Saturday, 29 September 2012

Fruit-y lamb with herb-y quinoa

As much as I have whined about missing various Finnish cooking ingredients, this post will be a celebration of something I have been enjoying immensely in the UK. And that, my friends, is affordable lamb. Actually affordable food in general. Every time I go to the grocery store I remind myself of how much cheaper food is in the UK compared to Finland. Back home, food, but particularly meat is crazy expensive. And I know it has only gotten more so in the few years I have been away, so I'm not sure I can ever go back. Also, in the UK the availability of lamb is superior compared to Finland. Several different cuts, sizes and nationalities of lamb. Even organic from time to time. All to reasonable prices. 

I have very mixed feelings about being a carnivore. On one hand, on my current diet plan, there is no way I could get enough proteins from vegetarian food while trying to keep down the calories. And I have some problems with the thought of eating soy, especially as it seems to maybe not be as healthy as has been thought. I don't think getting all your protein from whey powder is a viable option either. This is how I rationalise to myself my carnivorous cravings. At the same time, I'm aware of the horrible way animals are treated, and that is certainly not right either. So while I'm trying to cut down on the amount of meat I'm eating, I'm also acknowledging that I'm being a horrible hypocrite, thinking that basically what I'm doing is wrong but have no intention of changing it. I guess we should all aim, when possible (due to accessibility, economic factors etc) to buy organic meat, or even better, meat from local producers where you can actually go to the farm yourself and see how the animals live their lives. But for now I feel like thats a bit of an utopian thought. 

Well, now that I'm feeling extremely guilty about even thinking of posting this recipe, there is one more point to consider, which should not be important but it is to me. It is just... so... incredibly... tasty! 

This recipe is stolen and slightly modified from Epicurious.

Lamb apricot tagine (serves 4):
300g diced lamb
1tbsp rapeseed oil
black pepper
2-4 cloves garlic
1 onion
ginger root
1-2 tbsp Ras-el-Hanout (I also have used a mix of cinnamon, black pepper, cardamom, cloves, chilli and ground ginger as a replacement)
400g tinned tomatoes
1 chicken stock cube (and 500ml of boiling water)
230g chickpeas
1.25dl (1/2 cup) dried apricots and dried figs
150g quinoa
1/2 veggie stock cube

The howto:
If you are not using tinned chickpeas, prepare the chickpeas according to instructions. While chickpeas are cooking, heat oil in a frying pan, season lamb and brown on all sides, working in batches to keep the pan nice and hot all the time. Let lamb rest in a bowl, and fry onions, garlic and ginger. Add Ras-el-Hanout (or mix of spices) and cook for a minute or two. Add tomatoes and lamb, add stock cube and 500ml of water, let gently boil for at least 90 minutes, more if you have time and patience. When the lamb is almost done cooking, prepare the quinoa according to instructions. Finely chop mint and cilantro, and mix with the quinoa when it's done. 

Stir in chickpeas with the lamb, cook for another 10 minutes. Add the apricots and cook for a few more minutes. Serve with quinoa and sprinkle with finely chopped cilantro.

The verdict:
This is a great recipe, I love the mix of spices. I like to throw in a few cloves, some chilli and cardamom even if I'm using the Ras-el-Hanout to make it really spicy as the flavours will get a bit more smooth during the long cooking time. Also, this leaves the lamb succulent and soft enough to crumble to pieces at just the thought of touching it with a fork. The added sweetness from the apricots (I sometimes also like to throw in dried figs) goes perfectly with the spices, and the herbs, particularly the mint, in the quinoa bring a nice freshness to it all. This is a dish I can't get enough of, and every time lamb is on  special offer, I have to get some just to make this. The long cooking time is a bit of a challenge, as I tend to hover around in the kitchen, tasting the stew while it is cooking, as I just can't wait for it to finish cooking. 

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The cookies that snuck up on me

I just can't help it, I seem to be attracting recipes for all sorts of baked goodies. Take today as an example. I had no plans to bake at all, after all it's Monday, and it's yet again another week when I should avoid any and all goodies. I was heading for an appointment with my physio (the neck is still being a bit of a pain in the... well neck). Being a bit early, as I usually am, I decided to pop into a lovely cafe called Bill's which is conveniently located on the way. I was craving some sort of hot beverage as the weather was once again very UK-ish and miserable. So I got in, ordered a hot chocolate with my barely there voice (I always lose my voice when I'm coming down with the flu) and sat down in one of those deep leather chairs you sink into and never want to get out of. There was a huge bookshelf covering the whole wall, and I was almost getting out of my seat to find a book to browse while I was enjoying my hot chocolate when I discovered there was actually a book on the table in front of me. It had a white and red checkered pattern on the cover that immediately made me think of a cookbook, so I excitedly reached for it. Not only was it indeed a cookbook, it was a cookie cook book called Milk and Cookies by Tina Casaceli. You can have a look at the first few recipes of the book on Amazon if you follow my link. Anyways, my point was, I seem to be attracting cookbooks and recipes even when I'm trying to be good and stay away. And of course this had to be a sign from above, so I had to try one of the recipes in the book. I love my iPhone, it's so handy to always have a camera with you, so I snapped a photo of the recipe for the oatmeal cookie dough. Weirdly enough I got a craving for raisin and oatmeal cookies, not chocolate ones. I'm afraid that lack of chocolate craving might be proof that I'm sick with something really dangerous and incurable.

