The mystery cookie

March 22, 2012

It’s 10.30pm. I’ve been studying on campus since 9am, returning home about half an hour. And what do I decide to do to relax?! I BAKE COOKIES. Of course I do. Read? Watch tv? Listen to music? Pfffff. Some people might say i’m crazy…I’m even starting to think I might be a littttttle crazy. I can’t remember the last time I cooked myself a proper meal for dinner (peas, butter and salt doesn’t count, right?!), but here I am, an hour and a half til the clock strikes midnight, waiting for the oven to ping. Actually – I’ve just realised that the oven won’t ping as I haven’t set the timer…and yep, the second batch of cookies are now slightly ‘well done’ (read: burnt). Ah well. I’m going to tell myself that one stellar batch of cookies is pretty good going for my current sleep-deprived state.

And this is no time for modesty – these cookies are downright BRILLIANT. I am terrible at making cookies – banana bread, brownies, scones, florentines even, I can do – but getting that cookie to just the right chewy consistency, yet slightly crisp and crumbly on the outside, is normally entirely beyond me. But not tonight. And the thing is – I will NEVER be able to make these again. I didn’t follow a recipe did i?! All i can go on is that I used cooking oil instead of butter (i’m still a student with an empty fridge, remember?) and in addition to the usual bog-standard cookie ingredients, threw in some peanut butter and strawberry jam to jazz it up a little (i.e. they were the only vaguely interesting ingredients I had in the cupboard).

And there you have it – the wonderful mystery cookie. Let’s hope we meet again….

 

 

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How have I only just discovered the hearty scrumptiousness of a plain and simple oven-baked sweet potato? I have fled the homestead (well, not fled, but left) and plunged myself into a life of poverty-stricken student-dom in London (slightly melodramatic perhaps) – which means surviving on a diet of tinned tuna, peas and butter, pita and houmous etc…WOE IS ME (i’m not going to mention the griddled lamb with roasted vegetables, pomegranate and goat’s cheese which I made for myself on friday…that will only serve to destroy the illusion). So yes, pity me and my limited larder contents.

I am, however, secretly very proud of the meal I conjured up last week (as per usual, the photo does not do the dish proud). On friday evening, accompanied by a hungover (and slightly moany/hungry) friend, I dashed around Sainsbury’s, grabbing various vegetables, BOGOF deals, bread, milk etc….making absolutely no attempt to formulate in my head how exactly all of the ingredients were going to come together to make actual meals. So on sunday night, still riding high after the success of my lamb/vege/goat’s cheese extravaganza, I opened the fridge and was faced with a random array of vegetables/dairy items (and one very useful pomegranate)…hmmm. I grabbed the sweet potato, mushrooms, lemon, garlic, coriander and red onion, bunged the sweet potato (skin-on) in the oven for a good 40 minutes (drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt), in the meantime cooking up the mushrooms, onions etc. Once the sweet potato was done, I whisked it out of the oven, cut a slit in its top, dropped in a couple of knobs of butter, piled on the mushroom mixture, and sprinkled with fresh goat’s cheese…VOILA.

So simple. So easy. And a perfect antidote to those impending cold autumnal nights.

Recipe (roughly-speaking) – Serves 1

1 sweet potato
5 closed cup white mushrooms
1/2 red onion
1 clove garlic
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Bunch of fresh coriander
Soft goats cheese (as much or as little as you wish)
Lots of pepper (and some salt to taste)

– Scrub the sweet potato and take off any eyes or rotten patches. Prick with a fork, rub/drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and place in the middle shelf of the oven (180 C) for 30-40 minutes.
– Finely chop the red onion, slice the mushrooms, crush garlic, chop the coriander.
– Add splash of olive oil to pan and add red onion and garlic. When slightly browned, add mushrooms.
– When cooked, add the lemon juice and chopped coriander to the pan and season with salt/pepper.
– Take sweet potato out of the oven (checking with a knife/skewer that it’s soft/cooked), slit open the top, drop in a knob of butter and dollop the mushroom mixture on top.
– Sprinkle on goats cheese and fresh coriander.
– EAT.

