I have been away, without any proper excuse other than the fact that I have been filling my evenings with watching Downton Abbey on DVD, several months behind the rest of the nation.  It has become something of an addiction and it is not without some relief that I say that I am about to watch the last available episode (The Christmas Special) this evening.  I am hoping that there will be some resolution but I fear it will not come.

So, with that important distraction almost over I am making a return to baking (before you ask, I haven’t forgotten to feed the children during this time) and a visit from some lovely friends this afternoon was a perfect opportunity to show off the cake stand my parents bought me for Christmas.

The brown sugar cupcakes with malty frosting, lemon and basil mini-meringues and cheese scones seemed an appropriate ‘cake stand-christening’ menu (the left-overs might be an appropriate accompaniament to Downton viewing too)!

 

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I was recently tagged by Sadia who writes Baking Elements to take part in the Food bloggers unplugged started by SusanSo, here are my answers, all in the name of a bit of seasonal fun (just like my snowman iced bun)!

1. What, or who inspired you to start a blog?

Before I had children I spent a lot of time talking with friends, often at work, about cooking and food or spent time cooking with friends.  When I was on maternity leave after having my second son I found I didn’t have that opportunity so often and it felt like a bit of a gap.  I was also using other people’s blogs for ideas for meals.  One day I thought “I could do that”.  So I did.

2. Who is your foodie inspiration?

My Grandad was my first inspiration for baking.  He happily played second fiddle to my Nanna, pottering about in the greenhouse and generally getting on with it quietly while she was alive and enchanting everyone that encountered her.  Sadly, she died shortly after he retired.  Over the years he gradually started taking up more and more hobbies and cooking for himself.  His baking was quite extraordinary, so good that you would have thought he had baked for his whole life.  We ate Sunday Tea with him nearly every week and would arrive to find a raised pork pie, a country fruit cake, a homemade loaf or all three!  Like most things he did, his cooking was quite homely but often with a quirky twist.  I hope mine is similar.

3. Your greasiest, batter – splattered food/drink book is?

Although I am most often found baking bread, it is the recipe books I use for making cakes that are the most splattered and battered…I have to follow a recipe.  I was never any good at chemistry.  So, it is probably Nigella Lawson’s Feast – Chocolate Cake Hall of Fame that has the most brown, chocolatey smudges all over it.

Delia’s Complete Cookery Course is also rather worn and even missing half of the index (which can be inconvenient)!  I find the recipes to be so reliable and there’s always a bit of background so you know why you’re doing each step of the recipe.  My Mum and I are going to use the Christmas Turkey recipe from this book this year for the first time.

4. Tell us all about the best thing you have ever eaten in another country, where was it, what was it?

I’ve been very lucky to have been able to travel to many different places through my work and on holiday.  I’ve enjoyed brik in Tunisia, pesto alla genovese in Genova and stunningly fresh calamari in Spain.  Then there was the very lightly seared whole foie gras, just a year after I stopped being vegetarian, that I (and a number of others) would rather forget at a work ‘do’ in Brussels.

One of the most memorable meals was chicken cooked over a wood-fired barbecue at a roadside cafe, on a hairpin bend, somethere in the middle of nowhere on Madeira, on my honeymoon.  I’m not sure if my husband’s gesturing and poor Portuguese was the problem or if he was just being greedy but he somehow managed to order two whole chickens.  I think we gnawed on every last bone.

6. What is the one kitchen gadget you would ask Santa for this year (money no object of course)?

I think I would gather up all the gadgets I have acquired over the years, give them to good new homes, and replace them all with attachments for my KitchenAid which I am unashamedly in love with.  But first, I need to get it serviced as there was an incident with a large amount of bread dough on the wrong setting that needs to be rectified before I can use it again.

7. Who taught you how to cook?

Lots of people really.  My Mum, my Grandad, my home economics teacher, friends and Andrew Whitley, who changed the way I make bread, forever.

8. I’m coming to you for dinner what’s your signature dish?

I’m quite lazy so it would probably be a large hunk of pork shoulder roasted as slowly as possible with not much done to it, some malted bread rolls, warm bramley apple sauce and a side salad.  A glass of rosehip prosecco and pavlova for pudding.

9. What is your guilty food pleasure?

There are a few too many of those to name all of them here but I absolutely can’t refuse a decent sticky toffee pudding or a lump or marzipan if it is put within visual range.

10. Reveal something about yourself that others would be surprised to learn?

Well, I’ve already mentioned it, but I was a vegetarian for around six years.  Then I started working with vets and farmers as part of my job who couldn’t understand it at all and ethically raised meat became a lot easier to get hold of so, after a lot of consideration, I gradually started eating meat again.  I love it but I never forget where it came from.

Finally…tag 5 other food bloggers with these questions…like a hot baked potato…pass it on!

