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Christmas Baking and Making Tips

Wednesday 28 November 2012
As November draws  to a close I get stocked up with ingredients and plan my Christmas baking.  There will be Christmas Fairs, school productions, events at Church and the month of December always rapidly fills up with one thing after another.  Get planning and making as and when you can now so that you don't get too overwhelmed closer to the festive season.

As always my mantra is:

Pick manageable crafts and edible treats to make, don't run yourself ragged.

Yeah, I know, pot/kettle! There are lots of biscuit and muffin recipes that can be frozen or that keep for ages. Do what you can, when you can. Take time to enjoy Christmas preparations and stop for a well earned cuppa once in a while.  There is no law that says you have to turn into Martha Stewart or Nigella Lawson and bake/make for the entire world.  Sometimes a homemade card and small item is enough, sometimes there is no need to bother at all.  Don't feel the pressure to give to everyone your family comes in to contact with.  Be selective and make the gift meaningful for those people.

My best tip ever is: Put it on a stick!

Cookies and cake pops make impressive gifts and you can get away with giving someone half a dozen prettily packaged items as a gift if they are on sticks rather than in little cases or a gift box.  It makes your creations go much further. If you gave someone 6 plain cookies they would think you were a scrooge. If they're on sticks and individually wrapped with cellophane and ribbon, somehow half a dozen looks impressive. LOL

Chocolate Christmas Tree Biscuits recipe is here

What about hampers and jars?

A gift that usually goes down well doesn't actually involve having to bake anything at all.  I put baking mixes in jars, wrap them up including a cookie cutter and wooden spoon and that's it.  Kids can make them as it helps them with measuring and pouring skills and you don't have to turn on your oven.  Brilliant!  Jars and wooden spoons can be bought very cheaply, baking ingredients are usually on offer too so it makes an attractive gift - both from a budget and low faff point of view.

Wrap your homemade baking and gifts well. You've spent energy and effort making gifts so make an effort with presentation too. It needn't be expensive either. Cover cardboard trays, boxes, etc in Christmas paper to recycle them. Look out for cheap ribbon, cellophane, baking tins and glass jars to put your goodies in.  The £1 stores usually have jars, tinsel, paper and other wrapping items or use reusable wrapping like a lovely teatowel, fabric gift bag or lined tray made from fabric remnants.

Swap baking and goodies with your friends.

They may be good at making things that you aren't, swap what you make and then you both benefit. If you have 30 jars of chutneys and preserves like I do, swap with a friend who has made loads of Christmas cakes or other goodies. Tis a winner all round.

Easy Christmas Cake Balls recipe is here.

Have a Christmas Craft Afternoon

Our Church organises one every year and there are other informal sessions I have with friends as well.  It is a good opportunity to enjoy spending time with friends help each other make gifts that will save money and have a cuppa and natter at the same time.  It's also brilliant for picking up new ideas and skills, plus learning new techniques and recipes from others.

Get your kids involved

It's a really hard hearted and rude person who will turn their nose up at a homemade gift made by adorable children. They wouldn't dare hurt their feelings, would they?! It also has the added benefit of keeping kids amused when the weather outside is cold and awful and they are bored in the weekends and week or so of school holidays leading up to Christmas.

Recycle what you can, make your own when you can.

Use old Christmas cards as gift tags, old tins as plant pots or baking tins for mini Christmas cakes, get your kids to make wrapping paper from plain paper, and use Christmas tea towels to wrap bags of baked goodies or Christmas cakes in. Make your own Christmas cards, gift tags and even stickers using a colour printer and your home computer.  Get your kids to make gift tags and wrapping paper, save money and keeps them amused at the same time.  Go plain when it comes to wrapping paper. If you really can't resist shiny Christmas wrapping paper, buy plain colours like red, silver, green or gold or which can be used to wrap all kinds of presents all year round.

Self adhesive felt is craft material sent from heaven!

It can be used to make decorations, just cut out shapes using cookie cutters as templates, add a loop of ribbon and stick two together. So simple! It can also be used to cover old tins that make great cookie holders in hampers. You can also use shapes cut from self adhesive felt to make Christmas cards, or stick them on cardboard and cut around them again to make gift tags. So versatile, and not too expensive either.

I'll be blogging my low faff Christmas Recipes over the next couple of weeks that will hopefully make your homemade gift baking and making much easier.  If there are any recipes for treats you would like me to blog please let me know.