I'd like to call these self deception cookies, as you could almost imagine that they are a bit healty as there is no chocolate in them. And raisins are basically dried fruit, and fruit is good for you. And oats are practically health food. So I justified to myself that it's perfectly all right to bake these although in theory I'm on a strict diet. Well, let's just say I have once again stretched the limits of diet all the way to the extreme. Almost stretched them as far as I have to stretch the waistband of my trousers to be able to wear them. Next I'm switching to dresses, as there is more room for my wobbly tummy. Denial? Me? Never!

Oatmeal cookies from Milk and Cookies (I halved the original recipe in parenthesis to minimise the damage should I end up eating the whole batch of cookies in one go):
170 (85) g all purpose flour
1 (1/2) tbsp ground cinnamon (I actually replaced this with 1 tsp ground cardamom as I'm not a huge fan om cinnamon)
1 (1/2) tsp baking soda
1/2 (1/4) tsp salt
340 (170) g butter
200 (100) g light brown sugar
100 (50) g caster sugar
2 (1) large eggs
1 (1/2) tbsp pure vanilla extract
260 (130) g rolled oats
80 g (1/2 cup) raisins
45 g (1/4 cup) mixed dried peel

The howto:
Preheat oven to 175 degrees C. Combine flour, cinnamon (or cardamom), baking soda and salt in a bowl. Beat the butter, and slowly add the sugars and beat until light and fluffy (original recipe says about 4 minutes). Add the eggs and beat to incorporate. Beat in the vanilla, and then slowly the mixture or dry ingredients and the oats. Before the dough is completely mixed, pour the dough out on a floured surface, flour your hands and do the final light kneading of the dough by hand as an overmixed dough will produce dry and hard cookies. You only want to have all the ingredients mixed, but don't overwork the dough. Ok, at this point I have a confession to make. I did use the electric whisk to mix the whole dough together. But I only gave it a really quick swirl. In theory I totally appreciate the danger of overworking your dough, but I feel like doing it by hand would risk overworking me as I would have to clean up the tabletop and my gooey dough-y hands. Anyways, you should probably do as the lady says in the book, she has made a business out of selling cookies to people so she should know her stuff. I'm just a lazy amateur baker.

Once you have mixed your dough in one way or another, roll the dough into balls about 4 cm (1.5 inches) in diameter and place on a lined baking sheet. The cookies will flatten out quite a bit during cooking, so don't place them too close together, and a maximum of six per baking sheet. The original recipe should make about two dozen cookies, so the halved one makes about a dozen. Gently flatten each ball with your palm a little. Bake for 15 minutes, or until lightly browed around the edges. The centre of the cookie should be slightly soft to the touch. Cool on a rack. The recipe states that the cookies will keep in room temperature for up to a week. In my kitchen there might be one or two left over for the next day. Maybe. 

Still looking like cookies going into the oven... 
Coming out of the oven not so cookie like anymore...
The verdict:
I'm not a very avid cookie baker. Which most certainly doesn't mean that I'm not a fan of cookies. Quite the opposite, I love a good cookie. People tend to divide into two kinds of cookie people, the hard and crunchy cookie people and the soft and gooey almost cake-y type of cookie people. I'm most certainly one of the latter ones, I want my cookies with a bit of a crunch on the outside, but with a chewy, gooey centre. I also don't like my cookies with chocolate chips. I want them with chocolate chunks. The bigger the better. I might have mentioned Ben's Cookies before, but I have to mention them again. There isn't a more perfect cookie in the world than Ben's cookies. They have huge chocolate chunks in them and they are nice, sweet, buttery and chewy. Best eaten while they are still a bit warm from the oven. My favourites are white chocolate and cranberry and the milk chocolate and orange ones. I'm eternally grateful there are isn't a Ben's around in Cambridge, the closest one is in London. Otherwise I might have already induced death by cookie.

The other day however, I surprised myself with a craving for really hard crunchy cookies. You know the type that you buy from supermarkets, and they have a best before date sometime in the next century. I bought a pack of Marks & Spencers white chocolate all butter cookies and they really hit the spot on that day. That was very weird. And they didn't even have huge chocolate chunks in them, just chocolate chips. And then of course there is the cookie my colleague introduced me to when I first moved to Cambridge: Sainsbury's Taste the Difference White Chocolate and Raspberry cookies. I love love love them. They have the added benefit that if you freeze them, they only need a few minutes to thaw and are perfect to eat almost directly out of the freezer. They used to be my go-to self deception cookies, I bought a whole pack of them, ate one and put the rest in the freezer for "later". Sometimes "later" was later that evening, or maybe the next day. But they were all gone very quickly. So now I just can't buy them at all out of fear of inhaling a whole pack before even realising it. 

So what about these cookies? Well, as you can see from the picture, aesthetically they turned out to be one big disaster. I put all fourteen cookies on one baking sheet and they just all melted into one big cookie-y mess. I went back to my recipe to re-check the amounts of ingredients, but I did get it right. So lesson number one is that you shouldn't even try to get more than six cookies per baking sheet if you want them to stay separate from each other and not form a huge giant cookie-pie. Aesthetics aside, the cookies turned out very good. Extremely crunchy and chewy on the outside, but nice and soft on the inside. And strangely enough, I didn't miss chocolate at all. I love the sweetness of the raisins and orange peel and the oats gave the cookies a great crunch.

