The Joy of Imperfect Cooking

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I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist. I used to think this was a good thing, and it’s true that there are some benefits to this type of personality: perfectionists tend to be hard-working, detail-orientated and driven. There are also, however, many negatives: I am my own worst critic and can find it hard to relax and enjoy achievements, before leaping into worrying about the ‘next step’ on my list. I tend to obsess over anything that has gone wrong and barely spare a thought on all that’s gone right.

The only area in my life in which I am not striving for the impossibly perfect is in the kitchen. I think this is why I find cooking so relaxing. Who cares if my chocolate cake looks nothing like as perfect as the picture in the recipe book and has to be prettied up with some icing? Amazingly, I don’t. After all, I tell myself, it’s not like Nigella hasn’t burnt a cake or two in her time. Whenever I make anything that doesn’t burn and tastes remotely edible, I feel incredibly proud of myself. There are few things that taste as good as something you’ve made yourself, even if it’s just spaghetti bolognese. Never one to give myself much of a pat on the back, I become positively smug with self-congratulation on serving up a good dish.

Take this hummus for instance. I made it the other day and it blew my mind. I’ll never buy hummus again. Even the most kitchen incompetent could throw this together and feel pretty good about themselves on tasting it. So if, like me, it’s about time you gave yourself a bit of a break and indulged in some self-praise, make this hummus! And if you’re blessed with a relaxed, happy-go-lucky personality, make this hummus anyway because it’s delicious and the perfect summer snack.

IMG_2626Hummus 

2 large cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup sesame tahini paste

1/2 – 1 cup water

2 cans of chickpeas, rinsed and drained

1 1/2 cumin seeds (grind with pestle and mortar)

Salt to taste

Olive oil to drizzle on top at end

Smokey paprika to sprinkle on at end

Place the garlic, lemon juice and tahini in a food processor fitted with the steel blade and process to a smooth paste. Add the water and chickpeas and process until the mixture is very smooth, almost fluffy (adding more water if necessary). This process can take longer than you might expect so be patient! Season with with cumin and salt to taste.  Put the hummus in a bowl (it lasts for a week in a fridge, so you can portion it out into tupperware containers if you wish) and drizzle some olive oil on top, swirling slightly with the tip of a knife. Sprinkle over the smoked paprika.

Enjoy!

American Cake

IMG_2562The disadvantage of growing up moving around a lot as a child is that I get stuck straight away on ‘home town’ whenever facebook nags me to update my details. Where am I actually from? I can never make up my mind. London is definitely where I think of as home now, but I am repeatedly reminded of the fact that not growing up in the UK sets me apart from my British friends, no matter how much tea I drink. I’m accepting of my identity crisis, however, and have come to appreciate the fact that I’m a mish-mash of Canadian, Swiss French, American and British culture.

American style baking formed a huge part of my childhood, living in the States for 10 years. Much as I enjoy a slice of Victoria sponge, I find that instinctively my mind turns towards the American classics of my childhood whenever I get the urge to bake. Blueberry muffins, pumpkin pie, peanut butter cookies: these are the comfort food recipes I return to again and again.

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My Mum made this cake repeatedly when we lived on Long Island, and I learnt to make it myself as a young girl. The recipe is adapted from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, and is very American in its use of oil rather than butter. It’s incredibly tasty and also quick to whip up, but looks like you’ve made an effort:

Quick Chocolate Mocha Cake

2 ounces 70% dark chocolate

1 large egg

1 cup caster sugar

1/3 cup sunflower oil

1 tsp vanilla

3/4 cup strong coffee

1 1/3 cups plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

Preheat the oven to 180C (350F). Butter, line base and lightly flour an 8-inch springform round cake tin. Melt chocolate in microwave, taking care it doesn’t burn. Set aside. Beat the egg in a bowl and slowly add the sugar, continuing to beat until well blended. Add the oil, vanilla, melted chocolate and coffee and beat well. Mix the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda together and add, beating for 2 minutes with an electric beater. Spread in the pan and bake for 35-40 mins, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Spread with broiled frosting (see below) whilst still in the pan and put under the grill to brown. Once brown, place tin on rack for 10 mins, then remove cake from tin.

Broiled Frosting

Watch carefully to make sure the topping browns lightly and evenly.

3 tbsps melted butter

3 tbsps brown sugar

2 tbsps cream (or milk)

1/2 cup desiccated, shredded coconut or chopped nuts

Mix all the ingredients together and spread over a warm cake while it is still in the tin. Set the tin under the grill, until the frosting bubbles and turns golden.