Asda Stir It Up Sunday Recipes

Sunday 25 November 2012
I was delighted to be able to attend the Asda Stir It Up Sunday Event at Leiths School of Food and Wine last week.  It was a brilliant night and we all had a fabulous time sampling the treats Asda will have instore for customers this Christmas as well as making our own Mince Pies, Christmas Pudding and Christmas Biscuits.  I sampled quite a few *cough* items from the Extra Special Christmas Entertaining Range and every single one was scrumptious.

I love events at Leiths, they are always well organised and the fascilities are what you would expect from a world class Cookery School.  As always the staff from Leiths, Asda Product Managers and PR ladies were lovely and it is always great to catch up with them and loads of other bloggers as we all like a good natter and glass of wine (or two).

Penny and I having a good natter and giggle, as usual

 Christmas Pudding

This is the recipe that Asda use to make their Extra Special Christmas Puddings, we tasted some at the event and they are delicious.  We were able to sample puddings that had been matured for 6, 12 and 24 months.  It was an interesting experiment as we were asked to do a blind tasting and guess which was which.  I am pleased to say that we all guessed correctly and all 3 puddings tasted delicious.

This mixture makes one pudding for a two pint pudding basin:

85g raisins
55g currants
100g sultanas
40g chopped mixed peel 
110g mixed dried apricots and figs, chopped
145ml brown ale
1 tablespoon rum
Grated zest & juice of half an orange
Grated zest & juice of half a lemon
55g prunes - soaked overnight in cold tea, then drained and chopped
1/2 dessert apple - grated

Soak all the fruit (except the prunes) overnight in the beer, rum, orange juice and lemon juice. In the morning add the drained, chopped prunes

Grate the apple into this mixture:

110g softened butter
170g soft, dark brown sugar
1 tblsp treacle 
1.5 eggs
55g self raising flour, sifted
1/2 tsp ground mixed spice
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch ground ginger
Pinch salt
110g breadcrumbs
30g toasted hazelnuts, toasted (again, I would usually substitute more glace cherries for this)

Beat together the butter and sugar, when light add the orange and lemon zest and the treacle.

Whisk the eggs together and gradually add them to the mixture, beating well after each addition.
Fold in the flour, spices, salt and breadcrumbs.

Stir in the nuts and dried fruit mixture, plus any of the soaking liquor.

Spoon the mixture into a greased 2 pint pudding basin.

Cover with two layers of pleated greaseproof paper, and one piece of pleated kitchen foil.

Tie up with string.  When ready to cook, steam for 10-12 hours. Put a large saucepan on to boil and put an upside down saucer on the bottom. Using the string handle, lower the pudding into the boiling water. The water needs to come at least half the way up the basin.

Cover the pan, and leave to cook, topping up the water as necessary (use boiling water from the kettle to top it up).

Leave the pudding to cool, and re-cover it. You can now store it for up to 2 years, in a cool dark place.  When you're ready to serve the pudding on Christmas Day, steam for 2-3 hours before serving.

Asda and Leiths' Christmas Mince pies

These are so simple to make, my daughters and I shall be making several batches.  The batch of a dozen that I made at the event lasted 1 day, my husband had 6 of them and my daughters devoured the rest after school.

Rich sweet shortcrust pastry:

170g plain flour
pinch of salt
100g unsalted butter, diced
2 tbsps caster sugar
1 egg yolk
2 Tblsp iced cold water


1 jar of Asda Extra Special mincemeat (whisky and orange or brandy and port).  Sift the flour with the salt into a large bowl.

Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.  Add the caster sugar and mix.  Mix the egg yolk with two tbsps of water and add to the flour mixture.

Mix to a firm dough, first using a cutlery knife then using one hand to bring the mixture together. It might be necessary to add a little more water to bring the mixture together but it should not be too damp.  Although crumbly pastry dough is more difficult to handle, it produces a shorter and lighter result.

Pre-heat the oven to 200C (using a hot oven means that the pastry cooks before the butter melts).

Divide the pastry into two, about two thirds and one third.  Roll out the larger piece to about 3mm thick. Cut out 12 circles a little wider than the indentations on the tray. Press the pastry circles gently into the indentations in the tray.

Roll out the smaller piece of pastry to about 3mm thick. Cut out 12 larger stars or 24 smaller stars and place on a baking tray.

Chill both pastry trays in the fridge for 20 to 30 hours (this relaxes the gluten in the pastry, ensuring the pastry doesn't shrink when cooking).

