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It’s no secret that I don’t have a sweet tooth (in fact, I’ve been known to order an extra starter instead of dessert on more than one occasion) and it follows that baking isn’t something I turn my hand to regularly. But, when it comes to LC’s birthday, I feel compelled to keep a family tradition alive; making a birthday cake.

As LC’s first birthday approached, I discovered that both Jed and I shared this same family tradition when we were children. From dolls to cameras, ladybirds to racing cars, each year our mums made us special birthday cakes themed around our current interests.

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When I embarked on making LC’s first birthday cake, little did I know how stressful it would be; the pressure to deliver something which looked as it was intended and to bring the utter joy I remember feeling as a child when the surprise cake was revealed.

LC is now three and each birthday so far I have spent hours researching, planning and designing before starting on the baking, cutting and decorating. Each year I’ve reached a point (usually at the decorating stage) where I’ve questioned why I’ve put myself through the agony and not just bought a cake, but it has all been worth it to see LC’s reaction and then to hear him talk about his cakes.

A diplodocus obsession

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This one made using a sugar-free carrot cake recipe from things for boys.

Steaming into age two

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I still feel guilty about using shop bought Swiss rolls for this cake but I’m not super mum so baking the biscuits and assembling the cake had to be where I drew line!

Dig, dig, digging and some muffins

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He’s hit the age of taking birthday cake into preschool to share with his class at lunchtime, so with 16 to cater for and a little kitchen helper by my side I turned to the trusty sugar free carrot cake recipe again, this time made into muffins.

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And for the main event, a chocolate orange sponge cake, using the 4,4,2,4 method I learned from my mum as a child, became a digger.

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It’s been a while

Granted. I’ve been absent for a long time – family life combined with running your own business can do that to your social networking life – but I’m ready to get back to food blogging. It’s something I really enjoy doing and have missed. I only hope that I can find the time and energy to do it again.

I might have been away from my blog but I haven’t been far from food. It’s just that my approach to food has adapted to suit the limited time available for cooking and, naturally, to my little boy’s developing tastes.

_EP_8202-01For a while, when LC was little, I struggled to cope with not having time in the kitchen after work (cooking had always been my creative outlet and the way I relaxed) but we’re now over some very difficult hurdles and there’s a little more time on an evening to cook. I’m working through recipes in the cookbooks that gathered on my shelves over the last two years and were subsequently neglected as well as rediscovering old favourites. Books like Persiana, Made in India, New Indian, Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, Comptoir Libanais, the River Cottage Baby and Toddler Cookbook and, more recently, Indian Kitchen: Secrets of Indian home cooking have reignited my passion for cooking and, importantly for me, my desire to experiment and create ‘new’ dishes.

I’ve had a little ‘me’ time when I’ve been able to hone some skills and learn new ones. I’ve been on a baking course with Hart’s Bakery and almost perfected my sourdough, I joined Wai Yee Hong and Bishopston Supper Club for the first ever #dumplingfest and learned how to make samosas with a new foodie friend, Arushi.

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Seeing LC enjoy food and want to spend time with me in the kitchen has really helped. I feel immensely proud when he names fruit and vegetables, can recognise ingredients in a cooked dish or sniffs the air and tells me he can smell that I’m cooking curry! I also felt slightly embarrassed when nursery staff reported how, as they told the children they were going to bake cakes, he jumped it to explain to them all how to make one and listed the ingredients needed.

He wants to help with everything from growing vegetables in the garden to shopping, stirring, whisking and even sweeping up. He’s been a great excuse to make time in the kitchen to do things I’ve never done or haven’t done for a long time; make pasta, stale bread gnocchi, oatcakes, meringues, jellies and cakes. He’s eager to learn, soaks up everything I teach him and demonstrates what he’s learnt in his play kitchen where he makes paella, risotto, pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage sandwiches and a bloody good cup of tea!

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And what about eating out? We still do that, just not as frequently. We have sneaky days off with LC in nursery so we can have breakfast or lunch out, or sometimes both! We eat out at lunchtime with LC and occasionally we indulge in a night out, with the help of the amazing people in our lives who offer to babysit.

