Thursday, 17 April 2014

Mini Easter Simnel Cakes

I remember the first time I made a Simnel cake really well. It wasn't long after we had moved here from England and I decided I'd have a go. At that stage I wasn't as proficient at baking and my fruit cake repertoire was Christmas cake often burnt on the outside and doughy in the centre.  As usual I skimmed the recipe and completely missed the bit where you put the layer of marzipan in the centre. Then when I read it back, thought to myself that has to be a mistake.


Then the following Easter I made it correctly and was completely hooked. So much so that for several years I was tempted to do the same with every fruit cake I made. The marzipan layer is unbelievably delicious and sort of sinks and ripples through the cake.

Mini Easter Simnel Cakes Recipe

Ingredients
150g softened butter
150g dark muscovado sugar
2 large eggs
50g glacé cherries chopped
50g dates stoned and chopped
150g mixed dried fruit
25g flaked almonds
50g prunes stoned and chopped
175g plain flour
half a teaspoon baking powder
pinch of grated nutmeg, ground cloves and cinnamon
zest of one lemon and orange
1 tablespoon rum

Cream the butter and sugar. Mash the muscovado with a fork as it can be lumpy. Whisk in the eggs. Add a small amount of flour if the mixture curdles. Add the dried fruits, cherries, dates, prunes, flaked almonds, spice, zests. Fold in the sieved flour and baking powder. Finally add in the rum.

Almond Paste/Marzipan
150g ground almonds
75g caster sugar
75g icing sugar
1 egg beaten
apricot jam to glaze

Mix the almonds and sugars together. Beat the egg in a separate container and add slowly to the mix. You may not need all the egg.  It is better to add less than more. Just get in there with your hands and as my grandmother taught me, the heat from your hands releases the oil in the almonds and binds the paste. 

Roll the paste out to just under a 1cm thickness and cut rounds to fit your individual cake moulds.

Grease and line your miniature cake moulds. I used 6 moulds which were used in the bakery I worked for making individual mousses and cheesecakes and so have no base. I lined them with baking paper. 


Just under half fill the moulds with the cake mixture. Add the disc of marzipan and finish off with cake mixture. Smooth it out and make a slight dip in centre. 





Put the cakes in a preheated oven at 140C or 120C fan for an hour and a quarter. I then turned my oven up to 180C fan to brown the tops for a further 10 minutes as they were very pale


To finish off. Remove from moulds and cool. Invert them and brush the base with apricot jam. Cut out another disc of marzipan and press down gently. Brush with the beaten egg left over and place under a hot grill for a couple of minutes.

I had some mixture left over so it should be sufficient to fill a deep muffin tin with a dozen wells. The cakes will just be smaller.


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Keeping Chooks

Just released
Every time I read an article about keeping chickens, I think to myself if I had read that before I started, I wouldn't have bothered. They all seem to imply so much work and expense and inconvenience.

Luckily I just did what I always do and jump in at the deep end. I always figured I managed to look after other animals so how difficult can it be.

All you really need is somewhere secure for them to roost at night away from an intrepid fox. And of course you need to remember to close them in. The chickens go in themselves so no hassle there.

You do not need fancy housing or nest boxes. If you put a pile of straw in the corner of where they roost that should suffice. However, you will always have the one who likes laying in a hedge or under a log pile or a tunnel under a pile of brambles. How I have solved this over the years is to leave them in the run until they lay, which is usually in or around lunchtime.

It is handy to have a run or somewhere they can be out but also reasonably enclosed if you are away during the day. But if they do not have access to lots of grass, weeds and foraging you will not have nice deep yellow eggs. And, if this is the case I can't see the point in really keeping hens.

Helps to weatherproof house yearly
It never ceases to amaze me what filthy animals they are. I always remember my dad telling me that no animal poos where it sleeps. Well chickens seem to poo more where they sleep than almost anywhere else. I try to clean out their house once a week but sometimes I don't get around to it. It never seems to bother them. They just move roost when the pile builds up! For bedding I use a combination of sawdust and straw. They seem to prefer straw to lay in.

For feeding you do need to use some form of layers mash. This is a feed which contains all the nutrients they need to lay. I have found if I stop feeding it for any length of time the eggs dwindle off.  Chickens hate any change to their diet. It can take them two weeks to get used to and accept a new brand of feed. I use a combination of rolled barley and organic layers mash in a 2:1 ratio. I feed them in the morning when I let them out into the run. Then again in the evening when I want to get them back into the run. If you get them into the habit of coming when you call them for food, it makes it much easier to get them in if you are going out for the evening. (Just shout chuck, chuck, chuck every time you feed them and hope your neighbours don't hear.)

