Tea time cakes Continued: Banana Bread

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I like to try two similar recipes using one base ingredient and compare tastes and textures. The reason is simple really: this happens because usually I have one ingredient I buy too much of. The idea for the cake in the previous post and this one here came from having a couple of unused fruit lying around.

The following is taken from Nigella’s How to be a Domestic Goddess, which as I think I have said before, it is a must for all home bakers to have. But I will not go into that again, don’t worry! What I will tell you now is that on page 33 there’s a recipe for Banana Bread. Nigella has adapted it from Jim Fobel’s Old-Fashioned Baking Book: Recipes from an American Childhood and it’s very similar to the first banana loaf recipe I wrote about. There’s some alcohol in it in the form of bourbon or dark rum as she suggests. I had neither on hand so I used some brandy. It is simple, delicious and ideal for sharing. You will end up with a heavier cake but adding the alcohol plumps up the sultanas and makes them tastier. You will need:

  • 100g sultanas
  • 75ml bourbon or dark rum (or brandy)
  • 175g plain flour
  • 2 teaspooons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt (optional)
  • 125g unsalted butter, softened
  • 150g caster sugar or soft brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • Around 300g (without the skin) very ripe bananas, mashed
  • 60g pecans or walnuts, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Place the sultanas and the alcohol in a small pan over the heat. As soon as it starts to boil, remove from the heat and let it soak for around an hour or until the sultanas have absorbed most of the alcohol. Drain using a sieve.
  2. In the meantime preheat the oven to 170ºC/338ºF/Gas Mark 3 and grease and line a loaf tin (23 x 13 x 7cm).
  3. In a medium-sized bowl put the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt and stir everything together well.
  4. Now mix the melted butter and sugar in a large bowl and whisk together; then add the eggs one at a time and continue whisking.
  5. Add the mashed bananas, walnuts, drained sultanas and vanilla extract. Mix lightly and start pouring the flour mixture slowly. Add half and beat, then add the other half and beat again.
  6. Pour the completed cake batter into your loaf tin and bake in the middle of the oven for around 1 to 1¼ hours, always keeping an eye on it. When ready the skewer or knife used to check it shouldn’t come out clean because you want a gooey cake. Don’t worry because the cake will continue to cook when you take it out of the oven while cooling. Leave to cool for a while in the tin, then take it out on a rack. If you line the cake with overlapping baking paper (see my lemon cake from a while back) handling it will be super easy.

Nigella’s variation of this cake, which I still have to try would be to replace 25g of the plain flour with good quality cocoa powder and adding 100g of dark chocolate chunks or chocolate chips. I’m sure I will like it!

Enjoy!

Rob x

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Tea time cakes: Banana Nut Loaf

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A couple of months ago I wanted to bake something light and fluffy for tea. I didn’t want to make another chocolate cake; that would have been too boring, even for my self-confessed love of the stuff. So I flipped through the books and found two lovely cakes. I couldn’t choose between them and I tried them both. On two different days in case you ask. The only problem was that when J processed the photos for me I couldn’t remember what cakes they were and where I got them from. Eventually J was the one who did the identifying; nothing out of the ordinary really – it happens. I need to improve my note-keeping…

The following is a recipe which I had in my notes for more than ten years now. It’s a good recipe for Banana Nut Loaf. You can make it quickly if you have people coming over for tea on a Sunday, you can whip it up for yourself and your family, and leave it in the kitchen for anyone who might like something sweet in the afternoon. The original recipe calls for wholemeal self-raising flour but I tried it with half wholemeal and half white once, and it still worked well. If you use plain wholemeal, then mix two teaspoons of baking powder with the flour. The recipe below is close to the one in the book but with a slight variations. It yields one loaf cake.

  • 125g soft butter
  • 230g soft brown sugar, plus 1 extra tablespoon
  • 3 eggs
  • 225g wholemeal self-raising flour
  • 50g dessicated coconut, plus 2 extra tablespoons
  • 15og banana, mashed
  • 125ml milk
  • 40g walnuts, chopped
  • ½ teaspoon mixed spice
  1. Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/Gas Mark 4 and grease and line a loaf tin with baking paper. (Believe me, this will really keep the cake nice and moist so don’t skip the lining bit.)
  2. In a large bowl mix the softened butter, the 230g of the sugar, eggs, flour, 50g coconut, banana and milk. Whisk all the ingredients together but don’t over beat.
  3. Now spoon half of your cake batter into the loaf tin. In a small bowl use your hands to mix half the walnuts, mixed spice, the 1 extra tablespoon of sugar and the 2 extra tablespoons of coconut.
  4. Sprinkle half this mix on to the batter in your tin. Then carefully pour in the remaining cake batter. Smooth the surface with a spatula and add the remaining spice, nut and coconut mix on top.
  5. Bake the cake for around 1 hour, keeping an eye on it every now and then to make sure the surface doesn’t burn. If this happens cover it loosely with a piece of foil after 25-30 minutes. Check that the cake has cooked through by inserting a skewer or knife. It’s well worth the wait.

