Pizza

On Sunday we went out to lunch to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 91st birthday.  It was such a treat to go out instead of cooking the usual roast, it almost felt like it was my birthday too!  A happy time was had by all, even though Granny didn’t, for various reasons, have any of her eight grandsons there.  But she had her three children (my husband and his two sisters) and the spouses of two of them.  We all remarked that we didn’t think we’d had a meal together sans offspring since before they were born.

Lunch was at one of our favourite Bristol restaurants, Bosco Pizzeria.  The pizzas there are cooked in a wood fire oven – the best way, no question – and give Neapolitan and Florentine pizzas a run for their money.  IMG_0703

I am a home cook who doesn’t try to emulate restaurant cooking.  At restaurants I tend to choose dishes I probably wouldn’t attempt to make at home.  I doubt any domestic kitchens could reproduce pizzas like the wood-fired ones, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth having a go and, unlike the ultra-salty supermarket version, a homemade pizza makes for a reasonably nutritious meal.  I mean, what is unhealthy about bread, tomatoes and mozzarella?  When the boys were young I used to follow a Jamie Oliver recipe for the dough which makes about 8 pizzas, just enough to feed them and any friends who came home from school with them.

After much trial and error in the Aga, we’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to cook pizza and achieve a crisp base, is by cooking it on the floor of the roasting oven (for about 8-10 minutes). IMG_0702 We’ve had a couple of “pizza nights” when youngest son made the dough (he loves kneading!), I made the tomato sauce (by simmering “chair de tomate” with some crushed garlic, a little sugar and seasoning) and we each chose our favourite toppings.  When third son G was present on one occasion, his role was that of tough-but-fair critic.  My husband’s job was to get the pizza in and out of the oven without damaging it and he’s become very adept at it.  He loves flourishing the baker’s paddle I bought from the Aga Cookshop and I told him not to worry, I wouldn’t mention the one that landed face down on the floor.

 

 

 

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Cardamom and Lemon Cookies

I know it’s not very modern but I had a quiet couple of days this week.  Yes, that’s right, I wasn’t rushing around like a mad thing; I pottered about, mainly at home, and it was lovely.  Such days are rare, although admittedly a little less rare now only one of my sons lives here permanently.

That’s not to say I was idle.  My activities included the following; cleaning bathrooms; laundry; ironing shirts; meeting a friend for coffee (one of my favourite pursuits); having a friend over for coffee (different friend, different day); tweeting (Twitter was rather compelling on Wednesday, following Mr Cameron’s “bunch of migrants” remark); walking the dog; vacuuming my mother-in-law’s flat (despite being nearly 91 she insists on doing housework but I help out occasionally); cooking (Middle Eastern lentils and rice was delicious); watching the celebrity Great British Bake-Off (I thought Samantha Cameron was lovely and – spoiler alert – a deserving winner); baking cookies.  I fear it all sounds terribly dull to you, but I enjoy days like that: they are a chance to catch one’s breath.

The cookies I baked were these:

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Cardamom and Lemon Cookies

The recipe is on the BBC website * and is by the Hairy Bikers, but it was my mother who drew it to my attention.  She is Norwegian and always makes Norwegian biscuits in the run-up to Christmas, which she then brings to us when she comes on Christmas Eve.  Some recipes she inherited from my grandmother (or “Mommo” as I called her) and have been around for many years, so the Hairy Bikers should be flattered that their recipe met with my mother’s approval.  She enjoyed watching the programmes they made in Northern Europe (I must admit I only caught one or two of them).  There is something special about baking things from recipes that have been passed down the generations.  My eldest son adores his great grandmother’s Lebkuchen (a Christmas treat originally from Germany) recipe and he and his girlfriend make them together.  In fact, they made a batch while they were with us over Christmas but I’m not ready to write about them yet because it was difficult to work out which Aga oven(s) to use and how long to bake them for.

You might be surprised to learn that cardamom is not just a spice for curries but is widely used in Scandinavian baking.  On the other hand, with the huge interest nowadays in all things Nordic, whether it be food or Noir TV series, you might not be in the least surprised!

As you can see from my Instagram photo above, I did not use a cookie stamp as described in the recipe; I simply pressed a fork onto the balls of dough to flatten them slightly before they went in the oven.

