Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

I know, I know. It’s Saturday. Apparently my ability to keep accurately to resolutions like ‘I will blog on Wednesdays’ is flawed. But there you go. In fact, I had the food in this post made up ages ago but then I was in London on Wednesday for an interview so I couldn’t get it written in amongst all the travelling. So I’m doing it today instead. I’m being indulgent and blogging from my bed too. (Is there anything quite as indulgent as working from bed? I think not – in terms of the places to work I mean. There are many other indulgent things I would rather be doing in bed.)

_DSC1713

I love lazy Saturday mornings when I can get up, make a coffee and return to my bed while I wait for my flat to warm up and to be lightning-bolted with a flash of energy so that I can continue rewriting my thesis draft. I’m still busy with the Foucault chapter. It’s a long one and it frames the thesis so I am stretching my brain to understanding this week. So far I’ve written about discourse – how discourse produces knowledge and how some discourses are taken up, incorporated into everyday life, and accepted as truths. For Foucault, discourse didn’t just mean language though – it wasn’t just about what we say. He talked about discursive practices rather than discourse. This is because he wasn’t simply interested in the things said, he was interested in the social, material and symbolic conditions that allow certain things to be said at any one time, and for those things to be taken up and become true. This knowledge about life and living, about how we should be, becomes incorporated into everyday life through technologies of power and techniques of the self (more on that next week).

_DSC1712

So that’s Foucault for today, and the next few days. The chapter goes on to apply this analysis to the discourses of obesity and nutrition that currently produce (through the media, institutions, public awareness campaigns) people as healthy subjects and self-disciplining citizens. I knew y’ll wanted to know about it in vague detail. I mean, what is Saturday morning without a little Foucault?

But now I will tell you about this dinner instead, without analysing it, I promise. I haven’t made anything really savoury (and non-pastry related) in a very long time (for this blog I mean. I don’t eat only baked goods daily.) I always thought I would incorporate elements of what I was actually eating normally onto the blog but somehow, cake almost always wins on this site. When I was planning out the month of blogging Wednesdays, this Wednesday was supposed to be treacle tart. But then I had a craving for meatballs and I decided I could throw in a savoury/dinner post just to mix things up a little. And this is that.

There isn’t really a recipe as such for these meatballs. I mean there is a recipe, mostly for proportions, but it is infinitely adaptable and changeable. I like that kind of flexibility when I’m making dinner. My mom always used to make meatballs and when she was here at Christmas she taught me her chicken stuffing recipe. Somehow, I think due to the breadcrumbs, this made me think of the meatballs she made and then I started to crave them. So I made them for dinner a few weeks ago. They’re super easy, you can make them in advance and then reheat them to serve, and they freeze well.

Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
For the meatballs:
500g beef mince
4 pork sausages
1/2 an onion
generous bunch of flat-leaf parsley
1 egg
2 slices of bread, blitzed into breadcrumbs

For the tomato sauce:
1/2 an onion
2 cloves garlic
1 large carrot
1/2 red pepper
1/2 yellow pepper
500g cherry tomatoes
1 tin tomatoes
flat-leaf parsley

Begin with the meatballs as these need some refrigeration time.
Place the beef mince in a large bowl. Squeeze the sausage meat out of their casings and into the bowl. Discard the casings.
Finely dice the onion and roughly chop the flat-leaf parsley, including the stalks. Add these to the bowl.
Add in the egg and the breadcrumbs.

_DSC1698

Using your hands, mix everything together. I’ve read that the more you mix, the smoother your meatballs will be and they’ll hold together better, so smush everything together until it is wonderfully incorporated.

_DSC1701

Divide the meat mixture into 15 portions. Roll these into balls and flatten them onto a baking tray that has been lined with baking paper. Cover the tray with clingfilm and refrigerate for an hour.

_DSC1702

While the meatballs are chilling, make the sauce.

Dice the onion, carrot and peppers into equally-sized pieces. Finely chop the garlic. Halve the cherry tomatoes and roughly chop the parsley, including the stalks.

_DSC1709

In a large heavy-bottomed pot, sweat the onions, carrots and peppers in a generous glug of olive oil. Once the onions are translucent, add in the garlic. Continue cooking but reduce the heat slightly.

_DSC1710

Once this veg is soft, add in the cherry tomatoes and the tin of tomatoes. Fill the tin up with water and add this in too. Bring the sauce to the boil and then reduce the heat so that it simmers lazily. I like to cook the sauce for at least two hours, stirring it occasionally.

