Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone!
I hope you are all having a lovely, festive day with family, friends and of course good food! xxx

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Getting ready for Christmas (and baby!)

Well despite my best efforts to be more consistent at writing in my blog, I have once again failed miserably! It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about it or cooking, it’s just the days seem to be morphing into one and before I knew it, the majority of my advent calendar has been opened and it is only 2 days until Christmas! The arrival of Christmas is being overshadowed by the arrival of the baby which is so imminent I can’t believe it and after a very over-active week on the baby’s behalf last week, I have to say I am definitely looking forward to that day. My only stipulation is that the baby does not arrive on Christmas day!!!

Because of the fact I am so unbelievably large and ready to have this wee one at any point, I have managed to remain fairly organised for Christmas “just in case”! The tree is still looking as lovely as ever, especially now that it has a nice selection of presents glistening underneath it, my cards have all been written and posted, the Christmas cake is made and I have managed to make a few big batches of soup to keep the fridge and freezer well stocked! For me it wouldn’t be Christmas without my broccoli and nutmeg soup. I started the tradition quite a few years ago and now it is as necessary as turkey or cranberry sauce! As a family we always ate our Christmas dinner in the evening so this soup is perfect for lunch along with a nice selection of canapés (either homemade or bought – whatever works for you!) and of course a glass or 2 of champagne! If Christmas dinner is an earlier affair for you then you should still try this soup as it’s perfect for slurping on boxing day or even Christmas eve – it is delicious.

And of course in the lead up to Christmas you have to have baking in the house!!! Well I do anyway! I’m really not much of a baker since it tends to involve precise measurements and cooking times so I use other people’s recipes instead. Last week I made Nigella Lawson’s Sticky Gingerbread which is a winner in my opinion. I made it last year so it was a must repeat recipe for this year. (I highly recommend her Christmas book as it has lots of delicious baking and other festive recipes in it – as previously mentioned it is Nigella Christmas: Food, Family, Friends, Festivities and can be bought from any good bookstore or Amazon) I also made a batch of Tiffin cake which was something I grew up with. This is one of my recipes as it isn’t a cake but rather a delicious chocolately tray bake that has been completely devoured by Mr. Vanilla and I since I made it last Thursday (meaning I will have to make some more!!)

I tried to convince myself that the baking was to have at the ready in case of any friends or family that popped by but really I’m kidding myself – it is purely for my own indulgence…. Ok, so I might share some of it but more than likely the first batches will be considered ‘trials’ and I will make some more to share with everyone this week!

Tiffin cake

Despite its name this is actually a biscuit tray bake as opposed to a cake. It’s perfect for when you have those chocolate cravings as it is quick and easy to make and if you bake you are likely to have most of the ingredients in your pantry anyway. Be sure to make lots as it won’t last!

4oz/ 115g unsalted butter
3 tbsp golden syrup
8oz/ 225g digestive biscuits
1oz/ 30g cocoa powder
3oz/ 85g glace cherries
6oz/ 170g milk chocolate
1oz/ 30g white chocolate (optional)

Line a square tin with cling film then set aside. In a medium to large sized pan melt the butter over a gentle heat with the syrup. While it is melting place the biscuits in a food processor and blitz until you have crumbs or simply put them into a sandwich bag and bash with a rolling pin. Chop up the cherries into fairly small pieces. Add the crushed biscuits to the melted butter and syrup along with the cocoa and cherries. Stir well so that everything is well mixed then put it into the lined tin. Press down firmly using a spatula or the back of a large spoon then put in the fridge until it is cold and firm. Melt the chocolate either in a microwave in 20 second intervals, or in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water. Pour the chocolate over the tiffin cake then spread it so it is evenly covered. If using, melt the white chocolate in the same way then drizzle it over the milk chocolate. Pop back into the fridge until the chocolate has completely cooled and hardened. When ready to serve simply cut it into squares and enjoy!

Mars Bar Krispies

As with the tiffin cake, these aren’t particularly Christmassy, however they are so easy to make and I have yet to meet someone that doesn’t love them! They work well for parties as well as Christmas and if you have children they are an easy and delicious treat for them to make.