One thing I found surprising with the recipe was that the dough was not rested at all. Most cookie recipes require you to rest the dough in the fridge from anything around an hour to several days (see this post on for an in depth discussion on how resting affects the consistency of the cookies). Obviously, there is no way I would ever have the patience to actually rest my cookie dough for days, so I think I will never be able to test how cookies turn out from different doughs. In theory I do understand the need to let the gluten in the dough relax. Also, in a dough that has such a large amount of butter, resting the dough in the cold probably makes a difference. I will certainly use this recipe again, but maybe add just a tad of flour and maybe take down the butter a tad as well. Just for the consistency. But the taste was pretty terrific. Also, you could substitute raisins and peel with pretty much anything you want. Other options I remember from the book was butterscotch, different nuts, sweet or bitter chocolate chips, almonds and Amaretto or Disaronno, orange peel and Grand Marnier. I also want to try candied ginger, I think that would go great with the oats.  

Monday, 24 September 2012

Sweet and fruity pork

It's funny where ideas for recipes come from. Sometimes you stumble upon a recipe online which looks so great that you just go out and buy all ingredients that are needed to make it. Some other time you have things at home you need to use up, and try to think of ways to combine them in a way that won't make a disgusting mess. Other times you run across something you know you really want to use in a recipe but have no idea how but go ahead and buy it anyways because you assume you will think of some way of using it up at some point. Today's recipe is a bit of a combination of all of those. And one more very important element, the financial factor. This is the very detailed (and probably very boring) story of how today's food came to be. And yes, it's another Crockpot recipe. I won't apologise for that anymore, what can I say, I heart my Crockpot. I know it will lose it's appeal at some point, but until then, I'm a Crockpot gal.

It all started a few weeks ago with some sort of fair at Parker's Piece. There was a petting zoo for kids, some local crafts and a huge tent with all sorts of food. Me and Best Friend went to have a nose around, obviously aiming for all the foodie goodies. And you know when you walk among a display of all sorts of food from baked goods to cheese, from meats to alcohol and from candy to all sorts of strange condiments that you won't walk away with all your hard earned money intact. And it's great when there are usually samples available of everything, so you have the chance to try things out ahead of buing. We took our time strolling down the lines of stalls craving pretty much anything they had on sale. We also strolled around having a look at the animals, and made a few new friends.

The most interesting thing I ended up buying was two jars of pachadi, an onion one and a garlic one. They are made by a company called Manjira from West Sussex. Wikipedia tells us that pachadi is "refers to a traditional South Indian side-dish. Broadly translated, it refers to food which has been pounded." On the jar, it says use as a chutney or like a pesto. Stir into pasta or rice. Basically it's an oil based paste with onion or garlic and some other flavouring stuff in it. I used the garlic one for stir frying prawns in, and that turned out delicious. But I wasn't sure what to do with the onion one.
Part two on the journey to get to today's recipe: I was browsing crockpot recipes online and came across this recipe for ribs and pineapple. Basically you just mix mustard and smoked paprika, smear that over the ribs, put the ribs in the slow cooker and put the pineapple on top and cook for eight hours. That was what I was going to cook, the only problem was that I was too lazy to head out to the big supermarket and the smaller grocery store downtown didn't have rack of ribs, so I had to skip the whole rib idea. However, they did have pork loin steaks on sale for half price, and as we are close to the end of the month and I'm trying to budget to make the last pennies go as far as possible, that sounded like a good deal to me. Pork ribs or pork loin, it's all pork anyways. I'm not a great connoisseur of meats, but I have learned that you can throw pretty much any piece of meat in the Crockpot. Slow cooking will make anything taste delicious. I'm pretty sure I could trow in a pair of my old shoes if I get really tight for money, cooking them slowly for eight hours should produce something perfectly edible. Although thankfully I'm not quite broke enough yet to test that idea.

When I came home from the grocery store and was going to start mixing the Dijon and smoked paprika, I thought why not add some of the onion pachadi to the Dijon. And I thought Tandoori curry would go better with the flavours of the pachadi than paprika. And I added a bit of warmth with a pinch of Cayenne. While I was preparing the pork I was snacking on a raisins. After adding the pineapple on top of the pork steaks I thought why not throw in a bit of raisins as well, as I have to use up the whole pack today anyways (otherwise I will just end up eating all the raisins in one go, I think I might have mentioned my raisin addition a few times before as well. I just can't let them be if I have any at home). So that was the long and winding road that gave rise to this particular recipe.

Sweet pork with fruit (serves 6):
1 kg pork loin steaks (6 steaks)
2 tbsp onion Pachadi 
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp Tandoori curry poweder
1/2 tsp Cayenne pepper
432 g tin of pineapple in juice
1/2 cup raisins
1 tbsp cider vinegar

The howto:
Mix the onion with the mustard, curry and Cayenne. Coat the steaks with the paste, and place at the bottom of the Crockpot. Add the pineapple (including the juice), raisins and vinegar. Cook on low for 7-8 hours. Serve with a nice fresh green salad.

The verdict:
To be honest, I'm not a big fan of pork. Or to be more accurate, I wasn't a big fan of pork before the Crockpot. I have cooked pork a few times now, because they have been good value for money buys at the time. And I have liked it every time. The difference between pork and beef is that the fat on pork is easier to remove whereas in beef it's between the muscle fibres so you can't remove it. In case you wanted to that is. I'm still sticking to the bootcamp mantra "Fat doesn't make you fat, sugar makes you fat". Well of course that's fat in moderation, but still.