Place a tsp of mincemeat in the centre of each pastry circle (don't overfill the circles as the mixture will bubble as it reheats and might spill over the edges).

Place the stars lightly on top of the mixture.  Bake the pies in the oven for about 15 minutes until golden brown.

Remove the pies from the tin and place them on a wire rack to cool. Before serving, dust with icing sugar and serve immediately.

Thanks so much to Asda for a brilliant evening and for paying my travel expenses so I could attend the event.

Gluten Free Traditional Christmas Recipes

Recipes created by Dan Lepard exclusively for Sainsbury’s. For more information and Stir Up Sunday recipes visit www.sainsburys-live-well-for-less.co.uk.

Mince Pies with Golden Mincemeat

Dietary requirements: gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, vegan and nut-free

Golden Mincemeat

This recipe is perfect for guests who don’t like dark dried fruit like raisins or currants and makes enough for 2 large (900g) jars.


- 500g ‘yellow’ Mixed Dried Fruit, finely diced (this recipe uses 150g soft dried mangoes, 150g dried sour cherries and 200g soft dried apricots; other dried fruits such as peaches are also good if you can find them)

- 3 dessert apples, peeled, cored and finely diced (about 500g unprepared weight)

- 150-200g Mixed Peel (the best quality you can find), finely diced

- 1 tsp each Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Valencian Orange Extract, and Sicilian Lemon Extract

- ¾ tsp each Ground Cloves, Nutmeg and Cinnamon

- 150g Light Soft Brown Sugar

- 125ml Brandy or Rum, plus more to top up


1. Mix everything together, spoon into sterilized jars and top with a little more brandy before sealing tightly with screw-on lids before storing.

TIP: You can sterilize jam jars by placing them in the oven at 140°C for 10 minutes. Wash the lids in soapy water, rinse well, and allow to dry before use.

Gluten-free Shortcrust Pastry

Psyllium husk powder mixed with a little water makes a gel that acts like gluten, and makes the dough easier to roll. This recipe makes about 615g of pastry, enough for about 18 shallow mince pies.

75ml Cold Water

2 tsp Vanilla Extract

2 tbsp Psyllium Husk Powder (2 level 15ml measuring spoons)

300g Doves Farm gluten-free Plain White Flour

75g Icing Sugar

¼ tsp Salt

1 tsp Gluten-free Baking Powder

200g Sainsbury’s Baking Block, (or Stork)

Extra Gluten-free Flour for rolling

1. Pour the water into a small bowl, add the vanilla extract and sprinkle on the psyllium husk powder. Immediately stir until smooth, then leave undisturbed for 10 minutes.

2. Meanwhile put the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder into a bowl, and rub in the Sainsbury’s baking block/stork.

3. Add in the psyllium mixture, which should have thickened to a gel, and mix to a smooth dough.

4. Leave to sit for 10 minutes then roll and bake as required.

TIP: Dust the work surface with gluten-free flour before you roll the pastry out thinly, and if necessary, dust the pastry lightly as you work it. Gluten-free pastry is inclined to be a little crumbly, and to bake to a slightly ‘biscuity’ texture, so shallow mince pies are a safer bet than the deep filled type.

TIP: For mince pies, baking for 20 minutes at 200°C/180°C fan should be long enough; 25 minutes if you want a crispier finish.

Christmas Cake

Dietary requirements: gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, vegan

The banana helps to add richness to the cake in place of the egg yolks, while the linseed, once mixed with the liquid, helps to hold the texture in a similar way to egg white. The nuts are optional.


1 tsp Psyllium Husk Powder

50ml Orange Juice

100g Sainsbury's Freefrom spread made with Sunflower Oil

100g Dark Brown Sugar

25g Black Treacle

50g Golden Syrup

1 medium Banana

150g Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Serr Walnuts, chopped, optional

100g Ground Almonds, optional

150g Chopped Stoned Prunes

150g Raisins or Currants

200g Glacé Cherries, chopped

50g Golden Linseed, ground to a powder in a blender

200g Doves Farm gluten-free Brown Bread flour

1 tbsp Cocoa

4 tsp Mixed Spice

1 tsp Gluten-free Baking Powder

Brandy or Rum, to finish


1. Stir the psyllium husk into the orange juice and leave for 10 minutes. Line the base and sides of a
round, deep 18cm cake tin (or similar) with 2 or 3 layers of non-stick baking paper, and heat the oven to 170°C/150°C fan/335°F/gas 3.

