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Monday, 29 December 2014

Slow Cooked Christmas Round Up

I hope you all had a very Happy Christmas.  Unfortunately, I was rather unwell with a terrible cold and cough throughout the festive season, but managed to enjoy it in short bursts!

The Slow Cooked Challenge for December was to make a festive recipe using a slow cooked method, here are the entries.

Ema at De Tout Coeur Limousin cooked up  Bigos Polish Stew   made with pork and sauerkraut and s traditionally served around Christmas time, a lovely warming dish with a great story of it's origins and significance to Ema.

Lucy at Baking Queen 74  is the Queen of Slow Cooker cakes and does not disappoint with her Christmas offering of  Slow Cooker Christmas Cake 

Nasifriet at By the Way  shared some Christmas lore from Belgium along with this intriguing Slow Cooked Turkey Stew with Speculoos and Abbey Beer I really must make this, it sounds so good.

Slow Cooked Lamb Shanks with Red Wine and Butter Beans

Claire at Foodie Quine provides a host of delicious Slow Cooked recipes featuring Scotch Beef, Scotch Lamb and Specially Selected Pork, all quality assured Scottish meat products.  I'm featuring the  Slow Cooker Scotch Lamb with Red Wine and Butter Beans but please visit as there are more delicious recipes to choose from.

It's always nice to finish a meal with something sweet, and Sarah of Tales from the Kitchen Shed is supplying this very festive Black Forest Chocolate Pudding as our finale, this one isn't just for Christmas, it would make a great Sunday Lunch or dinner party dessert.

Many thanks to all those who took part in the Slow Cooked Challenge, both this month and throughout the year.  I'll be back with a new linky on the 1st of January.

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Thursday, 18 December 2014

Bring us a Figgy Pudding (with chocolate)

This is a very simple dessert, the sauce is sweet and a good contrast to fleshy figs, the flaked almonds add texture and crunch to an otherwise soft dish.

Poached Figs with White Chocolate Sauce
Serves 4

6 fresh figs, stalk removed and halved
1 dessert spoon of honey (I used Scottish Heather Honey)
100ml water
50g good quality white chocolate (I used Hadleigh Maid white chocolate buttons)
25g flaked almonds

1. Place the figs cut side upwards in a pan, add the water and the honey, poach gently until the fig skin is soft, it won't take to long about 8-10 minutes.
2. Remove the figs to a plate, increase the heat and reduce the honey sauce by half.
3. Remove from the heat and add the white chocolate buttons, stirring until they have melted and combined with the honey sauce.
4. Pour a little sauce in each bowl, top with three fig halves and sprinkle some flaked almonds around the figs.

I'm am entering this dish for the December We Should Cocoa, the monthly blog event run by Choclette at Chocolate Log Blog.  The theme this month is figs which are paired, of course, with chocolate.  If you would like to join in, the linky is open until 28th December.

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Monday, 15 December 2014

What to Bake and How to Bake it: Festive Fruit Cake

Do you make a fruit cake for Christmas?  Usually I have my cake made at the end of October and maturing until it is iced a couple of weeks before Christmas.  However, this year I was in danger of not having any cake at all, as I've just been so busy.  Thank goodness I was sent a copy of What to Bake and How to Bake it by Jane Hornby and took the opportunity to bake Jane's Festive Fruit Cake. 

Jane Hornby is an experienced food writer, baking expert and cookery teacher.  She has spent many years working on bestselling food magazines where she has honed her clear, friendly, step-by-step style, and her passion for real home cooking.

The book begins with a comprehensive chapter full of technique, tips and answers to frequently asked questions.

Simple Family Baking contains recipes such as Golden Citrus Drizzle Cake, Peanut Butter Cookies, Favourite Swiss Roll, Lemon and Raisin Pancakes, Rocky Road  and Classic Crusty Bread.

Morning Coffee and Afternoon Tea, just imagine a tiered cake stand loaded with Classic Shortbread, Jaffa Marble Loaf, Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting, Lemon Glazed Ginger Cake and Seriously Chcolately Cookies.

As if these are not special enough the next chapter is entitled Special Bakes. The Chocolate Fudge Layer Cake looks pretty special and the Coconut Layer Cake is really pretty with it's toasted coconut chip decoration. Angel Cake with berries and Pumpkin Pie are classic US celebration cakes and almost everyone loves Frosted Cupcakes.  The Festive Fruit cake comes into this chapter (recipe below) as does another winter feast bake, Cranberry Stollen.

Finally we come to Desserts and After Dinner, the Flourless Chocolate Cake is a decadently rich and gooey dessert, I'm definitely going to try the Tart au Citron, it's one of my favourites.  Another citrus favourite is Whole Orange and Almond Cake, the instructions look incredibly easy.  Want to master choux pastry?  Jane provides the perfect step by step Chocolate Profiterole recipe and pastry is also de-mystified in the recipe for One-Crust Apple and Blackberry Pie.  Macarons, biscotti and Salted Caramel Shortbread bites complete this indulgent chapter.

