Cocoa cupcakes

Remember when I said I was a much more accomplished cook than baker? The main reason for this is simply practice. In order to get better at something you have to do it more than once or twice and in order to refine it you have ensure it becomes like second nature. This cannot be said for my baking because if I’m making cupcakes, I’m eating cupcakes and if I’m eating cupcakes I’m going to end up fatcakes. I’m a girl, this is a concern. Therefore when the occasion arises where cupcakes are a sure requirement, like, say a birthday party, then I get my chance to conjur up some sweet delights without the guilt of knowing I’m the only one eating them.

I had wanted to try Joy The Baker’s Sweetheart Rose Cupcakes minus the frosting but I got lazy on the day and just ammended Nigella’s basic cupcake recipe. I was also excited to finally get to use my retro cupcake cases that I’d recently purchased in Oliver Bonas – God I love that shop! On the same day I found some outrageous mini chopsticks with strawberries printed on them, how cute is that? I digress. The making of said cupcakes went smoothly and bearing in mind I don’t have one of those fancy kitchenaids and have to do everything by hand, I ended up with a fanastic  batter (yes, hubbie and I licked the bowl clean!).

I don’t know why I got such a bee in my bonnet regarding the cocoa bit, I could just as easily have made plain vanilla but I have a massive tub of the stuff in my cupboard and I’m always trying to find ways to include it in my sweet dishes. This turned out to be a wise move when it came to my icing choice, which I only decided upon after the cupcakes had come out of the oven – see, this is why you need to practice these things! What I really wanted to do was a white chocolate cream cheese frosting (I’d already bought the required bits) but realised these were going to be a nightmare to transport to the Birthday venue, so a basic lime icing it was. An accidental but brilliant combination, which was enjoyed by one and all – especially loved were the cheeky white chocolate chunks I’d popped on top. The birthday boy himself was much appreciative and I felt pretty good about my effort and contribution to the evening. Cupcakes do equal happiness………….but only on a special, now and again, once in a while occasion!

Ingredients:

125g flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon bicarbonate soda

125g sugar (pref. caster but I used granulated and it was fine)

125g soft unsalted butter

2 eggs

teaspoon real vanilla extract

1 heaped tablespoon cocoa powder

2 tablespoons milk

12 cupcake cases

Icing:

icing sugar

juice of 1 lime

white chocolate chunks

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees and arrange your cases either on a baking tray or in a muffin tin. I’m away from my real kitchen so I had to make do with the baking tray option.

Measure everything out. Put the flour in a bowl with the baking powder and bicarbonate soda – please err on the side of caution with regards to the 1/4 teaspoon measurement, less is more if you get my drift – you don’t want little exploding cupcakes on your hands. The alternative would be to use self raising flour but I never have this in my cupboard:) Add the cocoa powder to the flour and thoroughly combine so you get a light brown mixture.

I do everything by hand so I creamed the butter and sugar in a bowl using a spoon and then added the eggs one at a time. Fold in half of the flour/cocoa mixture and then add the vanilla extract – I suppose this is optional but I feel it gives an extra boost to the overall flavour of the cupcake, which can’t be bad. Then fold in the remainder of the flour and then add one tablespoon of the milk. If the mixture is that of a dropping consistency, basically not too thick nor thin then there is no need to add the other tablespoon of milk. If it doesn’t look as if it will pour easily then by all means do add the milk but you don’t want it too runny. I transferred the batter to a measuring jug, as it was much easier to pour into the cases this way, you could spoon it in if you wish. Make sure you don’t fill them to the top of the cases, I reckon about two thirds of the way should do it. There shouldn’t be any batter left after filling 12 cases but if there is just add another case.

Pop in the oven for 15-20 minutes. Mine were ready in 15 but every oven is different so just check them with a toothpick. If it comes out clean they are good to go. Leave to cool on a wire rack. Don’t ice these babies until they are completely cool.