_DSC1714

_DSC1717

About 45 minutes before you want to eat, or after about an hour of the sauce reducing, cook the meatballs. There are more meatballs than you’ll need for the sauce so I usually cook 8 meatballs in the sauce and freeze the other 7, uncooked, for later.

Heat some oil in a frying pan and fry the meatballs in batches, so they aren’t too crowded in the pan. You want them nice and caramelised but not black, obviously. Turn them over when they’ve reached a good colour. Once they’re brown on both sides, place them into the sauce.

_DSC1723

Cook the meatballs in the sauce for about half an hour to 45 minutes. You want them cooked through and the sauce reduced but you don’t necessarily want them to fall completely apart. Serve with some salad or pasta or just as they are, with some good baguette.

_DSC1727

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ah. The chocolate chip cookie. Has anyone else been on a quest for the ultimate chocolate chip cookie? I have, and I began to wonder what that means about me, as a subject and citizen in a world where thinness is the highest form of being. I thought, for fun, (and to stretch my brain a little), I could try and understand this quest for the ultimate chocolate chip cookie using Foucault.

_DSC1695

Foucault was concerned with subject formation – how we become self-disciplining citizens – and so, to a certain extent, the quest for the ultimate chocolate chip cookie is a form of resistance to current debates within food and nutrition discourses that are focussed on eating for health purposes. Subjects are constructed through the relations of knowledge and power. Knowledge of food and nutrition currently suggests that we eat for health purposes, so as to avoid getting fat. Such knowledge promotes the consumption of fruit and vegetables, whole-grains and lean proteins. If we eat such foods, we will remain healthy, and ultimately, not become a burden on our societies or government funds. Populations are taught what to eat through public awareness campaigns, schooling and labelling. Therefore, what we chose to eat is, to a certain extent, constructed by society.

There is a long history in Western societies of food and pleasure and the need to quell any pleasurable associations of food and eating. By disassociating food and pleasure and linking food to health, we, as subjects, are required to construct ourselves with concern for the ‘proper’ way of eating – that is, to limit consumption of certain foods, maintain a ‘healthy’ weight, and ultimately, to not become a burden on society. This can be seen through popular TV shows that shame fat people and encourage them to be thinner, campaigns in schools that measure BMIs, and growing concern that we are not eating enough ‘fresh’ foods, made from scratch, around the table.

Those of us who promote the consumption of butter and sugar are engaging with a discourse of pleasure – that food and eating should be pleasurable, it should give you joy. Such an idea is a form of resistance to the healthy foods, health weight ideas described above – to such discourses, food is not about pleasure, it is about health. Through the production and consumption of the chocolate chip cookie we are engaging in a form of resistance to the formation of ourselves as healthy subjects. We are (possibly) also introducing the idea that food need not be about health, that it can be about pleasure, enjoyment, memory, conviviality and taste too. The quest for the ultimate chocolate chip cookie is therefore also a quest to stretch the boundaries of acceptable food behaviours…

The chocolate chip cookie is said to have been invented by Ruth Wakefield, who ran the Toll House restaurant in Massachusetts, in the 1930s. In 1939, Nestle purchased the rights to the cookie from Ruth as well as the Toll House name and so, the Toll House chocolate chip cookie was born. You could say the world has never been the same since…

In an article in The New York Times, David Leite ponders the debates that surround the perfect cookie. The first is at what temperature the cookie should be served. This may seem slightly bizarre – surely the cookie is served when it has cooled? But actually, the best cookies are served still slightly warm from the oven. Pastry shops and bakeries have various techniques to achieve this warmth. It is also hugely important, in chocolate chip cookie discourse, to have a soft centre but a crispy edge. This is achieved through scrupulous baking times – both in the oven and cooling on the trays. The third important step in achieving the perfect cookie is to chill the dough. This is particularly important with these cookies, as you will brown all the butter and so to even roll the dough into portions, chilling time is necessary. Finally, you want the cookies perfectly golden brown, almost perfectly rounded and the chocolate needs to be slightly melted when you eat it. Achieving all of this in a single cookie is a big ask. But the pleasure that is gained is pure happiness so it’s worth the effort.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from The Little Loaf Blog
190g unsalted butter
120g golden caster sugar
100g soft brown sugar
80g dark brown sugar
1 egg plus 1 yolk
225g rice flour or buckwheat flour or a combination of both
1 tsp baking soda
pinch of salt
100g each of dark, milk and white chocolate chips

First of all brown the butter. All of it, in a saucepan on the stove. This takes up to twenty minutes and basically entails melting the butter over a medium heat and then cooking it (it will bubble and splutter quite violently at various points) until it turns brown and begins to smell nutty. Watch it carefully here – you want it a dark-ish golden brown but not black (which will mean it is burnt and you have to start over.)

