Life is uncertain. Eat Dessert first.

Archive for January, 2012

Beyond the Bottle – Minestrone Soup

There is no set recipe for Minestrone soup. At it’s essence it is an Italian mixed vegetable soup containing pasta or rice, and is usually made with whatever vegetables are in season. It is generally thought that Minestrone orginated in Genoa, where it is made with pumpkin, cabbage, fava beans, courgettes, kidney beans, celery and tomatoes, and garnished with three different types of pasta. However, the earliest origins of vegetable-based soup can be traced back to Marcus Apicius’s ancient cookbook De Re Coquinaria, which describes a Roman soup dating back to 30AD which contains a similar mix of pulses and seasonal vegetables.

Whatever the history of the dish, a good Minestrone soup, served with some crusty bread, can be served as a meal in itself. It is also a great way to use up leftover vegetables at the end of the week, especially if you have been preparing carrot or potato-based purees fro young children, and are wondering how best to use the remaining ingredients.

This particular recipe for Minestrone comes from Rachel Allen’s Easy Meals, but feel free to substitute whatever vegetable that are in season that you might have to hand (I left out the cabbage in my version). These quantities will serve 4-6.


2 tbsp olive oil

150g (5oz) bacon, cut into approx 2cm dice

1 onion, peeled and sliced

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 large tomatoes, chopped

100ml (3 1/2 fl oz) red wine

1.5 litres (2 1/2 pints) chicken or vegetable stock

Pinch of sugar

1 x 400g tin of cannellini or flageolot beans, drained and rinsed

2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1cm dice

1 potato, peeled and cut into 1cm dice

1 stick of celery, trimmed and cut into 1cm dice

1/4 small cabbage, such as Savoy, cross removed and leaves shredded crossways

75g (3oz) dried spaghetti, broken into pieces

1 tsp chopped thyme leaves

2 tsp chopped parsley

4 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra to serve


Pour half the olive oil into a large saucepan on a high heat and, when hot, add the bacon and fry for 4 minutes or until the fat has rendered and the bacon is golden. Reduce the heat to medium, add the remaining olive oil and stir in the onion and the garlic. Season with salt (but not too much as the bacon will be salty) and pepper and cook for 6-8 minutes or until the onion is soft but not browned.

Add the chopped tomatoes, red wine and stock and season with salt (again, not too much) and a pinch of sugar. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Add the beans and carrots, bring back up to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes, then add the potato and cook for a further 10 minutes.

Season with a little more salt, then add the celery, cabbage and spaghetti. Cook for 8-10 minutes or until the pasta is tender, then remove from the heat and stir in the herbs and Parmesan cheese.

Taste for seasoning and serve with some more freshly grated Parmesan cheese scattered over the top.


Chocolate Hazelnut Tart

“There’s nothing better than a good friend, except a good friend with chocolate” – Linda Grayson

Like so many regrettable decisions, this one seemed like a good idea at the time. Surrounded by selection boxes, tins of biscuits and assorted boxes of chocolates, with the remains of half a Christmas Cake still to be eaten, and an almost malevolent Chocolate Santa, goading us from under the tree with his chocolatey-goodness, the decision to stop buying cakes and biscuits from January 1st made perfect sense. “By the time we finish all this, we won’t WANT any more treats!” we mumbled between mouthfuls, wiping crumbs away from our faces, then tearing open the wrapper of another Curly-Wurly.

How naive. How terribly, terribly naive…

The get-out clause that, at home, we could only eat cakes and biscuits we made ourselves was a sensible, if ill-thought out, back-up plan. Because it’s a plan that requires restraint. So when I open the press and look for a packet of biscuits to eat with my mid-morning coffee, my natural reaction, upon finding the cupboard bare, should be to look a shelf lower, and take a handful of nuts and raisins instead.

And not, say, I don’t know,  to pick an example out of the sky, to spend the rest of the afternoon making a Chocolate Hazelnut Tart instead.

To whit, please find below a recipe for Nut and Rais … Chocolate Hazelnut Tart.

Another smashing recipe from Lorraine Pascale’s Baking Made Easy, which I seem to be slowly but surely working my way through. This double chocolate tart is really luscious, so caution is advised – small portions are the order of the day. Serve with slightly whipped cream sweetened with a couple of spoons of sieved icing sugar (and an obligatory cup of coffee).