Now for the icing. I haven’t put any measurements for the icing because this is one you really have to play by ear. Initially add three heaped tablespoons to a bowl and gradually add the lime juice, stirring all the while. Add more sugar and juice as desired and mix thoroughly. When you get a thickish consistency that will be relatively easy to spread that’s what you want – I use the back of a spoon to smooth it over the cakes. Top the cupcakes with a medium layer of icing, try to not overdo it otherwise they will be too sickly sweet and will refuse to set. At this stage top with the white chocolate chunks – I added three to each, odd numbers always work best for food I think. The icing will set a little but won’t create a hard shell and they will, I assure you, taste scrumdiddlyumptious!

Maybe I won’t wait until a birthday to make these again:)

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Tacos

When we are in Chicago we are lucky enough to live on a street that serves what I believe to be some of the best Mexican food in the city. It’s Western for those Chicagoans who may be reading. In particular we have not one but two 24hr restaurants that both serve a pretty mean taco. Yes people, you did hear correctly, I did say 24hr tacos! On my doorstep!

Anyway, before I spent any time in the States I thought a taco was a crispy cone shaped tortilla that collapsed when you bit into it leaving ingredients spilling down your front. How wrong I was. Little did I know that any true Mexican restaurant would never serve a crispy taco, no, no, no. It’s soft shell all the way baby and boy are they good. I mean really good.

I’ve come a long way since those days. For example, i’ve discovered Mexican chorizo – a glorious soft meat that you fry but still has that wonderful smoky taste you find in the Spanish sort. In fact, I would say I’m now a bit of a Mexican food afficionado and I go to great lengths in my own kitchen to try and recreate these amazing dishes. So tonight, my friends, was taco night:) Much to my husbands delight, as he has become a little obsessed with our local Las Asadas, which, in his opinion, serves the ultimate taco. High praise indeed!

I had steak left over from my Beef Stroganoff and I bought some lovely little prawns for my favourite, the shrimp taco. Unfortunately soft taco tortillas are not widely available here in the UK but fear not my lovelies because all you need is a sharp knife, a bowl and you are good to go. Don’t dump the remainder of the tortillas, they have many, many uses. How about cutting them into strips(or triangles or any shape you so wish), frying and salting for your own homemade tortillas chips. Alternatively you could fold them into scrambled eggs a la Nigella for a Mexican inspired breakfast or my choice would be to let them go stale and make Chilaquiles. More on that awesomeness later but for now we can content ourselves with some seriously tasty tacos.

Ingredients:

6/8 Tortillas

For the shrimp tacos:

1 onion

3 baby sweet peppers

100g prawns

1 ripe avocado

zest/juice 1 lime

small bunch coriander and/or flat leaf parsley

teaspoon chilli in oil

teaspoon tomato puree

salt and pepper

For the steak taco:

100g beef steak (any kind that you can cut into strips)

1/2 teaspoon chilli in oil

tablespoon coriander/flat leaf parsley (of the bunch you’ve already chopped)

50g cheddar cheese

salt and pepper

For this recipe I like to chop everything in advance so that the tacos can be easily assembled without any fuss. Lay out your tortillas (I like to do them two at a time) and place a medium size bowl in the centre, carefully using the knife to cut around it so you get a perfectly round, perfectly formed taco tortilla.

It’s much easier to tackle the shrimp taco first because they take longer. Finely chop the onion and pepper as small as you can – you’ll thank me later. Ditto the coriander and flat leaf parsley. Zest the lime and scoop out the contents of the avocado into a bowl. I make a very easy guacamole by gently crushing the avocado with the back of a fork. Lightly season with salt and pepper and squeeze the juice from half the lime into the bowl – this will stop it from discolouring and brighten up the creaminess of the avocado.I would also grate the cheese for the steak tacos now too.

Next fry the onion and pepper in a little oil and butter on a medium heat. You might be sick of me saying this already but do not let them colour and don’t let them turn to mush. When they have softened season and mix through the lime zest, tomato puree and chilli in oil (Bart’s spices do a great one but you can get them everywhere now. Failing that add a scotch bonnet.) At this stage I add the rest of the lime juice and a teeny bit of water so that a light sauce is formed. Not too much mind because you want the mixture fairly dry when you assemble your taco and if it’s wet prepare yourself for some messy eating! At the very last minute add the prawns and heat through. Before transferring to a bowl toss in the herbs and briefly stir through. Leave to the one side – you could cover them if you like but the steak tacos are going to take a mere minute.