For such small animals they drink a surprisingly large amount of water. They also love to have a dust bath. Mine have several spots in the garden where the soil is very dry and sheltered. These spots also just happen to be real sun traps as well, even in winter.

Hens love sun traps
Every six weeks or so I use garlic powder in their feed to keep mites and parasites at bay. I mix in half a scoop into their feed twice a day for a week and wet the feed slightly. In the beginning, they are not keen on it but they soon get used to it. It is also terrific for curing scour.

When you first get your chickens it is a really good idea to clip their wings. It is explained very well here.
You need to do both wings and remember to check their feathers have not grown back after they moult. If you don't clip their wings you will be amazed how some of them manage to fly out over your run and lay in the hedge where you will never be able to find the eggs.

Chickens moult once a year. This is usually about the time they were hatched so it is different for all chickens unless you have a batch which were hatched at the same time. When they moult they look very sorry for themselves, seem almost depressed and lose a large amount of their feathers. If you have a rooster he will also lose interest in them at this time (sexually). *Note you do not need a rooster for chickens to lay eggs*. They usually stop laying although I have had some who continued sporadically.
Just bump up the feed and they usually begin laying again once the moult is over.

The bonus of keeping chickens that have access to lots of rooting and scratching and green vegetation is a continuous supply of lovely fresh deep yellow eggs. The standard red hybrid chicken lays six days a week. The pure breeds may lay significantly less. You will notice that in the winter even if they are out on grass, the egg yolks will not be as deep a yellow as in the summer. This is because there is not as much chlorophyll in vegetation that is dormant. Even though laying is light dependent, I find if I feed my chickens well during winter they will continue to lay albeit not as much as in summer.

Duck and hen eggs laid in nest
Eggs bought in a shop are never as fresh as those that you gather from your own chickens. I was told that most shop-bought eggs can be anything up to three weeks old before they reach the supermarket shelf.  Eggs produced from chickens free to forage outdoors are much healthier for you containing more omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, vitamin A and beta-carotene.

Free range eggs are almost impossible to peel when hard boiled and in summer I tend to poach them. They are exceptionally good for poaching as the white stays in shape and doesn't spread all over the pot. Another bonus is that as the hen ages she begins to lay huge eggs. Much much bigger than your "large" supermarket size. I often find I need only use one egg in place of two in a recipe which is great in winter when eggs are more scarce. I have also noticed that when the chicken is in her third or fourth year she begins to lay eggs which have a very thin shell, a very watery egg white and sometimes even a wrinkly shell. I just separate these very carefully as they are very fragile and use them for baking or scrambling or even just give them to the dogs when I have a glut.

wrinkly eggs
In summer I often freeze eggs separately. I freeze eggs yolks in one container and whites in another. Although you can whisk several eggs together and freeze them this way. Just mark on the bag or container how many eggs you have put in. Defrost slowly before use and they will work fine in baking. I have a post here where I include lots of ways to use up eggs when you have a glut.

And lastly remember chickens are carnivores so love slugs, snails, bugs and flies. In winter when it is very cold I scrape out fat from a roasting tin or even fat trimmings (except chicken) to them. They also love cold potato, rice, vegetable peelings, fruit, stale bread (shake your toaster out and they think it's Christmas).







Saturday, 12 April 2014

A little bit of Skiing for a lot of Eating.

In Cervinia it's Cervino. In Switzerland Mattherhorn
Our Austrian ski instructor said by the time he had finished with us, we would be skeezing down de slopsens. This was eight years ago for me and as I looked up at the slopes in Cervinia with the majestic Cervino (Matterhorn) looming up behind them, I shuddered.

I used to be fearless on a horse and on skis, but this year I was much more nervous. Yes, I know I'm older. Hate reminding of that. But I decided I would do stuff at my own pace and only ski when I felt like it. The rest of the time, I ate.

I came to the conclusion this week that it's almost impossible to get a bad meal in Italy (particularly if you avoid beef). Where we were was hardly the culinary capital of Italy and had a largely captive audience. Which made it all the more impressive.



Prosecco for half nothing
First stop was to the small local supermarket barely much more than a local Centra or Spar to stock up on "essentials". I love wandering around supermarkets in Europe marvelling at the great selection of charcuterie and cheese on display as well as the local wines, spirits, oils and vinegars. In one of the restaurants they had bottles of De Cecco balsamic vinegar which was to die for. And, I'm not a huge fan of balsamic. Why can't we buy it here I wonder? Every restaurant also had a bottle of olive oil on the table that you could literally spoon into your mouth. Rich, green, grassy and so so moreish.


