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Meat Free Monday: Crispy tofu, broccoli, and rice

This meal – crispy tofu, steamed or blanched broccoli, and plain brown rice – is one that brings me right back to my childhood, and in many ways I think it epitomises hippie vegetarian food for a lot of people (although vegetarianism is no longer the preserve of hippies). There’s the tofu, the brown rice, the lightly cooked cruciferous vegetables. This is healthy, wholesome food, plain (but not tasteless) and uncomplicated – I imagine this simplicity is actually what appealed to me as a child. But for all its simple lack of pretension, it has much to please an adult palate.

The quintessential hippie vegetarian triumvirate: tofu, cruciferous vegetables, brown rice. I love it!

The quintessential hippie vegetarian triumvirate: tofu, cruciferous vegetables, brown rice. I love it!

Firstly, the meal offers a contrast of taste: nutty rice, milky tofu and sweet green broccoli. There’s also a satisfying interplay of textures between the grains, slightly firm but silkily yielding vegetables, and the crunchy tofu coating which gives way to the jiggly beancurd beneath. For me this is a standby recipe: I don’t make it every week, by any means, but it’s always there in the back of my mind if I have a pack of tofu sitting in the fridge.

Serve with soy sauce, if wished

Serve with soy sauce, if wished

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The reality of salad

I don’t have very much time to write blog posts, and when I do, I tend to write about my Great British Bake-Off challenge. I love to bake; the challenge is, on the whole, fun; it’s what I do. But there is another reality, and that is, simply, that I am on a diet.

It is not a particularly fun thing to admit to (though it is much more unpleasant to do!). The reasons are primarily aesthetic – I want to feel happy about myself rather than out of control and ashamed, I want to fit into my nice clothes – but I have also been concerned about the way my body carries fat as I enter my late twenties: it’s undeniable that more of my excess weight is being carried around the waist and stomach, and belly fat is the clearest indicator of type 2 diabetes risk. I know people with diabetes and seeing their difficulties managing this very serious disease has made me want to mitigate my risks.

I have been dieting in the most old-fashioned way, simply calorie counting (using Myfitnesspal to keep track). I find it tedious and was very hungry and unhappy in the first week. But as with many things, it’s about adjustment. I can eat more low-sugar muesli than I could eat a muffin for a lower calorie count, so I eat the former. I can eat almost as many leafy vegetables as I want, until I’m full, for a low calorie count. The adjustments are both in the types of food eaten – endive salad instead of potatoes, fruit and veg instead of heavy carbs – and also, simply, in eating less. I’ve cut down my portions, reduced the sweeteners in my tea, and stopped nibbling on biscuits and cake. While it’s still a process, I am gradually learning to balance my calorie load throughout the day. Last week I attended a friend’s birthday party and ate a huge, delicious slice of the Hummgbird Bakery’s divinely moist red velvet cake, slathered in rich, voluptuous cream cheese frosting – and managed to stay within my calorie limit. Best of all, my slice of cake wasn’t associated with the feelings of guilt and greed that consuming sweets previously had for me – I shouldn’t, but I want it, I’ll get fatter, who cares I’m fat anyway, I might as well eat two slices. I felt in control of the process of eating and enjoyment.

Vibrant, colourful salad, perfect for summer - recipe below!

Vibrant, colourful salad, perfect for summer – recipe below!

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Posted by on August 10, 2015 in Lunchtime!, Quick, Recipes

 

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Baking challenge: flaky family pie

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week five (pastry week) of series two: make a hearty family pie with rough puff or flaky pastry; no pastry base.

This savoury pastry dish combines two family favourites: pie and stew. I actually made much of this recipe up, as I got it into my head that I wanted to make an Irish stew pie (not least because I was serving it to friends, one of whom doesn’t eat beef but loves lamb), and none of my cookbooks yielded a recipe. In fact I thought I’d made up the concept completely, but Darina Allen refers to it in her magnificent Irish Traditional Cooking, although she found the recipe in a manuscript cookbook and says that she’s never heard of it in any other place. The recipe Darina offers up is very plain – meat, potatoes, onions – but my version is more colourful with vegetables (including carrots, which seem to be a controversial ingredient in Irish stew), although I think it retains an authentically simple flavour profile: just salt, pepper, parsley – and the parsley needn’t even be flat-leaf if you don’t mind (not that it’s easy to get hold of curly parsley anymore). The pie had substantive gravy (though it was thin – you will need to add thickener of some description if you would like it more gelatinous) and was utterly delicious: hearty, satisfying, quite warming, yet light and wonderful to eat. I thought it was really ideal for early spring, when the body starts hankering for lighter, brighter flavours but actually it’s still pretty cold and you need something that will stick to your ribs.