Wipe the pan with a paper towel. Allow the pan to heat up again – medium to high heat this time. Season the meat just before throwing in the pan and fry vigorously ensuring the meat is sealed. Add the chilli, herbs and take off the heat.

Now for the assemblage. Fill one tortilla with the shrimp mixture and top with avocado and the other with the steak and cheese. Eat and go back for seconds I would say:)

Okay, so it’s not entirely authentic but it’s not too far off. For more genuine mexican fare head over to Rick Bayless’s site: http://www.rickbayless.com/ but don’t forget to come back to peasoup x

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Leon

So I promised this blog would be about other people’s food as well as my own and last night gave me the perfect opportunity to put this into practice. Before I got married last year my lovely girlies took me out for a pre Hen, pre Wedding hoopla beginning with dinner at a place called Leon (I had never heard of it nor been) and ending with Dirty Dancing in the Westend:) A glorious night was had by all and I was particularly impressed with this little establishment, which served quality but cheap as chips food. It’s a little bit like a fast food joint but there’s nothing greasy or soggy or even mass produced about this grub. It tasted fresh, flavourful and it all came served in recycled boxes. Add to that the fact that you wrote down your own order using the menu card and pencil’s provided and within minutes (and I do mean minutes) your meal has arrived as if it has been cooked with as much love and care as you’d find in any family run business. The place itself feels like a little bistro with a hotch potch of nik naks, tealights on tables and a wonderful warm red on the walls that succeeds in engulfing you and creating a cosy atmosphere.

You can imagine how excited I was then to introduce my hubbie to this wonderful ‘fast food’ experience. I had regailed the whole story with such enthusiasm that he was more than a little intrigued to try this place out. Something is  different this time, however, as we enter through the door. No greeting from the waitress, in fact I do believe she actively blanked us. Do we seat ourselves? Wait. Nothing. I guess we seat ourselves. We find a corner – I do love eating in corners, don’t you? I just hate feeling exposed when I want to chow down. We soon cotton on to what’s happening, you go to the counter and order for yourself, much like in a McDonalds and the penny finally drops – only waitress service at dinnertime and we are just on the cusp of that. We grab a menu and peruse the delights on offer. Gordon Ramsey recommends the meatballs, decision promptly made.

I’m uncomfortable though and I can’t quite put my finger on it. I don’t know whether it was the unwelcoming feeling when we entered or the staff members who are clearly on a break and have pitched up beside us with feet on chairs, chatting loudly to the rude waitress. You should know, I need to feel relaxed when I eat and I did not feel relaxed, not by a long stretch. My hubbie, who’s still recovering from his rotten cold bless him, is also distinctly on edge. First impressions are not good I’m told:( Anyway, we order: I go for the morrocan meatballs and fresh lemonade and hubbie has the chilli chicken and power smoothie.

It looks good but already we’re having problems getting at the damn food because of the annoying boxes, which have flaps that jut out and make eating very difficult. It’s luke warm too. We eat with gusto, however, because we are absolutely starving having only had fruit and yoghurt all day – we’d been saving ourselves for a nice meal and from what I could remember the portions were decent. That is still true. All dishes come with rice and slaw, which is fine except that the slaw is sliced in such a way that it is a hindrance to eat – do they not want us to be fed? Uber long strings of cabbage are tres, tres annoying. The peas are a strange addition but they don’t bother so much as the distinct lack of flavour in general. Ditto all of this for my husbands meal – he described the chicken as being a bit like kebab meat but luckily for him he is a major kebab fan. My lemonade was fine but needed to be sweeter although I must admit my meatballs were wonderfully moist and the sauce was moreish.