Fat or no fat (and I do think a thin little strip of that fat makes the meat all the more delicious), this pork turned out perfect. The slow cooking made it amazingly tender and I'm a huge fan of fruit with meat, here I love the sweetness from the pineapple juice. The mustard and onion pachadi gives the dish great flavour but it's subtile enough not to overpower the pineapple. Once again the Crockpot produced a winner. With about two minutes of prepping time, this is another recipe for anyone who is super busy and thinks they don't have time to cook. The only thing that could have been done better is that I think the dish would have been even better with fresh pineapple. Unfortunately I couldn't find any decent looking pineapples in the grocery store today. And I tend to pile on the tinned food, so it's good to try to use it all up every once in a while. I'm pretty sure I would survive a nuclear winter with the amount of food I stockpile in my kitchen. With such a tiny kitchen I should really try to avoid to buy anything beyond the groceries I know I will need that week, but I just can't live without having some basic stuff in my kitchen. But I do feel slightly relieved that I was able to use up the last of my Dijon for this dish, that's one less half filled jar of stuff in my fridge as well as one less tin of pineapple. Now if I could only figure out what to do with the ten packs of chickpeas I have accumulated in the recesses of my food cupboard... I guess next week will be hummus week!

Friday, 21 September 2012

It's still summer

For some reason, I got a flashback to a really annoying Finnish song that is played all through August on all the major radio channels. Every single bloody year. The lyrics go something like "There is still days of summer left, there will still be beautiful days, you can still find a friend, you will still get your chance". I absolutely hate the song, given that for the first 30 years of my life, I had to listen to it about a gazillion times. Ok, not the first 30 years, as it's probably from sometime in the late 90s. Anyways, the point was that it's probably one of the most annoying songs ever, and I can't understand why people keep requesting it. But the other point is that summer is clearly coming to an end. And I decided it bloody well won't end yet! I'm making summer muffins!! I know I have been wearing a jacket in the mornings, and today I was wearing a scarf as well, and it's not too hot to wear boots anymore. But summer can't be gone yet. Today when I went outside, it was almost warm in the sun. If you happened to be standing in a place where there was no wind at all.

Actually one thing I have wanted to bake with for quite a while is the Fazer strawberry chocolate. And by some miracle, a bar of said chocolate has managed to stay alive in my apartment for the last four days since I came back from Finland. However that happened I have no idea, but I decided I have to take the chance and bake with it right now before I mistakenly inhale it. I knew I wanted to bake some sort of muffins. Strawberry chocolate muffins. But clearly the muffins need something else as well. Strawberry chocolate and what? Strawberries of course! Duuh!! But not just any strawberries. Roasted strawberries! And then of course the hard choice of which muffins recipe to choose. Well, actually that wasn't a hard choice at all, as I made some super quick white choc and fudge muffins in the weekend. I really loved the muffin recipe for two reasons. First it's so quick to make, no whisking needed just a quick stir, and the second one is that the creme fraiche brings a nice sourness so that the muffins don't get too sweet even with the super sweet add ins.

Since I liked both the original muffins, which I shamelessly stole from the blog The English Kitchen and my own summer variation, I thought I would post both recipes so you can try them both. By the way, I really love The English Kitchen, it has amazingly good recipes and great pics. Do pop over there for a look. I love the idea that the blogger is a Canadian who moved to the UK and tries out traditional classic British recipes. And takes beautiful photos of the food as well. I think I should start a section of my blog where I make all sorts of Finnish stuff that I would buy ready made if I was back home, but have to learn how to make from scratch now that I'm living in the UK.

White chocolate and fudge muffins from The English Kitchen (makes 12):
300g self raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
a pinch of salt
115g of golden caster sugar
85g of fudge chunks
85g of white chocolate chips
125ml of whole milk
100ml of half fat creme fraiche
1 large free range egg, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
60g of butter, melted

The howto:
Preheat oven to 200 degrees C. Mix all the dry ingredients in one bowl and the milk, creme fraiche, egg, vanilla and melted butter in another. Combine but mix as little as possible. Scoop into silicone muffin moulds and bake for about 20 minutes.

"It's still summer" chocolate and roasted strawberry muffins (makes 6):
For the roasted strawberries:
400g strawberries
1.5 tbsp lemon infused rapeseed oil
1 tbsp pomegranate balsamic
1 tbsp strawberry vinegar
a pinch of salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp vanilla sugar

For the muffins (makes 6):
150g self raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
a pinch of salt
60g light muscovado sugar
100g strawberry chocolate (chocolate with freeze dried strawberry chunks)
60ml of whole milk
50ml of half fat creme fraiche
1/2 large free range egg, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
30g of butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C. Hull the strawberries and chop up into smaller pieces, mix all the ingredients of the strawberry marinade and coat berries in it. Spread out on an oven tray and roast for about 30-40 minutes, or until the strawberries are somwhat desiccated and the juices start to thicken and turn dark at the edges of the tray. Let cool.

Chop up the chocolate, mix it with the dry ingredients. Chop up the strawberries, and mix them with the milk, creme fraiche, egg, vanilla and melted butter. Combine with the dry ingredients, mix as little as possible. Scoop into silicone muffin moulds and bake for 20 minutes.

The verdict:
Like I already mentioned before, I love this recipe because it doesn't require you to get any kitchen equipment like electric whisks or food processors out of the cupboards. Sometimes a girl just needs a quick fix for a sugar craving. This most certainly is it, in less than half an hour from starting you will already have warm muffins on your plate. Or in my case, in my stomach.