The Bristol food scene continues to thrive. The variety and quality of food available is outstanding. We’ve had incredible steaks at The Ox, the most amazing chicken wraps from Matina in St Nick’s market, Sunday lunches with a difference at the Kensington Arms, Yurt Lush and Bishopston Supper Club, tapas to die for at Bravas and Pata Negra, the best brunches at RosemarinoBaker & Co and Souk Kitchen, consistently good food at out local, The Victoria Park, stunning fish and chips at Salt and Malt, spice fixes from the Jamaican Diner, authentic Indian cooking from Romy’s Kitchen, a complete surprise tasting menu at the Lido and fantastic salt beef from Aron’s Jewish Delicatessen.

_EP_3760_1Further afield we’ve tucked in at the Hardwick and eaten the best pea and ham soup we’ve ever tasted at the Hind’s Head. Even further afield we were wowed by the food and hospitality in Copenhagen. Aaman’s open sandwiches, DOP hotdogs and Papiroen street food market were highlights of our trip. Sadly there was no visit to Noma!

So, I’ve discovered that there is still room for food in our lives…it’s just that we’re on a diet!

On Tuesday, Jed and I had the pleasure of joining 1st Backwell Scouts for an evening of cooking. We were honoured to have been asked to judge their inaugural Masterchef competition.

This wasn’t going to be anything like their usual campfire cooking; we and the Scout leaders were looking for a high quality three course meal from each team of six Scouts, prepared and served in just one hour.

We needed to see evidence of menu planning, good food hygiene and safety, teamwork, and of course well cooked and presented food that tasted great.

The Scouts had spent the previous week’s meeting planning what they were going to cook with their £10 budget, writing shopping and to do lists, assigning tasks as well as working out what equipment, crockery and cutlery they’d need to bring with them.

Each team were only provided with two tables to use for preparation and cooking, a two-ring gas burner and basic Scout cooking equipment so they had needed to plan well and consider the logistics of six people preparing and cooking the three dishes within the hour (at least one dish needed to be served hot). Oh, and did I mention that all six teams had access to just one sink in which to wash up as they went along since they’d only have 15 minutes at the end of cooking time to clear away and leave the Scout hut tidy?

I imagine that even the chefs competing in Masterchef: The Professionals would be nervous at the prospect.

Not only did they look the part with their chefs hats and fancy aprons, but a number of the Scouts showed impeccable knife skills and food knowledge and there were even some attempts at cheffy smears (luckily there were no foams!).

The teams were well organised with everyone knowing what they needed to do and when.  Each team pulled together and they all, despite the fire alarm going off, some frantic moments and last-minute panics, lined up a full three courses on the judging table.

Amazed at what the Scouts had produced in such a short of amount of time and with limited resources, we had a tough job ahead of us judging the food. There were some stand out dishes; the spicy pork with noodles from the Stag team demonstrated many skills and the layers of flavour in the dish really came through, Eagle team’s sweet and sour pak choi soup had quite a kick to it but the heat didn’t mask the other more fragrant flavours and Bulldog team, which unfortunately ran out of time to thread the marinated meat for their chicken kebabs onto the skewers none-the-less, produced a sticky, zesty, peanutty and incredibly moreish dish.

Everyone should be very proud of themselves. All teams scored very highly, there were very few points in it but in the end congratulations had to go to the Stags.

The menus

Eagle
Sweet and sour pak choi soup

Garlic and sweet chilli prawns

Trifle

Bulldog
Spicy sweet potato slices

Chicken kebabs

Pancakes

Tiger
Smoked salmon on crackers

Garlic chicken fillet

Eton mess

Stag
Garlic prawns with rocket salad

Spicy pork with noodles

Poached pears with cinnamon

Buffalo
Roasted pepper with bacon stuffing

Chicken, mushroom, pea risotto

Peach and macadamia parfait

Badger
Prawn cocktail

Steak, mashed potato and broccoli

Oranges in syrup

Into the Kitchin

You could be forgiven for initially thinking that Kitchin Suppers is just another publication from a long line of celebrity chefs who have released books full of recipes which are bordering on the impossible to produce at home. In fact, Tom Kitchin breaks the mould. He is obviously a man who cooks at home with and for his family and friends and appreciates the limits of domestic appliances, the equipment available to most home cooks, the time constraints within family and working life, and that, at home, we don’t have an army of kitchen staff to handle all the prep for us.

The recipes in the book are not adapted from the dishes on his restaurant menus, but have been specifically created for home cooking. That’s not to say that the recipes aren’t interesting, quite the opposite. Tom provides some twists on classics but he also serves up some more unusual supper ideas, including quick and easy recipes for entertaining, Sunday dinners, one-pan wonders and weeknight meals.