Set the butter aside to cool for about 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, mix together the three sugars, breaking up any lumps. Pour the slightly cooled butter onto the sugar and mix until smooth.

_DSC1643

_DSC1646

Then add in the egg and yolk, followed by the flour, baking soda and pinch of salt.

_DSC1647

_DSC1649

Roughly chop the three different chocolates. Use any combination up to 300g-worth. Add this into the batter/dough.

_DSC1652

Mix everything until the chocolate is well-combined into the dough.

_DSC1659

Now you have to exercise some self-control and chill the dough for 24 hours at least – I usually just clingfilm the bowl and store it on a shelf in my fridge. This resting time allows the butter and egg to be absorbed into the flour and ultimately will give you a better cookie.

Once the 24 hours are up, roll the dough into balls – I use a teaspoon to extract the dough. I normally roll all the dough (it makes approximately 30-40 balls, depending on size) and then freeze the ones that I don’t want to bake immediately. This way you always have emergency cookie dough. Because who doesn’t need emergency cookie dough right?!

_DSC1682

Place the ones you want to bake on a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 170C. Once the oven is hot enough, bake them for 10 minutes. Turn the tray around and bake for a further 2 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow the cookies to cool on the tray for 2 minutes. Then slide them off the baking sheet and allow them to cool slightly before devouring en masse.

_DSC1690

Enjoy with the knowledge that eating the chocolate chip cookie is a form of resistance…

Pear and Blue Cheese Tart

I had a meeting with my supervisor on Monday. It is a strange thing, the supervisor-supervisee relationship. I have not written about it much here but I thought, now that I am nearly at the end (the beginning of the end as it were), I would start to do so. Monday’s meeting got me thinking about the PhD-supervisor relationship and how it changes over the course of a PhD. I am not the person I was three and a bit years ago when this journey began. I have done the research. Read the literature. And now I am busy putting my thoughts (and to a certain extent myself) on display for critique for the first time. I am learning to defend my work. And I am learning to absorb criticism. Monday’s meeting was the first face-to-face discussion following my supervisor’s comments on my draft…

_DSC1733

To a certain extent, every meeting feels like a performance. I embody my PhD-self, competent and informed, ready to answer questions, discuss issues and ultimately defend my work. I regard the relationship as a fairly formal one, as a student seeking advice from a more knowledgeable sage. But our relationship is also fairly informal – after we have discussed my work and progress, we often talk about current affairs in the world of food, education, obesity and health studies. My supervisor often sends me emails with links to articles, posters, tea towels – some are related directly to my work and others are merely for interest. I appreciate the ones for interest as much as the ones for work. We get on quite well, I think, but this meeting was our first one after she had read my thesis, provided very specific feedback (read: tore my thesis apart, chapter by chapter) and I was nervous. What if she had decided I was (what all PhD’s ultimately fear) completely inadequate and not actually suited for academic life? (After I first read through the comments, I had a proper crisis of self that questioned this very thing. Fortunately I then got over that and resigned myself to the long slog towards the finish line. And to be fair, she had warned me not to ‘throw myself over a bridge’ after reading.) But, as she explained, being a ‘mean’ supervisor, and tearing my draft apart is part of the process of a) writing a thesis and b) ultimately becoming an academic. You have to get used to (and build yourself up against) critiques from all sides. And, as we discussed, it is much much much worse if such a thing happens in the viva. So, at some point in our relationship, she had to embody the ‘mean’ supervisor.

_DSC1681

By many accounts, I am lucky. My supervisor has been supportive, championing my data, providing guidance and where necessary, criticism. This is not the case for all PhDs – as has been written about here - and I know of several other PhDs who are regularly reduced to tears by their supervisors. I’m not sure how you cope with the stress of a PhD if you don’t have good supervisory support. It is a strange relationship, but a hugely important one. I’m fairly sure there is a course you can take called ‘Managing Your Supervisor’ – I have not yet had to resort to such help but I think sometimes supervisors do need managing – when you have to remind them that it is your research and that you are the expert. This is not an easy thing to do when they are experts in their own fields (probably a larger part of your own). On Monday, we discussed (and have now agreed via email) a timetable to the completion of all these corrections (three months!) and the overarching arguments and flow of my thesis. Most importantly, I left the supervision feeling re-energised about finishing. I am no longer petrified about the quality of my work. Yes, it needs to be improved, but it seems more like an achievable goal than an insurmountable task, following the meeting.

