A therapeutic chocolate (with a swirl of peanut butter) banana bread

We’ve had a rough time of late, hence the lack of any cooking action on this blog. Sadly, we lost another baby boy to Hughes Syndrome (APS) and I have been distracted by illness and, of course, the grieving process.

I have been dementedly trying to occupy myself, however, tidying and cleaning and working from home – anything to prevent me from sitting still, thinking about things and failing to cope with the day.

A very welcome distraction came when I spotted this sight on top of the microwave…

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Who could resist turning two blackening bananas and their soft companion into Nigella’s banana bread?

The recipe is one of my favourites – it’s from How to Be A Domestic Goddess – and I always tend to make the chocolate version which she details at the bottom of the page. I don’t bother preparing the sultanas with the rum and it has still never tasted anything less than magnificent.

This time, I needed to use up some Hershey’s swirled peanut butter and chocolate morsels, so in they went instead of the usual dark chocolate. Banana and peanut butter are a good combo, and it proved to be a very successful experiment.

I revelled in the smell of the kitchen as it cooked, and after cooling and cutting some generous slices, I finally dared to take a moment to sit still and enjoy it. Two days later, it’s going strong – and is especially nice with some butter on it, Northern Ireland-style (we love a bit of butter on anything).

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Thank goodness for modern hot cross bun options

All my life, I have had an absolute hatred of mixed peel.

As a result, I don’t enjoy traditional festive favourites such as Christmas pudding, or cake when it has the afore-mentioned peel in it.

I make Nigella’s recipe instead – she’s no fan of MP either, and therefore rises in my estimation yet again! 🙂

It has also meant that I have never eaten Easter favourite the hot cross bun – until recently.

Supermarkets have woken up to the possibility of this bun, and have released different flavours, quite a few of which contain no MP at all. Yippee!

This year, I have mostly been eating two varieties of hot cross bun, Sainsbury’s cranberry and golden raisin option and Marks & Spencer’s toffee fudge and Belgian chocolate version.

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The latter –

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– are particularly moreish. I prefer them lightly toasted (and therefore heated) with some butter.

It’s not the healthiest option, but it is a treat, and we are in the season of chocolate eggs and oodles of marzipan for the Simnel cakes, after all.

Happy Easter everyone!

I add yet another kitchen timer to my collection…

I know, I shouldn’t have – but I couldn’t resist.

Even though I promised myself and my husband that I was not going to buy any more bits and pieces for the kitchen – the countertops and cupboard-tops of our tiny kitchen are already groaning with my tins and pans and jugs and assorted kitchenalia –  I spotted something online and knew that it would be purchased, swiftly, and welcomed into our home.

I have had a long, long obsession with Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. And I love the brand so much that I have kept the tub from every new flavour I have ever eaten. Most of them are in my parents’ home but I have quite an extensive collection round our way, too.

It all started over 5 trips to America, where the flavour combinations are many and varied – and AMAZING. Here in the UK we’re stuck with the same old ones, but at least peanut butter has finally been embraced by the market.

As all fans of the brand will know, they kill off flavours now and again and send them to the ‘flavor graveyard’ so I like that I have a little reminder of them here on earth! Especially when they were weird and wonderful like Concession Obsession, which I bought in Washington DC in 2002 with my friend Tamlyn.

All I have to do is look at that tub, and I’m taken back to our little wander out in search of ice cream one hot summer night.

So when I spotted this…

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on the UK Ben & Jerry’s site, it was a no-brainer.

It’s cute, functional – I love kitchen timers, and use up to four at a time depending on the culinary task at hand – and it has taken up position alongside a few of my current favourites.

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It looks right at home, and was just a few quid – no buyer’s remorse here, that’s for sure!

 

I almost meet my kitchen waterloo peeling quail eggs

I recently had the pleasure of hosting three good friends for lunch. It was the birthday of one of the guests, so I thought a three course spoiling of the person was in order.

