Auntie Margo’s rock cakes

An alteration in the treatment of my APS / Hughes Syndrome – more meds, many more meds – is rendering me seriously redundant at the moment. And that includes keeping me away from the kitchen. Unfortunately for my other half, that means that he has been subjected to lots of easy repeat meals and ready meals when he makes it in from work after a long day.

I did make a major effort today to put together a slow roast lamb shoulder – not that it takes major effort, of course. I managed to serve him the lamb accompanied by red cabbage, green beans and roast potatoes. It might have knocked me for the rest of the day – I haven’t moved off the sofa since –  but he was mightily appreciative of some proper home cooking.

Since I have been slogging along, I have turned instead to my cook books and to my archive, reading through to find some recipes I have missed to tackle when I eventually get back in action. And I came upon something I requested from someone a long time ago, but haven’t yet shared on the blog.

When I was young, I was looked after by a woman named Margo, an absolutely wonderful lady who I still call ‘auntie’ and visit to this day. Every day when I arrived at her house after school, I’d enter the back door to step right into a kitchen full of wonderful aromas and counters laden with home baking.

In addition to whatever she was making for her own family that evening – my dad would have long picked me up before that was served – she always had cooling trays and tins of homemade buns and cakes on the go, including shortbread, drop scones, regular scones, fairy cakes (with the proper ‘fairy wings’ on top), plain buns with raisins or chocolate chips and, my favourite, her rock cakes.

When I took my place at her kitchen counter, she’d let me have one of them halved and buttered along with a glass of milk. It was a really lovely regular treat, one I look back on fondly, and so a few months ago, I wrote to her to ask for the recipe.

IMG_7050She was as modest as ever in her reply – “as you know I’m no baker” – but take it from me, she could whip up delicious treats in no time with no need for a recipe. She was an absolutely wonderful home cook. And she had included her recipe for my favourite rock buns along with her version of queen cakes plus the lovely mince dinner she’d given to me when I stayed with her during school holidays.

I will keep the letter and the recipes in her handwriting for all of the rest of my life and I’m so chuffed to have them. She means the world to me and these simple little cooking memories are a surprisingly powerful source of joy. While I’m feeling a bit rough, I’m more than happy to indulge in this trip down memory lane.

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Jus-Rol Bake-It-Fresh part 2: pain au chocolat

It was inevitable that I’d purchase another one of these enticing yellow boxes, given the success of the delicious cinnamon swirls (previous post).

And even though we didn’t absolutely love the choc chip brioche (which just weren’t very brioche-y), they were still nice enough for us to keep the faith with Bake-It-Fresh.

Thank goodness, because we’d have missed these lovely little pain au chocolat. Hats off once again to Jus-Rol for their ease and resulting taste.

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The cardboard packaging conceals the tube of dough and a little pack of chocolate sticks. The crystal clear instructions advise you to unwrap the dough…

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and unroll it to expose the marks where you’ll easily tear it into sections.

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As you can see from the picture, you end up with four lovely sections and two not so pretty ones from the end:

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But, with a little bit of gentle stretching into shape, they’re absolutely fine. They need a bit of help so that their chocolate sticks fit on as such –

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After the choc sticks are in place, you simply roll in each end towards the middle and turn them upside down to place them on your lined baking tray.

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The instructions note that a little bit of glazing might be of benefit, so I used my trusty spray glaze – beaten egg or milk would of course do the same job.

Twelve minutes at 200 degrees celsius (180 fan) later, and you have six luscious little pastry packages which conceal hot, melting chocolate.

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I’m just glad there are three of us in this house – 2 each and no fighting!

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Next week, we’re going to give the croissants a go. Here’s hoping they’re majorly yum.

 

 

 

 

How to make runny mince. It’s delicious – honest!

For all of my formative years, our Saturday evening meal was runny mince with mashed potato and carrots.

It was a working class household in the 1980s (and ’90s), and the carrots were from a tin – and we shared one small tin between four of us. Looking back now I wonder how we had enough to go round! It certainly makes me think when I am dishing up hearty portions for our family now.

Despite its simplicity, I adore this dish and it’s possibly my number one taste of home. I have fond memories of being allowed to take my plate into the living room so that I could watch Beverley Hills 90210 in peace, free to concentrate on the antics of Brandon, Brenda et al while tucking in.

It was also the first meal that my parents taught me to cook. I recall my mum telling me ‘you’ll never starve as long as you know what to do with a bag of spuds and a pound of minced beef’ before I left for university!

Whilst at home recently, it was requested as an evening meal by Mum, so, given that it had fallen out of favour with us a bit, I was delighted to oblige. To accompany it, I put on a pan of potatoes to boil plus carrot batons and some turnip / swede. Peas would also be nice, if you preferred.

As ever when cooking mince, I dry fried it whilst breaking it up into pieces, before draining the fat and then adding a large chopped onion, one stalk of celery (finely chopped). I let the onion and celery soften over a low heat for as long as the softening took.

I then added some lukewarm water to the top of the mince, added a dash of Worcestershire sauce and Bisto powder (made into a paste into a cup) and brought the heat back up gently, stirring frequently, so that it came together. Beware – Bisto powder added to very hot water instantly turns into black tarry lumps.

My mum likes her runny mince really thick, but I refrained from hitting her preferred levels of gloop.

