Chocolate & beetroot brownies

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I know, I know, vegetables and chocolate.  My reflex reaction is ‘blurgh’ too.  But bear with me, these brownies are good, contain lots of dark chocolate and are a handy way to use up beetroot if you find yourself needing to do so.

Not that I often have spare beetroot about the place.  I love the stuff, in line with my enthusiasm for pretty much all vegetables.  The humble beetroot is a member of the Amaranthaceae family and related, would you believe, to chard.  Our modern-day beets descend from the sea beet of the Mediterranean.  Our little beet has an ancient and distinguished history.  Remains of beets have been discovered in illustrious and ancient places, including the third dynasty pyramid Saqqara and the Neolithic site Aartswoud in the Netherlands.

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So naturally we people of the 21st century have found that mashing up beetroot and baking it with chocolate is a delicious, modern usage.  The best tip I can give you about this recipe, as warned in the excellent original from BBC, is to wear gloves and ideally an apron when peeling the beets.  Beetroot has a brilliant red juice, which is a stunning, attractive colour, but will make it look as though you killed someone and it takes some time to scrub off.

You will need:

  •  3-4 medium-sized beetroot
  • 100g unsalted butter and a little extra for the tin; I have done a dairy-free version too, and used 100g dairy-free olive oil spread
  • 200g dark chocolate, chopped
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 100g plain flour
  • 25g cocoa powder
  • Icing sugar for sprinkling over

Set the oven to 180 degrees celsius.  Butter then line a 20 x 30cm tin.

Cover up with rubber gloves and an apron then peel the beetroot and cut it into chunks.  I find it helps to do this bit in the sink, so that you are not left with a pink kitchen.

Place the beetroot in a large microwave-proof bowl and cover with water.  Cover the top of the bowl with cling film, pierce the cling film with a few holes and microwave on high for 12 minutes.

Drain the beetroot then place back in the bowl with the butter, chocolate and vanilla extract.  Use a hand-held, bladed blender to mulch into as liquid-y a mix as you can manage.  You can also do this bit in an electric mixer, although I find my hand-held one works fine as the beetroot is soft and its warmth melts the chocolate.

Crack the eggs into another large bowl and add the caster sugar.  Beat until foamy and pale, about two minutes with an electric beater.  Gently fold in the beetroot mix, then sift in the flour and cocoa.  Mix in the flour and cocoa gently with a metal spoon.  It will be quite pink!

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Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 25 minutes, until the top is all risen.  Cool completely in the tin and once cooled, dust with icing sugar.

This is sweet and chocolatey and honestly, not a hint of beetroot.  It has a very pretty pinkish tinge, not unlike a red velvet cake.

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Sage and cheddar biscuits or, what to do with sage?

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What to do with sage? Make buttery, cheesy sage and cheddar biscuits?  Yes please.

I’ve found myself with a reasonably plentiful supply of fresh sage, which is a new thing.  I have always managed to grow parsley and been left perplexed at how to use the stuff up, but my previous sage attempts have all turned into sad little heaps.

It seems I’m not the only person to pose this question. The lovely Chocolate and Zucchini blog has very helpfully compiled a list of suggestions.  Those of you who have read some of my other cheese-laced ramblings can probably imagine that sage and cheddar biscuits were a stand-out.

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Mmm, cheddar.  Do you know what I love most about cheddar?  It’s those delightful little crunchy bits amongst the dense, savoury cheese.  And recently, I was fascinated to learn  from this wonderful cheese blog, Fromage Homage, that they have a special name….calcium lactate crystals.

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These little biscuits are adapted from this recipe.  They provide a lot of bang for their buck, being so very simple to make but looking most classy served up as a home-made nibble to accompany drinks.  I need to provide you with a warning: they are incredibly buttery.  So much so that you need to have at least two.

Here’s how to make your very own:

Ingredients:

  • 125 grams butter, chilled and diced
  • 125 grams Cheddar  cheese, grated
  • 125 grams flour
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
  • Ground black pepper

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees celsius and line two baking trays.

Combine the butter, cheese, flour, sage and pepper in a bowl.  Mix until it forms a ball (I find it easiest to use my hands for this).

