there is something so wonderfully thick and fudgy about water icing and I love the way it sticks around your teeth and to the roof of your mouth. It also lets the flavour of the sponge do the talking, which in this instance made it the perfect partner for this pistachio sponge.

I came upon the recipe on the BBC Good Food site, which is my favourite way to while away the last few minutes of work, deciding what to cook when I get home. I knew instantly I wanted to make them tonight, and knew I had a HUGE amount of pistachios at home. I love pistachios, though they’re a relatively new thing for me. In the past I’ve never really been that bothered by them but we recently bought a gigantic bag of salted, giant ones that I couldn’t stop munching on and since then I’m a total convert. I must admit the first things that pop into my mind when I think of pistachios are the pistachio macarons from Laduree, which is another blogger cliche! Well, I also think of the book ‘The Pistachio Principle’ by Paula Danziger that I read as a teenager, of which I can remember nothing except that the main character used to eat bucketloads of red pistachios which dyed her fingers red.

These cupcakes are really something special though. The pistachio flavour is delicate but still obvious, and the crushed nuts in the sponge give it a dense texture with a satisfying bite. I really think they look the business and will definitely be serving these up as petit fours with coffee next time I invite people round. Although I don’t really go in much for fancy decoration and I’m certainly no master when it comes to icing, I think they look so pretty – I love the vivid green and pink of the crushed pistachios against the palest green icing. Water icing is so easy though, as long as you make it the right viscosity then it will just level itself out nicely with nothing but a little coax from the back of a spoon. I find there is something quite serene about smooth, unblemished icing which is very relaxing and mesmerising. Or maybe I need to get out more.

The recipe was to make 12 cupcakes in muffin cases, but I halved the mixture and made some miniature cupcakes and a few regular sized cakes in bun cases with the leftover mixture. I got 12 miniature and 6 regular bun sized out of half the mixture, so you’d definitely get 12 muffin-sized cakes out of the full mix. The recipe was SO easy, on the website it said to blitz up the nuts and sugar in the processor and then beat everything else together in a bowl. In the interests of saving time AND washing up, I did it all in the processor which took SO little time it was unbelievable. In fact, it took me longer to shell all those pistachios than it did to make the cakes! As I said, I only had salted ones, so I washed and dried the pistachios before putting them in the processor which worked fine – the sponges don’t taste in any way salty!

The only downside about making the miniature ones is that you get pretty much as much icing as cake, which makes them quite sweet. But as a small little mouthful, is that such a bad thing?

Pistachio cupcakes

Makes 12 muffin-sized cakes

Cakes

100g pistachios

140g golden caster sugar

140g butter , very soft

2 eggs

140g self-raising flour

5 tbsp milk

Icing

250g icing sugar , sifted

Green food colouring

Method

Preheat the oven to 160C and line a 12-hole muffin tin with cases (or whatever size you want to make them).

Put 85g pistachios into a food processor with about half the sugar, then whizz until very finely chopped.

Add the remaining sugar, butter, eggs, flour and milk into the processor and beat until smooth. Divide between the cases, then bake on a low shelf for 22-25 mins until a skewer poked in comes out clean (I cooked my miniature ones for about 5 minutes). Cool on a wire rack.

For the icing, mix just enough water into the icing sugar to get a very thick but still runny icing – just add 1 tbsp of water at a time. Stir in enough food colouring to give a pretty, pale green colour. If any cakes poke above the top of the cases, trim with a small knife, or scoop out with a teaspoon – being very careful not to release any of the case from the sides of the cake. Put a generous spoonful of icing on each cake and let it gently spread to cover. Chop the remaining pistachios and scatter these over. Leave to set, then serve. Enjoy!

It was only with the flash that you could see the pale green of the icing!