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Man Food

IMG_2424I’m afraid I’ve never been the sort of girl who wins men’s hearts by baking them boxes of brownies, with loving little notes tucked inside. I don’t think I’ve ever even baked a boyfriend a birthday cake. For ages, in fact, I swore off cooking anything for a guy. Ever. This stance stemmed from having spent the better part of a year slaving away at an oven, thinking up different recipes every night (on a carefully balanced food budget), for the boyfriend I lived with when I first moved to London. I was so annoyed when we broke up, and I realised that he cooked and ate the same horrible pasta dish every day, without minding at all. Cooking for men, I decided, was clearly a pointless waste of time.

It didn’t take me too long to soften, however, when the present boyfriend came along. I’m afraid I’m very superficial when it comes to men and food, generally feeling one wants the type of guy who looks like he’ll tuck into a steak, rather than, say, a tofu curry. In fact, the first thing I made for my boyfriend was steak, and then I just kept on cooking it for him (it’s a good thing he likes routine). Sometimes, however, one wants to change things up a bit, and then I figure a meatloaf is a good way to go.

Meat Loaf (recipe adapted from Canadian Living Cookbook by Carol Ferguson)

750g minced beef

175ml rolled oats

1 onion, finely chopped

1 egg, beaten

1tbsp worcestershire sauce

1 tsp mustard powder

1 tsp Herbes de Provence

1 tsp salt

1 tsp pepper

50ml ketchup, mixed with 1 tbsp brown sugar

Combine all ingredients, apart from the ketchup and brown sugar (easiest to mix with your hands). Use your hands to shape into a loaf in a ceramic baking dish. Spread ketchup mixture on top. Bake at 180C for 50mins to 1 hr. Can be served hot or cold. Any leftovers freeze well.

This recipe is not guaranteed to win any hearts, but it’s certainly very enjoyable to make and eat, with or without a man involved!

How To Bake and Not Get Fat

IMG_2487I love cooking and baking. It really is the best therapy (at least when my dishwasher is working, which it isn’t at the moment, and I’m back to the washing up grind which I detest). The down side to loving to bake is that I live on my own. Which means that if an entire flourless almond chocolate cake disappears in the course of three days, there’s really only me to blame.

In not wanting to give up baking, but still be able to fit my clothes, I came up with a few strategies.

1. Cook for other people. When I’m craving a full carbs blow-out, like risotto followed by tiramisu, I invite friends round to enjoy it with me. That way, there are hardly any leftovers by which I could be tempted and what is left I put in doggy bags and push on people anyway (see point 2). Also, if you happen to like the people you work with (or just want to ingratiate yourself), you can have the pleasure of trying out recipe after recipe for the perfect chocolate chip cookie, and if you’re lucky get to eat the crumbs left at the bottom of the tin.

2. Send people home with cake. Don’t think you’re getting away from my house without any leftover cake wrapped up in a parcel of tinfoil and thrust into your hands. Just take it,  I tend to hiss. Give it to your boyfriend / roommate / mother / cat / garbage, but TAKE IT. This way I do not find myself mindlessly munching my way through all the leftovers as I load the dishwasher.

3. Portion Control. Generally baking a cake that lasts for a while and doesn’t go dry and horrible in a day (and thus practically forces you to eat it up very quickly) is a good idea if only 1-2 of you are eating it. That way, you can just enjoy 1 slice of delicious cake a day (if you have any will power) for about a week. If you don’t have the willpower, then baking things that freeze well is a good idea. This is why I make muffins.

Muffins are fantastic because they’re delicious, but they also freeze exceptionally well. I don’t know why, but I invariably forget about things that are in the freezer. I’ll go for days, having completely forgotten that I made, say, blueberry muffins, and then suddenly it’ll hit me that there’s a great big stash of them in the freezer, and it’s like I’ve won the lottery. I’ll toddle along, take one out of the ziplock bag, zap it in the microwave for about a minute so it defrosts and eat it with a cup of tea. Then I’ll completely forget about the muffins again, and the whole cycle starts once more.

IMG_2500This recipe is adapted from The Open-House Cookbook by Sarah Leah Chase and is my favourite for muffins. Her recipe in fact makes Tri Berry Muffins, but I’ve always had a weakness for good old fashioned blueberry. Her recipe also makes about a gazillion muffins, so I halved it. Here’s my version:

1 1/2 cups plain flour

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1/4 tsp salt

2 tsp cinnamon

1 cup milk

1 large egg

125g butter, melted

1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries

3/4 cup caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 375F. Place paper liners in 10 muffin cups. Stir the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt and cinnamon together in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture. Add the milk, eggs, and butter to the well and stir quickly just to combine. Add the berries and sugar and stir quickly again just to combine. Spoon the batter into the cups, filling each cup almost to the top. Bake until brown and crusty, about 20 minutes.

Makes 10 muffins.