2 egg yolks

seeds of a vanilla pod or 2 drops of vanilla extract

100g (3 1/2oz) caster sugar

100g (3 1/2oz) butter, softened

165g (5 1/2oz) plain flour, plus extra for dusting

40g (1 1/2oz) good cocoa powder

pinch of salt


100g (3 1/2oz) butter

100g (3 1/2oz) good (at least 60% cocoa solids or more) dark chocolate, grated

1 egg

2 egg yolks

130g (4 1/2oz) caster sugar

60g (2 1/2oz) plain flour

80g (3 oz) hazelnuts, chopped and toasted, plus a handful for sprinkling


23cm (9″) loose-bottomed tart tin, about 3cm high


To make the pastry, put the egg yolks, vanilla and sugar in a bowl and mix together. Add the butter and mix briefly until well combined. Add the flour, cocoa powder and the salt and, using your hands, mix together to make a soft dough. Use as few strokes as possible to bring the mixture together and uniform. This way the pastry will remain crumbly and tender when cooked.

Scoop up the pastry with your hand and bring together to form a ball. Wrap the pastry in clingfilm and put in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 200degC (400F), Gas Mark 6.

Remove the pastry from the fridge and roll it out on a lightly floured surface. Line the tart tin with the pastry. Take a small ball of pastry rolled in flour and use it to ease the pastry into the “corners” of the tart tin. Using a sharp knife, cut off the excess pastry around the top of the tin then run a small sharp knife around the edge between the pastry and the tin to loosen it slightly. This will make it much easier to unmould it once it is cooked. Any remaining dough can be used to make small biscuits or the dough can be wrapped up and frozen for up to a month. Place the tart tin in the fridge for 10 minutes.

Once the pastry is firm, remove it from the fridge. Take a piece of baking paper slightly larger then the tart tin and scrunch it up, then unscrunch it and place it in the tin. Fill the baking paper with baked beans or dried beans and blind bake in the oven for 20 minutes, or until the pastry feels firm to the touch.

Once cooked, remove from the oven and turn the oven down to 160degC (315F), Gas Mark 2-3. Remove the baking beans and baking paper and leave to cool.

For the filling, melt the butter in a small pan over a low heat. Remove from the heat, add the grated chocolate and stir well to combine. While this is melting whisk the egg and yolks until they go really pale and frothy, then gradually add the sugar, whisking all the time until the mixture becomes even lighter and more fluffy. Pour the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture, around the sides rather then the middle so the air, which has been whisked in, does not get knocked out. Fold everything together slowly and gently, keeping is as much air as possible. Fold in the flour and then gently fold in the toasted hazelnuts.

Spoon the mixture into the tart case and bake in the oven for 18-20 minutes. The top will be just set and the inside still gooey. If the edges of your pastry are going too dark, put foil over them to prevent further colouring.

Leave the tart to cool for 5 minutes. Use oven gloves to push the base to remove it from the tin, then run a palette knife underneath the tart to loosen if necessary. Sprinkle with a handful of hazelnuts before serving.

Salmon Hot Pot

A great one-pot dish, according to the authors this is one of the few dishes to appear in The Wagamama Cookbook that doesn’t feature on the restaurant menu. Wagamama has tried to redefine what it means to serve “fast food”, so it makes sense that this dish, that takes 30 minutes to cook, is better suited to being prepared at home. This has one of the lengthiest cooking times of any meal in The Wagamama Cookbook, but as with most of the recipes the actual prep time isn’t too time-consuming. It’s a really good book if you’re looking for lots of delicious, Japanese-inspired, low-fat dishes.


400g (14oz) salmon

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 leek, trimmed and finely choppped

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot

1 carrot, peeled and finely diced

1 stick celery, peeled of any strings and finely diced

1 teaspoon sugar

2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

salt and white pepper

75ml (3fl oz) light soy sauce

300g (10 1/2 oz) cooked rice


Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4. Remove and skin and bones from the salmon and cut the flesh into bite-sized pieces. Heat the oil in a flame-proof casserole dish and when it is hot add the leek, shallot, carrot and celery and saute gently for 10 minutes.

Add the sugar and garlic, cook for a further minute and then add the fish and season with salt and pepper. Pour over the soy sauce, add 4 tablespoons water, cover and bake in the oven for 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Divide the rice between 2 bowls and ladle over the salmon hot pot.


Two recipes in a row from the Great British Bake Off – How To Bake book! This recipe for home-made focaccia is actually quite straight-forward, but benefits from having reassuringly detailed instructions in the book, and also being able to check the video clip online of Paul Hollywood making it on the show itself.

