Weekend Cooking

It’s probably very dull and predictable that I almost always go food shopping on a Friday to get what we need for the weekend.  I know I’m not alone in this because I invariably bump into friends doing the same thing.  In fact, Waitrose can be a very sociable place on a Friday morning!

Sometimes meals have been planned and I’ve drawn up a shopping list of ingredients (on my phone – I add to it throughout the week), but some weeks I hope I’ll be inspired by something I see at the butcher’s or in the supermarket.  Last Friday was one of those times.  I bought duck breasts, half a shoulder of lamb and a kilo of minced beef in case I changed my mind about the duck breasts.  When in doubt, make a bolognese or a chilli, is my motto.  The mince is now in the freezer and I slow-roasted the lamb on Sunday.

Duck Breasts 

Because we were going to be watching the Six Nations rugby on Saturday afternoon, I wanted to keep my duck breast recipe simple.  I used two duck breasts for three of us.  If your duck breasts are as large as ours were, you need less than a whole one per person.

Score the fat of your duck breasts and season.  Peel and cut into cubes one medium potato per person and place in a roasting tin in a single layer.  Place the breasts in a cold, non-stick frying pan on the Aga simmering plate (conventional: medium heat) skin side down.  Cook for 8 minutes, pouring the fat as you go along into the roasting tin into which you’ve placed the potatoes.  It would be sensible to line the tin with bake-o-glide (I forgot) because the potatoes might stick a little (as mine did).

After the 8 minutes, place the now golden breasts skin side up on a rack over the potatoes in the roasting tin and cook in the roasting oven (conventional 220ºc) for a further 15 minutes for a pink centre.  If you prefer them well done, increase this time by 5 minutes or so.  Make sure all the delicious fat from the frying pan has gone into the roasting tin.

While this is happening put the frying pan back on the simmering plate and add about a glass of red wine and a little stock (whatever you have to hand; I used Marigold Swiss vegetable bouillon powder).  Let that bubble and thicken a little and then stir in some redcurrant jelly until melted.  I’m not giving you quantities here.  Just think of how many people you are serving; all you need is a little jus to pour over.

Pour the jus into a jug and keep this at the back of the Aga, take the duck breasts out of the oven and continue to cook the potatoes until they are golden brown, tender and crisp.  Keep the breasts warm; they need to rest for 5-10 minutes anyway before being sliced thickly and served.  We ate ours with buttered cabbage.

 

If you like duck, I can also recommend this Chinese-style duck leg recipe by the excellent food blogger “Eat like a girl”.  It’s where I got the idea for the potatoes in the above dish.  I have made it many times, often for guests and a couple of times for 12 people: I just used two large Aga roasting tins in the roasting oven, one on the second set of rungs and one on the fourth, and swapped them over half way through cooking.  As I’ve probably mentioned before, I love dishes that can be cooked in one dish/pot/tin.  All you need to accompany this one is some pak choi stir-fried in a little oil with some soy sauce.

Tart

This weekend I also made this “Eat like a girl” Blueberry and Cardamom Frangipane Tart.  (More cardamom, I hear you say.  I’m not even going to apologise.)  She only posted the recipe this week so probably hasn’t had much feedback yet.  I can tell you we loved it.  It’s very Scandinavian and would work as a dessert, with morning coffee or afternoon tea.  I thoroughly recommend it.

 

 

 

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Carrot Cake

 

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I thought it might be fun to do a “weekend bake” post every Friday, but then I remembered I’ve never got into the habit of baking a cake specifically for the weekend.  I just bake when I feel like it, when I’ve got a bit of time and (very important this) when I know there are enough people around to eat my offering before it goes stale.  There was a time when I’d bake something at least twice a week for when the children returned home from school.

Yesterday I saw a window and, having checked that I had all the ingredients in the pantry (I haven’t got a pantry but you know what I mean), I put my apron on and went for it.

I made Geraldene Holt’s carrot cake, which featured on Woman’s Hour two or three years ago.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be online anymore and I haven’t got her cake book, so I am very glad I had saved the recipe to Evernote.  I’m no carrot cake expert but I do know that today’s incarnations are American in origin.  Holt’s recipe veers a little from that by using melted butter instead of oil, but otherwise it seems to me to be authentic, all the way to the cream cheese frosting.