There is a really useful index of bakes by occasion, for example, Bake-sale bestsellers and Mother's Day.  There is a standard index as well, so you can easily find your favourites.

Who is it for?
You would think this is a book for beginners, the step-by-step photos and instructions certainly make it ideal for a beginning baker.  However, although I have many years of baking experience, I probably made the best fruit cake I have ever made using the Festive Fruit Cake recipe, so it is well worth investing in for anyone who wants to improve their baking.

It's a beautiful book and would make a great gift.  The photographs are clear without too much styling to get in the way of what you need to do, you could frame the illustrations at the start of each chapter,  and hang them on your wall, they are so delightful (see the cover for an idea of the style).   The written instructions are very detailed and neatly laid out down the side of the photos.  If my experience is typical, the recipes really work.

There are an awful lot of baking books on the market, and I seem to own quite a few of them.  Many of the bakes in What to Bake and How to Bake it are standards such as Victoria Sponge, Swiss Roll, Shortbread, Brownies which will feature in other books you may own, but perhaps not in such detail with a step-by-step format.

The Verdict
Beautiful book, well written recipes.  I'm not sure I could resist if I didn't already have a copy.

Festive Fruit Cake
1 lemon
100 g glace cherries, drained
600 g dried mixed fruit, such as raisins, sultanas or currants
100 g candied mixed citrus peel
120 ml brandy or dark rum
225 g soft butter, plus extra for greasing
225 g light brown soft sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 eggs
225 g plain flour
2 tsp ground mixed spice
1/4 salt
50 g toasted flaked almonds

1. Finely grate the zest from the lemon and squeeze the juice.  Cut the cherries in half.  Put them into a large saucepan with the dried fruit and peel and 100 ml of the alcohol. Cover, then bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and leave to stand for at least an hour, or overnight if you can.  The fruit will plump up and absorb the liquid.

If you'd rather not use alcohol, strong black tea makes a good substitute, as does orange or apple juice.  Alcohol is added to act as a flavouring as well as to preserve the cake until Christmas.  Any dried fruit can be substituted, although I'd recommend a balance of sweet and tart fruit for a more interspersing end result. 

2. When ready to make the cake, preheat the oven to 160C (140C fan/gas 3).  Double-line a deep 20cm round cake tin with baking parchment.  To do this, fold a 65 x 30 cm piece of parchment in half lengthways.  On the folded side, make a fold about 2 cm of the way in.  Snip at 2 cm intervals along the length of the seam, up to the fold, a make a frill. Cut 2 circles for the base.

3. Grease the tin with butter, then line the sides with the frilled paper, with the frills at the base of the tin, overlapping slightly.  Grease the circles with butter, then sit them on top trapping the frill below.  This preparation is neede to protect the cake during the long baking time.

4. Put the butter and sugar in a large bowl, then beat with an electric mixer until pale and creamy.  Add the vanilla, then beat in 1 egg.  When the mixture is fluffy and light, add the next egg and repeat.  If the batter starts to look a little lumpy, beat in 1 tablespoon on the flour.  Repeat with the remaining eggs. This is one creaming-method cake that can't be sped up; don't try to make it using the all-in-one method.

5. Sift in the flour, spice and salt into the bowl and fold into the batter with a spatula or large metal spoon.  Now fold in the soaked fruit, plus the nuts.  It will make a stiff batter.

6.  Scrape the batter into the prepared tin and level the top.  Make a depression in the middle of the batter with the spatula.  This will  help the cake rise more evenly.

7. Bake for 1 1/2 hours, then turn the oven down to 150C (130C fan/Gas 2) for 1 1/4-1 1/2 hours more. When ready, the cake will be dark golden and a skewer inserted into the centre will come out clean.  If not bake for another 15 minutes and check again.  Leaver to cool in its tin on a rack.  When still warm, prick holes all over it with a cocktail stick and spoon in the rest of the alcohol, tea or juice.  Once cool, remove from the tin then wrap carefully in clean baking parchment and store in an airtight container in a cool place.

The recipe also includes instructions for how to marzipan and ice your cake, I love marzipan but this year I decided to leave my cake 'naked' and enjoy it in all it's fruity glory. 