2. Melt the Freefrom spread then take off the heat and stir in the sugar, treacle and syrup. Peel and
mash the banana, then mix this in. Add the nuts, fruit and linseed, then add the psyllium husk and
orange juice, stir well again and leave to sit for 10 minutes.

3. Lastly add the gluten-free flour, cocoa, spice and baking powder, stir well then scrape the mixture
into the tin.

4. Bake the cake for about 90 minutes, or until a skewer poked in pulls out with only a few crumbs

5. While the cake is warm, spoon some brandy over the top, then when cold, remove from the tin,
wrap well in foil and store until needed. Cover with marzipan and icing if you wish.

TIP: You can grind chopped or flaked almonds in a jug blender, then set them aside and grind the linseed in the same way.

Ginger and Orange Christmas Pudding

Dietary requirements: gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, vegan

This is a rich pudding that will impress. Leave the nuts out if you prefer.

100g Dark Brown Sugar

2 tsp Mixed Spice

1 tsp Ground Ginger

2 tsp Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Valencian Orange Extract

50ml Orange Juice

75ml Taste the Difference London Porter

50g Golden Linseed, ground to a powder in a blender

200g Sainsbury’s Mixed Dried Fruit

1 medium Carrot, peeled and grated

100g Chopped Pecans, optional

200g Sainsbury’s Chopped Glacé Ginger

50g Doves Farm gluten-free Plain White Flour

50g Sainsbury's Freefrom spread made with Sunflower Oil, plus a bit

more for the basin

75g gluten-free White Bread, ground into soft breadcrumbs

Whisk together the sugar, spices, orange extract, juice, porter and linseed until smooth.  Stir in the fruit, grated carrot, pecans and ginger then add the flour and mix well.

Pour in the melted spread, add the gluten-free breadcrumbs and stir well.  Grease the inside of a pudding basin with more Freefrom spread, then spoon in the mixture, patting it down as you go. Cut squares of non-stick baking paper and aluminum foil, large enough to easily cover the bowl, pleat them, and with the layers paper-side down, tie them tightly in place around the bowl with string.

5. Simmer in a boiler for three hours.

6. Store in a cool place. Do not break the seal or be tempted to remove the lid to look at the pudding. On Christmas day, simmer for another three hours before serving.

Healing for Kerry, a recipe for healing and hope

Saturday 24 November 2012

This is not a food post, however it is a recipe post.  A recipe for hope, love and healing for a fellow blogger who is very poorly and needs all of our hope, prayers and love - and so do her family.

On Nov 24th 2012 Bloggers and Tweeters will unite to pray for the recovery of Kerry who blogs at Multiple Mummy #healing4kerry.  You can read about Kerry, and the latest update on her condition provided by her husband here

Back in July Kerry suffered a ruptured aneurysm which caused her to have a brain haemorrhage.  She has been fighting hard to recover but has had setbacks.  I sincerely wish with all my heart that she was back with her family at home healthy and happy.  Sadly this is not the case.  She is currently in hospital after another setback. 

One fab blogger, Liska who blogs at New Mum Online had an idea so that we can all show our support for Kerry and her family and our hope that her recovery will progress further without setbacks so she can be home, healthy and back with her family.

I have met Kerry a few times at blogger events and we have tweeted and known each other online for some time.  She is bubbly, chatty, loves a good laugh and is a very lovely and genuine person inside and out.  She has 3 gorgeous children and a wonderful supportive husband that need her home and well.

There is a blog hop you can join to show your support.  However, the one thing you can do above everything else is to spare a prayer or wish for Kerry’s recovery on the 24th November 2012 at 10pm.

If you are a blogger – write a post of hope for Kerry and her family and add it to the blog hop.  If you are on Twitter – Tweet using the hashtag #Healing4Kerry

There is strength in numbers, power in prayer, meditation and positive thinking so please join us tonight at 10pm.

Asda Pie Event at their superb new development kitchens

Thursday 22 November 2012
I was invited to Leeds by Asda to make some delicious pies and discover their new Product Development Kitchens which had recently been remodelled.

Asda Development Chef in action making Steak and Ale Pie

The Product Development Kitchens are extensive and there are many separate areas for tastings, focus groups and creating new recipes and products to undergo the rigorous testing process before they appear in Asda stores.

It was a fab event, all the guests invited were asked to make pies and there was a chance for us all to taste the pies we had created at the conclusion of the event.