As I sit here at the kitchen table writing this, the oven is having its wonderfully wicked way with the macaroni and cheese…cooking it to sheer hot and creamy perfection…ARGH. I love pasta. I love cheese (and butter and so on…) – so, naturally, mac and cheese is a huge winner (i’ve even been known to reach for Kraft’s ready-made stuff…which is probably a little sacrilegious and something that I should not admit to. Oh well). I’ve never actually made macaroni and cheese before, as mum does a brilliant version herself – when I was little and mum picked us up from school, inevitably, one of the first questions we asked on jumping into the car was ‘what’s for dinner?’; the answer of ‘macaroni and cheese’ always resulted in an overexcited little squeal. In my mind i’ve forever seen it as a very homely, comforting dish, not something to be ordered in a restaurant. However, the other day, a couple of friends and I went to this (relatively) new, slightly dingy, speakeasy-style American Diner in Soho, Spuntino, where we ordered the most scrumptiously creamy and rich mac and cheese. It was absolutely delicious and so unexpected. The only other mac and cheese I’ve tasted which came close to this was in a little bistro in the Dordogne (my three-year old cousin had actually ordered it off the kid’s menu and I, like many a greedy adult, decided to polish off her leftovers, wishing that I too had been able to order off the kid’s menu….)


I’m not sure where my mum’s recipe comes from, but it is a slightly elaborate version, complete with onions and bacon. I decided to opt for a bog-standard mac and cheese – bechamel sauce, lots of cheese – bish, bash and bosh.

Smitten Kitchen led me to Martha Stewart’s recipe and it did not disappoint one teensy bit. It was wonderfully easy to make (one of the beauties of a simple mac and cheese), and came out of the oven bubbling and oozing with yummy creamy cheesiness. The only variations I made to the recipe were a) I left off the breadcrumb topping (there’s enough carbohydrate in it already) and b) I used conchiglie instead of macaroni – we had some shells knocking around in the cupboard and I thought ‘why not’. It worked well and made it perhaps a little less stodgy. (I’m also becoming increasingly lax when it comes to precise measurements and tend to just throw things together with little accuracy…whether this is down to laziness/cockiness, i’m not too sure, so this recipe might be even better if followed word-for-word!)

This is definitely going on the to-make-more-often list….

Serves 6

1/2 cup butter
2 3/4 cups milk
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoons salt
Couple of dashes ground nutmeg
Black pepper
Couple of dashes cayenne pepper
2 1/4 cups grated medium/mature cheddar cheese
1 cup grated Gruyère
1/2 pound macaroni (or whatever other pasta you choose to use)

1. Preheat oven to 360°F/180 C.

2. Warm the milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat. When the butter bubbles, add the flour. Cook and stir for about 1 minute.

3. While whisking, slowly pour in the hot milk a little at a time to keep mixture smooth. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick (8-12 minutes)

4. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in salt, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper, 1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, and 3/4 cup Gruyère and set the sauce aside.

5. Boil some water, add pasta and cook for about 4 minutes, or until just underdone. Drain and rinse under cold running water. Stir the macaroni into the cheese sauce.

6. Pour the mixture into the prepared dish. Sprinkle the remaining 3/4 cup cheddar cheese, 1/4 cup Gruyère ontop. Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes.

We went down to the PYO farm again last week, this time to pick blackcurrants and cherries. However, on arriving, we met this chap who was raving about tayberries (a cross between a black raspberry and a loganberry, which itself is a cross between a blackberry and a red raspberry….the world of berries is a seemingly confusing one, yes). He told us that they were a more flavoursome version of the raspberry, yielding deliciously tasty jam. Kitted out in a rugged sweater, ready for the wilds of the tayberry bushes, he most definitely seemed to know what he was talking about….how could we not pick some? So, after getting horribly lost amongst the apple trees, strawberry fields, cobnut orchard, loganberry bushes etc…we eventually found the tayberry patch and joined our fellow pickers in filling up our punnets. As it turned out, in addition to being avid jam-makers (and the owners of a giant, but very timid rescue greyhound), the man and his girlfriend just adore India, having recently spent two years in Varanasi, him writing a novel and her mastering the art of ayurvedic massage – the people one meets in the fruitpicking farms of East Sussex!

Finding a recipe for tayberry jam was tough as the fruit itself is quite hard to come by (it’s not sold in supermarkets or even farmshops for that matter), but after scouring the internet, I found one on a jam-making blog, Hitchhikingtoheaven. I suppose one could use the same recipe as for raspberry jam, as the fruit itself is much the same…but I wanted a tayberry-specific one. The recipe is simple, easy to follow and apparently contains less sugar, allowing the slightly tart flavour of the fruit to come through. It came out surprisingly well, not too sweet – I was rather chuffed with the finished product and unlike the strawberry jam, it set perfectly, perhaps even a little too much. Sadly, it only yielded three (and a very small fourth) bottles….meaning that we are going to be VERY selfish and keep these ones all for ourself! Greedy, yes.