What to Bake and How to Bake It by Jane Hornby
Photographs by Liz and Max Haarala Hamilton
Illustrations by Kerry Lemon
Published by Phaidon 
RRP £19.95

Digital image of Santa Claus from Jingle all the way by Kate Hadfield

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Friday, 12 December 2014

Vegetable Burritos and a Box of Delights

These Vegetable Burritos are easy to make and make a great for all the family, they are packed with vegetables and helped along with a 'shot' of spices which I'll tell you about in a moment, but first...
Let me tell you about the Degustabox I received which inspired the Vegetable Burritos.  Degustabox is a monthly subscription food box which costs £12.99 a month including delivery.  Each month there is a new box of delights for you to try, with between 9 and 12 products for you to try, great for a bit of inspiration.  Degustabox make sure that you will pay less for these products than you would in the shops.  A subscription to a monthly Degustabox would make a great present, it would be like Christmas every month!

  • My box contained Kettle Chips in Salsa and Mesquite flavour a combination of tomatoes, chillies and peppers and the aroma of barbecues. £2.19
  • The small cans contain Cool Dawn Recovery drink a herbal detox drink that helps to prevent and cure hangovers.  It presents a complex an unique combination of citrus and liquorice flavours and does not contain stimulants. Very handy to have around after your Christmas parties. £1.49 each
  • Five little Lindor My Melting Moments, well you can't go wrong with chocolate and the snowflake shaped Lindor My Melting Moment melts in your mouth. £0.65 each
  • Kent's Kitchen flavour shots are a a quick and easy way to jazz up diced meat or prawns, or in my case vegetables for the burritos.  £1.85 for pack of four shots

  • We all know Branston Pickle but now there is a new chutney from Branston, Mediterranean Tomato which goes well with smoky meats, cheddar and biscuits.  We love chutney and this one is chopped nice and small so perfect for sandwiches.  £1.50
  • Pip Organic produce pure organic juices and smoothies. The Pip Organic Cloudy Apple Juice tasted good, but not outstanding and I felt it was expensive at £1.50 for a small bottle. 
  • More apples, but this time fermented into cider. Montano is Italian Cider made from apples grown in the foothills of Trentino region of Northern Italy, it's refreshing and medium dry, a good price at £2.79.
  • For that work night when you need good food in a hurry, the sachets of Holy Cow authentic Indian Curry Sauce are ideal.  They are made from all natural ingredients with no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives.  And a bonus that they are gluten free and suitable for vegetarians and coeliacs, just add your own ingredients to the sauce and serve with rice, naan bread or chapattis £1.89 each 

There was also  a Sample Present of a sachet of Drink Me Chai, a blend of exotic spices milk and sweetened tea, just add water or milk.  I haven't tried this as I don't like sweetened or milky tea, but it may be popped in someones Christmas stocking!

Vegetable Burritos
serves 4

1 tbsp sunflower oil
1 large onion, sliced
1 green pepper, sliced into strips
1/2 red pepper, sliced into strips
1/2 yellow pepper, sliced into strips
2 courgettes, cut into batons
100g sliced mushrooms
2 Kent's Kitchen Fajita Flavour Shots
400g can kidney beans
8 flour tortillas
100g cheese, grated

for the Tomato Sauce
1 tbsp sunflower oil
3 cloves of garlic, sliced
400g can tomatoes, crushed
salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Heat the oil in a large pan and add the onion, cook on a low heat for about 5 minutes until it starts to become translucent. Add the peppers and courgette batons and stir round, cook for a couple of minutes then add the mushrooms and the Fajita Flavour Shots.
2. Cook until the mushrooms soften, then add the kidney beans.
3. While the vegetables are cooking, heat the oil in a separate pan and gently cook the sliced garlic, then add the crushed tomatoes, cook on a medium heat for about 10 minutes until slightly reduced and the flavours have combined.
4. Fill each tortilla with the spiced vegetable mixture, roll and place in a large ovenproof dish. Once all eight tortillas have been filled, if there is any vegetable mix left pile it on top of the tortillas, then cover with the tomato sauce and sprinkle with grated cheese.
5. Bake in the oven at 180C for 20-30 minutes until the cheese is bubbling and golden.

Find out more about Degustabox on their website, on Facebook and follow them on Twitter

I was not paid for this review and all opinions are my own. 

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Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Cranberry Fizz - A non-alcoholic drink for Christmas

Photograph by Kevin Summers
Finding interesting drinks for those who don't, or can't, drink is always a bit of a challenge but I would certainly raise my glass to this gorgeously festive Cranberry Fizz from Lindy Wildsmith's latest book, Artisan Drinks.

Artisan Drinks celebrates the pleasure to be had from making your own drinks. With over 100 recipes for both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, Lindy Wildsmith takes you from the freshly harvested ingredients to the finished product in your glass.  Along the way, she rediscovers artisanal techniques and takes a wholesome approach to sourcing natural ingredients for infusing macerating, pressing brewing and fermenting your own drinks.