So I came home and got organised. I wrote out the projected timetable and started to do some reading. I am returning first to Foucault, to fix the chapter that frames the thesis, and then to the policy chapter. So, you will forgive me if I start to talk about healthy subjects, nutrition discourses and how we come to know what is good to eat over the next few weeks. Foucault and I are spending some more time together right away.

And so, to compensate for this return to some thinking work, and because my New Years resolution was to blog every Wednesday, I made this tart! I have labelled it a tart because the filling is partly on top of the egg-custard and partly encased by it so I’m not really sure it is a quiche; to be fair, I’m not really sure I understand the difference between quiches and tarts. Can tarts only be sweet? Quiches savoury? Tart sounds so much more daring than quiche. This tart is daring. It is bold. Creamy. Rich. The harsh blue cheese notes are rounded out by the sweetness of the pears. I made it over Christmas and have not stopped thinking about it since so I thought I would share it with you here. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Foucault is waiting.

Pear and Blue Cheese Tart.

For the pastry (makes enough for two tart cases):

250g plain flour

125g unsalted butter, cold, diced

approximately 100ml cold water

pinch of salt

For the filling:

1/3 cup double cream

1/2 cup milk

2 eggs

2 small rocha pears, finely sliced

150g blue cheese (I used a combination of Stilton and Bleu D’Auvergne)

In a large bowl, place the flour, salt and the diced butter. Rub this together with your fingers until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.

_DSC1684

Add in the cold water, a little at a time, until you can combine all the flour to form a sticky dough.

_DSC1686

Knead this on a lightly floured work surface until the dough is as smooth as a baby’s bottom.

_DSC1687

Divide the dough in half, shape these into two balls, flatten them, wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for at least an hour. You will only need one ball, so you can freeze the other for later use. While you are waiting, whisk together the double cream, milk and eggs until smooth. Set aside.

Remove the dough from the fridge and lightly flour a work surface. Roll out the dough until it is about 1/2cm thick.

_DSC1704

Line a pie dish, leaving some of the dough to overhang the sides. (Trim excessive overhang like that pictured below.)

_DSC1705

_DSC1706

Refrigerate again for an hour. Preheat the oven to 180C. Line the pastry case with some baking paper and baking beans or rice. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the rice/beans and paper and return to the oven for 5 minutes, until the pastry is dry.

_DSC1724

Crumble the blue cheese onto the pastry case. Then fill the case with the custard mixture. It’ll fill about 3/4 of the way. Arrange the sliced pears atop the filling.

_DSC1731

Bake for approximately 25 minutes. You want the egg custard puffed around the edges of the tart and the middle only just set. It can wobble but should not be liquid. Remove from the oven. Trim the excess pastry overhanging the edge with a sharp knife and allow to cool before slicing and serving with a side salad. (This tart works fantastically well cold too. For a savoury breakfast.)

_DSC1737

Clementine Cake

It is the last day of 2014. I counted that I only posted 21 times this year. (This will be 22.) That’s almost two posts a month, but still a far cry from the one post a week I am always aiming for, although, I guess, not a total disaster, numbers wise. I continued to blog whilst writing up my thesis (into a now first-draft-with-massive-corrections-to-do-stage) and interning and having things fall into chaos and confusion for several months. (Thank goodness for friends with spare rooms and sofa beds.) And now the year is turning once again and I am feeling all philosophical about life and living. I am fantastically behind on my thesis deadline – the holy grail of a three-year September hand-in has now passed and I am aiming for sometime in the summer (possibly late-summer), which will make me much closer to finishing near the four-year (be all and end all) deadline.

_DSC1669

I have been beating myself up about this failure-to-hand-in-on-time for a while now. I have always tried to do everything well – working hard (I will admit at a whole variety of careers, although everything has food as a common denominator), achieving good grades (although never being an all-A’s type student), surviving the four-hour cooking school finals, handing in my MA dissertation slightly early; never mind being a supportive/good/not-freaking-out daughter and sister. I never handed any essays in late, they were always done with plenty of time to spare. (I will admit to blowing off most economics revision until the absolute last moment and then learning entire syllabi in the week before the exam. I do not recommend this. Someone should have told me not to take economics.) And so I am quite surprised at my inability to write a decent thesis and get it finished to agreed deadlines. But mostly, the not-finishing has made me wonder about the pressure to finish in three years, preferably with publications. (My other failing, I am not yet published, although I have various articles in process and others in ideas form and I have presented at various conferences.)