Honeycomb Bars

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Honeycomb Bars, recipe from Home Baking by Jo Wheatley

Before I moved to Kingston last August, I lived in a charming, but tiny, studio flat in Hampstead that had a kitchenette in which I could barely turn around, let alone swing a cat. I had two hobs, a microwave, a minute fridge and no oven. I became very good at making risotto and soup, but didn’t bake for 4 years. Now I’ve made the move into a much bigger flat, I’m in love with my (at least in comparison) gigantic kitchen and am taking enormous pleasure in cooking and baking as much as possible. My cookbook collection has grown exponentially, and I’ve delighted in taking inspiration from a wide range of cooking styles and cultures. As very much a beginner cook, however, I do also appreciate recipes that can be thrown together in minutes, with no real cooking required!

As someone who loves to entertain, I’m also very aware of being a good guest. If I can possibly find the time, I like to make something to bring along with a bottle of wine to a dinner party. Jo Wheatley’s Honeycomb Bars are wonderfully easy to make, can be prepared ahead of time and are a delicious treat to serve alongside after dinner coffee. I recently made them to bring to a friend’s, and they were much appreciated! Next time, I think I would make the bars with dark chocolate, as they were a little sweet for my taste, but kids would love them just as they are. These would also be great to bring along to a picnic, whenever we get some sunshine back!

Honeycomb Bars

100g unsalted butter, melted

25g soft brown sugar

3 tbsp cocoa powder

4 tbsp golden syrup

400g milk chocolate (or dark, if you prefer it less sweet)

200g digestive biscuits

8 Crunchie bars (I actually only used 7 as I, er, ate the 8th. If, like me, you have no self-control – fear not! You can always just add a few more digestives to make up the difference. Note: a Crunchie bar weighs 40g.)

30x23cm baking tin with a depth of about 4cm, lightly greased and lined with with baking paper

Put the melted butter, sugar, cocoa powder and golden syrup into a large bowl and mix together with a wooden spoon until well combined. Break the chocolate into pieces and melt in a heatproof bowl over barely simmering water (or I melted the chocolate in the microwave, keeping a close eye so it didn’t burn and remained glossy). Place the digestive biscuits and Crunchie bars in a ziplock bag and roughly crush with a rolling pin until you have bite sized shards in a variety of different shapes. Add to the bowl and mix together to combine. Spoon into the lined tin, press down firmly into all the corners and top with the melted chocolate. Chill for half an hour or until nearly set, then slice bars with a hot knife (dip knife into cup of boiling water). Return to the fridge to firm completely. 

Pop your squares into a pretty tin lined with paper and share them amongst your friends. Enjoy!

Tea and Chekhov

Autumnal Tea: smoked salmon and cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches; quails’ eggs with sea or celery salt; scones; brownies and an iced pumpkin spice cake. 

I had a fabulous time over the weekend hosting a Book Blogger Tea Party with Rachel, SimonPolly and my Mum. I felt a bit of a fraud as I can’t claim to have ever written a book blog, but I am at least an enthusiastic reader! Although I am in the same book group as Polly, have met Simon several times and have found a ‘kindred spirit’ in Rachel, it was wonderful to spend an afternoon all together, having a proper chat, laughing a lot and munching on the treats pictured above.

Simon brought along a game that he bemoaned none of his (non-bookish) friends would play; I can’t remember the name but it was lots of fun! You have a pack of cards with a book title, author and plot summary written on each of them, and everyone has to write down what they think is the first or last line of the book. These are all then read aloud (including the real first/last line) – whoever guesses which is the true one gets a point, and if anyone guesses your version in mistake for the real one, then you get a point too. Often, it was harder than you might think – for instance, no doubt everyone can rattle off the first line of Pride & Prejudice, but what about the last? I amazed myself by winning, as I’m generally useless at games, but I’m not sure how I’d fare in another round…!

Polly, Simon, Rachel and Me. 

After tea, Rachel and I went on to the Young Vic as we had tickets to see their production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. What a disappointment! I was expecting something quite special, as had read some excellent reviews, and was still thrilling from having seen Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic (a truly fabulous production). Far from finding Benedict Andrew’s version of Three Sisters particularly radical or inspired, Rachel and I were simply bored stiff. Olga, Irina and Masha’s longing for Moscow paled against my desire to be out of the theatre. Indeed, I was only jerked out of my ennui-induced stupor when the people in front of us periodically leapt about 5 feet into the air, dramatically covering their ears whenever a large bell was rung onstage. Despite copious ‘shocking’ swear words strewn throughout the dialogue and a rather dreadful rendition of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, the play failed to grip.