Of the two flavour combinations, I have to admit the white choc and fudge was my favourite. Not saying that the strawberry and choc ones were bad, quite the opposite, I ate most of them in one go. And the roasted strawberries were perfect, but the muffins themselves did not turn out quite as good as I splashed a bit too much milk in them so the batter was a bit too runny I think. The great thing with both muffins was that they get really crispy on top, so it's a joy to dig into them. I think the strawberry ones would also have turned out better with white chocolate than milk chocolate. As an added bonus when making the strawberry variety is the amazing smell of roasting strawberries which fills the apartment.


Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Severe pain and quick beer bread

If you have never experienced extreme pain, count yourself lucky. It's absolutely mind-boggling how much pain a human body can create. I had the bad fortune of getting to know severe pain when I had a rather bad bout of back pain a few years ago. In fact it got so bad I actually fainted twice. Once on a bus stop and another time at the pharmacy, picking up painkillers (how's that for irony). For a few weeks, my life consisted of nothing but timers. I had to get up every 20 minutes to walk, as my physio told me I need to keep the back moving. When the timer went off, I got out of bed, which took several minutes, then walked to the kitchen and back. When I got stronger I walked across the kitchen, first once, and then forcing myself to walk across the room twice and three times. The other timer was counting down to when I was allowed to take another dose of painkillers. Sometimes I just stared at that timer, willing it to go faster. Which of course it wouldn't. Nights were a waking nightmare as I couldn't sleep, and it felt like time would pass even slower. I can remember the joy and relief when the pain started to let go, and I was able to go outside for a walk in the park around the corner from where I lived. I walked slower than the old ladies with their walking sticks and bent backs, but I was able to walk outside without fainting. I still feel a bit freaked out when I walk past the bus stop where I fainted. The feeling of helplessness when you realise what's about to happen but you can't do anything about it. I was lucky nothing happened, and two ladies in the store right next to the bus stop helped me lie down on the floor of their store while waiting for a taxi to come and pick me up. 

I was reminded of the whole fainting from pain experience as I've been suffering from a rather sore neck for the last few weeks. Just like the back pain, I have no idea what set it off. I'm extremely lucky that the neck is only sore during the night, during the day when I move around, it's only stiff and uncomfortable. But oh my how it stiffens up during the night. This morning when I woke up and carelessly turned my head while trying to get out of bed the pain just shot right through my head, and I would probably have fainted if I wasn't already lying down. So currently I'm back to staring at the timer counting down to the next dose of painkillers. I was hoping doing some exercise would help, as the pain goes away when I work out, but I realised it comes back worse afterwards. So today I decided to skip my morning bootcamp. Well, it wasn't so much a decision as a realisation that I'm physically incapable of getting out of bed. Instead I had to lie still until the painkillers kicked in. So I thought maybe I should skip pump in the evening as well. So I came straight home from work for the first time in ages, and was faced with the problem what to do. No way I could just go to sleep or park my ever expanding behind on the sofa as that would stiffen up the neck. So I walked off to the grocery store to get some ingredients for baking, one of the few things to do that are guaranteed to make me forget about the pain. Oh, and I have the newest episode of Great British Bakeoff to watch as well. 

Earlier today I was browsing through my pins trying to decide what to bake (yes, of course I was listening during the telecon I was participating in. I can browse recipes and participate in a meeting at the same time. Women are good at multi-tasking!). My worst craving currently is bread. It has certainly surpassed chocolate as the object of my sinful food daydreams. There is one recipe that keeps fascinating me. Beer and cheddar bread. I've wanted to bake it ever since I saw the recipe. I was going to save it for some lazy Saturday or Sunday morning. But I'm miserable and in pain. So I thought, what the hell, why not go for it. Actually, I have pinned two beer bread recipes, one of them was a beer and cheddar bread and the other was a beer and butter bread. In the end I settled on the cheese one. I stumbled upon the recipe on Pinterest, and it's from a blog called Dine&Dish, and I used it with just some minimal modifications. The other beer bread I was considering, from the same blog in fact, is here in case you want to try it out.

Beer and cheddar quickie loaf:
3 cups flour (I used 1 cup whole wheat and 2 cups all purpose)
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
1 cup grated cheddar
1 bottle (0.33 l) beer

The howto:
Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C. Mix all the ingredients apart from the beer. Add the beer to form a sticky dough, put in a loaf pan and grate some cheese on top. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until golden brown and toothpick comes out clean.
The verdict:
The most important thing to start with is a disclaimer. I hate beer. I never drink it. I think it's disgusting and vile and I absolutely cannot understand why anyone would choose to drink it while there is any other drink available. Yet for some strange reason the beer bread recipes caught my attention and I felt like pinning them on my board "Bread, biscuits and scones". I guess the first thing that caught my attention was the beautiful picture of the bread on the blog. I was certain my bread would not turn out nearly as pretty. You know, that's what always happens, you see a great picture of a food, and then your version turns out to look like a mutated blob. But it didn't! It turned out so pretty, probably the prettiest bread I ever made. And it was super quick to make. No proofing, no messing around with yeast, no waiting around. Just give the ingredients a quick swirl with a spoon, and off into the oven it goes. Talk about fast food. 
The bread does have a distinct flavour of beer. But interestingly, I didn't find it bad at all. In fact, the flavours were really nicely balanced. I did use a strong cheddar. I also think blue cheese would go really well with the beer. Next time I will add in some bacon and onion as well, I think those will go perfectly with the beer and cheese. Or maybe just serve this with a slice of bacon. The bread also had the most amazing crisp crust but was nice and soft inside. It is of course not as fluffy as a yeast dough bread would be, but I'm surprised at how nice and light it turned out. I managed to inhale a quarter of the loaf in one go. Well, everyone knows bread is best straight out of the oven, so you got to enjoy it while it's hot. I had to try it again when it cooled down. It's very good cold as well. It still tastes like beer, but in a good way (talking about words I never thought would come out of my mouth). The only problem with the bread is that it didn't seem to cure my neck pain. Have to see if my chocolate and roast strawberry muffins would be more helpful. More about them in my next post. 