_DSC1621

I am new to this whole higher education schemangle but the continuous pressure to write my thesis as fast as possible has made me wonder about the process of getting to the end. There is so much pressure on us to finish quickly, analysing and writing at top speed, that I think the process of completing a thesis (possibly the biggest and most stressful thing I will ever do), is lost in the rush to finish. This is exacerbated by the lack of jobs and postdoc opportunities and the hugely competitive market place. (See this rather funny essay on why you shouldn’t do a humanities PhD.) Don’t get me wrong, I love my research and I have loved my whole PhD experience – there have been opportunities to do the most amazing things whilst I have been researching (starting a community garden, travelling extensively, meeting interesting people, becoming completely immersed in academic discussions on food) and I find the whole ‘challenging my mind towards understanding’ incredibly satisfying. And, I am working towards publishing (hopefully loads) from my research. But sometimes, when I think of all the work there is to do, my lack of publication record, and the 9 months I have left, my heart constricts and I find it difficult to breathe. And then I am angry with myself again, both for not finishing already and also for not being able to enjoy the process.

_DSC1630

And yet, I am going to get it done. It may take longer than I expected and it may be harder than I could ever have anticipated but, by the end of 2015 (hopefully many months before), I will have handed in a thesis. More than that, I want to enjoy the process that leads to the end. The last six months of this year were chaotic, thesis-wise. After interning in the US for 6 weeks, I intended to come back, tie all the chapters I already had into a draft, write a conclusion and let my supervisor read the first draft. All by September. Instead, my grandmother became gravely ill, a summer fling ended, and I had no where to live for a while. I ended up being at home in South Africa for nearly 5 weeks between August and October, doing virtually no thesis work. But this is life, I guess. And I think, sometimes, when we are working towards a goal like a decent thesis, and life is getting in the way of productivity and progress, we forget that this is life. My thesis has to form part of my life, it cannot consume me. My family and friends (and all their important happenings and events and catastrophes) are as important as (dare I say possibly more important than) this work, and I think we have a tendency to forget this. I cannot continue to blame myself for life happening and taking part in it.

_DSC1631

Instead I have made a few resolutions, to start off the new year. Firstly, I am going to stop giving myself a hard time for taking longer to finish my thesis. And I am going to stop comparing myself to other PhDs who have completed their work faster than me (or better or with more publications or whatever). I am going to get it done. And I am going to accept that it is going to take more work, more revision, and more time. Secondly, I am going to get very organised. I have this tendency to avoid routine and planning, simply because I think I am good at it. I think, in truth, I am not and so I have hauled out a calendar for 2015 and added in dates, birthdays, important events etc so that I can work out exactly when I can work on my thesis and when I can work on other things, like this blog, and do work that pays money (the joy of being a 4th year means I have no steady income anymore). Thirdly, I am organising my blogging month by month. A new post will appear every Wednesday and I’m deciding at the beginning of each month what to make each week (and writing it onto the calendar so I don’t forget). That way, I don’t necessarily have to think about what to do too often. And I won’t panic that I don’t know what to make. Most of the recipes are ones I’ve had bookmarked or saved for ages and ages. I want to spend more time with this space and being organised about it I think will help. Fourthly, I am going to try to read one book a month. Something inspirational, maybe books on the art of writing and living or maybe just some trashy novels. Books that are not necessarily to do with my research. I’m starting with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Lastly, I am going to remember to remain perfectly calm and take deep breaths. Even when all seems overwhelming. And I shall try and do more exercise and possibly yoga. (Doesn’t everyone have that as their resolution every year?)

I started the inspirational reading this week with a few articles online about life and living. The ones listed below have been the most helpful so far – reminding me that all is not lost from being slighter slower than the pack, and that sometimes, good work takes time. (And, in my case, many many deep breaths.) Mostly I am resolved to enjoy the process of getting to the end, however long (and however much sweat, blood and tears) it takes.

Brain Pickings: 7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing and Living

Vulture: 10 of the Best ‘Dear Sugar’ Advice Columns

The Thought Catalog: This is How We Date Now

Holstee: The Holstee Manifesto

Explorations of Style: The Craft of Revision

I have also been listening to Stephen Fry read Harry Potter. Because, really, Harry makes everything better.

_DSC1633

And of course, because this is a food blog, there is cake. The mothership asked me to make this last week but I never ended up doing so. (We had a ‘duvet day’ on the 26th, the day I was supposed to make it. She and my sister managed to watch the entire first series of True Detective whilst I pottered about – I have lost the ability to stay still and concentrate on TV shows it seems – slept, and then went out. And we had too much food leftover from the 25th to really consider making anything other than the obligatory chicken and ham pie.)