Hairy Bikers’ Cardamom and Lemon Cookies

Ingredients

  • 225g butter, softened
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 1 lemon, zest only
  • 250g plain flour
  • 100g ground almonds
  • 3 tsp ground cardamom or 1 heaped tsp cardamom seeds, ground in a pestle and mortar

Method

  • Preheat conventional oven to 190ºC
  • Line 2 baking trays with bake-o-glide** or baking parchment
  • Using an electric hand-whisk or food mixer (I used my KitchenAid), beat the butter, sugar and lemon zest together until pale and fluffy
  • Beat in the flour, almonds and cardamom until the mixture is well combined and comes together to form a stiff dough
  • Roll the dough into 24 balls and place 12 on each baking tray, making sure you leave space between each one
  • Press a fork onto the balls of dough to flatten them slightly
  • Bake, one tray at a time, in the middle of the Aga baking oven, for 14 minutes until the cookies are pale and golden.
  • Leave them to cool on the tray for a few minutes before transferring to a wire rack

* I updated this post today, 17 May 2016, following the news that the BBC was going to close its food website.  It’s therefore likely that the above link will soon no longer work.

**I always use bake-o-glide on my baking trays.  It’s brilliant stuff: non-stick and can go in the dishwasher.  I buy it via the Aga Cookshop website.

When my youngest son returned from his run yesterday afternoon he was very pleased to find something home-baked and sweet to aid his recovery.

 

Pheasant

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Pheasants were probably brought to Britain by the Romans. The common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) has been superseded in British estates by captive breeding and hybridisation between subspecies from all over the world to improve flying and holding qualities. The bird on your plate in Britain is probably a cross of Polish, French, Danish, American and Japanese (more immigration for Mr Cameron to worry about).

Almost every weekend during the shooting season, which runs from 1 October to 1 February, we eat pheasant.  Purists out there might be shocked that we don’t leave ours to hang because we find the taste then becomes just too gamey.  So birds brought back from a Saturday shoot are invariably eaten the next day.

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Rosie and Millie had a great day.

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The birds before plucking.

Very often I simply roast the birds, having smeared them in butter and wrapped them in bacon but pheasant, especially the older birds towards the end of the season, can be rather dry, so yesterday I chose to braise the birds, using a recipe by one of my favourite cooks, Diana Henry.  It’s in her book “Food from Plenty”.  (I cooked a brace but the recipe is for one bird.)

You need:

  • 65g butter
  • 1 oven-ready pheasant
  • 6 shallots, peeled and sliced
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 1 stick celery, diced
  • 100g bacon lardons, or chopped streaky bacon
  • 1 small Savoy cabbage, shredded
  • 6 juniper berries, crushed
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme

This is what you do:

  • Heat conventional oven to 190ºc
  • On the simmering plate, melt 25g of the butter in a heavy-bottomed flameproof casserole and brown the pheasant all over and set it aside.
  • Add 2 tbsp olive oil to the pan, along with the shallots, carrot, celery and bacon.  Cook until golden.
  • Add the cabbage, juniper and remaining butter.  Season and turn the cabbage to get it coated in butter.
  • Add 200ml chicken stock and 3 thyme springs and bring to the boil
  • Return the pheasant to the casserole, cover and place in the roasting oven for 40 minutes, removing the lid for the last 15 minutes.
  • Or, if you have plenty of time, you can just leave this to cook in the simmering oven for an hour or two, letting it brown in the roasting oven for the last 15 minutes.

Cheat’s tip: if you don’t have any shallots use frozen, already peeled and chopped ones, available from Waitrose and probably other supermarkets too.  I always keep a packet in the freezer.

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The finished dish.

 

The Complete Aga Cookbook

 

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I believe it’s still the case that when you take delivery of a brand new Aga, you also receive (for free!) a copy of “The Aga Book” written centuries ago (only joking) by the now, thanks to the Great British Bake-Off, incredibly famous Mary Berry.  My own copy of this book is still in regular use.  In addition to recipes, it explains how the Aga works and there are lots of helpful tips about cooking in an Aga.  I could not have done without this book in the early days.

I don’t think Mary would mind me saying that the recipes are a little old-fashioned now because this must be partly why she, her assistant, Lucy Young, and Aga have published a new, updated book.  There’s still a section on how to get the most out of your Aga but now it includes all the new models which have been introduced in recent years.  Some of the original recipes are there (all good basics) but also plenty of more modern ones, like Nasi Goreng and various pasta dishes.  Can you believe the original book has NO pasta in it?