Makes 4 to 5 jars (half pint) according to recipe

Ingredients

3 lbs tayberries
1 ¼ lbs sugar (2 ½ to 2 ¾ cups)
3 tablespoons lemon juice

Preparation

– Before starting with the cooking, sterilize jam jars in the oven and place a plate and a teaspoon in the freezer for the wrinkle/setting test.
– Set aside approximately 1/3 of the berries.
– Combine the rest of the ingredients (remaining berries, sugar, and lemon juice) in your jam pan.
– Bring the mixture to boil.
– After the mixture thickens a bit, add the remaining berries – this is to give the jam a slightly lumpier finish (the original recipe says ‘after 10 minutes’, but my jam didn’t start to thicken until after at least 25 minutes…so I guess this is very dependent on how your jam goes)
– Boil the jam until it sets, skim off skum as it forms. In the original recipe, she states how her jam started to reach setting point after about 20 minutes, but mine was much much later than this. I found it very liquidy and spent much time boiling it, to thicken, probably getting to that point after about 45 minutes, at least.
To test your jam: remove the pan from the heat and perform the wrinkle test – place a blob of jam onto the cooled plate, return the plate to the freezer and after a couple of minutes, the jam should have formed a skin, causing it to wrinkle when pushed.
– If no wrinkles form, return to the heat and cook for a further 2 minutes or so.
– When it has passed the wrinkle test, take off the heat and skim the skum off the surface of the jam.
– Let it cool for 10-15 minutes.
– Stir gently to distribute lumps and pour into the sterilized jam jars. Place waxed paper discs on top of the jam surface and screw lid on tightly.
– Leave and allow to set overnight.

Just because I haven’t written enough strawberry-related posts of late….

I made these the other day – there were, as usual, some stray strawberries lying around, waiting eagerly to be chopped, sliced, pureed or whizzed into some more glamorous edible form and I had just made strawberry sorbet too, so thought that these little yummy slices of buttery goodness would be a nice accompaniment. They turned out to be just that – the shortbread has a lovely subtle almond flavour, and the strawberries, having caramelized slightly in the oven, add a sweet and chewy touch (plus, I think it makes them look pretty…) 

The recipe came from The Leiths Cookery Bible, which, since receiving it for my 21st, has become my first port of call for all things cookery-related (sorry Mary Berry/Delia). As the world ‘bible’ suggests, it is just an all-round, authoritative cookery aid – containing pretty much any classic recipe you can think of (plus contemporary ones too), cooking techniques, troubleshooting, suggestions of wine accompaniments for each course/recipe, dinner party planning, an extensive glossary, blah blah blah blah blah. In summary, I love it, as the food-stained pages clearly illustrate!

Makes 6-8

Ingredients

110g/4oz unsalted butter, softened
55g/20z caster sugar
55g/2oz plain flour
55g/20z ground almonds
55g/2oz ground rice
5-6 strawberries, sliced thinly

Preparation

– Preheat oven to 170C/325F.
– Stir together butter and sugar.
– Sift in flours and work into a smooth paste.
– Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and roll out to rougly 0.5cm thickness.
Now, I made the mistake of not doing this, but realised my error as I tried to cut the shortbread into pieces after it had come out of the oven and cooled (it just crumbled) – Cut the shortbread into whatever sized pieces you like and place on a baking sheet, making sure to separate pieces slightly.
– Take the sliced strawberries and place them on top of the shortbread pieces.
– Bake for 20 minutes, or until the shortbread turns golden.
– Take out of the oven and allow to cool.

These photos have diddly-squat to do with shortbread, but I just couldn’t help posting photos of the jam jars I just covered…

And another…

Yes, I am what you would call a horribly proud sloppy-jam-maker/jam-jar coverer.