Lindy Wildsmith is a great believer in the importance of good, seasonal ingredients and connecting with the land, people and business around you.  Her love of nature, the changing seasons and the countryside have inspired her interest in both curing and preserving an making drinks.

Kevin Summers has been a photographer for 20 years, working advertising, editorial and television commercials.  His main focus is still life and food photography and he has worked with Delia Smith and Nigel Slater.

In the Introduction, Lindy takes us back to her childhood memories as well as the revival in artisan food producers, but the message is clear, nothing is quite as good as the drinks you make at home yourself.  There are also a couple of pages on Sourcing and Seasonality, whether from the garden or foraged from the hedgerow, there is lots of useful advice and a helpful artisan drinkmaker's year chart.

Still waters run deep - Cordials, syrups and soft drinks contains everything you need to know to make and keep soft drinks safely.  The recipes include Italian lime siroppo, Ginger Cordial, Instant Lemon Sherbet, Rose Petal cordial, Spiced blackberry tonic and Rosehip syrup.

Family Fizz - Alcohol free sparkling drinks will be well received by most people and make a great alternative to alcohol at celebrations. Recipes include the classic Elderflower 'Champagne', Nettle Beer, Lavender Spritz, May's dandelion, ginger and liquorice beer and Cranberry Fizz.

A global resurgence - Beer, cider and perry we used to make our own beer years ago first from a kit and then we moved on to hops and fuggles.  I've never made cider but my mother has many stories of exploding bottles of cider made by my grandfather!  The recipes include Woodforde's Nog, Festive spiced ale, Three Counties cider and perry and Old English 'Champagne' sparkling perry.

A very good year - The wine list we made wine too, using everything from sloes to carrots, all those bubbling demi-johns used to be gathered around the inglenook fireplace. Recipes include Rhubarb wine, Clover flower or dandelion wine, Beetroot and Marjoram wine, Carrot Wine and Bully Lane red berry wine.

And now for something stronger - liqueurs, digestifs and pick me ups many of you may have made and enjoyed sloe gin, so here there are recipes for some alternatives. Recipes include Bourbon Shrub, Limoncello San Vigilio, Nocino (Italian Walnut Liqueur), Cherry Brandy and the delightfully named Herefordshire Vet - aromatic fruit liqueur.

Taking the plunge - punches, cups and party drinks as Christmas is just around the corner, these party drinks will certainly liven things up.  Recipes include Old English cider cup, Rosemary and Thyme perry infusion and Wassail - Christmas Spiced Ale,

Happy Hours - artisan cocktails and elegant mocktails for those who want to serve a sophisticated drink there are plenty of ideas, recipes include Bejewelled Pink Elephant, Damson Gin Fizz and Jumping Jack Flash.  Mocktails include Garden Path- Lavender ice cream soda, Tropical Storm , Flirty and Pussyfoot.

Oasis of Calm - teas, tisanes and spicy brews some great ideas for something other than breakfast tea.  Recipes include Herb garden tisanes, Lime and other flower infusions, Ginger root and lemongrass tea, Middle Eastern cardamom coffee and Hot tangerine and nutmeg chocolate

The book finishes with a comprehensive Glossary and Directory of equipment suppliers and on line retailers in many different countries

Cranberry Fizz
makes 2 litres (3 pints 10fl oz)
On festive occasions this stunningly colourful drink can be dressed up for the non-drinker at the party.  Vary the fruit in this recipe to make vibrant fizz at any time of the year - rhubarb in spring, soft fruits and cherries in summer and blackberries in autumn.

500g (1lb 2 oz) cranberries
Finely pared rind and juice of 1 lemon
Finely pared rind and juice of 1 orange
300g (10.5 oz) sugar cubes
1 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
2 litres (3 pints 10fl oz) boiling water
2tsp (10g) baker's yeast or 1 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
Pinch of caster sugar
4 tsp (20ml) warm (not hot) water

You will also need
Large earthenware crock or deep bowl
Mouli-legume (food mill) or mincer
2 x 1 litre (1 pint 15 fl oz) sterilised plastic (PET) bottles with screw caps

Put the fruit in the crock or deep bowl and crush with a potato masher or the end of a rolling pin or, even better, put through a Mouli-Legume or mincer.  Add the citrus zest and juice, add the sugar cubes and the cream of tartar.  Pour the boiling water over the top, stir and leave to cool until lukewarm.

When the liquid has cooled sufficiently, mix the yeast and caster sugar with the warm water, stir into a paste and add to the liquid. Cover with a clean cloth and leave for 48 hours.

Using a slotted spoon, skim and discard any debris that may have floated to the surface.  Strain into a large jug and use a funnel to pour into bottles.

Making and keeping: Make in winter.  Keeps for 2-4 weeks in a cool place.  Once open drink up within a few days before the sparkle subsides.