So I’ve made it for the New Year instead. This is a fantastically seasonal cake – all gooey, moist (yes, I said it), damp, almost sour citrus with a slightly grainy texture from the ground almonds. There is a lot to be said about cake with four ingredients. And it’s gluten and dairy free too, for those of you making weird diet-related resolutions in the new year. It keeps well over several days and may even be better on day two. Best eaten just by itself, it will also work as a dessert with creme fraiche or ice cream… I like it while still a little warm from the oven.

Clementine Cake

Adapted from Nigella’s Feast

4 small clementines (you need around 380g worth)

250g ground almonds

220g golden caster sugar

6 eggs

The process of making this cake is reasonably simple. Essentially, you boil the clementines in water for around two hours until they are soft. I put a cartouche over mine (a small round-ish piece of parchment held down by a saucer) so that the clementines would be evenly immersed in water. (They float and so part of their flesh is otherwise exposed, pesky little things.) This worked well and I topped up the water after an hour and kept them so they were simmering, rather than rapidly boiling. You then leave these to cool. (In my case, for a few hours in a sieve in the sink, whilst I went grocery shopping to get the remaining ingredients. See, organisational skills need work.) Once they’re cool, slice them into smaller pieces and blitz them in a food processor until smooth. (If you have a food processor of magnificence, feel free to blitz them whole, but mine is teensy tiny and so I sliced them first and blitzed them in two batches.) Then whisk the eggs and sugar together until combined – no need to put much air into this. Add in half the ground almonds followed by half the pureed clementines. I whisked these in but I suspect a wooden spoon would do the trick just fine. Repeat with the rest of the almonds and clementines. Pour into a 23cm round cake tin, with a piece of parchment lining the base. Bake at 180C for approximately half an hour. The cake will be risen and golden but a skewer inserted should come out clean. When I checked the first time, thinking the cake looked done, the knife came out with batter still attached, so I had to put it back for a while. Allow to cool completely in the tin before turning the cake out and dusting it with icing sugar to serve.

_DSC1665

And now for champagne to toast out a terrible year!
Happy New Year all!

Shortbread Christmas Trees

The mothership arrived in London today. She is here to spend Christmas with me and the Princess. I am, naturally, baking things in preparation for a week of festivities next week. There are also meetings and various people I’d like to give something too, if only an edible token of appreciation, and so I have spent most of this morning in the kitchen, and not at my desk where the essay writing is piling up fast. No matter, I will deal with that this evening, when it is too dark to take good photographs. I am feeling surprisingly festive this year. It’s my first in Nottingham since moving here three years ago (!!!) and my first in a space I can realistically have guests and people to stay. So I am embracing all the lights and trees and baking. (I also finished up my wreath this morning, drying some orange slices in the oven. It’s a lavender, rosemary and bay leaf wreath – all the materials came from the community garden! And it is now hanging on my front door, looking pretty.)

_DSC1620

So these shortbreads. I first learnt to make them when I worked at Gleneagles. They are the pastry chef, Neil Mugg’s, recipe and he got it from his grandmother. So this is something like a 100 year old Scottish shortbread recipe. I love it. Since working with Neil I have never used another recipe and it is adaptable if you’d like to make it gluten-free*. Today I made just plain vanilla trees, but you can add in ingredients like pistachios, lavender or chocolate chips if you like. I’m a fan of the simplicity of the vanilla version, but feel free to adapt it. The quantities are scalable up or down – we used to make it in the hotel using between one and five kilograms of flour at a time, today I used the quantities below, just 250 grams of flour. This amount made 22 Christmas trees and 19 stars (of various sizes). I also changed up the method for this recipe. We used to blitz everything together all at once but I prefer to cream the butter and sugar together first.

_DSC1606

Things to note: this is shortbread which means that the dough is ‘short’. It can be difficult to work with and so refrigerating it is fairly necessary. If you’d prefer not to roll the dough out and cut out shapes, you can press it into a square or round baking tin and bake it like that. You need to then cut slices when it is still warm from the oven. I often just pat the dough down to the required thickness, and then roll it smooth with a rolling pin. Try not to overwork the dough!

Shortbread
From Neil Mugg’s recipe
250g butter, softened
125g icing sugar
125g cornflour
250g plain flour
1 tsp vanilla
caster sugar for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 160C and line two trays with baking paper. (This makes a fair amount of cookies and so you’ll probably need to bake in rotation. I used four trays altogether.)