Paccheri con frutti di mare
I couldn't for the life of me remember the name of this pasta (I had to Google it). It was like small pieces of folded lasagne. The sea food and the sauce with it was so good I could have licked the plate. While I was savouring it and the well-deserved glass of red after my first morning skiing, I put my knife and fork down as if finished and a waitress went to whip it away. The others laughed at my speedy reaction and one very embarrassed waitress.





Paparadelle con cinghiale
As you can see from the photos we ate in this restaurant, Chalet Etoile, most days at lunch. Simply because it was half way up the slopes and because the food was so good. The tables were out on a large deck and we could sit in the sun and relax over lunch for a couple of hours. They provided lovely red rugs in case you should feel a chill.

This dish pictured was paparadelle with cinghiale (wild boar). It was tiny cubes of meat not minced as I have had it before in Tuscany. It was delicious.

Anti pasti
On the Saturday two of us decided to take a day off and go for a spin down the hairpin bends and see Aosta about an hour's drive away. Innocently thinking it was just a small town, we ended up taking a motorway (motorways are signposted green in Italy not blue like everywhere else in Europe). And to add even more confusion the national routes are signposted blue!

Eventually after driving through what seemed like a 20 mile tunnel by taking a wrong turn (no exaggerating) we found parking and stopped for a late lunch. This plate of charcuterie was eaten at one of those "touristy" restaurants in a piazza which normally I avoid like the plague. It was really good and included lardo, which I want to have a go at making from my own pigs. The bread wasn't great but then I didn't expect it to be. Aosta was a lovely old town with fabulous boutiques, craft shops, gelateria, chocolate vendors. Eye-wateringly expensive though.

Rigatoni con Gorgonzola e spinaci
Another day, another pasta dish. Rigatoni with Gorgonzola and spinaci. Yum. Rich and unctuous. I could feel my waist line expanding just by looking at it.

We had pizza a couple of times. I'm always struck by the simplicity of pizza in Italy. A thin crispy base, light and airy with a scraping of tomato sauce and at most two toppings. Some are just finished off with rocket. No heavily laden, stodgy densely-cheesy offerings here. And you don't go into a glycemic coma afterwards.


I had veal twice. A veal fillet in a beautiful, newly opened restaurant called Wood . The chef is Scandinavian (and had trained under the chef/owner of Chalet Etoile), the menu was a fusion of very Scandinavian dishes with Italian touches. The fillet was beautifully cooked rare and was tender but strangely tasteless. One of our party had reindeer and another had venison. Both were delicious but I didn't want to take "snaps".

 Gnocchi ai tre formaggi
On my last day I just had to have gnocchi, served here with three cheeses and a platter of roast vegetables, fennel, pepper, aubergine, courgette, potato and stuffed tomato. Even the jug of the local vino was great. No plonk here!

One night when all ten of us decided to eat together and most of the others were having a beef fondue, I had veal cheek. I wanted to try rack of lamb as I had been told they were "running over the mountains" here. But sadly they had none left. I wasn't impressed with the cheek and gave a piece to an English member of our party. He said "tasteless braised beef". Another night I asked where the lamb was from and was told frozen from New Zealand. Even Italy is not immune from this nonsense.

The local wine as I have said was really good (Vallee D'Aoste). So good I stuffed two bottles into my bag on the way home. I wished I could bring a pallet of it. This one pictured was around the €8 mark in the small "Centra". The reserve €12. I'm sure they were priced up. In fact I'm sure down the mountain you could buy them for half that.

I have skied in Austria and Switzerland previously. That sounds very pretentious but I stress I am still a novice. But I do know I would absolutely prefer Italy for the food and wine alone (and the slopes here are good for a beginner). Where we were in Austria, St Johann was very disappointing for both food and wine. In Switzerland all I remember loving was rösti.

Now I'm back home trying to figure out how I can save to go back next year and hopefully ski down de slopsens a lot more proficiently.



(The only disappointing thing all week was the standard of the breakfasts. But I was reliably informed it was not just the hotel we were staying in. They are all pretty much the same. It was the usual continental offering but no fresh fruit, only tinned. And the coffee was awful. Pretty amazing for Italy where everywhere you get coffee usually, it is fabulous.

The photographs were taken using my phone in bright sunlight so difficult to compose.)