Irish stew pie

Irish stew pie

The flaky pastry recipe I used was from Delia Smith. I don’t always turn to Delia instinctively but this recipe is absolutely perfect, utterly simple, and explained very well (I find some Delia recipes quite pedantic and prescriptive). I have used this one for a number of years and frankly I think it is unbeatable. People always compliment me on the pastry when I make this version, even though it is very simple to make. The recipe produces light, delicately flaky layers, and many people mistake this flaky pastry for a much more involved puff pastry on account of how crunchy, buttery and multi-layered it is. Indeed the friends who I served the pie to thought it was puff pastry, and both are experienced bakers. I suggest that you tuck up the recipe and use it for all manner of things: rough handheld fruit pies, sausage rolls, apple turnovers.

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Baking challenge: a thousand splendid macarons (or 60, at least)

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week four (biscuits week) of series two: make three flavours of macarons, twenty sandwiched macarons per flavour, for a total of sixty pairs (i.e. 40 shells per flavour, a total of 120 shells).

Macarons. My bete noire.

There was a veritable fashion, some years ago, for food bloggers to write about conquering the mighty mountain of macaron baking. The challenges were epic, the trials and misfortunes of misshapen batches amply documented and the subsequent triumphalist posts, full of tips and tweaks on how to make perfect macarons, were long and technical.

That time – of refined and elegant biscuit, of brutal perfectionism – is now past. Blogging and foodie tastes now run to the simple, the artisanal, the rustic, the thrown together. No less delicious than the delicate refinements of the macaron but also no less stylised and no less of a statement. What it says about the world as it is could be anyone’s guess – does the hankering for the handmade, rough and ready baked goods signify a desire for security and a rejection of the trappings of materialism at a time of global austerity signified by the ornately fussed and primped-over patisserie tray?

Macarons: caramel popcorn, Earl Grey salted caramel, and chocolate and peanut butter

Macarons: caramel popcorn, Earl Grey salted caramel, and chocolate and peanut butter

I’m no social anthropologist. All I know is that I am relatively relaxed about macarons, for the simple reason that I find them very difficult to make. If they bake all the way through and don’t stick stubbornly to the baking sheet, I’m pretty satisfied. My macarons may resemble cottage cheese to some – lumpy and bumpy – but I’m happy to have something more than a scrap of crisp shell and a handful of (almond) dust beneath, to be honest.

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Posted by on August 2, 2015 in Baking, Biscuits and cookies, Recipes

 

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Baking challenge: it was a (brandy) snap

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the technical challenge for week four (biscuits week) of series two: brandy snaps.

So I completed the technical challenge a while ago. What’s a while, you may ask. Well, I made these on Christmas Eve, while watching Skyfall with my boyfriend. Skyfall was amazing, if – as someone living in London – somewhat chilling, especially the chase scenes in the Underground. And yes, I have checked, and it would have been possible for James Bond to make the jump onto the back of that Tube train. If, you know, monumentally risky. Don’t try this at home.

Mary Berry's brandy snaps

Chunkily crocheted brandy snaps

Anyway, baking and rapidly revising one’s estimation of the Bond genre simulataneously is quite the juggle! And these brandy snaps were by no means perfect. The idea was to have twelve perfectly evenly-sized, lacy, delicate biscuits, shaped into loops, around a fatty, contrasting cream filling. Instead, I think my initial dropping mixture was too thick and they were all different sizes and very thick; the fine honeycomb lacing was more like chunky crochet. However, considering my dislike of fiddle and faff – something I am having to rapidly overcome with this baking challenge – I don’t think it was a terrible first effort. Doubtless Mary and Paul would have disagreed and sent me to the bottom of the row. I also think they were a little too dark – but actually I liked that darkness, the depth of caramelly flavour the extra baking time imparted. I can’t say I wouldn’t do it again.