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After draining the potatoes and mashing them hard – lumps are the enemy – with a knob of butter, it was all ready to go. Even though it’s a meal which many people would look at and think ugh, how unappetising, I loved it. It was hearty, tasty and simple, and really nostalgic. And I’m a sucker for nostalgia.

In this wet and miserable January, I’ll certainly be making it again soon.

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The restorative power of Northern Irish vegetable soup

After a prolonged period away from the hob, and, reluctantly, from this blog, I am finally back in action. We have had some tough times, but I have re-donned my apron and am once more capable of brandishing a wooden spoon and feeding our family.

And it seems like perfect timing, as it’s definitely my favourite period of the year for all things culinary. The weather has turned chilly, and we’ve stocked up with root vegetables in preparation for autumn and winter warming meals.

I have already knocked up a pot of my dad’s stew this week and then my mind turned towards one of my favourite tastes of home – vegetable soup. A version of this is made all over NI using one of its homegrown products, about which I have blogged before, a unique fresh vegetable soup mix which is sold in every supermarket.

It’s a combination of very simple ingredients, including carrots, parsley and soup celery and means that a healthy veg soup is a doddle to make.  Making it while living in England is slightly less of a doddle, but still very simple. The main thing you need to remember is to soak your lentils etc overnight.

Even though I cannot find a good English soup lentil mix, our celtic cousins in Scotland have come to the rescue with Great Scot vegetable broth mix. It’s sold in our local Asda in handy little 125g sachets which are the perfect size to make one big pot of soup.

Great Scot vegetable broth mix

Great Scot vegetable broth mix

Each sachet is a perfect mix of pearl barley, yellow and green split peas, marrowfat peas, split lentils and vegetable flakes.

And after it has soaked, all you need to do is rinse it and cook it in a pan for 40 minutes or so with vegetable stock and a hearty portion of chopped carrots, fresh parley, celery and leek.

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As is traditional at home, I like to add a few whole potatoes and a bit of shredded chicken in there too. Hot and steaming with a chunk of buttered bread, it makes for a pretty unbeatable bowlful for lunch or an evening meal.

I am certainly looking forward to replacing sarnies with it for my packed lunch at work tomorrow.

 

 

A rainbow birthday cake for some special friends

There are some people for whom it is worth going the extra mile – definitely the case when two of your oldest schoolfriends are celebrating their birthdays, and you’re going to see them at a reunion weekend.

So, the research began. What cake to make to feed 12 adults whilst also communicating the gratitude for the good friendship of the two leading ladies?

I cannot help the cake magpie in me which means I am drawn to colours and glitter and sprinkles – my favourite childhood cake was plain sponge tray bake, iced white with sprinkles on top, purchased from a fab cafe in Derry called The Acorn. Mum bought me one on our Saturday trips into town and they remain in my head as a ideal bun to have with a cup of tea. Simple yet special.

So I went for colour – and sprinkles. I made four plain sponge layers, dyed each a different colour and then layered them with buttercream. The sponge was so light the crumbs were pulling away and I had a mini fit, but it sat tight in the end.

Add the afore mentioned sprinkles, some glitter writing icing and a rainbow ribbon (for a hint of what lay within) and it was done.

the rainbow birthday cake pre cutting

My happiest moment of its planning, cooking, construction and devouring was when I cut into it with a knife and was able to remove a solid slice of four colours. Relief!

the rainbow birthday cake

Spag Bol à la Dingwall

Spaghetti Bolognese must be a family favourite in every home – we have it regularly! It’s one of the best things to make with the ubiquitous mince in our gaff, and it’s a great way to get veg into a child. I add carrots, red peppers, mushrooms, onions (of course) to ours and then blitz the sauce in the blender before serving to our daughter.

It’s something I was taught to make, not by Dad (who was a fan of using just a jar of a popular sauce), but by my university friend KD. After dry frying the mince, draining the fat and adding garlic and onion as normal, she taught me to add some tomato puree, then some mixed herbs and canned tomatoes.

These days, I am a fancy pants who throws in a swig of marsala or red wine, and I’m in heaven if I have fresh basil. Oh, and I never had money for parmesan in my student days. These days, I grate it liberally all over, the crowning glory of what’s one of the simplest, and tastiest, family suppers around.

So, thanks K! I don’t think I have ever told you how much I appreciated your introduction to a semi-proper spag bol. I promise to make it next time you visit.

Retro steak for a Friday dinner

The other half wanted a ‘nice’ evening meal yesterday. We had steak, mushrooms, onion, and some green veg, so I made some healthy wedges baked in the oven, sprinkled with a little chilli powder, and seasoned and drizzled some oil over the steaks.

Then I thought it would be nice to make a sauce, like a classic Diane, but I couldn’t find the recipe in any of my books. I resorted to memory and a few variations from online, so I put a bit of boiling water in the steak pan to lift the tasty bits from their cooking, added a bit of beef stock, then some dijon, worcestershire sauce and a bit of red wine. I added a few tablespoons of cream at the end and it was lovely. Retro. And fab.

Of course, we drowned our dinners in it, but, by the end, we’d mopped it all up.

Steak in spicy Diane sauce, with mange tout

The dinner was drowned in this ‘spicy Diane’ sauce. It was, of course, mopped up completely