    Enjoy!

    Rob x

Easy pasta dishes

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I can understand the urge to grab a quick takeaway on your way home from a tiring day at work. But think about it, you don’t know what really went into it. Arguably one of the most convenient “kind-of-ready-made” food is pasta. Who doesn’t have a packet of pasta lying around in the cupboard right now? So let me give you a couple of ideas which work for me when I’m in a I’m-hungry-NOW mood.

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One thing which I am really loving right now is pappardelle. They are so good for lapping up any kind of sauce. They also offer some variety on a plate, unlike the usual spaghetti. I like any flat pasta – be it linguine, tagliatelle, fettucine, mafaldine etc. They tick all the hunger boxes for me. I have to admit it though: there are few things in life better than spaghetti carbonara, but obviously, take it slow with that!

But how about a nice summery pasta concoction washed down with a fresh white glass of vino? Ahh I have dreams about that – me, in a summer garden calmly *cough* wolfing down a lovely biggish bowl of pasta with fresh vegetables with a prawn or two thrown in, at least for those who love them like I do. If you don’t then leave them out and substitute them with either a light meat option like leftover chicken or turkey that was already cooked, or another vegetable. It’s your pasta, you’re the cook so do whatever you like. That’s freedom! There will be no exact quantities for this. Let this be your guide and go with whatever your gut tells you (excuse the pun).

Pasta with Prawn and Fresh Tomatoes (For 4).

  • 500g fresh or dried pappardelle
  • 1 tablespoon or so mild olive oil (not extra virgin)
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, crushed or finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried chilli flakes
  • 150g small plum or cherry tomatoes, cut in half
  • 6 large chestnut mushrooms, cut into quarters
  • 100g or so shrimps or 8 uncooked prawns, de-veined
  1. Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions. In the meantime gently fry the onion, garlic and chilli flakes in the olive oil for a couple of minutes.
  2. Quickly add the plum tomatoes and the mushrooms. I like everything to be al dente, so throw in the prawns, leave until they turn pink and toss everything with the pasta. Serve instantly with a drizzling of extra virgin olive oil (now you can since here it only serves as a dressing), freshly ground pepper and some fresh lemon juice. Ready? Now let’s eat!

For a vegetarian option try the following:

While the pasta is cooking, gently fry in olive oil some chopped onion, finely chopped garlic, chilli flakes in a hot pan. Throw in some chopped zucchini (courgettes) and mushrooms. When cooked through but still firm, add some chopped fresh tomatoes and there you have it. Toss with the pasta, serve as the recipe above and go eat this in the garden. Bliss!

Rob x

Baked Conchiglie

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You know the drill: you go to the shops and buy something which is not one of your usuals. It has been a while though since I’ve gone on a shopping strike recently. Well not really…not a 100% because you can’t do that…but I had this packet of dried conchiglie lying around in my pantry not doing much. I got so tired of looking at it that I decided to use some of it.

There’s no denying that pasta and pizza are great for pantry clearing. They also come in handy when you’ve either forgot to do the shopping or when you’re too tired to think after a day’s work. The following is a take on an easy recipe which is very popular in Malta. Fact is that back home we love our food, baked dishes being some of our favourites. Baking with pasta or even rice is quick, practical and it’s the kind of food which you can freeze and reheat. It will also keep well for two to three days in the fridge. You can use other types of pasta if you like, but conchiglie give you bulk without having to pile up the pasta for decent thickness and presence. I like to make this in summer or when I don’t feel like faffing about with lasagne.

For this recipe, which serves up to 6-8 people (always depending on your guests’ level of hunger) you need:

  • 750g conchiglie, cooked al dente & drained

For the ricotta mixture:

  • 500g ricotta
  • 250g fresh spinach, steamed & cooled
  • salt & pepper, to taste
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten

For the tomato sauce topping:

  • 1 -2 onions, chopped
  • 700g passata
  • ½ teaspoon paprika
  • ½ teaspoon curry
  • ½ teaspoon mixed spice
  • 1 tablespoon dried basil
  • salt & pepper, to taste

For the cheese topping:

  • 50g grated Red Leicester, Cheddar or any other hard cheese you like
  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas Mark 4/350ºF.
  2. In a large bowl mix the cooked pasta, steamed spinach, ricotta, salt and pepper. Steaming the spinach is ideal if you don’t want a sloppy mixture. When you are happy with the seasoning, add the beaten eggs and mix everything until well combined.
  3. To prepare the tomato sauce, you don’t need to cook it on the stove. Just mix well your ingredients in another bowl.
  4. Spread a tablespoon of olive oil on the bottom of a rectangular ceramic or glass baking dish, and also spread a thin layer of your tomato sauce. Tip in the cooked pasta and ricotta mixture into the dish and spread evenly. Then spread the tomato mixture over the pasta.
  5. Grate the cheese all over and bake for around 45 minutes, but keep an eye on it once in a while. You could serve this alone or with some green salad.