3oz/ 85g Rice Krispies
3oz/ 85g unsalted butter
4 Mars Bars*
6oz/ 170g milk or dark chocolate

In a large pan gently melt the mars bars and butter. When completely melted stir in the rice krispies until they are all completely covered in the chocolate mix. Pour into a tin then leave to set in the fridge for 30 minutes. Gently melt the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water. As soon as it has melted pour it over the krispie mix, making sure every little bit is covered. Leave to cool for about 20 minutes then put back in the fridge to completely set then cut into small squares and keep in an air tight container or eat!

*The recipe used to be really simple to remember as it was a ratio of 3/3 and 3 however I have noticed that Mars Bars are smaller now than they used to be so to keep the deep full, chewy chocolately flavour I have upped the quantity to 4 Mars Bars. If you like you can use 3 1/2 and keep the other 1/2 for the cook's treat!

Iced Gems (White chocolate discs)

Again perhaps not very Christmassy, but definitely easy and one for the children to do (and a little pick’n mix nostalgia for the grown ups!). I tend to make up a few batches then put them into nice bags cellophane bags to give to the kids.

8oz/ 225g white chocolate
Sprinkles of your choice (I use hundreds and thousands)

Put the white chocolate into a bowl and place over a pan of barely simmering water, making sure that the bowl doesn’t touch the water. Gently melt the chocolate. Line a couple of baking trays with baking parchment then put small spoonfuls of the melted chocolate onto the sheets. Using the bag of the spoon spread out the chocolate so you have lots of white chocolate discs. Try to keep the chocolate the same thickness so that it doesn’t break. Scatter over the sprinkles that you are using then put in the fridge (or another cold place – for me the garage works perfectly for that at this time of year) and chill until set.

(I also tried a sort of ‘after-dinner mint’ version using crushed candy canes to sprinkle over the chocolate. Initially they tasted great and worked well but after a few hours the crushed candy canes started to go a little sticky and wet. If you are planning on making them and serving straight away then definitely give it a go, otherwise miss out the candy canes and experiment with something else instead!)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Deck the Halls!!

Ok so this was meant to be posted two weeks ago but it obviously didn't happen! Anyway I thought I would still include it as the recipes are still great. Enjoy!......

Another lovely weekend has passed and I’m happy to report that with the passing of the weekend came the arrival of our Christmas tree! Yes, things are starting to feel nice and Christmassy around here. I appreciate for some, getting your Christmas tree on December 5th is pretty early, but considering the size of me it made sense. So on Saturday off we went to pick our Christmas tree and then in a very Canadian spirit cut it down ourselves! I was expecting the process to take a bit of time but we stumbled (literally, after tripping over a few cut tree stubs!) upon a beautiful tree very early in the process. Being as decisive as we are we cut it down there and then and Mr. Vanilla carried it back to the truck which was very quickly filled with the wonderful fresh smell of a newly cut Christmas tree. After the usual fight with the tree stand, victory was ours and the tree is (still!) standing beautifully in the corner of the living room next to the fire.

While Mr. Vanilla ventured out to hang the outside Christmas lights on the house (again another Canadian tradition) I decided to baek a batch of my Cranberry and White Chocolate cookies. They were delicious and as we smugly sat on the couch admiring our beautiful tree, we greedily demolished several cookies each with steaming hot mugs of hot chocolate.

After some much needed relaxation I made a quick batch of my Spinach and Artichoke Dip. Although I make this year round (it’s a great standby for parties) it is particularly welcome in December as it is hot and covered in bubbling, melted cheese. We decorated the tree while devouring the dip and sipping on some Hot Mulled “Cider” (actually apple juice but here that is confusingly also called cider). It was the perfect start to get us into the festive spirit. The countdown to Christmas has begun!