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and roll out to 0.5 cm thickness.  Use a cutter to make into rounds, treating it like a cookie doll by rolling up the offcuts and cutting out more biscuits.

Bake in the oven for 12-15 minutes until crisp and golden.  Cool for one minute and then transfer to a baking rack.

Makes 16 biscuits.
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Welsh cakes for St David’s Day

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I always loved visiting Wales when I lived in the UK, and what’s not to love?  Beautiful countryside, that lovely lilting accent and, most importantly, Welsh cakes.

To the uninitiated, these little morsels may present like just another baked good.  I promise you, they are so much more.  Sugary and dotted with currants, they are gently browned like fat little pancakes on a hot bake tone, which in other words is a whacking great slab of cast iron heated on top of the oven elements.

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The secret to the toothsomeness of Welsh cakes lies not just in the sugar, butter and dried fruit, but in the addition of lard.  Yes, I too felt a little ill when informed of this fact.   But please believe me, it adds a little something wonderful without any taste of fat, leaving the finished product just ever so slightly crisp on the outside, in contrast to the fluffy sweetness inside.

I was very privileged this past weekend to receive one-on-one tuition from a genuine Welsh person, my lovely friend Suze.  Not only did she share her bakestone with me, but also her Nan’s welsh cake recipe.  Very kindly, Suze also hunted out the required lard, seemingly impossible to find outside of a butchers, which arrived in a slightly piggy-scented white tub.

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To learn how to make Welsh cakes a la Suze’s nan, read on…

Ingredients:

  • 225g plain flour
  • 85g caster sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch salt
  • 50g butter and 50g lard, cut into small pieces
  • 50g currants
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • Splash of milk

Tip the flour, baking powder and pinch of salt into a bowl

Add the butter and lard and rub in with your fingers until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs.

Mix in the currants, then add the egg and work in together with your hands until you have a soft dough.  If it looks a little dry, add the splash of milk.

Lightly flour your bench top.  At this point, put your bake stone (or heavy-based pan; I am reliably informed it will work just as well) over a moderate heat.

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Roll out the dough to the thickness of your little finger (as demonstrated!).  Use a 8cm cookie cutter to make the cakes.

Add a spot of lard to the bake stone and, once melted, cook the cakes in batches.  They take about 3 minutes each side to become golden brown, crisp and cooked through – you can observe the colour changing as it cooks through along the side of the Welsh cake.

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Sprinkle with caster sugar once cooked.  I cannot emphasis enough how delicious they are served all fresh and warm with a good cup of tea.   Dydd Gwyl Dewi hapus!

 

Lemon and chipotle coleslaw

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What a handsome red cabbage!  Or at least, that was my first thought when gifted some of the cabbage overflow from my parents’ bountiful garden.  And don’t you agree?

And my second thought was coleslaw.

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Coleslaw, or slaw, has made quite the resurgence of late, I believe as part of the Americana food trend. It’s a welcome resurgence as far as I’m concerned; I have always loved coleslaw.   In my 1980’s suburban New Zealand childhood all coleslaw came with a generous slathering of mayonnaise and I loved every inch of it, particularly leftover coleslaw sandwiches  (there was little competition with my sisters for this lunchbox item).

Coleslaw’s history begins in Holland as ‘koolsla’, a cabbage salad.  It came to New York with the flood of Dutch immigrants who grew cabbages around the Hudson River.  Cabbage appears to be the only consistent ingredient of coleslaw over the years, with many variations now common.

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And mine is one of these.  I don’t think it’s particularly traditional to have chipotle with your coleslaw, but it gives it a nice heat and makes it a good accompaniment for barbecued meat and corn cobs. A word about the chipotle – I used this lovely Orcona smoked chipotle from the sunny Hawke’s Bay superb flavour and my is it hot!  I find a only need a pinch in this recipe, but it may vary with your chipotle and palate.

You will need:

  • One red cabbage, finely sliced
  • One grated carrot
  • Juice of one lemon
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 1/2 – 1 teaspoon of chipotle flakes
  • 2 tablespoons chopped coriander
  • 2 tablespoons chopped mint

In a large bowl, whisk the lemon juice and peanut oil together.  Add the chipotle flakes, coriander and mint and mix in.