As advised on the show, and reiterated in the book, this is a really wet dough, and handling it is messy. Make sure to add the water gradually, and be sure to add all of the water. Because you are adding cold water, the dough will be slower to rise,  but it will increase by three to four times it’s original size, so make sure you let it rise in a bowl that will be big enough!

Before you bake this bread you can add olives, sun-dried tomatoes, pancetta etc to the dough. I left mine plain and just drizzled some basil oil over it when it was cooked. The following quantities will make two large loaves.


500g strong white bread flour

10g crushed sea salt flakes

2 x 7g sachets fast-action dried yeast, or 18g fresh yeast

2 tablespoons olive oil (plus extra for drizzling)

fine sea salt, for sprinkling

2 baking trays, about 30x20cm, lined with baking paper

Put the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl and stir in the dried yeast. Make a well in the centre and add the olive oil and 300ml cool water. (If using fresh yeast, crumble it into the water and mix together, then make a well in the flour and pour in the yeast liquid and oil).

Gradually mix the flour into the liquid using a wooden spoon or your hand to form a rough dough. Gently massage the dough in the bowl for 5 minutes, very slowly mixing in about 100ml more cool water. The dough will have a wet consistency.

Work the dough in the bowl for about 5 minutes – first stretch the dough by pulling on one side using your fingers and palms of your hand. Then fold the stretched dough into the centre. Turn the bowl 80 degrees and repeat the stretching and folding process.

When the 5 minutes is up, tip the dough onto a well-oiled worktop. Knead using your knuckles and palms for 5 minutes, pushing the dough away from you and then folding it back on itself.

Oil the bowl and return the dough to it. Cover with a snap-on lid or cling-film. Leave to rise at room temperature for about one and a half hours or until increased to about four times its original size.

Gently tip the dough onto a lightly floured worktop, trying to keep as much air as possible in the dough. Divide the dough in half. Put one half in each baking tray and press out gently, pushing the dough into the corner of the tray.

Leave the shaped dough to rise, uncovered, at room temperature for about 1 hour or until at least doubled in size. Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 220degC. Drizzle a little olive oil evenly over the dough.

Sprinkle with fine sea salt, then bake for 20 to 25 minutes: check that the focaccia is cooked by tipping it out of the tray – the underside should be browned. Sprinkle the focaccia with a little more olive oil and serve hot, or allow to cool and serve the next day.


Chocolate Crackles

Bad New Year’s Resolution: “I will give up eating biscuits and cakes”. Good New Year’s Resolution: “I will only eat biscuits and cakes I make myself”. This first recipe for 2012 is from The Great British Bake-Off How To Bake book, which is one of the three baking cookbooks I was lucky to receive as gifts over Christmas (more to follow from the other two at later dates!). A fantastic book that does justice to a very enjoyable TV show (probably my favourite from last year), it includes all of Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood’s Masterclass recipes, as well as clear step-by-step instructions on how to make the more difficult bakes.

These dark chocolate biscuits are rolled in icing sugar just before baking, which gives them their crazy paving look. The following quantites make about 30, so there’s plenty to put aside in a airtight container to eat over the next five days, or else bring in to work the next day to impress your colleagues!


100g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)

100g softened unsalted butter

150g light brown muscovado sugar

1 large free-range egg, room temperature

half teaspoon vanilla extract

175g self-raising flour

half teaspoon bicarbonate soda

2-3 tablespoons icing sugar

Put the chopped chocolate in a large heat-proof bowl and set over a pan of steaming hot but not boiling water (don’t let the base of the bowl touch the hot water). Leave to melt gently. Remove the bowl from the pan and stir in the butter. When the mixture is completely smooth stir in the muscovado sugar. Leave to cool for 5 minutes.

Beat the egg with the vanilla just until combined, then add to the bowl. Sift the flour and bicarbonate of soda into the bowl and mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and chill for about one hour until firm.

Preheat the oven to 200degC. Divide the chocolate dough into 30 even-ish shaped pieces and roll into neat balls. Spoon the icing sugar into a shallow dish. Roll the balls, one at a time, in the sugar to coat thickly. Set the balls on the prepared baking sheets, spacing well apart to allow for spreading (bake the biscuits in batches, if necessary).

Bake for 10 minutes for a softer biscuit, or 12 minutes for a crisp result. Remove from the oven and leave on the sheets for a minute, then transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool completely. The biscuits will continue to firm up as they cool.