I simply ran out of time to make this recipe so can't give you my opinion on the taste and ease of making.  I hope to make some before Christmas comes so we can enjoy it in the holidays. 

Artisan Drinks by Lindy Wildsmith
Published by Jacqui Small (@JacquiSmallPub)
RRP £25.00

To order Artisan Drinks at the discounted price of £20.00 including p&p* (RRP: £25.00), telephone 01903 828503 or email and quote the offer code APG236.
*UK ONLY - Please add £2.50 if ordering from overseas.

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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Chocolate Mincemeat Tart

I like lots of mincemeat in my tarts and sometimes find that the small tarts tend towards an overload of pastry and not much mincemeat whereas a nice big tart means that it's mostly filling.  The mincemeat I used for the tart is Instant Chocolate Mincemeat, this is mincemeat that you can mix up quickly using any mixture of dried fruits  you have in your cupboard you can also add nuts, the chopped chocolate adds a lovely richness to the fruit mixture. Makes approximately 2 medium jars.

Chocolate Mincemeat Tart

for the mincemeat
Zest of a lemon
Juice of half a lemon
Juice of half an orange
2 Cox's Orange Pippin apples or 1 Bramley apple
2 cups mixed dried fruit
1 tbsp Tia Maria or brandy
1cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup vegetable suet
1/2 cup dark chocolate, chopped

1. Put the zest and lemon juice in a bowl, grate the apple including the skin, into the juice.
2. Add all the other ingredients and stir.
3. Store in a lidded jar in the fridge until ready to use.

I used the Oxo Good Grips Box Grater to grate the apple.  It was really quick to use and has a very comfortable handle and I love the little collection box which fits on the bottom of the grater, it even has a lid you can store whatever you've grated.

For the pastry
200g plain flour, plus extra for rolling
1/2 tsp salt
50g vegetable shortening or lard
70g butter
2tbsp sugar
1 egg 
2tbsp water
1 tbsp flaked almonds to sprinkle on the top

1.Sift the flour into a bowl and add the salt.  Cut the shortening and butter into cubes and rub into the flour until the mixture resembles fine crumbs, then stir in the sugar (you can do this in a food processor)
2. Separate the egg and mix the yolk with the cold water set aside the white. Work the mixture together with a knife until it comes together, knead briefly.  Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
3. Pre-heat the oven to 190C/170C Fan/Gas 5
4. Cut off 1/3 of the pastry and put to one side.  Roll out the larger piece of pastry and use to line an 18cm flan/quiche tin.
5. Fill with mincemeat, then roll out the remaining pastry to make a lid.
6. Brush the edges of the pastry base with egg white and place the lid on, trim off excess pastry, press the edges of the pastry together.  Brush the top of the pastry with egg white and sprinkle with flaked almonds.

I used a Masterclass Crusty Bake 18cm Quiche Tin from Kitchencraft, the holes in the tins mean that the steam escapes and there is less chance of a soggy bottom, which given that this mincemeat is quite wet, it performed extremely well.

7. Bake 35-40 minutes, or until golden and crisp. Leave for about 10 minutes to cool, then dust with icing sugar.

You can do this with a sieve or tea strainer, or you can use the Oxo Good Grips Baker's Dusting Wand which is a genius little gadget which I featured in my Christmas Gift Guide.

The Chocolate Mincemeat Tart did not disappoint.  The pastry was crisp on the top and melted in the mouth and the fruit filling was lusciously sweet and moist with just enough tartness to prevent it being cloying.  Much, much better than a mini mince pie!

I'm entering my Chocolate Mincemeat Tart for Family Foodies, the blog challenge run by Bangers and Mash and Eat your Veg.  The theme is Festive Food and Mincemeat Tart is certainly a festive dessert.

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Sunday, 7 December 2014

Specially Selected Christmas Dinner

Hand Prepared 5 Bird Roast
Christmas dinner is a meal that shouldn't leave you stressed out and sweating in the kitchen it should be tasty but easy.  When Aldi asked me to try out their Specially Selected range I was looking particularly for something special for Christmas dinner.   I don't visit Aldi too often as it is a bit out of my way so was delighted to see just how many interesting products they had in the Specially Selected range and, of course, they were all at good prices.

I cooked the Specially Selected Hand Prepared Five Bird Roast.  When I read the instructions I couldn't believe that you can cook it from frozen!  What a bonus and perfect for anyone who needs to make an extra meal over the holidays, you can cook this bird from frozen in 2 1/2 hours in an electric fan oven and 3 hours in a gas oven or non-fan electric oven.  You can see for yourself  the different layers of poultry.  The Five Bird Roast contains turkey, duck, goose, pheasant and chicken, it also has a really delicious Pork, Clementine and Cranberry Stuffing.