The recipes don’t require a lot of time or effort (though a few will need a little planning and clever shopping), and there isn’t a single recipe which stands out to me as not being achievable for the average home cook, but there’s definitely no compromise on quality or mouth-watering appeal.

We put Tom’s rolled escalope of veal with lemon and caper butter recipe and claim that many of the dishes can be on the table in 30 minutes to the test. I decided to do baked new potatoes with the meal so it wasn’t realistic to think we’d be having dinner in 30 minutes but, that said, once the potatoes were in the oven, I was able to prepare and cook the escalopes in next to no time. The dish would work equally well with some crusty bread making it more than achievable in a short timeframe. And the verdict? There’s no question we’ll be having it again!

The feel of the book is homely too, aided by the photographs which are natural and realistic representations of what it is you’ll be cooking. A photograph needs to be a feast for the eyes and make you want to cook a dish but let’s face it there’s nothing more disappointing than the dish you cook looking nothing like the picture in the book.

Kitchin Suppers proves that home cooking doesn’t have to be boring, understated or the same old dishes time and time again. Good food needn’t take an age to prepare and it doesn’t have to be complicated to look and taste incredible.

Tom Kitchin’s Kitchin Suppers is published by Quadrille Publishing. RRP £20.

This Little Piggy

Leaving the house at 8am on a Sunday and driving an hour to get to a pig butchery and sausage making course probably isn’t most people’s idea of a fun day out nor a perfect wedding present, but Jed and I were happy as the proverbial pigs in muck at the prospect of our day ahead.

EFButchery-4So, what kind of people are attracted to this course run by the Empire Farm? We were joined by a few who, like us, just enjoy food and were interested to learn a new skill. Others had smallholdings or farms and wanted to learn the practical skills needed to handle their own produce and turn it into a profitable business.

Dan from Twelve Green Acres farm and our tutor for the day is a pig farmer and butcher who sells his meat both in his local area and at farmers’ markets in London. He brought a 30kg side of one of his own pigs with him for us to work with; a Duroc middle white cross, classified as a porker meaning that it is quite lean with only a thin layer of fat and therefore good for selling as pork joints.

The morning was spent in the butchery learning about rearing pigs for meat, slaughtering, the equipment needed for butchery as well as watching as the side of pig was divided into individual joints.

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Before lunch we got hands on, each of us taking a joint to de-bone and skin then chop into chunks in preparation for the afternoon session of sausage making. Unusually and rather decadently, the whole side of this pig was going into the sausage bucket. These couldn’t fail to be good sausages!

After a beautiful lunch prepared by Sally who runs the farm and courses, which of course included some of Dan’s sausages, we headed back to the butchery to get stuck into the second part of the course.

All the meat and some fat (20-30% of the mixture should be fat) were coarsely minced and divided into 2kg portions for us to work with. We set to weighing out the majority of the ingredients needed to make a traditional English pork sausage* as well as our chosen flavourings of chilli, garlic and shallot, combined them with the course pork mince and some water (the water helps push the meat through the machine and into the skins but is lost during the 24 hours that the sausages are left to hang after making) then put the mixture through the mincer a second time on a finer setting.

EFButchery-49After cooking a small patty of the mixture in the test kitchen and adjusting the flavouring, we were ready to get stuffing. Stuffing is a two person job – one person to load the machine and turn the handle and one person to guide the mixture into the natural hog casings and ensure an even, air-free sausage – something I could use more practice at!

A little bit of coaxing and squeezing out of air was needed before we could start linking. I’ve always wondered how it was done but once you’ve learnt the pattern and found your rhythm, it really isn’t that difficult and was fun to do.

We ended the day with a sausage taste testing. We all cooked off a couple of the sausages we’d made and marvelled at people’s flavour combinations – some conservative, others quite weird and wonderful. Even if we do say so ourselves, we made some bloody good, tasty sausages! We were pleased to be taking them home with us to go in the freezer and sustain us for a fair few weeks!

*Traditional English pork sausage recipe

1.8kg pork including 20-30% fat

200g breadcrumbs (or 100 – 150g breadcrumbs and 50 – 100g flavourings such as leek, apples etc.)