Put the cabbage and carrot on top of the dressing in the bowl and toss the vegetables in the dressing.

Serve immediately.

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A belated Christmas cake

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The busy run-up to Christmas is paved with good intentions, namely my intention to publish this post.  So forgive me for missing the boat a little with this one.  I think we can still consider this timely though, as many of us will have tin-foiled lumps of Christmas cake waiting for a cup of tea.

I would never try to better my go-to Christmas cake recipe – Nigella Lawson’s chocolate fruit cake.  I have made her cake for a least five years and partly what makes it so great is that it’s another of my favourite one-pot recipes.  You don’t need to make it weeks in advance as all of the delicious fruity, boozy, buttery ingredients are gently boiled together to mellow and release their flavours.  Not only does this make it scrumptious, it will also make your house smell amazing.

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So without further ado, here are the ingredients and method below. It’s a long list of ingredients I know, but worth it!  My only little tweak is the brazil nuts, which make the cake feel all hearty and wholesome and slightly good for you.  I also used brandy in my most recent version instead of coffee liqueur, but both are equally good and cointreau’s not bad either.

For Nigella Lawson’s chocolate fruit cake you will need:

  • 3 cups pitted prunes
  • 1 ¾ cups raisins
  • 1 cup currants
  • 50g candied peel
  • 175g soft unsalted butter
  • 1 cup brown or muscovado sugar
  •  cup honey
  • ½ cup tia maria or other coffee liqueur (or brandy or cointreau!)
  • 2 – 3 oranges (juice and zest)
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice
  • ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 3 large eggs (beaten)
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ¾ cup almond meal
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • And if you’re like me, 1 cup brazil nuts

Put the fruit, butter, sugar, honey, booze, orange juice and zest, mixed spice and the cocoa in a big saucepan over a medium heat and bring it to the boil, stirring.  Simmer for 10  minutes and remove from the heat, letting it stand for 30 minutes.

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Meanwhile, warm your oven to 150 degrees celsius and get your cake tin ready.  You are going to line it so the baking paper towers up beyond the sides of the tin and your finished, prepared tin looks like it has an extra top layer of baking paper.

This may seem a lot of faff but I promise it’s worth it as without it, the top of the cake can be burned and tough.  There are more explicit instructions here.  In short, I find it works for me if I grease the whole tin liberally to start.  I cut out a circle of baking paper for the base and two long strips which circle around half of each side, and then plaster it all on, the side pieces first and then the base circle.  This is not the best picture, but I’m including it to give an idea of the finished product if that’s helpful and, like me, the idea of origami makes you balk a little.

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Add the eggs and all dry ingredients to the cooled butter mix and stir gently to combine.  Pour the mix into the prepared cake tin and bake for 1 and 3/4 to 2 hours, until the top is firm but shiny and a skewer inserted into the middle has a little gooey mixture clinging to it.

Cool in the tin.  It keeps for ages wrapped in a layer of baking paper encased in tin foiled. It’s not at all bad with a little nip of something!  And of course, it goes well with tea.

Keep safe and happy this Christmas season, wherever you are in the world.

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Irish soda bread

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You all know how much I love a good, old-fashioned cookbook.  So I was naturally delighted when this little gem, ‘The Cookin’ Woman: Irish Country Recipes’ arrived in my letter box, thanks to my little sister (Science teacher extraordinaire and blogger at Einstein’s Kitchen).

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It’s appropriate not just because I love unusual cookbooks, but also because my better half is Northern Irish.  Florence Irwin is the author, lauded as Ulster’s first travelling domestic science instructor.  She came to write this book after her expeditions throughout County Down. Her recipes include not only traditional fare and specialties such as dulse, but also suggestions for the modern-day cook such as the outlandish ‘imaginative and healthy vegetable dishes,’ and some household tips.

I myself would be interested to know quite how this little book found its way to this side of the world.  The original sales sticker on the back says it is from Four Provinces Bookshop (sadly now closed), 244 – 246 Grays Inn Road, London.  From there to Port Chalmers…who knows how that happened?