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Lake District culinary gems

Lake Windermere from the top of Wansfell Pike
I know it might seem like I've been abducted by aliens or something, but I kind of have a good excuse... I've been away on holiday and just didn't get around to update the blog as I mostly ate out, and after I got back catching up with work has taken pretty much all of my time. Then I had to go back to Finland for work for a few days. Excuses, excuses. I'll try to be better, I promise.

During my holiday, I spent a few days hiking and biking in the Lake District. I got plenty of warning beforehand about the weather. I think it's fair to say that in general the UK isn't exactly the driest place on earth, and apparently the Lake District is the wettest region in all of the UK. So I packed lots of warm and waterproof clothing. In the end, it turned out that we were extremely lucky with the weather as 2.5 of 3 days were totally rain free. Well, the remaining half day was a thunderstorm with heavy rain, so I guess we got our rain quota filled nonetheless.

I love sheep! And they were everywhere. I had a huge grin on my face for most of the
holiday, as I was so happy about seeing sheep everywhere. And the beautiful stone
walls, another thing that just screams British countryside. They make the landscape
so unique and beautiful. I can't even imagine the work that has gone into building them.
Anyways, my intention was not to go on about the UK weather, although of course you know how much the Brits love to talk about it. Much more interesting, I want to mention a few amazing food experiences that I happened upon more or less by accident during the all too short a holiday.

Let's start with the drive up to the Lakes. We stopped for lunch in Harrogate, a small and super idyllic town about halfway through the 4.5 hour drive from Cambridge to Windermere. The original reason to stop in Harrogate was that I would have loved to lunch at Betty's. You might remember me and Best Friend had afternoon tea there a few months ago. However it turned out that despite it being Tuesday and midday, the queue to get in to Betty's was so long that we quickly gave up on the idea as we would probably not have gotten a table until dinnertime. We did however get us a Fat Rascal from the bakery shop for later. I'm not exactly sure how to classify this huge bun type of thing, I would say it's basically a huge scone filled with dried fruit goodies. Anyways, another thumbs up for Betty's, the displays in the bakery shop were full of delicious looking breads, cakes and scones that I would love to sample. The service was super friendly as well. And the Fat Rascal, which was enjoyed later that night with hot chocolate, was delicious and sweet and crumbly.

I hadn't done much research on places to eat beforehand, so we picked our eateries by chance, based pretty much on the look of the place and the menus. And we did run into a few gems. The first one was a pub in a tiny village called Troutbeck we hiked through on our way to cross Wansfell pike. Good thing the pub, called The Mortal Man, was great, as it was the only one in the village. The menu was large enough to be variable and included the obligatory soup of the day, pie of the day, a sausage of the week and a large selection of sandwiches. I had a salmon and cream cheese on dark bread, and my hiking companion had the special of the day, a roast beef sandwich which enough meat to satisfy even the most dedicated carnivore. The sandwiches were absolutely wonderful, although I guess my judgement was slightly clouded by being crazy hungry after getting fresh air poisoning by hiking all morning in the sunshine. I have made no secret of my disdain of British bread, I think it's pretty much impossible to find good bread in this country, but I have to say the thick slices of brown bread in my sandwich were really delicious. I should have asked if it was local produce. As good as the sandwiches were, there was another gem in our simple lunch. The chips. They were the most golden brown and crunchy chips I have ever come across. They were probably deep fried multiple times, and contained more fat than you should have in a month. But oh mine, how good they were. So if you ever happen to have your way around Troutbeck, don't miss out on the chips in the Mortal Man.

Being the only pub in the village, they really needn't try so hard...
The second restaurant worth mentioning was the Village Inn in Bowness-on-Windermere. We walked in without a reservation on a Wednesday night around dinnertime, and the place was packed. However, we managed to find a cosy table for two in the back corner. The restaurant was very atmospheric and the decor was great including large fake antique mirrors with metallic frames, red and white walls, a low wood beamed ceiling and buddha statues, not to mention the huge wooden tables and wicker chairs. We were first told to order at the bar, but a waiter did appear and took our order. I was delighted to find mussels on the menu, and of course had to order them, with a side of garlic bread. My friend ordered a T-bone steak, which turned out to be huge and served with loads of sides including tomatoes, onion rings, chips, mushrooms and a pepper sauce. The food was absolutely divine. The mussels were perfectly cooked and the broth was deliciously flavoured with white wine, onion, garlic and herbs. I was in seventh heaven, and so was my friend whose eyes lit up at the sight of the oversized chunk of meat. And the mushrooms served as a side with the steak also got a rave review, they were very unusually flavoured with what I would have said was a smoky, BBQ-y aroma and lemon. Very unusual combination, but it worked really good and was oone of many details that definitely made us decide to come back if we are around those hoods again. I also had a cocktail called Death by chocolate, which indeed was delicious and richly chocolate-y. The only complaint we had was that the service was excruciatingly slow, and we never got the bill despite trying to catch the attention of the waiters seval times. In the end, we actually had to go up to the bar to ask for the bill, which I found very disappointing after the wonderful meal. Afterwards, I have browsed restaurant reviews for the Village Inn on Tripadvisor, and turns out this seems to be a common complaint, so don't expect to go there for a quick meal. However, the restaurant has a very wide variety of reviews, and I can't understand how some people have deemed the food vile and horrible. The food was definitely top notch!