Helen and I made a Roast Vegetable, White Wine and Four Cheese Sauce Pie

I found the compredensive product creation process that Asda use fascinating and they try to mimic handmade methods as much as they can, even when machines are used in the production of their freshly made food products.

We were able to ask loads of questions and get tips and hints from the pie masterchefs at Asda, my favourite being that you can mix the pastry and fat as much as you like without making the pastry tough, it is when you add the liquid that you must handle it lightly or it will become tough.

I had a brilliant time travelling to Leeds and back, a welcome bonus was the chance to stay in a posh hotel for the night.  More about that later.

Asda have a large range of Chosen By You and Extra Special Pies, the Steak and Ale is delicious.  The Extra Special range of pies are currently on offer instore so what better time to try some out?

Thank you to Asda for paying all my travel costs to attend the event.

Leon: Friends and Family Cookbook Review

Tuesday 20 November 2012

I was recently sent a copy of the book Leon: Friends and Family.  I must confess that Leon is our favourite fast food outlet at Kings Cross Station and most places in London should we need a quick lunch or dinner during family outings in the capital.  The food is delicious and wholesome, of a similar price to fast food burger outlets but much better quality and nutrition wise.  We love Leon restaurants!

The Leon: Friends and Family Cookbook is the 4th book in the series and features a couple of recipes from fellow blogger Kavey's family.

The book is divided into three sections:

Today: including great breakfasts, brunch ideas and after school dinners/teas

Tomorrow: for those occasions where some planning is involved picnics, weekend lunches, birthday parties and Christmas

Yesterday: a culinary celebration of nostalgic family food memories

With more than 200 recipes, there are dishes to keep everyone happy, from snacks for children in Crunch! Squish! Slurp! to super-quick supper recipes for parents in After Lights Out, and no teenager should fly the nest without 10 Things You Should Know How to Cook Before You Leave Home.

There is also lots of nutritional information in the book.  With this in mind the index is split into two. The first index is split into categories: low glycemic load, low saturated fat, wheat free, gluten free, dairy free.  The second index is your traditional A-Z listing.

I love this book and have already tried some recipes from it.  It is a gorgeous book filled with illustrations and would be at home on a coffee table as a book to ponder making recipes from over a cuppa.  My 3 daughters have made a few of the recipes too and it is full of dishes kids can prepare and are highly likely to eat, even if they are picky, and mine aren't.

I heartily recommend this book for those who love good food cooked well, there are recipes to suit everyone and most occasions.

Mixed Fruit and Chocolate Chip Bread Wreath

Sunday 18 November 2012
I decided to take on the 8 strand plaited loaf for the Fresh From The Oven Challenge this month.  All was going rather well until I got my plaiting mixed up and the strands stuck together when I tried to undo it.  I decided that I couldn't face re-weighing and re-rolling the 8 strands.  The bickering children, defeatist hubby and general frustration of our household on Saturday afternoon all got the better of me and my bread making ambitions.  After much muttering under breath and stomping about I decided to make a 3 strand plaited wreath which is perfect for the upcoming festive season.  It is also delicious for breakfast! ;oP

500g strong white bread flour
7g sachet fast action dried yeast
10g table salt
1½ Tblsp oil
2 tsp ground mixed spice
340ml lukewarm water

80g pack dark chocolate chips/chunks
2 handfuls mixed dried fruit

I used my stand mixer to make this recipe but you can just as easily make it by hand.  Put the flour in a large bowl. Add the yeast on one side of the bowl and add the salt to the other side.

Measure out the water and oil.  Mix everything together then add the ground mixed spice during the kneading process. 
Either knead the dough in your stand mixer or turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead by hand until the dough looks silky and stretchy.  Whichever method you use this will take 7 - 10 minutes.

I leave the dough to rise in my stand mixer as the bowl has a handy plastic splash guard that seals the bowl, providing the perfect environment to rise dough in.  If you have a similar mixer to me, hurrah, if you don't just oil a mixing bowl and put the dough into it then cover with cling film and set aside to rise, for about an hour, or until the dough doubles in size.

When risen I knock it back in the mixer by kneading on a low speed for a few seconds.  Knead through the chocolate and mixed dried fruit.  Again, if you are making the dough by hand, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knock the dough back before kneading through the chocolate and dried fruit. Shape the dough into a ball.

Divide the into 3 equal pieces then roll out each piece into a long strand about 40cm - 50cm long.