Gala Gordon, Mariah Gale and Vanessa Kirby in Three Sisters, Young Vic, London. Image via here

Fortunately, although the production was a disappointment, the company certainly wasn’t, and Rachel and I still had a fun night out, although I hope our next theatre outing will be more successful!

All in all, it was a lovely weekend, and being in the company of such lovely bloggers has inspired me to do a bit better with my own blog. I’m currently ploughing my way through the PGCE course at Roehampton University and recently moved to Kingston so life has been a bit of a whirlwind lately, but I feel I could at least do better than a post every few months…!

And now I’m off to bake yet more brownies for my next set of visitors this weekend. Happy Thursday, everyone!

Geneva Trip: Eating and Shopping Highlights

I stocked up on some of my favourite Swiss chocolate bars at Geneva airport.

The first week back at work has been a little overwhelming, especially as, alongside a fairly busy schedule, I’m starting to study for an exam in my spare time. The trip to Geneva already feels a long way away, but I still have quite a lot of photos from the trip I’d like to share, and in looking through them this morning, some of the ‘holiday feeling’ has started to come back.

In terms of food, I certainly enjoyed putting any thought of calorie counting aside and  delicious chocolate, wine, bread and cheese became the staples of my diet. The weather was cold enough to make me crave a classic fondue, so Mum and I set off for a favourite restaurant in the Old Town:

Delicious!

I also enjoyed visiting a few of my favourite shops:

Bookbinders Design is a Swedish company that specialize in beautiful handcrafted stationery.

Scapa is one of my favourite designers for beautifully tailored clothes.

And discovered some new gems:

For olive addicts like myself, Olivier & Co is a little slice of heaven. I bought some delicious olive oil and tapenade to take home, and it was a big effort to restrain myself to only these purchases.

Mercerie Catherine B is a treasure trove for crafty folk. I spent ages sifting through all the beautiful kits and threads.

I (no doubt rather predictably!) bought the kit to embroider the Passion Chocolat sampler. Isn’t it sweet? It’ll be such fun to make it. I foresee a summer filled with my awaiting embroidery projects.

Finally, I managed a little bit of shopping before heading to the airport for our return flight to London. We paid a last minute stop to the French shopping centre Val Thoiry which has a Petit Bateau shop. To my delight, they had this jumper left in my size. Stupidly, after mentioning these cable knit sweaters in this post, I’d waited too long to buy one myself, and UK shops are now sold out in my size. I am so pleased to have got one now and adore the bright blue colour.

As you can see, in terms of shopping and eating, I certainly made the most of my four days!

Genevois Chocolate and Chestnut Cake

Just in case you’ve been wondering what I’ve been up to in Geneva so far (I arrived this afternoon), these photos pretty much have it covered:

Yep, I’m barely off the plane and I’m hotfooting it to a favourite chocolate fix source. I’m not sure anyone has ever looked quite so pleased by a slice of cake before. Seriously though, it was pretty delicious.

Easter Pinks

Anna Sui dress; Tocca coat; M&S tights; Nicole Farhi shoes; Scapa bag; Swarovski earrings; vintage bracelet; Essie ‘Splash of Grenadine’ nail polish.

I’ve had a lovely Easter Sunday and am currently curled up in a chair, rendered immoveable by the vast quantity of food and chocolate I’ve managed to consume. The Easter Bunny certainly stopped by my flat this morning; besides lots of delicious chocolate, there was a small package containing the gorgeous vintage pearl and imitation sapphire bracelet I’m wearing in these photos. I have quite small wrists and have a very hard time finding bracelets that fit. My Mum in fact got this one made specially to fit me so it is already a cherished possession.

I enjoyed Easter lunch out with my Mum at my favourite pub in Hampstead, The Old White Bear.

It was quite the feast: roast chicken followed by orange cheesecake for me.

After lunch, we thought a stroll around Hampstead would aid our digestion so set off for Fenton House, a small National Trust property with beautiful grounds, boasting an orchard and rose garden. I volunteered at the house last summer so have got to know it pretty well and still love to pay it a visit.

I had in fact planned quite a different outfit for today (a primrose yellow satin dress without sleeves), but it was so cold and dark when I woke up this morning that I had to rethink my choice. Anna Sui is one of my very favourite designers, and a couple of dresses I have of hers are very rare non-sale purchases of mine. I love this dress with the mix of velvet and silk and beautiful buttons.

The coat, however, was a sale bargain purchased about 10 years ago. I think it still looks brand new and pulled it out of my wardrobe again when excitedly I noticed that one of my  TV heroines – Rory Gilmore – wears the exact same coat in later series of the Gilmore Girls.

Hmm, and now I have to decide whether I’m going to be lazy and watch an episode of a new favourite tv series or be good and workout. As there is still plenty of chocolate to get through, I’d better do something active!