_DSC1603

In a bowl, sift the icing sugar onto the softened butter. Beat this, using a handheld beater (or in your standing mixer, if you have such a luxury), until bright white and fluffy.

_DSC1608

_DSC1610

Add in the vanilla, beating to combine and then add in the cornflour and plain flour. Use the beater to beat until the dough starts to come together.

_DSC1612

Turn this out onto a lightly floured surface and knead the dough lightly. Roll into a ball, flatten and clingfilm. Refrigerate for an hour.

Roll out the dough until it is about 1/2 to 3/4cm thick. Cut shapes and place these on the lined baking trays.

_DSC1614

_DSC1618

Bake for approximately 20 minutes. I think traditionally, shortbreads were cooked so that they had no colour but I like mine ever so slightly golden. The shortbreads are done if you can move them along the baking sheet with your thumb. Remove them from the oven and sprinkle with caster sugar whilst they are still warm. Allow to cool completely before storing in an airtight container.

Enjoy with friends. And tea.

2014-12-17 12.55.32

*For the gluten-free version, substitute the flour with 125g rice flour and 125g ground almonds. The texture is slightly different due to the almonds.

Gingerbread Reindeer and Stained Glass Stars

I am combatting the current freeze by keeping busy in the kitchen with warming spices and the oven almost permanently on. I said in the last post that I was embracing Christmas in a big way this year and so, in-between various writing assignments I have been making gingerbread reindeer and some stained glass stars that can be hung on the tree (if you remember to poke holes in them when they come out of the oven – I forgot for one tray, so they’re just pretty star cookies, rather than decorations.)

_DSC1601

These cookies are surprisingly addictive. I had several with tea this afternoon. They also make great gifts, if you know people who appreciate a good cookie. And they make your kitchen smell heavenly.

It’s a fairly simple melt-and-mix method that I adapted from The Primrose Bakery Book. You can ice the stars and reindeer if you like. I haven’t decided whether I’m going to yet. I quite like the plain biscuits but I suppose that iced ones will add to the festive cheer. And you can obviously make any shape that takes your fancy. I’m rather enamoured with the reindeer cutter as I bought it in Finland two Christmases ago and haven’t had the opportunity to use it yet. (I’ve started to buy obscure cookie cutters from places I visit. I have a Moomin one from the same trip too. I need someone to have a Moomin themed birthday so I can use it. And a friend bought me one of a church in Austria that I also haven’t had cause to use yet. So many shaped biscuit options!)

I like this recipe because it is reminiscent of actual gingerbread and not simply some ground ginger and cinnamon added in to a basic cookie mixture. There are cloves, nutmeg and orange zest too. And it uses both golden syrup and black treacle. For reasons I can’t entirely explain, I get a small thrill every time I open these tins to bake something. I suspect it has to do with my cousin Tim always referring to golden syrup simply as “the tin with the lion on it” and I get a whiff of nostalgia for our summer Christmases on the farm whenever I think of it.

_DSC1579

Gingerbread Reindeer (and Stars)

Adapted from The Primrose Bakery Book

75g soft light brown sugar

50g golden syrup

2 tbsp black treacle

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground ginger

1/4 tsp ground gloves

1/4 tsp nutmeg

zest of 1/2 a small orange

100g unsalted butter

225g plain flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

(If you’re making stained glass stars, you’ll need approximately 5-8 hard boiled sweets, smashed to smithereens.)

Place the sugar, golden syrup, black treacle, spices, zest and butter into a saucepan.

_DSC1537

_DSC1582

Heat over a medium heat until the butter and sugar have melted and emulsified.

_DSC1587

Off the heat, add in the flour and bicarb.

_DSC1589

Stir until the flour is incorporated into the butter mixture.

_DSC1553

Turn the dough out and wrap in clingfilm. It’ll be incredibly soft and slightly warm, so work carefully. I like to make it fairly flat, so that it’s less work to roll out later.

_DSC1596

Refrigerate for an hour. Preheat the oven to 180C. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and roll out to 1/2cm thick. Using cookie cutters, cut shapes of your choosing.

_DSC1561

IMG_4029

For stained glass stars, use the largest star cutter to cut the main star, then use the smallest star cutter (of the same set) to get a star inside the first one.

Gently place your cookies onto a baking sheet lined with baking paper. If you’re making stained glass stars, fill the middle of each star with the bashed up boiled sweets.