One of my favourite Irish treats is Soda Bread, or Soda Farl.  The leavening agent is baking soda, and the bread itself is dense and wholesome with a pleasant soda twang.

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Naturally, the Cookin’ Woman has a recipe for Soda Bread.  It’s surprisingly easy to make, being rather like whipping up a batch of scones, and it resulted in a delicious little loaf.  I am pleased to report passed the Northern Irish test – all gone rather quickly and washed down with plenty of tea.

You will need:

  • 1.5 pounds or 680 grams plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Approx. 3/4 pint or 350 mls buttermilk (I used plain yoghurt thinned with a little milk)

Preheat your oven to 375 Fahrenheit or 190 Celsius, leaving the tray you will be using for the soda bread in the oven to warm up.

Sift the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt into a large bowl.  Make a well in the centre.

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At this point, Florence becomes very firm on instructions to ensure a light loaf.  One is not to add it ‘drop by drop.’ Instead, start with adding about half the buttermilk to the well in the centre.  Using a knife, draw the batter from the sides and add more liquid as the batter thickens.

To ensure a light loaf, you don’t want it over-worked  ‘ragged’ in the centre.  And so I stopped mixing at about the point where it was lumpy and not to dry.

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Spread the warmed tray with flour.  Tip out the dough, dredge it in flour and knead lightly, tucking in the edges to form a circle as you go, and doing so ‘very lightly indeed.’  When the top is smooth, turn it upside down (to distribute flour to what is now the top of the loaf) and roll it to about 1 inch thick.

Cut it into farls.  Yes, I had to check this out too – ‘farl’ is an old Scottish word for quarter.

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Florence doesn’t specify a time, but just that one bakes it until it is ‘risen, nicely brown and cooked to the centre.’  This took my farls 30 minutes.

Delicious hot with butter and tea!

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Bacon and asparagus risotto

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It’s truly wonderful to be writing about asparagus.  The appearance of these little green spears of joy means it must be spring.  I’m sure you’ve all enjoyed my endless assault of stodge and apples as much as I have, but there are few things in life as heartening as these green signs of life presented to us after a long winter.

Risotto is a favourite dish of mine.  My husband describes it as a labour of love and one that he couldn’t be bothered with, because risotto takes a certain degree of patience as one gently stirs the rice and waits for the stock to slowly absorb.  But this is exactly why I love it – it affords plenty of contemplative time and an excuse to mooch around in the kitchen.

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I was inspired to make this particular little dish as I am taking every chance to make use of the all-too-short asparagus season, but spring being the perverse season it is, we are still getting some rather miserable days and cold nights.  Asparagus risotto is the perfect antidote – another chance to make use of asparagus, with all the heartening loveliness of risotto you need on those windy, nasty days.  The streaky bacon in this takes the savoury hit up a notch, but you could have it vegetarian-styles and it would still be rather tasty, I believe.

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This is what you need for 2-3 large bowls of risotto:

  • 3 rashers streaky bacon, chopped
  • 6 spears of asparagus, chopped
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 1.5 cups aborio rice
  • 6-8 cups chicken stock
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Butter
  • Salt and pepper

Put your chicken stock into a saucepan and get it gently heated, perhaps the odd bubble but definitely not boiling.

While it warms up, put a heavy-bottomed pot or saucepan on low-medium heat.  Add the olive oil and let it warm up.

Once the oil is a little warm and swish-able around the base of your pot or pan, add the bacon and asparagus.  Cook it gently for up to 5 minutes, letting the asparagus soften slightly.

Tip in the rice and stir it around so all the grains are coated in the oil. When the rice grains start to go translucent, add a ladle of stock to the pot.  Stir until the stock has been absorbed, and then repeat with another ladle of stock, stirring until all the stock is absorbed.

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Repeat until the stock is all used up.  This process should take 20 – 30 minutes. Be vigilant and keep stirring throughout!  There is nothing worse than having your lovely risotto cemented all over the base of the pan.

Once your stock is all gone and your rice cooked you’re nearly ready to gobble.  At this stage, I grate in a liberal amount of parmesan cheese (I have not specified an amount because too much is never enough when it comes to me and cheese) and dot the risotto all over with butter.  Season as you like and give it another good stir, then serve immediately.

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