Here are five fellow food bloggers that I’d like to know more about…I hope you find them interesting too!

http://thelittleloaf.wordpress.com who (bizarrely) has also been making little marzipan bees and baguettes recently.

http://www.breadandmilkandblackberries.com/

http://zebbakes.com/ who (also bizarrely) has a bread basket and two tea-towels the same as mine.

http://messybaker.blogspot.com/

and, last but not least,

http://rufusguide.wordpress.com/ – the first foodie blog I ever followed!

There has been a whole LOT of baking going on in the BFTB household this week.  In fact it has not just been confined to the BFTB household, I’ve gone mobile and taken bigas and bowls out and about.  And what fun it has been, a fabulous Saturday afternoon and (very late and mince-pie laden) Thursday night baking bread with friends and sharing gossip and a little wine along the way.  All, apparently willing, volunteers to try out a bread-making workshop.

We made basic bread rolls and bloomers and then got creative, designing our own enriched sweet or savoury breads, which ranged from focaccia to cheese bread to lemon brioche, all based around the same template recipe.  My demonstration piece was an Orange and Almond Christmas Bread which tasted delicious but, having made (and eaten) it four times this week, I was not at all surprised when my jeans seemed suspiciously tight this morning.

All this coincided with BBC 2’s The Big Bread Experiment which charted a group’s journey to establish a community bakery and saw them grow as bakers, as individuals and as a community along the way.  Heart-warming stuff.

It is so exciting to see people enthusing about making bread.  It tastes good and is fun to make, so grab a friend and go and bake!

When we were in Normandy, back in the summer, we had a fabulously chewy, open textured seeded baguette in the generous bread basket every morning at our B&B.  I’ve been wanting to recreate something similar ever since.  For some reason I decided that ale (Fullers’ ESB as that was what we had in the fridge) was a necessary addition to my version although I’m almost certain it wouldn’t have been in the original!  It has got me thinking though: are there any Norman breads made with cider?

I usually put my dough in the fridge to rise slowly overnight but forgot this time and left it on the counter. It wasn’t any the worse for it and, as I had used fridge-cold ale and it had been a cool night, the dough still needed two hours for the final rising so my forgetfulness might have been a blessing.

The recipe is basically a seedy version of my malthouse rolls recipe but ale replaces most of water and I used a little more liquid to help create an open texture and a crusty exterior. I managed to wrestle the remainder of the bottle of Fullers’ from my husband’s arms (“oh, that’s my favourite, are you using that to make bread?”) to keep a little extra ale to use the following day to keep the rising dough moist and to brush on to the baguettes before putting them in the oven.

I’m really pleased with the result.  A bit too pleased it seems as there doesn’t seem to be much left.  It doesn’t have quite as open a texture as the original but it is close and the chewiness is exactly where I wanted it.  More importantly, the boys loved it!

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to visit Angelina tea house in Paris you may have treated yourself to their world-famous Mont Blanc.  I seem to remember that I settled for watching my friend eat one while soaking up the atmosphere and taking a rest from the over-indulgence of lunch (not to mention breakfast).

A few weeks ago, when I tasted the medlars that have been slowly rotting under my bed, they reminded me a bit of chestnut puree and a little of slightly rotten apples.  I thought they would lend themselves well to a sort of British style Mont Blanc.  A Ben Nevis perhaps.

All the medlars were fully bletted when I opened up the box today.  Some of them had gone a bit too far in that direction, being a bit green around the gills, and I had to discard them.  I peeled the papery skins from the others, squeezed out the dark, slightly floury flesh and removed the seeds.  A little orange zest, orange juice and brown sugar lifed the flavour a little and I added a some water and blitzed the mixture in a mini food processor to make a smooth paste.

I then topped individual vanilla meringues with some lightly whipped cream and the puree and served to my slightly nervous husband who pronounced “I like it.  But I’m not really sure what to make of it”.  I think I agree.

Most importantly I’m really happy to have finally tasted medlars both unadulterated and in a dessert.

It seems I am working my way through the Chocolate Cake Hall of Fame in Nigella Lawson’s Feast.  It wasn’t really my intention and there are some I make over and over again so I’m really not being methodical about it.  If you hold the book and let it fall open it naturally it opens at the recipe for Quadruple Chocolate Loaf Cake which, incidentally, seems to have quite a lot of Quadruple Chocolate Loaf Cake mixture smeared across the page.

At the moment it is seven (incredibly rich and delicous cakes) down, and three to go:

Tropical Chocolate Cake – it looks delicious but every time I read that the recipe contains canned pineapple rings, cream cheese, cocoa and malibu I start to feel nauseous.  I’m pretty sure it would be delicious even so.

Chocolate Ginger Bread – I love gingerbread, I love chocolate, it looks amazing.  I keep buying the ingredients to make it and then deferring because the recipe doesn’t say whether the cake should be wrapped for a couple of days before icing so that it is unctuous and sticky.  I think I need to drop my ginger cake holy grail ambitions and just make it.

Chocolate Guinness Cake – I just haven’t found an excuse to make it yet.