I planned everything as usual, and on the day itself, thought that everything was running smoothly. Nigella’s ham in Coca Cola was all done and dusted, the veg were ready, the chocolate pear pud was just waiting for the oven and all that was left to be done was the starter.

My chosen starter, for ease of hosting and service on the day, was smoked salmon with wheaten bread, quail eggs and a rocket salad.

I started to assemble it on the plates, laying out the salad, portioning up the smoked salmon and cutting up a lemon wedge for each person, before finally turning my attention to the removing the shells from the eggs.

Having never previously attempted this task, I had no idea that it would turn out to be a complete nightmare. Despite removing them in a bowl of water, each egg’s shell fragmented into tiny bits and it was almost impossible to get hold of large sections in order to remove it.

Even worse, sections of egg remained firmly stuck to the shell and so I started to lose bottoms, tops and expose yolks all over the place – no good for presentational purposes.

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I ploughed on – there was no getting away from the necessity of the task – hoping that I’d end up with at least a few usable eggs.

FullSizeRender (1)As you can see from the above, I got away with it – just. I halved the best ones and placed them on the salads, and, of course, none of the guests were any the wiser. And in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t such a big deal – presentation mattered for only a few moments before everyone tucked in.

FullSizeRender I consider myself forewarned and forearmed for next time, should I ever use them in this way again!

How to cook two easy family meals – at once!

More about mince in this post – it’s such a staple and we’re one of those families who eat spaghetti bolognese once a week. Ah, what a cliche, but it’s easy and tasty and healthy, especially when you ram it full of veg.

I like to cook things from scratch as much as possible. I am therefore always on the lookout for a shortcut of some kind, albeit one which still results in a proper home-cooked meal, one which we will also be able to tempt the four year-old to eat (part of at least).

And last week I developed a new plan, one I think I’ll be putting into action quite a bit because of its ease and how happy I was with the end result.

Our shopping usually includes a 750g pack of lean minced beef and as I was deciding whether to make bolognese or chilli for dinner with it, I looked at the ingredients and realised I could make both simultaneously, thus taking care of a few evening meals at once.

I split the mince into two pans and turned it on to brown, breaking it up as it began to cook.

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While this was happening, I prepped all of the veg, dicing onions and chopping up carrots, celery, red pepper and some mushrooms for the bolognese. After draining the fat from each pan, into each went some onion, celery and garlic (press out cubes from the freezer) to cook for a while.

The bolognese then came together with tomato puree, basil, mixed herbs, the mushrooms and half of the carrot and red pepper – I like to chuck as much veg as possible in there – while I added the other half of the c and rp to the chilli pan, plus some chilli powder, cinnamon, ground cumin and coriander.

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For each pan, then came the chopped tinned tomatoes,  a can of water (swirled round in the empty tomato tin to get all the good stuff) and, for the chilli, a can of chickpeas.

No kidney beans were harmed in the making of this chilli. I am afraid that I am one of those people who hates them with a passion (oh, the number of times I have had to force them down when I’m a guest somewhere and the food on offer is chilli). I can’t quite explain why, except to mention that they remind me of beetles. Not sure how much sense that makes but whatever the reason, they make me shudder.

Chickpeas? No such problem, so in they went. Both pots cooked for an hour or so before they were perfectly ready.

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We ate the chilli with wraps and rice, and some sour cream on the side, had the spag bol and next night, and leftovers the night after that.

Three of our meals for the week sorted in one semi-industrious session at the stove.

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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I find a genius Fred & Friends (Christmas themed) cupcake case

There are quite a few companies who can be relied upon to consistently produce excellent kitchenalia but, of them all, Fred & Friends is my absolute favourite.

I cannot remember the first item I purchased from the American company’s range but it may have been one of the amazing sets of cookie cutters. Since then, I have accumulated lots of their sets including the fantastic gingerbread men cutters which look as if bites have been taken out of them. They are brilliant for Hallowe’en spooky skeletons with heads, arms or legs missing.