Now, this sounds like a scathing review and it kinda is but funnily enough I would go back because I am ever hopeful that they were just having an ‘off ‘ night. I know there was a change of shift and they were preparing for the dinner service but is it too much to ask for a hello or even an acknowledgement of your existence? Is it too much to ask that the staff don’t sprawl themselves out beside diners and act as if it’s some kind of youth club. Even McDonalds can serve their food moderately warm and ironically the employees are more attentive – surely that can’t be right? I’m pretty sure whoever owns or runs this place would not condone any of this and because of my previous wonderful experience I am willing to be proved wrong. I will visit again but this will be their final chance to redeem themselves. Leon, I hope you are listening.

http://www.leonrestaurants.co.uk/

I ate at The Strand Branch of Leon, in Aldwych, London on Thursday 25th February 2010.

p.s. apologies for the poor quality photos, I had to use the iphone because my camera ran out of battery!

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Spag Bol

Now I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. I am not a one pot wonder. However, let’s face it, making everything in the one pot is possibly the most convenient way of cooking, especially if you’re strapped for time. I happen to be nursing a sick hubbie – he’s got a cold:( and that surely calls for something familiar and comforting. Something like a good old Spaghetti Bolognaise.

Before everyone rolls their eyes I will be the first to acknowledge that it’s not a necessarily exciting dish and everyone has their own particular recipe that they’ve been using for years and swear by. I mean, it is one of the most popular weekday staples in the UK and whilst I wouldn’t say we ourselves have it once a week, it is certainly a frequent player. I also hasten to add that my Ragu recipe is a very different beast to this with a depth of flavour only achieved with the addition of chicken livers and hours of slow barely simmering on the stove. To me a Spag Bol is a quick and easy meal that covers all of my favourite food stuffs, the main one being spaghetti. Yes, that’s right, spaghetti may be my all time favourite food. I could eat it till it’s coming out of my ears but none of that awful wholewheat nonsense that seems to crumble in your mouth, thankyou.

This is such a versatile recipe though, you can adapt it according to what’s in your cupboard or fridge. By that I mean, you could add some worcester sauce, a splash of balsamic, – a cheats way of achieving that richness gained from hours of simmering – a chilli or two if you’re in need of heat or perhaps throw in whatever appropriate herbs happen to be lurking around, fresh or otherwise. So whilst this is my recipe for Spag Bol, I don’t by any means religiously make it this way.

Ingredients:

1 onion

1 carrot

6/7 closed cup mushrooms (optional)

3 cloves garlic

250g minced beef

400g can chopped tomatoes

tablespoon tomato puree

tablespoon balsamic vinegar

salt/pepper

teaspoon sugar

tablespoon butter

tablespoon oil

200g spaghetti

Finely chop the onion, carrot and garlic – I only have a garlic crusher in Chicago but have grown to love finely mincing my garlic by hand. Heat the butter and oil in a pan (yep, it’s the frying pan again but I have made it in a pot) and add the onion and carrot along with a pinch of salt and pepper. Let it gently simmer on a medium heat and do not allow to colour. After it has softened a little toss in the garlic, stir and leave for a few minutes, again without allowing it to colour.

During this time you can slice the mushrooms or not if you’ve decided leave them out – I often don’t include them myself but I do like them.

Add beef to pan and allow to brown with carrot and onion. I know some people take the onion/carrot out before doing this. I don’t. Let it colour and ensure there is no pink before adding the tomato puree. Stir thoroughly and then add the canned tomatoes, sugar, seasoning and balsamic. Stir once more and leave to simmer on a low heat. I fill the empty can with water and occasionally add if the sauce looks like it’s getting dry. Again, it’s personal preference but I like it to be quite saucy! Taste, taste, taste and season, season, season.

I leave it  for about an hour before serving but 30 mins would be sufficient if you’re in a real hurry.

For the spaghetti bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the pasta and cook for a maximum of 10 mins depending on thickness of pasta (i.e. if it’s angelhair it’ll take less time). I would taste at 8mins to be on the safe side because overcooked pasta is a crime:) What I do for serving some might find unusual but I really dislike bolognaise sauce dumped on top of coagulated pasta so I mix it (or perhaps coax is a better word) through the spaghetti and I assure you once you do it this way you’ll never go back. Oh yes and don’t forget a grating of parmesan or failing that mature cheddar will suffice.

Buon appetito!