The Five Bird Roast is listed as feeding 6-8 people but we managed to get four meals for three people from it, admittedly we are not big eaters but it would certainly feed more than 6 people. It's also good cold and the layers hold together better when it's cold.  After trying the Five Bird Roast, I hot footed it back to Aldi to buy another one to put in the freezer ready for my Christmas dinner.

I served the Five Bird Roast with Specially Selected Goose Fat Potatoes and Specially Selected Heritage Carrots (not frozen).

And now for the prices:

Specially Selected Five Bird Roast £9.99
Specially Selected Goose Fat Potatoes £1.29
Specially Selected Heritage Carrots £0.99

Specially Selected Salmon Wellington  £3.99
Specially Selected Whole Cooked Crab £3.99
Specially Selected Coquille St Jacques £3.99
Specially Selected Yorkshire Pudding £0.99
Specially Selected Gourmet Crackers £0.99

There is also a range of Specially Selected Desserts including Specially Selected Dessert Shots, macarons and mini cheesecakes as well as the traditional Christmas Pudding and mince pies.

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Friday, 5 December 2014

Christmas Gifts for Cooks and Bakers

Here we are in early December and Christmas shopping is in full swing.  I thought I'd share a few gifts for cooks and bakers.  Some of them have already featured at Farmersgirl Kitchen,  others have only come to me recently but I feel they would be well received.

The Crockpot
You may have noticed that I'm a bit of a fan of slow cooking, and I really would recommend a Crockpot.  They are slightly more expensive than other brands of Slow Cooker but you get what you pay for and it's a really nice piece of kitchen kit.
Who should you get this gift for? 
1. Someone on a budget as you can use cheaper cuts of meat or ingredients like beans in the long slow cooking.
2. Someone who likes to bulk cook and freeze big tasty casseroles, breads or cakes
3. Someone who doesn't always know what time they will be home, the Crockpot will keep the dinner warm till you get there.

Slow Cooked by Miss South
This is my book of the year, it's an unassuming little volume which sets out to get the best out of slow cookers.  There are few books that have grabbed me quite like this one has, it's just full of the most tempting recipes which are easy to make and from my experience so far, work like a dream.
Who should you get this gift for?
1. The person who is getting the Crockpot, it will ensure they get the best from their new cooking method.
2. Anyone who has a Slow Cooker and wants to expand their repertoire.

How much does it cost?

A Pair of Smokies
Yes, you  read that right!  Arbroath Smokies are one of my favourite foods, they are haddock which are tied together in pairs, then cold smoked creating a plump, moist and already cooked fishy treat. They are a taste of my childhood and I 'cooked' and served them in the simple way just like my Mum used to do.  Just cut down the back bone and prise the two halves apart, remove the back bone, then place on a grill pan lined with foil.  Dot with butter and grill for about 4-5 minutes until the butter has melted and the fish is just warmed through.  Don't be tempted to overdo it or you will dry out the fish. Heaven on a plate.

These Arbroath Smokies were sent to me after I was waxing lyrical about my favourite fish on Twitter, many thanks to Jillian McEwan of  Fresh Food Express, the smokies were superb, so fresh and super tasty.  Fresh Food Express will post Arbroath Smokies, Scottish Beef, Venison, Free Range Chicken, Wild Salmon, a Heavenly Veg Box and a whole lot more right to you or your gift recipient.

Who should you get this gift for?
1. Homesick Scots who drone on about Arbroath Smokies and how good they are.
2. Anyone who loves good food and likes high quality fresh food.

How much do they cost?
£8.40 for a pair of Arbroath Smokies
£24.99 for an Exceptional Smoked Fish Box from Arbroath
NB: I do live in Scotland but Smokies are just not the same unless you get them fresh from Arbroath (Fresh Food Express make sure they get their straight from the smokehouse)

Oregon Kitchen Timer with Clock and LED
This is a really useful little kitchen timer which has two channels, you can have your timer on one and the clock on the other OR you can have two different times set up which is brilliant if you are cooking or baking different things at the same time.  I found the timer easy to set up and use and it is now my constant kitchen companion.

Who should you get this gift for?
1. Bakers (especially ones who burn the cakes!)
2. Busy people who run around the house multi-tasking and forget the time (you can take it with you as you go)

How much does it cost?
Oregon Kitchen Timer with Clock and LED RRP £19.99

Cheeky Monkey Cheese Making Kit - Mozzarella and Ricotta
This slim box contains everything that you need to make 2 kilos of cheese from 20 litres of milk (milk not included)  I haven't had a chance to make it yet, but the instructions look simple and it looks like a lot of fun. There is also a goat's cheese version if you prefer, or get both.