Spinach & Artichoke Dip

1 tin of artichoke hearts
1 clove of garlic, crushed
½ -1 red chilli, finely chopped (optional)
2 large handfuls of fresh spinach
3 oz cream cheese (Philadelphia)
5 tbsp sour Cream
2 oz cheddar Cheese or mozzarella, grated
1 oz parmesan Cheese, grated
Salt & Pepper

Preheat the oven to 200C/ 400F/ GM 6.
Drain the artichoke hearts and chop until quite fine (almost like a puree but still retaining some texture). Add to a bowl and mix with the garlic and chilli (if using). Roughly cut the spinach and add to the artichoke mixture, then add the cream cheese and the sour cream. Mix well so that everything is incorporated, then season and add a small handful of the two cheeses (leaving the rest for later). Put into an ovenproof serving dish then top with the remaining cheese. Cook in the oven for approximately 20 minutes until hot and the cheese on top is bubbling. Leave to cool slightly then serve with crackers, toasted pita bread and crudités.

Hot mulled “cider”

6 cups apple juice or dry cider
3 clementines, cut in half
1 apple, thinly sliced (optional)
2 sticks of cinnamon, broken in half
4 whole cloves
2 star anise
1 thin slice of fresh ginger
1 tbsp honey (if using actual cider – not needed if using apple juice)

In a large pan combine all the ingredients together, squeezing some of the juice from the clementines as you add them to the pan. Warm gently to a near boil then reduce the heat and keep warm. If you can try and let the flavours infuse for at least 30 minutes. Strain the spices and fruit out of the cider then ladle into heatproof glasses, sip and enjoy.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Red wine spaghetti

Ah the joy’s of Friday night! Even though I am no longer working there is something lovely and relaxing about Friday night. Maybe it’s because Mr. Vanilla is finished another week of work and I selfishly get to spend the next 2 days with him, or perhaps it’s just a psychological thing to do with knowing the next two days are for doing what you want to do and you have survived another proverbial ‘work week’. Whatever the reasons, I love Friday nights. Having said that however, after a week of working or doing whatever it is that you do to keep yourself busy, I like to make something quick and easy. My red wine spaghetti recipe is perfect for that. It is quick and very simple to make but also a little different and absolutely delicious. Before I was pregnant I would enjoy it with a large glass (or 2) of wine, but for now I just have to allow Mr. Vanilla that luxury. Use a tasty, good quality wine that you can drink with the spaghetti. Never use cooking wine or anything cheap that you wouldn’t drink as the cooking will only intensify the flavour.

Serve with some crusty French bread and if you want, a simple salad of rocket and parmesan squeezed with a little fresh lemon juice and a good drizzle of fruity extra virgin olive oil. Relax, it’s the weekend!!

Serves 4

400g spaghetti
1 tbsp olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp fresh chives, finely chopped
400ml red wine
1 tsp sugar
3 tbsp Parmesan cheese, finely grated, plus extra to serve
Salt and pepper

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Stir in the spaghetti and cook until almost al dente (you will finish cooking it in the sauce). In a large frying pan heat the oil and gently sauté the shallot for a couple of minutes before adding the garlic. Cook for another minute then add the parsley, chives, wine, sugar and a little seasoning and gently simmer until the pasta is ready. Add the pasta to the sauce with 2 tbsp of the cooking water. Stir well and turn the heat up a little. Cook until the spaghetti is ready and the sauce has absorbed into it. Stir in the parmesan and check the seasoning, then garnish with some extra parsley. Eat immediately and reward yourself with a large glass of wine!

My Apologies

I can’t honestly believe that it is already December the 4th……well ok let me correct that – in terms of writing my blog and my lack of writing over recent weeks, I can’t believe it is already December the 4th! In terms of the fact that I am now 36 weeks pregnant I can believe it is December 4th and actually wish it was a little later on than that! Everyone warned me the last month is the hardest and they weren’t lying! Realistically a more disciplined person would put this time to good use writing every day, but due to lack of sleep and general pregnancy aches and pains (and the fact I am obviously not that disciplined!) I have not.