30g salt

0.5 tsp nutmeg

0.5 tsp mace

10 – 15g black pepper

water to mix (or beer, wine, cider or something else that tickles your fancy)

From alexander in winter to wild strawberries in summer or burdock in spring and hazel in autumn, Edible Wild Plants and Herbs, indentification guide and cookbook combined, is an excellent compendium of all things foraged.

First published 25 years ago, this book has recently been brought up to date by the original author. The idea is not that we will all be able to live off the land self-sufficiently but that we can re-learn what our ancestors knew and used to pass on through the generations, a dying skill which, along with keeping chickens or pigs, cultivating your own fruit and vegetables, making pickles and preserves or even cooking with children, a growing number of people are trying to revive.

The calendar on the inside cover provides a quick reference of which plants (and which parts of the plant) to look for and when. Inside we learn more about each of those plants; it’s common and scientific name, where it grows, what it looks like, how it was discovered, the origins of the name and how it has been and is now used. Each description is accompanied by a selection of recipes for using the plant in food, drinks, lotions and potions and a beautiful painting or illustration from the botanical artist at Kew Gardens brings each plant to life.

If you don’t feel confident enough to get out and pick your own, a fair number of the plants and herbs described in the book can be successfully grown in your garden; lemon balm, mint, primrose and chamomile for instance. Alternatively, samphire can be found on our shores but is also ready available at most fishmongers, and chestnuts, if not picked from the tree, can be sourced from the market in the autumn.

But there’s no reason why each and every one of us, whether city or country bound cannot have a go at foraging for at least a few of the plants and enjoy our own bounty.

Try a range of recipes with wild garlic in early spring and nettles a little later in the season or elderflowers for cordial, fritters and jams in early summer and the berries for wine, sorbets and chutneys in the autumn.

There are few greater pleasures than eating or drinking a homemade product from free ingredients. I’ve got just one more week to wait before popping the cork and sharing my elderflower fizz with friends and we’ve already supped the cordial. There’s still time for you to make the most of elderflower too. What are you waiting for?

The Spice King

Already being the proud owner of around 15 ‘curry’ cookbooks, including Reza Mahammad’s first book (Rice, Spice and All Things Nice), you might ask why I would have the need or be interested in yet another.

The answer is quite simply because this isn’t like the others. Reza has genuinely found an interesting and new angle; East meets West in Reza’s Indian Spice, challenging the palate and mind of a British audience hooked on well-known Indian (and British-style Indian) dishes.

Born in England, sent to boarding school in India to learn about his heritage, lived in France and well-travelled, Reza’s cooking influences are unmistakable.

He admits that he loves all kinds of foods from around the world but can’t live a day without spice. The result is (I hate to use the word since it often has negative connotations but it is the only way to describe it) fusion food. Thai, Persian, French, Italian, British dishes and cooking techniques are combined with a little Indian spice to enhance the finished dishes. It’s modern, vibrant and stylish.

Whilst a lot of different spices are used throughout the book and there is no spice glossary, the majority of the dishes use readily available spices and are easy to recreate. Others are more involved and best left for when you have some time to experiment or want to show off.

Each dish has a suggestion of what to serve with it, with a page reference so you can easily find it in the book, important I think when dealing with unfamiliar foods. Does it go with rice or bread? Do I need a salad or a vegetable side dish? Should I have a chutney with it? These are questions which are so often forgotten by professionals and about which many home cooks worry.

It was refreshing to see a variety of ideas for accompaniments; side dishes which are unusual, colourful and healthy. We particularly enjoyed the beansprout salad with chargrilled asparagus and coconut which we ate with the kachumber and spicy stuffed potatoes (a recipe from the ‘Slow burners’ section which took a while to prepare and a lot longer to cook in the oven than the recipe stated but which was most definitely worth the wait).

I was inspired by other ‘Perfect partners’ from the book as well as his western influences combined with eastern flavours to create a twist on the classic Sunday roast. I served my slow roast pork belly (which sat on a rack of onion, garlic, peppercorns and curry leaves to create a flavoursome and lightly spiced gravy) with Reza’s French beans with sesame seeds, gingered carrots with maple syrup and roast potatoes with chilli and chaat masala. If you thought it wasn’t possible for roast potatoes to be any better than they are already, I urge you to try Reza’s roast potatoes. They are incredible!

If you’re serious about cooking with spices, looking for recipes with a difference and photographs to drool over then let yourself be drawn into Reza’s exquisite and exotic world. I’m sure you’ll finish your meal smiling.

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