Who should you get this gift for?
1. Anyone who likes a challenge in the kitchen.
2. Pizza lovers
3. Older children and teens would enjoy getting messy with this kit

How much does it cost?
It's a bargain at £6.00 +P and P

More fun gifts on the Cream Chargers website: Molecular Gastromony and Popping Candy to name a couple.

Masterclass Crusty Bake Non-Stick Bakeware

We are all terrified of the 'soggy bottom' of Great British Bake Off fame, KitchenCraft's Masterclass Crusty Bake Non Stick bakeware is a revolutionary new take on the award winning Master Class bakeware that creates the perfect crispy crust. Carefully selected, the Crusty Bake range in Master Class includes key items for baking and cooking anything dough and pastry related. I tested the 18 cm quiche tin in which I baked a Mincemeat Tart (recipe coming soon) and crust was beautifully baked and slid easily out of the tin.  I also tested the Masterclass Crusty Bake Non Stick  Pizza Tray, it's the idea size and again baked the crust to a nice crisp finish. The range also includes a baguette tray, different sized quiche tins, baking trays and loaf pans and they are Dishwasher, oven, fridge and freezer safe with Quantum 2 non-stick coating, Perforated holes, PFOA, PTFE and BPA free with a
20 year guarantee.

Who should you get this gift for?
1. Pizza lovers
2. Serious bakers of tarts, quiches and pies
3. People who are fed up with soggy bottoms and sticky bakes

How much does it cost?
Pizza Tray - £9.25
18cm Quiche tin - £8.75

OXO Good Grips Baker's Dusting Wand
This inauspicious looking gadget from those clever people at OXO Good Grips, is really worth buying.  I've fiddled about with sieves and tea strainers to dust my baking with icing sugar or cocoa and it's always messy.  The Baker's Dusting Wand does away with the mess, because one side is perforated and the other is not, so once you put in your sugar, you twist the handle to close the ball and then simply shake over your mince pies or desserts or drinks.   You can also use it to flour baking tins or your work surface when rolling pastry.

Here is it in action, apologies for the shaky camera action, dusting with one hand, filming with the other!

Who should you get this gift for?
1. Bakers and pastry cooks
2. People who like to shake cocoa or cinnamon over their coffee or hot chocolate
3. Gadget freaks (err that would be me then!)

How much does it cost?
RRP £10.00

OXO Good Grips 3 in 1 Adjustable Potato Ricer

Another great gadget from OXO Good Grips, this is the 3 in 1 Adjustable Potato Ricer, perfect for making gnocchi but don’t  have to limit yourself to just potatoes with the OXO Good Grips Adjustable Potato Ricer. This patented Ricer has three settings, easily changed with the twist of the dial, for many cooking tasks. While the fine setting is perfect for fluffy mashed potatoes, it’s also great for parsnips, carrots, turnips, gnocchi and more. The medium setting is ideal for spaetzle, and pressing water out of cooked greens and the coarse setting is perfect for chunky apple sauce, egg salad and pressing tomatoes for sauce. Since the disks are attached, there is no need to go searching for extra parts when you want to adjust settings. The brushed stainless steel Ricer comes apart for easy cleaning and has soft, comfortable non-slip grips.

I'll be showing you more of how I am going to use the Potato Ricer in future posts. 

Who should you get this gift for?
1. Budding Masterchefs who want super smooth mash or vegetable purees
2. Gadget freaks (see previous item)

How much does it cost?
RRP £30

I hope that's given you a few ideas for what to buy for your friends and family who like to cook and bake.  Many thanks to all the suppliers who provided me with these products to review.

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Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Five go to Chocolate Heaven

As a child I loved Play School.  It wasn't Big Ted and little Ted or the silly songs and antics that I enjoyed so much, what I was waiting for was when the cameras took you through one of the 'windows', square, round or arched, it didn't really matter as long as we were going out into the world to visit a factory or workshop.  Of course, even then my favourite factories were the ones which involved food!

Rachel, Jac, Becca, Janice, Stuart
I'm still fascinated by how things are made, so I was thrilled when Jac of Tinned Tomatoes invited me to join her, Rachel Cotterill, Becca from Amuse your Bouche and Stuart from Cakeyboi on a visit to Thorntons Chocolate factory at Alfreton in Derbyshire.

Thorntons have been making sweets and chocolate since 1911 and in the UK we all familiar with their shops and coffee shops.  However, until I got my invitation to visit the Thorntons factory I had no idea where it was located.  The factory is located in Alfreton, Derbyshire and pretty much everything that Throntons do is based here in a series of buildings.  As well as actually making the chocolates, toffee, all of their recipe and product development, marketing are based at the factory.  They even have their own graphics department because Thorntons believe that they know their products best and prefer to have control of all aspects of their processes.

After meeting at Alfreton Station, we were taken by taxi to the Thorntons Factory.  We were welcomed by John and ushered into the boardroom where we were treated to delicious lunch.  All around the room there were displays of Thorntons finest chocolates.