Possibly the largest steak ever seen on this side
of the Atlantic. The T-bone at the Village Inn.
The second eatery worth mentioning was Heidi's Grasmere Cafe where we had lunch on our last day. Again, we just randomly picked a restaurant in Grasmere and ended up finding a gem. We were extremely lucky as the restaurant was very busy, but there was a table for two free right as we walked in. The restaurant was very quirkily decorated with paintings of cartoon cows, and lots of cute little things all around. The menu was variable but not too big. As soon as I saw they were serving barbecue ribs, I knew that was what I had to have, although we were supposed to just have a light lunch. My friend had the Cumberland sausage with mashed potato, a huge Yorkshire pudding and gravy. The food was absolutely amazing, I can't stop raving about my ribs. They we're cooked to perfection, so that the meat just fell off the bone and covered in a tasty BBQ sauce. The servings were certainly big enough, as neither of us could finish ours. The service was also very friendly, and I think the fact that the place was constantly full says a lot. Again, I was surprised when I had a look at trip advisor reviews as they ranged from excellent to terrible. I think some of the reviewers might not have visited the same place as we did. At least I know I will definitely be going back.

Then on to the sweets. Just to leave the best for last, let's start with Kendal mint cakes. Or as someone so eloquently put it, sugar covered with sugar. Obviously, the combination of mint and chocolate is a classic, and oh so great. According to Wikipedia, the source of all wisdom in the world, it is a popular energy source with mountain climbers. I'm not sure I would like to be halfway up a mountain when the sugar high from this baby kicks in, but maybe iyou should give it a go if you like to live dangerously. Basically the mint cake is a slab of mint flavoured glucose (i.e. sugar), covered in dark chocolate. This is an absolute classic that you just have to sample if you visit the Lake District. Well, if you don't have a freakishly hight tolerance for sugar like me, maybe you should stay away. However, the strong mint taste actually makes it seem less sweet than it is. At least that's what I think. Best Friend agrees with me, but maybe I should get the opinion of someone with a normal sugar tolerance.
The second place I absolutely loved, was the chocolatier in Ambleside. It's called Old Bank House Chocolates because the shop is located in the old bank house (how surprising), but the company is actually called Hutton's. I almost ran past the place (I don't know how that is possible, but I was chasing a bus, busy to get back to the B&B after a full day's hike up Wanfell pike). Anyways, the main point was that luckily I ended up inside the chocolate shop (and this was only the first time out of two visits during a three day holiday. Yes, as I have said so many times before, I have a problem, and I'm aware of it). The shop was filled with all sorts of wonderful chocolate goodies, including chocolate shoes, chocolate footballs, handmade chocolate pralines and giant slabs of chocolate. The most amazing thing to me however was the truffel logs. Big compact logs of the sweetest truffle in so many flavours, and covered in a thick coating of chocolate. There were so many flavours to choose from. Rum, champagne and white chocolate, Cointreau, Cognac and Irish Cream, probably more than that but I think my brain went into a bit of overload when I saw all the truffles so my memory of the place is a bit hazy. The truffle logs seemed to be for sale in several places, I also stumbled upon them in a chocolate shop in Keswick, so probably you will be able to get some even if you don't happen to be around Ambleside. Another thing I had never seen before was the honeycomb toffee, a chewy and crunchy type of toffee. The  toffee is made with baking soda and an acid such as vinegar which together form carbon dioxide which get trapped in the sugar liquid, and form holes giving the toffee it's unique structure. The toffee I got was further dipped in milk chocolate to form a thick coating, adding to the sugary decadence. I really liked the toffee, it was crunchy and not sticky at all.

Above: the honeycomb toffee
Below: Bailey's truffle log, both from Old Bank House Chocolates