Ingredients

  • 150g butter
  • 200g light muscovado sugar
  • 175g carrots, grated as finely as you can (I don’t bother to peel them but feel free to do so if you prefer)
  • Finely grated zest of half an orange
  • 2 eggs
  • 200g self-raising flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 120g seedless raisins
  • 60g pecans, chopped (or walnuts)
  • 3 tbsp milk

For the frosting

  • 45g cream cheese
  • 175g icing sugar
  • 1-2 drops vanilla extract

Method

  • Butter and base-line (I use bake-o-glide) a 9 inch/23cm square tin.
  • Melt the butter in a small bowl on the back of the Aga, or in a mixing bowl in the microwave.
  • Beat the sugar, carrots, orange zest and eggs together with the melted butter
  • Fold in the flour sieved with the baking powder, spices and salt.
  • Add the raisins, pecans and milk and mix until well combined.
  • Tip the mixture into the prepared cake tin and level with the back of a spoon.
  • Bake in the baking oven, with the rack on the floor of the oven, (or at 180ºC in a conventional oven) until the cake is springy in the middle and a skewer comes out clean.  It takes just 30-35 minutes in my Aga.  Holt gives a baking time of 60 minutes.
  • Cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool.
  • To make the frosting, beat the cream cheese until smooth, then gradually blend in the icing sugar until it’s spreadable.  Add vanilla extract and spread over the cake.  This makes a thin layer of icing, which is plenty, but this time, I used up the cream cheese I had left in the pot which turned out to be 75g.  I just kept adding icing sugar until I felt the frosting was the right consistency.  I know it’s naughty and unhealthy, but I enjoyed the cake even more with the thicker layer of frosting.  As you can see, I “decorated” mine with pecan nuts.

This can be eaten straight away or left for a couple of hours to let the frosting set.  To serve, cut it into squares.

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Braised Sausages and Lentils

When I read this article about home comfort eating in The Times the other week, I couldn’t wait to make the braised sausages and lentils recipe.  It seemed so perfectly suited to Aga cooking and simple to make, but on my first attempt I ended up with far too much liquid in the pan, even after the lentils were thoroughly cooked and tender.  I remembered the important Aga rule always to use less liquid than the recipe states, but I obviously didn’t reduce the quantities by enough.  The resultant dish was delicious though, and I resolved to have another go very soon.

I was reminded of it last weekend which we spent away, leaving my sisters-in-law to look after the two elderly ladies of the household: my 91 year old mum-in-law and our 13 year old (also 91 in dog years!) spaniel, Rosie.Dog in Grass

It was a special weekend because our son W and his fiancée, K, were hosting a lunch for the two families to celebrate their engagement.  This took place at our flat in London where they are currently living.  They served up a veritable feast of ham hocks, roast chicken and gratin savoyard with leeks.  There were also braised puy lentils, a delicious winter slaw made with red cabbage, celeriac and sprouts and a mixed green salad.  For pudding K made tiramisù and her younger sister a blueberry and cinnamon cake.  They probably expected to serve all these dishes buffet-style, but we found that we could seat all fourteen of us at two pushed together tables.

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It was a very happy occasion and a lovely way for us all to get to know each other.  We like K’s family very much and I feel fortunate that we’ll have in-laws that we get on with.  Knowing that we would be eating well in the evening too, I was quite restrained and limited myself to a small amount of lunch.  At about 5 o’clock my husband and I left youngest son J with his brothers and future in-laws and headed off to the depths of rural Hampshire to stay with our good friends R and P in their beautiful barn conversion.  R is a superb cook and after a drink by the roaring log fire, we sat down to a dinner of salmon terrine, beef with a fennel and thyme crust, roasted vegetables, and dauphinoise potatoes (by now I was so glad I hadn’t eaten too much at lunchtime).  She also served a deliciously melting chocolate pudding, from a recipe by chef Marcus Wareing.

On Sunday the four of us went for a walk which we enjoyed despite the rain.  IMG_2518It helped us work up an appetite for a delicious lunch of sausages and a bulgar wheat salad (R and I agreed that sausages go so very well with grains or pulses) and this is what jogged my memory and led to me attempting the braised sausage and lentil dish again.