Lay the strands out on a lightly floured surface, securing the 3 strips of dough together at one end then plait until all the dough has been used.  Tuck both ends of the plait together give a tidy finish and complete the wreath.

Put the plaited dough wreath onto a baking tray lined with non-stick baking paper, cover with greased cling film and leave to prove for another hour, until doubled in size.

Preheat your oven to 200C/Gas Mark 5.  Sprinkle the top of the wreath with fine demerara sugar then bake in the oven for 25 - 30 minutes.

I am submitting this recipe to the following Cooking Challenges this month:

Hosted this month by Chocolate Log Blog

Hosted this month by Franglais Kitchen

Bake Your Own Bread - Hosted by Heather from Girl Chef and Connie from My Discovery of Bread

Morphy Richards Sear and Slow Cooker Review

Monday 12 November 2012
I am rather chuffed to be a Morphy Richards Innovator as this means I am sent lovely Morphy Richards products to review from time to time.  The latest product that I was sent is the Sear and Stew Slow Cooker which allows you to sear the meat in the same pan as you slow cook your meal in. Searing the meat in the cooking pan makes sense as it keeps the juices from the meat so that they can be combined with the rest of the ingredients of your meal to help create a dish richer in flavour.

My first reaction when unpacking the Sear and Stew Cooker was, what a lovely red colour, my second reaction was "Oh it is rather small".  You see we have a Morphy Richards Slow Cooker already, it is this large 6.5L capacity one which makes enough food to last us 2 or 3 meals.

The Sear and Stew Cooker was really easy to use, being able to sear the meat in the slow cooker pan meant less faff and washing up.  It also means that you could brown the top of a hotpot or cobbler in the oven with the lid off as the pan is removable and is of a similar the structure of a non-stick fryingpan albeit more light weight than that. 

The Sear and Stew Cooker made enough Chicken Stew to feed us a generous dinner, however, when I use my slow cooker I usually try and get more than one meal out of it.  The Sear and Stew Cooker would be perfect for a family of two adults and younger children, couples or families with less members or smaller appetites than us. 

It is a great product and apart from it being too small for our family I would totally recommend it.  It would be fab if they produced a larger version, I would certainly buy one if they did.  Being able to put the inner pan on the hob to saute vegetables or sear meat is a real time saver and makes it much simpler to slow cook stews without having to use, and wash up, an extra pan. 

Should you wish to get your hands on a Sear and Stew Cooker of your own I have a discount code from Morphy Richards to enable you to do just that.  With Christmas just around the corner a Sear and Stew could make an ideal gift for loved ones at University, moving out of home or for those who need a low faff but healthy cooking option.  

All you need to do is enter SC0123BLOG at http://www.morphyrichards.co.uk/ to get 30% off Sear and Stew Slow Cookers - Models 48701, 48702 amd 48703.

You can also follow Mrphy Richards on Twitter and Facebook where they have product news, giveaways and other handy information.

** I was sent the Sear and Stew by Morphy Richards for the purposes of this review **

Warm Drinks for Chilly Days

Sunday 11 November 2012
My girls and I love a hot cuppa to warm up after a chilly walk in Autumn or Winter, especially after coming home from school.  I've been experimenting with alternatives to hot chocolate, which is delicious but high in calories so I try not have it too often.  Hot homemade cordials and juices are a great way to warm up without a milky chocolate brew.  Here are a few ideas I have tried so far:

Warm Spiced Juice

1 litres of juice, I used apple and raspberry juice
1/2 a cinnamon stick
1/4 tsp mixed spice
2 Tblsp brown sugar
2 or 3 whole cloves

Pour the juice into a large saucepan and add the spices.  Warm gently for around 15 minutes then serve hot in mugs.     

Lemon and Ginger Syrup

3 large lemons, juice and zest
25g fresh ginger, grated
750g caster sugar
1 1/2 tsp citric acid
500ml boiling water

Put all the ingredients into a large heatproof bowl.  Stir the mixture until the sugar has completely dissolved.  Cover and leave overnight to infuse.  Strain the syrup through muslin.  Pour into sterilised bottles or jars and seal.

Make a hot or cold drink with one part syrup to four parts water.  This would also make a fab Christmas gift or 'pick me up' pressie for a friend with a cold.

Raspberry and Vanilla Cordial

375ml boiling water
225g sugar
1 vanilla pod
zest of 1 lemon
2 large handfuls of frozen raspberries

Put the water and caster sugar into a small saucepan. Stir over a low heat until the sugar has completely dissolved.