I have been doing obscene amounts of baking in recent days (including making scones at 8am last sunday morning, after returning from a relatively late saturday night out. Mad? Yes, perhaps), yet blogging so little. I have no excuse. Literally, none. I’m not working. I have bags of spare time. Organization/prioritization of my time is at an all time low…although I find this is always the way when you have very little on one’s plate. Let’s hope this changes before my Masters kicks into action…

Anyway – in recent weeks I have become moderately obsessed with strawberries. I just love how in these summer months, a punnet can always be found lurking somewhere in the fridge (put there by the strawberry fairy, yes), ready to be dipped into sugar, enjoyed with yoghurt for brekkie, turned into sorbet, smoothies, coulis, added to cake mixtures (the list goes on…); they have even recently found their way into green salads (not-so-well received by my mother though…)


Our main strawberry success (well, almost) has been our first ever batch of jam. My mum has been making marmalade for a while now – it even makes its way across the ocean to family/friends in Canada – but she has never ventured into strawberry jam territory. I, on the other hand, have only ever made lemon curd, which is wonderfully easy in comparison, but seems to spend the majority of its lifetime nestled in the shelf of the fridge, waiting to be plucked out of obscurity by the not-so-health conscious ones in our family. The jam, though, was a (mildly sloppy) success I’d say. We followed a foolproof recipe from an age-old copy of the Women’s Insitute Book of Jams and Preserves (which has subsequently gone missing – very upsetting!) – the only minor failing has been its runniness. It tastes wonderfully fresh, sweet and light, but does tend to slip off the spoon/knife onto the toast with a little too much ease. But who really cares about that?! (I’m going to blame it on strawberries’ low pectin content, although admittedly, it could have been improved with a little longer on the heat).


Makes about 5lb

Ingredients

1.5kg/3lb firm red strawberries, not too large preferably
Juice of 1 lemon
1.5kg/3lb granulated sugar

Preparation

– Hull the strawberries, throwing out any vaguely rotten ones.
– Place strawberries and lemon juice in a heavy-based saucepan and heat gently.
– Simmer very slowly for about half an hour (or until strawberries have lost their form).
– Whilst simmering strawberries, warm the sugar in a bowl in the oven/microwave (will help it to dissolve).
– Add the warmed sugar to the pan, stir until dissolved and turn the heat up until it reaches 105 C (setting point for jam), then perform the wrinkle test – place a blob of jam onto a cooled plate, return the plate to the fridge and after a couple of minutes, the jam should have formed a skin, causing it to wrinkle when pushed. (If you don’t have a thermometer, you can boil it for about 15 minutes and then do the wrinkle test).
– If no wrinkles form, return to the heat and cook for a further 2 minutes or so.
– When it has passed the wrinkle test, take off the heat and skim the skum off the surface of the jam.
– Let it cool for 10-15 minutes.
– Stir gently to distribute strawberry lumps and pour into warm, clean, dry and sterilized glass jars. Place waxed paper discs on top of the jam surface and screw lid on tightly.
– Leave and allow to set overnight.

(Be careful not to knock a freshly made/bottled jar of hot jam onto the clean white kitchen floor in the excitement of it all, as we did….!)

Pick Your Own!

June 24, 2011


So, from the bustling streets of Chennai we head to the little countryside lanes of Kent, England…

Whilst reading the paper this morning over breakfast, I noticed an advert for local fruit picking (at Maynard’s Farm, Ticehurst, East Sussex) and couldn’t remember the last time I had been, well, for pleasure that is. I won’t easily forget the cherry-picking job I took on the summer I left school – it was convenient, the farm was just across the road and at the time it seemed like fairly easy money. However…I had not accounted for the abundance of earwigs that lurked within the cherry-tree branches, crawling up one’s arms, legs, bucket strings etc – I am slightly ashamed to admit that this proved too much for me; I lasted a mere three days before quitting!

Today was a pleasant day (i.e. no rain and a vague hint of summer); my mum had a rare few hours off, and being currently job-less, I am always on the lookout for activities with which to wile away the hours…so we decided to head to the farm for some strawberry-picking. There’s just something lovely about picking fruit straight off the tree/bush and popping it into your mouth (for my mum, the punnet to mouth ratio was around 1:4!) Even better though is creating something out of the fruit that you yourself have picked – you know where exactly it came from and where it ends up – it completes the whole journey of that one piece of fruit. (Strawberry jam will follow shortly…)

In the last couple of weeks we have had a fair amount of rain though (ironically arriving just as a drought was officially declared), which has sadly, destroyed a lot of the local fruit crops just as they are ripening and ready for sale. So much so that the cherry farm across the road is having to make cherry juice out of the remainder of the fruit that rapidly over-ripened due to the wet weather and subsequent moist conditions.

Despite today finding that much of the fruit was split and moldy, there were, thankfully, still strawberries to be picked. We had a fun half an hour or so of nipping from row to row, rummaging around in the plants for those gorgeous sweet, ripe and brilliantly red strawberries!


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