I made the Honey Chocolate Cake for the first time for my son’s first birthday last week.  It has little marzipan bees on top so I thought it would appeal to the children and making it would be less stress-inducing than the fire engine cake I made for my eldest son’s third birthday earlier in the year.

The resulting cake is a bit like a Sachertorte in texture and my children and my nephews were very taken with the bees (as were any of the adults with a penchant for marzipan).  I found some royal icing decorations I had made a while back with some left-over icing lurking in a container at the back of the cupboard and used them to make some flowers for some of the bees to sit on.

It has all been rather quiet on the cooking front as the cold weather seems to have brought all the winter viruses with it.  In need of some fresh air as we recovered at the end of October we decided to go for a walk to pick some vitamin-C rich rosehips to make rosehip syrup.  What with the clocks going back, and our lethargy, it was almost dark by the time we made it to the park.  There was just enough time to pick them and let the kids have a quick go on the swings before heading home for tea.  I made the syrup after the children had gone to bed.  The recipe was easy enough to follow but I think next time I might check the sweetness of the extract before adding the sugar as the end result was rather sweet.  It might also help to pick them a few weeks earlier, before the first frosts.

The syrup looks very pretty sitting in an old cider bottle and we’ve been diluting it with water to make drinks.  The best use by far so far, however, is as a mixer for champagne or prosecco.  The alcohol ofsets the sweetness perfectly giving a delicately flavoured and coloured aperitif.

The other news on the foraging front is that my medlars have begun to blet, in fact some of them are ready to eat.  With a little hesitation (they really do look brown and rotten) I tasted one of them a few days ago.  The texture was similar to chestnut puree and there was a faint whiff of rotting apple about it.  The flavour was similar.  A cross between chestnut puree and baked apple.  I can see why people rave about them as there is a delicateness and uniqueness about the flavour and texture that could be considered appealing, and I can imagine it could be delicious mixed with some cream (which seems to have been the most popular way of eating them in their uncooked state).  I can also see why people find them disgusting, there is no escaping the fact that the process of rotting and fermentation has set in.

As I only have a few I am still undecided about their fate but I know I must act fast as some of them will be genuinely rotten and inedible if I leave it too long.  I can imagine eating them in a medlar mont blanc.  I wonder what the boys will think of it!

I’ve said before that cupcakes aren’t really my style, and I’m dubious about anything with more icing than cake, but I was really excited about spending the afternoon with my friend at a cupcake decorating workshop.  It was great fun and we came away with a clutch of very pretty, rather girly cakes.

I thought I would be happy to stay away from the glitter after we were told that so-called edible glitters are not edible but merely non-toxic but, once I had put glitter on just one to try it out, I got a bit carried away and ended up with glitter all over my cakes (and my clothes and face apparently).  Maybe I’m starting to understand the cupcake craze just a little bit.

We left in agreement that we are definitely rustic cooks but that once we’ve mastered the ‘cupcake swirl’ and ‘rose swirl’ and invested in a few sparkly bits even we could manage to make these cakes look pretty.  My toddler was pretty excited about the results and wanted to lick the icing off and eat the roses but leave the cake.  He obviously doesn’t share my feelings about appropriate icing/cake ratios.

I’m really not sure when my obsession with cooking with medlars or even just finding an opportunity to taste them began.  I can’t even remember when I first heard about their existence.  They’re pretty rare these days and, until fairly recently, the only ones trees I had seen in the flesh were at the National Trust’s Winkworth Arboretum.  Hardly the place for scrumping.

Then, a mere six years after moving into my house, I found a small tree in the park behind my house (next to an even smaller fig tree) and put a note in my diary to pick the medlars at some point in October.  I took a walk over there earlier this week and they easily came off the tree so I decided it was time to pick them.  There were only about twenty so I’m not sure I’ll be making any medlar jelly.  But before I even think of cooking or eating them I need to let them rot a little bit.  Yes, really.

The fruit are so hard and bitter that the rotting process, more correctly known as bletting, is needed to soften and sweeten the fruit enough to make them edible and even then they are (apparently) an acquired taste.  I read somewhere that the way to do it is to put them in a cardboard box under the bed in straw or layers of newspaper.  So, that’s where mine are now, lurking on the Sunday Supplement and awaiting their transformation into something wonderful, or at least interesting.

To be continued…

“Are you making carrot soup?” my husband asked as he was unpacking the shopping I had ordered for delivery.

“Noooo”.  I turned around to see him holding up two one and a half kilo bags of carrots.  I’m not sure how that happened but I suppose that is what you get for doing the shopping in your sleep.

There was a pumpkin too, which I did mean to order, having recently bought pumpkin-shaped baking tins.  I think they were probably meant for cakes but I had in mind bread with the appearance and taste of pumpkin (and had been getting dubiously excited about the prospect).

So, we had Pumpkin and Carrot Soup with Pumpkin Party Rolls flavoured with sage and red onion.

Ideas on what to do with the remaining two and three quarter kilos of carrots are most welcome.