There were only three of us so I reduced the quantities in the Times recipe, but this is one of those dishes where you don’t need to be too precise.  (We had some left over which reheated beautifully for lunch the next day.)  I also adapted the recipe slightly to suit my available ingredients.  This is what I did:

Ingredients

  • 250g puy lentils
  • 4tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 onion
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • Pinch dried chilli flakes
  • Large handful of fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1 stick celery, diced
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 1 glass red wine
  • 1 tin whole plum tomatoes, drained
  • 6 good quality pork sausages
  • Chicken stock, approx 300ml, but probably less
  • 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • A couple of handfuls of spinach leaves
  • Salt and pepper

Method

  • Cover the lentils with cold water, bring to the boil on the boiling plate, then simmer for 5 minutes on the simmering plate.  Tip the lentils into a sieve and wash under cold water until cold to the touch.
  • Pour half of the olive oil into a wide, shallow casserole or sauté pan.  Place it on the simmering plate and add the onion, bay leaf and a pinch of salt.  Coat everything in the oil, then cover and cook in the simmering oven for about 15 minutes until the onions are soft but not coloured.
  • Add the dried chilli, some ground black pepper, the parsley, celery and carrot.  Stir, then cook covered in the simmering oven for a further 15 minutes, until soft.
  • Add the garlic, stir, then pour the red wine over the vegetables, bring to the boil on the simmering plate and reduce by two thirds.
  • Add the blanched lentils, whole drained plum tomatoes, chopped up a bit, and place the sausages on top. Then add about 200ml of the chicken stock and bring to the boil.
  • Now you have a choice: if you have lots of time, place it, uncovered, in the simmering oven for a couple of hours, checking the stock level after about an hour and adding more if it’s looking dry, until the lentils are soft.  The problem with this method is your sausages might not brown very well, but 10 minutes in the baking or roasting oven at some point during the cooking should resolve that.  I was in a hurry, so I cooked mine for about an hour in the baking oven (I think the roasting oven would be too hot), turning the sausages over half way through to brown them all over.  I added a little stock during the cooking time but don’t think I used more than 250ml in total, a lot less than the Times recipe specifies.
  • When the lentils are tender and the sausages cooked, move to the simmering plate, add the spinach leaves and allow them to wilt.  Remove from the heat, stir through the rest of the oil and the balsamic vinegar and check the seasoning.
  • To serve, you could sprinkle over a little more chopped parsley.

I hope you enjoy this recipe.  For me, making it was a pleasure because it was so straightforward and – a huge plus – you don’t have to brown the sausages in advance.  Have I mentioned before my dislike of browning meat?  It makes such a mess with fat splashing everywhere, even in my hair, and leaving a thin film of grease on almost every kitchen surface.

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Ginger Cake

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of Felicity Cloake’s “How to cook perfect…” series in the Guardian.  This afternoon I’ve had a lovely time trying out her ginger cake.  The recipe appeals to me because it doesn’t contain any black treacle.  I’m eating a slice with my cup of tea as I write this.

I followed Felicity’s recipe precisely and I’m very pleased with it.  I baked it in the baking oven with the rack on the floor.  After 30 minutes I put a piece of baking parchment on top and also slid in the cold plain shelf to cool the oven down a little.  Total baking time: 50 minutes.


Candles

 

 

When I was growing up people only really used candles on birthday cakes, for a special dinner or if there was a power cut (and there were quite a few in the early seventies during the three-day week).  This was not true in my house, however, because my Norwegian mother brought over her country’s tradition of lighting candles at all times of the day or night.  She would stock up on them during our holidays in Norway because she swore that Scandinavian candles were better and did not drip.  Imagine her excitement (yes, really) when Swedish, not Norwegian, Ikea opened its first branch over here and she could buy candles almost anytime she felt like it.  It meant she could use them with abandon, finances permitting, without having to worry about when she was next going to visit her relatives or when they’d next be crossing the North Sea to visit us and could be persuaded to bring candles with them.