I start every month with great intentions of all the recipes I want to include in that particular month and any specific events, occasions or ingredients I want to talk about, but suddenly before I know it the month is over and I have not even come close to achieving what I set out to do! Maybe if I planned less and just got on with it I would achieve more..... This month however, I am going to be realistic! Once again I have all the intentions, especially with the lead up to Christmas, however with every day closer to my due date (December 29, 2009) it gets harder and harder to stay motivated and inspired!! I have also discovered (perhaps just here and there when I feel energetic) the so-called “nesting” instinct that you hear about. Apparently it isn’t just a pregnancy myth as my freshly cleaned pantry and generally entire house would attest to! Therefore when I should be sitting typing at the computer (with my feet raised due to some very attractive swelling) I am cleaning something or other that I have decided has to be done.

So with my pathetic excuses out of the way, all I can do is apologise that I have not included more recipes for the past couple of months! I will try harder this month...... but perhaps don’t hold me to it!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Pomegranate and Orange Pancakes

Every weekend Mr. Vanilla and I always sit down and have a lovely, big breakfast together. It is the perfect time for relaxing, taking your time and making something a little bit more special than the quick weekday bowl of cereal or slice of toast.

What we have depends entirely on how organised I have been during the week, but this past weekend it was pancakes. The great thing with pancakes is that generally you always have the ingredients in your pantry and your fridge and they are easy to make, besides, who doesn’t love pancakes?!!

Since moving to Canada I have realised how popular pancakes are. I’m not talking about the lovely lacy French crepes that I used to make served with a sprinkle of sugar and squeeze of lemon juice, but rather a full-on American sized stack of thick, fluffy pancakes, piled high and adorned with a little bit of butter and lots of maple syrup to cascade down the sides. They never go wrong and I have yet to meet someone who isn’t delighted to tuck into some freshly made pancakes.

I was going to save this recipe for later in December and call them my “Christmas pancakes” but I couldn’t wait, besides I have a feeling I will have a lot of “Christmas something or other” recipes since I am a huge fan of Christmas and the lead up to it! I love pomegranates and for me they are definitely a sign that Christmas is on the way since they are only in season over the winter months. I know a lot of people are put off pomegranates since they think it is too much work to deseed them, however I actually find it very therapeutic picking through the seeds, like I have found a treasure-trove full of bright, glistening rubies. If that doesn’t appeal to you, you can always cut the fruit in half, then holding one half over a bowl smack it with a rolling pin or similar device until all the seeds have fallen out! My only word of advice is not to wear white, unless you want to look like something out of a horror movie!

The pancakes turned out better than I expected. The seeds give a lovely freshness to the pancakes, and burst with little explosions of juice as you crunch into them, and the orange zest gives a lovely refreshing lightness and ‘zing’ to them.

I served them with plenty of warm maple syrup and some rashers of crispy, streaky bacon. Sitting at the table devouring our pancakes and drinking delicious, frothy cappuccinos it was the perfect start to a lazy and relaxed weekend. I would definitely recommend trying these out while pomegranates are in season and as for me, I think they might just make an appearance on Christmas morning, making them definite Christmas pancakes!!

Pomegranate and orange “Christmas” pancakes

Makes approx. 16 pancakes

7 ½ oz/ 1 ½ cups/ 210g all-purpose or plain flour
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
400ml Milk
2 eggs
3 tbsp melted butter
Zest of 1 orange
Seeds of one ripe pomegranate

To serve:
Lots of warm or room temperature maple syrup
Streaky bacon, cooked to your liking

In a large bowl mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl or jug combine the milk, eggs, melted butter and orange zest. Whisk well then add to the dry ingredients. Mix everything together then add the seeds of the pomegranate.

Drizzle a little extra butter into a hot griddle or frying pan then ladle some of the mixture onto your cooking surface, leaving room for them to spread. Cook for roughly 2-3 minutes until you have lots of small bubbles on the surface then flip the pancakes and cook for roughly another 30 seconds until they are golden. Keep the cooked pancakes warm until you have made them all, then serve with maple syrup and bacon.

*For normal American style pancakes make the mixture as above simply missing out the orange zest and pomegranate seeds.
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