Shaping the brandy snaps - easier than it seems

Shaping the brandy snaps – easier than it seems

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Baking challenge: finally, flavoured biscuits

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the signature challenge for week four (biscuits week) of series two: make 12 biscuits, combining unusual flavours.

I always like it when the baking challenges are for bread as it’s nice to have a savoury option or three. Biscuits are admittedly much more fiddly and not really something I make on a day-to-day basis. In fact, there’s a reason I still haven’t attempted the showstopper part of the biscuit week challenge, macarons: it’s just something quite fiddly which requires patience, focus and diligence – three qualities which I try and apply to my day jobs but I am in increasingly short supply of elsewhere.

So it was a pleasant surprise that the recipe I played around with was actually relatively simple, and despite using some intricate snowflake cutters and several components to sandwich together, it all actually came together relatively easily, even on a day when I was busy with other things. The key is to have your surfaces impeccably clean before starting and to have cleared enough counter space to roll out the biscuits.

Pepparkakor, cranberry sauce and vanilla cookies

Pepparkakor, cranberry sauce and vanilla cookies

The signature bake challenge for this biscuit week was, simply, 12 biscuits. So far so simple – but they had to have an ‘unusual flavour combination’. I made these for a Christmas party which I throw every year (yes, I’m late writing up) so I wanted to use seasonal flavours. I’d made cranberry sauce for the first time in December and started thinking about matching it with spiced gingery biscuits – which naturally led me to pepparkakor, the essential Scandinavian Christmas biscuit. Something else was needed to pull it all together: soft, pudding-like vanilla frosting. And indeed the unusual contrast of crisp, warmly-spiced biscuit, sharp, citrus-laced cranberry sauce and almost bland, creamy icing worked very well together.

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Posted by on March 10, 2015 in Baking, Biscuits and cookies

 

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Baking challenge: the showstopper that left me a basket case

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week three (bread week) of series two: 12 sweet and 12 savoury rolls…served in a bread basket. A BREAD BASKET. I ask you…

For the longest time, I just didn’t do it. I don’t do fiddly food. I don’t ice biscuits, don’t roll fondant, don’t twiddle with decorations. I could say that’s because I’m a generous, hearty, rustic kind of cook – but really it’s because I lack the patient dedication and the skill that go into craftsmanlike work. I have no aptitude for the fine arts. Long story short: I didn’t want to make a bread basket. By which I mean an actual basket, woven out of bread dough, and baked.

But I did it.

But I did it.

Do I weave? Do I ‘eck. Etc etc.

The basket was meant to hold 24 rolls – two types, 12 sweet and 12 savoury. This didn’t actually faze me at all. It was the weaving that put me off for a while. And then I reasoned that the whole idea of setting myself a ‘baking challenge’ was that it should be a…challenge.

And yet, when I actually did it, it was…not easy, exactly, and I won’t claim I’ve done it since, just for fun, but something about making that basket from raw bread dough was logical and came together. Because of the yeast, bread dough properly proven has a bit of a spring to it, so sometimes the rolled-out dough strips bounces back a little, which isn’t the most fun in the world. And, although I had a recipe and instructions in front of me, at one point I had to forget careful and structured overlapping and just went for something that held together. In the end, however, I was rewarded with something I really thought I could never bake and that was beyond my structural abilities. The basket wasn’t picture-perfect but, unlike some of the contestants’ it stood upright and held the bread rolls (although it could only hold one batch at a time).

Bread basket how-to

How to make a bread basket: cover your mould; roll out the dough; lay out your strips. You will get there!

Oh, and the contents? Black Forest ham and cheese rolls from Dan Lepard, which were sturdy and hearty – the kind of warm, filling food which would make a hearty addition to a picnic (it can be cold if you picnic in the first flush of early spring enthusiasm) or a complementary side to cabbage soup. The rye gives them not only heft but a little smokey depth which I like. And for the sweet,┬áBaba a Louis Sticky Buns from Diana Henry’s Roast Figs Sugar Snow, which sadly disappointed me – they were a little too vrunchy and the sugar caramelised hard rather than remaining gooey as promised. It may have been user error – my oven could have been running hot, for example – so I have included the recipe for reference below.

Sweet and savoury

Sweet and savoury – Baba a Louis Sticky buns (L) and Black Forest Ham and Cheese Rolls (R)

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Posted by on March 7, 2015 in Baking, Bread, Recipes

 

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