Keen-eyed friends have noticed my penchant for Fred and I have been bought some of what are now my favourite items as birthday presents. Noticing that I had one of the Russian doll range – the wonderful American measures set – one of my best buds bought me the matching kitchen timer.

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She also got me these gems – little teacup cake cases. Each comes with its own plate and they have an amazing impact when you present homemade buns in them.

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I happened upon a new snowman cupcake case last week while browsing in Paperchase, which quite often stocks a lot of F&F products. It was, despite the £14 price tag, a must-purchase for me in December.

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Each is like three cupcakes in one, and in my enthusiasm when first using them, I overfilled the cases.  Ah well, these things happen! The four year-old and I trimmed away the damage (and ate it), drizzled over copious amounts of white icing, added a few currants and boosh, her afternoon was made.

She does love cake, but she was particularly taken with the fun of these. And we even made a chocolate sprinkle snowman.  She didn’t get to taste it, however – her Dad arrived home and, in a nanosecond, it was gone.

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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.

 

 

Food’s off the menu… so comfort’s coming from other sources

For reasons I won’t bore you with at present, I cannot eat properly at the moment.

I cannot cook, either, which is proving very strange. Food is such a key part of our working week and of our weekends together that to be unable to enjoy it is rather tough. It has also caused me to daydream constantly about certain meals I wish I could enjoy, regardless of whether or not that would be possible.

For starters, I have been picturing both my favourite takeaway meal – a chicken burger with coleslaw, chips and chicken gravy from Country Fried Chicken in my NI hometown – and my favourite meal out, The Harbour’s fantastic fillet steak with tobacco onions and bearnaise sauce, a feast I enjoyed recently whilst on holiday at the north coast.

And I have been dreaming of meals of times gone by, my grandmother’s mince pie and my auntie Jean’s melt-in-the-mouth Sunday roast.

Now that the comfort of cooking and eating has, temporarily, been taken away, I have turned instead to books and music to console myself, and sustain me through the unpleasantness.

As far as the latter is concerned, I seek solace in my collection of the film soundtracks of the composer Thomas Newman, particularly The Shawshank Redemption, Little Women, Wall-E, How to Make An American Quilt and American Beauty. How on earth has that man never won an Oscar for his work?

The books I cling to in times of strife are the old favourites, the tomes I re-borrowed and re-borrowed from our local library as a young girl. The LM Montgomery Anne books are sacred to me, particularly Anne of the Island (in which she and Gilbert finally sort out their relationship), as are Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. My favourite of those is again the one in which her romantic future is secured – These Happy Golden Years details her burgeoning relationship with Almanzo Wilder and is also a corker of a tale of her first job as a schoolteacher.

Two of my old favourites

I have already looked them out and positioned them at my side, joined by Robin McKinley’s lovely retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story, simply named Beauty, and Lynne Reid Banks’ My Darling Villain (out of print because of a view its politics had dated).

Days are long at the moment, but I’m armed for the challenges.

 

Consuming Pimm’s on a hot day – as a drink and in a cake

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The weather round these parts has been scorching recently – definitely Pimm’s o’clock. We have also had the usual glut of mint extending en masse from one corner of the garden, the presence of which has been a constant reminder to me to use it in my summer cooking as much as possible.

Of course, mint goes perfectly in Pimm’s, joined by strawberries, cucumber and orange, and I was keen to christen my new jug – which was, incidentally, free at Asda with any purchase of Pimm’s.

But I also remembered cutting out a recipe for Pimm’s cake from a magazine way back when. Luckily enough, I was able to locate said recipe, when though my recipe books have bits of paper pouring out of them – I always seem to fall behind with getting them organised and stuck into their proper sections.

The recipe itself was very simple: a basic loaf tin cake, with 50ml of Pimm’s added, in addition to a handful of chopped mint and the zest of one orange and one lemon.

After it came out of the oven, I drizzled over lemon and orange juice, with a little more Pimm’s too. Now, writing after we have eaten it, i think I might have added a little sugar to this drizzle. There’s always next time.