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Beef Stroganoff

You’ll soon discover that I have a more savoury tooth than sweet, although that is not to say I don’t enjoy making and scoffing desserts! I will certainly try to keep this blog balanced but I fear there will be more recipes for dinnertime than anything else. You see, dinnertime (teatime, supper or whatever it is you like to call it) is a special time for me. Most people might come in from work and dread the thought of making something from scratch but I don’t. I can’t think of anything more essential to my winding down than laying out those ingredients on the counter, chopping, stirring, seasoning and finally consuming. I would feel cheated if I just popped something in the microwave, it just wouldn’t do. Another thing I should add quickly is that I cook for two. Me and my husband that is. So, all recipes will be designed for two people with a healthy appetite, which essentially means it could probably stretch to three. Double it for four (obviously) or if you’re a singledon you’ve got dinner for two nights, et voila! Cooking in the evening has it’s restrictions too though. It has to be semi-quick and with that in mind many of my dishes will be fairly simple but always divine.

Ingredients:

1 medium size onion

1 green pepper

125g closed cap mushrooms

200g beef (stir fry or any kind you can easily slice into strips)

150 ml sour cream

salt and pepper

butter/oil

To serve:

brown rice

First things first, slice the onion, pepper and beef into fine strips. I try to slice the green pepper very finely so it cooks at the same speed as the onion.

Heat a tablespoon of butter and tablespoon of oil in a fryingpan (a pot will totally change the flavour) together – don’t have the pan too hot, a medium heat will do, the butter/oil should be nicely bubbling but not going crazy. Add the onion, a pinch of salt (I mainly use rock or similar), grind some black pepper and fry for a few minutes – don’t let this brown, you’re only trying to soften the onion a little. Then add the pepper and fry until they’re fairly soft but not fully cooked. At this stage slice and add the mushrooms and fry for a few minutes, mushrooms don’t take long to cook and you don’t want them to disintegrate into nothing. Have a bowl/dish waiting and transfer the veg mixture to it.

There should be no need to add any more oil. Turn the heat up on the pan a notch or two – we’re going to quickly stirfry that beef! Season the beef before adding to the hot pan and stir ensuring the meat is evenly browned but not cooked through – it should only take a minute. Avoid the temptation to cook the beef right through.

Turn the heat down – you could even take the pan off the heat entirely before returning the veg mixture to the pan. Give it all a good stir and add the sour cream. Let it come to a very gentle simmer and let it cook for a minute or two, it won’t take long. Remember to taste and season – I like to do this frequently but everyone is different. I’m also pretty heavy handed with the old pepper mill in general.

The whole process should take 20-30 mins, so what I do is put the rice on at the very start – I do 1 part rice to 2 parts water, bring to the boil and then return to a simmer for 30mins until there is no liquid left. There should be no need to drain the rice. By the time it’s done your Stroganoff will be ready to serve.

And there you have it, my first recipe, Beef Stroganoff.

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I love food.

I love to read about it. I love to look at it. I love to touch it. I love to smell it. I love to make it. But most of all, yep, you’ve guessed it, I love to EAT it!

Recently I’ve been posting photos on facebook of food I’ve made or encountered. Having received a dinky new digital camera for Christmas I was instantly photographing any food I made that looked particularly appealing and even if they’re not all great snaps, it is fun:)

Now, I may not be the most accomplished photographer in the world but I do think I’m a pretty good cook and that got me thinking. What do I do with all these images and all these thoughts? Foodie thoughts to be specific. It finally made sense. I had previously tried and failed to write a recipe book because it seemed so overwhelming. But what if I could jot down all those recipes bit by bit? Now, all of a sudden that sounds way more manageable and far less tedious than trying to list and explain in detail (because I am a stickler for detail) every recipe I have ever successfully made. So a blog it is!

I think I may be doing this for myself but if anyone else reads it, enjoys it and cooks something because of it then that’s all well and good. I don’t claim that the recipes will all be entirely original (I do have a penchant for Nigella recipes and I’m always learning new things from my friend and much better cook than I could ever wish to be Olive) but I do guarantee they are ones that I’ve either made time and again and adore or new one’s I’m experimenting with. I also promise to share all my catastrophies and remedies – because you can always fix a slightly overcooked brownie with a good caramel glaze, can’t you?

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