IMG_4028

Leave a few centimetres of space around each cookie. Bake for 5 – 10 minutes, depending on the cookie size. When the cookies are slightly browned, try and move them along the tray with your thumb. If the cookies move, they are done and can be removed from the oven. Let them cool for 2 minutes on the trays before sliding them off, still on the baking paper, to cool completely on your counter-top. If you’ve made stars, use the top of a small piping nozzle or a knife to cut holes in the top of each star whilst they are still warm and slightly soft. Once they’re completely cool, thread through some festive ribbon and attach to your tree.

IMG_4032 IMG_4034

Mince Pies

I handed in my thesis draft last week. (!!!) One step closer to the end and that scary thing that is life beyond a PhD. I’m still ages away from actual hand-in. The thing about having a draft means that you realise how much more work there is to do – reviewing and rewriting, rereading and rewriting, not to mention those pesky publication articles that need doing. But it feels pretty good to finally have something to work with and to have the first big step towards the end accomplished.

_DSC1528

To celebrate, I’ve been back in the kitchen, baking. This afternoon I finished some mince pies for the freezer and made a batch of gingerbread reindeers and stars. I have the ingredients to try and make my own panettone this week (watch this space!). It’s fair to say that I am embracing Christmas in a big way this year. And am taking some time out from academic writing to, hopefully, do more writing here.

So, these mince pies. The pastry I use is one I was given at the SA Chefs Academy by Sam Waring. She was the pastry chef who stretched the basic cake-baking skills I had into something usable. Ever since she taught us this pastry recipe, I have used nothing else. And, to be frank, other mince pie pastry pales in comparison. Once you’ve succeeded with this, you will never go back to ordinary sweet pastry.

This pastry is a slightly messy affair. In a nutshell, you soften some butter, add in sour cream, give it a swirl, then add in flour until it forms a sticky dough. This you then turn out onto a floured surface and knead, adding in more flour until you have a smooth dough. You then rest the dough for an hour, roll it out, book-fold it twice (as if you were making puff pastry), rest it again and then roll it out and cut rounds for your tin. Simple right? It does take a bit of getting used to, but it makes wonderfully flaky pastry that is perfect with fruit mince. Obviously, you can make your own fruit mince. I have aspirations to do so at some point in my life, but not this year. This year I used store-bought fruit mince – some from M&S and some from Sainsbury’s. I’ll have to sample both before I let you know which is better.

Mince Pies.
Makes 24 bite-sized pies.
Originally from Sam Waring
125g butter, unsalted, softened
125g sour cream
175g plain flour
fruit mince to fill 24 small pies (approximately 3/4 330ml jar)
1 egg, for egg wash

Weigh out the butter into a large mixing bowl. Beat it with a hand-held beater until soft and smooth. Add in the sour cream and whisk briefly. (The mixture looks fairly atrocious but do not fear! It’ll all come back fine.)

_DSC1446

Add in the flour and mix with a wooden spoon until the dough starts to come together. This takes a while and it may look like there is too much flour, but keep stirring and turning and eventually all the flour will be absorbed. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. You will notice that the dough becomes sticky as you knead. Keep adding in extra flour until you have a reasonably smooth, unsticky dough. Don’t overwork the dough at this stage. It is preferable that it be mainly smooth and a little sticky.

_DSC1527

Wrap this in clingfilm and refrigerate for an hour. Have some tea while you wait. Then, once the hour is up, unwrap the dough, and place back onto the floured surface. (I don’t bother with cleaning up in-between all the kneading and rolling and folding.) Roll the dough out into a rectangle, so that the shorter sides are closest and furthest away from you. Book fold this – fold the top end into the middle and then fold the bottom end up to meet it. Then fold this closed. Quarter turn and refrigerate for another hour.

Preheat the oven to 180C if you are going to bake them straight away.

Now roll out the dough until it is approximately 1/2cm thick. Cut it into rounds, to line the base of a small muffin tin – I use a 68mm cutter. (I like bite-size mince pies. If you like yours bigger than this, say in normal muffin tins, use a 88mm one.) I also like star-topped mince pies and so use some of the pastry to cut stars for the top.

_DSC1460

Fill the pastry cases with fruit mince – about three quarters full. I have a tendency to over-fill mine so I try to err on the side of caution here. Top with stars and brush with egg wash. (For the egg wash, crack the egg into a bowl and whisk it to break up the yolk.)

The pies can be frozen, in the tin, at this point. I freeze them in the tin for 2-3 hours, then turn them out of the tin and place them in plastic bags of 12 in the freezer.

If you are baking them, bake for approximately 15 minutes, until the pastry is golden and slightly puffed. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes in the tins before turning them out. Best eaten warm.

_DSC1569