If this is sounding somewhat obsessive I have to admit I’ve inherited the candle dependency.  They add ambience, and let’s be honest, make everything look better and hide a multitude of blemishes, whether it be the lines on your face or the chips on your paintwork.  What with Scandi Noir TV dramas and a growing interest in Scandinavian cuisine over here, we feel that we know a lot more about those countries.  Magazines talk about hygge and give us tips on how to achieve it in our homes.  Well, candles are part of that, and you don’t only have to light them when it’s dark.  In my family a candle would always be lit at breakfast on someone’s birthday, for example.

I didn’t pay my usual pre-Christmas visit to Ikea to stock up on candles because I felt we had enough to see us through.  I was right but I’ve been using them sparingly ever since for fear of running out completely, which would be a disaster.  Seriously.  Anyway, when I was there the other day I picked up my favourites: Jubla (tall, slim and white; see above), Fenomen (fat and white) and a couple of packs of tealights.  I only ever have white candles.  Red is lovely at Christmas but doesn’t go that well with the decor in our living and dining rooms so I find it easier to stick to white.

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No recipes for you in this post but there IS food.  It’s hard to drop into Ikea without picking up something to eat.  This time I bought spicy ginger biscuits or “pepparkaka”: delicious with a cup of tea or, should you feel the urge, a glass of mulled wine.

 

 

 

 

 

Apple Cake

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Just out of the oven and cooling before winging its way to the birthday boy in London.

I have made A LOT of apple cakes in my time.  Personally, I’d rather eat apple cake than crumble or pie.  It’s more versatile for a start, because it works well as a pudding and as a teatime cake.  My sons tease me about how I make a distinction between cakes that work as puddings and those that don’t.

The apple cake I made this morning is for my son W, who turns 26 tomorrow.  I remember lying on the maternity ward after he was born on 11 February 1990, watching Nelson Mandela walk to freedom on my neighbour’s tiny televison set.  But I digress.

Sadly, I will not be seeing W on his birthday this time.  I’m staying in Bristol to keep an eye on Granny.  But it’s fine, because we’re all getting together very soon.  His dad took the cake up to London with him this afternoon.

I discussed what cake W might like with his brother G, and we agreed apple cake was probably his favourite, and it didn’t matter that it’s perhaps not very birthday cake-y.  I decided to make this one which my Twitter and blogging friend @MsAlliance introduced me to a while ago.  One thing to note: at point 5, I combine the demerara with the cinnamon and sprinkle the mixture over the cake before putting it in the baking oven.  Today I put the rack on the third set of rungs and baked it for 35 minutes.

We also love my Norwegian grandmother’s apple cake, which we eat all year round but ALWAYS on Christmas Eve; it’s tradition.  Perhaps I’ll let you have that recipe another time.

W has just been in touch to say they had some cake tonight because they’ll be at work tomorrow and eating out in the evening.  Any excuse!  Anyway, I hadn’t realised W hadn’t tried this particular apple cake before.  He says he loved it, especially the cardamom.  I’m glad they ate some today when it was at its freshest.  No-one wants to eat stale cake.

Lasagne al Forno

We had a lovely weekend, apart from the weather, obviously.  As I write Storm Imogen is still raging outside and if it carries on much longer I might be raging too!

Much of Sunday was spent pondering the prospect of an empty nest.  Owing to the wide age range of our sons (the eldest is 11 years older than the youngest), it feels like we’ve been raising children for longer than everyone else.  I have friends who no longer have any children at home and some whose youngest child is only just starting secondary school.  Most of my emptynester (is that even a word?) friends still see a lot of their children (some of them have boomeranged back from time to time) but life has inevitably changed for them.  I’m in no hurry to reach the same stage but we’ll be there before we know it and I’m not at all sure how I feel about it.

The reason for musing on all this is that at 7 o’clock on Sunday morning my husband took our youngest son to the station to join his fellow French A-level students and their teacher who have all gone to Bordeaux for this half-term week.  The students will spend the mornings in classes at the Alliance Française and the afternoons doing sightseeing and various interesting activities.  They will have homework to do too.  They’re all staying with families, most of them in pairs, but my son was pleased to find that he’d be on his own because he felt it would force him to speak French more.  It will no doubt help that his host family has teenage children.