    Enjoy!

    Rob x

Book review: Small Adventures in Cooking.

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So some three weeks ago or so, I came across a very interesting concept by the people back at Quadrille Publishing. Interesting as in good, by the way, just in case you were about to ask. It’s called New Voices in Food and their objective is to showcase exciting and talented new chefs. I contacted Quadrille about this project and I was sent James Ramsden’s Small Adventures in Cooking, published on the 6th June.

When it arrived in the post I was so relieved, for two things mainly: size and simplicity. It’s full of original ideas but it’s small enough to carry in a small bag. Big encyclopaedic-sized table top books are very nice mind you, but if you’re like me and you like to read through recipe books from cover to cover before you actually decide on what recipes to try, then the big ones don’t work for you initially. And since this is a simple book then there’s no glossy pages to deal with, which is, as you might know already, what I like best. Simplicity and unpretentiousness is what you get throughout the book; the real stars of the show are the recipes themselves. Even though James is the author, he is confident enough not to have loads of photos of himself splashed about. There are some photos on the flaps but that is it. Another good thing. So I marked most of the pages with orange sticky notes, as usual, and away I read.

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What I wanted to do before writing this review (which is by no means exhaustive) was to try some of James’ recipes. I have tried three, taking them from different sections of the book: the first was the 5-minute Sponge, second the Macerated Strawberries and third his Persian Aubergine Stew with Jewelled Rice. To be honest, my choice was more influenced by the current contents of my pantry rather than my present non-existing adventurous spirit. Don’t get me wrong. I was really inspired by the recipes, but I am moving house very soon so lately I’ve been trying to cook with whatever I have. That being said, I only needed one trip to the market and another to the butcher to get what I needed. I was impressed – usually I get lost among ingredients, wanting to buy every fresh vegetable and every fresh piece of meat I see. But James is teaching me to economise without compromising flavour.

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I started with the Persian Stew. I like stews to begin with because they remind me of home. This is stew with a twist and it’s so simple to make. Looking back I should have made it without the extra Tweaks (the little hints for each recipe) just because I would have given a more solid opinion. But for once I had some limes in the fridge (and this is very rare) so all I had to do was get myself an aubergine and some lamb. Both the stew and the accompanying rice are delicious. My only add-on was to throw a few tablespoons of sugar the second time round, to make up for the sharpness of the tomatoes and the bitterness of the limes and cranberries. This stew has become one of my favourites and if you’re feeding a family or having friends over for a meal, this will be a hit.

I tried the sponge and the strawberry recipes today. I only needed some quiet time this morning, after some coffee of course, to make everything. The Macerated Strawberries is an assemblage really – you need strawberries, lemon zest, mint and sugar, and pepper to serve, and that’s it. Perfect. (Let’s face it, few are those who don’t have strawberries in the fridge at the moment. Being a tennis enthusiast, I did.) And they are yummy with the 5-minute sponge, a five-minute easy whisking job and 15-20 minutes in the oven. Definitely another winner. There’s a selection of other things I plan to try later on…I bought a tub of cream not only for the next Two-week Strawberry-Fest which is Wimbledon, but also for the Kedgeree (pg.86). Plus I have enough chocolate for the Chocolate and Fennel Brownies (pg. 137) and beyond so I’m good to go! On my Facebook page I said that at first glance this book was a beauty. Now I can say that it really is. You can find James’ blog here.

Rob x

Pizza and Focaccia

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Since I moved to the UK almost four years ago, from a large kitchen to a very small one, I learnt to make do with the basics. I wasn’t sure if I would get used to being cramped in a small space. I got some equipment with me but I left most behind, especially my very much missed Kitchen Aid. However, I now beat almost everything with a normal whisk or with an electric hand whisk, which (when working well) is a life-saver. (I must admit though that recently, I beat some zabaglione by hand. Then I swore I would never do that again!)

Goat's-Cheese-and-Chorizo-Pizza-(4495)

One thing which I didn’t have at all is a bread maker. I’m just an amateur cook so you chefs out there please forgive me for owning one, even while you cringe. But now, we can enjoy freshly baked bread everyday. That is what J enjoys most. Long-life super fluffy sliced bread isn’t an option. I have to say though that most supermarkets now have their own bakeries in store that offer good-quality bread and that’s great, but I still prefer making our own. I wouldn’t recommend using it to bake cakes. However it’s perfect for fruit loaves.