Split the vanilla pod, scrape out the seeds and add to the sugar and water mixture along with the lemon zest.  Bring to the boil then simmer for 5 minutes.

Add the raspberries then leave to cool.  Strain the cordial through muslin then pour into sterilised bottles. Store in the fridge.  Add to hot water for a refreshing and warming drink.

How My Freezer Helps Me Be Frugal

Friday 9 November 2012
As much as I moan about paying an extortionate amount in rent for our tiny, but superbly located, house it does come with one feature that I love.  We have a huge chest freezer in the garage.  It is so handy to have such a large space for storing food bought on offer, foraged or precooked for later. 

Having such a large freezer means that I need to be organised and make sure everything is carefully labelled to avoid UFOs (unidentified frozen objects) and also that I know what is in there and needs using up.  It is tempting to "throw it in the chest freezer for later" and for later to never come. 

I have sections of the freezer for each group of frozen items.  There are sections for meat, fruit and veg, precooked meals, baking and ingredients. This way I know where things are and I don't spend ages hunting for something whilst getting rather frozen myself.  I also make sure I go through what is in there on a regular basis so that I don't waste food by not using it up.

I also make sure that I package foods properly to avoid them being damaged by freezer burn and put the date and contents on the packaging, as well as a best before date.  Foods can be frozen for between a month and three months depending on what they are.

The freezing process may affect the texture of some foods: fruits or vegetables with high water content or a with a delicate cell structure do not freeze well. These include lettuce, tomatoes, watermelon, citrus fruit and cucumbers.

Cakes iced with butter icing freeze well but whisked egg-white based icings do not.

Milk freezes well and so do most natural cheeses but they may crumble more when you defrost them.

Semi preparing vegetables can save time and money. Sauté mushrooms or courgettes in butter and freeze, sauté onions and garlic and freeze, make pesto and freeze in ice cube trays and freeze surplus tomato paste so it doesn’t go to waste.

Mashed potatoes are handy frozen in small mounds for use as required to top casseroles.  I also freeze stuffed jacket potatoes by wrapping them tightly in cling film.

Freezing is a great way to store glut of fruit or fruit bought cheaply on offer. Stewed, sliced, mashed, baked or whole fruit can be frozen.  Cover fruit in a sugar syrup made from 1 cup of sugar to 3 cups of water and then freeze for use in smoothies, sorbets or ice lollies. 
A full freezer uses less power than an empty one – pack empty space with plastic bottles filled with water, this will keep the power usage down and help keep everything frozen in the event of a power outage - a full freezer may remain frozen for 2 days or so, a half full freezer will start to defrost within 24 hours.
How long I freeze foods for:

Fruits for up to 12 months,

Vegetables for up to 6 months.

Meat roasts and whole poultry for up to 6 months

Beef and lamb steaks or chops for up to 4 months

Mince meats or stewing meats for up to 3 months

Baked yeasted bread, scones and rolls are best used within 3 months. Unbaked yeast bread dough within one month or less – Unbaked and frozen dough will probably require more yeast than usual in the recipe as freezing damages some yeast cells.

Un-iced cakes also freeze well, but storage times vary. Store angel food, chiffon or sponge cake for up to 2 months. Freeze cheesecake for up to 2 months, chocolate cake up to 3 months, and fruit cake up to 12 months.

Nuts also freeze well.  I freeze salted nuts for up to 6 months and unsalted for up to 9 months.

I'm sure you can probably freeze these foods for longer but those are the guidelines I use.

Always defrost frozen frozen meats in the fridge because if you thaw them at room temperature it will give bacteria a chance to multiply and you run the risk of food poisoning.

For more helpful information about how to get the best from your freezer check out the Love Food Hate Waste website.  They have loads of fab recipes and other advice too.

My Boeuf Bourguignon - thanks to Knorr

Monday 5 November 2012
I was sent all the ingredients to make a delicious Boeuf Bourguignon by Knorr and Forman and Field.  You can enter to win a hamper of ingredients, just like the one I received to cook with, by filling in the Rafflecopter form here.

I decided that the recipe by Marco that we were given from Knorr wasn't for me as I wanted to use my slow cooker instead of the oven, mainly because my oven was being used for baking.  So I took the general theme from Marco's recipe and made up my own suitable for cooking in a slow cooker.