And then to the grand finale, the pièce de résistance. We were supposed to stop by this particular little gem on our way from Windermere to Keswick, but we were too late as it had already closed and I thought that was it, end of story. However, on our way back home, I thought we were in a hurry to hit the road and get on home, but instead the car took a turn to Grasmere. And in retrospect, I'm eternally grateful to my culinary consultant for making the choice of stopping by Grasmere, and particularly The Grasmere Gingerbread Shop. I had read about them in travel guides, but thought "Oh well, it's gingerbread, how exciting can it be". In general I'm a fan of the extremely thin, call it Nordic (you know Anna's pepparkakor? The ones you can buy at IKEA) type of gingerbread which has a lot of other spices as well, and not so much ginger, and only dried ginger, not the chunky, preserved kind. But now I have seen the light. If you are anywhere in the Lake District, it's worth it to drive to Grasmere just because of the gingerbread. I kid you not. It's hands down the best gingerbread I have ever had. It's crumbly and crunchy and sweet in a strange, not-too-sweet way, and above all, it's gingery. But not in an overpowering way, just in a perfect blend of ginger and other spices. The consistency is crunchy and chewy at the same time, although you better eat them quickly as they get pretty hard after a few days. I was trying to see how they would keep in the freezer but they never got around to being there very long as I ate my two packs in just a few days. But the Gingerbread shop doesn't only sell gingerbread. It also sells rum butter. And I'm a sucker for any spread, be it marshmallow fluff, nutella, nut butter (except for peanut butter, that stuff is vile), lemon curd or jam. I can't resist a jar of any sort of gooey spread, I just have to eat it all in one go, often just the spread itself with a spoon straight out of the jar. The rum butter was no exception. It was ridiculously good. Super sweet, with a nice strong rummy flavour. And it was perfect on the gingerbread. It would also have been perfect on ice cream, or in a cake or possibly on muffins. Now that I think of it, some nice saffron and ginger muffins with a rum butter topping... wait, have to wipe off the drool. So actually, I showed great restraint in not eating the whole rum butter in one go, but only ate half at first and then the second half the next day. Incidentally, did I mention that I put on a stone and a half during the summer. Working hard to shed all that now, but let's just say it's not a mystery how that all happened. The scary thing is, that the Gingerbread Shop has an online store, and I'm afraid some day when I'm having a weak moment, I will hit the online store, and pile up on gingerbread and rum butter. Have to stay strong. Have to! Is there some way of blocking certain web sites on your browser so that you can't look at them? That might be the only solution to this particular problem. But I have promised myself, if I ever re-visit the Lake District, I won't settle for the small packs of gingerbread (which I stupidly did this time). I will most certainly get the large ones!

Well, I guess that concludes tonight's long ramble about things to eat in the Lake District. Somewhat heavy on the sweet stuff, but then again, if you were surprised by that, maybe you haven't followed my blog for very long!

Too bad the pub was out of Unicorn ale, so we didn't get a taste. Although,
 I'm convinced it would have been just as vile as any other beer. I
f you couldn't guess, I'm not much of a beer drinker...

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Awesome but ugly Crockpot chicken

I love my Crockpot. I know I've only had it for a few weeks, and it seems a bit extreme to be in love after a few weeks. But like I said before, when you know you just know. There has been so much going on in my life lately, and finding time for cooking has been really tough. And as usual, I'm on a serious mission to shed the blubber I managed to accumulate during my summer holiday binge, so I really need proper, healthy food. And the Crockpot can do that for me. In the evening, I load it up with veggies and meat, and in the morning I wake up to a Crockpot full of dinner. Or lunch. Well, healthy, proper, good food anyways. The only problem is, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night to the drool-inducing scent of cooking meat. And I just want to grab a spoon and dig in. So far I have been able to resist, but I'm sure one of these nights I will sleep-eat. You know, kind of like sleep walking, but eating instead of walking. Oh, how I wish I could sleep-burpee. That would be great, being able to exercise in your sleep, and then have it all over and done with in the morning. Well, sometimes when I wake up before six am for bootcamp, and head out to the park for a 6.15 am start, I almost feel like exercising in my sleep. Of course, after being made to run for several minutes with a tyre on my back, I don't feel quite like I'm asleep anymore.

Well, enough about working out and back to the more interesting things. I just got home from the gym, and had the first taste of the Crockpot chicken I cooked recently. And I just had to write a post on it immediately. The best thing about this recipe is that it's absolutely failsafe. Even if you never cooked anything in your entire life, there is no way you can fail with the Crockpot. Meat, veg and some fluids, whichever you prefer. Give it a good eight hours, and it's done. Kinda like magic. There is just one downside with Crockpot food... it looks terrible. It tastes great, it's easy and convenient, but it most certainly doesn't make the most appetising photos. Sorry about that. But trust me, beauty is only skin deep!

Crockpot chicken (serves 4):
1 small chicken (mine was 1.3 kg)
6 parsnips
2 onions
1 glass white wine
1 chicken stock pot
1-2 tbsp mustard
1 tbsp black pepper
big bunch of thyme

The howto:
Put the chicken at the bottom of the Crockpot, and top with thyme. Peel parsnips, and chop them in half. Place on top of the chicken. Slice the onions thickly and place on top. Mix the white wine with the stock pot, mustard, pepper and pour over. Add some water if you feel like you want more liquid in the pot. Cook for eight hours on low.
The verdict:
There is no easier way to cook. It takes five minutes or so to set everything up, and then you can go on with your life for the next eight hours. The chicken cooks until it literally falls off the bone. I had problems getting it out of the cooker, it just kept disintegrating. I guess some people would prefer to take the skin (or at least the majority of it) off before cooking to make it more healthy. But keeping the skin on gives a wonderful, albeit quite fatty, broth. If you feel like being a bit fancy, you could strain the broth, and maybe cook it with a bit of cornflour to make it thicken into a proper sauce, the juices from the chicken with the thyme and mustard make a wonderful sauce. I couldn't be bothered to actually do all of that, so I just used the juices from the bottom of the crockpot and poured them over the meat. Oh and the parsnips, did I already mention the parsnips? They seem to be perfect for cooking in the Crockpot. They don't go all soft and too mushy like many other veg I have tried, but they came out perfect. Perfectly cooked, but not too soft. And wonderfully flavoured from the broth and the chicken juices. This is definitely my new favourite way of having chicken. And I'm pretty sure you can do the same in the oven if you don't have a slow cooker, just make sure you have a good tight fitting lid and make sure there is liquid in the pan at all times and cook in low temperature until the chicken is super tender. Although, I wouldn't leave it in over night. Which is why I lovelovelovelovelove my Crockpot.