My boys gave me this book for Christmas and on Saturday I made a scrumptious shepherd’s pie from it.  The lamb was cooked with a little port and redcurrant jelly and the mash topping was a mixture of potato and celeriac.  (Note to self: if you make it again, add some garlic to the mash.)

Leek and Potato Soup

Strictly speaking, this post should be entitled Leek, Onion and Potato Soup, but there can’t be many soups which DON’T have onion as an ingredient, surely?  One of the reasons I’m writing about soup is that I bought supermarket soup for lunch on Friday; it was just me and I wanted something quick, but I wish I hadn’t bothered.  I don’t know about you, but I find shop-bought soup, with the possible exception of Heinz tinned cream of tomato, however delicious it might taste at the time of eating (drinking?), tends to leave an oniony aftertaste.

So, with a plan to make soup in mind, I paid my usual Saturday visit to Whiteladies Road Market yesterday morning to buy crusty bread.  A rummage in the fridge then produced some ageing leeks, an onion and potatoes, which made the decision about what soup to make very easy.  I always use Delia’s recipe for this; it’s in her original “Complete Cookery Course” but if you haven’t got that book (you haven’t?) it’s on her website here.  It’s very easy to make, and delicious and warming.  It can be chilled and eaten cold (and renamed Vichyssoise) but I prefer it steaming hot.  Take care not to let it boil though.

Incidentally, ever since my mother gave me a handheld stick blender, just two or three years ago, I’ve been making soup a lot more often.  I have no idea how I came to this wonderful gadget so late in life, but thank goodness I did.

For Aga owners: I started the vegetables off on the simmering plate before putting the lid on and sweating them for about half an hour in the simmering oven.  Once the stock/water/milk had been added and it had been brought up to simmering point on the hotplate, it was returned to the simmering oven for 30-40 minutes until the vegetables were soft, left to cool for 10 minutes or so, and then blended.  The addition of a little cream to each serving is entirely optional.

Anonymity

Since starting a blog I’ve spent more time reading other people’s than writing my own.  Let’s say it’s in the interests of research.  I’m amazed at the variety of different styles out there, and it’s given me lots of ideas, but in the end my blog must be my own and not a poor imitation of someone else’s.

One thing about which I realise I have not been consistent and feel I should sort out before I go any further, is how to refer to my children, who are no longer children, let’s be honest.  I don’t plan to say much about them because I’m not sure they’d like me to, but it’s hard not to refer to them from time to time and I don’t want to use the Twitter shorthand I’ve adopted of Son1, Son2, Son3 and Son4.  So maybe I’ll do what a lot of bloggers do and use their initials, and ditto for other family members and friends who get a mention.  Will have to think of a way to get round the fact that youngest son and husband share their first initial (J).  J Senior and J Junior?  We’ll see.

 

 

 

The Cake That Went Wrong

We finished our Christmas cake a few days ago and since we’re not doing a clean/dry/healthy January or whatever it is we’re supposed to do, I decided to bake a cake yesterday, the first baking I’ve done since before the festive season.  When I asked my youngest what he’d like, he didn’t hesitate: the ginger cake from the Nordic Bakery Cookbook, a gift to me from his big brother.  I’m half Norwegian, which makes the boys a quarter Norwegian, and we all love the recipes in this book.  Actually, our youngest has baked more from it than I have, and very successfully.

Since I last made the ginger cake (in an 8″ tin), I’ve bought the correct sized (7″) tin, which is the one I used yesterday.  I knew the cake would therefore be deeper and I’d need to make sure it was cooked in the middle.  At the end of the allotted time, the skewer came out clean, so I knew it was cooked through, but as you can see in the photos, I was WRONG.  As I turned it over the middle began to ooze out, creating, to much wailing by me, a massive sink hole.  How could this be?   One explanation is that I inserted the skewer at an angle and somehow missed the middle, but I don’t really believe this.  Nor do I think it has anything to do with the timing adjustments one has to make for Aga cooking because I’ve got used to that now and nothing like this has happened before.  Mind you, that’ll teach me to think smugly that I might write a blog in which I pass on cooking tips and recipes to fellow Aga owners.  Rest assured though, I will not rest until the mystery is solved and I WILL be having another go at this one.

Apart from the middle, which I scooped into the bin, the cake was absolutely fine, so when my son came home from school, I put the kettle on and we laughed at my mishap.   Oh, and ate some cake.