Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Wet Pear, Almond and Polenta Cake

Think of a British cake and images of afternoon tea and sponge come to mind. Just a basic Victoria with a thin layer of raspberry jam and a dusting of icing sugar is the perfect accompaniment to a good old cuppa.

There aren't any cakes I can think of that I dislike and although I will always hold a special place for our own concoctions of nothing more than eggs, sugar, butter and flour, I've grown to love some of our European cakes a little more. The more wet the better; think of Greek honey cake or a Turkish Baklava. Those things are moist and heavy and entail plenty of finger licking afterwards.

At a decent Italian restaurant some years back I had a delicious lemon and polenta cake. Crispy outer layer thanks to the polenta leading to a lemon syrup sponge, it was a memorable end to the meal. So memorable that I've tried to make that very cake several times with varying degrees of success.

Using the same techniques, which entails stewing fruit into a purée or boiling lemons or oranges whole before puréeing, I've tried all kinds of fruit. You will always be guaranteed a moist cake flavoured heavily with your choice of fruit. This one uses pears, one of my favourite fruit. Go for pears that are almost on the edge of going off and you will have an incredibly fragrant yet subtle tasting cake.

Wet Pear, Almond and Polenta Cake

200g butter
150g sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
3 eggs
100g ground almonds
100g polenta
100g self raising flour
200g pear puree, made from 4-5 pears, peeled and chopped and softened in a little water

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 180C, GM4.
2 - In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Stir in the vanilla essence and then stir in the eggs one by one.
3 - Fold in the almonds and polenta. Sieve in the flour and fold in. Finally, fold in the pear purée.
4 - Pour into a lined cake tin with a removable base. Bake on the centre shelf for 50-60 minutes until golden brown. If it starts to catch too soon, cover loosely with baking paper.
5 - Rest and allow to cool.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Cheddar Cheese Soda Bread

Is there anything more simple and basic than taking some flour, water and yeast, pounding them together for a few minutes then whacking in the oven? Bread making has lost its way in the standard home over the years for the simple reason that ready made bread in all forms can be purchased reasonably cheap.

So why bother going through the whole bread making process when it is so readily available? The end result is usually because there is nothing like home baked bread. If you have ever wandered into a baker's shop with bread in the oven you will know that the smell alone is of a heavenly nature. Take warm crisp bread, break it open and the smells get better. Slather it is butter and devour and at that very moment you know exactly why it is worth every effort.

I also enjoy the process of kneading and forming, watching dough rise in a warm cupboard before being baked to a golden crust. Getting the kids involved makes it even better and baking bread can be the basis of making your very own little confident foodie. Disasters will happen but who cares as long as you have fun and enjoy the fruits of your labour?

This bread is soda bread, an Irish recipe which uses soda rather than yeast as the rising agent. This means you don't need to wait for a couple of hours for the rising process - happy days - and the resulting loaf is surprisingly light. It can be on the table within an hour of first making and the warm bread is amazing smeared with a good butter and dunked into soups. So get them mixing bowls out, chuck in the basic ingredients and get you and your little one's hands 'squidging' for a bit of home baking.

Cheddar Cheese Soda Bread

125g plain flour
125g wholemeal flour
1 tbs demerera or brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
100g Cheddar cheese, grated
250ml plain yoghurt

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 220C/GM7.
2 - Sift the flours into a large mixing bowl, reserving the sieved whole grains. Stir in the sugar, salt, soda and cheese.
3 - Pour in the yoghurt and bring together with a wooden spoon. Then lightly knead for a minute or two. You are looking for a reasonably firm dough but not too dry. If it seems that way, add more yoghurt and knead.
4 - Shape the dough into a rough ball and place it onto a floured baking sheet. Cut a cross into the top of the loaf, sprinkle on the whole-wheat then bake in the oven for about 10 minutes. Turn the oven down to 200C/GM6 and cook for another 20 minutes until golden brown.
5 - Cool on wire rack for a little while before serving.

Slow Cooked Lamb Ragu

If you live in the UK and think of Ragu, a certain commercial tomato based pasta sauce available everywhere probably comes to mind. Those marketing boys did well when they managed to register that name.

Ragu is a classic Italian tomato based sauce which will be being made in every house in every town in Italy. And each town or household will boast there own method which will no doubt make their region's the best in the world.

There is nothing simpler than making your own pasta sauce and it is a whole lot tastier and cheaper than buying the commercial jars. An onion and garlic softened in olive oil, a cheap tin of tomatoes or a handful of fresh chopped tomatoes when the season is here, a pinch of oregano and a splash of red wine or balsamic vinegar is all you need. Take that basic concept and experiment to your heart's desire. That's what simple cooking should be all about.

If I'm not in a rush, I like to slowly cook lamb in a ragu with additional ingredients such as chilli, juniper, sun dried tomatoes and orange peel, the latter dispensing a subtle citrus to the sauce. It may not be authentic but neither is a certain bottled sauce we all know and buy in our droves. Do yourself a favour and attempt your own some time.

Slow Cooked Lamb Ragu
Feeds 4

1 onion, chopped
2 sticks of celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
2 tbsp olive oil
3 juniper berries, crushed
1 whole dried chilli or a pinch of chilli flakes
2 tbsp tomato purée
500g lamb shoulder, cubed
2 tins tomatoes
A handful of sun dried tomatoes, sliced
1 glass of white wine
1 tbsp dried oregano
2 bay leaves
A slice of pared orange peel
1 tbsp Balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 160C, GM3.
2 - Heat the olive oil in a flame-proof casserole dish, or make this in a large pan and add to the casserole dish later.
3 - Add the onion, carrot, celery and garlic and cook until softened to make a 'soffrito'. Stir in the juniper, chilli and tomato purée and cook for 1 minute.
4 - Add the lamb and quickly brown then add the remaining ingredients except the seasoning. Bring to the boil, cover and place in the oven for 2 hours.
5 - Check every 30 minutes to ensure it isn't cooking dry. If it is, stir in a glass of water.
6 - When cooked, remove the bay, whole chilli and orange peel. Taste for seasoning and serve with your choice of pasta and Parmesan cheese.