The delicious ingredients I received

I decided to try and make the casserole stretch over two nights, and succeded, by adding loads of vegetables including 2 peppers that needed using up.  I know adding peppers is probably sacrilage but they needed using and we don't waste anything so I put them in the pot.  Here's the recipe I used:

My Boeuf Bourguignon

4 rashers bacon, chopped
750g brisket/stewing steak, cut into a large dice
4 Tblsp flour
4 Tblsp vegetable oil
12 baby onions or shallots, peeled
4 carrots, peeled and sliced
3 leeks, sliced
3 sticks celery, sliced
2 peppers, diced
250g mushrooms
500ml boiling water
1 rich beef stock pot (Knorr)
300ml red wine
125ml port
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves
salt and black to taste
1 Tblsp cornflour, optional

Put the slow cooker on hight to preheat whilst you prepare all the ingredients.  In a large frying pan cook the bacon and onions until the bacon is slightly crispy and the onions have a little colour on them.  Put them in the bottom of your slow cooker.

Put the beef in a plastic food bag, sprinkle in the flour then closes the top and give it a good shake.  This means that the beef get an even and light coating of flour without leaving too much mess to clean up.  Heat the oil in the frying pan over a moderately high heat, and cook the floured beef in small batches to caramelise it and get some colour on it.  Add to the slow cooker.  Use the wine and port to deglaze the frying pan then tip the liquid into the slow cooker.

Add all the vegetabes to the slowcooker.  Mix together the boiling water, stock cube, garlic, thyme and bay leaves and pour over the meat.

Season well and put the lid on the slowcooker.  I cooked mine for 2 hours on high then 4 hours on low.

Once the Boeuf Bourguignon is cooked, remove the lid and thicken the sauce slightly if necessary.  Mix the cornflour with a little water to make a paste then add to the slowcooker and stir through.  

I served our Boeuf Bourguignon with steamed savoy cabbage and well seasoned mixed mash (sweet potato and normal potato cooked then mashed together).  I may have also had a couple of glasses of the delicious red wine to finish off the bottle that was sent in the hamper and used in the Boeuf Bourguignon.  Like I said, we don't waste anything! ;o)

Quick Banana Loaf

Saturday 3 November 2012
I made this loaf the other day when we were in need of an antidote to the gloomy weather and a slightly fractious morning during Half Term.  It was mixed and in the oven in no time at all and was a welcome treat for elevenses.

Quick Banana Loaf

100g softened butter
140g caster sugar
1 large free range egg
225g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
4 very ripe bananas
50ml milk

Heat oven to 180C/160C fan.  Grease and line a 2lb loaf tin with non-stick baking paper.

Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl before beating in the egg.  Peel and mash the bananas before beating them through the mixture.  Mix the baking powder and flour together then gently fold in until completely incorporated before mixing in the milk. 
Pour the mixture into your prepared tin and bake for 1 hr, or until a skewer comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool in the tin for at least 10 minutes before attempting to turn it out onto a wire rack to cool completely. 
This is a great cake for a lunch box treat because you can wrap the loaf tightly in cling film and keep it for 2 days, or freeze it for up to 1 month.  I slice the loaf, separating the slices with baking paper, before freezing it then I can just get out however many slices I need for lunches and leave the rest in the freezer until I need it.

Pear, Almond and Chocolate Cake

Friday 2 November 2012
We had some pears in the fruit bowl that ripened but didn't soften that much and I did not want good food going to waste.  There was only one thing for it, bake a cake!  We had friends coming over for afternoon tea so I needed a cake that was substantial and tasty but also mildly impressive.  Here's what I came up with:
Pear, Almond and Chocolate Cake

100g ground almonds
140g self-raising flour
175g butter, cut into cubes
140g caster sugar
2 large free range eggs
6 small, ripe Conference pears
75g dark chocolate , chopped into small chunks

Preheat the your oven to 160C.  Grease and line the base of a 20cm springform round cake tin.  Put the ground almonds, flour and butter in a mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer.  Rub the butter into the flour and almonds until it looks like breadcrumbs.  Add the sugar and eggs then mix briefly.  Peel, core and dice three of the pears.  Fold the diced pears and chocolate chunks gently into the cake mixture.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the top. Peel, core and slice the remaining pears and arrange however you like over the top of the cake. Press the slices of pear down lightly then bake the cake in your preheated oven for 50-60 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean.  Cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely. We served ours with a little creme fraiche on the side.

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