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Thanks to our bread maker I’ve been making pizza on average once a week, especially on Saturday evenings. I love the feel and elasticity of pizza dough and it’s so easy to roll out. It beats shortcrust pastry, not in taste obviously, but I don’t have to worry about it falling apart on me. Fact is that pizza dough is easy to make with or without the machine. *With* means less mess; all you need is a little flour for rolling it out onto your working surface. The ingredients remain the same for whichever method you prefer.

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A note before you start: there is the need for salt in this recipe. Omitting it here is not an option. For two square pizza trays you’ll need:

  • ½ teaspoon dried active yeast (I use Allinson)
  • 300g strong white bread flour
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 170ml water

The above is the order in which the ingredients go in the machine. By hand try the following:

  1. Prepare two trays sprinkled well with semolina. This will help you to slide the pizza easily onto your serving plate later.
  2. Preheat the oven to 220ºC/425ºF/Gas Mark 7, but consider more if you’re using a non-convection oven.
  3. Combine the yeast with the water (warm this up, not too much), olive oil and salt in a large bowl and stir until the yeast and salt are dissolved. After a couple of minutes add half of the flour and mix well. Add the rest of the flour and mix well with your hands.
  4. Put the dough on a clean floured surface and work it well. This dough can take it! Then leave it to rise in an oiled bowl or tray, covered with a damp towel. Once it’s doubled in size take it out of the bowl on to a surface once more and divide it into two. Roll each piece of dough and place on the two trays. (You could use pizza stones instead of the trays. These will work better in a very hot oven.)
  5. Top your pizzas with anything you like. I am partial to mozzarella or goat’s cheese, some mushrooms, slices of chorizo and onions, oregano and some more olive oil. I generally slice some tomatoes as a base when they’re nice and fresh instead of tinned passata or polpa. This is obviously a guide. Do whatever you want!

If you want to make focaccia, then all you need to do is to spread all the dough onto a well-oiled baking tray and leave it to rise a little (leave out Step 3). Puncture the dough with some fresh rosemary when you can find it. If not prong it with a fork, spread some more olive oil and top it with some onions and again with anything that you like. There’s your Saturday evening dinner sorted. Enjoy!

Rob x

Cookies with Cranberries and White Chocolate

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So during the last few weeks I have had one main aim in life you might say, i.e. to use up all the food in my fridge and pantry. It’s the classic situation really, I’m always tempted to purchase one or two ingredients for a particular recipe. Then I end up with a gazillion packets of dried fruit and nuts. Now one thing which I absolutely hate is to throw away food. When it’s bad there’s no other option of course, but when it’s good then the possibilities are endless…well, that’s what I keep telling myself…and it’s true.

There’s no doubt that these cookies are delicious, if you like cranberries and white chocolate that is. I know that not everyone likes white chocolate, but I guess it would be easy to use milk or dark chocolate instead. This recipe comes from Nigella’s Christmas. I have thought about waiting until the holidays to include these lovely little bites here, but I couldn’t wait that long and really you can make them any time you want. (White chocolate and cranberries remind me of Christmas though.) I made these three times and when it comes to any kind of cookie it’s always a party especially for J (and if you know him then that goes without saying)!

Some notes before you start: the mixture yields around 30 small cookies or 15 large ones, depending what you prefer. I made the latter. No news there I’m sure! Also you could use less chocolate if you like, as I did the first time I made them. However it’s tricky to mess about with an already good recipe. You could leave out the salt though, which I did the third time round.

You’ll need:

  • 150g plain flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt (optional)
  • 75g rolled oats (not instant)
  • 125g butter, softened
  • 75g dark brown sugar
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 75g dried cranberries
  • 50g pecans, roughly chopped (works also with walnuts)
  • 150g white chocolate chips or chunks
  1. Preheat your oven to 180ºC/Gas Mark 4 and line a baking tray with baking paper.
  2. Place the flour, baking powder, salt and oats in a large mixing bowl.
  3. In a medium-sized bowl place the soft butter and sugar and beat until light and creamy. Add the egg and vanilla extract and mix well.
  4. To the above mixture add all the ingredients in the large bowl, then fold in the dried cranberries, nuts and chocolate chunks.
  5. Using your hands roll the dough into roughly golf ball size and place them on the baking sheet. (You will need more than one tray to make the cookies in two or more batches). Push them down with a fork if you prefer.
  6. Bake the cookie dough for 15 minutes, and when done they will be too soft to lift from the tray so let them cool for around 5-10 minutes after taking them out of the oven. Then leave them to cool on a wire rack.

As in the previous cookie recipe, you can freeze the dough for up to three months so if you’re serving these at a party you can prepare them way ahead of time and bake them two days before. They are super easy to make so why don’t you give them a go?

Enjoy!

Rob x

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