He’s been on trips before but as far as I can remember, this will be the first time it’s been just the two of us (three if you count Granny in her flat downstairs) for a whole week.  Son texted (in French, bien sûr) to say he’d arrived safely and that the family is “très gentille”.  He has an ensuite shower and wifi access.  Not bad.

I’m not sure why but lasagne seems like the perfect dish for a Saturday night supper.  I made one this weekend, fitting the various stages in between other tasks and watching the Six Nations rugby.

The recipe, by Tamasin Day-Lewis but based on Marcella Hazan’s version, is one I use all the time.  As Tamasin says, a good ragù should have a mellow and gentle flavour, which is why you add milk.  And don’t even think of using lean mince: you need fat to make a good, sweet ragù.  I’ve been using this recipe since before I got my Aga, but it’s perfect for Aga cooking because it can be left for hours and hours in the simmering oven.  It’s great with tagliatelle or spaghetti but on Saturday I went the whole way and made lasagne al forno.

You will need:

  • 2-3tbs olive oil
  • Knob of butter
  • 2 large onions, finely chopped
  • 3 sticks celery, chopped
  • 3 carrots, finely diced
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1kg ground beef with plenty of fat
  • 1 tbsp tomato purée
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 200ml milk
  • 200ml white wine
  • 500ml passata
  • 1 litre béchamel sauce, made with a bay leaf and nutmeg
  • 2 packs lasagne sheets, the sort you don’t need to pre-cook
  • Freshly grated Parmesan

What you do:

  • Warm the oil and butter in a large, sturdy pan or casserole (on the Aga simmering plate)
  • Add the onion and sauté gently until softened and translucent.
  • Add the celery, carrots and garlic, cook for another couple of minutes, stirring to coat well.
  • Move to the boiling plate, add the ground beef, a large pinch of salt and a good grinding of black pepper.
  • Stir until the beef has lost its raw, pink look.
  • Return to the simmering plate and add the tomato purée, bay leaves and milk and simmer gently for about 10 minutes, until the meat has absorbed the milk.
  • Add the wine and let it simmer until it has evaporated, then add the passata and stir thoroughly.
  • Cook at a lazy simmer (in the simmering oven), with just an intermittent bubble breaking the surface, uncovered, for a minimum of three hours.
  • Pour just enough béchamel to cover the base of a greased baking tin or dish, then add a layer of lasagne, followed by a layer of the ragù, a layer of béchamel.
  • Continue with two or three more layers (the more, the better, in my opinion), finishing with béchamel and a good grating of fresh Parmesan on top.
  • Bake in the middle of the roasting oven (conventional 200ºC) for 30 minutes.
  • It’s ready if it’s bubbling and golden all over and a knife slips easily through the lasagne.

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Sitting down to eat this with a green salad and a glass of red was a lovely way to end a day which got off to a bad start; we discovered our shower was leaking into the living room below.  Thankfully my husband is handy and managed to fix it.

While he did that, as well as making my ragù I had another go at making the ginger cake that went so badly wrong last time: it was better this time but the batter rose over the edges of the tin.  [Insert expletive here]  Next time, I’ll use a bigger tin and if it works, will let you have the recipe because it does taste good.

Italian friends came over to watch the Italy v France Six Nations match with us.  Because C is a marvellous cook, it was with some trepidation that I served them the cake but they pronounced it delicious.  Phew!  They then left us to watch England v Scotland without them.  Well done England!

So, Sunday felt rather strange.  We had a Sunday roast as usual and I’m sure we’ll continue with that tradition, at least for as long as my mother-in-law is with us, but I wonder what we’ll do after that.  Will we lead a more fancy-free life with no fixed meal times?  I just don’t know.  I cooked slow-roast shoulder of lamb (the butcher was happy to cut a shoulder in half for me: a whole shoulder would have been far too big) but I’m not going to write about it here because it was a very similar recipe to the one I posted on my tumblr here almost exactly a year ago.

Incidentally, it’s Shrove Tuesday tomorrow and I will be making pancake cannelloni with the leftover ragù: just make crêpes, roll them up with ragù inside, lay them side by side in a dish and pour béchamel over the top, finishing with some grated Parmesan.  Bake in a hot oven.