There was a seasonal aspect to most of the display with huge versions of Thorntons Advent Calendars,  moulded chocolate versions of the Gruffalo and the Snowman and more traditional Santas to hang on the tree.  The 'Smile' Advent Calendar (top right) is really fun as you turn the wheel at the side to find the number for each day.   Then it was time for our tour of the factory.

As chocolate is a food product, we were provided with white coats, hair nets and special shoes, a really 'special' look!  We weren't allowed to take in any jewellery, watches or our phones or cameras. Can you hear the anguished gasps, food bloggers with no cameras, how does that work?  It was actually quite liberating as I felt I could concentrate on watching and listening rather than taking photographs.  Fortunately, Thorntons provided us with some images from the factory to add to our posts.

Easter Eggs are in full production at Thorntons, they start making them in September.  It was fascinating to see how the moulds are warmed first, then the different coloured decorations go into the moulds, they go though a cooling 'tunnel' to set them and then the milk or plain chocolate is added.

Once all the chocolate is in the mould the top is fitted and attached to one of these machines which moves them around, spreading the chocolate evenly around the mould.  Do you remember how Easter eggs used to come in two halves?  Well, it's this machine that is responsible for enabling the egg to be made in one piece.   Once set, the eggs are un-moulded and checked by hand, any that don't meet the quality standards are rejected and melted down again.

This is a Thorntons Continental Nougat Delight which I had a hand in creating.  They didn't let us loose on anything too difficult but we each got the opportunity to pipe the chocolate in a shell pattern on the top of the nougat container and then to fill with our choice of chocolates.  The 'icing' gun was super sensitive but we had it easy, in real life the conveyor belt is moving while the piping is going on! I was most impressed by the way they wrapped the caskets, the machine was called a 'pork pie' machine and it created a perfect gathered fold on the base.  It was good fun and the staff in Thorntons were really kind and helpful.

Thorntons are famed for their delicious Special Toffee and we were able to see the process from the boiling of the ingredients right through to bagging and boxing.  In the photo above, you will see the 'kettles' used to boil the toffee, right at the back.  It's stirred while it boils a bit like a giant Kitchen Aid.  Once the toffee reaches the correct setting point where the crystals are 'uneven' it is poured, still bubbling, into troughs and then those troughs are moved along runners dispensing toffee into rows of trays.  The trays sit on a cooled rack and huge fans blow cold air over them to help them set quickly.

The crystal structure is really important as it is what makes the toffee break into the characteristic shards.  Thorntons Toffee used to be broken by hand with toffee hammers but now the process is automated. When the slabs of toffee have cooled, they are moved through to the toffee smashing machine.  Slabs of tofee are loaded onto vertical conveyors, fed down inside the machine and smashed by tow plates, there is a real band when the toffee breaks. The shards then go through a winnowing machine to take out the tiny pieces and also those which are too big. All the rejected toffee goes back to be melted down again.

Once broken the toffee feeds through into the packing machine which pulls through the foils makes it into bags and fills them with the correct weight of toffee, then seals them.  The packs then move through to be picked up and packed in boxes, all part of a computerised machine.

We also learned about how the fillings for chocolates were made and how they are then 'enrobed' with chocolate. After two hours in the factory and the opportunity to taste some freshly made chocolates, Dulce de Lecce was divine, we went back to the boardroom to do a little icing.

We were each provided with a chocolate plaque and an icing bag full of icing,  this is my attempt there is a name inside the heart but as I am going to give it as a gift, I've removed it by the magic of Photoshop!

 I was impressed by the friendliness of the all the staff and their generosity in showing us amateurs some of their skills.  The skills involved  in the processes vary depending on the jobs, but we saw some real expertise at every level.  I'd also like to say thank you for the beautiful personalised box of Thorntons Continental, such a brilliant idea for a special gift.

After a long day it was nice to relax at the Derbyshire Hotel at South Normanton.  The room was very comfortable and quiet and the dinner was also very good, I particularly enjoyed the Salt and Pepper Squid.  The burger was so huge that I had to abandon half the bun!

Huge thanks to all at Thorntons Chocolates for a great visit, I felt that I had been treated with as much gentle care as the sweet treats made in the factory.  It was such a pleasure to learn all about the processes, I will never look at a Thorntons chocolate in quite the same way again!

Here are the links to the blog posts of each of the other four Thorntons Bloggers:
Rachel and the Chocolate Factory (Rachel Cotterill)
Cakeyboi and the Chocolate Factory (Cakey Boi)
Cranberry and White Chocolate Skillet Cookie (Amuse Your Bouche)
Inside Thorntons Chocolate Factory (Tinned Tomatoes)

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